Carl Sagan: Billions and Billions, Contact (the Movie)

Posted by Anti Citizen One on October 6th, 2010

I finished reading Billions and Billions, a collection of essays by Carl Sagan. I was already I fan of his, from the movie Contact. In “Billions”, the book has three sections – wonder at the universe (as reflected in various popular science issues he addresses), environmentalism, and social issues. The scientific issues are slightly historic, being published back in 1997. The style is very optimistic. He seems the polar opposite of Dawkins. Both are good popular science writers. But Cagan is very “glass half full” and Dawkins is known as a “glass half empty” writer. (Although this doesn’t apply to his real work on evolution, just that atheism is a denial (ish) and therefore somewhat negative. Of course, destruction is a form of creation but moving on…)

His writing in both Billions and Contact on contrasting views is notable for its optimism. For instance, pro-life and pro-choice with respect to abortion, he points out that these are two extremes and that most people and most legal systems fall into some compromise. In other cases, he points out the commonality in beliefs, e.g. environmentalism is in part driven by science and he compares it to the religious attitude of stewardship of the Earth. Sometimes, his totally constructive attitude is not quite to my taste. I guess in cases when he might refute his opponents’ views, he simply declines to comment (in a similar way to Nietzsche’s advice: “where one can no longer love, there should one – pass by“).

There are a few disparate scenes in Contact I want to mention specifically. I thought about trying to tie them together coherently, but I have been unable to do so, or too lazy. In most of the scenes I mention, two world views are contrasted. Many involve the protagonist, Ellie Arroway, who is passionate about SETI (that is the search for “little green men” aka extraterrestrial intelligence). In the first example, which provides an important illustration of Ellie’s character, teleological explanations are contrasted to mere physicalism (not to mention atheism).

Priest at the Funeral of Ellie’s Father: I know it’s hard to understand this now but we aren’t always meant to know why things happen the way they do. Sometimes, we just have to accept it as God’s will.
Ellie Arroway: I should have kept medicine in the downstairs bathroom. Then I could’ve gotten to it sooner.

Another interesting exchange is when one character justifies his actions on an essentially pessimistic or Machiavellian basis. Ellie counters with some Saganistic optimism, which is almost existential.

David Drumlin [after metaphorically stabbing Ellie in the back]: I know you must think this is all very unfair. Maybe that’s an understatement. What you don’t know is I agree. I wish the world was a place where fair was the bottom line, where the kind of idealism you showed at the hearing was rewarded, not taken advantage of. Unfortunately, we don’t live in that world.
Ellie Arroway: Funny, I’ve always believed that the world is what we make of it.

There are loads of interesting themes that could be endlessly analysed, particularly the problem of religious extremism and the reductionism/commercialism trend in science. Both prove major antagonistic factors in the film.

Ellie quoting Palmer: “Ironically, the thing people are most hungry for – meaning – is the one thing science hasn’t been able to give them.”

Gratuitously I mention a slightly existential question, which connects to Babylon 5. The question “why am I here?” is once of the key themes of the series. The exchange has a large non-verbal element, which makes it hard to state here (which is of course appropriate for existential questions):

Ellie: [sincere but baffled] What am I doing here?
Haddon: [quietly laughs to himself, notices she expects a verbal response, then suddenly becomes almost menacing] The powers that be have been very busy lately positioning themselves for the game of the millennium. Maybe I can help deal you back in.

The response of Sagan to conflict seems to be to approach it with delicacy, subtlety and intellectual modesty. There is perhaps an echo of Spinoza trying to “understand” human actions above all. A perfect example of this attitude is given as the “last word” in the move. A kid on a school trip asks Ellie a question she KNOWS the answer to, but the way she deals with it is telling:

Kid on school trip: Are there other people out there in the universe?
Ellie Arroway: That’s a good question. What do you think?
Kid: I don’t know.
Ellie Arroway: That’s a good answer. Skeptic, huh? [glances knowingly at her colleagues] The important thing is that you all keep searching for your own answers. One thing about the universe, though. The universe is a pretty big place. It’s bigger than anything anyone has ever dreamed of before. So if it’s just us it seems like an awful waste of space. Right?

I’d say that is a healthy altitude!

Anti Citizen One

PS Another review which is good.

The Logic of Scientific Discovery

Posted by Anti Citizen One on June 6th, 2010

I finished Popper’s book The Logic of Scientific Discovery. I learned more than I expected, even considering I try to keep up with discussions concerning science. He is not concerned with how scientists actually work; this is what he calls the naturalistic approach. Popper addresses the logical and epistemological aspects, for example is a scientific theory true or false? how do we know what we know? and what is the difference between scientific and non-scientific knowledge? This last one is the fundamental question for Popper and is what he calls the “demarcation problem”. All these issues hardly matter to mainstream scientists since they mostly grasp the issues intuitively, at least well enough for practical use. To them, the philosophy of science is as much use as ornithology is to birds. But these issues are useful for distinguishing between science, proto-science, pseudo-science and metaphysics. One common theme I noticed between this book and Open Society (part 1) is Popper’s revisiting many well established areas of knowledge (democracy and science), and after finding their traditional ideas lead to logical problems, he attempts to formulate new definitions or concepts that captures the essence of an idea but makes it more satisfactory to logicians. For example he rejects the argument that democracy attempts to promote freedom by inherently anti-freedom methods and formulates a more satisfactory alternative. I will try to convey some of the ideas about science but I don’t claim to be an expert in this area!

Popper identifies two main views of science: inductivism and falsificationism. Imagine a repeated coin toss which represents a simple repeatable experiment. Let us allow the coin to be special: it can be a fair coin with equal chance with heads or tails, or it could be a trick coin with both sides as heads (or tails), or even a coin which is governed by a mathematical law (say alternate heads and tails). We can look at a historic sequence of coin tosses and try to inductively reason the pattern. I will abbreviate heads as H and tails as T. Here are a few finite length examples:


Using inductive logic, we can reason that pattern 1 uses a coin having both sides as heads. Pattern 2 seems to be an alternating heads and tails. Pattern 3 seems to be random and might be consistent with a fair coin toss. But these cannot be said to be true without some doubt (being the problem with inductive reasoning). The larger problem with inductive logic is there are an infinite number of hypothesises that fit the observations. We cannot easily distinguish between these possible hypothesis but people tend to invent heuristic rules, such as “simpler theories are preferred”, but this rule cannot be scientifically justified. Popper observes that inductive reasoning prefers to not go beyond the observed data to make predictions, and asks why bother trying to use inductive reasoning when it is preferable to not make unsubstantiated conjectures at all? “silence is better”. The danger of an infinite number of possible explanations is a theory can be defended by addition of ad-hoc hypothesis. (This is like defending the proposition “there is a dragon in my garage” by adding “it’s an invisible dragon” and “the dragon is silent”.)

Falsificationism is the view advanced by Popper. He claims that only theories that are falsifiable are scientific. He uses the concept “basic statements”, that are inter-subjectively repeatable experimental observations. Basic statements may falsify scientific theories. However if a theory has no possible basic statements that could lead to falsification, it is labelled metaphysical and not scientific. In consequence, a theory can never be “proven” or called “true”. If a theory makes no inter-subjectively testable predictions, it is not scientific. This interestingly allows some physical phenomena to exist but to be non-scientific, as long as they remain untestable. To continue with my “dragon in garage” example, this hypothesis would be disallowed if there we no empirical predictions (even if there really was an invisible dragon). Philosophical naturalists claim that only detectable phenomena are worth consideration (but of course this is not a scientific claim).

One issue for falsificationism is that all three patterns (above) are compatible with the hypothesis of a fair coin toss, because we occasionally get unusual patterns in a random sequence. Getting ten heads in a row has a relatively large probability of 1 in 1024. How can we falsify a statistical prediction? This would take an infinite series of coin tosses to provide falsification, which is impractical. This is discussed in depth by Popper but he uses the fact that repeatable empirical tests have an associated measurement error. He is content to say a statistical prediction can be falsified as long as the difference between prediction and an observation is well below the measurement error. (At least as far as I understand the author.) With both the “verification” and “falsification” being knotty problems, it puts science on a very tentative footing. This is the way it should be.

A side note, not contained in this book, is the falsifiability of evolution and intelligent design (ID). Some have claimed that evolution is not falsifiable, which indicates the speaker is either profoundly uninformed, without a grasp of logic or lacking in intellectual integrity. If people doubt evolution is falsifiable, several explicit possible “basic facts” are listed in Darwin’s Origin of Species that would fatally undermine his idea (more here). The falsification of ID depends on its exact formulation, but in most cases the GLARING logical flaws in the argument make falsification a moot point. (But most versions of ID are un-falsifiable.) These particular issues would be unworthy of consideration in Popper’s book, but he is often mentioned in the modern discussions of ID.

Anyway, I have only scratched the surface here. This book is quite dense, including mathematical proofs and the like. There is an interesting discussion on the issue of corroboration of theory, but again, Popper rules out theories being “true”, we can only go as far as saying “they are consistent with experimental observations”. The concept “truth” is almost a distraction in the epistemology of science, but ironically it is what scientists aim to find.

Anti Citizen One

PS See the Gay Science aph 344

Stuff I’ve Been Doing

Posted by Anti Citizen One on March 26th, 2010

I was going to review Darwin’s Origin of Species, but there is little I can add to the popular perception of it. He does address most of the modern objections, so anyone who talks of “gaps in the fossil record” without bothering to read him are just lazy in not reading his actual point of view or are wilfully ignorant. Refreshingly, he does not pull punches against his own theory and states very clearly the types of evidence that would disprove his point of view – for example, fossils not in the appropriate geological order or a single species originating simultaneously in two distinct areas. Many science writings don’t put the case against their view at all, or at least not as strongly, and properly, as Darwin. He the man.

I was invited to a bible study group, which was interesting as an outsider. They were much less “chapter and verse” than I expected. We discussed “love thy neighbour as thyself” and I made the point that what is meant by “love” is sightly ambiguous – in an interesting way. If it is taken in the “love unconditionally” sense, then it also is a commandment to love thyself unconditionally (and that is a rather big “if”). This might have been a pre-emptive strike against the idea of “total depravity”, but that particular issue did not come up. I decided against expressing Nietzsche’s “be not considerate of thy neighbour! Man is something that must be surpassed” view – that would not have been well received!

I attended the Big Libel Gig, which was a awareness raising, comedy event. It featured a few science writers and several comedians who were critics of alternative medicines and superstition, including Simon Singh who is being sued because he criticised chiropractors. The issue is it costs a vast amount to defend a libel case, even if vindicated and is therefore a way of large organisations to silence their critics. I also saw Brian Cox (for the second time) and Ben Goldacre. The whole event was very “yay for empiricism, science and naturalism” and “boo for alternative medicine”. I was strongly reminded of that world view in a rap song by Baba Brinkman (and is based on a Jay Z song). The video editing is very slick. I don’t normally listen to rap but its a good summary of the main themes.

I have two books by Karl Popper on order. I am looking forward to that. I am bogged down in Capote’s short stories at the moment. I have also been trying to explain the is-ought problem to people but most people just don’t get it. What did I miss? 🙂

Anti Citizen One

PS Since we are on the topic of ultra-naturalism, and if you prefer folk to rap, you might like this: Creation Science 101

PPS The philosophical issues around evolution are more than adequately covered on talk origins.

Kees van Deemter: The importance of being vague

Posted by Anti Citizen One on March 16th, 2010

Q: Is vagueness anathema to science?

KvD: Put a magnifying glass to many scientific concepts and you find vagueness.

New Scientist

Note to self: subjectivity does not necessarily mean knowledge is impossible…


Reality Through Values

Posted by Anti Citizen One on February 25th, 2010

I have had a few recent experiences with people cherry picking evidence for arguments and I was interested in reading Dan Kahan view:

“Basically the reason that people react in a close-minded way to information is that the implications of it threaten their values,” says Dan Kahan, a law professor at Yale University and a member of The Cultural Cognition Project.

Kahan says people test new information against their preexisting view of how the world should work.

“If the implication, the outcome, can affirm your values, you think about it in a much more open-minded way,” he says.

And if the information doesn’t, you tend to reject it. NPR


The Voyage of The Beagle

Posted by Anti Citizen One on January 29th, 2010

I finished The Voyage of The Beagle about Darwin’s early travels. People keep asking me who wrote it – as if all historical figures can only be seen in light of later historians! Well, he wrote it himself based on his personal journal. The trip was probably an inspiration for evolution but at the time, he held more conventional beliefs. The book focuses on observations while sailing and on land expeditions in the southern hemisphere. He discusses a wide variety of social, biological and natural phenomena – this generalist approach to science is refreshing. He occasionally makes positive religious references and comparisons. He feels great patriotic pride at being English and the improvement, as he saw it, of various peoples around the world, primarily through missionary activity. He often makes clear his strong feelings against slavery. A few observations are striking as possible foreshadowing his later work, including:

  • Certain species occur together and never occur separately
  • Certain species are unique to a particular habitat and do not occur in a distant similar habitat
  • Many species are comprised of sub-species
  • Habitats, geology, ground level and climate change in time, sometimes suddenly and sometimes slowly
  • Two nearby places can be completely different habitats
  • Some habitats often have new arrivals of species, others are isolated
  • The vast majority of fossils correspond to extinct species
  • Some species are very rare and are hardly ever seen by humans. (Why would God bother creating that?)
  • Rushing to hasty conclusions is a common mistake

Anyway, a good book there. I also have “Origin” but I will take a rest from biology for a few weeks.


News Round-up

Posted by Anti Citizen One on November 23rd, 2009

Human rights lawyers reviewed computer games with a war setting.

The group chose games, rather than films, because of their interactivity.

“Thus,” said the report, “the line between the virtual and real experience becomes blurred and the game becomes a simulation of real life situations on the battlefield.” BBC

This key assumption, that actions in games are morally equivalent to actions outside the game is laughably untrue. We don’t see people getting post traumatic stress disorder from computer games. Playing games is nothing like being in a war. Other studies show that gamers are not desensitised to actual war violence (stated later in the article). Therefore, the choices are not the same as those posed outside games. Games are more or less works of fiction and the choices posed to the player are almost forced outcome moral choices, since the player is not acting as “himself”, but as the character created by the game’s script writer.

I was recently hearing about the Australian Prime Minister apologising for the treatment of child migrants. This apology was presumably done on behalf of the institution that he represents i.e. the state. But the state does not feel “regret” since it is merely a concept. Even if the people comprising “the state” feel the actions were wrong, it is the individuals themselves that are responsible, not the state itself – which cannot act or think independently! Unless the individuals themselves were responsible, guilt does not even apply. Although it may cheer the victims of injustice, I am concerned that if we shunt the responsibility (and “guilt”) for wrong actions onto institutions, it diminishes the personal responsibility that each individual bears and transfers in onto a mere concept. In the extreme case, it may lead to the bystander effect, were everyone does nothing to correct injustice because it is “the state’s” responsibility. So I distrust all institutional apologies and think of them as political tools.

In agreement with our favourite existential thinkers, a new study has linked suffering with religiosity:

Gray and Wegner created a state-by-state “suffering index” and found a positive correlation between a state’s relative misery (compared to the rest of the country) and its population’s belief in God. Sciam

That’s all the news that’s fit to print.

Anti Citizen One

My Genes Made Me Do It

Posted by Anti Citizen One on November 9th, 2009

Like something from a Dostoevsky novel, a man found to have a gene linked to aggression has used that fact to get a reduced sentence for murder. This of course is justified if the primary role of criminal justice is to punish the guilty, who make evil choices using free will. But how could we know if we have free will?

On the basis of the genetic tests, Judge Reinotti docked a further year off the defendant’s sentence, arguing that the defendant’s genes “would make him particularly aggressive in stressful situations”. Giving his verdict, Reinotti said he had found the MAOA evidence particularly compelling. Nature


Policies that ignore the realities of the world…

Posted by Anti Citizen One on November 4th, 2009

Policies that ignore the realities of the world we live in are doomed to fail. This is true for just about all the biggest issues that we confront, from energy and climate to criminal justice, health and immigration. I’m not arguing that science dictate policy; considerations such as cost, practicality and morality also have a role. But scientific evidence should never be brushed aside from the political debate. David Nutt

Clean Smells Promote Moral Behavior, Study Suggests

Posted by Anti Citizen One on October 27th, 2009

People are unconsciously fairer and more generous when they are in clean-smelling environments, according to a soon-to-be published study led by a Brigham Young University professor. ScienceDaily