The Skeptical Teacher

Musings of a science teacher & skeptic in an age of woo.

Posts Tagged ‘philosophy’

The Conceit of How We View the World

Posted by mattusmaximus on May 13, 2011

Just to toot my own horn a tad, I wanted to share with you all that I’m a guest blogger over at the JREF Swift Blog.  And I recently contributed a post of which I am quite proud concerning some of the real basics of science & our general philosophy of the world, so I wanted to share it with you all here.  Enjoy! 🙂

The Conceit of How We View the World

A student of mine was recently making up some lab work, and the lab was a simple analysis of the variables that affected the motion of a pendulum bob as it oscillated back and forth. In this inquiry-based lab, the student was to gather data on how the pendulum bob mass, the amplitude of oscillation, and the length of the pendulum affected the amount of time it took the pendulum to oscillate. They were to use these data to come to conclusions about how an oscillating pendulum behaved.

As usual many students come to this lab work with a certain pre-conceived notion (what I like to call “intellectual baggage”) of how they think the pendulum is supposed to behave – most think that all three variables (mass, amplitude, and length) will affect the pendulum period (time for a complete oscillation) pretty much equally. Imagine their surprise when they end up discovering, assuming they are true to the process and not “tweaking” the data, that the mass and amplitude have relatively little or no effect on the pendulum motion – a fact that might also surprise the reader of this article!

In fact, when the student making up the lab got to that point in the work, he asked me a question I’ve heard numerous times before in such inquiry-based lab work: “Mr. Lowry, this seems weird – is that what I should be getting for an answer?”

When I get that question I like to answer, summoning up as much a sagely wisdom-filled voice as I can muster, “What you think the answer should be is irrelevant. What is relevant is what the data tell you.”

This anecdote of mine is particularly illustrative, I think, concerning an issue that is at the heart of pretty much all science as well as much philosophy, especially regarding philosophical discussions regarding the nature of reality, existence of God, etc. It focuses in upon a key assumption that, in my opinion, is a fatal flaw in much reasoning concerning these (and other) topics: too many people assume that, usually based upon some kind of belief system, the universe should function or behave as we would have it and – even worse – appeals to this sort of reasoning should, without the need for any other analysis or argumentation, settle whatever matter there is in question. The idea that the universe is somehow limited in the same manner as our own thinking is downright laughable to me as a scientist, teacher, skeptic, and armchair philosopher. …

Read the rest of the blog post here

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Why Is There Something Rather Than Nothing? Science May Now Have An Answer

Posted by mattusmaximus on June 3, 2010

Often people remark that science and philosophy deal with two different sets of questions.  I’ve heard many times that philosophy (or religion & theology) deal with the “why” questions whereas science deals more with the nuts-and-bolts kind of “how” questions.  But then you run into some questions which are kind of in the middle – and this is the region where philosophers of science focus much effort & ink discussing what they call the demarcation problem: where does science end & philosophy begin?

Let me give you an example of just such a fuzzy question, one which has been asked repeatedly down through the ages: why is there something rather than nothing?  Specifically, why is the universe (and us) here at all?  Why does it all exist?

Now, up until recently, many people would have looked at such a question as being beyond the realm of science, more appropriately categorized as one of philosophy, theology, or religion.  However, as science has advanced, our understanding of very fundamental physics related to the big bang is providing us clues as to the answer.  A little background first…

You see, recently there was a series of experiments conducted at the particle accelerator called the Tevatron at FermiLab just down the road from me in Batavia, IL (here’s a Chicago Tribune article on the experiments).  Specifically, what the physicists were attempting to do was to try to replicate the conditions of the early universe smashing counter-rotating beams of protons and anti-protons together at incredibly high energies (on the order of 1 TeV).  For those who don’t know, an anti-proton is the antimatter version of a proton – you see, the folks at FermiLab have an antimatter generation and storage facility.  Yeah, antimatter as in Star Trek 🙂

Posted in philosophy, physics denial/woo, religion, scientific method | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 11 Comments »

Can Science Answer Moral Questions?

Posted by mattusmaximus on April 1, 2010

I just watched a fascinating video presentation by Sam Harris titled “Science Can Answer Moral Questions” which he gave at the TED Talks this past February.  One of the key questions it addresses is the notion that science & morality (and hence, religion) must, by definition, occupy different spheres of influence.  While I don’t agree with Harris on everything, I certainly think he makes a very compelling argument in this presentation, and I encourage you to watch it.

Hat tip to Phil at Skeptic Money for directing me to this video!

Posted in philosophy | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Deepak Chopra Goes Off the Deep End of the Woo-Pool

Posted by mattusmaximus on January 3, 2010

One of the kings of New Age nonsense, Deepak Chopra, has written a widely read article at the Huffington Post (yet another reason to no longer take HuffPo seriously), and I felt that it deserved a bit of analysis.  The piece, titled Woo Woo Is a Step Ahead of (Bad) Science, is an interesting rant on the part of Chopra about why all things about the modern skeptical movement, “western” science (science is science folks, wherever it’s practiced), and Michael Shermer are off base, wrong, and just plain mean & nasty.  Chopra really seems to have had something stuck in his craw, and I suppose this was his way of getting it out…

There’s plenty of silliness to cover in Chopra’s article, so we might as well get started…

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Science, Morality, and Meaning

Posted by mattusmaximus on June 1, 2009

Sometimes people are turned off from science because they view it as a sterile & cold process.  Often the argument is made that if one takes a science-oriented view of the world that it doesn’t necessarily foster a good moral life.  Many argue that only religion, as opposed to science, can offer any guide for morality, ethics, and the philosophy of the good life.  I think those critics of science are wrong.

That is why I wanted to pass along a great podcast from the folks at Point of Inquiry which touches on all of these topics.  On May 1st, D.J. Grothe interviewed Dr. Jeffrey Schweitzer about his book Beyond Cosmic Dice: Moral Life in a Random World.

Here is a quick summary of the interview…

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Posted in philosophy, scientific method | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Reasoning & Thinking in Science and Beyond

Posted by mattusmaximus on April 22, 2009

I wanted to just take a few minutes to give a quick shout-out to a couple of good blogs, each of which have a recent post about reasoning & thinking.  The first is a post at  Skepticblog about inductive reasoning in science by Dr. Steven Novella, where he takes on an interesting series of questions which are sometimes posed by those completely ignorant of science and/or who want to tear down science…

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Posted in philosophy, scientific method | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments »

Science and Postmodernism

Posted by mattusmaximus on February 21, 2009

Just a few days ago, I received an email from a colleague of mine in the English department where I teach. The subject concerned the concept of falsifiability in science. The email read, in part…

I have a dim understanding of Popper’s falsifiability principle from History of Time and Wikipedia. Question: how do the string theorists… “get around” this, or is there something about what they do that renders the principle moot?

Note that there is a fundamental misunderstanding about the scientific process here. One of the hottest new scientific ideas – string theory – is implied to be scientific not because it is falsifiable, but because there must be some “trick to get around it.”

string theory

Nope. Sorry, there’s no trick to getting around it. In order for an idea to be considered scientific, one must be able to propose a way to test it that could potentially falsify it. Without meeting this basic criteria, science it isn’t. Here’s the highlights of my response to my English colleague…

The answer is that string theory meets the “must-have” standard of falsifiability and is thus a valid scientific idea. Falsifiability is the gold-standard: if an idea cannot meet this criteria, science it ain’t.

For more info on this, here are some proposals to, at least in principle, test string theory for validity:

The difficulty is that we don’t yet have the technology in hand to conduct these tests. Once the Large Hadron Collider comes completely online, we’ll have a better picture of this question. In addition, there are some proposals to use our knowledge of the cosmic background radiation to test out other aspects of string theory. There is the chance that the new Planck Surveyor probe could do just that –

The problem with string theory now is that it is in a kind of limbo state, much like Einstein’s theory of general relativity from 1915-1919. Einstein had this beautifully elegant mathematical theory, but many scientists refused to give it any validity until it had been tested. Unfortunately, the technology to test GR didn’t exist then, so they had to wait until the solar eclipse of 1919 to test the first predictions of GR. More on that here –

This point about falsifiability is one which many pseudoscientists screw up all the time. Many of them think that science is merely a set of cool ideas which The Establishment is defending dogmatically – not so. If you go to any scientific meeting and someone proposes a scientific idea, very quickly someone will demand to know how to test it. And if the person proposing the idea cannot answer that question, they will be given no validity at all. Science is a pretty harsh process when you get down to it, and the people who are toughest on scientists are often their scientific colleagues.

For example, creationists have a real problem here. They insist that “intelligent design” is a scientific concept (because they say it is!) yet they never propose any method at all for even testing it for falsifiability. They’ve had 15-20 years to develop some kind of testable hypothesis, yet all they can come up with are logical fallacies and claims of a conspiracy to cover up The Truth. And so it goes…

The thing that really bothers me about this exchange with my colleague is that we’ve been here before. He and I have collaborated extensively on subjects of science & philosophy, and I have pointed out the principle of falsifiability to him numerous times, yet he still doesn’t seem to get it. It’s not that he’s a dumb guy – far from it, he’s very well educated and I consider him to be pretty intelligent. I think it has more to do with his particular area of philosophical specialty: postmodernism.

One aspect of the postmodernist philosophy which has been way overblown by some of the more vocal postmodernists is the idea of relativism in relation to science. Loosely speaking, it is argued by these people that science is nothing more than a mere cultural phenomenon, one which naturally develops in all societies given enough time. Thus, they say, there is such a thing as “science” that belongs to a specific group – such as “traditional science” as done by the older, white, and male segments of Western society versus the “new science” done by others.

I cannot even begin to point out how screwed up this thinking is – if one studies the history of science, you learn quickly that science was essentially a lucky occurrence. All of the proper conditions existed in Ancient Greece which led to the rise of natural philosophical discourse, which in turn eventually led to the development of modern science. While it is true that anyone can practice science (in this sense, science is most certainly not limited to white, male Westerners), had the conditions not been just right the Greeks would have never started humanity on this path and there would have been no modern science.

**Aside: An excellent book on this topic is Alan Cromer’s Uncommon Sense: The Heretical Nature of Science. I highly recommend it!

However, some postmodernist discourse on science gets really silly, and this comes through, albeit subtly, in my colleague’s email. It is the sense that science is merely “just another way of thinking” and that it has no real authority to say what the world around us is like. Often, postmodernists will say that science is merely an opinion.

This sounds goofy, but over the last few decades it has become very problematic. That’s because all manner of pseudoscientists & pseudohistorians have seized upon these concepts of postmodernism to promote their woo. If you pay close attention to the arguments of the woo-meisters – whether they be Holocaust deniers, New-Agers, alternative-“medicine” practitioners, or creationists – they will often make public arguments that make the postmodernist plea that science is “just another opinion” and out of fairness their ideas should be given just as much validity as those of the scientific community.

And, sadly, because many aspects of postmodernist thought have been widely disseminated throughout the Western world (where it is only natural to respect freedom of speech & expression), a lot of people are roped into accepting these arguments. The result has, over the last generation or so, been the gradual erosion of the status of science & the scientific community while postmodernist driven woo has been given “equal time”, so to speak.

The problem is particularly bad in many areas of academia. A perfect example of just how stupid the promotion of postmodernist woo-woo has gotten is outlined in an excellent book, Alan Sokal & Jean Bricmont’s Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals’ Abuse of Science.


Alan Sokal is a hero among many in the skeptical & scientific community for his hilarious debunking of the more extreme aspects of postmodernist anti-science in the mid 1990s via the now famous Sokal Hoax. Fortunately, after the public drubbing that many high-profile postmodernist anti-scientists received once Sokal revealed his deception, they lost a great deal of credibility in many areas of academia.

Unfortunately, in my opinion, Sokal’s excellent high-profile debunking came too late. By the mid 1990s, use of the postmodernist arguments had become widespread by woosters of all stripes. And we are now dealing with the consequences, whether it be having to fight off the “fairness & freedom” arguments of creationists in Texas & Louisiana or dealing with academic colleagues who, due to their embrace of postmodernism, cannot fathom the basics of the scientific method.

Posted in scientific method | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments »

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