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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.

In a recent post, I made the point that the power of an idea is not with the transmitter, but entirely with the receiver. The only the difference (and I mean only) between Chris Monckton and, say, the walking sign, screaming hysterically that the end is near is the audience. The message is manic, obsessive and irrational in both cases, but the audience provide validity to the former over the latter.

In truth, my efforts have been focused upon such crackpots and in doing so, I’ve given them audience. Correcting an error airs the error and, from what I have seen, does little to improve the accuracy of information. The ardent climate “sceptic” remains committed, if not entrenched, regardless of the counterfactuals provided. The truther on fluoride, vaccination or creation remain as much so as well on their pet subject.

I’ve often convinced myself that my efforts are aimed, largely, to provide not a counterweight, but an example of the approach a true sceptic should take. This is critical thinking; do not simply believe a compelling argument, but investigate the evidence to see if it supports the conclusion. Yet, I’m no longer convinced that this is useful.

In fact, it costs me a lot of my personal time, it has brought me a lot of otherwise avoidable stress and recently it has gotten worse. I don’t receive huge traffic and yet what I have created has been provocative enough to merit genuine concern in my real life.

What frustrates me the most is that none of this even attempts to critique my work. I’m happy to be wrong, just prove it. Instead the target is the writer, leaving me convinced that I must in fact be correct and the opposing individuals simple do not wish to face reality.

 The Idea of Ideas

Dawkins “meme” seems revolutionary for the same reason the notion that free will is an illusion, as debated by Harris, sits so uneasy to most. In essence, it comes back to my point about the power of ideas.

We hold no ownership of ideas. Sure, an individual may provide new insight or invent something that changes how a society functions, but in truth, they only did so because of the background conditions that lead to that resolution. This is why our ancestors scratched out rudimentary agriculture around ten thousand years ago and not the tablet computer.

Ideas develop, sometimes fuse and eventually evolve, using us as hosts all along. Ideas belong to no-one. For this reason, the transmitter is of little importance.

Personally, I am certain that I am not ideological by nature.

Even as a child, my Lutheran upbringing never sat well with me. In my adolescence, I wanted to “believe” and researched what I could of numerous faiths to no avail.

Even an ideological basis to “environmentalism” cannot be labelled on me. I became passionate largely because I detested invasive weeds. I was passionate and naïve. My environmental message has changed due to my training and increasing education on the subject rather than  becoming solidified to a single position due to mounting counterfactuals.

Faithfully Online

This is what puts me at odds online. So much of my effort has been in addressing ideological positions or critiquing claims. This effort has largely been ineffective.

For the most part, I suspect the internet is not, as YouTube’s Thunderf00t puts it; “where religion goes to die,” but in fact the very opposite. The internet is one’s personal faith booster when reality stubbornly refuses to bend to a favoured position.

This is across the board; from the free-market ideologs, to the religious or pet-theorists, to even the environmental advocate or greeny-pretender, advocating a single solution to enormous problems (eg. like those whom push feverishly for nuclear power).

The internet is where propaganda thrives. It is not unlike the early days of the printing press and the audience then too had to learn new skills to avoid being taken for a ride. Of course, it was too often after their messiah had been proven false by the relentless erosion of time.

Futher, one online tool used is ‘troll bombardment’. If you call upon enough of your audience to comment wherever, you can provide a false impression of the general position. Again, the ability to critically analyse the material provided and then to critique such comments exposes such a hoax.

Yet, all of this typically falls on deaf ears or finds hostile and irrational knee-jerking from the faithful to a given position.

Unfaithful and Weary Writing From Here On

At this point, I’m not certain of the future of my writing online. Within the last couple days this has ebbed from outright shut down to where I currently sit.

This position comes back to ideas. Until the committed climate sceptic, anti-fluorider, anti-vax or creationist provides compelling scientific arguments, I will not report on it. The ideas I have tended to report on have been lousy and a waste of effort. Does one still need to argue that the earth is round or would such be a waste of effort? Likewise must similarly be said for all bad ideas.

I will focus on critical thinking, but I’ll find more productive avenues than relying upon examples from the various ideologs.

I will also return to discussing new science as it comes my way. The best way forth is forward and writing so much on backwards thinkers is simply not worth it.

Political posts will most likely completely disappear. I have no confidence in the Australian government and am reaching the conclusion that it has given up on the people in favour of undemocratic business interests and we are all worse off for it. Yet, the negative reaction to my writing here seems to be the greatest and is simply not worth pursuit.

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 have been a student or employee of a few universities now and one thing I noticed they all share is a proliferation of proud posters, website “ads” and statements of their successes in progressive work.

As far as I can tell, this ought to be their primary position. Anything else would be squandering their unique assortment of resources.

Universities and colleges can be places comprising thousands of staff and students focused on enhancing our understanding of the natural world, human health and social justice. They often take up large plots of land and require large quantities of resources (especially water and electricity). They can also be large sources of pollution and chemical use (eg. waste, various gases, radiation, etc).

If they are not asking themselves, ‘How could we be more efficient in the use of X?’ or ‘How could we reduce the waste of Y?’ well they are not making use of the cluster of thinkers and doers at their disposal. Likewise, if they are not asking themselves, ‘How can we improve well-being within a community?’ and applying various social experiments within their (often vast) community (or subsets within their community), well, again they are missing a unique opportunity.

Too often we cry that the government should do something about problem B, however – and this touches on the point I was making in my previous article – most often there isn’t an acceptable example of the contrary locally. Take, for instance, old growth forest loss or the recent noise around the carbon tax in Australia.

In the former, what are the alternatives? White Australia is heavily culturally coupled to logging as it is the sheep industry (which too is unsustainable). Examples of countries that do otherwise are countries that live different with different cultural values. Look at Japan for instance. The protection of their woodlands does relate strongly to other cultural options – such as limited (if at all) land meat production and much higher urban density to that “expected” within white Australian culture. Germany is another country with a strong focus woodland protection and even though it is, like white Australian culture, western European, it is still a different way of life to ours and the two hundred years of ‘a sunburnt country’ mentality.

Likewise the carbon tax plays on a fear that our politicians are relentlessly screaming wolf about; it’ll ruin the economy. This is very much a cultural value. Most people in Australia hold the right to free enterprise as one of the highest virtues. We’re probably not unlike our counterparts in the US in that we praise the success of others who were able to secure a large chunk of wealth for themselves. Look at Clive Palmer and Gina Rinehart. Both are, in general, viewed as “go-getters” (although, this is far from universal).

The carbon tax is seen as an attack on this cultural value (as is the mining tax, and the goods and services tax etc). A “big fat tax on everyone”, as Abbott drilled into the public is an affront to a prime cultural value held by most Australians. So foreign is the contrary position, it may feel that it’s not unlikely one would hear comparisons to socialism or communism. Fears of an Orwellian state run rampant.

Yet, within our own communities, we have large sub-communities, with a large amount of assorted resources and a drive for knowledge. From these communities, we could (or should) have a playground for testing local cultural values, under the guise of resource management and social well-being (that is to say, improvement in these fields would be the quest). The medical schools already do this – so why is it too much to expect third year or post-grad students to be asking questions like, ‘How can we make the campus more biophilic?’ or ‘How can we lead to lower stress and improved learning rates within the students?’ or ‘What can be done to manage X resource more efficiently within the campus?’

Such answers could be profound as it would not be restricted simply to factual answers, but also within a cultural context. It could be thus more easily applied within the wider community than, say, expecting Australians to adopt practices from abroad simply because they are more efficient.

The one thing to be wary of however, is the potential grounds for xenophobia that is created if we put too much emphasis in culture. Again, I feel that tertiary education provides a good tool. They are, in Australia, multicultural communities. Posing questions and developing answers within this sub-group could reflect Australia, as a whole, and thus present answers to a wide range of problems – within that cultural context discussed above.

I started this article by saying that, from what I’ve witnessed, universities are doing this and proudly sharing this fact via various media. I would like to see more of it – especially aimed at student project development and across a wider scope than I am aware of occurring so far.

It would also be useful for the students of natural science as it would give their studies a social aspect that is sometimes lacking (not always, as I am aware with the natural resource management components of my own degree) and hopefully an awareness of the impacts their future careers could have on politics and their local communities. It could also provide an avenue for learning science communication to such students. Most importantly, it would help to couple facts, or at least greater certainty, to cultural values that could be more readily applied to the greater community beyond the campus boundary.

Today, in the latest publication of Nature, I stumbled upon the article, Climate Science: Time to raft up, by Chris Rapley.

We are naturally good at finding patterns – perhaps too much so – and I found it interesting that I stumbled upon this article just after reading Sam Harris’s The Moral Landscape and at a point where I was ready to return to my online writing, but not knowing where to start.

I was drained from my previous efforts in science communication and welcomed all the activities that have, over the previous twelve months, kept me away (or, at best, mere status updates).

I have avoided the arena of climate change debate, for it seems in some ways doomed to the course of the evolution “debate”. So what was I to write about?

Both of the mentioned material are worth reading. However, I have to disagree with aspects of Rapley’s article.

On climate science advocacy, Rapley writes;

“There are dangers. To stray into policy-advocacy or activism is to step beyond the domain of science, and risks undermining legitimacy through the perception — or reality — of a loss of impartiality.

“However, as Sarewitz6 has pointed out, scientists carry authority “in advocating for one particular fact-based interpretation of the world over another”. So acting as a ‘science arbiter’ — explaining the evidence and contesting misinterpretations — is part of the day job.”

However, I feel this has been part of the problem with science communication on climate change and perhaps other topics such as evolution.

Later, Rapley goes on to write;

“The climate-dismissive think tanks and organizations have been effective because they have understood and put into practice the insights of social science. They deliver simple messages that are crafted to agree with specific value sets and world views. Their flow of commentary is persistent, consistent and backed up with material that provides deeper arguments.”

And:

“Regarding the vast body of evidence on which all climate scientists agree, we need to offer a narrative that is persistent, consistent and underpinned by compelling background material.”

But previously, he wrote;

“We need to respond to questions that go beyond facts, such as ‘What does this mean for me?’ and ‘What are our options?’.”

The article is right in many ways in my view, but Rapley is too tentative and maybe, in light of the previous when compared to the others, contradictory.

In chapter three of The Moral Landscape, Harris talks about belief. Rapley does in fact (under the subheading, Why don’t we get it?) talk about very much the same thing.

Belief, that is, the acceptance of certain evidence to be true, is not so strongly based on rational verification as we would like to think it to be. We’re not calculators after all. Belief derives from shared values that in turn derive from different factors, such as social norms, genes etc. We are far more likely to accept evidence presented when it confirms our already held values / the social norms of our community than those that challenge those values.

Sam Harris, in a presentation on Death and present moment, puts it in no uncertain terms (about 13 mins in);

“When we’re arguing about teaching evolution in the schools, I would argue that we’re really arguing about death. It seems to me the only reason why any religious person cares about evolution, is because if their holy books are wrong about our origins, they are very likely wrong about our destiny after death.”

Evolution thus challenges more than one idea (ie. that we were divinely created in recent millennia in our current form), but rather an entire outlook on life and a total way of living, not simply for the individual, but also the social group with which they associate themselves with. The wealth of evidence supporting the theory of evolution is simply not enough to counter such a wide scope of personally held values which are also attached to what we often mistakenly take as one, individual and isolated premise.

Likewise, I suspect the potential reality of anthropogenic climate change, based on very strong evidence, challenges a much wider scope of values that remain unaffected by rational debate over that one point (ie. whether or not our contribution to atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrate affects potential heat storage). We fail to move the “committed sceptics” because the evidence we provide challenged just one point of a wider range of related personal values.

Perhaps, for instance, it challenges the idea that a god is the sole force shaping the world and that we are incapable to such radical modifications (or that an intervening god wouldn’t allow us to harm ourselves in such a way) for certain religious individuals. Perhaps the idea challenges values associated with neo-liberal markets that ought to make us and future generations rich. Perhaps it’s something else.

Rapley was right about the success of climate-dismissive think tanks applying value to their message. He is also correct to argue that we need to go beyond facts and address questions, such as ‘What does it mean for me?’ and ‘What are our options?’ which are at their core really questions regarding a network of wider social and personal values related to the problem of anthropogenic climate change.

Maybe we need to be clearer which hat we’re wearing – that of scientific investigation or of advocacy – or, as Dana Nuccitelli once mentioned in a comment thread (that, if I can locate, I will link to), we should apply a “Gish gallop” approach, the favourite approach, successfully applied by Christopher Monckton in debate, because, unlike with Monckton, when reviewed, the evidence will support the statements we’ve made.*

I tend to agree with Dana’s idea as it allows more value based discussion intertwined with the evidence. You can say what the evidence supports and swiftly move into its personal and social ramifications. This latter arena does truly need debate.

We have done all that can be done to explain the science of climate change and there are many excellent reference sites to which people can venture if they so decide. What we need to talk about are the value question as it is the answers to these that will define who we will become and how our society will look and function.

It’s understandable that people would be uncomfortable with such unknowns. We need to be part of a community with shared values to feel content. In the “debate” over climate change, we hear predictions of how the future might look and how foolish “deniers” are for not understanding science proven over a 150 years ago.

This isn’t only counter-productive, it also dehumanises the issue completely. The global climate has changed many times before without human influence or consequence. This time it is personal. We need to make our  debates and communications just as personal if we are to do the best we can for future generations.

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* To further explain the point made by Dana, by Gish gallop, Dana suggests that instead of focusing on the evidence, do as Monckton does and just fire through the evidence points and get on instead with the value enriched story, which links to the evidence first briefly mentioned. Unlike Monckton, if reviewed, no errors would be found in the points made if one is presented the evidence honestly.

It isn’t an approach favoured in scientific debate, obviously, but it is effective in public debate – science communicators seem to miss this point entirely.

I commented recently on why I believe those often referred to as “climate deniers” should more appropriately be considered “committed sceptics”. They are, after all, not denying climate changes or that there isn’t a climate at all, but rather committed to the conclusion that climate is unaffected (at least dangerously) but our actions, leaving them unquestioningly sceptical of any information that challenges that conclusion. If it were otherwise, they would take the time to learn one of the various fields of science, rigorously test the fundamental hypotheses and show, convincingly, within the proper peer-viewed scientific literature, why such conclusions that have convinced almost the entire expert community in the field of anthropogenic climate change are wrong.

Such a finding would be immensely important and the accolades would be more wondrous to the researchers involved than many that came before it. They would be global heroes whom saved us the otherwise necessary upheaval of many of our primary activities to ensure the longevity of resources and infrastructure that we owe to future generations (as was given to us).

The silence in this arena (compared to the noisy blogosphere and town hall) is telling. This breed of scepticism isn’t scientific in any nature and people like Alan Jones do a massive injustice to the name of a brilliant mind, Galileo Galilei, by using it for a completely unquestioning (at least, in a scientific sense) movement.

How such people, standing for the status quo in the face of obvious error, can use the name of someone who challenged the status quo based on obvious error can do such a thing with a straight face is beyond me. However, as I’ve covered previously, the fox indeed smells its own scent first and such people tend to make claims 180o to reality to support idea that themselves are 180o to reality.

The Spectrum of Reasoning

What I’ve come to realise is that reasoning is actually a spectrum on which we all slide upon. There are those committed sceptics on topics such as climate, evolution, vaccination, the moon landing, alien / UFO visitations whom are unmoveable regardless of contradiction. However, on the other side of this spectrum, we have other groups many science communicators also challenge.

It’s all about the “other ways of knowing”. It’s the New Age thinking.

For them, it’s not committed scepticism, but rather about a mind unbuttoned, free to explore all possibilities. For them, it’s not about holding an idea – which to everyone else it may seem to be, and is the case with the previous group – but rather holding onto the possibility. Anything short of this, to such an individual, is simply closed minded. That we can never be entirely 100% certain about most, if not all matters, this, to such an individual, means that all possibilities thus require equal consideration.

Dead in the centre of this spectrum is scientific methodology. Science demands the will to entertain any idea, but also rigorous testing, aimed not to prove the idea, but instead disprove it, to merit its validity.

You need not only the possibility of ideas, but also the cool-handed rejection of ideas that just don’t stand up to scrutiny. Equally, you don’t get by on hardcore scepticism of new or challenging ideas, because it’s clear that our intuitions have limitations. The natural universe is weirder than anything we could imagine.

New From the Credulous

It might be easy for those of us trained in science whom approach those heavy on either side of the spectrum with what looks to be an air of arrogance (whether intentional or not). We must remember however that none of us have it completely right. Each one of us were by our very nature once little people; inquisitive dreamers of all possibilities. Where we find ourselves today on that spectrum is the result of our history.

Even the very best of us at obtaining that central pivoting point have our moments. When a loved one passes away, we muse about them around us. In times of hardship, we wish or pray for assistance, guidance and/or strength. We see meaning in random events that our better training signifies as a statistical streak and nothing more.

At this point, I’m certain the committed sceptic could take the previous paragraph to confirm gullibility in those whom suggest new ideas are far more likely than previous ideas, based on strong evidence, while the unbuttoned mind would use it to confirm that “deeper understanding” is innate within us all, but trained out of us by the short-sighted and those of us that hover around the pivot point will be frustrated – even seeing this article as apologetic. The point of the matter is; we are all new from the credulous side of the spectrum, both as a species and individually.

The enlightenment refined the tools of inquiry so that we could build confidence in our assertions and as unfortunate as it may seem, each birth is a new start along the road of understanding; we are forced to learn from scratch what took a life time for others to appreciate. That both slows down the process of developing an understanding of the natural universe and demonstrates just how fragile the acquired knowledge can be; it takes great educators to ensure nothing is lost down the line.

The latter point sits behind the concerns of aging experts of any generation whom chastise “the abysmal level of education nowadays”.

The Science Communicator

I’m certain that our approach as science communicators fails to cause ripples among those heavy to either side of the spectrum because we fail to address where they are coming from. We also grow frustrated due to the same reason and condemn one group as fanatical believers to an “absolute truth” and the other as “off with the fairies”. Such attitudes and perceived arrogance does education no favours.

Instead, it may pay to put the obligation back on them to validate their reasoning.

Indeed, as Hamlet said (and quoted endlessly by some), “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

No-one knows better than a scientist just how odd and counterintuitive the natural universe is. Perhaps acknowledging and demonstrating this could capture their imagination… before pulling the conversation in with justification as to why we know such things and hold so much confidence in their validity.

Maybe take it a step further and muse their ideas following an attempt to test its validity in the same fashion. The universe would remain a weird and wonderful place, but just maybe some of your audience may shift a little closer to the pivot point; they might get why you test ideas and enjoy the genuine confidence they hold in these new assertions while maintaining their sense of wonder and majesty in the universe.

Admire the mind strict and trained to demand compelling evidence. Ask them why they believe what they believe. Ask them what it may take them to question the validity of these beliefs. I hinted at it above; get them test their ideas and your own. Work with them from the ground up. Expose them to a new form of confidence not based on simply being strongly held, but instead tested until it stands regardless what you do to it. Maybe they too may shift a little closer to the pivot point and enjoy the exploration of thought.

We are all in this together. We have reached a point that our impact on the world is far greater than that we ever gave to any god. We remove mountains. We are changing the global climate. We are causing a mass extinction event and degrading our resource base. We have an arsenal able to destroy our species along with many others.

It may be fun for some and fundamental for others to knock others down because of conflicting ideas, but it isn’t helping anyone. Especially now that we have the tool set to chisel out information in great detail and with great confidence. We need to change our approach or else we’ll still be squabbling, knee deep in salt water with little left to defend.

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).

In a room of people from a similar demographic, all with interest in necromancy, it shouldn’t take a highly empathetic individual to astutely isolate many facts about one person through what is called “cold reading”. From what I’ve heard of a blind cold reading – where the reading is done by an individual blind to the audience behind them and tells them what they are receiving from the ether – it sounds more like (and indeed appears to work as such) to be more akin to a game of “Guess Who?” played out with real people than anything mystical.

And yet devotees of such practices see such as the strongest evidence proving the validity of their faith.

If, instead, the cluster of people involved one individual from a wide range of demographics globally or individuals from a demographic that the reader had no prior experience with, I strongly doubt they could claim such accuracy. It’s far easier, for instance to “read” the mind of a dear loved one than it is a stranger. It’s easier to “read” the mind people within your local demographic than it is someone whom has lived a radically different life elsewhere. And it is far easier to “read” the mind of someone whom has lived that radically different life than it would be an individual of a different species.

The same could be said whether you’re claiming to read the mind of the individual or receiving revelations from the “other side”.

The reason for this should be obvious. It’s not mystical, but rather the evolved processes of a highly intelligent social species. We need to build models of other peoples’ minds to make predictions of their future actions for our own planning. It is not demons or angles whispering in our ear, but instead a wonderfully sophisticated organic computer we call our brain.

This objection to New Age theologies remains a perpetual throne in my side because the believers of such faiths use pseudoscience techniques for their credibility whilst openly rejecting hard won scientific evidence.

It doesn’t matter on what subject, eventually New Agers expose themselves just as any believer of old world religions does to denounce evidence that is contrary to their belief. With New Agers, it tends to be around medical science (although, I have also encountered similar in relation to environmental science, such as climate change – “Mother Earth is far more powerful than you give her credit” etc). To them, medical science wishes to pump us full of nasty chemicals that make us more sick than they heal us, when perfectly good alternatives already exist, such as; traditional Chinese medicines, crystal energy, homeopathy, aromatherapy and naturopathy.

Tim Minchin puts it best where he describes the difference between “natural therapy” and medication derived from medical science in that the difference is that the former has either not been proven to work or proven not to work. Where is has been proven to work, via the rigorous scientific methodology it becomes the latter.

My favourite example of which is the use of fats from the South American electric eel (now, synthetically produced) to help relieve the symptoms of arthritis. In fact, in many cultures, “natural remedies” have worked well and have been explored by medical science. Here’s a list of traditional remedies used in Brazil which include the electric eel.

Within science, this practice is called bio-prospecting. Where science can prove that a traditional remedy works in a statistically higher number of patients than a placebo, it then attempts to answer how?

In many cases, the compounds can be isolated through this investigation and synthetically produced – identical to the naturally derived compounds without the need for continual harvest.

A wide range of medicinal products now have resulted from natural remedies. Science is not ignorant or close-minded to alternatives. It merely wishes to understand it.

On the other hand, many natural remedies plugged by those appealing to the New Agers haven’t undergone such rigorous testing. Worse than simply being untested, many could do the user more harm than good as they can “Mother Earth”.

For instance, the illegal hunting of rhinoceros for their horns which ultimately provide exactly the same level of arousal in the consumer as that if they ate their own hair or finger nails. Many wild and fearsome creatures meet a similar fate in the pursuit of ridiculous aspirations of power and health.

On the other hand, homeopathy aims to treat patients with compounds that are in fact highly deadly. Luckily for the consumer however, it is exceedingly unlikely that even one molecule of the deadly stuff will even be in the expense bottle of snake oil. The problem here, as with the various roots and potions supplied by New Age practitioners, the evidence to back them up (as with the cold readings) is at best, anecdotal. In some cases, as with electric eel fat, there may be something of medicinal value within the compound provided. However, there are also many other harmful compounds also within the “medicine”. There’s no guarantee that the administration advice is even useful.

Alternatively, there could be nothing of medicinal value within the junk bought at high price. When the medical condition is life threatening the alarm bells for dabbling in such a murky arena should be their loudest.

But I know firsthand that they’re not. I have been told that a heart condition, resulting in a pacemaker being installed was only, should have killed the individual by now and that it was only natural therapy that kept them alive so long (excusing, quite happily, the machinery faithfully keeping the heart pumping). “Science adjusts its views based on what’s observed.
Faith is the denial of observation, so that belief can be preserved,” is yet another great quote from Tim Minchin.

The danger is that in entertaining such delusions, we simply reinforce potentially harmful belief systems. We breed scientific ignorance and confidence in circumstantial evidence in lieu of genuine data. We entertain a new dark age. This scares the hell out of me, more so for my children.

I detest the notion that there are other ways of “knowing” – knowing what exactly? Morality may have been the only real arena where science may have taken time to develop the tools for, but Sam Harris has bridged that gap.

The idea of revelation is absurd and mocks brilliant minds among the ages. The most important information that could have ever been revelled to us – as important as fire in my perspective – would have been how to make effective soap. It’s a simple recipe and has made a radical difference to human health. The documented revelations mainly based around morals which seemed to have benefited a group of people at the time and are today mostly outdated. I feel confident in stating that no revelation exists of compelling mystical conviction.

Ultimately, New Agers disappoint me. It’s clear they haven’t received a good scientific training – especially in critically reviewing information – but more than that, the necromancy depreciates the wonder of life itself. There is no reason why it should have occurred at all and that it did and eventually lead to one’s existence is at once highly unlikely and of immense value. Why on Earth waste this rare and brief chance on the eternity which is so prolific it bears no value?

It’s like sitting on the beach with a dearly loved one whom has baked a delicious cupcake and instead you would prefer to eat the sand that stretches off into the distance. They overlook the sheer wonder and beauty of life around them in some vain obsession in an elusive and most likely nonexistent “other-ness” parallel to old world religions.

Very recently, I nearly got a job.

Of course, I have no way of knowing how close the race actually was, but only that there was at least two people still in it at the last hurdle, one of which was me. The final hurdle was my first interaction with a so called “personality test”.

Being new to this, I figured I’d do a little research, leading my to such articles as, Why workplaces must resist the cult of personality testing and The right person for the job? Weeding out personality-test fakers isn’t easy. I was left more confused and in any case, what I later encountered in the test could not have been helped by any research and left me with a distinct feeling of being cheated.

At first the test tried to put the applicant at easy by giving them a doughy question with the standard answering options of “True”, “?” or “False” to assure them that there are no wrong answers. This is quite clearly nonsense because, as there may be no absolute wrong answers, in such a race there must be relative wrong answers. Anyone in such a test would have to be aware of the fact that their replies will be compared to someone else’s who is also pitching for the same position.

In the same way, there are ultimately no absolute right answers either and in the obscurity of the answering system, I would suggest the relative right answer leaves a massive margin for interpretation.

Take, for instance, one of the questions that has stuck with me due to an overwhelming sensation of unfairness; “I have broken someone’s confidence”. Of course I have. I don’t think it’s so brazen to suggest that everyone has, at one point in their life. I know I would again if I felt someone’s life was at stake or an otherwise grave injustice is done through maintaining the secret. This is all part and parcel of being a human in our complex moral mine field.

On the other hand, if a mate told me a secret shame, a love their never pursued or something else of a personal nature, I would confidently take their information to my grave.

In breaking someone’s confidence, there remain vast tracks of land behind the inapt reply of “True”. Could the applicant use personal information to undermine others for their own personal gain or, as I feel about myself, judge the content of the information between being a mate and ensuring no social wrong is being done?

Remembering here that the applicant surely knows that their reply will be judged against others and it could be the difference between landing the job or not. Not wanting to lie, but fearful of unmerited judgement in the ambiguous reply, I quickly justified “?” as “it depends”. This is of course not the design of the reply but closer to the black and white replies offered.

Likewise there were questions such as; “I prefer romantic comedies / action films” (in this case the two options replaced the “true” or “false” replies). I don’t particularly like either. I’d prefer to continue reading non-fiction (for instance, I’m chewing through Tim Beatley’s, Biophilic Cities: Integrating Nature Into Urban Design and Planning), watching a documentary or what my wife would call a “stupid male comedy” movie for some light-hearted fun. Again “?” hardly answered the question or gave them insight to my personality.

The final hurdle in my race for this great job rested on 200 such ambiguous questions and a baseless reassurance that “there are no wrong answers”. After my efforts to construct a clear indication of who I was through a strong cross-section in my references, in my detailed reply to the job description and through the two interviews, it all rested on this.

It’s hard not to feel cheated.

At the end of the day, they judged my personality on a defunct test in which I tried to answer as best I could. It would have been more reflective to simply ask me what kind of person I am.

I know I’m inclined to be introverted, but I am confident and enjoy being given the opportunity in presenting ideas to an audience. My introverted behaviour, I feel, leads me instead to observe, construct ideas and share or lead as required. Anyone who knows me know I’m very opinionated, but not dominating in a conversation.

I know I find words far more easily when I’m writing than I do in adlib discussions – people who mainly talk to me are always impressed by my writing as it has a completely different tone than my spoke English (not that it’s bad, just different). Perhaps this is one form I have yet to overcome with my dyslexia.

I know I’m more a hands on person. I love tinkering with components or machines. I enjoy 3D rendering and graphic design. I embrace opportunities to be outside, climbing, swimming or cycling.

I continually demonstrate myself to go beyond my job description; so much so that I’m respected by my peers and colleagues in the field of atmospheric chemistry and meteorological research when I started out with a bachelor degree in ecology.

I’ll never grow out of that fascination for anything and everything around me, which initially drew me to science in the first place and has allowed me to shift focuses.

I’m very much a family and friends person. There’s little I won’t do for my family and close friends. It’s a small group, to be sure, but it is my world and I do what I can to strengthen the bonds as much as I can. I have a daughter on the way and it is for her sake that I’m now restless and job seeking so that when she is born, she is surrounded by as much family as possible with her dad working hard to support his family unit.

If I had been given the chance, I could have said all of this and much more (depending if they wanted to hear it) so they could better gauge my suitability in this role than was available in the personality test.

That I’m led to the conclusion that I tripped up on this test only to watch another race on to the finish line, with me holding nothing more than a generic rejection email (no call, no feedback, nothing) leaves a bitter taste in my mouth. I don’t feel my personality shone through in this test and so they never saw how committed I am to my work, to the improvement of biodiversity and the pursuit of an acceptable standard of living for all people and most importantly, to my friends and family. The personality test didn’t even skim the surface.

I have read a lot, in the nine months of my attempting to relocate to Victoria, on job success and the whole application process and from what I’ve witnessed, employers have been utilising very dry processes to fill a role. Perhaps it works, perhaps they miss potentially great investments in candidates, who am I to know (and of course, I am bias in my own case).

Ultimately, I doubt the personality test is a useful test. If such ideas are sort, why not mix up the interview process to throw a few curve balls to see how the candidate reacts? Unlike such a test (or giving the opportunity to concisely write a little about themselves) which would lead to them trying to manufacture a reply that they feel the employer is looking for, this leads to instantaneous instinctive responses. You can tell a lot about a person in such a situation.

Ask them what they’re more proud of or what brings them most joy – outside their career. Lead them casually on a tangent and see if they head off into fairy land or attempt to direct the conversation back to the course of the discussion (which will indicate how much they really want the job and / or their ability to master the situation). There are plenty of tools that can be applied in the interview process which are far more powerful than such “personality tests”.

Work of the Moth