Monday, November 13, 2017

The Failure of Modern Science Education

Source: xkcd (Richard Dawkins payed homage to the quote at the bottom in on of his interviews)

It is a common "gripe" you hear quite often around the internet. It goes something along the lines of this: school never taught me how to write a cheque, but I am yet to benefit from, say, Bernoulli's principle in real life. The essence of the complaint is obvious; scientific education, as typically carried out in schools, hardly carries over to the practical life.

To some extent, that is correct. But this is not due to an inherent property of science. And it is not the fault of the method used in teaching science either, but rather it is the incompatibility of the two. Allow me to further elaborate. We are taught theories and principles of science, with minimal, if any, reference to the host of mental processes that produced them. In that sense, we are taught science as if it were history. This is not to detract from the value of history, but rather to allude to the fact that a method of teaching has to be well selected for its subject.

With that in mind, we can crudely think of science in terms of two major components: the knowledge, and the methodology. Our current ways of teaching science put a huge emphasis on the former, while largely ignoring the latter. And while there is no denying that scientific knowledge has great benefits, such as broadening the mind, it is the scientific methodology, by means of which we produce, validate and revise this knowledge, that we are in dire need of today. It is our first line of defense against the propagation of false information that “piggybacks” off our modern information technology infrastructure.

Unfortunately, this said misinformation is spreading so fast and wide that it is in effect drowning the valid information we all should be heeding. And we should not be expecting this to change on its own. Misinformation is fueling a massive economy of products and services with fraudulent claims, which are preying on our human qualities of hope and fear. This economic aspect will only ensure that powerful groups shall emerge with serious interests in further cementing the socially constructed "truth" of such claims.

Educating the public in the methods of science is akin to inoculating them against falling prey to such misinformation. But it is not easy at all. The scientific methodology draws on a number of subjects that are counter-intuitive by nature. This is not to say that they are hard to teach, but that they need special attention when being taught.

Take statistics and probabilities for an example. Despite its utility in fighting misinformation, it is a subject that most of us despise for its inscrutability. But through a modest experience in teaching and lecturing I am starting to believe that much of this inscrutability can be attributed to the typical treatment of the subject in school. It is often introduced to the student via a number of irrelevant and daydream-inducing examples, such as the heights of a town population, or the probability of drawing a red ball from a box of colored balls.

Then take logic as a second example; a tool that can be used to assess the truth of an argument. Typically, school classes on logic put a huge emphasis on the conventions and abstractions of the field with the incidental treatment, if at all, of the intuition or practical value of its principles. In fact, students are usually provided with cheat-sheets that contain statements such as "True or False is True", without any effort to explain to them why is that the case. Yet we somehow expect from them as adults to express sound public opinion and participate in creating informed policies!

The state in which we find our world today because of this failure in scientific education is very worrisome. Anywhere you look, you see misinformed people arguing with vehement. This is no where as salient and dangerous as it is in health and nutrition. People are paying hefty prices for the most useless of things, while at the same time kids are being deprived of the most basic of health rights by their misinformed parents.

If this does not warrant a very urgent visit back to the drawing board of our scientific education curriculum, then the future of humanity might not be as promising and bright as we might like to think.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Do we Live in a Simulation?

The School of Athens (fresco): at the center is Plato (in orange) pointing upward while Aristotle (in blue) to his left is pointing forward (possibly an indication of their respective philosophical differences: a world of ideas vs a material world)  

Do we Live in a Simulation?

At first glance, this question might deceptively sound like a product of recent technological advancements in computer science that only people of our times are uniquely posed to ponder. But if we strip it from its modern terminological cladding, the question actually dates back to the dawn of philosophy, and has since stayed a core theme in the field. It has given us many popular cultural references such as the fresco above, and even immortal - if misunderstood - quotes such as Descartes' "I think therefore I exist".

At its heart, the argument boils down to the following: do we really exist in a material world, or are we somehow "deceived" into believing that we do. Attempts to argue for one side or another of this statement, or, occasionally, to reconcile them, have given us much of philosophy's corpus as we know it today.

One might find it quite remarkable that people as far back as Plato had pondered something almost indistinguishable from the material science fiction is made up of in our days. But my own humble guess is that it all started from a very simple observation: that we humans can imagine full scenarios of interactive beings and events unfolding inside our minds, even though they don't exist in the "material" world. Consequentially, could we not be in turn nothing more than a "thought", and our past and present only an imagined scenario in some other being mind?

But while people of antiquity had nothing more than their limited senses and experiences to be able to settle the argument, in our age, some fields seem to be hinting in one direction or another. One such field being Modern Physics. Another is Computer Science. Relatively recent developments in mathematics also seem to be pointing in a certain direction. This is where this article will take us next.

But before we delve in, a major caveat is in order. Contentions in science and mathematics about the implications of a given theory for our reality are the norm. Therefore, depending on your interpretation of the theory of concern, some of these arguments might not be consequential. This will be pointed out where needed.

The Measurement Problem and Lazy Evaluation

Our first argument springs forward when we lay side by side the principle of uncertainty in quantum mechanics, with a core strategy in computer science. This strategy is mainly used to run complex systems using limited resources, and is referred to in the parlance of programming as Lazy Evaluation. The premise here is simple: software engineers write their code in a way that dose not evaluate a given variable until it is needed.

This smacks so much of the uncertainty principle, in quantum mechanics, whereby we really don't know the state of a given system until we decide to measure it. This is known as the Measurement Problem, to which the famous Schrodinger's cat was first suggested as a solution. There is no consensus in  physics about what this problem really implies. Nonetheless according to some interpretations, this could be understood as a way to simulate our reality with the least possible amount of resources. Something any decent programmer would aspire to do.

The Limit on the Speed of Light and Managing the Computational Demands of the Simulation

Physicists tend to think of the limit on the speed of light as a limit on the speed of information propagation in the universe, more than being a limit on the speed of light per se. This means that there is an upper limit on the number of regions in the universe exchanging information at any one point in time. Exchanging information is just a fancy way of saying interacting (via heat, or light for example).

In Computer Science, we often describe the complexity of a given piece of code in terms of something called Big O Notation. For the sake of this article, you have to know that the higher the order is of this notation for a given code, the more computational power it will require to run. And here is where the connection can be made to our reality: generally speaking, the more variables interact in a code, the higher the order of this Big O Notation becomes.

If we were living in a simulation, this limit on the speed of information exchange, would serve to lower the computational demands of our simulated reality. A neat programming trick!

The Elegance of Mathematics

I have always found the simplicity underpinning the complex systems making up our reality to be philosophically unsettling. Even more unsettling is the observation that you often find the same mathematical set of equations describing very distinct phenomena.

One such mathematical notion that I find particularly relevant to the topic at hand, is the Mandelbrot set. It is just an equation that you keep feeding back what it outputs. As time goes by, these outputs form an infinitely complex structure such as the coastline of Great Britain. Its circumference is geometrically infinite, yet it can be enclosed by a finite space! A profound implication this has is that a programmer of the universe, would not need to draw jagged coastlines, for instance, one line at a time. This would literally take an infinite time to do. Instead, he can just initiate the formula, and viola, you have something extremely complex without much effort.

Even more "revealing" is that this feedback of output to its generating equation is very characteristic of coding. In fact, loops are at the heart of any useful code you would ever write. But one has to acknowledge that it really comes down to what you believe math is. For me, math is as tangible as physics, so it definitely reflects something in nature itself, rather than being a useful figment of our minds; an antipodal belief harbored by many.

What About Easter Eggs?

There is also the more quaint thing of expecting to find Easter Eggs in our reality if it was simulated. Software developers are in the habit of sneaking odd objects, if you may, into their applications. These objects don't serve any critical function in the software, but are put there for fun or as a tribute. If ours turned out to be a simulated reality, wouldn't its programmers hide some of these around?

I got struck by this idea while vacationing on a tropical island. It had a unique species to it, which the locals refer to as the Coco de Mer. It is a type of coconut that has reproductive organs with striking resemblance to ours, the humans. Could that be an Easter egg? Admittedly, the principle of Analogy in Evolutionary Biology, is a better explanation of such similarity if we are to adhere to Occam's razor. But, who knows!

Can we Cast All of this in a Scientific Mold?

This brings us to our last point in this article. Can we formulate such speculations into a scientific theory that we can put to test, or is it just a modern expression of our good old human tendency to anthropomorphize the causes of our existence, like we have been doing with mythology since we have first came into this world? The answer actually is yes. We can put it to scientific test.

Physically speaking, living in a simulated reality is very different than living in a material universe, at least at some very short scale. One experiment we can devise to nullify such a claim is to look for a scale where time and space become discrete; i.e. matter doesn't move through time and space smoothly, but it rather blinks in and out of existence at each step of time and space. If we find that our universe is intrinsically continuous, then so much for a theory of simulated reality!

We are not there yet. Probing a scale so short requires more energy than we can afford at the moment, but it looks like we should be there soon.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

The Worst of All Worlds

The T-850 model from Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines

The previous post discussed the relationship between technology and society, and concluded that it is much more analytically powerful to speak of the socio-technical as the matter from which our societies derive shape. Using this notion, we were able to show how the technical and the social are intertwined in ways that influence the evolution of either as time passes by. This is in contrast to the more usual narrative of some rustic social norms ending up corrupted by a technology that seems to come out from nowhere.

In this post, the focus will be on discussing the effect of the social on the evolution of the technical, and how more often than not, this effect leads to a sub-optimal realization of the technology in question. The reason why we are going to focus only on this aspect of the relationship is pretty simple: accounts that discuss the role of technology in transforming societies are much more common. For instance, any standard treatment of the rise of Protestantism today is very likely to refer to the contributions of the printing press leading up to said rise, even if in passing.

But you might ask, why is it that the relationship often times has a negative impact on technology? Will, because the outcome is one of two: either the technology is left to realize its full potential, in which case the effect would be neutral. Or, it is held back by the social, which obviously is a negative thing, at least from the standpoint of technology! Below are a few of the mechanisms through which the social can influence the evolution of the technical, with topical examples.

Path Dependency

The first example is the universal QWERTY keyboard layout - look at the first row of letters on your keyboard to understand what is being talked about. It is an artifact of times when typewriters were the state of the art technology. Back in the days, typing fast was a real problem. It meant that the internal mechanism powering the typewriter would jam regularly. The solution was a layout specifically designed to slow down your typing speed, by making your fingers travel more distance compared to a more time-efficient placement of letters. Since then, typewriters were superseded by electronic keyboards that don’t jam. Yet the layout persists, bogging down our productivity by who-knows-how-many-hours a year!

The basic idea here is very simple. Humans’ expectations of new technologies are shaped by their prior experience with older ones. Take for another example the lighting systems used today to light our built environments. After inventing the system, Edison went out of his way to make it mimic in every way possible the oil-based lighting system prevailing in the times. He made sure it would have low brightness, give a headache inducing yellow flare, and hang from the middle of the ceiling; features that still persist to our day, despite their “glaring” sub-optimality.

You can also expect something similar when fuel-cell powered cars start rolling-out into the market. In the best of all worlds, the driving interface would be reinvented from the scratch up - for instance the gas pedal will be necessary no more. But because this is not such a world, you can expect the realization of the full potential of hydrogen cars to be hampered by our - by then - rudimentary notions of how cars should be driven.

The Social Construction of "Things"

While so far it seems that humans negatively influence technologies by their sheer stupidity and lack of drive to forsake inferior conditions in favor of superior ones, there are ways in which they exert a much more sinister and deliberate influence. An example that delivers the message home clearly here is birth control technology. Most contraceptive methods today are used by women. Almost invariable they pose some degree of health risk to the user, by either messing up their hormonal cycles, or placing mechanical objects within their reproductive organs, which might dislocate and cause serious internal damage under certain conditions.

However, there has been some attempts to shift this burden to men, by developing male contraceptive pills, which were claimed to have minimal side effects if any at all. Unfortunately, all of these attempts were nipped in the bud, simply because of the way gender-roles influence our expectations in this regard – i.e. traditionally speaking, it is a woman's thing to prevent undesired conception by any of the means available, and not a man’s, no matter the cost!

Institutional Inertia

According to our technological forecasts, we are supposed to be living in the pinnacle of the biotechnology age at the moment. By now, cancer should have joined the long list of conquered diseases, at a fraction of the current cost. So what happened? Could it be that our predictions were unrealistic to start with? May be, but generally speaking, technological forecasts are fairly accurate – think Moore's “law”.

There is a pretty simple explanation here: legislation. Or to be more accurate the patent laws, which are geared towards fostering technological innovation in the ICT sector, but not biotechnology. This is because there are radical differences between the two, the most important of which is that the line separating science from technology in the latter is very thin and blurry for the current laws to be effective. What is happening in essence is that companies and universities alike are patenting basic science, and therefore preventing other companies from developing that basic knowledge into useful products. The idea here is that our institutions are too cumbersome and bureaucratic to keep up with the highly dynamic nature of science and technology.

So there you have it! If anyone is to claim victimhood in all of this, then it is poor technology! Now scroll back up to the terminator photo, and reconsider!

Monday, May 25, 2015

Technology Killed Nothing

Hephaestus (Vulcan) the Greek god of what we can today refer to as technology

We live in a time where not many days pass before we are reminded of how technology is killing our social lives. Obviously, what is meant by technology in this context is smart phones and social media. I still remember a time though when it meant video games, and another before when it meant a walkman. Perhaps if I were as old as my parents, it would have meant a transistor radio or a TV. For my grandparents, the “cursed” car was probably murdering the social. The point is, if we go back far enough in time, we’ll find many of the technologies we take for granted today (e.g. agriculture, writing, electricity, telephones… etc.) affecting radical reformulations of whatever organizing principles were underpinning the societies of the time, and by extension the societies themselves. This might sound a bit anecdotal, but rest assured that modern sociology confirms it.

At one point during the past century, many sociologists came to adopt an interactionist perspective on sociology, which is to say that what shapes a given society is actually the interactions going on at the level of its individuals. But then primatologists came to the same conclusion regarding the sociology of other primates. This might sound like a validation of the perspective at first, but if you look close enough, you’ll maintain otherwise. How can a human society and another of baboons be described in the same terms, yet be so different from each other? Even if the former was a tribe of bushmen who live in the wilderness, there is still a world of difference between the two.

It is true that humans and primates interact in pretty much the same way. All of our interactions are essentially social in nature, meaning we are constantly negotiating our relationships with other individuals. But whereas for a chimp these interactions can only be face to face, and are rather short lived, for a human, they have the potential to be carried out over vast temporal and geographic stretches. And it is technology that enables this, giving rise in the process to elaborate and diverse social configurations. It is because of this revelation that sociologists today speak of the socio-technical as the stuff that makes up societies.

This means that the social and the technical are enmeshed in an everlasting relationship that is constantly defining and redefining each of them along the way. The solution to social problems often times call on for the development of new technologies. But as the technology matures, it begets social problems of its own, which in turn demand new technological solutions. Alternatively, a given technological platform enables the rise of certain social configurations. However, soon enough, new groups unsatisfied with the status quo start forming, which in an attempt to disrupt it, might end up developing new technologies, or employing already existing ones in novel ways. 

Portable devices and networking technologies might be changing the way we interact (the deplorable bit of the equation, even though I don’t consider it to be so), but they are already reshaping our societies, making them more efficient. A decade ago, having a job meant long commutes and fitting one’s life around a rigid schedule. That is still the major mode of working today, but more and more people now have the option to work from the comfort of their homes or co-work spaces (whether as freelancers or employees). We are still at an early stage of experimentation, so who knows what other modes of working will emerge and how our societies will reorganize in response. There is one thing we can be sure about though. The social is intrinsically transient, and just because people used to organize their lives differently in the past, doesn’t mean we are doing it wrong today.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

They are Jordanians Before Being Christians!

A few years ago I wrote an article about how Muslims in Jordan have some unjustified demeaning views of their Christian compatriots. Lately however, I started thinking that the recent events in Iraq's Mosul might have tilted the scales in favor of an overall sense of unity and compassion between the followers of either religion in the country, but boy was I wrong?

It happened about a few weeks ago. I was with a group of friends discussing the authorities' decision to shut down a certain cake shop in Amman a couple of months before, due to some health concerns. I was in favor of the decision while they were not. Feeling we have reached a deadlock, I made it clear that I was boycotting the shop anyway because the owners refuse to print Christian symbols on their cakes. I thought I was playing my ace there, but I could not have been any wronger. It was as if I pressed a finger against an old festering wound, and the most nauseating of odors whiffed out.

In an auto-pilot-like response, my friends lashed out against me justifying the owners decision with all sorts of lame reasons and non-consequential analogies. For instance one of them likened the cake shop of concern to a boutique that sells only trousers, and the Christians who ask for a cake with a crucified Jesus to a shopper who wants to buy a shirt. According to this logic, the boutique's owner is not under any legal obligation to provide the shopper with anything other than trousers! Often times, one can tolerate high levels of stupidity, but when it is deliberate, we perceive it as a personal insult, all the more so when it serves as a base to something hateful like religious bigotry.

So at that point I got loud, and my face wore a menacing expression akin to that on the countenance of a Maori performing a Haka. "Dude", I said as my eyes widened and forehead stretched like never before, "if the owner refused to make a cake with a symbol that represents Chechens, would that still be right?". Anticipating my intents, he replied "No, but then that is a different matter". I quickly pointed out that the Jordanian constitution states explicitly that there should be no discrimination between the citizens of the country based on race, language or religion. He backed off, but was it because I was sporting an aggressive face or because he started realizing he was wrong? Not before long, I found it was neither. He was just thinking of a more "logical" reply than what he had managed to deliver so far. What was his reply? Well, according to him, Christians in Jordan should see how privileged they are compared to the their counterparts in Iraq and Syria, and for that alone they should be thankful!

It dawned on me then that many Muslims in Jordan don't think of a Christian Jordanian as a Jordanian, but, first and foremost, as a Christian. This entails that they are nothing more than guests in the country, and they should be wise enough not to test the limits of the tolerance of their Muslim hosts. Since then, my discussions with few other Muslim Jordanians served only to corroborate this conclusion. For instance, I was astonished that a couple of friends who are pursuing PhDs in Europe are in favor of imposing religious taxes on Arab Christians. After all, they - my friends that is - are paying a significant portion of their income in taxes under the European law! Mind you, these guys had to exhibit no ordinary amount of logical reasoning capabilities and levels of education in order for them to gain admission to their respective universities. Yet, they had no problem with wishfully-thinking that Jizyah was no different than a tax paid in Europe!

I mentioned above that these people were acting in an auto-pilot-like fashion. I could tell that they were simply living up to decades of Islamic education that made them look down on anyone who doesn't comply with their religious views. That of course does not absolve them from bigotry. After all, many young Jordanians who were subject to the very same education broke free from such teachings, and not only that, but turned against them.

Still though, I guess a remedy of the situation should include some serious concessions from the side of the Islamists in Jordan in this regard. That, I am afraid, will not come about willingly from their side. Instead, their grip on the educational institution in the country should be forcefully broken. This will take more than lame conferences  and festivals that celebrate a thinning coexistence between the various religious denominations in Jordan. It will call for persistence, consolidation and coordination, and no small measure of rage to put the bigots to shame.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

It's Darwin Day Again!

"Nature And Nature's Laws
Lay Hid in Night
God Said Let Newton Darwin Be
And All Was Light"

Two years ago, Darwin's day was celebrated here with a blog commemorating his qualities and personal life, so things are bound to be different this time.

The theory of evolution, and that of natural selection are two very subtle statements of knowledge. No wonder then that creationists who set out to disapprove either, if they can tell the difference in the first place, end up mostly making a farce out of their comprehension and reasoning abilities.

But this applies equally well to some proponents of the two theories, especially when it is journalists, or screenwriters we are talking about; alas, the two major sources of information for most of us nowadays. Thus, perhaps, dispelling common misconceptions of the proponents will make for a proper celebration this year, given that debunking creationist nonsense is becoming too hackneyed a topic to write about.

Three misconceptions in specific will be dismantled today; to wit, that natural selection is intrinsically cruel; the evolution as a ladder metaphor; and, finally, the mis-employment of natural selection as an overarching explanation of life. Here goes:

Nature red in fang and claw: Natural selection is exclusively understood by many as a perpetual arms race between different individuals. We are told, for instance, that the gazelle's magnificent agility would have never come to be if it was not for the cheetah's unusual speed, and vice versa. While this might be true, it definitely can't be extended unconditionally, for cases of cooperation are present in nature as well.

Luckily, we don't have to look far away to demonstrate this. Our human body's existence owes much to mutualistic agreements struck with other species. One of these is the mitochondria, which in exchange for the protection offered to them as inhabitants of our massive Eukaryota cells - long before we even were humans - have happily ever since reciprocated with powering our cellular activities, among providing other services. There is also the relatively less stable agreements our bodies have forged with a host of other microbes - i.e. scientifically referred to as the "Human Microbiome" - which while not always essential, have nonetheless made our existence a lot easier.

It remains to be noted that the above is not an exhaustive argument against the misconception of concern here. I remember once watching a fine documentary that shows how we are better off understanding natural selection, and the whole of nature for that matter, in the context of a complex mesh of connections, as opposed to trying to tease out the overall picture from mere dyadic relationships (you can watch the said documentary here).

Evolution likened to the scaling of a ladder: Or put alternatively, the idea that recently evolved species/phenotypes are superior to their earlier counterparts. Not only has this particular misconstruction fueled many extreme ideologies, but has also formed the basis for one of the most worn-out themes in the sci-fi genre of literature and movies!

Scientifically speaking though, every evolutionary biology professor I have met is of the opinion that evolution exhibits some sort of progression - namely, a tendency towards achieving higher complexity - but that this in no sense translates to what the layman would think on hearing or reading such a thing. One doctor even told me that some taxas - unfortunately he did not mention the name of any - had come to develop a brain at some point in their evolutionary history, only to lose it all together when it seized to confer on them any survival advantage.

Hard to swallow, but think of it like this: many wild felines - a group of animals the names of which alone strike us with awe - are eking out their existence at the moment. Roaches and insects in general, on the other hand, are faring exceptionally well, and will probably continue to, outliving humanity in the process. What I'm trying to get across here is the fact that the poetic value of a species is of no concern to nature. The only thing that matters is whether or not the species can adapt fast enough to perturbations in its ecosystem. This in essence is what separates the extant lines from the extinguished ones.

Stretching natural selection beyond its legitimate domain of application: One eccentric professor I had in the past used to end his lecture with an inexplicable smile while teasingly stating that "a fool with a tool is still a fool". Natural selection is no exception; to be applied properly, it requires scrupulous attention to the particulars of the case, or else, it degenerates to become just another pseudoscientific explanation.

Prof. Coyne aptly explains this with the following concrete example: hemoglobin is red not because this is a color of any survival value at all, but rather because it happens to be an unintended, dependent property - like spandrels in architecture - of an oxygen-carrying molecule that has been selected over other potential carriers solely for its efficiency in delivering oxygen (and probably Carbon dioxide as well). Yet, it is not in any sense removed from reality to imagine that some sociobiologist might try to explain the redness of blood with a tortuous link to some survival advantage - e.g. it produces a blushing effect that helps to attract high quality mates. Actually, if you think about it, natural selection is known to most people nowadays through similar titillating explanations of human behavior.

To get things straight, this is not to deny that some aspects of the psychology and sociology of a given species can be the product of natural selection. But due to the unique epistemic properties of the theory, we have to be extremely cautious before declaring one trait or another as advantageous. The gist is, next time you read an article explaining in natural selective terms why teens act as such, or why women are so and so, then you'd do science a favor taking them with a liberal amount of salt.

At the end, we should stay reminded that no celebration is commensurate with this day other than upholding those traits and values that comprise an essential foundation of scientific inquiry. But if you are looking for an excuse to pop a bottle of beer, then by all means, have a one for the old man!

Friday, December 6, 2013

Taking Stock of Recent Arab Irreligious Trends

A snapshot taken from the video of Mashrou Leila's recent song "للوطن" (for the homeland), which features an Arab transsexual belly dancer

The recent rise in Arab atheism seems to be a trending topic across the global online community. However, while diversified in their respective scales of analysis, almost all the material published on the topic have fallen in two crippling traps. 

The first of these is giving the Arab Spring a pivotal role in the parsing of the phenomenon. For instance an otherwise brilliant writer uncritically states that out of 60 Arabic atheist groups on Facebook, only a fraction predates the Arab rising. What he missed here is the fact that such groups have short life spans, given that they receive a large amount of negative reports as soon as they become slightly visible. Therefore, the writer could have as well claimed that a few of the said groups precedes any arbitrary date in the past five years, during which Facebook began gaining traction throughout the world - I personally remember a dozen defunct Arab atheists groups from the period intervening between 2008 and 2010.

The second trap is according the phenomenon more significance than it really deserves. Of course, these active atheists are fulfilling the important but long disabled societal functions of pushing the limits and enfeebling the grip of the dominant discourse - that being religious in this case, more specifically Islamic - by showing it for what it really is - i.e. ossified, obsolete, self-referential and a heavy, unnecessary tax on personal and public development. But aside from the background of modern secularism against which this strand of atheism is perpetuated, very little is presented as a substitute for what is being lambasted.

Yet the media is naively depicting the phenomenon with rosy colors without providing any account of the dynamics involved - e.g. the modes through which value shock is produced by this newly strengthened party of atheists, let alone their modes of organization and how the traditional authorities are responding among other things - which is a tell-tall sign that such articles are dictated by emotions as opposed to reason. 

Arab Secularism on the other hand is being pronounced dead by these very same online outlets, and the obituaries published are all to the effect that most Arab states were undergoing a rapid process of secularization during the 60's and 70's of the past century, which came to a halt during the 80's, and began reversing until it met its demise in the past two decades. Makes you wonder, will this myth ever end?

The truth is these Arab "secular" movements of the past century were the manifestation of a process whereby a nascent Arabic-Islamic discourse - born little before the death of the Ottoman empire, only to grow under the supervision of condescending colonial mandates - was reshaping its exteriors to reclaim some of its dignity via gaining the respect of its former bullies, while leaving its interiors intact, pretty much like they were for an eternity by then - take the example of the expulsion of Egyptian Jews under Nasser, an icon of Arab "secularism", and the constitutional provisions explicitly prohibiting Christians from ever attaining country presidency, and banning civil marriage under the rule of Syrian Al Ba'ath, another, though it be less glamorous, icon of the "secular" movements of those long gone times.

Nonetheless, a genuine notion of secularism - based solely on citizenship, merit, and civil liberties - seems to be at last emerging among the masses. To be clear, this is not restricted to the online sphere, but is becoming significantly tangible offline as well. My own guess is that it has been there for a while now, in an embryonic form buried deep down in the minds of frustrated bystanders, who until recently have operated under the assumption that no matter how bad things might go in the Arab world, the Afghan and Iraqi scenarios will never come to pass elsewhere. But, boy, were they belied? This assumption could not be proven any more false by the atrocities the radical Islamists have committed in tolerant Syria, and to a lesser extent in the scientifically advanced Egypt, where their rule has only seen the country through a devolution of medical practices - this notion of secularism does not approve of military despotism either, but that is a matter out of the scope here.

However, while definitely becoming more and more vociferous by the day, the question remains whether or not these secularists will learn how to organize themselves so as to occupy a sizable space in the Arab political sphere in time. Will we witness such a thing? A little optimism can't hurt here: the French revolution was followed by period upon period of terror, until the French society became what it is today. A refreshing thought, but we should as well be reminded that pre-revolution France was as far as it can get from the ethnic and religious minefield that what we refer to nowadays as the Arab world has always been.