Follow the reluctant adventures in the life of a Welsh astrophysicist sent around the world for some reason, wherein I photograph potatoes and destroy galaxies in the name of science. And don't forget about my website,

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 !

Two-parter looking at the liberal-cum-novel treatise of H. G. Wells. In part one I look at what everyday life is like for citizens inhabiting Wells' New World Order while in part two I examine how the world superstate maintains paradise. While there are some damn strange aspects to this (like insisting all children should live in the mountains and all politicians go on a yearly hike in the wilderness), and some seriously wrong-headed ideas about eliminating animals and stupidly sexist remarks, there is much of value here also. There is a vitriolic condemnation of racism, an endorsement of technology for human benefit, and a resolute determination towards maximising freedom and equality for all. Outdated it certainly is, but the core message, I believe, still has tremendous value.

Trilogy of posts examining a notorious essay by John Locke, which I like very much. In part one I examine Locke's ideas about knowledge : what we mean when we say we know something, how we may perhaps be truly certain. In part two I look at his ideas about free will, reaching the conclusion that perhaps consciousness is some field-like but non-physical thing and that dualism is a perfectly sensible position. Finally in part three I examine Locke's ideas about religious fanaticism and the different meanings we can apply to the word "faith".

Things What I Was Wrong About (and a few things I wasn't)

I've covered things I've changed my mind about before (you can find a link to that below somewhere), but here I decided to actively solicit this. Going over my publicly-stated predictions from my old Google Plus feed (plus a few more), here I review my fairly dismal success rate. Well, this is something you don't see most journalists ever do, at least, even if it didn't actually change any of my fundamental opinions.

Or alternatively a clever idiot. Prompted by the British left-wing press insisting that the Tories are surely doomed despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, I came up with this handy chart. Suppose that the ability to solve problems isn't the same as the ability to overcome one's own biases. In that case, you can get intelligent, unbiased people who are guided by the evidence, but you also get the occasional intelligent person who only uses their intellect to justify themselves rather than changing their mind.

Stoicism seems incredibly popular on the internet, but my attempt to brief look at the works of Epictetus blossomed (or decayed) into a five-part series looking at how awful it is. The more you look, the more contradictions emerge, and the harder they are to reconcile. Part one introduces the problem that Epictetan stoicism means you not only stop caring about yourself, but also other people. Part two examines whether this can be saved, given that Epictetus said that only external events don't matter, but our opinions are important (concluding that it can't.). Part three looks at his views on philosophy and the provisional nature of conclusions, and the importance of free will. This introduces my favourite aspect of freedom in general, covered in part four, which Epictetus viewed as something much more subtler than a lot of modern ideas. Finally in part five I conclude that Stoicism is ultimately beyond saving. Despite Epictetus' best efforts, his own ideas ultimately lead to selfishness and cruelty.

An ongoing project in which I combine ideas from a range of different fields - philosophy, science, sociology, and network analysis - to design a better system for political-decision making. In part one I describe how competitive collaborations work so effectively in science but often with huge problems in other fields. In part two I describe what it is that makes science work so well, why competition doesn't lead to runaway hostility nor its collaborations spiral into unstoppable groupthink. I stumble on a way to adapt this to the political arena. Part three considers how the system of checks and balances can go out of whack and how that affects society, and the necessary goals for any proposed replacement system. More posts on this in the future, but at least this is better than saying, "the system doesn't work" without saying why it doesn't work or what would work better.

I review Niall Ferguson's book, which is a nice overview of different types of networks in society. Ferguson calls feudal hierarchies "towers" and likens more distributed networks to a market square. He describes different rules of network interactions, and, to some degree, the advantages of disadvantages of both. Although ultimately his conclusions fall apart into a mass of contradictions, this is still well worth reading to get a feel for how the structure of society really matters.

I which I get annoyed by Stephen Pinker, whose every decent and provocative point is countered by him saying something monumentally stupid. While he's not wrong about society being materially better off now that it has been in the past, he's incapable of understanding why he aren't perpetually orgasmically happy. I argue that this is because we default to making comparisons which are relative, recent and local : sure, you should be amazed when someone invents the aeroplane, but only a gibbering idiot would still be amazed a century later. You should take things for granted if there's no prospect of losing them. I further argue that Pinker's crude utilitarian approach is just not adequate for assessing what it is people actually want and need.

Or can you ? Should you ? A three-part post attempting to deal with the viral spread of misinformation, with a focus on trying to determine under what conditions attempts at persuasions can successful and when they backfire. In particular, I look at when it's better to debate and when it's better to deny : when attempts at discussion can legitimise and spread information you'd prefer to suppress, when discussion succeeds, and when banning information only makes it worse and when it does actually help. Using a whole bunch of findings from observational and theoretical studies, part one presents an overview, part two looks at how we arrive at conclusions, and part three (which is dangerously long) looks at the complex network effects and work and how can can - and should - attempt to manage them.

What's it all about, I mean really, when you get right down to it ? Everyone should ask this question from time to time. Here I look at the most fundamental assumptions behind the scientific world view, why these can only ever be unprovable assumptions, but also the tremendous advantages gained by recognising this (a later follow-up post explores one of these assumptions in more detail). I then discuss the different levels of belief and disbelief in these assumptions and how we might go about persuading people who don't accept them, without ourselves falling into scientism.

What do we actually mean by "theory" anyway ? While I've been woefully inconsistent on this in the past, in this post I finally nail the damn thing down and find that the popular internet definition is a total myth. I look at the origin on the popular idea that it has a special meaning to scientists, accuse these people of being horrible, and tackle a bunch of other definitions for good measure : laws, facts, principles, conclusion, knowledge, un-science, anti-science, that sort of thing.

Inspired by an excellent online course about bullshit data, I look at bullshit in the political arena (taking care to use generic, mostly fictitious examples rather than real, partisan ones). What is bullshit, as opposed to simply lying ? I argue that it is to not care about the essential point of a statement, give examples to illustrate, and vainly hope that this may be useful for people in analysing the behaviour of politicians.

The idea that a scientific theory should be disprovable one is very popular. Here I look at why this is undeniably useful and always advantageous to any theory, but the reality tends to be far less black and white and instead is a much more interesting shade of grey. Some models can't really be falsified but they are undeniably scientific.

While I don't think I'm particularly good or even above average at persuading people, I do claim to actually think about why I've reached my conclusions (with all the perils of merely rationalising them that that implies). So I decided to take this approach to politics. Using a slightly modified form of the equation used to quantify the number of alien civilisations we expect, I try and produce a method to understand how I've decided who to vote for. While this might have some use in making a decision, its main purpose is to get people to stop and think about why they're voting the way they are and allow them to explain it in a non-activist way to other people.

A collection of six posts looking at the most interesting things I learned from reading the massive tome that is the complete works of Plato. In the first I look at the scientific intent behind the Socratic dialogues. The second is a somewhat more disorganised look at Plato's contradictory conclusions and the experience of reading the thing. The remaining posts tackle how Plato's analysis led him to propose new models for society, beginning with a look at Republic and why reading this in context feels very different from reading it in isolation. The others present a deeper look at the lesser known Laws, in which I try not just to convey Plato's statements but why I find them interesting and relevant today. We begin with an examination of the purpose of law, then I conduct a statistical analysis of the proposed laws because that's how I roll (it's more fun than it sounds, I promise). Finally in the third part I look in detail at daily life in this fictional state, the reasoning behind it, and consider what lessons we might still learn from it.

I review a seriously flawed yet very interesting book on the nature of reality. The claim is that all of the world's religions and science are true. This has got some stonking great problems when it comes to specifics, but raises some genuinely interesting philosophical questions. It's probably the crappiest book I've ever been glad to have read - I don't believe it for a second, but the alternative ways of perceiving the Universe are worth examining.

Being initially very impressed by Mr Corbyn's staunchly left-wing policies, I later came to do a massive rethink. I think I've probably singularly failed to convince anyone with this, so these posts only stand as a "don't say I didn't warn you" marker. In the first I describe how I came to so massively reverse my opinion. In the second I describe why I voted Liberal Democrat instead of Labour (as it stands I wouldn't vote for either of them again). The third, which is occasionally updated, compares Corbyn to Trump (which the Spectator effectively mirrored some time later). The fourth summarised the election situation.

What do you do if you want to read the ancient epic poem of Beowulf, don't like the poetic form but can't find a good prose version ? I dunno about you, but my solution was to manually edit a poetic translation into readable prose, so here's the result in PDF version with a detailed description of the editing in the blog post.

The rallying cry of nutters on the internet is, "those experts said I was crazy, but I'll show them ! They were wrong before, so they're wrong about me !". Now of course, expert judgement is hardly infallible. But is it as bad as pseudoscientists claim ? Has every great discovery been dismissed as impossible not incidentally by a few, but chronically by legions closed-minded establishment scientists ? Nope, and here some examples to prove it (with the caveat that I'm not a historian).

An inevitably ranty post in which I go off on one about hour experts aren't elitist bigots trying to keep the little man down, the nature of the internet in feeding distrust, and why the solution is boringly middle ground and no-one need to be even slightly revolutionised.

No less than nine posts tackling the major political issue of contemporary Britain. In the first, my stance on the imperfect but necessary E.U. The second records my response in the immediate aftermath of the vote, while the third is a copy of a letter to my M.P. arguing why the referendum vote should not be treated with undue, err, political correctness. The fourth looks more at "why the will" of the people is being brazenly abused, while the fifth is a rhetorical attempt to describe staying in the E.U. as a move and patriotic zealot ought to be in favour of. The sixth looks at possible causes of the vote and the purpose of democracy, the seventh at common objections to overturning the result of a referendum, and the eighth is a letter to the British political system that explains why it's a bit like Deep Space Nine. Finally, in the ninth post I got tired of repeating the same old arguments, so I summarise them in a simple FAQ. I haven't felt the need to write anything else on the matter since then, because the facts haven't changed.

On how the legitimately useful term of political correctness has been usurped by the gutter press, but the essence of it - treating people nicely when they deserve reproach - is grounded in reality. I propose that we need a new term to label such behaviour, which of course everyone will ignore.

Three posts looking at the peer review system that everyone in academia loves and loathes. In this one I look at why it's important, what it's for and what it doesn't and shouldn't do. In the second I look at a personal example where things went badly wrong, suggesting (what you'd think would be, but apparently aren't) common sense guidelines to reviewers. In the third, I propose a simple overhaul of the system that might help reduce the godforsaken "publish or perish" culture.

Spend enough time on the internet and you emerge with a dim view of humanity. In several related posts I explore how people respond to evidence and why they're not always rational. I begin by looking at cases where my own opinions have shifted, emphasising the most irrational reasons why that happened. Then I look at how incredibly nasty individuals can become popular and manipulate people to their own advantage, even though those people are not necessarily stupid. Finally I tie all this together in a long essay on stupidity, looking at the various causes - especially why evolution has resulted us thinking in this bizarre, often contradictory way that doesn't always respect reality. If you want to persuade people, you cannot simply give them a bunch of facts : for very good evolutionary reasons, that is literally not how their brains work.

Recent calls for scientists to run en masse for political office risk nothing less than the utter ruin of civilisation. Why ? Because that would make science into a political movement. The political system is designed to grind opinions against each other; it is a lousy means of assessing facts because it's not designed to be objective. Politicians become nasty in part through this system and as a scientist I guarantee you my colleagues are not so inhumanly honourable that they would be above this. Science's value in society arises not only from its clever inventions but its ability to hold politicians to account. It provides the facts, they act on them. Get rid of the fact-checkers and accountability is lost. No, if you want a more rational politics you must implement a system designed to deal with this. Simply changing the politicians is not enough.

It's often said that science can only prove which theories aren't true, not which ones are correct. I show that this is wrong, provided we're careful to define what we mean by "theory" and "prove". Science is not just about proving other people wrong - for me, the whole point is to try and establish what's really happening.

Why do people mistrust science and why do they deny its findings despite not having a clue about how it's done ? Many reasons. Scientists often exaggerate their claims in press releases to sound far more confident than is warranted, which leads to a trust breakdown when those results are quickly overturned. The media make this tenfold worse. And then there are "science advocates" who are little better than political activists, with this unjustified, uncompromising, black-and-white, tribalistic view of science which then politicises it. Not to mention actual politicians doing the scientist's job of outreach. All this makes science look like a politically-motivated endeavour, not the search for objective truth it actually is. And see this closely-related post for why I'm disgusted at how science and scientific findings are seen as "elitist".

If you don't actually care about the facts, you can twist them to suit whatever you want. Taking as inspiration the statements of real people - members of the BNP, Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, and others - together with a highly selected mixture of facts and outright lies, I paint a picture of scientists as the most evil group of people in history. I then give an extremely detailed breakdown of the various techniques used to manipulate people that inspire fear and anger rather than rational analysis.

Inspired by an earlier meme describing the scientific method as a meme-based flowchart, I decided to take this concept and run with it. There is no one unique way of doing science : sometimes it can be done based purely on observations, other times purely from theory. Real science isn't linear or even a cycle, it's a complex web of which the final flowchart can only ever be an approximation. But quite an amusing one, I think.

Science. Religion. Two mortal enemies forever at odds for the soul of humanity ! At least that's what extreme anitheists and religious fanatics alike would have you believe. The rest of us - the more moderate majority - know that's dangerous nonsense.  You can be a great scientist and think there's a deity running the show, and you can also be an atheists and a complete arsehole. Only the worst extremists take the entirety of their religious textbooks literally, or conversely that no-one should be allowed to hold an unprovable opinion at all. Most of the time, science and religion get along just fine, thank you very much.

In which I tackle the extremely annoying version stated in Contact that the simplest explanation tends to be the right one. No it doesn't - the Universe is anything but simple ! Actually it only means that you should start by examining the simplest explanation and only making it more complex as needed, i.e. as evidence compels you to do so. Simpler explanations are useful starting points because they're easier to test and refute, but assuming that the Universe actually is simple leads to madness.

On the damaging myth of the lone genius who makes a revolutionary breakthrough that overturns  "the establishment". True, long geniuses do crop up from time to time. But they rarely if ever do so starting from scratch, they almost always build on results of legions of careful, patient, very ordinary researchers who are seldom the misanthropic loners depicted in movies. And in a closely related post, I examine the claims of disgruntled fringe researchers lunatics that all research was once dismissed by the establishment as crazy : actually, the mainstream has a remarkably good track record of distinguishing promising research from the genuinely mad.

What's the point in blue-skies research with no obvious applications to anyone here on Earth ? Nothing ! Everything. Without this research, ignorance flourishes unchecked. Our exploration of the cosmos does something far more valuable than mere technological spin-offs (although it does that too, with gusto) : it tells us where we are in the grand scheme of things, that we should all of us remember just how petty we are to the Universe. And the cost of this is utterly negligible compared to what we spend as private consumers or governments spend on warfare.

Here I explain my overarching philosophy in life : be moderate in all things including moderation itself. Most things aren't crazy unless you take them to extremes. Competition can be healthy but it has to have rules. Co-operation can be powerful but you can't give the state absolute power over everything. Selflessness is great unless you let people treat you like a doormat. Doubt is an incredibly powerful, underrated tool - unless you doubt everything, in which case you learn nothing. And then some things aren't good even in moderation, like slavery and murder. Hence, moderation squared.

It's all very well proclaiming oneself to be open-minded, but if that's so, one should actually change one's mind from time to time. No-one is born knowing all the right answers, nor does anyone ever have all the right answers - those never change their opinions are dangerous idiots. So in this post I do a retroactive self-analysis of the major issues I've changed my mind on, with particular emphasis on the worst and most irrational reasons why I altered my opinion.

In which I outline some basic statistical methods that we'd all do well to keep in mind. Anecdotes are exactly evidence, but neither are they worthless. What you observe is seldom the whole story and what's locally (really) true for you isn't necessarily a good indication of the wider picture. And an observed correlation may or may not mean anything - to leap to the conclusion that one thing definitely causes another is almost always a mistake.

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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