Archive January 2011

Converging evidence on climate change Ken Perrott Jan 31

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This graph thanks to Skeptical Science (Ten temperature records in a single graphic). As the web site says this graph of ten different temperature records provides “a vivid reminder that many independent lines of evidence all tell us the same thing.”

Pretty well underlines the fact that global temperature are rising. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) describes this conclusion as unequivocal.

As for the cause – it’s worth recalling these figures from the last IPCC repport (I discussed these in Climate change is complex).

The figure below shows the results of simulations of global temperature from 1900 to 2005. Figure a included all the natural and anthropogenic influences.  The black line is the actual measured global temperature anomaly (obtained by subtracting the average temperature for 1901 to 1950).  The individual simulations are shown as thin yellow curves. The red line is the multi-model ensemble mean (see Figure 9.5 — AR4 WGI Chapter 9: Understanding and Attributing Climate Change).

Figure b is a similar plot using simulations which consider only the natural influences on climate. The individual simulations are shown as thin blue curves. The thick blue line is the multi-model ensemble mean.

So, climate scientist have considered both natural and anthropogenic influences. And they are unable to reproduce the global temperature changes since 1970 unless anthropogenic influences are included.

That is why the IPCC has concluded that there is a high probability (>90%) that human influences are contributing to the current observed global temperature increase.

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eBook ’singles’ — and the problems Ken Perrott Jan 28

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Electronic books, and devices for reading them, are really taking off. In a way, this is reproducing the effect the digital revolution had on music.

One parallel may be with the purchase of music as “singles” rather than albums. The eBook format seems to be ideal for novels and trade books. But it looks like it may be even better for shorter books – the equivalent of music “singles.” Short books can be provided rapidly and cheaply. And they may be more suited to common reading habits than the longer more detailed books.

Amazon thinks so anyway. They recently launched their Kindle Singles selection. Relative short books  each presenting a compelling idea “expressed at its natural length.” And costing no more than a few dollars.

Enter TED Books

Now TED has taken hold of this idea. Many of you are aware of TED - the outfit which describes itself as “a small nonprofit devoted to Ideas Worth Spreading.” It promotes conferences, events and prizes. These bring together people from Technology, Education and Design. And the ideas are disseminated by videos of the short and stimulating talks given.

You have probably downloaded and watched some of the videos. If not – I recommend you try them out.

TED have just announced the launch of TED books. The publication of short books as eBooks. Effectively taking their videos into a book format. And they are being release through Amazon in the Kindle format.

So TED Books at Kindle Singles is really a book version of TED videos. Their press release announced the first three TED books published as Kindle Singles (The Happiness ManifestoHomo Evolutis and Beware Dangerism!)

This is great and I look forward to many more TED Books.  Well, I would if I could only read them on my Sony eBook reader!

My complaints

So here is my bitch. When the hell are book publishers going to get themselves sorted out? When are they going to overcome the problems presented by different formats and digital rights management?

Why can’t I read kindle books on my eBook reader? (It already accepts ePub and pdf).

Why should I have to purchase another reader (a Kindle) which may not be as good as my Sony Reader Touch, or less suitable for my purposes, just because of the format difference?

Of course I could use a Kindle app on an iPad. But why should I be forced to buy an expensive iPad just to do this? (And don’t tell me about iPods. I have one of these and, No, they are not suitable for comfortably reading eBooks. Nor is reading from a PC monitor comfortable).

Why can’t publishers produce their books in multiple formats? Some already do, but why don’t Amazon make available multiple formats (Kindle, ePub and pdf)?

I hope we are in a transitional phase and these problems will soon be resolved. But if they aren’t it will only encourage production of software which eBook buyers can use to convert formats. This will inevitably mean software for removing digital right management from eBooks to enable conversion.

And that will make eBook piracy a dream – something the publishers surely don’t want.

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Marie Curie Lecture Series — 2011 Ken Perrott Jan 27

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The Year of Chemistry 2011 site is providing information on local activities.

Marie Curie:Credit The Science Channel

The Marie Curie Lecture Series is worth looking forward to. These will run throughout 2011 and will be located around New Zealand. Female chemists will be reflecting on how chemistry affects and improves our lives and our society.

The series will be launched in Wellington with a talk by Professor Margaret Brimble, 2007 L’Oreal-UNESCO Women in Science Laureate:

Title: Exploring Nature’s Medicine Chest

When: Thursday 24 February 2011 at 6pm

Where: The Marae, Te Papa Museum, Wellington

The Year of Chemistry 2011 site describes the talk:

The intricate chemistry of nature has evolved over millions of years and we are in the exciting position to be able to recreate and craft the compounds that already exist in the world, in the laboratory. Professor Margaret Brimble’s research explores such possibilities and how we can best use these discoveries to create new medicines. Her lecture will showcase how natural products derived from microorganisms that live in extreme environments, and natural products produced by algal blooms, can be harnessed to develop novel anticancer, antibacterial and antiviral drugs and drugs to treat neurodegenerative diseases.

’Exploring Nature’s Medicine Chest’ is also the opening of the Marie Curie Lecture Series, a year- long national tour of talks by female New Zealand chemists in honour of Curie’s Nobel Prize in Chemistry for her ground-breaking studies in radium and polonium.

Thanks to:  Marie Curie Lecture Series | International Year of Chemistry.

Comparing blog visit statistics Ken Perrott Jan 26

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Every month I post a ranking of New Zealand blog sites which make their visit statistics available. Being basically lazy I do this automatically using a Google spreadsheet to import data from the appropriate site meter. The 7 day average visits are automatically updated in the NZ Blog Ranking web page. And the monthly ranking here.

Incidentally, I notice that these ranking tables are often being used by people wishing to browse New Zealand blogs. So it is worth bloggers including their blogs in the rankings just from the point of view of linking and traffic. Of course, it also gives bloggers some idea of how their visit numbers compare with other similar blogs.

There a range of methods for obtaining blog visit stats and they don’t necessarily measure the same thing. There is often confusion between visits by individuals and the number of page views in total. (An individual may visit several page during a single visit.)

Reported blog rankings are reliable

Fifteen months ago I compared the data reported by commonly used site meters. Specifically, Stat counter, Sitemeter, Shiny Stat and Go Stats. In the graphs below I report the resulting data normalised as a ratio of the data for one meter – Statcounter. (The data points are the visit numbers (or page views) for the specific meter divided by the visit numbers (or page views) for Statcounter.

Obviously the ratios vary over time and between meters. The Sitemeter and Statcounter data are most similar (average visit ratio of 0.96 and page view ratio of 1.02). Fortunately most bloggers use one of these two meters. Go Stat visit numbers  and Shiny Stat page views are a little low. I have yet to find a NZ blog using Go Stats and only a few use Shiny Stats.

This gives me some confidence that the reported rankings are realistic.

However, one problem I have identified is bloggers who use an entirely different method for obtaining their stats drawing false conclusions when they compare their data with the reported rankings. The old problem of comparing oranges and apples.

A common problem is where the blog is on a wider platform. An example is individual blogs on the NZ SciBlog platform. SciBlogs itself ranks very high (often number 5) but the individual bloggers (about 30 currently) ranking (for those which include site meters on their separate blog) is obviously much lower.  For example NZ SciBlogs is currently ranking at No. 5, whereas my syndicated blog at the platform (Open Parachute @ Sciblogs) is ranking at No. 36.

It’s worth checking which site meter is being used.

Comparing apples and oranges can be delusional

Another problem arose recently when a local blogger claimed very high traffic which would have ranked the blog number 4. Despite this the blog was not even showing on Alexa or Technorati – indicating much lower traffic.  My enquries elucidated the information that he was basing his claim on data extracted from his ISP server log files. There are programmes, such as Webalizer,  which can do this. They may be useful for analysing trends for a single blog but no way should they be used to compare data between blogs, especially when other site meters are used.

Example Webalizer chart
Webalizer stats
Image via Wikipedia

Server log file data is not easy to interpret.  It requires intelligent use to avoid over counting because of the way a page or visit may be interpreted. It can for example include each separate image file on a page as a visit if not careful. (See Simpletons Guide to Web Server Analysis).

Wikipedia also describes problems with the results from Webalizer (and this should apply to similar programmes):

’Generated statistics do not differentiate between human visitors and robots. As a result all reported metrics are higher than those due to people alone. Many webmasters claim that webalizer produces highly unrealistic figures of visits, which are sometimes 200 to 900% higher than the data produced by javascript based web statistics such as ’Google Analytics’ or ’StatCounter’.’

So, this blogger could analyse his data  for trends, page popularity, etc., but he was wrong to compare them with those obtained by other bloggers using site meters.

I advised him to install a site meter. But he may possibly be happier to keep the warm glow his server log files give him.

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Shoddy reporting on ’god genes’ Ken Perrott Jan 24


Having just read the paper referred to in my last post ) I was rudely distracted from my Sudoku puzzle during the TV news last night. A news report on this research grabbed my attention.

What a waste of time, though. Unfortunately it’s only value was as an example of the shoddy reporting which seems so frequent with science coverage these days.

What was the take home message for the ordinary viewer? – Scientists have discovered a “god gene”! A gene which makes people religious! We even got a shot of the first page of the paper to “prove” it. And other news sources have conveyed the same impressions (see for example Researcher discovers ’religion gene’; Scientist: Religion gene spreads the word).

No god gene discovered!

But this is not true. The paper was written by an economist, not a molecular biologist. He developed mathematical models which  assumed a single god gene, or at least “religious predisposition (“religiosity” for short) is determined by a single gene”

It was an assumption for his model. It was not proved. No gene was discovered or identified in this work.

So the person in the street has been left with the impression that science has discovered a “god gene.” Worse, if the person in the street thinks about this and realises how silly it is she will take home the message that some scientists are really stupid.

Having conveyed a completely false message the TV report went on with fillers to rub it is. They interviewed Christians at a church who said they were happy to “believe in Jesus” and that their god created these genes anyway so they must be good. An academic got a brief sound bite – but he was an “expert on religion” not evolution or genetics and clearly didn’t understand this issue.

Ignore research results!

The news report effectively ignored the real findings of this research paper. This was that the model (which also assumed a higher fertility for members of conservative fundamentalist religions) predicted a growing influence of such religious views. Either by simple dominance via fertility or by spreading of a “god gene” via defections.

Now this is worth discussing. Irrespective of genes the higher birth rate for members of conservative fundamentalist relgions is an empirical fact.  There has been some discussion of this in other media. See God’s little rabbits: Religious people out-reproduce secular ones by a landslide in Scientific American; Atheists a dying breed as nature ‘favours faithful’ in Sunday Times; and  Why I no longer believe religion is a virus of the mind and It seems religion is not a neurotic accretion on human nature in The Guardian.

And I am sure viewers would have found such news interesting. Just imagine all the discussion it would have provoked at home around the TV set. Rational and irrational. Thoughtful and racist. But interesting. And better out than in.

Why could that have not been the central point in the TV news item? And I am sure we have capable demographers and evolutionary scientists in New Zealand who could have added to the discussion.

That would have been worth putting my Sudoku aside for.

The god gene — or is it a meme? Ken Perrott Jan 24


Is humanity doomed to a future of religious fundamentalism? Some recent internet articles appear to suggest it is.

The prediction is based on the established fact that the birth rate for members of fundamental religions is much higher than for the non-religious, or the members of the more main line churches. Similarly some Europeans worry about Islamic immigration because Muslims also have a relatively high birth rate. They fear a future involving a majority Islamic religion in their countries.

A recent scientific paper written by economist Robert Rowthorn promoted some of this speculation (Religion, fertility and genes: a dual inheritance model. [See full text]). This presented a model based on the assumption of a “religious gene,” or at least a gene which “predisposed humans towards religion.” While they acknowledge that such predisposition is unlikely to  be determined by a single gene this simplification was required to make the analysis possible. And they argue that the general conclusions can be applied to the normally expected multi-gene situation.

Together with the fact that birth rates for many conservative, religious groups are much higher than for the non–religious population this model predicts that the human species will evolve to a situation where conservative, fundamentalist religions predominate.

What a horrible prospect. But is it at all realistic?

No religion gene

Many commenter have pointed out that there is no gene for religion. That religion is a cultural phenomenon – not biological. However, there may be an intermediate aspect. Perhaps certain personalities predispose an individual to be religious and maybe these are genetically determined and could be selected for by the reproduction policies of religious groups.

But there are several problems with this concept. Genetic determination is neither direct or simple. Even biological traits can be influenced by environmental  effects on gene expression. And evolution  by natural selection may very well dispose a population to having a distribution of complex characteristics like personality. The realities of interaction between individuals in human societies probably favours such an outcome where single personality types would not dominate.

“Religion” meaningless

There is another reason why I don’t like the whole idea of “religious genes” and genetic or personality determination of religion. That is because the word “religion” tends to be meaningless. Not only because the word covers a “multitude of sins” as it were. But because it really doesn’t describe the relevant aspects of people who belong to a religion.

Pascal Boyer explains this idea very well in his recent book The Fracture Of An Illusion: Science And The Dissolution Of Religion. (It’s well worth reading and I will be posting a review soon).

While “religion” may describe particular institutions and dogma it doesn’t describe the underlying reasons why people belong to such groups. Therefore scientific study of these phenomena requires breaking below the surface and investigating religious behaviors, rituals and relationships. The study of “religion” itself would ignore the real underlying and important features. It would be the study of dogma and church history. The story religious officials use to explain their origins.

So Boyer advocates the anthropological, evolutionary and cognitive investigation of behaviors, relationships and rituals. Not Churches and dogma. This helps explain the natural origins of “supernatural beliefs,” ideas of spirits, ghosts and gods. It explains them in terms of our cognitive and intuitional structures as well as their evolution. Similarly we can see the natural origins of “religious” behaviors quite divorced from modern church dogmas. Even in conflict with those dogmas. (For instance even in modern churches the lay parishioner probably has a more natural concept of the god being worshiped than the theologians or ministers teaching an advanced theological dogma. This often leads to conflicts between parishioners and church leaders over interpretation of dogma).

Natural religious beliefs and behaviours

So the natural religious beliefs and behaviors may have little to do with religion in the established form. They may not even require the sort of beliefs and rituals required by churches. Again there is a tension between the natural beliefs and the theological teachings and dogma.

In fact the evolved intuitions and cognitive structures, and personalities,  may be manifested in other than religious ways. We can, for instance, find purpose, community and uplifting ideas in political parties, sport groups and other social activities as well as in religion.

The evolved characteristics which may make some people more prone to “magical thinking” could be manifested in religious beliefs. Equally they could be manifested in activities like dramatic acting, stage personalities, etc. Perhaps even in the creativity of practicing atheist scientists. (Didn’t Einstein imagine riding a sunbeam?) Certainly conservative, masochistic and faithful followers may be just as happy in a political party as a church.

So I reject the idea that fundamentalist and conservative religion is transmitted to children genetically and that higher fertility of these groups will inevitable lead to our species evolving into a basically fundamentalist and conservative one. Nevertheless, there are other ways in which religious belief is transmitted inter-generationally. And that is be memes.

People have often observed that religion is inherited. But that is via the culture. And especially the family culture. It’s no wonder that a child which is protected form other ideas, perhaps home educated or educated in a faith school, is likely to inherit its parents religion. (Probably also their politics and football teams). So perhaps the cultural mechanism, specifically the hierarchical family culture, provides a mechanism for encouraging the spread of religion by simple spread of adherents through birth.

A human rights issue

It’s interesting that some theological commentators appear to welcome the religion gene idea (see Believers’ Gene’ May Help Spread Religion, Pastors Agree). However, most religious leaders are also very conscious of the role of memes, of family and church culture in “passing” on religion. And they also think it is very important to utilise this mechanism. Some passionately stress the importance of getting access to the child at its most vulnerable age. Conservative and fundamentalist religions promote religious instruction and religious control of education – even of subjects like science.

So perhaps there are aspects of our culture which are encouraging an increase in the numbers of conservative and fundamentalist religious people. But rather than seeing that as a future danger, as a problem for future generations, I think we should recognise it as a present danger.

Such conservative and fundamentalist religious instruction and control of children amounts to violation of their human rights.  Their education can be retarded and often their development as mature autonomous moral agents is inhibited. Religious dogma also tends to be divisory, especially when fundamentalist. Church members actively think in terms of “them vs us.” Children learn to see themselves as superiour to the schoolmates. Even that some of their fellow class members may be “evil” because of their different religion or beliefs (really the religion or beliefs of their families).

However these conservative and fundamentalist family cultures may not be as effective as they appear in the long run. Promotion of division and social tension  causes a reaction. Secular societies will not always be so amenable to financing faith schools and organisations which promote division.

I think also that education inevitably has an effect. People growing up today have many reasons to accept a good objective education and to interact with people of different beliefs, cultures and ethnicity. Education and growing living standards also help break down the hierarchical family. Women are more able to take advantage of what modern society can offer them and inevitably control their own fertility to make this possible.

So I really don’t think our biological evolution is threatened by a “religion gene.” And while religion is nowhere near dying a natural death I think that social and economic development will also reduce the influence of conservative and fundamentalist hierarchical family cultures.

I hope so anyway.

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See also:
Why we are all different (and not all religious)
There’s no such thing as a gene for religion

Certainty is useless — a scientific concept Ken Perrott Jan 21

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Each year John Brockman, the founder EDGE poses a question to a large number of public thinkers. He collects and publishes the answers – firstly on The Edge World Question Center website and then usually in book form. This year the question is:

“The term ‘scientific”is to be understood in a broad sense as the most reliable way of gaining knowledge about anything, whether it be the human spirit, the role of great people in history, or the structure of DNA. A “scientific concept” may come from philosophy, logic, economics, jurisprudence, or other analytic enterprises, as long as it is a rigorous conceptual tool that may be summed up succinctly (or “in a phrase”) but has broad application to understanding the world.”

It’s a great question – originally posed by Steven Pinker. And the answers from over 150 participants are included. You can read them at your leisure at the question center. Alternatively, download this pdf file, Scientific toolkit, I created (226 pages) to read on your eBook reader.

As an example – here’s a short answer contributed by CARLO ROVELLI, a theoretical physicist and author of The First Scientist: Anaximander and His Legacy“. It’s very relevant to some of the discussions that go on around here:

The Uselessness of Certainty.

There is a widely used notion that does plenty of damage: the notion of “scientifically proven”. Nearly an oxymoron. The very foundation of science is to keep the door open to doubt. Precisely because we keep questioning everything, especially our own premises, we are always ready to improve our knowledge. Therefore a good scientist is never ‘certain’. Lack of certainty is precisely what makes conclusions more reliable than the conclusions of those who are certain: because the good scientist will be ready to shift to a different point of view if better elements of evidence, or novel arguments emerge. Therefore certainty is not only something of no use, but is in fact damaging, if we value reliability.

Failure to appreciate the value of the lack of certainty is at the origin of much silliness in our society. Are we sure that the Earth is going to keep heating up, if we do not do anything? Are we sure of the details of the current theory of evolution? Are we sure that modern medicine is always a better strategy than traditional ones? No we are not, in none of these cases. But if from this lack of certainty we jump to the conviction that we better not care about global heating, that there is no evolution and the world was created six thousand years ago, or that traditional medicine must be more effective that the modern medicine, well, we are simply stupid. Still, many people do these silly inferences. Because the lack of certainty is perceived as a sign of weakness, instead of being what it is: the first source of our knowledge.

Every knowledge, even the most solid, carries a margin of uncertainty. (I am very sure about my own name … but what if I just hit my head and got momentarily confused?) Knowledge itself is probabilistic in nature, a notion emphasized by some currents of philosophical pragmatism. Better understanding of the meaning of probability, and especially realizing that we never have, nor need, ‘scientifically proven’ facts, but only a sufficiently high degree of probability, in order to take decisions and act, would improve everybody’ conceptual toolkit.

I am still browsing through the answers – but some others I really like are:

Truth is a Model by NEIL GERSHENFELD
Director, MIT Center for Bits and Atoms; Author, FAB

The Rational Unconscious by ALISON GOPNIK
Psychologist, UC, Berkeley; Author, The Philosophical Baby

The Virtues of Negative Results by KEVIN KELLY
Editor-At-Large, Wired; Author, What Technology Wants

The Expanding In-Group by MARCEL KINSBOURNE
Neurologist & Cognitive Neuroscientist, The New School; Coauthor, Children’s Learning and Attention Problems

Uncertainty by LAWRENCE KRAUSS
Physicist, Foundation Professor & Director, Origins Project, Arizona State University; Author, A Universe from Nothing; Quantum Man: Richard Feynman’s Life in Scienc.

But there are lots more.

Happy browsing!

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The nature of the science-religion conflict? Ken Perrott Jan 20


I think this cartoon really illustrates the differences.

Credit: – where would we be?.

’Other ways of knowing’ — some sense at last Ken Perrott Jan 19


There’s been a lot of rubbish written about “other ways of knowing”. So it’s quite refreshing to read Richard Carrier’s classification of methods of knowing. This is from his book Sense and Goodness Without God: A Defense of Metaphysical Naturalism. Well worthy reading by the way.

He starts by pointing out that no method of obtaining knowledge can produce absolute certainty. We can always be wrong, make mistakes. But we can list possible methods in order of reliability:

What is rational is to assign degrees of conviction to degrees of certainty established by a tried-and-tested method. What is rational is reasonable certainty, not absolute certainty.”

The methods of logic and mathematics are well-developed and provide the greatest certainty we have yet been able to find regarding anything, other than a present, uninterpreted experience. The next greatest certainty has been found in the application of scientific methods to empirical problems. In third place is our own daily experience, when interpreted with a logical or scientific mindset. Fourth is the application of critical-historical methods to claims about past events. Fifth is the application of the criteria of trust to the claims of experts. Sixth is the untested but logical application of inferential generalizations from incomplete facts–that is, plausible deductions. Such is the scale of methods that we have historically been able to discover and confirm as effective.”

“Experience shows that our degree of certainty will generally be weaker with regard to facts at each stage down this six-rung ladder, though within each category lies its own continuum of certainty and uncertainty, and the ladder itself is a continuum of precision and access to information: the more data we have to ground our conclusions, the farther up the ladder we find ourselves. Thus, mathematics is just perfected science; science, perfected experience; experience, perfected history; and history, perfected attention to experts; while plausible inference is what we are left with when we have none of those things.”

“Lacking any of the above approaches to the truth, we are faced with untrustworthy hearsay and pure speculation, where only the feeblest of certainty can ever be justified, if at all.”

Carrier writes that accurate methods of knowing have the properties of predictive success and convergent accumulation of consistent results.  However, these should be evaluated intelligently. Even the best method may produce faulty knowledge if used incorrectly.

So how do the different methods rate?:

1: Logic and mathematics

Produces the broadest, most complete and most consistent results. The methods are relatively simple and they involve few, precisely defined, predictions which are easily validated (as Carrier says – “in the laboratory of the mind”).

Logical claims are about the meaning of concepts, not details, and this limits the applicability of the method. It is also easily (and often) manipulated. For example logical arguments are presented as arbitrary lists (proving only that the “logician” can count) or based on shonky premises – chosen to produce the desired answer. This often happens with people arguing for strong ideological prejudices.

I think this can be countered using careful validation by other logicians or mathematicians. Many of the conclusions can also be validated (or proved wrong) by application of empirically based methods of knowing.

2: Scientific method

This is actually a whole complex of empirical methods, and also includes logic and mathematics. I think it is important to see that the method cannot be reduced to a simple algorithm. In reality science can be quite messy and influenced by subjective desires. But it also includes processes to reduce the influence of subjectivism and test resulting conclusions.

The method is not as certain as the logical-mathematical method. It is also a complicated, expensive, difficult and often lengthy process. Requiring special care and extensive evaluation. “But,” Carrier points out, “when these standards are met, well and properly, our conclusions will be the most certain we can achieve about facts outside the human mind, correcting even our own errors in direct experience.”

We need to appreciate, though, scientific knowledge is relative, always open to change and improvement as we acquire more empirical and logical information. And often science needs to talk in terms of probabilities rather than absolutes. On the other hand we are often able to quantify the probabilities involved.

3: Experience

Ultimately all out knowledge comes from our personal life experiences. And we know that knowledge is largely correct because very different people agree on these  conclusions.

But simple unexamined isolated experiences are not as trustworthy as many, well analysed and verified experiences. So we must accept that our knowledge based on personal experience is wrong if this is shown by science, logic or mathematics. The lesson here is that it is always best to examine out own experiences with logical reason and scientific honesty.

Richard Carrier points to the clear advantage of a personal philosophy of scientific naturalism. “For us, if we want greater certainty rather than less, the method of personal experience ought to be the simple practice of living a life of reason, applying scientific and logical principles whenever and wherever possible. This will ensure your life experience produces more reliable knowledge, and is more flexible (by being more open-minded and skeptical), and thus less challenged by the findings of science and logic.”

4: History

Because our evidence here is indirect, historical knowledge is less reliable than logic, scientific and personal experience.  And methods available to verify or confirm this knowledge are also indirect and less secure.

However, critical historical analysis can avoid or limit some of these problems. It’s also important to realise that some of the criticisms of “historical science” are mistaken in that that knowledge can often be derived from several different lines of empirical evidence, often derived from current measurements, which converge on a conclusion.

5: Expert testimony

This is important because most people rely on this sort of knowledge for often very important decisions.

Expert testimony is essentially derivative of the other methods. For example scientific experts may derive their authority from actual involvement in the scientific, logical and mathematical methods.

Experts will clearly provide more reliable and trustworthy knowledge that non-experts. This places importance on criteria for determining the reliability of experts. Its worth “testing” them for reliability.

For example:

  • Are their qualifications relevant to the questions at hand;
  • Is their testimony confirmed by other reliable experts
  • Is their evidence that the experts adhere to  reliable methods of gaining their knowledge
  • Do the experts make an effort to avoid or correct for their personal biases.

Clearly experts can be wrong and ideally their advice should be checked by other more reliable methods where possible. Their expertise counts for nothing if their advice conflicts with knowledge obtained logically, mathematically and scientifically.

These are important qualifications for the person in the street who often relies on expert testimony for input to their own important decisions. Just consider, for example, the political importance of expert testimony when considering climate change and political decisions arising from it. Unfortunately, many people “choose” their expert using confirmation bias rather than objective assessment. The advice from Richard Carrier on the personal advantage of scientific naturalism (see 3: Experience above) is relevant here.

A claimed area of expertise may be inappropriate to the question at hand. For example, militant theists will often argue that comments, articles  and books written by scientists, philosophers and others questioning existence of gods are irrelevant becuase these people are not theologians. As Richard Carrier points out “a theologian may be an expert on theology, but that only means he has a genuine experts in concepts of theology, not that he is an expert on factual questions like whether a god exists or whether Catholicism is the One true religion. No one can be an expert on these questions becuase no one has any real evidence for them, at least evidence properly produced by one or more of the superior methods above. A theologian can hardly claim any more experience with an actual god than we can.”

And we need to recognise that in some areas “like theology we find very little agreement among qualified experts, and a vast influence of ideological bias that is rarely placed under any objective control.”

6: Plausible inference

It is reasonable to trust plausible inference and inferential generalisations if well argued. But we shouldn’t give these more credence than the more reliable methods of knowing.

I believe this method has an important role in science and should not be rejected just because the evidence is incomplete or missing. Speculation and wild ideas are an important source of creativity and of hypotheses for testing.

In fact some ideas or hypotheses based on plausible inference may have useful explanatory power and be useful where validation is not yet possible. Consider “String Theory” and the “Multiverse” ideas.

However, we should expect that a proportion of ideas based on plausible inference will fail when tested scientifically. This is a salutary lesson all good scientists learn early in their career.

7: Pure faith

These are beliefs based solely on tradition, hearsay, mere speculation, desires and wishes.  Beliefs in ungrounded assertions.

We know from experience that such beliefs usually turn out to be false. Just consider all those legends, traditional myths and superstitions which have been shown wrong throughout history. Yet the method of pure faith transmits beliefs without any regard to their truth. Faith conveys false beliefs just as well as it does true ones.

So the probability of faith-based beliefs being reliable must be low. Carrier writes: “blind faith is inherently self-defeating. The number of false beliefs always vastly outnumbers the true. It follows that any arbitrary method of selection will be maximally successful at selecting false beliefs.”

Some sense at last!

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Culture and the scientific renaissance Ken Perrott Jan 17


Book review: Science Is Culture: Conversations at the New Intersection of Science + Society Edited by Adam Bly

Price: US$10.87; NZ$26.99
Paperback: 368 pages
Publisher: Harper Perennial; Original edition (October 12, 2010)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0061836540
ISBN-13: 978-0061836541

Adam Bly is the founder of Seed Media Group. He created the on-line magazine, Seed, and other web sites to capture the 21st century scientific renaissance. But at the same time these have had to counter the antiscientific movement which has been trying to prevent this cultural shift.

Bly suggests that despite the obvious success of science and its benefit to humanity this cultural shift has yet to be bedded in ’We are on the cusp of this renaissance, not in the midst of it. For all that science has contributed to our lives in the past half-century, it hasn’t yet universally changed the way we think. And it won’t unless we understand and address why.’

Despite widespread denial of a science-religion conflict Bly suggests that this conflict is a reason the scientific renaissance has yet to flourish. ’Because science and religion are at war, embroiled in a battle that has not strengthened either side; it has served only to strengthen the bases, not convert the masses. (And the base for religion is a lot bigger than the base for science!). That’s not to say the ’culture war’ has not been an intellectually useful exercise; it has. But religion will not overturn science and science will not overturn religion; both are too fundamentally rooted in society.’

This book aims at strengthening then appreciation of science, without destroying religious. He suggests we educate children ’to embrace the scientific method. . . . . . We should be reminded always that we have the right to question everything — that changing our minds with new evidence is a virtue not a cause for condemnation.’ As he sees it ’science should precede faith but not seek to overturn it.’

Aesthetic appreciation of science

And part of this appreciation is aesthetic. Quoting Richard Feynman’s response to an artist friend who criticised the dullness of scientific investigation: ’A science knowledge only adds to the excitement and mystery and the awe of a flower. It only adds. I don’t understand how it subtracts.’

So the discussions explain these aspects of the cultural role of science. In general he has paired scientists with non-scientists to explore ideas of interest to them and to all of us.

  • Biologist Edward O. Wilson and philosopher Daniel C. Dennett discuss the history of science and philosophy, the study of consciousness and religion, and approaches to ethics. (’Evolutionary Philosophy’).
  • Novelist Rebecca Goldstein discusses consciousness, gossip, story telling and the pursuit of knowledge with psychologist Steven Pinker. (’The Problems of Consciousness’).
  • Marc Hauser, an evolutionary psychologist, and documentary film-maker Errol Morris discuss the science of morality in ’Morality’
  • Activist film-maker Laurie David discusses climate issues with Stephen Schneider in ’Climate politics.’
  • Evolutionary biologist Robert Trivers and linguist Noam Chomsky discuss their common interests — the study of deceit and self-deception in ’War and Deceit’.
  • Historian Peter Galison discusses models of the universe and its origins with theoretical physicist Paul Steinhardt in ’The Physics of infinity.’
  • Artist Natalie Jereijenko discusses progress, the nature of science and how to think like a scientist with physicist Lawrence Krauss (’Who Makes science?’).
  • Anthropologist Spencer Wells and writer Will Self discuss the evolutionary results of urbanisation and what it means to be human (’What is Human?).

Worth following up

And that is only 16 of the participants — 8 discussions. Altogether there are 22 such discussions. With an average length of 15 pages each discussion is short enough to read in a single sitting. And as a collection the reader is free to delve into the book at any point, selecting the discussion of interest at the time. This makes it easy to read. But the prominence and original thinking of the participants also make these discussions stimulating and thought-provoking.

The Goldstein – Pinker discussion motivated me to buy Rebecca Goldstein’s novel 36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction.’ And I enjoyed it.

I suspect other readers will also use this collection as an introduction and will follow up authors in a similar way.

So a great book for the intelligent browser. And as a bonus — each discussion is illustrated by full-face, black-and-white portraits of the participants.

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