Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Why Reason is so Reasonable

Statement and question from a friend and reader of this site. 

“ I was finding it very odd that artists portray Adam and Eve with belly buttons. I guess I have always questioned things instead of just accepting everything at face value. At what point do children stop asking "why"? Perhaps I am still a child!!”

That is the essential & eternal question that Carl Sagan would ask. He'd go into a classroom of 1st graders and they would ask a billion questions. Then he'd visit high schools and there would be silence amongst the students. Sometimes education and most of the time religion teaches us not to ask any questions that cannot be answered outside of a particular set of teachings or theological dogma. Certainly religion teaches us not to be excited about nature or the natural world from a perspective which is not theologically based.

So if you ask about the virgin birth or the Jesus story and see that mythology duplicated in other more ancient religious traditions or ask about Noah, or Moses’ journeys and see no archeological proof. Or see as reprehensible the actions to slaughter in the name of a particular god one’s own son or countless thousands to prove your loyalty or smash planes into buildings because of perceived insults towards a particular faith you are an apostate. You are indeed acting outside of what most authoritarian faith traditions expect from a common believer – acceptance of the improbable based on faith alone.

If you do ask questions like the belly button one, you're rejected or made to feel like a pariah or you’re told just to have faith. This essentially pulls a blanket over your curiosity and shuts down a keen interest in wonder about the world. But it isn't just in religion that this happen, look at politics too….or parents saying "because I said so."  Most authorities and certainly all religions don't like to be questioned. Every question is a threat to authority.

But I have to really respect science and the scientific method. Its whole reason for being is to find the accepted wrong and to get better by rejecting our current understanding of commonly accepted ideas. Hence, the unending conflict between science & religion will continue because religious belief by its nature shuts down this vital and basic questioning. If you never stop asking "why?" you'll always remain absorbed and present in this world rather than the next.

It's only when we turn off this capacity to question that reason dies. Then opinion becomes the norm – a very dangerous tradition - and peace and humanity then are at peril to the whims of those who shout the loudest rather than those who have the best argument or answers. Think of those in history and in modern times who use a religious mandate to harm others.

One of recent history’s most loud evil doers was Adolph Hitler, a monster who was supported by the Roman Catholic Church. While there were individual Christian objectors to his policies of mass extermination, the Vatican and German Bishops were all too friendly to the Nazi party. And while some may claim Hitler was an atheist, the reality was his ideas and his anti-Semitism were each based on religious teachings and indoctrination. You can no more connect his sick hatred to atheism as you can to his vegetarianism. But you can connect his beliefs very easily to the religious teachings of the time.

It should be noted that there are scientists who are devoutly religious. And in no way can we conclude that good science cannot be done by scientists with faith. Science is open to all, science is an equal opportunity employer if you have the skills to not only question but to also synthesize, prove and discover new theories, concepts and whole new fields within the natural sciences.

Stephen Jay Gould called this “non-overlapping magisteria” meaning that science and religion can indeed co-exist and not compete because they search for different truths about the nature of the universe. 

However such compartmentalization and bifurcation isn’t necessary.  This is why the majority scientists who do work in numerous STEM fields are in fact non-believers and skeptics.

There isn’t religious truth and science truth. There is truth. So if you believe that the world is 6,000 years old and you try to make science fit this biblical interpretation you’re not doing science. If you accept that humans were made by and in the image of a divine spirit here you are again missing the point of evolutionary biology.

If you support prayer and religious politics which deny contraception – you are doing so for your own reasons based on religious teachings or doctrine and are not following what science tells us about preventing disease. Or what perhaps a higher secular morality tells us about a woman’s right to make her own choices about her body and health
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The common sense opinions that for some are religious-based and the way those who are religious like to think the world works are not always supported what science tells us is truth.  And in this way is the reason why we no more need faith than we need the extra undercoating (religion) that is offered on a new car. Sure you’re told it’s good for you by the dealer (the authority) and it may make you feel safer knowing it’s there (doctrine and prayer) but in reality it isn’t needed and you can have a fine time without it. 

If all of humanity and by inference we as individuals were just as skeptical about purchasing the undercoating for a new car as so many are about accepting faith, at the same time if we embraced science and reason, the world would be a whole lot less dangerous and a much more reasonable place to live. 

This would not negate the arts or literature or any of the emotional ventures we humans create to give us comfort or our lives meaning. I conclude that it would heighten these endeavors since we’d be speaking to and for each other and not asking any invisible sky god to speak for us in terms of what is right or wrong, moral or ethical, or pleasurable and joyful. 

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Be A Primate for the Climate

This post was originally written on Facebook by me in response to a dear friend who was responding to a forward of a Salon.com interview with Neil deGrasse Tyson which I posted. This friend, who is a good and decent man who I’ve known all my life and consider a “brother from a different mother," is somewhat skeptical about human caused climate change.

To answer your question is simple and deGrasse Tyson did so in the article. First, let me say that your (and all) skepticism is healthy. That, in part, pushes and challenges science to study and make claims based on the scientific method. And yes there are some, although it is a minority, of scientists who do not think humans are impacting climate. [added for this post: There are also scientists who think the world is 6,000 years old and deny evolution – that doesn’t give their ideas merit or make them reasonable or facts].

So I don't know the exact percentage, but let's say for argument that human impact on climate is between 20-80%. Where 20% represents low and 80% high human impact on the global climate.

I'd say either way that these numbers are irrelevant in some ways. But that doesn't mean we humans, who are faced with a global problem, should ignore the problem.

We all agree that the climate is changing. We all agree that the climate has changed for 4.5 billion years and will continue to do so long after we’re gone. But I personally refuse to accept, and this is an ethical choice on my part, that humans can't intervene on the back end of what nature and humans are doing on the front end.

That's what Tyson is saying when he suggests that climate change deniers are basically defeatists. Clearly if you throw your hands up and say "well it’s nature and that's climate change is happening so let's not do anything about it” [for this post] is a defeatist response.

That's like saying, "Well polio (or any disease) is really bad but it happens in nature so don't create a vaccine." But if you think of humans trying to fix as best we can changes to the climate as a vaccine to help us survive you get a totally different perspective [added: on climate change science and the call by scientists and others to do something about it]

I will also grant you that there are extremists on several sides who don’t know science and make claims that are drastic and unrealistic (Like ignoring or dismissing the issue totally or on the other extreme where everyone goes back to farming, there are no cars and we all live in 12x12 boxes). I like my steak like I like my car and home just like the next guy.

So be curious sure, but when collective science expresses an agreed statement based on evidence I tend to accept it. But like in every human endeavor science changes although you won't see anyone putting the earth at the center of the solar system. That was Tyson's other point. Some things are universally accepted based on observation, testing and evidence. [They are challenged by better science and not personal opinion – philosophy no matter its value is not science].

Climate change is occurring but the biggest political, economic and social issue is what do we humans do about it. I say we can and should do many things for our survival or our only home (the Earth) will be a dust bowl. It will not be able to support human life and that's not good for humans.

So we’re primates with big brains and a consciousness. And I conclude that we can do things to stop the climate's deterioration. That's not only good business to be inventive but in the process and long run it will save our civilization and remind us all that our creativity is perhaps our most humbling human trait.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Particle Fever: A Reality Rather Than a Metaphor for Science Discovery

Science smashes two things equally well - Atoms and Convention."
-Dr. David I. Orenstein



Dr. Peter Higgs

This is not a film review of the documentary Particle Fever.  Our good friend and occasional guest writer for this site, Dr. Tyson Gill, contributed an excellent review of the film back in March of this year.

This is more of a personal reaction to watching the film. Each time getting more excited then the last because it offers an opportunity to see really smart people uncover deep insights concerning the natural mechanics of our universe. There are few modern documentary films which adequately show scientists working collaboratively and with such collective vision and conviction.

Sadly and all too frequently in the popular media scientists are either shown as being "mad" with nefarious anti-humanistic goals or they are written and performed to look like social misfits. In both cases these characterizations misguide the general public into thinking that scientists and those who want to explore and learn science are either unable or unwilling to bond with "real people."

But there are rays of hope. For instance, 2010's The Cave of Forgotten Dreams by Werner Herzog shows archeologists and a collaborative team of scientists trying to preserve some of humankind's earliest cave art. Also in 2010, Jane's Journey, a documentary biography of primatologist Dr. Jane Goodall showed how scientists are indeed kind, gentle and committed to peace. And 2013's The Unbelievers showed Larry Krauss and Richard Dawkins barnstorming the world in their individual and collective efforts to teach science and the importance of reason so that through these twin concepts (outside of religious faith) we can come together as a species and explore all the possibilities our harnessed brains and human empathy can imagine.

But the film Particle Fever actually stands out as a hallmark both as an artistic endeavor and statement about the important goals of science. We see scientists as real-life people who at their core seem very happy and connected. They also appear intense as they work in their careers to discover new knowledge and wisdom. This film should be used as a recruitment tool for students studying the hard sciences.

The film recounts the efforts of an international collection of top scientists (physicists, engineers and mathematicians mostly) all working at CERN. They're filmed in one-on-one interviews and at other times in large control rooms filled with people readying machines and equipment to smash atoms together to generate a Higgs field. To create in a lab scientifically what nature does on a grand scale - cause the formation of a Higgs particle.

They say there is no such thing as an overnight success and in particle physics that is certainly true as well. In 1993, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) that was being built in Texas (United States) was de-funded by Congress. This blunder showed an infinite lack of wisdom and courage on the part of elected representatives and thus left the gigantic machine half built and in the process squandered taxpayer money by not completing the complex.

But it was our friends in Europe, specifically at CERN, who saw an opportunity to do what Congress with their lack of vision, interest or understanding could do. That was fund and build an LHC to prove or disprove ideas about the nature of matter and the laws of physics. And with this ownership comes notoriety, invention, patents and commerce that at best makes the United States a third string player. Can you imagine, a nation founded in part to bring new ideas and machines to market will be a consumer of but not the inventor of opportunity that will come from these scientific experiments and discoveries. 

In the film we meet men and women from Iran, the EU, and even (yes) some Americans who worked on the CERN project. We also meet groups of scientists from different theoretical camps within physics as well. All betting that if the Higgs particle could be replicated that its existence would validate their ideas and thus consequently falsify the other faction's theories. However these rivalries are not violent. They take place and form the basis of testing and seeking a more advanced rational (rather than metaphysical) truth than the one which we currently hold as valid with regard to the universe's structure and existence.

You get the fly on the wall view of the mundane; the attempts to start the machine and watch failure as equipment overheats and new dates for tests lead to postponements. But then you see valiant efforts to mange through these tribulations and watch as the scientists use their  brain power and technical skills. At same time they check and recheck equations, work with complex machines and other associated technology as they ready to apply their work and verify decades of research and theory regarding the essential nature of our universe.

And like any good movie the viewer can expect a sequel. That's because the experiment verified the existence of the Higgs particle but did not answer the other major question. That question being is this a stable universe or is it a chaotic one. Depending on the mass of the Higgs particle that answer would have come based on its atomic weight. But since the particle weighed almost in the middle of the two values needed to answer the question it remains unanswered. That is at least for another two years since the CERN machine needs downtime for equipment upgrades which will then smash atoms harder and faster. This, the physicists hope, will actually settle the theoretical debate once and for all.

That is until we think of better ways to use science to further unlock the boundaries of nature still closed to our grasp.