Internet Search vs. the Truth

Not everything is rosy with unfettered and unfiltered access to information for everyone.

In today’s day and age, any information, is just a Google search away; and while it is empowering-no doubt; it is also a debilitating burden for researchers and educators. Little knowledge is dangerous. It is like handing a monkey a scalpel, and ask him to supervise (or influence) a neurosurgery. An internet search does not, and can not judge your capacity to digest information of a certain level. See my past article on “Knowledge vs. Information“. While information may be available, it does not translate into knowledge without a framework. And, all this assumes that the information is correct! Most people are poor judges of that. At least, in pre internet days, books underwent “some” editorial scrutiny. Not anyone with a Modem and a computer is an author, or a scientist, or a researcher.

As a hypothetical example (hypothetical because the real ones will rub some people the wrong way), let me concoct a cock and bull story, and blog about it somewhere, and post it to as many social networks as I can. This is the possible scenario that will unfold. Someone will stumble upon it on, say, Twitter and Google it. He will find my bog post, and –being untrained in the arcane art of scientific enquiry, verification of sources and corroborative evidence examination—take it as a proof of correctness and spread it. Lather, rinse and repeat! Before you know it, this fact is plastered over the internet.

As they say, an untruth, repeated again and again amounts to a truth. There’s an XKCD for that (there’s an XKCD for everything!!)

Title text: I just read a pop-science book by a respected author. One chapter, and much of the thesis, was based around wildly inaccurate data which traced back to… Wikipedia. To encourage people to be on their toes, I’m not going to say what book or author.

On the flip side, a skeptic, when faced with a truth that does not jive well with the known and accepted facts, will find it extremely difficult to get at the truth The truth will be , for want of a better word, unsexy, and hence not popular, and buried in the search results.

The key takeaway from this diatribe is

  1. Google search is not an authenticity check.
  2. Facts that are too fascinating to be true are often “not true”.
  3. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, –cures for leukaemia, UFO sightings, 9-11 conspiracy, fake moon landings, on and on.
  4. Be a skeptic.

A Skeptic subscribes to a number of tenets:

  • Respect for the evidence. The application of reason to evidence is the best method we have to obtain reliable knowledge.
  • Respect for methods, conclusions and the consensus of science. Science is a particular way of obtaining information that is designed to reduce the chances of coming to an incorrect conclusion.
  • Preference for natural, not supernatural, explanation. Natural laws give us rational boundaries in our quest to determine explanations. Miracles are an example of using a supernatural agent (a god, saint or angel who operates outside of natural laws) as part of the explanation. A Skeptic will look for a natural explanation that does not call for a supernatural, unproven (and possibly unprovable) entity to be included.
  • Promotion of reason and critical thinking. Many Skeptics are good at identifying mistakes in arguments and reasoning.
  • Awareness of how we are fooled. People routinely fool themselves and are fooled by others.
  • Skeptics are wary of eyewitness testimony because observation is fallible and memory is malleable. Stories of events, even from trustworthy people, make for very poor evidence on their own. Even collectively, anecdotes don’t tell us much about the validity of the claim. Skeptics also understand that people tend to look for, remember and favour the evidence that supports their preferred conclusion.
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Why we believe in Gods

“Why We Believe in God(s): A Concise Guide to the Science of Faith” by J. Anderson Thomson and Clare Aukofer is a scientific take on the Science of our belief in God. This is a volume in the long line of books on this area, probably starting with Sigmund Freud’s books on Religion and its origin. Freud regards God as an illusion, based on the infantile need for a powerful father figure.

The book has earned rave reviews in the Skeptic press. Here’s a review at http://fractalheretic.blogspot.in/2013/09/review-why-we-believe-in-gods.html which is being reproduced verbatim.

Why do we believe in Gods? Is the human mind inherently theistic? In his lecture “Why We Believe In Gods” Andy Thomson provides a compelling and scientifically supported argument that our minds are hard wired to believe in Gods because of the way we evolved. I’m going to comment on a few of the highlights and try not to butcher it too much with my layman’s understanding, but I strongly recommend watching the video if you have the time. Better yet, check out his book.

Andy Thomson explains that religion is a “by-product of cognitive mechanisms designed for other purposes.” In other words, we evolved to think in certain ways that helped us survive, but then there were side effects. As you’ll see, these “cognitive mechanisms” can combine to create religion.

Decoupled cognition: The ability to have an imaginary conversation with someone who is either absent or nonexistent. We can replay past conversations, rehearse future conversations, or even imagine what we would say to Elvis Presley and how he might respond. It’s not much of a stretch to use this ability to talk to an imaginary agent, such as God. Sprinkle in a little magical thinking, and the imaginary conversation becomes an actual conversation. Some Christians might even imagine what God would say in response and misapprehend the imagined response as the actual voice of God.

Thomson says “It’s natural to think of disembodied minds” because there may have been an evolutionary advantage to being able to think about someone’s intentions or goals without them present. He talks about an experiment that was done where children were shown a puppet show of an alligator eating a mouse. The children were then asked a series of questions about the mouse.

“Does the mouse still need to eat or drink?” No.

“Is the mouse still moving around?” No.

“Does the mouse still think and want certain things?” Yes.

So apparently we’re born thinking about minds and bodies as if they are separate things. This is evident even in adults when we ask “where do we go when we die?” This kind of thinking not only stimulates belief in souls, the afterlife, and ghosts, but also enables us to imagine a great disembodied mind in the sky.

Hyperactive agency detection: The tendency to assume that intelligent agents are behind every unknown. Think of this as a kind of abstract pareidolia. Similar to the way we unconsciously scan for faces in the clouds, we also look for other patterns that might indicate an agent.

We look at nature and think an intelligent designer must have made it. We experience a strange coincidence and think someone caused it to happen for a reason. We look back at our lives and think someone had a hand in the way things played out. Everywhere we look, we assume agents are behind everything.

Machines break down: gremlins did it.
Mushrooms appear in a circle: fairies did it.

Strange sounds in the night: ghosts did it.
Tide goes in and out: God did it.
The sound of a twig breaking nearby: a saber tooth tiger did it.

That last one might have something to do with why we think this way. There is an evolutionary advantage to being paranoid and constantly on the lookout for agents. Eons later, we no longer have to worry about that darn tiger, but we still have this sloppy detection mechanism built in, and we can’t turn it off.

Attachment Mechanism: The tendency to turn to a caretaker when in distress. As children, we instinctively cry out for help whenever we’re hurt or we need something. Prayer is when we continue that behavior into adulthood, instead of growing up and learning to be self-reliant. A lot of prayer is just childish crying for a celestial parent to make everything better.

Childhood credulity: The evolutionary advantage of being gullible. This is something Dawkins talks about as well. If a parent tells a child: don’t play with snakes, don’t swim with crocodiles, or don’t eat a particular kind of berry, the child is more likely to survive if they don’t try to be a skeptic and test those things. Unfortunately, this gullibility is still in effect when the parent tells the child what they need to do or believe in order to avoid the wrath of God.

These are just a few of the cognitive mechanisms that make the human mind a fertile petri dish for the memetic virus of religion. It’s often said that everyone is born an atheist, but if Thomson is right, we’re also born with a whole toolkit of evolutionary leftovers in our heads that make us naturally religious. This helps explain why theism has spontaneously and independently arisen in so many cultures around the world, a fact that many theists offer as evidence of faith.

I also strongly recommend Daniel Dennett’s lecture “Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon“. If you haven’t seen that one, it will blow your mind. You will never see religion the same way again. Dennett explains how a religion evolves as a memetic virus, a virus made of words and ideas instead of physical stuff.

While I still think Dennett’s memetic theory about the evolution of religion explains a lot, Thomson’s ideas are better at explaining the “abiogenesis” of religion. In fact, I think Thomson’s and Dennett’s theories mesh perfectly. A virus, even a memetic one, works by exploiting the weaknesses of a system, and the cognitive mechanisms Thomson has studied are the weaknesses that allow religion to take hold of a mind.

Unfortunately, religion has had a long time to evolve, and it has become exceedingly efficient at exploiting the human mind. If atheists want to make a difference, we need to understand how religion works to be able to fight it effectively.

Highly recommended.

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Nehru on Religion

Another excerpt from The Discovery of India…….

Religion, as I saw it practised, and accepted even by thinking minds, whether it was Hinduism or Islam or Buddhism or Christianity, did not attract me. It seemed to be closely associated with superstitious practices and dogmatic beliefs, and behind it lay a method of approach to life’s problems which was certainly not that of science. There was an element of magic about it, an uncritical credulousness, a reliance on the supernatural.

Yet it was obvious that religion had supplied some deeply felt inner need of human nature, and that the vast majority of people all over the world could not do without some form of religious belief. It had produced many fine types of men and women, as well as bigoted, narrow-minded, cruel tyrants. It had given a set of values to human life, and though some of these values had no application to-day, or were even harmful, others were still the foundation of morality and ethics.

In the wider sense of the word, religion dealt with the uncharted regions of human experience, uncharted, that is, by the scientific positive knowledge of the day. In a sense it might be considered an extension of the known and charted region, though the methods of science and religion were utterly unlike each other, and to a large extent they had to deal with different kinds of media. It was obvious that there was a vast unknown region all around us, and science, with its magnificent achievements, knew little enough about it, though it was making tentative approaches in that direction. Probably also, the normal methods of science, its dealings with the visible world and the processes of life, were not wholly adapted to the physical, the artistic, the spiritual, and other elements of the invisible world. Life does not consist entirely of what we see and hear and feel, the visible world which is undergoing change in time and space; it is continually touching an invisible world of other, and possibly more stable or equally changeable elements, and no thinking person can ignore this invisible world.

Science does not tell us much, or for the matter of that anything about the purpose of life. It is now widening its boundaries and it may invade the so-called invisible world before long and help us to understand this purpose of life in its widest sense, or at least give us some glimpses which illumine the problem of h u m a n existence. The old controversy between science and religion takes a new form—the application of the scientific method to emotional and religious experiences.

Religion merges into mysticism and metaphysics and philosophy. There have been great mystics, attractive figures, who cannot easily be disposed of as self-deluded fools. Yet mysticism (in the narrow sense of the word) irritates me; it appears to be vague and soft and flabby, not a rigorous discipline of the mind but a surrender of mental faculties and a living in a sea of emotional experience. The experience may lead occasionally to some insight into inner and less obvious processes, but it is also likely to lead to self-delusion.

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Nehru on Time (Past, Present and Future)

An excerpt from The Discovery of India………..

Time seems to change its nature in prison. T h e present hardly exists, for there is an absence of feeling and sensation which might separate it from the dead past. Even news of the active, living and dying world outside has a certain dream-like unreality, an immobility and an unchangeableness as of the past. T h e outer objective time ceases to be, the inner and subjective sense remains, but at a lower level, except when thought pulls it out of the present and experiences a kind of reality in the past or in the future. We live, as Auguste Comte said, dead men’s lives, encased in our pasts, but this is especially so in prison where we try to find some sustenance for our starved and locked up emotions in memory of the past or fancies of the future. There is a stillness and everlastingness about the past; it changes not and has a touch of eternity, like a painted picture or a statue in bronze or marble. Unaffected by the storms and upheavals of the present, it maintains its dignity and repose and tempts the troubled spirit and the tortured mind to seek shelter in its vaulted catacombs. There is peace there and security, and one may even sense a spiritual quality.

But it is not life, unless we can find the vital links between it and the present with all its conflicts and problems. It is a kind of art for art’s sake, without the passion and the urge to action which are the very stuff of life. Without that passion and urge, there is a gradual oozing out of hope and vitality, a settling down on lower levels of existence, a slow merging into non-existence. We become prisoners of the past and some part of its immobility sticks to us.

This passage of the mind is all the easier in prison where action is denied and we become slaves to the routine of jail-life. Yet the past is ever with us and all that we are and that we have comes from the past. We are its products and we live immersed in it. Not to understand it and feel it as something living within us is not to understand the present. To combine it with the present and extend it to the future, to break from it where it cannot be so united, to make of all this the pulsating and vibrating material for thought and action—that is life. Any vital action springs from the depths of the being. All the long past of the individual and even of the race has prepared the background for that psychological moment of action. All the racial memories, influences of heredity and environment and training, subconscious urges, thoughts and dreams and actions from infancy and childhood onwards, in their curious and tremendous mix-up, inevitably drive to that new action, which again becomes yet another factor influencing the future. Influencing the future, partly determining it, possibly even largely determining it, and yet, surely, it is not all determinism. Aurobindo Ghose writes somewhere of the present as ‘the pure and virgin moment,’ that razor’s edge of time and existence which divides the past from the future, and is, and yet, instantaneously is not. T h e phrase is attractive and yet what does it mean?

The virgin moment emerging from the veil of the future in all its naked purity, coming into contact with us, and immediately becoming the soiled and stale past. Is it we that soil it and violate it? Or is the moment not so virgin after all, for it is bound up with all the harlotry of the past?

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What ails our education system (Esp. scientific and technical)?

Imagine a class of Martians in a class in their schools in the subject Earthology(the study of earth). The First chapter in their books says “SCREWDRIVERS“. And the teacher begins

“A screwdriver is a tool on earth that has a metal rod embedded in an insulated handle to apply torque… and so forth”.

He then proceeds to ‘educate’ the students about a hundred types of screwdriver heads and the exact differences between them. He proceeds to tell them the material types, strengths and all the stuff but, and this is important, never tells them what the same would be or is used for. The students learn the same, and regurgitate on the answer sheets in their examinations.

Now this imagination is not too far-fetched. In our first high school mathematics class, the first chapter was complex numbers, and it started:

‘i’ pronounced as iota, is defined as the square root of -1 and hence is imaginary. Any number with an imaginary part is called a complex number.

And then the details for operations on complex numbers followed. We never gained an understanding of where a study of something that does not exist matters or is relevant. The same story repeated, we regurgitated on the answer sheets and went on from there. Some people were better at it, and scored better, which has no relation to the amount of fundamental understanding of where these matter.

And this, the lack of context for what is being taught, utter disregard to its physical significance and more importantly- however utopic that may sound- a lack of understanding for the philosophy of a subject or an area of study is what causes grad students appears like a deer in headlights when real world knocks at the door. It has happened to me personally as well. A question that I asked my professor, when I was doing my EE, regarding the physical significance of a fantastic mathematical expression just derived was considered as an affront to the professor and a disruptive influence to the class.

The result: in the course of tens of interviews for hiring fresh engineering graduates, any question is met with exact-to-the-word textbook definitions, but a follow up question of “what–does-that-mean-?” is met with blank stares. The textbooks are designed to be incredibly dry. Why can’t a book on introductory calculus start with Zeno’s paradoxes? Why can’t an introductory course on DSP start with a pre-generated set time domain samples? Why can’t the students be told the meaning of the complicated mathematical expressions that they just learnt to derive? Taking the example of complex numbers, here’s the explanation by the legendary physicist, Nobel Laureate and educator, Richard Feynman (paraphrased):

Complex numbers can be mathematical tool to visualise a quantity in 2 dimensions. As an example, if we say that there are 3.4 people per square kilometre, no one looks for a 0.4 person.

While I can understand and appreciate that there are concepts that are abstract and assigning physical meaning may be difficult, but at least an attempt to contextualise is definitely warranted. So, the failure of our curricula to bridge academics and the context pertaining to the real world is what robs the subject of its meaning and the capability or the motivation to delve deeper into it.

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Men verses Animals

Is there a difference between men and animals?

What a preposterous question? Of course there is!

I understand the righteous indignation on such an affront to one’s dignity. Let us take a shallow dive and see this through. A typical stray canine’s life story would be great subject for this case study. What does it do all its life? The major purposes of all actions that a stray dog does are food, reproduction and safety, maybe some recreation. Is there anything else that it does?

Now, what does a man do all his life which falls outside the above categories of possible outcomes? Please note that I mean humanity as a whole, not an individual here. Our jobs, families, love interests, recreational pursuits, culinary excursions, all boil down to the same purpose buckets as of a dog, so what’s the difference.

The difference is, drum rolls please, that humanity as a whole has been able to do stuff that causes the lives of each of us markedly different from , and arguably better than, our forefathers. And by induction, humanity is doing stuff that will give our children a different life that we lead. Issac Newton, in a letter to Robert Hooke on February 15, 1676 said,

If I have seen further it is by standing on ye sholders of Giants.

It is those giants, and the very act of being able to stand on their shoulders, and the desire to do so, and the new horizons that we have been able to see and conquer and be those giants in the process, that makes us HUMAN. The people that spend their lives in the daily grind and rigmarole have no more claims to the word HUMAN than our canine friends. The intellect, its sharpening and passing the flame are our only hope.

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CircuitLab- A fab tool

A quick shout out to Circuitlab, a fabulous new resource for EEs and hobbyists: In its own words:

CircuitLab is an in-browser schematic capture and circuit simulation software tool to help you rapidly design and analyze analog and digital electronics systems.

The simulation tools are amazing, at par with the more established names in the business. And, it’s FREE!!

Its here: https://www.circuitlab.com

 

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