Archive for the 'good ancestors workshops' Category

Mar 25 2010

Where is the line between the science of illusion and scientific innovation?

Published by under good ancestors workshops

I attended The Illusion of Psychic Powers last night as part of the San Diego Science Festival.  This was engaging lecture by magician/skeptic Jamy Ian Swiss

A longtime student of both the psychology of deception and the history and science of the paranormal, in this remarkable lecture/demonstration Jamy Ian Swiss, internationally renowned illusionist and critical thinker, defines the four kinds of paranormal events — telepathy, precognition, clairvoyance and psychokinesis — declares them to be non-existent, and then proceeds to demonstrate all of them and more, thereby proving that even the most intelligent and wary of audiences can be fooled by a determined charlatan. A stunning, informative and entertaining lesson in critical thinking for scientific and academic audiences.

He was a very engaging speaker, and his ability to use magic (what he called “legitimate lying”) to debunk psychics, tarot card readers, and 19th century spiritualists (whom he called some other less acceptable form of lying) was a great lesson for the audience.  When magicians pull a rabbit out of a hat, everyone knows that they are fooling the audience – its part of the game.  When Tarot card reader asks for money to read the future, this crosses over into another realm of lying altogether.

Jamy is affiliated with the James Randi Foundation which is where I refer folks when then tell me of some dramatic parapsychological or  “proof” of some mystical event.   They offer $1 million to anyone who can show, under proper observing conditions, evidence of any paranormal, supernatural, or occult power or event.

This is all well and good, and the $1 million Randi prize is a great way to halt “woo” in its tracks.


I was a little turned off by his smugness about “real” science and “woo.”  At one point, he mentioned cynically mentioned psychology, saying he would be charitable and call it a “science.”  If we could reduce the human condition to a level of simplicity akin to billiard balls bouncing around on a frictionless table, I suppose we could make psychology a science as reliable as Newtonian physics.  But living systems, particularly self-aware systems, aren’t as deterministic as billiard balls.  Dismissing a discipline as “unscientific” because it can’t reduce the complexity of its domain to F=MA or some other such formula is an irresponsible way to present science.

I think it is great to expose irrational hysteria – the Salem Witch trials for example.  While we’re at it, we can talk about other irrational beliefs: that watching a football game and drinking the right beer will make young men irresistible to scantily-clothed hot chicks.  The advertising industry does a  great job of shaping our behavior by communicating with our “lizard brain” – whether our rational brain recognizes it or not.

I also fear that this smugness might block legitimate research into innovative areas in science.  Einstein criticized quantum mechanics as “spooky action at a distance” – yet this science is at the leading edge of our basic understanding of physics today.  How – and if – these tiny interactions relate to the larger scale of our day-to-day life is a mystery of the grandest significance.  And it might barbecue some “sacred cows” of science – including things that today may look like “woo” to the skeptics.  Science has still not fully addressed the issues of Goedel’s incompleteness theorem, Mandelbrot’s Fractal Dimensions, or the Advanced Wave solutions to Maxwell’s Equations.  New discoveries in Metamaterials, Nanotechnology, and Genomics also open up enormous new areas of scientific study that challenge both our ability to understand them from traditional academic silos of independent disciplines, as well as challenge some of our basic understanding of matter and energy.

I would hate to see science’s exploration of these frontiers constrained by fear of skeptics who attack all “woo” in the name of scientific orthodoxy.

Speaking of Magic and Science, here is a video I did of Dorion Sagan, son of Carl Sagan, performing magic at one of my Good Ancestor Workshops:


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Aug 17 2009

The insidious world of scientific publishing

Imagine a group of thugs blocking entrance to a public park, forcing you to pay an admission fee to use it.  You’d be outraged: “How can this group block me, a taxpayer, from accessing a park also funded by taxpayers?”

Now, substitute “scientific knowledge” for “public park” and “scientific publishers” for “thugs” in the above example.  Want to read the latest research on positive psychology done at a public university under public funds? Chances are, that unless you belong to a university or have some other academic affiliation, you’ll have to pay a hefty fee.

What right do these publishers have to force me, a taxpayer, from freely accessing scientific knowledge that was performed at taxpayer expense at a public university? Is their behavior that much different than those gentlemen at the park collecting their admission fees?

This has happened to me.  One of the most influential papers I’ve ever read was Jonathan Haidt’s 2000 paper on The Positive Emotion of Elevation, and his suggestion that positive emotions could create an “uplift spiral” – of good things creating more good things in an ever-widening cascade of uplift.  I blogged about this in 2003 in About Schmidt, Elevation, and Poverty Porn and in 2002 in Positive Emotions.

At the time I posted these papers, the link was freely available to all.  Here is the version that was captured on the Internet Archives at the time.  However, after it was published freely, the American Psychology Association decided to move it behind their academic firewall.  If you want to read it, you will have to register with them, provide a credit card to pay $11.95, and agree to the conditions “I UNDERSTAND that further reproduction or distribution of downloaded content other than for personal use is not permitted without written permission from the American Psychological Association….  I UNDERSTAND that I am purchasing viewing rights to a single article for $11.95 and that those viewing rights will be in effect for 12 months from the date I download the article for the first time.”

This is a little like a book publisher printing in disappearing ink to maximize future sales.

Rather than acting as a promoter of scientific knowledge, APA is engaging in what economists call Rent Seeking, wallowing in the same economic gutters as illegal drug dealers, taxi medallion, bribery, and government corruption:

“In economics, rent seeking occurs when an individual, organization or firm seeks to earn income by capturing economic rent through manipulation or exploitation of the economic environment, rather than by earning profits through economic transactions and the production of added wealth.

Rent …  is obtained when a third party deprives one party to a transaction of access to otherwise accessible transaction opportunities, making nominally “consensual” transactions a rent-collection opportunity for the third party. The abnormal profits of the illegal drug trade are considered rents by this definition, as they are neither legal profits nor the proceeds of common-law crimes. Taxi medallions are another commonly referenced example of rent seeking….

Rent seeking is held to occur often in the form of lobbying for economic regulations such as tariffs. Regulatory capture is a related concept which refers to collusion between firms and the government agencies assigned to regulate them, which is seen as enabling extensive rent-seeking behavior, especially when the government agency must rely on the firms for knowledge about the market.

The concept of rent seeking has been applied to corruption by bureaucrats who solicit and extract ‘bribe’ or ‘rent’ for applying their legal but discretionary authority for awarding legitimate or illegitimate benefits to clients.[6] For example, many tax officials take bribes for lessening the tax burden of the tax payers. Faizul Latif Chowdhury suggested that ‘bribery’ is a kind of rent-seeking by the government officials.

Yes, the paper is available through a separate “request this paper” transaction at Haidt’s web site.  But this does not allow me to link directly to the information, nor does it provide access in the future if he’s no longer around to personally send copies.  It does not allow a permanent name or identifier (the DOI, for example).  If we are to support a “web of knowledge” we can’t have each node in the web setting up toll booths to rent access to information.  Paper-based authors, bloggers, email writers, twitterers or whatever should be able to freely link to scientific information or portions thereof (e.g. the Methods section)

Locking up scientific papers into obscure, restricted access web sites not only restricts access to those specific papers, but it also damages the connectors between those dots.  People all over the world are used to seeing a web page with a hyperlink to another page, which is instantly available. Why should scientific knowledge be locked up in this maze of proprietary, outrageously expensive links?

I once wrote a chapter for a Springer Verlag book, Person-Centered Health Records : Toward HealthePeople, edited by Demetriades, Kolodner, and Christopherson. I didn’t receive any royalty, nor did the other authors.  We had an editor who chased the authors into submitting their material, and did light copy editing, whom I presume was paid.  The book hit the shelves for $88.  Where did the money go?  How can Springer-Verlag impose these fees on people?

I’m sure that this is a hot topic in many places, but I think its time for the public to confront the bullies who are keeping the public from publicly supported research.  Enough is enough!  The results of scientific publishing should be open, freely, and permanently available to all.  Period.

Here are some things that I’ve seen relating to open publishing:

UC Riverside (my alma mater)  physicist John Baez’ response to this situation:

  1. Don’t do free work for overpriced journals (like refereeing and editing).
  2. Put your articles on the arXiv before publishing them.
  3. Only publish in journals that let you keep your articles on the arXiv.
  4. Support free journals by publishing in them, refereeing for them, editing them… even starting your own!
  5. Help make sure free journals and the arXiv stay free.

The Open Access Scholarly Publishing Association

And here is an interesting slide show to Free the Facts by Dave Gray:


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Jan 22 2009

Jamais Cascio at the Good Ancestors 2007 workshop

Jamais Cascio at the 2007 Good Ancestors Principle Workshop in Encinitas, CA is co-founder of  Produced by Tom Munnecke, music by Jim MacKay.

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Jan 22 2009

David Ellerman

David Ellerman talks at the 2007 Good Ancestors Principle Workshop.

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Jan 22 2009

Judith Rosen at 2007 Good Ancestor workshop

Judith Rosen talks about her father Robert Rosen’s work bridging the gap between physics and biology as well as the role of anticipatory systems theory.

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Jan 22 2009

John Smart at 2007 Good Ancestors workshop

John Smart talks about accelerating change at the 2007 Good Ancestors Principle workshop.

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Jan 21 2009

Ben Goertzel at the 2007 Good Ancestors workshop

Ben Goertzel of Novamente talks about the singularity, artificial intelligence, and conscious evolution at the 2007 Good Ancestors workshop.

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Jan 10 2009

2007 Good Ancestor Workshop

Jonas Salk said, “The most important question we can ask ourselves is, “are we being good ancestors.”  Here is a summary of the Uplift Academy’s 2007 Good Ancestor Principle Workshop held in Encinitas, Ca. Feb, 2007. Produced by Tom Munnecke.  Includes comments by Jonas Salk, David Brin, Frederick Turner, Heather Wood Ion, Jamais Cascio, Tom Munnecke, Mark Frazier, Michael Strong, Judith Rosen, and Diedre Taylor.  Music by Jim Mackay, editing by Silas Haggerty of Smoothfeather Productions, Tom Munnecke, and Rob Constantine.


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