Life of Pi by Yann Martell is a superb book. It’s well written (far better than anything I could do), never boring and full of interesting characters. It’s a thoughtful book; at times funny, at times heart-breaking. It manages to be a profound and moving piece of literature while also being easy to read. Everything a good novel should be in other words.
It’s also worth mentioning that the film adaptation by Ang Lee is equally well crafted. Considering most of the story takes place on a single boat, the film manages to remain visually interesting immersing you in a half-real, half-fantasy world. I would recommend both book and film to anyone who asks.
But Life of Pi is dangerous. I believe Yann Martell’s wonderful book perpetuates a dangerous myth. One of the most popular and persistent in the world.
Now, I’m aware that many people, when they find a book’s ideology threatening will ban or burn it. I think that's a terrible idea. When I eventually run the world I will not burn Life of Pi or indeed any other book I find offensive (looking in your direction The Slap). Instead, I'll make my case for why I think it should be treated with the utmost caution. People can still read the book, but I will obviously force everyone in the world to read this blog beforehand, on pain of death.
The following contains *major spoilers* so if you haven’t read the book or seen the film, I recommend you do so now. You will most likely enjoy it. Curse you Yann Martel.
The story is as follows: a ship is sunk in the Pacific ocean and after several months the only survivor, a teenage boy named Pi, washes ashore in South America. Two insurance men and a writer come to talk to him about what happened and he tells them two different stories.
One story is a heart-breaking tale in which he and a few other people (including his mother) try to survive in a life-boat but hunger, aggression and greed lead to fighting and eventually murder of the other passengers.
In the alternative story, Pi is trapped on the life-boat with a Bengal tiger. The two castaways discover a mysterious island complete with acid-lakes and they battle storms, drought and learn mutual respect for each other as they survive.
The book concludes with Pi explaining that both stories are possibly true and there is no way of distinguishing them. One of the stories is more fantastical, more entertaining and more gripping, whle the other is bleak, flat and depressing. With no way of deciding between them, Pi asks the people interviewing him (and we the reader) which is the better story. The answer is obviously the one with the tiger.
And this becomes the story everyone in the book decides to go with. The message is clear: if you have no way of deciding something one way or the other, go with whatever you like best.
The Great Unknown
The current accelerated expansion of the Universe is not understood. We’ve nicknamed whatever’s causing it dark energy as a place-holder until we get a better understanding, but don't let the name fool you. Dark energy is a mystery.
In order to make sense of dark energy we need to modify Einstein’s theory of general relativity, but we have no clue how to do that. So when someone asks us what is happening to the Universe we really ought to say “I don’t know the answer” because that is honest.
Now, suppose someone were to put forward the hypothesis that the Universe is inside a giant balloon and there’s an enormous fish-wizard called Greta exhaling into it. This is an explanation. It’s also a pretty awesome explanation. It’s definitely a better story than "we need to check the equations"....so do we accept the cosmic fish wizard? Obviously not. Ignorance is not a bad answer.
There isn’t a hypothesis-vacuum which must be filled with whatever explanation we can find. When we accept a fact we should do so based on convincing evidence. The more remarkable the claim, the more convincing that evidence has to be.
But where’s the harm I hear you say? Why can’t people just be allowed to believe whatever they want to? I agree, much of the time it makes no real difference. If a person wants to believe their flowers grow better if they put mustard on them where's the problem? It harms nobody. But let’s say that same person decides you can use mustard in place of a headache cure, or antibiotics, or cancer-treatment. Or what if they applied this approach to their pet or even their children? People have believed stranger things.
I agree that believing whatever you want doesn’t always lead to harm but it does have the potential to do so. Yes, people are entitled to believe what they want but don’t people want to believe what’s true? Wouldn't the world be a better place if we tried to do that? In fact, sometimes ignorance is even good.
Three Times Ignorance is good
1) I’ve written before about Conspiracy theories. We aren’t privy to what goes on inside a government meeting for example so there are two stories about what’s going on behind the closed doors of London and Washington: (1) they’re plotting to mind-control us…(2) they’re not.
The first story is more dramatic, more exciting, more edgy and makes us feel courageous for exposing the truth. But it could lead us to be mistrustful of a government, affecting the way we vote. It could make us paranoid, draw us to fringe groups, even violence in the name of what we think is truth.
Some conspiracy hypotheses might be correct (just like the tiger story) but why assume they’re true when there’s just as much evidence for as against i.e. none whatsoever? Wouldn’t it be better to say “I don’t know if we can trust the current government, let’s try to find evidence?”
2) Suppose a court has to decide a murder trial. There will be a defendant and an accompanying story in which they are guilty, as well as one in which they are innocent. If we decide to go with the innocence story we are saying we don’t know who the killer is. Clearly we should be prepared to do that, rather than go with the convenient or dramatic story that the person is guilty. They might be of course, but if the evidence isn’t strong enough we shouldn’t convict on the grounds of not wanting to admit ignorance.
3) Imagine a person believed a unicorn spirit monster was telling them to commit an act of mass murder. There is no way to confirm or disconfirm this hypothesis. They really might be getting secret messages telling them to kill but they might also be deluding themselves.
If it’s fine to “believe what you want” then obviously there’s a reasonable chance the person will believe the unicorn story. It makes them feel special (the chosen one) it makes them feel there are forces at work we have no control over (removes responsibility and blame) tells us there is hope for an afterlife (spirits exist, therefore afterlives might also) etc. etc. Holding off on the killing is to admit ignorance but the unicorn story is more appealing than "we just don't know." Do we really want this person going with the story they like best?
The Coin Debate
Imagine you were in a debate with a friend about something harmless, say you were deciding what movie to go and see. You flip a coin but it brexits your hand and ends up beneath the sofa. If your friend said “well, we don’t know which way it landed, so let’s assume it landed heads”, you’d obviously say it wasn’t fair.
The answer to which way the coin landed is unknown. You don’t just go with whatever version you or the other person likes best. You replay the point. You flip the coin again or you move the sofa etc. You admit you can’t decide what the original answer was ans do you flip again.
The really weird thing is, we can all imagine arguing with the friend. How dare they just pick the version of reality they like? Utter nonsense. And yet, how often do we see people doing this with far more important issues? People choose to believe all sorts of un-provable things including potentially harmful ones by appealing to “well it's my opinion”.
If we wouldn’t accept it in the coin-toss example, why should we accept it when it comes to far more important things like beliefs about politics, beliefs about God, beliefs about medicine, beliefs about love, beliefs about parenting etc. etc.
Defending a position because “you can choose what you want to believe” is a very dangerous thing to say because it allows people to defend whatever horrifying thing they like - or excuse potentially harmful actions - by saying “that’s my opinion”. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: yes you’re entitled to your opinion, but you can’t have opinions about reality.
Scientists – destroyers of fun
There’s another problem with “picking the story you like best”. If you pick an answer to a question, you stop saying “I don’t know” which means you stop looking for an answer. The enquiry ceases and no progress is made. If we’re honest and admit we don’t know the truth, we are reminded to keep investigating. Picking an explanation before the facts are known is intellectually lazy and stunts discovery.
Imagine if Fleming or Pasteur had looked at diseases in the world and said “I don’t know what the cause is, so I’m going to go with the story I like best: demons cause disease!” they’d stop looking and we’d have no modern medicine.
The Scientific position is to say we don’t know what the truth is until there’s evidence. The story of the tiger might be more fun, more magical but that isn’t a good reason to believe it. And, in fact, if we apply Occam’s razor it’s often more reliable to go with the less extravagant claim. The more down-to-Earth one. But people don’t like doing this and I know why. People resent Science for "taking away the magic".
Get lost Potter
When we’re young we believe all sorts of fun stories about the world. We believe myths, urban legends and rumours of the playground. A scientific education nails these things to the wall and flames them without mercy. We replace superstition with theory. We replace hearsay with research and we replace un-checkable claims with an admission of ignorance. Yes. Scientists do take away the magic. But we replace it with magic that's real.
I’ve genuinely had people criticise me on this point because, in their own words, “why can’t we just believe in things like Santa Claus?” Well, you can believe in Santa if you want, I can’t stop you. But in doing so you’re missing out on something even better: a fully-fledged, complex, intricate and reliable view of the Universe. Why is Science doing something bad by encouraging people to see reality rather than made-up stuff?
Anyone who thinks nature is boring hasn't studied it. You think reality is boring? There's a planet in our solar system which rains diamonds. Some of the particles in your body can teleport. Chimpanzees have invented machine technology. You can hypnotise people into not feeling the pain of surgery. You have a neuron in your brain which responds specifically to the face of Jennifer Aniston. Your legs are experiencing time at a different rate to your head. We have conducted rudimentary thought transplants. You can set fire to water. Bumble bees vote by performing dance-battles. Don't tell me nature isn't interesting.
Nature is not boring and neither are people. Both are worth learning about.
And while we're at it, let's take the Santa Claus example. Technically, when we are asleep we don’t know what happened. The grounded explanation is that our parents gave us presents, the magical one is that Santa did it. But really, is the grounded explanation disappointing?
Isn’t it nice to learn that our parents love us and go to the trouble of surprising us at Christmas? OK, we have to let go of Santa Claus but don’t we gain something profound about the real world by exchanging the magical belief for the more likely one? Isn’t there a beauty in reality that we miss if we believe fairy tales?
Likewise, in Life of Pi, the more plausible story (murder and desperation at sea) tells us something about human nature. It doesn’t have the fantastical tiger or the magic-island but isn’t human nature worth learning about?
I’m not saying Life of Pi is going to turn people into crazed conspiracists who believe in fish-wizards and murder-unicorns. But I do think it’s a novel which perpetuates a potentially harmful ideology which can, in the long run, lead to unhealthy thinking. The idea that ignorance is to be avoided and that we can pick which version of truth we like.
So, that’s my case. Life of Pi is a wonderful book but it’s indicative of a certain way of thinking which says our personal preferences and opinions have baring over reality. They don’t. But the real world has magic in it. You don’t have to give it up when you become a Scientist. And guess what, we're not trying to ruin anybody's cherished beliefs. We're trying to give the world something even better. The truth.
Life of Pi cover: Canongate books
The Slap: Ben Veal
Fish wizard: Gameteep
The Euro: Wordpress
Easter Bunny: Funchap
Zombies are one of those iconic monsters everyone knows the rules for. With a vampire you stake them through the heart (although let's be frank, wouldn't that kill most things?). With a werewolf it's silver bullets through the heart (again...wouldn't that work for anything?). And then for a zombie it's all about removing the head or destroying the brain (seriously, why are these even rules?)
Zombies - reanimated human corpses who shamble along seeking victims - come from Haitain folklore. In the original stories, zombies are usually brought back to life by witch-doctors and they perform their master's bidding.
The modern idea of a zombie as a flesh-eating corpse came much later, almost entirely from George A. Romero and his iconic series of films: Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, Day of the Dead, Land of the Dead, Diary of the Dead and Survival of the Dead.
These films introduced what we now think of as a zombie and the idea of a zombie apocalypse where modern society has crumbled and the remaining humans live in secluded shelters while the world belongs to the walking dead.
Today zombies show up everywhere from The Simpsons to Harry Potter and at the moment the abc TV series The Walking Dead gives us a flavour of how humans would survive in the deep south of America. In fact, the US Department of Health even commissioned a report on how the CDC might help prevent a zombie apocalypse. Think I'm joking? Check this link: CDC Zombie initiative. There, who's joking now.
What would happen in an apocalypse?
Let's say something really did go wrong with our infrastructure and people all abandoned their posts to go home and be with loved ones/loot the local shops (NB: timjamesScience does not endorse looting of local shops). Well, the first thing to go would be electricity. While there are some hydroelectric power stations and wind-farms, the majority of our electricity is provided either by nuclear or fossil-fuel stations.
They both work in the same way: generate an unholy amount of heat (either by bringing radioactive material close together or by burning mountains of fossil-fuel) and use it to boil water. That produces steam which is used to turn a turbine hooked up to a generator, giving us that delicious 50 Hz Alternating Current (NB: the electrical current output of a power station is not actually delicious and will kill you, timjamesScience does not endorse the licking of power lines).
Both types of power station have a lot of things that can go wrong so here's the thing: they're actually designed to shut down as quickly as possible if nobody's manning the controls. Power stations generally get an "emergency shutdown alarm" every hour. Something being too hot, too pressured, too fast etc. will trigger these alarms and everything powers off unless the crew are there to keep it alive.
In fact, a lot of people at a Power Station are employed to stop it from deactivating because it's designed to as a safety measure. So, if all the power station workers are running home to escape the zombie horde, the power stations will go dark very quickly.
Your phone signal will go shortly after. The phone itself is battery operated, but the base-stations where your calls and texts are recieved are run by mains electricity. They usually have backup generators so if you're very lucky yours might remain active for a couple of days after the blackout, but that's being very optimistic. There are no phone networks I know of that have a zombie contingency plan. Not even EE.
After the power stations go, the next thing you'll probably lose will be water. Although the water flow in your taps and boilers will last a couple of days, most water has to be pumped. Thing is, we tend to live above water level (it would be pretty stupid to do the opposite). So most water has to be mechanically raised from the water table to get it to people's homes...and those pumps are electrically powered. So if the power stations go, so does the water supply. Followed swiftly by your gas supply (for the same reasons, gas will flow but the pumps to control it are electrical).
So electricity goes, followed by phone and internet signals, and then finally your water, gas and heating. Unless you live in Scandanavia where most of the power is generated from renewable sources. Those guys have thought of everything.
Your best bet for communicating with other people (and negotiating your entry into Sweden, offering Kevin Bacon as payment) is either going to be a HAM radio (battery powered radio transmitter/recievers) which don't rely on base stations) or a satellite phone which communicates with - you guessed it - satellites. We're going to assume here that the zombies haven't made it into space. Although that would make a pretty awesome movie.
Could zombies really happen?
From a biological perspective we have to remember that the idea of a zombie is a person who dies then comes back to life as a reanimated corpse. I'm going to discount the "zoombies" or "turbo-zombies" from movies like 28 Days Later or World War Z because in those movies, the people weren't necessarily dying and coming back, they were being infected with some kind of virus. I'm talking about actual, shambling around, walking-dead, human-eating groany type zombies...could they happen? Oh and none of your wussy "zombies with feelings" nonsense.
The answer to whether the walking dead could happen is, reassuringly, no. And here's the reason. For something to be moving their muscles have to be working. For muscles to work they need to be carrying out respiration. Respiration is the chemical reaction that takes place in all your cells where oxygen is reacted with glucose. This means the zombies need a fresh supply of oxygen to carry out respiration which means they need a working heart and a working set of lungs. And if you've died, these things don't reanimate because they decompose very, very quickly. When you see zombies in movies they are always decaying as they walk. Which means their lungs and heart won't be working for much longer.
Furthermore, if the zombies didn't get hold of glucose (the other necessary chemical) they'd die out in a few weeks anyway. So your best bet for surviving the zombie apocalypse really is to bunker down somewhere and wait for the zombies to starve. If there's nothing for them to eat, they don't respirate, no movement, no walking corpses. Done.
I know you hear urban legends and stories about people medically dying and coming back, but they are just that - stories. There are no recorded instances in medical history of a person actually medically dying (as in, the cells in their spinal column cease respiration) and then reanimating. Sometimes doctors can make mistakes and comatose patients are declared dead, but this was the doctor making a mistake. Once you're braindead, that's it. You don't come back from it. You start decaying immediately and there is no known way of reanimating the brain, heart and lungs in order to generate a walking-dead thing. It just doesn't happen. People don't come back from the dead.
Although, if you want to read about something really interesting, check out Cotard's delusion; a rare mental condition in which the patient believes they have died and that their body is decaying. Maybe that's where the zombie myth originally came from?? But who would dare suggest there are Scientific explanations for superstitious beliefs? Not me.
Rick Grimes with gun: hiddenremote
Kevin Bacon: examiner
Ham radio: Photosopphed by the user "RagnarokDel" at linustechtips
Warm Bodies: vignette4
Axl Rose: thegauntlet
OK, so my last blog post about cancer may have gotten a little serious. Sorry about that. To make up for it, here's a genuine picture of Abraham Lincoln fighting a polar bear with chainsaws for arms...
Now here’s a question. Which Power Ranger was the most racist? Trick question, the answer is all of them!
Some questions might be a little easier to answer on the other hand, such as: which flavour of crisp is the best (Salt and Vinegar), does anybody like gherkins (no) and who would win in a fight between Optimus Prime and Atticus Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird? Trick question again, they would unite forces.
Even that debate about whether Jaffa Cakes are technically a biscuit or a cake has a legitimate answer. A cake is something which hardens over time while a biscuit gets softer, making Jaffa Cakes, legally speaking, a cake. How do I know that? My old Physics teacher used to work as an accountant for the legal firm which helped McVities win a court case about biscuit terminology.
That’s true. No seriously, that’s true. I know I've lost your faith after posting that Lincoln-bear picture, but this is honestly true. Look up the VAT Mcvities Tribunal of 1991. My Physics teacher's name was Mr. Harrington and he taught me Physics from years 10-13. We used to call him Haribo. (By the way, sir, if you're reading this...sorry for that)
But which Science is the best one?
At school we study Biology, Chemistry and Physics. Umbrella terms for enormous bodies of knowledge. Biology is the study of anything that lives (Biology literally means “the words of life”), Chemistry is the study of substances and observable change, while Physics is the study of…well, sort of everything else.
Unfortunately, Physics in school is a bits ‘n’ pieces subject with lots of unrelated things slapped together under the same heading. Space, electricity, particles, forces and motion, heat and a whole bunch of other stuff get thrown together without coherency. It’s a dog’s dinner made of bits which are fascinating in their own right but don’t quite gel. Kind of like a Coen brothers movie.
Splitting knowledge into these factions is a risky game because it's often so broad as to be meaningless. Even Biology, which has a definite circumference (living stuff) can be broken into a buffet of sub-topics. Physiology, Zoology, Ethology, Anatomy, Medicine, Cell Biology, Immunology, Molecular Biology, Neurology, Neuroscience and so on.
Plus, what do we do with Biochemistry - the study of how chemicals interact with living systems? Or what about molecular astronomy - the study of chemicals found in space? And what about subjects like Geology or Climate Science? They don’t fit into neat brackets at all!
Grouping things into Biology, Chemistry and Physics is like trying to categorise Shakespeare’s plays into comedy, tragedy and history (which people still do for some reason). It’s an unnecessary and foolish endeavour. You’ll have to twist and bend your definitions to fit the group labels and the overall result will be a nonsensical mess. Kind of like a Coen Brothers movie.
Richard “Friendly Man” Dawkins, has argued in favour of something called Heirarchical Reductionism in Science; the idea that Biology is applied Chemistry and Chemistry is applied Physics etc. Other Scientists like Philip Anderson have argued in the other direction. If you were to take a computer program and plug in all the laws of Physics it wouldn’t necessarily generate the Biological complexity of a frog for instance. You can't just say Chemistry is a form of Physics and Biology is a form of Chemistry.
You could easily create a Universe which had all the same physical laws but which had no life at all. Or possibly life, but not human life. Or maybe human life, but not the Kardashian sisters, and really that’s what Science is all about. Trying to create a Universe where the Kardashians aren’t permitted to exist.
You want to know about a group of sisters who really did something to change the world? You want the Sisters of the Sun (also called the Harvard Computers), they were the women who catalogued, categorised and explained how the Universe evolves. These women practically invented the field of astrophysics.
There’s a rivalry among Scientists sometimes. It’s often in good humour but occasionally it’s not. Robert Sapolsky (a Stanford Biologist) has noted that many Biological and Social Scientists seem to suffer from what he calls “Physics envy” i.e. Physics is full of equations and strange sounding terminology, so some Biologists stick unnecessary complications and mathematics into their work to make it feel “more Sciencey”.
I think there is a perception some people have that Physics is somehow “purer” or “more intellectual” than other Sciences. It is true that you can reduce Chemistry to Physics, but I don’t think this makes Chemistry somehow less cool or prestigious. I mean if you really boil things down, the most fundamental field of study is Quantum Mechanics. Are you going to tell me that studying space, or the human brain, or chimpanzees is somehow not interesting?
Yes, Physics is about discovering the deepest, most fundamental ways nature behaves but how do you test any Physics theory? With Chemistry! If Physics predicts that particles should arrange themselves into a particular shape, the best way to test it would be to actually look at how the chemical behaves in a lab aka Chemistry. Chemistry is the validation Physics desperately needs.
And then, once we know how simple chemicals behave we can predict how complex chemical systems might behave, and we have a word for testing that too: Biochemistry. And so on and so on.
Me personally? I like to try, as best I can, to follow in the footsteps of Doc Brown who says, in Back to the Future III: “I consider myself a student of all Sciences”. To him, Science was just studying the world and, really, every part of the world is interesting if you go into enough detail.
Physics is the most fundamental Science. Chemistry is the one we have the most influence over. Biology is the most relevant. Astronomy is the most profound. Earth science is the most vital to survival. And so on. Every Science has its claim to importance and none of them matter more than any of the others.
At University my Master’s research was in Biophysical Chemistry. The strange land where all three disciplines of Science overlap. If you’re interested, what I was doing was using something called computational quantum mechanics (particle and theoretical physics), mixed with a bit of statistical thermodynamics (normal physics) to model the interactions between ionic liquids (chemistry) and plant-matter (biology).
This was the culmination of a decade’s Scientific education, although granted I was always on the back foot learning the Biology stuff. I became passionate about Chemistry and Physics as a teenager and only came to love Biology late in life. That’s one of the reasons I wouldn’t teach Biology at A-level. I just don’t know anywhere near enough about it.
Apart from the structure of wood – seriously, I know a freakish amount about that.
Some of my students have asked which subject I prefer teaching, Chemistry or Physics and I don’t have an answer. It’s like asking which of my eyes is my favourite. I like having both of them in my life. They both help me see the world.
But also, the right one.
I don’t have a personal favourite part of Science, although if I’m completely honest I think there’s a nostalgic part of me which is still in love with quantum mechanics. It’s the subject which got me into Science when I was 14 and I’ll probably always have a special place for it in my amygdala.
I think deciding on the best Science is infeasible, not just because they overlap but because they’re all interesting and we need each of them. If we’re going to survive this gauntlet called “living in the natural world” we need to know as much about that world as possible.
So which is the best Science? I’m afraid that too was a trick question. The answer is all of them.
Lincoln vs Bear: deviantart
The Man who Wasn't There: unsung films
The Man who STILL Wasn't There: blogspot
Doc Brown: Wikia
Sisters of the Sun: Wikipedia
The World of Fear
Imagine a world where people considered death a taboo subject. In this make-believe reality people would avoid the topic because it’s too unpleasant or depressing. Children would be told that everybody dies, but nobody discusses it in detail. It’s rude to ask about, rude to comment on and certainly not OK to make jokes about. It’s a sombre, dark, unpleasant subject and we’ll keep it that way, thank you very much!
Children growing up in such a world would learn to fear death because all the adults are afraid to talk about it. They try to dress it up with polite phrases like “she’s passed on” and “he’s no longer with us.” The young learn that death is something even grown-ups don’t want to talk about head-on.
A world where death is an unfit topic of conversation would thus breed more people who are afraid to talk about it. They’d talk about “people going to sleep” and disguise the truth. They’d do it out of love, to protect their children from a cold reality. But in doing so, they'd pass the horror on.
A world like that would be one where people are never taught to deal with loss. Where people bury and suppress the fear of death until it stares them in the face and it’s too late. Who would want to live in a world like that?
When I was young I made an assumption. The majority of people died of “old age”. That was the right and natural way of things. It was fair. Dying of some condition or illness was less common and a tragedy. I don’t remember how old I was when I realised there is no such thing as “dying of old age” and that it’s a myth. I think sometime in my early teens? Is that a late age to find out? Sometimes I wonder if everyone else realises the same thing. We sure don't act like it.
Do some people still carry this belief, deep down? Do people feel, in secret, that you’re supposed to die of “old age” or “natural causes” and that anything else is unfair?
The reality is that you die because some part of your body stops working. It just sounds more peaceful to say “she passed away from natural causes” than to state the actual truth “she died because of multiple organ failure”. Nobody dies of old age. They die because being old puts you at more risk.
What I’m going to write about is perceived as a “sensitive subject” because death makes people respond emotionally. We get angry, sad, look for blame and feel anguish. But please remember that I am writing as a human being who has feelings just as colourful as yours. I feel emotions the same way you do and I write with good intentions.
If you can find it in yourself to trust me, to assume I’m honestly trying to give people a glimmer of hope, then read on. But if you are convinced of your point of view and nothing can ever change your mind, let me stop you. There's no point reading something if you've already decided to disagree with it. So feel free to close the window and go elsewhere. But do remember “100% convinced I’m right” is the same as “0% willing to accept I might be wrong”.
Cold, Emotionless Scientist
These last few weeks have been emotional for me, saying goodbye to many beloved classes and, as it happens, attending the funeral of someone I knew.
People have sometimes accused me of being emotionless and I think I know why. I’m sincerely concerned with finding out the truth about the world. I try to ignore my personal preference and what I want to be true. But make no mistake, I feel emotion. I know what it’s like to fall in love, to be rejected, to be jealous, to care about something, to care about someone, to feel terrified, to laugh so hard I can barely breathe and (an emotion very few experience) the deep, contended joy which comes from knowing you are in the right place in your life, doing the right thing.
But when it comes to figuring out the world, I know my emotions get the better of me. It’s the curse of being human that we are desperate for answers but our brains are easily deceived. We’re gullible, we hear what we want to, we go with our gut instincts and so on.
We want to know why things happen but we are so easily angered, envied and enthralled that we forget the plain and simple truth: reality is not a personal choice and believing something isn’t a matter of opinion; you don’t get to object to facts by saying “I disagree”. You have to accept facts, even though it's sometimes horrible.
Some subjects are so charged, so deeply troubling that we find it difficult to view them objectively. Our emotions take over and we go with safe ground, sticking to what we’ve already decided is true. Religion, for instance. Love, politics, children and right at the top of the list; death itself.
Today I want to talk about cancer. The problem is, even the word “cancer” sounds ugly. You probably hear it as some foul, shadowy disease and it makes you angry. You probably know someone who has, or had the condition and your blood boils to contemplate it. Such thinking will eat away at your mind. The anger and resentment you feel about cancer is a cancer itself. One which is just as difficult to treat.
The Human Condition
I’ll state it bluntly. 50% of people will get cancer (check the cancer research UK website for more information). We act as though cancer is rare but it isn’t at all. Smokers are more at risk and there’s a genetic factor but otherwise there is no pattern.
Even hearing the above number sounds wrong though. Half of all people? One in every two?
Not only that, but of the people who do get cancer, 50% will die from it. In other words, cancer causes roughly a quarter of all UK deaths. Not “old age”, cancer.
Heart attacks run on my father’s side (grandfather and great-grandfather) while cancer runs on my mother’s side (grandmother and mother both had it). So the chances are I will probably die of one of these two things. Believe me, I’d rather not die of either, but I’d rather not die at all. I like being alive. It’s wonderful.
Now just think about those numbers for a moment. Cancer is a condition which half the population get. Imagine, just imagine, trying to pin down a cause for something that common. How could you hope to find a clear pattern?
Cancer can affect everyone and anyone. Men, women, smokers, non-smokers, meat-eaters, vegetarians, straight, gay, conservatives, liberals and everything in between. There is no pattern to who gets it. I’ll say that again in bold because it’s crucial to my point:
Cancer is so common there is no obvious pattern to what causes it…how could there be?
Yeah, but my grandma smoked 60 a day and lived to 102
We’ve all heard a story like that. People will proudly announce that they know someone who smoked loads and never got cancer. And it’s completely true. Some people are able to smoke constantly and never suffer any adverse health.
Also, consider Don Gorske, the man who eats nothing but McDonald’s Big Mac meals - three of them every day. And guess what, he’s in good health and not fat. Point is there are no guaranteed cause and effects in Biology.
Smoking does not cause cancer. It’s just a higher percentage of people who smoke that get it. Take 100 smokers and let’s say 80% of them get cancer. That means 20% of your test subject are doing just fine thank you, probably thinking to themselves “see, told you smoking don’t cause cancer!”
STUDY SHOWS HEALTH SCARE CAUSES CANCER!!!
When you read reports in the media about cancer research it’s always dumbed down, but I think people are clever enough to handle the truth. What most studies say is “X might increase your risk of getting cancer,” which you should definitely take note of, but don’t assume it’s a done deal.
For instance, I once spilled a nasty chemical all over my hand during first-year labs. It had a warning on it “strong risk of cancer”. Eight years later and no cancer in my hand. But here’s the thing, if you took 100 people and made them all soak their left hand in cancer-chemicals, several of them probably would develop it. And that’s the key. To understand what causes cancer we have to think statistically, we can’t just talk about the one person we know who smoked and never got ill.
And it works the other way round. If we drink a lot of tap water for instance and then get cancer, we could easily say “look, tap water causes cancer!!!”
We can even go online and find good-sounding research from people who are doctors confirming it. Think I’m joking? I found this website (http://inspiyr.com/top-5-cancer-causes/) where a guy who is a doctor genuinely claims tap water causes cancer. Tap water.
Sounds exciting right? This guy is a lone warrior, the last man standing for truth against the conspiracy of big pharma! He’s fighting business corporations! He’s the underdog! We know the truth about tap water! From now on we only drink bottled milk. Oh wait: (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/foodanddrink/healthyeating/10868428/Give-up-dairy-products-to-beat-cancer.html) Apparently milk causes cancer too.
Try something right now. Pick some household food, medicine, item, anything you like, type it into google and follow it with the words “causes cancer”. I just tried it with
Owning a dog
Wearing a bra
Every single one of them has research claiming they cause cancer. Try it, seriously, see what you get. You’ll probably discover most things in your house have someone out there claiming they cause cancer. And of course they do, it’s easy to run a cancer-cause experiment.
Let’s say I suspect scented candles caused cancer. All I have to do is collect a hundred people and ask them if they own scented candles. Let’s say 30 of them do. Well, let’s say 15 of them get cancer (the statistical likelihood). I could then genuinely say “1 in 2 people who own scented candles will get cancer!”
The problem is that cancer is so incredibly common it’s very, very, very easy to point to anything and say “that was the cause”. If you live in a house with at least one other person, the chances are one of you will get cancer at some point. The very fact of being a human means you’re running the risk of getting cancer.
Cancer makes people angry, and when they’re angry they stop thinking clearly. I know it’s tempting to find a blame for cancer. It’s human and natural to get angry because we can’t get angry at the cancer itself. But I promise you, directing your anger toward someone or some chemical is putting it in the wrong place and a waste of your emotions.
If you think GMO crops, food additives, pesticides, deep-fried chicken or whatever are the main cause of cancer then I have a sobering fact for you. The earliest recorded case of cancer comes from 1,600 BC (look up the Edwin Smith papyrus) before any of those things existed.
Cancer has always been around. It’s not a new condition. It’s always been something people have died of and finding some corporation or chemical to blame will not take it away or cure the disease. Funding cancer research on the other hand, just might.
Take your anger and do something with it. Don’t just sit there getting angry at someone whose fault it probably isn’t. Don’t live your life in anger. Accept the much more honest, fact-based truth that cancer just happens. It sucks. But it’s true.
The Story of Joan
Something which nobody understands is a phenomenon called spontaneous remission. Very occasionally people will, for no apparent reason, start getting better from cancer at random. It’s rare but it does happen. Spontaneous, self-curing cancer. Now here’s the story of Joan.
Joan had cancer. She saw her doctor and he couldn’t do anything. She saw a trained oncologist, tried chemo, went for radiotherapy and nothing happened. Medical Science couldn’t help and she was terrified. After exhausting all the usual medical practises, she got desperate and decided to try an alternative therapy.
Her friend told her that chanting a certain word every morning at sunrise while sprinkling water on her wrists was an ancient, mystical cure for all known disease. Joan was desperate so, against her better judgement, she tried it. She tried the water-sprinkle method, feeling silly as she chanted the words every morning at dawn.
But then something happened. Her cancer went away.
She was cured. The doctors couldn’t explain it. There was no apparent reason. The “Scientists” with all their arrogance and confidence and cold clinical trials had done nothing. But her friend’s mystical method had saved her life. She had found a cure for cancer. If only people in the media would listen and trust her. It worked! She was living proof. How else could you explain the fact that she had cancer, doctors had failed, and now as if by magic, it was gone?
Then Joan’s friend, Jill, gets the dreaded news. She has cancer too (half of all people get it). But Joan has this sorted. Joan meets up with Jill and tells her not to see her doctor, to ignore the medical treatment offered. To not bother with seeing a medical professional, forget chemo, radiotherapy and don't ask doctors for help. They want you to get sicker so medicine companies can make more money. She’s got this mystical treatment you see and it will definitely work. Jill is in good hands. Jill is completely safe...
I said earlier you have a 50% chance of getting cancer, which sounds terrifying. If you’ve got a heads/tails chance, how can you avoid it?
Well, I think the answer is a lot more optimistic than people realise. Instead of thinking “50% chance of getting cancer, that means I can’t do anything to prevent it”, think of it like this: “I can’t do anything to prevent it, I might as well enjoy the life I have been given”.
Do you like chocolate cake but you’re afraid to eat it because it might cause cancer? Well, actually it probably makes no difference, so why not have a slice? Do you force yourself to miss out on all sorts of medicines, foods etc. because you’re worried it’ll cause cancer? Well, it probably doesn’t, and you’re missing out on things which could make you happy.
If you spend your time worrying about the fact that you’ll die, you’ll never really live.
The truth is you will die. And there is nothing you can do to change that. You want to live as long as you can of course, but the way to do it is simple. You already know it. Exercise regularly, eat a balanced diet, don’t smoke, take drugs or drink much alcohol, keep yourself hydrated and stress-free.
That’s as much as we know, anything else is a guess. But isn’t that kind of liberating to know? That basically, you don’t have to live in fear, at least no more than you would anyway.
There's another truth, which for me provides an antidote to the knowledge that death is certain. It is the truth that we humans are amazing creatures with the capacity for greatness. We have invented anti-viral medication, antibiotics, sterilisation techniques, painkillers, cancer-drugs, beta-blockers and we’re just getting started. The human freight-train of research, intelligence and scientific enquiry will not slow down. I mean come on, we rid the world of plague. The plague, which killed 50 million people…and we beat it!
Since the invention of modern biochemistry and medical research we’ve cured smallpox, leprosy, cholera, syphilis and we’re only warming up. I mean we’re even talking about curing conditions like HIV and depression. How amazing are we?
In just under a hundred years we’ve invented radiotherapy, chemotherapy, surgical techniques and more. Yes, they’re not perfect and people will always get some form of cancer (it’s what cells do I’m afraid) but as our knowledge of Biology and Chemsitry increases so do our treatments. People are surviving because we’re clever enough to think our way out of this problem.
The answer is not to get angry at your potato chips, pesticides and cornflakes. The answer is to study it. The answer to cancer is Science.
Do not be frightened
You will die. I will die. What matters is what we chose to do with our lives while we have them. Make the world a better place, teach people, learn things, make others happy, laugh, love, strive to end suffering, and be kind. If you are religious, live your life for God. If you are an atheist, live your life for the joy of the Universe.
Perhaps there will be an afterlife, perhaps there will not. What we know for definite is that we have a life right now and it matters. Don’t waste it on anger. Don’t fill your heart with venom and blame. Fill it with hope. You have everything to live for. You are part of the human race.
The oldest human civilization, Sumeria, had explanations for how the world worked. The wind blew because the God Enlil commanded it. His reasons were his own and it was not for humans to fathom. This type of thinking wasn’t rare in the ancient world. Things happened because a mystical being made it so and that's all there was to it. Don't ask questions, just shut up and eat your rocks (or whatever they ate back then, I'm not a historian).
Nowadays this style of thinking seems alien to us. We’ve grown up in a world where Science is common and we’re encouraged to look for cause and effect rather than “a spirit did it, stop asking”. The wind blows because of temperature changes in the air. These changes are caused by sunlight, which is caused by nuclear fusion and so on. We can link events together through causal chains and rarely have to say “don’t ask” unless we're dealing with something which simply cannot be explained.
Now, to be absolutely clear, once we get to the beginning of the Universe all bets are off and “the God Marduk did it” might be the best explanation. But within the Universe itself we make the assumption that things are obeying cause-effect relationships which are always true. These relationships (the laws of nature) are unchanging and can’t be altered by the actions of either us or some spirit.
This is an amazing idea. We, as a species, no longer have to accept the world as it is; rather we have the capacity to understand what’s going on. Not only this, we can make predictions about what will happen in the world and even influence it, creating new things based on what we’ve learned.
I was discussing the idea for this blog with my students one of them pointed something out which is extremely important: "Humans have always tried to explain things, so hasn’t Science always been around?”
He’s right. It’s human nature to ask why things happen and yes, we've always been gathering knowledge about the world. The only difference is that for tens of thousands of years we made no progress because most of the explanations were the same "a spirit did it". In the last few centuries however, we’ve started to get things right. Science as a body of knowledge has always been around, but Science as a way of thinking is a recent invention.
Historians will disagree on who played the most important part in inventing the Scientific method but here, for what it’s worth, are my three picks.
1) Thales of Miletus
Thales (pronounced Thay-leez) lived in Miletus between 620 and 546 BC. None of his books have survived and we only know his story from people who came much later. He has sometimes been called the father of Science and there’s a good reason for this, he was the first person (we know of) to do two very important things.
Thales suggested that everything in the world was made from water. It sounds silly but his reasoning was pretty sound. He noticed that everything changes over time, people age and die, weather patterns cycle and mountains are gradually eroded. Thales argued that everything was in a constant state of change and the only thing he knew which had so many forms was water.
Liquid water can be colourless, blue, green, grey, it can be turbulent and frothy, it can be still, it can fall as rain, hang in the sky as mist and cling to the ground as dew. Water can be boiled into steam, frozen into snow, ice, hail etc. so Thales reasoned that every type of matter was just a different form of water. Of course we soon learned that wasn't true and that's the important bit.
Thales' explanation was wrong, and that's the absolute point. He was the first person in history to put forward a falsifiable hypothesis: a claim you could actually test. Any claim about the world involving an invisible spirit is immediately impossible to check. It might be correct but you can’t know with confidence. Thales’ water idea however, is something you can go out and investigate. He explained a natural phenomenon in terms of other natural phenomena.
I think it's quite a sobering realisation that the first Scientific hypothesis turned out to be incorrect. Thales invented the idea of being wrong about the world, which is crucial. Before him the world was anybody's guess and nobody could ever be proven wrong. But if you can never be proven wrong, you can never be proven right.
The other important contribution of Thales was to make the first Scientific prediction and this time he was bang on. Lots of mystics and priests made predictions in those days - all of them generic or hardly surprising. Thales however, predicted the 585 BC solar eclipse to an exact date, precision no mystic had ever achieved (or has ever been able to match).
He couldn’t explain why it was right but he showed that natural phenomena could be predicted which meant they were following laws, not the whims of Gods. The eclipse is going to happen whether you sacrifice an animal to Azazel or not. This changed everything because it showed that nature is not some un-knowable force we have to accept, it follows rules and we can learn them.
About a hundred years after Thales, Socrates kicked off what has now become Western Philosophy, or at least, he might have done. We don’t know much about Socrates because he never wrote any books. He was a talker and debater, so everything he said survives in written accounts, mostly from his favourite student (and possibly lover) Plato. Nobody’s sure how much of Plato’s books are faithful transcriptions of Socrates, or just Plato writing his own views into Socrates’ mouth. It’s largely accepted that the truth is probably somewhere in between: Plato was writing fictionalised and adapted accounts of other people's ideas.
Because Plato always spoke through Socrates and Socrates’ knowledge was passed on through Plato, the two people end up blurring into one historical figure…Platocrates!!!...who invented the concept of reasoning chains i.e. if A causes B and B causes C, we can say that A is causing C.
Unfortunately, Platocrates was in some ways a terrible human being who endorsed slavery, brain-washing and treating women as objects, so a lot of people want to distance themselves from him. Furthermore, Platrocrates tended to sneer at Science, considering it inferior to philosophy, politics and metaphysics, but what he did introduce to human thinking was so important we couldn’t have achieved Science without it.
Platocrates came up with the notion that if you want to find out the truth, you have to admit your own ignorance and start asking questions. Most of Plato’s books begin with someone making a claim i.e. “Democracy is a good idea” and Socrates questioning all their assumptions until he had shown the flaws in what the person had said. Socrates was probably a bit of a pain to be honest.
But this idea of investigating a claim with zero assumptions, asking questions and following the answers gave us a framework for Scientific thinking. Discovering truth should be a constantly updating cycle where anything can be attacked and every assumption must be defended. It’s not easy, but it does yield results.
Socrates applied this technique (now called the Socratic method) to philosophical questions only, but if he had applied it to claims about the natural world he would have invented Science almost single-handedly. As it happened, he never did. That took another 1300 years.
3) Abu Ali al-Ḥasan ibn al-Ḥasan ibn al-Haytham
I’m about to condense a huge amount of complex political and religious history into one sentence that ignores a lot subtleties and nuances, but here goes: as the Holy Roman Empire took hold of Western Europe, Scientific thinking was quashed and had to be preserved in the Arabic world. There you go. Take that well researched and argued history!
The controversial ideas of Socrates and Thales should have caused a revolution but they didn’t go over well with the Catholic church and instead we had the Dark Ages.
Many works of great philosophers were destroyed (even though much of the New Testament is based on the philosophy of Plato) and libraries were burned to the ground. The main reason they survived, the main reason we’ve even heard of people like Socrates, Plato etc. is because the Arabic world was far more tolerant of ideas.
In places like 10th Century Baghdad, Muslim, Jewish and Christian scholars could meet in peace and discuss ideas openly. Sure, it wasn’t perfect and idea-suppression still happened (it wasn’t a utopia) but it was a far more open-minded culture than the West had at the time.
Al-Hasan lived in Egypt under the Fatimid Caliphate and, while studying the great thinkers of the classical world, he invented a key ingredient which made Science what it is today: collecting evidence.
Before al-Hasan, all reasoning was done a priori: You start with your question, discuss it, analyse it and come up with an answer without leaving the room. It was assumed that humans were special in some way and that “pure thinking” gave the best results. Actually going outside and checking was seen to be dirtying the idea.
The problem is that if you start by assuming “my way of thinking is good” you end up in a circle, because that very idea is assumed to be right. You never think to question the a priori method, so you don’t even realise how dangerous a path you’re on.
Al-Hasan realised that our senses could be deceived and human thinking wasn’t perfect. If you really wanted to find out what the world was like you had to get out and question it. A hypothesis needs to be checked with physical experiment or data gathering, not just defended with a clever line of reasoning.
It’s a shame so many people seem to miss this fundamental point of understanding the world. They’re stuck in the Socratic method of “if I give a good enough argument, I can prove my idea is correct”. Al-Hasan made an important leap and said that a good argument was never as good as evidence. A hypothesis had to work outside of your personal beliefs. It had to give results that were immune to clever arguments and a priori logic.
Al-Hasan wrote famously “If learning the truth is the scientist’s goal…then he must make himself the enemy of all that he reads”. By this, he meant that to discover the truth you couldn’t just take someone else’s word for it. Even if the book was written by a great thinker like Aristotle or Plato, you had to run experiments and collect your own evidence.
Al-Hasan was also a passionate Muslim who wrote guidelines for distinguishing genuine prophets from false ones. His view was that no book was above question and no prophet above interrogation. You could still come to the conlcusion that prophets and holy books were trustworthy, but only by first checking them.
Today, the Royal Society in London (one of the oldest and most revered Scientific institutions in the world) uses the motto Nullius in Verba which means “Take nobody’s word for it.” The spirit of Al-Hasan lives on.
Johannes Kepler took carefully measured data of the planets’ movements and concluded they were moving in ellipses, not the perfect circles Plato had assumed. Galileo investigated the stars by building a telescope and observing them. He discovered that not everything orbited the Earth and challenged the Roman Catholic interpretation of the book of Joshua (which landed him under house arrest). Charles Darwin, who believed all creatures were formed perfectly, changed his mind when he began investigating the way animals adapted and committed himself to a new and controversial view point. The point is that his beliefs didn’t fit the facts, so he changed his beliefs.
These great Scientists, and many more, have used the ideas of Thales, Socrates and Al-Hasan to discover the world as it actually is. Question your assumptions, make testable claims, use them to make predictions, carry out investigations, ignore your personal beliefs and follow the chain of logic wherever it leads.
The Scientific method is, as far as I’m aware, the best way of discovering truth we have ever invented. To let go of your opinions, desires and accepted wisdom is difficult. To commit yourself to only believing things when there is evidence and data is sometimes uncomfortable, even frightening. But this way of thinking, more than anything else, brought us out of ignorance and keeps us searching for knowledge.
Galileo: Justus Sustermans
Trump supprters: decodedc
There's a problem we have to face in our bid to recruit people to Science, particularly Physics. It's so equation-heavy that many people get put off. Understandably so. If you've never come across equations like the one above, they can seem daunting. This particular equation is a form of Schrodinger's wave-equation which tells us the probability of finding a particle in a certain place at a certain time. So why not just say that? Why do we need all those crazy symbols?
Science is about trying to understand the Universe. And when you start reading technical books you quickly find yourself up to the neck in formulae and mathematical trickery. Is this because nature is somehow mathematical and we humans have to play ball? I don't think so.
If you read some of the great Scientific texts of history, you'll find they're surprisingly light on equations. Even Isaac Newton's Principia Mathematica, the book which introduces calculus, the law of gravitation and the laws of motion, is very, very wordy. He tends to describe everything in serpentine sentences with only the occasional diagram. This is one of the reasons we use math. Mathematical notation is an elegant way of writing something which would take ages to say in ordinary words.
In fact, most mathematical and Physics textbooks pre 18th Century are written entirely in prose with only fleeting illustrations. It was largely Francois Veite (late 16th Century) and Rene Descartes (early 17th...and noted Skrillex fan) who introduced the idea of mathematical symbols and algebraic formula. (Trivia fact: the word algebra comes from the 780 AD maths book Hisah al-Jabr w-al-Muqabalah by the Persian mathematician al-Khwarizmi.)
I've debated with mathematician friends about whether nature is mathematical and at the moment I'm pretty sure it is not. Nature follows behaviours which we can measure and predict with mathematics, but that's all we're doing. Nature doesn't know about the equations we use to describe her. In the same way a mountain isn't aware that humans call it "a mountain". It's just busy being what it is.
Mathematics is a wonderful language we use to keep tabs on the Universe efficiently and cleverly and it is very useful for Science. It's vital to experiments and helps us discover new ideas. But nature's behaviour can often be explained without using equations and a lot of the time it should be.
As a Science teacher that's what I spend a lot of my time doing, particularly in Physics. Imagine if I just rocked into the classroom and wrote a bunch of equations on the board without explaining why they were true. I'd cover the entire A level syllabus in a single lesson but none of my students would understand anything. We have to know what the equations are describing, not just how to punch them into our calculators.
But this still leaves the question: if nature is not mathematical, why is mathematics so useful when dealing with it? I think there are four straightforward answers and one weird fifth one.
1) Mathematics keeps track of things too extreme for our brains. Consider a hydrogen atom (the most common type in the Universe) it’s about 50 billionths of a meter across and your body contains roughly 470 septillion of them. There are less grains of sand on the entire planet than there are hydrogen atoms in your body.
Just think about that. Even the most things you’ve seen in one place (grains of sand on a beach) still falls woefully short of helping you visualise the scale of atoms. But in mathematical notation we just write 5 x 10^-12 meters and 4.7 x 10^27 atoms. The pencil and paper take it without complaining. We don’t have to visualise the numbers in order to write them down.
2) Mathematics keeps track of things with too many leaps for our brains. Take the word unhappy. The “un” part tells you to make the other part negative. Unhappy means the negative version of happy...sad.
If a person says “I’m not unhappy”. We have two negatives to consider: not and un. We can mentally work out what it means: the opposite of anti-happy. In other words, the person is saying they’re happy.
But suppose someone says “It’s not true I ain’t not unhappy.” At this point most people apply a simple mathematical rule without realising. Count the number of negatives and if it’s an even number they cancel. In this sentence there are 4 negatives (not, ain’t, not, un) so the final result is that the person is happy. It becomes much easier to apply a simple rule than flip our heads back and forth. This is where maths is simpler than words.
Or suppose I wanted to describe how far away a car is. Let’s say it is x meters away. At this point it's easier just to say the actual number of meters e.g. 5 meters. But what if the car starts moving? This means x is different at different points in time. Now we have to talk about how x is changing as time passes. Still not too complicated because all we’re talking about is velocity i.e. what position is (x) at different points in time (t).
Now let’s say the car doesn’t move away at a single velocity, let's say it gets faster. What we call acceleration. This is how velocity is changing compared to time. Or to say it in full: acceleration is the rate of change of (how x changes compared to t).
Now let’s say the car’s acceleration is getting less. That doesn’t mean the car is slowing down (it’s still accelerating) but it started off with a big acceleration and then adopts a small acceleration. The rate at which its speed increases is decreasing. This starts to get hard to picture. Now imagine the rate at which the object is getting less accelerated is increasing. I’ve lost track of what the sentence even means by this point.
Our brains are built to take a very basic world involving simple behaviours: staying still, moving, speeding up and slowing down. But nature doesn’t limit herself to such a boring set of operations. We might need to work out “the rate of change of the rate of change of the rate of change of the rate of change of the rate of change of (the rate of change of [the object’s position x compared to time t])”.
The sentence looks silly but nature does this kind of thing every day. We can either do the mental gymnastics to visualise exactly what those words mean or we just write symbols to represent it. These are the symbols we would use in this instance:
Even if you don’t know what those symbols are saying, you can definitely see it’s easier, quicker and neater to write this equation than the bulky sentence I had before. If we use equations like these we can sum up a multi-part idea, do a calculation and generate a useful answer without having to visualise what’s going on at every point. Once again the paper and pencil have done the work for us.
3) Mathematics can be useful shorthand. Let's say we wanted to write Newton's second law in words. It would look something like this:
"If you want to make an object change its behaviour by a certain degree you will need to interact with it. The size of the interaction will determine how much of a change you manage to carry out on the object. You can calculate the size of the interaction by taking the rate at which you make the object's speed or direction change and then apply this to every bit of the object, since every bit of the object will act as one whole. Once you have calculated the magnitude of changing every bit of the object you will have the magnitude of the interaction required."
Or we could just write F = m x a which says the same thing, but neater and quicker. The pencil and paper do the hard work for us.
4) Mathematics lets us keep track of comparisons. Describing nature is all about saying what something is doing compared to, or in terms of, something else. It could be how many of a certain species there are (comparing a creature to a scale of numbers), how a rocket moves through space (comparing position to time) or how much heat a chemical reaction gives out (comparing types of substance to heat) or whatever we want. Science is always describing one thing in relation to something else. And mathematics has a wonderful system for comparing one thing to something else: the equals sign “=”.
Invented by Robert Recorde in 1557 this deceptively simple trick allows us to start solving puzzles with mathematics because it relates one set of ideas to another directly. For instance, take Ohm's law: I = V/R (the amount of electricity flowing through a wire can be expressed as the energy of the electrons, distributed among the vibrations of atoms in the wire). Not only does mathematics allow us to describe things neatly, it lets us describe things in terms of other things.
This also helps us make predictions. If we want this much I and are faced with this much R, we can predict how much V we’re going to need and so on. This means we can do experiments to test hypotheses about what's really happening in the wire.
5) Mathematics lets us keep track of things too weird for our brains. The four examples I've given so far are about making life easier. At the turn of the century however, we found ourselves needing mathematics for something even more peculiar because nature seems to spend most of her time doing things we can’t actually visualise.
Consider electrons. The angular momentum of an electron is a measure of how energetically it's spinning around an axis...even though electrons don't actually rotate about an axis The electron is somehow spinning without actually having anything to spin around. What does this even mean? To say an electron can have a spin trapped inside it when it is not rotating doesn't make sense.
Nothing in our everyday world behaves like that. An object that we stop spinning stays stopped. It doesn't spontaneously start to spin again. But electrons seem to follow a different rule. They have the ability to hold onto some "spinny-ness" even when they're not actually spinning. The hypotheses predict it, the experiments confirm it, but we can't actually imagine what's going on. So we invent mathematical equations (thank Paul Dirac for this) and factor them into our description of nature. It’s a bit like this:
We might start with an experiment (A) and get surprising results (B). We can easily describe how we set the experiment up and what we found, but there’s no common sense way of getting from A to B. We can’t actually visualise what happened since there’s no arrow going directly from cause to effect.
The Universe seems to be doing something un-imaginable, so let’s invent a symbol to represent “the Universe doing something we can’t imagine”: Ø.
We can come up with equations to get us from A to Ø and if we follow these equations through, they take us from Ø to B. Our brains haven’t given us a way of imagining the Ø process, but it matches reality so there’s a good chance the equations are describing something close to what’s happening.
Again, the pencil and paper have no idea we’ve cheated. We just follow the rules of maths and describe an unimaginable universe, which just happens to be our own.
Maths and Me
I don't love mathematics and it isn't my passion. I'm interested in how the world works though, and maths is often the best way to find out. I'm very much of the opinion that if you can't translate an equation into either words or an experimental result, it is meaningless...but that doesn't mean we should stop researching mathematics for the sake of it. There was a time when even negative numbers were considered "abstract theoretical maths" until we found uses for them in the real world.
When I started studying Science I decided to become mathematically literate because it helped with my end-goal, understanding nature. The problem is that learning mathematics takes years and all the necessary practice can seem fruitless. It’s a bit like learning a language. The process of acquiring it can seem repetetive, even frustrating at times. But once we’ve mastered it we can read whole books that would otherwise be hidden to us. We just need to remember that the maths isn't the meaning and the equation isn't the reality.
There have been lots of brilliantly written and well presented Science shows for kids, Magic Schoolbus and Bill Nye the Science Guy being particularly loved among my generation. For what it's worth though, I think the greatest kids Science show was Scooby Doo.
As it says in the quotation at the top of this blog, Science is more than a body of knowledge, it’s a way of thinking. Science isn’t just a bunch of facts we've learned about the world. It’s also the method we use to figure them out. And a lot of people miss that.
It’s no surprise of course because this is the way we often have to teach Science in schools (I’m guilty of it myself). In an effort to cram through the syllabus and get students prepared for exams we often reel off a bunch of facts about the world. Interesting facts for sure, but it’s putting emphasis on the wrong thing.
We don’t tell enough stories about how the facts are arrived at. Science teachers are often in danger of becoming preachers of knowledge rather than trainers of minds. And it's a real shame. I don't pretend to have a solution to this problem (although it's one of the reasons I write this blog) but I'm always grateful when media outlets get the message of Science right.
Most science shows, whether aimed at kids or adults, focus on how interesting the world is. Don’t get me wrong, that’s fantastic, it’s a great way to show people what Science has achieved. There’s just a lack of programs that emphasise the methods of Science and the values it champions.
Skepticism, reasoned argument, falsifiable claims, emphasis on evidence, checking and validating theories, following the evidence trail whether you like it or not, acknowledging human mistakes, understanding occam’s razor, confessing ignorance, ignoring opinion and so on.
The two versions of the TV show Cosmos are, in this writer’s humble opinion, the greatest Science shows ever produced, because they managed to mix the stories of how discoveries were made with the fascinating facts themselves. But they aren’t shows for young kids. The grand delivery of Carl Sagan and the enthusiastic clarity of Niel deGrasse Tyson are inspirations to me as a Science teacher, but they leave younger children bored. Preschool kids want fun adventures, colourful characters and ideally a talking dog.
For my money, the best Scientific show for young-uns was Scooby-Doo. It didn’t really teach much in the way of facts, other than what dogs would sound like if they could talk, but it did teach the method of Science. And it did a good job of it too!
The plot of every Scooby Doo episode is the same. Without fail. Some guy is cleaning out/closing up some public building on his own, late at night. When, rather annoyingly, he sees a ghost/dinosaur/squid-monster creature. He freaks out and calls the Mystery Machine: a team comprised of a mental delinquent, his three carers, and his dog. Who he thinks can talk.
They arrive at the scene and begin investigating. They look into the history of the place, interview people and try to find the ghost, who always reveals itself to the delinquent character, who has to then run away from it, with his dog while shouting "Zoinks!".
Then, the geeky girl of the group gets a suspicion about something but doesn’t reveal it. Instead, she and the handsome young man set a trap for the ghost using the delinquent as bait. The ghost arrives, is caught in a trap designed by said handsome jock, and then all is revealed: it’s not a ghost at all, but a person in some sort of costume, using technology to fool people.
Turns out the person was in desperate need of some money. So the obvious logical business solution was to don a bigfoot costume and growl at strangers (makes you wonder if Donald Trump would try the same business tactic...unless that IS his costume?) The team get in their van and drive on to the next adventure, having foiled the villain who would have gotten away with it too if it hadn't been for these meddling kids and their pesky dog!
Although the plots of Scooby Doo episodes are so methodical you could set a metronome to them, they teach kids several valuable lessons. Think of how many shows are out there teach kids about monsters hiding in the forests, fairies at the bottom of the garden and the power of magic.
Now think how many shows teach kids the message: supernatural phenomena need to be investigated and there’s probably a rational explanation for them. I can't think of a single one other than Scooby Doo.
Scooby Doo’s heroes arrive on a scene and they investigate. They are skeptical of the ghost claims, so they test it, come up with ways of checking, do experiments and always expose the mysticism as charlatanry.
That’s another good message to teach kids. That every time a supernatural or mystical claim has actually been investigated properly, there has always (without exception) turned out to be completely natural and straightforward explanation. There are no documented cases of genuine spookiness in history, ever.
Now I should be clear, there is nothing wrong with stories about magic, wizards, witches, angels, demons, goblins, fairies and monsters under the bed. But, as James Randi points out “Enjoy the fantasy, the thought, the story, but make sure that there’s a clear sharp line drawn on the floor. To do otherwise is to embrace madness.”
There’s nothing wrong with the story of magic. After all, let’s not forget J.K. Rowling managed to make reading popular among kids in an age when the internet and video games compete constantly for their attention by telling stories about wizards and witches. Magical stories are great. I just think it’s good to have grounded stories as well, reminding kids that you can be scared by the idea of ghosts, but that doesn’t make them real.
Scooby Doo was a show about the Scientific method. Although Scooby himself was not actually that necessary. If you removed the fact that they travel around with a talking dog, every episode plays out identically. And the star of the show was not Shaggy (who’s real name was Norville Roberts, fun fact) but Velma. No surprise that the geeky Scientist character would be my favourite.
Velma was what you’d call, in literary theory, the protagonist; the character without whom there would be no story. She was the one who asked the questions, did the research, came up with the hypothesis and tested it. Without Velma the story goes like this: spooky ghosts, people run, everyone is scared. Basically the same as every other fantasy horror.
The character of Velma raises Scooby Doo into another floor entirely. Because of her the show encourages kids to put down the Scooby snacks and question what they’re being told, particularly when it’s something out of the ordinary. It teaches kids that monsters under the bed can be explained away with Science. It teaches kids that investigating and looking for evidence is the route to truth. And so I rest my case, Scooby Doo was the greatest kids show about Science ever and I applaud its very existence.
Except Scrappy Doo. He can burn in hell.
As a teacher you’re always in front of people who are figuring out what they think about the world. You want to teach them, but you don’t want to brainwash them. In all the teacher-training I was given, the advice was therefore not to give away too much about yourself in the classroom.
There’s some sense in that, but I think it can be taken too far. Teenagers are quite capable of disagreeing with someone and are quite capable of hearing opinions from friends, parents, teachers and politicians without being persuaded. Teenagers aren’t fragile or mindless drones we need to shelter and protect from “other people’s views,” they can make their own minds up.
Sometimes teenagers will listen to the wrong advice and draw bad conclusions, but I’ve never seen any reason to think adults are any better. I don't think "making bad choices" is a function of being a teenager, I think it's a function of being a human.
Besides, if we want people to grow up with independent views and the ability to discuss things sensibly, it's important to encourage debate and discussion in the classroom. Sometimes I will express my opinion in front of a class and ask what they think. Sometimes I go off topic and tell stories about something I’ve seen or noticed. Sometimes it will relate to the lesson directly, sometimes it won’t. Often I just have an idea on my mind and want to see what my students think.
Most of my students know bits and pieces about my life story; they know why I became a teacher, what I did my research on, what my favourite band is etc. But there is one issue I deliberately keep quiet. That subject is religion.
I have occasionally discussed my beliefs with one or two students but as a general rule I keep it quiet and try to show that I understand both sides of the argument, even though I myself fall very firmly on one side of it. There aren't many other things I tend to be quite so secretive about...
There are many reasons I tend to keep my religious views discrete, but the most obvious is that I want every student to feel they can learn from me. In an ideal world my religious stance wouldn’t matter. But, in an ideal world, everyone I taught would come to each lesson fresh as a daisy, cheery as a sunbeam and eager to learn. The real world and the real classroom is full of people (something else to remember if you’re training to be a teacher…your students are people, not “learners”).
A person’s religion is often a core part of their identity. People tend to see everything and, therefore, everyone, through the optics of their religious conviction. Much of the time this doesn’t cause a problem but, more than you might expect, people will make assumptions about you based on what your beliefs are.
Religious arguments also have a way of getting sour very quickly. For some reason this issue, more than most others, can stir the blood. Differences in religious opinion really do matter. They matter in government, they matter in day-to-day life, they matter in relationships and they matter in the classroom. Which is why I keep myself out of the debate entirely; not because I have no view on the matter, but because I have a very strong one.
Either side of the fence
Atheists often see religious people as wooly-minded fantasists who can’t face reality. Tragically self-deceiving, the religious person can seem (to an atheist) as someone incapable of crticial thinking, someone who must be brought to reason.
By contrast, religious people often see atheists as arrogant and closed-minded. People who refuse to accept even the possibility there might be more to life than the concrete. They worship Science as a dogma and reject God because they can’t accept not being the head of their own universe.
People on both sides of this argument see the other side as bigoted and unwilling to change. If someone is on the opposite side of the fence to you, it can be difficult to take what they say seriously. This is a problem if your job is getting people to believe what you’re telling them about reality.
As a Science teacher, my job is telling people how things are. If I talk about my religious beliefs, I am potentially sending the message that, as part of my knowledge about the world, I have come to "conclusion X". That would be irresponsible. As I say, I can be persuaded to discuss my beliefs very occasionally if I am convinced it won't affect the teacher/student dynamic but usually I stay quiet about it. Gossip spreads and I don't want to lose whole chunks of classes due to a difference in metaphysical ideology.
So, I am hoping most people aren’t exactly sure what my religious beliefs are. I keep them ambiguous online, discuss it with few members of staff and even fewer students. I would like to keep it that way (for the time being at least) not out of a desire to spread mystery about myself, but because I think it makes things run smoother. Perhaps one day I will weigh in on the discussion, at present I feel I can get more people to learn from me if they don’t see me as belonging to any particular group.
Science and religion are complicated. Whatever your views are, you are entitled to them as you are entitled to challenge other people on theirs. But there is one, crucial, all-important rule when talking about religion.
Don’t. Be. Mean.
For one thing, being mean never actually helps get your point across. If you want someone to see things from your perspective, you need to remember they obviously don’t see the world in your colours (well, freakin, obviously!) making them feel stupid won’t get you anywhere.
I mean, what are you trying to achieve? Are you trying to score points in an argument or are you trying to help them see things from your side? What approach is really going to help that happen, making snide comments or starting off from a position of understanding?
Have you ever noticed that after you’ve had an argument you always feel bad about it? Even if you won the argument you still feel you’ve somehow lost? That’s because arguments don't settle anything.
There’s healthy debate (where two people who respect each other discuss ideas and try to reach a conclusion), a dialectic (where both people start off from total ignorance and try to work things out together), an argument (where both people are confrontational) and a row (where people get mean). If you want to feel good about yourself, have a dialectic or a debate. Don’t be mean.
For another thing, if you want to bring someone around to your point of view, you need to start by considering theirs. Consider why they believe what they believe, what led them to that stance and why they don't accept your belief. And saying “because they’re stupid and ignorant and don’t want to see the truth” doesn’t cut the theological mustard or help either of you.
As I pointed out in a previous blog post: people aren’t stupid - they're just bad at thinking carefully...and guess what, so are you.
When you ask someone “do you believe in God?” there’s dozens of different things you could be asking them. Are you asking about a deistic God? Are you asking about a theistic God? Are you asking if they believe in the Christian God? The Islamic? The Jewish? Are you asking if they have faith in God or whether they have evidence for it? Are you asking if they are a member of a religion or just a non-denominational believer?
These questions are complex because the words mean different things to different people. You might ask a person one question and they end up answering a different one without realising it. For example, someone who believes in a creator God who established the Universe and set up the laws of nature but doesn't interact with human affairs is, technically speaking, an atheist. (A-theism meaning "no belief in a theistic being" which is precisely what this person believes). This is an atheist who believes in God.
So when you are talking to someone about one of the most philosophically dense and complicated ideas in philosophy, one which the greatest minds have wrestled with and failed to settle, maybe don’t poke fun, mock, make jibes and trivialise their position.
Richard Dawkins is a witty guy. He’s very clever, very well read and makes pithy, poignant remarks. But has anyone honestly been brought to atheism because of his acerbic attacks on religion? Do we really think that approach works?
Contrast that with the far more common but less televised people who stand in streets preaching at passers-by. They tell people they will go to hell for not believing and I even heard one of them threaten people’s children with damnation. I ask again: has anyone honestly been brought to religion because of these hellfire and brimstone tirades? Does that approach really work?
When you engage with someone on this topic...and you will...try to remember they are humans. They have feelings and they are probably just as confident in their beliefs as you are in yours. Remember they will have a reason for believing what they do, even if you don’t consider it to be a good one. Getting in their face isn't going to make them listen.
Yes call them out on bad thinking, yes challenge them, yes ask questions, yes scrutinise their claim. But don’t demean or degrade them.
Don’t be mean.
Intelligence and stupidity are tricky terms. I’m not going to define them rigorously so I'll just say, in the simplest sense, that intelligence is the ability to understand complicated ideas. And most people can do it. Some people are better than others sure, but very few people are utterly incapable of understanding something if a) they want to learn it and b) it’s explained well.
But having said that, have you ever seen a news story or overheard a conversation on a bus and thought to yourself “wow, how can people be that stupid?”
I agree. People can act pretty dumb sometimes, but I don’t think it’s necessarily a lack of mental ability. I think it’s a lack of awareness of cognitive biases.
Cognitive biases are patterns of thought which prevent us from drawing good conclusions about the world. Everyone is prone to them and Scientists try, as much as possible, to get round them. You can't remove them altogether because they're part of your brain, but you can reduce their effects and that's the whole point of critical thinking and Science: training your mind to think well.
Here are 20 of the most common cognitive biases.
I’m probably guilty of them all.
1) Confirmation Bias
2) Seeking Validation, not negation
3) Availability of Ubiquitous Information
4) The Dunning-Kruger Effect
5) Associating physical attraction with value
6) The Genetic Fallacy
7) Anchoring Bias
8) Ingroup Bias
9) The Taxicab Fallacy
10) Ignoring Statistics (or failing to understand them)
11) Choice Supportive Bias
13) Selective Perception
14) Survivorship Bias
15) Selection Bias
16) You notice the more interesting/exciting idea
17) Current Moment Bias
18) Trusting Authorities
20) The Confabulation Effect (False memories)
When Dinosaurs Roamed the Moon
I’m going to argue that conspiracy theorists are people who have the desire and motivation for Science, but they stop too soon. I'm not going to say they're too lazy or too scared of discovering the truth...but I am going to argue that they commit the "taxicab fallacy" i.e. they adopt an approach, take it where they want to go and stop when they reach an exciting conclusion, rather than following it through to the end.
A student of mine, let’s call him Edward, believed the 1969 moon landing was a hoax. As a Science teacher I hear this a lot and I don’t mind at all. It sounds like a cool and exotic thing to believe, right? In fact, when I was twelve, I believed in the moon-hoax myself (for about a day) after watching an interview with a conspiracy theorist who had what I thought were good arguments. My father quickly explained how we know the moon landing did happen and, hearing his explanations, I changed my mind back to the conventional belief. I’m not ashamed of this. Everyone make mistakes. No big deal.
So, I sat Edward down and went through the whole thing. Why the footage has no stars in the sky (exposure of the camera), why the flag appears to move (it’s made of tinfoil and wobbling from being put into the ground) why there’s a second light source (it’s the Earth) etc. and then I gave the evidence for the moon landing.
The Soviets monitored the moon landing and acknowledged it happened (they would have given anything to avoid that). We can shine lasers onto retro-reflectors planted by Armstrong and Aldrin and bounce them back to Earth. We can see the Lunar landing module with a powerful telescope. And, perhaps most importantly, the astronauts are moving in slow motion which wasn’t possible to fake in 1969 due to camera technology (you’d need to create an impossibly long stretch of film to do so) and could only be achieved in a low gravitational field i.e. the real moon.
As I went along, I could see Edward’s face changing: “Whoa.”
That’s right, he literally said whoa.
I know the hoax explanation does suggest something pretty exciting, but the fact we journeyed to the actual moon is even more astonishing. Edward thanked me and spent the next few months researching space travel. Reality was cooler than the cloak and dagger stuff he’d been fed.
I’ve always found the same thing. I have never heard a conspiracy theory which was as exciting, mind-bending, astonishing or baffling as the way nature actually is.
I had a different experience with another person, let’s call her Marge. She believed dinosaurs hadn’t existed. In her own words “the government put the bones there as part of a global conspiracy.” Once again, I tried to explain why I thought she was mistaken.
I explained that most fossils weren’t bones at all and a lot of them were stuck too deep into the rock to make burying possible. I explained the history of palaeontology and how difficult it would have been for governments to orchestrate this as far back as 1676 (the earliest confirmed dinosaur fossil) or to fool Chang Qu in 2000 BC who discovered the earliest fossil.
Marge, unlike Edward, wouldn’t accept it. “I still don’t think they were real.”
“Alright, how come?”
“I dunno, I just don’t.”
Maybe I am doing Marge a disservice but I got the impression her motivation to believe in the dinosaur-conspiracy was desire. It seemed as though she preferred the conspiracy. Plus it’s possible she didn’t want to back down (another perfectly understandable and entirely human behaviour).
Thing is, she didn’t have a counterargument to my evidence while I had counterarguments to every point she made. That’s probably a good litmus test: a sound theory should be able to explain not just the evidence, but also dis-confirm the counterarguments.
Why are Conspiracy Theories Popular?
It’s not surprising that conspiracy theories are common. They usually have some Scientific, political, economic, technological or sociological spin to them which sounds like the kind of thing we’ve heard experts saying.
"Moon landing faked because USA wanted to embarrass USSR" has an authentic ring to it. By understanding such a theory we’re showing other people (and ourselves) that we understand history, global politics, governmental behaviour and we therefore have a claim to intellectual understanding.
Plus it feels good to believe you’re one of the few people who’s seen through the lies. You’ve managed to outwit the people in charge and that makes you feel good. Of course it does. Everyone likes to feel clever.
Thing is, the world is run largely in secret. None of us are privy to the meetings which take place in a government’s inner chambers or in a corporation’s boardroom. None of us know what the intelligence agencies are up to and none of us know what’s inside Area 51 (or, to give it its proper name: Homey Airport at Groom Lake).
We get to put a little cross on a piece of paper every few years and otherwise we’re sort of powerless. That’s not a nice feeling. Conspiracy theories give us a sense of control again, like we have power over the faceless corporations which run much of our lives. There’s an obvious attraction there.
Time to get angry
Conspiracy theories also give you explanations (even blame) for why things happen. For instance, during the outbreaks of AIDS, H1N1 and Ebola there were conspiracy theories everywhere. It’s very tempting to put an organisation in place as having “started the disease” because it gives us someone to be angry at, rather than the cold, blunt truth that horrible things happen without reason and we cannot stop them easily.
Plus it once again makes us sound like one of those experts we’ve heard talking on TV: we can start throwing around words like “virology”, “genetic engineering” and “genome” etc. etc. which again shows everyone, and ourselves, that we really do get it!
Also, and perhaps most temptingly, conspiracy theories are easy. Science, economics, social politics, history etc. offer you the same thing as conspiracy theories: unobvious and hidden explanations for what’s going on in the world. But they’re hard. Very hard. I love Science, but I’m not deluded, it can be hard work and sometimes the rewards aren’t immediately obvious.
If you want to understand how diseases are spread you have to study Biochemistry, Pathology, Sociology, even medicinal history. This is difficult, depressing and often not fun.
Alternatively, you can read a post on the internet that says government/scientists made diseases and deliberately spread them for some reason. This gives you the same sense of personal pride and cleverness, without having to put the hard work in.
I’ve also noticed that conspiracy theories always seem to be depressing. People were very quick to claim the Ebola outbreak was organised by some shady organisation because it was a traumatic event (if it really was an organised disease though, it’s probably the worst organised disease in history. More people died of flu last year in the UK alone than have ever died of Ebola…in the world, so if this was the best attempt a secret organisation could manage, we really don’t have to worry because they’re evidently incompetent).
But nobody, to my knowledge, has ever claimed the discovery of Penicillin, Sulfanilimide or Cis-platin (drugs which benefit the world) were conspiracies. Nobody ever puts forward conspiracy theories to explain the wonderful things which happen in civilisation: the end of apartheid, women getting the vote, the end of segregation in America, the abolition of slavery etc.
If there are secret organisations running the world, they seem to do an awful lot of nice things for us as well. Yet this somehow makes the conspiracy less exciting doesn’t it? It’s more tantalising when there’s “an enemy” behind every corner watching us.
And to quote Mark Twain: “The most outrageous lies that can be invented will find believers if a man only tells them with all his might.”
I often find conspiracy theorists are ever so bold, loud, aggressive and forthright in explaining their positions. They never let the evidence speak for itself.
By contrast, Scientists tend to be fairly plain-spoken, dry and even (sadly) boring in how they present their findings. The reason is that they don’t need to compensate for anything. They’ve got facts on their side so there’s no need to embellish with performance.
The truth doesn’t need to be shouted, it should be obvious from the most delicate whisper.
So why do I think Conspiracy Theories aren’t all bad?
There are several things conspiracy theorists do which Scientists mirror and even encourage. Conspiracy theorists don’t just believe the first explanation they hear (check). They look for the explanation behind what’s happening (check). They do research (check). They don’t worry about how they come across to others (check) and they are usually highly skeptical of explanations given by those in authority (check). I think conspiracy theorists are trying to make sense of the world, just like Scientists. They’re just not going far enough.
Conspiracy and Science are very, very close. There’s just one difference between them. But, as is often the case, this little difference makes all the difference. And the difference is this:
Scientific speculations are easily falsified.
In other words: Scientists set up ideas and explanations which you can easily check and destroy. In fact, the strength of a Scientific theory isn’t the evidence for it. It’s how easy it would be to find evidence against it, and yet none can be found. In Science we seek to disprove our guesses, not to confirm them.
This is where conspiracy theories fall flat. I have no way to go back in time and follow Lee Harvey Oswald from birth to death to see if he was paid to shoot JFK. I have no way of talking to the pilots of the September 11th attacks to see if it was a false-flag operation. And so on.
Conspiracy explanations are structured in precisely a way which means we can’t verify or falsify them. We aren’t inside the secret meetings of government and business, so we can imagine whatever we like. Try it. Next time you hear a conspiracy being described, ask the following question: "can you propose an experiment to test whether your idea is true?"
Speculation about hidden government agendas are fruitless. If we can’t know what happens in a secret meeting, why assume a conspiracy? Why not assume there was no conspiracy? There’s just as much evidence.
I can’t completely disprove any conspiracy theory because any conspiracy theory has an element of “we can never know the truth” . Science, however, sets up explanations which you can easily go out and check.
A skeptic will see the moon landing and get suspicious about the lack of stars, so they start to question it (a healthy thing to do). They come to an initial conclusion: “that's not how space should look” and the conspiracy theorist goes no further, only seeking more evidence to back up that first conclusion. They don’t go the next step “is there another explanation for the lack of stars?” which is what the Scientist does…discovering that there is a perfectly good explanation.
A conspiracy theorist types “moon landing faked – evidence” into Google. A Scientist types the same thing but after reading the evidence, types “debunked” to see if there are counterarguments.
So, to any Conspiracy theorists reading I say you’re on the right track and your desire to know more is something I agree with completely. But you need to start searching for evidence against your conspiracy belief. Try to disprove it and see if there are non-conspiracy explanations for the puzzles you’ve sensibly spotted. It’s good to be skeptical about what you’re presented with, but you need to be skeptical of yourself as well. Question your intuition, attack your own motives, be self-doubting and always open to criticism.
To everyone else I say this: don’t be rude to conspiracy theorists. They, like you, just want to find the truth. It’s better to be a conspiracy theorist than someone who never questions anything…it’s just even better to be a Scientist.
Encourage the skepticism but don’t let anyone stop when they get to an exciting or salacious explanation. Push them further. Get them to doubt their doubts. Get them to investigate and investigate until they’ve reached the limit of what anyone can know. And, if all goes to plan, you’ll have turned them into a Scientist. At least...that's what the illuminati told me to write.
I love science, let me tell you why.