Why I’m voting Labour, and why you should too.

It’s election time again and people are flocking to social media for vindication of their views. I honestly thought I had learned my lesson from Brexit, this time I was hoping to stay well clear.

But then this story kept appearing on my news feed.

Based on the way it’s being shared and the comments I’ve read, people seem to think this story somehow justifies lowering taxes for the rich, and ultimately provides a reason to vote Conservative.

Read the story, then I’ll do my best to explain why it doesn’t.

Suppose that every day, ten men go out for beer and the bill for all ten comes to £100…

If they paid their bill the way we pay our taxes, it would go something like this…

The first four men (the poorest) would pay nothing.
The fifth would pay £1.
The sixth would pay £3.
The seventh would pay £7..
The eighth would pay £12.
The ninth would pay £18.
The tenth man (the richest) would pay £59.

So, that’s what they decided to do…

The ten men drank in the bar every day and seemed quite happy with the arrangement, until one day, the owner threw them a curve ball.

“Since you are all such good customers,” he said, “I’m going to reduce the cost of your daily beer by £20″. Drinks for the ten men would now cost just £80.


The group still wanted to pay their bill the way we pay our taxes.

So the first four men were unaffected.

They would still drink for free. But what about the other six men?
The paying customers?

How could they divide the £20 windfall so that everyone would get his fair share?

They realised that £20 divided by six is £3.33. But if they
subtracted that from everybody’s share, then the fifth man and the sixth man would each end up being paid to drink his beer.

So, the bar owner suggested that it would be fair to reduce each man’s bill by a higher percentage the poorer he was, to follow the principle of the tax system they had been using, and he proceeded to work out the amounts he suggested that each should now pay.

And so the fifth man, like the first four, now paid nothing (100% saving).

The sixth now paid £2 instead of £3 (33% saving).

The seventh now paid £5 instead of £7 (28% saving).
The eighth now paid £9 instead of £12 (25% saving).

The ninth now paid £14 instead of £18 (22% saving).

The tenth now paid £49 instead of £59 (16% saving).

Each of the six was better off than before. And the first four continued to drink for free. But, once outside the bar, the men began to compare their savings.

“I only got a pound out of the £20 saving,” declared the sixth man.

He pointed to the tenth man,”but he got £10!

“Yeah, that’s right,” exclaimed the fifth man. “I only saved a pound too. It’s unfair that he got ten times more benefit than me!

“That’s true!” shouted the seventh man. “Why should he get £10 back, when I got only £2? The wealthy get all the breaks!”

“Wait a minute,” yelled the first four men in unison, “we didn’t get anything at all. This new tax system exploits the poor!”

The nine men surrounded the tenth and beat him up.

The next night the tenth man didn’t show up for drinks, so the nine sat down and had their beers without him. But when it came time to pay the bill, they discovered something important.They didn’t have enough money between all of them for even half of the bill!

And that, boys and girls, journalists and government ministers, is how our tax system works.

The people who already pay the highest taxes will naturally get the most benefit from a tax reduction.

Tax them too much, attack them for being wealthy, and they just may not show up anymore.

In fact, they might start drinking overseas, where the atmosphere is somewhat friendlier.

David R. Kamerschen, Ph.D.
Professor of Economics.
For those who understand, no explanation is needed. For those who do not understand, no explanation is possible

For the sake of argument, let’s assume that the figures in the story are accurate, that the richest one in 10 contributes 60%, and four in 10 people contribute nothing.  (I suspect it’s nonsense but that’s irrelevant).

This story would have you think that we should be very grateful to this wealthy individual. After all, they’re paying our bills and we need to be very careful that we don’t scare them off, “they might start drinking overseas”. Maybe they even deserve a tax break?

Let’s just consider this one very wealthy individual for a moment. Where did they get their money? There are roughly 2 possibilities:

  • They were given the money by somebody else
  • They are unusually smart and driven to succeed

To put it another way. That individual has been dealt a good hand. They won the lottery of life. Either they were lucky enough to be born into a wealthy family, they will be rich without ever needing to lift a finger, or they won the genetic lottery and they have been exposed to just the right kind of experiences and opportunities that may lead one to accumulate wealth.

Either way, without a doubt, they were lucky.

They were given the money by somebody else

For every person that’s born a millionaire, many are born into poverty. It is only luck that the wealthy child who lives to inherit a vast estate, is not a starving child in Africa who dies of dysentery before their 3rd birthday. Neither child deserves more than the other.

How should we feel and respond to this billionaire child? Should we be grateful they exist, and give them a tax break?

They are unusually smart and  driven to succeed

For every person that has an abnormally high IQ, who has an entrepreneurial spirit and is willing to take risks and keep trying, there are vastly more people that have none of these virtues.
Unfortunately, we don’t get to choose our brains, or the experiences that shape who we are. We don’t choose our parents, or the kind of education we receive. We don’t choose the encouragement and praise we receive as a child, or the abuse at the hands of those that raise us. Despite the illusion, we choose nothing.

We like to think that our destiny is in our own hands. It isn’t. We are quite literally a product of our genetics and our past experiences. We can change, only so much as we are motivated and capable – something we don’t choose either. You will likely only dispute this if you are one of the lucky few. It’s very easy to take personal responsibility for the good things that come naturally. It’s easy to blame those that do not share your virtues.

Given the right kind of brain, and the right kind of opportunity, some of us will achieve incredible things. Most of us won’t.

How should we feel  and respond to those blessed individuals who fate has looked kindly upon? Should we be grateful, and give them a tax break?

A rare opportunity

In this election we have a choice. Never mind ‘strong and stable leadership’. For once, the choice is far more profound.

We can choose a Labour party that seeks to minimise the impact of luck. A new opportunity to address the vast inequalities that exist between the many and the few, and provide more opportunity for those that have been dealt a shit hand in life.

Or we can choose a Conservative party who seem to believe that only the rich can keep us rich.  Policy should work for the rich, and the rest of us should be eternally grateful.

I appreciate that’s a crude analysis, but from my perspective I’ve touched on the core issue. The Conservative party are living a myth, a romantic view of the world where everyone is socially mobile and in charge of their own destiny. It resonates with those that are fortunate, but philosophically it’s crap.

And just to be perfectly clear – I consider myself as one of the lucky few. But I’m happy to contribute to a more equal and fair society, and I hope you will too.

Is tolerance of faith a virtue?

 “I will cast terror into the hearts of those who disbelieve. Therefore strike off their heads and strike off every fingertip of them”
– Qur’an (8:12)

There is a currently fashionable assertion that any view is automatically as worthy of respect as any equal and opposite view. That we should not only tolerate religious belief and practices, but we should work to accommodate and ingratiate such practices in society wherever possible. So charmed is the status of faith in society, that any critical discussion causes offence, and should be avoided.

Any outspoken critic of religion will recognise, the fiercest defenders of faith are often those without religion themselves, and will know how uncomfortable it is to trespass this taboo, even within a close circle of family and friends.  In all corners of society, it seems we have bought into the idea that faith (belief in the absence of reason) is a good thing. Surrendering reason, probably the only faculty that differentiates us from higher primates, probably isn’t a good thing, ever,  but I’m not going to use this post to argue that point. In this post, I just ask that you consider the following question: In a society that preaches faith as a virtue, how can we possibly criticise the actions of religious people behaving as instructed by their holy book?

For the gunmen who launched their murderous attack on the Charlie Hebdo office, it was the satirical critique of their faith, that they know should exist beyond a hint of criticism, that motivated their barbarism. They know this because they literally believe what is written in the Koran. In a society that encourages faith, should we really be surprised when a small percentage of religious people take their holy book seriously?

To allow one faith, is to allow them all.  Not to do so is intellectually dishonest. If faith is belief in the absence of reason, what reason could possibly be used to distinguish one faith from another? Either we demand intellectual rigour from our beliefs, or we don’t. This begs the question, how should we differentiate between the fundamental, radicalised Muslim who takes the Koran literally (it is God’s word, after all) and the moderate, peaceful Muslim who simply ignores the Koran’s calls to violence. If faith is a virtue, how can we prohibit the first and permit the second?

We can’t, but more importantly, we shouldn’t. In the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, much of the mainstream media, in particular the BBC, has gone to great lengths to point out the actions of these murderers do not represent ‘real’ Islam, as if there was an obvious distinction. In matters of faith, by definition, there can be no distinction.

The paradox of tolerance

I do not want to upset people needlessly, but in the case of religion, the need to openly criticise and discuss these ridiculous ideas is significantly more important than the potential hurt feelings of the faithful. Religious ideas should be no more immune to criticism than political ideas, artistic ideas, or scientific ideas, and in the case of the latter, we have seen what can be achieved through a systematic approach of criticising ideas. In science, we are encouraged to ask the question “what if I’m/you’re wrong?” – the kind of question people only ask when genuinely interested in truth.

Being offended doesn't make you right

Of the world’s 1.2 billion Muslims, it is estimated that between 15–25% are radicalised. That’s 180 Million-300 million people (the entire population of the USA), utterly content with ideas of jihad, martyrdom, and blasphemy, demanding nothing less than the death penalty for apostates, and the brutal suppression of women. These ideas are amongst the most disgusting, hateful, fascist ideas possible, and yet, out of ‘respect’ for those of faith, and fear of being considered islamophobic, we remain disturbingly silent.

There are of course many millions of peaceful, loving, compassionate moderates, but when defending the rights of these moderates, we should consider the following.  In 1939, most Germans were moderate, peaceful people, but it was the radicals that drove a Nazi agenda, leading to World War 2 and the death of 60 million people. The behaviour of the moderates was insignificant.

World War 3 will be a war of ideas, and in many ways is already under way. Superstition, fear and dogma will increasingly give way to science and humanism, and like a cornered animal will get increasingly more violent as the end approaches. I ask the morally courageous amongst you to never accept faith as a virtue, to treat faith as you would any discourse that claims to know more than it possibly can. The future of our species depends on the ability of the next generation to make good decisions. The future of our species depends on our ability to criticise bad ideas. #JeSuisCharlie.

Je suis Charlie

Do we need a space programme?

If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea
– Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

In centuries past, comets were considered the supernatural bringer of bad news, usually associated with political unrest, or the death of a king. On 12 November 2014, after spending a decade travelling through the emptiness of space, the fridge sized ‘Philae’ touched down, marking humanity’s first contact with the surface of a comet, symbolic of a revolution in human understanding.

Comet 67P/C-G, a 4.6 billion year old icy space rock, is a pristine building block left-over from a time when the planets in our solar system were still forming. Unlike planets, comets have no weather and remain chemically unchanged, so studying them gives scientists valuable data in the quest to improve our understanding of the early solar system, and the origin of life on Earth.

The scientific legacy of Philae – and the Rosetta mission more generally, is yet to be determined, but the 10 scientific instruments on board Philae seemed to have worked well during the 60 or so hours of battery life. Although still unpublished, the data beamed back to Earth undoubtedly contains detailed information on the types of complex organic molecules present (the precursors to life), and will help answer the question of where the water in our oceans came from.

Despite Rosetta’s success, I find it curious that the internet is awash with critics of the mission, and space exploration in general. Suppose Rosetta had missed the comet entirely, or Philae had crash landed on arrival, would it be fair to call the mission a failure? Would the mission be a complete waste of time, effort, and money, as many on the internet already seem to suggest?

The majority of arguments against space exploration seem to fall within two main categories:
1) Space exploration is expensive (Wouldn’t the money have been better spent feeding the hungry?)
2) Space exploration does nothing to benefit humanity (Shouldn’t we be doing more to understand problems on Earth before venturing off into space?)

Taken at face value, these argument may seem pretty convincing.  So, for those of you that think space exploration is expensive, consider the following:

How much does it cost to land on a comet

  • In 2008, the US Government spent $750 billion bailing out the banks, which is more money than NASA has received in funding throughout its whole half-century history.
  • NASA’s annual budget ($18 billion) amounts to 0.6% of national spending ($6 in every $1000). In 2006, Americans spent more than $154 billion on alcohol, and over $10 billion per month on the war in Iraq. In 2014, Americans spent $60 billion on pet care.

There is no denying that $18 billion is a serious amount of money, and could be used to fund many worthwhile projects. However, in the case of space exploration this money is being spent on focused research and development, the fruits of which are difficult to exaggerate.

Which brings us on to the second argument. For those of you that think space exploration does nothing to benefit humanity, consider the following innovations that have been made possible through investment in space exploration:

  • Satellites – It goes without saying, without a space program there would be no satellites.  Say goodbye to sky television, mobile phones, satellite navigation, fast internet and accurate weather forecasting (amongst other things)
  • Personal computers/laptops/tablets/smart phones – Due to the  high cost of fuel, space exploration thrives on the miniaturization of its components. Before the space program, radios were the size of armchairs. Computers were the size of tennis courts. Modern microchips descend from integrated circuits used in the Apollo Guidance Computer.
  • Solar panels – Turning sunlight into electricity became possible when a NASA-sponsored 28-member coalition of companies, government groups, universities and non-profits focussed their attention on developing high altitude unmanned aircraft
  • CT Scanners – This cancer-detecting technology was first developed to find imperfections in space components, resulting in millions of diagnosis and earlier interventions
  • LASIK eye surgery – The technology we use to fix vision was largely enabled by algorithms and techniques used to dock the space shuttle with the space station
  • Other inventions – Velcro, cordless power tools, baby formula, absorbent nappies, freeze-dried food, invisible braces (teeth), memory foam, scratch resistant lenses, and many more.


Writing this article has been actually quite depressing. Linking the value of space exploration to its economic return on investment, is a bit like equating the value of a painting to its sale price at auction,  or a piece of music by how many times it goes multi-platinum.  If this is all you care about, then you’re seriously missing the point. There is clearly inherent value in pushing the boundaries of our understanding, and if only we had the foresight to reach further than beyond our wallets, to work together to achieve a common good, there would be no limit to what our species can achieve. If we want to cure Ebola, we can. If we wanted to reverse climate change, develop new sources of clean energy, and maintain biodiversity on Earth for future generations, we definitely could. All that it takes is collective will, and the redistribution of wealth and attention to worthy causes.

Perhaps if nothing else, the Rosetta mission will inspire future generations. Let’s just hope we’ve done enough.

How's that space program coming along?

Can we be optimistic about the future?

“Education is the most powerful weapon we can use to change the world”
– Nelson Mandela

Given the seemingly never ending stream of bad news (climate change, poverty, wars, social inequality, massacres, the irreversible destruction of habitats and the rise of militant Islam), it would seem that as a species, we are drifting into the arena of the unwell.

The western world is obsessed with economic growth, driven by the myth that human satisfaction can be achieved through the accumulation of material possessions, that if we keep making and buying ‘things’ we’ll be happy. Corporate interests determine foreign policy, the rich are getting richer, the poor poorer, with over 2 billion people forced to drink toxic water. The worlds majority still believe in magic and superstition, faithfully dedicating their thoughts and services to the fictional musings of our ancestors. To quote Sam Harris, we live in a world where Muslims riot by the hundreds of thousands over cartoons, where Catholics oppose condom use in villages decimated by AIDS, and where the only ‘moral’ judgement guarenteed to unite the better part of humanity at this moment is that homosexuality is wrong.

Contrast this reality with another. In the not-so-distant future, scientific breakthroughs will afford total command over the material world, allowing infinite opportunity to create, but also destroy. Given our ability to weaponise breakthroughs in scientific understanding, and failure to control our irrational vices, can we still be optimistic about the future?

Photo 06-03-2013 01 21 15

I recently read a great book that attempts to address this very question. The author asks many of the worlds leading thinkers across a range of fields what is that they feel optimistic about. The answers are refreshing, and having just finished the book, I thought I would share with you several themes that jumped out and made me happy.

  • War will end (Steven Pinker, John Horgan, John McCarthy)

Our evolutionary cousins are violent, and regularly fight inter-communal wars. In some chimp communities, it has been observed that more than 33% of males die by violence. For primitive Human societies, it has been estimated that mortality rates may have reached 50%. Contrast this with today. Even in the blood soaked and brutal 20th century, it is estimated that 100 million men, women and children died from war related causes (including disease and famine) – less than 2% of the world’s population.

These statistics will provide little comfort for victims of recent conflicts; nevertheless there is no disputing that things are moving in the right direction. Cruelty, Human sacrifice to indulge superstition, slavery, genocide, mutilation, murder, rape and torture are much less prevalent than they once were, especially in the west. When they do occur, these practices are increasingly scrutinized and generally met with alarm and disgust. Our powers of empathy appear to be growing. This surely gives us something to remain optimistic about.

Several reasons have been attributed to this general moral progress. Our lives are longer and less painful than ever. When tragedy and early death are no longer expected features of our own life, perhaps we feel reluctant to inflict these features on others. Some point to the rise in global trade, where other people are more valuable to us alive than dead. I am inclined to agree with Peter Singer and attribute these changes to ‘the golden rule’, the more we understand and think about life, compassion and the universe, the harder it is to priveldge our own interests over those of other sentient beings.

  • The truth will set us free (Carlo Rovelli, Anton Zeilinger, Sam Harris, Clay Shirky, J. Craig Venter)

Anaxaminder once suggested that rain is not sent by Zeus, but water evaporated by the Sun and carried by the wind.  26 centuries have passed since then, but many still reject that scientific thought is rich, deep and good for us. In the small world of academia at least, this is not the case. Intellectuals on all sides realise that the enormity of contemporary knowledge cannot be grasped without looking at everything. Science without philosophy is impoverished, philosophy without science is blind.

Science has helped guide us out of the dark, telling us how things are, but has so far stayed very quiet about how things ought to be. This is partly due to the current limitations of our scientific inqury, but also due to the fallacious Cartesian assumption that minds and matter are somehow different. With a greater understanding of the physical brain, we will slowly converge on objective claims about the real foundations of morality and human flourishing.

Evidence-based decision making will continue to improve society, particularly as we begin to understand and unlock ‘big data’. We will learn more about the human condition in the next two decades than we have the past two millenia, and will be better placed to apply what we learn, from evidence-based politics, evidence-based law, to evidence-based teaching and parenting.

We are the universe, we seldom realise the cosmos is a living organism. That very understanding is at the heart of our breakthroughs in understanding consciousness from both a scientific, and spiritual perspective. We have just began to scratch the surface of the implications of this truth, but as we understand more, will find a completely new way of looking at the world which will transcend our current understanding of ourselves and our place in the universe, without greed, hate, selfishness or delusion.

Here’s to hope.

Why I meditate

“Learn how to see. Realize that everything connects to everything else”
– Leonardo da Vinci

The word meditation carries different meanings in different contexts to different people. As a child, I believed meditation to be some wishy-washy pseudo religious act akin to prayer, hijacked by hippies and people suffering from a midlife crisis. Truthfully, I had no idea what it involved, or why people did it.

My views on meditation began to change in my early 20’s, to explain why, you probably need some context.  Aged 15, for the first time in my life, I was on the receiving end of some scary ‘unwanted’ attention. For about a year, I genuinely feared for my life. This came as a shock to an otherwise very happy and well-rounded teenager, so much so that I developed an eating disorder. How this happened, I’m still not sure, but in hindsight my levels of anxiety and worry were always incredibly high, often to the point of nausea and vomiting.

After several months of feeling sick and struggling to eat, I began to associate meal times with vomiting. Over time, this led to an expectation of vomiting, and before meal times, I would feel myself tense up, dreading the inevitable sickness to come.  All through college and university I struggled, so much so that I was admitted to hospital on 4 occasions, once spending a week in hospital on a drip due to my inability to keep food down. I seemed forever locked in a downward spiral of negative thoughts and anxiety about food. This went on for 10 years, 9 years after the perceived threats to my life were gone.

I did not suffer in silence (an anxiety/eating disorder like this is very difficult to hide), and it’s fair to say I tried everything. After repeat visits to my local GP (who initially hoped this was just a passing phase and my problems would disappear on their own accord) I was refered to a consultant Gastroenterologist, who subsequently refered me to a child psychologist. She saw the problem for what it was (stress, anxiety, a phobia of food) and told me to work on my breathing, to no avail. To appease my worried mother I tried several rounds of hypnotism, homeopathy, aromatherapy, sat through hours of cognitive behavioural therapy, I tried beta-blockers, metoclopramide, fluoextine, citalopram, underwent more therapy.. this list goes on. I learned to manage my illness day-to-day through that time, but it became more severe when things were bad. Starting college, exams, learning to drive, starting university, going on dates, going out for meals, breakfast, lunch, dinner – all of these things were very stressful and difficult to manage, and frequently led to cyclical patterns of severe vomiting. I survived by smoking lots of cannabis, with a core diet of nutritional milkshakes, which I found easier to cope with than food.

On deciding to become a chemistry teacher, I realised that this couldn’t go on indefinitely (I’m not sure how teenagers would react to their teacher projectile vomiting in class). I was fortunate to find a very lovely, incredibly bright psychologist (Dr Lisa Wilson) who finally found a way to help me beat my illness – mindful meditation. 

For me, (a sceptic, and hardline atheist), for any kind of meditation therapy it was important that there were no unfounded ideas about the nature of reality, or a requirement to develop a fondness for the superstition of one or another religion. To my surprise, mindfulness is a route to profound ‘spiritual’ inquiry without having to presuppose any bullshit. Mindfulness can be explained within any secular or scientific context without embarrassment.

“Mindfulness is simply a state of open, nonjudgmental, and nondiscursive attention to the contents of consciousness, whether pleasant or unpleasant. That is all.”

Cultivating this quality of mind has been shown to modulate pain, mitigate anxiety and depression, improve cognitive function, and even produce changes in gray matter density in regions of the brain related to learning and memory, emotional regulation, and self-awareness.

To quote Sam Harris, the practice of mindfulness is extraordinarily simple to describe, but it is in no sense easy. Here, as elsewhere in life, the “10,000 Hour Rule” often applies. And true mastery probably requires special talent and a lifetime of practice. I am a meditation amateur in every sense, but even so, in a very short time, mindfulness has managed to transform my life in a very positive way, rescuing my mind from a painful and destructive illness.

I started practising mindfulness by using a fantastic ‘guided meditation’ audiobook – Mindfulness: A practical guide to finding peace in a frantic world, which requires very little effort, you just lie there and listen to the instructions. That book is very good, but I’m sure there are plenty of others. Sam Harris provides a free guided audio meditation you can find here.

Generally, mindfulness goes something like this.

Meditation Instructions:

  1. Lie comfortably, on a bed, with your arms and legs moved slightly away from your body.
  2. Close your eyes, take a few deep breaths, and feel the points of contact between your body and the bed. Take a few minutes to really notice and pay attention to the sensations associated with lying there —feelings of pressure, warmth, tingling, vibration, etc.
  3. Gradually become aware of the process of breathing. Pay attention to wherever you feel the breath most clearly—either at the nostrils, or in the rising and falling your abdomen, notice what it feels like to breathe.
  4. Allow your attention to rest in the mere sensation of breathing. (There is no need to control your breath. Just let it come and go naturally.)
  5. Every time your mind wanders in thought, gently return it to the sensation of breathing.
  6. As you focus on the breath, you will notice that other perceptions and sensations continue to appear: sounds, feelings in the body, emotions, etc. Simply notice these phenomena as they emerge in the field of awareness, and then return to the sensation of breathing.
  7. The moment you observe that you have been lost in thought, notice the present thought itself as an object of consciousness. Then return your attention to the breath—or to whatever sounds or sensations arise in the next moment.
  8. Continue in this way until you can merely witness all objects of consciousness—sights, sounds, sensations, emotions, and even thoughts themselves—as they arise and pass away.
  9. Don’t judge yourself. Just notice (with a compassionate curiosity).
  10. Scan your whole body, starting from the feet, working up, just noticing what exists, right there in the moment.

You might wonder how on earth I cured an eating disorder by following the above instructions. So do I.

The best explanation that I can give, is that mindfulness helped me understand something quite profound. Thoughts are only thoughts – they are not me, they do not define me. I do not have to believe them, or worry about them, it is possible just to observe them come and go, without judging myself or what they mean. Getting lost in my own stressful thoughts about what might happen, has happened, or should happen, quickly became a thing of the past.

I started to understand that the only thing that really matters is the moment. The past and future do not exist in any real sense, and if you can find peace and fulfilment in the present moment, nothing else really matters.

I began to understand that there is no distinction between myself, and the rest of the universe. I am as much a natural part of the universe as anything else – there is nothing special about me. There was something very comforting about that thought when it really took me, it allowed me be compassionate with myself, and forgive myself for any misgivings and shortcomings.

Desiderata - Max Ehrmann. 1927

Overall, I just became a lot calmer, a lot more focussed, and much happier with who I was. That old mantra ‘learn to love yourself’ is pretty abstract, but very very true. If you stop getting caught up in thoughts, and just let yourself exist, in the present moment, you might be very pleased with what you find.

I go to nature to be soothed and healed, and to have my senses put in tune once more

Technology, education and the future of society

Advances in science

I have recently spent a lot of time thinking about the future of our species. We’re at a crossroads. With the recent financial crisis, the impending threat of global warming, and vocalised opposition to organised religion amongst other things, there seems to be a growing sense that things cannot continue as they are. This is not surprising when you consider the following timeline:

  • 85 million years ago: The first primates diverge from other mammals
  • 2.3 million years ago: The first evidence of a thoughtful ‘intelligence’. Homo Habilis use stone tools to manipulate the world around them
  • 1.5 million years ago: Natural selection leads to a dramatic increase in brain size. Homo erectus leaves africa, the first species to use fire and complex tools
  • 200,000 years ago: Modern humans appear – genetically speaking there is little difference from these animals and ourselves
  • 50,000 years ago: The dawn of language. For the first time, an individual can share complex thoughts and abstract ideas with other individuals almost instantaneously
  • 12,000 years ago: Agricultural revolution, humans slowly move from a hunter gatherer lifestyle to one centred around community and farming
  • 5,200 years ago: Sophisticated writing systems emerge. For the first time, it becomes possible to accumulate complex ideas, and share abstract thoughts with future generations
  • 4,500 years ago: The first libraries emerge in an effort to store the wealth of human knowledge
  • 2,500 years ago: Philosophers begin to question the nature of truth, and how to distinguish fact from opinion
  • 650 years ago: Printing press allows dissemination of information to all
  • 500 years ago: The scientific method (a system of testing, correcting, verifying and integrating knowledge) is recognised as an effective way to uncover truths about reality
  • 250 years ago: Steam engine gives rise to the first industrial revolution
  • 220 years ago: The first successful vaccination programme. The tides turn in the war against disease
  • 150 years ago: Electricity becomes an essential tool in modern life
  • 110 years ago: The first aircraft takes flight
  • 100 years ago: Einstein explains the relationship between space, time, energy and matter
  • 70 years ago: The first nuclear weapon is detonated
  • 60 years ago: The shape of the D.N.A molecule is decoded. The birth of molecular biology
  • 45 years ago: Neil Armstrong becomes the first human to walk on another world
  • 10 years ago: The internet gives every free human access to the entire wealth of human knowledge

It seems reasonably clear that major changes in society have occurred in parallel with major breakthroughs in education for the masses.  The invention of language, writing, libraries, the printing press and most recently the internet have all offered individuals a powerful new way of accessing knowledge, and with that, a way to make informed, rational decisions about society and the way they should live. It is probably no coincidence that democracy was invented in a society where for the first time, many individuals could read.

“Books permit us to voyage through time, to tap the wisdom of our ancestors. The library connects us with the insights and knowledge, painfully extracted from Nature, of the greatest minds that ever were, with the best teachers, drawn from the entire planet and from all of our history, to instruct us without tiring, and to inspire us to make our own contribution to the collective knowledge of the human species.  I think the health of our civilization, the depth of our awareness about the underpinnings of our culture and our concern for the future can all be tested by how well we support our libraries.”

Relatively speaking, science is a modern invention and during the past 500 years, science has given us the tools and understanding to manipulate the world in ways which have had a profound effect on society, at a rate never before seen in human history. Arguably, the past 250 years have seen changes more radical than the stone, bronze and iron changes combined. I worry that the science driving this change, and access to this wealth of knowledge through the internet is dangerously under appreciated.

Consumer capitalism has hijacked science to make it barely recognisable from its origins. For many people, science is ‘gadgets’ that offer them a quick fix, or brief satisfaction in their vacuous consumer driven lives. The beauty and understanding that comes with a well-rounded scientific education seems utterly lost on most, even in the west.  Worse, the media treats science with mistrust and indifference, and in a democracy, where the majority hold power the media inform the majority, this is surely a disaster waiting to happen. What would our ancesters give to own a device that offers them access to the entire wealth of human knowledge? I suspect taking selfies, sharing pictures of dinner, and watching vast quantities of hardcore porn would be lower on their list of priorities. #youwouldhope

“We’ve arranged a global civilization in which the most crucial elements — transportation, communications, and all other industries; agriculture, medicine, education, entertainment, protecting the environment; and even the key democratic institution of voting, profoundly depend on science and technology. We have also arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology. This is a prescription for disaster. We might get away with it for a while, but sooner or later this combustible mixture of ignorance and power is going to blow up in our faces.”

If the next 100 years are anything like the last, we can expect some turbulent times ahead. Many problems will arise from resistance to change, whether it’s fundamentalist religious groups, or just a generation of individuals who think they know best, I suspect things are likely to get worse before they get better.  In a world of limited resources and unlimited wants, society is mainly set up in such a way to satisfy these needs and wants. We all rely on the supermarkets for our foods, the textiles industry for our clothing, the oil industry for our fuel.  Reliance on those in our immediate community has been lost, and we are destined to consume from the faceless corporations with big marketing budgets. But things will get better…

With the advancing science of nanotechnology, it is feasible that within the next 100 years or so, each of us will own our own ‘nanofactory’ where anything we want can be engineered from scratch. From burgers to computer chips, petrol to clothing, it is possible that using only the atoms available in our immediate environment, we will be able to build anything we need. The raw materials are already all around us in the atoms that make up the air, earth and water, and very soon (from the perspective of the above timeline) we will have the technology that offers total and complete manipulation of these atoms to serve our needs and desires.

Will we still need (or want) money, will wealth even mean anything? Will crime still pay? Will we have to work? How will we spend our time? Will we even need society?

I hope we survive long enough to answer these questions.

The illusion of free will

“There was a young man who said ‘Damn!’
I perceive with regret that I am 
But a puppet that moves 
In predestinate grooves 
I’m not even a bus, I’m a tram.”

—Maurice E. Hare (1905)

The human brain is without doubt the most complex object in the known universe. How can the ‘material’ brain, essentially billions of unconscious atoms, give rise to the rich subjective experience of our every day lives; tastes, smells, colours, sounds, feelings, emotions? Given enough LEGO, could you ever build a structure that feels pain, or is able to read and understand the content of this blog?

How the ‘immaterial’ mind can emerge from the ‘material’ brain is as much a problem for philosophy as it is for science. However, in recent decades, the sophisticated tools required to study the brain – the methods and techniques needed to measure certain aspects of brain activity have began to flourish, with surprising results.

Arguably the most interesting area of research (but seldom discussed) concerns that of free will. Many of us believe that we have choice. We believe that we are morally responsible for our actions, and that for any choice we make, we could have chosen otherwise.

Suppose I tell you a joke, and you laugh because you find it funny, did you have a choice to find it funny? Could you have perhaps chosen to find it offensive instead?
Suppose I suggest that black people are less intelligent than white people, or tell you that your partner has an ugly face, do you think you have a choice in how those statements make you feel? Could you choose to agree with me, despite your immediate and automatic feelings of anger or revulsion?
If I offer you a new type of beer, you taste it and declare “I do not like this beer”, what choice did you have in this? Does it even make sense to suggest you could have chosen otherwise?

I fail to see the difference between these questions, and other questions which are of much more significance to society, particularly to our criminal justice system. For example, If a person is sexually attracted to members of their own sex, could they have chosen otherwise? We can ask the same question of Paedophiles. If you are not attracted to children, could you wake up one morning and decide that you are? If you are disturbed enough to want to act on these desires, if your moral compass is not refined enough to prevent you from acting, is it really your fault that you do?

Experiements performed by Benjamin Libet in 1983 suggest that unconscious electrical processes in the brain precede conscious decisions to perform spontaneous acts. In other words, you can raise your arm and state “I’ve just chosen to raise my arm, therefore I have free will”, but that decision to raise your arm had started in the brain many seconds before you became consciously aware that you wanted to raise your arm. More, by looking at your brain, it would have been possible for somebody else to predict you were going to raise your arm, long before you ‘chose’ to do it.

This should not really come as a surprise, since our brains are physical things, and like all physical things, they obeys physical laws. If I throw a tennis ball at a wall, and I know something about the trajectory and velocity of the ball, I can confidently predict where the ball will land. The same can be said (in theory) about the atoms in your brain. The only thing that can influence the physical brain is the external world.  Inputs come in (a funny joke for example), and outputs arise in consciousness (the experience of finding something funny) through no fault of our own. Somebody runs at you with a knife, and you immediately react, accidentally killing that person in the process. Given your brain at that moment in time, and the specific input, there could only ever be one output.

Our minds (our thoughts, beliefs and feelings) are intricately linked to the physical brain. For proof of this, just think what happens when you drink alcohol. The alcohol affects the chemistry of your brain, which directly influences the mind. How the current physical state of your brain correlates with your actual state of mind is still beyond our understanding. However, humans have walked the earth for approximately 200,000 years. We discovered the scientific method about 400 years ago (look at the progress we have made since), and anything resembling modern neuroscience started less than 50 years ago. It will take a brave man to suggest this correlation will never be understood.

Free will is an illusion, our choices are the result of the brains we are born with, and the experiences we are subject to throughout our lives.

Needless to say, this does not mean that there is no right and wrong, or that we should all start misbehaving. All it means is that there should be increased emphasis to teach and understand what is right and wrong. A brain that understands why something is wrong, that appreciates compassion, is much less likely to behave immorally.

If anything, our criminal justice system should focus less on punishment, and more on rehabilitation. Brains can learn – it’s what they do best.

Sorry doctor, the patient *really does* know best – experience again proven to predict clinical outcomes

Neil Bacon Blog

Surely, you say, there cannot be anyone left on the (healthcare) planet who is still arguing against patient experience being a valuable, robust way to assess the quality of care. (Of course, it does need to be measured robustly, comparatively and with a sound, reproducible methodology – however that is not the subject of this blog.)

I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but I do still occasionally meet clinicians who argue against the fundamental role and importance of patient experience, along the lines of “but it’s not as important as clinical outcomes, isn’t it just something that depends on the nurses being kind and the clinic running on time?”.

If you happen upon those poor misguided souls, and all the previous (and growing) weight of evidence-based publications has not yet persuaded them of their out-of-date, incorrect, misguided ways, then here is yet another BMJ publication to help…

View original post 374 more words

Science and the media – chemicals are bad…

It takes quite a lot to get me riled. Very rarely do I get angry, and when I do, the feelings are short-lived and generally followed by feelings of amusement that something/somebody has managed to wind me up and get under my skin.

I felt properly angry this week. When some dickhead took the responsibility upon themselves to shoot down a plane – passenger flight MH17, killing 298 civilians, 80 of them children, 108 of them world leaders in the fight against HIV and AIDS, it’s hard to feel anything else. This happened 2 days ago, and the way I’m feeling at the moment, particularly in light of the Kremlin’s response – it’s easy to understand what Yoda meant when he said ‘anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering’.

Sitting in front of the television yesterday (watching Russia Today – baffled by their coverage) the adverts came on, which leads me to the something else that manages to piss me off. Marketing departments that deliberately misinform the public about science. In this instance, it was Reckitt Benckiser*, claiming that their new ‘Quantum’ dishwasher tablet uses ‘less chemicals’ and the power of ‘active oxygen’ to keep your glasses sparkling clean. Sounds friendly.

After looking at the ingredients list, it transpires that this ‘active oxygen’ is due to the high concentration of hydrogen peroxide in the tablet (which liberates oxygen on decomposition). ‘Less chemicals’ is due to the fact that other chemical cleaners have been replaced by hydrogen peroxide in the tablet. So… a few facts about hydrogen peroxide:

  • Hydrogen peroxide is a strong oxidizer and is frequently used as a bleaching agent
  • Concentrated Hydrogen peroxide has been used as a propellant in rocket fuel
  • During WWII, concentration camp doctors experimented with the use of hydrogen peroxide injections to kill humans
  • Hydrogen peroxide is one of the chief chemicals in the defense system of the bombardier beetle,  releasing a hot, noxious chemical spray from the tip of their abdomen
  • Hydrogen peroxide has been used for creating organic peroxide based explosives, such as acetone peroxide used in the 7 July 2005 London bombings

My point is not that we should worry about hydrogen peroxide (it is actually perfectly safe in normal concentrations, when handled correctly – RB are perfectly correct to use it), only that the information in this dishwasher advert is deliberately misleading. I think it is reckless and dangerous for companies to patronise the public when it comes to science.

Photo 30-12-2012 13 27 46

Many problems that we face as a species are self-inflicted, and more often than not, we create these problems for ourselves through lack of education. For a democracy to work in an advanced technology led society, it’s critically important that the masses are educated and informed enough to understand the issues, and vote responsibly. So how do we do this?

Having spent some time as a chemistry teacher, I think much more could be done to encourage rational and scientific thinking in schools (not just teaching children to regurgitate answers in exams). Education is not just the learning of facts, but the training of the mind to think. Beyond schools, there is surely a level of corporate responsibility for those companies that invest and profit by the science through their products. Perhaps more importantly, it is the medias responsibility to report on scientific issues in a fair and objective way.

Why then, are the media so terrible at reporting on science? For important issues – for argument’s sake let’s say evolution, the scientific community are almost entirely in agreement.  ALL of the evidence points towards evolution by natural selection, to quote Richard Dawkins “Today the theory of evolution as much open to doubt as the theory that the earth goes around the sun”.  And yet, because certain religious groups find evolution hard to swallow, the media almost always report evolution as controversial. In climate change, again there is no real controversy, and yet the smallest of dissenting voices get equal representation in the media. To have a debate on the news, where 1 person argues for climate change, and another argues against, is a complete misrepresentation of how these issues are understood by those that understand them. It is no wonder that the public view science (and scientific consensus) with scepticism.

Photo 28-11-2012 19 58 12

As a chemistry graduate, I often notice how the use of the word ‘chemicals’ in the news, in advertising and in common usage carries the implication that chemicals are bad. I challenge you to name one thing that is not a chemical…

  • Air – chemicals
  • Water – chemicals
  • Food – chemicals
  • The human brain – complicated and well organised mixture of chemicals
  • Planet earth – chemicals
  • All matter in the entire universe – chemicals
You get my point.  To what extent a chemical may be bad (harmful) very much depends on dosage. Whether a chemical is man-made or natural tells you precisely nothing about how dangerous it is. Sodium thiopental, for example, is used in lethal injections but it’s about as toxic as amygdalin, which turns up in almonds and apple seeds. What makes one of these chemicals dangerous and the other part of your healthy five-a-day is quite simply the quantity that you consume.
Natural vs Man made chemicals

Natural vs Man made chemicals

Chemicals are the building blocks for everything. They are not inherently bad, and the media/corporations are wrong to profit from the publics paranoia. If you have any concerns about chemicals in your every day products, feel free to ask a question and I will do my best to present you with the jargon-free facts.

*Reckitt Benckiser’s brands include Dettol (the world’s largest-selling antiseptic), Strepsils (the world’s largest-selling sore throat medicine), Veet (the world’s largest-selling hair removal brand), Air Wick (the world’s second-largest-selling air freshener), Calgon, Clearasil, Cillit Bang, Durex, Lysol, and Vanish – I’m refusing to buy any of them.


The scale of things

If you draw a small (1mm x 1mm) square on your thumbnail and hold it up to the sky, you will be looking at an area of the sky that’s roughly the same size as the area of sky photographed by the Hubble space telescope in this next image.

Deep field image


The field photographed is so small that only a few foreground stars from the Milky Way lie within it. Almost all of the  objects in the image are galaxies, some of which are among the youngest and most distant known. The image was assembled from 342 separate exposures taken with the Space Telescope’s Wide Field and Planetary Camera over ten consecutive days between December 18 and December 28, 1995.

The scale of the universe beggars belief. It’s quite simply massive. Current estimates suggest that the observable universe has a diameter of 93 billion light years. Light travels at 186,282 miles per second, but it would still take light 93 billion years for light to cross the universe. That’s big – especially when you consider the universe is less than 14 billion years old.

The other end of the spectrum is equally bizarre. Objects exist that are as small as the universe is big. There are many billions of atoms in just a single grain of sand, for example, but even atoms can be considered massive. A proton is to an atom, what a football is to the moon.

We inhabit ‘middle world’… Quite literally. Our brains have evolved to understand things that happen in ‘middle world’ so it should come as no surprise when we struggle to understand the quantum behaviour of very small subatomic particles, or cosmically large galaxy clusters.

Check out this fantastic tool that lets you explore the scale of things, most of which we are only just beginning to understand.

Click here: the scale of things



Can machines think?

Why passing the Turing test is a poor measure of artificial intelligence

In 1950, Alan Turing (best known for his work on the Bombe electro-magnetical device, used to crack secret German codes in WWII) published a paper ‘Computing Machinery and Intelligence‘. “I propose to consider the question,” his paper begins, “Can machines think?”

Turing had a scientific mind, and because he could think of no experiment that would help answer the question, he changed the wording to “Are there imaginable computers which would do well in the imitation game?” He believed this was a similar question, and if a computer could successfully imitate a human’s ability to have a conversation, it could, by his definition ‘think’.

In Alan Turing’s thought experiment, a human judge engages in a natural language conversation with a human and a machine designed to generate conversation indistinguishable from that of a human being. All participants are separated from one another. If the judge cannot reliably tell the machine from the human, the machine is said to have passed the test.

This ‘Turing Test’ recently made the news, as on 7 June 2014, for the first time a computer programme convinced 33% of the judges at the Royal Society in London that it was human. There is no denying this a landmark achievement, but does it mean that this computer programme can think?

Thinking is mysterious. When we think, each of us has a ‘subjective mental experience’, in other words, there is ‘something it is like’ to think. If I ask you to close your eyes and imagine the Mona Lisa on the Moon, you will probably generate some kind of abstract mental picture. You will also ‘understand’ my request, and all of a sudden, your thoughts will be ‘about’ the Mona Lisa on the Moon (they have an intention). The brain is responsible for this wizardry, but we are still no closer to answering how this happens than our chimpanzee cousins. If the brain is made out of atoms (essentially just the LEGO of the universe), how do we arrange this LEGO so that all of a sudden they become ‘about’ something, and how can we make the LEGO understand, or have a subjective mental experience? No matter how hard I’ve tried, my LEGO creations never take on any of these properties. Is there something it feels like to be a red LEGO house? I suspect not.

In my view, this is where the Turing test fails. In the case of language, there is a difference between syntax (letters or symbols) and semantics (the mental meaning of those letters or symbols). A computer programme that can imitate a human conversation is doing just that – imitate. The program uses syntax and sophisticated algorithms to manipulate the symbols, but pays no attention to the semantics of the symbols. A computer programme follows instructions on where to put the symbols and how to move them around, but it doesn’t know what they stand for or what they mean.

In some ways, our own minds are like computers programmes, in that our next thought is determined by prior states and external inputs, of which we have no control. (I have discussed this briefly in my previous article on the illusion of free will). In other ways, our minds demonstrate properties that no computer program has ever come close to emulating, and for this reason, I feel that the Turing test is a woefully inadequate description of artificial intelligence.

It is clear to me that consciousness is an emergent property of a complex system. Complexity is a science in its infancy, and how consciousness might emerge from the brain is the hardest problem of philosophy and science. But it does happen, consciousness is a property of the universe, and in principle it might be possible for us to work out how and why. For now, our computer programs don’t cut the mustard, but that’s not to say thay never will. Either way, the Turing test tells us nothing.