Updated African science and skepticism blogroll

As curated by Michael Meadon over at Ionian Enchantment, here is the updated list of African blogs focusing on science and skepticism. Please get in touch with Michael if you know of any others that merit inclusion on the list.

More on Hawking and the (latest) death of god

As submitted to The Daily Maverick

Note to reader: While the opening paragraph is identical to a previous post on this subject, the rest of the content is new.

I’m not a physicist, so won’t be able to say much about many of the claims Stephen Hawking reportedly makes in his new book The Grand Design (co-written with Leonard Mlodinow, author of the excellent The Drunkard’s Walk). But based on reviews and responses to the book by other physicists, Hawking’s controversial claim – that God is no longer necessary to explain the origins of the universe – is premised on insights gleaned from a patchwork of string-theories known as “M-theory”.

Relegating God to the sidelines in this fashion has brought Hawking many headlines, and will no doubt help book sales. It’s also brought a swift flurry of responses from religious groups and leaders, who reject the notion of God’s redundancy. A summary of many of these responses consists of an admission that while Hawking may have provided insight into the “how” questions relating to the origin of the universe, he hasn’t helped us answer the “why” questions. Therefore, they say, God still has a role in helping us understand our lives on this dustbowl called Earth.

Hawking: science doesn’t need god

Unfortunately, I can’t say much about the physics underlying the claims Stephen Hawking reportedly makes in his new book The Grand Design (co-written with Leonard Mlodinow, author of the excellent The Drunkard’s Walk). First because I’m not a physicist, and second because I haven’t read the book yet. But one of the claims Hawking apparently makes is that god is no longer necessary to explain the origins of the universe. The extent to which god was ever necessary to explain the origins of the universe is of course itself highly debatable – especially if, by “god” we mean some particular version of god.

In other words, it’s all good and well to say that the universe was created by something we don’t (perhaps, yet) understand, but it’s a massive leap to go from that proposition to far more specific ones, such as “god is good”, “god wants me to wear plaid”, or “god wants you to give me money“. In short, we’ve got very little idea of how the universe came about, and the physics that “explains” it is highly speculative. Other physicists and philosophers of physics – even those who don’t believe in god themselves – have also been quick to point out that they don’t think Hawking is right or consistent on the physics.

What would it take to prove you wrong?

As submitted to The Daily Maverick

Metaphysical claims involving things like the Law of Attraction, astrology or homeopathy all share at least one feature: It’s very easy to find evidence for them. There exist a broad set of claims for which this holds true, and they are often collected under the summary term of pseudoscience. Pseudoscientific claims make predictions or offer explanations just as scientific claims do. Where they differ is in failing to offer a robust set of underlying laws, or even hypotheses, which can be empirically shown to justify those predictions or explanations.

I got the power!

As submitted to The Daily Maverick.

At some point in the early or mid-80’s, our hosts at a dinner party complained about the escalating price of meat. I remember being struck by how curious this lament was, seeing as the hosts in question were undeniably rather wealthy – they had cars for every conceivable purpose (the shopping car, the beach holiday car, the high-tea-at-the-Nellie car), and lived in what seemed to my youngsters’ eye to be a house in which they might regularly get lost, such were the number of rooms, nooks and crannies.

But as the years have limped on, I’ve heard this sort of complaint regularly, and it has become clear that just about everybody wishes that their lives were better, no matter what their current social or financial status. And this is perhaps good, in that having aspirations is what drives us to better our lives. In many cases, bettering our own lives can contribute to the welfare of others also, and that’s certainly no bad thing.

There is however a difference between being aspirational and being delusional. The former could involve wishing you could afford any meat at all, and the latter perhaps that you could persuade Floyd Shivambu to express himself using coherent and complete sentences. And it is of course possible to make significant distinctions in the realm of what we aspire to, in that it’s somewhat offensive to complain about your lot when you already have more than most could dream of having.

Blog awards, and the science & skepticism blogroll

A little housekeeping & paying of temple taxes follows. First, the 15th edition of the Carnival of the Africans is out, consisting of Blaize’s picks of the best scientific and skeptical blogging for the last few months. Second, the 2010 South African blog awards nomination process has begun. While it’s unlikely that anyone other than the usual suspects will win, if you’d like to participate in an attempt to buck that trend, go and nominate a blog (or a particular post) by August 27. Lastly, Michael Meadon kindly maintains a list of African scientific & skeptical blogs over at Ionian Enchantment, and I’ve pasted the current list below. If there’s a blog missing that you believe should be included, let him know (his email address is on his website).

To ask for evidence is not (necessarily) scientism

As submitted to The Daily Maverick

Respect is due to people, rather than to ideas. While it may be politically incorrect to say so, there is no contradiction between saying that someone has a misguided, uninformed or laughable point of view, and at the same time recognising that person’s worth or dignity in general. But our sensitivity to being challenged, and to having the intrinsic merit of our ideas questioned, often leads us to conflate these two different sorts of respect.

Respecting a person is partly a matter of not causing them unnecessary trauma through ridicule or contempt. It also requires not prejudging their arguments or points of view, but rather judging those arguments on their merits. But if it is established that those arguments lack merit (when compared with competing arguments on the same topic), there is no wrong in pointing this out. It is perhaps even a duty to point it out, assuming that we care for having probably true, rather than probably false, beliefs about the world.

Orthorexia, Pollan and fear of food

Originally published in The Daily Maverick.

As that master epistemologist (and occasional US defence secretary) Donald Rumsfeld reminded us in 2002, “There are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know.”
Some of these unknown unknowns are probably harmful to us, but seeing as we don’t know what they are, there’s little we can do to safeguard ourselves against them. But as my earlier treatment of the moral panic relating to DStv and porn implied, a known unknown (in this case, the harmfulness of porn) can be treated in two entirely different ways.