Friday, 27 August 2010

Why Can We Trust What Science Tells Us?

I was recently chatting to someone regarding how mind-blowing our universe is. It is far more incredible than anything we’ve ever been able to imagine, whilst being deeper and more miraculous than our forefathers had ever suspected. I was then taken aback to be told that this is simply ‘my belief’, just as others may have ‘their belief’. It is just a subjective opinion, I was informed. The scientific method is one of the greatest notions ever to be conceived of, and it is because of the way science works that I know I can trust what it tells me. How does science actually work?

Firstly, science funding relies primarily upon grants. These are large sponsors who give you the money to do the research. Now these people do not casually give their cash away to anybody who asks for it. They have to be persuaded that it will be put to good use in important and worthwhile research.

So how are they persuaded? This comes through scientists and establishments building up a reputation as high-quality researchers who have published several reliable papers that have stood the test of time. If you do good research, then you build up a reputation amongst your peers. Your standing within science will increase, thus building upon a reputation that sponsors can look at to give you money in future. If you produce poor data, people are less likely to give you money, for fear of being associated with more poor data.

How can we tell who is a good scientist? Science is built upon honesty and criticism. Once you have performed some work, you publish your work in a journal. This journal is available for all to see, to dissect, to question and to criticise. If your work holds out after this deep analysis from experts all over the world, then your reputation is enhanced. If you have acquired poor data, it is discarded and forgotten about. The better scientist you are, the more likely you are to publish in more prestigious journals such as Nature.

We can, therefore, be quite confident that when we read research in Nature it is reliable. For every article we read, it has been analysed by thousands of scientists all over the world who are far more qualified than you or I will ever be.

Whatever people say, it is almost unanimously accepted across the West that science is superior to any other way of thinking. That is why the Vatican keeps caving in: the notion that the Earth is the centre of the Solar System is now redundant; the once-opposed theory of evolution is now accepted. If they were confident in themselves, they would hold firm with their original opinion and tell everybody that science is wrong. But they don’t because, even if they don’t explicitly say it, they know that science is the only way of knowing truth. Those people who say that science is just a ‘belief’ are suddenly quite confident in it when being flown across the world on holiday.

Establishments spreading drivel have disguised themselves in a scientific aura to draw in the unwary: Creation ‘Science’, Intelligent Design, homeopathy and nonsense scare stories in the Daily Mail all pretend to be scientific to try and fool us. But none of these has stood up to the scrutiny that we all know and love in science.

I am a big fan of Charles Darwin because his amazingly simple idea, from ignorant and superstitious times, still stands the test of time after 150 years of examination. Supporting data comes in each day, and our increased knowledge in the world around us merely confirms ever more strongly that what he proposed was correct.

The scientific method really is a beautiful concept. Far less beautiful, alas, than the universe itself.

Thursday, 26 August 2010

A Message to Umbrella Users

Dear Umbrella User,

I know it rains, and I know you don’t particularly want to get your hair wet. But, is an enormous umbrella particularly necessary when the moisture in the air creeps above the average, or perhaps is able to even be classified as ‘drizzle’? Is there also an unspoken rule amongst you to plough on down the centre of the pavement without feeling the slightest guilt at holding a weapon with metal spikes protruding in a 360-degree radius into my eye line? Because you seem to have no realisation that you are, in fact, taking up far more than your allotted pavement space and are thus intruding upon mine, prodding steel spears towards me whilst pouring a constant stream of water upon my increasingly sodden jeans. It is then up to me to dodge these constant threats in what all-too-often appears as an attempt to recreate a slow motion Jason Robinson montage. On a busy street, being attacked both from my left and right, this is certainly an unwanted burden. Chatting on your iPhone and arranging a time to meet your friends at Starbucks is not an excuse for not noticing me. I don’t want a cool surge of water on any part of my body, thank you. Neither do I want to have reduced vision in one eye, a cut on my face, or even heightened annoyance as a result of your absent-minded and egocentric stroll. In the rare occasion I bite the bullet and use an umbrella myself I make a deliberate, and possibly exaggerated, effort to make sure that the pedestrian walking in my direction is not in the slightest troubled by the pole of shame that I hold above my head. It may be difficult to tip your wrist 45-degrees so that the other person can walk unimpeded, and you may encounter a few rain drops during that two second period, but if you can’t handle that, I have two suggestions:
  1. Stay inside.
  2. Wear a raincoat.

You could, of course, ignore my advice and continue the way you are. But I’ll be judging you when that happens. I’ll hold my silence, but I’ll be judging you – you and your people.

Kind regards from a gentleman in damp jeans,

Tuesday, 24 August 2010

Whoever You Are, You Are Mind-Bogglingly Lucky

The probability of you or me existing is, to any reasonable – or even unreasonable – degree, essentially zero. Yet we are here, as real as anything that has ever subsisted and fortunate enough to live in the most exciting time of technological and scientific advancement that the world – and possibly the universe – has ever seen. The number of people that could be here in my place grossly outnumbers the sand grains of the Sahara many times over. Furthermore, the probability of humanity ever evolving in the first place is a trillion fold less likely even than that. To try and comprehend such odds is physically unattainable, as is trying to grasp most things about the universe. I’d just like to show you why we should rejoice every second we have upon this earth.

Imagine if simply one other of your father’s one hundred million sperm fused with your mother’s egg the moment you were conceived. A different array of genes would have arisen in the future child and therefore, by definition, you would never have existed. This person would be sleeping in my bed, possibly with my name, living with my family. What would he or she have been like? Consider again how unlikely it was for your parents to have met in the first place. As much as we want to think it was fate, any rational mind can see it was almost entirely pure chance that they met in the first place.

I would like you to do a difficult thing: extrapolate these odds over billions of generations, over four billion years. Each generation faces the same atrociously poor odds of any given two individuals mating. If, at any point, events conspired differently, a different course of action would have been set in motion, culminating in an entirely distinct body from me gaining consciousness upon the planet – in my place. Every generation faces a staggering challenge to simply survive. Yet, despite the slim chance of survival that each faced, every single one of our ancestors lived long enough to reproduce. If any of them had chosen a different mating partner, the array of genes that gives rise to me would never have arisen. I would not be here, and you almost certainly would not too, for essentially every single one of my ancestors is yours, too. Evolution may have gone down such a different path that humanity, even, may not have arisen. Extrapolating further, think of how unlikely it was for life to arise: a few replicating molecules eventually are sculpted into entities we know as ‘living’. How unlikely it is for this planet to even exist, let alone have precisely the right position, temperature and gravitational field (to say the least) to support life. If any one of these events conspired differently, a molecule here or there, and we would not exist. No tears would be shed; for the thought of our lives ever taking shape would have entered nobody’s heads.

I am paraphrasing: the reality and true odds against our existence are far, far lower than I have presented here. Some people see this as strong evidence in favour of a god. The fact that, despite these unimaginably poor odds, we are indeed here suggests that there is an all-powerful entity with us in mind, surely?

Imagine the national lottery, where everybody without a winning ticket was secretly shot dead. The only survivors are the ones who have winning tickets. They may all converse, confident that the balls were fixed precisely to favour them, for they never come across anyone without a winning ticket. Eventually, with a large enough sample, there will be somebody who wins the lottery ten times in a row. This person may be utterly convinced that the whole scenario has been fixed to favour him; otherwise how could he have survived for so long? The reality is much more logical. The only people who are able to contemplate it are precisely those who have won the lottery. The millions of losers do not have a voice, and so the only people speaking are the lucky ones. This is analogous to our situation in life: if I were not here, it would be somebody else, equally as stunned. But as it is, that person was never conceived of and it is I, in my ordinariness, who is able to contemplate my good fortune.

I am frequently utterly overwhelmed at the astonishing nature of our cosmos. How lucky I am – not only to exist, but also to actually be able to comprehend such facts – utterly staggers me. I want to scream “Thank you!” to somebody, but, as an atheist, I realise there is nobody to thank. Subsequently, the realisation that I have arisen by the blind forces of gravity, electromagnetism and natural selection, and that they are all I have to thank, genuinely overpowers my mind to the point of needing a rest. If you ever think you fully comprehend your own presence on Earth, then I can assure you that you do not. We are the winners of the most monumental lottery ever undertaken. We need to realise this and rejoice every second we are conscious. We owe it to those trillions and trillions of silent, unborn people who unfortunately did not obtain a winning ticket. Who are we to complain about petty issues when we look at reality in this way?

I feel that, when I die, there is no greater tribute I can pay to this world than for the atoms in my body – which had only temporarily taken residence in my tissues – to fall back into the soil they came from. On the day I die, a molecule that may have played a key role in the formation of my memories could, just hours later, be recycled into the secretary juices of a parasitic anaerobic bacterium. This is a beautiful reality, I assure you. No fear of an afterlife, no dread as to the opinion of an all-knowing individual constantly reading my thoughts. Just utter exhilaration to able to open my eyes, be conscious and realise – for the briefest of moments – why I am actually here. I recommend it.

My New Ten Commandments

The Biblical Ten Commandments are worryingly archaic for anybody who pretends to want to live by them in this day and age. Hence I thought they should be revised. I don’t think I (or anybody else) could take myself seriously if I began any sentence with ‘Thou Shalt Not’, and so I express these commandments in 21st century language. Here we go:

Do not condemn the private actions of anybody who is doing nobody else any harm.

Realise that science is the only way we’ve been able to know truth, so do not compromise what it tells you. Personal whim or ‘faith’ is no argument.

Do not lay a finger on a woman or a child.

Realise that values based upon secularism and freedom will trump all others, both morally and intellectually.

Realise that we are just animals living in a web of life. We rely upon nature for our existence and so give it the respect it deserves.

Do not indoctrinate children with any ideology. They have a right to any opinion, even if strongly contradicts yours.

Judge people on their actions and words, not upon their ethnicity or heritage.

Always take responsibility for your actions. You look like an immature coward when you accuse others when you are clearly in the wrong.

Treat others as you wish to be treated. Every human is essentially the same, and so there is nothing special about your desires above somebody else’s.

Do not be late, at least when you're meeting me, and turn off your fucking mobile phone. You have no idea how rude both these are for people who have gone out of their way to be in your company.

My Counterintuitive Reaction Over Syria’s Burqa Ban

I must admit that when I read of Syria's ban of burqas at universities, a tepid, refreshing feeling trickled through me like fresh urine flowing over my shoulders on a cold day. I was somewhat surprised by my reaction because I had previously disagreed with its prohibition in both France and Britain.

Although I staunchly deem this oppressive garment as opposed to our culture, conflicting with our secular values and conveying a dire attitude towards women, I feel that forbidding it is the wrong act to take. Rather like the blasphemy laws creating an embarrassing hysteria of panic-stricken individuals accusing each other of discrimination on every occasion religion is criticised, it will create a tension in conversations whenever the matter gets mentioned. It would maintain a general anti-Muslim feel to everyday life and appear to provide support to people who insult Muslims on illegitimate grounds.

I try to oppose banning on social issues as much as possible because, by creating a scapegoat, it minimises our capacity for free, healthy criticism. We should legally allow it, but let’s try and change opinions on their own grounds. Please, let us show them why we find it abhorrent and how we’ve advanced so far partly due to the elimination of primitive and bigoted ideas. We do not kill homosexuals (Leviticus 20:13) or kill followers of other religions (Numbers 25:1-9). This is another issue where healthy debate will overcome archaic superstition – despite the thankless task of getting through to those blinded by religion. Why, because that’s what our society is built on: free enquiry and evidence-based decisions. We’ve done pretty well so far and we need to just keep going.

Banning the burqa will force the subjects into a corner of intolerance and fear, whilst holding constant – and legitimate – resentment over their condemnation. It is worrying to think how these ladies will cope: on one hand we have a the male adherents of a patriarchal religion obliging them to wear the garment, whilst on the other hand the society she lives in will not allow her on the streets. Is this really doing what is best for her? Does it express our secular values in the correct ways? Is this the state we want the citizens of our country to be forced into? We need to understand that we will not end something by merely banning it. How do people behave on February 1st after a month of no chocolate or alcohol? They go mad for it! We must create honest, unthreatening debate where the adherents realise that it’s a silly thing to do. That’s all.

So, why did I enjoy reading about the news from Syria? I suppose it reflects a slowly growing realisation from people of all differing cultures that this piece of clothing is ridiculous. The fact that it came from a highly Islamic country was especially pleasing. We cannot continue to hold half of the world’s population in such low regard and people are now standing up for those values.

I saw a clip of a British lady wearing a burqa, telling us how she wasn’t forced to wear one by men, rather doing it to “please God.” May you consider first the angrily patriarchal nature of that God and the intolerance that He (or It? Does an omnipotent, omnipresent entity have gender?) advocates. If you don’t think men are, implicitly or explicitly, enforcing this, then look at the furious Pakistani protests in response to France’s new laws, chanting “Down with the West!” Count the number of women who joined in the rally.