To The Editor…

To the editors and readers:

I am writing to respond to a letter from December; one that clearly went beyond any measure of civility in how it framed its views, so I’m writing in rebuttal, so the citizens can choose.

Let me first list my credentials, and define my expertise, so you’ll know I’m not some moron who just wants to state his piece. I’m an engineer, designer, and a builder, you should know; it’s my aerospace technology that made our missiles go! When it comes to rocket science, all those people are my peers. And I’ve studied Holy Scripture, too, for over forty years.

In my personal opinion, see, the courts have got it wrong, and we should have taught creation in our high schools all along. Since it isn’t only Christians backing Genesis’ report, it’s not favoring religion, so it ought to please the court!

And I hardly dare to mention, but I will, cos I’ve resolved, that our modern science classes should not say that we’ve evolved! It’s a theory—just a a theory—and it’s quite a nasty job to imagine we’re descended from some ancient swampy blob! Now, I hear there’s tons of data, but I think the truth you’ll find is that evolution happens, but within a given kind; man has changed across millennia, in stature and in shape, but he’s never been a monkey, and he’s never been an ape!

There are sources that support me! There are books and books galore; you can find them by the dozen at your local Christian store! If you’re not the type for reading, why, they also come on tapes—you can listen while you’re driving, how we didn’t come from apes.

But enough of this digression; I’ll return now to my thread, to the letter from December, and the nasty things it said; it complained about the sneaking of religion into schools, which the author wrongly stated was against our nation’s rules. See, you simply can’t ignore it; you can’t do it; no one can, cos the science says religion is how everything began.

Sincerely…

Original letter here, at the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel. I think I actually used to get that paper, once upon a time. On Sundays, anyway.

Or for you purists who like end-stopped lines…

To the editors and readers: I am writing to respond
To a letter from December; one that clearly went beyond
Any measure of civility in how it framed its views,
So I’m writing in rebuttal, so the citizens can choose.

Let me first list my credentials, and define my expertise,
So you’ll know I’m not some moron who just wants to state his piece;
I’m an engineer, designer, and a builder, you should know,
It’s my aerospace technology that made our missiles go
When it comes to rocket science, all those people are my peers.
And I’ve studied Holy Scripture, too, for over forty years.

In my personal opinion, see, the courts have got it wrong
And we should have taught creation in our high schools all along.
Since it isn’t only Christians backing Genesis’ report
It’s not favoring religion, so it ought to please the court!

And I hardly dare to mention, but I will, cos I’ve resolved,
That our modern science classes should not say that we’ve evolved!
It’s a theory—just a a theory—and it’s quite a nasty job
To imagine we’re descended from some ancient swampy blob!
Now, I hear there’s tons of data, but I think the truth you’ll find
Is that evolution happens, but within a given kind;
Man has changed across millennia, in stature and in shape,
But he’s never been a monkey, and he’s never been an ape!

There are sources that support me! There are books and books galore,
You can find them by the dozen at your local Christian store!
If you’re not the type for reading, why, they also come on tapes—
You can listen while you’re driving, how we didn’t come from apes.

But enough of this digression; I’ll return now to my thread,
To the letter from December, and the nasty things it said;
It complained about the sneaking of religion into schools
Which the author wrongly stated was against our nation’s rules.
See, you simply can’t ignore it; you can’t do it; no one can.
Cos the science says religion is how everything began.

Doing “Wrong” Right

Two experts, both alike in views
(So much, you can’t tell whose is whose)
Saw something on the evening news
Which challenged their belief

And something that they’d thought was right,
Believing in with all their might,
They now saw in a different light—
It brought them both to grief

The first said “well, I’ve got to change—
Although, of course, it’s rather strange,
My whole worldview I’ll re-arrange
Cos what I thought, was wrong”

The second, though, without remorse,
Declared, “I’d rather stay the course—
Deny the facts; dispute the source,
I’m sailing straight along.”

And when the first apologized,
Revealing that he’d realized
His former view was compromised,
The second was insistent:

“Your newfound view means naught to me—
Your reputation’s shot, you see—
Untouchable, you ought to be,
Because you’re inconsistent!”

Consistency, you can’t deny,
Is crucial in the public eye
But if your stance is just a lie
Perhaps it’s best to quit

We know, a fool’s consistent stand
When better data are at hand
Is often prized, throughout this land…
But still, it’s full of shit.

I just saw a truly rare and remarkable bit of video. You can see it here. Mark Lynas, formerly an anti-GM food activist (until 2008, when the data persuaded him he had been wrong) is interviewed on the BBC’s HARDtalk; the linked video is an excerpt.

First… this is how you do it. As a leader in the anti-GM food movement, it could not have been pleasant to make this change, but Lynas not only made the change, he publicly renounced his former views, and publicly apologized to those whom his actions had harmed. In the linked clip, host Stephen Sackur (to my thinking, anyway) really tries to rub Lynas’s nose in it, pushing him well beyond what I would have been comfortable with. Lynas sits there and takes it, admits some fairly embarrassing things (for instance, how flimsy the evidence was that led him not merely to protest, but to become a leader in the protest movement), and owns up to his past behavior.

Sackur prods: “So that leaves your personal credibility in shreds.” “So you’re ashamed of the entire approach you took; your complete lack of intellectual rigor.” Again, to me, this is a bit much, but Lynas does not get defensive; he admits that he is on the record apologizing for his actions, personally, to the individuals he has wronged.

This is a brief clip, but it illustrates a few things beautifully. First, what Lynas shows that an intelligent person, in the right surroundings, can easily be caught up in thinking something is right when it is demonstrably not. Second, he demonstrates exactly what we should do, but which can be so difficult to do, when confronted by solid evidence that this thing we thought was true is not. Third, he models how to take responsibility, how to own up to previous mistakes, how not to simply get defensive when called out. Fourth…tangentially, but importantly… the clip makes clear that our culture values consistency. A view that changes when new data are available should not be seen as a weakness, but all too often it is.

Just In Time For The Super Bowl

Just in time for the Super Bowl, the Public Religion Research Institute has released an opinion survey on… well, it’s not really about the role of religion in sports, or about the religiosity of sports fans, or about how important religion and sports are to people, or much of anything organized (although in part it is about each of those things). Some of the questions seem to hold together, but others give the feel of “hey, let’s ask this, too!” The complete list of questions, with broad percentage answers, is here.

The headline-grabber report is from question 8 of the survey–actually, from 2 out of 3 of question 8’s three questions (which were presented in randomized order). “Nearly 3-in-10 Americans Say God Plays a Role in Outcomes of Sports Events” blares the headline, which was apparently more interesting than the associated finding that “majorities of all religious groups disagree that God plays a role in determining which team wins a sporting event…”. Far more (indeed, an overall majority) report agreement with the statement “God rewards athletes who have faith with good health and success.”

Those two questions were 2/3 of question 8. The other third gets shuffled to the very end of the press release, and is not included in the bar chart with the other two. It innocently asks whether you agree that “Public high schools should be allowed to sponsor prayer before football games”. Why it was lumped in with the other parts of question 8 is not explained. It’s a bit odd, especially considering that there are other questions not included in the randomized portion, asking about the athletes’ displays of faith during sporting events (imo, a much better match for the high school prayer question, even though their displays are personal and the prayer would be a state-sponsored declaration). (I suspect you know where I stand on that last one…)

One strange thing in the press release:

More than 6-in-10 (62 percent) Americans say they consider themselves a fan of a particular sports team. However, among these self-identified sports fans, less than 1-in-5 report that being a fan of their favorite team is the most important thing (1 percent) or a very important thing (14 percent) in their lives. Roughly 4-in-10 (42 percent) say that being a fan of is somewhat important, while more than 4-in-10 (43 percent) say it is not too important or not at all important.
By contrast, 58 percent of Americans say that religion is the most or a very important thing in their lives, nearly one-quarter (23 percent) say it is somewhat important, and only 18 percent say it is not too important or not at all important.

You methodology wonks who actually read the survey will immediately note… the survey did not ask about the importance of religion in their lives. I have no idea where they got that information–whether it was from this survey but unreported, whether it was from a different sample, whether it was from a survey with a vastly different methodology… we are not told. Hell, we aren’t even told that they didn’t ask.

The survey is relatively benign–the questions themselves are not terribly leading, compared with some of the political push-polling I’ve responded to. But that does not mean there are no problems with methodology. For instance, some 47% of respondents report that on any given Sunday, they will be at church (either church and no football, or both church and football). This is higher than the roughly 40% that polls usually find… and that 40% is more than double the numbers that actually are at church on a given Sunday. When it comes to telling pollsters you are a good Christian, it doesn’t hurt to bear false witness just a bit.

So, anyway, maybe the numbers about whether people feel god makes a difference in the game are good numbers, but if so, they are keeping very bad company.

They called up my number; I answered the phone
They wanted my data; I threw them a bone
“Do athletes and teams win their games on their own,
Or is God on the side of the winners?”
The answer I gave must have seemed well-rehearsed;
Cos you see, I’m a fan, but my team is the worst,
So my view of the bastards who end up in first
Is, they must have been Satan’s own sinners!

The Ravens are Lucifer’s darling delight
And the Niners are willing to put up a fight
So they’re making a deal with the devil tonight
And Jehovah has gone into hiding!
So, you see that your question’s a little bit odd
The game doesn’t show us who’s favored of God–
When the team sells their souls for the sake of their squad
Then it’s Satan who does the deciding!

At The Dalai Lama’s Science Conference…

They’re analyzing consciousness
By means of introspection
And none of them have noticed that
They’ve looked the wrong direction.

The Dalai Lama saw the moon
Was not lit from within
He shared his observation
(To his tutors’ great chagrin)

Tibetan thought did not survive
Objective observation
The moon was not a lantern—
That was just imagination

This sparked his curiosity
And formed a strange alliance:
A Buddhist monk’s philosophy
And love of modern science

This skepticism surely might
Be called on to explain
How their use of introspection
Tells us beans about the brain

They call it looking inward—
That’s the purpose that it serves—
But the trick is that the brain itself
Is lacking sensory nerves!

We cannot feel our thinking—
To those processes, we’re blind;
So introspect your brains out, but
Beware of what you find.

They’re analyzing consciousness
By means of introspection
And none of them have noticed that
They’ve looked the wrong direction.

So, yeah, the Dalai Lama (winner of the 2012 Templeton Prize in Science & Religion) hosted a science conference. The 26th Mind and Life Conference (this year’s theme: Mind, Brain, & Matter) invited scientists and Buddhist monks to join in scientific pursuit of an understanding of consciousness:

The examination is rooted in the personal story of the Dalai Lama. During his secluded training as a child in Tibet, he would gaze at the night sky through a telescope on the roof of the Potala Palace. He looked at the moon with such intensity he realized the shadows and asperities on its surface contradicted the Tibetan belief that it was lit from within. He took his findings to his tutors.

“When I told my tutors of my interest in science, they replied that it made sense,” said the Dalai Lama during his welcome speech to the conference. “However, although we have an interest in science, that doesn’t mean we have to devote all our energy to it. I spend the majority of my time in meditation on love, compassion and wisdom, which is the source of my interest in science.”

It’s perfectly understandable that a meditating monk would want to understand consciousness. It’s also understandable that scientists would. Which makes it a bit strange that the confluence is, well, strange. But I guess we are used to science and religion having such very different, competing, and (often) mutually exclusive approaches to finding the truth. These monks, though, are not like, say, young-earth creationists:

The monks are Tibetan scholars from all monasteries who followed a multiple-year science course and are now asked by the Dalai Lama to compile what they learned into a book for their fellow monks. “These are monks who have spent from early morning to late night memorizing ancient texts, having them explained by wise elders and debating them long into the night,” says Rato’s abbot. “They had to leave behind Tibetan beliefs in place for centuries and apply the same strict discipline they had in their Buddhist studies to modern science.”

This is the strength of mind required of the modern monk, he says: a capacity for knowledge, open mindedness and debate, carried alongside the absolute belief in Buddha’s words.

That last bit does raise the question of whether this is a joining of science and faith, or a superb job of compartmentalization.

As for the scientists?

Responses from the scientists differed strongly.

Christof Koch, a University of California neuroscience best known for his work on consciousness, said we could speculate but ultimately we don’t know where it lies beyond the brain, its physical basis. He added that all mammals have consciousness but it is impossible to know where it lies (for example, our immune system can function without it).

Matthieu Ricard, the French monk who was a genetics scientist before taking up the monastic life, turned towards his Buddhist teaching more than his scientific past.

“By honest introspection, by following one line of inquiry which is pure experience,” one can reach an understanding of consciousness, he said.

Ricard then addressed the topic of reincarnation and some individuals’ ability to remember past lives.

Arthur Zajonc, a professor emeritus of physics at Harvard, doesn’t consider himself a Buddhist he said. Yet, he added, “I meditate and through that, have come to believe in the possibility of reincarnation.”

I’ve seen Koch speak before; his expertise is in the brain, of course, so it makes sense that he looks there (and that his expertise is there and not in the terra incognita he sees outside). Koch has also worked with Francis Crick, of “you are your brain” fame, (oh, yeah, and being a co-discoverer of the structure of DNA), with which I very much disagree; again, it makes perfect sense that he looks to the brain for answers. Ricard and Zajonc, it appears to me, suffer from the very common problem among scientists: they take their well-earned scientific expertise to mean that they know what they are talking about in other areas. Their reliance on meditation and introspection (apparently the monks’ investigative methodology of choice) is fatally flawed: the brain, lacking sensory nerves, cannot feel itself think.

This, of course, is why we have such bizarre conceptions of “mind” as something ontologically distinct from matter. Imagine you could not feel yourself, say, walking. It would feel like you were magically floating from place to place (or perhaps teleported there in a flash?). You cannot feel yourself think; you only have partial access to some of the outputs of that thinking, and even then your access is both imperfect and subject to constraints of situation–were you even attending to that information at the time? (For those who have not seen it, looking around for examples of attentional blindness, or the art of the pickpocket, easily demonstrates the limits of our awareness.) Let us suppose that the extraordinary training of the monks allows them to attend to all of the outputs at once (very unlikely, but let’s go there)–they would still have no direct access to any of the processes that led to those outputs. And researchers like Koch are happy to tell us of how many interacting and/or parallel processes are at work in an active brain. The metaphors that come to me–diagnosing car problems without opening the hood, or diagnosing computer problems without the ability to see what any of the components are doing–all are considerably simpler than trying to figure out this extraordinarily complex, non-intelligently designed, meat-based data processor.
XKCD cartoon
(image: XKCD, of course)
From the point of view of the introspector, it feels like magic. The vocabulary we use to speak of consciousness, of course, precedes scientific exploration of consciousness, but still shapes what we expect to find, and what explanations we will accept as reasonable. It’s like asking how the sun climbs through the sky, and rejecting the notion that the earth turns. Magic begins to seem reasonable. As long as we’ve got magic consciousness, why the hell not have reincarnation as well? (BTW, the Times post mentions that quantum physics was a topic at the conference–at a “mind, brain, & matter” conference, this can only mean one thing–quantum physics was being misused, and can very likely be considered the modern vocabulary for “magic”.)

I’ve written more than I intended to, already. I’ll stop rather abruptly here. Oh, but I will note that the conference is available for viewing–11 looong youtube videos cover the morning and afternoon sessions of the 6-day conference. I’ll be looking through them at least a bit, to see if I am wrong.

I was wrong once before, and didn’t like it.

I will be true despite thy scythe and thee.

Our data we once kept in drives and disks,
Protecting it for use some future day;
Predictably, we did not know the risks:
Its storage starts the process of decay
But scan a sonnet; digitize a play
Record a speech—whatever you might choose
And store it in synthetic DNA
Encoded there in zeroes, ones and twos—
Your data, but converted to base three,
Recorded in nucleic acid bases
(We often write them A, C, G and T)
Which guard against the stuff that time erases
Who would have guessed the cutting edge would find
A storage system older than mankind?

So, yeah, take a look at this. I have, in my office, several copies of the works of Shakespeare, in different formats. Facsimile editions of early issues, the Riverside edition, some other things… one on CD-ROM, and (a gift from someone who knows me very well) a wonderful miniature Romeo and Juliet about the size of a matchbox. At my undergrad college, there was a set of Shakespeare in the general collection stacks of the library that was a limited edition printing, with gilt-edged pages and hand-printed illustrations–I wanted to steal it to keep it safe from people who wanted to… erm… steal it. (I didn’t. I hope it is still there.)

Whether you store your Shakespeare in paper form or in ones and zeroes on a flash device, hard drive, or CD-ROM, your choice of medium has a lifespan. It will decay. Electronic storage that continually checks for errors can be, in the long long long term, expensive. At least expensive enough that researchers are willing to look for alternatives. And it turns out, there is a tried and true method of data storage that can handle incredible amounts of data in very little physical space, in a stable medium (given reasonable storage–even in bad conditions, this medium has been known to accurately store data for tens of thousands of years).

DNA.

In case you missed it, that’s a link to a CNN article on data storage in DNA.

Scientists have developed a technique of storing information in DNA, the molecule found in living creatures including humans that contains genetic instructions. The experiment is discussed in a new study in the journal Nature.

Y’know, it’s kind of funny to hear people talk about how we are going to make this giant leap forward when the singularity comes and we can download our consciousness to some digital form. We practically fetishize digital storage. How does DNA storage compare?

The technique, researchers said, could even encode a zettabyte’s worth of data. That’s enough to encompass the total amount of digital information that currently exists on Earth, which would be “breathtakingly expensive” right now, Birney said.

Researchers used five different kinds of digital information to show that their method would work to preserve a variety of media in DNA. These included a text file with William Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets, a PDF of a scientific paper, a photo in JPEG format of the European Bioinformatics Institute, and an MP3 audio excerpt of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

Scientists showed that they could encode these files in DNA and then, by sequencing the DNA, reconstruct them with 100% accuracy.

Damn, that is cool.

It’s not in binary, though, much as I love my ones and zeroes; that’s not the way DNA stores data:

Text on your computer, while it may look like words, is actually encoded in your computer as ones and zeros – this is called binary. For the purposes of DNA synthesis, scientists took that information and converted it to base 3 – that is, zeroes, ones and twos.

From there, the data gets translated into collections of DNA’s nucleic acid bases, represented by the letters A, C, G and T.

That’s how scientists encode the DNA fragments.

One last thing… my silly little sonnet, up above there? If that were converted to DNA, what size of storage device are we looking at?

DNA has the advantage of being light and small, researchers said. One of Shakespeare’s sonnets would weigh 0.3 picograms (10^-12) grams, said Nick Goldman, lead study author.

At the risk of repeating myself… Damn, that is cool.

(Blog post title from sonnet 123, if you were wondering.)

Losing My Religion In A Major Way

Well, a major key, actually. Via Open Culture, a bit of computer rejigging by MajorScaledTV, turns a familiar minor-key song… weird:

Sure, pretty much everybody will prefer the original, but this is a neat exercise. I just wonder how many times I will have to listen to it before my eyelid stops twitching.

(Ok, you want real weirdness? The Doors’ classic “Riders On The Storm”, converted to major key. Truly creepy.)

________________________________________________

My new plan… is to listen to this until it sounds normal. Then, listen to the original again, to see if it is immediately better, or if it just sounds weird.

On Arming Teachers

Though we must protect the children,
What I’m seeing is bewilderin’—
There’s a call to arm the teachers in the name of common sense
Cos it wouldn’t quite be prudent
To give guns to every student
But we’ve got to pack some pistols to provide for our defense!

Now, in truth, my grade school teachers
Weren’t the stablest of creatures,
And I can’t imagine anyone who’d like to see them armed
But tough times demand tough measures
And our children are our treasures
Introducing deadly weapons will ensure that they’re unharmed.

Though this notion’s been suggested
It has never quite been tested;
Are there data showing guns will make a school a safer place?
Cos it really takes some gumption
To declare it by assumption
After cutting off the data you could use to make your case.

Bit of a rant, after the jump: [Read more...]