In my previous blog, I talked about the removal of evolution from Turkish high-schools. I specifically said I wouldn’t be touching the religious aspect of the debate, even though it was obviously pertinent. I always avoid talking about religion because I don’t want to discuss my own beliefs (for obvious reasons) yet it's one of my favourite topics to discuss. The interplay between Science, religion and philosophy is a nexus for humanity’s deepest and most profound questions, so it actually takes a lot of self-control to not talk about it more often.
However, I have finally decided to share some thoughts on the issue without getting personal. If I'm careful it should be possible to discuss the debate without giving away where I stand on it. Here is an illustration of what I’m doing in this blog...
So, is there a war between Science and religion?
Well, there is a conflict of ideology between religious and non-religious people. And there is a conflict between scientifically literate and scientifically illiterate people. But those two debates do not necessarily correlate. It isn’t as simple as “science = atheism” and “religious = anti-Science.” The real debate isn’t even about Science or religion at all. It’s about which philosophical stance you feel is appropriate.
Science in a nutshell
The scientific method is wonderfully intricate and involved, but we can summarise it as follows: you find the truth by gathering evidence through experiment. It’s the idea that when we look at nature carefully, it’s possible to get an accurate picture of her.
How we specifically do that is where the Scientific method comes in and we have to talk about hypotheses, falsifiable predictions, data, repeatability, reproducibility, statistical analysis, peer review, rejection of ideas, theories etc...but the core idea is very simple. Investigate the world and never go with feelings, intuitions or preferences.
It’s also worth qualifying that Science never proves anything with absolute conviction. Being 100% sure of something is the same as being 0% willing to accept you might be wrong. And, given humanity’s fallible nature, we prefer to have confidence rather than certainty.
So, how does this philosophy of finding evidence via experiment tie-in with other approaches? Well, I'm warning you, this is where I have to make things complicated.
Three Little Epistemologies
Science claims that if you investigate the world through experiment it will give you a picture which is reasonably trustworthy. So here's the real question: is that the only way to find out what the world is like? There are many who would say yes; if you can’t answer a question through experimental investigation, you can’t answer it at all.
We call knowledge you gather from observation a posteriori. Empiricism is the philosophy that only a posteriori knowledge is trustworthy. If you can’t answer the question through observation, empiricists would say, the answer is simply unknowable. The most famous empiricists are probably David Hume and John Locke.
A different claim would be to say there is only a posteriori knowledge i.e. if you can’t discover something through Scientific means, it does not exist. This philosophical position is called Logical Positivism. However, there is a version of logical positivism called naturalism which is a much quicker word to type. So I’m going to treat them as if they mean the same thing. If you’re a philosophy student who’s just written a thesis on the difference between naturalism and logical positivism, then I cry your pardon. I know they aren’t quite synonymous, but this blog has the potential to get too technical!
Both empiricists and naturalists believe in the observable world, but empiricists remain ignorant about non-empirical claims while naturalists rule them out altogether. Some famous naturalists included Voltaire, Maurice Schlick, a young Ludwig Wittgenstein and occasionally Bertrand Russell (although Russell had a habit of hopping from philosophy to philosophy - he was pretty much everything at some point).
Then, there are a third group of people who accept Scientific knowledge but believe you can also know things from logical deduction i.e. you can learn things by thinking. For example, Aristotle argued that a thing cannot be itself and the contradiction of itself simultaneously. You can’t be a living chicken and a dead chicken at the same time. This is a fact about the world, but we discovered it without doing any experiments to see if chicken/dead-chicken hybrids exist. We call knowledge like this – knowledge you get without having to leave your bedroom – a priori knowledge.
The philosophy that we should accept a priori knowledge as well as a posteriori knowledge is called rationalism. Almost all the classical Greek philosophers fell into this category, as well as some later philosophers like Leibniz and Descartes.
What about Religion?
Justice Potter Stewart, when asked to define something which isn’t appropriate to mention in a family-friendly blog, famously said “I know it when I see it”. It can be dangerous to assume your personal definition of a word is universal however, because not everybody interprets the world the same way. And typically the more widely used a word is the more fluid its meaning becomes.
Complex words are often easy to define because they’re rarely used. Take the word "deuteragonist". It means the secondary hero-characters in a story. For example: Mr. Potato Head and Rex in the Toy Story films, Hermione and Ron in the Harry Potter franchise or Morgan Freeman in every film he’s ever been in.
By contrast, it’s the everyday words like “intelligence”, “happiness” or “offensive”, which are hard to pin down. So I’m going to briefly lay down what I mean when I use words like religion and God. These definitions are far from universal (precisely my point – they no longer have universal meaning) but they will serve for this essay.
Religion – First, a religion is a group of people who hold some common belief in the supernatural. By supernatural I’m not referring to things like spooky vampires and ghosts, I’m referring to a class of things not bound by the apparent laws of nature. Things above/beyond/transcendent to this logically bound Universe we find ourselves in, and therefore non-observable. Any belief which claims there is more to the Universe than brute matter following quantifiable laws is a supernatural one.
Second, this group of people must be organised. There are over 4,000 religions in the world and something distinguishes them from a person who believes the ghost of their uncle is haunting the basement. The person who believes in the uncle-ghost has a supernatural belief, but it is not part of a religion. Religions typically feature things such as rituals, meeting places and elders with great knowledge of the supernatural belief.
This is still too vague a definition though. There are many people who go to haunted houses, séances and ghost-hunts together. They believe in the supernatural and have organisation. So I think one more thing religions have is some code of behaviour derived from the supernatural belief. My definition of religion, although not something I would require others to use, is therefore a group of people who:
1) Hold some supernatural belief in common.
2) Have a degree of organization or structure.
3) Adopt a behavioural code deriving from the belief.
God – While most religions, I think, fit the above category, not all believe in God. Taoism and some schools of Buddhism do not have a God concept, but they still believe in things like the soul, reincarnation etc.
Furthermore, those religions which do believe in a God tend to mean lots of different things by it. The only thing common to all definitions of God is that God is a being with significant supernatural power. Attributes such as infinite knowledge, being the maker of the Universe, being all loving etc. are only specific to certain religions and therefore doesn't need to be part of the definition.
Deism – Belief in a certain type of God. This is a God which created the Universe but then ceased interactions. This is an impersonal God, an indifferent and elegant agent of creation, perhaps better described as a supernatural force than a supernatural being.
Theism – Belief in a God who has personal characteristics and chooses to interact with his/her creation at certain times. This God usually has thoughts and desires for how the Universe ought to be. Sometimes this God is seen as having emotions like love. This God may listen to prayers, interact with the world and will sometimes violate natural laws to work miracles. This is the belief that you can see the hand of God in our everyday lives.
Three Becomes Seven
And now the next layer of complexity comes in. Those three philosophies subdivide into people who believe in supernatural things and those who do not. Take the God concept for example. A naturalist would reject the existence of any kind of God (theistic or deistic) because they reject the possibility of anything transcendent to the empirical/natural world. They would argue there cannot be evidence for a supernatural claim.
If the stars suddenly rearranged to form the words “Hello there, I am God and I exist” naturalists would refuse to accept this as evidence for a God, they would simply say it was evidence of stars forming a pattern for some unknown reason.
Empiricists might be a little different. An empiricist will commit to a belief if there is empirical evidence for it, but they are still open to the notion of supernatural things. To take the stars example, an Empiricist may interpret such a phenomenon as empirical evidence for God i.e. it is natural and observable, but strongly implies the existence of something transcending it.
Then there are the rationalists. Some of whom will believe there are logical arguments for the existence of a supernatural e.g. the ontological argument for the existence of God, and some who find such arguments unconvincing and logically flawed.
Let's take the God idea and consider what happens to our three philosophies. Initially they subdivide into five, and then they subdivide again into seven standpoints (theistic and deistic). Kind of like symmetry breaking in a field theory, a simple picture becomes more intricate when we factor in extra information.
I’ve summarised these positions in a nifty diagram and tried to give the name of the philosophical position they describe, although some of them don’t have names (well, they probably do, just not names I’m aware of...any help?).
You can see why this causes problems. Seven philosophical positions all disagreeing with each other and this is for just one supernatural claim. Religions such as Taoism would fall into one of the atheist categories, but they are still religions. And what about deists? Technically they do not believe in a theistic God, so they are a - theistic. Would we therefore call them (perhaps logically) atheists who believe in God? We would get a different grid entirely if we then talked about a supernatural claim like the soul, reincarnation, the afterlife etc.
And even looking at this one supernatural claim leads to confusions. Two negative atheists could completely disagree on whether you can prove the existence of God. An empiricist who doesn't believe in God will still disagree with an empiricist who does. And so on.
The argument we have to have is much more nuanced than “Science vs religion” or “atheism vs religion”. There are multiple factions arguing about what we can know, how we can know it and whether it applies to God or not.
And there is still another philosophy to consider. An eighth way, which has its own ideas about how you can learn the truth. The most popular of all, hands down: fideism or - to give it its more common name - faith.
But You Gotta Have Faith
There is one thing all seven philosophies above agree on: you need evidence to believe something. Empiricists and ratioanlists will disagree about whether you can include philosophical evidence, but they still agree you can't just believe whatever you want. Faith, on the other hand, says you can.
Faith, celebrated in all cultures across our planet, is the idea that you don’t need evidence to believe something. That you are allowed to believe a claim based on feeling rather than reason. You can believe something simply because...you believe it's true.
We might refer to a person as a member of the Catholic Faith but this is an incorrect use of the word. A person is a member of the Catholic Religion. Faith is a noun describing a belief one has about one’s beliefs, not the beliefs themselves. It is essentially a meta-belief.
Faith is usually defined in one of three ways. It is either “complete trust and belief in something”, “belief based on spiritual apprehension rather than proof” or “belief in something in the absence of evidence”. NB: having complete trust in something can only be achieved without evidence, since evidence can only make you confident, never certain.
It’s hard to talk about this concept critically however, because everyone is taught that faith is a good thing from an early age. When I was younger I remember attending a church which was fond of Matthew 17:20 "Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, 'Move from here to there,' and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you." And there are no Disney movies where the protagonist succeeds because “she had doubt in herself”. Faith is always praised, but I do think it presents many potential traps.
For one thing, faith provides no way of deciding which beliefs are true and which are false. People used to have faith in Zeus and Thor. They told stories about them, were willing to die for them and “just knew in their heart” they were real.
But if we decide it’s ok to take things on faith, we essentially give permission for anyone to believe anything. I could claim to believe in faires, werewolves, boogeymen, pixies, leprechauns etc. etc. I could claim a spirit told me to commit murders...and I could defend it by saying I had faith I was doing the right thing. Who are you to tell me otherwise?
The second problem with faith is that it shows dangerous overconfidence in our own ability. Humans are fallible and prone to making mistakes so it's wise to remember that everything you know, someone else might know it better. It’s not very flattering to our egos, but the likelihood is that we’re not the cleverest person in the world and there’s a very good chance we’re wrong about a great many things.
The moment you decide you’re certain about something you’re essentially saying you can’t be persuaded you’re wrong and that’s dangerous. You should always be prepared to admit fault. Faith opposes this humility. Faith says you can believe something without needing a good reason. Just "feeling that it's true" is sufficient. You also don’t have to listen to counter-evidence because you didn’t have any evidence to begin with.
The third problem with faith is that it is not falsifiable and if you can’t subject a claim to testing, you can never check if it’s correct. After all, if you claimed to believe in something on faith I could very easily say I believed you were wrong on faith. Why would my faith that you're wrong be any less convincing than your faith you are right.
This is what Science has a problem with. Science (and the seven philosophies which endorse it) stands for the idea that any belief ought to be based on evidence. It might not necessarily be empirical but simply believing something “because you feel it’s true” is not a legitimate reason. Believing in God is fine, being a member of a religion is fine, but Science would say you ought to have some reason for it, other than a feeling.
So Are There Religious Scientists?
Yes, absolutely. It's like asking whether there are right-wing Scientists or vegetarian Scientists. Passionate atheist Scientists sometimes give the impression that Scientific belief automatically rejects religion, but I don’t think that’s true at all.
There are many well-respected Scientists, both living and dead, who held some supernatural belief. And I'm not just referring to those who lived at a time when religion was the norm, so we'll never know how they really felt (e.g. Isaac Newton). I'm talking about people in communities which accepted atheism, and still became believers. Being religious and being a scientist are not mutually exclusive. What all religious Scientists have in common however is that none of them believe on faith. They are empiricists or rationalists who have reasons for believing a supernatural claim.
If you do have a religious idea, that's not a problem for the Scientific community provided you are prepared to abandon it if some test shows it to be incorrect. Any idea, including your cherished ones, ought to be investigated thoroughly. If it stands up to scrutiny, then you go on believing it! However, if you find a particular idea in your religion conflicts with the evidence then you have two options before you.
1) Abandon that particular idea.
2) Adapt it/reinterpret it to match the evidence.
Taking option 1 doesn't mean you have to give up your religion and taking option 2 doesn't mean you are ignoring the evidence. But I'm afraid those are the only options you have. If you come across evidence which contradicts a deeply held belief you aren't allowed to reject it or bury your head. If you take the oath of a Scientist, you have to face the facts however inconvenient they may be. No claim can be above investigation and no claim can be based on faith. It's not an easy path to take and I warn you, if you are religious and are considering taking Science seriously, you may have some difficult choices and sleepless nights ahead of you. But truth is always worth discomfort.
Ultimately, Science has no quarrel with religion. Individual Scientists might (naturalist ones) but Science is simply trying to investigate the natural world, it says very little about whether there is another one.
On June 23rd Alpaslan Durmus, chairman of the Turkish Education Ministry’s Education and Discipline Board (pictured above) announced that high-school text books will no longer contain a chapter on evolution as of September.
First thing I need to say is: I don’t speak Turkish. I’ve had to find English translations and transcripts of what he said, so if any Turkish speakers feel I’m misrepresenting him please let me know. As far as I can glean though, Durmus said evolution was “debatable, controversial and too complicated for students,” so instead of teaching it in high-school “this section will be delayed until undergraduate study”.
Durmus did make it clear however that students “would still be taught an evolutionary point of view” but this raises a lot of questions. It’s a vague statement because if he’s fine with an "evolutionary point of view" why not just let the topic be taught properly? The whole of Biology comes from an evolutionary point of view so he might as well be saying "Biology will be taught in a Biological context". Until he clarifies what he means, we have to assume the majority of evolution is under threat.
We’re Not Talking About Religion
I’m not going to talk about the religious implications and overtones of this debate. They are relevant of course but that’s not what I’m here for. I never mention my religious beliefs on the blog (I've explained why) and I don’t tell them to very many people. So the best way to read this is not to assume I’m an atheist or religious. Just assume I’m a Science teacher. And, as a Science teacher, I disagree with the decision being made. I’ll do my best to outline why.
Is Evolution Too Complicated?
Durmus says evolution is complicated and therefore shouldn’t be taught in high school. The first objection is obvious: learning things you don’t understand is the whole point of school. His argument seems to be that schools shouldn’t be teaching things children don’t understand. The alternative would therefore be to teach things they already know - another way of saying don’t teach them at all. Learning always involves challenge because it involves putting new information into your brain.
Secondly, most people aren’t stupid. OK, some are not very good at understanding things or come from homes where they aren’t encouraged to think. And yes, all humans are prone to make silly mistakes (myself included). But most people are able to understand something if a) they’re motivated and b) it’s explained properly. Eventually you might find a topic you don’t have the motivation to understand, but it’s up to you as an individual to decide where that line is, not the government.
Now, I do agree with Durmus that evolution is complicated in its entirety. Ideas like punctuated equilibrium, gene transposition, enclaves, limiting factors and the molecular machinery of DNA itself are fiddly concepts. Evolution is definitely complex...but so is every Scientific topic.
Take light for example. The fully fleshed theory of light involves an understanding of tensor calculus, quantum mechanics, field theory and special relativity, so in high-school we teach an age-appropriate model. This doesn’t mean we lie to children, we just teach them the bits they can handle and move onto the details later.
In year 8 I talk about light travelling in straight lines. In year 9 I talk about the fact that light is a ripple in an invisible field. In year 10 I talk about wave interference. In year 11 I introduce the equations which predict refraction. In year 12 I talk about wave-particle duality and at University, physics undergrads will learn Maxwell’s equations.
At each stage we build the complexity and go deeper in understanding. We don’t always get it right but it means people understand as much as they are able to. Evolution is the same. I wouldn't go straight into a Year 9 class and start talking about m-RNA, but the basics of evolutionary theory aren’t hard to grasp. I’ll prove it:
1) Every living thing has a chemical in its cells called DNA which determines what features it has.
2) When the creature has offspring, the DNA is copied and the child has features of its parents.
3) DNA can mutate slightly.
4) DNA mutations mean a child can be different to a parent.
5) When the child has its own offspring the mutation can get passed on.
6) Sometimes a mutation makes the creature struggle to survive its environment, making it less likely to have offspring – the mutation is less likely to get inherited.
8) Sometimes a mutation gives the creature an advantage to survive its environment, making it more likely to have offspring – the mutation is more likely to get inherited.
9) A large species can end up being split into groups, some with mutation A and some with mutation B, corresponding to different ways of surviving the environment.
10) Run this process for 3.5 billion years of changing climate and geography.
11) The result is that a single species can become the ancestor of every species on Earth.
Which of those points is too complicated for 15-year olds?
Debatable and Controversial
I agree with Durmus on this one too. Evolution is up for debate because every Scientific idea is up for debate. The idea of fires giving out heat is a scientific claim and you’re allowed to debate it. “Debatable and controversial” doesn’t mean "nobody knows if it’s true". It means we’re not arrogant enough to assume we know everything.
Some evolutionists take the wrong tac here and say things like “if you object to evolution it’s because you’re stupid and you don’t understand it.” Nope, sorry, that’s the wrong approach. Everyone should be allowed to discuss evolution. There are alternatives like Biblical Creationsim or the story of Greek Gods making humans from clay and throwing them over their shoulders. If people want to explore these ideas they should be allowed to but by the same token, evolution shouldn’t be dismissed either.
For me personally, evolution is no longer debatable because I had the debate several years ago...and lost it. I went to a school where evolution was vaguely frowned-upon and I started off not believing it. I even decided to research the topic so I could disprove it...but in the process of trying to debunk evolution I found the evidence so powerful (overwhelming in fact) I had no choice but to accept its truth. Perhaps at some point in the future some evidence will come along that forces me to change my mind, if so then fine. That’s what an honest Scientist does. Science involves listening to counterarguments, not dismissing them.
And that’s a problem with what Durmus is saying. While I personally don’t think evolution is debatable I understand that for many it still is. Debates and discussions are a healthy part of a Scientific education but if you remove one side of the issue you can’t have the debate at all.
Durmus says, “If our students don’t have the background, the scientific knowledge, or information to comprehend the debate around controversial issues, we have left them out [of the syllabus]” In other words: if students don’t know the facts they will be unequipped to have debates about them, so we are removing those facts. Simply put “we are removing their ability to debate”. This isn’t how Science works.
Leaving evolution to undergraduate level is not an acceptable compromise either. There are 11 Universities in Turkey offering a degree in Biological Sciences. If we assume approximately 200 places on each course say, and given the population of Turkey, we will end up with around 0.003% of the population being taught evolution. If Durmus truly believes evolution is debatable he should allow a debate to happen. Preventing 99.997% of a population from understanding one of the side’s arguments doesn’t sound like an informed debate to me. A healthy debate about evolution should let evolution have a say. That's what a fair fight looks like.
Teach the controversy
A lot of anti-evolutionists, particularly in America, have adopted the catchy slogan “teach the controversy”. The idea is that because evolution isn’t accepted by everyone, we should be teaching alternative ideas in parallel and letting students make up their own minds. It might sound like I’m saying the same thing but I’m not at all. The “teach the controversy” idea fails to understand how education works, how Science works and how philosophy works.
Science is all about presenting the evidence and training people to evaluate it. That’s what a Science teacher’s job is. Whether the person actually accepts the evidence is out of the teacher’s hands. There are indeed people who don’t accept evolution and, for them, it’s a controversial topic. But Science education’s job is to teach what the evidence is, NOT to say “here’s some non-evidenced stuff as well”.
Take the theory of rain. The Scientific viewpoint is that clouds are made of water vapour condensing and when the droplets get bigger the warmth from convection fails to support them and they fall. That’s what the evidence says so that’s what we teach in Science class. Let’s consider an alternative explanation: there are water creatures hovering above the clouds (which are actually made of cotton wool). When they cry, the cotton gets full of tears and the rain falls.
Now we have a controversy about rain. But as a Science teacher it’s my job to teach the evidenced idea. You’re welcome to study the water creatures in philosophy class but in Science we’ll look at what the experimental, falsifiable evidence says.
Teach the controversy means “teach things other than evidence” which is another way of saying “go beyond what Science knows.” And I have no right to do that. How dare I be arrogant enough to go beyond the remit of Science? That would be so offensive to parents. For that reason Science teachers aren't permitted to teach any controversy, we are only permitted to teach facts and evidence.
Sure, people don’t have to accept rain theory and they are welcome to research and investigate the water creature idea. I will even encourage students to discuss the rain theory and object to it if they want to, but permitting questions doesn’t mean teaching alternatives. In the Biology classroom I actively encourage the discussion. In fact, on Monday I did exactly that, and let all the students ask questions about evolution and debate with each other on how strong the evidence was. Questions are good in Science; non-evidenced and non-falsifiable hypotheses on the other hand, are not!
Besides, when it comes to evolution we have a bigger problem. The sheer number of alternative explanations for how diverse life arose on Earth would make it impossible to cover them all. Some anti-evolutionists in America might insist we teach the literal creationist account of Adam and Eve found in the Tanakh for instance. But what about all the alternatives to that idea?
In Mayan mythology Kukulhan fashions living things out of corn. In Norse mythology Odin carves wooden logs into the shapes of various animals, including humans. In ancient Egyptian religions Ra crys a river which contains humans as impurities. In Kuban mythology the god Bumba vomits out all life on Earth. And so on.
If we taught the controversy we would have to teach every creation story on Earth and with over 4,000 to go through, that’s quite a lot. Science education should focus on the evidence and that happens to be evolution. Yes, people should be given all the facts and should be permitted to question and debate them, but we just don't have time to teach the controversy, because we'd have to teach every controversy, including things like this...
Science isn’t Political
Perhaps the biggest issue I have with Durmus’ speech is that at one point he says the new curriculum would be “in line with local and national values.” He seems to think Science ought to conform to a particular government or cultural preference. And that is the biggest problem of all.
The deputy prime minister of Turkey, Numan Kurtulmus, once said evolution was “archaic” and “lacking sufficient evidence.” OK, that’s what he thinks. I disagree with him of course because I’ve been given access to all the up-to-date evidence for evolution. Shouldn’t his citizens be given that same opportunity?
Science can never be in line with “national values” because Science has no nationality. Science is Universal and represents the facts of an entire cosmos. They cannot be bent to fit a government directive. I’m sorry but if your government's policy disagrees with facts, shouldn't you change the policy?
And even more worryingly, Durmus seems to be implying that national and local values don’t have to be based on evidence. What should they be based on then? Aren't political decisions more likely to be sensible if they are based on facts? Am I missing something here??
It's not a Pick 'n' Mix Either
I used to reject evolution when I was younger. I actually preferred the non-evolutionary point of view. I didn’t like having to change my mind and accept something uncomfortable but that's the way reality works. To be intellectually honest with yourself, to have self-respect, is to accept uncomfortable truths rather than brushing them under the rug. I have now grown to love evolutionary theory and appreciate its beauty, its majesty and even its spirituality.
The fact is that Science isn’t something you get to pick and choose from. To accept one aspect of Science is to accept all the underlying principles which explain it, and therefore all the other things those principles imply. It’s all the same Science.
Right now you’re reading this on the internet. If you’re accepting that the internet exists and this information is really in front of you, you accept the theory of electricity. And that theory is based on the particle model of physics. So you accept the existence of particles as well. To accept particles is to also accept the laws of quantum mechanics and therefore the principles of chemical bonding. Chemical bonding is the theory which underpins DNA and biochemical behaviour. Subsequently you have to believe in the laws of biology and therefore evolution.
Chopping out one bit of evidenced Science is liking chopping out one of the numbers between 1 and 10. It’s all part of the same framework. Perhaps Durmus genuinely does fear for the education of his students, or perhaps there is some other reasoning for the evolutionary ban. I don’t know.
What I do know is that The Republic of Turkey was founded in 1923 by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk and his desire was to build a nation in which Scientific education would be of the highest quality. It was actually part of his political philosophy that Science teachers be given a high priority and be defended from their detractors. Turkey began with a proud ideology of respecting Scientific advances, rooted in a deep respect for critical thinking. This is a noble dream and I hope one day it is allowed to continue.
What’s the Big Deal?
People like to criticise Jeremy Kyle and his show. I’m not sure why. It’s easy to moralise from your armchair but I actually think Jeremy Kyle does a lot of good. For my readers in America, the format of The Jeremy Kyle Show is similar to shows like Maury, Jerry Springer etc. but Jeremy spends time interacting with the guests, shouting at them if necessary and provides an aftercare service run by Graham Stanier (a psychotherapist trained by Aaron Beck, the inventor of cognitive therapy).
I think the show probably gets criticised because some of the people on it are vile. But we don’t criticise the news when it reports on criminals, instead we recognise that some aspects of our world aren’t nice. By all means be offended by the guests, but why attack Jeremy himself or his show?
A lot of it centres around people shouting at each other or talking about sex. But so what? Let’s just state it bluntly: people find those things interesting. For the same reason a public place goes quiet when a couple starts arguing, a lot of people are fascinated by other humans displaying anger and affection. We’re social creatures who show aggression and have sex drives...of course we find those things interesting.
A few thousand years ago people used to watch Christians being eaten alive by lions. At least the people on The Jeremy Kyle Show are there by choice. Yes, there are people in the audience grinning and cheering when fights begin, but that’s normal human behaviour. Aspiring to be an argumentative person is probably not great but wanting to watch aggression is, as far as I can tell, no different from watching sporting events or action movies. We like an adrenaline rush. What's the big deal?
Doing Good Work
Jeremy Kyle deals with a lot of heated social issues on his show but he often knows what he’s talking about. Jeremy has had a gambling addiction, suffered cancer, been through divorce, lost parents and raised children. It’s not as though he’s pretending to be a whiter-than-white bastion of purity. He’s a guy who’s experienced life and has insight on these issues. Maybe people ought to listen to him?
Let’s also remember that the show doesn’t just get people together and make them argue. It sends addicts to rehabilitation programs, offers bereavement therapy, couples counselling, DNA tests for uncertain parents, unites estranged families, gives people extensive medical check-ups and does quite a lot of peacekeeping. I’ve seen Jeremy Kyle step in between people swearing blue murder at each other and somehow get them hugging. The man is a social wizard. He and Graham Stanier offer solutions and practical advice for people in difficult times, how can this make them the target of criticism?
And more. Jeremy is watched by millions of people who trust and respect him, and he uses this power for good. Jeremy openly supports transgender rights on his show, he doesn’t bat an eyelid when there’s a gay couple (it's like he sees gay people as equal or something...how about that?), he frequently advocates safe sex, criticises domestic abuse, drug-taking, racism and benefit fraud, as well as putting an emphasis on children during divorce and championing the rights of both parents.
Yeah OK, sometimes the show focuses on confrontation to make exciting TV...but it’s a TV show, isn’t that its function? The fact Jeremy even spends time raising awareness of these other issues is, I think, admirable.
There is, however, one area of controversy which I think needs to be addressed very carefully: the all-important lie detector. And no, I’m not about to suggest the show stop using the lie detector, actually the exact opposite. The lie detector makes for gripping and dramatic television, so if they're going to keep using it, there are a few things they can do to benefit Science.
The Puzzle of Polygraphs
The lie detector or - to give it its technical name - the polygraph, was developed in the 1920s by John Larson and William Marston. William Marston was also the inventor of Wonder Woman and her “lasso of truth” which compels criminals to speak honestly was inspired by his own invention. See, told you I was going somewhere with that picture.
The way polygraphs work is fairly simple. They monitor your blood pressure, pulse rate, breathing frequency and how much you sweat in order to tell if you are experiencing heightened emotions. Supposedly, when the test picks up on physiological changes like this, it’s because the person is being dishonest. And this is where things get sticky.
Jeremy Kyle puts a lot of faith in the polygraph, which he uses on prospective cheaters and thieves. It would be an easy criticism to say polygraphs aren’t trustworthy, but it would be dishonest because nobody actually knows. It’s possible lie detectors are completely bogus sure, but it’s also possible they have a high accuracy.
In 2003 the National Academy of Sciences conducted a review of studies performed on polygraph accuracy and concluded “Overall, the evidence is scanty and scientifically weak. Our conclusions are necessarily based on the far from satisfactory body of evidence on polygraph accuracy.“ This doesn’t mean the polygraph has been debunked. It just means nobody has tested it properly yet. The jury is still out which means we have to reserve judgement and wait to see what the data says.
The problem is that nobody has ever been able to test the polygraph hypothesis. The reason is quite simple. The only way to test a polygraph is to get a sample of people, some of whom lie and some of whom don’t. If the machine can distinguish the liars from the truth-tellers then it works. But in order to test it you’d need people to lie “properly”.
For example, if I tell you I’m doing an experiment with a polygraph and I want you to be one of the liars, you’re not really trying to deceive anyone...you’re actually cooperating with the Scientists running the test. Lying because you’ve been told to as part of an experiment is hardly going to produce a significant emotional response.
The only way to test a lie detector properly is to test it on people who are genuinely trying to conceal something, which is logically impossible because they won’t admit to it afterwards. They want to conceal it! This means polygraph research is a catch-22. But Jeremy Kyle may actually be able to offer some solutions. And no, I’m not being satirical, I’m being deadly serious.
Obvious Criticisms, Let’s Get Them out of the Way
Many spies have successfully passed polygraph tests only to be exposed later through other means. Aldrich Ames famously explained that the trick was to keep calm and stay confident. The polygraph measures heightened emotion so if you act cool as a cucumber it can be fooled. By contrast, if you’re nervous about doing the polygraph (or talking about the accusation makes you stressed) even an innocent person might get falsely measured as a liar.
The obvious question you might also ask is: why would anyone agree to do a lie detector? I personally wouldn’t do one even if I knew I was innocent. I would be so stressed about the machine accidentally reading me incorrectly and making a false accusation that I’d begin stressing about it, which the machine would pick up on.
It is entirely possible, disturbing though it might be, that The Jeremy Kyle Show which otherwise does great work, is potentially condemning innocent people because they put faith in a test which might not deserve it. If The Jeremy Kyle Show happens to read my blog (and I’m going to send it to them) I hope they can accept the following criticism which I think is fair...the lie detector shouldn't be treated as gospel until we have more data about it.
There was an episode I saw recently in which a woman confessed to the polygraph examiner that she had done a lot of things behind her boyfriend’s back. She then answered questions about the relationship and was found to be a liar. But why would she lie if she was prepared to admit all those other things in the first place? Isn’t a more likely explanation that she was feeling so guilty about admitting everything that the test picked up on her heightened emotions?
Another episode I saw featured a man claimed to have been drunk and couldn’t remember if he had sex with someone. The polygraph asked him if he had, he said no, and the test said he was lying. How did that work? Was it because the honest answer was “I don’t know if I did”, so his answer “no” wasn’t honest? Was it that he really did know and he was lying about being drunk? Or did the test somehow know the truth even when the man himself didn’t?
The show does print a disclaimer at the bottom of the screen saying “practitioners claim it is accurate although this is disputed”, but I saw another episode in which a woman was confronting her boyfriend who had apparently been cheating and said “we both know it is impossible to fail this test!” And there is a real problem.
Disclaimers aside, people trust Jeremy Kyle, so when they see him putting such faith in the test, they do so as well. And even if we knew the lie detector was good, claiming it is accurate all the time is going much too far. An expensive pregnancy test can only boast about 98% accuracy. It’s just not possible to be precise when it comes to human biology, particularly the brain.
So yes, I do think the show should perhaps tone down their faith in the machine. But if they continue to use it, I think there's something really interesting they can do with it. They can contribute some intriguing findings to scientific research.
Thing is, doing Science isn't about standing in a lab all day squirting chemicals into test tubes. Anything where you're finding out information about a particular question is doing research. Jeremy finds out how people behave when they get accused of lying, and we can use this.
There have been plenty of episodes where someone has been “found out” to be a liar, they’ve protested it violently, but then after five minutes Jeremy is able to get them to confess. Seriously, the man’s like a horse whisperer.
There have also been episodes where people have protested the “lying” accusation but they’ve appeared on a later installment and admitted the test was right all along. Is this just luck? Jeremy insinuates that it’s actually quite normal. “You know what, maybe today, maybe tomorrow, someone will get in touch with the show and they’ll tell me that you admitted you were lying”.
Jeremy seems to imply that the vast majority of people who protest the lie detector admit to it later on when the cameras are off. Is this possible? Maybe a lot of people really do contact the show and say “yeah ok, I admit it, you caught me out”. If this is true then this would potentially give more credibility to polygraphs. And therefore here is the thesis of my essay:
The Jeremy Kyle Show should start collecting data.
In theory we may have an opportunity to learn something about polygraph accuracy because we have the ideal test subjects – people who are really trying to lie and who protest it when accused...but later admit it.
Consider the sheer size of the data sample. The show has broadcast close to 3,000 episodes since it began in 2005. Every show contains three or four different stories and maybe 20% featuere lie detectors. Many Scientific research groups would kill to get a data set that big. So here’s what Jeremy should do:
For every polygraph test they administer, they should keep a record of what the person’s answer was and whether the polygraph believed them to be lying or innocent. Then, for every “liar”, take a record of how many of them admit it later. This could be fascinating. Granted, a lot of genuine liars will never come forward but there’s no way around that. We could still get useful information from such a study.
Let’s say 70% of accused people admit they were lying. That would mean if the test claims you to be lying, there is a minimum 70% chance we can trust the result. The remaining 30% could be false accusations or people who haven’t admitted it, but imagine being able to say that the polygraph was at least 70% likely to be accurate on liar conclusions.
It still wouldn’t be an actual measurement of “how accurate the polygraph is”, because many liars might get put into the truth category like Aldrich Ames. The polygraph evidently can’t detect all liars but it would tell us how reliable it is when it claims to find one.
OK sure, simply writing down the numbers wouldn't be enough, you'd have to make sure the test was carried out fairly, randomised, have a control group, disregard faulty testings etc. but I think we might be able to learn alot about how accurate the test is, how people respond to the accusation, why they thought they could get away with it and potentially who is more likely to be unmasked.
So there is my challenge to The Jeremy Kyle Show. It’s a genuine proposal. I think they should carry on doing the lie detector and carry on recording how people respond, but then keep track of what percentage later admit to having lied.
So, dear Jeremy Kyle Show etc. I think your show does good work. But you should do two things. First, make more of an effort to explain that the polygraph is an unknown quantity (that might even tempt more liars to try it, giving us even more data). And second, start collecting information, get some statisticians to look it over and see what you can find after a few years’ worth of research. Who knows, maybe the show could end up benefiting Science as much as it has benefited the many guests who have appeared on it.
Casual Jeremy: Mirror
Wonder Woman: squarespace
Serious Face: quickmeme
Debonair Jeremy: Mirror
What Am I Even Talking About?
I love quantum mechanics and always have done. You might not have guessed it though, because I don't talk about it online much. There are two good reasons: 1) Once I get started I won’t be able to stop. 2) It’s too big to trivialise with a 5-minute youtube video or an Instagram post. It would be like trying to sum up the rise and fall of the Roman empire in a single hashtag. #Greedfollowedbycorruption
Quantum mechanics is probably the most important discovery since evolution. More fundamental than relativity, more shocking than the Big Bang Model. It is the framework we rest modern Science on and it’s gosh-darned fascinating!
What I really want to talk about today though is "quantum spirituality". You may have come across it. If not, go to Instagram/twitter etc. and type in any of the following terms: quantum, quantum theory, quantum physics or quantum mechanics. What you'll no doubt find is associations with Buddhism, Hinduism, vegetarianism, yoga, mysticism, alternative medicine, cannabis, crystal healing, left-wing politics, exercise, healthy eating, positive mindsets and, more than anything else, “consciousness.” Now, let me be clear just so nobody thinks I'm attacking them:
1) Consciousness has played a part in quantum mechanical theory.
2) We'll get to that bit shortly.
3) I think it's good to talk about the human mind and its potential.
4) I’m not against philosophical or religious discussion at all.
I also know why a lot of people associate these things with quantum mechanics. It’s down to one person (who we’ll get to shortly) but, and I'm afraid this is crunch point - some of this stuff isn’t anything to do with quantum mechanics. Remotely.
Again, understand my intentions here. I don’t want to dismiss anybody’s opinions about the meaning of life. I’ve got no business doing that. But as a Science educator, it is my business to make sure people have a good understanding of quantum mechanics. So strap yourselves in folks, we're going to get it right.
Why do I have to ruin it?
I probably sound like the kid who tells all the others that Santa Claus isn’t real. Can’t I just let people go on believing in Santa Claus? I understand that point of view, really. But if I may offer a counter-argument?
Believing in Santa is comforting and fun but when you learn the truth, that your loving parents have gone to the trouble of getting you Christmas presents, haven’t you learned something even better? Yes it can be painful to let go of cherished beliefs, but surely it’s better to know the truth than a lie, no matter how self-comforting that lie is.
I want to educate people because the real quantum mechanics is so much bigger and cooler than what you’ve probably been told. You might think quantum spirituality is interesting but trust me, you ain’t seen nothing yet.
I also think it’s important to get Science right because a lack of education can be dangerous. To quote Professor Hawking: "the greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance, it is the illusion of knowledge". The point he's making is that it's very hard to teach someone if they think they already know everything. Teaching quantum mechanics is difficult (trust me, I know) but it's even harder when people already have a crooked version in their heads. Frankly, I think people deserve the truth. You wouldn't accept a substitue diamond ring, so why accept a substitue version of quantum mechanics?
Defining Words Differently?
Let me ask you something. When you looked at the above photograph and saw the caption underneath, did you think: "He's got the wrong band there" or maybe "he's telling some kind of joke"? Well, it's actually neither. I wasn't making a joke and I'm not getting confused. That's a picture of The Beatles. I'm being quite serious. I believe that's a picture of The Beatles and you have no right to tell me different. You can probably see where I'm going with this.
Just imagine you’re a Beatles fan. You’ve got t-shirts, books about them, the whole works. Then one day you go online and search The Beatles. You find someone saying how much they love the Beatles, except the band they’re posting pictures of aren’t the Beatles. It’s Nickelback.
It’s a bit puzzling, but everybody makes mistakes sometimes! So you message the person not trying to be critical, saying “hey there pal, I think you might have uploaded the wrong picture by accident!” But, rather than going “whoops, cheers dude” this person responds with “yeah, well it’s my blog and I’ll post what I want!”
The next day another person does the same thing, labelling another picture of Nickelback as "The Beatles". So you ask them if they want to learn a little Beatles history. They say yes, but then about 30 seconds later they start saying “well that’s just your definition of the Beatles, I define it differently”.
Now imagine you youtube your favourite Beatles song but instead of Eleanor Rigby you get that infuriating “How you remind me” song, mis-labelled as The Beatles. Then people start posting pictures of Iron Maiden and labelling it The Beatles. And then pictures of the Red Hot Chilli Peppers as The Beatles.
You don’t mind these bands at all, they’re fine. But they aren’t the Beatles! The problem is that every time you talk to someone about it they accuse you of being picky, or petty, or narrow-minded, or a hater. Then it gets ludicrous.
People start posting pictures of their salads with “The Beatles” attached to it. You even see people offering courses and workshops on Beatles history...courses which make no mention of instruments, John Lennon or even Liverpool!
It seems that for some people, truth really isn't a high priority and they go with the ever popular "I can define my own truth however I want" response. Shouldn't I just let people use their own words? Why do I have to go challenging them on it? Doesn't that make me a trouble-maker who's looking for a fight after all?
Well, imagine if I started posting racist terminology on my page but then said "yeah, well I define those words differently", how well do you think that would fly?
Or if I started posting pictures of dairy and meat products with #veganlifestyle.
Or if some money-loving oil corporation started posting “Namaste” on its home page.
Or if some fundamentalist hate group started posting "raise your vibration" while they campaigned against gay marriage.
Or what if someone starting hitting people and saying "yeah well in my version of reality, they don't feel pain so leave me alone and let me live me own life!"
Would you be OK with that?. Surely you’d want to educate people on what those terms really meant. You're not doing it to be a hater, you're doing it because you respect the human intellect and think people should be challenged when they are wrong, right? So, to be clear once again, I'm not here to attack you, I'm here to spread knowledge.
Quantum Mechanics in Layman’s Terms
Quantum mechanics is a nuanced theory. You have to be careful what you say because it can easily mean the wrong thing. It’s also a vast theory. QM doesn’t refer to just one idea, but a whole collection of theories, hypotheses, predictions, experiments and conclusions which form a framework for us to work in. Nobody can honestly claim to be familiar with the entire breadth of the theory. And, on top of that, it's very mathematical in nature.
I had to attend several math classes at University in order to make sense of what was going on in my QM classes. Now, as I’ve said before, anything you can say with equations you can say in words, but it takes a huge amount of time to do so and that gives you two options.
Either you take a long time to get things exactly right, during which people get bored, or you cheat and use analogies and simplifications. The explanations become sort of casual, hand-waving shorthand, which is about 90% correct but misconceptions can arise as a result.
It’s not because you want to be snobbish or deceitful and it’s certainly not because you don’t respect them! Everybody is clever enough to understand Science. But it can take time without maths. The ultimate goal is to get people to understand the beauty of the theory, so it’s better to explain “the gist” so they understand what the fuss is about.
You can imagine the mess that ensues. It’s a perfect storm of a nuanced theory which has lots of aspects, being explained in simplified ways. It’s in these poorly understood realms that pseudoscience can creep in. Perfectly intelligent people can believe things which aren’t true because it’s hard to tell Science from pseudoscience and it’s the cheap knock-offs which are trying to fool you. You have to be wary of quantum con-artists. Be smarter.
The Measurement Problem
We’re going to pin things right down and focus on one aspect of quantum mechanics which gives rise to all the discussion about consciousness and spirituality. And the best analogy I can think of is Toy Story. Yes, I'm using an analogy...even after what I said a moment ago. But we're going to tread carefully and I'll point out the limitations and strengths of the analogy in the discussion.
Imagine you place your favourite Buzz Lightyear doll on your bed and leave the room for a moment. Then, when you come back, it's somehow on the shelf. You pick it up, shake it a bit and put it back. Then, when you come back later in the afternoon, it's outside in the garden. This doesn't make sense at all, so you decide to do some measurements.
Every hour you place it on your bed and then walk away. Each time you come back it's in a slightly different place. 90% of the time it's still on the bed, 8% of the time it's on the floor or shelf and 2% of the time it's outside in the garden. There is only one logical explanation, as strange as it sounds: the toy is only a toy when it's being observed.
When you look away from it, it somehow adopts other characteristics (being alive). You can predict the probability of where it's going to end up when you finally look, but you can never be exactly sure. Ultimately, you need two sets of laws to describe the behaviour of the toy. One for when it's being an inanimate piece of plastic and another for when you're not looking and you can only measure it's probable behaviour.
This, in a nutshell, is what particles do. It's called “the measurement problem” for obvious reasons. Measuring the particle/toy forces it to behave normally but whenever we stop looking, it does something different and we lose our ability to predict its behaviour. I've been working on this blog for weeks and it was only just now that I hit upon the Toy Story analogy. Well, it was either that or these things...
The Copenhagen Interpretation
Explaining the measurement problem has been an important part of quantum mechanical theory for decades and there are many different ways of doing it. The one which is most relevant to our discussion is called The Copenhagen Interpretation, postulated in the city of Copenhagen by Niels Bohr, Werner Heisenberg and Wolfgang Pauli. This is by no means “the correct” explanation but it is a way to make sense of things.
Imagine you've not seen Toy Story and all you know is that your toy somehow appears in different places. What explanation would you propose? The Copenhagen proposal is that a particle given a choice will choose all options until observed. If the choice is about where to be, it will exist in all possible locations. If the choise is about what energy to have, it will adopt all possible energies. But when it is observed it crystallises into one state. That final state could have been impossible when it was acting as an ordinary particle, but since we gave it free reign it was allowed to explore every possible state and crystallise in one it otherwise couldn’t have.
Just like the toy which suddenly appears in the garden. Copenhagen says that Buzz Lightyear existed at every point in the house and garden, but when it was observed, it crystallised into one location...90% of the time that's back on the bed but every once in a while it turns up somehwere seemingly impossible.
We call the list of possible states the particle could be in “the wavefunction” (there are other ways of defining the word wavefunction but they all amount to more or less the same thing). The wavefunction is spread across many different states but when you take a measurement, it “collapses” into just one.
This raises all sorts of questions, the most obvious being: why does observation trigger wavefunction collapse? It’s as if the particle somehow “knows” it is being watched. In our Toy Story analogy this seems fine because the toys are thinking beings and they know to "play dead" when Andy comes into the room. But how does a single electron know to collapse into one place?
Consciousness Enters the Discussion
If you've ever watched Toy Story and wondered what the rules are, quantum physicists do the same thing. If we set up a camera in Andy's bedroom, would the toys come to life? Can the toys choose to enter their toy-state? What if they're being watched from behind and they don't know about it? Why do they stay in their live-state when another toy observes them? Why does the dog Buster not count? What about an artificially intelligent robot? Would a chimpanzee trigger a collapse? Can babies see them moving? What about that bit when Sid sees Woody talking?
Believe it or not, quantum physicists have to ask very similar questions about particles. If we sit a camera on our particle and watch a video feed, will the wavefunction collapse? If we put the camera there but nobody is watching it, does that count? What if we record it on a video disc and never look at it? And if observation is involved, is it the eyes, the brain, the memory? What's going on? There are no easy answers.
The first attempt at seriously tackling the question was made by the brilliant physicist John Von Neumann. In 1932, von Neumann wrote the first definitive textbook on quantum mechanics, formalising all the known laws under one framework. One chapter in particular deals with the measurement problem and in it, Von Neumann works mathematically outwards from the particle to find out what causes it to collapse.
He concluded that the “choice” part of an experiment (ie when the particle can choose which state/location to be in) doesn’t trigger a change and the particle remains “uncollapsed” after the choice has been offered. He then showed that the detector/equipment of the experiment was also not the point at which the wavefunction collapsed.
In fact, Von Neumann showed there was no obvious place which could be triggering wavefunction collapse. Anything he included in the calculation was insufficient to account for it. The only thing he couldn’t describe in full mathematical detail was the human brain itself.
Von Neumann’s next step was controversial but mathematically necessary, and certainly not one he took lightly. Since his calculations could show no possible way of triggering the collapse, he concluded it had to be hiding in the one place he couldn’t describe. The human mind was somehow the reason.
If you videod the experiment and then waited for a year, the particle wouln’t actually pick a state to be in until you watched the playback, at which point it would crystallise into existence. In other words, a video camera watching the toys in Andy's room would see them dancing around, but it's only when a conscious human mind watches the playback that everything appears normal and they just see a lifeless toy.
To be clear, Von Neumann wasn’t necessarily happy about this. He didn’t want to introduce non-testable terms into his mathematics, but he saw no alternative. The maths said wavefunction collapse couldn’t be triggered by anything in the experiment, so it had to be the observer’s brain doing it.
Eugene Wigner, another hard-nosed Scientist, agreed with his conclusion and this idea came to be known as the “Von-Neumann - Wigner Interpertation”. Consciousness, according to them, was a fundamental part of physics because there was no way, in 1932, of explaining how a particle “knew” to start existing in one certain state.
The idea is that reality is therefore anthropic. Observing a particle causes it to change its nature. And this is where spirituality gets included.
All of these ideas about consciousness being a fundamental ingredient of the Universe sound very similar to certain religious teachings. It’s completely understandable that many spiritualists would therefore endorese the VN-W interpretation. It SEEMS like physics is confirming their spiritual preferences.
It's also where a lot of aspirational philosophy gets involved. A lot of spiritual teachings suggest that you can achieve a certain state of being/consciousness, which makes the world manifest itself in a certain way. Things like the “law of attraction”, which claims if you think positive thoughts and focus on things you want, it will begin to happen. I’m paraphrasing spiritualism obviously...but that’s what many spiritualists do with quantum mechanics, so paraphrasing is obviously something spiritualists are OK with.
Quantum mechanics comes along and it appears to be saying something very similar to a lot of these spiritual philosophies. "You create your reality", "Reality manifests itself in tune with you observing it", "your consciousness is a fundamental part of the Universe", "Your mind influences reality". These are all really exciting ideas, suggesting that humans have incredible power to change the world.
I understand why so many people get enthralled by it. I really do. But, I’m afraid (and I really take no joy in doing this) that this simply isn’t the case. I am sorry if you hold these beliefs, but whoever told you that quantum mechanics supports these ideas, was either lying to you or didn’t understand it as well as they thought they did. Your spiritual beliefs may be true but they have nothing to do with quantum mechanics.
If you’d rather go on believing the cheap version of quantum mechanics then I understand, and I invite you to stop reading now. Otherwise, let’s take a look at what we actually know about the Von-Neumann Wigner interpretation.
1) You can’t determine the eigenstate
According to the Copenhagen Interpretation, before the particle is observed it is in a variety of states simultaneously, called the wavefunction. Then, when the measurement is taken, the wavefunction collapses to just one state, called “the eigenstate”. But there is something very important here: consciousness may trigger the wavefunction to collapse but there is no way of influencing which eigenstate it actually collapses into.
In the analogy of the Toys, we found that watching them forced them to crystallise into one location, but we couldn't actually influence where it was. We have no interaction with them during their living state so we can only give a probability of where they're likely to appear.
Likewise, observing a particle does tell it to pick a state, but the state has nothing to do with us. Each possible eigenstate has a “probability amplitude” associated with it, and the final state it collapses into is determined by that, not you.
So while it might be ok to say “consciously observing causes it to take form”, anything which says “you can influence” is immediately invalid. So I’m afraid all those motivational spiritual ideas about how your mind can shape reality have completely missed one of the fundamental points of QM. You're an observer, not an influencer.
So I’m afraid your consciousness can only, at best, trigger reality to form, it can’t (in any way) influence what form reality takes. The principle of "controlled manifestation" is not based on quantum mechanics at all. You can't influence reality with your mind.
2) Quantum Mechanics doesn’t apply to Macrostates
The world we see around us obeys classical laws, not quantum ones. When you’re talking about a single electron, or a single atomic nucleus, or the interaction between two neutrons, then yes you need to speak quantum. But when you’re talking about humans or plants or avocados, quantum rules aren’t directly relevant. And this is sort of obvious.
One of the reasons quantum mechanics is so surprising is because it is very different to the world we experience. The everyday world doesn’t feature wavefunction collapse. Toys don't spontaneously teleport because they are classical objects. The electrons they're made of will be quantum yes, but not the toys themselves. Any macrostate (an object big enough for us to observe directly) is already in a clearly defined eigenstate. Its wavefunction has collapsed.
This raises another fantastic question which is: where does the boundary between quantum and classical behaviour occur? The answer to this is well understood (largely thanks to Richard Feynman) but it would take us too far off topic. Point is, that boundary is there.
If a spiritual belief claims that your consciousness can trigger a wavefunction collapse of a tiny number of particles, by all means listen up. But the moment they start applying it to the everyday world, (anything bigger than a molecule really) they’re going beyond what we can actually say.
3) Observation Doesn’t Mean “Using your Senses”
The analogy of the toys is potentially misleading because it implies that me looking with my eyes is what causes the toys to pick a location, but this isn’t what really goes on. And this is why I was reluctant to use an analogy (but it was just too good to ignore). The anology helps us get the basic idea of measurement problems, but it isn't to be taken literally.
There’s a very simple demonstration of quantum mechanics I’ve used in my physics class. You set up a laser and point it at a plate with two slits. You’re giving each light particle the choice of where to go, slit A or slit B. when I do this demonstration I ask my students whether or not looking at the laser or the slits will trigger wavefunction collapse and guess what...it never does. The light particles always end up in impossible places for particles, which means looking at them actually had no effect.
This is with a classroom of 20 students and myself staring at it from all angles. We are clearly observing the particles but they aren’t collapsing.
When we talking about “taking a measurement” we mean shrinking down to the quantum level and taking a measurement there. Collapsing the wavefunction is actually very hard. It’s not really “looking at the two slits” it’s a complicated series of prisms and mirrors which can detect which slit a particle went through.
Yes, this form of observation and measurement does collapse the wavefunction. And yes it’s still extremely spooky, but the collapse doesn't occur through consciousness alone. You'd need a carefully set up, simple, quantum mechanical experiment as well as your mind to trigger it.
So any spiritualist who talks about your consciousness collapsing wavefunctions needs to point out that this only counts if what your consciousness is doing is reading the results of a very complicated experiment, not ooking around with the five senses.
4) The Brain is Part of the System
The reason von Neumann was forced to propose consciousness was because it was the only part of the system he couldn’t describe. It was the black-box of mysteries. To be clear, the human brain is still mysterious, but mysterious doesn’t mean "outside of the normal laws of nature". It just means we don’t know the details yet. But we know that the brain is composed of particles and those particles follow the same laws as the particles in the experiment.
Von Neumann showed that no part of the experiment was obviously the cause of wavefunction collapse, but many people pointed out that the brain couldn't be the cause of the collapse either because wouldn't the brain have to observe itself in order to collapse its own wavefunction? For the brain to obseve the paticle, it must be in one particular state, meaning it too needs to be observed. Wouldn't this require a consciousness within a consciousness, and so on to infinity.
The brain differs only in completxity, not in character. It’s still a particle detector, just a more elaborate one. So I’m afraid invoking consciousness doesn’t help us explain wavefunction collapse at all. Unless you want to take things to infinity.
5) The Copenhagen Interpretation isn’t Necessary
A lot of spiritualist teachers imply that ALL physicists agree with Von Neumann's idea, or that it is a widespread belief among quantum physicists. It isn't, even remotely.
John von Neumann's Idea is very interesting and certainly worth discussing, but there aren't labs full of quantum theorists talking about consciousness. Consciosness is invoked in ONE version of the Copenhagen Interpretation but the Copenhagen Interpretation isn't the only game in town. There are other explanations of the measurement problem which account for the data just as well. The Copenhgen interpretation is a propsal, but it's not a necessary one. Quantum mechanics works without it.
Erwin Schrodinger himself (the man who essentially gave us the first law of quantum mechanics) thought the Copenhagen interpretation made no sense. And that’s saying something because Schrodinger was known for his spiritual beliefs and interest in Eastern religious philosophy.
His famous “cat” thought-experiment is actually a powerful disproof of the Copenhagen interpretation because the idea of a particle existing in many states and then suddenly not, is ludicrous.
Einstein and deBroglie (who also won Nobel prizes for their work on quantum mechanics) favoured an interpretation which talked about hidden properties that couldn’t be detected by us. They basically thought the Toy Story version was correct - the reason particles end up in impossible places isn't because they're everywhere simultaneously, but because they had characteristics we didn't know about, and could never know about. In other words, the very opposite of the Copenhagen interpretation – that human consciousness could never play a part in what the particle does because we can never observe the whole system.
Then there is the most famous alternative to Copenhagen; Hugh Everett’s Many Worlds interpretation. In that, rather than having the wavefunction collapse into one specific eigenstate, eigenstates separate from each other and become associated with different versions of the same observer i.e. the wavefunction never collapses it just decoheres, describing different versions of the system.
Nobody knows which of the many interpretations is correct. Granted, many physicists adopt the Copenhagen, and a few consider von Neumann’s take to be relevant. But when you have competing explanations, you don’t just pick the one you like most, you reserve judgement.
Will we ever know?
As with any claim in Science, the answer to the measurement problem will have to wait until there is evidence favouring one of the interpretations. If we can devise an experiment that gives evidence for one interpretation over another then we might get somewhere. At the moment there is no experiment anyone has devised which will conclusively resolve the problem. Although there are whisperings.
Work carried out by Dylan Mahler provides some hints that the idea of "hidden variables" may be the correct interpretation, as was favoured by Einstein. David Deutsch has claimed that quantum computing may be pointing to the "many worlds" interpretation as being correct. And Lucien Hardy has even proposed experiments which might rule out consciousness once and for all (although the design is far from perfect). But until someone can come up with a testable idea to explain the measurement problem we're stuck with interpretations rather than theories.
Quantum Mechanics may, possibly, need to talk about consciousness at some point in the future if the other interpretations get ruled out. If that happens that would be amazing. I'll be the first person to say "wow, guess consciousness does cause wavefunction collapse"! But even if consciousness is part of the discussion, it applies under very specific conditions and you have almost no control over it.
I think spiritualists are often trying to do good things. They want to improve the world, and improve people's self-image. This is wonderful. But please, please, please don't start talking about things which are irrelevant. We don't understand why humans have eyebrows but you don't suddenly say that reality itself is determined by eyebrow evolution. That's another part of Science which is just as poorly understood. Don't put the word "quantum" in your belief because it sounds cool!
Try and make yourself a better person yes, but that doesn’t mean “trying to force the Universe to behave the way your mind wants it to be”, in fact it means the exact opposite. If you really want to better yourself, or the world, then go out and buy a book on quantum mechanics written by a Scientist who has studied it and start there. I guarantee it will blow your mind. And so...
consciousness brain art: ytimg
White flag: beforethecross
The Beatles: blastro
Schordinger's Equation: viswakeerthy
Weeping Angel: vignette2
Wavefunction Collapse diagram: afriedman
John von Neumann: wikimedia
Slit Detector: Scienceblogs
Buzz Lightyear: cloudpix
Charlton Heston as Moses: imgflip (Image originally owned by Paramout Pictures)
Don’t you just hate good-looking people? Of course you do. They’re the worst. Especially when they’re good at stuff. How dare they be attractive and talented at the same time, it’s just an abomination. Glad you all agree. Right, let's get on with it.
A few days ago I stumbled across an interesting journal article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. It showed that people tend to evaluate others based on their looks. In other news - triangles have three sides.
It's hardly a shock to say people judge each other on appearances. I mean what else are you going to judge them on? The quality of the character and their personal achievements?! Please!
What was really interesting about this particular study was that it correlated beauty with one parameter I’m very interested in: whether you are trusted as a Scientist. It claimed that people are actually less likely to take you seriously in a Scientific context if you are good looking. When it comes to Science, apparently we want our experts ugly.
It’s good news for me because I look like a potato with a beard, but I can imagine somebody attractive finding it a problem. Thing is I'm very fortunate and I get taken seriously as a Scientist. I have my own quantum-mechanical equation, my own chemical and I've got a book coming out in July 2018, but it has to be said that at my graduation ceremony nobody asked for my number. Imagine being a Scientist where your ideas got dismissed simply because you look good in a lab coat? Actually, what am I talking about…everyone looks good in a lab coat.
Conducted by Ana Gheorgiu at Cambridge University, the study showed people photographs of Scientists and asked them to rate each one for looks, perceived competency as a Scientist, and whether they looked interesting.
One of these tests gave a fairly expected result: we’re more likely to be interested in a person’s research if they are attractive, but here’s the kicker…we’re less likely to trust the actual Science they write.
As if that wasn't puzzling enough, she took things a stage further. She gave another group of people an article with an author photograph beside it. When the author was one of the “ugly” Scientists, the article was praised. When the author was “pretty” the same article was suddenly criticised as being sloppy. The lesson here is obvious…use pretty people to get funding for your research, but don’t let them do educational TV shows.
This discord between a Scientist being “interesting” and “competent” implies that while we might tune in to watch the charming features of Brian Cox, we don’t actually trust him as a Scientist. I mean just look at him with his perfect hair and rugged features. What an idiot he obviously is.
Are we hard-wired to mistrust attractive people? Of course not. The exact opposite in fact. In 2016, Fengling Ma from the Wenzhou Medical University showed a group of children 200 faces and asked them to rate each one for trustworthiness. Two months later they came back and rated the same faces on how attractive they were. Overwhelmingly, the children associated good-looking people with trustworthiness.
Maybe it's hard-wired? After all, we usually think highly of someone because they’re gorgeous. So often does our culture praise beautiful people and ask them for opinions on things they aren’t qualified to talk about.
I’ve written before about cognitive biases, but it seems there is a subtlety to this particular one. Our natural inclination is “pretty = trustworthy” but there is an important qualifier “unless you’re a Scientist.” Where does that come from? I’m going to put forward a hypothesis. See what you think. Also, here's Kat Dennings, my pick for Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.
Annoyingly Perfect People
The cultural stereotype of Scientists is that they are intelligent. What I propose is that this is over-ridden by an older and more engrained stereotype: attractive people are supposed to be dumb.
People often regard beautiful women as air-heads or bimbos, while attractive men are meant to be vain and shallow. Since these people are more likely to get favourable treatment in life, the assumption is that they never have to work hard intellectually. Is it true? Can beautiful people be smart? Obviously they can.
I have two instagram friends who are, by anyone's standards, physically attractive. One of them is a former beauty queen who used to do pageants, has appeared on Jay Leno and did some commerical work as a bikini-clad model. Let's be frank, you don’t get to do those things unless you look good. Today, she is a bilingual NASA intern who runs her own business. How's that for a stereotype.
The other is a pre-med student (ie clearly smart) who posts photographs of herself looking attractive. What’s really baffling is that she receives hate mail about it. People actually criticise her for posting images where she looks nice. What's the point? Nobody criticses me when I post a picture of an equation.
What's more, when you talk to both of them, they are intelligent, confident, Scientifically literate and (shock horror) nice, friendly women...they just happen to look good as well. Apparently, this makes many people uncomfortable - as if it’s unfair. There seems to be an unspoken belief that nobody should be good at too many things, so somebody who is smart, friendly and good-looking needs to have something wrong with them to balance the Universe out.
But life isn’t a game of The Sims where each human gets a certain amount of points to share among ther personality traits. People can be good at everything and look amazing while doing it. Same way you can be dumb and ugly at the same time.
There might be a certain amount of misogyny going on here. I’ve written before about why we need more feminism in Science so I won’t bang on about it, but I think sometimes society assumes a woman’s job is to look pretty and smile. Only the ugly ones are supposed to go into Science.
But this is the real world and it’s not filled with stock-characters from 1950s sitcoms. People are allowed to be talented, smart and good-looking simultaneously. Be jealous of them, sure. And by all means do mocking impressions of Brian Cox in front of your physics class (just…you know…if that’s like…what you wanna do) but don’t hold it against them. Hating someone for being good at things is forgivable, treating them differently is not.
By the way, I’m very aware that I’m focusing slightly more on women here. That’s because as a heterosexual man I find it easier to comment on whether a woman is good-looking or not. So my apologies for giving a one-sided perspective of this debate. I'm just not as good when it comes to spotting an attractive man.
Running the Numbers
Now, just to play devil’s advocate for a moment, let’s consider whether or not the stereotype has any foundation. Are pretty people less likely to be intelligent? Well, on cold statistical grounds there might be an arbitrary correlation, but it doesn’t imply what you think.
Beautiful people constitue a small sample of the population, as do intelligent people. The chances of a person falling into both categories is potentially smaller still. So yes, a person being both gorgeous and intelligent is less likely than them being one of those things exclusively. But, and here is the crucial point, this is an incidental relationship, not a causal one.
The number of people who like cactuses is small. So is the number of people who like Nicolas Cage movies. So if we meet a Nicolas Cage fan who also collects cactuses they are probably quite rare. But those two things are completely unrelated. The fact they like Nicolas Cage movies has nothing to do with their liking of cactuses. They obviously just enjoy punishment.
A Nicolas Cage-loving cactus collector is rare but we shouldn’t meet a Nicolas Cage fan and assume they therefore don’t like cactuses. There is no causal nexus between the two. Likewise, if a person is pretty it doesn’t mean we should assume they are dumb. Or act surprised when we find out they are clever.
It also doesn’t mean if you’re good at Science you’re unattractive. Neither is it true that if you’re gorgeous you’re doomed to fail your exams. The truth is that your brains and your beauty are completely uncoupled from each other. If you care about appearances then you primp and preen yourself as much as you want. If you don't care about your appearance then leave the house wearing a crumpled sack if you want. There's no correct way for a Scientist to look.
So, there’s my hypothesis. Because we tend to associate hot with dumb, we’re less likely to trust a hot Scientist because it implies a contradiction. Now, like all hypotheses, it needs to be criticised and tested, so let me know what the problems are and let’s see if we can disconfirm it!
Ultimately, what the study highlights is how wrong we can be when we make snap-judgements, especially about how intelligence relates to looks. We might as well ask people to predict a person’s favourite sandwich from what colour their eyes are. If you are ever asked to judge someone’s competency as a Scientist from a photograph, that photograph had better be of their research thesis!
Right, I’m off to buy an eye-patch.
At the weekend I went to see The Belko Experiment from the writer of Guardians of the Galaxy, James Gunn. The premise of the film (rated 18 in the UK) is that a group of people are sealed in an office block and told they have two hours to kill 30 co-workers otherwise 60 of them will be murdered at random.
It’s a similar premise to Battle Royale directed by Kinji Fukasaku, in which a group of high-school students are placed on an island and told to kill each other until one survives (basically remade as The Hunger Games). Both are played as jet-black comedies with an emphasis on hard-to-watch violence, although Battle Royale depicts it as tragic while The Belko Experiment takes glee in showcasing the sadism.
You could draw further comparison with The Purge trilogy, set in a future where all crimes are legalised for 12 hours. In The Purge the morality is reversed from the other two however, because rather than an authority figure using threats to force characters to commit violence, The Purge is about what would happen if all authority figures and threats are removed.
They all share the same ethical question however. Not “are some people capable of violence?” rather, “is everyone capable of violence?” If you took a bunch of people at random and put them in an environment where savage violence is one of the choices, how many would actually choose it?
All three film franchises believe the same thing would happen. A small group of people jump straight to violence while most stay out of it. Do they get it right? What would really happen if we carried out a Belko Experiment? You’ll be pleased to know such a thing has never been attempted, but there have been fascinating studies which point to the willingness of people to commit violence.
Because I Told you To
In 1961 Stanley Milgram at Yale University carried out an experiment designed to measure a person’s willingness to commit violent acts. The subject was told to adopt the role of a teacher who was educating a student on the other side of a wall. The teacher asked a series of questions and punished the student with electric shocks for every mistake. Unknown to them, the “student” was an actor pretending to scream in agony and begging for the teacher to stop.
The student would complain about a heart condition, pretend to pass out from the pain, bang on the wall etc. and if the teacher refused to continue torturing the actor they were told “please continue” or “you have no choice, you must continue”. Only if they objected four times, were they finally allowed to stop.
The aim was to see how many people would be prepared to go on harming another human simply because someone told them to. The experiment has been repeated and carried out a number of different ways over the decades and the results are roughly the same.
Between 61 – 65% of people were prepared to keep going and shock the person to the point of potentially killing them. It’s worth noting that every participant did show discomfort but most carried on regardless.
Charles Hofling performed a similar experiment in 1966 when 22 nurses were instructed to administer a lethal dose of medicine to a patient. 21 of them were prepared to do it simply because a doctor insisted. Don’t misunderstand me here, I think nurses are amazing people...but that is exactly the point. Even kind, compassionate, ethically wonderful people can still commit acts of violence when ordered to. It seems if an authority figure asks you to do something immoral, there's a good chance you'll salute and say "Aye-aye!"
The Stanford Prison Experiment
An even more controversial experiment was carried out in 1971 by Philip Zimbardo at Stanford Univeristy. Zimbardo selected 24 students, all male with no criminal record or history of mental illness, and randomly assigned them to one of two groups: prisoners and guards. He converted one of the basements at Stanford into a makeshift prison and threw the two groups in to see what would happen.
The experiment is controversial because it doesn’t follow a lot of the standard methodologies required by Science. There was no independent variable, no dependent variable, Zimbardo himself got involved and there was no quantitative data, nor a hypothesis tested. This is really an anecdotal example of “what would happen?” which many would argue is unscientific. Nevertheless, the results were sobering.
Within a few days, the “guard” students began brutalising the prisoners and subjecting them to psychological tortures. The prisoners were made to strip naked, sleep on concrete, exercise to the point of exhaustion, got locked in a cupboard, suffered sleep deprivation and endured constant verbal abuse.
Zimbardo argued that, contrary to popular opinion, aggressive power-abusers were not a “certain type of person”, rather, anyone given the chance to exert power can become violent and aggressive.
What’s even more interesting is that 50 people came to observe the simulation taking place and raised absolutely no objection to Zimbardo. In the same way Milgram’s experiment showed that people are prepared to be violent, Zimbardo’s showed that people are willing to stand by and do nothing.
The experiment was eventually stopped when Zimbardo’s girlfriend got so worried about his involvement that she insisted he finish it. Acknowledging that he was becoming emotionally invested, Zimbardo did indeed halt the simulation, much to the annoyance and frustration of the “guard” students.
A similar experiment was carried out by Jane Elliot in 1968. A primary school teacher, Elliot decided to split the class into two groups based on their eye-colour and told the brown-eyed children they were intellectually and socially inferior. She began giving privileges to the blue-eyed students and the results were astonishing.
The blue-eyed students became arrogant and bullying, while the brown-eyed students began performing worse on tests and devaluing themselves. Elliot intended the exercise to teach the children about the utter ludicrous nature of racism but found, unexpectedly, that by splitting a group of people into privileged and not, they began fulfilling the roles automatically.
We have to ask ourselves what we would do in these situations? We’d all like to assume we’d be the one nurse who objected to the lethal dosage, the 35% of people who refused to electrocute, or the girlfriend who insisted the violence end. But statistically, chances are most of us would go along with it. I’d like to think I’m a decent guy…but I wonder.
So are humans basically evil?
These studies suggest what films get wrong is that only a small minority of people will turn to violence. Actually, most of us are prepared to be violent if the situation calls for it. But don’t rule our species out just yet, because there are also studies which showcase our capacity for altruism.
In 1973 a study by Darley and Batson, the so-called “Good Samaritan Study” found that 63% of people would stop to help someone passed-out on the street, provided they were not in a great hurry.
Then there was the 2004 study by Molly Crockett at UCL who reversed the Milgram experiment to see if people would be willing to electrocute another person or themselves for money. Crocket found that people were twice as willing to endure pain themselves than inflict it on others. This doesn’t necessarily contradict the Milgram study but it does suggest that context might be everything. If we’re being instructed to do something awful we might be persuaded, but if we’re given a choice we’d rather not hurt anyone. Submission to authority might be a part of us, but so is empathy.
The Greatest Experiment Of All Time
The films I mentioned at the beginning all go in different directions at their finale, making different comments about the nature of humanity. In some we are told that even peaceful people can become killers while in some we are told nobody can be pushed to violence against their will.
It seems most film-makers, and possibly audiences, make the same assumption: a small minority of people engage in violence immediately but the majority of us are a complex mixture of aggression and pacifism. Where we each differ is how far we have to be pushed to let the violence take over. This sounds like a pretty grown-up response to the knotty question of human nature, so bravo Hollywood!
For my money the best summation of the human condition is found in the movie Full Metal Jacket by Stanley Kubrick. The protagonist wears a helmet displaying the symbols for peace and the words “Born to kill” written beneath. When questioned, he explains he’s trying to make a comment about the duality of man. Ultimately, this soldier might have the most honest outlook of them all. Good ol’ Kubrick.
We did evolve to survive and breed at all costs but we also learned that living in communities gives us an advantage. We evolved a capacity for aggression which helped us hunt but also a capacity for cooperation which helped us build.
Really, The Belko Experiment has been running for the last hundred thousand years all across the globe. A group of intelligent, self-aware creatures are stuck together in a sealed environment called Planet Earth and we’ve pretty much been left to our own devices.
You might believe we’re in a Purge Universe where there is no authority for our actions (atheism), you might believe we’re in a Battle Royale Universe where there is a powerful being watching and giving us instructions (theism) or you might believe we’re in a Belko Experiment universe where the powerful being sets things up and then steps back (deism). The point is we really are playing out this social experiment and the results don’t suggest humans are solely evil.
So far in the experiment we have gone to war a lot, invoked slavery and torture but we’ve also invented peace-talks, charity, Science, art and medicine. How the experiment is going to conclude is anyone’s guess, but regardless of your ethical or theological stance, we are all faced with the same question: if there are Gods/aliens/future Scientists analysing and judging our civilization’s behaviour, what would you like them to conclude about us? What would you like them to conclude about you?
A student recently asked me for some advice. First off, that’s a pretty unwise thing to do, I haven’t got much of a clue about anything, but I appreciate the flattering assumption I’m a fully-fledged grown up!
The student is locked in an ongoing internet debate with people who just won’t listen to reason. It’s not a debate about opinion or personal taste either eg "what’s the best superhero film?" (although really there’s no debate there, the correct answer is Spiderman-2). This is a debate about the nature of reality.
Things like: “Do vaccines cause autism?” “Is climate change happening?” “Is the Earth flat?” “Do ghosts exist?” are all in the Scientist’s sphere of influence because they are all answerable questions.
So the student asked me how to have a Scientific debate with someone who doesn’t know how to think Scientifically? An even trickier question would be to do it when the person thinks they can. It’s a bit of a minefield because everybody automatically assumes their view is correct. Scientists try to be doubtful of their preconceptions, but they’re only human and everybody is guilty of stubbornness.
It occurred to me that the skill of debating is something you’re never really taught. Unless you join a debating society, having a debate/argument/row is something you either figure out for yourself or pick up from watching others. As a teacher, I never do a lesson on the rules of Scientific disagreement. So, I thought, I’ll jolly-well give it a go! Here are ten simple-sounding (although difficult to implement) rules for finding out who’s right and who’s wrong.
1. Take your time
In the heat of the moment you always feel the pressure to be as quick-witted as possible. There’s a gut-feeling that if you don’t come back with a snappy response within seconds you’re going to look foolish. The effect is compounded when there are people present because you’re suddenly on display. But you must resist the urge to be fast.
People take a long time to change their minds, so you aren’t going to convince someone in the space of 30 minutes a belief they’ve held for years is wrong. If you really want to make progress it’s going to take time. A good debate shouldn’t look like a tennis match with arguments bouncing back and forth at lightning speed, it should be a chess match with long pauses in between each move.
The longest debate I ever engaged in took something like nine years. The debate in question was the mothership of all debates: is there a God? It began at University when I met someone who disagreed with my own convictions and we just went for it. We would sometimes debate in person but we both agreed we didn’t feel comfortable doing so, because conversations happen fast and this was something to be cautious with. We kept it entirely in writing and here’s the key thing: eventually, one of us changed their mind. So remember, there’s no pressure to be a quick thinker. The important thing is to be a deep thinker.
2. I’m open to your idea, just not convinced yet
Make it clear the reason you don’t agree with them is that the evidence isn’t good enough. But also make it clear that if they present good evidence, you’ll listen. This makes them feel less attacked and therefore more willing to listen to what you have to say. It also puts the emphasis on evidence rather than personal feelings, intuitions, guesses and upbringing. You’re not debating the person, you’re debating their claim.
It’s also wise to establish this early on, because it reminds you to keep your own humility. After all, it’s possible you might be the one who’s mistaken. I haven’t called this blog “how to win a Scientific debate” because maybe you’re supposed to lose it.
Furthermore, by showing you’re open to correction it gives your opponent motivation to continue talking to you. If you go in insisting they’re wrong, they’re less likely to take you or the discussion seriously.
3. Certainty vs Confidence
If the person you’re debating claims something, ask if they are 100% certain or 99% confident. If their answer is "100% certain", I’m afraid the debate is over. As difficult as this is to accept, you have to walk away, explaining your reason.
If your opponent is 100% convinced of something that means “there is 0% chance I’m willing to consider the possibility I'm wrong". You cannot debate a person like that. You don’t need to be rude about it but they don’t actually want to debate, they just want to think of themselves as correct.
Besides, with rule 2 you were willing to listen to them, you have to make sure they’re willing to listen to you. By reminding them at the start they’ve got to be prepared to admit fault, you increase the chances they might actually do so. It's also fine to ask the person: why do you believe it? Find out what convinced them in the first place and what reason, other than gut feeling or preference, actually made them confident? Just a warning; this can become a battleground because nobody likes to admit when they don’t have a good reason for something.
4. Agree who shoulders “The burden of proof”
If a person is claiming the existence of werewolves, the way the debate has to run is: they give evidence for werewolves. They are claiming the fact so it’s up to them to provide proof. You don’t have to prove the non-existence of werewolves. After all, it’s not feasible to scour every square inch of the Universe and find out if there’s a werewolf somewhere, that’s not how evidence can work sensibly. Instead you have to assume “no werewolves...until proven otherwise”. If you’re the one claiming something however, the burden of proof is on you.
Sometimes the burden of proof is on both people simultaneously because there are two facts being debated. For example, if a person claims werewolves are brown and you're claiming they're black, there are two things which need to be addressed separately. You have go through all their evidence first, then go through all of yours, or agree to take turns.
5. What would it take to convince you?
This is an extension of rules 2 and 3. In Science any claim can be accepted, no matter how ridiculous, provided there's good evidence. This means you have to agree on what exactly needs to be shown in order to prove a claim.
If the burden of proof lies with them, let them know what evidence would force you to agree. This puts an emphasis on them providing evidence rather than just insisting they’re correct. If they are unable to provide good evidence, they have to accept your position is legitimate and that their evidence isn’t as strong as they thought.
If the burden of proof is on you, ask them what it would take for them to become convinced. If they can’t think of anything, once again you need to walk away from the debate because it can’t happen. If they can’t give you a target to hit, there is no point shooting for one.
It’s up to both debaters to agree on what counts as good evidence, but remember Sagan’s law: extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.
If a person claims something modest e.g. that a certain politician has committed a crime, it would be unfair to ask them for 50,000 photographs of it happening. It’s setting an unfeasibly high bar. But asking them for a dozen police statements, photographs, newspaper articles etc. might be fair game.
If you are claiming something vast yourself e.g. evolution by natural selection, it’s fine for them to ask for a mountain of evidence to support it. Or suppose they’re claiming they can talk to the dead. Simply saying “I can just feel them in the room” isn’t good enough evidence. Ask them to find out the name and former address of the deceased person they claim to talk to, as well as specific details like the colour of wallpaper in their living room. What their income was. Then go check!
6. Pin things down to specifics
If you’re going to be debating something about the world, you have to agree on precise vocabulary. Vague and ambiguous claims cannot be proven or disproven. If a person claims “there’s an energy vibration around every person which we can tap and lock onto with our souls,” that’s a problematic sentence...not because it’s untrue necessarily but because people could interpret it in different ways.
Find out precisely what they mean by “energy”, “tap”, “lock onto” and “soul”. We are debating reality here, which means poetic language and metaphor are to be avoided whenever possible. That doesn’t mean reality can’t be poetic and beautiful, but if we’re trying to find objective truth, we have to use objective language.
If they modify their statement to “a living person has a region of space around their body extending by 1 meter, generated by cell tissue and I can detect it,” that’s something we can work with. You can now start asking specific questions to pin down exactly what they mean: does broccoli have this region around it as well, or only human cells? How can you detect it? How does living tissue generate it, which part of the cell is involved? Does it interact with the electromagnetic field? What happens when a cell dies? Does a cell in a petri dish have the same field?
This can often be the point where people get defensive and Scientists are accused of being limited or narrow in their worldview. Remind the person that you’re willing to believe, you just want to be sure what you’re actually signing up to believe in! It's not you being closed-minded, they are the one who hasn't made a direct claim yet. Essentially they've said "there's a blarple for every chocolate spadongus". OK fine, can you please tell me what you mean by that, before I consider whether I agree?
If they refuse to give specific definitions at this point you have to walk away. This is a sign they don't really know what they mean themselves, so there's no chance of them convincing you.
Oh and if they say things like “well that’s now how I define the word” remind them that words have to be agreed upon. Otherwise I could say “Unicorns exist” but then explain that by Unicorns I’m actually referring to “those white flakes which fall from the sky when it’s cold”. Language is malleable yes, but you can’t just repurpose words and expect everybody to agree with your definition.
You also need to ask for specific examples of evidence they claim to have. If a person says “they’ve done studies which have shown...” that’s fine, but ask them which studies. Who wrote them? When? Were they peer reviewed? Have they been cited a lot? Have they been reproduced? How big was their data sample? How good were their testing methods? Just because someone published a study claiming something, doesn’t prove the claim is true. Ask for sources and citations, get them to give dates and locations.
7. Keep it testable
This is one of the most crucial points. If you’re making a claim about the actual world, that means you have to be able to put it to actual test within the world. Any claim which is untestable has to be discarded as “might be true but no way of knowing.”
If a person claims, for instance, that there’s a Universe next to ours but we can’t see it, hear it, feel it, smell it, touch it, or detect its presence with any instrument, “I just know it’s there” this is not a testable claim. It might be true, but we cannot ever know.
Now to be absolutely clear, this doesn’t mean their claim is wrong. It also doesn't mean human feelings aren't important or worth listening to. But if a person believes something because of a feeling and nothing else, you have to walk away again. This isn't a debate that can be settled using reason, because it isn't based on reason. The person has said "I believe because I just do!"
You can of course try and point out that feeling something is true doesn't make it so. If a person believes they are Napoleon, this does not make them Napoleon. Ultimately, any claim based on faith (by definition: believing without evidence) has to be removed from the discussion.
8. Debate one thing at a time
This seems obvious but as human beings we tend to think in complicated ways and things become spaghetti with little effort. A simple e-mail from your opponent might contain five different statements. You have to agree to debate each one individually and resolve it before you move onto the next one. Don’t be tempted to start debating all five things in one go, deal with one fire before the next. This also forces them to slow down and examine each claim in scrutinising detail, rather than making sweeping statements.
9. Know your logical fallacies
There are lots of sneaky tricks people use in debates, often without realising it. These fallacies are one of the reasons arguments descend into brawls and slanging matches. There are dozens out there and I can’t possibly list them all, but here are some of the common ones to watch out for. Straw Man Fallacy – If someone makes a claim which is untrue and then proceeds to destroy it, they are building a straw man and tearing it down as an easy opponent. For example, if I said “all Christians believe God is male, but he can’t be because males don’t give birth to life, therefore all Christians are wrong” I’ve just used a straw-man. The fact is, not all Christians believe God is male, so my following destruction of the claim is irrelevant because the initial premise was false.
The Genetic Fallacy – When a person claims a piece of evidence can’t be good because the person who discovered it was a bad person or vice versa. For instance, Harry Harlow conducted awful experiments on rhesus monkeys and gathered a lot of information about them. Just because he was a monster and his experiments were cruel, doesn’t make their conclusions false. It can work in reverse too. A nice, friendly, beautiful person can still be talking garbage.
Ad Hominem Fallacy – When you attack the person rather than their claim. For example, if someone makes a spelling error and you pick up on that rather than what they actually said. You’re debating their ability to spell and trying to make them look stupid. It’s a cheap and easy point to score, but are you trying to win minor skirmishes or the entire battle?
No True Scotsman Fallacy – Also known as “moving the goalposts.” Bradley Dowden used the example of a man claiming that no Scotsman puts sugar in his porridge. If he then comes across a Scotsman who does, he responds by saying “well, no true Scotsman puts sugar in his porridge”. This kind of thing is common when a person is presented with powerful rebutting evidence. Rather than accept it, they change the definition of their words and decide they never really meant that in the first place.
Red Herrings – If you’re debating whether vaccines cause autism and they suddenly claim vaccines also cause cancer, ignore it. The agreed topic of debate is the vaccines-autism link, anything else is a distraction.
10. Disrespect the belief, but respect the person
This is perhaps the most overlooked rule for engaging in a debate. Nobody likes admitting when they’re wrong (even Scientists) and people will fight tooth and nail, digging stilleto’d heels into the ground to avoid doing so. A simple rule for life is that the more you get in someone’s face, the less they actually listen to you.
When we, or our cherished beliefs, are under attack we man the battle stations and adrenaline floods our system. Adrenaline is very good at making us fighty, argumentative, loud or rude but it doesn’t help us with critical thinking or humility.
Even if the person you’re debating is clearly wrong. Even if the person you’re debating is an idiot who needs to be tuned in about how things really work. Even if the person’s belief is potentially harmful...they won’t listen to you or to reason if they feel threatened. It’s a trap of human nature but you have to work with it.
Be nice to people, disagree with what they say, but remember they probably like believing what they believe. Don’t get in people’s faces, get in people’s minds. This is life and none of us make it out alive. And, once again to quote the master of Scientific debate, Carl Sagan: “if a human disagrees with you, let him live. In a hundred billion galaxies you will not find another.”
I recently had a conversation with an art teacher in which he said there was no such thing as a bad production of A Midsummer Night's Dream. He argued that the story is just so good it doesn't matter who is directing or how it's performed, you always come away having enjoyed yourself. I'm inclined to agree. I've seen many versions of AMND over the years and I've always come away thinking "that was decent". You'd have to really work hard to make AMND poorly.
Hidden Figures, released in the UK this weekend, is very much the same. The story is so inspiring and heartwarming, it would't matter who made it. As it happens, the film really is great in its own right, but even if it hadn't been I'd probably still encourage you to see it, just because it's a story worth seeing.
If you've not come across the premise, Hidden Figures tells the true story of a group of black women working at NASA during the early sixties, mainly focusing on the real-life Katherine Goble (played by Taraji P Henson). This was a time when segregation was still a part of everyday life and women were actively discouraged from careers in STEM. These women were isolated in a way almost nobody else was. Discriminated against by white women because they were black, discriminated against by black men because they were women, and treated as essentially worthless by everyone else. You begin to realise how difficult it must have been to be a black woman in the 1960s (something I have very little experience of).
Nevertheless, Goble's mathematical brilliance led to her becoming a key figure in calculating John Glenn's flight trajectories as well as implementing mathematical techniques still used by NASA today. It's a story of triumph in the face of adversity, defying gender stereotypes, overcoming racial prejudice and...it has spaceships! What's not to like?
Taraji P Henson is superb as Goble (as you’d expect), Octavia Spencer shines with her usual underplayed comic timing as the computer programmer Dorothy Vaughn and they are surrounded by an excellent supporting cast including Kevin Costner and Jim Parsons. It’s nicely written too, with the characters' personal lives playing as minor subplots to the work at NASA. It’s hard to make a gripping film in which astrophysical equations are a central part of the story but Hidden Figures does so admirably.
It has to be said the film does Hollywood-ise occasionally and dramatises some of the events. There’s also a couple of scenes where Jim Parson’s character explains Newton’s first law of motion to NASA engineers (if you don't know Newton's laws, why are you working at NASA??). However, I think moments like this are not only acceptible in a movie like this, they are necessary.
When we go to the movies we are usually expecting to be entertained. The only problem is that real life doesn't fit into a neat three-act structure lasting two hours with a Hans Zimmer soundtrack. Real life doesn't have witty dialogue and it's often messy - even boring. As a result, I think most audiences recognise that a "true-story" on film is going to take a few liberties with reality, not because it wants to lie, but because stories are ordered; real life is not.
So while Hidden Figures manipulates the timelines a bit and creates events which never happened, the message of the movie is clear in every frame. There was rampant racism and sexism in America throughout the 1960s, NASA did make an effort to try and overcome it, but it wasn't an easy transition, particularly for the brave women who stuck by their intellectual guns throughout.
So yes, the film isn't spot-on in terms of accuracy but if that's what you're expecting you're missing the point. It's not a documentary, it's a movie. The point is that if you watch this film you're going to be moved. It’s a film set in the world of rocket Science but there’s more here than just differential equations and hyperbolic geometry, it’s a human story and I'm always in favour of humanising Scientists, particularly those who are under-represented and undervalued.
For me, the most powerful bit in the movie is something Kevin Costner's character (a mixture of two real people: Al Harrison and Rob Gilruth) says: "we all get to the peak together or we don't get there at all!" It's one of the key phrases in the trailers and it summarises the drive of the film perfectly. There is an irony in what he's saying of course because the film's story is kicked off by the successful launch of a Russian spy satellite i.e. NASA's activity is spurred by rivalry, making his statement inclusive, in a divisive political environment. The reality is that NASA's funding may have come from national pride, but NASA's heart has always been in the right place, doing amazing things for the benefit of humanity.
The message here, the one I chose to take away, is that while referring to the inclusion of black women in the space program, his words can be taken in a much broader context: when we set up barriers or walls between groups of people we don't make progress. We miss out on things. We are better when we're united. I think that's a pretty important message for the world to hear right now. Go see Hidden Figures!
I want to tell you about a debate I had last week. One that I lost.
As part of the new year 10 Physics course we have to teach the topic of gears. What do I know about gears exactly? Well, until last week I didn't even realise they came in different sizes. I don’t even know how to ride a bike. Technically I learned when I was eight but I’ve tried to do it since and failed every time. I know this is supposed to be impossible – to forget how to ride a bike - but I’m a special case of spatial incompetence. The old adage “it’s just like riding a bike” is one I only understand in theory.
But I digress.
In preparation for teaching this new topic I was trying to learn about gears, how they operated, what the different types were etc. and I came across a fiendish online puzzle showing a series of intersecting gear wheels and screws. The question was whether it would turn or not. I was pretty confident it would, one of the other teachers in the room was confident it wouldn’t. And thus the debate began. Here's the puzzle:
The movie adaptation of this thrilling battle of minds will be hitting cinema screens in 2018 with Kevin Spacey playing me and Daniel Day-Lewis playing the other teacher. Michael Bay is interested in directing.
Sure, a debate about interlocking gears is probably not the most exciting blog I’ve ever written, but these debates always seem thrilling when you’re in the middle of them don't they?
I was confident the system would work and he was confident it wouldn’t. They key thing is that we were both Scientists so only one thing mattered: what does the evidence say?
When two Scientists disagree it’s not about opinion or who is the “authority”. For example, he was a Biology teacher and this was definitely a Physics question. I could have been a jackass about it and assumed I was correct "because I'm the Physics teacher", but that would be a rookie error. There is no such thing as authority in Science – only evidence.
I’ve talked before about Hugh Longuett-Higgins; the 19 year old who solved the structure of diborane as a homework task. I love that story because it reminds me that Science is willing to accept an idea from anyone, even an unheard of teenager, if their hypothesis matches the evidence. Science isn't interested in prestige and it certainly carries no weight in a debate.
Even referring to a disagreement in Science as a “debate” isn’t appropriate. A debate implies two opposing sides trying to convince each other they've got it wrong and in Science we try avoid this kind of thing. The term for a Scientific disagreement is a “dialectic” - where two sides try and find the truth together, both accepting the possibility they could be wrong. I find it yields results far more often.
So we began discussing the problem and fairly early on I said something along the lines of “I acknowledge what you’re saying but I’m not convinced by it.” The other teacher responded by saying “well, let’s see if the evidence will convince you.” In the movie this exchange will be delivered during a gun-battle in space.
And this is the crucial thing: any Scientific conflict can be resolved by testing a claim and seeing where the evidence lies. Rather than saying “I just think you’re wrong” or “shut up and get out of my face”, Scientists know it’s unwise to reject someone’s hypothesis because we don’t like it. Instead, we test their claim and see if it holds up.
To get the solution, we began discussing the problem, sketching it from different angles and seeing what would happen. At one point he even created a makeshift model out of kitchen-paper and board-pen to help me visualise the rotations involved (seriously, this movie’s going to be a hit). I have to be honest, by this point everyone else had left the room – but we’re both geeks so we can’t let these things go.
Eventually, he began quantifying his argument using a few simple bits of math and the light began to dawn in my head. My interpretation was completely wrong because I was failing to visualise some pretty basic gear-laws. It took about twenty minutes for him to get me there but once I realised my mistake it took about five seconds for the Eureka moment to occur. And he was completely right. The above gear system will not work.
I didn’t feel bad once I realised how wrong I was however and he didn’t gloat, because in Science we understand (or at least try to) that whoever is right or wrong is largely irrelevant. All that matters is finding the truth.
And here’s the moral of the story...by realising I was wrong I learned something about gear relationships. Also, you probably don't want me fixing your car. Ultimately, I'm glad I got it wrong because I would have carried on blissfully incorrect otherwise. What I’m saying is that in Science you never really “lose”, you just learn.
That sounds like I’m trying to protect my ego and avoid admitting failure but I’m really not, I’ll be as blunt as possible: I got it totally wrong and failed to solve a problem in my own subject! I’m fine admitting that. But in making my mistake, I learned something I had overlooked and that can only be a good thing.
As Scientists we have a duty to follow evidence wherever it leads, even if that means admitting we backed the wrong horse. This can be difficult. We’re human and we like to think we’re clever. Indeed, I’m guilty of being stubborn and digging my heels in, but being a Scientist means trying to hold yourself to a higher standard. Admitting when you’re wrong is just a form of self-improvement.
To finish, here’s a wonderful story told by Richard Dawkins in chapter 2 of Unweaving the Rainbow:
One of the formative experiences of my undergraduate years occurred when a visiting lecturer from America presented evidence that conclusively disproved the pet theory of a deeply respected elder statesman of our zoology department, the theory that we had all been brought up on. At the end of the lecture, the old man rose, strode to the front of the hall, shook the American warmly by the hand and declared in ringing emotional tones ‘My dear fellow, I wish to thank you. I have been wrong these fifteen years.’
If that isn't a description of Scientific integrity I don't know what is. Now I'm going to go and learn how to ride a bike.
The puzzle: cgtrader
Epic battle: acharif
10 is a magic number...apparently
The number of Science books I've treasured over the years - books which have genuinely changed my life - is pretty large. There's a part of me which wants to bang on about each one of them, but I know everybody would fall asleep. Unfortunately, we humans have become acclimatised to "top 10" lists (thanks a lot Buzzfeed) so I decided it was necessary to play ball with human psychology and stick with 10 titles only. This means narrowing down many year's worth of reading material to a mere handful. This proved difficult.
Every time I settled on a list, I felt I was cheating the books which didn't make it. Besides, what happens if I bump into the author of one of the rejected books at a dinner party and they immediately grill me on why their book didn't make it (they follow my blog obviously). After the verbal attack, they throw a carefully prepared mixture of wine and sulfuric acid in my face before killing my houseplants and stealing my shoes. What do I do then?? In order to cover myself, I decided to impose some strict rules.
1. No text books.
Contrary to popular belief most Scientists don't sit around reading textbooks. We usually read the chapters we're interested in and treat the rest as a reference. Having said that, there are a few textbooks I have a fondness for (don't pretend you're shocked, I teach Science for a living, I'm 100% geek and proud).
Engineering Mathematics by K.A. Stroud is the best Maths textbook in the world. Biophysical Chemistry by Alan Cooper and An Introduction to Quantum Theory by P.A. Cox are also fantastic reads which you can get through in a week.
I also need to mention my very first Science book, loaned to me by my Chemistry teacher at the tender age of 14: Valency and Molecular Structure by Cartmell and Fowles (I'm pictured reading it in the above picture...obviously not at the tender age of 14).
2. No biographies
A good Scientist biography manages to teach some Science as it goes, but these aren't really Pop-Sci books. They’re just books about remarkable people. In this category I recommend Surely You're Joking Mr. Feynman by Ralph Leighton. Genius by Paul Gleick and A Primate's Memoir by Robert Sapolsky.
3. No Tech-Pop Books
These books are a hybrid of academic textbook and layman's guide. Written for non-experts who are still mathematically and Scientifically confident, they are essentially "Popular Science with the equations left in". If you're up for the challenge I recommend The Theoretical Minimum Series by Leonard Susskind, Six Not-So Easy Pieces, Tips on Physics, The Lectures on Physics Volumes I,II & III (all by Richard Feynman) and, if you've got the time and will-power, The Road to Reality by Roger Penrose.
4. No books by the same author
Obviously the best Science authors write many books. I decided to aim for a broad spectrum of topics and styles, so I had to avoid including the same author twice unless absolutely necessary (as you will see, it did turn out to be necessary)
So, with my rules laid out, here are my top 10 picks for best popular Science books that will make you a better person.
10. What If? by Randall Munroe
In What If? the cartoonist and engineer Randall Munroe considers ludicrous questions and answers them with real Scientific principles, teaching the reader as he goes. It's one of the cleverest strategies I've ever seen. For example: how high should you drop a steak through the atmosphere in order to cook it from air-resistance? Rather than dismissing it, Munroe goes to great lengths explaining the physics of falling, the chemical composition of meat, how cooking works and so on, until you've found the Science more intriguing than the ludicrous starting point. Munroe's sardonic and hilarious approach makes mechanics seem cool and trendy, which is not always easy to do.
9. The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins
Say what you like about Dawkins' fiery brand of atheism, as a Science writer he is unparalleled. The Selfish Gene is not, as the title suggests, a book about selfishness being genetic. It's about the nature of genes themselves and how quirky, unexpected behaviours arise as a result of Biological information. Why did humans evolve a capacity for kindness? Why do we take revenge? Why do some species choose aggression and some choose peace? In this powerhouse guide to evolution, Dawkins highlights what modern neo-Darwinism really says and why it's so powerful. Be warned though, it's not a casual Sunday-afternoon read. Dawkins is a fiercely intelligent man and he expects the reader to work hard. But the rewards are numerous.
8. Bad Science by Ben Goldacre
We live in a frightening age, where pseudoscience is often disguised as the real thing. Ben Goldacre swoops to the rescue in this antidote to media-manipulated Science stories and takes a look at the very nature of Popular Science itself. He examines homeopathy, spiritual healing, the MMR-vaccines hoax and nutriotinism, scrutinising everything with brilliant skepticism. But it's not a snarky book designed to attack people for believing dumb stuff. On the contrary, Goldacre considers "the person on the street" to be intelligent, sensible and capable of drawing informed conclusions (as do I). It's the Science-media charlatans who are the real villains here and Goldacre exposes them with aplomb and humour.
7. The Blank Slate by Stephen Pinker
One of the most important questions in Science and Philosophy is: how much of our behaviour is the result of upbringing and how much is the result of Biology? The infamous "nature vs nurture" debate. Most people, after grappling with the issue, decide it's too complex to settle, or that it's a 50:50 mixture and let's be done with it. Pinker, on the other hand, fearlessly tackles the issue with hard evidence and genuine neuroscience, providing honest, if sometimes shocking (even disturbing) answers. Rather than getting swayed by political opinion or armchair philosophy, Pinker writes an unflinching book which provides one of the best answers to the question I've ever read.
6. The Tell-Tale Brain by V.S. Ramachandran
Ramachandran's book is about a similar issue to Pinker’s (why humans are like this) but while The Blank Slate is a sharp and imposing read, The Tell-Tale Brain is a feel-good romp of surrealism and wit. Make no mistake, Ramachandran is a serious physician who makes significant contributions to neuroscience, but as a writer he is irreverent, mischevious and cheeky. The Tell-Tale Brain is a look at some of the weirder things the brain does and how these phenomena give us clues to the big questions about human consciousness. This is one of those jaw-dropping books which has you constantly going "that can't be true!" as Ramachandran details some of the strangest fringe-cases of brain activity in modern history.
5. The Black Hole War by Leonard Susskind
Leonard Susskind is one of the most intelligent people on the planet (that's not hyperbole, I mean that literally and can back it up). Having worked as Richard Feynman's accomplice, it's rather fitting that he inherited Feynman's skill for teaching difficult Physics concepts without the need for complex mathematics. What Susskind does in The Black Hole War - a very recent read - is to explain the complete landscape of modern theoretical physics including Quantum Field Theory, General Relativity, Black Hole Cosmology, String Theory, The Information Paradox, Quantum Thermodynamics and all the other cool things you’ve heard about. Susskind is somehow able to explain these fiendish concepts in such casual detail you feel he's telling you how to make a cheese sandwich. As someone who spends his life trying to teach people Science, The Black Hole War had me slapping my forehead endlessly and thinking "why didn't I just explain it like that?!"
4. Words of Science by Isaac Asimov
Throughout his career, Asimov wrote and edited over 500 books. Picking the best of his numerous works is tricky, but I decided to go with this one, mostly because it's so strange. Asimov described it as the most unusual book he'd written and I struggle to think of anything even remotely like it. The idea is simple enough. He goes through hundreds of Scientific words and explains where they come from. Put like that, the book sounds plain, even boring. But don't be fooled. Asimov's unique clarity and passion for storytelling makes the book whizz by and when you get to the end you're hoping for a sequel (which he did write). For someone just beginning their Scientific journey, the lingo can be tricky to grasp, so Words of Science is a fantastic jargon-buster which explains what Scientists are actually talking about.
3. Cosmos by Carl Sagan
Written to accompany what is, in my estimation, the greatest non-fiction television show of all time, Carl Sagan takes us on a tour of the Universe and gives the reader a view of what Science is all about. It also happens to be the most poetic non-fiction book ever written. Sagan's writing is so relaxing, majestic and powerful, you begin to see the Universe through his eyes and it is truly beautiful. Guiding you through everything from relativity to DNA to the brain, Sagan achieves something remarkable: rather than telling you a bunch of facts, Cosmos makes the story of how we made each discovery central. While Asimov’s Words of Science is a fantastic introduction to the language of Science, Cosmos is a fantastic introduction to its achievements.
2. QED by Richard Feynman
Feynman's nickname at CalTech was "the great explainer" because not only was his Physics unparalleled, so was his teaching. In 1979 he was given a rather tough challenge: deliver four lectures, pitched at complete non-experts, on the topic of quantum electrodynamics. Would it be possible to explain one of the most complicated and strange theories in theoretical physics to people who had never attended freshman physics? If anyone was up to the task it was Feynman.
Not only did he succeed, Q.E.D. has become one of the standard introductory books on quantum mechanical theory even by expert standards. It is a triumph of explanation because both the layman and the expert can read it and find themselves gaining new insight and understanding. Feynman never dumbs down, never simplifies, and never distorts, he just explains perfectly. Whether you're a professional or a beginner, Q.E.D. will open your mind to the wierd wonders of the world.
1. The Demon-Haunted World by Carl Sagan
I can only state it simply: The Demon Haunted World is the best book about Science I've ever read.
I love science, let me tell you why.