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The quest for good explanations February 19, 2018

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Science, Superstition.
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For most of human history, the rate of progress was so slow as to be unnoticeable on the timescale of an individual’s life: the gaps between significant innovations or increases in knowledge were typically measured in centuries, if not millennia. But since the Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution, we have been in an unprecedented era of rapid and continually accelerating progress, an explosion of knowledge. In his book The Beginning of Infinity, David Deutsch tries to put his finger on the key factor that makes the difference between no-progress and progress.

A central tenet of the Enlightenment was a rejection of authority with regard to knowledge. But rejection of authority on its own is not enough: we need an alternate (better) way of seeking knowledge, without relying on authority. The Scientific Revolution initiated a sustained tradition of criticism, which came to require that a scientific theory be testable: “the theory must make predictions which, if the theory were false, could be contradicted by the outcome of some possible observation.”

Yet testability alone is not sufficient for scientific progress: the prophet who claims the world will end tomorrow, and the gambler who feels his winning streak will continue, are making eminently testable predictions. Testability is not enough because the purpose of science is not mere prediction. In order to solve problems you need explanations: “assertions about what is out there and how it behaves.” A scientific theory says something about the reality that accounts for our observations.

But having a testable, explanatory theory is still not enough. Consider mythical explanations, like the idea that disease is the gods’ punishment for sinners. Such myths do make a testable claim about the underlying reality, but they are nevertheless unscientific (that is, useless for improving our understanding of the world) because they are bad explanations: they are easy to invent and easy to adapt such as to explain anything. If a myth’s predictions fail (a righteous person falls ill), the myth can simply be tweaked (the gods sometimes test the faith of the righteous), or replaced with a different myth (the devil, witchcraft) — and no progress is ever made, no knowledge created. The details of a myth are only loosely connected to the particulars of the phenomena it purports to explain, so there’s no way to judge the relative merits of competing myths and no reason to prefer one over another: at bottom they are all equivalent to “the gods did it.” But an explanation that could easily explain anything actually explains nothing.

Good explanations (like the germ theory of disease), on the other hand, are hard to discover and hard to vary once discovered: the details of a good explanation are intimately connected to the specifics of the phenomena being explained, and every detail plays a functional role. If a previously good explanation is refuted by experiment, it ceases to be a good explanation, and must be dropped; but theories that have passed many stringent tests and are highly constrained by other existing knowledge become extremely good explanations, and our scientific knowledge grows. Seeking good explanations, according to Deutsch, is the key to the scientific frame of mind — which unlocks potentially unlimited progress:

As the physicist Richard Feynman said, ‘Science is what we have learned about how to keep from fooling ourselves.’ By adopting easily variable explanations, the gambler and prophet are ensuring that they will be able to continue fooling themselves no matter what happens. Just as thoroughly as if they had adopted untestable theories, they are insulating themselves from facing evidence that they are mistaken about what is really there in the physical world.

The quest for good explanations is, I believe, the basic regulating principle not only of science, but of the Enlightenment generally. It is the feature that distinguishes those approaches to knowledge from all others, and it implies all those other conditions for scientific progress…

Old ways of thought, which did not seek good explanations, permitted no process such as science for correcting errors and misconceptions. Improvements happened so rarely that most people never experienced one. Ideas were static for long periods… The emergence of science, and more broadly what I am calling the Enlightenment, was the beginning of the end of such static, parochial systems of ideas. It initiated the present era in human history, unique for its sustained, rapid creation of knowledge with ever-increasing reach.

Pushing our vision farther April 19, 2015

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Science, Superstition.
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Mauna_Kea_observatoryIt’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.

Judge sentences 11-year-old to death by tradition November 18, 2014

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Belief, Law, Superstition.
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Not in Saudi Arabia. Not in Afghanistan. In Canada.

An emotional dispute over a family’s decision to pull their cancer-stricken daughter out of chemotherapy ended Friday with a potentially far-reaching constitutional decision, as a judge ruled First Nations’ people have a legal right to seek out traditional native remedies.

Which apparently trumps the right of the child to not die.

[Ontario Justice Gethin Edward] rejected a request by the hospital that had been treating the 11-year-old girl to force the local children’s aid society to apprehend her so she could resume chemotherapy. Doctors have said her kind of leukemia has a 90% cure rate with modern treatment, but is an almost certain death sentence without it.

Earning applause from many in a packed courtroom Friday, the judge said traditional health care is an integral part of the family’s Mohawk culture and therefore protected by the Constitution.

What if beating children were also an integral part of the family’s culture? Or sacrificing them to the gods? What good is a constitution that fails to protect children from needless harm?

Evidence showed the mother from Six Nations reserve is “deeply committed to her longhouse beliefs and her belief that traditional medicines work,” said Judge Edward.

So the court relied on evidence to show that the mother’s beliefs are sincere, but didn’t care what the evidence says about whether those beliefs are true. Because everyone knows that statistics don’t apply to you if you don’t believe in them.

“This is not an eleventh-hour epiphany employed to take her daughter out of the rigours of chemotherapy,” he said. “Rather it is a decision made by a mother, on behalf of a daughter she truly loves, steeped in a practice that has been rooted in their culture from its beginnings.”

Harmful practices need to be rooted out, not perpetuated, no matter their pedigree. A child could understand that. How many more children must die just so a tradition might live?

Freedom of superstition July 3, 2014

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Freedom, Law, Religion, Superstition.

You keep using that term, “freedom of religion” — I do not think it means what you think it means. The problem is that everyone thinks their own religion is eminently reasonable and wise, while all other religions are mistaken at best. And there’s no way to ever work out which is right, since they’re all equally unsupported by evidence. So, while people shouldn’t be persecuted because of their religious beliefs, the flip side is that those beliefs don’t (or shouldn’t) confer any magical “get out of jail free” cards, either: the law must be strictly secular, with no religious exceptions. People often conveniently forget this when their own religion is the beneficiary (at the expense of those who don’t share it).

So here’s my proposition: “freedom of religion” will be renamed “freedom of superstition.” That should help clear up any confusion about what is and isn’t included. You’re free to be as superstitious as you want in your private life; it’s just that you can’t force anyone else to respect your superstitions, or expect to be exempted from any laws because of them.

Let’s give it a try: Your superstition tells you that your neighbor is a witch? You’re free to shun her, but not to burn her. Your superstition forbids contraception? You’re free to eschew it, but not to make it less accessible to others. Your superstition demonizes gays? You’re free to not have sex with people of your own gender, but not to discriminate against those who do.

What’s that? You don’t like your sacred, heartfelt convictions referred to as superstitions? Well, then, all you have to do is bring forth good evidence to support them — at which point we can all get on board, no special pleading necessary. Until then, I wouldn’t talk so loud. You’re entitled to your own opinions, but you’re not entitled to your own facts and you’re not entitled to your own laws.

How do you know she is a witch? October 19, 2013

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Science, Superstition.
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“We have found a witch, may we burn her?”

“How do you know she is a witch?”

“She looks like one! Also, last week she gave me a creepy stare when she walked by my house — and the very next day my kitten died!”

“But do you have any good reasons for thinking that witches exist at all?”

“Oh, I see: You’re one of those closed-minded, reductionist, scientism fundamentalists. Let me tell you something: Thousands of people have believed in witches for thousands of years — how many more reasons do you need? Are you calling all those people stupid? How arrogant of you, to think you’re smarter than everyone else. Science doesn’t know everything, you know. And even when science claims to know something, it sometimes turns out to be wrong. Anyway, there’s more to life than what you can measure in a lab. Just because you can’t explain something scientifically doesn’t mean it isn’t true!”

“You got me all wrong: I agree with all that. I merely meant to say that based on my own hallowed tradition and sacred texts, I believe that what you call witchcraft is actually caused by demonic possession. This calls for an exorcism, not a burning.”

“Oh. All right, then, let’s give it a shot — if that doesn’t work, we can always burn her!”

Letter from the high chief of Easter Island June 23, 2013

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Politics, Reason, Superstition.
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moaiTo my loyal clansmen,

It has come to my attention that some of you have expressed concern regarding our time-honored tradition of cutting down great palm trees in order to erect the sacred moai (source of our clan’s glory). I wish to assure you that there is nothing to fear! After all, we’ve been doing the same thing for hundreds of years and we’re still here.

Some have claimed that there are less birds to hunt than there used to be; but even if this is true, we don’t know for certain that it’s due to our tree cutting. There could be many reasons for such fluctuations — who can understand the mysteries of nature? We must simply have faith that the birds will return.

Others have pointed out that using all the tallest trees for moai building leaves less for making fishing boats. Such complaints are unworthy of our hard-working ancestors. There is no shortage of fish on my dinner table; I trust the ingenuity of our brave clansmen will always find a way to extract sustenance from the seas, with or without trees.

The bottom line is this: I will not be known as the ariki who brought dishonor on our clan, letting our rivals’ glory surpass our own. And just as I am responsible for sustaining our present strength, I am confident that future chiefs will have the wisdom to solve the problems of their own times.

So, do not let a few meddlesome know-it-alls scare you with their “observations” and their “experiments”. The spirits of our ancestors watch over us and protect us always. Our glorious civilization will live forever!

Editor’s note: The preceding manuscript was uncovered by Europeans who arrived at Easter Island in 1722, where they found a small, emaciated population and a deforested landscape, with no trees over 10 feet tall and no land birds. There were, however, hundreds of giant stone statues.

Angels December 16, 2012

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Belief, Superstition.
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There are many things we still don’t understand about the Connecticut school shooting that left twenty small children dead; and some questions may go forever unanswered. Dealing with such a tragedy, and consoling those who lost loved ones, is one of the hardest things any of us could ever have to do. But one thing we should not do is pretend to know things we do not know.

Olivia Engel had a part in a nativity play at St. Rose of Lima Catholic Church. “She was supposed to be an angel in the play. Now she’s an angel up in heaven,” Monsignor Robert Weiss told a standing-room-only crowd at the church before the play on Saturday.

I’m sure some grieving people are comforted by that idea (without thinking through its implications) — but there is absolutely no reason to think it’s actually true. Tempting as it may be, false consolation is the easy way out: instead of dealing with reality and teaching our children (and ourselves) how to grieve, we imply that it’s OK to deny the facts and believe whatever makes you feel better. This is not a harmless “white” lie: disconnecting from reality has a price. Specifically, believing that people go to a better place when they die cheapens our lives here on Earth. Beliefs have consequences, and beliefs that take the “sting” out of death are especially dangerous. In fact, such beliefs do a lot of work for those who wish to rationalize killing children.

The weak link March 5, 2012

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Belief, Superstition.

Dear friend,

Let me begin by assuring you that this letter is COMPLETELY LEGITIMATE, and everything in it is 100% TRUE. I can wholeheartedly vouch for this based on my PERSONAL EXPERIENCE. I implore you to read this letter carefully in its entirety, and follow its instructions exactly.

This letter will change your life! But whether your life changes for the better or for the worse depends on how you proceed. One man from New York ignored this letter, and six weeks later he got CANCER. A woman from Chicago couldn’t be bothered to follow all of the letter’s instructions, and subsequently lost all her life’s savings. I’m sorry to report that my very own cousin decided she “didn’t believe” this letter, and sadly she has been DIVORCED three times.

Don’t let this unique opportunity pass you by: all you have to do is follow the simple instructions in this letter, and you are GUARANTEED to receive UNLIMITED GOOD LUCK! One woman from Texas won a $50,000 lottery. A man from Los Angeles saw his tumor — declared INCURABLE by doctors — disappear. I myself found the love of my life shortly after committing to the system detailed below, and we are now happily married.

So what do you need to do? It’s easy. First and foremost: You must BELIEVE it will work. Push all negative, skeptical thoughts out of your mind. The system only works if you BELIEVE — this is the power of POSITIVE THINKING.

Second: Make a note of today’s date, and mark it prominently on all your calendars. It’s the date on which your new life began! Every year, on the anniversary of today’s date (starting today), make ten copies of this letter and send them to ten new people. This shows your commitment to spreading love and joy in the world. (Sending the letter to children is allowed and encouraged.)

Third: You must pledge to live your life from today onward as a GOOD PERSON. Do not steal, cheat, rape, etc. — doing so may disqualify you from receiving the UNLIMITED GOOD LUCK mentioned above.

Fourth: You must shun people who do not believe in the system. Their negativity could jeopardize your success! Recognize that those who oppose the system are arrogant, egotistical troublemakers. Make it clear that their offensive “opinions” are not welcome.

Fifth and finally: You must immediately send $10 (ten US dollars) to the address printed on the reverse side of this letter. This modest gesture is a symbol of your personal commitment to the system, and honors those who came before you. In most cases, no further payment will be required. Remember: any investment you make in the system will be repaid beyond your wildest dreams!

Above all, remember to always have faith in the system. If you do not immediately see all the personal benefits you had hoped for, be patient: the effects take a varying amount of time to manifest. Also, bear in mind that things which seem bad in the short run often turn out to be good in the long run. And of course, if the system is not working for you, it’s quite probable that your BELIEF is simply not strong enough — try to improve your POSITIVE THINKING.

No matter what, do not quit the system! You are an essential link in an unbroken chain, and many, many people are depending on you (as you depend on them). Together, there is nothing we cannot do. But one weak link is enough to break even the strongest chain. Don’t be the weak link!

The choice is yours, dear friend. Your future is in your hands. I hope that you will have the wisdom to recognize the amazing opportunity that has come your way, and that you will keep the chain strong. After all, what have you got to lose?

Paying the piper November 19, 2011

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Superstition.
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For generations, the town of Hamelin had been divided unto itself: two rival clans were locked in perpetual conflict over power and honor and land. The Lion clan were farmers and herders, while the Eagle clan were hunters and fishermen — and each detested the other. When the town was struck by disease, the Eagles told their children it was the fault of the evil Lions; and when there was a drought, the Lions told their children it was caused by the wicked Eagles. Both clans spoke wistfully of a long-foretold Day of Reckoning, when the great lions/eagles of old would return, and all wrongs would be righted.

After many years of tense stalemate between the two clans, a time came when the Lions grew more numerous and more powerful, and seemed on the verge of controlling the entire town. In their desperation, the Eagles sent word far and wide promising a handsome reward to anyone who could drive the Lion vermin out of Hamelin. Months went by and the Eagle leaders had nearly lost all hope, when one day they were called upon by a tall, funny-looking stranger, with a pied cloak and a flute around his neck. The stranger offered to solve their Lion problem that very night — if only all the Eagles would stay inside their homes and shut their doors and windows. The Eagle leaders were doubtful, but they had nothing to lose; so they agreed.

As the Lion children were playing in the streets of Hamelin that evening, they were startled by a strange melody the likes of which they had never heard before. Looking up, they saw a tall man with a flute — dressed in lion skin from head to toe. The man in the lion skin beckoned for the children to come closer, and they did; whereupon he put down his flute and spoke loudly:

“Children of the Lion, listen to me! Your town and your people are in grave danger, and only you can save them. Surely your parents have told you about the great and terrible Day of Reckoning, when the wicked Eagles will be destroyed and the noble Lions will be rewarded. Well, the Day of Reckoning is upon us! An army of great lions is just outside town, but they are in need of riders — and only a child can ride a lion. The army of eagles approaches as we speak, and if we do not hurry, I fear they will prevail. So if you are true Lions, and if you love your clan and your town, follow me!

The man’s words resonated deeply in the children’s minds: it seemed that the venerable stories of old were finally coming true. When the man in the lion skin roared and turned toward the town gates, the children followed.

The next morning, none of the Lion children could be found. Their parents searched every inch of the town, including the Eagle houses, but to no avail. Finally, frantic with worry, all the Lion men and women set out in search of their lost children. Days turned into weeks, and yet they did not return. The Eagles rejoiced, and took over the Lion lands and property.

By and by, the tall stranger in the pied cloak returned to Hamelin. He presented himself to the Eagle leaders, and demanded his reward. The leaders exchanged glances, then said to the stranger:

“You claim that you are responsible for driving out the Lion vermin, but can you prove it? After all, none of us saw you do anything at all. Perhaps the Lion children vanished for reasons that had nothing to do with you.”

The stranger stood there for a moment, his fingers dancing silently over the grooves of his flute; then he turned around and left without a word. The Eagle leaders laughed.

The next morning, none of the Eagle children could be found. Their parents searched every inch of the town, but to no avail: apart from some eagle feathers lining the streets, there was not a clue as to what had happened. The Eagle leaders sent out frantic messages far and wide calling for the stranger in the pied cloak to return to Hamelin, and promising him a vast reward.

Days turned into weeks and months into years, but the stranger did not come back. As the forlorn Eagle men and women grew old in their dying town, they comforted themselves with thoughts of the long-foretold Day of Reckoning, when the great eagles of old would return, and all wrongs would be righted.

The sanctuary of ignorance March 25, 2011

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Philosophy, Religion, Superstition.
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In his Ethics (1677), Baruch Spinoza criticizes the common misconceptions people hold regarding the nature of God and of the universe:

All such opinions spring from the notion commonly entertained, that all things in nature act as men themselves act, namely, with an end in view. It is accepted as certain, that God himself directs all things to a definite goal (for it is said that God made all things for man, and man that he might worship him)… Hence also it follows, that everyone thought out for himself, according to his abilities, a different way of worshipping God, so that God might love him more than his fellows, and direct the whole course of nature for the satisfaction of his blind cupidity and insatiable avarice. Thus the prejudice developed into superstition, and took deep root in the human mind… but in their endeavor to show that nature does nothing in vain, i.e. nothing which is useless to man, they only seem to have demonstrated that nature, the gods, and men are all mad together. Consider, I pray you, the result: among the many helps of nature they were bound to find some hindrances, such as storms, earthquakes, diseases, &c.: so they declared that such things happen, because the gods are angry at some wrong done to them by men, or at some fault committed in their worship. Experience day by day protested and showed by infinite examples, that good and evil fortunes fall to the lot of pious and impious alike; still they would not abandon their inveterate prejudice, for it was more easy for them to class such contradictions among other unknown things of whose use they were ignorant, and thus to retain their actual and innate condition of ignorance, than to destroy the whole fabric of their reasoning and start afresh. They therefore laid down as an axiom, that God’s judgments far transcend human understanding. Such a doctrine might well have sufficed to conceal the truth from the human race for all eternity…

We must not omit to notice that the followers of this doctrine, anxious to display their talent in assigning final causes, have imported a new method of argument in proof of their theory—namely, a reduction, not to the impossible, but to ignorance… For example, if a stone falls from a roof on to someone’s head, and kills him, they will demonstrate by their new method, that the stone fell in order to kill the man; for, if it had not by God’s will fallen with that object, how could so many circumstances (and there are often many concurrent circumstances) have all happened together by chance? Perhaps you will answer that the event is due to the facts that the wind was blowing, and the man was walking that way. “But why,” they will insist, “was the wind blowing, and why was the man at that very time walking that way?” If you again answer, that the wind had then sprung up because the sea had begun to be agitated the day before, the weather being previously calm, and that the man had been invited by a friend, they will again insist: “But why was the sea agitated, and why was the man invited at that time?” So they will pursue their questions from cause to cause, till at last you take refuge in the will of God—in other words, the sanctuary of ignorance…

Hence anyone who seeks for the true causes of miracles, and strives to understand natural phenomena as an intelligent being, and not to gaze at them like a fool, is set down and denounced as an impious heretic by those, whom the masses adore as the interpreters of nature and the gods. Such persons know that, with the removal of ignorance, the wonder which forms their only available means for proving and preserving their authority would vanish also.

I would just stick with ignorance as the only available means for religious authorities to preserve their authority: no honest wonder would have been satisfied by the non-explanations and non-sequiturs of religion in the first place. The only kind of wonder that vanishes with the removal of ignorance is the lazy kind — that willful bewilderment that hopes for mysteries never to be solved so as to endlessly revel in their mysteriousness, without needing to confront any inconvenient realities. Real wonder, on the other hand, is amplified by increased knowledge and understanding — as we discover again and again that the universe is far more surprising and awe-inspiring than those petty, self-centered religious authorities could ever have imagined.