Category Archives: Science

Trust in Science


The scale of the universe mapped to branches of science.

What makes people distrust science? Surprisingly, not politics” is an insightful piece recently penned in Aeon magazine by psychology professor Bastiaan T Rutjens.

Let mes start by saying that today’s distrust of science is astonishing when you consider that every single moment of your life you benefit from science. From the clean water your drink to the sewer systems that remove waste, from the marvels of modern medicine to wonders of technology, from the bridges you cross to the building you live in, from the phones and TVs you watch to the cars and planes you travel in, all result from the success of science. Half the people reading this post would have died of childhood diseases had they been born just a few generations ago. Before modern science, and the technology that results from it, life was indeed nasty, brutish, and short. Why then is there so much distrust of science?

The article begins by exploring a tentative answer—political ideology must be the culprit.

The sociologist Gordon Gauchat has shown that political conservatives in the United States have become more distrusting of science, a trend that started in the 1970s. And a swath of recent research conducted by social and political psychologists has consistently shown that climate-change skepticism in particular is typically found among those on the conservative side of the political spectrum.

However, research by the cognitive scientist Stephan Lewandowsky, as well as research led by the psychologist Sydney Scott, finds no relationship between political ideology and attitudes toward genetic modification and vaccine skepticism. So there must be more to science skepticism than mere political ideology. But what? To answer this question Rutjens and his colleagues recently published multiple studies that investigated both trust and skepticism of science. What they found were

four major predictors of science acceptance and science skepticism: political ideology; religiosity; morality; and knowledge about science. These variables tend to intercorrelate—in some cases quite strongly—which means that they are potentially confounded. To illustrate, an observed relation between political conservatism and trust in science might in reality be caused by another variable, for example religiosity.

Rutjens and his colleagues found that:

a) climate change skepticism was most pronounced among the politically conservative;

b) skepticism about genetic modification wasn’t related to political ideology or religious beliefs, but correlates highly with science knowledge—the more you know about science the less skeptical you are about the safety of, for example, genetically modified food;

c) vaccine skepticism also had no relation to political ideology but was strongest among religious participants and those with moral concerns about the naturalness of vaccination.

As for general trust in science and the desire for more funding for scientific research, the results were clear: it is by far lowest among the religious. The religiously orthodox have the most negative views of science and don’t want to invest federal money in science.

To summarize the findings Rutjens writes that, with the exception of climate-change skepticism, distrust in science isn’t driven by political ideology. Moreover, with the exception of the case of genetic modification, scientific literacy doesn’t seem to remedy distrust in science. Finally, regarding vaccine skepticism and distrust of science, religiosity plays the largest role.

Brief Reflection – I would also propose that poor education combined with our many cognitive biases and bugs undermined trust in science which is both the best way we have to uncover the truth about the world and the only cognitive authority in the world today. Here’s to hoping that we don’t revisit The Demon Haunted World that Carl Sagan wrote about so movingly.

The “Transcension Hypothesis” and the “Fermi Paradox”

(This article was reprinted in the online magazine of the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, September 5, 2016.)

John Smart, a colleague of mine in the Evolution, Cognition and Complexity Group, has advanced the transcension hypothesis. In Smart’s words:

The transcension hypothesis proposes that a universal process of evolutionary development guides all sufficiently advanced civilizations into what may be called “inner space,” a computationally optimal domain of increasingly dense, productive, miniaturized, and efficient scales of space, time, energy, and matter, and eventually, to a black-hole-like destination.

An important implications of the transcension hypothesis is as a possible explanation for the Fermi paradox—the apparent contradiction between the lack of evidence for the existence of extraterrestrials along with high probability estimates given for their existence by the Drake equation. (I have previously written about the Fermi paradox here and here.)

This suggests that rather than exploring the outer space of the universe, advanced civilizations explore their inner space and eventually disappear from our view. And this is why the SETI Institute hasn’t found evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence. This two-minute video explains this clearly.

While the transcension hypothesis is reasonable although speculative. An implication of the hypothesis is that, if true, there is more to reality than we know. And this suggests that there may be better realities than our current one. Perhaps our descendants will escape to such realities and somehow bring us along, maybe by running ancestor simulation? Who knows. But one thing we can say for sure; much is hidden from our ape-like minds and this should cause us to be humble.

Lisa Randall: Dark Matter

Lisa Randall is professor of physics at Harvard and author of the just released Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs: The Astounding Interconnectedness of the Universe

Randall also just penned an essay in the Boston Globe “Seeing dark matter as the key to the universe — and human empathy.” I thought it one of the best I’ve read this year. She begins the essay:

I liken dark matter — matter present throughout the universe that is invisible to us because it doesn’t emit or absorb light — to other entities that remain unnoticed but influence the workings of the world, from the bacterial cells in our bodies, which outnumber human cells by a factor of ten, to the myriad Internet communities and subcultures that thrive outside our awareness. The goal was to illuminate the gap between our limited observations and the many barely perceived phenomena that permeate our reality.

She extends her metaphor by pointing to other things that are transparent to us, “people, phenomena, particles, and forces that we don’t necessarily appreciate but that are important to our shared reality.” In the scientific realm, these blindspots are relatively obvious. For example, we don’t see or understand the rules of quantum mechanics which are counter-intuitive and esoteric. And dark matter is like this too, even though it is,

the dominant form of matter in the universe … people tend to perceive it as irrelevant or even dangerous … Dark matter’s existence perplexes people who find it implausible that the vast majority of matter in the universe would be undetectable by our senses and their technological extensions. Some even wonder if it’s a sort of mistake. To me it would be even more astonishing if the matter we can see with our eyes were all the matter there is.

Now if we turn the metaphor toward racial or class differences we see that,

Most people mistake their own perspective, shaped by their subjective and limited perception, for the absolute reality of the external world. Questioning this assumption is what advanced our research on dark matter. It is also the only thing that has ever advanced human empathy.

Empathy is important to help us understand things we can’t see or experience. If we recognize”the limitations of our senses and the subjectivity of our experiences” then we might be able to transcend them.  Yes, we necessarily see the world from our own point of view, but we should remember that ours is only one way to see the world so we should be empathic.

Empathy is difficult. It is also crucial to the progress of both science and society. It demands that we make a deliberate and consistent effort to step out of our familiar frames of reference. Only then can we synthesize different perspectives, observations, and experiences — the very act at the heart of creativity, which will be essential to solving the increasingly complex problems that beset our world.

There is dark matter and energy around us that we don’t see; there is light and sound that we don’t see or hear. Our thoughts are but grains of sand in a universal ocean of thought. We should be humble about them and empathic toward others.

Mario Livio: The Hubble Telescope and Our Immense Universe

The Hubble Telescope has revealed an unimaginably immense and beautiful universe. The video above, produced by Dr. Mario Livio, an astrophysicist at the Space Telescope Science Institute, concerns the philosophical implications of what we’ve seen with Hubble. This first one is called “In an Immense Universe, Small is Significant. The key idea is that, although we are extraordinarily small in this immense universe, that does not mean we are insignificant.

In this next short video Livio speaks to the beauty and power of science itself.

Livio is also the author of popular books including:

Brilliant Blunders: From Darwin to Einstein – Colossal Mistakes by Great Scientists That Changed Our Understanding of Life and the Universe
,

The Golden Ratio: The Story of PHI, the World’s Most Astonishing Number,

Is God a Mathematician?

The Accelerating Universe: Infinite Expansion, the Cosmological Constant, and the Beauty of the Cosmos, and

 

Black Holes and Truth in Science

Theoretical Physics

Two days ago I wrote a post about “the recent discussion that black holes might not exist.” I was careful to use the word “might,” because I knew that preliminary scientific ideas are typically sensationalized in the media. As it turns out this was a classic example. While news reports made this out to be definitive, revolutionary discovery, it was actually no such thing.

As the theoretical physicist Sabine Hossenfelder, Assistant Professor for High Energy Physics at The Nordic Institute for Theoretical Physics in Stockholm wrote yesterday:

… the recent papers by Mersini-Houghton and Pfeiffer contribute to a discussion that is decades old, and it is good to see the topic being taken up by the numerical power of today. I am skeptical that their treatment of the negative energy flux is consistent with the expected emission rate during collapse. Their results are surprising and in contradiction with many previously found results. It is thus too early to claim that is has been shown black holes don’t exist.

As I pointed out in my post, many ideas in theoretical physics are at the cutting edge of science and particularly open to revision. It may turn out that black holes don’t exist, but for the moment rational persons should align their view with that of the majority of physicists. And if there is no scientific consensus about the matter, then the rational response for the rest of us is to withhold judgment.

Other Areas of Science

Another area of science prone to sensationalized reporting is the relatively young field of nutrition. We now know many things about nutrition with great certainty, for instance that fruits and vegetables are good for us and that table sugar and trans fats are bad. And of course there is much we don’t yet know.  Still small, preliminary studies about the value of some food are reported as definitive. Then, if the initial results are later discovered to be e incorrect, people often conclude that scientists just change their minds all the time.

Often I have heard people say they don’t listen to scientists because “one day they say the earth is cooling and the next day they say its warming.” Of course scientists have not changed their minds about whether the earth is warming—it is—nor have they changed their minds about the basics of physics, chemistry, and biology. And that’s not because they are stubborn or dogmatic. They haven’t changed their minds because every single day in laboratories around the world quantum, relativity, atomic and evolutionary theories are confirmed over and over again. In fact a Nobel Prize awaits if one could show that these theories were basically mistaken. Radical change in science, despite Thomas Kuhn‘s famous claims to the contrary, are extraordinarily rare.

So the next time you hear that vitamin D will do this or global warming is nonsense remember to take into account the fact that sensationalized reporting is easy and it sells, while scientific investigation is a slow and difficult process.

Conclusion

Let me conclude with a personal example. My brother-in-law is a biochemist and a world-class researcher and authority on lupus.  After nearly 40 years of arduous and painstaking toil he has made significant contributions to medical research. He did this not by praying to Apollo, but by earning a PhD, doing post-doctoral work, taking the bus and/or subway to work, and toiling every day in his laboratory in order to tease just a bit of truth out of reality. He did this by the careful employment of the scientific method. Anyone can proclaim truth; actually searching for it is much harder.

My brother-in-law has made a greater contribution to society than all the faith healers, financiers, CEOs, entertainers, political pundits and athletes combined. We should all thank him.