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Scientific American Dumbs Down
Published on January 31, 2015 By Phil Osborn In Science & Tech

(03/28/15) I bring up below the issue of scientific religiosity and give some examples related to critically important research that is being blocked or ignored by a religious scientific orthodoxy right out of Kuhn's "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions," sadly including Michael Shermer - the Skeptic, whose inept and misleading "Scientific American" piece on "scientific morals" does him little credit - altho it did trigger this blog entry.   http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Structure_of_Scientific_Revolutions

For those readers of this who are local to the OC, I suggest that you check out the upcoming meetup of the Orange County Science Fiction Club, which will be hosting a talk by Dr. Greg Benford.  Dr. Benford is perhaps best known outside the realm of physics for his voluminous science fiction; however, he has also given presentations at the OCSFC and other venues on subjects such as Climate Change.  Currently he is listed on the Board of Directors of Genescient, an Irvine based company focused on a new approach to anti-aging.  


My take on Genescient so far is that they seem to have avoided the traps and minefields that I discuss below and which have crippled anti-aging research for the past several decades.  Perhaps Dr. Benford will take questions on the subject at the club meeting.

(02/15/15) See the L.A.Times today for a good review of Shermer's take on a scientific morals.

I've been something of a fan of Michael Shermer, looking forward to his regular "Skeptic" column in "Scientific American." (SciAm)  Thus, it was with some dismay that I read his February 2015 submission, "A Moral Starting Point," subtitled "How science can inform ethics," which missed the whole point.  In general, Shermer's logic simply does not hold up, but, worse, he promulgates not one, but two major errors in science and philosophy. 

I will quote from my own response, which was censored - removed:

(I spent about two hours on this, mostly lost due to stupid glitches on the part of the SciAm comment function, which first kept returning a soup of HTML code when I pasted the plain text, and then, when I attempted retyping the entire response directly, timed out at some point without notifying me, and while continuing to display my input.  Finally, after a couple frustrating hours, I pasted once again from Word and miraculously it worked.)

Start of comment:

Just lost my comment again, this time due to the extra time I took to re-enter by hand. I surmise that there is a time-out on this site, which of course we are not informed of. So, half an hour lost. Now I will try pasting from Word again:
There are two major objections to the contents of this article that come to mind immediately.
First, evolution most definitely proceeds in large part via group selection. NOWHERE do we find solitary individual humans somehow carrying the selection process. In fact, surprise...surprise, a little observation will yield the obvious fact that, at bare minimum, barring some switch to parthenogenesis, evolutionary selection requires both a male and a female participant. In fact, that's only adequate on a temporary, partial basis. Selection actually requires most often a larger group, such as a tribe.
This evolution by groups vs. individuals fallacy has had HUGE costs in terms of medical R & D, for just one example. E.g., for several decades, major issues such as the question of a "Death Gene," as proposed by Dr. Denkla, went uninvestigated, despite strong experimental support.

In the early '80's, gerontologist Dr. W. Donner Denkla of the Roche Institute published results from a study in which excision of the pituitary of aged animals, followed by hormone supplementation to maintain normal hormonal balance, resulted in a remarkable reversal of the effects of aging, and a major increase in maximum lifespan.
Denkla's work was largely ignored, as he posited that it carried the implication that there was a "death gene," whose evolutionary source lay in group advantages. In this theory, animals who lived too long might survive environmental shocks and stresses due to advantages of experience, which would outweigh the impact of less desirable genes, which would end up being preserved to the detriment of the group. I.e., the death gene existed to promote an optimum turnover of the population to match the demands of environmental changes. Animals that lived for much longer periods would preserve by default genes that needed to be reduced in their incidence in the gene pool, dooming that gene pool as more adapted genetic pools ultimately triumphed.

(See also: http://www.functionalps.com/blog/2013/05/30/w-d-denckla-a-v-everitt-hypophysectomy-aging/) (Reference not included in original comment to SciAm.)
However, the mindset of the anti-aging community at the time was keyed to the selfish gene ideology. Group selection was viewed as a non-starter, except in very exceptional cases. Evolution - somehow - managed to proceed via individual selection. Period. Denkla was a heretic. Consequently, research into selection via groups was largely dead in the water for the next several decades.
This was an absolute disaster, leading to massive redirection of research resources from possible direct intervention in aging to an amelioration policy of dealing primarily with individual problems - cancer, etc. - as separate issues unrelated to a larger system, such as a biome or biosphere or a tribal genetic ecology. How many billions of people have lost or will lose their lives due to unnecessary aging due to this religious mentality?

Objection the second: My second objection has to do with failure to include a major motivation for moral behavior which was neither mentioned nor implied. See my article at: http://forums.stardock.com/301081
In brief, I argue that proper validation of mapping of cognitive contents to the real-world sets requires perceptual reaffirmation. I.e., much of our activity - and that of virtually any animal with a nervous system - is based on building and refining the validity of our perceptual/conceptual information. This is a vital need and is at least 90% of the life effort of modern humans.
For humans, this includes art, for example, which by definition isolates essentials of a mental object as a real thing - novel, painting, music, movie, and also productive, creative work, which reaffirms our concepts related to our personal identity and capacities, but also romantic love and honor, which reflect a vital element of who we are. See Nathaniel Branden's "The Psychology of Self-Esteem" for the origins of this line of thought.
(See also:  http://www.objectivistliving.com/forums/?showtopic=8784  - quote from Dennis Hardin follows: "I first heard Branden discussing this topic in his "Objectivist Psychology" course in 1966. There was an article about it in The Objectivist around the same time. He originally called it "The Muttnik Principle," because he discovered it while playing with his dog, Muttnik. It is "the experience of self-awareness that results from perceiving your self as an objective existent via interaction with the consciousness of other living entities." I have a considerable background in psychology, and do not recall ever reading earlier discussions of such a principle by other psychologists. There were similar ideas in the history of psychology, such as Aristotle's statement that a friend was, in essence, another self. But, to my knowledge, no prior theorist identified the underlying principle involved; i.e., that while we normally experience ourselves as pure conscious process, other minds can provide us with a unique kind of psychological mirror.
I would be interested to know where you saw this in earlier discussions of romantic love... )
 (Reference not included in original comment to SciAm.)

It is the need to maintain clear channels for interactions with our fellow humans, interactions that provide a cognitive mirror via the emotions and insights exchanged, that is the primary support for moral behavior, as dishonorable behavior requires subterfuge and second-guessing to maintain the lies associated with the need to keep the bad hidden. People will voluntarily DIE to protect a loved one, precisely because of the importance of having that person to provide that mirror.
Much more can be said on this subject, which has remained off the radar, while science forges ahead with attempts to connect moral behavior with non-rational bases, such as instincts or culture, which a criminal could read and feel a certain justification. I.e., if it's instinctual or a cultural artifact due to conditioning, then the advantage goes to the smart criminal who thinks clearly around this artificial group benefit. On the other hand, if morals reflect inherent primary needs of cognition, then no such profit can outweigh the costs of depriving one of it...  End of comment.

For my trouble, I received the following notice when I finally had time to log on to the ScientificAmerican.com site today:

"Commenting has been disabled for this account, please contact webmaster@sciam.com for assistance"
Note the lack of a period, as well as the improper use of a comma as a conjunction.  I give the reader one guess as to the relationship of the "webmaster" to the author of the SciAm comment section with its glitches.  Reality has these telling little consistencies...  So, let's just delete them - right?

Sad to say, but the rest of the February SciAm was about on a par with Shermer's tangled and flawed illogic - a lot of verbiage without much useful substance, a sentiment echoed by a friend who is also a long-term subscriber.  I've been looking forward to my monthly SciAm for decades, and it has gone through some phases, but now I can typically find at least an order of magnitude better content at sites like www.kurzweilai.net. How much longer I can justify a print edition of SciAm, when I can read the increasingly paltry contents on-line or at the library is becoming a serious question.

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