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Rants a.k.a. Essays

What else is a blog for if not somewhere you can have a damned good rant about things that annoy you ? A deceptively small list, because these "essays", if I may call them that, are pretty long. Short, snappy articles aren't really my thing. That means I'm either fully exploring complex issues, or just a bad writer. You decide !

That's a very good point, Steven, apart from it being completely wrong. The number of Muslim terrorists in the Western world is such a vanishingly small number that being afraid of terrorism, let alone being afraid of Muslims, makes no sense whatsoever. If it was Islam that was causing terrorism, we'd all be dead by now. People also forget that there are many, many other causes of terrorism. It isn't being religious or having an ideology of any kind that makes someone commit violence : it's being a violent nutjob. Violent nutjobs exist (largely) independently of whatever religion happens to be around.

A somewhat meandering look at the mutual relationships between science and society. Science is not entirely like any other human endeavour. It needs the creative freedom of the arts, but has to be constrained by facts. It searches for truth, like journalism, but is not supposed to be unbiased or impartial. It needs the competitive aspect of business, but must not be driven by money. And while science is essential in politics, it's also essential to keep politics out of science. 

There are those who think that scientists are so determined to agree with each other that they'll never consider any alternatives. They are wrong. Science is a process of discovery and exciting discoveries are rewarded. The competitive peer-review process provides incentive to disprove each other, but it also punishes those whose allegations aren't supported. We love getting excited, but not getting excited about things which aren't true. I look at why the media have a lot to answer for in giving the impression of the dogmatic scientist, something which should be regarded as an oxymoron.

Nuclear weapons are awful things and we should get rid of them as soon as possible... but no sooner. I am in favour of multilateral disarmament, but not unilateral British disarmament. I see that as throwing a wildcard with our strongest military asset, and the time to do that is not now. Nuclear weapons aren't supposed to be used : they are their own deterrent, preventing the other side from ever launching them, not a means of retaliation. Other counties don't have nuclear weapons but that doesn't mean our weapons aren't protecting them. And while they are very expensive, they are not that expensive.

While science is all about doubt, there are some things you don't have to question. When your only counter-argument becomes, "you're lying !", you've crossed the line from legitimate suspicion to rampant paranoia. It's just another form of certainty when you think about it : everyone else must be lying because I already know this is true. Facts are facts. If you want to explain them away, then you're not being scientific. And that's perfectly fine - but don't confused your beliefs with actual evidence.

We use this word to mean very different things depending on context. It can equally mean that you think something is not true or that you're trying to test its validity either way. In science, the all-important aspect is doubt : is this true or not ? Either answer must be treated equally. Unfortunately there isn't a good English word for this, which is why when we say we're being skeptical people think we mean we're denying something, which is not usually the case at all. However, normally we seek to disprove each other for practical reasons, because this is more robust - an argument which can stand up to an attack is more likely to be true than one we have to try and support. The key point is that we admit cases which do stand up, and don't just dismiss them because we don't like them.

It's good to be skeptical if you know what the f**k you're talking about. If you don't, it's better to listen to the experts. The scientific world view is a lot like a gladiatorial arena : the consensus view is the theory that's stood up to the most brutal attacks. Rarely are its enemies totally defeated, but it's in much better shape than they are. The experts are like the audience closest to the arena floor who can see what's going on most clearly - sometimes they may be rooting for an apparently defeated contestant, but not usually.

I also address a variety of related ideas : the "I'm not a scientist" defence can't be used if you then make criticisms of scientific theories; the idea that scientists don't really know what they're doing; and the alternatives to following the consensus view (the winning gladiator) and why this is usually a foolish thing to do. The consensus isn't the truth, but it is the most informed conclusion possible. Anything else is inferior - doesn't mean it's wrong, necessarily, just that it's not usually a good idea to bet against it.

Having written a number of debunking articles, I began to realise that understanding the scientific issues were only part of the analysis tools I was using. Critical thinking is not taught (directly) as an important skill in school-level science classes, it doesn't get much of a mention in University, and even at a PhD level critical analysis is something you learn on the job. It's high school English lessons where you're taught to examine things beyond their face value. Yet this has largely been forgotten by science journalisst, and I offer some suggestions as to what makes a good science article.

The anthropic principle says that we can work out fundamental properties of the Universe by looking at its contents - i.e. the properties of the Universe must be suitable to contain the things it contains. One of the things is happens to contain is life, which causes no end of problems. So far as we know, life is totally unimportant in the grand scheme of things. Arguments that the Universe has been fine-tuned to support life are not only completely wrong, as I demonstrate, but miss the point : whatever the Universe contains it will appear to be fine-tuned to contain those things.

As far as the supposed designer goes, well, the Universe contains many wonders (Sarah Michelle Gellar) and horrors (Justin Beiber), so you've really no way of knowing if they were good, evil, or a complete berk. The only legitimate uses of saying something is so perfect / awful that it must have been designed are cheesy chat-up lines and scathing insults.

Not all members of UKIP are racists and not everyone who's voting for them is a racist, of course. But there's an idea floating around that the word "racism" is over-used. It isn't. Race as a concept may be scientifically nonsense, or it might be real - but society's definition of race is absolutely arbitrary and unjustified. Therefore, accusations of racism are perfectly legitimate. Moreover, there's one recent UKIP policy idea that's so manifestly racist by anyone's standards that supporting it is directly equivalent to holding up a big sign that says, "look at me, I'm a great big racist". It is UKIP - no-one else - who are responsible for needlessly making the debate about immigration into one about race.

Guest starring Eric Pickles, Scarlett Johansson and a bunch of gingers here to teach us why race is a stupid concept that's likely to be an entirely social construct with little or no scientific basis.

In which I tack a crack at the so-called "New Atheism", which looks a lot like the old antitheism. The attitude of some of its adherents is identical to many of the most fanatically religious : dogmatic, closed-minded, hateful, superior. I look at why - no matter what Richard Dawkins might say - a belief that God doesn't exist is not the same a lack of belief, which is agnosticism. It is a religious viewpoint, and a pretty nasty one at that. Being an atheist or antitheist does not automatically make you a better person nor entitle you to abuse people because their beliefs are different to yours.

As for the goat, you'll just have to read the article to understand that one.

Unless they're angry, have a big sharp sword and can kill you with
a frisbee. That's just common sense.
Triggered by the notorious "shirtstorm" debacle - in which a prominent scientist was harangued for wearing a shirt depicting scantily-clad young ladies - I look at the counter response. I tackle the heart of the matter - sexuality - head on. Feminism doesn't imply suppressing sexuality, as misogynists would have you believe - on the contrary, it can be sexy as hell. But it does mean that men can't value all women only for their bodies all the time. The automatic assumption that the shirt contained that message was actually quite wrong, but understandable given the still hugely unequal society in which we live.

I contend that in a truly feminist society, wearing such a shirt wouldn't have caused the slightest problem. Expressing appreciation for the female form isn't inherently degrading to women, nor are women who choose to appeal to male sexuality inherently demeaning their entire gender. But, crucially, the reasons for the negative responses to the shirt aren't about angry feminists who hate men - they're a response to a very deep-seated, misogynistic culture that's still a part of Western society.

In which I make a stalwart defence of mainstream science and the scientific method. Criticism of science is rooted in some fundamental misconceptions. Science is a process of asking questions. Its findings change through time as more evidence becomes available. Actual proof is extremely rare - a major mistake on the part of popular science outreach articles (but far more often in the mainstream media) is to say, "we know this is true", when in reality it's almost always, "we think this is far more likely to be true than the alternatives". Science is not dogmatic - it is a self-correcting, investigative procedure, always skeptical of its own findings.

Do not come to science looking for answers, because most of the time it doesn't have any. That's why you should take it extra seriously on those rare occasions when there is a scientific consensus, like evolution, climate change and vaccination.

Here I review one of the most interesting books I've read in years. The medieval Catholic church did not pronounce all scientific inquiry as heretical, and in some cases actually encouraged it. Though there were a few close calls, not a single scientist was burned at the stake for their beliefs. Galileo was imprisoned - partially because he personally insulted the Pope as much as for his deductions - but he could have easily avoided it. The image of the church as an unthinking "thou shalt not question !" institute is a later fabrication, history being written by the victors.

The book isn't perfect - it's largely confined to exploring what went on in academia, and says almost nothing about what ordinary people believed and were allowed to believe. But it's also not afraid to point out that the church made some incredibly stupid mistakes. Anyone seriously interested in how science and religion really interact ought to give this a read.

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