Thursday, April 30, 2009

Pointless Question #57

This one may potentially fall into Pointless Debate: What do you think about Super Registration Acts if the real world suddenly started producing supers?

Email Duel!

Just letting you know I've thrown down the gauntlet to an email I received. Chances are, you'll be seeing the results somewhere down the line.

Okay, I admit it, it's Dave Mabus. He decided to go directly to my personal email instead of comment spam, so it's a bit more personal, and I've been wanting him to throw down. I wouldn't be surprised if he chickens out of answering some simple questions:

1) If he's saying Nostradamus predicted a swine flu epidemic, why wasn't he sending emails about it years ago? The real answer, of course, is that it's a postdiction made after swine flu hit the media blitz.

2) How can us skeptics have "disconfirmation bias" in regards to the evidence for ID/Creationism if they can't even figure out what sort of evidence they're looking for?

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Economic Skepticism

It's a subject I don't see covered very often, except in threads that tend to attract bad examples of Libertarians. (I'm currently unable to think of a good example of a Libertarian, unfortunately.) I'm mostly familiar with some fairly obvious stuff, like MLM scams and Ponzi schemes, but I'm not all that great at understanding economic problems. Suggestions for websites with good explanations of economic principles and some counter-intuitive things would be greatly appreciated.

Doggerel #185: "What Makes You So Sure Science Can Find the Answers?!"

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

The completely honest answer is simple: We don't know that science can find an answer to a problem. We won't know until we looked for answers and found one. We can't know whether or not something is impossible, so I prefer the optimistic route with science: Keep dreaming up good ideas, and never be content with bad ones.

Of course, just because scientists are having a hard time finding an answer doesn't mean that unscientific modes of thought stand a chance. Usually when people endorse "other ways of knowing," they're asking us to be governed by biases. Science is about the removal of bias so that we can have genuine confidence in the conclusions we arrive at. Gut instinct, "common sense," and so forth can be useful for snap judgments, but when you're exploring the unknown, the weird, and the unanswered, you can't let your thinking by handicapped by your usual biases.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Pointless Fun: War of the Lions

Just saw this at TIGS. Haven't played it yet, but thought I'd give some indirect linky support. Update to come after I've played it. Hope Anubis is on the roster, since most of you humans tend to over-represent your own species when you invent deities.

Speedy Q&A #2

Q: What's the difference between an unpredictable god who works in mysterious ways, a random god, and no god?

A: Damned if I know.

Altie Stuff

What got me started on that earlier longer-than-usual post was this by Steven Novella. He addresses some old, outdated cliches by alties who apparently don't pay attention to the current medical scene:
At Georgetown Medical School where I trained (I graduated in 1991) we were taught the “biopsychosocial” model of medicine - which means we view the patient in the context of their biology, their psychology, and their social situation. This was not just a slogan - it was a central part of the clinical culture that we were taught. It is simply a straw man to say that scientific medicine does not consider the whole patient - even 18 years ago this was already being fully integrated into mainstream medicine, before it became fashionable among the promoters of dubious treatments.
I suspect the "holism gambit," as Dr. Novela puts it, has been around for decades, rather than something new. Could probably be traced back to homeopathy, since that made a lot of spiritual claims in the early days. It's probably just one the cliche meme that's resurged in popularity, and based only on the fact that the alties of the past invoked it, not because they could identify a genuine, systematic fault in the system.

Here's another comment from Dr. Novela:
Dixon confuses the ethics of informed consent and patient autonomy with the scientific basis of medical treatments. Medical ethics already dictate that patients are in control of their own medical decisions. Also, as I said above, the old paternalistic model of “doctor knows best” has been gone for a generation. The current model of practice is one of patient collaboration and informed consent.
The idea that this Dixon character would expect anything else these days is worthy of headdesking. Seriously, who's ever run into a doctor who won't accept questions or discuss your condition? Methinks this might have gotten started with closed-minded alties misrepresenting their doctors in order for them to fit their comfortable stereotypes.

One of the worst parts with this Dixon guy is he tries to present science-based medicine as treating people as a bunch of "lab rats." Apparently, he's completely oblivious to how alternative "medicine" works. From my standpoint, they're typically the sort who push for the deregulation of human experimentation. I tend to notice it more in the vaccine-autism crowd, who want to be able to perform all sorts of experiments on their children with dangerous, debunked, wholy implausible "treatments." Worse, the quacks involved often aren't interested in keeping detailed records. Real doctors keep track of their patients so that if a treatment has previously unknown side effects, interactions, or something else, they can be more readily spotted and compared to find correlations. Neglect of that sort of resource is fairly common among quacks, who are often after positive testimonials so that they can feed their prejudices and/or make more money.

Get Out of the Circular Mill!

I am writing this post in hopes that many woos - fans of creationism, "alternative medicine", conspiracy theories, psychics, alien visitations, cryptozoology, and so forth are directed here. I'll be speaking to you as best I can.

There is a phenomenon among antkind known as the "circular mill." (more here) This happens when part of an army ant colony ends up going in a circle and each ant follows the ants in front of it. As a result, they continue traveling in a circle, usually until they die of exhaustion. I've read about this as an illustration of the dangers of groupthink: The circular mill happens because each ant's decision becomes dependent on other ant decisions, and not on the environment or the end goal of their activities. Given ants' comparatively simple nature, you can't expect them to have a reflective moment. You're different. You're a sapient being. You're capable of introspection, self-doubt, and reevaluation. That's why many of us skeptics get easily frustrated when we see you going in circles and repeating cliches as justification for your behavior. I hate when someone doesn't exercise their ability to think independently, and, unfortunately, there aren't "woos" who express themselves in a manner that convinces me that they've given the matter any genuine thought.

I'll be forming an informal list of some of the priorities you should focus on:

First: You do not argue from authority in a scientific blog debate.

In an ideal world for scientific discourse, there would be no need for the concept for authority. Unfortunately, we live in a world where snap decisions must be made. If, for example, a spider bites me and my arm goes numb shortly thereafter, I would go to the nearest hospital's emergency room and trust the doctors to pick out the right treatment (and hopefully expedite that decision by describing the spider that bit me). If the world didn't have such time constraints, it'd be reasonable to argue over the matter, compare evidence for various antivenom concoctions, get an education in toxicology, and so on. In the real world, where there are time constraints, other things to do, etcetera, authorities in various fields are a handy time saver.

What separates a scientist from a layperson isn't a magical property that renders one beyond question. A trained scientist is a person who knows how to evaluate evidence, where to look for evidence, and has a large collection of the conclusions from that evidence memorized, usually for quick decisions. The latter two traits are time saving measures. If the doctor treating my spider bite knows what kind of neurotoxin the described spider secretes as well as a drug to counteract it right off the top of his head, he can treat me that much faster. In a life or death situation, his memorized knowledge or ability to quickly locate the appropriate recorded knowledge would be invaluable.

Extend the example to longer time periods: If I have a condition that could irreparably harm me over days instead of hours, he could tell me what he thinks is happening, what he plans to do, and why he thinks it's the appropriate treatment. If I happen to know about some factor in myself or my medical history that could affect that treatment negatively, I'd be able to tell him, and he'd be able to change his decision accordingly. Of course, having a medical history that can be provided while he makes the decision saves more time. As an authority, he's expected to have the knowledge of what conditions to look for.

Extend it further: I have a slower condition that'll cause problems over the course of decades. At that level of time, I should be encouraged to research that condition for myself so that I can reasonably discuss it with my doctor. If I find good evidence that raises questions about a decision, I can bring that to his attention, get second opinions from other experts, etcetera. That's how doctors do things these days. That's pretty much how skeptics like me expect our doctors to work these days.

So, to hammer the point home: Authority is a time-saving tool, not an absolute source of information. In my typical blog conversation, I am not interested in saving time. I'm interested in learning.

The danger in blindly trusting in a person's authority is that you're basing your decisions purely on someone else's. In a pinch, that may be a useful quality, but if you have time to think, you should keep an eye on the environment and the larger picture so that you can respond appropriately if that person's actions don't fit what's going on.

Second: Know how to evaluate evidence.

This is a common failure point I get frustrated dealing with a number of you. There are different levels of quality when it comes to evidence. To continue on a medical side, a large repeated double-blind, placebo-controlled study is golden. Each part of that is designed to reduce or eliminate bias. Many people underestimate the body's ability to heal itself, the mind's ability to deceive itself or rationalize away symptoms, unaccounted for factors, and plain dumb luck and coincidence.
Large studies with many subjects are better than small studies or individual anecdotes because a larger number of subjects will dillute coincidences. Patients must be blinded to which treatment they get (with their consent, of course) because knowing they've gotten the "real" treatment will change how they look at their symptoms, usually for the better. The experimenters must be blinded so that they won't consciously or unconsciously fudge the results in one direction or the other. The experiment must be repeatable so that other, independent researchers with different biases can see if they can get the same results.

Sometimes, compromises have to be made. In medicine, it's often for ethical considerations. You wouldn't test a vaccine against placebo because it'd be unethical to ask parents, children, and those around them to risk death or disfigurement by infectious diseases for the sake of testing a vaccine that might be only slightly more effective or less prone to side effects than the standard of care. In other cases, it might be limitations on evidence. For example, there might only be one known fossil of a newly discovered species to work with.

Anecdotes and eyewitness tales are the worst kind of evidence because they involve the highest number of compromises, and often when those compromises are unnecessary. They leave in the biases of the witnesses, which leads me to my next point:

Third: Everyone is biased.

Everyone. Ev-er-yone. Yes, that includes you and me. Albert Einstein is attributed as saying "Common sense is the collection of prejudices acquired by age eighteen." The sentiment is essentially correct. We learn by observation, but if we don't temper our minds with reason, those prejudices can never be overcome. Skepticism is anathema to closed-mindedness.

Most people who call skeptics closed-minded seldom understand what the word really means or why we've rejected certain ideas. (It's important to note that rejection is a tentative state, not an absolute.) To deal with the topic of open-mindedness, I'll refer you to QualiaSoup's excellent YouTube video, which also covers many of these points:

It's because of our biases that we need to use the scientific method. Science is essentially about the minimization and removal of biases. When someone asks me to trust in "other ways of knowing," the only alternative they typically offer me is another set of biases. One of the particular galling sets of biases are those of "faith," which just strike me as putting oneself up to be a god. I'm just another fallible being, and I don't have the arrogance to assume I'm right before I even look at an argument. I may have a great deal of confidence in my position, but I always allow for the possibility that I'm wrong. And with a number of topics, if I'm wrong, it's cause for celebration.

Fourth: Please don't quote stereotypes.

A major irritation for me in blog discussions is that "woos" will often refer to stereotypes they have of skeptics they've learned from television, even if there's blatant contradiction. If you want to impress me, try asking questions about what I think instead of relying on what others in the circular mill say I think. There are far too many internet trolls who spend their time telling me what I think or what my position is and ignoring my protestations when I explain what I truly believe and why I believe it. If you think I've performed a stereotypical, irrational thing, tell me exactly where it happened and get me to explain that action or quote.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Pointless Question #56

Congratulations on your purchase of the HyperCorp Antimatter Lasgun 9000. Would you like to download a custom intimidating activation tone?

(My answer: The sound of the Ghostbusters' proton packs charging up.)

Doggerel #184: "There's No Such Thing as 'Probably' in Science!"

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

This particular doggerel was once spouted by an old troll named John Best. It demonstrates just how poorly he grasps science. "Probably" is what science is based on. Certainty is only for religious fanatics and mathematicians. Only the latter have a legitimate claim. Whenever you conduct an experiment, you have to keep open to the possibility something unknown is influencing the results, that factors outside the lab might produce exceptions, and so forth. I can drop apples all day to measure the effects of gravity and derive various laws and principles from the act, but there may very well be some sort of undiscovered anti-gravity phenomenon somewhere out there in deep space. That's speculation right now, but with any scientific knowledge, any new discoveries can change our understanding of the universe.

Additionally, with repeated experiments, especially "noisy" ones like medicine, statistical analysis becomes paramount. If you're trying to see if a chemical causes a response, you can't just try it on one person or cell culture and say it's so. You have to try it on multiple subjects and see if it's different from those not affected by it. That's what double-blind control studies are about. There has to be a statistically significant difference between the two groups. If you find one big enough to pass that bar, you haven't proven without a doubt that it has an effect, just that there's a very big chance it does. That's what the "p-value" is about: The chance that the effects could have been attributable to random chance. There's a chance if you repeat the experiment, you might find you just got lucky. It's unlikely but possible. That's one more reason why experiments are supposed to be replicable: Each successful replication makes it more unlikely to be chance.

Science is all about "probably." No matter how thinly you slice it, you can't arrive at perfect knowledge without being omniscient in the first place. Woos may love to depict that as a weakness of science, but it's not. Science is always open to change and growth. Those who claim to have certainty, especially if they maintain lower standards than science demands, are closing their minds.

Doggerel #183: "Common Sense"

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

"Common sense" is a very nebulous term. And when it comes to science, woos find it easy to use "common sense" to reject what the evidence tells us, or to reject further analysis of a situation. The problem with this is the universe isn't necessarily what it seems to be. When you get down to tiny particles on the quantum level, well, common sense is bunk. (And no, that doesn't invalidate what science says) Our minds evolved to survive long enough to have and raise children. We have to look beyond the ego involved in assuming your intuitions and biases are infallible.

To continue with the quantum example, we don't easily understand the quantum world because we evolved in the "middle world" filled with medium-sized objects moving at medium speeds over medium periods of time. Quantum events usually go unnoticed in our world because they tend to average out. When dealing with events outside that frame, we have to resist our Newtonian biases and follow the evidence where it leads. Even if it doesn't make sense at first.

Another frame we're often stuck in is a matter of numbers. We often think in very personal terms, making us vulnerable to anecdotes. The plural of anecdote is, of course, not "data." Statistics are more abstract and impersonal, so many of us have a hard time relating. Instead, if we're, say, treated to a horror story about a child developing autism right after getting a vaccine, those who trust in the infallibility of "common sense" won't ask critical questions about timing, epidemological studies, memories biased by catastrophic, conspiratorial thinking, or ignorance of other possible explanations. In the case of autism, symptoms tend to become more noticeable around the age of vaccination, not because some eternally changing and/or unspecified "toxins" alchemically altered the child's brain. As for alternative medicine "treatments," it only takes one apparent success story to spread the good word while all the failures tend to keep quiet and just move onto other forms of woo until they get some small improvement to champion.

Common sense still has its place in the world, such as for snap judgements, and matters where little is as stake, but in a world where scientists continuously reveal deeper levels of complexity and develop better tools, scientific thinking, not gut instinct is the best method for protecting yourself. If you want to question the experts, you must approach the matter scientifically instead of spouting a collection of prejudices often called "common sense."

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Doggerel Request April 2009

Just thought I'd check up on new ideas for Doggerel, and maybe do an inventory of ones I haven't used yet. In the big round number department, I've reserved some slots:

#190: "Nothing"
#200: "You Just Tear Things Down!"

Drop suggestions in the comments.

Pointless Question #55

Listen up, minions! We've been tracking a young card player who's been winning tournaments left and right. We fear he may have the potential to wield the power of the Atlantean Spirit Cards against us. The current plan is to send wave after wave of you to challenge him to a children's card game to get his rare cards and cripple his missing father's deck. Any other suggestions?

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Ice Cream Cake! And Stuff.

I've got a coupon for $3 off an ice cream cake that'll expire on May 1st. I can't think of anything in particular to celebrate with it.

I've got $11.65 of gift card to spend at Best Buy.

I currently have $31 worth of credit at Game Exchange.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Pointless Question #54

Yes, despite how awesome he is, it's silly for G1 Soundwave to turn into a cassette player. At least he could be a reasonably small listening device.

But what's up with those guys who combined into a camera? Do you really need three whole Decepticons for a camera?

Doggerel #182: "I Bet You Ruin Fantasy Movies!"

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

Woos love to depict us skeptics as partypoopers, even in the non-blogging portions of our lives. Often, they don't seem to notice our other blog entries on our favorite science fiction and fantasy shows, which we can enjoy. There's a sizable portion of us who are comic book geeks. We don't feel the need to slice and dice good entertainment, or at least not on our first viewing.

The fact that we've got plenty of reason to disbelieve in various phenomena in real life doesn't affect our entertainment. We're capable of what's known as "willing suspension of disbelief." Just because the universe we live in doesn't have magic or warp drive doesn't mean the fictional universe can't. Frankly, it doesn't matter how weird or magical the fictional universe is, so long as it's reasonably consistent. Few things break my suspension of disbelief faster than self-contradiction. It works pretty well with real world woo, too.

The point is that we approach fantasy and reality differently. If we allow ourselves to accept bad reasoning and unrealistic phenomena in the real world, people can die. If we do so with a movie, the worst we risk is a bit of humiliation if we're caught indulging in a guilty pleasure. There's a difference between being easy to entertain and being gullible and open to exploitation.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Random Recall #9: Monkeys!

Kid's cartoon back in the 80's. The cast consisted of some monkeys with evil counterparts with blue-purple fur. I vaguely remember two episodes: 1) One of the reluctant mooks of the villain got disguised as one of the good monkeys, and gets attached, eventually doing a Heel Face Turn and joining the cast as one of the regular brown-furred monkeys. 2) One-shot villain comes in and gains magical control over some of the cast, turning them into angular, blocky statues or something and ordered them to steal stuff. I suspect the latter was a dream I had about the series way back when.

A Kinda Sorta of Brush With Death

Last night, I ended up remembering an experience I had as a kid. At soccer practice, someone kicked the ball in my direction and it hit me just right to knock the wind out of me. The previous times I ended up getting winded, I was able to remain standing, and occasionally sputter out a word or two. I didn't have those luxuries, that time.

I ended up falling on my back, struggling to breathe. I was in full view of the coach and my dad at the time, and they didn't overreact. I remember the coach telling someone about my condition of the moment, probably one of the kids who was understandably concerned.

As I mentioned, it was worse than all the other times I had breathing troubles, and at the time, I was worried I was going to die, and I couldn't muster the breath to say anything about how severe it was. I was focused on two things: How to communicate my level of distress and sucking as much oxygen into my lungs as I could. A few very long moments later, I felt a burning in my lungs as they got back to their regular expansion and I could get back on my feet. My dad had to convince me it wasn't as bad as I feared.

During all that time, even despite being a theist at the time, I didn't once think about God or pray for a miracle rescue. I had only the two practical options in my mind: Keep trying to breathe and get help from the people who were really there.

Doggerel #181: "Complex"

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

When you don't feel like answering questions, one of the quickest ways to answer one and drop the line of inquiry is "it's complicated." If I'm watching a middle episode of Death Note, and someone steps in and asks why someone's doing something, I'd be tempted to just say, "it's complicated" and leave it at that. If I'm specifically seeking knowledge of a topic from someone who's gone through the trouble of leaving a dissenting opinion on one of my blogs, well, it's frustrating to get a brush off. It doesn't contribute to learning.

One of the more common abuses of "complex" as doggerel comes from fans of "Intelligent Design": They often assume complexity itself is a sign of design. Of course, there are plenty of instances of unnecessary complexity in life. Additionally, simplicity can be a stronger indicator of design than complexity. For example, A butter knife made from a single piece of metal is better designed than a complex array of parts that happen to have a long, flat metal surface sticking out for the purpose of spreading butter on bread.

Another difficulty is in defining complexity. Is it number of parts? Amount of DNA needed to pull it off? One alleged attempt was "Complex Specified Information," which ends up contradicting itself in its definition. Anyway, evolutionary processes can increase information quite well, and complexity with it.

Still another difficulty for ID is that if complexity can't arise without intelligence, where did the complexity of the designer come from? They usually make special exceptions in logic for this so that they don't have to explain anything.

Friday, April 17, 2009


In the Beginning, a Nothing storm randomly stirred up a lot of Nothing and assembled an infinitely intelligent god with infinite power who created the universe. We know Nothing did this because Nothing could create a god of such vast complexity. This god created the universe in six days and slacked off for the seventh, and did so in a way that just happened to look like an orderly progression of branches that lines up with evolution. He did this because the Nothing that created him gave him the random desire to make life to look like it had the distribution of features indicative of a nested hierarchy.

There's Nothing that indicates any of this happened. Creationists take this matter very seriously. For them, Nothing is sacred. Nothing is worth fighting for. Nothing is worth dying for. For Creationists, Nothing is more important than life-saving advancements in science, the pursuit of the truth, and academic standards.

This even extends to social matters. Nothing forbids Creationists from standing up for equal rights for those of a different sexual orientation or those of different beliefs. Nothing is held higher than justice, equality, and fairness.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

YouTube Plug: Qualia Soup

You saw his recent, excellent video on "open-mindedness" making the rounds on the skeptical blogs, so I thought I'd take a look at his other stuff. Below the fold, some I was particularly impressed by. Be nice and vote 'em up while you're there. Subscribing to his channel would be nice, too.

The Superstitious Pigeon:

Hell: An Excessive Punishment:

In the Beginning, God Created Injustice:

Absolutely... Not:

It Could Just be Coincidence:

Who am I kidding? They're almost all great.

Stop Believing Hollywood About Us

This post is written for the religious people who stop by. I've gotten sick of a number of atheist stereotypes you're often fond of passing around.

1. We didn't become atheists so that we'd be free of a moral standard. Many of us ended up starting our path to atheism out of moral disgust with our churches, preachers, etcetera. I stopped my church attendance when a new Sunday school teacher openly condoned the pointless suffering known as Hell. I had thought everyone there went through a looser interpretation to dismiss the torture chamber in favor of, at most, a temporary prison with a finite sentence. And worse, he saw nothing wrong with categorically throwing non-Christians in there. I left because I couldn't tolerate God being described as a fascist with such random, arbitrary, tribalist standards. I had already known a number of non-Christians who were decent, upright people. The idea that he and his diabolical interpretation of God would be just hunky-dory with throwing them in a lake of fire for no reason strained my credulity. I left, convinced he was a empty, heartless Satanist. (That was before I met a Satanist online who chewed out a Christian white supremacist by telling him her interracial marriage was all about love, and that his idea of women as baby factories was appalling.)

2. We don't necessarily hate God. That's primarily reserved for maltheists, those who believe God exists and that he's evil. Atheists regard him as a fictional character. Different versions merit different emotional responses. The merciful, compassionate God I believed in is still okay by my standards, if more than a bit confused. The tyrannical, genocidal, slaver god of the fundies merits nothing but contempt. Atheism just means I'm relieved to know the latter is highly unlikely to exist. Unfortunately, there are people who hold that monster up as a moral ideal and make sloppy attempts at justifying acts that are clearly evil.

3. We aren't wild, selfish hedonists. I plan having a decent life span to enjoy. Going out and doing crazy criminal things for thrills is going to cut my short time in this world even shorter. I'm probably blander than you are. That's one reason. Mostly, though, we're a morally inclined bunch who don't want to bring any hurt unto others. Christians didn't invent the golden rule. It's a part of who we are as social beings, and necessary for an orderly society where its members can feel safe. Please, no apologetics to create special loopholes in the principle.

4. We aren't rebelling for the sake of rebellion. Yes, there are teenagers who go through stereotypical emo phases like that. No, we're not like those who can't articulate a good reasons to be skeptical of theism. If you'd stop being so closed-minded and repeating rationalizing stereotypes and discuss the merits of theism, you'll actually get something from us.

5. No, we aren't hurting. Some of us have had bad experiences in life, but pretty much every atheist I know arrived at the position through logic, not a knee-jerk response to a tragedy. Theism is a positive claim without good evidence. It's supported only by fallacies and wishful thinking. That's how I think about it. It'd be nice if there was a compassionate being protecting us and such, but we're not about to take wishful thinking as evidence. Without evidence, your belief in a happy afterlife won't comfort us, even if we haven't learned to cope with the inevitability of death, anyway.

6. Yes, we can say without equivocation that Hitler, Stalin, and Pol Pot were evil. Hitler was a genocidal, maniacal fundie. Stalin killed and gulaged people for having different political and scientific opinions. Pol Pot committed mass murder for the sake of some agrarian utopia pipe dream. We have pretty firm moral principles against killing. The fact that the latter two were atheists has about as little to do with us as Catholics have to do with the ancient Mayans, who believed in gods that demanded blood sacrifices. Stalin and Pol Pot may have been atheists, but they acted in the name of absurd utopian practices and believed the ends justified the means. You'd be extraordinarily hard pressed to find one among us who support any of those figures. And if you do, tell me so that I can flame them.

This post is subject to expansion.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Tree Metaphor

Yesterday, we had a tree cut down in our yard. (Conveniently, it was technically public property, since it was near enough to the road. Handy to have a registered surveyor in the house.) It was in danger of falling over after the Sunday storm loosened its roots a little more. Last hurricane to pass through the region got it started. Anyway, I ended up with a metaphor for evolution in the process:

I've heard that having an automatic sprinkler system in your lawn tends to cause problems for the trees: The regular watering and some leakage gives the trees easy access to surface water. As a result, the roots stay shallow in the soil. If they had to contend with drier conditions, the roots would grow deeper and provide a better foundation. With shallow roots, hard rains can loosen the soil they're in, causing the whole tree to fall.

That's like evolution, in a way: The tree doesn't have any foreknowledge or intelligence. It doesn't know it needs deep roots to avoid toppling from a storm. It's programmed by its DNA and developmental environment. The roots grow towards water sources. In times of drought, they'll grow downward, and coincidentally provide a stronger base. Those conditions exist in nature, but we change that with those around our houses. The roots grow for short-term interest, but in the wild, the strategy leads towards long-term success by a strong root base.

Evolution only responds towards short-term success. Long-term success happens, but an environmental change can easily destroy that. That's because it doesn't have any foresight either. One example is "Killer X mutation," a gene selfish enough that it tends to cause extinction of its species out of 'short-sightedness'. In the short run, the gene benefits by making copies of itself more plentiful. In the long run, it ends up eliminating the male population and wiping out the species.

There's no Platonic eidolon leading creatures towards some perfect form, or any foresight that'll provide us with superhumans adapted for catastrophes that haven't happened yet. There's just population statistics that favor genes that have momentary advantages.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

109th Skeptics' Circle

It's up at Lay Science.

Open thread as usual, except questioning my sources is FORBIDDEN!

Pointless Question #53

I'm going to be getting back to the roots of the original PQ in this one: So, you've been training in simulators and have gotten high marks. You've gotten your own mech and survived a long time despite the short life expectancies of mooks.

So, what you going to do when you when it's time for an upgrade? Steal the super prototype? Get some custom work done to break from the crowd? Or just paint the whole thing red because, you know, red ones go three times faster?

Oh, and bumped into this guy's stuff.


Thanks to poor planning on my part, I didn't have the necessary ingredients for my usual hot meal at lunch, so I checked to see if the local Sonic and/or adjacent grocery store were open. It's almost a ghost town out there. Thankfully, I found that Popeye's remained open before I had to contemplate going to The Dark Side.

Blasphemy Time

Well, it's Zombie Awareness Day, and I've been skimping on my blogging this week, despite resolving to do more. Oh well. It's a dark and stormy night beyond my window (despite being almost 11AM now), so definitely zombie weather.

I really enjoy The Brick Testament (and I'm glad to find they've started on Revelations, and even updated while I was typing). I had done a share of skimming the Bible and finding absurdities on my own. The experience made up a large chunk of my journey to atheism. Reading The Brick Testament's excerpts from Jesus's life and teachings, however, got me deeper into a certain opinion that many of you have already arrived at anyway:

Christianity started as just another rebellious apocalypse cult.

Now, I imagine there are going to be various thoughts, many of which are going to be variants of "Well, duh!" I thought I'd lay this out anyway, since TBT really boosted my confidence in the hypothesis to levels that I found it more disturbing. A couple millenia of history initially had me numbed to the feeling, like it was a quirk of history: It doesn't take a genius to infer that all religions started small, but I tended to think of most being a sort of ghestalt of superstitions that standardized over time, kind of like we've seen with UFO believers in recent decades.

The difference I felt was kind of like this: When followers looked at David Koresh, they saw Jesus. When non-follower Christians looked at him, they saw a crazy man using cult recruiting tactics. Well, now when this ex-Christian atheist looks at Jesus, I see David Koresh and his ilk. Here come the examples, illustrations, and other stuff I've given some thought to:

Jesus's Birth: He gets fathered by the holy spirit, to a virgin woman who is discovered to be pregnant. In short, this is an absurd claim that makes me wonder if it was Big Lie marketing: That someone could suggest she got pregnant by magic instead of an affair or some other old-fashioned method, and do so with a straight face has a certain power for some people: "If he was just trying to sell me something by lying, he would tell a more believable lie, therefore he must sincerely believe it." In addition, to "prove" the truth, they add on something of a coverup, Herod, the Big Bad Government Man tries to off the magic bouncing baby and does the horrible deed of killing lots of babies to get Jesus, as well as display how evil he is and how desperate he is to get rid of the competition. Sounds like a lot of cults and conspiracies circulating about these days: They spin everything they can as persecution (though to be fair, some instances can be real persecution) and advertise the government's distaste in them as "evidence" of their truth. Pretty much the gadfly corollary writ large. Of course, communications in the day were poor, so nonlocals would likely only have travelers' word for it.

Baptism: What Chosen One would be complete without the clouds parting and deep voices from the sky?

Satan's Temptations: Hero's Secret Test of Character... Only "secret" part is it's out in the desert where no one would see him go through it.

Walking on Water/Moving Mountains: Set up for allowing a follower to blame himself if he doesn't have enough "faith" to do magic.

On Marriage and Castration: Ritual castration's popular among cults, isn't it?

On Wealth/Accept Communism or Die: Cults usually have a solid form of income from new recruits.

The First Book Burning: I doubt it was the first, but you know how cults like to control information and eliminate the competition. They want believers to think they've got a unique magic of their own, too.

Speaking in Tongues: SkepDic's got some of the details covered. To me, it seems a lot like hypnotism, so-called qi-attacks, and those preachers who knock down believers with a wave of their hand: It's shaped by cultural expectations. If I recall correctly, people back then thought crazy people and epileptics were magic. Glosolalia happens in schizophrenics and I don't have trouble imagining it happening with an epileptic, so a crowd suggestible to quiver and gibber probably wasn't hard to find back then.

The Parable of Many Murders: Putting God up as a landlord and humanity as a bunch of savages who won't pay the rent. Manufactured guilt for a crime not commited, since that absurdly patient landlord doesn't exist. Jesus puts himself up as the landlord's son, so you'd better not disrespect him or the fictional landlord boogey man'll get you.

On Family: Cults love to divide families. Anyone who's had a falling out with their family has a neon sign saying "recruit me" floating over their heads. Hating oneself also saves cults the effort of breaking someone down before building them up in their image.

On Prayer: I usually prefer to read it as an endorsement of modesty in your piety, though I suppose it could also be read as suggestion of secrecy. Definitely one of the shakier things in my thoughts, but there it is.

On Self-Defense: I'm definitely a fan of non-violence most of the time. It can get ridiculous to the extreme, but if you think of this as a principle of non-violent protests, it's easier to win sympathy when you're not resisting The Man. Of course, this sympathy can be used for good or for evil.

Dogs and Pigs: Smells kind of like a metaphor for... What's the term Scientologists use for critics who supposedly can't be cleansed of their thetans?... Ah, yes: DB.

On Hell: In my understanding, Christianity pretty much invented the place (or rather copied it from other religions), since Judiasm didn't originally have an afterlife. When you've got a punishment no one has evidence of, you have to compensate by making it more extreme... You know, kind of like how your mother told you to tie your shoelaces for fear of tripping and breaking your neck, rather than honestly tell you that there's a chance you might stumble and skin your knees and elbows?

On the Law of Moses: If a cult's a spinoff of an existing religion, they'll often claim that they're not the ones changing anything, and that it's the mainstream church that's corrupted things.

On Peace: The usual apocalypse stuff.

On Giving: Taken to this extreme, I think it dips into the communism thing.

Anyway, I've linked and rambled enough for now. Drop your thoughts in the comments and keep your eyes open for zombies.

Monday, April 06, 2009

Doggerel #180: "Simple"

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

This is one of the words that often comes in tune with fundamental misunderstandings of Occam's Razor. Occam's Razor is about minimizing the number of entities involved in a hypothesis. For example: Creationism versus evolution. You can summarize the former as "Magic Man Done It," but that doesn't make it simpler. Modern evolutionary theory deals with several demonstrable effects that we know exist, and can't be excluded because of that. For the standard Creationism, it requires introducing two new entities: The magic man, and some unspecified force that blocks the inevitable accumulation of all the effects evolution relies on.

Further, many woos love to claim whatever they believe in is simple and yet capable of complex behavior, like ghosts, spirits, deities, exotic energies, and so forth. This is only by fiat, and usually for convenience, since many of them need to believe in something magical, but don't want to have to take it apart to understand it. Of course, they usually lack evidence of the entity in the first place.

Another instance is an assumption that certain abstract ideas like art, morality, etcetera are simple, when they're often more complex than they think. This can sometimes be deflated by asking them simple questions, like for instance, "what's the definition of [key concept]?" Many concepts seem simple until you have to explain them.

Joss Whedon Continues to be My Master

Finally got around to watching Doctor Horrible's Sing-Along Blog, and I was duly impressed. I like inversions, perspective flips, sympathetic POVs, and so forth when dealing with hero and villain archetypes. Discuss.

Bloggin' Day

Managed to get up at a decent hour, today, and since I spent much of my weekend napping, I've decided to devote the day to blogging, both here and over at the GDL cluster of stuff. Just so you know to visit regularly today.

Open and WILD thread, so pick any topic at all.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Pointless Question #51

What's up with people deconstructing genre conventions? Can't they just enjoy the show?