Faster-than-light neutrinos?

I came across this BBC report about some observations at CERN that suggested that neutrinos may be traveling faster than the speed of light. If this is true, it would mean that one of the pillars of modern science, the theory of special relativity, would have to undergo serious scrutiny.

I personally was not too excited by the news and was not even planning to comment on it but it seems to be causing a media sensation and several blog readers sent me clippings from various sources and asked for my opinion, so here it is.

I think that this result is unlikely to hold up and so am not too excited. The reason that I am underwhelmed is that I have been around long enough to recall many previous sightings of tachyons (the technical term for faster-than-light particles) that turned out to be false alarms. They are like Elvis sightings in that there is an initial flurry of excitement that then fades under closer scrutiny. The scientists who reported the recent events are aware of this history and are understandably cautious about making any grandiose claims. They can depend on the media to do that. If other research groups study this is some detail and the results hold up, then there will be cause for excitement. This will likely take a couple of years. Until then, I treat this with considerable skepticism.

So my present attitude is captured in this xkcd cartoon that I saw via Jeff at Have Coffee Will Write.

Sorry to be such a downer but if the history of science teaches us anything it is that the great and enduring theories of physics are never overthrown on the basis of a single experiment.

‘Poor, ignorant atheists’

Recent results revealed by the US Census Bureau show that the ranks of the poor have increased to record levels in the US.

This should really come as no surprise to any thoughtful observer, given the relentless drive by the oligarchy to squeeze everyone else in order to enrich itself. But Walter Russell Mead, one of those so-called ‘centrist’ establishment pundits so beloved in the media who can be relied upon to deliver conventional wisdom on any topic, has come up with his own explanation as to the reasons why. He says that the growing inequality in the US is due to the rise in numbers of poor, ignorant atheists. Why? Because when people leave religion, they also leave religious institutions that promote the virtues that could lead them out of poverty.

He bases his argument on a study that suggests that “While religious service attendance has decreased for all white Americans since the early 1970s, the rate of decline has been more than twice as high for those without college degrees compared to those who graduated from college.”

Someone named David French over at the National Review comments favorably on Mead’s musings that atheism and poverty are closely correlated.

Earlier this week, Walter Russell Mead highlighted disturbing research showing that the poor — far more than the rich — are disconnected from church and religion. While church attendance is dropping among all social classes, it’s falling off a cliff for the poorest and least-educated Americans. In other words, the deeper a person slides into poverty, the more they’re disconnected from the very values that can save them and their families.

French then raised the ante, saying that “It is simply a fact that our social problems are increasingly connected to the depravity of the poor” (my emphasis). Ergo, since the numbers of the poor are increasing, so is depravity.

This astounding statement aroused such a hostile reaction even in the comments section of the same magazine (where one might expect the readership to be sympathetic) that French hastened to write a new post saying that what he said was not what he meant. He used a variation on the old “Some of my best friends are Jews/blacks/Muslims/whatever” defense, dropping various hints that he is a Good and Virtuous Person who Loves the Poor (within a short post he manages to inform us that he is a Calvinist Christian, volunteered to fight in Iraq, adopted a daughter “who was born into absolute poverty in Ethiopia”, and mentors at-risk youth) and that therefore he cannot have meant anything bad.

For some reason, people like Mead (and French) seem to think that we atheists won’t like the idea that the poor and uneducated are falling away from religion and joining us. Here’s Mead again:

Atheists and agnostics like to think of themselves as smarter than the God-bothering trailer trash on Tobacco Road, and deeply dislike the thought that they are losing the argument among the most intellectually qualified and best prepared; religious people have to be concerned for the future of religion when whole social classes are dropping away.

It is a curious argument. The idea that atheists view with disdain the poor and uneducated and do not want them swelling their ranks is absurd. I have felt that it would be harder to dissuade poor people from religion not because they are less smart but because ideas of heaven become more appealing if your life on Earth is hellish. If poor and less-educated people are breaking free from the shackles of religious indoctrination, then religion is heading for irrelevancy even faster than I anticipated. I don’t see how this study is anything but unqualified good news for atheism.

Mead also seems to overlook the fact that the study clearly states that religious adherence is dropping for all, which suggests that the atheists are winning the argument on all fronts, not losing it in any. The drop is just faster for the poorer and less formally educated. So Mead’s smug assertion that we atheists “are losing the argument among the most intellectually qualified and best prepared” is just flat out wrong.

Another revealing mistake that Mead makes is typical of elite Villager thinking: that more formal education necessarily implies that one is smarter or that material success is correlated with virtue. This is a typical conceit of the intelligentsia and the well-to-do, that they reached their state in life purely because of their intrinsic abilities and virtues. This is why it is so easy for people like Mead and French to associate poverty with depravity.

Discussion on the scientific basis for justice and altruism

On Friday, September 23, I will be leading a discussion on these ideas, especially the work of Frans de Waal, Paul Bloom, and Peter Singer on the implications of the theory of evolution.

It will take place from 12:30- 2:00 pm in Nord 310B on the CWRU campus.

The event is free and open to all. Drinks will be provided and you are encouraged to bring your own brown bag lunch.

Elizabeth Warren on Morning Joe

I feel sorry for Elizabeth Warren. Now that she is running for the US Senate in Massachusetts, she will have to deal with an endless stream of preening media personalities who delude themselves that they are journalists.

A prime example is Mark Halperin, who asks her what she would do about the military threat from China. My first reaction was, “What the hell? Why are you asking about something that is so far down the list of concerns?” But the smug expression on Halperin’s face answered my question. I recognized immediately the obnoxious student that all teachers have encountered who thinks up a question on an obscure topic because he thinks it will impress his peers if he can stump the teacher. There is, of course, no reason why Warren should have thought deeply about this particular issue since it is clearly not high on her list of priorities and, being a veteran college instructor, she knew exactly how to deal with such smart-alecks.

Similarly another so-called journalist Mike Barnicle framed his question with such a long preamble that one lost interest in it long before he got to the end. What these people want is to get face time on television, not inform and educate the viewer.

Watch Warren answer these questions well enough and with much greater patience than I would have been able to muster.

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The scientific basis for justice and altruism-part 4

(An expanded version of a talk given at CWRU’s Share the Vision program, Severance Hall, Friday, August 26, 2011 1:00 pm. This program is to welcome all incoming first year students. My comments centered on the ideas in the common reading book selection Justice: What’s the right thing to do? by Michael Sandel. See part 1, part 2, and part 3.)

In the previous post, I pointed out that experiments with babies suggested that although the theory of evolution supports the idea that the desire for justice and fairness is part of our genetic makeup, it is also limited in that seems to stop with our relatives and immediate community or nation. It is not entirely limited, though. There are many examples in evolution of characteristics that evolved to serve one purpose but then get used for other purposes. Sex is a good example. The pleasure it gives served the purpose of encouraging procreation but now people indulge in it for pleasure alone. Similarly, although the desire for justice my have evolved within the domain of kin and the immediate community to benefit the propagation of genes, it can still drive our relationships with the broader community even when there is no genetic benefit.

But there is another important evolutionary development that extends the drive for justice and fairness. What ethicist Peter Singer points out in an excellent book titled The Expanding Circle (2009) is that evolution has also given us the power of reasoning and it is the use of this power that has enabled us to build upon our biological sense of justice to encompass more and more people within our sphere of concern. In other words, our reasoning power has enabled us to go far beyond the initial biological impulse to seek justice only for our relatives and local community and has helped us to develop the idea of impartiality, which is a core feature of the desire for justice.

The way this happens is that while biology might instill in us a desire to treat just our own relatives fairly, our sense of reason tells us that there is nothing particularly special about our families, that ours is just one among many families and that all of them are equally worthy of being treated as fairly as our own. It is then a natural extension to realize that our own community or nation is also just one among many communities and nations and that they deserve fairness and justice too. Once we start reasoning along those lines, the advance is inexorable and we start increasing the size of the circle that encompasses our concern. Reason can overcome parochialism.

As a result of this process, over time we can see that the circle of concern has expanded greatly. We now think that discrimination towards anyone based on gender, race, ethnicity, national origin, sexuality, etc. is wrong. We are also expanding the circle to include non-human animals, with the realization that they too should have many of the rights that we take for granted. As a result we see the rise of animal rights movements, the increased adoption of vegan and vegetarian diets, the drive to eliminate factory farming to ensure that animals are treated humanely, much stricter controls on animal research, and so on.

So while the basic drive for justice and fairness is innate in us, in the sense that it is hardwired into our genetic makeup as a result of our evolutionary history, it required the further evolutionary development of the sense of reason to bring it to fruition, where we seek to maximize justice for everyone, not just our own group.

In his essay Morals Without God?, primatologist Frans de Waal said that Charles Darwin foresaw that this expanded concept of morality would follow naturally in any species that developed social instincts along with sophisticated intellectual powers:

Charles Darwin was interested in how morality fits the human-animal continuum, proposing in The Descent of Man: “Any animal whatever, endowed with well-marked social instincts … would inevitably acquire a moral sense or conscience, as soon as its intellectual powers had become as well developed … as in man.”

As Sandel makes clear in the book, it is not always clear or obvious how to decide what is just in any given situation. What is clear is the importance of developing our ability to reason, so that we can break free of, and rise above, our tribal instincts that makes us want to give special privileges and favors to our own group that we deny to others.

This is where all of you are particularly fortunate. For the next four years, you will be in an environment at Case Western Reserve University that is dedicated almost exclusively to helping you develop your sense of reason and all the other critical thinking skills. During this period of your education you will have access to the finest teachers and scholars, incredible knowledge resources in the library, and most importantly, like-minded and concerned fellow students. You should take maximum advantage of this opportunity to equip yourself with the knowledge and reasoning powers to overcome the challenges you will undoubtedly face in your lifetime.

Such a deep education will also enable you to better judge what is the right thing to do. It is important to do so because the quality of our entire civic life depends on having people work for justice. The writer H. L. Mencken put it well when he said, “If you want peace, work for justice.”

We’re #25!

At least as far as internet speeds go, just behind Romania.

If it seems extraordinary to you that the country that pioneered the internet should lag so far behind now, Tim Karr explains that the prime cause is the lack of competition here, thanks to the ability of the telecommunications giants to pressure regulators.

In the years that followed the signing of the 1996 Telecommunications Act, lobbyists working for powerful providers like AT&T, Comcast and Verizon pressured a compliant FCC to tear down all of the important safeguards established by Congress.

While the U.S. blindly followed a path of “deregulation,” other nations in Europe and Asia beefed up their pro-competitive policies. The results are evident in our free fall from the top of almost every global measure of Internet services, availability and speed.

The lack of competition has turned America into a broadband backwater. In the aftermath of the FCC’s decisions, powerful phone and cable companies legislated and lobbied their way to controlling 97 percent of the fixed-line residential broadband market — leaving the vast majority of consumers with two or fewer choices of land-based providers in any given market.
The absence of true consumer choice has driven prices up and services down.

Earth seen from the ISS

This time-lapse film of the Earth as viewed from the International Space Station is nice to see.

It also shows that the ISS and the shuttles did not fly as far out in space as people often think, being on average just about 225 miles up. So they are quite close to the Earth.

The scientific basis for justice and altruism-part 3

(An expanded version of a talk given at CWRU’s Share the Vision program, Severance Hall, Friday, August 26, 2011 1:00 pm. This program is to welcome all incoming first year students. My comments centered on the ideas in the common reading book selection Justice: What’s the right thing to do? by Michael Sandel. See part 1 and part 2.)

There is considerable evidence that the desire for justice and fairness is innate in us. In an article titled The Moral Life of Babies (New York Times, May 5, 2010) child development psychologist Paul Bloom describes how very young children have a strong sense of justice.

A growing body of evidence, though, suggests that humans do have a rudimentary moral sense from the very start of life. With the help of well-designed experiments, you can see glimmers of moral thought, moral judgment and moral feeling even in the first year of life. Some sense of good and evil seems to be bred in the bone.

He reports on experiments in which babies were presented with puppets who either helped or hindered other puppets.

In the end, we found that 6- and 10-month-old infants overwhelmingly preferred the helpful individual to the hindering individual. This wasn’t a subtle statistical trend; just about all the babies reached for the good guy.

We found that, given a choice, infants prefer a helpful character to a neutral one; and prefer a neutral character to one who hinders. This finding indicates that both inclinations are at work — babies are drawn to the nice guy and repelled by the mean guy. Again, these results were not subtle; babies almost always showed this pattern of response.

Sometimes the babies were quite emphatic about their preferences.

Not long ago, a team of researchers watched a 1-year-old boy take justice into his own hands. The boy had just seen a puppet show in which one puppet played with a ball while interacting with two other puppets. The center puppet would slide the ball to the puppet on the right, who would pass it back. And the center puppet would slide the ball to the puppet on the left . . . who would run away with it. Then the two puppets on the ends were brought down from the stage and set before the toddler. Each was placed next to a pile of treats. At this point, the toddler was asked to take a treat away from one puppet. Like most children in this situation, the boy took it from the pile of the “naughty” one. But this punishment wasn’t enough — he then leaned over and smacked the puppet in the head.

The toddlers also watched pairs of puppets in which one puppet did a good or bad thing and the other puppet rewarded or punished the first. Of the four possible combinations of actions and consequences, toddlers overwhelmingly preferred the puppets that rewarded good acts and punished bad acts over puppets that rewarded bad acts and punished good acts. This showed that the babies were not basing their preferences on what they perceived as good or bad actions but viewed the actions in the context of the purpose they served. This is pretty sophisticated thinking about crime and punishment and justice.

The desire for justice is strong and biological but is limited. For example, toddlers tend to prefer people of their own races, who speak their own language and share their taste in food. Bloom writes that:

3-month-olds prefer the faces of the race that is most familiar to them to those of other races; 11-month-olds prefer individuals who share their own taste in food and expect these individuals to be nicer than those with different tastes; 12-month-olds prefer to learn from someone who speaks their own language over someone who speaks a foreign language. And studies with young children have found that once they are segregated into different groups — even under the most arbitrary of schemes, like wearing different colored T-shirts — they eagerly favor their own groups in their attitudes and their actions.

So are babies and little children racists? If you waggle your finger and go “kitchy-coo” at a baby of a different racial group, will it bite you? It might, but the babies are not making conscious decisions to prefer their own, which is the real mark of racism. They are simply reacting instinctively based on their biology. So biology seems to strongly suggest that our desire for justice, though it is biologically based on our long history of evolution, is also limited to our in-group. This difference in the way we treat in-group members versus the way we view those who are ‘out-group’ members can and does lead to all manner of strife and tribal behavior between communities, religions, castes, and nations.

So does the theory of evolution say that our biological desire for justice stops with our relatives and immediate community or nation? In the next and final post in this series, I will look at how we overcome that kind of parochialism.

Bathroom mania

For reasons that are not clear to me, the Plain Dealer wasted a huge amount of the limited space in its front section to a story about a fancy lakefront property that was on sale for nearly $20 million. The item read like a huge, free, real estate advertisement and fell into the category of what is known as ‘real estate porn’, that showcases the absurdly extravagant homes of the wealthy.

But what struck me was that the 38,000 square foot house built on 160 acres consisted of five bedrooms, nine bathrooms, and seven half bathrooms.

Why would you need sixteen bathrooms for a private home that has just five bedrooms? Do rich people need to go to the bathroom a lot and so must have one handy at any moment?