Monday, 30 May 2011

2011 Edge Question, The Mediocrity Principle, PZ Myers

PZ Myers will be in London 8th June 2011, giving a talk organised by Atheism-UK.

P.Z. MYERS Biologist, University of Minnesota; blogger, Pharyngula

The Mediocrity Principle

As someone who just spent a term teaching freshman introductory biology, and will be doing it again in the coming months, I have to say that the first thing that leapt to my mind as an essential skill everyone should have was algebra. And elementary probability and statistics.


What idea should people grasp to better understand their place in the universe?

I'm going to recommend the mediocrity principle. It's fundamental to science, and it's also one of the most contentious, difficult concepts for many people to grasp — and opposition to the mediocrity principle is one of the major linchpins of religion and creationism and jingoism and failed social policies. There are a lot of cognitive ills that would be neatly wrapped up and easily disposed of if only everyone understood this one simple idea.

The mediocrity principle simply states that you aren't special. The universe does not revolve around you, this planet isn't privileged in any unique way, your country is not the perfect product of divine destiny, your existence isn't the product of directed, intentional fate, and that tuna sandwich you had for lunch was not plotting to give you indigestion.

Most of what happens in the world is just a consequence of natural, universal laws — laws that apply everywhere and to everything, with no special exemptions or amplifications for your benefit — given variety by the input of chance. Everything that you as a human being consider cosmically important is an accident.


The stars themselves form as a result of the properties of atoms, the specific features of each star set by the chance distribution of ripples of condensation through clouds of dust and gas. Our sun wasn't required to be where it is, with the luminosity it has — it just happens to be there, and our existence follows from this opportunity.

Our species itself is partly shaped by the force of our environment through selection, and partly by fluctuations of chance. If humans had gone extinct 100,000 years ago, the world would go on turning, life would go on thriving, and some other species would be prospering in our place — and most likely not by following the same intelligence-driven technological path we did.

And if you understand the mediocrity principle, that's OK.

The reason this is so essential to science is that it's the beginning of understanding how we came to be here and how everything works.

We look for general principles that apply to the universe as a whole first, and those explain much of the story; and then we look for the quirks and exceptions that led to the details. It's a strategy that succeeds and is useful in gaining a deeper knowledge.

Starting with a presumption that a subject of interest represents a violation of the properties of the universe, that it was poofed uniquely into existence with a specific purpose, and that the conditions of its existence can no longer apply, means that you have leapt to an unfounded and unusual explanation with no legitimate reason.

What the mediocrity principle tells us is that our state is not the product of intent, that the universe lacks both malice and benevolence, but that everything does follow rules — and that grasping those rules should be the goal of science.

2011 Edqe Question: Perhaps we can learn from failures in business, science or life.

Perhaps we can learn from failures in business, science or life. Kevin Kelly explains how:

Editor-At-Large, Wired; Author, What Technology Wants
The Virtues of Negative Results
We can learn nearly as much from an experiment that does not work as from one that does. Failure is not something to be avoided but rather something to be cultivated. That's a lesson from science that benefits not only laboratory research, but design, sport, engineering, art, entrepreneurship, and even daily life itself. 

All creative avenues yield the maximum when failures are embraced. A great graphic designer will generate lots of ideas knowing that most will be aborted. A great dancer realizes most new moves will not succeed. Ditto for any architect, electrical engineer, sculptor, marathoner, startup maven, or microbiologist. 

What is science, after all, but a way to learn from things that don't work rather than just those that do? What this tool suggests is that you should aim for success while being prepared to learn from a series of failures. More so, you should carefully but deliberately press your successful investigations or accomplishments to the point that they break, flop, stall, crash, or fail.

Science itself is learning how to better exploit negative results. 


increasingly published negative results (which include experiments that succeed in showing no effects) are becoming another essential tool in the scientific method.


one way to troubleshoot a complicated device that is broken is to deliberately force negative results (temporary breaks) in its multiple functions in order to locate the actual disfunction.


the habit of embracing negative results is one of the most essential tricks to gaining success.

Saturday, 28 May 2011

'We can tell stories about 'Scientific concepts that illuminate the world'.'

crabsallover says Scientific Concepts (see The Edge 2011 question) are broader than Scientific Method

Edge says 'The term 'scientific' is to be understood in a broad sense as the most reliable way of gaining knowledge about anything, whether it be the human spirit, the role of great people in history, or the structure of DNA. A "scientific concept" may come from philosophy, logic, economics, jurisprudence, or other analytic enterprises, as long as it is a rigorous conceptual tool that may be summed up succinctly (or "in a phrase") but has broad application to understanding the world'

'We can tell stories about 'Scientific concepts that illuminate the world'.' 
Humanists4Science (H4S) Mission is "To promote, within the humanist community, the application of the scientific method to issues of concern to broader society."

One way to promote scientific method & scientific concepts is ... by telling stories!

Posted on: May 27, 2011 10:40 AM, by Claire L. Evans

Claire L. Evans writes...
Science communication is difficult. 

'It can be crippled by the complexity of its own subject matter. It can be steeped in jargon, too dense for its readership, or, conversely, too simplistic to satisfy its critics in the scientific community. It can lack warmth, or be too paranoid about its empirical rigor to engage in the metaphoric flights -- the quick shifts from microcosm to macrocosm -- that cue readers to an emotional engagement in any subject. The problem may lie in an inescapable tautology: to fully understand a scientific, taxonomic, objective conception of the natural world is to be so steeped in scientific idiom that poetics become impossible.'

Claire Evans continues ... 'And yet, there are those who are capable of communicating the invisible phenomena of science to the public. These people are essentially bilingual. The Sagans, the deGrasse Tysons, the E.O Wilsons; Angier, Attenborough, Carson and Greene; the radio producers, writers, filmmakers, documentarians, and public speakers; these are our human bridges, our storytellers, fluent in both big and small. It's a specific skill, to be a gifted science communicator -- that rare person who can straddle two divergent worlds without slipping into the void between the so-called "Two Cultures," someone with hard facts in their mind and literary gems in their rhetoric.

They must accomplish the humanization of abstract ideas without pandering, make science poetry without kitsch. Even at their best, they can be silly -- think of Carl Sagan, in his burgundy turtleneck, proclaiming, "in order to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe." It may seem absurd to draw such a huge subject down to Earth in such a literal way, but what Sagan taps into is the necessity of these seemingly silly flourishes.'

'See, science is big. It's driven by the desire to understand everything! The immensity of such a project necessitates that science be undertaken not by one group of men and women in one time, but all men and women for all time.' 

Babushka Dolls: via
'The final goal always eludes us: to understand this, we must first understand this, but to understand that, we must understand this, ad infinitum. Scientific knowledge is won by climbing the shoulders of giants; but these giants are a never-ending stack of babushka dolls. In fact, the very notion of there being a final point in science has become so abstract as to be almost irrelevant; the more we know, the more we know that we do not know, and the end of the game is nowhere to be seen. And, perhaps, there is no end game.'

'To a scientist, this endless narrative satisfies. The balance of properties and theories that define the natural world, the physical Universe, or the underpinnings of mathematical reality are elegant and stirring; knowledge, and the search for more of it, is a raison d'ĂȘtre. For those of us not wired the same way, the greater narrative of science can be overwhelming, if not inscrutable. We need stories with beginnings, middles, and ends. We need things to relate to, objects to hold onto, characters to laugh and cry with. We need to synthesize abstract ideas through allegories, metaphors, and images.'

'Popular science communication is defined by such literary gestures.'
'For years, students of astronomy struggled with the concept of an expanding universe without a center (a notion which violently bucks against reason). Cosmologists, however, came up with an image -- a metaphor -- which lightens the load: imagine that the universe is an expanding balloon, and the stars and objects in space are dots drawn on the surface of this balloon.'

Claire L. Evans continues 'From any one star's vantage point, all the other objects in space are moving away from it, but without any perceivable pattern. The more distant points would appear to be moving faster. Apart from being a devastatingly simple image that conveys more information that entire astronomy textbooks, it's also an elegant metaphor. It accomplishes the same things as the most successful of literary metaphors: a world of feeling and information, the very chaos of physical reality, in one image. It translates profound abstraction (the universe) into something we can imagine holding in our hands (a balloon).'

'Good science communication moulds complex ideas into human-scale stories. It turns a discussion of the cosmos' impossible scale into inflating balloons. Or into Sagan, sitting at his dinner table like a medieval king in corduroy, a steaming apple pie at the ready.'

Sunday, 22 May 2011


The term 'scientific"is to be understood in a broad sense as the most reliable way of gaining knowledge about anything, whether it be the human spirit, the role of great people in history, or the structure of DNA. A "scientific concept" may come from philosophy, logic, economics, jurisprudence, or other analytic enterprises, as long as it is a rigorous conceptual tool that may be summed up succinctly (or "in a phrase") but has broad application to understanding the world. 
[Thanks to Steven Pinker for suggesting this year's Edge Question]

That's the question asked by this year by Edge. With 159 answers to the question, I set out to find which scientific concepts were most useful to me. Here is my pick which are mostly related to scientific method. Clicking the link opens the article (and asks if you want to print).

Richard Dawkins :

Evolutionary Biologist; Emeritus Professor of the Public Understanding of Science,...

Professor, Claremont McKenna College; Past-president, American Psychological...

David Pizarro :

Psychologist, Cornell University

People tend to recognise a pattern where a pattern doesn't really exist. Recognising that this Apophenia occurs often, could help us to overcome our bias to recognise patterns where they don't exist.

Cognitive Scientist; Author, Kluge: The Haphazard Evolution of the Human Mind...

'Confirmation bias' often misleads.

Antony Garrett Lisi :

theoretical physicist

we don't understand risk.

"We humans are terrible at dealing with probability. We are not merely bad at it, but seem hardwired to be incompetent, in spite of the fact that we encounter innumerable circumstances every day which depend on accurate probabilistic calculations for our wellbeing. "

David Dalrymple :

Researcher, MIT Mind Machine Project

The concept of cause and effect is better understood as the flow of information between two connected events, from the earlier event to the later one. Saying "A causes B" sounds precise, but is actually very vague. I would specify much more by saying "with the information that A has happened, I can compute with almost total confidence* that B will happen." The latter rules out the possibility that other factors could prevent B even if A does happen, but allows the possibility that other factors could cause B even if A doesn't happen.

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Enemies of science

Last night (May 9th) Prof Richard Evans gave the annual Sense About Science lecture. Prof Evans, a historian, is the first non-scientist to give this lecture.

Prof Evans told the stories of six epidemics, four of cholera plus AIDS in South Africa and BSE in the UK. The stories were fascinating and appalling. (The full lecture will be available as a Guardian podcast so you can see for yourself.) They were also relevant to H4S’s vision: "A world in which important decisions are made by applying the scientific method to evidence rather than according to superstition."

Evans showed that the first three cholera epidemics occurred because the relevant governments did not act on the best scientific advice. All occurred after Dr John Snow had stopped an epidemic by removing the handle of the Broad Street pump and after Bazalgette had built the London sewers. The science was clear. The folly of rejecting science was also apparent in South Africa’s AIDS epidemic; M’beki’s denial that HIV causes AIDS blocked both mitigation measures and the use of effective therapies.

Nothing so far will surprise any member of H4S. But the reasons for the rejection of the science were also interesting. In general the issue was not ignorance of the science but explicit rejection. Before the epidemic the rulers of Hamburg rejected the science because they did not want to invest in public health measures that might have prevented the epidemic. Once it had started they rejected the science because it implied the need to close the port and thus loose money. And they were able to reject the science because Hamburg was not a democracy, had no tradition of independent advice on public health and because they were willing to use lethal force to enforce their views. The epidemics in Russia and Naples showed similar patterns.

M’beki, by contrast, rejected the science because he saw it as a Western conspiracy based on stereotypes about black sexuality. (And also, I think, because the anti-retroviral drugs would have been very expensive.)

A similar issue, excessive respect for farmers’ financial interest, also affected the UK’s response to BSE though with less disastrous results.

What this says to me is that though superstition is an enemy of science it is far from the only one. Vested interests, authoritarian politics and belief in conspiracy theories are also potent enemies.

Saturday, 7 May 2011

Richard Dawkins answers questions about science and religion

Here are all the questions asked (in reverse order); note the timing of the question you are interested in, then listen to Dawkins fascinating answers (click above).

Thursday, 5 May 2011

'On Being' by Peter Atkins - Prologue (review - part 1)

BHA Distinguished Supporter, Peter Atkins book 'On Being' - 'A scientist's exploration of the great questions of existence', was published in March 2011. View Peter Atkins talking (2 minutes) about his book. Atkins will discuss his book at the BHA Manchester conference 17-19th June 2011.

The 111 page book has 7 sections:

  1. Prologue
    1. the scientific method and its limitations.
    2. the role of maths. 
    3. everything in the universe is physical, nothing is 'spiritual'. 
    4. shedding myths.
    5. near-spiritual joy and wonder about the universe.
  2. Beginning
    1. Where did the Universe come from?
    2. How was something come from nothing, without an agent
    3. Scientific Method
    4. Multiverse
    5. Science v Religion
    6. Why a Universe?
    7. A Universe without a purpose
  3. Progression
  4. Birth
  5. Death
  6. Ending
  7. Epilogue

  • the scientific method and its limitations.
  • the role of maths. 
  • everything in the universe is physical, nothing is 'spiritual'. 
  • shedding myths.
  • near-spiritual joy and wonder about the universe.
The Limitations of the Scientific Method
Peter Atkins says that the scientific method:-
'can shed light on every and any concept', ... 'can elucidate love, hope and charity' and 'can elucidate those great inspirations to human achievement, the seven deadly sins of pride, envy, anger, greed, sloth, gluttony and lust'  (pg. vii).
Atkins focuses on examples of the scientific method that:-
'illuminate matters of great human concern' (pg. viii) and considers that 'there is nothing that the scientific method cannot illuminate. Because the scientific method has not yet encountered a barrier, ... 'the reach of its beam is boundless and in particular that it can replace (or can conceivably confirm) the myths that surround all the great questions of being' whilst 'aware that extrapolation from present success is not a convincing argument'. (pg. x)
Atkins believes there is no reliable evidence for the 'kingdom of the spirit' and asks:-
'why should anything remain obscure?... we see no objective evidence for the non-physical.' Although many people yearn for a spiritual domain, 'reliable knowledge is not secured by majority vote'.
Atkins writes, whilst 'certain matters are private, subjective and internal', neuroscience and psychology can 'reveal aspects of the brain's beliefs and sentiments and why they dwell there' (pg xi). Only the physical world exists; the spiritual world is a delusion of the mind. 'If absolutely and unreservedly everything is an aspect of the physical, material world then I don't see how it [subjective privacy] can be closed to scientific investigation' (pg. xii).
Can science illuminate all the great real questions?
Atkins writes 'In the physical sciences, Aristotle gave way to Galileo, Galileo to Newton, Newton to Einstein, and Einstein to who knows. Much of scientific understanding, it is claimed, is may-fly ephemeral, awaiting further elaboration or even replacement, so how can I justifiably claim that science has power to illuminate the great questions once and for all?' (pg. xii)
He answers this question, explaining that some observations are unlikely to be overthrown.
'I do and I don't. Where my account is a review of observation, as in the organic processes accompanying birth and death, then there is little force in the view that those observations will be overthrown. Of course they will be elaborated, but the general details and broad features of what I describe are objective, eternal observables, not transient theories.'
Some ideas at the edge of physics will be changed out of all recognition.
'Where, however, my account is a review of theoretical understanding at the edge of physics, then I fully accept that the account is likely to be changed out of all recognition as our understanding of physical reality and cosmology is developed and refined. But my review in these cases will make it clear that our current theories are way-points on the road to presumed complete understanding, showing how far we have come from myth, not concealing that we might have far to go, yet hoping not to quench the sense of optimism that the journey will ultimately be triumphant.' 
Some intermediate comprehensions are almost certainly correct but are undergoing elaboration.
'Lying between these extremes of confidence and speculative, extrapolated, and currently unfulfilled optimism, are comprehensions of an intermediate kind, such as my account of the origin of the species. These intermediate comprehensions are almost certainly correct but are undergoing elaboration - with elaboration not to be interpreted as overthrow but enrichment.'
The scientific method is the only means of discovering the nature of reality says Atkins.
'In short, I stand by my claim that the scientific method is the only means of discovering the nature of reality, and although its current views are open to revision, the approach, making observations and comparing notes, will forever survive as the only way acquiring reliable knowledge.'