Review of “The Philosophical Breakfast Club”

Title: The Philosophical Breakfast Club 
Author: Laura J. Snyder 
Publisher: Broadway Books 
ISBN: 978-0-7679-3048-2 

Review by Bob Lane

Scientist is an honorific term today, applied to that group of thinkers and researchers we look to for information about mundane and arcane topics. We hear these scientists quoted as authorities on everything from the nature of the universe to the efficacy of pain killing drugs; we read about the breakthroughs in medical research that promise to provide cures for deadly diseases, and see actors pretending to be scientists who are pushing products for whiter teeth, harder abs, colourful hair and the like. We marvel at the work done with the Hubble telescope, the international space station, and the Large Hadron Collider as the scientists attempt to solve the basic questions about matter while searching for the elusive Higgs boson, the so-called Holy Grail of particle physics. Finding it might help explain why protons and neutrons weigh 100 times more than the quarks they’re made of, what dark matter is, and how the universe came to exist.  

Everyone knows that science is difficult and that scientists are smart. We also tend to believe they have been doing science for a long time. But, as Snyder points out in the first pages of this extraordinary book, science as a unique subject matter in universities, and scientist as the word to describe these practitioners is a fairly recent affair. “On June 24, 1833, the British Association for the Advancement of Science convened its third meeting” in Cambridge, and at that meeting William Whewell suggested to the eight hundred fifty-two members of the society that those pursuing topics of study in the world of nature should from that time on be called “scientists”, a word he chose because of its analogy with “artist.” Coleridge was in the audience and had criticised the term “natural philosopher” as one used to describe the new breed of naturalists who were digging in the earth for fossils, looking at the skies through powerful telescopes, and searching at the microscopic level for all sorts of interesting critters. He wanted to reserve that term for the more contemplative arm chair practitioners. And so, on June 24, 1833, the word scientist entered the lexicon. 

Snyder tells the story of “four remarkable friends who transformed science and changed the world” – Charles Babbage, John Herschel, William Whewell, and Richard Jones – nineteenth century friends who set out to make science a real discipline following the suggestions of the great seventeenth science advocate, Francis Bacon. The four met as students at Cambridge University, shared a love for science, and began to meet on Sunday mornings to talk about the how science could be nurtured in the UK and around the world. Snyder takes us from the early meetings through the careers and marriages of the four and to the end of their amazing lives. The narrative sparkles with personal details, political fights, love, brilliant discoveries, hard work, science and math always focussing on the four protagonists of the story. 

Here is a selection of review quotes harvested from the internet: 

“It is too easy to think that ‘science’ is what happens now, that modernity and scientific thought are inseparable. Yet as Laura Snyder so brilliantly shows in this riveting picture of the first heroic age, the nineteenth century saw the invention of the computer, of electrical impulses, the harnessing of the power of steam – the birth of railways, statistics and technology. In ‘The Philosophical Breakfast Club’ she draws an endearing – almost domestic – picture of four scientific titans, and shows how – through their very ‘clubbability’ – they created the scientific basis on which the modern world stands.”  

–Judith Flanders, author of Inside the Victorian Home 

“Smoothly and meticulously tells this complicated story of intellectual revolution and triumph in Victorian England… provides much interesting social and historic detail.”  

The Providence Journal 

“The scientific method and the respect accorded science seem so obvious now that it is hard to believe it could be any other way. Yet the conversion from what science is and what it was is a fascinating story, one told with considerable charm by Laura J. Snyder in The Philosophical Breakfast Club.”  

Washington Times 

“Laura J. Snyder deftly recreates this age of marvels through the lives of four remarkable Victorian men. In doing so, she tells a greater tale of the rise of science as a formal discipline, and the triumph of evidence-based methods of inductive reason…Much of the delight of Ms. Snyder’s telling lies in her eye for details…a sure-footed guide to the mores and foibles of 19th-century Britain…The members of the Philosophical Breakfast Club left behind some lavish gifts. This volume offers them up delightfully.” 

—The Economist 

 “Fulbright scholar and historian Laura J. Snyder plunges confidently and stylishly…Snyder engagingly stakes out an era beginning with science as a hobby of vicars and the wealthy to its evolution as the engine of imperial growth.” 

Newark Star-Ledger  

Geeks, scientists, intellectuals will leap for joy at Laura J. Snyder’s book, which tells the tale of four Victorian men of Science.” 

The Daily 

 “A philosopher of science, Snyder writes with the depth of a scholar and the beauty of a novelist.” 

—Science News 

 ”If wonder and humanity do return to science, wonderful biographical works such as Snyder’s Philosophical Breakfast Club will no doubt have played a part. 

The Philosophical Breakfast Club is an intellectual banquet, recounting myriad thought-provoking scientific discoveries, and sufficiently detailed to convey the kind of environment these men lived in and how they dramatically changed science for the better. Snyder’s extensive bibliography attests to the painstaking effort she put into this work, and the result is an entertaining and enlightening journey through the Victorian age filled with scores of interesting scientists besides the Philosophical Breakfast Club, many of whom, given their contributions to science and human life, deserve their own biographies.” 

—The Objective Standard 

“The author’s extensive research, wonderful writing, and passion for lifelong learning all serve to awaken the reader’s inner spirit of discovery.” 

Bookreporter 

 ”Engrossing…Packed with good stories and anecdotes, as well as with good science and history.” 

Book News 

 ”A striking account of how a few bold individuals catalyzed profound social change.” 

Booklist 

 “Snyder captures not only the scientific ambitions of the foursome, but also the dynamics of their youthful friendship.” 

The Chronicle of Higher Education 

 ”An accessible and engaging read on the origins of Victorian science, its personalities, and the cultural contribution made by these four men, this will appeal to readers interested in Victorian science, biographies, astronomy, chemistry, the religion vs. science debate, Darwin, computers, and a smorgasbord of related sciences.” 

Library Journal   

“The four busy geniuses who inhabit Laura Snyder’s wonderfully engaging book did not invent friendship or science, but by combining those pastimes in their “philosophical breakfasts,” they managed to invent much else, from the very word “scientist” to versions of the computer and the camera.”  

–Joyce E. Chaplin, James Duncan Phillips Professor of History, Harvard University 

 ”By tracing the careers of the four members of the Philosophical Breakfast Club, Laura Snyder has found a wonderful way not just to tell the great stories of 19th-century science, but to bring them vividly to life.”  

–Tom Standage, author of A History of the World in 6 Glasses 

 ”In this elegantly written book, Snyder has brought to life four of the most important British scientists of the first half of the nineteenth century…[She] tracks the intertwined lives of these four figures—their loves, their personal successes, and their devastating failures–while casting light on every facet of British science during their lifetime…Snyder relies on sound scholarship without losing sight of what makes these men so fascinating.”  

–Bernard Lightman, Professor of Humanities and Director, Institute of Science and Technology Studies, York University 

 ”Who would not want to be invited to breakfast with the young philosophers and scientists that Laura Snyder portrays so vividly and with searching imagination? Charles Babbage, William Whewell, John Herschel, and Richard Jones, even as students at Cambridge, plotted the reform of science, which in the early nineteenth century hardly existed in the British universities.  As they attained intellectual and institutional power, they continued their efforts, often working through elite social networks.  At exquisite dinner parties, for instance, Babbage would demonstrate his new invention, the analytical engine, a forerunner of the modern computer, and therewith beguile the young Charles Darwin just back from his Beagle voyage.  Science and the personalities who created it spring to life in Snyder’s compelling biographical depictions.”  

–Robert J. Richards, Morris Fishbein Professor of the History of Science, University of Chicago 

The book is scholarly, brilliantly written, interesting to read, and an absorbing narrative of science, philosophy, and ideas – always rooted in a particular time and place and populated by the great British scientists that emerged from the Victorian age. 

Bob Lane is a Professor Emeritus in Philosophy and Literature at Vancouver Island University in British Columbia.  

‘Escaping the Rabbit Hole’ sees hope for conspiracy theorists

Mick West’s 2018 book Escaping the Rabbit Hole promotes respectful dialogue with your friends and acquaintances who might happen to be in the grips of a conspiracy theory. People sucked into communities that promote elaborate false beliefs may “get out much quicker if they are helped by a friend,” West says.

The psychological need for a ‘conspiracy theory’

A conspiracy theory is a false set of ideas, but it may seem appealing for various reasons. It may relieve the stress of unanswered questions; it may make a person feel clever or important because it tells them that they have privileged information or a higher state of awareness; or it may take hold in their lack of education or their extreme political beliefs.

Current events tend to breed strange stories to “explain” new developments. West classifies the subtypes of event-based conspiracy theories “in increasing order of implausibility”: (1) The conspirators didn’t cause the event but are pleased that it happened and will exploit it for their own ends. (2) The conspirators were aware that something would happen and they allowed it to happen. (3) The conspirators took action to cause the event. (4) The media has faked the entire event, and anyone supposedly affected is an actor. (This four-part classification feels almost theological to me—as if it were a parallel to types of theodicy?)

West discusses four specific conspiracy theories in detail: chemtrails; the notion that the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center was a controlled demolition; the suspicion that various violent incidents (like mass shootings) are “staged” as “false flags” to place blame on one’s enemies; and the claim that the Earth is flat.

How to intervene

Some conspiracy theories can be burst by focusing on a single salient feature. So, for example, an early timestamp on a breaking-news tweet might seem to indicate that an action was somehow known before it happened or was said to have happened, but a person won’t draw this conclusion if they’re aware that a tweet’s timestamp displays differently in different timezones. Or a person might be startled to hear of the toxic content of everything that surrounds them, until they learn that basically all chemicals have “chemical safety data sheets” because anything can be toxic depending on the amount and concentration.

Each conspiracy theorist typically has a “line of demarcation” between what they think is sensible skepticism and what goes too far for their tastes. “Be clear,” West counsels, “that you are not trying to lump them in with people on the other side of their line. Tell them (honestly) that it’s good that they haven’t been sucked deeper in,” and do so in a way that doesn’t mock them. Question “the aspects of their belief that are very close to the line,” and ask them whether the authority figures in this community meet their standards of reasonableness.

Some people may, as West puts it, be “simply unaware” of the “conventional explanation” for why the world works a certain way. If they are provided with the accurate explanation in a digestible format, they may readily embrace it.

Normal recommendations for civil dialogue apply in these situations, including the recognition that you won’t be able to convince or change everyone.

Mick West. Escaping the Rabbit Hole: How to Debunk Conspiracy Theories Using Facts, Logic, and Respect. New York: Skyhorse, 2018.

Believe

50 Popular Beliefs That People Think Are TrueReview – 50 Popular Beliefs That People Think Are True
by Guy P. Harrison
Prometheus Books, 2011
Review by Bob Lane, MA
Mar 20th 2012 (Volume 16, Issue 12)

Guy Harrison is a journalist and author of an earlier book “50 Reasons People Give for Believing in a God and Race and Reality . . . .” In the current book he looks with a skeptical eye at fifty currently popular beliefs about all sorts of strange but often strongly held beliefs about everything from ghosts, haunted houses, Area 51, reincarnation, creationism, astrology, vaccination is bad, etc. In other words, Harrison reviews and rebuts many of our current beliefs in various kinds of nonsense.

Beliefs come in three flavours: false, true, and untested. The interesting thing about beliefs is that one cannot hold a false belief. If you believe, e.g., that the New England Patriots won the last Super Bowl a check with the NFL score board will give you the correct final score. Once you see that score it would be absurd to continue to hold the belief that the Pats won! Now, obviously, it is not always that easy to verify a belief and some beliefs are difficult to verify as true or false. But everyone who is rational should it seems understand that belief without evidence is a very dangerous stance to take in matters of epistemology.

More

SS: Thought experiments

Thought Experiments

William James’ squirrel:

SOME YEARS AGO, being with a camping party in the mountains, I returned from a solitary ramble to find every one engaged in a ferocious metaphysical dispute. The corpus of the dispute was a squirrel – a live squirrel supposed to be clinging to one side of a tree-trunk; while over against the tree’s opposite side a human being was imagined to stand. This human witness tries to get sight of the squirrel by moving rapidly round the tree, but no matter how fast he goes, the squirrel moves as fast in the opposite direction, and always keeps the tree between himself and the man, so that never a glimpse of him is caught. The resultant metaphysical problem now is this: Does the man go round the squirrel or not? He goes round the tree, sure enough, and the squirrel is on the tree; but does he go round the squirrel? [Stop for discussion] In the unlimited leisure of the wilderness, discussion had been worn threadbare. Every one had taken sides, and was obstinate; and the numbers on both sides were even. Each side, when I appeared therefore appealed to me to make it a majority. Mindful of the scholastic adage that whenever you meet a contradiction you must make a distinction, I immediately sought and found one, as follows: “Which party is right,” I said, “depends on what you practically mean by ‘going round’ the squirrel. If you mean passing from the north of him to the east, then to the south, then to the west, and then to the north of him again, obviously the man does go round him, for he occupies these successive positions. But if on the contrary you mean being first in front of him, then on the right of him, then behind him, then on his left, and finally in front again, it is quite as obvious that the man fails to go round him, for by the compensating movements the squirrel makes, he keeps his belly turned towards the man all the time, and his back turned away. Make the distinction, and there is no occasion for any farther dispute. You are both right and both wrong according as you conceive the verb ‘to go round’ in one practical fashion or the other.”
[“What is pragmatism?” 1904 lecture]

Descartes’ Evil Genius:

I shall then suppose, not that God who is supremely good and the fountain of truth, but some evil genius not less powerful than deceitful, has employed his whole energies in deceiving me; I shall consider that the heavens, the earth, colors, figures, sound, and all other external things are nothing but the illusions and dreams of which this genius has availed himself in order to lay traps for my credulity; I shall consider myself as having no hands, no eyes, no flesh, no blood, nor any senses, yet falsely believing myself to possess all these things; I shall remain obstinately attached to this idea, and if by this means it is not in my power to arrive at the knowledge of any truth, I may at least do what is in my power [i.e. suspend my judgment], and with firm purpose avoid giving credence to any false thing, or being imposed upon by this arch deceiver, however powerful and deceptive he may be. But this task is a laborious one, and insensibly a certain lassitude leads me into the course of my ordinary life. And just as a captive who in sleep enjoys an imaginary liberty, when he begins to suspect that his liberty is but a dream fears to awaken, and conspires with these agreeable illusions that the deception may be prolonged, so insensibly of my own accord I fall back into my former opinions, and I dread awakening from this slumber, lest the laborious wakefulness which would follow the tranquility of this repose should have to be spent not in daylight, but in the excessive darkness of the difficulties which have just been discussed.

I suppose, then, that all the things that I see are false; I persuade myself that nothing has ever existed of all that my fallacious memory represents to me. I consider that I possess no senses; I imagine that body, figure, extension, movement and place are but the fictions of my mind. What, then, can be esteemed as true? Perhaps nothing at all, unless that there is nothing in the world that is certain.

Bertrand Russell:

There is a village in which all the adult males are clean shaven. In the village is a barber. The barber shaves all and only those adult males who do not shave themselves. So, if Bob shaves himself then the barber does not shave Bob. And, if Bob does not shave himself then the barber does shave Bob.
Question: Does the barber shave himself?

Hypothesis: The world and everything in it was created five minutes ago.

Russell wants to show that the memories of something are logically independent of that something, but the hypothesis has been used to support skepticism.

English: Russell's Teapot Español: Tetera de R...

English: Russell’s Teapot Español: Tetera de Russell (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Russell’s teapot, sometimes called the Celestial Teapot, was an analogy first coined by the philosopher Bertrand Russell, to refute the idea that the burden of proof lies somehow upon the sceptic to disprove the unfalsifiable claims of religion. In an article entitled Is There a God?, commissioned (but never published) by Illustrated magazine in 1952, Russell said the following:
If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion provided I were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes. But if I were to go on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense. If, however, the existence of such a teapot were affirmed in ancient books, taught as the sacred truth every Sunday, and instilled into the minds of children at school, hesitation to believe in its existence would become a mark of eccentricity and entitle the doubter to the attentions of the psychiatrist in an enlightened age or of the Inquisitor in an earlier time.
In his book A Devil’s Chaplain, Richard Dawkins developed the teapot theme a little further:
The reason organized religion merits outright hostility is that, unlike belief in Russell’s teapot, religion is powerful, influential, tax-exempt and systematically passed on to children too young to defend themselves. Children are not compelled to spend their formative years memorizing loony books about teapots. Government-subsidized schools don’t exclude children whose parents prefer the wrong shape of teapot. Teapot-believers don’t stone teapot-unbelievers, teapot-apostates, teapot-heretics and teapot-blasphemers to death. Mothers don’t warn their sons off marrying teapot-shiksas whose parents believe in three teapots rather than one. People who put the milk in first don’t kneecap those who put the tea in first.
Similar concepts to Russell’s teapot are the Invisible Pink Unicorn, and Flying Spaghetti Monster.

Galileo:

Continue reading

Remember Mal-U?

Thanks to wayback I can link to these pages thought to be lost. Nothing on the net is lost!

Malaspina University-College (now VIU) History

Stories of how Malaspina came to be. The building above is no longer.

Introduction:

Chapter One: Early History

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Chapter Two: In the Hospital

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Chapter Three: A Site to See

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Chapter Four: Under One Umbrella

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Chapter Five: College and Community

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Malaspina’s history is published as an electronic document by the Media Relations & Publications department. The original work was produced as a “Challenge ’93” project and was researched and written by Brian Schmidt.

Publisher: Marianne van Toor | Editor: Bob Lane |

| Researcher/Writer: Brian Schmidt |

Link to the complete document here.