== A qualified defense of reason ==
(Continuing from Part 1)
Some have been discussing a grouchy missive by the brilliant linguistic philosopher George Lakoff -- specifically Lakoff's latest dismissal of reason as a tool of enlightenment decision making. It provokes me to respond.
Also, recent advances in neuroscience seem to be supporting the cynics. As Lakoff points out, our brains seem wired for bias, which reasoning generally serves only to rationalize. We process new “facts” offered by our opponents through parts of the brain associated by emotion, rather than logic. To see how bad it gets, just look at yourself, by taking my infamous “Questionnaire Regarding Politics, Ideology and Human Destiny.”
On the other hand, I must quibble --
Lakoff asserts that logic and reason are fundamental underpinnings of the Enlightenment Experiment. And I will confess that they started out that way, and still are vital components of the non-Anglic (e.g. Franco-German) wing of the Enlightenment.
But the Anglo-American wing long ago demoted reason to second-tier status. It is still important, as an ideal to be yearned-for. But primary position was given - by Locke, Smith, Franklin, and Madison to something else: Reciprocal Accountability.
Knowing how good human beings are delusion and at rationalization, the sages of the Enlightenment's pragmatic wing chose to emphasize adversarial processes, in markets, democracy, justice and science. Competitive criticism and reward systems, based on actual outcomes and repeatable tests were supposed to overcome the biases that the Founders knew to be inherent in human nature.
Let me elaborate: while reason has clearly been revealed as faulty, in guiding us to useful conclusions, it still serves science crucially well, as a hypothesis generator! As a fertile source - like manure - of the assertions and wagers that then make the basis for subsequent science.
By far most of the assertions that are later subjected to Popperian falsification arise, either wholly or in part, through processes of abstract reasoning. In other words, reason is a great truth-seeking tool when it is paired with other essential things... diversity, competition, reciprocal accountability, experimental testing,... and a cultural tradition of cheerful -- or at least grudging -- acceptance of the paramount value of evidence.
As Herbert Spencer once wryly quipped... 'there is nothing so tragic as a beautiful theory, disproved.' Well, tragic, except in comparison to 10,000 years of wrong theories that were forced upon folks, by bullying.
== Science & Society ==
And now for a catch-all potpourri that is NOT political!
-- Climate Change & Civil War: Starting with data on conflicts that killed more than 25 people, as compiled by the Center for the Study of Civil War to include 175 countries and 234 civil wars in the last six decades or so, the researchers mapped out how many of these disputes occurred in years with an El Niño weather pattern. They found that the risks of civil war breaking out in a tropical country during an El Niño doubled. Then, running a comparative simulation in which such El Niño weather patterns did not occur, the researchers determined that the hotter, drier conditions helped stoke 48 civil wars that did not occur in the modeled El Nino-free world. "Even in this modern world, climate variability has an impact on the propensity of people to fight," says climate modeler Mark Cane of Columbia University. "When people get warmer than comfortable they get irritable and they are more prone to fight." (Late note: there has been a lot of blogging by folks pointing to contrary evidence and studies. So take this with salt.)
-- To resolve conflict, believe people can change. Negotiation often fails because each side believes their opponent is inflexible, according to researchers in Israel. Stand-offs, they say, can end if those involved ponder the possibility that their counterparts can adopt a flexible mindset.
-- Identity in the modern world: Across India, using fingerprint & iris scanners, workers are creating the world’s largest biometric database, a mind-boggling collection of 1.2 billion identities. One goal: to reduce corruption & economic inequality. 12-digit ID numbers will help build real citizenship in a society where identity has been historically linked with caste, kin & religion. Ah, one hopes it won’t just serve as a tool of top-down control
-- Picture a world where tools improve with use. It’s the premise of my way-fun novel, The Practice Effect. Our own world may not work that way, but Tarus Balog suggests that open source software can follow that pattern. Version 1.0 may be bare bones, then users add features, erase glitches, till it becomes robust. Creative transparency. I have such a project!
== Science Snippets ==
-- Gorgeous! See time-lapse videos—captured over the course of 14 years by the Hubble Space Telescope. Amazing to see vast phenomena changing across the years.
-- Looking back: Jupiter-Bound Spacecraft Sees Earth and Moon from Afar.
-- Vaccines are nearly entirely safe. But don’t try telling that to the cultists. On second thought. Do. Try. And keep on trying. Your efforts may be the vaccine they need to wake up from the fever.
-- Human Activity Is Officially Acknowledged to Cause Earthquakes.
-- The Big Bang Theory: A fan video of the Barenaked Ladies theme song: Even if they get the "cycle" of bangs wrong... it's still way cool!
== Miscellaneous ==
-- “From The 'London Times' of 1904” is one of Mark Twain’s sort of halfway sojourns into science fiction. Read about an imaginary device called a “telelectroscope,” which was essentially a telephone with a “moving picture” screen that, when connected to a network of telelectroscopes all around the world, created a worldwide system of information sharing.
...and then how it inspires one sci fi reader to ponder “green SF.”
-- Speaking of Twain... ah boys will be boys.
-- Just watched the movie "Paul." From the trailers, I expected something like "Alf" - alien-as-male-jackass. So I watched it with just my 14 yr old son. We were pleasantly surprised! Sure, lots of immature jokes. But it was more subtle and well-written than expected. Way fun. And the story portrayed being a "Nebulon Award winning sci fi author" as the highlight of human existence! Well now... how can I complain or disagree? ;-)
-- Alyona Lompar has posted her Ukrainian translation of the first ten chapters of The Uplift War.
-- A cool short video about a woman who wakes up in prison and gets ahold of the gun from PORTAL.
-- Okay, slightly political: but this is important. It shows why those who benefit from “culture war” paint all sides as intransigent, unreasonable dogmatists. See how I weighed in on this topic for 20 years, via my “questionnaire” that pokes at many of the assumptions that underlay ideology. Yes, even yours.
-- A new massively multiplayer game announced... one with real science and possibility... NASA's Astronaut: Moon, Mars and Beyond. Set in the year 2035, you will embark on an adventure into space, Mars, the asteroid belt and the outer planets. You will uncover secrets about a threat to civilization as we know it. Here are some notes on the upcoming game:
•Real science, technology, engineering, mathematics and physics content is infused throughout the AMMB universe.
• Astronauts may pick from several character classes, including several types of Engineer, Physicists, and Pilots.
• AMMB is currently being developed using the Unreal Engine 3 platform.
• A playable beta is expected in December 2012.
• NASA sponsored the selection in the MMO competition, and Project Whitecard and WisdomTools comprise the winning team!
Hope it does well. It'd be nice to see some sci fi that celebrates our common adventure in civilization, instead of taking the cheap shots we keep seeing from both right and left.