Wednesday, 30 January 2013

Humanists vs Atheists

The current fanatical humanists really get on my nerves. They do not see that they are falling into the same trap as the people they oppose. Richard Dawkins is a prime example. There is a nice chart about religious extremism which includes people who think that Apple is God. They should add a column for people who think Dawkins is God.

Early humanists like Hobbes and Erasmus were not necessarily atheists although some saw them as atheists. What they meant is that people should not abdicate responsibility for their religious views and practices to a church and to a priest. If you do you are letting someone else make decisions about beliefs that are fundamental to who you are, and this is never a good thing. Now the humanist movement and particularly the British Humanists are trying to impose their views in the same way. Even in the 20th century humanists like Santayana and Lippmann were not suggesting that atheism was the answer. They said that everyone must find their own answer. It is personal. I do not think badly of those who hold a religious view of any type, that is up to them. I think they are wrong if they try to impose that belief on others, or if they are blind to there being any alternative to their view. I also think that they must be careful to separate their beliefs from their work if they are to make objective decisions.

But I do not think that atheism should be pushed presented as the right answer. There are no right answers. To say that there are is falling into the teleological trap of believing in progress towards some ultimate goal. There is no goal, we are not going anywhere special. Humans are not particularly special within the universe. We are self conscious which means we have access to a higher level of possibilities but this is emergent from the blind actions of evolution.

The modern humanists need to get off their high horses and try reading some history and meeting some more people, rather than sitting there lecturing people on how they should run their lives.

Tuesday, 29 January 2013

How Not To Write a Lecture

I had spent lots of time looking for examples for my lecture on Communicating Science to show how news stories can lose the evidence and how the facts can get lost. Then I delivered it today and my verdict is - well that didn't work did it.

The illustrations and examples are fine except for the end and the Conspiracy Theories which need to be more current and relevant. What was wrong was the structure. It did not flow. There was no pathway to follow and no consistency. It was just one silly story after another. So back to the drawing board but this also shows me the problems with having a massively parallel narrative as a method for teaching as the students will end up in the same position as the students today - with an over-whelming jumble of fact that they cannot relate to concrete situations they might be in.

Monday, 21 January 2013

Amazon Reviews

I am amused by how angry people can get over Amazon reviews. Reviews about climate change books and politics polarise the audience and so the discussions following reviews can be quite revealing about the types of people who read a particular book.

Here are some examples I have found:

Realism in Science

Most people want science to capture the real world. Plato used the allegory of the cave and shadows of the real world projected onto the walls. The shadows never capture the reality of being able to look out of the cave. The view is never impartial, it always depends on what passes in front of the cave. The Greeks also had the idea of an absolute definition - that things defined b a word exist separate to humans creating that word. A chair once defined exists distinct from its context. Wittgenstein continued this idea. All objects contain what they are forever. Copenhagen rejected this objective realism. The observer and the context define what we see. If a tree falls and there is nobody there to hear it then it made no noise. This is a very anthropomorphic view of the universe as it needs humans as observers. Who observed the big bang?

Sunday, 20 January 2013

R-code for Showing Two Overlapping Normal Distributions

This is the code that I use to show how normal distributions overlap and how to find the right sample size to be able to distinguish the two alternatives.

dat <- read.table(text="info mean sd
                   HYP1 10 0.2
                   HYP2 12 0.2", header =T)
dat <- transform(dat, lower=mean-4*sd, upper=mean+4*sd) #create upper and lower bounds for the plot
plot(x=c(min(dat$lower)-2, max(dat$upper)+2), y=c(0, 2), ylab="", 
     xlim=c(min(dat$lower)-2, max(dat$upper)+2),xlab="",
     axes=FALSE, xaxs="i", type="n")
FUN <- function(rownum){
  curve(dnorm(x,dat[rownum,2], dat[rownum, 3]),
        xlim=c(c(min(dat$lower)-2, max(dat$upper)+2)),
        ylim=c(0, 2),
        ylab="", xlab="")
lapply(seq_len(nrow(dat)), function(i) FUN(i))

Tuesday, 15 January 2013

Emergence of the Social

This is why Dawkins and his reductionism fails, not because he does not think of the system but because he forgets that random processes can produce ordered results. S.J. Gould criticised him for not thinking about the system and that was a valid criticism, but Dawkins thought that he could answer that. What he has never dealt with is the physical property of emergence.

Emergence is when a random system spontaneously becomes ordered - at a higher level than the one in which it is disordered. This is a macro-phenomenon from a micro-effect and Dawkins regardless of saying he would include work by Eigen in his ideas about how life started has carefully ignored all of the literature on chaos and emergence in all of his books. He never cites anyone with that sort of view such as Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen. The core of the idea is actually present in Monod's book Chance and Necessity which shows a clear parallel to the Selfish Gene. Monod referred to this as "gratuity" that something else arises and the organism has access to other possibilities as an addition to the original effect. It is all about evolvability.

On another point I said a bit about politics yesterday and that Libertarians were wrong to think so much of the self when we are a social animal. But this also damns the socialists as emergence comes from the bottom. It is not a command and control effect and so existing socialist views are likely to fail. You need to harness movements from the ground upward and you have to let them evolve naturally.

Monday, 14 January 2013

Cooperation vs selfishness

The BBC had an article that kinder children are more popular. Social animals have evolved more than once (insects and mammals). As it is polyphyletic there must be an advantage to the social and altruism might not just be selfishness in disguise.

Why do all the bad guys lose in all the cartoon series and all the films? There is a saying that there is no honour amongst thieves and that is the key. That is why the bad guys never win. They lose because they always see evil in others and so they are waiting for the next betrayal. This is why the Deceptercons never win and why there are only ever two Sith. It seems that we understand the dangers of selfishness (and Libertarians fall into the same trap). The winners are the social and the collaborators and it is because humans have evolved into having to be a social animal.We cannot survive alone, we need others and that is why we can afford to have such a long time of helpless development before maturity.

The advantage we get from all this is escaping our genes and our environment. We can live in more climates and we can pass on our experience to our children. We do not have to have the hard coding of the gene.

Sunday, 13 January 2013

Problem Based Learning

I was having a discussion about the future of university education this morning and we were talking about problem based learning and "gamification". The person I was talking to is a lawyer and they felt that the best lawyers were not those that learnt in a problem based way, but those who were taught the old way in a very theoretical way that made them engage in depth with the law reports.

So is she right? I think mostly it was a confusion of ideas. When I mean problem based learning this can mean take away problems that are worked on over time and that could include in depth research and critical thinking. Her concern was the loss of deep analytical skills and an academic sense of law. So I want to see these deeper skills cultivated and old fashioned didactic teaching did nothing for this. You either arrived with critical skills and survived or you had a miserable university experience. The question is what are you doing a degree for? Expanding your view of the world and becoming this "academic" sage like being, or to get a job? Now as someone who is still in academia after over 20 years I picked the first answer but most (all my peers who are now well paid) pick the second. But I am well aware that a dictionary definition of academic is pointless and irrelevant.

For a lawyer this is also a slightly odd point to make as a generation before it was unusual for lawyers to have law degrees and they were encouraged to have broader interests. The final training for law happened at the vocational and practical law schools. There was no need to go to university at all to be a solicitor.

Do the "academic" skills have any place? They help you lose friends and alienate people by being that pompous supercilious know-it-all who bores everyone to death. You have a broad view of the world but you have the same naivities and stupidities as those without the academic skills. Does it make you a better lawyer, doctor, architect? I do not know if that insular world not focussed on the more mundane and practical does any good for anyone. That is the world of Laputa from Gulliver's travels. That is a travel that most people never read about, but it is the funniest story to me. That is the world of the old university, of Oxbridge, of the Russell group and of the Ivy League. Spending all your time obscuring the light from the world outside while you try to weigh rainbows. It is even funnier if you know a little Spanish.