Vegans have an interesting view of the plant-animal divide. I don’t like it.
Mimosa pudica flower from Thrissur, Kerala, India CC BY-SA 4.0
I wasn’t going to write this article, but I suppose it fits this month’s theme on Medium: reasonable doubt. In common parlance, “myth” is used to mean something that is false or something that people believe without justification, like an urban legend. But for a mythicist and anthropologist, like myself, that’s simply not the case. The use of the word, in this sense is in many ways very similar to how certain people use the word “theory.”
So what is a myth? Let’s get a bit more basic. What is a narrative? Wikipedia’s explanation is pretty easy to understand.
A narrative or story is a report of connected events, real or imaginary, presented in a sequence of written or spoken words, or still or moving images, or both. The word derives from the Latin verb narrare, “to tell”, which is derived from the adjective gnarus, “knowing” or “skilled”.
A myth is a type of narrative. But it’s more than just any story. It’s a story about ourselves. A myth is narrative, which is written with the intention of being truthful, which tries to establish our place in the world.
One can see now why history is a form of myth. It is written with the intention of being truthful, and its goal is to not only explain the past, but to connect the dots from the past to the present, explaining why things are the way that they are today.
History also has other components that other forms of myth don’t have. For one thing, a proper history should have a rough outline explaining how the information was transmitted from the observer to the historian, something I refer to as the genealogy of knowledge . That’s one reason why the bible is myth, but not history.
I want to reiterate that a myth doesn’t have to be true or false. That’s not the point. History is overturned with new information all the time. What’s important is that it is written with the intention of being truthful.
One of the most frequent topics in which I hear the abuse of the word “myth” is in discussions on religion. Often it’s used to demean religion and religious people — “ah those people and their Bronze Age myths” — in a way which shows one’s own ignorance of the topic.
Religion does indeed have myths, or at least, that’s one of the cultural dimensions of religion described by Ninian Smart’s seven dimensions of religion. But pretty much every culture has some form of myth, because we all like to have an idea of where we’re from. It’s all a part of trying to find order in nature.
There might be something to astrology after all, but not in a mystical sense. I’ve been thinking about writing this article for a while, but I just wasn’t sure if anyone would be interested. Some people might even take it as a defense of astrology. I’m still not sure, but after reading Martin Rezny’s review of a season two episode of The Orville, I’ve decided to at least write a short version of it, though it does deserve being turned it into a full scholarly paper, and might do so one day.
While I am one of the first to admit that the majority of astrology is pseudoscience, or at the very least protoscience, there is actually something to astrology. But it has nothing to do with the mysticism generally attributed to the practice.
It has nothing to do with the alignment of the stars or planets, or anything like that. But when you are born has a real world impact on your life. It was likely true even more so in the past. Let’s think about it. The first few years of development are very important for long term health. Malnutrition in youth, and also during gestation, can have long term consequences.
In “Fetal malnutrition and long-term outcomes,” Caroline HD Fall goes over a number of ways in which prenatal nutrition can influence long term health outcomes. And in the past, the distance between harvest season, as well as other related factors, could have a significant influence on prenatal nutrition.
The issue is that these factors are fairly local. After all, one half of the planet’s summer is the other half of the planet’s winter. But even still, it wouldn’t be surprising that, coupled with a desire to attach order to nature, that people would recognize similarities in health outcomes, and other related outcomes, based on when a person was born, and create a system which sought to improve their ability to predict the future.
These systems would also act as self fulfilling prophecies. Once people identify patters in groups of people, based on when they’re born, they’ll act in ways that will reinforce those patterns. It’s kind of like getting cursed. If you believed that you’re cursed, odds are you’ll start to make mistakes, you’ll focus on the negatives in your day, and so on. And if a person is burn in an unlucky month, and they believe it, they’ll start to be unlucky.
While some of astrology is just an attempt to impress order on an apparently unordered reality, the possible link between birth month and health outcomes may also be reinforced by evolutionary dynamics. Just like with biological systems, cultures evolve, and they are subject to natural selection. Traits which are beneficial to the culture, or at least allow the culture to persist and pass on those traits, tend to continue, while those that are harmful tend to die out. The recognition that there is a difference between health outcomes and related outcomes, by time of birth, could have helped those cultures prepare in ways that we’re not aware of.
Mary Regina Boland, Zachary Shahn, David Madigan, George Hripcsak & Nicholas P Tatonetti (2015). Birth month affects lifetime disease risk: a phenome-wide method. Journal of the American Medical Informatics Association, 22, 1042–1053.
For 25 years, Bill Nye the Pseudo-Science Guy has been miseducating people on the nature of science. Is he simply ignorant? Perhaps. Perhaps not.
Prologue: In order to help understand this discussion better, we suggest that our readers look through the following two papers on the philosophy of science and research methodology: “The Basics of Hypothesis Testing” and “Reforming Science.”
Bill Nye has benefited from a conflation between celebrity status and expertise. While people listen to him, because he is a celebrity, he has not earned his status, through extensive formal education or contribution to science. He has not published any scientific or philosophical papers, in either a peer reviewed journal or even any open publication database like OSF.
He has a bachelor’s in mechanical engineering. That is it. He is an inventor, and has contributed to exploration through his inventions, but this contribution would not grant him expert status, if not for him being a celebrity. And while science communication is very important, what he says is contrary to the very nature of scientific inquiry. He speaks of settled science, and various theories as if they were facts. He speaks of consensus among scientists, rather than consensus between theory and evidence.
Such positions take science and turn it into dogma, and he has been doing so for a quarter of a century. We need people who can promote the love of science. But why is his explanation of science so far off from the foundations of how it actually works? Is he simply ignorant of the philosophy of science and the mathematics behind it? Perhaps.
Or perhaps he is a pawn in YHWH’s evil plan. Creationists often reject evolution and other related theories, because they are just theories, and not proven fact. They compare theories of evolution to theories of gravity, thinking that gravity is proven true. It is not. No theory is proven true. All science is in a constant state of flux. But for that reason, it is never appropriate to reject a position, simply because it is not proven.
Bill Nye, and others like him, also have fought a war against religion. Their position on the topic is fairly unscientific in nature. But why would YHWH wish to fuel a war against religion? The answer could be “divide and conquer.” While we believe that YHWH wishes to be worshiped as a god, if he can keep people fighting with each other, it will make it easier to control them. The First Church of Penguinism seeks cooperation between science and religion, because it is through cooperation, rather than war, that we have the greatest chance of survival and prosperity.
And hopefully, over time, people will come to understand both science and religion, and we can peacefully coexist.
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I created this page to explain a point about epistemology. Default to nonexistence is not universal. Whether or not we default to an assumption of existence or nonexistence depends on necessity. If neither are required, we just don’t make an assumption. If there is more danger if something exists, we assume existence. For instance, we assume drugs have dangerous side effects, until shown otherwise. We’re also risk averse, so even though this page does not contain any harmful material, one might still be cautious about clicking a link to it.
The post Epistemology: This Page Contains no Harmful Material appeared first on The Spiritual Anthropologist.
Philosophy of Academics included Philosophy of Education, but also questions about the validity of methods of research and scholarly communication. Questions include, but are not limited to is the separation between “fields of study” in academia reasonable or arbitrary?, is there a more reasonable way to measure academic achievement beyond degree level?, and can people still be world class scholars in more than one field?. If I were to categorize these questions, I think they would fit reasonably well into a category that I would call “philosophy of academics.”
This article will be updated over time, as I build a list of questions and concerns that reasonably fit into Philosophy of Academics (PoA) and as I consider further argument for the validity and utility of the topic.
The following is an incomplete list of questions and problems within the topic of PoA.
All of the questions are questions about academia specifically because of how academia is reasonably defined. Specifically, Academia is “the environment or community concerned with the pursuit of research, education, and scholarship (Oxford).”
It is value theory: these questions ask what value there is in the current practices of academia and whether there are better ones. It is epistemology: it is asking about whether or not there are even boundaries, that can be identified, a priori, between academic fields. What is Philosophy) Finally, it asks “what is possible within academia?”
Because academia is the environment or community concerned with education, PoA includes philosophy of education. But it is much more than just philosophy of education. Philosophy of education includes many of the questions asked above, especially when it comes to specific division of ideas as they are taught, but not in terms of actual differences between the domains of knowledge. PoA also would include other questions, such as those related to research methods and availability. Whether or not peer review is most reasonable way for researchers to communicate, how much bias, and what kind of bias exists in research funding and publishing all would fall under PoA.
Because science is a method of doing research, Philosophy of Academics is also intimately connected to Philosophy of Science, although the questions are going to be a bit different. PoA would focus more heavily on institutional issues, over the core nature of scientific investigation.
Some of these questions fall into philosophy of science, some into philosophy of education, some into social epistemology, and so on, but they all fall into philosophy of academia, because academia is the “environment or community concerned with the pursuit of research, education, and scholarship.”
While philosophy can exist for philosophy’s sake alone, it can also provide insight into problems and can help to offer solutions. Philosophy of academics can not only help us understand academia, but also help improve it, including through improvement of education specifically, the relationship between research, education, and scholarship, and as a tool to help produce better quality data, and more open research.
I have been involved in a number of arguments about scientific consensus. The most recent debate has convinced me to write about the topic in depth. The idea of scientific consensus has been popular since reports that 97% of all papers offering a position on climate change assert that climate change is happening. I am not going to address the validity of theories on climate change. But it is important to point out a number of issues with relying on consensus among scientists. First, peer reviewed publishing is dominated by a handful of authors.Consider the following statement from the abstract of “Estimates of the Continuously Publishing Core in the Scientific Workforce.”
Using the entire Scopus database, we estimated that there are 15,153,100 publishing scientists (distinct author identifiers) in the period 1996–2011. However, only 150,608 (<1%) of them have published something in each and every year in this 16-year period (uninterrupted, continuous presence [UCP] in the literature). This small core of scientists with UCP are far more cited than others, and they account for 41.7% of all papers in the same period and 87.1% of all papers with >1000 citations in the same period.
Basically, the work of roughly 1% of all publishing scientists account for 41.7% of papers published between 1996 and 2011. From this information alone, we know that any analysis of published articles is going to be skewed heavily towards the bias of 1% of the publishing community.
Aside from the “Academic 1%” there are a number of other biases that are expressed within the academic community. According to “Do Pressures to Publish Increase Scientists’ Bias? An Empirical Support from US States Data,” the “publish or perish” phenomenon, where academics are required to publish in order to keep their job, seems to result in a bias towards “positive results.” Studies which are inconclusive or are not consistent with the theory being addressed are thrown aside and focus is on papers that have “positive results.” This is doubly problematic as the goal in science is really to falsify a theory, rather than try to support it.
Neil deGrasse Tyson, in a tweet, stated that “anyone who thinks scientists like agreeing with one another has never attended a scientific conference.” This is fairly accurate. However, in at least some cases scientists also do not like expressing views which are very far from consensus. One of the most iconic examples of this situation was the feud between Newton and Hooke. While most people who have taken a science class are quite familiar with Sir Isaac Newton, fewer people are aware of the once prominent Hooke. Robert Hooke was the President of the Royal Society before Newton. Hooke viewed light as a wave. Newton viewed it as a particle. While light is now viewed as both wave and particle, this debate was problematic at the time. Newton actually waited until after Hooke died before publishing some of his work on the topic. That is how strong the fear of “retribution” for bucking the trend was.
Now, all of this together is not a falsification of the ability to measure robustness of a theory using scientific consensus. But it certainly is enough to question why people have so much faith in consensus. If I wanted to show that consensus was not a valid measure, I would need to actually provide statistically significant data. If someone else wanted to show that it was a valid measure, they would need to show evidence as well.
There is also a philosophical argument against the validity of consensus, even among experts. It has to do with the reason why appeal to authority is reasonable. Appeal to authority is often seen as a fallacy. But it is only a fallacy when the person is not reasonably considered an authority on a topic. For instance, if you argued that the Earth was flat because your parents told you that it was, that would be an appeal to false authority. If you argued that the Earth was round because a NASA astronaut who had been to space said it was round, that would be a reasonable appeal to authority.
But what makes appeal to authority valid at all? It has to do with expertise, or at least the assumption of expertise. When appeal to authority is used in a valid sense, a person is assumed to have full knowledge of the topic, and that they will honestly admit any gaps in the available information on the topic. Because of the assumed completeness of knowledge, an appeal to two authorities would have no additional information.
Even without this assumption, there are problems with relying on consensus. In response to my discussion, Jeremiah Traeger asked
Under a Bayesian prediction, if nine out of ten dentists tell you that you have a cavity, are you more or less likely to have a cavity? If nine out of ten doctors tell you that you have cancer, do you seek treatment? If a survey shows that 97 out of 100 actively publishing climate scientists state that global warming is occurring, what do you take from it? – A Tippling Philosopher
These questions are all interesting, but there is no single answer. The interesting point is that the author did not seem to care. The question alone seemed to act as some kind of justification in his mind. But to use Bayesian inference, we need to make a number of assumptions. We need to know something about how knowledge is distributed between individuals. Does each individual have knowledge that the other person does not? How much? Even if there is a difference, it may be so small that after a few experts are put together, there is almost no change in additional knowledge. So just referencing Bayesian inference, as if it somehow provides justification is a non starter. We need to know more information.
I find it disturbing how many people take scientific consensus at face value. The idea that we can measure the robustness of a theory based on how many scientists support it is interesting, but is not tested. And the position is itself a falsifiable statement and therefore, like all potential theories, should be tested before any claim on the topic is made. Until then, we have only one option: look at the data and the theory. See how the theory matches up with actual observations. This can be done by reviewing meta-analyses.
When I first wrote this piece, I did not include one example of consensus without evidence. I have been researching the efficacy of B. pertussis vaccines for some time. While there is a great deal of consensus on the efficacy of the vaccines, scientific data is not actually in line with this consensus. Studies that show efficacy conflate efficacy at preventing disease with efficacy at preventing infection. Multiple studies have found evidence against the view that the B. pertussis vaccines actually help prevent the spread of infection. Yet these studies are largely ignored by the medical community and there is no attempt to confirm them. Indeed, it seems like Pertussis could be nearly an epidemic but is going undetected because the majority of infections are asymptomatic. To see why, here is my analysis of a Chinese study, which could be conducted in the United States.
This discussion has now been going back and forth for a while and I find it interesting to see the responses I get. One of the most interesting is seeing a classic shifting of burden of proof, from someone who is supposedly well versed in philosophical discussions. The following is from a rebuttal against what I have said.
One of the biggest criticisms against SA is that his own criticisms can be levelled directly back at him. He states things like:
“I’m still waiting for empirical data consistent with the assertion that the percentage of scientists that agree with a theory is a valid measure of the robustness of a theory.”
The thing is, I can reverse this:
I’m still waiting for empirical data consistent with the assertion that the percentage of scientists that agree with a theory is NOT a valid measure of the robustness of a theory.
He keeps ramming home this notion that we need an empirically evidenced piece of research to show that consensus is a good indicator of “robustness”, but fails to see that for the negation of this, he also needs to offer evidence. Because what is really happening here is pro-consensus is asserting something, and “anti”-consensus is asserting in rebuttal.
This falsification charge can also be levelled at his claim, too. You cannot confirm either claim, only falsify them. Which one gets falsified?
Now, Tippling statement would be reasonable if I actually said that scientific consensus was not a valid measure of the robustness of a theory. However, I never made such a claim. I responded to the claim that it was a reasonable measure, and demanded satisfaction of burden of proof. Therefore Tippling’s statement is just an attempt to make me defend my dismissal of an unevidenced statement.
Since initially writing this article, I have come across many other demands for relying on scientific consensus, and I have also come across another interesting problem. Academia has largely become a system of doctrine. The cult like nature of academia can be seen in answers on a Stack Exchange question and the response to my answer. The question posed was whether or not to publish a result which contradicts an existing mathematical result that has already been published. My answer is “yes.” The order in which academia received the results does not change the validity of either result. Only the result matters. If no error is obvious, after review, then both results should be thought of as being just as sound. To say otherwise (1) introduces doctrine and (2) suggests that somehow the probability of a result being correct is somehow determined by the order in which it was received. While such an idea is absurd, it is an idea that seems to be prominent and an idea which sways consensus: regardless of the validity of the result, any result which is inconsistent with consensus is placed under more scrutiny and therefore requires more evidence than it would if the result was published first and it became the accepted “truth.”
Certain people who argue against the existence of an eternal afterlife like to argue that it would feel like “hell” or that we cannot even imagine it. I disagree. There are ways that we can guess what it would be like, and to find a clue to this question, all one needs is a little bit of calculus.
While it might be hard to imagine certain aspects of an afterlife, such as what it would literally feel like, if we do not have bodies, the eternity question is fairly easy to address. Consider our own lifetime to start. As a child, summer vacation used to last forever. Or at least it felt like it did to me. By the time high school rolled around, it did not feel anywhere near as long. As we get older, it seems that the days, weeks, months, and even years just fly by, and on longer timescales, this sense feeling has been identified as being fairly common as people age (Scientific American). This change in view makes sense as we experience longer periods of time. If we can extend this feeling to eternity, we can actually estimate how long eternity would seem.
Of course, the actual result depends on a few assumptions. But consider our one lifetime as a start. Suppose each equivalent amount of time from then on feels like 90% of the last amount. As an example, suppose we lived to 100 and the first 100 years of our afterlife felt like 90 years, our second 100 felt like 81 years, and so on. Even though we would still be living forever, the sum 100 + 90 + 81 + … + 0.9^n * 100 + … has a finite sum. This type of series is called a geometric series, and the infinite sum turns out to be 1000, or 10 lifetimes. The exact length depends on the fraction by which each unit of time feels shortened.
There are other progressions which are also finite, and there progressions which do not converge to a finite sum. But if we can extend our experiences in life to our experience in an afterlife, it does seem like eternity would not feel like it would last forever. Therefore any argument that rejects an eternal afterlife based on the notion of a torturous never ending existence can be seen as being too limited to hold water. One would first have to show that our experience in the afterlife is not modeled by this diminishing perceived-time phenomenon.