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Do It Yourself

March 3, 2017 Leave a comment

I was going to post this comment as part of an anti-creationist rant but I realised that there was so much to it that I really needed to post it as a separate item. The issue I wanted to tackle was how many believers in mysticism base their beliefs on revealed sources, such as holy books, but the same criticism could be made against “rational” people, like myself, because I also use sources (such as science books, Wikipedia, etc).

So basically what I wanted to do was to show that anyone can discover significant things about the real world by themselves without relying on any information from existing sources, and that they can show anyone how to do the same observation/experiment which would prove their point beyond any reasonable doubt.

I decided to choose the age of the universe as a suitable subject, because it was a controversial subject (there are many young Earth creationists), and it was relatively easy to test. Of course, as I intimated above, it got more complex than I imagined. However, here is my proof – which anyone with a bit of time and a small budget can follow – that the universe, and therefore the Earth, is much older than the 6000 years the young Earth creationists claim.

I could start by trying to establish the age of the oldest things I know of. I could use biology, archaeology, chemistry or physics here, but I know a bit more about astronomy, so let’s use that.

We know the light from stars travels through space at the speed of light. If the stars are far enough away that the light took more than 6000 years to get here then the universe must be more than 6000 years old, so creationism is wrong. I know there are some possible objections to these initial assumptions but let’s leave those aside for now.

First, how fast is the speed of light? Can I figure this out for myself or do I need to take it on trust (some would say faith) from a book? Well it is actually quite easy to figure this out because we can use a highly regular event at a known distance to calculate the time it took for light to reach us. The most obvious choice is timings of Jupiter’s moons.

The moons of Jupiter (there are 4 big ones) take precise times to complete an orbit. I can figure that time out by just watching Jupiter for a few weeks. But we would expect a delay in the times because the light from an event (like a Moon going in front of or behind Jupiter) will take a while to reach us.

Conveniently, the distance from the Earth to Jupiter varies because some times the Earth and Jupiter are on the same side of the Sun, and others the opposite side. So when they are on the same side the distance from the Earth is the radius of Jupiter’s orbit minus the radius of the Earth’s, and when they are on opposite sides it is the radius of Jupiter’s orbit PLUS the radius of the Earth’s. Note that the size of Jupiters orbit doesn’t matter because the difference is just double the size of the Earth’s (in fact it is double the radius, or the diameter).

So now we need to know the size of the Earth’s orbit. How would we do that? There is a technique called parallax which requires no previous assumptions, it is just simple geometry. If you observe the position of an object from two locations the angle to the object will vary.

It’s simple to demonstrate… Hold your finger up in from of your eyes and look at it through one eye and then the other. The apparent position against a distant background wall will change. Move your finger closer and the change will be bigger. If you measure that change you can calculate the distance to your finger with some simple maths.

In astronomy we can do the same thing, except for distant objects the change is small… really small. And we also need two observing locations a large distance apart (the further apart they are, the bigger the change is and therefore the easier it is to measure). Either side of the Earth is OK for close objects, like the Moon (a mere 384000 kilometers away) but for stars (the closest is 42 trillion kilometers away) we need something more. Usually astronomers use the Earth on either side of its orbit (a distance of 300 million kilometers) so the two observations will be 6 months apart.

So getting back to our experiment. You might think we could measure the distance to a star, or a planet like Jupiter, or the Sun using this technique but it’s not quite so simple because the effect is so small. What we do instead is measure the distance to the Moon (which is close) using parallax from two widely separated parts on the Earth. I admit this needs a collaborator on the other side of the Earth, so it involves more than just one individual person, but the principle is the same.

Once we know that it can be used to measure other distances. For example, if we measure the angle between the Moon and Sun when the Earth-Moon-Sun angle is a right angle we can use trigonometry to get the distance to the Sun. It’s not easy because the angle is very close to 90 degrees (the Earth-Sun side of the triangle is much longer than the Earth-Moon side) but it can be done.

So now we know the difference in distance between the Earth and Jupiter in the two situations I mentioned at the start of this post. If we carefully measure the difference in time between the timings of Jupiter’s Moons from Earth when Earth is on either side of its orbit we get a difference of about 16 minutes. So light is taking half of that time to travel from the Sun to the Earth. We know that distance from the previous geometric calculations, so we know the speed of light.

Note that none of this is open to any reasonable criticism. It is simple, makes no assumptions which can fairly be questioned, and anyone can do it without relying on existing knowledge. Note that if you want to derive the basic trig calculations that is fairly easy too, but few people would argue about those.

So the Sun is 8 light minutes away meaning the light we see from the Sun left it 8 minutes ago. We are seeing the Sun literally as it was 8 minutes in the past. This means it must have existed 8 minutes in the past. But who cares? Well this is interesting but looking at more distant objects – those not just light minutes away but light years, thousands of light years, millions of light years away say more about the true age of the Universe.

So we can use this idea in reverse. Above we calculated a distance based on a time difference and the speed of light. Now we will calculate a time based on distance and the speed of light. If a star is 10,000 light years away the light left it 10,000 years ago, so it existed 10,000 years ago, so the universe is at least 10,000 years old.

There is only one direct method to calculate distance and that is parallax. But even from opposite sides of the Earth’s orbit – a baseline of 300 million kilometers – parallax angles are ridiculously small. But with a moderate size telescope (one which many amateurs could afford), and careful observation, they can be measured. The parallax angle of the closest star is about 800 milliarcseconds, or 0.01 degrees. That gives an angle which is the equivalent of the width of a small coin about 5 kilometers away.

Do this observation, then a simple calculation, and the nearest star turns out to be 40 trillion kilometers (4 light years) away. When we see that star we see it as it was 4 years ago. In that time the star could have gone out or been swallowed by a black hole (very unlikely) and we wouldn’t know.

The greatest distance so far detected using parallax is 10,000 light years, but that was with the Hubble Space Telescope, so that is beyond the direct experience of the average person! However note that using this direct, uncontroversial technique, the universe is already at least 10,000 years old, making young Earth creationism impossible.

Another rather obvious consequence of these distance measures is that stars are like our Sun. So if we know how bright stars are we can compare that with how bright they appear to be and get a distance approximation. If a star looks really dim it must be at a great distance. The problem is, of course, that stars vary greatly in brightness and we can’t assume they are all the same brightness as the Sun.

There is another feature of stars which even an amateur can make use of though – that is the spectrum. Examining the spectrum can show what type of star produced the light. The amateur observer can even calibrate his measurements using common chemicals in a lab. The chemicals in the star are the same and give the same signatures (approximately, at least).

So knowing the type of star gives an approximation of the brightness and that can be used to get the distance. The most distant star visible to the naked eye is 16,000 light years away. This would be bright enough to get a spectrum in a telescope, determine the type of star, and estimate the distance. Of course, it would be hit and miss trying to find a distant star to study (because we’re not supposed to use any information already published) but enough persistence would pay off eventually.

There are objects in the sky called globular clusters. These are collections of a few hundred thousand to a few million stars, quite close together. To the naked eye they look like a fuzzy patch but through a small telescope they can be seen to be made of individual stars. A simple calculation based on their apparent brightness shows they are tens of thousands of light years away. A similar technique can be applied to galaxies but these give distances of millions of light years.

In addition, an amateur with a fairly advanced telescope and the latest digital photography equipment – all of which is available at a price many people could afford – could do the investigation of red-shifts originally done by Edwin Hubble over 100 years ago.

A red shift is the shift in the spectrum of an object caused by its movement away from us. As I said above, the spectra of common chemicals can be tested in the lab and compared with the spectrum seen from astronomical objects. As objects get more distant they are found to be moving away more quickly and have higher red shifts. So looking at a red shift gives an approximate measure of distance.

This technique can only be used for really distant objects, like galaxies, so it is a bit more challenging for an amateur, but it will give results of millions to billions of light years, meaning the objects are at least millions or billions of years old.

There are some possible objections to everything I have discussed above. First, maybe the speed of light was much faster in the past meaning that the light could have travelled the vast distances in less time than assumed, meaning the universe could still be just 6000 years old.

Second, the light from the objects could have been created in transit. So a galaxy could have been created 2 million years ago but its light could also be created already travelled 99% of the way to the Earth.

Finally, maybe there is a supernatural explanation that cannot be explained through science or logic, or maybe all of the evidence above is just the malicious work of the devil trying to lead us all astray.

The second and third objections aren’t generally supported, even by most creationists, because they imply that nothing we see can be trusted, and God is not usually thought to be deliberately misleading.

The first one isn’t totally ridiculous though, and there is some serious science suggesting the speed of light might have been faster in the past. But do the calculations and that speed would have to be ridiculously fast – millions of times faster than it is now. If it was changing at that rate then we would see changes over recorded history. So that claim could also be checked by anyone who was prepared to dig into old sources for timings of eclipses, the length of the day, etc.

Astronomy is an interesting science because so much of it is still do-able by amateurs. Follow the steps above and not only will you get a perspective on some of the greatest work done in the past, but you will also make for yourself a truly fundamental discovery about the universe: that it is really old.

It requires no faith in authority, no reference to trusted texts, and no unfounded assumptions. It just involves a few years of dedicated observation and study. I admit I haven’t done all of this myself, but it’s good to know I could if I wanted to.

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.

What I Believe

December 27, 2016 Leave a comment

Just to show what a sad and annoying person I am, I have to admit to the following… On Christmas Day, between opening presents, watching bad movies, chatting with family, and drinking lots of wine, I was involved with a rather protracted and involved discussion on Christianity. Yeah a discussion (or should I say argument) about religion… on Christmas… seems perfectly appropriate to me!

The people I was debating with really had nothing. It was stuff like: believe in Christianity because it says so in the Bible. But that isn’t the subject of this post. During the discussion I was asked what I believe, and I realised that I have never really said what that is in a precise, compact form. So, without further preamble, here it is…

First, I want to know what’s true. I totally understand what solipsism is all about, and ultimately I agree that we can never know anything for certain. The whole universe, my total existence, and all the other people I know could all be an illusion. After all, many people with schizophrenia imagine they live in a world which, to me, seems delusional. And I could say something similar, to a lesser degree, regarding some people’s religious beliefs, but more of that later!

So it is more a convenience than a firm philosophical commitment when I say that I think an absolute reality exists. If it doesn’t then I really can’t see a lot of point in trying to understand anything.

The next question is, can we ever know what this reality is? Well no. I don’t think we can ever truly know if any understanding we have is ultimately correct. But I do think we can get very good approximations with a high degree of confidence regarding our theories of reality.

So how should we establish what these best explanations are? Basically, we should use the scientific method. That is, we find a way to test whether theories are right or wrong using objective, repeatable, and neutral experiments and observations.

Since there is always uncertainty I have an arbitrary point where I accept someting as true (at least in the interim). That point is is at a fairly high level. I would prefer to think that something is false when it later turns out to be true, than to accept something as true and then find it wasn’t. Believing something which is untrue leads to too many consequences which I cannot accept.

So that covers the more mechanical aspects of my philosophy, now what about the more tenuous concepts such as morality? I guess basically I am a utilitarian. I think we should aim for the greatest good for the greatest number. But it is well known that simple utilitarianism breaks down in many situations (the famous trolley problems demonstrate this quite well) so it can’t be that simple.

But humans are a social species and we have evolved a strong sense of empathy. This is both a biological and a social phenomenon and it changes over time. There seems to be clear evidence that human society is getting better. Steven Pinker has demonstrated this quite convincingly in his book “The Better Angels of Our Nature” and I think it is clear that, despite the very real problems we face today, that human society is less violent, more tolerant, and more fair than in the past.

So when the majority of humans have an “inner feeling” for what is right and wrong I think we should take notice of that. This means that morality isn’t absolute and there is no inherent right and wrong, but I’m OK with that.

So that’s the physical and social worlds taken care of. What about the spiritual or supernatural world? Well, my thoughts on that depend on your definitions of the words. I can say that every atheist I know claims to have a spiritual aspect to their life without believing in the supernatural. So I think my connection with the beauty of music, art, and just the grandeur of the real universe is at least as significant as any religious person’s connection with their (imagined) god.

Of course, it is difficult to prove this using the science I have recommended above, so this is a conjecture on my part more than a statement of fact. However I feel I am missing nothing when a religious person says they “feel sorry” for me because I don’t have a connection with their particular god. I have a connection with the real universe, which I think is far more impressive.

And I totally reject the existence of the supernatural. This is more a matter of definition than anything else. If there was a god, for example, which interacted with the real world, then I would claim that is really just another part of the natural universe and could be studied by science. If that god lived in another “dimension” and never interacted with our universe then I say it doesn’t exist. I’m not saying that as an approximation, I’m saying it literally doesn’t exist.

Finally, I do use a few shortcuts when discussing aspects of the world using my philosophy. I say certain things are “facts” for example, such as evolution and the Big Bang. But I’m not trying to say those phenomena are true beyond any possible doubt. There is always room for doubt (see my first few points above) but the certainty is sufficient that using the word “fact” is a fair shortcut instead of having to say “99.9% certainty”.

Also, there is “no doubt” (again there is some doubt, but such a small amount that ignoring it is fair) that evolutionary processes happened, and that something started our universe 13.7 billion years ago, but the exact details of what really happened are not yet known. So the fact of evolution happening and the theory explaining how it happened are two very different things.

Finally I should use the philosophical points I have outlined above to answer the “god question”. Is there a god? Well, I cannot see any good reason to think so. The closest thing to actual evidence I think is the apparent fine-tuning of the universe. But even that doesn’t help much because if we accept the universe has been fine-tuned by a god that just pushes the question back to where did that fine-tuned god come from?

And as far as the big religions are concerned I find them ridiculously non-compelling. I’m confident of one thing: if there is a god it bears absolutely no resemblance at all to the vile, homicidal megalomaniac described by the Abrahamic religions! And the other religions, such as Hinduism, also seem to be using human attributes to create gods with varying levels of appeal.

So if gods don’t seem too credible, what about prophets, such as Jesus? Well, I go around in circles on Jesus a bit. Sometimes I think he didn’t even exist and others I think a person with some of his described attributes might have been the basis of the legend.

But let’s use my points from above to examine the Jesus myth. Are there any physical elements which we could check against facts? Well yes, there are. There are several events described in the Gospels which we could check, such as the star described (in just one Gospel) at the birth, the darkness at the crucifixion, not to mention the saints rising from their graves at that time.

There should be obvious historical references to these, but there’s nothing. Not a thing. And that’s just the beginning. There are ridiculous inconsistencies in the different portrayals of his alleged life. And those are just between the four gospels arbitrarily chosen as canon by the early church. If you look at the other alternatives they conveniently ignored then the situation is much worse.

So really, no sensible, honest, knowledgeable person can possibly take the Christian story seriously as a statement of fact. So why do so many, quite intelligent people do that? Well it’s simple self-delusion in most cases. These aren’t bad, or ignorant, or corrupt people in most cases, they have simply fooled themselves.

Finally, what about the philosophical and moral messages of Christianity? Well I freely admit there are some good, positive moral stories in the New Testament. But there are a lot of really horrible stories too. And there is a lot of good, positive philosophy in many other sources. So my conclusion is that we should use the Bible, along with every other source we can find, to guide us on our path to establishing our own personal morality.

In fact, I think that is what everyone does anyway. Even people who say their morality comes from a god, or a holy text, or a prophet are really fooling themselves. Their morality comes from themselves because it is they who decide which god, which holy book, or which prophet to follow. And it is they who decide how to interpret those sources. In the end, their morality is no more objective, absolute, or inspired than mine.

Well I think I’ve said enough at this point because this post is already longer than what I usually try to write. If anyone can see an error in my logic please comment. I’m more than happy to correct any errors I have made in either fact or logic.

The Golden Quarter

December 14, 2016 Leave a comment

I recently read an article titled “Aviation is flying into exciting times” which claimed to list the most exciting new developments in aviation which are about to happen. The list included: more choice of airlines and better prices; more connectivity (basically, internet services in flight); new planes and cabins including the B787, A350 and upgraded 777s; better loyalty schemes; and some new equipment for New Zealand’s air force (actually just aircraft which have been around for a while but are still newer than the rather ancient Hercules we have now).

That’s pretty exciting, isn’t it? Well if you are still awake after reading that compelling list (not) you will probably answer “no, not really”.

And it isn’t. One reason I find it a bit uninspiring is that I have just finished reading Jonathan Glancey’s book “Concorde: The Rise and Fall of the Supersonic Airliner”. And I have also spent some time researching the “The Golden Quarter”, which is the idea that many of our greatest cultural and technological achievements happened between 1945 and 1971, and that progress has stalled since then.

I’m not totally convinced that the idea of technological and social stagnation in the last 45 years is true, but I do see some signs that the ideas has some merit, and I have commented on similar ideas before coming across the Golden Quarter concept.

If I compare the world of 1971 with today there are very obvious technological changes, especially in the area of computing and communications. Also, every other significant area of technology has progressed very obviously.

For example, the cars of today are hugely superior to those of the 1970s. They are far more reliable, far more powerful, better handling, have better economy, and they are a lot safer. And despite what I said in the first paragraphs of this post, modern aircraft are much more advanced than aircraft of the 70s in similar ways.

But this is all about evolution rather than revolution. And building aircraft with good fuel economy and safety is important, but it doesn’t have the same “cool factor” as building a commercial airliner which can travel at over double the speed of sound! In comparison, current commercial jets fly at about 0.8 to 0.9 times the speed of sound.

Here are a few things which are claimed to have come from the Golden Quarter:
electronics, computers and the birth of the internet, nuclear power, television, antibiotics, space travel, civil rights, the pill, feminism, teenage culture, the Green Revolution in agriculture, decolonisation, popular music, mass aviation, the gay rights movement, cheap reliable cars, high-speed trains, a man on the Moon, a probe to Mars, the elimination of smallpox, and the discovery of the structure of DNA.

I tried to get a list of significant achievements since then and they might include: the Hubble Space Telescope, the LHC, the discovery of gravitational waves, gene sequencing, huge advances in the power and price of computers, and the modernisation of certain countries (China, India) leading to a better standard of living.

Sure, it’s significant, but compared with the first list it’s not that impressive, is it?

And what about the areas where we are (or seem to be) going backwards? Conservative and nationalistic politics seems to have become popular. The total number of people affected by conflict is reducing but there are still many examples of war and terrorism around the world. Science funding seems to be becoming more difficult, and science is more often asked to contribute to commercial solutions rather than perform much more important fundamental research.

So if my hypothesis is correct, what went wrong?

I think it is just a phase we are going through, which started in the 1970s, when the current political-economic environment began. Clearly people are getting rather sick of all the unfulfilled promises and things are now changing. Unfortunately they appear to be becoming even more repressive, irrational, and unprogressive than before.

So unfortunately it looks like we really are heading down hill, and I don’t think we will have another golden quarter in the foreseeable future.

The Power of Anecdotes

November 1, 2016 1 comment

I recently discussed a range of subjects with a quite intelligent and thoughtful religious person (yes, they do exist). These included topics such as whether “god did it” is a useful answer to questions we might have about the real world, what limitations science should have on the questions it attempts to answer, and the nature of morality.

Since I don’t have any particular religious view to defend I am open to look at all possibilities, but because of this I recognise that if I took all the possible sources of knowledge (all the religions, all the paranormal claims, all the philosophies, all the informal logic, and all the rigorous science) I would never arrive at any conclusion.

I would have to spend a lot of time carefully examining claims with little physical, objective evidence supporting them. I would have to reverse direction after taking a wrong turn because I followed misleading anecdotal evidence. I would spend so much time trying to collate all the various claims that I would have no time left to evaluate them.

That’s why anecdotes don’t count. In fact, everyone knows that anecdotes don’t count because they only look at a tiny proportion of them, specifically the ones which support the worldview the person favours. So a Christian will take a lot of notice of people who say they have been healed by Jesus but ignore claims of the power of crystals, or how a disease was cured after a person was abducted by aliens, or how the Asvins (Hindu gods of healing) helped a person who couldn’t be cured by conventional medicine.

I’m not saying all of these anecdotes are untrue, or that in a perfect world they shouldn’t be investigated. What I am saying is that an anecdote by itself has very little value. If we gave equal weight to all anecdotes in a fair way we would have to believe in a huge number of mutually incompatible ideas. We would have to believe dozens of gods were performing healings. We would have to believe in the power of crystals, of herbal remedies, of homeopathy, of alien interventions, and of hundreds of other things as well.

Just saying that (for example) Christian healing through the power of prayer is true but all the other stuff isn’t is classic cherry picking. If you believe in using anecdotes as evidence then you should believe all the anecdotes, not just the ones which agree with your preferred religion or new-age belief.

Or, you could believe none of them. And that is the far more rational approach that I take.

But we shouldn’t just totally dismiss anecdotes. If there is sufficient reason to think that a consistent pattern is emerging then the idea should be tested using more objective, systematic methodologies. I would suggest two approaches to testing whether the anecdotes have merit: first have an unbiased expert look at the evidence objectively; or second, set up a scientific experiment or trial of some sort.

For example, if a lot of people report that their health improves after friends and family pray to Jesus to help them (and remember that the Christian God will answer prayers according to numerous Bible verses such as John 15:7) then let’s test that claim. We know that people sometimes get better spontaneously, that they sometimes feel better because they think they should, and that there are many other confounding factors, so let’s test the claim using a double-blind trial.

And when we do we get very conflicting results. Most show no effect. Some show that the people prayed for get worse. Some show they get better. These are exactly the results we get when we test other ideas which have doubtful prior probability, such as homeopathy. Therefore, whatever the anecdotes tell us, we can say that our interim conclusion is that prayer offers no consistent solution to health problems. In other words faith healing and prayer don’t work.

Or, if we hear of an apparently miraculous cure of some sort, such as that attributed to Saint Teresa of Calcutta, then let’s have a closer look at the claims. It turns out in that case, that almost all the claims were untrue and that the conclusion that a miracle occurred is embarrassingly absurd (see my blog post “Sinner or Saint?” from 2016-09-07 for details). So we can reject that anecdote based on better evidence.

Remember, that these are interim results, but all results in science are interim so we shouldn’t treat them as any less certain than other conclusions reached in the same general area of human knowledge.

You might object and say that by dismissing anecdotes as evidence in themsleves that I potentially miss out on new discoveries. Well that is a risk I must take because if only one in a million anecdotes genuinely represent something new and real then I really can’t take any of them seriously and risk being mislead by the other 999,999. It’s that simple.

No Answers

October 19, 2016 7 comments

It’s unusual for me to be uncertain about stuff. I mean, I am always prepared to change my opinion on anything, if I’m shown new information, but until that happens I usually have a fairly well established position on most things. Here are some examples: most climate change is caused by humans, almost certainly true; fluoride in water is overall beneficial, yes very likely; humans have been to the Moon, no reason to doubt it; the official story of the 9/11 attack is accurate, probably fairly close to being true; evolution is a fact, there is no alternative; etc.

But there are a few things I’m not so certain about. I don’t even have a consistent interim position on these. Some times I will be pro and others anti. And these are some of the most interesting questions in modern society. Let’s have a look at a few of these issues…

Is abortion morally OK?

I know the arguments that abortion is about a woman’s right to choose what happens to her own body, but it isn’t that simple, is it? There is another body involved, even though that is currently sustained by the woman. When does a fertilised egg become a foetus and when does that become an unborn child, and when does that become a unique conscious entity? There are no objective answers and any answers we might have are largely arbitrary.

It seems that in the early stages before any sort of nervous system has developed it would be hard to call the foetus a unique entity, but when does that change? It’s a difficult one and the current limits are arbitrary and could be debated either way.

I know a lot of people hold strong positions on this issue on both sides: some are anti-abortion for irrational religious reasons and some are pro- for equally irrational feminist reasons. I’m just honest enough to say I don’t know.

Does conventional economics produce good outcomes?

Clearly the answer to this question depends on the exact definition of “conventional economics” and “good” but I think most people have a fair idea of what I am talking about. I often argue for a more socialist approach to running our economies, but socialism has been conspicuously unsuccessful in its more pure forms. Of course, I would say those examples (such as the USSR) aren’t the sort of socialist principles I’m talking about, but it does weaken the argument.

On the other hand, free markets, globalisation, and unregulated labour markets seem to clearly produce poor outcomes for the majority. But many people would say that the perceived deficiencies are still less pernicious than those of other economic systems.

I have heard good arguments for greater economic freedom and equally good ones for greater state control. The problem is I trust neither government nor big business! So again, I don’t know where the best balance lies, although I tend to think we need a bit of a correction to the left from the way things are now.

Was Jesus a real person?

If Jesus actually existed and the stories about him are even mostly true then that makes a big difference to my perception of the world. I see practically no reason to believe any of the supernatural aspects of the Jesus story because they are inconsistent and totally unsupported by other sources outside of the Bible, but the question on whether he existed at all is more interesting.

A lot of the time I see the evidence for his existence as being so poor that it just isn’t worth taking seriously. But then I see that most scholars – including many who aren’t specifically Christian – do strongly support the idea he existed, even though they usually reject the religious enhancements to his story, like the virgin birth, miracles, and resurrection.

I’m currently in a phase where I say he didn’t exist in any form which would be remotely similar to the Biblical account, but who knows, tomorrow I might read another opinion and tend more to the idea that someone who was a great teacher and proponent of peace and good moral standards did exist and that the Bible stories are based on this.

Is the common interpretation of quantum mechanics real?

The deeper science probes into the inner workings of the universe the more bizarre and incomprehensible reality seems to become. Relativity, with its warped space and time, speeding up and slowing down of time, and other bizarre effects seems odd enough, but that is nothing compared with quantum theory.

Is wave particle duality a real thing? It seems to me that fundamental particles are probably not either waves or particles depending on the experiment we perform on them. More likely they are neither but can be interpreted as either as a sort of shorthand to their true form.

And what about the many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics? Does the observer cause the wave function to collapse and define reality? I don’t think anyone really understands the question and certainly no one has a good answer. Like Richard Feynman said: if you think you understand quantum mechanics you obviously don’t know anything about it! (slightly paraphrased)

Do we have free will?

I have heard good arguments both ways on this one too. Usually ideas on this diverge for two reasons: either the person has a religious, philosophical, political, or other irrational worldview which requires free will to be real or an illusion; or the person has an unusual interpretation of what “free will” really is.

I generally say that, according to my defintion, we don’t have free will, but I would have no choice but to believe in free will if good enough evidence arose. There, read that last sentence again and tell me I have free will!

There’s no reason to think that all questions have an answer and maybe I have just chosen what I sometimes call “un-questions”. All I know is that even if no answers exist it’s kind of fun to try to find them.

Problem Solving

September 21, 2016 Leave a comment

I recently read an article asking why there aren’t more science and technology experts helping solve the world’s problems. Sci-tech experts are supposed to be the smartest and most innovative people around so why aren’t they out there involved in global problem solving? Looking at the background of most political leaders we see people with a background in law, business, and other similar fields, but rarely STEM (science, technology, engineering, maths). Why? And is this good or bad?

First, let’s establish whether this is actually a real issue. I looked at the members of the US congress and found that law is by far the most common previous occupation or area of expertise. Out of the approximately 550 total members just 9 had backgrounds in STEM, and that included no mathematicians.

In New Zealand, the National Party (center-right) members have backgrounds mainly in law, business, and politics, while Labour (center-left) have mainly government, education, and union. Looking at the pie graphs there isn’t even a segment for STEM in either!

In a time when representation in politics from all groups – especially from those based on gender and ethnicity – is encouraged it seems odd that we don’t want greater equality in representation from different groups based on area of expertise or interest as well.

But there is one attribute I have noticed (and this is an anecdote rather than a fact) commonly in people from STEM: that is that they have a great deal of humility and understand that there are no simple answers, that opinions aren’t facts, and that reality doesn’t respond to actions based on ideology.

And all of those things are contrary to how most politicians work. To be a successful politician you have to have absolute confidence in your party’s policies – or at least make it look like you do when discussing them in public. I don’t think many science oriented people could work that way.

There are exceptions, of course. Margaret Thatcher had a background in chemistry before becoming British prime minister but while she was in power seemed to have absolute confidence that her extreme and dangerous political views were beyond criticism. She was rejected for a job (before entering politics) because she was “headstrong, obstinate and dangerously self-opinionated”.

And Thatcher (or Roberts before she married) was already looking towards law and politics even while completing her science degree. She was said to have been more proud of being the first British PM with a science degree than being the first female PM. Unfortunately she failed to demonstrate the higher ideals of science once she was PM!

Of course, science and technology have changed the world for the better very significantly without the people responsible for these advances being involved in politics. In fact, a case could be made to say that almost all the benefits of modern society come from sci-tech. But if the same people who created these benefits could also help apply them more efficiently and fairly then things would be even better. And to do that we need those people in politics.

It seems to me that the reason few “science types” enter politics is because the environment they would find themselves in is totally contrary to the principles a good science type would value. Those principles are: valuing actual truth above convenient beliefs, questioning the statements from all authorities and correcting them if they are found lacking, and using empirical well founded techniques to improve outcomes.

As a science oriented person myself I could not function in the political environment we have. I would have to criticise and vote against my own party, I would have to make private information public if it affected other people, and I would always be debating with my colleagues about the best way forward.

So it seems that the reason that STEM people don’t make a greater contribution to society is because society doesn’t let them. Until we create a political environment where more fact-based decisions are endorsed, where the freedom to critique ideas is tolerated, and where all information is made accessible we will never get the benefits the sci-tech people can provide.