Why I am Marching: John Hamill

John Hamill is a member of Atheist Ireland and the CEO Co-Founder of a software company.

Like so many other industries, progress within the software industry has always been driven by both pure and applied scientific research. This is no less the case today than it was during the era of Turing and von Neumann. There are many areas of applied computer science research that are relevant to Irish software companies at present. For example, as we come out of the second artificial intelligence winter, deep learning algorithms already have many practical applications. This is an area where the Irish software industry can make a real contribution, especially where there is support for applied computer science research from State agencies and others.

Similarly, pure research in computer science is also an area where Ireland can participate in the most contemporary work. Fields such as quantum computing are still at an early stage but promise to revolutionise many aspects of how we live. Ernest Walton was an Irish scientist who made no small contribution to experimentally verifying theories about the structure of the atom. Indeed, the father of quantum mechanics Erwin Schrödinger, also spent many years within Irish academia. There is no reason why the next breakthrough in quantum computing algorithms cannot also be an Irish one, if appropriate pure research receives the commensurate funding.

Whether public policy relates directly to science or any other area, I am also anxious to see that it is evidence-based. I’m a member of Atheist Ireland and the first line of the mission statement in our constitution, includes an aim to “build a rational, ethical and secular society free from superstition and supernaturalism”. Of course, faith-based reasoning relates to more than just religiously-inspired legislation. People can also have faith that our problems can be solved by the unrestrained free market, or by collective ownership, or by globalisation or by protectionism. Science eschews ideology in favour of objective truth. It allows us to see past the easy and populist answers in order to understand what the effective and practical answers are.

We are all subject to many biases and prejudices. As Richard Feynman said, “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself – and you are the easiest person to fool”. The scientific process is one that requires honest engagement with others, to ensure we can distinguish fact from fabrication. It requires the kind of open cooperation and collaboration, which is vital to a small country in a big world.

Across many countries over recent years, there has been a worrying trend towards some post-modern perspectives, which imply that facts don’t matter and truth is relative. We have also seen cases where faith-based legislation and ideological legislation, has replaced evidence-based public policy. In the interests of our society and our economy, we need to oppose such trends. We need to stand up for rational and evidence-based approaches, which promote objectivity within policy formation. We need to stand up for science and stand up for reason. I’m marching for these reasons, so that Ireland can be the kind of country that produces more Kay McNulty’s in the next generation.

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