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Archive July 2011

‪Videos on morality Ken Perrott Jul 31

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I often discuss a scientific approach to morality‪ because I find this an interesting and developing field. However, morality is still sometimes linked in the public mind with religion, so it’s worth actually considering those religious arguments.

QualiaSoup is currently posting a useful YouTube video series on morality. I have posted No 2 below. It deals with the problems of religious morality, or the “divine command” concept of morality. It’s quite thorough.

Morality 2: Not-so-good books‬‏.

There is at least one more video to come in this series.

No 1, Good without God, is below.

Morality 1: Good without God‬‏.

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Pat Churchland on the science of morality Ken Perrott Jul 28

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A few months ago there was a flurry of attention around Sam Harris’s book The Moral Landscape and lectures he gave around the time of its publication. A lot of it critical – but not all.

I thought the value of this book is that he did take on the problem of moral relativism in a way that religious moralists have been unable to. I think his contribution was valuable for that.

But, people seem to be ignoring a better book recently published on this subject. This is Patricia Churchland’s Braintrust: What Neuroscience Tells Us about Morality. I highly recommend it as being very sensible and enlightening. it also will answer some of the questions readers might feel Sam Harris was unable to.

I have written before on this book and some of Churchland’s talks. However, I think a recent podcast will be very useful for those following this subject. It’s from The Partially Examined Life (Episode 41: Pat Churchland on the Neurobiology of Morality (Plus Hume’s Ethics)). The discussion is with  Mark and Dylan Casey who are relatively knowledgable on philosophy so Pat’s arguments are quite deep. However, even non-philosophers will get a lot from the discussion. It’s 1 hr 45 min long but you can  Download the podcast (96.1MB)

There are three points I wish to make on the content of the podcast:

1: Is consciousness over-rated?

Pat Churchland devoted little of her discussion to the unconscious, or subconscious, aspects of human morality. The conscious aspects are important to understanding social rules and lawmaking, and to understanding how humans set up moral societies. But at the day-to-day and personal level our instincts and intuitions are critical. We operate largely in the automatic mode.

I am sure Pat acknowledges the important role of the subconscious, it’s just that in this discussion it was not really covered.

2: What do we mean by “right” and “wrong”?

I would love Pat to delve into this aspect more deeply. She does divorce the concepts from any absolute or objective meaning, particularly a divine one. At the same time she is not adopting a purely relativist approach. I feel sure that she would accept that while morality is not objective, it does at least have a objecitve basis in the facts of situations and in human make up. Particularly in the human brain.

However, most people do feel there is something special about saying something is “right” or “wrong”. It feels absolute or objective. We are not just expressing an opinion.

Personally, I think this is part of our evolved moral intuitions. We have evolved to operate in an automatic mode – we just don’t have time to apply reasoning and logic to every moral situation we face. Consequently there needs to be some sort of emotional/intuitional feeling about our possible responses and decisions. We need to feel that we are doing the correct thing. That it is “right.” Or that something we find disagreeable or repugnant is “wrong.” Emotionally, not logically. Churchland does describe in her book how these intuitions can evolve naturally from the interests of living organisms.

So we have these strong feelings/emotions of “right” and “wrong.” So strong, and  partly because they are automatic, they can at times seem external. It is no accident that cartoons will often portray our conscience as a little being sitting on our shoulder and advising us. That is what it feels like.

So I can see why many people will argue that our concepts of right and wrong are objective, presented to us externally (and therein we get the leap of logic to divine beings and divine commands). But we can see the intuitions of “right” and “wrong” are really evolved. Not objective or absolute. And, capable of changing over time as society changes or more information is required. This is quite consistent with an objectively based morality.

3: Pat is really more helpful than Sam

I found Pat’s comments on Sam Harris’s book far more critical than I have heard from her in the past. They are friends so her criticisms are not a personal attack – they are the evaluation of a philosopher and neuroscientist. Consequently her criticisms are far more relevant than those made by theological critics. We all know what is driving them, and that is why their critiques usually have no value.

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Breivik’s terrorism and science Ken Perrott Jul 26

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People gather around a makeshift memorial outside the Domkirken church in Oslo on July 25, 2011 where a minute of silence was observed. Photographer: Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP

OK, the connection between the Norwegian terrorism and science may not be immediately obvious. And I don’t refer here to the chemistry of his bomb manufacture (which he relates at length in his compendium).

No, I refer to his attitude towards science as demonstrated by the little tirade in the compendium about climate change (see Chapter 2.72: Green is the new red – Stop Enviro-communism.)

Here he presents climate science as having an agenda “to contribute to create as world government lead by the UN or in other ways increase the transfer of resources (redistribute resources) from the developed Western world to the third world.” He calls it the “Anthropogenic Global Warming scam.” He recommends a video starring our old friend Christopher Monckton. And presents the classical denier rave about “climategate.”

It’s all stuff we had heard before – and actually local climate change denier Ian Wishart presents this very same conspiracy in his book Air Con (which I reviewed in Alarmist con).

And that is the thing about his compendium. it mostly reads like a cut-and-paste from conservative websites, blogs and forums. Sure, he may have added a little in terms of a programme to assassinate many people throughout Europe, listing organisations and political parties he targets. And the explicit threat or programme of violence is not usually articulated in those conservative sources. But his whole justification is based on that conservatism and the conservative issues like anti-communism, climate change denial, promotion of patriarchy and theocracy and opposition to liberalism and feminism. These conservative issues have fed his hatred, advocacy of violence and assassination programme.

I am actually intrigued that almost all the local blogs who have in the past promoted the ideas covered by this compendium have been strangely silent on the terror in Norway. There hasn’t (so far) been a squeak of condemnation or comment from the usual list of climate change denier and conservative Christian blogs. It must be embarrassing for them to see such an inhuman terrorist advocating for the same issues they have in the past.

Conservative “catalysts”

But there have been commentators who have argued in support of Breivik’s ideas. Usually they start by clarifying that they are opposed to the murder and terrorism, “, but . . . .!.” As a mate of mine used to say you can usually ignore everything that comes before the word “but.”

For example, a commenter here claims “the ’multi-cultural’ issue has provided the catalyst for this act.’  I bet conservatives throughout Europe are doing the same thing – opportunistically using this dreadful event to argue their extreme approach to the cultural problems in Europe. Fortunately the Norwegians have adopted a far more adult and humane response – and most people admire them for it.

This “catalyst” argument can, and probably will, be used on all these issues – feminism, religion, climate change, immigration, religious privilege, etc., – to divert the discussion onto conservative hobby horses. And away from the immense and real problem of hatred and terrorism.

And if we want to look for real catalysts none of these issues really qualify. The real catalyst for Breivik’s terror is the climate of conservative hatred that is so often promoted on these issues. The “them vs us” mentality promoted on issues like feminism, politics, reproductive rights, family, climate change, etc.

It’s not a terrifically big step to go from Christopher Monckton’s advocacy of prosecuting climate scientists and imprisoning the to the final solution – assassination of one’s political foes, even those with the same ethnicity and religion. Even children or teenagers (as in the Labour Party camp on Utøya).

So you don’t have to

Breivik has been very clever in preparing and making his compendium freely available before his acts of terror. He obviously fantasised that these ideas could lead to popular support for a patriotic, conservative, European revolution.

I certainly hope it has the opposite reaction. Once people see these relatively populist conservative issues connected with sich inhumane terror, surely this will help discredit those ideas? (Perhaps that’s why the local conservative bloggers are so quiet). So in a sense I think it is worth becoming familiar with his programme.

Few people will bother reading this tedious 1500 page document but much of it will be repeated on the internet and in newspapers. I recommend anyone interested to follow JeffSharlet (@JeffSharlet) on twitter. he is currently reading, and briefly reporting on, that document. Follow the tag  #ReadingBreivik. Sharlet is a published author – I recommend his books C Street: The Fundamentalist Threat to American Democracy and The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power.  Jeff will probably be writing some in-depth articles on Breivik and there is rumour of a Blogging Heads interview.

Breivik has made problems of “multi-culturalism” worse

Finally, Sam Harris makes some valid points in his blog post Christian Terrorism and Islamophobia. He is critical of the presentation of  as a “Christian fundamentalist.” He is clearly a cultural Christian and advocates elements of theocracy and religious discrimination. But his writing don’t across as that of a fundamentalist. Clearly conservative and anti-Islam.

But that introduces another problem. There are religious and cultural problems in Europe. There is a lot of Islamophobia. The later makes proper discussion of these problems difficult. A simple discussion of religious privilege, problems of Sharia law, tax exemptions, faith schools, etc., can cause a naive liberal response involving charges of islamophobia.

So the diversionist tactic promoting the idea that the cause of this terrorism is the “catalyst” of Islam or “multi-culturalism” will only increase the reluctance to sensibly discuss these issues.

As Sam says: “the final irony of Breivik’s despicable life is that he has made that truth even more difficult to speak about.”

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Terror in Norway Ken Perrott Jul 24

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Norwegian island of Utøya

The bombing and mass murder in Oslo and Utøya, Norway, are both a shock and a surpise. How could the terrorist be so inhuman? And why Norway, usually considered one of the most sensible countries in the world?

Maybe we will get some answers. The suspect seems to want a platform and surrendered peacefully. His trial will be followed around the world.

But this act of terror brought two major thoughts to me;

1: Children as victims of terror

Schoolchildren killed during Beslam school seizure. Photo by Sergey Ponomarev, AP

I was particularly shocked during the 2004 Beslam school hostage situation in Russia about the fact that innocent children, many attending school for their first time, were taken as hostages. And many of them became victims. Terrorism raises the horror of the indiscriminate killing of people at random. But to target children is particularly inhuman.

The worst thing for a parent is to attend the funeral of their child. Usually such deaths are unexpected, and always tragic. Whereas you can celebrate the life of a grandparent who died of old age (and hopefully with dignity) – but with your child you can only mourn the loss of a life that might have been. This loss is not only tragic for the child, and her loved ones – particularly parents and siblings. It is also tragic for society which loses all the potential benefits and pleasure that could have resulted from that life.

The murder of about 90 young people who were just starting out on such a life is a tragedy for all of Norway. And one can only imagine the long-term psychological effects the murders have created in the minds of the survivors.

2: Terrorism is domestic

The automatic first reaction of the media was to see this as an imported act of terror. In fact, some sections of the media seem to have reduced their coverage when it became obvious the terrorist was local, white and probably Christian.

But most terrorism is domestic. It’s easy to immediately think of the attacks on New York’s Twin Towers in 2001 when terrorism comes to mind. But most acts of terror are committed by terrorists in their own country, against their own people. Very often against people of the same religion. Most acts of terror occur in countries like Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and Iraq.

Even in the case of European bombings, like Madrid and London, it’s easy to label them as Islamist and therefore foreign. Despite the fact that the bombers may have been local citizens with a mentality deformed by their local situations as well as their own or their parents origins.

So while the US had the Twin Towers, it also had the Oklahoma bombing and other local acts of terrorism.

Bush’s “War on terror” seems particularly perverted. As does NZ Prime Minister John Key’s assertion that we were doing our bit against terrorism by participating in that war.  Why should one think invading a country around the other side of the world is going to prevent terror? It does nothing to target people like the Oklahoma bomber, or the social defects and ideologies which produced him.

Norway’s involvement in Afghanistan has done nothing to overcome the ills of the local society which have produced people like this current terrorist.

Ernie Abbott – victim of Wellington Trades Hall bombing

Norway also shows us that even a country like New Zealand is not immune to terrorism. Even here, though, when we think of local terrorism we think of the 1985 Rainbow Warrior bombing by French agents. But we should also remember the bombing of the Wellington Trade’s Hall in 1984 which caused the death of Ernie Abbott (see Trades Hall bombing remains unsolved, 24 years on). This was most likely caused by a domestic terrorist with an ideology and motivation fueled by class hatred and the political rhetoric of the time.

The media is starting to release information on the person arrested for these acts of terrorism in Norway. The trial should produce a wealth of more reliable information. But so far it seems to me that the motives and ideology of the Norwegian terrorist are probably similar to those of the (still not caught) local terrorist responsible for Ernie Abbott’s death in 1984.

I think there is a lesson here.We should not see terrorism as a foreign problem, or an imported on. If it can happen in Norway it can happen anywhere. It can happen here.

We won’t solve that problem by invading foreign countries. We need to deal with the real causes of terrorism locally. By coming to grips with the factors responsible for fueling the ideologies motivating and promoting extremism and hatred in our own countries.

See also:
The tragedy on Utøya – an attempt to understand
What did the Oslo killer want?
Christian Extremist Charged in Norway
Random thoughts on the Norwegian tragedy
A glimpse into the deranged mind of a mass murderer
Oslo Terrorist Anders Behring Breivik Manifesto

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Atlantis returns home — viewed from ISS Ken Perrott Jul 22

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This is a time exposure taken from the International Space Station (ISS). It shows the plasma trail of Atlantis as it travelled through the atmosphere on its final return from orbit.

Thanks to NASA – Station Crew Views Shuttle Landing.

Background Briefing for Mockton’s NZ visit Ken Perrott Jul 21

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Christopher Monckton speaking in Melbourne last year. (Photo: Australian Conservative.)

Apparently Christopher Monckton will visit New Zealand for a few days (August 4 – 7) at the end of his Australian tour. His fanboys in the local climate change denier/contrarian/sceptic groups will obviously do their best to make as much publicity out of the visit as possible.

Others who want a more balanced assessment of Monckton might like to listen to the Backgrounder prepared by the Australian ABC (see Background Briefing – 17 July 2011 – The Lord Monckton roadshow). It includes extensive recordings of Monckton’s statements plus checking of many of his claims (he is often completely wrong and misrepresents science and scientists). There is also information on his mining industry financial backers.

The backgrounder illustrates how Monckton is attempting to whip up an anti-science and anti-scientists campaign (listen to him present his aim to prosecute and imprison scientists). The experience of the reporter who was exposed to the hysterical anti-media campaign at one of his meetings is also enlightening.

Download Audio – 17072011
Listen Now – 2011-07-17

See also:
Background Briefing on Monckton
Monckton’s Nazi jibe over the top: Abbott
A letter to Viscount Monckton of Brenchley from the Clerk of the Parliaments
Astroturfing works, and it’s a major challenge to climate change
Monckton requires religious certification for scientists?

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Science has the real debate Ken Perrott Jul 19

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Christopher Monckton – Credit: abc

Stephan Lewandowsky from the University of Western Australia has a very topical opinion piece in The Drum (see  The difference between scientific debate and phoney talkfests). Topical here as well as Australia because some local climate change deniers/contrarians/sceptics are attempting to finance a visit from Lord Monckton at the end of his current Australian tour. That may not come off (they are currently attempting to find a few donors willing to put in large amounts of cash) but the article is still relevant.

Stephan compares two events:

1: “The International Union of Geodesy and Geophysics (IUGG) General Assembly, which attracted 3,200 of the world’s leading experts to Melbourne earlier this month to debate the state of the planet and its future,” and

2: The Australian visit of Vaudevillian climate “sceptic” Lord Monckton, who is currently scouring Australia for venues for his theatrical performances but has given wide berth to the IUGG meeting.”

And we should keep this comparison in mind when these local organisers demand that scientists debate Monckton at public venues. We should recognise this is just their way of attempting to get credibility for minority ideas be getting a place on stage with the real experts. After all, aren’t we justified to ask – if Monckton has any credible point to make why did he not attend, and contribute to, the IUGG General Assembly?

As Stephan says; “For scientists, there is no reason to engage with individuals in an academic setting who refuse scientific debate and accountability, and who demonstrably have nothing to bring to a debate.”

But Stephan finishes with an excellent point:

“Does this mean no debate is ever possible?

No, of course not.

Science is debate.

And the door to scientific debate, on climate or HIV/AIDS or Prospect Theory, is wide open to anyone, even occasional travel photographers: all they have to do is to become knowledgeable in a field and subject their ideas to scrutiny by publishing in the peer-reviewed literature.

If their ideas survive scrutiny, they are then worthy of the public recognition that deniers so crave but which they cannot responsibly be given until then.”

See also:
A letter to Viscount Monckton of Brenchley from the Clerk of the Parliaments
Astroturfing works, and it’s a major challenge to climate change

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Bias in the history of science Ken Perrott Jul 18

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I am currently reading Retrying Galileo, 1633-1992 by Maurice A. Finocchiaro. This certainly provides some background to the current mythology about the Galileo affair (see The Galileo myths). Apparently Galileo’s trial never stopped with his sentencing in 1633 – he has been continually re-trialled ever since. So many myths, both anti-Galileo and anti-Church, have been promoted over the intervening years.

On the one hand this does show how susceptible history is to the confirmation bias of the individual historian. But it also provides plenty of “authentic” quote-mining material for the current Galileo mythologists.

Where is the sympathy for science?

What drives this common bias on such subjects? I naively expected that experts from other fields who make a living studying or commenting on science to be sympathetic with scientific processes and understanding of scientific method. Retrying Galileo shows this is not always the case.

We can see plenty of examples where such experts have been hostile to science. For example, the proponents of intelligent design (ID) had “philosophers of science” as expert witnesses at the Kitzmiller v Dover trial (see Intelligent design and scientific methodThese “philosophers of science” were effectively defending a perverted “theistic” science. Similar the “sociologist of science” Steve Fuller was an expert witness supporting ID. He has since written posts on the ID blog site Uncommon Design and authored a book defending ID – Science v. Religion? Intelligent Design and the Problem of Evolution.

When I realised that sociologists of science study and advise on science management and funding that had me worried. Mind you, perhaps it explains the phenomenon I noticed during my career – some of those managing our science were actually anti-science!

This tweet from historian of science James Hannam is another example that concerned me:

@DrJamesHannam: Could science come to regret claiming to have all the answers? It can cost you when you get it wrong. “

Now as the author of God’s Philosophers and The Genesis of Science: How the Christian Middle Ages Launched the Scientific Revolution – how does Hannam make such a mistake? Who the hell claims science has all the answers – certainly not the practitioners of science. Nor should a respectable historian of science.

Back to the Galileo myths

Another example of confirmation bias is the attitude of Elaine Howard Ecklund, author of the book Science vs. Religion: What Scientists Really Think (see Are scientists hostile to religion? for my review). She claimed many of the scientists she interviewed  gave the Galileo affair as “a central piece of their evidence that religion and science are in entrenched conflict.” But as she says – “Galileo was never tortured; that’s a myth.”

True – and I wonder how many scientists specifically claimed he was tortured. She does not quote a single example. (See The Galileo myths for my point that these sort of claims are themselves myths – no reputable history of science makes this claim today and I seriously suspect not many informed scientists do either). But Ecklund felt it necessary to expand on her assertion by presenting a lengthy quote from Koestler’s history of the affair in The Sleepwalkers. This is one of the anti-Galileo “histories.” In Retrying Galileo Finocchiaro claims that Koestler “disliked Galileo” and described Koestler’s history as a “popular libel against Galileo”. So her quote implied that Galileo did not deserve our current assessment of him as one of the great fathers of modern science. And made a number of straw man assertions aimed at discrediting Galileo – eg., “Galileo did not invent the telescope; nor the microscope; nor the thermometer; nor the pendulum clock . . and did not prove the truth of the Copernican system.”

In his book Sense and Goodness Without God: A Defense of Metaphysical Naturalism, philosopher and historian of science Richard Carrier discusses methods of gaining knowledge at length. He points to problems that historians face in obtaining reliable knowledge but suggests they can usually do so by adopting specific historical methodologies.

I really like his warning to “recognize that almost any story can be an invention”:

“So the First Rule of Historical Method is: don’t believe everything you read. A believable history has to be constructed from several converging lines of evidence that have been critically and skillfully examined, and not every piece of evidence is equally trustworthy. Humans are notorious liars, eager exaggerators, and happy to believe almost anything they agree with. Skepticism is a virtue–but unfortunately a rare one, even rarer than honesty.”

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Seven years of discovery Ken Perrott Jul 15

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While the Shuttle launches and the International Space Station get the media attention I am always impressed by the deep space research that is quietly going on.

This weekend NASA’s Dawn spacecraft will (hopefully) go into orbit around the asteroid Vesta. This photo of Vesta was taken by the spacecraft last weekend.

With a diameter of about 500 km Vesta is the second largest asteroid in the solar system. Dawn will spend one year orbiting Vesta and will then travel to the largest asteroid (1000 km diameter) Ceres. There it will spend 5 months in orbit carrying out similar studies.

Because these asteroids may have remained intact since formation of the solar system they should reveal information dating back to that time. They also have differences (Vesta formed a few million years before Ceres) which will also be illuminating.

This diagram shows the trajectory of Dawn’s trip, together with dates.

See also:
Dawn Spacecraft Poised to Enter Orbit at Vesta Asteroid: Scientific American.
All eyes on Vesta
Looming Larger: Dawn Approaches Vesta, Enters Orbit July 15-16

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Your chance for a free book Ken Perrott Jul 14

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Expert WitnessHere’s a chance to win a book from SciBlogs NZ. The book is Anna Sandifords Expert Witness. It describes what forensic science is really like, and shares tales from the forensic front-line in New Zealand and overseas.

Go to Code for Life’s post A forensic scientist tells it like it is — free book to give away for a review and details of the giveaway. To enter the giveaway just comment after the review giving one question you would ask if you met a forensic scientist.

(I don’t see the expiry date so recommend you be in quick).

Anna blogs at The Forensic Group which is also syndicated at SciBlogs NZ – Forensic Scientist.

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