The Wolf-Children of Midnapore

Physics was one of the first sciences which helped develop the modern “scientific method”. One of the processes in the scientific method involves controlling of variables during an experiment. Performing an experiment in this manner one can possibly find the effect of the independent variable on a dependent variable. In this manner, we are supposed to find out if there is any causal link/correlation between the variables. This method was seen as a hallmark of true science and was widely adopted while discovering and developing new other disciplines.

Now in the case of psychology and behavioural sciences, we have a long-running debate regarding the effects of nature and nurture on human growth and development. By nature here it is meant our genetic make-up, while by nurture it is meant the environment (both physical and social) around us. For long people have tried to establish the link between nature/nurture and various aspects of human growth and development. This dichotomy has a deeper connection to the nature of knowledge and learning, which in turn in related to the two basic schools of philosophy: empiricism and rationalism. In the extreme forms, put very crudely, empiricism proposes that we can gain knowledge through our sense organs only, while rationalism proposes that we make sense of the world in our mind only. For example, in The Matrix the machines have developed a simulation which makes the human mind “experience” the world only in the mind. When Morpheus asks Neo

What is real? How do you define ‘real’? If you’re talking about what you can feel, what you can smell, what you can taste and see, then ‘real’ is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain.

Here Morpheus is actually subscribing to the rationalist school as he denies that our sense organs are the primary source of our knowledge. In The Matrix the brain is simulated and it doesn’t know it is being simulated. How can we ever know? This is exemplified further by many Gedanken experiments which have been brought out by psychologists and philosophers. The Brain in a Vat is an example of such experiments.

On the other hand, the other extreme form of human development from empiricists would be considering humans a tabula rasaIn this perspective, the human brain is not born with any innate capabilities. And it is the experience with the physical world through the sense organs makes us understand the world. Thus, in this case, the environment is the factor on which our growth and development occur.

Now coming back to nature vs nurture debate, whether people believe in either depends strongly on the orientation and grounding people have regarding how the society works. We will see what is the basis both philosophical, epistemological and political when people subscribe to these viewpoints. First some thoughts on what exactly we mean by human growth and development in this context. We all see human babies grow from infants who are incapable of talking, understanding, even walking for that matter to being adults in a society who can talk, understand and do a variety of other things which infant versions of ours are not capable. How does this change occur, over let’s say a span of 15-20 years or so? Are we predestined by our genes to develop in a particular way, or does our immediate environment play a fundamental and crucial role in making this happen? What is the nature of learning and what is it dependent upon? Physical growth can be perhaps linked to the unfolding of the genetic predispositions that we have. For example, physical maturity occurs with age. Piaget has given us evidence on the basis of the so-called Piagetian tasks that thinking also matures with age and is a universal phenomenon across cultures.

But what happens to our thinking or our behaviours are they too natural and will occur even if we are not in contact with the society? People have thought over this question for a long time. We will discuss the evidence that people over the last 200 years or so have put up in support of each side, which is related to the title of the post.

In general, there are two groups who subscribe to the primacy of nurture in human development. The first group is of the people who are usually are influenced by Marxism and have a left orientation tend to favour nurture more than the nature aspect. According to them the social environment, including the socio-economic status of the family influence the way in which humans develop and learn. For this school of thought, the genetic composition (nature) of the individual has little or no effect on the way the individual develops or learns. This is in line with the central tenets of Marxism, in which capital plays a fundamental role in the way society works. The construct of cultural capital is a good way to understand how this group, in general, thinks about the effects of society and societal factors on human growth and development.

The other school which subscribes to the primacy of nurture in human learning and development is behaviourism. The behaviourists, very strongly influenced by logical positivists, and playing along with the zeitgeist gave credence in psychological studies to only things that could be observed. This was linked to the deep debates in the philosophy of science of the 1930s which was dominated by the logical positivists. The basic idea was that if anything is not observable directly by our sense experience like human thinking, it should not be considered scientific. This led to an entire programme which was very influential during the 30s-50s in which studying higher order thinking skills were banished from scientific enterprise. The definition of learning in case of behaviourists was seen in terms of behaviour. And according to them, the behaviour could be controlled by operant conditioning hence effectively we could control learning by providing required stimulus in the environment.

Bringing in the metaphor of a blank slate, people with this leaning would say all individuals are of equal potential, given a chance and environment anyone can perform anything. This was one of the basic assumptions of behaviourism. In Marxist sociological perspective, the metaphor of the blank slate allowed individuals to transcend the class that they were born in and to achieve their true potential irrespective of the social status of their parents. The quote below summarises this viewpoint very well:

Give me a dozen healthy infants, well-formed, and my own specified world to bring them up in and I’ll guarantee to take any one at random and train him to become any type of specialist I might select – doctor, lawyer, artist, merchant-chief and, yes, even beggar-man and thief, regardless of his talents, penchants, tendencies, abilities, vocations, and race of his ancestors. I am going beyond my facts and I admit it, but so have the advocates of the contrary and they have been doing it for many thousands of years.

From – Behaviorism by J. B. Watson, 1930, pp. 82.

Now let us look at the other group which takes the genetic makeup of ours as the most influential aspect for development and learning. In this perspective, your genes determine everything. There is no scope for anyone to do anything which the genes do not permit. Sometimes this is termed as genetic determinism. According to this view, the potential for learning and development is completely determined by genes. Unless one has a particular genotype, one by definition, is not capable of doing certain things. Now, of course, we do inherit our biological and physical structures from our parents. Physical characteristics like hair and eye colour, skin colour, size are inherited from our parents. So are tendencies for certain diseases like diabetes and others. Now the question that is interesting is this heritance limited to only physical characteristics or it can be used for determining other factors like intelligence, learning and development also?

In general, the people who are conservatives, leaning towards the right favour this point of view. This is because it provides a sort of legitimacy to the existing social order. The people who are in positions of power are there because they have better genes or are from a better stock. This also implies that nothing can be done to improve this situation as nature is unmutable. Of course, this position has racial, class gender, and caste overtones. Such an argument can be used to effectively defend and justify any existing social order. Sometimes, this entire range of ideas is put under the notion of Social Darwinism. Analogies from the natural world like artificial selection and breeding for producing better breeds (of plants and animals) are used to justify such a worldview. The movie GATTACA shows an example of a dystopian future is a good example of how a society where your genes are the only factors to determine your worth. In such a world, what matters is what your genes are, and not your skills.

Now apart from the philosophical, sociological and cultural aspects do we have any “scientific evidence” for deciding which factors are more influential. There have been many studies which claim a very strong evidence (mostly observational) regarding either worldviews. But none of the experiments or studies are seen to be conclusive. Critics on the other side point to experimental issues with data, samples, statistics, assumptions and personal beliefs and so on. Let us ask ourselves this question:

Can we design any critical experiments which will decide once and for all whether nature is important or nurture?

Ideally, the experimental design should be such that we should be able to control for nature and nurture. Now how would such an “ideal” experiment be designed? Let us look at each of the two variables. To control for nature we can take individuals from different genetic stocks and give them similar treatment. This way we will know from the differences in the outcomes/performance of the individuals and accordingly in their genes too. Now the question arises if we take adult individuals from different genetic stocks, they are already “contaminated” via the various nurture aspects of growing up. For example, they might have a different value system, a different language, different learning experiences, different social norms, different environments and so on. So ideally an “uncontaminated” sample should be with us.

How do we create an uncontaminated sample of human beings? Who are not touched by any aspect of nurture or environment? Ideally, we take don’t allow nurture to touch the newborn infants in any manner. That is to take them away from their mothers right after they were born. Oh! What a horror!! But such a thing would never be done in practice now. Though in the ancient times there were many who actually performed similar “experiments“. There are serious moral and ethical issues involved. Now strict research guidelines are in place whenever human subjects are involved in research studies. This came to force when evidence emerged post-World-War II which involved experimenting on human subjects by treating them like animals. That is basically not valuing human life and dignity. Hence I had put “ideal” in quotes.

In Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book the protagonist Mowgli, is raised by the wolves. Although fictional, this story presents us with an interesting case study. Mowgli, who has been raised by the wolves, is not human in the sense of how we identify with the society. He identifies himself as a wolf and behaves like one. But then this is fictional story and a Mowgli is a fictional character. Now if we could find such an individual like Mowgli, we could perhaps test many of the basic questions regarding aspects of nature and nurture. One such opportunity came to us in an episode which is the title of this post: The Wolf-Children of Midnapore.

Now it so happened that in 1920s a rector  Joseph Amrito Lal Singh in an orphanage in the town of Midnapore in Bengal, India reportedly found two girls in a wolf den. They were named Amala and Kamala. The discovery of these two girls was seen as a major event. The rector apparently maintained details notes about their discover and behavior in his diary. So much so, it was published into a book Wolf-Children and Feral Man J.A.L. Singh and Robert M. Zingg published in 1942. The discovery was also reported in a reputed journal as Scientific American (Vol. 164, No. 3 (MARCH · 1941), pp. 135-137).

Screen Shot 2018-09-20 at 8.16.26 AM

So what did the rector observe in these two children? Can it resolve any fundamental questions regarding the nature-nurture debate? The book and the entries in the diary of Rev. Singh make many such attempts. However, it so happened that people raised serious doubts about the authenticity of the story, and further analysis has shown that it was a hoax. Recently, there was a case in which a girl was discovered living with monkeys. Again, girl showed some feral characteristics, but according to some reports nothing conclusive could be said.

So our basic question regarding nature/nurture remains unanswered. Perhaps due to moral and ethical concerns we may never be able to answer question on “experiments” such as these. But there have been other ways, surveys, studies and experiments which do indicate the complex ways in which nature and nurture do interact to produce the social human animal. But what cases like these show is that there is so much that is still to be discovered in the respect of nature/nurture debate. Perhaps we will be able to resolve these issues at some point.

http://www.midnapore.in/wolf-children-of-midnapore/wolf-children-of-midnapore14.html

Cover of Carl Sagan’s The Dragons of Eden: A good example of bad science

carl-sagan-dargons-of-eden-cover

Carl Sagan was a wonderful writer. He wrote many amazing books for popularising science and also championed against pseudo-science prevalent in the society. Like many countless others Sagan’s works have inspired and fired imagination in me. Particularly he decimated the arguments made by Velikovsky in Worlds in Collision. Two of his books which deal with the topics of pseudo-science and anti-science are Broca’s Brain, Demon Haunted World: Science as a Candle in Dark. Sagan is most meticulous when explaining things, and adds disclaimers whereever they are necessary and needed.

When I was reading his book Dragon’s of Eden (a Pulitzer prize winner !) the cover of the book stuck me as unusual. The Wikipedia page says that the cover artist was Don Davis. The cover illustration shows a humanoid animal sitting below a tree (of knowledge?) in a serene landscape with a lake and few herbivored near it. Interestingly, and also problematically the cover also shows a variety of dinosaurs in the area as the hominid. This is rather unsettling. And it is definitely wrong. The dinosaurs for all we know, and Sagan knew this too well (for example, see Demon Haunted World), became extinct long before any humanoid forms came into existence. So showing them existing contemporarily is wrong, and factually incorrect science. This illustration goes against all that is known via fossil records that we have.

I wonder what made Sagan, who otherwise was skpetical and very particular, choose this wrong and factually incorrect illustration for the cover of his book, or that he did not have any say in choosing the cover of the book?

Review of I Am A Strange Loop by Douglas Hofstadter – Part 1

I recently finished I Am A Strange Loop by Douglas Hofstadter. The book is an introduction to the core ideas about self, self-reference, feedback loops and consciousness as  an emergent phenomena. The core question that is considered is

What do we mean when we say I?

Hofstadter in the preface indicates his angst at many people missing out on the core ideas of Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid. No doubt GEB is hard to read, and each one makes their own meaning of it.

Years went by, and I came out with other books that alluded to and added to that core message, but still there didn’t seem to be much understanding out there of what I had really been trying to say in GEB. xiii

I Am A Strange Loop is sort of a prequel to GEB, which came afterwards. In the book the focus is on developing an idea of emergent self, in which our consciousness is seen to emerge from feedback that we have by interacting with the world. Hofstadter uses a variety of examples to drive home the point of recursive feedback loops, giving rise to strange phenomena. The central claim is that we, our sense of self, our idea of consciousness derives from recursive interactions and feedback that we get via our senses.

He starts with a dialogue he wrote as a teenager between Plato and Socrates about what is it to be alive and being conscious, this in a way sets the stage for things to come. In the first chapter On the Souls and Their Sizes we are made to think about presence of souls in different foods that we eat (he himself doesn’t partake mammalian meat). We non-chalantly eat a tomato, irritatingly squish a mosquito, but what happens when we eat higher life forms, like chicken, pigs and sheep? Do they have souls? Do all living beings have souls? If so, then does the soul of a human is greater than that of a cow (now here I must be careful, there are people in my country who judge the soul of a cow much much greater than that of a human being), of a pig, of a chicken, of a mosquito of a tomato?

Does a baby lamb have a soul that matters, or is the taste of lamb chops just too delicious to worry one’s head over that? 18

The suggestive answer is  given in a conciousness cone, in which we normal adult humans are at the top and atoms are the start of the cone. But then granted that we have a soul, are we born with a fully developed one? Here Hofstadter takes a developmental approach to the concept of the soul. The idea is that we are born with some essence of what appears to be soul, then gradually over the years it develops. The concept of soul here is used interchageably with “I”. The main take home point in this chapter is whatever this is, we do not get the fully developed version of it from birth. Rather it is a developmental process which takes place in the real world, shaped by experiences. The said developmental changes are in degree, rather than a black/white switch.

In the second chapter This Teethering Bulb of Dread and Dream we look at possible ways of studying the mechanisms of the brain which might potentially shed some light on the puzzle that we are after. In general the idea of studying the hardware of the brain seems to be set in agenda of many neurologists. But Hofstadter argues against this way of studying thinking.

Saying that studying the brain is limited to the study of physical entities such as these would be like saying that literary criticism must focus on paper and bookbinding, ink and its chemistry, page sizes and margin widths, typefaces and paragraph lengths, and so forth. 26

Another analogy given is that of the heart. Just like heart is a pumping machine, brain is a thinking machine. If we only think heart as an aggregate of cells, we miss out on the bigger picture of what the cells do. The heart surgeons don’t think about heart cells but look at the larger structure. Similarly to study thinking the lower level of components may not be the correct level to study highly abstract phenomena such as concepts, analogies, consciousness, empathy etc. This is pointing towards thinking as an emergent phenomena, emerging from the interactions at lower levels which are composed of objects/entities which are not capable of thinking.

Hofstadter then takes philosopher John Searle to task for his views regarding impossibility of thinking arising from non-thinking entities. The analogy of a beer can to a neuron is taken apart. What is suggested by Searle in his thought experiments is equivalent to memory residing in a single neuron. But this certainly is not the case. We have to think of the brain as a multi-level system. But going too deep in these levels we would not get a comprehensible understanding of our thinking.

Was it some molecules inside my brain that made me reshelve it? Or was it some ideas in my brain? 31

Rather it is ideas that make more ideas.

Ideas cause ideas and help evolve new ideas. They interact with each other and with other mental forces in the same brain, in neighboring brains, and, thanks to global communication, in far distant, foreign brains. And they also interact with the external surroundings to producein toto a burstwise advance in evolution that is far beyond anything to hit the evolutionary scene yet, including the emergence of the living cell. Sperry as quoted on 31-32

Another analogy that is given is that of Thermodynamics and Statistical Mehcanics. Just as atoms interact in a gas at a micro-level to create gas laws which can be observed at a macro-level. The macro-level laws also makes it comprehensible to us, because of the sheer amount of information at mirco level that one would have to analyse to make sense. (Provided that we can in theory solve such a massive set of equations, not considering the quantum mechanical laws.) Similarly the point is made that for understanding a complex organ such as the brain, which contains billions of interacting neurons, we should not look at the hardware at the lowest level, but rather look for macro-level patterns.

Statistical mentalics can be bypassed by talking at the level of thinkodynamics. 34

The perception of the world that we get is from sensory inputs, language and culture. And it is at that level we operate, we do not seek atomic level explanations for the dropping of the atomic bomb. This simplification is part of our everyday explanation, and we choose the levels of description depending on the answers that we are seeking.

Drastic simplification is what allows us to reduce situations to their bare bones, to discover abstract essences, to put our fingers on what matters, to understand phenomena at amazingly high levels, to survive reliably in this world, and to formulate literature, art, music, and science. 35

The third chapter The Causal Potency of Patterns provides us with concrete metaphors to think about emergent phenomena and thinking at levels. The first of such metaphors is a chain of dominoes, which can be thought of as a computer program for carrying out a given computation. In this case finding checking if a number is prime: 641. Now a person watching the domino fall right upto 641 can presumably give two answers, the first one is that the domino before 641 did not fall, while other is 641 is a prime number. These two answers are many levels apart. The second example is of Hofstadter sitting a traffic jam, The reason why you are stuck in traffic, is because the car in front of you is not moving. On the other hand this does not tell you anything about  why the jam arose in the first place, which may be due to a large number of cars going home after a game or a natural disaster of some kind. The main idea is that we can have two (many?) levels of explanation each one looking at the system from a different level of detail, for example, the car ahead of you local,  the reasons for the jam global. As far as the causal analysis goes we can look at answers at different levels.

Deep understanding of causality sometimes requires the understanding of very large patterns and their abstract relationships and interactions, not just the understanding of microscopic objects interacting in microscopic time intervals. 41

Similar example is that of a combustion engine. The designers of the engine do not think about molecular level of interactions, the level that is relevant for them is the thermodynamic level of pressure, temeperature and volume. The properties of individual molecules like their locations, velocities is irrelevant in such a description, though the properties of the ensemble is.

This idea — that the bottom level, though 100 percentresponsible for what is happening, is nonetheless irrelevant to what happens — sounds almost paradoxical, and yet it is an everyday truism. 42

Another example that is given is of listening to music. Lets say you hear a piece of music, and you experience some emotions due to it. Now, consider there was a slight delay before playing started, the actual molecules which vibrated to get you the music, would be different than in the first case. Yet, you would experience the music in the same way even though the molecules that brought you that music were completely different.

The lower-level laws of their collisions played a role only in that they gave rise to predictable high-level events. But the positions, speeds, directions, even the chemical identity of the molecules – all of this was changeable, and the high-level events would have been the same. 42

Thus we can say that a lower level might be responsible for a higher level event and at the same time is irrelevant to the higher level.

 

The next metaphor we consider is that of careenium and simmbalism. (No points for guessing what the intended puns are here!) There are many witty puns throughout the book, and Hofstadter uses them very effectively to make his points. This Gedankenexperiment is referred to many times in the book. Simms (small interacting marbles) are very small marbles, which can crash into each other and bounce off the walls in a frictionless world. They are also magnetic so that if they hit each other with low velocity they can “stick” to each other and form clusters called simmballs. A simmball can be composed of millions of simms, and may loose or gain simms at its boundary. Thus we have tiny and agile simms, and huge and nearly immobile simmballs. All this bashing and boucing happens at frictionless pooltable, the careenium.

After setting this metaphorical system we add another complexiety that external events can affect the simmballs, thus we can have a record of history by reading the configurations of simmballs. Now a reductionist approach to this system would be that we really need to know only about nature of interaction of the simms, rest are just epi-phenomena, which can be explained by behavior of the simms. But such a view isnot helpful in many ways. One of the issues that is raised is that of enormous complexity raised by such approach will render it meaningless. But, whether we can even describe a phenomena in a truly fundamental way, just by using basic laws is itself questionable.

A interesting reading in similar line of though is by Anderson (Anderson, P. W. (1972). More is different. Science, 177(4047), 393-396). He gives examples from physical science which seemingly defy solutions or explanations on basis of the fundamental laws. He strongly argues against the reductionist hypothesis

The main fallacy in this kind of thinking is that the reductionist hypothesis does not by .any means imply a “constructionist” one: The ability to reduce everything to simple fundamental laws does not imply the ability to start from those laws and reconstruct the universe, In fact, the more the elementary particle physicists tell us about the nature of the fundamental laws, theless relevance they seem to have to the
very real problems of the rest of science, much less to those of society.

Anderson draws three inferences from this 1) Symmetry is of great importance to physics; symmetry the existence of different viewpoints from which the system appears the same. 2) the internal structure of a piece of matter need not be symmetrical even if the total state of it is.

I would challenge you to start from the fundamental laws of quantum mechanics and predict the ammonia inversion and its easily observable properties without going through the stage of using the unsymmetrical pyramidal structure, even though no “state” ever has that structure.

3) the state of a really big system does not at all have to have the symmetry of the laws which govern it; in fact, it usually has less symmetry.

Starting with the fundamental laws and a computer, we would have to do two impossible things – solve a problem with infinitely many bodies, and then apply the result to a finite system-before we synthesized this behavior

Finally Anderson notes:

Synthesis is expected to be all but impossible analysis, on the other hand, may be not only possible but fruitful in all kinds of ways: Without an understanding
of the broken symmetry in superconductivity, for instance, Josephson would probably not have discovered his effect.

Going back to Hofstadter, he considers a higher level view of the Gedankenexperiment with simms, simmballs and careenium. To get a birds eye view of our  have to zoom out both space and time. The view that we will get is that of simmballs, simms would be to small and too fast for us to view at this level. In fast forward of time, the simmballs are no longer stationary, but rather are dynamic entities which change their shapes and positions due to interactions of simms (now invisible) at lower level. But this is not evident at this level, though the simms are responsible for changing the shape and position of simmballs, they are irrelevant as far as description of simmballs.

And so we finally have come to the crux of the matter: Which of these two views of the careenium is the truth? Or, to echo the key question posed by Roger Sperry, Who shoves whom around in the population of causal forces that occupy the careenium? 49

The answer is that it all depends on which level you choose to focus on. The analogy can be made clear by thinking of how billions of interacting nuerons form patterns of thought, analogy, interacting ideas. Thus while trying to think about thinking we should let go of observing a single neuron, or the hardware of the brain itself, it will not lead us to any comprehensible description or explanation of how we think. Nuerons are though responsible for thinking they are irrelevant in the higher order of thinking.

 

 

Reductionism in Science

Many scientists look on chemistry and physics as ideal models of what psychology should be like. After all, the atoms in the brain are subject to the same all – inclusive physical laws that govern every other form of matter. Then can we also explain what our brains actually do entirely in terms of those same basic principles? The answer is no, simply because even if we  understood how each of our billions of brain cells work separately, this would not tell us how the brain works as an agency. The “laws of thought” depend not only upon the properties of those brain cells,but also on how they are connected. And these connections are established not by the basic, “general” laws of physics, but by the particular arrangements of the millions of bits of information in our inherited genes. To be sure, “general” laws apply to everything. But, for that very reason, they can rarely explain anything in particular.

– Marvin Minsky in The Society of Mind pp. 26

Politics Science Education or Science Education Politics or Science Politics Education

I am rather not sure what should be the exact title of this
post. Apart from the two options above it could have been any other
combination of these three words. Because I would be talking about all
three of them in interdependent manner.

If someone tells you that education is or should be independent of politics they, I would say they are very naive in their view about society. Education in general and formalised education in particular, which is supported and implemented by state is about political ideology that we want our next generation to have. One of the Marxian critique of state formalised education is that it keeps the current hierarchical structures untouched in its approach and thus sustains them. Now when we come to science education we get a bit more involved about ideas.

Science by itself was at one point of time assumed to be value-neutral. This line of though can be seen in the essays that some of us wrote in the schools with titles like “Science: good or bad”. Typically the line of argument in such is that by itself science is neither good or bad, but how we put it to use is what determines whether it is good or bad. Examples to substantiate the arguments typically involve some horrific incidents like the atomic bomb on one hand and life saving drugs on the other hand. But by itself, science is not about good or bad values. It is assumed to be neutral in that sense (there are other notions of value-neutrality of science which we will consider later). Scientific thought and its products are considered above petty issues of society and indiduals, it seemed to be an quest for eternal truth. No one questioned the processes or products of science which were assumed to be the most noble, rational, logical and superior way of doing things. But this pretty picture about scientific enterprise was broken by Thomas Kuhn. What we were looking at so far is the “normative” idea of science. That is we create some ideals about science and work under the assumption that this is how actual science is or ought to be. What Kuhn in his seminal work titled The Structure of Scientific Revolution was to challenge such a normative view, instead he did a historical analysis of how science is actually done ans gave us a “descriptive” picture about science, which was based on historical facts. Keeping up the name of the book, it actually revolutionised the way we look at science.

Now keeping in mind this disctinction between “normative” and “descriptive” views is very important. This is not only true for science but also for all other forms of human endeavours. People often tend to confuse or combine the two or many times are not even aware of the difference.

After Kuhn’s groundbreaking work entire new view about science its processes and products emerged. Various aspects of the scientific enterprise which were initially thought about outside purview of science or not affecting science came in to spotlight. Science was dissected and deconstructed from various points of view. Over the next few decades these ideas emerged into full fledged disciplies on their own. Some very valid criticisms of the scientific enterprise were developed and agreed upon. For example, the idea that there exists “the scientific method” was serisously looked into and was found to be too naive. A modified view was adopted in this regard and most of philosophers of science agreed that this is too restrictive a view. Added to this the post-modernist views about science may seem strange and bizzare at times to the uninitiated. This led to what many call as the “science-wars” between scientific realists and postmodernists. The scientific realists who believe that the world described by science is the real world as it is, independent of what it might be. So in this view it implies that there is objective truth in science and the world it describes is real. This view also implies that there is something like “scientific method” and it role in creating true knowledge about the world is paramount. On the other hand postmodernist critics don’t necessarily agree with this view of the world. For example they question the very idea of objectivity of the scientific world-view. Deriving their own meaning into writings of Kuhn (which he didn’t agree to) they claimed that science itself is a social construct and has nothing to do with the real world. The apparent supremacy of “scientific-method” in creating knowledge or presenting us about the world-views is questioned. The entire scientific enterprise from processes to products was deciphered from dimensions of gender, sexual orientation, race and class. Now, when you are teaching about science to learners there should be an awareness about these issues. Some of the issues are usually overlooked or have a logical positivist nature in them. Many philosophers lament that though considerable change has happened in ideas regarding scientific enterprise especially in philosophy of science, it seems corresponding ideas in science education are not up to date. And this can be seen when you look at the science textbook with a critical focus.

With this background I will go into the reasons that made me write this post and the peculiar multi-title. It seems for post-modernists and some others that learning about politics of science is more important than learning science itself. And they feel this is the neutral view and there is nothing political about it. They look at science as an hierarchical enterprise where gender, class and race play the decisive role, hence everyone should know about it. I am not against sharing the fact with learners of science that there are other world-views, what I am against is to share only a peculiar world view which is shaped completely by one’s ideology and politcal stance rather than by actual contents. Many of the people don’t actually know science, yet they feel that they are fully justified to criticise it. And most of these people would fall on the left side of the political spectrum (at least that is what their self-image is). But the way I see it is that these same people are no different from the right-wingers who burn books without reading them. The pomos may think of themselves as intellectually superior to the tilak-sporting people but they are not. Such is the state of intellectuals that they feel threatened by exclusion of certain articles or inclusion of certain other ones in reading courses. They then use all their might to restore the “balance”. At the same time they also tell us only they have some esoteric knowledge about these issues which people like me cannot have. And no matter what I do I will never be able to do what they can. Perhaps they have super powers which I don’t know about, perhaps in their subjective world view the pigs can fly and this fact can be proven by using other methods than the scientific ones. Last point I want to make in this is inspite of all the criticims of science and its products it doesn’t stop these people from refraining use of these products and technologies! This is hypocrisy, they will curse the phone or the computer if it doesn’t work, what they perhaps don’t realise is that it might be working just that the pomos are not able to see it in their worldview.

Can general laws of physics explain everything?

Many scientists look on chemistry and physics as ideal models of what psychology should be like. After all, the atoms in the brain are subject to the same all – inclusive physical laws that govern every other form of matter. Then can we also explain what our brains actually do entirely in terms of those same basic principles? The answer is no, simply because even if we  understood how each of our billions of brain cells work separately, this would not tell us how the brain works as an agency. The “laws of thought” depend not only upon the properties of those brain cells,but also on how they are connected. And these connections are established not by the basic, “general” laws of physics, but by the particular arrangements of the millions of bits of information in our inherited genes. To be sure, “general” laws apply to everything. But, for that very reason, they can rarely explain anything in particular.

– Marvin Minsky in The Society of Mind pp. 26

Knowledge: Technical and Scientific

Utility had been deliberately excluded from Aristotelian natural philosophy. Aristotle had nothing against practical knowledge, which he called techne; he simply did not consider it to be the same kind of thing as scientific knowledge, which he called episteme. From techne we have the word technology, which means to us largely the application of scientific knowledge, while from episteme we have the word epistemology, a branch of philosophy that deals with the theory of knowledge, scientific or any other. For Aristotle, however, the difference between techne and episteme was not a difference between application and theory, but was one of sources of knowledge and goals of knowledge. The source of technical knowledge was practical experience and its goal was, roughly speaking, knowing what to do next time. The source of scientific knowledge was reason, and its goal was the  understanding of things through their causes.

–  Stillman Drake, Galileo A Very Short Introduction (p. 4)

Open Access Manifesto

Information is power. But like all power, there are those who want to keep it
for themselves. The world's entire scientific and cultural heritage, published
over centuries in books and journals, is increasingly being digitized and locked
up by a handful of private corporations. Want to read the papers featuring the
most famous results of the sciences? You'll need to send enormous amounts to
publishers like Reed Elsevier. 

There are those struggling to change this. The Open Access Movement has fought
valiantly to ensure that scientists do not sign their copyrights away but
instead ensure their work is published on the Internet, under terms that allow
anyone to access it. But even under the best scenarios, their work will only
apply to things published in the future.  Everything up until now will have been
lost. 

That is too high a price to pay. Forcing academics to pay money to read the work
of their colleagues? Scanning entire libraries but only allowing the folks at
Google to read them?  Providing scientific articles to those at elite
universities in the First World, but not to children in the Global South? It's
outrageous and unacceptable. 

"I agree," many say, "but what can we do? The companies hold the copyrights,
they make enormous amounts of money by charging for access, and it's perfectly
legal - there's nothing we can do to stop them." But there is something we can,
something that's already being done: we can fight back. 

Those with access to these resources - students, librarians, scientists - you
have been given a privilege. You get to feed at this banquet of knowledge while
the rest of the world is locked out. But you need not - indeed, morally, you
cannot - keep this privilege for yourselves. You have a duty to share it with
the world. And you have: trading passwords with colleagues, filling download
requests for friends. 

Meanwhile, those who have been locked out are not standing idly by. You have
been sneaking through holes and climbing over fences, liberating the information
locked up by the publishers and sharing them with your friends. 

But all of this action goes on in the dark, hidden underground. It's called
stealing or piracy, as if sharing a wealth of knowledge were the moral
equivalent of plundering a ship and murdering its crew. But sharing isn't
immoral - it's a moral imperative. Only those blinded by greed would refuse to
let a friend make a copy. 

Large corporations, of course, are blinded by greed. The laws under which they
operate require it - their shareholders would revolt at anything less. And the
politicians they have bought off back them, passing laws giving them the
exclusive power to decide who can make copies. 

There is no justice in following unjust laws. It's time to come into the light
and, in the grand tradition of civil disobedience, declare our opposition to
this private theft of public culture. 

We need to take information, wherever it is stored, make our copies and share
them with the world. We need to take stuff that's out of copyright and add it to
the archive. We need to buy secret databases and put them on the Web. We need to
download scientific journals and upload them to file sharing networks. We need
to fight for Guerilla Open Access. 

With enough of us, around the world, we'll not just send a strong message
opposing the privatization of knowledge - we'll make it a thing of the past.
Will you join us? 

Aaron Swartz

July 2008, Eremo, Italy

via | Open Access Manifesto

Can Stars Be Seen in Daylight?

The constellations that we saw at night half a year ago are now overhead in the daytime. Six months later they will again adorn the night sky. The sunlit atmosphere of the Earth screens them from the eye because the air particles-disperse the sun-rays more than the rays emitted by the stars. (The observer located on the top of a high mountain, with the densest and dustiest layers of- the atmosphere below, would see the brighter stars even in daytime. For instance, from the top of Mt. Ararat (5 km. high), first-magnitude stars are clearly distinguished at 2 o’clock in the afternoon; the sky is seen as having a dark blue colour.)

The following simple experiment will help explain why the stars disappear in daylight. Punch a few holes in one of the sides of a cardboard box, taking care, however, to make them resemble a familiar constellation. Having done so, glue a sheet of white paper on the outside. Place a light inside the box and take it into a dark room; lit from the inside; the holes, representing stars in the   night sky, are clearly seen. But, switch on a light in the room without extinguishing the light in the box and, lo, the artificial stars on our sheet of paper vanish without trace: “daylight” has extinguished them.

One often reads of stars being seen even in daylight from the bottom of deep mines and wells, of tall chimney-stacks and so on. Recently, however, this viewpoint, which had the backing of eminent names, was put to test and found wanting.  As a matter of   fact, none of the men who wrote on this subject, whether the Aristotle of antiquity or 19th-century Herschel, had ever bothered to observe the stars in these conditions. They quoted the testimony of a third person. But the unwisdom of relying on the testimony of
“eye-witnesses,” say in this particular field, is emphasized by the; following example. An article in an American magazine described daylight visibility of stars from the. bottom of a well as a fable. This was hotly contested by a farmer who claimed that he had seen Capella: and Algol in daytime from the floor of a  20-metre high silo. But when his claim was checked it was found that on the latitude of his farm neither of the stars was at zenith at the given date and, consequently could not have been seen from
the bottom of the silo.

Theoretically, there is no reason why a mine or a well should help in daylight observation of stars. We have already mentioned that the stars are not seen in daytime because sunlight extinguishes them. This holds also for the eye of the observer at the bottom of a mine. All that is subtracted in this case- is the light from the sides. All the particles in the layer of air above the surface of the mine continue to give off light and, consequently, bar the stars to vision.

What is of importance here is that the walls of the well protect the; eye from the bright sunlight; this, however, merely facilitates observation of the bright planets, but not the stars. The reason why stars are seen through the telescope in daylight is not because they are seen from “the bottom of a tube,” as many think, but because the refraction of light, by the lens or its reflection in the mirrors detracts from the brilliancy of the part of the sky under observation, and at the same time enhances the brilliancy of the stars (seen as points of light). We can see first-magnitude and even second-magnitude stars in daytime through a 7 cm. telescope. What has been said, however, does not hold true for either wells, mines, or chimneys.

The bright planets, say, Venus, Jupiter or Mars, in opposition, present a totally different picture. They shine far more brilliantly than the stars, and for this reason, given favourable conditions, can be seen in daylight.

From Astronomy for Entertainment – Yakov Perelman Pg: 135-137

Available here.