Woke astronomer wants to rename the Magellanic Clouds—and everything else Magellan

September 19, 2023 • 11:30 am

If you think the “tide is turning” on wokeness in STEM, as a colleague of mine asserts, think again. Have a look at this headline of an op-ed from the American Physical Society (APS):

You can guess why: Magellan was a Bad Man. But first, the clouds, which are actually galaxies:

The Magellanic Clouds (Magellanic system or Nubeculae Magellani) are two irregular dwarf galaxies in the southern celestial hemisphere. Orbiting the Milky Way galaxy, these satellite galaxies are members of the Local Group. Because both show signs of a bar structure, they are often reclassified as Magellanic spiral galaxies.

The two galaxies are the following:

The Magellanic clouds are visible to the unaided eye from the Southern Hemisphere, but cannot be observed from the most northern latitudes.

The Large and Small ones:

They’ve been called the Magellanic Clouds by most astronomers since 1847, that is, for about 175 years. Before that they had other “indigenous” names, and that is one of the two reasons the author calls for renaming them:

Yet Magellan was no astronomer, and he was not the first to document these galaxies. Indigenous peoples across the Southern Hemisphere have names and legends for these systems that predate Magellan by thousands of years. For example, the Mapuche of modern-day Chile and Argentina call them Rvganko, or water ponds, which they think are in the process of drying out; the Kamilaroi of modern-day Australia regard the galaxies as places where people go after death; and the Arimi of modern-day Tanzania see the clouds as a man and a woman who help the Pleiades bring heavy rains during the rainy season. Magellan’s crew was also not the first Western team to write about the two galaxies; Arabic and Italian explorers are known to have described the galaxies at least a decade before Magellan embarked on his journey.

But this holds true for nearly all visible astronomical features, surely including the Sun, the Moon, and Halley’s comet. Each language of an indigenous people who observed these features would give them a different name.  Names get changed, and there’s no reason why the earliest names should get precedence. As for the superstitions associated with these clouds, well, that’s even less reason to revert to “divine” or numinous names.

No,  the real reason Mia de los Reyes wants these clouds renamed is because Magellan did bad things:

Furthermore, Magellan committed horrific acts. A first-hand account of Magellan’s expedition describes how, in what is now known as Argentina, Magellan enslaved the native Tehuelche people. He placed iron manacles on the “youngest and best proportioned” men, telling them that the manacles were gifts. In what became Guam and the Philippines, Magellan and his men burned villages and killed their inhabitants.

Despite his actions, Magellan has been—and continues to be—widely honored by the field of astronomy. Magellan’s name currently appears in over 17,000 peer-reviewed academic articles. His name is attached to astronomical objects such as a lunar crater and a Martian crater, both of which are named Magalhaens; the NASA Magellan spacecraft; the twin 6.5-m Magellan telescopes; and most recently, an under construction, next-generation extremely large telescope called the Giant Magellan Telescope. The Magellan telescopes are all located in Chile, a country with a history of violent Spanish conquest. Indeed, Magellan’s “discovery” of the Strait of Magellan allowed Spanish conquistadors to explore Chile’s coast and led to genocidal campaigns against the native Mapuche people.

I and many other astronomers believe that astronomical objects and facilities should not be named after Magellan, or after anyone else with a violent colonialist legacy. We would like the International Astronomical Union—the body in charge of naming astronomical objects—to rename the Magellanic Clouds. We hope other astronomical institutions, particularly the consortia that manage the 6.5-m Magellan telescopes and the upcoming Giant Magellan Telescope, will also revisit the use of Magellan’s name.

As usual, I decide that names should be changed if both of these questions can be answered “no”:

a. Is the name be used to honor the good things the person did rather than the bad?

b. Was the person’s existence a net good for the world as opposed to a net bad?

The answer to (a) is clearly “yes”: Magellan is being honored for organizing and leading the first voyage circumnavigate the planet (he died halfway through), and the clouds were noted by, among other people, Antonio Pigafetta, a scholar who went on Magellan’s sail around the world in 1519–1522.

(b) is harder, but it’s not cut and dried. Some of Magellan’s warfare was due to misinterpreting the local behavior, and, indeed, he was more concerned with converting the locals to Christianity than with killing them. Indeed, that’s how he died on his voyage: he was attacked in the Philippines by a local ruler who resented Magellan’s efforts to convert the locals.  Given that Magellan’s voyage “planned and led the 1519 Spanish expedition to the East Indies across the Pacific Ocean to open a maritime trade route, during which he discovered the interoceanic passage thereafter bearing his name and achieved the first European navigation to Asia via the Pacific” (Wikipedia), he had good accomplishments as well as bad.

Given this, I don’t vote for a name change. But there are Wokesters who apparently think that unless someone is nearly perfect, we shouldn’t honor them. There goes most of our Presidents, including Washington, Madison, and Jefferson: all slaveholders. JFK was a serial adulterer, as was Martin Luther King, who’s also been accused of looking on and laughing as “a fellow Baptist minister ‘forcibly raped; a woman just a few minutes walk from The White House in Washington DC.” (The evidence for this is not dispositive!)

The fact is that nobody is perfect, and who among us can afford to have all our deeds made public, for many of us have done some pretty bad stuff? But perfection appears to be the gold standard for naming things, including birds and galaxies. In fact, physisicsts are still going after the James Webb Space Telescope, a pet project of Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, and a deeply misguided one (bolding is mine):

Magellan is not the first person with a questionable history that astronomy has glorified, and he will likely not be the last. As physicists Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, Sarah Tuttle, Lucianne Walkowicz, and Brian Nord wrote in a 2021 essay on the naming of the James Webb Space Telescope: “There will always be complications in naming monuments or facilities after individuals. No hero is perfect.” But as they also point out, we can and should choose names of people that represent our highest ideals.

Ummm. . . . who might that be? Surely not George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, JFK, or Martin Luther King, Jr!  Even King cannot be said to “represent our highest ideals.”  He represented many of them, and deserves all the honors that have accrued to him, but he also did bad things, like cheating on his wife. If the rape story is true, it’s even worse.

But why was the name “James Webb Space Telescope” attacked by Prescod-Weinstein and others? Because of the accusation that, as head of NASA, Webb allowed the demonization of gay employees and oversaw a purge of them from the agency. But as even the NYT reported (October 2022), those accusations are completely false. Will the Offended Woke Physicists give up in light of the evidence and shut their pie-holes about Webb? No, they will not. They still want the name “Webb” effaced. It’s insane.

The main reason I think this is a tempest in a teapot is because this renaming accomplishes nothing:  it is purely performative, which is why it’s woke, and ludicrously so.  The author says this:

When we uphold the names of people, such as Magellan, whose lives and legacies have actively caused harm, we alienate the communities who have been harmed. The communities that suffered because of Magellan have rich astronomical traditions that are often less valued than Western ones.

My response to the first sentence is simply, “no it doesn’t.” If we rename the Magellanic clouds, will dozens of Filipinos or Latinos, previously alienated, suddenly flock into astronomy? If you think so, you don’t know how the world works.

Instead, the author raises a completely different point that has absolutely nothing to do with names:

Even within the field of professional astronomy, the repercussions of Spanish colonization continue to this day. For example, I am the first woman of primarily Filipino descent to become an astronomy professor in the United States, in part because lack of access to resources has historically prevented Filipinos from participating in astronomy research.

Well good for her, but Dr. de los Reyes doesn’t seem to know the difference between resources and nomenclature.

h/t: Anna

Could Mātauranga Māori advance quantum physics?

July 24, 2023 • 9:30 am

I suspect the answer to the title question is “No way!”, but the incursion of Mātauranga Māori (“MM”, or Māori “ways of knowing”) into New Zealand’s science is reaching ludicrous depths. Even in the U.S.A. we don’t see headlines like the one below. (Note that “complement” is misspelled as “compliment”.)

Why am I so sure this endeavor won’t work? Simply because there is nothing about quantum physics in MM, and I can’t envision any MM-derived insights into the discipline that could advance it beyond what modern physicists are doing already.  Of course Māori physicists, like the one below, could well make contributions to quantum mechanics, but it’s hard to see that those insights would come from MM, a mixture of trial-and-error knowledge gained from living (gathering plants and fish), theology, superstition, tradition, and ethics.

Nevertheless, the termites have dined so well that we see things like this, coming from Waatea News, Auckland’s Māori t.v. and radio station.

Read and weep; I’ve reproduced the whole article (indented), including its errors in English.

The first Māori quantum physicist says he hopes more Māori join the field to incorporate mātaraunga Māori into quantum physics.

Dr Jacob Ngaha, completed his PhD in Quantum Physics at Waipapa Taumata Rau, the University of Auckland, becoming the first Māori quantum physicist.

He says quantum physics explains how this work [sic] on an atomic level, and mātauranga Māori is based on lived experiences and observations which could compliment [sic] western scientific discipline.

“There’s always more than one way to do things. If you’re doing an experiment, depending on what you want out of an experiment there are different methods you take, different tools you use and I think science is overruled and no different. Mātauranga Māori is definitely better at looking at certain things, especially from a Māori lens. I think also, depending on what you’re looking at and what area you’re in there’s a stronger foundation of mātauranga Māori. I think those were the sort of things our tūpuna [ancestors] were doing, you know we’re talking about biology, genetics and environmental science. Those are very lived experiences.”

Jacob Ngaha says in the western space, mātauranga Māori is very new and with more Māori in quantum physics, mātauranga can be expanded more with quantum physics and vice versa.

And. . . . ? What’s missing, of course, are specific examples of how MM can help quantum mechanics.  On his Auckland Uni page Ngaha explains his thesis:

“I’m in the field of theoretical quantum optics – more specifically cavity quantum electrodynamics. I study the interactions between light and matter using quantum mechanical principles.

For my thesis topic, I’m currently studying signal processing in a quantum optics setting. Essentially I’m developing a computational model that will allow us and others to better filter frequency signals in quantum optics simulations. Experimentally this can be done quite easily but we would like a theoretical tool that can, in principle, do even better.

Although Radio New Zealand touts Ngaha as a rising star, and he may well be, their article gives us no more insight into how quantum mechanics can progress faster through the infusion of Māori-derived knowledge.

Meanwhile three critics of the educational system in NZ wrote the following article in BreakingViews.co.nz.  Click to read:

One excerpt, some of which you’ve probably seen in other places:

In 2000, New Zealand was one of the top performers in the world. Our results were above the average of the world’s most developed countries and we placed third in mathematics and fourth for reading in a group of 41 countries. When the latest PISA results were published in 2018, the decline had progressed so much that in science and reading New Zealand was only marginally above the OECD average. In mathematics we are now below average. Of the larger group of 78 participating countries, New Zealand ranked low, at 27th (Hartwich, 2022).

Reading is similarly in trouble. For example, the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) shows that the reading skills of New Zealand students continue to decline. In 2021, New Zealand recorded its lowest score since the inception of PIRLS in 2001 (e.g. Scoop, 2023).

. . . . The decline has now been exacerbated by moves to centre the school curriculum on the Treaty of Waitangi, and universities declaring themselves Te Tiriti-led and prioritising the inclusion of matauranga Māori in degree courses.  Left-wing ideologies, combined with post-modern ideas and a dangerous mix of Critical Social Justice theory and Diversity, Equity and Inclusivity (DEI) policies, now appear to be more important to decision-makers than teaching basic skills and knowledge (P. Raine,2023), and will exacerbate the observed steady deterioration. A more holistic approach in teaching and research is now favoured or even mandated, and merit-based assessment used internationally for many decades has been called into question on the basis that it inherently disadvantages minorities and indigenous people (Abbot et al., 2023).

When you see “holism” praised and “merit” denigrated in the same sentence, run for the hills!

And I’ll add a few examples of what’s happening in N.Z. science education. I can vouch for all these assertions save the last anecdote.

The many anti-science statements coming from the post-modern corner are best illustrated by a few examples:

–       Māori May Have Reached Antarctica 1,000 Years Before Europeans (Wehi et al, 2022). This statement made it into the headlines, such as the New Zealand Herald, the Guardian and even the New York Times. It was debunked shortly after (Anderson et al. 2022).

–       From the beginning of creation, to the children of Ranginui and Papatūānuku, and descending to our ancestors, all aspects of creation have whakapapa  [genealogical lineages]…  This allows us to consider whakapapa for each of the elements on the periodic table (NZASE resource). While this is nice storytelling that favours creationism, it does not belong in a science class. The abundance of the elements in our universe and on our planet Earth is well understood from basic nuclear physics.

–       Mauri is an energy which binds and animates all things in the physical world. Without mauri, mana cannot flow into a person or object (Te Ara, The Encyclopedia of New Zealand). This leads to the claim that Everything has a Mauri. A life force. When we are ill, our life force has been compromised (Māori Healers) and The Mauri is the power that allows these living things to exist within their domain. It is also known as a spark of life, the active component that gives life.  A critical discussion on the Mauri concept proposed by the government’s NCEA panel for chemistry teaching in our schools has been provided recently by Professor Paul Kilmartin of The University of Auckland (Kilmartin, 2021). Among other issues, Professor Kilmartin has objected to the inclusion of Mauri (a life force) in our Chemistry curriculum, because it conflicts directly with science.

–       A recent article in the Guardian (Graham-McLay, 2023) on celebrating Matiriki, stated that Māori books only survived because old people hid them from the colonists, who it is implied wished to suppress or destroy them. No evidence for this claim was given and, in any case, like all other Polynesian languages (except for the Easter Island), Māori had no written form or books until the introduction of writing by missionaries (Harlow, 2007).

–       And – at a very basic level, in March 2023 a New Zealand child came home from school and told their parents that they had learned two important facts in science that day, namely that water has a spirit and memory – another introduction of animist confusion into what should have been a science lesson

And there we have it brothers and sisters, comrades and friends: the upcoming infusion of teleology into all the sciences (note “mauri” above).

More on free will from Sabine Hossenfelder

June 4, 2023 • 9:35 am

Several readers, knowing of my interest in free will, sent me the link to the video at the bottom by physicist Sabine Hossenfelder. Thanks to all, and to Adrian, who sent the link first. My summary and analysis precede the video.

In October of 2020, Hossenfelder declared that libertarian free will—i.e., the “I-could-have-done-otherwise-using-my-volition” form—didn’t exist. I agree with her, of course, for we’re both “naturalists” and “hard determinists.” If you think matter obeys the laws of physics, which is universally accepted in science,  then there’s no room for mental lucubrations that could somehow tweak the laws of physics (Mental lucubrations are instantiations of physical law!) That’s why she (and I) think that, as far as libertarian free will is concerned, “it’s obvious that we don’t have it.”

Hossenfelder notes that some find the “freedom” in “free will” via occasional quantum jumps of particles on top of deterministic physical determinism. It’s possible that these jumps could, at any given moment, produce different outcomes in the next moment, but that of course depends on whether our behavior or thoughts are affected by quantum phenomena. (We have no idea.) But even were that true, those quantum jumps can’t come from “will”, so there is no “freedom” from physical determination of behavior. Volition is an illusion.

However, Hossenfelder is dubious about whether quantum jumps are really random phenomena: she appears to be a full-on determinist who thinks that the wave function, which includes quantum behavior, itself behaves deterministically. (This bit is way above my pay grade, but still leaves no room for some numinous “will”. I’ll let physicists argue about the “randomness” of quantum mechanics.)

Hossenfelder goes on to describe “emergent properties” like conductivity, which makes no sense unless you talk about a collection of electrons. This, however, doesn’t do away with determinism, for it is the laws of physics that produces emergent properties as the consequence of underlying laws. Emergent properties may not yet be predictable from the laws of physics, but they are all absolutely consistent with the laws of physics.

Finally, she goes on to discuss compatibilism: the view that free will and determinist can coexist happily and without contradiction. Like me, she regards this view as simply an exercise in philosophical semantics that does noting to dispel the fact that we lack libertarian free will in the classical sense. (Remember, that brand of free will is the one most accepted by people in several countries, and is of course a mainstay of Abrahamic religion as well as other forms of religion.)  Compatibilism, to me, is like religion: a “little people’s” view confected with the idea that unless people believe certain creeds, society will fall apart.

Here are the forms of compatibilism Hossenfelder presents (I note with some amusement that different philosophers find many different ways to make free will compatible with the laws of physics, and some of the forms of compatibilism are incompatible with each other).

a. ) Some philosophers say that “Human decisions are to a large extent independent from external factors and are dominantly determined by internal deliberation.” This seems confusing to me because “internal deliberations” are simply examples of “external factors,” i.e. the laws of physics acting on our bodies and brains. If you say that they aren’t, then you are a dualist who accepts libertarian free will.

b.) Hossenfelder’s chracterization of Dan Dennett’s compatibilism:  “Our ability to see probable futures–futures that seem like they’re going to happen, and then to take steps to make something else happens instead.” Those steps, of course, are also determined by the laws of physics.

c.) Another brand of free will is due to “The large degree of autonomy that our brain has from environmental factors.” This has the same problems as (a) above.

d.) Free will occurs because “our decisions follow from what we want”. And yes, we do make decisions according to what we want, because what we want is simply the result of our genes and environment and is and thus coded in our brain.  People generally act consistently with their character, because their character is consistent with their evolved and structured brains.

Hossenfelder presents the results of a 2020 survey about philosophers’ acceptance of libertarian free will vs. compatibilism vs. determinism (what I call “naturalism”). The results of the survey are given in the screenshot below, which I lifted from her video.

Most philosophers are compatibilists, which is a view that, I think, people hold because although these philosophers really do accept Hossenfelder’s claim that there is no libertarian free will, they think that some notion of free will is essential for people to be able to function without drowning in nihilism. (That’s not true.) But at least more philosophers are compatibilists than are “regular people”.  What is disturbs me is that nearly 1 in 5 philosophers (probably the religious ones) are free-will libertarians: more than are “hard determinists” like Hossenfelder and me.

She does take up the question (one I’m often asked when I lecture on why we lack free will), “Why don’t you just kill yourself since everything is more or less determined?” Her answer is a good one: those people should see a psychologist. I manage to hang onto being a hard determinist, though of course I act as if I can make free decisions. We can’t live without feeling that way because that’s just the way our brains are constructed. Perhaps the illusion of libertarian free will is an evolved trait. I can think of several reasons why natural selection, for instance, would drive us to think we make free choices, or perhaps it’s just an epiphenomenon. But I won’t wade into those waters here.

In the end Hossenfelder adds two points:

1.) The free-will problem arises because “the way we think our brain works is not compatible with the facts of science”. But the way we think our brain works is an illusion.

2.) Why does this issue matter? Because, says Hossenfelder, “free will is an inaccurate description of reality” and “makes people believe that they have more control over what goes on in their head than is really the case.”  Example: “Our brains will process input whether we want to our not; once it’s in and we can’t get it out. That’s why trauma is so hard to cope with and misinformation so hard to combat”. This, she says, is a result of our physically-mandated and evolved neuronal processing of inputs. I would add that perhaps it’s possible, through therapy, to mitigate trauma. That, of course, would be the deterministic result of a traumatized person going to a therapist skilled in this art. But no determinist claims that such external influences cannot have an effect.

Sabine closes by declaring that she’s a hard determinist and that we have no free will in the commonly-accepted sense of “libertarian” free will. It’s good to hear from a kindred spirit, though this video is fairly similar to the one she put up several years ago. Still, determinism is like atheism: you have to keep emphasizing it to get the truth before new generations of people.

The Leisure Fascists take over the American Physical Society, recommend no more booze at physics meetings

May 17, 2023 • 1:00 pm

The Pecksniffs aren’t satisfied with policing the language of science, but now want to regulate our behavior, too. And, by god, they’ve gone too far this time, for they want to put the kibosh on our BEVERAGES.

In the latest American Physical Society News (click on screenshots below), one author urges people to not drink alcohol at physics meetings. Not just that, but she seems to want alcohol banned at scientific meetings.  In this she’s bucking the tide, for, as the author notes, a Nature report last year showed that over two thirds of scientists think that alcohol should not be banned at scientific meetings.

Nearly 1,500 scientists participated in the online poll, which began on 20 December as part of a Nature story about reconsidering the role of alcohol in the scientific workplace (Nature 600, S86–S88; 2021). When asked whether alcohol should be banned at scientific conferences, 68% of those who responded to the self-selecting poll said no, 26% said yes and 6% were not sure.

That is, for every scientist who wants alcohol banned at scientific conferences, 2.6 scientists want it to stay. The democracy has spoken.

You can probably guess the reasons why Dr. Vriend wants it banned. First guess, then read the APS News article by clicking below:

Yes, you were right. I’m sure you guessed because “alcohol promotes bad behavior and harassment”, but did you know it also makes meetings less inclusive?

Here are the author’s reasons:

Many years ago, when I was a young graduate student in mechanical engineering and geophysics, I presented my first poster at an important conference. I was stationed at my poster, excited for discussion, when a colleague approached me with a beer in hand. I could smell alcohol on his breath, and he had clearly had too much to drink. For an hour, he loitered at my poster, asking inappropriate questions — and blocking my ability to talk to others, including potential collaborators or future postdoctoral advisors. I was deeply uncomfortable and uncertain what to do.

My story might feel familiar to many young scientists, and data confirms the relationship between alcohol and inappropriate behavior. Alcohol is linked to loss of inhibition, and research indicates that alcohol increases the risks of harassment, including in professional settings. A 2007 study found a significant association between the number of heavy-drinking male employees and a culture of gender harassment against women in a workplace. Of course, alcohol does not cause bad behavior on its own — any perpetrator is solely responsible for their actions — but its role as a risk factor is clear.

I’m prepared to believe all that, which is offensive behavior, and of course no woman (or person) should be subject to such harassment. But a simple conference statement that “harassment is prohibited and will be punished if it’s persistent and unwanted” (all conferences have these now), should suffice. Then someone could have gotten the guy off the scene.

Scientists are adults, adults drink, and people should be prepared to deal with drinkers.  In fact, science meetings are much safer than bars, for scientists are almost universally against harassment and there are plenty of people around to stop it, as well as ubiquitous conference policies to intervene and, if need be, show the harasser to the door.

Remember that scientific meetings are places not just to learn science, but to meet old friends and colleagues, schmooze, socialize after hours, converse and relax. Alcohol facilitates that, and not in a trivial way. It’s much easier to schmooze with someone you want to talk to by inviting them for a drink than just walking up to them. And alcohol might even facilitate scientific conversations since it lessens inhibition (people might, for example,  lose their fear of asking stupid questions!)

And, most important, you don’t have to drink if you don’t want to.

In the poll above scientists have clearly weighed the risks of drinking versus the benefits—and have voted for booze. I vote with them. (Remember, too, that many meetings are in hotels and you simply cannot stop people from drinking there. If there’s no hotel, people will repair to the bar.)  I have no beef with people who have personal reasons not to drink, nor would I stop them from trying, like Dr. Vriend, to persuade others not to drink. But taking the booze out of meetings is taking a lot of fun, as well as social lubrication, out of meetings, and it takes some chutzpah to do that.

It helps, though, if you can claim, as the author does, that banning booze helps promote diversity and a welcoming environment!

As scientists, though, it is not only our responsibility to do good research and advance our field, but to support the next generation of scientists. Science is more diverse now — in age, gender, sexual orientation, race, cultural background — than it was for millennia; we are moving away from the cliché of the cigar-smoking, whiskey-drinking clique of mostly white male scientists. I am not the only person not drinking alcohol — more than a third of US adults don’t, perhaps for religious or cultural reasons, or perhaps simply because science has shown that alcohol is not healthy. Still others may be uncomfortable drinking in work settings because they are struggling with alcohol abuse; after all, nearly half of US adults who drink, drink too much, according to a 2018 study published in the Journal of Substance Abuse.

Alcohol in professional events can stymie efforts to create a welcoming community, and scientists and students of all generations deserve better. In academia, as well as in the business and nonprofit spheres, we senior scientists are responsible for inviting young, diverse people into the field and making them feel comfortable and confident. We are responsible for upholding professional conduct and setting the right example for the younger generation.

I respectfully disagree, especially about associating booze with “cigar-smoking, whiskey-drinking clique of mostly white male scientists”.  (It’s always open season on white males, but of course cigars are banned at meetings and what’s on tap is usually beer and wine, not whiskey).  I know few scientists that fit that bill, and, in fact, Vriend is creating a sexist stereotype, but one that seems okay to most people, though it’s not.  The dragging in of white males here is a gratuitous slur, and has absolutely nothing to do with her argument, except that drunken males harass women more than the other way around. And what does being “white” have to do with it? Alcohol use and abuse is not a monopoly of white people.

There’s also the sly implication that “young diverse people” (read: blacks and Hispanics) won’t feel as welcome if there is booze afoot.  What evidence is there for that?

In the end, I guess, the only way to be welcoming and inclusive is to make everyone conform to a strict code of straitlaced behavior. Is that diversity? This article demonstrates, more than anything, that the woke are puritanical. Remember H. L. Mencken’s famous definition of “puritanism”: “the haunting fear that some one, somewhere, may be happy”.

And I’m curious why the APS would publish this.

h/t: Luana

Paris: Day 5, meal 5; plus sightseeing

April 15, 2023 • 11:30 am

As I said, I didn’t sleep a wink last night, and though I was a total wreck in the morning, some Parisian air, a Métro ride, and a hefty lunch bucked me up.  So much so, in fact, that we did some sightseeing afterwards.

First, my favorite sign on the Métro, and I am going to use my own translation, which is mine, and one I like:

ATTENTION!  Do not put your hands in the doors, by doing so you risk getting them pinched VERY HARD.

Silly rabbit. . .

On to the restaurant; Winnie knew I liked duck and had searched out a duck restaurant, La Grange Aux Canards, which turned out to be near my old stomping grounds in the Sixth. It was in fact a Southwestern French restaurant, but every item save one on the main menu and few entées, cheeses, and desserts, was made with duck (there was one steak; see below). The menu is here.

I had stopped eating duck because I love them and take care of the mallards of Botany Pond (don’t mention my hypocrisy; I already know it), but I slipped up this one time because French duck breast, cooked rare, is to die for. I will go to hell, I know.

Of course the restaurant was full of duck-related items. This was under the main counter:

And three ducks on the wall. Winnie’s translation:

We, the southwest of France…
…if we can…
…we avoid it!

Clearly you don’t want to be a duck in southwest France! I’m not sure who the artist was.

Winnie had 12 ESCARGOTS, Beurre d’échalote au vin blanc, persillade et Bayonne. (Caps are from the manu.) That is snails with all the trimmings.

I had the COU DE CANARD FARCI AU PORC ET CANARD (duck neck stuffed with pork and duck, served with small potatoes and dressed lettuce. It was a very good starter:

For mains, Winnie had LES AIGUILLETTES DE CANARD, Sauce au miel et sésame torréfié, Poêlée de légumes ou pommes gersoises. That is, thick filets of duck with all the trimmings:

My dish, a French classic whose consumption will damn me: LE MAGRET DE CANARD ENTIER DU SUD-OUEST, Sauce au miel et sésame torréfié, pommes gersoises. It was superb, cooked pretty rare, which is the right way to do it. Duck cooked this way takes on a somewhat beefy flavor. Besides honey, the sauce had a bit of orange in it, but didn’t overwhelm the heavenly flavor of the magret:

See how rare it is?

On the menu: they won’t serve you their one beef dish unless it’s cooked either “bleu” or “saignant” (both are “vary rare”). The French know how to cook and eat beef, and they won’t let tourists get away with “medium rare” or even worse degrees of cooking. There’s an English translation:

After dinner they gave us complementary shots of Armagnac with a booze-steeped prune. It was excellent: just the right finish:

The restaurant’s card:

Today was market day across the street at the Maubert-Mutualité Metró station.  We both love markets and I took photos while Winnie bought more food for her later dinner (as I said, she can eat!), including fresh shrimp, strawberries, and a roasted guinea fowl.

Here’s a “typical” Frenchman, toting an accordion on his back. I saw two of these guys within an hour. But where were the mimes? Send in the mimes!

Stuff on sale at the market. First a nearby bakery sells the croissants that won the “best butter croissant in Paris” prize a few years ago. The line is out the door and they’re only a bit more than one Euro. I had one the last time I was here; they’re served warm from the oven and oozing with butter.

Some green stuff (cabbage?):

Some more green stuff (fennel?)

A stall that sold many kinds of honey. Even the very dark stuff is honey:

These tiny melons (from Morocco, not France), not much bigger than a softball, are fantastic when ripe, and have an indescribable perfume.  They were 35 or 45 euros each, though!

Tiny squid:

A flounder. Note how the eye, which used to be on the other side when the fish was young, has migrated over the top the head so it can lie flat on the seabed and still see. This is one of the great feats of developmental evolution. Baby flouders start off swimming upright and look like normal fish, but then, when they start resting on the bottom, the whole morphology changes and the eye migrates to the “up” side of the body.

Beautiful oysters:

And scallops:

Veins of mold in a Roquefort cheese:

I skipped dessert at the duck place because Winnie reminded me that just a block away was the fancy pastry shop Aux Merveilleux de Fred, and last time I was here I was blown away by their individual chocolate merveilleux. So I got one, a fistful of napkins (it’s messy eating it on the street), and scarfed it while walking.  In the store:

Display and consumption (photos by Winnie):

The guts: chocolate, real cream filling, meringue, and cake at the bottom:

Two views of the church Saint-Étienne-du-Mont, finished in 1626. Inside rest the remains of Blaise Pascal and Jean Racine. The remains of the revolutionary Jean-Paul Marat, murdered in his bath, are in the church cemetery.

The famous Panthéon is right nearby. It was designed to be a.church, but when it was finished in 1790 they decided to make it into a memorial for famous Frenchmen (and now some French women). This page tells you who’s in there; they include Louie Braille, Pierre and Marie Curie, Victor Hugo, Emile Zola, and Voltaire.

The library of the Sorbonne, right next to the Panthéon; only students and professors are allowed in. Since it’s so lovely and cozy inside, there’s always a line awaiting entry:

A panorama of the historic and scenic area:

Close by was our goal, the Musée Curie, the place where Marie Curie and her husband Pierre (formally, Marie Skłodowska-Curie and Pierre Curie) discovered radium and polonium, for which they won the Nobel Prize. Marie won it another time, too, and so did her daughter and son-in-law Irène and Frédéric Joliot-Curie. That makes five Nobels in two generations of one family: a record!

The museum is open Wednesday through Saturday afternoons, is free, and is well worth seeing. It was renovated in 2012 by Marie’s and Pierre’s youngest daughter Ève.and has a lot of the original material used by the Curies and a great display of the early days of radioactivity studies.

A photo of Marie, working in her lab, on the outside gate:

The entrance to the building. This is where the Atomic Age really began:

And a commemorative plaque. I’m sure you can puzzle out the French:

Marie’s office, with many original furnishings. The door to the left leads to her chemistry lab where radium was isolated.

The lab, with much of the apparatus apparently original:

Some of the instruments constructed to isolate and test radioactive material. A lot of the apparatus was specially designed by the Curies and made by master craftsmen. Don’t ask me what these things are.

For a while radium was a fad, considered good to drink and good for cosmetics. Only tiny amounts were used in these products, though, so nobody was hurt. It was a different story, however, with the American women—the “Radium Girls”—who had to paint glow-in-the-dark watch hands with radioactive paint, licking the brushes between applications. You can imagine the results. I recommend the fascinating but disturbing account of this: The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women.

Marie Curie’s calling card:

Despite my lack of sleep, it was another great day in Paris: food, science, and history. You can’t beat that with a stick!


A bizarre Cornell course about black holes that conflates astronomy and ideology

January 19, 2023 • 11:00 am

I get notices of weird courses like this every day, but this one is special for two reasons. First, it sounds completely off the wall, combining black holes and race. Second, a colleague of mine, Luana Maroja at Williams College, asked an AI bot what the connection between the two areas was, and the bot produced an amusing response.

First, below is the class at the renowned Cornell University, whose description was sent to me by a colleague. It appears to be cross-listed in both COML (comparative literature) and ASTRO (astronomy), though I’m not sure where your course credits go, whether they can apply to the majors, and so on.  The distribution requirements below (LA-AS, ALC-AS, PHS-AS) imply that you can get credit for it in Literature and the Arts, Physical Sciences, and Arts, Literature, and Culture—all in the College of Arts and Sciences. I’m not sure if it really does fulfill a science requirement, but it looks like it.

Realize that I’m not familiar with Cornell’s curriculum requirements for an undergraduate degree, and maybe this course isn’t as bizarre as the description. But remember that course descriptions tend to be fairly accurate, and are written to attract students. Click on the course title to go to the page (the descriptions are identical; it’s just that the course satisfies two different distributions requirements).  

And the same course cross-listed in Astronomy

Here’s the course description and details from the online catalogue:

Course information provided by the Courses of Study 2020-2021.

Conventional wisdom would have it that the “black” in black holes has nothing to do with race. Surely there can be no connection between the cosmos and the idea of racial blackness. Can there? Contemporary Black Studies theorists, artists, fiction writers implicitly and explicitly posit just such a connection. Theorists use astronomy concepts like “black holes” and “event horizons” to interpret the history of race in creative ways, while artists and musicians conjure blackness through cosmological themes and images. Co-taught by professors in Comparative Literature and Astronomy, this course will introduce students to the fundamentals of astronomy concepts through readings in Black Studies. Texts may include works by theorists like Michelle Wright and Denise Ferreira da Silva, authors like Octavia Butler and Nalo Hopkinson, music by Sun Ra, Outkast and Janelle Monáe. Astronomy concepts will include the electromagnetic spectrum, stellar evolution, and general relativity.

When Offered:  Spring.

Distribution Category (LA-AS, ALC-AS, PHS-AS)

Syllabi: none
  •   Regular Academic Session.  Combined with: ASTRO 2034

  • 3 Credits Stdnt Opt
  • 19548 LEC 001
    • MOnline Meeting
    • Feb 8 – May 14, 2021
    • Battaglia, N., Vaziri, P.
  • Instruction Mode: Hybrid-Online and In Person
    This course has two required meeting days.
    Enrollment limited to students who are able to attend in-person classes in the Ithaca area.

In this case the conventional wisdom is right: they’re called “black holes” because they appear black—no light can escape their terrific gravity.  So surely there is no connection between this and race except for the word “black,” but you know that’s enough to drag race into the mixture. This course is clearly part of an attempt to racialize everything, and it sounds like a disaster. Since there’s nothing but a semantic connection between the two areas, it’s probably a poor welding of physics and Black Studies, livened up with the tunes of Sun Ra and Janell Monáe.

It sounds exactly what we used to call a “gut course”, or, in the case of science, “football physics”—a course meant for those who don’t particularly want to learn anything rigorous, but want to have fun and perhaps get an easy “A.” Now of course some offended Cornell person is going to write in and tell me how rigorous the course is, or that I’ve completely misconstrued the contents. To the first beef I’d say, “No it’s not: you’re combining two wholly different and unconnected areas that should not be taught as a single course. You’re also trying to be trendy without rigor.” To the second I’d say, “Well, all I have is the course description, and if I were a student at Cornell who wanted to learn science, I’d run away from this course as fast as I could.” But we always have people to defend any course, no matter how weird it is.

At any rate, Luana decided to ask the ChatGPT about the connection. This is, you know, the AI bot site that students can use to get their essay written by AI. (See here for a NYT article about the bot and the problems it’s causing.) ChatGPT at the link is down at the moment: I’m not sure if it’s active only in the afternoons and evenings, which I’ve heard, or if it’s in abeyance (there are rumors of a lawsuit against it).

At any rate, the question Luana asked is in bold and ChatGPT’s answer is indented below that:

What are black holes and what is the relationship to race

Black holes are extremely dense regions of space that have extremely strong gravitational fields. They are formed when very massive stars die and collapse under the force of their own gravity. Nothing, including light, can escape from inside a black hole’s event horizon, the point of no return.

There is no relationship between black holes and race. Black holes are a scientific concept that is based on the laws of physics, and race is a social construct with no scientific basis. They are not related to each other in any way.

This would seem to make the Cornell course superfluous, wouldn’t it? It also tells us that ChatGPT is somewhat misinformed about “race”, which is not entirely a social construct (see here and here).

Sean Carroll on free will

January 2, 2023 • 11:30 am

Below is a fairly new and short (7 minute) video by the Official Website Physicist® Sean Carroll on free will. As ever, he argues that we do have free will, but it’s a compatibilist form of free will. That is, he accept “physical determinism” as totally underlying our behavior (he means “the laws of physics, which can include purely indeterminate quantum mechanics”), but says that because we cannot predict the future or what we are going to do, the laws of physics aren’t useful in helping us understand or predict our behaviors. The word “determinism” seems to be playing a big role here, conflating prediction with reality, which is why I prefer to use the word “naturalism” now.

As Sean’s said before, his view of “free will” invokes a level different from that involving the laws physics: it’s the fact, as he says, that  “We can talk about human beings as agents making choices, while also agreeing that we don’t violate the laws of physics.” That is, we can’t use those laws to decide what we’ll choose in a restaurant. He argues that each human is a collection of desires, preferences, and values, which are useful in both discussing our behaviors and predicting them, but we’re also  “a collections of neurons and obey laws of physics.” Thus we get the compatibility between physics and “free will”, which of course is not “libertarian” I-could-have-chosen-differently free will.

In that sense, every organism also has free will, although some lack values.

Sean, then, sees his form of free will as an emergent property of neuronal organization and evolution that has given us brains that secrete our behaviors. But he also admits that if we were able to predict perfectly what we would do, then “free will would go away.”

It is that last sentence that lays bare what I see as the problems with Sean’s argument. That’s because one thing is for sure: over the coming decades and centuries, as we learn more about the brain, we will be able to use measures of physics independent of “values and desires” to predict more and more of what we do. Already brain-scan experiments using MRI and similar crude techniques can predict what we will choose (in very simple binary-choice experiments) seven to ten seconds in advance. Does this mean that some of our free will has been taken away? This is a kind of free will destined to disappear when we learn more about science.

I do agree with Sean that we talk as if we have free will, and that we act as if we could have done things differently from what we did. As he says, this is because, “given the actual information you have about yourself, you could have acted differently, because the information you have yourself is wildly incomplete”.  And that is true as well. But what is also true is that, at bottom, what we do does depends completely on the laws of physics, and our actions are “emergent” only in the sense that at bottom they rest on those laws. Any “emergence” of behavior isn’t based on some non-physical phenomenon like “will”; it is simply our inability to presently extrapolate from lower to higher levels. But there’s nothing new happening at those higher levels.

So if we’re talking about everyday paralance, I have no real problem with Sean’s conception of compatibilist free will. But I think he avoids the question that obsesses me, which I’d pose to Sean like this:

“Yes, Sean, we don’t know enough about our constituent particles and cells to make complete predictions about our behavior. But, on the physical level, isn’t it true that we could not have done other than what we did?”

I think he’d have to agree with me, because he sees no form of non-physical “will” that, given an exact rerun of physical circumstances, could somehow change the resulting behavior. Ergo I think Sean overly neglects libertarian free will, which, after all, is the form of free will that most people envision. Indeed, when I debate the issue with friends and acquaintances, they are astounded to hear that they could not have done otherwise, even if we feel we could have. Most people do seem to adhere to a form of nebulous, un-physical “will”. And if you tell them “well, given what you know you could have made a choice but you really couldn’t have,” that wouldn’t satisfy them.

Nor would it satisfy the many religionists who absolutely believe in libertarian free will. If you accept Jesus as your savior because that’s compatible with your feelings and desires, but your choice could actually be predicted if you had perfect knowledge about your body and the universe, I don’t think that Christians would say that this alone will bring you to God! For that turns every Christian into a Calvinist!

I also agree with Sean that “we have a responsibility for what’s going to happen next.” It’s a mistake to think that hard determinists like me don’t agree with the notion of responsibility. I just don’t agree with the concept of moral responsibility, for that form of responsibility rests on whether someone could actually have done otherwise, not on whether someone feels they could have done otherwise.

In the end, I think Sean is evading an important question—the one I raised above. Sure, we feel as if we could have chosen differently because we don’t have enough information to make an accurate prediction, but he doesn’t come to grips at all with the idea that given the laws of physics that underlie our behavior, there is no way we could have chosen differently. With complete information, everything is either predictable, or, if unpredictable, rests on quantum indeterminacy that has nothing to do with our will.

And that makes a ton of difference when you think about crime and punishment and when you take people to task for saying “they could have chosen otherwise”. Much of our legal system depends on an assumption of libertarian free will, not compatibilist free will. Certainly all retributive punishment does. And recognizing this fact can and should create big changes in both our judicial system and how harshly we judge other people.  Under hard determinism, people can be viewed as broken cars. When our car is broken, we don’t think it had a choice, but we do things like repairing it or, if it’s dangerous, taking it off the road. You don’t beat it with a sledgehammer for acting badly in line because its nature was to have a wonky carburetor and and broken transmission.

Recognizing the falsity of libertarian free will also leads to a lessening of self-rebuke. Telling yourself “If I had done X, Y wouldn’t have happened” is useful only in rewiring your brain so you wouldn’t do X again. It is not useful in beating yourself up for behaving in a way that you couldn’t have helped.

I wish Sean would take on the issue in all its fullness. Compatibilist free will is different in important ways from libertarian free will, and those differences have huge consequences. (For those who think that there’s no material difference, remember the surveys in which people who are asked whether we have moral responsibility in a deterministic universe mostly answer “no”.) Well, it’s time that they know that we do live in a deterministic universe. I wish Sean would tell people that we could not have behaved differently, even if we feel we could have!

Again, he’s right when he’s talking about everyday notions, but if at bottom libertarian free will is a total illusion, I wish Sean would say it straight out.

I’m not psychologizing Sean here, but I think the big love of compatibilist free will among philosophers comes from a fear of naturalism and a fear (expressed by Dan Dennett, among others), that if we abandon libertarian free will, as we should do explicitly, society will become totally immoral. In other words, the notion of compatibilism is there to keep us in line.

h/t: Barry

Marilynne Robinson again embarrasses herself with an attempt to harmonize science and theology

December 5, 2022 • 10:45 am

I used to like Marilynne Robinson‘s fiction (she won a Pulitzer for her novel Gilead), but over the years she’s increasingly pushed her Christianity into her fiction and, more notably, into her essays. (See here and here for her rants on “scientism”.) And she is a pious Christian; as Wikipedia notes, she even preaches:

Robinson was raised as a Presbyterian and later became a Congregationalist, worshipping and sometimes preaching at the Congregational United Church of Christ in Iowa City. Her Congregationalism, and her interest in the ideas of John Calvin, have been important in her works, including Gilead, which centers on the life and theological concerns of a fictional Congregationalist minister. In an interview with the Church Times in 2012, Robinson said: “I think, if people actually read Calvin, rather than read Max Weber, he would be rebranded. He is a very respectable thinker.”

And now she’s in the New York Review of Books (NYRB). This magazine, under editor Bob Silvers, used to be a paragon of literary thought and quality, but since he died it’s come down in the world—though for some reason it always published Robinson’s lucubrations. In the article below (if it’s paywalled, join free for a short time), Robinson tries to derive a theology from science. She fails, not only because you can’t do that, but because she really doesn’t understand science. It’s embarrassingly bad—”dreadful” is too kind a word!

Not only is it really a sermon, not an essay (it’s full of passages from the Bible), but it’s very poorly written—surprising for a Pulitzer-winning novelist.

Her goal is to “rehabilitate” the antagonism she sees between science and religion. She appears to effect this reconciliation by adducing the wonders of science and evolution as evidence for God, though she spurns the idea of even needing evidence for God (she is of course a believer, but doesn’t need no stinking evidence). She also appears not to understand science.

Her using biological complexity and consciousness as evidence for the Divine comes perilously close to Intelligent Design, though she rejects that idea, too. After all, God doesn’t need to be buttressed with evidence of any sort. But then then proceeds to give that evidence—drawn largely from evolution and quantum mechanics—for many boring pages.

I could quote her at length, but I don’t want to damage your brain.  Here are the first three paragraphs laying out her thesis (bolding is mine):

I have been interested for a long time in theology and also in science. These two brilliant fields of thought have been at odds, supposedly, since the rise of what might be called the modern period, say, beginning in the nineteenth century. For the next one hundred years and more science flourished, applying its model of rationalism to every question, while increasingly religion struggled to find any way to justify its existence in the face of triumphant demystifications of reality. Then an odd thing happened. With one brilliant advance after another, science burst out of the constraints of rationalism and found itself in the terrain of quantum theory, which everyone says no one understands, but which is very robust and has been put to all sorts of practical uses. Rationalism had been choking out religion for generations as it proposed etiologies for the creatures to refute creation myth and ethics for human beings that often ran directly counter to the traditional teachings of religion. For a while nineteenth-century versions of evolution, with sundry determinist implications, survived despite the always more subtle and complex findings in physics, genetics, and other fields.

More recently certain stalwarts of nineteenth-century truth and reason were sure they would at last deliver the death blow to religion. But they lost heart or retired or went to their reward before that mortal blow was struck, if it ever could have been. They may have noticed that science as it advanced did not much resemble their conception of it, but their views never moderated. In the meantime religion was damaged and science was, too, so far as their reputations are concerned. Religion is viewed as ignorant and fear-driven, science as atheistic and arrogant. It is not unusual for people and groups to embrace the harshest characterizations that are made of them, as seems to have happened in this case. This is one more reason why we should speak more generously of one another.

In light of the fact that science and religion are two major pillars of our civilization, it seems there should be some effort at rehabilitation. I haven’t noticed any. Science has felt the consequences of all this in budget cuts and controversies in schools and the refusal of important segments of the population, in critical matters of public health, to accept the views of scientists as offered in good faith. Religion, meanwhile, has been largely overtaken by a belligerency darker and cruder than obscurantism, the very antithesis of theology, whatever it might have to do with faith. At the end of this hard-fought and meaningless struggle nothing was resolved, but there was grave loss on all sides.

First, theology is not a “brilliant field of thought”—not unless you consider embellishing fairy tales a “brilliant” exercise.  My contention is that theology hasn’t “advanced” since the days of Augustine the Hippo (yes, I know the name is a joke). By that I mean that although Biblical exegesis has become less literalistic and more sophisticated, has changed, and has even gotten more “inclusive”, it hasn’t brought us one iota closer towards understanding the nature of God and the divine, much less giving us any evidence for God’s existence or true nature. How could it? It’s all MADE UP STUFF. Science, on the other hand. . . . well, you know what it’s accomplished.

Look at the first paragraph above, where Robinson mentions “etiologies for the creatures” that refuted creationism with rationality. “Etiologies” here means EVOLUTION, but for some reason she doesn’t say that. She’s trying to show off, I guess. In the next sentence, Robinson just gets things wrong:

For a while nineteenth-century versions of evolution, with sundry determinist implications, survived despite the always more subtle and complex findings in physics, genetics, and other fields.

In fact, nineteenth-century versions of evolution became highly modified as our understanding grew, and took a great leap in the 1930s, when the Modern Synthesis fused the young science of genetics with evolution.  I’m not sure what the “sundry determinist implications” are, either.  Evolution is no more deterministic than is physics; that is, it is deterministic save for any truly indeterministic quantum-mechanical influences (perhaps in mutation?), but I don’t think that’s what she’s talking about.  And Robinson is just dead wrong in assuming evolution is less subtle than “physics, genetics, and other fields”, but she’s not even wrong when she says that evolution survived in the face of findings of other fields. In fact, evolution incorporated genetics soon after it was rediscovered in 1900.  Truly, I don’t think Robinson knows what she’s talking about here. What is the sweating writer trying to say?

She’s right in saying in paragraph two that “religion is viewed as ignorant and fear-driven”, though not all religionists are fearful; but if science was damaged by being seen as “atheistic and arrogant”, I haven’t seen it. In fact, as belief in God is waning, public confidence in science is increasing. Below are some data from a 2019 Pew poll. Compare scientists on the top line with “religious leaders” on the bottom. Scientists win!

Science is practiced as an “atheistic” discipline—that is, one that doesn’t need or invoke the supernatural in making explanations—but is it really seen as “arrogant”? It surely is by Robinson, who’s been banging on about “scientism” for years, but if science’s reputation is eroding because of that, well, religion’s is eroding faster.  And nobody is more arrogant than someone like Robinson who strongly believes in the Christian God, and claims to know His nature—without a lick of evidence!  At least scientists can test other scientists’ claims and then show them to be wrong. What would convince Robinson that there was no God, or a god but not the Christian God she worships?

Robinson is, of course, making up a scenario here: there’s no evidence that the public has less trust in science than in religion, and to say that theology isn’t obscurantist is wrong. In fact, Robinson’s whole piece is obscurantist, as is most modern theology (try reading Alvin Plantinga or getting a lucid explanation of why God allows innocent people to suffer physical evil).

Below, Robinson raises the something-rather-than-nothing question to buttress her harmonizing of theology and religion, but then denies that the question constitutes “proof” of God. Again, bolding is mine:

Science has pondered the evolution of the eye as a special problem. In the case of the scallop, that morsel so much a staple of our menus, the emergence of the eye seems to have happened twice—once as a fringe along the shell for ordinary scallop business, and again as two stalks that look straight up so that the creature can find its way back to the shadow of the mangrove forest. This is charming. This is delightful. A courtesy, a solicitude. What an uneconomic deployment of possibility. But that phrase could be applied to humankind, to the whole of creation. After all, why is there something rather than nothing?

First, I didn’t know that scallops evolved eyes twice independently, particularly as two stalks that “help them find their way back to the shadow of the mangrove forest”.  Five minutes on the Internet yielded no verification of this, but I’ll let readers see if she’s right there. What’s more important is her last question: a staple of “sophisticated” theology.  Why is there something rather than nothing? Clearly Robinson thinks that means that there’s something because God wanted something, but this question isn’t evidence for God, much less of her Christian God (see Sean Carroll’s take here). And even if it were, then we would have to ask,  “Well, why is there a God rather than no God?” Theologians will do some fast-stepping there!

But Robinson quickly explains that she doesn’t need no stinkin’ proof of God. I’m wondering why she believes in the first place, then:

If I seem to be proffering a version of intelligent design, I want to make it clear that I reject any argument that presents itself as a proof of God’s existence. I think there is a degree of irreverence in the very idea of proof. At the same time, whether or not His existence is a factor in the nature of the world, there is a glory in creation to which the hyperbolic celebrations of Scripture are uniquely appropriate. The Book of Job describes creation as the moment when “the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy.” In the long final speech from the whirlwind, God names the beasts and the natural forces and luxuriates in their power and strangeness, in overwhelming reply to the questioning of His justice. Granting that this is a difficult teaching to absorb, it can only mean that the world, the cosmos, in its infinite particularity, should be seen as a joy to God Himself. Let us say, therefore, that it is recommended to our attention. And it is not without meaning that we are richly capable of such attention, as the arts and the sciences have demonstrated.

She says she’s not offering proof, but she sure as hell is adducing “evidence”! She just euphemizes “proof” with other words: “let us say that it is recommended to our attention”, and “it is not without meaning that we are richly capable of such attention.”  What she’s saying is that the natural world, and our ability to understand it, points towards God.

I really can’t go on further, as I can’t figure out what the sweating author is trying to say, and her essay is so poorly written that I wonder why the NYRB, once a bastion of good writing, printed it. After all, it’s not a thoughtful analysis of anything, but is simply a sermon couched in what Dan Dennett calls “deepities”.

I’ll just leave you with her quantum woo. She reads into quantum mechanics, which we don’t fully understand nor have a good physical picture of, some divine mystery that also points towards  God. Physicists may be amused by her invoking the observer effect (which I think is pretty much defunct) and other quantum stuff that she incorporates into theology. If this is Sophisticated Thelogy®, it is obscurantist, wordy, and impenetrable.

Popular ideas of God have often been essentially anthropomorphic and have tended to limit their conception of His awareness by a standard of the possible that imagined a vastly heightened but basically humanlike consciousness. Now we know that the nature of things is negotiated moment by moment at the level of quantum indeterminacy, that from a subatomic point of view the clay is still in the potter’s hands. We know that an observer, literal or other, can effect this openness to possibility, can cause the indeterminacy to de-cohere, to become one version of the array of possibilities present in any instance. This underlies what we experience as a great constancy.

. . . Then again, if the hypothesis is correct that time and space emerge from quantum phenomena, which are therefore in some sense prior to them, then I find myself failing to imagine Being that is not spatially or temporally local and yet is generative of these conditions for and of our existence. I find myself thinking of the intuitions of the ancient people that there was a time when the world came into being. In Babylonian mythology the god Marduk slays the goddess Tiamat, a giant, raging serpent. He slices her corpse in two and uses half to form earth, half to form sky. Scholars have claimed to find evidence that a tale like this lies behind the serene, magisterial creation in Genesis. And there are glimpses in the biblical creation of the suppression of a primordial chaos, tohu va-vohu in Hebrew, “without form and void” in English. The prophet Isaiah says God will punish “Leviathan the twisting serpent, and he will slay the dragon that is in the sea.”

In the end, Robinson’s views are risible, and an embarrassment to both her and the NYRB. And to think that she won a Pulitzer Prize before she went off the rails and began writing stuff like this!

How low the NYRB has sunk!

Ideology keeps sticking its nose into science: An essay by Anna Krylov

November 29, 2022 • 9:30 am

Anna Krylov, a professor of chemistry at the University of Southern California (USC), has a fruitful sideline in calling attention to the invasion of science by wokeness—much to the detriment of science. I’ve called attention to one of her papers before—a critique of politicizing science that she managed to get published in a reputable, peer-reviewed journal.  And she did an interview that I wrote about here. Since then, we’re coauthors—with a gazillion other “concerned scientists”—on a couple of papers on related topics, but it’s hard getting them published since no regular journal will touch anything perceived as anti-woke.

Anna’s latest piece (click on screenshot below) appeared yesterday at the Heterodox STEM  site, a site worth following if you’re worried about how science is becoming a mere appendage of “progressive” ideology. Anna lived and worked in the USSR until 1991, and draws on her experience, comparing the authoritarian forces that squelched Soviet science in her youth with the authoritarianism of the “progressive” left that afflicts and constrains us now. Here’s the abstract, and then click to read the whole thing:

My everyday experiences as a chemistry professor at an American university in 2021 bring back memories from my school and university time in the USSR. Not good memories—more like Orwellian nightmares. I will compare my past and present experiences to illustrate the following parallels between the USSR and the US today: (i) the atmosphere of fear and self-censorship; (ii) the omnipresence of ideology (focusing on examples from science); (iii) an intolerance of dissenting opinions (i.e., suppression of ideas and people, censorship, and Newspeak); (iv) the use of social engineering to solve real and imagined problems.

A couple of quotes:

Much more dire manifestations of the SJW [social-justice warrior] agenda are subverting research and education, most notably, in the life sciences and medicine [15]. Just as happened in  Soviet Russia, the new ideology is declaring entire disciplines—for example, mathematics—racist [16,17]. There are proposals, some already enacted in Oregon and California, that call to “dismantle white supremacy” in the mathematics classroom. How does white supremacy manifest itself in the classroom? By “the focus [being] on getting the ‘right’ answer” and asking students “to show their work.” Google “equitable math instruction” to see what this is all about. These programs are backed by serious institutions, such as the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

In California, there is a proposal to do away with advanced math programs in schools. Why? Because they are racist. Why are they racist? Because their demographics do not match the state’s demographics. How can we make math instruction equitable? Instead of raising the quality of education for everyone, the SJW favor the path that socialist regimes—real [18] and dystopian [19]—took: bringing everyone down to the lowest common denominator.

For the same reasons, proficiency tests are being dropped, grading standards lowered [20], standardized tests eliminated [21], and so on.

What will the consequences of such policies be? I think they will be devastating, possibly on the scale of Lysenkoism.

Let’s hope not! At least we’re not yet at the stage where the editors of Nature can kill anti-woke scientists, as the Soviets did to the great geneticist Nikolai Vavilov, who dared stand up to Lysenko’s insane theories. For his honesty, Vavilov was sent to the gulag, where he died.

One more quote:

Now we live in the shadows of Cancel Culture. People are being disinvited and de-platformed. Or dragged through administrative investigations and reviews, which is a form of punishment [27]. Dorian Abbot’s case is a good example [7].

Scientific papers are being retracted or self-retracted. Not because of scientific concerns—but because findings are deemed to be offensive to some. Or because they contradict the dominant narrative. Many examples are from biology [15], but this ideological intrusion is not limited to the life sciences [28-32].

The mechanism of censorship and suppression is different from Soviet Russia. It is not administered by the government, but rather by Twitter vigilantes—by outrage mobs who use social media to call for punishment of those whose views they find  objectionable [28].

But mobs alone would not be able to enforce censorship. In Western democracies, outrage mobs do not burn heretics at the stake, at least not yet [28]. They do not retract papers. They do not cancel seminars. People in positions of power do—university presidents, department chairs, journal editors. Bret Stephens called this “Coward Culture” in his New York Times opinion about Dorian’s case [32].

Sadly, some organizations are institutionalizing censorship.

Here is a recent example [29,30]: The Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) issued guidelines to its journal editors to “consider whether or not any content [in a submitted manuscript]… might have the potential to cause offense.” The memos and published policies emphasize that it is the perception of the recipient that determines offense, regardless of author intent.

The RSC gave 15 “indicators” of offensive content, which included content that is “[l]ikely to be upsetting, insulting or objectionable to some or most people.” That covers a lot of ground, doesn’t it?

How does that align with the publisher’s mission to facilitate the communication of high-quality chemistry research? This is a subversion of the institution of science by SJW agenda.

One difference between the “science culture wars” of the Scopes Trial days versus now is that now scientists are complicit in their own muzzling. The ideologization” of science comes from both within the field, including journal editors and funding agencies, and without (social media, of course).

Anna uses lots of good pictures to illustrate her piece, and ends with a Jewish joke at the end that she got from me. Below is one photo of the much-maligned Trofim Lysenko, Stalin’s darling. (If you don’t know the story of Lysenko, his rise to power, and his strangulation of Soviet agriculture, which led to the death of millions, at least read the Wikipedia article on him.)

(from paper): Trofim Lysenko speaking in the Kremlin to the Communist Party Leadership (1935). Scientists make mistakes, form incorrect theories, and pursue false hypotheses all the time, but what makes science powerful and credible is its ability to separate the wheat from the chaff. In the USSR, the ideology took control over science, which impeded its ability to self-correct, and resulted in the catastrophe of Lysenkoism. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Here’s Anna’s final paragraph about possible solutions.

What can be done? Here are some ideas. First, speak up. Do not submit to bullies. Refuse to speak Newspeak. If you see that the king is naked—say the king is naked. Second, organize. There is safety in numbers. Organizations such as the Academic Freedom Alliance, Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, Foundation Against Intolerance and Racism, and the Heterodox Academy, can provide a platform for action and protection against repercussions [46]. Do your share in defending humanism, democracy, and the liberal Enlightenment.

It all starts—like the New Atheism jump-started an increase in secularism—by saying out loud what the ideologues consider taboo.

Sabine Hossenfelder on consciousness and the collapse of the wave function

November 20, 2022 • 12:10 pm

In the video below, physicist Sabine Hossenfelder deals with the deeply weird nature of quantum mechanics—in this case, can human consciousness cause collapse of the wave function? This is connected with famous experiments like the “double slit experiment” or the Gedankenexperiment of Schrödinger’s cat—scenarios where the apparent outcome of a study depends on whether someone is looking at it and measuring the outcomes. For example, if you let photons from a single source go through two slits in a plate, and don’t observe which slit they go through, they form an interference pattern on a screen on the other side, implying that light is a wave, and is going through both slits at once. But if you put a detector at each slit, observing which one each photon goes through, you now get a mirror of the two-slit pattern on the screen: the photons go through one slit and not both. The results, then,  differ depending on whether you’re looking and measuring. As Wikipedia notes:

The double-slit experiment (and its variations) has become a classic for its clarity in expressing the central puzzles of quantum mechanics. Because it demonstrates the fundamental limitation of the ability of the observer to predict experimental results, Richard Feynman called it “a phenomenon which is impossible […] to explain in any classical way, and which has in it the heart of quantum mechanics. In reality, it contains the only mystery [of quantum mechanics].

This kind of result has deeply troubled physicists for years, for it implies that our own brains somehow influence quantum physics and the behavior of particles. How can that be? As Sabine says, if consciousness can do that, it must have physical effects on reality, which doesn’t seem tenable. (The idea also leads to all kinds of quantum hokum à la Deepakity.) And would the consciousness of a worm suffice? How can the nature of reality depend on whether someone is looking at it? Well, there are many solutions proposed, including the many-worlds hypothesis, but I’ll let you read the book at the bottom to get the full story.

This all derives from a persisting dichotomy in quantum mechanics: is it telling us something about what is real, or only giving us a mathematical analysis that, while it works, doesn’t give us the ability to visualize what’s really going on on the particle level?  Bohr and his famous “Copenhagen interpretation” of QM espoused the latter: the “shut up and calculate” version. Einstein and others believed that there is a fundamental reality to nature that must be graspable by our brains, and is only approximated by quantum mechanics.  Or so I interpret.

At any rate, I found Sabine’s discussion somewhat confusing, mainly because you have to know a bit about quantum mechanics and its history before you can understand her presentation. I did, however, like her dismissal at the end of the video of the Penrose/Hamaroff idea that consciousness doesn’t cause the collapse of the wave function, but rather the opposite: the collapse of the wave function, working on “microtubules”in the brain, is itself responsible for consciousness.  Right now there’s no evidence for this, or for the panpsychism that Hossenfelder also dismisses.


I just finished this book, which is really all about the observer effect and whether quantum mechanics tells us something about what is real in the world. It’s not too hard going, and is a fascinating story going from Heisenberg up to modern disputes about the many-worlds hypothesis. And it’s heavily historical, showing how the charisma and intelligence of Neils Bohr all but shut down the debate for many decades. Of all the books on quantum mechanics that I’ve read, this is the clearest, and the one that best describes the disputes over what QM means. I recommend it highly. Click on the screenshot to go to the Amazon site.

(h/t Steve)