Monday, July 31, 2006

Politispeak? Politalk?

Whatever you call it, here's a good example of a very political reply to a direct question. This is taken from the "Daily Dialogue" that my company does, where they supposedly answer employee questions

Q. Why didn't [Name removed] start his town hall on July 20 with a safety message?

A. Answer from [Another name removed] of [Company] Corporate Communications:
Safety is a regular component of [Name]'s communications to employees, both written messages and town meetings. Regardless of whether any given meeting starts with a safety message, we're still obligated as a company to maintain the highest levels of safety. We take safety seriously enough to measure it and consistently take actions to improve our performance. Even more important, we hold everybody accountable for doing the right thing when it comes to safety.

A. Answer from [Another name removed] of [Company] Corporate Communications:
That was a mistake on our part. However, we can't admit is as such, as that might give you ammunition to use against us. We can, however, remind you that safety is still very important.

I'm tempted to send them an e-mail with the question "Why didn't you actually answer the question, 'Why didn't [Name removed] start his town hall on July 20 with a safety message'?"

(Oh yeah, and watch your adverbs! It should be "importantly" in the last line, not "important." You're an international corporation, so try to sound like it!)

Also, check out the Bad Astronomy blog today for another good example of butchering the term "UFO."

Proceed with your information binge...

Friday, July 28, 2006

The Classic Cop-Out

I thought I'd be done with quoting e-mails, but this one is just too good an illustration to pass up. The conversation started yesterday when we were talking about how the Bible oppressed women. I brought up Timothy 2:11-12, where it said that no woman should teach or have authority over a man, in order to simply give an example of the oppression. Somehow this got misinterpreted as me claiming the church was still exactly like this, and things just kept going. The full quote is as follows:

I’m done talking to you its not worth it…people say something and you don’t even read it or even care you come right back with what you think and that’s final…this is something I believe in…words are words..its how you interpret it…I respect women to the fact that I would vote one as my president…yet I go to church every Sunday listening to what I believe in and how I should try to live my life..if you even go to church you would know God doesn’t expect you to live your life as it says in the Bible he just says try you best….thats the great thing about faith you don’t always have to be right or wrong but you will know that your faith will help you in the end…there isn’t a right or wrong in faith so you can’t step in a say that’s just wrong because if you think that the world is reading the Bible and going out there making women their slaves then you must live in a different world then me because I don’t do that and I don’t see’s not how I live my life and you telling me that I think this of women is wrong

Ugh. Grammar, grammar, grammar!

Anyways, I'll give some translations and replies to it now:
I’m done talking to you its not worth it…

Translation: I don't know how to reply to that argument, so let's end the discussion.
people say something and you don’t even read it or even care you come right back with what you think and that’s final…

Ad hominem; please attack the arguments and not the arguer. I am reading everything and am trying to respond to all the relevant points made. Besides, I'm suspecting the same of you, but I'm not saying it.
this is something I believe in…

" my mind is closed to thinking about it logically."
I respect women to the fact that I would vote one as my president…yet I go to church every Sunday listening to what I believe in and how I should try to live my life..if you even go to church you would know God doesn’t expect you to live your life as it says in the Bible he just says try you best….

Wait, didn't you say you were done? What's with more arguments? Also, translation: You don't go to church so you can't understand religion. Wrong, I have gone to church. I even attended a Catholic school for a while. It was those experiences that drove me away from religion.
thats the great thing about faith you don’t always have to be right or wrong but you will know that your faith will help you in the end…there isn’t a right or wrong in faith so you can’t step in a say that’s just wrong because if you think that the world is reading the Bible and going out there making women their slaves then you must live in a different world then me because I don’t do that and I don’t see’s not how I live my life and you telling me that I think this of women is wrong

Really? No wrong in faith? I think Daylight Atheism argued against this quite well, so I'll just let you read those arguments.

Proceed with your information binge...

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Skeptical Chat at Work

E-mail chat at work today evolved on its own into some very interesting conversation. Looking back on it, some of the discussions are too good to let fester on my computer, so I'm copying them here.

As before, I'll be protecting the anonymity of others by using pseudonyms (Woman A, Man B, etc.)


Aha, I was hoping somebody would catch that I never specifically said I “believe” in anything. First of all, you might want to check out A Flawed Quiz About Belief for some interesting discussion on it, but note that I don’t agree with the definition of belief used there. My definition is more along the lines of “Accept as true.” If we take the strict 100% certainty measure, then all I truly believe in is (in a Descartes manner) that I exist. The reason I can use 100% certainty here is that if I actually don’t exist in some logical twist, the belief doesn’t exist either, so it can never be wrong. Any belief beyond that is subject to The Matrix-style questions of whether we’re truly perceive reality.

Now, if we take another step, we could define it a bit more loosely as “Accept as almost definitely true.” So, using this definition, I believe in:

-The Scientific Method
-Evolution and many other scientific theories.
-A complete lack of “supernatural” events. Why? Because if they were real, they’d be natural.
-Many mundane details about the world and everyday life
-That pleasure is pleasurable and pain is painful. These provide their own impetus for “moral” actions

I don’t believe in:

-A lack of a god-like being
-The existence of any particular god-like being (I have both of these as there is absolutely no way to rule out the existence of a god, nor is there any proof that there is)
-Most “alternative” medicine
-Any innate “Good” and “Evil” or “Moral” and “Immoral” to the universe
-That there actually is a meaning to life

Me again:

One little follow-up I just remembered: While I don’t believe in the absence of a god, it does seem to be the most reasonable interpretation of all the evidence available. If there’s absolutely no evidence for A, and A has been searched for for millennia, is it more reasonable to assume that A does not exist, or that A exists, but does not interact with us and always stays out of measurement? By Occam’s razor, the nonexistence of A is the simpler, and therefore probably the better, assumption.

Woman A:
What about documented miracles?

You mean anecdotal miracles? I haven’t heard of any well-documented miracles.

And as for anecdotal evidence, well, the most common fallacy is the fallacy of lying. Beyond that, there’s pareidolia and the confirmation bias. Plus there’s simply dramaticization where people will exaggerate a story until it sounds like a miracle. Give me an example of a “documented miracle” as you’re thinking of it, and we can discuss.

(But in general, no, I don’t believe in miracles.)

Woman B:
But you say that you don’t believe in the supernatural, which means that you interpret all things that can’t be explained to be real, though you can’t prove that something ‘real’ caused an unexplained event to occur. So in that sense, you’re believing that something is real though you have no proof of it being so…

Frankly, my opinion of faith and the supernatural changed when my sister was inches from death in the ICU of Lutheran General with spinal/neural meningitis. She had lost her sight completely and after days of being unconscious, she opened her eyes and smiled. My dad was sitting with her, turned around to look where she was looking, and saw nothing. When my dad asked her what she was smiling at, she said, “An angel… she’s smiling at me.” And frankly, I cannot and won’t dispute that it happened. My sister was lucid the entire time she was in the hospital (and conscious), she didn’t have a fever and wasn’t on hallucinogenic medication. By the way, after the doctors telling us that she would die in about a week, she has made a full recovery. The doctors have never found an explanation.

Ah, but this is the beauty of believing in science. Science admits that it doesn’t know everything, but it’s always learning more. Yes, it’s unexplained today. Tomorrow, it might not be. Science’s answer to the unknown is “We’ll get to it.” Religion’s answer is “God did it.” Somehow, science’s answer is more satisfying for me.

I can see why that event might lead you to spiritual beliefs. If that happened to me, however, it would instead lead me to an even greater respect for the natural results of evolution that allow the human body to repair itself so well (and had my doubts that it was an actual angel).

I’m not going to present a specific scientific hypothesis on why she thought she saw an angel or why she healed, mostly just out of a feeling that I shouldn’t. I’m not out to tear down personal beliefs here.

I'll explain here what I believe happened there. Often when I wake up in the morning, it happens in stages. Sometimes I'll have periods where I appear to be lucid but register no memories. Other times my brain will just go crazy as if it's still trying to dream while I'm awake. In a case like that, it's quite possible that it was something similar to the latter experience, where her brain was experiencing aspects of a dream and reality at the same time.

Woman A:
Yea, my dad needed a bone marrow transplant. And two of my aunts were perfect matches. Now, bone marrow matches have very little to do with genetic matches. And I know a family from St. James where the little boy needed a transplant (he had it almost 10 years ago I think) and all of his brothers matched to a certain extent. And his parents. His parents could have been matches for each other if need be. The likelihood of that happening is pretty much nill.

How many events do you experience in your entire life? Millions, most likely. So, wouldn’t it be expected that you’d experience some events that have a ridiculously low chance of occurring, such as one in a million?

Then, multiply your number of events by the population of the world that ever existed (around 100 billion). Some even more ridiculously unlikely events are bound to happen.

Man A:
Well that’s because you are one of those doubting Thomas kinda of people you need to see or read something to believe it is there…its how you are…every time someone has said something you have a source..not saying there is something wrong with that but I could have easily inferred you hold strong in science

Exactly, all I know of the world is what I see. I can make a ton of inferences from that, such as believing in China even though I’ve never seen it. Science has been working for us, and producing immense progress in the world. I follow it because it works. Religion and paranormal studies have, in general, made zero progress. I don’t follow them because they don’t work.

Man A:
So where did all of it come from? Those things don’t work because its Belief not fact

If by “all of it” you mean the entire universe, then it’s simply there. No reason, it just is. Time is simply another dimension, albeit with a few different rules, so however you look at it, in the end things just exist. It’s the same with the natural laws of the universe, you can simplify them a lot and get to really fundamental theories, but you’ll eventually hit a bottom where they just are.

It’s the same if you try a religious approach. In the end, it’s God who simply exists. I just stop one step earlier by saying it’s the universe that simply exists.

Man A:
Everything needs to start and everything needs end…it will never go on forever..proven by the fact there is life and death at every level of every single thing on this planet or in space so something has to create it..i’m not saying its my catholic God but I’m not saying it isn’t…I am merely stating that things exist in between ya but they need to start existing and finish existing too

From a temporal perspective, yes, things start and end. From one step above temporal, things just are. This doesn’t prove that everything starts and ends. It’s like the line of argument:

All A’s we’ve perceived are B.

Therefore, all A’s in existence are B.

If you’ve perceived a lot of A’s, this might be reasonable, but it’s not a proof.

But if we accept what you said, would you then accept the assumption that God must start and end, too, if he exists? Because this is not the position of the church. They claim that he always was and always will be, and that time is just a property he created for the universe.

Woman B:
Conservation of matter… conservation of energy… and so on and so forth. These are all accepted postulates of modern-day science. So where does the obviously-present energy that exists in a human go when they die? (And I don’t mean energy as in nutrients that a buried, dead body provides for growing plants.) I mean the indefineable energy that goes beyond simple biological processes and allows us to have personalities, lives, etc. How do you explain that you can reanimate a dead body with electrical impulses, but never bring back that person? Just another thing that leads me to believe that the supernatural and the spiritual have a place in this ‘world’.

Just because a human is animate doesn’t imply some extra energy. All the energy is actually conserved. The reason you can’t bring someone back, I believe, is that brain cells degrade within a matter of seconds after receiving no blood, and so the mind gets destroyed quickly upon death.

After that, the conversation on these matters faded into a discussion on the morality of drugs, excepting one quick reference to Snopes about a lingering comment. I hope you found this interesting. I always have fun explaining these things to non-Skeptics, and it's good to get out of the Ivory Tower every once in a while.

Proceed with your information binge...

A few random things

It appears I have some independent support for my position on the importance of grammar in sounding intelligent. Excerpted from a rant at The Two Percent Company:

Note the grasp of spelling, syntax and grammar in Karen's e-mail as compared to the first one; are we saying that intelligent people see through Allison's bullshit, while morons buy it hook, line and sinker? In a word: yeah.

Secondly, a note to other skeptical bloggers: I'm studying Physics at university (well, technically the program is "Mathematical Physics"), which means I'm one of the small group of people who actually have an idea of what quantum mechanics is actually about. So, if you need any help debunking someone's claims that something works on a "quantum" level, I'm your man.

"Men have two levers, fear and self-interest." - Napoleon Bonaparte
Religion works because it pulls both levers simultaneously.

Proceed with your information binge...

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

I love a good duel

I love a good duel of words now and then. It keeps my mental blades sharp.

I have a lot of spare time at my job, and I spend a lot of it chatting with the other interns over e-mail. Sometimes we start to talk about more controversial subjects. This morning, I felt like livening it up so I sent off something that I knew would start some interesting conversation. To do this, I sent a slightly modified version of one of Al Franken's No Child Left Behind test questions:

How do you properly punctuate the following sentence?

“George Bush is the President who, in the name of God, will protect the children.”

A. (The sentence is properly punctuated.)
B. George Bush is the “President” who, in the name of God, will protect the “children.”
C. George Bush is the President. Who, in the name of God, will protect the children?
D. George Bush is the President!? Who, in the name of God, will protect the children?!

It worked like a charm. All the liberal minded said "Definitely D," while the conservative said "Definitely A."

I won't go into the details of the actual debate here; it's mostly a repeat of debates over 9/11 and what was known, what was said, and what was done. Instead I'll just give some comments on it. To protect his identity, I'll be referring to a certain person who played a prominent role with the false name "Steve." Steve has noted conservative views, and is often at odds with me in debates.

  • I was the only one to ever provide references for my claims. Despite this, Steve accused me of both using opinions in place of evidence and being overly confident in my claims. (As opposed to him, who was just as confident but didn't wave evidence in my face.)
  • Despite repeated requests to others to provide evidence for claims, no one ever did.
  • When Steve accused me of presenting my opinions as fact, I asked him where I'd done this and told him that I would gladly provide evidentiary support for any of my claims. He failed to provide any examples and instead pursued his accusations, saying that he could go and get an article saying anything. He never actually did so.
  • Many of the strongest points I made (in my opinion) and demands for evidence met with silence, and that thread of conversation was dropped. It seems to me that shutting up is an easy way to avoid admitting you don't have a response for an argument. This is why in debating competitions, an uncontested point is accepted as being conceded.
  • It turned out that Steve and one other person who had republican leanings were also believers in the Bible Code. I provided a quick reference to a debunking of it, and this thread of conversation promptly shut up. Many of the points I made were about supposed lies of the Bush administration, and these two were arguing with them. Are both of these issues symptoms of the same lack of critical thinking?
  • There was a dispute over whether Americans were the most generous people in the developed world, or the least. I grabbed a source from the first page of a Google search which said that Americans donate the lowest amount of money to foreign aid per capita in the developed world, have one of the worst rates of donation/GDP, and yet believe they're the most generous (it was below just two sites in the .gov domain. I later checked them, and it seemed that they presented spin without comparative evidence). The person I was disputing this with claimed they'd searched for a bit, but didn't have time to look any more. At least in this instance they said that they were shutting up about it, even though they didn't explicitly concede that they couldn't find a contradicting source.
  • My "favorite" argument made against me: "But you can never know for sure…all I am saying is that just because the CIA thinks that they aren’t doesn’t mean that is actually true…people could talk about stuff and the CIA wouldn’t know." This was made by Steve in response to a claim that the CIA knew of no link between Iraq and Al Qaeda.
  • My response to that argument: "And just because the CIA thinks the President isn’t a baby-raper doesn’t mean that it’s actually true, either.

    But anyways, note how you just conceded here that the government didn’t know for sure, yet they claimed that there was overwhelming evidence for the link, when in fact there was evidence against that.

    What’s the word I’m looking for? Oh yeah, LIE."

    Of course, there was no direct response to this. In retrospect, that might have been a bit harsh, but it wasn't personal (even if I was viciously mocking his argument).
  • There were a lot of pleas to not judge the president. I should be voting or running for office myself if I think I can do better. Well, I'm not yet a citizen, so I can't vote, and I can never run for office as I wasn't born here. And of the others criticizing him, what's to say that they aren't voting? And who says democracy has to end at the vote? We should always keep an eye on our politicians. If they're screwing up, it's our job to let them know. Patriotism is obedience in a dictatorship; in a democracy, it's vigilance.

The final point I'd like to make on this is that the debating styles of some of these people (particularly Steve) resemble greatly the styles used by many political pundits in the media. They use all the same tricks to support their case: evasion, failure to cite evidence, ad hominems, "Well of course you can never know for sure," and pleas to blindly support the president.

So, are they mimicking the people they see on TV? I doubt it. They may be repeating some of their arguments, but the more stylistic issues aren't mimicked as easily. I think that this is more just a natural way that people try to win arguments, stemming from childhood games of one-upmanship.

Perhaps this even leads to a more sympathetic view of political pundits with poor style. They might not be deliberately trying to skirt the truth, and might instead falsely believe that they're making a good case. Of course, we should still be sure to point out all of the flaws in their logic.

Proceed with your information binge...

Friday, July 21, 2006

Render unto Caesar [nothing]

In response to the recent story that Kent Hovind has committed tax fraud, many bloggers have criticized him for not "Rendering unto Caesar that which is Caesar's." I'm here to try to set the record straight on that quote and its use here (based on my favored historical interpretation).

First, what the Bible says, in full:

"Tell us, then, what You think. Is it lawful to pay taxes [KJV tribute] to Caesar, or not?" But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, "Why put Me to the test, you hypocrites? Show Me the money for the tax." And they brought Him a coin. And Jesus said to them, "Whose likeness and inscription is this?" They said, "Caesar's." Then He said to them, "Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's." (Matthew 22:17-21 RSV)

To add a bit more context, "tribute" refers to the Temple tax that all Jewish men over 20 were required to pay. In contrast to Roman tax, this tribute had to be paid using the Jewish half-Shekel (one of their coins)1. So, going back to what Jesus said, it essentially means "Pay the government with the government's money, and the temple with the temple's money." To me, this sounds like the obfuscation of a politician in response to a direct question. He completely avoided the issue of whether they should be paying money at all, and instead told him which coin they should use if they are paying. If one does not wish to pay, they might infer from this that all they have to do is keep all their money in Jewish coins.

So, Hovind might actually have been making a reasonable interpretation of this passage in his case. If he firmly believes that all his money is the church's money, then a strict interpretation of the passage would tell him that none of that money is due to "Caesar."

I could stop there, but whenever I'm faced with a politician obfuscating in the face of a question, I just feel I have to find out how they really feel. So, what did Jesus really believe?

In this era, there was a repeated trend for the rise of Jewish zealots, generally from somewhat outside conventional society. The goal of most of them was to overthrow Rome by violent means and reestablish the Jewish empire. They firmly believed that Rome had no right to govern them. From information gleaned from the Dead Sea scrolls, we have a rough idea of how these zealots acted. When you compare it to how the Bible describes the activities of John the Baptist, there are striking similarities. John is also said to be the forerunner of Jesus by Christians (and also a relative of his by some others). So, was Jesus one of these Zealots, too?

According to the church, Jesus was different and advocated a peaceful revolution (I'll explore this issue a lot more in a future post). A revolution was still a revolution, however, which was why the Romans had him executed. (I should emphasize here, just because so many people get it wrong, the Jews were not to blame.)

However, Jesus wasn't strictly non-violent. Straight from the Bible:

"And they came to Jerusalem. And He entered the Temple and began to drive out those who sold and those who bought in the Temple, and He overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons; and He would not allow any one to carry anything through the Temple. And He taught, and said to them, "Is it not written, 'My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations'? But you have made it a den of robbers." (Mark 11:15-17 RSV)

The church explains these actions by saying that he was driven to it because he was so enraged by the corruption of the money-changers and other people there1. Even granting them that, it still shows that he could be driven to violence against the state. What happened to his habit of responding to the worst in humans with pithy, deep quotes like "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone"?

So consistency isn't the Bible's forté (again, more on this in a future post). For now, I'll just leave the alternate interpretation as a possibility. If Jesus was one of these zealots, then he would likely have believed that nothing was due to Rome. His line might even be interpreted to mean "Why are you using these coins at all? Reject Caesar's coin and only use the temple's."

Proceed with your information binge...

Thursday, July 20, 2006

And I'm officially on the map!

Skeptic's Circle #39 is up at Mike's Weekly Skeptic Rant: A Circle of Sleuthing Skeptics - #39, and it features my premier content post, Why Skepticism? (Part 1). Go and check it out!

Done? Okay, now for my comments on it.

The Scooby Doo metaphor is quite fitting, in my opinion. That was one of the few children's shows that I never lost interest in as I grew up, and I'm quite glad it's still there in repeats for newer kids.

One minor note: I've decided that there's little point to adding a "Fixed" comment for every mistake I fix after it's been pointed out to me, so for now on I'll just go in and fix them.

Proceed with your information binge...

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Of course I know what it is, it's a UFO!

Note: I've been having a lot of trouble getting this post up. The first time I tried to post it, nothing appeared in the text. The second time, I decided to copy everything I'd written before posting so I wouldn't lose it again. But then, as I scrolled to the top, it suddenly all disappeared on me. The third time, Blogger somehow posted a drafted version of the post instead of the completed version. This is my fourth real rewrite of it, and I absolutely hate writing something over and over again. Normally when I have to, it gets shorter each time, but hopefully I haven't let that happen here.

I went to bed earlier than usual last night; around 7:30. And then around 10:30 I woke up, and things were weird. There was some sort of commotion outside my door, and my room appeared to be flashing. Now, when it's completely dark, sometimes a blinking light on my computer would cause a steady, weak flash throughout the room, but this was much brighter, and much more erratic.

Now, the blinds to my room aren't perfect, as with most blinds, so a bunch of light does get in. This of course made looking outside for the source of the flashing the next logical step. There wasn't a malfunctioning light out there or anything that mundane. Instead, all of "outside" appeared to be flashing. At the peaks of the flashing, it briefly appeared to be as bright as daylight outside.

Normally when one sees flashing coming from outside, lightning is the first (and often only) thing that comes to mind. But this was atypical. The flashes came in bursts, building up and fading away, then repeating the process a random time later, rather than simply single brief flashes. Additionally, there was no thunder, nor was there even a trace of rain. So, lightning would appear to be out of the question.

And then the commotion outside my room jumped in intensity...

Let's pause the story right there. This sounds a lot like the beginning of a UFO an alien abduction story, from how it starts with waking up to the presence of weird, unexplainable sights and sounds. Despite that odd similarity, this actually did happen to me last night. Now, from this point, I can see a bunch of ways the story could progress, depending on the mindset of the person involved. Here are a few interesting branches:

1. The Believer

They were coming! It had to be aliens; the freaky flashing could only be from the landing lights of their UFOs. I looked for a place I could hide. Under the bed? No, too tight with this modern, low-riding, double-mattress bed. The closet? Too obvious. Under the desk? *Thud* It'll do!

I clambered under my desk and hid out. Fortunately, it turned out to not be necessary; they never even opened my door. Eventually, the commotion stopped, and a bit later the flashes stopped. As soon as they did, rain poured from the sky as if something plugging it had just been released. They were gone.

2. The Unknowledgeable Skeptic (unknowledgeable about this phenomenon, that is)

Ignoring the commotion, I turned the TV on to the local news station. This couldn't just be happening to me, so they must be reporting on it somewhere. The regular nightly program was on, but there was a thunderstorm warning at the bottom, with every county in the map a foreboding red. So maybe it was lightning.

I switched over to the Weather Channel, in case they gave any more information. Sadly, they didn't, so I was left at a loss. I guess most people just didn't care enough, so the news didn't bother reporting on it. By this time, I was getting rather sleepy again, so I climbed back into bed and decided that in the morning I'd do some research and see if I could figure out what that was.

3. The Knowledgeable Skeptic (and the continuation of what actually happened)

It was quite a long time ago--in middle school, I think--but I remembered hearing about something like this. We were learning about the different types of lightning. Typical lightning arcs from a cloud to the ground (or vice-versa, depending on the charges). Sometimes, lightning will also arc between two clouds. But the most common and least-often noticeable form of lightning is when it discharges completely within a cloud. Usually, this looks simply like a cloud suddenly brightening up and then darkening.

But when the cloud cover is thick enough, this can cover the whole sky and briefly illuminate the ground as if it's daylight. When this happens, it's often called "Sheet Lightning." Seeing sheet lightning on this scale was quite rare, and this was the first time I'd ever witnessed it. I stared outside at the majesty and utter coolness of it for minutes on end, until finally rain broke and the bolts started hitting the ground.


Each scenario I have here makes me think of a different general point I could make. I decided to split this post up so I could make all three, while also showing how a simple piece of knowledge you might not expect to ever need can drastically change a situation (even if it's just your appreciation of it).

1. The Believer's Story - There's no doubt in this person's mind. He's "identified" this as a UFO. Of course, UFO stands for "Unidentified Flying Object," but he's hijacked that term to refer to alien spacecraft. He still doesn't truly know what it is, but the handy UFO label makes him feel like he does, even if its use as an identification directly contradicts its meaning.

(For a similar useless term, check out Doggerel #1: "Supernatural")

2. The Unknowledgeable Skeptic's Story - Our most commonly-accessed resources (TV, for instance) often do an incredibly poor job of giving the coverage you need at the moment. They're also generally aimed much too low for the person seeking real knowledge - they may tell you in broad strokes what's happening, but they'll rarely explain it well. The reason for this is simple: Most people don't care about science, so they don't waste too much time on it. Conspiratorial anti-science stories, on the other hand, are sure hits...

3. The Knowledgeable Skeptic's Story - Nature is cool. You don't need to come up with stories about alien abductions to find wonder in life, you just need to know what's going on. And when you think about what's really happening, it can become all the more magical that you're a part of it. There may be no innate meaning to life, but it's easier to find your own if you give just the slightest effort.

"That's the appendix. We don't know what it does, but now that we've named it, we know what it is." - My Critical Thinking professor, mocking biologists.

Proceed with your information binge...

Monday, July 17, 2006

Distilled Wisdom #1: How to Sound Intelligent

Note: I'm putting off the second part of "Why Skepticism?" as it's rather heavy and even includes... *dramatic pause* a mathematical proof. Don't want to weigh down people who are just reading this all at once with too much heavy material in a row. (Not to mention, I'm still ironing out a few kinks in it.)

But anyways...

Welcome to the inaugural post of Distilled Wisdom. This is where I'll be trying to filter through all the crap I've learned (or distill it out, if you want to avoid mixed metaphors) and present you with some pearls of wisdom (crap, another mixed metaphor).

The first few posts of this series will deal with some presentational and argumentative tactics you can use in order to get people to take you more seriously. The first is how to sound intelligent.

There are three simple rules to help you here:

1. Grammar
2. Grammar
3. Grammar
4. Don't make stupid mistakes like this

Given the overlap between rules 1-3, I'll cover them all at once.

When many people are writing an entry in their blog or a comment in another's, they don't take the time to go back and correct typos and punctuation errors. Sometimes it's because they don't know that what they're doing is an error. In this case, it's intellectual laziness. They aren't bothering to learn from what others are doing right. Other times, it's just more general laziness in that they can't see the point in going back and correcting something.

But just because you don't see the point doesn't mean that the point doesn't exist. Let's say it takes you an average of two seconds to go back and correct a typo. Now, every person reading your entry will pause momentarily at every typo, and lose focus for a moment. Let's say they're decent readers, and it only breaks their concentration for half a second per typo.

So, how many people do you expect to read your entry? On a personal blog, maybe only four or five people. On a more public blog, it could be upwards of a hundred. Let's pick another arbitrary average of ten, and do some math.

By leaving in one type, you save yourself 2 sec, and cost 10 people 0.5 sec. (Total time spent) - (Total time saved) = 10 * 0.5 sec - 2 sec = 3 sec. And note that this is per typo, so every typo you leave uncorrected is draining 3 seconds from humanity's collective time bank. But if you weight your 2 seconds more highly than the time of others, well, you're just being selfish.

Now, the above only applies to relatively good grammar that features typos. There are some other categories of grammar that you should try to avoid falling into if at all possible:

Patterned Bad Grammar: This is bad grammar that follows a certain pattern in mistakes. Most often on the internet, this is a failure to capitalize or punctuate. It might also be the misspelling of a common word. In longer documents, the persistent misspelling of even less-common words may also turn into this (for instance, spelling "lose" like "loose," which is a personal pet peeve). Sometimes people can train themselves to gloss over this, as is often the case with a failure to capitalize. Other times, it distracts them in every single instance, sometimes even longer than normal because of its prevalence ("'Loose' again!? It's 'lose,' you idiot!").

A special sub-category of this is writing in ALL CAPITAL LETTERS. This has a special effect on people, beyond distracting them. Since writing in caps is commonly used as a way to indicate that you're "yelling," someone who writes all in caps sounds like they're always yelling. This slows down the reader slightly, as the voice in their head has to be imagined yelling, which slows it down somewhat. Additionally, you may be interpreted as more hostile than you had intended.

Distorted Grammar: This category covers grammar that is bad enough that the meaning isn't apparent with a quick glance. A person generally has to spend time decoding it in order to figure out what you meant. Most people just don't have the time or patience for this, and will skip it outright. Anyone who does sit through and decode it will likely be very frustrated with you by the time you're done. If your grammar is this bad naturally, take some lessons to learn how to write properly. It'll save both us and you a lot of trouble.

However, in this multilingual world it would be a mistake not to mention the fact that many people who fit this category do so because English is not their native language, and they aren't completely fluent in it yet. Give these people a break. It would be nice if they could learn to speak as well as the rest of us, but they've already put forth a tremendous effort to make themselves intelligible at all, so applaud them for that rather than criticize them for not having finished yet.

Unintelligible Grammar: The final category is for any style of grammar that is completely impossible to properly decode. This could be patent nonsense, as if someone just slammed their hand down on the keyboard, but it might also be an attempt to communicate that left too much ambiguity. If you're trying to communicate like this, expect to get called on it immediately (and often harshly). This is also often a phase in learning a new language, so I would recommend to people that you not be too harsh.

One last note on grammar: Never spell it "grammer." Ever. (Well, except maybe when telling people not to do it...) It makes you look like a complete idiot.

And now for rule 4: Don't make stupid mistakes like this. A mistake like miscounting the number of rules you're using jumps out at readers. Even if it's inconsequential, you lose a lot of respect in their eyes.

One last personal note: Call me on typos and misspellings. If I'm breaking my own rules, I'd like to know about it so I can fix it.

Edit: Just a reminder of the purpose of this. I'm not pointing the finger at anyone in particular, this is just a general recommendation to people who wish to present themselves intelligently.

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Distilled Wisdom Index

Proceed with your information binge...

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Why Skepticism? (Part 1)

I've decided to start off my content posts with some explanations of why I believe what I do, and why I approach life the way I do. The first subject I'm going to address is Skepticism.

First of all, it's always good form to properly define a term that might be subject to abuse. A quick search on Wikipedia defines Skepticism as:

  1. an attitude of doubt or a disposition to incredulity either in general or toward a particular object,
  2. the doctrine that true knowledge or knowledge in a particular area is uncertain, or
  3. the method of suspended judgment, systematic doubt, or criticism that is characteristic of skeptics (Merriam–Webster).

While the last one is a tautology once you apply grammar rules (Skepticism is what Skeptics have? No way!), the first two do a good job of defining it. If I were to give a personal, succinct definition, I'd go with:

Doubting everything - even your doubts.

There are two primary levels of Skepticism. The first, and more easily defined level is what's called "Empirical Skepticism." Empirical Skepticism is what I intend to address in this post. My next post will deal with the deeper level, Philosophical Skepticism. (Of course, "deeper" is personal opinion.)

So, what is Empirical Skepticism? Empirical means relating to the real, objective world, so putting it together with Skepticism gives us doubt about aspects of the world. Many come about this form of Skepticism from a scientific standpoint, which implies doubting any possibly-scientific claims until they are tested sufficiently and the tests have failed to disprove them. These claims are then tentatively accepted, with the acknowledgment that further tests may still reveal that these claims are incomplete or even false.

Personally, however, I came about my Empirical Skepticism through a more philosophical standpoint. Rather than explaining it, I feel it's better to demonstrate it with a thought experiment.

Imagine you are in a closed room with opaque walls and no doors, windows, or other openings. You may request to see video of the current state of the world outside the room, and an unknown entity supplies you with such. The same is true for sounds, smells, tastes, and tactile sensations (including the sensations of temperature). These are your only ways of gaining information about the outside world.

How do you determine if this information is being accurate, or if you are being lied to? Treat this as a scientific hypothesis: The information received is accurate. The null hypothesis is: The information received is inaccurate. This hypothesis is falsifiable as an internal contradiction seen in the information would imply that it must be inaccurate For instance, if lightning is seen at close distance but thunder is not heard, when it is established that these always coincide, this would be a contradiction and would imply some flaw in the information.

On the other hand, is it possible to prove the hypothesis? The basics of the Philosophy of Science tells us that it is not possible to prove any hypothesis absolutely. If an experiment would produce a certain type of results if a hypothesis is true, and it doesn't, we can logically infer that either the hypothesis is false, or the experiment is faulty. If this result doesn't occur we cannot logically infer that the hypothesis must be true, even if we somehow knew that the experiment was perfect (See: Affirming the Consequent).

What is the end result of this? It's that we cannot prove that the perceived information is accurate.

Step out of the thought experiment now. The human mind is in much the same isolation. It can only access the world through its five senses. There is no way for it to go beyond these senses and check the world to make sure it is consistent with what it perceived. Even if there were, there would be no way to know that this new method of perceiving the world is any more accurate.

If there's a flaw in our senses, we might recognize it as such (such as minor hallucinations, which may appear as spots in the vision). On the other hand, we might believe that it is an actual aspect of the world (as is the case with major hallucinations, such as those that Schizophrenics suffer from).

With this in mind, I came to the conclusion that all in the world is subject to some level of doubt. This does not mean, however, that I take on a Nihilist point of view. I simply accept that my perceptions may be wrong, and then proceed with life as if they were correct (which is the most likely hypothesis). I have been known to see silver specks in front of my eyes on occasion, but the evidence leads me to believe that these are simply a minor flaw in my senses, and I go on with life under the assumption that they aren't really there.

I could be wrong, though. The silver specks just might be glimpses of the true reality, while the rest of the world is the illusion, but I find it extremely unlikely. My chosen reality has held up to all tests so far, and I plan to keep treating it as if it's true until I have evidence that it isn't.

In particular, I've chosen to take a scientific view of reality. Why? Because it's what's worked for the world. Science has led to a plethora of advances and improvements in life, while pseudoscience and religion have led to practically none. Science has shown itself to work, and until something else does so, I will remain highly skeptical of it.

There is one amusing exception to being sure of some piece of empirical knowledge, however. Think to yourself the statement, "I exist." That claim cannot be false, because that would imply the non-existence of the one thinking it, which would imply the non-existence of the thought itself. Since it being false leads to a contradiction, it must be true.

"I think, therefore I am." - Descartes

Proceed with your information binge...

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Introducing the Infophile

With nothing to do at work a few days ago, I started poring through the internet, following whatever links caught my fancy. My obsession with learning came to full bore, and realizing this, I tried to think of a way to describe this obsession. The term I came up with was "Infophilia," which combines "info" of "information" with the "philia" suffix used for obsessed.

Various other factors led me to decide to turn this into a new online identity, but mainly, I wanted to use this neologism to highlight my academic side. This is what that persona is for. I've already gotten a ton of ideas for my first few posts, and hopefully I'll be able to take a break from learning in order to help spread some of my knowledge and wisdom to others via posts here.

But of course, this all comes with the disclaimer that I am human (probably), and I do make mistakes. And if I do, call me on it. I'd rather be right in the end than wrong since the beginning.

"When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?" - Keynes

Proceed with your information binge...