About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Insane Clown Posse and the miracles of nature

A couple weeks ago a music video called "Miracles" went viral. It was produced by a hip-hop duo named Insane Clown Posse, heretofore best known for their face-paint and such classic songs as "I stab you" (and a follow-up song: "Still stabbin'.") "Miracles" rode to fame on a wave of the kind of bemused buzz that tends to follow things like two dudes named Violent J and Shaggy 2 Dope rapping about rainbows and giraffes.
The song features lines like "Plant a little seed and nature grows!" and is either profound or profoundly stupid, depending on whether or not you think they're in on the joke. I honestly can't tell -- others have speculated -- but it doesn't really matter for our purposes. Whether they know it or not, Violent and Shaggy have something important to teach us about science, so listen up.
At first, "Miracles" sounds like a paean to scientific curiosity, urging us to appreciate the wonders all around us instead of dismissing the natural world as prosaic and mooning over the imaginary supernatural. I wholeheartedly agree with this. The "magic" we marvel over in stories is not inherently any more marvelous than what already exists in our world -- it just seems that way because we're so used to the real stuff. After all, are dragons and wizards really any more amazing than real things like -- well, let me hand the mike to Shaggy and Violent: "The sun and the moon, even Mars! The Milky Way! F-ckin' shooting stars!" Well said. Thanks guys.
There's a fun thought experiment you can do to bring this fact into clearer focus. Just pick something ubiquitous, something you take for granted because you're so familiar with it, and imagine how you would react if it didn't exist and you were reading about it in a fantasy tale. Eliezer Yudkowsky over at Less Wrong demonstrates: "For example, suppose that instead of one eye, you possessed a magical second eye embedded in your forehead. And this second eye enabled you to see into the third dimension - so that you could somehow tell how far away things were - where an ordinary eye would see only a two-dimensional shadow of the true world. Only the possessors of this ability can accurately aim the legendary distance-weapons that kill at ranges far beyond a sword, or use to their fullest potential the shells of ultrafast machinery called 'cars'."
This is something I really do think is important to keep in mind, because getting excited only by the supernatural isn't simply unjustified, it's also a recipe for unhappiness. "Sooner or later you're going to be disappointed in everything," Yudkowsky writes. "Either it will turn out not to exist, or even worse, it will turn out to be real."
Okay, so far, so good. I am cheering on Violent and Shaggy as they wonder about the world around them ( "F-ckin' magnets, how do they work?"), and I'm chair-dancing to the catchy hook ("Do you notice and appreciate miracles, miracles, miracles...").
But then I hear two lines that completely change the meaning of the song: "And I don't wanna talk to a scientist/ y'all motherf-ckers lyin' and getting me pissed." Wait, what? So they're wondering about how rainbows and shooting stars and magnets work, but they don't want to hear the explanation? Now I get it: this song isn't an ode to investigating mysteries. It's an ode to mystery for the sake of mystery.
Once I realize what the song is really about, I'm reminded of a poem I learned in high school English class, which I remember hating even then:

When I heard the learn’d astronomer;
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me;
When I was shown the charts and the diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them;
When I, sitting, heard the astronomer, where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon, unaccountable, I became tired and sick;
Till rising and gliding out, I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.

-When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomers, by Walt Whitman
Man, just copying and pasting that poem is setting my teeth on edge again. Look at how the lines get longer and clunkier, and the language duller, when you're with the scientist. Then once you leave that tedious ol' lecture-room, the language finally starts sounding poetic, with words like gliding, and mystical, and the meter evolves out of shapelessness into a lyrical iambic pentameter.
Whitman was one of many Romantic poets who wrote breathlessly about the natural world but found science's attempts at explanation to be a buzzkill. Keats and Blake are two other well-known examples. Blake complained, "Our meddling intellect Mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things," and Keats famously blamed science for "unweaving the rainbow." Clearly, Insane Clown Posse's stance is nothing new. It's just the anti-science attitude of the 19th-century Romantics all over again, albeit with a little extra synthesizer and "motherf-cker"s.
Charismatic science popularizers like Richard Dawkins, Carl Sagan, and Neil deGrasse Tyson have argued again and again that understanding the world scientifically should increase our sense of wonder, not decrease it. And listening to them waxing rhapsodic about the universe, it's hard not to ask yourself, "How can people think there's no poetry in science?" Or as Richard Feynman put it, "What men are poets who may speak of Jupiter if he is a man, but if he is an immense spinning sphere of methane and ammonia must be silent?"
But I've been making an effort recently not to get stuck on the rhetorical question, "How can people think that?" and instead push onward to the earnest question, "Why do people think that?" If a belief is widespread, even if it's a mistaken belief, it cries out for some explanation. Hence, I ask: why are so many people with an innate curiosity about the natural world so uninterested in, even hostile to, scientific explanation?
Part of the problem is that grasping scientific explanations well enough to feel awed by them can require some pretty abstract thinking, the sort our brains aren't built for. It frequently requires a better sense of relative scale than we naturally have to appreciate how big the universe really is, how hot the sun is, or how dense a neutron star is. Our brains react pretty much the same to "million" as they do to "trillion." Being awed by the universe also often requires some familiarity with mathematical equations, in order to appreciate how elegant they are and to feel your breath catch in your throat at the knowledge that the universe follows those laws. And as Neil deGrasse Tyson describes in Death by Black Hole, scientific explanations can require multiple layers of abstraction, each of which takes people successively farther away from the immediacy of the phenomenon. "[To] explain how we know the speed of a receding star requires five nested levels of abstraction," Tyson writes:

Level 0: Star
Level 1: Picture of a star
Level 2: Light from the picture of a star
Level 3: Spectrum from the light from the picture of a star
Level 4: Patterns of lines lacing the spectrum from the light from the picture of a star
Level 5: Shifts in the patterns of lines lacing the spectrum from the light from the picture of a star
... by the time your explanation reaches level 5, the audience is either befuddled or just fast asleep," he laments.
Another obstacle scientific explanations face is that for many people, "poetry" and "romance" require some kind of emotion or human feeling they can identify with. It's understandable; our brains are wired to be excited by human narratives, and it's harder to feel moved by the world if we can't anthropomorphize it. Immense spinning spheres of methane and ammonia can't be proud, or angry, or despairing. Yudkowsky makes this point too: "So one can see why John 'Unweave a rainbow' Keats might feel something had been lost, on being told that the rainbow was sunlight scattered from raindrops... The Biblical story of the rainbow is a tale of bloodthirsty murder and smiling insanity. How could anything about raindrops and refraction properly replace that? Raindrops don't scream when they die."
And as for the hostility that some people feel towards scientific explanations, that might have something to do with the fact that unlike magic, science doesn't allow humans to be special. The anti-materialist notion that the universe is shaped around us, or that our thoughts and feelings can produce tangible effects in the world has a particular kind of romance to it that people find appealing. Scientific explanations, for all their objective beauty, take that away from us.
Nevertheless, I think the perfect quote to close with is this one, from 18th-century bishop Samuel Horsley: "Wonder, connected with a principle of rational curiosity, is the source of all knowledge and discovery... but wonder which ends in wonder, and is satisfied with wonder, is the quality of an idiot." A great quote, and one I would wholeheartedly endorse, except for that fact that I'm a little skittish about calling Violent and Shaggy idiots. I hear they stab people.


  1. A very good post! I am reminded of Jostein Gaarder's novel "The Solitaire Mystery," which embodies the spirit of informed wonder. To consider that we are "aliens" floating through the universe is a good way to awaken our sense of wonder and our gift of inquiry.

  2. Spectacular post. I go both ways on this, so it's wonderful to see both ways in a post.

    Wonder at stars, Walt Whitman style, without knowing much, and feeling the night air. Yes (when I either forget, tune out, or enjoy the light pollution).

    Wonder at stars, comparing with other stars, looking for finer and finer details, trying to figure out how they work or what they're made of, and trying to figure out better questions to ask. I can see how that could be good. I can cherish those who do it and enjoy their explanations of what they do and why it's important. I can do the abstraction gig, more-or-less.

    Being told that unless I'm curious about stars, I'm an idiot. Not so much. I choose what I'm curious about. I am curious about quantum field theory. Very curious. I might even be "rationally" curious (does that mean systematically? Whose system?). 10 years of dedicated effort so far curious, and 10 years before that coming to the point where I realized this is what I wanted to really apply my curiosity to. Constructing my own system to understand quantum field theory. Asking many, many, many different questions. Constantly turning down the obsession to keep some balance in life. How curious was Horsley about stars? Did he spend every moment of his life wondering how to improve his knowledge of stars? Does not doing that make him an idiot?

    If someone chooses to be "rationally" curious about politics or how to write well or how to live when people tell you you're an idiot, or how to sing something to encourage those who have been persuaded that they are idiots, not about some small part of Science, why should I condemn them?

    Understand that I think this is a post that touches my wonder, that makes me curious where it goes, that raises points of detail with which I disagree strongly. I hope my curiosity is rational enough. I think your writing is wonderful too, though I'm not an expert to analyze why it is wonderful. Congratulations.

  3. I take your point about the Whitman poem, but I feel I should point out that the notion that the ethos of Romanticism was anti-scientific is, at best, a gross oversimplification. Coleridge was a close friend of Humphry Davy, a renowned chemist who discovered several elements, and Percy Shelley was an atheist who was fascinated by the science of his day. Even Keats, notwithstanding comments about unweaving rainbows, trained as a surgeon before becoming a poet, so while you may disagree with his perspective, it was not entirely uninformed.

  4. I'll take Symphony of Science (http://www.symphonyofscience.com/) over Insane Clown Posse any day.

    Did you, by the way, see the SNL parody of "Miracles"?


  5. Very lovely article, Julia.

    Though I wouldn't describe ICP as "pillars of inquiry", they aren't even really describing the colloquial understanding of the word "miracle".

    "How does a magnet work... miracles, miracles!"

    A miracle is generally seen as a suspension of nature, not the observation of nature at work.

    If I were ghost writing for ICP, I would have submitted this:

    "How does my magnet shoot hundred dollar bills mutha f***a... magnets don't usually do that B**CH! ...miracles, miracles!"

  6. Well written as usual! But this time I find myself disagreeing vaguely. I think there is a time for experiencing things without analysis. I have a deep love of science but can also have moments when I prefer to gaze at the stars without thought.

    It reminds me of one of my failed graduate school experiences. As a lover of art and museums I decided I should go back to school for Art History. All was well in my undergraduate courses. But once I hit graduate school it was all about form, function and criticism. I hated analyzing the paintings that I loved at that level.

    Some things are simply better without explanation.


  7. I think there is a time for experiencing things without analysis. I have a deep love of science but can also have moments when I prefer to gaze at the stars without thought.

    My thoughts too! Why is it we rarely hear rationalists speaking about the power of "nowness" or being left thoughtless? I love science, but there's also a time to cut through all the internal discourse with a sharp knife.

    (At the same time, I'm guessing there's a strong correlation between the romantic anti-science attitude and bad grades in science classes).

  8. Now I am wondering... if there are rainbows in Titan ( the Huygens data seemed to imply that rained there) ,does it mean God promised them too he wouldn't flood them again?

  9. When I first encountered the Whitman poem it was on my own and my interpretation was that the astronomer had inspired the listener to go outside and look at the stars and reflect on what he had learned. I thought that this was great. Only much later did I hear the standard interpretation that the listener preferred staring at the stars to learning about the science.

    I don't know much about Whitman. In particular I don't know what his views on science actually were. But this is poetry, not prose so I think I'm entitled to my own interpretation and I'm sticking to it.

  10. Another great post, Julia.

    My initial reaction is that, in as much as I enjoy reading the likes of Dawkins and Tyson, they are no Keats or Blake.

    The actual makeup of the planet Jupiter; it consisting of methane and ammonia, is really irrelevant in anything related to 'us'.

    The great thing about when we read great poets or authors, watch a film, look at a painting or listen to a song, is that we need very little in order to find a relation with them (live in this world and be able to read). Reading 'Bright Star', one does not need to be a physicist, yet can still develop and have a profound thought and experience. One cannot easily say the same of the reverse. Things like astronomy, biology, or quantum field theory, as someone else here has mentioned, is something very specialized. You need more than basic things in order to have a sufficient appreciation of, say, having a ball-park conception of the actual distance between stars.

    Actually, while reading your article, Julia, I was reminded of a scene of a film by one of my favorite directors:

    [In a diner/cafe, eating]

    WOMAN: Still thinking about it?

    MAN: No, I'm thinking about my dad. Its the mashed potatoes.

    WOMAN: Why?

    MAN: Once, with my dad, we were all eating mashed potatoes. All of a sudden, dad stopped eating and said, 'I've got it!'. My sister said, "got what?". Dad discovered why the earth revolved around the sun. Sure, Galileo was the first to discover that. But dad, all of a sudden, just like that, rediscovered why the earth revolved around the sun. Just like Galileo must have done. So he stopped eating his potatoes and said, "I've got it!"

    Thats great.

    WOMAN: So what?

    MAN: That's just what I said to him. And I got the potatoes right in the face.

    [Man laughs to himself]

    Scene from Masculin Feminin directed by Jean-Luc Godard.

  11. Beth,

    I hated analyzing the paintings that I loved at that level.

    As someone who comes from an art background myself... I scratch my head at that statement.

    How can anything be worthwhile without given worthwhile thought?

  12. From what little I know of this pair, they like to get under everyone's skin; one of the few they hadn't until now is the science/rational-thinking group. So, guess who is their latest target?

    I don't think the song has warranted a third of the attention anyone give it; just goes to show how jumpy some people are about anything science-related being criticized. You might as well give a similar critique and analysis to "Somewhere Over the Rainbow"; though obviously, there is no ill-intent with that song.

    Here, the only ill-intent here is to give science the bird just like everything else the pair has given the bird to. It might even be a complete satire for that matter; and a damn good one if so. What I do know is it, the skeptical/critical-rational thinking community jumped the gun on this one.


  13. I'm with Jerry. I'm a big fan of Whitman's poetry, and this is one of those I've enjoyed. It never even occurred to me that it might have an anti-science message until I read Isaac Asimov's essay on it. Maybe my interpretation is too narrow, but it speaks to me as someone who hates being in stuffy rooms and loves the experience of going out into the crisp night air. I read it as pro-experience rather than anti-science. And I suspect most astronomy lectures were pretty dull in Whitman's day, when they knew far less about the wonders of the universe and didn't have much in the way of photos and visual aids. The one he describes sounds dull to me.

  14. I'll take your Whitman and raise you an Arnold:

    Ah, love, let us be true
    To one another! for the world, which seems
    To lie before us like a land of dreams,
    So various, so beautiful, so new,
    Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
    Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
    And we are here as on a darkling plain
    Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
    Where ignorant armies clash by night.

  15. What the best poetry, art and literature do is rise to nested abstraction level 6, and wonder at the purposes of the moving stars that scientists would prefer to feel are irrelevant to an understanding of the laws they seem to blindly follow.

  16. If science and its component formulaic forces are awe-inspiring, how much more would so, if we found that there was a purpose and design underlying the whole shebang!

  17. Blake Reynolds said:
    "[They] aren't even really describing the colloquial understanding of the word "miracle"... A miracle is generally seen as a suspension of nature, not the observation of nature at work."
    Right, but on this count I'd say ICP knew what they were doing; they were using the word "miracle" deliberately to make the point that things which follow the laws of nature aren't any less amazing than the things we typically call "miracles".

    @thedispersalofdarwin: That SNL parody's awesome. I can't decide whether my favorite line is (1) "Blankets: how do they work?"
    or (2) "Are children small, or just far away?"
    or maybe (3) "Now here’s just a list of some stuff: Trees. Swans. Capes. A horse. Triangles. Witches. A different horse."

    @Osyris Diamond:
    If you don't like essays on the profundity of stupid pop songs, you definitely should never read my in-depth critical analysis of Akon's "I wanna f-ck you". :-)

  18. Scientists fortunately have realized that ascribing purpose to something with no conceivable mechanism to carry out what it was purported to have accomplished is simply idiotic. The God of the grand purpose cannot, by the processes that it would seem to have created, exist.
    Look ye in its stead for the materialistic gods of purpose acquired.

  19. I'd have to agree with the majority of the commenters and say that there's definitely a time and place for both critical analysis of how things work and open wonder at that fact that they just do. I think a balance of the two is really needed here to fully enjoy science, and life in general.

    I suspect what gets some people on the spectrum of ignoring the scientific side of things is mostly with how it's presented. Not necessarily the complexity issue or inability to anthropomorphize the subject, but rather who they hear the explanations from. If you have an individual who can really connect with an audience, it doesn't really matter what they're talking about. The problem is most people's encounters with science are rather dry affairs, most likely in school, and that leaves them with a poor taste for it. This doesn't excuse them blowing off scientific explanations for phenomena, but at least with that understanding you can try to better approach the subject with them in order to gain their attention.

  20. Julia: "And as for the hostility that some people feel towards scientific explanations, that might have something to do with the fact that unlike magic, science doesn't allow humans to be special. The anti-materialist notion that the universe is shaped around us, or that our thoughts and feelings can produce tangible effects in the world has a particular kind of romance to it that people find appealing. Scientific explanations, for all their objective beauty, take that away from us."

    You are conflating science with scientific materialism. The former is a methodology; the latter is an ideology.

  21. From Blue Roads
    On the Mist Trail as Vernal Falls gets near, the gorge fills with mist. The AM sun is normally ahead and to the right. If you stop and turn around in the bright sun in the morning you will see mist bows arching over the trail behind you.

    One morning when the mist was particularly heavy (record runoff for the Merced) I turned around and found a perfect double circle mist bow starting at one of my pockets and ending in the other.

    The fact that I knew all about the optics of rainbows and halos actually enhanced the wonder, beauty and amusement of the event.

    It also kept me firmly rooted in the natural. I was specially selected for that event only because I chose to look back into the mist to see the halo.

  22. I don't know about miracles being a suspension of nature, how about them being defined simply as events that cannot be explained within the bounds of our current understanding of nature.

    Therefore they must occur, no?

    Otherwise we would have to understand everything there is to know about our world, and we don't.

  23. I think most people are turned off by science because a great many science teachers lack the spark, poetry, imagination and charisma you speak of. (I wouldn't be surprised if a large percentage of science teachers have Aspergers Syndrome.) For many teachers, it's the nerd's delight with small facts and numbers, something most people can't relate to. It's all micro, no macro. Most science education is a subtle form of torture.

    That's why -- I would guess -- many people have hostility toward scientific explanations.

    Unfortunately, the way we educate science teachers weeds out those who would actually make good teachers.

    As an example, in my early 20s had a passion and enthusiasm for studying human evolution and teaching it. I read dozens of books on the subject and got my self accepted to one of the best programs in the country. I imagined going there and discussing all the exciting and controversial issues surrounding our origins. Instead, it was all minutia and memorization, enough to drive almost anyone capable of thinking for themselves out of the program. Well it drove me out anyhow.

    If we want more people to get excited about science, we are going to need better ways of training science teachers.


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