Tag Archives: Science

Fascinating things from inside and outside the labs

Martin McGrath on the dogma of the scientific method

Martin McGrath keeps claiming he doesn’t really want people to read his blog. If that’s the case he should really stop writing interesting pieces on it that I find the need to tell people about.

It’s a kind-of-essay about the close-mindedness that the scientific method can produce in its most fanatical adherents, about how change is rarely comprehendable before it happens, and how the science fictional impulse (as both reader and writer) is based on the thrill of seeing new worlds of understanding open up:

I doubt that “cold fusion” is really fusion – though I’d be interested to know what is causing some of the phenomena observed by some groups like the US Navy findings on radioactive traces – but what the argument really demonstrates is despite the pedestal some people put the practice of science on, it really is just a profession like any other, with fads and power structures and turf-battles all ringed around with bureaucracy and propped up with career ladders.

None of this is to deny the benefits of science. I’m a geek. I love science and I’m having none of that back to nature malarkey either – I like living in a world with Wiis and the Internet and missions to Pluto and a vast array of antibiotics – this is undeniably the most extraordinary era to be alive in throughout human history.

But, believing that, one can still point out that the mechanisms and institutions of science are the product of mortal man, and mortal man is incapable of perfection.

Go and read the whole thing, it’s worth it. Clever guy, and lucid too. Even when drunk.

The centre cannot hold – politics and moral reasoning

A forthcoming psychology paper is bound to provoke some lively debate on matters political.

In researching the way people reach moral judgements (and finding in the process that an awful lot of it boils down to subsequent justification of instinctive decisions), the psychologists have concluded that people with conservative political attitudes have more subsystems in their moral processing brain centres than their liberal equivalents. Ample opportunity for spin from both sides with those results, I’d say. Watch closely for the first salvoes!

[Cross-posted from Futurismic]

One for the philosophers

Offered without comment, from New Scientist:

“Fruit flies have free will. Even when deprived of any sensory input to react to, the zigs and zags of their flight reveal an intrinsic, non-random – yet still unpredictable – decision-making capacity.

If evolution has furnished humans with a similar capacity, this could help resolve one of the long-standing puzzles of philosophy.

Science assumes that effects have causes, and that if we understand the causes well enough we can predict the effects. But if so, our experience of being free to make choices is an illusion, since we are in effect just sophisticated robots responding to stimuli. If our behaviour is unpredictable, this is only because random events prevent us from responding perfectly to our environment.”

Uplift – the genetics of cognition

A number of science fiction writers (David Brin being probably the best known of them) have written about the idea of ‘uplift‘ – sub-sentient animals raised to human (or even higher) levels of cognition by scientific means; the transhumanist movement is quite fond of it as a conceptual meme too.

Which means science fiction and transhumanism can have a day of feeling vindicated; via Peter Watts, a science fiction author whose science qualifications are more than impeccable, comes the news that a team of Chinese scientists have not only discovered the gene that triggers production of a chemical intrinsic to human cognition, but managed to splice it into chimpanzees and observe the protein in question being produced.

Or, in layman’s terms: we may have found a way to create chimps with human intelligence, which may throw an interesting light on Hiasl’s human rights case.

Yet another sf trope that now passes the Mundane benchmark? 😉

[Cross-posted from Futurismic, because it’s just too damn good a story not to share.]

Theatre exercises the mind

Keeping your mind fit is as important as looking after your body – although I tend to default on the latter rather too often. But what is the most effective thing to do if you want to keep your thinking sharp and flexible? After all, most cognitive exercises are pretty dull, and dull exercise doesn’t get done unless you’re a real disciplinarian. But now new research suggests that studying theatre produces significant and lasting increases in cognitive performance – which is good news for drama teachers and playwrights everywhere.