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There is nothing wrong in exploring the potential for a soul. It is, after all, a hypothesis and thus merits investigation.

However, the evidence must first be convincing before any level of confidence is established.

I had it proposed to me that the human brain is basically a circuit board; a rich network of highways, buzzing with energy. As energy cannot be destroyed, the essence of who we are persists beyond death, like a driver stepping out of a car.

This was proposed to the individual I was talking with from someone with tertiary training in physics – an appeal to authority, of course.

I know enough about physics to know that energy cannot be created or destroyed and I also know that matter is parcels of energy as well. In truth, all that we are and all that surrounds as were pressed together in the tiniest of spaces just after the birth of the universe.

In a way, we were all there, at the beginning, and closer than we will ever be again.

But that is more poetic than relevant. There is no reason to suggest that energy holds a consciousness. If so, did I recharge my phone yesterday with my long dead great-grandfather? There’s something wrong with that picture.

The human mind is alive with energy impulses, but it is just as immersed in chemical reactions. We are a hotbed of hormones, thriving for chemical equilibrium where it counts.

If the car had poor while alignment, when the driver steps out, does she have a limp?

I was informed that a personality carries through, to “the other side”, which would lead to the necessity for the question to be, absurdly, answered with a “yes”.

An angry person; a mentally disabled person; surely their traits are the result of hormones and a malfunctioning body; surely the soul cannot be injured by such. What of a person with an overtly high sex drive? That would clearly be the result of hormones and would serve no function to a bodiless entity.

Just because someone with additional training on one subject proposes a hypothesis that sounds logical, this doesn’t inherently provide evidence, only a question asked. That species seemed unique suggested to divine creation – something the evidence has since proven wrong.

Genuine physicists are in the business of understanding how matter and energy work and if energy can be conscious, then this effort would be in vain as energy could never be predictable, just as I would be unable to tell when you might next sneeze, yawn or what your next thought may be…

It is reassuring to think that life may exist in some fashion beyond ones being and I have no problem with scientific investigations on the subject. However, I get slightly irate when sloppy musings are dressed up as informed arguments. If anything, such behaviour hurts the cause and credibility of the proponents.

I’ve been following the whole GM and rat tumour rumble with great interest. It’s a shame that most of the discussions are within science literature not easily obtained by the general public, a fact which, in itself, opens up doors of concern to be discussed below.

Many alarms bells seem to have been triggered within the relevant scientific community in relation to the study, Séralini et al. (2012).[1] The first of which centred around the unusual process the authors of this paper undertook in going public. Rather than discussing the limitations of the study itself in a reasoned and reflective manner, the approach encouraged wild gossip; through the creation of an embargo to avoid critical evaluation of the study by unrelated researchers within the initial media reports… oh, and it also coincided with the upcoming release of a book and movie on the study.[2]

It sounds more sensational than good science, don’t you think?

It is made even more delicious by the book and movie covers of Tous Cobayes; the former, an apple cut open, revealing a portion of a human skull and the latter, a mother and child walking towards a power-station along a dirt road within a vast monoculture (not forgetting the human skull – this time replacing the “o” in Cobayes – which is also chewing on a grain straw).[3]

Far from objective, the meaning is clear; from this one study, we’re all guinea pigs, with deadly consequences.

Before I go any further, I should clarify my standing on GM food. Like any chemical compounds to be exposed to our species, I believe they should be studied through critical clinical trialling. If it passes, all good. We have been in the business of genetic modification long before we knew what it was. I object entirely to genetic ownership and imposed sterility however. I just look at the tobacco and fossil fuel industries to mount my case of concern regarding profitable environmental ownership which compromises human flourishing.

That said, the backlash to Séralini et al. (2012) has continued, suggesting in itself why the embargo imposed on journalists was fundamental; the conclusions were not as strong as the researchers have allowed to permeate pop-media.

First of all, it was a two year study using a breed of rats, Sprague-Dawley rats, that “are prone to developing spontaneous tumours” and Harlan Laboratories (who supplied the rats) “show that only one-third of males, and less than one-half of females, live to 104 weeks.”[4]

You heard right; a two year study with a breed of rats known to be highly susceptible to tumour development and are more likely than not to be dead within two years was undertaken to demonstrate high tumour development… hmmm.

“But the study was comparing two groups of the same rat breed (ie. control vs. exposure to GM maize) – surely this would counter such criticism?”

Fair point… Alas, Séralini et al. (2012) only used ten males and ten females for each treatment group.[4] With a breed of rat known to spontaneously produce tumours and is more likely than not to be dead within your research period, comparing treatment size of a mere ten rats is likely to be compounded by statistical errors!

“[The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development] recommends at least 20 rats of each sex per group for chemical-toxicity studies, and at least 50 for carcinogenicity studies.”[4] Talk about a lightweight study!

If critical review was allowed with the media release of the study, it’s obvious that the study would have had far less impact and the accompanying book and movie, perhaps a waste of effort.

Here is where the real concern comes to play; the media has probably done its damage.

If we need evidence to suggest this, all we need to do is look at the thoroughly discredited Wakefield et al. (1988) study which suggested a link between autism and the MMR vaccine.[5] Even though the study has been retracted and is considered and “elaborate fraud”, the damage has been done with anti-vaccination groups committed to the “Truth” of a causal relationship between vaccination and autism, which remains unshakable regardless how strong the contrary evidence is.[5][6][7]

While Séralini et al. (2012) does not necessarily represent dishonestly as Wakefield et al. (1988) does, the conclusions of the paper are clearer weaker than have been trumpeted.

The resolve that all GM is bad is probably solidified even further from this study, regardless of its shortcomings and all the other contrary evidence. My only suggest is; link back here or follow up the links I’ve referenced to below. Hammer the point and don’t give credence to individuals whom bombastically pronounce Séralini et al. (2012) to be ‘the final nail in the GM coffin’. Do this because the argument is not a balanced by weighty evidence that deserves equal credibility. It is one lightweight study that stands today on its lonesome, alongside a rush to hush criticism and to advertise a book and movie.

References

[1] Séralini et al. (2012) Long term toxicity of a Roundup herbicide and a Roundup-tolerant genetically modified maize. Food and Chemical Toxicology. 50.11 Link
[2] Nature Editorial (25th Sept 2012) Poison postures. Link
[3] see Google Images search of “tous cobayes”
[4] Butler (2012) Hyped GM maize study faces growing scrutiny. Nature. Link
[5] Wakefield et al. (1988) Lleal-lymphoid-nodular hyperplasia, non-specific colitis, and pervasive developmental disorder in children. Lancet 351 (9103) Link
[6] CNN Medical journal: Study linking autism, vaccines is ‘elaborate fraud’. Link
[7] Moth:  Anti-Vaccination vs. AGW denial. Link

How hot is the shower?

As one increases the temperature of the water, the answer to this question becomes less and less subjective and more and more objective. Eventually, it becomes conclusively too hot, where cellular damage can be measured.

I mention this because on re-entering the blogosphere lately, I have found the comment threads are still awash with the “CAGW” acronym. Prove to me, they ask, that any warming that is due to human activity could be catastrophic.

Of course it’s a sign of weakness from the committed sceptic and I flag it to my reader in the hope they spot it for what it is and save themselves the effort in confronting the fellow seriously. They are not interested in a genuine reasoned argument. It’s a sideshow; a trump card played by someone needing attention rather than seeking clarity on a subject they indeed are open-minded to.*

I don’t care who mentioned the word “catastrophic” in what publication. Yes, I have been focusing on values of late, but here we have a great example (and warning) of poor communication that just will not die. It has played into the hands of the committed sceptic and has been something I’ve run into continually for the past three years as a blogger.

In truth, you cannot say with any great certainty that any amount of warming will be catastrophic until it becomes too hot. Venus is too hot, but we’re not likely to hit such temperatures until the sun is on the way out.

Would the committed sceptic find the previous ice age to be catastrophic if it reoccurred within a century from now? That was around 5oC cooler that today.

It is entirely up to ones judgement whether or not such a significant shift could be termed “catastrophic”. A half intelligent committed sceptic is aware of this.

Hence you have a stalemate position and a smug smile returned for your attempt at reasoned debate on the subject. It’s likely most of us would find a world 6oC warmer to be “catastrophic” to how and where we live and grow food and to biodiversity richness, but you cannot expect that to be acknowledged by others.

I’ve seen enough projections from the Australian Bureau of Meteorology and research currently being completed by researchers within working teams I have been associated with (currently unpublished) to be concerned by as little as 2oC  additional warmth to South Australia, however projections as much as 4oC warming in Greenland might look good. How hot is too hot?

The projections for this coming century are within the realms of a subjective answer to such questions. You cannot hope to question the validity of “catastrophic anthropogenic global warming” because the answer remains subjective. They know that. That’s why they hand it to you so easily.

The first suggestion to such a situation may be to ignore it, but this just doesn’t cut it. So what can we do to counter such a subjective question?

In my opinion, make it clear that the committed sceptic has posed a subjective question – they’ve asked you how hot is too hot. It depends on where you are and what you think would be too much stress to local systems. Ask them to dry a line in the sand; tell you what they would think is objectively too hot – what would they see as being “catastrophic”.

Either they’ll offer you something objective (ie. ice caps melted or frequency of extreme weather events) from which you can start to refer to the science literature on the subject or expose themselves to be ‘pissing in the wind’ for attention. That is to say if they refer to a “warmist” statement on what is “catastrophic” or of balmy summer holidays to the UK, they remain in the subjective. Tell them so and move on.

From my experience, such individuals that refer to “CAGW” are typically bombastic and avoid answering questions directly. They will probably cut-and-paste quotes from their favourite “sceptical” website and dart from one accusation to another.

Don’t try to keep up with them, for they are well trained to Gish Gallop and will leave you for dust. Continually press on this initial point and for their personal statement on what is too hot. You’ll probably find that, like a puppy, if you won’t chase them, they’ll grow bored of the game and either attempt a dialogue or (more likely) move on to greener pastures for attention, saving you time and effort.

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*I’m aware that, at this point, it is likely many of the committed sceptic have shut off and are darting towards the comment stream to complain noisily with terms like “warmist”, conspiracy theories and self-righteous claims of awareness in the face of my apparent arrogance or ignorance. I’d hope you can take the time to read the rest of the post and hopefully provide more thoughtful reflection.

The more I reflect on what I have learnt regarding the inherent cultural values associated with factual evidence (such as that relating to evolution, climate change etc) and from discussions with others on the subject, I’m drawn to one point which I feel is potentially the most difficult to overcome by those who reject evidence to maintain a favoured view point.

This is a fear of a loss in control supposed by “committed sceptics” of a given subject.

With those who accept the high certainty of such finding, in general, I find they are happy to acknowledge their own shortcomings and prefer to embrace acquisition of high quality information over a need for absolute certainty. This of course can lead to flying off the spectrum entirely (especially where critical evaluation of information is neglected) and into the ether of “anything is possible and thus everything is really unknowable”, which I have also encountered.

On the other hand, I find a panicked reply when reasoned debate fails a committed sceptic.

A creationist once told me he would prefer to be evolved from a wolf then, when he couldn’t counter a reasoned look at the evidence. Most others claim that morality is meaningless if evolution is true.

A committed sceptic once told me that he welcomed the tropical summers of the UK then, when he couldn’t counter a reasoned look at the evidence regarding climate change. Most others talk about the end of the civilised world if it’s accepted as true (eg. initiatives aimed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions will send us back to the Stone Age).

Listen to the language; morality would be lost… society as we know it – the hard won civilizations we have created – will be destroyed; the primary value at heart here is a sense of purpose, of meaning, both personally and communally. If this instinctive meaning to one’s life is “lost” absurd propositions are likely and fatalism inevitable. If X is true, well, all hell will break loose…

Of course it wouldn’t.

We have incredibly strong evidence to support the theory that the universe is more than 13 billion years old and of our genetic relationship with all other life on this planet; of evolved diversity.

We have conducted studies that conclusively demonstrate empathy and altruism in other species. Morality exists not due to divine implantation in our minds and/or soul, but due to increasingly well understood social behaviour which is not unique to our species.

What’s more, our morality is not a written and thus stagnant code hardwired on our brains, as unchangeable as they would be on stone tablets. Instead they are evolving – arguably for the better – with subsequent generations (read, for instance, Mary Wollstonecraft’s essay, The Vindication of the Rights of Woman).

Likewise, climate change is true – it has occurred for reasons understood previously without human influence or consequence, however, this time is different only in that latter points.

Climate change is always punctuated with great changes to species abundance, distribution and regional weather patterns however, so far, life has persisted.

Fatalism and committed scepticism only reduces our potential for effective adaptation. And it is in this point that I feel the concern over a loss of control is unwarranted. It is a misunderstanding control entirely.

Surely we have given up the days in which a daily, weekly, monthly or other pivotal points in time required a sacrifice to ensure the gods favoured us with good weather (for our crops and well-being).

Sure we may laugh, but such events are written even into the stories of the god of Abraham and, within my own lifetime, people in developed countries have turned to rainmakers for help. It is laughable to think such devices enable control over the elements – giving up expected favour or assistance by the gods or other magical methods isn’t to give up control, only a delusion of it.*

On the other hand, we clearly do have control over the global climate. We’re currently and inadvertently conducting such geo-engineering. We have the control on how much heat we wish to trap and what kind of global climate we want.

Thinking about it in this way, imagine in the future that we knew that the axis of the Earth’s spin, the orbit around the sun or solar activity (or a combination of these factors) were to send us into another cold or warmer phase (science has given us the tools to make such prediction). We could alter the concentration of greenhouse gases to ensure we maintain a climate similar to the Holocene, ensuring food production, human well-being and species protection.

We also have the power to control how well we adapt to any unavoidable changes, in advance, if we so choose to acknowledge the projections. The results of our efforts may not even be evident until long after we have handed the keys on to future generations. This demonstrates not only control, but wisdom.

We truly are capable of being masters of our domain. However, we remain victims instead to our own delusions and preoccupation with fatalism. As stated above, the worst fears expressed by committed sceptics are simply unjustified and in truth masked the real fear; a fear in losing control. The reality is, as is so commonly the case, the very opposite. In letting go of false “certainties”, tied to a delusion of control, we can instead own our future.

While I believe if push came to shove, we would battle on under change and persist, however, I would like to think we could instead value real certainty and real control which is already within our grasp.

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*Even if there is a god(s) – which is not the point of this article – we always claim their ways to be mysterious, favouring or ignoring for their own reason, leading us back to same point; it is thus a delusion of control under such “mystery”.

I wish I had read Carl Sagan’s The Demon-haunted World when it first hit the bookshelves some 17 years ago. That said, I doubt I would have got as much from it back then and ultimately, that I didn’t read it back then is evidence enough that I wouldn’t have.

Retrospect is a funny thing.

Sagan laments in the book at the level of uncritical thinking and poorly trained people he had observed in much of his life. He focuses on the US, but does provide evidence from elsewhere and anyone whom has paid much attention would have already observed as much regardless where they are.

The situation hasn’t changed since writing the book and the problem isn’t one unique to the US.

Is it really a problem after all?

Certainly many of us feel it is, however societies are clearly evolving entities / populations. Like a gene pool, ideologies within a society make up an “ideas pool”, which ultimately make or break a society.

It has always been, but is even more so since electronic communication, that ideas share (often more easily than genes) between societies. The evolution of societies is refining, specialising and regardless of what it may appear like, they are becoming less physically aggressive.

The successful are no longer those with the most powerful gods or god-kings, but most clever in securing resources via more diplomatic means. Just look at the falling star of the US and the rising star of China, for instance.

I know there’s more to it and I’m simplifying the various situations immensely. The point is that societies are changing and that change is the result of expression, which amounts from a rearrangement and the removal / addition of ideas within the social pool. The civil unrest throughout the Middle East is a cry for democracy due to the expression of new ideas within the social pool (transferred from other societies).

Critical Scepticism as a Social Idea

Critical scepticism* comes and goes within the local ideas pool just like any gene that doesn’t hinder or enhance the fitness of a species. A bit like the biologist’s favourite example the Peppered Moth, it may be expressed in greater numbers at certain times because of short term conditions, but ultimately, it is an idea that remains in fairly low concentrations within societies.

I suspect we are not, but nature, inclined to be critical of evidence unless we need to. Indeed fiction, either written or presented, demands we forego critical review. Music insists we don’t acknowledge noises emanating from banging skins, vibrating strings etc, but rather focus on the harmony. Love leads us to see those close to us through rose-coloured glasses.

This isn’t to say that we couldn’t be, or shouldn’t be, more critically minded of evidence or that such societies would be any less enriching or creative. Personally, I feel the evolution of society will eventually achieve this higher plateau, as it is increasingly doing racial and sexual equality (admittedly, we are not there yet). However, we are a far way off yet and we have many other refinements to make before societies are well equipped with “nonsense meters”.

Sharing Sagan’s Lament

The reason I write about this now is because many of us share Sagan’s lament. I move among different arenas in my writing on this very bane. I know my readers make up individuals whom share this feeling and also those committed sceptics insisting evolution is false, that vaccination causes more harm than good, that anthropogenic climate change is rubbish, that there are no ceilings to growth that we could reach in our industrial endeavours.

The more I look into such topics, the further I see into the rabbit hole of the committed sceptics. Pick nearly any subject, hit it up on a good search engine and I bet you can find a group uncritically sceptical of it. For one reason or another, they have come to such a conclusion regardless of the weight of contradictory evidence. For a passive example to my Australian readers; just listen to Alan Jones for a while…

Perhaps critical scepticism remains in low concentrations within the ideas pool not only because it doesn’t yet enhance the fitness of a given society, but also because in low concentrations, societies can express various avenues for production that it otherwise could not; think homeopathy and traditional medicine (which has either not undergone strict clinical trials or failed them), the myriad of books on the so-called “Climategate”, Christmas/Easter (ironically as pagan as Christian) and even the types of political propaganda I’ve recently commented on here and here.

For the most part, political stability and profiteering currently favours a largely credulous society. Why should anyone expect education to teach critical thought better when we have this highly productive peak?

The Future Favours Accurate Information

As I said above, I do not think this will always be the case. It’s conceivable that such a critically sceptical and better educated society would be more productive, with the extra kicker of being so without an incessant call for growth. However, to move out of this current peak and to one more humane and better educated, we would first need to correct many disparities. That, I believe, is the key.

In such arenas of debate, it’s clear that evidence hard-won through critical evaluation will not be enough to challenge contrarians. They are immune to it for the most part and likely to be unmoveable in most cases. It’s a dead horse of a debate and I think, while we must continue to share this hard-won knowledge of the known universe, we need to tackle such debates in a different fashion – perhaps evaluating their evidence base, on its own right, without comparison to information discovered via science may be helpful. Teach them to be critically minded by taking their evidence into a serious review.

At the same time, greater focus on disparity is essential. It isn’t enough to work in ejecting outdated ideas from the pool. This needs to be complimented by additional ideas to replace the old ones. In many cases, new ideas alone can be enough to overtake old ones if their expression is dominant to the opposing ideas. Look at the heavy handed ideologies of the dark ages. They were horrible and did great harm to generations, but were ultimately weak when critically reviewed (hence all the executions). Eventually word got out about the challenging and more accurate idea and the dark ages were dead.

Living within the information age, the word is always out and while it may not always seem it, more accurate information is eventually dominant because it simply cannot be broken. Gravity can’t be undone no matter how much one may want it to be a miraculous inspiration. CO2 plays an important role as a greenhouse gas in our atmosphere regardless how much one may wish it to ignore passing longwave radiation. Homeopathy simply doesn’t have any active ingredients (which, in many cases, is a good thing because of the poisons suggested to be within them). The story of smallpox and the clinically proven very low risks involved with vaccination stand stubbornly in the face of the committed sceptics. One can throw a blanket over accurate information, but that will erode in time, not the information.

While there remains valid reason to lament and a constant need to transmit increasingly accurate information, the short term goals are not the same as the long term goals. Hoping committed sceptics will accept their standpoint is evidence-deprived in the face of overwhelming contrary evidence is a pipedream. It won’t happen. Equally, while we live at a point in time when “other ways of knowing” is a serious argument against scientific methodology (arguably Sam Harris built the final bridge between science and morality), we are many generations way from widespread critical scepticism. However, the path isn’t entirely invisible and we know enough about ourselves and our ideas to paved the way forward.

We shouldn’t stop at the lament.

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 *I had to make the point here, seeing as there are groups whom call themselves “sceptics”, that by critical scepticism I mean to actually take the time to learn and understand the topic, evaluate the evidence professionally and if it’s found to be strong, write as much and if not, write as much – preferably within a peer-review process (ie. peers = professionals within the field) to have this new thought critically reviewed. This is a process that refines and improves our knowledge base, as a species, of the known universe and is incredibly powerful and useful to us.

What these self-proclaimed “sceptics”, or as I prefer, committed sceptics, offer is instead a rejection of ideas they feel cannot be correct. They do this without being able to, or without taking the time to, critically review and provide valid and condemning evidence to refute the standing approximation of the truth. This breed of scepticism is validated instead on anecdotal evidence or conspiracy (eg. “the experts are stealing our money”, “the truth is being suppressed by the status quo” etc).

Most people who know me know how much I detest the anti-vaccination nonsense and all those junk science books claiming to hold the truths that medical science either ignores or conspires to keep us from knowing, so it’s always good when an excellent science journalist, like Peter Hadfield puts together a great like this!

Work of the Moth