Archive for the “Science” Category

The problem with people (always a good way to start a post) is that we seem to like things that agree with our pre-existing view of the world. This is an experimentally provable effect called “confirmation bias” and there are all sorts of neat experiments that have been done to demonstrate that this is often how we work.

It seems to be the case that a huge part of who we are and the way we behave is based on who we’re expected to be or even our own perception of ourselves. Sometimes it’s as though we live by the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves (I’ll do this because I’m that kind of person but I would never do that because that’s not the way I am).

Even the way we think about and relate to other people is profoundly affected by whether we identify them as “someone like me” or “other”. An interesting experiment was done in which a group of students sat a test where they were presented with a biography of Rasputin and then asked to write an essay about him. Unbeknown to them, for half of the students the test papers had been tailored so that in the biography Rasputin’s birthday was the same date as theirs. The rest were given Rasputin’s real birthday as a control group.

Strangely, the group who thought that Rasputin shared their birthday were much more sympathetic in their assessment of him and  tended to paint him as a misunderstood character who’d been unfairly demonised by history. Something as simple as sharing the same birthday immediately predisposed these students to be kinder in their treatment of him. How can we trust our ability to make judgements about anything when we’re so easily swayed by seemingly insignificant factors?

Also, I now can’t think of Rasputin without thinking of this video – Ra-Ra-Rasputin, lover of the Russian Queen…

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The stock argument against postmodernism is “Well then, is it true that there is no absolute truth?” and the whole thing should then crumble to the ground. I think this slightly misses the point that it is more about our ability to perceive or know absolute truth. Experiments show that we tend to pick and choose the evidence that fits with what we already believe and discard the rest and further that sometimes if you present exactly the same evidence to two people with opposing views both will say that it supports their side of the argument.

It seems to me that essentially postmodernism is questioning our ability to be 100% objective about anything. Perhaps we can only know absolute truth with absolute certainty if we have access to all the evidence on both sides, which it seems to me that we never do and never can in science or in philosophy/theology.

What then can we say? Perhaps only “It appears to me that…” or “It’s been my experience that…”. As an expression of humility in our understanding and our ability to know, I find that sits quite well with me compared to the greater or lesser position of arrogance that comes with saying “I’m right and you’re wrong”.

Scientific theories are usually presented as fact when really they are only our best model based on the evidence currently available to us and our understanding of that evidence and the uncertainties in collecting it. In that sense the conclusions we draw from scientific experiment are taken on faith and are open to being shown wrong as our understanding grows or evidence comes along that doesn’t fit the current model.

We are all only seekers of truth and (or because) we all only ever have part of the story. Who could claim to have obtained and weighed up all the evidence about anything? Absolute truth may be out there, but my ability to grasp hold of it always seems partial, changeable and fleeting – constantly slipping through my fingers just as I think I’ve found some.

Where Socrates said “all I know is that I know nothing”, postmodernism says “it seems to me that I can’t say anything with any certainty, but I can’t be sure”.

Of course all of this is abstract philosophy and doesn’t really help all that much in the question “how are we to live?”. Putting things in discrete boxes of “true / false” or “agree / disagree” is probably necessary for us to get anywhere useful. It’s pretty hard to live without accepting anything as true!

That said, perhaps postmodernism can teach us to live a bit more humbly in a world where we so often try to impose our truths on each other. “This is my truth, tell me yours” is not such a horrible attitude to have.

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Note: I’ve only read 3 chapters so far so this is just initial thoughts that they sparked off (hence “Part 1″)

I’ve realised that I haven’t thought much about physics in the 4 years since I finished my degree. I’d forgotten just how ridiculously, mind-blowingly weird things get when you start delving into the sub-atomic world.

Who Made God starts with a few chapters that throw you straight in at the deep end of our current best model of the make-up of our physical world – quantum mechanics – and then gives very intelligible explanations of the completely counter-intuitive (i.e. crazy) results that have come out of the work that’s been done in those areas over the last hundred years – Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, collapsing wave functions, quantum entanglement, string theory, etc.

I don’t think I’ll go into those here but the book is probably worth a read, whatever else you think about it, just for managing to explain those things in a reasonably layman kind of way but basically I’d forgotten just how much of a mystery the universe is to us even when we just consider the behaviour of the most basic building blocks in isolation.

The title of this book comes from the classic question “If God made the universe then who made God?”, a question that isn’t really any different from “If the universe came from a big bang, what caused that and what was there before?”.  Both deal with a situation beyond the physical universe that bounds our experience and any attempts to contend with either question tend to lead us into circular debates that don’t move us any further forward in our understanding.

Now, it’s a big step from “Everything’s a mystery” to Jesus but it’s good to remember, in a debate where science is often presented as having all the answers, that often the more we know, the more we know we don’t know. It makes me wonder how much any of us can ever know about anything when we don’t even understand the fundamental behaviour of the tiny building block of the universe (and our own bodies) or the mechanism of the process that causes things to fall down (in our best model everything that has mass distorts space in a way that draws other masses towards it – “distorts space”?! How can we begin to get our heads around that as a concept?!).

To be honest, I’ve never really been a fan of the whole Science/Religion debate from either side. So often one field ends up being shown to be inadequate when you try to apply elements of it to the other e.g. God of the gaps (that keep disappearing of shrinking as our understanding improves) and science being mistaken for explanation rather than description. We are all walking on thin ice when we debate these things and the famous proponents on both sides could do with a big dose of humility.

The world used to be flat, the Sun used to go round the Earth, atoms were unsplittable, etc. All we can really say is that large parts of what we think we know may turn out to be incomplete or completely wrong.

I’ll finish with a thought from Augustine. It’s interesting to consider it in the context of the level of science when he was writing (400ADish)…

“Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world … Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics … people outside of the household of the faith think our sacred writers held such opinions, and … If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven …?”

(from this interesting article… Creationism, intelligent design and science education)

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I mentioned Sarah Palin’s fight with the polar bear a few weeks back. Today the Guardian have some more details for us:

The Republican Sarah Palin and her officials in the Alaskan state government drew on the work of at least six scientists known to be sceptical about the dangers and causes of global warming, to back efforts to stop polar bears being protected as an endangered species…

Read the full Guardian article here… (it gets more ridiculous as you read it)

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According to Wikipedia, a cognitive bias is a pattern of deviation in judgement that occurs in particular situations. In other words, sometimes people make wrong or irrational decisions based on selective use of information or misinterpretation of a situation. Well known examples include hindsight and bandwagons.

Our brains sometimes can’t be trusted to make the right decisions based on the available information. In fact, we don’t even make decisions based on an absolute (or “discrete” to use the maths term) concept of right or wrong but a fuzzy scale (see fuzzy logic) of more or less right or wrong. As we assimilate more information, our disposition to choose one or other of two option shifts on a scale and sometimes irrationally.

There are some decision making processes where this analogue approach is beneficial, hence the invention of artificial neural networks in computer science to try to model this behaviour using computers which are fundamentally digital.

This is pretty interesting and bears some thinking about. Why, in certain circumstances, are people predisposed to act in a way that doesn’t make logical sense?

For some interesting further reading, here’s a handy list of cognitive biases from Wikipedia.

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The Large Hadron Collider (the latest particle accelerator at CERN) will be switched on this Wednesday and might destroy the world (read the full risk assessment here or a summary here). If it doesn’t, I wonder whether we’ll feel the UK’s £500m investment was worth it.

In the 90s particle physicists were racing to detect the top quark so that we could confirm that part of our current best model of small things. They were successful in 1995 and won themselves a Nobel prize but apart from that I can’t name any real benefit to humanity that has come from proving that the top quark does indeed exist. I’m all for trying to understand why our universe is the way it is but I can’t help feeling the money could be better spent.

Then again, the US military’s budget for 2007 was about £220 billion (that’s over £400,000 a minute, by the way) so maybe spending £500m on doing some (possibly) harmless science isn’t so bad.

Also in today’s news: Save the world, eat less cow – UN figures suggest that meat production puts more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere than transport.

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