Sunday, 16 September 2012

Understanding Us

Last Wednesday BBC 1 aired a factual programme by the Commonwealth’s Chief Rabbi, the Right Honorable Lord Jonathan Sacks. It was entitled ‘Rosh Hashanah: Science vs Religion’.  As a result of watching this programme and after having had a number of discussions and heated arguments with people regarding the utility of science for understanding reality, I want to explore a few things about this argument in this blog post.  I am afraid it is ranty in nature.  For this, I apologise. (Update: I can no longer find programme on iPlayer- so please excuse my lack of linking)

 In the program, Lord Sacks met with three scientists to discuss whether science and religion could not only coexist peacefully on the same intellectual landscape, but whether they should strive to actively work together to understand the nature of the universe and the human condition.  As part of his investigation into whether science and religion could ever make happy bedfellows, Sacks met with ‘neuroscientist’ Baroness Susan Greenfield, ‘physicist’ Jim Al-Khalili and ‘evolutionary biologist’ Richard Dawkins.   (Their respective ‘fields’ are noted as such because they are probably all better known as science communicators rather than full-time research scientists these days. It’s not because I think they’re crap).

The scientists met with Sacks in various corners of London, including the gorgeous Royal Society building, to chat about such matters. What followed were three perfectly polite, accommodating and anodyne conversations between scientist and rabbi. Nobody came across as a bigoted pillock (heaven forbid) and the whole affair was quite civilized and British. The problem is that, while civility and politeness are very decent ways of ensuring calm and reasoned discussions, the whole exercise was frustratingly insipid. No one said anything that properly addressed the very serious and real questions of whether science and religion can both offer equally valuable solutions to the conundrums society faces today or whether they should be accorded equal respect in this case.

So I intend to delve a little deeper into some of the outcomes of the conversations in that programme. I am sure the scientists and the Chief Rabbi will be profoundly grateful for this enlightened intervention. 
I intend to rant about three specific points that were made (or at least implied) during the show, which were not given due care and attention in my arrogant opinion. My rants will ultimately lead to my assertion that science must be accorded hegemony in our quest to understand our universe.

The first question that I want to address, and indeed one of the first questions Lord Sacks asked when he went to visit Baroness Greenfield is: can science really understand human consciousness?

 As a neuroscientist, Greenfield was well placed to give an expert account of why the realm of the human mind is fully accessible to scientific investigation.  Unfortunately, this was not the case and Greenfield merely hinted that even if understanding consciousness was a fully tractable scientific problem, she was happy to accept that “science and religion could both be different sides of the same coin” when we consider how best to appreciate the intricacies of human consciousness. 

Firstly, it would be entirely reasonable to assume (and indeed essential to point out in this case) that understanding the existence of consciousness is a highly achievable goal when we rely on science alone.  However, it may not be possible to gain a full and comprehensive understanding at this particular moment in time.  Scientific breakthroughs don’t just happen when individuals have amazing insights; they also happen when breakthroughs in technology and machinery allow us to delve deeper into the universe (or any given system or phenomenon) than before.  When we can start probing at ever smaller or larger scales, or can contemplate problems with ever-greater computational complexity, we can start to understand things that were hitherto inaccessible to us. It is reasonable to assume that neuroscience will eventually benefit from such developments.  

Therefore, future advances in functional MRI combined with deeper insights into the physics of complex networks, will yield more clues to the nature of how our minds work.  When we combine these achievements with the ability to model what happens in and between neurons, and gain a fuller understanding of the evolution of consciousness in humans and other animals, we will have the eventual ability to model human consciousness and understand its nature and even its origins.   This may not happen tomorrow or even in the next ten years, but that does not mean that science won’t eventually provide us with a valuable synthesis of knowledge about the workings of the mind.

Furthermore, our understanding of consciousness in the context of the human species (rather than the ‘human creation’ made separate from animals) will hopefully go a long way to solidifying what has been patently apparent for some time- that animals have levels of consciousness, or at least similar underlying mechanisms that form the basis of conscious thought that are entirely similar to ours.  This shouldn’t come as a surprise at all given that we are animals and our evolutionary history can be charted all the way back to the last universal common ancestor of the eukaryotes (at least).   Yet, I have had arguments with people (and attended talks by eminent ‘thinkers’) where they have flat-out denied that consciousness is a tractable problem for evolutionary biology (or science in general).

That consciousness is complex and remarkably difficult to model, and that it gives rise to subjective thought and appreciation does not mean it is beyond the reach of empiricism.  Just because we currently assume that human consciousness is infinitely richer and more profound than ‘animal’ consciousness, this doesn’t mean it has to have come from somewhere other than natural selection either. 

Raymond Tallis, the “poet, cultural critic, philosopher and [ex]-physician” actually claimed during a talk of his that “something like human consciousness would never be selected for by evolution”.  Not only did this sadly demonstrate a terrible misunderstanding regarding the passivity of natural selection as a process, but also seemed to stem from an assumption that consciousness exists outside, or beyond the entirely map-able, dissectible and model-able structures of brain tissue!  If brain tissue is thoroughly accessible to scientific investigation then arguably, so is consciousness.  For this not to be true, consciousness will have to exist somewhere beyond the confines of our brains. Perhaps that’s why Paris Hilton favors such ridiculously large handbags…

 An entirely empirical understanding of the true nature of human thought and its influence on our behaviour may also have profound consequences for how we understand psychoses and other neurological conditions. It may come to influence how we punish (or rehabilitate!) psychopaths when they murder people, or how we define future crime and punishment systems in general.  It may yield remarkable and vital insights into human suffering that would provide us with a much stronger understanding of the human condition than intuition or experience can provide. Therefore, it is essential to use science to understand consciousness.  Science will provide us with a far more accurate synthesis of knowledge than insight or philosophy ever could.

  I would also argue that understanding human consciousness as a divine creation instead of a biological one will always result in us relegating our fellow non-human animals to more lowly ranks, less deserving of compassion.  This will suck for animal welfare.

The next point stems from the conversation Lord Sacks had with Jim Al-Khalili: Both happily reached the conclusion that they felt a sense of wonder at the enormity and majesty of the universe. They agreed that they really only differed in their views where Sacks questioned the underlying purpose and reason for the universe’s existence and Al-khalili professed an interest only in how it came to exist.

This is all very unsurprising, but what frustrated me was the implication that the dispassion required for doing science prohibits us from developing any sense of wonder or profundity for the world because it reduces us to impartial, observers.  Why were Sacks an Al-khalili both so determined to stress that they shared a wonder of the universe in common?  Is asking how something works less fulfilling than asking why it exists?

This notion that science somehow drains all sense of wonder from the world by reducing it to a series of ‘mere facts’ seems to demonstrate a simple inability to find those facts as interesting or fulfilling as fictions. From the intricate creation of a human life, to the majesty of love or the even the question of why we are here, that science should seek to corrode any sense of awe we might have for such things is an utter fallacy.

It is true that scientists must keep passion and hopeful intuition in check when designing experiments and analysing results. This all seems rather mundane if you take limited delight in data gathering and analysis (though some would argue that they find these pursuits positively heavenly). The careful, rigorous and objective study of reality may well reduce it to a series of facts, but why should these facts be considered paltry or disappointing in the face of a more supernatural understanding? Is love really rendered boring or unsatisfying when we study oxytocin or speak of the advantages of pair boding? Is our appreciation of the wonders of nature really predicated upon such flimsy foundations that we can’t cope when presented with the real facts about how they work?

Science may not give us angels, gods or the ability to plumb hitherto untapped depths in our psyches to reveal superpowers, but it does give us the most pragmatic and efficient tools with which to alleviate human suffering in all of its many guises.  It also provides us with a long-running narrative about the world that is far richer in its complexity and far more nuanced than anything religious texts or traditions can provide.

Any scientist with a modicum of interest in the world will assert that understanding the universe with science is awe-inspiring and provides sufficient fulfillment to be on par with the spiritual wonder of believing in an intelligent power. Science charts the clockwork steps of the celestial dance; watches the death throes of stars, probes into the very building blocks of matter and guesses at the wonders yet to be discovered beyond the visible universe. Science delves deeper, further, higher, faster and with more precision than any other method with which we strive to understand reality. Why must we look to religion to provide wonder for us when reality, un-augmented by stories and non-empirical appreciation, already does a good enough job? 

My final bugbears came from the meeting of Sacks and Dawkins.  Both spoke of the virtues of encouraging children to question assumptions about the nature of the world, whether from the perspective of the Jewish faith or from Dawkins’s favored secular stance.  Naturally Dawkins repeated his oft-spoken assertion that indoctrinating children into any belief-system for which there is no supporting evidence was tantamount to abuse. 
Sacks’s rejoinder was that providing children with a strong sense of identity and heritage is important. He argued that religious belief encourages our children to view the world within the confines of a well-structured morality and provides them with the sense of belonging and identity that they need to grow into well-rounded people.

However, this presumes that those children introduced into no faith or belief system are wandering lost in a barren wasteland of confusion and cultural isolation. It is true that children provided with a ready-made religious understanding of the world are endowed with parables, traditions and teachings that offer clearly defined moral guidance and a framework with which to understand or at least appreciate the nature of reality. Belonging to a faith, is belonging to something.  Arguably, those with no religious or strong cultural traditions to cleave to are surely all the poorer for this deficiency.

I would argue that this is nonsense.  Evolutionary biology demonstrates that there is a deep homology between the human species and all other species on the planet, regardless of whether they happen to be plant, animal, bacteria or slimemold. We are related, albeit distantly, to all other forms of life on our planet. Of course we can go further than this; Carl Sagan said that we are all made of star stuff. The atoms in us have come from the vastness of space. We are intricately woven into the very fabric of our reality, and the stuff of our bodies will continue to be part of that reality long after our minds have ceased to marvel at its wonders.  Can there really be any better or more profound heritage than this one that we all share?

Science also tells us that there are no significant genetic differences among human beings. The construct of ‘race’ is simply that, a mere construct. We are not as different from one another as we are prone to thinking. Therefore, is it not better to belong to one universal heritage were we are all of equal value than to belong to one of many smaller groups, in which our beliefs are partisan?  Is it really preferable to strive to define ourselves as separate from the rest of humanity for the sake of having a stronger, more concentrated identity? Surely this sort of tribalism or in-group vs out-group thinking is the wellspring of all sectarian violence?

I am not advocating some weird intellectual communism or a bland existence in which culture and tradition are quashed for the sake of uniformity. I am simply suggesting that were we all to understand ourselves in the way science shows us to be (connected to everything and everyone) compassion and empathy for those around us, be they human or animal would be remarkably more intuitive and sustainable. As Darwin said, ‘there is grandeur in this view of life’, far more so than the stories that any subset of humanity can come up with.

Perhaps if there had been more time, these arguments would have been raised in response to Sacks’s questions.  There is nothing wrong in entertaining views of the world that are alternative to the evidence that scientific investigation has provided.  Providing that we do not attempt to foist our intuitive beliefs upon others, we should be free to construct our own belief-systems if we wish to. However, for its shear utility, accuracy, testability and assumed ignorance, science is the best tool we have to understand our world and ourselves.  Yet science goes beyond mere understanding: the legacy left by science has afforded us the ability to improve and enhance our lives in ways that are far more profound than any human-lead religious movement.  Science is a universal leveler and a trustworthy guide since evidence reigns supreme. 

Yet science is certainly a dangerous tool as well as a useful one.  When used for evil means the applications of science can yield terrible outcomes.  But the onus is on us to ensure that we are compassionate and responsible custodians of this tool.  Perhaps religion reminds us of the need for such compassion (though it does a rather poor job of regulating its own tendencies for intolerance and destruction) but human morality is not grounded in religion alone.  We do not need organized religion to foster widespread compassion for our fellow human beings.  Compassion comes from knowing what it is to be human and knowing what it is to be human is one of the things that science is continuing to do best.

Monday, 27 August 2012

20 toxic fallacies

It occasionally saddens me and frequently annoys the hell out of me that I am subjected to most mind-rotting, intellectual pabulum in the universe on a daily basis.  I am not even constantly glued to Fox News, or the Daily Mail, or ITV, yet I am besieged with numerous occurrences of dodgy memes and cultural fallacies, which cause me no end of grumpiness.  These choice nuggets of stupidity and stereotyping get rehashed by the unimaginative writers of advert storylines, news articles, TV shows and films so that one assumption about a person/population/gender percolates into all other areas of entertainment and advertising. Eventually, it becomes so pervasive it grows into a chunk of the cultural narrative and sticks to everything like a stubborn fungal infection.
These choice nuggets of shit then worm their way into pop-psychology and even start to influence how we report scientific research about the human condition.

When I am slumped on the sofa watching the telly, or in the dentist’s waiting room reading whatever crumpled magazines I care to rifle through, these toxic fallacies can catch me off guard and take root in my own mind while my critical thinking capabilities are momentarily stymied by lethargy, apathy or images of someone’s cellulite.  Gender stereotyping in this fashion is particularly grimy and seems to be so utterly pervasive I have allowed it to wash over me and sometimes I completely miss when it is happening, suggesting that these particular fallacies have sinisterly taken root in my mind like triphids.

So, in a bid to be more mindful of toxic gender fallacies that mock my otherwise critical and rational mind on a daily basis I have listed my top 10 idiotic Weapons of Mass Assumption (WMAs) for each gender. I promise to remember these WMAs when I am next in the firing line of some badly written media that purports to entertain and inform, but actually just shits all over me.

The Girls
1)   We are all gripped by the iron fist of vanity. Honestly, we take so long to get ready you would be forgiven for thinking we had fallen asleep at our toilette.  We are a narcissistic bunch, who love our mirrors more than we love you (if you happen to be a man). Any of you (unless you’re David Gandy).
2)   We are all suckers for handbags…..
And shoes and clothes and jewelry and sparkly things and cute things and PINK THINGS and LIP GLOSS!
3)   We are all so nice to each other on the surface but we gossip and bitch behind each other’s backs.  We are two-faced. No doubt about it. That’s why it takes us so long to put make-up on. It’s a harsh existence.
4)   Our interests are limited to the contents of beauty/gossip/fashion magazines.
War in Syria? Stem cell research? The demise of Nick Clegg? Please people I am trying to read Grazia!
5)   Our bodies exist for the sexual/visual enjoyment of others.
6)   If we aren’t sex objects then we are struggling mothers or hard-nosed, selfish career women. Or WAGS. Or a pleasant mixture of all the aforementioned.
7)   We are all planning our weddings, whether engaged or not, and we are all choosing baby names for the multiple children we are going to have with men once we’ve won one.
8)   If we’re not interested in weddings/babies/baking then we are probably cynical and snobbish and not very nice.
9)   If we manage get a man to fall in love with us and change our titles to Mrs it will be the single greatest achievement of our lives until we have children. Motherhood and legally endorsed spousal attachment trump any other achievements including PhDs, feats of sporting endurance, charitable works, business ventures and Nobel prizes.  Being told we are loveable is by far the greatest award.
10)  We haven’t achieved much throughout history. No really, all those useful inventions and discoveries came from the boys because, let’s be honest, we were too busy planning weddings, having babies and choosing wallpaper to give a fuck.

The Boys
1)   You all love sport. If you don’t you’re probably gay. If you’re gay and love sport then there’s probably something wrong with you. If you’re gay or straight and love sport then you’re such a typical guy.  Can’t you have any other interests? No.
2)   You’re crap at housework.
Don’t try to deny it.  All those adverts for flash and Dettol and Febrize show your wives and mothers making the house smell nice for you, because you are crap. You don’t know how cleaning products work you tragic, dim-witted shits.
3)   You are all cynical arseholes who hate your mothers-in-law.  You are incapable of having nice chats, liking Disney films and enjoying bubble baths. Remember you are ‘men’
4)   You’d rather be down the pub with your mates.
Yes I know that sounds quite reasonable but that’s all you ever want from life. That and football. And birds.
5)   You have the emotional capacities of five year olds.
6)   You are gadget/technology/car obsessed particularly when in the throes of midlife crises. Don’t deny it! You use iPods to soothe your sexual frustrations and make your penises seem larger!
7)   You can’t handle women earning more than you or being in charge. Ah! Ssh! Nope! Stop! Just accept it.
8)   You only fancy fit birds with tiny arses and massive tits and hair extensions. If she aint got ’em out then she aint for you. You simply can't stomach normal looking women. They are sent to Earth by Satan to deflect you from your quest
9)    You are all obsessed by the size of your penises. Honestly, it is all you guys think about. War in Syria? Stem cell research? The demise of Nick Clegg? Please people you have issues here!
10)  You all need looking after. You need women to act like your mothers because you are crap at domestic chores and being emotionally self-sufficient. But you don’t want us to acknowledge this because it might bruise your fragile egos. Awww.

Monday, 2 July 2012

Why we should give up on beauty pageants

Every so often I am amazed to find coverage of a beauty pageant in the tabloids and various online news outlets.  In fact, you can pick up any newspaper, or visit any ‘news’ website and there will undoubtedly be a woman in a bikini gazing back at you who claims to be Miss England, Or Miss Great Britain, or a one-time man or, beauty of beauties, Miss Universe. 

As far as I can tell the majority of the non-participating public couldn’t give a damn about beauty pageants. They stopped being televised (in the UK at least) and any news coverage is usually limited to the Sidebar of Shame in the Daily Mail.  However, there are still thousands of young women who believe that winning a pageant, or just appearing in one could elevate them to low-level stardom. The kind of stardom that allows you to mooch about in Juicy Couture tracksuits and Ugg boots with a small dog protruding from your handbag while the paparazzi try to catch a flash of your cellulite. It seems that having your beauty recognised (if not your cellulite) is still one of the best things that can happen for the young women who are paying vast sums of money to enter and take part in these competitions.   So of course the organisers still have cash rolling in and the pageants keep on running and wrinkly, permatanned male judges still keep wanking under their judges’ tables as the parade of 20ish-old women amble by with their boobs protruding from gloriously, erotically stretched Lycra.

It seems that pageants, which claim to celebrate this beauty, are the societal equivalent of 10-year old chewing gum stuck to the underside of your desk that has the structural integrity of reinforced concrete.  It aint budging. So as it looks as though we will be unable to slough the beauty pageant gum from our collective consciousness for some time yet I am devoting this post to debunking some of the positive beauty pageant myths that get wheeled out every time somebody wishes to justify the continued existence of this immovable MacGyver glue.

There are a number of arguments that get used all the time in response to the Pageant Haters, those butt-clenchingly ugly, boring feminists who are clearly just jealous and who demand that pageants demean women and do far more harm than good, and who also demand to know why the fuck we are still happy for the world of pageants to exist at all.  These arguments get repeated ad nauseum by pageant organisers and sponsors and by the entrants themselves to justify the continued market for pageants.  In this post I don’t intend to go into why beauty pageants are morally wrong and bad for women, since that’s been done so many times before. I intend to answer the arguments supporting beauty pageants and demonstrate that no matter how positively you try to spin them, beauty pageants are, for all their spin and sparkle, utterly pointless.

Argument numero uno:
Beauty pageants do not simply celebrate outward, or physical beauty; they celebrate empowered, talented, educated women who aspire to achieve their goals through hard work, talent and charm.

While there is a shed-load of vacuous drivel in this argument (the word ‘empowered’ now needs to be banned when used in all contexts bar the workings of pedal bikes) this is actually a strong argument and the number one, go-to retort to level at pageant haters.  Pageants celebrate the whole woman, not just the shell, but we have to accept that the shell is still important. Beautiful people are allegedly more successful than their less pretty counterparts. Doors get opened for beautiful women, both metaphorical doors and actual ones.   We all like to take care of ourselves don’t we? Beauty is valuable and important to all of us, in addition to ‘what’s inside’ so we should rightfully celebrate it.

Well, first of all, this argument can only be used if pageant organisers are willing to acknowledge that human beauty is highly variable and unconfined to the long haired, pert-breasted, slim beauty with arched eyebrows, an aquiline nose and flawless skin that pageants seem to love the way I love Ben and Jerry's.  Where are the larger women, where are the women in wheelchairs, or the women with prostheses that aren’t covered by their evening gowns? (Yes I remember Heather Mills- whoop de do, one woman!)  Where are the women with freckles or short hair or blue hair?  Where is the body art? Where are the piercings? Where are the scars?  Where are the muscles, the training injuries, and the evidence of having lived?

How can Miss Universe claim to celebrate universal female beauty when all the contestants look like they've stepped out of the Barbies of The World Museum?  Different skin colours alone do not different kinds of beauty make.  The physical ‘beauty’ celebrated by pageants is the aesthetic initially made popular by the porn industry and echoed now in the beauty, advertising and film industries.   Anyone who does not conform to this limited aesthetic need not apply to enter a beauty pageant. You won’t get in Sweethearts.  There there.

By this logic, if you wish to argue that pageants celebrate the ‘whole package’ you have to conclude that you are reinforcing the notion (along with every Disney film containing a human, female character) that to be a truly kind, caring, courageous, valiant and graceful woman, it helps if you look like a porn star too.  

Beauty pageants celebrate a specific flavour of beauty only. There is no recognition that women are actually capable of looking physically stunning in many different ways and therefore, they deny women the right to define what beauty is for themselves.  Beauty Pageants are about as undemocratic as you can get.

Beauty pageants allow you to represent your country/gender/age on a world stage

So does the Six Nations Rugby tournament, the World Wrestling championships, The International Moustache festival and the World Chess Championships. More people probably watch or attend those events too.  As beauty pageants are no longer televised in many countries, having fallen out of favour with the public, the national press and television networks, to whom are you representing your age/gender/bra size?  The same goes for using beauty pageants as a forum to raise awareness of your country’s plights or your own beliefs. If very few people are actually seeing you unless you win the entire pageant after being successful in every round, why not find a more reliable medium for projecting your message?  Awe-inspiring, society-changing revolutions and city-destroying riots have been propagated via Twitter so why not use that instead? Cheaper, more effective and you don’t have to wax.

Beauty pageant winners often win scholarships to study at university and as higher education is so expensive, beauty pageants could be the only chance of reaching one’s potential for some women.

Higher education is certainly expensive.  But so are pageant entry fees, hair extensions, gel nails, St Tropez tan treatments, multiple evening gowns, cocktail dresses, good quality swimwear, shoes, airline tickets, hotel bills, hour-long phone calls home when the other girls are being bitchy.   Some young women can literally pay thousands to enter beauty pageants only to fall at the final hurdle, recouping no financial gains in return.  Very few newspapers would pay good money for an exclusive interview with the runner-up.  While they go home feeling inadequate some old pervert or misguided middle-aged women whose pageant days are long behind her is spending that money on a new BMW.  University is expensive, but so are pageants and only one woman out of thousands of entrants can win.  I’d rather take my chances with the Student Loans Company.

As a Miss World/Country/Nation, you can become an ambassador for your country or a charity cause and raise awareness long after the pageant has ended.

Again, you do not have to be pretty, or slim, or own lots of nice dresses or win a beauty contest to do valuable work for charity.  You need to have some spare time.   If doing good deeds means that much to you then volunteer. If doing good deeds seems like a glamorous add-on to your primary job roles of advertising toothpaste, having your cleavage photographed and receiving endorsement gift bags at parties then you are a shallow fool and you will probably fail the part of the beauty pageant where you have to pretend to care about old people and animals.

As a Miss World/Country/Nation, you can become a role model for young people.  ‘I could give the poor children of the slums in India real hope that they too, one day, can be like me. ‘

Further to my response to argument number one, looking like a porn star and acting with grace and dignity does not make you a role model, it makes you a perfectly motorised sex doll.  Furthermore, any arguments pertaining to wanting to use a beauty pageant as a platform to help or inspire people or speak out against injustice demonstrates a sad lack of understanding of your own odds of winning a pageant.  You may be the most beautiful woman in the world, but if you have an off day and stumble in your stilettos during the swimwear round, fluff your lines while claiming that you ‘love’ to help disabled people or demonstrate the merest shadow of cellulite you could loose. Would you really be willing to risk the chance to fulfil your ardent desire to help people on the unlikely odds of winning a pageant with thousands of entrants who all possess exactly the same kind of beauty as you?  You will be helping no one unless you are very, very lucky.

By entering a beauty pageant I can support/inspire/encourage my fellow women

Given that beauty pageants support limited portrayals of beauty, reinforce notions that young girls have to be princesses to be worth anything, cost a lot of money, offer very poor odds on allowing women to make any sort of difference in the world and attract rather shallow people whose real priorities lie in being told they’re sexy, who do you think you are inspiring by taking part in pageants?

Feminists and other people who go on about beauty pageants being awful are just jealous of the contestants’ beauty and should allow women to celebrate their beauty if they want to.  It’s their choice!

If you value your own ‘beauty’ enough to spend your time and your money regularly enhancing it and augmenting it with plastic, nylon and other people’s hair then it might be very tempting to think that all women value their own beauty just as much, even if it isn’t as potent and striking as yours.  It’s true that all women get jealous too.  So do all men, children and possibly other mammals and birds.  You may be soul-destroyingly jealous of the beautiful young women who make it through to the next round of the contest when you don’t, or heartbroken when the girl you thought of as your best friend bitches about you and claims that you’re ugly without make up when she doesn’t make it through and you do.   You may also develop a terrible psychosis where you believe that even your pet budgie is jealous of your beauty so universal is the terrible curse of jealousy…

However, feelings of jealousy only take you so far on the road to opposing the idea of beauty pageants.  Worrying that pageants continue to encourage the sexual objectification of women and the view that women are there to be admired while they’re busy making a difference to the world stems from a vast number of women wishing that we could do away with such outmoded and damaging notions.  Feminism doesn’t have roots in jealousy of other women.  Perhaps as feminists we should be embracing beauty pageants in staunch support of our fellow women who choose to uphold the notion that you have to be slim and pretty and poised to be of any value to society or to yourself. But, feminism is not about supporting bad choices and damaging practices just because the people participating in them have vaginas.  Beauty pageants are a bad idea and feminism has no room for bad ideas.

Sunday, 13 May 2012

Ignorance is bliss

What do scientists do all day? If you had monitored my behaviour during my days as a PhD student you would have been forgiven for thinking that scientists spend an inordinate amount of time hiding from their supervisors in toilets and stalking old school acquaintances on Facebook.   However, I suspect any good working scientist spends their day being happily ignorant (and in a lab instead of Borders).  In science, ignorance is your most valuable currency.  Without ignorance you have no questions, which means no hypotheses. This means no testing your hypotheses, which means no research papers, no funding, no recognition and no parents who claim to be proud of you despite their long-held belief that you are socially inept.  Ignorance is everything.   Scientists do not dabble in certainty. Some things (like ideas, numerical constants, observations) can certainly seem certain when there is overwhelming evidence to suggest they hold up against scrutiny and testing over and over again, but they are only as certain as their continued resilience to testing and scrutiny. If an idea has a weakness then somewhere along the line an experiment or mathematical formula or stoned student might show that either the idea is false, or that it is only as we previously assumed or predicted it would be in certain circumstances. 

There are some ideas that seem so certain we often believe without question that we live in a universe of absolute certainty. Science and mathematics have given us insights into universal constants that, if changed, would alter the very foundations of reality.  Science is good for that.  Along with mathematics, science is one of the most penetrating tools we may ever have for understanding the ‘true’ nature of our reality, as we are capable of understanding it. But science is not good at saying that these constants are certain, definite*, absolute or unchangeable.  It tells us that when we test these constants against different scenarios and parameters they remain unchanged. They are constants, but they might not be certainties.  However, the more science gets done the more these constants, or ideas or theories become unified into a framework of understanding that all fits together. The more certain they seem.  But while science allows us to define parameters and boundaries for reality to an amazing degree it also allows us to accept that these parameters may change, even at infinitesimal odds.  Improbable? Yes. Impossible? No.

However, whether because of how we teach science in schools, or how the media portrays it, or how adept we are at taking abstract concepts and turning them into a useable framework of understanding, we constantly seem to assume that some things are ‘certain’ and ‘correct’ without question. We also make assumptions about scientists: Scientists are purveyors of certainty. They are amassers of the right knowledge, not whatever fallacious shit we dim folk might come up with.  They are gods of understanding. They are boffins and they seldom remove their facial hair whether male or female.  They know something we don’t! This means that scientists, who actually rather enjoy being ignorant and remain ever cautious that their knowledge may not be right, or certain or unchangeable, are heralded by the media and some other people as bastions of The Truth.

This is bullshit.  We may seek to know but it is in the ‘seeking’ that science lies, not the ‘knowing’. One thing we do know is that absolute truth is a bloody hard thing to come by.   However, we do amass knowledge through our endeavors and that knowledge is wonderfully put to good use for the benefit of everyone a lot of the time. It also allows us to see just how beautiful, strange and COOL reality is. Science has to have a place in society for these reasons.  It has to be used in our policies, our classrooms, our hospitals and our courts of law because of what it allows us to know with better (but not absolute!) certainty than faith or guesswork or assumption alone. 

So what expectations should Society have of science and scientists?

I intend to explore this more thoroughly in a series of posts on ‘science and society’ (ooh err!) over the next few months.  I will vent my views on how scientists are currently being treated in light of devastating earthquakes, climate scandals and media hypes.  Hopefully I will be able to demonstrate that science can be used to great ends but only if we know what we can expect from the people doing the science.  Hopefully, they will be interesting posts!   In closing this introduction I will just say this: Science deals in building an understanding of reality through ignorance, questions, ideas, tests, scrutiny, more questions and collectively deciding where the current state of knowledge lies.  We look to where it may lead in future based on a massive, collaborative framework of knowledge and previous experience.  We are standing on the shoulders of others but we are looking ahead in the spirit of ignorance.  There is little room for certainty. This is one journey with no road map.

*Occasionally, we have to descend into demanding that our ideas ARE CERTAIN FACTS.  Creationists make us do this by failing to understand that the words ‘evolutionary theory’ mean ‘a synthesis of understanding as a result of years and years of observation and experimentation, which we are still putting to the test’, rather than, ‘some crazy shit a beardy guy and Alfred Russell Wallace came up with, which you heathens all adhere to like it’s fly paper!’ Our response is to cry disdainfully that evolution is Fact not Just A Hunch.  As scientists we know there are few things about which we can have absolute certainty. Evolution is perhaps not one of them but it is a damn sight better than believing that ‘god’ cobbled everything together by intelligent design, while rendering us vulnerable to death by chocking on a LEGO brick.  It’s better because we have tested the theory and have found lots of our assumptions to hold true in lots of different tests.  We do not believe Charles Darwin had a good point because we admire his facial hair, impressive as it was.  By ‘fact’ we mean ‘we have evidence’. Good old evidence.

Sunday, 15 April 2012

Why I am a feminist

I intend to write a number of posts about feminism and feminist issues on this blog so I thought it might be prudent to begin with explaining why I subscribe to feminism in 21st century Britain.  I have limited my thoughts for this post to the UK alone since the issues affecting women in other countries and other societies are a whole different ball game to those that affect me, here, today.  This is not to say that women in other countries are unimportant in my brand of feminism. Far from it! But, for the sake of brevity I will just concentrate on why I am a feminist rather than the many things that concern and influence my feminist thinking for now.

So, having been endowed with neat internal genitals (save for the odd pokey-out bit) as apposed to dangly, external ones, I was brought up as a female. My parents didn’t try out any gender-neutral rearing techniques with me, in fact they positively showered me in every pink, sparkly gewgaw they could get their hands on.   Whether as a result of this upbringing or social conditioning, peer influence or my own innate personality, I now find myself as a heterosexual woman of nearly 30.  And I am a feminist. Well why not?
I am a feminist because I am curious about other people who, in some way, are like me.  My feminist leanings stem from a sense of kinship and perceived similarity between myself and a group of others, but it also stems from a curiosity for those women who may be as different to me in their personality as it is possible to be, yet who live in a world where their gender, our gender, is seen as a collective, homogenous union to be judged, studied, controlled and used.
I have heard some women state with a certain degree of disdain that they are not feminists. For feminists dislike men and believe the world is against them and that The Patriarchy is the sole root of all their woes. I think the majority of women in the UK (dangerous as it is to speak on their behalf) balk at these ideas and find little truth in them anymore. So, they avoid identifying themselves as feminists. I agree. As far as I am concerned, living in the UK in 2012 as I do, there is no evil patriarchy forcing me to make beef wellington for it while wearing stockings and a lacy apron.
            I am still a feminist though despite the apparent progression from those days when women really were misunderstood, underestimated and undervalued. I know we have the vote (honestly, thank you) and I appreciate being able to have a job and earn my own money, but churlish and ungrateful as I may seem, I still think there is a pressing need for feminism today, for the sake of every human being, not just the ones with vaginas.  The very culture that once embodied the notion of the little pointy-boobed homemaker, in cardigan and pencil skirt, may have found a new home on fridge magnets and birthday cards as ironic flashbacks to that bygone era but feminism is still here and its gaze is now directed elsewhere. Feminism has undergone yet another change. It is present today in a different manifestation from the times of Emmeline Pankhurst, Simone De Beauvoir or Germaine Greer. As societies change, so too does feminism. In its first wave feminism sought to achieve universal suffrage, the second weave sought to achieve equality for men and women in the home and the workplace.  The third wave supposedly began in the 80s and apparently this is where we are now, though many would argue we are entering a fourth wave.  Regardless of which wave we are currently riding the point is that feminism evolves and remains pertinent even when its previous goals have been achieved or at least recognized.
            I am also, like all other reasonable human beings, opposed to human suffering and this fits in well with my own feminist outlook. I don’t particularly like poverty, war, disease, oppression, discrimination, tyranny or Simon Cowell, because such things promote human misery. Of course these factors do not work their evils upon women alone.  In fact there are few ills in the world that only affect women, even if they are specifically directed at women initially: religious control and oppression, an unregulated and frankly barmy porn industry, sexual slavery, sexual objectification, genital mutilation, workplace discrimination, unequal parental rights and debates about abortion are a few issues which form part of the spectrum that gets filtered through the lens of modern society on to women. No one woman is subject to all these ills. But the female gender forms the prism through which this harsh spectrum is then reflected and refracted on to everyone else.  Optics and feminism: who knew?
            So issues affecting women actually affect everyone. My feminism is not for the sake of women. It is for the sake of men, woman and children alike. Someone fetch me a medal! My feminism doesn’t feel as though it should be outmoded despite the fact that we have progressed on from an oppressive patriarchal society. My feminism encourages me to be mindful of the issues that affect my fellow women, and my fellow human beings today.
            Finally, my feminism is rebellion. It is rebellion against the foolish, anodyne myths about men and women that are propagated by the media and occasionally taken as canon. It is rebellion against the turgid notion that women can all be lumped into the same, narrow categories.  It is rebellion against this notion of having to be pretty, sexy or slim or nice in order to feel feminine.
            My feminism is mine and mine alone.  It is different to other womens’ feminism and for that it is sometimes criticised for lacking a uniform consistency across the board.  But the thing with womankind is that, like humanity, it lacks the necessary homogeneity for us all to cry out against the same ills at the same time with the same voice.
            So whatever your feminism looks like, from wherever it stems and to wherever it’s going be thankful you are mindful enough to have it.  Those of us who assume feminism is for moody, boring women who don’t like makeup or men are missing a trick. Feminism is for everyone. 

Saturday, 14 April 2012

Blue skies abound

A friend of mine likes to make finite element models of bird skulls.  We all need a hobby.  I suspect she does this in order to investigate various aspects of avian head evolution and whatnot. At least, I think that’s why she does the modelling, I never sought clarification since I was too busy cooing at the disembodied bird heads in the freezer. Anyway, digression is the enemy of cogency and I suspect a pun about headless chickens coming on.
Another friend who makes a living via more mainstream employment demanded to know why my bird-beheading friend bothered to pursue such seemingly ‘pointless’ research when there were far more pressing problems for inquiring sorts to solve. ‘Why’, she wished to know, ‘would anyone bother with bird skulls when the Common Cold is still at large, not to mention all those diseases that need curing like cancer and dementia and the Tories?”
Why severed bird heads should be considered a more fruitful area of research than eradicating the Conservative Party is probably seldom considered by the wider world (headless chicken anyone?).   But, the question of why some fields of scientific research receive funding when they lack an obvious remit, or the potential for immediate application, is frequently asked of scientists and politicians alike.
This kind of research, where enquiry is undertaken solely in the spirit of endeavour and discovery, is often called ‘blue skies’ research.  It’s the research that deals with ‘Why?” alone and not, “Why? And how will it benefit economic/societal progression?” 
Searching for theoretical bosons at CERN; calculating how fast certain theropods could run; wondering whether there are other universes beyond our own and working out how birds are related to each other are all examples of blue skies or ‘basic’ research.  They’re interesting topics but any advances in our understanding of them will not really impact our chances of survival nor will they answer our most immediate needs in tangible ways.
So why should such topics receive money, some of which comes from taxpayers, when money is so tight and other causes have far more pressing financial requirements?  Is there room for this kind of enquiry in societies where human suffering is so prevalent? This is a good question and one that people are keen to ask when every penny counts.
There are numerous reasons why basic research is essential to the economic and social health of everyone:  Research undertaken without the constraints of a prescribed agenda can create new fields of enquiry, which can throw up all sorts of useful applications.  The potential discoveries and technologies that do eventually arise from basic research are often non-predictable yet hold the capacity to revolutionise. The infrastructures, techniques and protocols established in undertaking basic research often evolve from their original purpose to benefit other areas of science, medicine and engineering when co-opted opportunely.
If you want examples then the World Wide Web, which grew from Tim Berners-Lee’s ENQUIRE hypertext –linked network at CERN is a nice one smug techy types like to bandy about.  
Heike Kamerlingh Onnes’s 1911 experimental verification of superconductivity, which has since resulted in superconducting magnets facilitating the operation of MRIs, and thus the detection of a whole host of medical conditions, is a favourite of mine.  If I’d discovered that certain materials have no electrical resistivity when they get a bit chilly I’d consider it a good day in the lab. If some other crazy cats used my discovery for life saving purposes about 66 years later I might allow myself a ‘Go Me!’
And therein lies one of the factors that render blue skies research less desirable than agenda-driven studies in times of financial woe: 66 years.   It’s not that long a time in the greater scheme of things but the first MRI scan of a human body was performed in 1977. Kamerlingh Onnes died 51 years too early to see his discovery put to such noble use (But he did win a Nobel prize for his discovery and cooler still, he had a crater on the moon named after him. Actually, speaking of cool, the Onnes effect, which refers to creeping of superfluid helium is also named after him. God I love Wiki.)
It can take time for discoveries to turn in to technologies that save the lives of people with no interest in condensed matter, but surely the wait is worth it?  I should point out that Onnes’s work in cryogenics, which lead to the discovery was already an area that lent itself well to application. Superconductors are everywhere and the field is still a very active.  It isn’t surprising that so many applications have resulted from the initial discovery though I still think the use of superconducting magnets in MRI scanners is an excellent example of the shear utility of scientific enquiry. 
However, as a once-practicing paleontologist I’m only too aware that there are numerous other areas in science that don’t promise so many useful outcomes, whether predictable or not.  It would take a pretty shrewd dino buff to convince a hardened advocate of more restrictive funding programs that knowing that velociraptors were feathered or not has any bearing on the problems of modern life.  This leads me to my next argument that, in addition to science often taking time to earn its keep, it grows incrementally via the assimilation of multiple intellectual collaborations to deliver a synthesis of knowledge that can serve a whole host of functions.  It is entirely reasonable to state that without a thorough understanding of what information the fossil record provides us, combined with an appreciation of the degree of fidelity and completeness of that information (which is what palaeontologists ultimately aim to achieve) scientists in general could not have built the modern evolutionary synthesis. 
We now have other tools with which to deepen our understanding of evolution such as molecular biology but we still rely upon the fossil record to temper our understanding of the evolution of life and to provide it with an appropriate temporal context.  It is also perfectly reasonable to state that following on from this comprehensive understanding of evolution and its many subfields of study, we would have a hell of a way to go in terms of understanding biosphere stability, how to feed people, how to combat microbial and viral diseases, how to heal people, how to understand other life forms and how to predict the state of our own future as a species. 
Of course that doesn’t all stem from palaeontology (don’t worry I’m not delusional) but it demonstrates how collaboration between fields and small advances in certain areas that have little to do with application in their own right, all contribute to understanding the world around us.  Science is a vast network of interlinked subfields, some immediately applicable, others humming along in the background widening knowledge, deepening understanding and laying the foundations for further enquiry.  If you isolate some of those fields from financial support and positive public perception you will eventually start to encroach onto other areas that boast a better output of handy results.
Is there a future for palaeontological study?  If people remain interested then yes there is, even when the field is surpassed in its sense of urgency or perceived importance by other trendier fields. Who knows if this will be the case, but this brings me to the last point in my argument for all science for all people: the future.
In the future we will witness new technological advancements (themselves borne of the field of science as it stands today), which will allow us to probe the universe to increasingly smaller and increasingly vaster scales.  New discoveries at these hitherto inaccessible regions of the universe will raise new questions and may resolve old mysteries.  But we will only get to these hidden new worlds by trying and testing and, occasionally failing in our endeavours to reach them.  The machines to take us to this future will be the particle accelerators and detectors, the synchrotrons and the microscopes, rockets, telescopes and computers whose development we are funding today for whichever research we so desire.
Science takes time, collaboration and agenda-less enquiry to reach all the conceivable nooks and crannies of our reality and to throw out the occasional MRI scanner/car/computer/cancer treatment/iPod.  The machines and fields we fund today will help to address the problems we have tomorrow.

So can we really justify nebulous curiosity when our problems today are so clearly defined?
The answer is yes.  It has to be yes.