There's nobody here but us chickens.

Sunday, April 17, 2005

Back from the Apple

Back from an engrossing conference in the bright lights of NYC, with much to tell, in and out. John was an obliging guide (finding Tibetan food and the first issue of the new Peter David run on the Hulk are laudable achievements) and we covered a lot of ground over the scant six days. Also slid to New Jersey to see family, whichwas great fun and threw the urban nature of the rest of the trip into sharper relief. Got to catch up with some of Disa's friends including an acoustic gig by Hannah, and I even spent some time in a genuine American ER room. Verdict? It was quicker than I was used to (then again, it was a Sunday night) though the staff were atimes hurried and impersonal. Plus it cost a wee bit more (versus nothing). I'll probably post some stuff from the conference at Mindhacks - probably a summary of the memory reconsolidation symposium. If I can figure out how, I might put my poster up here if it interests anyone.

Oh, I saw The Edukators yesterday and thought it was pretty good. What drew me to see it as much as its theme (political activist/pranksters in crime-gone-wrong predicament) was the fact that Daniel Brühl, who I had seen in the excellent Goodbye Lenin (playing an Alex, no less) looks uncannily like me. Apparently he walks like me, too... should I be worried? Or... should he?

Image, originally uploaded by Alex .

I have no recent photos, but compare to this , adding hair everywhere, and - well, not everywhere thanks very much - and you have as close to a match as I've endured.

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Playing cards for really tiny stakes

Yesterday marked my first visit to the Dana centre with my Audience Panel hat on (not as trendy as it sounds). The topic was nanotechnology with the format supplied by progressive economics foundation nef, in the form of their card game Democs - DEliberative Meeting Of CitizenS, apparently. I've been there only once before, for a discussion of measuring brain activity for lie detector purposes (we hit this topic at Mind Hacks); it's essentially a venue for public engagement with science, much like the presently dormant Cafe Scientifique at the ICA (however, it seems to have found a home at the Dana Centre, though quiet since January; check out your location to see if there is any action) and the nearby Darwin centre. In London you're well supplied for discussion and debate on science (why, not last month there was an illuminated talk by Messrs Stafford and Webb on cultivated perception at Foyles), but much of this depends on being in the know - the right mailing lists and so on.

This was the Dana centres first use of Democs, which is essentially a structured way to introduce information about a topic and have a discussion, and after the scheduled session those on the Panel were plumped into a focus group. Quick tip - if you're going to ask people to turn up at 6:20 and then end up keeping them til after 10pm, it would be nice to supply some food beyond olives and nuts, or tell them to eat first. Just sayin. On the focus group turns the future use of the game, so in some sense the future of public engagement with science, making what follows of breathtaking importance.

When we arrived the missus and myself were greeted and seated at a table with a bunch of other people; we were the only two with any priors, which could have been awkward if it were not for this stubborn flu (after 18 days I am entitled to call it that) rendering me impervious to social nicety. Drink orange juice, stare at pretty screens. The centre, which is an outgrowth of the British Science Museum, is a bright, flashy, multimedia bar, wherin organisers strut about in brittany-type headsets (strangely flesh-coloured, strikingly like face huggers in the moments where reality was flickering), but in a fairly accessible manner. It feels a little bit yo sushi, in the way that you could bring your folks there and have them bemused but impressed, rather than bewildered til they crack, clawing at their eyes as they stagger into the conforting outdoors. I know this is true because I have seen two sets of 'folks' through the experience without incident. That said, if that robot drinks waiter had appeared on the scene, it would have been touch and go.

The game, introduced at confusing length by the Head Brittany (HB), is all about arming people with knowledge about an issue and allowing them to discuss it in a safe space. The first part turned out fairly well. There was a short introduction to nanotech via HB and the screens, then after a quick riffle shuffle the first set of cards were doled out, each containing a key piece of info on the topic. Everyone at the table picked two cards to read out, and explained why they chose those. The rest went to the graveyard discard pile. It felt like a clever way to orient people to information, by making it interactive (rather than yet more facts over loudspeaker) and giving some direction through demanding selection of the best (by whatever criteria) facts; it also had a parallel role in icebreaking, as the whole group was forced through a process together, increasing cohesion, and had to back up their choices with reasons, revealing where each of us were coming from. For these reasons alone, the game as it stood showed enormous potential in facilitating genuine public engagement with a scientific issue that they could know little or nothing about prior to commencement. However, there were various issues that put the whole thing, well, out of whack.

The game did not lend itself well to discussion; in fact, it severely cramped it. Following the information round was an issues round, where in a similar fashion cards (this time denoting issues such as 'Who controls the uses of nanotechnology?' were distributed and each member spoke about two. This seemed to be the section in which debate and discussion ought to flow, yet it flat failed. The biggest issue was pragmatic; each section was on a fixed time regime, and we barely had time to read our choices out before we were cut short. This can be remedied, but for me more frustrating was the ground rules under which discussion must take place. The emphasis on a safe space, where debate (as opposed to consensus-forming) was actively discouraged, seemed to me entirely wrong-headed. It meant that the justifications for cards were weak and general- 'I think this is something we shouldn't neglect in this debate' and were never challenged, which left no obvious mechanism for winnowing down the multitude of perspectives supplied. Now, I think that discussion should have some kind of safe space in which to occur - I've written about it before, it underwrites the name of this blog, and some of my favorite sites (e.g. Obsidian Wings, Left2Right) enforce this with a resultant high calibre of discussion. Giving people time to speak, allowing quiet voices to be heard, civility, and the assumption that everyone is arguing in good faith seem to me entirely right and proper. (Of course, not everyone agrees.) But the use of counterfactuals, explicit disagreement, reduction ad absurdo or pointing to internal inconsistency seem to me worthwhile ways of challenging and developing opinion. These were approaches that the game did not give a space to.

To my mind this totally limited the utility of the game. The final stages wherein the cards preserved by the group were ammassed and sorted into different clusters was thought provoking but esperating, as no-one wanted to make too bold a decision yet there was no explicit accord on what was important, as we hadn't a chance to make a case and stake a claim. When we were then asked to quickly choose the cluster that the group agreed was most important, you could sense the shrug undulate across the table. This process did not yield that product.

So the game (as we played it) was flawed but certainly had its bright moments; I think it was an excellent way to introduce knowledge to a lay group and encourage participation between strangers. Within the focus group, various measures were suggested; one was the allocation of different story cards (expressing the situation and viewpoint of a relevant individual, such as a biomedic or a transhumanist) to different tables, as a starting point for debate; in our session the stories were simply read out back-to-back at the beginning, and didn't serve as more than a distraction. Another was fewer issue cards and more emphasis on debate from this stage (after the icebreaking), possibly applying these issues to the plight of the hypothetical character and building an argument pro or con. The main one was a lot more time, particularly by extending the game beyond the cluster ratings and final vote on opinions by encouraging people to stay on and debate at their table - in effect, that when the game ends the discussion really begins. Apparently our comments might lead to changes in the way it is used in future, which I would be very happy about. The evening was well worth turning up for (did I mention that, like most Dana Centre events, it's free?) and should you sit down for a game of Democs and it turns out rather well, just remember to thank me later. You're welcome!

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Book report

Currently reading The Screwtape letters while dipping into the works of HP Lovecraft. What with the ongoing and enduring cog-psych reading, I feel like C.S. Lewis is directly admonishing me when he writes [That devils] are equally pleased by both errors and hail a materialist or a magician with the same delight. Quick! Roll against POW! And remember that free will is an epiphenomenon. No good; I'm going to hell, twice.

I am enjoying Screwtape quite a lot, though. Written from the POV of a senior devil corresponding to a naive nephew, it attempts to expose what Lewis feels is worthwhile in Christianity, from the vantage point of the other side, seeking to undermine it. For a polemic tract, I enjoy the humour, notably in Screwtape's counsel against expecting too much benefit from the jingoism of war:
The results of such fanciful hatred are often the most disappointing, and of all humans the English are in this respect the most deplorable milksops. They are creatures of that miserable sort who loudly proclaim that torture is too good for their enemes and then give tea and cigarettes to the first wounded German pilot who turns up at the back door.
I'd certainly like to thing that this holds true, and of the Western world generally - that the discussions of torture that exhude from the internet (both extremists and legal experts) is just expension of hot air.
Yikes! On further reading, I find he actually names the type - materialist magician, who go in for this sort of thing. Consider me named and shamed. In other book related news - the news being that I have or am reading them also - must continue to smear Lemony Snicket with all the good-time love he undoubtedly deserves. After a mammoth two-month-odd sojourn through Michael Moorcock's Mother London (verdict: good, and in parts immensely rewarding, but a bit of a schlep; even as a Londoner I got lost in some of the descriptions and areas) I got my synapse candy through books 4-6 of Snicket's ...Unfortunate Events. It's not just the stories, it's the style, the fun that isn't aimed over the heads of kids, like some of the recent family films seem to be (I see ya Shrek, and I heard it in spades about Sharks Tale) but squarely at them, forcing them to duck and cover, then appreciate. So obviously, right at my level. Take this:
If you were to take a plastic bag and place it inside a large bowl, and then, using a wooden spoon, stir the bag around and around the bowl, you could use the expression "a mixed bag" to describe what you had in front of you, but you would not be using the expression in the same way I am about to use it now.
And while you're taking this, take that!! From another thumbed but unfinished novel, The Pleasure Of My Company from cerebral clown Steve Martin, sharing a gentle tale of an uncommon person who just happens to have OCD:
Thinking too much also creates the illusion of causal connections between unrelated events. Like the morning the toaster popped up just as a car drove by with Arizona plates. Connection? Or coincidence? must the toaster be engaged in order for a car with Arizona plates to come by? The problem, of course, is that I tend to behave as if these connections were real, and if a car drives by with plates from, say, Nebraska, I immediately eyeball the refrigerator to see if its door has swung open.
I also just got Dave Eggers' How We Are Hungry, chunks of palatable short fiction, and have Kenan Malik's Man, Beast and Zombie moaning to be read. My brain hungers for zombies...

Sunday, April 03, 2005

It takes work to think the way you want, not think what you want

As a kid, I was clothed in cast-offs, bikeless and warned off sweets, but none of that sweated me too much, as I was indulging with abandon my overriding hunger for knowing all kinds of stuff. I decimated my junior school library with 18 months still on the cards, and ended up purloining books from the middle school. Animals existed to be petted, sure, but also to be filed away in taxonomies alongside Latin names and habitats. And television smuggled me maths, hostory and science. I wasn't a special kid, nor an angel; this was merely my preferred brand of sensation seeking. I soaked up the environment through words and concepts, rather than through joints, tendons and the arc a falling ball makes across the retina. (I.e. I was a bit of a geek.) Truly questioning what came in came later, as is with everyone; I began to question my faith, and to appreciate what I was told was not always the truth, from the obfuscation of politicians to the sleight of hand of teachers to the unreliable narrator. But I realise that many of those candidates for independent thought were carried as much by what I learnt - that the conceptual environment was driving me as much as me it. (This is the point where I would shift to discussing memes, if I was in the mood to cloud a discussion with tragically hip jargon.) My capacity to doubt Creation stories as literally true was only installed by access to credible alternatives, and explicit thought experiments to what the traditions I had learned would actually entail. These gifts were given to me through science and fiction, which is perhaps why I hold both so dear.

Now, the danger of the information driving is that you take some naps during the ride, and you're not in total control of the route, binding you to missing some pretty important scenery. One book begs for another to be read, one revealed truth gestures coyly to another, and before you know it you are happily ensconsed in your fortress of solitude with an impervious worldview. If you can't change your mind, are you sure you still have one? Of course, to slide the other way, well,that way lies indecisive Dave (minor but feted Fast Show character). And since most philosophers have given up on the idea of a truly objective privileged perspective, I hope you won't mind that I do the same. What I have, instead, are some means by which I live my mental and moral life. They are not much, but I owe to them all of what little I have in either regard. Namely:
  • faith in reason
  • respect for evidence
  • core beliefs - sentience has intrinsic value, people should not be treated instrumentally
  • the preparedness to question
As to how these interact, I'm quite happy to concede that there is no formula at work. Even if I had one, I don't think I would actually operate by it. Reason and evidence carry me most of the way through my day-to-day cognitive existence, with a certain set of background beliefs that generally aren't appraised. They are, however, amenable to appraisal, and I can (and have) shifted my positions on them. The core beliefs are those that I would like to think I would retain even if someone made me a watertight argument against them. I am well aware of the fallibility of the mind generally, and mine specifically, and I could not regard myself a moral being if a figure of however superior intellect could, through 'proving' that slavery was ok, headlock me into agreeing.

All that said, I guess I'm a fairly typical left-winger, reminding me of that complaint about political philosophers that the top down systems they model turn out 9 times out of 10 to be a validation of some bottom-up system that's been in play just fine without them. Having said that, my scientific optimism brought me full-face against the spirit of the left regarding GM technology, and it brought home how 'your side' can be composed of orthodoxies too. Since then it's become clear to me just how rough around the edges some circles in the left are (and perhaps ever have been); I should stress again that this is less epiphanies on my part than the streaming of diverse information.

This post is not to chart my political trajectory, although for the record I guess I'm a moderate, liberal social democrat, though I suspect my epistemological materialism coupled with my teleological spiritualism earmark me for some positions some might deem extreme. Yet while I am moored in things I value, would fight for, which sustain me, I keep myself as free-floating as possible, as I nknow my more contingent beliefs, the things that are important to me principally because they are true and accord with my fundamental principles, must avoid ossification for them to be worth anything. To that end, the question must be a weapon, not against those who threaten your beliefs, but to test and probe those beliefs itself.

This is why I am angered by the erosion and inversion of this principle presented in the blogs regarding the Lancet study of late 04. (Here + here, if you want to tast it first hand; snippets from a ongoing war really.)The publication of the paper on Iraqi deaths due to the war generated many questions among war supporters, but not the right kind. Often just referred to as the Lancet study, as if the journal came into being just for the purpose of this study and poofed away after, it is clear that for many critics this is the first scientific paper, or certainly epidimiological study, that they have come across. This didn't stop the cascade of mud slung at at, their methodology rubbished, their statistics misunderstood, their motives impugned. It has now become a canard to refer to it as discredited, dubious, biased or just plain wrong, when it is none of these things, and appears a quality piece of research. Few of the critiques provided any light, and fewer still were meant to do so - this was purely "throw enough shit and see what sticks", writ large. If it were not for a few patient and painstaking (particularly for me Dsquared, but also Tim Lambert and Chris Lightfoot ) bloggers with the expertise to systematically wipe away the untruths and rebut the accusations, the effect would be ever more complete.

It dismays me that people are so willing to bend the information to fit with their beliefs. I guess I come at it a different way, or one could argue that the stance on Iraq is a core belief for some. I know it's not for me; I marched against it before it happened, but now am cautiously optimistic for the future, and readily concede that it may turn out to have been worth it, even factoring in the deaths (note: we're nowhere near the point where that judgment could possibly be made). It dismays me that questioning, a means I rate vital for mental life, can be subordinated to leash that boat flush against the quay. If you're willing to make the conclusion that medical journals accept politically motivated propaganda, that medical researchers produce it, and that peer review accepts it, in order to maintain your preferred perspective on events, then any evidence you don't agree with can be similarly wished away. Everything is true that I want to be true. It stikes me that this has some resonance with Hilzoy's post on Obsidian Wings entitled "Hatred is a Poison" - one of the best posts I have read this year, as it happens; she notes how through the prism of partisanship your opponents, and eventually yourself, are rendered despicable. My point here is through that prism, or one much like it, evidence and reason are subordinated to the will of belief.

The term 'reality-based community' entered the blogging vocabulary a while back after a member of the US administration poo-poohed such an entity as antithetical to its purpose. I realise this is not the pastiche I thought it was. No-one will admit to not being reality-based, of course, and pride in reason and science is not the birthright of either side of the political divide. But you can talk the talk, and exult reason and enquiry above all else, and use them as weapons to obscure and undermine the true picture. It's a creationist tactic: what about the eye? What about this molecule? Evolution is just a theory... until you create the appearance of two different camps, and consequently no consensus. Ditto warming. I'm not exempting the left, as GM and to some extent nuclear have infuriated me for years (if the left got on board these projects, and demanded accountable technologies developed for and in the hands of those who need them, the impact would likely be tremendous). But this wholesale comtempt for views that don't gel with preconceived beliefs has characterised this current US administration (see my post here and is found in full force in people who seem otherwise reasonable, and talk up science in other capacities. It's unscrupulous, and reeks of a deadening of the mind. That the site designated blog of the year by time magazine denies evolution augurs terribly for the future.