Cricket World Cup excitement

The vast numbers of cricket fans out there in my blog’s readerland are no doubt anxiously wondering what is going on in the World Cup of cricket currently taking place in the West Indies. As I wrote earlier, the end of the first stage of group matches saw the shocking defeat of the strong Pakistani team by the lowly Irish, and the surprising elimination of the Indian team by the Bangladeshis. The murder of the Pakistani coach Bob Woolmer following his team’s defeat still remains unsolved, with no arrests.
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How I almost changed the face of TV

Recently I received a letter from a company called Television Preview. In big block caps, it said the following:

DEAR TELEVIEWER:

YOU HAVE BEEN SELECTED TO PARTICIPATE IN A SURVEY WHOSE FINDINGS WILL DIRECTLY INFLUENCE WHAT YOU SEE ON TELEVISION IN THE FUTURE.

YOU HAVE BEEN SELECTED TO EVALUATE NOT-YET RELEASED TELEVISION MATERIAL THAT IS BEING CONSIDERED FOR NATIONWIDE BROADCAST.

YOU HAVE BEEN SELECTED TO HELP REPRESENT TELEVISION VIEWING PREFERENCES OF THE ENTIRE COUNTRY.

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How to read scholarly works

Most of us in our lives will be required to read a lot of stuff and it will take a lot of time. To become more efficient at it, it helps to realize that there are many types of readings, and that you need to adopt different reading strategies for the different kinds of documents you will encounter. The purpose of the readings will also vary. Sometimes you will read for the gist, sometimes for the argument, and sometimes for certain details. Your reading strategy has to be adjusted accordingly.

For example, you don’t read a science textbook the same way you read a novel. (This may seem obvious but I am always surprised by the number of people who try to read such textbooks from beginning to end, just as they would a novel.) You don’t read journal articles in the natural sciences the same way that you read articles in the history and philosophy of science.

In the case of science journal articles, expert readers tend to focus closely on the abstract, introduction, and conclusions, and much less on the background theory, methods, and even the data. Much of the theory and methods is boilerplate that can be skipped or skimmed over in the first pass.

When reading scholarly works in the history and philosophy of science (such as we encounter in my seminar course on the evolution of scientific ideas), the literature tends to take a particular form and it helps to read it with this form in mind. The form is as follows:

1. The author identifies the MAIN problem(s), explains why it of interest, and why it is important to find a solution.
2. The previous solutions to the problem are discussed and reasons are given (in the form of evidence and arguments) why those solutions are unsatisfactory.
3. The author proposes a new solution to the problem and gives reasons (in the form of evidence and arguments) why the new solution should be accepted.
4. In making the author’s case, other auxiliary problems will usually also be identified and addressed in the course of making the larger case.

So when reading these kinds of works, it is good to try and understand them using the above framework. While the underlying structure of the argument will be similar, different authors will present it in different sequences and styles, so these papers usually require several readings before the answers to the above four questions become clear. It takes a while for us to become comfortable reading papers this way, and practice helps.

This brings me to the notions of how you respond to the things you read. In academic discussions, we place a high priority on first understanding what the author is trying to say, to try and see the world through the author’s eyes. This requires us to be in an accepting mode of mind. This does not mean that we have to agree with everything the author says. But you have to also be able to switch into a skeptical mode at times in order to critique the author, and expert readers keep switching between accepting and skeptical modes repeatedly and know when they are doing so.

If you disagree with the author’s point of view, you need to state how your conclusions differ from the author’s, and why. This can be done negatively (by pointing out flaws in the author’s reasoning, or challenging the validity of the evidence presented) and positively (by presenting a different line of reasoning and contrary evidence, and arguing as to why your approach is superior.) In other words, you yourself have to go through the above four steps for your argument to be taken seriously in academic circles.

Notice that you usually have to conform to the canons of evidence and argument that are accepted in that particular field. For example, in physics and other sciences, evidence usually means experimental data or observations, but in the history and philosophy of science, evidence does not necessarily mean data or experimental results or surveys, though these are not excluded. Scholars in the latter field (such as Karl Popper, Thomasa Kuhn, Imre Lakatos, etc.) use the historical record, the ideas and writings of other authors, and appeals to everyday experience as evidence in structuring their arguments.

It is important to bear in mind that just saying that you do not agree with the author’s point of view does not carry much weight in academic discussions. However outrageous the author’s conclusions might seem to you, and however strongly you might disagree with them, you cannot assume that that is enough to discredit the argument. You still need to criticize it using the conventions of academic debate.

Criticizing the author’s style (by saying that the author is making his or her case badly or even offensively) is fine as far as helping you develop your own distinctive writing style, but is not sufficient as an argument against the author’s ideas. You still have to address the substantive content of the writing.

Trying to understand the author’s motivation can also help in understanding the structure of the argument, but just because the motivation is not agreeable does not automatically make the author’s arguments invalid. For example, in the literature on the philosophy of science, it seems clear that Karl Popper wants to define science in such a way that it excludes the central ideas of Marx or Freud or Adler. Popper seems to want to protect the prestige of science and, for some reason, dislikes these particular three fields of study and objects to their supporters claiming scientific status for them. Those who would like any or all three subjects included as part of science might disapprove of Popper’s motivation, but that does not make Popper wrong. To challenge him on the substance, you will need to show why his definition of science does not work, propose another definition that meets your purposes, and provide evidence and arguments to persuade the reader to prefer your definition over Popper’s. Again, you have to go through steps 1-4 above.

In short, to become better readers, we need to understand the modes of scholarly discourse in each discipline, the purpose of the reading, and use that knowledge to adjust our reading (and writing) strategies and styles accordingly.

Good reading and writing skills are two sides of the same coin and Heidi Cool has an excellent post on what makes for good writing, with lots of useful resource links.

POST SCRIPT: Rep. Ron Paul

Congressman Ron Paul (R-Texas) is running for the Republican presidential nomination. He is an old-style Libertarian-Republican (as opposed to the Authoritarian-Republicans that currently dominate the party) who has opposed the Iraq war from the beginning. Although I don’t agree with some of the things he says, he is definitely a much more thoughtful person than the other Republican candidates, and his views should get a much wider hearing than what they are currently receiving.

Here he is interviewed by Bill Maher.

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Iran and the captured British sailors

One cannot view the reaction of the British and US governments and media to the capture of 15 British naval personnel by Iran without feeling even more cynical about the double standards that are now taken for granted.

It is being simply assumed here that the British government’s claim that their people were not in Iranian waters is true, without any further discussion. Bush, itching for a reason to bomb Iran, has even called them ‘hostages.’ He says this with a straight face even as the fate of five Iranian officials captured by the US January 11, 2007 remain unknown:
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The case of the ‘Australian Taliban’

After calling David Hicks one of the worst of the worst of terrorists and keeping him in solitary confinement for over five years, in a lightning turn of events, he was suddenly sentenced to just nine months imprisonment, to be served in Australia. This was the first case under the so-called ‘military commissions’ system which has been strongly criticized for their rules of operation which violate the kinds of basic judicial protections designed to provide fair hearings.
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Driving notes

Why is that some drivers don’t understand simple road courtesy that should be instinctively obvious to anyone? Here are some examples of what I mean.

1. I think it was Gregory Szorc who raised this driving peeve some time ago but I want to bring it up again. I drive to work along residential streets that allow for just one lane of traffic each way. But cars are allowed to park on one side of the street so sometimes you will find that a parked car is blocking your lane. If another car is approaching on the other side, it should be obvious to anyone that that car has the right of way and that you should remain behind the parked car and only pull out and go around the parked car once the road is clear. And yet I repeatedly find that cars swerve around the parked car and expect the oncoming traffic to stop and wait for them until they get back into their own lane. It seems as if the blocked lane car drivers have a sense of grievance that because they were blocked, others should move out of the way to accommodate them. A curious reaction.

2. Another peeve occurs when approaching Case along North Park at the point where it merges with MLK drive. At that point, North Park narrows from two lanes of traffic to just one with no indication as to which lane should yield. So it should be obvious that drivers in the two lanes should alternate while merging zipper-style. But very often, there is a driver who is determined to get ahead of the rightful car and so comes right up to the bumper of the car in front so that two cars from the same lane enter the narrow strip. On occasion I have seen even a third car try to creep in ahead of the rightful car.

What puzzles me is that there is so little to be gained by this act of petty road rudeness. The only time you have saved is the time taken to travel one car length, which is less than one second. So why do drivers do this?

3. Then there is the person who is scared to wear out their turn signals. On occasion I will see a car ahead of me in the adjacent lane wiggling back and forth sideways erratically. I usually assume that it is someone on a cell phone but they sometimes suddenly cut into my lane and I realize that what they were really trying to do was get into my lane and the wiggles were merely aborted attempts. All this angst on their part could have been avoided if they simply signaled their intent. Like many drivers, if I see someone indicating that they want to move into my lane in traffic, I drop back and flash my high beams to let them know they can. So why do people not even bother to signal their intentions and let other people make room for them?

4. When visibility is poor due to heavy rain or snow, it sometimes is of no help to you to put on your lights because it does not increase your own range of vision. But you should put them on anyway because it helps other people to see you. Why is this so hard to understand for some drivers, who insist on surprising other people by their sudden appearance out of the gloom?

5. The bank I use has two drive-up ATMs next to each other. Because they are close to each other, you cannot cut sharply enough to get close to the second one if there is a car at the first one. If both machines are being unused, you would think that the first car to arrive would move up to the farther machine so that the car behind would be able to drive up to the first one. And yet, time and again, I have seen the first car stop at the first machine, thus causing the second car to have to wait for them to finish their transaction, even though there is a vacant machine. I have to think that such people are simply oblivious to the world around them.

6. This is not a peeve but an observation. Traffic circles are a rarity in the US, reserved for major intersections. But I found that in Australia and New Zealand traffic circles are very common, replacing four-way stop signs even in residential areas. They work very well because a circle causes traffic to slow down without having to stop, the right of way is clear, and it makes for smooth driving. They use circles even for T-junctions.

I have even seen them used where there is no intersection at all, where they seem to serve as a speed control device in residential areas. A long uninterrupted road might tempt people to speed, even in a residential area. Having to slow down to go around the circle serves to moderate speeds without the jarring effect of speed bumps, the option most frequently used here. This is an idea worth adopting from those countries.

7. There is one thing that those countries could learn from the US and that is the use of the center yellow line to separate lanes of traffic going in opposite directions. They use a complicated system of solid, long-dashed, and short-dashed lines, all white, and on multiple lane roads it was sometimes not clear to me where the line separating opposing lines of traffic was. Given that I was having to be extra cautious because I was driving on the “wrong” side of the road, this was quite a concern. A yellow center line removes all the ambiguity.

POST SCRIPT: Interviews with Richard Dawkins and Francis Collins

Terry Gross of Fresh Air had two in-depth interviews last week on the science religion issue. The first interview was with Richard Dawkins and the second was with Francis Collins.

Both people are eminent scientists who took quite different paths when it comes to religion. Richard Dawkins is an evolutionary biologist who was mildly religious as a child but became an atheist in his teens when he discovered Darwin’s ideas. Francis Collins was head of the Human Genome Project and was not religious as a child but became an evangelical Christian in his twenties.

Dawkins’ views are quite well-known. Collins is a ‘two-worlds’ advocate (science deals with the material world, religion deals with the spiritual world) who thinks that god works though the laws of science like evolution.

Terry Gross does a good job of letting the two guests expand on their views. The interviews are each about 40 minutes in length. There are also supposed to be a downloadable podcasts but I could not find them.

“Bong hits 4 Jesus”

The US Supreme Court heard arguments last week in the case where a high school student was suspended by the principal for unfurling a 15 ft banner that said “Bong hits 4 Jesus.” (The transcripts of the oral arguments can be seen here.)

In 2002, the student (Joseph Frederick) had revealed his banner on a public street in Juneau, Alaska during a parade where the torch for the winter Olympics was being carried, and the school had allowed students out to watch the parade. The student involved had wanted to get on the TV news programs covering the parade and had decided that this phrase would do the trick in drawing attention to him.

I must congratulate the student on showing remarkably accurate judgment on what local TV news finds newsworthy. The phrase he used is inane and meaningless but had the right combination of concepts (drugs and Jesus) put into a snappy sound bite that is fun to say and very memorable, making it perfect for TV news. Say “Bong hits 4 Jesus” and you will see what I mean.

(There are some words that are funny just because of the way they sound and “bong” is one of them. It reminds me of a Monty Python joke where one person asks another “What is yellow and sounds like a bell?” The respondent says “I don’t know. What?” And the first person says “Dung.” The whole joke depends upon the person drawing out the ‘ng’ sound of “Dung” like it was a church bell.)

The case is being tried as a free speech issue. The school principal (Deborah Morse) defends her action as being an appropriate response to a student who was advocating an action (drug use ) that is against the law and school policy. The student (who has now got publicity that must have exceeded his wildest dreams) is defending his action on free speech grounds.

I don’t want to get into that argument but instead focus on a different issue and that is the need for teachers to have a sense of humor when it comes to dealing with students. One of the enjoyable things about teaching students is that many have a sense of fun. Sometimes it is silly, sometimes clever, and sometimes irreverent. Almost always it is harmless and not meant to humiliate the teacher or bring the institution into disrepute. Very often the students may not have completely thought through the consequences of their humor or considered how it might look from a different perspective. Teachers need to be aware of this and be able to see the silliness for what it is, laugh it off, not take offense so easily, and even use such incidents as teaching moments.

But apart from the apparent lack of humor on the part of the principal, there is also another aspect of this case that has intrigued me. Why had the principal taken such strong offense and gone to the (to me) extreme step of ordering the banner be taken down and suspending the student? I suspect that the real trigger was not the stated one that the phrase was advocating illegal drug use (which strikes me as a bit of a stretch) but that the principal was offended at the suggestion that Jesus was being called a pothead, and thus Frederick was making fun of Christianity. If the sign had said “Bong hits 4 Joe” I do not think it would have caused anywhere near the ruckus. It probably would also not have got the student on TV because the meaninglessness of the phrase would have been apparent.

Inserting the name Jesus was the real cleverness on the student’s part, showing that he has a shrewd instinct for how to push people’s buttons.

POST SCRIPT: Kucinich on Iraq occupation and Iran clouds

US congressman and Case alumnus Dennis Kucinich will be speaking “Iraq and Iran: The Way Forward”, followed by Professor Pete Moore of the Political Science department. Professor and chair of History Jonathan Sadowsky will moderate as well as give some introductory remarks.

The talks are promised to be brief leaving a lot of time (50 minutes) for questions and discussion.

When: Tuesday, April 3 at 4:00pm
Where: Strosacker Auditorium

The event is sponsored by Case for Peace, and co-sponsored by the Center for Policy Studies of the Department of Political Science.

The event is free and open to the public.

God in the supermarket

Long time readers of this blog will recall the famous banana argument for the existence of god put forward by an evangelist named Ray Comfort, accompanied actor by Kirk Cameron. The design of the banana is so exquisite, he said, that it could not have evolved according to Darwinian natural selection. He asserted that the existence of the banana was the ‘atheist’s nightmare.’ (This clip has to be seen to be believed. Move the cursor to the 3:25 minute mark to get to the good stuff.)

Well, another ‘atheist’s nightmare’ has surfaced, this time to show why life could not have originated naturally by the action of energy on inorganic matter. The evidence? To appreciate it, you have to move from the fresh fruit section a few aisles over to where the peanut butter is.

(Thanks to MachinesLikeUs.)

Oddly enough, the argument used in this video is the very same ‘absence of evidence is evidence of absence’ argument that I wrote about before, but used incorrectly. There is so much wrong in how this reasoning is used here that one scarcely knows where to begin.

But what I would like to warn the person in the video who is making the case based on peanut is that this kind of argument can be fatal, not for atheists (unless they get a heart attack and die from laughing), but for religious beliefs, because it falls into the trap of ad hoc thinking which can be so easily demolished.

From back when religious believers realized that they could not assume that the idea of god was obviously true and needed some supporting evidence, they have cast around for things that they thought ‘proved’ some religious idea. Initially they have sought to provide evidence of things that could not have occurred except for the action of god.

First it was “Look, the human being! It is so perfect that it has to have been created in the image of god.” Then later it was “Look, the eye! It’s so perfect it cannot have evolved!” And when that fell apart, it was intelligent design creationism with its more sophisticated “Look, the bacterial flagellum!” Now it is degenerating to “Look, the banana!” and even “Look, its Skippy extra smooth peanut butter!”

The flaw is that the proposers of these ideas never seem to explore the implications of their ideas and this is where they differ fundamentally from the scientific approach. All scientists realize that any idea to explain anything has consequences that extend well beyond the thing being immediately explained, and that these consequences must be investigated.

Charles Darwin’s idea of evolution by natural selection is quite simple and the main argument can be stated in a few hundred words. But his groundbreaking book On the Origin of Species consists of nearly 500 pages where he carefully explores a huge number of the possible consequences of that idea, looking both for corroborating evidence and for weaknesses in his theory. He examines animals, birds, insects, fish, and plants from all over the world, looking for patterns. It is an exhaustive and encyclopedic effort, of which I will write more later.

The person making the peanut butter argument has obviously not thought things through. If he thinks that finding an organism in a peanut butter jar or in any other processed food item is evidence of how life originated without god, then he has lost the case because I think almost everyone has at some time bought some item of food that seemed to be ‘spoilt’, i.e., contaminated by some bacteria. We put this down to a fault in the manufacturing process. It is not unknown for foreign matter to creep into food products, and court cases resulting from such events are legion. But for this person, such an event would be a sign of life being created by the action of energy on matter, without the need for god.

I wish it were that easy to show how life originally came into being. Then all scientists would have to do is fan out into the world’s supermarkets and systematically examine each jar of processed food to see if any living organism is found. But instead scientists continue to do it the hard way, in the laboratories, under controlled conditions.

POST SCRIPT: Evolution in cartoons

Here’s a quick summary of Darwin’s ideas from The Simpsons.

And while we’re at it, here’s a compilation of religion related clips from The Family Guy.

And here’s another clip from The Simpsons.

The US attorney purge reveals demonstrates the power of blogs

As a blogger, I have been curious about the evolving role of blogs in public discourse, especially with regard to politics. Its role in broadening the range of perspectives and analysis that is available is quite obvious. Readers are no longer limited to the stale and vapid choices of the editorial page editors of their newspapers for commentary. But what about the role of blogs in actual reporting? Do they add anything there?

The flap over the firing of US attorneys has revealed the special role that blogs can play in creating actual news. Although the mainstream media have only brought the story into public consciousness the last two weeks, those of us who read blogs, especially Talking Points Memo (TPM), have known that this was brewing for a long time.

Josh Marshall, founder of TPM, back in December first flagged the fact that the US attorney in Arkansas had been fired and replaced by a Karl Rove crony, and he suspected that political patronage was at play. Then on January 13, 2007 he noted the firing of Carol Lam, the US attorney in California who had successfully prosecuted and sent to jail Republican congressman Randy “Duke” Cunningham for bribery, and was in the middle of prosecuting another lobbyist/briber Brent Wilkes and was investigating the role of the former number two person at the CIA Kyle “Dusty” Foggo.

It turned out that other attorneys around the country were being similarly fired around the same time but since each event was considered local news it did not garner attention outside each region. But Marshall’s readers, alerted by his posts in these two cases, sent in information about local firings from all over, making it clear that there was a pattern. TPM thus became a kind of clearing house for information on this story.

Although these firings looked suspicious, the story was not picked up by the major news outlets. In fact the mainstream media actually dismissed this as conspiracy theorizing. Jay Carney who is the Washington bureau chief of Time magazine initially dismissed the charges coming from TPM that there was a coordinated plan to fire US attorneys and replace them with appointees who did not have to undergo Senate confirmation. It was only on March 13, 2007 that he acknowledged that there was a major story that had been unfolding right under their noses.

But what is interesting about the story is that it shows the strength of the blogs, which can unleash the power of thousands of passionate individuals to go out and do some research. While each person has a day job and can do little, the collective result can be quite significant. We saw this happen before in somewhat less significant stories like the Kaloogian photo episode and the Ben Domenech plagiarism expose. In both those cases, swarms of amateur investigators built on one another’s information to rapidly expose the truth.

These volunteers are not trained journalists and thus may miss some things or get things wrong, but they have other advantages. For one, there exist a large number of them. Since they are around the world in different time zones, you have effectively a 24/7 news analysis operation going on. They also have a passion for the issues (often aided by a partisan mindset) and are willing to expend the time to dig up information and not care about getting any recognition or credit. They constitute a new breed of citizen-journalists.

I have written before that the notion of an unbiased, non-partisan reporter is a myth. The best journalism is done by passionate but reality-based people and as long as you have a multiplicity of people pursuing stories from a variety of perspectives, we are more likely to get at the truth, or at least useful information. For each TPM reader anxious to find some nugget of information that is harmful to Alberto Gonzalez, there are others who are equally anxious to find exculpatory evidence. That leaves things as it should be, with the evidence out in the open for us to judge and the professional investigators to pore over.

Legendary muckraking reporter I. F. Stone pointed out that much of the news is in open view (if you know where and how to look for it) or in publicly available documents (if you have the time and energy to rummage through them). But that information is often buried in voluminous documents. There are only a few ways to cut through that dense brush and get at the few real pieces of news buried. You either need readers who are expert in that area and know where to look, or you need a tip, or you need lots of time. But modern newspapers are cutting back on reporters and thus do not have the ability or the desire to pore over such document dumps. Instead they practice ‘access journalism’ where they are dependent on sources feeding them information, or they need high-level politicians to be out in front of the story.

Josh Marshall at TPM has tried to find a way to meld the two models. He has a background in traditional journalism and has three full-time reporters who do traditional investigative work like cultivating sources and making calls. But his readers are the ones who give him tips and provide a lot of analyses and insights.

Right now, Josh Marshall has asked his readers to look at the over 3,000 pages of emails that have been released by the Justice Department in several document dumps, and has provided links to them and guidance on what to look for and how to report it. Since his readers have been following the story from back in December, they are much better informed about what is relevant and important than the reporters in the mainstream media who are scrambling to catch up. Given the large number of readers TPM has, this may be the most efficient investigation underway, better than the reporters and the congressional investigative staff. One TPM reader already was the first to note an 18-day gap in the emails in the crucial period November 15-December 4, just before the firings.

Of course, blogs and their readers can never match the full resources that major news outlets can bring to bear to advance the story once it makes it into the spotlight. But blogs and their readers are increasingly able to make sure that important stories do not go unnoticed. And more importantly, they are much more willing to take a publicly skeptical attitude towards what politicians say, because bloggers tend to have stronger relationships with their readers than with politicians, while the opposite is true for the journalists in the mainstream media.

The role of TPM in breaking this story is now receiving greater attention with an article written in the Los Angeles Times and featured on NPR.

In the new evolving world of internet news, TPM may be providing a model for how to use the distributed power of readers to create actual news.

POST SCRIPT: Richard Dawkins interview on BBC

Another good interview of Dawkins. It is interesting how these interviews grapple with serious questions, with the interviewers asking probing and challenging questions with little of the shouting or the ‘gotcha’ style. As a result, one can really learn something from them.

Scientific proof of god’s non-existence

There were a couple of interesting (anonymous) comments in response to my post on what constitute rational and irrational beliefs. The writer said that I was overstepping the line that divided science from philosophy when I argued that religious beliefs were irrational. The arguments took a familiar form and went something like this:

1. We cannot prove that god does not exist.
2. Hence it is rational to believe that god exists.
3. Scientists should stick to the world of data and not venture to question god’s existence since that enters the realm of philosophy, not science. The author states that if a scientist is asked: ‘In your scientific opinion, does God exist?’ the proper answer should always be, ‘I don’t know. I don’t have any data on the subject.’

I will readily concede the first point, and in fact have done so previously (See here, here, and here.)

But the other two statements do not follow from the first. Just because we cannot prove, using data, the negation of some entity does not mean that it is reasonable to believe in that entity. Scientists constantly make judgments in the absence of data and act on those judgments. In fact, it is essential that they do so, as science could not proceed otherwise.

The only time that you can prove a negative is if you have the ability to do an exhaustive examination of every possible situation. As an example, I can prove to everyone’s satisfaction that no unicorns exist in my office because I can search every nook and cranny and show that none are there. But I cannot similarly prove that no unicorns exist anywhere on the Earth or elsewhere in the universe.

I also cannot prove the non-existence of magic unicorns in my office, that only materialize when I am not present and are capable of hiding all evidence of their visits before they disappear again. It seems to me that arguments for the existence of god are of this nature.

But there is another point about the word ‘proof’ that needs to be emphasized. When scientists use the word ‘proof’ they use it in a slightly differently way from the way mathematicians use it. In mathematics, a proof is a construct based on an agreed set of axioms and rules of logic. If someone challenges the validity of any of the axioms or one of the rules, then the proof is also called into question. But since the axioms are usually few in number and do not necessarily have to be based on data, mathematicians can agree on the validity of more things as working hypotheses than scientists can.

Scientific ‘proofs’ do not have the same level of rigor as a mathematical proofs because the axioms themselves are not simply assumptions but are also expected to justified based on evidence. Also there are far more explicit assumptions that go into scientific conclusions than go into mathematical proofs, thus opening them up to far more challenges. This greater degree of challenge that scientific assumptions receive makes scientific ‘proofs’ different from mathematical proofs. So although I and other scientists use the word proof frequently, we do understand that it is being used in a slightly different sense than a mathematical proof. The word proof is used to signify a reasoned judgment based on the merits of the evidence.

But just because scientific proofs do not have the same status as mathematical proofs does not mean that scientific conclusions cannot be extremely robust. Let me give an example. Most people readily accept that there are just two kinds of electric charge, positive and negative. This is about as well-established a ‘fact’ as one is likely to find in science. This is one of the most firmly held beliefs in all of science and the entire modern world is constructed on the basis of this two-charge model. No one even thinks of questioning this fact. (Note that ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ are just labels and the charges could just as well have been called things like ‘green’ and ‘blue’.)

The interesting question is how it is that we are so certain that there are just two kinds of charges that we base our entire society on it. Do we have certain proof that there are only two kinds of charges? Do we have direct data that no more charges exist? Have we looked everywhere and convinced ourselves of this? The answer to all three questions is no. So how is it that we are so sure that only two kinds of charges exist? It is because of the absence of certain kinds of data.

Here’s how that argument works. Suppose you have three charged objects A, B, and C. What scientists find is that if the charges are such that A and B attract each other and A and C attract each other, then it is always found that B and C repel each other. This set of three observations can be explained by (1) postulating that there exist just two kinds of charges, and (2) adopting a rule that says that like charges repel and unlike charges attract. No data has ever been seen that contradicts the consequences of these two assumptions.

Because of the absence of any data that contradicts any predictions based on those two statements , scientists will say that they are extremely confident that there are only two kinds of charges and this is all the ‘proof’ they need. But note that haven’t actually proved it in a mathematical sense. It is just a powerful inference based on the absence of certain kinds of data, but it is sufficient proof to convince scientists.

Notice though that even this ‘proof’ can be challenged. After all, we have done such experiments with just a few sets of charges. We have not exhaustively repeated them with every single charge that exists in the universe because it would be impossible to do so. As a result, someone can come along and say that scientists are wrong, that there does exist a third kind of charge but that either it has not been found yet or that it does not interfere with the experiments that scientists do. There is no way that scientists can prove this person wrong. How could they? But what they will do is ignore this argument as not worth responding to because that kind of argument has the same standing as magical unicorns in my office or a god who is determined to avoid leaving evidence of his/her existence.

A belief that has no observable consequences is of no use to scientists and they will work on the assumption that this third charge does not exist and that would be perfectly rational behavior. A person who clings to the belief in a mysterious third charge that has no observable consequences will be treated as somewhat eccentric.

Historians and philosophers of science have long pointed out that there is no proposition in science, however idiotic, that cannot be made immune from refutation by the addition of a protective belt of auxiliary hypotheses to shield its weaknesses. But if you want to convince scientists that something like a third kind of charge exists, you will have to provide positive evidence, some actual data that cannot be explained by a two-charge theory. For scientists, the absence of such evidence or data is taken as evidence of absence.

It seems to me that the arguments put forward by believers for the existence of god are of the same kind as those that might be put forward for a third charge: It exists but its effects cannot be observed. But just as scientists are perfectly justified in rejecting as irrational that kind of hypothesis when applied to a third charge and confidently proceeding on the basis that it is false, so it is that we can confidently reject the arguments currently given for the existence of god.

So although you may not be able to prove exhaustively that god does not exist, you cannot obtain a stronger scientific proof than what we currently have.

So if someone should ask me ‘In your scientific opinion, does God exist?’, I would answer ‘No’ with the same degree of confidence that I would say ‘No’ to the question as to whether a third type of electric charge exists.

POST SCRIPT: More lists of famous atheists

Some more lists of well-known atheists and agnostics, along with quotations from them justifying their inclusion in these lists, can be found here and here.

Although it should be obvious, I should add that the mere fact that someone famous is an atheist is not being offered as an argument in favor of atheism. Lists of this kind are simply to identify the members of an affinity group. One could do the same thing with lists of vegetarians or Bassett hound owners.