Monday, 24 September 2012

An apologia for the 'unreasonable' effectiveness of scientific principles

There really are people out there who think science is like any other belief system (ie, usually presented as in 'opposition' to christianity). This is to misunderstand science and off-handedly dismiss its role in the advancements in human knowledge over the three hundred years or so.

There is a wonderful article in the September 2012 issue of Popular Science magazine that features high school inventors that show why science isn't so much a belief system but a framework for understanding how the world works by way of scientific principles open to anyone willing to put in the time to try and understand them.

Among the ten high school students featured in the article, there is 15 year old Jack Andraka of North County High School, Glen Burnie, Maryland who invented an early cancer screening method:

Jack Andraka's pancreatic cancer test is 168 times faster and 400 times more sensitive than current diagnostics. To create his test, he coats filter paper with carbon nanotubes and antibodies. Mesothelin, a protein over-expressed in the blood and urine of pancreatic-cancer patients, binds to the antibodies. That pushes the nanotubes apart and raises the electrical resistance, which doctors can then measure. (p. 54, Popular Science, September 2012)

I'm absolutely sure that Jack, like the others featured in the article, is an examplar of a child prodigy, but his knowledge is not something random, mysterious or even a miracle. He's been able to put together materials, based on their chemical and structural properties (things he took the time to find out), and came up with a better method of diagnosis for pancreatic cancer.

Science is not a belief system like religions are; it is a way of understanding the workings of physical reality whose principles are simple and elegant enough for children to come to understand.


Saturday, 15 September 2012

The difference between 'critical' and 'analytical' thinking

I must admit outright that I have an addiction problem: I'm addicted to posting comments on the Huffington Post (Canadian edition). It was when a response to one of my comments on critical thinking came in that I was forced to think about the difference between 'critical' and 'analytical' thinking.

I said something to the effect that much of what passes for 'higher education' nowadays is actually now nothing more than glorified vocational training, that the diminution of what Northrop Frye calls the 'liberal arts' education has caused this general lack in critical thinking skills. A response to my comment inadvertantly confused the difference between 'critical' thinking with 'analytical' thinking, and it got me thinking.

As a linguist, analytical thinking is very important to me; but, it is critical thinking that is important to me as a political junkie. The difference is subtle but significant.

Analytic thinking is captured quite succinctly by Feynman (in classic Feynman facetiousness) who said that an 'elementary demonstration' has a quality that:

very little is required to know ahead of time in order to understand it, except to have an infinite amount of intelligence. (cited from a special issue of Discover Magazine, Discover Presents Einstein, 2009)

whereas, 'critical thinking' has some element of a willingness to question one's own and others' statements of opinion in the interest of clarity if not certainty:

Men become [more] civilized, not in proportion to their willingness to believe, but in their readiness to doubt. (H. L. Mencken) - editorial addition by me.

Critical thinking is not a necessarily a negative way of looking at things because one can be 'critical' without any cynicism behind it. Socratic dialectics is a perfect example of critical thinking in action. It is based on a set of principles of debate in 'good faith'.

Another way of distinguishing 'critical thinking' and 'analytical thinking' is that the former is an examination of opinions, and the latter is an examination of facts.


Monday, 10 September 2012

Lessons from Hillel the elder

I've always been fascinated by where ideas come from. As a reader for most of my life I consider myself fortunate for having the skill of reading and writing. I think my Inukness has provided me with a solid basis for being a reader/thinker because of the way IQ teaching is such that little or no commentary nor rote memorization is provided to encourage thinking/reasoning and reflection for oneself.

As a reader I've tried to cultivate a wide-ranging base as possible. When an idea grabs my attention I have to try and go to the source directly, and barring that I try and read up on the subject as much as possible. When I was in my religious phase I wasn't satisfied with only the Christian reading of the scriptures, I had to find out what the other religions of monotheism - namely, the Jewish and Muslim readings. I have an inclination for mysticism, and have always had ecstatic experiences and moments of epiphany. Because of my strong passions, it does not surprise me that some would say that I'm a bit insane.

As a mystic, I've sought out the experiences of others considered great in all the Muslim, Christian and Jewish faiths. One of these that I've always admired is called Hillel the elder (c. 110BCE - 10CE). He wasn't just a great Jewish teacher (helping create the ongoing historical discourse on the Mishnah (the compilation of legal opinions and debates) and the Talmud (the oral law of Judaism)) but also a great aphorist who is attributed with such sayings as:

That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation; go and learn.


If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And when I am for myself, what am 'I'? And if not now, when?

The beauty of the Talmudic commentaries is that it is not just about religous insights and commentaries - inlcuding almost every aspect of a Jewish life - but it also includes subject matter that would be considered 'heresy' by the other two monotheistic religions because no question is prohibited, and the seeking of its resolution is always done in good faith if at times cryptic and obstruse in their conclusions.

My admiration of Hillel the elder is that his aphorisms can often be applied not only to matters of faith but to other aspects of a life, including the political. As someone who's interested in the notion of 'self-improvement' - increasingly so with my mature age - I've tried to reflect upon the second Hillel quote: If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And when I am for myself, what am 'I'? And if not now, when?

It is an open question that takes a great deal of my time as a political commentator, and something I've tried to be cognizant of as an advocate for Inuit rights in my policy work when I worked in the field. In my natural state I'm really a timid and fearful person (especially in my youth) and it is this type of question that provides me the strength and chutzpah to challenge the 'ruling class' and the sometimes arbitrary and unkind bureaucracy which loom unjustifiably large in our lives.

It has been said that courage is not the absence of fear but doing something or standing up despite the fear. As with almost everything in my life I've tried to resolve my hopes and fears through informed reflection. I may not have always succeeded but it is the best way, in my estimation, to try and transcend my present circumstances.


Saturday, 8 September 2012

The reading of a text (or, the 'inner dialectic')

When Guns&Roses came out with their version of McCartney's song "Live and Let Die", many of the commentators/reviewers of the day were struck by how the emotive delivery of Axel's vocals changed the song completely (in their view) from the original. We were watching this morning a dvd documentary that my aippakuluk bought for us recently called, Pink Floyd: the story of wish you were here, where we heard some old out-takes of the song, "Have a Cigar", first with Roger Waters on the vocals then Roy Harper's version of the same song. Roger's vocals added a decidedly angry edge to the song, while Harper's version (the one that made the cut) sounded more ironical and derisive.

I'm not saying which I liked better in either of the two songs: "Live and Let Die" or "Have a Cigar" but what I'm trying to illustrate about what I wrote in my last blog entry about the 'inner dialectic' is that often the self-same text can be delivered, read, interpreted in more than one way. This is definitely not an original insight (and that is not my point) because poetry is notorious/famous for such openness to interpretation. But what I'm saying is that all text, in the end, has the same feature.

I remember years ago when I was a lay-reader for the church in my hometown where the minister and I were studying a biblical passage where the Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane asks if his disciples were armed and they say, yes they have one or two swords with them. He says something to the effect "that is enough", but the minister gave a reading that was entirely different from what I often took the passage to mean (ie, "good; that'll suffice") but a simple change in tone reads the Christ, instead of showing relief, is actually rebuking his disciples for their hypocrisy in claiming a pacifist stand but readily arming themselves in the face of a coming threat. Christ's 'turning the other cheek', though seemingly self-defeating actually saves his disciples' and the gaurds' lives.

One of my criticisms of aboriginal and inner-city public school systems is that the system has decided (though who actually decides these things is never made clear, not taking the system to task has the same effect) that the children in their charge (for real economic or long-standing political reasons) have not the "right stuff" to warrant a viable attempt at education.

I mean, the ability to read and write are not just ends in and of themselves but are actually a means to further ends. Literacy is less about reading and writing but more about the ability to read and interpret the world and ideas in a sense that the meaning of 'literacy' encompasses even the oral traditions, having the ability to partake in satisfying conversations, having the ability to communicate important facts, having the ability to express and articulate our humanity (our hopes and fears and insights, whether in situ and/or beyond). For this to happen, a liberal arts approach is key, even science and maths require this mentality (historic development-based pedagogy) to actually take hold.

Northrop Frye's distinction of "taking a subject" and being "taken up by a subject" seems a rather 'fuzzy' objective for measuring education, but as someone who knows that difference I think it makes a world of difference.


Friday, 7 September 2012

Dialectics and critical thinking

As an advocate for narrative-based education, my views on it are informed by what is called the 'dialectical method'. Among the great practitioners of the method, Socrates is the most famous but there is a long, long tradition of the dialectic method some predating Socrates. A Wikipedia entry says of it:

Dialectic (also dialectics and the dialectical method) is a method of argument for resolving disagreement that has been central to Indian and European philosophy since antiquity. The word dialectic originated in ancient Greece, and was made popular by Plato in the Socratic dialogues. The dialectical method is dialogue between two or more people holding different points of view about a subject, who wish to establish the truth of the matter by dialogue, with reasoned arguments. Dialectics is different from debate, wherein the debaters are committed to their points of view, and mean to win the debate, either by persuading the opponent, proving their argument correct, or proving the opponent's argument incorrect – thus, either a judge or a jury must decide who wins the debate. Dialectics is also different from rhetoric, wherein the speaker uses logos, pathos, or ethos to persuade listeners to take their side of the argument.

The Sophists taught aretē (Greek: ἀρετή, quality, excellence) as the highest value, and the determinant of one's actions in life. The Sophists taught artistic quality in oratory (motivation via speech) as a manner of demonstrating one's aretē. Oratory was taught as an art form, used to please and to influence other people via excellent speech; nonetheless, the Sophists taught the pupil to seek aretē in all endeavours, not solely in oratory.
Socrates favoured truth as the highest value, proposing that it could be discovered through reason and logic in discussion: ergo, dialectic. Socrates valued rationality (appealing to logic, not emotion) as the proper means for persuasion, the discovery of truth, and the determinant for one's actions. To Socrates, truth, not aretē, was the greater good, and each person should, above all else, seek truth to guide one's life. Therefore, Socrates opposed the Sophists and their teaching of rhetoric as art and as emotional oratory requiring neither logic nor proof. Different forms of dialectical reasoning have emerged throughout history from the Indosphere (Greater India) and the West (Europe). These forms include the Socratic method, Hindu, Buddhist, Medieval, Hegelian dialectics, Marxist, Talmudic, and Neo-orthodoxy.

Socrates had a real issue with the Sophists so it's not surprising that he regarded plain 'truth' superior and higher than the notion of 'excellence' (Gr. aretē), which, in the hands of the Sophists, became similar to our contemporary notions of strict legalism (ie, the use of clever staging and construction of arguments to get their way - much like unscrupulous lawyers who use technicalities rather than the spirit of the law to win their cases, or disingenuous pollsters/statisticians to try and influence human behaviour or further corporate agenda).

The dialectic method need not be strictly based on dialogue nor authoratative text. In fact, it can be used to formulate ideas and questions for further research or as an 'inner voice' to inform one's analysis and reflections on the reading of a text (interpolation/extrapolation of possible conclusions of any given statement). The most famous practitioner of this form of dialectic is Einstein.

Einstein's insights were often derived from his famous thought-experiments (gedankenexperiment), where he'd play with ideas and statements to test the truthfulness of them. But again, the important feature of this form of inner dialectic is the interpolation/extrapolation aspect rather than carrying a statement in extremis (literally, to the point of death) - which is often daunting to reconstitute into a workable reformulation (and reeks of the Sophistic technique, besides).


Wednesday, 5 September 2012

Hem-haw... that's not quite right

Sometimes I read literal Inuktitut translations of newspaper headlines that leave me hemming and hawing: 'no... that's not quite right'. Take the recent NewsNorth headline: Sea Ice Shrinking Fast which came out as Siku Mikillivalliajuq (literally 'ice shrinking').

I mean: sure, the ice can be said to 'shrink' as it melts, but a more precise translation should refer to the trend towards 'melting of multi-year ice': tuvatuqaq auppalliajummarik = 'multi-year ice quickly melting'.

I know it may seem nit-picking on my part, but I say this in the interest of providing as good an information to unilingual Inuit as possible. In terms of climate change discourse (both in the Inuit community and scientific/media) ensuring that translations are as accurate as possible will ensure misunderstanding is minimized (big and small) on all sides. IQ has much to offer because of its 'corporate memory' of climate and biological productivity information going back beyond living memory and this information can serve as part of the baseline data so it's important.

Besides, Inuit youth and younger adult Inuit have a great opportunity to learn 'new' old terms and save them from extinction.


Saturday, 1 September 2012

Th Grelling-Nelson paradox

The Grelling-Nelson paradox, according to the Penguin Dictionary of Mathematics (2008) is:

A paradox stated by K. Grelling and L. Nelson in 1908. An adjective is called autological if it has the property denoted by itself. Thus the word 'English' is an English word, 'short' is short, and 'polysyllabic' is polysyllabic. If an adjective is not autological, it is heterological. Thus 'German' is not German, 'long' is not long, and 'monosyllabic' is not monosyllabic. What of the word 'heterological' itself? Is it heterological? It must be either autological or heterological. (p. 201)

This, I think, is a similar type of problem in the Godel Proof that says that any axiomatic system will have the capacity to generate undecidable statements, and, the corollary, that the consistency of a formal system containing arithmetic cannot be proved by the said system.

Not being a mathematician, and only as a language analyst, I can say that the Grelling-Nelson paradox is rather Anglocentric, and a superficial one at that. And I've never been able to totally accept Godel's Proof for the simple fact that there are these things called "linguistic accidents" like little, green ideas dream furiously.

The Grelling-Nelson paradox is too highly language-specific to be a real paradox within a formal system. It does not consider the real possibility that a given language may have a completely different grammatical structure such that it invalidates their insights completely. For instance, in mathematics alone, one may denote extremely large and extremely small numbers by way of scientific notation: are these numbers autological or heterological? -the question is totally meaningless. In linguistics, the word 'English' may also be denoted as 'Anglophone'; is the word 'Anglophone' English?

If we accept that the word 'Anglophone' is English - and it means 'the English language' in many linguistics textbooks - how do we use the terms autological vs heterological in any productive way?

Now, the Godel Proof, I've read in many maths books that I own that there is often more than one way of constructing a proof. The great Gauss did it all the time where he'd reformulate a statement and his line of reasoning would come out more beautifully and elegantly than other people's proofs. Selberg did the same thing when he and Paul Erdős had a dispute over a certain proof where he was able to bypass Erdős' insight completely.

In the area of physics, it is said that Feynman had an unconvention take on physics, and as a kid he had his own notational system drastically different than the symbolism of maths.

These things are possible because a purely text-based critique (ie, mistaking the text for conceptual level structures) is just so replete with linguistic and logical pitfalls that are often more apparent than real.