Sam Drops the Ball

M is for Malapert
M is for Malapert
Total Posts:  1606
Joined  23-09-2006
10 October 2006 18:07

[quote author=“homunculus”][quote author=“made_maka”]. . . I heard Heisenberg at a guest lecture then and OMG, was he ever derisive about the wrongheadedness and misinterpretation of the Uncertainty Principle and quantum mechanics that were beginning to crop up as New Age theories. . . .

If you can find the time, please tell us more about what you remember from this giant of 20th-century philosophy.

Unfortunately, it’s been a long time and I don’t have the notes I took.  I was well aware that I was in the presence of a giant.  It was not a required lecture and I made a point to be there and the place (Student Union, I think) was packed.  I remember laughter as he briefly but mercilessly made some comments on the confusion of the Uncertainty Principle* with the observer effect and other misunderstandings of quantum mechanics and consequences resulting from that in popular thinking, but sadly I no longer remember any pithy phrases.  I know I scribbled something down about these comments but the notes are long gone. 

*(He may have said uncertainty relation - the lecture description said that he would talk about the development of the Uncertainty Principle but he may have spoken of it primarily as the uncertainty relation.  Or not.  It seems like there was less mention of “Uncertainty Principle” than I expected and more of “uncertainty relation” and just “uncertainty”, but I could be wrong.)

His English was very good but not perfect.  In general, he said that because the orbit of the electron does not exist until it is measured does not mean that “everything is uncertain” and therefore nothing is real because nothing exists until we observe it.  This was a misunderstanding because he never meant to say that the sun for instance did not exist until somebody was around to look at it.  Obviously that could not be true or none of us would be there to hear him (this is a very close paraphrase, but because of the other comments people laughed then too, even though it’s not particularly funny as written).  He said there were some implications in uncertainty for classical physics (I don’t remember any specifically) but mainly he was only talking about the electron and about probabilities.  (I remember him talking about “the electron” a lot, rather than “particles”, throughout the lecture, which was unexpected.  But this was basically a history.  We started to learn about quantum mechanics with the electron in class, and perhaps Heisenberg looked mainly at it in developing the ideas.)

All that was just introductory comment and quite brief.  He then talked about how he worked out quantum mechanics and the uncertainty relation (and about the physics itself, where I got lost very quickly).  This was very long and I didn’t understand most of it.  I remember references to Einstein, Schroedinger, Niels Bohr, Max Born, Wolfgang Pauli, but hardly any specifics.  I do not remember him talking about the discussions in Copenhagen but he undoubtedly did.  He talked about his disagreements with Einstein and Schroedinger, most of which I don’t remember except for the part about his being surprised when Einstein said that part of general relativity, the way he derived it, was “nonsense”.  That was striking for Heisenberg personally because he talked about it many times; if you read a history of science, when you get to Heisenberg you get some version of this word “nonsense” coming from Einstein about general relativity, so I’m sure he talked about it in the lecture and I’m fairly sure I remember it because at that time I had not read of it.  So I was surprised also. 

On the other hand, it is also famously known that Einstein thought the theory must precede the observation and Heisenberg realized that the opposite could be true, that indeed simply by saying “orbit” one was already making definite statements about position and velocity, whereas what was really going on was that nature (observation) could only include situations that can be mathematically described (theory).  And in fact the orbit of the electron (position and velocity) could only be described within inaccurate limits, and was inaccurate itself, and the uncertainty relation was about defining those limits in terms of probabilities.  Or, at any given time the electron could only have an inaccurate position and an inaccurate velocity and between them therefore must be this uncertainty relation.  I have read about this several times so while I expect that he talked about it (indeed I’m sure he gave a very standard lecture except for the opening comments inspired by the faint stench of New Age already drifting about), I can’t say I remember it.

For sure, he said absolutely nothing about his personal life and history outside the early days in physics.  Nothing about Hitler, nothing about being investigated by the Nazis for “Jewish physics”, nothing about working on fission (trying to develop an atomic bomb for Germany during WWII), nothing about his family, nothing about his career.  It was not about him, it was just about developing uncertainty and quantum mechanics.  There was a lot of “we did”, “we thought”, not necessarily in the rhetorical plural either. 

I was disappointed by this approach at first but soon realized that it was a much better choice, when compared to listening to the odious Edward Teller, whom I had also heard, and who was full of self-promotion, self-justification, self-pity, self-righteousness, etc. even when trying to deliver a basic lecture.  (I believe he was Professor Emeritus by that time, or maybe just aligned with the Lawrence Lab, and lectured rarely on campus.  Such a horrid person.)  I mean if Heisenberg had gotten into Hitler and the bomb and so on it would have been a completely different piece of history, which he chose to avoid.  While on the other hand Teller apparently could not help but ruin a simple physics lecture by bringing in his own issues by then.  Of course it was not the best of times for him then either (early 1970s). 

Heisenberg didn’t even say anything about being excited or inspired or anything like that, that I recall.  It was just relating facts, almost as if he was talking about another person.  But again, he had to have given this same lecture (or close version of it) about a million times by then. 

Also, I remember nothing about Einstein saying “God does not play dice with the universe” (not a very good translation of what he really said), which I am fairly sure is correct because I was hoping to hear something about that.  (But gosh, this is hard.  I am totally understanding why “the plural of ‘anecdote’ is not ‘data’” and eyewitnesses are unreliable right now.)

I hope this is of some interest.  I am really trying to describe what I remember rather than what I have learned since, but am amazed at how tough it is to go back there.  Bottom line, what I definitely remember: big room, packed, left side of campus almost to Telegraph Avenue (not where physics lectures were ordinarily given but where you could find anyone talking), awesome presence but few details (think he had white hair and was tall but not at all sure), listener laughter about misconstructions, comment about the sun existing before observation or nobody would be attending the lecture, lots and lots of incomprehensible-to-me physics and a tiny bit I did understand, Einstein’s “nonsense”, nothing about WWII, repeated references to “the electron” and “the orbit” and “inaccuracy”.  Pretty sure: nothing about “God does not play dice”, names of physicists.  Not sure, could be learned since: everything else. 

Another thing: did he write equations on a board?  He must have, right?  Imagine a physicist giving a lecture without writing equations.  I undoubtedly copied some of them down in my notes, because I just now remember that I wanted to tell my father* about the lecture in as much detail as I could.  But I have no memory him turning and writing, as I do with every teacher and every T.A. in every physics or math or chemistry or whatever science class I ever attended.  In fact that is most of what I remember: staring at the equations.  Yet Heisenberg might have just stood there with his hands in his pockets the whole time as far as I remember, but surely that cannot be what happened.

*(He, my father, had gotten a postgraduate degree in engineering at Berkeley in the 1930s, was present on December 7th at Pearl Harbor, spent WWII in the Pacific, had become anti-dropping the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and anti-nuclear in general, continued to read about science, and would have loved to hear Heisenberg himself.)

Strange.  I have spent a few hours writing this because it is so hard to remember.  And yet this lecture was one of the highlights of my time at Berkeley.  But sorry, now I’m just amusing myself.

And just to add a note to the topic at hand, Rupert Sheldrake has been working for decades on validating Jungian-style epistemology. Sheldrake’s term for “collective unconscious” is “morphic resonance,” which he apparently still thinks applies to many if not all species (and something similar even to rocks, if I remember right).  I wish him the best of luck, but until he can publish statistically significant results, he’s on my ignore list.

Yikes.  “Best of luck” sounds appropriate for those results by now.

M is for Malapert
M is for Malapert
Total Posts:  1606
Joined  23-09-2006
10 October 2006 18:50


what I remember rather than what I have learned since

And let’s not even get more into what I have forgotten, never understood, and forgotten I have forgotten, which is the vast majority of this very memorable hour and a half or so of my life.  Go figure: it took my son about 3 hours to be born (precipitous birth, you bet) and I don’t remember most of that either.  Just a couple of extremely vivid memories and a lot of “I know it was"s.  Such as, I know it was painful and I remember trying to describe to myself how painful it was (like a coach and horses riding through my body, was one phrase that for some reason came to mind at the time) but I don’t remember how the pain felt at all.  No subsequent experience of pain has caused me to think “that’s how it was!” (so far).

Thanks for the compliments on the previous post, before the Heisenberg Lecture lecture!

(Edited to substitute “very memorable” for “most memorable”, which gives the wrong impression - did not mean to suggest it was the most memorable experience of my life.)

Total Posts:  7998
Joined  29-04-2005
10 October 2006 19:33

Thanks very much, made maka. Fascinating to read your words of recollection. In my Encyclopedia of Philosophy published in 1967, I can find no mention of the uncertainty “principle”—just “relations,” as you recall hearing from Heisenberg, as well. Something I’d never noticed.

Thanks again.

Total Posts:  99
Joined  10-02-2005
11 October 2006 02:28

Well I am a physicist so let me comment a bit about how things work.

Someone or a group of people devise a theory which seems to answer an open question or fit the data better than a prior theory. Lots of young Ph.D. candidates jump onto this as a way to work on leading edge stuff and get their degree.

There follows a long period of backfilling as various corners of the new discipline are explored. Group theory in the 1960’s is a good example. Since most physicists are intelligent but not brilliant very few new important insights are uncovered.

Eventually all this work becomes routine and the next generation moves into a new hot area. In the meanwhile the prior generation has established their careers in the older discipline. If discoveries are made which challenge their area of expertise human nature takes over and they start to defend their turf (and careers). In other words some of them lose their scientific objectivity.

Even Einstein had trouble accepting the later developments in quantum theory.

Eventually someone comes along with a better theory and the old one is discarded or modified. Science has a set of “perfect” procedures to discover how the world works, but they are administered by imperfect people and thus the process sometimes gets off the track.

There is no reason to get up in arms about string theory. There are hundreds of people working on it and the difficulties will be overcome or it will be replaced eventually. People can still be good physicists while having a blind spot in one area.

This thread wouldn’t exist if I didn’t think that Sam Harris has a blind spot in the area of mysticism while being a scientist in neuro-biology.

Total Posts:  299
Joined  02-10-2006
11 October 2006 03:04

[quote author=“robertdfeinman”] Science has a set of “perfect” procedures to discover how the world works, but they are administered by imperfect people and thus the process sometimes gets off the track.

This just made me laugh. Only because it sounds identical to the excuses given to me by my religious family. Every time I would ask how some preacher could run off with someone else’s wife from the congregation, or how a deacon could skim money, or why the choir director was always gossiping and stabbing her “friends” in the back, or about the myriad of other hypocrasy… I would always get that answer back….

God has a set of “perfect” rules to show the church how to work, but they are given to imperfect people and thus the church gets off track.

A lot of science that attempts to describe the workings of the greater universe, and the origins of such, requires as much faith as any deity.
A layman with no more than High School or a few college science courses, who trumpets science over religion is exhibiting belief, not knowledge.

I prefer a rational, skeptical approach to it all.

Total Posts:  99
Joined  10-02-2005
11 October 2006 03:35

You misinterpret my use of “perfect”.

The perfect procedures I refer to are those of the scientific method. They are quite simple to describe. One postulates a new theory. Then one does experiments to see if the results are in line with predictions. It is impossible to prove the positive (that a theory is true), but a single failure is enough to prove the negative (that the theory is false or incomplete).

So all theories are always “tentative’, but as time goes on and more and more data is obtained the probability of a theory being proved false goes down. We have a theory that the sun will rise tomorrow. This has been verified so many times that most people consider it a “fact”. This is just because common usage and scientific usage of various terms are not identitical. This misunderstanding is why creationists can refer to Darwinism as “only a theory”.

As to science trying to explain the origins of the universe, I’m not aware of any such efforts. The best anyone is trying to do is to describe the events as close to the moment of origin as possible. This means that what happened before time zero and what happens outside of this universe are not (currently) open to the tools of science and are better described as meta-physics.

This is in sharp contrast to those who believe in the supernatural. They don’t use the scientific method and hold it as an impediment to “faith”. There is no common ground between the two views of how knowledge is to be obtained.

Scientists who let human nature interfere with the workings of the scientific method are not discrediting the method, just themselves. There have been several famous cases of prominent scientists interfering with the careers of those who challenged their pet theories. The truth eventually comes out and makes those who put self-interest first look like fools.

Total Posts:  299
Joined  02-10-2006
11 October 2006 04:02

[quote author=“robertdfeinman”]You misinterpret my use of “perfect”.

I don’t think I did. It wasn’t a personal attack or even an attack on science in general. Just noting an amusing coincedence of vocabulary. And extending it to how some people over extend what they think they know of science.

Your points are all valid as far as I can tell. But I’m no scientist :wink:

M is for Malapert
M is for Malapert
Total Posts:  1606
Joined  23-09-2006
11 October 2006 04:46

[quote author=“robertdfeinman”]Well I am a physicist so let me comment a bit about how things work.

Thank you for a very interesting post. 

I wonder if you have read Peter Woit’s or Lee Smolin’s recent books about what they and others consider to be a crisis in theoretical physics.  I have not (yet) but have read Woit’s blog and many of Smolin’s posts and several reviews of both books.  Smolin especially seems to agree with your position that sociology is part of the problem.  But what they are also saying is that too many people are working on string theory to the neglect of other areas of investigation, since string theorists dominate in important universities and young physicists are actually afraid to say they want to try something else.  So possibly fruitful areas of research are being neglected while everyone focuses on string.

What would be the problem with just letting some more young physicists work on something else than string theory?  It seems to be going to cost an enormous amount of money to make any findings that could even hint at evidence for or against string.  But it wouldn’t to earmark some academic spots for people researching something else.

I agree with you that it will all be sorted out eventually, but at what cost both in terms of money and lost opportunities.  Surely people should not be made to feel that they have to work on string in order to have a career when they would really rather do something else.  But according to what they say, many young physicists are facing this dilemma.

You obviously don’t agree with those in the field who are now speaking up to say that particle physics is on a disastrous course (not just Woit and Smolin, but I don’t have time to get you any more names right now).  Why do you think they are saying that it is?

Total Posts:  99
Joined  10-02-2005
11 October 2006 05:15

This has sort of gotten off topic, but it is worth pursuing nevertheless.

I see two real problems in science education these days.

First, the number of people going in to the sciences in the US has declined. There are now more “engineers” graduated in India and China than in the US. (Defiinitions differ between countries.) Even before the latest drop much of the graduate student population was from foreign students. In many big research schools as much as 30-40%. So the internal pipeline has been failing for several decades.

People are going into law, business and other areas where high earnings are the norm instead.

Second, the priorities in research are distorted by the interests of the US military. Many graduate students get paid via grants given to their advisors. Advisors work on areas where they can get funding. In the hard sciences this is mostly DoD, with some additional support from the NSF.

Another area of concern is the disappearance of corporate research labs. Only IBM and Bell Labs still exist, and neither does as much basic research as before; most of it is product oriented. Public policies about science and religion have had an adverse effect in the life sciences. As a consequence much of the best genetic research is now being done in places the Korea and the UK.

The US is on the verge of becoming a second class scientific power. This will make us less able to compete in the world.

Traces Elk
Total Posts:  5591
Joined  27-09-2006
11 October 2006 05:53

[quote author=“made_maka”]I agree with you that it will all be sorted out eventually, but at what cost both in terms of money and lost opportunities.

Everything that human beings engage in (socially) is contingent. The fact that we can see what the choice is does not imply that we can make it. It is not an excuse to throw up one’s hands and say “it is useless to plan”, but at some level the near term is a political process. If it is only sorted out “eventually” it very well may be too late for us. This is another way of saying that we are not made in the image of God. Or that the market is not the best determinant of choice.

[quote author=“robertdfeinman”]First, the number of people going in to the sciences in the US has declined. There are now more “engineers” graduated in India and China than in the US. (Defiinitions differ between countries.) Even before the latest drop much of the graduate student population was from foreign students. In many big research schools as much as 30-40%. So the internal pipeline has been failing for several decades.

What really matters is that at least somebody is doing it. In other words, pitch manifest destiny into the western ocean. The pity is wondering how long it will be before India or China are putting robotic spacecraft on other planets in the solar system. I think those students are not insignificantly involved in present successes. It’s not a national project, it’s a human project.

M is for Malapert
M is for Malapert
Total Posts:  1606
Joined  23-09-2006
11 October 2006 07:53

[quote author=“robertdfeinman”]As to science trying to explain the origins of the universe, I’m not aware of any such efforts. The best anyone is trying to do is to describe the events as close to the moment of origin as possible.

But this is exactly what Michio Kaku is saying to the public.  I have heard him talk about it.  He may be saying so only as an approximation of “events as close to the moment of origin as possible” - if so, why?  Are nonphysicists incapable of understanding what you said, which is hardly complicated, although maybe disappointing to those who have heard repeatedly that science is “trying to explain the origins of the universe”.  More to the point, are people who have no training in science whatsoever (obviously the bulk of Kaku’s market) incapable?  I hear promotion of popularized ideas here, promotion of his own popular books in fact, and I think it is disgraceful.  If he can’t explain his ideas without that kind of approximation, then he shouldn’t try.  It’s not that complicated.  Maybe he promotes a book with those statements and then when people actually read it they find he is more circumspect and are disappointed.  We seem to have one member on the forum who did read Parallel Universes and wasn’t disappointed. 

On the other hand, if he really believes what he’s saying, it’s a whole other problem. 

This means that what happened before time zero and what happens outside of this universe are not (currently) open to the tools of science and are better described as meta-physics.

That certainly clarifies your point, and I agree.  In that case I have personally heard Kaku engage in metaphysics and call it physics.  I haven’t read his book Parallel Universes but I have heard him say that we will be able to travel to other universes through wormholes within the lifetime of people already born.  Isn’t that misleading?  Why tell people that sort of thing if it isn’t really something scientists are already working on using tools currently available?  Or does he not make the distinction you do, and is that a problem with string theory?

How about this quote from his challenge to the Long Bet (that a Nobel prize won’t be awarded for superstring theory, membrane theory, or some other unified theory describing all the forces of nature), after he discusses some ways the LHC might provide evidence for string or membrane theory one way or another:

Personally, I feel no need to prove the theory experimentally, since I believe it can be proven using pure mathematics. A theory of everything is also a theory of everyday energies, where we find familar electrons, protons, and atoms. If we can solve the theory mathematically, then we should be able to calculate the properties of electrons, protons, and atoms from pure mathematics. If the results disagree with known data, then string theory will be shown to be a “theory of nothing.” However, if the numbers agree, then it will be heralded as the greatest achievement of the human mind. We will have “read the mind of God.”

Do you see a problem with any of that, in light of the second quote from you above?  Peter Woit, who is a mathematician, calls Kaku “disingenuous” for saying elsewhere in the Long Bet that “No one on this planet is smart enough to solve this theory.”  He says that “The problem is that there is no consistent theory to solve.”  He expounds on that in the discussion section of the bet.

You can read about the Long Bet at   The discusssion section at     (Note: on previewing I see that the first URL isn’t one and it won’t let me fix it.  Sorry.)

I sense you are losing interest in this discussion which, if it’s true, I am sorry for since it would be great to hear more from an actual physicist.  Just curious: what are you working on yourself?

(Edited to correct a typo.)

Total Posts:  99
Joined  10-02-2005
11 October 2006 08:50

I’m retired. I’m now working on trying to save the planet. You can see some of my modest efforts in the series of essays on my web site. My current hobby horse is based upon the finiteness of the world’s resources and the unwillingness of our leaders to face up to this challenge. A good summary of the problems can be seen in this short essay by ecological economist Herman Daly:

I see no reason to discuss Kaku, since I’m not responsible for his statements. I used to hear him on station WBAI and found him a good popularizer. So, perhaps, he is using a bit of hyperbole to spark some interest in theoretical physics. Perhaps the rise in interest in relgion has blurred the topic of cosmology and cause over reach on both sides.

The idea that the universe just happened and has no purpose is something that a large part of the world’s population seems unable to face. They don’t realize that one can give purpose to one’s own life without having to drag in the cosmos.

M is for Malapert
M is for Malapert
Total Posts:  1606
Joined  23-09-2006
11 October 2006 12:52

[quote author=“Salt Creek”]At last. Somebody blows the whistle on the WhatTheBleep parade, exposing pre-digested speculative physics for the carnival sideshow that it is. I’d like to see a miracle too, but not enough to believe I’ve seen one yet. Show me the money. Or at least the physics.

The problem is that physics is not simple to acquire.  You have to apply yourself diligently for a few years even to master the most elementary level. 

In my day, you had to start in high school to get the basic geometry, algebra, trigonometry.  Then I had to have a year of calculus etc. in college.  I may have taken the math at the same time as taking introductory physics (a pre-med type course, not the engineering or physics major course).  In other words they may have designed the two courses to move forward together.  I think I also took inorganic chemistry in my first year and in those days you only had to take three classes per quarter (as long as they had enough units, of course, which the science classes did).  So I may have taken math, physics, and chemistry at the same time.  It was easy though… but only because I applied myself.  I just could not understand why everyone didn’t get it and there were always people sobbing at a final (one girl fell to her knees and wept hysterically after a chemistry final - a pre-med of course).  They did not realize that:

You can’t miss a single step.  You have to understand every concept (“convince yourself that….”) before you move on to the next one.  You have to solve hundreds and hundreds of problems.  Berkeley was on the quarter system then so you only had ten weeks for each course (Math 1A, 1B, 1C and same for the others).  If you skipped one class you were in trouble unless you could get notes from someone.  Then there were the help sessions led by teacher’s assistants (TAs) twice a week.

Okay, so it was only a year or two, leaving out high school, which you could really pick up in a few weeks during the summer… I had to do that since I went to a Catholic (=crap) high school; fortunately my father was teaching math and had an engineering background so that helped.  I don’t know exactly things are structured today, but I’d wager only a small percentage of Americans of any age have ever taken a college-level physics course.

Now mine was, as I said, only the most elementary introduction, most of which I have forgotten anyway.  Still, I was at least introduced to physics, was delighted by it, and have continued to read and talk about it to this day (albeit off and on, mostly off).  I know enough to know when something looks suspicious. 

It’s appalling to realize how many people have no educational background to help them recognize nonsense in anything, let alone physics.  This is a handicap in so many ways, for example most people do not have the least idea of risk assessment. 

(begin rant, watch out for really intense boredom ahead, skip down to return to critical thinking / physics stuff) 

Because of “the media” (stupid shorthand), most kids are required to be under a parental or quasi-parental eye except when they are asleep because parents are convinced that “these days” it is much more common for a child to be murdered by a stranger than it was 40 or 50 years ago.  Department of Justice statistics show that it is not. 

Yet another personal story: When I was 5, in 1955, a kindergarten classmate was kidnapped, raped, and killed.  She was standing with her parents outside of church when her abductor lured her away.  I didn’t hear about it until I was 12, but my mother correctly regarded it as a terrible, unusual, unlikely occurrence that just happened to strike within her circle of acquaintance.  Horrific, but it didn’t increase her worries about me.  I was able to roam freely around Berkeley and Sonoma County as a child to an extent that would stun most parents today. 

In the country, my mother would give me and my friends a sack lunch in the morning and expect us to be home for dinner.  We climbed trees, explored the creek, wandered over the hills (trespassing all the way, but no one cared), visited neighbors, did whatever we felt like doing.  Once I got in trouble for putting watermelon rinds in the neighbors’ mailboxes.  Once I fell out of a tree and got caught by a branch on the way down, thus avoiding a fall of about 40 feet.  (My mother did not hear about that.)  I fell off my pony a lot and sometimes he would bang my leg against the fence or try to roll over on me but that was to be expected.  That was it as far as danger or misbehavior went.

In the city, rules were slightly more strict (because of school) but I still managed to have a ton of freedom.  My mother did worry about car accidents and insisted on accompanying me two or three blocks to a mildly busy street until I was in second grade.  After she took me across, I walked several more blocks to school on my own even in first grade.  And that year she also met me coming home at the more-trafficed street.  I went the whole way alone from second grade on.  And I often took a circuitous, dawdling path coming home, and that was somehow not a problem as long as I was back in time for piano practice and dinner.  Of course sometimes I came home early and read or played with friends.  Sometimes my mother was there and sometimes she was out pursuing her own doings, which I didn’t know or care much about.  We owned only one car and my father used it during the day.  He bought his mother an early TV set but refused to have one in his own house until I was 15.  I walked to my piano lessons and to an occasional afterschool art or dance class at a nearby park in north Berkeley.  The only time I remember being afraid was one day when my mother had told a friend she could use our piano without telling me, and the first time she came to practice I was alone upstairs in my room in the afternoon and was sure we had a burglar.  I hid in my closet for about half an hour until my mother came home and explained.

It was wonderful. 

I would certainly agree that you could no longer set a 7 or 8 year old child free like that in Berkeley today - there are too many people, too much traffic.  Too much for a little kid to cope with.  Plus, thanks to the War On (Some) Drugs, any schoolchild anywhere can easily obtain the most lethal substances.  Thanks to that and to the No War On (Any) Guns and to economic and health care problems, there are more guns, more crimes, and more crazy / addled / unhappy / distracted / careless adults even in Berkeley today.  Not necessarily more likely to be murderous (unless you live in Oakland), just… more accident-prone.

All less so in rural Sonoma County, but even there, cars are a problem and there are more people on the road I grew up on, and they are not as friendly and tolerant of wandering children as they used to be.  So if my son were a kid today instead of in the 1980s, he would still grow up in Sebastopol (small town in western Sonoma County).  Not in the country (because he couldn’t walk or bike to school and activities) and not in any city or suburb either.  There is just no way I would have him driven in a car anywhere every day, and I certainly wouldn’t do any of the driving.  We’d set up housekeeping in a tent along the Sebastopol bike path rather than do the child commute.  Since I’m not in Sebastopol now, unfortunately, I still have to drive myself a few miles almost every day but I’m trying to become a recluse as fast as I can.

Back to 1955: there may have been a note about my schoolfriend’s murder in her family’s hometown newspaper (the event actually happened on Guam, which was still a US military base then) but it would have been considered the worst possible taste to publicize it beyond that.

It’s not that people were smarter then, it’s just that they were not exposed to sensational (=UNCOMMON) events as much as they are now.  People are exposed (to put it mildly) now, and they haven’t been taught how to evaluate this stuff as it applies to them.  It makes me sad to see the way responsible parents think they have to micromanage the lives of their children today, partly because they really fear that if they don’t, there is a strong likelihood that their children will be snatched by a stranger. 

In reality, the best way to keep your kids alive is (1) do not own a gun and don’t hang around people who do, (2) protect them in cars, (3) try to avoid other causes of unintentional injury (fire, drowning, suffocation, etc) in a reasonable way.  That unintentional injury deaths for children and young adults have declined since 1970 is largely because of a government-mandated safer environment (cars, roads, toys, playground equipment, clothing, appliances, and so on - the glaring exception being guns) and vastly better trauma care when accidents do occur.  Very little of the decline is because parents have their children on a virtual leash from birth to age 18.

(Some facts: the main cause of avoidable mortality for children and young adults is unintentional injury - gun accidents, car accidents, and others such as listed above - and this has been true for the last 50 years.  Homicide is among the five leading causes of death for this age group but only 14 percent of murders are perpetrated on children under age 15 - almost all intrafamily violence - and after age 15, African-American males are 8 times more like to be murdered [usually by each other, or by “legal intervention” as the CDC delicately puts it] than white males.  Only 150 to 200 children are murdered by a stranger each year, and that’s in a cohort of about 4 million births each year for the last few decades - in other words, if you decide that “child” stops at 16, you are talking about that many stranger murders in a population of 55 or 60 million.  This has not changed for several decades.  94 percent of suicides in the age 1 to age 24 group occur after age 15 too, and here white males are most vulnerable.  The best way to prevent both child and young adult homicide and suicide is also to stay away from guns.  Females of all ages and younger children remain at low risk.  CDC and DOJ figures.)

Again, I realize that death is not the only fate you want your kids to avoid, but I’m just saying.  They can still have some freedom if you consider things carefully.  They’ll have a lot more fun and learn some necessary skills too.  Such as, it’s okay to climb a Douglas fir because the limbs are attached sturdily and horizontally to the trunk, but not a redwood because they aren’t (at least for a LONG way up).

(end rant)

Anyway, back to critical thinking: my favorite scientist is Robert Park, formerly chair of the Department of Physics at the University of Maryland.  He “now devotes himself to helping the public distinguish genuine scientific advances from foolish and fraudulent claims.”  He wrote a terrific book about pseudoscience (Voodoo Science: the Road from Foolishness to Fraud).  He also has a weekly newsletter that continues to report on pseudoscience:  

Every American should be required to read it.  I really mean that.

(The Amazing Randi’s newsletter could well be added too.  Neither offers help with risk assessment, but that’s just one of my own pet peeves.)

[ Edited: 11 October 2006 20:10 by ]
M is for Malapert
M is for Malapert
Total Posts:  1606
Joined  23-09-2006
11 October 2006 13:11

To Robert F:

Very sensible statements all.  I certainly cannot challenge your expertise and wish you good luck in your current endeavor - I’ll check out the link.

I admire your equanimity.  Wish I had it myself.

Total Posts:  2890
Joined  02-12-2004
11 October 2006 15:55

[quote author=“Mia”]made_maka. . . that was a stupendous post. You slapped me silly with all that good sense. An unknown quantity of credulity still remains in me, but little by little. .

Really? Hey, all credulous people and New Agers, don’t loose your spirit yet. Sam Harris bashing started by Robert F. and gracefully continued by made_maka with generous support of Rod (“I am tired of bashing those New Agers”) has little merit and we are going to dismantle it step by step.

First, let’s ask ourselves a basic question: why is Sam Harris’s work so important and what is he really to be admired for?

Frankr from the perspective of Catholic intellectual tried to diminish Sam’s stature by describing him as philosophical leightweight. Some criticism! Sam Harris had more important task to do than engage Frankr in an abstract dispute and show his witts in arguing where the thinking of guys like St. Augustine went wrong. If Sam turned in his book into philosophy I would turned my eyes away from the book, and so would do most of you.

The genius of Sam is to strike the blow straight into the heart of religion and ask all rational thinking people: why are you putting up with this nonsense? Nobody before Sam delivered in a short book such devastating and harsh criticism of religion as he did. His genius is a combination of great intuition, which allowed him to see things in their simplicity rather than in confusing complexity, and his mastery of the language, which makes the book a pleasure to read. This is all amazing especially given his relatively young age.

The other side of Sam, when he speaks on the nature of consciousness, displays the same ability to grasp the essence of the issue. If it offends the dogmatics on “the other side” I say too bad for the dogmatics. For those who had difficulty in grasping what Sam said on the subject I will offer a short translation. This is how I interpret Sam. “We know too little about the consciousness and about ourselves to be able to say with certainty that consciousness is just a function of the brain and doesn’t exist without it. Not that we can state the opposite, either, but the question is open and intriguing, especially in the light of meditation and introspection based experiences.” In case it escaped your attention I may add that we Westerners don’t have any tradition and knowledge comparable to what Easterners accumulated in the areas of introspection and meditation, and we are or should be humble apprentices. As this thread demonstrated we are nothing like that.

I am sorry for all those who were impressed with the long tyrade by made_maka. Unfortunately, when you go through her writings and move aside emotional rhetoric there will be little substance left. Her experience with “I am I” - what that is supposed to mean? When I was young I tried to prove the famous Fermat theory and I failed, like many before and after me. What did that mean? Nothing, especially given that the theory hs been finally proven, or at least is assumed to be proven. I failed to see what was the point of describing her birth giving experience either. But what really got me is the nonsense she spoke about physics finding the understanding and consenting partner with Robert F. I am sorry made_maka but your long years spent on studying physics and the great knowledge you gained don’t count much when we enter, say, the tomatoe growing contest. I bet my money that any experience gardener will easily beat you in that.

Physics. Overrated physics. The branch of science in decline. Reached its peak with the invention of the laser, radio and atomic bomb. It now entered the grey area of less and less accountability as it relates less and less to what affects us in practical ways. Biggest issues of the Bing Bang and string theory look more and more like theological disputes from Medieval Ages. This is not to criticise the physisists. They are probably doing their best and it is said that the average IQ in the profession is probably the highest. I simply mean that Physics as a branch of science went through the normal life cycle of all things under the Sun, passed is peak and is marching into oblivion.

Dear made_maka, you say that Sam Harris made a blunder by relying on some obscure physicist who doesn’t have your respect. So what? He might have made a little mistake but as far as I am concerned he didn’t fail yet in any major way. Even if he dismissed astrology. Here is the fundamental and simple question. No Ph.D. in physics required to grasp its meaning. However, neuro-science, which happens to be Sam’s specialty is better suited as a helping tool. “Which part of the brain is responsible for manufacturing the consciousness? Neuro-science has been able so far to associate our sex impulses, vision and other senses, logical and intuitive thinking, variety of emotions and, yes, meditational experience, with specific brain regions and their activities. No such luck, however, with the consciousness itself. What the heck, if you ask me I will have a hard time trying to imagine a robot with consciousness and if I decided to consult anybody it would be rather a neuro-scientist, not theoretical physicist.

So maybe science in general and physics in particular are applicable after all bringing the scientific method to the rescue? The “perfect” method of science? Robert F. You must be joking. Part of my doctoral requirements, many years ago in Poland, was to take a course and exam on Marxism. I was lucky. The professor chose for us, mathematicians, the subject of philosophy of science. And one of the books I had to read was on Scientific Revolutions by Kuhn. Great book. The most important point, in my opinio, Kuhn made was to identify and underscore the importance of a scientific paradigm. Paradigm are like axioms in Euclidean geometry. You just take them for granted and develop your scientific work from them. The funny thing is different branches of science have different paradigms shamelessly conflicting each other. Chemist uses different paradigm than physisist, and even among different branches of physics different paradigms reign. Noy only that but in the natural evolution of science there comes the moment when one paradigm dies and is replaced by the other. It is called a scientific revolution. But back to the point.

Robert F. not only goofed but exposed himself to be laughed at by defining for us the essence of the scientific method exibiting the forementioned perfectness. In short, you formulate a hypothesis and then you verify it with an experiment. Bingo. Last time I tried that I got under ferocious attack on this forum (Rod). Here is my story. I learned that Ginkgo Biloba can help alleviate allergy problems (hypothesis). I tried Ginkgo Biloba twice, when I suffered from ragweed allergies (well, I am cured now but not with Ginkgo Biloba) and when I got the poison ivy rash. It worked twice. I proved the hypothesis. Then, I recommended to somebody on this forum to try the remedy. Rod, if you don’t know yet, is a retired doctor and great sceptic who is particularly annoyed by the nonsense of alternative medicine. He gave me a lesson on scientific method, too. Strangely enough, his scientific method carries little resemblance to what we heard from Robert F. Robert F. didn’t talk about the double-blinded study or statistics, which Rod assured me, are at the very heart of scientific method. Well, I suggest that Rod and Robert resolve the issue between themselves while me move to the next issue.

Oh yes. The famous Randi, CSICOP and one million-dollar award. All sounds great to our sceptical ears until we learn few dirty secrets. Those guys are fraudulent fanatics. I don’t have the patience to watch their moves so I don’t know much about their day to day activities. As a fan of astrology, however, I studied the dispute around the famous “Mars effect” demonstrated in the works of French statistician and astrologer Michel Gauquelin. Well, what can I say. The CSICOP guys lost. Not only that but they were caught in acts of cheating and intimidation. Ask an American statistician hired by them who quit the work in disgust but not before posting his opinion on the internet.

I don’t think that discussing paranormal really belongs to the thread on Sam Harris’s stand on the consciousness but as we are at that I want to recall one more incident knwon to me. The CSICOP guys were testing a young girl from Russia who was so naive that decided to put her skills to the test by “scientists” from CSICOP. The entire show was recorded and shown on TV. The girl was nice, sincere and intelligent, and indeed demonstrated some unusual talents. The testers looked like bunch of pedophiles. The verdict was hanging on the results of one final test, which the girl burdened by the pressure and hostile environment failed unleasing primitive, disparaging and paternalistic comment from CSICOP chief “scientist”. I was disgusted.