Bubble Popping

Remembering being a child blowing bubbles and then chasing them around popping them is not the subject of this missive. Rather I wish to consider the bubbles I live in. These days we live in social bubbles based on where we live, work and socialise. Increasingly it seems that we live more in bubbles of people who think like we do than generations past. A consequence of this bubble living is that we understand less people who are not like us and due to this we seem to be living in a society that doesn’t consider what life is like for people who are different from ourselves. We don’t consider enough people’s backgrounds or how we are different. There seems to be a tendency for this to be exposed when families who live apart gather for Christmas, suddenly we are living with people who live in different bubbles and these bubbles can burst creating arguments.

As children we make a start in life thinking that other people think broadly the same way as we do. We learn to empathise by putting ourselves in others shoes. For example when someoen says that they are hungry, we understand because we know what hunger feels like ourselves. Yet somehow as adults we do this less, perhaps because we think we know enough not to have to do this thinking as often.

So how am I different and what insights have I gained over the past year and what has happened to me this year and to the society I live in.

I am different because I have suffered from anxiety. Living with anxiety led me to analyse my social interactions very deeply, too deeply. Overcoming anxiety was partly a process of letting go, of stopping analysis, of allowing a first impression to be generally correct.

I am also a scientist, which means I have lots of experience dealing with data sets in the attempt to answer questions, to remove sources of bias as much as possible. To be exhaustive in testing data and being cautious about any conclusions reached.

Really it is perhaps safe to assume that most people do not analyse things in such great detail. Indeed, i am often surprised by how little other people seem to analyse issues to what i feel is a decently robust level. So, what has happened this year?


I have not been working in science this year sadly. Instead I have been working in the supposed ‘real world’ in an office working with the largest, but least robust or reliable data sets I have ever had to. I am managed so that i am not given the time to do any rigorous analysis and have to resort to processing data in a a rough and ready way withing very short time-frames. In terms of efficiency of the business, this makes sense as the broad results will generally be improve the business situation and in any case where the results are wrong, a major reason can often be reasonably assumed and the suggestions modified; rather than spending a lot of time getting things robustly right in the first place. Often rigour or deeper analysis is seen as a luxury if there is ever tiem for it. I have found it a challenging way to work, yet it is one that I have found to be shared by sciencey friends who work on the real world; speed is more important than accuracy. Working this way does make me a little uncomfortable at times and I do crave a return to science and ‘doing things properly’. Perhaps this is how most of the world works and how decisions are made, we thus live in a world which makes avoidable mistakes.

Cymraeg /Welsh

I am still learning Welsh, but can speak Welsh now and have become a part of the culture of the Welsh language. I am now exposed a lot more to opinions about the Welsh language from people with no knowledge of Welsh at all. For example complaints about bi-lingual signs. Bi-lingual signs are provided in two languages because there are two main language communities in Wales. If you don’t know anything about the Welsh language, then what exactly is the basis for an opinion on Welsh signage? When I hear the near constant criticism of the Welsh language, which you really notice when you are a Welsh speaker, it does feel like an attack. Yet, i don’t believe it’s an attack it’s perhaps simply a disregard for people with different needs. such ‘attacks’ happen to every grouping who is different from any individual. What i don’t get is why any individual would regard communities they are members of as being ‘normal’ and only these ‘normal’ causes are worthy of attention.


Which brings me to Brexit again. The debate about Brexit should be about analysing likely impacts of Brexit on democracy in the UK and likely changes to the economy. Yet during the Brexit vote debate and ever since, this exploration of the costs and benefits of the two options barely gets a mention. Instead Brexit has exacerbated the tensions between people of the right and people of the left and been about which side you are on.

Brexit seems to be a division between those who desire a British mono-culture, similar to that which existed in the post second world war period and those that don’t. So, being of a range of identities and perhaps as a liberal “intellectual” I have to be on the Remain side, despite all my criticisms of the EU. There is no wiggle room for people to ‘switch sides’ even when we never desired to be on one side or the other.

British is one of my identities, yet the Brexiteers position seems to be attacking my British identity, which sees Britain as a union of diverse identities. I am Welsh, it is impossible for me to envisage Britain as a mono-culture, it hasn’t ever been and never will be. The terms of the debate now have entrenched the UK population into this division and the opinion polls suggest that eighteen months on from Brexit are still 50:50 and will probably remain so.

I fear this focus on this irreconcilable division at the expense of working out what is the best way forward isn’t helpful at all. If only someone could find a solution that everyone can unify behind, but it seems the likelihood of that happening is infinitely small.

Popping Bubbles

What I really find difficult to deal with, especially with the Brexiteers, is this adopting a position that doesn’t hold up to any serious analysis even when data breaks those positions. There is merit in not analysing everything to death, to adopt a position that works okay for now, but there should always be a readiness to accept that it is inaccurate and develop a new position. This maxim applies in science and social life and especially politics where we live in an ever changing world. It allows us to be independently thinking individuals and not suffer in a herd mentality of one size fits all.

The whole Blue Passports issue came up over Christmas. If people want the UK passport to be blue, fair enough. I’m not bothered about its colour, really I’d like a Welsh passport. However, when it is pointed out that 1, The UK passport was never blue, my parents had the old style ones and I looked at them at Christmas, one is black, the other is a very dark blue and not navy blue at all and 2, The EU did not prevent the UK government changing passport colour if it really wanted to anyway. Yet despite these two facts, people still try and maintain that blue passports is an important issue, in spite of the facts.

As I see it, life is about deciding when to engage with deeper analysis and when to just move forward with a quickly framed rough and ready position that is good enough for now, enabling us to live in the moment. As an anxious person, I needed to learn how to do the latter. However for the new year, I really believe that we need to consider other people more and that means accepting that our first answer may need some testing and analysis of data from beyond our cozy bubbles. Next year lets keep running around popping bubbles, be open to new ideas and consider other people.

Chlorine Chicken

A lot of fuss has been made about the suggestion of a post-Brexit allowing such things as chlorine chicken onto UK shop shelves. The issue is indicative of the perils of international trade deals potential to override democratic control.

The issue also exemplifies the separation of truth and perception. There is a kind of mob-rule going on, where the mainstream media perpetuate a myth and truth isn’t arrived at. People say ‘people don’t trust experts anymore’, but this is partly because experts are misrepresented by the media. Clickbait, a catchy headline to get people to a page is more important than good content.

As a scientist, the misrepresentation of science in general irritates me. The popular media refrain of ‘Science says’ is nonsense, Science doesn’t say anything. Science is a means of answering questions through undertaking experiments to establish if there is a relationship between things or not. Often the conversation goes something like this:

Media: Is Chlorine Chicken safe?

Science: Define safe

M: Is it safe to eat?

S: Define safe to eat, what is the question you are asking?

M: If someone eats chlorine chicken will they suffer poorer health straight away?

S: Ah ok, you want to know if chlorine chicken is has similar effects as a poison?

M: Yes

S: Okay we’ll look into it…

Okay, No, chlorine chicken is not like a poison.

M: Thankyou,  so the answer is that Chlorine  Chicken is safe .

S: Yes, if you define safe as not being poisonous.

The media then announce to the world that chlorine chicken has been scientifically proved to be completely safe.

Society: Really, science says that chlorine chicken is completely safe? what about long-term effects of such a diet. We don’t agree, we have lost trust in science.

Science: Hang on media, we didn’t say that it was completely safe, all we established was that it wasn’t a poison, using your very narrow definition of safe, there may be long term effects on health of introducing chlorine chicken into human diets, there is indeed some evidence that this is the case and…

Media: Sorry Science, that wasn’t what we asked and we haven’t time to discuss it, you’ve done your job and we’re too busy writing articles attacking people who are against chlorine chicken.

Scientists: Face… Palm.

So trade deals can then be set up, with their own judicial systems, that don’t allow actual safety to be an excuse for not being able to freely trade dangerous food or machinery, because they ticked the box of scientific testing, even if that testing was fairly meaningless.

This is why CETA, TTIP and potential UK post-Brexit “free trade” deals are a concern. The great Brexit irony of taking back control only to give away more control than was lost through membership of the EU.

Rather than society decide it’s own rules, that power is given up to corporations, who are only concerned with making money. The people in the corporations may have moral scruples, but these are very easily side-tracked in the fast pace of business, which is why we have regulations in the first place. Regulations so we don’t all have to spend money on our own research over whether a product is safe or not, with regulations that need only be done once, scientifically, through resolving exhaustive lists of questions.

Chlorine chicken is the pertinent example, it should not be brushed aside, because resolving the issue allows everything else to be more easily resolved. It doesn’t effect me because I’m never going to eat it.




Science is Golden

Scientists are perhaps simply people who like to know how things work. I am a scientist and I do feel a compulsion to understand how everything works. The desire to take things apart, see how each component functions, then try to put it back together again making a single change to see what happens. Of course Scientists realise that as individuals they cannot understand everything, so scientists specialise into an areas they are interested in.

Scientists go out into the world like everyone else and are often somewhat startled to realise that not everyone is a scientist. Other people often become another subject themselves to try and work out how they work, usually is some empirical way. however as human society is too big and too complex a challenge, scientists realise that society is something they can only make some progress in understanding and never fully understand.

Generally, scientists are profoundly appreciative of artists and have a huge respect for people who can transcend the compulsion to understand how things work and simply create things based on partial understandings. To the scientist this seems to be how other people function. Instead of seeking the most accurate, rational explanation possible, most people seem to be more comfortable with things that are probably true, or simply use systems that work most of the time and seem to ignore the rare situations where the frailty of that system is exposed, or explore how that is interesting, rather than how it works.

The image of scientists as the geeky obsessive with poor social skills is actually fairly accurate in many cases. This is exemplified by such popular culture television series as ‘The Big Bang Theory’, where a group of scientists struggle to interact with the real world. The problem is that scientists use scientific methodologies to learn social skills, in a social world where there is such a diversity of people and changing social values that such any understanding of social rules ends up being based on very rough, but workable approximations. Actually to develop social skills more efficiently a non-scientific approach is required, which is what most scientists try to do.

This issue has been brought to my attention through learning a second language. It is possible to learn a language in a way familiar to academics; to study the workings of the grammar, learn vocabulary, make sentences with the system, then experiment. However, to actually use the language to speak with people, to read and listen, requires understanding of how the language works in context. Often language is illogical, in any language you can construct a sentence in a sensible way, only to find that such a structure is not used by speakers. I have found a more rapid language acquisition method is to learn through how words are used and build up from an evidence base, with repetition. What this means, practically is letting go of the desire to focus on the mechanics of the language and simply use sentences that are probably correct, then correct when their failure rate is high. It’s a shockingly bad use os statistical method, but it works practically as language isn’t really trying to mislead. It is important not to try too hard to make sense of the second language in terms of the first language. I can construct sentences in Welsh from English sentences, that are grammatically correct, but are not how the language really works. it’s the need as an adult learner, to through off the shackles of the English way of expressing things that is deeply ingrained.

I am spending a lot of time listening to Welsh language radio and television. It is frustrating not being able to completely understand what people are saying. when I switch off this rational scientific desire and just listen to what I can, I can pick up the gist of what is said, expand the process of fitting in new words from context and understand more each time, without spending too much time thinking about why it works that way.

Using a non-scientific method as a tool for acquiring the ability to speak a new language is justifiable, because it is known that there is a rational structure underneath, which can be explored later, once the new language is fully bedded into the memory. However, the world of human beings seems a world where so many things happen that are not based on how things really work, decisions are not made from a scientific enquiry. Often decisions are made on the idea of systems that work most of the time, being applied to all systems. the scientific mind screams about how wrong this is.

We live in a world where the media reports such things as ‘Science say this’, or ‘Scientists say that’. Science does no such thing, the media seem to ignore the fact that all science does is attempt to answer questions to the most rigorous way possible. The answers that science provides can only be understood in the specific context of the question asked, you cannot leap from a specific case to a universal rule.

The worst example of this is the political world. Now, to the scientist, politics presents an interesting realm, politics asks questions like ‘what is the best way of running an economy?’. So the scientist then begins to think about all the various factors and competing forces, it is a very big, complex and interesting question. However the politicians of today, don’t base their decisions on the results of such enquiries. Today the political world involves the spinning of media stories, appealing to particular emotions, crass universal applying of a specific principle to the whole economy. Rarely do politicians actually make rational reasoned decisions based on evidence to increase the efficiency of an economy. This causes scientists and other rational thinkers to despair and become angry, how can people be this,well, stupid. It is tempting to withdraw back to a world where discussions lead to evidence based conclusions, where things get settled.

It is one thing to ignore how things work to to achieve a goal, such as learning to drive a car without also learning how the engine works, or indeed learning a language, it’s another thing to ignore evidence and rational enquiry and base decisions on things that seem to work well in a specific context to the huge complex system of a global economy.






Believing in Evolution

There is a substantial difference between knowing something and believing it. Belief is much more powerful as it goes beyond logic and connects with peoples sense of self.

This idea helps make  clear why there is a stigma about mental illness. The anxious person or the depressed person can know that they are ill, that it is possible to not be ill, often the problem is that they don’t believe that they can be well. I suffered from anxiety, there were brief times when I wasn’t anxious, instead of knowing I was well, I believed it was merely a temporary respite. It was when I believed that there was nothing wrong with me, when I believed what I already knew rationally, did I become well. so the mental illness stigma is perhaps because healthy people don’t recognise the difference between knowing something to be true and believing it. Perhaps for the healthy, they believe they are well before they have developed an explanation for why they are well, belief comes before knowledge in this instance.

As a scientist I both know and believe in the theory of evolution. I know, because I have studied, read and observed the evidence and accept evolution as a rational, empirically produced explanation for the diversity of life on Earth. I believe,  because I also accept the scientific process for discovering the laws of the physical universe, I accept the process as a valid way of generating truth.

Many scientists have difficulty understanding why those of religious faith lack a belief in evolution, indeed some of faith have difficulty believing in evolutionary theory. Religious faith is different to simple belief. Belief in God is different to beliefs about the physical universe, because belief perhaps comes before knowledge, rather than coming after knowledge. Religious belief connects to the self, before any empirical process of gathering knowledge. Faith concerns something beyond understanding of relationships in the physical observable universe. As a scientist I believe that it is possible for science to explain what God is, but that humanity may never establish a theory of everything. Sometimes, it is perhaps dangerous or less open to truth if belief comes before knowledge.

It is accepted that such theories as evolution or gravity are true. such truths can be established from raw data acquired from the physical universe. I believed these truths before I became a Christian and I know that there is no conflict between holding these beliefs in addition to religious beliefs, such as God having a role in the creation of the universe. The issue is perhaps that for some people the religious belief is more powerful to themselves than a mere rational piece of knowledge. To the atheist scientist, belief in scientific theory is more powerful than mere knowledge or understanding of religion, often atheists struggle looking beyond mere empirical understanding of the physical universe. To someone of faith, these powerful ideas can make the concept of evolution seem less important and hence less true. Yet people are not robots, they all harbour non-rational thoughts and ideas, the belief of humanists that there is perhaps, simply, that there is a physical explanation for these mental phenomena, but their belief may not be as strong as these less easy to break down logically ideas are not as fully explored, perhaps mentally acknowledged or as strongly believed. No individual person has a fully coherent explanation of themselves or the wider universe, yet every individual is on a journey to discovering truths.

I think I should point out, that I am in no way declaring any superiority for religious faith over atheism. What I am saying is that faith is worthwhile exploring. It is a question of balance, people choose what to invest our mental energies upon, there should be space for rational scientific inquiry as well as reflection on the question of faith.

Interpreting Science & Religion

I am a Scientist. I do sometimes feel sad about how often these things are misinterpreted, especially when such statements as ‘Scientists say…’ and the perception is created that it is that all scientists agree or that science itself has concluded something. I feel sad because this simply isn’t true. It’s an interpretation, conclusion forming and communication problem.

For example: ‘Scientists say “GMOs [Genetically Modified Organisms] are a good thing and implementation of GM technology must be supported”‘:

Science has an understanding of and discovered ways to manipulate the DNA of organisms. Scientists have used techniques developed in various applications, This is value free fact.

It is possible to interpret some individual applications of GM technology as beneficial. Scientists may interpret this potential of GM to do net good. Part of the role of the scientist is to discover things about how the world works and communicate these findings and potential uses. At this point science ends.

GM as being universally good? We are now entering into value judgements and forming conclusions. Really it is up to individuals and society in general whether something is potentially good. The conclusion that ‘all GM is good’ is absurd, each application has to be judged on it’s merits and some applications will be bad too. However it is difficult for policy makers and legislative bodies to create rules for. So, hopefully this makes clear the problem of lumping the process of truth, interpretation and rule making conclusion, into one misleading ‘Scientists say…’ statement.

I am a Christian and the exact same problem occurs in faith. For example “Christians say that justice is a good thing and must always be supported”:

Christianity is a religion, that assists people in connection with their spirituality/  the divine. This  enables people to enter a state of understanding and connection with the idea of universal love ,truth and goodness. That is what Christianity is, it’s not unique to Christianity, or even unique to religion. This connection with God through the Holy Ghost enables individuals to understand and connect with the concept of justice and know that it is good.

The secular person can equally understand the concept of justice. Perhaps rather than through spirituality, it is achieved by considering examples of justice and injustice until the concept is understood in the mind.

Any individual issue of justice has to be assessed on it’s merits as to whether it is a case of justice. Considering whether an act is a just act is an interpretation. Furthermore attempts may be made, that come to be understood empirically, to reach conclusions and create rules. Rules are not Christianity, they are an individuals interpretation, for example: ‘Christianity must be defended when attacked’ is an interpretation, subject to the frailties of human reason. So, it is equally wrong to make statements such as ‘Christians say justice should be defended’, isn’t a part of Christianity, it is an interpretation by some people who are identify as Christians.

Spirituality isn’t an easy concept to understand, even those of faith sometimes lose their ability to connect with their spirituality. I used to be Agnostic myself, so found it easy to criticise Christianity, because I didn’t understand what it was. It is the interpretation of Christianity, indeed conclusions by Christians that can cause problems.

Really because the brain state of spirituality is something discovered, rather than reached through logic, it is an emotional state, it is not easy to achieve. Much of Christianity, as a religion,  concerns biblical stories and rituals that assist adherents achieve spirituality. This is all symbolic and not literally true:

As a Christian, I believe in God, the father almighty. What is God? God is the brain state of achieving spirituality. God only exists in human minds, there is no corporeal existence in this universe. I believe God is eternal, because spirituality exists in the universe, any being with human-like mind can access this concept and the concept is eternal. Becoming a Christian is simply gaining access to God.

I believe in immortality. I have connected with my spirituality, which I call God, my physical body will perish, but I have connected with an eternal concept, that other humans will achieve after me, that is my immortality. I do not believe that my soul will endure in some spiritual realm, fraternising with angels and other souls, although this is a wonderful concept, it is not true, but does contain a sense of being on a path to achieving spirituality.

I believe that God created the universe, not as some supernatural creative force of matter and energy, but as the possibility that in an otherwise dead neutral universe of matter and energy, human beings are capable of love, of experiencing decision making with an awareness that there are good positive ways of acting and otherwise (the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge in the Genesis creation story) and giving value to life and the universe. I don’t think humans will ever know how God was involved with the creation of this universe, to me this is not an important part of the faith, simply the belief is.

The words Christians use are more symbolic than literal. When I take communion, I do not believe that the bread and wine are the body and blood of Christ. I do believe that I have symbolically connected with Christ and that helps me achieve the state of spirituality and connection with the Holy Trinity.

What makes Christianity special, is it’s clothes. The stories that surround the faith itself and the tradition it is a part of. All religions are about achieving spirituality, it’s just that the clothes, the stories and rituals are different. The ‘rules’ are interpretations by specific sects of any religion, it is a shame that they are not always recognised as such. Everyone makes rules and creates fictions, to get through life more efficiently and keep ourselves happy, to achieve spirituality quicker, it is important to remember that they are all fictions and not absolute truths. I create and subscribe to fictions as a Scientist and as a Christian to achieve happiness, whilst retaining an understanding of what are universal truths and what are fictions/interpretations.

In Science as well, we make rules and form theories. These help Scientists make efficient progress. Good scientists are always aware that the general conceptualisation of a theory may not be quite right. Good scientists are always keen to consider that they have discovered something that reveals the bigger picture more clearly. Equally adherents of faith should always question teachings and interpretations of their faith,

It baffles me that people wish to ever lump Science and Religion together, to me this is absurd. Science is a way of gathering information about how the universe of matter and energy works. Religion is about fragility of the human mind and the force of seeking an ease with itself and the universe. They are almost entirely separate. I don’t believe you can have the universe with human like minds in it without God.

All too often, we go from simple concepts, along paths of reasoning, making a generalisation here, strongly identify with a particular case and reach interpretations and conclusions that have little to do with the initial concept.