All posts by Psybertron

One article of faith in science is that dinosaurs became extinct 60-odd million years ago and couldn’t have been around at the same time as early hominids. Article of faith in the sense that evidence for it refutes any possible young-earth creationism. Herewith a current story pointing out the elements of chance in evolutionary progress, if anyone needed reminding.

However here also a couple of stories [CSUN Story] [Smithsonian Story] that show why it really is an article of faith amongst scientists, rather than good science. When evidence of (potentially) shorter lifecycle occurs in the fossil record, (potentially) supporting young-earth creationism arguments – actions to reject and suppress the evidence (rather than find better explanations) are anti-religious and far from scientific. [Hat tip to Rick on Facebook for the CSUN Story.]

Maybe some pockets of population did survive longer, niche-habitats are crucial to many evolutionary stories. Maybe there are mechanisms of soft-tissue preservation and /or substitution that do occur protected inside older fossils of larger bones. Maybe the original interpretation of having found preserved soft tissue is misguided or wishful thinking. Maybe a hundred and one other hypotheses – one rule of scientific method is that potential hypotheses are infinite. Who knows, without the science, but failing that, let’s bash the perceived “enemy” of science anyway (*).

Anyway, I can’t research all the circumstances and motives of all the people in the linked stories – some individuals clearly do have creationist religious views – but the scientific community response to evidence is far from scientific. My call is for neurotic science to wake up from turning itself into its own religion in order to counter the kinds of religion of which its consensus doesn’t approve.

[(*) Post Note ; Following up more "Speculative Realism" sources - ones I can read and understand. Recently bought, but found too turgid after the excellent introductory chapters Quentin Meillassoux's "After Finitude", so went back to my previous reading of Levi Bryant's "Democracy of Objects" to restore faith. In the context of this post, and the previous post on democratic "consensus" in science, I found this previously quoted passage spot on the mark:

On the one hand we have the pro-science crowd that vigorously argues that science gives us the true representation of reality. It is not difficult to detect, lurking in the background, a protracted battle against the role that superstition and religion play in the political sphere. Society, at all costs, must be protected from the superstitious and religious irrationalities that threaten to plunge us back into the Dark Ages.

Where "at all costs" includes the unwise corruption of science itself. Anyway, faith restored, I've now also ordered Levi Bryant's (ed) "The Speculative Turn":

... the new currents of continental [including UK] philosophy depart from the text-centered hermeneutic models of the [PoMo] past and engage in daring speculations about the nature of reality itself.

What I’ve been refering to as PoPoMo. More later.]

Science is an appeal to authority, but where does that authority come from? An interesting Guardian piece by Graham Redfearn on Naomi Oreskes (with a TED Talk of hers at the bottom)

There really is no scientific method.

  • Inductive of hypotheses and predictions, true, but actually a rare case
  • Deductive of observed evidence, true, but much judgement and interpretation of evidence and experience and of correlation and causation, and with varying faith and trust in people and reports – very little evidence is direct observation causally related to any hypothesis or law.
  • And, both confirmation and falsification logic can be flawed by unrecognised assumptions in your model.
  • So in practice, almost “anything goes” (Feyerabend), there is much creativity and imagination involved.
  • Ultimately science is the emergent and evolving collective consensus (of scientists).

Paradox of modern science:

  • Science IS an appeal to authority (albeit the authority of a collective consensus).

This is the root of a large part of the agenda here – where the topic is at the boundaries of accepted science, even questioning the accepted boundaries of science, the consensus cannot come entirely from those who are scientists or with declared interests in science.

Fact: The quality of thinking and questioning required to achieve such consensus cannot be derived entirely the received wisdom of the existing scientific consensus.

Interesting NY Times science post by George Johnson.
(Hat tip to Rick Ryals on Facebook.)

” … it is almost taken for granted that everything from physics to biology, including the mind, ultimately comes down to four fundamental concepts: matter and energy interacting in an arena of space and time.”

” … maybe decades or millennia from now — here or someplace yet to be imagined — science on Earth, circa 2014, will look like nothing more than a good start.”

concludes Johnson.

In practice it’s a comparative review of two books:

Thomas Nagel’s 2012 “Mind and Cosmos:
Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False
” and

Max Tegmark’s 2014 “Our Mathematical Universe:
My Quest for the Ultimate Nature of Reality

The former gets slated by Pinker, so that’s a good recommendation for me. (Here a review in Prospect Magazine.)

A phrase coined by Feynman apparently. Mentioned in a post from Scientia Salon, linked on Facebook by David Morey.

Promising, I commented …

“current practice of inflationary cosmology as [un]able to accommodate any experimental result, so, on philosophical grounds, no longer science – cargo cult physics (after Feynman)”

Thank you. And we already know “string theory” isn’t science, not even “theory”, according even to Krauss. Double whammy. If we just re-set science back to somewhere around Copenhagen, there may be some hope.

(If you’re not one of David’s FB friends you’ll need the direct link to the post on Silentia Salon.)

I commented in this thread, since it was one of the talks at How The Light Gets In that I attended (sorry that links a long post covering several talks). Needless to say the scientistic humanists are in panic reaction mode:

Ho hum – re-enter the Higg’s Boson saga as CERN prepares to restart the LHC in Jan 2015.

Something’s missing from the standard model – the Higgs Boson or (shock horror) “something else”. Here’s wishing open minds for CERN scientists (and fewer computer graphics). There is some promise:

Physicists know that this framework, devised in the 1970s, must be a stepping stone to a deeper understanding of the cosmos. But so far, it’s standing up exceptionally well. Searches at the LHC for deviations from this elegant scheme – such as evidence for new, exotic particles – have come to nothing.

Start believing the evidence, please.

Hat tip to Maria Ana of The Thinking Hotel on LinkedIn for the link to this 15minute TED Talk from philosopher Ruth Chang.

For reasons of various IT and physical interruptions, I partially listened to this talk 4 or 5 times before finally listening right through this morning. The presentation of example life-choices seemed so simplistic and presented so simply, that I was convinced there could be nothing of value here. [In fact I posted some pre-emptive thoughts based on the topic before I'd even listened at all.]

Well I’m glad I eventually listened right through. Full transcript also available, but here my paraphrase summary:

As post-enlightenment creatures we tend to assume assume objective science holds the key to everything of importance in the world. When we compare objective evidence and predicted outcomes, without any clear best option, then we tend to take the least risky option. But often in tough choices, reasons are  “on a par”. Options in tough choices are in the same league but of different kinds (*), not necessarily quantifiable in real numbers. There is in fact no best alternative out there.

The choice we make is supported by reasons created by us. Think about it. This is preferable to a world where objective reasons are all out there, where facts in the objective world determine our choices.

We choose which options we put our agency behind, what we want to be, what we want the world to be. Hard choices are in fact a god-send, opportunities to change the world. Not just opportunity, but a precious normative power we hold. To create reason.

Excellent stuff. Very much on my agenda, avoiding the scientistic neurosis, that objective reason is the only valid form of rationality in decision-making. I completely agree, it’s not. Worth a listen.

And it perfectly illustrates the (Wordsworth) “murder to dissect” point I made in the comment thread on LinkedIn. If we assume reason is out there in an objective sense to be analysed (sliced-and-diced with Aristotelian knives) and presented (re-assembled) in matrices and decision-trees, we kill the very thing we value most – our agency in the world.

[(*) Not recognising things as being of different qualitative kinds is known formally in philosophy as a "category error". And, when they are on a par - in the same league but different kinds - it's often because they're not actually a real binary choice either - it's a false dichotomy to see all "what should I/we do" decisions that way.]

[PS - wonder if I could join up Ruth Chang to Larry Krauss on the limits to scientific thinking, without Larry getting all "religious" on us - as he did when Angie and Mary tried to set him right in Philosophy Bites Back.]

Blogging live from the Conway Memorial Lecture at Conway Hall, Red Lion Square.

Lisa Jardine’s subject is her father Jacob Bronowski, public intellectual and humanist responsible for inspiring a generation, myself included. When I blogged about my “Bronowski Moment” some years ago, I discovered it was a moment shared with many, including Lisa herself. The impassioned Cromwellian plea grasping a sod plucked from the pond of human ash at the gates of Auschwitz from The Ascent of Man. The first time I became aware of Lisa as Bronowski’s daughter was when I followed- up a piece by her on the Auchinleck Manuscript. After that, Bronowski’s A Man Without a Mask (William Blake) and Science and Human Values followed naturally.

In his introduction, host Laurie Taylor recalled Michael Frayn on the difficulties of writing on the inheritance of a parent, anticipating what we might expect from Lisa’s title. Not even Laurie I suspect actually anticipated what we were about to receive. I’m not certain what I was expecting – surely something on science and humanism or the history thereof or maybe, as Laurie suggested, the third culture blurring of science with art and the humanities. Well no.

Lisa’s title “Jacob Bronowksi – Things I Never Knew About My Father” is the working title of the biography she’s currently writing and the subject of the lecture was the draft of a single chapter, one of two devoted to the MI5 file on Bruno collated from the 1930′s to 1954. The same year 60 years ago when he had given the Conway Memorial Lecture.

The irony for Lisa is that examining fragmentary one-sided unreliable archives is her day job, as director of the Centre for Editing of Lives and Letters (above) and as professor of 16th & 17th century history at UCL. All writing about archive material is simply fragments filled in with creative fiction. Her main objective, other than exposing what having a secret MI5 surveillance file can mean to a person in general – think Stasi, think Lives of Others, think NSA, think Edward Snowden – is to shed light on the thing she and we never knew – the fact that despite an illustrious public career, Bruno never had the life or career he actually sought.

Following Lisa’s lead this blog post can only be fragmentary – there was just too much fascinating revelation to be typing and not listening. Just two bookending thoughts:

Lisa can of course bring her own family memories and access to her father’s contemporary diaries to supplement what she finds in the MI5 file(s) – of course they’re notoriously unreliable too, but they do lend corroboration of time and place and subjects. After introducing us to initial informant reports – during the 1939/40 phoney war prelude to the real WW2 when Bruno was a maths lecturer at that hotbed of leftie intellectuals and agitators – the newly created Hull University, she also gave us glimpses of the files and the diary pages. On the 20th January 1950 the same week Bruno records Klaus Fuchs being sentenced for his treasonable wartime spying, Bruno also records a conversation with Tesla on Einstein’s Unified Field Theory ideas.

She concluded with another sad irony. So often the natural German, Russian and Eastern European passion of Jewish emigres for the allied cause against the Nazis was exploited, but with such suspicion that when the war was won they could be dumped by the allies. This contrasted with German brains that continued to work for the Nazi cause during the war and were welcomed by British and American teams afterwards(*). Bruno was one of those under constant suspicion whilst working for the allies during the war, he was turned down for the important science posts that were the natural aspirations of his academic and writing career. Instead he carved out a career in BBC radio and TV, where it was probably only the fact that he was taken to heart by the British public, that counteracted MI5 pressure on the BBC to pull any number of his media projects.

And that was just the one chapter. Even there, much left out above on British class-based culture and British vs US differences and so much more on the machinations of secret surveillance and petty internal politics, the C. P. Snow connection – Nick Humphreys “sabotaging” the BBC Bronowski Memorial Lectures after just one year – and not for the first time is academe seen as a hotbed of cruel personal competition compared to commercial business. All utterly fascinating and important if not entirely surprising. Look out for the book in the new year.

[Note - Conway Hall home of The Ethical Society had its origins South Place Chapel in Finsbury Square as the congregation led by William Fox rebelled against key dogmas and was inherited by Moncure Conway an American. The connections - Ethical Society / Bertrand Russell / Reith Lectures / BBC.]

[(*) See earlier operation paperclip references to Werner von Braun / Ernst Stuhlinger.]

My agenda is that we are culturally programmed –  by received wisdom in accepted world-views – to misrepresent(*) information in our decision-making at all levels. Hat tip to Maria-Ana Neves on LinkedIn for the pointer to this TED Talk by Ruth Chang. More later.

[(*) Two errors in the same direction. Firstly we objectify what we're dealing with, "it" our subject, so we can refer to it, talk about it, assign properties and values to it - useful, nay essential, but ... Secondly here's the rub, having objectified it, we reify it in our world-view, the model we hold in our head of how the world works. So whilst being carefully experiential, empirical and evidential in our objective considerations about "it" we forget the contingency in our model of "it" - and the more we use it, analyse it, put its values in tables and matrices, the harder it is to question the existence of  "it", the more we confuse our model with the world itself and the more we confuse our own relation to that world(model). Furthermore, being carefully empirical is culturally engrained, to the point of being neurotic - a scientistic neurosis. Perversely the closer our subject to science itself, and the closer that science to fundamental science, deeper the error. ie if you know the "it" you're talking about is subjective and qualitative, you can still make the objectification errors but you are less likely for forget the subjectivity of the subject when alternative questions and doubts arise. Whereas, the more you come to believe "it" is an objective reality, the more blind you will be to such questions and doubts arising - a deadly combination in any apparently "scientific" form of decision-making, and indeed in science itself.]

Coincidentally, I was in a  school earlier this week, interacting with Year 8′s and their teachers in a mixed city academy. (A “STEM” Science, Technology, Engineering & Maths event on National “Women in Engineering Day” – “awesome” was the feedback from the school incidentally.)

I was very impressed with the staff (as well as with the students). With my mother, wife and son all in teaching of one form or another, I have maybe more respect for the profession, but I heard echo’s of Tom’s words watching the teachers using a few formal tricks and sanctions to maintain discipline and communication. Without such techniques, and support in the organisation that they are needed, interactive sessions with excitable 13-year-olds would have been impossible to avoid descent into chaos.

This news story on teaching – values and standards – has an interesting tabular comparison where, unless I’m reading it wrong, the UK (England actually) comes out the right side of average in all cases.

[Aside - note for future use. Our topic for the STEM day presentations and exercises was "Engineering". The boys fell into two camps. The dominant boys who thought it was about being in charge of what their team was doing, and the meeker geeks who made it their job to keep account of the maths. The girls on the other hand suggested what maybe needed doing, shared out the resources between them and got on with it, "under the radar" of the dominant boy if necessary. "Vive la difference" is one of my agenda items. It's politically incorrect to notice gender differences, but in fact the diversity is a positive contribution, as I've noted a few times before.]

Interesting post from Ted Lumley at Aboriginal Physics – To be clear, I can never quite follow Ted’s full reasoning or his dependence on his storm-cell analogies – but I find we are both sympathetic to many of the same sources. Interesting however in light of the “centrism” indications in current cosmology; current dumb cosmology we agree. (A long post in need of unpicking – over-objectification of intellectual constructs is the recurring point at issue.)

A classic edition  of In Our Time from on Robert Boyle from last week. Classic in the sense that like all the good editions, the enthusiasm of the experts could fill the 45 minutes ten times over.

I’m personally still frustrated that Melvyn doesn’t apply the same “anachronistic” approach to highlighting the religious and scientific (natural philosophic) entanglement we take for granted in the mid-17thC with his more modern subjects. Maybe Melvyn has a  more subtle long terms game plan than I give him credit for? Interesting in terms of other recent agenda items that Simon Schaffer hesitates slightly, to insert the term “anachronism” to maybe distance what he says politically-correctly from current received wisdom.

But I digress – forget my agenda – just enjoy a wonderful edition of IOT about an extraordinary individual by any standards.

Good to hear Rabbi Lord Sacks piece on BBC R4 Today this morning. Plenty of doomed to repeat history if we don’t appreciate it angles to the current Syria / Iraq / Iran sectarianism between Sunni vs Shia and comparisons with divided mono-theistic histories generally.

His primary point however – disestablishment.

Civil rule cannot, must not, ever, anywhere, be based on legal application of religious lore as law. And that BTW – Sacks’ wisdom - is why we need representatives of the Lords Spiritual in the non-elected / earned-influence second-chamber.

One to add to the list

Still intent on laying the doubt on local errors, rather than the theory itself – because to give the creationist nutters an inch by suggesting there was no big bang would be to give them a politically incorrect mile.

Science as politics with an agenda set by nutters, not by real science.

[And it had been .... Nobel prize-worthy said Alan Guth. He he.]

Rick Ryals commenting on others commenting on UK Creationism teaching ban story:

“It isn’t a creation debate, it is about dishonesty in science that squashes real science that draws similar but purely naturalistic conclusions about some of the evidence that creationists use, and is therefore destroyed by the herd of rabid atheists who would pretend to be on the side of science… And then of course, there are many like yourself who don’t know the relevant science (probably most by a long shot) who eagerly join the rampaging herd of ideologues in science because 99% of those established activists are on your side politically.”

From John Brockman at The Edge, remembering Frank Schirrmacher:

we have a population explosion of ideas,
but not enough brains to cover them.
Schirrmacher quoting Dennett

the quest for a second enlightenment,
one which would be built on the ideas of the third culture.

Researchers such as evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, anthropologist Gregory Bateson, mathematician Roger Penrose, biologist Lynn Margulis, geographer Jared Diamond, psychologist Steven Pinker …”come from the ‘exact’ sciences, take care of basic questions of human existence. And they write about their work in thick books in which they—like ‘real’ humanists—take hundreds of pages to present their own thesis.”
Brockman quoting Schirrmacher

(Born in 1959, he was younger than me. I like the scare quotes on ‘exact’ science to make the point about ‘real’ humanism. On a par with Bronowski.)

Whilst searching for a decent reference for my own published writings – this blog is generally at the trashier end of the scale for personal consumption only – I came across a technical article I’d created over 20 years ago before publishing on the web was much of an option. What I found was a PDF version that one of the tool suppliers (ANSYS) had presumably preserved as a reference article as an application of their product.

In all it’s glory is my write-up on one of the more interesting (both challenging and successful) projects I’d done in my time at Foster Wheeler. The Liquid Nitrogen Injection Rakes for the European Transonic WindTunnel Project.

This was a unique project for Foster Wheeler.
Indeed, engineering the LN2 injection rakes for the ETW project
would have been an unusual technical challenge for anyone.
In addition, given the acute budget and schedule constraints,
it was a brave commitment for FW to accept the challenge
and a significant achievement to meet it

For those of you who jet-set around the world in Airbus aircraft beyond the original A300, the design of your transport was tested in this facility. You’re welcome.

[I'll have to see if I can also find the previous article referred to, which described the overall project, not just the components I was responsible for. Quite a few unusual engineering aspects to this project, which I followed right through to completion and commissioning - and an official royal opening. Doesn't show up in any on-line searches - so may have to ferret out and scan a hard copy.]