Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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  Science Fact-ion by Randall Hayes
December 2018

Un-Sacred Science

Finally, I would like to assure my many Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jewish, and Muslim friends that I am sincerely happy that the religion which Chance has given you has contributed to your peace of mind (and often, as Western medical science now reluctantly admits, to your physical well-being). Perhaps it is better to be un-sane and happy, than sane and un-happy. But it is the best of all to be sane and happy. Whether our descendants can achieve that goal will be the greatest challenge of the future. Indeed, it may well decide whether we have any future.

- Arthur C. Clarke, 3001: The Final Odyssey

Last month's rant about the world being better than we think it is, because we're paying attention to the wrong things, reminded me of another pattern that I've noticed. Western philosophers, most recently and famously Bruno Latour, have made a big deal out of the fact that science is, in part, socially constructed. They are not wrong about this. We are limited by our incomplete mental models of reality, by the technologies that we use to extend our senses, by the political processes we use to decide what to study and how to pay for it--by any number of social factors. Some scientists have admittedly been reluctant to acknowledge this fact.

Still, as I used to argue with budding scholars of the humanities during any number of grad school parties, leaning against any number of kitchen counters around Rochester, NY, water boils. Yes, there are some complications about air pressure (less pressure lower boiling point) and the concentrations of any dissolved substances (which tend to raise the boiling point), but if we pulled a pot out of the cabinet and popped it onto a stove burner, I could make a really good guess about what that temperature would be. I might be off by three degrees, depending on those factors, but I would not be off by thirty degrees. The limitations of science are not the limitations of reality--they are our limitations.

One of the other things that always bugged me about the post-modernists was how they seemed to think the ideas they were hosting were their ideas, originally, when Eastern philosophers had been talking about the interdependence of the observer (the subject) and the thing being observed (the object) for a very long time. And not just at a mental level.

"Literally one-half of your breathing apparatus is hanging out there on the trees."

Sadhguru, founder of Project Greenhands

To be fair, those objections are kind of nitpicking. I actually really like Latour's idea that scientists are collaborating with their subjects to produce knowledge. In some modern clinical trials, patient advocacy groups are helping to design the studies. Much of citizen science is already based on this kind of direct democracy; on a site like scistarter.com, people choose which projects to support with their time, their money, and their data. Currently the Institutional Review Boards (or IRBs) that decide at the local level whether individual experiments are ethically doable have non-scientist community members, and it's certainly possible that the federal funding agencies could adopt a similar model (some would say they should). I could imagine the practice extending beyond the human community, as well, maybe dedicating Artificial Intelligences to represent the interests of other species.

The separation between science and religion, and between science and politics, started as a way of protecting science from the whims of European religions and rulers. Scientists still remember how Galileo spent the last eight years of his life under house arrest. If Alfred Russel Wallace hadn't unintentionally threatened to scoop Darwin, The Origin of Species might not have been published until after its cautious author's death, because he was afraid of the controversy. More recently, as technology and wealth have blossomed under science, the split has been maintained as a way of protecting religion. The 14th Dalai Lama has written a couple of books calling for a secular ethics that doesn't depend on any one religion, hoping to preserve aspects of those cherished cultural traditions while allowing other aspects to change and adapt to the shared, globalized modern world.

From Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, or, A Modern Prometheus, precisely 200 years ago, science fiction has mostly followed the Western model of conflict between science and religion. Modern exceptions seem more common on TV than in novels, but there's an argument (which I have not read) that the pendulum has swung the other way there, too, for the moment.

However, these cultural splits are not inevitable. Eastern traditions don't see the situation the same way we do. The Dalai Lama has said that if Tibetan Buddhist scriptures are proven wrong on a point of fact by science, the scriptures will have to change. He and other members of his order are actively working with researchers, shaping the debate within neuroscience. Until highly trained meditators started wearing electrode caps and lying around in giant magnets, emotional responses were not considered to be as subject to neuroplasticity as it now seems they are. We can now use drugs that disrupt memory consolidation to weaken traumatic memories (something I mentioned in a previous column). Additionally, we've now seen eye movement therapy applied to the problem of PTSD in more than one SF property (though Travelers is the only one I can think of right this second).

There's a pair of moments in the documentary series Civilizations where European painters shaped the emotional associations of whole societies. Religious emotions around death and renewal in Spain and conquered Mexico were captured by the image of Christ on the Cross; the merger of Aztec and Christian icons of blood sacrifice led to the Day of the Dead. In Germany the first western landscape painter, Albrecht Altdorfer, shifted the focus for the uplifting emotions of merger with the divine light from religious iconography to the characteristic features of the Black Forest, supporting the rise of nationalism through linking culture to the land itself. At the same time, he created the eventual possibility of the environmental movement. That process continued through the glowing nature paintings of the Hudson River School, the photos of Ansel Adams, and now to the brilliantly false-colored cosmological "starscapes" of the Hubble Space Telescope.

Art and science and religion are all ways of describing the same thing, the universe. Not interchangeable ways, of course--you don't ask a geologist about art history, unless you want to learn about the mineral pigments the painters used and where they came from, in which case it would be a very good idea. Narrow expertise complements other narrow expertise, to the benefit of both. What would a fictional society look like if that insight--interdependence--were woven into its science and all of its institutions, its laws, its economy?

Randall Hayes, your friendly neighborhood neuroscientist, is right now poking around the western part of India, where basically every free surface is covered with either commercial or religious symbols, and often both at the same time.






To be even more fair, it's not just humanities students.





Describes the LISTEN conference - Learning about Investigator-Stakeholder Team Engagement in Neurological Clinical Trials. Seriously.





This is most definitely NOT what I had in mind.


I was thinking more like this.

https://www.researchgate.net/publication/307583152_The_Conference_of_ Birds_An_Artistic_Concept_Making_Sense_in_Modern_Science

A paper referencing the source, from Iran. Kind of a neat coincidence.





"Wallace's 1904 book Man's Place in the Universe was the first serious attempt by a biologist to evaluate the likelihood of life on other planets. He was also one of the first scientists to write a serious exploration of the subject of whether there was life on Mars." Hmmmm. . .


"A couple." On that very specific topic.

HH the Dalai Lama, Beyond Religion: Ethics for a Whole World. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. New York, NY, 2012.


I was actually at one of the Mind & Life meetings at MIT. It was so weird to see Hollywood types like Goldie Hawn at an otherwise nerdily normal scientific meeting.


From July 2016, "Rewinding the Memory Tape"



I do occasional reviews on this site.


I actually watched this on Netflix, but whatever. Support your local station!




Good primer on how those images are produced using filters. And I see what you did with that Lovecraft headline, Ms. Starr--if that is your real name.



Or an archaeologist. That could work, too.


Kriti Sharma is a microbiologist with an undergrad degree in philosophy. Big on embodied cognition.


Transcript of a talk about the book.

Sloman, S., and Fernbach, P., The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone. Riverhead Books. New York, NY, 2017.

Many vivid examples, including the Castle Bravo A-bomb test that inspired the opening scene of Gojira and how physicist Louis Slotin killed himself by "tickling the dragon's tail" with a flathead screwdriver. Also lots of more recent cognitive science research.


"Interde-what?!?" And why the Incredible Econ is wearing riding boots is beyond me.

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