“A theory is something nobody believes, except the person who made it. An experiment is something everyone believes, except the person who made it.” – Albert Einstein
Is equality worth fighting for? Should everyone have the same opportunities in life?
Then why is it that so many of us bust our butts to fight for the complete opposite?
Of course, as the title suggests, I am talking about parenting. It seems that while we are happy to claim equality as a goal we work so fervently to create advantage for our kids? When it comes to our little angels, we suddenly forget our high-minded ideals, and act with a favoritism that would be illegal if it were based on colour, religion race or creed.
This may sound like a trivial point when you first think about it, but hold on two ticks and give it a little think.
How will society ever become equal if every parent is hell-bent on giving their kid every advantage they can?
Would I not try to get my kid into the class with the best teacher, or the school with the best record, or the college with the most prestige?
Would I not work hard to pay for ballet classes and piano lessons and school trips to DC and all the things a kid needs in order to be equipped for the high life? Would I not wish for them to inherit a fortune and thriving family business?
How can I compete in a meritocracy with my only aim being to give my kids an advantage in the next leg of the race?
The meritocracy is no meritocracy if you can inherit advantage, and if you can pass on no advantage to your kids, then what is the point of the fight?
It seems the very concept of a fair system where reward is based on individual effort is unstable as we all strive to pass on generational advantage.
It also seems to me that people’s fortunes do not depend on their own merits as individuals, but rather on the merits of their “node” in the web of society – where opportunities depend on connections. As the sayings go – no man is an island and it’s not what you know, but whom.
These realisations suggests to me that equality or even the idea of the meritocracy are mirages – good to aim at, but don’t go too close as they will recede, or worse still, vanish.
Don’t you hate being taken advantage of?
You don’t have to look far in supermarkets to see scientifically dubious claims on product packaging. We already know about dubious health effects of certain foods and the arms race by advertisers to come up with fancy ways to pretend their products are good for us. Now the latest trend is to crow about how ‘natural’ a product is – the world natural, is however now officially anointed a weasel word.
What exactly does it mean? We all know what they want us to think: wholesome, pure, robust, healthy; but what does natural really mean?
As the provincial scientist, I will take a scientific view: natural originally meant ‘of nature’, that is to say, real, or not-supernatural. So technically humans are natural as is all we do. Of course, the term has now been somewhat perverted, and is commonly taken to mean: not man-made.
Any decent scientist is going to have trouble with this definition because it is far too open to interpretation and begs the question: how much human involvement is required to make something non-natural?
This is the vagueness has has been unconsciously used to create a definition that helps sell products: this definition suggests somewhat arbitrarily that ‘some’ degree of purification, or ‘some’ types of blend constitute something unnatural. In addition, if the substance is not found in nature at all it is considered even worse. Sometimes the product is cast as unnatural just for having a chemical sounding name, or because it’s produced by a drug company. On the other hand, some products are branded natural despite containing preservatives, colourants and so on. We simply cannot trust food marketing.
Modern diet sodas would meet most people’s definition of synthetic: but what about bread? Milk? Where do we draw the line?
One argument says if all the ingredients are natural, then the product is natural – so, for example, beer made without recourse to ‘chemicals’ may be considered natural.
Unfortunately, this argument simply displaces the vagueness: now the question is: what constitutes a ‘chemical’? We are all chemical, after all. So yet again, chemicals are arbitrarily divided into good and bad depending whether they occur in nature. Fruit flavoured sodas rarely contain actual fruit: we learned which chemicals were responsible for apple, strawberry and banana flavours and can now synthesize them perfectly – this is done in large quantities that make it far cheaper than actually farming the fruits themselves. It is fair to say that the supply chain for these flavours is often complex, so a little skepticism is warranted, but upon inspection, it turns out that most synthetic flavours are very well understood and are often far purer than the ‘natural’ alternatives. The idea that we eat barbecued meat, smoke tobacco and drink coffee, but are afraid of Acesulfame K is somewhat irrational.
So it leads us to ask – why? Why is the devil’s brew OK, and Acesulfame K not? Why is something man-made inferior to something natural? Why have we got it in for synthetic stuff?
In the study of ethics, there is an argument called the appeal to nature used to justify actions as moral: this is an argument that basically says natural=good.
However, there is no good reason to suppose this. I propose that this fallacy is behind our fears of the synthetic and is the driving force behind major societal trends such as the organic movement, and is a mainstay in the ongoing survival of many useless alternative medicines… so I thought it deserves to be unpacked a little.
The Moral Maze
It is worth reading up on the thought experiments done to try and understand morals. See for example the trolley problem: would you push someone in front of a train to save five lives? Or consider the scene in the last episode of M*A*S*H were a mother is given the choice to smother her own child to avoid a group of villagers from being detected by enemy soldiers.
By thinking through these scenarios, and unpicking our reactions, scientists have learned that different parts of us have different reactions – there are the more emotional reactions and the more logical, reasoned reactions. The logical reactions can seem immoral, and we would struggle with guilt if we made them, but why?
Emotions like fear, revulsion, guilt and love often seem illogical – and so they often are. They we not designed, but emerged as evolutionary advantageous, thus they often seem without purpose. Thus we can have emotions that do not make logical sense; on average they help, but they do malfunction, as in the trolley problem.
Will knowing this failure of the mind help us make these hard choices by reducing the guilt? I don’t think so – we cannot escape our emotions. However, the logical approach should still be used – for example by leaders who need to create policies for the greater good. This makes me think of the famous line in A Few Good Men “You want the truth? You can’t handle the truth!”. I am suggesting that there are situations when the most moral act for a leader is immoral on the face of it and would be condemned if made public.
Thus, we see that the study of what is moral is a tricky field and we see that the systems used in society, while designed to be ethical, may often not be moral (such as a lawyer defending a suspect they know to be guilty).
So how does this tricky world apply to the question of naturalness? Well I would assert that our reaction to substances, like our reaction to the trolley car problem, is again a battle between deep evolutionary instincts and our power to reason.
Firstly, we have a natural (and wise) aversion to new things, especially foods: eating anything new increases the risk of poisoning, and so, eating things eaten for generations is safer. Synthetic foods are clearly ‘new’; they do not have grandma’s stamp of approval – we do not know if generations of people have thrived on this stuff. While this rule of thumb is a good starting point, it is obviously an emotional generalization that fails simple examination. What’s more, as our understanding of both nutrition and hygiene have massively improved health and lifespan in the last hundred years, we should actually favour the new – and fear the old!
The next argument goes something like this. We have a vague feeling that as our bodies evolved in a natural world, and the highly purified chemicals will somehow put our wonderfully complex systems out of whack. It is true that when we eat natural foods, our bodies are very adept at ‘processing’ them; and many natural foods do contain a wide array of essential and complementary nutrients, but it is unsupported speculation to suggest that our bodies needs cannot be met by more processed ingredients. Modern nutrition science understands very well what the body needs in terms of fuel, salts, roughage and so on, and we also understand how diet effects the risks of disease. While modern nutritional science does conclude that natural foods have many benefits – it does not conclude that synthetic is bad. There is room for both!
Lastly, there is an argument straight from moral philosophy: does it makes sense, for example, so say that killing someone is morally worse than failing to save someone, even though a choice is made in both cases and the outcome is effectively the same? If so, then this reveals a built-in preference for ‘non-interference’. So perhaps in a similar way, nature may be considered a ‘default’ – it’s what happens when humans are absent, ‘it’s what would happen anyway’ – like animals hunting for food – and so has a moral free pass. Following this through, nature has no immorality, morality is something tied to us humans and our choices – and so everything we do as humans is therefore potentially immoral.
This argument is also a little weak – as humans have the power to do tremendous good – and the evidence that animals do things we find immoral is there – after all, we are animals. Animals, like us have complex societies, trade favours, shun freeloaders and much more. If you want to learn more, the writings of Marc Beckoff shine a spotlight onto this.
So is there a take home?
OK, now we know – the ‘nature card’ will take advantage of our irrationality, it will stoke our fears and play with our conscience. It will manipulate how we spend our money, and it will sometimes do us more harm than good.
But what makes it worse, is that most people who draw the nature card are good people.
This is one of the many small tragedies that make up our modern times.
I can’t help but wonder if doggedly debunking all spewings from the purveyors of woo is somewhat a fool’s errand.
There are a number of pseudo-scientific disciplines whose concepts are inherently highly attractive and contagious to the average Joe, saying things that make him feel good and making him want to pass on the good news. Think of how easy to sell these messages are:
- organic food – frolicking chickens, steaming compost, happy farmers, healthy food – a return to basics, back to a purer time when humans actually had roots in the earth and cared for it; you too can go organic!
- complimentary medicine – age-old wisdom, so long suppressed by big pharma is unlocked just for those open-minded enough to look. Are you open-minded! Yes? Here are your keys to healthy prosperity!
- astrology – our fates, entwined with the universe, form a beautiful unity; enigmatic scholars have acted custodian to its cipher through the ages. Are you a spiritual soul? You too can share time’s secrets!
- parapsychology – our minds are more powerful than science knows, and we all have potential beyond our wildest dreams! But hold on! Only those willing to break free from the trappings of conventional science will ever see the light…
- and of course the big kahuna, religion – imagine for a minute the greatest most wonderful thing in all the world, and that is but nothing compared with the joys that await the believer, and for all eternity too!
It is little wonder the bible I had as a kid said “Good News” on the cover.
The issue is that the logical shredding of these pieces is often a sobering dose of reality that fills most people with instant sleepiness:
- organic food is not always kinder to the planet and claimed health benefits are of the ‘hard to verify’ sort
- alternative medicine actually does work, but only the level one would expect from getting time, care, attention and the placebo effect
- the laws of physics do allow marvellous things (x-rays, computers, holograms) but it takes serious study to understand why they don’t allow for the positions of stars and planets to have predictable effects of the day-to-day ongoings in suburbia.
- the mind is indeed fabulously clever and poorly understood, but those tedious laws of physics, and indeed dry, cold logic, are annoyingly sticky when it comes to clairvoyance, ESP, psychokinesis and precognition.
So YAWN! Boring!! Logic and analysis mean effort, work, thinking things through, totting up totals, cross-checking claims, testing, questioning and doubting. Pretty much the opposite of nice & easy. Accepting we are not all-powerful, we are not immortal and that we will all be forgotten someday is just no fun. These are not messages that will go viral, that will breed missionaries, that would generate a manic fervour. More like manic depression.
So the deck is stacked. Pseudo-scientific ideas persist because they are tenacious memes, and they are almost impossible to kill. They are contagious and sticky, and lovely and easy, and fighting them off requires not just the will, but also the ammunition.
And that is why it worthwhile to continue to fight the good fight – to keep trying to debunk poor thinking – to provide the ammunition to that small number, those that may be on their own, surrounded by superstition, but with that gift in their heart that is that first inkling of doubt.
I will do it for those that think they are alone as I once did.
We live in a time of unprecedented opportunity – people have better access than ever to the tools to arm themselves to achieve a new sort of ideal: to make life choices with full access to all the facts. We are after all free to choose to believe anything, the problem only comes when we are not given the choice. No information, no balance, no choice.
There is something in our makeup that makes us appreciate hard work. When we admire the pyramids at Giza, or the fine chinese lacquerware, we can imagine the effort that must have been involved. Not just the muscle – but the discipline – lifetimes of work.
When I was a teenager, I spent many hours drawing – and I got pretty good but at some point, I think I was 19, I just stopped. Why? I think I looked at my creations and compared them with photographs and found them wanting. What was the point of photo-realistic drawing in a world full of cameras? It occurred to me that of course I was still impressed with work like that of Chuck Close, but I could not understand why. Not only does he bring realism to it’s logical extreme, but then he takes to tricks like using how our eyes merge small dots to compose images. Why is this trickery impressive? It goes beyond realism, it impresses us with it’s cleverness, rather than it content – the content becomes pretty much irrelevant.
So we are impressed not only by the evidence of labour, but of cleverness. However, when I think about what I achieve in life, I do not want to be known for simply being hard working, or clever, but rather for what I actually achieve. Simply drawing well demonstrates an ability, but unless that ability is then applied to important work: protecting the environment, mitigating injustice, that sort of thing, or at least to inspire others to do so, it could be considered pure vanity.
So I gave up on drawing. I am a bit older now and have come to re-evaluate this position with the benefit of a few more years.
One thing I have learnt (from my closest family who turned out, as luck would have it, to be talented artists) is that there is more to art than my painfully logical mind wants to admit. I can obviously not explain art in a nutshell – besides, like so many things worth knowing one really needs to find this out for oneself.
What I want to focus on here, as usual, is the scientific approach to art, and to start I will make a controversial claim…
Art taps into instincts, and does not understand itself.
Think of a beautiful singing voice. It is clearly possible to play the heartstrings with the right voice. Even if the song were written by someone else, one would struggle to argue that the songwriter or singer can explain why the song plays the heartstrings. I venture that this is similarly true for beauty.
On the other hand, the field of science progressing fastest of late is the study of the human mind. We are only just starting to understand its complex mechanisms, and if a good neuroscientist is happy to admit we are scratching the surface, then it is probably fair to say the poet is playing the instrument of the mind the way most people use a computer – without a full understanding of its workings.
Without insight into the workings of a system, the poet is reduced to trial and error, treating the mind like a black box, poking it and prodding it and seeing the response. While this type of analysis has revealed much about the mind, it is necessarily lacking and frequently runs into inconsistencies that cannot be explained.
As our ancestors have interacted for millennia, we have developed very strong insights for how the mind works and instincts about how to manipulate it; science is still playing catch-up to what every mother, every teenager or anyone with heartache already knows.
However, we are now rapidly approaching the stage when science will start to ‘have an opinion’ about the merit of Shakespeare or Puccini – observing in vivid detail how stories or melodies act to create virtuous cascades in the mind.
So if this analysis is fair, what are the implications? Does it render the arts any less valuable? No, let me explain.
The analysis suggests that the arts are the field of emotional manipulation, developed as an emergent* ability, a field that has been inaccessible to the sciences due to the complexity of the mind – but will not remain so. The arts pull on thousands of years of learning about the human mind, what impresses, what inspires, what angers and what calms. These learnings will not be rendered invalid, they will simply be explained.
Perhaps the artist in you is reviled by this possibility, perhaps the opposite – the emotions will still be real and we will be able to drive them all the better.
I personally suspect there is merit in the vagueness of art. Some of my favourite songs seem to lose their appeal when I finally learn all the lyrics and find them more mundane than I had imagined.
Perhaps the arts can just ignore the march of science?
*Emergence is the phenomena of complexity (such as the arts) developing as a side effect of simpler lower order phenomena (emotional stimulus & response). It implies the higher order phenomena was not designed, is not deliberate and therefore cannot credit anyone (or itself) for its merits.
It seems to me there are three elements to a good education:
1. A stimulating environment. In such an environment, everyone will learn furiously.
2. Selection. That is to say, the ratio of useful/constructive things learned, vs useless/wrong/just plain destructive things we learn in the abovementioned stimulating environment.
3. No sugar coating. Nobody who learns only wholesome, proven, positive things will be well educated. An essential aspect of a good education is learning by error and embarrassment, loss, sorrow, breakage, cheating, lying and heartbreak.
So because an education requires fault and deception, there cannot be a perfect education, only a more or less effective one for one’s environment…
Over the years I have supervised and mentored several PhD students, and recently our firm started to award scholarships to undergrads, and I was asked to support one such scholar. These scholars are from the best and brightest and so I got to thinking…
Graduates today have it tough, competition is tough, people work longer and harder than ever and stress is hitting us earlier and earlier in life – or so it seems. I would argue that, to some real extent, things have always been getting worse, and therefore by induction, we can prove that they have haven’t really changed at all.
No, the graduates of today have unparalleled opportunity to learn, to travel and to experience. The brightest graduates have the world at their feet and will be its commanders when we are are all retired and done for.
So what could I do to support this scholar? In the end it was easy – I asked myself – what do I know now that I wish I had known sooner? Most of this is in attitudes and is deep in my psychology, and is the result of direct experience – but it turns out that a healthy chunk of my scientific learning experience can be re-lived – by reading some of the books I think steered my course.
So I made a point to summarize some of the best science related books I have read (and some of the most useful internet resources I have found), and dumped the list complete with hyper-links in an email to the scholar. I hope she goes on to be president!
Now having gone to the effort, it would be a crime to keep this email secret, so here it is, (almost) verbatim!
As promised, here is a list of useful resources I wish I had known about when I was an undergrad. I am glad I got round to this, it should be useful for several other students I work with, and has also led to me revisiting a few things! I think I may brush it up and pop in on my blog if you don’t mind…obviously I won’t mention you!
Anyway, back to the business. To me, science is not all about chemistry, molecules, atoms, valence electrons and so on. To me, is is the process of trying to understand the world, and this set of materials I have hand picked, should you get through even a part of it, will not only educate but inspire.
This may not be the very best list, and I am sure there are many great books I have not read, but I have stuck with ones that I have, so you will have to rely on other people for further recommendations.
Jarrod’s reading list: science/psychology/economics & so on
- I’ll start with something really easy, relevant and engaging – an excellent (if quirky) summary of material science: The New Science of Strong Materials – Prof Gordon has written another on Structures that is also worth reading.
- Ok, this next one is not a book, but a paper; I like it because it shows that many stuffy professors are wrong when they prescribe boring scientific prose for papers. This paper uses the criminal “us” and “we” and discusses subjects as if with a friend. Shocking form, especially for a junior scientist. This paper by an unknown, changed the world.
- “Guns, Germs and Steel” – this is large-scale scientific thinking at its best- the book looks at how we can explain why the world is the way it is (especially the inequality) by looking at how technology spreads through societies.
- “Mistakes were made…but not by me” – this is required reading if you want to work with other people, so its basically for everyone then…
- Then to take it to the next level – “How the mind works…” – Stephen Pinker‘s other books are also good if you like this one.
- “Flatland”, (full text here) was written in 1884, and is essential reading because it defines the cliche “thinking outside of the box”.
- To make your upcoming economics courses more interesting, first read this easy-to-read popular book: “The Undercover Economist“.
- Also, Freakonomics– it’s shameless self promotion by egotistical authors, but hell they are smart, so put up with it.
- The Tipping Point – Malcolm Gladwell is a current thinker I really like; he’s not satisfied to focus on one thing for very long – his other books are on totally different stuff, but are equally thought provoking.
- “The selfish gene” – Obviously I would firstly recommend “On the Origin of Species”, (full text here) but if you are short of time (which you should be as an undergrad), you can learn most of the basics, and also get updated (well up to the 1970’s at any rate) by reading Dawkins’ classic.
- I couldn’t ignore statistics, so I will include two – one classic, “How to Lie with Statistics” and a more modern one “Reckoning with Risk“, they are quite different, but either will get the important points across.
Alas, books are perhaps becoming obsolete, so I better include some other media:-
- The first one is so good I can’t believe its free – try watch at least one a week, but the odd binge is essential too. http://www.ted.com/
- Next, an excellent physics recap (or primer) – but you need lots of time (or a long commute!) to get through this lot – look on the left menu for Podacts/Webcasts on this webpage: http://muller.lbl.gov/teaching/physics10/pffp.html – I cannot begin to praise the worthwhileness of this enough. It used to be called “Physics for future presidents” because it teaches you enough to understand the risks of nuclear energy, and the likelihood that we will all run our cars on water – and let you know when you are being duped or dazzled by big words.
- When I was somewhat younger there was a TV show called Cosmos, hosted by Carl Sagan, you may know of it. You could watch in now here, though obviously it is dated, so perhaps you shouldn’t; the reason I mention it, is because it was key in creating a generation of scientists, people who were inspired by Carl to be inspired by the universe. The previous generation had the space race and the moon landings to inspire them, but since then science has been on a downhill, with 3-mile island, global warming, etc, etc, and we have had no more Carl Sagans to cheer for us; Cosmos was a rare bit of resistance in the decline of the importance of science in society. You may also know that there have been battles in society (well in the circles on intelligentsia at any rate) about science – on the one had the ‘two cultures debate‘ and more recently, the ‘anti-science’ movement (suggested in books like “The Republican War on Science“. I do not wish to indoctrinate you, but rather make you aware that being a scientist used to be cooler and used to be more respected and something is indeed rotten in the state of Denmark.
- Getting back on track, here is an excellent guide to critical thinking (something else sadly lacking in the world) – don’t read it, listen to the podcast versions (also on itunes):
“A Magical Journey through the Land of Logical Fallacies” – Part 1 and Part 2
I think this should be taught in school. Brian Dunning’s other Skeptoid podcasts put these lessons into practice showing how a scientific approach can debunk an awful lot of the nonsense that is out there (alternative medicine, water dowsers, fortune tellers, ghost hunters, etc etc).
- If you do happen to have any time left, which I doubt, there are several other podcasts on critical thinking – that use a scientific approach to look at the world and current affairs: –
Postscipt – Dear readers, please feel free to append your own recommendations to my letter in the comments section below. If there is one thing I know well, and that’s how little I know. I feel I only started to read ‘the good stuff’ far too late in life, and so those with more years than me (or better mentors), please do share. But bear in mind, this is principally a science oriented list, and is meant to be accessible to undergraduates – I left out books like Principia Mathematica (Newton) because it is really rather unreadable – and the Princeton Science Library (though awesome) is probably a bit too intense. Also, in the 30 minutes since I sent the email, I have already thought of several others I sort of, well, forgot:
- Machiavelli’s The Prince (Full text) – tyranny as science!
- Galileo’s The Starry Messenger (Full Text)
- Copernicus’ On the Revolutions (Full text)
- and, of course, Gaarder’s Sophie’s World
That’s it for now…
There is a skill I have not yet heard taught, but that is invaluable: the ability to remember what it was like before you knew something.
For example, a good story teller needs to be able to put him or herself into the mind of their characters so that the ‘revelations’ are best timed – this requires putting oneself in the position of the character (and by extension the listener/reader) – of not knowing what you know (as the author), and reacting appropriately to each twist and turn of the plot.
Now it occurs to me, that when we remember our own past, we often forget that the person in the memory is not actually us; it was a past version of ourself, that does not know what we know – and should thus be given the same treatment the author gives their character.
Unfortunately, our mind is obsessed with the desire to ensure our memories are consistent with our self image and narrative, and thus when we look back on decisions we made we struggle to identify the true reasoning; we routinely select reasoning consistent with what we know today.
So it turns out, that to truly remember, we actually need to be able to forget!
Postscript: That said, it would be a useful to be able to selectively forget things temporarily; not just to write a good thriller, but to play around and find out which bits of my knowledge are responsible for which bits of my attitude…
There is a growing movement, grassroots in nature, but starting to connect, called the skeptics community.
Who exactly are they? Are they people who are starting to uncover the truth – that most world governments are a sham and that secret societies control our every move? Do they deny the holocaust and suspect 9/11 was a complex plot?
A skeptic is merely someone who needs to be convinced of things through reason, rather than one who accepts things on some-one’s say-so.
So what is a global warming ‘skeptic’?
Climate science is complex, and consensus opinion is that man’s activity has led to increased greenhouse gas emissions which are likely to reduce outgoing radiation and thus lead to a net shift upward in the temperature of the Earth’s delicate surface. Yes, there are other possible causes, yes, the models contain assumptions, and yes, some fools have fabricated data to look cool. It is also true that many respected scientists will not say it is a cast iron ‘fact’.
So that is the scene – and there seem to be a few types of stakeholders:
- the ‘global warming denier’
- the ‘global warming skeptic’
- the regular ‘skeptic’
- and lastly, the gullible!
A ‘global warming denier’ has come to mean someone who does not think the evidence stacks up enough to warrant concern, or worse, thinks it is all a giant conspiracy.
A ‘global warming skeptic’ has come to be somewhat synonymous with a denier, but perhaps without the conspiracy angle. However, many are just people who are on the fence – they are often very smart, and don’t just believe what they are told, but on the other hand, they are easily misled, as there is just so much misinformation out there. They may be the ones who say “I heard the jury is out…” rather than actually looking at evidence.
Some legitimate scientists have foolishly allowed themselves to be given this label, just because they debate some small details (like the rate of heating, or the likely nature of socio-political impacts). These scientists are then lumped with deniers. Tough luck to them.
Now a true skeptic will weigh all evidence according to the following principles:
- is it logical?
- does it conflict with other strong theories? If so, is it strong enough warrant a change to your previous understanding?
- is there independent corroboration?
- do the proponents have a proven track record (credibility)?
- is there any incentive by stakeholders to twist the facts?
This describes most good scientists, so its not a bad thing.
In the case of global warming, most true skeptics who have looked closely at the evidence and weighed it appropriately, agree that there is real cause for concern.
But yes, we skeptics will always retain just a little doubt, because you just never know…