Science and philosophy. A Hackney SITP review

Tonight I made it, somewhat late (sorry), to see Clio Bellenis present on “Is philosophy relevant to science?” at Hackney SITP. This is a subject that has huge resonance for me. For I was once a student of science who became increasingly disenchanted with the subject and who took up philosophy in order to provide some answers to the questions I felt science was unable to answer. And, having started studying physical science at university, I ended up with a degree in philosophy, to the great disappointment of my parents.

So it was with great anticipation that I turned up to the friendly Hackney SITP to see Dr Bellenis speak. Boy, was I disappointed. After (rightly) putting the boot in to Professor Brian Cox for his idiotic attack on philosophy, she gave a very muddled presentation that touched on philosophy of mind and the free will/determinism debate but which managed to avoid any discussion at all about philosophy of science. In the questions that followed, Dr Bellenis presented some astonishingly facile arguments against the existence of God [“He is logically impossible, unless He is a sadist. If God is omniscient, omnipresent and omnipotent, how can there be suffering in the world? He must be evil. Therefore God cannot exist” This argument manages to undervalue the concept of freedom. Every parent knows that it’s better for their child to be free to make mistakes than to be constrained], railed against grammar school tests and, most irritatingly of all, stated that she knew very little about philosophy of science.

Given that this was supposed to be the subject of her presentation, I felt this to be a very major failing. I do prefer it when speakers at this sort of event manage to answer the exam question they have set for themselves.

An alternative approach might have been to identify a few reasonable but controversial propositions that scientists might make and then test them using philosophy. For example:

  1. “Science is the only way to acquire knowledge”. This could have allowed discussion of alternative methods of knowledge-acquisition and whether they are, philosophically speaking, as valid as science. What gives science its higher position, if anything? The work of Paul Feyerabend would be a good reference here. Shouldn’t we be open to mad approaches to knowledge acquisition if they produce information that is useful? Even religious approaches?
  2. “The empirical method is infallible”. This could have allowed discussion of some of the challenges to empiricism. In particular, the work of Thomas Kuhn (which Dr Bellenis sadly misused horribly in the question and answer session: paradigm shifts are fundamental changes in the building blocks of science, not a change from one theory to another. [Incidentally, Kuhn is poison for most skeptics, who do seem to prefer the idea of a linear progression towards perfect knowledge. I do wonder why he’s so popular with them]), which suggests that science can be very bad at analysing evidence fairly, especially when it contradicts the major theories of the day. Conflicting theories often don’t get a fair assessment until there are so many holes in traditional science that it becomes untenable. Doesn’t this mean that scientists should be more receptive to radical, unconventional theories today?
  3. “Only those things that can be replicated using the scientific method shall be considered true”. This could have allowed discussion of logical positivism, which seems to curry favour with some more radical skeptics today, even though the theory has fallen into disrepute in modern philosophy. But what can replace it? What are the implications for science?

Now it’s been some 20 years since I studied philosophy of science, so I’m a bit rusty, I know. But, in my view, this would have provided a much more stimulating framework for discussion of the relationship between science and philosophy than Dr Bellenis’s rather incoherent presentation. Ultimately science doesn’t need philosophy, just as it doesn’t need history or politics. But it’s much, much stronger for taking account of it.

Many thanks to the lovely Alice Sheppard for arranging tonight’s presentation and for making Hackney SITP an essential part of the monthly calendar.

It’s the end of the world as we know it (a Hackney SITP review)

Last night, I returned to the Hackney SITP to see Guardian journalist Alok Jha talk about his new book The Doomsday Handbook: 50 Ways to the End of the World. The book, as you might expect, sets out 50 ways that civilisation might end in gruesome and catastrophic ways. Jha has aimed to use science to illustrate each one, in order to demonstrate just how fragile our modern existence is.

At Hackney, we got only a cut-down version of the book, with 5 ways the world might end:

  • An asteroid crashes into us. Jha pointed out that Hollywood loves this storyline but that the truth is much more mundane. Earth gets hit by asteroids all the time; it’s just that most of them burn up in the upper atmosphere. However, a large asteroid of greater than 1km across would make it all the way through and cause enormous damage. As well as the impact explosion, it would throw up clouds of dust that would obscure the Sun for years. Jha stated that this remains the best explanation of what wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago.
  • We all die of a deadly pandemic. Everyone remembers H1N1 and H5N1. And the film Contagion. But Jha reminded us that the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918 killed millions and millions of people. Were one of the current deadly types of flu to mutate into a novel form, we could see similar numbers of deaths, not least because of the much higher global mobility today.
  • We get sucked into a black hole. Jha suggested that a black hole could wander too close to our solar system and we would find ourselves affected by its deadly gravity. We might be thrown out of orbit altogether, which would condemn us to a freezing winter on the vast emptiness of space, or we might be sucked inside. Nobody really knows what would happen to us there. Except people think we might get stretched like spaghetti, as those parts of us that are nearer to the black hole get sucked in faster than those bits that are further away. Or something. This section was amusing because Alice excitedly pointed out that the image he had chosen was more specifically a quasar rather than a black hole (which would be simply black, right?).
  • Aliens turn up and kill us. If aliens land on Earth, we hope that they might be nice. But they could turn out to be evil, like those nasty Mars Attacks! aliens and merely want to stick probes up our butts and kill us. He referred to the Drake equation, that aims to get its arms around the likelihood of there being alien life.
  • Strangelets. He finished with strangelets, which are definitely one to place in the “File under: Weird” category. Strangelets are (gross simplification alert!!) in such a low energy state that, on coming into contact with any other matter, would convince that matter to turn into a copy of itself. Within hours, everything on Earth would become strangelets. And we’d all be dead. Jha consoled us that the number of interactions that must have taken place in the Earth’s atmosphere over the years, we would expect a strangelet to have been created, were it possible. So the fact that it hasn’t happened so far might suggest that they don’t really exist. [As a side note, strangelets really reminded me of Vonnegut’s Ice-Nine in Cat’s Cradle].

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And that was that. Jha took some questions, most of which were fairly mundane – “What’s your favourite?”, “What’s the most boring?” But TruenFairview hit the nail on the head with her question: why should we worry about things we can’t control that will kill us, when shouldn’t we really be worrying about things we can control that, if left unchecked, might severely impact our way of life? Sure, it’s fun to ponder the end of the world, but ultimately there’s really not a lot we can do about it.

I was also a bit unconvinced that the 50 items in his book form a coherent set, at least based on the five he chose to present. Unless we find a clever way to refuel the Sun, we know that in a few billion years it will start to run out. At that point, it will start to expand, consuming the inner planets – including Earth – as it goes. By then, we will need to have designed an enormous rocket or to have found a way to coax Earth into a more hospitable orbit around its (now bigger) sun. That’s a good application of our best understanding of science. By contrast, aliens coming and killing us is just science porn. There’s no real scientific basis underpinning it. Strangelets also feel a little bit the same.

Given that the Skeptics movement exists, in part at least, to counter the abuse of science by charlatans and showmen, I found myself unsure that Jha wasn’t sort of doing precisely that. OK, so he does know some science and is, at least according to the judgement of last night’s gathering, “a good guy”. But this isn’t a book that’s going to teach you a lot of science. It appears to be primarily an entertainment book that will titillate and thrill you, while leaving you not really any more enlightened about science than before. And that seems a bit of a lost opportunity.

Hackney SITP meets on the last Monday of every month at the Hackney Picturehouse from 7:30pm, and is, my slightly doughy reviews notwithstanding, a very good night out. I got to say hi to Alice and to chat to the lovely God_loves_women¬†(I’m afraid I was too chicken to introduce her to the Dead Dad).

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.