Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Troll Roast?

I'm thinking about poking some trolls on their home turf to get a roast going on over here. I've done a few attempts over the last year, but they'd usually just do some hit and run. Any suggestions?

String Theory Thread

Pardon the pun in the title. I've seen a number of explanations on TV, as well as some science place's contest for quickie explanations, but I thought I'd go ahead and have a comment thread devoted to discussion, including going back to the basics. I do know it's not well regarded among many of my fellow skeptics as it is in the media, but I figure it's worth bringing up again, in the off chance something happened in the LHC when I wasn't looking. I like hearing about the tiny little bits of stuff the universe is made of, even if I don't understand it all.

I think it's a nifty idea, but nifty does not equate to useful or even meaningful.

The "Faith" of Not Knowing

Skeptico recently posted an excellent article I will probably link to plenty of times in the future. In fact I should probably add a link as a "see also" in the Doggerel Index. It gave me a bit of a flashback to an idiot troll calling himself "Mr. FreeThinker" who apparently thought "we don't know yet" counts as an extraordinary claim. This is, of course, to borrow a phrase from across the pond, utter bollocks.

I also had a flashback to a clip of Bill O'Reilly with Richard Dawkins. He essentially said that as long as us scientifically minded people don't know, he's free to believe whatever random stuff some guys just made up ex nihilo. That, of course, makes it a matter of pure, baseless faith.

Of course, science has given us great knowledge. We know evolution happened and have a damn good idea about many of the details. We know the Earth revolves around the sun. We know The Big Bang happened. The evidence for all of these things gives us >99% confidence. Of course, we can't know everything, since we can't shove the entire universe into an evidence locker or examine the whole of its lifespan. There are still unanswered questions, like what happened before the Big Bang, or even if that's a meaningful question.

Yes, we've got a lot of cosmologists doing mathematical calculations of what happens when you play Cat's Cradle with superstrings, trying to figure out those answers. Who knows, they might find and successfully test an answer. Right now, they don't, and many of my fellow skeptics have expressed doubts about the whole approach since testability is hard to come by. In any case, we don't know yet. Not knowing is only a mild irritation for most of us, and often exciting for those doing the research: They're going to get a surprise, no matter what the results are.

For faithheads, not knowing is somehow an indictment for science: Because science isn't perfect, they need to make up a perfect being to tell them what to believe. Of course, there are a lot of these fictional beings competing for dominance because evidence isn't involved. Seems to me you could pick one or a set at random and still be on equal ground with all the other stone idol roulette players.

Of course, I think the only winning move is not to play.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Woos and Victims

Used to, when I ran into woos espousing the power of positive thinking, the idea that if you want something bad enough, you'll get it, I'd just take it as fluffy naive stuff, and generally move onto more directly harmful sorts of woo. I ended up reevaluating that attitude around the time I started blogging. The particular triggering incident involved an advocate of The Secret who saw no problem with an implied reversal of the hypothesis: If you're doing badly, it's your fault because you obviously attracted misfortune with negative thoughts. It got up to sickening levels when rape victims and the Holocaust came up.

I haven't heard as much from the Secretards over the past year, and I hope that's a sign the hype is dying away. At least until the next positive thinking fad gets a guest on Oprah.

Blaming the victim is one of woo's favorite ways to deal with failure. Much of the time it's not deliberate: Most woos are true believers, and when their pet magic fails, one of the easiest excuses to formulate is "you're doing it wrong!" With science-based things, it's a possibility, but there's always something to examine to figure out where the problem lies. No such luck with woo: There's always large realms of vagueness, and many give excuses to claim what the victim was thinking.

Of course, the knowing frauds take full advantage of this meme: If they can blame the people paying for their services and make them believe they're the ones to blame, the huckster doesn't have to worry about getting any results whatsoever. They can prosper from inaction and deception.


Not my usual topic, but it's something I've said to my dad once or twice: Okay, so we've got the F-22 Raptor. It's got stealth, supercruise, thrust vectoring, and can turn into a giant robot. This is all supremely nifty.

But really, who are we going to be using it against?

Yeah, I realize it's probably just in case relations with other developed countries goes really sour, or something like that, but it still feels off.

Free Energy Boondoggles

Well, NeuroLogica has a post up about our old friend, the Steorn device. The result of the evaluation by independent scientists is unsurprising: No free energy, and after two years, they're stopping. Apparently some cynics have come out of the woodwork to waggle their fingers spookily about cover ups.

First, let me just say that free energy would be profoundly awesome, not just from an energy policy perspective, but from a discovery perspective. The laws of thermodynamics look to be very firm on a fundamental level. Finding a consistent violation of any sort would tell us there's something we've really been missing out on. That's why it makes absolutely no sense that scientists would attempt to cover it up.

Those of us who live with the wonderful technology of developed nations should have some inkling that we're prospering because scientific knowledge informs us about how we can use our resources. Yeah, the oil companies want to stay on top, but they can't buy off everyone with a physics degree. A violation of the LoT's would have all the physicists stampeding over each other to find out what they can learn. Our understanding of physics would be torn down, and any clever physicist could get his name in the history books alongside Newton and Einstein if he could work out what allows the exception. And, naturally, they'd be able to make a lot of money and put the oil companies out of business.

So, all those woos out there who seriously think there's a cover up: Seriously, why do you consider nigh-infinite cynicism as a superior explanation than the possibility you just backed the wrong horse? Has it ever occurred to you that the people promising sunshine and lollipops are the ones lying and/or being stupid?

Sunday, June 28, 2009

D&Dify Some Stuff #5

WANTED: Individuals of varied talents to join a new secretive group devoted to sabotaging aggressive military groups and retrieving stolen relics and confiscated arcane literature.

Uniform: Black and gray camo with hexagonal shoulder guard and individualized animal/magical beast mask. Each member is assigned a number.

Current members: Captains 16, 25, and 36.

Must have some talent for secrecy or stealth, or barring that, exceptional ability to avoid capture. Nonlethal methods of disabling opponents strongly preferred. We have a reputation to build.

Positions in higher demand:

Intelligence officer: 16 needs an ally to gather information on war machines in development, as well as tracking of goods stolen from recently invaded cities.

Meat Shield: Combat role of questionable glory: Must be able to protect softer, magically-oriented allies from enemy advances and be hardy enough to withstand the bulk of an assault.

Okay, now out of character: Been writing up a group like this made of some of my characters, and ideas for some additional members would be nice. The three mentioned captains are 12th level in 4th Edition stats, and have the Leader, Striker, and Controller roles filled, and need a Defender to round out. Feel free to drop in any character concepts, even if it's just for some of the lower ranks.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

D&Dify Some Stuff #4

Tonight, on the Money Programme, we're going to talk about money... I always loved money...

Okay, seriously, I'm thinking about all the forms currency can come in, and for some worldbuilding stuff, I'd like ideas on what can be made into currency.

In one of my settings, I've got a chain of islands where the natives have learned the art of farming pearls. One form of currency comes in the form of rectangular pearl tiles with a hole in one end so that the tiles can be threaded together with a string. They've been known to snicker slightly when a foreigner wears it as jewelry.

Of course, pearls would probably be one of the upper tier, like gold or platinum, so I'd like ideas for what a culture with relatively little metal to work with could use for pennies.

Any other interesting forms of currency are welcome in the thread. I'll be skimming Wikipedia.

Woos and Memory

Is it just me, or do woos have no memory? Rhetorical question, of course, because I've heard no shortage of other skeptics complaining to a woo's virtual face that they'll just forget every point made in a thread when they move onto another.

Sometimes I wonder if they do this, not out of a desire to convince us, but in a rote effort to make themselves feel better. They collect a few alleged 'zingers' that are only applicable to straw vulcans and those unrealistic fictional guys in monster movies who deny the existence of the monster up until it eats them. They blindly repeat these 'zingers' by rote in a comment ritual, and fail to comprehend any deviation from their script. They don't want to work to raise their research to an acceptable level, they want to have an easy ritual to gratify themselves.

They present their case so that when we ask questions, even honestly and politely, they can reinforce their image of us as closed-minded for not instantly accepting their flawed, unexamined thinking. Because their way of thinking is centered around reinforcement, rather than questioning, they don't change anything as they gain experiences.

That's why so often, I'm left wondering if any given woo has ever had an argument with a skeptic: No matter how many threads they ramble in, they gain no experience.

Beware of God #2

This is going to be something of an outlier for the series: It's not about any specific sign, just a trend I'm noticing. In my town, there's an awful lot of church signs about the power of prayer.

Prayer was one of the things that confused me as a kid. If God's omniscient, the act is pointless, since he'd be able to just read my mind to know what I want or need. As a result of that little line of reasoning, I tended to think of anyone who went on about prayer excessively as a little too pagan to be a modern Christian. My old fallacies aside, it seems to me that prayer is a big problem for the religious.

If prayer is supposed to work as advertised, you'd think literalists would be able to do something with mountains. Even if they can't work like Level 30 Clerics, you'd expect that they'd at least be able to consistently demonstrate statistically significant events for medical stuff. No such luck, last I checked.

Of course, many of my fellow skeptics know all about the dilemma this forms when you consider the idea of a "divine plan": Is the magic man going to change the universe's planned future just for you? Does he need reminding of the details? What's up with that?

Friday, June 26, 2009

Woos and Fallibility

There's one constant theme I notice when we criticize woos for using personal anecdotes or mention various cognitive biases, they quite often take it as us calling them stupid and nothing more. If they paid attention instead of parroting doggerel, they'd realize that we're calling them mortal.

Contrary to the aphorism, "seeing is believing," seeing is not believing. Everyone has flawed senses and biases that color the information those senses receive. That is the principle reason science was invented: We have to be aware of our shortcomings and compensate for them. We use statistics to make sure the patterns we see are real. We work on the principle of falsification so that we always have an escape hatch from bad ideas. We know that we can make mistakes. When we do, we admit them, and redouble our error checking methods when we move on.

Many woos, however, commit the perfect solution fallacy when it comes to science: "Science was wrong before, therefore we should trust in ideas randomly dreamed up by ancient traditions and some guy who's never performed experiments." That's the nasty thing about woo: It sets double standards. They're free to form ad hoc hypotheses for whenever their favorite woo utterly fails, but any tiny perceived failure of science, real or not, invalidates the entire process.

Science is a process that enforces humility. The peer review process requires that every idea endures criticism and retesting. No one is above questioning. Woo is an ivory tower, and its occupants call us "arrogant" for dragging them down to Earth, stripping them of their place above the gods, and daring to suggest we're all the same.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Beware of God #1

Just about everyone's done commentary on a church sign or two, and only now do I come up with a series title that match up with my dog puns. I saw this one on the way back from going to the movie theater-SQUIRREL!

...I saw this one on the way back from going to the movie theater with my parents. It went something like this: "Do we give each other the love that we seek from God?"

If you're a fundie looking for love from God, you're barking up the wrong tree.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Not Having Fun

My cable modem isn't providing this "high speed internet" they repeatedly talk about. For a while, my dad was placating me with talk of how bandwidth gets spread out when everyone nearby is online, but we recognized that excuse was wearing thin when I was having trouble reading my blogs at 9 AM on a Wednesday. Something needs to change, soon.

At least Gmail and posting work well enough for now.

Speedy Q&A #3

Q. Why do scientists reject Creationism?

A. Because when you're testing hypotheses, the null hypothesis of "It's completely random" is among the first to go.

Religion Should Stay the Fuck Away From Love

I've been meaning to write something about this for a while, but I've been putting it off, partially because my connection's terrible this week. I'll add links later, when I can actually load the relevant pages. Recently, PZ posted about a Hindu/Muslim interfaith couple. They loved each other, but their community and family would have none of it, demanding that their marriage be annulled because of the difference in faith. They ended up committing suicide in the end. This is just one more reason why religion should stay the fuck out of matters of the heart.

I don't have much romance in my life, but I do have some passion for the topic. I'm a sucker for two people who love each other making it work against the odds. And I don't care if they're from different classes, opposite sides of a war, religions, or of the same gender. Heck, I'm fine and dandy if one's a sapient robot and the other's an alien. Biology isn't relevant, and frivolous cultural labels don't really matter to me. It's their lives, and if they want to spend it together, they should able to.

I especially detest the tribalism involved in objections based on religion or race. It really brings home how petty some people are. Stone idols with pointless demands should hold no sway over a person's heart. Let us continue to smash such frivolities with logic and ridicule.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Elements and Materials in Fantasy

No skepticism in this topic, just geekery.

Got a favorite classical element? Got some favorite non-classicals that different fantasy settings put alongside the standard four?

I've usually been a fan of Air, though lately I've been drifting towards Water. Non-classicals I like are Wood and Metal. Light and Dark tend to be good additions as well, but I prefer they be without the good and evil connotations.

Any particular fantasy materials you like, along the lines of mythril, adamantite, cold iron, etcerta?

Feel free to ramble on about any fantasy setting, homebrew or published.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Doggerel #186: "Empowering"

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

I've had a post about some stereotypes I tend to work by sitting in draft format for quite a while. One of those involves the type of "feminist" Oprah appeals to. They often fall into the "no wrong answers" crowd that rails against the high confidence of science. It often creates an atmosphere similar to that I experienced in my early school years, when self-esteem was all. Or rather, the comedic exaggerations of the fad.

There's a difference between empowering a person and giving the illusion of power. In the chaotic world, especially before the various revolutions in science, the illusion of knowledge in the form of superstition gave people the feeling of control over that chaos. False understanding helps coddle the believer's ego, but it does not solve problems.

Giving someone decision-making power without the proper ability to evaluate the choices can hardly be called empowerment. Additionally, many of those in the "no wrong answers" mindset want it both ways: They want to "empower" people to succeed without also empowering them to fail. Critical thinkers who point out logical flaws or misinformation are seen as the enemy for enforcing the harsh standards of meritocracy and pointing out the failures some woo has been empowered into making.

Worse, this "empowerment" is often tied to some traditionally underprivileged group: Instead of judging an issue on its merits, we're expected to defer to them because they belong to that group: We're supposed to treat some wootastic form of "women's intuition" or "eastern wisdom" as superior to scientific data because they say so. Those who wish for equality, and those who treat them fairly are vilified for daring to criticize them. Hypocrisy is quite natural for woos.

Possible Minefield Topic: Good Propaganda?

Yeah, skeptics like us usually talk about propaganda when it's obviously either a bad thing or at least being used for bad things.

But when, if ever, can we use it with a clear conscience?

I tend to think it's okay in the case of humor, when it's supposed to be obvious, as well as situations where you're dealing with a woo so thick you have to hold 'em up to a mirror in a desperate bid to provoke at least a couple neurons.

Pointless Question #63

Why do people drive on parkways or park on driveways? Don't these people know English?

The Lone Scientist

One annoyance that crops up every once in a while is some woo started by some guy who cloistered himself and thought up some fully formed idea of how everything works. It's straight from Hollywood myth, which exaggerated some aspects of early scientists. There were some who closed themselves off to perform experiments with infant fields and produce dramatic, unambiguous results. The time that's been possible is likely over.

Everything we study these days covers increasingly subtle details about the world's workings, and/or require massive data collection efforts. For subtle details, you need other researchers watching over your shoulder in the form of peer review, looking out for errors. For mass data collection, you can't work in isolation, and other people looking over that data will examine it to make their own discoveries. Science is now a team effort.

The only reason woos have for fostering the cloistered mad scientist model is the genre savvy appeal: In the movies, the lone scientist is always right because he's the poor underdog. And everyone loves an underdog. But life is not a movie. There is are no Rules of Cool or Drama. There are no Mary Sues or Marty Stus. Treating a pet woo as such will only irritate us in the manner of Wesley Crusher.

TV Tropes links omitted to save people time. That, and it's a Saturday night. Connection's slow.

False Bravado

It's sometimes hard to explain how I can tell the difference between false bravado and real bravado. Well, maybe not. Most of the people with false bravado don't have the science on their side. Thanks be to statistical mathematics for being able to explicitly quantify confidence.

Creationists always come across as the most desperate to me. Unfortunately, most don't even understand the issue, so they think their random theory of randomness actually has an edge over the reliability of evolution. If they weren't so wantonly repetitive it'd be merely sad instead of frustrating.

I suspect many anti-vaxxers are aware how poor their position is, since they have to change hypotheses every couple of weeks. They were certain it was thimerosal over here, and now I'm hearing it's Children's Tylenol + vaccines, the third most common element in the Earth's crust (after oxygen and silicon), a handful of antigens out of a child's daily dose of thousands "overloading" the system, and some weird Yin and Yang crap I rolled my eyes past that I think Happeh said a while back. They can't be all that confident if they have to change stories on a continuous basis.

Homeopaths are generally clueless in my experience. They aren't even aware of what we're complaining about: Coming up with new magical mechanisms doesn't help if you don't have a cure to explain.

Most conspiracy nuts I know seem to have a bit of double-think: They're absolutely confident in their theories, but when confronted with a skeptic, they usually have to flail around and change topics.

So, experiences to share?


Net's been pretty slow today, so I haven't been able to play catchup for the dead week. Not going to be fun having "high speed internet" only during off hours.

So anyway, alongside those books I'm willing to trade in, I've been cutting down on the clutter. So far, I'm pretty well down to just the videogames I want to hold onto, and I now have $76 worth of store credit at Game Exchange, plus whatever I'll get for my PS1 after I move my saves onto my PS3's hard drive.

I'm contemplating getting a Sega Dreamcast, or at least a region-free emulator, since I think that's within the capabilities of my laptop. I've heard of some good-sounding shmups for the system, like Radiant Silvergun, Ikaruga, and a Darius title or two. I don't know much else, other than the fact that the local shop seems to attract the really crappy-looking crap. Any recommendations?

A Bit of Trading

Since I've been...

Wait a second... (Dons his +6 Robe of Defying Flames)

...Since I've been updating to D&D's 4th Edition, I was thinking of trading in some old 3.x splatbooks and such. Generally keeping some of the fluffier stuff and monster books, since the ideas don't get old, just the statistics. Anyway, here's a list in case any of you want to trade me an apartment-warming gift for some books.

3.0 Stuff:
Epic Level Handbook
Arms and Equipment Guide
Stronghold Builder's Guidebook
Magic (AEG book with weird spellcaster classes)
Enemies and Allies (NPC and iconic character stats)
Full set of the thin 3.0 class splatbooks.

Mongoose Publishing (3.0):
Ultimate Feats
Ultimate Arcane Spellbook
Ultimate Divine Spellbook
Ultimate Magic Items
Ultimate Games Designer Companion (Mostly about d20 rules for vehicles, armies, new skills, etcetera)
Encyclopedia Arcane (Thin book about constructs)
Power Classes: Artificer and Alchemist (Pamphlet-sized base classes)

3.5 Edition:
Player's Handbook (I've got one of the leather bound ones that's more up to date on errata, allegedly)
Expanded Psionics Handbook
The Book of Nine Swords
Weapons of Legacy
Dragon Magic
Spell Compendium
Magic Item Compendium
Complete Psionic, Adventurer, Divine, Champion, Warrior, Scoundrel (I'm keeping Mage and Arcane for now)

Sports and Superstition

I see a fair share of woo out there that claims increases in sports performance or pain relief, and in comes the endorsements from celebrity sports stars. Or at least I think they're supposed to be sports stars. I don't keep up with that sort of thing, so I don't know who's good or not. Anyway...

I'd take any endorsement for health or performance claims from sportsmen, and it may have to deal with a stereotype I have: Sportsmen are superstitious. I've read some commentary on one bit of flawed thinking that comes easily to a lot of people, and even I'm vulnerable to it at times: "The Zone" It's that place where everything clicks and you do everything right. And it's because you were wearing your lucky shirt.

Actually, no. Streaks of good performance as well as bad occur because of statistical clustering: When you're gathering data of something essentially random (and there's a lot that can influence physical skills over long periods), you can expect there to be some points where highs and lows gather, rather than a completely uniform distribution. When one of those coincides with some new behavior or object, a baseless superstition can form.

I don't know how much is exaggerated by the media, but there seems to be a lot of that mode of thought in sports, with all sorts of unusual warmup rituals, lucky charms, and taboos. I've heard about it with native American "Medicine" that would influence their combat ability, and recently with the "mana" of tribal Hawaiian warriors. This sort of thinking is pretty well ingrained in our heads: Pattern recognition is a skill that was useful in our evolution, and the costs of being overzealous with it were low enough for us to survive despite the associated flaws.

That's why we need the introspection of science and in particular, statistical mathematics. We're no longer fighting for mere survival, but for goals that require a greater precision with increasingly subtle and intricate principles. In medicine, of course, you've got one major source of that intricacy: The human body.

Pointless Question #62

So, I was just driving along the highway, and I look up to the sky, and see a rather lewd-looking cloud. I look all around, and geeze, the clouds are like FLCLying all over the place! Who makes this stuff?!

I'm Not Dead!

Well, it's been quite a while. Been offline all week, not by a slow cable modem, but going a bit obsessive about organizing my new place. I'll get some pics for you, later. For today, to make up for my absence, you'll be getting a long stream of posts, some in a stream of consciousness manner, likely topped off at the end of the day with a new Oprah-inspired Doggerel. The word: "Empowering". Don't expect me to be up to date, though. The mysteries of how to get the dishwasher to produce clean glassware was where my head was during the dead week.

I will banish myself to a much smaller doghouse if I don't get up to ten posts today, and only one or two will be Pointless Questions.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Sex and Woo

No, this post isn't about some herbal Enzyte or whatever. This is about sexism in woo. Granted, I do have a stereotype about some female woos who worship Sylvia Browne and Oprah, who allegedly have some kind of superior "women's intuition" that trumps the scientific method because they say so, but I do my best to prevent that from influencing my arguments.

One thing that really sickens me in various threads, usually about female frauds claiming to be psychic or Oprah herself is that inevitably some woo, flailing desperately to find something to latch onto will sputter out an accusation from nowhere: "You're just bashing them because they're women!"

This sounds sexist to me for the same reason "You just voted for Obama because he's black!" is racist. When we complain about woos, we complain about their departure from the knowledge we've acquired through science, and the harm such an ivory tower attitude can bring. And then some troll comes along and tries to make the argument about who has what genitals, or what hue and value a commentator's skin is. That's what sexism and racism are: Ad hominem fallacies based on meaningless biological factors. In the real world, arguments rely on logical soundness.

I think from now on, if a troll comes along and makes that accusation, I'll call them sexist to their face and demand apologies for attempting to derail the thread.

Stuck Offline For Longer

I left a comment recently after my moving-related absence, expecting to get on with posting, soon. You may have to wait a bit longer. My cable modem's gone as slow as molasses, which has severely hampered my ability to catch up with the blogosphere. Cable guy's coming tomorrow to fix it, and given how quickly and effectively the first guy handled some TV issues, I think I'll be up to high speed, soon.

Despite not being up to the minute, I think I can tell you I've got some Oprah-inspired posts to make. I've gotten plenty of reason to despise her, lately.