Saturday, July 23, 2011


Just thought I'd bring a tiny bit more attention to this: The US is still torturing.

A while back, I was looking at the stuff about warrantless wiretaps, abuse of state secrets privilege, and so on. I thought, "At least it's been a while since I heard something about torture still going on." So much for that. If anyone knows of politicians who are doing something to stop the torture and other abuses involved with the so-called "war on terror," let me know, so that I can vote for them. Lip service alone won't do.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Lunch Break Rage

I'm worried my work plans are going to be ruined today by my current bad mood. I was eating at a restaurant with CSPAN on their TVs, which I was initially relieved, since one other member of the chain usually leaves Faux News on. Of course, that relief was shortly canceled out: The topic was a repeal of a ban on same sex marriage. I don't talk about it nearly as much as I should, but I'm one of those people who sees attacks on same sex marriage as an attack on all marriage.

The part where I came in had one person defending same sex marriage, calmly but firmly listing all the benefits that are denied to same sex spouses because of such bans. I quietly stated my agreement with him. That bit of warm fuzzy didn't last, as another person favoring the Destruction of Marriage Act (DOMA) started his spiel. Some of his points in short:

1. Tradition: He listed all sorts of "support" in the form of what nations supported as marriage in the past, neglecting to mention that for just as long, people of those traditions treated marriage as a cynical financial or political transaction. Naturally, one of the common tropes that leaps to mind is that the same argument could be used to support bans on interracial marriages.

2. Appeal to Popularity: He referred to some polls I hadn't heard of (and can't look up without more information) where the poll subjects favored "a man and a woman" as the definition of marriage. Sorry, but minority rights trump majority rule. You can't deny someone a right just because he or she wants to exercise that right in an unpopular fashion. Of course, those who are quick with search tools can probably find polls that contradict the ones he cited.

3. The Baby Factory argument: The idea that marriage exists solely for biological reproduction is one that hits close to home. There's one married couple I know where one member had to have a life-saving operation that removed her reproductive abilities. This couple already had children, but imagine if the surgery happened before they had children: If you're going to use The Baby Factory argument, you have to enforce it equally. The Baby Factory argument would require that the government annul their marriage. Combine this with the mob rule argument above, and just try to imagine what it'd be like if people voted for those two to get a divorce, and had that decision enforced by the state. The Baby Factory argument is a rejection of individual autonomy and of the modern marriage based on people wanting to share their lives with someone.

4. "Sexism says so!": He described gender roles as 'non-fungible' to claim that a child absolutely requires one man and one woman to fill the role model slots. On one level, this is a form of the tradition argument, where culture has dictated gender roles. I'd consider it foolish to think that modern culture has found the absolute limits to what the different genders are capable of. Humans are versatile beings. Some women are very good at embodying "male" roles and some men are very good at representing "female" roles. I don't think it's the state's role to dictate who can or cannot fulfill that role. What's next? If I find a woman I love, could the state force me to attend more football games and monster truck rallies to prove my "manliness" is high enough to get married?

On another level, it seems to assume that the child will be sheltered by the parents from the outside world, never meeting other adults worthy of being role models. There are other family members, friends of the family, teachers, mentors and so on who could act as role models. It takes a village to raise a child. And what are they going to do with single parents? Force them to marry a state-sanctioned spouse against their will? Funny how these people who want to regulate marriage tend to pay lip service to "smaller government."

I don't think they buy that idea themselves. Even they must realize how ridiculous it would be to enforce those stereotypes. Scratch that, I'm underestimating the capacity for stupidity in humanity, again. All these excuses reek of an attempt to rationalize an irrational bigotry after they've committed themselves to the position.

Every excuse I've ever heard for banning same-sex marriage is like this: Make up marriage rules for one type of case, and then don't enforce those same rules to heterosexual marriages when they fall short of the so-called ideal. They also roundly reject love and the individual's self-determination as the basis of a marriage in favor of the shackles of sexist traditions, the dictates of a mob, the success of insectine reproductive strategy, or the insanity of ancient religions.

That is why an attack on same-sex marriage is an attack on all marriage.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Alties and Fairness

It's become something of a trope I've used on a number of hit-and-run altie trolls: When they whine about Big Pharma being in control, I bring up my experiences with a subtype of alties: They want the non-zero amount of trust I put into the big pharmaceutical company's products, but they aren't willing to jump through the various hoops my fellow skeptics and I want enforced on all medical claims.

Some alties claim that proper clinical trials are too expensive for the Yoder's Good Health Recipe Ma & Pa business, therefore they should be exempt from those standards. The problem is that a lack of capital doesn't insulate one from self-deception, confounding factors, bias, and all the other cognitive failings we're subject to as mere mortals. An emotional appeal to poverty isn't going to prove your product works. Either you have it tested and know, or you haven't tested, and therefore, don't know if it works. If I had a health product I wanted to sell, I would have it tested well before applying the first price tag. If I don't test my product under rigorous conditions, that means I don't know whether or not it really works.

The first big question in this post: Why should I buy a product if the manufacturers don't know if it works?

The big pharmaceutical companies usually, but not always, go through the hoops of clinical trials, carefully documenting the tests. Yes, there have been instances of results being manipulated or outright falsified, but at least with a paper trail and post-market testing, there's a way to find out if fraud occurred. From what I've seen, no altie has ever operated under a system like that: They've only made excuses as to why they shouldn't go through the testing process.

Here's another big, important question: Why should I judge the pharmaceutical companies under one set of standards, and so-called "alternative medicine" under an entirely different set of standards?

It doesn't make sense to me to draw a line between medical claims of "mainstream" pharmaceuticals and the medical claims of things like herbs and supplements. Medical claims are medical claims. I don't even accept that there is such a thing as "alternative medicine": It's a false distinction created by a subculture to make excuses for not being treated like other medical claims. For the average altie I encounter, it's not about truth, it's about "Us versus The Other" with successful pharmaceutical companies as The Other.

Of course, people like me get lumped in with The Other because I don't accept the false dichotomy. Instead of arbitrary labels of "mainstream" and "alternative," I base my acceptance of a treatment on its ability to pass scientific trials: Some treatments have been shown to work. Some have been shown not to work. Some have not been properly tested, but look promising. Some have not been properly tested, but do not have any reasonable expectation to work.

The easiest way to market a failed treatment, as well as treatments expected to fail tests, is to label it "alternative." Those who buy into the false dichotomy between "mainstream" and "alternative" will likely give that treatment special consideration, instead of caring about what the clinical tests say.

Of course, one of arguments they bring up is for us to "try it ourselves." If we could determine causation based off of one observation, we wouldn't need the scientific method. If we weren't capable of self-deception, we wouldn't need double-blinding. We are flawed beings, and we have to work hard to counteract those flaws with good experimental design. Anecdotes may be good for generating hypotheses, but all the flaws we have, alongside the complexity of our bodies and the surrounding universe makes them worthless for testing those hypotheses. I know that if I get sloppy, I'm perfectly capable of fooling myself. We've all done it before. Why should I expect that to change when performing an inherently sloppy piece of self-experimentation?

In short, the big problem I have with alties is that they're asking me to be unfairly biased in their favor by demanding that I make special exceptions for them, and yet they so easily accuse me of being unfairly biased towards certain people who can demonstrate and document their competence. They're like children who say the teacher's out to get them, and yet it was their choice not to do their homework.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Zoomy Physics

I've been way too quiet on my blog, but I came across an interesting term, which might be meme-worthy: Zoomies. Sin particles that contaminate a location. I imagine most of you have encountered the idea before. I really wonder what sort of strange mindset causes people to think like that.

My first real encounter with zoomies, barring sci-fi and fantasy works, was shortly before I gave up going to church. I had just done something that helped eventually lead me to atheism: I read the Bible. In this particular case, the offending parts were in Numbers, when Moses was commanding all that genocide. Inevitably, I confronted someone who claimed to believe the whole Bible with those crimes, expecting him to do as I had done at the time: Label that part as something corrupt people added afterward.

That's when it got surreal: He said that the victims of those Biblical genocides deserved what they god because they had filled up the land with so much sin, it expelled them, almost like he was talking about an ecological disaster, rather than human beings engaging in religiously inspired plunder, mass murder, and rapine against another group for suspiciously unspecific sins. It didn't help that he talked as if every person in those victim nations were interchangeable, like sin was impersonal, rather than something you associate with a particular individual's crime. In the real world, we don't blindly punish everyone from the murder's neighborhood, we seek to punish the murderer.

I felt like I had stared madness in the face: Apparently, committing a crime wasn't what his version of god was angered by: It was these magical zoomy particles that offended him. In other words, god didn't care about helping or hurting other people. He didn't care about happiness or suffering. The illusion of god's love was just a Type 1 error caused by an arbitrary coincidence between zoomy particle production and harmful behavior. Being sinful and being evil were, under zoomy physics, independent of each other.

And the contamination factor just makes it worse: Under zoomy physics, a person could give to charity, save lives, and generally work hard to make the world a better place. But it was all for naught if his neighbors produced enough zoomies to cover that up. A kind person could therefore be treated as anathema for reasons outside his control. An innocent child could be treated the same as a murderer just for being born in the vicinity of one.

It strikes me as an abdication of individual responsibility and accountability. Can you imagine if it were applied in the real world? Sadly, I think I can: A murder has taken place in a slum. Rather than do a real investigation to figure out who performed the murder, the cops just take in the first person who looks "slum" or "ghetto" or "gang" enough to have done the crime, and assume that even if good evidence against the accusation comes up, he "obviously" deserves punishment for something because living in the slum means he's contaminated with zoomies.

Now there's the reverse: Preachers of allegedly high morals get caught performing devious con jobs and/or twisted acts sexual manipulation leading to some flavor of rape. What's one of the standard excuses? "The zoomies made me do it!" Okay, they typically say "devil" instead of "zoomies," but it's essentially the same thing: Blaming something else for their crimes. I'm reminded of instances of the Catholic Church blaming hippies and such for allegedly loosening moral taboos against child molestation as a cause for priestly abuse.

Normally, I'd be eager to write off zoomy physics as an invention of people who just want to have a ready excuse for doing evil, but if everyone thought of it as a transparent excuse, it wouldn't work. I can't imagine what must be going on in the heads of sincere believers in zoomies.