Wednesday, June 27, 2012

My Little Planet: Interfaces are Magic

Okay, I've finished Thomas Gold's "The Deep Hot Biosphere" and have decided that I'm not quite ready to shout 'Eureka!' and say that this will be the continental drift of the 21st century.

Overall the chemistry seems pretty solid, and the model makes sense in terms of the likely process of planetary evolution, but I need to wander off and check some more recent primary references. Most intriguing is the information about helium and heavy metal distribution in hydrocarbons, which really doesn't seem to have any good explanation in terms of the traditional biotic origin theory. On the other hand I've thought of a perfectly good alternate explanation for the lack of isotopic drift in oceanic carbonate deposits over geological time – I'm sure you can do the same, so I won't tell you now. And Gold's explanation of methane clathrates doesn't seem to square with our current understanding of their distribution. So as I said, I have decided I'm not quite ready to jump on the bandwagon.

(Note the extreme sketchiness of my treatment here – this is because I want you to read the book yourself so we can talk about it, rather than spend my time making an exhaustive book report.)


What I really want to do is to step back a little and discuss the implications of Gold's model for the origins of life in a more focussed way than he does in his Chapter 9. I say step back a little, since I'm not going to assume that Gold's model of upwelling of abiotic hydrocarbons is occurring on Earth now, or necessarily occurred in the past. What does seem plausible – so plausible that it is certain to have happened many, many, many times – is that such a model system has arisen on rocky planets somewhere. We know the clouds of junk available for making planets can contain a lot of carbonaceous material. The cold aggregation of an Earth-sized planet containing a lot of this material is sure to happen sometimes. The timeframe for outgassing of this carbonaceous material is sure to have extended over very long time periods on some worlds. As Gold postulates, it is sure that on some worlds there will have been a persistent water-rich layer on top of this hydrocarbon layer.

This plausible persistent environment is exciting. It is by far the best postulated locale for the development of life, or of pre-life, that I have come across.

Remember what we need:

We need to assemble a collection of complex molecules in something with an edge to it, so the collection can get more complicated inside that surface; we need a flux of energy into the system; and we need a flux of matter in and out of the system:a proto-proto-proto-proto-metabolism of some kind.

This all seems far more likely in the upwelling hydrocarbon system than any other possible system I have read about.

1. The upward flow of hydrocarbon material provides a source of chemical energy, a steady replenishment of raw material ('food') and a means of disposal of superfluous matter ('waste'). This is not going to be the case at all in the traditional 'small tidal pool' or a homogeneous cloud of dense molecular gas. The energy flux is going to be far more useful than the heat gradient one might get a large body of water, or in a small dense body like a comet, and the mass flux will be more persistent than any mass flux driven by these heat gradients.

2. As Gold stresses, and as he shows in a splendid figure from a paper by one of his Soviet precursors , complex molecules are much more stable at very high pressures. This means the necessary molecular complexity is much more likely to be present under such conditions.

3. Furthermore, the heterogeneous environment of the deep underground is fantastically more suited for complexification than something like an ocean, which is a pretty well-mixed homogeneous fluid. There are pores of different sizes; there are interfaces everywhere, with different adsorption characteristics on different minerals; there are thermal and chemical gradients. It is a chromatography column on a planetary scale providing an incredible opportunity for sorting molecules into a gazillion different microenvironments. There is nothing like this in any of those other possible environments for pre-biotic evolution. Gold makes much of the greater volume available for experimenting with chemistry underground than in the ocean, but does not mention this incredible advantage in terms of its partitioning into innumerable separate experiments.

4. At this point Gold wanders off the point and wastes the rest of Chapter 9 talking about numbers with large powers of ten – as people who talk about the origin of life are wont to do – and about autocatalytic reactions. You should know by now what I think about autocatalytic reactions and their irrelevance to the  more important questions of the origin of life, so I won't beat that dead horse just now.

What Gold could have done instead is consider some other implication of one other part of his model. He postulates that a layer dominated by hydrocarbons lies deep in the crust, beneath a higher layer dominated by aqueous solutions. What happens when they meet one another?

4a. Well, they don't mix homogeneously. We have proverbs about that.

4b. The water layer is relatively full of oxidants, so some of the large hydrocarbon molecules are partially oxidised. This can make them surface-active. Which means they will want to stay at the interface between the hydrocarbon and aqueous phases.

4c. As more surface-active material is generated, it will generate more interface for itself to sit at. That's what surfactants do. The interface will grow more complicated and interesting.

4d. As more surface-active material is generated, it will self-assemble into interesting structures. That's another thing surfactants do. Among the self-assembled structures they are likely to form are vesicles, the basis for all biological compartmentalisation we know about.

Voila, we have a persistent zone of CHO(N)-rich molecules and plausible proto-proto-cellular menbranes at the interface between the hydrocarbon world and the water world, eminently susceptible to further complexification!

This gives a strong pointer towards where we should be seeking the chemical building blocks of pre-pre-life: What do we get in reactions of hydrocarbon mixtures and oxidising aqueous solutions at very high pressures? And then, what do the phase diagrams of surfactant molecules formed in this way look like at the same very high pressures?

Even if Gold's theory turns out to be bogus as far as Earth is concerned, I am sure that it happened somewhere, and if it did, it could give rise to persistent complexifiable chemical systems: systems which, being embedded in very large lumps of matter, would be far more likely to survive fortuitous transport from one solar system to another than analogous systems somehow arising in gas clouds, planetary surfaces, or the interior of small cold bodies. So that's why I'm excited. :)

Edit June 30th: Also, this.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Aristotle, Dante, Dawkins, and a multi-millennial Arse-about-Face

Being an expansion of one of my two small points for expansion later

I am going to stick my neck out just this once, since life is too short to be timid. Carpe diem, and all that...

One of many ways our civilisation has parted ways with logic is that the 'anything goes, abort and experiment away' attitude to very small human beings is shamefully associated with a scientific worldview, while the 'don't do that' attitude is more usually than not explained away as an arbitrary theological idea, associated only with people with a strong religious worldview. This is exactly opposite to how it logically should be.
Allow me to explain.
I am going to make two assumptions to start with. Feel free to disagree with them. But if you do, be prepared to mount clear arguments upholding contrary assumptions against minds much wiser and subtler than mine.
1. Only individuals matter. Only individual entities can feel or suffer; only individual entities can have rights or obligations. Everything else is gravy, a second-order level of goods. Think of a Venn diagram of ideas showing where Simone Weil overlaps with Margaret Thatcher. This is it.
2. All non-trivial reasoning is probabilistic. If X causes Y, and Y causes Z, then X causes Z. If Z is bad, we stop X. Duh. But in the real world, there might be a 70% chance X causes Y if W is the case, but only a 20% chance if not-W, with some experts suggesting a very high chance of W and other experts suggesting a very low chance of W. Meanwhile, the high W experts also agree that there is a 70-90% chance that Y causes Z, with the low-W experts explaining at great length that Y has a best a 50% chance of causing Z. And Z might be bad. There's an 80% chance it is bad - say, a 10% chance it will be really bad - unless condition V is met, which is only about 10% likely, but would make Z really good... according to a sizeable minority of both W and non-W experts. So what should we do? That's my simple example of how we have to figure things out in the real world.
Now, to apply these two assumptions to the poorly-phrased question 'when does life begin?' which is not above the pay grade of anyone with a handful of neurons to stitch together into a crude neural net. The question is poorly-phrased, since 'life' began somewhere billions of years ago and ever since then the lives of individuals - the only important moral objects according to my assumption 1 - have been tangled together in complicated ways. What we are really asking is: When does a particular life become individuated enough from other life that it is worthy of moral consideration? Or, probabilistically, how much moral consideration should we pay to an individual life during the process of individuation, relative to the amount of consideration we pay to a fully individuated life?
I'm going to draw a graph showing the relative probability of a particular individual person - let's call her 王芳 - doing something at the extreme right hand side of the x-axis, which is time, if we keep our mitts off the process shown in the graph and do not interfere. This could be something as simple as breathing, or a more complicated thing like eating lunch, robbing a convenience store, winning a Nobel Prize in Chemistry, etc. The y-axis is a normalised arbitrary log axis showing the possibility of 王芳 doing something that we recognise as a behaviour characteristic of fully individuated human beings at time t = 1.
Here is the graph:
Now, in our scientific understanding of what happens at conception, there is a vanishingly small probability that this particular girl, 王芳, will ever do any of the things we have postulated that she might do before a bundle of physical and chemical events that are very close together on the x-axis: after that bundle of events the probability is higher by many many orders of magnitude. This bundle of physical and chemical events is close enough to be, for all practical purposes, a discontinuity in this graph. This is the only interesting point on the graph. This is the only point where there is any philosophical justification, in the scientific (i.e., experimental-evidence-based) worldview for saying: at this point in time we don't need to apply any moral consideration to 王芳; over here, we do. That is what science says. Note that concerning ourselves with an individual is all important. If we were to pretend that people are interchangeable and of no particular value as individuals, and drew a graph showing the probability of some theoretical person, rather than 王芳 specifically, we would not get a sharp discontinuity in the probability function.
Obviously, this discontinuity is a pre-implantation point.  This might not be a convenient point, or a practical point, but it is the only logical point to draw a moral distinction. In a scientific worldview.
So we can overlay a 'should we care?' function on 王芳's graph:
The only philosophically tenable way to pick some other point on this graph is to postulate some non-probabilistic, non-scientific, definition of what it means to be human. Let's say that people are only people if they have 'souls'. People without 'souls' are just meat puppets. How do you know if they have 'souls' or not? They aren't things that you can detect scientifically. You can hope for a divine revelation. Or you can muddle it out as best you can.
Here is the answer given by Statius to Dante in Purgatory, explaining how it works:
The perfect blood, which never is drunk up
Into the thirsty veins, and which remaineth
Like food that from the table thou removest,
Takes in the heart for all the human members
Virtue informative, as being that
Which to be changed to them goes through the veins
Again digest, descends it where 'tis better
Silent to be than say; and then drops thence
Upon another's blood in natural vase.
There one together with the other mingles,
One to be passive meant, the other active
By reason of the perfect place it springs from;
And being conjoined, begins to operate,
Coagulating first, then vivifying
What for its matter it had made consistent.
The active virtue, being made a soul
As of a plant, (in so far different,
This on the way is, that arrived already,)
Then works so much, that now it moves and feels
Like a sea-fungus, and then undertakes
To organize the powers whose seed it is.
Now, Son, dilates and now distends itself
The virtue from the generator's heart,
Where nature is intent on all the members.
But how from animal it man becomes
Thou dost not see as yet; this is a point
Which made a wiser man than thou once err
So far, that in his doctrine separate
He made the soul from possible intellect,
For he no organ saw by this assumed.
Open thy breast unto the truth that's coming,
And know that, just as soon as in the foetus
The articulation of the brain is perfect,
The primal Motor turns to it well pleased
At so great art of nature, and inspires
A spirit new with virtue all replete,
Which what it finds there active doth attract
Into its substance, and becomes one soul,
Which lives, and feels, and on itself revolves.

This is all based on the 4th century BCE embryology of Aristotle. This is why there is ambiguity in the writings of the Christian theologians of the high middle ages about 'when life begins'. These ideas of Aristotle have also been taken over into the main schools of Shi'a and Sunni jurisprudence, which is why most of them don't have a problem with very early term abortions. Much as I hate to say it, they are probably the source of the Talmudic concept that the fertilised egg is a 'tissue of water' in the first 40 days after conception.
In a religious worldview, this pernicious hypothesis of the soul might give us the following 'should we care' function on 王芳's graph:
Historically, for other reasons, mainstream Christianity has usually drawn the line more conservatively than implied by Aristotle's embryology. But whatever line we draw based on this unverifiable concept of ensouling will be an arbitrary one. Because this silly non-scientific idea of a 'soul' is embedded deeply in our culture, we think it is a difficult question to decide 'when life begins'. And that's the only reason.
Would you believe, I tried to make this point to someone a few months back in a Tweet? No wonder @damonayoung had no idea what I was getting at.

As an illustration of the complete and perfect storm of muddle a reasonably intelligent famous Professor of Biology can get into in these matters, here is a long quotation from a famous book by Richard Dawkins, where he discusses the notorious murder of John Britton, a Florida abortionist, by Paul Hill, a religious zealot:

Richard Dawkins: There are people who, because of their religious convictions, think abortion is murder and are prepared to kill in defense of embryos, which they chose to call ‘babies’. On the other side are equally sincere supporters of abortion, who either have different religious convictions, or no religion, coupled with well-thought-out consequentionalist morals. They too see themselves as idealists, providing a medical service for patients in need., who would otherwise go to dangerously incompetent back-street quacks. Both sides see the other side as murderers or advocates of murder. Both sides, by their own lights, are equally sincere.
A spokeswoman for another abortion clinic described Paul Hill as a dangerous psychopath. But people like him don’t think of themselves as dangerous psychopaths; they think of themselves as good, moral people, guided by God. Indeed, I don’t think Paul Hill was a psychopath. Just very religious. Dangerous, yes, but not a psychopath. Dangerously religious. By the lights of his religious faith, Hill was entirely right and moral to shoot Dr Britton. What was wrong with Hill was his religious faith itself. Michael Bray, too, when I met him, didn’t strike me as a psychopath. I actually quite liked him. I thought he was an honest and sincere man, quietly spoken and thoughtful, but his mind had unfortunately been captured by poisonous religious nonsense.
Strong opponents of abortion are almost all deeply religious. The sincere supporters of abortion, whether personally religious or not, are likely to follow a non-religious, consequentionalist moral philosophy, perhaps invoking Jeremy Bentham’s question, ‘Can they suffer?’ Paul Hill and Michael Bray saw no moral difference between killing an embryo and killing a doctor except that the embryo was, to them, a blamelessly innocent ‘baby’. The consequentionalist sees all the difference in the world. An early embryo has the sentience, as well as the semblance, of a tadpole. A doctor is a grown-up conscious being with hopes, loves, aspirations, fears, a massive store of humane knowledge, the capacity for deep emotion, very probably a devastated widow and orphaned children, perhaps elderly parents who dote on him.
Paul Hill caused real, deep, lasting suffering, to beings with nervous systems capable of suffering. His doctor victim did no such thing. Early embryos that have no nervous system most certainly do not suffer, And if late-aborted embryos with nervous systems suffer- though all suffering is deplorable- it is not because they are human that they suffer. There is no general reason to suppose that human embryos at any stage suffer more than cow or sheep embryos at the same developmental stage. And there is every reason to suppose that all embryos, whether human or not, suffer far less than adult cows or sheep in a slaughterhouse, especially a religious slaughterhouse where, for religious reasons, they must be fully conscious when their throats are ceremonially cut.

You probably know the name of Professor Dawkins' book, so it is not surprising that he associates opposition to abortion only with religious worldviews. Note how totally his argument embodies the arse-about-face confusion I have been discussing: although he says opponents of abortion are 'almost' all deeply religious, he doesn't consider any possible non-religious motivation for believing that life begins at conception, and that therefore abortion and embryonic research are wrong.

I am going to go off on a tangent briefly and look at the argument Dawkins poses that Paul Hill killing John Britton was wrong, but John Britton killing embryos and foetuses is okay.
How do the ‘well-thought-out consequentionalist morals’ of Dawkins distinguish between the two cases?

(1) Suffering of the Victim.
An embryo without a developed nervous system does not suffer, while a more grown human does. Richard does not take this argument very seriously, or else he would take much more care to distinguish between an early-aborted embryo and a late-aborted foetus with a developed nervous system. Instead of citing some experimental data on foetal suffering in animals, drawing a line at say, three months of gestation, and standing firm with Jeremy Bentham, he throws in an irrelevant statement that foetal suffering is, at any rate, less than that of sheep in halal or kosher slaughterhouses. This is a complete non sequitur as far as logic goes. Emotionally, it is a different story, and I have long felt that the anti-abortion movement should logically also take a stand for innocent animals and oppose carnivory. But suddenly bringing in halal butchers has no logical connection whatever with the ‘they can’t suffer, so it’s okay to kill them’ argument. It is just there to provoke people’s self-interest: ‘Gee, Professor Dawkins is implying that if I oppose abortion, I ought to give up eating meat. But I don’t want to do that…”

Conversely, let us now consider the suffering of Dr John Britton. Is it really his suffering that is important? Let's say that instead of laying in wait for him with a shotgun, Paul Hill had waited until he was deeply asleep and then painlessly administered a lethal injection? Would the State of Florida have said, ‘Oh, that’s fine, you can go on your merry way, plucky lad?' As far as I know, Paul Hill was a pretty good shot and John Britton’s death was instantaneous and painless. On the other hand, if I were to go to Florida and try to shoot an abortionist, having never had much hand-eye coordination, I’m sure I would at worst wing them and they would come good in the end, after a whole lot of immediate pain and months or years of physio. Yet, Jeb Bush would not have connived at my judicial murder for the attempted killing of a doctor. 

The question ‘can they suffer?’ is the wrong question. It is irrelevant to proper ‘well-thought-out consequentionalist morals’, since you can murder someone without them suffering at all and we all agree this is bad.

(2) Suffering of the Victim’s Friends.
Richard points out that John Britton had: ‘…a devastated widow and orphaned children, perhaps elderly parents who dote on him.’ All of these people will obviously feel real suffering at his loss. But if this is the consequentionalist reason not to kill him, then what about people who have no friends? Is it more permissible to knock them off? I have seen this argument seriously advanced with respect to animals (e. g., C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain) but so far as I know, only facetiously with respect to humans (e. g., Jonathan Swift, A Modest Proposal). 

Does the argument that it was wrong to kill John Britton because people were sad about his death imply that if I were to distribute lurid details of his activities beforehand to millions of members of my militant anti-abortion group,* so that his continued existence caused them suffering and they were really happy about his death, then it would be okay? I think the answer would have to still be, no.

(3) Loss of Potential.
Richard points out that John Britton had ‘…hopes, loves, aspirations, etc.’ What does this mean? It means that if he had not been killed, chances are he would be enjoying his retirement now. He might be out playing golf. He might be writing entertaining novels, like the retired Colorado Planned Parenthood bigshot Sheri S. Tepper. He could be travelling around in a campervan, or sitting in front of the TV doing Sudoku. These are all things he could have been doing that have been brutally and unfairly taken away from him . Chances are, he would have been doing something that pleased him and enriched the universe in some way. He is not; his life has been cut short with his potential unfulfilled, and that was why it was wrong to kill him.

That is also why it was wrong for him to kill those embryos and foetuses.

For, if those embryos John Britton killed had not been killed, they too might now be playing golf or sitting in front of the TV. There is very nearly as good a probability that they would have gone on to do these things as there was that John Britton would go on to do them. The only difference is the difference between the seen and the unseen: we saw a great deal of John Britton’s potential unfold; we did not see the potential of those embryos and foetuses unfold, because their lives were brutally and unfairly taken away from them. The consequence of the killing of those human individuals is that they were denied the whole of the life that we other human individuals take for granted, and if ‘consequentionalist morals’ do not consider that as a valid consequence, I think they need another name.

Note that this tangential discussion has not mentioned God. It has not mentioned religion. It has not assumed the existence of an absolute morality. It is based purely on what we all, intuitively, understand to be so bad about premature death. To my mind, it is a 'well-thought-out consequentionalist morality' eminently suitable for theist and atheist alike.


To dispose of one more possible objection, the idea of 'being able to live independently' is sometimes raised as a logical place to draw a line netween people we should care about and people we shouldn't. This is not tenable, because no human being can live independently. We are social animals who need the support of others of our kind to became capable of independent life. So, a foetus cut out of its mother cannot breathe, and dies. A newborn infant left in a room next to a fridge full of formulae cannot feed itself, and dies. An urban man dropped naked in the wilderness is clueless, and dies. There is no discontinuity in this curve where we can draw a line.


Finally, you are free to think that I am only playing logic games to reach a pre-determined conclusion. I can't testify objectively as to whether that is true or not. I did try to be a Catholic for a very long time, and how I think and feel is shaped by my life experience. I can only say that, subjectively, my life has seemed from the inside to be a process of figuring things out, of trying to approach truth in a logical and self-consistent way, of painfully letting go of things I had felt I ought to believe that didn't fit into this process, and of reluctantly believing things I couldn't disbelieve any more as this process went on. That's what it looks from here.

*: I am not really the mastermind of a militant anti-abortion group with millions of members. This is a hypothetical. Please don't tap my phone.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Goodreads, Peer-Review, and Bibliometrics

Do you know of Goodreads?

It is strongly linked in my mind with the peer-review process due to a historical accident. I was at a conference a while ago and saw a presentation by a very enthusiastic, articulate, intelligent student early in their PhD. Unfortunately, the main characterisation method they were using was totally unsuitable for the system they were investigating, and the mechanism they were using to explain the chemistry that was happening (previously published in their group) was completely bogus. I made the deduction that their supervisor was clueless. It didn't seem either kind or appropriate to point these things out in the question period, so I thought I would try and catch up with them later at the conference. I missed them there, so when I got home I thought I would try to find them on the interwebz. The only trace of the student I could find was on Goodreads, so I made a Goodreads account and tried to contact them that way. But they obviously weren't paying attention to their Goodreads account, or else had a policy of not replying to private messages from people whose avatar was a picture of a bunny with a pancake on its head. So that didn't work either. But I ended up with a Goodreads account sitting there not doing anything.

There may be a happy ending to this story, in that I ended up writing to their supervisor with my concerns. I say may, because in the understandable reaction of most people to smart-aleck random pedants, he never wrote me back.

Eventually, I can't remember why, I wandered idly back to Goodreads and had a look around. There is a wealth of information about any particular book in Goodreads: you can see how many people have rated it, their average rating from 1 to 5 stars, and read their individual reviews on the book, many of which are very detailed and intelligent; you can in turn 'like' the reviews if you find them helpful, and explore other reviews the same reviewers have made to let you discount whatever biases they will invariably have. So, vastly more information than the reader of an academic paper can ever get from Bibliometrics. And vastly more information - often - than the writer of an academic paper can get from Peer-Review.

I don't have any ironclad mappings between Goodreads and Peer-Review, or Goodreads and the Bibliometrics Circus, but peering at them pairwise reveals similar pitfalls.

I'll start out with something fairly positive. I read this book not knowing it was an internet phenomenon. My wife recommended it, and she shies away from anything that is too popular, so she wouldn't have recommended it if she had known it was an internet phenomenon. It has a few rough edges, a few slow bits, but it is really pretty good. However, since it was an internet phenomenon, it has more reviews, and more positive reviews, than a lot of really top-notch stuff. Why is it an internet phenomenon? It hit a niche that had just opened. High-flying sci-fi authors of the 90s and 00s sell their e-books for practically the same price as the dead tree ones. Older high-flying sci-fi authors have pathetically limited e-book back catalogues. There is a huge mass of cheap self-published sci-fi that ... needs work. The critical niche, what sci-fi readers wanted, was at least halfway decent cheap new sci-fi e-books. This book was one of very few of those: so off it went. The same sort of thing happens with scientific publications all the time: it's not the fundamental importance of the research, or how well-argued it is, but how many other researchers are looking for something halfway decent in that niche at that particular moment in time.

Conversely, this book was very heavily excerpted and promoted on a website that gets a huge number of hits and is politically influential in the Old Country. Yet the only review of it is by - er - me. Sure, we can say, the demographic of Goodreads users must not overlap much with the demographic of 'National Review Online' readers. Maybe, pulling a number off of Goodreads isn't the best way to compare the 'influence' of a book. That seems pretty obvious.

But... isn't that the way bean-counters approach journal impact when they try to pull out one number to compare how oncologists use oncology journals, art historians use art history journals, organic chemists use organic chemistry journals? There are more things you can do with a book than write a Goodreads review about it, and there are more things you can do with a journal article than cite it.

Now for an ugly Peer Review analogy.

Take this book. The top-rated community review, with 20 likes, is from someone who admits that they haven't read it. But they have a claque of mates who resent other things the author has written, and they are all out to get him.

I don't think I've ever had an academic reviewer anything like this. But if I did, they would be anonymous. And they wouldn't admit that they hadn't actually read my manuscript.

Or maybe they would admit it, but no one would care. This example isn't anywhere near as bad, but it did happen to me. A colleague and I submitted a review article to a journal with an impact factor in the 1.5-2.0 range. It was rejected out of hand on the basis of one reviewer, who quite rightly caned us over some serious mistakes we made in the introductory section. Which is good, that's how it's supposed to work. Except, this reviewer then said - before they got to the bit where (I hope) we actually knew what we were talking about: 'I can't be bothered reading any more of this' and gave up. We patched the paper up and sent it to another journal and it has had 13 citations in the past year. So the first journal kind of missed out.

[UPDATE: As of January 2015, it had 112 citations, and was the most cited paper over the period 2008-2013 of any academic in my School.]

I am sure I could peer into the murky tea-leaves of Goodreads some more and come up with all sorts of other similarities. But that's enough for now. Maybe instead I should run some numbers from Goodreads through a spreadsheet and add some educational/bibliometric jargon and write a paper about it. Hmm.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Please ... just don't

Twitter, marvellous as it is, is no good for explaining anything. And Twitter when you are cranky is no good for anything except making you look like a dill. So I thought I would come here and explain why I might get incandescent with rage at an article like this one, which includes a quote one might reasonably think I would be 100% on board with, "the rejection of science is arguably the most important social problem in the Western world". And I am - 100% on board with that sentence, that is.

But... if you are going to write an article lamenting the decline of reason, you should display some use of reason in writing your article. Otherwise, to supporters of reason, you are an unwelcome ally. You are like the local warlord who shows up in the middle of the tidy surgical strike to helpfully behead the police chief's extended family. Or the smelly unshaven hippy who shows up at the antiwar protest and helpfully starts chanting obscenities just as the TV cameras start rolling.

Okay. Mungo is impressed by Singapore. Singapore is impressive. True. Everyone who goes to Singapore is impressed by Singapore. There are things we can learn from Singapore. True. It also has the highest rate of capital punishment in the civilised world, draconian policies to keep out illegal immigrants, no political freedoms to speak of, and a social safety net that is worse than any Western country. Singapore works because it is small - and related to being small and ethnically different from its neighbours, a bit paranoid; because it has a culture of hard work; because it inherited the rule of law and some other good things from the British; and because it was lucky enough to have an authoritarian leader who was competent and principled. It is not a good basis with which to contrast a vibrant East with a decadent West.

Mungo says that overindulgence, monument building, and an increasing tendency to believe in the irrational are symptoms of a society in decline.

People in Asia who are working their way up don't have anything to overindulge with. Those who can overindulge are way ahead of us in terms of conspicuous consumption. Check out the business section of any paper anywhere. That's not East vs West, that's just people. The West is broke not because it is particularly overindulgent, but because it got rich enough to be in a position that everyone didn't have to work like dogs until they died, so we got out of the habit. At the same time we tried to spread the wealth around and give everyone a fair go, and didn't get the maths right. Similar things happen whenever people get rich, anywhere. It's all there in Ibn-Khaldun's Muqaddimat. 14th century. Check it out.

I don't know why Mungo threw monuments in there. Where are they building monuments nowadays? Nowhere in the West. It used to be the Sears Tower was the highest building in the world for a generation, now every time you turn around there is a new one in East Asia (built according to the best principles of Feng Shui) or the Middle East (built by absolute monarchs who reject evolution). Abraj-al-Bait? Three Gorges Dam? Show me anything like that being built anywhere in the West.

Finally, he gets to the bit of the article that the sub-editor thought the headline should be about, the part I should theoretically be on side with, but it is just a mess of disconnected ad hominem statements that might have been designed to press all my buttons.

But the second is far more prevalent and worrying: an increasing tendency to believe in, and rely on, the irrational. In Rome, this manifested itself in the proliferation of strange religious cults and a rejection of science which led, ultimately, to the dark ages in Europe. And the rejection of science is arguably the most important social problem in the Western world.

Is there really an increasing tendency in the West to believe in and rely on the irrational? I don't see any evidence of it. Almost people in almost all places believe in and rely on the irrational. There are plenty of indicators that could be interpreted as going the other way: for instance, the percentage of people identifying as 'no religion' in censuses. If you dig out a newspaper from a hundred years ago, you will find politicians making the same irrational arguments using rhetoric and emotion instead of logic. You will find the same quack cures and crazy religious cults. I don't see a trend. I just see people.

The dig about strange religious cults and the fall of Rome is just a cheap shot at about 2 billion people. Why would you want to get 2 billion people off side to score a cheap rhetorical point? Rome had no science to reject. They didn't have what we call science. They had engineering, they had philosophy, they had plenty of slaves to do the hard work: but they weren't a civilisation of 200 million rationalists. They were just as irrational in 753 BCE as they were in 476 CE. The official religion of earliest Rome was just as much a 'strange religious cult' as the latest heresy of Theodoric's time. Rome had lots of problems, but they didn't fall because they 'rejected science'. And by the way, technologically, the 'dark ages' were a period of continuing improvements - knitting, the stirrup, windmills, etc. Just saying.

Its epicentre is, of course, the United States, in which more than half the population reportedly rejects the theory of evolution in favour of a particularly batty form of Christianity in which an obsession with sexual morality is combined with the drug-induced fantasies of the book of Revelations, with more than a touch of astrology, numerology, iridology and you name it thrown in.

Now, I have argued a lot with Young Earth creationists. A lot. But it bugs me - probably on the purely thin-skinned basis of being of a particular cultural background - that practically the only people in the world that can be abused and slandered with impunity are the overwhelmingly goodhearted and hardworking people of American 'Flyover country'. Who have been practising pretty much this 'particularly batty form of Christianity' in pretty much the same proportions for the last three-hundred or so years. Read Mark Twain. Read H. L. Mencken. Somehow, during this time their country managed to become the world's leader in science. It is also interesting to note that this 'particularly batty form of Christianity' is pretty much identical to the religion followed by Isaac Newton. There is no trend to more irrationality here. It's just business as usual. And the 'drug-induced fantasies' dig is just another gratuitous, evidence-free statement to get 2 billion people off side. Why?

Australians have not yet gone to the this extent, but we are definitely moving in the same direction. The trend manifests itself in a variety of fringe groups – opposition to vaccination, fluoridation, and other scientifically proven public health measures is apparently on the increase.
So-called "alternative" (a synonym for untested, irrational, unscientific) medicine is embraced with growing fervour by otherwise sensible citizens.

This is okay. So far as I understand these trends exist. And I don't like them at all. Mungo also puts in the word 'apparently' once, which is a sign that he is moving towards rational argument instead of throwing down dogmatic unverified statements. Good.

Religion, already based on faith rather than reason, is becoming either totally dumbed down (the happy-clappy churches) or reinvented in ever more bizarre sects and cults involving everything from the worship of trees to the channelling of archangels.

Again, I am no big fan of the Evangelical churches. And like I said, I have argued a lot with Young Earth creationists. Personally, I agree that they are 'dumbed down' compared to a lot of other religions. But whether they are 'happy clappy' or 'unhappy unclappy' is surely irrelevant: whatever sort of liturgical practice brings a believer closer to God and doesn't involve sacrifice of kittens has to be good, if you think there is any good to religion at all. Worship of trees? Channelling of archangels? Didn't that go out with the 70s? And, isn't that the sort of thing most associated with the sort of 'Deep Greens' who are most likely to agree with Mungo on his next point... ?

And then there is the clearest indicator of all, denial of climate change.

The problem with a catch-all statement like 'denial of climate change' is that it telescopes a long and rickety chain of questions and answers into a single stick to beat your opponents with. Some of the questions are scientific questions with straightforward answers susceptible to experiment and data collection: some are social and economic questions that need to be legitimately - and rationally - debated. None of the science is as 'settled' as real 'settled science' is. All the social and economic questions are open questions. Don't trust me, I'm just some guy on the internet. Don't trust me because I'm a scientist. Look things up for yourself. Think.

In the past, this was the domain of those with a vested interest, such as coal owners, and the barking mad, such as Cardinal George Pell and shock jock Alan Jones, each of whom has his own reasons for believing in fairy tales.

Well, this has never been true. There was a wave of hysteria at a time of sharply rising temperatures that carried practically everyone away with it - briefly. I don't know anything about Alan Jones. But Cardinal George Pell has a perfectly rational, well-thought-out position on climate change that is motivated by Catholic social teaching about not screwing the poor [see Footnote]. 'Fairy tales' is another pointless dig at some billions of people.

But doubts (for which there is no basis at all) are now spreading among the general public, to the extent that Julia Gillard (and Tony Burke, when a petty-minded opposition will let him go) will appear at the Rio Summit with their own well-thought-out measures to deal with the problem (the carbon tax and their marine parks network, for starters) both deeply unpopular within their own country.

'No basis at all' is bogus. There is a reasonable, not huge, basis for doubt at the very beginning of the ladder of questions and answers 'Q1: Are human activities warming the Earth?'; and a vast raft of unexamined assumptions and an overwhelming basis for doubt by the time we get to 'Q#: What are the measures we should be employing to address this problem?' The carbon tax and marine parks network are not well-thought-out measures. There is no evidence whatsoever that they will do 2/10 of stuff all to stop the climate from changing. They are just sentimental, tokenistic, expensive measures that we can't really afford.

And Rio, of course, has already been marked down for failure: the West, in particular, is more concerned with saving itself from decline and fall than with the preservation of the planet. And yet it is precisely this selfishness, this short-sightedness, and yes, this overindulgence and irrationality, that has got us into the mess in the first place. Over to you, Asia.

And Asia is just so into controlling carbon emissions, innit? *cough* China (where the uncertainty in carbon emissions is apparently as large as the entire greenhouse gas output of Japan) isn't exactly going out of its way to 'preserve the planet' at the expense of its own economic development. Nor is India. Or Malaysia. Or Tajikistan. Or the Maldives. Or anywhere in Asia. It is just a few of the navel-gazing decadent nations of the West that are shuffling in that direction.

Edit 28th June: 
Footnote added, the key bit of Cardinal Pell's Global Warming Speech of 26th October 2011:
"I support the recommendation of Bjorn Lomborg and Bob Carter that, rather than spending money on meeting the Kyoto Protocol which would have produced an indiscernible effect on temperature rise, money should be used to raise living standards and reduce vulnerability to catastrophes and climate change (in whatever direction), so helping people to cope better with future challenges. We need to be able to afford to provide the Noahs of the future with the best arks science and technology can provide. In essence, this is the moral dimension to this issue. The cost of attempts to make global warming go away will be very heavy. They may be levied initially on "the big polluters" but they will eventually trickle down to the end-users. Efforts to offset the effects on the vulnerable are well intentioned but history tells us they can only ever be partially successful. Will the costs and the disruption be justified by the benefits? Before we can give an answer, there are some other, scientific and economic, questions that need to be addressed by governments and those advising them. As a layman, in both fields, I do not pretend to have clear answers but some others in the debate appear to be ignoring the questions and relying more on assumptions."