Scientists do not have a monopoly on assessing evidence. A Hackney SITP review

Last night, I went to a Hackney “Skeptics in the Pub” event. The big draw was lawyer David Allen Green, aka blogger Jack of Kent, who was speaking on the subject “Scientists do not have a monopoly on assessing evidence“.

The good parts. David is a charismatic and entertaining speaker. The main thrust of his talk was interesting: he wished to disabuse those present of the notion that the legal process is a quest for “the truth”. Instead, the law wishes solely to dis/prove legal liability. Having found that someone is liable, it can then do things to them. Fine them. Make them do community service. Send them to jail. Whether someone is liable therefore depends solely on assessing evidence in accordance with the law as laid down. The truth isn’t so much a consideration.

David illustrated this thesis with a catalogue of cases, all of which will be familiar to the Skeptics movement or to readers of his blog or his New Statesman writing. For example, it matters not that we all know that Paul Chambers never intended to actually blow Robin Hood airport sky high. Liability was established under the law, so bad things can be done to him (there’s a further appeal due in February).

That contrasts with science, which believes that it (and usually scientists believe only it) aims to get at the truth.

It’s certainly an interesting perspective. Unfortunately, that’s as far as he went with it. I was waiting for him to develop it further, but he spent a lot of time wallowing in the past, without really explaining what the implications for his thesis were. It’s good to play to the gallery at times, of course, but I would have welcomed a deepening of his hypothesis.

Both law and science rely on models. The scientific model aims at truth, if you’re a scientific realist, or perhaps usefulness, if you’re an anti-realist. The legal model aims at establishing liability (as David explained). A major difference between science and the law is that where science finds discrepancies between “truth” and its model, it will change the model (this is a gross simplification for the purposes of keeping this blog post short!). Because the law isn’t concerned with the truth, this can’t happen. However, egregiously unfair cases may lead to the law being changed or “bent” to produce a temporarily or permanently fairer outcome, as perhaps happened in the Simon Singh case. Exploring why we operate law and science differently would have been interesting, especially if you were to contemplate whether you could run them the same way. Further, it would have been illuminating to look at other disciplines, such as history, economics or accountancy, to determine whether they follow the legal or scientific model, or whether they have an alternative approach. (My starter for ten is that history is more scientific, accountancy is more legal, and economics has aspects of both.)

As I say, it’s a pity that David didn’t go there. But it was an enjoyable evening in a great venue with excellent company. It’s well worth keeping an eye on their future agenda.

Science vs religion

You can find knowledge and learning without science. But, given that science works so well, why would you?

You can find peace, meaning, a sense of ethics, and inner calm without religion. But, given that religion works so well, why would you?

It’s silly to criticise religion for something that it patently doesn’t set up to do in the first place.

And they came and said to him, “Teacher, we know that you are true and do not care about anyone’s opinion. For you are not swayed by appearances, but truly teach the way of God. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not? Should we pay them, or should we not?” But, knowing their hypocrisy, he said to them, “Why put me to the test? Bring me a denarius and let me look at it.” And they brought one. And he said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” They said to him, “Caesar’s.” Jesus said to them, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” And they marveled at him.

The Gospel according to St Mark chapter 12, verses  14-17.

Sloppy seconds

The ‘second’ is a human construction, representing a sliver of a fragment of a portion of a day. Man noticed many thousands of years ago that the sun rises and sets according to a broad pattern of days and years. However, there aren’t quite a whole number of days in a year, meaning that we need to add a day here and there to make things balance. A year with an extra day is, of course, called a Leap Year.

In order to provide some precision to the measurement of a second, scientists in 1967 redefined the second in terms of the wiggling of caesium-133 atoms.

More recently, scientists have noticed that the Earth’s wobble means that there aren’t precisely 3.154×10^7 seconds in a year. In order to preserve the relationship between the calendar and the Earth’s rotation around the Sun, scientists have occasionally had to add an extra second. Although these extra seconds haven’t really caused too many problems to date, there is now a proposal to abandon leap seconds altogether. That means that, in time, the calendar and the rotation of the Earth around the Sun will become more and more unaligned.

Some scientists care not. They believe that we can cope with this, because their time, UTC, will be right. We can always adjust to UTC if we want to. That could mean that Greenwich Mean Time, which is currently the same as UTC, may become an adjustment to UTC in future.

These scientists are fools. They fail to recognise the fundamental nature of the second. Remember: it’s a human construction. So to allow the calendar, another human construction, to become distorted by this dogma is intolerable. It’s also appalling hubris, because it presumes that there is meaning to the second and to our calendar outside of the human realm. There’s nothing intrinsically in the universe for which the second means anything. Its only purpose is to subdivide the calendar into bitesize chunks. Some of those chunks are bigger than others, so we need an extra second here and there to make it balance.

Tomorrow we’ll find out whether reason can win the day.

I’m so sorry

First it was Diane Abbott, and her idiotic comments about white people.

And now it’s David Cameron, with similarly ill-advised comments about Ed Balls and Tourette’s syndrome. Cameron has since ‘apologised‘; I put that word in inverted commas because he didn’t actually apologise at all:

Downing Street later put out an apology saying the remark was made “off the cuff”. A spokesman said: “The Prime Minister would not have meant to offend anyone. He apologises if any offence has been caused.”

That’s not an apology. It’s the worst form of mealy-mouthed political formulation you can imagine. Perhaps it’s true that Cameron didn’t mean to offend anyone. But his words, even if off-the-cuff, are offensive to people who don’t suffer just from Tourette’s but must also face the constant misunderstanding of what their condition means. Cameron’s clumsy use of their condition to score cheap political points is incredibly damaging to sufferers’ attempts to have their condition better understood by society.

Secondly, the form of words is utterly inappropriate. You can’t be sorry if someone else is offended. You’re either sorry or you’re not. Placing conditions on your own apology serves to show only that you never intended to give it. It’s not my fault I’m offended by your inappropriate language. It’s your fault for saying it.

So Cameron needs to try again. Yet if he can properly apologise then we should forgive him. As Luke tells us:

If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him.

It’s to the eternal shame of our politicians that they don’t seem able to apologise properly.

Control

I am sitting in a playground while my children are on a Saturday course. I’m depressed.

So I’m watching things and listening to music. There is a bank of five lockers, long disused. The door of the fourth one down blows open and closed in the wind, at random. There are four tyres on a climbing frame that are swinging in time with one another.

Further away, there is a discarded coke can that is being blown around its own personal assault course, never quite able to escape. A paper bag flies up and down, here and there, constrained by a wire fence.

And I realise that although I feel trapped and weepy, I’m much better off than these objects.

And the sun shines, both out and in.

The machine that can detect God

I have a machine. It has a small LED display and a button. It’s very simple to operate; you just press the button and the LED display shows you a brief message: “God exists”.

This is no hoax. My machine really does do this. Why would I lie to you? I’m a priest.

Perhaps you feel you don’t need to see my machine. Perhaps you’re just comfortable with my assertion that it does indeed do what I tell you it does. So you might tell others that you know God exists because you believe in Adam’s machine.

There are other machines in the world. There’s one that has enormous computer displays and lots of buttons. It’s very complicated to operate and frequently breaks down. Its displays can tell you many weird and wonderful things. Such as whether the Higgs Boson exists.

This is also no hoax. The LHC really does do this. Why would the people behind it lie to you? They’re scientists.

Perhaps you feel you don’t need to see the LHC. Actually, that’s a good thing, because you’re not really allowed anywhere near it, and certainly nowhere near its most intimate workings. So you’ll just have to take it as read that it really does indeed do what the scientists tell you it does.  And, yes, you might tell others that you know the Higgs Boson (does? doesn’t?) exist because you believe in the scientists’ machine.

Now there are some people who love the scientific method and see no reason for the existence of God. In their view, because God isn’t necessary to the advancement of knowledge and can’t be detected using the scientific method, He simply doesn’t exist. This can lead to some hurtful and unkind comments about how belief in God is somehow illogical or superstitious.

Yet, qualitatively, there is no difference between the faith of the religious and the faith of the scientific. If anything, the faith of the religious is more likely to be acquired from first hand experience. It’s just that, due to its very personal and spiritual nature, it cannot be replicated by others. By contrast, the faith of the scientific purports to have rigid empirical roots. But, in the hands of an individual, it is just as likely to be built upon faith rather than first-hand, or even second-hand, empirical knowledge. The individual won’t ever have seen a Higgs Boson, or perhaps even an electron. His/her knowledge acquisition is based entirely upon years of academic study by others and is heavily reliant upon machines built by others and the workings of which cannot be verified. It would be as legitimate for most individuals to rely upon my machine as any particle accelerator. They’ve probed inside neither.

Without getting too sceptical about skepticism, it’s fair to say that both religion and science rely heavily upon faith. However, religion is at least honest about its use of faith. Skeptics would be advised to ponder the degree of faith essential for their own study before weighing too heavily on religion.

Yes, I’m aware of the principle of self-correction as a main line of defence against knowledge acquired by relying on others. Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions is effective in showing that self-correction as a principle is pretty seriously flawed.

Defending Diane Abbott

Ugh, I didn’t want to have to write this. And I can think of only a handful of people less sympathetic than Diane Abbott. But here goes; this is why I think the Twitterati are wrong to call for her to resign after her idiotic racist comment on Twitter yesterday evening.

Racism is equally bad whichever way it cuts. Usually it’s majorities oppressing minorities but, as Abbott shows, it can be equally odious the other way. But ultimately, society wants to stop racism altogether. We won’t be satisfied with a ceasefire, where simmering racism still exists but dare not speak its name. Nor will be satisfied with a situation where most people are still racist but they keep it under wraps for fear of being shot for their thoughts.

No. We actually want to stop people being racist. And for that to happen, Diane Abbott and her ilk need to face up to the full horror of just how stupid they are. I’m fairly sure she won’t do that if she’s sacked or if she feels she is forced to resign. That will only make her a martyr for her cause. It will, if anything, only cement the views of both sides. On the contrary, she needs to be made to confront her own views and to realise how butt-clenchingly idiotic they are. She needs to remain in post, being pilloried for being a moron until she accepts that they are wrong. She needs to eliminate her hate, not hide it behind getting sacked because “the system” said she was improper (but “we” all know she’s okay, right kids?)

This is a necessary price for demanding that minorities be themselves a little more understanding of other people’s views. Calling for Abbott’s resignation or sacking is an implicit acceptance that anyone can and should be silenced when accused by minorities of holding unsavoury views. We want everyone to be more tolerant of others. Why then, do we seek to fight the intolerance of racism with more intolerance? To eliminate the curse of intolerance, we are going to have to make the first move. That’s why we should accept Abbott’s apology and step into a more grown-up discussion of how we eliminate racism from our society.