Monday, 30 April 2012

In Defence of Prejudice?

In which I express concern and outrage at Sam Harris's defence of profiling

On checking my twitter feed the other night, I was more than a little disturbed to see a few disparaging references to Sam Harris - a leading figure of the modern Atheist movement, described as one of the 'four horsemen'. On following a link to his website I soon understood why - and am rather shocked and appalled that such a thing has come to pass. Essentially, Sam Harris has written an article in defence of airport security profiling, specifically, targeting people who fit the typical description of a Muslim terrorist. I suggest you go read it.

The main theme of the article is that the current security theatre pervading airports in the US is absurd and pointless, not only subjecting ordinary people to significant inconvenience and stress, but likely being ineffective in actually preventing terrorism.  Well, I can't say I disagree with that, and it certainly seems the actions of the Transportation Security Administration are becoming increasingly ridiculous. However, where Harris goes with this is deeply troubling, in that he advocates profiling based on appearance and ethnicity, and focusing attention on those who 'look like terrorists'.

Harris's argument has one big false premise: that it is obvious who the suspects are. As PZ Myers points out in his response to this, many terrorists, such as Oklahoma bomber Timothy McVeigh and British "shoe bomber" Richard Reid, are not even slightly middle-eastern. It seems rather incongruous, and historically inaccurate, to see modern terrorism solely through the lens of the events of 9/11, and to conflate the categories of "terrorist" with "Islamic extremist". Indeed, given the rather small number of terrorist acts actually perpetrated by militant Islamic fundamentalists in the past few decades, it seems that the threat of this kind of terrorism has been blown out of all proprtion by the media and a goverment only too eager to impose draconian laws - as Adam Curtis's excellent 'Power of Nightmares' documentary describes. The discrepancy between the real and imagined threats - and the political power this can confer - is a fascinating issue underlying much of recent history; but for the time being, it suffices to say that Muslim-initiated terrorism is neither as pervasive nor as exclusive as we are often led to assume. To say the least, this weakens the argument that a typical terrorist looks like what we think a Muslim looks like, whatever that may be.

To be fair to Harris, he is not making veiled references to what a terrorist supposedly looks like, to insinuate it's a Muslim issue without naming names: he comes right out and says it openly. But he does not stop there: not only, he says, should we preferentially profile Muslims, but those that look even slightly like they might be one. Profiling moves from any demographic and statistical  justification it may have had, to snap judgements based solely on appearance - because apparently when it comes to trained fighters attempting to pass off as innocent citizens, "TSA screeners can know this at a glance". Disappointingly, he even invokes the spectre of political correctess, as if not preying on a group of people due to their enthicity and appearance were symptoms of over-zealous adherence to a code of feigned diplomacy, rules imposed to stop us telling it like it is.

This kind of built-in prejudice is far too close for comfort to that most heinous of crimes, "driving while black" - the parallels with the treatment of young black men over the last century, from the casual stereotyping to the lazy justification, are all too obvious. But I won't dwell on that, partly because using the insert-blacks-here gambit is a somewhat patronising way of making the point, but mainly because I can't believe that Harris had not thought of it before writing this piece - and presumably deemed it a worthwhile policy to support regardless.

What I will mention is that research has shown that terrorists are disproportionately likely, compared to their peers, of coming from engineering backgrounds. Whatever the reason may be (maybe engineers are easier to recruit, or aspiring terrorists see it as a valuable skill to obtain) is beside the point: but wouldn't it therefore be more sensible to profile passengers on this basis? Should suspicion fall on a large swathe of the population, simply because they possess a skill which is associated with a vanishingly small group of terrorists?  No, clearly not, that would be grossly unfair - and the same should apply for any other such criertion.

One of Harris's main points - where again, there is a grain of truth - is that in casting the net so wide as to include everyone (in what he disingenuously calls a "tyranny of fairness"), we sample too sparsely and risk missing the real criminals. But in making this point he describes the case of a young girl being taken to have her sandles examined, while he inadvertently smuggles a bag full of ammunition: and isn't this exactly the problem? He, as a fine upstanding example of the average white male, would be unlikely to fall within the arbitrary definition of what a terrorist looks like, and could get away with carrying dangerous weaponry onto a flight. Doesn't this hint that the kind of profiling he advocates is doomed to fail?

As PZ goes on to say, this approach also misses a fundamental point about how terrorists will try to mount an attack: they will go for whichever method is least expected. The moment we decide what a terrorist should look like, we virtually guarantee that none will; telling them who is not under suspicion is essentially telling them where to hide the bombs. Why, after years of battling enemies who are allegedly hidden amongst Americans, in sleeper cells, home grown terror factions, or otherwise able to evade detection, would it be sensible to assume a terrorist would look the part?

There are a few other things that Sam Harris says, aside from this main point, that I take exception to, and need addressing. He has the audactity to say that, far from being affronted by such blatant prejudice, the minority groups automatically labelled as potential walking detonations should be glad of this.  Yes, with their insistence to dress as they do or show their darkened faces in public, they should be happy to be suspected - it's for their own good! - because after all, the do look a big dodgy.  His insistence that he would not mind, if the roles were reversed, drips condescention, and it is tempting to imagine that he has never been on the receiving end of this kind of open discrimination. His Ben Stiller quip falls rather short of the mark: having a passing resenblence to a one-off criminal is not the same as having your whole ethnic group, even your very identity, tarred with the same badly applied brush. Furthermore, I find his 'Bollywood villain' comment to be somewhat inappropriate in this setting: so he's Indian and looks a bit shifty? And doesn't look concerned at the elderly couple being subjected to various prodding and probing? Get 'im! No matter that this is a completely different ethnic group from the ones he tries to argue are chief suspects - he doesn't fit in the innocent, white, harmless category, and is offhandedly cast as the bad guy.

I agree that there needs to be a degree of common sense applied to security. The ban on carrying liquids, or requests to remove clothing bearing even a picture of a gun, are over-eager attempts to look as though something - anything - is being done. There might perhaps be an argument that certain groups - toddlers, the infirm, young families - are "obviously" not about to commit acts of mass murder; but given the known cases of seemingly innoccent people being tools of horrendous killing (perhaps against their will), it is hard to see how this could be applied without being an obvious security flaw.

Security agencies may well be paranoid and making a lot of ineffectual fuss in desperation, and I certainly do not want to live in a world ruled by fear and suspicion, but history shows what can happen if we are not prepared. However, this does by no means justify a policy based upon discriminating against minority groups merely due to past associations or prejudices. Whichever way is chosen to protect airports - and society in general - we should never settle for a method which is indistinguishable from systematic, institutional racism.

Sunday, 22 April 2012

Happy Birthday, Planet! (sort-of)

Some brief thoughts on Earth Day (because I have a ton of other stuff to do)

So, today is Earth Day: a day to celebrate our lovely pale blue dot, and in order to mobilise ourselves, a call to action to stop it getting wrecked.  As Phil Plait mentions on his blog (go there, there's a fantastic video/animation from orbit), there will inevitably be a slew of articles and blog posts bemoaning the mess we've made, and how we really need to get our act together and sort out greenhouse gas emissions, pollution, and all that sort of thing.

And yes, we have undoubtedly caused a lot of destruction all over the place, from shocking habitat loss to a slow warming of the entire planet; but I too would rather not dwell on the negatives. I am reminded of an article I read the other day in New Scientist (from last June - I'm actually that far behind), which discusses the possible formal classification of our current era as the Anthropocene, i.e. a geological age in which we are the principal instigators of planet-wide change. The point of the article is not, however, to focus on the pain and pollution us pesky primates permeate, but to point out the fact that this kind of large scale change is actually a bit of an achievement. The Anthropocene has been a long time coming, not just the result of recent increased fossil fuel use or land development - we have been clearing flora and decimating the fauna for about as long as we have been human - and in those few hundred thousand years we have made a significant and measurable effect on almost all areas of the planet.

Putting aside the fact that many of the changes are most certainly detrimental (species extinction and the rise of precarious monocultures, and all that), this is a remarkable thing to have done. This planet is huge: we have built over only a small fraction of its surface, excavated a tiny proportion of its interior, and have barely begun to explore the vast depths of the oceans... and yet we are capable of altering it on a large scale, without even trying. With not even a hint of deliberate terraforming, we have made alterations that nature alone would never have done, making large tracts of land more suited to our habitation or exploitation. With inevitable population growth and advances in technology, and the prospect of geo-engineering looming, this will only become more pronounced.

Now of course I'm not saying that our apparent destructiveness is a wondrous thing to be celebrated: but it is rather impressive. The main point of the New Scientist article - with which I am inclined to agree - is that this shows the awesome potential we as a species have, for large scale alterations to an entire planet. We have been changing the environment since we first started hunting mammoths or rotating crops, but we now wield more power than ever before in terms of our ability to shape the future of life on Earth (for better or worse) - which is something which we really need to face in the coming years.

The upside of all of this (other than my usual awe at humanity's grandiose achievements) is that with this power, we have the potential to start doing things properly. Maybe not yet, but soon, we will likely have both the technology and the motivation to use our innovative and progressive nature for the good of the planet, limiting the damage we do, as well as making it a safer and more stable place to live (nature doesn't exactly have a good track record at not killing us).

Or if all else fails, our experience of making drastic and permanent changes to the operation of an entire world will be useful when we finally go beyond our Earthly cradle and start colonising and terraforming other planets.

Friday, 20 April 2012

Ancient aliens and clockwork magic

Ancient paintings from Val Camonica, Italy depicting forgotten deities; ancient astronaut proponents claim they resemble modern day astronauts [wikipedia]Conspiracy theories, of various degrees of implausibility, come and go, but one which recently caught my attention was the ancient aliens hypothesis: which basically postulates that many of the mysterious and impressive feats of humanity's past were created by, or wth the help of, an advanced alien race (it does without saying that there is no actual evidence for this). It's been the subject of recent discussion since the History channel aired a disgracefully credulous documentary series about it, in which aliens are advanced as the explanation for pretty much anything.  I didn't actually see it, but am familiar with the basic idea (Jen McCreight has a nice blog post about it here).

It's easy to dismiss such ramblings as nonsense, a product of over-eager imagination and confirmation bias and under-active skepticism. Moreover, some people are just prone to believe in consipracy theories, whatever the subject: some interesting research (featured on the SGU) shows that people's belief in one bizarre theory tends to correlate with beliefs in other bizarre theories, even when they may be mutually incompatible.

However, at around the same time that everyone was having a good chuckle at this aliens-built-the-pyramids nonsense, I came across this SMBC comic:
SMBC comic 2542

Which got me thinking about the whole ancient aliens thing in a slighly different way. Much like the child in the lower panel, belief in supernatural or extra-terrestrial intervention in human affairs seems to be because we don't understand how things can be achieved without modern technology. There's a big difference in scale but I think both hint at the same underlying theme: we see the world through our technologically advanced eyes, we know the impressive things we are now capable of, and assume that anything in the past was incomparably primitive. Clever technology or impressive architecture doesn't fit this idea: be it intricate clockwork mecha nisms, stone circles, or immense drawings; since we can't see how anything as complex as this could have been done pre internet, let alone pre-industriaisation, we jump to assuming it can't have been possible, and must have had help.
Antikythera Mechanism []
This is a pretty unflattering idea, and seems to undermine our faith in ourselves as a species, by assuming that we are inherantly incapable of immense or complex undertakings. It's as if we credit "technology" with our prowess and achievements, imagining that we rely on clever machines or handy gadgets for our every need, while forgetting the path that led us to such things. Thus, when we hear of impressive things humans of the past have done, we wonder how could they, in their primitive ways, have done this - and may come to odd and improbable conclusions that it must have been aliens, gods or time travellers. The most likely answer - that this was done with great effort and difficulty - is simply less glamorous and romantic.  Similarly, in the comic, we can't see how "ancient" people could have come up with something so clever from such basic principles and materials, doubting our species ability to be inventive in favour of a more magical interpretation.

This tendency to be incredulous at old technology was illustrated to me recently, when showing off my newly obtained record player to my sister.  We marvelled at the fact that they managed to record sound as physical analogues of the waveforms, in incredibly tiny grooves, even back before electronic amplification was possible. And as I excitedly explained how a stereo signal is encoded (basically, left and right are in grooves perpendicular to each other and at 45 degrees to the surface, so each channel has a separate spatial dimension - wow!) we both expressed amazement that something so elegant and intricate could have been conceived and implemented so long ago, before the modern age of precision etching and microchips.

That level of awe at old - yet perfectly working - technology, the incredulity that the brutish barbarians of a century ago could come up with such a thing, sums up my point quite well. We are not jumping to the conclusion that aliens invented vinyl (although they did invent the transistor); but it's the same sentiment.  We are amazed at what humans could have done in the recent past, and are similarly incredulous that ancient people could ever have built enourmous structures and sophisticated machinery - so I can to some extent sympathise with people who fall for fantastical and far-fetched alternatives. But if our history shows us anything, it's that we should have a little more faith in what we are capable of, and be proud of what our species can do before invoking some otherworldy helpers or magic powers.  Humanity has done great things, and crediting aliens, gods, or magic powers is to sell ourselves short.

Saturday, 14 April 2012

First world problems have solutions for all

How seemingly trivial complaints can drive progress for everyone's benefit

There have been a few very interesting articles written recently about the concept of "first world problems". Essentially, this is a label sometimes given to a complaint or difficulty self-deprecatingly deemed minor or inconsequential, acknowledging its insignificance compared to the terrible hardships endured by other people. But as Tracy King points out in her blog post, this does not necessarily mean that these are irrelevant or petty; and neither are such day-to-day concerns limited to what we refer to as the 'first world' (which is itself a rather arbitrary and out-dated distinction). Amanda Palmer also addresses the issue, pointing out that labelling one person's problems as somehow more deserving of recognition is to downplay someone else's equally legitimate suffering; and that everyone has problems relating to their circumstances. Both articles are excellent and I encourage you to read them.

As Amanda Palmer's article points out, humans never objectively measure their troubles against the whole world - we use our surroundings and peers as a reference point. So, we always wish for an improvement of our current circumstances, rather than just be content with our relative comfort and security. I think that this ability to forget our privilege and wish for better things is a useful, even admirable, quality. It lets us strive to improve ourselves and our environment, without constantly looking backwards and feeling guilt over the privileges we have. Sure, we should acknowledge privilege, but it doesn't have to hold us back.

I've written before about humans' amazing ability to forget about the suffering and pain around the world, and to still enjoy a beautiful piece of music, or to explore unknown frontiers - and this in turn drives creativity and progress. I think this is a related issue: that we can feel annoyed and indignant about the little things, in spite of knowing that there are bigger things we could be worrying about - and therefore make the effort to do something about it.

For example, a common theme on the twitter hashtag #firstworldproblems is having a slow internet connection, and so being unable to instantly do whatever we like; the implication being that such needs are trivial, and that we should be grateful for having internet access at all. Well, perhaps: but the desire to have better connectivity in more places is what drives the advances in technology that makes the internet available all around the world, providing access to information and education in places where previously this was not possible. We could have all been content with 56k dial-up: we were, for the first time in history, able to send data easily across the globe; but of course, we complained about how slow it was, how much it cost, the noise the modems made, the fact we couldn't use the phone... and so technology improved to meet that want. Now, dissatisfaction over existing wireless internet means the development of technologies which are useful for coping with earthquakes and other disasters

There are plenty of other examples where solving the comparably minor problems of the privileged few can have wider benefits. Annoyance at poor mobile phone reception motivates improvements in signal coverage and availability, making it possible for people in developing countries to communicate and gain access to new markets. The desire for still better graphics in already enjoyable and immersive computer games has led to advances in graphics processor technology, which now finds use in protein folding. Because people got fed up with carrying around and storing bulky paper books, e-ink was developed, and could now be used to make tanks invisible (OK, that might not be for the good of humanity, but is pretty cool). And constant moaning about mobile phone battery life spurs research into lithium ion battery technology, who's high power density and small size also permit applications such as handheld explosive detectors and modern electric vehicles.

These examples go to show what fixing one seemingly small problem can lead to. I would suspect that the desire to make our lives slightly easier and more comfortable accounts for a quite a lot of technological and social progress. It's reminiscent of the way pure blue-sky research is often dismissed as idle curiosity, and yet has led to some of the most profound - and most unexpected - breakthroughs, and a corresponding improvement in living standards. Great humanitarian advances don't always come from grand plans to save the world, but sometimes as the fruits of our own self-interest.

Of course, it is not just the fact that our small-scale grievances lead to amazing technology that justifies them. As Tracy King and Amanda Palmer point out, they don't need any further justification than the fact that we experience them. But they also have the potential to be profoundly useful to everyone, sometimes when we least expect it.

As I said before, I am amazed by humans' ability to get on with doing fantastic things despite our failures, to forget for now the things we maybe should be doing, to focus on the things we want to do. When we are comfortable, healthy, educated, well fed, and life is good, our capacity to whinge and moan about the smallest thing can actually help make a real difference.

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

I Prefer Reality (Part 1)

Why I am overjoyed that the religious version of reality is not true

In arguments between atheists and believers, there are often two main themes to be debated. One is whether the claims made by religion are true or not: such as the existence of God, the afterlife, the creation of the world. This is debated with facts and evidence, and the application of science.  The other is whether religion is a good thing or not: whether it is a valuable moral guide or leads to great harm. This relies on anecdote and experience, and is concerned with issues such as women's rights, marriage equality, and religiously motivated warfare. But in this post, I want to look at it from a somewhat different perspective.

Often, when debating the first of the two ideas - that of the literal truth of religion - it is emphasised that no matter how much one wants something to be true, it makes no difference to the actual reality; and the number of people who believe in something is irrelevant to its existence.

This sometimes appears to tacitly acknowledge the beauty of the myths which we must reluctantly dispel; that no matter how grand and comforting a divine vision might be, we must point to evidence and reason and sadly disappoint. However, while this is certainly a sensible and tactful way to address the issue, I completely disagree with the sentiment. That is, I am truly, joyously glad that religion is not true.

Now, clearly this makes as little difference to the actual facts as the apologetics of the most devout believer; and it is always important to keep one's personal preference out of scientific arguments about real world claims.  But I want to make the point that instead of finding the version of reality espoused by religion to be an inspiration and a guide to wholesome living, mistaken though it appears to be, I see it as a horrible, dystopian, nihilistic outlook, and am so happy that the past few centuries of scientific endeavour have shown it to be almost definitely untrue.

In the following, I will focus on the Christian version of reality - mainly because that is what I am most familiar with, but also because it is the most prevalent in western popular culture; though hopefully the points I make will be applicable to other faiths too. Also, I should emphasise that this is all just my opinion, and an explanation of why I reject such beliefs - not necessarily a judgement on those who hold them.

First of all, in almost all religions, there exists a strict hierarchical structure. There are people, at various levels, and above them there is a god, or gods. This is most clearly seen in the Catholic church, with its layers of priests, cardinals, bishops, and ultimately the pope; but this division is more fundamental than any one church, and even in the most liberal and egalitarian sect of the Abrahamic religions, there is still the idea of humans at one level, and God up above.

I would strongly object to a world that worked this way. It means that no matter what we do, how much we achieve, there is still a superior being with whom we can never hope to compete. According to Christian thought, God has powers that we can never possess nor understand, and we must therefore deal with being forever inferior. This rather dampens our sense of achievement and self-worth, since no matter what we achieve, what wonders we discover, we are forever playing catch-up, groping in the dark at things beyond our ability under the gaze of the all-knowing creator.

This attack on our pride as a species is bad enough, though arguably having to face our limitations due to more tangible constraints is little better. But worse is the fact that God is not only our superior, but our supreme ruler, and will always be: he is the ultimate unelected monarch. Moreover, religions tend to emphasise strict obedience and unquestioning devotion, bowing down to every whim of this supreme being: thus God, not merely a ruler or overseer, is a dictator. This is no mere Earthly dictator with chemical weapons or hired killers: this one can know everything you do, everything you think, and has absolute power.

If our every action is meant to glorify him, to do his work, and give thanks for everything which we receive, this is no benign relationship with a superior - it is slavery.  Indeed, in much Christian imagery there is the view that we are slaves to the lord, here to do his good work. The idea that all of us live our lives under the rule of a judgemental and vengeful master (no matter how benevolent and loving he is sometimes claimed to be) is truly horrifying.

In this sad state of affairs is a great sense of powerlessness. I find the idea that we must live our lives as slaves to an all-powerful ruler abhorrent, but if this really is true, what could we even do? We are threatened with eternal torture if we do not obey; there is no way we can actually rebel, or reject God, if he has the means and willingness to punish dissenters. We are even fed the story of an angel who attempts to rise up against God and his dominion of the heavens: it does not end well. In even the most brutal and oppressive political regime, there is always the possibility of a revolution, of fighting back; that perhaps one day we, or our descendants, may be free.  In the picture of reality painted by Christianity, there is no such escape, no possibility of hope. It is terrifying to even consider this as a candidate for the real explanation of the world.

One could argue, however, that brutal as this may seem, it is only a temporary state, before being infinitely rewarded in a following life (assuming we are appropriately sycophantic). After all, this is only a preliminary testing stage, to sort out the good from the bad and allocate us our appropriate afterlife. Why worry about the apparent inequality of this brief life when we will ascend to our rightful place at its conclusion?

This too I find to be abhorrent, for a number of reasons.

First, the shocking mismatch between punishment and crime. How can it possibly be fair to win eternal reward or damnation, from a mere seventy or so years of good or bad behaviour? Compared to eternity, that is nothing. Life is messy and complicated, morality is a tricky business, and the rules we are given are ambiguous at best and nonsensical and conflicting at worst. Yet this is how we are to prove ourselves?

Second, surely the whole period of testing is pointless anyway. If God is all knowing, he would know which of us are good and which of us are bad, without needing to run the test. On the one hand, if he has a plan, and we are all destined to play our part, then what's the point? On the other, if we are indeed free to choose our fate, for what purpose, other than to prove the abilities of what God himself created? Either alternative casts us as worthless toys, existing only amuse their creator, as we plunge inevitably and ignorantly toward our final sorting. I refuse to believe our lives are merely spent as God's playthings, as pawns in some great sick game.

Furthermore, suppose that we do have free will and our fate is not sealed from the beginning; if we know what the rewards and punishments are, and how to obtain or avoid them (as the holy texts supposedly reveal), then this is really not a good test of our character or worthiness: it is merely a test of how well we can play the game. That people do good deeds in order to get into heaven does not show they are good people, it shows they are motivated by reward and acting accordingly (that doesn't mean they are selfish or bad people either, just that their actions in this setup are not a good indicator of any inherent moral quality).  The examples of financiers maximising their short term gain irrespective of consequences, or hospitals striving to meet targets rather than cure patients, illustrate how reward driven systems can fail to produce their intended goals. Of course, in this scenario, such concerns become irrelevant, and the motivations for Earthly choices make little difference, since the end - of getting into heaven - is fulfilled; and once the savage play has ended we all 'live' happily ever after... but this is exactly why it is all so horrible. It means life is inconsequential, a brief examination, a preparation for things to come. To me that seems such a terrible waste. Any philosophy which demeans the amazing lives we lead and the fabulous things we do is evil as far as I am concerned.

The knowledge that this was indeed the meaning - that all the world is merely a stage upon which we must audition, and nothing more - would really detract from the joy of being human and the magic of reality (I should make it clear that we do not know this: but religions take great pains to insist that we do).  There is no future for which it is worth striving, no incentive to better ourselves, since all we need to do is abide by the rules and claim our reward when we die. To actually be told the meaning of life... and find that it is to perform for our heavenly spectator, is surely the greatest tragedy that could befall humanity. We will all inevitably die, but if to die is our purpose, then I would say we have scarcely lived. Our desires, our passions, our loves and losses, our mighty achievements and great follies, would all be for nothing.

And so, if that is truly the nature of reality - we born, we are tested, we are judged, and we cannot escape - then it's a reality I detest. If this is all a game for God's amusement, then I don't want to play; if there's any way I can escape this vision of despair, I will; and given the opportunity to doubt and reject it, I will take it wholeheartedly. So as our increasing exploration shows that this ancient and twisted vision is less and less likely, I think you will understand why I smile on our good fortune.

Friday, 6 April 2012

To sit, to listen, to boldly go

From classical music to space flight, and how we insist on being amazing

I just got back from seeing an orchestral concert, in a nice grand concert hall  down the road from where I work - featuring a Beethoven symphony and Elgar's cello concerto, both of which were most enjoyable. Often in concerts like this I find it interesting to look around at the rest of the audience - especially when seated behind the orchestra, as we sometimes are, since it affords a pretty good view of the whole audience staring back at you.

It's interesting because on stage there are a few tens of musicians, passionately and skilfully doing what they do... and watching and listening are hundreds of people, all sitting in perfect silence, in rapt attention. These are people of all ages and descriptions, who no doubt spend most of their lives rushing around frantically getting things done; but for a few hours, we all sit perfectly contentedly and simply appreciate the art that other people are creating for us.

Try to imagine what an outside observer might think of it all, some alien being with no knowledge of our culture. Here are hundreds of stationary people, the majority of whom are doing nothing but observing the others - it would appear to be a rather odd use of time. In a practical sense, this serves no real purpose: nothing is getting done, no one (in the audience) is progressing any further toward their life goals, this doesn't benefit society in any significant material way, or advance the progress of science. 

That's partly what makes it all so beautiful. Here we all are, with a million things to do, but not too busy to go out of our way to appreciate good art, flocking sometimes in our hundreds of thousands to witness the performance of a prestigious artist.  Obviously, this applies far wider than just classical music, but the calmness and sense of awe makes the point that much clearer - as opposed to say a rock gig with people more obviously physically enjoying themselves, or a movie where people are being told a compelling story.

However, one could ague that while it's all well and good to sit around admiring each other's intricate skill, and congratulating ourselves for being such a refined and cultured species, there really are important things to be done.  While we sit in a concert hall or theatre, hundreds of people will die of preventable causes; millions languish in poverty from which they have little hope of escape; almost a billion people struggle to survive on a tiny fraction of the admission price. Clearly, the expense and effort that go into such displays of musical prowess
could be made to do more worthy works...

But still I find this amazing; I find it inspiring and uplifting. Yes, there are bad things happening, but even so we choose to spend our time creating and appreciating wonderful works of the imagination. We know we could be doing something "more productive" but choose, at least for the moment, not to. Essentially, we don't let our failures get us down, or burden us with guilt, to such an extent that we can't explore the heights of what we can achieve.

This, I think, is one of the most important and progressive sides of human nature. It allows us to move forward, to try new things, to wonder why, explore unknown frontiers - even when the problems we have already remain unsolved. It drives us to stretch our imagination to new challenges - and along the way, we stumble upon solutions we never would have thought of otherwise.  We struggle daily on Earth, but still reach for the stars - because we can, because we want to, because we don't know what's there - inadvertently solving other problems along the way. We find new lands. We see more wonder. We prolong life; we create life.

What's wonderful about humans, is that we not only find ingenious ways to solve our problems; but that we will do amazing things in spite of them.

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

On the misanthropic nature of Pic 'n' Mix

How the desire to avoid artificial food hints at a deep distrust of our own creations

I was in a shop the other day and saw a display of pic 'n' mix sweets: full of cola bottles, jelly beans, chocolate peanuts and all the usual sort of thing. On top of it, in big obvious letters, was a sign proudly proclaiming "free from artificial colours or flavourings".

Now, this is a pretty common sight these days. Our food packaging seems to be in a perpetual arms race to declare the vast number of things they do not contain.  However, that it is a virtue so boldly and confidently extolled for such sweets as these, the kind of thing you would expect to be full of sugar, jelly, flavour and fat, and all brightly coloured and generally "fun" (i.e. it's not exactly  health food) is a telling example of how intolerant we appear to have become of anything 'artificial'.

Of course, what defines something as being artificial is rather ambiguous; every ingredient will have been harvested, extracted, processed, augmented, or synthesised in some way, before being assembled into ever more ambitious concoctions, unless we are talking about the most basic of raw foods. This is akin to the pejorative use of the word "chemical" for anything which we don't like or don't understand (often with hilarious results). But merely accuractely defining terms isn't going to alter people's aversion to scary 'food additives' and 'E-numbers'.

This is part of a general trend to distrust anything which has been added, or done to, food: preservatives, additives, flavourings are all generally getting a bad press, and portrayed as one of the great evils of our time. This feeds off fears of health risks and carcinogens, hyperactivity in children and allergies to everything. Much of this is not necessarily supported by actual evidence, more hearsay and urban myth; and ongoing research on additives such as aspartame seem destined to throw up concern and controversy whatever the results may be. But the evidence behind these health risks is another story for another day.

My point here is that this widespread desire to avoid artificial ingredients seems to suggest a strong distrust in our own creations.  Do we really have so little faith in ourselves, as a species?  Do we instinctively feel that what we have created is defective or inferior? I think that's partly what all this is about: motivated on the face of it by valid health concerns (which are not necessarily irrational or reactionary, but evidence certainly has a hard struggle), yet part of an underlying fatalism that whatever we are doing, we are doomed to fail and will only harm ourselves.

This ties in with the naturalistic fallacy - the idea that because something is natural, it is therefore good, wholesome, desirable - conveniently forgetting the fact that nature conspires in ingenious ways to kill or injure us (arsenic is natural; being mauled by a lion is natural; dying painfully at a young age is natural). But it goes further than this - it's not just a fuzzy, idealistic desire to be close to nature, otherwise the pic 'n' mix would be focusing on telling us how it's made of naturally occurring moss and wild salmon eggs or something.  Obviously there are innumerable such claims, on everything from health foods to 'medicines', for exactly that reason: but the emphasis on what it doesn't contain is equally telling. It's not just the urge to cry "nature is wonderful!" but the misanthropic moan of "man is dangerous".

Now history has certainly given us a few examples to motivate such concern. Recent decades have given us thalidomide, PCBs, CFCs, cigarettes, trans-fats and vegemite, so we certainly have good reason to ask probing questions and be careful to evaluate new creations. Indeed, I'm certainly not advocating that we blindly assume everything we do is great, and eagerly await the advent of new products and technologies as a universal panacea, an attitude which would be equally unwise (I'm looking at you, Ray Kurtzweil).  A good healthy skepticism is the best way to deal with any new development in food science, agriculture, medicine, and so on - not the near hysterical fear over each new scare story.

There's an interesting double standard in all of this. We seem to instinctively recoil from whatever arcane creations our mad scientist overlords are force-feeding us, while at the same time fully expecting our brave new world to be completely safe, clean, reliable. We have developed a love for sterile, child-friendly surfaces, where dirt is not just undesirable but evil itself; an expectation that we are in a world of predictable outcomes from known causes... and yet, a desire to be a part of nature, to live our lives as intended; to be at one with the universe and avoid all toxins. But nature is the exact opposite of what we're striving for: it's messy, deadly, unpredictable, harsh and full of things that will kill or enslave given half a chance.  We can't simultaneously covet a natural, peaceful, idyllic existence while demanding it must be entirely safe and free of nastiness: it makes no sense.

An interesting example of this conflict is in the recent Starbucks food-colouring incident.  Bug Girl gives an excellent summary of it here, but in short: Starbucks, in an effort to use more natural and sustainable ingredients, were using Cochineal as a red colouring in various products including soy milkshakes.  Cochineal is a widely used dye, extracted from the crushed bodies of the eponymous beetle [EDIT: not a beetle]: it feeds off sap of the prickly pear and its innards are a bright, vibrant red. It is easy to obtain, long-lasting and resistant to discolouration, non-toxic, and has a long history of use in foods and cosmetics.

So on the one hand, great, Starbucks have switched from nasty-sinister-chemicals to natural ingredients... and is immediately met with a backlash of "eeew there's bugs in our food!". An entirely predictable reaction of course - yeah we wanted "natural", but we didn't mean squished insects, that's just... eew. They may be safe and sustainable, friendlier and less of an environmental burden than the petrochemical equivalent: but all of a sudden nature is the disgusting, brutish, archaic antithesis to our clean and civilised world of tomorrow.

Now a lot of the objection came from vegetarians and vegans, unhappy to discover they had been chewing down on the remains of so many innocent creatures - and so I'm not dismissing the reaction to eating insects as entirely irrational or motivated by the yuk-factor. I'm a vegetarian, so I'm also somewhat concerned at such news (I'd previously tried to avoid cochineal where possible). I realise these are no cute fluffy lambs or anything, and that the death of insects is not something I'm going to get too upset about: but it's still an issue to consider.  I remember being similarly frustrated a few years ago when blue smarties re-appeared, after the introduction of a natural alternative to the previously used artificial dye - which was also derived from the innards of some hapless arthropod. Thus in some cases, natural may be safer or more acceptable, but necessitates the use of undesirable animal products. It seems that on the one hand we expect animal-derived ingredients to be a relic of a more primitive era (whalebone corset, anyone? horse hoof glue?), with their replacements by synthetic equivalents being A Good Thing... and yet it is completely counter to the drive to re-naturalise everything.

I'm not saying that we should never use or kill insects at any cost (some might, and there's plenty who will choose to avoid honey, silk and shellac... but that's an argument for them to make); but rather that it should be part of the consideration, instead of just jumping to the "natural therefore it's fine" excuse. Then again, the inclusion of insect parts in food is seemingly unavoidable, but generally considered safe; and I am neither squeamish or idealistic enough to really mind (and I really like figs). Furthermore, in this case there is a pretty valid argument for reverting to cochineal over synthetic alternatives, rather than simply the implied naturalistic fallacy. It is easier to produce and with fewer unpleasant pollutants than the coal-tar or petroleum alternative, and provides gainful employment for cochineal farmers. One could argue that the death of untold millions of tiny beetles scale insects is a lesser evil compared to the habitat destruction associated with oil and coal mining (obviously, not just for this one product).

So there's no easy answer to this dilemma; it's a conflict which has plagued us since we first began playing god, taming fire, and putting ourselves apart from nature. Clearly, we can't reply on nature to be benevolent and caring, but neither can we a priori assume that all of humankind's output will be safe and worry-free. It makes no sense to fanatically promote anything that might have been made by bees or grown in a forest; or to crusade against anything invented in a lab or derived from oil (hey, that's natural too!). Both positions are idealistic nonsense, and are not grounds for safety or sound ethics.

The best solution is skepticism (isn't it always): to treat each ingredient on its own merits and assess every health or toxicity claim carefully and free from bias. Jumping to either extreme will have unintended harm, and only by thinking rationally about what we do, and examining the evidence of what it leads to, will we be able to make safe and sensible decisions about food.

Which sounds great, and is easy for us to say; but an important part of being rational, which we forget at our peril, is that most people are not rational most of the time. We will go with gut instincts, yuk-factor reactions and be swayed by hyperbole, because it's what our survival heuristics have told us to do.  Deeply ingrained prejudices on both sides of the debate are not easily subverted (the ongoing GM debate is another potent example). This is not a criticism nor a resignation though, but another part of the puzzle. People react in certain ways, and we need to take this into account.  The revulsion at artificial flavourings did not come out of nowhere, but of experience of other less benevolent additives; the love for natural remedies (or, for the fruits of our scientific endevours) come from the love of being surrounded by beautiful trees and landcapes (or our desire for flying cars).

To conclude, neither opposing position can be reasonably upheld, and we need to think carefully and be rational for any decision, be it food, cosmetics, medicine, manufacuring and so on, and there is no easy answer or reliable heuristic. As always, evidence must be weighed up, regarding health concerns, environmental imact, and potential use of animal products; but for this to have any appreciable impact in the real world, it is essential that the ideology and gut reactions people have, to both humanity and nature be taken into account. Otherwise, our simultaneous love of our ingenuity and mistrust of our darkest creations, of wonder at nature and primal fear of contaminans, will perpatuate confusion and misinformation, whetever the evidence may say.

Sunday, 1 April 2012

"Science" education?

I was recently listening to an interview with the Skeptic Rhys Morgan, on the Young Australian Skeptics podcast.  They discussed science teaching in school, and how critical thinking doesn't get much attention; and he mentioned an experiment involving the rather un-rigorous practice of continuting to gather results until you get the answer you want.

My own experience of being taught science at school was, on the whole, quite good I think. I'd always enjoyed science, so was pretty receptive to the topics we covered. However, like Rhys I also noticed a lack of proper experimental rigour, with the main objective being learning a collection of facts. Not that learning lists of facts, to regurgitate under exam conditions, was all we did - generally the reasons behind things were explained, and we got a reasonable understanding of the topics, and I think we got what could be considered a reasonable science education. What was missing though was an understanding of why we know these things, and the process of rigorous experimentation by which science is done: in short, there was a conspicuous absence of the actual scientific method.

There were even, occasionally, situations like the above, in which experiments are carried out seemingly in order to show that we've done it and got the result we expected, rather than to find something out. I remember one chemistry practical in particular, where after gathering one set of results, we were told about how it's important to repeat results to confirm them and combine the results (great so far); but then since we didn't actually have time for that, to just make up some data points for more runs, such that the average was pretty much in agreement with the original data. I can't even remember if it was stated that this is or isn't what you're meant to do, and it gives a terrible impression of how science works. Basically: we can make up results to confirm what we think is true. Shudder.

This might have been an isolated incident; but then so were practicals generally. I can only speak for Physics, since I didn't do the others beyond GCSE, but A-Level experiments also mostly consisted of measuring results, plotting graphs, and noting how it obeyed Hooke's spring law or whatever. I don't remember much at all about hypothesis testing, accumulation of evidence, how a theory is confirmed or discarded, and so on (though to be fair, the insistence that we only change one variable at a time to isolate its effect made a lasting impression).

For people who are already intending to pursue science as a career this will be rather annoying, even misleading; but something that will surely be learned or picked up with further study. The greater shame is for those who are only tangentially interested, and go on to pursue other things. If this is how science is taught, without really getting to the bottom of what makes the scientific method so powerful, it is no surprise that people often don't appreciate scientific inquiry for what it is, or downplay its relevance to life in general.  Without this introduction to critical thinking and skepticism, people aren't going to hold ideas to the scrutiny they require - which leads to a lot of the problems that exist today. The efforts of the skpetical community to counter such nonsense as homeopathy, religion, and magic jewellery just go to show how little rationality is embedded in our culture and education. In fact I'd say I've learned a lot more about the scientific method from the skeptical blogs and podcasts than from being taught actual science.

Interestingly, there was one subject at school which did put a strong emphasis on being critical of the source of information and its veracity: history. It's strange, now, to consider the contrast, especially in a field not usually noted for its experimental rigour. But for what seemed like forever we were evaluating the reliability of sources, discussing the merits of first hand versus second hand information, examining the biases in what certain records might have shown.  Proper scientific thinking, from an entirely unexpected direction. Unfortunately I found this incredibly dull, and couldn't wait to get to the actual interesting bit of stuff that actually happened - I had no patience for all this questioning and weighing up of sources... oh well.

One could argue (in spite of the history thing) that the details of the scientific method aren't going to hold the attention of children, and its important to focus on getting some basic facts into them. But I disagree with this: yes, the fact that stuff accelerates in a gravitational field, that cats can evolve into dogs (note: satire), and that magnesium is really sparkly are all important lessons to be learned. However, children's ability to forget things when they are no longer examined is most impressive, while being taught how to think critically and to carefully examine the world to determine what is real should be essential life lessons. Perhaps the most important skill for children, or indeed anyone, to learn, is how to ask proper questions, and how to understand if they are getting a proper answer.