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Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics

Friday, November 27, 2015

Can Natural Selection Explain the Human Mind?

We are told that natural selection and random mutations can explain the origin of species, including the human species. But does the concept of natural selection work as an explanation of the human mind? Let us examine some aspects of the human mind, each some way in which the human mind differs from the mind of an ape. Then in regard to each of these aspects let us ask: can we explain this aspect of the mind by assuming that it was something that developed because it increased the reproductive likelihood of humans? If the answer is yes, then we will regard that aspect of the mind as something that might be explained through natural selection. If the answer is no, then we will regard that aspect of the mind as something that cannot be explained through natural selection.

Aspect #1: Man's Aesthetic Capabilities

The first aspect for consideration is the fact that human beings have the ability to appreciate beauty in the world, and the tendency to create new beauty by creating works of art. Can we explain this as something that developed because it made humans more likely to survive until they reproduced? It seems not. Compared to things such as speed, smell, sight, and strength, having the ability to appreciate beauty or create beauty seems to be of no value in increasing an organism's likelihood of having offspring.

In fact, it is easy to think of some reasons why having aesthetic capabilities might be disadvantageous from the standpoint of surviving until reproduction. Show me a caveman who tends to spend time enjoying the beauty of clouds, flowers, sunsets, and starry skies, and I will show you a caveman more likely to be attacked by a predator while he is absorbed in such pursuits – and also a caveman who is probably devoting less time to things like food gathering, which improves his survival chances.

So it seems that we cannot explain this aspect of our humanity using natural selection.

Aspect #2: Man's Ethical Tendencies

The second aspect for consideration is the human tendency to follow codes of ethics. Is this something we can explain through natural selection? One could argue that developing an ethical sense would have made primitive man more likely to survive. For example, if one band of cavemen came into contact with another band of caveman, and both had some kind of ethic of peace and cooperation, it might have been more likely that they would survive.

But you can counteract this argument with another argument just as powerful arguing the opposite. The argument is that a primitive human developing an ethical sense would be less likely to spread his genes about, because he now would feel an inhibition against raping whoever he pleased. Consider a caveman with no sense of morals. He may have felt free to rape whoever he wanted, and that type of conduct is a bonanza from the Darwinian standpoint of spreading your genes around. Make that cavemen a moral person who will not rape, and he will be much less likely to spread his genes about.

So it seems that there is no clear advantage (from a Darwinian natural selection standpoint) to becoming moral. We cannot explain the origin of man's moral sense through natural selection.

Aspect #3: Man's Spiritual Tendencies

The third aspect for consideration is man's spiritual tendencies, his tendency to believe in some higher power. Can we explain this through natural selection? Certainly not. A caveman that develops some spiritual tendency will be no more likely to survive until reproduction than one who has no such tendencies.

Attempts to explain the origin of spirituality through natural selection are typically no better than this very dubious example. The reasoning here is utterly dubious. The author argues that spirituality gave birth to “rules of behavior” that are “necessary to maintain social peace and allow a complex unit consisting of individuals of both sexes and all ages to function in a way ensuring their reproductive success and thus survival.” Not convincing at all, since we don't know whether similar rules of behavior would have arisen without spirituality, and since it is not at all clear that spirituality leads to “social peace” (in the modern Middle East, it seems to be doing no such thing). Also it is not clear that “rules of behavior” will improve reproductive success, because a lawless situation where men rape freely is one where men have a high chance of reproductive success. The author is using here the dubious concept called group selection, which many evolutionary biologists say is invalid.

There is no clear and convincing case that can be made that spirituality has any benefit from the Darwinian standpoint of natural selection and survival of the fittest.

Aspect #4: Man's Mathematical Abilities

The fourth aspect for consideration is man's mathematical abilities. Can we explain these through natural selection? Not at all. Having the ability to do math is something that comes in handy when you are a member of a civilization, but is of no significant value to somebody like a cavemen.

Some of the attempts to explain the origin of mathematical abilities through natural selection are empty “just so” stories typically no better than idle speculation. One such attempt is in the book Radical Evolution by Joel Garreau, where the author speculates that man developed advanced math capabilities because it was helpful when hunting rabbits by throwing rocks. As someone who has actually tried to catch a rabbit in a field, I find such a speculation to be absurd. Rabbits move in unpredictable directions at high speeds, and if early men hunted rabbits with stones, we can presume that they attacked stationary animals – not by calculating the future position of a running rabbit. Throwing ability is something very different from mathematical ability. Early man was not doing math when he threw rocks at things, any more than you are doing math when you shoot some zombies in a video game.

Aspect #5: Man's Musical Abilities

The fifth aspect for consideration is man's musical abilities. Can we explain these through natural selection? Not at all. Musical abilities have no relevance at all to an organism's chance of surviving until reproduction.

Aspect #6: Imagination

The next aspect for consideration is imagination. In this case one could make a case that imagination does have some value from a natural selection standpoint, on the grounds that an imaginative caveman or man-ape would be more likely to imagine his way to the invention of new tools or techniques with a survival value. For example, an imaginative human predecessor would be more likely to first conceive of rubbing sticks to create fire, or to conceive of attaching a sharp rock to a stick to create a spear.

But when we look at the matter deeper, this case weakens. Consider how innovation might have occurred before civilization arose. One individual might have introduced the innovation, which then would have been adopted by the others in the local group. We have an example of such thing in the first scenes of 2001: A Space Odyssey, where one imaginative man-ape figures out how to use a bone as a weapon, and the innovation is then picked by all of the local group. But if we assume that such innovations are passed on from generation to generation, it may be a case where you have only innovator for every 100 or 1000 adopters of the innovation. So it's not clear at all that natural selection can be used here to explain some general increase in imagination.

Let's consider a hypothetical case. Man-ape “Harry” has a chance mutation that gives him more imagination. He then invents some new technique or tool that is picked up by his local group, and maybe passed on to subsequent generations. Harry then flourishes, but he's only one person, and there's only a 50 % chance he will pass on this mutation to his descendants. The fact that Harry's innovation is picked up by lots of others does not mean that they will be more likely to be more imaginative themselves. So scenarios such as this aren't very useful in explaining how imagination could become a general human characteristic (and the very idea of an “imagination mutation” is hard to believe in).

Aspect #7: Insight

One could argue that the development of insight can be explained on a basis of natural selection. One might give a case such as this: if some caveman develops insight that some particular hunting technique isn't working, and the reasons why it isn't working, he may be more likely to switch to some new technique that will be more successful.

But such reasoning isn't convincing. Here is how organisms typically operate when trying to get some result. They try something to achieve some desired result. If what they are doing works, they will stick with that technique. If it doesn't work, they will try something else. This usually works, even though the animal never has any insight into why the unsuccessful attempt doesn't work. For example, a gorilla trying to get a fruit on a tree may try jumping to get it, and if that fails, the gorilla may try shaking the tree branch. The animal never gets, and does not need to get, any insight as to why jumping didn't work.

So it seems that insight doesn't give any tangible advantage that organisms need to survive. We therefore cannot explain the origin of human insight by using natural selection.

Aspect #8: Intellectual Curiosity

Nowadays people display intellectual curiosity by doing things such as reading books, doing web searches, and doing experiments. But how would some caveman have displayed intellectual curiosity? He typically would have displayed intellectual curiosity by physical exploration. But would such exploration have increased the likelihood of reproductive success? Probably not, because before the rise of civilization, physical exploration was extremely dangerous. There are all kinds of ways in which some exploring cave man could die from exploring – dying from the cold, dying from animal attacks, dying from a fall, or dying from exploring some place with too little available water or food. So no clear case can be made that we can explain intellectual curiosity on any grounds of natural selection. Intellectual curiosity is not a biological adaption that helped an organism flourish in its environment, and it is only such adaptions that can be explained through natural selection. 

Exploring what's on the other side of that hill was very dangerous


When we look at the main ways in which the human mind differs from the minds of apes, we find that we cannot explain the characteristics of the human mind through natural selection. Evolutionary biologists will sometimes make statements that come very close to admitting such a thing. If you ask an evolutionary biologist whether Darwinian evolution and natural selection can explain the human mind, such a biologist will typically go into “Darwin defense mode” and claim that the human mind can be explained in such a way. But when writing about the likelihood of intelligence evolving on other planets, some of these biologists (such as Dobzhansky, Mayr and Simpson) said that we should not expect intelligence to evolve elsewhere in the galaxy.  See here for an example. By making such statements, such biologists were inadvertently admitting that natural selection does a very poor job of explaining the human mind. If natural selection did a good job of explaining the human mind, we should expect no evolutionary biologists to say that intelligence is rare in the universe.

The origin of the human mind and human consciousness is one of the deepest mysteries of the universe. We could only explain something so deep by using some very deep principle or principles. But natural selection is not such a principle. Natural selection is instead a very shallow principle, a principle that can be stated in only a few words, words such as “fit stuff proliferates, unfit stuff doesn't.” We should not expect to explain the deep mystery of the origin of the human mind through a principle so shallow, just as we should not expect to explain the deep mystery of the origin of the universe (the Big Bang) by using some shallow principle such as “stuff happens.” 

Postscript: In this post I forgot to mention an additional aspect of our humanity that natural selection cannot explain: our language ability.  While one might be able to explain a tiny-vocabulary language through natural selection, it's hard to explain the development of language with such rich grammar and vocabulary. For a caveman, it's quite sufficient to be able to grunt a few words such as some word meaning "bear." A caveman doesn't need to make statements like, "Heads up, my friends, I think I see a great big bear approaching on the horizon."  Below is the beginning of a relevant blog post by Terrence W.  Deacon:

Since Darwin’s time, the human language capacity has been a perennially cited paragon of extreme complexity that defies the explanatory powers of natural selection. And it is not just critics of Darwinism who have argued that this most distinctive human capacity is problematic. Alfred Russel Wallace—the co-discoverer of natural selection theory and in many ways more of an ultra-Darwinian than Darwin himself—famously argued that the human intellectual capacity which makes language possible, is developed to a level of complexity that far exceeds what is achievable through natural selection alone. 

Postscript: See the link here for a 2-sentence statement signed by hundreds of scientists and PhD's. The statement states exactly the following:
We are skeptical of claims for the ability of random mutation and natural
selection to account for the complexity of life. Careful examination of the
evidence for Darwinian theory should be encouraged.

Monday, November 23, 2015

His Book Forgot to Mention the Main Way You Can Fight Global Warming

I just read a new book by climate change expert Tim Flannery entitled Atmosphere of Hope: Searching for Solutions to the Climate Crisis. Very strangely, the book seems to make no mention of what is probably the top way you can help fight global warming.

In the third part of his book, Flannery looks at various ways to respond to global warming. The first thing he discusses is what he calls adaption. Under this category, he says this: “By painting infrastructure white, cities may more than offset the warming they currently experience.”

I can imagine how this might work. Giant spray trucks might drive down city streets, spraying all the buildings and streets white. When they were done, the streets of our cities  might look like this:  

Flannery even approvingly mentions a plan to spray-paint a mountain white.

Then Flannery mentions geoengineering, various proposed attempts to fight global warming through high-tech monkeying with the planet. These attempts include: injecting sulfur or soot high in the atmosphere, causing more sunlight to be reflected back into space; deploying giant mirrors in space to reflect more sunlight; and releasing iron into the ocean to promote plankton growth. After discussing the complicated issue of biochar, Flannery discusses how giant seaweed farms might be useful in fighting global warming, and makes a complicated discussion of carbon capture and storage.

But what about the individual – what can he or she do? Flannery discusses this in a chapter entitled “The Growing Power of the Individual.” He seems to have two main ideas for how you can fight global warming: (1) install solar panels on your rooftop, or (2) join some citizen's group that is trying to fight global warming.

This chapter neglects to discuss the main way in which ordinary citizens can fight global warming: by reducing consumption. You can reduce consumption by doing things such as: living in a smaller home, eating less meat, buying a smaller car (or not buying a car at all), taking fewer trips by air, traveling shorter distances by air, and buying fewer things. Not only does Flannery neglect to discuss such things in his chapter on the power of the individual, but he also seems to fail to mention them anywhere in his book. Looking at the index of his book, I see no index entries on consumption, diet, meat eating, carbon footprints, travel, lifestyle, or vegetarianism. Those are topics that should be thoroughly discussed in any book subtitled “Searching for Solutions to the Climate Crisis.”

People should not think that fighting global warming can only be done if they make some “big commitment” step such as painting their rooftop white or spending lots of money on a solar power system. There are 100 varieties of easy-to-do, small steps you can take to reduce your carbon footprint. You can start by buying less meat at the food store at your next visit. The production of meat is a major cause of global warming. Other small steps you can take is to reduce your shopping, and to take a vacation some place closer to your home. Too lazy to paint your rooftop or join some citizen's group? No problem, there are many lazy man's ways to fight global warming.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

A Web of Speculations, Decorated with Dinosaurs

Dark matter is a hypothetical substance postulated by scientists to help explain astronomical observations. When astronomers peer out at distant objects, they find certain clusters and galaxies behaving in a way that we cannot seem to account for by using merely the gravitational attraction of visible matter. So astronomers speculate that a large fraction of the universe's matter is some completely invisible form of matter that they call dark matter.

Despite some astronomers who speak as if dark matter is fact, there is so far no conclusive evidence that dark matter actually exists. This has not stopped physicist Lisa Randall, who has written a highly readable new book entitled Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs. Like many of her colleagues, Randall is a fearless speculator, not afraid to spin a web of speculations that seems to be built of gossamer threads.

In Chapter 16 of the book, readers will learn one of the reasons why dark matter isn't actually on very solid ground: the fact that scientists have not identified any particles of which dark matter is made up of. The triumphant Standard Model of Physics tells us nothing at all about dark matter particles. In Chapter 17 of the book, Randall discusses attempts to observe dark matter, which have come up short, despite a few false alarms and ambiguous hints.

In Chapter 18 of the book, Randall discusses how computer simulations using dark matter have come up short:

Explaining why density profiles look flat or cored and not cuspy, as per dark matter predictions, is an important challenge to the simplest dark matter models. This, along with the missing satellite problem (fewer dwarf galaxies than predicted orbiting around bigger central galaxies) and the too big to fail problem (a related issue in which the predictions for the densest, most massive galaxies do not agree with observations), possibly point to inadequacies of the standard cold dark matter paradigm.

But Randall has a solution that seems to satisfy her: make the model more complicated to try to explain these discrepancies. Much more complicated. While scientists often claim that they will cheerfully give up a theory when it falls short, it seems that usually when observations conflict with a scientist's favored theory, he or she will prefer not to give up the theory but just to make it more complicated to try to explain away the discrepancies.

What Randall proposes is a model she calls “partially interacting dark matter.” Below are some of her speculations (page 320-321):

I'll call the force that is experienced by the interacting dark matter dark light, or more generally I'll call it dark electromagnetism....It would be an entirely different influence acting on particles charged under a distinct additional force that is communicated by an entirely different new type of particle – a dark photon if you will...Two types of electrically charged particles in the same place that don't interact with each other is really not so mysterious.

What Randall proposes is that dark matter has some type of electromagnetism physics similar to the electromagnetism physics of regular matter, but one that only works with dark matter. This is, of course, wild speculation. One would think that the likelihood of such a thing would be extremely small. It would seem far more likely that dark matter might follow its own weird rules rather than duplicating the rules followed by regular matter. The chance of the two sets of rules matching would seem like the chance of marriage customs on some alien planet matching the marriage customs in America.

Another problem is this: the idea of dark matter was introduced so scientists could avoid having to speculate about “dark forces” – undiscovered laws of nature that might supplement gravitation. But why propose a combination of dark matter and dark forces, when dark forces alone could explain any observational discrepancy?

Randall also proposes that there is a “dark disk” of dark matter that occupies our galaxy, occupying much of the space of our galaxy's disk. She proposes that this “dark disk” somehow had some role in causing a comet to stray from the Oort Cloud that surrounds our solar system, and that such a comet may have wiped out the dinosaurs. 

 The Oort Cloud (Credit: NASA)

This is all speculation run rampant, and there is no good evidence for such a “dark disk” in our galaxy. I would estimate that the likelihood of dark matter existing is only about 50%, that the likelihood of such a “dark disk” existing in our galaxy is only about 10%, and that the likelihood that dark matter had anything to do with the demise of the dinosaurs is no greater than 1%.

One almost wonders whether the idea for Randall's book wasn't hatched by some book publisher looking to boost sales. You can imagine a conversation like this:

Joe: We can't call it All About Dark Matter. No one will buy that.
John: What about the combo approach? We can call it Dark Matter and Jesus.
Joe: No, those markets don't mesh. What about Dark Matter and Lady Gaga?
John: How can you write a book with that title?
Joe: I've got it! Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs.
John: That's it!

Randall's book is well-written and entertaining, but I am puzzled by why the Midtown branch of the New York Public Library has purchased seven copies of this not terribly important book, and placed them right in the physics section, next to textbooks of physics. It would have been more appropriate to have the book placed in the section with equally speculative books about things like ancient astronauts.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

What Neil deGrasse Tyson Doesn't Want You to Know About the Cosmos

In order to understand the sophistry of Neil deGrasse Tyson's recent comments on the universe, we must look at the fascinating issue of cosmic fine-tuning. Let's start at the beginning of time. Astronomers say that the universe suddenly began in the unexplained event known as the Big Bang, in which the universe suddenly began to expand from an infinitely dense point. Decades ago, cosmologists figured out that the initial expansion rate of the universe must have been fine-tuned to at least fifty decimal places, with what is known as the critical density exactly matching the actual density to fifty decimal places. You can do a Google search for “flatness problem” to find many sources stating this. There's a theory (or a family of theories) called the cosmic inflation theory designed to explain away this astonishing correspondence. But that theory requires a great deal of fine-tuning itself, in many places (as discussed here). So it's not clear that you end up with less fine-tuning if you believe in such a theory. Regardless if whether such a cosmic inflation theory is true, we can say that the universe's beginning was astonishingly fine-tuned, and that an incredibly tiny change in the Big Bang would have meant that we would not have ended up with a life-compatible universe such as we live in. (Universes that expand too fast don't form galaxies, and universes that expand too slow have their matter all collapse into black holes, or one big black hole.)

So the Big Bang was very fine-tuned, but we also find abundant and very precise fine-tuning in the fundamental constants of the universe. A dramatic example (another case of two numbers coincidentally matching to many decimal places) is found in the charges of the proton and the electron. Each proton has a mass 1836 times greater than each electron, and so you might think that each proton has an electric charge much greater than each electron. But no, we couldn't exist if that were the case. Instead each proton has a charge exactly the same as each electron, the only difference being that the sign of the electron charge is negative. The exact equality of the proton charge and the electron charge has been measured to 18 decimal places. We know that planets like the earth would not even hold together if the electron charge and the proton charge differed by even 1 part in 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 (as discussed by a scientist quoted here).

There are still many other cases of fine-tuning in the universe's fundamental constants. One is the astonishing case of the cosmological constant or vacuum energy density, where we see that nature seems to have miraculously balanced the books to 60 decimal places. This is again something on which our existence depends, because if things were not so precisely balanced, ordinary space would have more mass-energy than steel, as discussed here. There are also reasons why we would not be here if the gravitational constant were a little bit different, or the strong nuclear force were a little different, or the fine structure constant were a little different.

The following visual illustrates how right things have to be in order for creatures such as us to exist. Imagine someone pulling the lever on this slot machine. In order for you to get the jackpot (the appearance of life), you have to get a coincidental match on each of the rows. The chance of this happening is almost infinitely small. (This post discusses the particular items in this visual, and why each is extremely unlikely to be coincidentally compatible with life.)

cosmic fine tuning

The “lucky numbers” are only half the story, for in order to have life the universe also needs lucky laws, such as strange quantum mechanical laws assuring that electrons don't fall into the atomic nucleus, lucky laws of electromagnetism that assure that chemistry can take place, lucky laws of nuclear physics assuring that an atomic nucleus can hold together, other lucky laws of particle physics restricting the number of types of stable particles to only a handful, and a lucky Pauli exclusion principle allowing for solid matter.

So the evidence for cosmic fine-tuning is immense. This evidence has been widely discussed by scientists over the past few decades, often in discussions that used the word “anthropic.” So when Neil deGrasse Tyson was asked about this question, we expected to hear from him some substantive comments. Instead we got the following reasoning:

I look out to the universe and yes, it is filled with mysteries, but it's also filled with all manner of things that would just as soon have you dead. Like asteroid strikes, and hurricanes, and tornadoes, and tsunamis, and volcanoes, and disease, and pestilence. There are things that exist in the natural world that do not have your health or longevity as a priority. And so I cannot look at the universe and say that yes, there's a God, and this God cares about my life -- at all. The evidence does not support this.

This reasoning can be summarized like this: there exist various forms of death, so there does not exist a God who is interested in you living. This is, of course, a very bad argument. The evidence that we have is entirely consistent with the idea that there exists some higher power who wants beings such as you to exist (and who set up the universe so that you and similar beings would exist), but who does not want you to live forever in a physical existence on this planet (something which would cause various problems such as extreme overpopulation and cultural stagnation). The existence of various forms of death do nothing to argue against such a possibility. Since such a possibility is strongly suggested by abundant evidence of astonishingly precise fine-tuning in the universe, it would seem to be very well supported by evidence. The claim “the evidence does not support this” is very misleading in this case. To the contrary, there is a great mountain of evidence that Tyson has done nothing to explain away.

At the core of Tyson's statement is a most absurd non-sequitur.

There are things that exist in the natural world that do not have your health or longevity as a priority. And so I cannot look at the universe and say that yes, there's a God, and this God cares about my life -- at all.

So from the fact that there are things in the natural world that “do not have your health or longevity as a priority” we can conclude there is no God? Asteroids don't care about us, so there is no God? That's a ridiculous argument.

Tyson's argument is similar to arguments like this, and every bit as fallacious:

Somebody died in the house, therefore nobody built the house.
The house was hit by an earthquake, therefore nobody built the house.

Another related comment was this one by Tyson.

I think of, like, the human body, and I look at what’s going on between our legs. There’s like a sewage system and entertainment complex intermingling. No engineer of any intelligence would have designed it that way.

I cite this merely as an example of how absurd Tyson gets when he starts reasoning about theological topics. There is no sound basis for complaining about the design of the human penis on the basis Tyson has given, and I know of no male other than Tyson who has ever complained about the same organ being used for sex and urination. It is generally regarded as being a sign of good design when a designer gives a single object two capabilities – for example, no one complains that hammers are poorly designed because they can both hammer nails and remove nails. We also do know of intelligent designers who combine a waste disposal system and an entertainment complex. That is done by every architect who designs a movie theater, and includes bathrooms in the design. 

Having assumed the job of educating the public about the universe, Tyson should be educating the public about one of the top developments of cosmology during the past 30 years, the fact that scientists have found countless ways in which our universe is astonishing fine-tuned. But when Tyson had 13 hours of television time in his series Cosmos, he found time to discuss all kinds of unimportant digressions, but apparently neglected to even discuss the evidence that our universe is exquisitely well-calibrated for life. (I am judging from this lengthy summary, which makes no mention of such a topic.) Tyson is also director of the Hayden Planetarium, but nowhere in its vast exhibit spaces is the visitor informed about this very important conclusion of modern cosmology.

It would seem that Tyson doesn't want you to know about all the ways in which our universe is fine-tuned for life (in repeated defiance of enormous odds), because that might mess up Tyson's gloomy type of talk that emphasizes a universe “filled with all manner of things that would just as soon have you dead,a thesis we might describe as “the universe is trying to kill you.” Neil apparently doesn't want you to think about how perfectly balanced the electrical charges in your atoms are (in a coincidence we would expect to find in less than 1 in 1,000,000,000,000,000,000 random universes, the coincidence of the proton charge exactly matching the electron charge to eighteen decimal places, despite the proton mass being 1836 times greater than the electron mass). Neil would probably be much happier if you fret about some asteroid that has maybe 1 chance in a million of killing you. I may note that it doesn't make sense to cite asteroids as evidence that the universe is stacked against us. A future generation of asteroid-mining humans (with the power to deflect asteroids) may regard asteroids as one of the greatest blessings of the solar system.

Postscript:  See here for a recent post on the Scientific American web site that discusses aspects of cosmic fine-tuning.  Some of the points made are below.

The constants of nature—such as c, the speed of light, and G, which denotes the force of gravity—seem to be fine-tuned for our existence. Just a slight variation in one of these values would render galaxies, stars, planets, life and even complex atoms like those that comprise your pumpkin pie impossible...Scientists also observe a fine-tuning within the physical laws themselves—the rules, such as the laws of gravity and thermodynamics, that regulate the cosmos.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Why It's Silly to Disparage Anecdotal Evidence

My most recent post was a science fiction story which took a jab at the strange thought patterns of some of today's scientists. In the story, invading extraterrestrials arrive near our planet, and start leaving more and more dramatic evidence of their arrival. The scientists advising the US president keep denying that anything paranormal is going on, despite the evidence piling up to extremely high levels. The US president is lulled into inaction by these assurances, and the chance to defend against the attack is lost, resulting in the conquest of planet Earth.

At one point in the story, a scientist says this in response to massive testimony about extraterrestrial activity:

You can't trust anecdotal evidence like that. We don't trust the reports of ordinary people. Our motto is: only believe it if it was reported in a scientific journal.

Now, upon reading that, you might complain that this is a crude caricature of what scientists say. But two days after writing the story, I read a scientist say almost exactly this. The scientist (Alex Bezerow) makes this claim:

Testimonials mean nothing. Period. Anybody with a modicum of scientific training understands that.

The scientist then goes on to offer what he claims is an “excellent example of how dangerous and misleading anecdotal evidence can be” by citing a debunking of the famous Erin Brokovich lawsuit, a debunking which is itself debunked in this article.

Bezerow's claim that “testimonials don't matter” is a wholesale dismissal of all anecdotal evidence. This is nonsensical. Anecdotal evidence is simply evidence in which a person describes what he did, or what happened to him. Such evidence is a key pillar of our legal system, and (as I will show in a moment) is actually a key pillar of modern science.

When someone makes a ludicrous claim such as “testimonials mean nothing,” or claims that anecdotal evidence doesn't count, you have to ask: what is their motive? What would motivate someone to advance such a bizarre principle, so contrary to common sense?

I can think of two motives that a scientist might have for advancing such a principle. The first is that a dismissal of anecdotal evidence is very convenient for someone who wishes to advance a narrow, restrictive view of reality, particularly a view dominated by mechanistic or materialist principles. If you want to maintain that there is nothing but matter and energy, you have the problem that a significant fraction of the population report psychic, paranormal, or spiritual experiences that go beyond such a limited reality. It is very convenient, therefore, to be able to “cross out” all such reports by claiming that anecdotal reports aren't good evidence.

Another motive that a scientist might have for advancing such a principle is that he might be trying to shore up scientists' attempts to establish a kind of knowledge monopoly, in which scientists are regarded as some special priests of learning who are the sole possessors of the keys to truth. Such attempts have grown more and more brazen in recent decades. What better way to help enthrone our scientists as the sole judges of truth than to tell the lowly masses that what they observe and experience doesn't count, that only the work of scientists counts towards establishing the truth?

But such attempts are futile. One reason is that a large fraction of our scientific papers are themselves anecdotal evidence.

Consider a scientist who does experiments with rats or chemicals, and publishes the results in a scientific journal. The account of the experiment is itself anecdotal and testimonial. So if we disregard anecdotal evidence, we must then disregard all of the scientific papers in which individual scientists describe particular things they did in an experiment. Bang, you've just wiped out a large fraction of modern science.

It is futile to rebut this objection by saying, “Such evidence isn't anecdotal-- it's experimental.” A typical account of an experiment that a scientist performed is both experimental and anecdotal, so you don't show it's not anecdotal by showing it is experimental.

It's also futile to rebut this objection by claiming that when a scientist makes a claim in a scientific journal about his experiences, that this has more weight than a non-anonymous account by an ordinary person, on the grounds that the scientific journal is peer-reviewed. When a scientific paper is peer reviewed, the reviewers do not question the author, and do not ask to see corroborating evidence.  So the testimonial report of a scientist as to his experience while running an experiment has no more weight than the typical published account of a non-scientist who gives his correct name.  A scientist doesn't sprinkle some magic truth dust on his anecdotal account by publishing it in a journal. 

Of course, scientists don't actually follow the principle that “testimonials don't matter” or that “anecdotal evidence doesn't count.” But a scientist may occasionally evoke such a principle when he or she finds it convenient to dismiss some evidence that he doesn't wish to accept.

We can imagine how following the “ignore anecdotal evidence” principle might lead to the unnecessary death of thousands. A pharmaceutical company might introduce a new drug with baleful side effects. Many people might report that their spouses died or had a stroke after taking the drug. Such reports could be ignored as mere “anecdotal evidence.” The death toll might mount, until tens of thousands died. Finally, lagging far beyond the anecdotal evidence, some scientific studies might show the drug was dangerous, and the drug might be withdrawn by the pharmaceutical company.

This scenario isn't imaginary. It's the actual history of a drug called Vioxx, which is estimated to have killed 38,000 people.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Fifth Column of Doubt: A Science Fiction Story

When the extraterrestrial spaceship approached planet Earth, it entered into orbit at a distance of five million miles. Ten kilometers long, the gigantic ship had been built from a hollowed-out asteroid. The invading extraterrestrials hoped that it might be mistaken for a passing asteroid.

The strange appearance of the huge object attracted worldwide attention and debate. The President of the US called a team of scientists to the White House to discuss the matter.

What is this thing?” asked the President. “Could it be some kind of spaceship?”

No, don't worry about that type of nonsense,” said astronomy professor Ted Kindler. “It must just be some asteroid that accidentally came into a distant orbit around our planet.” The other scientists nodded in agreement. Trusting them, the President took no further action.

The extraterrestrials then began their reconnaissance of planet Earth. Hundreds of small craft were sent from the huge spaceship into the skies of Earth. In cities all over the United States, reliable witnesses reported strange disk-like objects hurtling through the skies at speeds no human craft could reach. The objects often appeared in formations.

The huge wave of UFO sightings attracted discussion and debate all over the world. The President of the US called a team of scientists to the White House to discuss the matter.

What is going on?” asked the President. “Could this be a prelude to some alien invasion?”

Of course not,” said physics professor Bob Baker. “We have explanations for these kind of things. They're things like people misidentifying Venus, or people mistaking aircraft for UFOs, or hallucinations caused by drug use, or atmospheric inversions or people faking things so they can get on Youtube.” The other scientists nodded in agreement. Trusting them, the President took no further action.

The extraterrestrials then began to establish their secret bases below the surface of the planet. Over a period of five weeks, twenty meteor-like objects were seen descending all over the world, landing in remote areas. Each of these objects caused a huge mile-long hole to be formed in the ground. A continual stream of gases from these holes prevented further investigations. But numerous photographers made videos of strange UFOs descending into these holes. 

The bizarre situation caused rumors and furious debate all over the world. The President of the US called a team of scientists to the White House to discuss the matter.

What is going on?” asked the President. “Could these strange holes be some kind of  bases being set up by extraterrestrials?”

Of course not,” said astronomy professor Will Martin. “These are all just natural meteor falls. I would admit it is quite a coincidence that so many have occurred in such a short time, but let's not jump to some paranormal explanation.” The other scientists nodded in agreement. Trusting them, the President took no further action.

The extraterrestrials then began to establish their bases into a connected network stretching across the globe. Using lasers that could melt through rock effortlessly, the original twenty bases were expanded into a thousand underground bases that were all connected by tunnels. This activity created tremors that people felt all over the world.

The reports of unexplained tremors caused rumors and furious debate all over the world. The President of the US called a team of scientists to the White House to discuss the matter.

What is going on?” asked the President. “Millions of people are reporting these strange tremors, that only started after those 'meteor holes' appeared. Could extraterrestrials be behind this?”

Of course not,” said geology professor Al Sawyer. “You can't trust anecdotal evidence like that. We don't trust the reports of ordinary people. Our motto is: only believe it if it was reported in a scientific journal. ” The other scientists nodded in agreement.

So you scientists don't believe in extraterrestrials?” asked the President.

No, we do believe in extraterrestrials,” said astronomer Will Martin. “We believe the universe is full of extraterrestrials. But the only extraterrestrials we believe in are those that are far, far away, extraterrestrials on other planets that we we can talk to using our big radio telescopes. But we don't believe there can be any extraterrestrials in our solar system. Our rule is: they probably exist, but they can't exist near us."

Trusting them, the President took no further action.

Three months later, the extraterrestrials used the giant network of connected underground bases as a spearhead to help achieve the conquest of the entire Earth.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

A Dubious Procedure for Trying to Get Signs of Another Universe

If you're a cosmologist looking to make a name for yourself, one pretty easy shortcut is to look for some unexplained cosmological feature (typically in the cosmic background radiation that pervades the universe), and to claim that this is evidence for some other universe beyond our own. Previous attempts along these lines have used what is called the Cold Dark Spot in the cosmic background radiation, an area of the sky in which the temperature of the cosmic background radiation is a little cooler than the average temperature. We have had cosmologists who used reasoning rather like this:

There's that little spot in the cosmic background radiation, and I don't understand that. My guess is that it is a sign that our universe bumped into another universe.

The idea of trying to find evidence for other universes by looking at features of the cosmic background radiation in our universe seems like a quixotic quest (I will avoid the less polite term “fool's errand.”) Even if we were to find a particularly striking feature in that radiation, it would merely tell us something about our universe or its history, rather than being an indication of some other universe. It should also be noted that the cosmic background radiation is essentially featureless, because it is uniform to 1 part in 100,000.

The latest attempt to get evidence of a “signal of another universe” by using the cosmic background radiation is a paper by Ranga-Ram Chary that has attracted some attention. New Scientist has done an article about the paper, with the headline “Mystery Bright Spots Could Be First Glimpse of Another Universe.” But I wouldn't get excited, because the technique used is extremely dubious and highly error-prone. The supposed “bright spots” are not actually things that were observed in a telescope, but just “leftovers” after some weird subtraction process.

Here is how New Scientist describes the technique used:

Instead of looking at the CMB itself, Chary subtracted a model of the CMB from Planck’s picture of the entire sky. Then he took away everything else, too: the stars, gas and dust. With our universe scrubbed away, nothing should be left except noise. But in a certain frequency range, scattered patches on the sky look far brighter than they should. If they check out, these anomalous clumps could be caused by cosmic fist-bumps: our universe colliding with another part of the multiverse.

But there is no simple and straightforward way to do this “subtraction” part, the part described by the phrase “he took away everything else, too: the stars, gas, and dust.” Doing the subtraction part gets a cosmologist into the very murky swamp known as “masking” (also called foreground subtraction). When cosmologists do masking, they take some existing image or radiation reading from the sky, and start subtracting things. But how to do such masking is always very debatable guesswork. It is exactly the difficulties and guesswork of masking that messed up the BICEP2 team that came up with that 2014 “proof of cosmic inflation” paper that turned out to be the biggest scientific false alarm of the decade.

On pages 4 and 5 of Chary's paper, he describes the ridiculously complicated process by which he did this subtraction. There was not one type of subtraction or masking, but many different types. In all such cases, a rather arbitrary decision and debatable decision was made about the exact way to do that particular type of masking or subtraction.  Doing the right subtraction or masking to get rid of the cosmic dust is a nightmare.

Cosmic dust messes up our swaggering cosmologists

Consequently, we can have little confidence in Chary's result. Chary's procedure seems rather like the following hypothetical procedure:

I started out with a complex picture showing Times Square in New York City. My idea was to subtract everything using “masking techniques.” So I subtracted out all the buildings, using a “building mask” procedure I have. Then I subtracted out all the people, using a “people mask” procedure I have. Then I subtracted out all the cars, using a “car mask” procedure I have. Then I subtracted out the sky and clouds, using a “sky and clouds mask” procedure I have. Then I subtracted out all the other things. I should have been left with black nothingness – but instead I see some mysterious light remaining. This light must be from some other universe.

If the procedure suggested above is rather ridiculous, how much more ridiculous is it to try something similar using the entire universe (where the uncertainties involving these subtractions is so much greater)? “Subtract your way to another universe” does not seem like a viable program of cosmological inquiry.

But is there any way in which we might get evidence of another universe? I can think of two ways in which you could get real evidence of another universe.

Method 1: We look up in our telescopes and see radically different physics going on in different parts of the sky. Perhaps in one part of the sky we see light traveling at, say, 50 times the speed of light on our planet; then in some other part of the sky, we see light traveling at one tenth the speed of light on our planet. This might be evidence that we are somehow peering into other universes with different physics from the physics of our universe. But no such observations have ever been reported. We have peered deep into the universe, to the observational limits of our telescopes, and found no such thing. Instead we have found great uniformity of the fundamental physical constants and laws wherever we look.

Method 2: We invent a machine capable of teleporting itself to some other universe. The machine could then make some observations to verify that the other universe had physics radically different from ours. For example, the machine might release a gram of matter on a flat windless plain. If the matter floated up rather than falling down, it might be evidence that the machine was in some weird other universe where gravity acted differently. The machine could then be teleported back to our universe to give us proof of its observations.

There are numerous reasons why it is extremely improbable that Method 2 will ever be applied successfully. The first is that no one has the slightest idea how to teleport a machine to a different universe (black holes won't do the job, since everything tells us that they will completely destroy any machine trying to pass through them). The second is that no one has the slightest idea how to teleport a machine back from another universe to our universe. The third is that if we assume that alternate universes would have a random collection of physics and fundamental constants, it would be more than 99.99999999% likely that a machine teleported to some other universe would be instantly destroyed as soon as it got there, because that universe would be very unlikely to have physics allowing for stable atoms and molecules. It requires a great deal of fine-tuning of various items of physics (such as the charge of the proton and the electron, and the strong nuclear force) for you to even have a universe in which objects as large as a small machine can exist without flying apart.

So much as cosmologists might like to get evidence of some other universe, it seems all but impossible that such evidence could ever be gathered.

 Postscript: The news reports about Chary's paper almost all have inaccurate titles. Almost all of these reports are entitled something like: Scientists report possible evidence of another universe.  But in this case, it is not scientists who are reporting such a thing -- it is only one scientist.