Sunday, May 23, 2010

Martin Gardner (1914 - 2010)

Martin Gardner has died.

He was my introduction to critical thinking. When I was in high school I looked forward each month to his Mathematical Games column in Scientific American magazine. He used puzzles and games to teach complex subjects and make math fun.

He had an amazing career. Despite never taking a math course after high school he became proficient in many mathematical techniques. He single handedly made mathematical puzzles popular and taught generations of Americans to think logically. I learned many problem solving techniques from Gardner’s columns and books.

His reviews in Scientific American also introduced me to some of my favorite books and authors and to Skeptical Inquirer magazine.

Douglas Hofstadter, who I learned of from Gardner, said “He is totally unreproducible -- he was sui generis -- and what's so strange is that so few people today are really aware of what a giant he was in so many fields -- to name some of them, the propagation of truly deep and beautiful mathematical ideas (not just 'mathematical games', far from it!), the intense battling of pseudoscience and related ideas, the invention of superb magic tricks, the love for beautiful poetry, the fascination with profound philosophical ideas (Newcomb's paradox, free will, etc. etc.), the elusive border between nonsense and sense, the idea of intellectual hoaxes done in order to make serious points (for example, one time, at my instigation, he wrote a scathing review of his own book 'The Whys of a Philosophical Scrivener' in 'The New York Review of Books', and the idea was to talk about the ideas seriously even though he was attacking the ideas that he himself believed in), and on and on and on and on. Martin Gardner was so profoundly influential on so many top-notch thinkers in so many disciplines -- just a remarkable human being -- and at the same time he was so unbelievably modest and unassuming. Totally. So it is a very sad day to think that such a person is gone, and that so many of us owe him so much, and that so few people -- even extremely intelligent, well-informed people -- realize who he was or have even ever heard of him.”

James Randi, who I learned of from Gardner, said, “That man was one of my giants, a very long-time friend of some 50 years or so. He was a delight, a very bright spot in my firmament, one to whom I could always turn with a question or an idea, with any strange notion I could invent, and with any complaint or comment I could come up with….He was such a good man, a productive and useful member of our society, and I can anticipate the international reaction to his passing. His books – so many of them – remain to remind us of his contributions to us all. His last one was dedicated to me, and I am just so proud of that fact, so very proud…It will take a while, but Martin would want me to get on with my life, so I will."

Richard Dawkins, who I learned of from Gardner, said, “Martin Gardner (1914-2010) was one of the great heroes of the American sceptical movement. He also helped generations to enjoy the fascination of mathematics, in his long-running 'Mathematical Games' column in Scientific American. During his last year I was privileged to visit him, in his retirement home in Norman, Oklahoma. He was old and frail, but immensely lively, and brimming with youthful intelligence and curiosity. His room was filled with puzzles and illusions, with which he delighted in teasing me.”

We have lost a bright light and he will be missed. The world is a better and wiser place because of him.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Exposing the Climate Change Lies

Maybe you’ve seen the headlines:

Is it true? Have the 95% of climate scientists who believe the Earth is warming due to human activity been lying to the public, or are they simply incompetent and untrustworthy?

It was Mark Twain who noted, “A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.” Actually, it’s the global warming deniers that have been lying and deliberately deceiving the public. Science is a messy process, and it’s complicated. There are disagreements, errors, and personality conflicts. But science has self correcting methods to work through our human imperfections and arrive at the only accurate descriptions we have of the real world. Let’s look at the truth behind the headlines.

The hacked emails from the University of East Anglia's Climate Research Unit clearly show an attempt to prevent the publication of some papers the email author believed were wrong. Questioning each other’s work is an inherent part of the scientific system. Scientists expect, and encourage, critical, but dispassionate, analysis of their work from other scientists. Sometimes it becomes personal, however. The stolen emails reveal an ugly personality clash and unscientific animosity between researchers. The emails show that scientists are subject to human failings, but they do not show the suppression of scientific results. Not only were the two papers discussed in the emails published in scientific journals, they were also included in the IPCC’s report.

When scientists answer questions they are often very careful and use exact meanings to their words. This tendency can be exploited by global warming deniers to distort scientists’ meanings by carefully wording questions to them. That’s what happened when Phil Jones appeared to deny there has been evidence of warming since 1995. Climate data such as average annual temperature is highly variable. Statistical techniques, such as least squares fits, have to be used to show the real trends in the data (scientists even have techniques for measuring how “reliable” an apparent trend is). Global warming deniers know that, even though there has been measurable warming since 1995 (0.12 degree Celsius per decade) the “reliability” of the trend is low. That’s why they specifically ask about warming since 1995, not 1994 or any other year from which the “reliability” is much higher. The global warming deniers are being dishonest because in the same interview in which Phil Jones admitted the warming trend since 1995 does not meet the 95% confidence test, he repeatedly said he believes the evidence for human caused global warming is real and overwhelming. But all the global warming deniers reported was the one statement about uncertainty in the limited interval from 1995.

When Mark Siddall et al published a paper in Nature Geosicience estimating much lower sea level rising (7 - 82 cm) from global warming than other estimates, the global warming deniers praised it (links now missing or broken) and claimed it showed that the other scientists were being alarmists (despite the fact that its publication disproved their claim that alternative view points are never published). As is often the case in science, however, some scientists found a flaw in Siddall’s analysis. When they communicated their findings to Siddall, he acknowledged his error. When he corrected his analysis and recalculated he found that his estimates were far too low, so he retracted his paper. Note that he voluntarily retracted his paper because his new calculations showed much greater sea level rising than his original paper. Yet the paper’s withdrawal was touted by global warming deniers as proof of their denial of warming, exactly the opposite of the reason the paper was withdrawn.

Does satellite data show that the Greenland ice sheet has not shrunk in area? Yes. But the mass of the ice sheet is a function of both area and thickness. The satellite data in this report cannot measure thickness along the coast, as the report authors clearly stated in the original paper. For some reason these facts are missing from this report. Multiple other methods have clearly shown that the ice sheet is thinning at the edges and is losing mass. So once again the Global warming deniers misrepresent what a scientific report actually says and completely ignore all contrary evidence.

Global climate change is a complex subject which is being actively investigated by experts using tried and true methods to tease out the truth. Time and again we have seen that those who are not scientific experts, and who are committed to defending predefined conclusions, have misled the public by misrepresenting the science. Global warming is a great challenge. The Global warming deniers are pessimists who see only the negative consequences and have no faith in the ability of the US to rise to the challenge. Global warming is actually a huge opportunity. Those who rise to it will develop new resources, processes, and techniques. The Global warming deniers, by creating confusion and doubt, are delaying that progress and making it more likely that we’ll be buying technological solutions from other countries rather than selling them to the world.

Global Warming Denier Crock of the Week

The difference between climate skeptics and climate deniers

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Nobody Says Science Knows Everything

Disclosure: what follows was only partly written be me. Most of it was kludged together from other writers I cut and pasted from the internet over the past year. Unfortunately I have lost track of the original authors.

Nobody says science knows everything, but it is the only reliable way to know anything.

Mathematicians long ago proved that science can never know everything (Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem). Yet today, some theologians, new agers, and under informed pundits attempt to discredit science by pretending that science claims that it can know everything, proving only that they don’t know much at all about science or knowledge.

Few will admit that they prefer their religious account over its rivals because it's a better story than all the others - they always argue that their story is true. Yet the silly christian apologist who spouts something facile along the lines of "I believe in the genesis account because it is such a magnificent and awe-inspiring story" is really saying "I think that magnificence and awesomeness of narrative are what determines the truth value of a hypothesis".

We still follow the age-old quest. We still seek after the truth. But over the centuries we've developed and discovered ever more effective methods to determine what is true. Those methods are now called science. We have sharpened, refined and regularized how we approach the quest, and it has paid massive dividends. Not only are we closer to knowing what the world is really all about, we know a lot more about what it means to know, and how certain we can be in any of our knowledge.

Science is the only “way of knowing” that is self-reflective, that applies its methods to itself, that measures its own performance and uses the result to improve itself. If a religious story’s revealed truth conflicts with reality it is the apologists job to explain away the conflict, not to measure it and use it to improve the utility of the story. Acupuncturists never measure pain response vs. needle depth or position and publish updated pressure point maps. Applied kinesiologists explicitly deny the muscle changes they feel subjectively can be measured objectively. And so it goes with every system of knowledge that rejects natural laws.

Yes, scientific narratives should replace supernatural narratives in the minds of mankind - though they should replace them not because they are better stories but because they are actually true. We can still retain the religious narratives, ghost stories, and magical tales as evidence of the workings of the human mind and the history of cultural diversity, but in a very real sense they have failed utterly to do the job they were created for - explaining how the universe came to be the way it is and guiding us in getting the most from it as we build our lives.

The religious, new agers, psychics, and ghost whisperers will claim that gods, spirits, and ghosts exist outside the natural world (Steven Gould's non-overlapping magisteria). I'll concede the point. Science can only deal with the natural world, and it is the only reliable tool we have for examining the natural world. The supernatural, by definition, is not part of the natural world. Science is silent on anything and everything that is separate from the natural world. You can say anything you want about supernatural agents and realms, and science will not, cannot, contradict you. The problem is that sooner or later supernaturalists make statements about the natural world: prayers and/or spells work, ghosts can communicate with the living, the mind can move material objects, Tarot cards can predict the future, etc. Anything that affects the real world is subject to scientific investigation. And science, despite many efforts, has failed to verify a single effect that is not explained by natural means.

It is not true, as many supernatural apologists claim, that science is blind (close minded) to evidence that contradicts its laws and theories. The questioning of itself is a hallmark that distinguishes science from all other endeavors. Finding contrary evidence and proving existing models wrong is an acheivement that makes careers and advances knowledge. The same people who claim science is closed minded also claim that science is unreliable because it is always changing. It can't be both, and the fact that it is constantly improving by adapting to new evidence is one source of its great success in explaining the natural world.

Nobody says science knows everything, but it is the only reliable way to know anything.