One true dialogue September 27, 2016Posted by Ezra Resnick in Religion, Science.
Tags: Kathryn Pritchard
add a comment
For some reason, Nature has published an essay by Kathryn Pritchard entitled “Religion and science can have a true dialogue”:
I work for the Archbishops’ Council in the Church of England, and this summer I did something that many people would think is impossible. I sat in a dark lecture theatre engrossed in a computationally generated 3D journey through the Universe… I listened to cosmologists speak on research into dark matter, particle physics, the rate at which the growth of the Universe is accelerating and the possibility of multiverses. I asked questions and they responded.
According to the popular narrative on the relationship between science and religion, this event should not have happened. The entire audience was made up of bishops and church leaders. Science and faith, we are constantly told, are in conflict and have little in common. Yet in this enjoyable, high-energy context, there was much to tease out together in terms of big questions about human origins, purpose and destiny. What would it mean for belief in God and the story and themes of Christian faith if there were multiverses? Where is the Universe heading, and what does that tell us about human purpose and destiny?
Pritchard apparently has no idea why people talk of science and faith as being in conflict. Unfortunately, it has nothing to do with religious people’s ability to enjoy 3D planetarium shows without falling asleep or to converse amiably about physics without burning anyone at the stake. Clues to the real conflict can actually be found right on the Church of England’s own website:
The Church of England is part of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. It worships the one true God, who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
It professes the faith that is uniquely revealed in the Bible and set forth in the Catholic Creeds…
The Church makes very specific assertions about the nature of the world we live in: there is one true God, worthy of worship, consisting of three persons, uniquely revealed in the Christian Bible — along with everything that entails. Anglicans are presumably aware that members of other faiths profess different, contradictory creeds, so why are they convinced theirs is true? Another clue:
The Church of England encourages people to use scripture, tradition and reason to come to a considered view on many subjects.
And therein lies the conflict. Religion makes grandiose claims about how the world works, citing uniquely revealed truths, and tells us to accept them “on faith” while relying on scripture and tradition — ahead of reason and evidence — as a basis for belief; while science is pretty much the exact opposite of that. Of course, we all know which method actually progresses reliably towards a better and better understanding of reality. Pritchard talks about “the conviction that science and theology … can illuminate one another to the benefit of all” and promises to “report on the results”, but, as enjoyable as it might be to reconcile interpretations of quantum mechanics with the stories of Christianity (or Scientology, or Harry Potter), I highly doubt the cosmologists are awaiting the outcome with bated breath. The dialogue between religion and science is entirely one-sided — it usually goes something like this:
Rᴇʟɪɢɪᴏɴ: Here’s what our magic book says about the universe. We know it’s true, because it says so in the book!
Sᴄɪᴇɴᴄᴇ: Sorry, that’s wrong: the evidence says otherwise.
Rᴇʟɪɢɪᴏɴ: How arrogant! Did we mention that our book is a unique revelation by the One True God?
Sᴄɪᴇɴᴄᴇ: Be that as it may, we’re going to see how much progress we can make by being skeptical and following the evidence wherever it leads.
Rᴇʟɪɢɪᴏɴ (a century later): OK, so we figured out a way to reinterpret our magic book, and what it really means is what you said before. So it turns out we were right all along!
Sᴄɪᴇɴᴄᴇ: Don’t you have anything better to do with your time?
Rᴇʟɪɢɪᴏɴ: Glad we could help. Don’t forget to let us know when you want to do another awesome dialogue! Maybe we could publish it in Nature.
(via Why Evolution is True)
Who’s afraid of evidence? July 9, 2016Posted by Ezra Resnick in Politics, Reason, Science.
Tags: Jeffrey Guhin, Neil deGrasse Tyson
Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson recently tweeted:
Earth needs a virtual country: #Rationalia, with a one-line Constitution: All policy shall be based on the weight of evidence
Apart from theocrats and dictators, you’d think most everyone could agree with that sentiment in principle. But not UCLA sociologist Jeffrey Guhin: he says it’s “a very stupid idea”. Guhin, you see, has uncovered a fatal flaw in the scientific method (brace yourself): Scientists aren’t perfect!
… experts usually don’t know nearly as much as they think they do. Experts often get it wrong, thanks to their inherently irrational brains that, through overconfidence, bubbles of like-minded thinkers, or just wanting to believe their vision of the world can be true, mislead us and misinterpret information. Rationality is subjective. All humans experience such biases; the real problem is when we forget that scientists and experts are human too—that they approach evidence and reasoned deliberation with the same prior commitments and unspoken assumptions as anyone else. Scientists: They’re just like us.
Well, that’s a surprise to precisely no one. Apart from the “rationality is subjective” nonsense, scientists would certainly agree with the above, Tyson included. That’s why the scientific method has developed tools to help correct for error and minimize bias: randomized and blinded experiments, peer review, meta-analysis, etc. Which is how, despite the human flaws of individuals scientists, science has been so amazingly successful at expanding our knowledge and improving our lives: electromagnetism, evolution, genetics, cosmology — the list goes on and on. Advances in medical science have doubled our life expectancy over the last century. Guhin, however, is not impressed:
… science has no business telling people how to live. It’s striking how easily we forget the evil following “science” can do. So many times throughout history, humans have thought they were behaving in logical and rational ways only to realize that such acts have yielded morally heinous policies that were only enacted because reasonable people were swayed by “evidence.” Phrenology—the determination of someone’s character through the shape and size of their cranium—was cutting-edge science. (Unsurprisingly, the upper class had great head ratios.) Eugenics was science, as was social Darwinism and the worst justifications of the Soviet and Nazi regimes. Scientific racism was data-driven too, and incredibly well respected. Scientists in the 19th century felt quite justified in claiming “the weight of evidence” supported African slavery, white supremacy, and the concerted effort to limit the reproduction of the lesser races…
And yet, despite its abysmal track record, people continue to have extremely positive opinions of “science.”
You’ve got to be kidding me: “abysmal track record”!? Just last week, NASA’s spacecraft Juno entered Jupiter’s orbit after travelling 1.7 billion miles over five years — and it arrived within one second of the predicted time. Now, it’s true that following the scientific method does not guarantee immunity from mistakes: reality is complicated. But Guhin’s purported examples of “the evil following science can do” are actually not scientific at all: from pseudoscience (like phrenology) to fascistic propaganda (like Nazism), the great mistakes of history were caused by ideological dogmatism, and would have been prevented by more skepticism and more insistence on rational evaluation of the evidence — exactly the lesson Tyson wants us to learn. Sure, the bad guys tried to leech off science’s good reputation by claiming it was on their side, but saying something is scientific doesn’t make it so. Does Guhin think Scientology is a scientific organization? Does he consider North Korea a democracy just because it calls itself “the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea”?
Democracy is actually a good example of another system we stick with even though it’s imperfect — because it’s better than the alternatives. And that is the crux of the matter. Science is hard, and we should do our best to understand the ways it can fail so as to mitigate them; but come decision time, the only relevant question is whether there’s a superior alternative. If experts and evidence are stupid, what does Guhin think we should base our policy on instead? What method has a better track record than science? He does not get very specific about that.
Science may give us data, but that doesn’t mean that data points to truth—it just means that’s what we currently understand as truth. So how we act on that data requires nuance and judgment. It’s philosophical, maybe religious, and certainly political.
Oh, we just need to use “nuance and judgement”! Genius. What else? “Maybe religious,” he says — but which religion would that be? There are many, their prescriptions usually conflicting. And since religious beliefs aren’t evidence-based, religious differences cannot be resolved through rational discourse (witness the wonderful policies of ISIS, for instance). As for philosophy and politics, I would hope those are based on reason and evidence — otherwise we’re just back to religion again. Evidence is what grounds us to reality, and losing touch with reality inevitably turns out badly. Science is no more and no less than our best honest attempt to figure out what’s really true about the world we live in — and that’s exactly what you want to base your life decisions on.
Why, then, is Guhin so irrationally opposed to Rationalia? I don’t know. Perhaps he’s afraid that if the demand for reasonable arguments supported by evidence ever becomes widespread, he’ll have a hard time getting published.
I create my own religion January 25, 2016Posted by Ezra Resnick in Reason, Religion, Science.
As part of their upcoming “7 Days of Genius” festival, the 92nd Street Y is sponsoring a “Challenge for a New Religion”:
Here’s my entry:
The greatest force for good in this world, which cuts across boundaries and is at the core of what it means to be human, is REASON. It is through the rigorous application of reason, using the tools of the scientific method, that we have been able to make continuous material, intellectual, and ethical progress: advancing our understanding of the universe and how we came to be in it, breaking down the divisive dogmas bequeathed to us from the infancy of our species, and gradually widening the scope of our moral concern to encompass all human beings (and nonhuman life as well). I therefore propose the following:
A new tradition: To mark the birth of a child, the parents will choose an existing tradition in our culture to challenge. They will pledge to fight for the elimination of that bad tradition, in order to make the world a better place for all our children to grow up in.
A new rite of passage: On their thirteenth birthday, children will attempt to replicate a famous scientific experiment, and determine whether they accept its conclusions. This will demonstrate the understanding that our beliefs about the world must always be open to reevaluation, and should be based on objective evidence and independent thought, not reverence for authority.
New holidays will commemorate various bad ideas from human history, that were at one time universally accepted. This will serve as a reminder that we must all do our part to correct past mistakes and move humanity forward, and that it’s possible for everyone you know to be certain of something and still be wrong.
You can vote for me here!
(via Why Evolution is True)
add a comment
Statistical significance is a very important concept to understand when reading about scientific studies — and it’s also very likely to be defined incorrectly in news reports about scientific studies. For example, here is a Cancer Research UK “science blog” writing about a trial that investigated whether taking aspirin can lower the risk of cancer:
The researchers found that [those participants who were overweight and obese] had an even greater increase in bowel cancer risk, compared to those in the trial who were a healthy weight.
But among different sub-groups of people, some of these results weren’t ‘statistically significant’ (meaning there’s uncertainty over how valid they are)…
And here’s The News & Observer writing about the failed test of a new antiviral drug:
Shares of Chimerix dropped 81 percent and hit an all-time low Monday after the Durham drug developer announced that patients who took the company’s antiviral drug in a clinical trial died at higher rates than those who took a placebo…
Chimerix said the increased mortality rate among patients who took brincidofovir was not statistically significant, meaning that the deaths were not caused by the medication.
And here’s The Philadelphia Inquirer writing about the effect of delays in breast cancer treatment:
The risk of death increased by 9 percent or 10 percent … for patients with stage I and stage II breast cancers for each added 30-day interval, the Fox Chase researchers found. In practice, the increased risk is small, because the chance of death at stage I or II is relatively low. But the difference is statistically significant, meaning it did not occur by chance, researchers found.
All those definitions of statistical significance (or insignificance) are significantly wrong. A result is considered statistically significant if the probability of it being “due to chance” is below some predetermined level, usually 5%. (Wikipedia has a more formal definition.) So even if a result is considered statistically significant, there’s still a probability of up to 5% that the effect measured was actually due to chance and we can’t learn anything from it. (Conversely, even if a result is deemed “insignificant”, there’s still a probability of up to 95% that it was not due to chance — those patients might have been killed by that antiviral drug after all.)
This means we should not put too much confidence in any single scientific result. In fact, out of the thousands of hypotheses published each year supported by “significant” results, we should expect that some will turn out to be wrong — science is hard. That’s why it’s so important to replicate scientific experiments multiple times, and to perform meta-analyses combining the results of many individual studies. Science is hard, and reporters who mislead their readers in the name of simplicity — or a catchy headline — can cause real damage.
Keep that in mind next time you read that green jelly beans cause acne.
Scientists say July 6, 2015Posted by Ezra Resnick in Science.
1 comment so far
- “Scientists Say ‘Life After Death’ May Be Possible, In A Way” [Huffington Post]
- “Scientists Say They Can Recreate Living Dinosaurs Within the Next 5 Years” [Entrepreneur]
- “Scientists Say Horse Tranquilizers are Good for the Soul” [Gawker]
- “Eating Healthy Is A Mental Disorder, Scientists Say” [Inquisitr]
- “60 Really Is The New 50, Scientists Say” [Today]
- “Scientists Discover That Eyes Really Are ‘The Window To The Soul'” [Daily Mail]
- “Scientists Say Moms With Bigger Butts May Give Birth To Smarter Kids” [Elite Daily]
- “‘Designer Babies’ Debate Should Start, Scientists Say” [BBC]
- “New ‘Stupidity Virus’ Discovered, Scientists Say” [ABC News]
Pushing our vision farther April 19, 2015Posted by Ezra Resnick in Science, Superstition.
Tags: Thirty Meter Telescope
1 comment so far
It’s been 400 years since Galileo pointed his telescope at the heavens and the Roman Inquisition convicted him of heresy; nowadays, many people insist that there’s no conflict between science and religion — that was all just a medieval misunderstanding, whereas modern faith has left superstitious ignorance behind. Astronomy, certainly, has come a long way since Galileo: in fact, they’re about to build an awesome Thirty Meter Telescope on top of Mauna Kea, Hawaii:
TMT scientists selected Maunakea after a rigorous five-year campaign spanning the entire globe that measured virtually every atmospheric feature that might affect the performance of the telescope. Located above approximately 40 percent of Earth’s atmosphere, the site at Maunakea has a climate that is particularly stable, dry, and cold; all of which are important characteristics for capturing the sharpest images and producing the best science…
The TMT telescope will provide extremely sharp images that will allow astronomers to see much fainter and more distant objects than possible with existing telescopes, and to study them in greater detail. This represents the possibility of pushing our vision farther into space and our understanding farther back in time to help answer fundamental questions about the universe. It is very likely that TMT will enable discoveries that we cannot even begin to anticipate today…
Following a lengthy 7-year public and agency review, all required state and county permits were issued to the Thirty Meter Telescope.
So how soon does it open? Well, funny story.
A nonprofit company planning to build one of the world’s biggest telescopes on a mountain many Native Hawaiians consider sacred will continue to postpone construction, Hawaii Gov. David Ige said Friday.
This is the second time the Thirty Meter Telescope has extended a moratorium on building at the summit of Mauna Kea, the highest peak on the Big Island of Hawaii…
The company suspended building after law enforcement arrested protesters for blocking the road to the summit and refusing to leave the construction site.
Scientists say Mauna Kea’s summit above cloud cover offers some of the world’s best conditions for viewing the skies. But some Native Hawaiians believe their creation story begins atop the mountain. It’s also a burial site for ancestors and a home to deities.
(That’s some stellar reporting from the Associated Press, by the way: first, implying that the telescope would encroach on a burial ground, whereas, according to the TMT Foundation, “The selected site has no archaeological shrines or features, no endangered plants, no endangered bugs and no burials”; then stating, without qualification, that the mountain is “a home to deities” — is that a fact?)
Despite the irony of opposing a project that seeks to better understand the origins of the universe because of parochial myths about the origin of the universe, some will argue that we should respect people’s heartfelt traditions and beliefs, even if we don’t share them ourselves. But where does it end? We also have Jews who refuse to sit next to women on airplanes, Christians whose businesses won’t serve same-sex couples, etc. — and I don’t think irrational demands should be given respect they don’t deserve. We got out of the Dark Ages by valuing reason and evidence over superstition and authority, and that is the key to building a healthy society that can face the challenges of the future. Those who wish to sanctify their traditions and be bound by them may do so, but they’re not sacred to the rest of us, and we mustn’t let them hold us back as we aim for the stars.
It really is almost a crime March 10, 2015Posted by Ezra Resnick in Science.
Tags: Roald Dahl, Vaccination
1 comment so far
In 1986, Roald Dahl wrote this letter:
Olivia, my eldest daughter, caught measles when she was seven years old. As the illness took its usual course I can remember reading to her often in bed and not feeling particularly alarmed about it. Then one morning, when she was well on the road to recovery, I was sitting on her bed showing her how to fashion little animals out of coloured pipe-cleaners, and when it came to her turn to make one herself, I noticed that her fingers and her mind were not working together and she couldn’t do anything.
‘Are you feeling all right?’ I asked her.
‘I feel all sleepy,’ she said.
In an hour, she was unconscious. In twelve hours she was dead.
The measles had turned into a terrible thing called measles encephalitis and there was nothing the doctors could do to save her. That was twenty-four years ago in 1962, but even now, if a child with measles happens to develop the same deadly reaction from measles as Olivia did, there would still be nothing the doctors could do to help her.
On the other hand, there is today something that parents can do to make sure that this sort of tragedy does not happen to a child of theirs. They can insist that their child is immunised against measles. I was unable to do that for Olivia in 1962 because in those days a reliable measles vaccine had not been discovered. Today a good and safe vaccine is available to every family and all you have to do is to ask your doctor to administer it.
It is not yet generally accepted that measles can be a dangerous illness. Believe me, it is. In my opinion parents who now refuse to have their children immunised are putting the lives of those children at risk. In America, where measles immunisation is compulsory, measles like smallpox, has been virtually wiped out.
Here in Britain, because so many parents refuse, either out of obstinacy or ignorance or fear, to allow their children to be immunised, we still have a hundred thousand cases of measles every year. Out of those, more than 10,000 will suffer side effects of one kind or another. At least 10,000 will develop ear or chest infections. About 20 will die.
LET THAT SINK IN.
Every year around 20 children will die in Britain from measles.
So what about the risks that your children will run from being immunised?
They are almost non-existent. Listen to this. In a district of around 300,000 people, there will be only one child every 250 years who will develop serious side effects from measles immunisation! That is about a million to one chance. I should think there would be more chance of your child choking to death on a chocolate bar than of becoming seriously ill from a measles immunisation.
So what on earth are you worrying about? It really is almost a crime to allow your child to go unimmunised.
The ideal time to have it done is at 13 months, but it is never too late. All school-children who have not yet had a measles immunisation should beg their parents to arrange for them to have one as soon as possible.
Incidentally, I dedicated two of my books to Olivia, the first was James and the Giant Peach. That was when she was still alive. The second was The BFG, dedicated to her memory after she had died from measles. You will see her name at the beginning of each of these books. And I know how happy she would be if only she could know that her death had helped to save a good deal of illness and death among other children.
Meanwhile, in 21st-century America…
The United States experienced a record number of measles cases during 2014, with 644 cases from 27 states reported to CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases (NCIRD). This is the greatest number of cases since measles elimination was documented in the U.S. in 2000.
The majority of people who got measles were unvaccinated.
(via Sam Harris)
Numerous heart-wrenching stories June 1, 2014Posted by Ezra Resnick in Science.
add a comment
PETA: Hello, parent! I’m with “People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.”
Parent: Are you going to present an ethical argument for why eating animal products is wrong?
PETA: Well, let me ask you this: Did you know there’s a link between dairy products and child autism?
Parent: No! That’s pretty scary!
PETA: Yes, indeed. More research is needed, but scientific studies have shown that many autistic kids improve dramatically when put on a diet free of dairy foods.
Parent: Wow, that sounds serious. How many studies are we talking about?
Parent: And how many children participated?
PETA: 36 and 20.
Parent: I see… When were these studies published?
PETA: 1995 and 2002.
Parent: You weren’t kidding when you said “more research is needed.” Has any additional research been done since?
PETA: We’re just trying to alert the public to the link between autism and dairy products.
Parent: Let me check for myself… Actually, there was a systematic review of 15 articles (published in 2010), which concluded that “the current corpus of research does not support” the use of gluten-free or dairy-free diets in the treatment of Autism Spectrum Disorder. And another systematic review of studies since 1970 (published in 2014) concluded that “the evidence on this topic is currently limited and weak,” and recommended that restricted diets only be used if a food allergy is diagnosed.
PETA: But on the other hand, did you know that the Internet contains numerous heart-wrenching stories from parents of kids who had suffered the worst effects of autism for years before dairy foods were eliminated from their children’s diets? Would you like to hear one mother’s story?
Parent: Did you know that the world contains numerous heart-wrenching stories of kids who suffered needlessly because their parents were taken in by unscientific bullshit?
PETA: To learn more about a diet free of dairy products, order our free “Vegetarian Starter Kit” today.
Parent: Fuck you, PETA.
To see it as it is May 24, 2014Posted by Ezra Resnick in Education, Science.
Tags: Bertrand Russell
add a comment
In his essay “The Place of Science in a Liberal Education”, Bertrand Russell argues that one of the benefits of a scientific education has to do with “the temper of mind out of which the scientific method grows”:
The kernel of the scientific outlook is a thing so simple, so obvious, so seemingly trivial, that the mention of it may almost excite derision. The kernel of the scientific outlook is the refusal to regard our own desires, tastes, and interests as affording a key to the understanding of the world. Stated thus baldly, this may seem no more than a trite truism. But to remember it consistently in matters arousing our passionate partisanship is by no means easy, especially where the available evidence is uncertain and inconclusive…
The scientific attitude of mind involves a sweeping away of all other desires in the interests of the desire to know—it involves suppression of hopes and fears, loves and hates, and the whole subjective emotional life, until we become subdued to the material, able to see it frankly, without preconceptions, without bias, without any wish except to see it as it is, and without any belief that what it is must be determined by some relation, positive or negative, to what we should like it to be, or to what we can easily imagine it to be…
The instinct of constructiveness, which is one of the chief incentives to artistic creation, can find in scientific systems a satisfaction more massive than any epic poem. Disinterested curiosity, which is the source of almost all intellectual effort, finds with astonished delight that science can unveil secrets which might well have seemed for ever undiscoverable. The desire for a larger life and wider interests, for an escape from private circumstances, and even from the whole recurring human cycle of birth and death, is fulfilled by the impersonal cosmic outlook of science as by nothing else. To all these must be added, as contributing to the happiness of the man of science, the admiration of splendid achievement, and the consciousness of inestimable utility to the human race. A life devoted to science is therefore a happy life, and its happiness is derived from the very best sources that are open to dwellers on this troubled and passionate planet.
The gap has grown January 1, 2014Posted by Ezra Resnick in Belief, Evolution, Science.
Imagine discovering that your neighbor, a seemingly intelligent, well-adjusted member of society, believes that the sun orbits the earth, or that diseases are caused by demons. Presumably, your first thought would not be “Let me get the relevant evidence and convince him he’s wrong about cosmology and medicine,” but rather, “How could a sane person in today’s world believe such things?” Believing ideas that were scientifically discredited long ago betrays a serious problem with one’s process for forming beliefs about the world.
There can’t be many people so out of touch with reality in our modern society, though, right?
According to a new Pew Research Center analysis, six-in-ten Americans (60%) say that “humans and other living things have evolved over time,” while a third (33%) reject the idea of evolution, saying that “humans and other living things have existed in their present form since the beginning of time.”
As embarrassing as that is, the situation is actually even worse:
About half of those who express a belief in human evolution take the view that evolution is “due to natural processes such as natural selection” (32% of the American public overall). But many Americans believe that God or a supreme being played a role in the process of evolution. Indeed, roughly a quarter of adults (24%) say that “a supreme being guided the evolution of living things for the purpose of creating humans and other life in the form it exists today.”
— which is like believing that the earth is carried around the sun on Atlas’s back, or that diseases are caused by germs controlled by aliens. So really, only a third of Americans accept scientific, non-magic evolution.
Remember that rejecting evolution is just a symptom: the underlying malady is the rejection of scientific, evidence-based reasoning. Where is that attitude coming from?
It will be no surprise that beliefs about evolution were found to differ strongly by religious affiliation (with evangelical Protestants bringing up the rear). However, there were sizable differences by political affiliation as well:
Republicans are less inclined than either Democrats or political independents to say that humans have evolved over time. Roughly two-thirds of Democrats (67%) and independents (65%) say that humans have evolved over time, compared with less than half of Republicans (43%).
The size of the gap between partisan groups has grown since 2009. Republicans are less inclined today than they were in 2009 to say that humans have evolved over time (43% today vs. 54% in 2009), while opinion among both Democrats and independents has remained about the same.
It is essential that we confront and defeat the enemies of reason — by unequivocally insisting on the value of intellectual honesty and reality-based thinking, and by showing no tolerance or respect for bad ideas. Success on that front will not only undermine disbelief in evolution; other irrational ideas will inevitably erode as well.