Saturday, February 26, 2011

COSYNE Day 2: Mormon Temple Square

Many of the talks today were about the molecular mechanics of neurons. Not quite my cup of tea, since I didn't understand much.

I did, however, spend some time at the Mormon Temple Square. The buildings are beautiful. I was amazed to hear that this big chapel was started in 1853, and completed in 1889.

I toured the visitor centre. It was basically divided into 3 parts: (1) the building of the chapel, (2) the words of the modern prophet Thomas Monson, and (3) families.

I watched about 6 of the short sermons given by Thomas Monson, the current president of the Mormon church. He's also considered a prophet.

In one video about raising children, he talked about how early life experiences can affect a person. I was amused when he used phrases like "The evidence reveals..." He accepts scientific evidence when it's convenient, but rejects it if it contradicts his faith.

As I watched him speak, I became aware of the striking contrast between his talk, and the talks I'm attending at the conference. If anyone at the conference makes a claim that goes beyond their evidence, they are promptly called on it. Of course, you might argue that a sermon and a scientific conference are entirely different. But are they? In both cases, the expert is sharing their wisdom with others. The only real difference is that in a scientific conference you're free to question and demand evidence for claims. No so in religion.

I spent some time talking to a couple young lady missionaries; that's what they call the volunteers with the name tags that wander around looking to talk to visitors. One girl was from Ottawa, and she did almost all of the talking.

I asked her if Mormons were encouraged to talk to their peers about their beliefs. She said that they were, and that anyone would want to talk about their passion. I was relieved to hear that, and told her that I consider myself an evangelical scientist. I guess I agree with her on that, at least. So, she tried to talk me into becoming a Mormon, and I tried to talk her into becoming... a secular humanist, I suppose.

I was conscious that she kept us moving away from other visitors.

We basically established that her "evidence" is an emotional knowing, and is subjective. I told her - a number of times - that subjective truths can easily lead to irreconcilable conflicts. When religion A disagrees with religion B, who is right? Science, I continued, is based on objective truth, a reality that we can all agree on and share. She nodded politely. It seems that she prefers her own reality.

In case you're not aware, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints was started by Joseph Smith in 1830. Joseph had a revelation, in which God asked him to transcribe some gold plates into modern English. He was told where to find the plates, buried in New York state. The result was the Book of Mormon, considered by Mormons to be a new testament that rescues the Christianity that had gone off the rails. Disappointingly, the gold plates disappeared and went back to Heaven. The only remaining evidence is the Book, and the signed testimony of 11 witnesses that claim to have seen the plates.

That's a nice story, and might even be true. But I offered a different explanation. Perhaps Joseph Smith decided to start his own religion, so wrote a book and made up a story about it being divinely inspired.

The nice girl had never heard of Occam's razor, but I suggested that my explanation was in many ways more parsimonious... requiring fewer miracles (none, to be exact). That clearly pissed her off. She said, "Yes, even though there are 14 million of us", as if to imply that 14 million people can't be wrong. I said that many religions have lots of followers. I wish I'd thought to say that popularity dos not make something true. Flat earth, for example.

I felt bad for making her mad. I certainly wouldn't expect her to change her mind overnight, since her entire family would probably stage an intervention to reel her back in.

Friday, February 25, 2011


I'm at a conference in Salt Lake City, Utah. The conference is called Computational and Systems Neuroscience (COSYNE).

What have I learned so far?

That there are many MANY monkeys and mice out there with electrical probes in their brains. The majority of talks so far talk about measurements of neural activity in various regions of the brain, and the subsequent data analysis that tries to make sense of it all in light of the stimulus that caused the activity in the first place.

The first talk was amazing! E.J. Chichilnisky described a project in which they put a piece of a retina on an electrical array (that picks up electrical activity), and shone various configurations of light on the retina. Correlating the input image with the output electrical activity, he was able to isolate the activities of individual cone photoreceptors, as well as how the cones pool their activity for individual retinal ganglion cells - the long, thin neurons that are bundled to form the optic nerve. Basically, elucidating the wiring diagram of the retina, and what image processing gets done in the back of your eyeball. Cool.

I also learned that the visitors' centre of the Mormon Temple (The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints) is open from 9am to 9pm. The "sisters" that I spoke to were very friendly. I'm really curious to check it out, and find out what makes these people tick. I think I'll spend an hour or so tomorrow looking around and asking questions.

One more thing. I got a kick out of Chichilnisky's talk when he said that his "focus was on the retina".