Monday, 30 April 2012

I don't believe in ghosts...

When people learn I'm a skeptic about things like ghosts and such, they'll sometimes relate to me some horrifically spooky experience they had, and then challenge me with "How do you explain THAT?" as if something supernatural is the only plausible explanation. Well, I can't always, but then, I rarely have enough information about the anecdotal situation to make sense of it, especially since it's been retold to me from the perspective of someone who has already chosen to see it in supernatural terms. So I sometimes respond with the following experience of my own, which took place a few years ago.

It’s never so quiet as right after a heavy fall of fluffy snow. I had just been visiting my parents one dark evening, and was walking out to my car, aware of the unnatural absence of the usual background noise of even this quiet residential neighbourhood, and listening intently to the only sound, the squeaky crunch of my shoes in the snow.

They say the ear can play tricks on you in such silence, so I didn’t quite know what to make of it when I heard my wife’s voice, faintly calling my name, as if from far away. I stopped dead in my tracks for a moment, then shook my head and continued. No, I knew my wife was at home and well out of earshot. But then I thought I heard it again.

I stopped and listened. Could I really have heard my wife’s voice? No. Of course not. The silence was messing with my imagination. After a few more long seconds of silence, I continued, a little faster, towards my car, when suddenly I heard my son’s voice, calling “Daaaaad!”

At that I froze. Something about being a parent makes one acutely sensitive to the voice of one’s own child. It’s absolutely unmistakable, and that was no mere trick of the imagination. My son was definitely calling for me.  I hurried to the car, started it up and drove out onto the main street, resisting the urge to go too fast.

Now, I’m not superstitious, and I don’t believe in ghosts or premonitions or anything of the sort. Yet it was difficult to avoid thinking in such terms. I tried to convince myself that I had not heard both my wife and son calling for me in the impossible silence, but it had been just too vivid to deny. I couldn’t shake a feeling of dread for what I might find when I arrived home.

Anxiously I pulled the car into the garage, hit the remote button to close the garage door behind me, and hastened to the house. Twenty paces from the back door, my cell phone rang in my breast pocket.

My cell phone. I stopped again, for just as long as it took to breathe a sigh of relief. As I mounted the steps of the back porch, my wife opened the door with a smug grin and the handset, my giggling son next to her. Somehow, while pulling on my winter parka, I had bumped against the speed dial button for our house, and not heard her “Hello?” over my crunching footsteps. So I HAD heard their voices calling, but in my early days of cell phone ownership, I was not yet in the habit of knowing I had it with me.

I made sure my next one was a flip phone.

Monday, 16 April 2012

Give Your Children a Voice in the Election

    A municipal election is upon us, and again, my son will be prevented from voting on the grounds that he is under 18 years of age.  Just about everywhere there are government elections, there is a minimum voting age. In most places it’s 18, though there are a few countries where it’s 21, and some where it’s as low as 16. The usual reason for imposing a minimum age is that younger people are deemed not to have the experience, wisdom or maturity necessary to cast a ballot responsibly. 

     Does it work? It isn’t hard to find someone who will complain about the foolishness of the majority of adult voters; almost anyone who voted for a losing candidate will do that. In any event, it is difficult to be sure that the quality of electoral results is better than it would be if we allowed minors to vote.
     In fact, there is something a little disturbing about any rule aimed at limiting the vote to only those we judge to be wise enough. Most modern democracies seem to have abandoned other competency tests for voting rights, and for good reason: it is very difficult to design a literacy test that does not include some form of political or cultural bias, and that would undermine the whole purpose of a free and fair election. 
     Whether or not they succeed in ensuring responsible choices at the ballot box, age limits do prevent young people from participating fully in the democratic process, which has its own drawbacks beyond simply depriving them of a voice. In countries where voting is not mandatory, voters in their twenties have historically poor turnout on election day, and the young are often seen as politically apathetic. But why would we expect anything else, when we’ve given them 18 or more years to get into the habit of not voting?
     In my household, we’ve adopted a simple solution to allow our son to participate, at least until he is old enough legally to vote himself. The three of us hold a miniature election around the kitchen table, and my wife and I agree to cast our ballots for whichever candidate wins a majority of our household votes. In principle, our house is like one of the states in the electoral college system for U.S. presidential elections; whoever wins a majority in the state gets all of the electoral college votes for that state.
     Since there are three of us in our household, and at least two of us are likely to agree on any given issue, we rarely have to worry about what to do in case of a tie. In practice, we discuss our choices well in advance of actually voting, and thus usually reach a consensus. Still, in Canada we have several major political parties, so the possibility of a three-way deadlock at our household election is quite real. It has never happened in our household, but if it does, one possible way to resolve it would be the single transferrable vote (STV).
     Most elections run on a simple “first-past-the-post” system, which means that whoever gets the most votes wins. If there are more than two candidates, you don’t need a majority; you only need more votes than any other one candidate. So in a three way race where candidate A gets 40% of the vote while B and C get 30% each, A wins even though 60% of the voters voted against him. 
     With the STV, voters do not simply choose the one candidate they prefer, but rather to choose as many as they like, and rank them in order of preference. If your favorite candidate doesn’t get enough votes overall to be electable, then your vote shifts to your second choice candidate, and so on. Ultimately the candidate left with the majority of the votes is the winner.
     Such a system is also handy for resolving the three-way tie that could result in our household. If I vote for A with my second choice as B, my wife votes for B with her second choice as C, and my son votes for C with his second choice as B, then B wins as the compromise we can all accept. Of course, there will always be the possibility of an unresolvable tie, but there is less chance of it with the STV system than with first-past-the-post. In fact, STV can even resolve many deadlocks in a two-voter household.
     It seems likely that age limits on voting will be with us for a long time. A baby born today will likely be old enough to vote under the current rules before any major reforms are implemented. Those of us who wish to involve our children in the democratic process need not wait until they are adults. By sharing our own votes with them, we can get them started towards becoming engaged, responsible citizens.

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Evolution is Not Your Friend

In my last post, I mentioned a class of objections to the theory of evolution which do not betray gross misunderstandings of the theory. That is, they acknowledge that while evolutionary theory might have objective scientific merit, it leads to implications about the nature or reality that are intuitively, aesthetically or morally objectionable. These objections take a variety of forms.

For example, some find the Hobbesian view of our nature, red in tooth and claw, particularly depressing. The idea that all living things, including us, are merely the temporary survivors of a brutal struggle of each against every other is not a very positive one for those of us who believe deeply in the values of love, tolerance and cooperation. Indeed, many evolutionary biologists themselves going all the way back to Peter Kropotkin (who was 17 years old when Darwin published On the Origin of Species) have emphasized the role of cooperation and mutual aid, rather than competition and conflict, as an important part of the struggle for survival. Yet while evolution can and has produced altruism and human instincts for morality, it still seems unsatisfying somehow to see these things as ultimately rooted in the self-interest of the genes that produce them. We want to feel that noble self-sacrifice really is noble self-sacrifice, not merely some roundabout way of ensuring one's own survival, or worse, a mistake of misfiring instincts.

As unhappy as that sounds, it doesn't really bother me that much. Regardless of how we happened to end up with our imperfect instincts for morality and justice, we have them and they have provoked the philosophers among us to contemplate the logic of it, using the capacity for generalized intelligence we evolved for other purposes to pursue problems that our ancestral environment never "intended" for us. And personally, I am largely persuaded by the efforts of Kant and Mill that there really is an inherent logic "out there" to morality as distinct from the dictates of natural selection. That we got here by means of "survival of the fittest" in no way means that we must adopt that as our moral compass.

Nor am I particularly upset with the absence of a divinely ordained purpose for our existence offered by evolution. There are people who say that the reason they believe in a Creator is that they feel there must be a purpose, some reason we're here, and that we're not just some accident of no importance in the grand scheme of things. I suppose there are two reasons why this objection doesn't really resonate with me: One, I've never really felt the need for authoritative answers from above. Even as a very young child, I frequently doubted the pronouncements of my parents and teachers, and I've never been able to overcome the epistemological hurdle of some mortal human claiming to speak for God; just because they say God wants me to do this or that doesn't mean that's really what God wants. But two: I've never really understood why it would be such a terrible thing if there were no purpose. We exist, and most of us feel a sense of some kind of purpose, whether it's real or not; why do we need it to be on some absolutely solid foundation before we invest ourselves into it? Isn't our own sense of purpose enough, without having to insist that it be dictated by God to have any real meaning?

No, the implication of evolutionary theory I find more dismal is this: we aren't built to be happy, and to some extent we may actually be built to be unhappy. Think about it: our emotional and intellectual capacities were selected for by evolution because they happened to make it likelier that we'd have offspring who would share these capacities. The things that bring us pleasure and fulfilment are not there for our benefit, but rather simply because they tend to motivate us in certain reproductively advantageous directions. Nature doesn't give a damn that we're happy, and in fact it's not really in our genes' interests for us to be too happy or fulfilled, because they we're likelier to slack off in our gene-propagation activities; it's desire that drives us to do stuff, not satisfaction of those desires.

In our ancestral environment, our desires were rarely if ever entirely fulfilled. One of the reasons we love sweet or rich and fatty foods is to encourage us to stock up on them on those infrequent occasions they became available, such as when fruit comes into season, or we're lucky enough to be able to kill some tasty animal. Most of the time we subsisted on vegetables, and so we tend to view leafy green stuff as something to eat if you're really hungry and there's nothing better available. But today, of course, we have virtually unlimited access to sweets and meats, and we have no built-in instinct to regulate how much of it we eat, because we never needed such an instinct in the nearly constant scarcity of our evolutionary past. Our appetites evolved to make us crave things, and never truly be satisfied. There are very good evolutionary reasons for this, but that doesn't make it any easier to resist overindulging in unhealthy diets.

And the same is true of most of our other biologically determined appetites and instincts. It's not enough that we be well-fed and healthy; we also have evolved as a complex social creature for whom status in the group is a key to reproductive success, so we crave being demonstrably better off than our neighbours, or at the very least not worse off. And this is a game that can never be won for most people, since for anyone to win means for everyone else to lose, to some extent.

So that's what I mean when I say we weren't built to be happy. Not just that it's unlikely to be able to attain happiness, but that it may actually be fundamentally built into our very makeup that we should always be unsatisfied. And so I am sympathetic to those who find the implications of Darwin's theory discouraging, even to the point of wanting to reject it.

Yet in my more cheerful moments, I find reason for optimism. Natural selection may have built us to be chronically dissatisfied, but at the same time, the products of human ingenuity are endlessly surprising. We have figured out ways to satiate ourselves with candy and pork chops. Our technology allows us to communicate with each other instantaneously from almost anywhere on the planet. We have devised ways to organize ourselves and relate to each other that our ancestors never could have imagined. And just as we worked out how to fly despite our lack of wings, we may yet figure out how to maximize human happiness in spite of our Darwinian legacy. And even the mere idea that such a thing could be possible should provide all the purpose anyone could need, divinely ordained or not.

Friday, 6 April 2012

Why Creationist Institutes Shouldn't Be Accredited to Grant Degrees in Science

A friend's Facebook status called my attention to a complaint about religious discrimination in that the Institution for Creation Research is being denied accreditation to give degrees in biology. I started to compose a reply to post in the comment thread there, but decided to write an essay here instead. But I'm going to start out by talking about a very important concept in physics: energy.

Energy's a pretty strange concept, when you think about it, and it doesn't help that the word is misused in so many ways. To a science geek like me, energy is measured in joules, kilowatt-hours or electron volts, so I bristle when someone starts explaining acupuncture and translates the word chi as "energy".

But even a simple, concrete unit like a joule is surprisingly abstract. It's not exactly an obvious quantity, like mass or distance or time. Nor is it directly observable; all our experiences of energy are inferred from our observations mediated by matter in some way. Energy is entirely a derived quantity, and the joule is a derived unit, defined as a kilogram meter squared per second squared. (You can get this by noting Einstein's famous formula, E=mc^2: mass times a squared velocity). We talk about potential energy, kinetic energy, thermal energy, energy stored in chemical bonds or atomic forces, the energy of photons, but in all cases we calculate the quantity through indirect means.

So ultimately, energy is an entirely theoretical quantity, never directly observed but so completely pervasive in everything we do that no one would dream to deny its existence. Physics just wouldn't make any sense at all if we didn't postulate this mysterious energy stuff. In fact, this theoretical quantity is so deeply established in our understanding of the world around us that most of us don't even realize that it's really a completely theoretical concept. Certainly no one would seriously say that energy is unscientific because no one's every actually seen the stuff, and anyone who did say that just doesn't understand what "scientific" means. And it may well be that energy doesn't exist, and our current physical theories are just a happy accident that happen to give good results, and a better, more parsimonious theory will come along some day that gives better predictions with fewer postulates, but anyone who did make the radical claim that modern physics is wrong because there's no such thing as energy would quite rightly be discounted as someone who just didn't understand physics. Unless she could provide that better, more parsimonious theory, which would be a staggeringly impressive accomplishment.

Now, the whole point of accreditation for academic institutions is to try to provide some assurance that a person who gets a degree in physics actually understands something about physics. That generally requires that the faculty providing the instruction should know what they're talking about, and if your faculty is trying to make a go of it without reference to energy, they may be teaching something but it probably isn't physics, and therefore should not be accredited to give out degrees in physics. (If they do have that more parsimonious theory, then they should not only be accredited but awarded Nobel prizes at the very least.)

It's important to note that this isn't strictly speaking about belief, but understanding. You don't need to believe in quantum mechanics (Einstein certainly didn't) or relativity to be a physicist, but you should at least understand the theories well enough to be able to provide legitimate criticisms, or to admit that your objections to it are basically intuitive, aesthetic, moral or otherwise unscientific (as with Einstein's famous statement about God not playing dice with the universe.) If you criticize the theory based on a clear misunderstanding of it, though, you call your expertise into question. Just as someone who claims to be a physicist yet denies the existence of energy is probably just profoundly ignorant of physics.

Which brings us at last to evolution. Like energy, large scale evolution has never been directly observed (though unlike energy, small-scale evolution is observed all the time, from antibiotic-resistant infections to African cichlid speciation). And I do not exaggerate to say that just as energy is to physics, evolution is absolutely crucial to modern biology, as evolutionary theory provides a cognitive framework that gives order to and makes sense of all of the observed data so far.

Again, it's not about belief. You don't have to believe in evolution to call yourself a biologist, but if you clearly don't understand the theory, you have no right to be recognized as an expert. And this may sound unnecessarily harsh, but every single creationist criticism of evolutionary theory I've ever heard (with one exception that I'll get to in a moment) has been based on a profound (if in some cases subtle) misunderstanding of the theory. In other words, creationists who use these arguments demonstrate that they literally do not know what they're talking about. And that means they are not in any way qualified to be hold degrees in biology, much less to be accredited to grant them.

I mentioned there was one exception. The only criticism of evolution I've ever encountered that didn't betray a grave misunderstanding of the theory goes something like this: "It may well be that the theory of evolution is the best one available so far to explain all the observed data, but it still feels wrong to me because it conflicts with my deeply held beliefs or intuitions that are not themselves scientific." That's the same form, essentially, as Einstein's objection to quantum mechanics; it just felt wrong to him that random chance could play so fundamental a role in the basic structure of the universe, notwithstanding that there was no solid scientific basis upon which to object to the theory. Likewise, one might feel intuitively that evolution is wrong because it's aesthetically unsatisfying, or one might believe it is false because one is committed to a literal reading of the Book of Genesis, or that it has destructive moral implications, but none of these are valid scientific objections, and none of them stand in the way of actually understanding the theory even if one happens to believe it is wrong.

Nor do any of these objections stand in the way of accreditation. There are probably lots of biologists who feel intuitively uneasy about some of the implications of evolutionary theory (and I'm working on a post about one of these implications I may get around to finishing in a few days), but they understand and apply the theory, and teach it, and they know what they're talking about. There are undoubtedly physicists who are somehow, deep down, convinced that relativity or quantum mechanics or both just somehow must be wrong, but they know what they're talking about. There may even be physicists who doubt the existence of energy, but they still have to know what they're talking about.

The reason creationist organizations like ICR don't get accredited to grant degrees in biology is not that they're uncomfortable with evolution. It's simply that when it comes to biology, they don't know what they're talking about.