Posts Tagged ‘new’

A brief (and rather pointless) journey in semantics

January 2, 2010

I follow Phil Plait of Bad Astronomy on Twitter (@BadAstronomer), and earlier he stirred up a bit of a hornet’s nest regarding what, exactly, constitutes a decade.  This is a little ironic as I had just discussed this very issue a couple days prior with a friend.

The question being asked: when does a decade begin or end?  Though Phil has presented his own argument, I would like to make my own view clear.

First, we should define what a decade is.  A decade is a period of 10 years, in the same way that a century is a period of 100 years and a millenia is a period of 1000 years.  Some of the confusion arises from what we saw on January 1st, 2000.  Many were hailing the beginning of a new millenia, and the start of the 21st century.  The problem was that the 21st century didn’t actually start until January 1, 2001 because there was no year 0.  Similarly, some argued that “the new millenia” didn’t start until January 1, 2001.

I will help clarify this issue of decades by using the year 2000 as an example.  Since a millenia means only a period of 1000 years, it was actually reasonable to say that January 1, 2000 was the beginning of a new millenia, because there is nothing in the definition of a millenia that says when our starting point must begin.  A person may justly say that a new millenia had begun, so long as they acknowledged that the beginning of the last millenia in their context was January 1, 1000.

The question of whether it was the 21st century, though, is a more rigidly defined problem.  When we talk of whether it is the 21st century, the 11th century, or the 5th century, we are referring to how many centuries have occurred since the start of the common era (or, as the religious might call it, Anno Domini).  So given that there was no year 0, it could not possibly have been the 21st century since the start of the common era unless it was January 1, 2001 or later.

How does this relate to decades?  First, we have the more general view.  January 1, 2010 is indeed the beginning of a new decade, since nothing in the definition of decade necessarily implies that a decade begin on a year ending in 1, 2, 3, etc.  To make it more clear, we might say that it is the end of the 00’s decade, as we have colloquially referred to decades in terms of the number in the tens slot.  So December 31, 2009 was the end of a decade in the same way that December 31, 1969 was the end of a decade.

However, on the more particular view, one could not argue that January 1, 2010 is the beginning of the 201st decade; only January 1, 2011 could be, given that there was no year 0.

Personally, I think the short-hand of referring to periods as the 60’s, 70’s, 80’s, 90’s, or “Aughties” is not very fruitful.  It doesn’t save us any appreciable time, but does add ambiguity (since there have been 20 different decades of the 60’s thus far).  For clarity’s sake, I think one should be explicit in stating their starting point.  For example, there is more clarity in saying that December 31, 1999 was the end of the 90’s, since we have specifically stated what our starting date is.  I choose to scrap such nomenclature altogether and stick only to counting decades since the common era began (I would say, for example, that 2010 is the last year of the 200th decade), but alas I suppose I’m in the minority there.  I find referring to decades by the number in the tens slot to be a tad short-sighted, but I leave it to the reader to determine whether this is necessary short-hand given our extraordinarily short lifetime when compared against the scale of the universe.

Deepak Chopra: “Skeptics trust in nothing”

December 2, 2009

The Huffington Post is a paper that I came across quite a bit in 2008.  Though it had many interesting articles during the 2008 US Election, it’s leftish slant still left a lot to be desired.  In particular, the Huffington Post has run articles and op-eds supporting a lot of junk medicine, including homeopathy and the anti-vaccination perspective.  So it was no surprise when they published an article where Deepak Chopra, a true master of “woo,” complained about how skeptics are, in essence, pathetic nihilists who’ve never been ahead of the curve.

First, it stands to reason that Deepak Chopra has a very rational reason why he dislikes skeptics: Chopra firmly believes in the New Age mystic principle of what he calls “Quantum Healing.”  Put simply, it says that the mind can heal the body.  Take no need of any medicine; you have all that you need sloshing around in your skull.  Chopra makes use of the randomness seen in Quantum Mechanics at the sub-atomic level to suggest that there is also something going on between the mind and the body which is beyond our senses.  Touting this principle has led to a fair amount of success for Chopra, who gets his fair share of recognition for his philosophical outlook.  The only catch: there is, of course, no evidence for such a thing.

It is here where the rubber meets the road.  Skeptics such as myself pride themselves in a certain standard of evidence; anyone who ignores claims with significant supporting evidence is adhering to it dogmatically, and something certainly frowned upon within the skeptic community.  Indeed, the skeptic who acknowledges strong evidence quickly is the strongest of the bunch.  Chopra, though, sees things quite differently:

It never occurs to skeptics that a sense of wonder is paramount, even for scientists. Especially for scientists. Einstein insisted, in fact, that no great discovery can be made without a sense of awe before the mysteries of the universe. Skeptics know in advance — or think they know — what right thought is. Right thought is materialistic, statistical, data-driven, and always, always, conformist. Wrong thought is imaginative, provisional, often fantastic, and no respecter of fixed beliefs.

Here I think Chopra is heading down the completely wrong path.  Practical skeptics embrace the wonder of science, and have reverence and wonder for that which is unknown.  Our sense of awe is fully engaged by the natural, empirical world without ascribing it to something undemonstrated; it is enough for me to look into the Hubble Ultra Deep Field and feel an incredible sense of unity and solidarity simultaneously.  When I look into the sky, I see my connection to the universe and find it unfathomable in a way Carl Sagan might have described: I’m but a mote of dust in the wind, yet I’m made of the same starry stuff that everything else is.  There is real awe in such a moment which need not be answered by mystical claims.  I think, on the other hand, it is perfectly sufficient to give a natural account of what we know, and remain humbled by our ignorance of that which we don’t know.

Contrary to Chopra’s assertion, skeptics do not think they know in advance what right thought is: they simply believe what the strongest evidence indicates.  When the evidence changes to support a different opinion or hypothesis, the skeptic community goes along with it.  As an example, I think here of the large number of skeptics who came to accept Global Warming due to a preponderence of evidence in support of it.  Interestingly enough, the recent emails leaked from the Climate Research Unit in the UK are sparking new arguments in the skeptic community about the validity of Global Warming.  So clearly, skeptics are open to new ways of thinking about things and are, in this particular case, very non-conformist.

The problem here is not one of being ideologically driven; it is a question of standards of evidence.  By all means, a skeptic will accept a principle like quantum healing, but you must be able to demonstrate such a thing.  It is only by providing positive evidence for our claims that we are able to deduce the real from the non-real.  An idea that is wonderfully imaginative is only useful if it advances our understanding of the way the world really works; whether it is the product of fantasy or not is irrelevant.  So here comes the final blow from Chopra:

So whenever I find myself labeled the emperor of woo-woo, I pull out the poison dart and offer thanks that wrong thinking has gotten us so far. Thirty years ago no right-thinking physician accepted the mind-body connection as a valid, powerful mode of treatment. Today, no right-thinking physician (or very few) would trace physical illness to sickness of the soul, or accept that the body is a creation of consciousness, or tell a patient to change the expression of his genes. But soon these forms of wrong thinking will lose their stigma, despite the best efforts of those professional stigmatizers, the skeptics.

I hope it is immediately clear how flawed such an argument was.  Chopra feels that if he can just show one instance where people thought wrongly in the past, it can support his assertion that people are thinking wrongly now.  Yet this method of equivocation is invalid here, since there are two separate claims.  The reason physicians came to accept that the mind played a role in treatment (noticeably the placebo effect) was because the preponderence of evidence supported such an assertion.  Case studies were put forth in medical and psychological journals that showed the relationship between a positive outlook and positive outcomes.  Of course, the evidence didn’t demonstrate that one could be healed just by having the right state of mind, but that doesn’t stop Chopra.  No, it is we skeptics who hold evidence in the highest regard that are of wrong thought.  If only we would stop subjecting his ideas to the same burden of proof that allows us to ensure the highest degree of reliability in our personal beliefs, we’d get to the same “ahead of the curve” type of thinking that Chopra is espousing.

By all means, skeptics will ride the wave at the front of the curve side-by-side with Chopra, but we’ll wait until we’ve got good, reliable reasons to do so first.  It is in that which we trust: that the best evidence will ultimately rise to the top, and by proportioning our beliefs to the amount of evidence that supports them, we can be reasonably sure that our actions are justified.