Monday, August 12, 2013


Steven Pinker, a linguistics professor at Harvard and prolific author, has a provocative article at The New Republic web site, Science Is Not Your Enemy An impassioned plea to neglected novelists, embattled professors, and tenure-less historians (August 2013). Pinker says that science is now encroaching on matters traditionally in the realm of the humanities, for example human emotion and human values, and that has generated a backlash in various quarters: the humanities, religion and public policy. Scientism is a term - new to me - used by critics who believe that science is often misapplied when it address some of the traditional concerns of the humanities, religion and public policy. I have found many other things Pinker has written very interesting, especially when they are focused on his specialty, linguistics. However, this article seems to me yet another example of someone who knows a lot of science and feels like their scientific knowledge supports some of their other values and opinions, but their attempt to make their case unfortunately comes off very weak. I suspect that Pinker's article will often have the exact opposite effect of what he says he intends. Instead of reassuring people who think science overreaches, it will just seem like yet another attempt that misuses science to support someone's personal opinions. See The Scientism of Steven Pinker by Ross Douthat in the New York Times, for someone who didn't find Pinker at all convincing.
Faulty 'scientific' results have, of course, repeatedly been used to support personal biases, The Mismeasure of Man, by Steven Jay Gould is a collection of interesting historical examples. In some cases the errors and misinterpretations were really rather subtle, but invariably the errors somehow ended up supporting the preconceived notions of the investigators.

Tuesday, August 06, 2013

Bunker Hill

Bunker Hill: A City, a Siege, a Revolution is a 2013 book by Nathaniel Philbrick. It focuses heavily on Joseph Warren, a physician, politician and patriot general killed during the 1775 battle of Bunker Hill. The detailed accounts of the years leading up to and following the battle were quite interesting, especially since I've been a resident of the Boston area for most of my life. The Bunker Hill monument is easily visible from my windows. My favorite quotes from the book were from the loyalist pastor Mather Byles. When asked how he could be a "brainless Tory", Byles replied, "Tell me, which is better, to be ruled by one tyrant 3,000 miles away, or by 3,000 tyrants not a mile away?" He called the sentry stationed outside his house his "Observe-a-Tory". The Death of General Warren at the Battle of Bunker's Hill, June 17,1775 by John Trumbull

A Quantum Critique

Many reputable thinkers have had issues with quantum mechanics, notably Einstein, who said "God does not play dice with the universe", referring to the probabilistic outcomes predicted by standard quantum theory. The EPR Paradox (the 'E' stands for Einstein) and Bell's Theorem are two well-known examples of the somewhat peculiar predictions of quantum mechanics. John Bell is quoted saying about quantum mechanics
I did not dare to think that it was false, but I knew it was rotten!
The Fate of the Quantum by Nobel prize winner Gerard 't Hooft is a sophisticated critique of quantum mechanics which also touches upon philosophical issues such as Free Will. The standard interpretations of quantum theory often invoke the free will of experimenters to make independent decisions at the last second. 't Hooft complains that alternative interpretations are sometimes dismissed, on grounds more philosophical than scientific:
This explanation is usually also dismissed. It is called a ‘conspiracy theory’, and that is considered to be disgusting. But are ‘disgusting’, or ‘ridiculous’, valid arguments in a mathematical proof? We have reasons to doubt that.
More concretely the paper mentions the concept of Superdeterminism, which probably eliminates the possibility of free will and also evades the assumptions behind Bell's Theorem.
For what it's worth - probably not that much haha - I'm with 't Hooft on this one. Over the years I've bored my friends and even written an outline of a paper along these lines, but haven't polished my arguments into publishable form, so it's nice to see that someone as distinguished as 't Hooft has basically saved me the trouble. 't Hooft doesn't, at the moment, have a completely fleshed out proposal to compete with quantum mechanics and, alas I don't either. He finds Quantum cellular automata interesting in this context and so did I at one point, but he also mentions the same problem that caused me to give up on that - issues of compatibility with relativity.

Friday, August 02, 2013

The Invisible Gorilla Strikes Again!

This video is a test of selective attention, count how many times the players in white pass the basketball.

Casual observers may miss the gorilla, but what about expert observers? The following study tested radiologists looking for lung nodules in CT scans. A picture of a gorilla was inserted into some of the images. A majority of the radiologists did not notice! See The invisible gorilla strikes again: Sustained attentional blindness in expert observers by Trafton Drew, Melissa Võ, Jeremy Wolfe for a poster and here for a link to the full paper.