It’s the Thought That Counts

It has been discussed by many that our brains are wired on an evolutionary scale, and that the rapid change of society through technological advances has outpaced us, leaving us with many disconnects between what we see every day and what we can actually handle.  In many ways, we might be happier if we lived in small tribes and were closely surrounded by wilderness, instead of surrounded by brick and cement, drive vehicles and get visual stimuli from computer or television screens.   One aspect of this disconnect, that I find quite intriguing, and I think is central to our ability to understand the world we find ourselves in, is what I call and order of magnitude problem.

Think about early man in those hunter gatherer days.  Counting is a base cognitive skill, important for our survival.  But what is that we might count?  You might count the amount of fruit gathered on any particular day, the number of children, or people.  Such numbers might get you into the 100s.  You might count seasonal cycles.  If you were lucky maybe you had 80 of those to count.  You might count lunar cycles.  Getting you to about 1040.  Even this would require some note making, because this is counting over time, and surely you would not sit there and count something that high.  Such cycles of time were the only things worth keeping track of.  We had no need to measure time beyond that.  No need for small units of time such as a second.  It might make sense to come up with some unit of measurement for distance. Something comparable to arm lengths or hand widths…something we might use to size an animal, measure height of people or spears.  When it came to traveling, you might then simply use something like phases of the moon, or number of diurnal cycles.  Once again such counting would leave numbers small.  Occasionally you might find yourself thinking about numbers in terms of fractions.  Maybe something like half a day, or a quarter of an armlength.  For things very small, you probably would no longer use armlength as your standard, but perhaps finger width.  Such techniques are ones that we still use today.

The reality is that if you think about numbers, you probably won’t get very far.  Now do a little exercise for me.  If you think of the number 1000.  How do you think about it, to picture a 1000 of something?  You might think what a $1000 can buy, but money is a fiction that represents a quantity of stuff you can buy which varies depending on what stuff your buying.  If you wanted to actually count, what would you think about.  Maybe 1000 people in a room.  You might have a sense for how big a group that is.  Chances are you won’t get it exactly.  Go down to a 100 and your chances of picturing 100 things gets better.  Now do 10 of something.  Pretty easy.  Now do 1.  Even easier.  Let’s go down another order of magnitude.  Try to think of something that is 0.1.  Here as we move down an order of magnitude we can no longer count whole things.  So think of 1/10th of a person probably gets a bit graphic, so what are you thinking of to imagine 0.1?  For that you now have to think of some standard.  Maybe a mile, an inch, a meter?  Depending on what you choose, you can do okay.  Now try 1/100th.  Again with the right starting point you might do okay, but even dividing by 100 can be hard for someone without a formal education and once we get to 1/1000th our ability to guess at the meaning of that fraction is severely reduced regardless of our starting point.  So if you are keeping track this puts the human mind, on a good day our brains are capable of somewhat accurately sorting out 5 orders of magnitude (10-2 – 103).  However, if we look at the scale of the universe in size we span 52 orders of magnitude from the plank length to the size of the observable universe (please see this very cool interactive graphic that allows you to explore the different spatial scales of the universe).  In terms of time, our quantum clocks can measure up to 1  ten billionth of a second (10-10) .  Meanwhile we know the universe has been around for about 14 billion years (1015 seconds).  If you don’t have trouble digesting such numbers you are a super genius, because everybody should.  Those are just the extremes, but unless you are within that 5 orders of magnitude range I discussed earlier, it makes little difference.  And this is also important because it means that a million miles, might as well be a billion miles in our head.  However, the difference between those two numbers is meaningful.  In science, to consider two numbers like that the same would be to make a grievous error on the order of 100,000%.

Scientists, through years of working with the numbers that shape our world are often better at dealing with these things, but even scientists tend to use conventions to make numbers easier to manage.  There is a reason why you don’t measure the distance from New York City to Boston in inches.  We have developed different units of measurement for distance.  In the old English system we have inches, feet, yards and miles.  In metric, we have prefixes that span numerous orders of magnitude so that we don’t have to always report distance in meters.  For objects in space in our solar system we might use astronomical units to keep those distances in more manageable numbers.  For things outside our solar system, light years.

                  Image of radar reflectivity.

Whatever we measure in science can change over large ranges and change at massively different rates.  Change is rarely linear, but very often exponential.  As a result, we might find ourselves dealing with quantities which very over several orders of magnitude.  In my field a good example for this is radar reflectivity.  You may not be familiar with it, but you’ve certainly seen radar images if you’ve paid attention to the weather.  Higher reflectivities indicate bigger drops and faster rain rates.  Lower reflectivities represent light rain or drizzle.  The difference in size between a drizzle drop and a basic rain drops is no more than a factor of 10, but the reflectivities span over 10- 1,000,000.  Thus, meteorologists convert those reflectivity values using decibels.  The decibel system was initially used for sound given the large range of frequency for sound waves, but now is a common tool for expressing values that vary over several orders of magnitude by taking the logarithm (base 10) of the value. This reduces the number to its order of magnitude.  For example, instead of 106 if I take the logarithm with base 10 of that number I get 6.  And 6 is much easier to wrap our heads around than 1,000,000.  I know I’ve gotten kind of technical here with this example, but the point is that nature, as we’re discovering, does not conform to the numbers our brains had to deal with when we evolved.  And most scientists, while they might have some understanding of the microscopic or macroscopic numbers and the wide ranges of values science employs, to objectively analyze and come to some meaningful conclusions we very often have to be able to visually see those numbers between about 0.01 and 1000.

You might say that such numbers make little difference to most of us unless we are in science, but let’s talk about where our everyday lives might be impacted.  First let’s start with the population of the world.  There are 7 billion people.  Try to wrap your head around that number.   Is your soul mate really just one in a billion?  Could such a large group of people create an environmental disaster? How many bodies could certain countries throw at you in a war? About 700 million, globally, live in abject poverty.  Do the numbers seem so voluminous that it’s easier to ignore human suffering, or make you feel defeated before you try?

What about some of the more important educational and scientific controversies that still exist today? Evolution has been happening for several billion years, but many would like to believe that we’ve been around for only 6000 years.  Religious dogma aside, isn’t it possible that part of the reason that some people resist what science clearly demonstrates is because we are talking about a length of time that few can relate to?  The vastness of time threatens to humble us all as blips in a universe far older than we can fathom. And its size and origin similarly attacks our human conceit at being the grandest and cleverest design in a creator’s eye.

                                         The Geologic Time Scale

Vast amounts of people also create vast sums of money.  Billionaires have almost unimaginable wealth that people still commonly believe that can obtain too.  Politicians and media constantly throw large dollar values in our faces to intimidate us.  When one wants to high light wasteful spending we can put point to something costing 100’s of millions of dollars and we shudder at such an amount being wasted.  Forgetting that with 100 million taxpayers, something in the 100’s of millions is costing us a handful of dollars a year.  I have seen the tactic used frequently.  Once again we might on some level realizes that a 100 million, 10 billion, and a trillion dollars are different, but they are all unimaginably large sums of money that in the battle for what’s important and what’s not, they can all be seen as being on equal footing. The idea that public television and radio need to be cut for austerity is quite simply a joke when compared to a 10% increase in defense spending if anybody thinks that’s going to balance the budget.

One might argue that the microscopic matters very little (no pun intended), but I do think an appreciation for that scale is valuable, if for no other reason helping us appreciation the vast variation of scales that make up our known universe.  Scientists often take very small numbers that might exist for pollutants or toxicity in foods or water, and change the unites of those numbers so that they are bigger.  I understand why, because of course we don’t want to underwhelm in those situations, but maybe it’s also a problem that we continue to cater to this limited range of numbers that our minds most easily manage.   It’s probably best to start incrementally, and perhaps a good example of how we can begin is with time.  John Zande over at his blog, The Superstitious Naked Ape, offers up a good first step towards our lack of comfortability with numbers outside of our “sweet spot”.  The start of our counting of years begins with the birth of Christ, but this is a religious and faith based reason to start the counting of the years.  Why not use Thai’s bone which is our earliest evidence of careful astronomical observations of the sun and moon over a 3 ½ year period.   Instead of the year 2017, it would instead be 15,017.

                                                                          Thai’s bone

It might seem like an arbitrary difference, but I think it would give us a better feel for the vastness of time, and a better appreciation for the numbers that shape the universe we’ve come to know.  Since there seems to be little stopping the advance of science in technology, perhaps we better find more ways to help these brains, made for a different time, catch up.

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 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.

While I think that we have developed a very good method in the scientific method as a “way of knowing” which 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.

The choice of having children: The Nuts and Bolts

One of the things that has been on my mind a lot lately was inspired by article that talked about why women aren’t choosing to have children in our society.  I was originally going to write about that first, but in my mind I ended up always going into the topic of abortion, and given how much the defunding of Planned Parenthood is being talked about today, I thought I would talk about this controversial subject first, and then follow up with a piece about wanting or not wanting to raise children, because ultimately much of what I will talk about here feeds into that.

Recently my wife and I had our first night away, together, from our child who is now 19 months old.  It was a weird place in both our minds because it felt like we were fighting some primal urge, vs some rational thinking machine.  One was very emotional and was worried about the stress on my wife’s parents who were watching him, worried about whether he would wonder if we just left him, worried that he was crying helpless wondering where mommy and daddy was.  The other part of us was thinking how good this was for him and us.  He was with people who loved him and quite capable of taking care of him.  And it was healthy for us to have some time away together, because it certainly is a good thing for a baby who have parents who have a strong friendship and love and some time away certainly helped that.  Also in the long run this was beneficial for healthy sleep patterns, gaining independence and trust.

The trap in the thinking here, is that we often believe that these are almost two separate parts of us.  One might criticize us for being too emotional, and another would criticize us for being too rational about it.  Of course both are evolved and necessary parts of what makes us who we are.  Those strong emotions we feel are extremely important for protecting and bonding with the child.  That rational part of us is there to make sure we do it in the best way possible.  It can be a see saw at times and we all vary in how much we let one side take a hold over the other.  The point is that regardless of the emotions you feel, it is also sensible.  It is sensible to be emotional, and it is sensible to be rational.

This leads us to a very uncomfortable thing that few of us want to admit about child rearing.  It really boils down to a lot of math.  We need both the emotional and the rational, but the one that win depends a lot on circumstances.  It could be circumstances of the environment, culture, family values, etc, but there is natural state of a human that favors one side or the other.  My mom told me once that she couldn’t accept that I was just a biological thing that happened, and that part of her belief in religion is founded on the fact that she sees things as much more than the sum of their parts.  The thing is, I feel the same way, but I also know that it is part of our biology to do so.  And all of that to me is amazing even if it is explainable.  But our brains are constantly working to make decisions that ensure both our survival and our genes survival, and the emotions we feel, and the rational decisions we make support that drive in us.  It gets even more confusing given that the rational part of us tends to actually make us feel like our emotions are rational.  “I really want that piece of cheesecake, but am trying to lose weight.”  Suddenly you start to rationalize…well I’ll just have a small piece, or so-and-so makes such good cheesecake it would be rude not to have some…I’ll spend an extra half hour at the gym tomorrow.  We’ve all been in this situation before, even if not about cheesecake. 🙂

So let’s take a look at some of the math of having children.  But before we start let’s remind ourselves that while we may live in a modern world where we have smartphones, cable TV, and airplanes, but from an evolutionary standpoint our brains haven’t progressed much from the stone age.  A couple hundred thousand years ago, when man was relatively what is today in terms of brain size and structure, is really a blink of an eye on the time scale of evolution.  Now we know that we are a social creature, but we didn’t live in populations like we do today.  As hunter gatherers we searched every day for food and lived in groups of around 200 people.  If you or someone you know has been pregnant and you’ve seen them go through it, you know a lot changes in them.  They tend to have less energy on average, and they tend to require more resources.  More water and more food.  In a group of 200 people where everybody has to pull their own weight, having less to give to the tribe in terms of energy, and you are taking more energy away from them as you require more resources.  You are a drain to your group.  Now certainly a necessary one, and I’m sure no one minds since in egalitarian groups such as hunter gatherers the ability to help as a community was strong, and of course later you’d be expected to do extra duty to help out other women who were pregnant.  But that doesn’t change the math one bit.  So one woman getting pregnant wasn’t too bad, but if all the women got pregnant at the same time, that would probably be bad.  Once the child is born of course resources get even more drained, because that new member will need calories as well.  Hunter gatherers needed to practice population control making sure the group didn’t get too big and also not too small.  Furthermore, small children were a strain on mobility.  My son at his age, still requires being carried a lot, and even though he sometimes likes to walk it’s not overly fast and, more importantly, not the direction you want him to move in.  His cousin however who is 4 and half and can keep up quite well, and will respond to voice commands even if somewhat reluctantly. 🙂  Anthropological evidence shows that women spaced their children apart about 4 years apart at minimum so make sure that their child was old enough to keep up with a tribe.  Most hunter gatherer tribes were not sedentary for very long.  After using the resources in one area that had to move until that previous areas recovered.  And depending on the environment, they may have had to make very long treks.  The luxury of having children at will, would not come until the age of agriculture.  An important theme that I will by discussing throughout this series, is to remember that our evolutionary advantage is our intelligence.  Everything reproduces, but we found a way to make having one children at a time work and make smart decisions about how many children to have and when to have them.

Abortion is by far not a new thing, but it is at the very least a more advanced process considering what life was like pre-civilization.  Despite the cool rational population control practiced by hunter gatherers, mistakes were going to happen.  Sex after all is pretty fun, as it needs to be, in order for us to want to reproduce, but the best laid plans go awry.  They do today and they did back then.  For them it could have been not as many people got eaten by lions that year, or not as many of the older people in the tribe died and populations were approaching critical.  Likely they would still try to survive, but the wild card that likely created the most population pressure was the environment (A great book on the impact of the medieval warming period on aboriginal tribes throughout north america and Europe can be found on Amazon here).  Perhaps it was a long term climate trend, drought, or some geological catastrophe blocked a passage they normally took to areas where they knew food was, or some other resource was scarce.  Whatever the case, evidence also indicates that infanticide was common.  It’s likely the rates were around 15-20% (I’m sorry the source is wikipedia here under the paleolithic and neolithic sections, but references are given on the page), which is extremely high given that even the worse abortion rates now are at around 5%.  Despite the emotional trauma the parents must have went through, with abortions not possible, this was the only way to make sure that a larger portions of the group didn’t starve to death.  And in an extremely cold and rational way, the truth is, the mother can always have another baby when situations allow, but an extra member of the tribe, until early adulthood, was a drain on resources.  We are made of finite energy, and we have to unfortunately look at ourselves as an energy budget, a tribe or group as the combined energy budget, which while more efficient is still finite.  So if anything, human history has helped us not only have more children, but see less overall (as a percentage) die.

I am going to end this here with the thought of our finite nature, and continue in my next post to talk about some of the more modern day points about abortion, and why people who are anti-abortion aren’t helping (and in fact making things worse), and give them some realistic suggestions about how they can actually help reach their goal of an abortion free world.

Tin Foil Hats

Hey, Travis, when everybody is out to get you, paranoid is just good thinking!

– Dr. Johnny Fever

 

If there is one group of people that I despise arguing with, it is conspiracy theorists.  I find it even more frustrating than debating someone with strong religious convictions.  Maybe it’s just because I can sympathize better with people with strong religious beliefs because I have been exposed to religion and have had family who have strong religious beliefs.  Now both types of people are belief driven and in many ways there is no difference at least in terms of how neural pathways are formed and how the impact of reinforcing those neural pathways impacts the brain, but there is something about conspiracy theorists that seems more concerning.  Maybe this is true only for religious fundamentalists in the west.  In other areas of the world I would fear religious fundamentalists much more, but maybe it’s because with religion the crux of the debate falls to the supernatural and with the supernatural there is no way to disprove it.  For those who have faith it’s tangible and real and this is what governs their thinking.  A lot of times if you bring into the realm of the real world you can often find common ground and agree on things, even if you disagree on the mechanism.  In fact I’m pretty sure I’d be less surprised if someone found actual evidence of the existence of God than some of the conspiracy theories that some people believe in as being real.

When it comes to conspiracy theorists, the troubling part to me is that all of what they believe is easily disprovable.  There are no supernatural forces at work; it’s a conspiracy that involves this plane of existence.  It’s physical and tangible in a very real sense.  We can actually settle the debate.  With God, you’re never going to settle it, because God cannot be disproven in a strictly logical sense (of course that’s because for something to exist the onus for proof is on those that would assert its existence).

I was talking to a colleague recently who is a geologist.  He had told me before that his father was very conservative and does not think evolution is real.  More than not accepting the scientific evidence he has invented a conspiracy theory in which all fossils are fabricated and made in a factory somewhere and then scientists plant them around the world so that they pretend they have evidence.  It just blew my mind when he told me.  The amount of fossils we have is enormous and the time and energy to make all of those, plant them all over the world, all so that we could tell a false narrative about the origins of life are astronomical for me to even wrap my head around it.  Of course I’ve heard the general theme before that evolution is just a conspiracy to try and disprove the Bible and I literally don’t understand.

As an atmospheric scientist of course the one I deal with the most is the conspiracy associated with global warming.   Thousands and thousands of scientists all banding together trying to get greedy off that alternative energy money and trying to destroy the poor fossil fuel companies who apparently are struggling to make ends meet.  Debates usually go something like this:

Me. “As somebody who studies this and understands how the atmosphere works…” I list a lot of hard evidence, and explain how the greenhouse effect works.

CT (Conspiracy Theorist)  Evidence ignored and the grand retort is “But other people are experts too and they disagree”.

Me. Thinking, ohh they want to try to take that right now  “Actually not really, few people who deny climate change are actually atmospheric scientists, and none of them have been able to publish any scientifically sound papers in peer-reviewed journals on the subject.  Such scientist’s research is always funded by oil companies.”

CT:  “That’s because the journals are controlled by the IPCC and they prevent any contrary evidence from getting published.”

Me: *bangs head*

The back and forths are usually longer, but this was just a glimpse. One thing I have noticed that is common with all these debates is that they never address any scientific evidence you present directly.  So in retrospect, debate is a bad word.  They have no defense on the workings of antigens, the physics behind the greenhouse effect, or the random mutations of genes.  There is always some larger organization involved pulling the strings, shadow networks, cover-ups, secret e-mails, vast sums of money involved.  They post links to sites that reference other articles written by someone with equally little knowledge of what they are talking about.  There are vague references to events that never happen, or if they did happen there is no way to prove that they happened.   And why do these conspiracy theories always involve the government or scientists?

Governments are for the most part, simply incompetent.  The level of organization they need to have to pull some of the shit off that people give them credit for is truly astounding.   The really corrupt ones are so obviously corrupt and drunk on power there is no need of secrecy they do it right in front of your face.  And of course I know many scientists.  They are some of the finest people I know: curious, intelligent, and for the most part noble and compassionate.   Corrupt scientists are few and far between and are easily exposed because scientists believe that what they are doing is valuable and important and have zero tolerance for those that would make a mockery of the scientific process and allow bad science to flourish.

Now certainly you might say at this point, while we have never proven the existence of a supernatural deity, there have been conspiracies.  To that, I say most definitely and in fact that’s what makes conspiracies relatively short-lived and small.  Because people are generally good and if there is some conspiracy that is causing harm to people, and lying to people it’s not long before somebody’s conscience gets the better of them and they get the message out.  In fact, this would seem to put a natural limit into how large a conspiracy can grow.  Once it gets too big or too harmful, whistleblowers will come out of the woodwork.  And there will be tangible evidence of this conspiracy and unsubstantiated hypotheses are no longer necessary.

I have decided that I need to stop engaging such people.  But it’s hard, because there some of the conspiracy theories, if allowed to spread, can cause real harm.  Like ones related to climate change or vaccinations and then I find it hard to keep quiet because lives are literally at stake.  Ultimately it feels like people who purport conspiracy theories enjoy the attention, the feeling of importance that they are part of the minority and they get it and everybody else has been duped.  Perhaps it’s just ego.  Perhaps it’s just pure and utter fear of a world they don’t understand. Perhaps it’s just people wanting to believe in something do badly that they will invent anything to rationalize that belief.  I don’t know.  I’d be curious to learn how some of my other readers deal with conspiracy theorists.

 

Note:  A study was conducted to determine whether Tin Foil Hats really protect your thoughts being read.  Turns out it makes it worse.  At least that’s what “physics” tells us. (That’s the punch line if you don’t want to read the article).

Climate Change for the Masses (Part II)

Well it would seem that a group blog idea with a weather and climate theme has fallen apart, and so I’ll have to do my blogging about it here instead.  Several months ago I began what I hoped would be a 3 part series, themed around the John Oliver’s  “Last Week Tonight” Episode on the climate change debate.  In my first blog post I wanted to try and investigate what type of people don’t accept the evidence on climate change, based on my own experience in getting into various discussions on the topic with people outside my discipline.  In this blog article I’d like to take a look at the actual media portrayal of the problem which was more the central theme of John Oliver’s segment.

If you haven’t watched the clip, John Oliver critiques the media for having one person who accepts the scientific evidence, with one person who denies it, saying that this gives an unfair representation of the scientific consensus on the issue.  Over 97% of the scientific literature from over 10,000 scientists across earth and biological sciences have concluded that human induced climate change is a fact, making it appear as though it is a split issue is quite simply dishonest.  And this absolutely true, but it is in fact even worse than that.

The 50-50 split looks even more in favor of the deniers when the media is always using the same person to represent the scientific side.  If you watch many interviews on the subject you might actually get the picture that it seems to be only one guy who thinks human-induced climate change is real while many other people don’t think it’s happening.  If you always saw the same guy “for” an issue and many other people on TV saying they are “against” it would be somewhat natural to think that the “against” side had a better argument.  Of course you’d be wrong in thinking that.  This is called the “Appeal to Popularity Fallacy” (or ad populum for you Latin Lovers).  An extremely common one used nowadays.  Of course as it turns out, it is the logic of the arguments and the strength of the evidence that makes for who has taken the correct issue on the stance.  Of course there are many biases and fallacies that we naturally gravitate towards because it is in our evolution.  Being the outcast in a group didn’t get you very far early in our evolution and the same is in a large part true today.  Although generally today, no matter how different you might be, with a large population you are likely to find a group to connect with.  But in terms of genetic history being an outcast in a group of social animals who may be relatively isolated from other populations doesn’t really give you anywhere to go, and since survival on your own is more difficult “following the herd” is part of who we are.  Of course, in this instance, there is no real punishment for accepting scientific evidence but sometimes I think our wiring doesn’t really care.

The 50-50 perception unbalances even further when you consider who Bill Nye.  Now don’t get me wrong.  As a scientist, I know he’s

From http://brandonhillphotos.com

a scientist, and that he has the ability to not only understand the issue, speak intelligently about it, and accept the hard work done by so many scientists to reach the conclusions they have about climate change.  But to the public there are a lot of negatives about Bill Nye that would make his credibility more suspect, especially to people who are on the fence or deniers themselves.   First of all Bill Nye is not a climate scientist.  He is not an expert in the field of climate science and as such this will weaken his credibility as an advocate.  In fact Bill Nye is most famous for his use of science concepts for educating children.  Climate change is a very adult issue that will require adults in government and voting adults to accept the scientific evidence and put forth appropriate policies to address the issue.  Bill Nye is also a celebrity and many people have negative attitudes towards celebrities who get involved in issues that are political.  In Canada, David Suzuki is a very famous scientist and naturalist, but is not very knowledgeable about the issue and so while he has tried to be advocate for climate change, he has not done very well when addressing even the most common fallacious criticisms put forth by deniers in a debate format.  He was hoping his popularity would help change the minds of people, but in fact it has likely hurt those who might be willing to listen to a well reasoned debate on the subject.  So I think Bill Nye may have similar impacts.

Now don’t get me wrong, because I am not convinced that the media is intentionally using Bill Nye for the purposes of misleading others.  For them, he is a celebrity and known and will add a few viewers whether people have grown to hate him or love him.  He is also an excellent public speaker, and he is also eager to break away from his previous persona as a scientist for children (honestly go back to getting children excited about science, I think it’s too late for congress now!).   So what is the solution to making the debate fairer?  John Oliver’s suggestion is not a bad one, but of course they are unlikely to get 100 people on the stage for a debate.   We nerdy introverted scientists simply need to become better communicators.  We need to get involved in educational outreach and scientific discourse at regional, state, and national levels.  Since there are literally 1000’s and 1000’s of people researching this field and concluding that man is impacting the climate just as we hone our research and analytical skills we must also hone our communication skills so that we aren’t just contributing through the publication of an article in a scientific journal.  And media, you could do a better job of finding actual experts to have on your programs.  You could do a better job also by being honest and saying we know this is not even close to a split issue in the scientific community and have more debates about what the best way about addressing the issue is, rather than trying to debate whether it is an issue at all.

If you are interested in learning more about climate science, learn about what the common myths are about climate change and why they are not well reasoned arguments, and be able to investigate climate change science at various levels of complexities I strongly recommend this site called Skeptical Science.

How Our Will Is Not So Free – Part I

For any of you who are foolish enough to read my blog you are used to a lot of rambling.  I can’t promise this will be too different, but I would like to be a little formal and have an actual thesis for this post.  I have posted my thoughts about free will in respect to religion, but even if one is not religious the idea

From http://www.brandonragle.com

that we have free will is extremely pervasive and I think it is ultimately a not necessarily helpful concept to believe in.  The choices that we think people have are an illusion and we tend to instead judge others because people do not make choices that we would make.  It prevents us from really helping those who are violent, disturbed, hurting, depressed, etc.  It has us believe that there are people who are inherently evil allowing us to dehumanize them and cast them aside, when instead they might simply have brain abnormalities, be traumatized, influenced by people as messed up as they are, or simply lost and confused in a world that is beyond them and behave desperately.  I think it also acts to separate us from nature and is a great source of human conceit.  Free will is not something we ascribe to plants or animals and thus also gives us the illusion that we lie in a place above all else.  Whether you believe that the supernatural has imparted us this blessing of greatness or you think that evolution is a pyramid in which humans rest on top, both these notions are ultimately dangerous because they allow us to justify great atrocities against nature as we continue to satisfy our own self-importance.

In the first 8 months of watching my son grow it is clear that free will is not something he was born with.  He started out simply crying when he was hurting, uncomfortable or hungry, and sleeping when he was sleepy.  Not a lot of free will going on there.  As I watch him change, I see him simply become aware of more things.  When he first could see our cats, not surprisingly he was curious and wanted to touch them.  Now that he’s been outside he asks to go outside (well not in words).  Now that he realizes the comfort of being held he asks to be held.  He also mimics.  He sees us eating something and he wants to eat it.  He sees us using a remote, our phones, computers, and he desperately wants to use those too (or rather put them in his mouth).

Before I formally begin my argument for the absence of free will I want to put an excellent quote from an article I read some time ago from the New Yorker which has had a large influence on my thoughts in trying to understand why we are the way we are and where this sense of self comes from that I blogged about some time ago.

I believe we inherit a great river of knowledge, a flow of patterns coming from many sources. The information that comes from deep in the evolutionary past we call genetics. The information passed along from hundreds of years ago we call culture. The information passed along from decades ago we call family, and the information offered months ago we call education. But it is all information that flows through us. The brain is adapted to the river of knowledge and exists only as a creature in that river. Our thoughts are profoundly molded by this long historic flow, and none of us exists, self-made, in isolation from it.”

From http://www.eugenecascadescoast.org

The reason I want you to keep this in mind, because not only does it support the argument I am going to make (doesn’t of course make the statement true), but most importantly I want to reveal to you that just because I don’t think we have free will, doesn’t mean that I don’t find life absolutely amazing.  The idea expressed in this passage speaks to me in a way I cannot fully express, but I find this idea beautiful.  It tells me that we are product of processes that function over many different scales of time.  From what we learn each day, to what nature has molded us into over millions of years.  We can extend even further and look at the billions of years of evolution which has produced us , and we can go back further to old stars dying and being the seeds for our own sun and solar system which allowed one fortunate planet to even allow life to evolve.  So the fact I may not be quite as in control of the process is hardly depressing.  In fact it removes a lot of the pressure if anything.  I can simply marvel at all that has taken place for me to sit here and write these thoughts out today back to the beginning of time.  It is humbling, inspiring, and magnificent.

I shall now let you pause a bit before going on to the next blog post, because going back to the beginning of time is something that requires some deep reflection. 🙂

Musings on Belief and Free Will

Christians often say that God does not reveal himself because he wanted people to have free will.

It may sound cynical, but given how many believe in spite of evidence, I somehow don’t think God revealing himself will turn everybody into the mindless automatons who have no choice.  Plenty of people reject evolution despite all the evidence.  Plenty of people believe in all sorts of conspiracies despite the evidence against.  People tend to believe in their religion and reject the other one.  People reject their creator all the time.  How many children get pissed off at their parents and never speak to them again?  Don’t underestimate mankind’s ability to ignore something that’s right in front of their eyes.

There are many also who would be still skeptical.  “Why don’t you have a beard?”  “I thought you were supposed to be a dude?”  “You’re not as white as I thought you would be” “This is some sort of a trick.”  Hey, maybe that skeptic would be me.  I mean if God did reveal himself, I’d have to have a good talk with him before I’d start fawning over him. I mean the dude would seriously have some explaining to do.  Is he just supposed to be so amazingly delicious that I have no choice but adore him?  It sounds like I am losing more than just my free will, but my rationality, my curiosity and the essence of who I am.

So God, if you are out there…let’s have a look at ya! 😉