Monday, March 30, 2009

False Flagging?

I've been planning on catching up on the JamesRandiFoundation YouTube Channel with videos by the Amazing one himself. And I find the account has been suspended, and videos removed due to "terms of use violations". Smells like false flagging by some woo thugs.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

On Randomness 2

In previous posts, I've gone on about how Creationism is essentially a "theory" of randomness. One of the themes I've gone on about is that I think "randomness" is a function of predictability, rather than some intrinsic thing. Dice rolls cease to be random if you can control them, or gather data on their inertia and such mid-roll.

The dominant random component in evolution is mutation: If we could calculate molecule collisions and gather all the data about the DNA as it's being replicated (pretty much impossible for our technology, but not impossible in principle), we'd be able to predict more precisely than statistical distributions.

Of course, evolution deals largely with the order-inducing nature of natural selection. It's not dumb luck that some organisms survive while others die. Yes, there are some unpredictable accidents and such, but those aren't a problem for the overall picture. Mutations that help an organism survive will flourish, and detrimental ones will tend to fade out or be eliminated outright. Of course, what's helpful changes with the environment, but it's still got logic behind it that you can use to make predictions.

Creationists, on the other hand, usually hold their stone idol as inherently unpredictable. It's usually invoked as a handy device to avoid making any predictions that could falsify their beliefs. Of course, they describe this unpredictability as the result of an "infinite intelligence" that we can't comprehend. But if it's unpredictable, how do they know there's an intelligence? How can they tell the difference between this unpredictable intelligence and randomness? In the real world, when dealing with humans, we can make predictions about how they'll operate and determine if something's the result of human action. Humans leave tool marks, design objects for various understandable purposes, and so forth. Humans are reasonably predictable. On the other hand, if gods aren't predictable, they might as well be random.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Doggerel #179: "Agenda"

Welcome back to "Doggerel," where I ramble on about words and phrases that are misused, abused, or just plain meaningless.

A lot of woos, fundies, and so forth love to go on about alleged agendas we have for presenting various things, whether it's claims that we're shills, pure evil, or whatever. Of course, any skeptic worth his salt should know where this is going.

Facts are facts, and evidence stands on its own. It doesn't matter what my goals are if I present good evidence, or if I point out a fundamental fallacy in your arguments. Like it or not, sometimes the truth can be favorable to someone else's goals.

Yes, having an agenda can bias a person, and bias needs to be minimized so that we can get an accurate picture of reality. That's what science is all about. Pointing out a suspected agenda isn't a one-step instant dismissal. You still have to produce better arguments and/or reveal logical flaws or faulty assumptions on your opponent's part.

108th Skeptics' Circle

It's up at PodBlack Cat's place.

Open thread as usual, but cats on this Caturday are FORBIDDEN!

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Pointless Question #50

You've just bumped into your evil twin who's been impersonating you for the first half of the episode. After a bit of switcheroo in the melee, your allies can't tell which of you is which. Unfortunately, he has just beaten you to the punch in telling them to shoot you both, convincing them to shoot you and let him escape.

How can we prevent this from happening again?

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

UFOols and Skeptics

A post over at NeuroLogica reminds me it's been a while since I've ever dealt with UFO/alien abduction believers. (A commenter there gave me the term in the title.) They aren't really any different than any other sort of woo, and they seem to believe everything Hollywood and their fellow woos say about skeptics. So that they can conveniently ignore what the real skeptics have to say.

So, I'm going to summarize how it really is.

1. We don't jump right to "hoax" as an explanation. There are plenty out there, but we generally don't kneejerk without good reason. About the only time I'll put "hoax" on top of the list is when there's an unusually high quality video, and I'll wait for more in-depth analysis if I can't spot problems myself.

2. We don't assume eyewitnesses are lying or crazy. It's absolutely normal to see stuff you don't understand, or to misinterpret what you see. That's a part of being just a normal person. Frankly, I'm sick of woos insisting that the perception and judgment of eyewitnesses are infallible.

3. No, we're not government drones. When a government official says some UFO was the result of, say, air force exercises, we don't believe them because they're from a "trustworthy" government, we believe them because air force exercises are fairly mundane, and can usually explain lights in the sky or whatever. It'd take a lot more than the fuzzy images believers provide to convince us that it's more likely aliens evolved on another planet, developed technology, and reach our world while we also happen to have sentience and technology.

4. An abundance of poor evidence does not amount to a shred of good evidence. Piles of fuzzy images won't prove the existence of alien spacecraft. It'd take some high quality images, physical parts with abnormalities like different isotopic ratios (IIRC), and such.

5. It's not our job to prove something's impossible. I wouldn't want to prove something I don't believe, anyway. In my experience, it's the woos who are fond of that word, and they're fond of using it in categorical manner. I don't think aliens are impossible. I don't think it's impossible to travel interstellar distances. I just think that the two together are just highly, highly improbable. Besides, I would think it'd be easier and fairer to find one authentic case, rather than have us go through the millions of fuzzy photos and anecdotes to somehow find negative evidence.

6. Don't bother mocking us with "weather balloon" and "swamp gas". First, weather balloons can actually be mistaken for other things if there's enough distance. Of course, weather balloons are uncommon, so we rarely have the opportunity to bring them up. Second, Dr. J. Allen Hynek, who is apparently a big name among believers, was the one who proposed swamp gas. Of course, if I can hear a good explanation for swamp gases creating an illusion, I'll consider it. The way the world, human mind, and eyes/cameras work leads to plenty of alternative explanations for weird stuff.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Random Recall #8

Did a bit of videogame browsing while the realty people were showing off the house. And I suddenly remembered a crappy episode of SeaQuest DSV (I don't remember enough of the series to know if it was uniformly crappy or not): The twisted Aesop: Videogames are bad, m'kay:

The crew gets sent to a future where kids grew up playing "Ultra Super Death Gore Fest Chainsawer 3000 Online With Real Mecha" and as a result society collapses because kids grow up only seeing each other as potential opponents, apparently because no one ever thought of co-op games or social networks.


Monday, March 23, 2009

Why Should I WoW?

Had someone recommend I give World of Warcraft a whirl on a free trial. I've been hesitant to sign up for an MMO, since I wouldn't be sure what I'd want to do on one. Probably need someone go over the options.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Brainstorming a Meme

One of the things that always irritates me is woo projection. And I see a lot of it coming from the far right side of the political spectrum. Everyone remember when Sarah Palin was channeling the ghost of Trofim Lysenko by making fun of fruit fly research? And you've all heard anti-intellectual sentiments.

So, I'm thinking of using "Bourgeoisie" (once I can memorize the spelling) in place of "intellectual" when paraphrasing neocon rambles against science: In Wikipedia, it describes Bourgeoisie as the class "...whose status or power came from employment, education, and wealth..." with my emphasis being added onto the "education" part.

They like to ramble on about how popular their witchcraft hypothesis is, as if truth was determined by how much it lines up with the popular ideology, and not by actual evidence and logic. Lysenko and Stalin hated genetics and the latest synthesis of evolution because they didn't fit with Communist ideology. So, they banned the research of genetics, gulaged and executed evolutionists, and went with some quasi-Lamarckian crank hypothesis with unreproducible results.

That's what I keep thinking about when I hear them go on their relativist rambles.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Woo Enthymemes #1: "I Know What's Supernatural"

Welcome to a possible new series. Since I started the Doggerel series with "Supernatural," it seems appropriate to start this series on a similar note. While Doggerel deals with cliches skeptics like me are sick of dealing with, this series will deal with unstated assumptions that probably need more exposure.

Today's entry is "I Know What's Supernatural." The unstated assumption: That there's some unifying, identifiable quality possessed by supernatural things and/or natural things that separate them.

But what is this quality? It's not invisibility, because that'd make most of the electromagnetic spectrum supernatural, as well as even more boring things like air. For much the same reason, it's not stuff beyond our senses. There's no reason why our having particular sets of senses would define something's nature.

Instead, I'd say the barrier between the "natural" and "supernatural" is an arbitrary construct of our culture and level of familiarity. Take any electronic gizmo far enough back in time, and it'll be regarded as magical by the locals. Heck, many of our ancestors thought lightning was supernatural, but we do not. Why's that? Because we as a civilization, if not as individuals, understand how lightning works and what it is. That understanding dragged lightning down from the mystical mumbo-jumbo the priests attached to it, and put it firmly in the natural world.

There is no objective difference between "natural" and "supernatural" that would merit treating them differently. We've gained great understanding of our world and are continuing to learn through methodological naturalism, where we treat everything with an effect on the world the same way.

If I'm wrong, tell me: How can you know if something's "supernatural"?

Some Helpful Advice for Fundies

Stumbled on this while reading some comments over at PZ's place. In short, this guy suggests to fundies that talking about the supposed joys of heaven or the horrors of hell doesn't impress us atheists. He goes on to talk about the drawbacks to interruption marketing and so forth. He proposes what is, in short, a more effective strategy:


Of course, if Christians manage to put together a good, deserved reputation, it won't convince me of the truth of their claims alone. But it'd go a long way towards convincing me that there's the possibility of civilized dialogue. Fundies have done a great deal of damage to their religion by being amoral assholes more concerned with trivialities than real morality. At the very least, if the non-fundies can successfully and consistently disown the fundies on their outskirts, we could spend more time tackling fundies of other regions and religions. Instead, thanks to the "Amway Christians", we end up having to focus on anarchists who want to tear down our homelands' rule of law so that they can get special, exclusive preaching privileges to shove ads down our throats on our tax dollars.

I really hope that article changes some fundie minds so that I can focus my blogging energy on other topics more effectively. There's no shortage of astrologers, alties, and so on out there.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Do Over!: Trekkie Mix 'n Match Edition

So, in a few comments or somewhere, I may have mentioned something I thought would be interesting, and I imagine some of my Trek-loving readers can probably help fill in details: The Next Gen crew is my favorite Star Trek crew, but DS9 is my favorite setting. So, what'd happen if you mixed the two together? Replace the Star Fleet portion of DS9's cast with the Next Gen crew: Kira, Quark, Garak, and so forth are still there, but have to mesh with different people. Some thoughts of mine:

Originally, the writers intended for Ro Laran to be on DS9, but because Michelle Forbes wasn't interested, they made Kira. It might be an interesting can of worms to contemplate.

Picard would have an interesting time if he ended up the Emissary, not wanting to violate the Prime Directive. He's already been briefly worshiped as a god, and I don't think he'd enjoy being Space Jesus.

Not sure how Data would fit in: He'd probably do well in Dax's job as a science officer, since his 88 petabytes of memory would give him something comparable to Dax's multiple lifetimes' experience. Of course, Data would be in a very different character role. I suppose he might find some kind of kinship with Odo, since they're both outsiders among organic humanoids.

Deanna's kind of hard to work with because, well, you probably know why. Guess she could do something with Keiko's school and/or serve in a diplomatic capacity.

Wesley'd probably fill out the role of Jake Sisko, only in a more annoying manner. Have a hard time imagining him forming a friendship with Nog, though.

Might need to give thought to Geordi versus Miles for the role of chief engineer. The chief was already in the show, but was also on the Enterprise.

So anyway, begin discussion.

Another Apology for my Home State's IDiocy

PZ covered this earlier, but I'll be doing some commentary on quotes from the article the hat tips lead back to. Presented, of course, by Faux News, currently operating under "balance" at the cost of fairness. So, sorry the politicians in my state are continuing to be gloriously stupid woos.
"I don’t believe I came from a salamander that crawled out of a swamp millions of years ago," Berman told "I do believe in creationism. I do believe there are gaps in evolution."

"But when you ask someone who believes in evolution, if you ask one of the elitists who believes in evolution about the gaps, they’ll tell you that the debate is over, that there is no debate, evolution is the thing, it’s the only way to go."
The only way evolution would be gap free would be if we had the DNA of every living thing that ever had offspring. Of course, some missing puzzle pieces doesn't invalidate the idea that there's an order behind the image we see. The fact that we'll never have a complete picture isn't an excuse to believe it's all random magic snapped into existence by a random stone idol that just randomly popped in.

Creationists are just engaging in a manufactroversy: They don't even know what sort of evidence to look for, much less support their witchcraft hypothesis.

Anyway, at least they got some sensible observations included:
“This would open the door to other fly-by-night organizations that come in and want to award degrees in our state, because the bill is highly generalized,” said Steven Schafersman, president of Texas Citizens for Science.

“Right now, we don’t have this problem in Texas. Texas is not a center for degree mills, because our laws allow only the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board to approve the granting of graduate degrees.”

“It would certainly open the door to all kinds of chicanery,” says Eugenie Scott, Executive Director of the National Center for Science Education. “I mean, all you have to do, it looks to me from the bill, is start a non-profit organization, don’t take any federal or state money, and then offer degrees in any fool subject you want.”
We're already bad enough in just regular education. Don't want to leave opportunities open for substandard schools. Or crazy newage (rhymes with sewage) garbage.

But, back to the IDiocy:
The ICR issued a statement affirming that it is a legitimate educational institute that employs credentialed Ph.D. scientists from around the country. It insisted that the “THECB has acted discriminatorily against the ICR’s application both in process and in the substance of fact,” and it said “THECB allowed influence of evolution-biased lobbying efforts to influence process and outcome.”
So, let's compare: Evolution: Scientific. Creationism: Newage paranormal nonsense. Nope, I don't sense any sort of unethical discrimination. Of course, when you're talking about something that is quite appropriately compared to teaching alchemy, astrology, or geocentrism is science class, well, you do need to practice some form of discrimination, since I don't think you want to teach the kids that truth is a relativistic concept.

If anything, it's been the Creationists who have been attempting discrimination on the issue: They'd probably object to all those other forms of woo being taught as if they were science, but when it comes to evolution and Big Bang cosmology, suddenly for those specific topics, epistemology no longer applies because they're offended or whatever. And, of course, their witchcraft hypothesis gets special consideration over all the other religions' witchcraft hypotheses for no particular reason. Unless they want us to teach every creation myth on Earth, it's yet another level of discrimination.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Doggerel #178: "Silencing"

Welcome back to "Doggerel," where I ramble on about words and phrases that are misused, abused, or just plain meaningless.

Given that woos like to compare themselves to great scientists, especially Galileo, many like to go on about how we're supposedly "silencing" them. Most seem unaware of the difference between criticism and censorship. You can indeed believe whatever you want, but we're free to criticize your beliefs. Or just laugh at them.

On the more subtle front, Creationists in particular like to equate keeping their ideas out of classrooms with silencing them. Cue comparisons to teaching alchemy alongside chemistry or astrology alongside astronomy. The problem with this is that science classes are supposed to teach science. Creationism isn't science, either for the reason that it's demonstrably wrong, or because it doesn't make testable predictions. The "Intellgent Design" variety doesn't even know what sort of evidence to look for, much less gained any sort of scientific support to be worth considering.

On the "subtle as a sledgehammer" front, many trolls equate banning them for offenses such as spam, flooding, foul language, or otherwise violating a blog or forum's comment policies with banning them for expressing a particular opinion. I shouldn't even have to include that in this entry, but I might as well spell it out.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Doggerel #177: "Certainty"

Welcome back to "Doggerel," where I ramble on about words and phrases that are misused, abused, or just plain meaningless.

Various woos like to ask us if we're certain about scientific knowledge, or about our doubts on "supernatural" topics. The problem with the question is that it deals with a fundamental misunderstanding about science and skepticism. Certainty isn't for us (unless you're a mathematician).

Scientifically minded people work with confidence levels. And we generally work by falsifying the null hypothesis, not by developing an absolute proof of a theory. It's also rare for us to declare anything impossible. As such, I tend to see certainty as the province of woos, not skeptics.

Scientific hypotheses must be falsifiable: That means that if they're wrong, they can be shown to be wrong with the right evidence, and modified or abandoned to account for that evidence. A skeptic has to know what would prove him wrong. Usually, when I ask woos what it'd take to get them to admit they're wrong, they refuse to consider the possibility. Instead of only going for certain things, we go with whatever appears to have the highest probability and plausibility.

We also recognize that we're mere mortals. We can't attain special exceptions to our limitations. When you think you have certainty, it can often pave the way to barbarism. Just take a good look at religious fanatics and cults of personality. Having a little doubt in everything is a good thing. That's how we've made such great progress in expanding the knowledge of our civilization.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Doggerel Request March 2009

Well, I've been slacking on the series, and it's time I picked up the pace so that I can get up to 200. I should probably check over the various places I asked for requests for the ones I've missed.

So far:
"Certainty": Covering why the absolute kind's generally left for mathematicians and fundies. Only one of those groups has the proper justification.
"You just want to tear things down!": Might leave this for the big 200, since it'll touch on why I really blog.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

The Psychology of Conspiracy Theorists

My comment policy normally discourages amateur psychoanalysis, but I feel the need to break that for a post. The comment thread is hereby WILD, so normal comment policy doesn't apply (for either side). Since it's been a while since I've done anything remotely serious about conspiracy theories, I thought I'd post some of my perceptions on the topic, rather than let Hollywood maintain myths.

I find many of the conspiracy theorists out there cling to implausible theories because, paradoxically, they're comforting:

Humans are thinking animals. Aside from high endurance for long distance walking, humans don't stand out very much, physically. Humans survive by their wits, detecting patterns and warning signs less intelligent animals would miss. Having special knowledge is an advantage, so it's natural to feel more secure when you know what's going on. Or if you think you know what's going on. Wisdom makes a person valuable and revered. That's why nearly every sort of woo, altie, or fundie pride themselves on being a "red pill": They have what they believe to be special knowledge. Of course, I find them to generally fail to prove it, but that's for the factual threads to cover.

On the flip side of the special knowledge angle is the fear of uncertainty. Many people, for example, couldn't deal with the idea that a lone gunman could kill the president during lax security, hence the need to assure themselves JFK had an enormous conspiracy of enemies out to get him. Many 9/11 twoofers can't deal with the idea that America could be successfully attacked in such a catastrophic manner, so they make up a special exception of an inside job of American conspirators.

To put it in geek terms, I found the Joker from The Dark Knight scary because someone like him could exist in real life:
I just did what I do best. I took your little plan and I turned it on itself. Look what I did to this city with a few drums of gas and a couple of bullets. Hmmm? You know... You know what I've noticed? Nobody panics when things go "according to plan." Even if the plan is horrifying! If, tomorrow, I tell the press that, like, a gang banger will get shot, or a truckload of soldiers will be blown up, nobody panics, because it's all "part of the plan." But when I say that one little old mayor will die, well then everyone loses their minds!
There's no shortage of insane, violent people out there. Religious fundamentalism does a good job of encouraging those qualities. All it takes for them to cause chaos and panic in our lives is for us to get lax in security and/or them to get clever. If you're an overzealous conspiracy theorist, those sorts of people aren't a problem because it's all "according to plan" of some guy who manages to grab some sort of advantage in the end result. Without good evidence for a plan, about all you can say about those who benefit is that they're opportunistic bastards.

Additionally, there's so much in this world that's a result of stupidity. Popular idiots can get elected into office. People can fall for basic logical fallacies and in turn mislead voters with propaganda that results from those fallacies. People who should be experts in their fields can get sloppy or complacent enough to miss fundamental problems. This world is very much subject to Hanlon's Razor: Incompetence runs the planet far more than malice. Incompetence is harder to predict than malice, so it's more uncomfortable to deal with.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

107th Skeptics' Circle

It's up at the Skeptics' Field Guide.

Open thread as usual, but the use of voice synthesizers is FORBIDDEN!

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Promised Conspiracy Thread

Today, I stopped by the comic shop and ended up stepping into an unexpected conversation about Illuminati conspiracies. Since I can't speak in html with handy clickable links (and my throat wears out), I promised my opponent a thread where we could talk and gave her the blog address. I believe it started with the nature of money.

Anyway, I'd like to lay down a few ground rules in addition to my regular comment policy, for the sake of keeping the conversation focused:

1. No revealing of "meatspace" information. I like my pseudonymity, and would rather not have my unpopular opinions linked with my real name, since employers sometimes snoop when they shouldn't and end up discriminating. Perfectly all right for anyone to post under a pseudonym. Just please don't post as "Anonymous" because it's easy for multiple people to do that.

2. Stick to one subject at a time. I've run into lots of people who change the subject constantly just so that they can declare victory when they move into a red herring I'm not immediately familiar with.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Image Concept

Thinking about making an image of that god who randomly popped in, was randomly given infinite complexity, yadda yadda. The short of it is, I've got an idea for an animated gif that'd shuffle through several deities, and I'd stick a die over their heads, blending it in. The die image would be the most consistent thing among the several weird god images. I'll do some image searches of my own, but I'd like you to send in images of various idols, deities, supernatural creatures, etcetera for me to use. Be sure to include some of the weirder deities people have believed in, just to hammer on home just how equally silly all forms of theism are. Of course, you can include deities people haven't believed in, for geek cred or whatever.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

shanedk Got Into the Doggerel Business

Bumped into one of shanedk's videos that covers the topic of certainty. Somehow, I missed that as Doggerel because I thought I had already covered it. I'll probably write that up, tomorrow. For now, enjoy his video:

The Barrier to "Macro" Evolution

It's been hard, but I've managed to piece it together from a bunch of inarticulate Creationists:

Creationists believe that when Adam named the animals, a magical fairy version of the animal appeared in Heaven called an "eidolon." Whenever a genetic change shows up in, say, the horse eidolon (which would the the horsiest horse who ever horsed) that it doesn't like, Plato, or rather, the idea of Plato hops on the eidolon's back, rides it down to Earth, where they shrink down to microscopic size and nibble off the offending gene inside the gamete.

This doesn't stop scientists from performing artificial speciation in the lab, because Plato's too camera shy, and is afraid of being seen on the microscopes.

YouTube Plug

I'm going to plug shanedk's YouTube Channel. He's got some good stuff, and recently posted an HD version of a video where Kent Hovind demonstrates his failure to understand the concept of "food." Embedded below the fold, but you might want to stop by the proper URL to give ratings.

Friday, March 06, 2009

Pointless Question #49

Who watches the Watchmen?

(Answer #1: My dad, brother, and me, tomorrow at 7:00 PM)

Bad News

One of my cats, Squirt, is dead. She got stuck up in a tree for a couple nights before we could coax her down. Unfortunately, not long after, she managed to climb up onto the garage door while it was open and ended up suffocating when she got caught when it closed.

Monday, March 02, 2009

106th Skeptics' Circle

It's up at Disillusioned Words.

Open thread as usual, yadda, yadda is FORBIDDEN!

Quote of the Time Being #22

From Ciaphas on a thread provided for the unapologetic apologist, Rhology:
I've always felt the religious nutball position about morality was rather odd. Their religion is amoral; the only reason you shouldn't do something is because you'll be punished for it, not because it's actually wrong.

I always get the impression that they're sitting at home going "It would be really fun to go on a multi-state murderous rampage, but if I do God will kick my ass. *sigh*".

Pointless Grind

TIGS directed me to this little game. Yeah, I tend to like a lot of linear JRPGs (Playing Chrono Trigger DS right now. And groaning at getting some fetch quests instead of a hard bonus dungeon), but, as noted in earlier threads, I hate level grinding, especially if it involves random encounters. A good story can compensate, but with many games, it's easy to cut corners by adding on grind.

So, feel free to continue videogame rants here.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Pointless Question #48

So, you've got the latest and greatest starship, with cutting edge hyper warp engines, everything sensors, cloaking device, beehive barriers, and it's even got a fresh coat of paint.

Why is the bridge right on top, where it can be easily targeted and blown away by a direct hit?