Structuring society to counteract science denialism

The essay below is my entry to the OeAW’s (Österreichische Akademie der Wissenschaften/ Austrian Academy of Sciences) 2022 Preisfrage. The topic was “Fact or fiction: How to deal with scientific scepticism?”

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The problem of scientific scepticism, or, more accurately, science denialism, is a major one that has serious implications, particularly in modern society where so much is driven by scientific advances, and it is heartening that the Austrian Academy of Sciences has chosen it as a topic for this year’s Preisfrage. Before addressing the topic, I think it is necessary to clarify exactly what I do and don’t mean by certain terms to ensure that we all enter this discussion from the same starting point.

First, I will say that scepticism—questioning established knowledge—is good. Indeed, scepticism is a core principle of science itself. In science, all our knowledge is provisional, should be treated with scepticism and is accepted only to the extent that the current evidence supports it. However, the scientific scepticism that is of interest to the academy goes beyond this, to the extent that people, who lack the deep knowledge and training required to assess the evidence, doubt the scientific consensus in a manner that is disproportionate to the actual uncertainty of the conclusion. For this reason, I will not use the term scientific scepticism, which is a virtue that all scientists should share, and instead use science denialism which better captures that the problem is not scepticism itself but an unjustified denial of the scientific consensus.

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Commentary: The Moralbiont

Product concepts made with fungal leather (Image: Mylo)

This is the companion piece to my short story, The Moralbiont. It will discuss some of the references and science from the story. If you have not read the story yet, I would highly advise reading it first.

The conversation between Olivia and her grandfather about his thesis supposedly being covered in cow skin is a reference to a question from the Voight-Kampff test. In the Blade Runner franchise, the Voight-Kampff test is administered to those suspected of being a replicant, a human-like android lacking empathy. By monitoring the physiological responses to questions about shocking or repellent situations, you are able to tell if the subject is a real human or a replicant. I have neither seen Ridley Scott’s classic Blade Runner film nor read the original novel by Philip K. Dick but I did play the 1997 video-game which is where I became aware of the question.

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What makes a person evil?

The first book I’m reading this year is Mark Rowland‘s memoir, The Philosopher and the Wolf. For now, I will just say that it’s stories of having a wolf mixed with some philosophical musings. One of those musings concerned evil. He maintained that evil does exist, though not in a supernatural sense, and that it consists of “very bad things” and that people do those “very bad things” due to a failure on their part, both a failure of moral duty (to do the right thing) and epistemic duty (to properly subject one’s beliefs to scrutiny). He contrasted that with the modern view of evil which, he claimed, is seen as people doing “very bad things” because of an underlying medical or social issue. I think that both of those views are fundamentally flawed and want to describe a different way of viewing evil.

Let’s briefly consider the idea that evil actions are those actions which are very bad, i.e. at the extreme end of a scale of bad actions. Shoplifting a chocolate bar is bad but not very bad. It’s worse to steal a car but still not evil. Premeditated murder, especially if paired with some other crime, is now getting to the sort of thing we would nearly all agree is evil. But there’s a flaw; except for religious beliefs, there is no “objective” morality, so there is no objective and universal measurement which you can use to say something is bad. As there is insufficient evidence to support the claims of religion, we must discard it. We are left with secular morality.

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Overpopulation and the environment

It’s a weird feeling when you find people questioning something you would’ve thought was both obvious and widely accepted. That’s something that happened to me recently regarding the impact of human population on the environment, something we’ve been hearing is a problem from environmentalists for decades. That’s why I was surprised to read an article by Ketan Joshi talking about the problems in a recent film (which I haven’t seen) and being completely against the idea that we need to talk about population. In fact, he goes so far as to call population control “a cruel, evil and racist ideology.”

I had no idea how he had come to that conclusion, and I still don’t know how much of that was directed specifically at the film he was critiquing and how much was a general comment, but there was a Twitter thread by George Monbiot which is a good read and makes explicit a similar line of reasoning. His contention is that, although the majority of carbon emissions are by the, primarily white, ultra rich, people (particularly white people) prefer to blame population growth than the wealthy as it deflects responsibility from their own actions and that this is, intentionally or not, racist because those countries with the highest population growth rates have largely black or brown population. While I agree with several of his starting points, I think he makes several errors in reasoning as he builds upon them that undermines his conclusions and which I wish to address here. Continue reading

Lineage OS and the importance of free software

Almost all of us carry phones with us, often smart phones that contain a lot of sensitive data. It can be very difficult to keep that data secure because phones often give up a lot of our information without our knowledge or, sometimes, consent. Your phone can be sending data every two seconds. So what can you do about it?

Lineage OS

PIC1Several years ago, I was struggling with an old phone and, as a way to prolong its life, installed CyanogenMod. That was an alternative operating system to Android which solved some of my performance issues, although it did cause some of its own issues. But it introduced me to the world of custom ROMs and all of my current devices are running the successor project, Lineage OS. Since I just recently re-installed Lineage OS on my phone, I thought I should briefly talk about it. Continue reading

Animals – both fictional and real

It’s been a while since I posted here. I better correct that by adding a short review of the last two books I read for my 2019 Book List.

Dissident Signals (2018) edited by NightEyes DaySpring and Slip Wolf

COVER1This is not a single novel but a collection of short stories; all set in a post-apocalyptic world and involving anthropomorphic (or furry) characters. Altogether, there are sixteen stories by various authors who approach the subject matter in wildly different ways. This makes it difficult to say anything which applies to the collection as a whole.

I can say that I enjoyed very many of the stories and the quality is extremely high. It’s also worth reading them to see how various scenarios could play out. While some stories are fantastical or only deal with the world after society collapses, others describe what happened to cause the dystopias. Some occurred because of all-powerful AIs, others due to environmental collapse and still others reflect what happens when our politics becomes callous and uncaring. These are all fears which society has today and potential worst-case scenarios which we want to avoid.

One of the nice things about fiction is while the worlds are not real, they often can say something about our current situation. There are stories which address very pressing and real concerns in our current societies but without the judgement that comes from talking about specific people or groups. It would be good for more people to read collections like this, take the lessons to heart and then think about the way in which they conduct themselves and how they would be portrayed in a novel.

A Plea For The Animals: The Moral, Philosophical, And Evolutionary Imperative To Treat All Beings With Compassion (2014, translation 2016) by Matthieu Ricard

COVER2This book is by a French author who studied molecular genetics but later became a Buddhist monk. I picked it up when I was visiting Paris with my sister. One of my aunts had already been in Paris for a few weeks and took us to an English book store near Notre Dame. This book turned out to be a great choice; not only does it address the topic of human-animal relationships well but it does so mainly referencing French authors and with a slightly Buddhist approach, both of which are fairly alien to me. In some senses it is similar to Dominion, which was written from a Christian perspective and led to my becoming a vegetarian, but I would say that this is the superior book.

Ricard examines the treatment of animals from a wide range of perspectives and over a long period of human history. He talks about the Romans and Greeks as well as Seaworld and Zoos and discusses the religious, philosophical and scientific aspects of various arguments for and against the use of animals. While there are some areas that I was curious about but couldn’t easily find references for, most of the book is well referenced and supported by extensive quotations. Particularly refreshing is that Ricard speaks and lives his convictions. He says how things are and how it deviates from an ideal world, even if some people do not want to hear that.

I loved the book and think it is perhaps the best on the topic that I have read. I prefer Ricard’s conviction to the watered down conclusion at the end of Dominion and A Plea For The Animals is more recent and up-to-date than Animal Liberation. I would highly recommend anyone with an interest in animals to read it but, more importantly, those that do not generally think of animals should read it and consider how their lives affect other living beings.

The Sagrada Família and why we need beautiful buildings

One of the highlights of my Mediterranean cruise at the end of last year was visiting the Sagrada Família in Barcelona. It was something I wanted to see because it always looked like an absolutely beautiful building in pictures and, it turns out, it is even better in person. I thought I would just share a few pictures that I took and some thoughts.

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Moving forward to freedom in the bedroom

Several years back, I wrote about the UK’s plan to block all pornography by default and, before that, mentioned their past treatment of BDSM activities. I can now say something positive about the UK as they have recently declared that several sexual acts, particularly BDSM related, are no longer classed as obscenity. This is a great step forward which resolves some oddities in UK law where certain sexual acts were fully legal to perform but illegal to show in pornography. It’s especially good as we should not be classing activities as illegal if they have no victim. It’s absurd to suggest that a legal activity becomes illegal once on film. Continue reading