David L. Martin

in praise of science and technology

Archive for the month “April, 2016”

critical thinking in American education, and why we don’t have it

Like most Americans, I went to grade school.  In grade school I memorized and regurgitated, with a heavy dose of socialization.  Most of what I memorized was carefully chosen to avoid controversy and any challenge to authority.

Like some Americans, I went to college.  As an undergraduate I mostly memorized and regurgitated, although a little of what I memorized was challenging to authority, and there was a tiny sprinkling of training in critical thinking.

Like a few Americans, I went to graduate school.  It was here that I actually learned to challenge myself and others, to question and probe beyond distractions and rationalizations.  Every proposition had to be supported, not with rhetoric, but with reason and evidence.


Think of how much of your adult life (if you aren’t an adult, take my word for it) is outside the realm of what you learned in grade school.  You have to navigate through a maze of financial decisions and sales pitches.  Every single day there are people who are trying to take advantage of you, to separate you from your pocketbook.  Learning the rules of the economic game is usually a painful process of trial and error.  Many of us never learn them.  The same is true of political decisions.  It’s not hard to vote against your own best interests, when politicians can exploit your own biases and tell you exactly what you want to hear.  One might think that in this environment, our educational system would arm people to tools to defend themselves against this.  But there is a problem.


Little boy arguing

Little boy arguing

Suppose you’re a 7 year-old boy and I tell you, you can’t wear your hair too long.  I ask “why not”?  You say, “Because I say so.”  This kind of socialization of children goes on all the time.  No reason is given.  Children are coerced to obey authority without question.  A lot of this is of course understandable.  A small child isn’t usually aware of all of the dangers in the world, and a certain degree of conformity to basic rules is necessary to have a functional society.  However, by the time a child is a teenager, they are more than capable of understanding the reasons behind rules.  The time has long since past when recourse to authority without explanation is justifiable.  Of course each child is different.  But as a generalization this is true.


When that child becomes a teenager, they are only 5 years from being eligible to vote, and may very well get a job sooner.  So do we get serious at this point about preparing them for the realities of decision making?  On the contrary, as their hormones begin to rage, we get even more preoccupied with socialization and conformity.  Instead of encouraging challenging questions and giving reasons for rules, we merely put greater emphasis on discipline and “responsibility.”  How can a person have responsibility if they don’t have choice?  We are merely indoctrinating them to an uncritical attachment to authority.  Often, predictably, they will “rebel” by choosing the authority of their peers.  Parents often see this as a rejection of authority, when in fact it is anything but.  It is merely substituting one authority for another.


In order for a person in a democracy to become a functional adult, they have to achieve self-discipline.  In order to be free, they have to have choice.  Many people seem to be under the impression that freedom and responsibility are opposites.  They are exactly the same thing, just expressed in different ways.  Freedom does not mean “I get to do whatever I want, no matter who it hurts.”  Freedom means EVERYONE’s rights are respected.  The path to freedom is personal responsibility – consideration for the rights of others.  The path to personal responsibility is self-determination – the ability to make one’s own decisions, rather than engaging in uncritical authority-following.


The question remains, why?  Why is critical thinking always pushed aside?  I think the answer is simple.  Critical thinking is not good for business.  Huge sectors of our economy are built on selling people things that are bad for them, or have no effect beyond that of a placebo.  Whole industries are built on people’s fears.  Many American businesses still depend on cheap human labor.  Educated people tend to have low tolerance for being exploited.  They see through half-baked arguments, faulty logic, and questionable claims.  All of this is bad for business, if your business is persuading people to buy crap they don’t really want and don’t need.  And I’m not just talking about goods and services.  The same thing applies to ideologies and theologies.  It’s easy to get you to vote for me, if I pander to your fears, your prejudices, and your ego.  It’s easy to get you to join my religion, if I merely reinforce the baggage you’ve grown up with, tell you I love you and accept you, and give you a sense of belonging, especially if the “us” you’re joining is a highly select, very special group.


Edward Bernays is often considered the father of public relations.  He considered the masses of people to be irrational and dangerous, due to the “herd instinct.”  His solution?  Public relations.  He helped the tobacco industry overcome one of their biggest hurdles in the early 20th century – women smoking, particularly in public, was a huge social taboo.  Many propaganda techniques, familiar today, were invented by Bernays – for example, making an advertisement look like a news program, with a “journalist” interviewing an “authority.”  Bernays’ opinions about manipulation and democracy were not ambiguous.  Here they are:  “The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society.  Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. …We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of.  This is a logical result of the way in which our democratic society is organized.  Vast numbers of human beings must cooperate in this manner if they are to live together as a smoothly functioning society. …In almost every act of our daily lives, whether in the sphere of politics or business, in our social conduct or our ethical thinking, we are dominated by the relatively small number of persons…who understand the mental processes and social patterns of the masses.  It is they who pull the wires which control the public mind.”


This is not some radical philosopher or ideologue talking.  He is considered the father of public relations, a man who pioneered techniques that permeate our society today.  Since Bernays’ time, the underlying science behind public relations has become ever more refined.  Politicians, religious figures, and businesses have developed sophisticated propaganda techniques that carefully market their messages, often using such things as focus groups and branding to appeal to people’s feelings, even subconscious, rather than their thought processes.  The creation of large numbers of informed, educated citizens, armed with the weaponry of critical thinking, is an anathema to this.


In all honesty, the founding fathers did not trust the masses either.  When the United States was founded, by and large only white males with property could vote.  The founders rejected monarchy, but only because it was based on inheritance rather than merit.  However, Thomas Jefferson spoke of the “natural aristocracy,” men who were intellectually and morally superior.  These men should rule because only they were informed and educated, and the founders firmly believed that an informed, educated electorate was necessary for democracy.  But the history of America has been an ever-widening enfranchisement.  This has proceeded more quickly than ever-widening education, for the reasons I have stated above.


There may no longer be much room for the blissfully ignorant in American society.  Many commentators have noted that jobs requiring little education are starting to fade away.  Outsourcing has to a great extent eliminated many jobs in America formerly held by poorly skilled, poorly educated workers.  Robots will undoubtedly take many such jobs in the future.  But education that merely consists of specialized training for a specialized job does not necessarily translate into critical thinking skills.  It may simply translate into having more money in your pocket and making you a more attractive target for hucksters and charlatans.  It’s up to you to develop the skills to defend yourself.





The AI Revolution: The Road to Superintelligence

the modern era, postmodernism, and science

Any history is a simplification of actual events and processes.  Yet there seems to be a pretty clear break between the Medieval Era and the Modern Era.  What distinguishes the Modern Era are mainly 4 things:

  • The rise of science and technology
  • The rise of individualism and representative government
  • The rise of industrialism and urbanization
  • Widening enfranchisement and literacy

As the trends began to take hold over the last 4 centuries, there was a pervasive notion that progress was inevitable.  It was hard to escape the conclusion that the lives of large numbers of people were improving, and optimism was the rule.


With the 20th century came 2 devastating world wars.  These had a profound effect on the intellectual and artistic worlds.  The idea that mankind was progressing, in the sense of improving, was dealt a blow in many minds.  A new world view, Postmodernism, developed.  Essentially, this is the idea that there are no absolute truths, that “truth” is always relative and culture-specific.  Every so-called truth is built on basic assumptions that cannot be tested.  And like every other concept, “progress” is in the eye of the beholder.


All of this seems correct to me, as far as it goes.  But the problem is that there is a real world, with real problems, and people have to make decisions.  Clean drinking water and sewerage treatment prevent disease.  Disease causes suffering and death.  Is this all a matter of culture and “relative truth”?  It is possible to engage in endless discussions about what is ultimately “true.”  There may in fact be no such thing, as some interpretations of Godel’s incompleteness theorem would have it.  But the value of science is pragmatic.  Does it yield good predictions?  Yes.  Does it yield new technologies?  Yes.


The problem with postmodernism in our time is that it seems to get expressed primarily in the media as “all ideas are equally valid.”  Perhaps so, in some ultimate philosophical sense, because we always come back to fundamental assumptions that cannot be tested.  But in REAL LIFE, there is happiness and unhappiness, suffering and pleasure, discontent and fulfillment.  Are these all a matter of cultural bias and indoctrination?  Maybe, maybe not, but what difference does it make?  The progress in the course of the modern age has increased human happiness, widened enfranchisement, and shown us the value of self-determination and representative government.  All ideas are not equally valid, not when it comes to real human welfare.


This kind of hand-wringing over ultimate truths is exactly why some scientists have little patience with philosophy.  Actually, I believe philosophy is quite valuable and can give us some wonderful insights.  But intellectual pursuits completely divorced from physical reality or human welfare are always a tricky business.  The falsifiability of scientific ideas with real-world observations and experiments is a powerful strength of the scientific method.




the authoritarian mindset

The scientific approach, as I have mentioned previously, is that of open-minded skepticism.  It is being willing to consider all ideas, and insists on challenging all ideas, especially those that are deeply held.  It is a way of thinking, a mindset, and ultimately a world view.  I strongly advocate it because I feel that it has more than proven itself as a driver of human happiness.


In opposition to the scientific approach is of course close-minded credulity.  The problem is, psychological research indicates that some people are predisposed to this.  Such a personality is called an authoritarian personality.  Such a person is 1) prone to follow a particular set of conventions  2) prone to attach themselves to an authority, and once attached, to show great loyalty to that authority, and 3) prone to show aggression to those that they consider to be opposed to that authority.  Although many people with authoritarian personalities turn out to be politically conservative, this is by no means universal.  Many people in communist countries end up showing the same kinds of loyalty to communist authorities, and hostility to those who oppose them.  Of course, the argument could be made that a communist in a communist country is a political conservative in the broad sense.


In any case, critical thinking and the authoritarian mindset are fundamentally incompatible.  Yet like many things in life, it is a matter of degree.  People fall along various points of the spectrum.  I don’t believe for a moment that huge pluralities of Americans have personalities inconsistent with the scientific approach.  I do believe that many people who fall at various points along the personality spectrum have been indoctrinated from a young age into a set of beliefs, making it difficult for them to examine them critically.  You of course have to decide if you’re willing to commit to the scientific approach.  If you truly cannot let go of entrenched dogmas, if you insist on yielding to authority and indoctrination, then I can’t reach you.  If, however, intellectual integrity is more important to you than having a safe, secure rock to cling to, then read on.


Research shows that people with authoritarian mindsets tend to have trouble with various types of logic.  Take the following sequence for example:

All fish live in the sea.

All sharks live in the sea.

Therefore, sharks are fish.

The authoritarian tends to say that this reasoning is correct, when in fact the conclusion does not logically follow from the premises.  (Both of the premises are in fact incorrect, but that’s a separate issue entirely.)  Sea otters live in the sea too, yet they are not fish.  When you ask an authoritarian why the reasoning is correct, they often respond, “Because sharks ARE fish.”  They don’t get that the REASONING by which you reach a conclusion is critically important.  And it illustrates a dangerous tendency that authoritarians have.  If they agree with the conclusion beforehand, the rationale to get there doesn’t really matter.  This opens the door for all kinds of logical fallacies, and convoluted arguments that sound “smart,” but have gaping holes in logic.  But to the authoritarian, all of it is powerful confirmation of the conclusion, which in fact is foregone.  Similarly, any evidence that supports the conclusion, however flimsy or ambiguous, becomes a powerful confirmation.


Near-death experiences are often touted as evidence of angels, heaven, hell, and god(s).  But like many examples of “evidence,” the examples that tend to get tossed about are those that confirm a particular person’s pre-existing belief system.  When you look at the whole range of near-death experiences, you discover that they are extremely variable, many of them having nothing to do with preconceptions about angels or gods – and if they do, it often has everything to do with that particular person’s, and that particular culture’s, preconceptions about these things.


This is exactly the kind of thing that critical thinking trains you to be wary of – a conclusion that you already had an attachment to, before you ever saw the evidence or the reasoning used to get there.  Evidence and “logic” that reinforces an already favored conclusion must be examined with the utmost care and skepticism.  This kind of rigor is what has given us 4 centuries of scientific and technological progress.  Nothing less is required if you want to successfully navigate the modern minefield of exploiters and manipulators.


The internet is full of little cliques of people, little echo chambers, full of people who already agree on a world view or a political ideology, constantly reinforcing each other with carefully chosen evidence, snappy sound bites, and clever wordsmanship.  It is full of people who send each other hearsay or hucksterism about the latest breakthroughs in weight control or the dangers of vaccines.  In years and centuries past we called this sort of thing rumor, gossip, or wives’ tales.  But the internet gives it legitimacy in many people’s minds.  Some of it can cost you your health or even your life.  Remember, every time someone, anyone, tells you something you want to hear, A BIG ALARM BELL SHOULD GO OFF IN YOUR HEAD.


Now, dear reader, you may well be wondering, “What’s wrong with being attached to safety and security?  Isn’t all this about my happiness and well-being?  If I feel good, what difference does it make whether I’m being manipulated?”  Indeed, if it works for you, go with it. The last thing I would do it try to coax you into a mindset that makes you unhappy.  I’m merely saying that close-minded credulity is the path to being exploited by people who have your number.  P.T. Barnum is often quoted as saying, “There’s a sucker born every minute.”  (In fact, there is no actual evidence that he said this, which is another example of the very uncritical mindset I’m talking about.)  Knowledge is power, and critical thinking is more powerful still.  I’m not talking about power over others.  I’m talking about power to defend yourself.  If you want to live with comfortable lies, that’s entirely up to you.  Just don’t be surprised if you find clever people (or they find you) who are good at separating you from your pocketbook, and some measure of your ability to control you own life.






yes, I said CRITICAL

I do a fair amount of shopping on line.  One big advantage of this is that many products are reviewed.  It’s often interesting, and sometimes amusing, to compare the product description provided by the manufacturer with the reviews.  Of course, the former is usually full of glowing language and hyperbole about how wonderful the product is.  The reviews, on the other hand, are usually provided by people who have nothing to gain by promoting the product.  In fact, some reviews are the opposite – negative reviews by people who have a financial interest in posting a bad review.  Which is why reviews, like everything else in life, must be examined critically.


Imagine if there was a law requiring every advertisement to be followed by 3 independent reviews of the product.  Multi-billion dollar industries would virtually cease to exist.  Most dietary supplements are at best placebos, and at worst, quite harmful.  But our economic system doesn’t distinguish between help and harm.  It’s all “production.”  When goods or services are purchased, that’s “production,” which goes into the annual calculation of economic growth.  Production is simply the monetary value of goods and services that are purchased.  Billions of dollars are spent every year encouraging us to eat lots of unhealthy food.  When we buy it, that’s “production.”  Billions more are spent encouraging us to buy worthless diet pills to help us lose weight.  When we buy them, that’s “production.”  Still billions more are spent encouraging us to buy exercise machines.  When we buy them, that’s “production.”  And when we have to go the hospital for bypass surgery because of our bad eating habits – yep, that’s more “production.”  Goods and services are being purchased.  Never mind that most of it would be unnecessary if we hadn’t been persuaded in the first place to eat too much unhealthy food.


The point is that there is little incentive, in our economic system, to give us good information, to tell us what we should hear instead of what we want to hear.  So it’s largely up to us to be proactive.  Some people have a tendency to say, “Why are some people so critical?”  Being critical is often seen as a negative, and many critics are indeed brutal.  But in fact there is FAR TOO LITTLE constructive criticism in our public discourse.  It is a powerful tool to help us dig deep and get to the merits of things.  Welcoming criticism is often an antidote to groupthink and our own tendency to fall for claims that we very much want to believe.


Here is a specific example.  There is a common scam in which people receive phone calls, texts, or voice mail messages threatening them with arrest.  They are told that the IRS has a “warrant” for them because they owe back taxes, and they must call the number given immediately to straighten the matter out.  Like many scams, this one depends on people’s ignorance.  The IRS is not a law enforcement agency.  It doesn’t issue “warrants.”  It NEVER calls people threatening them with arrest.  It NEVER calls people demanding immediate payment.  The question is, why don’t people know this?  The scam works because Americans have a caricatured image of the IRS.  And like so many caricatures, IT MUST BE EXAMINED CRITICALLY.  Real life is not a cartoon.  Question everything.  Your attachment to caricatures and uncritical stereotypes can cost you.


The internet has elevated what used to be call rumor or wive’s tales to the status of “news.”  Conventional wisdom is CRAP.  How many of the following statements would you say are correct?

  1. Most intellectuals during the Middle Ages believed the earth was flat.
  2. Vikings wore horns on their helmets.
  3. George Washington had wooden teeth.
  4. Albert Einstein flunked mathematics in school.
  5. Hair and fingernails continue to grow after death.
  6. Bulls are enraged by the color red.
  7. Sugar causes hyperactivity in children.
  8. People use only 10 percent of their brains.
  9. Cracking your knuckles causes osteoarthritis.
  10. A baby rattlesnake is more deadly than an adult.


Not ONE of these statements is correct.  NOT ONE.  Perhaps nothing illustrates the need for critical thinking in our society more than the hundreds of examples of conventional wisdom that are WRONG, the untold examples of common sense that FAIL, and the thousands of wive’s tails, clichés, rumors, and urban legends that are uncritically accepted by huge numbers of people.  UNLEARN.  EXAMINE.  QUESTION.






critical thinking

One of the first things to understand in developing the skills of critical thinking is realizing that you are often your own worst enemy, when it comes to sorting through ideas and claims.  You are not a blank slate.  You already have biases and baggage.  You already have wants and needs.  The question is whether you will control them or they will control you.  Human beings are not motivated by logic.  Of course they can learn to use logic, but it’s all too easy to fall into traps.  There is a big difference between RATIONALITY and RATIONALIZATION.


Let me give you an example.  Suppose I want to go to the store to get some candy.  My mother doesn’t want me to have candy.  So I go to the refrigerator and look for something we’re low on.  I find that we’re low on eggs.  I tell her we need eggs, so I’m gonna go to the store to get them.  Notice that my stated reason is perfectly sound.  But that doesn’t change the fact that I’m rationalizing.  It’s not MY reason.    The RATIONALE for my trip to the store doesn’t hold up.  Similarly, when we argue for or against something, we have to always be on guard.  The argument may be perfectly logical in and of itself.  But it may have nothing to do with our support of the idea, or lack thereof.  Understanding a hidden agenda can often turn opposition of an idea into support, or vice versa.


A lot of critical thinking involves exposing our own biases and faulty reasoning.  Most people are happy to use logic, up to a point, because they know it has persuasive power.  But logic per se will not protect us from ourselves.  We have to develop skills, and a mindset, that constantly challenges our own assumptions and beliefs.  We have to dig deep.  Let’s start with 5 basic principles of critical thinking.


Principle 1:  QUESTION EVERYTHING, ESPECIALLY YOURSELF.  This is a tough one for many people.  Most of us, as we grow up, are indoctrinated into a set of beliefs.  They are usually implanted there when we are quite young, before we have the mental wherewithal to challenge them, and by the time we do have it, they are often quite entrenched.  We don’t want to let go of them.  But consider this.  Until you actually question your beliefs, the argument could be made that you don’t really have any.  All you have is baggage.  Only after you dig deep and expose your “beliefs” to the light of critical examination can you really be said to have beliefs.  And until you do this, there will always be people who can take advantage of you, who can manipulate you by confirming and reinforcing your deeply held baggage.  If someone is trying to persuade you by telling you what you want to hear, an alarm should go off in your head.


Principle 2:  FORGET ABOUT “COMMON SENSE.”  Common sense is one of those things that many people seem to value, yet few have any clear idea about.  What does it mean?  It often seems to boil down to whatever biases, preconceptions, and cultural norms exist in a given area.  It used to be “common sense” in America that women were happy to be baby-making homebodies.  For centuries it was “common sense” that the earth did not move, and that it was the center of the universe.  The universe is often subtle, counterintuitive, and complex.  Time and again, experience has shown that people’s first ideas about processes and societies are often wrong.  Intuition is not necessarily a bad thing, but it should never be a substitute for digging deep and letting actual evidence speak.


Principle 3:  THE SOCIAL IMPERATIVE IS OFTEN AN ENEMY OF CRITICAL THINKING.  Human beings are social beings.  One of our most basic wants is to be accepted and loved by others.  The next time you’re in an auditorium, and people start rising to give a standing ovation, notice how it develops.  Usually, a few people stand first.  Then others follow suit.  Before long a critical mass of people causes almost everyone to stand.  At this point, with everyone standing around you and applauding, take note of your own state of mind.  Isn’t it difficult not to stand up?  These people are usually strangers, yet the sheer weight of the group has a strong effect on us.  How much greater is the effect when we are dealing with our family members or our peers?  The problem, of course, is that the group is sometimes wrong.  Many people remember Lincoln’s famous quote about not being able to fool all of the people all of the time.  But they overlook the first part, which is equally important:  “You can fool ALL of the people some of the time….” (Emphasis mine.)  That is a strong statement about the herd mentality.  One of the most important basic critical thinking skills is to forget about what is popular or cool, and focus on what YOU think, as an individual.


Principle 4:  CRITICAL THINKING IS NOT A CONTEST.  Getting at the truth is not about personalities.  It is not about winners and losers.  It is not about how effective you are at persuasion.  It is in fact often the ANTIDOTE to persuasion.  In school speech classes, students are often taught the skills of “debate.”  THIS HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH CRITICAL THINKING, which is why it isn’t taught in science fields.  It is about persuasion.  It is about using clever wordsmanship to win a contest.  Critical thinking, in many ways, is the very opposite.  It is about developing the skills to find holes in logic, to defeat distraction and wordsmanship.  It is about seeing more clearly YOUR OWN logical fallacies, biases, and mental traps, which are always your greatest danger, not trying to defeat someone else in a competition.


Principle 5:  UNDERSTAND THAT NO CONCLUSION IS TRUE IF ONE OR MORE PREMISES ARE FALSE.  Often, the failure of a proposition boils down to one particular link in a logical chain.  There is a famous algebraic proof that 1=2.  The proof is flawless.  Except for one thing.  It contains a division by zero.  If you can divide by zero, then 1=2.  Often times, those who want to persuade will produce a long, detailed, logical argument to support their case.  The argument is flawless, except for the basic premises, which are often quickly glossed over.  Critical thinking means digging deep into arguments, and often finding hidden premises that can bring the whole house of cards down.

More than anything, critical thinking is a HABIT OF MIND.  It means punching through bright, pleasing superficialities and finding what’s inside the package.  It means taking nothing at face value.  It means developing a mindset that is challenging to authority, whether that authority is your family, your teachers, your government, your peers, your church…do I need to go on?  NO authority can be allowed to stand in and of itself.  If it is worth following, it can stand on its merits, nothing more and nothing less.

certainty and the scientific approach

Truth is one of those words that gets thrown about a lot.  It is a fact that people tend to favor certainty and dislike doubt.  In some cases this is actually quite practical.  If you’re an Olympic swimmer, pushing yourself right to the edge to win, it helps to have a lot of self-confidence.  Doubt is your enemy.  You need to Believe, with a capital B, that you will win.  This is fine, and it applies to any situation in which you need to boost your self-confidence.  But self-confidence and pig-headedness are not the same thing.


In most situations, doubt is actually helpful.  Take a military commander.  Suppose he believes that the enemy is approaching from a particular area.  He has great confidence in his own ability to predict this.  Sure enough, enemy troops seem to be coming that way.  So he commits a lot of his forces to that area.  His subordinates warn that it may be a ruse.  The tanks may be fake.  They tell him that there also seems to be an enemy invasion in another area.  But he will have none of it.  He thinks the other invasion is the fake.  He has total confidence in himself.  As it turns out, the enemy forces he thinks he sees are indeed the fake.  It is a ruse.  The real invasion is coming the other way.  The result is predictable.  This actually happened in World War II.  The commander in question was Adolf Hitler.  He didn’t listen to his generals.  His unwillingness to doubt himself served him poorly, and this wasn’t the only time.


The lesson here is that doubt is usually a strength, not a weakness.  It simply means that your mind is open and you are always willing to change it, as new information and new perspectives become available.  But human beings want control.  Even when we don’t have control, we like to have the illusion of control.  This was undoubtedly one of the main motivators of religion in ancient times.  People had virtually no control over their environment, and little ability to respond to natural disasters.  So they invented beings who did have control, or endowed nature itself with spirit qualities.  By praying and/or sacrificing to these spirits or gods, they could have a degree of control over nature – at least in their own minds.  And that is an important point.  The illusion of control is often as important to people as actual control.  And in order to have the illusion of control, they need certainty.  It was not enough to think that maybe god(s) could control the volcano.  They had to Believe, with a capitol B.


Even without such motivations, human beings favor certainty.  They favor Truth with a capitol T.  This truth is eternal and universal.  And they will often latch on to a rock, stamping the label Truth upon it, and cling to it.  The trouble is, a given rock may or may not be the rock of Truth.  People have sincerely pursued their own particular rocks throughout history.  Each culture has its own rocks, often inconsistent with those of other cultures.  Obviously, they can’t all be True with a capitol T.  Even if everyone agrees on something, that doesn’t make it a fact of reality.  For centuries virtually every human being in Europe believed what seemed obvious, which was that the earth did not move, and was the center of the universe.


The alternative to such an approach is truth with a little t.  This is provisional truth.  It is truth that works for us, today, now, but which we might have to abandon in the future.  This is the truth of the scientific approach.  Science looks at the available evidence and comes up with an explanation for it.  It makes predictions.  To the extent that these predictions come true, science considers the explanation true.  But it is always provisional, always subject to modification, or even complete abandonment.  Notice that this approach is very pragmatic.  And it takes into account human fallibility.  There is no room for absolute certainty in this approach, because certainty is the end of exploration.  New information and new perspectives can bust open the provisional truth.


As I said, the scientific approach is pragmatic.  And I think you will find that it works.  It helps you avoid pitfalls, exploiters, and manipulators.  It gives you a great deal of actual control, rather than the illusion of control.  But it gives you this at the expense of certainty.  Progress has never been a bargain, you have to pay for it.  The price of scientific progress is the abandonment of certainty.


At this point the reader may well ask, “You mean the abandonment of faith, don’t you?”  That depends on your definition of faith.  If by faith you mean clinging to a rock of certainty for which you have no actual evidence, and turning off the exploratory part of your brain, then yes, I mean abandoning faith.  But that’s not my definition of faith.  My definition of faith is taking action when you DON’T have certainty, when all you have is provisional truth.  In real life, real decisions have to be made, and real actions have to be taken.  Making a decision, in a way, is always an act of faith.  The only question is whether you follow provisional truth, based on evidence, or absolute truth, based on none, and whether you are always open to new evidence that can help you see a new truth.

the scientific approach

If you’ve read the last 31 posts, you may come away with the impression that I am a proselytizer.  I am.  I am a proselytizer for science and technology.  If you truly believe, after reading those posts, that human life has not been dramatically improved by the scientific revolution, I doubt anything more I could say would convince you.  I haven’t even mentioned 3 major scientific fields, the sciences of genetics, evolution, and ecology, which have revolutionized our understanding of the natural world and ourselves.  The fact that so many Americans to this day fail to understand them speaks volumes about our educational system.


Of course, there are lots of questions the scientific method cannot answer, and never was intended to answer.  “Should I get married?”  “Is it wrong to kill people?”  “What is the meaning of life?”  Many argue that this is where religion comes in, and that there is no necessary conflict between science and religion, as long as they stick to their respective jurisdictions.  But I don’t think it’s that simple.  Most people think of the scientific method as having a specialized purpose – sophisticated experiments that smash subatomic particles against one another, or the sequencing of genes to determine the hereditary basis for some disease.  It’s true that most of us do not have the tools needed to do many scientific experiments, and experimentation is an important part of the scientific method.  And the scientific method is really only applicable to questions about how things work.  BUT –  the scientific method is only one specific part of a broad approach to questions.  I call it the scientific APPROACH.  It can be expressed pretty simply.  Open-minded skepticism.


Many people seem to consider these 2 things opposites.  I do not.  To me they are simply different aspects of the same basic approach.  Being open-minded means being willing to entertain all ideas and perspectives.  It means being willing to challenge your attachment to ideas that seem very attractive, even indispensable.  Skepticism means being willing to question all ideas and perspectives.  It means being willing to challenge your attachment to ideas that seem very attract.…wait, I just said that.  You get the idea.  This approach can applied to any situation in which you are faced with competing ideas.  What product to buy, what school to go to, what politician to vote for, what life is all about.  It means keeping your mind open to things that may seem unattractive or foreign, and keeping your guard up, because there are lots of people who will tell you what you want to hear.  It means training yourself to look beyond superficialities.  It means acquiring the skills to avoid being distracted and bamboozled.


When you become an adult, and even before, you are bombarded with persuasion and manipulation.  There are a million people and companies who would like to separate you from your pocketbook.  There are lots of organizations that want you to join their ranks.  And there are those who seek political power, who want your vote and support.  Almost all of these people and organizations have the benefit of generations of research and experience in manipulating human beings.  They know how to tell you what you want to hear, how to appeal to your basic wants and needs.  What do you have?


Human beings are not born with the skills of the scientific approach.  We tend to view the world in caricatures.  We have powerful emotional wants and needs.  We carry evolutionary baggage that makes us ill-prepared to deal with today’s world of mass communication and sophisticated manipulation techniques.  The scientific approach is one of the most important strategies we have to defend ourselves.  Within this approach is an arsenal of basic weaponry – critical thinking, an understanding of logical fallacies, knowledge of the techniques of public relations, and so on.


As I said, we aren’t born with these skills, and developing them takes care and effort.  It’s easy to fall into traps.  For example, some people confuse healthy skepticism with the pursuit of conspiracy theories.  A conspiracy theory is not necessary wrong, of course.  But it’s all too easy to overlook the fact that skepticism means that when an idea seems attractive, an alarm bell should go off.  Our own attachment to a particular idea is the very thing we have to be most on our guard against.  We need to do everything we can to try to falsify it, to find its weaknesses.  On the other hand, some people seem to think that open-mindedness means that every belief has equal merit, no matter what the evidence.  That gets us nowhere, and in fact is self-contradictory.  If every belief has equal merit, then the belief that every belief has equal merit is itself no better than the belief that some beliefs are better than others.  So we’re left with nothing at all, not even the open-mindedness that was supposed to be our starting point.  There is often a tendency to say, “Well, every idea is just someone’s opinion.”  If that were really so, we wouldn’t have had 4 centuries of scientific and technological progress, and people wouldn’t be deprived of their life savings by hucksters and charlatans.  In real life we have to make real decisions, and these depend on discernment – separating the wheat from the chaff.  I don’t advocate the scientific approach for ultimate philosophical reasons.  I advocate it for very practical reasons.


The scientific approach is applicable to any situation in which you have to decide between competing ideas, products, people, or jobs.  It is often said that knowledge is power, and this is quite true.  But as Pope said, a little learning is a dangerous thing.  People who lack critical thinking skills often acquire just enough knowledge to reinforce what they already believe.  Without open-minded skepticism, knowledge can become more of a liability than a strength.  The scientific approach can be your map through a mine field laid by exploiters and manipulators.


In the coming days I will talk about critical thinking and how to develop it.  It is something that should be in the curriculum of every grade school, with the skills becoming ever more developed at each grade level.  But it isn’t.  I will be providing links to other sites that can also help you develop your skills.  Hopefully you will find this information useful.  But ultimately, your ability to protect yourself from the exploiters and charlatans is up to you.  You have to make the effort.

30. astronomy/cosmology

For thousands of years, one thing was very obvious to peoples all over the world – the earth did not move.  The earth was stable, solid as a rock.  The sun, the moon, the planets, the stars, all moved around the earth.  It was “common sense.”  Many ancient cultures believed the earth was a flat disk.  This may seem surprising, given that as you move from north to south or vice versa, you see different stars.  The ancient Greeks did notice this, and came to the correct conclusion that the earth was a ball.  But for centuries, human beings almost universally believed that the earth was motionless, and the center of the universe.  The general idea was that the sun, moon, planets, and stars were held in concentric spheres around the earth, each spinning at its own rate.  This created some problems with the planets, because their apparent motions are irregular.  But this problem was cleverly solved by resorting to smaller spheres within larger spheres.  What about comets?  Their motion could be a big problem for the concentric spheres idea.  Well, Aristotle had an easy solution, which held sway for a very long time.  Comets were in the upper atmosphere!


One thing is important to realize when looking at the history of astronomy and cosmology – until the 17th century, the human eye was unaided.  People couldn’t see craters on the moon.  They couldn’t see the phases of Venus, or that other planets had moons.  Once the telescope was invented, these things were quickly discovered.  The moon was not a “light” in the sky – it was a solid object, like the earth.  Other planets also had moons.  Venus went through phases, like our moon.  The cosmology of the previous 20 centuries was destroyed, much to the dismay of many devout people.  The earth was not the center of the solar system.  There were no concentric spheres holding the sun, moon, planets, and stars.  Previously unknown planets were discovered in the 18th and 19th centuries, and astronomers began to grasp the enormous distances between the stars.


Imagine you are riding a beam of light from our sun.  It takes you about 8 minutes to reach the earth.  Then you turn toward the nearest star outside of our solar system.  And you wait.  Hours pass, and you’re still not outside our solar system.  Days pass.  Finally you’re outside the orbit of Neptune, but the nearest star seems no closer.  Weeks pass.  Months.  Years.  Finally after more than 4 YEARS, you reach the Alpha Centauri system.  The NEAREST solar system to ours.  But this is nothing.  In the northern sky, in the constellation Andromeda, is an object easily visible to the unaided eye.  It looks like a fuzzy patch of light.  There are other fuzzy patches of light in the night sky, many of them only visible with a telescope.  In the 18th century, they began to be catalogued, and the Andromeda “nebula” was given a designation like all the rest.  It was not until the 20th century that this object came to be seen for what it really was.  In the 1920’s there was a fierce debate about whether the Andromeda “nebula” was in fact a distant galaxy.  The evidence soon settled the matter.  The Andromeda galaxy is just that – a completely separate collection of stars and dust, with a starless, dustless void of millions of light-years between it and ourselves.  These kinds of distances are almost unfathomable.  Riding our beam of light, we leave the Alpha Centauri system headed for the Andromeda galaxy.  We will have quite a wait.  It will take MILLIONS of years to get there at light speed.  And it turns out – you guessed it – the Andromeda galaxy is a very near neighbor, cosmically speaking.  It is in the “Local Group,” a collection of several dozen nearby galaxies.  The Local Group is in turn within the Virgo Supercluster, a collection of more than 100 clusters and galaxy groups.  The Virgo Supercluster is about 100 million light-years across, which is again a tiny fraction of the space within the observable universe.  The observable universe is estimated to be about 1000 times as far across as that.

Hubble Frontier Fields view of MACSJ0717.5+3745

This image from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope shows the galaxy cluster MACSJ0717.5+3745. This is one of six being studied by the Hubble Frontier Fields programme, which together have produced the deepest images of gravitational lensing ever made. Due to the huge mass of the cluster it is bending the light of background objects, acting as a magnifying lens. It is one of the most massive galaxy clusters known, and it is also the largest known gravitational lens. Of all of the galaxy clusters known and measured, MACS J0717 lenses the largest area of the sky.

At this point you may be wondering, how does all of this information improve our lives?  No doubt there are technological spin-offs to the exploration of the universe, I won’t belabor that.  I will say that a genuine understanding of how tiny we are, and how isolated, leads to a valuing of life.  Cosmically we are small and insignificant.  We can destroy ourselves and the universe will not even notice.  But we are also rare, and so we can also consider ourselves precious.  We live on a tiny island, surrounded by an enormous hostile sea.  Even if there are other civilizations out there, on other islands, it is a VERY LONG way to the next island.  The cosmic perspective can give us the humility and the maturity we badly need.




29. space travel

Even in the mid 20th century, many people thought it was impossible to go to the moon.  In his book Profiles of the Future, Arthur Clarke gives a hilarious example of a distinguished astronomer who confidently pronounced that travel to the moon was quite impossible, with the math to back it up.  In 1941!  If he had bothered to consult the readily available published work of pioneers like Goddard, he would have gotten his math right.  This illustrates how parochial and how geocentric humanity’s thinking tends to be, even since Copernicus.  But the march of science and technology would have none of it.


The Space Age had a huge effect on humanity’s perspective, even though, thus far, only a handful of people have been far enough from the earth to see it as a tiny island in a black void.  No doubt that will change.  It is almost a cliché to say that the space race gave us many “spin-off” technologies that we rely on.  But often overlooked are satellites, which have given us everything from vastly improved weather prediction to precise global positioning technology.  Robots have already left the solar system, and remain our vanguard to the exploration of other worlds.


Since the space race, humanity has remained very close to the earth.  This may seem strange, given the incredible technological progress our species has made, but human travel into the depths of space is actually much harder than most people imagine.  It is nothing like the expansion of America westward in the 19th century, or Europe’s exploration of the oceans in the centuries before.  Space is a hostile environment – there is no air, no water, no food, and plenty of deadly radiation.  The exploration of space will be more like the exploration of Antarctica (but even harder).  It will take decades, perhaps centuries, to build colonies on the moon and Mars.  None of this is likely to happen until we get our act together on this planet.  Meanwhile, our robot ambassadors have reached out to other worlds and will continue to do so.  They have taught us a lot about the other planets and moons in our solar system.  We now have, in essence, a permanent robotic presence on Mars, both on the surface and in orbit.  As robots continue to improve, the other planets in our solar system will become populated with robot “colonies,” the precursors of human colonies.




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