June 22, 2020
- At the time of this taping, Paul was in the middle of the Metis “bootcamp” program learning the capabilities, tools, and insights of data science. This conversation ranged widely in the realm of data analysis and management, examining its relevance to Paul’s field of geology but also exploring the world’s immersion in what Bill would call a data ecology: It seems every datum is connected, or connectable, to every other datum That word is the original singular form of the plural word “data.”
- The growing plethora of data has to be tracked and organized, even though today’s computer hardware doesn’t allow all the world’s data—or even relatively large slices of that data—to be stored and analyzed in one place at one time. Realizing that words are data, too, Paul pointed out that geology encountered a data explosion crisis a few decades ago as science developed enough new names for various rocks to make the new information less useful. That was until geologists produced a plan for sorting out and categorizing rock names according to rocks’ bulk chemistry instead of their constituent minerals (example here). Paul came to see the value of advanced organization in obtaining, thinking, and acting upon geological data—hence, his pursuit of this certificate in data science.
- Discussion of this specific field of science led to the use of various other terms, with various meanings, none of them fully understood by Bill. The terms included informatics, data scraping, the analysis of data clustering, “big data,” and “machine-learning algorithms.” These terms can be anticipated to be influential in nearly all fields, so it behooves the layperson to develop some familiarity with them. It is quite possible to become skeptical of such a body of knowledge and skills that can be used for benevolent or malevolent purposes, like everything. But Paul said the hopeful side of his personality recognizes what data scientists already recognize—namely, that this amazingly powerful field also has its limitation.
- He recalled there is an author who currently is writing books with a robust skepticism about machine-learning. Separately, one can get a laugh from the current results seen in the hybrid field of machine-learning poetry. Bill guessed the author was Julia Evans, but it was likely Janelle Shane, the author of You Look Like a Thing and I Love You.
- The bottom line is that, as with all science, its tools and results cannot provide their own guidance on how to use wisely the fruits they bear. The guidance must come from external forces driven by human virtue and values.
Liner notes by Bill. Audio editing by Morgan. Cover art for this epsiode was produced by Paul... in conjunction with the Landsat 8 mission, the scikit-learn and seaborn libraries, and Mauna Loa and Kilauea volcanoes. (See his final project slides here.)
June 8, 2020
Bill interviewed a leading Catholic voice in public affairs, especially in bioethics and the culture of life: Richard Doerflinger.
- His latest column for Catholic News Service examines the implications of the “Science Wins” maxim publicized by Pfizer Inc. in a recent TV commercial. You can see the commercial here.
- Doerflinger mentioned libertarian bioethicist John Harris in connection with the developments and moral controversies surrounding research on embryonic stem cells some years ago. Once concerns about human dignity were successfully eased by the development of pluripotent cells, science and society both did win from a prudential pullback from reliance on embryonic cells.
- Phronesis is practical moral judgment that integrates human wisdom and prudence to make the best decisions possible on public policy and practice given the facts human beings know from science—in light of virtue as a crucial factor.
- In the Catholic journal First Things. James Hankins has written recently about Machiavelli as the political guru of his day, who introduced scientism as a values-free guideline for geopolitical strategy. Machiavelli’s own predictions about outcomes in the absence of moral judgments led to strategic failures rather than successes, Doerflinger pointed out.
- The only law of history is the law of unintended consequences, according to Niall Ferguson, famed analyst of history, economics, and science. Doerflinger commented that unintended negative consequences have indeed been known to result from cases where science was unleashed without the exercise of human prudence.
Photo credit: The Criterion (Indianapolis)
May 25, 2020
Paul and Bill discussed autism—a subject that arose in Paul’s discussion with Pat Flynn in his own podcast.
John Ratey, popular psychologist, talks about how our sensory apparatus affects how we function in everyday life.
Paul’s comments on the subject of autism connect candidly with recollections from his early life.
Hilaire Belloc, a legendary British author of the early 20th century who wrote on many topics, famously was a friend and Catholic “fellow traveler” with G.K. Chesterton.
“Never waste a good crisis.” Bill says crises in our polity and society are often weaponized rather than used as a learning, community-building experience. This maxim, worded in different ways, has been attributed to various persons, from Rahm Emmanuel to Winston Churchill to Saul Alinsky.
Image by Sukinah Hussain from Pixabay
May 11, 2020
Part 2 of a three part conversation between Paul and Bill, where the main themes are skepticism, Catholic education, the mysterious absence of the Spanish Flu from our historical consciousness prior to 2020, and the philosophical conundrums of materialism, transgenderism, and scientism.
- Paul and Bill continued their conversation about skepticism toward science and religion. They touched on several examples of science failing to show that it “knows everything” or gets everything right. There must be a constant push for additional inquiry and knowledge. Bill said the teaching of religion in K-12 Catholic schools needs to express the hunger to learn more—the dynamic sense of joy in seeking God—just as the teaching of science sets an exciting stage for learning.
- The co-hosts discussed the lack of sure scientific knowledge about the COVID-19 pandemic. This led to references to the Spanish flu. Its history is poorly understood by most people, just as there was poor understanding in 1918 about the flu’s origins and impacts.
- Philosophy and natural science became unmoored from each other after the 17th century. Bertrand Russell appeared to share an opinion that Paul considers quite natural—the reluctance to accept that no philosophical inquiry into reality can be conducted without employing at least some original, foundational assumptions.
- Stephen Pinker acknowledges that materialistic thinking suffers from logical inconsistencies, Paul said. He referred to Pinker’s landmark book, The Blank Slate, an inquiry into the origins of human nature.
- Quantum physics, in its effort to explain how everything works by describing the behavior of atoms, is full of paradoxes, Paul said.
Image by Miroslava Chrienova from Pixabay
April 19, 2020
I had the privilege of being on the Pat Flynn show on Holy Saturday (episode here). Pat comes from the worlds of both fitness / bodybuilding and philosophy and puts out new episodes nearly every day on those topics. He is a revert / convert to the Catholic faith and has an intriguing life story. If you're not familiar with him, definitely go over and fish in his well-stocked pond for topics of interest. You would do well to listen in to his conversation with Jared Zimmerer of Word on Fire, for starters! He has also had Society of Catholic Scientists (SCS) president Stephen Barr on not once, but twice.
Happy Divine Mercy Sunday, everyone. Bill and I will be back with another episode (or two... depending on how chatty we get) next week.
If you happen upon this post as a Pat Flynn fan, may I suggest checking out our homepage where you can find links at the upper right to our interviews with many members of the SCS, especially speakers at the 2019 SCS Conference, and to a list of other popular episodes.
If the SCS specifically intrigues you, they have a ton of media, like videos of talks both at SCS Conferences and elsewhere, and an impressive archive of biographies of Catholic scientists. Definitely go to their homepage to learn more.
April 13, 2020
In this episode, Bill presents excerpts from an interview with fellow Secular Franciscan Tim Short, director of formation for the Indiana Region. They discuss, among other things, St. Francis' attitude toward creation and how it relates to the larger picture of the medieval Christian intellectual world and the birth of modern science.
- Tim Short, OFS, is a member of the Secular Franciscan Order, whose initials in Latin are OFS. This international, canonically approved Roman Catholic order was founded by Saint Francis of Assisi especially for laypeople. Members belong to local, regional and national fraternities. Tim is the director of formation for the Our Lady of Indiana regional fraternity. He previously served as formation director for the Immaculate Conception local fraternity of the Order (still commonly abbreviated as SFO in the United States), located in Mishawaka, Indiana.
- Tim and podcast cohost Bill Schmitt are both professed members of the SFO, having professed a lifetime commitment to the Rule of Life which St. Francis composed. Francis also composed rules to govern orders of friars and nuns, the latter commonly called the Poor Clares.
- Tim has been instrumental in starting a new website that will serve SFO fraternities’ needs for “ongoing formation.” Find this “OFS Ongoing” website at https://secularfranciscansusa.org/ongoing-formation-resources/ When you visit the site, you’ll see a major resource Tim composed for a series of small-group discussions that can be used by any fraternity but was used first by the fraternity in Mishawaka. The resource, “A Journey Through John,” is based on the Gospel of John and reflects the importance Secular Franciscans are to place upon the Gospels as keys Francis used in building an intimate relationship with Jesus Christ. Resources drawn from Franciscanism, Pope Francis, and the beloved “Peace Prayer of Saint Francis” have been composed by Bill Schmitt and are also described at the new website.
- Other priorities in formation include an ever-deeper embrace of the Rule of Life and of the early writings from St. Francis and his friars who provided authoritative insights into the foundational Franciscan charisms.
- Tim pointed out in our interview that Saint Francis lived during a time when the old ethos made little distinction between Catholic religious thinking and what we would call scientific thinking. A time of greater doubt and division was emerging during Francis’ lifetime (circa 1180-1226). Francis’ sense of mission emphasized peacemaking, healing, and an embrace of natural life in all of creation, so one can see him as a bridge-builder encouraging love and awe for circumstances we would deem ripe for scientific analysis.
See more of Tim's work at ofsongoing.com.
March 30, 2020
In this episode, Bill and Paul discuss the coronavirus, economics and risk, and the L'Aquila earthquake trial.
- Paul and Bill continued a discussion that began in the previous episode. They allowed the sense of gravitas they felt in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic to push them along a path through many uncertainties—where it’s tempting to rely on one’s GPS guidance system and, if possible, an autonomous (self-driving) vehicle. But should human beings relieve themselves of all responsibilities for self-guidance, and if not, how should they accept and address those responsibilities?
- Underlying this discussion was the perception that society has chosen to confront the pandemic through the wisdom of science, which boils down to a healthy use of reason, which of course is a God-given gift. But we are also blessed (and cursed?) with the gift of sensing that reason is not enough. Can we put ourselves on automatic pilot by trusting completely in calculations of risk and probability and a in human understanding that can’t take all possible values and outcomes into consideration?
- Paul cited observations by Hilaire Belloc, a great British writer and Catholic commentator from the early 1900s. Belloc argued that being “practical” and “realistic” is not enough, especially if a human being seeks to make decisions with Godlike precision, effectiveness, and comprehensiveness. For example, Paul pointed out that “social distancing” and related policy weapons being utilized against the spread of the Coronavirus are not enough to say that we are systematically reducing the risk of death or harm in an easily calculable way. For example, forbidding public gatherings of any significant size can be seen as a wise precaution against certain people becoming infected, but little thought is given to the fact that all the cancelled meetings of twelve-step programs means people who were being helped to address their own particular issues and risks might suffer tangibly from losing their support network.
- At some point, there is a need to acknowledge that some risks, like human death, cannot be eliminated, and a perfect society cannot be achieved. This meshed with Bill’s concern about whether “social distancing” might push man people further toward the phenomenon of social polarization, characterized by isolation, indifference and marginalization in many instances. Or will the experience of being distanced wake us up to the unhealthy results of these characteristics and rein us back from the precipice of thinking we can define and enforce the right answers that will yield the best outcomes?
- Ultimately, Bill and Paul agreed that humans seeking to provide humane, prudent leadership in a crisis must be “all in” as participants in a robust civic life in a well-ordered civil society that respects the many sides of individual experience. Can we put all our faith in the decision-making of a political system, especially if we have not made an equivalent commitment to enrich the body politic—and indeed to contribute in ways that go beyond mere gestures of political participation, such as voting?
- We must take into account a larger part of the story of human challenges, not risk management alone. At the time of this writing, for example, Bill learned that the Governor of Pennsylvania, after having ordered the shutdown of all liquor stores in order to slow the spread of the virus, was reconsidering his decision. According to news reports, experts had told him that a sizable portion of the alcohol-dependent population could suffer severe consequences from suddenly withdrawn access to hard liquor, meaning harm would be done by other means.
Image by Angelo Giordano from Pixabay.
March 23, 2020
Bill and Paul discuss the topic on everyone's mind, the coronavirus and social distancing, through the lens of social polarization and isolation that already so characterized American, Western, and modern society in general.
- One should not assume that “social distancing” breaks connections. Paul and Bill got together to talk about the subject and found that it connects to many other things, at least as an intellectual exercise. But also with many emotional, spiritual and sociological implications.
- Bill said that, upon first hearing about “social distancing,” he instinctively connected it to a phenomenon he ponders and writes about a lot—the phenomenon of social polarization. (He writes about it in his OnWord blog, and in 2018 he wrote a book (When Headlines Hurt: Do We Have a Prayer?) reflecting on Pope Francis’ concerns about the polarizing effects of contemporary news and digital information flows.
- Social distancing, apart from the validity of scientific claims that it is needed to combat the COVID-19 pandemic, looked to Bill like a physical, societal manifestation of the polarization trend which leads to the isolation, exclusion and defamation of people. It encourages them toward confirmation bias because they choose to hear only the opinions that back up their pre-conceived notions.
- Paul said social distancing also seems to tie into America’s infatuation with the “loner.” He recalled the self-imposed isolation discussed in Robert D. Putnam’s 2000 book, Bowling Alone.
- Both participants in the conversation connected the concept of loner with many ideas: the modern assumption that being a loner need not carry high risks, like it once did, because of the protection offered by government; the omnipresent promise among colleges that they will prepare their students to become “leaders” as opposed to followers; the observation by Alexis de Tocqueville (in Democracy in America) that Americans of the 1800s were instinctively individualists; and the more recent observation that we live in an age of celebrity when everybody wants to famous, even in relatively impotent, purposeless ways. This latter notion was discussed by Catholic philosopher Peter Kreeft in an episode of EWTN’s “The Philosopher’s Bench.”
- It is especially sad that, at a time when Pope Francis points out that the Church has many valuable responses to the tendency toward social polarization and isolation, “social distancing” has prompted an end to Mass attendance. As remarked in a blog post by David Seitz, OFS, one of Bill’s favorite Franciscan commentators, the loss of civic solidarity and civil conversation is a profound kind of penance.
Image by Austin Monroe from Pixabay.