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.





Secular Liberalism Misunderstood

15 10 2010

The ABC site, The Drum Unleashed, posted another of my missives, this time on the merits of secular liberalism, regardless of one’s spiritual (or otherwise) persuasion. And already the comments are flowing. I’ll attempt to respond to them in this post as they roll on.

First up, to those who have criticised my term “believe in atheism”, you’re right. That was a poor turn of phrase on my behalf. Should properly be “whether you believe in God or are an atheist”. Doesn’t affect my argument though. Okay, moving on.

To those who suggest that Richard Dawkins isn’t seeking to abolish the teaching of religion, rather he seeks to abolish the indoctrination of children into a particular religion – I agree that he is in favour of the teaching of comparative religion, as well as the teaching of the Bible as an historical text. However, he has made strident claims against religious teaching of the, well, religious flavour. While I oppose supernaturalism, I would suggest that any attempt to banish religious education would be problematic, as I’ll elaborate below.

Read the rest of this entry »





The New New Left

27 08 2010

The ABC’s Drum site has picked up my riffs on the sorry state of federal politics in Australia and the need for a new 21st century political party that isn’t shackled to unions or religion.

It’s an issue I’ve been thinking about for quite some time – well before this shambolic campaign was thrust at us. Both the Labor and Liberal parties in Australia political anachronisms today, with neither representing the growing number of voters – particularly those under 40 – who believe in economic liberalism but are also socially progressive.

Labor is socially progressive, but its unionist and socialist foundations (and ugly factionalism) make it increasingly unappealing. The Liberal party has embraced more liberal economic principles – often too laissez faire – but it’s also the haven for religious social conservatives, and promotes a brand of fear-based, racist, xenophobic and homophobic politics that many find repulsive.

The Greens are a promising party in many respects, and I heartily applaud their commitment to sustainable economics and social progressivism. But The Greens are prone to big government semi-socialism with some issues; their wonderfully clear policy document (why don’t the major parties have such a coherent document?) involves a lot of spending without necessarily facing up to the cost of such government activity. In fact, the election results suggest many voters who went Green did so through disillusionment with Labor, and distaste with the Liberals, rather than a broad commitment to Green values.

Some commenters on the Drum article have suggest the Democrats were the party. Perhaps they were (emphasis on were). The Democracts allowed themselves to implode for the very reason that they were beginning to shift – under Natasha Stott-Despoja – to the kind of centre-left party I’m talking about and, for a variety of reasons (internal personality conflicts being a major one), they couldn’t make the shift. They’re not the party I seek.

So where to now? I think we’re ripe for a new major party, one that brings centre-left politics to the fore, one that embodies the shift to economic liberalism that Labor has attempted (but failed, largely thanks to its unionist/socialist underpinnings), and the shift to social liberalism and tolerance of diversity that is a hallmark of generation X and Y.

Could it happen? It wouldn’t be easy to build critical mass sufficient to overtake Labor (which would be the likely casualty), but it is possible. It just needs the right leadership, the right strong and well-respected voices backing it, and a clear values and policy message to be delivered to the people. It might take years – and a couple of elections at least – to really take hold.

But we live in a democracy, after all. The habit of voting Labor or Liberal is just that, a habit. There’s nothing stopping us from voting differently as a nation, except the expectation that no-one else will vote differently. Make an alternative party look electable, and it will be electable. We now only need those brave enough to try.





Evolved Fear of Sharks Prompts Front Page News

17 08 2010

Today, roughly*:

  • 133 Australians died of cardiovascular disease
  • 116 died of cancer
  • 30 died from respiratory diseases
  • 24 died from injuries or external trauma, including 6 from suicide, 4 from falls and 2 from road accidents
  • 18 died from behavioural or mental disorders
  • 16 died as a result of nervous system disorders
  • 16 also died of metabolic diseases
  • 14 died of diseases of the digestive tract
  • 9 died from genitourinary diseases, mainly renal failure
  • 5 died from infections or parasites
  • 3 died from other causes
  • And 1 died from a shark attack

Yet, can you guess which made news internationally? Yep, the shark attack.

You're more likely to accidentally drown in the bathtub than be eaten by me.

It made news not because it was a rare occurrence – even though it is – because there were many other deaths that occurred today that could be counted as rare. It didn’t get news because it was common and preventable, because it’s not either of these things.

It got news because there’s something deep down in our monkey brain that finds the idea of being eaten by a predator to be a shocking and outrageous way to die. Individual deaths from modern ailments – from cardiovascular disease, cancer or infection – rarely rate a mention, and certainly don’t get reported worldwide.

A list of common human fears typically includes “heights, storms, large carnivores, darkness, blood, strangers, confinement, deep water, social scrutiny, and leaving home alone” because “these are the situations that put our evolutionary ancestors in danger” (Pinker, 1997).

Strikingly absent from this catalog of human fears are the things humans should be afraid of in contemporary environments. The sight of a car or a gun, for example, should strike far more fear into the heart of a modern human than does the sight of a snake, for cars and guns kill far more people than do snake bites. (Buller, 2005)

The moral of this story is that we should remember that we’re not much more than occasionally thoughtful primates – and we’re still more primates than thoughtful.

* Statistics from the Australian Bureau of Statistics document, Causes of Death, Australia, 2008








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