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Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Noci-Notes – ‘Skeptics and True Believers’ - #5

` Chapter Four: Organized Skepticism.

` In this chapter, we are introduced to yearning and learning. Unfortunately, I know very little about the concept of yearning other than the fact that always I wished I knew more about everything. Since my hopes as a child were constantly dashed each day, I suppose this explains why I learned not to yearn at all. I’m working on it... and again I am getting off the subject.
` Yearning is indeed the driving force behind science, wanting to know something whether it confirms your ideas or not. In the case of faith, it is also the driving force behind wanting something to be true in order to confirm one’s belief.
` But there is also learning. That is what you do both when you listen to wise authorities as well as not taking what they say as necessarily true in order to find things out on your own.
` Really, though, we need both:

Yearning without learning is seeing Elvis in a crowd, the fossilized footprints of humans and dinosaurs together in ancient rocks, or moving statues. Yearning without learning is buying tabloid newspapers with headlines announcing “Newborn Baby Talks of Heaven” and “Aliens in U.S. Congress!” Yearning without learning is looking for healing in pretty crystals and the meaning of life in horoscopes. Yearning without learning is following whatever current guru offers the most promising prospects of eternal life.
` Learning without yearning is pedantry, scientism, idées fixes. Learning without yearning is believing that we know it all, that what we see is what we get, that nothing exists except what can be presently weighed and measured. Learning without yearning is rote science without a heart, without a dream, without a hope of beauty.
` Yearning without learning is seeing the face of Jesus in a gassy nebula. Learning without yearning is seeing only the gas.
` Yes indeed. Jesus; seen in the famous 1995 Hubble photos of the Eagle Nebula. Really! It’s just a picture of an ancient cloud, some tens of trillions of miles wide, being blasted away by light to reveal the fact that it’s creating stars! If that wasn’t impressive enough, some people had claimed that they saw something familiar from our planet – the face of someone who cannot be recognized from, say, a photo (who furthermore did not even supposedly exist until five thousand years after the light from the nebula had reached the telescope, though I suppose that fact is meaningless in this case).
` Like Raymo, I cannot make out any human face in the nebula, so I don’t even know why anyone would say that to begin with. Here, take a look for yourself!
` What is all this yearning from? The fact that so many people want to see something that relates to them personally in something that could easily exist with or without us. Apparently, this gives people the sense of connection with the universe.
` Perhaps the reason I don’t understand this need stems from the fact that I grew up without learning the concept of why people become emotionally attached to other human beings. It wasn’t obvious to me in my life, and so I was never able to feel connected to even the most mundane thing in front of my face.
` You see, in my life I had became emotionally attached to objects because of their tendency of not putting overwhelming pressure on me, constantly complaining about when I was going to allow them to break my spirit. Of course, I’d been broken ten times over, but I was still declared stupider than a horse, because at least horses allow themselves to be broken.

` That will make a person become a mad scientist, let me tell you, boy howdy!

` This whole yearning thing actually reminds me of something that ‘anonymous Dawn Harr’ brought up in my comments here (not having internet access, I cannot view them at the moment), which contained the gist of her typical argument – something to the effect of; ‘I don’t care if believing in God is rational or not; what if you’re wrong? You’ll suffer in hell for eternity!’
` I responded that, other things aside, I will not believe in something out of a threat. Being rewarded for belief and punished for disbelief is, basically, theological blackmail. This is much the same kind of thing that Raymo had grown up with:

Part of being good was buying the package whole, the entire catechism. One was not allowed to pick and choose. Doubts were not admitted. Call any part of the system into question, and the whole thing was in danger of coming apart, because, to tell you the truth, none of it was based on the kind of evidence that might impress a scientist, a court of law, or even a reasonably skeptical child. The legitimacy of the system was guaranteed by revelation and holy tradition, the sources of which were conveniently tucked away in the past, beyond immediate inspection....
` The whole thing stood or fell on a single premise: eternal salvation. Believe and you shall be saved. Buy the pig in the poke, and death will have no sting.... Guardian angels, devils, stigmatas, apparitions, levitations, miraculous cures – all buttressed the system. Even secular manifestations of the paranormal (mind readers, poltergeists, the evil eye) were secondhand evidence for the promise.
` ...We were told nothing in our religious education about the anthropological foundations of religion, or the terrible atrocities and genocides that had been perpetrated in the name of our triumphant faith. We heard nothing about the many contingencies of Church history, the abominable behaviors of Renaissance popes, the egregious materialism of the Vatican. It was never suggested that one might choose to live ethically without the threat of hellfire, or that the tendency toward altruism might be part of the genetic inheritance of every human being.
` It’s bizarre – but perhaps not that surprising – how often that happens. Furthermore:
In our science classes in Church-sponsored primary and secondary schools, we learned innocuous facts, the bare rudiments of biology, chemistry, and physics, but never the grand syntheses – celestial mechanics, geological chronology, natural selection, molecular biology – never the vibrant, resonant web. We were never given a hint of what science really was: organized skepticism. The postmedieval cosmic order was kept firmly out of sight.
` Raymo went through part of college, reading the great Catholic authors, practicing asceticism, even hoping to be raptured at the Trappist monastery! It was only when he was exposed to skeptical thought and decided to re-examine the Catholic dogmas (through the Hawthorn Twentieth Century Encyclopedia of Catholicism) that it dawned on him just how easy it is for people to have faith:
A few dozen pages into the book, it dawned on me that if I could believe in angels, I could believe in anything. And I didn’t believe in angels. The evidence for angels was as convincing as the evidence for poltergeists, fairies, or Bigfoot; perhaps less convincing. I closed the book, and the whole cosmological system of my childhood came tumbling down. I had become a Skeptic.
` I’m not sure if this happens very often when people examine their faiths critically like this, though they usually do agree that their own beliefs do sound just as silly as those of many other faiths – from organized religions to creepy little cults.
` This includes Raymo, as well as most people of faith and of ex-faith that I know of. There are also others who do not, though these are the types of people who seem to lack a sense of worldview perspective. (Much of it probably has to do with a general lack of being comfortable with the idea that other perspectives exist.)
` In any case, many people are terrified by the empty, effectively infinite universe that is known to exist out there. And so, they want to add onto it. They want to personify the universe beyond all appearances. They want something out there to acknowledge them. They want to see themselves in the far corners of the cosmos. It is why they see the face of the champion god-man in a nebula, or – in the disturbing case of the Heaven’s Gate cult – a flying saucer for adherents’ souls in a comet.
` For those faithful who cannot reconcile science with their beliefs, sometimes they’d rather push out the science where it’s most convenient. And, says Raymo: ‘[I]f the promise of eternal life is to have maximum drawing power, it is essential for Church and guru to undermine the legitimacy of science.’ Sometimes, that’s just what they’ll try to do!

` I recall a time in which I used to complain that mainstream scientists were in the way of all the evidence of the supernatural discovered by people who were also scientists. In fact, I used to shamelessly proclaim; ‘Of course there’s evidence of the paranormal! Tons of it! Most scientists are just close-minded!’
` After reading all of the way through this book, I finally was able to look around me and see for myself that the mainstream scientists don’t flat-out ignore such ideas, so much as they demand carefully-controlled experimental evidence for them – evidence that no one has been able to provide to this day:

If every idea has equal currency in the marketplace of ideas, then truth becomes a matter of whim, politics, expediency, or the tyranny of the strong. Science has evolved an elaborate system of social organization, communication, and peer review to ensure a high degree of conformity within an institutionally supported orthodoxy. This conservative approach to change allows for an orderly and exhaustive examination of fruitful ideas. It provides a measure of insulation from fads, political upheavals, religious conflicts, and international strife. Yes, offbeat ideas do have a hard time of it in science. But not an impossible time.
` Unexpected facts do pop up from time to time, and, because scientists have to take all facts into account, they are forced to learn from them whether they like it or not. Therefore, even though some scientists have this bias or that bias, such anomalies will eventually have to make their ways into sound scientific theories – prevailing ones or not!
` In that way, science has the ability to progress. And so, it moves forward... carefully!
` As an example, the natural philosophers living hundreds of years ago noticed just how well animals were suited to their habitats:

Camels carry their energy-storing fat in one place, on their backs, so that the rest of their bodies can effectively cool off in the deserts where camels live. Giraffes have long necks that allow them to eat from the high ungrazed trees of the savanna. And so forth. This specifity of design was thought to be compelling evidence for the work of an intelligent Creator, as described in Genesis....
` Well yes... if those animals were not so well-adapted, they would be extinct! Until around the beginning of nineteenth century, however, extinction wasn’t something most scientists were willing to accept.
But what about birds, such as the ostrich, that have wings but do not fly? Why do blind fish that live in lightless caves have eyes? What might an Intelligent Designer have had in mind? These examples of apparently maladaptive design were ignored by scientists until Darwin proposed a new theory – [common descent through natural selection] – that explains with equal facility the hump on the camel, the neck of the giraffe, the wings of the ostrich (descended from birds that flew), and the eyes of the blind fish (descended from fish that lived in light).
` So, in the years before Darwin, useless body parts (and many other anomalies) could not be explained in light of an intelligent creator, unless that creator also made useless and arbitrary structures. (That is not to say there weren’t other theories of evolution that explained them as well, though these turned out to be bogus.) In the late 1800s, Darwin published his explanation for these odd facts, and from then on such contradictions to design – as well as an entire host of other consistently observed patterns – plus biological discoveries made later on in time, have actually made sense.
` However, it wasn’t really until Darwin published his theory that anyone else felt comfortable acknowledging these previously unexplained facts. It is because the always-analytical scientist is typically slow to notice such small things that could have such large implications.
{Alan Lightman and Owen Gingerich, “When Do Anomalies Begin?” Science 255 (February 7, 1992):690.}
”Exactly!” cry creationists, supernaturalists, and paranormaliss. “Scientists ignore what doesn’t fit.” “Scientists work with blinders on their eyes.” “Science is an orthodoxy more rigid than the most conformist religion.”
` Whoa there, Checkers! That’s not entirely true! First off, science is not orthodoxy because it does change, it does progress – those anomalies do not go ignored forever! Remember, science itself dictates but one thing about our knowledge; that it is tentative and by no means complete! Eventually, anomalies that cannot be explained by one theory will need to be explained by another that includes more of the picture.
` Also, do not forget that science is mostly made of theories which mutually support one another across the fields. Most of these ideas are actually quite stable. Small pieces that seem to fit may turn out not to, and that is what the scientific attitude is all about: ‘Since this makes sense here, and this makes sense there.... Hmmm... what to make of this over here? I could ignore it for a while and see if it continues to contradict other discoveries or instead makes sense in their light.’
` When you compare that to; ‘Oh, let’s believe this and ignore new discoveries altogether’, you can see why the skeptical process of science would be the fruitful route.
` Of course, this is not to say that some scientists are close-minded or arrogant, but the fact that the rest of the community is there to balance them out ensures that this isn’t as much of a problem as some might think.
` After all, science is in fact a system that is committed to changes in knowledge! It just has to look around a bunch before it leaps. This is not to say that there are no useful shortcuts in determining what is most likely to be true....

The nineteenth-century physicist Michael Faraday once said, “Nothing is too wonderful to be true.” With that in mind, the Skeptic must be open to the possibility that an apparently offbeat idea contains a germ of truth. At the same time, he is right to insist that certain evidential criteria must be met for an idea to qualify as science....
` ...The Skeptic’s guiding principle is Ockham’s razor: No more things should be presumed to exist than are necessary to explain the phenomenon.
` Consider the newest fad in our search for pop spirituality: fire walking. A new breed of entrepreneurial guru stands ready to lead us to a life beyond merely material existence – across twelve feet of glowing coals.... The laws of physics are made to be broken, says the instructor, if only we can harness the spiritual power that lies deep within us....
` In fact, it is because of the laws of physics that fire walking is possible.
` You see, while glowing coals have a high temperature, the amount of heat they can contain is not very high. The same can be said for air; in an oven heated to 350 degrees, you can still put your hand inside without being burned by the surrounding air. Wood ash also does not conduct heat very well, and so any heat it contains is slow to transfer to your feet.
` This is the reason why a 350-degree cake pan will burn your hand instantly while the 350-degree cake in the pan – being slow to conduct heat – requires you to rest your hand on it before it sustains damage. Also, low conductivity is why an oven mitt prevents your hand from being burned by very hot objects.
` According to what is predicted by physical science, nothing strange is going on when you dash across ashes and don’t get burned – wood ash itself is somewhat insulating. At the same time, nothing fundamentally different is going on when you simply stand still on the coals and sustain burns!
` So, because we understand the thermal properties of wood ash (and therefore its likelihood of their burning people), why would any person think that fire-walking breaks the laws of physics – much less go out of their way to invoke spiritual energy as the cause?
` Before writing a column about the subject, Raymo himself made a bonfire and raked up some coals for himself:

While witnesses watched, I stepped barefoot onto the red-hot coals, then again, and again, and again. No burns. No blisters. Can’t even say that I felt anything unusual. But I will admit that the first step was scary. My successful fire walk was not mind over matter, but mind over mind. A small victory for Ockham’s razor.
` Of course, True Believers will say that my feet were protected from burns by my own involuntary powers of mind. No talk of thermal physics will dissuade them from their belief.
` Similarly, the Black Death was once viewed as God’s way of punishing heathens. And yet, when the fleas of rats were discovered to have spread the disease, God could still be viewed as the one who sent the rats to punish the faithless. ...Until the rats were disposed of and the plague receded.
` Indeed – ordinary physical causes (of any type) to which superfluous beliefs are attached are the type of thing that allows the True Believer to ‘have his ideological cake and eat it too.’
` But those extra conjectures are not needed to make sense of the world. They are, however, sometimes needed to make sense of belief systems. In other words, such ideas are dictated by beliefs rather than reality!
` Additionally, one cannot disprove such spiritual speculations and the like because they are not physically available for so doing. This is why Ockham’s razor is used: There could be a weightless, massless, invisible pink unicorn in the lab next to me, but there is no physical reason I would even begin to suspect such a thing to begin with. Therefore, why bother with the idea in the first place unless I was a member of the (grin)
Cult of the Invisible Pink Unicorn? The Vegnautic sect, no less? (Apparently, she reveals herself by speaking through cats!)

` Is this making sense, class? Well, I must say; I had best be pulling myself up to the rafters now! Hope to see you unwilling subjects later on!

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Science has been so abused!

` I have dredged up, from the depths, a draft I had composed at the beginning of March. Perhaps, now that I am gaining henchmen (=people who understand skepticism better than most), it will make more sense to them than if I had posted it earlier.
` Enjoy:
But that the enthusiasm which characterizes youth should lift its parricide hands against freedom and science would be such a monstrous phenomenon as I cannot place among possible things in this age and country.

` Thomas Jefferson

` It is obvious that over 90% of non-scientists haven't a clue as to what science is. This allows those in charge to take advantage of that. Simply blurring the understanding of science allows business representatives, quacks and extremists of faiths to have equal footing with mainstream research.
` A lot of the government today is made up of people who don't understand what science is! And even some of those who do may yet have other interests!
` Unfortunately, George W. Bush is about the worst of all of them. He has abused his power as President of the United States by strategically putting people of the religious Right as well as industry representatives in a lot of advisory committees.
` He's ignored what all the scientists and the EPA had to say about global warming, plus, he gave the okay for a missile defense system of which there is no evidence that it could work.
` There is also no evidence that abortion causes breast cancer, yet he forced the National Cancer Institute to say so anyway. Evidently, abortions are something he personally does not agree that women should be allowed to have.
` Therefore, you'd think that he wouldn't mind so much the utter avoidance of accidental pregnancy, and therefore possibly facing abortion. And yet, he ordered the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to remove anything about using condoms from its website!
` What the...?
` Bush also banned funding for stem cell research except for the small number of lines that already exist - which are not even close to the sixty he claimed there were.
` And now Intelligent Design? I don't even want to get into that. (Perhaps another time!)

` He - and other Republican leaders - have called mainstream science 'junk science' in whichever place they prefer to call their extremist viewpoints as 'sound science'. In fact, the Data Quality Act of 2000 is used for preventing government reports unfavorable to industrial and right-wing interests by making the 'they're not sure, so it's not sound science' claim.
` See, since almost nobody in this country understands science, except scientists, you couldn't count on everyone to understand that uncertainty is ubiquitous in all good science. Definites and absolutes do not even technically exist - they're uncommon anyway - that's what allows changes.
` And since most Americans do not understand this, it lets anyone say 'See, they're not sure of something! Therefore, it's junk science!' That gives extremists an amazing amount of credibility right there.
` Of course, it's important to understand that uncertainty is how science avoids dogma. It's what the scientific method is based on! In other words, it's normal!

` Addendum: Please do not destroy me for the resemblance of this post to a Scientific American article. I am merely a humble servant of scientific awareness while at the same time unable to write much that is clever and original.

` And, as a bonus, now that I think most of you will be able to understand after reading so many skeptic-oriented posts:

` Quotes about science and skepticism!

` 'Science is a self-correcting institution. The data change so of course you change your position. Otherwise, you would be dishonest.’ - Stephen Schneider.

` You see how that works? This way, one can avoid dogma. Or as Karl Popper put it: ‘The growth of knowledge depends entirely on disagreement.’

` The debate is love! ...Sorta.

` 'The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.' – Socrates.

` Why, of course! It’s the only way you can reason. If you think that you know the answer to something, then what would be the point of learning?

` ...Yes, that was all! Just taking advantage of a post I'd already written months ago. Hope you enjoyed.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Noci-Notes ‘Skeptics and True Believers’ - #4

(First of this series.)
` It is now time for me to go over Chapter Three – The Known and the Unknowable!

` I admit it. I’m guilty of being strange in some ways and then rambling on about it in my notes. I often have trouble grasping metaphors or visualizing things in my head. I don’t even seem to understand what drives the True Believer, which mostly explains why I am not one of them.
` Nobody’s perfect.
` I don’t even trust myself to explain science, probably because my attempts have failed in the past so many times. I suppose this is because people are not willing to take my word for it.

` I don't really know why.
` Though I do technically have this authority, I’m going to let Raymo take over for a minute:

Science is boring by design. Scientific communication has evolved a style that is deliberately devoid of passion, poetry, and the longings and despairs of the human heart. Why? To get on with the business of finding out how the world works. Science is the one human endeavor that has proven relatively immune to the passions that divide us. There is no such thing as Jewish science, Christian science, Muslim science, Buddhist science. There is no such thing as male or female science, black or white science, Democratic or Republican science.
` This is not to say that individual scientists can’t be sexist, racist, or politically committed, or that science itself hasn’t been shaped by Judeo-Christian, European, male-dominated origins. But by keeping, as best we can, human differences out of the communication of science, we have forged a tool for human improvement that is anchored in repeatable, verifiable observation, rather than in prejudice and passionate conviction.
` Of course, don’t think that I am unaware of the fact that science is sometimes used, and distorted, usually for the ulterior motives of politicians and others with their own agendas. While most scientists would never exaggerate or fabricate their results in order to prove a point, it certainly happens sometimes when larger entities are at the controls.
` That aside, the work of the scientist is meant to expand our finite, little island of knowledge into the sea of more-or-less infinite mystery, as per Raymo’s analogy. Being myself, I find it hard to connect this with actual knowledge and actual mystery. It’s a visualization thing, I suppose.
` Basically, the point is that the tiny bit of knowledge we have forged into our bleak surroundings steadily grows, despite the fact that mystery intermingles with it and presses on it from all angles. The weaker points of scientific knowledge oftentimes cannot be built into stronger ideas – though some of the relatively strong conceptual structures are only deceptively so. These unstable and tenuous pieces are inevitably prone to breaking down under the weight of other structures into their underlying factual components and will have to be rebuilt (made sense of) in another way.
` Or, we can use Raymo’s much better-thought-out analogy, originally taken out of his book Honey From Stone:

We live in our partial knowledge as the Dutch live on polders claimed from the sea. ‘We dike and fill. We dredge up soil from the bed of mystery and still the mystery surrounds us. It laps at our shores. It permeates the land. Scratch the surface of knowledge and mystery bubbles up like a spring. And occasionally, at certain disquieting moments in history (Aristarchus, Galileo, Planck, Einstein), a tempest of mystery comes rolling in from the sea and overwhelms our efforts, reclaims knowledge that has been built up by years of patient work, and forces us to retreat…
` To further this analogy, he adds two points; ‘(1) The growth of the island does not diminish the sea’s infinitude, and (2) the growth of the island increases the length of the shore along which we encounter mystery.’ In other words, with the expansion of knowledge we have yet a broader horizon, more questions that we know to ask. Presumably, the number of questions will never cease to grow.
` The best condition for the creative work of the artist and scientist, he adds, is to keep one foot on the shore and one in the sea of mystery. Conveniently for myself, that is how I am best at operating.
` Next, Raymo goes on about the sense of being star-struck. Arcturus, and other bright stars, radiate for distances of hundreds of millions of light years in every direction. Of that light, the human eye can only pick up about one part in 100,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000.
` Using another marine analogy, the oceans of earth are composed of about 320 million cubic miles of water, which is quite a bit of water. Dipping a pencil point into the ocean results in the tip being damp with a larger fraction of ocean water than the fraction of Arcturus’ light that hits the retina!
` And yet, this is ‘enough to excite the retina, signal the brain, form images, open our minds to the universe of the galaxies, inspire poets and artists, frighten, elevate, surprise, and ignite the shudder in the spine.’
` Yes, it can be pretty terrifying, and I know it! Once, I had a dream in which I almost went insane by nearly comprehending the size of the universe. Even apparently experiencing the size of the solar system in the area closest to the sun made me cower and try to look away from the dream as it unfolded.

` It reminds me of a scene in one of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy books where one character’s brain is hooked up to a machine that makes people go insane by forcing them to comprehend the size of the universe.
` I suspect, however, that since I woke up in a cold sweat, quite uninsane though shaken for weeks, I may have had what I like to call a ‘fairy cake anomaly’ – apparently, I could not entirely carry out this task on my own. In any case, I managed to escape with my sanity.
` Barely.

` Ah, the next little section of the book contains part of an interview with Richard Feynman which I have previously referred to in response to Denny, who (apparently) commented that understanding the universe seems to take the magic out of it. [If you like, you can review the comments from that post.]
` At that time I had just read the beginning of Feynman’s book, The Pleasure of Finding Things Out, although I had ironically paused in writing this post just before the point in the book where Feynman explains why analysis does not interfere with beauty:
First of all, the beauty [the artist] sees is available to other people – and to me too. Although I might not be quite as refined aesthetically as he is, I can appreciate the beauty of a flower.
` I recommend holding that bit in your mind for a moment if you tend to think along the same lines as Denny’s statement – as many people do. ...Now:
At the same time, I see much more about the flower than he sees. I could imagine the cells in there, the complicated actions inside, which also have a beauty.
` I mean, it’s not just beauty at this dimension of one centimeter: there is also beauty at a smaller dimension – the inner structure. The fact that the colors in the flower are evolved in order to attract insects to pollinate it is interesting – it means that the insects can see the color.
` Is that not also neat to think about?
` It adds a question: does this aesthetic sense also exist in the lower forms? Why is it aesthetic? All kinds of interesting questions which a science knowledge only adds to the excitement and mystery and the awe of a flower. It only adds. I don’t understand how it subtracts.
` Yes, I would have to agree – science actually adds ‘magic’ to the world, because the more there is to perceive – the more that is visible – the more there is to appreciate! That is why science is so good for one’s creativity. All those bits of knowledge can inspire a lot. Plus, it’s fun.
` As Raymo puts it:

The scientist who does not allow herself to be spiritually empowered by art is the poorer for it. And the artist who dismisses science has closed himself off from half of the human adventure. As Feynman says, with his usual mischievous grin, “It’s much more wonderful to know what something’s really like than to sit there and just simply, in ignorance, say, ‘Oooh, isn’t it wonderful!’”
` As for myself, I do not really understand how anyone can say otherwise – it’s simply incomprehensible to me. I don’t know if that’s a good thing more than a bad thing. Regardless, all the curiosity and imagination that is involved in science is just as rich as in other contexts, such as art and philosophy.
` The only difference is that it is directed towards finding out things and therefore helpfully limited by what we can discern as existing (through means of not being able to prove it doesn’t exist). And yet, by doing this we can add more things onto the list of ‘facts’ from which to inspire creativity and imagination.
` It’s a fun little cycle.

` Well, that is all for now. Hope you enjoyed it. There will be more in a few days. Until then, be brave as you pick your way out of my lab. Watch out for the acid-spitting poultry; one of them has a sinus infection!

Friday, April 28, 2006

I don't want to leave you hanging....

` I regret to say that I have failed to remember that I've forgotten that the end of my next Noci-Notes post has not been completed and I will not get a chance to do so until Monday, as I am about to retreat to the mountains on a specimen-collecting expedition.
` Finally; a chance to test my prototype hiking boots!
` Nevertheless, I don't want to leave without providing some sort of bizarre post while I am gone. And so, here is about the strangest draft I have on stock:

` In recent weeks, I have come across some very unusual credit card spam. What made it so odd and unusual was the fact that it was in tricksy spam language, which is evidently a disguise to make it look somehow significant!
` To hopefully generate perplexedness in your minds, I have removed the credit card links and have displayed it in a poem-like format.

lurches disambiguation aboard mailings
shaping shrilled:Cenozoic?nook
Heckman deprave.
imperialism pill kitchenette cytoplasm
sequester Juddering Guenther applied incoherently Rorschach:
illustrator boggled pledge farmyards cuttings?
listless belie unfamiliarly Czech diagrammatically:
awry Stamford dealership!
pond fostering?
munitions Asheville aimlessly
Shiite moneys remotest crafty!
replica.revisiting Iliad mares?
smithereens emergencies levels.
Gauls?sheeted vexed
vex peeled provision drunken aiming?
insoluble:McPherson including bobbin neigh,contemplative
Stirling waived tiresomeness rationalizes!
promenade withdrawn hinting
imperviously arouse harshness symptoms
phosphate undetermined narration
lumped climatology extrovert.
interpretation biconvex matrimony.
swollen Sperry nonconsecutively couch functioned besotter!
caste nicker Donahue album

` Indeed. Random, computer-generated words. ...But they're such nice words!!!
` Strangely, this wad of gibberish actually seems to be quite similar to what Xenophon would compose and read - in his booming and beastlike voice - except that he at least displays proper grammatical usage of such words as 'Heckman' and 'biconvex'.
` I really must go now; anticipate my return on Monday!

Monday, April 24, 2006

The day Achau Nguyen faced his debunkers

` Just because I so enjoy making fun of so-obviously-unpsychic people as Sylvia Browne, please don't assume that I always glare and laugh at them. In fact, not all such people realize that they aren't actually psychic!
` For example, self-proclaimed psychic Achau Nguyen went down to the Steve Allen Theater to test his mental 'transmitting' abilities in a preliminary evaluation trial for the James Randi Foundation Million Dollar Challenge! While Achau worked at sending twenty words he had chosen at random, his friend, E. did his best to receive them in a downstairs room.
` Other details of the way the test was carried out can be found in this article.

` The highly-caffeinated Achau was quite excited as he sent the words out to his friend, sure that he was doing a fairly good job. Understandably, he was crushed when he saw the score:

To tabulate the results, we brought out a white scoreboard which displayed columns for “Word Sent,” “Word Received,” and “Running Score”. The sequence “sent,” “received,” “score” was read for all 20 words. No “Sent” words were even close to the “Received” words. (e.g. The first word he sent was “ovary”, though E. received “shopping mall.”) The running score became a column of zeros. [Pictured here.]

Achau seemed initially surprised, then a bit angry, then disappointed, and a bit humiliated. We tried to soften the blow by explaining that people make these mistakes and that he should use the test he just took to check himself in the future.

` Ouch! ...Though, despite this, Achau was unshaken in his belief.

He e-mailed us the next day with the following:

Hello Jim and the rest of the IIGWest staff,

I just wanted to thank you guys for everything again, I also wanted to apologize for the way I was after the test. I must admit I was really upset, not of any of you guys though, but at my recipient, (E.) I know he didnt even try to put an effort to help me out, everything he wrote was straight out of his ass, Im sorry to say. I guess you can say that's sorta my exscuse for failing, but whatevers, I did wanted to mention it when Jim invited us into his office after the test and was asking us if we had any ideas or reasons of the failure, but I didnt wanna make a scene.

I know since it was a failure in the testing, that pretty much says, that I do not possess these powers I claim to have, but within all honesty Jim, Derek, Sherri, Brian, Bernie, and Owen if you guys all can actually look me straight in my face and tell me im just halluscinating about everything, and misbelieved about these powers I possess, I totally respect that, but if you can somehow acknowledge and say that I do possess these powers, (that needs alotta tweaking) even though the test was a failure, that would mean the world to me, I guess what im trying to say is I need your guys stamp of approval, so that maybe I could go to soemone (sic) or they could come to me that'd be willing to help me out, and we could like learn and understand to control these powers together, you knows?

I mean winning the million and shutting down Randi would be great, but what I really need rite now is people who know actually know about these things, and can help me out. I know it was my fault for bringing the wrong recipient, and not actually trying these tests more and what so nots, but i beg you guys PLEASE and try to help me out somehow, like I've mentioned when I first came to Randi, I was asking him to help me out, and all he told me was, something like im not here to back up the paranormal, im here to debunk it, or something in that matter, so I beg you guys PLEASE dont do the same to me. I really do believe I possess alot of potential in this field, and even though I failed the test, I hope atleast finally I got somebody, or a group who are very respected and looked up upon in this field, like you guys to acknowledge that the powers are real, I'll be more than happy. But if you honestly can say, im delusional and just straight tripping and need to go get some help, I totally respect that, and will take up your guys advice on that.

In closing, thanks again for everyhting, especially sherri, she was like a maid for me, (LOL), and thanks EVERYBODY for all of the help and time you guys tooked out today on helping me out with the testing, especially when all I could produce for you guys was nothing at all, a 0 out of 20 score, and my deepest apologies again for my behavior after the testing, usually I do get like, where I cant breathe and start stuttering and what so nots, its the side affects, but mostly it was because that I was mad at (E.), it was like he just stabbed straight in my back, and apologies again if I took out that anger on you guys. I just hope though, some how you guys can help me out, you guys are pretty much my only hope. Thanks again.

Achau Nguyen

` I can certainly sympathize with Achau. I remember when I used to believe I had psychic powers; it was certainly crushing and frustrating to be faced with contrary evidence! It is not surprising, therefore, that I can understand how easy it is to be deceived by events that are most simply explained as physical.
At a post-test discussion, we concluded that Achau had made no effort to deceive us, and was sincere in his belief that he possessed the power of telepathy. We all felt a little bad for him, as his expectations of success were clearly not met.

We all made a concerted effort to be kind to him throughout the testing process, but felt no regret that the test had been conducted. We think the reaffirmation of the laws of physics and the methods of science is more important than the comfort of one individual.
` As do I.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Noci-Notes - 'Skeptics and True Believers' - #3

(First of this Series.)
` It should be clear by now that I revel in my Skeptichood, though I have trouble understanding the True Believer mindset. But don’t think that with all this talk about experimentation and faith that Skeptics are supposed to be more sane and rational than True Believers!

` Raymo begins Chapter Two: Decoding the Mystery of Life:
The difference between Skeptics and True Believers is not that Skeptics believe what is sensible and obvious, while True Believers accept what is fanciful and far-fetched. Often, it is the other way around. Scientific concepts can be extraordinarily bizarre, as strange to our notion of what is a proper landscape as are the mountainous frozen oceans and sulfur fountains of Jupiter’s moons.
` Looking upon an electron microscope photo of DNA in the journal Science, Raymo noted that it appears to be a tangled mess. The author of the article described it as looking like an ‘elaborate fishnet’. “Yet somehow the fishnet manages to reproduce itself.” (Check out Science 247 (feb 23 1990): 913 to see yourself!)
` Yes, because that sounds utterly, barking mad.
` It’s not that hard to understand. As I had written in the previous post, DNA clones itself by splitting down the middle like a spiral-shaped zipper: Because each half is complementary and can only be assembled in one possible way, each half serves as a template for an entire strand which then builds itself out of the surrounding material.
` Simple, yes? Or is it?

If you stretched out the DNA in a single human cell, it would reach from fingertip to fingertip of your outstretched arms. In the trillions of cells in the human body, there is enough DNA, if stretched out, to reach the Sun and back a dozen times!
` Please, take a moment to cast your eyes to the ceiling contemplate just how far-fetched this fact sounds.
The DNA in a cell is tangled into forty-six chromosomes. Replication starts at hundreds or thousands of sites, at precisely defined moments in the cell’s reproductive cycle. Billions of chemical units in the DNA must be copied exactly, exactly once, no more, no less. Any foul-up could be damaging or fatal to the organism.
` And yet, how often do we humans mutate and/or become cancer-ridden? Most of us do not suffer that greatly from mutations, if at all! (This is not to say that some mutations can't be fun!)
The genetic material is active not only during cell division; it is writhing and twisting all the time, zipping and unzipping here and there along the strands, generating fernlike traceries as it spins off RNA and builds proteins – a whirling-dervish dance of life. Look again at that electron microphotograph of the tangled strand of DNA. It is not just lying there, static, like a cast-aside string of pearls. It is a pulsing, undulating farrago of threads, feathers, knobs and whiskers, a microscopic lace maker frenetically making a lace called life.
` That this should happen, minute by minute, hour by hour, in every cell of our bodies, without resulting in a hopeless tangle is – to put it bluntly – unbelievable….
` It is, isn't it? And yet, as far as everything that can possibly be determined, all of that stuff is true. The same goes for the glaciations of the ice ages. Even so, Raymo has a neighbor from his seasonal home in Ireland (on a hillside track they call ‘The Fairies’ Road’) who fears the wee folk said to live under the hill. She said to him; “It is easier to believe in fairies under the hill than ice on top.” Raymo adds; ‘And of course she’s right.’
` Once again, I am stumped at just why he reiterates that it is easier to believe in anthropomorphic beings such as fairies, humanoid gods and gray aliens than it is to accept what is evident in the basic workings of nature. I do not understand how some people could come to expect to see their own species projected into things that do not directly relate to humans!!
` My guess is that it has to do with our instinct to project our own selves into the minds of others, in order to understand, and predict the actions of, other people. (Sadly, mine was not able to develop until I was about nineteen years old, so this is normally a struggle for myself.) We also tend to do the same sort of thing with dogs, pigs, and monkeys, because it is obvious that they have motives and can think and learn. It is therefore not a large step for Homo sapiens to think up the idea that weather and other aspects of nature could also have personalities – that storms and rivers really are temperamental!
` Over the millennia, people have seen conscious beings like themselves everywhere, in everything, probably because we humans only have our own human minds to relate to (and understand) the world. How many people have there been throughout time to say otherwise?
` I suppose that sounds logical enough, and yet I do not know why anyone would want to do such a thing. What is this need for spirits and aliens and personified astronomical bodies that people want to fulfill? Even when I believed in strange and pseudoscientific things, I am not aware of ever having such a need.

` …Tangents aside, the next thing that Raymo writes is; ‘So why do I believe in the unerring fandango dance of the DNA, which I cannot fully imagine no matter how hard I try, and not fairies, which any child can imagine?’
` Well! Perhaps my ability to imagine has something to do with my own inability to understand True Believers! Growing up, the only way that I could remember what something looked like was if I translated the experiences into sentences and then remembered the words I used. I could not remember images directly – only descriptions of them. Visualization had eluded me until my late teens, and I am still struggling with the concept.
` Maybe the reason a lot of people want to believe in supernatural creatures and such is because many of them are so anthropomorphic and therefore more easy to both relate to and picture. And yet, I had a very hard time both picturing things and figuring out what was going on in other people’s heads.
` …Curiously, I have always been capable of drawing pictures of things I wasn’t looking at, and then drawing the same thing again, even when the only thing I could think of were a verbal description and the blank paper in front of me: If I wanted to see something imaginary, from my own mind, I would first have to draw the thing before I could see it!
` Therefore, it never mattered to me whether or not I could see something, or really even relate to or understand it. As long as I had a reason to think it was true.

` Second tangents aside, I think I’m starting to understand why I’m a Skeptic: It’s difficult to believe something you can’t imagine without some form of evidence that surely exists outside of people’s minds.
The physicist-philosopher Henry Margeneau made a point to invent a diagrammatic scheme that shows a distinction between the two.
` It involves a vertical line, and in the left field, circles are placed which represent things that are ‘out there’; the world ‘as it is’ through our senses. To the right, one places circles which represent ‘mental constructs’; the world ‘as we know it’ in our head.
` My ‘lucky’ glass coffee mug, for example (the only one that was not smashed in the ‘Battle of the Shiny, Metal Objects’); how would the mere act of seeing it appear on this map? To the immediate right of the perception plane-line, one would see circles that stand for concepts such as ‘green’, ‘reflective’, ‘transparent’, and ‘ridges’. These would be connected via lines to another circle somewhere a little further to the right, which stands for everything I conceptualize about the coffee mug, including its name.
` And, if we assume that I am overwhelmed by toxic fumes at the moment and am not really sure if it exists or not, picking it up and drumming it with a fingernail would yield the sensations of ‘cool’, ‘smooth’, ‘heavy’, and ‘clinking sound’. (Hopefully.) Those sensations would contribute yet more links to my mental construct of ‘glass coffee mug’, thereby reassuring me that it was really there.
` Not everything is so well-reinforced in this way, however: Fairies can be inferred if one notices that a gardening tool cannot be found, or if one hears a mysterious singing noise, and links these occurrences to the construct ‘fairies’. ‘What is missing from out map are lines connecting the construct “fairy” directly to immediate sensations. No one has actually seen a fairy.’
` On the contrary, I have seen a fairy, and he was so adorable I was almost sad that any attempts of seducing him on my part would be for naught. But, I’m getting off the subject. Raymo! What else do you have to say?

”DNA replication” is a construct far removed from the perception plane. There is almost nothing about the construct that relates to ordinary experience, which is why the construct is so difficult to imagine. The perceptions upon which the construct is based are highly technical – for example, X-ray diffraction photographs and demanding chemical assays.
` The construct “double-helix DNA” is connected with reality by way of many other technical constructs, circles connected to circles in a vast web, by as many paths as we can devise and test, until at last we reach the relevant immediate perceptions – blackened grains in a photographic emulsion, for example, or a reading on a microbalance in the chemical lab – perceptions that mean nothing except in the context of the entire web of constructs.
` The scientist looks for taut and unambiguous connections between constructs and perceptions that can be subjected to quantitative and reproducible experimental tests.
` And yet the construct ‘fairy’ is closer to the plane of perception than DNA. Why does the Skeptic doubt the fairy so?
The noise might just as well be explained by the construct “wind,” with links that are firmer, more reproducible, and more widely acknowledged. The missing tool might be attributed to absentmindedness or human theft, both of which are universally acknowledge parts of our common experience. In other words, “fairy” is connected to immediate sensation by few and arbitrary lines. Snip away the construct “fairy” and the rest of the map stands firm, no sensations go unexplained.
` And just so we’re clear on the fact that I am not making up things about the concept of science, I am giving Mr. Raymo here a large amount of room to explain:
Our understanding of DNA replication, on the other hand, is embedded in a vast and resonant web of interconnected constructs. It is the essence of scientific skepticism to test and retest each link in the web, to try to prove it faulty, to look for more concise patterns of constructs and connections that will adequately explain our immediate sensations – the blackened grains in the photographic emulsion, the results of the chemical assay. If we have succeeded in constructing a resonant web of constructs, then any observer, Skeptic or True Believer, should be able to trace the links back to the perceptional source along vibrant lines of connection.
` It is the firmness of these many connections, based upon tens of thousands of exact, quantitative, reproducible experiments, that anchors the construct “double-helix DNA” to reality. Snip a line of connection here and there – the web still holds. Remove the construct entirely, and sensations go unexplained. And that’s why we [accept] the seemingly impossible dance of the DNA.
` But it isn’t easy. Many of the links in the scientist’s map of the world are highly technical. Only narrow specialists will comprehend some of the connections. Any one scientist must trust the veracity of all other scientists, which is why so much effort goes into quantitative data keeping, citation of relevant prior research, and peer review. A scientist giving a talk to fellow scientists, even to close colleagues, is unlikely to get very far before someone interrupts with “Now wait a minute, about that last step…”
` I have often watched the skeptical engine of science at work – winnowing, pruning testing the resilience of the web. You don’t want to be on the receiving end of this kind of collective scrutiny unless your ducks are well in line.
` Yes, all of that! You didn’t hear it from me, you heard it from Chet Raymo. Once again, that is the tried-and-true process! Though I very well know how to explain the concept of science, I’ve been steering clear as much as possible because I’m just not sure how many people will trust me.
` Must be all the madness and struggling in my life. People have a tendency to misunderstand my ways.
` Anyway, yes, scientists do accept anything to be true as long as it makes sense of many observations. This includes the very fact that a strand of DNA is several feet long, and yet it is tightly wadded into the nucleus of a microscopic cell. It is difficult to imagine, yes? Keep in mind, however, that an animal cell is about fifteen millionths of a meter in diameter, while the double helix is but three billionths of a meter across!
` When Raymo calculated this impossible-sounding size ratio, he found ‘that an arm’s length of DNA is hundreds of times less voluminous than a cell…. Moral: Mathematics can be an indispensable aid to the imagination.’
` Really our scientific concepts are quite difficult to picture if they are not immediately familiar. The fact that DNA works seems only conceivable when one considers that computers – though not nearly as complex – can also function with their hundreds of millions of switches turning on and off at breakneck speed for years without once malfunctioning.
` And just when I thought MAL was invincible, I discovered that one of his components was faulty.
` Thankfully, though those of us granted with life are not invincible, we are not machines: We are so much more complex and much hardier than them. And yet, mechanical metaphors are indispensable to the biologist for describing their own findings – they are just too difficult to describe without some degree of familiarity.
` Such are the limits of the human brain. Personally, though, I think that such things often get in the way of actual ideas. In fact, when I grasp such a concept without first being presented with a familiar analogy, I find that the analogy is what
gets in the way.
` On top of this, I often find that when I grasp a metaphor that I am merely grasping a metaphor rather than what it stands for.

` Sigh… is there not anyone out there who is mentally defective the way I am?

` Ah, okay, that is my off-the-subject conclusion to this post. And if you have any opinions about whether I'm being way too plagiaristic or personal in my essays, please tell me. I have a tendency of constantly analyzing what is going on in my head when I write.
(Next of this series.)

Monday, April 17, 2006

The Fakelore of the Easter Bunny

` I imagine that many of you are probably worn out from all that extensive reading, if you have even deigned to attempt it. That is why I have decided to give you a small break:
` Yesterday, as you all may know, was Easter. As the library was closed - or at least not open very long, being a Sunday - I was off in my lab doing important dissections [left].

` I recall reading a pamphlet last year explaining that the word 'Easter' is derived from the name of the pagan goddess 'Eostre', which was documented - if dubiously - by the Venerable Bede. In any case, the lunar month of April was known to pagans as 'Eostre-monat'.
` The pamphlet also said that the Oschter Haws (Easter Hare) comes from a legend where Eostre comes across a wounded bird lying in the snow. To help it survive the winter, she turns it into a hare - except it can still lay eggs, which it decorates and gives to her in thanks.
` If that legend, or similar ones, were told by ancient pagans, then why does the first citation of it appear sixteen years ago in a book by Sarah Ban Breathnach? (The book in question is Mrs. Sharp's Traditions: Nostalgic Suggestions for Re-creating the Family Celebrations and Seasonal Pastimes of the Victorian Home.)
` It makes me wonder; where do these 'legends' come from? I know that the fakelore of Paul Bunyan was invented by a lumber company in the early twentieth century, so he can be attributed to advertisement writers. That is straightforward enough, but... who would even want to make up the Easter Bunny legend? (...Perhaps reading Sarah's book might give me a hint!) I mean, why do people do this stuff? I just don't understand!
` Then again, I am of a mind of reporting the truth. It's the scientific way.