Paul Davies

tullio
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Topic 195813

I this article from "Nature" might interest our doctor;
Paul Davies
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Mike Hewson
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Paul Davies

Well, he's a clever guy. Often participants from outside a field do tend to ask the bleedin' obvious, thus possibly uncover faulty assumptions or existing paradigmatic flaws. I think Winston Churchill was fond of looking at any proposition ( Britain's air defence during WWII ) however apparently screwy - "you don't have to be nice, you just have to be right". Not to forget Einstein, a real outsider, who swept in and swept it all up. Even Planck never liked quantum mechanics, despite him finding the right formula and concept to avoid the "UV catastrophe" with black body radiation.

Physicists generally, by training or inclination, have a tendency to play close attention to measurements and their foibles. One can't make any sensible progress in physics without that. Alas many other fields, often labeled as scientific, seem to view 'error analysis' as an annoying postscript rather than an integral part of experimental design. Mind you some do deliberately trim data inputs for the purpose of maintaining a desired conclusion on output, cold fusion and thalidomide for instance. I do rather like Richard Feynman's comment that "the easiest person to fool is yourself". The other good one relevant to software engineering is "write tests first" because that forces you to consider what it is you think you are building plus having a method to define the shortfall.

An area of physics well worth looking at in that regard is particle physics. They know what they measure, and the error thereof, but what does it really mean? One especial weakness, in my view, is the ( macroscopically initiated ) particle/wave dichotomy. Who is to say there isn't a better alternative? Strings yes, but where's the physical predictions for experimental testing? The worst theory is one which can't be (in)validated, and the best physicist is one who frankly discloses their own doubts about their own line of thinking.

I believe Michael Shermer ( professional skeptic ) has written a new book outlining the neuroscience of 'belief'. His proposition is that our brains are pattern matching gadgets that self reinforce ideas, once established, at an emotional level. Alas this can take on the form of pathological obsessive and compulsive behaviours that continue thought patterns in the presence of clear & outright contradictions in the world outside one's head. Such people ( and groups ) regress into ever tightening circles of adversarial denial, grasp only at favorable evidence ( rose colored glasses ) and eventually spout gibberish. Finally they repeat a mantra simply to bolster their own internal egocentricity or group dynamics, while of course taking pleasure in the martyr/outlier role if repudiated ( that way you can remain 'right' and 'special' regardless of any responses ). Hence the absence of evidence becomes a validator, rather than the presence of evidence ..... area 51 et al. :-) :-)

Most of this is impressed upon us at an early age - parents, culture etc - which Einstein acknowledged as prejudices obtained prior to the age of 25 years old. Or Cardinal Richelieu ( Spanish inquisitor ) who said "give me the boy at 6 and I'll give you the man". You could view this as an evolutionary/developmental strategy to adapt to conditions/environment in childhood that generally ought remain valid through adult life. Of course humans aren't a unique example here. For inquiry into actual world behaviours a proper scientific method is the bulwark against these natural/default tendencies in us all.

Now as I'll be visiting Hannover shortly, the first home of the Herschel's, I'll be quite interested in what is presented regarding their early life. William was initially a musician and slid to astronomy later .... :-)

In my view the key is not to outright reject learnt habits - you can't reinvent the wheel at every sunrise - but acknowledge when difficulties arise ( even if not ) the question "do I need to re-examine current assumptions ?" In my medical career I've found this to be life saving ie. did I stuff up the original diagnosis? [ Don't tell my medical defence fund I said that ..... :-) ]

Cheers, Mike.

I have made this letter longer than usual because I lack the time to make it shorter. Blaise Pascal

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Silly me for not mentioning

Silly me for not mentioning Edward 'Rocky' Kolb's comment on the dark energy/matter business in cosmology : "we don't need a consensus model, we need the right model". :-)

Pretty much anyone who was/is anybody in physics has an interesting 'world view' that underlies their work and/or an approach to science. Here's a shortlist of contemporary authors/works that come immediately to mind :

Roger Penrose : The Emperor's New Mind and some portions of The Road To Reality

Murray Gel Mann : The Quark and The Jaguar

Richard Feynman : any title, but especially The Pleasure Of Finding Things Out

Stephen Wolfram : A New Kind of Science

James Gleick : Chaos : Making A New Science

Einstein : Virtually anything written by or about him.

Stephen Hawking : ditto, but particularly ( with Leonard Mlodinov ) The Grand Design

Lisa Randall : Warped Passages

Bart Kosko : Fuzzy Thinking

Jack Cohen & Ian Stewart : The Collapse Of Chaos

Brian Greene : The Elegant Universe

Terry Pratchett with Jack Cohen & Ian Stewart : The Science Of Discworld series, even if you haven't read any of the Discworld novels.

These all to a certain extent examine the question "What do you mean by what you mean?" :-) :-)

They can't all be 'right' of course, though in fact may be simply or unknowingly emphasising different aspects of 'scientific thinking'. They certainly have one central/common theme : experiment is the only correct arbiter of physical truth. You have to measure to decide. For me that is the bell-weather of scientific intent - does an investigator actively seek and welcome untarnished data, particularly new information that challenges the old, or perhaps are in the habit of shying away?

In this regard have a read of Feynman's very prescient warning upon the current state of some areas of 'science' ( which he very neatly demonstrated later during the Challenger Inquiry ). I especially like the bit about rats running mazes .... :-) :-)

Cheers, Mike.

I have made this letter longer than usual because I lack the time to make it shorter. Blaise Pascal

tullio
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I would add "Shadows of the

I would add "Shadows of the mind" by Roger Penrose, who advised me to read it after me having been brash enough to send him an unpublished paper of mine titled "The coherent brain". I had taken the courage after reading "The emperor's new mind". He wrote me that my paper was "highly interesting" and I still keep his letter a trophy.
Tullio

Rod
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RE: In this regard have a

Quote:


In this regard have a read of Feynman's very prescient warning upon the current state of some areas of 'science' ( which he very neatly demonstrated later during the Challenger Inquiry ). I especially like the bit about rats running mazes .... :-) :-)

Cheers, Mike.

1974, I think my faith will eventually be be restored:-)..

Edit: If I should have faith in science?? :-)

There are some who can live without wild things and some who cannot. - Aldo Leopold

Mike Hewson
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RE: RE: In this regard

Quote:
Quote:


In this regard have a read of Feynman's very prescient warning upon the current state of some areas of 'science' ( which he very neatly demonstrated later during the Challenger Inquiry ). I especially like the bit about rats running mazes .... :-) :-)

Cheers, Mike.

1974, I think my faith will eventually be be restored:-)..

Edit: If I should have faith in science?? :-)


Well, his lesson is perennial really. As for 'science' I guess the question ought/will always be "exactly what do you mean by that?", as a plea to that authority per se can be quite meaningless. Or the contra-positive "I assert and thus am right until you prove me wrong" .... :-) :-)

Why I chuckle about the rats is the level of logic shown by those mentioned researchers could well indicate they are dumber than the rats. That leads to the Hitch Hiker's Guide To The Galaxy gag about humans misunderstanding their roles within mice research labs .... :-)

Having said that one can be too harsh about researchers of any flavor. They are only going to respond, as humans do, to the environment they are in. That'll never be 'pure'. Our dear CSIRO has always had to tack their boat according to the political winds of the day - I've made earlier comments about their role in deceiving the public about the adverse effects ( well, are there any good effects? ) of nuclear weapons testing in South Australia during the 1950's. So the other side of the same coin of trusting science is who is paying?

One only seems to get good and clear cut work in the absence of a 'sociopolitical gradient'. By that I mean a chap called Struan Sutherland developed outstanding live saving anti-venoms for our commonest DownUnda creepy crawlies ( spiders and snakes ). By commonest I mean those that most commonly bother upright apes. His work was never subject to political pressure as everybody sees that area as a 'good thing' to work on, so no-one disagreed about that ( no 'gradient' ). His only true problem was the 1994 privatisation of the Commonwealth Serum Laboratories who wouldn't then pursue even rarer research goals. We have one really poisonous snake ( of about 10 actually ), as measured by the minuscule amount of venom required to kill, that never actually kills humans simply due to lack of opportunity to strike ( it's habits plus remote desert dwelling ). Thus it would never be a commercial attraction. It's not like you're going to be less 30 minutes away post-bite from a facility to administrate antidote anyway, as after half an hour you're a goner regardless. Wouldn't have had a market for resuscitating wallabies either. Anyway Struan left, but for most of his career had the dream job of an undisturbed boffin.

Another one which sticks out well in my mind was a perfectly executed study by a professor of bio-statistics who in the late 1990's was asked by the then federal level health department to answer the following question "Is PSA screening cost effective?" PSA is prostate specific antigen, a serum substance in low values for all males, gradually and benignly rising with age, but dramatically so with most prostate malignancy. Not a perfect test but the best ever cancer detection test ever invented, no less! He was given the relevant numbers and rates from good epidemiological studies and thus performed a typical amortisation calculation - basically is it cheaper to let blokes die or pick up disease early and treat? No, let them die was the cheaper option, so "PSA screening is not cost effective". The entire study was returned to the health department, went past the minister who omitted one key word prior to publication. Cost. Plus exactly what sort of professor the guy was. "PSA screening is not cost effective says Professor of Mathematics" is not equivalent to "PSA screening is not effective says university professor". The ( largely uninformed ) readers were left to substitute their only reasonable/available/default meaning "PSA screening is not medically effective" and of course what type of professor said so - gotta be a medico, right? Who else would a health department employ? Some media outlets then transformed that to "PSA testing is harmful" .... a baby step for them, turning white to gray then gray to black all with mere strokes of the pen .... thus Chinese Whispers, Urban Myth, It Says So On The Internet, and It Happened To A Bloke Down The Pub.

For me this qualifies as a Feynman type Cargo Cult science, the form without the function. The behind the scenes 'logic' is that it is politically better to defer health payments ( cost of PSA tests today ) away from the current political cycle ( four years max ) and burden a future government instead ( with a 1 in 2 chance of not being the current political party ). And of course, true or not, if you light a fire someone has to put it out and then disperse the smoke - so one then runs with the 'doubts have been expressed' or 'concerns have been raised' scriptings. Eventually time passes, interest & opportunities are lost, while the obfuscators have banked their paychecks long ago ......

So it can be an extremely uphill push to maintain faith/trust in the presence of such breath-taking cynical opportunism. :-(

Cheers, Mike.

( edit ) In my town the biggest user of black snake anti-venom is the local vet saving very expensive horses on nearby studs.

( edit ) "best ever cancer detection test ever invented" : specifically the lowest false negative rates, once uniform standardisation of lab methods was implemented.

I have made this letter longer than usual because I lack the time to make it shorter. Blaise Pascal

Rod
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RE: [ Well, his lesson is

Quote:
[
Well, his lesson is perennial really. As for 'science' I guess the question ought/will always be "exactly what do you mean by that?", as a plea to that authority per se can be quite meaningless. Or the contra-positive "I assert and thus am right until you prove me wrong" .... :-) :-)

Big Science is now a business.. Its results (product) and tight margins..

There are some who can live without wild things and some who cannot. - Aldo Leopold

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