Archive for the ‘Science’ Category

Vaccine worship is almost as bad as anti-vax

October 18, 2020

Anti-vax may be utterly stupid but vaccine worship is not far behind.

Let us not forget the public health fiasco with swine influenza vaccine and narcolepsy. In October 2009, Sweden’s public health services carried out a mass vaccination program against swine influenza. Six million doses of GlaxoSmithKline’s H1N1 influenza vaccine Pandemrix were administered. The vaccine was approved for use by the European Commission in September 2009, upon the recommendations of the European Medicines Agency. By August 2010, both the Swedish Medical Products Agency (MPA) and the Finnish National Institute for Health and Welfare (THL) launched investigations regarding the development of narcolepsy as a side effect.

An increased risk of narcolepsy was found following vaccination with Pandemrix, a monovalent 2009 H1N1 influenza vaccine that was used in several European countries during the H1N1 influenza pandemic. This risk was initially found in Finland, and then other European countries also detected an association.

CDC

Today over 400 people of those vaccinated in Sweden suffer from narcolepsy.

Narcolepsy is a central nervous system disorder characterized by excessive daytime sleepiness (EDS) and abnormal manifestations of rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. This disorder is caused by the brain’s inability to regulate sleep-wake cycles normally. The condition is incurable and life long. Some treatments can help to alleviate symptoms. 

It is the same “experts” and institutions who decided on mass use of Pandemrix who are now inventing public health strategies for Covid-19. Meanwhile a vaccine for the coronavirus is still in its early stages of development and clinical trials. Some of these “expert” strategies are just fairy tales and fantasy.

Vaccinations generally work. Particular vaccinations sometimes don’t. Whether any particular vaccine against Covid-19 will work remains to be seen. The experience with other coronaviruses provides no track record which inspires great confidence.

I get worried when people say they believe in science. To be scientific is to be skeptical. If some science has to be believed in, then whatever it is that has to be believed, is not science.


“What the pandemic has taught us about science” – Matt Ridley

October 14, 2020

Matt Ridley’s article in the Rational Optimist expresses much of my frustration with gullible journalists and the opportunism of the scientific fraternity (where over half are bean counters or clerks and don’t do any science) to exploit every funding opportunity. The money being thrown at Covid-19 research is far too tempting to expect that the charlatans will stay away. More than three hundred different projects being funded for developing a vaccine suggests that either we are so clueless that 300 different paths need to be pursued or that we have a number of fake projects being funded. I am not impressed when projects are funded to “study” how long the virus remains viable on mobile phones as opposed to plastic bags, or when the number of authors on Covid-19 papers are counted and “analysed”.

As Matt Ridley writes:

“…. peer review is often perfunctory rather than thorough; often exploited by chums to help each other; and frequently used by gatekeepers to exclude and extinguish legitimate minority scientific opinions in a field”.

His article is re-blogged here.

What the pandemic has taught us about science – Matt Ridley

The scientific method remains the best way to solve many problems, but bias, overconfidence and politics can sometimes lead scientists astray.

The Covid-19 pandemic has stretched the bond between the public and the scientific profession as never before. Scientists have been revealed to be neither omniscient demigods whose opinions automatically outweigh all political disagreement, nor unscrupulous fraudsters pursuing a political agenda under a cloak of impartiality. Somewhere between the two lies the truth: Science is a flawed and all too human affair, but it can generate timeless truths, and reliable practical guidance, in a way that other approaches cannot.

In a lecture at Cornell University in 1964, the physicist Richard Feynman defined the scientific method. First, you guess, he said, to a ripple of laughter. Then you compute the consequences of your guess. Then you compare those consequences with the evidence from observations or experiments. “If [your guess] disagrees with experiment, it’s wrong. In that simple statement is the key to science. It does not make a difference how beautiful the guess is, how smart you are, who made the guess or what his name is…it’s wrong.”

So when people started falling ill last winter with a respiratory illness, some scientists guessed that a novel coronavirus was responsible. The evidence proved them right. Some guessed it had come from an animal sold in the Wuhan wildlife market. The evidence proved them wrong. Some guessed vaccines could be developed that would prevent infection. The jury is still out.

Seeing science as a game of guess-and-test clarifies what has been happening these past months. Science is not about pronouncing with certainty on the known facts of the world; it is about exploring the unknown by testing guesses, some of which prove wrong.

Bad practice can corrupt all stages of the process. Some scientists fall so in love with their guesses that they fail to test them against evidence. They just compute the consequences and stop there. Mathematical models are elaborate, formal guesses, and there has been a disturbing tendency in recent years to describe their output with words like data, result or outcome. They are nothing of the sort.

An epidemiological model developed last March at Imperial College London was treated by politicians as hard evidence that without lockdowns, the pandemic could kill 2.2 million Americans, 510,000 Britons and 96,000 Swedes. The Swedes tested the model against the real world and found it wanting: They decided to forgo a lockdown, and fewer than 6,000 have died there.

In general, science is much better at telling you about the past and the present than the future. As Philip Tetlock of the University of Pennsylvania and others have shown, forecasting economic, meteorological or epidemiological events more than a short time ahead continues to prove frustratingly hard, and experts are sometimes worse at it than amateurs, because they overemphasize their pet causal theories.

A second mistake is to gather flawed data. On May 22, the respected medical journals the Lancet and the New England Journal of Medicine published a study based on the medical records of 96,000 patients from 671 hospitals around the world that appeared to disprove the guess that the drug hydroxychloroquine could cure Covid-19. The study caused the World Health Organization to halt trials of the drug.

It then emerged, however, that the database came from Surgisphere, a small company with little track record, few employees and no independent scientific board. When challenged, Surgisphere failed to produce the raw data. The papers were retracted with abject apologies from the journals. Nor has hydroxychloroquine since been proven to work. Uncertainty about it persists.

A third problem is that data can be trustworthy but inadequate. Evidence-based medicine teaches doctors to fully trust only science based on the gold standard of randomized controlled trials. But there have been no randomized controlled trials on the wearing of masks to prevent the spread of respiratory diseases (though one is now under way in Denmark). In the West, unlike in Asia, there were months of disagreement this year about the value of masks, culminating in the somewhat desperate argument of mask foes that people might behave too complacently when wearing them. The scientific consensus is that the evidence is good enough and the inconvenience small enough that we need not wait for absolute certainty before advising people to wear masks.

This is an inverted form of the so-called precautionary principle, which holds that uncertainty about possible hazards is a strong reason to limit or ban new technologies. But the principle cuts both ways. If a course of action is known to be safe and cheap and might help to prevent or cure diseases—like wearing a face mask or taking vitamin D supplements, in the case of Covid-19—then uncertainty is no excuse for not trying it.

A fourth mistake is to gather data that are compatible with your guess but to ignore data that contest it. This is known as confirmation bias. You should test the proposition that all swans are white by looking for black ones, not by finding more white ones. Yet scientists “believe” in their guesses, so they often accumulate evidence compatible with them but discount as aberrations evidence that would falsify them—saying, for example, that black swans in Australia don’t count.

Advocates of competing theories are apt to see the same data in different ways. Last January, Chinese scientists published a genome sequence known as RaTG13 from the virus most closely related to the one that causes Covid-19, isolated from a horseshoe bat in 2013. But there are questions surrounding the data. When the sequence was published, the researchers made no reference to the previous name given to the sample or to the outbreak of illness in 2012 that led to the investigation of the mine where the bat lived. It emerged only in July that the sample had been sequenced in 2017-2018 instead of post-Covid, as originally claimed.

These anomalies have led some scientists, including Dr. Li-Meng Yan, who recently left the University of Hong Kong School of Public Health and is a strong critic of the Chinese government, to claim that the bat virus genome sequence was fabricated to distract attention from the truth that the SARS-CoV-2 virus was actually manufactured from other viruses in a laboratory. These scientists continue to seek evidence, such as a lack of expected bacterial DNA in the supposedly fecal sample, that casts doubt on the official story.

By contrast, Dr. Kristian Andersen of Scripps Research in California has looked at the same confused announcements and stated that he does not “believe that any type of laboratory-based scenario is plausible.” Having checked the raw data, he has “no concerns about the overall quality of [the genome of] RaTG13.”

Given that Dr. Andersen’s standing in the scientific world is higher than Dr. Yan’s, much of the media treats Dr. Yan as a crank or conspiracy theorist. Even many of those who think a laboratory leak of the virus causing Covid-19 is possible or likely do not go so far as to claim that a bat virus sequence was fabricated as a distraction. But it is likely that all sides in this debate are succumbing to confirmation bias to some extent, seeking evidence that is compatible with their preferred theory and discounting contradictory evidence.

Dr. Andersen, for instance, has argued that although the virus causing Covid-19 has a “high affinity” for human cell receptors, “computational analyses predict that the interaction is not ideal” and is different from that of SARS, which is “strong evidence that SARS-CoV-2 is not the product of purposeful manipulation.” Yet, even if he is right, many of those who agree the virus is natural would not see this evidence as a slam dunk.

As this example illustrates, one of the hardest questions a science commentator faces is when to take a heretic seriously. It’s tempting for established scientists to use arguments from authority to dismiss reasonable challenges, but not every maverick is a new Galileo. As the astronomer Carl Sagan once put it, “Too much openness and you accept every notion, idea and hypothesis—which is tantamount to knowing nothing. Too much skepticism—especially rejection of new ideas before they are adequately tested—and you’re not only unpleasantly grumpy, but also closed to the advance of science.” In other words, as some wit once put it, don’t be so open-minded that your brains fall out.

Peer review is supposed to be the device that guides us away from unreliable heretics. A scientific result is only reliable when reputable scholars have given it their approval. Dr. Yan’s report has not been peer reviewed. But in recent years, peer review’s reputation has been tarnished by a series of scandals. The Surgisphere study was peer reviewed, as was the study by Dr. Andrew Wakefield, hero of the anti-vaccine movement, claiming that the MMR vaccine (for measles, mumps and rubella) caused autism. Investigations show that peer review is often perfunctory rather than thorough; often exploited by chums to help each other; and frequently used by gatekeepers to exclude and extinguish legitimate minority scientific opinions in a field.

Herbert Ayres, an expert in operations research, summarized the problem well several decades ago: “As a referee of a paper that threatens to disrupt his life, [a professor] is in a conflict-of-interest position, pure and simple. Unless we’re convinced that he, we, and all our friends who referee have integrity in the upper fifth percentile of those who have so far qualified for sainthood, it is beyond naive to believe that censorship does not occur.” Rosalyn Yalow, winner of the Nobel Prize in medicine, was fond of displaying the letter she received in 1955 from the Journal of Clinical Investigation noting that the reviewers were “particularly emphatic in rejecting” her paper.

The health of science depends on tolerating, even encouraging, at least some disagreement. In practice, science is prevented from turning into religion not by asking scientists to challenge their own theories but by getting them to challenge each other, sometimes with gusto. Where science becomes political, as in climate change and Covid-19, this diversity of opinion is sometimes extinguished in the pursuit of a consensus to present to a politician or a press conference, and to deny the oxygen of publicity to cranks. This year has driven home as never before the message that there is no such thing as “the science”; there are different scientific views on how to suppress the virus.

Anthony Fauci, the chief scientific adviser in the U.S., was adamant in the spring that a lockdown was necessary and continues to defend the policy. His equivalent in Sweden, Anders Tegnell, by contrast, had insisted that his country would not impose a formal lockdown and would keep borders, schools, restaurants and fitness centers open while encouraging voluntary social distancing. At first, Dr. Tegnell’s experiment looked foolish as Sweden’s case load increased. Now, with cases low and the Swedish economy in much better health than other countries, he looks wise. Both are good scientists looking at similar evidence, but they came to different conclusions.

Having proved a guess right, scientists must then repeat the experiment. Here too there are problems. A replication crisis has shocked psychology and medicine in recent years, with many scientific conclusions proving impossible to replicate because they were rushed into print with “publication bias” in favor of marginally and accidentally significant results. As the psychologist Stuart Ritchie of Kings College London argues in his new book, “Science Fictions: Exposing Fraud, Bias, Negligence and Hype in Science,” unreliable and even fraudulent papers are now known to lie behind some influential theories.

For example, “priming”—the phenomenon by which people can be induced to behave differently by suggestive words or stimuli—was until recently thought to be a firmly established fact, but studies consistently fail to replicate it. In the famous 1971 Stanford prison experiment, taught to generations of psychology students, role-playing volunteers supposedly chose to behave sadistically toward “prisoners.” Tapes have revealed that the “guards” were actually instructed to behave that way. A widely believed study, subject of a hugely popular TED talk, showing that “power posing” gives you a hormonal boost, cannot be replicated. And a much-publicized discovery that ocean acidification alters fish behavior turned out to be bunk.

Prof. Ritchie argues that the way scientists are funded, published and promoted is corrupting: “Peer review is far from the guarantee of reliability it is cracked up to be, while the system of publication that’s supposed to be a crucial strength of science has become its Achilles heel.” He says that we have “ended up with a scientific system that doesn’t just overlook our human foibles but amplifies them.”

At times, people with great expertise have been humiliated during this pandemic by the way the virus has defied their predictions. Feynman also said: “Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts.” But a theoretical physicist can afford such a view; it is not much comfort to an ordinary person trying to stay safe during the pandemic or a politician looking for advice on how to prevent the spread of the virus. Organized science is indeed able to distill sufficient expertise out of debate in such a way as to solve practical problems. It does so imperfectly, and with wrong turns, but it still does so.

How should the public begin to make sense of the flurry of sometimes contradictory scientific views generated by the Covid-19 crisis? There is no shortcut. The only way to be absolutely sure that one scientific pronouncement is reliable and another is not is to examine the evidence yourself. Relying on the reputation of the scientist, or the reporter reporting it, is the way that many of us go, and is better than nothing, but it is not infallible. If in doubt, do your homework.


No mask needed, just don’t breathe

August 25, 2020

There are some who believe that epidemiology is a science. Others believe it is an art and yet others that it is the study of social behaviour based on gut-feel and science.

Whatever it is, it is not settled science.

An enveloped virus such as the Wuhan virus can survive for up to 2 months in a refrigerated corpse.

In studies looking at how bird flu (avian influenza virus, an enveloped virus) survives in chicken carcasses, 90% of the virus was inactivated in around 15 days when the carcass was left at room temperature. But if the carcass was held at refrigerator temperatures (4C/40F), the virus lasted 4.5 times longer—that’s more than two months.


 

Arrogance of Ignorance: “I don’t know, but I know you’re wrong”

February 28, 2019

Physics has no clue as to where, how or why the universe began.

Yet, the only thing that all “scientific disciplines” are sure of is that the universe did not begin by any act of any god or on the back of a giant turtle.

There are only two kinds of creation myths that physics (and by that I mean all the “scientific” disciplines) eschew:

  1. The universe as matter and energy has always existed, or
  2. Something was created from nothing

Whether theories about the Big Bang (hot or cold) or cosmic inflation or the naturally occurring “something from nothing” events or loop quantum gravity, they are all creation myths. Just as theories of infinite parallel universes, or cyclic cosmology are also little more than wild speculation. The various mainstream theories of physics and cosmology are as diverse as the Creation Myths of the primitive (“pre-science”) world. And as far-fetched. Conservation of energy and matter have to be ditched – or allowed to vary. Time becomes a parameter emerging from the fabric of our particular universe. All events in the past, present and future exist simultaneously. What existence is becomes uncertain and physics has turned into metaphysics.

Scientific disciplines do not like to contemplate the reality of the unknowable because they would then have to admit that the “scientific method” has no tools to address the unknowable. Determinism has to allow the possibility of, if not the inevitability of, omniscience. (It could be argued that determinism starts of by denying the possibility of any divinity or divine intervention and then ends up having to admit that a god-like omniscience is real). Atheism lacks substance and is of no consequence. There is nothing wrong with speculation of course. Most of our scientific advances (albeit in the world of the knowable) have started of as speculation.

What becomes arrogant, but above all irrational, is when a state of ignorance, of not-knowing, is conflated with a state of knowing that “something is not”.

All beliefs by definition lie in the region of the unknown. Any statement and its negation ( X and not-X) must both either lie in the region of knowledge, or both in the region of the unknown. It is not possible for one to live in the realm of knowledge and its negation to live in the region of the unknown.

It is the arrogance of ignorance and pervades nearly all human activities. It is the breath of life for politicians, TV pundits and “celebrities”. It is the fall-back position for all weak leaders and managers.

“I don’t know, but I know you’re wrong”.


 

 

Philosophy before physics

January 23, 2019

Stephen Hawking once said “Philosophy is dead”.

Speaking to Google’s Zeitgeist Conference in Hertfordshire, the author of ‘A Brief History of Time’ said that fundamental questions about the nature of the universe could not be resolved without hard data such as that currently being derived from the Large Hadron Collider and space research. “Most of us don’t worry about these questions most of the time. But almost all of us must sometimes wonder: Why are we here? Where do we come from? Traditionally, these are questions for philosophy, but philosophy is dead,” he said. “Philosophers have not kept up with modern developments in science. Particularly physics.”

But claiming that philosophy is dead is itself philosophy.

Hawking’s comment is remarkably like that of Isocrates who some 2,300 years ago followed the sophists. He taught rhetoric and oratory and did not much care for Plato’s new-fangled approach to thinking and education or his definition of philosophy. Isocrates certainly did not like Plato’s attacks on his school.

“Those who do philosophy, who determine the proofs and the arguments … and are accustomed to enquiring, but take part in none of their practical functions, … even if they happen to be capable of handling something, they automatically do it worse, whereas those who have no knowledge of the arguments [of philosophy], if they are trained [in concrete sciences] and have correct opinions, are altogether superior for all practical purposes. Hence for sciences, philosophy is entirely useless.”

Plato (428BCE – 348BCE)

But Plato prevailed even if he did make use of “fake news”.

Because of Plato’s attacks on the sophists, Isocrates’ school — having its roots, if not the entirety of its mission, in rhetoric, the domain of the sophists — came to be viewed as unethical and deceitful. Yet many of Plato’s criticisms are hard to substantiate in the actual work of Isocrates; at the end of Phaedrus, Plato even shows Socrates praising Isocrates (though some scholars have taken this to be sarcasm).

Part of the issue is semantics. Philosophical thinking by a physicist remains philosophy. (And observations and reasoning by philosophers would still be physics).

One cannot even begin to undertake the process called science without a philosophy. One can make observations and report them as perceptions but whether the perceived observations are valid or not are a matter of philosophy. Linking observations – or perceptions of observations – requires a philosophic acceptance of causality. Causality itself requires an acceptance of the flow of time which remains a philosophic question even when asked by a physicist. The languages used in describing observations (including mathematics) and in reasoning itself are underpinned by a philosophy of language. Even the simplest of observations requires the observer to have an underlying philosophy, just to be perceived as a relevant and valid observation. Communicating such observations are even more dependent upon the existence of language having a philosophy.

As Carlo Rovelli writes:

Here is a second argument due to Aristotle: Those who deny the utility of philosophy, are doing philosophy. The point is less trivial than it may sound at first. Weinberg and Hawking have obtained important scientific results. In doing this, they were doing science. In writing things like “philosophy is useless to physics,” or “philosophy is dead,” they were not doing physics. They were reflecting on the best way to develop science. The issue is the methodology of science: a central concern in the philosophy of science is to ask how science is done and how it could be done to be more effective. ….. They express a certain idea about the methodology of science. Is this the eternal truth about how science has always worked and should work? Is it the best understanding of science we have at present? It is neither. In fact, it is not difficult to trace the origins of their ideas. They arise from the background of logical positivism, corrected by Popper and Kuhn. The current dominant methodological ideology in theoretical physics relies on their notions of falsifiability and scientific revolution, which are popular among theoretical physicists; they are often referred to, and are used to orient research and evaluate scientific work.

….. They express a certain idea about the methodology of science. Is this the eternal truth about how science has always worked and should work? Is it the best understanding of science we have at present?

It is neither. In fact, it is not difficult to trace the origins of their ideas. They arise from the background of logical positivism, corrected by Popper and Kuhn. The current dominant methodological ideology in theoretical physics relies on their notions of falsifiability and scientific revolution, which are popular among theoretical physicists; they are often referred to, and are used to orient research and evaluate scientific work.

All of human thought builds on implied philosophies; on assumptions of reality and observations and on implicit philosophies embedded in the logic of our languages. There is no branch of science which does not need fundamental assumptions which are taken as being axiomatic. There is no branch of science which does not have fundamental “rules”. It is only the explicit questioning of the underlying assumptions which we label “philosophy”.  But the philosophies exist whether the assumptions are questioned or not. Physics of any kind is not possible without an underpinning philosophy of physics.

Philosophy is integral to science and to physics. There can never be a fundamental assumption made without there first being a philosophy.

And, of course, philosophy precedes physics in the dictionary.


Carlo Rovelli: Physics Needs Philosophy / Philosophy Needs Physics


 

The many, many gods of science

December 27, 2018

Many scientists (and all atheists) deny the gods of religions. Many also deny the existence of the unknowable but then illogically also deny that omniscience is unavoidable.

(Of course omniscience is one of the requirements to be a god).

But science does assume gods – in everything but name.

Many, many gods.


 

Creation Myths

December 7, 2018

Religions have no answer to the question and merely invoke God (or a god among a a pantheon of appropriate gods). Science has no answer either. No physicist or astrophysicist or cosmologist actually has the faintest idea about where energy and matter came from. The disingenuous claim that a smooth nothing suddenly and spontaneously produced clumps of matter and anti-matter (such that the total remained nothing) is just as far-fetched as any creation myth. Energy is handled similarly. The otherwise homogeneous universe is allowed to have clumps of “something” provided that they can be neutralised by equivalent amounts of “negative somethings”. The Big Bang is just a label for a Big Unknown.

Atheists, of course, don’t even try to answer the question. They are satisfied to say that the answer is unknown but they do know that it is not any kind of conception of God.

The other Big Question is : “How did life begin?”

Religions again have no answer and invoke God or gods. Science has no answer either and puts it down to random chemistry which became biochemistry and which, by accident, led to life.

Neither science nor religions nor philosophy have the faintest idea of what time is.

It’s all just Magic.


 

The limits of science

September 25, 2018
  1. Reality is limited to what is detectable by human senses (and the instruments which extend our senses). What cannot be detected is assumed – but cannot be proven – not to exist. Science is limited to what is known to exist and what is unknown but assumed to be knowable. Science has no means to address what is unknown to be knowable.
  2. Time and causality. Science and its methods rely on causality which in turn relies on the existence of and the passage of time. But what time is and what actually passes, is unknown (being unknowable). Science cannot reach where causality does not exist.
  3. Boundary conditions. There is no branch of science (or philosophy) which does not rely on fundamental assumptions which are taken to be self-evident truths. But these assumptions cannot be proved and they cannot explain their own existence. Science and the methods of science cannot address anything outside their self-established boundary limits.
  4. Even the most fundamental and simple mathematics cannot prove its own axioms (Gödels Incompleteness Theorems). Science cannot address areas outside of the assumptions of mathematics.
  5. Value judgements are invisible to science. The appreciation of any art or music or even literature are not subject to logic or causality or any science. Even the beauty seen by some in mathematics or cosmology or biology is not amenable to scientific analysis. Moral or ethical judgements are beyond the capabilities of science.
  6. The existence of life is self-evident and inexplicable. It is a boundary condition where science has no explanation for why the boundary exists. To call the beginning of life a “random event” is a statement steeped in just as much ignorance as attributing it to a Creator.
  7. The boundaries of consciousness are neither known or understood. The perceptions of a consciousness of the surrounding universe define the universe. The perceptions form an impenetrable barrier beyond which science and the methods of science cannot reach.
  8. Fitch’s Knowability Paradox is sufficient to show the reality of the existence of the unknowable. Neither science nor philosophy or language or mathematics has the wherewithal to say anything about the unknowable. They have no light to shine in this area. An X-ray image cannot be seen in normal light.

Science is utterly dependent upon causality.

So is Determinism, where Determinism is the philosophical theory that all events, including moral choices, are completely determined by previously existing causes. Determinism can never look beyond or resolve the First Cause problem. Of course determinism falls immediately at the hurdle of infinite knowledge being knowable but proponents would counter that “unknown” does not invalidate causality. The First Cause is then merely shunted into the unknown – but knowable. Determinism would claim, by causality and the laws of the universe, that all that was unknown could potentially be known. Equally every event of the past could be traced back through causal relations and be knowable. In fact, determinism which shuns the need for religions and gods, actually claims the existence of Omniscience. More than that, determinism requires that omniscience be possible. Determinism is absurd. “There is no God but Omniscience must be possible”. Reductio ad absurdum.

Causality, determinism and science are all prisoners of, and restricted to, the knowable.


 

When the waves of determinism break against the rocks of the unknowable

August 21, 2018

It is physics versus philosophy.

Causal determinism states that every event is necessitated by antecedent events and conditions together with the laws of nature.

Determinism, unlike fatalism, does not require that future events be destined to occur no matter what the past and current events are. It only states that every future event that does occur, is an inevitable consequence of what has gone before and of the natural laws. However inevitability does not mean – and does not need to mean – predictability by the human mind. It should be noted though that the existence of a specific causality does not by itself imply a general determinism extending across all space and all time. A general and absolute determinism is also not a necessary condition for applying the scientific method though it could easily be taken to be so. The scientific method does require determinism but only to the extent that causality applies within the observable range of empirical observations. But it is also therefore unavoidable that the scientific method can only discover causal connections. The scientific method, in itself, rejects the existence of, and is therefore incapable of detecting, non-causal connections.

Most physicists would claim that determinism prevails. (Some of them may concede compatibilism but that is just a subterfuge to allow determinism to coexist with free will). Determinism claims that causality is supreme; that the laws of nature (whether or not they are known to the mind of man) prevail in the universe such that whatever is occurring is caused by, and is a consequence of, what came before. And whatever will happen in the future is caused by what has occurred before and what is occurring now. Absolute determinism allows of no free will. It can not. Clearly determinism allows of no gods or magic either. For determinism to apply it does not require that all knowledge is known or that the natural laws have all been discovered. It does however require that everything is knowable. If the unknowable exists then not everything can be determined. It also requires that all natural laws be self-explanatory in themselves. For the physicist, even the uncertainty at the quantum level does not invalidate determinism because this uncertainty, they say, is not random but is probabilistic. Even the weirdness brought about by quantum loop gravity theories do not, it is thought, invalidate the concept of determinism. Here the laws of nature and time and space themselves are emergent. They emerge from deeper, underlying “laws” and emerge as what we perceive as space and time and the 4 laws of nature. Where those underlying “laws” or rules or random excitations come from, or why, are, however, undefined and – more importantly – undefinable.

The concept that the universe is a zero-sum game, when taking the universe as a whole, does not take us any further. The concept postulates that the universe – taken globally – is a big nothing. Zero energy and zero charge globally but with locally “lumpy” conditions to set off the Big Bang. Some positive energies and some energy consumption such that the total is zero.  I find this unsatisfactory in that the concepts of the universe being homogeneous and isotropic are then a function of scale (space) and of time. Allowing for local lumpiness to exist but which averages to a globally smooth zero, seems far too contrived and convenient.

The problem caused by the acceptance of determinism, and of the consequent denial of the possibility of free will, is that all events are then inevitable and a natural consequence of what happened before. Choice becomes illusory. Behaviour is pre-ordained. In fact all thought and even consciousness itself must be an inevitable consequence of what went before. There can no longer be any moral responsibility attached to any behaviour or any actions (whether by humans or inanimate matter). It is argued that morality is irrelevant for physics. They are different domains. There is no equation for morality because it is not a law of nature. It is merely an emergent thing. Morality, for the physicist, just like consciousness and thought and behaviour, merely emerge from the laws of nature. This is not incorrect in itself, I think, but they are different domains because the laws of nature – as we know them – are incomplete in that they can neither explain themselves or morality.

For the physicist the natural laws apply everywhere and everywhen. Except, they admit, at or before (if there was a before) the Big Bang Singularity. They apply across the universe except that the universe cannot be defined. It is disingenuous to merely claim that the universe expands into nothingness and both creates and defines itself. The natural laws are said to apply across all of time except that time (not to be confused with the passage of time) is not defined. The nature of time is unknown and probably unknowable. What is it that passes? Quantum loop gravity enthusiasts would claim that time is merely a perception and that causality is an illusion. All events throughout space and time, they would say, occur/have occurred simultaneously. We merely connect certain events in our perceptions such that time and causality emerge. But this is no different than invoking magic. It seems to me that the gaping hole in the determinism charter is that there is no reason (known) for the natural laws to exist. Above all, the natural laws cannot explain themselves. I would claim that this lies in the unknowable. Determinism would have us accept that all biological and neural (and therefore cognitive) processes are merely events that are caused by antecedent events and natural law. Except that while natural laws are observed and experienced empirically, they cannot (and probably never will be able to) explain themselves.

And this is where determinism crashes. The four natural laws (gravity, electromagnetism, the strong nuclear force and the weak nuclear force) that we treat as being fundamental are not self-explanatory. They just are. They do not within themselves explain why they must exist. Maybe there is a Theory of Everything capable of explaining itself and everything in the world. Or maybe there isn’t. The natural laws cannot explain why there are 4 fundamental laws and not 5 or 6, or why there are just 12 (or 57) fundamental particles, or why there is a particle/wave duality or why undetectable dark energy or dark matter exist (except as fudge factors).The natural laws, as we know them today, cannot explain why life began (or why life had to begin to satisfy determinism), cannot explain what consciousness is and cannot explain why thoughts and behaviour must be inevitable consequences of antecedent events.  As a practical matter we have no inkling as to which antecedent events cause which cognitive events and following which laws. It is very likely that this is theoretically impossible as well. Some of these explanations may well lie in the realm of the unknowable. I draw the analogy with Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorems:

The first incompleteness theorem states that no consistent system of axioms whose theorems can be listed by an effective procedure (i.e., an algorithm) is capable of proving all truths about the arithmetic of the natural numbers. For any such formal system, there will always be statements about the natural numbers that are true, but that are unprovable within the system.

The second incompleteness theorem, an extension of the first, shows that the system cannot demonstrate its own consistency.

We cannot from within and as part of the universe demonstrate why the axioms used by physics must be. Empiricism gives us what we perceive to be the laws of nature. Empiricism also gives us our perceptions of consciousness and thought and free will. And these contradict one another. The resolution of the contradictions lives in the unknowable.

Empiricism can only go so far. It cannot reach the parts that empiricism cannot reach. Determinism cannot extend to places where the natural laws cannot or do not reach. If the unknowable exists then determinism cannot reach there. For the natural laws may not (or can not) apply there. It is not about whether we know all there is to be known about natural law. Determinism requires that some consistent and self-explanatory natural laws apply everywhere and at all times.

Absolute Determinism requires that Natural Laws be complete. That requires that natural laws be able to:

  1. explain their own existence, and
  2. explain all events (material and immaterial), and
  3. apply within and beyond our perception of the universe, and
  4. apply within and beyond our perception of time,

And the existence of such a set of Natural Laws is unknowable.


 

Related:

https://ktwop.com/2017/07/22/known-unknown-and-unknowable/

https://ktwop.com/2017/09/22/the-unknowable-is-neither-true-nor-false/

https://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2016/01/11/plain-talk-about-free-will-from-a-physicist-stop-claiming-you-have-it/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Determinism

http://physicsandthemind.blogspot.com/2013/10/in-defense-of-libertarian-free-will.html

http://backreaction.blogspot.com/2016/01/free-will-is-dead-lets-bury-it.html?spref=tw

http://archive.boston.com/bostonglobe/ideas/brainiac/2011/06/the_big_nothing.html

https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/determinism-causal/


 

Will recognition of “fake news” be followed by “fake science”

November 3, 2017

Collins Dictionary has chosen “fake news” as its word for 2017.

When a partisan publication exaggerates – even wildly – in favour of its own cause, it causes no great surprise.  It is not even too astonishing when it fabricates news or omits news to further its own agenda. The insidious nature of “fake news” is worst when it is a supposedly objective publication which indulges in fake news to further a hidden agenda. So when Breitbart or the Daily Mail or Huffington Post produce much of their nonsense it causes no great surprise and hardly merits the sobriquet of “fake news”, even if much of the “news” is slanted or exaggerated or skewed or just plain lies. It is when a publication, having a reputation for objectivity, misuses that reputation to push its own agenda, that “fake news” takes on a life of its own.

It is not that this is anything new but certainly the US Presidential Election has brought “fake news” to a head. “Fake News” applies though to much more than just US politics. Of course CNN heads the list of purveyors of “fake news”. CNN has never been objective but they once generally checked their facts and used to separate straight reporting from opinion. I used to find them, at least, fairly reliable for factual reporting. But they have abandoned that approach and I find that they not just unreliable but also intentionally misleading. Their “journalists” have all become lobbyists and “CNN” has become synonymous with “Fake News”.

I once was a regular reader of the Washington Post. They were biased but were not unreliable as to the facts. It was quite easy to just discount for bias and get what I thought was a “true” picture. But they, too, have degenerated swiftly in the last 2 years. Stories are not just distorted, they are even fabricated. But the real disappointments for me in the last 24 months has been the New York Times. Not just in the space of US politics. The NYT has its own definitions of what is politically correct in politics, in science and even in the arts. Somewhere along the way they have made a conscious decision that they are “lobbyists” rather than reporters. They have decided that, for what they have defined as being “politically correct”, pushing that view justifies omission, exaggeration, “spinning” and even fabrication. Straight reporting has become extinct.

Lobby groups such as Huff Post and Daily Kos and Red State are full of blatant falsifications but have no news reputation of any significance at stake. They are not, therefore, included in my take on the top purveyors of fake new.

If 2017 has seen the recognition of the widespread use of fake news, I am looking to 2018 to recognise the proliferation of fake science. There is fake science being disseminated every day in big physics (CERN funding), pharmaceuticals, “climate science”, behavioural studies, sociology, psychology and economics. Much of fake science follows funding. Perhaps there will be greater recognition that “good science” is neither decided by nor subject to a poll.


 

 


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