Wednesday, August 4

The Hazards of Well-Intended Ignorance

skepticIn October of 2014, I published a post on the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) in which I distinguished two senses of SETI: scientific SETI and religious SETI. I said that scientific SETI is a legitimate scientific discipline that partakes of all the conventional evidentiary criteria and methodology that attend any other area of scientific research. But I also said that religious SETI is, like virtually all similar misappropriations of science, a pseudo-science in which conclusions are drawn in advance of evidence, with scientific theories being “reverse engineered” to support those preconceived conclusions. This “bass-ackwards” approach thrives in a nation like the United States in which First World communications technology enables people with non- and even anti-scientific agendas to propagate misinformation at almost the speed of light. Add to that the religious zeal of the United States, uniquely anomalous for a First World country, and you end up with a degree of scientific illiteracy – on the part of progressives no less than of conservatives – in which the “noise” of competing misinterpretations and misinformation often drowns out the “signal” of actual science education. The sound of axes being ground is often deafening. Three examples will illustrate what I mean: the misrepresentation / misinterpretation of …

o ... quantum theory


 Someone – no one seems to know who – once said that if you claim to understand quantum mechanics, that very claim demonstrates that you do not. Crackpots and crackpot theories, all supposedly grounded in quantum mechanics, have proliferated like crabgrass on a suburban lawn. Explaining quantum theory is obviously not something I can do in a single paragraph, even if I could be sure I would not get hopelessly lost – to extend the crabgrass metaphor -- in the technical weeds of the subject. But contemporary pseudo-applications of quantum theory abound, most of them centered around the phenomenon -- which is quite real -- of "entanglement".

Entanglement is an umbrella term for a whole suite of phenomena whereby quantum systems plus human consciousness are mutually ... well ... entangled in such a way that any change in one of the systems "causes" an instantaneous change in the other system(s) under consideration. (Technically, "instantaneous" is a bit strong. All that is required is that the change occur within an infinitesimal  time interval consistent with Schroedinger's uncertainty relations. But never mind that ... See what I mean by "technical weeds"?) The customary term for this is to say that quantum systems are non-local. Furthermore, when human consciousness is involved in the change -- also known as the "collapse of the state vector" -- we have what has been for decades and still remains the hottest topic in epistemology:  the so-called "measurement problem" in quantum theory whereby the intervention of human consciousness "causes" one of an immense array of possibilities to be realized and the others to just ... well ... go away. (See the paradox of Schroedinger’s cat or the by-now classic "two-slit experiment".)  I place “causes” in double quotes because, since no cause can have an instantaneous effect – nothing can travel faster than the finite speed of light – whatever the relationship is between the two systems, that relationship cannot be cause-and-effect. But that does not deter the crackpot-theory purveyors, who, to name just one example, insist that if everyone in the world, for a certain set period of time each day, meditated on and practiced altruism, these changes would cumulatively cause the improvement of the “psychic climate” of the planet, usually through some vaguely defined alteration of the earth’s magnetic field. But we cannot leverage non-locality of quantum systems to somehow “cause” social and ideological changes in the human community at the "macro" level. The point is not that I am opposed to altruism. I am not. Nor is the point that I am opposed to meditation. I practice it myself. But I am opposed to advocating for either in a way that results in a net decrease in the public’s science IQ. The point is to be both good and smart, not dumb but good.



For some reason, quantum theory seems to be virtually unique in attracting crackpots from the left / progressive end of the political spectrum. I suspect this attraction is somehow connected with the greater emphasis people on the left place on wholeness, on community, on people’s connections with one another in the human community and with nature, all of which resonate with quantum mechanics’ emphasis of the deep wholeness of the physical universe. All that is undisputed, but I am highly, highly, highly skeptical that any of the wholeness / community principles can be justified by appeal to quantum theory.

The right rides its own hobby horses, all of which are – again, this is my suspicion – connected with conservatives’ corresponding emphasis on individuality, individual initiative – as witness their reaction to President Obama’s indisputable and eminently unproblematical "you-didn't-build-that" statement that individual achievements in any field are “always already” aided, abetted, and assisted by the support and (at least passive and implicit) collaboration from the human community. Instances of this conservative bias are “Legion”, for they are many. However, two of the more prominent, in which the distortion and misinterpretation of science are likewise implicated, are …

o ... climate change / global warming

a75b5af39ae23d9d96509e52bb340cc6_largeConservatives tend to take a very hard-shell Augustinian view of human nature: we are isolated individuals who are incompetent, individually and collectively, to direct our own destiny apart from some supervenient guiding Hand … which, in practice, usually means the Hand of God. In fact, if we are to believe Rep. Jim Imhofe’s March, 2012, statement on the Voice of Christian Youth America, human beings are even incompetent at screwing up their  own planet. Not only can we not, per St. Augustine, on our own do right things right. We cannot even do wrong things right ... like wreaking unmitigated environmental disaster! So, of course, whatever global warming there is – which most conservatives have grave doubts about, also – is purely natural, not human-made. The fact that the scientific consensus among environmentalists, ecologists, etc., in favor of anthropogenic – human-made – climate change is literally 1,000-to-one in favor of the hypothesis counts for nothing, because even that consensus – again, as St. Augustine probably would have said – emanates from human beings whose nature and intellect have been warped by sin.

Granted, that is theology, not science. But conservative opposition to the concept of climate change is also often based on a faulty conception of what science is. In particular, it is predicated on a persistent tendency to confuse weather with climate. I am amazed that, at least so far, neither Imhofe nor any of his climate-change-denying colleagues on the right have pointed to the weather phenomenon of Winter Storm Juno as countervailing evidence against global warming. It is true that no single storm, no single hurricane, no single change in, say, the polar-bear population supports the hypothesis of climate change. One data point does not make a trend. Nor do data from even a few decades of weather patterns. But the earth’s climate is (a) exceedingly complex, so that (b) drawing conclusions about climate change – as opposed to “one-off blips” like a single winter storm – requires data bases comprising at least a few centuries, preferably several millennia, of data from many dozens of different parts of the planet. Even then long-term, global climate change does not presuppose, nor does it entail as a consequence, that every square millimeter of the planet’s surface becomes uniformly warm at the same time and at the same rate. Global warming is entirely consistent with the existence of local, transitory “cold spots” like Juno. One storm proves nothing. One year proves nothing. Even one decade proves nothing. Nor have environmentalists ever claimed otherwise, save in the Augustine-impaired imaginations of conservative critics.

o ... evolution

Given that 156 years have passed since the first edition of Darwin's Origin of Species was published in 1859, and that during all that time, the fossil, biochemical, and genetic evidence for evolution has grown from a comparative molehill to something that would make Mt. Everest look like a pre-pubescent pimple, the only thing arguably as incredible as the fact of evolution itself is the continuing opposition to it. Here the religious / theological roots of anti-Darwinism are even more bare-bones obvious.


As with humans, Nature is "fallen", also, according to the prevailing theological biases, and so any order that persists in Nature long-term has to be attributable to constant Divine "tweaking".  But as Richard Dawkins notes in his superlative book on evolution, The Greatest Show on Earth, natural processes operating over immense spans of time can give the appearance of deliberate design. Conservative evangelicals and fundamentalists tend to model their concept of evolution on manufacturing paradigms, whereby it is easy to tell the difference between, say, a 2003 Nissan Altima and a 2013 Nissan Altima:  they just look different. So conservative critics of evolution likewise look for differences in "models" of human beings, and, not finding such, conclude that the lack of "intermediate forms" refutes evolution. But "models" of organisms fall along a continuum, not in discrete "model years," and any two examples of a given species, separated by hundreds or even thousands of years, will be virtually indistinguishable. The difference between today's homo sapiens sapiens and an earlier human being only becomes evident if "earlier" is measured in 6 digits' worth of years, not just a couple of generations. The reason we do not find "intermediate forms" is because there are none.

Another common argument against evolution is to say that nothing as breathtakingly complicated as the natural biosphere could ever have arisen by, as anti-evolution critics are wont to say, "mere chance".  This misses a critical point:  evolution through natural selection is anything but "mere chance". (Of course, the beginning of life most likely was a "mere chance" event -- and one senses here another creationist / intelligent design "gap for God" gestating.) The interaction between biological organisms and the physical environment is something that is jaw-droppingly and drool-inducingly complex.  But so is any non-trivial game of chess. From a practical standpoint, there is no chance of ever, in practice, predicting the outcome, at any point in time, of either:  the spectrum of possibilities is far too complex. (A wonderful treatment of this subject is the late Stephen Jay Gould's book Wonderful Life, about the Burgess Shale.) But that is not the same thing as saying that either chess or natural selection is a haphazard, random process. It just means that their respective rules are complex to a degree that beggars mere human imagination.

I think you begin to see why my admiration for people like the late Carl Sagan, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Brian Greene, Stephen Hawking, Andrea Ghez, Seth Shostak, Richard Dawkins, Jill Tarter, Daniel Dennett, Ann Druyan, et al., is virtually unbounded.  Over the last twenty years or so, there has been a perceptible retreat from science and rationality in favor, not just of a spiritual world-view -- which, at some level, I even share -- but toward a preference for latter-day medieval superstition ... let's call it what it is, shall we? ... that is explicitly anti-rationalist. The barbarians are at the gates of the Vienna of 21st-century western civilization, and the above people fight against them with valor.

They fight well.  Whether they will win or lose remains to be seen.

James R. Cowles



    • Yeah … I know … When I started writing for the blog, I wrote directly to the WordPress blog software. But the print was so damn small, I adopted the practice of writing the text part to a Word document in a larger type face, then doing a copy-paste to WordPress after proofing, then adding in the images. (This had the additional advantage of creating a Word doc to serve as a back-up to WordPress.) Could you copy the post, paste it to Word, highlight the Word doc, and choose a larger font in Word? This is easier than it sounds. In fact, it takes longer to describe than to do.

      Lemme think about this some more.

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