The Roman Philosopher Lucius Anneaus Seneca (4 BCE-65 CE) was perhaps the first to note the universal trend that growth is slow but ruin is rapid. I call this tendency the "Seneca Effect."
Showing posts with label Science. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Science. Show all posts

Saturday, January 29, 2022

How much does it cost to buy a scientist? Less than you would imagine, and it is perfectly legal

Not a long, long time ago, in a region not so far, far away, a private company decided to set up a CO2 extraction plant. The idea was to extract carbon dioxide from the ground and to use it to make effervescent soft drinks and things like that.  Yes, exactly the opposite of the "carbon capture and storage" (CCS) that we are supposed to do to combat global warming. 

When the story became known, the debate flared on the media. People and associations took sides against the new plant. The university was involved, and several scientists released interviews where they noted the contradiction of extracting CO2 instead of burying it. Fortunately, the public outrage was sufficient to force the regional government to stop the plan. The plant was not built and, with some luck, never will be. 

All is well that ends well, but there is a detail in the story that you may find interesting. It happens that I know very well the university of the region I am talking about. In particular, there was a faculty member, a geologist, who was supposed to be an expert on the geological properties of the area where the CO2 extraction was supposed to take place. He was a person who could criticize the story from a soundly based scientific viewpoint. But, during the debate, curiously, he remained silent. And, perhaps not so curiously, I discovered that he had accepted a research grant from exactly that company planning to extract CO2. 

Mind you, it was all perfectly legal and public: the grant was approved by the university's administration, it was legitimate scientific research, had no strings attached, nor it prevented the scientist from saying what he thought. And I am sure that the colleague who accepted that grant didn't think he was selling himself to a company: research was his job and that was what he was doing. But, of course, once you accept a grant from a company, it is hard to go public and say that that same company is destroying the environment. But since it was all legal and public, anyone interested could find out how much money the grant involved: about 25,000 euros. Yes, you can buy the silence of a scientist with that kind of money. At least in Italy, where researchers are normally poor and underfinanced. 

On the opposite side of corruption, I could tell you the recent case of a virologist who was initially critical of the government. Then, at some moment he told me that he was very happy because he had obtained a big research grant on vaccines. I don't know how much, but it was surely over one million euros. Curiously (not so curiously), he rapidly changed his position, becoming a supporter of the government's policies.

These are just personal recollections and have no value in statistical terms. But corruption in science is a well-known story, especially in medicine. You may know John Ioannidis's article "Why most published research findings are false." This title is a little hyped, but Ioannidis is one of the best-known and most cited epidemiologists in the world, and I think it is reasonable to believe that it is a valid statement in medical research. Read also Malcolm McKendrick's book "The Clot Thickens" and it will give you plenty of food for thought on how the pharmaceutical industry can pervert entire scientific fields. 

The two cases I am reporting may be two extremes of the same story. Buying a scientist or, at least, a scientist's silence, may cost anything between a few tens of thousands of dollars to a million and even more. It depends on the rank of the scientists and on the amount of money available. Surely, extracting CO2 is good business, but it does not involve such enormous budgets as those of pharmaceutical companies. Think that a company such as GAVI (Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization). It has a budget of several billion dollars to be used for no other purpose than promoting vaccines worldwide. You can understand how they can direct research in their field in certain directions rather than in others. 

Let me repeat, it is all perfectly legal. Not only it is legal, but all research institutions encourage their employees to get grants from private companies. And don't think that scientists pocket that money. That would be against their own interests. The grant money is mostly used to pay the overexploited and underpaid young scientists who actually do the research work. The boss is mainly interested in the "prestige points" that the research provides in order to promote his/her career. That does not exclude the possibility that a scientist could actually cash in by consultancies or shares in companies. I am sure it happens, too. 

That doesn't mean all science is corrupted. It depends on the field of study. For instance, climate science is nearly free from corruption, as far as I know. It is simply because studying climate does not involve selling products directly to the public. Of course, there is an active greenwashing industry that proposes bogus products based on the results of climate science -- the hydrogen lobby is a good example. But it is not equivalent to the pharmaceutical industry in terms of sheer lobbying power and, besides, they have no direct economic interest in corrupting climate scientists.   

At this point, I am sure you want to ask me, "Ugo, aren't you a scientist, too? Are you corrupted?" I am a normal human being and if someone were to offer me a million dollars for my silence (or worse) on some scientific question, well, I am not sure of what I would do (Mr. Gates, are you reading this blog, by any chance?). Fortunately for my soul, for most of my career I have been working in a field that was free from corruption: materials for the aerospace industry. There, you are not supposed to sell hyped products to a gullible public. You work with things used on real planes that carry real people around. No propaganda tricks allowed: planes must fly and no plane ever could fly just because propaganda said it could. Maybe I should have become a virologist, but it is a little late for me, now. 

This said, it should be clear that we have a big problem of corruption whenever science deals with something that is sold to the public and provides large profits. Not just big. It is enormous. Things have changed a lot from when scientists could win their battle against a powerful industrial lobby. The story of how the Tobacco industry lobby was defeated in the 1950s and 1960s looks like a fairy tale, today. 

So, why this disaster? In many ways, it is the result of misguided policies aimed at improving efficiency, a rush to create a more and more competitive environment in scientific research. The best scientists are supposed to be those who can publish more papers in reputable journals, but publishing papers is expensive, especially in reputable journals. So, the highest rank scientists are those who can collect the fattest research grants. The competition is truly brutal and you may imagine how scientists may be tempted to allow themselves a little leeway with truth in exchange for resources to carry on with their work. 

So, having a Ph.D., or being a distinguished professor is no guarantee of not being a liar or, worse, a criminal. Yet, our public dialog is operating on the basis of exactly this assumption: that scientists are supposed to be honest because they are scientists. Unfortunately, this is not the way the real world works. 

Remedying this disaster will take a lot of time, and "Science" may never recover from the blows it has taken with the recent events. As a general comment, in the following, I am reproducing an article by Stefano Carusi, a theologian. Mr. Carusi's views of what science is are clearly limited. But it is an interesting document on how science is seen from the "outside." If Carusi misunderstands science the way he does, it is a fault of us, scientists, not of his. 

And Carusi clearly understands where the real problem is: it is a moral problem. If you prefer to use another term, you can say it is a question of integrity. It is the same thing. This text is worth reading for everyone, even just for this paragraph:

...... the reliability of the witness in this matter is capital. Therefore, since there is no evidence, for the one who, like Aristotle, keeps his feet on the ground and wants to make a morally good choice it is also necessary - and it is truly "scientific" - to ask: is the witness interested? Has he shown me in full the studies that led him to such conclusions? If he were to argue the opposite thesis, would he be kicked out of the university or his job? Is he proposing as "certain" what is in still "uncertain", therefore he is intellectually dishonest? Is it possible that some scientists, even if they are numerous, can be conditioned, especially if considerable interests are at stake, or succubi of power? Have there ever been repressions that may have conditioned the freedom of the scientist? Is the so-called consensus of the "scientific community", especially if the study is in its embryonic stage, real as a result of unimpeachable studies, or is it also the result of those who control the "emotional consensus of the masses"?

The Morality of "believing" scientific data

By Don Stefano Carusi, January 17, 2022

"I believe in science", "you have to believe in science", are the phrases that resonate today at every turn to request or justify their aprioristic assent to a set of "scientific" data, including those that sometimes can not be known except by very few experts and perhaps with certainty even by them. As a matter of fact, today we are witnessing, on a background of stratospheric interests, the fusion of a supposed "Faith in Science" with the emotionality wisely led by the Media, which in turn is given a blind assent. And it is precisely that same media consensus, which does not spare the use of hysterical irrationality, to invoke incessantly the coverage of "science" in which "we must believe". The same sophisticated people who had taught us until recently that "Science" (the one with a capital letter) excludes any belief, least of all in God, tell us today that we must "believe in science" and some ecclesiastics have even arrived to say, in the prevailing subservience to worldly powers, that it is a grave sin not to obey the current theses of "science".

How is it possible that scientism of rationalist matrix is marrying so well with the emotionality of immanentist inspiration and therefore very little "rational"? The profound reason for this marriage lies in the death of the philosophy of reality, that of common sense on which classical metaphysics is based, and in scientism which, after all, since its birth, needs to survive immanentism, that is, a fervent activity of the ego, creator of reality, which replaces metaphysics by reinventing reality, perhaps using mathematics where mathematics does not have much to say. It is in this way that the connotations of scientism become those of a real religion, a religion revealed in addition, certainly not by God, but by the organs that "reveal" the correct thinking, demanding assent and creating consensus. This process, which is logically anti-scientific, deserves a long study, in this article we focus for the moment on the almost dogmatic assertion "I believe in science" and its moral implications.

I believe...

First of all "I believe". What does "believe" mean? Remaining at a natural level and without wanting to enter into the discourse on infused faith that is not our object, we can say that "to believe" means to submit the intelligence to an object not evident in itself or evident in itself, but not to the one who believes.

To make some examples we can think about our date of birth, my mother has evidence that it happened on January 3rd, I do not. I believe her word because she knows that with certainty and I am sure she does not deceive me. This certainty is called "evidentia in attestante". I trust the one who attests, who has direct knowledge and evidence of what he says. In the scientific field, this type of assent is the one that comes from those who believe a scientist who has done an experiment that with absolute certainty has given a result, an evident and certain result for the scientist, but not for the student who "believes" him, because he "has faith in him", in this case prudently. Different is the case in which there is no certain evidence even from the scientist who studies, in that case, the certainty decreases, because the "evidentia in attestante" is missing. It is the case, for example, of what is at the center of the earth, a fact that is not evident to anyone and will not be for some time. If I affirm that there is an incandescent nucleus I do it out of faith, natural faith in a scientific hypothesis that, present in all school books, has become "consensus", perhaps even credible, but that remains a hypothesis for the scholar who has invented it and who believes in it, not for "science" in the strict sense, as we will see. An assertion that remains hypothesis for the scientist and for the student who has decided to believe it. In this case, compared to the previous case, the acts of faith are at least two, the first is that of the scientist to his own theory - be it well founded - the second is that of the student who in turn believes the scientist. If there is a chain of intermediaries, acts of faith multiply. If then all a "scientific community" decided to believe to the hypothesis not proved by anyone, there are as many acts of faith as scientists "believing" to the incandescent nucleus that no one has ever seen, nor drilled with coring experiments, but only hypothesized because of some "effects". Here, for completeness, it should be remembered also a phenomenon that has very little that we can define as "scientific", in fact the claim of scientism to give answers to everything suffers from having to remain silent on fundamental issues, so in front of some mysteries of nature not yet clarified prefers to have faith in a hypothesis and if necessary to standardize the consensus of faith. A bit like some scientists admitted some time ago: "We must believe in Darwinism - even if the evidence is poor - because otherwise there is nothing left but creationism", but since the Creation is a "heresy" condemned by their dogma, we can not even think about it ...

Simplifying we could say that when I do not have evidence of a hypothesis that I have not seen, known, studied and demonstrated personally, when I do not have therefore direct access to the veracity of such statement, I can choose to "believe it". It is not obvious for my sense to believe it, but my intelligence, most of the time because of the authority and the truthfulness of those who propose me to believe such a thing, for an intervention of my will, submits and says - without having evidence or without having demonstrated - "I believe", "I believe you", "I believe". Believing by natural faith, placing faith in such a witness who tells me something that is not evident to me, is a process that is not only legitimate but necessary to daily life and praiseworthy, if prudent, just as it would be absurd to verify every time with chemical analysis what I buy from the baker: I trust him to be trustworthy both because he knows what he has put in the bread and because he has always acted well and without deception. The reliability of the witness is obviously a fundamental premise of a belief in every field, including the "scientific" one. science"

What is meant by "science"? For Aristotle, who starts from the so-called "philosophy of common sense" (see "For the revival of perennial philosophy"), science is the certain knowledge by means of the necessary cause. Science means knowing the proper causes of things. In a judgment of science therefore properly so called one does not "believe". One does not believe because either one has immediate and evident perception of the truth or one has a rational demonstration that excludes all doubt. I know through necessary causes, I know that that a thing necessarily is the cause of that other thing and not of another. In this case, we speak of science proper, not of faith. I know, I do not believe. Although not excluding different levels in the rigor of the demonstration according to the different fields, in Aristotelianism the properly scientific procedure is when from a known thing I come to the knowledge of another thing that before was not known to me and I know the relationship of necessary cause-effect between the two things.

For the vision of some moderns, but it would be better to say for the nineteenth-century scientist positivism, largely outdated, but hard to die in its rhetoric, science is only the description of phenomena through the so-called "scientific method". That is, wanting to reach objectivity, once a phenomenon is observed we try to create a mathematical model that describes the operation of the phenomenon under certain conditions, then we go to verify this model with experiments to verify its validity. It is clear that such "scientific knowledge" is not an object of faith. I do not believe it, I demonstrate it. No one disputes that it is true, it is only disputed that given the "mathematical limits" that is imposed, underestimates too much the abstract capabilities of human intelligence in front of other types of knowledge and, being "laboratory science", it is valid only when certain precise conditions can be reproduced.

It is true, however, that not all sciences, while remaining true sciences according to their graduation and in relation to their object and method, are attributable sic et simpliciter to the evidence of truth or to the necessary rational demonstration, as Aristotle would say, or to the experimental scientific method with its reversibility of verification, reproduction in the laboratory, linearity and clarity of the use of mathematics, as the scientist would say. Not only the same modern experimental physics reminds us today that we cannot know directly many phenomena, but only describe approximately their effects (think of the description of the behavior of the electron), but there are sciences such as experimental medicine and biology, for example, which can not be handled only with criteria of necessity of the conclusions. In fact they are not able to trace the "causes" of all "effects" and often they can only hypothesize, without being able to "reproduce the phenomenon" also because it has often too many "variants". There are more plausible explanations, so when we are in the need to choose or to build a system of study, can also legitimately intervene in the process of study the statement "I believe". It can intervene precisely because there is no absolute science in the sense described above, and it is also necessary to assume in specific cases the assent of "I believe". This is not at all uncommon in this type of study, since in order to proceed it may also be necessary to assume a truth. In such a case it is "an active attitude of the mind that formulates to itself the adhesion given to an utterance, where one or other of the elements required for scientific knowledge is lacking", that is, it lacks precisely "perfect certainty, which excludes the risk of error" and lacks "evidence, capable of imposing itself on all minds "(1).

Therefore we repeat what happens: "the mind formulates to itself the adherence to this statement", in other words, "it believes it", the process is therefore internal to us, it is not an unquestionable constatation of certain facts totally external to the ego. So the more it is necessary to claim that "we believe in science" to defend the given opinion, the more we are stating that the thesis does not enjoy at all the scientific certainty properly said, that is the knowledge through the necessary causes if we are Aristotelian or the verification with the scientific method if we want to limit ourselves to the old positivist model. In both cases, having to say "I believe in science" means to affirm that the certainty that one has in other fields of science is lacking.

The assent given in such a case "expresses a choice between possible affirmation and negation, or between several possible statements". It thus becomes forcibly the voluntary choice of an opinion. Let us emphasize that voluntary does not mean arbitrary, but that the intelligence alone, in this case, is not simply ascertaining an evident truth, but the will must intervene, which, having evaluated a set of factors, makes its free choice in a sense. And this is because we are in the field of belief-opinion, which "involves for itself the risk of error, insofar as it is insufficiently founded from the experimental or rational point of view, and this risk is necessarily recognized by the one who opines. "(2) One must therefore recognize this, not lie to one's intelligence and admit the non-obvious nature of the statement.

Morality of "believing" scientific data

Even in the "scientific" field, therefore, it is often a matter of the opinion of such and such a scholar, who - if he is honest - must admit that he himself made a voluntary choice in favor of an opinion, even if it is the most probable; The scholar's opinion is then proposed to the person who, not having directly studied the hypothesis, can in turn (not being a dogma of infused faith necessary for eternal salvation) choose whether to believe or not, based on criteria that rest on the competence of the discoverer, on the intellectual honesty shown during his life and also on his economic disinterest, on his immunity from the logic of career, prestige or blackmail, all factors that increase its credibility.

And this because the reliability of the witness in this matter is capital. Therefore, since there is no evidence, for the one who, like Aristotle, keeps his feet on the ground and wants to make a morally good choice it is also necessary - and it is truly "scientific" - to ask: is the witness interested? Has he shown me in full the studies that led him to such conclusions? If he were to argue the opposite thesis would he be kicked out of the university or his job? Is he proposing as "certain" what is in still "uncertain", therefore he is intellectually dishonest? Is it possible that some scientists, even if they are numerous, can be conditioned, especially if considerable interests are at stake, or succubi of power? Have there ever been repressions that may have conditioned the freedom of the scientist? Is the so-called consensus of the "scientific community", especially if the study is in its embryonic stage, real as a result of unimpeachable studies, or is it also the result of those who control the "emotional consensus of the masses"?

These questions certainly can not enter into a "mathematical model" or an "index of positivity", but they are truly scientific because my knowledge through the causes, if it must "believe" a scientific fact, must also question the credibility and therefore the disinterest of the witness. Only in this way will my act of believing be prudent. What has been said - for those who have remained anchored to the realist philosophy and do not dream of a scientific knowledge that has answers to everything and immediately in the form of an algorithm - is even more true in the early years following a discovery. Particularly in medical experiments, remembering that our knowledge of the functioning of the human body has limits, let alone the immune system. Some discoveries acquire if not absolute scientificity, at least more credibility when they have been screened by time. My "faith" is not in science - which means nothing - but in that specific medical treatment now established because it has borne good fruit in the long term, has also become over time "reasonable faith". Or even "so reasonable" that it would be even imprudent not to believe in it because of the many confirmations received over the years. But the contrary is also true: from a moral point of view it could be seriously imprudent, and it could also be a serious sin of credulity - if there is full warning - to give one's assent imprudently, that is without the necessary verifications. Especially if we have roles as scientists, doctors, or rulers, with serious responsibilities on those who listen or obey us.

In conclusion, I can believe in this or that scientist for well-founded reasons and not emotional or convenient, but to say "I believe in Science" means nothing. There is not a belief in Science, there is a possibility to attribute lesser or greater credibility to a scholar or another regarding a specific statement. The rest is only that irrational emotionality intimately connected to the above-mentioned nineteenth-century positivist scientism, which, having repudiated the classical metaphysics, when lacking certainties tries to impose them "by majorities" real or fictitious.

1 R. Jolivet, Psicologia, Brescia 1958, p. 569.

2 Ibidem.



Monday, December 27, 2021

The Rise and Fall of Scientism. Do we Need a new Religion?


What is religion, exactly? Hieratic monks singing their hymns? Fanatics performing human sacrifices? Old ladies praying the rosary? Pentecostals speaking in tongues? It is all that and more. Religions are not old superstitions, but part of the way the human mind works. They are communication tools designed to build empathy in society. 

You surely noted how a new religion is being born right in front of our eyes. It includes a complete set of sacrifices, rituals, canons, saints, prayers, and competition of good and evil. It does not officially include the belief in an all-powerful God, but it worships an abstract entity called "Science." We may define it as "Scientism."  

I am not a religious person, not normally, at least. But I recognize that religion can be a good thing. It is a life hack that gives you a moral compass, a code of behavior, a social purpose, a dignity, and support as you go along the various passages of life. For some, it also provides a path to something higher than the mere human experience in this world. So, I am not surprised that many people have embraced Scientism with enthusiasm. 

The problem is that there are evil aspects of religion. Witch hunts, human sacrifices, fanatic cultists, the Spanish inquisition, suicide bombers, and more. Even moderate religions, such as Christianity, can be perfectly evil when they try to scare you into submission, or use force or deception for the same purpose.

So, what kind of religion is Scientism, good or evil? It may be both as it keeps changing and adapting to an evolving situation in which humankind is facing enormous challenges, from resource depletion to ecosystem collapse. Scientism may be understood as a desperate, last-ditch reaction to these threats, but it may well worsen the situation. It is normal when humans try to control complex systems. 

In the following, I propose to you my thoughts on this point. Sorry that it is a long story (some 5000 words). I am also sorry that it is focused mostly on Christianity in Western Europe -- it is a subject I have studied in some detail and I will use ancient Roman history as a mirror in which to see our own future. But I do believe that what I propose is valid also for other regions and other religions. 

1. Christianity: the first universal religion

In 250 AD, Emperor Decius issued a law that obliged all Roman citizens to make public sacrifices to the traditional Roman deities, including the Emperor himself as a living God. Refusal to do so enticed stiff penalties, even death. The government spared no effort to make sure that nobody could escape. The sacrifice had to take place in the presence of witnesses and a public officer would issue a "libellus," a certificate attesting that the sacrifice had been performed. 

We have a detailed description of these events from Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage, who tells us in his "De Lapsis" how the Roman authorities played on the responsibility of the Romans toward the state and their fellow citizens. This tactic of persuasion had a certain success: many Christians lapsed into idolatry rather than face death or ruin. But but some resisted and offered their lives as martyrs (witnesses) of the Christian faith. Cyprian himself was martyred in a later persecution ordered by Emperor Valerian (*).

At that time, the Roman state was still able to impose its will by brute force, but that did not last for long. Decius' reign lasted just two years. Later on, Valerian was captured in battle against the Persians  and it is said that he was used as a human footstool when the Persian Emperor Shapur 1st mounted his horse. A few decades later, the Roman Empire was ruled by a Christian Emperor.

If Christianity was so successful despite the effort of the state to stamp it out, there must have been good reasons. It was, mainly, because it was the first truly universal religion, at least in the western side of Eurasia (on the other side, Buddhism came centuries earlier). Before Christianity, there had been nothing like that: the term "religion" was applied mainly to cults of local deities. 

During their expansion phase, the Romans were playing the syncretism game, a term that implies combining different beliefs and mythologies. That is, by the way, the probable origin of the term "religion" that comes from the Latin verb ligare, meaning "tie together." The Romans dealt with the cults of conquered regions by asserting that the divinities worshiped there were the same as in Rome, except for having different names. So, the Greek "Zeus" was supposed to be the same entity as the Latin Iovis (Jupiter), and they went on matching every foreign divinity with its Roman counterpart.   
For the Romans, religion was no marginal element of their culture. They attributed their successes to their proper behavior and reverence toward the traditional Gods: it was the concept of "pietas." So, it was important for everyone to perform the sacrificial rites and refusing to do that was a serious crime. Cults that were seen as incompatible with this view were considered evil and suppressed, and their followers could be exterminated. That was the destiny of the Druids, for instance, accused of performing human sacrifices by Roman propaganda. The early Christians were also seen in this way, including the usual accusations of human sacrifices and cannibalism.
The Roman approach to religion worked reasonably well up to the 1st-2nd century AD, when the Empire started to show signs of decline.  As it is typical in all declining societies, the result was to attempt to solve the problems by using more of whatever had caused them. Religious rites became more and more focused on supporting the state. The Empire was gradually turned into a military dictatorship dominated by an elite concerned only with keeping their wealth and their power at the expense of everyone else. 

Christianity arose as a response to these totalitarian trends. It was an attempt to protect the poor and the dispossessed by giving them the dignity that comes from being members of the ecclesia, the community of the faithful. That surely was a highly subversive idea. Christians claimed that the Emperor was not a god and that even the Emperor had to submit to an all-powerful supernatural entity: the Pantocrator, the creator and the ruler of the universe, the one and the only God. 

In a certain sense, Christians were trying to use the holy books, the Bible and the Gospels, to impose what we call today a "constitution" on the Roman state. While God was theoretically even more powerful than Emperors, at least he was not mad, cruel, or a pervert, as many emperors turned out to be. God was good by definition and, later on, would be characterized in Islam as benevolent and merciful.
Countering the excessive power of the Roman elites was a badly needed idea, but not easy to put into practice. Against the repression of the Imperial police, a powerful God was needed, a pantheon of many deities just wouldn't have worked. The Stoic philosophers of that age had been already playing with monotheism, but never tried to transform it into a mass phenomenon. Christianity, instead, did exactly that. It was a triumph of social engineering performed by a single man: Paulus (Saul) of Tarsus. 

Paulus was a Jew and he created Christianity as a sort of "Hebraism light." As many religions of the time, Hebraism was not universal: it was the religion of the people of Israel who had entered a covenant with their God. But it was a special religion in its claim that there was only one God and that all the others were illusions or evil spirits. Paulus' genius was to pivot on the Jewish religious tenets to promote monotheism as a form of universal religion. Christianity could be embraced by anyone, independently of their ethnic origin. Paulus also eliminated several of the requirements of Hebraism: Christians did not need to go through the painful and risky ceremony of circumcision, nor they needed to respect special dietary rules. 

Once created, Christianity became a powerful social tool. Not only it could oppose the excessive power of emperors, but Christians could create low-cost governance services exploiting their capability of creating communities on the basis of shared beliefs rather than on law enforcement. Even after the collapse of the Empire, Christianity maintained an organization that mirrored the disappeared state: the Pope was the equivalent of the Emperor, Bishops played the role of the bureaucrats, the clergy were the army, and so on. 

Christianity continued to dominate Europe throughout the Middle Ages. It started waning with the Renaissance, when the European governments found that it was an obstacle to their plans of worldwide expansion. The "controversy of Valladolid" saw European states and the Christian Church fighting over the status of Native Americans. States wanted them as slaves, the Church as devout Christians. The Church won the debate, but it was a hollow victory. It started an irreversible decline of Christianity that continues to this day, when states seem to have decided to replace it with scientism -- a new secular religion that dispenses with many details, including "God." It is a long story that needs to be told in some detail, starting from understanding what exactly "religion" is.   

2. Religion as a Technology for Large Scale Empathy Creation

The interactions among humans are based on "empathy." It is a wide-ranging concept that includes many facets of human behavior but, in any case, without empathy, humans cannot work together and cannot accomplish anything. Chuck Pezeshky gives us a basic definition of empathy:
[Empathy] is a stacked, nested complex phenomenon. It’s not simply ‘feeling’ for someone, or even worse, ‘feeling sorry’ for someone. That’s sympathy. And it stacks through our automatic, emotional and cognitive centers. Empathy, and how it manifests itself, is THE information coherence function for humans, and consequently, social networks. It, dependent on the level of development of the individuals, is the nuts-and-bolts of how the collective over-mind functions. 
Pezeshky lists five levels of empathy, from the lowest ("automatic") to the highest ("immersive"). The lowest level has military overtones of obeisance to orders, you do what you are told to do, or what you see others doing (marching in goose steps, for instance). The highest has some aspects of communion with others at the same global level -- you do what you think is good for everyone to do. 

These are interesting elements describing how humans interact with each other. But there is a basic requirement implicit in all these levels: empathy is possible only as long as people can understand each other. For that, they need a common language. 

The problem is that language is a local tool or at best a regional one. In ancient times, if you walked just a few hundreds of miles from where you were born, you would find yourself surrounded by people who couldn't understand a word of what you were saying -- and the reverse was also true. It was a problem known from the time of the tower of Babel. 
Now, how do you build an empathic feeling with people whom you cannot understand? Not easy, and it is no wonder that the ancient termed all foreigners as "Barbarians," meaning those people who speak "bar-bar," nonsense. 

Barbarians can be fought, kept away, or killed. But it is also true that a living follower is worth much more than a dead enemy. So, the problem for kings and emperors was how to rule over people who didn't understand their language. It is the problem of governance that we might consider as a state-wide form of empathy. 

One possibility for large-scale governance is to use international "trade languages," such as the koinè of the ancient Mediterranean region. These languages are powerful networking tools, but it is expensive to train people in a language that is not theirs and that most of them won't ever be able to master completely. And it is not easy to build a high-level, empathic relationship using a language that you don't master as well as a native speaker.

A solution to bypass the problem is to use non-vocal communication methods. It is a very ancient idea: if you find yourself surrounded by strange people who don't speak your language: what do you do? Before modern times, there were only two ways: 1) use gestures, 2) offer gifts. 

About the first possibility, gestures, it is remarkable how some forms of body language are universally known: a head nod, for instance, means "yes" practically everywhere in the world. From that, you can build entire languages based on gestures, as the Native Americans used to do. Of course, there are limits to the complexity of the message you can pass using gestures, but in some cases, a gesture may become a ritual

Think of making the sign of the cross: it is a simple gesture, but also a statement of what you are, what you believe, and to which group you belong. You can do that also dressing in a certain way, another form of symbolic communication. There is no specific reason why wearing a black shirt should define you as a "Fascist," but it is normally understood as exactly that. The same is true for a whole universe of flags, hats, lapel pins, and other dress accessories.  

A set of religious rituals is called "liturgy" from the Greek word leitourgia, which can be translated as "public service." Indeed, the key feature of liturgy is that it is public. It is an event where all the participants publicly declare that they belong to a certain social group and their adhesion to a set of beliefs. 

In a liturgy. it is not necessary for the faithful to know the language of the clergy and not even that of the other members of the congregation. It is enough to join with gestures and dances, and, in some cases, by chanting or reciting sacred formulas -- without the need of understanding them. Think of how, until relatively recent times, Catholic Christians would recite formulas in Latin during the mass, even though most of them didn't understand Latin. Liturgy may also involve complex manifestations of collective behavior, public prayers, abstaining from some specific foods in specific periods, performing sacrifices (meaning, "making sacred"), and more.   

Sometimes, liturgy also involves penance, a typical way to show that one is serious in proclaiming his or her beliefs. It may mean fasting, discomfort, or self-inflicted pain. It is typical of young religions when they face stiff opposition from competitors and from the state. The early Christians were sometimes asked to renounce their life to promote their beliefs. The early martyrs were a powerful factor in the diffusion of Christianity in the Roman Empire. 

In addition to liturgy, a religious group may develop a governance superstructure formed of the people who can understand the cult's sacred language: they may be called "priests," "imams," or "initiates". The result may be a structure called "church" (from the Greek term ecclesia, meaning the assembly of the believers). A Church is a more complex entity than religion and not all religions have it. Islam does not, but in some secular religions, such as Fascism and Communism, the Church took the name of the "Party."

These structures have been common empathy creation mechanisms over a few thousand years of human empire. The most diffuse religions in the world, Christianity, Islam, and others clearly state that all humans are the same in front of God and so they tend to generate a "horizontal" or egalitarian form of empathy. Not that the assembly of the faithful (the ecclesia) is truly egalitarian, but at least it tends to avoid excessive inequality: everyone is supposed to be equal in front of God.  

As you see, religions are complex and multi-faceted entities, far from being just old-styled superstitions. They respond to deep needs of humans to create empathy in complex societies. They are an innovation that appeared in history only in very recent times: just a few thousand years ago after hundreds of thousands of years in which humans lived in small groups of no more than a few hundred individuals. We are still trying to adapt to this new way of living, and religion may be a help or a hindrance. It is evolving with us all the time, and with the other complex entity that evolves in parallel: the state.  

3. State, money, and empathy

States and religions have similar aims, but different ways to put them into practice. Both aim at creating empathy-based governance systems. But whereas religion is based on liturgy, the state is based on money. 

Monetary economies and the associated states arose from the ancient tradition of gift-giving. With trade becoming widespread, metals started being used as a compact and portable form of commodity. We have evidence of metal trading as early as in the 3rd millennium before our era. From the 6th century BCE, coinage became a diffuse technology in Eurasia. "Money" soon acquired the form of standardized metal disks, gold or silver coins, with an impressed image that guaranteed their title and their value. These coins were a practical form of communication even among people who did not share a language. 

Already in ancient times, money and the state were strictly linked to each other. The state produced precious metals from mines and minted coins. The state also levied taxes, so it got back from the citizens the money it spent. It is the same nowadays, even though money is not anymore based on metals but it became "currency," an entity created by obscure virtual processes carried out by the "financial system" on behalf of the state. The triad of money, markets, and the state has been the powerhouse of human social systems during the past 5,000 years, and it still is. 

Spending money is the way to communicate to others your status and your power (nowadays,  it is called "conspicuous consumption"). The beauty of the idea is its universality. In ancient times, gold or silver-based money was recognized in all urban societies in the world. It made it possible for wealthy Romans to purchase precious silk from China (a habit that eventually ruined them, but that's another story). 

If we see human society as a complex network of nodes (single human beings) linked to each other, we can say that money is a "vertical" kind of empathy, that is a one-directional kind of communication where someone gives orders and someone else executes them. Money tends to generate a hierarchy simply because people have different amounts of it and those who have more money tend to rule over those who have less. Inequality tends to increase as states go through their cycles of decline (and, as Seneca the Stoic said: growth is sluggish, but ruin is rapid).  

Over history, young states tend to be strong and growing, and their rulers often think that they do not need a religion, except as an ornament to their glory. When these strong states enter into a conflict with a religion, the latter is nearly always the loser. The reason is simple: if you want to fight wars, you need soldiers. And soldiers need to be paid. So, you need money, and in order to have money, you need a state. It is the control of the money that gives the state its military strength. 

Religions are not so good at waging wars. From the time of the warrior monks called parabolonoi of the 5th century AD (those said to have killed the Pagan philosopher Hypatia in 415 AD) to the modern Japanese kamikaze pilots and Islamic suicide bombers, at best religions have been able to line up bands of aggressive fanatics, but nothing like a professional army. Even the Templar Knights, supposed to be elite warriors were easily defeated and exterminated by the king of France when he decided to get rid of them, in 1307. But there is no need for states to recur to brute force to subdue religions. Religious leaders are easily corrupted and turned into government employees. 

The interaction between state and religion goes through cycles of dominance and interdependency. When the state is strong, it tends to dismiss or suppress religion. When the state goes through a phase of decline, money is expensive to produce and, more than all, in order to work there needs to exist a market where those who have money can buy something. If the economy collapses, money disappears. And, with it, the state. Then, religion appears as a cheaper form of social networking and the state discovers that it needs to enlist it as support in order to survive. Over time, the state may become so weak that religion takes over as the structure that manages society. It happened when the Western Roman Empire collapsed. 

These cycles tend to repeat themselves and we may now be in a situation in which the declining power of the state generates the necessity of new forms of religions. The one that seems to be emerging out of the battle of memes is called "Scientism."

4. The rise and fall of Scientism

Scientism arose as a set of ideas related to the rapid economic and technological developments of the Renaissance. The founder is often said to have been Galileo Galilei, who found himself in conflict with the Catholic Church and underwent a minor form of martyrdom -- as it is fit to the founders of new religions. 

At the time of Galileo, during the 17th century, the Church still had the upper hand in the conflict, but things changed with Charles Darwin and his idea of evolution by natural selection, in the mid 19th century. Soon, European leaders found that a distorted version of Darwinism could be used to justify their worldwide dominance. The idea that Europeans were a superior race, destined to rule all the others grew into an official position of several governments during the 20th century, with some of them actively engaging in the extermination of "inferior races" and unfit individuals as an act of racial hygiene. Of course, Darwin never ever remotely intended his ideas to be understood in that way, actually, they are perfectly compatible with the Christian religious views. But that's the way the human mind works.

Scientism gained enormous prestige during the 20th century. Nuclear weapons became Scientism's paradigmatic divinities. The associated spectacular liturgy of powerful explosions menaced (and in two cases obtained) human sacrifices on a scale never seen before. In time, Scientism moved into an even more powerful set of rituals, those involving the modification of the very nature of human beings, also called "genetic engineering." 

Yet, up to relatively recent times, Western states maintained a dalliance with Christianity as their state religion. But things are rapidly changing as the Western states reach the limits of the natural resources they exploit. It is a condition that normally goes unrecognized, but its effects are clear to everybody. The increasing costs of exploitation of natural resources appear in the form of deep financial troubles. 

So far, the cure to the problem has been "fiat money," that, unlike precious metal coins, can be created out of thin air. We may be running out of minerals, but for sure we won't ever run out of virtual currency. The problem is that without a market, money of any kind is useless. And a market needs resources to be created. That's the unsolvable problem faced today by the Global Empire.

At present, money is being progressively siphoned away from the commoners to the elites, who still have access to a market and can continue playing the game of conspicuous consumption (very conspicuous, nowadays). At the same time, the number of those who have zero money, presently known as the "deplorables," increases. Lockdowns are used to give the surviving members of the Middle Class the illusion that they still have money and that it is just a temporary situation that of not being able to spend it. But a larger and larger fraction of the population is being pushed out of the economic system into a limbo in which they survive only as long as the elites are able and willing to provide doles for them. And nobody can say for how long.  

The ultimate inflation occurs when there is nothing you can buy, money simply ceases to exist (or, if you like, its value becomes zero). With it, there goes the "vertical" empathy network that keeps the state together. And the state disappears. We are not there, yet, but this is the moment in which the state desperately needs the support of religion. And it seems that Western states are dumping Christianity for Scientism, by now officially the state religion almost everywhere in the world. (**) 

Scientism has been so successful in this new role because the state has been using its brute force in the form of mass propaganda to exploit the basic characteristic of all religions: creating empathic bonds among people who don't understand each other's language. The complexification of society has created specialized fields of knowledge that use different, mutually incomprehensible jargons. Scientism links together all the resulting Babel under a single banner, "trust science." Reliance on the "experts" replaces the need for understanding different sets of ideas. 

The result is that the faithful are not required to know anything of the complex rituals performed by the adepts. In fact, scientists abhor the idea of "citizen science" and they tend to believe that Science must be left to scientists only. Lay people are asked to express their acceptance of the new religion by participating in a liturgy that involves jabs, face masks, social distancing, hand sanitizing, and more.

The new liturgy seems to have been remarkably successful: the faithful are genuinely convinced that they are doing what they do as a service to others. It is the magic of "horizontal" empathy. People like to help others, it is a built-in behavior of the human psyche that has been hijacked by the creators of the new religion. Scientism, as it is now, is a remarkable success of social engineering. 

Unfortunately for the promoters of Scientism, there are enormous problems with their idea. One is that it can be defined as a "granfalloon," to use Kurt Vonnegut's term for "a proud and meaningless collection of human beings." Even though many people see the new liturgy as a service for others, Scientism's rituals need to be imposed by the government by means of stiff penalties.  It is the same as when the Roman Government imposed sacrifices to the Emperor on pain of death. We haven't arrived at that for the disbelievers of Scientism, so far, but we are clearly sliding in that direction. 

A religion that needs to be imposed by force is doomed from the beginning. It means that it cannot create a stable kind of horizontal empathy" natural for human beings. You cannot create it on the basis of the idea that humans are filthy, germ-carrying bags, that need to be kept at a distance from each other or locked in cages. And masked people cannot really speak to each other, they are only expected to receive orders from above. It is a brutish form of "vertical" empathy, based on the powerful giving orders to the powerless.  As it happened at the time of the Roman persecutions of Christians, people may lapse into formally surrendering in order to survive, but they remain ready to toss away the veneer of political correctness on the first occasion. Scientism may be already starting an irreversible decline, pushed down by its own supporters who bombard people from TV screens with sentences such as "trust science." 

Another enormous problem with Scientism is that it requires years of training for the adepts ("researchers") to make them able to perform the complex liturgy required ("scientific experiments"), also because they need expensive liturgic equipment ("instrumentation"). The whole contraption is simply impossible to keep together in a society that's rapidly sliding down to economic collapse. 

The Catholic Church lasted for nearly two thousand years, Communism (that the Italian Catholic writer Lorenzo Milani termed "a page torn out of the Christian books") lasted less than a century. Will scientism last more than a decade? And if not, what will come afterward?


5. The future of religion

You see in the image a group of Italian workers in the city of  Trieste protesting against the restrictions imposed by the government, this October, before they were dispersed by the police using hydrants, tear gas, and sticks. Note how some of them were holding a rosary in their hands. Not usual for protesting workers, normally supposed to be godless leftists. But you see how things change: some old ideologies have completely lost their grip on the people they were supposed to represent and now we see old values and ideas re-emerging. This image shows how Christianity may return to its original form of a way to protect ordinary people from the excesses of a totalitarian government. 

Of course, at present, Western Christianity has taken a completely submissive stance in front of the onrush of the triumphing Scientism, but that may change in the future and there is evidence of the growth of a new strong opposition. It is the same for the other major world religions, Islam, Buddhism, and others. 

Then, there is the possibility of new forms of religion. Gaianism is a movement on the rise that includes some elements of ancient Paganism, and the same is true for the Wiccan movement. Right now, these are mostly intellectual fads. Especially Gaianism seems to be making the same mistakes that traditional churches are doing, that is subservience to Scientism. Unless we develop a strong and compelling Gaian liturgy, Gaianism risks becoming little more than a public relations agency for companies involved in greenwashing. Right now, Gaia works as influencer for an Italian chain of supermarkets. 

What we need is a higher form of empathy that involves relations not just among human beings, but among all living creatures as well. Maybe it could take completely and unexpected new forms: religion is, after all, is just a tool to attain empathy and enlightenment. So, could we perhaps revitalize Scientism returning it to its original meaning "natural philosophy"? Not impossible but not easy, either. Centuries ago, St. Francis tried to revitalize a corrupt Christian church by eliminate the very source of corruption: money. It didn't work, but today there are proposal to replace money with forms of "social credit" which are not controlled by the state, at least not directly. So, how about using Google to create empathy via social credit? Could the new religion be called "Googlism?" Who knows? At the very least, a religion should defend us, poor human beings, from the tiranny of governments. 

Or might it be that we could go along without any form of religion and be what we are and we have been over our history? Simply human. Imagine! 

h/t "Il Pedante," Chuck Pezeshky, Michael Dowd

(*) On September 13, 258, Cyprian was imprisoned on the orders of the new proconsul, Galerius Maximus. The public examination of Cyprian by Galerius Maximus, on 14 September 258 has been preserved.
Galerius Maximus: "Are you Thascius Cyprianus?" Cyprian: "I am." Galerius: "The most sacred Emperors have commanded you to conform to the Roman rites." Cyprian: "I refuse." Galerius: "Take heed for yourself." Cyprian: "Do as you are bid; in so clear a case I may not take heed." Galerius, after briefly conferring with his judicial council, with much reluctance pronounced the following sentence: "You have long lived an irreligious life, and have drawn together a number of men bound by an unlawful association, and professed yourself an open enemy to the gods and the religion of Rome; and the pious, most sacred and august Emperors ... have endeavoured in vain to bring you back to conformity with their religious observances; whereas therefore you have been apprehended as principal and ringleader in these infamous crimes, you shall be made an example to those whom you have wickedly associated with you; the authority of law shall be ratified in your blood." He then read the sentence of the court from a written tablet: "It is the sentence of this court that Thascius Cyprianus be executed with the sword." Cyprian: "Thanks be to God.”

(**) Note that scientism as state religion is the political opposite of "Technocracy." In a technocracy, science dominates the government but in this case the government dominates science 

Friday, December 24, 2021

Science, Forests, Bears, and Clouds

 From "Kelebek," Miguel Martinez's blog

by Miguel Martinez

Last night at sunset, a big chill, dark red clouds to the west. And the half moon, above the black cypress trees to the right, silhouetted against the fire of the dying sun.

Below  Bellosguardo, that silent little wall where sometimes a black cat walks, and to the left you can see the snow on the mountains, and, below, the city of the old enemy, Fiesole....

We go up towards Marignolle, and Marco recites to me the verses of the mad poet, Dino Campana:

To the ghostly garden of mute laurels

To the green garlands

To the autumnal earth

A final greeting!

Walking between the silent walls that hide the secrets of an occult city, we arrive at the villa of the ancient family.

From one end of the great hall, Abraham looks at us in an eighteenth-century painting, as he prepares to sacrifice Isaac; from the other end, the ancestor of the family looks at us in a portrait, and has the same beard and the same look (and faith) as Abraham. And between the two, the menorah, on the wooden sideboard that bears the date MDCXXXVII engraved on it.

We gathered to hear Anastasija Makarieva, black hair, almond-shaped blue eyes and high cheekbones, from the Institute of Nuclear Physics in St. Petersburg. An institution heir to that other half of the world, which not only managed to build Soviet atomic bombs from scratch, but explored worlds unknown to Westerners.

Anastasija (with the accent on the "i") doesn't deal with atomic bombs at all, but with forests.

We've all heard of the forests of the Amazon, but we never talk about the perhaps even larger ones that stretch from the Baltic to the Pacific.

Now, as an oriental language major who has a hard time telling an ash tree from an elm, who hasn't taken notes, and is going from memory, I'm going to try to report to you what Anastasiya said, any nonsense is just my own.

It is said that we are living an immense environmental crisis, linked to CO2 emissions with related global warming; and that we must therefore reduce these emissions.

Which however has a huge consequence: if the problem is too much CO2, we reduce CO2 even at the cost of an extermination, end of the problem. The war against climate change is all there.

The scientists in St. Petersburg do not deny the issue of emissions at all, but they say that there is another factor, which is perhaps even more important, that is leading us towards climate catastrophe.

If life exists, it exists because the biosphere exists; and the biosphere is intimately linked to something the Russians call the biotic pump.

Trees are apparently remarkably incompetent machines: they disperse 90% (I'm quoting from memory) of the water they absorb into the atmosphere.

But coastal trees catch what little water the sea sends down to the earth; they alone, through evapotranspiration, are able to make what by its nature goes down go up. Emitting not only water, but also other substances that allow the water to condense, they form clouds, and through various very complex mechanisms - which complement those known to meteorology - they create winds, which bring moisture inland.

And they therefore allow life on the continents, and generate rivers. So, life on earth depends on the forest world. But it's not enough to plant millions of trees at random, as the technogreens would like to do.

Anastasija tells us about the fir trees, planted en masse at the beginning of the twentieth century, in Bohemia, which today have been infested and destroyed in a short time by pests, because there is no variety; about the problem of coeval trees - the biotic pump really works only when there is the set of trees of many generations, with the whole surrounding ecosystem.

And an American artist listening to us tells of a friend of his, who in order to recreate a forest, very slowly took the humus of a still intact forest, with all its variety.

Siberia and Amazonia are the two forest poles of the world, in their immense diversity. But for some reason, the Siberia they're selling off to the multinational timber industry doesn't seem to interest anyone.

"I've only been to Siberia twice," Anastasija admits. "But every year my partner and I camp in a tent on the coast of the White Sea."

Once we saw a bear. From very far away... so we got closer.

We found him in front of us, and then I felt inside me, what the bear was thinking inside his head: the end had come!

He looked one last time at the sea, then turned around, trying to show as little as he could of his profile. And then suddenly, he gathered all his strength, and ran off into the woods!"

And she gives us the picture of the owl, seen in a tree far, far north, with which we open this story.

Friday, November 12, 2021

When Science Speaks in Tongues: The Unstoppable Rise of Gibberish


I have no objections to the idea that God (or the Goddess) can speak to people. And maybe the Lord really spoke to the apostles the day of Pentecost. But if you plan to fool other people, then "speaking in tongues" (known also as "glossolalia" in modern terms) can be a good idea. You start with uttering something that vaguely sounds like a language. Then you "translate" it into something that you report as the word of God. An easy trick that sometimes works. Even in science, some researchers seem to use this trick to gain academic points by publishing articles that contain mostly gibberish, or even only gibberish. We could call it "scientific glossolalia". 

You may have heard the recent news of 44 scientific papers being retracted from a scientific journal after they were discovered to be nothing but gibberish. The usual reaction in these cases is to speak of "a few bad apples." But this fraud exposes a problem that goes deep, very deep, in science. Science suffers from "glossolalia" -- a syndrome that makes people utter meaningless sounds as if they were speaking a real language. 

To start, "papers" are the main output of a scientist's work. It is the harsh law of "publish or perish," meaning that for a scientist publishing something -- anything -- in an academic journal is the first line of defense against being fired.  Even if a scientist has no money, no grants, no instrumentation, no ideas, they have to show that they are doing something. Woe betide the scientist who does not publish at least one paper every year! Anathema! Abomination! Horror! May you be eaten by the h-index bugbear who punishes those who sin so hideously against the sacred rules of science! 

But publishing papers has a problem. When scientists publish something, in a certain way they are showing their hand. Readers will be able to understand how good they are, how well they master their field, how much money they have to perform their research, and more. They may not want others to know that, especially if they have something to hide (almost everyone does, in this world). So, many scientists practice obfuscation in order to defend their turf.

So, scientists want to publish papers, but they may not want others to read them. A way to do that is to use purposefully convoluted language, eliminating all elements that would make a text interesting, turning it into the most boring possible kind of prose. The use of the passive form is a typical example ("it has been found that") instead of the simpler "we found that....". But there is more: for instance, why do scientists often sign their papers only with the initials of their first and middle names? ("J. I. Smith" -- does it mean "Jolly Idiot Smith," or what?). The idea is the same: to remove all hints of human interest for the text. 

By far the most effective strategy is to use obscure terms. Uncommon and archaic ones can do a good job of repelling readers. An example noted by Malcolm Kendrick in his "The Clot Thickens" (2021): why in the world would anyone write "pultaceous" instead of "pulpy" if not with the specific purpose of being obscure? But what makes a paper truly unreadable is the proliferation of acronyms. If you stumble on "GDAP," you have to decide which one of the 9 known meanings it can take (here, it is "Growing Danger of Acronym Proliferation").

So, you start understanding how the mechanism works. First of all, an obscure paper makes it difficult for the reviewers to wade through the text and, surely, they don't want to appear ignorant by asking what a particular term or acronym, or whatever means. Then, the paper may be full of mistakes, inconsistencies, shortcomings, and plain lies but, if it is really obscure, there is a chance that neither the reviewers nor anybody else will read it through and notice its shortcomings. It may even be cited, thus providing some extra points for the authors, by those who just read the title. Of course, it won't make the authors candidates for the Nobel prize, but it means some respite from the wrath of the scientific PTB (obscure acronym for the "powers that be").

From this point onward, it is just a small step for a desperate scientist to jump from simple obfuscation to straight fraud (and a big step backward for science as a whole). You have papers based on invented data, on shaky statistical methods, on groundless assumptions, and more. 

At this point, we should not be surprised that someone used one of those AI (obscure acronym for artificial intelligence) text generating programs to create from scratch completely meaningless papers. These programs are already impressive in their generic versions, but someone must have developed a specific version for creating fake scientific papers. Take a look at some of the 44 retracted papers, and you'll see how sophisticated the program that created them was. For instance, this one: you need to know at least something of geology to understand that it is a pure glossolalia piece. The author (the AI) is speaking in tongues. It is only because there are people who know these matters that the scam was detected. 

But how many scams of the same kind were NOT detected? Do you know that 2.5 million scientific papers are published every year in the world? Detecting those which are pure assemblies of random sentences may not be so difficult (AI may fight AI). But the truly horrible thought is how many papers are NOT glossolalia pieces, but are nevertheless unreadable, poorly done, wrong in their basic assumptions, using massaged data, arriving to unjustified conclusions, and more. In short, papers that are at best a useless waste of money, at worst scams engineered to support the dark purposes of some lobby acting behind the scene. 

Of course, not all science is like this. There is a fraction of scientists who are competent, sufficiently financed, safe in their positions, who create good science that advances human knowledge. How many? Difficult to say. Maybe there holds Pareto's law in the form of "80% of good science is done by 20% of the scientists." Or maybe we can apply Sturgeon's law ("99% of everything is crap") also in its strong form (99.9% is). 

The problem is that with less and less money available, science is more and more in the hands of underpaid and blatantly exploited people who have no perspectives for a decent career. Some of them may well be desperate enough to recur to fraud. Note also that it is a scientific law that entropy always increases, so how long will it take to transform science into a pultaceous mass of meaningless sentencesIn a previous post, I wrote that science may already have expanded itself beyond existence. 

Can this situation be remedied? Maybe, but that would need truly drastic actions to change at its basis the perverse mechanism of publish or perish. It is unlikely that the task will ever be undertaken by universities or by governments, or by the scientists themselves. Fortunately, the Seneca Cliff takes care of eliminating the EPCS (obscure acronym for the Entropy Produced in Complex Systems). It will do that for science, too. It won't be painless for scientists but another form of the principle of entropy is that everybody gets what they deserve. 


Monday, November 8, 2021

The Coming Age of Illiteracy: What Future for Science?

   One of the 16th century reliefs still existing at the monastery of "San Vivaldo," in Tuscany. It is an early example of a purely image-based communication: an attempt to tell complex concepts, the stories of the gospels, to people who couldn't read. It was a failure, but also a remarkably innovative approach. The time for image-based communication may return with the rapid loss of literacy affecting our times. The problem with this evolution is huge in science, with fewer and fewer people able to read the scientific literature. We are now depending on professional interpreters to tell us what "Science" is, just like long ago illiterate Christians were forced to rely on professional interpreters ("priests") to tell them what the scriptures said. The result is that Science is becoming whatever these scientific priests say Science is. And this is bad, although perhaps not beyond redemption. 

Let me start this post by citing a fascinating article written by "Marty Mac's and Cheese" I don't know who Mr. Marty Mac is, but he clearly has a remarkable cultural vision. He notes how Catholicism and Protestantism evolved along separate lines of thought. Protestantism was born as a literature-based religion: Protestants were "people of the book." Conversely, Catholicism catered more to the illiterate. 

You can see the difference in the respective churches: Protestant churches are normally austere, while Catholic churches are highly decorated and full of images. The image below is from Marty Mac's post. 

The idea of using a visual language was exploited in full by the Catholic Church. The multi-colored reliefs of the San Vivaldo monastery, in Italy, are one of the few remaining examples of the attempt to create a completely new visual language that would bypass the Babel of spoken languages that Europe was in the late Middle Ages. It did not work because of the development of the printing press and the gradual expansion of literacy in Europe. Universal literacy would not arrive before the 20th century, but already during the Renaissance, the European elites were able to read and write in their national languages. A text was a much more sophisticated and flexible tool than the reliefs of San Vivaldo, no matter how impressive they looked. 

But literacy is not a fixed concept. It evolves. Marty Mac makes some very interesting points about the transformation of literacy in our age. Even those who are still able to read, no longer have the ability to follow an articulate and complex discourse as one might find in a book of hundreds of pages, to say nothing of the 1400+ pages of the English version of the Christian Bible. The Protestant Church, nowadays, is changing as the result of this evolution. The Pentecostals are a manifestation of this trend with their spectacular services, people singing, "talking in tongues" and the like. They are no more "people of the book." 

I think it is worth reporting an extended excerpt of Marty Mac's considerations: remarkably sharp.

A mind trained with the written word is different from a mind without it. The organization of thought required for reading is very different from that in an oral environment. The differences come entirely from communicative form.

Oral communication is nearly always discursive. Even when someone gives a monologue, it is to an audience, which reacts (perhaps silently) and participates. But monologues are rare and nearly always have a particular social purpose: relating important cultural narratives, or persuading people or expounding to them from a position of authority (what the ancients called rhetoric). But discourse is more typical of oral communication.

Discourse is by its nature unstructured. When you speak with someone, the other person can disagree, change the subject, extend your thoughts in a new direction, or bring up something new. Discourse is extremely unlikely to follow a set of logical presuppositions and explore them all the way to their end. By its nature it jumps around, assembling different ideas from multiple people in a back-and-forth which may or may not represent a coherent whole.

None of this is bad. It is just the nature of having multiple minds in real-time communication with one another through the medium of linear speech. Valuable knowledge can be imparted and also discovered in this process. A single mind following a single set of logical presuppositions cannot arrive at complete knowledge. But oral communication is by nature unstructured.

Not so the written word. Writing forces communication to be continuous and follow some particular path. There is no interlocutor to correct, derail, or add to the argumentation. If discourse is by nature a hodge-podge, with different thoughts from different minds combining to make a gestalt, writing has the ability to unmask whether the thought itself, expressed in language, has internal coherence. The act of writing forces the writer to pay attention to this. The act of reading brings to the attention of the reader whether what is being said has structure and consistency. Literacy is an avenue to greater coherence and precision of thought.

Literacy changes the way people think, or rather it opens up a new manner of thinking. It doesn’t necessarily supplant the discursive oral communication (elite Ancient Greek society, existing on the bleeding edge of the novel technology of writing, considered both oral and written language, in their proper uses, to be learned forms of culture). However, literate cultures have different qualities from illiterate ones. This kind of research is inevitably controversial, but it appears to be the case that written languages (even when they are spoken) more frequently use conjunctions and have more types of conjunctions. Many languages around the world lack a word for ‘or’, not to speak of ‘however’, ‘nevertheless’, or ‘yet.’ You can get on just fine with no conjunctions, or with a smaller number of conjunctions, or just a single generic conjunction that means ‘mostly and.’ This should not be surprising. If language occurs mostly in a context of unstructured discourse, there is less need for lots of connectives that link one set of thoughts to the next (contrariwise, there is more need for discourse elements acknowledging and addressing the interlocutor!). The increased attention to internal coherence in writing seeps back into the oral language here it is in an unexpected way: a multiplication of conjunctions.

Complex mathematics do not arise in oral cultures. This is not to say oral cultures cannot do math — you can find oral cultures comfortable with surprisingly high multiplication baked into their number systems. However, no purely oral culture has developed algebra or complex geometry. This kind of lengthy, step-by-step algorithmic process is something our brains are not naturally very good at. We seem to require an external aid for structuring, in the form of writing, to jump-start higher mathematics. After people are taught step-by-step mathematical processes, they can become quite adept at doing (some limited amount of) math in their heads. It just seems to be true that to take that first step requires writing the mathematical formulae.

Literacy is not just a communicative tool, although it is that too. Literacy causes a shift in how people think. It enables and enforces certain kinds of structured thought and is a step away from the gestalt, ad hoc compositional thought of discursive or oral communication. We all begin our linguistic lives with only oral1 communication, and only later learn to be literate. Literacy is not a replacement for oral language: it is built on top of it, both historically and in each person’s personal development.

The loss of literacy skills has been impressive during the past few decades. I note that from my students. They can repeat what they read, or the notes they took in class. But in terms of understanding a complex matter, well, it is a disaster. I note the same trend with my colleagues. When I was a student, I was impressed by the ability of my teachers to go through complex mathematical calculations with just pencil and paper. Nobody does that anymore: when successful scientists need to make a complex calculation, they pay someone to do it for them

That may be just an impression of mine, but there is clear evidence that literacy is declining everywhere. We are losing what Marty Mac defines as "The kind of lengthy, step-by-step algorithmic process." In religion, it is the defeat of Martin Luther's approach, who had been maintaining that everyone should be able to read the Bible by him/herself. There follows that today in a sense we are all Catholic (or maybe Pentecostals). You may argue that this is nothing bad in itself. Indeed, it is not: it is just that things are different than they used to be, and that's the normal way the world works. 

The problem -- the very big problem -- is with science. Science normally used the Catholic approach, in the sense that ordinary people were not supposed to read the original sources in the scientific literature. That may have been the reason why scientific "papers" are normally written in an obscure and hyperspecialized language -- understandable only by those who work in the same field as the authors. Not just that, but scientific papers are inaccessible to the public, hidden behind paywalls for the profit of publishers. 

So, you need an interpreter, a scientific "priest" to tell you what "Science" (with a capital "S") says (Tony Fauci has reached the status of "Scientific Pope"). This is a disaster because the "scientific literature" is so huge that any scientific priest with a veneer of expertise in a certain field can claim more or less anything without too much fear of being contradicted, just because so few people can really understand that field. 

That does not normally happen with religions: Imagine that your local pastor tells you at the Sunday service that Jesus Christ recommended human sacrifices. You may not be a theologian but you know enough to suspect that something is wrong. That makes Martin Luther's approach viable: the Bible is a huge book, but its main points are understandable more or less by anybody. 

But when the director of the Center for Disease Control (CDC), Rochelle Walensky, tells you that "Masks can help reduce your chance of Covid19 infection by more than 80%" how do you react? Would you believe that she invented this number from whole cloth? 

Yes, she did. 

There is not a shred of evidence in the literature that face masks of any kind can attain that level of protection, surely not the kind of masks that people buy and wear. I can tell you that from my own analysis of the literature. You may also check the opinion of Vinay Prasad (Epidemiologist at the University of California San Francisco) and of many commenters to Walensky's tweet.

Fine, but why should you trust me or Prof. Prasad instead of Dr. Walensky? In the Protestant approach, you would check the literature yourself. But do you have the capability to look up the relevant papers? Do you have access to the literature without having to pay the exorbitant prices charged by scientific publishers? And even if you have the relevant papers, can you understand them, written in the kind of heavy, involved, purposefully obscure style, typical of scientific papers? And do you have the capability of filtering away the evident frauds resulting from corrupt scientists publishing to please their sponsors?

You see what is the problem. Science has become so huge that it has gone beyond the human capability to understand it. Outside one's hyperspecialized field, scientific truth has become little more than what you read in the slip of paper you find inside a fortune cookie in the Chinese restaurant. Maybe you read, "You have a secret admirer.” Oh, yes? And where does that come from? You are not supposed to know. It is the same problem you have when listening to your TV scientist appearing on the screen to tell you "wear a mask," or whatever. Where do those statements come from? You are not supposed to know that.  Science has expanded itself beyond existence. 


Now, pause for a moment to breathe after realizing that more than two centuries of scientific research have led us to a dead-end street. It has been said that a scientist is someone who knows a lot about very little and who aims at knowing everything about nothing. If we keep going like this, it is a prophecy that's going to come true. 

And now what? 

At this stage, the normal proposal is that we should do something to improve our schools and, in turn, that is supposed to improve the average literacy, scientific and otherwise. But the loss of literacy, in the sense of the capability of understanding complex texts, is probably irreversible. The idea of public schools financed by the state is modern: those schools have existed only for less than two centuries, from mid 19th century. They came into existence as tools for the linguistic and cultural homogenization of the newly formed nation-states. But, with the coming of image-based communication, mainly TV, they became obsolete. 

Things change fast in our world: in little more than one year, we saw schools turned from a central element of our society into dungeons inhabited by little plague-spreading monsters to be kept masked all the time. How our society could turn so nasty, so fast against its children was an unexpected confirmation of Seneca's observation that "ruin is rapid." But it is also true that ruin occurs when evil meets opportunity and there is no doubt that the powers that be were bound to discover, sooner or later, that schools were not needed anymore. Why spend money to teach people how to read and write? Just let them sit in front of the TV. 

History moves always onward and if this is what is happening, there is a reason for it to happen. Think that for most of humankind's history, spanning at least a few hundred thousand years, there was no such a thing as "written text." It appeared some 5000 years ago and up to very recent times, it was a skill of a tiny minority of people. We tend to see "universal literacy" as an achievement of our civilization. But it is not obvious that knowing how to read and write makes people better. You could argue for exactly the opposite (Verily I say unto you, except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven. Matthew 18:3). So, we are simply returning to something that was the normal way to be in earlier times, except that, by now, the exchange of ideas is done over the Web rather than physically face to face. Maybe it is an important difference, maybe not. We'll have to see that. 

In any case, Visual languages made a comeback, pushed by the new tool of Internet-based communication. We are not anymore limited to exchanging translated text: we have a wide variety of image-based communication tools, starting from the simplest "emoticons," smiling faces, and the like, to the capability of making elaborate video clips at low cost. This new range of communication tools was going to have a profound effect on the ways people speak to each other. And it is happening.  

And how about Science? Well, science has been an offshoot of our text-based civilization. As it is now, it does not serve a useful purpose anymore, having become mostly a money-making tool for corrupted people and corporations. It will change, too, not because we want it to change, but because it has to. Science will use a different kind of language, it will aim at different purposes, seeking different kinds of knowledge. But we will still recognize it for what it is, we humans were born to seek for the truth. And we'll keep doing that.