Argument from ignorance

27 04 2010

Neil deGrasse Tyson is an excellent lecturer and public speaker. He is also a great advocate for science and rational thought.

At a PBS/NOVA-sponsored event, he answered a question regarding his belief in the existence of UFOs and extraterrestrial visitors. He began his response by reminding the audience what the “U” in “UFO” stands for and how humans, in a desperate need for answers, will fill in the blanks of our perceptions.

He was quite right in saying that humans are flawed information gatherers. We are forced to rely on precision instruments, repeated observations, the Scientific Method, and comparing observations with others to get a reliable picture of reality.

Perhaps we are not given to naturally processing information reliably, in favor of forming quick conclusions and quick reactions. An animal in the wild is not usually benefited by calm, slow, patient reasoning and analysis. In a life-and-death situations, an animal must react quickly to escape or fight and survive.

I do not blame people for seeing a mysterious light in the sky and instantly filling in all the banks with whatever happens to be on their minds. That is just the way the primal human mind works. However, it is within our power to stop that thought from reaching our lips and sit down and think about what we just saw. I do not know the exact numbers, if they exist, but the odds of seeing a genuine alien spacecraft or their occupants is far less likely than catching a glimpse of Venus or a meteor hitting the atmosphere.

While not an irrefutable piece of logic in scientific circles, Occam’s razor would seem to apply here. “The simplest solution is usually the correct one.”


Getting inquisition right

26 04 2010

For those have not seen the Symphony of Science videos yet, I highly recommend you go watch all of them. There are five so far and a new one is added every few months.

In the most recent one, “The Poetry of Reality,” I have found that a few of the scientists in the video think that is “great not knowing”. I understand that all of the phrases and audio clips are taken completely out of context. Even so, I feel that these statements are poorly worded. Surely, Richard Feynman was not advocating ignorance as an alternative to absolute certainty and knowledge. Neither of these are logically tenable positions to try to maintain. Also, both tend to be associated with organized religion.

Absolute certainty means holding a very specific position on a topic and not wavering from it, even in the face of new evidence. An opinion can seem perfectly reasonable at one time, but then will appear more and more absurd to others as time goes on.

Absolute certainty breeds a terrible type of ignorance, willful ignorance. When one is willfully ignorant of reality, they will do everything in their power to avoid newer, uncomfortable evidence. In extreme cases, they will become immune to reason and become a risk to themselves and others.

In order to become inquisitive, one must first admit ignorance where no publicly verifiable evidence exists. Ignorance is not the equivalent of stupidity and it is easy to solve the problem of ignorance. Even if you do not have access to the internet or a library, you can still become a rational, thinking human being.

Also realize that whatever you hold to be true is not invulnerable to new evidence. Be ready to accept that new evidence and incorporate it into your over-arching world view.

Then again, that’s just me. I could be wrong.

Update: If you would like some additional reading, consider Bob Carroll’s “Becoming a Critical Thinker.” It’s a good introductory book to logic and reason applied in the real world.

The dangers of laziness

20 11 2009

When I see the state of the world, I am filled with mixed feelings: optimism and despair, hope and fear. It is my opinion that most people are well-adjusted and sympathetic human beings who just want to be left alone as they go about their day. However, there are others, a vocal minority who tend to destabilize things on local or global scales.

I see two possibilities. We can die out as a species because nature selects us for extinction. The other possibility is that we drive ourselves into extinction by means like war, genocide, weapons of mass destruction, and the like.

Humanity can have such a rich and long future, but only if we make the right decisions now. The first thing that we have to get over is the notion that the world’s problems are permanent. With enough discipline, anything is possible.

Really, this whole situation could go either way. We could destroy ourselves or not. I much prefer the latter option.

Carl Sagan Day

10 11 2009

Carl Sagan was born on November 7, 2009. If he were still alive today, today would be his seventy-fifth birthday.

Carl Sagan was a science advocate and is widely known through his thirteen-episode PBS series, Carl Sagan’s Cosmos. In this show, he illustrated and explained complex scientific concepts in ways that the layman could understand.

This is the core of scientific advocacy. People will not care to learn about something that they think requires heavy, exhaustive scientific training. However, if scientific material can explained accurately in everyday terms to enough people, the benefit to society is immeasurable. Any open, free society requires an educated public. Whether that knowledge comes from the regular education system, higher education, or scientific advocacy groups, it is knowledge being passed on to large groups of people.

Carl Sagan left a legacy. If there is life after death, then Carl Sagan has certainly achieved it. He died in December 1996, but people continue to watch his Cosmos series, interviews, and other appearances and they read his books. He continues to make an impact upon the world.

I did not discover Sagan’s work until well after he was gone, but when I did, I just soaked it up. It made a huge impression on me. It further emphasized the idea that a broad, in-depth understanding of the natural world does not need to be reserved for those in higher education. It is something that should be accessible to everyone and anyone with the knowledge has the power to share it with anyone.

Carl Sagan left a great legacy. If you have not watched Cosmos, several episodes are on YouTube.

Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, episode 1
Carl Sagan on the Drake Equation
Symphony of Science

Why climate change is so controversial

28 07 2009

I realize that the title of this blog post is a bit loaded. This is not a simple situation to understand. There is so much controversy in American politics regarding climate change. It is extraordinarily frustrating to see one’s own leaders, the people who can make the greatest strike against a global problem wasting everyone’s time with endless bickering. Then the bickering that starts in Washington spreads out to the general American public, polarizing many people.

The question is why? Why do our leaders waste precious time, energy, and money fighting each other over trivial issues when the real fight goes ignored? They are used to fighting. That is all Congress has done over the last twenty years. Passing meaningful legislation that will benefit the majority of the American people has become a secondary concern. What really seems to matter to them is winning the next little argument, the next tiny spat. It all seems to be about members of Congress masturbating their own egos at the expense of America and the rest of the world. It is disturbing, it is unproductive, and it is selfish.

As for the American people, it comes down to laziness, fear, and an unwillingness to change. For the last sixty years, we have become accustomed to a way of living that, while very comfortable, is unsustainable. The resistance to accepting the reality of climate change stems from natural conclusion that a large part of the solution and keeping our planet habitable for human life involves them making life changes that they are unaccustomed to and will probably be difficult. We are indeed a nation of whiners and fear-mongers. It would be terrifying for us all to accept the reality of the situation is because the situation is so dire and the moral imperative to do something is inescapable.

The fact is we need solutions and change, not one or the other. We need to make changes in our lives so that we threaten the status of the global climate less. We need technology innovation and risk-taking so that we will have the tools to implement an industrial transformation. We have can have the ability to avert a catastrophe for mankind, but we must have the courage to admit to our mistakes and our flaws.

We all breathe the same air. Despite this, we put massive amounts of carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, long-chain hydrocarbons, benzene, and all kinds of other poisons into the air that we all breathe. China has some of the worst air quality in the world. About 400,000 Chinese die every year because of poor air quality. I used to think we humans don’t shit where we eat. I guess I was wrong.

Related reading:

I need to get out more often (for blogging)

9 02 2009

I have been wracking my brain for blog topics. I suppose the best way to go about writing an interesting blog post is to actually go out and get some real-world experiences. Then come back to the computer and write about them and reflect on them. The problem for me is that I do not really get outside the house very often.

Maybe I am wrong. Maybe all I need to keep pumping out 2-3 posts a week is just a steady stream of information from the web. Of course, people are so interconnected on the internet, that it becomes an echo chamber, where the same five ideas and ten stories bounce from person to person. I do not wish to become like that. I try to develop my own opinions about various tech and political issues.

I can definitely see how getting out and experiencing the world first hand could potentially help me to become a better writer and a better thinker. I do not believe it can be healthy to simply get all of my information and opinions from the web. Taking into account all of the interconnectivity that goes on online, the web can be thought of as a single source of information. However, I do enjoy listening to many of the TWiT podcasts and reading Ars Technica. I love it when I find a little personal blog with a keen insight into a given topic. That is always fun.

I guess I need to try to grow my offline social circle a bit. It would help to get some thought and insight from people here with me. Maybe I should even try taking a few trips around the Indianapolis/central Indiana area. This is going to be fun.

WTF, mate?

20 10 2008

This story was found by way of Ars Technica:

Australians may not be able to opt out of the government’s Internet filtering initiative like they were originally led to believe. Details have begun to come out about Australia’s Cyber-Safety Plan, which aims to block “illegal” content from being accessed within the country, as well as pornographic material inappropriate for children. Right now, the system is in the testing stages, but network engineers are now saying that there’s no way to opt out entirely from content filtering.

Apparently, the Australian government has taken it upon themselves to filter out what they deem to be “illegal” content. This is exactly what the Chinese government is doing with its Great Firewall. The reasons for doing it and the methods they use may be different, but the end goal is still the same. There has already been some backlash amongst Australian internet users. Despite these protests, the Australian government is still pushing forward. Despite their best efforts, though, this may not have the desired impact, as the internet is impossible to regulate.

What I find most troubling about this is the fact that it could spread. With things like Homeland Security and the USA PATRIOT ACT gradually whittling down our freedoms in the United States, how can we be sure that our freedom and privacy on the web will be preserved. The web is the most egalitarian media outlet ever created and laws like this just damage it. One of the web’s greatest strength’s is that it is unfilitered. Anyone can post anything and anyone can get anything (for the most part). To have that kind of freedom and openness diminished by governmental regulation and censorship is sad and frightening.

I can understand the desire to censor things like child pornography. In fact, I am okay with blocking things like that. The web can be used for lots of bad things. However, I feel that the web is largely used for positive purposes. Also, whenever a government is given a certain power, it is rarely taken away from it. This also gives the Australian government enormous power to control what its citizens see on the web. Regardless of what the says the government can and cannot do, there will probably be individuals who take advantage of that power for their own ends.

I hope public outcry will kill this government action in Australia and prevent it here in the United States. The strength and appeal of the internet lies in its freedom. It is my contention that there should be at least one media outlet that is completely free of censorship and regulation. I would urge Australians to speak out and for Australian ISPs to grow spines and stand up to this. Sorry, Australia. I hope you feel better soon.