Mental Indigestion

by Jim Caryl

Month: August, 2008

Intellectual vandalism….

There is a new fictional film, masquerading as a documentary, currently being aired in the US.  Several of my US friends went to see it (admittedly mourning their monetary contribution to the creationist cause) and have let me know not to waste my life, or money, going to see it. In turn, I encourage similar of anyone reading this. The fiction-doc is called “Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed” and it is yet more anti-science propaganda in favour of Intelligent Design, spewing outlandish, intellectually dishonest rhetoric. In their polemic pursuit of self-righteousness they also managed to demean a host very respected scientists, including Richard Dawkins and PZ Myers.

I’m not fond of commenting on things I haven’t actually seen, but I am of like-mind with my friends, and to be honest, I’m painfully well aware of the nature of such attacks on science; the very discipline that has permitted them the technology of producing a film in the first place. The National Centre for Science Education has produced a website to address the intellectual vandalism the film may do to those lay audience members who may inadvertently take the producer at his word.

The producer, amongst other things, contends that the theory of evolution contributed to the holocaust committed by the Nazis, communism and the rise of atheism. This is of course nothing new, creationists have been peddling this tripe for a long time; it is all part of their belief that atheists are inherently immoral, as if atheism is itself a religion that preaches immorality. Alas, like little children, they cannot believe that anyone can know something that they don’t.

To address one point however, one might suspect that such an arrogant and self-righteous man as Hitler would happily go into depth about how he employed evolutionary theory in his final solution, yet never once does mention evolutionary theory in the whole sorry tirade of Mein Kampf, I know, I’ve read it. Furthermore, he was on a crusade to create an Aryan race, whom he believed to be the created in the highest image of the lord; hardly the comment of a proud atheist or evolutionist.

Religions deal in the manner in which they believe people should live their lives, unfortunately, to those arguing from a platform of ignorance about science, there is a general misunderstanding that science similarly prescribes a way of living. This is not correct. Even if Hitler had been employing the theory of evolution in his reasoning, this does not mean that the theory is any way morally awry. Evolution is a scientific theory, it is neither good, nor evil; science makes no prescriptions on how to live your life. It is not to be confused with Social Darwinism, which is a philosophical construct based upon “survival of the fittest”.

Richard Dawkin’s premise is that by understanding natural selection we can selectively abrogate the rather emotionless and indifferent edge of this process, not become slaves to it.

Rocket leaves prevent alien abduction!

Wouldn’t it be great if we could just make stuff up and have it be true?

All those years spent in diligent study, working hard to understand difficult concepts, essay after essay, exam after exam for year after year. You might then decide that you’ve done enough and leave it there, commit to yet more study and yet more work. All that time, we fools, we could have just invented a subject, a discipline, a theory, a fact and use the following reasoning to support it:

1. If you disagree with it, then it is doubly true (and if you tell me that I can’t say that, then it’s triply true! Nah, nah, na, nah, nah).

2. I believe in it, I have faith in it, and if you say anything against it then that’s intolerance.

3. Give me 32% of your salary and I’ll give you all the secrets.

It’d be great! You see, I’ve found this weed that grows between the paving slabs next to the road of my house. People call it Rocket (other people call it Arugela), and it’s become very fashionable in cook books recently. Now, if you eat a single one of these leaves, every day, for the rest of your life, you will never be abducted by aliens.

It’s true, I shit you not! It just came to me, I’ve been reading all around these hollistic food websites, and I realised they were all talking crazyspeak; obviously it’s called Rocket for a reason, noone seems to know why, but I knew that I had the answer, call it a revelation. It seems so clear to me that it was seeded on the Earth by a benevolant alien race to prevent others in their government being able to take us!

So go forth and eat Rocket, and just watch how you’re not abducted by aliens!

Stage right…

This is the rear entrance (or exit) to the Centre for Disability Studies. “So what?” I hear you ask?

Well, the thing of it is, this is an automatic door. It is an extra wide door at that, to permit access to wheelchair users, but what I really want to draw your attention to is where the door leads to. It leads to tiny landing at the bottom of a flight of stairs, a very steep flight of stairs, with no chair lift or any disability aids what so ever.

So it is an entrance for someone too weak or inconvenienced to open the door, too wide to fit through a narrow door, yet someone strong enough to make it to the top of a steep flight of stairs unaided?

Perhaps it is an exercise on how things shouldn’t be done in a public building? The mind boggles.

Violence

[ratings]

SO, in a complete parody of the light-heartedness of yesterday’s musings, today I have also been coming to grips with Slavoj Žižek’s “Violence“, which I finally finished reading (I have six books on the go, it’s a work in progress). I spend a lot of time reading academic literature, mainly in the sciences, thus pure philosophy is always a little antagonising.

Having practise at academic reading is useful, and the usual formula applies: skim read the whole thing first, get an idea of what the premise is and basic structure, so you know what to look for on your next scan. Read the introduction and conclusion too, this will help you identify the lines of evidence/reasoning you require to agree/disagree with the premise. Then you have to read it in some detail, if you’ve not already disregarded it, all the while juggling the lines of reasoning, often over several pages, until they drop into place. So it’s never really bed-time reading, and some writers are better than others.

The main subject of the book can be paraphrased reasonably well from the author’s own introduction, and the blurb on the dust-jacket:

The premise of Žižek’s theory is that the subjective violence we see – violence with a clear identifiable agent – is only the tip of an iceberg made up of systemic violence, which is essentially the catastrophic consequence of the smooth functioning of our economic & political systems.

He uses some rather contentious rhetoric when describing the different forms of violence in society: “subjective”, “symbolic” and “systemic”, but this is largely a means to clear the way so that he can get to the guts of his argument, that of “systemic violence”.
Read the rest of this entry »

Overdrive

When I poured the boiling water from my kettle into my bowl of Weetabix, rather than my mug, I knew I wasn’t going to get much done today.

Every other Monday I have early-o’clock meetings with The Consortium, which means getting up at stupid-o’clock and generally dithering on otherwise straight-forward tasks for half an hour, until my higher brain functions kick-start. Today was no different, with the exception that my brain has been running on overdrive ever since.

In an attempt to assuage today’s thirst for knowledge, I’ve finished two non-fiction books (the subect of a later blog), skimmed two others and read copious wikis, blogs and usernets of various topics, from the Slavoj Žižek’s study on violence to the excellent and obsessive self-portraiture photo projects of Noah Kalina (Noah K) and Jonathan Keller (JK).

Noah K created the emotive video “Everyday“, set to the haunting music of Carly Commando, wherein we see the last six and a half years of his life quite literally flash before our eyes. The video is a time-lapse montage constructed from a picture he took of himself, every day, over this period.  Over the five minutes that the video runs, we stare into the eyes of a complete stranger as he ages, and somewhere around the 2nd or 3rd minute, you start to realise the immensely personal nature of this observation. Even though, at the end of it, we may not know anything specific about his life, you can’t help but feel that you somehow know him.

I’m not sure that our brains are really hard-wired to process such imagery, which is why it is so excellent; time is precious, and we hate to see it thrown away, yet this is partly what we are seeing, a gratuitous display of time-travel with a whole day reduced to a fraction of a second. We have no idea what he was doing just before, or after, these pictures were taken, what he was thinking or how his life was going; well enough to maintain his project it seems. Evidently Noah K.’s gained some notoriety, with the ultimate accolade of having been parodied in The Simpsons, along with a slew of other awards.

A related project, and one that has been running for somewhat longer, is that of Jonathan Keller (JK). I  encourage you to take a look at his video montage. He scrolls through 8 years at an even greater speed than Noah K., and whilst not set to quite as enjoyable a soundtrack, he has managed the greater precision in positioning of his face in each photo.

His website is more than a little chaotic, but if you can navigate your way through it, and I insist that you should, you will find his further links to other “obsessive” projects by himself, and others. All of these tug very strongly at my obsessive and collective tendencies; the repetitive nature of my job means that I have a huge array of possible time-lapse projects from which to choose, not least of which myself. Watch this space.

ON a completely separate note. I discovered the table that I want/need/desire; it’s called “MILK“, it’s Danish, the designer wants to sell them, and I want to buy one. Supply and demand, you can’t argue with it:

If someone out there is ready to buy it for me, then I’m very ready to receive it.

Thanks.

A room without a view

The view from my window at work is an uninspiring one. It is a view replete with the type of dreary, grey, office blocks that bruise the sky, so commonly left to us as a legacy of unthoughtful, low-cost, late 60’s commissioning of infrastructure. There are currently three new blocks rising steadily in my view, all of which are sterile, grey monoliths. In some parts of Leeds they have at least clad the new builds with variations of pastel colours, a necessary, if somewhat retarded, means of tidying up such Luddite architectural designs.

It’s not as if they were incapable of interesting “block” design in the 60’s, take for example Habitat ’67 in Montreal, built to house delegates of the 1967 Expo. It’s a chaotic mass of concrete, but is at least visually interesting.

I can only imagine that the architects responsible are either having their arms bent behind their backs by local government zoning laws, or are the pusillanimous retards of the profession, incapable of drawing anything other than straight lines, and covering up for their lack of design prowess by cladding their buildings in shaded glass or coloured panels.

Just once I would like to see a truly inspiring building go up, something along the lines of Hundertwasser or Goudi.

I live in hope, but at the very least, the lack of view keeps me looking inwards for inspiration, and not outwards.

Communal peeing

[ratings]

I happened upon a paper that made me smile this morning.

Apparently there are these Ants, Cataulacus muticus, which happen to be obligate bamboo-nesting Ants. They live inside giant bamboo, which as any survival expert knows is prone to a bit of flooding in the hollow internodes. This of course riles the Ants a little, so their response is apparently two-fold. During the heavy rains, the workers form a living umbrella over their nest entrance using their packed heads.

Of course, rainwater may still seep in. So not being ones to shirk responsibility, the Ants respond by drinking the water, exiting the nest and excreting the water droplets down the outer stem surface – basically, they hang their arses out of the window. This, in the wit of the authors, has been termed communal, or cooperative, “peeing”. Fantastic.

For those with access: Maschwitz & Moog (2000) Communal Peeing: a new mode of flood control in ants. Naturwissenschaften 87: 563-565.

.

Spirituality

AMAZEMENT still strikes at our primitive emotions. When we are left in bewildered awe at a spectacle or new insight, it tugs at us in a manner that a reasoned scientific account can do no justice. It is, in many respects, a “religious” experience, but the word “religious” is bandied around in place of a slew of terms that could be used.

Such experiences are spiritual, being of matter (the brain still being a material object), yet insubstantial and deeply emotive. Whether it is some perception of a deity, or a new dimension of worldly understanding provided by science, these experiences are linked in their spiritual nature. In fact, I am with Carl Sagan in my belief that science is a profound source of spirituality.

In talking about spirituality, there is no implication of talking about religion. Spirituality is a sense of meaning (or purpose) and unity, but it does not have to be divinely inspired; it should not be confused with mysticism, which is concerned with magic, the occult and supernatural. The scientific journal Nature defines spirituality it as “An inner sense of something greater than oneself. Recognition of a meaning to existence that transcends one’s immediate circumstances”. It’s a good word, and one that we ought to take back, releasing it from its pre-scientific context.

Nature and the universe certainly put us in our place with the realisation that the atoms that make up your body are billions of years old, they’ve made many other things in their existence, and will continue to do so long after we’re gone; we are simply borrowing them for a while. Scientists, and readers of science, have a lot to be spiritual about. We have a particular impulse to understand the world around us. It is a great injustice to ignore the natural world in favour of an inferior and artificial facsimile in the form of the supernatural. Why ignore what is in front of your eyes, from the sub-atomic to the cosmos, and instead make it up?

Science doesn’t have all the answers, but it has more than any faith can offer me. Science has so many more questions that it will answer, whereas most faiths have said everything they have to say. Fortunately, as a rational human being, and a scientist, I don’t need anyone to agree with me to be comfortable in my reasoning. If a million scientists decided to recant on DNA being the basis of genetic inheritance, unlikely as that is, it would mean nothing. DNA would still continue to be the basis of genetic inheritance unless they had hard evidence to the contrary. It is this facility than enables freethinking, rational people to be truly uninhibited and unprejudiced.

So why is spirituality important? Science can, in a practical sense, only really deal with the material; though this “material” may extend well below the size of an atom, or may be as intangible as love or trust. We still inhabit physiologically stone-age bodies with minds hard-wired for day-to-day problem-solving, strategic planning and interacting with the physical world that our ancestors could see, hear, touch, smell and taste. Yet we managed to arrive at this state in the absence of both writing and mathematics. Most of what we’ve achieved since then has been achieved by co-opting these more primitive thought processes (the original “transferable skill” set) and applying them in a new direction: complex reasoning and abstract theoretical modelling, applied to science and mathematics.

It is no surprise, therefore, that much of what we have learned in science is difficult to process, especially when they are beyond the resolutive power our innate senses; we need things to have defined boundaries and exist at the right scale. We know there is a sense of change; that processes are shaping life, the planet and the universe around us. We are part of something shared, much greater than ourselves, and every time science offers a new awesome insight into this, we find a connection with our spirituality.

Supernatural dilemma

[ratings]

SCIENCE is about falsifiability, an attempt to understand the world around us, and our place in it, to the point where the best sense prevails.

Usually, it is a case of the often-quoted Occam’s Razor, where, all things being equal, it is often the simplest explanation that is true. The point is to arrive at a reasoned explanation of the phenomenon, such as a ghost sighting, without resorting to fiction. It seems ludicrous to me that some people would rather accept an immeasurable “force” or “entity”, for which there is no shred of physical evidence, or requirement, when we are possessed of a human brain, the most sophisticated biochemical computer on the planet, which is more than capable of rendering highly vivid imagery, smells and sounds, none of which need actually exist in he external environment.

As much as possible, science aims to be rational, consistent, and predictive. The supernatural can be none of these things. Knowledge of them does not enable prediction of their occurrence, i.e. beyond coincidence; the observations are inconsistent, being highly biased upon the subjection of the observer; and they are by definition irrational. I also hasten to add that they are, by and large, immensely uninventive, almost uniquely anthropomorphic and require a degree of self-stupefaction that would never be entertained in other areas of people’s lives.

Believer’s belief supersedes any form of evidential support or logical rationalisation; such evidence is simply irrelevant. What I find objectionable is when believers hold they have rational grounds for their belief; the best thing we can do is to inform them that they are wrong in this. This does not mean to say that they are wrong, per se, faith is faith after all, but to attempt to legitimise their belief by logic and methodology is to pit their belief directly against rational and secular thinking, with which it cannot compete.
Read the rest of this entry »

Hogwash in science writing

I hate political correctness in scientific papers. It’s especially insulting given the readership of such articles. I especially hate the use of the term “sacrificed” or the one in the current paper I’m reading “euthanised” to describe the killing of test animals as part of an experiment. In the latter it was the killing of test chickens to look at the results of antibiotic trials on their gut flora. However, perhaps “killing” has it’s own connotations, but it’s semantically different from “murdered”. Perhaps “rendered dead” is the way to go?

I’m reminded of an excellent, if wax-lyrical, 1955 Nature article by John Baker entitled English Style in Scientific Papers. It was popularly received as it was one of those moments where someone sticks their head up and pull no punches when telling everyone that they’re behaving doltishly. His subject was the grandiloquence and foibles that “are the enemies of good English” and hinder the effective communication of science. [Those with subscriptions can see an online copy via an Editorial and recent reprint in the Journal of Biological Chemistry Classics series:l article via link].
Read the rest of this entry »