fractal

Denialism

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.
road

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.
machines think/do men?

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.
lonely

It's not my morning

Trying to respond to a post by Austin Cline this morning and having no luck. I've trimmed by comment back to 1800 characters and I'm still getting an error: your comment must be between 10 and 2000 characters.

Fuck it. I'll post it here. He's talking about the historicity of Jesus. I cut it from my comment, but let me be clearer now that I don't have the space limitations. Anyone who pretends that Socrates didn't exist (or that reputable scholars say he didn't) is an idiot. I'm sorry, but it's true. Atheists like to trot this out and they don't know what the fuck they are talking about.

Socrates is attested by 3 contemporary writers who knew him: Aristophanes, Xenophon + Plato. He is far better documented. Jesus has no contemporary records whatsoever. What scholars do say is that it’s Plato’s philosophy, not Socrates’. I hear this often, but no reputable scholar would claim Socrates didn't exist.

When viewing the Bible in the context of classical literature, it proves to be much more equivocal as a source than any of the 3 I mention for Socrates (esp. Xenophon who is an early Greek historian). Histories in classical times (esp. during the Roman era) are notorious for taking a kernel of truth + embellishing it: filling in supposed details to make the story more readable + believable (completely aside from hearsay). This is done consciously + in print. Given such a context, it makes it difficult to know what was true & what was made up. Many Apocrypha were rejected for theological reasons, + present even more radically different depictions of Jesus. Nor should we pretend they are necessarily the least doctored. This is what classical scholars look at. Maybe there was someone upon which this story was based, maybe. The issue here is that we are forced to conclude only "maybe" and not "oh, obviously", rather like King Arthur. I am reminded of St. Christopher, who was later shown to be a myth. It's impossible to be completely objective about the matter. Christians have a vested interest in his existence, + we are not immune from wanting to tear down the foundation of Christianity, to the bare existence of the Bible's central character. We must acknowledge that impulse to go beyond "it's impossible to tell" to "he clearly didn't exist" even in some watered-down version of a random itinerant preacher because nothing is so clear. It makes things easier when faced with religious rationalizations + fence moving to make a stronger claim, but it isn't necessary. The divinity of Jesus is based on his miracles, etc., + just showing that those certainly didn't happen is enough. One needs only to rationalize that they are symbolic in some way and they are back in business. We should not allow Christians to keep moving the bar.
science wins

Paul Feyerabend

I was listening to an audiobook called "Dimensions of Scientific Thought", which was generally a good history of the development and methods of science. At the end, though, it included the criticisms of a philosopher, Paul Feyerabend, which I can only describe briefly as incoherent. So, I did a little research...

Paul Feyerabend

What is so onerous about the philosophy of Paul Feyerabend?

Let's take a quote from the above article.... Relativism is the tool with which Feyerabend hopes to “undermine the very basis of Reason” [quoted in article]. Indeed, he says:

science is much closer to myth than a scientific philosophy is prepared to admit. It is one of the many forms of thought that have been developed by man, and not necessarily the best. It is conspicuous, noisy, and impudent, but it is inherently superior only for those who have already decided in favour of a certain ideology, or who have accepted it without ever having examined its advantages and its limits (AM, p. 295).

From which we are to conclude: The separation of church and state should therefore be supplemented by the separation of science and state, in order for us to achieve the humanity we are capable of. Setting up the ideal of a free society as “a society in which all traditions have equal rights and equal access to the centres of power” (SFS, p. 9), Feyerabend argues that science is a threat to democracy. To defend society against science we should place science under democratic control and be intensely sceptical about scientific “experts”, consulting them only if they are controlled democratically by juries of laypeople.

He is quoted in "Dimensions of Scientific Thought" as defending astrology against an article in the Humanist attacking astrology, but in the letter, providing no evidence against astrology, claiming that science has become no more than another authoritarian dogma throwing its weight around (neglecting entirely the fact that no one would read a long article that actually cited the facts against astrology).

His ideas seem to be implicitly behind the Dominionist claims that lay people who know nothing about science or history are exactly the right people to be judging local educational curricula at school board meetings, and that the opinions of experts are to be ignored. Feyerabend defends Relativism as a way to solve problems... but relativism by its very nature is incapable of "solving problems". Indeed, if you listen to Pat Condell, relativism is the bane of Europe right now. How can there we any concept of justice or morality if we accept relativism? All of our advancements since the Renaissance collapse if Uganda's "Kill the Gays" bill is just as moral or just or advanced as Western equality. Imagine for a moment the kind of horrors that relativism can allow. (Please don't take me to mean that all things the West does are better than what is anywhere else: I'm not a colonialist. What I'm arguing for is that there is a "best" answer; maybe none of have it yet, but that's not to say that all answers are equally bad.)

I am taking an Advanced Philosophy of Science class in the Winter. I wonder if I will have to read some of his stuff. I suspect I will have a hard time reading him.
horsemen

Descartes

I'll be really glad when this quarter of philosophy is over. We are reading 17th century philosophers, and I'm really not appreciating the anti-atheist sentiment coming from so many of them. Berkeley was pretty bad, and consistently attacked atheists in the middle of his argument (whenever, it seemed to me, that his argument was most lacking). But Descartes does the same. Not in the texts themselves so much, but in the preface, and responses, rather than addressing the criticisms of atheists, he just lumps them into a group he describes as not sufficiently intelligent to warrant his attention, and moves on to the god-botherers (as PZ calls them) and their criticism. It seems to me that he isn't serious in proving the existence of god, but rather simply reasserting an assumption he already holds, and cloaking it in some kind of veneer of reason to make it seem sophisticated. Despite the fact that in the text, he actually argues that since we can't comprehend god, he must be real. He wants to claim he has a clear and distinct idea of god, and yet, he admits that he can't comprehend god. Oh, so let us assume for a moment that god himself can't violate the law of noncontradiction, but it's okay for Descartes to do so. *eye rolls* Leibniz (in my 18th century philosophy class) was crazy, and thoroughly depended on god for his argument, but at least he didn't bash the atheists quite so directly, quite so often.

Our exam is next week. I just gotta hold it together until then. Then we'll do Locke for a while and then back into the den of atheist haters.
machines think/do men?

Descartes

In my philosophy class this week, we were discussing Descartes' proof of the existence of god in Meditation III. I think I objected to every single point made, beginning with the very idea of "perfection", or that there is any such a thing as a being with "infinite objective reality", as if infinity were some kind of number. Both show a poor conception of mathematics, which is disappointing for someone who is so well-respected in mathematics. We also discussed that his argument appears circular.

The prof then argued to us that these men are great thinkers and don't make the kinds of logical errors that you hear about in basic logic courses. Therefore, if it seems like he's making such an error, it's because we don't understand him, and are not taking his position sufficiently charitably.

Sadly, however, I do believe he's mistaken on that account. We are often well-motivated, emotionally speaking, to make logical errors. They are pervasive and difficult to root out of our thinking, that is why we study them, and why they are so dangerous. To suggest that anyone is immune to making such errors is absurd. And Descartes was certainly highly motivated to believe in god of a particular variety. He wrote a book he deliberately did not publish in his lifetime because he found the Church rejected the heliocentric view of the universe (a discussion of which was contained therein). And circular arguments, particularly in complicated arguments, are often difficult to root out. It's easy to forget what are assumptions, and what has been shown.

And though there is an accepted convention that corresponds to the idea of "perfect", it does not imply that perfect means anything more than "better (making fewer errors) than me, and better than anyone I know". We cannot conceive the kind of geologic time, so it would be just as impossible to conceive of a being that only made an error once every 50 million years... that is still not perfect; however, if you believe that the universe is less than 6000 years old, it would certainly seem to be. And it is a common error among those not accustomed to dealing with very large or very small numbers to distinguish this from infinity or zero. So, I have to ask... what does Descartes mean by "perfect" really, and is his definition logically coherent? It's the same problem most modern theologian have.
really?

predictable

If you know anyone who's ever been in AA or similarly modelled drug treatment programs, what I am about to say will not surprise you... it sure as hell didn't surprise me.

In my area, they recently aired a commercial on Overeaters Anonymous (oa.org). So, you know, I decided to see just how AA-inspired they were. I found this on their Twelve Traditions page (these are items #2 and #3). Note the highlighted #2.

2.For our group purpose there is but one ultimate authority — a loving God as He may express Himself in our group conscience. Our leaders are but trusted servants; they do not govern.
3.The only requirement for OA membership is a desire to stop eating compulsively.


These two statements are, of course, completely contradictory. If a belief in god is required, then wanting to stop eating compulsively really isn't their only requirement for membership. And putting up with that obsequiously bit about them "only being trusted servants" might really be too much to tolerate for someone who otherwise really needs their help.

This theme of course is repeated elsewhere on their site. I'm sure they help a lot of people, but they certainly aren't as open to everyone as they claim, and they should stop pretending they are.