Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Isaac Asimov on the Relativity of Wrong

Here's the original link

Isaac Asimov - The Skeptical Inquirer, Vol. 14 No. 1, Fall 1989

The Relativity of Wrong

pg.. 35-44

I RECEIVED a letter the other day. It was handwritten in crabbed penmanship so that it was very difficult to read. Nevertheless, I tried to make it out just in case it might prove to be important. In the first sentence, the writer told me he was majoring in English literature, but felt he needed to teach me science. (I sighed a bit, for I knew very few English Lit majors who are equipped to teach me science, but I am very aware of the vast state of my ignorance and I am prepared to learn as much as I can from anyone, so I read on.)
It seemed that in one of my innumerable essays, I had expressed a certain gladness at living in a century in which we finally got the basis of the universe straight.
I didn't go into detail in the matter, but what I meant was that we now know the basic rules governing the universe, together with the gravitational interrelationships of its gross components, as shown in the theory of relativity worked out between 1905 and 1916. We also know the basic rules governing the subatomic particles and their interrelationships, since these are very neatly described by the quantum theory worked out between 1900 and 1930. What's more, we have found that the galaxies and clusters of galaxies are the basic units of the physical universe, as discovered between 1920 and 1930.
These are all twentieth-century discoveries, you see.
The young specialist in English Lit, having quoted me, went on to lecture me severely on the fact that in every century people have thought they understood the universe at last, and in every century they were proved to be wrong. It follows that the one thing we can say about our modern "knowledge" is that it is wrong. The young man then quoted with approval what Socrates had said on learning that the Delphic oracle had proclaimed him the wisest man in Greece. "If I am the wisest man," said Socrates, "it is because I alone know that I know nothing." the implication was that I was very foolish because I was under the impression I knew a great deal.
My answer to him was, "John, when people thought the earth was flat, they were wrong. When people thought the earth was spherical, they were wrong. But if you think that thinking the earth is spherical is just as wrong as thinking the earth is flat, then your view is wronger than both of them put together."
The basic trouble, you see, is that people think that "right" and "wrong" are absolute; that everything that isn't perfectly and completely right is totally and equally wrong.
However, I don't think that's so. It seems to me that right and wrong are fuzzy concepts, and I will devote this essay to an explanation of why I think so.
...When my friend the English literature expert tells me that in every century scientists think they have worked out the universe and are always wrong, what I want to know is how wrong are they? Are they always wrong to the same degree? Let's take an example.
In the early days of civilization, the general feeling was that the earth was flat. This was not because people were stupid, or because they were intent on believing silly things. They felt it was flat on the basis of sound evidence. It was not just a matter of "That's how it looks," because the earth does not look flat. It looks chaotically bumpy, with hills, valleys, ravines, cliffs, and so on.
Of course there are plains where, over limited areas, the earth's surface does look fairly flat. One of those plains is in the Tigris-Euphrates area, where the first historical civilization (one with writing) developed, that of the Sumerians.
Perhaps it was the appearance of the plain that persuaded the clever Sumerians to accept the generalization that the earth was flat; that if you somehow evened out all the elevations and depressions, you would be left with flatness. Contributing to the notion may have been the fact that stretches of water (ponds and lakes) looked pretty flat on quiet days.
Another way of looking at it is to ask what is the "curvature" of the earth's surface Over a considerable length, how much does the surface deviate (on the average) from perfect flatness. The flat-earth theory would make it seem that the surface doesn't deviate from flatness at all, that its curvature is 0 to the mile.
Nowadays, of course, we are taught that the flat-earth theory is wrong; that it is all wrong, terribly wrong, absolutely. But it isn't. The curvature of the earth is nearly 0 per mile, so that although the flat-earth theory is wrong, it happens to be nearly right. That's why the theory lasted so long.
There were reasons, to be sure, to find the flat-earth theory unsatisfactory and, about 350 B.C., the Greek philosopher Aristotle summarized them. First, certain stars disappeared beyond the Southern Hemisphere as one traveled north, and beyond the Northern Hemisphere as one traveled south. Second, the earth's shadow on the moon during a lunar eclipse was always the arc of a circle. Third, here on the earth itself, ships disappeared beyond the horizon hull-first in whatever direction they were traveling.
All three observations could not be reasonably explained if the earth's surface were flat, but could be explained by assuming the earth to be a sphere.
What's more, Aristotle believed that all solid matter tended to move toward a common center, and if solid matter did this, it would end up as a sphere. A given volume of matter is, on the average, closer to a common center if it is a sphere than if it is any other shape whatever.
About a century after Aristotle, the Greek philosopher Eratosthenes noted that the sun cast a shadow of different lengths at different latitudes (all the shadows would be the same length if the earth's surface were flat). From the difference in shadow length, he calculated the size of the earthly sphere and it turned out to be 25,000 miles in circumference.
The curvature of such a sphere is about 0.000126 per mile, a quantity very close to 0 per mile, as you can see, and one not easily measured by the techniques at the disposal of the ancients. The tiny difference between 0 and 0.000126 accounts for the fact that it took so long to pass from the flat earth to the spherical earth.
Mind you, even a tiny difference, such as that between 0 and 0.000126, can be extremely important. That difference mounts up. The earth cannot be mapped over large areas with any accuracy at all if the difference isn't taken into account and if the earth isn't considered a sphere rather than a flat surface. Long ocean voyages can't be undertaken with any reasonable way of locating one's own position in the ocean unless the earth is considered spherical rather than flat.
Furthermore, the flat earth presupposes the possibility of an infinite earth, or of the existence of an "end" to the surface. The spherical earth, however, postulates an earth that is both endless and yet finite, and it is the latter postulate that is consistent with all later findings.
So, although the flat-earth theory is only slightly wrong and is a credit to its inventors, all things considered, it is wrong enough to be discarded in favor of the spherical-earth theory.
And yet is the earth a sphere?
No, it is not a sphere; not in the strict mathematical sense. A sphere has certain mathematical properties&emdash;for instance, all diameters (that is, all straight lines that pass from one point on its surface, through the center, to another point on its surface) have the same length.
That, however, is not true of the earth. Various diameters of the earth differ in length.
What gave people the notion the earth wasn't a true sphere? To begin with, the sun and the moon have outlines that are perfect circles within the limits of measurement in the early days of the telescope. This is consistent with the supposition that the sun and the moon are perfectly spherical in shape.
However, when Jupiter and Saturn were observed by the first telescopic observers, it became quickly apparent that the outlines of those planets were not circles, but distinct eclipses. That meant that Jupiter and Saturn were not true spheres.
Isaac Newton, toward the end of the seventeenth century, showed that a massive body would form a sphere under the pull of gravitational forces (exactly as Aristotle had argued), but only if it were not rotating. If it were rotating, a centrifugal effect would be set up that would lift the body's substance against gravity, and this effect would be greater the closer to the equator you progressed. The effect would also be greater the more rapidly a spherical object rotated, and Jupiter and Saturn rotated very rapidly indeed.
The earth rotated much more slowly than Jupiter or Saturn so the effect should be smaller, but it should still be there. Actual measurements of the curvature of the earth were carried out in the eighteenth century and Newton was proved correct.
The earth has an equatorial bulge, in other words. It is flattened at the poles. It is an "oblate spheroid" rather than a sphere. This means that the various diameters of the earth differ in length. The longest diameters are any of those that stretch from one point on the equator to an opposite point on the equator. This "equatorial diameter" is 12,755 kilometers (7,927 miles). The shortest diameter is from the North Pole to the South Pole and this "polar diameter" is 12,711 kilometers (7,900 miles).
The difference between the longest and shortest diameters is 44 kilometers (27 miles), and that means that the "oblateness" of the earth (its departure from true sphericity) is 44/12755, or 0.0034. This amounts to l/3 of 1 percent.
To put it another way, on a flat surface, curvature is 0 per mile everywhere. On the earth's spherical surface, curvature is 0.000126 per mile everywhere (or 8 inches per mile). On the earth's oblate spheroidal surface, the curvature varies from 7.973 inches to the mile to 8.027 inches to the mile.
The correction in going from spherical to oblate spheroidal is much smaller than going from flat to spherical. Therefore, although the notion of the earth as a sphere is wrong, strictly speaking, it is not as wrong as the notion of the earth as flat.
Even the oblate-spheroidal notion of the earth is wrong, strictly speaking. In 1958, when the satellite Vanguard I was put into orbit about the earth, it was able to measure the local gravitational pull of the earth--and therefore its shape--with unprecedented precision. It turned out that the equatorial bulge south of the equator was slightly bulgier than the bulge north of the equator, and that the South Pole sea level was slightly nearer the center of the earth than the North Pole sea level was.
There seemed no other way of describing this than by saying the earth was pear-shaped, and at once many people decided that the earth was nothing like a sphere but was shaped like a Bartlett pear dangling in space. Actually, the pearlike deviation from oblate-spheroid perfect was a matter of yards rather than miles, and the adjustment of curvature was in the millionths of an inch per mile.
In short, my English Lit friend, living in a mental world of absolute rights and wrongs, may be imagining that because all theories are wrong, the earth may be thought spherical now, but cubical next century, and a hollow icosahedron the next, and a doughnut shape the one after.
What actually happens is that once scientists get hold of a good concept they gradually refine and extend it with greater and greater subtlety as their instruments of measurement improve. Theories are not so much wrong as incomplete.
This can be pointed out in many cases other than just the shape of the earth. Even when a new theory seems to represent a revolution, it usually arises out of small refinements. If something more than a small refinement were needed, then the old theory would never have endured.
Copernicus switched from an earth-centered planetary system to a sun-centered one. In doing so, he switched from something that was obvious to something that was apparently ridiculous. However, it was a matter of finding better ways of calculating the motion of the planets in the sky, and eventually the geocentric theory was just left behind. It was precisely because the old theory gave results that were fairly good by the measurement standards of the time that kept it in being so long.
Again, it is because the geological formations of the earth change so slowly and the living things upon it evolve so slowly that it seemed reasonable at first to suppose that there was no change and that the earth and life always existed as they do today. If that were so, it would make no difference whether the earth and life were billions of years old or thousands. Thousands were easier to grasp.
But when careful observation showed that the earth and life were changing at a rate that was very tiny but not zero, then it became clear that the earth and life had to be very old. Modern geology came into being, and so did the notion of biological evolution.
If the rate of change were more rapid, geology and evolution would have reached their modern state in ancient times. It is only because the difference between the rate of change in a static universe and the rate of change in an evolutionary one is that between zero and very nearly zero that the creationists can continue propagating their folly.
Since the refinements in theory grow smaller and smaller, even quite ancient theories must have been sufficiently right to allow advances to be made; advances that were not wiped out by subsequent refinements.
The Greeks introduced the notion of latitude and longitude, for instance, and made reasonable maps of the Mediterranean basin even without taking sphericity into account, and we still use latitude and longitude today.
The Sumerians were probably the first to establish the principle that planetary movements in the sky exhibit regularity and can be predicted, and they proceeded to work out ways of doing so even though they assumed the earth to be the center of the universe. Their measurements have been enormously refined but the principle remains.
Naturally, the theories we now have might be considered wrong in the simplistic sense of my English Lit correspondent, but in a much truer and subtler sense, they need only be considered incomplete.

Friday, December 24, 2010

New Hawaii Governor Will Work to Disprove "Birther" Controversy, and Some Further Thoughts on the Dangerous Intersection of Conspiratorial Thinking and Extremism

The newly elected Governor of Hawaii, Neil Abercrombie, is planning on doing all he can to counteract the continuing "birther" controversy among anti-Obama conspiracy theorists. He knew the Obama's when Barack was only an infant, so he knows from personal experience that he was born there and not in Kenya (or in Indonesia, Mars, Alpha Centauri). The facts, as the article makes clear, have already proven beyond a reasonable doubt that the President was in fact born here in the U.S. on August 4, 1961 in Hawaii. But as anyone knows when dealing with a conspiracy theorist, "facts" don't really matter. Birthers, like any other conspiracists, are basically gnostic in how they see the world. They, and the few like them, have the "special" knowledge that explains how the world "really" works.

This is a type of Euclidean model of seeing and understanding history. It worked within a very small framework, but as we've grown in our understanding of the larger world, it became more and more distorted because of several basic flaws in its understanding of how the world really works. Eventually, it leads to wildly distorted theories having to constantly adjust "facts" so that the system can stay intact. Eventually as well, the person or group that holds to these basically flawed premises, either go mad or reject this understanding for something that actually coheres with reality more accurately. In other words, these conspiracy theorists need to have their own Copernican Revolution in their thinking. The world doesn't revolve around us, we revolve around it.

Likewise, this mindset is also driven by a deep seated fear and anxiety (often legitimate in unstable times), combined with a narcissistic and egocentric impulse which desperately needs a scapegoat so as to place blame on the "other" whoever that "other" may be. These people also tend to strongly believe the myth of their own innate innocence. This Myth of Innocence, cannot accept that they are ever guilty of wrong doing, whether as individuals or as a group. Therefore they see the world in sharply dichotomous terms, us/them, black/white, good/evil, etc. This Manichean mindset combined with the aforementioned Gnostic impulse makes for a powerful ideological and intellectual witches brew. It both shuts our any competing truth claims as being part of the vast conspiracy and reinforces the most extreme sentiments within the "in" group.

When conspiratorial thinking is combined with extremist thinking (they often do exist together, though not necessarily. There are numerous "mainstream" conspiracy theorists out there) this potentially deadly dance between these two impulses can lead to violence. Of course we've seen far too many examples already of that deadly dynamic at work, whether among radical Islamists, Christian Nationalists, Jewish Ultra-nationalists, or fringe groups/cults. For those who don't buy into these conspiracy theories, but who have friends or family who do, it's important to both share with them the relevant facts and sources, but also to listen to the concerns of the person who does buy into these theories. As mentioned above, the fear and anxiety driving these notions is often legitimate, caused by actual hardship in their lives and the lives of many around them. This combination of gently but firmly confronting them with facts and real knowledge while listening in a respectful way to their real concerns may be what it takes to walk them back from this dualistic and ultimately self destructive mentality.

But if a person or a group does go over the tipping point, the tactic does need to change. Those who are closest can and should continue to persuade them away from this mindset, but when conspiratorial thinking is combined with extremism it's also appropriate to observe more intentionally those who are thinking and acting this way. Just as a person who descends for neurosis into psychosis needs closer oversight and maybe even intervention, so groups of people likewise need to be monitored more closely and if need be, intercepted before violence breaks out. Now admittedly this very act of monitoring and intercepting will only reinforce the conspiratorial thinking of these people and groups. To some degree that's unavoidable and shouldn't deter public officials or even concerned friends/family from doing so.

Again, if a family member or friend comes to believe they're the Prophet Elijah and begins walking into heavy traffic convinced they're invincible, we don't stand by for fear of reinforcing their psychosis. We call the police or an ambulance so that they won't do themselves or anyone else any harm, even if in doing this we incur the wrath of that family member or friend. So likewise we must be diligent in confronting conspiracy theories not founded in reality, but fear and simplistic thinking. And we must do the same when it comes to extremist thinking, especially when it combines with conspiratorial thinking, since this combination has proven to be so dangerous time and time again.

In the New York Times' article above, it ends on the hopeful note of "letting the facts speak for themselves." I wish I could be so hopeful that letting the "facts speak for themselves" will be enough. Facts are obviously important, but we must take into account that humans are also just as driven by their passions as by their intellect. To the degree we don't take this into consideration our analysis and therefore our engagement will be inadequate at best, and may end up reinforcing the very dynamic we want to minimize.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

A Wonderful Conversation Between Robert George and Cornel West

Can we speak to each other beyond our ideological divide? Here, in this BlogginheadsTV conversation between Robert George, a conservative Catholic, and Cornel West, a progressive Baptist, both professors at Princeton University, we see a wonderful possibility of civility and mutual respect even though they sharply disagree with the means to the end of human flourishing. One of the commonalities between them is their Christian faith, which includes a serious assessment of human brokenness, thus leading to a level of humility regarding all systems, whether public or private. Listening to their dialogue, a rare thing in our contentious and divisive ideological environment, spoke to me and my own convictions as few other dialogues have.

What is the Evolutionary Benefit of Art?

Is art only a more highly developed offshoot of our drive to procreate? In other words, is art a nice accident of our cognitive abilities being a desired feature for mating purposes? And on a more basic level, is art or any other human behavior always and only predicated on propagation of the species? Is everything always about sex?

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Rethinking Our Philosophy of Education

An excellent talk given about how modern compulsory public education came into being based upon both enlightenment notions and right at the advent of the industrial revolution, thus resulting in factory education.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Virtual Virtue

The internet is an interesting place. It’s a treasure trove of information and disinformation, fact checking and wild conspiracy theories, reasoned debate and all out flame wars. The technological advances we see before our eyes with its instant information and equally instant gratification offer both great opportunity and great temptation. My ability to research a topic has immeasurably increased since the advent of the online, but I’ve also been assaulted with the trivial at levels beyond imagination.

The internet is the human condition writ large in all its glory, depravity and absurdity.

If we’re to entertain our better angels in our online encounters, I suggest that we should consider a few moral guidelines to help us on the way:

Would you say what you’ve just typed to your own child, your parents, your closest friend?

Ah, but this person isn’t any of these. They’re my ideological, theological, political, etc., opponent. It’s my responsibility to show them what’s right and how wrong they are. I can’t help it if they’re stupid, insane, or evil. That’s their problem, not mine. I just have to tell them what’s true.

Ah. What’s true. Yes. Such an easy concept to come to complete certainty about. But there’s one little problem. What if your interlocutor feels the same way? Which certainty holds sway?

I am a creature of the internet if any person is. I’m officially an addict of facebook (just ask my friends) after having resisted it for some time. I tweet at will. I blog incessantly. I post on political, scientific and theological blogs daily, often on controversial issues. And as I’ve dived into the deep of the internet I’ve seen behavior that has been shocking, to say the least, and not least of all, my own. We live in the age of opinion, the era of arrogance, the pontification of the personal. And I’ve seen my own worst impulses of self affirmation at other’s expense expressed in all its inglorious permutations.

Above I asked if you would be willing to say to a loved one what you type in an online discussion. Now I want to ask one more question:

Can you (I) be wrong?

I have my beliefs. Anyone who knows me knows that. Whether it’s about religion, politics, science, or even art and literature or music, I have my strong opinions. But I have also changed my views on several subjects, both political and religious, and even on the truly important stuff like music and sports! If we can change our views on an issue that’s important to us, this ought to remind us that what we know is always moderated and quite often distorted by our cultural environment, whether at the personal level of our own families, or at the larger level of our ethnic or national or religious allegiances. As I said in my previous post about the Politics of Brokenness, if we acknowledge our part in the larger brokenness that exists, then there is some hope that we can speak across the divide that confronts us both politically and religiously, but also even within ourselves.

So it’s not if we can do this. We already know it can be done. Others have paved the way before us: Gandhi, Day, King, etc. The question that confronts us is whether we’re willing to do so.
Are we willing to act in a spirit of generosity even in the face of those who are not generous?
Are we willing to admit that what we believe is tenuous, subject to change, and thus allow that our debater might have something good to say?

Ben Witherington on Jesus and Money

Jesus and Money from CPX on Vimeo.

An excellent interview with theologian Ben Witherington III concerning scripture's view of our relationship to money and economics.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Valley of Dark Shadows

Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil.

The Psalmist states this quite clearly. He will walk through the valley of the shadow of death. The promise isn't that we'll be kept from that valley, but that in our journey through that valley we will be comforted by the presence of God. And yet, as I walk through my own valley of dark shadows, I do fear evil. Not the external evil of some demonic force "out there" but of the evil within me. I fear my self sabotage, my self destructive impulses that are consistently more clever than my rationality or even my faith. With one hand I dig trenches under my own foundations and with the other I try to shore them back up. Meanwhile the valley descends and keeps getting darker. I know valleys don't go on forever, but when you're in the middle of one, it can sure feel that way. And feeling can be more powerful than any rational understanding. I will believe against my feelings that God's presence and care are with me. It's my only hope.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Evolutionary Christianity

A series of discussions/interviews will be occurring starting today (in fact, right now) through to Epiphany on the issues related to Christian faith and evolution at the site Evolutionary Christianity. The speakers run the gamut from orthodox evangelicals such as John Polkinghorne and Dennis Lamoureux to theological liberals like John Shelby Spong. Therefore each needs to be considered critically, but I am looking forward to hearing the range of views over the next several weeks. If you're interested in the relationship of faith and science, especially evolutionary science, this should prove to be quite valuable.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Politics of Brokenness

A broken lens, a vision obscured. Political senses sensing that differences will always exist in the political realm. The founders of the American Republic seem to have understood this reality. They knew that we, in our broken human condition, needed to have a political and governmental structure that restrained our more base instincts of seeking power over others. But they also seem to have understood that any structure will fail if the public it's supposed to govern is itself unwilling or unable to abide by any normative standards. As broken as the American public has always been (like every other culture of course), in its early years they seemed to agree at a basic level on a common moral framework that would guide their actions. That seems no longer to be the case. It's every man, woman and child for themselves. We've entered an age of absolute certainty of our own self righteous certitude and of an equally certain sense that anyone we call "other" is our moral opposite, devoid of any sense of humanity if not humanity itself. This mindset, or rather lack of "mind" set, seems to pervade our partisan divide day and night in our political "miscourse" which sees any opposition as treasonous.

If I'm always right, and you disagree with me on any issue, then you're not only wrong, you're hateful, evil, insane, deluded, or any other term of reprobation that comes to mind. That allows me to ignore anything you might have to say or the rationale behind your reasoning to be entertained as legitimate. On the other hand if we operate from a vantage point of brokenness on our own part, acknowledging that we don't know it all, and that others who disagree may actually offer valuable insights, then a valuable cross fertilizing dialog may actually occur.

This Politics of Brokenness, I believe, is our best way forward in finding both common cause and bridging the divide between divisive differences of ideology and religious differences. Is this a Utopian dream devoid of any real world application? It isn't. We need only look back to previous examples of others who have worked from this same broken vantage point to see that it can work in the real world. Gandhi, King, Wilberforce, Day all serve as exemplars of idealists who also understood that we live in a realist world. Yet they affected transformative changes by their idealistic actions.

We must not forget that idealism can transform realism.

What will the Politics of Brokenness look like for our generation? I can promise you that it will NOT look like the old left/right divide that we've seen for several generations now. Back in the day, Jesus was confronted by his own political divide and dualistic choice; the Sadducees and the Pharisees. He rejected both as inadequate. We should do the same. The Kingdom of God transcends any Manichean politics which falsely divides the motives of us versus them.

The Top Ten Racial Conspiracy Theories

A great, if deeply disturbing piece from The Root on The Top Ten Racial Conspiracy Theories. Most of the conspiracy theories are false, a few are true, but as with any conspiracy theory, we must maintain our critical thinking.