26 November, 2012

sceince, facts, theories, laws, proofs, dogs


All the observations in the world are insufficient for proof: we must rely on our senses and instruments, which are necessarily faulty, and repeated experiment, which relies somewhat on the assumption that after seeing a hammer fall hundreds of times, the five hundred and first time it won't turn into a bird. Proof as such only really exists in internally consistent abstractions such as maths and logic. In looking at such a world the theories we construct are based on facts, but a fact in science is only as enduring as mankind is able to determine such a thing.

Rather than seeking truth per se science builds models based on observation and experiment, and such models must by their nature be tentatively held, for there is always the potential for an observation of things acting in a manner that is unexpected. To account for this new data the model must be altered to explain this new evidence. Our theories, even those for which mountains of evidence exist, all follow this pattern, constantly.

To take the example of electromagnetism: mankind was utterly ignorant of the relationship between electricity and magnetism until a battery was accidentally turned on near a compass by a very smart chap who decided to write about it to other smart chaps, and after a lot of thinking and prodding and waving magnets with coils around we now treat the two as a single force. Hell for a long time we had no idea that lightning for instance had any relationship to electricity whatsoever, until, among others, Benjamin Franklin was able to convincingly show it. The concept of an electrical charge, its nature, that all electricity is essentially caused by the same phenomenon, was based on the gathering of decades of observations, experimental data and constantly altering models. Each scientist who contributed to this knowledge was himself in the dark about many aspects of electromagnetism.

Now after so much observation, and empiricism having spent the past few centuries demonstrating its worth, the chances of the phenomena of electricity being completely swept aside by a revolutionary discovery is roughly the same as the falling hammer turning into a pigeon (I worked out the statistics of both using a science calculator). Even if we find our models are mere shadows of a much wider phenomenon, or that we have gotten the wrong end of the stick entirely and our explanations are the ridiculous mewling of man-children, the evidence we have gathered already - the data of the thing - is not thereby suddenly wrong, rather it is incorporated into a much wider body of knowledge, and the resulting explanation may be only dimly recognisable to us as electricity as we know it. 

After centuries of changing models, our understanding of what electricity actually is has become vastly different to that of its first discoverers. In later centuries the future discoveries of mankind (if we hang in there) will similarly make our understanding of it seem paltry. True revolutions in science are rare, some philosophers of science would suggest they do not happen at all, but rather there is a continual and gradual series of reformations, where even the apparently sudden disappearance for the need of the luminiferous aether was really paved by decades of discoveries which made it increasingly unnecessary and an alternative explanation for the data increasingly well-shaped. Even something as socially tumultuous as the discovery of the common descent of all life on earth was presaged by the discoveries and hypotheses of Erasmus Darwin and Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, again amongst many others, who all gradually added bits and pieces of knowledge, who added claims which could be researched and tested and found wanting or were supported.

Gravity is a theory, and in many ways not a terribly well understood one.  Newton's universal law of gravity (and it is literally this) is certainly not a theory, but that is because there is no explanatory model or framework there. It tells us very little about gravity; indeed, even at the time Newton knew it was incapable of accurately describing the movements of the planets in the solar system with the required accuracy for the system to be maintained, and Newton himself, one of the cleverest, if not the cleverest bloke who's ever existed, had to fill in the gaps at the edge of his knowledge with such things as God. He was incorrect to do so, and he was more than smart enough to solve the problem himself, had he not shied away from doing so.

The Universal Law of Gravitation is a single datum, an equation which describes a single relationship. A theory of gravitation would seek to explain a collection of huge amounts of such data. I should also point out that Newton's law of gravitation is actually a bit wrong: general relativity (theory!) has already demonstrated that the 'law' is an (albeit a very excellent and eminently useful for most of our purposes in history) approximation, and becomes increasingly inaccurate as the speed of light is approached or the gravitational potential energy increases. Its inaccuracy is demonstrable by observations we can make here on earth (and indeed such observations helped develop general relativity in the first place). To cleave to a 'law' as being a fact where a theory is not, and by that to mean a 'law' is more truthful and proven than a 'theory' by mere dint of the terminology used, is to completely misunderstand what these terms are referring to.

The fact that all knowledge about the natural world is essentially tentative does not mean it is not useful or not to be relied upon. Humanity got a man on the moon relying on Newton, but without Einstein we wouldn't have GPS. There are fundamental problems with the way science is presented in the news media and to some extent I understand that, and a deep disconnect from the increasing specialisation of academia, are perhaps the predominant causative factors of the deeply ingrained wish to remain ignorant amongst many of the kind of people on the internet folk like me enjoy picking on. But to leap from that mistrust in science, which itself is constantly a self-correcting enterprise, to placing your trust in politicians or theologians or laymen pastors to interpret scientific results, to reject a consensus you do not understand the reasons for as so many do in regards to creationism, anthropogenic global warming denialism and so on, will perhaps forever remain deeply perplexing to me.

-The Rev. Schmitt.

24 November, 2012

Don't Godwin yourself you silly goose


'Israel', of course, is not such people any more than 'Palestine' is the febrile and fatuous and autonomous armed wing of Hamas. The geopolitics involved are, as people will go to great lengths to point out, horrendously complicated.

One thing is not quite so complicated however. Exterminationist rhetoric is never excusable, never ameliorated by context, never countered by giving the other side of the story, as it were, because there is no side of the story which makes it anything less than horrendous. For such rhetoric to be increasingly uttered by people in a position of power, for the deputy defence minister, for instance, to literally call for a shoah - that is, a Holocaust of Palestinians - should be deeply unsettling. There is never any excuse for such talk, and the more it is accepted, the more it is treated with blasé indifference, the more accepted it becomes by the power elite then the more translatable into eliminationist and exterminationist crimes the idea becomes. For such thoughts to be uttered in a modern liberal democracy by a cabinet minister should be unthinkable. It is never self defense to declare an intention to wipe out a people. It is never justified. It is never reasonable or rational or rendered sane by context. There is no such thing as balance for calls to genocide. People who say such things should not get away with it. They should not be part of the political process. They should not get to keep their jobs in government, or be regarded as savvy thinkers, or as journalists. That they keep their jobs and their roles and their functions should be of the deepest concern. There is no way of altering that, literally irrespective of anything any group of Palestinians do. They must be rooted out and rejected, and where they are not, the society in which such rhetoric is allowed to flourish must be looked at warily. Its justifications for military actions, policing actions, must be held under intense scrutiny because it is a society in which the idea of mass murder of a people merely for being of that people is tolerated and such ideas are darkly insidious.

We can talk about the feeble calls of genocide uttered by the  al-Qassam brigades - which Israel had prior to the mid-late 1990s allowed to develop and occasionally even supported against left wing and considerably more conciliatory Palestinian groups such as most notably the PLO and its Fatah wing, the only groups the Islamists have ever been militarily effective against - if you like. Morally such comments are of course equivalent, and it is a sign of the desperation and the hatred and the fear and, increasingly, religious bigotry and zealousness of Palestinians that Hamas was voted into power, more or less, and enjoys popular support after waging a low intensity conflict with Israel. All of the same condemnation I uttered against individual Israelis making such comments apply of course to individual Palestinians making such comments. Concern with societies which don't reject such people is echoed, with different nuances: it appears rather more popular amongst the Palestinians which is unsurprising, albeit no more justified, because their system of governance is less sovereign and also designedly protects fewer rights and liberties, and they have the worst of the conflict.

But as the article points out, the al-Qassam brigades are undoubtedly a terrorist organisation and Hamas is tainted by the association - they have actively supported numerous terrorist attacks and strategies, actively have had genocidal rhetoric woven into their quasi-repudiated 1988 charter. There's no such thing as a counterpoint for any of the individuals involved or the organisations which allow them to flourish that advocate genocide. In suggesting a state of comparison, in suggesting balanced reporting would more fully compare the genocidal comments between Hamas and Israel one is suggesting a collective moral equivalence between the state of Israel and a band of terrorist mass murderers. Far from excusing Hamas such an attitude condemns Israel in the worst ways imaginable. Are we really going to say they are like entities, the two distinct sides of the conflict?

There's another crucial distinction I suppose, pragmatically, insofar as Israel notably has the power and ability to complete such a genocide, and unlike the Palestinians is a functional and relatively well-established democracy, sovereign over its own territory, with the wealth of a superpower behind it, the full firepower and economic strength of a nation state at its beck and call, the capacity and will to strangle trade and embargo both luxuries and necessities. It kills a magnitude greater Palestinians than Palestinians kill Israelis in conflicts, and considerably more than that in more general terms. You don't get to mitigate such calls to mass murder by suggesting we need to look at the other side. You don't get to play them down by pointing out that the al-Qassam tactic of indiscriminate shelling - which has killed about four civilians during the most recent operations, roughly 11 since 2003, and one soldier - is, and it most certainly is, murderous, callous, and brutal. Tens of thousands of Palestinians have been dispossessed of homes and livelihoods, forced into squalor and poverty and hunger; almost all have had goods and services and necessities restricted or prohibited as a matter of course; eliminationist rhetoric has been transformed into dramatically debilitating practice with the ghettoisation of Palestinians into the West Bank and Gaza. These are things Palestinians cannot do to Israelis. They can fling rockets and shells, which is a horrible and terrifying thing to endure. It is not an equitable level of suffering to endure.

The Palestinians are no more fair game than the people of Israel. In a modern, liberal democracy, with freedom of the press and of ideas and to a lesser extent of association, one rather hopes that such ideas as sodding genocide would be crushed mercilessly by better ideas, free from state or militia-driven censorship or the debilitating insular mindset generated by a loss of national sovereignty and repression. We cannot hope for such in Gaza, which enjoys none of these freedoms, opposed as they are by both Hamas and the net military and government actions of Israel.  Hamas is our enemy, irrespective of the mildly softening stance towards Israel brought about by its surge into political power, and suggesting moral equivalence between Israel and Hamas in such points merely suggests Israel is our enemy too.

As for responding to the conflict with a shrug,

-The Rev. Schmitt.