Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Pointless Question #75

So, where exactly do the villains get all that kryptonite? Do they have dollar store specials on it or something?

Goddamn Hippies!

There was a time when I kind of liked the hippie counter-culture: Standing up for people's rights, rebelling against rigid structures and crazed, inflexible government. Nowadays, however, there's no shortage of people who have inherited all the negatives of the culture and none of the positives.

They use "arguments" that normal people would expect from drug-addled minds. They think that reality is subjective to the point of solipsism. They think science is just another "narrative" and has no value as a means of ascertaining the truth. They think words are more real than the things they describe.

I remember an episode of South Park where Stan temporarily joins some hippies at a concert where they talk about overturning the bad elements of society. They spend the whole time lazing about, just listening to the music and partying. Stan gets on stage and simply asks the crowd, "What are we doing?" followed by his disillusionment when the crowd seems to think that partying harder is the most productive means of getting "positive energy" or some such nonsense out. It probably didn't help that one of them was a "college-educated hippie" category who didn't seem to understand that a collection of people that trades services for mutual benefit is called a "town." He then proceeded to say that they don't understand his lofty thoughts because they haven't been to college, yet.

That's the sort of image I get nowadays when I think "hippie": An ineffectual lot with unearned arrogance, a de facto force for the status quo, utterly divorced from any sort of real world logic.

PETA Irony

A while back, I had a thought about PETA's attitude towards pets: They want to take the average pet out of a life of comfort and safety, so that they can roam free in the wild, where they have to struggle just to survive, scraping for every tiny bit of food, engage in combat over territory, and face illness without the aid of a vet...

But they don't ask the same of humans. I guess it's irony (or at the very least, hypocisy) that they speak so badly of humanity, yet think humans are granted special privileges to live in a society where we can take food, health, and safety for granted. They seem to think it's horrible that we would allow animals to experience the benefits of our society, only requesting a little bit of companionship and an amusing trick or two in exchange.

Of course, it's more likely that they're just too high on the Disneyfication of wilderness to realize how good pets have it. To them, the wilderness is probably just a pretty picture, like camping out in a particularly well landscaped backyard, only larger. Life in the wilderness is no modern camping trip. Animals don't have the amenities or the intellect humans do. They have far fewer means of making their life in the wild more comfortable.

Monday, December 28, 2009


As you know, I'm on Netflix. I've watched a few episodes of MST3K on streaming, but they're rather limited right now. Any suggestions for the DVD'd ones?

Emergent Behavior

One of the smaller gifts I got this year was a Hex Bug: This was a fairly simple walker that'd react to touch or sound. My brother mentioned some toy he once saw: Alien ships that would have a war: Some would run away from aggressors, which in turn would give chase. I'm interested in that sort of thing: Critters that react to one another. Anyone got suggestions for little bots or some simulation software?

Pointless Question #74

Okay, so Dr. Chaos spread a virus that turns the infected into monsters loyal to him, complete with a painful-looking metamorphosis. Oh, heavens, one of the heroes got it! But now he's been cured! ...Why'd his clothes come back?


Woo feeds on fear, and fundies invented fictional places like Hell to strengthen its grip. Pascal's Wager is a blatant, transparent appeal to cowardice. Instead of being allowed to suspend judgment until the evidence comes in, the concept of Hell exists to frighten us into rushing into an unwarranted conclusion.

It takes courage to be a skeptic: Uncertainty is something we face all the time. we know that we could be wrong about pretty much anything, and that if the right evidence comes in tomorrow, we'll have to change our minds. There is also so much we don't know about the universe, yet.

Fundamentalists take the coward's way out: Faith. They paint pretty (to them) pictures over the unknown, as well as over the evidence that doesn't fit in with their comforting beliefs. For those who invoke Pascal's Wager, it's even more blatant: They don't believe because of anything like evidence, but because they fear something their predecessors invented without evidence to keep them in line. Morally speaking, they're pitiful creatures who act not out of love or compassion but fear of arbitrary punishment and/or greed for equally arbitrary rewards. Instead of risking their comfort by standing up for justice or truth, they're only looking out for themselves.


When I was young, one of my Sunday school teachers said the opposite of love isn't hate: It's apathy, the utter lack of concern or compassion. I doubt she realized where that sort of thought would take me. My last Sunday school session involved a different teacher who spoke of Hell with complete apathy for those allegedly burning in it.

Hatred, despite its dangers, is at least understandable. A normal person can understand why someone would hate threats to their or their loved ones' well being. A normal person can understand the desire to take vengeance on something that has already damaged those things. Rage is a natural followup to sorrow.

Apathy, however, often mystifies me. I can understand apathy when it concerns, say, the local sports team rivalries, but not when it concerns the suffering of other people. I've run into countless neocon trolls who don't care in the slightest about non-Americans and their rights. I've encountered countless fundies who advocate apathy as the proper response to injustice. I've encountered some woos who seem almost sub-human or sociopathic in their inability to understand why we want to protect strangers from psychic scams.

Apathy, for me, can be seen as the most subtle and insidious form of hatred. It can stand for extended periods because it only requires inaction in the face of injustice. That inaction also makes it much easier for some to indulge in it. Apathy is a cold emotion, which is probably why I react to it with impassioned flames. What got me to blogging about skepticism instead of just rolling my eyes was the passion of other skeptics. They blogged about how woo hurts people and corrupts our efforts to find the truth. After that, I couldn't bear being silent.

Friday, December 25, 2009


It's one of the key ingredients of woo. Health scares try to convince people that trace amounts of everyday chemicals or life-saving medical practices will irrevocably corrupt your pure body (unless you buy their product). Conspiracy theorists try to convince you that the omnipotent, omniscient government is planning to get you sometime next Tuesday. Religious fanatics invent invisible, allegedly inevitable horrors for your soul if you don't bow down to their arbitrary rules.

Fear and panic fuel poor decision making. Dramatic but improbable threats naturally seize our attention more than simple, everyday risks. The former also tend to have an urgency created about them to discourage a potential victim from thinking things through or performing genuine research. This quite often leads to sloganizing statements to spread the word: Don't think about the topic, just spread the word as fast as you can.

For those who dare question the supposed hazard, sowing distrust is the preferred method: Don't waste time debating the actual details, go straight for the ad hominem, make up connections between them and the eeeee-ville establishment out to get you, and denounce open-mindedness towards evidence as too limited and constrained to handle the issue.

This is what we as skeptics are up against much of the time.

Or Quantum Salad?

Qualia Soup recently posted another good video.

I should definitely bring this up next time I come across a dualist trying to argue that something's "non-physical." I'm essentially a neutral monist who just calls that one type of stuff "physical" or "material." If we were to discover something that would now be called "supernatural," it wouldn't uproot too much of my general worldview: About all that could be said is that such things are made of some particularly exotic type of material/physical stuff. It'd be about like the confirmation of dark matter: Some weird stuff with limited interaction with what we're familiar with (baryonic matter).

I don't see any reason these sorts of things would be beyond science in principle. The only pragmatic barriers I can imagine are the sorts of things believers would not readily grant: Extreme rarity, inherent randomness (utter unpredictability), or ridiculously bad luck that prevented scientifically minded people from preparing tests.

I'm not pessimistic enough to think we can be defeated so completely by alleged weird stuff.

Pointless Question #73

Okay, so Santa's elves make lots of toys. Back in the day of wooden trains, ball-in-a-cup, and stick ball, that was fine. These days, however, where brand recognition is everything, why isn't he, for example, getting his pants sued off by Hasbro for making a few thousand perfect counterfeit Optimus Primes?

And don't get me started on all the software.

Barking up the Right Tree #2: Cautious Optimism

Knowing what I know about the skeptical community, when you strip away our curmudgeonly exteriors, we're optimistic in our basic nature.

Yes, we criticize a lot, have a laundry list of complaints about our adversaries, and so on. Given our opposition, it's natural for us to act with frustration. But that conflict isn't the entirety of our being. We believe that the open-minded nature of science, with the collective teamwork of mankind can solve just about any problem. Scientists are heroic figures to us. They solve problems not with brute force, but by achieving a greater understanding of the world.

The caution comes with the open-mindedness: We are open to the idea that we could be wrong. That's why we need controls and blinding to minimize our biases on the data. It's natural to hope for the best and see what you want to see. As skeptics, we're aware of that, so we exercise caution when we see what appears to be an easy solution. High standards exist to prevent mistakes caused by wishful thinking.

With our underlying idealism, it's only natural that we recoil at the cynicism we so often find in those who don't trust science. "Woo" as we call it, so often feeds on fear of imagined dangers, distrust in the motives of anyone who disagrees, arrogance that leads one to believe he's immune to normal imperfections, and closed-mindedness towards the very idea of changing beliefs.
This time of year, we should remember someone, part human, part divine, who faced the wrath of Hell to save us all.

Of course, I'm talkin' about the GOD HAND!

My arm!
My arm!
My arm!
My arm!
My arm!
Summing up the power of the God Hand!

(Haven't played it yet, but saw a Let's Play and think I might try it out.)

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Last Second Decemberween Shopping

Trying to think of something for my dad. He's covered for data storage, my brother's covering him on his photography, and I'm not terribly sure what movies he might be interested in this year. Thankfully, my hometown doesn't go through a great deal of insanity, so I can shop pretty safely tomorrow.

Double Your Gold!

Got a second gold crown. The percentage of Bronze Dog's gold makeup rises. Hopefully it'll be a while before I need more dental work: Got my biggest two problem teeth covered.

Monday, December 21, 2009

The Hows and Whys of Gabe's Wrongness

Gabriel has often accused me of claiming I'm right and he's wrong because I say so. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Gabe: "Explain why dominantly white countries are prosperous and dominantly black countries are poor!"

Logical fallacy #1: Shifting the burden of proof.

I don't have a worked-out theory about why specific nations rise and fall. I don't need one. I merely claim the null hypothesis: That race has nothing to do with it. It's up to Gabe as the advocate of his racial hypothesis to explain this observation.

Logical fallacy #2: Non-sequitur, subtype: Argument from ignorance.

I've given some fairly generalized answers (forces of geography and history), but even if I didn't know, this is not a victory for Gabe. A lack of knowledge on my part cannot be construed as evidence in favor of Gabriel's racial hypothesis.

Logical fallacy #3: Cum Hoc Ergo Propter Hoc: "Correlation Implies Causation"

Just because two things are correlated doesn't mean that one causes the other. They could have an outside cause. For example, geography has an effect on economic prosperity. It also creates different selective pressures for skin coloration.

Gabe: "You haven't traveled!"

Logical fallacy: Non-sequitur, Red Herring, subtype: Ad hominem

I have absolutely nothing to do with the data. My travel experience is completely immaterial to the debate. If I were to hop in an airplane on a tour of all the continents, that will not change a nation's per capita income, nor will it alter the principles of genetics. My personal life is quite irrelevant in any question of science.

Gabe: "You're a geek!"

Logical fallacy: Non-sequitur, Red Herring, subtype: Ad hominem

...So what?

Gabe: "It's up to you to prove everyone's equal!"

Logical fallacy #1: Shifting the burden of proof.

In every statistical analysis class I've ever taken, one of the first tests you do is try to DISprove that groups are equal. Equality is a negative claim: It's the absence of a difference. It's a null hypothesis to be assumed until disproven with evidence.

Logical fallacy #2: Straw Man

I don't believe everyone's equal. There are many variations. Some people are genetically weaker or stronger, but I generally don't believe there's any great deal of importance to most such differences. I also see no reason to believe that "race" as commonly defined has any correlation with the sorts of differences Gabe alleges.

Gabe: "World of Warcraft! Wikipedia! Stay-at-home moms!"

Logical Fallacy: Red Herring.

Like his verbal assault on my allegedly TV stereotype-like life and family members, this is just plain idiotic. Whatever Gabe can say about me, my friends, or my family, well, that obviously isn't going to alter the results of a genetic study or conjure up controls or blinding for Gabriel's anecdotes. Why doesn't he just get on with it, instead of wasting his time on irrelevancies. Naturally, this sort of behavior is a big, fat red flag telling us that he's unarmed in this battle of wits and data.

I think that's enough for now. I'll add more if I remember.

Important questions you should bother to answer, sometime, Gabe:

1. What do you mean by "race," "white," "black," etcetera?

2. Is "race" genetic or not?

3. How does "race" cause anything? Without a causal mechanism, it might as well be magic.

Merry Chrismahanakwanzaaka to You!

Being without television, I'm spared the rambles of Fox News (especially since I need to catch up on the Daily Show lampooning them), but I'm sure they've been whining about the fictitious "War on Christmas" while I haven't been looking. It's their attitude that got me out of saying "Merry Christmas."

When a normal person says "Merry Christmas" or "Happy Holidays," they are expressing a friendly desire for you to enjoy the celebrations going on. It's a slightly more warm and fuzzy version of "have a nice day." I'm perfectly happy with that, and both expressions work. "Happy Holidays" is a less specific version intended to avoid offending those who celebrate something else. I was quite happy with the arrangement, as were many others.

Then the fundies had to come along and overreact to some stores favoring "Happy Holidays." Because the stores chose to self-censor to minimize offense, the fundies weren't happy. The fundies want everyone to say "Merry Christmas" the way one would shout a bigoted epithet. They want the stores to proclaim that Christians get special treatment. To pretend this simple act is a form of persecution, they choose to lie: They wail as they claim that it's now illegal to say "Merry Christmas" or some such nonsense. It's the same old sad story with prayer and bibles in school: Because the government must exercise self-censorship by law, they lie and claim that now their children are unable to pray or read the bible on their own initiative.

Anyway, I got sick of the whole thing a while back, which is why I primarily refer to December 25th as Decemberween when I blog. With the various Fox Fundies spewing out the phrase "Merry Christmas" without a trace of compassion, I'd rather not facing even a tiny risk of coming off like that by saying it.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Doggerel #218: "You Don't Know!"

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

This line is often used to set up a textbook argument from ignorance: We don't know how X happened, therefore we know it's supernatural/aliens/whatever. As I've said to a few people who have used this technique, you can't put "I don't know" into an evidence locker. The lack of knowledge cannot be used as evidence for a positive hypothesis.

That's the short of the general form. Sometimes it gets downright ludicrous and appears to be stretched into the specific: "Some guy on the internet who calls himself Bronze Dog doesn't know, therefore we do know it's supernatural!" "Some specific expert doesn't know, therefore we know it's aliens!"

Science is a process of arriving at objective conclusions, and that involves making the experimenters, arguers, etcetera irrelevant to the interpretation of the data. It doesn't matter who is saying "I don't know." Just because something allegedly stumps the experts doesn't mean that you have free reign to declare you know the answer without evidence. If the people familiar with all the relevant theories and data don't know, you probably don't know, either, unless you have access to information the experts currently lack. If you do, I would suggest you present it instead of playing rhetorical trickery.

A major source of irritation this doggerel causes is that quite often, we do know. It's not very often that we stumble on true anomalies. Many arguments of this sort are centuries old and passed on by uncritical word of mouth.

The bigger irritation, I find, is that even if we don't know what caused X, it's a victory for no one. Just because science doesn't have all the answers doesn't mean that you can smugly make one up and defend it on an absence of evidence. Without evidence, you can't know, either.

Doggerel #217: "100% Safe"

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

There's a very simple thing to say about this bit of doggerel: There's no such thing as "100% safe." That's what makes it so favored by scaremongers for a type of goal post moving: The impossible standard.

One problem often inherent to mankind is the inability to properly evaluate risk. People often worry about highly improbable but dramatic dangers than they do about the mundane, everyday hazards of living. That's why, for example, anti-vaxxers will latch onto any unlikely perceived danger in vaccines while ignoring the potentially lethal effects of the diseases they prevent. They also tend to ignore the everyday small, safe doses of the toxins in our food, produced naturally in our bodies, or even necessary to live. (The dose makes the poison, after all)

Life is messy. Science has advanced our way of life to the point that most of us take health and safety for granted. We can afford to drive to work because safety tests ensure our cars' seat belts, crumple zones, and air bags will protect us, police enforce speed limits, lights and signs regulate the flow of traffic, and so on and so forth. The same is essentially true for food and medicine in developed nations. Dedicated individuals do their part so that we don't have to expend as much effort on everyday health decisions: They do all the analysis work on risks and benefits for us.

Of course, I'm not advocating leaving it all to the regulatory agencies. If you have some condition you need to be treated for, you should read up on it, ask questions, and so forth. Just be cautious if someone trying to sell you something whines excessively about small risks or promises complete safety. That's the other aspect of this doggerel: The Perfect Solution Fallacy: Just because the most reliable methods fall short of absolute perfection isn't reason to reject them.

Skeptics' Circles

Haven't been posting links like I should.


Monday, December 14, 2009

Decemberween Giveaway?

Thinking about clearing out some clutter, but since I didn't get much demand for trade earlier, I'm thinking about just giving away some of that stuff. Of course, I won't turn away gifts from you to me.

Pointless Question #72

So, Popular Japanese Kids' Game has gotten so pervasive, you can randomly point at someone on the street and shout, "Are you asking me for a challenggggge?!" and find yourself playing a game with someone who's got their own gimmicky style.

Why hasn't the global economy crashed from everyone only taking jobs related to the game?

Happy Blogoversary to Me

Been four years, now. Need to do some catching up to get my average back up to a post a day.

Incidentally, anyone here have Civilization: Revolutions for the PS3? I'd like to play against some human players alongside my brother.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Creationist Opener

I'm thinking about trying a line if someone asks me why I don't believe in Creationism: "I don't have enough faith in random chance."

The idea is born out of the response to endogenous retrovirus sequences as evidence for evolution. VenomFangX, former big time YouTube Creationist, essentially took that line, claiming that chimps and humans have the same ERVs because they both got the same virus. Of course, he didn't think about the chance occurrence that they'd all fall in the same locations on the genomes and all acquire fixation. But given that anyone who takes the issue seriously would know that sort of thing, it almost comes across as a Creationist invoking random chance as their explanation.

And that's not too far off, given what I've seen a lot of Creationists say. They often say God is too unpredictable (AKA random) for science to study (and yet predictable enough for it to be 'obvious' to a bunch of laymen). They're certainly fond of picking on any alleged sort of randomness, like asking how wonderful it is that our pothole so obviously appears designed to exactly fit our puddle. Of course, if the laws of physics were determined randomly, Occam's Razor still favors atheism: What are the chances that a God would form from nothing with the means and desire to form this exact universe? They're addressing a problem by answering it with the exact same problem. I know an old lady who swallowed a fly...

Comment Moderation

Just getting sick of deleting spam every morning. Trolls need not worry about me filtering them out.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

The Stone Soup Gambit

Recently, I watched Jim Henson's The Storyteller. In one of the episodes, the titular character manages to con his way into getting a free meal out of a cook by making "stone soup". He puts the stone in a pot of water and boils it. As he takes a sip to "test" the flavor, he asks for a little salt, and the cook obliges. He repeats, getting more and more extra ingredients. After putting together a tasty stew this way, the cook is delighted and dumbfounded that someone could make delicious soup from "just" a stone. I think I can use this little tale to start a meme: "The Stone Soup Gambit."

When we argue for experimental controls and present alternative causes, it often feels like we're trying to convince someone that the stone contributed nothing to the flavor. There's rarely a shortage of alternative explanations: other ingredients in the soup. Essentially, what we want is a (double-)blind taste test between a pot of boiled water and stone soup, hold ALL the extra ingredients, to see if it's possible to consistently tell the difference (at greater than chance levels).

Instead, we usually get complaints that amount to saying it's impossible for the alternatives/ingredients to affect the outcome, therefore we can afford to be sloppy in our methodology. These efforts fall rather flat with skeptics, and the repetition is a leading cause of our frustration. Often, we get a few token concessions, controlling for whatever the field considers the token objection (see-through Zener cards, weather balloons, etcetera) and they expect us to be satisfied with the removal of so few alternatives.

It's a very simple concept. I don't see why applying such a basic principle invokes so much rage on our opponents' side. I certainly can't blame my skeptical friends for getting frustrated dealing with robotic, repetitious replies.

Finally Cut the Umbilical Cord

Just made the call to kill my TV. Currently emptying my DVR. Now I've got to face the crippling effects of nigh-infinite freedom of choice on my Netflix streaming. I've got more Farscape to contextualize for the time being.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Science and Lore

I recently came across a use of the word "lore" to describe a number of woo beliefs. I think it describes it well. In the fantasy genre, wizards, adventurers, and so forth are often looking for lost, forgotten lore in ancient tombs, buried in the back of some powerful being's library, or in the ruins of an ancient civilization. In poorly thought out settings, all research is about digging up the old, and none about discovering the new. Worse, sometimes experimentation and innovation are treated as sacrilegious. Science is alive. Lore is dead.

Science does take the past into account, but when new data, gathered with greater care, precision, and attention to alternatives contradicts earlier knowledge, it changes to accept this new knowledge. The value of that knowledge isn't based off of its newness, but on the increased care and context it is collected with. This process continues, leading to more growth into subtler and subtler frontiers of knowledge.

You don't get that with lore. Lore is fixed. Lore does not change when new knowledge comes, because it values the old as absolute. The value of an idea depends not on the care in collecting it, but on the age and metaphysical authority of whoever said or wrote it down. This rule of seniority locks it down.

That is why I prefer the expansive nature of science. It has no such borders.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Doggerel #216: "Why are You So Angry?"

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

Many of us skeptics routinely have to deal with people who don't understand why we're angry or irritated. Sometimes I'm quite mystified as to how this failure to understand human emotion occurs. Anger is understandably considered a "negative" emotion, but it can do great good by motivating us to speak out against injustice.

First and foremost, "woo" is harmful. People die from alternative medicine. Religious fanatics can be driven to kill. The latest fad in positive thinking can make people waste money on books, lectures, sessions, and make them feel unnecessary guilt when bad things happen to them anyway: Blaming the victim for negative thoughts. There seems to be no shortage of ways that fallacious thinking can cause harm. We get angry because we don't like the idea of people getting hurt.

In other cases, many of us are veteran debaters. We've seen many fallacious arguments in our time, and quite often we're irritated to hear them repeated over and over. I created the Doggerel series to save some of that time and frustration: Instead of writing up a response to a logical fallacy employed by a supporter of the supernatural, my fellow skeptics could give a prepared answer to tired old cliches and defense mechanisms.

Often in cases of religious fundamentalism, there's a deep moral divide between us and the fundamentalist: I have had far too many arguments with people who believe torture, murder, slavery, discrimination, and deception are virtuous activities because their gods allegedly command them.

We have plenty of reasons to be angry. Our passion for justice and truth is not a weakness.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Pointless Question #71

So, the military's gotten some good data on your ancient Atlantean mecha's phlebotinum and built a mass production model that's supposed to be its equal, maybe even a little better since they worked out a few kinks.

So, why do they all explode from just one shot and/or drive their pilots insane?

Share Your Story of Faith's Hubris

It's become something of a mantra with me that faith is the ultimate form of hubris: A person of faith is someone who believes the universe is how he dictates it to be, and that the gods are mere playthings of his denotational whims.

In short, the faithful believe that they define reality, and thus any contrary evidence is an illusion or deception.

Anyone got personal experiences where that attitude became more explicit in someone you were arguing with?

Let's Make a Gainaxian Mecha Series!

Although Neon Genesis Evangelion was made as a deconstruction of the genre, it ended up becoming one of the codifiers for future series. So, what do we need to make a formulaic mecha series? (Originally written while TV Tropes was having trouble)

1. A name for the series mecha.
2. A theme for mech naming. (I'm thinking I'll volunteer for this: My ACs are named after types of songs, with Aria being my main one.)
3. A mysterious waif and her mysterious origin. (Clone, robot, long lost possibly alien race, takin' all bets!)
4. Technobabble for why conventional military weapons are ineffective.
5. Some religious/artistic/cultural phenomenon from which to draw excessive symbolism.
6. Cause for the main character to have emotional troubles. Level of legitimate angst to wangst variable.
7. Disturbing imagery.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Netflix! Hulu!

Signed up for Netflix free trial, and watched Farscape online, FINALLY getting to see the first episode. Found out that I can indeed watch Netflix streamed videos on my PS3 and watch on my big TV, though I need a disc. I'm probably going to cancel my cable TV. I can deal with waiting for my shows on Adult Swim to get on DVD. And of course, there's Hulu for when I can tolerate ad support. That's where I watched Dr. Horrible's Sing Along Blog, so I imagine there's plenty other good stuff to be found there.

Any suggestions as to what I can watch and other places I can watch it?

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Random Recall: My First Big Anti-IDiot Rant

Back when I was in eighth grade, I ended up reading a Creationist rant written by a wildlife artist in the local newspaper. I didn't have access to handy resources like the Index to Creationist Claims or Pharyngula. I only had my knowledge of 7th grade biology, what I watched on the pre-decay Discovery Channel, and common sense.

He claimed that a ball-and-socket joint couldn't change because changing one without the other would prevent it from working. Cue facepalm. I knew, at least in humans, much of our bones aren't bone during our growth: The "ball" at least, is relatively soft cartilage. If it was oversized, it could probably be worn down to fit better. Additionally, I suspected there could be a gene that covers both, not knowing much about evo-devo. Of course, it wasn't lost on me that if he was right, it could just as easily be used to argue that human growth is impossible. But since human growth is happening all the time, it casts doubt on his hypothesis.

He also made the argument from irreducible complexity, using an airplane as a metaphor. I argued that life is probably more like a cake recipe: A cake recipe that's missing ingredients or cooking steps may not be palatable, but it's still edible. I don't remember what precisely it was about the argument, but I argued that if DNA was as intolerant of change as he seemed to imply, it would rule out reproduction, since just about every time someone or something is conceived, it's a novel combination of genes. After finding out how much "junk" we have, and how little uniqueness we have compared to the overall genome, I don't think it's quite the same. Either way, DNA is pretty tolerant of changes.

He also dipped into the Great Chain of Being straw man, asking why fish aren't evolving into humans. 1. (Humorously posed by my dad) How does he know they aren't? 2. (Serious) They aren't under selective pressure for humanity, so we shouldn't expect them to. He explicitly stated that "linearity is integral to evolution." It's not. It's only linear because we're applying hindsight to it. Evolution can take many paths. The randomness of mutations and chance occurrences can make things turn out differently. There's no program leading to brainy bipeds. That's for sci-fi.

Of course, because Creationism is a dead pseudoscience, this sort of nonsense is still repeated today.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Woos and Big Stuff

There's a scene I remember from an anime called "Blue Gender." It's a post apocalypse scenario involving giant bugs dead set on environmental revenge. The hero ends up hanging out with a girl who's only heard about the ocean.
"So, if the lake is like this," (Gestures a circle with her hands) "the ocean is like this?" (Gestures a bigger circle)
"Not even close."
"Like this?" (Gestures with her whole arm span)
"No, it's like," (Looks up) "...it's like the sky."
Often, woos seem to have no grasp of how big or how old the universe is. Science is often the art of putting numbers on things so that we can understand them.

One of the categories particularly guilty of this is the Creationist. They like to pull rather unlikely probabilities out of their back pocket using bad math, but often when they try to cite how unlikely many things are, they forget to account for the size of the universe. Many like to point out how unlikely it was that this exact ball of rock we live on would have been habitable for life, but they forget that the universe is an enormous place. If it didn't happen for Earth, there's no shortage of other planets it could have happened to. If enough people play the lottery, you can bet someone is going to win, eventually. And, thanks to the anthropic principle, the losers aren't around to complain.

Other woos, such as those who believe in psychic powers and other magical means of divination, underestimate the power of coincidence when combined with confirmation bias. For example, many people have worries about their friends manifest as dreams about them being in danger. Usually we write these off appropriately when they don't come true. Woos of this sort usually do that, except if the dream coincidentally comes true. There are enough superstitious people out there that it happens, get spread by word of mouth, and suddenly a normal form of anxiety becomes a vision of things to come. Sometimes it can take over a person's life.

This is a difficult problem to overcome. A decent grasp of mathematics helped me realize where I had be going wrong in my young woo days with just the explanation, though. About all I can think to do right now is encourage better math education and, when in an argument, push for quantitative measurements.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Doggerel #215: "It Can't Be Coincidence!"

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

One annoying aspect I deal with in many woos is that they attempt to apply fiction logic to reality. In the movies, coincidences are evidence of the villain's conspiracy. In reality, coincidences happen all the time. Correlation does not imply causation.

Consider this scenario: Ice cream sales rise at the same time burglary does. If we were to apply movie logic to this fact, we'd be accusing dairy farms of being criminal syndicates. In the real world, we have to consider that the two things could have a common cause that creates two otherwise unrelated effects: Ice cream sales and burglaries increase at the same time: Summer. Ice cream probably sells more in summer because people want something cold to consume. Burglaries probably rise because criminals think it's easier to steal from a home when the family is on summer vacation. There may be plenty of other reasons.

Coincidence is not evidence of causation. Before we can conclude there is a causation, we need a reason to think one thing causes the other, and/or control for alternative causes. This is one of the cornerstones of the scientific method: Removing the possibility of known explanations so that we can look into as yet unverified explanations.

Monday, November 16, 2009

...Club Soda, Maybe?

Trivial meatspace post: I've got a smell in my apartment my mother describes as "musty." I'm currently doing an overall cleaning in an effort to get rid of it. Though since I'm used to living here, it's hard for me to notice. Any suggestions?

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

PoMo Rant

I've recently been reminded of an interview that was, sad to say, in one of my art history books. One of the crazy things said in it was that the London fog didn't exist until someone decided to paint it. Cue facepalm.

Now, I'm not sure he meant it literally, but he did seem to think that no one really experienced it until it was painted, as if no one took a moment to admire the landscape on a foggy day before then. I find it alarmingly common among PoMos to think that some form of human experience or expression is sacrosanct. I also find it enormously silly when some of these sorts lash out against a new medium, like digital art. Hell, there were some who complained about store bought paints because "real" artists made their own. New media may require different approaches, but there's nothing inherently wrong or shallower about them. It's perfectly possible for some artsy type to make a video game that's on par with the classics.

Of course, I have to drift this subject into how science is done. Science strives to remove the subjectivity of the human element. A thermometer makes a certain reading, and unless you buy into PoMo epistemology, that reading will be the same for anyone. Put simply, it doesn't matter who uses the thermometer, it only matters how they use it and how they handle the data. Done with enough double checking against experimenters accidentally or intentionally biasing the instrument, you will get a more accurate result with thermometers than you will without them.

Being able to quantify such things rubs many PoMos the wrong way. A lake measured at a certain temperature may feel very different depending on who's getting in when. On a hot day, the relatively cool water may feel refreshing. For someone experiencing hypothermia after being locked in a fridge, the water may feel warm. Either way, it's X degrees, and the human aspect changes the subjective experience. Knowing what the temperature is will tell us how different people may experience it, as well as things like what chemists can do with it. Sometimes I wonder if PoMos try to pad their schedule by making sure there's always more to gibber about.

Saturday, November 07, 2009

123rd Skeptics' Circle

It's up at Blue Genes.

Open thread as usual, but saying being a skeptic is as easy as ABC is FORBIDDEN!

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Doggerel #214: "Absurd"

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

Sometimes, it's easy to dismiss something as absurd: It contains internal contradictions, like a "round square." It flies in the face of better evidenced ideas, like a perpetual motion machine that violates the laws of thermodynamics. This doggerel isn't about those sorts of things. Many woos seem to be under the impression that skeptics reject anything supernatural because it's the absurd in some other senses of the word.

First, there's the entirely subjective idea of certain beliefs being "silly." Hollywood isn't completely set against us, since every once in a while, they'll have a believer in the supernatural acting in a silly manner for the sake of comedy. I may crack a joke or two relating to that stereotype, but that has nothing to do with my dismissal of pseudoscience. Silly things happen in real life, after all.

Next, there's "absurd" in the counter-intuitive sense: This is very much real. I've heard many a quote from quantum physicists about how you never really understand QM, you just get used to it. Our minds were built for survival, not discovery, and we have a lot of mental shortcuts we use in our intuition. These shortcuts are useful in our everyday lives in the "middle world," but science doesn't confine itself to the everyday: Physicists work with particles so tiny and events so brief they, as Dr. Manhattan says, could be hardly said to have happened at all. Astronomers study things over vast distances, involving masses that dwarf our little blue marble. We should expect the unexpected in those circumstances.

Finally, there's "absurd" in the fantastical sense: The sort of wonderful things we often use escapist fiction to experience. We've sent men to the moon and back. We've sent robots to other planets. We can prevent treat diseases and injuries that would be a death sentence only decades ago. We can communicate almost instantly to people on the other side of the world. The world is already full of fantastic wonders, and I'm most certainly amendable to increasing the number. The world is already "absurd" in this sense.

"Woo" beliefs are not fundamentally different in any of these senses. The difference is in the logic and evidence used to support it.

Conspiracy Theories and Logistics

There's a quote in military that I think applies to just about any large-scale goal. It usually goes something like this:
"Amateurs study tactics, veterans study strategy, but masters study logistics."
That's probably why I'm almost always a Worker when I play Fat Princess.

But onto how this relates to conspiracy theories, and something I hope Debra will think about:

Usually, when I hear a conspiracy theory, I try to ask what I consider to be important questions that can be summarized as this: How did they get the resources, and how did they get them to where they needed to be?

If the conspiracy posits some unknown technology, they tend to run into trouble on how science works: The days when a lone scientist could make large breakthroughs is pretty much gone. There's little reason to believe that the government could hire only a handful of scientists and make something the rest of the world working together couldn't. The reason for this is we've gotten some very good broad strokes of how the universe works. The new technology-enabling discoveries we have to work on involve very large undertakings: Huge machines to smash particles together, large clinical trials on drugs to see if they actually have an effect, and so on. Science is a team sport, and whenever you increase the number of people involved, the harder it is to keep it secret.

In other cases, many conspiracy theories posit a government that is perfectly efficient, which is no better than invoking magic as an explanation. There's no reason to believe that the people working for the government or the conspiratorial faction are superhuman: They can make mistakes. They can have their own agendas. Ideally, governments are designed to prevent anyone from having undue influence because of various checks and balances. In reality, this often makes everything the government can do inefficient or incompetent.

The difficulty of any conspiracy increases with the level of secrecy involved: There's always someone who can grow suspicious if resources go missing. Many bureaucrats exist to keep an eye on money supplies and others to keep an eye on the ones keeping an eye on the money. For military supplies, especially nowadays with added fear of terrorism, you'd think someone would notice if a shipment of explosives went missing.

And finally, any large endeavor requires manpower. Every new person added to the conspiracy is a potential security risk. The more people you add, the more likely someone might grow a conscience or a brain and blow the whole thing wide open. Not only that, each new person, even if you could somehow guarantee their loyalty, adds to the number of people who could make a mistake or let something slip out.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Doggerel #213: "Just Because / It's Magic!"

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

This particular Doggerel entry is a bit different from the standard sorts: It's usually only spoken in between the lines, most commonly when someone is faced with a question of "how."

I've seen a few minor arguments in my corner of the blogosphere over whether to call what doctors and medical scientists do "evidence-based medicine" or "science-based medicine." While both terms leave a good impression on me, those who favored SBM pointed out an important issue: Prior plausibility. Before investing time, money, and effort into investigating something, it's reasonable to expect an explanation for why a particular treatment might work. By asking that question and putting it in the context of what other research has shown and raised questions about, researchers can focus on more realistic ideas, instead of investigating any claim, no matter how implausible, as if all ideas were equal.

While it's true that we must bow to what good evidence says, we have to exercise pragmatism in what we study because we only have finite resources. Without looking at or presenting the larger picture of the controversies (manufactured or otherwise), a skeptic can doom himself to "play whack-a-mole" with every claimant on the internet. Demanding evidence is a good practice, but it should also come with a demand for a plausible explanation.

In my naive, pre-skepticism days, I remember a little thing from a Star Trek: The Next Generation episode that planted one of the first seeds of doubt when it comes to psychic powers: Dr. Crusher talked about Lwuxana Troi's "psilosynine" levels: A neurochemical involved in her telepathic powers. My belief in the possibility of psychic powers took a big hit: How could psychic powers work? How do the chemicals in someone's brain make all these things happen? Parapsychologists have been studying the subject for a long time, but none of the stuff I had heard or read about the topic had any guesses. I'd later come to hear invocations of quantum mechanics, but with all the tests physicists can do, you would think there'd be at least one psychic who could make an electron zig when it's expected to zag.

That's the problem with so many forms of pseudoscience: They don't explain anything, and are more often used as a wall against explanation and investigation. Even in fantasy, "It's Magic!" falls short with me: I prefer my fantasy to have consistent rules with its "phlebotinum." Without rules like that, it's easy for writers to pull things out of their back pocket to justify unforeseeable plot twists. Fiction has to make sense, and despite what some comedians say, so does real life.

Science is a rigorous process of learning the rules our universe runs on. We need to be able to understand those rules and make predictions from them to find useful ways of doing things. Additionally, a robust science is one that has new, verifiable things to look for, to explain finer details or possible exceptions.

Pseudoscience, in contrast, is usually dead from the start: There's usually no explanation, and if there is, it contains no details or mechanisms to look for. Without that, there's no predictive power: The people who propose a pseudoscientific theory usually can't guess anything about what new tools will find. Take evolution versus Creationism: Biologists can use the theory of evolution to guess where they're likely to find a fossil, both geographically and what layer of rock it will turn up in. Biologists can predict how much genetic similarity two different species will have based on when their ancestors branched off each other. Creationism can't do anything like that. Instead, they can only sit back and attempt to claim evolution's predictions for themselves.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Doggerel #212: "Weird"

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

There's an implicit argument that seems to come up whenever I hear someone attempt to justify the paranormal by changing the subject to quantum mechanics or other branch of science: "Real phenomenon X is weird, therefore the paranormal is real."

Yes, we realize that the world is full of things that are unintuitive, strange, or don't yet make sense. One of the fallacies that's often used to our annoyance is a presumption that human intuition and "common sense" is always useful. We evolved in the "middle world" where, like many animals, we only needed to be able to get food, avoid dangers, and have children to survive. The instincts and prejudices we grow up with are pretty useful for that, since cutting corners with those assumptions usually didn't cost us anything. Our brains were built to survive, not to divine the truth of the universe.

Scientists know that they can't rely on their assumptions and intuition. That's why science exists: To reduce or eliminate our biases whenever possible. We need this process because science is always pushing at the boundaries of our experience, going to parts of the world quite alien to us. The fact that these places are "weird" to many of us doesn't mean that they are beyond science, only that we have to be careful in how we examine them. Unfortunately, many people try to use this doggerel to mean the opposite: "The paranormal is "weird," so you just have to take my word for it as an alleged expert on it." In other words, it's invoked to deter questioning.

The universe is a strange and wonderful place when you look beyond your everyday experiences. To invoke that "weirdness" as a shield against curiosity and open inquiry is to cheapen the experience.

Doggerel #211: "Spooky"

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

Sometimes, skeptics are easily bored. A great deal of the frustration we experience is born out of that boredom: Whenever someone tells us about some "spooky" occurrence, chances are A) We've already heard about it and know what really happened, if anything at all, B) we've already seen countless tales just like it and know many alternative explanations, or C) we find it entirely unsurprising.

One of the major problems that makes this doggerel is the unreliability of anecdotes: We know that people tend to leave out or overlook important pieces of information. People are fallible and can easily misinterpret what's going on. When we try to make sense of something, it's easy to alter our memories of an event to support the story we come up with in the process. That's why cameras and other, more objective forms of 'memory' are better trusted than eyewitnesses. And even then, reproducible forms of physical evidence rank even higher, since cameras don't necessarily capture the important details, just where they're pointed.

In other cases, we've heard a LOT of various stories with known, simple alternative explanations, and the new one you're telling probably doesn't do anything to eliminate those mundane possibilities. What matters most about evidence is quality, not quantity. Good evidence for the paranormal would falsify the many alternative explanations we use as null hypotheses. We get bored if, for example, your tale is just about you performing the same argument from lack of imagination someone else performed long before you arrived.

A lot of "spooky" tales we hear are about simple probability. The world is a big place. Lots of people do lots of things all the time. It's no surprise to us that some unlikely event happened to you. If it didn't happen to you, it could just as easily happened to someone else. As a skeptic, we're supposed to look at these sorts of things in the context of the world, not just your corner of it.

And finally, there are a lot of misunderstandings about weird events in science. One of the favorites is the double-slit experiment and similar small-scale phenomena. Usually, it's old, unsurprising news for us.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Free Energy Rant

Just picked a topic I haven't gone on about for a while.

Free energy is one of those things that sticks around. I guess being able to get something for nothing is just one of those things people wish wasn't too good to be true.

Of course, since I grew up listening to Patrick Stewart speeches, I tend to have an underlying thought that if we're just clever enough, we could find just the perfect things to solve our problems. Of course, as a skeptic, I work to keep critical thinking dominant in my mind, even if it has to give my wishful thinking a swirly. I can imagine it's possible (if very unlikely) that we might find some way to get energy that doesn't require too much effort on our part.

Not quite the case with most free energy boondoggles I hear about: Most really are supposed to be something for nothing. Just spin the magnets the right way and energy will come from some fundamental part of the universe on a silver platter, with a pretty bow on top.

Aside from the raw wishful thinking, though, I wonder if the enthusiasm might also be powered with desire to give the finger to the scientists who posited the laws of thermodynamics. As some ray of sunshine phrased them:
Zeroth: You must play the game.
First: You can't win.
Second: You can't break even.
Third: You can't quit the game.
It's kind of depressing, so I guess I can't blame the sentiment. Of course, another issue is the desire to give the energy companies the finger. Yeah, fossil fuels are bad, and we've got a lot of people dragging their feet on developing practical alternatives, so it's not surprising some amateurs would like to do something to take on the Eeeee-ville faceless oil companies.

There's certainly a lot of good intentions with the deluded (and no shortage of cynical con artists who like to cash in on them), but as hard as it is, critical thinking is more likely to help solve the energy crisis than wishful thinking alone. Just a message from a friendly neighborhood skeptic.

Wasting Money

I'm contemplating seeing "Fourth Kind," an alien abduction movie, and reviewing it. May need to bring a note pad, since I doubt I'd be allowed to bring in my laptop. Any thoughts?

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Pointless Question #70

I came across a horde of zombies today (at least I think "horde" is the correct term for a group of zombies). So why brains? Why not the bits that don't require all the effort involved in cracking a skull?


Seems they've marked the price down from $200 to FREE! Sounds like a deal to me. Downloaded the installer and might try a few things. Up for hearing if any of you have personal experiences to share. I'll probably hang out at their forum this weekend to find out more.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Doggerel #210: "Victim"

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

On some level, as social beings, we have an instinct for justice. When one of "our group" is harmed, we can quickly direct our anger at who or whatever caused that harm. Much of the time, however, cynical manipulators can pull our heartstrings to persuade us into irrationality.

Many forms of pseudoscience attempt to play victim to win sympathy. They treat ridicule and criticism as persecution when it may very well be deserved. In such a case, the use of this doggerel is a subject change: Instead of defending ideas and answering criticism, the user looks for pity so that those who fall for the scheme can complain about irrelevancies like the skeptics' tone of voice or choice of language.

In other ways, the use of this doggerel can be self-fulfilling. Take, for example, a certain Big Lie: That it's illegal to pray in school in the US. It's not. The law only requires that teachers, staff, and other government employees not lead students in prayer while on the clock. But because the Big Lie is so prevalent, many people in those positions actually believe it and end up enforcing the false law, allowing those who spread the lie to claim persecution and milk people's sympathies.

Others claim that non-victims can't possibly understand, therefore all their scientific questions and efforts to point out logical fallacies are meaningless. This is hardly the case. In fact, someone who believes himself to be a victim must redouble his efforts to be objective: Having an emotional stake in the issue can easily lead to bias.

Talking about the problems caused by an injustice can be useful to ignite someone's passions, but it's no substitute for logic and scientific inquiry. Wanting to solve a problem, and knowing the true nature of the problem and its solution are entirely different things.

Doggerel #209: "Patented"

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

This bit of doggerel is an old marketing trick that shouldn't work anymore. A patent does not indicate efficacy, only uniqueness, and sometimes not even that.

I've heard that, at least in the US, the patent office will not accept perpetual motion machines or free energy devices, taking the prudent stance that such contraptions are impossible. The decision may also have to do with how common the claims are, and how much extra useless paperwork they would produce.

Patent offices are not scientific institutions. They do not conduct in-depth experiments with every designer's ideas. They do not carry out clinical trials for the latest herbal supplements. They exist to provide an innovator with a protection against someone else copying his work, so that he can make money off his idea. Whether or not you like such things as copyright laws, this should be something to know.

If you want to know if something works, you should test it according to the principles of science and logic. If you're willing to trust someone, you should trust results in good scientific journals, conducted by people who take the necessary efforts to remove their biases. It's that methodology that credibility comes from, not a government stamp of approval.