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It’s probably unfashionable to call it “Chinese Whispers” these days. At the very least, it’s politically incorrect, and as is so often the case in these situations, it turns out that the etymology of the game does include a racist streak. Namely; it was called this because westerners figured that spoken Chinese was unintelligible. So, a game where a message whispered from one ear to the next is eventually rendered nonsensical, was named for the Chinese “language” (which just goes to show how little was understood – were they listening to Cantonese, or Mandarin perhaps?)

So let’s call it “Telephone”, as it is called in the United States, according to Wiki, anyhow.

Really, that’s all by the by. What I’m here to talk about is the big picture.

There is a tendency these days to regard any item of news, or opinion from a talking head, as sitting on a level playing field with every other bit of news or opinion. A sense that one idea is as good as the next. It this world, the notion of “truth” ceases to have meaning, as if being “true” is a value judgment where none should be made. Just as the post-modern art era challenged the idea of “beauty” as a worthwhile goal in art, we now seem to live in the world of “post-truth”.

At some point, collectively we lost the ability to be able to distinguish an idea with merit grounded in observable facts, from an idea based upon another person’s opinion and ideas. This is a pretty big loss to society. If you can’t decide between things that are objectively true, and things that are mere conjecture, then you may find yourself completely lost in the world. Without this ability, airplanes would never have flown, and we’d still be cooking with a camp fire, and certainly would not have the ability to reheat our food in the microwave.

Somehow, we are fearful of value judgment. Some things, nonetheless, are more valuable than others. The effects of gravity are observable, for instance, and if someone were to say, “I have a different idea”, we might listen, but we would dismiss it as untrue at best, crazy more likely. Gravity is a fact. The warping of space-time causes bodies of mass to be “attracted” to one another in proportion to their mass (roughly – it’s easy to get your Newtonian and Einsteinian physics muddled up here, and that’s beside the point anyway).

So it is that even in the murky world of politics and international affairs, there is a version of events that is true, and myriad others that simply are not. The considerable difficulty lies in determining to which you have been subjected.

In to this quagmire steps the conspiracy theory. By definition, a conspiracy is a situation where a number of actors (people, groups, “governments”) get together and decide on a collective course of action, usually to achieve a mutually beneficial goal (perhaps at the cost of external parties), and normally protected by secrecy as to their intentions and as to the existance of the conspiracy itself.

In this sense, nearly all international government actions are conspiracies. They work to further their ends, and they keep the intentions and plans secret.

So what can this tell us? Well, if you’ve ever heard of espionage, spies, and the “intelligence community”, you’ll know that the conspiracies of one government are notoriously leaky and transparent to others. Sometimes through concerted effort, sometimes by mistake, in the end, secrets are hard to keep, even by those whose entire career is bent on keeping them.

Part of the problem is that we’re only human, we’re incorrigible gossips, and we just blab. We also suffer from various psychological tendencies, greed, pride, etc. Ultimately, someone lets the cat out of the bag. The more people who are in on the secret, the more probable the leak. As they say in the classics, The Truth Will Out!

As such, grand actions by a nation state, plans involved large numbers of people, plans shrouded in mystery and secrecy, rarely stay secret for long. It’s just highly difficult to keep the secret.

Also, the more people involved, the greater the work of co-ordination, which by itself requires more people who know of the secrets. It’s nearly an exponential growth of numbers of likely blabbers. The bigger the conspiracy, the larger the likelihood of a leak, therefore the less likely the secret will be contained. Multiply that by the time the conspiracy has been in place, and you get an even slimmer likelihood of success.

In short, big conspiracies are very unlikely indeed.

Let’s return to the co-ordination problem. Remember the game, Chinese Whispers Telephone? Well, the more people in the circle, the worse the end result. With enough people, it becomes complete gibberish by the end. That’s how the world of conspiracy works too! Sure, computers mean perfect messages can be copied instantaneously, but there are still people either side of the machinery. There’s still heaps of room for human error. Couple that with the secrecy problem and you have a near perfect recipe for failure.

So, the simplest answer to your next conspiracy theory, be it chemtrails, big-pharma/GMOs/Aliens, climate change (I mean look what happened to the emails of a bunch of giggling scientists – even their snarky emails couldn’t be kept secret!), Syrian war… whatever, it is this:

The bigger the conspiracy, the more unlikely it is.

More than that, beyond a threshold (lets say, collusion by a couple of countries, or multi-national companies), it becomes basically impossible. If you add natural commercial market competition to the mix (as there is in say the reporting of the news) then the threshold reduces. Next time someone tells you that the media is feeding you a lie, ask them to think of how that might work. The sensible end to that thought is, “It doesn’t.”

PS. This is not exactly the same argument as Okham’s Razor. Indeed you might think the Razor suggests that a conspiracy is the simplest solution given that perhaps it involves the neatest arrangement with least variables. But no, from the Razor, the most likely solution will never be a conspiracy, because it is quickly seen that to have a conspiracy is always to posit one more variable (namely the conspiracy itself) than is required to explain the phenomenon. Thus conspiracies nearly always fail the test.



This is for the intrepid Melburnians who get out of the city, travelling the open spaces, winding up through the north past the more famous Hanging Rock, feeling the sun on their knees and the wind in their hair, exploring Major Mitchell’s old stomping ground, curious about the landscape therein. The wanderers, the dreamers, the scientists and artists. Here forth a note about the geology of the Coliban valley, in the Redesdale area, Victoria, Australia, that I wrote for the Redesdale and District Association:

A 400 Million Year Old Geological Tale

The landforms around Redesdale:

As far back as the expedition of Major Mitchell, the shape of the hills in this area were remarked upon for their flat table-top features, presiding over incised valleys and crumbling slopes pock-marked with giant granite boulders. The shape of the land here is a result of the slow erosion of rock and soil over the past million or so years. However, some of the rocks here are very much older than that.

Beginning at the bottom are the sedimentary rocks (mostly made up of clay and silt and sand, formed on an ancient sea floor, cemented into place some 450 million years ago, hundreds of millions of years before the world would see its first dinosaur) that form the foundation stone of much of Victoria. These are sometimes seen in road cuttings in the area and are typically grey to cream in colour, sometimes displaying their characteristic layered pattern. Pushing up through these like a bubble rising in water are the granites, which arrived around 100 million years later. Eventually they reached the end of their bubble like journey and solidified into the grey-coloured crystalline rocks you see poking up through the paddocks. In geological terms, the granites are ‘igneous rocks’ (as opposed to ‘sedimentary rocks’, like the previously mentioned sandstones).

The final arrival on the scene was the basalts (volcanic rock), which are, by comparison, mere infants, spewing out from nearby volcanic vents within the last few million years. They would have filled ancient valleys and streams carved into the granites and sandstones beneath, valleys which would later be known to geologists as ‘paleochannels’, and created a very flat volcanic plain. However, basalt is not very resistant to the weather. Soon after the volcanoes stopped flowing, Mother Nature would have started to carve new valleys and streams into the volcanic landscape, and much of the basalt would be eroded away. Once the water was through the basalt, it would start to erode away the more ancient rocks beneath, and the different way the different rocks erode can be seen in the different slope angles between the basalt hilltops and the granite slopes beneath. Some little sections of basalt remain, however, and these can be seen in their original flat lying glory, capping many of the hills in the region and creating perhaps the most striking geographical sight in the area.

Looking closer: 

(WARNING: may contain geological terms!)

Around the paddocks you will see large, grey coloured rocks that are generally rounded in shape. These are members of the rock unit known as the ‘Harcourt Granodiorite’ (‘granodiorite’ is a granitoid rock with more plagioclase feldspar than a typical granite, for the lay people, they’re typically just called ‘granite’). These erode in a characteristic ‘onion skin’ pattern, resulting in rounded boulders and curved sheet like portions that have peeled off the boulders. They also tend to form very coarse sand as they erode, typical of the river sand you see in the Coliban and Campaspe Rivers.

Also around some of the paddocks in the area you will  find a paler creamy-pink rock that is in flatter and in more square/rectangular shapes. It has been used extensively in rock walls in the region. It looks a little bit like sandstone, but in actual fact, it too is a granitoid, in this case, a true granite. This is the Metcalfe Granite, and it is part of the same group of rocks to which the Harcourt Granodiorite belongs (and they are of similar age, around 350 million years old). This group of rocks is properly termed the “Harcourt Suite” and includes several regional variations of granite and granodiorite. The interesting thing about the Metcalfe Granite is that it contains many ‘leucocratic dykes’ (leucocratic – pale coloured, as opposed to melanocratic – dark coloured). These are internal zones that have more of the feldspar and quartz minerals and were like internal ‘channels’ when the rock was emplaced. They actually ‘flowed’ through the surrounding rock. As a result, they contain features that look like the layering of a sandstone, and this also explains their more blocky fracture pattern.

Granites (and granodiorites) are what are known as plutonic igneous rocks. They formed beneath the ground when their rise up from the inner earth ceased upon reaching a natural buoyancy level in the earth’s crust. They then solidified (‘crystallised’) and stayed there. In the local version’s case, this happened around 350 million years ago (for scale, the dinosaurs came onto the scene around 250 million years ago and were gone by 65 million years ago). Locally this meant that the granites rose up into the surrounding sedimentary rocks. Thus these are like blobs within the regionally-more-significant sedimentary rocks (sandstones, siltstones and the like). What this implies is that these granites you see today are seeing their first ever sunshine, having previously languished beneath the earth’s surface for most of their 350 million years of existence.

Atop many of the flat-topped hills of the area you will find crumbling reddish-brown rock with lots of holes in it (properly termed ‘vesicles’). This is basalt, and this is the rock that caps the hills and causes their shape. Basalt is a volcanic rock (think of lava flows in Hawaii). You are looking at the last remnants of huge volcanic eruptions that occurred over the last 4 or 5 million years. Victoria was a very active volcanic place in its recent geological history, and in some areas of south western Victoria, it is even possible that eruptions were still taking place when the first human inhabitants arrived some 40 thousand years ago.

A final, related point; a side note about the colours of rocks. Basalts are dark-grey to black when they are fresh. Granites are normally very pale grey, as are granodiorites (although they can have a range of colours from pinks to greys to blue-ish colours right up to reds and even some greens in places). Most of the pink to red to brown colours you see in these rocks are a result of erosion – “weathering”. The colour comes from the fact that all these rocks contain some minerals that have iron in them (basalt contains a lot of these minerals, granite hardly any). When those minerals weather they produce iron-rich minerals such as limonite and hematite. These are orange-red in colour and spread out and ‘stain’ the surrounding rocks. The effect can be quite pervasive, resulting in the colouration of entire rock pieces. In the case of basalt, the entire rock has had some degree of weathering, and so it is now a dark brown-red colour, having lost nearly all of its original fresh black. In the case of the local granite, the original rock is nearly white, however, the little bit of iron staining that has occurred has given these rocks their slightly pink hue. Indeed, a little bit of iron staining is exactly what gives some of these rocks their spectrum of colour, resulting in the beautiful pinks and creams that you see today.

Seen on Facebook: “Part of the reason we have diseases is because of the shit they put in the vaccinations.”

Then they argued against vaccinations. The usual followed: That vaccines cause autism (a scientifically discredited idea) and that ‘other chemicals’ in the vaccines cause disease by ‘attacking our organs’ (actually, such chemicals are in significantly lower concentrations in vaccines than in most foods and drinks). They then ‘agreed to disagree’, demonstrating no flexibility on the issue. It is terribly frustrating given the important benefits of a major public health measure.

What is going on here? Why do people believe the wrong story in the face of the overwhelming scientific evidence?

The answer is not that they are stupid. It is likely a result of pernicious cognitive biases that we all share. We’re all pretty hopeless at assessing small risks and our brain is essentially useless when it comes to statistics. It’s not natural to think statistically and even statisticians don’t do it automatically. Most importantly here, we tend to construct arguments in our minds based on the easiest memories we can access. This is called “availability bias”, bolstered by its cousin, the salience of vivid events creating an overestimation of the probabilities.

We fixate on rare dramatic events, and they become etched into our memories with all the emotional adornments of terror and compassion. They are easy to recall, and we then construct stories and causation from them. A child gets very sick after a vaccination, we are horrified, we link that to a well publicised (but wrong) link between autism and vaccinations and hey presto! Vaccines are to blame. It seems to make sense and gives us warm feelings that we have understood the world and can proceed with that knowledge.

None of that process requires you to think hard. You do it almost automatically. In contrast, to actually examine the link requires deliberate thought. Any medical treatment carries risk, but it is usually exceptionally small, and mostly well worth discounting. We attach too much value to very slim chances. For instance, a small risk such as a 1 in 10,000 chance of an adverse outcome is, perversely, perceived as hugely worse than no chance at all, and so we tend to avoid the risk by avoiding the risky activity.

On the flipside, we are happy to accept the extremely high probability of losing money in a lottery because we cannot really grasp the vanishingly small chance of winning – but we have no trouble at all imagining the benefits! Don’t trust your gut on small probabilities.

Autism is not caused by vaccinations, but that fact is far less famous than the original headliner. So powerful is the availability bias, that it affects the news and this creates a cascade of availability, reinforcing your biases. People ask, ‘but what if it is true, shouldn’t we be cautious?’ That is your little availability machine speaking to you. Fight back, question whether the information you’re using is true. Extreme caution is warranted only in the face of true uncertainty; it should not be a default position. It hardly needs to be said that not vaccinating causes a significantly higher risk of disease spreading in society.

Your fast-thinking brain is very good at living, but it is designed to meet challenges that are simple in nature, like avoiding lions on the plains of Africa. It’s not so good at new complex ideas, but it can be, as long as you work at it. Don’t let your first thoughts pervade your life; instead, use your capacity for reason to enhance it.

This first appeared in print in my column in Woroni, the student newspaper of The Australian National University, 29 August 2013.

When I was young I wanted to be a SCIENTIST. I wanted to pour over the literature; I wanted to argue about method. I especially wanted to spend hours traipsing about the wilderness in search of tiny little things that may or may not help my research, and I then particularly wanted to spend back breaking hours in a laboratory dissolving things in solutions and then blasting them with heat and lasers and collecting gasses and measuring them to within inches of their lives.

Naturally, I had visions of spending hours in front of a computer calculating the statistics and determining, within certain bounds, the exact results, resulting in a mystical dream of writing up the research. Of course I would then have it go backward and forward between peers (each with their own particular flavor of review) and finally, after six good productive months of politics and writing, those results would be published in a journal for most of the world not to read.

Of course, none of the above is true. That was not my childhood vision. I mean, I didn’t want to be a fireman or anything like that, sure, but what I’ve just described? No thanks!

No, I had dinosaurs! I grew up in the time where it was discovered that it was an asteroid that hit Earth and killed them! I was a child of the time of ‘Transformers’, and I was especially proud of a T-Rex transformer that I had that none of the other kids did. In hindsight, that just made me a spoilt brat.

I watched the occasional documentary, mostly because my grandmother and mother encouraged it. I remember seeing David Attenborough crack open a rock to reveal a fossil. I guess it was a trilobite, can’t remember, but wow, I was amazed!

I also had politics. My parents always had the ‘adult news’ on at 7pm – the national news, and the current affairs after. If I wanted to spend that time with my mum and dad, I was watching that. I didn’t have half a clue what these people were on about, but clearly it was important. My subsequent high school education ended up being all about science and mathematics, hardly surprising for a son of doctors. Although my best final marks were in English – pretty uncommon for a science and maths nerd.

Fast-forward about 10 years and I was studying science, specifically geology, at university. If you’re wondering about the time gap, I studied Law for about 3 years at one point, but it WILL NOT appear on my resume since I gracefully withdrew after, shall we say, attendance-related performance issues. I attended enough though to learn a bit about argument, or as they more commonly say, enough to be dangerous. I then worked in real estate for a year, which one might justifiable say that combined with my half-baked and inadequate legal training made me positively lethal.

So any way, after learning the art of snakes and snake oil, I went in to learning about rocks and well, other rocks. This 3-year journey of rocks and their interaction with other rocks and how they all relate to each other was so fascinating that I decided to do an honours project in geology for an extra year. In which I determined the age of some rocks from a costal area in my home state of Victoria (about 50 million years old, in case you’re wondering – I wouldn’t want to leave you hanging).

These rocks were basalts as it happens (like that which erupts from the volcanoes of Hawaii) but what is really important is that this got me out there, cracking open rocks and finding samples. It also involved considerable literature review and statistics and report writing. Remember the start of this essay?

One thing I did do while collecting little bits of rock was stand on a rocky shore platform looking for samples, all alone, in complete disregard of the risks. I am not exaggerating to say that I could have died that day. The water from that freak wave only reached my waist, but any further and I would have found myself in the water, possibly kilometers from land. It does happen. That’s why Universities don’t let people do what I did alone (actually they didn’t then either, I just kinda well, you know…)

Why am I telling you this? Well, it’s because there, there on that platform being hit with a freak wave, I did consider why I was doing it. At the time, I guess I just needed that sample. Badly – my degree depended on it! Plus, what a beautiful place to die! Only kidding.

Nine-odd further years later, I am asking the same questions, but this time, there are no freak waves. Since then, I’ve been staring at rocks and reports and trying to decide where the next big gold or nickel deposits might be found. I’ve worked for a couple of the biggest mining companies in the world, I’ve also slept in a swag in the middle of a frigid desert night between stints supervising dusty, loud drill rigs.

Through all of this, I have continued to have an almost child-like fascination in science and nature. I have read all the famous authors – Gould, Dawkins, Sagan, you name it. I watch the docos. I watch them again. I sometimes write stuff about things on my blog. I follow my little curiosities down the rabbit hole that might begin with a name, lead to a wiki search, and end in several journal articles and a whole new ‘issue de jour’ for the week. I get involved in skeptical arguments and pursue the philosophical reasoning they entail. I pity those around me sometimes; I suspect I am quite, as they politely say, “intense”.

So, I could tell you something about evolution, I could tell you a little about quantum physics (which is only to say, for example, that I could tell you about Schrodinger’s Cat, and also explain that no cats are involved). I could describe the Monty Hall problem and why it demonstrates how flawed our thinking can be.

Why would you listen to me though? I’m a geologist, not a philosopher, or physicist, or even a biologist. In fact, I have never done a single formal course in biology, and that includes school level biology (I did physics and chemistry and geography, there’s only so much room). I did read A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking, when I was in high school, but I’m not about to say I’m some sort of cosmologist.

I would ask you to listen only because it is interesting; for no other reason. I would appeal to your sense of intrigue. I am suggesting to you that the real world is far more interesting than anything that you might have seen in the Da Vinci Code or, God forbid, stuff about the megalodon shark in Shark Week.

The real world has every sort of mystery of the sort that Dan Brown wrote his fiction about. But the thing is, it’s not fiction. Even Brown’s fiction contains some real science and real history. And that is the point. Its not just science, it is history and culture too. They all link together to make this great big wonderful story. And anyone can be part of that. Anyone can be that investigator. The scientist at the frontline, and even, with time, the one that the President calls when the aliens land.

For that though you’re going to need skills. Investigative skills, particularly of the sort that can be verified and tested. And this is where you will need some scientific training. Or at least, a good appreciation of rational thought and how something can be known, objectively. You need to have an appreciation of why scientific reasoning has lead to the advances it has. After all, you trust planes not to fall out of the sky, right?

Either way, rejoice in your fascination for all things interesting. Science is not a specialized territory only inhabited by nerdy, bespectacled introverts who are always portrayed as nerdy, bespectacled introverts. In fact, most scientists are normal. Really, they are.

Most importantly, don’t worry if you don’t want to be a scientist. I was almost a lawyer, and there are plenty of other valid, interesting and important pursuits in life, and no, science is not the only ‘way of knowing’. All that said though, please learn about science and its methods. The modern world demands it.


Reposted from Medium:

It’s all very well to look at the history of science and the prominent revolutionary figures therein and conclude that these were ‘Masters of Science and Scientific Method’; but did they really follow set rules handed down to them? After all, it was precisely their radical ideas that caused change. A traditional scientist of the day might have dismissed those radical scientists as rogues, or worse, pseudoscientists (if they’d had that word back then!).  Clearly, following prescribed rules does not imply scientific progress.

We’ve met Karl Popper and falsificationism, which seemed to help us decide what is scientific or not, but then we found that this is problematic if the evidence partially supports the hypothesis. We’ve seen that enough of this can lead to a paradigm shift (Thomas Kuhn). Now we return to look at the activity of scientists, and we find that in reality, scientists who progress science seem to be just proposing whatever theory they like.

Paul Feyerabend was an Austrian-born philosopher of science, who, true to his theories of science, lived in 4 different continents and at least 6 different countries. He rejected the notion of universal method in science, instead advancing what is termed ‘epistemological anarchism’, which is to say, there is no absolutely fixed way of knowing things and that ‘anything goes’ would better describe scientific method in ‘revolutionary science’. Furthermore, he suggested that science cannot claim the role of ultimate arbiter of truth.

Controversially, Feyarabend looked at heroes of science, such as Galileo, and said that instead of being sticklers to persistent and careful methods who finally got their day in the Sun, these guys were really just great persuaders. So forceful was their campaign, that their theories won the day. Crucial to this is that their theories were, at the time of their proposing, either not fully supported by the facts, or the technology did not exist to fully test their theories (a number of Copernican-era predictions went untested for centuries, for example). This implies that their theories, at the time, were not necessarily scientific, meaning they shared the stage with competing theories of a more mystical nature (for example, astrology or religious doctrine). The success of the ‘scientific’ theories has led to science becoming the dominant way of knowing about the world, and that in turn has lead to science oppressing other epistemologies.

All this leads to a rather dismal postmodernist view of science – that there really is no way to decide between science or magic or religion when it comes to understanding the world, that they are all ‘relative’. This simply does not bear scrutiny when we look at the advances science has made. Feyerabend is perhaps best understood as a product of huge social change that resulted in postmodernism becoming a dominant philosophy in the post-war era. His work, however, shed light on that suspicion we always had, that science is not strictly rule-bound, that advances are made through radical activities. This much is probably true; even if we discard the notion that religion could be on equal footing to science when it comes to understanding the world.

This article first appeared in print in my column in Woroni, the student newspaper of The Australian National University, 15 August 2013.

ResearchBlogging.orgA famous study by the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster showed that as the global number of pirates has decreased historically, the climate has warmed up. That is, there is a negative correlation between increasing global temperatures and the number of pirates. The FSM drew on this link to demonstrate that pirates are devine beings and that their decline is responsible for global warming. Arrrhh!

Of course, this study was a parody. Whilst it may be true that there are less pirates today than when climate was cooler, this is an example of pure correlation, not causation. Pirates do not keep the climate cooler, there is no mechanism for them to do so, however, the correlation in the data cannot be denied.

At the other end of the scale is, for example, the negative correlation between increased vaccination rates and the incidence of targeted infections. This is a particularly strong negative correlation, but it also has a causative basis. This is because we know the mechanism by which a vaccine protects the vaccinated, and thus can predict that in a population, there would be a negative correlation as described. This is a causation relationship that results in correlation – statistically and scientifically, the strongest possible result. Put another way, it is a hypothesis about the positive benefit of vaccination that is strongly supported by the evidence.

In the middle is the great big grey area of intellectual inquiry, also known as ‘everything else’. Recently a large meta-analysis (a study of studies – comparing different studies to draw over-arching conclusions) concluded that there is a negative correlation between intelligence and faith (Zuckeman, Silberman and Hall, 2013). That is, the higher your intelligence (analytic intelligence, such as that measured by IQ tests) the less likely you are to be religious.

Your personal reaction to that result is, perhaps unsurprisingly, likely to be influenced by your opinion on religion, and your opinion on intelligence.  But what does this result really mean? Are religious people dumb? Are atheists smarter? Does high intelligence ‘cause’ un-religiousness? Does religiousness ‘cause’ low intelligence?

The short answer is ‘no’. This is just a correlation. It just suggests that on the whole, really intelligent people are less likely to be religious. However, this study went further, discussing mechanisms to explain the correlation, and here is where it moves into the area of causation.

Of these, perhaps most interesting is the notion of sense of control. A person’s sense of control over their lives is influenced by numerous factors, both internal (within their control) and external (outside of their control). The report discusses studies that have shown that if you challenge someone’s sense of control, their belief in God increases. This suggests that religion provides a means of explaining one’s life; that what you can’t control is in the hands of God (and isn’t it instructive here that we have idioms such as ‘in the lap of the Gods’?). Higher intelligence can provide a person with greater self-control, that is, they have the means to have greater control over their lives, therefore, less reliance on faith. They see and understand themselves as in control, not an external power. They also found that intelligent people are less conforming, thus less likely to be influenced by the dogma of religion.

The most common explanation they found though was that intelligent people prefer rational explanations to irrational ones. Analytical thinking is preferred over intuitive thinking. An intelligent person may view the world rationally on the basis of logical conclusions, rather that by some grand supernatural design. As a result, the build-up of rational conclusions results in a decrease in religiosity.

All this then suggests a causative mechanism – that higher intelligence fosters a greater sense of personal control and that a preference for rational thought processes reduces the need for faith, thereby reducing belief in the supernatural. If we were to take that as a hypothesis, we would expect to find, in a population, the exact negative correlation that was found if the hypothesis were to be supported.

Clearly though, I have made a circular argument, by taking a result, finding an explanation, proposing a hypothesis from that explanation, and then, completely unsurprisingly, getting the same result. Not good science on my behalf there. But what we can recover from this is that there might be a mechanism that accounts for the correlation, and that therefore, this is not simply a pure correlation. In other words, there might be a causative relationship. The existence of a number of studies that show psychological phenomena such as the personal control study discussed above demonstrates that there exists a way in which higher intelligence could lead to lower religiosity. Whilst this does not completely explain the negative correlation, it puts it firmly into the camp of ‘possible causation’, making the overall finding of a negative correlation important scientifically, pointing strongly towards the value of further research, especially into the psychological mechanisms behind religiosity.

Of course, whilst you’re not likely to be able to improve your IQ by reducing your faith, you could at least put yourself in the ‘upper half’ of the curve and tell people how you’re one of the intelligent ones!! 😉
Zuckerman M, Silberman J, & Hall JA (2013). The Relation Between Intelligence and Religiosity: A Meta-Analysis and Some Proposed Explanations. Personality and social psychology review : an official journal of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology, Inc PMID: 23921675

“Plurality must never be posited without necessity”

-William of Ockham

People prefer simple solutions to problems. This is pretty obvious – it takes less unnecessary hard work. So, does this idea apply in science? Welcome down the rabbit hole of the history and philosophy of science.

Ockham’s Razor is a hugely influential heuristic (rule of thumb) in science. The Razor provides a way to decide between competing explanations that are equally supported by the evidence at hand. It suggests that the favoured explanation is that which posits fewer variables.

However, we all know that science is not often ‘simple’. How do we translate this position to science? This is where ‘falsifiability’ comes in, a concept made famous by Karl Popper in “The Logic of Scientific Discovery”. If you cannot falsify a hypothesis, then it is not scientific. The famous example is “all swans are white”. By inductive logic, no amount of white swans can prove this statement; instead it is supported until a single black swan is found.

Falsifiability alone does not, however, reduce possible explanations to one. Competing theories may all be falsifiable, thus scientific. Having established that swans can be black or white, we propose three competing ideas: 1. All swans are either black or white. 2. All swans are either black or white, but location determines which. 3. All swans are either black or white, but location and the season it is in December determine which. Having taken samples from Australia and England to test these hypotheses, you would see that all statements are supported, however number 2 has an extra variable, and 3 has two.

Strict application of the Razor would suggest you accept hypothesis 1. However, the extremely strong correlation between location and swan colour suggests that 2 is also acceptable. In this case, you decide that the ‘simplest’ hypothesis is the weaker, because it has less explanatory power. That is, even though clearly swans are either black or white (hypothesis 1), the black swans are all in Australia, and so hypothesis 2 suggests an explanation determined by geography. What about hypothesis 3?  Well, seasons are dependent on location, and so the seasons variable is superfluous, regardless of how well supported it is by the results. We take hypothesis 2 and move on, because that result has thrown up new hypotheses (e.g. around species and evolution) – the very fodder of science.

Thus science aims to explain, rather than simplify. Ockham’s Razor is really about how to prefer an explanation, rather than about the most simplistic explanation. Sometimes the best explanation is very complicated, the point is that it is no more complicated than it needs to be to do the explaining. Many ‘conspiracy theories’ fall foul of the Razor for this reason–they introduce extra variables without improving the explanatory power – that is, the non-conspiracy hypothesis can explain all the evidence.

Things get interesting when a contradictory result is found by a new experiment. Does it really falsify the hypothesis, or should we modify the hypothesis? Should hypotheses be ‘backward modified’ like this to explain new data? Doesn’t this contradict everything I’ve just said? How the hell does science really work? This will be a tale for another day, where we meet people like Thomas Kuhn and Imre Lakatos, and encounter the anarchist, Paul Feyeraband.

This article first appeared in print in my column in Woroni, the student newspaper of The Australian National University, No. 8, Vol 65, 23 July 2013.

We do seem to be heading in dark direction. A world where we seek not evidence but instead opinions from friends and talk show hosts, a world where argument is all that is needed. A world, in short, where anything can be true if we only believe it.

In an attempt to keep the post short, I first observe that the Cassini spacecraft has taken its final look at Earth, an event mostly ignored despite its poignancy given its status as one of the last great exploratory missions to Space.

People, and the politicians who represent them, seem determined to look at short terms goals, especially financial, in the face of species-threatening climate change. (I wanted to link something there then realized there are too many examples…)

 ‘Journalists’ of science and technology seem comfortable to be creationists (apparently because the story is better).

Elections are contested as a race to the bottom for votes, rather than as a conversation on ideals, goals and aspirations for society.

In the face of this, the collective advancement of society’s knowledge seems to be localized to the ‘nerds’, and clearly the popularisation of nerds has done nothing to raise the status of their work. I’m glad I was never a fan of that American show, ‘The Big Bang Theory’ (somewhat more of a fan of its namesake though).

I remember laughing at a movie a number of years ago called “Idiocracy”. I now actually can see a day where humans attempt to feed crops with Gatorade and puzzle at why that doesn’t work.

We seem to have lost sight of the days when we looked to the stars and imagined how much more we could know, how much better we could be and pictured a glorious future for humankind.

I don’t know, perhaps I am prematurely a grumpy old man. Still, I do wonder how we can combat the level of unreason in society, and I fear where it will lead.

Simply because everyone else is raving on about the recent AAS survey, I thought I would too. How depressing it is to find that not the entire population of Australia knows that a year is measured by the time it takes for the Earth to do a lap of the Sun! And fresh water makes up what percent again of total water resources? How much of that is potable? Wait, that wasn’t one of the questions (probably would have require knowing what ‘potable’ means anyway).

Like many science commentators out there (and I won’t even try to list them all, but this is an excellent one, and this is an excellent one from the last time they did this survey), I breathed a sigh of “so what!” After which I sort of just found the whole thing depressing.

I tweeted earlier today that all I think it says is that 30-40% of Australians are not ‘natural naturalists’. That is, people who take a broad interest in scientific topics and fields and who tend to remember lots of the gory details. At the top level, these people are known as ‘polymaths’ – that is, they operate at near genius level in more than one scientific field. At the other end, they could be your average Joe who loves a good documentary (and is probably a fan of David Attenborough). In other words, they quite possibly are not scientists. And THAT is the point. Knowing certain facts about the world does not make you a scientist.

Others mentioned above have pointed out that science is about such things as approach to problems and method and application of analytical techniques. Generally, it is about concepts and thinking, not about facts. The facts fall out of the conceptual tree when you shake it hard enough.

So why does it depress me? Well I guess I am a bit of a ‘naturalist’ – I love to know about the world and how it works. Knowing why a year is as long as it is is part of that, to me. Finding out about natural phenomena is exciting! And even though my specialist field is geology, I am very interested in a range of things, some scientific, some not quite (like philosophy) and some not at all (art). So I consume all manner of things, and along the way I happen to remember a few things (although I will be the first to admit I have a terrible memory). I suppose I find it hard to understand why anyone else would not be the same.

So perhaps I am weird? Or perhaps not! Lurking in the 60% odd of people who knew stuff for the survey will be people like me! And some of them will be in or go on to scientific careers. I think Australia is pretty safe for now.

[But come on, people should know how long it takes for the Earth to go round the Sun, I mean, really?]

“What do we want? Scientific Certainty! When do we want it? Within a certain timeframe!”

The public, the media and especially politicians like to make a big thing about scientific uncertainty. For scientists, it’s just a fact of life. So what is this ‘uncertainty’ and how does this affect our lives?

We scientists perform research just so that we can understand the world around us. To do so, we use various scientific and statistical techniques, and especially where the latter is concerned, these result in ‘measures of confidence’ in the data (and thus conclusions drawn there from). It means that we present data with ‘error bars’, which are designed to show a range of values within which the ‘reality’ may lie. These error bars represent upper and lower limits that are determined on the basis of our confidence in the results. This is largely a statistical calculation, and it results in mind-bending statements such as “plus-minus 6% with 95% confidence”. What does this all mean?

Three concepts: Confidence, Error and Likelihood.

Imagine this scenario: you decide to determine whether the morning light is a result of the rising of the Sun in the morning (hear me out, this is going to be scientific!).

You’ve noticed that it seems to get quite light at around about the same time as when the Sun rises, but you’re not sure that it’s actually related to the Sun rising (stay with me!). So you hypothesise that the morning light is due to the Sun rising. To test this, you take a series of measurements over numerous days – the amount of light, the time of day, and the position of the Sun with respect to the horizon.

Your data looks a bit like a curve when you plot it – that is to say, there is no definite point at which dark becomes light (anyone who’s been up before it’s light will know this, but for the benefit of an undergraduate audience…).

So you do the statistics on it (yes, there is a point to paying attention to those stats classes!). This shows that there is a correlation between the position of the Sun and the amount of light (durrr, I know…), but wait! There is variation in the data. Not every day is the same! How could this be? Well, it could be that your instrument is near some artificial light sources, it could be that the very light of God is shining upon your scientific research (hey, appealing to all audiences here). How do you decide?

To the rescue – the null hypothesis!

For this you decide to generate a completely random version of the sunlight data (even your phone could do that these days). And then you compare, statistically, the random set to the experimental set. Sure enough, it tells you that only a percentage of the data could be explained by the random data. The rest could be considered to be explainable by the hypothesis (that the amount of light is a result of the position of the Sun).

Now, just say you decide you want to know what 95% of the data is saying. It is telling you that the light patterns match to the Sun position patterns to within, say, plus or minus 2 minutes every day. That is to say, the middle 95% of the light data matches within the same times plus or minus 2 minutes every day. What have you learnt? Well, you’ve probably confirmed that the position of the Sun is the dominant factor in the amount of light in a given place at a particular time of day (yes, yes, assuming you are outside, etc). That is, your 95% Confidence Interval.

But why all the scary stats and numbers? Why should we be only 95% confident of this match, plus or minus 2 minutes? Well, because we have measured things in the real world, with human-made devices and their associated problems; nothing is infallible. But also because there might actually be other factors at work – street lights, machine error, etc. But if we take that null hypothesis test we did before, we’ll see a pattern. In the above example, had we taken the middle 99% of data, we may have had a result that was plus or minus 30 minutes in the time data. That’s starting to sound a bit dodgy. Had we taken the middle 66% percent of the data, we may have been within plus or minus a few seconds, but that would have left a third of the data unexplained. What’s going on here?

Well, fortunately, these numbers I’ve been picking relate to ‘standard deviations’ (SDs), a highly statistical term that essentially means the amount to which the data show ‘weirdness’. A small SD means the data is pretty tight – it’s all showing the one thing. One full SD is around 66%, which we’ve agreed is a pretty poor test of the data. 2 SDs however, is 95% of the data, “almost all” in most people’s parlance. 3 SDs puts you in the 99% category, which is ridiculously definite!

Imagine a diagram of confidence versus error; the Y-axis shows Error, measured as a percentage deviation (that is, how much it differs from the average), while the X-axis shows the confidence level, measured in those Standard Deviations. Remember, we choose our confidence level, then see what the error level is. Choose your confidence interval, and then see where your error margins plot. This will give you an idea of how strong your result is. This is, the likelihood that you have made an observation of reality; your science has revealed a ‘truth’ about the world around us.

So, those studies that have low error margins at high levels of confidence, those are the ones we can be pretty darn certain are likely to represent the real world. The ‘Nobel Committee’ area of certainty represents experiments that start to demonstrate ‘theory’ – that summit of science where things are considered to be the closest thing that science has to ‘fact’.

Examples of things that fall in to that ‘Nobel’ area: gravity being responsible for the apple falling from the tree; the Sun rising in the east and causing ‘daytime’; human influence on climate causing global warming. Yes, I said it. Ask the climate scientists – this is where the data lies.

We’re never certain, we’re just certain within certain error bounds, at a confidence level of X.

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This article published at Woroni, the student newspaper of The Australian National University:

Students of the 70s and 80s enjoyed a certain freedom in their tertiary academic education – it was fully funded by the government. All they had to do was put a roof over their heads and feed themselves (which of course is a challenge when you’re a student), but they did not end up with a significant debt to the government afterwards as students do these days. Concurrent with this ‘golden age’ of tertiary education was a booming era of scientific research in Australia. Everything from medical research to planetary science got a gong, and Australia has its fair share of Nobel medals to show for it. Between all of this, these people found the time to agitate for progress in society. Before one’s eyes get misty with nostalgia, it can be summed up by saying that from the 50s up until probably the early 90s, Australia was one of the most progressive places in the world to be in research.

Something happened in the 90s though, politics changed, people switched off and governments no longer felt the need to invest so heavily in fundamental societal values, like research and innovation. The boom in private wealth probably lulled everyone into thinking that capital markets had developed a momentum to help carry this burden. The shifting ground of popular politics also helped sideline exciting fields of research, and science in general. It simply wasn’t news any more, and it was too easy to sit back in suburban comfort and say, “the money should be spent elsewhere, what’s the value of nerdy scientific research?”. This coupled with a growing conversation around elitism versus egalitarianism, which in the Australian context was read as “academics in their ivory tower are wasting money”, laid the groundwork not just for cuts to funding, but for those cuts to go largely under the political radar.

Fast forward to 2013, and we are in a situation in which federal funding for research and higher education faces cuts and deferrals of $3.8 billion over the next four years. Anyone familiar with the research grant process in the country will know that it is a back-breaking, time consuming exercise, a process that takes valuable time from research efforts, without any certainty of success. And it has to be done at least every few years. But don’t take my word for it, here is the process put beautifully in metaphor by Professor Suzanne Cory, the President of the Australian Academy of Science in her address to the National Press Club today:

Imagine you decide to build a house – you go to the bank and borrow enough money to buy 1000 bricks, and you lay them. And then you have to go back to the bank to ask for another loan, to buy another 1000 bricks. Having laid them, you then once more have to stop building and spend time convincing the bank to lend you enough for the next 1000 bricks and they only lend you enough for 600. When you know you are working with so much uncertainty, how far do you dare plan?

That is the current situation in research funding in Australia, has been for years, except now it is against a backdrop of a shallower pool of funds (and getting shallower).

The consequences of this for Australia will be simple: Research and innovation will decline, our brightest minds will leave the country, and Australia will lose status as an innovation powerhouse. Following that will be a negative flow-on effect to the economy, the scale of which will dwarf the cuts currently being made. This will be a sad state of affairs for the country to find itself in, the country which produced WiFi, flu vaccines, cervical cancer vaccine, the cause (and cure) of common peptic ulcers, the Atomic Absorption Spectrometer… the list goes on.

For the future of Australia, for it to have a prosperous, innovative future; scientific research needs to be funded as a central national priority. Indeed funding should increase, and the onerous short timelines of the grant process need to be reviewed to take into account the natural process of scientific research; to let academics and students evolve their work. Governments on both sides of politics cannot afford not to provide this support.


This article first seen at ABC News Australia’s ‘The Drum’ Opinion and analysis:

Greetings All!
What follows is my first guest post; and it touches on a topic in science communication that is close to my heart. Too often I find myself being irritated at a galah being described as a “Pink and Grey”. I cringe at people not being able to distinguish a monitor from a gecko. I particularly don’t like people worrying about crocodiles in places where they simply don’t live. Now; while I enjoyed a good education, I can assure you that these sorts of “real-world” lessons were not taught at school. I know what a galah is and I can even spot a wedge-tailed eagle from several hundred meters. I am who I am through an interest in the natural world that I have worked on through the years by asking questions and looking things up (in strange places like libraries, though the internet has replaced this largely in recent years.). I am not saying I am better than anyone in this, I am saying quite the opposite. IT IS HOW PEOPLE SHOULD BE. We were like this a couple of hundred years ago when people hung off every word from explorers. Somehow, in this age of information, we have lost the desire to have knowledge. It remains an important goal for science communicators, in my opinion, to inspire people to seek out information for themselves on the natural world. In some ways, it is not enough to simply teach.

Anyway, I owe my love of the natural world around me to my parents and grandparents. Thank you! Thus it is appropriate that my Mother be the first to guest post. A retired psychiatrist, she is also a naturalist. Her acuity of observation is second to none, and this is important if you are going to be mindful of your surroundings; another important lesson in life. If you’ve not heard of Dr. Kathy Hall, you have now:

Watch out for the crocs!

Artwork (C) Kathy Hall 2011

The visitor asked, “Do you ever see any of those white birds with yellow feathers on the top of their heads?”
Firstly, the visitor was Australian and had stayed at our place for several days on many occasions. He has also camped beside the Murray on a yearly basis for most of his adult life. Let’s give the visitor the benefit of the doubt and assume he was having trouble remembering the name Sulphur Crested Cockatoo or “Cocky” to most of us. Remembering the name is really not the issue, it’s asking whether we had any that is the problem! Cockies surround our house. They nest in the River Red Gums close by. They screech morning and night. They wake us even before the rooster crows. They fly in huge noisy flocks above us. They are omnipresent.
Probably even more bizarre was the comment of a 27year old Australian visitor who, when visiting the banks of the Coliban on a very hot day was concerned for my safety as I paddled on the shore-line in case there were crocodiles. She was serious.
Lack of wildlife observation skills is not unusual amongst our Australian guests, whereas, in general terms, our European visitors reach for binoculars, ask for individual names of species, and compare them with home wildlife. I often ponder the reason for this disparity. I suspect that the cause lies in less emphasis in this country on how we teach our children to speak and name things. If you point out a bird to a 2 year old and say, “Look, a bird!” in a minimalist way, that’s as far as the learning gets. If you say, “Look, honeyeater!” or “Look, Rosella!” or “There’s a corella!” the learning is already enriched. The trouble is, if the parent doesn’t know the difference, how can this enrichment occur? The knowledge, and interest, must be handed down through generations. Somehow we seem to have lost that interest and skill.
How often have you heard people refer to a pink and grey galah? They are all pink and grey, so ‘galah’ will do! It’s like referring to a black crow or a black and white magpie.
Although not true “twitchers”, R. and I have gained enormous pleasure from observing the different bird species that visit our property. Before we built the house and garden, while we camped in the paddocks, we observed 16 different birds. Since developing the garden, 5 years later, we have now observed 55 different species.
Some of you may remember [a previous piece of mine] about the pair of Australasian grebes who dominate our dam. They have produced two sets of chicks this season, four in each clutch. We are amazed to see them building a new nest so we may have a third brood soon.
Perhaps some may feel that being able to recognise different animal species is not important enough to worry about. I would counter that awareness of our surroundings and interest in the variety, characteristics and behaviour of living things around us is not only essential for the health of the planet, but also enhances our own pleasure and well-being. Not to mention our confidence while paddling in the Coliban!


-Kathy Hall, Coliban Springs.

You may have detected a skeptical vein in me whilst reading. I am skeptical. I am a scientist, it’s my job! Furthermore, I am a geologist who specializes in groundwater. I earn money through the planning and delivery of water (potable or construction water typically) to major projects. Part of that process is the exploration for water. Through a combination of looking at maps, on the ground reconnaissance, and clever things like geophysics, I decide where precisely to drill water wells. It is a scientific process, with a lot of learning along the way. You really do get better with experience, and for me anyway, my background in gold and nickel exploration has helped. I’ve been doing all these various exploration tasks for a several years now (about 6 in fact) and definitely I’ve improved. I know how drill rigs work and I have a decent idea of how (basically) to tease out from the local geology in a given area the better places to look for water (or gold, or nickel or whatever). Again, it relies on the collective knowledge from generations of geological science. Knowledge that I started to learn at university.

Enough about my scientific credentials already! Why I write this is that I am currently working on a project where we are trying to find enough groundwater for the construction of 100km of railway. Railway line construction requires a lot of water (about 800,000L per day every 10-15km of line in this case).

We’re working in a pastoral area, sheep and wheat country. The geology is pretty much granite through and through, and anyone who knows what that’s like will tell you that water is scarce. Surface water is practically non-existent and groundwater is hard to come by. This is nearly a desert. How do I know this specifically in this area? Because I have been talking to the local farmers. These guys have been breaking their backs for generations, eeking out the precious value this land will throw up to those who persevere. The one thing that determines success or otherwise more than anything is water. Stock need it to survive, and having no mains water system, a farmer’s house supply relies on it. Subsequently, the farmers invest a large amount of thought and effort into finding water. The country is pock-marked with drill holes and windmills. With this effort comes a culture of great interest in the techniques deployed to find that precious water.

From my discussions, the number one technique employed to find water here is water divining (“water witching” or “water dowsing”, depends where in the world you are). Before you sigh and stop reading, consider this: a water bore can cost more than $10,000 whether or not you actually find water. A farm would quickly go broke drilling holes if their success rate wasn’t too good. But then, hiring geological consultants such as myself is not cheap either, and materially adds to the cost.

What you need is a method of locating the holes yourself (or even getting a mate to do it for a few beers). Enter divining. You know who they are – they’re the ones with bent pieces of wire or Y-shaped sticks who wander about and find the “stream” and tell you where to drill. There is no scientific evidence for its efficacy whatsoever. Indeed there is scientific evidence that demonstrates that diviners have success rates no better than chance (for a good summary, I do recommend the Wiki page). This scientific ‘disproof’ has been around for at least half a century. Despite claims by practitioners to the contrary, we can probably consign water diving to the quack-bin and declare it bogus. Hocus pocus pseudoscience.

BUT, does it work “in the real world”? Given that so many still use it, even rely on it, what residual value might it poses for the farmers out here?

Well, my unscientific study of the local farmers deploying this unscientific technique suggests that it is valuable indeed. The process of divining has located many successful bores in this district (together with a largely unmentioned number of failed bores!). Any geologist will tell you that drilling completely at random will not give you a good success rate. To this end, drilling on “crossing streams” found by diviners is not random. There is a great deal of local land knowledge that is deployed when divining, thus narrowing the focus of the search. The divining really then just delivers a reason for siting the drill rig in a particular location. With limited resources at-hand, this is perhaps just what is needed – comfort in spending the money.

So how am I to react when confronted with several ‘divined locations’ (I can’t help but make the mistake of pronouncing it ‘divine locations’ here!)? This is difficult country to explore, and even I, the skilled geologist, have limited data. My locations are beset with large error margins. In fact I will plan for a certain failure rate given the known geology.

I decided to let them have the run of it for a while, as the divined spots had some features that made them acceptable exploration targets. One diviner, we’ll call him ‘Bruce’, comes with, it is said, a 100% success rate! (Forgive my skepticism, 100%?) I have spent the last week drilling his targets. So far, we’ve drilled four holes. The first one was an absolute gusher! More water than we hoped for. Even the farmer, lets call him ‘Barry’, said he’d never seen anything like it! Then the second came up with water too. Not as much, but adequate.

At this stage, I’m running through the stats in my head. This is getting like some sort of baseball or cricket statistic. Surely the ‘run’ must end soon. But then comes the third hole, better than the second. So Bruce is 3 from 3. Pretty good. Don’t worry, I’m not about to be ‘converted’.

The fourth hole comes. I press on, drilling deeper than I usually would. Barry is telling me I have to go deeper, Bruce is never wrong! Bare in mind, this is hard, dry granite. No water in that. But then, sure enough, there’s the water! This time though, it’s minimal; not enough for a bore. So how to call this? 3.5 out of 4?

It’s hard to explain this without saying that there was simply a network of water baring fractures in the granite that would have been found anyway. That would be the logical, geologically appropriate explanation. I happen believe this to be the case. We may even have been able to detect the fracture systems with the right geophysics. And then, we might have drilled proper ‘geological holes’. But, like Bruce the diviner might agree (perhaps not) how will I ever know? We can’t drill everywhere, and geophysics for this kind of exploration is costly in both time and money with limited chance of improving the success rate.

So, what is the upshot of this? Well, I have spent a week drilling holes and conversing with Barry. We get on well and he has been helpful above and beyond the call. It has been a pleasure. What about the divining? Well, Barry wouldn’t let me drill anywhere that didn’t come approved by Bruce anyway. So, the upshot is that we have a happy landholder, and a happy geologist drilling good water bores (the task for which I am paid). Everyone’s a winner, except, perhaps, science. I come out of this a little miffed that I couldn’t show Barry a better way. But then I’m not from round here. It seems that local knowledge has beaten science in this round. Next time, I will have better data, and a better story. I hope.

I still don’t believe that we wouldn’t have found the water without Bruce though!!

Some time ago I mentioned that I was interviewing Gary Cass about his work, especially his work teaching school students science and creativity. He uses an artistic approach to educate in some fairly complex scientific areas. I wrote more about him here.

Well, having interviewed him, filmed him and edited the film, here it is. He is a remarkable man, and it just goes to show that there are people out there who not only value the intersection of art and science, but teach it as well. Creativity + science = win!

Much as it took some work, I really enjoyed every aspect of making this film, from talking to Gary, filming and even the editing. I hope to do more of this some day (that is if anyone will let me after seeing this!). I hope you enjoy it and I’d like to send out a big thanks to Gary, the University of Western Australia, and the girls from Shenton College who appear in the film.

Naomi Oreskes is here in Australia promoting her new book, co-authored with Erik Conway, called “Merchants of Doubt: How a handful of scientists obscured the truth on issues from tobacco smoke to global warming“. I will be reading it, definitely. Tonight I went to her public talk at the University of Western Australia. She is a very good speaker, clear and concise, conveying precisely what it is she means to say and not confusing any of the issues. Impressive. Oreskes is a Professor of Science and History at the University of California, San Diego.

Her thesis surrounds scientific uncertainty and how that has been used by a group of scientists to create doubt in the minds of people about big issues like the dangers of tobacco smoke, and the realities of climate change (or global warming, if you prefer the older, arguably more-correct terminology). It is an eye-opening study of recent history.

If you’ve read my blog before, you’d know that I have an interest in the role of uncertainty in science. I see it as especially critical to the communication of science, and so this talk was particularly interesting. Good scientists embrace uncertainty. So much so that they use sophisticated statistical techniques to quantify it. A good scientific study knows its limits.

Uncertainty, in the scientific sense, does not equate to doubt as to the ability of a study to illuminate our understanding of the world. However, it does appear to be very useful in making scientific findings hard to understand for the general public. In the public’s eye, it very well may be that scientific uncertainty is interpreted as ‘doubt’. This is a shame, because truly doubtful scientists will say that they are doubtful (doubtful here implying that the results are dubious as to their implications). Doubt is not what is meant by the error bars of science. Those error bars simply demonstrate just how precise the findings are. If there are ‘overlaps of error bars’, it is very likely that the result will not be ‘significant’ and so the scientist might not have anything definitive to say as to the results.

This, however, has not been the case in climate science, as Oreskes makes plain. Climate science, unlike most fields of science, has been very definite indeed as to global warming. It is happening, and it is almost certainly contributed to (if not entirely caused by) humans. The level of agreement amongst scientists is extraordinary. Unfortunately, along the margins, the error bars and minor disagreements have been interpreted as doubt as to the general findings and implications. Oreskes’ contribution is to say that this might have its roots in the political ideology and personal motivations of some influential individuals, rather than actual doubt in scientific circles.

Oreskes has conducted an historical study, using the mainstay of historical techniques. What she speaks of is the actual historical record of the individuals concerned. In that sense, what she says should be uncontroversial. Her interpretations may remain controversial, but some of the things said by the scientists she writes about have to be seen to be believed.

Which ever side of the mythical climate fence you sit on, the historical record remains. It does not paint a pretty picture of the deep motivations of the anti-global warming movement. It also carries some important warnings. We need to be careful with science and how it is used in the public domain. This is a lesson that applies to both ‘sides’. Equally.

Interestingly, unlike how these things usually go, there were no ‘skeptic’ questions asked. Is this because her work has revealed a particularly inconvenient truth? Is the history of science a domain where skeptics fear to tread?

This blog is mostly about science, and about how people understand science, and hopefully it also attempts to explain some science from time to time. I try to keep atheist tirades out of it, because that is not the purpose of this blog. However, because the way people think is central to their understanding of science, and because religious thinking can have an impact on the way science is viewed, I consider it a rationally appropriate side-topic and will venture there from time to time.

In my haste and sleepiness at the time, I missed an argument in the comments, by Daniel, on my last post. I don’t mean to single Daniel out for this, however he made the comment and in the interests of furthering the debate, I’m reposting it for discussion. Isn’t the internet and the world-wide-web wonderful! Daniel wrote:

Medicine, planes, and cars do not oppose the knowledge of God, and neither does science. People do.

At first this seemed quite unremarkable to me. After all, no one was suggesting that other species oppose the knowledge of God. But then I noticed a classic misstep in the understanding of science: that science is a thing that exists apart from people. It is quite common, I think, for people to mistake the products of science for science itself. Science is a methodology; a set of tools, techniques and ways of thinking that allow a rational exploration of the world about us in the quest for knowledge. It has also helped us create some nifty devices and tricks, like planes and medicine.

Science is most definitely a creation of humans and human minds. The products of science, like medicine and automobiles, are not science themselves. The same can be said for “facts” about the world. That cheetahs eat gazelles on the African plains is not science. However, science has helped us understand the remarkable evolutionary arms race that has resulted in some of the fastest land animals that have ever existed.

So, when Daniel says that people oppose the knowledge of God, and that science doesn’t, he makes what is, to a large degree, a nonsensical argument. Science is created by people. If science develops explanations for things that do not require a God or Gods, then by implication, people have opposed the knowledge of God. The very same people who “oppose the knowledge of God” in Daniel’s argument may also substitute that knowledge with their own, scientific, explanations. Science and people are intimately intertwined. Indeed, inseparable. Likewise, religion and people.

To me, in this lies the fundamental problem with ideas like Stephen J. Gould’s ‘Non-overlapping Magesteria” which holds that science and religion are concerned with such different things that they do not and should not step into each others territory. The fact is that they do, and they both exist in people’s minds. Sometimes in the same mind. They both make claims about the way the world is, and both provide evidence, in different forms. Assessing the quality of that evidence is precisely the kind of task at which science has proven itself so adept. I, and many others, would hold that religion has done a pretty poor job at providing evidence for its claims about the way the world is, whereas science, in as much as it does give to us, has been pretty good.

Yet, there may be things that science helps us little in. It may tell us what varieties of moral system there are and why we have a moral system in the first place (hot research and debate here), but it science may still never actually tell us how to behave. For that we must make choices, decisions based on what we know. That is a property of our minds that is poorly understood, though we have reason to believe that it is one of the things that makes us unique. Our remarkable brains gave us science, and they also give us enough ‘free will’ to oppose science, even make choices that defy evolution. That does not mean that our brains didn’t get like this through evolution.

There is one more position to hold, one that is still scientific. That is to accept that there are things that we don’t know. Richard Dawkins asks, in a famous TED talk,

Are there things about the universe that will be forever beyond our grasp? Are there things about the universe that are, in principle, ungraspable?

These are important questions, and one cannot help but think that the only way forward is to apply the best tools of rational inquiry we have to the task, in the search for answers. The best tool we have is science. Lets get to work!

I suspect that when religious types have a spiritual moment that they really do feel like they are in the presence of God. A sense of awe, rapture and love not achieved normally in everyday life. I think also that many of the great communicators of science (most of whom are atheists) have had exactly the same feelings when contemplating something wonderful that science has revealed to them.

Myself, I get this too. It comes in a few different flavours, and this depends largely on the subject of my awe and wonder. Love, awe and even rapture really are emotions that I feel (not all of me is a scientific robot). But my subject is reality and the natural (or at least my perception of stuff, lets not even go down that psycho-philosophical path!).

Sometimes, I look out into the cosmos on a clear night, and I am struck with my puniness on that vast scale. I am almost overwhelmed with the span of time that it all represents. That light, that speck of illumination that teases the rods in my retina; it has been on such a spectacularly long journey that it seems almost whimsical that I should be there to see it. To think that after their journey of millions of years my eye is a few photons’ final resting place.

Other times, I have looked down through a mineralogical microscope, and have simply been amazed at what a few crystals have to tell, heaved through the Earth in that grand geological story.

I even sit in my garden and watch the wind rustle the leaves of a nearby tree and contemplate the brief little example they provide of the forces of nature at work.

If it were simply beauty that moved me, there would surely be enough in all that to sustain me. But there is more! As those photons excite my eyes and the electrical impulses course through my neurons to alert me to all the activity in the world, I am doubly moved by my ability to understand. To understand what is going on. That knowledge, itself made from the stuff of my brain, is an additional layer of beauty. An embellishment of wonder that has no parallel. My education, and particularly the discoveries of science over the ages that have fed that education, is the source of that wonder, that understanding. How can I not be moved by this? How can I want for more, other than to escalate the majesty through more knowledge and more understanding? It is not overstating the matter to say that this is the stuff of poetry; the very core of wisdom to be had.

So now, as we celebrate Carl Sagan Day, in honour of one of the great communicators of science, a man who brought the cosmos into the living room, I want to quote part of Pale Blue Dot, and I know I break no new ground here. However, it bears repeating. Before I do that though, I want to grab a little part of The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald. It’s at the end and it shows how its not just science that understands, but art also. Lest there be any idea that science and art are not good bedfellows, compare the two passages and see how, in literary mode and in scientific mode, we are united by a sense of the unknown, and a sense of what might be known.

And as the moon rose higher the inessential houses began to melt away until gradually I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors’ eyes — a fresh, green breast of the new world. Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby’s house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.

And from Carl Sagan:

Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there–on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds.

Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.

It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.

Amen to that!

Edit: I had to remove the link which started this post (it was a reply to another post on another blog with which I have some association, but I wish to state that I have no association with that post which has now been taken down). However, the general points remain true to my thoughts on the matter. I cannot comment further.

Blogging will not replace other forms of media. This is not its goal anyway. Certainly for me, it was a way of practicing and practising writing. Doing this in a public way was designed for me to ‘commit’ to the task. Feedback would be an additional benefit. Blogs, do, on the other hand, provide a good analysis of various issues, and in many cases in the scientific blogosphere anyway, they are highly accurate and treat the subject in greater depth than any of the traditional media. So we can agree that they are valuable. Perhaps more valuable than they appear to most people, as Scott Rosenberg discusses in this fascinating piece on blogging, empowerment and the ‘adjacent possible’. I am certain I will return to that post again and the intriguing ideas therein.

So, to pick apart a few points sometimes made about blogging:

Easy to start, hard to maintain.

Yes, and no. Writing a blog is not simply about writing. One must have subject material and that means “research”. However, if you are a regular across news sites, research journals, current affairs and other blogs (that is to say if you are a fully paid-up geek) then finding stories is not too hard. And if you do blog, you’re probably already the kind of person who feels compelled to write about the stories and information you find! Still, it requires effort and this may not fit in with your lifestyle and interests.

“Maintain” is an interesting choice of word. They don’t require a lot of maintenance once set up well. Sites like WordPress and Blogger make this possible. But you still need to write for your blog. Your blog becomes like a little corporation that employs (dictates?) you to write for it. Yes, it gets a life of its own as you contribute the pieces and the ‘general public’ delivers some feedback. You may even end up engaged in a public discussion on a particular issue. Rather like this post really. What a wonderful thing to be a part of.

Need to keep it constant updated otherwise you lose potential  followers

Frequent/regular posting is important, but arguably quality is more so. On this blog, I still get hits on the better posts (in my opinion anyway) weeks after I posted them. Yes, the hit rate drifts if I don’t post for a while, but it quickly recovers when I do. This is because I promote new posts via twitter and Facebook etc., so my followers (I don’t have all that many unfortunately) know if I’ve posted. New followers come from being active in the online community. It is very rare to have someone simply stumble onto your site and then choose to follow it. These people are not likely to be harsh on you for infrequent posting anyway.

Engaging with the online community through twitter, Facebook and especially through hosting and contributing to things like blog carnivals is what gets people interested in your blog. It establishes ‘capital’ in your blog and that lingers for some time after each post, sustaining the blog between posts.

Thoughts into words

Writing is not that hard with practise. If you can speak coherently, you’ve got the basics of writing coherently. In fact, you can practice writing when you speak – next time someone asks you an ‘important’ question, think about how you will craft your next sentence a bit more than usual. Sure, spoken and written language are different, but clarity cuts across both domains. Practise is what is needed. Writing will help you clarify your thoughts too. Add to that some constructive feedback and you have a brilliant combination of original thought, considered opinion and flowing writing.

Credibility and the ol’ anonymity chestnut

This has been done to death. Anonymity no more suggests inaccuracy than having a name implies factual correctness. Seriously consider it. There are idiots writing for newspapers who put their name to their work. Having the name there obviously does nothing to improve the tripe they concoct. And I do find it irritating when anonymous writers make critical observations on anonymity online. There may be many reasons for concealing your identity, e.g. so your employer doesn’t know, so people can’t find you (especially if you’re providing a whistleblowing function), the list goes on. The desire to spread rubbish is not the only reason (though I can’t deny some do, I still return to my point that people do the same under their own name, so who’s kidding who here?)

Oh, and this issue with making it possible for “just about anybody to write anything”. Is anyone seriously suggesting this is a bad thing? Now, of course, how one reads all these random ramblings in cyberspace is important. Note that carefully because it warrants repeating: it matters how you read blogs – you have to take care in what you accept as true or correct. This applies to newspapers too; and TV; and magazines. Hell, even refereed academic journals are not immune.

Sorry, post has nowhere near the impact following revision. The link that remains at the top remains an interest of mine though, worthy of follow up.

Proudly do I present to you The 43rd Scientia Pro Publica, Science for the People, the Loves, Lives and Learning Edition. It’s brought to you by Technetium, the element with no stable isotopes!

You may detect an antipodean flavour in this issue, with some excellent work included from Australia! My hope is that Scientia is a springboard for people to read about research and to read scientific writing by real scientists who (generally) are not paid by anyone to write what they write. Consider this as science “from the horse’s mouth”.

Scientia Pro Publica

As always, science bloggers are keen for commentary and review of their work, especially if they are writing about original research. This kind of peer-review gives science blogging its power and maintains its integrity. You really can get your fill of juicy science here.

Scientia Pro Publica relies on YOU, so be sure to submit your blog posts, or the best of others’ here. Future editions need hosts, and we need them EVERY WEEK now. The schedule is here. Also, Scientia has a Twitter account, and there is even one for all science, environment and medical blog carnivals here! Read the rest of this entry »

Soon I will have the honour to present to you, dear readers, the 43rd Edition of Scientia Pro Publica! This was a recent revelation for me, and I was fortunate enough to be included in edition 42 hosted at Cosmodynamics. Thanks Vanessa!

Scientia Pro Publica is a bi-weekly carnival of the best science writing (well communication generally) from across the blogosphere. It has grown in stature to the point where the convener is now seriously contemplating making this a weekly thing. In other words, Scientia Pro Publica is becoming something akin to the Nature of science blogging. Ok, that might be a bit of a stretch, however, it is like a magazine – it relies on public blog submissions and the host to compile and editorialize a selection of submitted blog posts. Currently, it receives more than 50 submissions each time, and this grows with each new host as the network expands. It is a privilege that I am able to bring it to you.

So, watch this space.

More importantly, if you are interested in science and writing, and would like to submit, just use the online form.

I would be interested in hearing from bloggers in earth science disciplines, as geology is my “home discipline”. That said, I have very broad scientific interests, so anything is welcome. You will notice that Traversing the Razor has very little geology in it!

The more the merrier! You may even want to host it yourself sometime!

Can’t wait to see your submissions!!

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