Saturday, March 27, 2010

A Fundamental Problem

Woos aren't aware of it. They don't know why we accept or reject various ideas. All they know is that we're often on the opposite side of the debate. They'll make up stories about how we weren't hugged enough as kids, how we were "hurt" by some member of their group, indoctrinated into a nonexistent philosophy, just want to be nasty, or whatever Hollywood narrative they like. They do this because they don't know how we think.

That's why so many woo trolls are unable to speak with us as people. They're ignorant of what it means to be a critical thinker, and often willfully so when they refuse to listen to our points. They can't attack our actual beliefs because they're unwilling to learn them. That's why they resort to straw men, ad hominem fallacies, repetitive propaganda, and defense mechanisms. Their unwillingness to listen to us serves to compound the problem.

By the same token, many, many trolls have an unwillingness to commit to or even speak of any claims. I've had countless arguments where my fellow skeptics and I repeat various demands for clarification on the beliefs in question, only to get stalling tactics and intentional vagueness, followed by another volley of ineffective attacks.

The bottom line: Most woos who engage in trolling are poor communicators and don't care if they are. They don't care what we actually believe. They don't care about defending their beliefs. They only want to beat up figments of their imagination.

At least we can try to have fun seeing if they'll actually react to something they don't expect. Half the time, I search for weird angles of attack in hopes of inspiring a Work Time Fun response.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Texas, Other Details on DOOMED! Status

From Phil Plait. Something about Joseph McCarthy just pushes my berserk button.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Quote of the Time Being #26

This one's a comment posted by thalesc on Neurologica.

Being a software engineer who works on large projects I find quite amusing how creationists look at a living thing and conclude it’s too complex to have evolved, therefore it must have been designed in a similar way to how humans design technological artifacts – intelligently, that is.

Clearly these people have never designed anything of significance in their lives – and no, putting together a display for the Creation Museum does not count.

If they had, they’d realize that the process of designing complex things intelligently looks a lot more like Evolution than the clean, purely top-down idealization of a guy that sits at a desk and draws the complete plans for something anew out of pure inspiration. On the contrary, design is a dirty process that involves a lot of experimentation, discovery, creativity (i.e., randomization), refinement and selection.

For instance, humans didn’t come up with today’s modern computers in a single try. If we look at the history of the computer we’ll see a progression from simplicity to complexity where each new machine was built on previous successful technology. More importantly, we’ll see lots of failures that were quickly discarded, and even more failures that never saw the light of the day. Of course if we look only at the successes we may get the wrong impression of intentionality and predictability. However, if we look at the failures too we’ll see a different picture, we’ll see that the technological progress is quite random and unpredictable, and that it happens mostly through the selection of the random ideas that worked.

Some people can’t see how one can arrive at functional complexity through evolution. I have quite the opposite feeling, I can’t see how one can get there otherwise.

The Historian's Fallacy and Conspiracy Nuts

I've had to deal with a certain phenomenon with conspiracy nuts: When asked for evidence of a conspiracy, they start citing who benefited from the central event. The problem with this, of course, is that benefit does not prove that the person in question planned it. Hindsight is 20/20, but our past selves do not benefit from it. Neither do previous generations.

For one example of the fallacy, many 9/11 twoofers point out how much the Bush administration was able to expand their power and influence after the attack. To someone who thinks governments have a supernatural prescience, this is incriminating evidence. To a more sensible person, this is easily explainable by opportunism, rather than an elaborate conspiracy: They didn't plan it, but they were able to take advantage of it anyway.

People are people, and only have access to certain fields of knowledge. In war history, this is the fog of war: Decision makers don't have instant access to all the relevant information. It could be anything from enemy disinformation to accidentally skipping over a critical bit of a report. Some intelligence agencies prefer not to share information, preventing it from getting to the relevant people in time. This tendency was one of the reasons for the founding of the Central Intelligence Agency in the US. Of course, even with this, government secrets still run the risk of remaining secret to the non-CIA portions of the government.

Large organizations are made up of small parts, namely people, and their means of communication. All too often, conspiracy theorists are unwilling to even think about the difficulties involved in running them. Just because certain information is readily available today does not mean that it was always so. Confusion is, and always has been a part of civilization.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Logic is a Wreath of Pretty Flowers That Smell Bad

Or so many woos try to argue. It's quite common when I deal with various trolls that they'll argue how "telling" it is when I point out a logical fallacy they committed. I've heard it pretty often with Creationists and the ad hominem fallacy: Rather than argue about the science, they'll make some accusation about a skeptic's or a scientist's sexual orientation, racism, or whatever, as if that somehow changes the color of a fruit fly's eyes or the constant radioactive half-life of a particular isotope.

I haven't performed any extensive sampling, but it seems to me that the vast bulk of logical fallacies are types of subject changes. Red herrings. A subtype of the non-sequitur. My being an atheist, for example, doesn't change the fact that multiple lines of converging evidence agree on a single phylogenetic tree. The fact that I own D&D books does not falsify the fact that the Big Bang theory accurately predicted the cosmic microwave background radiation before it was measured. Science, it works, bitches.

In the world of woo, it seems, emotion matters infinitely more than truth. Self-esteem matters more than learning. Certainty matters more than honesty. It reminds me of several episodes of the original Star Trek where Kirk and crew blew up "logical" computers and androids by behaving oddly. The only difference is that they're going for the tiniest expression of frustration, as if it's impossible to be logical and emotional at the same time. Being right and being stoic are completely unrelated things.

Of course, since most woos never pause to understand what logic actually is, they declare victory, even if they only contributed gibberish, contradictions, and transparent subject changes to the discussion. Science doesn't care about how you express your ideas, only if they're logically sound, and proving that often takes work. Woo and faith, however, only exist to prop up the believer's self-esteem or to make laziness self-justifying.

Sent By My Brother

Psychic Drawing Fail.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Woo Enthymemes #7: "My Imagination is Superior!"

This particular entry was inspired in part by Chopra Fan, Rachael Good, who vomited up a great deal of hate on Skeptico.

As was pointed out later in that comment thread, woos often act as if they have a monopoly on imagination. As if it's impossible to be scientifically minded and have imagination. The problem with this, of course, is that imagination was required to come up with all the theories we take for granted, and still is needed to make advances in the various fields.

In my view, the whole act is a temper tantrum: Their imagination was wrong, therefore they have the right to shit all over everything their opponents have done. That's what woo is often about, after all. Hell, whenever a skeptic imagines a non-supernatural explanation for something, they lash out against the very notion of creativity. They think creativity is destructive because it expands outside their tiny, gray box.

Creativity shouldn't be contained by preexisting ideology. Ideas should be treated fairly: Those with merit, those that agree with the evidence and make new predictions should be held in higher regard. Those that contradict the evidence or fail to say anything useful should be dismissed until they can correct those failings. The marketplace of ideas is supposed to be a meritocracy, and science is the best method we have for determining an idea's merit.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Saturday, March 06, 2010

Bioshock and Quackery

Last night, I started watching a Let's Play of Bioshock. For those who don't know much about the game, I think I can say this much without spoiling the plot: The game takes place in an underwater city that was intended to be some sort of Objectivist paradise.

There, scientists weren't 'burdened' by ethics and developed some DNA modifying chemicals to give people superpowers like telekinesis or the ability to shoot bolts of electricity from their hands. Unfortunately, the scientists responsible apparently bought into 'greed is good, altruism is evil' rhetoric, and didn't bother with extensive safety tests. As a result, the city is now crawling with insane people swinging around monkey wrenches and climbing the walls with hooks and mad Science!-enhanced agility.

The city's leader response to the growing insanity? "Yes, people have died, yes, people have gone insane, but we can't abandon our ideals when they're being tested. The market is patient, and we must be patient, too."

This reminds me of all too many quacks I've heard from: "If it was dangerous/useless, people wouldn't buy it!" One of the biggest problems the caveat emptor philosophy has is the need for everyone to be an expert in whatever field is relevant to their purchase. The problem isn't quite so bad with simple purchases, but when it comes to our health, we shouldn't all have to be doctors to evaluate the safety and efficacy of a product. Contrary to what quacks will tell you, you are not born with innate expertise in your own body. The human body is a complex and intricate thing that was pretty much built to last a few decades. It's because people sought a deeper understanding than superficial pain/pleasure responses that we've been able to take 70+ years for granted.

Many people also tend to be poor at risk assessment. Someone who goes on a beach vacation might be more worried about getting attacked by sharks than about the much higher risk of getting into a car accident on the way. Anti-vaxxers, for example, are more afraid of the infinitesimal risk of exposure to trace amounts of everyday chemicals in the vaccines than the much higher risk of death by the diseases they prevent.

My conclusion: This sort of extreme capitalism, like Communism, could only work if the world was already perfect, full of well-educated, rational people. We need regulatory bodies made of experts to keep our food and medicine safe and effective.

Monday, March 01, 2010

Explaining Fantasy

I've been busy with meatspace lately, so I don't remember if I've said something about this before, but I figure it's worth drilling home. In science, most people understandably focus on how theories are supposed to predict and explain the facts that we observe. I, however, feel the need to point out the opposite side of that: A theory also needs to explain why certain things are not seen. It's been said that "a theory that can explain anything explains nothing," and it's my intention to give the reason for that saying.

Let's use the familiar comparison between evolution and Creationism. Evolution has constraints: A generation can only build on or modify what it inherited from its ancestors. Evolution tells us that Crocoducks are absurdly unlikely: Birds evolved from bipedal dinosaurs, a different branch of the tree of life from crocodiles. A Crocoduck would be analogous to (but much more extreme than) a couple siring a distant cousin's child. For that reason, the discovery of a Crocoduck (barring origin by mad science) would completely dismantle everything we know about genetics and evolution.

Creationism, however, can perfectly explain a Crocoduck: God can do whatever he wants, and for some incomprehensible reason was in the mood to slap two very different species together. There is no mechanism of action to limit what God's tools can do. Thus the Crocoduck is explained by Creationism.

Of course, the problem this presents for Creationism is that there are no Crocoducks. There are no lion-eagle hybrids with a six limb body plan. There are no cloven-hooved horses with spiral horns or lion tails. Creationism is useless because it can be used to predict anything, including all the things that will never happen. Creationists have no method for sorting out true predictions from the infinity of fantasy predictions. They can only point out certain "predictions" after the fact has been observed. That, in a nutshell, is why Creationism's unfalsifiability makes it useless.

Often, I call Creationism "The Random Theory of Randomness." If you think in terms of a dice experiment, I think it's quite apt: If you roll a die a million times and get all sixes, it's perfectly reasonable to think the die is weighted in a manner to come up six. That theory has a comparatively narrow set of predictions: If you keep rolling the die, you will get mostly sixes. The theory of randomness, that the die roll just happened to come up all sixes by chance alone, predicts any outcome pretty much equally.

If you rolled the die some more and get a roughly equal tally of all six numbers, that would cast heavy doubt about the die being weighted. If you continued to roll sixes, it would support the weighting theory, but the randomness advocates could just as readily claim that it's possible random chance still favors sixes. Of course, I would think any reasonable person would bank on the weighting theory.

The Ban List

It currently has one member: Gabriel. (WOMI was removed last time I changed the comment policy. He originally got on for doing a similar repetition act Gabe's doing now, only he was a Creationist.) The reason for his banning is essentially groaning boredom on the part of some of my readers, and I can't blame them: Gabriel hasn't learned anything about what we actually believe, and thus it's become pointless to read his repetition of straw men, ad hominem fallacies (why the hell does he think this is about penis passport dueling with some random guy on the internet?)

So, Gabriel, included below are a few ways you can get yourself unbanned by submitting comments:

1. Post a criticism of my actual views on the topic of race. There's no shortage of my commentary in the various threads for you to read.
2. Define what you mean by "race," "white," and "black." Are they based on genetics in any way?
3. A link and/or citation of a study showing some sort of meaningful neurological differences between people of different races.

Anything else is subject to rejection. If you had any idea of what skepticism and science really are, you'd understand why you've been failing so hard. Try doing something different and interesting for a change. It's been fun seeing you flail about in a useless and predictable manner, but I think it's time to move on if you can't show me something unexpected.

Once a week, I may drop a comment in this thread summarizing what Gabe tries. I predict it'll just be a stream of redundancy, and we don't need space wasted on stuff we've already been over multiple times.