Archive April 2012

The problem with philosophy Ken Perrott Apr 30

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First some light philosophical relief – Monty Python’s Football – before the serious issues

There has been a bit of a donnybrook recently over the science-philosophy conflict. (Dare we talk about a “conflict model” of the science-philosophy relationship?).

There is evidence of some accumulated antagonism on both sides. But this time the spark was some ungentlemanly comments made by Lawrence Krauss. Or perhaps the spark was the “scathing” New York Times review of his recent book (A Universe from Nothing) by David Albert (wearing his philosopher hat) – Albert’s comments were more sophisticated but nevertheless were hardly gentlemanly.

In an interview with Ross Anderson published in The Atlantic (Has Physics Made Philosophy and Religion Obsolete?) Krauss referred to “moronic philosophers  that have written about my book” and made some general criticisms of philosophy, and especially the philosophy of science as it is practised. Have a look at the interview for the details.

Then other philosophers joined the battle. Massimo Pigluicci, never one to stay away from such a stoush, retaliated with Lawrence Krauss: another physicist with an anti-philosophy complex hinting that this conflict was a lot wider than individuals, a book and its review. I am not surprised – in general I enjoy Pigluicci’s writing but feel that he throws around criticisms of scientists, and words like “scientism”, far too liberally. He sank to Krauss’s level by describing him as a “brilliant (as a physicist) moron.” But he did deal with some of the mores substantive criticisms made by Krauss. Again, refer to his article for the details.

Justin Vacula made what I thought were more unemotional criticisms of Krauss’s comment in A response to Lawrence Krauss’ comments denigrating philosophy at American Atheists’ 2012 convention. And physicist Sean Carroll recently contributed some useful comments in his post at Cosmic Variance (see A Universe from Nothing?). Actually, I recommend Carroll’s book From Eternity to Here  which deals with similar issues to those in Krauss’s book.

Diversity in philosophy

So what are we to think, especially as both sides appeared to be generalising about the other? Is the “conflict model” of the science-philosophy relationship factual, or just a myth? Have they been fated to be in continual argument since they divided centuries ago?

I think yes and no. In the sense that some schools of philosophy seem inevitably bound to conflict with science, while other schools don’t. In a real sense philosophy as a discipline is far more diverse, or divided, than is science. When one is dealing with the real world, interacting with it, testing and validating one’s ideas and theories against reality, there is less room for long-lasting divisions. On the other hand philosophy can be practised by people from an armchair, never bothering to keep up with current scientific knowledge.

Let me quickly add I am not talking about all philosophers by any means. there are many who interact and cooperate with practising scientists. Who learn from science and develop their philosophy accordingly. There can be a very fruitful and practical relationship between scientists and philosophers.

I have had an interest in the philosophy of science since my student days and early on became aware of the existence of diverse philosophical schools.  This was brought home to me when a professor gave us a lecture on “THE philosophy of science” in a chemistry lecture. What he understood by the words was quite different to what I understood by them. Since then I have thought scientists have an inbuilt suspicion of philosophy. If only because they abhor the idea of imposition of ideological dogma on their research justified as “the philosophy of science.” We have seen it before, haven’t we?

So, being very much aware of this “problem of philosophy”* – 0f the existence of different trends, often with ideological tinges, I was relieved to see that Krauss actually apologised for his blanket criticisms of philosophy in his Scientific American columnThe Consolation of Philosophy.” This was subheaded “An update by the author of “A Universe from Nothing” on his thoughts, as a theoretical physicist, about the value of the discipline of philosophy.”

I like the way he finished the column:

“So, to those philosophers I may have unjustly offended by seemingly blanket statements about the field, I apologize.  I value your intelligent conversation and the insights of anyone who thinks carefully about our universe and who is willing to guide their thinking based on the evidence of reality.   To those who wish to impose their definition of reality abstractly, independent of emerging empirical knowledge and the changing questions that go with it, and call that either philosophy or theology, I would say this:  Please go on talking to each other, and let the rest of us get on with the goal of learning more about nature.”

I agree with him.

* Before some of the philosophically-inclined take umbrage at my title “The problem of philosophy” please note I use it in the spirit of physicist Lee Smolin’s book title “The Trouble With Physics.” That was not dissing physics – far from it. He was discussing some issues within current physics and the  problems they create.

Puddles and ’fine-tuning’ Ken Perrott Apr 29

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I like this image. It really brings home the implications of Douglas Adams‘ comment ridiculing creationist assumptions.

Image credit: kingofgeek.

It also puts the so-called “fine-tuning” arguments in their place. These have got the situation “arse about face.”

Far from the whole universe being fine-tuned to produce intelligent animals like us, we are inevitably “fine-tuned” by our environment. Natural selection has produced organisms which are tuned to survive in the existing universe (or our part of it).

It couldn’t be otherwise.

Strangely the Biologic Institute (the creationist Discovery Institute “research arm”) also noted this comment of Douglas Adams. Their response: “Well, if a puddle actually woke up and thought anything, it would be entitled to that opinion.”

I think they missed the point.

See also:
Bafflingly inane post at Biologic Institute
Discovery Institute: What Are They Thinking?

Great science talks in Auckland Ken Perrott Apr 27


There’s some great talks coming up in the Auckland Writers and Readers Festival involving science writers. Unfortunately they are selling out quick – so if you are interested I recommend booking right away.

Here are the details:


In the mere span of a human lifetime, our understanding of the universe has changed completely.

Celebrated prize-winning scientist, public intellectual and accomplished speaker Professor Lawrence Krauss is one of the leading figures in this golden age of cosmology.

Currently based at the Arizona State University, he is the author of The Physics of Star Trek (1995), Quantum Man: Richard Feynman’s Life in Science (2010) and, most recently, the New York Times bestseller A Universe from Nothing (2011).

Krauss speaks with Dr. Grant Christie about the big bang, the expanding universe, the rich and mysterious world of cosmology and our place on the sidelines.

Professor Krauss is in New Zealand as a Hood Fellow in association with The University of Auckland.

Event Details

Book this event

  • Date: Friday 11 May 2012
  • Time: 05:30 p.m. – 06:30 p.m.
  • Price: Earlybird $20, Standard $25, Patrons $16, Students $12.50



American physicist and intellectual Lawrence Krauss, in his new book A Universe from Nothing (2012), argues that quantum physics has clearly established no God is required for the creation of the universe.

In an age where public debate rages on the teaching of science vs religion, an argument that Krauss is at the forefront of in America, is religion a valid view or mere superstition, and does it matter either way?

Krauss comes together with theologian Lloyd Geering to discuss the existence of a deity, the need for God in the 21st century and whether the religious beliefs that have underpinned our societies for so long are dangerous or useful in finding meaning and shaping a future.

Chaired by Tom Bishop.

Professor Krauss is in New Zealand as a Hood Fellow in association with the University of Auckland.

  • Date: Saturday 12 May 2012
  • Time: 04:00 p.m. – 05:00 p.m.
  • Price: Earlybird $20, Standard $25, Patrons $16, Students $12.50


Free Event

Danny Vendramini’s book Them + Us: How Neanderthal Predation Created Modern Humans expounds the controversial theory that Eurasian Neanderthals hunted, killed and cannibalised early humans for 50,000 years, with modern human physiology, sexuality, aggression, propensity for inter-group violence and human nature all emerging as a direct consequence.

It’s a theory that seems both preposterous and intriguing, taking, as it does, the core of Darwinian biology and cladding it with challenging ideas about trauma, the genetic transmission of emotions and the origin of instincts.

An illustrated talk chaired by historian Paul Moon

Supported by the Australia Council for the Arts.

Event Details


Until recently, theories of neuroscience have posited that the brain can not be changed but the emerging field of neuroplasticity is challenging this view.

In The Woman Who Changed Her Brain (2012), Canadian Barbara Arrowsmith Young reveals how she developed a series of innovative brain exercises to conquer her severe learning disabilities.

She speaks with Michael Corballis about overcoming major brain dysfunction and some of the clinical mysteries and fascinating stories she has encountered in her research.

Event Details

Book this event

  • Date: Sunday 13 May 2012
  • Time: 04:00 p.m. – 05:00 p.m.
  • Price: Earlybird $20, Standard $25, Patrons $16, Students $12.50

Science denial is a diversion from the real problems Ken Perrott Apr 26

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Here’s a short but informative discussion between Naomi Oreskes and Australian politician Nick Minchin. He is known for his denial of human inputs to climate change and for attacking the science. Oreskes suggests to him that his reasons for denial are not scientific. That he should accept the science and get on a deal with the political and financial issues which really motivate him.

This is an extract from the documentary “I Can Change Your Mind About..Climate.” You an watch the film on line.

This reminds me of the comment made by a well-known US climate change denier, Senator James Inhofe (R-OK). When debating his position, and his attacks on science, with a TV interviewer he made this remarkable admission:

I was actually on your side of this issue when I was chairing that committee and I first heard about this. I thought it must be true until I found out what it cost.’

In short, learning about the (supposed) high cost of the solution is what turned him from a believer in climate science to a denier.

This is something which I seem to have to learn again and again in my debates with those attacking the science of climate change and climate scientists. Although they attack the science their real motivating beliefs are political and financial.

It’s an interesting psychological phenomenon, and an unpleasant political one seeing they are needlessly  badmouthing innocent and honest scientists.

Naomi Oreskes has often lectured and written on  science denial. Her book Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming is well worth reading.

I also recommend a recent interview with her on Point Of Inquiry: Naomi Oreskes – Neoliberalism and the Denial of Global Warming

Thanks to: Deniers in Denial about Why they Deny.

See also: Q&A Climate Debate the ABC programme screened after the above documentary.

When the ’best explanation’ is the worst explanation Ken Perrott Apr 24

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Credit: Is the God Hypothesis a good explanation? (see below)

I sometimes get into debates about scientific issues with what could be called “bush philosophers.” People who have learned a little (sometimes even a lot) about philosophy but have no real idea of how science works or proper concepts of the philosophy of science. Consequently they sometimes end up making claims, or advancing arguments and justification, about reality which are nothing more than fanciful from a scientific viewpoint.

One justification I commonly hear from such people, particularly theologians,  philosophers of religion and those under their influence, is the “inference to the best explanation.” I recognise that this is a recognised philosophical and epistemic process – it’s just that every time I hear that justification I know from experience I will be presented with a bit of motivated “reasoning” or “logic” to justify the proponents strong belief and ridicule different beliefs.

Inference to best explanation and its problems

For example, “Andrew” (sorry don’t know any more about him) claimed to be using the  ’Inference to the Most Favored Hypothesis’ in his post Comparing the Old & New Teleological Arguments. Boiled down he believes that observed “fine-tuning” of physical constants in the universe is “more probable given the hypothesis of theism as opposed to” an atheistic one. Similarly a local philosopher of religion, Glenn, declares a belief in a god based on this postulate being the “best explanation of the existence of moral facts.” For good measure he in the end adds appeals to a god as the “best explanation of the origin of the universe,” “the fine tuning of the Universe for the existence of intelligent life,” “the objectivity and transcendence of beauty” and “the best explanation for the historical facts concerning Jesus of Nazareth, along with any arguments for the reliability of Scripture.” (see Occam’s Razor and the Moral Argument for Theism).

Whew – you can see that “the inference to the best explanation” does a lot of the heavy lifting for the theologically inclined. Or at least their “bush philosophers.” Problem is that these opportunist users of this “inference to the best explanation” ignore the problems that commonly haunt the method. Problems that have been well understood.

For example, Alexander Bird, in his chapter in The Routledge Companion to Epistemology describes the problems that are relevant here:

  • Underconsideration – not considering all relevant explanations available. How can one determine the “best” explanation if the one closest to the truth is not even considered.
  • Subjective judgement“explanatory goodness is too subjective a quality to be correlated with objective truth.” Such judgements, like beauty, are in the eye of the beholder.

I think the above examples of theistic use of “inference to the best explanation” illustrate the mistakes of underconsideration and subjectivity in spades. From the perspective of a scientist who is used to inference, to arguments and to comparing hypotheses or “explanations” some things stick out like a sore thumb when the theologically inclined resort to this inference:

1:No real testing against reality.

They rely purely on argument, reasoning or logic – motivated argument, reasoning and logic  at that. If facts or evidence are referred to this is usually cherry-picked, distorted or exaggerated. And there is never any idea of producing an hypothesis or explanation for the purpose of testing against reality. One is asked to accept the idea purely on argument. It’s like the buyer of a car being refused a test drive.

Any explanation worthy of the name must surely make predictions about the real world, and preferable testable predictions. How else can we make anything like an objective judgement. How can we compare a number of available explanations for their real explanatory ability?

2: The favoured explanation is usually vague

Of course the favoured explanation is always some form of “god did it.” Inevitably the concept of the god is pretty open ended or vaguely described. There is never any question that the god hypothesis itself could possibly be tested. Quite the opposite. When any testing is suggested ad hoc adjustments are rapidly made to the hypothesis to ensure it remains untestable.

As for the specific explanations – this always seems to be left at a level of some sort of magic. Their god clicked her fingers and the universe came into existence, the appropriate values of physical constants were chosen, objective moral truths were declared, etc. Never any mechanism. One can’t even get the picture of a bearded and robed god adjusting the knobs on his universe-creating machine so as to guarantee the evolution of intelligent life.

Any “explanation” comprising such vagueness is not a real explanation. Serious explanations should contained structured hypotheses, using existing knowledge, suggesting observations, making predictions. And it should have some degree of plausibility, credibility, even if some aspects still await scientific verification.

3: All reasonable candidate explanations are not considered.

Because the prime motivation is to provide an argument for their own pet belief there is no real interest in considering all the possible explanations that can be inferred. In fact, those making the argument may not even be aware of existing candidate explanations and may lump them all into a generalisations such as the “atheist explanation.”

Usually this is bad enough when admitting there are scientific alternative candidates. But I would have thought if you are going to propose an explanation which involving your own preferred god, you should also include explanations which involve other gods or beings. Explanations based on myths of other religions.

The candidate “explanations” available for comparison and judging would be numerous indeed.

4: God-of-the gaps worst explanation

In effect the vagueness and lack of structure common to such theistic “best explanations” mean they boil down to the god-of-the gaps. Anything they don’t understand can be “explained” by postulating their god. No mechanism required, no testing against reality possible. And no real consideration of alternative explanations. Even though these alternatives may have structure, be more plausible or credible, and can offer ways of testing or verification through their predictions.

Inevitably scientific explanations must fare better than such theistic explanations. Without really trying. Victor Stenger expressed it this way in his recent book God and the Folly of Faith: The Incompatibility of Science and Religion:

“we can defeat any proposed God-of-the-gaps argument by simply providing a plausible natural explanation consistent with our best existing knowledge to fill the gap. That argument need not be proven.”

See also:
Is the God Hypothesis a good explanation?
Historical method – Wikipedia

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Toss out the moderator for a better discussion Ken Perrott Apr 23

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Here’s an interesting video – a discussion between Richard Dawkins and Lawrence Krauss at the Australian National University recently.

I have a couple of thoughts about this event:

  1. It really only took place because both speakers were in Australia for the recent Global Atheist Convention in Melbourne. I think this endorse a point made by one journalist that such conventions do have important spin-offs. Of course there are economic ones – and this convention, which attracted over 4000 participants, would have brought tourists and money into Melbourne and Australia generally. That’s why governments actually help fund events like this.
    But this journalist was also talking about the intellectual and cultural benefits the convention brought to the country. The in the country inevitably leads to other events – TV interviews, debates, lectures and discussions like this. This contributes to the intellectual and cultural life of the country.
  2. Just look at how many people there were in the audience. it is gratifying to see top rate scientists creating such interest and drawing such crowds.
  3. The format of the discussion. Richard Dawkins has for some time expressed disappointment in the debate and moderated argument format. He repeats his reasons at the beginning of this video. Consequently he has undertaken a number of unmoderated discussions along the lines of this one. Personally I think they are successful – and much prefer them to debates which can end up as just glorified verbal boxing matches. I welcome readers thoughts on these formats.
    I look forward to such an unmoderated discussion where the participants have stronger difference. I like to think it could be successful. What do you think?

Thanks to:  Richard Dawkins and Lawrence Krauss in conversation at ANU | The RiotACT.

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Jesus heals — but not cancer! Ken Perrott Apr 22


It’s really tough if you or a loved one has cancer – apparently even Jesus can’t heal you.

Glyn Carpenter poses in front of the offending billboard

Well that’s according to a survey of New Zealand “Christian leaders” by Glyn Carpenter, Director of the New Zealand Christian Network. He did this quick poll after widespread public condemnation of a sign posted by Equippers Church in Napier, “Jesus heals cancer.” There’s no indication of how many leaders were polled or what their religious affiliations were (I think Glyn Carpenter and the NZ Christian Network are “evangelical” – whatever that means).

Perhaps the bias of the pollster is shown by his declaration on the report of the poll results – “The message “Jesus Heals Cancer” is clearly true at face value!” It’s also interesting  that he has managed to see the problem of the offensive sign as an issue of freedom – for Christians to offend others (he describes his poll as a Freedom of speech survey.

So taking Glyn’s data at face value – apparently most (67%) of these Christian leaders were not happy about the offensive sign. And while 58% of them thought a billboard message “Jesus Heals Cancer” to be poor or impermissible, 91% thought so for the message “Jesus Heals All Cancer.”

I thought this was hopeful – but they went and ruined it by supporting the message “Jesus Heals” – 91% thought it OK or good!

Now where are all those theologians claiming there is no conflict between science and religion? Or that they operate in different spheres? What is their response to such a survey result?

Emotional time for Shuttle fans Ken Perrott Apr 20

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Click to enlarge

There have been some great photographs online showing the last flight of the Shuttle Discovery  atop a modified Boeing 747 Shuttle Carrier Aircraft. Headed to its resting place as an exhibit at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum Udvar-Hazy Center.

This is one of my favourites.

Thanks to Astronomy Picture of the day (2012 April 19 – Discovery Departs).

Catholic popes victims of sexual abuse! Ken Perrott Apr 18

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The Vatican’s janitor, Giuseppe "Beppe" Falduto, is accused of making popes watch him masturbate.

Love this Onion news article: Trusted Sistine Chapel Janitor Convicted Of Sexually Abusing Last 4 Popes. Like a lot of Onion articles it’s not only funny but also makes an ironic point.

I almost feel some sympathy for those poor, abused, popes. Apparently “Beppe” “over a period of six decades frequently exploited his position to compel Pope Paul VI, Pope John Paul I, Pope John Paul II, and Pope Benedict XVI to engage in unwanted sexual activity.”


“Richard Blevins, a psychologist and consultant to the International Conference of Catholic Bishops, said the decades-long cycle of sexual abuse likely would have continued if no one had reported the misconduct, because in most pope abuse cases it is often difficult for the Vicar of Christ and Successor to St. Peter to speak up about what has happened to him at the hands of a trusted adult.

“Many popes feel deeply ashamed and are afraid that if they try to talk about the abuse, no one will believe them,” Blevins said. “It’s important to keep an eye out for the common signs of papal molestation, such as the Holy Father avoiding direct eye contact while saying mass or becoming shy and withdrawn during an audience with foreign dignitaries.”

Added Blevins, “I’ve talked to cardinals who say that in hindsight, there did always seem to be something wrong with each of the last four Popes whenever the janitor was mopping up nearby.””

Who would have thought it – sexual abuse going on in the very heart of the church – the one place you expect moral behaviour!

Who is committing fraud here? Ken Perrott Apr 16

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Richard Treadgold, whose blog Climate Conversations appears to be the sole active NZ blog devoted entirely to climate change denial, is rehashing an old argument (See Well, where’s your evidence, Renowden?). He claims:

’Global warming has not happened for about 15 years, unless you take a micrometer to the thermometer. And if you have to do that just to detect warming, then it’s hardly dangerous, is it?’

Of course this has been explained to him and his mates many times. Either his brain is just not capable of comprehending the simple story – or he continues to raise it despite the fact it has been well refuted. After all, if your real purpose is political, to manufacture doubt, honesty is your last concern. That’s why he claims climate scientists are committing “fraud” on this question (and others).

I dealt with the issue in my post ’What, me worry?’ — distorting climate change data. It is simply the issue of how to detect a relatively small trend in temperature against a background of relatively large natural variations which don’t contribute to the underlying trend. A common problem is sciences of all sorts.

It’s a question of observation period. We know, for example, that organic carbon builds up in soils under pasture. But try measuring the carbon levels over one season or one year and you just won’t see it. It’s buried in the inevitable noise of the variation in carbon levels over short times. But collect the data over 10 or more years and you will start to see the trend.

Its the same with global temperatures. The overall trend is not obvious, can’t be extracted from the data, over relatively short terms, because of the relatively large natural variations. When someone bases their claims on such a short perod you have to wonder about their honesty because its simple enough to produce any result you desire by chossing your time period. This is clear from The Escalator produced by Skeptical science.

Its a classic example of the activity that goes on in the climate change denier echo chamber (of which Treadgold is a part).

Here’s another give away. Why is Treadgold talking about 15 years – these guys used to use 10 years? Well the reason is their desire to preserve 1998 data. Global temperatures that year were exceptionally high so that data point has an over-riding effect on determining trends over a short term. If Treadgold has stuck to 10 or 12 years he was in danger of actually finding a statistically significant trend. That is the last thing he wants.

Statistical confidence in the observed increase in global temperatures comes from data collected over a long period. Selectively cherry-picking the data in the way Treadgold and his mates does is a no -no in science.

But of course science is the last thing they are interested in. Their purposes are political – and the manufacture of doubt.

Its obvious who is committing the fraud here.

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