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28 DECEMBER, 2012

Richard Dawkins on Evidence in Science, Life and Love: A Letter to His 10-Year-Old Daughter

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“All through the day when you are with somebody who loves you, you see and hear lots of little tidbits of evidence, and they all add up.”

When his daughter turned ten, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins — arguably today’s most vocal atheist and celebrated skeptic — wrote her a simply worded but tremendously thoughtful letter about how we know what we know, stressing the importance of evidence over blind belief. The letter, found in the 2004 essay anthology A Devil’s Chaplain: Reflections on Hope, Lies, Science, and Love (UK; public library), is a fine addition to history’s best letters of fatherly advice and an important reminder that it’s never too early for critical thinking.

Dawkins writes:

To my dearest daughter,

Now that you are ten, I want to write to you about something that is important to me. Have you ever wondered how we know the things that we know? How do we know, for instance, that the stars, which look like tiny pinpricks in the sky, are really huge balls of fire like the Sun and very far away? And how do we know that the Earth is a smaller ball whirling round one of those stars, the Sun?
The answer to these questions is ‘evidence’.

Sometimes evidence means actually seeing (or hearing, feeling, smelling….) that something is true. Astronauts have traveled far enough from the Earth to see with their own eyes that it is round. Sometimes our eyes need help. The ‘evening star’ looks like a bright twinkle in the sky but with a telescope you can see that it is a beautiful ball — the planet we call Venus. Something that you learn by direct seeing (or hearing or feeling…) is called an observation.

Often evidence isn’t just observation on its own, but observation always lies at the back of it. If there’s been a murder, often nobody (except the murderer and the dead person!) actually observed it. But detectives can gather together lots of other observations which may all point towards a particular suspect. If a person’s fingerprints match those found on a dagger, this is evidence that he touched it. It doesn’t prove that he did the murder, but it can help when it’s joined up with lots of other evidence. Sometimes a detective can think about a whole lot of observations and suddenly realize that they all fall into place and make sense if so-and-so did the murder.

He then offers an oblique addition to the finest definitions of science:

Scientists — the specialists in discovering what is true about the world and the universe — often work like detectives. They make a guess (called a hypothesis) about what might be true. They then say to themselves: if that were really true, we ought to see so-and-so. This is called a prediction. For example, if the world is really round, we can predict that a traveler, going on and on in the same direction, should eventually find himself back where he started. When a doctor says that you have measles he doesn’t take one look at you and see measles. His first look gives him a hypothesis that you may have measles. Then he says to himself: if she really has measles, I ought to see… Then he runs through his list of predictions and tests them with his eyes (have you got spots?), his hands (is your forehead hot?), and his ears (does your chest wheeze in a measly way?). Only then does he make his decision and say, ‘I diagnose that the child has measles.’ Sometimes doctors need to do other tests like blood tests or X-rays, which help their eyes, hands and ears to make observations.

Dawkins goes on to warn against “three bad reasons for believing anything” — “tradition,” “authority,” and “revelation” — particularly as they apply to religion.

But perhaps the most moving part of his letter deals with love, exploring the difference between naming feelings with concrete labels and intuiting them from the living fabric, the “evidence,” of experience:

People sometimes say that you must believe in feelings deep inside, otherwise you’d never be confident of things like ‘My wife loves me’. But this is a bad argument. There can be plenty of evidence that somebody loves you. All through the day when you are with somebody who loves you, you see and hear lots of little tidbits of evidence, and they all add up. It isn’t purely inside feeling, like the feeling that priests call revelation. There are outside things to back up the inside feeling: looks in the eye, tender notes in the voice, little favors and kindnesses; this is all real evidence.

He relates this to the importance of intuition in scientific discovery, something a number of famous scientists have attested to, but only as a starting point:

Inside feelings are valuable in science too, but only for giving you ideas that you later test by looking for evidence. A scientist can have a ‘hunch’ about an idea that just ‘feels’ right. In itself, this is not a good reason for believing something. But it can be a good reason for spending some time doing a particular experiment, or looking in a particular way for evidence. Scientists use inside feelings all the time to get ideas. But they are not worth anything until they are supported by evidence.

After returning to the perils of tradition, Dawkins concludes with some practical advise reminiscent of the Baloney Detection Kit:

What can we do about all this? It is not easy for you to do anything, because you are only ten. But you could try this. Next time somebody tells you something that sounds important, think to yourself: ‘Is this the kind of thing that people probably know because of evidence? Or is it the kind of thing that people only believe because of tradition, authority or revelation?’ And, next time somebody tells you that something is true, why not say to them: ‘What kind of evidence is there for that?’ And if they can’t give you a good answer, I hope you’ll think very carefully before you believe a word they say.

Your loving,

Daddy

A Devil’s Chaplain is excellent in its entirety — highly recommended.

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27 DECEMBER, 2012

Chuck Close on Creativity, Work Ethic, and Problem-Solving vs. Problem-Creating

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“Inspiration is for amateurs — the rest of us just show up and get to work.”

Questions of why creators create, how they structure their days, and where they look for inspiration hold a strange kind of mesmerism over us mere mortals, an elusive promise of somehow reverse-engineering and absorbing genius through voyeurism. In 2003, artist Joe Fig began interviewing famous painters about how, where, and why they do what they do. The result was Inside the Painter’s Studio (UK; public library) — an anthology of 24 conversations with some of today’s most revered contemporary artists. Among them was legendary photorealist Chuck Close, who despite his paralyzing 1988 spinal artery collapse remains one of the most prolific, disciplined, and sought-after artists working today.

In the interview, Close echoes Tchaikovsky and Jack White in the supremacy of work ethic over “inspiration”:

I was never one of those people who had to have a perfect situation to paint in. I can make art anywhere, anytime — it doesn’t matter. I mean, I know so many artists for whom having the perfect space is somehow essential. They spend years designing, building, outfitting the perfect space, and then when it is just about time to get to work they’ll sell that place and build another one. It seems more often than not a way to keep from having to work. But I could paint anywhere. I made big paintings in the tiniest bedrooms, garages, you name it. you know, once I have my back to the room, I could be anywhere.

When asked about the motto or creed by which he lives, Close puts it even more forcefully, negating the notion of creative block:

Inspiration is for amateurs — the rest of us just show up and get to work. And the belief that things will grow out of the activity itself and that you will — through work — bump into other possibilities and kick open other doors that you would never have dreamt of if you were just sitting around looking for a great ‘art idea.’ And the belief that process, in a sense, is liberating and that you don’t have to reinvent the wheel every day. Today, you know what you’ll do, you could be doing what you were doing yesterday, and tomorrow you are gonna do what you did today, and at least for a certain period of time you can just work. If you hang in there, you will get somewhere.

[…]

I never had painter’s block in my whole life.

Indeed, like many famous creators, Close enacts this belief in his own daily routine:

On a typical country day I am painting by nine, and I usually work until noon. Three hours in the morning. I will have lunch either at my desk, or if it’s nice I will go to the pool. Of if it’s really nice I will go to the beach for an hour. Have lunch on the beach perhaps, and then I come back and I paint from one to four, another three hours, and about then the light is failing, and I am beginning to fuck up. So then my nurse usually comes at four, and I stop working, clean up, have a big drink, and that’s a typical day. I work every day out there, every single day.

Close closes by offering emerging artists some words of advice on creative autonomy:

I think while appropriation has produced some interesting work … for me, the most interesting thing is to back yourself into your own corner where no one else’s answers will fit. You will somehow have to come up with your own personal solutions to this problem that you have set for yourself because no one else’s answers are applicable.

[…]

See, I think our whole society is much too problem-solving oriented. It is far more interesting to [participate in] ‘problem creation’ … You know, ask yourself an interesting enough question and your attempt to find a tailor-made solution to that question will push you to a place where, pretty soon, you’ll find yourself all by your lonesome — which I think is a more interesting place to be.

Then again, there’s always the question of whether it’s at all possible — or desirable — to fully purge ourselves of influences, given everything we create is an amalgamation of our lived experience, our “personal micro-culture,” without which we’d be unable to come up with “new,” combinatorial ideas.

Images courtesy Princeton Architectural Press / Joe Fig

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27 DECEMBER, 2012

How People Live In The Suburbs: A Vintage Illustrated Gem

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“Swinging is a good time to close your eyes and make-believe.”

Much has been written about what makes a great city, with recent theories placing walkability atop the list of favorable assets, deeming suburbs among the least desirable, most unsustainable, most culturally insular places to live. In fact, every week from now until 2050 more than a million people are being added to our cities. But the city-suburb relationship didn’t always skew this way — in the first half of the 20th century, suburban sprawl was hailed as a pinnacle of industrial progress and by the 1950s, more Americans lived in suburbs than anywhere else.

Last week, while researching the lovely vintage gem The Little Golden Book of Words, I came upon another out-of-print treasure: How People Live In The Suburbs (UK; public library) by Muriel Stanek, originally published in 1970 as an educational supplement teaching primary school children about the basics of social studies. Through a mix of vibrant illustrations by Bernadine Bailey and photographs by Philip Gendreau, the slim 48-page book captures the golden age of utopian visions for suburbia, a bittersweet memento from one of history’s greatest failures of urban planning.

How People Live In The Suburbs was published as part of a Basic Understanding series of primary school supplements, also including How People Earn and Use Money, How Farms Help Us, and How Our Government Helps Us — all, sadly, out of print but delightful if you’re able to secure a copy.

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In 2012, bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings took more than 5,000 hours. If you found any joy and stimulation here this year, please consider becoming a Member and supporting with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of coffee and a fancy dinner:





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Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter and people say it’s cool. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.