Thursday, April 26, 2007

Idiot of the Week: N.H. Senator Robert Letourneau

As can be read here, New Hampshire has passed a law allowing civil unions between gay partners. The reaction from the Religious Wrong was predictable, but sometimes they surprise even me with their sheer stupidity. Thus, our Idiot of the Week hits us with this Hall of Shamer:

"Let's just call it what it really is, no sugarcoating," said Republican Sen. Robert Letourneau. "This creates same-sex marriage. There is no right to marriage in either the New Hampshire Constitution or the federal Constitution."
"We don't let blind people drive or felons vote, all for good and obvious reasons," he said.

Uh huh. So allowing same sex people to have a civil union, to have the same rights to life insurance, to visit their injured mates in hospitals, and all the other benefits of committed unions that heterosexuals get when they get married, is the equivalent of allowing blind people to drive and felons to vote.

As is so common with the Religious Wrong, they are hard to distinguish from satire. Just what exactly is it about homosexual civil unions that threatens traditional marriage? Those wishing a traditional marriage still may have one. Those so opposed to this are never able to present the slightest coherance in response. There is simply nothing a heterosexual couple can do in marriage that does not apply to a homosexual union save one: unassisted procreation.

Now, this may come as a shock to people like Senator Letourneau, but we have an overabundance of people on this planet, and that is indirectly contributing to most of our major problems, such as global climate change. Having more people get married that can't have children together is actually a good thing. It also gives them a much more stable environment in which to raise whatever children they already have.

It is the height of hypocrisy for the Religious Wrong on the one hand to condemn homosexuals for living a frivolous lifestyle, and then on the other, to refuse them the right to have a civil union. It is also hypocritical for them to carp on and on about how important it is for parents to remain together and have a stable home in which to raise children, and then to fight efforts by homosexuals to do exactly that.

I'd like to ask Senator Robert Letourneau to explain what it is about homosexuals that makes them incapable of having a committed relationship, as his comparison to blind drivers implies. What is it about them that they have done to morally disqualify themselves from doing so, as his felon/voting comment implies.

I'm not holding my breath.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Why I Resist Affirmative Action: It ain't to Protect Whites

Zuska has a post discussing the findings of a study on the root source of our attitudes towards affirmative action. It's conclusion?

"The strongest source of white opposition to affirmative action today is neither racism nor a sincere conviction that any favoritism, even if compensatory, is wrong, but rather a "desire to protect fellow whites," three scholars argue in a paper released last week by the UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center. That finding, the authors contend, offers a new window into white opposition to affirmative-action programs."

They dismissed the traditional interpretation, that this stemmed from a concern for quality and fairness rather than racism, because they found that people with a strong group identity were more likely to oppose programs that were presented as harming whites, rather than benefitting blacks, whereas those with a weak group identity did not.

Their conclusion doesn't seem to follow from their description of the data. All they've shown is that people obsessed with their whiteness are going to be against anything that hurts whitey. Gee, ya think? In our next report, fat people are heavier on average than skinny people, and illiterate people score worse in spelling bees.

I was more interested in how many people qualified as having the various ratings on the group identity test, because that is the root of the problem IMO, and they didn't even give that. Now sure, if there were far more people with strong group identity than weak, their conclusion would follow, but that's far from clear. Their implication, therefore, that those of us with strong opposition to affirmative action policies are probably hiding some racist agenda seems reckless to say the least.

Personally, I'd score very low on the group identity measure, and I have many principled reasons why I oppose some affirmative action programs. Citing this study and claiming it applies to me and people like me is surely not going to seem very persuasive to me. Yet that is surely what is going to happen.

Zuska asked: If I just say to you nicely that social inequalities exist between men and women that disadvantage women and advantage men, and affirmative action policies are intended to ameliorate the disadvantages and remove the advantages, not to harm men, will you all just come along now and be in support of affirmative action?

No. I am not interested in intent. I am interested in results, and I think I speak for a lot of people. I also am far more interested in making sure no one is harmed who has not personally earned it, than I am to reward someone because of a perceived social injustice. I'm not sure how many agree with me on that. :) I just don't think it is right to hire Nancy instead of George if George is the better qualified candidate, unless George himself is the source of the social injustice, say by being the incompetent son of the President. Doing otherwise not only harms George unjustly, but also harms everyone depending on whatever he would be doing. It might even harm Nancy if she ends up in over her head.

The people with the strong group identities are a lost cause. That's the real lesson of this study. If you want support for affirmative action from the rest of us in the reasonable middle, do it in a way that does't harm innocents. Special private training programs are a good example. No one is harmed by you volunteering your time to read only to poor minority girls for example.

Also, stay away from situations where the affirmative program is likely to result in people getting whatever it is being far less qualified than whoever would have gotten it otherwise. And for God's sake, gag the people on your side of the aisle who act like that doesn't happen, or worse yet doesn't matter.

I once saw an old 60 minutes episode on women trying to be fireman failing the standards the men were held to. The feminists interviewed said things like "any standard that men pass more than women is unfair", and "the standards should be changed so the women can pass, such as allowing them to drag a body rather than carry it. There may be less smoke down there anyway." Those women did your cause no favors.

I believe most Americans have a strong sense of fairness, and that's why the historically recognized disadvantaged groups of racial minorities and women have made the strides they have (that and lots of old racists and sexists dying). The fairer your policies are perceived to be, among reasonable people anyway, the more support you are going to get.

Monday, April 23, 2007

O'Reilly vs Dawkins

I know, I know, this reads like "Bambi vs Godzilla". But hey, Bambi was on his own turf, ready to turn off that mike if Godzilla got too fiery on the set. So I tuned in with restrained enthusiasm to Bill O'Reilly's conversation with Richard Dawkins.

I wasn't encouraged when O'Reilly couldn't quite pronounce "agnosticism". It got worse when O'Reilly's entire argument for Christianity was "you can't prove Jesus wasn't God", to which Dawkins easily responded that O'Reilly couldn't disprove Zeus or Apollo. O'Reilly's brilliant retort? Something sarcastic along the lines of "I just saw Apollo, he doesn't look too good".

That gave me my favorite moment of the discussion. Dawkins just leaned back and gave O'Reilly a classic "OK, you're not even serious about trying to defend your position" smirk.

O'Reilly also fell back on the "why are we here?" question, and of course declared science ignorant. It amazes me that someone can live as long as O'Reilly has, see us go to the moon, discover nuclear power, create computers, clone a sheep, cure so many diseases, and all of the other advancements of science, and still think "Aw, those dumb scientists don't know anything".

Obviously O'Reilly hasn't been paying much attention to history. He trotted out the lame argument that Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot and Mao were atheists, as if somehow the existence of evil people who share your position makes your position wrong. They were all male too, does that make men evil or wrong? The position also doesn't follow logically when one looks at what these men actually believed and did. Hitler was a Catholic to the end, and often spoke of doing God's work. The others were atheists, but what gave them the means to do the evil they did was a pseudoreligious state, or virtual lack of one in Pol Pot's case. In short, they made themselves into gods, making it a very strange atheism.

It was a lame effort from O'Reilly for sure. I don't watch O'Reilly regularly, but I found this performance very similar to his interview with Colbert. There too, O'Reilly put up the very lamest of arguments, and resorted to poor jokes when they were demolished. It was as if he knew he could not hope to win a fair fight with either man, and so tried to hide that fact under levity. It seemed pained and ineffective, and similar to what I've seen Tucker Carlson do as well to a lesser extent. It would be nice to see these guys address atheism seriously for a change. It is telling that O'Reilly spent considerably more time talking about Alec Baldwin's parental rant than he did talking to Dawkins. Will someone please tell O'Reilly he is only funny when he isn't trying to be?

Friday, April 20, 2007

Gun Control works? Show me the data!

In gun control debates such as those here and here, I have seen way too much pompousity from the gun control advocates, who act as though the evidence is crystal clear that gun control works, and that anyone whose view differs is some sort of sociopathic macho redneck. Well I'm sorry,
this isn't global warming, much less evolution, where the evidence is solidly, if not entirely, on one side of the argument. This is an issue where data that can withstand the slightest statistical scrutiny is rare, at least what I've seen in the popular media.

I have no love whatever for guns. The only one I own was a gift and I haven't shot it in years. Here in Texas, that practically makes me a Commie. I got interested in the subject for two reasons: First was my anecdotal experience of being frequently in the presence of arsenals of friends and family that would make your stereotypical Frenchman pee his pants, and yet no one I've ever known has ever been involved in a shooting of any kind. Secondly, I consistently saw completely tortured logic and abuse of statistics from the gun control people. For sure the pro-gun guys have their share of goofy arguments, but they are usually philosophical (radical libertarianism, rigid contructionism). The idiotic statistical arguments always seemed to come from the left, such as a gun in the home being 43 times as likely to kill a family member as a criminal, or England having a lower gun homicide rate than the U.S., and other such twaddle.

I'm an actuary. I like data and I know what to do with it. So give me some that takes into account the sociological and other critical variables necessary to draw a solid conclusion. Don't tell me gun control works because England has a lower gun homicide rate than the U.S. That sort of analysis would earn one an F in introductory statistics. Give me some data where the people actually know WTF they are doing. Do it, and you will get a very loud statistically informed ally in your cause. I've never seen any that warranted the smug dismissal of the alternate view that I see so often in these discussions, but I can be persuaded. Show me.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

You don't know what Cho's problem was?!?!

As the Cho Seung-Hui shooting incident at Virginia Tech continues to develop, some of the commentary amazes me. I just saw a commentator on MSNBC on the Tucker Carlson show comment that he just didn't understand what Cho's problem was. You don't? Let me help you.

This was the kid that got picked on, that was uncomfortable in his own skin, that felt like an outcast, and was abused and bullied. In one of his video comments he makes mention of having garbage shoved in his mouth. That is not the sort of experience that fades from memory. He railed against the wealthy "brats", who no doubt were the kinds of people that psychologically bullied him the most. Being uninvited from all the big social events, or being laughed at by a group at a vulnerable moment, can be as painful for an outcast kid as a kick in the head.

We all remember those kids. Some of us, sometimes, were those kids. And many of us remember doing things to kids like that we'd rather we hadn't, as we look back with adult insights. Does any of this sound familiar? It should. It was true of the Colombine shooters.

Cho also apparently had a psychological disorder that had gone untreated. So we had an unhealthy mind subjected to abuse, and it exploded in a day of rage and 33 dead bodies. Those who focus on the guns are missing the big picture. What distinguished Cho from everyone around him wasn't access to guns. They all had access to guns. But they all did not have a sick mind subjected to sick treatment.

If Columbine didn't teach us this lesson, maybe Virginia Tech will. It is time for the abusive bullying, and unhealthy orchestrated ostracism that goes on in schools all over this country to be viewed as something unhealthy that should be actively discouraged, and not just "kids being kids". Playing tag and X-box are kids being kids. Having an occasional fight is kids being kids. Playing sports and actually keeping score and having winners and losers is kids being kids.

Having a group of children actively, in concert or not, torment kids that are weird, geeky, shy, psychologically unhealthy, etc., is not. It is a form of cruelty, plain and simple. If the injustice to the direct victims of that doesn't motivate you, perhaps the injustice to all those murdered kids at Virginia Tech will.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Gun Control: Get the Right Numbers

Over at Mike the Mad Biologist's blog, the discussion has begun about gun control. Unfortunately, too often these discussions involve horrible use of logic and statistics, and this one is no exception.

Let's start with something Mike gets right that most people don't:

"... had the Virginia Tech students been armed, fewer students would have died...Of course, at that moment, you would probably be safer...What is missing ... is any serious thought about all of the ramifications."

Many gun control supporters make the mistake of denying the obvious here, probably because they subconsciously think that admitting the obvious (a group of armed people are going to die at a lesser rate than a group of unarmed ones if attacked by a lone gunman) concedes some important point. It doesn't, because it is the wrong question. What we care about is the overall death rate under this or that law, not what happens in one particular instance.

from other posters:

"I like to look at the numbers: the stats I've seen say a handgun in the home is 20-40 times more likely to shoot someone in a suicide, crime of passion, accident, etc. than it is to be used to defend a home."

The referenced study was conducted by doctors Arthur L. Kellermann and Donald T. Reay ("Protection or Peril?: An Analysis of Firearm-Related Deaths in the Home," New England Journal of Medicine, 1986). The figure was 43, and it referred to people killed by the gun in their home, or an intruder being killed in self-defense. Scaring off or injuring an intrudor didn't count, and no mention is usually made of the fact that most of the deaths were suicides. There is a more detailed examination here. Suffice it to say, the study does not address the relevant issues.

"Everyone should have a small nuclear device strapped to their back. This will be rigged to go off at the first sign of violence (Being shot, stabbed, punched, etc). Everything within a 500 meter radius will be vapourised. Just imagine how polite society would become. And how little crime there would be!"

Amusing, but off point. Nuke's kill indiscriminately, whereas the gun can be controlled as to who is fired at, albeit imperfectly. Also, the rigging of the nuke removes the valuable judgement a gun wielder can exercise. After all, no one is suggesting gun owners should shoot automatically at the first sign of violence!

"The evidence seems to suggest that limiting gun ownership, espcially handguns, does stop people being killed by them."

Of course it does, but that borders on tautology, and misses the point of the exercise. Consider suicide as an illustration, which is about half of gun deaths. If we successfully banned guns tomorrow, and yet found that our suicide rate was not reduced, would that not be a hollow victory? Hey, we reduced gun suicide 100%, woohoo! Not. Our purpose is to reduce death, not just death by gun.

Some people who intend to kill themselves are going to find other ways to do it. Many already do. Ditto for murder victims. The number that died by gun recently that would have died even in the absence of guns is not zero, and their deaths are no less tragic.

Also, talk of people being killed by guns ignores important context. The death of a 12 year old girl who was shot by her friend after finding Dad's gun concerns me far more than the death of a thrice-convicted felon shot by a police officer in self-defense. Homicides worry me far more than suicides. Yet these broad brush statistics take none of this into account, and as a result, exagerrate the perceived risk. So do not speak of "gun deaths". That's meaningless.

"What this person is suggesting is that every confrontation on a college campus, or in an office building, or a public school, or a crowded shopping mall, or in a packed bar, or on a busy city street, should have a vastly increased probability of ending in a shootout."

This is the flip side of the first point I made here. Gun ownership advocates too often dismiss the increased probability of conflict inherent in having everyone armed. What happens to the total conflict is a different question, and ignoring the fact that many scenarios exist where the presence of guns increases the risk, adds no credibility to one's opinion of the bigger questions.

Notice also the fallacy of talking about "gun" violence cropping up again in the above note. Of course the probability of a "shootout" is higher with guns than without. The more relevant question is what the probability of violence, death and injury is, regardless of the source.

Also inherent in the quote above is the false assumption that the pro-gun guys advocate everyone having a gun. Far more prevalent is the notion that it would be beneficial for more people to have guns, but only a nonrandom subset of the populace doing so, steering away from those prone to crime, violence, etc.

"if someone has a gun pointed at you, and you reach for a gun, you will very likely get shot."

This is one of many red herring scenarios that people pose as representative. Obviously if the person is right in front of you with a gun pointed at you, you are in grave danger, carrying a gun or not. However, gun defense also includes scenarios where the attacker is not armed, or less armed, or further away, and focusing on this extreme rare scenario misses the bulk of the picture.

The bottom line is this: to make good decisions on issues like gun control, we need to have good complete data and ask the appropriate questions. We are trying to reduce deaths, not "gun deaths", crime, not "gun crime". Let's be more open about what gun deaths are: roughly 50% suicides, and including shootings all but the most granola-carrier doesn't mind so much, like police shooting career criminals in self-defense. It's the innocent we are trying to protect, so let's concentrate on that.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Taxes for the Iraq War?

Mike Dunford, scienceblogger and husband of an active army officer, wrote this powerful letter to his representatives and senators.

He raises a very interesting point. With the absence of the draft, the war truly splits the population into those that are personally involved and those who are not. There are no signs as one walks down main street America that we are at war except for a few yellow ribbons on SUVs. There is even discussion of bringing back the draft.

I wouldn't go so far as that, even though I am now thankfully beyond the danger age, and have no dog in that hunt. The draft takes away the populace's most powerful force against a war: the refusal to fight it. The second most powerful force is the refusal to pay for it. And obviously the Democrats lack the political will to do the job.

So let's put it out there for honest discussion. No more pushing off the debt to the next generation. We are in the best position to decide if this, or any, war is worth fighting, which means some of us will die and most of us will pay the bill. If those who support continued action in Iraq win the debate and raise the necessary taxes, well, that's the way our system of representative democracy works. It's not perfect, but it's better than all the others. And if America, most of America, isn't willing to make the necessary sacrifices to fund and fight the war here and now, well then, it's time to end it, now.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Enough about Imus

Normally I would be spending my time this evening watching the news. There is so much going on in the world: North Korea is on the verge of violating their agreements on nuclear weapons, the globe continues to heat up, and Iraq is, well, Iraq. And let's not forget all the important issues that have fallen out of favor with the politicians of the moment - social security is still in big trouble, we are running record deficits, and there's The United States' bothersomely low ranking in so many measures of health care. And what, instead, is the media talking about? An over-the-hill overrated so-called shock jock who called some women "nappy headed ho's" and got fired for it.

Suffice it to say, I'm no Imus fan. The only reason I even knew he existed prior to this "event" was by accidentally stumbling across him looking for some morning news, and wondering who this mind-numbing bore was plodding through his paceless show. Shock jock? I guess my shock-o-meter is set differently than are others'. Nonetheless, I've never found anything he said very shocking, including this event.

As has been pointed out by others, rap/hip-hop (this is how idiotic our society has gotten - we are dividing rap music into subcategories) is loaded with terms like "ho", and others far more offensive. The idea that an aged guy on the radio repeating these words back to people is somehow worse is preposterous. I'd argue it is less offensive, since he was making a joke (albeit a bad one), whereas rappers mean it when they say "ho". Over at Dispatches, Ed Brayton had this to say:

"If anything, the responsibility should be the opposite - those whose audience is young black males should be the first ones to stop reinforcing such dehumanizing terms for young women. If they didn't make it cool and associate it with money, perhaps that would lessen such behavior among their audience. I don't think anyone doubts that Ludacris and Jay-Z have a lot more influence in the black community than Don Imus will ever have."

Indeed, it is all revolting, and we should come down hard on it all. Don't pick on Don Imus like he did something special.

And please, let's stop trying to make the Rutgers women's basketball team into a combination of Mother Teresa and Jennifer Aniston. Yes, they were victims here, and did nothing whatsoever to deserve this. But surely I was not the only person cringing during their press conference when they would talk about how offended they were at being called "ho's" while making the kinds of grammatical errors I wouldn't expect of ten year olds. It seemed like something out of Saturday Night Live to hear one of the players say (paraphrasing) "I would like to AX [emphasis mine] Don Imus if I seem like a 'ho' to him." And then to top it all off, who does the media turn to for guidance on racial sensitivity? Jesse "Hymietown" Jackson and Al "Tawana Brawly hoax" Sharpton!

So an old man you are perfectly free to ignore made a racist ignorant comment. So what? That's more or less what old men do in 2007. Give our society a few years and we can expect the old men to be more enlightened. We should be way more concerned that too many future leaders in society think calling women "ho's" is acceptable, and want to "ax" questions.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

No Live Debates with Creationists

From this thread at Panda's Thumb:

"… in your view, universal acceptance of Darwinism must be inevitable since Darwinist control the high ground in the universities and public schools."

Evolution is nearly univerally accepted in the non-fundamentalist world because it has that mountain of evidence on its side, and no other theory of the origins of species does. However, history is filled with large groups of people who chose to order their beliefs according to something other than the evidence, so no, evolution will never be universally accepted. Hell, heliocentrism and the germ theory of disease are not universally accepted, and I doubt the facts of quantum physics would pass acceptance with the man on the street. So why should evolution expect to be ignored any less than any other well-established counter-intuitive, religiously-troubling scientific theory?

"Do you disagree with Mooney’s strategy to avoid debating technical details? I’d presume if the facts were on one’s side, one would much rather argue facts."

Argue, yes. Debate, no. There is a reason scientists exchange information primarily in formal papers and journals, and not in live debates. Time simply does not allow for technical subjects to be debated live in the necessary depth, with virtually no limit to the subjects that can be broached. That is why the Gish Gallop is so effective in live debates, but doesn’t work in writing. In writing, every subject raised can be addressed, completely, and with references. Live, half of what he says can’t be addressed in the allotted time.

You guys want to debate? Do it in writing. Confine it to a very limited subject. I suspect you will get plenty of takers. You do notice you don’t have any trouble getting people to debate you here, and many of us think you are only half serious anyway.

Saturday, April 7, 2007

FRC's Charmaine Yoest Drops the Evolution Ball on CNN

Anderson Cooper recently had a discussion entitled "What Is a Christian? God, Faith and Hard Science." In it there was a debate on evolution and creationism that illustrates very well the disinformation perpetuated by the creationists. A full transcript can be found here. In it, Charmaine Yoest of the Family Research Council gives us these gems:

"... mainstream science, throughout history, has been challenged by questions. And that's how we make advances in science, is being open to all different perspectives. "

Initially perhaps. One of science's strengths is that no question is forbidden, so long as it leads to falsifiable predictions and can therefore be experimentally validated or invalidated. However, there is little to be gained pursuing lines of inquiry based on perspectives that have already been examined thoroughly and discredited. Science is unlikely to advance being open to the question of a flat earth, of Apollo pulling the sun across the sky, or that disease is caused by demons. Likewise, creationism has been examined in detail for many years and has been found wanting. Until the creationists come up with something new (changing the name from "creationism" to "intelligent design" doesn't count), there is little reason to expect any scientific advancement being open to what they have to say.

"And that's all that we're calling for, is saying that, you know, have we gotten to a place in our culture where science has such an orthodoxy around Darwinian theory that we can't even question it, that we can't even look at some of the gaps in the theory, and ask, how can we do better and how can answer some of these questions?"

This shows an utter ignorance about how the scientific process works. There is nothing stopping any creationist from publishing his findings in the scientific journals except a complete lack of such findings. Indeed, all journals started for the express purpose of publishing ID/creationism articles have gone defunk for lack of material. There is simply no there there.

However, practically any scientist would kill to be the one to make such a breakthrough. A scientist who could validate creationist theories experimentally would be in the running for a Nobel prize. The idea that there is some sort of conspiracy suppressing factually dissenting opinions is simply removed from reality. Were that the case, something as bizarre and as yet unexplainable like quantum theory would never have gotten off the ground. But quantum theorists had the experimental goods the IDer/creationists lack.

The other glaring absurdity of Charmaine's position is that the location she pushes to have this debate is not in the science journals, but in the classroom, not by learned scientists, but by schoolchildren who are there to learn about science. Just what exactly is the basis for the position that the best way for students to learn a subject is to have them debate it? And why should evolution be singled out for this treatment? Should students in history class debate the causes of the fall of the Roman empire? Should students in algebra class debate the best way to solve equations? Should students in chemistry class debate what valences are correct? Of course not. There is a reason the scientists doing the research and publishing in the journals ultimately decide the content of schoolbooks - they are the ones that understand the subject.

"What we are looking at here is saying, there are legitimate scientific questions on the table. And it is not true that -- that there is a complete cohesiveness among scientists."

No Charmaine, ID/creationism is not a legitimate scientific question. "That looks too complicated to have evolved", which is essentially what ID amounts to, is not a scientific statement. And again, legitimate scientific questions are addressed in scientific journals, not schoolrooms.

No one claims there is complete cohesiveness in the scientific community. Indeed, diversity of opinion is one of sciences strengths, and there are many in evolutionary science. The questions raised by creationists, however, are not among them. They had their chance, and they were found wanting.

COOPER: Charmaine, do you want your children to be exposed to a belief which the scientific community has disproven? I'm not saying that they have disproven all of this. But, in certain cases, I mean, some things clearly...

YOEST: Sure.

So in Charmaine's world, we would spend time talking about the flat earth in astronomy class, Lamarkianism in biology class, holocaust denial in history class, and that 2 + 2 = 5 in math class. Hey, who is to say these are not legitimate questions, right? Would you try to suppress those questions Ms. Yoest?

Michael Behe, shining star of the ID movement, in order to redefine "science" so as to include ID, during his testimony at the Dover trial, did so in a manner that by his own admission would include astrology. Ms. Youst would have us believe the best way for our children to learn the best theories we have on various subjects is to have them be exposed to and debate discredited theories. This is a facade. Creationists will simply say anything, back any position, no matter how intellectually untenable, in the pursuit of their agenda to water down science education on evolution. In a world more and more dependant on a good scientific understanding, that is not comething we can afford.

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

The Republican Science Challenge

I am a former libertarian Republican who has since become an independent for one simple reason: The Republicans have tended of late to take positions on issues which run contrary to the facts, and not coincidentally, the established authorities on those subjects. I am not aware of the Democrats doing anything akin to that.

After all, most political issues are not decided as factual issues. They are far more related to our personal moral and valuation systems, because they almost always involve a tradeoff of this consequence vs that consequence. However, to make good value judgements, we still need a good grasp of the facts so we know exactly what we are valuing over what. To choose between products we need to know their prices. So ignoring the facts is going to lead ultimately to bad politics, and that is what I see the Republicans doing, and that is why they have lost my support. Here are specific examples:

1) Evolution. Republicans far more than Democrats deny evolution and support creationism/intelligent design in a cultural battle that has gone on for decades and continues to this day. It also makes the United States somewhat of a laughing stock in the world. Note this survey taken of acceptance of evolution by nation. The United States scored better only that Turkey.

Yet every major scientific organization around the world, practically every scientist in the relevant fields (biology, geology, paleoanthropology, etc.) accepts evolution. The evidence supporting it is overwhelming. Yet Republicans deny it, against the entire world.

2) Global Warming. The Republicans once again stand alone in denying the science. No, the case is not as conclusive as it is for evolution, but it is rapidly getting there, and the pattern of denial (moving the goalposts) is very similar to what we see with the evolution deniers. First they claimed the earth wasn't warming at all, then they granted it was warming, but waved it away as part of a natural cycle, now they grant that the warming is greater, but not necessarily caused by humans. Yet the evidence keeps building, as the world's scientists now say it is 90% likely that humans are a major cause of the warming trends.

So my challenge is: show me something akin to this on the Democrats' side. I'm not interested in matters of philosophical opinions, moral systems, or value judgements. I'm talking about a position the Democrats take that, like the Republican positions on evolution and global warming, run counter to practically every fact and the opinions of every scientific institution dedicated to studying these things.

Monday, April 2, 2007

Debating as the Lone Atheist vs the True Believers

Jason Rosenhouse over at Evolutionblog tells this tale of an encounter with some true believers (three teens and two older women) while waiting in line for lunch at an Intelligent Design conference. I found it a typical example of what it is like being the long atheist in a group of true believers. Jason recounts:

"I've attended quite a few of these creationist gatherings and at virtually every one of them I have found myself involved in a conversation of this sort. As long as there is only one atheist among a large number of creationists, they tend not to feel threatened and instead treat you like some sort of zoo animal, or perhaps someone from a different planet. I'm still uncertain as to the best way to handle the situation."

I've been in that situation many times myself. My strategy is to remember that my target audience is the bystanders of the debate, not the people I am actually engaging. Most people, regardless of their views, tend to get defensive and competitive when debating in front of a crowd, and thus getting them to admit defeat is an unreasonable expectation, even in the best of circumstances. With views as deeply held as religion, this is even more true.

The key is to be polite, and stick to one's logical guns, even in the face of absurdly poor arguments or personal attacks. Let the observers see the atheist being surprisingly (to them) polite, and let your interlocutors reveal their closemindedness and rudeness. You might be the first living breathing atheist these people have encountered, for reasons Jason points out:

"I suspect that a lot of the fire-breathers, like Mary, live in very insulated communities and simply don't often come into contact with people who think differently from her on these kinds of issues. So let them see an atheist who on the one hand is completely unafraid of any challenge they might throw his way, but who also has no desire to be insulting or aggressive."

Exactly. Sadly, many Americans still think of atheists as baby-eating, immoral reprobates. This comes from the many ignorant rants they hear from Sunday pulpits, combined with a lack of personal experience with atheists. This is also a good reason why it is important for unbelievers to "come out of the closet" as it were, and let people see us for what we are, normal everyday people with all the same feelings, dreams and desires that they have, only with a lack of belief in gods.

It is also important to remember the nuclear bomb you can drop on these people when they get very strident and unreasonable like this:

"Then I asked her, 'If you think God explains how the universe came into being, then tell me how he did it.' 'He spoke the world into existence.' 'Just like that?' 'Just like that.' 'He said let there be light and there was light.' 'Yes.' 'And you find that easy to believe?' 'Yes.'

I guess she won that round."

Jason's sarcasm aside, she did win it in a sense, but the solution to this sort of retort is to bring a scientific view into the picture. Allow them to show their closedmindedness to your audience by asking a simple question: Is it possible they are wrong? Make this point and don't allow yourself to be distracted until they answer. I once demolished a coworker at a lunch debate with this one simple question, because after several minutes of flailing and sputterring, he could not bring himself to admit that it was even possible. Game over. It didn't matter what he said after that, our audience of 4-5 people had been swayed.

After all, no matter what we believe, regardless of the topic, there is always a chance we are wrong. Only a totally unreasonable person would claim otherwise. That's the achilles heal of the true believer, regardless of the topic. They make no account of that possibility. If they admit that there is (or at least are smart enough to lie to save face), followup with "Isn't it important to know how to recognize this possibility when it occurs?" They pretty much have to admit this, but then you have them, because the next step is to get them to describe a scenario that would qualify, and they usually won't be able to. That will paint them, rightfully, as closedminded, and the debate is won.

Sadly, Jason's summary description of the encounter was too familiar:

"Several things were clear. First, that the two women did not have the slightest interest in anything I was saying. Second, that they had complete and total confidence in every word in the Bible, and regarded it as utter impertinence to challenge them on any such point. Third, that they had very little concept of what science is or how scientists approach their work. And fourth, that they tended to view me as an object of pity, and generally behaved very condescendingly toward me."

It has always fascinated me how condescending supposedly loving Christians can be when confronted by a doubter. Suddenly, that nice old lady feeding the pigeons becomes a pompous bitch, with little but snide remarks elevating her ignorance to a place of unquestionable dogma. They act as though we were born yesterday, confronting us with poor arguments we dissected as teens, as if they were something profound (ie, Pascal's wager, the ontological argument, etc.). Some are so isolated in their homogenous world that they cannot even wrap their minds around the fact that we truly do not believe, pretending instead that we are merely being rebellious and are "mad at God".

So speak up when you get a chance, let people see that atheists are people too, and if your interlocutors are rude and closedminded, let that show through to your audience. Nothing is more persuasive than sincere truth-seeking in the face of intolerant dogmaticism.

Sunday, April 1, 2007

Distinguishing Science from Pseudoscience: Knowledge Islands

Orac's amusing April Fools post concerning the implications of chiropractic on global warming reminded me of an important way pseudoscience differs from science: it is made up of islands of knowledge rather than being a continuous whole as science is. Consider this graph Alex Palazzo provided the other day on Transcription. It shows the references in various papers by scientific discipline, and is a virtual spider web of mutual influence.

What this illustrates is how our knowledge is an interconnected whole. Discoveries in biology can have implications for chemistry, physics, or mathematics, and vice versa. At the very least they can often independently confirm each others findings. They describe overlapping areas, with varying methods of inquiry, and thus many methods of correction. When the chemists thought they had demonstrated cold fusion, they had to answer to the physicists.

One can often move so smoothly from one discipline to another that the distinction between them becomes blurred, such as that between physics and mathematics. This stands in stark contrast to what one sees in pseudoscience. Whether it is UFO abductions, reflexology, astrology, or the latest crank physics, the one common bond is the lack of much to say about any other subject. What are the implications of the ascension of Mars on chripractic? What does the latest crank physics have to say about UFO propulsion techniques? What are the implications of cranial sacral theory on the reflexology pathways? No one seems to know or care.

This problem is in part due to the common nonfalsifiable nature of pseudoscience. It is hard to discuss the implications of one's theory if that theory makes no solid predictions. It is also due to a common mindset, especially in the alternative medicines, that skepticism and critical analysis is inappropriate, like being told one has too much negative energy.

Thus, rather than an interconnected whole like science, pseudoscience tends to create islands of knowlege, confident within their sphere of immediate relevance, and with nothing to say outside that arena. The Intelligent Design Creationists refusal to even entertain a discussion of the nature of the designer is a perfect example. So it is a good idea to keep this in mind when evaluating claims of all sorts. If it seems like whatever theory is being pitched has little impact on any other area of knowledge, or worse yet is totally inconsistent with it, there is an excellent chance you are dealing with pseudoscience.

The Great Egnor Hoax

So the Discovery Institute folks have finally admitted what many of us suspected all along: the inane defenses of ID offered up by Michael Egnor were the DI's idea of a joke:

"Over the past month I have engaged in what my friend Bill Dembski ludicly refers to as 'street theatre'. My posts here have been an outlandish parody of the bona fide Intelligent Design position, liberally injected with many of the more simplistic errors of the Young Earth Creationists. My purpose was to see how far we could go before the gullible Darwinists realized they were being taken for a ride. "

I give them credit, it is quite a step up from Dembski's Farting Judge cartoon. But who, I wonder, do they think the joke is on here? Satire of this sort can be a very damning indictment if done well. Who can forget Alan Sokal's hoax titled "Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity" published in a 1996 issue of a postmodern cultural studies journal called Social Text. By writing a nonsensical piece that was taken seriously, he called into question the intellectual rigour in that field.

However, when the satirical writing is not of one's opponents' position, but of one's own, how does that imply anything about one's opponents? IDer/creationists have long been criticized for making ignorant and downright stupid arguments. So if yet another round of stupidity appears, can anyone blame the scientifically literate for concluding it is just more of the same? How were Egnor's posts ignoring the evolution of bacteria any more absurd than Michael Behe ignoring the pile of articles on the evolution of the immune system at Dover? Egnor's claims that "evolution = random mutation + natural selection" is just as flawed as that argument is in every other IDer/creationist screed. Where do his serious arguments end and satire begin? If we can't tell, and indeed judging from the defenses they got from the usual suspects, neither can they, then the joke is on them, not us.

If Michael Egnor's satires proved anything, it is that the IDer/creationist arguments are indistinguishable from nonsense, which has been the view of the scientists all along. Thanks Doc.