Thursday, May 31, 2007

Funny Searches: May 2007

sylvia browne colonized by aliens: I suppose that would explain her girth.

frequency to shut dog up: If you blow a whistle and those inferior human ears don't pick anything up, DON'T blow harder in your efforts to hear something.

evidence of why they thought the earth was flat: "It certainly looks flat, so let's not bother with any rigor in verifying that conclusion." - Anonymous Woo-Woo

20. some people claim that the human body is perfectly designed; what are 5 features that tend to contradict this claim?: Okay, right off the top of my head: 1. Eye's built backwards, so humans, and I believe most vertebrates, have blood vessels in the way of our rods and cones, as well as a blindspot where all the vessels meet. Squids and such don't have that problem 2. Humans are bipeds with spines more or less optimized for quadrupeds. 3. Brain located in an area that requires vulnerable logistics, like the jugular vein. 4. Energy wasted growing and maintaining nipples on males. 5. Critical thinking is not included in the starter package. 6. Bonus: Midochlorians not included in real life.

sylvia browne is demonic: She's evil, but I wouldn't go that far.

rod tod bible trivia: "Which version shall it be?" - Ned Flanders

"sylvia browne" naked: Aaaaahhhhh! Get out of mah brane!

sylvia browne alien in politics: Well, if the aliens are about as intelligent as crossbreeds between Sylvia Browne and Jar-Jar Binks, that would explain quite a lot. If you'll pardon me, I've got yet another nasty image to get out of my head.

I saw my brother during an astral catalepsy (caps removed): It's called sleep paralysis. Was Jar-Jar Binks involved, by the way?

calcium deposit bronze propeller: Now, that's an interesting entry, and I'm not creative enough to make it sexy.

telekinesis truth: It's bunk, but it's still really, really cool.

The Divine Command Theory is not a problem for Christians since man is in a fallen state and cant know good: Except for the problem that 'good' is arbitrary and meaningless under such a system... Plus there's the whole silence from the deity thing.

april 27 mistake funny: I haven't heard that one, yet.

bronze turtle: Right alloy, wrong animal.

adam and eve in layman's terms: A Magic Man done it.

jesus fish lucky charms: Well, it'd fit in with all the other arcane foci included in there.

roadblocks to effective problem in lord of the dogtown: That'd be me, alright. I'm just full of solutions, or at least know people with solutions that it's hard for Lord Li'l Brudder to come up with effective problems.

1 billion, gagillion, fafillion, shabolubalu million illion yillion...yen: Colloquially known as "a lot".

bronze and brains: Got 'em both.

chlorinated water with bronze: I wish I had a swimming pool.

autism and wii: And the crazy 'blame very good things' hypothesis changes to keep up with the times.

Bronze Law: My word is.

Sorry For the Inconvenience

Comment moderation is back up, but it's not the usual suspect. This time it's a chameleon troll Ryan has dubbed 'Wetspot'. He's not all that different from said usual suspect, though, and may have added a twist: In a series of posts where he endlessly repeats a rather generic and unoriginal insult, Firefox has notified me that there was some unending script. In case he's inserted some kind of copy/paste script hack or whatever, I'm making sure those repetitive posts don't get displayed, for the sake of your browser. Plus it's just an annoying waste of time intended to stifle discussion, not that he was into any in the first place.

So, expect delays. Sorry.

Doggerel #93: "You're Not a Scientist!"

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

One of the things that's always annoying about this doggerel is that it demonstrates complete ignorance about what science is. Science is a method that anyone can employ. Scientists are just people who get more hands-on experimentation and swankier equipment. Science is not an ivory tower. Science is not a rigid hierarchy of priests and prophets. The validity of an argument is not dependent on the person who makes it. The validity of an experiment is not dependent on the person who performs it.

In logic, a valid argument is a valid argument. In science, an experiment performed under proper protocols is an experiment performed under proper protocols. It doesn't matter who makes the argument or performs the experiment. If I can cite an experiment your pet woo failed at, you'd better start criticizing the experiment and its protocols, not me, and not the scientist who performed it. After all, we're all irrelevant to the matter: An argument stands or fails on its own, so don't bother changing the subject by going off on irrelevant red herrings.

Aside from projection, I think the primary reason this doggerel comes up is because woos don't realize that big, funded woo with killer PR campaigns can be taken down by a single person pointing out a false premise in the foundation, sloppy experimental protocols, or inherent logical fallacies taking place between legitimate data and the woo conclusions. It only takes one child to point out that the emperor is naked.


Doggerel Index

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Doggerel #92: "Intuition"

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

In everyday circumstances, I know what intuition is. I probably couldn't put it in an elegant Webster way, but I understand the concept. If I pick up a platformer videogame and a controller I've never seen before, chances are, I'll quickly figure out what buttons 'attack' and 'jump' are without even glancing at the controller. That's because most videogame and system designers have a number of fairly consistent conventions. They want their customers to understand their product, so they leave basic actions the same as the popular products before them. That's intuitive controls. Anything similarly predictable is subject to our intuition: Our pattern recognition ability.

The problem is that in science, where we tend to spend a lot of time messing with circumstances on scales, situations, and cases that we don't deal with everyday (or at least not knowingly), intuition often fails. Quantum mechanics, for example, is weird to the layman who doesn't routinely deal with things that can't seem to settle on being waves or particles. That's why our largely Newtonian intuition fails to understand it. We have to go through lots and lots of tests to figure out what patterns and behaviors really emerge there, rather than intuit those patterns based on our macro-, much-slower-than-light everyday understanding. In short, we do science to understand it, instead of presuming we understand it.

To the woo, however 'intuition' is a magic way of knowing. They don't describe where they get the idea that it's accurate, since efforts to measure the things they believe in via intuition tend to come up short. If that particular question comes up, they will often try to wall off the area from science with meaningless labels and projection.

Normal intuition involves some observations to perform pattern recognition on, and it's quite unreliable a lot of the time. Woo intuition, however, doesn't need anything for a basis, other than things like 'this idea makes me feel better' or 'this idea is simple and immediately understandable', even when that hypothesis doesn't produce anything. In short, woo intuition is pretty much unchecked wishful thinking.

What's worse is that, compared with science, which knows that weird circumstances can throw our predictions out the window, woos take it for granted that their intuitions about complex, ethereal, exotic things are going to be true before anyone even proves their existence.


Doggerel Index

Doggerel #91: "Don't Force Your Views on Us!"

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

One of the things I often find baffling is the troll who performs a hit-and-run post at a skeptical website complaining about us 'forcing our views on them', as if expressing an opinion on a personal website constitutes something like the Spanish Inquisition. Do you see skeptics stopping by and making equivalent complaints of 'persecution' by 'forced' views at Sylvia Browne's website? I don't, though given the typical woo's penchant for banning at the drop of a hat, I suppose there would be an understandable absence of evidence if it did happen.

When a skeptic expresses a view, the only force behind it is that of logic, evidence, and so forth. Contrary to how woos like to imagine us, we do not have any sort of thought police going around threatening violence to people who hold contrary opinions. At most, we have people who make loud counter-arguments, which isn't forcing in any sense, but woos often like to portray it as such anyway. Worse, is that these sorts will often hypocritically complain about the media's failure to present both sides when their evidence-free crankdom is ignored.

The closest skeptics come to forcing our views is in public school systems, specifically in science and history classes. Quite frankly, I'm one of those completely bonkers people who thinks that science, researched through the scientific method, is what should be taught in science class. Wishful thinking, arguments from ignorance, and other fallacies have no place there. The same with history, which is really just a tightly focused field of science. If you want your crank hypothesis in the school system, you have to jump through the same hoops the rest of science and history did.

Another instance is in medicine. "Health freedom" is a sticky topic, but some controls are necessary, because a lot of alties often seem completely oblivious to the fact that lives and livelihoods are often at stake, and that unproven, sloppily tested quackery shouldn't be even considered, at least not until the quacks make a commitment to actually performing meaningful tests, rather than cherry-picking anecdotes for their marketing campaign.


Doggerel Index

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

I Need a New Cable/Satellite/Illegal Internet Video Plan

You've probably heard this complaint over and over again in the blogosphere:

I'm sick of Sci-Fi showing stuff like Ghost Hunters, which is Sci-Fi/Fantasy feigning reality. Give me a source of the classics, and a place where I can watch the series I missed on other networks without committing to DVDs. I've never seen Firefly or whatever. I heard good things, but I never got the chance to watch it. I'm short on Babylon 5. Watched several episodes, but it came on so irregularly, I couldn't get a hold of the continuity. I've gotten a lot of Farscape, but the way it's being shown here, I only see about the latter half of the series, and only the first bit of Peacekeeper Wars. Still haven't gotten to see the first episode. I'd also like to see the older series of Doctor Who. The recent revival got me more excited about a series than I've been in a long while. (Speaking of which, I should probably see about jumping ahead of the upcoming American season premiere and catch up with y'all UKers.)

And now, my geek cred suffers.

I'm sick of non-science stuff showing up on the Discovery Channel. Mythbusters = Good for science and skepticism (even if it's a little heavy on the explosions). Show about a bunch of crab fishers: Not science. I'm sure some people out there enjoy the drama of their everyday lives, etcetera, but leave it off my science channel.

I'm sick of non-history showing up on the History Channel. Please, no pseudohistory, either. I don't need to see conspiracy nuts who say JFK was murdered by aliens sent by Bigfoot. Sometimes pop-culture history is nice, but it shouldn't dominate: I liked Superheroes Unmasked, How William Shatner Changed the World, and stuff like that, but those types of shows should be relatively far apart, unless some kind of geek holiday is going on. World War II shouldn't dominate, either. History did not begin and end with Hitler.

I'm done rambling. Anyone got recommendations?

Creation Museum Flintstones Theme Park Carnival

Given my usual readership, you've probably seen it already, but PZ hosted a bit of a carnival about Ken Ham's "Museum".

It's not a Skeptics' Circle, but seeing it's a carnival, the thread is open as usual, but pointing out the impracticality of using prehistoric, anthropomorphized animals as household appliances is FORBIDDEN!

Is She Ever Right in a Non-Trivial Way?

Robert Lancaster was busy this weekend. He covers more on the Shawn Hornbeck case, another set of failed predictions, and one of my favorite entries of the moment: Sylvia is definitively caught lying (or 'misremembering' if you want to be the most charitable soul out there) about one show where she claimed her failure was due to the audience being German. How do we know the audience wasn't German? YouTube!

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Doggerel #90: "Bashing"

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

It's quite common for woos to accuse skeptics of 'bashing' their point of view. The definition of that word is quite flexible, but the one I'm most familiar with from context describes criticism that is often irrelevant, pointless, and generally nonconstructive. So far, when it comes to woo versus skeptic threads, 'bashing' seems to undergo a reversal. Or rather, more likely, the woos involved are being hypocritical.

The following seems to qualify as 'bashing' from the typical woo's point of view: Pointing out documented cases of woo causing harm. Pointing out logical fallacies. Pointing out absurd consequences if their woo was true. Pointing out contradictions. Pointing out abusive comments made by woos. Pointing out that their woo is like other woo. Asking fundamental questions.

What this doggerel does is it allows the user to ignore criticism by pretending that it doesn't have any content. There's a big difference between, say, this, and "Anime is teh suck!" By ignoring that difference, the woo can pretend we're just posting "Astrology is teh suck!" rather than elaborate criticisms, calls for tests, suggestions for test protocols, and so forth.


Doggerel Index

Doggerel #89: "I'm Going to Show You... In My Book!"

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

One tactic that never fails to impress other woos is writing a book. "Anyone who can fill several pages of text must be smart!" seems to be the general sentiment. The problem is that there are lots of publishers who aren't into intellectual content. Just because you can get published doesn't mean there's anything impressive in your writing.

Another aspect to the doggerel is that it's a stalling tactic. If you have a revolutionary argument that will change the world, you should present it as often and as soon as reasonably possible. Using this tactic allows the woo to appear to be responding to criticisms, but it doesn't entail any work on his part. Chances are, in the book, he won't address the questions raised, if it ever gets published, and if he won't even give a glimmer of his arguments, why should we bother looking at the book?

It also entails a bit of marketing: Often, people who disagree with you may buy a book just to verify that it's as stupid as they presume. They may be marketing to other woos in the comment threads. Either way, word gets out about the book, leading to a chance of profit. And they have a habit of saying us skeptics are shills.


Doggerel Index

Friday, May 25, 2007

Do Over!

I'm considering going back and updating some of the Doggerel series, to cover points better and so forth. If I'm about to hit #100, I'd like to make sure my past entries are sufficiently spiffy.

So, any suggestions for ones I should do over?

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Doggerel #88: "You're All Ganging Up on Me!"

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

When a woo comes to a skeptical forum or blog with a lot of posters, they can become quite bogged down with questions, explanations, alternate hypotheses, and so forth. We skeptics can be very opinionated people. Being intimidated is understandable.

That's why it's very important to maintain composure. Woos often fail in this regard, and will flail at straw men, recite propaganda that's already been countered, and just generally not deal with the issue itself.

So, here are some tips for anyone who's been directed here for using this line: Calm down, take the time to read what the skeptics have said, and carefully deal with each point made as it relates to the issue. If you're short on time, say so, and come back when you do have time. Not before, unless you're just briefly reminding people you're still there, and still working on a reply. Too often, we've met trolls who say they don't have the time, or have better things to do, and yet continue posting heated, contentless replies that don't demonstrate any thought. Maintaining your focus on the issue at hand and your composure will often do wonders, especially if you can focus on one particular aspect at a time. Flailing at unrealistic Hollywood stereotypes of skeptics will only earn you further ire, so make sure you understand what position your opposition holds, rather than what you've been told what they believe.

This advice applies not just to skeptical forums, but just about anywhere for anyone. Note that there are some occasional circumstances where an outburst is quite appropriate, and rudeness will serve you better to get a point across. That shouldn't be the first resort, though.


Doggerel Index

61st Skeptics' Circle

It's up at Memoirs of a Skepchick.

Open thread as usual, but panicking when my fellow Squornshellous Zetans show up to conquer the planet is FORBIDDEN!

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Some Fun I've Been Contemplating

My brother's going to be visiting this weekend, and he's got some video editing software that can do green screen. We had a phone conversation about trying to think up stuff to do with that when he makes extended holiday visits at the end of the year, but we need some ideas that can done with relatively little preparation.

One thing I contemplated for the Decemberween holiday involves tracking down and buying a very muppety-looking Jesus puppet I once saw online. I see nigh-infinite potential for blasphemous humor, possibly involving a point. I'm a bit camera shy, so I'd let normally inanimate objects do some stuff for me.

So, help us out with a little brainstorming.

I'm Shocked! SHOCKED! ...Well, Not That Shocked...

It seems someone brought 'homemade napalm' bombs to Jerry Falwell's funeral, intending to use them to disrupt protesters.

Already people have been putting a lot of spin on it in the comments.

Some people rationalize that this terrorist isn't as bad as a Muslim terrorist because low power incendiaries like his aren't as powerful as the sorts of bombs the Muslim terrorists use. That hardly erases the evil intent.

Some people rationalize that he was just crazy, implying that Falwell's intolerant diatribes had nothing to do with it.

Some people pretend that everyone who hates Falwell hypocritically believes that Islam is a religion of peace. I don't. Just because some people, or even most people can ignore the villainous parts of their holy book doesn't mean the religion is any less warlike.

Some people pulled the No True Scotsman, claiming that Falwell wasn't a Christian, and that he wasn't preaching the TRUE word or whatever. Given what I've read of the Bible, he seems a closer match than 'mainstream' or 'true' Christians who manage to disregard the genocide, slavery, etcetera. I'd suggest doing what I did while I was still a theist: Burn the parts that contradict God's omnibenevolence and disassociate yourself with the label "Christian."

Jerry Falwell was a disgusting, diabolical monster who was, thankfully, unsuccessful at his primary goals. I don't normally speak ill of the dead, but Falwell is an exception. I'm glad he's gone, and whether he was right or wrong, I'm glad I won't be spending eternity with him. My mother once had a mini-crisis over her newfound atheism that came to an abrupt halt when I mentioned that optimistic point of view.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

We Got Ooooone!

Well, I got one of those things Akusai got. It's all there: The double-text envelope, the Time Cube-esque text, and the paper "hankey". Oh, and on the lower right, some Starburst wrappers of mine. They didn't come with the thing, they're just stacked according to my little obsessive-compulsive disorder that requires me to eat them in the order of strawberry, cherry, orange, and lemon every time. But I digress.

Anyway, I've got to consider who I'm going to be concerned about and who I love. Since I'm playing Atelier Iris after reading Akusai's other place, I'm a bit worried about Lita Blanchimont, at this particular moment, but I'll hold in the source of my concern for the sake of not spoiling the plot. Any other geek culture people I should be thinking about?

Quote of the Time Being #11

Berlzebub doesn't disappoint on a second post:
Those who aren't fundamentalist may argue that "it's only parables and allegory, but that still doesn't disprove the existence of God". No, it doesn't. However, the multiple books written by Robert A. Salvatore doesn't prove the existence of Drizzt Do'Urden, either. If you don't understand what I mean, go back to high school and retake your science courses. You were awarded a fake diploma.
Little spelling correction included.

Sit! Stay! Good Blog. #5 & #6

Well, I've had NeuroLogica on my blogroll for a while, but I thought I'd give some additional encouragement after a couple of really good posts on double-standards for quackery and a dissection of some typical altie propaganda. Keep it up, Steve!

I hope I'm not jumping the gun on this, but Berlzebub, a regular commenter here and other places I frequent has started up Berlzebub's Inferno with a good first post on Ken Ham's dinotopian playground, er, "museum."

So, both of you, sit! Stay! Good blogs.

Doing My Part to Irritate Ken Ham

Well, since PZ's pointed out some of Ken Ham's temper tantrums, I'll do my part to provoke him a little more. So I've decided to reply to the whine of his linked from the Pharyngula post:
AiG is not even aware of any DefCon leaders who have ever visited the museum and introduced themselves to us, and also examined our exhibits and multimedia presentations.1 In fact, since virtually all museum signage has gone up in the past two weeks, if a DefCon leader has ever dropped by (e.g., by sneaking in with museum charter members when construction tours were held), he/she would have read very little text and would not have seen any of the 50-plus videos (which have just been loaded into their monitors). Yet DefCon has managed to start a national petition-signing campaign against a museum they really haven't seen (but nevertheless can still claim that the museum is a “nefarious campaign to institutionalize a lie”).
Just like I said before the release of Ann Coulter's book, we're free to complain about idiocy we anticipate. Ken Ham's a well-known IDiot, therefore we can expect more of the same.

At the core of this national campaign against the Creation Museum is DefCon's desire to turn people away from the museum and keep them from hearing what the Bible says about earth history (and how science, as we say, confirms it).

Having the opportunity to hear both sides of a controversial topic seems very American to us (especially since young people who attend public school science classes and visit science museums are presented with only one view of origins: evolution). So it begs the question: why is a group that purportedly exists to defend the Constitution's First Amendment’s right to free speech wanting to keep people from being exposed to another view?
1. They aren't restricting the freedom to hear it. They're just suggesting that people avoid obvious idiocy. Is Agony Booth anti-free speech because they give good reason to avoid watching certain movies? I don't think so.
2. What controversy?

It’s become a frequent refrain: “There are no real scientists who believe in creation.”4 The late famous evolutionist Stephen Jay Gould wrote that “virtually all thinking people accept the factuality of evolution, and no conclusion in science enjoys better documentation.”5

Our creation scientist page lists just a small sampling of scientists who accept Genesis creation, and then note the famous scientists who also believed in creation (some were contemporaries of Darwin):

  • Physics—Newton and Faraday
  • Chemistry—Boyle
  • Biology—Mendel, Linnaeus, and Pasteur
  • Geology—Steno and Cuvier
  • Astronomy—Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo
The caricature that there are no real scientists who believe in creation is patently false.
Well, I don't make the claim quite as absolute as DefCon some people (see Eamon Knight's comment, below), but there are a lot of problems with the retort:

1. Those scientists they list largely predate evolutionary theory.
2. It's entirely possible to be scientifically minded towards some issues and be a complete creduloid in regards to others. Just like it's possible for some people to be 'holier than thou' on some things and utterly depraved on others.
3. So what?
4. How many are named Steve?
Just ask Dr. Raymond Damadian, the famous scientist/inventor who produced the first full magnetic resonance imaging (“MRI”) scan of the human body. Today MRIs are utilized in hospitals and medical research institutes worldwide. Dr. Damadian will fly here to take part in the grand opening celebration of the Creation Museum in a few days.
Yeah, let's ask someone who doesn't have an expertise in the relevant field. How about we just drop all the ego stroking and talk about evidence? I think we all know the answer to that.

If you're an educator or scientist, please fill out our special feedback form and let us know of your museum support. Then let other educators and scientists know that DefCon and similar groups are trying very hard to keep people away from a center that presents the good news of Jesus Christ.

But don’t send your comments of support under the guise of multiple users. We must leave such tactics to those who have chosen to believe that there is no Creator to whom they will account for their actions.

1. Yeah, let's pretend that Internet petitions are always uniformly honest and meaningful. Or that Creationists don't engage in that behavior.
2. I find it funny that asking people not to go amounts to 'trying very hard' when Creationists typically try to pretend that unethical, unconstitutional, governmentally approved actions against our schools, like allowing coerced prayer, are nothing serious.
3. If God exists, it seems to me that everything is permissible. From what I've seen, theists like Ken Ham seem to think they can get away with anything and everything. Especially intellectual sloth. So, when are they going to actually make falsifiable predictions and test them?

Monday, May 21, 2007

Doggerel #87: "Humility"

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

A recent use of this doggerel has been brought to my attention, prompting me to move this one up the list. Here's the chunk relevant to this doggerel:
When skeptics of homeopathy assert that there is "nothing" in homeopathic medicines, they seem to
assume that they know everything there is to know about the physics of water. I want to remind skeptics that good and serious scientists maintain a high level of HUMILITY about what they know and what they don't know. I am proud of my humility of what I know and what I don't know.
The big problem: We aren't claiming to have proven the negative, only that there's been a consistent failure to prove the contrary. That's how science works: You don't prove things, you falsify the null hypothesis. There may be some hidden physical laws that affect water in currently unknown ways, but the homeopaths don't seem to be jumping up to prove it with empirical studies. What's worse is that they claim to be using these laws to good effect, even though homeopathy is no more effective than placebo in reasonable tests.

Put simply, skeptics, scientists, and doctors aren't guilty of the arrogance this person accuses them of: They don't claim to know everything about water, and I'm sure most everyone knows the problems behind proving a negative. All in all, this bit of commentary features straw men, shifting the burden of proof, and maybe some projection.

Science, in contrast to woodom, is a practice that requires a degree of humility. Anyone can have their findings challenged, so long as the challenger raises logically legitimate complaints. No authority is sacrosanct. The only things we stick to are the things that we've been unable to tear down with critical thought and evidence. Any test can have flaws pointed out, discussed, and hopefully removed in another experiment.

Woo, on the other hand, avoids testing in all but the sloppiest of circumstances. There's typically a leader of some sort who cannot be questioned. They often have trolls who spout absolutes that they won't question. Any test the woo fails is flawed by definition, and no further explanation is ever given, except for non-answers that just add another unnecessary step. They demand special treatment.

All in all, if you ask me who's lacking in humility, it isn't the skeptics. Show me verifiable, repeatable results, and I'll change my mind. You may be surprised to find that I like being wrong, sometimes.


Doggerel Index

Comment Policy, Updated August 2008

It's been a while since I've had any trolls, but I feel like spelling out my comment policy anyway, possibly in hopes of attracting some.

1. Anonymous comments will be deleted. Choose the "other," "open ID," or whatever else may be available if you don't have a blogger account. Use a name of some kind so that I don't have to deal with confusing multiple anonnies.

2. Commercial spam: If all you're doing is posting a link to your naughty pills, say goodbye to your comment. If you're posting a relevant comment but include a commercial link to something irrelevant, you're at risk. If you're posting a link to a funny product that echoes a point being made, you're safe.

3. Consequences of bannination: So far, I've only got one person 'banned', but I let him post for at least a month or two past that, with only some of his posts being deleted, mostly involving pointless repetition of points already refuted in the main posts and massive copy-paste. The rest got through. The reason: He did a spectacular job of making himself look worse. So, if you're banned, and I don't delete your posts, you may want to start thinking before you type, because your posts are staying up for a reason.

4. Flooding: Please keep your posts to a reasonable length. I don't want to see a massive copy-paste job, especially if it's irrelevant. There are these little things called 'links' that a person can click on to see stuff. No need to bring the crap over here. I'll even tell you how to make them: [a href=""]Link text[/a]. Just replace the brackets with greater/less than signs.

5. Off-topic stuff: Please stay on topic. If you're a detractor, please remain relevant. Psychoanalysis of me to the point of hypothesizing that I wasn't petted enough as a pup because I doubt astrology is quite irrelevant, not to mention fallacious. I confess I do my own bit of psychobabble on occasion, mostly to show the counterpoint: Most of the things I see woos accusing skeptics of are, more often than not, properties the accusing woo possesses.

6. Using all caps or more than three exclamation points on a sentence automatically takes away any chance you had at being taken seriously. To get back there, you need to go back to your indoor voice, and use proper grammar for an extended duration.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Doggerel #86: "Crystal"

Crystals are pretty rocks; they are not keys to psychic powers or healing modalities. -James Randi, An Encyclopedia of Claims, Frauds, and Hoaxes of the Occult and Supernatural
Welcome back to "Doggerel," where I ramble on about words and phrases that are misused, abused, or just plain meaningless.

Crystals are what happen when atoms arrange themselves in a regular pattern. In diamonds, each carbon atom covalently bonds with four adjacent carbons in a series of tetrahedrons. In snowflakes, water molecules form hexagonal patterns. The result is usually quite shiny and nifty. Inorganic crystals are often more amendable to forming crystals, but organic crystals like insulin also show up. Some crystals are subject to the piezoelectric effect: Squeeze them, and they'll generate electricity. Electrify them, and they'll distort. Also nifty. Some are also subject to the ferroelectric effect.

Now that I've got the proper term down, here's where the doggerel comes in: Woos like to assign properties to crystals that don't exist, or insert crazy additions to existing features. For instance, the piezoelectric effect pretty much means that a crystal can convert electricity and mechanical energy back and forth. Some woos extend this to claiming, explicitly or implicitly, that some crystals can magically convert known energy into unknown, undetectable magic energy that heals or whatever. If this were the case, we'd just need to carefully examine the crystal under lab conditions to see the energy vanishing.

Crystals are understandably linked with the concept of purity, since they involve a great deal of uniformity in both composition and the bonds between the constituent atoms and ions. Of course, thinking that they'd purify an organic body is more or less going against the grain: Organic life is a messy business, and pretty much the opposite of a crystal.

Crystals make for handy foci in the hands of D&D-type sorcerers, McGuffins for Final Fantasy, and such, but until the woos can demonstrate such utility in the real world, such as passing the Randi Challenge, I'll just consider them pretty rocks.


Doggerel Index

And We Were Worried About Them Walking

Now they're learning to use skateboards and roller skates. Next, they'll be surfing like in the portents of Eureka 7.

At least they'll likely have a heart without having to visit the Wonderful Wizard of Oz:

(Via Armored Core Online)

Bronze Dogma #1: The Quran, 1:1 to 2:62

Welcome to what might become a new series over here at The Bronze Blog. I'll be going over holy books with some of my commentary. Since I've done a fair bit of the Bible, and so have many other skeptical/atheist blogs I know, I'll be going over the Quran. This is primarily since I've heard a lot of Christians claiming that we're too cowardly or we're specifically anti-Christian, and thus we'll never touch Islam. Well, one recent event has spurred me on to do this series. Please note that I'm primarily focused on the fundies out there, and I recognize that there are people in every religion with enough civility to ignore or disregard the inherently disgusting parts of their religion.

One note: I feel I should have some sort of pun for the series name, if not relevant to dogs, at least to bronze. If I started with the Bible, I'd probably go for something like 'Bronze Age Woo' or something like that, but I'm not certain the label will apply to various religions. If you've got any good ideas, drop them in the comments.

So, anyway, this series will be my analysis of holy books, and I'll cover them as I feel like it. For the sake of boosting my weekend ratings, I may try doing this every Sunday.

So, without further ado, Here's my analysis of the start of the Quran:
1:1 In the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful.
1:2 Praise be to Allah, Lord of the Worlds,
1:3 The Beneficent, the Merciful.
1:4 Master of the Day of Judgment,
1:5 Thee (alone) we worship; Thee (alone) we ask for help.
1:6 Show us the straight path,
1:7 The path of those whom Thou hast favoured; Not the (path) of those who earn Thine anger nor of those who go astray.
Well, first we have a declaration that Allah is merciful. I may not have done much previous research of the Quran, but I have a feeling he won't be all that different from the Christian deity. We can already see a start towards that by mentioning his anger. Granted, it's possible, at least for us mortals, to be angry and remain civil, but that behavior isn't well known among the deities I've read about.

Chapter 2 is a bit longer, so I won't copy-paste the whole thing. I'll pick out some choice bits, though:
2:2 This is the Scripture whereof there is no doubt, a guidance unto those who ward off (evil).
If there's no doubt, why am I still an atheist? It's much like the Christian line that "we all know in our hearts God exists" rationalization. Only this time, it's Muslims doing it. Reminds me of a Colbert skit on the Daily Show.
2:3 Who believe in the Unseen, and establish worship, and spend of that We have bestowed upon them;
Thankfully, science doesn't need belief in the unseen: We can prove it experimentally by seeing its results on the things we can see.
2:4 And who believe in that which is revealed unto thee (Muhammad) and that which was revealed before thee, and are certain of the Hereafter.
Certainty is a very bad thing. It's much better to merely have confidence based on evidence.
2:6 As for the Disbelievers, Whether thou warn them or thou warn them not it is all one for them; they believe not.
2:7 Allah hath sealed their hearing and their hearts, and on their eyes there is a covering. Theirs will be an awful doom.
Seems to me that Allah has arbitrarily and sadistically decided to send some doom to some people, and decided to make it unavoidable. Kind of reminds me of God hardening Pharoh's heart in Exodus so that God would get the opportunity to flex his almighty muscles with all the plagues and drowning the Egyptian army in the Red Sea. I bet we'll be seeing a passage like this followed by a mention of 'glory'.
2:8 And of mankind are some who say: We believe in Allah and the Last Day, when they believe not.
Here's a No True Scotsman made to order. This is followed by a lot of passages trying to drum up their eeeee-villeness.
2:22 Who hath appointed the earth a resting-place for you, and the sky a canopy; and causeth water to pour down from the sky, thereby producing fruits as food for you. And do not set up rivals to Allah when ye know (better).
Those who keep track of flat-Earthers may recognize this: The sky depicted as a ceiling.
2:24 And if ye do it not - and ye can never do it - then guard yourselves against the Fire prepared for disbelievers, whose fuel is of men and stones.
Well, here's the familiar argumentum ad baculum. Think it'd be more or less effective if it was presented to Christians?
2:27 Those who break the covenant of Allah after ratifying it, and sever that which Allah ordered to be joined, and (who) make mischief in the earth: Those are they who are the losers.
Seems kind of funny that they chose 'losers' as the descriptive term. Sounds kind of teenagery today, doesn't it? I also find the repetition of 'mischief' to be slightly amusing. Imagine if the 10 Commandments were called "The 10 Naughty Things You're Not Supposed to Do". Not quite so forceful. Curiously, I notice that there hasn't really been much said about what to believe at this point, other than some guy who'll roast you if you don't believe in whatever.

Next up is some weird thing where Adam's told to play some naming game with the angels, and they're told to worship him. One angel named Iblis doesn't seem up to it. Finally, we're getting to Genesis with Adam being told not to take the cookie from the cookie jar. It shifts towards Satan doing something obscured by weird language and God/Allah talking about Israel, and a sloppy recap of Exodus. Mohammed must not have been into narrative format. Next up:
2:61 And when ye said: O Moses! We are weary of one kind of food; so call upon thy Lord for us that He bring forth for us of that which the earth groweth - of its herbs and its cucumbers and its corn and its lentils and its onions. He said: Would ye exchange that which is higher for that which is lower ? Go down to settled country, thus ye shall get that which ye demand. And humiliation and wretchedness were stamped upon them and they were visited with wrath from Allah. That was because they disbelieved in Allah's revelations and slew the prophets wrongfully. That was for their disobedience and transgression.
2:62 Lo! Those who believe (in that which is revealed unto thee, Muhammad), and those who are Jews, and Christians, and Sabaeans - whoever believeth in Allah and the Last Day and doeth right - surely their reward is with their Lord, and there shall no fear come upon them neither shall they grieve.
One moment, it's implied that it was okay not to believe in Jesus (as a prophet), and then it is okay. Of course, the Skeptic's Annotated version is already noting some inconsistencies.

And I think that makes for a good stopping place for now. So, any thoughts?

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Building a Better RPG

Thought I'd take a break from upping the Doggerel Index for a bit, and just kind of ramble on about stuff I'd like to see in RPGs. I should really try spending some actual time with one of the illions of retro-RPG makers out there.

1. No elaborate level up rituals. One of the things I didn't like about Final Fantasy X was the sphere system. It looks swanky, but it's entirely too cumbersome. I found myself worrying that if I pumped up one character, I wouldn't have the relevant spheres for the next, and that there'd be scarcity for the 'key spheres' and I'd be stuck with limited character potential. I also had to think about what I'd do down the line by searching the winding paths. All in all, it was like the unhealthy amounts of time I spent in my Armored Core's garage, only in a bad, unfun way. Just let me save the world without the micromanagement, okay?

2. Customization: On the opposite end of the spectrum, I don't like systems where you can't control what skills your characters develop. I loved the job systems of FF5 and FF Tactics. You had a reasonable amount of control, and you didn't have to juggle oodles of factors to do it. Just spend job points or fight monsters for AP, and you can be what you want to be. The downside to having too much of this is that you may risk the character's identity. I spent some time playing Ramza as a summoner in FFT, and in a cutscene, he drew a sword. It felt weird.

3. Flatter power curves: I was replaying the original FF in Dawn of Souls, with the new mechanics. The really annoying thing was that just playing regularly with a few trips through the special add-on dungeons, I wound up staying far ahead of all the enemies. When you can beat the previously dreaded WarMech (renamed 'Death Machine') in a single round without going through a leveling frenzy, something's gone wrong. Additionally, extremely high level changes don't make all that sense half the time. The empire has guards with 10,000 hitpoints as you get to the end, but early on, they sent squads of 40 hp grunts after you? I think it'd be an interesting challenge to make an RPG that leaves your power fairly constant and challenges you to use your abilities in innovative ways.

4. If you have a choice between simplicity and complexity, favor simplicity. Some plots just get too big and collapse under their own weight.

5. Allow an evil ending: Sometimes, I'm just curious to see what it'd be like if Zeromus and his loyal henchman (me) got to munch on everyone's soul or whatever. Heck, I think it'd be interesting to see an RPG where you're explicitly evil and stay that way up until you conquer the world. That's one reason I tried playing 7th Saga as Lejes, the demon, until I heard that there was one standard ending for all the characters.

6. If you lose to the final boss, you should definitely show the consequences. That's one thing that got me so determined to beat Chrono Trigger after my first defeat. Had a friend who beat FF7 after a few tries, and Chrono Trigger was fresh on my mind after borrowing a copy. "What happens if you lose the final battle?" "Oh, just the Game Over screen." Boy, was I disappointed.

7. Kill random encounters. I don't like them, and I think I can safely assume you don't either. I could probably tolerate them if they were rare, or very localized. All they do is slow down the story. In retrospect, they also probably took up a lot of memory in the early console cartridges that could have been used for the real meat of the game. If you must have monsters wandering about, do it like Earthbound/Mother 2: They're visible and often avoidable. If you're strong enough, the monsters just plain die without the formalities of entering attack commands. If you're really strong, they'll run away from you.

8. We'll settle for saving the kingdom: Let's keep the stakes a bit more reasonable, here. Plots where you end up saving the world are good in moderation, but let's not make every game go that far, okay? Plus, if you make a sequel, it won't strain credibility to think that the world could come close to ending twice in a character's lifetime.

9. You're not alone: If you're out to save the kingdom, chance are, there'll be other people out there who will want to do the same. Chances are, they'll also wind up helping you in actually helpful ways, rather than getting the JSDF (get yourself blown up to show how powerful the bad guy is) treatment.

10. Make sure your villains at least skimmed The Evil Overlord List.

So, anyone else want to contribute?

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Doggerel #85: "You Can't Find an Atom of Love!"

Welcome back to "Doggerel," where I ramble on about words and phrases that are misused, abused, or just plain meaningless.
Then take the universe and grind it down to the finest powder and sieve it through the finest sieve and then show me one atom of justice, one molecule of mercy. And yet you act, like there was some sort of rightness in the universe by which it may be judged... -Hogfather by Terry Pratchett
One of the annoying bits of Doggerel that often comes up is that there are supposedly things that can't be reduced to particles, like consciousness, love, life, etcetera, or that materialists are incapable of believing in any of those things because they aren't made of atoms. The problem is, many of these things are not that different from fire:

Despite protests from the early proposers of atomic theory and phlogiston fanatics, you won't find any atoms, molecules, or particles of fire in the universe. That's because fire isn't a distinct object: It's a process. When we look at a burning object, what we see is a series of chemical reactions taking place in a manner that emits light and heat. It may not be as complicated (and I'm willing to defer to any pyrotechnics experts who can describe nuances I may not be aware of) as consciousness, emotion, and so forth, but that's essentially what they are: Chemical processes, not distinct objects.

Of course, whether we feel love by chemical reactions or Cupid's arrow is often irrelevant if the topic is morality. Why supernatural sources of morality would be superior to natural ones is something that never seems to come up: Divine Command Theorists and such simply expect their special pleading to be accepted without question.

What's also annoying is that woos who go on about solved 'mysteries' of consciousness often use this to claim that we don't know what we know, namely why people perform charity and such. Time and again, I wind up explaining that helping other people is an effective, if indirect, means of helping ourselves: If people like you, and know you're going to help them, they'll be more amendable to helping you. Teamwork works. Sometimes our instincts towards helpfulness go further than would be beneficial for selfish ends. Even then, it's often a good thing for families and the species as a whole. And then it turns out to be a hit-and-run troll, or they completely ignore the post, and they eventually go on somewhere else to post about the materialists' alleged inability to answer the question.


Doggerel Index

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Quick! Let's Hide in the Fog!

One of the regular patterns I see with woos is that they try to hide in the 'cutting edge' scientific confusions. Long ago, electricity was magic. One quack that stood out on one show about quack devices was Albert Abrams. Back then, electricity was something not well understood by the populace (and probably still isn't), and pretty much anyone could claim it as part of their pet pseudoscience. The same thing happened as scientists explored the electromagnetic spectrum, with the "discovery" of N-rays. Particle physicists had to deal with people "finding" bions and other 'life particles'. Nowadays, the woos have moved up to quantum mechanics, tachyons, and, as Orac brought to my attention, dark matter and dark energy.

What's really annoying is that they're apparently using them as an excuse to claim that materialism is more or less dead:
This science, also known as the mainstream science, reveals only the material part (4%) of the overall reality. In a way, materialism is the religion of the mainstream science and the materialistic experiments its rituals. The countless experiments (rituals) that are performed to validate the mainstream theories are nothing but to worship the goddess of matter.
The 4% they're referring to: Baryonic "normal" matter.

The big problem: We used "material science" and its "rituals" to find the other 96%. I doubt we're anywhere near understanding that 96%, but we know it's there, which is an accomplishment woos can't claim. Of course, a new kind of material doesn't falsify materialism. It just makes materialism a little bigger and more interesting. That's what makes science cool.

The woos, however, only asserted the existence of stuff beyond baryonic matter and did nothing to prove it. They weaved intricate, contradictory webs of ether that behaved one way one moment and behaved another way the next, all without any foundation of empirical data. I imagine they'll be quite angry and reactionary when someone points out that dark matter and energy don't behave the way they think they do. Of course, that's kind of moot, since woo still fails to work. No need to explain something if that something isn't there.

Random pot-shot time:
It is ironic that the great theories of motion - Newtonian or quantum mechanics are unable to explain what caused the very first motion in the universe.
Prove that there was a 'first motion'. Remember, traditional human approximations of time and space, and likely causality break down when you rewind to a singularity. Of course, woo hasn't explained this hypothetical first motion, either, except for possibly "Magic Man Done It."
Rest 96% of the universe is unknown or explicitly immeasurable and unexplainable dark energy and/dark matter.
As Ginger Yellow pointed out: That's contradictory. It's also defeatist, since I see no reason why the dark stuff is 'unexplainable'. It's just weird.
Because of the serious incompleteness or missing physics of the non-material reality (consciousness) from the mainstream scientific method and theories, it not only unable to explain the observe universe, but remains full of several serous unresolved paradoxes that kill the purpose and meaning in the universal existence and life itself.
1. Where's this non-material consciousness? Show me the data.
2. Science explains the universe a heck of a lot better than woo. They've been doing nothing but attempting to rationalize how science justifies their junk when it doesn't. Especially when it contradicts their junk.
3. Sorry, guy, but just because you see life as meaningless doesn't mean I do. The materialist universe is still very cool, and I can find meaning in it.
4. Show us evidence of this purpose.

The sad thing is: When we're all in warp drive spaceships, settling disputes with giant robots, and reading articles with wireless Internet connections in our heads thanks to materialist science, they'll be going on about how The Force is really in sub-subspace, despite continued failures at demonstrating it.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Doggerel #84: "Elitist"

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

A lot of woos like to complain that science is 'elitist' and inaccessible to the common man. Fortunately, science is an enterprise that anyone can engage in, though some of the trickier tools may not be available for ethical concerns. Contrary to the way Hollywood presents science, it isn't all about microscopes, test tubes, and strangely colored liquids: It's about using critical thinking and the tools at our disposal to figure things out. The quick and dirty description of the scientific method: 1. Form a hypothesis. 2. Do everything you can think of to prove your hypothesis wrong.

It's that simple. The reason cranks, quacks, and woos get excluded isn't because of what they claim: It's because they're sloppy. With sloppy protocols, alternate explanations get in, and we can't sort out which one is the real reason. Because science is a method, the scientific community is inherently a meritocracy: The people who do the best work are the ones who move up the ranks.

Take the Intelligent Design movement: They essentially do no research. They avoid defining their terms whenever they can get away with it. They move goal posts. They attempt to build their case by tearing down evolution's, rather than perform research that supports their hypothesis. They focus entirely on public perception, rather than getting their hands dirty getting to the guts of their subject. Those are the reasons the vast majority of the scientific community rejects ID: It's not because of their claim, it's because of their lack of research, and consequently, their lack of evidence: the ID movement hasn't even gotten to the point of defining what evidence would support or falsify their hypothesis.

A position should be measured by its merits, and a sure sign of woodom is the rejection of merit, followed by a demand for automatic inclusion in the meritocracy.


Doggerel Index

Doggerel #83: "You're Just Driving Up My Site Traffic!"

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

Often, woos enjoy the fact that they're receiving attention, even if it's negative attention, and will boast about a traffic spike if a skeptic dissects their nonsense while leaving a link. Of course, site traffic is not an indicator of validity, since all kinds of nonsense can be popular. It's also true that among the traffic spike might be a handful of woos amendable to the site owner's nonsense. Chances are, however, the skeptic has chosen to reveal an unflattering part of the doggerel user's website and provided commentary for it, which may de-convert followers. Until they come up with a way to measure changes of opinion, we can't easily know.

One of the favorite tactics of concern trolls is to claim that skeptics are giving too much attention to woos, and that they'll just go away if we ignore them. Last time I checked, ignoring a problem is usually an ineffective way of dealing with it. Many woos like the Discovery Institute have large public relations departments, and will press the issue. If we're silent, they'll claim their "discoveries" are being quietly ignored by the "establishment" and our silence is an indication of our inability to deal with their pseudoscience. If we're loud, they'll cry persecution, and claim that our resistance is an indication of our inability to deal with their pseudoscience. Give those choices, I favor getting our opinions and facts out there, no matter how rude it is to stand up for what we believe and know. Woo hurts people, and I won't stand idly by.

Whenever you expose a falsehood, you have to take the risk that people will believe that falsehood. I'd rather deal with an environment of heavy discussion, rather than stay insulated, elitist, and silent.


Doggerel Index

Friday, May 11, 2007

Doggerel #82: "Allopathy"

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

One of the favorite altie words out there is "allopathy," used, quite inaccurately, to describe modern (evidence-based) medicine. The term started with Samuel Hahnemann, founder of homeopathy, to describe the then-popular notion of humors which was in opposition to homeopathy. Allopathy has been long since debunked, but lost popularity faster than homeopathy. Allopathy's methods included things like bleeding to remove "excess" blood, forced vomiting, and some rather nasty drugs. Compared to the gentle inaction of homeopathy, it's easy to see why allopathy is more or less dead today.

Where the terminology comes in: Homeopathy (same + suffering) has the central tenet of "like cures like" whereas allopathy (opposite + suffering) did the opposite. Modern homeopaths try to attach the allopathic label to modern medicine, often trying to conjure up the nastiness of mainstream quackery of old and to exaggerate instances of malpractice and so forth.

Unfortunately for homeopaths, and other alties trying to take advantage of the label, it's not important: What matters is whether or not a treatment works, and quackery like theirs doesn't. If it did work, they'd be able to pass a double-blind clinical trial, and not have to cherry-pick uncontrolled testimonials. At that point, we'd know it's not quackery, and it'd inevitably find itself in mainstream medicine.


Doggerel Index

Thursday, May 10, 2007

You'd Better Hurry Up!

Not too long ago, Robert Lancaster pointed out a "quality issue" regarding some jewelry sold by Sylvia Browne's church, "Novus Spiritus."

Diamonds, cubic zirconiums, what's the difference?

Anyway, if you've got one of those things, and want diamonds in place of your cube-z's, you'd better hurry up: They won't replace them after June 1st. Look for it in the text of their jewelry section for the notice. Beware of the leopard.

60th Skeptics' Circle

It's up at Infophilia.

Open thread as usual, but going through the cliché "someone in this thread is the murderer and we'll find out who!" act is FORBIDDEN!

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Doggerel #81: "[Evil Guy] Believed in [Theory]!"

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

In many ways, this is a reversal of #60, attempting to form a negative association with science, instead of a positive one with woo. No mention of this doggerel would be complete without a mention of "But Hitler believed in evolution!" Of course, Hitler was much more likely a Creationist, saying things like
"The fox remains always a fox, the goose remains a goose, and the tiger will retain the character of a tiger." (Mein Kampf, vol. ii, ch. xi)
...but that's entirely beside the point: Hitler was a painter, a dog lover, a vegetarian (supposedly), and a teetotaler. Strangely, I don't see people posting things like "Hitler loved puppies!" at Cute Overload.

Going further, I think we can reasonably suspect that Hitler believed in Newtonian physics, the germ theory of disease, and the blueness of the sky. The validity of those theories isn't affected just because the archetypal evil guy believed in them.

Another classic example is the claim that Hitler and Stalin were atheists. Certainly not true on the part of Hitler, but it is true for Stalin. For all the reasons above, it doesn't affect the validity of atheism. Noteworthy is that Stalin was into pseudoscience like Lysenkoism, which rejected evolution, and even heredity. I'm sure a number of economics-based skeptics could tear apart his views on those matters. In short, Stalin was no critical thinker, and thus nothing like the atheists who are typically targeted with this doggerel.


Doggerel Index

Monday, May 07, 2007

LittleBig Numbers

Winding chain of thought I had: Stopped by Akusai's posts on "Warrior School" -> Native Americans/Indians/whatever -> South Park episode featuring Indian casino owners taking over South Park's land in a reversal of the Greedy Evil White Guys vs. Spiritual Environmentalist Indians theme -> Indians infected the South Parkians with SARS via blankets that they rubbed Chinese people on (Don't look at me: I don't do their writing) -> Stan heals his dad with "folk remedies" -> alternative medicine -> Earlier scene: "Stan, I only have a 98% chance of surviving."

So, 2% mortality rate. In the small scale of one person, those odds aren't bad. I laughed until I thought about the large scale. Say a disease with that mortality rate infected 1,000,000 people. That'd be 20,000 dead. I'd say that merits a fair bit of caution.

One of the things that gets repeated quite often on the medically-themed blogs I go to is that most people can't assess risk, and I believe it. Imagine that there's a 1 in 1,000 chance that when you drive your car, you'll end up in a fatal crash. Would you still drive? I wouldn't: It may take a while, but over time, those odds would add up over time. Not in the gambler's fallacy way, but the more trips I plan on, the more times I'll exposed to that small chance.

So, any other probability discussion?

Doggerel #80: "What's the Harm?"

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

One of the irritating grounds I've often seen woos retreat to when they fail to defend their pet woo is "What's the harm?" Some forms of woo are obviously more harmful than others, but each has potential.

1. Death: Thought I'd get the big one out of the way. Alties make up, in my opinion, one of the worst subsets of woo, and they can go far enough to convince a person to give up their proven medicine in favor of a useless treatment. This is especially prevalent in cancer quackery. Additionally, religious woo often fosters an environment where people can be convinced not only to kill themselves but others in the process: Where there are promised rewards for blind obedience, there's less incentive to step back and consider the morality of an action. You can be sure the comments will have a lot of discussion about the various aspects of this bit. Combining the two is faith healing, which is as dangerous as any quackery, possibly more so, since those with crippling conditions are often asked to jump out of their wheelchairs and risk further injury.

2. Reduced quality of life: Even when quackery doesn't lead directly to the death of a patient, it can lower the quality of life. That link above provides an anecdote, for the sake of example: A man, using a mail-order treatment tried to treat his basal cell carcinoma. The result: The tumor kept growing, disfiguring him over the course of 15 years before he died. He would likely have had it much easier if he used proven medicine.

3. Social harm: It's my experience that woos are among the most unpleasant people I've ever had to deal with. Despite their accusations against skeptics, they tend to be incredibly closed-minded, and are often intolerant about the idea of differing views. Having a conversation with a woo can be like navigating a field of land mines. With normal people, you can have disagreement at multiple levels of intensity. I could have a joking 'argument' about Picard being a better captain than Kirk with some fan I bump into, or I could go to one of the really deep Trekkie sites where every thread moves faster than Godwin could ever predict. With woos, (again, in my experience) however, everything is either polite agreement, or a mad dash to the flamethrower so that they can immediately start flinging inane, irrelevant accusations, lying about our positions, and then accuse us of heating up the argument. I can easily see this leading to the destruction of friendships, and on the religious front, many people cut off relationships once they learn a friend is an atheist.

4. Psychological harm and cynicism: Woo leaders often demand complete trust from their followers. They usually have some empowering, uplifting, though unrealistic philosophy, and anyone who opposes it is evil. When people start bringing in contrary evidence, the woo's reaction is not to change his stance, but to rationalize the evidence away: It was forged by the Men in Black. Sloppily gathered personal experience trumps careful investigation because the woo leader says so. The people presenting the evidence are being paid by the Bad Guy. Soon, they've constructed a vast, global (or even intergalactic) conspiracy so that they can claim they're being persecuted. All of this rampant cynicism is preferred over the idea that the leader could be mistaken.

5. Economic cost: Woo isn't always free. Beyond the obvious payment for "services," there's also the cost of time and opportunity. I can think of better things to do on Sunday mornings, for one. If you've got some terminal disease and are trying the "no stone unturned" approach, money and time you spent on useless herbs could have been spent on some new experimental treatment just cleared for human tests or something like that. Everything that you use for woo could be used for something useful instead.

6. Societal harm: One of the great downsides to democracy is that idiocy can still be popular, and thus stand a better chance of getting on the budget than its merits would allow. That's taxpayer money being wasted when it could go towards legitimate research.

Smaller forms of woo, like reading the astrology column in the newspaper, may not be immediately harmful, but it can eventually lead to the above if you're not careful. After all, woo isn't just a set of crazy beliefs: It's a reckless way of thinking.


Doggerel Index

Friday, May 04, 2007

I Double-Team a Troll... Sort Of

Spent a little time with a typical fundie going by the name of John, trolling at Scientia Natura. He made a number of typical appeals. They wouldn't even be convincing when I was a theist, and my quantum-temporally displaced self emerging from the Star-Trekky anomaly forming in my office is here to show why.

First, some of the stuff that's not really about evidence, but I think it speaks strongly about John and his deity's character. Mind the bits of poison in the well, but I felt I had to bring it up anyway.

John: If you don't believe in my god, you're going to Hell!
Current Atheist Self: 1. Threats of violence aren't convincing. 2. Threats of violence, especially of the eternal type, are inherently immoral. 3. Why exactly would I want to worship a deity who does such ghastly things? 4. If, through some other means, you convinced me of your god's existence, you're making the ultimate endorsement for Satanism.
Past Theist Self: What he said, plus anything so immoral cannot be an omnibenevolent god, and wouldn't even quality as a decent human. Are you sure you're not a Satanist feigning Christianity?

John: My god won't reveal himself to you on a whim, because he's got a super-secret divine plan (which is somehow mysteriously good) that involves not revealing himself so that some people go to Hell to serve as an example!
Current Atheist Self: Discriminating against people based on their beliefs is wrong, especially when such discrimination leads to eternal torment. What makes it worse is that you're saying he deliberately hides evidence in order to send people to Hell.
Past Theist Self: Exactly what he said. Are you sure you're not a Satanist?

Now onto circular arguments and non-answers.

John: Believe in my god, and you'll see all the evidence for him!
Current Atheist Self: This is a typical plea for me to enter into confirmation bias, rather than look at objective evidence.
Past Theist Self: My god says you're lying.

John: Macroevolution is impossible!
Me (both): Why? It's just a lot of microevolution adding up. That's like saying that single steps can't add up to a journey of a thousand miles.
John: Macroevolution is like walking through space to get to the moon!
Me: But what's analogous to the vacuum of space in evolution?
John: The vacuum is the stuff that nature can't do!

Current Atheist Self: How do we tell the difference between the literal and the metaphorical parts of the Bible?
John: Logic!
Current Atheist Self: But what's the logical test?
John: The perfect ones God put in the brain!
Past Theist Self: Burn the ones that contradict God's omnibenevolence. Like all mentions of a pointlessly eternal Hell, for instance. The ones that contradict scientific and historical research are either metaphorical or just plain wrong, since nature, and thus science, is the actual source document. The Bible is just the heavily edited Reader's Digest version.

I'm a little embarrassed about my past theist self, but only to about the level of being embarrassed by old Halloween photos of my youth. As for what got me started on atheism, well it was the seemingly inevitable conclusion from thinking scientifically, and holding God's omnibenevolence as the highest priority. Since the world wasn't perfect, he obviously wasn't omnipotent, and free will would contradict his omniscience. He kind of shrank into pointlessness and disappeared, but it was an honorable death. Much better than resurrecting him as a malicious malfunctioning six million dollar deity without a shred of compassion.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Quote of the Time Being #10

Prometheus sums up precisely what I think of "The Big Pharma" gambit:

The rather worn-out CAM canard about pharmaceutical companies ("Big Pharma") being only interested in the money is true to a point. They are interested in the money, because that is what pays their salaries and keeps the factories running and the research happening. And, I suppose, they would disregard human health if it interfered with profits, except that:

[1] People getting sick or dying from your drugs is really bad advertising.

[2] They have to prove that the drugs are safe and affective before they market them - it's the law.

[3] They also have to monitor their drugs after they go to market in order to pick up problems that weren't detected in the Phase III study - it's also the law.

[4] They are legally liable for any injury caused by their drugs.

So, even if the companies were run by money-grubbing sociopaths with no conscience (and some may be), their own best interests (i.e. profit margin) depend on producing a quality product that works and is safe.

CAM, on the other hand, is delightfully free of most (if not all) regulation, without even insurance company oversight to keep it in check. And the profit motive is - alas! - alive and well in CAM, as it is in all human endeavors, as evidenced by their fees and sales of proprietary "medications". If the CAM practitioners were solely interested in promoting "wellness" and "optimum health", they could charge much less than they do.

There is a double-standard in play here. "Mainstream" medicine and "Big Pharma" are suspect because they make money within the framework of a maze of rules and regulations, while CAM practitioners - many of whom are making money hand over fist with no regulation at all - are held up as saviors and saints.

Like I often say: If they wanted to make the most money with minimal fuss, they'd be homeopaths or acupuncturists.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Doggerel #79: "Wellness"

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

One of the things that often annoys me about alties is that they treat health as if it were a linear condition, and all you need to raise your hit points is "flush out toxins," get some sort of "energy" balanced, eat a certain food (or stop eating another), or stop thinking "negative" skeptical thoughts.

As I've said before, the human body is a messy, complicated thing. As such, you wouldn't expect there to be a simple panacea. Of course, we already have lots of other reasons for doubting stuff like "energy" medicine, vague scares about "toxins" and so forth. in the case of diet, sometimes they do feature good ideas (often recommended by real doctors), like cutting down on meat and eating more fruit and vegetables. For the typical American, that's good advice. Of course, woos will extend that into viciousness, sometimes, like recommending no-protein vegetarian diets or indigestible wheatgrass and so forth. Unlike a lot of woo panaceas, however, real medicine recognizes that different individuals often have different needs in some cases. I may hate pharmaceutical commercials, but at least they recommend you talk with your doctor and have warnings relevant to personal and family history.

Still another annoyance is that the "try it yourself" woos out there recommend judging personal health by subjective means, rather than things like objective numbers from bloodwork tests and so forth. Sorry, but there's no HP meter in your head. When the stakes are really low, it's okay to go by how you feel, but if you're making a serious investment on your health, you'd better check what the measurable numbers say.


Doggerel Index

Doggerel #78: "Vibration"

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

A lot of woos out there like to claim they've gotten a hold on a "theory of everything" and claim that everything is energy, or light, or, for this particular doggerel, vibrations. Now, if String Theory (or, Hypothesis, rather) pans out, they might be right on that one point, but I doubt it'll work in their favor.

A lot of alties who go on about vibrations seem to think that there's some mystical, ideal vibration, and if we set our bodies to it, we'll never be sick, or something like that. Unfortunately, the universe never seems to go along with Platonist thinking: String Theory-type vibrations just determine what kind of particle the string will appear as. If you set your body to one vibration, you'd be turning yourself into a mass of one type of particle, and would probably disperse pretty quickly. An organic body is a messy collection of disparate elements all working in a tenuous balance. Such a system doesn't lend itself to simplicity, no matter how convenient it would be.

Another form of vibration woos seem overly fond of is sound. This particular type of woo is a little bit harder to obfuscate about, since you don't need a hadron collider to observe the vibration in sound. Sound woo often involves a claim that being exposed to some magical frequency will provide health benefits. Unfortunately, most haven't bothered coming up with a mechanism for how this allegedly happens.

One set of questions I think you should ask of any vibration-woo promoter is "What's the frequency? What's the amplitude? What shape is the wave?" The response will often be one of the following: Deference to the ringleader woo, claiming that they don't bother to learn such tiny details (and buy the ringleader's book if you want to know), complaining that we don't need to seek out knowledge, and even claims that they have proprietary knowledge of such a breakthrough and that we should have to pay to know.

(Thanks go to Rebecca of Memoirs of a Skepchick for the String Theory link. I like String Ducky, too.)


Doggerel Index

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Doggerel #77: "Fanciful"

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

One of the favorite phrases of a well-known troll here was "the fanciful land of the evolutionist," except he'd use it to describe scenarios never predicted by evolution, like polymorph spells turning cats into dogs, or monkeys giving birth to humans (clearly events that would merit a label of "supernatural"), creation ex nihilo (one of the chief tenants of most forms of Creationism), and other such nonsense. Other times, he'd describe perfectly mundane, observed events as "fanciful" such as particle physics being accurate, genetic algorithms producing usable information, two of his claims being diametrically opposed, or the absence of a massive worldwide conspiracy to lie about physics, medicine, biology, etcetera for no good reason.

But enough about him. Other times, woos would label alternate explanations for results, like confirmation bias, sampling error, dumb luck (statistical flukes, whatever), trickery, natural improvement, regression to the mean, actual medicine, etcetera as "fanciful" despite the fact that those things are quite real and demonstrable. And then they'd go on about this fickle, magical "energy" that always worked, except when it didn't, in which case it's the skeptic's fault for releasing "negative energy". But he should try it himself, because that will convince him.

It really amazes me when woos use this bit of doggerel in the same breath as complaining that "our" world is small and limited. The universe is a frikkin' amazing place, and more often than not, I see woos in denial about that.

An illustration of how I see the skeptical and woo approach to the universe:

"OOOOOooooo... What does this button do?"
"Now, why does that button do that?"
"So, how does mechanism B36 work?"

"I already know what that button does."
"It works by magic."
"Okay, maybe B35 was a simple mechanical process, but B36 is magic. End of discussion."

Needless to say, I perceive the woo mentality to be quite limiting and defeatist, and they say the same about us for not including limiting and defeatist ideas in our arsenal towards unraveling knowledge.

No wonder they consider the scientific world to be fanciful: They can't seem to appreciate the fact that we've got lots of mysteries solved, and will continue to have still more mysteries to work on.


Doggerel Index