1 Aug 2009

Galápagos & Ecology?

Visited the Galápagos islands, Ecuador, this year.

The 'Charles Darwin Research Foundation', founded by a Belgian, is an unusal zoo situated next to Puerto Ayora, the prime tourist spot of Santa Cruz island.

Darwin is renowned for his discretion on the theory of evolution : the survival of the most adapted; Puerto Ayola zoo is famous for its adaptation of the least adapted. The century-old tortoise, Lonely George, is the last of a species of giant tortoise about to become extinct since he has no surving mate. No problem, the Foundation has deposited two females of another species in his caged area to see if he will mate. To date George has not done this to the disappointment of the 5 planes of human species of tourists who disembark on Galápagos each day.

Speaking of 5 Airbus planes a day, the Galápagos airport, built by the US military during World War II on Santa Cruz island, is now called an Eco airport. Eco as in ecological? Yes sir, the first ecological airport in the the world!. You may well ask: how can an airport which lands and sees off 5 Airbuses a day be ecological? It's the branding and cash flow, not the ecological reality, that counts.

By the way, the airport is around 45 minutes by bus and ferry from the capital, Puerto Ayora. This entails a ferryboat and a bustrip or taxi for all who land on Galápagos. Needless to say both the bus or taxi and the ferryboat spew out carbon monoxide to be added to the carbon footprint left by the departing Airbus. Did someone say ecological trip?

Many 'introduced' species were brought to the Galápagos islands by pirates and sailors. One of these was the tick bird (garapatero) which was introduced to rid the imported cattle of worriesome ticks:

However, the tick birds found that plundering the nests of the endemic species was easier and allowed them to survive better. Man has decided that this is not the 'endemic' way of living and has decided to eliminate the tick birds. If we followed this logic we would also eliminate the human population as non-endemic. But we are also of the human species so we don't apply this logic.

Is Galápagos a brand rather than a place? Is it a place where Mankind poses as God almighty?

1 Jul 2009

I Believe

There’s an intriguing story told about that eye-catching insect, the bumblebee. In summertime it is frequent to see its plump form buzzing around gardens or other natural areas in search of nectar and pollen to feed its young. You have probably spotted one flying around tipsily, pollinating flowers and gathering food. They are difficult to miss because of their insistent buzz and striking yellow and black stripes. However, you might be surprised to learn that, according to the laws of aeronautics, bumblebees can’t fly! Restated in another way: the laws of aeronautics still cannot explain how bumblebees fly. In other words this aeronautical model is not altogether wrong, but certainly defective.

Our beliefs are just like this model for flying, they are constructions of how the world works, built up through our daily experience. There is no problem with that unless we succumb to the temptation to believe that our model really explains how the world works. The aeronautical equivalent would be expectations of lots of bumblebees toppling out of the sky.

Beliefs as Generalisations

In his book “Changing Belief Systems”, Robert Dilts defines beliefs as generalisations. According to Dilts they are generalisations about the connection between different experiences. For example one day in the middle of one of your boss’s tantrums you happen to notice that he is wearing red socks. You think it a little unusual and record it in your memory bank. However, the next time the boss goes off the deep end he happens to be wearing the same red socks. This double sequence of events, seeing the boss in a bad mood and seeing his red socks only has to happen to most of us three times and we’ll start believing that there is a causal relationship between the two events. From then on we’ll begin to expect the boss to start bellowing if we notice he has his red socks on because we have generalised the relationship between the two experiences into a reality when in fact it is a coincidence. The important point is that it is we ourselves who forge the connection between the two experiences. It is a mental construct. That is the nature of belief - we construct it in our minds.

The positive angle, of course, is that we can also learn to deconstruct, or change our beliefs. I believe that this is window of opportunity. If we can reconstruct our beliefs to make our lives more fulfilling and happier then we should grasp the chance. Why not learn to laugh at the boss and his red socks instead of seeing them as an ominous sign? Why not ignore them and avoid provoking a confrontation because we believe one should take place?

The Placebo effect

Another striking example of the power of belief to alter our lives is the placebo effect. Dilts looked into the research on placebos done in the USA where every new drug has to be tested against a placebo. He concluded that more than a third of the time placebos had the same effect as the drug being tested. This means that in over thirty-three percent of cases belief in the placebos effected a cure equivalent to the available chemical stimulant. This may not be so surprising if we reflect that vaccination works by eliciting the body’s own defence system and that, possibly, belief has the same immunological effect. However we explain it, the placebo effect remains a powerful example of the capacity of our beliefs to transform our lives. In education, for example, we can turn the placebo effect to our advantage simply by expecting students to learn well. Those who swallow the pill of our expectations will learn more than the subject matter; they will learn the benefits of constructing positive beliefs. Unfortunately our beliefs are often self-limiting and we don’t actually expect as much as we should. As Nelson Mandela put it,

"... our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure."

A model for beliefs

In his book Dilts goes further and offers a framework which enables us to explore the way in which we construct beliefs. The model of organisation he proposes distinguishes 5 different levels : Identity – Beliefs – Capabilities – Behaviour - Environment. For example if a child is having problems learning maths, a parent might talk about the problem from any one of the 5 viewpoints:

Identity: “You are a poor student.”

Beliefs: “Maths is only one area of problem solving.”

Capabilities: “You’ll have to develop better maths strategies.”

Behaviour: “You don’t put effort into concentrating so you can’t calculate correctly.”

Environment: “You don’t do your maths well because you can’t concentrate on your maths homework and the TV at the same time.”

The impact on the student of an isolated analysis will range widely depending on the level chosen, from Identity : “I am not intelligent.” to Environmental : “I can’t do maths because of the surrounding noise.”. Dilts invites us to view beliefs not as an isolated occurrence but as one level of the system. It is important to note that the higher levels of Identity and Belief have a knock-on effect and that working at these levels is probably more efficient. The function of beliefs, for example, is to activate capabilities and behaviours. The student above is encouraged to improve his maths strategies and make an effort by the belief that in this way she will be better able to solve other problems. In the same way enhancing a learner’s Environment, through supportive feedback, will also underpin their chances of believing long enough in themselves to allow change to take place, despite temporary failures. Belief is a construct and can be analysed as part of a system. It affects and is influenced by the other levels of the system. It is not to be confused with reality.

Belief and Faith

I believe that there is a difference between belief and faith. It is a difference in quality. Both terms suppose a leap in the dark, but faith is a belief which matters deeply, because it makes the world more sensible to the believer. Belief goes something like this:

- Do you believe that Australia exists?

- Oh, yes, I saw it on a TV documentary the other night.

- Did you believe the documentary? (Back to square one.)

Faith, however, goes more like this:

- Do you believe we were created by God?

- Well, no, I’m an atheist.

- Oh, how does that help you to make sense of life?

In other words, faith deals with the unanswered questions which seem to haunt humans. We appear to be doomed, probably by the structure of our brain, to seek to understand the whole meaning of things, including our own existence. This innate impulse towards holistic comprehension of life has lead humans to depths of despair and also to peaks of beauty. This is surely what Art in all its forms is seeking : to give more meaningfulness to life, be it in the form of a symphony, a classic play, a good book or a great painting? This is also what religious faiths are striving to offer us: the ultimate meaning of existence. Sin, after all, is just the name for the contradictory human experience of needing wholeness yet being unable to attain it. The Existentialist philosophers made a brave attempt to live on a horizontal plane with no reference to anything outside mankind. Yet Camus was haunted by what he called “le soupçon d’autre chose”, the suspicion that there is more to living than what we can quite explain. Sartre himself also admitted that there was no explanation which could account for the suffering of an innocent child. They had come up against ‘sin’, which doesn’t admit philosophy with ease.

We are makers-of-sense and we cannot but help look for patterns in what we experience around us. Christianity, for example, follows the Jewish tradition and sees in the two Genesis creation stories the expression of how life can be given meaning, the affirmation that creation exists for a purpose, not just by accident. The rest of the biblical story is an attempt to analyse and convey the meaningfulness of living. The ancient Greeks, the Maya and the Celts also created a meaning for their world through myth, as all cultures have, because they needed a holistic explanation of how their world was.

Many contemporaries prefer the modern myths of science to those of religion. It is curious to reflect that Science doesn’t claim to give a whole explanation to life but we have such a thirst for complete explanations that we attribute it that capacity. This conjures up that fun picture of bumblebees falling out of the sky.

1 Jun 2009

Science and Pseudoscience

I know a researcher who worked for the Swiss government at the cutting edge of nuclear medicine investigation - non-invasive brain scanning. I once asked him what practical use his work had. He thought for a moment then said brightly, “Well, when someone thinks of the word ‘cheese’ we know exactly which part of his brain he is using.”

Surely this is how fundamental scientific studies work: it measures a tiny piece of life and, using the results of other equally small experiments, gradually builds up a general hypothesis which is relentlessly put to the test through more detailed experiments.

This is a highly rational and verifiable method of understanding reality. It enables us to build up models about the world that surrounds us, based on measurable and accurate data which can be confirmed and re-confirmed if necessary.

However, it is always necessary to remind ourselves that no matter how detailed the experiments, the resulting models are constructions and do not reflect reality exactly. They are themselves hypotheses. In fact they are beliefs about how the world is, based on laborious and often ingenious hard work, but nonetheless, beliefs, not reality.

This is not an attempt to deny the scientific method all its merits, but rather a caveat to prevent us from converting it into a magical answer to everything. Take an example of what an anecdote that happened to me. A few years ago I wrote an article on Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s work. When working as a psychologist at Chicago university Csikszentmihalyi’s developed a theory called “flow”. Basically it is that state of grace which you experience when you are deeply involved in something of great interest, when hour-long activities pass like minutes. The article talked about the possible applications of ‘flow’ to educational contexts. Some time after publishing the article in Internet I received an e-mail from a chemistry graduate who said that ‘flow’ was not a complex psychological phenomenon but actually a straightforward chemical reaction. He added that to induce ‘flow’ you simply had to provoke a surge in dopamine. I asked him how you administer dopamine surges in a classroom. He still hasn’t replied.

The point here is that sciences such as chemistry have found clear answers to some chemical questions but maybe need to recognise that description is not application. When chemical answers become applications the answers are less clear. Think, for example, of the disastrous effects of thalidomide or the moral implications of cloning. Recognising that humans can be analysed into chemical components does not imply that humans must see themselves as chemical compounds. Scientific analysis is true, but it is not the whole truth. Wholeness is something that the human spirit yearns for and which can only be satiated in complex beliefs like art, which influence our culture perceptions, religions which give us interpretations about the ultimate meaning of life or scientific models which rationalise the structure of our reality. The clash between these different beliefs can lead us to think that one is more valid than the other. I think that it is truer to say that one usually prevails, depending on the moment, but that none of them is more authoritative in all spheres.

It is certainly true that application of science to everyday life, what we call technology, is very attractive. Its method of asking the pragmatic question. “How can we make it work?” has led to very useful innovations. They have directly affected our daily lives, particularly in communications and health, from cell phones to heart transplants, from the Internet to cures for cancers. However, we must not confuse this very positive spin-off of fundamental science with scientific philosophy. True science does not claim to explain everything. It patiently builds theoretical models and tests them in a rational manner. It would be irrational, and unscientific, to assert that science is Truth.

It was the Greek philosophers who gave us the belief that we could understand the world through our reason and thus opened the way for measurement, analysis and science. This has enabled mankind to work towards material progress in many areas. Yet some would argue that reason cannot explain everything we experience. In fact the very impetus of science, that of concentration on the observable, may have blinded us to what is not directly observable, or measurable, and given us a materialistic perception of our world. In this way, science, just as it has enabled us, could at the same time limit us, by inducing us to believe that what we cannot measure does not exist.