You Know It Just Ain’t Easy

There are a lot of things in this world…perhaps brought about by humans, but nevertheless exist at least as part of our lives.  They are important things, things we fight for, things we live for.  I’m speaking of things like freedom, justice, love, spirituality, loyalty, equality, truth, and there are probably others that I’m not thinking of right now.  These things often give rise to a lot of disagreements in terms of what they mean, they often lack a specific definition, and very much depends on one’s perspective based on the family, culture, society in which we were raised.

But they do. And maybe sometimes they should.

All of these things are core to who we are as a species and have the ability to impact our own personal happiness and sense of well-being, as well as how we treat each other and all life in general.  All of these things can also be extremely frustrating because of how different we view them.  Ever tried to love someone who wasn’t all that impressed with the way you did it? Ever had someone question your loyalty even when you thought your behavior expressed loyalty?  Ever fought for some group’s freedom, but have the very same group question the way in which you fight for that freedom or even claim that you weren’t helping but making things worse?  Ever believe something was very important to spiritual health only to be told by someone else that it was irrelevant?  The truth is that that all of these things are really really complex, regardless of how simple and natural it might feel to you.  These things are often very dynamic, leaving us with moral and ethical conflicts over time, sometimes changing our views slowly or rapidly as we experience new things.  They are often tied strongly to our emotions and sometimes seem beyond reason, they are just how we feel.  It also tends to be not very satisfying to be alone with our perspectives.  We seek connection to those who share similar perspectives and points of view.  I would say all this is good, and that our perspective should change over time.  We should be seriously considering other points of view and striving towards some sort of universal truth about these things even if we never actually reach it in our lifetime.  Because if we can nail down these things it is the benefit of all.

However there is another core part of who we are as a species.  We don’t like things that are hard to define.  We like to organize, we would prefer things to be simple.  Simple is less costly, it gives us more time for other things.  We spend less time sitting their thinking when we need to make sure we’re safe, getting resources to survive.  It’s very evolutionary. When things are actually hard, when they are not quite within our grasp, that’s when the real trap springs.  Our need for organization, categorization, and simplicity begins to create rules.  It begins to create rituals.  Rules and rituals are easy.  I’m not saying that we haven’t created some convoluted rules and rituals, but they are easy because we know that when we follow them the conclusion is guaranteed.  At least that’s the way we tend to think.  They give us the intangible in tangible form.  They turn things that are dynamic into the static.  It takes things that might take a lifetime to learn into an instant discovery.  For those with a penchant for defaulting to authority, it is a Godsend. Literally.  And while it might be natural for us to do these things, it is a complete disservice to these lofty ideals and values we live and die for.  And maybe it’s not even a bad thing that we try to create a system that fits these things, but when we reduce it to the system alone things usually turn out badly.  Love has to be more than just placing a ring on someone’s finger.  Justice has to be more than just an immutable punishment for an immutable law.  Whenever we think we’ve reached a state of equality or discovered a truth, we must still question and test instead of resting on our laurels.

The Geocentric Theory. One of the best examples of human fallibility and seeing connections in nature.
The Geocentric Theory. One of the best examples of human fallibility and seeing connections in nature.

I think that we have developed a very good “way of knowing” with the scientific method. It is demonstrably the best way of knowing we have so far.  It takes very little effort to look around the world and see that the best way is not only not the only way in which people come to know things, and it is often by no means obvious.  I mean it’s not to say we don’t start off life as little infants constantly testing and trying to understand our world through observations, but we do often make mistakes in trying to understand the world around us.  Mostly related to our tendency to find patterns that done’t exist.  Our senses often deceive us because we evolved for life in a small geographic environment, with a small group of people, and that is often what matters the most.  As “ways of knowing” get better and more effective, it reveals our fallibility.  It tells us we aren’t as smart as we think we are, and that we might not be doing things as well as we could.  Even as a scientist, who feels like I know my way of thinking is a more reliable one, it can often not feel like enough in a world with so much suffering and when so many need help quickly.  It is not realistic to simply wait for people to come around to a better way of looking at things.  As much as I like to philosophize “ways of knowing” we must also remember that such things are not so easily divorced from “ways of feeling”.

Collapse after angle of repose is exceeded

History tells us that change comes through slow increments like weathering and erosion and also through suddenness of revolution, yet in both cases forcing it doesn’t necessarily help matters.  It’s like life is like a slope of sand which slowly over time, grain by grain is deposited on a slope until we reach some critical mass beyond the angle of repose and the weight of the sand causes a sudden change in the landscape.  With no real way to predict which grain of sand will cause it all to shift and give way.  It’s like we all have to really try to do better, while at the same time just watch it all happen as if we aren’t even a part of the story.

So what is the answer to seeing eye to eye on these very important values?  I don’t know.  I think the best we can do is accept that things change, and that nothing is settled.  We can still try to create rules, as long as we are not a slave to them.  We can try to make things tangible, as long we accept that those rituals are empty without a lifetime of effort.  One thing we can say for certain is that life would lose far too much flavor if it all could be settled so easily.  We must accept that life is hard in large part because it simply can’t be done alone. And while I might be an idealist thinking that we might someday reach at least some level of harmony among all humanity, I see no harm in striving towards that.  What we have to gain, I think, is too great to just give up and say “It can never happen”.  As I always say, there is much more in this world that we all have in common than what drives us apart.

Out Under The Sky

When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer by Walt Whitman
When I heard the learn’d astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.

A friend of mine and I had a wonderful discussion about magic and perfection the other day. It got me thinking about what it means to appreciate the magic something.  For her it was about the pure and the simple.  On a wonderful little gift she gave me, the tag on the gift had the line from the following Walt Whitman poem above “from time to time, Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars”.  When I looked up the entire poem and read the words (as I had never read it before) I found it funny how much the meaning of the poem had to do with what I was sorting through in my mind (by the way this friend was a student in my Introduction to Earth Science class and wonder if there isn’t more of a message in there for me lol).  The words from the poem she shared with me are good advice.  But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that I could no longer follow such advice.  Have I lost something?  Have I lost the appreciation for magic?  Am I unable to enjoy things in perfect silence?  My mind singular on the beauty I behold?  Not too long ago another blogger I follow who writes poetry that I always connect with wrote a poem about missing when life was simple called Old Happy Stars.  I do long for that.  I think we all do to a certain degree.  I also know that you can’t go back and making things feel so simple an amazing is very hard for me.

This discussion about magic came up because we were discussing Santa Claus. She was a firm believer in Santa Claus until the 4th grade, and is raising her daughter, like many people, to see all the magic that is Santa Claus.  I am someone who never once believed in Santa Claus, and thus even I were to want to give my son Santa Claus at Christmas there would be no level where I could really fake it.  I have no memories of any magic associated with Santa.  She said it’s important for children to have those magical things.  And I have to say I agree with her.  After the conversation I started to ponder what the magic was in my childhood.  I remember looking at lightning in thunderstorms and feel that it was absolutely magical.  Thunder seemed magical, the smell of rain seemed magical.  For me there was a lot of magic in the sky and I am certain I had some moments of perfect silence, even if it wasn’t actually silent.  I think sometimes in such moments we feel perfect silence because we are in perfect solitude, shutting out the rest of the world while we are singular in our focus.  When I came home I started watching my son and how amazed he is by things, whether it’s trains or the planes up in the sky.  It seems to me that even they begin to learn what these things are and what their purpose might be, they have no idea how they work.  Something that seems to moving but has no muscles, no animal-like locomotion, no feathers for flying must seem like absolute magic.  If I wasn’t forming a lot of long term memories, and I saw this metal object flying in the sky I would be pointing up every single time too in excitement.  I think, at least I hope, kids always see things as magical, even if you don’t give them Santa.  For them, every object that they’ve dropped or thrown up in the air comes down.  That plane up in the sky has to be some pretty crazy stuff to them, and what other choice do they have but to take it on faith that it will not fall down from the sky.

That thought made me happy, but I started to get a little bit sad, because I am not sure that I could just gaze at the stars in perfect silence. Because in that poem I am the Learn’d Astronomer, and if I was a student in that class I would be enthralled by the equations, the figures, and the charts.  When I look at the stars I can’t help but think what the humidity might be that is impacting their twinkle.  I would think about how far away those stars are, and how trigonometry gives us a way of telling how far away they are through stellar parallax.  I would think about how the stars are like a portal back in time, knowing that I am seeing what a star looked like 10,000 years ago, and how at that time human civilization was just dawning.   If you can’t tell already, it’s hard to quiet my mind.  I look at everything like that.  Sometimes I am wondering and questioning, maybe coming up with some hypothesis to explain what I’m seeing.  Perhaps I would make an analogy.  Or perhaps I would simply think about all the forces at work, or the history of the object, the big picture, the detailed picture, related pictures.  Sometimes I contemplate all the connections that one thing has to others.  All that comes to me in a flood and I feel overwhelmed by how amazing this universe is.  And then I started to smile, because maybe it’s not magic, but it’s still amazing.  It’s still beautiful.  I t still leaves me in awe and wonder even if I know exactly how it works and think about every variable in the equation.  And maybe for every person that walks out on the Learn’d Astronomer and enjoys that perfect silence at the stars, there is a student who stays and listens and just takes it all in and the amount of seemingly simultaneous thoughts grow like the branches of a tree.  And I’m not making a comment about level of intelligence because my friend is extremely intelligent and I feel like she experiences those moments of perfect silence frequently, perhaps even at will when she needs to.  But maybe it’s just really a different way of approaching the same beauty in life.  There are truly times when I wish I could experience such moments that Whitman describes, and so I envy her.   But maybe the beauty I see is just as enviable.

So as I began to smile I thought back to just that morning and how when I drove in to work just sliver of the crescent moon was visible as the moon waned. Often, at about an hour before sunrise, there is enough reflection of the Earth back to the moon and you can see the rest of the lunar sphere, even though it’s featureless.  Then I thought in my mind about the geometry of all 3 objects and had this model in my head.  And I decided to write a poem.  The one I just posted a few days ago.  And like magic I took all those thoughts and imagined almost like a love affair between the Earth and the moon.  So even if I stare at the moon and explain its beauty while also appreciating it, such thoughts can still inspire, still create, and still bring me a great deal of wonder that I think can be considered a type of magic.  And maybe that Learn’d Astronomer is just as lost in his world of equations and charts as the star gazer is lost in his moment of perfect silence.  Maybe it’s not so important how you experience magic in the world, but that you do experience it and never lose that ability to get lost in wonder and awe at beauty.

The Nature of Correlation – Part II

Since we now understand some basics about correlation I think it would be interesting to try and understand “How do we initially hypothesize a connection between variables?”  If we analyze something simple like Newton’s second law which says that the force exerted by an object is directly related to its mass and acceleration.  How might such a relationship have been devised initially?  Well this is something that can be easily observed.  You push an object like a

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cart and it accelerates.  If you push it harder, it accelerates faster.  If the cart is full of objects it becomes heavier and requires more force to get the same acceleration.  Such observations are the basis for an experiment which can show us the nature of the relationship.  Our experiment might end up only being mostly successful as we might be confused about why the force might change depending on the surface across which we move the object.  Until we understand friction we might not be fully aware of the other forces that are working against us when we make our measurements.  Newton was able to also explain the frictional force as well, but the fact that the Earth is turning on its axis revealed Newton’s second law to be incomplete for Earth and only true in a reference frame that is not in motion.   Newton’s description of force came first and it was only through further experimentation and testing that we came to understand the limitations associated with his relationship between force, mass and acceleration.  So the basis for a correlation comes through a lot of trial and error after some initial observations.  Proper application of the scientific method (adequate sampling in particular) along with result repeatability can demonstrate the correlation between two variables.

Finally it’s important to understand the complexity of relationships that exist.  Just like the force is dependent on the mass and acceleration, most things in this world are not as simple as one cause and one effect.  Most things are complex systems in that one variable may change as a result of several other variables.   The global average surface temperature is a function of the amount of solar radiation hitting the Earth, the concentration and location of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, the amount of geothermal energy released at the surface, and the amount of energy released through radioactivity.  The last two tend to be fairly small.  Solar radiation is the most important factor then followed by the greenhouse effect.  So if we want to look at how CO2 varies with global temperature, we are never going to get a perfect correlation, but we are going to see a correlation.  And if we understand the role the sun plays in heating, we can easily delineate between which part of the heating is due to changes in solar radiation, and which part of the heating is due to changes in greenhouse gases.  Just like with our example of force, we can determine whether that force is because of a light object traveling at a fast speed or whether it is a heavy object traveling at a low speed.  Our knowledge of the relationship allows us to make that determination.

In social sciences the variables impacting a system can be numerous.  As I’ve argued before gun control is an extremely complex issue.  The number of gun deaths is dependent on the types of laws we have, the number of guns available, quality of mental health care, attitude towards mental health care, income inequality, education (both general education and education about use of guns), the role of the media and politicians fear mongering, culture attitude towards violence and death, and probably more than that.  With these types of issues it’s easy to point to all the other things that could be causes to try to show that changing one variable isn’t going to have an impact.  But neither side is completely valid here, because the argument should really be about the factors that are more important and which ones are less important.   Just because one variable is more important however doesn’t eliminate all other variables from having an influence.  Just like coalition governments where the dominant party can lose power if the other parties combined outweigh them in votes, a dominant variable in a complex system may be outweighed by the combined importance of the other variables.  For instance when it comes to the greenhouse effect, carbon dioxide is not the only important greenhouse gas.  Numerous greenhouse gasses like CFC’s, nitrous oxide, ozone, and methane are released as pollutants and if industrialization continues at the pace it is at, the combined impact of those other gasses may become similar to the impact of CO2, even though individually those gases have a very small effect.  It is important to understand all the variables that are involved and address them, especially when harm is being caused to people, because even a small variable that we can fix might reduce that harm.

As the complexity of a system increases the direct correlations between one variable and another generally decrease.  A correlation of 0.2 might be significant if there are many variables all impacting the state of a system, especially if all those variables might be of similar importance.  People like to keep relationships simple, but by doing so fail to solve problems that are usually far more complex.  This is also why complex systems are some of the easiest for those who don’t really understand it to mislead others.  Climate change is a great example.  A change to the climate system depends on many factors and thus makes it easy for someone to try and emphasize one part to make their argument.  Like the oft used “Carbon dioxide is necessary for plants to grow, how can more be a bad thing?” This ignores the role carbon dioxide plays in the greenhouse effect, ocean acidification, and what happens when plants decompose.

Happiness is often brought about by the simple things in life, but it is also important to remember that there are lots of things happening out there that aren’t so simple.  We are a part of a complex universe.  Part of why we continue to survive better is that we continue to breakdown the complexities of the university into things that we can understand.  Also remember that just because things are complex doesn’t mean that there aren’t those who truly understand the problem and that with patience and effort you can too if you choose.