Science Feed

11 Dimensions in the Brain!

Well, this is cool news. Scientists have discovered that the brain works by creating multi-dimensional structures. Read the article in Newsweek here (though I puzzled by a few places where their nouns and verbs don't agree.  Come on Newsweek). I loved this description--"The progression of activity through the brain resembles a multi-dimensional sandcastle that materializes out of the sand and then disintegrates."


The Biology of Racism

"It’s surprising to think of racial bias as not just a state or habit of mind, nor even a widespread cultural norm, but as a process that’s also part of the ebbs and flows of the body’s physiology." This startling article from Aeon reveals how racial prejudice is connected to biological functions, and thus is more difficult to overcome than our Enlightenment-based rational hopes imagined.  

Please read the article.  Here is the conclusion:

On the one hand, this is a reason for optimism: if we can better understand the neurological mechanisms behind racial bias, then perhaps we’ll be in a better position to correct it. But there is a grim side to the analysis, too. The structures of oppression that shape who we are also shape our bodies, and perhaps our most fundamental perceptions. Maybe we do not ‘misread’ the phone as a gun; we might we actually see a gun, rather than a phone. Racism might not be something that societies can simply overcome with fresh narratives and progressive political messages. It might require a more radical form of physiological retraining, to bring our embodied realities into line with our stated beliefs.

This raises an important question in political liberalism.  Mill believed that society should not be overly involved in the effort to morally shape people, instead allowing them the liberty to develop on their own.  His initial radical left-wing idea now sounds closer to libertarianism.  It also sounds naiive, as we've learned that issues like racial justice cannot be solved by simple education of the reason.  

So I think about a variety of inputs--Michael Sandel's arguments in Justice that society must discuss the purpose of what it means to be human, Jonathan Haidt's research into the psychological impulses behind our political views, or Martha Nussbaum's book on how a democratic society must engage in moral education of its citizens by using the emotions.  These ideas run up against the ideas of Mill, which initially sound lovely, but flounder on the rock of reality.

See this earlier post on the liberal paradox.


Science of racism

A fascinating look at the science of racism.  Two excerpts:

It’s surprising to think of racial bias as not just a state or habit of mind, nor even a widespread cultural norm, but as a process that’s also part of the ebbs and flows of the body’s physiology.

***

Racism might not be something that societies can simply overcome with fresh narratives and progressive political messages. It might require a more radical form of physiological retraining, to bring our embodied realities into line with our stated beliefs.


Life is a Network

In this essay for NPR's Cosmos & Culture blog David George Haskell writes about how life is a network. Nice to see biology confirming Whitehead; of course Whitehead's notions were derived from biology (and Jamesian psychology, Wordsworthian experience, and Einsteinian relativity).  An excerpt:

The fundamental unit of biology is therefore not the "self," but the network. A maple tree is a plurality, its individuality a temporary manifestation of relationship.


Changing minds

Another article, this one in Scientific American, on how people reject facts that conflict with their worldview.  Nothing really new here (I think of William James' 19th century discussions of how people do and don't change their minds).  There are some good pointers on how to discourse with people you disagree with (rules I'm good at following when I'm at my best, though I'm not always at my best).

Again, what puzzles me about all this scientific research on the difficulty of changing ones mind, especially one's worldview, is that I've done precisely that many times.  Why am I, and plenty of other people I know, different?

Here are some examples:

I abandoned biblical inerrancy for historical-critical methods and ultimately even postmodern biblical hermeneutics based upon what I learned in classes and the scholars I read who convinced me to take every step along the way.  I distinctly remember the classroom lecture on the various forms of inerrancy which compelled me to cast aside that position.

I went from being a creationist to an evolutionist as a young adult when I was convinced of the evidence and that I could maintain my religious faith despite the change, which also resulted from becoming acquainted with more liberal forms of Christianity.

During a two week summer course in philosophy of language in a matter of days I went from disagreeing with Noam Chomsky's views to adopting them, based upon the persuasiveness of his arguments.

I distinctly remember the moment, driving in my car and listening to a report on NPR, when I decided that I needed to change my position on capital punishment.  And I had even written a paper giving a defense of it not that many years before.

In 2003-4 I went through a divorce with the Republican Party because of the War in Iraq.  The move wasn't instantaneous, but months of intellectual and emotional wrestling.

That said, I've also always maintained that my core values, ideals, and religious faith have remained steadfast while I have changed theological, philosophical, and political positions.


More on Alternative Possibilities

The systematic evaluation of alternative possibilities is a hallmark of scientific thinking, but it isn’t restricted to science. To arrive at the truth (in science or beyond), we generate multiple hypotheses and methodically evaluate how they fair against reason and empirical observation. We can’t learn without entertaining the possibility that our current beliefs are wrong or incomplete, and we can’t seek diagnostic evidence unless we specify the alternatives. Evaluating alternative possibilities is a basic feature of human thinking—a feature that science has successfully refined.

In a good and brief reflection Tania Lombrozo writes about the scientific history of evaluating alternative possibilities and the method's benefits outside of science.  I really liked her conclusion:

What it does require is willingness to confront uncertainty, and boldly exploring the space of discarded or unformulated alternatives. That’s a kind of bravery that scientists should admire.


Alternative Possibilities

At the NPR Cosmos & Culture blog they continue their discussion of public facts, today in an essay exploring how scientific conclusions and methodologies are constantly changing and why that's a good thing for establishing public facts.  The essayist concludes:

It's a plea for people to embrace the value of considering alternative possibilities, and evaluating those possibilities against the best evidence and arguments at our disposal. And it's a plea for us to do so together, with the kinds of evidence we can verify and share, and the kinds of arguments we can subject to public scrutiny. And if you're not convinced, please consider the alternatives.


Science and Facts

Because the world is messy

We needed a method to determine which statements about the world were ones we could all agree were, indeed, facts of the matter. And the essence of the method we came up with, the one called science, hinged on something absolutely remarkable in the history of humanity.

It all depended on an agreement.

Over time, and as a society, we decided to agree what the rules of the fact-finding method called science should look like. It went something like this: Public facts will be accepted as public facts, if and only if you can show multiple and independent lines of public evidence to support them.

So writes Adam Frank in a very good blog post on how science is the method our modern society agreed upon to deal with the messiness of the world.  He cautions that our use of this method is based merely upon social agreement, and that can be broken.  But, he wonders, is there another method?  For the sake of our democracy, we should be concerned.