Sunday, January 31, 2010

Belated Link

I meant to link to this bit of Tom Foss ownage earlier, but better late than never.

129th Skeptics' Circle

It's up at the SkeptVet's Blog.

Open thread as usual, except taking me there is FORBIDDEN!

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

AC Ping!

Just thought I'd see again if any of my readers play Armored Core. I've got For Answer on my PS3, and tweaked Aria to be more competitive with humans. That includes a fair increase in speed.

Had a good series of matches this morning where I ended up being the guy on the ground taking cover from a flying opponent. Normally, I'm the eye in the sky.

Monday, January 25, 2010


I try to go artsy-fartsy. Fair Warning: Poetry, including free form, was always my worst subject in English. And now that I've typed it all, it shows.

A mystery is a wonderful surprise waiting to happen...

A mystery is for everyone's enjoyment. No one can claim ownership of a mystery.

A mystery shines bright when the world shares their awe and confusion.

A mystery blooms into its greatest beauty when someone solves it.

A mystery only brings wonder when it comes with the promise of an answer.

A mystery's answer is always beautiful, whether simple and elegant or intricate and detailed.

A mystery must always be free and in the open, no matter who fears what the answer might be.

A skeptic accepts the solution to a mystery, for the answer always leads to more mysteries to solve.

A skeptic does not lock mysteries in a vault like a fragile, useless bauble.

A skeptic nurtures openness and inquiry, so that both mystery and insight can thrive under the sun.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Quote of the Time Being #25

It's a long comment over at Orac's place by Antaeus Feldspar.

Pure ownage of a straw man factory who showed up in the thread.

Meme Discussion: Bubble Boys?

Contrary to their typical rhetoric, many altie "detox" ideas and toxin scares seem to run on the idea that the human body isn't able to heal itself. This, of course, means that you need to buy all their books, supplements, etcetera, so that you can do the right ritual to purify your body, instead of leaving it up to useless vestigial organs like the liver and kidneys, which serve no discernible function.

I'm thinking about using the term "bubble boys and girls" to describe those sorts.

The first argument I can think of against the use is that it can be considered insensitive to those people who have genuine problems with their immune system and need to remain in sterilized environments. The reason I propose the term is that many of the alties I am referring to, if they took their policy about risk to its logical end, would need to isolate themselves from the environment: They worry about trace amounts of mercury compounds, but rarely see anything wrong with eating fish. They worry about 1 in 1,000,000 risks of vaccination, but not about the deadly diseases they're made to prevent. They worry about unspecified, unknown risks of anything remotely new (even after it's been safety tested for years or even decades), but accept old, well-known risks of everyday behavior without batting an eye.

It's not a perfect fit, but I think it should be emphasized that many alties would indeed need to completely isolate themselves from the world to meet their arbitrarily high standards, hence it'd be appropriate to exaggerate just how fragile they think humans are, and the ridiculous extremes they'd require if they applied their risk aversion uniformly. Of course, I don't mean to use the label as literal truth, but as a semi-comedic exaggeration to hurl at them in hopes that it will wake them from their intellectual torpor, even if only for a moment.

Any thoughts?

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Netflixing Science

I've been needing something equivalent to my earlier doses of the good Discovery and History channel shows, so I've been perusing the Historical and Science subcategories of Documentaries. Decided it'd be appropriate to one-star all the supernatural, conspiratorial, and alien-friendly shows. The ratings are supposed to be relative to the user, so I would like to get any of the crazy crap out of future recommendations.

You'll probably be glad to know that Expelled already had less than 1 1/2 stars (1 star minimum) before I put my vote in.

Wish they had The Critical Eye. The first episode that I saw was what introduced me to homeopathy.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Science and Humility

I often like to say that science is a process of enforced humility when I compare it to the arrogance so often inherent in woo.

Science requires everyone to consider the possibility that they could be wrong. When a scientist proposes a hypothesis, he has to include an escape hatch, just in case it turns out to be a bad idea: They have to know something that could potentially prove the hypothesis wrong, whether it's in the form of a prediction that turns out wrong, or evidence against its premises.

These things must be acknowledged. That's why scientific papers tend to have an experiment's limitations openly described. That's why we have the peer review process to weed out possible errors, why experiments must be independently replicated when possible, and so on and so on and so on. By being honest about our ability to screw up, we avoid much of the trouble that comes from designating individuals as infallible gurus or prophets. It's not who you are that makes you a scientist or and "authority," but what the evidence says. There is no room in science for a cult of personality.

Of course, it's quite well known among us scientifically-minded individuals that publishing in a science journal is not for the faint of heart. Putting your work on the line, open to criticism is not easy, especially if you made a mistake. This is normal, and how science should be. All too often, I hear whines from milquetoast woos who complain about how they aren't given any special exemption from criticism, and how their ideas are so fragile that they need to be shielded from open discussion. It sickens me. Science may be harsh, but it's supposed to be fair: No one gets a free pass. No idea is above criticism. That's how science has gotten to where it is today: By knocking down all the weak ideas, the accurate theories stand out and prosper.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Gabriel, If You're Reading This...

...Pay very close attention. Reread it multiple times if you have to. You may not realize it now, but this post is going to become very inconvenient for you. You've got a lot of psychological defenses erected that prevent you from even trying to pay attention to what I really think. That's the source of my frustration, and why I so often bury my face in my palm. It's also a great source of amusement for me to dissect the contradictions you end up trapping yourself in.

Of course, none of that has broken you out of your distorted modes of thought: Black-and-white thinking, reference to television stereotypes instead of the real people you're arguing with, a disdain for complex answers, and probably many, many others. That's why I'm going to provide some summaries of my actual views on the various topics (and relentless subject changes to your pointless obsessions) in one handy space. Any additions or edits will be accompanied by a time stamp.

Genetics and Intelligence:

I currently have little or no reason to believe there are any great differences between any large groups of humans on the genetic "hardware" level. Intelligence, knowledge, skill, and whatever other mental abilities others may care to bring up are primarily built on nurture, not nature.

In other words, if you're born and raised in a place that has easy access to good schools, libraries, experts, and laws that protect the free exchange of ideas, you've got a much, much better chance at being an intelligent, educated, and capable person. If, on the other hand, you're born into a place without schools, are forced to spend the bulk of your time and resources just staying alive, have limited access to modern knowledge and theories, are surrounded by superstitious, unscientific people, and live under an oppressive government that outlaws free speech, then you are very unlikely to prosper.

I see nothing controversial about this simple prediction. You can ramble on about personal responsibility, but that doesn't change the fact that human beings are profoundly affected by their environment. Individuals who can bootstrap themselves up from nothing by sheer will are true rarities, more suited for Mary Sue fiction than a discussion about the real world. You can raise complaints about the exact proportionate responsibility between internal and external influences, but a few percentage points won't wash away the full depth of human interdependency. If you can't get reliable access to good sources of knowledge, it's doubtful that you're going to be a big contributor to the progress of human civilization.


No, I do not for an instant believe that someone raised in an impoverished nation without an education, without good health care, etcetera, like in many third world countries, is equal in ability to me. I know it's not "PC" to say so, and I am not one of those excessively sensitive TV stereotypes who thinks blunt truths should never be spoken. The good news, however, is that the inequality can be treated by education and a developed infrastructure. There is a difference in ability, but not for any of the reasons you think, Gabriel.

The only place we should be judged as equals is in the eyes of the law: We should both have equal rights. In an ideal world, we would have equal access to opportunity, In this hypothetical scenario, we should rise or fall by our own merits, which would not be overshadowed by accidents of birth.

Measuring us by genes alone, we're probably going to be quite close. The difference in our abilities comes primarily from upbringing, available resources, and so on. It wasn't my DNA that placed my birth in the US. It wasn't my DNA that paid for my college tuition. It wasn't my DNA that ensured the various doctors who looked over me were able to earn their credentials and save me from dying of measles or other childhood illness. It wasn't my DNA that put the books in the local library or good science shows on my television. My DNA had little, if anything, to do with my prosperity.

It's the difference in infrastructure that bears the lion's share of the responsibility for the disparity between people of developed and undeveloped nations.

Genetics and Race:

When it comes to the human genome, eugenicists like Adolph Hitler were idiots. There's no "pure" thing to be "diluted". Genes do not work that way. Genes are not a solvent that can be concentrated or diluted. Genes are more like cards: You copy and then shuffle decks together to produce a child. You can't get half a Jack of Spades. And people often have more than one child. If there's an advantageous gene in one of the parents, there's a fair chance it'll get passed on and copied. Maybe even multiple times. Now imagine this done with thousands or millions of decks that get copied every generation.

Sex is so popular with us multi-cellular organisms because it allows advantageous traits to propagate faster. An asexual organism with an advantage can only spread its helpful genes at the rate it personally can have children. Many organisms sharing DNA take advantage of variety in that way. If genes were continuous, instead of discrete, it could have been a death knell for evolution: Advantageous mutations would be diluted immediately in the next generation.

One of the most important things for the long term survival of a species is genetic diversity. Diversity gives a species a greater chance to have an answer to unforeseen problems. Right now, the place with the greatest genetic diversity is Africa: Those of us who descended from migrants are touched by founder effects: When a migrating tribe left Africa, they reduced the pool of possible candidates to reproduce with. It's a lesser form of inbreeding. Thankfully, as technology advanced, methods of travel became more commonplace, allowing people to potentially pick from the entire world. Given generations of crossbreeding, I think I have plenty of reason to believe that those ancient founder effects are only going to get weaker and weaker.

Infrastructure and Health:

Gabriel's often brought up long life expectancies in Scandinavia. Despite some of my reader's links that show a fair mix up at the top, even if Scandinavian nations had a solid hold on the best lifespans, there's no reason to attribute it to genetics. This may come as a shock to you, Gabe, but there are other reasons for people to live long lives. You know, like doctors. Europe has a lot of nations with better access to health care. Doctors don't just sit around twiddling their thumbs all day. They prevent and treat diseases. There's also law enforcement and national stability: Countries with capable police and stabilizing political influences tend not to end up with people being killed in their prime. There's also technology: Developed nations have all sorts of networks to keep food, water, and electricity available. Developed infrastructure begets progress. The lack of an infrastructure breeds stagnation.

None of these things are dependent on individual genetic variations, only on social and economic order. There is no clear difference in the "races" to cause social and economic change. I'd need an in-depth comparison between genetic samples to reverse that opinion. You, however, seem to prefer the laziness of casual observation over the hard work of science. This isn't about your knowledge versus mine, it's your knowledge versus the collective work of hundreds if not thousands of scientists. I just favor the scientists and the self-correcting nature of science over a self-declared authority who seems to pride himself on doing less than the bare minimum science demands. Is that so unreasonable?

What a Nation Needs:

A civilization is not something that just happens when people bump into each other. A stable, sedentary lifestyle requires an equally stable food supply. For agriculture, you need arable soil, predictable weather, steady rain, and some plants that are nourishing enough to be worth raising and breeding. Africa wasn't quite as graced with those things as other continents. And that's just for food. Founding a nation requires many, many things we so easily take for granted.

Gabriel, your conversations seem to utterly dismiss this. You place your concept of "race" as the one founding cause of everything. It reminds me of a Creationist argument about human population growth that treats it as only a function of time, as if food, disease, and war had no impact on the number of people in the world. The world is a messy, complicated place, full of events that have multiple causes. In science, things should be a simple as possible, but no simpler. Occam's razor is not a chainsaw.

Stay-at-Home Moms:

When you changed the subject to this, it was one of the biggest Whiskey Tango Foxtrot moments I had with you. It came out of nowhere, and there was absolutely no question that it was more desperate stalling on your part. My view is quite simple: Not all stay-at-home spouses are lazy. Cooking, cleaning, child care, accounting, home maintenance, volunteer work, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera all take time and effort. Whether or not you and the IRS call it a "job" or "work" is irrelevant. Whatever a homemaker's motives for scrubbing the floor, a choice of label will not change the amount of chemical energy or time expended. Calling it a "responsibility" will not make the work done less productive. That's my point. These things take time and effort, and fiat will not change that.

My Alleged Jealousy:

As implied by my links to Doggerel #2, this is utterly irrelevant. The Secret is pseudoscience. My emotional state, whatever it may be, does not magically alter reality. Science is about removing the effect a person has on the data. If I were jealous, it would not change the outcome of a genetic analysis. It would not alter the capabilities of the F-22 Raptor. It would not reverse the burden of proof in logic.

The fact that you keep trying to change the subject to your delusions about my mental state tells everyone that you've entered this debate unarmed: You can't cite genetic studies to back up your pseudoscience about "diluted" racial characteristics, so you resort to ad hominem. You can't even commit to answering my question about whether or not race is even genetic. You're all rhetoric, no logic or evidence.


I went over one of your other favorite Whiskey Tango Foxtrot subject changes in another post... In which you were unable to focus on anything, judging by your comments. It seems when the subject isn't Wikipedia, you're free to parrot your favorite television stereotypes by changing the subject to Wikipedia, but when I explicitly tell everyone my very pragmatic views about the site, you're too scared to respond in a meaningful way.

What makes your argument so pathetic is that my view is a null hypothesis: Wikipedia deserves no special treatment. You, on the other hand, imply that all the rules of scholarly research and even the objectivity of the universe are overturned when Wikipedia is involved.

Wikipedia is a big encyclopedia on the Internet. That's it. It is not a magical reality alteration device. Wikipedia is ordinary.

World of Warcraft:

I don't play it. Just not that interested. Even if I did, I doubt I could hold any stereotypical obsession that's friendly towards TV and newspaper "journalists" who like to show the crazy extremes in their efforts to call any new media evil. If anything, I'm growing more and more into the casual gamer category. Gaming is a hobby. Some people watch football. Some people like to soup up their cars. Some people paint. Some people read classic novels. Some play musical instruments. There is no fundamental difference between videogames and other hobbies.

Now that I've covered some of my perfectly ordinary, sane opinions on Gabriel's favorite topics and distractions, I'm curious just what to expect if he comes back. It's going to be rather inconvenient for him if I can clearly and distinctly point to my real opinions, rather than the ones he can only parrot, citing daytime television as his source.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Quote of the Time Being #24

From James Sweet:

By the way, I recently coined the term The Quantum Gambit for the following argument:

1) My insane theory doesn't make any goddamn sense.
2) Quantum theory is supported by mountains of evidence, but even it's strongest proponents (e.g. Feynman, Schroedinger, etc.) have gone on record saying that it doesn't make any goddamn sense.
3) Therefore, my insane theory is probably supported by mountains of evidence.

The Reality of Wikipedia

I've just about given up with trying to get Gabriel to stick to any subject, so this post will be about one of his favorite distractions. Wikipedia is to Gabriel as shiny objects are to ferrets.

Since I won't shy away from melting Gabriel's brain by saying what I actually think about Wikipedia (though his functional illiteracy will prevent him from comprehending what I say), I'll say it quite simply: Standard research principles still apply.

Wikipedia deserves no special consideration, despite Gabe's protests to the contrary. Wikipedia articles should be approached in the same manner you would approach any piece of information. It's that simple. Wiki pages aren't magically correct or incorrect on their own. They're only as good as the sources they cite, the logic they employ, and so forth. The internet may get more people together from wider areas and speed up their exchange of ideas, but doing something faster doesn't and shouldn't change the underlying process. It doesn't matter if you're talking about a prestigious library or bathroom graffiti. Science remains science. The principles you learned in your writing classes are still relevant, despite the essentially trivial addition of how to cite websites to your style books.

Gabriel, it seems, believes otherwise: Wikipedia is Automatically Wrong, no matter how much good evidence an article cites. If someone were to conduct a scientific study on the sky on a clear, sunny day, taking snapshots with accurate digital cameras and objectively measuring the hue from the resulting image files, all that scientific rigor is for naught if someone posts an article about the study on Wikipedia: If Wikipedia cites that study and summarizes the results by saying the sky is blue, it magically transforms all those collected image data so that the sky is chartreuse or magenta. In short, Gabe is telling us to screw epistemology, Wikipedia has ushered in a newage (rhymes with sewage) of contra-revelation: Instead of having allegedly infallible fairy tale books to inform us of the world (revelation), he believes we now have the Automatically Wrong Wikipedia to tell us how the world isn't.

I say otherwise: Wikipedia is just another reference source. Like all reference sources, it has its own biases, its own flaws, and so forth. It's only unique in that it's continuously updated, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worst. The presence or absence of Wikipedia has no impact on the core of epistemology. It does not overturn logic. It does not invalidate the scientific method. It does not magically transmute the data scientists so rigorously collect.

I simply fail to see why Gabriel is so pathologically obsessed with something that changes so little about the world.