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Australian philosopher, literary critic, and professional writer. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE.

Thursday, May 31, 2007

Why science has to fight an uphill battle

This important article by Paul Bloom and Deena Skolnick Weisberg (the full version of which has recently been published in Science, 18 May 2007) examines the psychological wellsprings of resistance to scientific explanations of the world's phenomena. More particularly, it discusses the circumstances in which developing children fail to internalise information that comes from science.

Bloom and Weisberg conclude that resistance to scientific thinking will continue beyond childhood into adulthood if the scientific claims are contested within the individual's society. The resistance will be epecially strong if a non-scientific alternative (1) has currency in the society, (2) is rooted in intuitive understandings, or common sense, and (3) is championed by people who appear to be reliable and trustworthy. Bloom and Weisberg observe that this is the current situation in the United States with regard to the main ideas of evolutionary biology (the diversification of life by natural selection and associated mechanisms over the span of geological time) and neuroscience (the dependence of mind on the functioning of the brain). Such scientific beliefs clash with ideas that human beings find more intuitively plausible: the purposeful design of human and other animals; and the immaterial nature of the mind or soul. Furthermore, they are contested by trusted religious and political authorities, who endorse the more intuitive non-scientific alternatives.

As Bloom and Weisberg explain, we do not start as psychological "blank slates", but come with a rich naive physics and naive psychology from a very young age. For example, babies understand that objects are solid and persist over time, even when out of sight ... and so on. They also understand something of how people respond autonomously to social and physical events, motivated by their goals and stirred to have appropriate emotions. All this intuitive understanding of the social and physical worlds can help kids learn and survive, but the intuitions often clash with what science has discovered about how nature actually works. For example, childrens' understanding of how objects fall downwards makes it difficult for them to grasp how the Earth can be spherical, and they are not able to establish a coherent understanding of this until the age of eight or nine.

In a similar way, children's psychological intuitions about agency and design impede their ability to understand and accept the paradigm of biological evolution and the standard picture of the brain/mind relationship in modern neuroscience. Research on young children finds that they intuitively separate the mind and the brain, though they are prepared to accept that the brain is responsible for some aspects of mental life. E.g., when asked to imagine a brain transplant from a boy to a pig, young children are likely to conclude that you get a very smart pig, but still with a pig's psychological structure of beliefs and desires.

Available research suggests that some information is picked up by children as uncontroversial background knowledge in the culture around them. They will accept the existence even of unseen entities, such as germs and electricity, if it is assumed in the day-to-day conversations that they hear around them. However, the same applies if they hear supernatural beings and forces (such as deities or karma) being discussed in the same way. In those circumstances, children will pick up beliefs in such things unquestioningly. However, the information that children are exposed to may be confined to certain sources (such as a science teacher), or it may be marked as only tentative (such as if certain locutions are used, as when people say they "believe in evolution").

According to Bloom and Weisberg, the data suggests that resistance to science will arise in children when scientific claims clash with emerging, intuitive expectations of the world. It will persist through adulthood if the scientific claims are contested within a society, and will be especially strong if there is an intuitive, non-scientific alternative that is championed by people who appear to be reliable and trustworthy. In that respect, the key claims of evolutionary biology and neuroscience are liable to be rejected because they clash with intuitive beliefs (about the purposeful design of humans and other animals, and about the immaterial nature of the mind or soul), and these intuitive beliefs are likely to be endorsed and transmitted by trusted religious and political authorities.

It is almost as if we have been programmed to pick up scientifically wrong ideas, and there are certainly some powerful social interests encouraging us to stay with the program, despite the immense body of converging empirical evidence from many sources that supports the worldview of science.

Scientists are not always right, of course, as Bloom and Weisberg stress, and they may have their own biases, yet the procedures of science are more likely than any others to discover truths about the world.

Though Bloom and Weisberg do not offer an evolutionary account of the phenomena they describe, it is natural to speculate that human beings, as a species, evolved in circumstances where our naive physics and psychology were good enough for survival and reproduction, despite their shortcomings and their lamentable tendency, in current circumstances, to create a resistance to the findings of science and the scientific worldview. Back in the environment of evolutionary adaptedness, there was presumably no reproductive benefit in understanding that the Earth is not actually flat, that mental experience emerges from the functioning of the brain, that objects at sub-atomic level behave in bizarre ways, that objects travelling at relativistic velocity have certain odd (as we see them) properties such as increased mass ... and so on. Evolution had no stake in giving us the truth about all this, but only in giving us such behavioural dispositions as would get us by, and get us to pass on our genes.

Alas, much of the modern scientific world picture is massively counterintuitive for most people. It had to be worked out slowly and painstakingly, against the grain of what we are naturally inclined to think, and it is all-too-easily resisted by developing children if they encounter it is as socially contested, or as marked with indications of being tentative. Thus, it is rationally explicable why so many people don't "get" the scientific worldview, and why intellectually unsupported belief systems persist despite the lack of real evidence or even in the face of the evidence. Unfortunate though it is, it is not really that surprising when science faces an uphill battle against the forces of unreason.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Richard Dawkins broaches Second Life

I went along to another event in Second Life - this time the in-world presentation of a short movie made by Richard Dawkins, in which he briefly defends his criticisms of religious belief, answers some of his critics, and speculates about the future of Second Life and virtual reality worlds. He said that he finds Second Life, and such, too clunky for now, but can imagine the experience becoming far more realistic as technology improves, which is likely to be achievable with the continuing exponential increase in computer power.

This movie is being screened several times each day on Elysian Island, so check it out if you have time.

Of course, we had a boorish protestor running around annoying people, but that's Second Life for you.

Monday, May 28, 2007

I just met Michel Onfray

Onfray had a small signing at a local bookshop here in Melbourne - small enough to talk to him, though it was all a bit awkward. He seemed a bit bemused by his surroundings, I am notoriously shy with strangers ... and in the upshot, I think we exchanged a total of four words, in French. He did, however, seem delighted to sign books for his admirers. The demeanour he projected was not at all that of some stereotypical arrogant French intellectual, but almost that of someone who felt humbled by the attention.

So I've come away with a signed copy of The Atheist Manifesto, with a dedication that I'm trying to decipher, and with the impression that Michel Onfray seems like a nice guy.

(Such impressions don't prove a lot, of course, but still ...)

I'd like to get to his larger-scale public performance tomorrow night, but it's just not going to happen, the way my week is looking.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Convergence approaching

The 2007 national SF convention, Convergence, is approaching. Jenny seems to be on a few panels, but I've been a bit slack about it, mainly because I'm feeling just a bit sorta snowed under. At this stage, I'm only on a panel about Second Life, called A Second life, why would I want one?

Hmmm, maybe because you, too, can look better in Second Life than in real life, even when you have a brilliant photographer visiting the household?

EDIT: And since I wrote this, I now find myself doing a couple of other things at the con, including appearance on a panel about whether there is a distinctive Australian SF voice or whether we are a 51st US state. Neither, I suspect, but that can await another day.

(Real-life photo courtesy of the brilliant Amanda Pitcairn; Second-Life avatar design and photo courtesy of not-so-brilliant me.)

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Madly unwriting

My work over the past couple of weeks has largely been unwriting. This isn't very exciting to blog about, alas. However, it means that Wrestling with Proteus (that name is sticking, so far) is getting down to a more acceptable size. It dropped below 96,000 words today, which is great progress, if not exactly my way of setting the world on fire with ideas.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Conspiracy theories

I came across this cartoon over on Richard Dawkins' website, where someone (a regular there known as "Luthien") had posted a link to it. Click and enjoy!

Thanks, Luthien.

And EVEN more party pics

This is a selection from the photos that Filomena sent us. Thank you, Fil. (Btw, I look a bit evil in the one where I'm standing behind Jenny as she cuts the cake. Eek!)

Friday, May 18, 2007

Some more pics from last week's party

These shots are courtesy of Amanda (but I'm trying to remember who borrowed her camera to take a photo of her and me in the back yard; EDIT: after I made inquiries, Amanda thinks it was Corinne, but Corinne can't really recall any better than I can).

There are lots more great shots where these came from, for those who were there. Sorry, in a way, not to put them all up!

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Death of a monster

I've been thinking about the question of what should be said when a truly evil person dies. I'm referring, of course, to the sudden death of Jerry Falwell, who was found slumped in his office a couple of days ago and could not be revived in hospital.

It's unseemly and futile to be dancing on Falwell's grave. Despite his serious failings, he has left behind people who loved him and must now be distraught. In that respect, it's tragic - I don't wish such pain on anybody. Besides, death is itself is a terrible event that I don't wish on anyone except in the most extreme circumstances, i.e. where somebody's continuing life would be imminently dangerous to others. In this case, the death of one man really advances nothing. Falwell's ideas, such as they are, will continue to have an influence totally at odds with their entire lack of merit.

So, no gloating or dancing on graves here. He's dead, but life goes on and there are plenty of other irrational bigots to step into the breach. On the other hand, there's no use in mincing words: Falwell was a major enemy of freedom, reason, science, and moral progress, a man whose poisonous views did immense damage to the social fabric of his own country, hurt untold numbers of his fellow citizens, and had deleterious effects far beyond. His death is not a cause for some kind of celebration, more for reflection on why irrationalism and hatred such his persists and on what can be done to combat it. But excuse me for my cynicism when I read the eulogies. He will not be missed by me or by anyone whose values I have any respect for. He did not make any positive contribution.

Falwell was a monster, and his death doesn't change that one iota.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

They are still fish - Clarke's transhumanist comment on space colonisation

I've used this Arthur C. Clarke quote before, but I came across it again while working on an article for Cosmos, and it's worth another look. The elements of technological meliorism and posthuman vision in Clarke's work are nicely blended here, in a passage from Profiles of the Future .

Writing, though he was, decades before "transhumanism" was more than a stray word coined by Julian Huxley, Clarke draws a clear transhumanist implication, one that needs no glossing from me. He acknowledges a criticism by Lewis Mumford of the prospect of space colonisation, then responds with a memorable image of his own:

But when [Mumford] wrote: "No one can pretend ... that existence on a space satellite or on the barren face of the Moon would bear any resemblance to human life", he may well be expressing a truth he had not intended. "Existence on dry land", the more conservative fish may have said to their amphibious relatives, a billion years ago, "will bear no resemblance to piscatorial life. We will stay where we are."

They did. They are still fish.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Victoria makes progress, but idiocy persists

The Victorian Upper House has passed an amendment to the Infertility Treatment Act, bringing it into line with federal law, and permitting "therapeutic cloning" (under an overly strict regulatory code, but them's the breaks where political compromise is involved).

Victoria is the first Australian state to update its laws in line with the legislation enacted by the federal parliament last December, making this an important event for medical research in Australia. There is a prospect of Australian researchers getting access to the significant funding available from the Californian program, and all in all this is an event to celebrate.

However, you can always trust those fine folks from the Right to Life to complain. Predictably, Margaret Tighe, President of the Right to Life organisation, was reported as saying that this will create "a class of human beings to be used for the benefit of others - the slaves of science". Yeah, right, we're talking about so-called "human beings" with no capacity for suffering or for any hopes being frustrated or fears coming to fruition. In short, we are talking about experimenting with tiny blobs of cells with no nervous systems, and with no intrinsic properties or relationships with others that could possibly provide a rational basis for us to give them any moral consideration. Tighe and the rest of these irrationalists are making a fetish of mere nucleotide sequences - there is no other sense in which the entities on which the experiments are to be conducted are "human". Yes, they have the DNA code for Homo sapiens, and not that of some other species. Big deal. The fact remains that they are totally unsuitable contenders for any rights, or for our sympathies.

Idiocy persists. Give it no respect whatsoever.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

More pics

Some more: our nephew, James, and his girlfriend, Megan; a very thoughtful Amanda, with whom I was playing dueling cameras; and then there's the one with Trish Smyth (not sure about that expression, Trish), me with Yvonne Rousseau (who knows what was going on here?), and Jan Yee looking more a lot sensible than me.

A few snaps from Sunday's party

Jenny Blackford exchanges kissies with Amanda Pitcairn (while Tony Kuhn and Chris Worth look very serious in the background), then makes a compelling point to Yvonne Rousseau. Elsewhere, lots of bottles dominate the living room, as Yvonne, Clare, Russ, Corinne, Trish, Paul, Filomena, and David all enjoy themselves. More pics to come!

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

She's ... um, 29? ... hmmm, or something

Happy Birthday to Jenny, today! I'll be posting some pics from the great party that we had on Sunday. Jenny has just been opening some of her presents, and right now, we're running around getting ready to take Amanda back to the airport as her visit draws to a close.

Thanks to everyone who made it to the party, or tried (a couple of people were sick and it didn't work out for some folks from interstate), or just wished they could be here. It was great having visitors from Sydney and Newcastle and Adelaide, so a special thanks to them. And also, a special blogosphere thank you to all who left messages here at Metamagician and the Hellfire Club.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Happy birthday, dear Jenny ... coming up

A big birthday coming up for Jenny on Tuesday - she has the same birthday as Thomas Pynchon, and it's also VE Day, for what that's worth.So we'll be having a suitably big party, to celebrate it, on Sunday afternoon. To celebrate even earlier, here's some photos, from over the years, that happen to be sitting on my computer, including the recent one with me and Rjurik.