Tag Archives: Point of Inquiry

Not just normal… supernormal

Telegraph: Monster burger containing 4,800 calories unveiled in US

Telegraph: Monster burger containing 4,800 calories unveiled in US - click to read story

I’ve been catching up with podcasts recently, and was fascinated by For Good Reason‘s recent interview about supernormal stimuli with Dierdre Barrett.  She explains much about our problems as animals living in an artificial world: why we over-eat, why socialising online or by texting is more compelling than hanging out with our friends, why everything is louder and faster these days.

Essentially, Barrett researches the way that animals (including us) respond better to artificial over-stimulus than we do to natural levels of stimuli. We want saltier, sweeter, fattier food, bigger breasts, poutier lips, louder and more driving bass beats, faster cuts in our movies and more exciting roller coasters.  We want everything up to 11.  Hell, we want everything up to, 12, 13, 130 … faster, deeper, harder, MORE!

Two examples of animal responses to supernormal stimuli she cites are birds who ignore their own eggs in favour of bluer ones with bigger, blacker polkadots (how sweet, how stupid) and butterflies who boff card-board cut-outs and ignore the real lady butterfly flapping her wings enticingly nearby. How stupid. How ridiculous. How much does this explain about the porn industry?

Barrett’s soothing mantra is that we are people with brains and free-will, and are therefore able to overcome our response to the supernormal.  I was disappointed that Grothe didn’t challenge her on this. I like the way he inhabits the role of devil’s advocate to draw out his interviewees, but he ducked this one. There appears to be increasing evidence that free will is either an illusion or operates at trivial levels at best, which is something that Grothe is well aware of.  (A search for ‘free will’ in his previous podcasts at Point of Inquiry yields 117 hits). It is of course much easier for everyone if we act as if we have free will.  If we don’t, then all sorts of things about society will unravel. But that is another blog post for another day.

So while none of this was epiphanic, it deepened my awareness of the issues.  And if you don’t subscribe to Point of Inquiry or For Good Reason, and you like that kind of thing, then let me recommend them.

On the cusp?

Do you think we are now as scientific as we will ever manage to be?

Let me explain what I’m asking.

Are we living in the age where more people know more science than ever will in the future?

Technologists don’t need to be scientists, and we can carry on for years on the technological momentum of the science we already know. Technologists ultimately follow processes within existing boundaries. If I want to make a new cheesecake with a recipe no-one’s cooked before, I follow an existing recipe with different ingredients et viola, branston pickle cheesecake. I’m still working within a cheesecakey world. I would categorise engineers, many dentists and doctors, some pharmacists, all software developers, and even some science teachers as technologists. Many are scientists, but you don’t have to be a scientist to do these technology-based jobs.

Scientists need a very specific mind-set to be scientists: put very briefly, a scientist should hold an open mind on a question until such time as enough good-quality evidence has been amassed to make the answer obvious. (Each of those terms could do with more definition, but you have a life gentle reader and so do I, so we’ll take them as read for now). The difference between a good scientist and a weak one shows in the questions that they ask and their skill in devising ways of gathering good-quality evidence. To do this they have to understand their subject area thoroughly, and assume nothing is true until it has been tested. Scientists work on what it is about the biochemistry of the digestive system and the chemistry of sugar, vinegar, onions and curdled dairy fats that make the idea of a branston pickle cheesecake so unpleasant.

To put this in terms of the divisive question of our times, an engineer can be a creationist and still design perfectly effective bridges. However a scientist cannot be a creationist, because the scientific evidence for evolution is too great and there is no evidence for creation at all. (This is not to say that a scientist cannot believe in a divine creator; many do and that is up to them, however they cannot believe in new earth creationism). This wouldn’t matter much if most people accepted scientific conclusions about the world most of the time. However most people don’t. Most people are scientifically illiterate, and far too many accept the validity of subjective comfort blankies such as feng shui, horoscopes and homoeopathy. There’s no shame in scientific illiteracy if you’ve had no education in science, but this is why it is so important that good science and real skills in critical thinking are taught (preferably by good scientists) to every person while they are at school.

So let me bring this back to the question I started with. We live in an age where more people know more science than ever before. My question is are we living in the age where more people know more science than ever will again? Are we going to retreat into cargo cult engineering and medical treatments, supported by medieval superstitions about creationism, mercury fillings, alien abductions and reikei healing?

I think it is possible that we may.

You see, we can get a long way on technology – we can continue to develop all sorts of big brothery surveillance and control techniques just riding on existing momentum. Government likes technology, government can control technology, and government can use technology to control us. But ask Galileo and he’ll confirm that government dislikes science.  Science changes what people think.  Science requires that people actually do think.

The Bush administration is doing all it can to undermine and cut back on science programmes, real, hard, empirical science programmes, and it isn’t the only one to do so. I can see a world where there are fewer and fewer tools for arriving at objective truth, and where subjective truth – gut feeling or god’s voice in the president’s head – decides on what is and is not illegal, what medicine will be developed, who lives and who dies. This last is not hyperbole: being gay carries the death penalty in Iran because god says so.

I don’t know. I really don’t. If you’ve got the time, and like entertaining and informative podcasts, I’m going to recommend Skeptoid by Brian Dunning. If you want to be terrified and sickened by the separation of reality and state in the US, read the NY Times Article by Ron Suskind with his account of a Bush aide who could talk scathingly about “the reality-based community” and claim to be part of an empire which can “create a new reality”. If you want to see this as a cultural and (small-p) political issue, listen to Point of Inquiry. And above all, you’ve got kids at school, keep them in their science classes.