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There’s no Santa Claus, There’s no Easter Bunny and There’s No Queen of England!

December 19, 2013 6 comments
English: at the University of North Carolina in .

English: at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Recently I went to a planetarium show with my kids. The show was an interesting blend of digital animation and puppet theatre, staged by a local puppet theatre company and animators from Morehead Planetarium and the University of North Carolina. There’s a girl who gets lost in the woods, meets a magical old lady, and she returns the sacred fire to a dragon who brings Spring back. Basically it’s the story of the Winter solstice and the changing of the seasons. I and my kids really enjoyed it. The production was high quality and the storytelling was fun and I think the kids learned something from it.

A Cute Little Bunny With Some Eggs

A Cute Little Bunny With Some Eggs (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Then after the show and the credits a planetarium staff member addressed the audience and said she was going to show us some basic astronomy, a few constellations and the path of the sun at the solstices and equinoxes. Then she said “Of course, it’s not dragons that change the seasons, it’s the tilt of the earth. Sorry to disappoint you.” What she said was perfectly reasonable, but I would like to question the motives of saying that to a room full of five-year-old kids. A colleague of mine, who is also a father of a five-year-old boy said “Yeah, and there’s no Easter Bunny either!” I don’t think the planetarium staff member was mean-spirited about what she said, but I have some ideas about where she’s coming from making such a remark, and I think it raises some questions about the intellectual climate of science at this time. Incidentally, just guessing by her age, I think this person knew a lot more about astronomy than she knew about kids, so again, this isn’t personally about her, but about the intellectual environment that we create when we insist on militant scientific positivism in all areas of life.

The question I raise is whether everything needs to be science. Are there kinds of knowing, learning and being in the world that are served better by other enterprises? Does science really have to dominate everything we do? Science is great. It’s not just my job; I really love it, and yes I’d probably be a lot worse off without vaccines and blah blah blah. None of that is at issue. The question is whether that disqualifies the rest of human endeavors. Are other kinds of thinking allowed? Without someone sneaking up behind you and saying “Well, actually the temperature differential between points A and B leads to variation in pressure that…”

Cover of "A Child's Introduction to the N...

Cover via Amazon

Here’s another illustration of the problem. I have read, a few times with my kids, the book A Child’s Introduction to the Night Sky by Michael Driscoll. This is an excellent book about astronomy and I recomend it whether you have kids or not. Children’s books are really great to read: they are packed with information, presented in easy-to-remember ways, and they have all the basic background. I always feel like I’m missing something when I read age-appropriate (I won’t say “adult”) books on technical topics. I especially like this book because in addition to telling kids the typical stuff about the solar system, it tells kids what they can see with a telescope or their own eyes. In other words, it teaches kids how to collect their own data. That’s how I aim to teach science, so I really love seeing it in a children’s book. This book might even be where I got the idea.

The topic comes up late in the book about the history of astronomy, the zodiac and astrology. The author makes the claim that priests and fortune tellers were just as interested in the stars as “early astronomers.” He fails to mention that these were the same people. The occupation “scientist” is a fairly recent invention, and so is the distinction between astrologers and astronomers. Even a paragon of empiricism such as Isaac Newton was a far out mystic by today’s standards (and Wikipedia says he’d be considered a heretic by the standards of his day). The author seems to go to a lot of trouble to make sure kids know that there are scientists and non-scientists. In his defense, he tells the Greek myths the constellations are based on, and explains where the zodiac signs come from and how they are associated with astrology without judging astrology harshly. I believe the author’s motives are totally beneficent. But again I ask why do we tell this sort of thing to kids? What goal does it serve? Who does it serve?

Perhaps we can re-examine those motives and see if they really check out. I’ll use myself as an example. What motivated me to tell The Truth to people for a long time, was that I thougth people would be happier if they knew The Truth (i.e. my version of it). I thought that if people could accept science then they would see the wonder of the natural world, have an idea of where they came from, and all the things I was excited about. This sounds weird, but I really wanted to help people. I thought “this is my way of helping people,” this is my role, this is my purpose. Unfortunately the way it came out was cussing out a room full of Christians and telling them that the speaker was lying to the audience (he was, by the way). So, as much as I wanted to help people, it came out simply as rude and inconsiderate. When people wouldn’t listen, I would just shrug and say “Well, if they want to live their lives as morons, I guess I can’t stop them.” Looking back, I see now that this isn’t that different from saying “Well, you’re the one who’s going to Hell.”

So what message do we send when we say things like “Well, actually it’s not dragons.” My concern is that we are telling kids that it’s not okay to have an imagination. Now put yourself in my shoes, trying to teach science to people with no imagination. What I’m thinking is that insistence on science as the One True Way can dull people’s imaginations just as much as a fundamentalist religion. When we fail to see the value of other ways of thinking, we could be tying kids down to only one set of mental habits, limiting their flexibility. I think the scariest thing about hearing people say stuff like this is that reminds me of myself in middle school and high school, when I refused to see the value of anything other than science.

English: Santa Claus with a little girl Espera...

English: Santa Claus with a little girl (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My ninth-grade English teacher is going to love this: myths have their own value. What is the value of the Santa Claus myth? It teaches kids about giving, but not in a didactic “You better do this” kind of way. It also teaches them that it’s nice to receive gifts. There is someone who will just give you something because that’s his job. That’s just what he does. The Easter Bunny? That teaches kids about the changing seasons, about how life comes from somewhere, and that spring and changing seasons are something to celebrate. Telling these stories also teaches kids the value of story telling. As kids get older, big brothers tell these stories to little brothers (that’s how it works in my family, anyway) and the cycle starts all over again. Gee, maybe there’s a story about the world being full of cycles? Kids get the idea that you can learn from these stories, and that playing and pretending that they’re real is a great way to learn about the world. They’re also just fun, and there’s plenty of value in that. Not only does not everything have to be science, but not everything has to be about money, or values, or even learning. As long as you’re not hurting somebody, fun is a perfectly good reason to do something.

The biggest problem I see with thinking everything needs to be science is that we will fail to see the value of other modes of thinking. Jerry Coyne, Sam Harris and others seem to think that religions and mythology are “failed science.” This seems true as long as everything is trying to be science. Maybe not. Perhaps the goal of telling stories is not to get at what an empiricist thinks is The Truth. I ask if it’s at all conceivable to you, as a scientist reading this, that myths about natural phenomena are actually about the course of human lives, about how people change, and about valuable lessons in how to get along with people (like how if you keep transforming yourself into animals and raping virgins your wife might get a little peeved). Perhaps there’s value in learning how to live with people and there’s something called wisdom that it’s hard to get through studying science. Myths could serve this purpose, but not if we tell the story and then dismiss it by saying “Well, I’m glad we know better now, thanks to modern science! What a bunch of baloney!”

One final question (not bloody likely) is what are we left with if we don’t bother to think in terms of anything other than science? What do we have if we dismiss every story and myth as just plain wrong? Seems to me like we’re left with a bunch of seventh-grade boys. All we have left is “Well, technically…” and “I heard there’s this virus that can eat your brain” and “Nuh-uh” and “Yuh-huh” and…

Don’t we all remember how stupid that was?

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Metaphors, Assumptions and Dogma in Science (Response to The Science Delusion by Rupert Sheldrake)

March 29, 2013 11 comments

I’ve just finished reading portions of Rupert Sheldrake‘s The Science Delusion. The title is an obvious allusion to Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion so you can guess that Sheldrake’s thesis is that scientists have great faith in their craft, elevating it to the level of producing what I call Truth. The problem, Sheldrake points out, is that modern science is based on adhering to a dogmatic assumption that the universe is a machine. He points out that this is a fairly new idea, and worst of all for supposedly empirical science, there is absolutely no evidence for it. It’s a belief. It’s a myth. I’d like to leave aside the readability and scholarship for a proper review (perhaps elsewhere), but here I’ll deal with the real philosophical problem this presents.

Sheldrake points out that the mechanistic worldview, that is seeing the universe and everything in it as a machine, was a fairly radical idea in the sixteenth through eighteenth centuries when it was proposed by a minority of scientists and natural philosophers. David Hume dismissed it completely. The universe and its inhabitants were seen as something organic, i.e. something that grows, by most ordinary and learned people. However, the material success of Newton’s Laws and (Sheldrake doesn’t mention!) the Industrial Revolution, and continuing into the computer age, has helped convince most people that they are robots inhabiting a giant clock. This is bad for science, as dogmatism stifles creativity and ideas that could be either helpful for science (like Sheldrake’s own theories of morphic resonance) or helpful to the general population (like “alternative medicine”) are dismissed since they don’t fit in to the mechanistic, materialistic worldview of science.

Rupert Sheldrake is an English biochemist and ...

Rupert Sheldrake is an English biochemist and plant physiologist. He is known for his research into parapsychology. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As an example, many scientists dismiss acupuncture as incapable of anything but a placebo effect, since its “mechanism of action” is not known; therefore it’s a money-making tool for charlatans and shouldn’t be used to try to heal people. Sheldrake points out that’s not a valid criticism since the effect on the health of the patient is the same regardless of the mechanism of action, even if it’s just a placebo. Scientists and materialist physicians, on the other hand, will support many drugs whose mechanisms are poorly understood, simply because they are produced by chemistry. As someone who’s seen the inside of pharmaceutical research, Sheldrake is dead on: we don’t know much more about methylphenidate than we know about acupuncture. The mechanism of action of many psychiatric drugs is completely unknown and that doesn’t stop doctors and scientists from having total faith in them.

Although Sheldrake makes his point somewhat clearly, I’m not sure it’s the biggest problem with the mechanistic worldview and dogmatism in science. The problem I see is not within science, but in how the general public is persuaded to see science as Truth. Just witness how scientific graphics are used in TV commercials to sell running shoes: it’s very convincing even when there’s no actual science behind it. This means that scientists do a very good job of convincing people that science is the only route to Truth, or merely that science is the most pragmatic method of achieving their goals. People either see science as infallible, and they swallow the idea that the current mechanistic worldview of science is It. The big problem, as I see it, is that people are encouraged to deny their own experiences in favor of the findings of science, which are inextricably linked to the dogmatic assumptions of the mechanistic worldview.

I’ll give you an example. Let’s pretend, just for the sake of discussion, that I suffer from terrible migraines up to three times a month that keep me from going to work or enjoying and taking care of my family. Totally hypothetical (not). Let’s also pretend that I’ve been to lots of doctors, been prescribed all kinds of drugs, vitamins, diets and exercise based on “evidence.” I’m still getting headaches. None of this stuff has helped to my satisfaction. I’ve had improvements, and I’m slowly learning to live with it, but the best most doctors have to offer me is “try this, there was a study done…” Science is slow. It’s way too slow to help me with this problem. I’ve been having these headaches for thirteen years and the science has not improved much in that time. The best a headache specialist could offer me was to take large doses of vitamins that were identified to help people with mitochondrial disorders, in a study done over forty years ago. The mechanistic worldview, encouraging me to see my body as a set of pumps and electronic circuits mounted on an armature of primitive calcite crystals tells me to see more doctors until I find the one who’s read the right peer-reviewed study. Why should I deny my own experience in favor of peer-review? No thanks. You bet your ass I’m going to try Chinese medicine before I’m going to wait for science to catch up to what I need in my life. I do science, I know how slow it is, even for the fast people.

My biggest problem with the book is this: scientists play the game of “Who’s right?” I used to believe that being factually correct was the most important thing in life. Most of the scientists I know also believe this and they don’t just apply it to their work. They apply it in all realms of their being, particularly because our language and culture is set up for it. People like to be right. Many see life as a competition. Unfortunately, Sheldrake is also playing this game. He spends most of the book promoting his own scientific theories of morphic resonance and other ideas about psychic phenomena. I see this as more of the problem. We don’t need more science or better science. We need to see science for what it is: a way of learning. When we ask for more science, we are reinforcing the attitudes that lead to the problem in the first place. This is particularly evident in how we teach science.

When we teach science, we play the same game by teaching not methods, but findings. Most often those findings are actually models and metaphors, not experiences. For example, right now I’m helping to teach genetics and molecular biology. Most of the course material is not experimental procedures as it could be, but models of the function of biological molecules. The biggest one is the model of protein synthesis, where DNA is transcribed into RNA, which is translated into polypeptides. This is not anyone’s direct experience. This is a story (you could even call it a myth, due to the dogmatism it attracts) that is supported by clever experiments. Nicholas Maxwell points out that we could come up with a huge number of alternative myths that would also be supported by the same experiments, but that’s not how science works. Science seizes upon the first kinda-plausible idea and runs with it until it runs out of steam. The “findings” or “facts” that are found to support this story are wrapped up in it: we never would have done those experiments and found them to support the story if we didn’t have the story in the first place. When we teach science, we don’t teach method, we teach the mechanistic worldview, which is a myth. I often remind my colleagues that most of science is made up. Surprisingly a lot of them take no issue with that assertion, just as I don’t. The problem comes when we present it as something that’s Right, and don’t present people with the alternative of trusting their own experience. If we were honest about the nature of science, then people would see science as one fun way of learning, rather than The Way of Learning.

Unfortunately we encourage intellectual terrorism (“Who’s right?”) by refusing to be honest with people about the nature of our ideas. Sheldrake points this out, but quickly gets caught up in the same game by proposing alternatives. We don’t need more science, we just need to be honest about what science is. This is Sheldrake’s main point, but he primarily focuses on the danger of it to science, proving that he is, after all, a scientist. I am a lot less skeptical about my overall experience than I used to be. However, I’m still just as skeptical about scientific matters because science is a particular way of doing things and it’s intensely limited. I happen to think the prevailing theories of science are just fine. Swallowing them whole as the key to understanding your own direct experience is not just fine.

My overall point is that I don’t think the abuse of mechanistic metaphors is as big a problem for science as it is for regular people (scientists included). I’m surprised how often I see people who have a problem with science, e.g. adherents to “alternative” medicine, are doggedly scientific. In other words, I often encounter people raising gripes against “science,” and their first response is to propound an alternative scientific theory, i.e. to do more science. I’m also surprised how often I hear people explain their personal experiences (mostly bizarre, inexplicable ones) in terms of science: people usually invoke quantum mechanics because it’s the weirdest scientific thing they’ve heard of. It’s almost like they feel they need to defend their own experiences. That’s sad. Personal experience is not a competition, nor is it subject to peer-review. This just shows how deeply science-as-truth is ingrained in our culture. This probably has to do with the Puritan origins of our country; to understand that I’m reading Paul Feyerabend.

Do we know how to achieve mastery?

September 8, 2010 Leave a comment

This morning I heard “Unforgiven” by Metallica on the local modern rock station, and I was struck by how much Metallica were at their best at the time they recorded that song. We all had our feelings about “The Black Album” and how we yearned to be rid of Bob Rock at the time, but as a much better informed, more mature listener, I must say that the quality of the recording and the arrangement is superb. The thought occurred to me that there are different ways to be at your best, and that Metallica in 1991 was at their best because they knew they were good. Metallica in 1989 was at their best precisely because they did not realize how good they had gotten.

Metallica in 1989 had recovered from the loss of one of their original members in a tragic accident, had hired a new, really good bass player, and had finally made the leap into what might be called mainstream visibility. One of the nice things about Metallica pre-1989 (and yes, I remember but I was only 10) was that although everybody knew they were the biggest speed metal band in the world — and often credited with single-handedly inventing the style — they did not do interviews, they did not do videos and they did not pander to anyone. Remember that this was a day in which every show on MTV was required to have music videos in it. This was what was so ironic and obviously contrived about Metallica being named an “MTV Icon.” Yeah, right!

Out of the pressure of watching one of their friends (and a critical element of the band’s sound) die in front of their eyes, and struggling to keep going, Metallica produced what will always be my favorite album …And Justice for All . This album was a huge success, again on Metallica’s terms, and then on top of their normal success, they made a video, something people thought they would never do. It was, of course like everything else they did, a magnificent work of art over ten minutes long. “One” was the biggest song of the year, at least in my fifth-grade world, and notoriously passed over for a Grammy, which instead went to Jethro Tull: a great band, but nobody remembers that song, do they? The important thing is to listen to the whole album and hear how the mostly-genius material on the album is laid out: the title track is basically a jam, executed in characteristic tight Metallica fashion; something that Metallica excelled at were songs that sounded totally fluid and totally rigid at the same time. Above all the quality of the recording was impeccable, at a time when all of us were listening on cassettes: you could hear the beater on the bass drum head precisely when Lars wanted you to hear it. Absolute genius all around. Pressure produced a jewel.

“The Black Album” in contrast, was a shock to us Metallica fans since it contained mostly one riff per song. What the fuck? Where was the complexity that led us to believe Metallica were above every other band in popular music, and liken them more often to Wagner and Verdi? Where was their devotion to speed metal ideals? Nevertheless, something that we all agreed on was that the music was still good: really, really good.

Consider that both these albums are masterpieces but they mark a turning point in the careers of this group of artists. For …And Justice for All Metallica was mostly concerned with doing well in a situation that they would not have chosen and despite all that they produced a masterpiece. They knew what they were doing to some extent, no doubt; however I believe that they weren’t fully conscious of their capability to produce a masterpiece. It was intentional, but at the same time it just happened. It was a retroactive masterpiece. In contrast The Black Album was a fully consciously designed, well-done piece.

If you think about it, this sort of thing is fairly common in artists, particularly musicians, who come to achieve mastery in some way. David Gilmour of Pink Floyd has stated that “we were really crap when we started” probably referring, not to before Syd Barrett left the band, when they were definitely crap, but right after: between A Saucerfull of Secrets and Atom Heart Mother. They weren’t terrible, but they did their best and produced some really great music despite learning along their way. By the time Meddle came out, I believe Pink Floyd were fully aware of their own capabilities. There are notable exceptions: Kate Bush has widely been regarded as a masterpiece of her own since before she released her first album, despite her style changing radically a few times. Then there are the people who record critics automatically regard as masters, who produce masterful works once in a while, like Bruce Springsteen. Then, of course, there are groups who never have a chance to do anything else, like The Sex Pistols.

Hearing “Unforgiven” brought up all these thoughts mostly because right now I feel like scientists can go through the same thing. Right now I feel like a total failure as a scientist. However, I feel like we can never know really what a particular time will produce and the best we can do is our best, and hope that the future will produce some reward for that. Jerry Garcia described an experience in The Grateful Dead Movie where he was playing on a particular night where he felt like “everything was a struggle.” He described getting really pissed off from feeling like a terrible guitar player and throwing Phil Lesh down a small flight of stairs. Then he listened to tapes of that night a few weeks later and was astonished to find that the band was on fire! In his words “the music was crackling with energy.” I thought it was interesting at the time, but much more interesting after I experienced the same thing, with the exception of throwing the bass player down a flight of stairs. I have had many performances where I felt like the worst banjo player in the world, like I should just give up and I was embarrassing myself; then I listen to a recording and think “Wow, these guys are really good!”

Basically I’m saying I don’t know what my scientific career will say about my time in grad school. Perhaps I will always view it as a colossal waste of time where I spent more time on clever, philosophical blog postings than in working on my research. However, it could be the opposite: I don’t know. The best I can do is keep at it and go through the motions when I’m finished. Who can know what reward the future holds for the work we’re doing right now? Who the hell knows going in to graduate school what he’ll have accomplished at the the end?

I just hope that after working hard in graduate school, working hard after mastering something at a postdoc, that I won’t put out the scientific equivalent of Load as a young assistant professor.

Postscript: I originally peopled this post exclusively with Wikipedia links just as a product of laziness, then in the spirit of the post realized how masterful it was, since Metallica and particularly Lars Ulrich have totally screwed their fans and declared themselves enemies of freedom.

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