“You’ve Got To Have Faith In Something”

You must have heard it somewhere. Probably half a dozen times today alone. I think I just saw it over at Hemant’s–somebody making the argument that science requires a faith of its own, what may be called a “faith in reason”, or faith in one’s perceptual or cognitive abilities, or simply faith that the universe is real and observable.

No, actually.

“You’ve got to have faith”—so the argument went,
“Though you might not have faith in my God
You have faith in your senses, your science, your tools,
That reality’s not some façade”

I need not have faith in my senses at all
My senses have earned my trust
They may fool me at times—they’re not perfect, I know,
But I’ll use them, cos frankly, I must

I need not have faith in the methods of science;
Conditional trust is enough
Today’s explanations can all be replaced
If tomorrow’s explains some more stuff

I need not have faith in the tools that I use
I will use them as long as they work
Since others reliably use them as well,
Their results don’t depend on some quirk

I need not have faith in the cosmos itself
Though I see on your face some confusion
The universe is, whether matter or mind,
Or a rather persistent illusion

If everything changes tomorrow, you see,
And the world works a whole different way
Then maybe I might have some theories to change…
But they’re working just fine for today.

The pragmatic and conditional explanations of science need not be a search for “TRUTH” which one has faith exists (although I certainly do not speak for all, and I know that a good many believe that a truth exists, whether or not we ever may know it). Explanations are not true or false, but rather better or worse–that is, explaining more observation with fewer assumptions, or needing to make shit up. Newtonian physics is not so much wrong as incomplete–it works for quite a lot of uses, but not all.

I do not need to have faith that my answers will be right forever–hell, I like the idea of finding out how I am wrong, and learning a better way!

Chronic Pain? Take A Peruvian Green Velvet Tarantula And Call Me In The Morning

A lab in New Haven
Held biotech mavens
Who looked at the functions of nerves
Along came a spider
With venom inside her
So they looked at purpose it serves

See, nature is cunning
And spiders are stunning—
No, really; their bites stun their prey
So maybe a toxin
Some synapse, just locks in
And shuts down the nerve in this way

They’ve explored bites and stings
Of such poisonous things
But they wished they could search even more
The answer’s appearing
Cos, now, toxineering
Yields larger amounts to explore

Now, one such advance
From a kind of tarant-
ula (called the Peruvian Green),
The authors explain
Could relieve chronic pain:
Toxineering pays off, we have seen

But the true coolest thing
(and this makes my heart sing)
Is that, someday, I’m likely to hear
From my neighbor (say, Bob)
When I ask him his job,
He replies “I’m a nerve toxineer”.

Via the NY Times, some really cool science.

Venoms contain many active toxins, not all of them suitable for use in humans. And once a potentially effective toxin is identified, researchers must run further tests to determine which neural pathways it might affect.

But now researchers at Yale University say they have sped up the process by using DNA cloning technology to build large libraries of spider venoms. This makes it easier to test the impact of a broad range of toxins on a particular neural pathway. They refer to the process as toxineering.

Three cool things stand out to me:

Third coolest: Sure, we’ve seen it before, but the whole idea of using naturally occurring venoms as a laboratory for medicine is just plain cool. The paper the Times refers to reviews quite a few examples, only some of which I was familiar with–cone snail toxins, for instance, along with scorpion venom and literally hundreds of different sorts of spider venoms. Evolution did the tinkering to invent the stuff, and all we need to do is discover it before we render it extinct (we are our own worst enemies, sometimes). In this case, a promising treatment for chronic pain and inflammation was found in the venom of Peruvian Green Velvet Tarantula. Yeah, I know–and this is only the third coolest thing.

Second coolest: But you see, naturally occurring venoms are messy–there may be a great many different toxic peptides in one spider’s venom, in varying amounts, and it might be very difficult to see the effects of a low-concentration peptide when it is masked by a much more abundant one. The new research clones individual toxins, such that mixtures of equal molarity can be tested. The specific peptide here was found by systematically exploring a toxin library of around 100 cloned toxic peptides. The procedure can be scaled, too–it doesn’t depend on farming a whole bunch of spiders. So, yeah, there are people who can casually drop into conversation the fact that they happen to have a library of spider toxins that they can mix to order. I expect this from Bond villains, or from Sherlock Holmes, but not in real life. Very cool. But only second coolest.

Coolest: They call the process “Toxineering”. Which, to me, juxtaposes thoughts of SPECTRE and the Mickey Mouse Club. “Toxineer roll call!” I picture lab headgear with, instead of Mousketeer ears, oversized tarantula eyes. Annette Funicello with extra legs. Theme parks located in hollowed out volcanoes. Souvenir lab coats.

But I am easily amused.

Natural Experiment On Gun Availability

If you give the people weapons, is this good or is it bad?
I suppose it all depends upon their aims
Up to now, there’ve been no data, so the arguments we’ve had
All rely on someone’s a priori claims

“But of course we’d be much safer if most everyone was armed!—
Cos the criminals would know they could be shot!”
“No!—more guns would mean more shootings, and more children being harmed!”
But it’s arguments, not evidence, we’ve got.

Now a natural experiment (Missouri” is its name)
Has an answer—and for some, it’s no surprise;
Cos a jump in shooting homicides has policy to blame—
Ease of access means that murder rates will rise.

Via the BBC today, a report (from the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting, like yesterday’s post) on a natural experiment on the effects of gun control legislation. Missouri, in 2007, repealed their requirement for licensing and vetting by local law enforcement before purchasing a handgun. So… was this good or bad? My gun-loving friends would predict an immediate drop in crime, now that handguns are easier to purchase, and potential victims are more likely to be armed. The data?

Reporting soon in the Journal of Urban Health, the researchers will say that the repeal resulted in an immediate spike in gun violence and murders.

The study links the abandonment of the background check to an additional 60 or so murders occurring per year in Missouri between 2008 and 2012.

“Coincident exactly with the policy change, there was an immediate upward trajectory to the homicide rates in Missouri,” said Prof Daniel Webster, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research.

“That upward trajectory did not happen with homicides that did not involve guns; it did not occur to any neighbouring state; the national trend was doing the opposite – it was trending downward; and it was not specific to one or two localities – it was, for the most part, state-wide,” he told BBC News.

So… stopping a bad guy with a gun might involve making it harder for that bad guy to get the gun in the first place. According to the data. Which might explain why the NRA worked so hard to keep the data from being compiled and analyzed.

These arguments, these questions–they do have answers. There are data that could be examined. We need not simply argue from first principles.

And my friends who believe that the most important freedoms of all are those protected by the second amendment can start framing their arguments in terms of how many lives this freedom is worth. Freedom isn’t free, after all. We can *expect* a cost in human lives–like in war, some things are worth a cost in blood and lives.

So… 60 extra murders per year in just one state. Freedom isn’t free. But hey, these deaths buy you the ability to buy a handgun without a background check! So you can feel safer! Mind you, the actual data show that this feeling is an illusion, but you have a right to this illusion!

Templeton Funded Research Finds Science & Religion Compatible (or, that evangelicals have their own definition of “science”)

Evangelicals will tell us, they are unafraid of science;
They assume it proves the bible to be true.
There’s a scientific method into which they put reliance
But it looks a little strange, to me and you.

They’ll evaluate hypotheses experimentally
Then, conclusions will be carefully inspected:
Do results remain consistent with the bible? And we see,
If they’re not, then the conclusions are rejected.

Perfect science, thus, can never be at odds with Christian thought,
Clearly, science and religion coexist!
Any finding not agreeing with the bible, as it ought,
Is a finding simply stricken from the list!

When you’re truly doing science, then you do the work of God
He’s the author of the evidence you read
It’s a different sort of science, so at first it might seem odd,
But a Bible/Science mix is what you need!

The latest headline out of this year’s American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) conference in Chicago is that there isn’t really a any contradiction between Science and Religion… at least, when you (as the Elaine Howard Eklund did, supported by a Templeton grant) poll people to see what they think is the case.

It sounds all friendly and promising… until you look a bit deeper into the results, and realize that a good many people are using a very loose definition of “science”. For instance (as reported by phys.org),

* Nearly 60 percent of evangelical Protestants and 38 percent of all surveyed believe “scientists should be open to considering miracles in their theories or explanations.”
* 27 percent of Americans feel that science and religion are in conflict.
* Of those who feel science and religion are in conflict, 52 percent sided with religion.
* 48 percent of evangelicals believe that science and religion can work in collaboration.
* 22 percent of scientists think most religious people are hostile to science.
* Nearly 20 percent of the general population think religious people are hostile to science.
* Nearly 22 percent of the general population think scientists are hostile to religion.
* Nearly 36 percent of scientists have no doubt about God’s existence.

I regularly read, in comment threads, claims that “actual science disproves evolution”, that there is a conspiracy by atheist scientists, who simply ignore the copious evidence of God’s existence. Science, I am told, has proven an afterlife, and ghosts, and dowsing, and ESP, and free energy, and more. So I am not in the least surprised that a poll of evangelicals shows that most of them have no problem with science as they understand it.

I also once read, in an actual print journal, an explanation of the scientific method that was remarkably like what you might find in science textbooks… but with one further step. After you crunch your numbers and draw conclusions, you “compare your answers to biblical truth.” I shit you not. So, yeah, when you do science this way (the right way!), it is impossible to find disagreement with biblical principles.

I have seen it argued that, were it not for God keeping everything following His laws, we would see pure chaos, so the fact that we can do science proves that God is there, doing His thing. But since God is always there, the laws are constant–that is, since God is constantly and consistently intervening, it looks like He is not intervening at all. And since you can trust God to keep the clockwork going, it is perfectly fine to do science without explicitly invoking (nor denying) His influence.

But that view, in which everything is a miracle, has no place for miracles as explanations for specific phenomena. That first bullet point quoted above would include the possibility that God could intervene at any point. “Then a miracle occurs!” would be a standard model, not the (arguably) most famous science cartoon ever. How exactly would that work? How would incorporating miracles into scientific explanation work? It can’t, that’s how. Can people believe that it does? Certainly, so long as they redefine either god, or science, or both.

Eklund has not found that science and religion are compatible. Rather, she has found that people’s definitions of “science” can be modified as needed to fit.

In Which I Argue At Length With A MacArthur Genius

Strong-ily, wrong-ily
Tout their position:
“The self as the brain”

Finding our cause in our
Sadly, it’s fictional:
Lemme explain….

(tl;dr–”brain as self” models are dependent on a particular philosophical model; the conclusions are more a factor of the requirements of that model than of the evidence.)

Mano presents a clip from the Colbert Report, in which neurophilosopher Patricia Churchland tells Colbert that neuroscience shows there is no such thing as, among other things, a soul.

True enough… but damn, does she have to say the brain is responsible for consciousness? That is just plain… well, dependent on a set of philosophical assumptions that are rarely if ever questioned. Which leads to bad questions, which leads to crap answers, which leads to “deep philosophical questions” that are a pile of horseshit.

“We (some mammals) have the same neural mechanism for pair bonding” (paraphrased from Churchland’s interview) is not at all the same thing as “the brain is responsible for pair bonding”. And the difference makes all the difference in the world. And, oddly enough, the difference is philosophical.

If you think that, say, a person could be replicated at a given moment—replicated down to the quark, or smaller if such things exist—and that this replicated being would possess all the qualities of the original… then you are a mechanist. The notion that your life history is stored, is somehow represented in the structures of your body, is mechanistic. The requirement that any change in your behavior is necessarily the effect of some immediate cause, some proximal cause stored in body or mind or wherever… is mechanistic. That is, these things which make so much sense, make sense because they are framed in terms of a mechanistic world view which you (not just you , of course) have been fed since you were knee high to a jackalope.

But, you see, mechanism is not A) the only philosophy you can use in such scenarios, nor B) the way you live your life and learn the terms used back in that mechanistic scenario. See, the thing is, events in your life unfold over time. And that time need not be compressed and represented as some instantaneous thing. Mechanism’s metaphor is a clockwork, and you can stop a clock, look at its gears, and infer what happens in present, past, and future. A clockwork represents all of that information in an instantaneous slice of time/space. That’s a requirement of the model. That’s not a requirement of reality.

You see, there are other models. A contextualist model recognizes the contributions that happen across time and across situation, and does not require that they be “stored” inside you, since they actually do exist outside you, and are part of the context of your actions. Your actions can only be defined as embedded within context—the environments that promote or suppress a given range of behavior, the consequences that select for or against a range of behavior…

In other words, what you do in a given situation depends on what has tended to work in similar situations. An evolutionary model, really.

“Fitness” is not stored within an individual; fitness is defined across populations, across generations, with respect to environments. Fitness is necessarily dependent on variables that are defined across extended time and space. To place “fitness” inside an individual, as the presumed cause of their success or failure at something (sex, say, or foraging), is to misrepresent the concept. (alas, yes, I have seen it presented this way—that is precisely the problem I am writing about.)


The same, exact misrepresentation is constantly used in human behavior. There are concepts (again, like “fitness” in biology, and “consciousness” in behavior) that are only definable in a manner extended over time, and dependent on environment. Those wonderful brains that are the “cause” of the self? They have been shaped by the environment, in (at least) two very important ways, across two very different scales of time. One, of course, is evolution—this is at least given lip service in the “brain is self” camp, though it seems all too often as if they want to think of our modern brain as the ultimate product of evolution, rather than an ongoing work. But yes, over millions and billions of years, the environment has selected this behavior over that, and the brain structures that support this behavior have thus been favored. It is not, of course, the brain itself that is being selected for or against, but the behavior (and in our case, the flexibility in behavior) it allows.

The second sort of environmental influence, I don’t think I have ever seen credited in a “brain is self” claim, although it is every bit as important as the evolutionary history. Every brain that a researcher runs through a PET scan, CAT scan, X-ray, FMRI, or EEG… is part of an actual person, a whole organism that has been interacting with an environment, including a culture, for all of its lifetime thus far. This brain is part of a person who behaves—over time, and with respect to environment (including social and cultural environment as well as physical environment)—and whose behavior can only be seen as unfolding across time.

You cannot slice open a person’s leg to see where they have walked. A person’s accent is not stored in their vocal cords while they are not speaking. Where they have walked, and how they talk, are dependent on where, and with whom, they lived. We speak of stored abilities, or traits, or habits, but these things are only seen unfolding across time, and their “storage” is not observed but inferred under the assumptions of that clockwork model. The inference comes as a requirement of the model, not as an obvious part of the behavior—where is my walk stored, when I sit down?

Consciousness does not arise in the brain. It is a property of our interactive behavior, unfolding over time. Everything about what it means to be conscious, what it means to be aware, takes place across time and in interaction with an environment; to say it is caused by some brain part is to neglect the history of the environment shaping the brain. “Brain as self” is, functionally, as dualistic (and as wrong) as Descartes’s substance dualism. The brain does not control the body; the brain is part of the body. If there is metaphorical puppetry going on, it is not the brain as puppet master—rather, the environment (across genetic time as well as individual learning) is the puppet master, and the brain acts as the strings.

Yet Another Case Of Ignorance = God

Science looks for laws by which
The real world is constrained
But, gee willikers—free will occurs,
Which physics can’t explain!

So… physics must be incomplete;
A reasonable conclusion—
Of course, there is another one:
Free will is an illusion.

A writer over at The Daily Paul (don’t laugh!–their motto is “Peace, Gold, Love”) demonstrates the problem of “a little learning is a dangerous thing”. And a pet peeve of mine along the way.

I don’t claim any special aptitude or deep understanding of the popular level physics I read, but I was well on my way to adopting the atheist position as my default simply because God was not mentioned as anything intellectually serious anywhere in my searching. To me God was just a made up person, and had no explanatory value.

I never heard of any logical or intellectual arguments for God’s existence, and never knew such a thing existed. There is just no information on that kind of thing available to a regular, non religious child. Public education, popular media, television, science books, all more or less assume atheism.

I was a comfortable atheist for over 15 years, not giving it much thought as a controversial matter, and simply enriching and coloring in my atheism with reading on biology, evolution, and science.

I spent my time and mental energy exploring every other area of contention and controversy — my true passion — and especially political and historical controversy, with a free open mind and the strongest stomach for unpalatable Truth I’ve ever come across.

A simple understanding of popular level physical sciences… and an unquestioned belief in a free mind. Really, it was only a matter of time until one or the other had to go. And since his passion was political (and, given where he’s writing, we can assume Libertarian), the notion that his own thinking was constrained by the same laws that describe the rest of the universe was inconceivable.

You can never know, so you have to either accept God as the ultimate answer, or else maintain a posture of permanent skepticism, and bear all the heavy weight of that skepticism your whole life, holding off all the temptations and comforts offered by a final answer, and the peace it brings.

I accepted that some people throw in the towel earlier than others and that atheism was a privilege of the few, requiring intellectual strength and hardiness.

But finally I actually started listening the the strongest proponents of theism and their strongest arguments, and realized that the matter is far from settled, and that there are powerful philosophical arguments for God, and also powerful defeaters for belief in naturalism, not least of which was the requirement that you adopt a total skepticism of all our reasoning and thinking faculties on a belief system where the mind is formed haphazardly for survival.

And since he feels he has a free, functional, and rational mind, clearly physics and biology cannot be trusted. Free will as a gateway drug to theism.

The thing is, all too many who look to science, for matters of religion or mind, are looking at the wrong sciences. Yes, there is a lot of pseudoscience under the big tent that is psychology, but the areas of sensation & perception, memory, and learning are where we can find that just because our thinking feels free, that doesn’t mean that it is. Turns out, the stuff between our ears does act the same way the rest of the universe does. No magic, either free-will or god, needed to intervene.

New Frontiers In The Science Of Pooping Dogs

The dogs both whine the time is right—
I pull on boots and lace them tight,
I grab the leash, and day or night
It’s off we troop!
Two hopeful spots are both declined—
My dogs must have a place in mind;
The search goes on until they find
Where they will poop.

The perfect place (at last!) is found,
But now they pace the snow or ground
And circle, circle, round and round
And back and forth.
It’s not enough, the perfect place,
There’s one bit more they need to chase:
But now I know—they want to face
Magnetic North

Via NPR, a recent paper in Frontiers in Zoology (pdf) explores the possibility that dogs, like some other mammals, are sensitive to the earth’s magnetic field.

Now, dogs are so intimately intertwined with humans that it is difficult to find dog behavior that does not have the danger of human interference (explicit training or accidental conditioning). But when dogs gotta go, they gotta go.

Right now, the link is not working for me, so I can’t quote from the article, but the bottom line is that, on days of calm magnetic fields, dogs tend to align themselves, north-south, with the earth’s magnetic field (they also tend to avoid east-west alignment); when the magnetic field is in flux (which it often is), there is no such tendency, and alignment is pretty much random.

Once the link is working, you’ll also be able to see one of the best illustrations ever used in a scientific paper… (this one is so nice, I took a screen grab before the site went down for me):

Pooping dog, aligned with magnetic North.

Pooping dog, aligned with magnetic North.

Well, That Was Unexpected!

Apparently, I’m in OpenLab 2013. I did not even know I had been nominated!

It’s for this verse, here, and I couldn’t be happier. You see, it’s an example of my very own verse form (for more on that form, read this… and if you happen to be Stephen Fry, or a close friend of his, I would dearly love an answer), and was inspired by a Doctor Who episode… really, what more could you ask for?

I’ve been in OpenLab before–it’s always an honor, and I am always humbled by reading the other entries, which never fail to impress me more than my own do.

Check it out.

Ah… Memories…

I remember it so clearly
It’s as if it just occurred
I remember every image,
Every moment, every word;
I remember every instant,
Every story, brief or long,
I remember it forever…
But I just remember wrong.

I can tell you all that happened
On a day ten years ago—
I can tell you, I remember,
All my memories, I know—
I can summarize my knowledge,
All the lovely things I feel
All these things are in my memory
But it isn’t really real

It’s a perfect reproduction
It’s the best you’ll ever find
Every detail, trapped forever,
In the amber of my mind
All the flowing stream of consciousness
Is trapped in memory’s cup…
It’s astonishing to realize
Just how much of it’s made up

If your memory’s often fuzzy
Then you might have thought it best
To believe it, when they told you
Half your recollection’s guessed—
But for those with minds of crystal
Those whose memories are clear—
Why, the thought they might be faulty
Is a foreign thing to hear

But the truth, or so they tell us,
Isn’t difficult to see—
We will manufacture memories
And believe them, you and me
And our confidence is faulty,
Though so strongly we believe…
We build worlds upon our memories,
But our memories… deceive.

So, yeah, TIME (remember when they were a magazine?) has a neat (though incomplete, necessarily, given the scope of the subject and limitations of space) piece on false memories–even among those with “highly superior autobiographical memory (HSAM)” (in other words: not me). Seems the evidence shows (color me unsurprised) that even those with incredibly good memories are likely to misremember, and to systematically show biases that distort our memories. (Seriously, worth reading, and with a frankly stunning video which I cannot embed here.)

Even the best are flawed. Sounds very human. And it is. (Not that other species don’t display such flaws, but rather that it seems a characteristic of humanity that we do, despite our opinion of ourselves.) The evidence we send people to execution for… is flawed. As certain as we are, it ain’t necessarily so.

I remember being ready to testify in court as to a person’s guilt… only to find that I was looking at the wrong man. I remember being the person another thought was guilty (they were also wrong, I hasten to inform you). Memory is a nasty and crude tool, but we have been told that there are some among us who claim to have mastered it.

Seems likely they are wrong.

Finally, A Pick-up Guide That Works!

How to pick up women (with science)“, by Dean Burnett, over at the Guardian.

Since the dawn of humanity, when virile men were knuckle-dragging troglodytes untouched by evolution
They needed to pick up women, and looked to experts for a solution
These pick-up artists (or in some special cases, artistes)
Took pity on the manly beasts
And told them that women would respond to certain subtle cues
That experts use.
For millennia, men have tried to use these artists’ information
With little to no success, but with a fervor brought about by desperation
Imagine, now, their joy at discovering a new set of techniques in which they can put their reliance
That uses science!
So, troglodytes, it’s time for you to abandon useless pick-up schools
And follow these rules!

(having read the url, I was reluctant to click–but since it was sent to me by my pal Kylie, I knew I could trust it. And so can you. Well worth reading. My favorite technique is “the Skinner”, harnessing the tremendous power of operant conditioning)