Friday, 25 June 2010

Why Skeptic?

[This is also posted at the Canberra Skeptics Blog]

Everyone is sceptical, it's by necessity since there are a whole bunch of different contradictory beliefs out there. And while someone can hold two simultaneous contradictory beliefs, we can recognise that in general being for some particular beliefs means rejecting others.

Consider explicit scepticism such as the anti-vaxxers and 9/11 truthers. They don't accept the mainstream explanation for whatever reason and instead substitute in their own. Then there are those who engage in implicit scepticism, by pure virtue of holding a contradictory position. Think of the creationist who believes in the inerrant word of God, or the psychic who talks to the dead and what that implies.

Yet we don't consider these people as Skeptics. While they are sceptical these are the people we consider credulous. That should tell us something about what a Skeptic is. Then there's the notion of philosophical sceptics, the ones who have walked the path of the Cartesian demon and found themselves but not a way back. And while we are at it, let's not forget the post modernists who have turned knowledge into a cultural construct.

Each of us is sceptical in our own way, but we aren't Skeptics. When Bill Maher rants about Big Pharma, we as Skeptics realise he has reached a failure in critical thinking. Because being a Skeptic is not just doubting stuff, it's taking on the maxim that belief should be proportional to the evidence. Bill Maher shares the distinction with anti-vaxxers and 9/11 truthers and creationists in that the sceptical position is not taking into consideration the relevant evidence.

There are good reasons to be sceptical of Big Pharma, but is that reason to dismiss all products that Big Pharma produces? Surely one should be looking at the success of the product itself, something that is verified through empirical peer review. Just as the failure of 9/11 truthers is by which they create a more implausible narrative, implausible because the evidence is against it. Not just the lack of evidence but of the evidence underlying the explanation.

I'll expand on that point. When someone alleges that crop circles were made by alien craft (sceptical that people could make them) they are alleging something involving the great distances of space. We don't know if it's even possible to participate in interstellar travel, let alone that life capable of doing so exist. The narrative involving aliens has plenty of evidence against in this respect, what we know about the universe makes such an explanation highly unlikely.

Likewise the 9/11 truthers are making an evidential claim about behaviour that just doesn't make sense. The more people, the harder it is to keep a secret. More people to leak it, more people with a conscience. It's inventing more implausible narratives at each step to explain the first implausible narrative. Even without an explanation, a grand conspiracy is a bad one.

It is not enough and cannot be enough just to doubt stuff, because doubt is always filtered through our preconceived notions of how things are - be they intuitive, taught or experienced. It's no surprise that people who are sceptical of evolution so easily see an intelligent agent behind the complexity, or that 9/11 dictates a more ordered explanation than a few fundamentalist Muslims hijacking planes.

Even in the case of medicine where extensive testing and use means that side effects are disclosed, we hear about drug recalls and doubts over their safety all the time. Yet we seldom hear about "alternative medicine", the dangers of chemotherapy sound horrible but a homoeopathic cancer remedy is side-effect free.

To echo Carl Sagan: "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence" because a claim is extraordinary because of how much it diverges from the way we know the world works. It's easy to be sceptical of claims, but to be a Skeptic is dedicating oneself to the notion that belief should be proportional to the evidence. Doubt is a good starting point, but only if it applied to all ideas. To dismiss vaccines while taking homoeopathic vaccines is not being a Skeptic, just selectively applying scepticism. A Skeptic should be open to the possibility that they are wrong however difficult that is to do. Why? Because if we can't do it then how can we expect others to?

Thursday, 24 June 2010

What Our World Cup Tells Us

So the Socceroos are now out, left stranded from the calamity that was the loss to Germany. Despite a strong showing with 10 men against Ghana and beating a good Serbian outfit, those 4 goals the Germans scored in game one was the difference. So close yet so far, we couldn't get out of the group stage. And unlike France, our exit barely rates a mention on the world radar.

But before we engage in "what-ifs" and then consign the Socceroos (and Pim Verbeek) to the scrap heap, perhaps it is wise to reflect on what they did rather than what could have been.

This is the 2nd world cup we've made in a row, and the first one where we had to fight it out over more than just two legs. Getting through Asia was no lean feat, especially going in unseeded and being the first team (along with Japan and Netherlands) to qualify for the World Cup. At times it wasn't pretty, but we earned the right to be there. Back in 2006, we got there on effectively a coin toss.

In 2006 we got further, fans are still seething over the Italian dive that eliminated us. Then it was only Ukraine in our way and into the semi-finals! Whoops, engaging in a "what-if" again. Both world cups we ended on 4 points, through by virtue of a draw between the other two teams vying for 2nd place behind Brazil. We beat Japan while Croatia didn't. Thus we only needed 4 points.

Truth be told, we were lucky to get to the 2nd round. Japan might have been fortunate to get their goal, but the 3-1 score line wasn't reflective of the game. We had to come from behind twice against Croatia, good result but hardly a comfortable path beyond the group stages. Even in the round of 16, Italy played for almost half a match with 10 men and we barely had a chance.

This time around, Germany was our only down-point, the 1-1 draw against Ghana with only 10 men for 70-odd minutes was a rugged display. Serbia were tough and looked dangerous at times, but so did we and the result was well-deserved. Yet "first round exit" will forever be associated with Pim while Guus gets nothing but praise for guiding us to the 2nd round.

The 2011 Asian Cup in Qatar is only just over 6 months away and it's that event that should take focus. There's no point in talking about how Australia does on the world stage before we are Asian champions. A huge lot of media focus once every four years and the eventual dissection is only going to perpetuate Australia being a bit-part of the football landscape.

This World Cup if nothing else we should have proved to ourselves that we deserved to be there. Yet now that we are gone, what can we say about the impact on the game? Over the last few weeks, I've heard more about Harry Kewell's health than I know about my own. Very little about tactics, more about fitness of key players. To the uninitiated, merely another part of a sideshow that will now be relegated behind the weekly Aussie Rules and Rugby League.

Every 4 years the Olympics comes around, and coverage is pretty much purely in the pursuit of Australian gold - not the spectacle itself, but how many medals we won compared to the rest of the world. It's chasing national glory on the hard work of a few individuals. It's no surprise that most our medals are won in the pool, it's what Olympic sport gets coverage beyond the few weeks of glory. A winner in an obscure sport is a sideshow, we can bask in the glory of the DIY champion then back to the footy or cricket depending on the time of year.

Yet history shows that individual determination and the DIY attitude isn't enough. All nations that have won the world cup live and breathe football. Even the nations who have never won but are serious contenders all share this same distinction. How can we possibly hope to share in Johnny Warren's dream of winning the World Cup until we do this?

I forget, we aren't a football nation. Just a mix of football bandwagoners who can bask in the glory when our team does well and dismiss the sport on the grounds of diving and draws when it does not. We owe it to our team not to be bandwagoners hoping to add to a long list of sports we dominate already because we will never get there.

The wrangling over stadia for a hypothetical World Cup bid was pathetic. The NRL and AFL both turned it into a pissing contest, and for what exactly? It's unlikely that we'll actually get the World Cup, it was no more than an alpha male display. Yet another part of the sideshow...

As I said before, I'm going to enjoy this tournament regardless of the Socceroos lack of participation. The best football talent is on display, and if interest can continue to be shown even in the absence of Australian participation, perhaps more people can see why football is referred to as "the beautiful game".

Tuesday, 22 June 2010

They Just Expect Too Much!

In keeping with the theme of the World Cup, I want to talk about the one thing that perplexes me more than why anyone would think it a good idea to blow a vuvuzela: the English media's portrayal of their national team.

While there are 32 teams that enter the World Cup, we know that a few are just there to make up the numbers. Barring a miracle, they will be gone in the first round and serve merely as an appetiser to main course. Then there are a few nations that could get to the 2nd round or if they are lucky reach the quarter finals, but that's it. Then there are a number of nations who could be there come finals time. Even fewer are nations who could really go on and win it. While football can bring surprises, unexpected wins and failed expectations, realistically we have a fair idea of when a nation under or over-performs.

What perplexes me is that England keep getting put in that final category, the expectation on this team and every English team from my football memory is that they will add to the sole trophy they won in 1966. Yet they continually fail to meet the lofty expectations. Even the WAGs are used as an excuse for the persistent failure.

Yet it all makes sense if England are classified wrongly. They aren't world-beaters, nor have they really put forward a team for a long time that were capable of being so. The English media has it wrong, this World Cup especially given they didn't qualify for Euro 2008!

Perhaps this is being a little harsh, but I can't really see what justifies the pressure and expectation put on England. Where are their match-winners? Where will the goals come from? Who in the side can come off the bench and be a game changer? Back in 2002, there was so much press about David Beckham and that injury that could have ruined England's chances. And it did, because England has a David Beckham type character they put all their hopes in and that's it. This time around it's Wayne Rooney, who is on his day a world class player. But that's it!

Looking at other countries it's easy to see why they are put up as potential tournament winners. Spain: Euro 2008 champions boasting a line-up that could front any team in the world. Argentina: so blessed in talent that they can leave Inter's Diego Milito on the bench. Brazil: they could afford to leave Ronaldinho at home while still boasting a formidable line-up and 5-time winners. Germany: a great track record at World Cups. That's just to name a few.

It's important to remember that if you just take four nations: Argentina, Brazil, Germany, and Italy, you have at least one of the finalists from every one of the 18 world cups so far. They account for 14 of the 18 trophies. Another thing to consider is that every World Cup held outside Europe has had a non-European victor. While I have no reason to expect that trend to continue indefinitely (in 1994, a penalty shoot-out was the only barrier to it being broken) it's still a reason not to expect a European team to do well. My money if I were a betting man would be on Argentina.

But back to England, perhaps my anti-English bias has led me to ignore just what is so great about the team. I can't see them as being a serious competitor yet again. They are a quarter final team expected to compete with powerhouses who are more technically proficient and have a greater depth.

If they are bundled out tomorrow, I will not be surprised in the slightest. Even if they do make it through the group phase, it's only a matter of time until they inevitably exit and the media starts looking for an excuse. Yet without good reasons to expect them to emulate what happened in 1966, it's just creating unrealistic expectations for their adoring public. They are a quarter final team (at best) that are expected to be world-beaters. No wonder they have an irate fan-base!

On Rationality (The Perfect Solution Fallacy)

My job requires a high degree of logic and mathematics, something I've spent years of my life training specifically for. Programming isn't innate in our brains, it's something that is learned. Perhaps I have a brain that is more mathematically-inclined than others and mathematics / logic come more easily to me than other people, but still it's taken a lot to train my brain to think that way.

One of the more interesting things about the Dunning-Kruger effect was that people who had higher abilities tended to underestimate their the superiority of their abilities in regard to other people. Perhaps one can be forgiven for thinking that because they are logically inclined that while they are good at it that there might not be such a gap between the top and bottom.

Trained scientists and philosophers have spent even more time honing their respective skills. So it's again no surprise that there's a disparity between scientific acceptance of ideas or between abilities of philosophical reasoning and the general public. It's no wonder that so many people reject scientific ideas, they are essentially relying on the authority of the discipline. The layperson isn't trained to understand the evidence and that needs to be taken into account.

What compelled me to write this post was a quote put on the blog Reasonably Aaron. I find that quote quite appalling because it's in effect a resignation to the irrationality of society. No point in expecting others to be rational, the expectation is too unrealistic.

And there is a truth in there, it's the way things are. How can trained scientists and philosophers possibly grasp how untrained people think? The futility is no more evident than in accounts of "debates" between creationists and biologists where biologists wipe the floor with the argument only to find the crowd eager to congratulate the creationist for sticking it to the evil Darwinists.

But is all hope lost? While an IS doesn't imply an OUGHT, an OUGHT has to apply an IS. If society is irredeemably irrational, then however noble the goal it is an exercise in futility and false hope. And a society full of Spocks is an impossible dream, even among those most trained in rational thinking there are bursts of irrationality that shine through. Is anyone arguing for that, though?

To quote David Hume: "Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them." Starting with reason gets us nowhere, we can't start from a pure idea and get anywhere meaningful. What makes us human is not lost by the use of rationality, but it has its place.

And what of sciences? Does participating in the scientific process itself fall into absurdity because of the unscientific population? Perhaps Hypatia would attest to this, the symbolism of her death as a transition to the dark ages is exceeded by the brutality she was subjected to. The futility of the scientific method perhaps embodied in bringing on society's own demise? Fuelled by the fast depletion of resources, building more destructive weaponry and handing powerful knowledge to people who don't understand the power they wield... it would be a great irony if our own progress led to our eventual demise.

But our demise is guaranteed anyway. Eventually our species will go extinct, we will eventually leave no descendants and all that matters in our world will be for nothing. Even if our species can last, we are going to eventually face an inhospitable world, giant asteroids, calderas, the death of the sun, eventual destruction of matter and of the universe itself. Take your pick, we are doomed to extinction. Talk about building castles on sand, we know that all castles will one day be nothing more than rubble in a lifeless (let alone humanless) reality.

Of course, such an example is absurd. We don't consider finality even though it's an inevitability. Finite and contingent beings looking at the infinite makes no sense! Yet what is the difference between the billion years that will mean the earth is uninhabitable and a thousand years or even 100 years? There is a difference, but only one of those targets is really one that makes sense on the scales we can look at. 100 years is still 4 or 5 generations, more than the lifetime of all but a few individuals. Yet 100 years is less than the reach of Einstein, it's much less than the reach of Hume or Newton, or Descartes, or even Pythagoras.

To put this into perspective, it was only 5,000 years ago that we discovered writing. It was a little bit over 10,000 years ago that wheat was first domesticated. Fire perhaps 1.5 million years old. Hunting tools maybe 2.5 million years ago. Each one we can accept as a product of rationality, a cultural additive that has stood the test of time through its functional use.

Think about that for a moment. One of a member of our ancestral species was able to craft a rock into a means to hunt. And that means was so successful that it was copied and copied and modified and copied - so much so that 2.5 million years later we have the legacy of that piece of rationality with us. However our ancestors first harnessed fire, we have many ways of using it now.

We have minds that are semi-rational to begin with. As Michael Shermer puts it, our brains are great at finding causal connections. We are pattern-seeking creatures. Of course this brainware isn't perfect, but it's something. Likewise we are intuitive physicists, intuitive biologists and intuitive psychologists (for discussions of the evidence for this, see Bruce Hood's Supersense). Our brains are wired for a particular level of rationality intuitively. Again, not perfect but it's a start.

So where can I evidence the OUGHT? I think there are two different cases to be made for this. The first is in learning skills that almost all society has which we aren't exactly wired for. The second is looking at the role of rationality in society.

To take two examples: writing and mathematics. Storytelling seems to be something that goes back before homo sapiens, but transmission of stories and information is a modern (relatively speaking) invention. It was only a few thousand years ago that writing was discovered. Yet now we are in a society where it's extremely abnormal to come across anyone who can't write any more. We spend years in school learning how to do this abnormal activity, completely alien to our ancestors but the brains we have make it a possibility.

Mathematics too is something we use every day. While so many will say they aren't good at maths, they are able to function in an environment where maths is the basis for trade. Again for the purposes of rationality, we can see a rational activity being part of everyday life. The irrationality we talk about with people's use of money is its use in relation to future prosperity and wastefulness. But again, that's something that can be taught.

So within a society we can see both the value of rational activity as well as widespread propagation, what about of societies themselves? Again, two examples. Italy in the 17th century and South Korea in the 20th century. To very much simplify history, the renaissance in Italy was shut down with the Catholic Church wielding its power as the source of knowledge. As a result, nations that were more susceptible to the Enlightenment thrived while Italy did not. It's a terrible shame what happened to Galileo, again a symbol of the struggle of rationality against irrational forces but it should not be forgotten what he had to sacrifice because he refused to relent.

South Korea is a much more optimistic story, ravaged by war and with an economy equivalent to Mexico, instead of using labour to bring economic prosperity, it invested in education. It has paid off remarkably, with South Korea being one of the world's most advanced technological societies as well as an economic powerhouse.

I hope from those examples, there are reasons to encourage that the OUGHT is more than just a pipe-dream of the idealist, but something that can realistically be obtained. Given the problems that we know the would could and will face in the coming years and decades, protecting rationality IS a must because rationality IS the only way we are going to be able to beat these problems and maintain our prosperity. We OUGHT to protect rationality because rationality IS the best tool we have for achieving our desires. It's an extension of what makes us human, not an alien way of thinking but an idealised form of what we do now. A goal, an aspiration, however you want to put it, is in a realistic form still better than to ignore it completely.

Sunday, 20 June 2010

A Fool's Hope

I love the FIFA World Cup, it's the one global sporting event I'm guaranteed to be excited about regardless of who is playing. Coming from a nation that admittedly is not a football powerhouse, most times I don't have to watch knowing the inevitability of watching my nation drop out - because we're not even there to begin with!

But this time, like last time, we are there. And that changes things as a spectator. While I would love Australia to win and hope they do, realistically I'm expecting them to exit. Because ultimately while teams in our position occasionally make fairy-tale runs, we're there to make up the numbers. I don't say that cynically, plenty of nations are there that won't win. But even to get that far (remember this is the finals, it takes years of hard work to qualify) is a fantastic achievement and something to be proud of our team for doing.

For years Australia was a big fish in a small pond, dominating a region of Island nations where the closest thing to a challenge was taking on the rugby nation of New Zealand. Getting to the 2006 World Cup at the expense of Uruguay and moving into Asia were huge for our development as a football nation. That we qualified for the finals and were among the first nations to do so (Japan and Netherlands qualified that same day) should be enough.

Nonetheless I'm still disappointed when we lose. The match against Germany was pathetic, they are a better team and traditional world cup powerhouse, but still it was painful to watch. Perhaps we as Australians aren't used to being a small nation in any sport, we're either world contenders or we just don't care. Football is something the whole world cares about and we aren't on top!

The atrocious time zones make watching games tough. I pushed sleep last night to catch the Socceroos draw with Ghana, wrapped in a blanket and staring intently at the television. It was a game we (as in Australia, collectively, expressing themselves through a sporting team) needed to win and we couldn't do it. But thanks to Serbia shocking Germany, qualifying is still a real possibility however improbable. If we can beat Serbia, we stand a chance of qualifying regardless of the outcome in the game between Germany and Ghana.

It's not guaranteed that if we win we qualify. We have to win convincingly, how convincingly depends on the outcome for the other game. If we lose or draw, we're out so those results aren't to be considered. So take the three outcomes.
  1. Germany win - If I were a betting man this is the outcome I would bet on. If Germany beat Ghana, the margin in that game and our game matters. Ghana are currently +1 in their goal difference while we are -4. We have to get a higher goal difference or equal to where we score a greater number of goals. So if Germany win 1-0, we'd have to win by 4 goals against Serbia. A 3 - 0 score-line would mean we have to by 2 goals.
  2. A draw - If there's a draw then we would need to win by 7 goals, maybe 8 if the draw is a 3-3 score-line. So it is possible but terribly unlikely.
  3. Ghana win - We would only need to win against Serbia if Ghana manage to upset Germany.

Of course Serbia have a say in all this too, it's not just pure will on account of our Socceroos. But in sport it never is. But all is not lost yet, and it's not purely on the hope that things will go our way (unlike France who will be knocked out regardless of their result if Mexico and Uruguay draw). We can qualify regardless of the result in the other game and that's enough to give me hope. A fool's hope, but hope nonetheless.

Unlike fans of England, inevitable exit is an expectation rather than seen as a perpetual failure. Truth be told, I'm just happy our team is there. The performance last night was enough to show that we did deserve our place in the final 32 even if we don't go beyond that. Playing with 10 men for over half a man and holding our own against one of the best African nations going while showing the resolve we normally characterise with being Australian, it was something positive to take away. And when we do go out, there's still going to be enough great football to watch, but it will be different. Aussies are used to being passive observers of the world up, which is what we will go back to being the moment we lose. Until that time, I reserve my right as a spectator to engage in all the highs and lows and feeling robbed by dodgy refs that comes with being one!

Sunday, 13 June 2010

Are Books Going To Be Obsolete?

From a discussion in the comment section on a Pharyungula post came the conjecture that e-readers will make books obsolete. It's an interesting conjecture, one that might have plausibility given how we've seen other media made obsolete by advances in technology. Born into a world with cassettes and records, first the CD and then the MP3 format have changed how society listens to music. Cassettes are dead, records limited to an esoteric market. CDs are currently in decline.

I still buy CDs, but I'm really not sure why any more. Any CD I buy goes straight in the computer to be digitised into MP3s. Then that CD sits unused on a shelf taking up space. MP3s don't have the fidelity of CDs but that doesn't really matter. It sounds almost the same and is far more convenient. Truth is that most people don't need CD quality, especially when listening through the terrible generic iPod headphones.

And as for portability, I have access to my music on my computer, on a network media player, and on my MP3 player at the push of a button. Instant access of digital music pretty much whenever and wherever I want. CDs just can't compare, not to mention are more prone to data loss through the flimsy nature of CDs. But what of books?

Medium matters
To think of media like music or video, it's important to remember our relationship with the product. A record is useless without a record player, as is a CD or an MP3. A record player is useless without a record, just as a record is useless without a record player. To simplify things, the record is the information content and the record player is what changes the information into music.

This is the digital gap. Take the text file on your computer, the medium it is stored in is a series of 1s and 0s that can be decoded into text. It's hardly a complicated shift, but one nonetheless. To make it a little more complex, that decoded message is then encoded into the output format to be displayed.

By contrast, a book in itself doesn't need any of that translation. The information content as in the medium by which it is viewed. When you buy a CD or a DVD, you're buying the information. But to use that information you need a medium which can translate it. A book has no such requirements, once in possession of the book it can be viewed anywhere without needing to be decoded.

Consider even the problem of translation. If like me you have a lot of books, getting them into a digital format is tough. CD to MP3 is really easy, it's a digital to digital transition. Even an analogue to digital transition between record and MP3 can be done without too much difficulty (though cleaning up a record is time-consuming). But to spend time digitising books is a huge and lossy endeavour - all for the same portability as a book affords.

A digital future
This is not to argue that e-books aren't a good idea. There are several advantages to e-books and to owning an e-book reader. The first is distribution. We don't even need to imagine the instantaneous, low-cost delivery system. Most books being less than the size of a song in terms of data, getting information and having access to it anywhere in the world is a great idea.

Since I'm a programmer I have a number of programming textbooks. Carrying these around is no easy task, I'm shuddering at the thought of moving because of the number of books I have. Digital media makes sense for a lot of tasks, if I had my collection purely electronic I would have my entire library on a small medium. Textbooks are much worse for this than novels.

Digital media is easy to back up too. It doesn't fall apart through multiple readings, and any loss of one copy can be easily be replaced through a proper backup system. The flip-side of this ease of use is one of the evils of the digital age: Digital Rights Management. With a physical book, one can easily lend it to friends or even keep a copy of something if its deemed inappropriate. With DRM technology, the fundamental use of books in that way is restricted. It puts ways too much power in those providing the translation.

Even something as simple as a manufacturer going out of business could mean the permanent loss of information. Owned books that are rendered unreadable. It's not just instances like Amazon remotely deleting books from kindle users, without having open standards that aren't locked in any way can this potential problem be averted.

Lessons from the paperless office
In the 1970s, predictions were made about the office of the future. Paper would be made redundant as digital technology became available. Yet for a time the digital age meant an increase in the use of paper. The technology didn't make paper obsolete, it was complementary to the use that was already there. Even now as I look around the offices that I work in, there's plenty of paper everywhere. A computer in the middle of the desk and paper surrounding it.

As much as I would prefer to do all things digital, at times I need paper print-outs of specifications and documents in meetings. What's on the computer is no doubt vital to the business experience (indeed it is my livelihood!) but it hasn't yet met the versatility of paper, and won't completely without serious changes to technology or business practices.

Sure, if computers were utilised in a proper way paper would be redundant. After all, there's nothing really that can be done with paper business-wise that computers couldn't handle. A change here and there to how things are done and suddenly we're living in the reality of a digital age. Yet this is not happening. I'd attribute this not to the habits of people in charge, but that offering comparable functionality isn't enough. If it ain't broke, don't fix it comes to mind.

It's not out of habit that paper is not obsolete, but that despite offering advantages in some respects it would take a lot of change to replicate some of the processes that are already provided. This lesson, I feel, can be transferred over to books. Ask yourself how books are used, not just by yourself but in general. The information content of a book can be easily replicated digitally. But can the digital use of a book match the versatility afforded?

How would libraries work in a digital environment? What about sharing between friends? Handing down of books through generations? Giving away books to strangers? That books in themselves are both information and information delivery all in one, this affords the book a versatility that cannot be easily matched.

My personal hope
I really enjoy reading, even though I have music at the touch of a button I still more often than not carry a book with me for my ride to work. Having an eReader would not diminish that experience, it might even enhance it in some ways. As soon as I heard of electronic readers I wanted one. Now I'm waiting for the price to come down enough in order to justify a purchase.

I don't think books will die, at least not for a while. Books have what other information mediums lack, which makes it very hard to see how books will be replaced. What I do find impressive is the possibilities that the digital medium gives to enhance the story.

Right now I'm reading Gödel, Escher, Bach and some of the examples in the book would be even better illustrated through the use beyond words and pictures. If the music notation of Bach in the book could be something more than just sheet music - it could play the example. Concepts illustrated in words could be highlighted through interactive examples. To think of the possibilities for future books is amazing.

Another Beautiful Story

I didn't ask to exist, I didn't have a choice in the matter. That I exist now is a process 13.72 billion years in the making. Nothing in those 13.72 billion years beyond my parents willed me to exist, and even then they didn't have much choice (beyond the limited capacity in which humans can make choices). I'm the child of contingency, restricted in so many ways and ultimately doomed to return to my state of non-being more quickly than I care to acknowledge.

This, as far as I can tell, is the human condition. We are beings of particular habits, for instance we can't help but learn language as an infant. Our brains are hard-wired for this capacity. A few people are born without the capability to do this, through no fault of their own. That's their hand in life, just as the quirks, defects and capacities I have is my hand.

We have the capacity to feel pleasure and pain. To love and to feel loved. To get angry, jealous, feel overwhelmed or depressed. To experience empathy and understand the emotions of others. To grow up from a child, through puberty, to adulthood and finally old age and death - if things go well.

As I argued earlier, the universe is lousy by which to anchor value and meaning. But part of the human condition, it seems, is that there be something that transcends the self. I want to argue by pure necessity that we already have it, it's just that it's misidentified by many to being supernatural in an other-worldly sense. Rather it is supernatural in being a mental construct, emergent from natural forces.

The fact that we are finite and contingent beings means that our actions matter. Perhaps I should put it that our actions have consequences, consequences to ourselves as agents and to other agents that operate in the world. These actions have the potential for causing a variety of mental states in ourselves and others. Again this is beyond our control.

I've never understood those who need the promise of an afterlife in order to see the value in this one. Yet in myths such as the afterlife we can see what truly matters to us. That we behaved well, that we are reunited with loved ones, that what we did in life built towards something. It also shows the desire to exist. What we want is what we have already - just in a finite capacity.

The disparity between the ability to project into the future and our experience of time leads to absurd abstracts. Consider the idea of love for example and committing to someone forever. Yet not many people can keep that feeling of romantic love up for long periods of time. Wanting to stay with someone forever and staying with them out of that same desire say 50 years later is seldom heard of.

Time in inconsequential for those purposes. What we cannot grasp is big things (or really small things for that matter), and eternity is a really really really long time. Australia was colonised by Europeans in 1788, it achieved Federation in 1901 and the city where I reside was first founded in 1912. Yet I can't grasp the lengths of time involved in that beyond the academic sense. What does 40,000 years for the aboriginal colonisation of Australia mean anything different to 222 years beyond it was a lot before?

How can we be possibly equipped to understand things in evolutionary or geological time when we can't even grasp historical time? Cosmological time has no chance beyond an academic understanding of numbers. When it is said the universe is 13.72 billion years old, how could we possibly fathom that length of time?

It's almost no wonder that when notions like planet alignment occur in the solar system that people buy into the supposed gravitational pull that some say will occur. The huge distances between stellar bodies means a negligible gravitational effect (gravity is a very weak force), yet such ideas can transmit easily through our population. I remember recently a chain email about the apparent size of Mars comparing it to the apparent size of the moon.

Perhaps the timeless nature of thought, that we aren't restricted to the here and now, gives us the sense that we can transcend the limited restraints of the body. Dualism seems almost obvious! That our mind can take us beyond the constraints of our position in space-time, however, doesn't mean that at the core the mind is separate from the matter that we are composed of.

when I've had theists ask me what makes my life meaningful, I respond the same as them. Because of the misattribution of meaning to the notion of a deity is so ingrained in our society, this requires elaboration.

Consider the notion of love. Is love meaningful purely because of the existence of a deity? To put it another way, would the notion of love be diminished in the absence of one. Is the only reason you have a partner because it is meaningful in the eyes of God? Surely love is something in itself meaningful. Whether one believes in gods or not, love is still a powerful driving factor of humanity.

Take friends. Chances are that some of the people you're friends with now you haven't always been friends with. And other people who were once friends are now out of contact. Are the moments and shared experience that you once spent with lost friends meaningless and irrelevant now that you've lost contact with them? Does this impact on the friends you have now that they are possibly heading to the same fate?

Is the satisfaction of working towards and achieving something diminished because ultimately it will be for nothing? Recently I found my old high school folder, full of awards. I had forgotten all about them. Looking back at them, they aren't so important any more. But back then they mattered, it felt meaningful to achieve something. Writing software, I'm guaranteed that my work will be obsolete very quickly. But it doesn't mean it's not useful at some point in some time. That's what's worth working for.

Those meaningful experiences, and many others for that matter, are what make life meaningful. We don't need to have ultimate purpose or ultimate vindication as we are not ultimate beings. We are finite, contingent beings experiencing the world in a finite, contingent way. Ultimate purposes don't even need to come into it, they make no sense to begin with.

One thing about our species is that we are as far as we can tell the first species that's been able to truly understand our own position in nature. A dog can go about being a dog, a jellyfish can flop about without really being anything, yet we can reflect on our own position and piece together how we came to be.

Not through making up stories or wishful thinking, but through logic and evidence we can understand about ourselves and the universe we reside in. We can know that all our ancestors represent a 3.5 billion year unbroken chain. We can also know that the actions of our ancestors have survived through the ages. Whoever harnessed fire or first crafted a tool, whoever domesticated wild beasts or invented the needle. Who built boats, painted on walls; those ancestors and close relatives are the ones who shaped our society today.

And beyond those lasting impressions, it's important to reflect on what we have today. Even something like vaccines has the potential to have billions from suffering and enhance their quality of life. It might seem basic, but food, clothing, shelter, warmth, education, modern medicine, etc. these are things that we know enhance the quality of life for individuals. Through understanding comes the ability to shape nature. It's something to be thankful for.

Of course one doesn't need to live an examined life to have a meaningful one. But that we can lead an examined life, to reflect on what we are and the universe around us - it is at least in part why we are here to begin with and something that can help aid in what we consider meaningful - which creates a meaningful endeavour in itself.

Regurgitator: Just Another Beautiful Story
All that I am and all I'll ever be is a brain in a body.
Live till I die and then rot away, it's a beautiful story.
All I've heard is true. There ain't a God, there's just me and you.
I don't see a point to this place. But I'm happy to be floating in outer space.

Thursday, 10 June 2010

Insignificant Am I

"Space is big. You just won't believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it's a long way down the road to the drug store, but that's just peanuts to space." - Douglas Adams (The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy)
For a while, it's easy to forget our place in the universe. Last year when I flew overseas, the journey between Hong Kong and Helsinki looked much smaller on the map than it did flying it - even at 900km/h. While dreams of exploring other worlds litter our culture and capture our imaginations, we as a species have gone only as far as the moon. Not to belittle what is a fantastic achievement, landing on a world 380,000km away is 380,000km is monumental!

But to reflect on the achievement, we are in a universe that is some 93,000,000,000 light years in diameter. By contrast, the moon is 1.2 light seconds away. Exploring the planetary part of the solar system has been possible unmanned, but still we're talking light minutes to light hours. By contrast, the nearest star is 4.3 light years away. This in a galaxy of some 400,000,000,000 stars and we're effectively stranded, confined to our own little patch of paradise.

This doesn't gel well with the ideas of human significance. In all our achievements, our grandeur, our ability to reach out and probe the universe for understanding - all this could be wiped out in an instant. Our eternity as a species is but a blink of the eye, the expanding arc of our reach not even a grain of sand moving in an hourglass; rather like a single bacterium on the moving grain.

To illustrate this, consider the following "what if". What if humanity ceased to be? Say tomorrow a virus wiped us all out, what would this mean for the universe? Our planet would keep on orbiting the sun, as would all the other planets. The star we revolve around would continue to orbit along with the other 400,000,000,000 stars our galaxy. The universe wouldn't shed a tear at our absence.

Meanwhile consider the same event from the opposite point of view. What would it mean for us? That all we've ever achieved would be lost, mountains of knowledge wiped out. A modified landscape without anyone there to appreciate what we've done. On an individual level, all our triumphs and tribulations wiped out. All relationships ceased, our loved ones gone.

The relationship we have with the universe couldn't be any more asymmetric. We are part of the universe, a minuscule part, but a part nonetheless. Our existence is entirely dependent on the universe arranging itself in a particular manner, just as stars, planets, and atoms are. But like an atom splitting or a planet falling into a star, the loss of structure has nothing more than localised effects.

Yet when we look around, we see the obvious marks of humanity. Everything from cellular towers to rubbish tips, poodles and houses, even nuclear waste bears our doing. Even beyond generations, the food we eat goes back to our ancestors thousands of years ago, our knowledge an accumulation through time. The necessity of cooked food for our species, a cultural adaptation possibly going back millions of years; as are tools for hunting.

Indeed our species is only alive today because our ancestors reproduced, invested in their children who in turn did the same. Going back at least 3.5 billion years we owe our existence to an unbroken chain of replication / reproduction, by necessity this is true. And before that, the right chemicals and the right process to create life, and a planet for it to be on. And before that stars to make the heavy elements, and before that matter for the stars to form from. So much had to go right for our existence - and it did!

But forego the temptation to invoke fine tuning. The apparent fine tuning comes with our place in the process, our vantage point is one of hindsight reflecting on what has happened. That we exist necessitates particular conditions that allow for our existence, but that doesn't mean the conditions that necessitate our existence are there for our existence.

By the argument of fine tuning, the conditions necessary for our existence can be no more significant than for silverfish or swans or any other life. Every living thing on earth is part of a 3.5 billion year unbroken chain, that we can invoke reason doesn't mean that the ability to reason is anything special. It's anthropomorphising reality!

That the laws of physics facilitate us means that they are for us is no more to the point that since we are made of heavy elements that heavy elements must be made for us. Stars need to exist so we can exist, but stars can exist without our existence. Indeed they have for some 13.7 billion years, in an extraordinary number. There are something like 1023 stars in the observable universe.

We exist as we are because of a process of mutation and selection, iterated perhaps trillions of times. There are no goals in this process, no inevitabilities to our species. That we've emerged is no more significant than ants or frogs. What works gets passed on, we like every other life-form is an accumulation of working (or neutral) changes over time.

Perhaps the universes are the way they are for a reason analogous to the Darwinian reason that explains life in its current state. There are theories suggesting black holes as a source of universe replication, in which case stars and the fusion of heavy elements are but a bi-product of producing black holes. Whether or not this is true, however, bears not on the fact that between us and the laws of physics such a relationship cannot be established.

This may be a frightening outcome to some, but one that must reflect our understanding of the universe. To derive meaning externally cannot be done. Our connection with the universe, however necessary, is tenuous and inevitably futile. While the universe can seem to turn on the will of humanity, our reach doesn't extend beyond our tiny selves. There's nothing to anchor ourselves to externally, just turtles all the way down.
Nevermore - Insignificant:
"And then one day you'll realise
Just a speck in the spectrum
Insignificant, am I?
And then one day you'll realise
The beauty that breaks down
never learns the reason why"

Monday, 7 June 2010

Big Placebo

Yesterday I went for a walk around a major shopping centre just to see what stores there were. What took my interest was that there were two stores in this centre dedicated to vitamins and other "natural" products but only one pharmacy, and even the pharmacy had a large section dedicated to natural remedies. Combine that with a massage / acupuncture / reflexology clinic called Miracle Therapy, and I couldn't help but think about the influence that Big Pharma has over us all. Big Pharma is so big that it's practically non-existent!

The ideological battle between conventional medicine and alternative medicine is far more in favour of alt-med than the rhetoric would suggest. While accusations of being in the pockets of Big Pharma are thrown out to anyone who defends anything that might have a pharmaceutical aspect to it, Big Placebo has become a multi-billion dollar industry and how people self-medicate.

That even pharmacies are selling alt-med products is a strong indicator of where the market lies. Combine this with semi-frequent news of drug recalls and conflicting reports of what is healthy and its no wonder people are turning away from science-based medicine and towards anecdotal accounts of healing. What good are magnetic pillows except as a cash cow?

The battle is not only with the availability of products and services but with information spreading too. Testimonials are the worst form of evidence yet the most easily believed. Clinical trials are the least rigorous means of testing science, but enough to give a product the appearance of evidence-based backing.

The greatest tragedy of the alt-med movement is the anti-vaxxers. vaccines are probably the greatest advance in health in human history, yet now is showing to be a victim of its own success. Don't have to worry about polio? There's a reason for that and that reason is vaccines! Measles outbreaks are happening again now that vaccination rates are lowering, the whole autism link but a tool of those promoting their ideological agenda.

While there are some driving it through ideology, it must be remembered that health is a very important issue for us all. It's no surprise that on the left that individuals are shying away from what they see as corporate-controlled medicine to something with the appearance of a community-driven approach (At all times it must be remembered that Big Pharma has a large stake in Big Placebo), just as it should be no surprise that individuals want to feel in control. Putting trust in a testimony makes a lot more sense than a doctor writing a prescription.

Another factor I feel is involved is the cost. Going to the doctor is expensive, it's paying a large amount of money for a few minutes of consultation where very little is discussed. Last visit cost me a few hours wage for a doctor to check whether I needed stitches for a head wound (I didn't thankfully). They are a valuable commodity and so is their time, which is hardly what I think is good when they are the ones with the knowledge to help us with looking after ourselves.

Going in and buying a health supplement is easy, even in supermarkets one can purchase vitamins or herbal remedies. Vitamins are almost intuitively good, even buying natural (or to an extreme organic) sounds so much better for us than artificial. That the science doesn't back this up simply doesn't come into play.

I'm all for science-based medicine, but there's a problem when something so successful can be easily replaced by pseudoscientific and nonscientific products. An overhaul of the health system (that's being proposed in Australia now) can't just be looking at waiting times, bed numbers, and hospital deaths. It needs to address the issue of why conventional medicine is suffering in the hearts and minds of the population at large.

The Outsider's Quest For (Understanding) Faith

Although I grew up in a Christian-influenced culture and had a liberal Christian scripture education at school, I don't consider myself as growing up Christian. Thus it was easy to reject such a God when I was old enough to do so. That was half my life ago.

Since that time I've been engaged in arguments with people over various issues related to this question. The internet exposed me to a whole branch of thought that was completely alien to the Christianity I was taught, people had the firmest conviction in the craziest things. The implausible Christianity I was taught seemed almost sane compared to some of this insanity.

I bring this up because there are those who call atheism a delusion. Being an atheist myself, I'm worried that it is. I can see why it's easy to label particular beliefs as false and that those propagating them have been misinformed, but can the same be said of oneself? That is to say, if I were an outsider looking in how would I see my position?

I read "Why I Became An Atheist" by John W. Loftus for this reason. What struck me about the book was not his arguments (they were just fine), but what he was arguing against. The passage where Moses and Egyptian mystics threw down their staves and they turned into snakes was just too crazy for me to takes seriously.

Is that really crazy or just crazy from my perspective? Perhaps transitional forms between fish and tetrapods, or between dinosaurs and birds sound crazy. Indeed there are many creationists out there who highlight the absurdity of transitional fossils (neglecting that such fossils actually exist!) and I would say they are being ignorant of the evidence. Perhaps the evidence really is there that those biblical accounts or modern evidence that parallels what is said in the bible but I'm ignoring that.

My proposal is to ask for what I'm missing. Are there believers out there willing to point me in the right direction? What I'm asking for is essentially the Outsider Test For Faith with myself as the outsider looking to be convinced.

There are many different psychological trappings one can fall into, and being human I'm subject to these same shortcomings. I can't pretend I'll be an unbiased critic (again, I'm human) but I can at least try to understand.

I'm asking for material: books, lectures, podcasts, articles, whatever that would at least try to help me understand as an outsider to properly grasp what it is I'm rejecting. Cost is a factor, I don't have a lot of money to spend but I'd be willing to guess that this could be accomplished relatively cheaply.

One caveat, please no creationist material (biological or cosmic). The science is overwhelmingly against the notion of creationism so it needs not be considered. Beyond that I'm open to pretty much anything. What is the best material to make a case to the outside that your belief is true?

Sunday, 6 June 2010

Experience vs Evidence

The great tragedy of Science — the slaying of a beautiful hypothesis by an ugly fact. - Thomas Henry Huxley
At times what science tells us is true (or more accurately what scientists put forth as theories that explain the data) conflicts with how nature appears to us. Even now there are still geocentrists because it "looks that way".

One striking example is dualism, the notion that the mind and body are separate. It's an intuitively powerful idea, I find at times I even catch myself as falling into the dualism trap. The reason I do this is because while intuitive, the success of physical models of the universe overrides the intuitive notion. In other words, the mind is a product of the brain and my experiences have a physical basis.

When an individual has an experience they say cannot be explained by evidence, does it mean that the laws of physics are ill-equipped to explain what happened? Or does it mean that the experience gives the impression of the impossibility of compatibility? This is an important distinction, it's the distinction between what is contradictory to our understanding of nature and what seems contradictory from the vantage point of the individual.

Take out-of-body experiences (OBEs) for example. This could be taken as evidence for dualism, because the experience of the brain leaving the body and giving a 3rd person vantage point shouldn't happen if the mind were physical. But such experiences can be seen as a product of brain activity, electromagnetically stimulate the right part of the brain and it can cause such effects. Perfectly explainable under a physicalist model of the universe, but to the individual profound evidence from experience.

If someone has a "spiritual" experience while taking LSD or peyote, surely the best explanation of the experience involves neurological reactions brought on by the use of chemical substances. That it's profound, that it is well beyond the usual experience, doesn't change that it's perfectly explainable in physicalist terms.

So many phenomena have at their heart a dualistic requirement. To name a few: astral projection, psychokinesis, ghosts, telepathy, communication with the dead, etc. Reports of experiences of such phenomena and others are common. Any of these if true would be powerful evidence against a physicalist notion of the brain.

This is where I feel the failure in taking experience over evidence. Something profound happens internally, yet the experience is biased by rationalisation in the brain. The one feels they were having an OBE doesn't mean they were literally having one, it's their internalised narrative to reconcile the experience. It's selling the interpretation with the experience!

Empirical inquiry is currently the best possible means to determine the validity of such claims. By taking the phenomena away from the internalised interpretation and testing to see how the claims stack up in a controlled environment, we are able to remove the subjective interpretation (from the subject at least) and make look to see if there is something really there. As yet, nothing.

People use this a reason to reject the scientific method, yet what it shows is a dissonance between comprehending the experience and comprehending the evidence. Denying the interpretation is not denying the experience, if it is profound then it doesn't need a profound explanation in order to be explained.

Qualia does seem in some philosophers' minds to pose a problem for physicialism if true. Whether or not qualia exist is of debate and one I'm nowhere near familiar enough with to comment on. I bring it up because at the core of qualia is subjective experience, and this is to contrast with the degree of experience which people use to question a pure physicalist reality.

If we can accept that emotional responses such as happiness and anger, or to feel pain or pleasure can be part of our reality, then it is talking about degrees of experience as opposed to just experience itself. If one can feel some sense of importance in a mundane situation (such as satisfaction at completing a task) then an overwhelming sense is but a stronger experience of the same phenomena. If one can feel a connection with another, then an overwhelming sense of love is but an extension of the same type of experience.

The point I'm trying to get across is the value of following evidence wherever it leads. From our vantage point it looks like the earth is at the centre of the universe. Everything rotates around us, and only through keen observation such anomalies such as the retrograde motion of the planets can be seen. Yet how else would it look to us? A heliocentric model of the solar system would have that same superficial appearance as a geocentric one, yet the heliocentric model can explain the anomalies which geocentrism can't. It just requires looking deeper.

That something has the appearance of being beyond the realm of the natural world, it doesn't mean it is. It's an argument from ignorance without so much as even trying to reconcile what is known. Until one takes it beyond the subjective, there's no way of differentiating between appearance and reality.

Saturday, 5 June 2010

Cognitive Dissonance

When there's an environmental disaster with drilling, the rational response is to look at factors like our dependence on oil, what preventative measures can be used by oil companies, risk factors, etc. But humans are not rational beings, we suffer from what psychologists call cognitive dissonance. When we see evidence that conflicts with our beliefs, we don't discard our beliefs. Rather it makes us more resolute in our beliefs.

Case in point, Sarah "Drill, Baby, Drill" Palin. While most would see off-shore drilling as the problem, not Sarah. "Drill, Baby, Drill" is good for us, it puts jobs in the hands of Americans, makes companies comply to safety standards (We're Number 1!), and because of environmentalists efforts to take drill away from shallow waters where it is safe, disasters like this happen.

Extreme deep water drilling is not the preferred choice to meet our country’s energy needs, but your protests and lawsuits and lies about onshore and shallow water drilling have locked up safer areas. It’s catching up with you. The tragic, unprecedented deep water Gulf oil spill proves it.

We need permission to drill in safer areas, including the uninhabited arctic land of ANWR. It takes just a tiny footprint – equivalent to the size of LA’s airport – to tap America’s rich and plentiful oil and gas up north. ANWR’s drilling footprint is like a postage stamp on a football field.
There you have it folks. Cognitive dissonance in action. "Drill, Baby, Drill" is just fine, it's only because it's being restricted that problems are arising. It reminded me of the economist who blamed regulation on banks for the financial crises because they worked hard to subvert it. Yep, if only the regulation weren't there then there wouldn't have been a problem! Cognitive dissonance in action.

To quote Bill Maher: "Every asshole who ever chanted 'Drill baby drill' should have to report to the Gulf coast today for cleanup duty."

Reporting Unicorn Sightings
Multiple people across New South Wales, Queensland and the ACT say they were startled this morning by a huge white light moving across the sky.

Canberra resident James Butcher says he was driving home from a night out with his brother when they spotted the "strange spiral light in the sky".

"It had a distinct bright centre, much like a bright star, indicating an object shedding light trails, spiralling and fattening out from it," he said.

"The effect lasted only two or three minutes, moving and descending quickly out of view.

"The colour was yellowish but this may have been blurred and tinted by the morning fog."

Wollongong man Eddie Wise says he also saw the light during his morning walk just before 6:00am.

He says he has never seen anything like it.

"It was like a yellowish, greenish light with a light spiral around it," he said.

"It sort of moved around, bobbed up and down and then it went behind a cloud.

"I'm just amazed. I want to know what it was."

A caller to the ABC, Robyn, says she saw the phenomenon from her home on Sydney's north shore just before 6:00am.

She says it was over within two minutes.

"There was this white light up in the sky like a huge revolving moon," Robyn said.

"At first I thought it was the moon but it was travelling so fast, high up above the eastern horizon and twirling as it went.

"It was just amazing and to be quite frank, I was quite frightened and my heart's still pounding."

Queensland sightings

A number of people from Morayfield and Caboolture in Queensland have reported that they too saw a white light in the sky about 5:50am.

"It was just the one light. I just came home from my walk and I happened to look up in the sky, and here it was racing across the sky," Linda told 612 ABC Brisbane.

"I bashed on the window for my husband to have a look and he flew out.

"It was spectacular."

Linda described the light as like a lollipop swirl.

She says the light came from the west and was headed east, out to sea.

"It was just unreal. There was a cloud in the sky - just this light with a swirl in the middle," she said.

Peter, from Balmoral, says he saw the light while he was on a ferry terminal on the Brisbane River.

"It certainly had that lollipop-type swirl ... but it was travelling low and fairly fast, and as it went past me and I looked up, it looked like a row of lights, maybe four lights," he said.

Denise, at Pine Mountain, told ABC radio in Brisbane that she saw the lights shortly before 6:00am.

"I got up at about 5:45 to let my horse out of his stable ... and I saw this coming from a north-west direction towards the south-east," she said.

"There was no noise. It was like bands of ribbon coming out of it and it looked like it was coming through a cloud, yet there were no clouds."

An astronomer says space junk or meteors are the most likely explanations for the UFO sightings.
So much put into eyewitness testimony of non-experts, without a sceptical voice apart from the end. UFOs being synonymous with alien craft is something any of us could report, regardless of the plausibility of the existence of alien ships flying around.

The interesting thing about these kind of reports is that its almost always full of those who have no knowledge or expertise of the relevant topic. Where are the amateur astronomers? Where are the professional astronomers? Nope, reporting eyewitness testimony uncritically alluding to the possibility of some paranormal phenomenon.

Responsibility in journalism should come into play. How people react to eyewitness accounts, how they remember such stories in the future - this kind of stories affects the beliefs of the layperson but does nothing to further our understanding of nature. They drive the scientific community and the average person further apart!