Elon Musk: Should We Believe “Things Proportionate To The Evidence That Are True? (Yes)”

A recent Tweet from Elon Musk has me thinking. We live in an era in which we often accept disinformation. Why don’t we believe things proportionate to the evidence we have on them? And, by extension, what function do things proportional to the evidence play as we make a global shift to renewables and cleantech?

What is the role of the science and technology community in urging the belief that we should disrupt fossil fuel energy dominance?

The Nature of Truth is Informed by Evidence

It’s important to define terms as we get started on this line of thinking. “Proportionate,” another term for “proportional,” means corresponding in size, degree, or intensity, or having the same or a constant ratio. “Evidence” means something that furnishes proof — or, more specifically, something legally submitted to a tribunal to ascertain the truth of a matter.

In the case of the Musk tweet, the issue at hand is the foundation of “truth,” or the compilation of actual reasons, events, and facts that in are in accord with reality. He concludes that, “yes,” we should believe things proportionate to the evidence they are true.

But why, so often, don’t we?

Image retrieved from ies.ed.gov

AI as Example of Phenomenon Proportionate To The Evidence

Let’s zoom in on Musk’s participation this summer at the Shanghai-based World Artificial Intelligence Conference as a beginning of our contemplation. His comments around artificial intelligence demonstrate how Musk sees the universe as a computer problem waiting to be solved through evidence that leads to logical conclusions.

“If you simply ran a true physics simulation of the universe, it will take a long time to compute, but a true physics simulation of the universe, if you give it enough time, eventually you will have sentience. The proof of that is us. And if you believe in physics and the arches of the universe started out as quarks, electrons, and hydrogen for quite a while. And then helium and lithium and supernovas, the heavy elements formed and billions of years later, some of those heavy elements learned to talk. And so we are essentially evolved hydrogen. If you just leave hydrogen out for a while, it turns into us. I think people don’t quite appreciate this!”

Wondering how humans arrived at “sentience,” Musk deliberates over the ways that “physics simulations of the universe” resulted in the “proof” — thinking, reasoning, feeling humans … who were formed when “heavy elements learned to talk.” This seems irrefutable. Ah, evidence in “helium and lithium and supernovas.” These are knowable truths embedded in equations that govern the universe.

David Hume, the Scottish Enlightenment philosopher and empiricist, argued that we should only believe those things for which we have good evidence. “A wise (hu)man proportions belief to the evidence.” The central question in the debate is whether there are norms of some sort governing our habits of belief-formation, belief-maintenance, and belief-relinquishment.

And, more precisely for our CleanTechnica audience, what evidence leads to truths about the place and power of cleantech during the climate crisis?

The Climate Crisis & Conclusions Proportionate To The Evidence

The environment — and especially the climate crisis — is hyper-polarized among the US public, who seem to have high approval of renewable energy usage but mixed support for policy measures to promote that same usage.

The Tesla CEO grounded this social media discussion in the nature of observation, phenomena, and factual reasoning. The covid-19 pandemic has helped to reveal the considerable dangers associated with the spread of false information. These include mis-, dis-, and mal-information, as well as conspiracies. How can we transcend illusory effects of algorithms and, instead, infuse trust, confidence in communication channels, and trust in our democracy, economy, workplaces, and communities?

Non-climate-based frames for renewable energy are likely to garner broader public support, according to a 2019 Energy Research & Social Science study. Certainly, this is particularly important in certain political and geographical contexts where individuals’ perceptions of self-effectiveness, neighbors’ participation, and belief about renewable energy benefits factor into consumers’ intention versus action to utilize renewable energy.

The next steps seem to be to gather and promote a collective cleantech voice. Leadership on environmental and social justice is more important than ever. While companies, states, and cities are uniting in support for the Paris climate agreement and sticking to — or raising — climate goals, the executive branch is busily undoing decades of progress on environmental protections. Sustainable and cleantech businesses, in particular, have stories about the environmental, social and economic benefits they create.

CleanTech’s Role as Innovators & Advocates

Even as the world has added a record amount of new renewable power, utilities globally have moved too slowly to transition away from fossil fuels to generate electricity, according to a study in Nature Energy.

Between 2001 and 2018, only about 10% of the more than 3,000 utilities studied prioritized renewable energy over fossil fuels. That accounted for 55 gigawatts of new energy-generating capacity, largely wind. Another 14% of the utilities put more emphasis on coal and natural gas over renewables. And the rest essentially maintained the status quo — they didn’t show a net change in their fossil-fuel generation or renewable power assets.

The cleantech community is positioned to be both renewable energy innovation leaders as well as advocates for systemic change away from fossil fuel reliance. Transforming early-stage innovative cleantech solutions into commercial enterprises is a start. The very nature of cleantech is such that it is a cross-cutting issue that galvanizes interest and co-financing from multiple government ministries and departments across energy, environment, industry, innovation, education, agriculture, and urban development.

A study in Sustainability: Science, Practice, and Policy suggests that assistance for cleantech-business development requires 4 policy instruments:

  • clean-energy and high-technology funds;
  • commercialization and incubation support;
  • research, development, and testing facilities; and,
  • assistance to business networking organizations such as business associations.

By understanding climate interpretation, we can change the national discourse and focus on meaningful solutions that bring divergent groups together toward collaborative solutions to climate change. Sustainability demand policies increase consumer or business demand for products and services with an improved environmental performance.

The policies include renewable energy-portfolio standards, distributed energy-resources support, energy-efficiency standards, and financial assistance for project development. Environmental regulations include pollution and greenhouse-gas rules and standards.

Final Thoughts

“No human investigation may claim to be a true science if it has not passed through mathematical demonstrations, and if you say that the sciences that begin and end in the mind exhibit truth, this cannot be allowed, but must be denied for many reasons, above all because such mental discourses do not involve experience, without which nothing can be achieved with certainty.” — Leonardo da Vinci

The gist of this da Vinci quote extends Musk’s original Tweet by focusing on the additional element of “experience,” without which, he contends, “nothing can be achieved with certainty.” The strengths of comprehension of phenomenon like the climate crisis is, other things being equal, to be proportionate to the multiplication of experiences. Indeed, cohesion between states in our psyches is proportionate to the frequency with which the relation between the answering external phenomena has been repeated in experience.

Perhaps an example from literature helps clarify why experience assists humans to correlate evidence to truth. Aristotle helped us understand that a tragedy’s ability to lead the psyche depends on its myth turning at a moment of recognition. At that moment, the central character moves from a state of ignorance to a state of knowledge. We need to persuade the naysayers through cleantech advocacy so that their knowledge base is drawn from scientific evidence rather than false propositional equivalence.

As we continue this line of inquiry, we can, along with Elon Musk, pose questions about the nature of truth and the climate crisis proportionate to the evidence. Those questions and conversations help ground all our meaning-making and create a more sustainable world.

Featured image by Kyle Field

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