Monday, July 11, 2016

Somebody else's book is out--Pirate Vs. Monsters

I had the honor of editing this anthology (the first time I've edited an anthology, in fact.) It's just out and I haven't even seen the final print but I know the stories--they cover a wide variety of styles and subjects and all the authors were courteous and professional to work with. Feel free to skip over and take a look.

Monday, June 6, 2016

A Commencement Address I Was Not Asked to Give

A Commencement Address I Was Not Asked to Give
M. Keaton

Congratulations. To reach this point, you have spent the majority of your life jumping through someone else's hoops, dancing when they say dance, and reaching goals they set. And, of course, not dying. So congratulations; you're roughly as qualified to face your life as a circus seal--honk the horn, clap your hands, get a fish.

That's probably overly harsh, in presentation if not in fact. Getting that precious piece of paper into your hands has, for many of you, been work and it is an accomplishment. You've learned a few skills in spite of the system and a handful of truly good people along the way have taught you the occasional real lesson. I do appreciate what you've done but at the same time it falls to me to warn you that nothing you've faced so far, and certainly nothing you've learned in school, has prepared you for what's coming. While everyone else is giving you speeches about dreams and goals and changing the world...well, why should I be any different? Let's talk about dreams and goals. And how you've been lied to.

You've been taught to dream wrong. We live in the era of the thing, of the end product and not the process, of the montage in place of diligence. You've been taught to dream of what you will get and what you will be. You've been told to dream of being doctors and lawyers and captains of industry. You've been told to dream of big houses and nice cars and faster tech. In short, you've been taught to dream of things.

Is the measure of a man to be the things he owns and the titles he holds? Is a man no more than material possessions and success a measure of external acclaim? Is the man who works with his hands, the man whose fingernails are dirty and who lives by the sweat of his brow, a failure? Is the woman who makes a home and raises healthy, wise children an example of a wasted life? If a man builds an empire and loses it to illness or fate, do you honestly believe that he is less than the man who built nothing because at least the man who did not build or risk has a big screen television? If you believe this then I must say to you that, in this life, you are damned. Stay hidden in academia and live beneath your parents' wings because you will never survive outside the largess of others and you will never know fulfillment or joy. These dreams are not enough, cannot be enough, and to settle for them is to condemn yourself to life of confusion and sickness of the soul.

You must dream bigger. You, the builders of the future, must dream, not of what, but of why. You must dream of meaning. Do not dream of being a doctor; dream of learning the skills of a doctor so that you can give healing to the sick and comfort to the suffering. Do not dream of being an astronaut because it is a thing you want, dream of it because it will let you lead mankind to the stars and a better future. Do not dream of being something because it is a thing you want, dream of it because of what it will allow you to give and to make. Always, always know why you desire a thing and what you dream of doing with it. Only in reasons, only in the whys, do the things have meaning. The day you desire a thing--a job, a title, or an object--and you don't know why you want it and what process, what cause, it will further, that is the day you have failed, no matter how big the thing. Alexander looked upon the world he had conquered and wept because there was nothing left. A man can do great things with an empire. He can do great things for an empire. An empire for its own sake is despair.

If the measure of a dream is in its meaning and if the value of a thing is its purpose, then everything is of value. This is more important than it sounds. In this day of things, you've been taught to dream of big things, that bigger is better and less is failure. But the freedom of meaning comes with the freedom from boxes and an appreciation of true value. Is it a noble dream to want to cure cancer? Maybe. If your reasons are right. If your methods are right. If you act out of love rather than selfishness. Is it a noble dream to want to dig ditches? The answer is the same. Obviously, our society would disagree but I put it to you that a man who cured cancer for no greater reason than money and power, for the things he would get, is in his heart less of a man than the man who labors day in and day out to dig good ditches because he wants the water to flow as it should so that his neighbors fields will not be flooded and the roads will not wash away. The man who cures, cures for himself but the man who digs, digs for everyone. The latter is a better man. No glamour, no riches, no TV interviews and tickertape parades but his dream is bigger, his purpose nobler, his value--his real value--much, much greater.

Crazy? Surely, you say, a cure for any disease, for whatever reason, if worth more than some track in the dirt. How can I even compare the suffering of millions to some mud?

And I answer, worth more to whom? To society, to industry, to the government? Where does you heart lay? Where do you owe your service? To the masses, to the greatest good for the greatest number? To your family, your neighbor, your self? To your God, your cause, your art or your vision? Who do you serve?

Every man will give a different answer and that is as it should be. Because you don't answer to me or anyone else; you answer to yourself, to your own purposes and your own meaning. I did not say the actions--the things--were equal or that one was better than the other. I said one man was better than the other. You are not measured by what you are; you are measured by who you are. To act in service and love is better than to act merely for personal gain.

These things, these motives, the world cannot see. It can't even understand. That's why being free is hard. It is a lonely life and no one else can justify it for you. I'm not telling you this so you can be popular and rich; other people have stuffed your head full of that already. I'm telling you how to look at the face in the mirror as you grow older and be able to meet the eyes staring back. I'm talking about dignity and self-respect, of a life without regrets. I'm talking about how not to feel the soul-crushing emptiness of despair on your deathbed when you realize that all the toys and fans in the world don't amount to a handful of ash.

And what good is a cure for cancer if the roads have washed out and it can't reach the people who need it? You are too small to know what truly matters and what doesn't, to see which of your actions change the world and which merely spin you wheels. And what if the ditch digger slaves his entire life to put his child through medical school and it is that child who finds even greater cures for even worse diseases? Well, more the fool are we for trying to be the judge and jury. If we do everything we do for a reason and the reasons are good, then our greatest failing is not being omniscient and that is out of our hands.

I'm not saying to lower your aim and settle for anything less that what you truly feel you should do. I'm saying that all true dreams--that noble goals based on meaning--are so big and so important that even the smallest of these are worth pursuing and are greater any dreams of mere things.

A final point before I'm thrown out. You have been told to dream great and big dreams. Has anyone told you what to do when you fail? For that matter, has anyone told you that you will fail?

You will. Of the few things in life that is certain, failure is one of them. That's because failure isn't an ending; it's part of the process. You don't win on your first try, there is no silver bullet, and even people who get struck by lightning and win the lottery don't know what to do with it. You start, you fall, to get back up and you try again. And again and again. It's called learning. Failing is as much a natural part of progress and pursing your dreams as breathing. The only time you really fail is when you quit. And sometimes not even then.

Listen. Despite what you've been led to believe, you don't cross the stage, get a degree, walk outside, and have someone hire you for your dream job at maximum salary and plenty of perks. Most of life is taking what you can get, making the most of it, and building up to that great goal that you may or may not ever reach. There will be setbacks and failures and unexpected detours. Maybe you'll change your mind and dream a new dream. None of it matters. What matters is you. Who you are. Why you are.

Because in every step, you will find the why. In everything you do, there is a reason, there is a meaning. You don't have to flip burgers at minimum wage because you have to because you're a loser in life. You can choose to provide food, service, and a pleasant work environment to the people around you instead. Where other people see a janitor mopping the floor, there might really be a man learning the business from the ground up while providing a needed service and meeting people he would otherwise not get to meet. Or maybe he is "just" the janitor, taking care of the cleaning and the trash so that the guy he works with has the time to find a cure for the wasting disease. Or maybe he's working this job to make the seed capital to start the next great business. You don't know; you can't know. What you can do is choose to find the meaning in everything you do, every step of the way, and in doing so make every moment of your life significant.

There is a word for this, an old, rarely used word. Teleology, the study of meaning. There's an even older word. Wisdom.

In our pursuit of science and knowledge, in the desire to know how and what, we have forgotten why we sought these things to start with. We have forgotten why. We have abandoned why. Because to ask why, to ask what we are to do with knowledge and what is its purpose, is to oblige ourselves to use that knowledge. No longer can we be passive, no longer removed observes, to acknowledge meaning is to act. Meaning and purpose mandate a response. The very act of wondering drafts us into a war that we can never escape. A war for meaning, for significance, for duty and honor and sacrifice, for all the antiquated, romantic, demeaned concepts that today's society sneers at. Cynicism and condescension are masks for fear and apathy. The truly noble, those who truly dream of causes worthy of pursuing, have grown up. They have left the playground for the battlefield. This day I exhort you, leave behind your peers, leave behind the opinions of others and the approval of your society. This day declare the only acclaim you seek is your own and that of your God. This day put aside childhood and stand as adults. Dream as adults. Strive as adults. Measure yourselves as adults.

Welcome to freedom. Terrifying isn't it?

Monday, April 25, 2016

Still not dead: a status update

I don't update often so it's hard for readers to tell if I'm busy, lazy, or laying bleeding in a ditch. Well, recently I haven't been updating the blog because I've been (slowly) updating life. Like pushing a rock up a mountain in hell, we are gradually, grudgingly trying to actually enter the twentieth century. That's right: a house. After almost a decade living in a tin can, we're again trying to fight the system and achieve the great dream of living in the same building as my books.

Do we have financing? No. Maybe. Yes but the bank won't commit to it until I jump through even more hoops and then they'll only pay part of it and even then they don't want to let us build what we what, just what they want. Do we have a builder or the like? Nope. They don't want to talk to me unless I have financing (even though one of the things the bank wants is to know who my builder is--everything is a circle.) Do I have "permission" from the county? Yeah, hard to wrap my head around that one, that I have to get permission to use my own land for my own purposes. I'm starting to consider "gray market" options. Or I might have to put a lawyer on payroll to deal with the local kleptocracy.

But what we do have is the decision that it will be done, somehow. The perk test is done, the septic is laid out (though not installed), and we actually know how much space we have to work with. It might take another year and I might have to skip a convention or two (hope not) and it definitely is cutting into my writing but...

More information when I have it.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Somebody Else's Book Is Out

Now why, you might ask, would I be posting someone else's book on my blog? Because I did the editing.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Travel Update-Conclave

And now I am home from ConClave. A day late but home in more or less one piece.

Great time had by all, etc. Details later, sleep now.

The typo in the biography in the programming book was my fault.

A quick clarification of the Brass Africa stories if anyone was interested:

Stories currently released, in series order:
Black Rhino (in Dreams of Steam I)
Grass Elephant (in Dreams of Steam II)
Stone Oracle (in Midnight Screaming)
Matua's Bats (scheduled for Dreams of Steam V)
Crippled Falcon (originally schedule for DOS III and IV, delayed by publisher for release in a later project due to length)

If you're interested in the series, I strongly suggest you start with Grass Elephant in DOS II. It is long, solid and introduces most of the major players. Once you read it, you will know if you want to read the rest. Love it: you'll love them all. Don't like it: you will probably like some of the other stories but not the main continuity. Grass Elephant has the strongest voice.

Sleep now.

Monday, October 5, 2015

ConClave 2015 Schedule

Fri 10pm Greenfield Fantasy for Young Adults

Fri 11pm Greenfield Value for the Dollar

Sat 11am Dearborn Diversity in SF

Sat noon Warren Self-Editing

Sat 1pm Dearborn Story Structure

Sat 2pm Allen Park My Favorite Words

Sat 4pm Warren SF Match Game

Sat 8pm Fairlane Apocalypse Now (& Then)

Sat 9pm Fairlane One Day at a Time

Sun noon Dearborn Playing in Someone Else's Sandbox

Sun 1pm Dearborn Starvation & Sell Outs

Friday, October 2, 2015

Travel Update

Due to a family emergency, I did not, in fact, make it to the Springdale, Arkansas library last weekend. I am very sorry about that and if you did make the trip to see me, let me know by email or a post here and I will try to work out a way to get your books signed. I take the loyalty of my (small handful of) readers seriously and I hate very much to disappoint.

On a related note, I am still attending ConClave and I'll post my schedule as soon as I have one. In fairness, I should warn you that I will not be my usual, bouncing, dancing monkey self but I will be there.

Thank you for understanding.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Conclave 2015 (Links never work when I put them in so this time I'm not going to try.)

As you can see when you follow the link, I am not only attending but have been classed as a "Special Guest." That's quite an honor, especially since this has been a year when I have had NOTHING come out. (Publishing schedules are weird sometimes; 2016 should have several short stories and, I expect, at least one book.)

Nevertheless, "Year of Nothing" is a pretty good description for this year. You can tell from the previous posts that, except for the essay on skepticism I promised, I haven't posted anything and I've only done one local book signing. (I do plan to do the local library's yearly author event.)

Part of the reason is that I don't have anything new to push but part of it is the year itself. I flat out lost about six months to a very severe depressive cycle but, after that, there's been a lot of "life." Some good, some bad, all wearying. I didn't even attend my usual southern convention.

Well, there's that. But I'll be at Conclave, as their Special Guest.

And now I'll ramble about something else.

I'm very honored to be a guest at Conclave but it's hard to be graceful about it. The reason is simple: I don't know how. You see, unlike most people, I was raised by dogs. Border collies to be precise. That (plus a certain degree of "mental instability") has left me with a noticeable lack of human social skills. I don't like the unknown (which the inter-human interaction always is) and I don't like 'obligation.' I am acutely aware of my own failing and that there are people significantly more worthy of accolade than I am. And yet, there are people in this world--especially the people of the SFF community--who inexplicably hold me in high regard. I don't understand it. Appreciate it, yes; understand it, no. Deserve it? Most definitely not. This has led over the years to a confused attempt to do what seems to come naturally to most people: acceptance. Of praise, of charity, of appreciation, of the fact that other people like my work. So, after this long and convoluted explanation, all I really know to say is:

Thank you.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Book Signing

For those that are interested, I am signing books at the Barnes and Noble in Rodgers, Arkansas this Saturday (June 20). Drop by and say hello if you're in the area.


Tuesday, May 19, 2015

On Skepticism (Part 4, Conclusion)

As a conclusion to this discussion, I'd like to take a look at a few areas that already have solid backing but that have implications set solidly in the skeptical 'hands off' zone: mind-matter interaction, the observer effect, and information transfer at a distance.
Can the mind, consciousness, affect the material world? The skeptical answer is negative, but in reality it's already happening every day. Lift up your hand. Now, what did that? Random chemical impulses in your brain? Your consciousness sending signals to your physical body? I'm the one who wrote 'lift up your hand.' Maybe it was my consciousness influencing yours influencing your body. It seems a pretty arbitrary distinction. Next, let's look instead at the placebo effect. It's a common occurrence with a fairly strong effect. It's medically recognized and accepted…and nobody really knows why it happens. What is called the placebo effect could also be called the perceptions of the conscious mind directly influencing the behavior of the material universe. Or if you want to be more dramatic about it, psychokinesis. It's not as exciting as bending spoons or lighting fires with your mind but the effect is there, it's significant, and it has huge potential life-saving implications. So why not study it?
Is our theory of vision incomplete? The double-slit experiment in optical physics has shown that light behaves differently if it is being directly observed. (Weird? Oh yes but that doesn't make it any less real. If this is the first time you've heard of the effect, I'll wait while you go look it up. Trust me, it's worth the effort.) If we know that observing light changes its behavior why are we willfully ignoring the logical outgrowth of that fact? Is it because there is something special about our vision or is it that our consciousness is somehow extended toward the photons when we are observing, or is it something else entirely? The implications are huge. So why not study it?
Bell's Theory (of linked-spin electron pairs) tells us that information can be shared without regard for distance or time with no direct exchange of energy between the actors. To oversimplify: once connected, always connected. There's also quantum tunneling effects (a.k.a. teleportation). That's on the quantum level. Does this effect scale up? Does it even need to, since in many systems from nanotechnology to organic life the slight change even at the quantum level could produce a significant ripple effect? Did I mention irrespective of distance or time, as in faster than light and exempt from linear causality? If nothing else, somebody's going to make a really keen phone. (I think Lucent is working on that now.) Given all of this, why is the idea that a mother can sense when her child is hurt such a forbidden idea? Sure, the body replaced all the original shared atoms long ago, but the replaced material may very well have overlapped with retained material long enough to pass down the entanglement. Twins also would have significant linkage for the same reason. The existing model of physics includes a mechanism that would explain what is commonly called telepathy. So why not study it?
The answer in every case is that someone is studying it, in the private sector, with their own time and money. What you won't hear, and what skeptics will scream to drown out, is that they are doing so with rigorous experimental controls, high levels of interlaboratory reproducibility, and significant success. Reproducible experiments. That sounds like science. Unless the implications of those results threaten your worldview and undermine the philosophy you already don't have much confidence in. Then it sounds like skeptics debunking research they've never looked at and have no intention of testing themselves.
In the end, it's all about the philosophy you choose. One the one hand stands a tool that is very efficient and points the way to knowledge and wonder. On the other, a power struggle for consensus where only the elite may play, the gains are limited, and you might not even be real. I put it to you: Do you want science with its wide-open frontiers? Or do you want skepticism?

Friday, May 15, 2015

On Skepticism (Part 3)

Let me tie this all together by addressing the typical skeptical attacks on "pseudo-sciences" like psi, dowsing, and, increasingly, some aspects of quantum mechanics itself.
Note: Bear in mind as I do that a clash of philosophies is a clash of worldviews. I obviously have deep-seated views and vested interests on the subject. So does the other side. There are an entire host of psychological factors at play here. Because I know my own bias and recognize that I have it, I strongly encourage you to look into the subject yourself if anything I've said piques your interest.
Now, on to the common rhetorical points of the skeptical argument seen from the perspective of skepticism as a philosophy rather than an intrinsic part of science.

"There is not one shred of evidence…" Of course there's evidence, even for the most specious of claim. The question is how defensible and reproducible is the evidence.

"Anecdotal evidence is not evidence at all." It's called a case study. Unless you're willing to throw away the entire field of medicine (and most other life sciences for that matter), this is a dishonest critique. In fact, any data collected before the advent of automated recording is anecdotal, since it was processed through human researchers. Moreover, since most people do not look at raw data but rather the processed data presented in research papers, the overwhelming majority of data could be considered anecdotal. There is, however, a strong need for skeptics to discredit anecdotal evidence--the bulk of human history is a body of evidence. If this mass of evidence is allowed into the discussion, simple mockery and dismissal of the inconvenient becomes much more difficult. This is especially relevant in consciousness studies.

"Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof." Not to science. Science says data is data. Deciding what is extraordinary is a subjective act. For example, what level of extraordinary proof could possibly support the contention that the entire universe arose as a point-mass of probability from a quantum foam of unknown origin which then exploded into all of existence in a matter of picoseconds, before all known laws of physics suddenly altered and have remained constant to this day, eventually giving rise to life against all known laws of probability? I'd need to see more than a pie-chart to buy into that one.

"There may be some results but if you look closely, it's really all fraud, bias, and/or poor experimental design. And what about the 'file drawer' effect?'" Wherever there are humans there absolutely is fraud, bias, and mistakes, but why should we assume this only occurs in areas outside of establishment science? Remember Millikin? The history of science is rife with all of these. But science, Popperian science, rectifies these concerns through independent replication. In many areas labeled 'pseudo-science' such as psi research, the constant pressure of skeptics has actually resulted in an interesting phenomenon: the 'fringe' studies now have more scientific procedural rigor than mainstream science. Most people don't know this because it's a lot of work to keep up with ongoing research if it doesn't overlap with their daily life, which is why we rely on experts to filter information for us. Unfortunately, this also makes us vulnerable to Kuhnian consensus and skeptical broad brushing. The 'file drawer effect' is the accusation that only the 'good' studies get published and the others vanish into the bottom of a file drawer. This happens in everything but, again, it's not common and the para-science community is very conscious of it. Because of this, it is common practice, when presenting data, to calculate the number of failed studies that would be required to invalidate the observed data. As more and more data has accumulated, in many fields, there now simply are not enough file drawers in existence to bury enough data to invalidate the results.

"I don't need to look at their data to know that it's wrong." This is a biggie. It is an admission of arguing from ignorance, and of presupposing the answer before examining the data. It's not scientific, it's not honest, and it's not a very smart thing to admit.

"I don't need to waste time and effort doing counter-studies." Then how, pray tell, can you then claim that the data is invalid? Oh, right, I'm thinking like a Popperian. In the Kuhnian world, it's about consensus and social activity, not falsibility and data.

"Science has already reached a consensus on this matter. The real question is, what psychologically is wrong with you that you cannot accept the data?" Attacking the messenger rather than the message is an old rhetorical trick, but it not science. There is a field of psychology that studies this very effect and it's quite interesting. And, yes, there are psychological factors that do make it impossible for individual researchers to objectively see the data staring them in the face. But this is the case for all humans, begging the question, "Why are skeptics never skeptical of skepticism?"

"Statistical analysis is a slight of hand trick, not a valid way to evaluate data." Yes, I have actually had this one thrown at me. It's a confusing statement. If I don't use the basic tools designed to analyze data (i.e. math), what am I supposed to use? Statistics can be manipulated and abused like everything else, but how does that invalidate the tool? Especially since the same analytics are used for mainstream science but no one is challenging their use there.

"Negative effects (like psi-missing) are not effects." This statement shows a fundamental misunderstanding of science. If I am testing your drinking water for the presence of cyanide, I don't keep testing until I find some. Not finding something is every bit as valid as finding it. Using this argument is kind of like not understanding what zero means. Psi-missing, where the argument usually crops up, is the phenomena where some people actually score significantly below chance on Rhine cards and the like. Ironically, these people tend to be those who enter the experiments with a pre-stated bias against psi and/or a professional interest in disproving it. To say that below chance results are different from above chance results is like administering a set of vision tests to a group of people and then calling the blind guy a liar for not seeing anything.

"There might be something here but whatever it is, it's not (whatever is actually being suggested)." I sometimes feel this statement may sum up Ray Hymen's entire career. He's a prominent skeptic who has been employed by the government to review controversial data. He tends to reach conclusions like this a lot. It is a form of ignoring the nose on the front of your face because you do not believe in noses. It is not a new argument: rocks do not fall from the sky because there are no rocks in the sky. Another way of looking of this argument is as a kind of 'buy now, explain later' agreement. It is the skeptic saying, "Yes, there is clear and compelling data here. But you're still wrong and I am certain that someday the consensus under the current paradigm will provide an explanation that does not force me to consider the validity of your crackpot ideas." I may be a crackpot, but data deserves an honest consideration rather than dismissal on religious (scientism) grounds.

"It's too complicated and you fail to grasp the subtleties involved. There's plenty of evidence and if you knew anything about it, you wouldn't be asking such an uninformed question. (Subtext: You're too stupid to understand so I'm not going to waste my time answering your question.)" Again, no science in this objection at all. From a personal standpoint, I maintain that it is irresponsible to mock someone as ignorant and then fail to provide them with an answer. Many things are complicated and subtle. To say that about a subject is meaningless. If you hold yourself to be an intellectual that understands all that complicated and subtle stuff, you should be able to either answer a simple question—the uninformed, after all, can't be asking that complicated a question, can they? They're not smart enough—or, at the very least, be able to provide a bibliography for them to start to learn and understand. But that's not science, that's a philosophy of education. At least give the honest answer, "I don't have enough hours in my day to deal with idiots like you." Insulting, yes, but honest.

"Taking X research or subject seriously is really just letting Y special interest group further their agenda." The most common current version of this is, "We can't allow an open discussion of intelligent design, irreducible complexity, or flaws in the fossil or genetic record because it's all just a smokescreen for the evil, ignorant creationists to poison the minds of our children." This is a common argument, but it doesn't even come close to being a scientific one. Science is about data: show the data, let it stand on its own. If you don't want to let people be exposed to conflicting data or to examine your own data too closely, what are you afraid of? This leads directly to, "I'm not hiding anything, I'm just trying to keep us from wasting valuable time debating the obvious." Allocation of resources is not science, it's philosophy. You're making a subjective decision about what to present and what not to. Whether you're right or wrong, it's still not about science at this point and it's dishonest to pretend otherwise. This line of discussion is about protecting and promoting a worldview. It's also irresponsible scientifically because it presupposes that the data is invalid based on who is providing it. Data stands alone. It also presumes a false dichotomy. If, for example, I think there are parts of the evolutionary theory that don't stand up to scientific examination, that does not automatically mean that I'm a supporter of a rival theory. And even if I am, that does not mean that my objections, if they are based on data, are invalid. Again, I'm not stating whether the argument is valid, merely that it is not a scientific argument, as many would lead you to believe.

"The effect size is too small to be relevant. The signal-to-noise ratio is too low to be interesting." This one makes me very angry. It's not science because science does not engage in subjective decisions about small and large. It's barely an engineering argument, if anything. It ignores the history of science and the fact that most effects are small when studied and then the effect increases once we learn how to harness it (think about electricity, magnetism, and nuclear forces if you need some recent examples). More to the point, it is a selfish, spiteful argument. For instance, the effect of distanced healing techniques such as prayer is over three times larger than the effectiveness of using daily aspirin to prevent heart attacks. Both are 'small' effects but, since aspirin fits the accepted consensus, it's a common treatment while prayer and the like are marginalized. But let us go further: let's assume the effect size of a given alternative medical treatment is tiny, say 0.001%, and let's even assume that the effect size would not be increased by further applied research. This "irrelevant" effect could mean the difference between life and death to one person in one hundred thousand. So, how many people are you going to let die because you don't think this effect is 'interesting'?

So, one eventually asks, what is it that skepticism is afraid of? There is a vein of the age-old "we know everything so don't threaten our comfy chair with new stuff," but most of the attacks are against any sense of meaning in existence. A quick examination of skeptical literature and especially their magazines reveals a fairly consistent bogeyman in skeptic's world: teleology. Teleology is the fancy word for the idea that things have a purpose, that there is a Why as well as a What. Science as a tool can tell us what something does and how something works, but it cannot tell us why something is.
Skepticism as a philosophy would have us believe that What and How are the Why—there is no purpose, no meaning, only bare existence. This is why the favorite whipping boys of skeptics are consciousness (especially anything implying that it exists above and beyond the mere chemical interactions of the brain), anything that implies life separate from the base physical processes, and—most especially—religion. This stance is blatantly intellectually dishonest. After all, if we are indeed deterministic machines, why are you spending so much time and effort arguing about these things at all? The meat computer in my skull can't help it, I'm physically incapable of hearing and acting on your arguments, and none of it matters anyway. The very act of protesting against these things shows the validity of at least examining them.
Again, to be very repetitive at this point, these are all philosophical differences that are not science, and it becomes rapidly apparent that skeptics have no faith in the validity of their philosophy. The religious person believes that their truth is sovereign and will win out under honest examination. The Popperian scientist believes that the rigors of experimental analysis will eventually lead to correct (or more correct) theories and is content to let the data settle the discussion. It is the Kuhnian skeptic who feels the need to hide their philosophical precepts under the cloak of scientism and use, not data, but rhetoric to defend their theories. They are trying to substitute the limited tool of science for the more appropriate tool of metaphysics, hoping to claim a win by default. The result is they bring science to a philosophical discussion and philosophy to the science lab. Against the guns of belief on the one hand and data on the other, they've brought a knife…and a dull one at that.
Over the years, my personal tolerance for this kind of thing has been stretched thin. As a scientist (with over a decade of direct laboratory experience), a philosopher of science, and a literal creationist, I am more than a little tired of being told that I can't be the things I am, that I am stupid, and that I must have some kind of severe mental defect if I believe in all this. Science seeks truth about the natural world through rigorous examination; religion provides me with the framework to understand the spiritual world around me, and since I am a Christian, I follow a reasonable God; and a proper understanding of the philosophy of science tells me that these two things are not only not in competition with each other, they are complimentary studies that inform and support each other.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

On Skepticism (Part 2)

In opening, I made two assertions that may need to be explained: that skepticism is not part of science and that skepticism is a philosophy of science. Both statements may be addressed by looking at the prominent schools of thought within the "community" of scientific philosophers. The majority of views can be placed in one of two schools of thought: Popperian or Kuhnian, so named after Sir Karl Popper and Thomas Kuhn.
Popper's view of the philosophy of science is essentially what most of us were taught in school, a more detailed version of the observation/hypothesis/experiment model. (Those of you saying to yourself, "It's science! What's so hard about that?" are probably Popperian.) The watermark of Popper's view is the emphasis on falsibility; that is, if it can't be tested, it's not science. Unique events are outside the realm of science; no theory is exempt from challenge irrespective of how well entrenched; and scientists test their theories. By contrast, Kuhn argued that science is what scientists do, and therefore science is a kind of consensus-seeking relativism. In fairness, Kuhn himself was not far removed from Popper, with Kuhn placing his emphasis on problem solving as the defining aspect of science. Unfortunately, his disciples took the philosophy farther and farther away from any absolute standard until the Kuhnian school was more focused on hierarchies, theorem-choice, and "problemshift." (I hate those phrases. Hierarchies are "who's on top of the pecking order," theorem-choice is "which theory will yield more profitable results" and problemshift is a made-up academic word that even the people who use it don't know what it means. As best I can explain it, problemshift is "I got this part figured out, but answering that question just created new questions." As knowledge on a subject is acquired, the emphasis of the research changes; think of it as "the problem is shifting.")
Lest I be guilty of oversimplifying, let me quote here from Imre Lakatos' paper, "Falsification and the Methodology of Scientific Research Programmes." (Book: Criticism and the Growth of Knowledge by Imre Lakatos and Alan Musgrave, New York: Cambridge University Press, 1970.)
Note: I have chosen to quote Lakatos rather than Popper and Kuhn directly for reasons of brevity. Lakatos does a very good job with the text of explaining the positions of both men and, on various points, criticizing and defending both. The few (ellipsis) edits I have made are also for space.
"…In his [Popper's] view, virtue lies not in caution in avoiding errors, but in ruthlessness in eliminating them. Boldness in conjectures on the one hand and austerity in refutations on the other: this is Popper's recipe. Intellectual honesty does not consist in trying to entrench, or establish one's position by proving (or 'probabilifying') it--intellectual honesty consists rather in specifying precisely the conditions under which one is willing to give up one's position…Belief may be a regrettably unavoidable biological weakness to be kept under the control of criticism: but commitment is for Popper an outright crime.
"Kuhn thinks otherwise…His main problem too is scientific revolution. But while according to Popper science is 'revolution in permanence', and criticism the heart of the scientific enterprise, according to Kuhn revolution is exceptional and, indeed, extra-scientific, and criticism is, in 'normal' times, anathema. Indeed for Kuhn the transition from criticism to commitment marks the point where progress--and 'normal' science--begins. For him the idea that on 'refutation' one can demand the rejection, the elimination of a theory, is 'na├»ve' falsificationism. Criticism of the dominant theory and proposals of new theories are only allowed in the rare moments of 'crisis'…
"For Popper scientific change is rational or a least rationally reconstructible and falls in the realm of the logic of discovery. For Kuhn scientific change--from one 'paradigm' to another--is a mystical conversion which is not and cannot be governed by rules of reason and which falls totally within the realm of the (social) psychology of discovery."

My primary purpose is not to debate the merits of the various philosophies of science. I am of the Popperian school and I think Sir Karl himself did a much better job of laying out his arguments than I ever could. Instead, I have provided the thumbnail sketch of Popper's and Kuhn's views to explain my earlier contentions: that (a) in the Popperian philosophy of science, skepticism is not part of science (data is data, there is no hierarchy of data or overwhelming burden of proof, just raw fact) and (b) that skepticism is a philosophy of science, specifically a descendant of the Kuhnian school of relativism complete with all of its built-in socio-political baggage. Once skepticism is understood as a philosophy, its flaws and dangers are much clearer, as is an understanding of its methods and the behavior of its proponents.
In short, the philosophy of skepticism establishes an orthodoxy within science. It places an unreasonable burden of proof on any theory or concept that would compete with what the orthodoxy has already accepted. It establishes this orthodoxy based on consensus (a social activity) rather than experimentation (a scientific activity). Finally, it sets up the skeptic as a kind of high priest and defender of the faith, rooting out the heretic under the mandate of fighting "irrationalism."
Please understand, I am not accusing everyone who considers himself a skeptic of holding these views or acting in this manner—many do not—but I do contend that these are the ultimate conclusions to be drawn from the skeptical school of thought. Moreover, in my opinion, this leaves skepticism in a position to do a considerable amount of harm, suppress large amounts of 'inconvenient' data, easily be abused by those with political ambitions who wish to hide under the banner of 'science as truth,' and in return contribute very little, if anything, to science or society itself. In addition, skepticism is a philosophy of reductionism, determinism, and materialism. Its logical conclusions have led us to theories such as that the conscious mind is epiphenomenal (that the idea that we have free will or are anything more than meat puppets is an illusion, and what we perceive as consciousness is just a side-effect of a mechanistic series of chemical reactions.) I've always wondered, if you really believe something like that, why are you bothering to try to convince me of it? Why talk to me at all?
At the Kuhnian-skeptical end of the road there is a relativism that says the mind is meat and man is an animal. At that point, there is no basis for either morality or ethics. I realize I may be accused of creating a straw-man version of it at this point and trying to tarnish the skeptical viewpoint by fear-mongering, but I don't think so. A philosophy should be tested by considering what its extreme version looks like because sooner or later, someone will go there. Of course, such a standard cannot be used to invalidate a philosophy (humans are humans and they will abuse anything if it serves their purposes) but, in weighing the merits of a philosophy, this extreme view should factor into the calculation. (The extreme application of Darwinian eugenics leads to genocide. It's been argued that extreme Christianity bombs abortion clinics, but a more honest view of the extreme end of the Christian philosophy are people like the Shakers. Agree or disagree, the very fact that we are discussing moral, social, and political repercussions simply reinforces that point.)
By contrast, I am also not implying that I believe aliens built the Egyptian pyramids right after Edgar Cayce traveled back in time to channel the wisdom of ancient Atlantis for them. But here I appeal less to the monolith of Science than to simple common sense. We are allowed to think for ourselves without having an official 'Science Guy Approved' sticker on our forehead. Likewise, science is not the only way of knowing truth or even things. As Sir Karl himself noted, just because something is not scientific, it does not follow that it is therefore not true or valuable. The proposition that science assumes to itself all that is true or of value is another side-effect of the Kuhnian school's dominance in academia. A tool is just a tool. Tools are meant to be used, not worshipped.

Friday, May 8, 2015

On Skepticism (Part 1)

Disclaimer: I want to say in advance that this is not an attack on any individual or in response to any one specific discussion. I am expressing my own problems with skepticism as a movement, not skeptics as people. I believe most self-identified skeptics are rational, well-meaning people who simply haven't fully thought through the implications of their philosophy. I don't think they represent the hard-core members of the movement. Most skeptics I have met are polite, rational, and fairly open to discussion; they simply don't want to see people waste time and money on fraud and redundant research. I don't think they've given the big picture much thought. In reasonable detail, I want to present my problems with that disturbing 'big picture.' Individuals are different from movements and organizations. If I seem at times to be attacking something, please remember it is the latter, the mob and the unintended consequences, not the individuals involved. (Except for the Amazing Randi. That man is an ass.)

Skepticism is not, as many of its proponents claim, a natural part of science. It is, instead, a philosophy of science. In my opinion, it is a failed and harmful one, not suited to the tool of science.
All tools have a philosophy. If this seems an odd statement, it's mainly because the philosophy of most tools is self-evident. The choice of how to use the tool is not made by the tool and neither is it self-contained within the tool. The choice is made by the user. For example, a hammer is for delivering blunt force; it was designed for that application, or "philosophy of use." It's a bad screwdriver and a horrible glass etcher, but if you want to put in screws with a hammer, the hammer won't stop you. The efficient use of a hammer is based on the user's understanding of the "philosophy of use" of the hammer (or simply, the philosophy of hammering.) Science, like a hammer, is a tool and as such it also has a philosophy of use. Unlike simple tools, the philosophies behind more complex tools are not intuitive, and over the history of science several schools of thought have arisen over its philosophy.
The distinction of a tool's philosophy may seem pedantic, but a small misunderstanding in the proper role of a tool can result in significant problems in the long run. The phrase, "If all you have is a hammer, every problem starts to look like a nail," springs to mind. Consider a knife versus a hammer. You could use a knife as a hammer—ineffectively—but how many fingers would you lose in the process? If the misuse of a basic tool is dangerous, the misuse of a complex one is potentially catastrophic. In the case of science, the misuse migrated to the social and political realms, resulting in horrors such as eugenics and social Darwinism. It's easy to throw up your hands and yell, "That's not science," but that's just the point. It isn't science. It is the tool used incorrectly, with the wrong philosophy, and it's a solid example of why users must understand and take responsibility for proper use and limits of the tool known as science. Like all tools, science does not exist in a vacuum of social and political pressures, and it can make some very big hammers.
As a brief aside, it could be argued that science is not a tool or that it is more than just a tool. If that's the case, then it is either a philosophy in and of itself or a religion proper. If it is a philosophy, then the philosophy of science and the philosophy that is science would be effectively the same. If it is to be elevated to a religion—well, that is one of the logical outgrowths of skepticism as a philosophy of science so the discussion is circular. It could also be argued that science is not a tool but rather a collection of tools. Such an argument is no argument at all. A car is a tool. A car is a collection of tools (engine, wheels, etc.) This distinction is an attempt to avoid the discussion by willfully misunderstanding the point. If I sound pedantic and redundant here, it's because I've read and studied a lot of the philosophy of science and skepticism, and this kind of semantic slight of hand crops up often. I apologize for insulting your intelligence, but I want to head off any misunderstandings from the onset.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Vocal Minority

Vocal Minority

Once, I had a language. For a while, it ran along like most do--with the occasional glottal stop here and hiccup there but smoothly just the same.

Then the consonants realized that the vowels were in the minority and possessed clear physical and functional traits that they could neither abandon nor disguise. The consonants began to act against them, banning them from high-class words, driving them from their traditional homes at the end of words, and eventually seeking to eliminate them altogether.

For a time, my language had a definite eastern European sound but the pogroms passed and the language carried on. The vowels demanded that the dictionaries enact laws to protect them (though it is never wise to trust one's fate too heavily to grammarians). Soon the vowels demanded special treatment and minimum vowel-to-consonant ratios. And they got them, even through the language now sounded more like the lowing of a cow than a means of communication.

The consonants protested, pointing out that the vowels, per capita, were receiving significantly more work, more pay, and more prestige. The protests were ignored and, instead, the vowels banned the use of contractions. The language groaned on. Next the vowels turned their attention to the structure of entire sentences rather than merely words. They decided that religious people were not being fair because they used too many 'O's (the religious bigots were fond of words like holy, God, and love) and not enough 'U's. In the name of the persecuted 'U's, they demanded the grammarians pass new laws, making the religious use the word F--- in place of other adjectives and adverbs and now one could not tell the pious from the unbelieving when the language was spoken.

After many years, the change in the language changed the minds of the people who used it. And so it came to pass that the Jews were made to run their own concentration camps (for it was only fair), the Moslems ran the pork industry (in the name of interstate commerce), and the Christians were required by law to have at least one extra-marital affair each year (so that no one had to feel bad about their own failed marriage--self-esteem being deemed the most important of virtues).

Okay, maybe I don't understand politics but it makes as much sense as Chomsky.