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.