Science Outreach: Plucking the Low Hanging Fruit

17 01 2012

To its credit, the Australian Government is making a concerted push into science outreach through the tritely-named Inspiring Australia programme, including $5 million in funding through the equally tritely-named Unlocking Australia’s Potential grant scheme.

Now, I’m all about science outreach. (In fact, I’m also all about philosophy outreach too. You might call it reason outreach, all up. But let’s stick to science for now.)

I firmly believe the greatest existential challenge faced by humanity is the spread of unreason, for unreason makes every other problem harder to solve. And a crucial foil in the fight against unreason is the genius of the scientific method. After all, anyone who doesn’t recognise the scientific method as the best tool we have in our epistemological arsenal for understanding the natural world around us doesn’t understand the scientific method.

I’ve said before that I don’t believe anyone should leave school without proficiency in literacy, numeracy, history etc – but also not without being fully versed in the spirit of the scientific method. In fact, I’m an advocate of two broad streams of science education, depending on each individual’s skill and interest, with the former an elective and the latter compulsory for all students:

1) Science for aspiring scientists – including in-depth knowledge of the scientific method, the details of state-of-the-art results of science, and science practice, including maths, experimental design etc. This is how science is taught currently from high school onwards. It’s hard, and it’s focused on doing science, hence a lot of disinterest and drop outs from those not intending to be scientists.

2) Science for aspiring citizens – including understanding of the scientific method in comparison with other approaches (intuition, revelation, authority, emotion, etc) for understanding the natural world, the limits of science, the problem with pseudo-science, the history of science and the process involved in solving long standing problems, and knowledge of the state-of-the-art results of science. This is a course intended to equip everyone to live in a scientifically-informed society, even those who don’t intend to pursue a career in science.

However, even if the education system were to enjoy a radical overhaul today (sadly unlikely…), there are still a great many people who already lack an appreciation of science, and of reason in general. How to bring them into the fold? Science outreach! This is one of my primary motivations in becoming a science journalist (and philosopher) myself: my belief in the importance of getting science and reason out to the masses.

So, you’d think I’d be excited about the government’s grants. To a degree I am. But I’m a little wary about the approach the grant scheme is taking, as I’ve mentioned to Dr Bronwyn Hemsley and Dr Krystal on Twitter.

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Ends and Means

19 07 2011

I call it “pulling a Cameron,” in reference not to the present British Prime Minister, but to the broadcaster Deborah Cameron who handles the morning slot on Sydney’s ABC Radio 702.

A common refrain a few minutes in to her maddeningly predictable morning routine of following the happenings of the first several pages of the Sydney Morning Herald is to enquire of some expert or other: “what are we doing to prevent X from ever happening again?”

And by “X” I mean whatever undesirable event has appeared on the front pages, whether that’s a case of callous bullying in our schools, a death by accident or some other unsavoury turn of events.

One recent example was the tragic death of a young university student at a rural college after being thrown from an ex-racing horse that was being used to train horse riding skills. The horse was deemed safe for students yet it possessed a fierce distemper that flared on that day, throwing the student

The question posed by Cameron, seemingly predictable and justifiable in the circumstances, was along the lines of: “what are we doing to prevent more deaths of students during riding training?”

The presumption is that the outcome is unacceptable so, clearly, our current process that led to this outcome must be deficient.

Yet that’s a presumption that is unfortunately as fallacious as it is common.

For we chase outcomes on an ad hoc basis at the risk of employing processes that undermine our very intentions to produce better outcomes. In short: we focus myopically on each good or bad outcome at the danger of forgetting that it’s good processes that are of primary importance.

And even a good process – nay, the optimal process – can result in bad outcomes from time to time.

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Save Cows, Not People

13 06 2011

Animal welfare is a pickle. It’s one of those issues that continues to vex me, largely because consideration for the well-being of animals doesn’t slot trivially into the normative moral framework that I’m developing as a part of my thesis.

A social contract-based moral system that sees everyone buy in to an agreement to limit their freedoms to impinge on others’ interests if others agree to limit their freedom to impinge on mine as well, with the intention that we’ll all be better able to pursue our interests (whatever they are), is straight forward enough. Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Rawls blah blah blah.

Be nice to me!

But it’s a contract between humans and other humans, not humans and animals. I am averse to inflicting suffering on other humans because I wouldn’t want such suffering to be inflicted on me. But why be averse to the suffering of animals? It’s not like cows can enter into a contract that says they’ll agree not to gore me if I’ll not kill and eat them.

Add to this that I don’t believe in intrinsic value or natural rights (although I do believe in a kind of overriding moral rights, but that’s another matter). So I can’t appeal to the suffering of animals as being intrinsically bad, and something that should be avoided for its own sake. I also don’t subscribe to the notion that animals have intrinsic rights and interests that are equivalent to our own; after all, I believe our interests are contingent on us being human and our rights stem from the social contract. Hmm. Pickle.

However, I think part of the the answer as to why we should care about the welfare and suffering of animals comes down to the moral psychology of the matter. It comes down to character, empathy, an aversion to violence and inflicting suffering etc. When a society develops to the level of cooperation and affluence that developed nations have, then fostering a strong sense of empathy is a useful character trait to encouraging more cooperation. And that empathy extends to many animals – although, interestingly, not all, and particularly not to non-anthropomorphic animals. Cuttlefish (which rock) don’t get afforded the same levels of empathy as pandas.

This position is still not unproblematic. If the society collectively disregarded the welfare of some animals, and their suffering didn’t trigger an empathy response, then it would be difficult for me to justify reversing that attitude.

It’s a pickle, and one I’m not finished un-pickling quite yet. I’d be interested to hear other perspectives on how animal welfare can factor into a social contract-based moral system.

In lieu of all this jumbling, the ABC’s Drum website asked me to pen something on the specific issue of why Australia rose up to ban live export of cattle in the wake of shocking images of mistreatment in Indonesian abattoirs broadcast on current affairs programme, Four Corners, yet remains ambivalent towards manifold cases of human suffering domestically and worldwide.

My response to the question essentially consists of two elements: emotionally salient imagery elicits a stronger moral response than diluted reports or rational arguments about human suffering around the world; and this case of mistreatment of cattle was a ‘perfect moral storm’ in that it hit all at once, engaged a nation with morally salient imagery and the problem itself was relatively easily solved, unlike most problems of human suffering around the world.

It’s one theory to explain the apparent hypocrisy of Australia’s response – although I don’t think it’s strictly ‘hypocrisy’ because the cases of the mistreatment of cattle and the cases of human rights abuses are not identical, so it’s not surprising they’re not morally equivalent. Doesn’t mean there isn’t some double standard going on, but it’s not a black-and-white-and-black case of hypocrisy.

Interestingly – or perhaps sadly – the comments to the piece have already fired up. Most miss the point of my piece – I’m not actually arguing that this is how Australia should have responded, only that this is how it did (seems many commenters fail to distinguish between a descriptive and a prescriptive thesis). I’m also not suggesting banning live exports is without cost, nor that not intervening in human rights abuses worldwide is justified. But then, one shouldn’t read the comments. That, at least, is clearly a prescriptive statement…





The Moral Obligation to Cut Carbon Emissions

7 06 2011

It’s often said that Australia’s contributions to global carbon emissions is so small – around 1.35% – that implementing a carbon price in this country would be futile; even if it worked, and it didn’t make the economy drastically uncompetitive internationally, it still wouldn’t have a significant impact in terms of lowering global emissions.

This argument is entirely spurious for a bunch of reasons, economic, environmental and empirical. Here’s a moral one:

The amount of income tax you pay to the government is only a tiny fraction of the government’s total tax revenues. Were you to forego paying your income tax, it would have an insignificant impact on government spending.

According to the carbon emissions argument above, this would give you grounds for skipping paying your income tax.

However, if this argument gave you good reason to not pay your income tax, then it would likewise give reason to all other individuals with a similarly small or smaller tax bill to also forego paying their income tax. If it’s justified for you, it would also be justified for them. As such, your refusal to pay income tax would open the gates for others to likewise not pay their income tax.

The end result would be a significant cut in government revenue, and that would have an impact on the government’s ability to function.

By analogy, if Australia saw its relatively small proportion of global emissions as justification for not putting in place a carbon price to cut those emissions, then it would give other nations with a similar or smaller amount of global emissions justification for doing the same.

As it happens, that list of countries with similar emissions to Australia (those with <2% global) includes 206 other nations out of 214 tracked, and together they contribute over 25% of global emissions.

If we in Australia say we’re justified not cutting emissions, then 25% of global emissions are suddenly off the table. This doesn’t preclude the importance of reigning in the top emitters, but it makes reducing overall emissions substantially harder. And it hardly gives the big emitters much motivation to cut their emissions either.

The upshot: if you think others have an obligation to pay their income tax – an obligation you share – then Australia also has a similar moral obligation to cut its carbon emissions.





Where’s Tim?

5 06 2011

I’m back, that’s where I am. Back in Sydney, that is, after a month abroad jaunting across Europe. My first such jaunt to said continent. So you can expect a greater volume of posts on Ockham’s Beard once again. Cheer!

As for the trip, it kicked off in Riga, Latvia, at the 7th International Symposium of Cognition, Logic and Communication “Morality and the Cognitive Sciences”, where I gave a paper on the core theme of my thesis, titled Evolution and Moral Ecology.

Guess where this photo was taken (clue: look closely at the glasses).

The symposium was bloody spectacular. Some top people attended, including Stephen Stich (who gave a wonderful synopsis of how our moral psychology evolved), Jesse Prinz (who also tackled the evolution of morality), Michael Bishop (who can put away a beer or two as well as deliver a compelling talk), Walter Sinnott-Armstrong (who is a powerhouse in moral psychology) and may others.

Riga is also a gorgeous city with a rich history (and it’s filled with stunningly beautiful women). It was a pleasure just wandering the streets, getting taste of the culture (and the beer).

Next stop was Turkey, where I caught up with two old friends of mine who are on a six-month tour of the world. Turkey was spectacular. Istanbul is a vibrant and lively city, very cosmopolitan and a wondrous mix of the ancient and the modern.

We then ventured into central Turkey to Cappadocia, home of the ‘fairy chimneys’, which are conical towers of soft stone into which peoples over the last millennia have carved out their homes. Goreme, the town at the centre of the region, is one of the nicest touristy places I’ve visited – the Kelebek hotel is amazing, with rooms carved out of stone, along with excellent service, great food and friendly staff.

After Turkey was Rome, which is a bizarre mix of ancient relics and modern hubub. The scooter riders, in particular, are entertaining, if menacing, for their suicidal tendencies. Then there’s the Pantheon. Bugger me, it’s breathtaking.

Then was the overnight train to Paris, which wasn’t necessarily the best option in the world – it ran four hours late, was uncomfortable, the food in the dining car was expensive and terrible. But I made it.

And Paris. Holy cow. A good friend of mine once remarked that if aliens arrive and declare that we can save only one city from their Death Rays, the world would huddle for a couple of minutes and announce with unanimity that it would be Paris.

Hanging with the big D in the British Natural History Museum - a modern temple to reason.

The experience was also enhanced by forgoing the usual hotel and renting an apartment for a week. It was bloody amazing, with a fully equipped kitchen, two gorgeous loft bedrooms and was located right in the middle of Marais, a funky district close to just about everything.

A EuroStar to London later, and another week was spent familiarising myself with ol’ blighty. Curries were eaten, museums were devoured. Also caught up with a branch of my family that I’d never met – even ate an eel at the last of the family eel and pie shops (no, they don’t sell eel pies – that’s a ridiculous notion).

And in between all that, I even managed to put out an issue of Australian Life Scientist. No-one really knows how, but it worked.

Sadly I didn’t manage to extend my jaunt to include the conference in Provence, where I had hoped to give a paper on the burgeoning idea of Synthesis. Oh well, next time.

And now I’m back. Cor. I’m tired just reading through all that. And bankrupt. But hey.

So, I pretty much bypassed May in Australia. Did I miss anything interesting?





The Revolution is Dead (For Now)

15 03 2011

There aren’t any revolutionaries any more. The closest contemporary figure I can muster from the cloudy reaches of my imagination who might qualify as a revolutionary is Julian Assange. Certainly he’s an original thinker, far more so than most people these days.

But even Assange’s revolution is incremental, if profound. He a seeks to change the landscape of democracy without necessarily wiping the slate clean entirely. His is not a prescriptive vision of a better world, but a solution to the ills of this one, underpinned by a conviction about the particular nature of corruption – or, as he calls it, ‘conspiracy.’

So where are the true revolutionaries? Where are the visionaries with a compelling view of a better world, one for which we ought to fight to bring into reality? Who’s thinking beyond the contingencies of this world to the possibilities of the next?

There was a time, not so long ago, when revolution was in common parlance and bold visions of a new world were talked about openly, debated, fought over and striven for. Only 40 years ago there was talk of building nothing less than a new civilisation.

What happened?

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When Science and Religion Collide

12 11 2010

ABC Religion has been kind enough to post response of mine to a very interesting piece by theologian Sarah Coakley on finding a reconciliation between evolution and God.

My response: when science and religion (or any other belief system) make claims that contradict each other, we have very good pragmatic reasons for favouring science. That being so, there is little room left for God, particularly of the interventionist variety. However, using naturalistic means alone, we can still provide a rich and detailed account of things like morality, so it’s not all bad news.

This view won’t be alien to regular readers of this blog, but it may well stir up some controversy on a site that is largely dedicated to discussions of the divine.

It’ll be interesting to see what kind of comments it generates. I fully anticipate a strong backlash against the pragmatic argument for the priority of science, likely along the lines that science still presupposes certain ‘truths’ about the world, and these ‘truths’ can only be explained by resorting to a Creator, or something similar. There might also be the usual arguments suggesting morality is impossible without an absolute yardstick. Or, if I’m lucky, there might be some new arguments that I’m not aware of yet. We’ll have to wait and see.

And while I’m talking about ABC Religion, I do recommend that site, even for the atheistically inclined. Lots of solid, well written pieces of high sophistication, even if you disagree with the initial premises. Go give the site a look.








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