It seems that the Gods / Forces of Coincidence want me to blog, as so many things have been happening lately that have brought me to the same collection of thoughts.
I think the first and most major event was the World Cup. There was something of a minor furore over whether it was Good and/or Right for the flag of England to be flown outside of Number 10, Downing Street in support of the English football team. To those who care about these things, it was somewhat offensive to the other members of the United Kingdom that the largely-resented “dominant” partner in the union was to get its flag flown outside the headquarters of that union.
The defence was that, if the Welsh, Scottish, or Northern Irish teams had qualified for the competition then their flags would have been flown also. This is almost certainly true, I would say; it would be insensitive and politically suicidal to operate any other way. Nevertheless, the minor uproar was inevitable. And that is what interested me: why do people get so worked up about these things?
The second was the horrific oil spill in the gulf, and the strange conversation that followed the coverage in the USA. There was talk that BP should be referred to by its acronym and not as “British Petroleum” as this ran the risk of generating ill will toward Britain as a whole. The strangest part, though, was a debate I heard on BBC Radio 2, which asked whether we as the British Public should be criticising the company or defending it. This was not on the basis of its actions, however – the facts of the actual case seem to have been counted as largely irrelevant. No, rather the debate hinged on the fact that it was an (at least nominally) British company. Apparently a lot of British pensioners have money invested in the stocks, for instance.
I was surprised, I must admit – in my rather naive way – that this was really so open for debate to people. If a corporation acts in an irresponsible way, or fails to act in a responsible way, then they should be criticised. They should not be deemed worthy of defence purely by virtue of their nationality or the self-interest of stock investments. Is it really so mad to suggest that this approach is totally backwards?
Finally, there came the always-inspiring genius of Bill Hicks. I went to a showing of American: The Bill Hicks Story, a documentary about the great man’s tragically short life, and there was a short clip about the burning of the flag and how extremely people tend to react to that particular form of expression, particularly in the U.S.. It certainly seems that the more vocal incarnations of patriotism that we experience over on this side of the Atlantic are far more widespread on the other. Perhaps this is a false impression, but in a country where children are expected to recite an oath of fidelity to that country, patriotism is certainly taken very seriously indeed.
The question that kept occurring to me through all of this is one that first struck me after a throwaway comment on the radio. It may have been a politician commenting on the Downing Street Flag Fiasco, I can’t remember. But the comment was a qualification to the main portion of their argument, and was along the lines of “I’m proud to be British”. This was then joined by other phrases from the same conversation about what nationality people considered themselves: “I’m Scottish first and British second”, for instance, or “I’m English first and foremost”.
I just thought, am I alone in not strongly identifying with the state I was born into? Whether England or the United Kingdom? Am I the only one who feels no compulsion to qualify any sensible, well-reasoned comment with “Of course I’m proud to be British”? I do hope not.
Pride is something that should relate to an achievement, generally speaking. I am proud of some of my writing; I am proud of gaining my degrees at university. I am not proud of an accident of birth. I am happy, to some degree, to be British. Certainly it has afforded me a great deal of advantages simply not available to those in less affluent countries. I am happy that I live in a country that, generally speaking, allows a significant amount of freedom of expression. But I am not proud to be British. I don’t feel that the adjective applies.
I don’t see patriotism as a useful force in the world. What it does in terms of promoting solidarity within a country and a sense of national identity is positively counter-productive in an increasingly global society. The oil spill is the perfect example: almost as much coverage has been given to the international relations aspect as has been given to the fact that it is a disaster on an incredible scale. Why do people care that it’s a nominally British company, when the spill is affecting several states with no regard for national boundaries? I am increasingly convinced that we need to regard ourselves as citizens of the Earth first, with this taking precedence over any national identity we might feel.
I leave you with the incisive wit of The Great Hicks…
Before I begin, I ought to warn you that there is no real conclusion or argument to be found in this entry; it is rather intended as a collection of musings hoped to inform but primarily provoke further thought. Most of what is contained herein is part of an ongoing internal discussion I’m holding with myself, and this forms something of an update as to the point that that debate has reached. So open your mind, and read on.
I have made mention before of my status as a pagan atheist. It’s not just an incidental matter for me, either; while I don’t believe the Gods or spirits are actual entities capable of any kind of interaction with this world, I believe they are powerful and practically useful metaphors for a great deal of human life. The Gods we choose for ourselves – if choose them we do – represent those principles which are most important to us. For this reason I tend more toward the Northern European pantheon, in particular the Norse Gods. If I had a Sabbath like the Christian Sunday or Jewish Friday, it would be Wednesday, named for Odin, a.k.a. Woden (Woden’s Daeg -> Wednesday) – for he is the figure with whom I most identify.
He is the symbol for wisdom, courage, and honour – among many other things. He is also seen as the guardian of travellers, much as the Christian Saint Christopher. All of these themes are ones which ring true with me: I aspire to be wise, courageous and honourable above all else; I can think of no qualities I would rather possess. There is also an emphasis on respect and reverence for nature in the Northern European religions, which it won’t surprise you to find has particular resonance with me.
So why, you might ask, don’t I just identify with those qualities directly instead of expressing them through the language of mythology and religious faith? It is a good question, and one which I have asked myself on many an occasion. I think the answer, as far as I can fathom it, lies in what I refer to as the “power of metaphor”; that is, the linguistic and emotional force that can be expressed only in terms of phenomena that transcend the physical, evidential world. Humanity is known for being a fickle race, and a claimed devotion to an abstract concept such as justice seems to hold less force, somehow, than a claimed devotion to a deity personifying that concept. It is an appeal to the eternal nature of these ideals as opposed to the sometimes-fleeting nature of humanity’s adherence to them.
Another example of this that I recently found out about (thanks to my friend the Nietzschean feminist) is Laveyan satanism, which again is essentially an atheist religion. The ideals it favours are individualism, a realistic approach to humanity’s darker impulses and an acceptance of these drives as an inevitable an essential component of understanding what it is to be human. There is also a strong element of anarchism, a rebelliousness and hostility toward authority that is reflected in few other mythologies. But it is atheist – and specifically non-Christian, a claim which cannot be made by theistic Satanism – because it entails a commitment to these ideals only, not a belief in a literal Satan or lesser demons. There is much in LaVeyan Satanism which rings true with me and values which are shared by the pagan faith.
On a tangentally-related topic, I also want to address the topic of Santa Claus – not as a metaphor, but as a belief tantamount to religion but treated as a socially-acceptable falsehood. This line of thought comes from listening to my backlog of Point of Inquiry podcasts, specifically the interview with Todd C. Riniolo. He noted an objection to the widely-used argument in sceptical circles that it is little wonder that people are credulous in adulthood when they are raised to believe in Santa Claus as children. It is rarely used as a forceful argument, usually instead forming a arbitrary comment; but nonetheless is worth addressing. Riniolo’s objection is that there is simply no proof that belief in Santa during childhood leads to credulity in adulthood. Indeed, he argues, the “debunking” of Santa constitutes many a child’s first truly sceptical activity.
I thought this was a very interesting point, and it contributed to an ongoing internal debate I’ve been conducting with regards to how best to raise a child in the sceptical mindset. It hasn’t helped me make up my mind on the subject, but has made a significant contribution to the complexity of the issue. Is it wrong to lie to one’s children in this regard, or is it a valuable experience that teaches them that deception (harmless or otherwise) is everywhere and that nobody is to be trusted implicitly? On a personal note, I think I “grew out of” notions like God and spiritualism around the same time as I did the notion of Santa. I don’t recall being annoyed at the deception, either; at some point it just became a childish absurdity and I scoffed at my parents for persisting in the charade.
So would it be better or worse to deny one’s child this experience? Should we rather explain as best we can the lessons that would be learned through it, rather than perpetuate the white lies? At the very least, it seems that the lies do less harm than one might think.
“More than one-fifth prefer creationism or intelligent design, while many others are confused about Darwin’s theory.”
Right from the start, we have a misleading headline which suggests (not explicitly, but leaves open for misinterpretation) that half of Britons are creationists. In fact it’s less than one quarter.
The real story here is that, to my mind at least, the creationist campaign – particularly that of intelligent design – has succeeded in blurring the issue. While I don’t know that more people believe in creationism, I think more people are under the impression that there is doubt where no serious rational doubt exists. I can’t seem to bring the previous figures to hand, though – so if you know what they were, please let me know – particularly if I’ve got it wrong. I wouldn’t be surprised if this poll returned the exact same results as last time, actually. It wasn’t that long ago. Also, let’s not go over the many ways this data could be skewed – I’d at least want to know what questions were asked before trying to draw any sensible conclusions.
I’m all in favour of having these issues out in the open where they can be discussed, but that’s not what we’re dealing with here. Creationists are campaigning to get their rubbish accepted to the same degree as evidence-based theories, and disguising it under the banner of freedom of speech and open debate. Scientists are not blameless, either – more needs to be done to promote the public understanding of science, which would hopefully prevent a quarter of people from simply being “confused” by evolution. Those who bear the overwhelming burden of responsibility here, though, are the media; while there is a great deal of good science on the BBC and elsewhere (Attenborough being the absolute pinnacle), there is too much dumbing-down, and ignoring of science stories in favour of sensationalism and big headlines.
There is no easy solution, nor one single person or group to blame. What I do know is that 50% is too high a proportion of the population to be in any serious doubt about the theory of evolution.
Now here’s a headline to set off a healthy bit of scepticism:
I’m not going to rubbish that claim straight off the bat, but I’d definitely need a little more proof than a few anecdotes and images before thinking there was something to it. Why would they do that? I’m well aware that a sense of magnetic direction is seemingly quite a widespread phenomenon among Terran fauna, but I have a hard time understanding why this particular ability would be of any use to cattle.
Over eight and a half thousand images of cattle were examined, apparently. That’s a pretty good sample size, I’d say; but nowhere do I see the numbers involved in working out the incidence of north-south alignment (if anyone can grab access to the actual article, I’d be grateful for a link).
A couple of other points stood out for me in the BBC report of this: firstly, that in Africa and South America, the scientists carrying out the study noted a north-east/south-west alignment rather than the north-south seen elsewhere; they explain this by pointing out that the magnetic field is weaker there. OK, granted. But why then are they still aligning along a different line? Without seeing the data itself, that sounds to me like whatever method they used to determine significant alignment might be a little too generous.
Secondly comes the speculation of reasons why this north-south alignment might be happening; the lead scientist is quoted as speculating that it could be anti-predatory behaviour.
I’m sorry, what?
Do most predators come from the north or south? Would it not be a more effective technique to have the herd facing in different directions if it’s an alert system you’re looking for? I can appreciate the use in having the herd facing the same direction – if the need to flee arises, it makes that safety-in-numbers thing much easier to manage. This would seem to be the most reasonable explanation for a herd facing in generally the same direction as each other. But if this is the case, why north-south? Perhaps they just like facing south; perhaps it feels like going downhill…
Basically this sounds like fluff reporting of a half-baked investigation. I’d like to see the numbers involved, but at the moment I remain unconvinced that there is a phenomenon to explain here; I’ll agree that in general a herd will face in more or less the same direction. That much is hardly news. The north-south thing, though? Needs a little more work.
EDIT: The story has been taken up by Ed at Not Exactly Rocket Science, and it seems that he’s read the article! Here’s his take on it. Reading through, it seems like those numbers I was after do actually add up quite nicely; as for the reason behind it, the general notion seems to be that they have as much reason to line up in this way as a compass needle does. It’s just what they do. Some intriguing ideas are being thrown around about physiological processes running smoother when aligned with the poles, but these are still at the hypothesis stage.
I wouldn’t be much of a sceptic if I didn’t change my tune when faced with the numbers. I still maintain my opinion of the original piece on the BBC, though. The quality of science reporting is, as I should have come to expect by now, somewhat south (haha) of optimal.
It is to Messers Darwin and Wallace that I dedicate this post, in honor of the event that is sadly no longer remembered, and in recognition of the impostors that aim to discredit and dismantle their great work. Tell me dear reader, do you know what day it is?*
150 years ago today, the idea of natural selection was presented for the first time to the public – beginning something so revolutionary that its impact can be neither estimated nor overestimated. Your task for today is to read this post from the Beagle Project, and tell someone about what you read therein. Just mention it in passing, if you like, that today marks 150 years since one of the most momentous events in the history of science. You don’t need to bore your audience with the microscopic details if they’re not interested – just get the word out. This is a day that should be marked with more than a mere ripple through the science blogging community.
* With apologies to the Wachowski brothers, and 18 Geek Points to anyone who got the reference
The news spat out a couple of interesting items today (well, a few actually, but at least one deserves a bit more thought and planning before making it into a blog entry).
Firstly, this article at BBC News holds the important facts for all those who insist on an anthropocentric approach to life: if we keep killing off those other species which share this planet, we will be losing out on a lot of potential medical advances. I’d rather this wasn’t the only reason people were out to reverse the worrying trend in species extinction, but if that’s what it takes I’ll make do.
Second, my heart sank in expectation of ridiculous levels of credulity when I read the heading to this article: “Satan” driver cleared over crash. A woman took two lives with reckless driving, and blamed Satan. She was cleared of the charges. Thankfully for my sanity, hers was found to be lacking – which was the reason she was cleared.
If you don’t already read the sceptical comic Cectic regularly, you should. If you need more convincing than my say-so, then take a look at this, latest, comic:
So one question remains – did the author read my mind, or my blog? I’m thinking the former is actually more likely.
The wonderful website “What’s The Harm?” has been getting widespread acclaim from sceptical blogs for the last month or two, and rightly so. As I mentioned briefly in a previous post, it’s an ongoing catalogue of the actual harm done by pseudoscience, bogus medical claims, religion and other delusions.
While I realise that that site is still in its infancy, it does seem to me to have a major flaw in being overly anthropocentric. Nowhere does it take into account the terrible toll that certain deluded practices have on the wildlife in the world – a toll which is still terribly heavy, particularly on tiger and rhinoceros.
The worst offender in this regard would almost certainly have to be the voodoo that is traditional Chinese medicine, which creates great demand for tiger and rhino carcasses to treat ailments which are just as treatable (in fact more so) with so-called “Western medicine”. While information campaigns and the increasing cosmopolitanism of China has meant that these practices are on the decline, it’s getting close to being too late for the tiger and rhino.
For some pretty shocking facts on man’s effect on the world’s animals, head over to this page from the always-superb David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation. The most relevant to oriental medicine is this one:
Tiger products are still widely and legally on sale in 6 out of 10 pharmacies and ‘virility product’ shops in Japan and the going rate for a tiger penis in Hong Kong is £110.
A complete tiger carcass is worth around $30,000. Granted I can understand people valuing an animal life slightly lower than they value the life of a human (though I don’t share this view myself); but the life of an entire species? Do we really value the life of a species over the “financial cost” of pseudoscience (et al) to the gullible fools it dupes?
Of course, crazy beliefs about the powers of tiger parts is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to man’s damage to the creatures with whom we share this Pale Blue Dot, but it’s the area with the most relevance to scepticism. When we argue about the real cost of pseudoscience, we should at least include a nod in the direction of the destruction of some of the world’s most precious resources.
This semester, I’m going to be studying the philosophy of artificial intelligence, a field which is of great interest to me. To get me in the right frame of mind, I’ve been watching a fair bit of science fiction lately, particularly that dealing with the future of robotics/cybernetics/whatever. The one with the most philosophy behind it thus far has to be Bicentennial Man, the story of a robot with a “flaw” allowing him to be creative and develop his own character.
While it’s hardly groundbreaking, it does give you a good idea of the sorts of issues that exist around the philosophy of artificial intelligence – the main one being, of course, when (if ever) is it a person? As soon as it demonstrates creativity? Or only when it becomes mortal?
Today I received a book I had ordered, called Imitation in Animals and Artifacts. Flicking through this, it occurred to me that a question I had never heard asked was, rather than “when is a robot to be considered a person?”, “when is a robot to be considered equivalent to an animal?”. Maybe this is a nonsense, or leads nowhere useful, but it’s one I’d like to look into in more detail – if only to shed light on the personhood question. Perhaps I’ll have the time to do so soon. For now, I’ll just jot down some ideas:
If personhood is based on self-awareness, are there animals that we should consider to be persons? And how do we know when something is self-aware, if we have no way to explicitly communicate?
What would be the criteria for animalism?
Does the fact that AI is usually intended to simulate human intelligence mean that this is a pointless debate? Or is this the aim of AI because it has already reached or surpassed the intelligence level of animals?
Is a computer that can beat any human player at chess more intelligent than an animal who lives in a complex social system and adapts to its surroundings?
Maybe this will be my focus for my artificial intelligence module this coming semester.
It has come to my attention that there remains much to be desired in the field of science reporting in the mainstream media (for which I am using the example of BBC News Online). While I’m all in favour of promoting enthusiasm for science, particularly in the younger generations, I do wish they would avoid the sensationalist wording with which this area has seemingly become saturated. At the moment, I have two recent articles in mind which demonstrate this; the first was entitled “‘Bizarre’ new mammal discovered”, and is found here.
Obviously, as soon as I saw this headline pop up in my RSS feed, I was intrigued. The article failed to deliver, however; at first it seems to be claiming that nothing like this has been seen before. But as you read on, it becomes clear that the truth is far more mundane (though certainly big news and very exciting in itself, particularly for the researcher making the discovery). The “bizarre new mammal” is the 16th species of elephant shrew to have been discovered to date; it is distinct from the others by being slightly larger, and of different colouring. That’s it. Hardly as impressive as the headline tried to make out.
The second article was a little worse: “Giant palm tree puzzles botanists”. I was, once more, intrigued from the start; but already sceptical due to the “puzzles botanists” bit. It turns out that the tree grows to great size, then expends all its energy in an impressive flowering/pollination display, thus earning it the over-the-top moniker “self-destructing palm”. Though this fact is the main focus of the article, the “puzzling” part only comes in a discussion of how it came to be there – which is soon explained by a perfectly plausible theory. Certainly the botanists wouldn’t be puzzled by the “self-destructing” nature of this plant – it’s far from being unheard-of.
I do wish the mainstream media didn’t feel the need to dress up truly interesting news with sensationalist language – the bare facts in these cases should be enough to elicit fascination in themselves. In fairness to the good BBC, and in illustration of my point, I give you “Big mammals key to tree-ant team”, a truly interesting piece of news, with virtually no “sexing up” involved. This is how it should be done.