Saturday, April 7, 2007

Why Science Matters In A World of Delusion and Propaganda

I had a really good time guesting on The Explainer with Manuel L. Quezon III on ABSCBN News ANC last Tuesday evening. (The episode is in replay throughout the week at various times of the day and night, so you can still try to catch it in case you missed a good one.) The topic was time and the calendar, but upon my suggestion MLQ3 was good enough to allow a little broader, scientific view of the topic. Instead of concentrating on "history" which takes up just a tiny sliver composed of a couple of thousand years before and after the Christian Lord Jesus Christ, we talked about "Deep Time" instead, meaning to say the stuff that happened during the entire 4.5 billion year history of the Earth. The basic question we tackled was basically the matter of how old things really are (very ancient!) and how we know it for real (radioactive dating methods using the Carbon-14 and Uranium-lead radiometric systems). But the real emphasis was on the history of life on earth in general, as we know it from the fossil record, which has the suggestion of periodic mass extinctions of up to 99% of all known living species during particularly catastrophic events of the last quarter of a billion years or so. I described one theory to explain this apparent periodicity in the possibility that our sun belongs to a binary star system, like ten percent of the observable stars in the Milky Way galaxy. It's quite remarkable of course that an observation made by paleontologists should result in a testable hypothesis for modern day astronomers, since the apparent 25-26 million year periodicity of the mass extinctions implies (from Kepler's Laws) that a putative "Nemesis" or binary star partner of the sun, would lie in an orbit within about one light year of the sun. I understand a number of observatories have an active search going for Nemesis. MLQ3 and I also touched briefly on the issue of global warming during the show, which of course has been attributed to human activities, such as fossil fuel burning. However, the INCONVENIENT TRUTH is that unlike religious or ideological "truth" scientific truths often begin as testable, falsifiable hypotheses that have survived all or most of the conceivable scientific tests designed to prove them wrong. This is in sharp contrast to religious or ideological "truths" which are often claims or assertions that CANNOT by their logical construction be proven false, and whose truth is ultimately a matter of pure faith. In the particular case of Global Warming ala Al Gore, it is most remarkable to me that MLQ3 called my possible alternative explanation for it "almost a heresy" (I mentioned recent reports that ALL the Solar System's planets may be warming up, suggesting something to do with the Sun, or dare I say, an unseen companion star!) If it is a "heresy" it would be to question an alleged "truth" about ... the WEATHER!

Regular readers of Philippine Commentary are of course aware that this writer is a physicist, though a recent award for the blog gave it "Best in the Socio-political category". But I do believe that a rigorous scientific and mathematical mind-set is cruicial to understanding society and politics in our present day. I should mention several areas that have been of primary concern to me recently and which I expect must receive even greater attention going forward:

(1) The public opinion surveys continue to produce a lot of ignorant and propagandistic reportage and analysis. Even the public opinion pollsters themselves at SWS and Pulse Asia are given to producing unscientific surveys and ideological interpretations of their results, even as they continue to do quite excellent scientific work in areas like voter preference polls. The reason seems to be a lack of appreciation for the fact that the techniques used in scientific polls may be applicable but not effective when surveying certain types of questions, like self-rated poverty and hunger, where there is no election or other independent objective event or process by which their results can be validated. This has resulted in headline-grabbing results that can't be verified but are readily believed by the gullible or whoever finds them useful as propaganda or just to make a point. The Hunger survey has certainly produced these results and I have blogged about them often in the last few months. As it stands, it is claimed that one in five families is hungry, or so the now conventional wisdom goes. This is to me an outrageous claim, for in most other free and open societies such an atrocious situation would almost certainly have produced revolution by now. My own explanations have not been politically correct, since I've lately been noticing the vicious addictions of Filipinos to alcohol, drugs, gambling, prostitution and other food-consuming and hunger-causing habits. It's more than just "abject poverty" and "graft and corruption, though these are no doubt causes also. A list of posts on hunger is here.

(2) The topic MLQ3 and i were discussing, Global Warming, has not yet come in for a lot of discussion here at Philippine Commentary, but I promise it will in the immediate future. Mediamatters has a round up of skeptical views on man-made global warming. On The Explainer, I that the Sun, a thermonuclear furnace right next to the Earth, may have more to do with the phenomenon than what we, as a small bit of protein slime on the Earth, may be doing with gases and refrigerators.

(3) Environmental issues are much in need of a scientific attitude and scrutiny. Instead we have activists and ideologues taking center stage, probably encouraged by that Oscar award won by Al Gore. But pseudoscience in this area will probably get us into a lot of trouble rather than out of it, because the issues involved are deeply scientific in nature, and their solutions are bound to be scary when dreamt up by pseudoscientific ideologues and "advocates" of all kinds:


reen is the new yellow in journalism and commentary here in the Philippines, as elsewhere. Greenpeace "Southeast Asia Campaigner" Von Hernandez has a priceless media asset in RINA JIMENEZ DAVID who must be a personal friend of his because she often quotes verbatim from the environmental lobby group's briefing materials and press releases as if they were dispatches from NASA or the World Health Organization. As the paper's self-proclaimed expert on the environment, health and reproductive issues, Rina has recently been ringing the alarum bells over the possibility that we have been eating genetically-engineered (GE) rice which --gasp!-- are being sold in the bigger supermarkets in the Philippines (and by the way, throughout the United States).

(4) Two health-related issues are coming up in which we certainly need the help of knowledgeable experts, rather than the professional protesters and issue-calumnists. These are the Cheap Medicines Bill of Mar Roxas (which I predict will cause a flood of cheap, but fake medicines as the viajeras take advantage of a law that does not build in any regulatory safeguards in a bid to circumvent intellectual property laws or at least create huge loopholes that will allow such circumvention. To the detriment of the Public, of course and the benefit of smugglers used to the predilection of Pinoys for fake DVDs and "designer goods." The other big issue coming up is Bird Flu. Here a solid public appreciation on the management of medical epidemics is not being built up by the works of the anti-GMO crowd, who are really teaching the public a rather unscientific form of skepticism based on ideological and political goals having little to do with Science or Medicine, as such.

(5) Finally, the matter of nuclear weapons proliferation and nuclear terrorism underlies much of the really scary international debates ongoing. Public understanding of these issues in the Philippines is almost nil, thanks to the usual curmudgeons and paleoliberals who see everything as the fault of America for discovering and possessing nuclear weapons, as if just mentioning "Hiroshima" were 'nuff said about the matter.

I guess the point I was trying to explain last Tuesday was this: that Science really does matter in a world full of delusion and propaganda.

(6) If there is one issue that has not been big in the Philippines of a scientific nature it is that of "Intelligent Design". Of course the reason it is not big here is the fact that CREATIONISM has not really been overthrown in the archipelago in favor of the more conventional explanations of Darwin and evolutionary biology. It was really for the purpose of opening up the whole area however, that I suggested to Manolo the topic of mass extinctions seen in the fossil record, just to make the public aware that there IS a fossil record and that an awful lot of things can be deduced from it. In this area, I am strongly inspired by, and strongly recommend the reading of Richard Dawkins recent book, The God Delusion. His basic argument against Intelligent Design is remarkable. He asserts that the I.D. reasoning is self-refuting! And it can be stated both wittily and with brevity. If something so irreducibly complex exists (like an eye or a wing) that an Intelligent Designer (or creator) is necessary to explain their existence, surely, so does the Intelligent Designer. Which brings back the original mystery that, however, was already resolved by Darwin himself in The Origin of the Species. By the way, Philippine Commentary will be participating in the upcoming Darwin Day celebrations being conducted worldwide in honor of the 150th anniversary of the book's publication in 2009.

14 comments:

Jego said...

Re: Intelligent Design. This is exactly what cvj and I were discussing over at Resty Odon's ExpectoRants blog, so Im still primed for it (although I wish I werent--the discussion is too much fun). My point was Intelligent Design theory is about the intelligence, while its opponents insist it is about the Designer--a straw god argument. A designer is not necessary to infer intelligence. For example, Given: Intelligence does things for a purpose; something Prof Dawkins denies. 'Who designed language?' is a meaningless question. It wasnt designed by anybody. But can we infer that that it came about because of a purpose (i.e, to communicate)? Can we infer that language is a product of intelligence? Yes we can. That's what the theory does. It proposes that intelligence is the most straightforward explanation for specified systematic information, the kind we see in nature. It proposes that man does not have a monopoly on intelligence in the Universe.

This is in sharp contrast to religious or ideological "truths" which are often claims or assertions that CANNOT by their logical construction be proven false, and whose truth is ultimately a matter of pure faith

Funny you should mention this because this was my last point in Resty O's comments section: Darwinian evolution is true no matter what. I said: Those mutations that can adapt best to the environment survive. Survival of the fittest, in short. Therefore the fittest survive and the survivors are the fittest. It's like 'It aint over til it's over.' You can't have a scientific theory based on something like that.

Jego said...

A designer is not necessary to infer intelligence.

I meant 'a designer is not necessary to the theory that simply infers intelligence.'

marvin said...

DJB,

I had a class in Philosophy of Science back in the 1990's. Our teacher, Prof. Thomas Green, S.J., used Thomas Kuhn's Structure of Scientific Revolution as the main fare. While Thomas Kuhn did not exactly say that science is susceptible to propaganda, his theory is essentially that "scientific knowledge" dwells within a particular paradigm. If we look at the history of science, what we have is essentially a history of scientific paradigms, and each paradigm is inconsistent with the other. Thus, when a new paradigm is propogated, the other paradigm is discarded. This explains why Aristotle's Laws of Physics (old paradigm) does not fit with Einstein's e=mc2 (a newer paradigm).

This brings me to the point, can science help us achieve the truth, or is it the case that all we're getting is a paradigm, useful only until the next paradigm propagates?

Come to think of it, probably even Thomas Kuhn's theory is a paradigm.

Rizalist said...

Marv,
The better example is Newtonian physics vs. Einstein's relativity. Although the latter has supplanted the former its has not destroyed it in the way the paradigm descriptions imply. For example, NASA used purely Newtonian calculations and equations to put man on the moon, because although Einstein's relativistic theories would also work, they are not needed because Newton's equations were good enough (way way good enough) even for the high precision needed. Einsteins work is impt mainly when we are dealing with speeds that approach the speed of light or deal with really large amounts of matter and huge distances. Newtonian physics is perfectly good for our scale of reality, even though, strictly speaking it is a "coarse approximation" to the reality that Einstein deals with much more accurately. Every scientific paradigm actually builds on past paradigms in that process of successive approximations to some "truth" that I mentioned. As for Aristotle, his LOGIC involving syllogisms has not been overthrown and is still the basis of even Einstein's work. (If A=B and B=C then A=C) Perhaps you meant Archimedes, whose hydrodynamics works for bathtubs or even oceans, but not not stars or black holes.

I've forgotten what lil I used to know about Thomas Kuhn's work though.

Rizalist said...

Jeg,
Spot on! The ID folks look at something remarkable in Nature like an eye or a wing and because they cannot imagine how it could have evolved by accident, they posit the need for a designer who does things for the very purpose, and must therefore be intelligent. But as you mention it is "survival of the fittest" that preserves even small improvements over a previous configuration which may indeed have arisen purely by chance or accident. So it is chance plus INHERITABLE traits that allows the evolution of better and better configurations until finally some creature arises who cannot understand how it all came to be and leaps to the wrong explanation.

Dawkins' book The God Delusion seems destined to be a classic in explanation and exposition in this area.

marvin said...

DJB,

Ha ha ha of course, I was thinking of Newton. Sorry my mistake.

blackshama said...

orge Bocobo says that "If there is one issue that has not been big in the Philippines of a scientific nature it is that of "Intelligent Design". Of course the reason it is not big here is the fact that CREATIONISM has not really been overthrown in the archipelago in favor of the more conventional explanations of Darwin and evolutionary biology."

A more parsimonious explanation why ID and evolution is not a major issue in the Philippines is that evolutionary biology isn't taught very well in schools. I know this for a fact since I teach evolutionary biology.

I don't think Filipinos are creationists. Creationism presumes a literal interpretation of scripture. If there are Pinoy creationists they belong to the Fundamentalist Protestant kind. This Fundamentalist kind takes after the American kind. Their videos and books are published from the American Protestant heartland.

But many Pinoys would accept that there is a Creator. Many would accept that the Creator would do his/her thing subject to natural laws plus a rare miracle here and there. I don't think this does science disservice or turns religion into fanaticism.

In fact the Catholic Church frowns much upon excessive belief in miracles. The Church says miracles are not necessary for faith. When the Shroud of Turin was dated to the medieval period using science (as requested by the Church), the Church accepted the conclusions without question but said that the Shroud had strengthened the faith of Catholics whether it was Christ's burial shroud or not.

Contrast this with Protestant fundamentalists who would invoke all sorts of explanations to say science is absolutely wrong! Intelligent Design is a prime example. Any one who has passed the Engineering board exams should be able to conclude that the eye is not a perfect design. In fact you don't need a PhD (or to become God!) to propose improvements to the eye's design. The same is true with the human body, whose "design" is riddled with imperfections. The parsimonious explanation would be natural selection caused a series of adaptations that resulted in complex but not perfect organ systems. Eventually with future selective forces, these "designs" will change or be modified. Some traits may be evolved or lost.

We should not put up an artificial conflict between religion and science in the Philippines. What is more important is that we should make sure science is taught well and contributes to a proper appreciation of nature.

Jego said...

Let me take up the cudgels for Intelligent Design theory (IDT) if I may, rizalist, for I have spotted a few straw creatures being erected.

1) IDT doesnt have a theology. It's its critics that keep injecting theology into the theory, then try to knock out that theology. "Who is the designer?" is not something that IDT addresses (no evidence of the identity of this fella). "The designer is God" is not even in the theory. 'The designer is God' is a theological belief, not a scientific one.

Prof. Dawkins says the 'God hypothesis' should be examined like any other scientific hypothesis and Im looking forward to the scientific experiments he designs to test this hypothesis. In fact Im looking forward to anyone's experiment to try to test it. But unfortunately, the 'God hypothesis' isnt part of IDT.

2) Blackshama, who Im honored to meet here because he's a science teacher and I have great respect for science teachers--my respect for DJB the scientists goes without saying--mentions what I guess we can call a dysteleological argument: If we were designed [by a God of some sort], how come there's a lot of things wrong with us? Again this presupposes a theology that says if we were designed, ought not the designer designed us with no defects? I offer an analogy: Suppose you brought a brand new car. You get in all excited, put the keys in the ignition and turn it...and it won't start. You curse and threaten to sue, but you will not doubt for one instant that the car was designed, that is, it came from an intelligence. Again IDT makes no assumptions about the attributes of designer. Indeed it makes no assumptions about who the designer is. It proposes that the appearance of design in nature is best explained--'best explained,' which implies a comparison with other theories--by intelligence. The theory is testable; it is falsifiable. In fact scientists all over the world are conducting experiments to try to falsify the theory. Harvard has invested millions of dollars for a lab to try to create life from non-life through random processes. The jury is still out, but IDT is being treated as a serious challenge to the orthodoxy whether the orthodoxy admits it or not.

Rizalist said...

blackshama,
you are quite right in saying that Filipinos are not "creationists" in the sense of being literal interpreters of Scripture. But I think that happenstance is due to the simple fact that Catholics in general here do NOT read Scripture (the bible that is). They only ever have little bits of it read to them by priests at Mass or hear about it in popular myths and legends. I guess the Spanish never wanted them to read the Bible (or anything else) because that would surely turn them into Protestants!

Indeed, it is SOME Protestant Christians who are what we usually call creationists. But Pinoys are certainly creationists as you point out because they simply believe in a Creator as the best explanation for the mysteries of the world and nature, more like a comfortable old shoe than a revered and perused old Book.

As for miracles, I am surprised at your claim that the Catholic Church frowns on excessive belief in them. I think it is more a case of frowning on unofficial miracles not sanctioned or invented by the Church itself,like the daily miracle of transubstantiation, or resurrection and Virgin birth. It is frowned officially upon only when ordinary believers think they observe miracles themselves in bleeding madonnas or dancing suns. I've never thought there's ever been a conflict between science and religion, since there is simply no contest between sense and nonsense. But there is certainly a conflict between official superstition and common superstition, between the sanctioned nonsense and the nonsense of ordinary folks who don't wear funny hats or fancy magic robes but want to emulate the blind faith of those who do, that God speaks for and performs directly for them. But there can't ever be a proper appreciation of nature without a proper appreciation of human delusion.

I can respect people's need for faith, but not their clinging to ignorance

blackshama said...

Transubstatiation is a metaphysical concept that is beyond the natural sciences to deal with. Whether the Catholic Church invented it or not is something scientists really don't give much importance to. We leave that to the theologians.

Yes the Catholic Church does frown upon excessive belief in miracles. In fact it assumes that it is the sole authority to say whether a miracle is real or not. In doing so it may get the services of scientists. A scientist can only say that the supposed miracle is unlikely under our current understanding of scientific principles. However we may yet know of other natural mechanisms that may account for the "miracle".

To its credit, the Church is very skeptical about miracles.

Of all the organized religions, it is Catholicism that clearly defines the limits of what its theology can teach. And for the most part, recent popes like Paul VI and John Paul II have largely respected science's autonomy. John Paul's 1996 message on evolution is a classic.

There are two major personalities today threaten this autonomy between science and religion. Pope Ratzinger has stirred the hornet's nest by saying "evolution is not proven". In science we do not prove, we only say a conclusion is likely correct. Ratzinger is using a philosophical way of analysis in approaching biological science. He has to be reminded that we are no longer in the Middle Ages! On the other hand Professor Richard Dawkins has ridiculed religion by stereotyping it especially Catholicism. By doing so, he exposed his ignorance of what religion really is. I read his "Delusion" and it ranks as the worst book he has ever written. His rival the late Stephen Jay Gould was much objective in his treatment of science and religion.

Since Dawkins is an atheist, what is the cause of his atheism? A scientific hypothesis would be that belief in God/gods confers fitness. Fitness in Darwinian theory refers to survival advantage. Evolutionary theory can account for why religion confers fitness and explain which came first, morality or a system of religious belief. It seems likely that Dawkins is an atheist since it gives him fitness in his social circle of British scientists! In fact Dawkins has to resort to religious imagery to get his message through (A Devil's Chaplain)!

Ratzinger and Dawkins represent a reactionary trend that doesn't improve the dialogue between science and religion. We can only likely conclude that if you have professors pontificating on weighty matters, we will have trouble. Ratzinger has made a major faux pas in dealing with Islam and now with the natural sciences. Dawkins has made a major blunder to the extent that some scientists consider him loony!

If Dawkins wants to say that natural phenomena can explain why there is a God, then he should not write on the philosophical disadvantages of believing in Purgatory or Transubstantiation!

Rizalist said...

Blackshama,
How do you mean skeptical about miracles when the church insists a major one involving transubstantiation occurs every time a Mass is celebrated? It seems to be skeptical only about unofficial miracles, in fact it is strangely disdainful of miracles far less fantastic than its own. Religion would be better off retreating into symbolism and mysticism rather than exposing its vulnerabilities to the natural sciences, where it has suffered major historical defeats. As for Ratzinger, I actually admire his acceptance of Separation of Church and State and the Bill of Rights protection of religious freedom in Deus Caritas Est, using that as the basis of his attack on Islam which is clearly stuck in Medievalism and theocracy and needs to evolve like Christianity by accepting freedom, democracy and adopting a humbler stance.

Rizalist said...

Blackshama,
In effect, doesn't the Catholic Church proclaim to perform tens of thousands of transubstantive miracles every single day?

Amadeo said...

Hi, Dean:

Was fortunate enough to catch your hirsute appearance in the Explainer.

I will say that you acquitted yourself and your positions very well.

And you did touch on the one facet that distinguishes our reality-based physical world with the transcendent metaphysical reality where true classical religion and spirituality operate.

A lot of needless discussions touching on and between the realm of science and the milieu of religion and spirituality can be avoided if this premise is thoroughly explained and accepted.

Science can never hope to prove or disprove, say, the mystery of the transubstantiation which is the central theme and focus of the ritual of the Mass. The chasm between the horizontal plane and the vertical plane can never be breached or fused without any significant leap in faith. And yet as man was ordained by his nature (being of body, spirit or mind or intelligence, and soul), both are necessary. And mere natural reason and logic can also never hope to amply explain and prove the metaphysical aspects of the vertical plane.

Thus I feel the first question to ask prior to any discussion is which reality or realities one wants to delve into.
.

Jego said...

Religion is like art at its best. There is an aesthetic to it that people find attractive. The beauty in it is why George Santayana, an atheist, said he continued to attend Mass.

And like art, dont bother to find rationality in it. You dont appreciate a Jackson Pollock painting with ruler and calipers (although an atheist did suggest that to me once... seriously). It is a non-rational truth. Highly experiential.

Keats once wrote Beauty is truth, truth beauty. Physicists talk about beauty being their guide as to whether theyre on the right track on a theory. Perhaps Keats was right. Beauty is truth and truth is beauty and that is all we need to know.