Monday, 30 June 2014

The "Real World" Delusion

If you are a professional of any of those areas that are concerned with human development instead of generating money, you must have heard many times the question 'What is the real life application of your research/work?'

There is an interesting comment about that in the book

What are universities for? by Stefan Collini

I will reproduce that here:
And talking of literature, it’s usually at about this point in the argument that an appearance is made by one of the more bizarre and exotic products of the human imagination, namely a wholly fictive place called ‘the real world’. This sumptuously improbable fantasy is quite unlike the actual world you and I live in. In the actual world that we’re familiar with, there are all kinds of different people doing all kinds of different things – sometimes taking pleasure in their work, sometimes expressing themselves aesthetically, sometimes falling in love, sometimes telling themselves that if they didn’t laugh they’d cry, sometimes wondering what it all means, and so on. But this invented entity called ‘the real world’ is inhabited exclusively by hard-faced robots who devote themselves single-mindedly to the task of making money. They work and then they die. Actually, in the fictional accounts of ‘the real world’ that I’ve read, they don’t ever seem to mention dying, perhaps because they’re afraid that if they did it might cause the robots to stop working for a bit and to start expressing themselves, falling in love, wondering what it all means, and so on, and once that happened, of course, ‘the real world’ wouldn’t seem so special any more, but would be real world’ wouldn’t seem so special any more, but would be just like the ordinary old world we’re used to. Personally, I’ve never been able to take this so-called ‘real world’ very seriously. It’s obviously the brainchild of cloistered businessmen, living in their ivory factories and out of touch with the kinds of things that matter to ordinary people like you and me. They should get out more.
Of course, when faced with the 'real world' question asked by a friend, one has to make a hard choice: either succumb to the temptation of of preaching about the importance of developing the human mind and losing the friend or breathing deeply, giving a smile and changing the subject. I, usually influenced by my wife who has much better social skills than me, choose the latter. However, I still have the hopes that she wouldn't be there one day to prevent me from asking questions like:

So, you are going to have a child. What is the 'real world' application of that?

Friday, 27 June 2014

The Probable Universe

I'm writing a popular book on Bayesian probability called provisionally The Probable Universe. I will leave the draft (remember, it's a draft!) available as a PDF file on my website via the link:

Feel free to download and read it. Notice that some parts are incomplete, drafted, with typos and all other mess that appear in drafts.

Please leave comments, suggestions, requests, corrections and criticisms. Maybe one day I end up even publishing it if it becomes good enough.

Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Defending Philosophy, the Right Way

I have just read a blog post from the always eloquent Lubos Motl:

In this post he argues that philosophy is basically bullshit and philosophers don't do anything useful. Also, that 'shut up and calculate' is the way to go in physics. Of course his completely wrong. It doesn't matter that physicists like Hawking, Weinberg or even Feynman agree with him. They are wrong too.

All of them are wrong in the same way as the rest of people in the world are wrong when they say that theoretical physicists are useless and theoretical physics, in its great majority, is just a waste of taxpayer money.

The argument against philosophy is that it is the wrong way to understand how the world works because it does not stick to science's fundamental principle of falsifiability. There are other criticisms, like the over reliance on non-mathematical language and a melancholy preference for classical physics over quantum mechanics. 

However, all those criticisms miss the point of what philosophy really is concerned about. Understanding how the world works is just part of philosophy, and that's the part that serves as foundation and gave origin to science. But it goes beyond that. Philosophy is a whole thinking endeavour that is concerned with the most important sentence in the universe: WHY? 

Philosophy goes beyond science as it allows itself to ask questions and consider situations which are out of the scope of science. What is 'real'? Is there a meaning to 'truth'? And my favourite: is it possible that there is nothing else in the universe but my mind?

Most arguments against philosophy in that article are simply the result of assuming that just because someone has a philosophy diploma, whatever this person says is philosophy. In the same way that science is not what scientists do, philosophy is also not what philosophers do. Just rambling stupid things without sense is not philosophy. Using a fallacies to support your arguments is also not philosophy, it's gibberish. 

One of the greatest problem of academia is this stupid habit of one area of knowledge to completely ignore and ridicularize the other without thinking deeply enough.

Just a last word about 'shut up and calculate'. Never 'shut up' when doing science. Ever. No matter what people say to you.  

Monday, 9 June 2014

Science is NOT what scientists do

I was going to keep this for the book I'm writing about Foundations of Science, but I have just read a blog post from Sabine Hossenfelder and I could not stay quiet:

Is Science the Only Way of Knowing?

I will have to respectfully, but harshly and completely disagree with almost everything she says in the article. To start with, she says the dreadful sentence that I heard many times:

"Science is what scientists do."

This is a definition that not only is not true, but also useless. Let me justify it. Let us suppose that we accept this as a definition of science. Where do we draw the line? I mean, is everything that scientists do science? When I (I am considered a scientist, by the way) fry an egg, is that science? As some can argue that it is, when I swear because something fell on my thumb, is that science? I am not exaggerating, I'm just showing that there should be a specification of what part of what scientists do is science.

Let us now assume that we can somehow say that some things are not science. Consider Sir Isaac Newton. Was it science when he was trying to draw a map of Hell? When a Nobel Prize winner starts to talk seriously about paranormal things, is that science?

You might argue that we can decide what is science by consensus, but that is more arbitrary. Consensus is a logical fallacy and although it might be evidence of the right direction, it's never a proof. Let us say that somehow most of the scientific community becomes corrupt (that can happen, just consider governments...). The leaders then start to decide what is science and what is not according to what THEY do. Those who don't agree, are not doing science by convention. If you are still doubt that this can happen, I suggest you to look for articles about the present situation in academia in the UK. Check authors like Stefano Colini and Thomas Docherty.

There is another catch: Who decides who will be a scientist? Other scientists, of course. How? By consensus. But how is this consensus achieved? Well, they need to agree on a minimum of knowledge and skills that the person needs to have. They need to agree on a minimum definition of science. If you defined science as what scientists do, you have just achieved nothing. It's a circular definition.

If all science was based in a circular consensus, it would be in very fragile grounds indeed. The point is that it is not. You can construct a definition of science on very rational grounds. The key to that is concepts like consistency, probability theory and Bayesian inference.

Science is a process of gradually incorporating information into models to describe phenomena. It doesn't matter if it's done by "scientists" or by "artists" as long as it is done correctly. By 'done correctly' I mean that information should be incorporated in the model in an unbiased way and that the final model NEEDS to be consistent. What we identify as 'truth' and 'understanding' are very subtle things to define, but the closest we can get to them is consistency. That is the key to science and consistency can hardly be achieved by consensus as thousands of years of politics has showed to us.

So, if one asks me if "science is what scientists do", my answer is a definitely NO. What scientists do is only science when they do it right and 'right' here CAN be mathematically defined. I already wrote a bit about that here:

That document has many missing links, but I am preparing a larger one as I said. I will post things here as I write it.

Should you believe me or Sabine? None. This is not a question of consensus. As in science, you have to search for information and update your opinion accordingly.

Thursday, 5 June 2014

Slender Man cannot be guilty: Because he does not exist!

Source: Wikipedia
One of the many other things I'm interested in besides physics is mythology. Every kind. I am interested in that since I was a kid. When I became a teenager, I played RPG also because I enjoyed the great variety mythologies in so many different universes. When I say mythology, I am also including religion.

These days, there has been news about two 12 year-old girls who stabbed each other to prove worthy to Slender Man. Slender Man is a mythological character that was spread by the internet recently, but seems to have roots in German mythology. The Guardian has an article about the incident:

The obvious reaction of everyone involved was exactly the one we expected: they decided that it's nobody's fault. In fact, they decided it's Slender Man's fault, but as he does not exits, that's the same thing.

We know that there are many variables involved in cases like this, but we also know that there are clearly two great responsibles for that:  the parents and the government.

I will defend my thesis.

Twelve years-old persons are definitely, undeniably capable of telling apart reality from fiction unless they have some cognitive limitation. There are two ways for them to be instructed how to do that.

The first place is, of course, school. Schools HAVE THE OBLIGATION of teaching children that ghosts, fairies, gods (yes, that should be included) and other supernatural beings are creations of human imagination and, although people have the right to believe in them if they want to, the truth is that there is overwhelming evidence contrary to their existence.

If schools are not teaching that, that's because the curriculum does not include it. After 40 years of my life being a student and half of that teaching, I know very well that it's the GOVERNMENT, not the instructors (teachers, lecturers, professors) which decide what is taught in schools. We, instructors, either have the choice of obeying or being fired AND having our careers trashed by 'disciplinary actions'. Of course, we try to smuggle a little bit of sense into the system, but we are not supported by anyone, including parents.

So, clearly, if the school did not teach those children that Slender Man DOES NOT EXIST, then it's the politicians' fault. Politicians, of course, never accept the blame for anything and redirect it wherever is easier. In this case, to a NON-EXISTING fictional character.

Now, even if the school has failed, this is no excuse for parents to try to avoid responsibility. They too have to teach their children the FACT that supernatural beings do not exist. The problem here is that many of them believe that they do! Does this exonerate them of all guilt? Of course not. On the contrary. Parents are responsible for their children independently of what they believe or not. When I was a child and was afraid of ghosts, my father would always say to me that I shouldn't because ghosts do not exist. Many years later, I found out that he believes in ghosts, but he knew rationally that they should not exist and that was what he should taught me.

Yes, those things can be avoided, but those who can and should do something are those we know will never take the blame and look for a scapegoat. Even one that is not real.