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) "'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.