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I recently finished listening to two audiobooks. One was Bertrand Russell's What I Believe, which was a collection of three essays/talks he'd given. "Why I am not a Christian" was one of those few philosophical essays that I can almost wholely embrace. It's nice when you can speak across almost a century with someone else, and find so much common ground. It's very validating. On the other hand, his position of science being a "useful fiction" in the first essay, was strikingly at odds with the positive and optimist view of science expressed in "Why I am not a Christian". Philosophers are as likely to be schizophrenics about this as Christians are, and I will talk more about that below.

I also finished listening to another one, Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet, and Threatens Our Lives by Michael Specter. Really great book, and frankly, it put a lot of thoughts I'd been having recently about my philosophy of science class into perspective, but I'll talk about that more. I thought about sending it to my dad to read. I don't think he's appreciate it. He's big into health food stuff, and consumed by Faux News conspiracies, but that's precisely why he needs it so desperately.

I took a philosophy of science course this winter and somehow, all these things managed tie together with these two books. The topic of the course was scientific realism, and in particular the debate in philosophy about the aims of science (what they are or ought to be), and whether we should believe in the conclusions of science or whether things like electrons are, as Bertrand Russell put it, convenient fictions that make useful observational predictions.

There really aren't words to express how dismayed I was, not only at the painful irrationality of the arguments, but that some of the students were really taking them seriously.

One argument is called the "Pessimistic Induction", it says that science has been wrong in the past and therefore, we can conclude it will be wrong in the future. Frankly, I think philosophers are much more subject to this attack (including that the pessiminist induction is complete crap) since they jump around more than any other discipline I've ever seen. Our ability to control nature is not counted as evidence for science being right. All they see is that since science is never perfectly correct, the only thing to do is be agnostic on it. How anyone can go through their entire lives so afraid of every being wrong is beyond me.

Some antirealists claim that the goal of science is merely to achieve "empirical adequacy", i.e. make good predictions. While that is certainly important, where is the sense of curiosity? It's completely lost on these people. Probably, they figure it's irrational. I have a hard time imagining Carl Sagan got into astronomy to make good predictions, about what exactly? Don't scientists want to know how the world works? What else could be worth the pain and sacrifice of 12 years of additional education plus 5 years as a post-doc and then 7 more trying to get tenure. How can you be passionate about empirical adequacy? Clearly, they are confusing engineers with scientists.

It boggles the mind that more than a century of data demonstrating not only the existence of the electron, but also some of it's incredibly bizarre properties is not enough to convince some of these "thinkers" to believe in their existence. Electrons are not metaphysics, folks, just physics! The mountain of evidence, but instead, some philophers, like Bas van Fraassen, would have you believe that if you can't see it with your stone-age eyes, then it is never to be believed, regardless of the amount of indirect evidence for its existence. Surely, I agree, if you can't see it without instruments, I can understand a certain skepticism and demand for a bit more indirect evidence than if we could see it.... but there must be a point at which the indirect evidence tips the balance toward belief or all you are engaging in is radical skepticism... better known as denialism.

And the arrogance of asserting that scientists all agree with you, at the same time acknowledging that you have not done the sociological study to back up that claim, further, that you have no interest in doing said study, and that it wouldn't matter anyway. Don't you think it effects the argument if you are arguing against what is already presumed? As it turns out, philosophical positions change over time. Last week I listened to an audiobook on the history of quantum mechanics, Quantum: Einstein, Bohr, and the Great Debate about the Nature of Reality by Manjit Kumar, and not only was it a fascinating book, but also it did talk about such a study done in the 90's, and I think every one of the authors who claimed to know what physicists think would have been shocked by the results (turns out only 4% believed in the Copenhagen interpretation, which once dominated physics, and a plurality believes in the Many Worlds Hypothesis, and the rest, "other"). How can you do any thoughtful philosophy without first having the data like this? Philosophy needs to be more like science, and less like teenagers bullshitting over a beer.

Needless to say, I was incredibly disappointed by the whole thing. Interesting to read, until someone starts taking it too seriously. And for my final paper, I was hampered by not being able to say what I really think, which is that this is all a symptom of a larger problem: when you take irrationality that seriously, it poisons all your thinking. Science is not perfect, but as a whole, it does try to strike a balance between evidence, skepticism, rationality, and other features that drive it towards better representations of the truth. Entirely too many philosophers of science have never actually done science, or read even about the details of how theories come to be tested, negotiated, modified, tested again, challenged, and eventually, settled upon when there is only one theory left standing given the evidence... and even then, differing levels of committment depending on the amount and certainty of the evidence. Not to mention, how little they know about notions of approximation in mathematics.

Reading antirealist philosophy of science is like listening to sore losers after a battle, trying to justify their failure by claiming that they actually were victorious. It borders on the insane.

Science literacy in America

I originally intended this blog to discuss mostly atheism, but it's become a lot about science as well. I considered whether or not to post this here, but I think it's important. Science literacy and religious affiliation are closely linked, in part because the religiously credulous also seem to be science denialists on a lot of issues. And while these factors need not go together, it is always jarring to me when someone who is generally pro-science messes up something big. It says a lot about the level of science literacy in this country.

Watch the video:

Visit msnbc.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

Now, you know, I love Rachel Madddow. I think she's funny. She generally does her job well. Her research into news stories is generally spectacular. That Ph.D. in political science really shows. But... there is just so much wrong with this story. She and her entire staff dropped the ball on this one. There is nothing new about the story posted in the newspaper and no one in Minnesota discovered anything about the zodiac or the anything of the sort. The precession of the equinoxes was known to the Ancient Greeks. It was noted by Aristarchus, and he was from Samos, not Minnesota. And Ophiuchus was one of the 48 constellations of Ptolemy... again, Ancient Greek!!!!! The Greeks knew it was there, and in part on the zodiac, but it wasn't counted because they wanted to divide the sky evenly into 12 (it makes fractions easier). 360 degrees doesn't divide evenly by 13.

None of this is new. Not by any stretch of the imagination. I used to tell people this to debunk astrology when I was a teenager. And frankly, this goes through various spats of public exposure; think about "The Age of Aquarius"... that song is referring to this. The fact that this can blow up Twitter and end up on an otherwise respectable news program is a sign of just how bad science literacy is. Perhaps it wouldn't be a bad idea to teach science by directly debunking nonsense like this.

However we do it, we need to do better.

Over the weekend, I've been watching the West Wing on video, and there are a couple places that jumped out at me there as well, where their science-related stories were just preposterous. It's like no one bothered to get a science consultant on their stories. I bet most science profs would do it for free, too.
Media Matters has a great write-up today about Eric Erikson and his tirades against nonbelievers here.

hard lesson

This article should be a hard lesson for the public on the way science is done, and why it is done the way it is.

I often hear complaints about how slow research is, particularly from peddlers of woo (or to be kind "non-standard treatments"), and they wonder why they aren't being taken more seriously, and why they have to do trials on animals, and then small groups of people, and then big groups of people, and so forth, long before they will be considered for approval by the FDA or be treated like real medicine. Why? Why? they ask, wringing their hands, when there are little children to be saved? The public would prefer to believe that science is cold and doesn't care.

That is so far from the truth. Instead, they are protecting the public against the unscrupulous frauds like Andrew Wakefield.

Let us summarize what has happened here. Wakefield published an article decades ago claiming that there was a link between autism and the MMR vaccine. As it turns out, he doctored his results. Even the families have come forward to dispute some of the claims he made. But just saying it was so was enough for the uncritical to refuse to vaccinate their kids, and now children are dying from from measles and whooping cough even though a vaccine exists that can save them. The damage Wakefield has done is incalculable, and he eventually lost his license to practice medicine in Britain. But as the article linked above makes clear, it wasn't just because he was sloppy or wanted person gain in the form of plaudits from his peers: it was because he wanted to make money off this study. He wanted to scare people into using a product he planned to market. And when given a chance to do normal science, and replicate his results on a larger group of subjects, he declined. His reasons for declining are clear: he knew his results were fraudulant, and reproducing fraudulant results on a larger group would be much more difficult than on a mere 12 children. Anyone who has ever taken statistics knows that there isn't a lot you can say about a group that small.

This case is one of real science on this subject being stymied at ever turn by Wakefield. But one man can't hold back the tide of real data forever. Other scientists tried to replicate his results, and got what Wakefield knew they would get: nothing. And so, the conspiracy theories started, and desperate parents of children with autism got sucked in to his madness. Merely refuting Wakefield now is no longer enough. Evidence no longer matters because these parents are too invested in the hope that they are doing something good. That is what is so sad. They are being used by this man, by Wakefield, and like many men in the face of evidence that proves he is wrong, that he is caught, he still insists that he is the victim here.

It's very hard for me to resist the urge to conclude that Wakefield is evil. Sadly, his choices at every step are all too human. We all wish to succeed, to do something no one else has done, to make money, and not to see ourselves as bad people. But most of us eventually accept that we do make mistakes; that our best intentions don't necessarily mean that only good can come from it; that we are flawed and make errors; that we will never be rich. Most of us will bow to the weight of evidence and morality sooner rather than later. If anything makes Wakefield evil, it's that neither evidence nor morality matter any more. He is still writing books leading the conspiracy-crazed on about how he was right all along. And dupes like Jenny McCarthy still follow, and to make sense of any of his lies, are forced to lie themselves. In the end, like Anakin Skywalker trying to save his wife, end up causing more harm that good.

Science exists to help us weed out these claims before they become entrenched. Unfortunately, in the modern media environment, with reporters hyping results because they know nothing about how science works, tragedies like this unfold. Will the media and the public learn their lesson? Maybe in a generation, we can hope. But as with Wakefield, the living will find it very hard to ever admit they were wrong while they live.


science wins

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