Hard News by Russell Brown

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Hard News: Belief Media

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  • BenWilson, in reply to Steve Barnes,

    See, to me that seems like a cop out, having a Bob each way as it were.
    I would imaging a good scientist, such as yourself no doubt, would have "faith" in the ability of the scientific process to find all, eventually.

    Nah, science's main reputation comes from concerning itself only with things that can actually be proved one way or another, given the right experiments and reasoning. Where it takes religion on and wins is on matters of fact. On matters of opinion, deeper questions about morality, the meaning of life, etc, the scientific method doesn't typically apply, and a scientist's opinion has no more gravitas than anyone else's. Which is why scientists can believe what they like about the unknowable, without feeling the need to reach a consensus or worrying about their credibility being damaged, because they happen to occasionally eat wafers of bread in a church, or genuflect in a temple, or whatever other rituals they care to be involved in.

    That said, whatever regularities do appear in those opinions amongst scientists are interesting, and speak to the mindset involved in the discipline. If there is a high number of atheists, for instance, that suggest to me that they value a principle like Occam's Razor very highly - almost to a level of religious conviction, if they are the very hard-nosed atheist types who claim they have very strong and powerful reasons for believing in the absence of any deities.

    There quite possibly is a set of unjustified beliefs that form the core set of values of scientists, which could loosely be called their religion. It's virtually impossible not to have such a framework and to be a functioning human being engaged in practical endeavours. But this most certainly should not be confused with what has been proved by science itself. It could have a very limited usefulness, good only for a period of time, to get science to a certain point. Rather like most moral codes, including those of most major religions, which were the starting point of a great many good institutions as well as bad ones.

    To that end, a plurality of viewpoints on these matters amongst scientists is actually vital. If it fades away, that would be a rather worrisome turn, a sign that science had become another dogma. This has happened quite a few times in the history of the business, and there is no reason to think that it can't happen again. I'm not much concerned that it is happening at the moment, though. There may well be large research programs that have better political control over funding on reasons that are not that strong, but only in hindsight will we really know, when the lesser programs make breakthroughs that suddenly move scientific consensus. This kind of situation is impossible to avoid.

    I also think that scientists freely thinking about matters beyond science is both normal and healthy. Most of the ones I know do this no less than other people, and it is quite probable that their motivations in science are driven by the dream of reaching into the unknown and finding out something astonishing and new, upturning conceptions about many widely held beliefs, even amongst scientists. But when they reach too far, they generally get no further than non-scientists. That is the brilliance of science, that it progresses by little steps, one experiment at a time, but with an eye to the big questions. It is not clear how far it can get. Some questions may always be matters of opinion.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 8305 posts Report Reply

  • Craig Young,

    Where I get antsy with conservative Christianity is that its more aggressive versions are anti-science. It attacks neodarwinian evolutionary theory but only offers a skeletal 'intelligent design' theoretical framework with little elucidating detail. Then there are the fundamentalists who want to resurrect some form of Thomist natural law theory from medieval Europe to replace Enlightenment science and empirical evidence as standards for public policy (especially if the issues involved are womens reproductive freedom and LGBT rights). I shudder to think what'd happen if they realised that quantum physics and chaos theory exist, but thus far, physics is immune to them.

    Wellington • Since Nov 2006 • 367 posts Report Reply

  • Bart Janssen, in reply to BenWilson,

    they value a principle like Occam’s Razor very highly

    Yeah, nah.

    I'm a plant developmental biologist. That means I try and figure out how you go from seed to plant and back, my personal question of interest is how does a plant choose which bud grows out to make a branch - someday I might try and explain that all here :).

    In my field it is absolutely unquestionably clear that Occam was a moron who knew nothing about the real world. As we understand more and more about how organisms work it is clear that simple is irrelevant. Complex networks with multiple redundancy and legacy elements that serve no current purpose are the rule not the exception. Every possible method of regulation we can think of exists and new ones we'd never thought of are constantly being unravelled. Efficiency means almost nothing, evolution is amazing but it is far from efficient.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 3221 posts Report Reply

  • andin, in reply to BenWilson,

    Some questions may always be matters of opinion.

    And doesnt that loophole get abused!

    raglan • Since Mar 2007 • 1157 posts Report Reply

  • Lucy Stewart, in reply to Bart Janssen,

    Efficiency means almost nothing, evolution is amazing but it is far from efficient.

    Sometimes it seems that evolution selects for the most inefficient solutions. (Which isn't true, of course...they're just, like democracy, the worst solution except for everything else.)

    Amherst, MA • Since Nov 2006 • 2092 posts Report Reply

  • Matthew Poole, in reply to Bart Janssen,

    the scientific approach says “we don’t know” and leaves it at that

    I know vocal atheists who are certain that science will disprove <deity>. That's faith, no more, no less. They don't like it when I point that out, either.

    The pit from whence crawl… • Since Mar 2007 • 3889 posts Report Reply

  • 3410,

    Efficiency means almost nothing, evolution is amazing but it is far from efficient.

    Isn't it the case that we can judge the efficiency or inefficiency only if we know what the goal is, which we don't?

    Auckland • Since Jan 2007 • 2618 posts Report Reply

  • Lucy Stewart, in reply to Matthew Poole,

    I know vocal atheists who are certain that science will disprove <deity>. That’s faith, no more, no less. They don’t like it when I point that out, either.

    That's like asking science to disprove Carl Sagan's invisible dragon in your garage. The invocation of faith inherently denies the acceptance of proof/disproof, making the argument irrelevant.

    Amherst, MA • Since Nov 2006 • 2092 posts Report Reply

  • Bart Janssen, in reply to Lucy Stewart,

    Sometimes it seems that evolution selects for the most inefficient solutions.

    Hell yeah!

    I love it when folks say “look that gene is expressed there it MUST be doing something important” whereas it usually turns out to be doing nothing, there was just no reason to turn it off. Like saying “the light is on there must be someone in the room”.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 3221 posts Report Reply

  • Lucy Stewart, in reply to 3410,

    Isn’t it the case that we can judge the efficiency or inefficiency only if we know what the goal is, which we don’t?

    Ahahah, you’ve hit the point: there is no (forward-looking) goal. Evolution can only adapt organisms to deal with the environment as it was for their parents, by permitting the parents best adapted to the current environment to have the most offspring. It can do SFA about what the environment will be like in the future.

    But, nevertheless, its solutions for those past/present problems can still be efficient/inefficient depending on the constraints it has to work around: c.f. the human pelvis, which has reached its widest possible width, allowing for the most-developed babies (evolutionary adaptive for our ancestors *and* us), but is still small enough that some women will (if surgery is not available) die in childbirth. It also impacts the mechanical efficiency of women’s gaits. That’s inefficient. But it’s what we got.

    I love it when folks say “look that gene is expressed there it MUST be doing something impotant” whereas it usually turns out to be doing nothing, there was just no reason to turn it off. Like saying “the light is on there must be someone in the room”.

    Let's hear it for validation by protein expression and/or other phenotypic evidence! (Oh, microarrays, you mislead us so. And yet we keep coming back to you.)

    Amherst, MA • Since Nov 2006 • 2092 posts Report Reply

  • Bart Janssen, in reply to 3410,

    Isn’t it the case that we can judge the efficiency or inefficiency only if we know what the goal is, which we don’t?

    Again nah. There are lots of examples now of biological systems that have no purpose that anyone can figure out. Sure you can always argue that it has a purpose which we haven't tested but that eventually becomes kinda silly.

    Complexity has a value in biological systems but there are cases where the complexity exists because of the way it evolved and now simply remains because there is no driver to make an "efficient" system.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 3221 posts Report Reply

  • Bart Janssen, in reply to Lucy Stewart,

    (Oh, microarrays, you mislead us so. And yet we keep coming back to you.)

    But never fear now we can get the same misleading data at much greater expense using RNAseq!

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 3221 posts Report Reply

  • Lucy Stewart, in reply to Bart Janssen,

    But never fear now we can get the same misleading data at much greater expense using RNAseq!

    And why bother growing things when you can just model everything using the annotated genome? (My PhD project involves, shock, horror, culture-based data. This....confuses some people.)

    Amherst, MA • Since Nov 2006 • 2092 posts Report Reply

  • Sacha, in reply to Bart Janssen,

    for someone with my training it's something instinctively "wrong"

    whereas for someone with Petra's training it increases perceived IQ and credibility :)

    Ak • Since May 2008 • 16277 posts Report Reply

  • Bart Janssen, in reply to Lucy Stewart,

    My PhD project involves, shock, horror, culture-based data. This….confuses some people.

    You'll never get funding unless you start using the next buzz-method, you should be doing systems biology or building a virtual fruit, if you can't use the most expensive latest technology it must be bad science. And as everyone knows you should stop trying to find new things out anyway and just do translational research to innovate and stimulate transformative changes to our industries.

    We, shock horror, look at our plants!!!!

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 3221 posts Report Reply

  • Ross Mason,

    I was disappointed the pocket protector and horn rimmed safety specs were missing.

    Upper Hutt • Since Jun 2007 • 1479 posts Report Reply

  • NBH, in reply to Craig Young,

    'No religious observance' has been the largest 'faith' category in our census for over a decade

    Craig - just noting that while the percentage of people with no religion is definitely growing quickly and is very large by international standards, the above statement isn't really true (although I've heard it repeated quite often). In 2006, 56% of census respondents gave some form of Christian denomination as their religion, while 35% identified as having no religion. You can split up the different Christian faiths, but then you run into a bit of a categorisation issue, as there are far more distinct varieties of religion collected in the Census than varieties of non-affiliation.

    Stats here: http://www.stats.govt.nz/Census/2006CensusHomePage/QuickStats/quickstats-about-a-subject/culture-and-identity/religious-affiliation.aspx

    Note that the religion question in the Census is a bit tricky, as people are specifically given the ability to opt out (with non-response being consequently very high for Census at about 12% I think), and I've heard several analysts claim that the opt-outs are more likely to be religious than not. The non-religious numbers also include very high proportions under 10, and I think you can make a reasonable argument to exclude this part of the population if you're looking for an 'accurate' picture of religious affiliation. IIRC, it also shows one of the biggest differentials due to ethnicity of any Census question,

    No stake in the game here religion-wise, except for the High Church of Data. :-)

    Wellington • Since Oct 2008 • 90 posts Report Reply

  • Chris Waugh, in reply to Ross Mason,

    But the chances are that there will be a physical and rational explanation for the death.

    And that's what I'm getting at. Maybe there's a taniwha at that proposed bend in the road because there's some underlying geological problem or it's unusually flood prone. Maybe we can take Tangaroa as a reminder that it doesn't matter how good a boat we build or how great our sailing skills are, the ocean is always going to be far more powerful. There's no need to take any of these old beliefs as being literally true, but it is worth remembering that there is a lot of wisdom encoded in what seems to modern, rational, scientific eyes as irrational superstition.

    And I find some of us are getting a bit cocky with all the advances of science and technology and forgetting that we're still just as much a part of nature and subject to nature's whims as the ancients were. Traditional knowledges contain wisdom that could temper some of the worst excesses of scientific hubris.

    Beijing • Since Jan 2007 • 1964 posts Report Reply

  • Lucy Stewart, in reply to Bart Janssen,

    We, shock horror, look at our plants!!!!

    You can’t do that with a computer? I’m disappointed.

    Traditional knowledges contain wisdom that could temper some of the worst excesses of scientific hubris.

    Honestly, I think you'll find that scientists who study nature are some of the people most willing to acknowledge our limits. (C.f. geologists, when consulted on humanity's habit of building in floodplains and on major fault zones.) They're the people who are running up against them all the time.

    Amherst, MA • Since Nov 2006 • 2092 posts Report Reply

  • Emma Hart, in reply to NBH,

    The non-religious numbers also include very high proportions under 10, and I think you can make a reasonable argument to exclude this part of the population if you're looking for an 'accurate' picture of religious affiliation.

    I would really, really like to see the religious affiliation question moved to the 15+ side of the census. I put my kids down as having 'no religion' because they didn't have a religion. I didn't call them atheists. Whereas when I was a child I was counted as a Presbyterian, even though I wasn't religious, and I suspect that's very common.

    Christchurch • Since Nov 2006 • 4328 posts Report Reply

  • Russell Brown, in reply to Ross Mason,

    Poetry Russell. Given my thoughts long ago on that. Got no problem with tangaroa in a poem. But I have great difficulty accepting that tangaroa** should be consulted before sailing away.

    But Chris didn’t mention literally “consulting” Tangaroa or anything like that. He explicitly said the idea was metaphorical – a metaphor for risk assessment, if you like.

    I’ve had pretty much the same thought, sitting on a beach – what kind of god must Tangaroa be? It doesn’t mean I believe there to be an actual god called Tangaroa who directs the waves. It’s just a way of modelling nature. A poem.

    And you can be as teeth-achingly literalist as you like, but what a person thinks of when they gaze out to sea is their own business.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 18512 posts Report Reply

  • Bart Janssen, in reply to NBH,

    with non-response being consequently very high for Census at about 12% I think

    I think Jedi was counted as a non-response.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 3221 posts Report Reply

  • Sacha, in reply to Bart Janssen,

    someday I might try and explain that all here

    guest post

    Ak • Since May 2008 • 16277 posts Report Reply

  • Sacha, in reply to Lucy Stewart,

    The invocation of faith inherently denies the acceptance of proof/disproof

    witness our current government..

    Ak • Since May 2008 • 16277 posts Report Reply

  • NBH, in reply to Bart Janssen,

    I think Jedi was counted as a non-response

    I'm not sure, but it was probably formally counted as 'Response Outside Scope', which is what I think most responses deemed to be humourous/ satirical are classified as.

    I would really, really like to see the religious affiliation question moved to the 15+ side of the census

    Me too - I think it's an example of the difference between data that's technically correct and data that's meaningful. Even if it's collected for the entire population I think it should only be regularly reported for 15+.

    Wellington • Since Oct 2008 • 90 posts Report Reply

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