People quote Albert Einstein a lot. That’s absolutely fine. He said lots of profound things and there are far worse people you could be quoting.
There's nothing wrong with hearing an interesting Einstein quotation and putting it on your blog or T-shirt or whatever. But don’t grab stuff from inspirational-quote websites or image searches you’ve done on the words “Einstein”, “genius” and “intelligent”. There’s a couple of minor reasons not to do it and one really fundamental one. Minor reasons first:
Problem 1: Original words, language and context
Take one of the most famous Einstein quotations ever: “God does not play dice with the universe.” Quoted alone this is a bit misleading. Originally he wrote, in a letter to Max Born dated December 4th 1926, “I, at any rate, am convinced that he is not playing dice.”
Well, actually it was: “Ich jedenfallsbin überzeugt, dass er nicht spielt Würfel“ because Einstein spoke mostly German.
Also, to put the above quotation in context, Einstein was not religious. He was deistic and when he talks about God he is not talking about the God worshipped in any religion. In fact, he never really uses the word God in his writings, referring instead to “the old one“ which meant "whatever caused the laws of nature to be this way". So the first problem with quoting Einstein is that it’s often a translation taken out of context.
Problem 2: Accuracy
Check out the following Einstein quotations. You’ve probably heard some of them:
1) Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.
2) Everyone is a genius. If you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree it will live it’s whole life believing it is stupid.
3) Education is what remains when you forget everything you learned in school.
4) Not everything that counts can be counted and not everything that can be counted, counts.
5) Our technology has surpassed our humanity.
Einstein never said any of these things. Or anything close. They’re either fake quotations or quotations originally spoken by someone else. That last one about technology comes from none other than Jeff Goldblum. It’s something his character says in the movie Powder (1995) and while it's a thought-provoking quotation, it’s not Einstein‘s.
Here is an actual quotation from Albert Einstein: “The religious feeling engendered by experiencing the logical comprehensibility of profound interrelations is of a somewhat different sort from the feeling that one usually calls religious. It is more a feeling of awe at the scheme that is manifested in the material universe.“
Notice something? It’s kind of convoluted, right? Well, this is how Einstein actually talked and wrote. Einstein did not communicate in soundbites, he wasn’t witty and he didn’t play with words. He spoke in a very extravagant way with an extensive vocabulary, often meandering and grandiose.
It’s an unfortunate quirk of our culture that we want information to be condensed and compacted into snippets. Politicians know this and they speak in carefully crafted micro-phrases which catch in your mind. But Scientists don't usually talk like this because they aren’t interested in being memorable or witty. They’re interested in stating things precisely and meticulously.
Problem 3: Einstein was a Physicist, not a Social Pundit
Another thing to be aware of is that Einstein didn’t talk much about things that weren’t Scientific. He did occasionally discuss the philosophy of Science and politics, but he certainly didn’t write a great deal on how humans think, learn, study, teach, love, marry or use facebook.
Most of what Einstein talked about was Physics. Obviously...he was a physicist. It's true Einstein was genuinely one of the greatest and most insightful Scientists of the last century, hands down. But that doesn’t mean he was an expert on everything. Nor was he someone we should look to for moral guidance.
Einstein famously tried to get one of his wives to sign a contract of marriage including requests like cooking, cleaning and never correcting him. Ever! He also cheated on her repeatedly...with his cousin.
Einstein was a human being and he had flaws. There’s no reason to quote Einstein’s views on society, education or politics simply because he was Einstein. Yes, he was very clever but he was primarily a theoretical physicist. The best time to be quoting him is when he’s talking about theoretical physics, or, sometimes, the art of thinking about Science.
And the big reason
The mistake people make is to think “Einstein was clever, so the things he says are going to be right.“ But that’s not how Science does things.
Science has no authorities, only experts. If a great Scientist says something then listen and take it seriously because they probably know what they’re talking about. But don’t don’t assume they’re right just because of who they are.
Science doesn’t work like other institutions and people from outside can often find this puzzling. The Catholic church has a Pope, the church of England has an Archbishop of Canterbury, the US government has a President, the UK government has a prime minister, a business has a CEO, FIFA has a chairman, a courtroom has judges, a newspaper has an editor and so on and so on.
But Science doesn’t have anybody at the top. We actually put a lot of effort into making sure nobody is in charge. It’s a grassroots movement achieved collaboratively by lots of people with no official organisational structure. Nobody is at the head of Science and nobody seals discoveries with a rubber stamp saying “this has been confirmed as a true scientific fact“.
Everything happens gradually by unofficial consensus and that’s what makes it so powerful. Ideally, nobody in Science can suppress an idea or boost one. It’s open to corruption sure, and money can get in the way, but the overall premise of Science is simple: the ideas matter, not the people and institutions behind them.
Science has one authority: evidence.
People often quote Einstein because they want to feel justified in their beliefs. They find an Einstein quotation which backs them up and post it - “look everybody, Einstein agrees with me so there must be something to what I’m saying!" This isn’t the reason you should quote someone though.
You quote someone because of the quotation, not the person saying it. The reason you credit the speaker after the quotation is out of honesty, because you didn’t come up with the phrase yourself, not to show off who you’ve been reading.
This isn’t what people are doing with Einstein‘s quotations however. The real “impact“ of an Einstein quotation has become the fact that it’s Einstein saying it rather than the words themselves, which is madness!
Check out the quotation I have at the top of my blog. I’m not quoting it because it’s Carl Sagan and I want everyone to go “oooo, Carl Sagan said it“. I’m quoting the phrase because I think it sums up the aim of my blog in a better way than I could have come up with.
The real problem is that Einstein’s name has become synonymous with genius, intelligence, insight and wisdom. That’s the reason lots of people quote him.
Thing is, the worst way to support an argument is to say “this clever person agrees with me.“ Who cares if a clever person agrees with you??? Seriously. You don’t make a point or conclude an argument by showing which famous and clever person is on your side. This is what’s called the argument from authority and it’s a bad way of deciding truth. You make your point by giving good evidence. End of story.
Kanye West: Amazonaws
Einstein: Sophie Delar
300: Internet video archive
As soon as you say the word feminism a lot of people get defensive. I’ll bet some of you are already feeling anxious just from the title. Generally I don’t want my blogs to get political, but the way I see it, feminism isn’t a socio-political stance you take, it’s just being sensible.
It’s a shame we need to have such a concept as feminism – it’s like having a word for “I believe everyone should be allowed to drink water”; it’s something we should just assume everyone automatically thinks. But, unfortunately, we do need feminism. Badly. So yes, I am a feminist.
Rest assured though, I’m not attacking men. Let’s just state the obvious here: I am a man. Obviously I’m pro-men. I’m just pro-women as well. Really what I am is pro-human, and half the humans are women, so I have no choice but to endorse feminism.
The majority of men (I’d like to believe) recognise that a society where women have equal rights, representation and treatment is for the benefit of everyone. So why is feminism needed? Well, the problem is women aren’t equal citizens of the Earth yet.
Sometimes I’ve heard men saying things like “women are equal in today’s world, what more do they want? They just hate men.” If you think women are treated equally in our society, you need to take a closer look at it. It’s true society has come a long way in the last hundred years. Women are allowed to vote, study at University and get high-paying jobs, which is fantastic. But this is still not enough. The numbers vary depending on where you source them but the picture is much the same anywhere:
29% of MPs in the UK are women
70% of minimum wage earners in the UK are women
4.6% of Fortune 500 CEOs are women
30% of speaking characters in the top 100 grossing films are women
29% of female actors in the top 500 grossing films wear revealing clothes (only 7% of men do)
22% of U.S. parliamentarians are women
24 states have never elected a female governor.
98% of teenage girls feel under pressure to look a certain way (for boys it’s 30%)
92% of teenage girls feel they ought to lose weight.
So yeah, we do need feminism. Until those numbers have changed.
To be clear, I don’t think there are groups of men sitting in dimly lit halls cackling and deciding “how can we suppress women today?” In fact, all the men I show these numbers to are shocked by them. It’s a very skewed and worrying picture.
What we’re seeing in those numbers isn’t a society devaluing women, I think it’s a hangover from an older society that did devalue women (or rather, only valued women for their baby-making ability), and we just haven’t fixed it yet. So this is the first key message:
Feminists are not trying to upset a balance, they’re trying to establish one.
I should also point out that the issues I’m talking about here are fairly domesticated compared to how women are treated in other parts of the world. I want my blog to be thought-provoking but not too dark. I’ll try to keep it light but we all know about the atrocities women have to suffer in some of the world's cultures.
It’s true that women’s rights are worse elsewhere and there are bigger issues to tackle than how women are represented in Science Technology Engineering and Maths (STEM). I’m lucky to live in a country where women have the freedoms they do. But that isn’t an excuse to stop striving to make things better!
I’m also conscious of the fact that I’ll probably receive a backlash for this blog post. Some people will think I’m overreacting to the issues, some will think I’m not reacting enough. Some people will think I’m only saying it to impress women, some will think I’m writing the whole thing sarcastically to attack women.
I will say it clearly and emphatically here: I feel strongly about this. I mean the things I say sincerely. I am saying them because I want to say them, not to provoke any particular reaction or response. We need feminists and I consider myself one of them.
What the problem is, briefly
13% of STEM jobs in the UK are held by women.
49% of schools in the UK send no female students to study Physics at University.
39% of year 13 Maths students are female.
8.5% of year 13 Computing Science students are female.
Physics is the 19th most popular degree choice for girls (for boys it's 4th)
There are 1.8 times as many men studying Maths at university (i.e. almost twice as many)
And the numbers go on like that. Whichever country you look at, whatever level of education and whichever STEM subject you chose, the story always comes out roughly the same. STEM subjects are not widely taken by women.
It has to be said that in the UK, Biology manages a better male to female ratio, but the overall picture is still guy-heavy. The most optimistic number I could find anywhere is women working in chemical engineering: 39%.
I’m very fortunate at my school. We have an even split of male/female STEM teachers, so our numbers compare favourably with the rest of the country. But the fact remains that STEM subjects are more often taken by boys.
Why this is a problem
Some people might argue that by highlighting women as missing from Science I am, indirectly, being anti-feminist. After all, if men and women are equal then a workforce of men is equal to a workforce of women. Why am I singling women out?
Well here’s the thing. Women and men are equal but they aren’t identical – and it’s an important distinction. Men and women are anatomically, hormonally and neurologically different to each other. Treating both sexes identically is a recipe for disaster – obviously – but giving both sexes the same opportunities (treating them equally) leads to good things.
If you look up differences between men and women’s brains you tend to get one of two approaches. Either you hear that men are from Mars and women from Venus (i.e. utterly different) or you hear men and women are the same in every respect. The reality is closer to the latter; men and women’s brains are, on the whole, the same. But there are subtle differences.
These differences don’t affect key aspects of thinking like memory, working memory, pattern recognition, synthesis, puzzle solving etc. but they do present some minor variations in how men and women approach things and what they notice.
This isn’t to undervalue the great work men have done over the past centuries, mind you. The men involved in Science have made remarkable progress in understanding the world. But think how much more progress we could be making if we had everyone working on the same problems. So here’s the second key message:
Men are awesome, women are awesome too.
Let’s get together and make Science doubly awesome!
I also think we need more women in Science because it will be good for civilization in general. When people are better educated, they make better decisions about how to live their lives. In some countries women aren’t even educated properly about pregnancy and female anatomy! The tragedy is that these women end up not knowing anything different. If they learnt the reality (that women aren't inferior to men) they might start objecting to oppression and that has to be a good thing.
And more. If young girls see women changing the world, inventing new technologies, curing diseases and teaching about the universe, it might help them become more aspirational about what they can do. If we’re lucky they might feel better about themselves and their potential. They might become less likely to accept second-rate positions in society and everyone benefits. The more people in a species pushing it forward, the better that species does! The more women do Science the more other women see them doing Science!
What if women just don’t want to study STEM?
I understand this objection, I really do. Perhaps the reason so few women choose STEM is simply because they aren’t interested. If that’s genuinely the case then fine, we’ll soldier on with the gender divide. Women should have the right to choose not to go into the STEM subjects. I suppose what I’m interested in is the fact that very few women go into STEM subjects when they are allowed to!
I should mention that a female student of mine recently told me a story about an exchange she had with an engineer. She expressed an interest in engineering and he responded “You can’t do engineering because you’re a girl.”
I was a bit speechless when I heard this. Mainly I was curious how this guy had managed to survive the meteor impact which got rid of all the other dinosaurs. I really don’t see how the fact she’s a woman could in any way impact her ability to do engineering, like…seriously, what was his thinking?
Apparently rampant sexism does still exist in the STEM community, but I’d like to think (perhaps I’m naïve) that it’s not usually as blatant as this. I would like to believe that most women aren’t told “you can’t study this subject” and that if they are, they don’t believe it.
But I have to be honest: I’m not sure I'd want to go into an area if everyone in it thought I was unworthy of being there. That's the kind of thing which might put me off. I wonder how many women avoid STEM because they know they'd be an outsider in the field?
I think the problem is usually more subtle than what that troglodyte told my student. It’s an unintentional message our society parrots that boys do STEM and girls do not. Unfortunately this makes it harder to combat because it’s harder to pin it down, but I can give examples. For instance, do you remember that episode of The Simpsons where Lisa is campaigning against Malibu Stacy dolls promoting gender stereotypes? Did you know that’s based on a true story?
In 1992, Mattel released Teen-Talk Barbie. Two of the messages some Teen-Talk Barbie dolls said were: “Will we ever have enough clothes?” and “Math class is tough.” That’s a lot of little girls whose toys – allegedly representing how teenagers talk – saying girls value clothes and find math difficult.
I’m sure some girls really did grow up to hate maths and love clothes on their own. But how many, do you suppose, got it in their heads “that’s what a teenage girl is supposed to say and think” STEM is not for you, go and buy clothes. I should point out that Mattel did recall the dolls, but it’s the fact that nobody found a problem with the messages before release which worries me.
I think part of the problem might be a lack of confidence some girls have in STEM, rather than a lack of interest. Tell little girls they aren’t suited to STEM and it might be harder to persuade them otherwise when they’re in high school. Even the US department of education found that girls who have a strong “self concept” of themselves in Science are more likely to choose it as a career. So what happens if we tell little girls that STEM is a boy’s subject?
If we were to put a huge push on getting girls into STEM we might find most of them don’t like it after all. Fine. At least then we’d know for sure.
How do we solve it?
Complaining about things is necessary, but if you don’t suggest solutions, it’s just a whinge. I also think it’s important to keep an optimistic outlook (when the world looks unpleasant, try to believe it can be better). I’m not claiming I’ll fix the world with my internet blog, but I would like to suggest some practical ideas for your consideration and discussion. These are in no particular order of importance.
Support Primary School Teachers with STEM training
A 2015 report by Brunel University found that a third of Primary school teachers don’t feel confident teaching Science. Primary school teachers are usually children’s first contact with STEM education and around 87% of them are women. That means a significant number of children are seeing a woman who doesn’t feel confident in STEM.
This is not the primary school teachers' fault at all. Primary school teachers are amazing and I couldn’t do their job. But I know if I’m teaching a subject I’m less confident with, it comes across in the lesson, kids pick up on it and the lesson doesn’t go as well.
So we need to start offering more training for primary school teachers who don’t feel as confident in STEM. Give them lesson ideas, resources, send them to workshops, train them how to do interesting demos, run practical activities and extend kids’ scientific thinking. Provide primary schools with engaging Science books and make sure girls and boys get access to them. Send the message early on that women can be confident in STEM, the same as boys.
More Programs to support women in STEM and more exposure for those that exist
The Athena Swan Charter (as an example) is a group dedicated to championing and promoting women’s careers in STEM. They defend women who feel they’ve been unfairly treated and reward institutions who are supportive of women’s issues. We need more attention given to such programs.
I’m, not necessarily saying government should fund these programs (although I think it would help) but I think public recognition and acknowledgement would go a long way. These organisations do need more funding and they need more exposure in the media. Give them enough funding to make television adverts maybe? Get some celebrity endorsement to raise the profile. The more people are aware of programs like Athena Swan, the more they are funded and the more capability they have to make changes.
Representation of female Scientists in the media
At the moment, a lot of Scientists depicted in TV and movies are men. The Big Bang Theory has, in fairness, introduced two female characters who are scientists, but only several seasons in…and they aren’t really good depictions of Scientists (just like the guys in fact). Generally Scientists in the media are portrayed as caricatures (boffins/nerds/lunatics) but as such they are usually guys.
There have been some outstanding female Scientist characters in recent sci-fi movies though, Gravity, Interstellar, and Sunshine all feature well written, confident, intelligent female Scientists who aren’t there to look attractive and be romantic foils for the men. It’s definitely a promising sign.
To me one of the best Scientist characters ever (one of the characters who really made me realise what it is to think like a Scientist) was Ellie Arroway from Contact. I saw the film when I was about 13 years old and read the book many years later, both times I found her inspiring. A woman inspiring a boy to think Science is cool? Shock horror.
Arroway is evidence-driven, skeptical, confident and isn’t defined as the romantic interest of a man. She is fierce, brilliant, ingenius and stands up for facts when everyone else is looking for a political angle.
One of these women is a confidently written independent, intelligent scientist, one of them is Bernadette from The Big Bang Theory dressed in a nightie. Good luck telling them apart!
Also, I’ll just say it: a female doctor in Doctor Who would be great. The doctor is often a very Scientifically minded character. He solves problems through thinking, analysing evidence, using prior knowledge and experimenting. At the moment, his companions are female, so let’s try flipping it. Let’s have a female critical-thinker solving her way through adventures. And let’s not worry too much about whether men will find her pretty. Let’s worry about whether men and women will find her inspiring.
Include current Science in our textbooks and syllabuses
We have to teach children the basic laws of Science and they were discovered over the past few centuries – by men. Girls in school hear names of endless dudes doing great things, and might get the unconscious impression that this is a subject built by guys. Usually Marie Curie and Rosalind Franklin get a cursory mention but that’s it.
There is a simple fix for this. Start including up-to-date Scientific discoveries in the syllabus and textbooks. Take astronomy for instance. Starting with people like Annie Jump Cannon and Henrietta Leavitt, astronomy is full of pioneering female names. Why not teach kids about Dark Matter and (therefore) Vera Rubin? Why not teach them about Carolyn Porco, one of the most widely respected and listened-to Scientists in the world today? Or how about teaching older students about Emmy Noether and Chien Shiung Wu and what they did for theoretical physics?
Sure, we have to teach pupils about the genius of Charles Darwin, but let’s extend that to the courageous fieldwork of Jane Goodall. Science is full of inspirational people with inspirational stories and a lot of them are currently happening. Science education does need to include the history and the basics, but there’s a lot of important Science happening right now in our lifetimes. And guess what, a lot of it’s being done by women!
Men need to make an effort
I’ll be brief on this one. Women can easily promote the message that Science is for women…by being a woman. Men need to work a little harder to emphasise the role of women in Science. I’m not saying male Science teachers need to have the name of some great female pioneer thrown into every lesson at random. I’m just saying be mindful that you’re a man in a male-dominated field, with a high male uptake and a lot of girls automatically lacking confidence in it. Just…be aware of that.
There are other things which could and should be done to solve this problem. I’ve ignored outright sexism in the lab and workplace because that’s easier to spot and other people write about it better. Obviously men shouldn’t make misogynistic comments, harass women sexually or only value them for their looks. Well…duh.
I genuinely believe the best thing for civilization is Scientific education for all. So let’s get more girls into Science because it will be good for Science and, therefore, the human race…which contains both women and men.
Solvay conference recolourised: Sanna Dullaway
What feminism is: Blended with Hope
Angry-looking George Carlin: Pop Matters
Teen-Talk Barbie: Divine Caroline
Ellie Arroway: Reel Life Wisdom
Bernadette from The Big Bang Theory: Worn on TV
Carolyn Porco: TED
Stick figures of people doing math: Randall Munroe
The word ignorance is used as an insult but it shouldn’t be. It doesn’t mean stupid or rude, it just means “lacking knowledge”. I’m totally ignorant of the works of Skrillex for instance. I know it's a thing but I know practically nothing about it. Pointing out when someone is being ignorant therefore doesn’t attack them at all, it reminds them of an important fact:
No matter how much you know, there is always more which you don’t!
A student once asked me an interesting question which turned into a thought-provoking discussion:
Student: Are there parallel universes?
Me: Nobody knows. There are lots of Physicists looking for them but nobody has any idea.
Student: But what do you think?
Me: I think nobody knows.
Student: If you had to guess.
Me: I wouldn’t.
Student: But what do you believe?
Me: I believe I don’t know.
Student: What if I held a gun to your head and forced you to decide.
Me: Why are you holding a gun to my head, I thought we got on?
Student: Just say I was and you had to pick.
Me: My guess would be completely random and I'd only be doing it to stop you pointing a gun at me.
Student: So, go with your gut feeling.
Me: My gut feeling is nobody knows.
Student: You aren’t allowed to say that, now choose.
Me: OK, fine. Let’s say yes, there are parallel universes?
Student: Why did you pick yes?
Me: Because I like the idea of parallel universes and I think that would be cool.
Student: Thanks, also how come you’re just so awesome Mr James?
Me: Well, I’m naturally that kind of guy.
Student: And also, your blogs are really well written.
Me: I know.
It’s an interesting exchange and it highlights a key point. Giving the answer “I don’t know” to a question is never satisfying. If the student had asked which Scientist first suggested the idea of parallel universes that would be different, I would say Isaac Newton (in his book Opticks). But the question they asked was a speculative one: do parallel universes exist? We have no evidence one way or the other, so nobody knows. At all.
Other speculative questions are things like: Do aliens exist? How did life on Earth originate? How long will the human species last? The only answer anyone can give to such questions is “I don’t know”. However, you can talk about possibilities and probabilities until your face goes purple.
For instance, I think it’s very probable alien life does exist. But evidence always trumps conjecture. If you don’t have any evidence, you don’t know the answer to the question. And it’s ok to be like that.
The problem is, ignorance often looks like weakness, even though it’s actually a healthy state of mind to be in. I was once in a cinema and a woman behind me was mouthing off about something awful and stupid and offensive, so I got involved. She asked me a question at one point and I said “I have absolutely no idea”. Her response was: “And you’re proud of your ignorance are you?”
Well, not really, but I’m not ashamed of it either. I’m just honest with myself (or at least try to be). Obviously I didn’t say anything that cool or collected during the argument. I just snapped back with something caustic and cutting. I’m a grown-up you see.
Ignorance is a good thing to admit, especially if you're doing Science. There’s a wonderful scene in the Hollywood blockbuster Avatar which illustrates the point. The main character is asking the spiritual leader of the Na’avi clan why they haven’t been able to teach humans their ways. The response given sounds like mumbo-jumbo, but it’s actually brilliant: “It is hard to fill a cup which is already full.” In other words: you can’t teach someone who thinks they already know the answers.
The same is true when we’re carrying out a Scientific test. If we go in feeling like we know what the results are going to be we’re biasing ourselves. We should always start at zero belief (ignorance) and wait for the evidence to convince us one way or the other. We can have our hunches but the whole point of Science is to test them.
Rene Descartes carried this out to the extreme in the 17th Century. He decided to start at complete ignorance, refusing to believe anything, and see what he could convince himself of. He came to the conclusion that he existed, God existed, and mathematics existed. Whether we agree or disagree with Descartes’ conclusions, his intentions were noble: start with no belief and wait to be convinced.
Admitting and owning up to ignorance can be really hard, particularly when you’re a teacher. You spend a lot of time telling people what you know so it feels weird to talk about how much you don’t know. It’s not easy to get the balance right.
As a teacher I usually make it clear to my classes that I know a lot about the subjects I’m teaching. It’s not to boast mind you, it’s to help students feel at ease in my classroom. If students have confidence in their teacher’s knowledge they’re more likely to feel they can trust what happens. So I try to establish the fact that I know a lot about what I teach. And I do. I’m really proud of my subject knowledge.
But I know less than 0.00001% of the Scientific knowledge out there! This is one of the cool things about Science: even when you know loads about it, you’re still not even close to running out of stuff to learn.
Sometimes I’ll joke with my classes and say “I know everything” but it’s understood, I hope, that I really don’t know much about anything. My knowledge is dwarfed by others and dwarfed further still by the Universe itself. And that's OK. Even the most knowledgeable people in the world are mostly ignorant of it. And it’s wise to remember that, particularly when we’re engaging in debate.
Image credits: Angry teenager
You know when you want to reach into a television screen or the pages of a book and slap someone in the face? Of course you do. You're filled with ontological rage just like everybody else. Well, that happened to me recently when I caught a few moments of The Big Bang Theory. In this particular episode, Sheldon visits his mother and mentions Evolution . The following exchange takes place:
Sheldon’s mother: Everyone’s entitled to their opinion.
Sheldon: Evolution isn’t an opinion, it’s fact.
Sheldon’s mother: And that is your opinion.
The issue I have isn’t with evolution or people who deny it (well, I do take issue with that but that's a battle for another day). It’s the fact that Sheldon’s mother thinks she is entitled to an opinion about the reality of the natural world. The crime she’s guilty of is not understanding what opinions are for.
We can’t really blame her for being ignorant about evolution. Evolution is often poorly taught and many are oblivious to what it says. What concerns me more is a fundamental confusion she is showing about when an opinion is required. But it turns out, she's not alone. We teach the difference between fact and opinion in schools, but rarely do we teach children when to use them.
Out of the mouths of babes
Recently I visited a primary school and did an experiment where we measured which chemical would fizz the most in a given reaction: A, B or C. The pupils all took guesses and it was a three way split. After conducting the experiment it turned out to be C.
Everything was going well until I asked the class: “So, are we allowed to carry on believing A or B if the evidence says it’s C?” Rather surprisingly they all said yes. I was puzzled so I asked them to explain why they were saying that. The reason they gave was something they were clearly proud of: “everyone’s allowed to have an opinion and there’s no such thing as a wrong one”.
That's definitely true. Opinions, by definition, are subjective and you are entitled to any. But it would seem the mantra of valid opinions has come to mean "everybody can believe whatever they want, even in the face of contrary evidence."
It really got me thinking. Is it a good idea to teach people they can believe whatever they want? I might believe murder is justified. Or that a certain medicine contains poison and I prevent sick people from taking it. Or that it's OK to torture animals. Some opinions could lead to significant harm to others (if you want depressing proof of that, check out the case of Natalie Rippberger).
Also, if an opinion is something which can’t be right or wrong, then surely it can’t apply to a situation where there is a right and wrong answer. The square root of 64 is always 8. You can’t have an opinion about that and say it's 15. I think we need to teach a more realistic message:
An opinion can’t be wrong, but you can’t have an opinion about reality.
Suppose I looked out of my window and saw it was raining. If I say “in my opinion it’s sunny” then we clearly have a problem. It’s not illegal or harmful to say something like that, it just makes no sense. Learning about the truth is a coercive thing; your senses are forced by the way reality is and you don’t get any say in whether you agree or not. Truth isn't a democracy.
I know we’re told from an early age that our opinion matters but I wonder if there’s a risk in taking it too far. Nobody’s opinion means diddly-squat when compared to what nature is actually doing. If you’re trying to figure out how the world is (Science) then opinions are the things you should leave at the door.
You can disagree on what the evidence says, but that’s not a matter of opinion that’s a disagreement which can be settled by finding better evidence. How we use Science can be a matter of opinion, the facts of Science however, are not.
Obviously, we want children to form opinions independently from their parents. A world where children believe what their parents believe would be one in which progress never happened. But I do think we need to be cautious.
We should tell children their opinions are valid but they aren’t the ultimate guide on what’s true. If you say something which is factually inaccurate you aren’t allowed to defend it by saying “that’s my opinion”.
There is of course, a grey area which I ought to mention briefly. Socrates argued that opinions were views people had about factual information without possessing the full breadth of evidence. And I think he had a bit of a point (as was often the case with Socrates).
A lot of political issues fall into this territory. You might, for example, think there would be less crime in the world if we made alcohol illegal. You might think there would be more financial prosperity if we increased numbers of immigrant workers, you might feel that certain types of movies will lead to a breakdown in social order.
These are statements about fact: numbers of crimes, money coming into a country, amount of public riots etc. but they’re facts which nobody has hard evidence on. The only way to find out whose opinion is correct would be to carry out the social change and measure the effect.
The annoying thing is that gathering evidence like that can be tricky, costly and daunting. So, many of these arguments never get resolved. So perhaps we could distinguish between facts and opinions by introducing the word "taste" into the debate, as folows:
Tastes are to do with whether we like something or not.
Tastes are subjective.
Opinions concern reality when there isn’t clear evidence.
Opinions are subjective stances on objective reality.
Facts concern reality when there is clear evidence.
Facts are objective.
I'm not sure I like that trichotomy, but hopefully it makes my point clear.
NB: As I pointed out in an earlier blog, facts are "best-explanations" until challenging evidence comes along so I guess they can blur with opinion sometimes. But I would argue that if there is overwhelming evidence for something and absolutely zero evidence against something, we have the right to call it a fact. For the time being at least. We certainly can't outright replace the claim with an un-evidenced alternative and call it "an opinion". Opinions are wildly overrated.
A few weeks ago, several news websites including the BBC, The Independent and The Guardian ran a story on the latest Scientist to analyse Yeti samples. Stories of the abominable snowman, a mysterious creature inhabiting the Himalayas, have been circulating for about 200 years now. Sightings have been reported and tracks have been photographed but, at the time of writing, nobody has caught a yeti. So the question is: do we believe in Yetis?
Let me be clear, I would love yetis to be real. And, just to put it in context, cryptid creatures really are discovered occasionally. Giant squids and okapis were both mystery-creatures until fairly recently. Could yetis be next on the list?
Well, maybe. It would be foolish to say “yetis definitely don’t exist” because someone might find a yeti carcass the next day and you’d look like an idiot. Yetis aren’t a matter of opinion either because they either do or don’t exist and, strictly speaking, it’s a testable idea; we really could carry out an enormous experiment to confirm or disconfirm their existence (observing every square foot of the Earth simultaneously would do it).
For now though, we have to be honest and say we don’t know if yetis exist. But if we wanted to place a likelihood on it - to say whether such a creature was probable or not - how could we do so? At present, yeti evidence falls into three categories.
1) Body samples: People have found chunks of bone, flesh and hair claimed to belong to a formerly living yeti. The most recent investigation on such a sample was carried out by Eliecer Gutierrez and Ronald Pine, who published their results in Zookeys issue 487 (which you can find online for free). The conclusion they came to via DNA analysis is that supposed yeti hair samples can be identified as coming from Himalayan brown bears...or, they come from yetis after all but yeti hair matches bear hair by coincidence.
2) Footprints: A lot of photographs and casts have been taken of unusual tracks found in Himalayan snow. The size of the footprints, their angle and the distance between them don’t match any known animal. So, none other than Edmund Hilary (the first man to reach the summit of Everest with Tenzing Norgay) investigated the tracks and explained his findings in the January 13th 1961 edition of Life magazine.
Hilary followed several apparent yeti tracks and discovered that they belonged to dogs. As the dogs raced through the snow, the bounding of their feet meant several paws would hit the powder in the same place at the same time, creating enormous shapes at unusual distances and angles from each other. So the footprints could be explained as belonging to dogs…or, they were made by yetis and the dogs happened to be in the area.
3) Sightings: Since the early 1800s, many people have reported seeing hair-covered creatures walking in the Himalayas. Himalayan brown bears (and a few other bear species native to the area) will sometimes walk on their hind legs. Add to that, human sensory systems working poorly at higher altitudes where there is less oxygen, and a higher rate of hallucination. It seems quite likely that the various sightings have been bears and blurry eyes…or, yetis.
We have a decision to make. We can explain all the yeti information as bears, dog-footprints and human misperception…or there really is a species of unidentified ape-creatures living in the Himalayas who have never been reported in detail prior to the 19th century, leave no identifiable remains, leave no droppings, have never been clearly photographed or filmed, and have managed to survive in a harsh environment for two hundred years while somehow keeping their population density extremely low.
This gives us two competing hypotheses which both explain the evidence completely. So it’s time to use Occam’s razor, a philosophical suggestion attributed to the medieval philosopher William of Occam. It's pretty straightforward:
“The hypothesis with the fewest assumptions should be chosen until you know better”.
Occam’s razor says if you have two equally plausible, equally evidenced hypotheses and no way to distinguish between them, go with the one requiring the least number of mental leaps.
This does NOT mean the simpler hypothesis is definitely correct. Indeed, it might wrong. But until evidence comes along to support one explanation over the other, Occam’s razor says you’re better off going with the simpler one.
In the case of yetis we either accept a hypothesis in which bears exist, footprints can be misinterpreted and human eyesight can be fooled (a hypothesis with no leaps of faith) or we accept that never-before-seen animals exist and have avoided detection against all odds (quite a big leap of faith).
The simplest explanation isn’t always the correct one, that's true, but the number of times an unusual explanation has turned out to be right is fairly small. If we don’t use Occam’s razor (and go with the more outlandish idea) then we're introducing the notion that mental gymnastics to explain an otherwise simple finding are a good way to go. We might suggest that Yetis can turn invisible when they hear us coming. Or turn into trees, or even fly. Perhaps they can teleport to the moon. All these hypotheses are consistent with the evidence: no yetis found, but they all require us to take enormous mental leaps in order to hang onto them. At this point it starts to sound more like desperation rather than reason.
Occam’s razor can be misused or misrepresented sometimes. It isn't a way of deciding if a hypothesis is true. It’s also not an unbreakable law of Science. But when you have two plausible explanations for something, the chances are the more straightforward one is going to be right. While I want Yetis to be real, I have to go with Occam’s razor and not my preferences. Are yetis real? I don't know, but unfortunately, I doubt it.
Yeti by Phillippe Semeria
Himalayan Brown Bear by Zoo Hluboka
William of Occam by Moscarlop
I love science, let me tell you why.