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Singularity U, or Singularity Woo?

by Brian Dunning, Jul 05 2012

SkepticBlog correspondents received multiple copies of a troubling email that was sent en masse to students and staff at Singularity University in the San Francisco bay area. Singularity University is a private institution that offers courses on emerging technologies to people. It’s an unconventional company, with an unconventional staff: most of its programs are headed by true, established leaders in their field; but with a founding staff who are, in part, dedicated to certain ideas, some of which have yet to persuade the mainstream of current science. Chief among these is the idea of the “singularity” — that moment when scientific advancement passes a tipping point making virtually anything possible and turning society on its head. Most notably, co-founder Ray Kurzweil believes the singularity will allow him to live forever.

Recently, following a class, student Federico Pistono sent out the following email (his name has already been made public by the staff at SU):

Hello everyone,
yesterday, during the health track, the subject of homeopathy came up, and I am concerned that many seemed to be oblivious of what homeopathy really is.

I spent a good part of the past five years combatting pseudoscience, bad science, urban myths, and just plain old nonsense. Homeopathy falls into at least one of these categories. James Randi explains very clearly in this fun and informative video the truth about homeopathy:

It’s very sad how many still believe this is a “matter of opinion” or that “we don’t understand it, but it works”. No. It doesn’t. There is only sporadic anecdotal evidence, but when serious studies have been performed, it was found that homeopathic remedies perform no better than placebos.
Kleijnen, J; Knipschild, P; Ter Riet, G (1991), “Clinical trials of homoeopathy”,BMJ 302 (6772): 316–23, DOI:10.1136/bmj.302.6772.316, PMC 1668980,PMID 1825800
Linde, K; Clausius, N; Ramirez, G; Melchart, D; Eitel, F; Hedges, L; Jonas, W (1997), “Are the clinical effects of homoeopathy placebo effects? A meta-analysis of placebo-controlled trials”, The Lancet 350 (9081): 834–43, DOI:10.1016/S0140-6736(97)02293-9
Linde, K; Scholz, M; Ramirez, G; Clausius, N; Melchart, D; Jonas, WB (1999), “Impact of Study Quality on Outcome in Placebo-Controlled Trials of Homeopathy”,Journal of Clinical Epidemiology 52 (7): 631–6, DOI:10.1016/S0895-4356(99)00048-7
I will be happy to answer any of your questions privately, or in group.

Remember to keep a critical mind so as to not fall victim of unsubstantiated claims, but keep a mind open enough to let new ideas come in ;)

Federico’s email was concise, well-reasoned, and (of course) directly on point. Moreover, it contained a list of thorough references. Federico is to be congratulated for not taking whatever they were taught at face value, but instead presenting the fact-based current state of our knowledge about homeopathy. Then he took the initiative to proactively send this to “Everyone” (the recipients were not included in the forwarded copy of his email).

Good enough. But then Vivek Wadhwa, Singularity’s VP of Academics and Innovation, took a bizarre step. He forwarded Federico’s email to a mass list including students and staff (several of whom forwarded it to us). He gave Federico a public dressing-down, used hoary fallacious logic to encourage students to give pseudoscience equal consideration, and gave a platform to a homeopath (!!) to promote his business:

In the interests of balance and to show how there are two sides to every debate, I forwarded this email to one of my friends in Australia who practices homeopathy. Here are his comments.

Feel free to write to John and debate him. I am not the expert here. But I do believe that we shouldn’t close our minds to anything and that it is okay to challenge the establishment. Here, traditional medicine is the establishment–that fights against unconventional ideas.

Remember: it is always the most controversial ideas and concepts that lead to the greatest advances.


Vivek manages to hit just about every fallacy in the book. First, the idea of false balance, suggesting that there are two sides to the current state of our knowledge on a scientific theory. No, the scientific method produces our best understanding of a subject to date. It does not produce both that and its antithesis.

Second, the suggestion that there is a debate surrounding homeopathy. There is no scientific debate whatsoever about homeopathy. It is perhaps the most thoroughly debunked and implausible of all the prescientific medical schemes out there.

Third, the old “I am no expert, if you disagree, go debate someone else” dodge. If he is no expert, then he has no business writing this email to so flagrantly promote homeopathy to a student body. In fact, he should be openly challenged for doing this, as I am doing here.

Fourth, the suggestion that it’s closed-minded not to give homeopathy a fair shake. Homeopathy has been given its day. It has been exhaustively tested. It has failed all responsible testing. Dismissing something that has been proven not to work is not closed-minded; rather, it is closed-minded to reject what we’ve learned through testing in favor of a desired conclusion. If we are to be open-minded, we must be willing to accept what we’ve learned through the scientific method, even when it conflicts with our desired beliefs.

Fifth, the old standby of the alternative medicine community, the notion that the “establishment” (science-based medicine, in this case) is actively fighting against new, or unconventional, ideas. If this were true, then what does Vivek think all the scientists and molecular biologists who work in medicine are doing all day? Is it his idea that they are paid to make sure nothing new is learned? Ridiculous. The “establishment” (to use Vivek’s term, obviously intended to poison the well and suggest stodginess and conservatism) is able to exist only because of their occasional successes developing new therapies.

Sixth — and I’m actually quite amazed that Vivek was able to squeeze so much fallacious logic into such a short email — is his reminder that the most controversial ideas are the source of new advances. While this is often true, it’s true far more often that controversial ideas are controversial because they are wrong. Controversial ideas that have already been proven wrong are not something that a VP of Academics should be encouraging his students to investigate further. There are plenty of subjects out there that are not well understood, and this is where our limited academic resources are best expended.

Vivek then attached the email reply from his homeopath acquaintance. This is enough for today, but the homeopath’s email warrants a skeptical examination of its own. It is also brimming with logical fallacies, primarily the throwing out of non sequiturs and red herrings: failings of the pharmaceutical industry, claims that James Randi is a fraud, etc. None of this supports homeopathy in any way, of course. He also provides his own raft of citations: studies published in homeopathy journals, mainly. That Vivek considered this worthy of distributing to his students gives further cause for concern over his scientific credibility.

My hope is that this episode was a fluke and does not represent the standards of Singularity U. It will be interesting to see if there is any response or follow up.

84 Responses to “Singularity U, or Singularity Woo?”

  1. Deen says:

    Would not be surprised if we’re seeing a little bit of crank magnetism here.

  2. Peter Damian says:

    I suggest you take a lactose pill Sir Brian. It will help you calm down.

    • Paul Ruggeri says:

      Why? What’s wrong with anyone being miffed at such an egregious and authoritarian display of hubris?

      • Jim Shaver says:

        Paul, I think Peter is referring, in gest, to a homeopathic pill with no active ingredients in it.

      • Peter Damian says:

        Thanks Jim. Nice to see some people still have comprehension and contextual skills.

      • spingus says:

        ? Not everyone knows what a lactose pill is. There are enough woo-mongers who comment here that the judicious use of a smiley might have helped communicate the humor and sarcasm :)

  3. Rod Furlan says:

    I am a SU alumnus and I can assure everyone this is not representative of Singularity University in any way.

  4. Alex says:

    This article – by itself – is clearly biased against homeopathy. For me, who doesn’t know the material but would like to get objective opinion, this article does – in my humble opinion – not enough.

    Brian states that homeopathy is debunked. In Cargo Cult Science Feynman says “Details that could throw doubt on your interpretation must be given, if you know them. You must do the best you can…” – and I see only summary opinion of Brian, not explanation why he believes it’s so. I agree that it’s good to “not taking whatever they were taught at face value”, and, along this, I have to have a critical view of what Brian says. It’s not that he didn’t provide in his article references supporting his point of view. It’s that he failed to provide references otherwise – or stated clearly, how they couldn’t be found, including the search process.

    That’s a pity, because I’d like to know better this subject. My personal suspicion – which of course doesn’t matter – is that Brian is right, but I need to know better.

    Sorry, email is bogus.

  5. jjjjhhhh says:

    “Vivek manages to hit just about fallacy in the book.” -> “Vivek manages to hit just about EVERY fallacy in the book. “

  6. Mr. Mastodon says:

    I like to think about how people who invented the future did not go to school to do so.

  7. Briggs says:

    @Alex. Brian is not biased against homeopathy. That is the whole point of his article. That bias plays no role in scientific research. Brian listed many sources to show studies which have confirmed that homeopathy has been proven no better than placebos. You said you wished you knew more about the topic; google the citations provided.

    • Miles Stevenson says:

      Alex has a lot of problems in his comment. Some of them I don’t even understand and fail to see what he is trying to articulate. But I feel like you might be missing the point of Brian’s post. Whether or not Brian Dunning is “biased” for or against homeopathy has absolutely no bearing on why Vivek’s message was so fallacious. Everyone is biased. Whichever way Brian happens to be biased in this case is irrelevant, as long as the correct methodology is carried out (which in this case Brian does a great job as usual). Claims that Brian is “biased” aren’t worth defending.

  8. Scott says:

    “Biased against” homeopathy? What does it mean to be “biased against” fallacies, superstition, and nonsense? Being open-minded means being willing to accept new information and evidence; it does not require us to “disprove” every unsupported idea that’s ever been floated.

    • John Haugeland says:

      It’s quite easy to be biassed against superstitious nonsense. Problematically, it’s also easy for people who think they’re being scientific to be biassed against legitimate things in their rush to show their superiority.

      I need to be careful here: there are homeopathy apologists lurking in these comments, and I want for you to realize I’m not one of them. It’s hokum.

      That said, Fred Hoyle is one of the greatest physicists of all time, and he found himself “biassed against the superstitious nonsense” which turned out to be The Big Bang, mostly because it was a Catholic priest which figured it out.

      Be careful with phrases like “superstitious nonsense.” They’re dangerous.

  9. Max says:

    Reminds me of Randi’s skepticism of human-caused global warming. I hope Wadhwa climbs out of the hole, but I suspect he’ll keep digging.

    • Probably even more likely that he won’t bother to reply to any criticism that might reach his doorstep. But like you, I’d love to see which way he would go.

      • Max says:

        He keeps digging.

        Here’s a little exchange:

        Aniket Ray
        @wadhwa With due respect, let’s teach creationism as valid scientific theory then. Not. Some things have just don’t have a scientific base.

        Vivek Wadhwa
        @aniket_ray People have every right to believe in Creationism. Who are you to judge? Everyone is entitled to their beliefs

        Aniket Ray
        @wadhwa Seth Godin put it best: “Everyone is entitled to their own beliefs, but they’re not entitled to their own science.”

      • That’s a bummer to see. :-(

  10. MadScientist says:

    Krazy Kurzweil living forever? Now that’s scary.

    I hope Federico’s not too put off by the churlish behavior – that sort of behavior is common with louts like Vivek. When you do oppose the woomongers they start shouting at you, call you names, whine about how they’re being oppressed, and demand that the government shut up anyone who doesn’t agree with them.

  11. Derek Anderson says:

    @Alex; did you even read the entire body of the article? The author included the relevant parts of the body of the student email, which included detailed references to three separate studies that debunk Homeopathy (yep, right there under the James Randi video on this very blog post). I think that this this qualifies as “giving known details”.

  12. Federico Pistono says:

    Hey guys,
    a friend of mine told me about this blog post, so I came to see what was happening.

    I don’t know who let the email out (it was a private conversation among staff and students), but I guess at this point there is not much to do.

    I sent out that email and privately received approval and appreciation from dozens of people. From what I can tell, nobody seems to believe in homeopathy here at SU. We all have critical minds.

    As for Vivek’s email, I don’t see how that was a “public dressing-down”, he simply said that there are other viewpoints, and the discussion should move forward. I think that’s fair. I don’t agree with the content of the response, but the fact that there was a response isn’t a bad thing. We looked at the evidence, analyzed it, and concluded that it didn’t provide any substantial point in favor of homeopathy; but that is no reason to avoid talking about it.

    Having a critical mind means to be open to other POV, and be ready to analyze new evidence (or lack thereof).


    • Max says:

      Oh snap, Brian got a public dressing-down, I mean, a friendly response.

    • Phea says:

      There is a difference between having an open mind, exploring other points of view, and wasting time on nonsense. For example, how much of your time are you willing to spend on this, very real, serious POV?

      Everyone draws their own lines. I try to be open minded, but I don’t discard common sense. I also get suspicious if something sounds too good to be true, or if someone is making a buck of it.

      Homeopathy… well it sends up all three red flags. It just doesn’t make any sense, it sounds too good to be true, and there are more than a few con-men making a buck off the gullible they scam with it.

    • Federico, I apologize if you would have preferred this post not to appear. Your email address was not included in Vivek’s response that ended up being circulated, or else I certainly would have contacted you first. As it is, Vivek’s email got “out of the bag” and your name was out there, so I didn’t see much point in omitting your identity here. Please contact me at if you like, and I will gladly remove your name from this post.

  13. David says:

    Great takedown, Brian. This totally destroys any credibility Vivek Wadhwa has.

  14. David Albert, MD says:

    Humans are very emotional creatures and we see that in this discussion. As both a scientist and a friend of Vivek, I was amused by this email and blog ” discussion”. I don’t believe in homeopathy but there are individual homeopathic treatments which make people feel better. The placebo effect is powerful. Homeopathy don’t use the scientific method to validate their remedies and I would not recommend it for them. I think Vivek was doing 2 things: (1) reinforcing that all ideas are welcome into science while many are later shown the door. And (2) exceptional academic environments are those with open minds and rigorous debate and methods (scientific, by preference). There is no mandate to believe in the unproven, but courteous dismissal is preferred. DrDaveAlbert

    • tmac57 says:

      I don’t believe in homeopathy but there are individual homeopathic treatments which make people feel better.

      This is kind of like saying that knocking on wood has a protective effect from harm because people who do it feel better than if they don’t.

    • Miles says:

      tmac57 is right. Science isn’t about going with what “feels good”. It’s about formulating the most accurate picture of reality that we can, regardless of how it makes us feel. Homeopathy has been tested again, and again, and again, and again. Homeopathic practitioners demonstrate clear and deliberate disregard for the scientific process, and continue to peddle their nonsense to anyone who will buy it. The attitude “well, if it makes you feel good, who cares?” is fine for adults making their own choices, but has no place in the scientific community. It is disturbing to me how often I see people who work in academics or scientific fields who are seemingly unable to separate the two worlds.

    • Student says:

      It’s had it’s courteous dismissal. Time and time again. Those were studies cited. It’s not simply out of hand. Part of acknowledging that courteous dismissal is to courteously drop the issue when you’re shown to be wrong. It’s not courteous to take advantage of politeness and simply keep espousing your incorrect viewpoint out of some appeal to fairness.

      “There is no mandate to believe in the unproven”
      Then Homeopaths will stop selling their woo until it’s actually got substantial proof, rather than relying on belief in the unproven to turn a profit.

      And “individual homeopathic treatments which make people feel better.” So do placebos. Which homeopathy has been shown to be in no way superior to. And to claim that the selling of a placebo with no actual value apart from ignorance for profit is in anyway within the purview of medical ethics is utter nonsense.

      (As a sidenote: Your degree has absolutely no bearing on how seriously we’ll take you, neither do your scarequotes around the word discussion, and neither does your attempt at poisoning the well by calling the opposition to your position emotional. In fact, they tend to make most of us see you as less worthy of being taken seriously. Not more.)

  15. John Harvey says:

    Do Brian, Briggs, Scott, MadScientist, and Derek Anderson — who has himself clearly not read Federico’s references! — consider evidence to outweigh common sense, or can we all go home now that our clever people have told us what all credible studies do and must conclude? Alex and Federico clearly consider evidence to be of value; do you, in contrast, consider common sense to have greater value? What makes the “known” (without ever quoting evidence!) of such overwhelming importance that Wadhwa’s suggestion that it doesn’t hurt to consider another point of view should be such a threat to the advancement of science?

    Or, to put this question in another way: how high is the bar that all the studies and meta-analyses tending to show a positive effect over placebo by ultra-dilute homoeopathically prescribed medicines have failed to reach, and how high is the bar that all the experiments successfully distinguishing between ultra-dilute homoeopathic medicines and water apparently have failed to reach?

    Or, to put it in yet another way: how would you suggest falsifying your own belief that an ultradilute medicine chemically identical to untreated water is indistinguishable in any way from water? When no standard of evidence is high enough for you because its implications discomfit you, aren’t you simply making your own position unfalsifiable?

    Wadhwa suggested that it doesn’t hurt to consider another point of view. Brian writes an entire article attacking him on the basis that it does hurt. Who values science, and who values merely his own present beliefs?

    • Max says:

      “How would you suggest falsifying your own belief that an ultradilute medicine chemically identical to untreated water is indistinguishable in any way from water?”

      A blinded test. Give a homeopath 10 samples of water and 10 samples of an ultradilute medicine, and have him identify which is which using any means he wants. If he gets them all right, that would be pretty impressive. The chance of randomly guessing them all correctly is only 1/184756.

      • tmac57 says:

        But Max,if the homeopath fails,how can we be absolutely sure that a shaman hasn’t remotely cast a voodoo spell on him causing him to fail? Maybe if he crosses his fingers first,that might help,or throw some salt over his left shoulder…or is it the right shoulder…I always forget.Anyway,the moon must be waning and his star sign needs to be just right…oh there are so many confounders that I don’t see how we can possibly test this !

      • bobco85 says:

        The experiment will fail because of your negative thoughts.

        …just in case of Poe’s law, I’m absolutely being sarcastic here.

      • John Harvey says:

        Thank you, Max. I’d agree with you. But I’ve seen enough so-called skeptics’ discussions on this and like topics to guess that some of those here would find even this test insufficient to sway them in the least: to guess that they would claim that any detection of homoeopathic “potency” in ultradilutions must, by reason of all that is scientifically holy, represent corruption. No evidence in a matter such as this can be permitted to introduce uncertainty. Am I wrong, tmac57, Brian, Briggs, Scott, MadScientist, and Derek Anderson? Do the “skeptics” in these pages accept the precedence of evidence over common sense? Or are your positions unfalsifiable?

      • tmac57 says:

        Speaking for myself,if a well designed,replicable,clinical trial of homeopathy showed that it had any significant effect beyond placebo,then,yeah,I would reconsider my skeptical position.But since that has yet to happen,then your statement is about as challenging as saying “Well,what if it was shown that Superman really existed,then what would you so called ‘skeptics’ have to say about that,Mr smarty pants?”

      • markx says:

        Nicely put, tmac (in some things, we are in agreement).

      • John Harvey says:

        Well, you’ve all had a chance to make your “skeptical” comments in light of being informed by the papers that Federico so helpfully cited. The “skeptics” amongst us here have repeatedly referred to his citation of those papers as though the papers support the position that there is no further room to doubt homoeopathy’s ineffectiveness. Yet not one of you has cited the contents of the papers themselves or indeed of any other kind of scientific evidence in support of that position.

        Now let’s see what Federico’s citations say, beginning with Kleijnen, Knipschild, and Ter Riet:

        “At the moment the evidence of clinical trials is positive but not sufficient to draw definitive conclusions because most trials are of low methodological quality and because of the unknown role of publication bias. This indicates that there is a legitimate case for further evaluation of homoeopathy, but only by means of well performed trials.”

        Then Linde et al.’s meta-analysis:

        “The results of our meta-analysis are not compatible with the hypothesis that the clinical effects of homoeopathy are completely due to placebo. However, we found insufficient evidence from these studies that homoeopathy is clearly efficacious for any single clinical condition. Further research on homoeopathy is warranted provided it is rigorous and systematic.”

        And, finally, Linde et al.’s literature review:

        “Overall, the results suggested that individualized homeopathy is superior to placebo but when the analysis was limited to studies of better quality the difference was no longer significant.”

        If this is the strongest evidence that the smartest skeptics in the world can muster to substantiate that the evidence against homoeopathy’s effectiveness is so totally overwhelming that further discussion of it is irrational — which is, after all, the premise of the article and all the “skeptical” comments here — then it would seem that the smartest skeptics in the world have yet, despite their hifalutin talk, to learn the most basic of critical-thinking skills.

        Perhaps, rather than single out subjects in Singularity U’s private discussions for public flagellation on the well-established basis of compounding misinformation with presumption, prejudice, libel, and incompetence, the smartest skeptics amongst us could use some of the critical-thinking skills that Singularity’s faculty members, such as Wadhwa, are promoting.

        You do realise, don’t you, that the chief certainties that any competent skeptic must beware are his own. Let the one who has overcome certainties to the extent of preparedness to examine evidence, then, cast the university’s foundation stone.

      • Max says:

        “Overall, the results suggested that individualized homeopathy is superior to placebo but when the analysis was limited to studies of better quality the difference was no longer significant.”

        That’s exactly what you’d expect from something that’s no different from placebo. Small low-quality studies show a difference due to low-quality controls and other biases, but the difference disappears in higher quality studies. What would be impressive is if higher quality studies found a more significant difference from placebo.

      • tmac57 says:

        John Harvey,
        When you couple the weak and ambiguous results from the thousands of studies done on homeopathy for the last century,with the lack of a documented mechanism of action,then the plausibility of this nostrum working is pretty much approaching zero.
        It’s about as simple as that.When you give someone a ‘medicine’ that has no active ingredient in it,and they feel better,we call that placebo.

      • tmac57 says:

        I made an error in my comment,I should have said ‘hundreds’ not ‘thousands’ of studies.
        Edzard Ernst stated in an article for the Guardian recently that there have been about 200 clinical studies to date on homeopathy.

  16. Chris Howard says:

    I always find this video helpful when explaining openindedness:

  17. Jae Kwon says:

    My criticism of this post here:

  18. Dr William says:

    You claim:

    “He gave Federico a public dressing-down, used hoary fallacious logic to encourage students to give pseudoscience equal consideration, and gave a platform to a homeopath (!!) to promote his business:”

    And yet the email from Vivek that you quote does none of that. It makes no comment on Frederico whatsoever (far from a dressing down). It does not claim the consideration students should give homeopathy should be “equal”. Nor does it give the homeopath a “platform to promote his business”. Quite clearly, Vivek’s email was not an invitation to do that, and equally clearly the homeopath’s practice is on the other side of the planet from the students receiving the email.

    It appears what you have done is post a very public false slur about an academic. And it appears to have been prompted by nothing more than your indignation that when Frederico posted an email that would have been humiliating to his fellow students, Vivek defended the honour of his students by redirecting the argument and disparagement from those students to a practitioner of the practice being criticised.

    • Miles Stevenson says:

      Can you give any specific examples? Brian very carefully and deliberately broke down the sections of Vivek’s email that he thought were fallacious, analyzed them, and stated specifically why they are fallacious. If you feel that Brian was wrong, you should do the same. Specifically, you should defend each of those statements and tell us why Brian’s analysis was incorrect.

      Why not start with the very first point where Brian accuses Vivek of “false balance”. Do you feel that Vivek should have included the views of a practicing homeopath to his students “in the interest of balance”? If so, do you also believe that a geology class should therefore present the Biblical story of the formation of the earth, and the Hindu story, and the ancient Greek story, along side the story that the geological record tells, “in the interest of balance”?

      I suggest making a more comprehensive argument if you want to be engaged and taken seriously here, other than making simple accusations.

    • Dr. William, I could not disagree more. Vivek forwarded Federico’s email to (basically) the world to refute it. When done to one of your students, I consider that a public dressing-down.

      • Max says:

        What would you do in Vivek’s shoes if a student sent an email to everyone complaining that too many are dismissive of homeopathy and listing references in support of homeopathy?

  19. vigneshwar says:

    The world once believed in Geo-centric theory.

    • Many crazy things were believed before we developed the ability to analyze them scientifically (homeopathy being another perfect example). Your point?

  20. Wakjob says:

    Fraudhwa as he is known is well…. a fraud. He’s a paid NASSCOM shill and shameless self-promoter. In his usual loudmouth way, he’s made another enemy and with good reason. He failed as CEO of 2 tech startups, got kicked out of Australia, and is mocked all over the net. It’s amazing the US lets this guy stay in the country. He has no grasp of science and makes everything up as he goes. Promoting his ridiculous comment of the week on some subject or other, then moving on. This guy is a joke and should be treated as such.

  21. Willy says:

    The idea of the singularity, while it may turn out to have a large measure of validity (time will tell), is probably wildly optimistic in terms of projected time frame. I suspect that Kurzweil is a century or two off on the early side due to a gross underestimate of the complexities involved.

    What can be said with certainty is that including anything that smacks in the least of woo cannot be helping the credibility of Singularity University. OTOH…. if they stuck to real science, they would be “just another university”, and that would not sell nearly as well, would it?

    • Max says:

      I just don’t get why it’s called a singularity, since an exponential curve has no vertical asymptote.

      • Chris Howard says:

        Isn’t Kurtzweils “singularity” the same as E.O. Wilson’s “conscilience” or am I totally off mark? Kind of like the non-difference between ubiquitous computing, and “the cloud?”

      • tmac57 says:

        It sounds cool! Don’t over think it man.

      • gdave says:

        It’s called a “singularity” because (supposedly) the pace of advancement of technology and knowledge will become so great that it will form (per Wikipedia) “an intellectual event horizon, beyond which events cannot be predicted or understood.” Which, of course, is exactly what those who talk about the singularity, like Ray Kurzweil, try to do.

        The term was coined by sci-fi writer Vernor Vinge, who wrote short stories speculating about a number of possible technological singularities and their aftermaths. Ray Kurzweil seems to specifically have in mind a singularity based on computing power and AI that will result in superhuman intelligences that we (by definition) cannot and will not be able to comprehend, but which will for some reason make us immortal.

        Logically, we can’t know (by definition) what technology will be capable of on the other side of a technological singularity, nor how society or individuals will react. However, it’s often invoked as a hand wave to get us to a Clarke’s Law technology that will be capable of a specific desired magic trick, and produce a society which will use that technology to perform the desired magic trick.

        For Ray Kurzweil and Frank Tipler, the singularity will (apparently inevitably) result in unlimited computing power which will be used to resurrect the dead and make us all immortal. For cryonics advocates, it will result in biotechnology which will be used to physically resurrect the select dead who have been cryonically preserved and make us all immortal. Early cryonicists hand waved what the singularity would involve almost entirely, but have been keen on a nanotechnological singularity at least since Drexler’s Engines of Creation.

        Which by the way also gets to your comments/questions downthread about cryonics. It’s not that it’s physically impossible (in terms of the basic laws of physics as we currently understand them), it’s that it requires Clarke’s Law magical technologies and a future society (or at least some individuals) that will use the them the way cryonicists want them to. There’s no particular reason to think it can’t happen, but there’s also no particular reason to think it ever will.

  22. Pyrrhus says:

    Interesting post. You mentioned a bit about the technological singularity. It would be interesting to read a scientific/skeptical evaluation of the ideas of the singularitarians. How valid are their ideas? How much is pseudoscience and wishful thinking? How much is based on solid science?

    • That’s on my list for a Skeptoid episode. Have not yet looked into it. It certainly looks like it will be interesting research.

      • Pyrrhus says:

        Please do! The general field of transhumanism has many ideas that could need some skeptical scrunity (it would make for an excellent Skeptic issue).

        Also, Kurzweilian singularitarianism is not the only brand of singularitarianism out there. Not everyone is as optimistic as Kurzweil. Some people have had nightmares about being tortured by a future AI:

      • Max says:

        Why did you call cryonics a pseudoscience previously? Isn’t it just the study of preserving and reviving organisms?

      • Max says:

        See Ben Best’s response to Shermer’s frozen strawberry analogy.

        But even if the existing process is not good enough, is there reason to think that it’s physically impossible?

      • Pyrrhus says:

        The validity of cryoics doesn’t stand or fall with Shermer’s analogy. It’s still a fringe concept not based on scientific data, but wishful thinking. See:

        “The act of freezing a dead body and storing it indefinitely on the chance that some future generation may restore it to life is an act of faith, not science.”

      • Max says:

        Would you call the search for alien life “a fringe concept not based on scientific data, but wishful thinking”?

      • Max says:

        What do you think about archaeologists leaving sites unexcavated with the hope that future generations with better technology will do a better job?

      • gdave says:

        Would you call the search for alien life “a fringe concept not based on scientific data, but wishful thinking”?

        I don’t want to speak for Pyrrhus, but for myself, SETI isn’t the same. It uses currently available technology to search for singles we might be currently capable of interpreting. The broader SETI Institute work involves a lot of scientific research in related fields, intended to expand our current knowledge and understanding. Even if there are no alien signals (or aliens at all), SETI and the SETI Institute’s work still has plausible scientific payoffs.

        SETI would be analogous if it were, say, a trust to which people could will money, which would hold that money until scientists some day figured out some way unforeseen communications technology singularity to communicate with aliens, and then spend the money fund that technology.

        Although, I will admit that betting on aliens 1) existing, 2) having technology capable of emitting signals we can detect, 3) actually doing that, and 4) existing at the right distance and time for us to be able to intercept said signals in the foreseeable future pushes SETI pretty close to the fringe. I just think it falls just this side of that “event horizon”, while cryonics falls on the far side.

        What do you think about archaeologists leaving sites unexcavated with the hope that future generations with better technology will do a better job?

        SETI I might give you, but this is not even close. Archaeological surveying, excavation, preservation, and analytical techniques and technologies have advanced enormously over the last couple of centuries. It’s an assumption, but a pretty safe one, that this trend will continue, at least to some degree.

        Cryonics requires a technological singularity (see comments upthread) to enable us to do something that we can’t do at all now, rather than a gradual evolution of current technologies which will enable us to do something slightly better in the future than we can now.

      • gdave says:

        Aaaargh! blockquote fail. Sorry. I think (hope) my comment is still intelligible.

      • Max says:

        Archaeologists are doing things they couldn’t do before, using high-tech scanners and 3D printers. Like, instead of cracking a relic open, they can scan it and print a 3D copy. I can imagine doing something analogous with brains.
        “with the appearance of large, dense, highly parallel FPGA circuits it has now become possible to envisage putting large-scale neural networks in hardware.”

        As far as SETI, or missions to find fossils on Mars, or the search for the Higgs boson, we invest a lot of money to search for tantalizing things that are theoretically possible.

      • Max says:

        Another example of forward thinking is post-quantum cryptography, which is research on cryptography that won’t be easy to crack using quantum computers that don’t exist yet.

    • Max says:

      The former editor in chief of the Scientific American, John Rennie, published a skeptical evaluation of Kurzweil’s predictions.

      Here’s Kurzweil’s response. (Read the editor’s comment on the bottom first.)

  23. d brown says:

    Someday maybe. But so far the Singularity is like Bigfoot. People want to believe. It would be so neat.

  24. d brown says: is Charlie Stross’s blog. Its really good. It has a lot of intelligent posts about many things. And the Singularity.

  25. Peter Ozzie Jones says:

    Hi Brian
    you say:

    Fourth, the suggestion that it’s closed-minded not to give homeopathy a fair shake.

    But, should this not be “. . . a fair succession”???

  26. Phea says:

    I found this skit about Homeopathy quite funny and thought I’d share.

  27. Tony says:

    Are you aware that the scientific method is based on inductive reasoning?