Saturday, February 24, 2007

Distilled Wisdom #4: The Principle of Charity

Welcome back to Distilled Wisdom, where I boil out all the impurities and useless information I've taken from the sea of knowledge and serve you up a nice tall glass of distilled wisdom (hence the name).

The topic today is what's known as the Principle of Charity. Unlike other entries in this series, this particular subject has actually been covered elsewhere on the 'net, but I thought I should at the least bring it to the attention of my regulars. In essence, you can thing of Charity as being the opposite of a strawman argument. Instead of erring on the side of a worse argument for your opponent, Charity demands that you err on the side of the best argument they could have.

What is Charity?

Let's go back to the metaphor from which we got the "strawman" term. A couple of guys get into a fight in a bar. One of them constructs a man out of straw, beats it up, and then declares victory. Obviously, his victory is undeserved. Now, let's say that instead of constructing a man out of straw, he builds a golem out of solid steel, being sure to make it at least as strong as his opponent. Then, the man beats up the golem and declares victory. In this case, even though he didn't beat up his opponent directly, he did prove that he was stronger and thus his claim to victory has some merit to it. (Of course, the metaphor breaks down when the best argument is in fact the opponent's intended argument. Here he just beats the other guy up.)

So, let's go to an example. Say you're debating a Creationist and they make the following argument:

So, do you think all of this just came into existence by chance? Look at how complicated the universe is! You think this could have just occured by some random fluke?

This isn't a very refined or specific argument, so you'll have to take a guess at what the speaker meant. One possibility is that they're talking about the universe as it is now coming into existence by chance. This is obviously ridiculous, but it's a possibility from what they've said. Alternatively, they could be talking about the universe coming into existence in some recognizable form at some point in the near past. If they sincerely believe that the universe is only 6000 years old, it's actually possible they might think to attack the stance that it was created randomly 6000 years ago. It's still a pretty bad argument, however.

Then we come to the best argument they could be making: That the universe was randomly created at the point of the Big Bang. What they're saying then approximates a rudimentary form of the Argument from Fine-Tuning, which states that so many different variable at the creation of the universe had to be set just the right ways for life like ours to be possible. It's a big extrapolation from what was actually said to think that the speaker implied this argument, but it's possible, and since it is possible, Charity demands we defend against this argument.

Why Charity?

To see why Charity is important, let's examine all the possible outcomes when you guess at what your opponent's argument is (first, assuming your opponent will later be honest about what they intended to convey):

1. You guess correctly. In this case, nothing much happens, and the debate carries on.

2. You guess at a weaker argument than they intended. In this case, you're essentially committing the Strawman Fallacy. Not good if you want the audience on your side, especially if you get called on it.

3. You guess at a stronger argument than they intended. In this case, you get a gleeful moment of saying, "Oh, I'm sorry. I thought you were making a somewhat good argument, while instead, you were making a bad argument. Well, I can address that, too."

Now, this is assuming your opponent is being honest. If they aren't, then you could see them change their argument after the fact just to accuse you of committing a Strawman. Or, if you've already guessed the best argument, they'll change it to that and won't admit they had intended a worse argument. If they also don't understand the subject enough, they might even accuse you of a Strawman if you choose a better argument than theirs. In this case, calmly explain the Principle of Charity to them.

So, how does charity help? First of all, it rules out case #2, as if you choose the best argument, there's nothing better they could have intended. You're left with the following possibilities:

1. They'd intended something worse, and admit it. Result: Positive

2. They'd intended something worse, but don't admit it. Result: Neutral

3. They'd intended something worse, and accuse you of a Strawman. Result: Depends on how you handle it.

4. They'd intended what you guessed at. Result: Neutral.

By accepting the Principle of Charity, you essentially rule out any negative result. The benefit here is obvious.

Possible Problems

But what about situation 3 that I mentioned above? This case does look like it's a possible problem. Even if you explain exactly what you're doing in response, some people in the cyber-audience may think you're just covering and making excuses. Fortunately, there is a way to avoid this. Basically, when you're first making the guess as to their argument, make a little note along the lines of:

(Not sure exactly what argument you're trying to make here, but I'm taking my best guess at it. Let me know if I get it wrong.)

This makes it clear that you weren't clear on what they intended, and any misrepresentation is due to them not being clear enough. The argument that follows is just your charitable guess.

There's another problem you may encounter: What if the best argument they could be making is something you don't know how to argue against? In this case, the first thing you should do is search around the 'net and see if someone else has answered it somewhere, and if so, quote them. If the question is really out of your league, you might want to refer them to someone else who's better equipped to answer an argument on this subject.

But what if no one's answered it, you're as well-equipped to handle it as could be reasonably expected, and yet you can't think of anything wrong with it? In this case, I recommend you seriously consider that you just might be on the wrong side of this debate. Internet debates aren't like high school debates where you're assigned to a side arbitrarily and have to defend it. Here, you should be defending the side you believe in. If you can't defend it, maybe you shouldn't believe in it. If you refuse to consider this possibility, then you're truly being close-minded.

Closing Remarks

Well, that's it for this edition of Distilled Wisdom, but I will give you a little teaser of a planned installment. Basically, it advocates what seems to be the complete opposite of what I've said here (not really, though). Confused? Would it help if I said that I plan to give it the same name as a Terry Pratchett novel? Probably not.

* * * * *

Distilled Wisdom Index

Proceed with your information binge...

Thursday, February 15, 2007

The 54th Skeptic's Circle

The newest installment of The Skeptic's Circle is now up over at Action Skeptics. Just be sure to check your woo at the door, you could be the next one under investigation.

Open thread here, though Google-bombing for non-righteous causes is FORBIDDEN.

Aside: I just noticed that I'm closing in on my 100th post. I've got something big planned for it, though I'll have to get one other post I have in mind out first. Expect a little haphazard posting so I can guarantee the big one is the 100th.

Proceed with your information binge...

Friday, February 09, 2007

Why Skepticism? (Part 3)

And it seems that just a single post later, I'm again continuing a series I'd thought finished. Well, events just made it appropriate. I was actually planning for this to be a stand-alone post at first, but when I realized it worked perfectly as the third part to this series, I figured, "Why not?" (Yes, again.)

If you haven't, I highly recommend you read the first two posts in this series (particularly the second, in which I mathematically disprove faith. Seriously):

Part 1 - "The Dark Room"

Part 2 - "The Uncertainty Proof"

And now...

Part 3 - "The Method Behind the Lack of Madness"

Recently, Skeptico got into a debate with some anti-New-Agers who happened to believe in acupuncture. The basic chain of events you should check out is:

1. The original post by Cosmic Connie
2. Skeptico's complaint of censorship and reply
3. RevRon's critique of skeptics
4. Rockstar Ryan's big "Screw you, too!" to Ron

To sum it up: Cosmic Connie made a post criticizing Gregg Braden and his publicity for his new book, The Divine Matrix. Skeptico stepped in to compliment her for it. After a few rounds of polite discussion of subjects such as "Is it more appropriate to call them 'Newage' (rhymes with 'sewage') or 'New Wage'?" a commenter who had browsed Skeptico's blog took issue with his critique of acupuncture.

From there, it turned into a full-scale debate on the merits of and scientific basis for acupuncture, with Skeptico facing off against Connie, this commenter, and Connie's beau, Ron. Reading through the debate, it didn't seem to really be all that heated or rude, just Skeptico doing his thing. There was mounting frustration on both sides, though (and it seems to me that Ron was the first to get rude). And then after one post by Ron, the thread stopped.

The discussion then continued on Skeptico's blog. Skeptico explained that he had sent in another comment to the discussion which tore apart Ron's last comment, but Connie had refused to post it. She claimed that it was an attack on Ron and that the debate had turned into a "pissing contest" which she didn't want to have on her blog.

Now, I'll interject with my own opinion on the matter here: If you don't want to have heated debates on your blog, that's alright. But don't let it go on for a while and then cut it off after your side gets the last word; that's just poor form. If you do feel the need to cut it off at a certain point, then maybe you should point to some other place it would be appropriate to hold it (the JREF Forums are always a good choice for stuff like this), and leave a comment at the end that the debate continues there.

The debate then did continue over at Skeptico's blog, and there was now a debate about the debate (which reminds me of the US Congress's recent idiocy when they held a vote on whether or not to hold a vote, but I digress). Ron made not one, but two posts which said they would be his lasts words on the matter. And then after that, he made a big post on his blog criticizing skeptics. This particular post is the subject of this entry here, so I highly recommend you read it before continuing.

What is a skeptic?

Skeptics nowadays suffer from a poor public image, though it's not for lack of trying (and it is improving, we just haven't gotten the label to stick in the public's mind yet). When the average person thinks of a skeptic, it's generally what we call the "Hollywood Skeptic" they think about. This is the person you see in the average monster movie who denies the monster exists right up until he's eaten by it. From this, the public develops an image of the skeptic of being an irrational denier.

This is quite similar to Ron's view of skeptics. He sees us as being like intellectual cliques from high school. These were people he saw who "emerged from the Science or Philosophy Clubs" and would "gather to reaffirm their uniqueness in a culture which demanded a conformity and social finesse they somehow lacked." As he says:

These self-proclaimed intelligentsia were admittedly interesting to talk to, until they began their cerebral wagon-circling, bemoaning the inferiority of those outside their circle. At that point, they became pretty toxic and frankly, boring, and those of us who merely visited on their periphery would inevitably wander off in search of more positive interactions, leaving the kids (typically labeled losers or weirdos) to their cerebral circle jerk.

I’d frankly forgotten about these kids, having long ago discovered that actually living a life was more rewarding than sitting on the outside taking shots at it, and that a sense of wonder was more enriching than pessimistic disenchantment. The other day, however, I discovered that the kids are still around, and just as alienated as ever. Only now, they call themselves skeptics or critical or rational thinkers.

To sum up his beliefs about skeptics:
  • We're clique-ish. That is, we won't let anyone in who doesn't conform to everything we do and believe.
  • We're stuck-up and egotistical.
  • We're rude to outsiders.
  • We're boring.
  • We're negative.
  • We have no sense of wonder.
  • We don't actually live life; we just take potshots at it.
His problems in characterizing skeptics are immediately obvious. First, he's basing his opinions off of one interaction with one skeptic. Secondly, he's trying too hard to shoehorn us to match his metaphor of the intellectual cliques he saw in his high school (I'll also digress to note that not all intellectual groups are like this at all, particularly the people I hung out with when I was in high school - though of course, I may be biased). Ron also goes on to accuse skeptics of being more interested in being "more concerned with being right than with enjoying a discussion." In this, he's accusing skeptics of being overly dogmatic, as if there are a ton of skeptical tenets that are not to be questioned.

But this isn't what a skeptic is at all. If you want to get an idea of what real skeptics are like, head on over to Google Videos and watch an episode of Mythbusters. Yes, they're skeptics. Other things to note:
  • They aren't clique-ish.
  • They aren't stuck-up or egotistical.
  • They aren't rude.
  • They aren't boring.
  • They aren't negative.
  • They have senses of wonder.
  • They do indeed have - and enjoy - their own lives
And here's the big one: Their goal is never to be right with their preconceived beliefs. Their goal is always simply to find out the truth. Their predictions are very often proven to be wrong, and they're never ashamed of it. This is what truly defines a skeptic. We have no big list that says something like "Astrology bad, Astronomy good, Acupuncture bad, Big Pharma good, Chiropractic bad, James Randi good, etc." Instead, a skeptic is defined by someone who wants to find out what is real using the best means at their disposal. Simply put, we care about reality, and we want to find out what it is.

This is what differentiates skepticism from most belief systems: We don't have beliefs, we have methods. We use methods such as the Scientific Method, logic, and Occam's Razor in order to determine what indeed is real. The reason skeptics tend to be uniformly against fields such as acupuncture is because these methods have revealed them to not actually work (or to work no better than a placebo).

The Scientific Method

I can anticipate the objections to this already: "But science doesn't know everything! Science was wrong in the past! Science doesn't apply to this! Now you're just being dogmatic about your method!" As you can see from the links, all of this has been said and addressed many times before. Nevertheless, I'll take some time to address it myself (I know there are a few trolls who refuse to click on links which may lead them to information or arguments they won't like).

The key point here is that science has proven itself to be the best method we have at discovering reality. A simple look at human history will reveal this to you: From the dawn of civilization until the early 17th century, humanity's understanding of the world remained in a rather stagnant state. There were advances here and there, but they were mostly through luck. The would-be-inquiring minds of the day were stuck in the old method of "Here's what we believe; how do we prove it?"

It was then that things turned around, thanks in large part to one relentlessly skeptical mind: Galileo Galilei (one of the few non-royal people to be so famous they're known by their first name). Galileo realized that reality was best determined by asking it questions. That is, he came up with an unknown about the universe, and then conducted an experiment. The experiment was designed so that its result would be self-evident from the data, and that either result would be theoretically possible. In retrospect, in seems obvious, but it was a critical step towards our understanding of the universe.

Galileo was shortly joined by the greats Francis Bacon and René Descartes, who supported and refined the scientific method. From there, things just exploded. Our knowledge of the world went into a hyper-exponential climb, and it was science that led to every great breakthrough. In that time, no other method led to a single significant breakthrough. It was science all the way. Is it any wonder we use it now to determine reality?

But even with all that, we aren't close-minded about it. If there's a method of determining reality better than science, I'd genuinely like to hear about it. But be warned, you're going to have a hard road ahead of you. You'll first have to describe it (something a lot of people actually fail to do), then you'll have to describe how it's better than science, and then you'll have to show that it's better than science. Frankly, I don't think anyone will be able to do it (refining the scientific method, on the other hand, is quite possible), but I'll admit it's a possibility.

Clearing the Skies

There's one last criticism of skeptics I'd like to address: That we only try to shoot things down and never try to expand our knowledge of the world. First of all, this simply isn't true for me. Personally, I'm actively engaged in trying to expand our understanding of the world, working on a research project that has to do with designing photonic crystal waveguides for use with quantum computing and quantum cryptography. I know most of you probably won't have any idea what I was talking about there, but I in fact wrote it to illustrate exactly that point: Modern science is hard, and is far beyond the understanding of most people. This is why you don't see every Average Joe on the street contributing to the expansion of human knowledge.

Skepticism, on the other hand, is a fair bit easier. In order to be a good skeptic, one really only needs a good understanding of logic, the scientific method, and common fallacies. With just this, you'd be surprised how much pseudoscience you can take down. A moderate or advanced understanding of science helps as well, but it's far from critical.

But just because skepticism is easier and involves shooting down ideas doesn't mean it's inherently bad or worthless. Take a look at the way the modern world works: We just don't have room for everything. When it comes to scientific pursuits, there's limited funding available. If money is spend researching claims that are obviously bogus, less of it is available to be spent on pursuits that would actually be beneficial. On the more human side, what happens when people choose a bogus medical treatment over a scientifically-established one? In the worst case, they can die from it (okay, the worst is actually when they take others with them. That's actually happened a few times). And when pseudoscience and mythology lead people into a religion, which leads them into a religious war, the value of realism becomes very apparent.

Proceed with your information binge...

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Beyond Reason: Serious or Satire #2

I hadn't actually planned to turn the previous post by this name into a series, but I got hit with such an onslaught of appropriate events for it, that I figured "Why not?" This time, I bring you three separate events, with varying lengths and degrees of resolution.

1. Surani's $2 Million Challenge

Over on a recent thread at Skeptico, a poster under the name of "Surani" left the following comment:

Skeptico knows all about censoring people. I have asked him time and time again to come to NY City, bring Dr. Steven Barrett, James D. Watson, and anyone else, and debate myself, Gary Null and Oliver Sacks… but Skeptico never took on the challenge.

Right away, this seemed ridiculous to me, and it struck me as a likely attempt at satire. Skeptico didn't seem to think so, but his reply actually furthered the evidence for it being satire:


In what way have I censored you?

I don’t remember any previous conversations with you, and certainly no invites to visit NYC to debate. Not that I would bother to come to NYC anyway - you can debate me here or here anytime – and unlike an oral debate, you wouldn’t be able to get away with making unsubstantiated claims. But so what? In what way have I censored you?

Surani continued:

Skeptico, I can not believe what a charlatan you really are. Stop pretending that I have never asked you to come to NY and take on my 2 million dollar challenge.

Also, i can count 58 times where i have been censored here....

And Skeptico left the following comment, which has so far been the last in this exchange:

According to my logs this is the first time anyone has posted here as “Surani”. Nice try.

It seems obvious to me that this was an attempt at satire, but there are a few other possibilities. The first is that Surani is simply some ridiculous liar. Another, somewhat more likely possibility is that Surani has Skeptico confused with someone else. We can't be completely sure in this case, so it remains unresolved if and until Surani explains him/herself.

2. Scott Adams' Big Intelligent Bang

About a week ago, Scott Adams (of Dilbert fame) made a bizarre post claiming that the Big Bang must be intelligent. He justifies this by saying that we can only define intelligence as something that produces something we recognize as a result of intelligent life (writes a book, paints a mural, etc.). Therefore, since the Big Bang ultimately produced all intelligent works of humans (albeit indirectly), it must also have been intelligent.

He was assaulted with rebuttals to this, including:
  • That only works under your definition of intelligence. There are plenty of other definitions you conveniently ignored, such as requiring something intelligent to have self-awareness.
  • There's a huge difference between an organism and an event.
  • It's an established tenet of evolution that non-intelligent processes can result in intelligent life. Kind of like how you, despite being incredibly stupid, managed to create a very intelligent critique of modern business practices in Dilbert.

It was at this point (notably after his position was revealed to be ridiculous), that Adams came out saying that he's just a cartoonist, and the piece was intended to be satirical. The problem with this is that if it is satire, it's extremely poor satire. The only people who seemed to "get it" either only got it after he'd said it was satire, or were rabid fans of his who assumed anything stupid he said by definition had to be satire.

He's since maintained that it was intended to be humorous, even appearing (possibly, could have been an imposter) on The Bronze Blog to say as much. We can't say for sure whether it was indeed intended to simply be humorous, but personally I doubt it. The chain of events makes it seem much more likely to my mind that he simply made an extremely bad argument and then tried to save face by claiming it was satirical.

3. Brendan Pinto's Assault on Religion

How could I ever do a post in this series without mentioning good old Brendan? If you'll remember, he was the subject of my original post in this series, and has been brought up multiple times since then. To sum it up, he's an admitted satirical columnist in my university's student newspaper. He's quite often been "rebutted" by various students, alumni, and faculty members who have failed to get it (and once by yours truly when I happened to disagree with his actual point).

A couple weeks ago, he made an article which, in his satirical persona, condemned the effects of religion on society (see my post on it here). In actuality, he believes that religion has done much good for society, even though he's an atheist himself. I'll note that that's a fair stance to take; it's indeed possible for something false to do good in the right circumstances. I didn't actually agree with this assessment, however, and sent in a letter to this effect.

That letter appeared in the paper the week following Brendan's article on this subject, and I was surprised to find that there were no other letters in there which had misinterpreted his intent (though he did relate the story of one engineering student who had stormed into the office looking to boot some head). The week after that, however, a letter to this effect did indeed show up. If I may, allow me to ridicule it piece-by-piece.

I was reading Imprint this week and was appalled at an article written by Brendan Pinto. Mr. Pinto presented his opinions in a way that was discriminatory and hateful toward the followers of all religions but especially to Christians. I’m not sure I have ever heard someone in an academic setting call followers of religion "a bunch of A-holes" before. In the university environment, we expect and encourage logical and informed debate.

Doggerel links speak for themselves. Also note the irony that after spewing out two big logical fallacies, she says that she expects "logical" debate.

In my opinion, Mr. Pinto’s arguments were neither logical, intelligent nor informed. It is obvious that Mr. Pinto has not studied Christianity or the Bible. I have. If he had, he would know that in no part of the Bible did Jesus ask his followers to kill any "non-Christians for the glory of his name" or for any other reason. Jesus condemned killing.

Did you come across Luke 19:27 in your studies, by any chance? It reads: "But those mine enemies, which would not that I should reign over them, bring hither, and slay them before me." (Spoken by Jesus) Maybe not specifically for the glory of his name, but he's demanding non-believers to be killed alright. In addition to demanding murder, Jesus was also notable a vandal, overturning the tables of money-changers in a temple because he didn't like business happening on religious grounds (even though it was approved by the government and served a key function for the religious).

Hmm, put that together. What do you think the Bush administration would call someone who demanded people to kill non-believers, committed acts of vandalism, and was a political dissident? Jesus Christ would probably be called a terrorist if he lived today. But I digress.

There are two more points I would like to address. First, as a Roman Catholic Chaplain at St. Jerome’s I took offence at the comments about Catholic priests. He stated that "If it weren’t for the Catholic Church, we wouldn’t have molestations." It is true that there were priests that ruined people’s lives through sexual abuse and many good priests, including the Chaplain I work with, have to live in the shadow caused by their sin.

While we expect more of religious leaders, it is wrong and hurtful to say that all priests and the whole Catholic Church are responsible for the presence of sexual molestation in society.

The biggest cover-up of sexual abuse occurs throughout the world in all cultures ­— in families. Families have covered up the presence of incest as long as there have been families.

Generations of children have grown up keeping the abuse they suffered at the hands of family members a secret. Even today victims feel such shame that it is often too painful to talk about. Instead they keep quiet and hope that they were the only victim. They want to believe their perpetrator would not go on and abuse others, even though this is rarely the case.

In the Church, brave victims were able to help ensure that Church leaders would not be able to turn a blind eye any longer. When will we do the same so that family members, neighbours, doctors, caregivers and others will not get away with molestations that are happening today across the world?

Neglecting for a moment that this was exactly the point Brendan was trying to make (it's the fault of the individuals, not the organization), this doesn't make the organization blameless. They were so obsessed with upholding their pure image that they - as you well admit - turned a blind eye to it. If it weren't for this, I might have let them go. But they instead allowed it to continue unabated until the dam broke, and for this, the organization must take blame.

The last point I wish to respond to is Mr. Pinto’s comment about Communism. Under Stalin’s rule it was not Utopia. He was responsible for the deaths of anywhere from three to sixty million people.

At this point, I just had to shake my head in astonishment. This comment was the one in his article which made it the most blatant that he was being satirical, and she just didn't get it.

Oh, and need I count the number of people who have been killed directly or indirectly because of religion? Depending on how direct you have to be, the number could easily climb into the billions.

Once again, if Mr. Pinto’s arguments were intelligent, I could see him being given a place to voice his concerns. Unfortunately Mr. Pinto’s ignorance and arrogance were given a forum in Imprint and I ask the editor to be more prudent in the future.

— Melinda Szilva
RC Chaplain at St. Jerome’s/UW and Chair of the UW Chaplain’s Association

Regardless of how ignorant, arrogant, and hateful he may be, there's still such a thing as free speech. Even if he seriously believed everything he was writing, that's no reason he shouldn't be allowed to speak. If someone were out there honestly making hilariously bad arguments for a lot of positions I'm opposed to, shutting them up would be the last thing I'd want to do.

* * * * *

And this concludes another post of Beyond Reason, though I doubt it will be the last. Your satire detectors should hopefully now be fully-tuned up, so I better not see any of you appearing in here next time!

Proceed with your information binge...

Monday, February 05, 2007

A step forward for skepticism in Canada

Spotted this front-page article in the Toronto Star the other day. Apparently Canada's Supreme Court has placed a complete ban on evidence obtained through hypnosis being used in courts. (Full article here.)

In a 6-3 ruling that will have broad implications, the Supreme Court of Canada said the 30-year practice of using evidence obtained from witnesses who have been hypnotized is unreliable and should not be allowed in criminal trials.

The split decision appears to make Canada the first country with an English criminal-law tradition to place a total ban on post-hypnotic evidence.

Britain, Australia and New Zealand don't rule it out, although they impose procedural safeguards. The rules in the U.S. vary from state to state.

The decision overturns the second-degree murder conviction of Stephen Trochym, a former Canada Post supervisor from Toronto who was found guilty in 1995 of slashing his girlfriend's throat with a breadknife. The decision calls for a new trial.

Key evidence in the case came from a neighbour who said, after being hypnotized, that she remembered seeing Trochym emerge from the victim's apartment the day after the slaying in 1992.

The witness first told police she saw Trochym emerging from Donna Hunter's apartment on a Thursday, but changed her statement to Wednesday after undergoing hypnosis to refresh her memories. That timing corresponded to the police's theory of how the killer may have returned to Hunter's apartment to rearrange her body and make it look like a sexual assault.

Let's look at a few facts here:

1. Hypnosis is highly dependant on the attitude and expectations of the subject. People who believe hypnosis is impossible can never be hypnotized, for instance.

2. Hypnosis puts people into a highly suggestible state, and it's in fact something people do to themselves. They willingly turn off their free will temporarily.

3. There is no evidence that hypnosis helps at all in recovering memories. If you think of the mind like a computer, this should be obvious: Memory that's been deleted and overwritten cannot be re-obtained. It can, however, be rewritten from guesswork and suggestions of the hypnotist.

4. The witness originally claimed she'd seen the man on a Wednesday.

5. After police came up with the theory that he'd returned to the apartment on a Thursday, she went under hypnosis to "refresh" her memory. The goal was to see if she was in fact mistaken and it was a Thursday.

Put it together. No evidence hypnosis helps with memory, but it does make people suggestible. She was being asked questions by people who wanted her to think it was a Thursday, and thus under hypnosis said what they wanted her to say. You can see what the problem is with hypnosis, and thankfully, the Supreme Court did too.

The dissent to this ruling was described as follows:

But in a strong dissenting ruling, Justices Michel Bastarache, Rosalie Abella and Marshall Rothstein took the majority to task. "The sole evidence advanced before this court on the hypnosis issue was a handful of American cases in which the courts have opted for categorical exclusion. This is not a sufficient evidentiary foundation upon which this court should overturn a longstanding Canadian common law rule."

They said Trochym and his lawyers did not challenge hypnosis at the trial level, and there was not a strong enough factual basis to warrant the elimination of such a tool, especially since, as with other kinds of evidence, trial judges and juries can be alerted to its weaknesses.

"These sorts of potential frailties with memory, whether ordinary or hypnotically refreshed, are those that juries are quite capable of weighing."

The dissenting judges noted hypnosis is not exactly "novel science," having been used for 30 years to help memory retrieval. It is rarely admitted in court without a judge first assessing its relevance and reliability, and like other scientific evidence can always be assessed "through a case-by-case evaluation, in light of the changing nature of our scientific knowledge."

Allow me to perform a little magic trick here:

The dissenting judges noted pseudoscience is not exactly "novel science," having been used for 30 years to help obtain evidence. It is rarely admitted in court without a judge first assessing its relevance and reliability, and like other scientific evidence can always be assessed "through a case-by-case evaluation, in light of the changing nature of our scientific knowledge."

See the problem? Pseudoscience of many forms sneaks past judges all too often. They're legal experts, not experts on the philosophy of science (the fancy term for a skeptic). Many do obtain training in distinguishing good science from bad, but it's rarely sufficient. There are also no filters to make sure true-believer judges don't slip through. Juries are even worse off, as they'll likely have no training at all in this area.

The only solution is to simply ban a procedure from the courtrooms if it can't be shown to be scientifically effective. Otherwise, we risk letting false information sneak in under the guise of evidence, and letting the judge and jury buy it. Sometimes the government has to do the thinking for its constituents.

Proceed with your information binge...

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Plugging In

I know a lot of the regulars around here are big video game fans, so you'll likely want to go check out Akusai's new blog: Akusai's Video Game Musings. Go check it out!

Proceed with your information binge...

Friday, February 02, 2007

Oops, you're dead!

I'm reading through Terry Pratchett's The Last Continent right now, and I just had to repost a quote from it for your amusement. The rest of the book is also quite good, and it even includes an atheistic god of evolution (his big project: The cockroach). Note that this is in one of his "footnotes," which is why it references the real world, rather than Discworld.

In fact it's the view of more thoughtful historians, particularly those who have spent time in the same bar as the theoretical physicists, that the entirety of human history can be considered as a sort of blooper reel. All those wars, all those famines caused by malign stupidity, all that determined, mindless repetition of the same old errors, are in the great cosmic scheme of things only equivalent to Mr. Spock's ears falling off.

It would be easy to laugh at the idiocy of humanity if we were outside it, but it's harder from the inside. Still, it's worth trying. So, go to the news, find out whatever idiotic thing Bush just did, and regardless of how much it's going to screw things up for people, laugh at the blooper. It's a lot better than going insane.

Proceed with your information binge...

Strange Searches

I figured I'd take a page from a few other bloggers and post some of the strange search strings that have led people to my blog. Sitemeter is only showing the last couple of days, but there are some interesting ones nonetheless.

atheist pedophiles - This is what we call "Example mining." Try a search for "Priest pedophiles" next time and see how much easier it is.

quantum theory for dummies - I seem to get about two of these every day. I really should get around to continuing the series.

electrons - This was a blogs-only search, but I still must have been pretty far down the list. Someone really wanted to know about electrons...

how long till the ice has melted in antarctica - Already started. How long for all of it? Maybe a hundred years at the outside, if nothing's done to stop global warming.

meat puppets - Probably the band; I couldn't have popularized the term that quickly.

First, assume the cow is spherical - Second, assume it has constant density. Third, assume it's in a vacuum. Fourth, do not attempt Cow-Tipping.

Proceed with your information binge...

Skeptic's Circle #54

The latest Skeptic's Circle is now up over at Slicing with Occam's Razor, so go and check it out.

Open thread here. Feel free to ask any question, but beware: You may get any answer.

Proceed with your information binge...