Discussion #12 – Atheists, Retail Therapy and Baptist Zombies

Susan Blackmore, a psychologist and researcher who is an authority in the field of “memetics”, posted a recent article on the Richard Dawkins Foundation site describing her dismay at having religious students walk out of one of her memetics lectures. Muslim and Christian students took exception to her description of religion as a “virus of the mind” (ala Dawkins), the Koran as a “horrible book” and other remarks critical of religious faith.


Spreading the atheist gospel

The easy narrative here is that Professor Blackmore, an avowed atheist and rationalist, was trying to open the minds of her students and show them the irrationality of their beliefs – and that those students who were offended were displaying an inability to think for themselves and explore alternative viewpoints.

As gentlemen scientists, we don’t think things are quite so simple. We like Dawkins and Blackmore, but we think that they and their compatriots often lack humility. It’s easy to sneer to religious people, but which of our ‘secular’ behaviours and beliefs will be sneered at by the Dawkins of five hundred years from now?

(Brian points out that the modern act of shopping – buying material goods that we don’t need – would be deeply irrational and ridiculous to the members of a Papua New Guinean highland tribe.)



Deeply irrational “viruses of the mind”

We are all selective and biased in our processing of information. We distort reality at every step of the way, often in subconscious ways beyond our control. We are masters of self-deception. And the boundaries of our knowledge are completely opaque to us – we have no idea of what we don’t know.

All of which means that the only rational state of mind is one of humility, skepticism and open-mindedness. Not everything can be falsified now, but just because we can’t do it does not mean that it cannot be done. We know a lot, and vanishingly little at the same time. Not everything can be settled. Arguments rarely if ever change minds, but they can plant a seed. And everyone has an agenda, even the most ‘objective’ of scientists and even (perhaps especially) if they have convinced themselves that they do not.

Our ramblings then move into memetics itself and debate the core meme-gene analogy; religions as memeplexes and useful mutations thereof; proselytization and the power of faith; our responsibility to attempt empathy; how to build bridges; learning by doing, not talking; the good that religions do for individuals and communities.

We love the ideas behind complexity, adaptive systems and evolution and we would defend them anytime, but we don’t feel the need to proselytize. You’re free to listen to our ramblings and opinions, but we are not asking you to share them. As gentlemen scientists we never expect everyone to think exactly the same way that we do.

So we sympathize with Professor Blackmore. But if her objective is to introduce her ideas to new audiences, then insulting their way of life isn’t a great way to do it.

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1Susan Blackmore’s book is called The Meme Machine

2The book that Shourov is currently reading is Deceit and Self Deception by Robert Trivers

3Brian refers to ‘stuff sickness’ as identified by Papuan New Guinea highlanders, but no relevant links can be found. Standby for more on this topic in a future podcast.

4In fact, students walking out on her lecture were demonstrating memes in action – it seems the meme of “walk out on Professor Blackmore” was conceived and transmitted quite effectively within the room without the use of verbal language.

Discussion #11 – The Doomsday Review

This week we are joined again by Nick Raphael to discuss doomsday scenarios – ways in which our world (or at least the human race) may end. We’ve picked a few of our favourites, from meteors to killer robots to meme epidemics, and we review their feasibility (and entertainment value) in light of what we know about how the world works. Some of them make great movie ideas; some of them are scary but statistically very unlikely; and there are one or two are plausible enough to get us a little worried.

In the spirit of (pseudo) scientific enquiry, we have given each scenario a “rating” – a combination of likelihood (how likely it is to happen in the near future) and risk (how catastrophic would it be for us).

Download or listen to the podcast below and scroll down to see a summary of our ratings.

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Nuclear War


Sure we have enough bombs to “kill us all”, but in any real conflict there would be many millions of survivors globally. And even under the severest of nuclear winters with its attendant disruption of the food chain, you could assume that some communities would persist and survive under the harshest of conditions (as some of them do today) to seed a new generation. 2/10


We rely on a healthy biosphere for optimal existence, but even a highly damaged biosphere is likely to be habitable by humans2. In fact, the resilience of networks in the natural world and our own adaptability are part of the problem – we don’t appreciate how much damage we are doing because we always seem to ‘get by’. There are excellent ethical and practical reasons why we should limit our ecological footprint, but the claim that we are driving ourselves to extinction is a dubious one. 2/10

Reversal of the Earth’s Magnetic Field

Reversals and disruptions of the Earth’s magnetic field seem to happen quite regularly, every half a million years on average. If it happened again, we might expect global disruption – even catastrophe – but it’s unlikely to be the full-blown extinction event3. 1/10

Meteor strike


It’s thought that a meteor is what did for the dinosaurs – what would it do to us? A really large meteor would irreversibly change our climate and block the sun’s rays from much of the Earth for a long time. Nothing larger than a chicken survived the last big strike 65 million years ago, and the Gentlemen Scientists don’t like our chances with this one. 5/10

Black hole passes by the Solar System

Planets go flying in every direction, including ours. Sounds pretty bad, right? We’re not sure how likely this is, but it feels like it is unlikely. Undoubtedly a full-blown extinction for us if it does, though (unless we have time to prepare?). 1/10

Gamma Ray burst from space

Unimaginably powerful beams of energy travel through space on a regular basis – we can see them. If one of them hit us, it could burn off the ozone layer, expose us to high doses of radiation and destroy the food chain. Statistically very unlikely, but we’d never see it coming and we’d be screwed. 3/10

Extraterrestrial life wreaks havoc


Some people believe that life on Earth may have come from another planet, and it might happen again. It’s logically possible that lifeforms (microscopic life, viruses etc.) may be relayed to Earth, and that such a “pan-spermic” event could wreak havoc. However, if there is one thing about our biosphere it is highly competitive, and any “alien” life is unlikely to be adapted to our environment, let along superior in any important way (although it is possible – think of introduced species). A very unlikely scenario but risk difficult to assess. 1/10


A mass epidemic of an engineered ‘superbug’ would be super-scary, and they might not be too hard to make. But here is where the raw material of natural selection – the natural variability of our population – is our defense. In even the worst pandemic, some people survive, and the genes that lead to their lowered susceptibility are strengthened over time. Even a zombie virus couldn’t achieve a coverage of one hundred percent, and the survivors would carry the flag. 2/10

Grey Goo – Nanotechnology gone wild

The idea of grey goo seems fanciful – tiny little nano-robots that can replicate themselves take over the world, munching their way through everything. It’s possible in principle (we think) and some people take it semi-seriously, but we think any such self-replicating technology would end up mired in its own waste and would be too easy to stop. 1/10

Runaway Artificial Intelligence

Screen Shot 2013-04-29 at 5.02.46 PM

Will we reach a moment of technological singularity, when we build a super-human intelligence – which might decide to (or inadvertently) eliminate us? Even a super-intelligent machine will need raw materials and energy, and none of them would be evolved for our biosphere the way we are (not to mention our co-evolution with the organisms that help us live). And is it even possible for us to build machines that can think to that level? Too many assumptions needed for this scenario. 1/10

Killer Meme Epidemic

Some Jains in eastern India starve themselves to death. Could a suicidal meme such as this ever spread through the population, causing us to override our most ancient biological instincts and exterminate ourselves? Sounds far-fetched, but scary and difficult to rule out exactly because we don’t really understand the principles of cultural transmission. Again, natural variation protects us – a killer meme might infect everyone but there might be some who are immune (eg. the mentally deficient or mentally ill). 3/10

Mass Infertility

Thought experiment – some kind of catastrophe instantaneously destroy every human egg in every female on Earth. That’d the end of the human race, since women don’t create eggs but are born with them. Sexual reproduction as a modus operandi might have a weak link somewhere, but we can’t think of how you could “break” it for every individual in our global population. 0/10

1The Single Integrated Operational Plan (SIOP) was America’s plan for nuclear conflict during the Cold war era.

2In the Asimov story 2430 A.D., there are 15 trillion humans, the Earth is covered with concrete and there are no other mammals.

3Magnetic field disruption was in the plot of the (terrible) film called 2012.

4Correction: the dinosaurs were around for 150 million years, not 65 millions years.

5A large meteor hit the atmosphere above the Russian city of Chelyabinsk in February 2013.

6Correction: we said “AIDS virus” and “HIV virus” which are both wrong. It is of course the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV)

7The Jain ritual of suicide by starvation is called Sallekhana

8The weird urge to jump off a bridge, explained

9Children of Men depicts a future where women are infertile and humanity is living through its last ever generation.

Discussion #10 – The Science (and Art) of Making Mistakes

Everyone makes mistakes so why can’t you? – Big Bird, Sesame Street

Life is all about making mistakes. As we age, interrogating our own personal histories for mistakes yields more and more useful lessons, for those who wish to go through the exercise (it’s painful to do so). Whether it is in a performance review at work, on stage, in sport or just a quiet reflective moment at home, there is nothing quite as fruitful as constructively inspecting your mistakes and learning from them.

Mistakes are information wrapped in pain. They seem to be very good at compressing a lot of information into a small package. If you think of adaptation and evolution as an information processing system, then mistakes (errors, evolutionary dead-ends) are the primary way to glean information about the environment for the system.

In tonight’s discussion, we start with personal anecdotes that show the same quality – mistakes we have made that have become touchpoints for our own lives. Mistakes which have become something much bigger and much more positive.


What would the world be like if no one ever made a mistake? What would a universe without error look like? Would evolutionary processes grind to a halt? Could we ever have got out of the primordial soup without our propensity to make errors?

But then again what is a mistake? If something was a good idea “at the time”, it only become a mistake later in time. This binary judgement (mistake/not a mistake) cannot be applied to the event, but only to the complete system in time and space (action + time + consequence). And even then, whether or not something was ‘wrong’ depends a lot on your frame of reference as an observer.

2014-06-28 21_56_13-Mistake on Dilbert.com

Our culture is schizophrenic about mistakes. We pay lip service to the ancient ideas of empiricism and learning by “trial and error”, but our world is theory driven and in love with optimization, which implies the removal of redundancy and error. Our default position is to design our lives in such a way as to minimize our opportunities for making mistakes.

But you have to do it wrong to do it right. To learn what not to do. A life/world without error is dead, boring and sterile.

As Gentlemen Scientists we have made more than their share of mistakes. But mistakes plus attention equal learning. Perhaps a good life is not making less mistakes but always making new mistakes. Plus being aware of your fallibility – having the courage to say “I was/could be wrong”.

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1On Making Mistakes, Scientific America, 20th February 2014 – “Once you ask a scientist to stop making mistakes you stop him or her from discovering.”

2How Mistakes Can Make You Smarter, Psychology Today – “”View decisions as experiments””

3Impostor syndrome – a psychological phenomenon in which people are unable to internalize their accomplishments. Despite external evidence of their competence, those with the syndrome remain convinced that they are frauds.

4 – I love this anecdote from Prosunjit Biswas about cooking a Bengali dish called ‘mishti doi’ – he had to get it wrong in a high profile situation before he really learnt what not to do.

5Dennett says here that “sometimes you don’t just want to risk making mistakes; you actually want to make them — if only to give you something clear and detailed to fix.”

6The Black Swan – by Nicholas Nassim Taleb

7When Life Was Odd – Discover Magazine

8Imagine a spider catching flies. If the spider always gets his prey and never fails to catch a fly, would that mean that spiders flourish or would that mean that eventually spiders die out. Do we need mistakes to grow and flourish. Are errors the food of life.

9The Meaning in Mistakes – about musicians and mistakes

Discussion #9 – Constructor Theory, Meta-Laws and the Face of God

[Today’s discussion is about Constructor Theory as proposed by David Deutsch. The original 2012 paper can be found here .]

A recent article in Scientific American introduced us to the ideas of David Deutsch and his Constructor Theory. Constructor Theory seeks to formulate “meta-laws” which sit “above” the laws of physics and determine them. They would do this by describing what may and may not (i.e. is forbidden to) happen, rather than trying to explain what will happen. Deutsch proposes that such a “meta” framework may be the way to unify the quantum and classical models of physics.

Deutsch is known as a pioneer of Quantum Computation, but this theory of his is speculative and not well known. It has its detractors, such as a this particularly abusive young physicist from the Czech Republic. But Deutsch’s ideas got us thinking here at Gentlemen Scientists HQ and set us off on a rambling, semi-informed conversation.

The thing is, we love the “meta”. Meta laws are fascinating because they hold out the promise of deeper understanding and unification. Understanding and control at a meta-level is stable over time than first-level control and survives the unexpected. Meta cognition, for example – the ability to reflect on one’s own patterns of thinking and behaviour – leads to better strategies for living under conditions of uncertainty.

However, once you start up the “meta-” ladder, how do you stop? Are there meta-meta-laws, or meta-meta-meta-laws? And when you do stop, you’re still left with the question – who designed the metaN law that you are left with? You’re still left looking at the “Face of God”.

Martian_face_viking_rotatedThe Face of God on Mars, as photographed by NASA (the Cydonia region on Mars)

So this approach is no magic bullet. In a way, the Constructor Theory is a deliberate lowering of our ambitions. Our tendency is to want to predict, and we judge our scientific models by their predictive power. But if we shift our focus from what will happen to simply trying to write down what will never happen, and then following such an exercise to its logical conclusion, we may be surprised to find just how much “drops out”(this seems to be what happened with Deutsch – he ended up with results that a remniscent of open problems in quantum mechanics).

If it makes us feel better, we can say that we are “deferring” the question of working out the “laws” while we explore the “meta-laws” first. Will it turn out that we never actually need to go to the “laws” in the end, because the “meta-” understanding will give us what we need? Counter-intuitively we might get a deeper understanding by trying to understand “less”.

Slight tangent: it got us thinking about our cognitive biases. When we look at network graphs, we concentrate on the nodes, not the edges. We put people as records into our databases, but not the relationships between people4. We see things, and we try to describe the things, but we don’t think as much about the things that make things or the things that connect things.

diagramCrude analogy with a network graph. Usually we like to think about the nodes N of the graph, but for a connected graph we could work with the edges A only and ignore the nodes altogether without losing any clarity or completeness of our model. We could even derive second order measures B based on the edges, such as e.g. relative sizes of adjacent edges. The resulting set of “meta”-edges would no longer fully specify a single graph but a whole family (“universe”) of possible graphs.

Before we get too far into our own navels, however, we do end up with a couple of concrete lines of enquiry. Deutsch’s work may be crackpot, speculative or revolutionary – or anywhere in between – but we feel encouraged to follow the same process when thinking about people and memes. Centuries of efforts to codify laws about people and communication have met with limited success in our opinion (sorry, social scientists).

So is it time to take a meta view and develop some meta-laws about what people don’t do instead? For example, we could imagine that a simple biological imperative make it (almost) impossible for us to truly believe in the imminence of our own death. What happens if we represent some of these basic assumption and construct ‘laws” from them? Could we construct a better social science that way? We’re excited about that possibility and are thinking of some simple computer simulations to explore these ideas further.

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1A Meta-Law to Rule Them All in Scientific American, May 26th 2014.

2Constructor Theory, David Deutsch 2012.

3An interesting and angry/abusive rebuttal of constructor theory can be found at
Constructor theory: Deutsch and Marletto are just vacuously bullšiting

4I had a recent conversation with a database expert and data archivist where we discussed the fact that we rarely design databases to represent the relationships between people, instead representing the people themselves. Kind of like representing the nodes of a graph but ignoring the edges. Although I am sure that sites such as LinkedIn have data structures that are doing that in some way. I wonder what would happen if we completely (and counter-intuitively) “ignored” the people themselves and only represented the relationships. People would still exist but only as an “inferred” property of the system.

5It’s Perfectly Normal to See Jesus In Toast, Say Study – TIME Magazine

Discussion #8 – Memes, Psychology and Religion – Are we better than we used to be?

This week we welcome John Hanly, our latest guest on the audio blog who has a special personal connection to The Gentlemen Scientists – he is Brian’s father! John has had a long, varied and fascinating career as a Catholic priest in training, a psychologist, businessman and consultant and writer – a true polymath. Tonight he joins us and applies his formidable intellect to questions of memetics, psychology, religion and ethics.

Like many of us, John has a keen and active interest in both science and religion. As the new century brings exciting cross-collaborative developments (such the scientific study of meditation), these also bring new opportunities for us to reconcile what has previously seemed incompatible. The Gentlemen Scientists believe that rambling conversations such as this week’s discussion are more and more the need of the hour.

Along the way we discuss why childhood traumas can so deeply affect adult life, how cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) works, issues of determinism and free will; Dawkin’s definition of the “meme”, the mechanisms of “cultural transmission” and why memetics hasn’t contributed serious results to science; how Buddhist adepts modify their brains to achieve detachment, social learning theory and speculations on why advertising works.

Lord_of_the_FliesImage courtesy catholicvote.org

And we are not afraid of asking the big questions – we finish up by considering the idea of “moral progress” – are we morally and ethically better off as a human society than we used to be – or are we, as in The Lord of the Flies, just savages in slacks?

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1John Conway’s Game of Life is the most famous example of a class of mathematical model systems called cellular automata. It exhibits highly complex and unpredictable emergent behaviours from a set of trivially simple rules.

2This page on Encyclopedia Britannica has a good summary of epigenetics, the modification of gene expression by environment. Epigenetic effects have become better understood in recent years and have modified our views on the mechanisms that drive genetic inheritance.

3The amygdala is an ancient structure within the limbic system which integrates sensory and visceral inputs in time.

4Research with Buddhist monks was done at the University Wiscosin-Madison and reported in the book ‘Happiness’ by Matthieu Ricard. A related talk can be found on TED Talks.

5Explanation of Jung’s theory of archetypes.

6Anti-drink-driving campaigns in Australia run bt the Transport Accident Commission (TAC) have been enormously succesful over the last two decades, significantly reducing Australia’s road toll.

7Donald Rumsfeld’s famous remarks about “unknown unknowns” – although this has long been a subject of ridicule, his argument is excellent and correct.

8“The Surprising Decline of Violence” – Steven Pinker

Discussion #7 – Quantum mechanics, black holes and branes

[Today’s discussion sponsored by The Copenhagen Interpretation remix of R Kelly’s Ignition– the Gentlemen Scientists suggest that you play it as a soundtrack]

The Gentlemen Scientists are joined tonight by guest Nick Raphael, a friend and ex-colleague who is also a graduate in Physics from the University of Manchester. It provides us with an excellent excuse to indulge our interest in Quantum Mechanics, a subject that we love speculating about but one that is often a mystery to us (but as Feynman said, no one really understands quantum physics anyway).

20140515_004654A Gentleman Scientist’s speculative (and possibly incorrect) rendering of space around a black hole leading to another isolated “universe”

We love Quantum Physics, but is it a house of cards? It has had spectacular successes, but it lacks elegance, requires “fine-tuning” of assumptions and the field is a soup of competing theories. And just why is it so counter-intuitive?

We cover a number of the open questions in physics, both quantum and relativity, and then consider some deeper questions about the nature of our scientific method and the essential “knowability” of the universe. Are our current theories simply beautifully tuned approximate models that bears no relation to ‘reality’?

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1The Copenhagen Interpretation is the most widely used interpretation of quantum mechanics.

2Richard Feynman’s quote about quantum physics – “If you think you understand quantum mechanics, you don’t understand quantum mechanics”

3Young’s double slit experiment is explained quite nicely in Wikipedia.

4What Einstein meant when he said God does not play dice.

5The book i am reading is The Fabric of the Cosmos by Brian Greene – http://www.amazon.com/The-Fabric-Cosmos-Texture-Reality/dp/0375727205

6Stanford online has this explanation of Quantum Field Theory (QFT)

7We still don’t completely understand ‘virtual particles’. There is an attempted explanation online here.

8Brian refers to this Youtube video about special relativity and electro-magnetism.

9Everett’s Many World Theory is explained here. Nick refers to the ‘multiverse’ as a different idea that posits multiple universes existing in space and time (Wikipedia).

10Two articles in Scientific American about open questions in physics:

11Quantum Chemistry? It does exist and there is an International Conference of Quantum Chemistry coming up.

12The double-slit experiment is a watershed in quantum mechanics

13A crazy, detailed speculation on ‘Quantum Consciousness’ from Roger Penrose and Stuart Hameroff

14A primer on Brane Theory can be found at this page.

15The book ‘The Elegant Universe’ by Brian Greene talks about the Planck Length being the smallest indivisible size of space.

16Brian Cox is a famous English physicist (Wikipedia)

17The Pioneer Anomaly

Discussion #6 – Computer Games, People and Prophylactics

[Today’s discussion sponsored by Leisure Suit Larry in the Land of the Lounge Lizards]

You may have noticed that along with the computer science, psychology and complexity theory, we Gentlemen Scientists often indulge a bit of nostalgia. In today’s discussion, we welcome our first guest Gentlemen Scientist Simon Hutchison to chat about computer games. Simon is a software developer and entrepreneur who is also an avid gamer. Like us, he has fond memories of his misspent youth playing computer games, such as the classic Leisure Suit Larry.

LLLHey Larry – don’t forget your prophylactic

But do computer games really make us happy, or are they a waste of time? Do they have a connection with real life, or do they distract us from what is really important? Why are they so addictive (remember South Korean Lee Seung Seop, who died while playing Starcraft 2 for fifty consecutive hours?). And why have computer games even become a spectator sport?

We ponder the multi-billion dollar success of Candy Crush, the classic elbow move in Double Dragon and the allure of slot machines. We also admire game developers for being the most adept at understanding the psychology of the user and hitting the pleasure centres of our brain. Why can’t we bring some of that positive, rewarding experiences into the world of ‘serious’ software that we use at work?

1Leisure Suit Larry was a classic game from our teenage years. Watch the trailer for ‘Leisure Suit Larry in the Land of the Lounge Lizards’ at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XqXpWJhsuaI.

2‘Candy Crush maker King Digital valued at more than $7 billion in IPO’ – http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/03/25/us-kingdigital-ipo-idUSBREA2O1ZQ20140325

3One definition of a prophylactic from Merriam Webster – a device and especially a condom for preventing venereal infection or conception

4Dota 2 is a very popular multiplayer online game.

5Gaming Passions is an innovative online dating network for gaming lovers.

6A Multi-User Dungeon (MUD) is a multiplayer real-time virtual world, usually a text-only game without graphics.

7Remember Tamagotchis?

8A great article about the elbow move in Double Dragon – http://www.robohara.com/?p=1971

9‘Pokie’ machines is an Australianism for casino poker machines, also known as slot machines.

10Skinner’s experiments with animals are described on this page.

11South Korean Lee Seung Seop died while playing Starcraft 2 for fifty consecutive hours.

12Yacht Race around the World – you can see a video of this game at http://www.symmetri.com/symmetri/yacht.html (needs Windows Media Player plugin)

13Check out this article about Game Mechanics At Work

14Principle Skinner: Oh, licking envelopes can be fun! All you have to do is make a game of it.
Bart: What kind of game?
Principle Skinner: Well, for example, you could see how many you could lick in an hour, then try to break that record.
Bart: Sounds like a pretty crappy game to me.
Principle Skinner: Yes, well… Get started.

From http://www.tvfanatic.com/quotes/oh-licking-envelopes-can-be-fun-all-you-have-to-do-is-make-a-g/#ixzz30Rfj9Dq7

15Nicholas Nassim Taleb talks about the ludic fallacy – thinking that real life is like a game. Actually, in real life the rules can change and people overturn the chess board if they are angry.

16Twitch.TV allows you to watch other people play games.