Science and Freedom

April 7, 2012 Leave a comment

Somewhere out in the infosphere is a picture of me, surrounded by close friends, peering into the mystical wisdom of the Communist Manifesto. The expression on our faces says it all. Four college students raging against the injustice done to the proletariat by the bourgeois under the evil capitalist system. Today, I can’t tell you why communism held such a sway over my psyche at the time. I was in college. Lots of ideas held my mind for while before either being displaced by ideas that sounded better or, hopefully, by ones a bit more rational or evidence based. Communism is a hard one to let go of, though, as the injustice in the world appears to be the result of greed brought on by a capitalist system that sees people as profit potential instead of human beings. Communism, despite its failure, seemed like an alternative worth considering. However, communism in Russia and China was no better than the sweatshops in the America during the late 19th and early 20th century. The difference was, people had freedom in America. Freedom to leave the factories or freedom to protest their conditions. Under communism they just disappeared while being fed lies about production and the strength of the country. Capitalism has the evidence to support its efficacy in growing an economy; communism doesn’t. It took awhile for me to realize this.

Timothy Ferris, in his book The Science of Liberty, argues that the success of capitalism and the failure of communism rests in the approach each of its standard bearers used in making their case. Adam Smith used the evidence before him, observing how markets work and how traders, merchants, and farmers actually conduct their business. As Ferris describes, Wealth of Nations is a scientific approach to economics. Marx, on the other hand, high jacks Darwin’s theory of evolution to postulate an evolution of human society towards a communist economic system with little to no evidence. The result was totalitarian systems that eschewed all contradictory evidence, as it had to, to justify a system that just didn’t work. The anit-science strain in totalitarian systems is strong, and Ferris shows how the apparent scientific prowess of the USSR was just a mirage. Capitalism, in combination with liberty, is an experimental system, allowing for things to be tried and to fail, the best or most successful experiments rising to the top (making money for the merchant, and hopefully, great product for the consumer).

Two quotes sum this up the success of science and liberalism (and thus, capitalism)*:

The efficacy of science and liberalism in realizing such results is underscored by the tragic example of sub-Saharan Africa, which has persistent extreme poverty, and where neither science nor democracy has yet made many inroads. By contrast, in East Asia, where science and democracy have been on the increase, the number of people living in extreme poverty has dropped from eight hundred million to under three hundred million in only three decades. 

An objective analysis of the best available data (which, admittedly, are far from flawless) indicates that while larger inequalities did crop up here and there, global inequality overall ceased growing from 1980 to 2000 and in many respects began to shrink.

Ferris argues that the success of capitalism is rooted in two parts: it is based in scientific thinking and freedom. Ferris doesn’t argue that capitalism is perfect, and I would be the first to argue for regulations and that certain things just can not be left to the markets (such as education, libraries, roads, security, health care, etc.). However, when it comes to ensuring a robust economy, in general, capitalism is the best system we have so far. Any system that would replace capitalism must be based in scientific evidence and processes, be adaptable, and ensure freedom.

The thesis of Ferris’s book is that the source of democracy is the rise of science in Europe during the Enlightenment. The natural experimental and suspicious of authority nature of science led the great thinkers of the time to apply scientific thinking to society. It led Adam Smith to write the Wealth of Nations and others to conjure a system of government that would guarantee the freedom of its citizens and be in constant debate with itself. And once science inspired freedom, freedom then allowed science to flourish. They seem to be inseparable, and wherever both are found, wealth and happiness follow.

The stories of what happened to science in totalitarian regimes like Nazi Germany or Communist Russia and China seemed a warning to our current debates here in the states: “but to exploit that power without accommodating the scientific culture that produced it, as illiberal states have done, is to kill the goose that lays the golden eggs.” The current debates in our country, much of which lambaste so called elitist scientists, threaten to undermine science. It is as if, now that America has achieved a certain level technological prowess, Science is now the enemy. If the public loses faith in the process and purpose of science, America will begin to fall behind, not just in innovation, but in freedom. Laws that demand teachers teach the controversy or that doctors lie about the scientific evidence to their patients eerily echo the anti-science mandates of Communism Russia which reported higher crop yields while their population starved. An extreme comparison, but apt. These laws should not even be considered.

Ferris’s book is as much a history of science and freedom as it is a battle cry. Ferris writes in a passionate and accessible manner. I came away with a stronger conviction that science must be promoted and made accessible wherever possible. Freedom works. Science works. We need to preserve the integrity of both and ensure that they reach every corner of the globe.

*As I read the book on the Kindle, I don’t have page numbers for these quotes. I apologize.

Categories: Books, Review, Science Tags: , ,

Free Will, by Sam Harris: It’s All an Illusion

March 23, 2012 14 comments

It has been awhile since I have read a book by Sam Harris and it is good to see he still delivers the same force of argument and brevity in his new book, Free Will. Brevity is the appropriate word as this is more of a long essay than a book, easily read in an afternoon in your favorite comfy chair. It is worth the read, because if you still retain the illusion of free will, this might help you shed the last vestiges of that belief and illuminate why you won’t start raping and pillaging once you accept that fact.

Harris relies on two main thrusts for his argument: neuroscience and a bit of personal introspection. The neuroscience is pretty definitive: scientist know when we make a decision before we are conscious of that decision:

They reported which letter was visible at the moment they decided to press one button or the other. The experimenters found two brain regions that contained information about which button subjects would press a full 7 to 10 seconds before the decision was consciously made.

The introspection argument is just as powerful once you sit down and really think about it and Harris even ends the essay with an experiment of sorts. Why don’t you give it try: think of a city in America. Which did you choose? Why did you choose it? It probably just bubbled up once I said American city, and though you may have after the fact explanations (like, I lived there, I like it, my favorite sports team is there), as Harris points out, you have no real solid reason why that city popped into consciousness as opposed to any other. Where is the freedom?

Harris also makes the case, though less convincingly, that this also applies if you believe you have a soul: if you have a murderous soul, where is the freedom not to commit murder?

Harris also argues forcefully that accepting that free will is an illusion will help us to make a more ethical justice system and that even in the absence of free will, society still has a right and need to mitigate its dangerous elements. Once we understand the real reasons people commit crimes we can either get them the help they need, or, if rehabilitation is impossible, keep them permanently off the streets.

I think this is important, and while Harris doesn’t believe things are going to change anytime soon, it is a conversation and debate we need to have. At the moment our justice system presumes free will, and punishes under the assumption that given the same circumstances an individual could of chosen differently. Harris shows how this is false. However, we do make exceptions: insanity, abusive childhood, brain tumors, etc. All these presume that the individual’s free will has been compromised and, thus, is not responsible for their actions. The problem is that these exceptions seem to be growing and complicate and compromise our justice system. We’re left trying to figure who should be held responsible and who shouldn’t be, and where this gray area lies. However, a system in which we presume that the individual acted how they were going to act given their history, genetic makeup, and neural chemistry, we can ask meaningful questions: can the behavior be changed? Is rehabilitation possible? Or is this individual doomed to kill and kill again? It would also call for a more humane prison system, one based on compassion and rehabilitation, instead of retribution. Harris points out that much of our life is based on luck, who we are is based on factors out of our control, and that, “Our system of justice should reflect an understanding that any of us could have been dealt a very different hand in life.”

Free Will is a good read and hopefully stirs debate outside of college courses and dorm rooms. Harris believes that if large numbers stopped believing in free will it might precipitate a culture war larger than all others. He may be right, but it is debate whose time may have come.

Categories: Books, Review Tags: , ,

Managing my Information Overload

March 14, 2012 Leave a comment

My Google Reader Feed, my preferred way of reading RSS feeds and blogs, was like a pack rat’s trunk buried beneath a pile of useless items. I collected every blog that met some limited interest of mine; I clicked on that little orange RSS feed button as if not clicking on it meant the blog was lost forever on the information super highway. I couldn’t let it go to waste. If a friend recommended a blog or site, I didn’t discriminate, I just added it to my collection. And like items in a pack rat’s trunk, most of those feeds went unread. I didn’t even look at them. What a waste.

No more. I have moved the sites to bookmarks or Twitter. In bookmarks, they are safely stowed away if I am in need of that specific type of information. For those feeds on Twitter, they are now part of the overall noise of a social network constantly in flux. I won’t feel like I am missing out or being lazy for not reading every blog update. And now my Google Reader is very clean looking and limited to those interests I feel like I can devote time to. We’ll see if the future demands future culling, but for now I feel at ease.

There is no way to keep up with it all. It is hard enough keeping up with the latest viral video, statement, or story, much less one’s hobbies, profession, friends, and sports teams. The amount of information that comes flooding in dulls the senses. It is like looking directly into the sun and expecting its shape, sunspots, flares, and other details to reveal themselves through the blinding light. One needs special lenses and filters to observe the sun. But what filters the Internet?

Facebook is supposed to have a filter algorithm, yet I found I was seeing updates from acquaintances more than closer friends. After updating their site a few times, Facebook finally added a subscribe button (as opposed to unfriending). So, those acquaintances that seemed to fill up my feed I simply damped down their updates. My feed cleared up and I discovered that a lot of my friends don’t update nearly as much as I thought they were doing. Again, I felt at ease, but it took manual labor. It wasn’t too hard because at least for my feed it was only a few people who seemed to be dominating my news feed. Yet, why wasn’t Facebook’s algorithm smart enough to know? Do I expect too much?

A good filter is the primary problem of our information rich environment. Humans are only able to process so much information and too much information may inhibit good decision making. A second problem, but perhaps even more important, is figuring out what is authoritative, which information we can trust. Headlines are misleading and reading the full text takes time. Is it any wonder that we stare at our news and social feeds blankly as new items scroll down in a constant stream, like watching the hypnotizing flow of a waterfall. It all becomes white noise. Until the advent of an AI that really knows our interests and can co-locate relevant information for us, including information we might disagree with, in a nice consumable package, it is going to take a lot of conscious effort to limit our information intake. It starts by deleting those feeds I don’t really read anyways.

I Fear not the Spoiler

August 17, 2011 Leave a comment

A new study from the University of California suggests that knowing the ending doesn’t spoil the story. In fact, they found evidence that knowing a spoiler enhances enjoyment of the story. They posit a few reasons for this: one can concentrate on the deeper meaning, it requires less cognitive load while following the story, or perhaps plot just isn’t that important. They also seem to suggest that the narrative is important, or how the story is told. This echoes the adage, “It is the journey, not the destination.” I think this hits it right on the mark.

When you think about the movies coming out now, such as Harry Potter or Twilight, these are based on novels, stories that people have presumably read and love, and still they go to watch them. Hollywood is nothing without its adaptations, remakes, sequels, and hero movies. I loved watching Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Night not because I didn’t know that Batman vanquishes the Joker at the end but because I wanted to see how Nolan told the story.

A look at Disney’s collection of animated classics also reveals this trend. It’s first movie, Snow White, was not an original story. Most people probably had heard the story before but what made it a great success was a new story telling medium: full length animation. Disney didn’t make an original animated classic until the Lion King, and even that could be read as a retelling of Hamlet.

Shakespeare is known for his retelling of known stories. None of his plays were completely original and he is known as the greatest writer in the English language. In Romeo and Juliet Shakespeare tells us the ending:

From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.
From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life;

We know that Romeo and Juliet are going to kill themselves before the story even begins.

In ancient Greece, and many cultures, orators memorized long stories and told them in front of audiences. The stories of the gods and humans, of Troy and Odysseus, were well known. Audiences didn’t line up for originality or special effects. They lined up to hear a familiar story retold by a master story teller, some one who made the characters and the story live in the minds of those who listened.

This study has revealed what has been tradition for quite some time. Only recently has originality coupled with the threat of spoilers infiltrated our culture. Yet, it seems only surface deep. In reality, we want to know how the story ends because we crave great story telling above all else.

Summer Reading

August 13, 2011 Leave a comment
School is done, which means I now have time to work on my Goodreadsto-read list which has grown exponentially while I was in school. There just isn’t time to read for pleasure. You’re either reading for class or resting your eyes.As school was winding down, I did find time for some reading: Robopocalypse by Daniel H. Wilson, The Red Pyramid by Rick Riordan, and Mars by Ben Bova.

RobopocalypseRobopocalypse was a disappointment. It is little more than a collection of loosely connected action scenes almost better suited for a video game. Steven Spielberg is making it into a movie so perhaps the script will add some of the character and plot development the novel lacks. The main plot draws from the worst fears and predictions of believers in the singularity: that once humans develop a super intelligent computer, it will decide we aren’t any better than ants and wipe us out. This happens in the opening sequence and the rest of the novel follows the humans’ attempt to strike back. Oddly, this AI has decided to record the deeds of ‘heros’ and this is how the narrative is relayed: a human transcribing these video and audio recordings from the AI. It is a quick read and unoriginal story, though, it can be fun and witty at times. However, if a reader is interested in the interactions of super intelligent computers and humans there is better out there, such as Asimov’s Robot series, Gibson’s Neuromancer, or Heilein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. In addition, you could just rewatch the entire Matrix series.

The Red PyramidThe Red Pyramid also lacks in narrative pacing but is a fun read. As far as young adult/children’s books go I prefer Harry Potter or the Golden Compass. Riordan’s books, however, are about adventure and the Red Pyramid does not lack in action and adventure. The book’s two young heroes discover that their family is connected to a long line of Egyptian magicians who have a contentious relationship with Egyptian gods, one of whom who is hell bent on expanding the Arizona desert across the continent. What ensues is monster attack after monster attack as the two heroes reconcile their brother/sister relationship, learn to be magicians, travel across the world and between worlds, and search for their parents. I could of used some more down time between attacks for more in depth character development. The brother/sister relationship is pretty shallow and never searches deeper than the fact that they were raised apart. It is a first in a series and I do plan on finishing them.

MarsI have not finished Mars, but I thought I’d drop a line or two about it. This is hard science fiction at its best. Much slower than Robopocalypse, Bova takes the time to explain the science and explore the personal and political relationships that develop on an international two year mission between people stuck in a hostile environment and limited living quarters. Needless to say, things are tense and I only expect the tension rise.

There is still a lot of summer left and I am hoping to pick up my pace of reading. Maybe throw in a few non-fiction titles I have been meaning to read. My to-read list is a bit long, long from neglect, but it is good know that I have a deep well to draw from.

An Act of Information Disobedience

July 23, 2011 Leave a comment

An interesting act of civil disobedience (article here). The man released thousands of scientific articles that were locked behind paywalls that he believed should be in the public domain. I can’t say I disagree with the guy, especially if his claims are true. This is a special concern for libraries who act as the gatekeeper between the content holders and the users. Those subscription fees are huge. Not to mention, the library doesn’t own the issue of the journal. If the subscription is canceled, there goes all the back issues. This of course was not the case with physical journals. Projects like the public library of science attempt to help open up information and academic research to the public. However, without a larger effort and more public awareness of the issue information will continue to be sequestered behind expensive paywalls.

Earning an MLIS

June 18, 2011 2 comments

For the past year I have been working on a Master in Library and Information Science with the University of North Texas. If all goes according to plan I should finish this August at which point I will start looking for jobs in earnest. The library was not my first choice for career. In fact, I’m not sure I even had a first choice. In high school I asked universities for information on their physics departments. By the time I started applying I was enrolling in a psychology program. In the spring of my freshman year I changed majors to English, believing I would like to teach. After graduation my wife and I went to Japan to put off careers while we taught English. I returned to America and earned an MA in literature and then my wife and I left for Turkmenistan in the Peace Corps, putting off careers yet again.

The critical juncture in all this took place between Japan and Turkmenistan. While studying for my masters I worked at a public library. I insisted, despite my bosses assurance that they converted many before me, that I wouldn’t be going to library school. Yet, the library grew on me. Call it the books. Call it the great staff or the fascinating and intriguing patrons. When I left for Turkmenistan, I knew that when I returned to the United States that I wanted to be a librarian.

Part of the draw to librarianship was that I provided a service that patrons wanted; I wasn’t selling anything nor trying to get them to buy something. They came to the library with a need and I met that need.

After over a year in school I have a little more understanding on how to meet information needs, how information is organized, and the issues facing libraries in America. I have a much greater appreciation for how libraries are organized and the work put into making it easy for users to find the information they need. I also have more appreciation for the library as an American institution. Libraries in some fashion have been part of American communities since the founding, and they have always been about providing access to information for the sake of education and democracy (and maybe a little light reading).

There is a lot of talk of the relevance of libraries in a digital information age (and a lot of budgets cuts). I think, for the most part, it is misplaced. As a culture, we are a bit enamored with what our information technologies are able to do: search and find the answer to almost anything, read books online, watch movies online. It seems like a miracle that will bring a day of information utopia. However, the Internet is a land of cooperate interest. You pay for the connection and you pay for the content. After that, much of the stuff you think is free is being funneled to you by the highest bidder. The really important information. The stuff that could enlighten, or educate, or improve one’s life; it is hidden or locked up in large databases. This is hardly an information utopia or even close to everyone getting all the information they need. However, guess who knows where to find that information and has a few of the keys? Your library. And hasn’t that always been the role of the library? To get you the information you didn’t know you needed.

I am looking forward to getting back to a library. To answering questions, recommending books, or locating an obscure piece of information. Just a few more classes and a few more papers.

Categories: Library Tags: ,
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