Archive for November, 2010

Intellectual Ghettos

November 28, 2010 1 comment

Sometimes I become very depressed when I consider the way the modern world works. Yeah sure, I know that in many ways the world today is so much better than it was 50 or 100 years in the past, but in other ways I don’t like the way it is heading. Listening to commentators who share this negative view (or even have a far more extreme form of negativity than me) makes things worse of course. But it’s hard not to conclude that they have very valid points and that that there is no way to deny that they are essentially correct.

A recent podcast I listened to made some points related to the topic, some of which I agreed with and others which I thought went too far. But the overall conclusion was that the world (and the US and a lot of other western countries in particular) is heading in the wrong direction entirely. One phrase the presenter used particularly resonated with me: he said many groups in society are heading into “intellectual ghettos”.

His main reason for this pessimism was the way people source their information. He claimed the mainstream media are all controlled by big business and this causes them to be both biased towards a business oriented worldview and to be primarily interested in creating popular lightweight stories instead of concentrating on the real news.

Of course today there are worthwhile alternatives to traditional media provided by the internet. But he claims that the internet provides even more biased information, although at least all views and philosophies are represented there, and that information from the ‘net tends to be even more condensed and superficial than that from the mainstream.

That’s where I partly disagree. I do agree that there are internet sources which will support any worldview and that by carefully selecting sources a person can make anything look authentic. But I think the internet is potentially the greatest source of both wide and deep information we have ever had.

By wide I mean it makes all subjects easily available. For example, I had no interest in philosophy and history before I started listening to some excellent podcasts on those subjects. Sure, I could have read books about those topics but I don’t have time to read much and it’s difficult to find the best source of traditional books as well. On the internet material is easy to source through discussion forums, recommendation systems, and ratings. So my knowledge, post internet, is much wider than it ever was before, and I can pursue subjects I consider most important to a greater depth as well.

I do fully agree that, because of the vast range of material, and because of the way communities tend to cluster around material with a particular perspective, it’s easy to live in a world of total delusion thanks to the internet. I know people who only visit right wing political forums for example, or whose entire knowledge of “science” comes from creationist web sites. But that’s the fault of the person, not the medium, and could also happen with traditional sources. For example, a friend of mine has an extensive library consisting of nothing but creationist propaganda, so he’s just as deluded because of printed material as he is through electronic sources!

That was where the presenter used the words “intellectual ghetto”. That’s what he calls the worlds of religious, political, and social self delusion that many people create for themselves. And the world does seem to be becoming more polarised. Look at politics in the US for example. The conservative Christian right is very strong there, and the extreme conservative pseudo-libertarianism of the “Tea Party” has gained a lot of influence. And internationally extreme forms of religion, especially Islam, have become a real concern. These people all clearly live in intellectual ghettos.

There’s an old saying in the skeptical movement which I think sums things up well. It’s that you can’t reason with a creationist (although that could also be applied to believers in any extreme view) because if they could be reasoned with they wouldn’t be creationists! In other words, these people abandoned reason when they decided to live in the intellectual ghetto.

To identify someone living in these ghettos look at their attitude to intellectuals. Creationists think scientists are all intent on misleading the world to advance their own “religion” of “Darwinism”. Global warming deniers think climate scientists are colluding on deceiving the world to protect their sources of funding. And the far right think any slight deviation from their extreme views is an act of “socialism” (and as we all know, socialism is the most evil thing ever!)

So all of these people are anti-intellectual. They would rather believe some nutcase with no knowledge or experience in climate science than the vast majority of experts in the field. They would rather believe that following the same right wing politics which caused the wars, economic depression, environmental crises, and other problems we now face, will solve our problems than following more moderate ideas will. And they would rather believe that the science which has given us almost everything of any worth we have today is wrong and that a few religiously motivated freaks are right.

There’s no hope really, is there. If people can be so obviously wrong yet be so convinced they are right then what hope do we have? Democracy gives everyone the power to control the future of the world but that is no guarantee we will get a good outcome. When the majority of people in the US for example don’t believe in one of the greatest theories science has, don’t know whether the Earth orbits the Sun or not, and think any attempt to improve the obviously horrendous health system is tantamount to the introduction of communism then they really don’t deserve the vote!

It’s tempting just to let people live in the intellectual ghettos they create for themselves but it’s not that easy. The rational world isn’t completely isolated from the irrational one: the biggest idiot has the same power to vote as the best scientist; people who believe in pathetic religious dogma can embark on religiously motivated campaigns of violence; and cheap, populist political campaigns can have greater influence than less approachable but fact-based politics.

Yes, maybe it is hopeless.


Free Rein

November 22, 2010 Leave a comment

I listen to a few podcasts, radio shows, and other media sources on the subject of the history of science. History has never been much of a priority for me but as I listen to more it has become quite interesting: not just the history of science but of everything else as well.

One of the best history podcasts is produced by the BBC and is called “A History of the World in 100 Objects”. It uses objects from the British Museum to explain various periods from history and how the object relates to the politics, religion, science, art, and culture of the period. Another podcast which I have just started listening to is also from the BBC (most of the best podcasts do seem to come from them) and is called “A Brief History of Mathematics”.

The second episode of this podcast dealt with the famous (actually legendary would be closer) mathematician Leonard Euler. He was a real mathematical genius and contributed to so many areas of maths that it’s almost impossible to believe. I can remember when I did computer science we used Euler diagrams which were a method he created to solve a particular type of problem. But even this, which has become a really important technique in modern science, was just an amusement to him at the time: something he created to solve a popular puzzle at the time called the “Konigsberg Bridge Problem”.

He moved to a university and changed departments without anyone really noticing. He worked on various theoretical problems without having to justify a practical outcome. He turned practical problems into theoretical, mathematical ones (not always successfully). In other words, he just followed whatever whim seemed appropriate to him at the time. There was no accountability. There was no guidance from management. There was no requirement to justify his own existence. And he created modern maths, the most useful tool the human race has ever invented.

I work in a university and I see the vast amount of meaningless bureaucracy, the unnecessary accounting requirements, and the worthless trivia that researchers have to cope with. I’m not saying that every researcher would turn into a genius and become another Euler if they were given free rein to pursue whatever type of research they wanted but I do believe that the repressive accountability is entirely counter-productive.

Accountants, managers, and lawyers seem to see things in entirely negative terms. They seem to be good at making things not happen, at finding reasons why something isn’t possible (usually for administrative or financial reasons). If people like Euler had been held back by this inconsequential trivialities then the world would not have progressed in the way it has.

I’m not saying that all accountants, managers, and lawyers should be dispensed with (although a mass execution of that segment of society has some merit) but they should be kept away from people doing worthwhile things. Let them add up their meaningless numbers, have their silly meetings, or argue about their frivolous laws, but go and do it somewhere where it won’t get in the way of those making real progress!

Worst Idea Ever

November 19, 2010 Leave a comment

Honestly, originally I really did think that the current New Zealand government was OK and that it looked like the Prime Minister, John Key, was OK too. Look back in my blog when they first came into power and you will see cautious approval and optimism. But things have just been getting worse and worse ever since and now the PM has come up with the worst idea ever!

Johnny (Einstein) Key wants to create a financial services hub here in New Zealand! Really? Why not set up an international drug trade center or a weapons trading empire of some sort? I think those “industries” are more trustworthy and acceptable than financial trading at the moment! Of all the ridiculous, small minded, half witted ideas this government has dreamt up this has surely got to be the worst!

The unethical, incompetent scum in charge of various financial services around the world have already just about destroyed half the world’s economy. Do we really want that sort of person setting up here? And what would be their motivation to come here anyway? Would it be that NZ is a great country that deserves their support, or would it be that we have great expertise here they want to encourage?

No, it would be that we’re cheap. Rent is cheap here. Pay rates are low here. And the government would most likely offer various tax incentives to the last people in the world who need them. Didn’t they learn after being sucked in by Warner Brothers over the filming of the Hobbit? Apparently not, because people who have no common sense and are primarily motived by ideology never learn.

I ranted about a similar subject in a blog entry titled “race to the bottom” a few weeks ago. When will this government learn that you can’t improve services by cutting funding, you can’t increase the standard of living by cutting wages, you can’t stimulate the economy by not spending, you can’t help the poor by increasing their expenses, and you can’t create a balanced, fair, attractive economy by inviting the most immoral parasites on the planet to set up shop here.

The report hasn’t been fully released yet so the details are unknown but there are some ideas which are just so stupid, so ridiculous, and just so corrupt, that they really shouldn’t even be considered under any circumstances. This is surely one of them. I know it’s your little pet project John but please just forget about this one, OK?


November 17, 2010 Leave a comment

Are the huge salaries being paid to business leaders unethical? That question has arisen recently after it was revealed that the CEO of Westpac bank, George Frazis, is paid NZ$5.5 million per year. There is some debate around the composition of this payment but whatever the details many people seem to think it’s excessive.

Clearly it really is excessive and it would be obscene under any circumstances, but in the current situation where most people are getting minimal pay increases, the economy is in a depressed state (thanks to incompetent and immoral actions of bank executives), and the government is refusing to give important sectors of the community (teachers and radiographers for example) a pay increase, it seems particularly inappropriate.

Of course I don’t really blame Frazis himself, or even the board who authorised the payment. Clearly the problem is far more basic than that. The system which hands out vast amounts to senior executives and can’t find enough to properly fund health, education, and research is what’s really at fault so, like almost every problem the world faces, it really gets back to the failings of capitalism itself.

If this Frazis clown wants to “steal” vast amounts of money while providing a fairly mediocre service at no real risk (while receiving this salary his bank is underwritten by the New Zealand taxpayer – how corrupt is that!) then who can blame him?

Corrupt people have stolen money throughout history and we don’t accuse them of being unethical… Hang on a minute, yes we do!

But I think the general population is starting to catch on to the immorality of modern corporate management too. Other immoral characters include highly paid executives like Telecom chief executive Paul Reynolds (an incompetent leader whose company has been a provider of very average, over-priced, and anti-competitive services for may years) and Fonterra boss Andrew Ferrier (a real scumbag who doesn’t care about pollution back here in New Zealand as long as his company exploits the global market for milk). It almost seems that to be a successful CEO you must adhere to an immoral personal philosophy!

Again, I must emphasise that it’s the system which is at fault. Capitalism encourages unethical, greedy cheats and liars to take charge so it should be no surprise that that’s what we get. And unless a CEO does adopt these personal attributes he (or sometimes she because women are just as bad in these positions) cannot compete with those who do.

So people are beginning to see that unethical behaviour is unacceptable and if they also realise that the system is at fault they might see that the real response should be to change the system rather than criticise those who exploit it. Maybe there is hope that the power of corporations can be reduced. Maybe there is hope that money can be diverted into more meaningful areas. And maybe there is hope that the people who make real contributions to society, and not those who have developed the skill of extracting the maximum personal gain, are the ones we should be supporting.

Maybe I’m being unrealistic but at least I am being ethical!

Rational Morality

November 15, 2010 Leave a comment

I recently listened to a discussion on the topic of whether science can be a source of morality. In fact it went beyond that to more general subjects involving science, religion and moral philosophy. The participants were impressive: no less than Lawrence Krauss (foundation professor in the School of Earth and Space Exploration, a professor in the physics department, and director of the Origins Project in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at Arizona State University), Simon Blackburn (Professor of Philosophy at the University of Cambridge’s Faculty of Philosophy, and Research Professor of Philosophy at the University of North Carolina), Sam Harris (neuroscientist, non-fiction writer, and CEO of Project Reason), and Steven Pinker (Harvard College Professor, and Johnstone Family Professor in the Department of Psychology at Harvard University).

So yes, these people have a few clues on the subject and the discussion was really fascinating. Sam Harris, as expected, had the most extreme ideas which clearly went beyond what the others were prepared to say, but I think he had some good points and I agree with just about everything he said. Of course Harris and I share a dislike of religion and I think we both believe it has no real place in modern society.

There was a discussion of the embryonic stem cell issue in the USA. There was the suggestion that there are two sides: on one side scientific facts, and on the other morals. But the morals in question weren’t really morals; they were religious dogma, superstition, and ignorance. So the argument isn’t really about morality at all, it’s really about facts versus superstition. If anything other than religion had been the basis of that so-called “morality” it would have immediately been discredited but, as is often the case, religion gets special treatment even though it clearly doesn’t deserve any.

The next question was can science influence values? Clearly it can and it has done in the past and continues to do so. Values change with time (which is an interesting point for those who claim they are based on the wishes of a god) and science is the major force of change in our society (there is debate on that point but I think many people would agree). So obviously science influences values and what is morality except a higher and more fundamental form of values?

Here’s a good old question which has been around a while: where does faith come in science? Does science rely on faith? Many believers seem to think so and even Harris says it requires the presumption that the world is accessible to experiment (in other words what we objectively experience is real). But that’s not really faith. I prefer to use the word “confidence” in those situations. Science has confidence that its methodology works because it has been an outstanding success for hundreds of years. Religion has faith that its doctrines are true despite all the evidence to the contrary. There is a big difference and anyone who equates the two concepts is either being deliberately misleading or is confused about the distinction.

All reasonable people agree that religion has nothing really to say on matters of fact, apart from a few stories based on actual history, but that doesn’t mean that it can’t be an important source of morality, does it? Well I guess not but I would rate it at best as no better than many other sources: pop culture, fiction, and common sense, for example. And I would rate it greatly below more credible sources such as philosophy and science. After all, how can a belief system so obviously based on untrue myths be taken seriously on any topic?

Another discussion involved whether beliefs, opinions and attitudes can be changed by scientific facts. Many people would be rather pessimistic about this, especially when statistics indicate a large percentage of Americans believe in self evidently ridiculous ideas such as creationism. But it was pointed out that attitudes have changed greatly, especially since the Enlightenment. There was some discussion about whether this was because of science or because of new cultural and philosophical ideas such as empiricism but this is just an argument over definitions, especially since empiricism is such a fundamental component of science.

So change can and will happen but it will take time. It’s often through new generations taking on new ideas rather than existing believers having their minds changed that major revisions in belief happen. That’s why the creationists are so desperate to have their lies taught in schools, and why many scientific organisations are fighting it.

But despite the absurd and rather surprising level of belief in Christian mythology in the US those ideas are dying. However high the numbers of believers in the US today they aren’t as great as they were in the past and in other countries religion is only a minority belief and most of the believers don’t take fundamentalism seriously anyway (I do concede that the obvious rise in extreme Islamic fundamentalism is contrary to this trend).

Harris says that science impacts o religion because it demonstrates the way the world really works. Even the Vatican has been forced to accept the truth science has shown although it seems to be contrary to Catholic dogma. Of course they have just retreated to slightly less extreme forms of superstition instead: evolution is real but it is guided by God. If they really believe that they must think their god is a real idiot because his use of evolution (99% of species becoming extinct, extremely poor design of various organs, etc) sure looks arbitrary to me!

Harris denies that the opposite happens: that religion affects science. I don’t know whether that is strictly true but it might as well be. Have a look back at the history of human knowledge: there have been a huge number of religious beliefs which have been replaced with scientific alternatives but has there been a single scientific theory which has been replaced with a religious dogma or belief? There have been none that I can think of, so religion doesn’t affect science that way. Maybe more to the point, religion doesn’t affect truth!

I do agree that religion does affect science through other means such as society, politics, and culture, but these are peripheral issues to the fundamental purpose of science which is to establish the objective truth.

So in summary I would say that science can, and does, affect morality. It’s not the only source of moral information and religion has a clear role there too, but only because religion has subsumed some philosophy (such as the golden rule) and has established some rules through simple common sense. Unfortunately religion also contributes silly rules intended to maintain the power of the church. So if religion’s input to morality disappeared we would be better off but I don’t think we could say the same for science.

Whatever some people think about the morality of the current generation I think the facts speak for themselves: overall people do have better lives, most of them are more free from political and religious oppression, and generally people treat each other better now than in the past. As the world gets less religious it gets better. That must be more than a simple coincidence!

George and Bill

November 11, 2010 Leave a comment

Two of the greatest villains of recent years for many people would be George Bush and Bill Gates: Bush because of his extreme political conservatism and because he started two wars, and Gates because he created a company which has held back the computer industry for years and which regularly uses dirty business tactics.

Of course there are many people who would disagree with these two appraisals but in the past I have never been much of a fan of either of those two famous figures. But now, although I still can’t forgive either of them for their obvious and significant transgressions, I have a more moderate attitude to them.

I recently listened to some commentary and interviews about Bush’s book which was recently released. His behaviour does seem to make sense when understood in the context of his own belief system and world view. So he really can’t be accused of being evil, just misguided.

For example, he has a point that it might be justifiable to use torture to extract information which results in the prevention of terrorist activities which potentially lead to to the death of innocent civilians. Maybe the end does justify the means. Certainly Bush seems to think so in some cases although I don’t know whether he would support the idea in general.

A similar idea applies to Gates. I personally have never seen a Microsoft product I like and I think, despite its propaganda to the contrary, Microsoft has had more to do with suppressing innovation rather than encouraging it, but I do have to admire Gates’ attitude since he left Microsoft.

Bill and his wife Melinda were the subject of a TV current affairs program I watched last night and it showed them giving away billions. And he’s not just throwing it at high profile or popular causes – he’s really thinking about where the money will be most useful. I admit I am impressed. Again I have to temper this praise with the observation that he never really deserved the wealth he now has.

It’s so easy to stereotype people and judge them based on one aspect of their personality or on one action with which you might or might not agree, but the world is always more complex than that and there is good and bad in everyone. So there’s hope for every person and organisation – who knows, one day Microsoft might even make a good product!

Carl Sagan Day

November 9, 2010 Leave a comment

The first message my computer calendar system presented to me this morning was that it’s Carl Sagan Day. Sagan was a scientist who popularised science, especially through his TV series “Cosmos”. Today is the 76th anniversary if his birth and it has been celebrated for the grand total of two years now, and mainly by science geeks. So yes, Sagan Day isn’t exactly the most famous day on the calendar for most people but he has near legendary status amongst people with an interest in science.

I can remember watching the Cosmos series myself, many years ago, and how it affected me because of its great balance of hard science and near poetic commentary by Sagan. He really did have a great way of making science accessible while emphasising the grandeur and mystery of the universe.

Sagan had some very perceptive an clever quotes and I would like to mention a few of them here, and offer my commentary on them, of course!

Perhaps this one captures his sense of wonder best: “Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known.” Yes, that one sums up the way all science enthusiasts really think. We find discoveries about the origin of the universe far more satisfying than petty gossip about the latest movie star, or the financial state of a company which makes soft drinks, or who won the latest game of rugby (well maybe that one does deserve some respect!) or most of the other nonsense the majority of people think is news. In a years time the origin of the universe will still be a source of wonder, but who will really care about the others?

Some Sagan quotes put human activities in a realistic perspective. For example: “The universe seems neither benign nor hostile, merely indifferent.” Yes, as far as the universe is concerned the existence of humanity is irrelevant, contrary to the opinions of many religious people.

And there’s this: “Who are we? We find that we live on an insignificant planet of a humdrum star lost in a galaxy tucked away in some forgotten corner of a universe in which there are far more galaxies than people.” Again this is contrary to many religious views but as time goes by we seem to become less significant. First we found our star was just one in a vast galaxy, then that the galaxy was just one in a vast universe, now it looks like our entire universe might just be one in a vast (maybe infinite) multiverse.

But he recognised (as do all true skeptics and science devotees) that the truth was the only thing that really matters, not matter how much nicer fantasy is. This quote expresses that well: “For me, it is far better to grasp the Universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring.” Judging by how many people deny evolution, global warming, and other inconvenient truths, many people prefer the fantasy.

As well as being a lover of science Sagan was a real skeptic (one of the reasons we do admire him so much). Here’s a few quotes which show that aspect well: “But the fact that some geniuses were laughed at does not imply that all who are laughed at are geniuses. They laughed at Columbus, they laughed at Fulton, they laughed at the Wright Brothers. But they also laughed at Bozo the Clown.” But he recognised that simple adherence to facts and well recognised processes wasn’t enough: “Imagination will often carry us to worlds that never were. But without it we go nowhere.”

Like many of us Sagan was concerned about the ignorance of many people towards the things that actually matter. He said: “Our species needs, and deserves, a citizenry with minds wide awake and a basic understanding of how the world works” and “We have also arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology. This is a prescription for disaster. We might get away with it for a while, but sooner or later this combustible mixture of ignorance and power is going to blow up in our faces.”

Maybe he had seen the results of surveys showing extreme ignorance of the most basic scientific ideas. But he also encountered it himself: “I can find in my undergraduate classes, bright students who do not know that the stars rise and set at night, or even that the Sun is a star.” But that might be because science education is so poor (especially in the US) that it’s almost worse than nothing: “I am often amazed at how much more capability and enthusiasm for science there is among elementary school youngsters than among college students.”

Sagan died 14 years ago and there has been some debate about whether there is anyone who could replace him today. There are a few scientists starting to achieve cult status around the world and many of them have a similar attitude encompassing both wonder and skepticism (Richard Dawkins would be an obvious example) but I don’t think any of them would really claim to be in Sagan’s league, especially because he was a populariser of science when that wasn’t considered a worthwhile activity by many of his colleagues. Also the seeming lack of resolve to produce science programs today makes another “Cosmos” seem unlikely.

That’s unfortunate, because as Sagan said: “When you make the finding yourself – even if you’re the last person on Earth to see the light – you’ll never forget it.”