Posts Tagged ‘Robert Winston’

Vox Political: Kipper and Conservative MP Douglas Carswell in Row with Scientists over Tides

September 20, 2016

This piece by Mike over at Vox Political is a real gem, as it encapsulates the profound anti-intellectualism and sheer bone-headed stupidity of the Tories and the Kippers. Mike has posted up a piece commenting on a report in the Independent that Douglas Carswell, the former Tory and now Kipper MP for Clacton, has got into a row with Britain’s scientists over the origins of tides. Conventional science holds that they’re caused by the Moon. Carswell, however, believes they’re caused by the Sun, and has challenged a top scientist at Sussex University’s Science Policy Research Unit over the issue.

The report also notes that this bizarre claim was made after Michael Gove declared that the British people were tired of experts after he failed to name one economist, who thought that Brexit would be good for Britain.

The title of Mike’s piece just about sums up the astonishment Carswell’s claim must cause in everybody, who has any idea about science: Both Tories and Kippers Have Made Douglas Carswell an MP. Read This and Asky Why?

Both Tories and Kippers have made Douglas Carswell an MP. Read this and ask: Why?

Quite. If you’re wondering whether the Moon does cause tides, Mike over in his piece has a clip of Brian Cox explaining the phenomenon.

I’ve a feeling that as far back as the ancient Greeks, it was known that the Moon caused tides. Certainly the great medieval philosopher and scientist Robert Grosseteste of Lincoln knew about it in the Twelfth century. As he was writing several centuries before Isaac Newton discovered the Law of Gravity, Grosseteste believed that they were caused by the Moon’s magnetism, rather than its gravitational effect on Earth. Still, you can’t expect too much of the people of that period, when science was still very much in its infancy. But it nevertheless shows the astonishing advances the people of the Middle Ages were capable of, simply using the most primitive of equipment, observation, and the power of their minds.

This simple fact, that the Moon causes the Earth’s tides, has been put in thousands of textbooks on astronomy and space for children since at least the beginning of mass education and popular science. Astronomy has been a popular hobby for amateurs since at least beginning of the 20th century, and I’ve no doubt probably as far back as the 19th. Generations of children have had the opportunity to learn that the Moon causes tides, along with other interesting and fascinating facts about space. Carswell, however, is clearly the exception, having rejected all that.

It all brings to my mind the conversation Blackadder has with Tom Baker’s bonkers sea captain, Redbeard Rum, in the epdisode ‘Potato’ from the comedy show’s second series. Trying to impress Good Queen Bess by sailing abroad as explorers, Blackadder, Percy and Baldrick plan to fake their expedition by sailing round and round the Isle of Wight instead until they get dizzy. They get lost instead as Rum believes it is possible to sail a ship without a crew. When they ask him if you really can, Rum replies, ‘Opinion is divided.’
‘So who says you don’t?’
‘Me.’
‘So who says you do?’
‘Everybody else.’
‘Bugger!’

Quite.

This exactly describes Carswell’s attitude to space physics. Everybody else believes the Moon causes the tides, except him. I can see this causing yet another panic amongst scientists and ‘science educators’. Way back around 2009, the 150th anniversary of the publication of Darwin’s Origin of the Species, various scientists like Richard Dawkins were running around demanding better science education because polls showed a majority of the British public didn’t believe in it. This was partly a response to the growth in Creationism and Intelligent Design, though both of these views of evolution have had a very limited impact over here in Britain. That controversy seems to have quietened down, though the issue of the continuing need for improved science education has carried on with the persistence denial of climate change and anthropogenic global warming by the Right in both America and Britain. One of the sceptics of global warming and climate change over on this side of the Pond is Nigel Lawson. He’s even written a book about it, which I found the other day in another of Cheltenham’s secondhand book shops. Now that Carswell’s made this statement about the tides, which flies in the face of everything scientists have known since blokes like Aristotle, it wouldn’t surprise me if today’s leading science communicators, like Dawkins, Robert Winston, Alice Roberts, Brian Cox and the rest of them started worrying about this issue as well. And I wouldn’t blame them if they did.

As for Gove’s comment that ‘People in Britain are fed up of experts’, this also reminds me another comment by the American comedian, Bill Hicks. ‘Do I detect an air of anti-intellectualism in this country? Seems to have started about 1980 [the year Reagan was elected].’

If you’re worried that the Tories and UKIP don’t understand science, and are going to take us back to the Dark Ages, be afraid: you’re right. And heaven help the rest of us with them in charge.

Preaching Christ During the Festival of Science

June 15, 2008

Last Friday, the 6th of June, was the last day of the Cheltenham Festival of Science, held annually in Cheltenham, in Britain. It’s been going for a few years now, and is pretty much like the annual Festival of Literature held in the same town every October, with the obvious difference that it’s about science, while the other festival is about literature. Both feature leading figures in their respective areas talking about their subject, and particularly their latest work, or the latest issue to grab the national attention and be debated. In the case of the Festival of Literature, it’s obviously writers discussing their latest book, while in the Festival of Science it tends to be scientists talking about the latest issue in science.

Scientists and Writers at the Cheltenham Festival

As it’s an event aimed at getting the general public involved with science and more aware of contemporary research and issues, the scientists appearing at the Festival tend also to be the authors of books on popular science, or the hosts or producers of TV and radio programmes on science. For example, this year one of the guests at the Festival was Dr. Robert Winston, a fertility expert and the presenter of a number of science and factual programmes, such as Walking with Cavemen and The Story of God. Walking with Cavemen was a series the Beeb screened a few years ago now about human evolution, tracing the origins of the human species from its earliest ancestors up to the emergence of modern humans, Homo Sapiens, on the plains of Africa. The Story of God, on the other hand, was a straightforward history of the various religious faiths around the world. While he definitely isn’t a Creationist – the Story of God showed him debating Creationism in a radio studio in America – Winston is an observant Jew. There was a bit in the series where he appeared to leave the militant atheist and biologist Richard Dawkins momentarily speechless. Dawkins had just declared that he really couldn’t understand how any intelligent person could possibly believe in religion, to which Winston simply said quietly, ‘I believe it.’ Dawkins looked amazed, and said to him, ‘You do?’

‘Yes,’ said Winston, ‘I honestly do.’ Winston then went on a few months after the series and the publication of Dawkins’ book, The God Delusion, to criticise Dawkins publicly at a festival of science in Edinburgh for trying to associate atheism with science, politely stating that while he respected Dawkins personally, he thought he was profoundly wrong to do so. The title of Winston’s speech even suggested that in his attempt to connect science to atheism, Dawkins was deluded.

Other speakers who have appeared at the Festival in the past have included the australian astronomer, Duncan Steele, and the Liberal Democrat MP Lembit Opik, who were on a panel with a number of other scientists talking about the dangers of collision from asteroids; the physicist Jim al-Khalili, giving a brief introduction to Quantum physics to coincide with his book, Quantum: A Guide for the Perplexed, and the mathematician Simon Singh talking about codes and ciphers through history. It can be a really great, fascinating, fun event, depending on who’s speaking at the Festival and your particular interest in science. It’s run in association with a hands-on science centre in Cardiff, so there’s a series of scientific games and fun experiments in the main hall, and some of the events and speakers are definitely not solemn, dry lectures. They had one tent set up as an arena for Robot Wars one year when that was on British TV.

Problems of Presenting Atheism as Science

While it’s a great event generally, I have some real qualms about the very reductionist materialism preached by some of the speakers. While the vast majority of the speakers and events at the Festival don’t touch on religion, some of the scientists and writers who have appeared have very strong atheist views which they articulate as part of their general views on science. Richard Dawkins is one such guest at the Festival who talks about science in terms of a general atheist worldview. Other atheist scientists who also view science and atheism as strongly linked, and are very hostile to religion, who have appeared at the Festival of Science include Steven Pinker and the philosopher, A.C. Grayling.

The Christian Origins of Experimental Science

Now modern experimental science first emerged in Europe through the belief of medieval and Renaissance Christian natural philosophers that nature was available to rational study as, being created and established through God’s divine and transcendent Wisdom, it was therefore itself rational and ordered. These early scientists believed that nature and Scripture comprised two books, which together revealed God’s glory, although while nature demonstrated the existence of God, it could never give as full a revelation of God as Scripture. The pioneering scientists of the Renaissance – Copernicus, Galileo, Rene Descartes, Francis Bacon, Robert Boyle and Isaac Newton were all devoutly religious, even if, like Newton, they held unorthodox religious views. Boyle, for example, in his book The Christian Virtuoso, made it very clear that he believed, in contrast to Rene Descartes, that the universe clearly showed evidence for teleology, and pointed very much to the existence of God. He also endowed a series of lectures to be preached annually to prove the existence of the Almighty. All this is often forgotten in the contemporary view of the history of science, which tends to view it in very Positivist terms as an intellectual endeavour opposed to religious belief, and which emerged to challenge religion and the supernatural to replace it with rationality and materialism.

Presenting the Christian Origins of Science During the Festival, and Great Resources on Christianity and Science

I’d like to challenge that perception of science and its history. I’d like to hire a church hall or similar venue one day around the time of the Festival to present a lecture on the history of science, showing that it was based very much on the Christian conception of an ordered nature established by the divine reason. I’d also like to make the point that, contrary to the views expounded by Richard Dawkins, Daniel C. Dennett and other atheist scientists and philosophers, science is not intrinsically atheistic, and there is much in science that points away from atheism and towards the existence of God. It’s just an idea, and really should be done by someone like the awesome Bede, who’s a historian of science and whose website, Bede’s Library and blog, Bede’s Journal, are superb resources for science and Christian faith. At the moment it’s just an idea, but I think, given the intense debate between science, religion and atheism at the moment, it needs to be done, and the case clearly presented for the Christian creation of and support for science. I also thoroughly recommend the ‘Scientists of Christian Faith’ project over at J.P. Holding’s awesome Tekton Apologetics site as another great resource giving brief biographies and descriptions of the lives and work of numerous scientists, including the above founders of this part of the human project to understand the world, who are also Christians, and whose work often reflects and strengthens their Christian beliefs.

Problem of Distinguishing Scientific Fact and Personal Views of Scientists

One other point needs to be made about some of the scientific views presented as the latest research, or as predictions of what will occur in the future, at science festivals and in the press generally. Scientific views in particular areas are changing all the time as new evidence emerges and old evidence re-examined. Moreover, scientists in their interpretation of particular facts aren’t immune from the influence of their own personal beliefs and general cultural attitudes. Some philosophers of science have stated that there are no ‘brute facts’ in science, that is, no facts whose meaning is immediately self-evident, independent of other facts. All scientific facts are interpreted through a network of related scientific facts and models by a human mind. This means that while most of the material and research presented as scientific fact at such festivals can be trusted as well-established science, some of it should also be treated with a certain scepticism as the researcher’s own personal opinions. Thus, Jim al-Khalili’s treatment of Quantum physics in his book will be a more or less trustworthy account of the main ideas and debates in that science, even if there is also considerable differences of opinion between scientists on the wider philosophical implications of the theory. However, the view presented by one scientist, the author of the book, The End of Time, that time does not exist and is illusory, while cogently argued and intellectually respectable, is an extreme view that is far less likely to be objectively true.

Commercial Pressure and Exaggerated Scientific Claims

Moreover, some of the descriptions of the progress made and what can be expected in particular areas of science in years to come have struck me as being more like a commercial advertisement than an impartial description of the current state of that science. Scientific research can be expensive, and the universities and companies engaged in it depend on government funding and private investment for their financial support. Thus it appears to me that there’s a financial incentive for some scientists to exaggerate publicly the results they expect of their research, while being much more cautious in private. Consciousness research is a good example. In a piece published in the British newspaper, The Guardian, just before the Millennium, various scientists in Britain and America were interviewed giving their views on what science would discover in the future. This included a couple of neurologists declaring that the solution to the problem of consciousness would be found, and that it would be much simpler than previously considered. Yet philosophers have also noted that despite the optimism of some materialist philosophers and neurologists, like Daniel C. Dennett, the ‘hard problem’ of consciousness has not been solved and many materialist philosophers themselves do not consider that a materialist solution will be easily found.

Differing Views on the Development of Intelligence in Robots

This tendency for scientists to exaggerate the results they expect of their particular branch of science can also be seen in some of the statements by AI researchers developing robots. The British cyberneticist, Kevin Warwick, of the University of Reading very strongly feels that AI will be a genuine reality, and that we are on the verge of creating truly intelligent, autonomous machines. He’s extremely pessimistic about this, however, arguing that such robots will be a very real threat to humanity. In the first chapter of his 1997 book, March of the Machines: Why the New Race of Robots will Rule the World, he paints a grim picture of the fate of humanity fifty years in the future. By 2050, according to the book, if current progress in robotics continues, the robots will have taken over and what remains of humanity will be reduced to complete servitude, farmed and controlled by the machines.

The robotics experts Mark Tilden and Dave Hrynkiw, who specialise in developing very simple robots that can be built by the amateur enthusiast at home, are far more sceptical about the development of AI and the potential for robots to become truly autonomous, intelligent machines. In his preface to their book Junkbots, Bugbots & Bots on Wheels: Building Simple Robots with BEAM Technology, Tilden gives an hilarious account of his attempt to create a robot butler, an excessively complicated machine that gradually proved to be a complete failure until it was finally outwitted by his pet cat. He describes coming home one day to find it spinning uselessly in the middle of the carpet. When it came out to vacuum, the cat had learned to block it with play furniture, until the machine thought it was completely surrounded and so was reduced to spinning helplessly, leaving the cat to go back sleeping in peace. After seeing his five thousand dollar robot beaten by his cat, Tilden switched it off, and turned instead to developing far simpler, much less intelligent, but far more reliable machines. Regarding the problems in developing truly conscious machines, he states

‘Alas, unlike in the movies, and despite all wishes to the contrary, the ability to make a conscious robot creature doesn’t happen by just throwing electronic bits together. Even the best minds and budgets haven’t managed it outside the usual nonclassroom biology. True, sophisticated computer characters have been made that appear to have some aspects of life (they’re a prime seller of the video game market), but their responses are limited. Even real goldfish show more life than the best screensavers made in their image. However, the general mass-belief in “automatic consciousness” is a problem for robotics researchers because popular media keeps implying it’s not a problem.’ 1

Now Warwick, as an expert in his field, clearly knows what he’s talking about and it would be unwise not to pay attention to his warnings, particularly as arms companies have developed a battlefield robot, which some observers fear is a real threat to human life and the continued existence of the human species. On the other hand, from what Tilden and Hrynkiw say, it’s clear that the machine aren’t going to take over soon, and that the human race needn’t fear an army of robots all looking like Arnold Schwarzenegger rising up against it any time soon.

Pressures from Funding and Exaggerated Claims of Future Results

Beyond this particular debate in robotics, my point is that in certain areas of science scientific opinion may be very divided, and present a far different picture from the one an individual scientist may wish to promote. Undoubtedly the scientists working in particular areas genuinely believe that their research will yield important results, but in their public statements commercial and financial pressures may lead them to play down any difficulties or problems, which may be considerable, that they also face. After all, government funding bodies aware of the need to give the public value for the tax money they’re considering spending, banks, and entrepreneurs looking for a useful and commercially viable product that will give a good, reliable return on their investment, are going to be reluctant to put money into a project in which the leading researchers believe that it might yield some interesting results, eventually, but it’ll be several decades, if at all. Hence, in my view, the various confident predictions by materialist neurologists that the problem of consciousness is about to be explained and that very shortly mind will be found to equal brain. They undoubtedly believe it, but few people and organisations are going to fund their research if they present a much more sober, far less confident picture of future progress.

Confusion of Atheism and Science in Popular Science Writing

Tilden’s view that popular science has created false expectations is also shared by the Christian writers Paul Marston and Roger Forster, who have backgrounds in science and mathematics. They comment that much of the popular science in bookshops around Britain, especially that written by Peter Atkins, Richard Dawkins, Daniel C. Dennett, Steven Pinker and John Gribbin, ‘is metaphysics not ‘science’, popular or otherwise, and their books are full of extended analogy and parables’ to the point where they suggest that ‘we might call them ‘Penpops Fables’ since Penguin ‘popular science’, books are especially full of them’. 2 Dawkins in particular has been criticised for confusing his own ideas with generally accepted, good science, and presenting them as the view of science in general. Fraser Watts, a former President of the British Psychological Society and Starbridge Lecturer in Science and Religion at Cambridge, stated that Dawkins

‘purports to be speaking for the whole of science as though all scientists think what he thinks, but they don’t … I think there is undoubtedly truth in Darwin’s theory of evolution, but it is not a complete explanation of everything as Dawkins makes out – and he muddles up what is validly established science and the ideas he had in the bath last night, and he presents this as though it is a seamless robe and it is actually quite misleading.’ 3

Conclusion: Some Scientific Statements Need To Be Viewed with Scepticism

Thus, there are very good reasons, such as the commercial pressures on professional science writers and their own, personal ideological and professional biases, why some of the statements about the nature of science and state of research in popular science should be taken with a degree of scepticism. The whole point of science is that its findings and statements can be subjected to critical testing and scrutiny, and that critique should also include atheist metaphysics when this is presented as an intrinsic part of science itself.

Notes

1. Tilden, M., and Hrynkiw, D., Junkbots, Bugbots & Bots on Wheels: Building Simple Robots with BEAM Technology (New York, McGraw-Hill/Osborne 2002), pp. XIV-XV.

2. Forster, R., and Marsden, P., Reason, Science & Faith (Crowborough, Monarch 1999), pp. 42-3.

3. Fraser Watts, in the Christian Students in Science video Encounter, cited in Forster and Marsden, Reason, Science and Faith, p. 53.