Uncommon Sense

May 16, 2023

Attackers to the Right of Me, Attackers to the Left of Me (Science)

There are widespread attacks on science going on stretching from bizarre conspiracy theories along with legitimate philosophic enquiries.

Some philosophers have questioned science because science has not established where physical laws come from. Sean Carroll, a science popularizer, responded with “Why do the laws of physics take the form they do? It sounds like a reasonable question, if you don’t think about it very hard.” This, of course, was attacked as an arrogant attitude. I think not. (Full Disclosure—I am a fan of Dr. Carroll’s popularizing works. Oh, and Dr. Carroll holds a university chair in the philosophy of science.)

This question is loaded with philosophical detritus. Philosophers historically were always searching for the ultimate causes of what they observed because they were looking for gods. Today we find ultimate causes and absolutes to be nonexistent in nature.

This question is basically asking why things are the way they are. Good question, for a philosophy class in which students are being taught to think by being asked questions for which no answers exist. One might as well ask “Why is God such an asshole?” for all the good it will do you.

There is also some fundamental misunderstandings about physical laws. The general public from time to time confuses them with social laws. They ask, “Well if there are laws, there must be a law giver, no?” A physical law is merely a natural behavior that is so trustworthy that no (or sometimes very few) exceptions are known to exist. It is a physical behavior we can trust and even make predictions based upon them. For example, the orbit of the Moon around the Earth is fairly consistent. It does vary a little, but just a little and these variances are quite well known. As a consequence we can predict the location of the Moon in the night sky 20 years or even 200 years from now with accuracy. And sending spaceships to Mars requires us to have it attempting to land where the planet will be after the months it takes for the ship to travel there, not where it happens to be now.

So, why do these physical regularities exist? This is not a question that scientists ask; it is a question that Philosophers of Science ask, however. So, not knowing the source of physical laws is not a failing of science, it is a failing of the philosophy of science.

Scientists are criticized for having the attitude that when science provides no answer to a question, there is no reason to believe that any answer is possible or even necessary. This criticism is stupid, in the extreme. Here are some reasons science hasn’t answered a question (yet):
a. no one has tried to answer the question
b. the funding needed to answer the question is not available
c. the technology needed to answer the question hasn’t been invented yet
d. the question is not a scientific one (that is about the behaviors of nature)
e. the question is incoherent
f. etc.

And whether an answer is possible can only be answered by trying to answer the question over and over and over, and failing over and over and over, but then the question of possibility has still not been answered because some new technology might be invented enabling the question to be answered. This is why the criticism “well, science can’t answer that question, now can it?” in incoherent because all questions are open. Because of this all scientific answers are provisional because we do not know what data will be discovered in the future.

There are no absolutes in science . . . but there are some very good bets. For example, if you want to bet me the Sun will not come up tomorrow, I will empty my bank accounts to take that bet. There is no physical law ensuring the Sun will come up tomorrow (We’ll call it the Annie Law: The Sun will comer up tomorrow!) but it has every day for millions of years and so the odds are very much that it will tomorrow, also.

Finally science has been criticized for not having the answers to the “Big Questions,” like: “Why is there something rather than nothing?” This is not a Big Question in the first place, but it is prominent in philosophy circles because they have no answer. Please note that if there were nothing, the question could not exist because there would be no one to ask it. This question can only arise in universes that are made of somethings. So, the question is moot. But, there are some hints we are garnering from Nature that “nothing” does not exist. So, one possible answer is that “nothing” is impossible. This is another absolute so favored by philosophers and churchmen.

Other stupid questions like “Where did the universe come from?” show the ignorance of the asker. The universe is everything. It can’t come from some other place without there being a section of the universe walled off from us it could some from. And, if it did exist then it would be part of the universe and the question would still be unanswered.

One of my favorites is “What is our purpose, what are we doing here?” Who said we have a purpose? Again, these are god-believers who desperately want such things to exist, all evidence to the contrary. Purposes are things we invent, for ourselves, that give direction to our efforts. They come from within; stop looking for them from without.

May 14, 2023

A Little More on Scientism (In Which I Do Repeat Myself a Little)

The term scientism is still being defined as the list of definitions below shows:

Scientism is the opinion that science and the scientific method are the best or only way to render truth about the world and reality.

Scientism is methods and attitudes typical of or attributed to the natural scientist.

Roughly, Scientism is the view that the hard sciences—like chemistry, biology, physics, astronomy—provide the only genuine knowledge of reality.

Scientism is the idea that all forms of intellectual inquiry must conform to the model(s) of science in order to be rational.

Scientism is an exaggerated trust in the efficacy of the methods of natural science applied to all areas of investigation (as in philosophy, the social sciences, and the humanities).

Scientism is a way of thinking or expressing ideas that is considered to be typical of scientists.

Scientism is the broad-based belief that the assumptions and methods of research of the physical and natural sciences are equally appropriate (or even essential) to all other disciplines, including philosophy, the humanities and the social sciences. It is based on the belief that natural science has authority over all other interpretations of life, and that the methods of natural science form the only proper elements in any philosophical (or other) inquiry.

(Note—Some sources list more than one of these as the definition of the term. Which is surprising because the term has been around for quite some time.)

This “idea” is something philosophers debate based, I presume, upon the arrogance displayed by a small minority of scientists. Scientists in general choose to limit their investigations to the material world and claim that their methods seem to be the most successful approach to studies of the material world. They, in general, do not claim that science is the only valid way to acquire knowledge . . . it might be, but that is not something most scientists claim. We do claim that science it’s the most successful approach to acquiring knowledge of the material universe.

This whole idea is a misguided intersection between a couple of trends. The very visible successes of the natural sciences have led various other academic pursuits to take on the trappings of science themselves to share a little of the glory, as it were. I have commented that during my duration in academia, departments formerly labeled “Social Studies” became departments of the Social Sciences;” economics was a liberal arts course, but more recently has required the passing of calculus courses to gain a degree and the term “the economic sciences” is often muttered. And while “Politics” was a study in and of itself, that study is now referred to as Political Science.

Is this because they have adopted scientific methodology in their researches? They say they have, but they have not. The primary investigative tool in “political science,” for example, is the poll or survey of attitudes. Have you have heard of a biologist or chemist or physicist using a poll to gather new data? I think not. Using math and computers to study questionnaire responses doesn’t make a study scientific.

The natural sciences have a feature none of the co-called social sciences have and that is a neutral arbiter of all conjectures. Nature has a way of say “Oh, no you don’t!” when scientists go off the rails. Nature always has the final say on all natural science questions. The rub is getting her to answer our questions.

Now, I do not contend that scientists cannot be arrogant, they are just like every other subset of human beings. And, I freely admit, scientists have much better technical skills than social skills and so may commit faux pas at a higher rate than other groups. So scientists can come off as being a tad more arrogant than other groups. But, in addition, scientists are viewed as being overeducated eggheads by many and it is easy to attribute arrogance to such individuals, whether it exists or not. What we scientists actually claim is that when studying the material universe, science is the most successful approach ever concocted. We do not claim that science is the only way to extract knowledge from nature, but we firmly believe (and yes, it is a belief) that before you can start blathering on about “other ways of knowing” you need to exhaust science as a mode of information extraction and find it wanting before picking up those threads.

The problem with “other ways of knowing” is that they are interwoven with what we know of as our only way of knowing so far. For example, some consider sensory information as an “other way of knowing.” Our senses involve biological interfaces with nature that result in signals sent to our brains which are there interpreted. You do this. I do this. But neither of us can experience the other doing it. It is personal. Your brain doesn’t share information with my brain and vice-versa.

As to the hypothetical parapsychological ways of knowing, good luck with those. I find them very attractive . . . fictions.

So, why are philosophers finding this somewhat obscure older term, scientism, worth discussing now? I suggest that there is and always has been a firm streak of anti-intellectualism in this country. The Flat Earthers, anti-vaccination folk, climate change deniers, etc. have been with us for the entirety of our existence as a country. (The anti-vaxxers were prevalent in the Revolutionary War era. Washington was trying to get his troops vaccinated against smallpox and the anti-vaxxers were decrying the process as opposing God’s will.) Currently, very rich business interests have found it profitable to stoke the furnaces of their ire, so anti-scientific attitudes are increasingly common. Discussing that effort could be fruitful, but discussing “scientism,” especially defined as the arrogant attitude that “ all forms of intellectual inquiry must conform to the model(s) of science in order to be rational” supports a particular political ideology, one that doesn’t want public science putting any restrictions on making obscene amounts of money doing what no one actually wants.

April 13, 2023

Wow! Free Education!

Filed under: Education,History,Religion — Steve Ruis @ 1:18 pm
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A commercial for Hillsdale College has been popping up on my TV screen of late. They are offering a free online college course, The Constitution 101. Their glassy  advert lays a foundation for this gift in the claim that we are more polarized than ever before and that a return to “constitutional values,” might save us a great deal of grief.

Hmm, I thought, Hillsdale College. My memory tells me it is a small, Christian, private college, so I went looking for more information. The Internet states that:

Hillsdale College is a Christian school with an earnest and vibrant spiritual life. The College has always welcomed anyone to study here regardless of their faith tradition. For that reason, we do not have an institutional statement of faith to which all students must submit, nor do we have a required chapel service.

Wikipedia states that:

Hillsdale College is a private conservative Christian liberal arts college in Hillsdale, Michigan. It was founded in 1844 by members of the Free Will Baptists. Its mission statement says that liberal arts curriculum is based on Western heritage as a product of Greco-Roman culture and Christian tradition. Their website states that they are open to all students regardless of sex, race, or whatever.

Their demographics reinforce their stated goal, at least for students able to afford the $30,042 annual tuition and fees.

Anyway, the advert was slick . . . but it was a bit telling. All of the faces shown were white. All of the voices were white. All of the names mentioned were white. So, their message was at least subliminally targeting white folks.

Next, I looked up the course on offer and got this from their Website:

Learn the meaning of the Constitution and the principles of American government in this new version of Hillsdale’s most popular course.
The United States Constitution was designed to secure the natural rights proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence. Signed by Constitutional Convention delegates on September 17, 1787—Constitution Day—it was ratified by the American people and remains the most enduring and successful constitution in history.
In this twelve-lecture course, students will examine the political theory of the American Founding and subsequent challenges to that theory throughout American history. Topics covered in this course include: the natural rights theory of the Founding, the meaning of the Declaration and the Constitution, the crisis of the Civil War, the Progressive rejection of the Founding, and the nature and form of modern liberalism.
Join more than one million Americans who have taken “Constitution 101: The Meaning and History of the Constitution” by enrolling in this free online course today!

In this blurb, a couple of things stood out. First, the “natural rights theory of the Founding.” The other was “the Progressive rejection of the Founding,” and the third “the nature and form of modern liberalism.”

Natural Rights Theory of the Founding
Natural rights, possibly oversimplified, refers to rights imbued by nature, just for being human. So, this was a bit of a surprise when I thought they would be pounding the drum for “Judeo-Christian Principles” being the foundation of the Constitution. Natural Rights are not “god-given rights,” at least not unless you are Catholic. The Catholics look to Thomas Aquinas (surprise, surprise) for the argument “the light of reason is placed by nature [and thus by God] in every man to guide him in his acts.” So, for Catholics, rights bestowed by nature are god-given rights, and since Hillsdale College is a generic Christian college, maybe this is the approach they are taking.

The Progressive Rejection of the Founding
This claim is often based upon the small-government v. big government debate. Progressives, they claim, attempted to modify the Constitution’s structure of government and to expand the national government’s powers far beyond the framework created by the Founders.

This is nonsense, of course, as the Founders didn’t state any of the ways the government was to express its powers. So, for example, the government was empowered to impose tariffs. The Constitution does not state whether it should set tariffs high or low, use them to raise revenue, or just to protect American industry.

Progressives didn’t reject the principles of the Founders, in fact they embraced them. The Founders were very cognizant of not wanting to hog tie future generations and so allowed for modifications as time went on. Even Jefferson, the primary force behind the small federal government approach, argued that laws and institutions should progress with changing economic and social circumstances.

This claim is typically made by “small federal government” advocates.

The Nature and Form of Modern Liberalism
And, what has this to do with the Constitution?

According to Wikipedia:

Modern liberalism in the United States, often simply referred to in the United States as liberalism, is a form of social liberalism found in American politics. It combines ideas of civil liberty and equality with support for social justice and a well-regulated mixed economy. Modern liberalism generally opposes the interests of corporations, opposes cuts to the social safety net, and supports a role for government in reducing inequality, increasing diversity, providing education, ensuring access to healthcare, regulating economic activity, and protecting the natural environment This form of liberalism took shape in the 20th century as the voting franchise and other civil rights were extended to a larger class of citizens, most notably among African Americans and women.

I know, terrible, isn’t it.

I am not taking the time to take this twelve-part course, but if one of you do, I would appreciate your take on it. I would be shocked if “Judeo-Christian values” didn’t come up, and “a preference for small government.”

March 31, 2023

Scientific Suppositions

Filed under: Education,Reason,Science — Steve Ruis @ 10:04 am
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I am puzzled at how many questions pop up on the Quora question and answer site about electron orbits in atoms. According to basic physics such orbits cannot exit, but apparently we are still teaching students that they do, in fact we are indoctrinating them with this sacred knowledge. I remember seeing a grade school “science” project in which students dyed some cotton balls various colors and then glued them to a piece of paper with concentric circles drawn upon them. Nothing, absolutely nothing, about this exercise is correct. But it does inculcate the idea in little minds that electrons (whatever they are) orbit around a nucleus, whatever it is.

There are so many mistakes, bad assumptions, etc. made in the development of early atom models it is no wonder that the quantum theory of the atom, what the quantum theory in general is based upon, is completely not understandable.

Allow me to step you though the development of these theories. Here are the years of discovery of the main characters:

The electron was discovered through a intense investigation of radioactivity. Radioactive substances were shown to emit three types of radiation (things that radiate outward from a point): alpha, beta, and gamma radiations. Obviously they knew little of what these things were because they labeled them a, b, and c (in Greek, of course). Alpha radiation turned out to be streams of positively charged helium atoms, gamma radiation tuned out to be a form of electromagnetic radiation, and beta rays turned out to be streams of electrons. The masses of the beta particles was so small that they had to be smaller than the smallest atom (at least lighter). This created an attention storm because the electron was the first “subatomic” particle ever characterized. By subatomic it was meant, less than the size/mass of an atom. Prior to that point it was assumed that atoms were “uncuttable” (what the word atom means in Greek) and that nothing smaller could exist. Very quickly, with no evidence provided, it was conjectured that the electrons were component particles of atoms. When we finally deduced the mechanism of the emission of beta radiation we found out that the electrons were created in the process and not part of the atom prior to that point. So, electrons were not a part of the atom, at least when it came to beta decay radioactivity. But. atom models containing electrons were immediately floated. Just like today’s news organizations, everyone wanted to be first rather than correct. When the proton was discovered, in 1919 (its charge-to-mass ratio was measured in 1898 indicting it had a very high mass) once again it was “discovered” based upon a radioactive process in which protons were emitted. Again, there was no reason to assume the protons existed prior to the radioactive event, but what the heck.

In 1911 Rutherford and his assistants did the now famous gold foil experiments in which alpha particles were “fired” against super thin foils of metals (not just gold) and most went through but a tiny, tiny fraction were deflected. And even more rarely some alpha particles bounced backward. From this Rutherford concluded that all of the mass of the atoms was concentrated in a very small central core, which he called a nucleus, and that core had to be positive because the positive alpha particles bounced off rather than stuck to the gold “nuclei.” Apparently the 197 to 4 weight difference between gold atoms and alpha particles was not enough explanation for why the alpha particles bounced off. And why did anyone assume the alpha particles would stick? And if the nuclei were positive, a negative component was also needed and voilà, the electrons were given a meaning for their little lives. This was also based upon the supposition, again not proven, that the atoms were touching. If the atoms were not touching, the nuclear idea was a nonstarter.

Immediately upon the “nucleus” being discovered (not) the planetary model of the atom was promoted. (Actually this model was invented years prior (in 1903) by Hantaro Nagaoka of Japan.) But the model met immediate opposition because electrons are significantly negatively charged for such a small particle and orbiting a positively charged nucleus would cause the electrons to lose energy (all charged particles undergoing acceleration in a charge field lose energy by emitting EMR—orbits involve a particle continuously changing direction and that requires a force and an acceleration because F = ma).

Bohr worked on this problem extensively and then announced a fix. His model has electrons in circular orbits, those orbits required electrons to have fixed energies, and therefore fixed orbit diameters which were said to be “quantized.”

Now the concept of the quantum of energy had been introduced in 1900 but that merely extended the idea that matter came in bits to electromagnetic energy coming in bits, too. Bohr’s model has the electrons being somehow fixed in certain “allowed” orbits. No reason for this “quantization” of atomic electron energies was ever offered. It just worked!

Now, as to “worked,” Bohr’s model “explained” why atomic emission spectra were how they were. Atomic emission spectra are the mix of various EMR “lights” given off when an element’s atoms are heated up enough to glow, or give off light. (The example you know of is “neon lighting.”) Those spectra, when spread out, showed that only a few colors of light were emitted. Bohr explain those colors as the energies of electrons as they transitioned from one orbit to another. So, no explanation was offered why the orbits energies were so constrained or how it was that electrons could “jump” from one orbit to another. But it worked they said. Closer inspection showed that the energies of the electron orbits in hydrogen were determined from those self-same lights of hydrogen’s emission spectrum so they damn well should have matched.

Bohr’s theory should have raised all kinds of alarms, but maybe there was so much going on that nobody bit. No explanation for the orbits being allowed at all. No explanation for the energies of the atomic electrons being restricted to certain quantities. And none of it was done to preserve some semblance of normal theory. It was all just pulled out of a hat.

While Bohr’s theory has been discredited, it is still taught in schools. It is taught for reasons I approve of and that is using intellectual history as a framework. Basically, this idea led to that one and that one lead to this new one and . . . which exposes people’s thinking as new data are made available. (It also exposes our propensity to get ahead of ourselves and make mistakes.) But it seems that many student’s educations didn’t involve getting to the point of the failure of Bohr’s atom model and the things that replaced it. Parts of Bohr’s atom model are included in today’s models, even though the thing proved to be wrong. So, Bohr’s quantized orbits are gone, only to be replaced by quantized orbitals (very poor terminology) with still no reason why there should be any restriction of what an electron’s energy might be. Taken out of atoms, electrons can be made to have any energy and even to sing and dance (well, maybe not the latter, but there is no restrictions upon what energies they might have).

And people still whine about how quantum theory math works but conceptually it is incoherent. Maybe if someone could come up with a physical mechanism by which atomic electron energies could be restricted, we might make some progress, but nobody s working on that. That is old hat! There is dark matter and dark energy to pursue!

There is an old saw about not confusing the edge of the rut you are in for the horizon. In this case we are not in a rut, but have gone down a rabbit hole.

The Mistake of Objective Reality

Filed under: Education,Reason,Science — Steve Ruis @ 9:53 am
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Over at The Conversation, revelations about quantum mechanics are being made . . . not. Here is how the Science Editor introduced the topic:

Few theories are weirder than quantum mechanics, which governs the microcosmos of atoms and particles. It allows particles to be in “superpositions” of many possible states, such as being in several different places at once. But this is only when nobody’s looking. The second you observe it, the particle randomly picks a location – breaking the superposition.

Then came the article itself, which I didn’t read. I have had enough of people explaining things they clearly do not understand—“‘QBism’: quantum mechanics is not a description of objective reality – it reveals a world of genuine free will.

Too many false suppositions are made from what physical theory states in general, but it is rife in quantum mechanics. Consider the statement “It allows particles to be in ‘superpositions’ of many possible states, such as being in several different places at once.” Quantum mechanical wave functions are mathematical predictions, they aren’t real. Those superpositions are merely predictions of locations for particles which are not all that specific, they are not real positions of objects. and “The second you observe it, the particle randomly picks a location” is just plain woo woo silliness. It has nothing to do with the observer or an observation. It has to do with an interaction. Think of an action-adventure movie. The good guys are pinned down by the bad guys who are firing bullets at them. “Where are they coming from?” asks one of the good guys. “I don’t know they seem to be everywhere,” answers another of the good guys. The real hero, being very quiet up and fires his gun which is followed by the thud of a dead body hitting the floor. Now, would you presume that that bad guy was in many positions until he was shot? And then he was just in that one? This is about as silly as the so-called editorial writing QM experts providing this bilge.

It is our ability to predict which is compromised, not some mystical power of particles to be in multiple positions at the same time. And the so-called “looking” or “observing” by a human being has to involve an interaction of the quantum system with some particle. For example, we “see” by receiving light that has bounced off of the objects being seen. But particles so tiny to have QM consequences will be slammed off of their current position when hit by something like a photon. The rule of thumb is that for a ricocheting photon to be useful to observe anything, the wavelength of the photon has to be smaller, substantially so, than the diameter of the particle. But when you make photons, the smaller the wavelength the higher their energy. So, we end up trying to locate ping pong balls by firing AR-15 bullets at them and then seeing if the bullets are deflected.

So, we thought the bad guys could be anywhere but when I fired my gun I hit one, so it was right there, not any of dozens of different locations. This is closer to the reality of the situation than the idiocy above.

What was spot on was the article author’s first sentence: “It is hard to shake the intuition that there’s a real and objective physical world out there.” Don’t bother trying to “shake the intuition” of Objective Reality. It is an illusion, total imagination, human imagination.

If you think that reality is hiding out there and we just have to dig deeper to find it, you will just be disappointed. Yes, we do have discard mistaken observations/suppositions/conclusions but that just means were wrong before and we need to look again. What we will see is not a reflection of some core truth or core reality, it is just a measure of our reality.

Take for example dogs. Dogs can see only two colors and so see in duotones. So, our ability to see three colors is the real reality and dogs see only part of it, right? Wrong. Dragonflies see 16 million colors. So is their sensory information correct and our ability to see reality compromised? Only if you really, really want to believe there is a reality just outside the reach of our senses, which means you are mystic, probably a religionist, and deluded as well.

Simon and Garfield said it best: “We see what we want to see and disregard the rest.” We create our own reality, which is shared by shared experiences and through teachings.

There are no absolutes in nature, no objective morals, no objects which are perfect off in some Platonic realm. We interact with nature and whatever we learn, we use to our benefit or not.

Since that is all there is, then just keep dancing.

Postscript I just learned that about 1% of all human beings have a fourth color cone in their retinas that allow them to see 100 million colors. Do you think with that superpower they can see objective reality?

March 6, 2023

The Origins of Cancel Culture Panic

It seems as if the GOP has lost what little mind it has left over things like Drag Queen library readings and the “cancel culture.”

These distractions are in a stream of idiocies including trigger warnings and blasphemy laws. It seems that college students get as far as they have without growing a spine. They seem to want to be warned whenever a topic might disturb them emotionally or relate to personal experiences they have had, or . . . God forbid, ideas that challenge their religious beliefs because, well, I guess, God forbids.

Back when I was in college, students were a fairly passive group. But then the Student Movements began: initially, college students protested against social injustices like poverty, the unfair treatment of African Americans, and freedom of speech on college campuses. They later shifted their focus to opposing the Vietnam War, aka the anti-war movement, which greatly offended “conservations” (so much so they got revenge by preventing student loans from being discharged in bankruptcy).

So, now when a speaker is invited to a campus and holds beliefs opposed to what many students hold, students will protest and speakers engagements get “cancelled,” hence the “cancel culture.” This has expanded to hiring and firing job scenarios, political campaigns, entertainer performances, and whatnot.

Republicans especially object to “Woke cancel cultures” because they are focused upon racial and social justice issues. Republican Governor Ron DeSantis (FL) has declared his state as the place where “woke goes to die.” This is a strange position for a party which has based many nationwide political campaigns on what are called the culture wars, in which the GOP is the Russians invading everyone’s else calm states.

So, the cancel culture panic? Fostered by the egregious Fox (sic) News, this is an elevation of a trivial movement to Armageddon-like status. At the most recent CPAC meeting, Nikki Haley, a GOP presidential candidate, stated “Wokeness is a virus more dangerous than any pandemic, hands down.” (Quick, shoot it! And I will bet their “cure” will involve neither masks nor vaccines.))

Apparently, the Republicans are following in the steps of precious college students who cannot handle the emotional or intellectual stress of having their ideas challenged. And like those students, who are ignoring a major reason for going to college is to have your ideas challenged, the GOP does not want any opposition to its politics, worldview, or actions. The truly alarming thing is that they are using fascistic tools to enforce their way by canceling whole swaths of our culture. In Florida, you had better not be caught teaching Black History, of with the book “Jennifer has Two Daddies” in your school library. And whole groups of people are being denied official acknowledgement of their existence; Florida is even considering banning Democrats!

The students adopted a culture of canceling activities they didn’t agree with. The GOP has moved the dial up to 11 by cancelling whole swaths of their culture they don’t agree with.

Ah, how terms evolve.

January 26, 2023

It’s a Miracle!

This question recently came up on Quora.com, the question and answer site: “If God didn’t exist, how do atheists explain that water freezes at exactly 0°C and boil at 100°C? Seems like a proof of intelligent design. It’s a miracle!”

There should be a Dunning-Kruger Award for questions like this, but alas, there is not.

Obviously this person doesn’t know the history or logic behind thermometer design, so maybe you would like to know this too.

The alcohol thermometer (the kind with the red liquid in them) was invented in 1709 and the mercury thermometer (the ones with mercury in them) in 1714 by the same man: Daniel Gabriel Fahrenheit (1686-1736). In 1724 Fahrenheit introduced the scale he invented, which we have appropriately called the Fahrenheit Scale. This is the one commonly used in the U.S. and almost nowhere else. (The Euros often brag about how they do not use the Fahrenheit Scale, preferring to use a metric scale, but they use the Celsius Scale commonly and that is not part of the Metric System, So there!)

The scale at which pure water (at sea level air pressure) freezes at exactly 0°C and boils at exactly 100°C was invented by Anders Celsius of Sweden in 1742 and which we rightfully called the Celsius Scale. Well, not quite. Celsius actually set the boiling point at 0 and the freezing point at 100 because he was measuring “coolth” not warmth. It was his colleague, the botanist Carl Linnaeus (aka Carolus Linnaeus), who turned the numbers around. (If it was a miracle, the devil made him make it upside down first!)

Fun Facts Fahrenheit picked the rather strange numbers for the two temperatures used as references (32°F for freezing and 212°F for boiling temperatures of pure water) because he wanted the temperature of the human body to come out at 100°F. (He used a slurry of ice and a solution of ammonium chloride (aka Sal Ammoniac, which sounds like a character in West Side Story) for his zero point as he felt no lower temperature would be encountered. In other words that was the coldest mix he could create.) He thought this would make the lives of nurses taking body temperatures easier. Not only was his measurement of human body temperature off but we then fixated on an internal body temperature of 98.6°F as being “normal.” Many people still believe this erroneous fact. In reality “normal” body temperature can fall within a wide range, from 97°F to 99°F and varies daily! It’s usually lower in the morning and goes up during the day. It peaks in the late afternoon or evening, sometimes by as much as 1 or 2 degrees over the morning temperature.

The myth of the “normal” 98.6°F standard dates to the mid-1800s. German doctor Carl Wunderlich measured the armpit temperatures of about 25,000 people and came up with an average of 98.6°F. Newer research suggests that the number has since gone down. In a recent review, scientists looked at temperature records from three periods between 1860 and 2017. The average oral temperature slowly fell by about 1 degree to 97.5°F. My pet theory is based on what people would a nineteenth century doctor have to test, probably sick people, who would be expected to have elevated temperatures. So the average temperature didn’t drop, we just get a better selection of “normal” people to test.

January 12, 2023

A Complete Misunderstanding of Religion

In a post on Medium.com, an author who calls himself “B,” stated the following:

Religion Viewed from a purely rational (mental) perspective religion makes no sense. In fact it is full of self-contradicting claims. This view however leads to a complete misunderstanding of religion, downplaying its role in human existence. Viewed through a Mythic lens though, it provides a moral compass and hope in a incomprehensibly complex world cursed with a dismal outlook for its participants.

The part I wish to address is the latter half, namely “This view however leads to a complete misunderstanding of religion, downplaying its role in human existence. Viewed through a Mythic lens though, it provides a moral compass and hope in a incomprehensibly complex world cursed with a dismal outlook for its participants.”

I have heard this argument numerous times before. And I will comment focused on Christianity as that is the religion I know the most about.

This “moral compass” referred to here has some aspect of truth to it in that religions address ethical issues as part of their regular programming. If that is considered against an alternative in which there were no discussion of ethical issues, it might be considered a positive thing. But if you look at the raising of children, we harp on ethical issues that have nothing to do with religion. Children are taught to share food and toys, clean up after themselves, and how to live “a balanced life” of work, play, and learning. Children are taught to not hit or bite other children or abuse pets, and much more, of course. This is done primarily by parents and by kindergarten and grade school teachers. Children are not threatened with Hellfire for their errors of judgment (actually some are and that is child abuse in my book), and none of the usual adult Christian “sticks” (of carrots and sticks fame) are employed either.

If one searches the Holy Bible for ethical/moral lessons one finds truly profound lessons and absolute horror stories (parents killing their own children to “honor” their god, fathers offering up his daughters to be raped by a crowd to protect “angels,” etc.). At best it is a moral wash. At worst it is a field manual for controlling populations by elites.

As to the latter half of my focus, “hope in a incomprehensibly complex world cursed with a dismal outlook for its participants” as an atheist I have never found life to be a dismal prospect. And complex? Who cares? When I need to travel by city trains, the system is incredibly complex. But I can consult the Internet which simplifies it for me and helps me navigate that system. There are many other complex systems embedded in a large modern city, like Chicago where I live, but I pay no heed to those that do not affect me now. So “incomprehensibly complex”? Taken as a whole, yes, broken down into manageable bits, no. Most people seem to navigate life’s complexities with some aplomb. And, yes, I know that a great many people live precarious lives, where life and death decisions get made daily. And their religions protect them how? Actually their religion may make them a target of spiritual warriors from other religions.

As to hope, uh, does he mean hope for a life unending? That promise is clearly a false hope. Ask yourself, if someone claims you can live forever, but then tells you that you need to die first, isn’t there a bit of a sniff of a scam? Especially when, after your death, you are not resurrected as an immortal being your “Earthly remains” are placed in the ground to rot. Of what help to anyone are false hopes? I consider them cruel and inhumane. And false hopes have real consequences. The promise, hope, of never-ending life, encourages people to devalue their lives as they know them, instead longing for the “hereafter.” Whether one lives forever, after dying, or not, wasting the life one has yearning for the afterlife is a major mistake, especially when the living conditions of the “afterlife” aren’t explicitly stated.

A “complete misunderstanding of religion”? I don’t think so. If religion provides ambiguous moral/ethical lessons, and false hopes, I can’t imagine finding better alternatives cannot easily be found. For example, if we were to invest as much energy in studying philosophy as we invest in our religions, we would be much better off.

December 6, 2022

An Easy Task?

Filed under: Culture,Education — Steve Ruis @ 9:34 am
Tags: , , ,

The teacher, an evangelical Christian, was requested by the student and the student’s parents to use they/them pronouns instead of he/him. This isn’t a difficult request, and basically amounts to asking the teacher to show basic respect to the student by using a different word to address them.” (Kaylin Hamilton on Quora).

The kerfuffle, in Britain, was over a teacher refusing to use a student’s “preferred pronouns.” My reaction is to the characterization of the request as being “. . . not a difficult request.” But “they/them” are plurals and the child was singular, so you are asking the teacher to experience cognitive dissonance. (Also, as a teacher myself, I know that seeing student’s misspellings over and over led to my struggling spelling those words. Teaching goes both ways.)

Consider this: I remember a semester in which I had over 100 students. I struggled mightily learning their names, and then they were gone as the course was one semester in length and those students were replaced by another crop.

Before this was a thing, no one asked for their own set of pronouns that I knew of. But now it is all the rage. Why? Who cares? My priorities were in learning student’s names and correctly pronouncing their names. I remember reading a roll the first day of class and came up against a Vietnamese name I had learned to pronounce correctly. I read his name and he responded with raising his hand. I followed up with “Did I pronounce that right?” and he said “yes.” Then, for some reason I asked “Do many of your teachers get that right? And he said “You are the first.” I offered my best wishes that people learned and learned quickly how to pronounce names that they hadn’t seen before. (This was shortly after the end of the Viet Nam War and we had a large number of Vietnamese families coming to the west coast whereas before they were very few.)

So, learn their names and learn the correct pronunciations. Check. If just one person wanted special pronouns, I might have been able to pull that off, or even two or three. (And, boy if it were just a few, trust me, they would have been tagging themselves as being “special,” or “precious,” or “stupid.”) But if all of the students had a list of pronouns they wanted used, I would have failed at that task. I guess I would just have to refer to them by name, over and over and over.

Pronouns are supposed to be general, so they can be used as shortcuts to communication. For example, consider this sentence: “When James spoke, I wasn’t sure that he was speaking or he was mumbling.” And without the pronouns, “When James spoke, I wasn’t sure that James was speaking or James was mumbling.” It works, not too bad. But what if his name were Subrahmanyan or her name Rhoshandiatellyneshiaunneveshenk? (And, yes, those are real names.)

Why are pronouns so important now? Is it part of our general trend to feeling self important? I have lived long enough that way back when, people insisted on being addressed with their title, e.g. Doctor So-and-so. This was a matter of respect, according to them. Of course that got carried too far. In Germany, I remember wives being called things like Frau Herr Doktor Schmidt or whatever, that is Mrs. Important Doctor Man.

I wonder who is training these young people in these new practices? OMG, could the bullshit claims of “grooming camps” be real? Quick call Fox News!

December 3, 2022

Science and Truth

I was reading a work of philosophy and the author objected to the categories of writing: fiction and nonfiction, in that “fiction” implied imaginary and so not true and non-fiction implies fact-based and therefore true. He had many interesting things to say, but they were mostly based upon this false interpretation.

When I read a work of non-fiction, I accept that the author tried to get the facts straight but I know how bleeding hard that is, so I don’t expect it to be 100% “factual” and certainly not a “true account” whatever that is. Writers of fiction often display more insight into things like the human condition than “fact-based” writers. When I read a work of fiction, I don’t expect it to be fact-based, so if a dragon shows up, I am okay with that. The two categories say something about how the authors went about creating their work, but nothing whatsoever about their veracity.

The problem here is with the word “truth.”

Truths are absolutes, and therefore, as far as I am concerned, they are mythical. I have written about absolutes before, so I won’t dwell on that topic, just to say they are extensions of things we see beyond any evidence for their existence.

I have often read that science cannot discover “the truth,” often by religious apologists, and this is obviously true as a statement. Science, in fact, is not looking for truths and never pronounces things as truths. We are smarter than that because what we think might be true today can be found to be false tomorrow. This is why all scientific findings are provisional. Scientists know this as it is beaten into them, but the lay public, looking over scientists shoulders, is often disturbed when scientists change their minds. What scientists think is a virtue, adapting to new data, the public finds alarming. This is because the public believes in the existence of absolutes, like truths, and when scientists announce a “discovery” the public think it is pronouncement of a new truth.

The best thing we could do educationally is to drum this into the minds of all citizens. Scientists are looking for what might work now so that they can continue to learn things, even though those new things may contradict what they have found previously. We in science call that progress. Religionists call that heresy. The public needs to learn to distinguish their religions from scientific “reality.”

As to what is “real,” just don’t get me started.

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