Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Scientific Knowledge

A while back, I wrote a guest post on Bruce Gerencser's blog The Way Forward in which I discussed what science is. Some interesting conversations and comments developed on that post (they are visible at the end of the guest post), which got me thinking a bit more about a common misunderstanding about science and its role in uncovering knowledge. I appreciate the comments others have made and the discussions that have ensued. I want to make it clear that I'm not out to win an argument with anyone about this topic, but as a scientist I do often see people misunderstanding science, and there is a deliberate battle against science going on in society at the moment because scientific advancement always challenges the agenda of those who are dogmatic, superstitious or bound to belief in a single book such as the Bible (in many ways this has always been the case - think Galileo).

So, the common misconception is a function of interpretation of the fact that science has not yet given us all knowledge. Science is a process of discovery, it leads to knowledge. Science is capable of leading to knowledge about all things that are knowable, though it does not always do this for two reasons: 1) sometimes the resources (money and technology) are not available to run the experiments; and 2) some things are inherently unknowable - some questions simply have no answer.

In either of these cases, but more commonly in the first case, many non-scientists are tempted to state this as a limitation of science, that science cannot provide all knowledge. Since there are gaps in knowledge, some people believe that those gaps represent things that science cannot tell us, and which other non-scientific methods of discovery can tell us. Often, these types of things that are claimed as outside the realm of science are spiritual or supernatural. While it is technically correct to state that science cannot uncover knowledge of the supernatural, that is only because there is no evidence of the supernatural. To this point, we would be wrong to assume that the supernatural exists, because there has never been any evidence to support it. But, to then claim that that is a shortcoming of science is a fundamental error. Science is not limited because it cannot explain the supernatural. The supernatural does not exist, therefore there is no knowledge of it to uncover. How do we know that the supernatural doesn't exist? Because there is no evidence for it, and there is evidence for everything that exists.

Along the same lines, it is often erroneously claimed that science cannot disprove the existence of God. This is a very common claim, and one which people make when they have some rudimentary understanding of how science works. Once you understand that science examines evidence and then draws conclusions, you are able to look at things for which there is no evidence and claim that science cannot disprove it. An example would be the claim that science cannot disprove the existence of an invisible deity. But that is very different than claiming that science cannot disprove the existence of a specific god, such as the Christian God. By extending that claim to a specific deity, the claim no longer holds true. The claims about the Christian God are well known and are described in detail in the Bible. All science has to do to disprove that particular god is to disprove some of the things that are claimed about him. For example, once science showed that the world didn't come into existence in six days, there was a massive piece of evidence against the Christian God. (Christians might then start to claim that the six days are only figurative, that they might represent a much longer period of time. But notice that this claim was only made after science had shown that the world was not made in six days, as a form of trying to make the old conclusion fit the new evidence). I attempt to tackle this issue in a previous post entitled "God is Indeed Dead: It is Scientifically Provable."

Saturday, June 7, 2014

A glimmer of hope

Much of the time I find myself less and less engaged on the internet. The internet was a great idea that has, like many great ideas, been hijacked by self-interested groups who only care about money (read: corporations). One can barely open the internet today without getting blasted with ads. It was not always this way - only a few years ago one could read email, visit news pages, look at blogs, etc. more or less advertisement-free. Corporations have recognized the huge potential of the internet in marketing (and especially individualized marketing - for which I blame Mark Zuckerberg). On many news webpages, the article one is reading typically occupies only 10 - 20% of the screen area, with the rest being ads. YouTube has gone from a great grassroots entertainment to an opportunity to blast ads at people. (I'm always left wondering - when YouTube gives people the option to skip the ad - who the hell doesn't skip it?).

Despite all of this, one aspect of the internet that I do appreciate is the ability for the individual to comment and engage. A generation ago you would sit down to a newspaper and have no idea how other readers reacted to the same news. Today you simply scroll down and read the comments - something I admit to doing more often than I actually read the typically shoddily written article (why are modern writers unable to construct paragraphs longer than two lines?).

The comments sections always entertain, and educate on my fellow citizens' points of view. Many times they comments are rooted in ignorance of whatever topic the article covers. Articles about global warming or evolution seem to bring out most ignorance in this regard. But, one thing that gives me hope against the global political-corporatist machine, is the seeming increase in comments that are fed up with politicians being in bed with corporations. Let's face it, their not just in bed, they are performing some pretty acrobatic and kinky sexual acts with each other. However, there seems to be an increasing awareness in the population that this is happening. Whether people are willing to do anything about it remains to be seen, but I do take hope. For example, in an article this week pointing out that Canada has lost a significant number of jobs in the past month, the overwhelming majority of comments focused on the ridiculous notion that governments create jobs. Their mantra of "jobs, jobs, jobs" at election time was always pathetic and ridiculous, now it seems that many are seeing it for what it is.

The other example that gives me hope is the very common comments this week in response to the mass shooting of police officers in Moncton, New Brunswick. Most of the comments were encouraging news outlets to refuse to print the perpetrators name and to only name the victims in the hope that refusing to glorify the perpetrators of such heinous crimes might reduce the number of copycat events. I whole-heartedly agree with this point of view, but it was very nice to see it dominate my fellow citizens comments this week.

Dare I admit to not being a cynic today? Maybe it's the sunny weather.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

The Free Market Illusion

This morning on CBC news, there is an article by regular American correspondent Neil MacDonald about the subsidies to American farmers. I have long disliked the fake free market surrounding farming. Farmers form a relatively strong lobby amongst North American politics, and they tend to get their voice heard with greater volume than other larger groups (such as farm product consumers!) do. Even without the out-right cash payments Neil illustrates, farmers get massive amounts of support in fuel subsidies, tax relief, and other goodies that take them out of the challenging free market that any other small business owner leaps into. I suspect a lot of farmers would tell you a story about how hard it is to make end meet, but take a drive past almost any farm in Canada and you'll see the most expensive trucks on the road (I'm not talking about the farm's work trucks, I'm talking about the top of the line up duelly long-box that drives to church on Sundays), and some of the biggest and fanciest houses in middle-class Canada. Farmers don't like having this sort of thing pointed out to them partly, I think, because of a culture of entitlement. Many farmers seem to think it is their inherent right to be a farmer and to be able to earn a living at it. If I more competitive farmer produces a better product cheaper than they do, they don't seem to grasp the free market concept that other businesses do: you're going to go out of business if you can't compete.

This post is not a rant against farming. I know that many farmers work long hard hours all alone. I know they get dirty, and I know they put an essential product in the market place. I'm not blaming farmers for the state of the system. I'm blaming, once again, politicians. As Neil MacDonald points out, government, especially in the United States, throws trillions of dollars at farming in a sort of ongoing great social experiment. With the advent of the global market place and free-trade agreements, government has had to simply increase the amount of money so that American farmers can remain "competitive" in a larger market place. Here is the cold harsh reality of a globalized free-trade agreement: if an American corn grower can't compete with one in another country, then they should go out of business. In a globalized economy, there is no inherent right to stay in business when someone on the other side of the world can produce the same thing more cheaply. Of course, voters want it both ways: they want to be able to buy cheap stuff from China, but they still want the rest of the world to buy their expensive food and autos. What is government forced to do? Subsidize, subsidize, subsidize. That way, American producers keep the illusion that they are productive and competitive.

A few numbers from the article by Neil MacDonald:

- between 1995 and 2012, the U.S. government has paid its cotton producers $32.9 billion
- America paid Brazilian cotton growers $147 million a year keep quiet let the Americans keep subsidizing their cotton grower
-Congress just passed a massive farm bill that will spend $1 trillion over 10 years ($100 billion per year - of the equivalent of  Russia's entire defense bill each year)

This is anything but a free market. And, worst of all, this is just one example. Don't even get me started on the oil industry in Canada. Talk about an unfair advantage to the richest part of the private sector. I'm not necessarily a fan of an entirely free market, or of a globalized market. I don't think either are the best scenario for the average citizen. I think that in the past two decades, corporations have found a new way of lobbying government to enrich themselves by fantastic amounts of money. This includes the free-trade agreements and globalized market place combined with huge government subsidies and, worse, bail-outs in the case of corporate losses.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Maintain the Illusions

I recently finished the book Empire of Illusion by Chris Hedges. It's a decently written book in which Hedges manages to mix mature writing style without sacrificing accessibility to the average reader. And, at under 200 pages, it's a quick read. The basic premise of the book, as the back cover states, is that "A culture that cannot distinguish between reality and illusion dies." In five sections, the illusions of literacy, love, wisdom, happiness, and the illusion of America itself, Hedges illustrates how spectacle and superficial but catchy sound-bites have essentially taken over from more in-depth reading and understanding of issues. As the population gets less and less literate and chases more and more after entertainment and celebrity-ism, the powerful and wealthy people who control most of the economies of the globe are able to promote their agenda through political processes without much thought of objection by the voters. This initially sounds like some sort of tired and recycled conspiracy theory about how the Illuminati are controlling everything behind the scenes, but it is anything but that. It is a careful examination of how powerful entities, most notably corporations, are exerting their influence in a more and more consolidated manner to achieve their agenda of profit at all costs (no pun intended). Anyone who follows politics at a thoughtful level recognizes that no political party or successful politician is actually serving the people anymore. Politicians, especially in America where it takes enormous amounts of money to get elected, are already sold out to corporate interests before they ever get elected. They are fully owned, and not by the voters who think they put them in office. No decision the politicians make is ever based on what is only best for the population or the society, but always considers the wishes of for-profit corporations whose interests are pushed through by lobbyists. The political aspect of the book is only one component, but perhaps the most important one. Hedges also discusses how television has evolved from a genuine information source to nothing other than entertainment. Particularly in the past 15 years, with the advent of reality television, entertainment has taken over in an especially appealing way for the average citizen. The average person in America has very little in terms of success or meaning in their life (so goes Hedges' thesis), and therefore it is very successful to sell people a story that their life may amount to something. They are a celebrity themselves just waiting to be discovered. This is the appeal of reality television. Rather than watching sports and dreaming about how you could have been that successful athlete, you can now watch reality television shows and watch everyday, flawed people who really are just like you, and think that you might be the next star on TV. This illusion fills a void in one's life and hides the reality that we are not special, and that one day we will all die with most of us never really amounting to anything worthy of remembrance.

I felt that I could really relate to Chris Hedges' thesis in this book. I'm always looking for over-arching themes to society and human behaviour, and I would suggest that Hedges has found one. The replacement of reality with illusion is very, very appealing to humans (as religion has shown over millennia). This overwhelming temptation to accept illusion over reality is entertaining and temporarily satisfying, but of course it leads to a depressing, unfulfilled life. And worse, it leads to a disengaged, disillusioned, apathetic population. Hedges conclusion is that American society is inevitably headed towards a "reverse totalitarianism" based on extreme corporatism, and I am inclined to agree with him. Every citizen in America will one day be monitored in every aspect of their lives by corporations in bed with government.

With the theme of his book in my mind, I watched a short clip this morning of Kevin O'Leary sharing his opinion on the news that the wealthiest 85 people in the world now have as much wealth as the poorest 3.5 billion people in the world. Here is what Mr. O'Leary had to say:

I think anyone who isn't a billionaire (in other words 99.9998% of the world population) understands how inherently ignorant and insulting this statement is. O'Leary's main point is that everyone who isn't extremely wealthy (part of the 1%) is simply not working hard enough. When I was in my 20s and 30s I regularly worked 75 - 80 hours a week. Here I am still not party of the 1% (not even close). I'm sure many readers can relate. As Amanda Lang points out in the video, the poorest people in the world don't even have socks to pull up and get to work and it is ludicrous to suggest that if they only worked harder they too could be the next Bill Gates.

But more importantly than the ignorance that O'Leary spouts is the way in which he does so. As Hedges writes in his book, the media and television are simply entertainment now. Sound bites rule. Celebrity broadcasters or celebrity guests (such as O'Leary) spew out the illusion that the public wants to hear. Despite the fact that most of us are not filthy rich, and despite the fact that we inherently know that working harder is not going to turn us all into billionaires, there is comfort in that illusion. There is comfort in knowing that, hypothetically at least, we too could become wealthy beyond measure. This illusion is maintained by not allowing any proper discussion on the issue. An educated host who was given equal time to discuss the issue would easily pick apart O'Leary's ridiculous assertion. But note what O'Leary has been trained to do: to cut people off and just repeat his sound bite. There is no depth of thought, no attempt to actually understand the opposing point of view. The illusion is spewed out, never given time for analysis, and then the television moves forward before the audience really has time to think about things. Repeat the message every day over and over and people who should see the idiocy of such an illusion start to accept it. Worst of all, whether someone like O'Leary realizes this or not, the main power brokers who want this illusion maintained certainly know the falsehood of the message. However, they want the illusion maintained because their wealth accumulation requires it. The huge lie that working harder will make everyone rich is based on the fact that the super-wealthy need the majority of the population to be kept in poverty in order to facilitate their own enrichment. For example, where is the cheap labour for a corporation going to come from if every Bangladeshi in a sweat shop only worked hard enough to lift themselves up to the status of billionaire?

While I really enjoyed Hedges' book, my main objection is the ending. He spends a couple of pages at the end suggesting that human love eventually overcomes evil in this world. That, even in the death camps of World War II, a bit of love here and there was still noted. I find this to be a feeble sort of roll-over defeatism conclusion to the book. Instead of love, I suggest education. Education is the only solution to preventing (or reversing) the perpetual illusion believed by the majority of the population. Sadly, the powers that be have long ago also recognized that fact and gutted the educational system. The last thing the powerful want is an educated and enlightened population capable of critical thought.

Fortunately, however, while they may control things like funding to formal education, they can't control your decision to turn off your TV and go read a book or engage in some meaningful and respectful discussion with someone about relevant issues.