Tuesday, July 31, 2007

James Randi on Homeopathy

Via Kevin Beck comes this video of James Randi giving a history and overview of homeopathy. It's a little long, and Randi isn't quite as funny as he thinks he is, but the expose' is fabulous. If more people understood this, the snakeoil salesmen that peddle this nonsense would have far fewer victims.

Monday, July 30, 2007

The Creationist Playbook

Some comments in a recent discussion at Dispatches bought forth some standard creationist arguments that I thought deserved their own post:

"Anyways, this is the last I will say on this issue, since this is just turning into a bunch of name calling and whatnot."

The "Ad Hominem Gambit", pretending that all insults are ad hominems. You might say "2 + 2 isn't 5 you moron" but all they hear is "bla bla bla bla bla you moron", and conveniently dismiss the fact that the insult was in addition to addressing their argument, rather than a substitute for doing so.

"If you were near, I would gladly engage you in a real discourse on the issue, in person. I refuse to do it on here. It would take a very long time."

Ah, the old "let's take it private" ploy. Notice they never do this at the beginning of the discussion. It only crops up after they start getting their ass whupped. It's no different than those whiney kids we all knew growing up who suddenly would get tired of playing at the exact moment they started losing the game.

There is an additional element to this one. One shoud never debate a creationist in private, because it is a waste of your time. Your target of persuasion isn't the creationist - you know they are lost. Your target is the casual observer who maybe hasn't made up their mind on the issue.

"That said, you're not even listening to what I am saying."

Another throwback to childhood days, where "you're not listening" is synonymous with "you won't agree with me". It's just a convenient way to dodge criticisms of one's position.

"All that is being done is you're looking for little parts of what I say to pull apart, under the presumption that that nulls out anything I might say."

Cue the "pathetic level of detail" quote from Dr. Dembski. What this reveals is the backwards nature of the creationist mindset. They don't work from data to conclusion, but backward from conclusion to cherry-picked data. So to their mindset, the data isn't important, because they are just examples anyway. That's why they don't think getting the details is important. It's only The Truth (tm) that matters.

"Be content in your knowledge that you all have all of the answers"

This is the old "you think you know everything" ploy, something one rarely hears anyone with any intellect say, because we all know how foolish it is. No one thinks they know everything. Well, except true believers. See, when it comes to divine revelation, they DO think they know everything. After all, knowledge handed down from the gods is complete and perfect. So if anyone claims to know more than them, well then logically, they must think they have "all the answers".

"I will retire to my ignorance"

The sarcastic reference to their own ignorance comes from an egalitarianism about knowledge. To them, we are all equally able to understand the truth, as is protestant tradition. Claiming your scientific credentials and fancy language demonstrates superior knowledge only conveys to them that you are an arrogant elitist.

These are standard ploys, that show up every day in debates like this. No excuse for not being ready for them.

ADHD: Malady or Myth?

Over at Retrospectacle, Shelley has a great post on the science of ADHD. I admit to being a healthy skeptic about this for years, but apparently there really is some solid science behind it:

"ADHD affects from 5-10% of children and adolescents, with boys 8 times more likely than girls to have it. The disorder is marked by an inability to focus attention and hyperactive/impulsive behavior. Often these symptoms are paired with poor social skills and difficulties at school, which makes for a very complex situation."

Sunday, July 29, 2007

More on Us Moral Atheists

Inspired by this discussion initiated by Kevin Beck, comes some more comments on atheism and morality. We are constantly asked things like: "in a materialist universe if two people disagree on a moral question, there is no way to settle who is correct; it is ultimately a matter of taste."

Do you see the non sequitor here? Why would a matter of taste be beyond reconciliation? We are faced with subjective differences of opinion all the time: where to eat lunch, what music to listen to, what style of clothes to wear etc., and we manage to settle the disagreements without too much difficulty. True these disagreements are rarely settled absolutely by reference to some objective external standard, but so what? Why must that be the standard? The methods we do use to settle them serve us just fine. There's no there there to this objection.

Of course, those who make this argument will insist that only with the authority of the absolute code of the gods backing your view can your persuasion be successful. I've already shown that we are able to make persuasive arguemnts without it, and yet they are wrong on their end of the deal as well. One would think, given their boast, that religious people all over the world were settling their disputes quickly and peacefully, if indeed they had any disputes at all. That sound like the world you know?

See, those who appeal to a universal morality from the gods can't seem to agree on the message, even for the most trivial practices. But of course since they all think they have the true morals backing them, their conflicts escalate into violence quite frequently. They would have us believe the practical difficulties with determining what the gods are saying are beside the point.

On the contrary, that is entirely the point. It makes little sense to presume the existence of a god handing down objective moral rules in a world where the moral rules vary all over the place. There is no evidence there even is such a being, and even less that he has anything to do with morals.

If they want to make their case, they can start by demonstrating the existence of moral universals among humans that lack pragmatic value. I know of no such values. All the morals I've examined correlate very well with pragmatic benefits to those who practice them, either individually, or as a group. Paying one's debts increases one's credit. Remaining nonmurderous reduces the chances of one being murdered, and produces a more stable society. Benefits to all galore, and no gods needed.

This puts those who claim gods are necessary for morality in the same class as witch doctors who claim the magic spell, and the arsenic, are necessary to kill one's victim. Newton would not approve.

Even granting their premise doesn't get them out of the woods. The question I keep asking the theological (and not getting an answer) is "So what?". If you prove that gods are necessary for morals, and you still haven't made your case for the existence of gods, that means the reality is there are no morals. OK, so there are no morals. And?

Most of their objections are answered by identifying the mistaken premise that all our behavior is [rationally objectively] chosen. The shrinks have proven pretty conclusively that it isn't. We are driven by instinct far more than was ever suspected, at least as my read of the data goes. And instincts are going to evolve like everything else.

This means that we don't need for everyone to be able to conclude rationally in every case that it is in their best interests to not murder people. All that need happen is to introduce a genetic predisposition to avoid murder into the population, and it would come to predominate, both individually (being less disposed to attack reduces one's chances of dying in counterattack), and collectively (the group that refrains from murdering their own will outoerform the ones that don't).

Now, is there solid evidence this occurred? Not to my knowledge. But it makes a lot more sense than positing some universal lawgiver on high that magically gave us morals that we just can't seem to understand well enough to agree with each other on even with the most basic issues. A god did indeed give us our moral sense. But in this case, the creator god was the evolutionary process.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Michael Reagan is VERY confused

I have been glancing at Micheal Reagan's columns over at Townhall for a while now. I haven't blogged on them, despite many disagreements with what he has to say, primarily because, well, he often doesn't say much. He is clearly a person uncomfortable with change. The theme permeates his every utterance. Changes in language bother him immensely, as evidenced by this article which amounts to "The 'F' word is bayid, mmmmkay". Michael doesn't seem to understand that it is the meaning behind the words, and not the words themselves, that matters. Let's also not let people like him who reminisce about the good ol' days forget just how much social progress has been made since then. So when he says:

"I went to a lot of concerts years ago. I never heard Frank Sinatra or any other performer use a single obscenity during their performances. Moreover, if any of them had uttered anything as foul as the 'F' word, they would have been driven off the stage.

Let's remind him that back in the "good ol days", instead of hearing "fuck" on the stage, what many heard was "get these niggers to their proper seats away from the decent white folks". Pardon us for preferring things the way they are now.

In a similar vein, Mr. Reagan gets all wonky over the Democratic youtube debate. And while there is always plenty to complain about with the substance of presidential debates, what does MR concentrate on? The Democrats supposed Marxist policies and the brave Republicans trying to protect us from that. I can see why he doesn't like change - most of his article sounds like it was written 30 years ago. But what most occupies MR's mind is the alleged connection between "the culture of Hollywood" and the debate. His primary argument? Well, it has to be seen to be believed:

"On display was the culture of Hollywood – the culture of Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan...In an era when the very survival of civilization is threatened by terrorism organized on a global scale there was not a single mention of the ongoing war on terrorism, which is costing lives every day. Instead we have a questioner dressed as a sock puppet asking about global warming. Now that’s bad enough, but what is even worse is that he was taken seriously.

No Michael, what is worse is that YOU are taken seriously. Global warming threatens to destroy the entire human race. Now that's the worst case scenario granted, but it still dwarfs any threat posed by terrorists, who, by definition lack the military power to enforce their ethos on us. However painful 9/11 and the inevitable future attacks are, they are merely political vandalism performed by people with more passion than weaponry (and often sanity). As threats go, they lag far far behind what the Nazis and Marxists posed, and global warming is far more of a threat than that.

One cannot compare political reorganization to the destruction of an entire ecosystem. Perhaps Michael Reagan should stop paying so much attention to Lindsay Lohan and Paris Hilton, and actually read some science, or even a recent newspaper. Anyone who thinks the Democrats are Marxists and terrorists are a greater threat than global warming needs to get out more.

Also this "global" war on terror adjective needs to be nipped in it's deceptive bud. 99% of the terrorism in the world happens in a very tiny part of it, and involves very specific groups of people. A global war on terror would have battles in places like China, Austrailia, Sweden, Nigeria, and Brazil as well.

Finally, to put the nail in the coffin of my timewarp case against Mr. Reagan, consider this tasty morsel of denial:

"Democrats want big government and Republicans insist that the best government is the government that governs the least."

Oh? You talking about the Reublican party that wants to tap our phones, prevent women from having abortions, prevent scientists from doing stem cell research, support arresting medical marijuana patients conforming with state laws, and has in 6 short years of control turned the largest federal surplus in history into a deficit and debt so large that we mathematicians have to be brought in to translate the figures into something the average person can relate to. THAT Republican party? Surely you jest.

Sorry Michael, that old song won't play any more, if ever it did. You guys deride the "tax and spend" Democrats while practicing an even more damaging policy of borrow and spend. And this is coming from a former Republican that laments the lack of small government action to follow the small government rhetoric of the Republicans. You don't walk the walk, and it's time people started calling you on your big talk to the contrary.

Back Talk on Bush's Press Conference

***WARNING*** Impolite criticms of the President within ***WARNING***

This is the sort of thing I dreamed about doing when I was more politically active; take a politician's press conference and splice it up and ask all the questions and make all the comments you wish the press corps would ask and make. Those who think the press is too hard on politicians don't understand the role of the press in a democracy. They cannot be too critical of politicians. They are the ones we depend on to ferret out the information on what the politicians are doing so we can make informed decisions at the ballot box. A press friendly with politicians is a press reneging on its resposibility to the citizens of this country.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Hooray for Math!

"Researchers at Harvard University and the University of Virginia have found that high school coursework in one of the sciences generally does not predict better college performance in other scientific disciplines. But there's one notable exception: Students with the most rigorous high school preparation in mathematics perform significantly better in college courses in biology, chemistry, and physics."

This is the property I always loved about math: it applies to practically everything. However, I'd argue that it is a branch of philosophy, not science. After all, algebra is really just symbolic logic. As such, in some ways it is more closely related to religion than it is to the sciences. Perhaps this offers an insight as to why mathematicians tend to be more religious than the scientists, though still far below the rate of belief in the general population.

Check out the full story. And here is a good analysis.

Confusion over the First Amendment: Pharmacists sue over Morning After Pill

The state of Washington is being sued by pharmacists who object to a new regulation requiring them to offer the morning-after pill for sale. Their objections are based on their religious views concerning abortion:

"In a lawsuit filed in federal court Wednesday, a pharmacy owner and two pharmacists say the rule that took effect Thursday violates their civil rights by forcing them into choosing between 'their livelihoods and their deeply held religious and moral beliefs.'

Here is the entire story, and it is typical of the misunderstanding many have about the freedom of, and from, religion in the first amendment. The purpose of that amendment was to give us freedom of conscience with regard to our religious views, or lack thereof. No more would anyone be jailed for not believing as those with political power do.

However, this protects belief, not action. The law says the morning after pill must be made available. If your religious views say that is the wrong thing to do, then get another profession, get a coworker to do so for you (as the law allows), or just accept that all of society does not share one's views and do the job anyway. Speak out against the law if one is so motivated. However, one cannot expect to be allowed to ignore laws simply by saying "my religion says otherwise", and that is essentially what these pharmacists are attempting. It is no different than if I were to refuse to pay my taxes on the basis of my Avengerism, my own religion, which forbids taxation, excessive sobriety, and Brent Musburger.

What? You say Avengerism isn't a real religion? Well, what makes something a real religion then? We can't decide that according to theology. After all, if that could be proven, there wouldn't be so many religions in the first place. We can't decide according to size. That would translate into freedom from religion only for large religions, or as Mark Twain put it:

"A cult is a religion with no political power."

It is that sort of thinking that the first amendment was designed to avoid. Freedom of religion means we can ALL be secure in our views, while being subjected to the same laws. That goes for pro-life pharmacists along with everyone else.

Penn and Teller on Flag Burning

Here's a great piece of television featuring Penn and Teller's terrific flag burning routine. In it, they take a flag, fold it in a strict military procedure, and complete with a reverent poem and no sign of disrespect whatsoever, appear to burn the flag within a tube composed of a copy of the bill of rights. It is worth noting the oddness of the assumption by many in America that burning a flag is inherently disrespectful. Navy funeral ceremonies have included burning the body, as do those of many cultures. As with so many actions, how it is done and with what purpose shades the level of disrespect. Burning a flag while micterating on it seems disrespectful enough, but burning one while reciting a poem about the greatness of America? It's a wonderful and original look at just what patriotism means, which given the way some people are tossing that term around lately, made it seem topical.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Don't Quote Darwin to Me, or Isaac Newton either, Jeff Jacoby

Creationists are fond of trying to twist Charles Darwin's words, and some things he actually said in defense of their reality-denying nonsense. This shows a fundamental lack of understanding of how science works. Science is not driven by quotes from authority figures. That is how religion works. Science works on evidence. The reason Darwin is as revered as he is, is not because everything he said was correct (it wasn't, by a long shit), but because his theory of evolution matched the evidence, and continues to do so. His words are not Holy Writ. More bluntly, what Darwin says doesn't mean a tinker's damn today. Really. That was almost 150 years ago. Believe it or not, we've learned a few things since then, and while Chuck was a pretty good scientist in his day, his quotes belong in a modern discussion of science about as much as Christopher Columbus belongs in the America's Cup.

The same goes for Isaac Newton. Yes, he was a Christian, and yes he was a great scientist. But it is a non sequitor extraordinaire to conclude as Jeff Jacoby does here, that that somehow lends credibility to religious pseudoscience today. Physics, like biology, has progressed a lot in the 300+ years since Newton lived. He too would be completely out of place in a modern discussion of science. Relativity and quantum physics would be baffling to him, as they are to most of us.

See, there is a very basic and unreasonable assumption in any argument from authority where the authority lived hundreds of years ago. We are all tainted by our times, and we carry those intellectual biases. Many of the founding fathers were infected by the racism of their time, for example. But that is not a good indication of what it is reasonable for an intelligent person to think today. Consider the shape of the earth. There was a day when even the most brilliant man alive thought the earth was flat. No doubt everyone reading this would have as well. Yet we don't think that today, and no doubt neither would he.

Likewise, one could easily describe Newton as a creationist, but again, such a view was commonplace them. Remember, Newton wrote PRINCIPIA MATHEMATICA in 1687. That's over 150 years before Darwin wrote ORIGIN OF THE SPECIES! It is unwarranted in the extreme to argue as though it is a given that Newton would be a creationist given all the information we have gathered since then. His opinion as a creationist was more or less the norm of scientific thought at the time, and no doubt had he lived today his opinion would be in the norm of scientific thought today. The same would go for any historical figure. Would anyone really want to seriously argue that Socrates, Shakespeare, or Thomas Jefferson would hold all the same opinions today that they held then? More knowledge, different time, different opinions.

Of course, no discussion of science would be complete without a reminder that in the end, it is the evidence, and not anyone's opinion, that matters. So it doesn't matter if Newton was a creationist or not. Hell, it doesn't matter if Darwin himself were a creationist. That doesn't reduce the overwhelming evidence for evolution one whit.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Computer vs Man Poker Style: Humans 2 1/2, computer 1 1/2

The first major conflict between humans and computers in poker recently took place with the humans eeking out 2 wins and a draw against only one loss. From the story the story:

"Two professional poker players narrowly beat a computer late Tuesday after four tense rounds that scientists called the world's first man-versus-machine poker championship.

Phil Laak and Ali Eslami, two poker players from Los Angeles ranked as the world's best, prevailed against a program named Polaris by just 570 points in the fourth and final game in the match.

'I really am happy it's over,' said Eslami, 30, adding that playing against the computer was more exhausting than any previous game in his career. Eslami, a former computer consultant, praised the machine and the computer scientists. 'I'm surprised we won.... it's already so good it will be tough to beat in future' as scientists make further improvements on Polaris' programming."

That's for sure. Chess has fallen to the machines, as has checkers. Pente has probably been been topped, although I'd love to see verification of that. Go is the holy grail of games, and will probably be the last to fall. Poker is a more interesting case than those however, because of the large psychological component. I was surprised the machine did as well as it did. But then the algorithms used in these beasties keep getting better and better at creative novel strategies, much to the chagrin of those who try to claim there is something magical about our brains, or that simple mindless processes cannot produce stunning complexity. That debate is over. The evidence is in the machines, and the games they can win.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Kagro X Commits the Fallacy of Cherry Picking

Kagro X has an amusing look at some of the more egregious errors of Fox News over the years. There's the shot of Lincoln Chafee losing his reelection bid, and being mislabeled as a Democrat. The same happened for the disgraced Mark Foley and the irascibly nonpartisan Arlen Specter. And of course who could forget their headline that said Scooter Libby was found not guilty. Perhaps they had peaked ahead in Bush's calender for that one. Embarrasing gaffes all, and all working in favor of the Republicans.

Nonetheless, this qualifies as a cherry picking error by Kagro when he concludes:

"So, could it really be just dumb luck? Well, it ain't luck, that's for sure. And that leaves just plain dumb."

Not so fast. While these examples may support the contention that Fox does fact-fudging for the Republicans, it doesn't make the case, not by a long shot. It makes just as strong a case for general incompetence, for the simple reason that Kagro selected the errors we are looking at. How many errors that favored the Democrats occurred in the same time frame? We don't know.

This is what's known as chery picking the data, and one can make a persuasive sounding case for anything doing that. Imagine how good a baseball player would look if the only film we watched were of his hits? To draw a reasonable and defensible position, we need to examine all of the data, not just that which supports our thesis.

Frankly, I suspect the number of Democrat-favoring errors on Fox is significantly lower than those favoring the Republicans, though in that case I dismiss the conscious agenda theory for the "biased apportionment of talent" theory. For example, if you send all your most skilled people to cover the Republicans and send the losers to cover the Democrats, not intentionally, but by virtue of your own biases when determining what story is most important, you still get more mistakes on the Democrats. Nonetheless, my speculation remains that, and with the data at my disposal, I have no business going further. Neither would someone who only had the data Kagro presents.

Induction and Science: post hoc analysis and evidence (and how not to pick the Super Bowl winners)

In discussions of science with creationists, it will often be noted that inductive logic is part of the scientific method. "A watch implies a watchmaker" is a piece of induction. Here are some parts, and some gears, which seem to be assembled for some purpose, thus a designer is inferred. They argue this is equivalent to what scientists do when interpreting fossils, or the geologic column, or a wide variety of science.

However, these are not the same at all. Induction is an important part of science, true. It is often how we construct our hypotheses. Religion and pseudoscience stop at this step, however, which is why they are not science. Science goes one step further and tests its induction with evidenciary experimentation, ie, some procedure that could in theory produce data contrary to the hypothesis. Hypotheses that are based on past data, even a good amount of it, are nowhere near as powerful as those that have been put through the falsification ringer. I will illustrate why using solutions to polynomials.

It is a mathematical fact that given any series of n integers, a polynomial exists of at most degree n-1 that will produce the sequence given inputs of 1, 2, 3, etc. For example, the sequence:

2, 4, 6

can be represented by the function F(x) = 2x. However, it is also true that the number of polynomials that will produce said sequence is infinite. G(x) = 2x + (x-1)(x-2)(x-3) will also produce 2, 4, 6, as will H(x) = 2x - 5*(x-1)(x-2)(x-3).

So, if there are infinite possible solutions, then how can we know if we have the correct formula? Why, by predicting the next number in the sequence and seeing if we are correct. F(x) predicts 8 (2 X 4). Likewise, G(x) predicts 14, and H(x) predicts -22. Now if we look to the sequence and see:

2, 4, 6, 8

we now have some confirmation of the correctness of F(x), and may discard H(x) and G(x). This is analogous to scientific confirmation. Without it, all the just-so stories, whether they be about UFOs, or creationism, or 9/11 conspiracies, are no more valuable than G(x) and H(x) were. It doesn't matter how much they "explain", because its EASY to come up with a theory AFTER THE FACT to explain things. Until the theory starts making predictions accurately, it is just one of an infinite number of contenders.

But validation never theoretically ends in science. That's why talk of evolution being "proved" is nonsense. Go back to F(x) above. It correctly predicted the 4th number in the sequence would be 8. Does that mean it has proved it is the solution? No, because we still have the same problem we had before, except with four data points instead of three. There are now a new infinite set of potential formulas that could account for 2, 4, 6, 8.
J(x) = 2x + (x - 1)(x - 2)(x - 3)(x - 4) also produces that sequence, but unlike F(x), which predicts 10 for the 5th element, J(x) predicts 34. The only thing F(x) has going over J(x) is one confirmed data point. That's right, even though F(x) and J(x) both explain just as much history, F(x) is more likely to be right. Ponder that the next time someone starts prattering on about how much creationism explains.

The more confirmatory data points, the more confidence in our theories. However, no matter how many confirmations we get, no matter how many numbers in the sequence are correctly predicted, it remains possible that the theory we have been using is incorrect. Still, theories like evolution are treated roughly as fact by laymen and scientist alike (even though it is scientific theory), because it has been confirmed countless times. Contrast this to hypotheses like Intelligent Design, which make no predictions, but instead look at known data and claim they knew it was J(x) all along.

To end on a humorous note, this has applications in gambling as well. Many sportscasters come up with all sorts of goofy after-the-fact theories on how to predict winners. The late Pete Axthelm was the master of this, as was a local favorite here Norm Hitzges, giving us stats like "The Raiders are 4-0 the last four times they played an AFC central opponent on grass after a loss". HUH? That means diddly. That's just one of the many patterns one can find if one looks hard enough, and it is amazingly consistent how badly these theories perform once codified.

None is better than my personal favorite for predicting Super Bowl winners. As of 1997 this strategy was 15-4 in picking the winner. 15-4!!! That's a 79% win rate. Surely there is something to this theory, whatever it is. Brace yourself, here it is:

When a human mascot plays an animal mascot, bet on the human.

Yes, you read that right. With all the victories of the Giants, Cowboys, 49ers and Redskins over the Dolphins, Bengals, Bills, and Broncos, the pattern was clear. But guess what happened after that? Since then (thanks to the Patriots) the theory has only been 4-3, solidly within chance. IOW, it's nonsense, regardless of what the past shows. However, if you disagree and want to bet this way in the next Super Bowl, let me know. I'll expect appropriate odds.

Great Howard Dean Ad

This has been around for a while, but its so damned good I thought I would feature it. It is a fake ad for Howard Dean that revolves around his "HeeeeAAAAAAAAH" speech after a primary. This is how political ads should be made.

Monday, July 23, 2007

So You need Gods to be moral eh?

The subject of how atheists can be moral without an absolute morality handed down from the gods has risen its ignorant head again, and frankly I am tired of this insulting nonsense. Not only should the personal benefits of behaving in a basic moral fashion (no stealing, murdering, etc.) be obvious, but a sense of reciprocity has been evidenced in apes. Its a part of our wiring. Hell even robots with EAs develop cooperative behavior (see the blinking food-seeking poison-avoiding robots featured on sciblogs on a link I can't find at the moment).

Wherever morals originate in a philosophical sense, they only sustain themselves in a population if the people practicing them produce more people doing the same, either by birth, or persuasion, or killing those who disagree. There's a good reason there's never been a major religion that said "go forth and be sterile", and it didn't have dick to do with what any gods had to say about it. Ask the Shakers.

We follow the moral rules we do for the same reasons you have ghost runners and no hitting to the opposite field when playing baseball with limited players: it works. I mean really, what sort of person needs a god to tell them that being a theif isn't something one ought to do? All you good Christians who can't understand how we atheists behave morally without believing in an absolute morality from an absolute source are cordially invited to try to live like you say we should (inferentially) for a while. Lie, cheat, and steal whenever you think you can do it to your benefit and get away with it. See what happens. Please. Pretty please, with sugar on it. Just don't say I didn't warn you.

You'll learn what we already reasoned out - it sucks. Better to be honest and expect others to be honest. Get a lot more done that way. And its nice to not be looking over your shoulder all the time. Sleep better that way. No gods needed. It works. Period. So really, if you need your gods to resist your impulses to toss babies into woodchippers, I'm glad you've got them. Just don't insult my intelligence implying you are somehow morally superior to me because I can resist doing so without one.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Mike S. Adams on morality: A Lesson in supporting speculation with speculation

One of the worst intellectual habits one can develop is justifying one's speculation with more speculation. For example, I once had an old girlfriend claim that my friends got sick all the time, and when asked for an example, pointed to a friend with a naturaly pallid color who never got sick. "Well, he looks like he's sick all the time." It is important to get actual data when validating our theories. It's the only way to keep ourselves honest and catch our mistakes.

On the other hand, if you are one of the righteous, you need not worry about mistakes, and that leads us to Mike S. Adams. In his latest article about morality and the gods, he commits the mistake of supporting his speculation with speculation. The reason is obvious: he can;t justify his bizarre views of the world with actual data, so he must use the MSU method: Making Shit Up.

We start with Mike having a chat with his friend Scott:

"Scott told me he had raised his kids in the church and believed in God although he had not been to church regularly in a number of years. He said he felt no guilt over his absence from church. After all, it was a weekend business that kept him from attending. And, besides that, he said he was leading a “moral life” without going to church.

Immediately, I asked myself the crucial question: “How does one know he lives a moral life if he does not ever attend church?” I also thought about some other people I had known who thought their lives were moral either without church or without God altogether.

Ah, the old you-can't-be-moral-if-you-are-an-atheist canard. Here's as great an example of idle speculation trumping actual data as one can find. The world is full of people who do not believe in gods behaving in a manner morally indistinguishable from those who do believe. Millions and millions of them in America alone. They are your teacher and your lawyer and your milkman. Yet people like Mike Adams stand in the middle of this virtual ocean of moral nonbelievers and bellow a mighty "Nuh UH!". A man who spent a lot of time at the airport claiming that heavier-than-air flight is impossible would be locked away for his own protection. Yet people arguing with moral atheists that atheists can't be moral are considered reasonable. It boggles the mind.

But Mike does this one better, claiming you can't even be moral as a believer unless you attend church. Fine Mike, then answer these questions this 7 year old asked of his Catholic church leaders and was never properly answered:

If God is everywhere, why can't I pray to him in my bedroom as easily as I can in church?

If God's law is unchanging, and evident everywhere, then why do you keep having to go back to learn what it is?

I won't wait up.

"One was an atheist I dated in college when I was also an atheist. When asked about God she would frankly tell people “I don’t believe in all that s**t. But if there is a God, I will be saved because of my willingness to help others in need.” To her credit, she did help others in need. In fact, she gave her friend $400 when she became pregnant unexpectedly and “needed” an abortion.

"I used to be an atheist" is a common refrain from the newly reborn, but it usually doesn't hold water and Adams is no exception. If someone claimed to be a Christian, but didn't know who Jesus was, and was surprised to hear Christians thought the Bible was the word of God, would you not be suspicious? Likewise with all these supposed former atheists. The representation they give of their former atheism is not atheism any atheist recognizes. They were angry at God, and rebellious against God. We don't think there are any gods with whom to fight.

And what is it with conservative columnists and using "scare" quotes seemingly at "random"? The girl needed an abortion. Not for pretend, not symbolically, for real. No scare quotes "needed".

"Interestingly, my atheist girlfriend claimed to have been a victim of moral wrongdoing when her friend refused to pay her back after the abortion."

What is Adams' point here? I suppose he could be saying that when she gave the money, if it had really been a loan, his girlfriend should have made that clearer up front. My money says he is implying an atheist can't be a victim of moral wrongdoing, which, frankly, would make Adams' a very immoral person. The reciprical benefits of a system where people pay back their debts should be obvious. No fear of divine retribution needed.

But enough of the blinkered denial of facts and the trip down fallacy lane, let's get right to the speculation piled on top of speculation:

"It would be years later – after I converted to Christianity – that I realized why her friend never paid her back. She was doing everything she could to forget about the abortion. And she resented my girlfriend for funding the biggest mistake of her life."

Notice there is not one fact mentioned here. How does Adams know any of this? He doesn't mention talking to the girl. He simply Made Shit Up because it fit with his newfound Christian speculations of how human psychology, and never bothered to check and see if he was right. He just speculated that he was.

To make matters worse, his speculation doesn't even make any sense. If the poor girl wanted to forget the whole affair, having someone hounding her about a loan isn't the way to do it. More likely she simply wasn't a responsibe person. For all Adams knows the girl paid the loan back since, and was grateful to her friend for helping her in need and making her life a happy one. Such are the possibilities one misses when one substitutes speculation for facts.

Adams then goes into a barely coherent anecdote about a another friend who lived according to the principle of helping others, and she spent a lot of time counseling gay teens. What the point of this is is anyone's guess, as is Adam's next comment:

"This notion of giving both emotional and monetary support to a neighbor only with regard to the recipient’s will is precisely why man needs church to lead a moral life. I am tempted to ask some of these indiscriminant do-gooders whether they would loan Charles Manson a knife under the principle of always helping a fellow human in need. "

Uh, no they probably wouldn't. People who talk about helping people in need don't mean regardless of context, as should be obvious. This is the argumentation level of a 12-year-old looking to get a GOTCHA moment. And what in the world does it have to do with attending church? Only Adams knows.

I cannot bring myself to review the rest of Adam's article. Suffice it to say I found it completely unreadable and pointless. Is Townhall so desperate for columnists that they can do no better than this?

Ana Maria on how NOT to think about Insurance

Over at Dailykos, Ana Maria has a rant about the insurance disputes revolving around hurricane Katrina that illustrates practically all the common fallacies of how insurance works and what we can expect from it. I'm not familiar with the specifics of the Katrina issues, but unless one has a better grasp of the basics than she does, one has no hope of having a good understanding of what is going on there. She begins:

"Just as a bookie collects from its gamblers, these companies collect money from us, the home and business owners of America."

The only commonality insurance has with gambling is the presence of unknown events and their financial consequences. However, with gambling, we make our own risk. If I bet $100 on the cowboys to win, I now have a potential loss of $100 where I had no risk before. However, in the case of a hurricane destroying my house, or injuries to me that produce medical bills, the risk of loss exists whether I buy insurance or not. Likewise, if the cowboys win, I come out ahead on my bet. Insurance is not designed to put us ahead, but to restore us back to our previous state by replacing our house, car, or paying our medical bills. It's hard to say any scenario is a "win" in insurance as it is in gambling.

"If we never have a situation where we need to make good on our policy, the insurance company has kind of made out like a bandit."

This is a case of equivocation with the term "we". If she means every single policyholder, then she is correct. However, the probabilities of such results are so small as to be negligible. Also, in her arder to attack insurance companies, she conveniently omits the reminder that in this scenario no one has any damages that need repairing. Hardly a tragedy.

On the other hand, if she means by "we" each individual, then it is completely inaccurate. Every insurance policy has a large number of policyholders that do not makes claims in a given year. That is the whole point of insurance: a large number of people pooling small individual sums of money into a large balance so that the few that experience a loss can use that balance to rectify the situation. If everyone had a claim, insurance wouldn't work.

In essence, we’re essentially betting that we may one day need to tap into our policy, our legally biding contractual agreement with our legal bookie. "

This is a very narrow and flawed few of insurance. It's like saying we only buying health insurance because we hope we'll get sick. We don't buy insurance hoping we'll make a claim. We also buy insurance so that we don't have to rearrange our lives in preperation for having our house burn to the ground, or our car is wrecked. Having insurance allows us to live without a spare car, and spend our money and energies elsewhere. Many businesses couldn't be nearly as efficient as they are now were it not for insurance allowing them to be exposed to risks they could not recover from on their own.

It also keeps our lives from coming to a virtual end if we are unfortunately enough to have many of these things happen to us at once. That makes for a lot of peace of mind, and that matters. Insurance is not a bank account. We are paying for a product, and we get the benefit of it whether we make a claim or not.

From this point in the article, Ms. Maria goes into the controversies over some of the insurance claims related to Katrina. Having not studied these issues I don't have much of an opinion to offer. I will, however, say that I don't have high expectations of Ms. Maria's analysis of insurance issues if these flawed presumptions are the lenses through which she sees them. Insurance companies are not bookies, and having insurance means a lot more than just getting a claim paid.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Why I don't give a rat's ass about Al Gore's sea bass

Did Al Gore eat an endangered sea bass? Does he have a higher than average electric bill? Who gives a flying fuck? Really. What is this obsession with Al Gore's personal behavior, and why does anyone think it has any bearing whatsoever on the global warming debate?

Look people. The planet is either heating up, or it isn't. Human beings either have been a significant contributor to this effect or we have not. Changes we can implement will either effect the process or they won't. These are factual questions about the earth. Al Gore's personal behavior does not effect them one iota, be he pope or pimp. Got over it already.

If your retort is "Well, he should walk the walk", yes I agree. Everyone should walk the walk. But there are a lot of people in the world who don't. So what makes him worthy of such special attention? He has an agenda with which you disagree of course, and which you are trying to discredit by discrediting him.

That is a very dangerous game to play. If the anthropocentric global warming theory is true, and if you obstruct and delay mankind's attempt to rectify it by wasting so much time talking about the habits of one person, and prevent us from being able to do something about it, to our species detriment (it won't destroy the planet, the planet's fine), and you do so without making a real effort to understand the science behind it, you are committing an act of intellectual treason with which I can find few equals. Argue the science if you will/can. That is what the debate should be, not about Al Gore.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Baby Pictures

No, not human babies, they all look the same. We're talking animal babies:


Pygmy Hippo

Polar bear


And of course, pandas!

Monday, July 16, 2007

Kevin McCullough and the Ostrich method of sex education

Those Townhall hacks just keep the inanities coming. This time it's Kevin McCullough trumpeting the virtues of abstinence against those horrible heathen liberals.

McCullough is a supreme Coulterite, incapable of forming an argument without littering it with scare words like "liberal", which in those circles qualifies as refuting an argument. I like to go into a little more detail however, and fortunately for me, McCullough's rant on abstinence is a target rich environment for a hunter of sloppy thinking.

True to form, he says something idiotic right out of the chute:

"Liberals want your child to have sex."

Really? Liberals want children to have sex? And this is based on what exactly? Does he mean "children" as in 5-year-olds, or "children" as in 16 year olds? One of the problems with people who toss undefined terms like "liberal" around is that it is impossible to check their claims, and leaves them free to make shit up, and dance away from when challenged, an opportunity of which McCullough takes full advantage. For instance, take his next sentence.

"[Liberals] want this to occur in spite of your religious, health, or parental objections."

Where, pray tell, are these liberals that want children to have sex in spite of health concerns? One need only take a cursory glance at the political landscape to see that it is liberals who are promoting condom use to prevent unwanted pregnancy and the spread of disease, and conservatives like McCullough who are ignoring those risks and instead choosing to live in a fantasy world where children won't have sex if we just tell them not to. After all, we all know how well teenagers listen to their parents.

"They are willing to substitute false thinking for solid fact on the consequences of what will happen.

Um, the solid facts say that abstinence education is a failure, as has been the case for years, yet it is people like McCullough that keep substituting "false thinking" for solid facts. Why would this be? Simple. Note above which objection he lists first. Arguments on good healthy behavior are rarely derived from religion.

"And they do so while simultaneously insulting you and your child's ability to comprehend, discern, and choose behaviors that make the most sense."

Nice idealism Kevin, now let's look at the facts as summarized by David Brooks from the report above:

"The fact is, schools are ineffectual when it comes to values education. You can put an adult in front of a classroom or an assembly, and that adult can emit words, but don't expect much impact.

That's because all this is based on a false model of human nature. It's based on the idea that human beings are primarily deciders. If you pour them full of moral maxims, they will be more likely to decide properly when temptation arises. If you pour them full of information about the consequences of risky behavior, they will decide to exercise prudence and forswear unwise decisions.

That's the way we'd like to think we are, but that's not the way we really are, and it's certainly not the way teenagers are."

But of course, despite his bluster, McCullough isn't interested in facts, and he spends much of his article trying to twist away from those pesky facts that didn't tell him what he wanted to hear. Abstinence doesn't work? Well, um, well, at least it is better than what it was under Bill Clinton!!!


That's right, McCullough is pulling out the stops with the Clinton gambit. We've all seen this game a million times from Republican hacks. Anything bad goes wrong, start talking about Bill Clinton. Liddy lied? What about Bill Clinton?! Bush is fucking up Iraq? What about Bill Clinton?! Abstinence doesn't work? What about Bill Clinton?! The appearance of those two words is the surest sign the speaker has no intelligent argument to make, and is merely trying to change the subject. McCullough is happy to demonstrate:

"Yet even common sense tells us that the chances of incurring a teen pregnancy and then the possible tragic consequence of abortion, or the still very difficult consequence of a teen birth are affected by one's behavior."

First of all, when someone claims their position is based on common sense, what that mostly means is that they don't want to have to back up their claim with evidence. Second, McCullough's insight here is banal at best. Of COURSE one's behavior effects one's life. The question, however, is WHICH behavior is least likely to result in these undesirable results of teen pregnancy and/or abortion, and the evidence has consistently shown that McCullough's recommended strategy of abstinence is poor. However, McCullough is driven by ideology, not evidence, as his next statement makes painfully clear:

"If a teen girl chooses to save sexual activity until she is married, she has zero chances of getting an STD, becoming pregnant, having an abortion, or out of wedlock birth."

Ah yes, this ridiculous canard conservatives chant, and which they wouldn't if they spent 2 seconds thinking about it. First off, don't say "marriage" when you mean "monogamy". Around 60% of married people admit to infidelity, so the idea that marriage=monogamy is absurd.

But to the heart of the matter, need I remind everyone about Ryan White? Arthur Ashe? The thousands of rape victims? Women who unknowingly marry a man who already has an STD? The list goes on and on. NOTHING is 100% effective at preventing unwanted pregnancies or STDS, not even abstinence.

But granted, that objection is a bit pedantic. After all, if one REALLY didn't have sex until monogamy, the odds of contracting an STD or getting pregnant are greatly reduced. The problem is that people don't do it. They SAY they'll do it, but as the study above demonstrates, we are not entirely rational agents, and under the right circumstances, the kids sworn to monogamy will find themselves having sex anyway. And since they had no plans to do so, the odds of them having a condom on them are going to be a helluva lot slimmer than the kid who was taught safe sex, and therefore, at that moment, the odds of the "abstaining" child getting pregnant or an STD are significantly higher than for the safe sex child. That's the reality the promoters of abstinence don't want to face. They want to pretend it is a magic world where all we require is the will to remain abstinent to do so. (remind anyone of any ill-conceived wars?)

Let's reemphasize the infidelity rates as further evidence of this. We have grown adults, who have broken, by the truckloads, a vow taken before their closest friends and before whatever gods they worship. THAT'S how strong our sexual desires are. And we are going to expect teenagers to resist what adults cannot? Please.

So when someone like McCullough says something like this:

"The truth is we humans are capable of controlling every choice we make, and if we simply understood the natural outcomes of those choices perhaps we'd make better ones."

They need to be politely informed that the science says otherwise, both the abstract cognitive science, and the pragmatic data on abstinence programs. Telling teenagers to just "not have sex" is like telling an alcoholic to just "drink responsibly". Take the lesson from Evil Knievel, professional daredevil, who swore he was opposed to his son Robby doing stunt jumping, but after seeing Robby doing it on his own, and dangerously, decided that if his son was going to participate in this dangerous activity, it was his duty as a father to make sure he did it as safely as possible.

This is the message parents should send to their kids. Its the same as driving cars: a part of life, but with many risks that need to be kept in mind, and consequences that can last a lifetime. Burying our heads in the sand like ostriches hoping kids will behave as we'd like them to does them a great disservice, and is far more likely to "bring them confusion and destruction" than being honest with them and ourselves.

One final general note. The "no sex before marriage" slogan is horribly outdated. As ill-conceived as it is, it is even more so than it was when practically everyone got married by the time they were 20. Telling a 30 year old woman who has never been married that she should not have sex is neither practical, nor healthy. Our sexuality is a part of who we are; a glorious, dangerous, spiritual, intense part, but part nonetheless. No person should cut themselves off from it, any more than they should cut themselves off from their love of music, or a good nap. Each of us should explore it in our own way, so long as all the participants are adult, consensual, and staying true to whatever agreements they have made with others. Marriage is just one of many possible such arrangements, and even there, the possibilities are endless.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

A Good Example of Bad Climate Skepticism: Frank Pastore

Over at Townhall, Frank Pastore has a column that is a perfect example of how NOT to be a skeptic.

Skepticism is good. It's what we use to find our errors, and we all make them. We should have a healthy skepticism about any grand claim, one that demands evidence, and relies on the expertise in the fields of science relevant to the issue. What one should NOT do however, is begin with a predetermined position, and merely ask questions, any questions, no matter how ignorant, and ignore the counterarguments that exist. This all-too-often is the case with denialists of all stripes, whether the issue being denied is HIV/AIDS, the holocaust, evolution, or in this case, global warming.

One word of warning. I am not a climatologist, and therefore I am not going to attempt a technical refutation of Pastore's arguments. That has been done often enough elsewhere, and those interested in seeing the counterarguments are likely familiar with them already. My focus is on the basic perspective the questions come from in the first place, and how little effort has gone into thinking of obvious problems with the reasoning behind them.

Pastore begins thinking he is cute comparing Al Gore and the supporters of the anthropocentric global warming hypothesis to a rock band, with of course, the obligatory attempt at well-poisoning so common to denialist rhetoric:

"Despite the wild popularity of their number one hit “Man Is Responsible for Global Warming,” I’m still not wowed by the music of Al Gore and his backup band, The Live Earth Hystericals. All their songs sound the same, and all their lyrics always reduce to the same one hook that’s also the title of their one hit song."

This is science Frank, not entertainment. Reality doesn't care whether you are entertained by it, and its unlikely any scientists care either. Nor does anyone care if you toss around the term "hysterical". In science, it's not lyrics, but evidence that matters. When that evidence gets consistent, that's good. It's how scientific theories are born. When the science tends to ward the same conclusion in spite of coming from divergent fields, that's a positive too. It's how a scientific consensus is formed.

"But, great ideas, like great music, can stand the test of time. And they invite inquiry, investigation, dialogue, and discussion. Advocates of great ideas—true ideas—are not afraid of engaging in debate, especially when they have the arguments and the evidence at the ready—in the bullpen if you will."

This is exactly the arguments the ID/creationism crowd makes, and it contains all the same flaws.

The debate is science is done in scientific journals, not Oprah. Through that process a scientific consensus has formed with respect to anthropocentric global warming. It is not as strong a consensus as we have on evolution, but it is formidable, and it is growing consistently as more information is gathered. If climate skeptics have such powerful arguments, why haven't they written them up in the journals? The answer is obvious. This is a fact that climate skeptics really haven't given a plausible reason for (more on that later), other than the obvious one: because it is true.

"By repeating the mantra 'the debate is over,' when thoughtful observers know it isn’t, the Hystericals are screaming one thing loud and clear for the whole world to hear: 'We don’t have the science to back us up.'

On the contrary, scientifically the debate is nearing an end, as every major report from practically every scientific organization all over the world attests. That is a simple fact. While there are still details over which to haggle, as there are in any science, there is no scientific debate over the truth of anthropocentric global warming. All that is left on the other side are hacks of business interests, scientists opining outside their fields, and garden variety denialists and cranks.

Now of course, there is still debate in the political and social realm, just as there still is for even better supported theories such as evolution. But this attests only to the intransigence of the deniers, not to any flaw in the science. The similarities are unmistakable: near homogeneity of membership (fundamentalist Christians for evolution denial, Republicans for AGW denial), attempts to circumvent the scientific process, fake experts, and no attempt at alternative science.

Pastore then shows just how disinterested he is the truth of the matter by asking questions he believes to be a challenge to the AGW science, but which are so inane and ill-conceived I was embarrassed for him as I read them. Any climate scientist would be forgiven for not wanting to debate someone who would ask something like this:

"Why is it getting hotter on Mars without any SUVs and private jets emitting carbon dioxide? If it’s the sun that’s responsible for the warming on Mars, then maybe it’s also responsible for the warming of the Earth."

Mars? MARS?! The little red planet about 50 MILLION miles away from us, with two moons, and nothing remotely like our atmosphere? THAT Mars?

Oh brother. I hereby nominate the "Mars is getting hotter too" argument as the most moronic argument put forth by any denier on any subject. If anyone has other candidates, I'd love to hear them. Needless to say, since there are plenty of ways a planet's climate might change, as our own earth's history makes clear, the idea that Mars might have something going on that we don't isn't exactly a giant leap in the dark. This argument is the equivalent of denying that my jogging in place is making me hotter because my friend in Texas is just sitting there and is getting hotter anyway. Mars is literally a different world than the Earth. The idea that ANYTHING on the two of them should automatically be the same is absurd in the extreme.

"How do the alarmists adequately explain past warming and cooling cycles that started long before the introduction of the first internal combustion engine? There was a Medieval Warm Period from 900-1300 and then a Little Ice Age from about 1500-1800. By simply looking at the covers of our most popular periodicals over the past century, these cycles are clearly evident."

They explain it the same way I did above: there are lots of ways a planet's climate might change, human behavior being one of them. Prior earth climate changes were caused by something else, just like Mars' change is. This should be obvious. Yet Pastore effectively answers his first question with the premises of his second, and none of the deniers notice. Their myopia has them being told "humans are causing the current earth's warming", yet they hear "the only possible cause of a planet warming is humans". This is a tell-tale sign of someone who isn't being skeptical, they are being a denialist.

A word on cycles. Deniers use the term as if it answers the questions when it is no answer at all. Saying past climate change was due to "cycles" leaves unanswered the question of what caused the cycles (and really they are changes, not cycles). There is no Great Climate Controller in the sky rolling dice. SOMETHING caused temperatures to increase in 900, just like SOMETHING caused them to decrease in 1500, and on Mars and earth now. Pastore plods on ignoring all this with his next question:

"If man is solely responsible for the increased levels of CO2, then how do you explain the Ordovician Period, 440 million years ago, when the CO2 level was 16 times higher than today? Or, the Cretaceous Period, 140 million years ago, when dinosaurs ruled the Earth and CO2 was 8 times higher? Or, the CO2 levels from 95 million years ago which were about the same as levels today? How can these levels be changing long before the appearance of man?"

Roll the tape boys. It was caused by something else. No one ever claimed that human beings are the only possible cause of increased CO2, just like no one claimed human beings are the only possible cause of increased temperatures. Volcanoes are a nice natural one.

The argument for AGW was not based on an assumption of human causality. That was a hypothesis that has since been confirmed by a wealth of science. The denialists like Pastore however, do no science. They simply criticize in ignorance. If they want to argue that current climate change has the same cause as previous changes on earth, and the one on Mars, the burden is on them to perform the falsifiable experimentation and make their case. Sitting on the scientific sidelines and booing those actually getting their hands dirty and doing the work just won't do.

And what would a denialist article be without the ubiquitous conspiracy theory, sans evidence as always:

"But, it has never really been about the science anyway. It was, has been, and continues to be all about the money. Who needs to pay it, who collects it; who redistributes it."

Pot meet kettle. Very many large and powerful business interests stand to lose tons of income were many of the suggested green regulations were put into place. Talk about your motivation to ignore the science. Yet Pastore ignores this elephant in the room to concoct a ghost.

"Put it this way. Al Gore views capitalism the same way other liberals view tobacco. He doesn’t want to outlaw it, he just wants to tax it. He doesn’t want to kill the Golden Goose, he just wants more of the eggs for himself and his big government cause."

That's right, Al Gore and everyone else pushing for societal changes to combat global warming are only doing it because they hate capitalism. All those scientists, living all over the world, with different cultures, philosophies, and economic systems (some capitalist, others not) are just doing it to make American government bigger.

The evidence for this? Nada, which is pretty much par for the course for denialists. They aren't interested in evidence, unless it supports their side of the argument, which is why the glaring holes in their claims above go unnoticed by them. I hope my efforts have made them get overlooked by a few less others out there. Do not fall for this charlatanism. These people are not interested in science. They do not speak the language, and they refuse to play on the scientific field. The reason is obvious.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Healthcare Debate: Moore vs Gupta on Larry King

Here's a great debate on universal health care between Michael Moore and CNN medical correspondant Sanjay Gupta. It is well worth a watch, and it gets better as it goes.

Revere over at Effect Measure describes it as "Moore by knockout", but I think that overstates it a bit.

Moore by unanimous decision is my call. He was weak early. First, he made a bad strategic mistake getting caught up quibbling about figures in Cuba when that time could have been used to argue more substantive issues. Even using Gupta's figures Moore can make his case, because the difference between the US and Cuba was an order of magnitude regardless. Yet Moore also came across as using the highest figures he could find, which would be consistent with his history. It was not a good start.

He landed a great uppercut with the "'The French are drowning in taxes' is my line" quip. However, Gupta then landed some good body blows on the deceptive nature of saying that health care is "free" in socialized countries, since it is paid for by taxes. He staggerred Moore when Moore was unable to form a coherant response for a good 5-10 seconds after complaining about not being allowed to talk, and Gupta quipped "We've got Michael Moore speechless, that's pretty hard to do here." At this point Gupta was clearly ahead.

But Moore came on strong in the end, and had Gupta staggerred against the ropes for the rest of the fight. His description of the financial and insurance arrangements and greater costs here was impressive. His comebacks on waiting times was impressive, especially the "40 million people are out of the line" observation. And his defense of the "free" description as a more short term definition was a decent recovery, though I think Gupta's point here is the stronger.

But in the end Moore had Gupta agreeing with him on most items, and Gupta led with his chin getting Moore talking about the government's performance under various presidents, and talking about the government doing things right under better leaders.

Creationism with Comedian Ricky Gervais

Sometimes the best way to make a position look absurd is to take it seriously. Australian comedian Ricky Gervais takes the Biblical account of creation seriously, and the effect is pretty dramatic, and funny. Watch it here.

Hat tip Grrrlscientist.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Steve Chapman on the Myths of the War on Terrorism, or, Why 9/11 remains overrated

Finally, an article on Townhall worthy of reading, and not just for guffaws. Steve Chapman really nails it.

"On Sept. 12, 2001, it was easy to believe that we would suffer dozens of major attacks on U.S. soil over the next six years, and almost impossible to imagine we would suffer none. Instead of being the opening blitz of a "long, global war," 9/11 was a freak event that may never be replicated. "

Indeed, let's not forget why 9/11 worked: our strategy for dealing with hijackers was to cooperate, let them land the plane where ever they wanted, and get off safely. That's how a bunch of guys with box cutters were able to take over airliners full of people and crash them into the twin towers. We saw what happened on Flight 93 once the passengers knew that it was a suicide mission. That is what would happen if 9/11 were attempted again. Remember the shoebomber flight, where passengers attacked and subdued a man with a shoe bomb. That would be the result of another attempted 9/11. So why did we turn our society upside down? Plain old irrational fear, plain and simple. Chapman continues on the 3,000+ deaths of 9/11:

"That's too many, but it's not a danger on the order of Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union or even Saddam Hussein. It's more like organized crime -- an ongoing problem demanding unceasing vigilance, a malady that can be contained but never eliminated. "

Let's put that in perspective. In America, about 2.5 million of us die every year. That's about 50,000 a week. So the week of 9/11 our annual death total was 6% above average. Now of course every death is tragic, but we don't make public policy based on every death, and a one-time 6% event is not the world-ending event some made of it. That same winter, it was estimated that more Americans died that winter from poor policies to prevent pneumonia. We are the victims of our village instincts, which cause us to react to every death as if it happened in a population of 200 people. We panic over 3,000 deaths that happen all at once in the same place, and don't even notice the same number dying in different places at different times. And as Chapman notes, in doing so, we elevate Bin Laden and his cronies:

"By framing the fight as a global war, we have helped Osama bin Laden and hurt ourselves. Had we treated him and his confederates as the moral equivalent of international drug lords or sex traffickers, the organization might not have the romantic image it has acquired. By exaggerating the potential impact, we also magnified the disruptive effect of any plots, which is just what the terrorists seek.

And in doing so, we continue to give away many of our civil rights, fearing boogie men armed with toenail clippers and baby bottles, all to prevent a risk less than that we expose ourselves driving to work every day. Chapman sums it up nicely:

"The 9/11 attack was a crisis that has largely passed, but no one in Washington wants to admit it. It's politically safer to depict the danger as undiminished no matter how long we go without an attack. But someday, we will look back and ask if we were acting out of sensible caution or unfounded panic. "

I'm saying that now. We acted on unfounded panic, with little consideration of actual risk, we elevated our enemies to a level they cold never have attained on their own, and we have allowed politicians to take advantage of our fears far too much, for far too long.

Increasing the Osama Bounty, or Just How Clueless Are We?

News flash! For those of you that knew where Osama Bin Laden is, but just weren't going to give him up for the $29,000,000 chump change our government was offering, today is your lucky day. The bounty has been raised to $58,000,000! That'll do the trick surely.

Seriously, are we really this stupid? Do we understand their culture this poorly? No wonder we can't find the bastard. Now wonder Iraq has become such a disaster. If this move is any indication, our government doesn't have the slightest understanding of the culture east of Israel, and our chances of success there are essentially nil.

But then again, maybe some sheep herder in Afghanistan is waiting for the price to hit $60,000,000, and he just won't do it for one million less. I'm not holding my breath.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

The Viagra plan to save Rhinos

Inspired by this story about the birth of an endangered black rhino at The Sedgewick County Zoo in Wichita, I have to ask: are we willing to part with our viagra to save the rhinos?

In much of the east, rhino horns are considered to improve virility. It goes back to an old set of beliefs that consuming a creature, or possessing parts of it, instills those same traits onto you. This is, ironically enough, behind the eucharist: eating the body of Christ makes one Christlike. Similarly, having a rhino horn, or grinding it up into a soup or tea and consuming it, will, well, just look at a rhino horn. And no, I don't know if that is where the phrase "horny" comes from.

But here it seems we have a problem with a perfectly modern solution. Distribute viagra and cialis and all the other erectile disfunction drugs to those areas where rhino horns are valued. Th men there get their fun, the value of rhino horns should drop considerably, and the rhinos stay unhunted and alive.

Before you laugh, remember that dolphin-safe tuna was once considered a strange idea. Why not "Viagra: because you love your rhinos". What a legacy for the west.

Kill Miss America!

Not the young lady, but the pageant, the organization, and all the anachronistic nonsense that surrounds it. In a world where women continue to fight for equal respect as scientists and political leaders, these beauty pageants have become more and more a grotesque reminder of what we were, rather than an image of high ideals for which one should strive. Rather than inspiring respect and admiration, the discussions surrounding the various misdeeds of recent participants comes across as a lame Saturday Night Live skit from people who came through a time warp from Mayberry. Take some of the comments from today's Yahoo news story:

"ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. - Miss New Jersey, trying to keep her crown in the midst of an alleged blackmail attempt, released photos Thursday showing her "not in a ladylike manner."

The pictures include one showing what Polumbo said was her boyfriend apparently biting her breast through her shirt, another of Polumbo in a limousine wearing jeans with her legs spread in the air, and another of her in what appears to be a Halloween costume dress holding two small pumpkins up to her breasts."

Oh, the horror of it all!!! Her boyfriend biting her fully clothed breast! My goodness, the next thing you know he'll want to do that to her (gasp) NAKED BREAST! AAAAUUUUGGGGHHHHH!!!

Legs spread in the air. In blue jeans no less! Didn't her parents teach her anything? If you are going to spread your legs in the air, you need to do it on a fall Saturday afternoon while wearing a scanty outfit emblazoned with your team logo while being held aloft by a young man in a similar outfit. Sitting on the young man's hand is OK as well, so long as you yell mightily. Just never in blue jeans!

And holding pumpkins up to her breasts? Didn't we just go through this? No boyfriend's mouths, no pumpkins, no anything anywhere near your breasts! After all, pumpkins are melons...

Poor Polumbo tried this lame defense of common sense:

"It's not in a ladylike manner. I'm not a robot. I'm a human being."

No, the minute you prance around the stage for the judges to observe your bodily shape, you cease to be a human being, and become granddaughter of the Stepford Wives. Miss America is an object. Amy Polumbo was a person.

There were also photos of Polumbo drinking, but the 22-year-old college student said she was of legal age when they were taken.

Oh my god, she had a drink, hide the women and children! What planet are these people from? Have they been to a high school, no scratch that, junior high school party lately? If I had a 22-year-old daughter and all she did was drink, I'd thank my lucky stars.

"Polumbo's lawyer, Anthony Caruso, said that a person or persons claiming to be The Committee to Save Miss America threatened to make the photos public unless she resigned her title."

Save Miss America from what? Living a normal healthy life, which involves, among other things, flirting with your boyfriend, having a drink now and then, and making costume jokes at Halloween? It sounds to me like the CSMM is a group of people clinging to "the good old days", or the revisionist history whitewashed version of it, in rejection of the progress of modern society. I suspect they will go the way of the Shakers.

"The directors will decide whether the photos violate a morals clause in the contract that Miss America hopefuls sign when entering the pageant or its state contests."

MORALS?!?! What morals forbid flirting with your boyfriend, or dictate the proper positioning of blue jeaned legs? What morals say one cannot have a drink? Jesus didn't turn the water into grape juice.

The article, mercifully, ends with some sanity:

"At least two of the board's five directors said this week they don't consider the photos to be a big problem. One board member, Mark Soifer, described the photos as 'kids having a good time at a party.'"

Well Mr. Soifer, I suggest your group render a swift, unanimous, verdict in favor of Ms. Polumbo, complete with a critical word or two for CSMM. Otherwise, Miss America and everything associated with it will become more of a joke than it already is. On second thought, that might not be such a bad thing.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Bush vs the Surgeon General

Here is one of those stories I always thought only happened in other countries, and here is a good discussion of it. Here's the opening salvo:

"WASHINGTON, July 10 — Former Surgeon General Richard H. Carmona told a Congressional panel Tuesday that top Bush administration officials repeatedly tried to weaken or suppress important public health reports because of political considerations. The administration, Dr. Carmona said, would not allow him to speak or issue reports about stem cells, emergency contraception, sex education, or prison, mental and global health issues. Top officials delayed for years and tried to “water down” a landmark report on secondhand smoke, he said. Released last year, the report concluded that even brief exposure to cigarette smoke could cause immediate harm.

Dr. Carmona said he was ordered to mention President Bush three times on every page of his speeches. He also said he was asked to make speeches to support Republican political candidates and to attend political briefings."

When did the Republican party become the anti-science party?

Headlines and stories you'll never see

Discovery Institute announces groundbreaking findings in archaeological analysis! Intelligent Design detection methods were employed on archaeological artifacts in both controlled tests and field trials, producing remarkably accurate findings. "Their research has given us an exciting and unique new tool to use" the lead archaeologist on the project said.

Psychic wins 10th lottery! "It's easy to pick when you know the winning numbers already" she said after claiming her $12 million prize. "I just feel like I'm so blessed with this gift, it comes with a duty to help others." She said the charity recipient of her award this time is involved in cancer research, and she plans on donating the prize for her next win to a veterans hospital.

Golfer Banned from PGA Tour for using telekinesis! "I don't know how to stop it" Bob Johnson said. "I just hit the ball, and steer it into the hole. And when my opposition hits the ball, I can't help but make it miss." Johnson's ability is apparently limited by distance, but after 26 straight one-puts while the remaining members of his foursome have failed to manage even one, the PGA said it had had enough.

Sunday, July 8, 2007

A Technical Dissection of the Star Wars Trash Compactor

No, I'm not kidding, here it is. Best thing I've seen since the Nitpickers Guide to Star Trek.

Saturday, July 7, 2007

Debating Creationists: Vox Day vs PZ Myers

PZ Myers posted on why creationists should not be debated, and Vox Day offered a response, which I address below:

Myers:It pits oratory against science in a venue where you'll be judged on your rhetoric.

Vox: Of course, if you actually know your stuff cold, it shouldn't be a problem.

Right, that's why we see so many scientists in arenas where rhetoric counts so much, like sales and politics. Debate is a skill like any other, and it correlates far more with the ability to think and speak quickly, than it does with being accurate. This is, in fact, why creationists insist on live spoken debates rather than written ones. In written debates, every point can be fully addressed, complete with references, whereas in a live debate, a fast speaker can overwhelm his opponent (ie the Gish Gallop, see below).

Myers: It gives publicity to creationists.

Vox: Oh no! You would think that allowing them to expose their stupidity, which we are told ad infinitum is just painfully obvious, would be something PZ and company would support.

Vox is attacking a straw man here. What we on the scientific side of the debate say ad infinitum is not that the creationists are stupid, but that they are unscientific, and that they are wrong. Debating them as equals will give the impression to the casual observer that they ARE equals. The trappings of scientific validity is what the creationists desire above all else. They are unable to earn it as legitimate science does, through experimental validation and peer review, so it is important to not allow them to do an end run around the process.

Myers: Creationists can generate more lies more quickly than you can refute.

Vox: Not if you know your subject well and are capable of articulating it properly.

Bullshit. "Archaeopteryx was a fake" takes 4 words to assert. Refuting it takes considerably more time, as refutations to most poor arguments do. Any logical fallacy takes longer to explain than to use. Also, repeating the point from earlier, being articulate is not a very valuable talent for a researcher. It IS a valuable talent to being a lawyer, and not coincidentally, several prominent IDers/creationists (Philip Johnson, Casey Luskin) are attorneys. A scientist not speaking well off-the-cuff not only doesn't say anything about the legitimacy of his POV, it is pretty predictable.

Vox:Of course, if all your answers rely on claiming that no one can possibly understand what you're saying without a PhD, you might as well recognize that you're always going to lose in any venue. In fact, why even talk, since no one can understand you anyhow?

Creationists are fond of trotting out these straw men, but you'll notice there are almost never references to any real scientist talking like this. Three guesses as to why.

Myers:Debates artificially give equal time to two sides, falsely elevating creationist trivia to equality with scientific substance.

Vox: Of course, debates in which only one side is allowed to talk isn't really a debate now, is it? Again, we see that the evolutionists simply can't defend themselves, so they demand an unfair playing field.

Quite the contrary. The scientific playing field is very open. It is in the peer-reviewed literature. Of course the creationists avoid that like the plague because they lose in that arena (you know, the one where evidence and all matter). There is a reason the scientific community chooses a public written medium over a spoken one like debates: it is far more effective for highly technical and complicated exchanges.

The best short response for a scientist challenged to a debate in his field is to accept: as long as it is in writing. A written debate has a ton of advantages over a live spoken one:

1) Filibustering/Gish Galloping is impossible.

2) All points get their due attention, and lies can be exposed.

3) It draws a larger audience.

4) The audience has time to ponder the points made fully and can return as needed for a reread.

Of course, all of the above (except #3) are exactly what creationists are trying to avoid, which is why they insist on spoken debates in the first place.

History of Presidential Approval Ratings

Over at Stranger Fruit we get this interesting chart of the historical approval ratings of all the presidents going all the way back to Truman. An interesting pattern I note is how similar Reagan's and Clinton's are. It also looks like we had a surge of presidential popularity after WWII which LBJ promptly squished with the Viet Nam war.

Friday, July 6, 2007

The Revealing Case of Phineas Gage

Over at Neurophilosophy Mo has a great article on the case of Phineas Gage. Gage was a 19th century railroad worker who had a 3 foot long 1+ inch wide tamping iron blasted through his skull in a dynamiting accident. Not only did he survive, but he lived 13 years before dying of complications arising as a result of epileptic convulsions.

The most amazing thing about the accident was the effect it had on Gage's personality:

"Gage did, according to Harlow, retain "full possession of his reason" after the accident, but his wife and other people close to him soon began to notice dramatic changes in his personality. It wasn't until 1868 that Harlow documented the "mental manifestations" of Gage's brain injuries, in a report published in the Bulletin of the Massachusetts Medical Society:

His contractors, who regarded him as the most efficient and capable foreman in their employ previous to his injury, considered the change in his mind so marked that they could not give him his place again. He is fitful, irreverent, indulging at times in the grossest profanity (which was not previously his custom), manifesting but little deference for his fellows, impatient of restraint of advice when it conflicts with his desires, at times pertinaciously obstinent, yet capricious and vacillating, devising many plans of future operation, which are no sooner arranged than they are abandoned in turn for others appearing more feasible. In this regard, his mind was radically changed, so decidedly that his friends and acquaintances said he was "no longer Gage."

This has dramatic implications for concepts of self and soul. I the soul is a thing apart from the brain, then how does one explain a change in personality from damage to the brain. It is especially stark here since Gage did not lose any physical function. He simply became another person.

Food for thought.

Who's the Bigger Hypocrite? The Most Boring Game in Politics

In the wake of President Bush's controversial pardon, er, commutation of Scooter Libby's sentence for perjury, the Republicans have predictably launched into the most boring game in politics: Who's the bigger hypocrite. This is the technique of dispensing with a rational discusion of the pros and cons of the event in question for a tit-for-tat historical revisionists wet dream. It goes something like this:

Democrat: The commutation of Libby's sentence was an abuse of power and a travesty of justice.

Republican: Well where were you when Bill Clinton was pardoning [insert most hated Clinton associate here]? Why didn't you criticize that?

What follows tends to be a substanceless exchange where each side tries to paint the other as hypocritical, often with the most obscure examples each can find. Never mind that the person being asked "where were you?" was often not even in public life at that time, or possibly not even an adult. Yet they are asked to mold their opinions of the present as if they had been around in the past.

This is not to pick on the Republicans. Democrats are more than willing to play this silly game whenever it is their guy in the crosshairs. But the result is the same: no substantive discussion of what the actual issues are, and a pointless point-counterpoint of interest only to political wonks and hacks who will cheer for their side of the aisle no matter what the facts or circumstances.

This sort of diversionary rhetoric short circuits the democratic process. What needs to be discussed is what is happening now, and those events need to be judged on their merits, and those merits alone, not according to some hackneyed comparison to history. Historical events, even fairly recent ones, always involve different circumstances, and different people. Pretending any perfect parrallel can be drawn is delusional. Bush's commutation of Libby's sentence is justified or not based on the facts of that case. Nothing Bill Clinton did or did not do can change that, just like the pardons Bill Clinton handed out are or are not justified based on the facts of THOSE cases, and not via some obscure reference to something Ronald Reagan supposedly did.

History is just that. We can learn from it, but we must not make the mistake of thinking wrongs in the past justify wrongs in the present. Anyone who thinks President Bush's commutation of Scooter Libby's sentence was justified, needs to make the case based on THAT case. The minute the words "Bill Clinton" exit your mouth, you are conceding that you cannot in fact make your case. Whining "Bill Clinton did it too!" is just a way of dodging the issue, the same way your 5-year-old might try to weasel out of a punishment for not eating his greens by claiming you didn't eat them when you were five.

A democracy requires an informed citizenry critical of its leaders, which holds them to high standards of behavior, regardless of what their predecessors might have done. Doing otherwise guarantees poor behavior in the future, to the detriment of us all.

Thursday, July 5, 2007

Kent Hovind Cartoon

Hat tip to Pharyngula for this fabulously funny, if not tasteful, video.

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Happy Birthday America!

No better day than today to ponder the greatness of our nation, and yes it's weaknesses, and how we plan to deal with the challenges we face. The days ahead promise much challenge, and we should keep in mind the principles this country was founded on, and how important it is to defend them. We are a country of laws, not of men, of principles, not short-sighted pragmatism, and of individual liberties, including the right to believe, or not, as we see fit.

For inspiration, it is tough to beat Ray Charles singing America the Beautiful. But if you want another candidate, here is Whitney Houston singing the Star Spangled Banner.

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Are Children Natural Scientists?

Over at Living the Scientific Life, the question was asked:

"I have sometimes heard it said that all kids are natural scientists (i.e., ask questions), but that most have it trained out of them as they grow up so that the few who become scientists as adults are the few whose ability to question is strong enough to survive this training."

Asking questions is the first step of science, but it is not science. After all, creationists ask questions all the time: how did the eye evolve, where are the transitional forms, if we evolved from monkeys then why do we have Larry King? None of this is science. It is far more like religion, where one asks questions, gets answers, and moves on.

What seperates science from other epistemologies is the insistence on setting up falsifiable experiments to answer those questions, and doing so in a way that others can replicate. This is decidedly NOT the way children think. Children do tend to ask questions, but they ask them of whatever authority they trust, and often accept the answer at face value. When they don't, they reason it out for themselves, as far as they are able. What they rarely do is go perform experiments to validate their theories.

I'm of the opinion that growing up, if you will, from this rationalistic mode of thinking, to doing real science is what is lacking from pseudoscientists of all ranks. Whether it is IDers/creationists, UFOlogists, or moonlanding conspiracy theorists, the common thread is rationalization, not science. In a sense, they never grew up, and still think like children. There is a reason Jesus said "suffer the children to come to me". He needed to get to them before they learned to do science, because once that happens, the gig is up.

The budding scientist isn't the kid asking you lots of questions, it's the kid digging in the ant mound to see what's there. After all, there is a reason science is done in peer-reviewed journals demanding detailed descriptions of replicable experiments. It is so anyone who doubts the results and wishes to replicate them can. Science is not satisfied with just questions and answers.

More Adventures in AA: Choose a higher being as you understand him, so long as it is our God

More adventures from AA. Seems my atheist friend was put into the position of having to choose a higher power. Having no gods at her disposal from which to choose, she chose a person, someone she respected very much, who had accomplished much in life, and could assist her in her recovery. It sounded like a novel approach to me, and one that could work. Not so said the AA people. Her higher power couldn't be a person, because "a person might turn on you, whereas God wouldn't".

Uh, can you say "worldwide flood"? You know, that loving act in Judeo/Christian tradition that has the One True God (tm) drowning every man, woman and child on earth, save the few lucky ones that got on the big boat. And isn't this the same god that promises to torment us on a lake of fire for all eternity if we do not accept that he came down in the form of man to die for our sakes to prevent him from condemning us all for something someone else did? Don't ask me, I didn't make this stuff up.

So I guess they need to change their steps. It's not "Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him", but rather "Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him, so long as that falls within the bounds arbitrarily chosen by AA."

For years I have been skeptical of the claims made by AA proponents as to its effectiveness. It seemed to me that many people didn't get well, they just substituted one dependent behavior (frequent meetings and catchy slogans like "progress, not perfection") for another. One can also peruse the Wikipedia entry on AA and look at many studies done on the 12-step program as well as other techniques. The evidence is inconclusive as to how effective the 12-step program is. In particular note the Project Match results, which compared the 12-step program to other treatment techniques and concluded:

"The conclusion of the research was that patient-treatment matching is not necessary in alcoholism treatment, because the three techniques were approximately equal in effectiveness...However overall success rates for all treatments were, and continue to be, less than spectacular. Based on information from Dr. Mark Willenbring of the NIAAA, Newsweek reported in their February 2007 issue that 'A year after completing a rehab program, about a third of alcoholics are sober, an additional 40 percent are substantially improved but still drink heavily on occasion, and a quarter have completely relapsed.'"

From my POV it is obvious why the 12-step program would not produce stellar recovery rates. If someone is told they are powerless to help themselves (which in general I agree with regard to addicts), and then told to turn their lives over to God, then they are essentially depending on themselves, which we already know won't work. Dressing it all up in God language doesn't change anything.

But the real tragedy is for people like my friend here. Eager to recover and willing to do what it takes, she's told she can't because she doesn't share the religious sympathies of the program facilitators. People like her have enough to overcome without being told they have to give up their thinking along with their drinking.