Sunday, December 21, 2014

The Dangers Inherent in the Seductive Allure of Paradise

Both christians and muslims believe in an afterlife (for the "righteous") that's characterized by eternal bliss with their putative deity.  For the unbelievers and unrepentant sinners, there's eternal pain and torment.  This is the classic carrot-and-stick by which the faithful are controlled.  Reward or punishment?  It's your choice.  Submit or suffer forever, it appears.  This seems like a simple and effective way to control behavior and, to listen to many believers, it seems to work.  Furthermore, many people who experience the death of their friends and relatives are comforted by the thought that (a) the suffering (if any) has been exchanged for eternal bliss, and (b) they will meet again when the living join the dead in paradise.

Unfortunately, this seemingly simple black-and-white isn't so simple as it seems.  For instance, the comfort derived from the prospect of a heavenly afterlife for our friends and family members has to be a bit uncertain.  After all, there's precious little comfort if the deceased were to pass on into eternal torment!  How can we know for sure, since no one has ever come back and let us know how it turned out for them?  Can we know for sure that we'’ll pass muster when we die?  Every religion claims to be the right path.  At most, only one can be right, and they may all be wrong, even about the very existence of a heavenly afterlife reserved only for their followers.

And think about the attractive lure of paradise when your life becomes a living hell (at least as you or others see it)?  Why not take one's own life, put an end to your troubles, and hasten your entry into paradise?  The bible is silent on suicide, interestingly enough.  See:  here

The clergy figured out centuries ago that if they gave believers the choice of a hard, unpleasant life on Earth or an everlasting paradise in heaven, their churches could become rather sparsely populated!  Hence, the clergy invented a cure for this problem:  they ruled that suicide is a guaranteed way to wind up in the bad place to spend eternity, not the good place!!  No mention of that in the bible, so it's clearly an invention of the clergy.  Brilliant!  Problem solved, right?

Well, no, not completely.  Religious believers are still committing suicide, although some perhaps are swayed by this threat.  To what extent the prospect of paradise (or hades) motivates their decision, I certainly can't say.  Many people evidently see no alternative in this life, despite the threat of going to eternal torment for it.  Furthermore, suppose someone is having a really difficult time, or is perceived to be suffering (or about to suffer) by one of their friends or family?  Would it not be an act of mercy to murder them, and hasten their entry into paradise?  Surely, releasing someone (even without their permission) from physical pain and/or mental agony would be an act of altruism.  But of course, murder is a sin and damns the murderer in the afterlife .  Nevertheless, in some people’s twisted mind, this "benevolent" act is a selfless sacrifice by the murderer.  You give up your own ticket to heaven (and book a ticket to hell) for the noble purpose of sending the sufferer to immortal joy, relieving them of their anguish.

We see reports of this sort of "benevolent murder" all too often – it's pretty obvious that such people have a very twisted view of right and wrong.  Most would agree that the perpetrators are mentally ill, and such a diagnosis is probably correct.  But these murderers believe they’re doing good, not evil.  Mainstream religion has provided them with this vision of neverending paradise that they believe not only justifies their crime, but ennobles it!  The vision itself likely isn't the root cause of their murderous deeds, but it's a way that a sick mind can “rationalize” what they do.  The prospect of paradise for the victim is a ready-made excuse, and the hope for gaining paradise is preached by religious clergy all the time.

To what extent does such a justification affect the frequency of murder among believers versus non-believers?  I haven't done the work to give a proper answer to that and know of no work done on this subject.  But I can virtually guarantee that no atheist will ever justify a murder for such a "reason".  What might these sick minds have done without the vision of their deeds as help, not harm?  No one can know that, of course.  They might have found a different excuse for their murder, or they might not have done the murder at all.  We can only speculate on what might have been, but we do know for a fact that the allure of a heavenly paradise was used as the reason they gave for their actions.  If they didn't actually need the excuse, nevertheless they used it rather than something else.

In a related vein, the religious concept of the "end of times" includes the sweeping up of all the righteous into paradise and the eternal punishment of all the unbelievers and unrepentant sinners.  I find it worrisome that some people actually look forward to this "end of times" evolution, with its "settling of all the accounts".  Rather than seeking to make the Earth a better place, such people are provided with a ready-made excuse to do nothing to improve our lives in this life.  And I've even heard people say that if they could hasten the day of the world's end by doing something, they'd gladly do so. That is, in my view, a sick person, deluded by religion in the arrogant, narcissistic belief that they surely would be selected for paradise.

Paradise in an afterlife has some pretty worrisome implications as a concept, if you think about it – it puts a benevolent face on an otherwise evil deed.  Suicidal terrorists often justify themselves this way, as well - they're sacrificing their lives for the sake of advancing their (religious) aims, and so will be guaranteed an eternity in heaven.  The paradise concept  doesn’t cause mental illness and murder, but it does make it possible for sick, deluded people to justify horrific acts.  In the absence of the belief in a paradise (and/or an anti-paradise), mentally ill people might find other excuses, but this one is so widely disseminated and accepted, it falls readily into their hands.  It is concept that provides fertile ground for diseased minds.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Take a Dose of Empathy and See If It Helps you Feel Better

I spent the years of my life before college in DuPage County, IL, a nearly homogeneous bastion of white, conservative Middle America.  The spectrum of ethnicity we had was dominated almost entirely by the choice of religion.  We didn't have blacks or Hispanics or even Asians living in our communities and attending my schools - if there were any, I never knew of them or saw them.  As a boy, I seem to recall being told a  story that a middle-class African-American couple wanted to buy a home in one of my hometown neighborhoods.  All the neighbors were so horrified, the story goes, they offered to buy the property from the homeowners rather than letting a black couple live in their precious paradise.  I don't know if the story is true.  But it's safe to say that I grew up in lily-white America, and it was very much like that in my university experiences, as well.  Yes, there were diverse ethnicities at the Universities of Wisconsin and Oklahoma in the 1960s (especially on the football teams!), but not in the circles within which I circulated.  I was taking mostly math and physics and such, after all.

In July of 1969, I was drafted into the Army and even spent a tour in Vietnam.  Needless to say, the Army wasn't too proud to take anyone in as cannon fodder in Vietnam, so I was suddenly tossed into a world where cultural and ethnic diversity was light years beyond anything I'd ever experienced.  I was rather startled by it all ... but all of us enlisted draftee swine had a common enemy:  the Army!  In the military, you make friends quickly or you'll have no friends at all.  Via the vehicle of marijuana, I suddenly found myself amidst a very different group of people than at any time before:  blacks from all over the US, Latinos, even southern rednecks!!  And a few of us actually respected the Vietnamese rather than dismissing them as contemptible, subhuman "gooks".  The "heads" were my primary group affiliation, although my best friend in the military was a white farmer from Oregon - and he hung with the same group I did!  Lo and behold.  After the shock wore off, I found it relatively easy to get along with pretty much any cultural or ethnic group.  I realized by actually talking with them that they valued mostly the same things I did.  They disliked many of the same things I did.  We had much in common and I found the cultural differences interesting, rather than threatening.

That experience stayed with me, but when I left the military and returned to the civilian world, I re-entered those circles that traditionally have been sparsely-populated by non-whites.  Hence, my group affiliations once again reflected a relative minimum of diversity.  Recently, though, there has been some progress.  Circumstances once again have conspired to let me know real people who don't share my skin coloration and ethnic background.  Lo, and behold! - they've had very different experiences from mine!  When they share their experiences, I sometimes find myself being embarrassed for those who share my ethnicity but not my attitudes.  It's not my fault that some people I know are racists, but it's difficult to interact comfortably with my non-white friends when some awful example of racism becomes front page news.  I guess I shouldn't expect comfort when confronting these issues, eh?

Here's what I think is the key to eventually defeating the poison of racism in our nation:  empathy.  If people just try to imagine what the world looks like to someone different from themselves, then perhaps we can begin to see why they do what they do, and think like how they think.  It doesn't necessarily mean that they're right in their thinking (nor does it mean I'm right in my thinking), but it helps to understand them better.  If you take advantage of any chances to speak with someone different and thereby have a dialog about things, perhaps you will learn things you never imagined to be so.  How does the world look to someone else?  You'll never know if you don't listen and don't ask - if you never talk with them and at least try to imagine their point of view. True empathy is when you've experienced precisely what they've experienced, but the next best thing is hearing about their experiences directly from them.  Then at least you can imagine what it might be like for them.

I can make an argument that empathy is the wellspring of morality ... but this is not the time or place.  As we approach the Christmas holiday season, I wish I could give everyone a big dose of empathy.  I suspect many people would feel better in a lot of ways if I could do that.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

A Lengthy, Point-by-Point Response

A while back, I posted a blog about the atrocities perpetrated by Communist dictatorships.  Someone has attempted to discredit one aspect of the arguments therein, so I created a point-by-point response.  The result was rather too lengthy for this blog format, so I posted it on the web, here.  Short comments can be offered via this blog, but lengthy, detailed commentary should be sent via email using the address provided in the essay.

Giving Up the High Ground in the War on Terror

The recent Senate committee investigation of the use of torture on prisoners in the "war on terror" has confirmed what seemed obviously to be the case several years ago:  the USA has been using terrorist methods on their prisoners.  The Senate investigation concluded that little or nothing was gained in terms of useful information by resorting to torture, so the only substantial outcome of the process has been the validation of terrorist claims that the USA is an immoral international bully.

I've repeatedly said that violence only leads to more violence, and that terrorism is a tactic resorted to primarily by militarily weak opponents, who can't possibly win a "set piece" military confrontation.  The terrorists can't hope to win a purely military victory, so they're smart enough not even to try to do so, but if they can instill fear in us and use that fear to cause us to adopt fascist tactics to fight terrorism (e.g., giving up personal freedom in the name of security), then they'll have succeeded in their limited aims.  By giving up the moral high ground in this battle between some fanatic religious sects and a world superpower, we hand them a cheap victory.  We confirm their "great satan" claims about us, and expend our resources in a vain effort to kill enough of the terrorists to get them to stop their actions.  Can we not see that religious fanatics will never give up?  Can we not see that for each one we kill, making them into martyrs, we only create more terrorists?  Can we not see that "collateral damage" to noncombatant citizens from our war on terror makes new terrorists every day?  Can we not see that the primary beneficiaries of our massive military expenditures are the big defense corporations?  Are we not smart enough to see that a purely military victory is impossible?

I know there are many Americans out there who advocate giving the terrorists a taste of their own methods.  There are many Americans who say that terrorists have no rights and deserve whatever pain we can inflict on them, by whatever means.  Clearly, many Americans prefer vengeance over morality, despite their "christian" upbringing.  Treating our enemies in the way they treat us removes any substantive difference between us and them!  Do many Americans fail to see this?  Evidently so.

This nation was founded on the basis of high moral principles:  freedom and justice for all, in particular.  Due process.  Probable cause.  Innocent until proven guilty.  Everyone entitled to legal representation.  Habeas corpus.   Speedy trials by jury.  Humane treatment while in prison.  Cruel and unusual punishment forbidden.  If the GWB administration was so certain about the correctness of their actions in employing torture on prisoners, then why did they feel compelled to lie about it?  When someone says one thing and does the opposite, that's generally called hypocrisy.  And, as often observed by my friend R.J. Evans, the hypocrisy always reveals the lie.  Americans like to point to themselves as the standard bearers for freedom and justice in the world, but the facts lately seem to contradict that claimed status.  Many people in the world have reason to see us a bullies, using our military might to serve mostly selfish ends (like "protecting" oil for the big energy corporations to enrich themselves and use the wealth to influence the political process), paying lip service to our ideals.

It's hard to live up to those lofty ideals, it seems.  Many Americans apparently are all too ready to discard those ideals in order to wreak vengeance on our terrorist enemies.  They simply can't see that such actions ultimately reveal that we don't have enough faith in our own ideals to defend our moral high ground simply by resisting the temptation to resort to tactics like torture.  We should show the world by our example that it's not us but the terrorists who are immoral, violently evil fanatics, willing to do anything to advance their political/religious cause.  We should re-confirm our claims that our nation is the embodiment of high ideals for the world to emulate rather than descending into the same slime pit the terrorists occupy.  We should defend personal freedoms and personal justice for all (even accused terrorists) even more vigorously, rather than giving them up in the forlorn hope of defeating terrorism by rooting terrorists out and killing them.

I have no love for terrorists.  I don't mourn the deaths of their leaders (but neither do I celebrate their deaths).  They are evil fanatics!  But I maintain we can't "win" a military victory over terrorism.  The "security" we've gained by sacrificing our rights as human beings in this war on terror is an illusion.  Terrorists will always be able to find holes in that security - no security plan is impenetrable.  Not only is that security ultimately ineffective against terrorism, but it's expensive!  We're bankrupting ourselves with our tactics, including fighting unwinnable wars on foreign soil and maintaining the very same military-industrial complex about which outgoing President Eisenhower warned us.  Can most Americans not see this?  Evidently not.  That just plays into the terrorists' hand.

What we can do to limit the effectiveness of terror is stay true to our principles and show that they're wrong about us and our ideals, thereby marginalizing them and limiting their power of fear over us by restoring our lost freedoms and once again supporting justice for all

Sunday, December 7, 2014

A Christmas Cherry in Music

This time of year, the music of Christmas fills the air - in malls, on TV, in concerts and elevators.  After all " 'tis the season to be jolly! ".  For me, since the music is an integral part of the season and, therefore, I was raised with it, so the sounds bring back memories of Christmas past.  Today, my wife and I attended a Christmas concert at OU that was delightful and I thoroughly enjoyed it.  There were even sing-alongs of some of the religious songs, with which I gladly joined.  I still remember the words to those songs (for the most part) after all these years.  What fun - I even had to wipe some tears from my eyes at times!  Music is something that can touch any living person, needs no translation, and allows the spirit to soar -  your voice breaks and your heart fills your chest.  Tears can flow, chills can run up your spine, and you are carried to places where the only thing that matters is that moment.  You lose your "self" in such moments.  That someone could compose music centuries ago that still has the ability to affect us so deeply means that some cord of commonality exists between us and that composer - who may be long dead but is still capable of communication with us! 

Some might see the combination of my forthright atheism and Christmas songs to be somewhat confusing.  In my view of things, the music is beautiful beyond question and the memories are mostly wonderful.  If you find it bothersome that I can enjoy Christmas music, then I say you're the one with a problem, not me.  I don't feel any hesitation or embarrassment in saying that I enjoy Christmas music.

What I find sad and disappointing is the extent to which many fail to live up the the lofty ideals within those Christmas songs - except perhaps for the few weeks when Christmas is looming on the horizon.  It's also the case that many people - usually those experiencing misfortunes of one sort or another - may find Christmas to be a miserable time.  The happiness surrounding them can be depressing.

That many christians "cherry-pick" their bibles is something I've noted in some of my atheist polemics:  Christians select those passages that reflect their personal views, even as they rationalize away (or ignore) passages that don't match those views.   This tactic is convenient for accommodating some of the nasty bits of biblical scripture, as I've pointed out.  But I have no big problem with someone who chooses to follow this path - after all, religion ultimately is a very personal thing and not everyone adheres to precisely the same dogma as everyone else, despite millennia of attempts by organized religious denominations to get everyone on the same page, at times using violent methods.  All I ask is that the cherry-pickers acknowledge what they're doing.  In America, this sort of individual selection of religious elements is rampant - Americans are notoriously difficult to get to march in lockstep - one of our positive traits in my book!  Every believer has their own personal spin on their spiritual beliefs.

If religious believers can cherry-pick their scriptures, it seems perfectly acceptable for me to cherry-pick the aspects of religion I prefer:  the music, the art, the devotion to charity for the disadvantaged, the call to love one's enemies, and so forth.  I see nothing wrong or hypocritical about that and nowhere is it in conflict with my atheist morality.  [Yes, atheists can be moral without the need for a deity and the scriptures associated with that deity!]  I choose to reject all the supernatural mumbo-jumbo as metaphorical at best and certainly don't see those scriptures as inspired by some all-everything deity.  The basic tenets of religious faith I reject as irrational, contradictory, and even potentially harmful.  But religion has, beyond doubt, inspired many of the world's artists to contribute their finest works.  Let anyone hearing Handel's Messiah tell me they aren't buoyed to great emotional heights by the power of that work!  Not coincidentally, this afternoon's concert concluded with the Hallelujah! Chorus at the end of Handel's Messiah.  During my junior year in high school, our Christmas concert concluded with that same piece and it was an emotional volcano to be a part of the combined choirs as we belted out that joyful emotion embodied in song.  You would have to be a dead soul not to find that inspirational, even when you're an atheist!

The power of music to reach into our psyche is not rational.  There's no logic to support that.  It's beyond reason but, rather, touches something deep in our DNA.  Most people are vulnerable to its power even if they, like me, have little or no talent for making music myself.  Music, in my opinion, is a great gift of our existence.  That I have children who are musically-inclined is a great joy to me.  And I love Christmas music.  Anyone who has a problem with that can go eat shit.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

The Hubris of Physics?

Those who study physics as a discipline in its own right must confront the reality that it is essentially impossible to be a master at all parts of physics.  The people who study fluid dynamics, or electromagnetics, or quantum mechanics, or astrophysics, or relativity, or any of many other disciplines that all fit under the umbrella of physics must realize that they simply can't be a master of all these very diverse subdiscipines.  My field, meteorology could be considered a subdiscipline within physics, but meteorology itself has fractionated into many diverse sub-subdisciplines:  atmospheric chemistry, atmospheric dynamics, high-atmosphere physics, boundary-layer meteorology, physical meteorology (the study of optical, electrical, acoustical, and thermodynamic phenomena in the atmosphere, including the physics of clouds and precipitation), severe storms meteorology, tropical meteorology, remote sensing, etc.  Again, no meteorologist is master of all these.

Why do I belabor what might seem to be an obvious point?  Science is growing so fast that no one could possibly become a world-class expert in all its facets.  Surely everyone already knows that.  Yet I've seen several recent examples of scientific papers published by those who call themselves "physicists" who are attempting to say something original and innovative about the meteorology of tornadoes.  In virtually all the examples I've seen, the physicists are displaying embarrassingly profound ignorance of the science of meteorology.  What qualifies them to publish such "research"?

When I talk to students about their progression from undergraduate, to graduate school - first for a Master's degree, and then for a Ph. D. - one thing that I emphasize is that if you're going to do original, innovative research in some area, it takes considerable time to build up an appreciation for what's been done already in that area, and to learn what problems are still in need of solutions.  The trick for a piece of research is to know what problems are simultaneously interesting and important, as well as being solvable.   It's relatively easy to find interesting problems, but many are unsolvable, barring some as yet unknown breakthrough.  Solvable problems are not always worth the effort because they're not very important.  The "dilettante" physicists of which I'm writing seem content to bypass all that, perhaps because they've concluded that their physics academic credentials qualify them as experts on whatever they choose.

The "Horatio Alger" story about the outsider who comes in knowing nothing and so is unshackled by "conventional" thinking and thereby able to see things that specialists can't see is widely popular, but the reality is that the vast majority of such efforts by "science carpetbaggers" are failures.   Alfred Wegener is probably one of the very few exceptions to this, and he was a meteorologist speculating about geology - at least it was another Earth science!  A few of these "outsider" papers about tornadoes manage to get published in scientific journals, but virtually never in meteorological journals, where the reviewers would pick them to pieces.  None of them, to my knowledge, ever have contributed anything at all useful.

Just because physics likes to consider itself the "Father of the Sciences" doesn't mean that a physicist knows much about, say, meteorology.  I've known a few physicists personally, and while I certainly can't generalize about all physicists, I've seen the sort of disdain some physicists have for "lesser" sciences, evidently thinking they're child's play compared to physics.  This sort of arrogance is not merited by reality.  Many sciences have their own emergent concepts that might be based ultimately on physical principles, but which represent a specialized domain of knowledge that isn't so easily understood, even by physics majors!  In general, nothing about a physics education prepares one to leap into some other science and claim to have a deep insight not shared by the scientists in a "lesser" science.  In the cases with which I can claim some familiarity, the ignorance of their assumptions about meteorological topics is the dominant flaw in their papers.

All of us need to be respectful of the work of others in comparison to our own.  We may have issues about that work or the conclusions drawn from it, but we should never disrespect others simply because we perceive our discipline is more challenging and our understanding more comprehensive and, therefore, we are more deserving of respect.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

New Thoughts on the Human-Machine Mix in Weather Forecasting

With the development of digital computers in the 1940s, the stage was set for numerical weather prediction models based on the equations governing the atmosphere, as envisioned by such meteorological pioneers as Andrie S. Monin, Vilhelm Bjerknes, and Lewis Fry Richardson.  Numerical solution of those otherwise unsolvable equations was the catalyst for a revolution in the science of meteorology, and a continuing debate about the role of humans in weather forecasting.  Sverre Petterssen and Werner Schwerdtfeger, among others, began to anticipate how computer forecasts could compete with humans in the task of weather forecasting.  With the introduction of post-processing methods for turning the gridded variables of a numerical model into actual weather forecasts, Leonard Snellman recognized what he saw as a very real possibility:  fully automated public weather forecasting.  Snellman coined the term meteorological cancer to describe the eventual demise of human intervention in the forecast process.

The notion of the human-machine "mix" has been around since at least the 1970s.  The model developers and those using models as input for objective weather forecasting schemes have steadfastly denied their goal is to replace humans in the forecast process.  As I see it, anyone working to develop objective "guidance" for forecasters is basically in the business of replacing humans with their product, whether they admit it or not - or whether or not they even realize that's what a very successful "guidance" product will do.  As model forecasts improve - which they have done continuously since they began - the need for humans diminishes.  For "ordinary" weather situations, it can be argued that humans already no longer add value to the forecast, even at relatively short range.

The use of numerical models has evolved considerably over those first tentative steps at numerical weather prediction.  The models moved rapidly away from crude one-layer models with coarse resolution and very limited physical processes, to today's models based on the so-called "primitive equations" using vastly increased time and space resolution, fully 3-dimensional, and with extensive physical parameterizations, coupled with sophisticated post-processing schemes to convert gridded variables to sensible weather, and even text generation for fully automated forecasting.  The role of humans during this process has been one of "gap-filling" - the limitations of numerical models represented gaps where a human forecaster could add value to the automated products.  With time, the gaps continue to be filled as the technology of numerical weather prediction evolves.  There are fewer and fewer niches where humans have much of a chance to add value.  The gaps are disappearing.

I've talked about this before, in many essays that can be found here.  Recently, it came to my attention that something interesting is being explored in the UK, whereby forecasters could work with models interactively.  Up to now, computer-based forecasts were like the pronouncements of an oracle, and forecasters were faced with either accepting what the models said or rejecting that solution and providing their own alternative forecast by whatever means they had at their disposal.  Forecasters have been similar to high priests in the business of interpreting oracular pronouncements.  This has not been a truly interactive human-machine relationship. 

What I've envisioned for an interactive relationship is that the forecaster would use the model as a tool to test various possible scenarios in a dynamically consistent way.  What if the moisture available was actually greater than the initial conditions for the model showed?  What if the trough approaching was stronger or approaching more slowly?  How would the forecast change?  A forecaster educated and trained properly could use the model to test such possibilities intelligently and efficiently, and to see the ramifications of those "what if" scenarios.

As I now see things, if something of this sort is not explored and developed, virtually everything now done by forecasters eventually will be automated.  The only debate will be how soon full automation will take place.  Meteorological science is spending a considerable effort all time trying to improve the model guidance, by whatever means necessary.  What are we doing to refine the role of humans and to improve their performance?  Damned little!! Remember:  highly accurate guidance = no more need for forecasters!  Humans cost much more than computers. 

An interactive relationship between model and forecaster would demand a considerably more comprehensive grasp of the science by the forecaster than is now the case.  And it would require a much more extensive training program for human forecasters.  Today's forecasters need to consider their future - young entry-level forecasters may find themselves out of a job before they're old enough to retire!  No one in public weather forecasting is safe from this.  NO ONE!!

The Persistence of Mythology in Science

My personal experiences as a scientist make it clear to me that scientific myths are quite prevalent in science, even among scientists - not just the non-scientific public.  What do I mean by a "myth"? - dictionary definitions include:
  1.  a traditional story, especially one concerning the early history of a people or explaining some natural or social phenomenon, and typically involving supernatural beings or events.  
  2.  a widely held but false belief or idea.
Mythology of the (1) sort can be thought of as a forerunner to science, in the sense that the myth is an attempt at offering an explanation for how things are.  Any myth that calls on the supernatural is, of course, well outside what we would call science.

No, I'm talking here of mythology of the (2) sort.  In a very real sense, a great deal of today's science incorporates mythology of type (2).  Science (as it is really done) never provides absolute truth.  Rather it offers provisional hypotheses that can always be reconsidered and revised, at least in principal.  The notion of a scientific  consensus is that a majority of scientists accept some provisional hypotheses as being not inconsistent with the observations (data).  I've deliberately used the double negative "not inconsistent" rather than its logical equivalent "consistent" in order to shade the interpretation of that consensus science toward being as provisional as possible.  New data from new experiments may overturn an earlier well-accepted hypothesis - the history of science is replete with examples:  Einstein's relativity, Wegener's continental drift, and so on.  By this process, our scientific understanding is ever a work in progress, even when applications of that science are quite successful.  There are no sacred truths in science, no dogma beyond question, no concepts that can't be challenged.

This uncertainty is inherent in the scientific process, not some sort of problem that needs to be solved.  Any scientific explanation is open to challenge, but challenges that invoke the supernatural (e.g., creationism) are not legitimate challenges in this context.  Rather, challenges based on the supernatural are attempts to impose mythology of type (1), an "explanation" entirely outside of the scientific process.

Every new contribution to science, mostly in the form of a paper submitted for publication in a refereed scientific journal, is a challenge to existing scientific understanding, to a greater or lesser degree.  A challenge to existing understanding inevitably gores someone's sacred cow.  It's natural that this creates controversy between proponents of the existing understand and those who advocate the new provisional hypothesis.  This is described by Thomas Kuhn in his controversial book The Nature of Scientific Revolutions as a paradigm shift.  Paradigm shifts may be minor (of interest only to those specialists in some narrow, specific topic of science) or major (e.g., nonlinear dynamical theory, or chaos theory), affecting many diverse disciplines, and anywhere in between.  Some newly-proposed paradigm shifts (not all) are then subjected to further testing and if those tests are not inconsistent with the data, they go on eventually to become a new consensus among scientists.  Others fall by the wayside, perhaps for lack of interest or because they fail some new test of their consistency with the data.

In my experience, there are many myths of type (2) in my chosen field.  I've written papers to challenge them and to replace those notions with a different understanding that I believe is a better fit to the facts than the older idea.  Not all science starts out to be directed at myth-bashing, but if new understanding is revealed, this sets the stage for a clash between old ideas and new ideas.  Most people, including scientists, who accept a myth are reluctant to abandon it - myths often have a sort of feel-good comfort about them that their adherents are reluctant to give up, so they do their best to attack the new ideas.  That reluctance to accept new evidence might be justified, if the new evidence is flawed in some way, or is being interpreted incorrectly.  The trick is to be as objective as possible, and most humans find this difficult to do, often on both sides of a controversy.  Such arguments frequently are plagued by confirmation bias:  "... the tendency to search for, interpret, or prioritize information in a way that confirms one's beliefs or hypotheses."

The main point to be made here is that controversy and challenge are inherent in science.  If you manage to accomplish anything at all, you will find those who oppose your ideas, sometimes even to the point of being mean-spirited in their critiques of your work.  This should not make you uncomfortable, but you should, in fact, embrace their opposition.  I tell my students that "Your most vigorous 'enemy' is your best friend!"  Such a crucible of intellectual heat is essential in helping you do your best science.  Their attacks can reveal weak points that need to be strengthened, and may even show that you're incorrect in at least part of what you're proposing.  Try to lose your fear of being wrong - being wrong is a learning opportunity!  Your opponent will have done you a favor by showing you're wrong!  When your opponent seems to misunderstand what you're saying, you should stop and consider how to express yourself so as not to generate that misunderstanding.

All in all, controversy is good for science and you should understand that without controversy, the science is dead.  When all scientists agree about everything, then that science had reached a dead end.  Fortunately, this has never happened and likely never will.  It's not a sign of some inherent problem with science.  Controversy is at the heart of a vibrant, living science!

Where scientists go astray is when they take or offer criticism personally.  The topic isn't supposed to be the scientist, it's the science!  No matter how mean-spirited an opponent may be, however, don't lower yourself to that level.  You're not being threatened.  It's your work!  And your work isn't beyond question, right?  Real humans find it all too easy to feel threatened by opposition, but you can't be a scientist without generating opposition!  Be prepared for it.  Keep your mind open to new ideas and be willing to admit when your notions need to be abandoned in the face of a superior understanding.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Some thoughts as we approach Veteran's Day

Collectively, Americans have come far from the days of the war in Vietnam.  Now, it seems we have learned that we can honor the warriors even as we protest the war.  My Vietnam experience was not one of a combat soldier.  I didn't believe that war was in the best interests of the US, and I have mixed feelings to this day about my service there.  I didn't carry a gun in the boonies and shoot at the "enemy", but I did what was asked of me by my nation.  No one spat on me when I arrived back in "the world" (as we called the US, then) at 3:00 am in Ft. Lewis, WA.  But there was no "welcome home" either.  My life was changed by my experiences in the military and I'm still trying to decide the sign of the balance - negative or positive. At least now I do see more positives than when the experience was more recent to me.

There will be an outpouring of thanks tomorrow for all the veterans, as well as for those currently serving.  That's a sort of progress, I think.  But there are other perspectives on this day of recognition for veterans.  Most of the wars on foreign soil we've conducted since WWII haven't involved a real threat to American freedoms at home, so our military personnel have been killing and being killed for causes that are pretty far removed from protection of American freedom.  The war fighters, now including both men and women, in the wars since WWII may have been heroic in their battlefield actions on behalf of their brothers/sisters in arms, but that heroism is not based on defending America, per se.  These soldiers, sailors, marines, and airmen (not all males, anymore) have been carrying out the orders passed on to them by their civilian leaders, irrespective of the rationale on which those orders are based.  They're doing their duty as best they can, doing what is asked of them by their nation, doing what they've sworn to do, doing what they're paid to do.  In real wars - not the sanitized wars of righteous Americans battling the evil servants of an evil nation often portrayed by political "leaders" - Americans engage in atrocities amounting to war crimes, just as their enemies do.  War is an evil, poisonous thing that attacks the morality of all its participants.  The victors may put the losers on trial for war crimes, but their hands are never lily-white clean.

I came home from Vietnam with no flashbacks, nightmares, and ingrained fears (all symptoms of PTSD) because I was "in the rear, with the gear".  But many did come back from wars on foreign soil with psychological problems, in part because of things they had seen and in which they had participated.  I offer no judgment of anyone who may have done immoral things in the military - who carried out unlawful orders.  Those participating in incidents like My Lai certainly are responsible for what they did (Nuremberg established that principle), but I'm not in any position to judge them.  I don't know what I would have done had I been there - my good fortune in my war was to escape such awful situations.  I'm grateful for that.  I'm certainly no hero, by any stretch of the imagination.  With time, I've mostly come to terms with my service and am not at all ashamed to be a military veteran who participated (in a very minor way) in a war on foreign soil - like my son - and my father before me.  In my family, we have answered the call of our nation.

The real crime, in my opinion, is that we ask our young people to engage in wars, not only to defend our liberty, but in many instances to carry out the political will of our government by the application of violent force on our "enemies".  We throw them into the cesspool that is a real war and we expect - no, demand - that they come back squeaky clean.  Let us all ponder that as we recognize our war fighters for their service on this national holiday!  May we eventually come to learn that war is supposed to be a last resort, engaged in to defend ourselves and our allies from those who would harm us - not to be a violent means of imposing our political will on others.