Meaning of “theory” in science and pop-science

In science, a theory is “a well-substantiated explanation of some aspect of the natural world that is acquired through the scientific method and repeatedly tested and confirmed”–according to Wikipedia. This is frequently contrasted with the colloquial meaning of “theory”, which usually refers to something speculative and unconfirmed. It is suggested that in a scientific context, it is more appropriate to refer to a speculative idea as a “hypothesis”.

However, in my experience as a physicist, this is not how the word “theory” is used in practice. Generally, the word “theory” is contrasted with “experiment”, describing the kind of work rather than the quality of the work. Since theories are carefully crafted by experts, it is fair to say that they are more than mere speculation, but that doesn’t mean that every theory has been thoroughly tested and confirmed. Some theories are untested, some theories are in direct competition with other equally viable theories, some theories intentionally model things that do not presently exist, and some theories are just poorly crafted.

So, basically, Wikipedia–and most dictionaries as well–appear to be in conflict with my understanding as a fluent speaker of English physics. That probably means there’s some bad lexicography going on.
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Calling ordinary people racist

Following the election, many people have called for liberals to stop calling their opponents racist. According to them, many of Trump’s supporters aren’t racist, they’re just ordinary people.

Let’s talk about this. I mean, let’s not talk about Trump, because ugh. But this has long been a point of contention: I do, in fact, think that ordinary people are racist. Yet lots of people reject the idea out of hand.

There is nothing inherently ridiculous about saying everyone is a thing. I can say that ordinary people are human. I can say that ordinary people are kind or fascinating or patriotic. What separates “racist” from the other adjectives is that it expresses strong moral disapproval. Humans have massive hangups about moral disapproval.  Here I try to identify and address those hangups.
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Better identity labels

Last month, I said I didn’t care for most atheist models of identity. For example, I hate the “weak”/”strong” atheist distinction. I am not too fond of the gnostic/agnostic atheist/theist scheme. Dawkins’ 1 to 7 scale is okay though.

My views on identity label schemes is largely informed by my participation in asexual discussions. Asexual communities are renowned for making up new words and models. For example, one person might identify as heteroromantic demisexual gray-ace, and another as gray panromantic agender asexual. While these lists are often subject to mockery by Redditors, I find that they are far more intelligible and informative than, say, all the names we have for colors. Also note, for every successful asexual word, there have been many unsuccessful ones.  Everything goes through trial by fire.

The atheist community tends to be a lot less introspective about labels, which results in the persistence of bad identity label schemes. Here I’ll discuss some general qualities that you want identity schemes to have.
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Atheist definitions, according to atheism 101

In an earlier post, I discussed the need for better “atheism 101” resources.  One of my complaints about current resources is anything regarding definitions of atheism.  Part of this has to do with me being an opinionated contrarian, but you can judge that for yourself.

Here I will discuss, “What is Atheism? Overview of How Atheism is Defined in Dictionaries, By Atheists” by Austin Cline on about.atheism.com.  I don’t have anything against Cline, on the contrary he seems a decent writer, which is perfect to start this discussion.

Long-time readers may know that I already object to the title of Cline’s article.  Definitions are overrated.  Words have meanings, which cannot always be encapsulated by definitions.  As I recently observed, identity terms especially communicate a lot through subtext and connotation.  One alternative to definition theory is prototype theory (from linguistics and philosophy).  Under prototype theory, we have an idea of what an atheist looks like (i.e. a prototype), and we classify someone as an atheist if they look sufficiently close to the prototype.

But let’s just note the inadequacy of definitions and move on to the content of Cline’s article…

What Is Atheism? Why Atheists Define Atheism Broadly?:

[…] broadly defined, atheism is the absence of belief in the existence of any gods. Most disagreement over this comes from Christians who insist that atheism must be the denial of gods, or at least of their god.

Introductory atheist resources often hammer endlessly about the distinction between “absence of belief in the existence of any gods” and “denial of gods”.  And it makes sense–there are certainly people out there who lack any belief in gods, and yet they do not deny the existence of gods.  For instance, newborn babies have no coherent beliefs whatsoever.  But babies are besides the point. [Read more…]

Life lessons from board games: Hanabi

Just as we can analyze fiction for its meaning and implication on our lives, we can also analyze board games. In some cases, the analogy is direct, if the board game is heavy on narrative and flavor (“You are investigating strange occurrences in Arkham, closing portals to other realms while the Ancient Ones stir in their slumber”). However, a lot of meaningful content could be extracted from the underlying mechanics and rules. Hanabi is a card game with virtually no narrative at all (it’s about making a fireworks show), and yet it says something deep about the nature of communication.

A Hanabi box stands in front of some tokens, and cards with colored numbers on them. The box says 'Race the clock... Build the fireworks... Launch your rockets!'

Hanabi is a cooperative card game, where players, as a team, seek to play cards in the right order. The problem is that players hold their cards backwards, and thus each player can only see other players’ cards, not their own cards. You can’t just tell other players what they are holding, you have to provide them with a limited number of clues, each clue obeying certain constraints. The game is thus all about efficient communication.

Hanabi is easy to carry around and teach to new players, so I’ve played a lot of games with beginners. I will discuss a common beginner’s mistake, and what it says about communication.
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Love is chemicals, and I am grateful

The problem with a naturalistic world view is that everything is just a bunch of chemicals bouncing around, and nothing means anything. The only way to produce any meaning is if there are a few supernatural spirits bouncing around too.  You know, so they can moan about the meaning of life, the nature consciousness, and objective morality.  Or something like that.

But let’s be real. Chemicals are not “just” chemicals. Quarks and leptons can be quarks and leptons, while at the same time forming chemical structures. Likewise, a chemical can be a chemical, while at the same time forming a person. When we say that love is “just” chemicals, it is not a statement of fact, it is an aesthetic.

A common criticism of naturalism is that it forces us into the “just chemicals” aesthetic. But that’s just one of many aesthetics available to us. If you want to say “love is free yet binds us“, I don’t entirely know what that means, but it seems consistent with reality too. Aesthetics are a matter of preference.

“Love is just chemicals” is an aesthetic I prefer, and I think you should prefer it too. The chief point is that chemicals permit diversity. Love can be experienced in a variety of ways, or not at all, and that’s okay.
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No causal comparison

cn: sexual assault and victim blaming are discussed briefly as an example.

Often we observe some phenomena or trend, and we wish to explain what caused it. Different people can disagree on the cause. Or perhaps they agree on the causes, but disagree on which causes are important. Bold claim: There is no objective way to assess the relative importance of two causes.

I’m making a purely abstract argument, but I’ll offer a few provocative examples:

1. Is a given human trait caused by genetics, or the environment?

2. Is personal success caused by hard work, or by lucky circumstance?

3. Is terrorism caused by politics, or by religion?

4. If a woman is victim of sexual assault, is that caused by the perpetrator, or by risky behaviors on her part?

5. Is our knowledge of physics the result of scientific research, or is it the result of the continuing absence of an earth-destroying supernova?

Among these examples, we’d obviously like to say that some causes are more important than others. We are welcome to say so, but there is necessarily an element of subjectivity in our words.
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