Good Reason

It's okay to be wrong. It's not okay to stay wrong.

Category: science (page 2 of 8)

Science tells us ‘how’, and religion tells us ‘nothing’.

This bit of the Dawkins/Pell “debate” touched on something I’ve been thinking about.

Pell trots out that old chestnut that religious people like to say about science: science tells us “how”, and religion tells us “why”. I’d like to challenge that.

Sometimes we’re touched by tragedy. We lose someone close to us, and sometimes it’s not in a “good way”, like when someone is very old and ready. Sometimes it’s someone young and someone who really needs to be here with us. Sickness and death in that kind of situation is horrible and pointless, and there’s no good reason for it to have happened. And then people who are left alive, trying to pick up the pieces, will say something like, “It sure is hard to understand why this is happening.”

It’s completely understandable to ask why. But wait — wasn’t religion supposed to answer why? It doesn’t do the job in these situations.

Science can answer why. The person died because our bodies do a pretty good job in most circumstances, but not all the time, and sometimes they can’t heal themselves of everything. Our cells reproduce the wrong way, or a virus gets us, or we have a stroke, and we die. That’s why.

But that’s not a satisfying answer because it doesn’t speak to that person’s expectations. What the person is saying is: I had a belief that a loving god was watching over me, and was going to answer my prayerful requests, perhaps if I did the right things and/or had enough faith. Given those beliefs, it sure is hard to understand why this is happening.

So drop the belief. Without the expectations caused by this belief, things become a lot easier to understand. That’s important, because understanding why (say) cancer happens can lead to a way to beat it. But relying on religion to provide ‘why’ answers is confusing and just makes us ask the wrong questions.

Talk the Talk: Life Without Numbers

I’ve just put up an interview with Caleb Everett (not to be confused with Dan Everett). We talked about the Pirahã people and some work he’s done with them on numbers. They don’t have them, and they have quite a time of it thinking in numerical ways. Really interesting stuff.

I also do a bit of scream-metal. It’s as painful as it sounds.

One-off show: Here
Subscribe via iTunes: Here
Show notes: Here

Mormon apostle goes full anti-science

Times come and times go, but religion provides an anchor of constancy (if an anchor’s what you need). So it’s good to see Mormon apostle Russell Nelson engaging in the time-honored religious tradition of slagging science.

Well, that’s not fair. If there’s science that they like, then it’s a gift from god. If they don’t like the science, then it’s either Satan’s deception, or some irrelevant wild guess that will get resolved in the fulness of time.

Here’s the clip (from 7:12).

“Yet some people erroneously think that these marvelous physical attributes happened by chance or resulted from a big bang somewhere. Ask yourself, ‘Could an explosion in a printing shop produce a dictionary?’ The likelihood is most remote. But if so, it could never heal its own torn pages or reproduce its own newer editions.”

The printer’s shop analogy is extremely tired — evolution is not ‘by chance’! Mutation is, but natural selection is non-random. So yes, if books could reproduce and if only the fittest books survived to reproduce, then yes, we would see books that could heal torn pages and update themselves. Nelson is making a false analogy between a living being and an inanimate object, and the two have different qualities.

Analogy aside, what Elder Nelson has done must be very strange and uncomfortable for Mormons. He’s waded into science, and sneered at ideas from biology, physics, and cosmology that he doesn’t undertand, and that there’s real evidence for and no real reason to disbelieve.

To see why this is such weird territory he’s in, let’s take a look at mentions of ‘evolve’ or ‘evolution’ in General Conferences.

Predictably, the most mentions came when evolution was a new theory, and religious people were scrambling to figure out what to do about it. It popped up again as more young people started attending universities, and horrifying their religious parents with the science they were learning. Since then, things were calming down to background levels. The two words ‘evolution’ and ‘evolve’ weren’t even mentioned in all the 1990s! The last time Darwinian evolution was mentioned in General Conference was in 1984, when Bruce McConkie and Boyd Packer both had a bash. That’s 28 years of letting it lay.

So the scene was set for the LDS Church to let the issue go, accommodate evolution, and claim that they were never really against it, which is how they seem to resolve all their old conflicts. Instead, Nelson has recycled his old material, and renewed the attack. That’s going to take some time to walk back.

And just for comparison, no GA has ever trashed the Big Bang — the phrase doesn’t appear in the entire GC corpus. Nelson is really in deep water here.

What must intelligent Mormons be thinking?

a. Oh, Grandpa!
b. Um, are we not supposed to believe in the Big Bang now?
c. He spake as a man.
d. Let’s go shopping!
e. We just heard how not everything from the pulpit is doctrine, so no problem!
f. Holy fuck. This guy is a leader of my church, supposedly getting revelation from god, and he’s completely and unambiguously wrong. What else is he wrong about?

Because he is wrong. He’s proudly ignorant, making a joke out of something he doesn’t understand, and expecting the audience to laugh along. (Which of course they did, nervously.) He’s coming off as really dumb, and he’s considered one of the smart ones! (He was a doctor, doncha know.)

The takeaway: A major LDS leader just put himself (and the church) up against science. Are Mormons creationists now? Or is it possible to ignore an apostle?

Will this shake some educated Mormons up? The likelihood is most remote! But I think it should be a really big deal, and I’d like to hear from some smarter Mormons to see how they’re coping with this.

The atheist temple

The big news in atheism this week: Alain de Botton wants to build an atheist temple. Which seems strange — atheism isn’t a religion, so why would it need to borrow religion’s trappings? I think de Botton tipped his hand, though, in this pronouncement:

The philosopher and writer Alain de Botton is proposing to build a 46-metre tower to celebrate a ”new atheism” as an antidote to what he describes as Richard Dawkins’s ”aggressive” and ”destructive” approach to non-belief.

Rather than attack religion, Mr de Botton said he wants to borrow the idea of awe-inspiring buildings that give people a better sense of perspective on life.

”Normally a temple is to Jesus, Mary or Buddha but you can build a temple to anything that’s positive and good,” he said. ”That could mean a temple to love, friendship, calm or perspective … Because of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, atheism has become known as a destructive force.

Destructive force? For me, Dawkins and Hitchens are two guys who have come to epitomise well-tempered reason, intelligence, and courage in the face of mortality, so de Botton’s criticism doesn’t ring true for me. I’d like to suggest a little test which I’ll call the S.E. Cupp test: When someone says they’re an atheist, do they spend more time promoting atheism, or castigating other atheists because of their tone? If the latter, then what’s the difference between them and a theist?

Dawkins has called the project a waste of funds, PZ says it’s a monument to hubris.

Me? I say it’s redundant. We already have a temple. I was there earlier this month. Or, at least, at one of them.

The atheist temple I went to was the Temple of Knowledge, and it’s better known as the New York Public Library.

It gots lions.

Why would I call it an atheist temple? Because it’s filled with the work of people. People; not gods. People (and you can see them there every day) engaged in the process of gathering knowledge and combining it to make new knowledge. This is the goal of science, which is an atheistic form of reasoning.

I walked along its halls of solid marble, where generations of humans have come to read and learn.

No gothic arches, these. How could you help but be in awe of not just the building, but the building’s purpose?

Like a temple, the magnificent Reading Room prompts a hush. 

And the people who built this place — yeah, they were tycoons who made their money from the skins of small furry animals. But they wanted to build a place where the knowledge of the world could be preserved, and they cared enough to make it amazing. And they inscribed this on the walls, in letters big enough for anyone to read:

“On the diffusion of education
among the people
rest the preservation
and perpetuation
of our free institutions.”

I read that, and I think, you know, they got it. They really got it! Even back then. Our society depends on education. Our freedom depends on it. You can’t preserve freedom in a population of ignoramuses; they’ll just tear it down again the instant they feel afraid. It’s such an alien concept in this age, when one political party has dedicated itself to the destruction of the Department of Education, and (through homeschooling) constantly works to undermine the public school system so that children will be protected from education. It seems like a quaint and noble sentiment, but we need to relearn this thinking that came from better minds than ours. Just as we need another quaint and antiquated notion symbolised by libraries: the public good.

But that’s not all I saw. There were treasures.

Holy shit! It’s a Gutenburg Fucking Bible! One of only 40 perfect ones left. Yes, it’s a bible because for some reason, people thought the Bible was important back then. But what this book did was make reading and publishing commonplace. That’s much more important than the book’s rather poor contents.

And check this out: it’s Christopher Robin’s toys! That’s not just Winnie a Pooh — it’s Winnie THE Pooh. And the others! It was great to see them there, even though it made me think of Toy Story 2. I look at Tigger and realise that Ernest Shepard really nailed it.

These are clay tokens with cuneiform on them, some of the earliest writing that people ever used. That made it possible for people to transmit knowledge over generations.

And while I was in this Library, I felt so connected to people in other ages and to the future. It was a feeling that I can only describe as spiritual, even though I don’t like that word. But it was the same feeling that I felt in the old religion but more intense and meaningful.

You can keep your paltry theist cathedrals. Do not copy Mormon temples — they are monuments to superstition and foolishness. Let St Patrick’s fall. Instead, build a library, Mr de Botton, or an observatory, or a university, or a museum. They’re the only temples that atheists have any business building.

Actually, St. Patrick’s will make a very nice reading room in about 100 years.

Pestering people at airports — for science!

I like to find out stuff by listening to people who know more than I do. And when they’re stuck in a line with me, this is what happens.

The entirely understandable evasion of Neil deGrasse Tyson

Neil deGrasse Tyson describes himself as an ‘agnostic‘, and that’s okay. I’m an agnostic myself, just an atheistic one.

But this tweet seems like an evasion:

“Am I an Atheist, you ask? Labels are mentally lazy ways by which people assert they know you without knowing you.”

Hmm. I didn’t ask him for his label; I asked a question about his stand on some issue, to which one could reasonably answer ‘yes’ or ‘no’.

Sometimes I’ve seen people shun labels as a subtle method of self-flattery. “Oh, I’m so deep and complex and interesting that I can’t be put into a box.” Well, yes, you are interesting, and yes, you can be put into a box. We’re not all special snowflakes; in many ways we’re terribly like other people. I am, anyway. I consume the same products, read the same books and websites, and have the same thoughts as other people with my interests. Hopefully, once in a while I create something interesting and original, and that’s what makes me kind of special.

Anyway, I can understand NdGT not wanting to tick the box for firm atheism. He’s influential in science communication, so he wants more people to listen to him, and perhaps not turn off those who would be turned off by an atheist. We need him doing what he’s doing, and others of us can wear the atheist tag. As for me, if atheism is a label, it’s a label I’m proud to wear.

Published papers that are giving me the fits right now

There are a few pieces of research that are giving me a bad case of skeptitis: an inflammation of the part of the brain that makes us skeptical. I’m not saying I have the expertise to refute these, but something about them doesn’t smell right, and that makes me feel twitchy. See if you don’t agree.

Number 1: More Facebook Friends Means Bigger Brain Areas, U.K. Study Finds

A strong correlation was found between the number of Facebook connections and the amount of gray matter, or brain tissue responsible for processing signals, according to research led by Geraint Rees, a senior clinical research fellow at University College London. The results, based on magnetic resonance imaging of 125 college students’ brains, was published today in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

This reminds me of Dunbar’s primate brain size hypothesis: Primates that have bigger brains have larger social networks. But I think this is meant to apply on the species level, not on the individual level. Sounds fishy.

Number 2: BYU study: Hearing profanity may lead to more aggressive acts

BYU researchers found that middle school students who watched TV and played video games with profanity were more likely to use profanity. And dropping swear words was in turn related to being physically violent and aggressive in how they treat others.

The results were published Monday in the American Academy of Pediatrics’ peer-reviewed journal Pediatrics.

“It’s not like you hear profanity in the media and go and punch somebody. I think of it as a trickle-down effect,” said Sarah M. Coyne, a BYU assistant professor of family life and lead author of the study. “It represents a lack of respect for parents or whoever you’re using it towards. It’s like a slippery slope. You start using it, and it becomes associated with other aggression.”

This one sounds like a theory that your mom might make up, and the fact that this study comes out of the BYU doesn’t help the credibility. It’s very easy for someone to accept a conclusion when it’s something they already believe.

Does swearing really represent a lack of respect? Sometimes, but it could also be used to establish solidarity between people in a social setting. Does the study reflect that usage? How did this get past peer review? Is something broken at Pediatrics? What is an “assistant professor of family life”?

I don’t know if swearing leads to aggression, but I do know that junk science makes me want to jack someone in the gut.

Number 3: Origins of human language: They differently talked

“The man killed the bear” may seem like the obvious ‘right’ way to structure a sentence to an English speaker, but a linguistic duo suggests that the original human language did it differently, saying instead “The man the bear killed.” In a paper in a recent edition of the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, they dispute the assertion by some linguistics that the original human language was organized by Subject-Verb-Object, as English is.

Many comparative linguists believe that it’s simply not possible to know what languages were like further back than 6,000 or 7,000 years ago. But [Merritt] Ruhlen and [Murray] Gell-Mann believe it’s possible to make inferences about language going back much further, by studying the broad outlines of all the world’s languages.

It is possible to reconstruct past languages by looking at what current languages are like, and if you’re a historical linguist, this is the kind of thing you might do for languages from 1,000 or more years ago. But this gets harder to do the farther you go back, and by about 6,000 or 7,000 years, it’s awfully hard to separate the signal from the noise. Ruhlen and Gell-Mann are trying to go back perhaps 50,000 years, and tell us what the word order of Proto-World is like. This would be very hard to do.

Take a language family like Indo-European. Lots of languages are SVO (or Subject-Object-Verb), lots are SOV, and some have more or less free word order. It would be very difficult to select just one as the indisputably correct word order, and that’s for a language group that’s been well-studied and well-documented. Proto-World? That’s gotta be guesswork.

Am I off-base? Do any of these papers sound fine to you? Put it in comments.

Inside a hollow sphere

The novel The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has a scene where Arthur Dent goes to a hyperspatial factory where planets are constructed. It made me wonder: What if I were in a spaceship inside that enormous sphere — and I fell out of the ship?

In other words, what would gravity be like inside an enormous, hollow, planet-sized sphere?

Would you:
a) get pulled to the precise centre of the sphere, and stay there?
b) get pulled toward the nearest section of wall, and go splat?
c) just float around wherever you are?

I was very pleased to find that last week’s Straight Dope column answered that very question.

Make your prediction, and I’ll see you in comments.

Gamers for science

This was exciting to see: Learning the structure of an AIDS-like virus stumped scientists for 15 years. FoldIt gamers cracked it in ten days.

“This is one small piece of the puzzle in being able to help with AIDS,” Firas Khatib, a biochemist at the University of Washington, told me. Khatib is the lead author of a research paper on the project, published today by Nature Structural & Molecular Biology.
The feat, which was accomplished using a collaborative online game called Foldit, is also one giant leap for citizen science — a burgeoning field that enlists Internet users to look for alien planets, decipher ancient texts and do other scientific tasks that sheer computer power can’t accomplish as easily.

“People have spatial reasoning skills, something computers are not yet good at,” Seth Cooper, a UW computer scientist who is Foldit’s lead designer and developer, explained in a news release. “Games provide a framework for bringing together the strengths of computers and humans.”

I’ve done work on crowdsourcing annotation in language tasks, so it’s good to see it working in this domain. I love the idea of people putting their heads together and solving problems. For all our computing might, nothing can match human brains on some tasks.

Manufacturing doubt

Check out this short film “Doubt” from the Climate Reality Project.

What they did to obscure the facts about smoking is what they’re doing now to muddy the waters about climate change: Manufacture enough phony controversy and confusion to get people to ignore the science.

And according to the film, “they” are the same people in both cases.

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