Archive for February, 2017

The Fermi Paradox Again

February 23, 2017 Leave a comment

NASA recently announced the discovery of 7 Earth-like planets orbiting the relatively close star, Trappist-1, and that 3 are in the “Goldilocks Zone” (not too hot, not too cold). It is now expected (at least I have heard this although I don’t think it is officially stated anywhere) that almost all stars have planets and that a significant fraction of them might have conditions similar to Earth.

This is significant because for many years no one knew how many planets existed in the universe (although there were some discoveries going back to 1988 it was only Kepler, HARPS, and some other new advanced telescopes more recently that lead to significant numbers of discoveries). So it was generally assumed that planets were common but there was no way of knowing.

Another great mystery of the universe is how likely is life to arise and under what conditions. Here we are even worse off than with the planets because we are literally working with a sample size of 1. No other life has been discovered outside of the Earth, although there have been some interesting discoveries on Mars, none have lead to any proof of even primitive life.

It is generally assumed that life will have to be broadly similar to what we have here on Earth. I don’t mean similar in any superficial sense but in broad principles. So it will be based on carbon, because carbon is the only element in the universe which bonds to other atoms (and itself) with sufficient complexity to form molecules suitable to base life on. We also know that the elements we know about are the only ones which can exist in the universe.

The chemistry of life also requires a solvent, and water is the obvious choice. So these chemical requirements limit the temperature and other factors that life would need, which is why we are so interested in “Earth-like” planets which are big enough to have strong gravity, are the right temperature to allow liquid water, and have solid surfaces allowing water to pool and to provide the other elements that life might need.

Note that it is possible that life might be able to exist in a wider variety of conditions but I’ll stick to these, fairly conservative, assumptions.

Even when all the conditions are just right, or within certain limits, it’s hard to know how often life might arise. Experiments in the lab and some observations of molecules in space indicate it might be really likely, but the failure to find life on Mars seems to contradict this.

But even if there was only one chance in a billion of life arising if conditions were suitable, that still means these should be a lot of it in our galaxy alone, and a lot more in the universe as a whole.

There are about half a trillion stars in our galaxy (although this number has gone up and down a bit, the latest number I heard was at this high end) and each star seems to have multiple planets (let’s say 10 as an approximation) and it’s likely that at least one might be in the correct temperature zone (some stars might have none in this zone but other, like Trappist-1, have many). This seems to indicate that there are as many Earth-like planets as there are stars.

A recent Hubble survey indicated there might be 2 trillion galaxies in the observable universe. So we have 2 trillion galaxies x 500 billion stars x 10 planets x 1/10 Earth-like, giving one trillion trillion places where life might evolve in the observable universe.

These numbers could be off by many orders of magnitude but who cares? Even if we are a billion times too optimistic that still means a thousand trillion places!

I have talked about the Fermi Paradox – the fact that according to best calculations there should be a lot of advanced life around, yet we never see it – in previous blog posts so I won’t go into that again here except to say we aren’t much further ahead in resolving it!

There is hope though. As telescope technology advances there will be techniques available which seemed impossible in the past. Detecting a planet orbiting another star is an incredible achievement in itself (the stars are really big and bright but at the distances of other stars the planets are very dim and small). But it should be possible to actually study their atmospheres in the future by analysing the light shining through the atmosphere from the star.

In that case it should be possible to learn a lot more about conditions on the planet (temperature, pressure, what elements are present, etc) and to even detect the chemical signatures of life.

And there are even serious proposals now to design small, robotic spacecraft which can be sent to close stars in a reasonable time (by reasonable here we mean decades rather than tens of thousands of years needed by current spacecraft). We know the closest star, a mere 4.2 light years (42 trillion kilometers) away, has a planet but it is unlikely to be suitable for life, but other relatively close stars could also be explored this way.

So how long will it be before we know that life exists on other planets? I predict hints of its existence within 10 years, strong evidence within 30, and proof within 50. And at that point, depending on the circumstances, it should be obvious just how likely life is. I predict we will start finding evidence for it everywhere.

But I still can’t get past the problem presented by the Fermi Paradox. If life arises frequently, why don’t we see signs of advanced, intelligent life? Maybe intelligence isn’t a good evolutionary trait. And, especially given the state of the world at the moment, that is a worrying thought.



February 21, 2017 Leave a comment

A common subject of debate recently has been the value of diversity. This has become popular due to the apparent rejection of it by the more radical conservative elements in various governments around the world, an increase in interest in furthering indigenous rights, and the apparent lack of progress for women in various parts of society.

I have chosen to criticise the efforts of various people on the left when they have pushed these ideals, not because I disagree with the underlying philosophy, but more because the arguments being made are often hopelessly flawed and/or based on opinions rather than facts.

So people on the left have reacted with significant hostility when I dared to question the points made by those who would normally be my allies. In fact, I have found it quite ironic that those who purport to be fighting against hate, ignorance, and single mindedness demonstrate so much of it themselves.

So enough of criticising others. What is my perspective on diversity? Well, first, I think the world would be a very boring place if everyone believed the same thing. Even people who are wrong at least provide an alternative view which at the very least encourages those who are right to sharpen their debating skills, and at best might even cause them to examine their beliefs and maybe improve on them.

So, while I think that religion is ridiculous and that religious fundamentalists, like creationists, are totally wrong, I still welcome the fact that they exist for various reasons…

First, they give me an opportunity to debate a subject which really needs no debate (because evolution is a fact) but which I enjoy the process of debating anyway. As one of my heroes, the late, great Christopher Hitchens said: “Never be a spectator of unfairness or stupidity. Seek out argument and disputation for their own sake; the grave will supply plenty of time for silence.”

Second, it means I understand evolution a lot better because I have had to defend it. Without that necessity, I might not have learned about the amazing work which has been done to show that it really is true.

And third, When I use the word “true” it cannot be taken as 100% precise because there is always room for doubt, so debating evolution provides a chance to search for any small chance that the “truth” isn’t true at all!

There are some extremely “diverse” ideas which the world might be better off without, though, and the problem is to figure out how extreme or harmful an idea has to be before I would say we would be better off without it.

So let’s have a look at a range of views with varying degrees of usefulness and different balances between their positive and negative aspects…

First is one which I think is almost entirely positive. I welcome a diversity of nationalities, cultures, and backgrounds. I work in a university which has people from almost every area of the world and I enjoy working with them all. This might seem contrary to some of the comments I have made in various previous posts but it isn’t. I have never indicated any negativity towards actual cultures, just to the politically motivated attempts to force some aspects of those cultures on to the rest of us.

So I enjoy working with Maori people but I haven’t got the time to learn the Maori language. I enjoy working with people from various religious backgrounds but I still think their beliefs are nonsense. And I enjoy working with Scottish people but that doesn’t mean I want to partake in their national drink… well, maybe in that case I would make an exception!

Next, one which could be either good or bad, with roughly equal likelihood. Neoliberalism is a political ideology which I believe has caused a lot of harm around the world. It has caused significant environmental destruction, lead to massive inequality, and has stifled true fundamental progress.

But I agree that a case could be made to suggest the exact opposite, and there is no real way to prove which of the two attitudes to it is true. So it’s good to have libertarians and other people who support neoliberalism debate with liberals and socialists who are against it. Probably neither are entirely right, so both worldviews are useful.

Then we have a view with little merit but minimal negativity. Creationists do some harm, because they stifle scientific progress and that leads to reduced development of useful technologies which could potentially have a lot of benefit to society, including preventing and curing diseases. But that is an obscure and relatively weak sequence of influences so I don’t resent the existence of creationism too much.

But then there are more harmful beliefs, which add variety to the world but also have severe negative effects. The most obvious one at this point of history is Islamic fundamentalism. The belief system adds an interesting new perspective on the world (although it is one which is essentially untrue according to any reasonable estimation) but it also has severe negative consequences: violence, conservatism, and inflexibility being the most obvious.

You could make a case to say that fundamentalist Islam is one source of diversity we could do without. But they, in turn, would probably say that western, rational, liberalism is a view they could do without, so we should be careful about outright condemnation of anything.

Maybe it gets back to how a group seeks to advance their worldview. If it gains support because it gives great benefits to society, like all those interesting, dedicated and intelligent people I work with at the university, that is good. If it seeks to advance through mostly rational and reasonable debate, like libertarianism, that is OK. If it uses crazy arguments and a few dirty tricks to progress, like creationism, we can at least tolerate that. But if it seeks to achieve dominance through violence and unthinking rejection of alternative ideas, like fundamentalist Islam, then that is a step too far.

Diversity is OK, it really is. I fully embrace it because without it who would I have to debate with? But there is a limit, and I think the majority of people know where that limit is. It should also be OK to criticise alternative views without being accused of being a racist, misogynist, or fascist… or having a fatwa declared against you.

I say, bring on the diversity, but also bring on rational and peaceful debate between those diverse views.

Let’s Talk About It

February 15, 2017 Leave a comment

A common theme I have seen last week when New Zealand celebrated (and I should put that word in quotes because there seems to be more angst than celebration) its national day was that “we need to talk about it”. The “it” in that sentiment seemed to be something like race relations, our history in general, colonialism, and other subjects of that sort.

But I wonder how genuine this wish for “talking about it” really is, because it seems that people are only allowed to talk about it if they take the side of political correctness and don’t offer any alternative ideas or even mention any opinions which don’t fit in with what the “political correctness police” want to hear.

A classic example of this happened recently when a member of a local council mentioned on social media that he didn’t think the Maori language was worth saving, and that effectively it was on life support.

If we are going to have a discussion about indigenous rights in general, and the preservation of the Maori language in particular, then surely that is an opinion which is worth presenting. It might be right and it might be wrong, but at least let’s accept it as a genuine possibility and discuss it.

But that’s not what happened, of course. Because in these politically correct times a “discussion” involves only hearing one side of the story and not even mentioning anything which might seem to go against that view. So this person was subject to general scorn and derision, will probably be forced to apologise, and might face other disciplinary actions from the council he works for.

This is not a discussion. When a discussion involves only saying things which are approved by a controlling group it is called propaganda, and that’s what all of the “acceptable” pro-Maori views I have seen recently really are.

The fact is that you could make a very good case to say that the Maori language is, in fact, on life support, and that the money being spent on it might be better used somewhere else. That would be my view, and I know I would be attacked for it if I presented it in a forum where the left wing nutters I have been unfortunate enough to have to associate with recently reside.

And remember that I’m not saying this as a far-right red-neck conservative. I am politically quite far to the left and am definitely liberal by any reasonable measure. But there’s just one aspect of left-wing politics which I reject: political correctness and the mindless posturing the left are often involved in.

In fact I would be far more amenable to arguments supporting the Maori language if it wasn’t so much considered a topic which is protected in the way I described above. It is the bungling and bureaucratic attempts at making it more acceptable which have had the complete opposite effect and made it less so.

This isn’t a unique view either. I think the silent majority secretly hold it and, if it was acceptable to have a real discussion on the subject, its popularity would become quickly apparent.

But repressing alternative views doesn’t make them go away. I would have thought that after the debacle in the US presidential election recently that the left would have realised that people don’t like being told what to think. I’m convinced that political correctness and the repression of alternative opinions are major reasons why the left was rejected there (and yes, I know that Clinton won the majority vote, etc).

So if we are going to talk about this let’s actually talk about it, instead of having a one sided monologue of politically correct propaganda which is occasionally interrupted by alternative views which are quickly repressed by the thought police.

Forget about compulsory Maori language teaching and forcing one group’s customs onto another. People don’t like being told what to do. They like even less being told what to say. And all the political correctness in the world won’t stop them from thinking what they want to think.

They’ve Got Nothing

February 6, 2017 6 comments

I’ve been stirring up trouble again. Yes, I have been on-line, mainly in Facebook but also Youtube, leaving comments for people who I consider are talking BS. Just to prove that I am an equal opportunity critic of ignorance, I have criticised about equal numbers of people who would probably be categorised as right and left.

In some cases I have had some fairly thoughtful reactions, and some have even changed my opinions slightly, but in general my opponents simply have nothing, and either respond with irrelevant comments of their own, refuse to answer my question, insult me (one person called me a “cabbage”), or just unfriend or block me.

On a couple of occasions I have terminated the debate because it was just going nowhere, or going around in circles. In that situation I usually say something like “We have got to a point where we interpret the facts differently because of our worldviews, so there’s not much point continuing. Thanks for the discussion” and that ends it.

I have realised that differing worldviews can lead debates to a point where no progress is possible, but I want to write a full post on that in future so I won’t continue it here.

There is one phenomenon I want to comment on here though. That is, although I am a fairly liberal person myself (that isn’t just self-reported, it is also what I inevitably get when doing political orientation tests) it is people on the left who generally make the most ridiculous and ill considered comments. They also tend to react with denial rather than argument, including blocking further comments – in fact I was unfriended by one lefty (I was going to say “libtard”) today.

The worst nonsense from the left unsurprisingly, involves criticism of Donald Trump. Now I’m perfectly happy for anyone to criticise any politician, because I think once someone enters politics they should expect to become a target, but it is just embarrassing when the critic gets it hopelessly wrong, especially when they are obviously just parroting a criticism they have got from their friends with similar political views.

I have commented on this phenomenon before and I think it’s getting worse rather than better. I have also blogged about how to avoid falling into this trap. It’s really quite simple: the more you want something to be true the more suspicious of it you should be. So if you are about to post something which strongly supports your political ideology just check it first, preferably in a source which would normally be against your views, or a neutral one (if neutral sources even still exist).

The fact that I was blocked just for pointing out a whole pile of inaccuracies in a criticism of Trump indicates that the person involved simply didn’t want to engage in a search for what is true. The same person responded to an earlier comment I made with something like: “I knew you would point out that was wrong but I don’t care”. This person actually wants to be ignorant!

So the stream of hate-filled criticism of Trump (ironically for what they claim are his hate-filled attitudes) is likely to continue, although I see less and less of it because most of the libtards (there, I said it this time) are blocking me!

And as dissenting voices like mine are blocked I guess those people will only get confirmation of what they want to believe. So they will become more and more ignorant. And as that happens they will become more extreme, and a moderate position which most people can agree to will become harder to achieve.

In general, the future doesn’t look great. Where we need more agreement we are getting more division. Where we need more progress we are getting more regressive thinking, and most of all, where we need more facts we are getting more ignorance. Apparently, most people can’t argue their political position rationally because they’ve got nothing!