The death of the polymath, or how our universities contribute to widespread ignorance.

“Men are born ignorant, not stupid. They are made stupid by education.”

Bertrand Russel

 

A friend of mine published a link to this article on her Facebook page:

Professor Who Exposed Flint Crisis Says Greed Has Killed Public Science

Among many other wise comments, the article points out  that:

Edwards explained how the pressures put on academics to secure funding are forcing scientists to abandon work done in the public interest and that similar financial motives are causing government science agencies to ignore inconvenient truths…

This prompted me to think about how the modern university is dumbing down future of societies.

A good scientist is one who attempts objectivity at all costs independently of who funds her research, but we all know that  there are few of those around, and the few that have the courage to challenge the systems, are quickly ostracised by funding bodies and quickly push out of teh academic system.

Ben Goldacre published a well researched book on how the pharmaceutical industry is driving scientific  research to biased results ( see here for a review of the book  Bad Pharma). Among other issues, he joins the voice of many other science writers that there is an incredibly lack of papers publishing negative results.

This culture starts in Universities when   students running his postgraduate projects or PhDs are expected to present something new, something that shows a correlation between cause and effect. Projects that don’t show any of this are discarded and the student is often failed.

I ask myself very often about  the quality of research of those supervisors that ignore negative results?  A negative result is always good information. Is a means to tell those in the area that there is no point in investing more resources in asking that particular question, since it did not provide the expected results.

Even the word “expected” is misleading. It embodies an unconscious tendency to search for information that that confirm what the researcher is trying to prove. David Hume and Karl Popper defended that science that seeks always confirmatory data is not a valid way to establish that a particular theory is true. The reason why we use statistics and the P<0.05 tag, is because the method attempts to identify the probability of events that may fall out of the null hypothesis. This is why we usually start formulating an hypothesis from the premise that tether is no difference between situation A and situation B. Very few science students are aware of this little philosophical fact. And this is because very few science courses have philosophy in their curricula.

Nowadays, Universities are run as corporations that produce papers. The more papers are published, the most famous their academics and that attracts students. This induces string competition for funding between academics leading to some perverse effects:

  1. Researchers become narrow-minded due to their level of specialization
  2.  Students learning experience is impoverished due to the lack of time, dedication or inspiration provided by the lecturers

A university becomes a closed system where students pay to support a system that privileges research rather than teaching, so their academics increase their publications, pushing up the university ratings, so they can attract more paying students and increase their fees.

I have long argued that universities should be places where research is present, but they are primarily educational institutions. Academic research should be done in university institutes exclusively dedicated to that objective. A good scientist is not necessarily a goof communicator nor an inspirer of aspiring youths.

The high focus of research is driving the quality of teaching to very low standards. A good lecturer is one who can engage with the students and help them to think out of the box, not to close them in the narrow field of their specialisation or pet subject.

I have been tutoring undergraduate students in animal biology, who are supposed to know how fish evolved from the water in to land tetrapods but have no notion what so ever of vertebrate taxonomy.

I recently discussed the epidemiology of a particular disease with a Professor of medicine lecturing and doing research at a well-known UK university and he did not know the difference between mitosis and meiosis.  I asked him what he thought about the ethics and science of gene editing, just after the issue had been discussed on British TV for a whole week, and he did not have a clue of what gene editing was. This is unacceptable for an academic with a title of Professor.

Very often such positions are attributed in function of the number of publications and not their quality. Academics become experts in dividing their research in to small bite-size questions so they can publish many papers about the same study in different journals, with slightly different questions that can be all answered by the same results.

More recently a colleague of mine applied for a temp position for a lectureship in animal welfare, behaviour and ethics, to the Royal Veterinary College in London. Despite her  15 years’ experience in lecturing, supervising, examining, international public speaking and developing courses in private settings and at UK universities, she was not even selected for an interview. The reason given; she has not published her own research. I ask myself how a number of random publications can be more important to inspiring students, than a long life experience in teaching and creating interesting materials. In fact, it is well known that these positions are usually given to friends and colleagues already known to the institution and the job advertising is nothing but a preform to shut up the equal opportunities department.

I know of people who have been hired by Universities even before the job add was released. But this is another issue I will discuss later. However it has some bearing to my point today for these people that are hired by the departments, are those who follow in the same approaches of the people who are already there. Those are the safe followers of an institutionalised ideology. They don’t question, they engage in group thinking, they propagate the culture of departmental narrow mindedness.

People who question and challenge the traditions of knowledge or departmental politics are dangerous because they destabilise the system.

Very few universities offer the subject in Critical Thinking which is one of the basic skills necessary to produce good objective academic research. The problem with critical thinking is that it makes people think independently. It makes them question the status quo of a “corporate” system that is bringing in money.

catA critical thinker drinks from different sources of knowledge. Diverse sources of information boost innovation and creativity.  Specialist that are too locked into their narrow field of knowledge, stop being innovators. They are simply engineers that tweak small parts of the system to make it work a bit better. They are not big thinkers, or revolutionaries of knowledge.

The tradition of the Enlightenment which brought so many advances in both the social and hard sciences is lost. In those days there was freedom to produce and release your own ideas to the world, without the corset of university policies of political correctness and lip service to the funding entities.

How many studies paid by the tobacco industry have demonstrated that smoking kills? How many studies paid by religious “corporations” have questioned and denied the existence of God?

Independent thinking is fuelled by the ability to seek and understand information from sources that have no apparent relationship with one’s field of expertise.

Universities are producing blind followers of narrow minded specialism.

Most of modern independent thinkers that have contributed to a social or technical change are outsiders. They are not mental slaves of the academic system this may tell us something about the wrong paths embraced by higher education institutions.

 

 

 

 

Why I don’t have to respect your opinion

Often, religious people get very offended when an atheist judges their opinions as bullshit. The usual reaction is expressed in a normative sentence like “you have to respect my opinions!”

Let us make it clear! Nobody has to respect anybody’s opinions.

I have to respect your freedom to express an opinion, not the content of your opinion.

After careful assessment I may judge your opinion as intelligent or idiotic, accept it or reject it, classify it as a good argument, even though I may not agree with its content, or just pure ranted rubbish, but I don’t have to respect it!  As I do not expect that all of you respect my opinions. However I expect you to respect my right to express it.

Article 10 of the Universal Human Rights, subscribed by democratic countries asserts the right to freedom of expression. However some  so-called democratic countries seem to apply censorship when the opinions express a disagreement with the mainstream ideas of that society . These  democratic countries  need to remember that the concept “freedom of expression” implies disagreement with the “consensus gentium” and the right to protest against the “status quo”.

There are some opinions, expressed by totally bonkers religious and political leaders that influence simple minded people.  Religious and political fundamentalism appeal to people’s most primitive emotions such as a exaggerated sense of in-group inclusion , out-group exclusion and hatred of others not members of their ideological group. After the Muslim fundamentalists, perhaps the most dangerous opinions are those expressed by the people joining the rapidly growing evangelic cults. I never saw Christianity based cults in the 21st century to be so aggressively full of proclaimed hatred towards the outgroup, as those evangelic pseudo-churches. This is especially clear in Brazil and Portugal, countries where the level of primary and secondary education has much to  improve. These evangelic and islamic cults are dangerous social cancers which proclaim the most vociferating expressions of hatred. These are cults that appeal especially to simple minded, gullible, uneducated, and credulous people who can’t accept any criticism of their narrow vision of the world.

To those religious fundamentalists I want to scream loudly, nobody has the obligation to respect, or even listen, to your sick opinions.

Understand that those who respect your right to express any bullshit that comes out of your mouths are not respecting your opinion. They are simply abiding by article 10 of the Human Rights Convention, something that most of these feeble minded fundamentalist can’t even do in relation to  those who disagree with them.

Cecil the lion and the ethics of trophy hunting.

This article is not really about Cecil, but about the ethics of selling trophy hunt permits as a means of “promoting conservation”, from which Cecil was just one more victim.

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I can’t express the feelings of anger, sadness and repulse that this whole story about the killing of Cecil the lion has triggered on me.  My gut feeling is that whoever was involved in this should be submitted to Sharia law and receive 1000 lashes every day. But then my rational side pulls me back to reality. How many more lions, rhinos, elephants, buffaloes, leopards, zebras and the lot are hunted every day  by tourists and poaching in Africa ? What are we doing to prevent  the Chinese to harvest the ivory and rhino horns for their vanity and stupid beliefs in Chinese “medicine”? The west needs to pay lip-service to China and governments just close their eyes.

How are we going to ask for justice for all these animals?

It is easier to become nauseated about Cecil because we can identify the individual perpetrator. It is more difficult when the victims and the perpetrators are incognitos.

Cecil, the victim, and his killers had a name. We are hard-wired to request justice for things we can identify. Entities with names, personalities, agency.  But when the agents are unknown, when the victims simply appear dead, killed by a ghost agent we have difficulty in directing our anger because we do not know who to direct it against. This is difficult to deal with because that anger just grows inside us without a scapegoat to blame.

But I think we could start by directing our anger against the consumers of such products, the politicians that allow such trade to continue and shake hands in secrecy with the powerful involved in this underground trade. Poaching only  happens as far as there are consumers. If people learnt that rhino horns are not effective and they have Viagra available, that Chinese “medicine” is bullshit and that hunting for trophies makes a case to pity the hunter, rather than to admire him, the world would be a better place. But this  requires investment in mass education!!!! This is expensive!  It is cheaper to ignore it!

When I was a member of the Wild-CRU, the Oxford group that was studying Cecil’s movements, we were asked to offer our opinion about hunting in Zimbabwe. David Macdonald asked us to seat around in a circle and asked us this question:

“The Zimbabwe government asked for our opinion about the implications of allowing game hunting as a source of income for the local populations. What advice do you think we should offer?”

The argument  presented by David was that  allowing for a hunting quota under strict regulations and control, would  bring wealth and development for local populations which in stead of poaching would value the wildlife around them. This argument is widespread among many conservationists and in a way it  sounds logical . It is a bit like the argument that asks to legalise brothels. But it is a slippery slope fallacy. The whole argument is based on the supposition that the money paid by tourists to kill selected animals, would revert back to the local populations and into conservation.

David Macdonald  reminded us that we were all biologists working in conservation and should prevent our emotions from interfering with evidence based rational decision making.

At the time I knew little about critical thinking and rational decision making and I simply offered opinions based on my emotions.  I had been always against hunting  and I didn’t agree with the premise that allowing sport hunting would ever be a good strategy to prevent poaching. In my opinion it would be just an add in to regular poaching. A legalised bonus. It would only perpetrate corruption and trickery under the pretence it was a legal hunt. Besides I did not believe that Zimbabwe would ever be able to enforce any rules or regulations, whatever strict they were considering their most recent history.

I asked several questions. Why didn’t they educate the population ? Couldn’t they invest in other  types of training rather than shooting game? Couldn’t they give them some IT education or  business skills?  Well it wasn’t up to us to define their educational policies. We just had to discuss the issue whether legalised hunt would be a good thing for conservation.

The group was asked to vote on what suggestions to offer the Zimbabwean Government and the option for controlled trophy hunting won by votes, “because after all we were all rational conservationist and scientists think with their head not with their heart!”.

There is a conflict between conservation and animal welfare, for the first concentrates on the health and balance of an ecosystem  as a whole with disregard for individuals, the second takes into consideration the suffering of each individual, ignoring what would be best for the environment as a whole.

Our emotions tell us that that culling  magnificent healthy animals is unacceptable, on the other hand we know that overpopulation of certain species can become plagues and very negative for the ecological equilibrium of the biotic communities.

At the time of that discussion I defended that killing animals for sport, did little for conservation. But some colleagues of mine argued that  killing the weakest animals would save them from suffering the slow agonising deaths that nature offered.

At the time I was naïve. I did not know anything about animal welfare, animals ethics, rational argumentation and did not have the necessary tools to make balanced decisions. We were mostly young PhD students and fresh PostDocs with our heads full of statistical models and scientific information.

David got the resolution that suited the Zimbabwean expectations which certainly granted permits allowing Wild CRU researchers to continue their exceptional research work on conservation.

The Wild-CRU is one of the groups in the UK that has produced research in conservation of the highest quality ad David Macdonald is a knowledgeable, honest and  rational scientist . Their studies have contributed to a better understanding of conservation dynamics  and animal behaviour in many different ecosystems. But such excellence comes with strings attached. It requires  a  leader  with very good political skills which can deal with God and the Devil and ensures that funding and permits are in place to support such expensive research.  Acquiring such level of knowledge doesn’t come cheap. Sometimes a leader is between a rock and a hard place and has to sell his soul to the devil for the good of science. I am sure David Macdonald would rather not see any animals killed, but he also understood that where there  was human interference in the natural balance of the ecosystem there was a need for human intervention to re-establish that balance.

Cecil is a victim of a conservationist policy which seats on three premises:

1. that  allowing trophy hunting is a source of wealth and economical development to local populations 2. that  populations would value their wildlife and refrain from poaching

3. that  teh money paid for the hunt reverts in favour of local conservation efforts

I just would like to know how much funding has reverted in favour of  what conservation projects from these legal trophy hunts?

I think that my opinions and fears expressed in that Wild-CRU meeting 20 years ago were confirmed in the killing of Cecil and this makes me wonder how many more were so killed that we don’t know about!

There is no way we can control trophy hunting with rules and regulations when this occurs in countries with disregard for any sort of rule of law. Where corruption is the main driving force of their economy. Animals will always be the victims of this corruption which is a cancer with metastases all over Africa and other developing countries. But we do not need to leave England to see the same attitude in relation to our wildlife. We just have to revisit the recent polemic about  reinstating fox hunting to serve the purposes of some privileged minority and realise that attempts for corruption are everywhere. After all, animals don’t offer testimony!

Yes I am a biologist, yes I had training in conservation and I should be rational and emotion free when dealing with conservation issues…but conservation without a heart is pure cold unethical engineering.

Botanists that work in forest conservation and need to cut down some trees for the sake of the ecosystem do not have to deal with the same emotional issues than zoologists do, especially those who deal with megafauna, sentient animals who have evolved brains with emotional expressions not different from those of  humans.

We know that in the Amazonian forest, ants are much more important to the whole ecosystem than one jaguar, but we are all ready to weep over the death of a  jaguar and ignore important role of the ants. This is just human empathic nature. Should we be blamed for feeling sorry for the jaguar?

To be consistent and coherent  any person who thinks that the culling of animals perceived as plagues or inconvenient to the “interests” of the ecosystem is as a good management strategy would have to accept the same to culling everything that is seen as having a negative impact in the environment. Like humans for example.

After all, we are all biologists and we should not look at our object of study with our hearts. Isn’t it what we’ve learnt?

We learnt that we need to control plagues by whatever means at our disposal. Humans are undoubtedly the worse plague ever to inhabit this planet. A species that is not older than 2 million years is doing more damage in one century than the  humble dinosaurs did on 150 million years. Seen from space, humans are that  malevolent species destroying the planet not only for themselves but also for for every other species. No wonder the aliens that land in Hollywood always come with the good  intention to exterminate us.

Then if humans are a plague, why not use the same methods to control them? Why not selling permits to cull humans in overpopulated areas? According to the same logic, it would bring wealth to local populations. Culling humans would bring so many benefits! Reduction in population density preventing spread of disease, it would reduce the stress on the ecosystem, it would reduce emissions, rubbish, pollution and  and free a lot of space for all the other creatures that share the planet with us.

Why not let  more American dentists and Chinese tycoons pay for hunting permits and let them shoot everything that is considered a plague or that brings wealth to the locals for that matter ? Why not befree the human population of the weakest individuals?  They would die of disease anyway! Ebola, AIDS…Applying the same logic as to animals, we are just sparing them from painful deaths that  otherwise would be brought in by natural processes.

For those who don’t understand sarcasm I need to clarify that  I am NOT advocating the culling of humans and this is an argument by analogy. If your gut feeling tells you that culling humans is not acceptable, think of the reasons why. Then think if the same reasons apply to sentient animals. If they do, you have the answer for teh question: why is he selling of permits to kill wildlife (as a plague control or a source of economical development) not morally acceptable?

What applies to one species  should also apply to all the others that exert the same unwanted stresses over the environment.

If you want to be consistent either you cull the humans and the other animals or you cull none of them and let nature perform its act as it was meant to be.

But who cares about consistency?

The Biology of Scepticism (part 2)

Assuming that scepticism has biological roots, the next step consists on identifying the biological mechanisms that support the critical appraisal of the signals and their containing messages.

Evolutionary explanations make sense only in the light of genetics, which means, for a trait to be passed on to the next generation, it is a requirement that the code for that trait is passed on. But if there is a genetic code, what is it coding for?

In the light of our present knowledge in neurobiology, we know that the neural pathways and neurotransmitters that act in the brain are genetically determined, but during ontogeny and life development the inputs from the surrounding environment can also modulate the expression of these genes. Recent discussions in epigenetics question if these acquired traits can be passed on to the next generation. This would require that changes that occur in the brain of an individual could somehow be inserted in the gamete DNA as new information. At present it is difficult to see how somatic changes due to mental learning processes  during a life time could inserted and passed on through the genes of gametes. But it is reasonable to assume that there may be genes whose expression depends on the environmental stimuli.

For scepticism to be a genetically transmitted trait, it must rely on the morphology of brain areas, neuronal pathways or in the expression of neurotransmitters and the respective enzymatic and membrane protein machinery of the neurons and supporting brain cells.

How do we know which neurons makes us question the reliability of information? Does the brain have some sort of cognitive module that evaluates plausibility and information reliability?

Before delving in the neurobiology mechanisms that support scepticism, we must first delve into the psychological pathways involved in cognition and communication and to do so we need to go back to simpler examples as models to understand how the signals is deciphered and evaluated. How do animals “know” what information to ignore and what to take in?

Let us start with a simple model.

An individual exposed to the world is constantly sampling information which is stored in the memory.

As the memory becomes overloaded, the storage of information relies mainly on identifying common features of all the information that reach the senses and categorizing it in classes which shares common features.

When new information is perceived, it is compared against the data-base of cognitive categories.

Once it is included in a category, a refinement process occurs to distinguish the particularities of each piece of information in relation to the common denominator of the category. This is just like the process used by taxonomists to identify species.

If new information arrives which is not consistent with the stored memory database of categories, then two things can happen. It can be rejected or a new category is formed to accommodate it. However a category is persistent is it contains many members. As the category gets filled up it is frequently assessed by the mind’s categorization processes. If the category contains few members, its use for comparison purposes decreases and the neural pathways that refer to that category get weakened. In opposition the cognitive pathways which lead to categories that are frequently used as comparison standards get reinforced. Any inconsistent information will then take longer to be categorised. If it fits one of these mental categories it may be readily accepted, if not, it may require a further comparison with other existing categories, some of which may be fairly used by the cognitive comparison system.This could be eventually modelled by computers. (more about this later)

The work of  Grèzes et al., 2004; Lissek et al., 2008 suggested that three brain regions are active when deceptive acts are correctly (rather than incorrectly) detected.

  • the orbitofrontal cortex (involved in understanding other people’s mental states),
  • the anterior cingulate cortex (associated with monitoring inconsistencies
  • the amygdala (associated with detecting threats;).

But the results of Grèzes study can be interpreted in many different ways, for example, the activation of these brain areas may relate more to the perception of fairness than deception.

As I suggested in my earlier posting ( The biology of scepticism) , detection of deception relies on the ability to detect inconsistencies and comparing what is known and stored in the memory against the content of the novel information. So I hypothesise that structures involved with memory and categorization of information are more likely to be involved in detection of false information than structures involved with language.

Evolutionary significance of honesty

Scepticism is no more than a fancy word for the evolutionary mechanism for detection of deception and it protects us against making our decision based on unreliable or dishonest information. Wrong decisions can be costly.

Research on deception has focused mainly on two approaches:

  1. Detection of false propositions
  2. False belief task which is a prototypical task used in ToM which requires the subject to predict where a character will look for an object that has been displaced by another character unbeknownst to the first character.

Studies adopting the first approach where the  subject is required to detect explicit lies fall short of supporting this notion; 54% accuracy provides little protection from manipulation by deceivers, especially given that this above-chance accuracy is driven by the accurate detection of truths (mean accuracy = 61%), not lies (mean accuracy = 47%; Bond & DePaulo, 2006).

This result may be due to the fact that detection of deception is an ancient evolutionary mechanism, which has evolved well before language. Detection of deception may rely more on Theory of Mind and the evolution of intentionality than on language.

( to be continued)

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Cited papers

Bond, C. F., & DePaulo, B. M. (2006)- Accuracy of deception judgements. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 10, 214–234.

Grèzes, J., Frith, C., & Passingham, R. E. (2004)- Brain mechanisms for inferring deceit in the actions of others. The Journal of Neuroscience, 24, 5500–5505.

Lissek, S., et al.(2008)-Cooperation anddeception recruit different subsets of the theory-of-mind network. PLoS ONE, 3(4), Article e2023. Retrieved from http://www.plosone.org/article/info:doi/10.1371/journal.pone.0002023

The Biology of Scepticism

Humans and animals could not survive without beliefs. Beliefs are pieces of information that we assume to be true and as such they regulate our decision making in every social and ecological context. In humans and other animals, beliefs are created by the continuous sampling of the environment through our perception and as our experience of an event increases with frequency, the belief of its future occurrence becomes crystalized. But in humans, there are other sources of beliefs which seat on the transmission of ideas through communication. Such transmission is affected by external and internal factors. The external factors are cultural and based on meme repetition, ritualization and social position in the group. The internal factors are inherent to the individual and its psychology as its degree of credulity and acceptance of authority, its willingness to conform to the group dynamics and the meaning that each one of these memes has to the individual.

The strength to which each one of these memes is adopted and protected depends also on the qualities of the meme itself.  I have identified 6 factors that contribute to the stickiness of a meme:

  1. Emotional

Does the meme trigger strong emotional reactions?

Does it trigger positive emotions such as reward or pleasure, or negative emotions such as punishment, fear, guilt?

Is it memorable?  Is it salient?

That’s it value oneself as an individual?

Does it reduce anxiety due to unpredictability?

  1. Intuitive

An intuitive is one which agrees with our intuitions. For example does it agree with folk physics, biology, and psychology?

Does it agree with our cultural imprinting during a sensitive developmental phase?

  1. Causal

The meme explains the causes of events.

  1. Predictability

Does the meme offer some level of predictability to the random events of nature and social interactions, does reducing individual anxiety and stress levels?

  1. Reliability

Is the meme consistent in its narrative? Does it make sense in answering the main questions of life?

  1. Functionality

Does the meme offer pragmatic solutions to the questions of life?

 This list was created in function of the main questions that affect us all at different stages of our psychological development. Such questions can be divided into two categories: questions of empirical nature and existential questions.

Questions of empirical nature as things like; What or who causes the phenomenon?  How does it work? How often does it happen? What is it for? And they beg for answers that refer to causation and agency, mechanisms, patterns and utility.

Some of these questions are believed to occur in the minds of other animals, Not in the shape of verbal sentences but more in practical terms such as when a Capuchin monkey assesses the suitability of a stone to break a nut, or a New Caledonian Crow observes and learns the technique of using sticks to fish for grubs in decaying trees.

Animals have also some sort of pattern detection which allows them a certain level of predictability tweaking their behaviours in accordance with expected changes.

So it is reasonable to assume that some of these empirical questions may have roots in some evolutionary antecedents.

Existentialist questions, however, are more abstract and they focus on the issue of meaning, purpose and life as a finite entity. Questions about immortality and purpose are related to the philosophical approaches to telos.

table1

 

 

 

table2

 

 

 

 

table3

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

(Click on images to see them enlarged)

 

 

Beliefs that satisfy many of these conditions and answer these questions are likely to be persistent in the mind for they serve a purpose. Questioning such beliefs requires a considerable amount of scepticism, which does not come naturally in human minds. Or does it?

The history of philosophy has shown us that scepticism has been around for many centuries and therefore it is not a function of cultural evolution. In fact if belief may bring some evolutionary advantages in reducing stress, scepticism may also contribute to a balanced evaluation of information and a proper screening of the reliability of the information.

The assessment of signals is a behavioural characteristic present in many species. It is important that animals can detect dishonest signals. Those better at their detection and more likely to survive. Thus scepticism can also be seen as a natural mechanism biologically grounded to detect dishonest or misleading information. Both systems belief vs scepticism compete for place in the individual mind and natural selection might have selected one in detriment of the other in different situations. There are situations where belief conformity is advantageous for a social group, but scepticism may also prevent the group from setting themselves into danger.

A good leader would be one who can balance both traits and use them in the right situations.  This begs the question; is the tendency for belief and scepticism a biological tendency, rather than a cultural trait? Culture may emphasise this tendency which is expressed only in the presence of the right triggers.

Assessing individual differences in levels of scepticism versus credulity  is important for our modern society as it allows us to detect who is more susceptible to cheating . In practice the propagation of internet phishing schemes rely very much on the propensity of some people to be uncritical.

To investigate this question, it is necessary to see if there is psychological individual variation in the levels of credulity.

If that is true, the next step is to investigate if this variation is due to cultural or biological mechanisms?

Why would some individuals born and raised in the same cultural setting and studying the same University Course vary in their level of acceptance of memes and levels of critical reasoning?

 

Scepticism

The rejection of mainstream, widely accepted beliefs is usually perceived as scepticism, but we need to be clear about the meaning of this word for scepticism is used in different situations in loose ways. Usually it is perceived as an attitude of doubt in relation to the truth of received information.

If I receive an email from Nigeria telling me that the widow of the deceased president of a large company wants to share her inheritance with me because we share the same surname, I have good reasons to be sceptical. I’ll ask first where did they get my email? How do they know her connections to my family, and so on?  My scepticism prompts me to ignore that email and protect myself from some internet scam. However many people are susceptible to such scams. It is yet more difficult to assess the truth of the information when these tricks become even more complex and sound plausible. In such situations scepticism as a gut feeling is not enough. To protect myself I need to be able to ask questions which will enable me to assess the veracity of such information. Such questions depend not only on my tendency to be careful about received information, but also on some sort of mental training in assessing the reliability of information. Such training can be achieved through education and the practice of critical skills which helps us to analyse our own bias.

There are variations in the natural tendency to assess the reliability of information. Some humans may be more prone to readily accept it without scrutiny, whether others may be more careful in relation to embracing such information. This variation in human individuals begs the question; is it due to cultural or biological influences?

To answer this question, one needs to search for signs of scepticism in species other than humans, and understand which neurobiological mechanisms are involved in the tendency to question information. The biological explanation of scepticism requires an ultimate and a proximate explanation, based respectively in the evolutionary advantage of carefully evaluating information and which brain mechanisms are involved in such questioning which could be susceptible to variation and eventually genetically determined.

Scepticism and belief are two sides of the same coin. Whereas in humans, belief consists in accepting a piece of information as being true, scepticism questions that truth, which brings us to the need to understand the concept of truth and its importance in survival.

Truth

In philosophy, scepticism is a position which questions theories that discuss truth, knowledge and belief. These three concepts are closely related, in philosophy to have knowledge means that we have reasons to believe that the information that we uphold is true and the process to assess truth is through the acquisition of evidence.

Whenever a person holds a belief, that person assumes it is true, even if it is not in real life. If I believe in fairies, I hold it as being true. But is that knowledge? Not until I gather enough evidence for the existence of fairies.

The branch of philosophy concerned with theories of knowledge is called epistemology and it defines knowledge as justified belief. This requires the clarification of the concept “justification”.

The philosophical approach to scepticism is not relevant to the evolutionary discussion, but the history of philosophical scepticism offers an overview of how ancient is this attitude in the evolution of the human mind. The most ancient written records provide us with examples of sceptical questioning of the beliefs held at the time.

Before scepticism became a complex issue of epistemology, it originated as a questioning of authority which rested on unsupported assumptions. Seen this way, it is reasonable to assume that scepticism may have its roots well beyond the invention of writing. It might have been upheld by individuals inside a group which questioned the authority of tribal chiefdoms. Some individuals might have refused to abide by rules created by the caprices of tribal leaders. They would question such orders, costumes or taboos and require justifications for why should they follow it. This attitude might have been in the origin of abstract thought and complex metaphors.

A primitive sceptical dialogue would have been similar to this:

“You must do this because the chief says so”;

“And why should I believe the chief? On which authority is he requiring of me to do so?”

“ Because the chief is the voice of the spirits of the elders”

“ And how can he prove that it is true and he is not  lying to me just to make me offer my life for his own interests?”

The non-conformism shown by sceptical could simply be removed from the group through extermination or ostracizing, but the questioning would certainly be embraced by others who might have felt that unfairness was imposed upon them and thus the need to create justifications for the power of the chief becomes necessary. Oral justification might yet been more necessary when a critical mass of sceptics begins to rise among the group members. Then simply exterminating them would lead to a loss in valid members of the tribe, necessary to its defence against competing or threatening out-groups.

Philosophical scepticism entered the western culture through Pyrrhonism, a  school of philosophy with its roots in Classical Greece ( c. 360-275 BC), but scepticism had been expressed much earlier  well before the Greeks in Indian philosophy through the Carvaka materialists ( 6 century BC) who denied the concept of karma and rebirth. The Carvaka School is a current of Hinduism that rejects the supernatural through an emphasis on materialism and philosophical scepticism an d holding empiricism and perception as a necessary condition for the acquisition of knowledge.

So scepticism is not a new concept and developed during the Enlightenment, although it was during this period that Pyrrhonic scepticism was rediscovered and promoted.

A certain level of scepticism is thus necessary to the evaluation of the reliability of messages that may threaten the very existence of an individual. Under this approach, scepticism can then be treated as a mechanism to assess the reliability of information crucial for survival. The concept “information reliability” is the ecological equivalent of the philosophical concept of truth.

It is important not to confuse philosophical scepticism with irrational scepticism, which simply consists of doubting everything that is ascertained. This type of scepticism is exemplified in the rejection of evolution theory by creationists, or global warming by climate change sceptics, or the rejection of membership of the European Union by the so called Eurosceptics.

Note that in such circumstances, the word scepticism does not refer to the pursuing of knowledge through evidence, but rather a stubborn attitude to contradict mainstream beliefs.

 

Cheating

There is a body of studies showing that cheating occurs in nature in many animal species, but it is important to distinguish between evolutionary cheating and intentional cheating.

The first refers to signalling systems which have evolved to mislead possible predators or competitors. The second refers to the presence of intentionality which requires a certain level of consciousness. For example, mimicry in nature is a form of cheating leading predators to confuse palatable prey with poisonous prey, but in this example when a scarlet king snake  mimics the poisonous coral snake, the mechanisms is not intentional. Scarlet king snakes became similar to coral snakes simply due to the processes of natural selection. However there are instance in animal behaviour which lead us to assume that there is certain level of intentional signalling. Some birds may simulate behaviours which lead a predator to assume the bird is injured, just to distract the predator from the position of the nest. It is not clear if this behaviour is intentional or just an automatic behavioural response that was positively selected through evolution as it brought some advantage to the survival of the offspring. However, even though the behaviour is fixed or instinctive, the decision to when to express it may bare some level of intentionality.  There are examples from studies of primate behaviour that some dishonest signals are indeed intentional. When dishonest signals are so widespread in nature, a mechanism of detection might have co-evolved with the signal. Cheating and detection can then be seen as a type of evolutionary arms race.

The mechanisms of cheating detection depend on which cues are used by each species as means of communication.  If communication is essentially based on sound, the receiver needs to develop mechanisms that detect faked signals in the sound waves. If communication is mainly visual, then the receiver of the message needs to detect small variations in the received images to detect what to trust. In humans and other primates were communication owns much to facial expressions, detection of lying is often based on subconscious perception of facial cues. This is why some people can say that they have a “feeling” that someone is lying, but they can’t really explain how they know it. Just as with pheromone detection, the perception of these visual cues does not necessarily reach our consciousness. Some people may be more accurate in this detection than others, but this is a system which has evolved by natural selection without interference of intentionality.

This natural tendency to detect cheats may be closely related to a propensity to the exercise of scepticism. My theory is that this propensity is an evolutionary by product built on the same neuronal pathways which enable detection of cheating.  The difference is that scepticism builds on the rise of consciousness and a tool that finds expression in the frontal cortex.

Note that the propensity for a particular trait does not mean that such trait is necessarily expressed. A propensity simply indicates that given the right environmental or social trigger the trait could be expressed, but if the trigger is never present it may never surface. For example some dogs may have a propensity to be more aggressive than others, but if they exist in environments that never require the expression of aggression, that trait may not be expressed. A propensity for a trait means that the trait is only expressed out of necessity.

 

(To be continued)

Openly Secular Campaign

When I received an email from the Richard Dawkins Foundation asking me to be open about my non-religious views and secularism, I was amused. To me-born European-to make a statement about my atheism sounds really unnecessary.To be an atheist is as natural as to be Portuguese, or a woman, or a biologist. It is part of who I am. I never thought that such label could be an issue of discrimination in Western Europe.

I never had any problems in relation to social integration or discrimination for my religious views. On the other hand I did have problems for being a foreigner. I lived in Denmark for many years and there I did feel strong  social discrimination. I have been living in England for more than 15 years and it frightens me to witness the rise of anti-foreigner feelings, which trigger social discrimination.

I was born in a country where the official religion is Catholicism, but people are not very interested in religion unless they need to negotiate with God. In times of need they remember that there is this deity that may fulfil their wishes against some form of payment in the form of prayers or self-sacrifice.

Even during fascism, I do not recall any type of religious related persecution. Portugal was a very accommodating country to religious diversity, having  homed many Jews during the second world war. My grand-mother had a Jewish child from Austria living with them during the war.

If a person showed Marxist tendencies or socialist sympathies, that would be a good enough reason to subject them to imprisonment, torture and death, but I never heard on anybody being  punished for talking against the church. But  between 1958 and 1974 I was a child and I might not be aware of what was going on in the country during that period and I was 15 years old when the revolution took place in April 74.

I became an atheist the day after my confirmation at age 14. Before that I went to catechism every Saturday more because the church was just across the road to my house and I had a pretext to get out of the house and play with the other  kids, than for real religious reasons. My father had always been a fierce critic of the Catholic church and their abuse of the poor people. He claimed that if they really wanted to do some good, they could use all the money they had to end poverty, rather than indulge  themselves in banquets and useless exhibitions of their wealth. He said that it was an insult to the millions of poor people who, despite their difficulties,  gave money to the church. My father wasn’t very interested in theological discussions on whether God existed or not. He simply pinpointed the illogicality of the teachings of the Christian doctrine as taught by the Catholic Church. My mother’s family did not care much for the church either.  My granny taught me how to pray, just in case, so I could secure a place in heaven. A bit like Pascal’s wager!  But when I turned 14 I started to teach granny everything I learn in school about the origin of life and evolution theory. My poor grand-mother, an uneducated person, thought that what I said made logical sense and at the age of 60 something she started to cast some doubts on the teachings of religion. My uncles thought tha I was mean, shaking her beliefs at such age and she should spend the rest of her life believing she would go to heaven after she died.

In school, during fascism, we had a subject called Moral and Religion, taught by the priest of the main church in my home city. I was a bit of a restless child and would ask the priest lots of inconvenient questions. For example, how could he explain population growth on Earth since God made only  one man and one woman which  produced  two boys?  Did the son have sex with his mother? He said… “oh no, after them they had many more children.”  I asked again “did the brothers made babies to their sisters?   Isn’t incest  a sin? Why would God, which you claim is all powerful, would start the world by inducing his product to sin against his own rules?”  So the priest said that after Adam and Eve God made other peoples.

Ah ah… but if God made other peoples why do we have to bare the original sin because of that  one pair of apple lovers. How do we know we are descendants of this pair and not from the other people?

By then the priest was being quite tired of my questions and complained to the School’s director.

In those days, many teachers were informers of the secret police and kids who showed signs of atheist were assumed to have been influenced by their families which were certainly Marxists so the secret police would soon be knocking at the doors of their homes. But it never happened to my family. In my case, I was not showing signs of atheism. I was simply pinpointing the illogicality of it all. I guess the priest agreed with that the Bible was full of illogicality but that was precisely what God wanted; to bring people to his church on the base of faith and not logic. The poor man had a lot of patience. The other kids simply grinned embarrassed by my questions and would tease me after the lesson.  This sort of subtle bullying got me into a split state of mind. On one had my mind was thinking logically, but I was not praised for such desirable achievement. On the other, I was becoming some sort of irreverent outsider not conforming with the norms of the group.

I grew up I realised that any religion that presented logical inconsistency was probably as good and valid as nursery fairy tales.

While I was a child and went to church Saturday school I got told a lot of stories about the devil and burning in hell which had a strong influence on me. I had nightmares and could not sleep alone in my room for fear of being taken by the devil. My father was very upset with all these stories and told the priest he would remove me from catechism lessons if the tutor would continue to tell this bushtit to kids. At age 6 we get imprinted with this stuff and there is no rationality that can erase it from our minds when we are under the subconscious state  of dreaming. The result of this exposure to biblical histories at such young age is that at age 50 something I still have nightmares about the devil and maleficent spirits where I sleep alone at home.

Today I realise how education hampers rational thought. After I completed my Masters in Biology by the University of Lisbon I became a secondary school teacher for some 7 years, before I went to Denmark to do a PhD.  In those days, education was about memorising information and spelling it out in exams. They did not teach kids to think rationally or question anything.  I remember at age 11 asking a science teacher who was describing the anatomy of a fish if fish slept. She was just telling us fish did not have eyelids, so I was puzzled. The teacher’s answer “ Fish are like your tongue!”… well  it took me over 20 years to figure out the answer to this question by myself.

Teachers  were not welcoming of kids curiosity, and their goal was to normalise them all to a homogeneous amorphous mass of non-thinking zombies.

When I came to the UK I saw some books with the title Critical Thinking and I was puzzled about what it meant. I opened one and my mind was caught in it. I realised the importance of learning how to think critically, at all levels and especially for those doing science. Since then I have been an avid consumer of books in Critical Thinking and have been delivering courses and workshops to science postgraduate students and academics in many Universities in the UK and overseas.  I am just about to finish writing a book on critical thinking in Portuguese, since there is not much available in this language.

So, being a critical thinker I could only be sceptical of religion and everything belief that is plagued by illogicality, inconsistency or lack of evidence. I think there is nothing to feel ashamed of when one thinks rationally.

This is why I was so surprised to hear that some people may be discriminated for having more than two working neurons.  But on a closer look, and considering the poor quality of education in some so-called developed countries , there is no wonder that as population increases, the level of ignorance and stupidity increases, rendering intelligent and analytical people to a minority without vote power. Stupid people vote on candidates that resonate with their ideas. Those eager for power have to resort to stupid messages easily understood by an increasing mass of idiots. Just look at the rising popularity of UKIP.. . this tells us something about the educational level of the UKs population!

Touros de morte em Monsaraz e a falácia da tradição

O apelo à tradição é um argumento frequentemente usado pelos aficionados da tauramaquia. No dia 14 de Setembro as notícias da RTP1 relataram com vivído triunfalismo e vivacidade na voz da locutora, o “sucesso” do povo de Monsaraz que finalmente após uma”luta” de 15 anos conseguiu poder matar o touro sob os auspícios da lei.

Entre urros primitivos de voyorismo cruel, sedosos de sange, uma multidão de ignóbeis ignorantes aplaude o espectáculo. Uma tradição de 150 anos foi finalmente ressuscitada.

Isto são cenas de vida Portuguesa no século 21, que enojam qualquer pessoa com um mínimo de princípios morais, empatia e consideração pela vida.

Abraçando a falácia da tradição, o Juiz concedeu o direito à barbaridade e retrocesso à escuridão. Questiono-me que juiz pode ser tão ignorante que aceda a assinar tais decisões? Isto é mais uma prova que uma licenciatura em Direito não é educação nem cultura.

Queria então instruir esse ignorantado nacional que tradição não é o mesmo que cultura. Tortura não é cultura!. Se vamos basear as nossas actividade lúdicas na falácia da tradição, porque não trazemos de volta as sovas ocasionais que os maridos davam às mulheres e filhos durante o tempo do fascismo? Ou já agora, porque não ir ainda mais atrás na cronologia e trazer a queima das bruxas no adro da igreja? Seria um espetáculo interessate de se ver. Uma inquisão feita de cépticos e todos esses charlatões ardendo em frente dos olhares dum povo vociferante, gritando palavras de acusaão aos traidores da razão.

A questão dos touros não é uma questão de tradição mas sim de moralidade. A questão que deveria ser debatida por esse ignorantado geral que tem poder de decisão é se será moralmente aceitável infringir actos de crueldade sobre seres sencientes que compartinham com o ser humano, um cérebro equipado com um sistema límbico que proporciona as mesmas emoções de medo, terror desepero e auto-preservação. De facto existem dois aspectos morais nesta discussão.

O primeiro tem uma vertente consequencialista onde se questiona se a consequência destas acções trazem ou não algo positivo para o sujeito que é alvo do insulto. O segundo tem ume vertente baseada em teoria da virtude, onde se questiona se os observadores de tal espectáculo ao derivar prazer da observação de actos de crueldade estarão melhorando os seus píncipios morais. Quem retira prazer da observação de sofrimento tem provávelmente uma personalidade psicopata. Se as pessoas que observam actos obscenos são criticadas, porque não os espectadores de actos públicos de crueldade? Pelo menos na pornografia existem dois parceiros que consentem e são pagos no fim do filme.

O tratamento cruel dum animal, como se observou em Monsaraz não é menos obsceno do que a observação de pedofilia e agressão para com crianças indefesas. Pergunto porque se dá autorização para a observação publica duma obscenindade e se pune a outra?

A minha experiência internacional relativamente à moral social têm me mostrado que o abraçar de elevados princípios morais é inversamente proporcional à influência da religião nessa sociedade. Será que o atraso dum povo se mede pela influência da religião? Mahatma Gandhi na sua famosa elocução elucidou-nos que a cultura dum povo se pode medir pela forma como eles tratam os seus animais.

Os últimos 15 anos da minha carreira têm sido dedicados a leccionar em comportamento, bem estar e ética animal não só em Universidades Inglesas ( inclusivé em Cambridge) mas também a nível iternacional. Todos os anos sou convidada para palestrar e oferecer cursos no Brazil e tenho visto uma evolução muito rápida para a consciencialização da causa animal neste País. Os polítcos locais e do Senado aprovam leis de protecção animal umas atrás das outras. Existem perfeituras que proíbiram o uso de animais em circos, outras que proíbiram o rodeio, e ainda outras que participam na castração e vacinação gratuita de todos os animais de rua ou de pessoas sem recursos. Há uns anos atrás participei num “think tank” para discutir a lei de protecção animal do estado de São Paulo. Uma lei muito próxima das directivas de Bem Estar e Protecção Animal da Comunidade Europeia. Os congressos, cursos e workshops onde vou estão sempre cheios de gente interessada em promover a protecção, o bem estar ou os direitos dos animais. Mas que quero deixar aqui uma palavra de precaução sobre estes três conceitos que são muito diferentes e muito confundidos em Portugal.

A protecção animal é uma atitude social onde grupos de pessoas acolhem animais destituidos e tentam oferecer-lhes uma vida que providencie para o mínimo das suas necessidades, geralmente a muito custo financeiro dos protectores.

O bem estar animal é uma ciência que se preocupa em desenvolver métodos que contribuam para uma diminuição do sofrimento animal. Sendo uma ciência, baseia-se no método científico colhendo evidência para suportar hipóteses sobre a cognição e o sofrimento dos animais que se encontram sob o domínio do homem. Mas sendo uma ciência baseada em empiricismo e objectividade, não deixa de ter como pano de fundo uma preocupação moral com a integridade animal.

Os direitos dos animais consiste numa filosofia que assume que todos os animais têm direitos morais e que fomenta movimentos liberacionistas de várias inclinações e forças, que se estedem de pessoas rasoáveis com quem se pode trocar argumentos racionais e procurar um consesus, até à “loony fringe” dos liberacionistas que estão dispostos a enveredar por estratégias terroristas e extremistas. A grande maioria dos militantes destes movimentos de libertação animal, não têm qualquer conhecimento sobre o conceito de direitos muito menos sobre filosofia moral.

Em Portugal as touradas são um assunto que tem sido abraçado pelos movimentos de libertação e de direitos dos animal, mas devido ao discurso extremista que muitos dos seus representantes usam, a consequência é uma alienação daqueles que têm poder de decisão para mudar o status quo dos animais em Portugal. As pessoas rasoáveis que se sentem indignadas com a situação, ficam caladas, não sei se por medo de ofender os seus copinchas políticos ou por pura perguiça porque acham que tomando acção não vai mudar nada.

As pessoas razoáveis são frequentemente pessoas com sentimentos, empatia,são indivíduos sensiveis, educados e com cultura. São pessoas que se sentem incomodadas pelo sofrimento de seres sencientes e indignadas quando esse sofrimento é induzido para prazer de uma massa minoritária de incultos. São essa pessoas razoáveis que precisam de se levantar e fazer ver a quem tem o poder de assinar leis, que esses actos são moralmente inaceitáveis no século 21, numa sociedade que se diz culturalmente evoluída, onde o poder de uma duzia de ignorantes incultos se sobrepõe às opiniões da maioria do país. Mas o problema é que os escroques das touradas são aqueles que fazem barulho e se mexem, equanto que orla indignada se mantém quieta num impotente desepero. Esta atitude amorfa de desinteresse permeia a sociedade Portuguesa como um cancro de crescimento rápido de células preguiçosas. Como dizem os ingleses, “o pássaro que come mais é aquele que pia mais alto”.

Mas estou divergindo. O meu objectivo com este texto é esclarecer que as tradições baseadas em actos moralmente inaceitáveis não são cultura. Monsaraz têm uma história com raizes no Islão, pois foi uma fortificação moura. Então porque não recuscitar o apredrejamento das mulheres até a morte como forma lúdica para atrair turistas? Também é uma tradição!…

O que mais me idigna, e deveria indignar todos vocês que pagam impostos, é que estes espetáculos têm o avale e subsídios públicos das Cãmaras locais para aquilo que eles classificam como “cultura”. Dinheiro (que você pagou com tanto custo apertando o seu cinto) para subsidiar actos com os quais você discorda. Quanto tempo mais você vai permitir que essa gente lhe abaixe as calças?

Critique of Daniel Dennett’s article in the Guardian

I just read this article by Daniel Dennett:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2013/may/19/daniel-dennett-intuition-pumps-thinking-extract

Although Dennett is one philosopher I admire, I think that he builds this piece on  some mistaken assumptions which I would like to pinpoint here:

Critique 1

I know of no evidence to suggest that any other species on the planet can actually think this thought. If they could, they would be almost as smart as we are.

Just because he knows of no evidence it does not make this assumption true. Think of black swans! It just  states that he is ignorant about the existence of such evidence.

Critique 2

The natural human reaction to making a mistake is embarrassment and anger “

He restricts the trait to humans. This is obviously an assumption without support. I have observed animals making mistakes and  displaying behaviours of embarrassment. For example. Several times I have observed cats who miss their jump and fall short of the target. When they reach the floor they look at me ( the  human “mother” ) with “embracement” .

Now you are right to  challenge me about the word “embracement”.  How do I know that they are embraced? Am I not  making anthropocentric projections (oh that sinful A. word!!!).  The only thing I can say is, I have observed two outcomes of cats successfully jumping and reaching the  target as well failing the target. The post-jump behaviours are different. In the successful  jump they don’t check the reaction of the human observer, in the second ( failed jump)  they look at the human as to check if we were looking and usually they run away as if in “shame” for the failure. I am the first to admit that these observations need statistical data for support.

Critique 3

Then Dennett goes on claiming that

This, by the way, is another reason why we humans are so much smarter than every other species. It is not so much that our brains are bigger or more powerful, or even that we have the knack of reflecting on our own past errors, but that we share the benefits our individual brains have won by their individual histories of trial and error.”

First he assumes that humans are smarter. Well ! I would challenge this. He needs to define what he means my “smart

Then he makes a lot of assertions  about the size of human brains. I agree that bigger brains are not correlated with intelligence, however it is not the absolute size of the brain that is important, but the relative mass in relation to body mass.

Second he claims “why humans are so much smarter than other species ….(is) that that we share the benefits our individual brains have won by their individual histories of trial and error”

Wrong again! There is a thing called cultural transmission in social animals. The learner observes the practices of the demonstrator which have been perfected by trial and error. The learner can also observe in the very process, instances of error and learn how to avoid it. ( think of apes using tools, not to mention corvids and dolphins)

My warning to distracted readers: Beware of philosopher’s assumptions about the animal world. Just because they wrote books and are famous, it does not mean they have the authority to fabricate assumptions to suit their arguments.

My love–hate affair with philosophy

I live in a love-hate relationship with philosophy. Being a biologist I was trained to dismantle the whole, study the parts and rebuild the whole again. It is a rational process similar to reverse engineering.

We ask ourselves what the mind is. Then we look inside the brain, take it apart, observe how each part works, put it back together (hoping that the brain does not behave like an Ikea wardrobe) and in the end we realise that we’ve got some screws left and we don’t know what they are for.

This process helps us to understand the anatomy and associated mechanisms of the brain, but does not explain the epiphenomena produced by the brain. It does not explain what philosophers call “the mind”, “consciousness”, “sentience, and so on.

We know what emotions are, how they are formed, the neuronal pathways that guide serotonin and other neurotransmitters that enable our brains to expel emotions.

Then we feel these emotions, we evaluate them, we submit them to the scrutiny of our ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VMPC) and take decisions.

Should I beat up my partner because he is drooling over the sight of a well-shaped woman, or should I damp down my primeval instincts? Depending on how well my VMPC works, I will control my behaviour and eventually rationalize it at such a level that it will control my own emotions.

In animal welfare science we distinguish emotions from feelings. Emotions are physiological responses that we have no control over; feelings are the conscious acknowledgement of our emotions.  Emotions such as love, jealousy, rage, are physiological expressions that are aroused by internal and external motivational triggers outside our control, but the behaviours that we choose to display, are under our voluntary control.

Now, what does it all have to do with philosophy?

Philosophy is seen as a non-go area for science students. I have only the philosophers to blame for this. Why do they have half a page to define something that can be described in a 3 line paragraph?

Philosophy helps us scientists to frame questions in interesting ways. Philosophers came about with ideas about philosophy of mind and scientists devised methods to understand it collecting empirical data that can eventually confirm (or not) philosophical speculation.

But philosophers are also so bloody complicated with the use of their intricate language and cloudy speculations on hypothetical “state of affairs”! Some of their “thought experiments”  would never occur in this planet. So I ask myself, why do these guys complicate what is simple?

See for example the trolley problem (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trolley_problem).

How many people would find themselves in a situation where they are happily walking over a railway line which is precisely on a track bifurcation and are surprised by the sight of  5 people stuck to one  track an 1 person stuck to  the other? Perhaps if they lived in Calabria or Sicily in the Mafia infested territories, this wouldn’t be surprising at all. But would they dare to take action?

Anyway, the trolley problem is interesting to test what would we do in such hypothetical situation. People would respond differently whether they have to choose between letting one person die to save the other five (the utilitarian approach) or killing one  very fat person throwing him of the bridge to stop with its 200kg of superfluous blubber the rampant approaching train to save 5 people  from dying (deontological approach).

The trick of this exercise is in the understanding of the words “active killing” and “let die”. Without the help of philosophical analysis I might never have understood the point of this exercise had I not been aware of the philosophical difference between “killing” and “let die”.

This is also important in our attitudes towards animals. When I ask a vegetarian if he would eat a steak, he would refuse the offer because he assumed that the steak comes from a cow that was “killed” specifically for making stakes. But some vegetarians would claim that they would take the offer if I offered them a road kills for dinner, say a pheasant that just fly crashed against my car while I was driving home.

I love philosophy precisely because it helps me to analyse an argument from many different perspectives. When we are science specialists we often fail to see other points of view outside our narrow filed of expertise, but do philosophers have to make so dammed complicated? For goodness sake! Have a grip!…

I ask myself if moral philosophy is meant to help humans  to make ethical decisions, or at least to help us to justify our  decisions, shouldn’t this tool come with easy to read instructions manual?

Philosophers should rethink their writing style and present philosophy more like an Ikea guide chart than a manual to the installation of Windows Server Networks.

If philosophy becomes an infinite argument among a closed exclusive club of philosophers where only 5 understand what the heck they are talking about, what is the point of it?

However, and thanks the flying spaghetti monster for that, there is a breed of philosophers who seemed to have recognised this danger and  are actually striving to bring the wonders of philosophy to common mortals like us simple students of science.

People like Julian Baggini (http://julianbaggini.blogspot.co.uk/), Stephen Law (http://stephenlaw.blogspot.co.uk/), Mike Rowlands (rowlands.philospot.com) made philosophy an enjoyable pursuit accessible to the general public.

If S.J. Gold, R.Dawkins, E.O.Wilson  are the kings of pop science, Baggini, Rowalnds and Law are certainly the cardinals of pop philosophy.

I love these guys. I am always recommending their books to my students.

I just wish that university science departments followed in their steps and brought in compulsory subjects in critical thinking, philosophy of science and ethics to the laboratory benches.

Philosophy is not boring, but some philosophers can make it really inedible just like vegetables in English cuisine!…Some writers seem to be more preoccupied in showing off their literary prowess than to communicate clear ideas. How frustrating !!!!

The K.I.S.S.  rule ( keep it simple stupid!) is  one of the first rules taught  to science students when they start  writing about their subjects. In philosophy the rule seems to be,” regurgitate the whole Oxford English Dictionary collecting as many tautologies as possible”.

Green Energy? “Not in my backyard”!

Park4

 

 

 

 

 

The English are funny people! They go around complaining about the total disrespect for  the environment shown by other countries, offering unrequested moral lessons, telling them how they should live their lives.

The poor countries  spread rubbish all over the place.  The developing countries destroy their forests with pasture for grazing cattle, monocultures of palm trees or soya beans, destroying our planets biodiversity.  The Americans and the Chinese pollute our skies with their energy consuming  SUVs and polluting plants.

The English agree that something must be done to save the planet. After all it is OUR planet. Their forests provide the oxygen that we all breathe.

The English  agree that alternative energies are the way to go.  Governments should invest in more wind power and solar plants. But they forgot the little detail that in order to do so we need land. Land that should be far and away from their own  back yards. Preferably in other people’s backyards, or countries.

Why would they embrace such contradiction?

Because a solar plant damages their views of nicely manicured agricultural land, equally infested by boring monocultures of wheat and rape.

Wind farms make a lot of noise which disturbs the quietness of their summer BBQs  and solar plants reclaim land that otherwise could be used for pesticide laden agriculture.

British democracy requires that local planning decisions that may affect the status quo of a community must be taken by a local authority which comprise the elected representatives of the people. The diversity of representatives implies that more frequently than common sense would require, there are some people whose main goal is just to oppose whatever is being discussed.

If the subject is to put a wind farm nearby their village, they will automatically be against it.  If the aim is to prevent it, they will fiercely take the view that they need a wind farm nearby as it improves their economy and brings more jobs.

They will always find arguments to support any contradictory views.

I ask myself why are these people so stubborn and narrow minded.

I imagine that such characters are unhappy, unloved , annoying members of the community  with not much to do but going around pointing out to their fellow residents that the shape of their garden fence or the colour  of their windows does not comply with planning regulations. Then they are elected to some council of representatives, and from mere ignored and annoying  little nobodies they  become power holders who can tell the others what to. This feeling of having power is hallucinogenic. A drug that activates the reward systems of their brains. Their pleasure is activated by the level of annoyance they can promote on their fellow villagers. They have been ignored and laughed at, now there is time for revenge. You tell them what to do!

Envy and hypocrisy is a characteristic of human nature, and it ubiquitous in the English culture.

Ask any of these councillors what they think about promoting a cleaner environment through the expansion of green energy and they are all for it, but way from their homes. The problem with SOME (too many)  English people is that they pay lip service to green ideas, but abstain from deploy them in their own country.

The “not in my backyard” attitude of the English is no more damaging than ignoring the energy challenges of modern world.

Talk without action is not going to contribute to the promotion of green policies. Agreeing with the promotion of green energy and at the same time opposing the expansion of green energy parks is plain hypocrisy.

This is a battle between the personal interests of half a dozen of people who happen to have a cottage in the country (the value of one’s house, the aesthetical value of a landscape) against the interests of all living beings in the planet.  Got it? On one hand  the personal interests of few, on the other the whole biosphere. This is a no brainer! This is plain hypocritical selfishness.

Someone has to start somewhere, and if England wants to influence other countries to take similar steps towards a better planet, they have to start by cleaning their own house. The English need to lead by example not by hollow rhetoric!