Beach-front Musings on the Nature of Science

This Father's Day part of my treat was a family day trip to the Oregon coast. We went to Pacific City and had a great time. One of the many things I love about that area (aside from the fact that it's never very crowded) are the fabulous geologic formations. The shape, color and unique makeup of these formations has lead me to an interesting hypothesis about a possible explanation for the unique style of North West native art. Noodling further about this hypothesis got me to thinking about the nature of science-vs-mysticism-vs common sense reasoning that illustrates many of the problems we face trying to rationalize one with the others.

Below is a composite of three NW native images that are pretty representative of the artistic style of Pacific rim native American cultures. These are the kinds of images seen on totem poles for example. I've always been fascinated by native art and have a particular fondness for the NW styles.

I've never really seen a discussion as to the origins of this style but when you walk around Pacific City you see the rock formations that are illustrated below.

It doesn't take a rocket scientist to recognize the similarity amongst these images. Similar mineral rich rocks are found up and down the Oregon coast, though these are some of the most currently accessible. It is not a huge stretch to imagine that rocks like these might have been viewed by native tribesmen of old and invoked complex images of animals, beings, etc. The first image in particular has naturally occurring rifts in its one 'arm' that look very much like fingers or claws of a mythic beast.

We talked as a family about this possibility and my daughter asked. "So is this where they got the idea? I mean it looks pretty obvious."

My response was the automatic answer of a skeptic; "I have no idea. It's possible but we certainly can't say for sure. We'd have to know a lot more before I'd be comfortable with that claim."

She responded, "Dad, what else could it be. Look at them. They look just like the paintings."

"That doesn't really prove anything." was my somewhat predictable comeback.

She rolled her eyes knowing that she was about to fall victim to one of my gentle science rants, but escaped in the nick of time by offering to run with the dog (the infamous hellhound) in the surf...

What struck me is how this little scene mimics the larger picture of science in history and society. Long ago, some artisans fashioned art that looks a lot like these formations. Whatever their inspiration, they presumably had no idea what these formations were and we have pretty good anthropological evidence that native cultures anthropomorphized many things as part of their spiritual beliefs. It's not too hard to imagine (at this point all we can safely do) that some one coming upon that first rock in centuries past might have though it was some kind of mystical bear, for example. At that point, something completely natural from the standpoint of its geological origins may have taken on a spiritual meaning creating a new 'reality' for those laying eyes on it. Later fellows would no doubt have been warned to avoid the wrath of the sea bear and would therefore inherit the observational bias of their forebears. With no competing world view to offer any alternate explanation habits form not dissimilar to Pascal's Wager - it's probably better to just avoid that rock if I don't know that it isn't a bear.

Now, being schooled somewhat in science and skepticism, and untainted by the lore of the NW as anything other than another quaint native mythology, I can understand the geologic origins of the rocks and understand how these perfectly natural objects and processes might have contributed to the evolution of a spiritual belief system. Might have of course being the important concept here. This point illustrates the tension between science and common sense reasoning - which is often neither. It looks obvious that these rocks are very similar to the art works. But association and similarity is not causation, which is the precise flaw in much of what comes to be called common sense. Coincidence leads to association which leads to causation in people's minds. That simple formula plays itself out daily in millions of interactions despite the fact that orders of magnitude separate coincident items and events from truly associated items from that tiny subset of true cause and effect relationships. Coincident association is easy and natural - cause and effect requires the discipline of science.

And this is the way the majority of Americans view the world: some of them see not the rock but a sea bear, some see the rock and the art and just know they must be related, whether factual or not, and a few see the similarity but need a lot more evidence before they can accept that one lead to the other...


A Summer Treat: Gazpacho!

Time for another recipe. This one is great for summer and can be made and kept in the fridge for days (in fact, it gets better with time - until it rots, at which time it isn't so good.) This recipe is pretty zippy but is mild if you leave out the jalapeno (though why would one?). It's also incredibly easy and quick. It's great for parties and quick lunches.

Pliny's favorite Gazpacho

This recipe serves 8-10


  • 1 cucumber, halved and seeded, but not peeled
  • 2 red bell peppers, cored and seeded
  • 4 plum tomatoes (seeds removed)
  • 1 red onion
  • 3 garlic cloves, minced
  • 3 cups low sodium organic tomato juice
  • 1/4 cup white wine vinegar
  • 1/4 cup good olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon kosher salt (if you use regular tomato juice, only add 1/2 tablespoon of salt)
  • 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 and 1/2 jalapeno peppers
  • juice from one freshly squeezed lime

Chop the cucumbers, bell peppers, tomatoes, and red onions into roughly 1-inch cubes. Put each vegetable separately into a food processor fitted with a steel blade and pulse until it is coarsely chopped. Do not overprocess or you'll ruin it - each should be in a rough coarse consistency, not mush (2-3mm in size). It only takes a few pulses to get it right.

After each vegetable is processed, combine them in a large glass bowl (don't use metal unless you like an iron taste to your food) bowl and add the garlic, tomato juice, vinegar, olive oil, jalapeno, lime juice, salt, and pepper. Mix well and chill before serving. It's passable straight away, good in about 4-6 hours and fab in a day or two. The longer gazpacho sits, the more the flavors develop.



Mind Games: How Might the Founders Have Approached a National Health System?

And now for something completely different... Ignoring the likelihood that they would have punted such matters to the States, I sometimes try to imagine how the Founders might have approached some of our modern problems. What might they have envisioned? They had their faults but never the less were brilliant political thinkers.

We know that they were schizoid about centralized power. It was important from the perspective of having a coherent union but also dangerous from the standpoint of potential for tyranny. (I think they would have hated Medicare.) They looked to the States to provide a better insight into the lives and direct needs of their populations and to check the run away growth of centralized authority. To a large extent the States were free to experiment as long as it didn't interfere with the common cause (not always a good thing). They did not trust the individual to do the right thing.

Is that enough to imagine the rough outlines of what they might have done? Let's take a stab at it. Here, the incongruent forces are the best interests of the individual patient and the rights and responsibilities of those who provide medical services balanced against being respectful of the societal burden of the program, both now and in the future.

The Founders had a pretty good model of strong centralization with checks and balances - our three branches of government. One, closely linked to the will of the people and empowered to determine the rules; one to administer the program and weed out new rules that might be a bit hanky; and one, distanced from the people's whim to oversee the other two and make sure the rules fit with the intent of the governmental blueprint. Not a bad model for an important program.

Could this be the model of a national health system? It's fun to consider it for a moment. Start with a simple blueprint of clinical medicine with the needs of the patient at the core. Something that includes:

"We hold this belief to be self evident that all persons in a great and just nation should be granted benefit of basic healthcare. That the purpose of this national health system is to provide clinically relevant care to all in accordance with only those limitations that threaten long term solvency, or are contrary to the science of medicine. That privacy, being critical to the free disclosure of vital medical information to the clinician, shall not be violated save in circumstances, well defined in these articles, that threaten the common health of our citizens. That clinical workflow takes precedence over administrative workflow except to the minimum required to maintain solvency and ensure patient safety. That outcome is a amalgam of patient responsibility, clinical services, societal limitations and disease science. This charter defines three branches of the national health authority: Regulatory, Governance, and Clinical Oversight."
Things like that.

Regulatory would be charged with creating the rules governing the financial and common practices. Governance would administer the program and its payment and service structure. And Clinical Oversight would consist of a judicial system of medical experts empowered to ensure that the medicine never takes second place and enforce accountability of the other two arms.

I know, its simplistic, but.....


Cover Memes Both Good and Bad

For my choice of a really good cover, submitted for your approval: Johnny Cash's cover of Trent Reznor's 'Hurt'. Seeker mentioned (not positively as I recall) that Cash did a cover of 'Personal Jesus' which I agree was not one of the better ones. However on the same album cash did this cover of Hurt' which in my mind was the high point of Cash's last album before he died. I couldn't get it to load so here's a link to a youtube video.


Reznor himself is reported to have said that this version tops even his.

Another that I liked (which shocked my wife who knows my general dislike of remakes) is the version of 'Let it Be' from the Movie and soundtrack of 'Across the Universe'.

Bad covers are so common that one is loath to select the most loathsome. I mentioned on Seeker's site that MacArthur Park by William Shatner is an obvious choice, but perhaps far too obvious. (I do believe that he made that album to prove to the world that acting wasn't his weakest suite.) Almost any lounge singer from Vegas could be tapped to provide cannon fodder here as well (yes, Celine).

My vote for worst is largely aimed as an indictment of that most foul of corrosive influences on contemporary music. I speak of Disney (phfft) of course! They must be stopped before they infect and homogenize all of life.

I am looking for the specific link but I banned it from the house when I heard my daughter playing it. It was this boy band soul suckingly bland rendition of Alice Cooper's 'Schools out for Summer.' I think it was by some ironically named group called the Hit Crew. These guys sounded like they were on Thorazine. It was horrible. Alvin and the Chipmonks also covered this song - apparently in excrement. Again that would be too easy.

I seeing if there is a video, but it may be best to spare you.

My daughter has become somewhat of a champion to her classmates because Dad downloads all the golden oldies they like now in their original form. I know that she was first in her 6th grade class with Alice Cooper, Pink Floyd, Steppenwolf, Twisted Sister, etc. on her ipod. Not all the parents are thrilled...


Oprah Hears a Woo

n the fifteenth of May, in Chicago they say,
In the cool of the studio shielded from the heat of the day,

She held court, enjoying daytime TV’s great joys…

When Oprah the media mogul heard a small noise.

So Oprah stopped talking - just for a moment fear not.
Her heart pounding from that excited feeling she'd got.
She looked towards the sound.
“That’s funny,” thought Oprah. “There’s no experts around.”
Then she heard it again! Just a very faint yelp,
As if some tiny minded person were calling for help.

“I’ll help you,” said Oprah. “But who are you and what’re you peddling and Where?”
She looked and she looked, but could see nothing there,
But a small mote of smoke blowing past through the air.
What lacking in substance it made up for in dazzle.
And wanting to see more in the mist left her in quite a frazzle.

As she gazed into that smoke the hues were amazing,
The lack of substance, her imagination not least was it phasing.
"Enough with the facts, pretty colors hold sway,

suffer greatly will any expert who dares get in MY way."

“I say!” murmured Oprah. “I’ve never heard tell,
Of a small mote of smoke that is able to yell.
So you know what I think?…Why, I think that there must,
Be some substance within this wispy gust.
Some thing of importance that the experts have missed,
But I being Oprah I’ll no doubt get the gist.
Some poor little champions alone with their memes,
Shaking with fear, that their unfounded opinions will be lost amongst real science
piled high by the reams."

"I’ll just have to promote them. That's what I'll do.
Because, though there not experts at all,
I’ll accept their statements as facts, no matter the evidence is small."

"Oh thank you, thank you came some very faint crying,
We were hoping you’d not look too closely nor do too much prying.

Those pesky scientists scattered us all on the mist,
but you can redeem us with your mighty media fist."

Said Oprah to this, “Egad who are you? “
"Not ‘who’ was the response - but the champions of Woo,
And we couldn't be gladder to come to know you.
Our town is called Woo-ville, and we spread it on thick,
keeping our answers vague and playing the victim when cornered is our best trick.
Mainstream science conspires against us cause we have little or no facts.
But who cares about science, it’s all about how the lay public reacts!
And cause our message is clearer and unencumbered by truth,
Your listeners will lap it up like they did that silly Book of Ruth."

Said Oprah, "I must agree" ,
So come here and sit down close by me."
So, gently, and using the greatest of care,

she broadcast their woo message over the air.
Each took a turn on the couch next to hers,
And spread their woo message to her legions of listeners.

From Woo-ville came this,
"Causality's not the least concern to myself,
Just place two factors in proximity and my books simply leap off the shelf.
Of course we have mountains of evidence in our support,
I just can’t take time now nor bother to produce the report"

“You mean…” Oprah gasped, “you have evidence supporting you?”
“Oh, yes,” piped the voice. “We most certainly do,
Although it is too small to be seen by scientist’s instruments and I can’t really show you,
But trust me there are vast stores of knowledge in the
ethereal vaults of woo…

"Oh joy, that’s more than enough for me,
Let’s book you on the next show and people will be talking about it by three."

Humpf!” humpfed a voice. Twas a sour old expert,
The perils of woo came he, the public to alert.
And not just one but many came too,
Each in a row waiting their chance to dispel woo.

But legions of scientists who tried to tell her,
Were no match for some feller with a brand new best seller.
“Believe me,” said Oprah. “I tell you sincerely,
My mind is quite keen and I heard what they said clearly.
I know there’s truth in there, though don’t dare ask me why,
It’s all in his or her book that you simply must buy."

"All you expert haters of anything new,
Your journals and meetings are no match for my media empire of woo.
They’ll listen and believe if I say drink the sand,
What I say not what you know holds sway in this land."

Said She,"Facts and figures are dull and make for lousy TV,
Much better an author who smiles large and says 'you must trust me'.
The public eats up whenever an expert is brought low,
Especially by an actor who could not possibly know.
No one trusts an expert who earned his or her PhD,
But they'll trust someone implicitly who played one on TV."

Her legions of followers must certainly have thought,
As they checked out the back cover of that book they just bought.
"She has done great works elsewhere with profits from her fame.
Surely she has an army of fact checkers to verify each claim."

The woos down in woo-ville were beside themselves with glee,
Each shouted. “the residuals alone will make a millionaire of me!
Thank you, thank you, they cried out again,
For without your amplification our voices could not have risen so far above the din.”

So Oprah was contented to roll back the clock,
And receptivity to science did her efforts block.
Study after study might refute what they say,
But that just means they must not be looking in quite the right way.
Said Oprah, to the scientists, “Woo has all my answers and I hear it quite clearly,
And even though scientists can’t see or hear them at all,
I’ll accept them as facts, no matter, how small"

With profound
apologies to an American icon. (Theodore of course)



'No Man is an Island'

No man is an island entire of itself; every man
is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;
if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe
is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as
well as any manner of thy friends or of thine
own were; any man's death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind.
And therefore never send to know for whom
the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

I shall not pass this way again

I expect to pass through this world but once;
any good thing therefore that I can do, or any
kindness that I can show to any fellow-creature,
let me do it now; let me not defer or neglect it,
for I shall not pass this way again.

At any moment your hand may be torn away;
The next minute might still your voice;
Any hour may tear a hole in my soul;
This fleeting mote of borrowed time must last forever.


Un-Cheney'd Melody

I must admit that I looked forward to that January day, when W and Cheney would finally go away.

When Constitutional liberties would return from a forced vacation, I had high hopes that one would retire forever to some undisclosed location. (No mention would be made about where you were awaitin, but we were sure it was a special room supplied by your master, Satan.)

But like that fabled penny his visage continues to erupt, his only goal apparently the new government to disrupt.

Oh that he had retreated to other priorities as was his mode before, but now his mug is on every station like a chronic sore.

His twisted leer is everywhere like a terribly virulent pox, his scorn applied to anyone who isn’t swayed by Fox.

For one who eschewed the uniform he pounds the drums of war all day, that is as long as some real soldiers are there to lead the way.

Having long said that dissent is just the same as treason, this reality apparently no longer applies to him for some unknown reason.

He says that we should trust him that the benefits of torture are a given, just ignore his previous certainty about those WMD’s and Saddam’s role in 9/11

He will not stop promoting that which he sees through his twisted prism, It looks as if the only thing left to us is a priestly exorcism.

No doubt his endless TV ranting about the perils that our nation must face, has far more to do with his fear of wearing an orange jump suit in a 6 by 8 foot space.

He cannot fathom that we don’t trust that he is in the know, and gets quit riled when we answer his concerns as did he ours by simply saying ‘So?’

And when you say this talk of torture is way too much ado, I’m sure we could find many volunteers to wire your nads and run some juice through you.

As VP you did not care what we believed nor what we thought we should do, so now grow a spine and go away for this country has had more than enough of you.

Your no-bid gravy train has ended so now you can't leech off us, you could’ve come from behind W’s leg and had the guts to run for the office.

But though no doubt he will keep it up and use his every evil trick, take solace in the fact it’s hard to imagine a more appropriate name than Dick.

And if our paths should cross someday to avoid a general melee, just smile and accept it gracefully when we return your line to Leahy...

Fair and balanced - giving the devil his due...
Some comments Cheney made recently. Pliny is opinionated but try's to be fair. ;)

"Although Cheney focused most of remarks on national security issues, it was his very personal answer to a question on gay marriage that broke new ground. "I think freedom means freedom for everyone," Cheney said. "As many of you know, one of my daughters is gay, something that we've lived with for a long time in our family."

Cheney's daughter, Mary Cheney, is gay and gave birth to a son in 2007, whom she is raising with her longtime partner, Heather Poe.

Throughout the Bush administration, the Vice President refrained from directly discussing his daughter's personal life and avoided questions on whether gay couples should be able to marry. In 2007, Cheney bristled when CNN's Wolf Blitzer asked him to respond to political criticism of his daughter's pregnancy, saying to Blitzer, "Frankly, you're out of line with that question." Today he said gay couples should have "any kind of arrangement they wish."

"I think people ought to be free to enter into any kind of union they wish, any kind of arrangement they wish," he said, adding that regulations on marriage have traditionally been handled at the state level rather than the federal level, and should remain in states' jurisdictions. "Different states will make different decisions and I don't have problem with that.""