Monday, February 8, 2010

Bloggus Maximus

If you are reasonably smart, you can't go through 76 years, as I have, and not pick up a few wrinkles (both physical and mental). Ahem. So if you can bear to read this long blog, you may learn something useful. I was originally asked by the Royal Society of Canada and the Canadian Federation of Biological Societies to put these ideas together, so here goes.

Sooner or later, we all have to try and organize our lives, much as we may hate the idea. I can already hear you saying, "I don't want to think about any of that. I'm not ready to make decisions about anything much. I just want to have a good time. Oh, and I need to pass my mid-term."

But in fact you make lots of decisions. Whether to get up in the morning; what to eat for breakfast; whether to go to school (or work) or not (I'm joking). As far as I am concerned, day-to-day life has three essential components. All you have to do is choose how much time to spend on each.

The first is work: most of us feel that we have to do something to justify our existence, or at least to put food on the table. Your job at school is to learn the stuff you'll need to know later on.

The second component, you'll be glad to hear, is play: we all have a right to some relaxation; time when we don't worry about the future, and just let it all hang out (if that phrase is still being used).

The third component may be one some of you haven't thought about yet: I wasn't quite sure what to call it, but I eventually chose the word volunteering. It deals with your involvement in society. Doing things because they need to be done. Helping someone learn to read. Visiting lonely old people. Raising money for a charity. Cleaning up a stream. Defending the environment (that's my main form of social activism). Thinking about something or someone other than ourselves, for a change. Of course, you can choose not to volunteer, but I can promise you that if you do get involved, you will feel good about it. And it looks really terrific on your resumé when you apply for a job or a scholarship. I was a member of the committee that decided who would get the prestigious 1967 NSERC Scholarships, which were worth a cool $60,000 to students going for a higher degree. We travelled all over Canada to interview the candidates, and apart from brilliance, and 90% averages, our most important criterion was volunteer service.

John Kennedy wasn't as great a U.S. President as people liked to think: he screwed around a lot, something I doubt very much he'd be allowed to get away with today. But he did say a few good things. "Don't ask what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country."

We certainly need that kind of thinking today if our country is to survive into the next century.

We human beings are different from all other living organisms in having the power of choice. We can also imagine the future, and may even have some ideas about the meaning of life, the universe and all that. We make our first stabs at planning the future quite early. When I was growing up, little boys often said they wanted to be firemen or bus drivers. Girls often said they wanted to be mothers or nurses. We now know that these ideas were not generated by the kids themselves, but were absorbed from the people around them, and we now reject this kind of stereotyping by sex. All of you, male or female, can do anything you want to, if you set your minds to it. But most of our childish dreams never come true, and perhaps it's just as well, considering how little kids know about what a jungle it is out there, and how much more choice exists than children are aware of.

But as you grow up, you eventually come face to face with the big question: What am I really going to do with my life? How can I decide? Many of you are not yet ready to make that decision, so I'll bring the discussion down a level or two, and ask: How do you run your life on a day-to-day basis? Are you ruled by impulse? Do you look to someone else to make your decisions for you? Do you just follow the group? Or do you analyze situations and make your own decisions? Most of us are not very consistent: our answer would probably be: "All of the above." But what you do today gives hints about what you will do down the road.

I'm going to examine several possible ways in which we can make the big decisions. In the long run, it is extremely dangerous to avoid these decisions, because if we don't make them, they will be made for us. Which brings me to my title. If I examine their behaviour, most people seem to adopt one of three philosophies. The first group trust to luck: they seem to think that the world operates like a lottery, and they don't have any hope of controlling their own destiny. The second group run their lives according to a set of strict rules established by other people; rules that provide them with prescribed responses to all situations, and answers to all questions; rules that relieve them of the need to make any difficult or complex decisions. The third group look at as many angles as they can find, sift the evidence carefully, then make informed decisions based on their experience. As far as I am concerned, this last is the only possible course: it means taking charge of your life, and taking responsibility for your actions. Unfortunately, it is also by far the hardest course to follow.

You'd be surprised to find out how many people shrug their shoulders and play the numbers game. You probably know someone who goes to Las Vegas, Reno or Lake Tahoe to visit the casinos. If they are lucky, they will win a lot of money. A few do. Most don't. Usually, they lose (How could the casinos keep going if everybody won?) Others pin their hopes on horses, or on lotteries.

These are often people who feel that life has not treated them well, and that only Lady Luck can instantly transform their existence. They have essentially given up trying to get a life for themselves, and have decided to gamble. Against all the odds they expect the big win to happen any time now. Or do they? I would call it a forlorn hope. Do you know people who regularly buy lottery tickets? Do you personally know anyone who has won a lot of money? For every one who does win, there are hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of disappointed ticket buyers.

The odds against your winning the lottery by buying a single ticket are enormous, and last week's loss doesn't increase your chances of winning this week. Let's look at a few figures. Statistically, you are more likely to survive playing Russian roulette and pulling the trigger 88 times in succession. You are more likely to live to be 115 years old. You are much more likely to be killed in an automobile accident. If you buy one ticket a week, you are likely to win one jackpot every 1,846,000 years. Even the Blue Jays are more likely to win the World Series. In fact, lotteries are a gigantic scam: a way of bamboozling the poor into throwing away some of what little money they have.

But, you say, somebody has to win. Yes, but keep in mind that it's not likely to be you. So don't waste precious time sitting around waiting for luck to take care of you. That's fantasyland, although I know it can look attractive, especially in the face of the real world disappointments you will all inevitably suffer. Just remember that if you don't decide which way your life should go, you are effectively handing yourself over to chance, and the odds will not be in your favour.

Early humans had not yet figured any of this out: they hadn't invented statistics yet. But life was very hard, and they felt they had to do something that would at least give them a feeling of being in charge. So they invented all kinds of magic rituals they thought might help them to control what happened to them. If someone invented rituals like these today, we would call them neurotic and obsessive/compulsive, and we'd probably stay away from them. But back then psychology hadn't been invented either. They eventually decided that something outside themselves was in charge  some Supernatural Being. And since so many bad things happened to them, they assumed that this Being had a pretty nasty disposition. Perhaps the way to keep ahead of the game was to somehow sweeten the Being up.

But how to do it, since you couldn't see the Being or speak directly to it? Someone hit upon the idea of offering to the Being something they wanted themselves. Food has always been important to people, so they decided to offer the Being some really good roast lamb. We call these offerings sacrifices, and they really were sacrifices to our ancestors. Even today, I would find it hard to give up a leg of lamb and watch it burned black so the flavour could go up in the smoke to the Being. Well, despite increasingly desperate kinds of sacrifice, including things they valued even more highly than food, such as gold, and even young men and maidens, early people somehow failed to get on top of things. We know that they still lived in caves or mud huts or tents; they were often hungry; and they didn't live very long. Most people still died before they were thirty years old, and a fairly high percentage died in infancy. And even societies that managed to build large pyramids on which to sacrifice people eventually collapsed.

Inventing Supernatural Beings, and making sacrifices or offerings to them, became a large industry. It was a second way of organizing your life, and of avoiding the need to make your own decisions. And as far as I can see, it didn't work much better than the numbers game, except in one way. The rituals provided a way of binding people together into a group with common goals: they gave you a nice way of fitting in, and perhaps because of this, they still thrive today. A cult will say to you, "Give us all your money and all your stuff and we will look after you. All you have to do is follow our rituals for the rest of your life, and give up thinking for yourself." To someone who has lost control of their life to drugs, or who has suffered a personal tragedy, or who just feels lost, lonely and unloved, this offer can seem quite attractive. But I think it is an extremely dangerous thing to do, because you are essentially putting the best part of your brain in cold storage.

In fact, over the course of history, it is sadly true that most humans have turned over control of their lives to sets of rules originally devised, so they have been told, by one or more Supernatural Beings. These rules were intended to make life more pleasant and predictable. In some ways they did, but only if everyone around you followed the same set of rules. At least you knew what to expect from your neighbours.

But different groups of people somehow acquired different Supernatural Beings, and different sets of rules. Perhaps the most amazing thing about each set of rules was that it claimed to be the only correct one. This always implied that everyone who didn't accept your set was automatically wrong. People who used one set were often intolerant of people who used any other set. This intolerance sometimes ripened into jealousy or hatred, and led some groups to attack and kill or enslave other groups. Now I'm not suggesting that these people invented war, which often has to do with power rather than ideology, but they certainly made it popular. Sadly, it is still popular, thousands of years later, for the same reasons, and is just as stupid as it always was.

The wish to avoid responsibility for their own actions is so strong that many people will believe in almost anything, as long as someone else does it or says it first. Some believe that the positions of the stars and planets on the day of their birth control the rest of their lives. I have a lot of trouble with this one. Stars and planets are very large but almost unimaginably distant physical objects: They are, as far as we can yet tell, inanimate: no more than hunks of matter moving through space in a highly predictable way. It is difficult for scientists to imagine any way in which they could possibly affect the lives of different people in different ways, unless of course those people had decided to use them as scapegoats, as substitutes for rational decision-making. Never confuse the mumbo-jumbo of astrology with the science of astronomy. Mrs. Reagan apparently believed in astrology, and as we all know, she was the power behind the President; that confirms my worst suspicions about the way the U.S.A. was being run. Shakespeare said it best: The fault is not in our stars, but in ourselves.

As children we are told endless stories in which magic gets the hero or heroine out of trouble. But of course magic is just wishful thinking. If only we could fly over the rainbow. If only we could turn lead into gold, as the alchemists dreamed of doing. If only we could all be young and rich and beautiful, and live happily ever after. But although we can amuse ourselves with such ideas during the playtimes of our lives, the real world just ain't like that.

Despite their magic, early people still lived in caves and died young. But we don't. And the reason we don't is not that our parents won a lottery, or that they cast a particularly good spell, or that some fatherly or motherly Supernatural Being gave them their wish. No, the reason we live as well as we do, and as long as we do, and know as much as we do about the world around us and the universe beyond, is because we invented a simple technique called the scientific method.

That's the secret, in three words: the scientific method.

How does it work? In essentials, it is amazingly simple.

Step 1. You begin by doing something everyone has done since the beginning of the human race. You observe, you look at things. But you don't look at them casually. You choose one set of things to look at, and you make notes, you analyze what you are seeing. As Charles Darwin sailed around South America on the Beagle, he could have acted as millions of tourists still do: he could have treated it all as a passing show. But he didn't. He observed and he recorded. His brain was in gear. He saw things many people had seen, yet he thought what no-one had thought. That's one secret of being a good scientist.

In step 2, you bring a lot of observations together, pick out some common feature that catches your interest, and try to put together an explanation. This preliminary explanation is called a hypothesis, which is a fancy word for an educated guess.

Step 3 involves using the hypothesis to predict something we don't yet know.

Having made the prediction, we test it by making more observations or doing some experiments.

If we find that some of the results don't fit our hypothesis, it has to go. That's Step 4.

Most hypotheses turn out to be wrong. Remarkably few hypotheses last for ten years before they are disproved. Very few indeed last for 100 years. But that is perfectly all right. Science advances largely by disproving hypotheses. Abandoning ideas that don't work. A simple concept, but not a popular one, even among scientists. It's hard to see your cherished brainchild go in the trash, but if it fails the test, that's exactly where it has to go.

The whole process is cyclical, because scientists think up new hypotheses to replace the old ones on a regular basis. Each new one explains our observations better than the last, but each in turn is generally doomed to be replaced by another. We never reach finality or truth. The answer is not 42. But we learn. How we learn! We learn what electricity is, and how to do a million things with it. We learn about the chemical elements, and how they can be combined in millions of different ways to make most of the things we see around us. We learn what causes diseases, and how to prevent or cure them. Almost all of what we know about the world around us, and the universe beyond, we have learned by applying the scientific method. And we have learned it all in only a few hundred years.

It is almost unbelievable that such a simple method should produce such far-reaching results. Yet

they are all around us. We had no proper anaesthetics until the 19th century, no antibiotics or atom bombs until 50 years ago. No appropriate immuno-suppressants until 20 years ago. Widespread organ transplantation only during the past two decades. No personal computers, and no compact VCRs or videocameras until the 1980's. Life has changed beyond recognition during the last 200 years  even during the past 50 years, while I have been watching  and despite the confusion of incessant change, not many of us would like to go back to an era when we lit our houses with candles or oil lamps, heated them with wood stoves, drew water at the well, travelled on foot or in horse-drawn buggies, had no movies or T/V, and died at an early age of TB, diphtheria, polio, septicaemia, smallpox and many other diseases we have almost forgotten about, and you may never have heard of.

I have a houseplant. One day I notice that it has died. I could call it an Act of God (this is a phrase insurance companies use to cover destructive events they can't explain, and don't want to pay for). If that hypothesis is what I really believe, it can't be tested, and that's the end of it. But I may prefer not to accept this ready-made answer, and I hypothesize that the plant died because I forgot to water it. I have come up with a testable hypothesis, and I'm going to test it. I predict that if I water a plant of this kind only once a week, then it will die. So I set up an experiment. I go back to the nursery and buy three more plants, making sure they tell me the Latin name of the plant. Why do I do that? Because it will allow me to look in a library or a computer database, or on Google to learn what other people have already found out about this species and its requirements. I make sure that the new plants are in the same kind of pot, and get the same lighting in the same place in the house. These precautions are an attempt to reduce the number of variables to one: water. Then I proceed to water the first plant every day, the second plant every other day, and the third plant only once a week. I am doing an experiment.

All three plants die. This sounds bad, but it isn't a total loss: I have disproved my watering hypothesis, and must look for another one. I wonder about the possible effects of temperature and light, and mineral nutrients, or of diseases. And I design experiments to explore these effects. At this point I have run out of money, and will probably apply for a grant. More plants arrive. Some live, some die. And I gradually learn just what conditions will kill my plant. Even more important, I learn how to keep it alive, and how to make it grow. The answers may not matter to anyone but me. But it is also possible that I have learned something that will be useful to people who are trying to figure out how to raise crops in Ethiopia, where it may be a matter of life or death. Science is full of stories about people who were curious about strange and apparently irrelevant phenomena, yet ended up by discovering things that changed the world. But those stories belong to another blog.

A scientist sees something and it triggers her curiosity. Yes, there are more and more women scientists, and we need them all. Scientists, male and female, are always asking questions. Always wondering why things are the way they are. And finding out.

I have been a scientist of sorts for over 50 years. I have asked far more questions than I have been able to answer. And each answer I and my graduate students have reached has raised many new questions. There is lots of work for scientists to do. But being a scientist has given me an interesting life. I have been able to follow my own curiosity in many different directions, and have always had a lot of control over what I do.

If you want to be a poet, I suspect that the scientific method is not for you. I must admit that the rather rigorous logic and the analytical approach of science seems to have stifled any poet there may have been in me. But science has opened even my eyes to the magnificence of the world about us. I have experienced the wonderful diversity of tropical rain forests, and been SCUBA diving on the world's finest coral reefs. I have found a hundred species of beautiful plants hiding in a dull, flat prairie, and as many fascinating microscopic fungi in a handful of
 soil. And as I have travelled around the world, I have been rudely awakened to the way that our species is thoughtlessly destroying the habitats of millions of living things; complex, highly evolved organisms which have just as much right to be here as we do.

Science is a powerful weapon, but it is two-edged. By inventing death-control, it extended our life-spans, but also triggered our disastrous population explosion. Science spawned the technology that enables us to lead stimulating and fulfilling lives, but also turns the richness and beauty of our old-growth forests into bare hillsides and last week's newspapers. Science itself may be amoral, but remember that it is scientists who are warning that we have already overpopulated the planet, and who point out that we are now greedily engaged in exploiting and wrecking the very ecosystems that support us. We can only hope that enough of you will join us, and join us in time, to save the world.

Of course, you can't all be scientists, and I'm sure a lot of you wouldn't want to be. And science can't solve all your problems: the scientific method isn't suitable for dealing with political, psychological, ethical and theological problems, to name a few. But you can all learn something from the successes of science. Don't play the numbers game. Don't rely on luck. It won't save you or the Earth. Don't let anyone persuade you that ritual should rule your life; that would mean you had given up, tuned out, turned off. Look carefully at all your options, then use your minds to make rational choices. You will encounter many problems: we all do. I hope you will try to solve them rather than avoid them. 


  1. Bryce, I think that I will just come to you when I have any problems. You seem to have all the answers! :)

  2. Bryce,
    What a fantastic essay!
    I couldn't find your "Aspilicia" blog that you mentioned in your last email... perhaps a typo