Wednesday, 25 January 2012

A Fundamental Change

Time to get down to business here. What's this blog about anyway?

In my first post I explained the title, which is from a quote by Richard Feynman: "The first principle is that you must not fool yourself--and you are the easiest person to fool." Feynman was talking about scientists pursuing their careers, but I mean this in the sense of understand the world so as to be able to effectively live one's everyday life.
In my second post I explained the "Reality Based" part of the subtitle. It is so important to use critical thinking and skepticism to come to know the world, rather than giving in to credulity and just believing what feels nice.

Today and in the next few posts, I'll explain what I mean by "the age of scarcity".

Let me start with a little background.

I was born in 1954. When Armstrong and Aldrin landed on the moon in July of 1969, I was 15 years old. I was a keen student, interested in science and math, an avid reader of science fiction and aiming for a career in engineering. Like most everyone else at the time, I believed in progress and it sure looked like the sky was the limit. We had the world (if not the universe) by the tail and were in for a great ride. Mankind's ingenuity, expressed in technology, was going to solve all our problems. Nature seemed like a chancy sort of mistress -- it was best to get off this planet and establish ourselves in a man made environment that would be under our control and serve us better than nature ever had. Progress had been continuous since the Enlightenment and since it was based on human cleverness, rather than anything in the material world, there was no reason it couldn't continue forever. Or so we thought.

Looking back on this from 40 years later, it seems that we went astray somewhere. I've been researching this for some time now and it seems that things weren't quite as they seemed in 1969 and since then they have changed in a fundamental and most disturbing way.

If you had asked me in 1969 or perhaps a few years later, what had enabled the long run of progress that started in the Western World with the Renaissance and continued through the Enlightenment and on into the present, I would have said that it was a revolution in thinking. We began to question the muddled beliefs that came to us from the Classical era and the Church, to apply critical thinking and the scientific method to expand our understanding of the world and our mastery over it. And the idea that there might be any limits to this process of progress seemed bizarre. Challenges to overcome, but fundamental limits to progress, no.

My thinking on this has changed in the intervening 40 years. I have no doubt that a "revolution in thinking" was the spark that touched off the last few hundred years of progress. But the spark occurred in a unique environment which supported progress in a way that had never happened before in mankind's history and may never be able to happen again.

The first thing was the discovery of the new world, which provided wealth, room to grow and access to more natural resources. The second was the harnessing of fossil fuels to augment and eventually supplant the renewable energy sources that had driven the world up to that point. The modern world got off to a nice start on renewable energy, primarily indirect forms of solar energy -- muscle power (human and animal), biomass (mainly wood), wind and water power. The limits of these sorts were energy were beginning to be felt and progress might have fizzled out in the West, but for the growth in the use of coal and with the invention of the steam engine, a way to use coal not just for heating but also to turn heat into mechanical power to replace muscle power. In the early twentieth century oil, an even more convenient fuel than coal, came into prominence and began to power the engines of progress. We quickly built a civilization based on growth, driven by using ever increasing amounts of oil which, at the time, seemed like a practically infinite resource.

It seems counter intuitive to most people that energy is the engine which drives economic growth -- we have been told so often by economists that there are no limits to economic growth, that replacements can always be found for any resource that is running out. But this is largely wishful thinking -- many resources have no replacement that is economically viable.

During my lifetime our world has gone through a fundamental change from a growing, progressing civilization powered by what seemed like practically infinite supplies of energy to one where growth and progress are grinding to a halt, limited by the depletion of those vital energy resources. We have entered the "age of scarcity". The majority of the population is convinced the current "recession" is just a bump in the road and thing will soon be back to normal, but I say that they are the ones who have been fooled.

In the next few posts I'll talk about resource depletion, environmental degradation and economic contraction. And while I am not going to pull any punches about how serious these three intertwined problems are, I'll also talk about what I think can be done and the real meaning of hope in this context.

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Reality is...

Another quote, this time from science fiction writer Phillip K. Dick: "Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn't go away." This is from a speech given in 1978, entitled "How to Build a Universe That Doesn't Fall Apart Two Days Later". By all means read the whole thing, at, but here is an excerpt that put the quotation more in context:

It was always my hope, in writing novels and stories which asked the question "What is reality?", to someday get an answer. This was the hope of most of my readers, too. Years passed. I wrote over thirty novels and over a hundred stories, and still I could not figure out what was real. One day a girl college student in Canada asked me to define reality for her, for a paper she was writing for her philosophy class. She wanted a one-sentence answer. I thought about it and finally said, "Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn't go away." That's all I could come up with. That was back in 1972. Since then I haven't been able to define reality any more lucidly.
But the problem is a real one, not a mere intellectual game. Because today we live in a society in which spurious realities are manufactured by the media, by governments, by big corporations, by religious groups, political groups—and the electronic hardware exists by which to deliver these pseudo-worlds right into the heads of the reader, the viewer, the listener. Sometimes when I watch my eleven-year-old daughter watch TV, I wonder what she is being taught. The problem of miscuing; consider that. A TV program produced for adults is viewed by a small child. Half of what is said and done in the TV drama is probably misunderstood by the child. Maybe it's all misunderstood. And the thing is, Just how authentic is the information anyhow, even if the child correctly understood it? What is the relationship between the average TV situation comedy to reality? What about the cop shows? Cars are continually swerving out of control, crashing, and catching fire. The police are always good and they always win. Do not ignore that point: The police always win. What a lesson that is. You should not fight authority, and even if you do, you will lose. The message here is, Be passive. And—cooperate. If Officer Baretta asks you for information, give it to him, because Officer Beratta is a good man and to be trusted. He loves you, and you should love him.
So I ask, in my writing, What is real? Because unceasingly we are bombarded with pseudo-realities manufactured by very sophisticated people using very sophisticated electronic mechanisms. I do not distrust their motives; I distrust their power.

So Dick was talking about how people who create pseudo-realities, which give them power over us, but only if we believe in them. We do have the choice not to believe, although it can be easy to loose sight of that.

Now I have some rather odd personal definitions of words like "belief". Somewhat different from what you will find in the dictionary, but very useful, I think, in thinking clearly about this subject.

Truth: what other people want you to believe.
Facts: information about reality that we get using measuring devises of known accuracy and that give the same answers again and again.
Knowledge: combine facts with rational explanations that generate testable predictions. Do the tests again and again, publishing negative results with just as much fanfare as positive ones. Be skeptical of outlandish results, use critical thinking and work very hard not to commit any of the errors that plague our efforts to think clearly.. Do all this and eventually you arrive at a body of scientific knowledge. Unlike "truth" this sort of knowledge is not absolute. It is provisional and subject to revision as more data becomes available and explanations improve. But is it the best you can do. And much has already been done. Familiarize yourself with the existing body of scientific knowledge -- stand on the shoulders of giants, the view is much better.
Belief: a last resort to turn to when the currently known facts and the best available explanations of them don't answer you questions and you must have an answer on which to base your decisions. Beliefs should be avoided at all costs, much better to admit that we don't yet know and just continue searching. But the world being what it is, there are many decisions that must be guided, at least in part, by nothing more substantial than belief.
Reality Based: based on what we know really exists, as detailed under knowledge above.
Not Reality Based: beliefs which have been put to the test and repeatedly disproved.Such beliefs tend to have such immense popular appeal that one flawed investigation supporting them out-weights hundred of well design studies disproving them.
Credulity: a willingness to believe in someone or something in the absence of reasonable proof.

So I would say it is best to first stop believing and then observe what doesn't go away -- that's reality. And when someone comes to you preaching absolute "truths" be very, very suspicious. And that includes me, though I'm going to try very hard not to preach or offer absolute truths. Just the facts, ma'am, and some rational explanations which include predictions that you can test for yourself.

For those interested in pursuing this line of thought about thinking, here are several Wikipedia articles that may be of interest: Critical Thinking, Skepticism, Cognitive Distortion, List of cognitive Biases,
and another article on Logic & Fallacies -- Constructing a Logical Argument.

I can give the highest recommendation to Skeptic magazine, which you should be able to find on a newsstand near you or check out the electronic version online.

Above, I defined belief as "a last resort to turn to when the currently known facts and the best available explanations of them don't answer you questions and you must have an answer on which to base your decisions." The world being what it is, there are many decisions that must be guided, at least in part, by nothing more substantial than belief. For those who are curious about what I do believe, I've added a page entitled "What I believe" to this blog.

Sunday, 15 January 2012

Cargo Cult Science

The title for this blog is from a quote from Nobel prize winning physicist  Richard Feynman: "The first principle is that you must not fool yourself--and you are the easiest person to fool." He was referring to what he considered the right way to do science, but as you'll see as I continue on here, I think this can be applied pretty successfully as an approach to life, as well.

Here's a link to the speech that quote comes from: Cargo Cult Science. It was given as a commencement address at Caltech. What Feyman was talking about was pseudoscience, when he called "cargo cult science" in reference to the Pacific Islanders who, after the Americans left at the end of World War II, built simulated airstrips, hoping to entice the planes full of "cargo" to come back again. Didn't work, of course, any more than the trappings of science adopted by many groups these days turns their bizarre beliefs into scientific "truth". But those trappings are enough to fool a great many people.

Feynman closed his speech by wishing the graduating class at Caltech the good luck to work somewhere where they can do real science and "not feel forced by a need to maintain your position in the organization, or financial support, or so on,to lose your integrity."

My purpose here is to share with you what I have figured out about what's going on in the world today. I hope to maintain the integrity Feynman was talking about and not fool myself (the easiest person to fool) along with the rest of you.

We've all got brains, but unfortunately they don't come with an owner's manual. People have been doing something that could be called "thinking" for two or three million years now. Amazingly it's only been in the last few hundred years, since the Enlightenment, that we have figured out the scientific method, critical thinking and skepticism as tools for really using our brains.

The good news is that there is nothing to stop an individual from using those tools to evaluate the ideas we are bombarded with every day, to see if they really stand up to a skeptical, critical examination.

Wikipedia has a good article on pseudoscience. They also have a list of topics characterized as pseudoscience that is well worth scanning through just to see if any of your deeply cherished beliefs made the list. There's nothing much sadder than believing in something that has already been proven wrong.