Thursday, August 31, 2006

Out-Roving Rove

I've kept my blog pretty non-political so far, not so much out of an active decision but out of having nothing good enough to write about. An article I read in Newsweek today has given me just that. It talked about Karl Rove's nefarious strategies, and what Democrats have been doing wrong in relation to them. It didn't, however, go into what Democrats really should be doing. I've been relatively disappointed with the Democrats lately, but they're still a vast improvement over the Republicans, so I'm here to go into what I think they should be doing.

First, let's go over what Rove does that's so successful. Instead of attacking the enemy's weakness, he attacks their strength--generally with lies. When up against Gore in 2000, he turned Gore's championing of the internet around and made it look like Gore was exaggerating about it, painting a picture of him as a big exaggerator (this didn't stop Gore from winning the election (which a total recount of all votes in Florida showed), but then they just stole it anyway). When up against Kerry in 2004, he attacked Kerry's reputation as a war hero by manufacturing the Swift Boat scandal, which was composed of people who weren't in Kerry's boat but had connections to the Bush administration claiming that the people who were in Kerry's boat, the official record, and even the Vietnamese who hated Kerry were lying about what transpired.

So, onto what Democrats should do this time:

When Rove attacks your strong points, fight back.

If the Republicans try to bring up the Iraq war and characterize you as cut-and-runners, accept the subject but reject their analysis of it. Go into detail about all the screw-ups the Republicans have made over there, and if they try to challenge you about what you'd do to change things, don't go into detail. (It's not as intellectually honest as I'd prefer, but this is politics, not science.) Characterize them as the ones who created and are perpetuating a problem, and say that if people want to actually fix the problem, they should vote democratically.

Of course, don't entirely evade the question of what you'd do in Iraq, but also be sure to challenge them on what they're going to do. If they give the old "Stay the course" line, respond that "This course has lead the country into ruin. Do you want to go further in that direction?" As for what you'd do, give general platitudes as Nixon did in relation to pulling out of Vietnam. Say general political crap like "Reach out to Sunnis," "Train Iraqi soldiers to take care of their own country," and "Slowly reduce American presence." The public doesn't want to hear about the details and probably won't understand them anyway.

Attack the Republicans' strong points.

The Republicans have three major appeals these days: to the wealthy, religious, and pseudo-patriotic. The wealthy aren't a good target here as they're few in number, and their major contribution (money) has already been given by the campaigning stage. Rather, attack their religious and patriotic appeal. But importantly, this shouldn't be done with lies, but with inconvenient truths.

First, for the religious appeal. They do a good job (way too good) of voting with the religious right on many issues, so that's not a good aspect to attack. Instead, depict the candidates acting in blatantly non-Christian manners. Bring up scandal stories of them doing drugs as kids (easy to show with Bush himself), political corruption (ditto), and lying (ditto again), all very un-Christian actions. And of course, don't do any of that yourselves.

Secondly, their pseudo-patriotic appeal. I use the "pseudo" prefix as a lot of what they do is faking it. They simply say that following them is patriotic rather than prove it. Point this out. Also harp on how this is a democracy, government by the people. It's patriotic to do our job in watching the politicians. Use a tagline like "Patriotism is obedience in a dictatorship. In a democracy, it's vigilance." You might even want to point out how the whole Plame Affair constitutes treason, and there's good reason to believe some top officials were behind it.

Attack the Republicans' weak points.

This one is pretty obvious, and the Dems have already been doing a lot of it. Keep up with old talking points like how no net jobs have been created since Bush took office (meaning we have just as many, if not fewer, jobs today as we did back then, despite increasing population). Their disregard for the environment is another big one (use some of the publicity created by Gore's recent movie for this). Last but not least, their attempt to subvert science is really bad. It shows that these guys aren't invested in finding the truth and doing the best thing with it; they're invested in advancing their political agenda.

Proceed with your information binge...

Monday, August 28, 2006

The Bill of Rights in Action

I was watching NBC news tonight, and a couple of stories caught my eye. First of all, John Mark Karr, who recently confessed to the murder of Jon Benet Ramsey, has been released. This story is interesting as it highlights one of the reasons behind the Fifth Amendment, which prevents people from being able to testify against themselves.

This also means that an admission of guilt alone is not sufficient grounds to convict someone. It's greatly helpful for the police in solving a case, and can count as extremely strong evidence, but it must be supported. In this case, the admission was completely unsupported. Karr's DNA doesn't match that found at the scene of the crime, his story doesn't fit the known events, and there's no evidence establishing him at or near the scene. In this case, the Fifth Amendment serves to prevent us from jailing an innocent (if deluded) man.

Interestingly, this wasn't the initial reason for the Fifth Amendment. That reason was to prevent forced confessions, such as the type coerced in the witch hunts of infamy.

Now, for a use of the Bill I like a bit less. In this case, it's the exercise of First Amenment rights to free speech and freedom of the press. Not long after the Karr story, the news went back to their main thread of the night, looking back at the Katrina disaster. One of their guests was a man who'd written a book about the inherent racism of the situation with all the blacks living in poverty. Though I don't agree that there was any active racism involved, that's not the point I had a problem with.

The problem started when he went on to how important religion was to all of these people (firstly, it was a gross generalization and assumption). And then he said something that I really hate, and yet hear all the time: That if it weren't for their faith, they'd be lost and crazy, resorting to murder and suicide. While I respect his right to say this and NBC's right to show the story, I don't respect them for it. I'm willing to bet they wouldn't let me on the show to make a counterpoint, mentioning all of the actual murders made in the name of religion as opposed to the hypothetical murders made by hypothetical atheists.

To a religious person, I can see how a comment like that could get by. But to an atheist, it's a vicious slur. How do you think they would like it if I said that atheism is the only thing keeping many people from committing murder (though granted, I actually have evidence to support that statement). Either way, it's the First Amendment that allows me to say all this now and speak back at their slurs.

Proceed with your information binge...

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Mary Goes Reptilian

This just in: The Virgin Mary has chosen to manifest a picture of herself on a common turtle. See for the full story. "Why would she do this?" you ask. Uh... heretic! Burn him!

And at the very same time, Jesus Christ himself has decided to manifest on an MRI scan. It's true. It looks like it, so it must be true. Could both of these happening at the same time be a harbinger of the end times? Or could it just be indicative that these things are now chic and the media will buy any crappy story?

Proceed with your information binge...

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Sometimes they make it too easy...

Here's an advertisement for a "debate" some Creationists are hosting, found via The Panda's Thumb. Take note if you see anything odd (you might need a full notebook for this).

Darwin or Design?

Part I: Sept 29-30

Sponsored by Physicians and Surgeons for Scientific Integrity (PSSI)
• USF’s Sun Dome
Friday night, Sept 29, at 7:00 p.m.
Dr. Michael Behe, author of Darwin’s Black Box
Dr. Ralph Seelke, research scientist in microbiology
Dr. Jonathan Wells, author of Icons of Evolution

Note: High school and college faculty and students will be admitted free of charge with appropriate ID.
The admission fee for all others is $5. For more information, call (813) 974-3111.

• Radisson Hotel Ballroom, Lectures with Open Forum Saturday, Sept 30, 10:00 a.m. until noon*
Drs. Michael Behe, Ralph Seelke and Jonathan Wells
* 12600 Roosevelt Blvd., St. Petersburg -
Note: Complimentary coffee and tea served. A free-will donation will be requested to help with expenses.

Part II: November 3-4

Co-Sponsors: PSSI and The Campus Humanistic Society
• The Great Debate: Darwin or Design?
Friday evening, Nov 3, at 7:30 p.m.
Grace Family Church in Tampa**
Featuring: Dr. Stephen Meyer, Ph.D. in philosophy of science, Cambridge University
and Dr. Donald Duh, professor (emeritus) at Whatever State University
** 5101 Van Dyke Rd, Lutz, FL –

• Exploring the Evidence of Design, Saturday, Nov. 4 Calvary Baptist Church, 9:00 a.m.-noon
Christ Community Church, 1:30-4:30 p.m.***
Featuring: Dr. Stephen Meyer of the Discovery Institute, Dr. Walter Bradley, Dean of Engineering at Baylor University and co-author of The Mystery of Life’s Origin, and Dr. Thomas Woodward, professor at Trinity College and author of Doubts about Darwin and Darwin Strikes Back
*** Calvary Baptist, 110 N. McMullen Booth Rd, Clearwater –; Christ Community, 6202 N Himes Ave, Tampa, (813) 879-2077 –

Where to begin? How about the part that got me laughing out loud when I first read through it: Dr. Donald Duh(ck), professor (emeritus) at Whatever State University. I mean, are these people trying to look like jokes? To be fair, this was actually a draft that got accidentally released and published, but reading it reveals explicitly how little they care about a serious debate. Other things revealing their nefarious intentions:
  • The first part is sponsored by the Physicians and Surgeons for Scientific Integrity, which sounds good, but on a close inspection brief glance at their homepage, they're revealed to merely be Creationist lapdogs.
  • Look at the three people speaking. Behe and Wells have both written books trying to debunk Darwinism (not Evolution, the strawman of Darwinism they've created). Seelke at first looks like he might be legit, but his homepage shows that he's written a number of papers attacking evolution. So, not one person on the evolution side of the issue is speaking in the entire first part.
  • The co-sponsors for the second part are PSSI (covered above) and the "Campus Humanistic Society." Let's look at the Campus Humanistic Society... Oh, wait, it apparently doesn't exist. It's apparently a fake organization put on the poster in order to make it appear that Humanists are sponsoring the debate. And, in the vein of "Evolutionists," they've gone and added an extra suffix to "Humanist" to make it look stupid (or maybe that wasn't intentional, in which it serves to make them look stupid). This kind of reminds me of a Creationist editor over at Wikipedia who used words like "scientifical."
  • The debate is hosted at the Grace Family Church. Big conceit to neutral ground there, eh?
  • Oh look, the next item is at the Calvary Baptist Church and the Christ Community Church. If possible, even more neutral. *eyeroll*
  • And again, all the people listed for the next series of presentations are known Creationists.
  • In the end, the only person there actual on the side of Evolution Darwinism is Dr. Donald Duh(ck). They sure picked a lunker there to balance out so many Creationists, eh?

Proceed with your information binge...

Monday, August 21, 2006

At an Inconvenient Theater

Last Saturday I went out with my folks to see An Inconvenient Truth. Since some people passing through here might be wondering if it's worth their time, I figured I'd give my personal review of it here.

First of all, I'll note that if you've been fortunate enough to have attended one of Al Gore's presentations on the issue of Global Warming, this movie likely won't tell you anything you didn't learn there. The primary thread of the movie is precisely one of these presentations. It's also intermixed with relavent stories of Gore's childhood, political career, and scenes from a recent visit to China.

Technically, the movie is very well-made. The pacing is good, and it's intermixed with moments of humor to keep it from becoming too heavy. Gore's narration isn't quite the quality you'd get in most documentaries, but if you keep in mind that the actual presentation was done in entirely one take, it's actually quite amazing (though the voice-over parts seemed like they could have been better, still).

Content-wise, the movie is superb. Its intent isn't focused on what we can do to solve the problem so much as it is on shocking people into realizing we have a problem (which is the part of the issue that needs work in the US). And shock it does. I thought that I was already pretty educated on the issue of Global Warming, but some of the evidence presented still surprised me. The movie also had very good subplots, including one which showed how Gore lost his faith in the government (guess what moment it was).

So, should you see this movie? If you're anything less than sure that we have a serious problem, then definitely yes. Unfortunately, it's not playing everywhere, making it not only an inconvenient truth but an inconvenient movie. It's still worth it.

I had a couple minor quibbles with it, though. One was something I noticed on almost every graph he used: The scale didn't start at zero, giving a possibly distorted picture to those who didn't notice this. Of course, this is done all the time nowadays, so it's not that big of a deal.

Proceed with your information binge...

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Don't waste years studying, order our free booklet!

Saw an ad for this doozy while browsing at the Two Percent Company. Apparently, if you want to argue with evolution, you don't need to spend eight years earning a doctorate plus a few more in post-doctoral studies. All that knowledge is false, anyways, and evidence? What evidence? Just plug your ears and sing "I'm not listening, I'm not listening!" and the evidence all mysteriously vanishes.

Now, you might think that you'd then need to study the truths that the Bible teaches. Maybe go get ordained, study in a monastery for a few years so you can be an expert in those subjects. But nope, that's not necessary either. All you have to do is order this free* booklet, and you can argue against evolution with the best of them. Your arguments will be just as cogent as the best creationists out there.

In fact, this booklet is so good, they apparently have no qualms about tagging it with the line, "Is evolution just a theory? You can prove creation." [link added by Satan]

*Free with respect to monetary investment. Your critical thinking abilities may be forfeit.

(I thought briefly about going and debunking all of what they said, but it's like shooting fish in a a barrel. Not minnows, mind you, but great white sharks (those are fish too, you know!), in a teeny-tiny barrel. With the barrel of the gun glued to the shark. And the trigger stuck on automatic, so all you really have to do is take credit for when the bullets hit the shark. Don't know why creationists find that so hard...)

Proceed with your information binge...

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Can't I just look to the left?

So, I'm registering for the JREF forums, and I get to the part where it asks me for my e-mail address. I enter it in, and immediately to the right is another box asking me for my e-mail address for "confirmation." Having seen this many times before, I resort to my old "shift-home, ctrl-C, tab, ctrl-V" routine and proceed. Asking for confirmation of an e-mail address is standard practice these days, but how is it that no one ever questions the purpose of it?

This whole confirmation thing in general started with selecting passwords. Generally, passwords are obscured as you type them (in case someone is looking over your shoulder), looking like a series of circles or asterisks. This means that you can't look back at it and confirm you put it in just how you wanted it, so one slip up could prevent you from ever remembering it. The solution to this was to ask people to put in their passwords twice, so if there was a slip-up in one, they'd get a chance to try again.

When it became common to ask for e-mail addresses as part of registration, they were similarly obscured for privacy. Then, since they were obscured, they put in the same second entry for confirmation. Since then, however, obscuring the e-mail address has fallen out of favor (privacy isn't as critical as security), so you can now see it clearly as you type it. But when this change was made, whoever was in charge apparently forgot to remove the confirmation box (or didn't know its purpose, or something), so that stayed.

The result is that all of the current forms follow the trend and ask for your e-mail address twice, and you have to type it twice in plain view. Them being too dumb to remove the confirmation box results in the implication that we're too dumb to look two inches (5cm if you prefer) to the left and check for ourselves that we got it right.

There are a few designers who have figured this out and don't bother with it, but surprisingly the JREF wasn't skeptical about this particular trend.

Proceed with your information binge...

Put on your tux and tails...'s awards night at Interverbal with the 41st edition of the Skeptic's Circle.

"I thought you said people dress up for the opera!" - Jerry Seinfeld
"People do, I don't." - Kramer

Proceed with your information binge...

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Plugging the "Enemy"

Andrew Kneller, the coworker I quote in a previous post has recently started his own blog. He's a reasonably intelligent creationist who's willing to ask questions, so I'd encourage anyone up for some intelligent conversation to check him out. You can find his blog at Delving the Creationist Mind.

Proceed with your information binge...

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

The Multiple Endpoints Phenomenon

If you haven't yet read it, I highly recommend Thomas Gilovich's How we know what isn't so: The fallibility of human reason in everyday life. It's a very good and entertaining (to an infophiliac, at least) read, covering a lot of the reasons that people end up believing many stupid things. Most of the concepts he discusses in it are now in common use in the Skeptical community, such as the confirmation bias, pareidolia, the Texas sharpshooter fallacy, and others.

But there's one big one that seems to be missing, for some reason: The multiple endpoints phenomenon. The discussions surrounding shoehorning come close to it, but I feel that this is a subject that deserves consideration and study on it's own.

So what is it?

Avid watchers of Everybody Loves Raymond may remember this scene. Ray and his brother, Robert, are having a little competition over who can be the first to toss a kernel of popcorn (or something, let's say popcorn) into a bowl. They alternate tosses for a while, both of them consistently failing. Eventually, Robert grabs a double handful of popcorn and tosses it at the bowl. A few fall in, and he immediately claims victory.

Breaking it down, here's what happens: At first, they try to throw the popcorn in individually. This has a single endpoint of success: that the popcorn goes in. Then Robert throws a bunch at once. This has multiple successful endpoints: one for each individual kernel going in. A few of these go in, so Robert claims success. He points to the endpoints he reached and used those declare victory.

Simply put, the multiple endpoints phenomenon describes how if you have a specific measure for success, it's hard to achieve it, but the more you generalize it, the easier it gets. What you have to watch out for is people who act like they had a specific measure when in fact they were going from more generalized criteria.

For another example, try to find someone who shares your birthday. Not very easy, as only one out of every 365 people will (discounting leap years here). Now, try to find any two people who share the same birthday. Chances are you'll find a pair before you've asked even 30 people. Making your search just the tiniest bit more vague in this case makes it take 1/12 as long, as you have many more places you can end up. (Okay, my math might be off slightly, but I don't have a decent calculator with me right now.)

And now, here's the trick. Turn it around, and ask what the odds are of this occuring in a vacuum. What is the probability that these two people would share a birthday? 1/365. What you're doing now is pretending that this particular endpoint is what you were shooting for, rather than just one of many possibilities, making it look like something special has happened here.

Where do we see this happening?

The multiple endpoints phenomenon shows up in many places, but I've chosen just three to highlight here which I believe will have relevance to my audience. You've probably seen these before, but understanding of multiple endpoints will help illuminate the patterns and allow you to spot similar circumstances in the future.

1. Cold Reading

John Edwards: I'm getting something... possible an "A" or an "M"...

Woman in audience: My husband Adam just died! *sob*

John Edwards: Yes, that's it!

*Audience applauds*

Step 1: John Edwards makes a generalized prediction: someone in the audience will be there with something in mind that has an "A" or an "M." He's setting up many, many endpoints.

Step 2: One of the endpoints is a hit. The woman's husband, Adam, just died, and "Adam" has 2 A's and an M. Quite fitting, but in an audience that size, very likely that someone would say something.

Step 3: Edwards claims that this was what he was sensing in the first place. He's gone back and changed his original prediction from one with many endpoints to one with just a single endpoint to make it look like something amazing has happened here.

Step 4: John Edwards is nominated for and wins the title of "Biggest Douche in the Universe."

2. Pseudoscience

Fred Sicher and Elisabeth Targ set up an "experiment" to determine if prayer (or directing "positive energies" at a person) would improve their health. In this particular study, they set up a decent, randomized, double-blind test with twenty AIDS patients received Distant Healing (or DH) and twenty being a control group. The study set out to test the death rate of the patients.

At the end of the study, only a single subject had died. This meant that the results were inconclusive, or that they failed to confirm the hypothesis the DH has an effect. If they'd stopped there, it would have been good (if ultimately useless) science. But in the end, they twisted it to make it look like DH actually worked.

What happened is that after this result, Targ urged the researchers to change the goal of the study to instead measure the effect of DH against a long list of AIDS-related symptoms. When they found that the subjects in the DH group stayed in the hospital and visited doctors significantly less than the control group, they reported on their study as if this was the original. They even failed to mention that in one category, psychological stress, the DH group was significantly worse than the control group.

Step 1: They casted the net wide, allowing for a significant change in any one of multiple criteria to count as a success for DH. Many endpoints are set up.

Step 2: A couple criteria were found in which DH had statistically significant positive results. But they were studying 23 criteria, and the threshold p-value was 0.05. Seems quite likely that at least one would fit it. They had multiple ones, but some, like number of hospital visits and days spend in the hospital, would be expected to have a high correlation. A few of these endpoints are hit.

Step 3: They report only on the criteria that yielded positive results, and acted as if this was what their study had set out to test in the first place, making it look like DH worked.

Step 4: Targ dies of a brain tumor in 2003, despite being one of the most prayed-for people on the planet.


3. Everyday Life

There are many coincidences that could occur in your life on any given day. You might be thinking of someone the moment they phone you. You might be thinking of a particular episode of a TV show, and it's on later that day. You might run into someone with the same name as you. You might be thinking of a person you haven't seen in a long time, and then later hear mention of them.

The possibilities are countless, and many of them do come up. Thanks to the confirmation bias, the few hits are remembered while the misses are forgotten. In this way, we fool ourselves into thinking that we started off with many fewer endpoints than we actually did, so seemingly unlikely stuff must be happening more than it should.

Every future coincidence only adds to this pile of evidence, until eventually you determine that there just has to be some force guiding the universe.

Edit: Browsing the Swift archives, it appears that there is indeed some nutjob claiming that all coincidences are winks from God proving his existence. Read about it here (Unfortunately, the original article it references is no longer available). Let's just hope not too many people fall for this.


Once you understand it, multiple endpoints is a potent weapon in the Skeptic's arsenal. It shows up in many more places than you might think. The problem you might face is in explaining it to others. For that, I recommend a metaphor like the ones I used earlier in this post or "It's like fishing with a net, and then, once you catch a fish, claiming you nailed it with a spear."

Proceed with your information binge...

Monday, August 14, 2006

For your reading pleasure...

The newest issue of Skepchick Magazine is now up! Go and browse, but please don't take it into the bathroom.

I'm pretty busy with work today, but I've got a really nice content post coming up, which I'll try to get to today or tomorrow (as I intend to submit it to this week's Skeptic's Circle), so stay tuned.

Proceed with your information binge...

Friday, August 11, 2006

Do Not Feed the Trolls

I mentioned a trollbaiting thread I found via Bronze Dog to some people over our work e-mail chat, so we could laugh over Annie's hilariously bad arguments. One person I sent this to had the following to say in reply: [Links added to provide quick responses to some of his arguments]

I do agree that Annie defends her argument very poorly, however, I find it interesting that people stoop very low in their responses to her. I don’t think there is a need to be little (sic) a person regardless of what they believe. In reality, science has not yet produced complete and total evidence for or against evolution. I think that people are entitled to their opinion and that it should be respected as an idea that is held dear by that person no matter which side it is. I am not saying that one cannot argue against it, but rather that the manner of the argument should be carefully weighed before entered into. There is no reason to become enraged or insult another. This helps no one and will only frustrate yourself and the other person. No one will change their view because they are belittled and called a troll.

Also, as a side note, everyone who comments on the fact that they have heard all the arguments before is probably right, but the person on the other side likely has no idea that they have. Therefore, they are simply building what they believe to be a sound case on those facts, without knowing that this argument has been heard before. For instance, I do not know what arguments people have necessarily heard when arguing creation, but the people arguing evolution often say the same arguments that I have heard time and again. However, that does not mean that one needs to be little (sic) someone for using this argument, but rather it should be treated with the same dignity that it was given the first time it was heard, even if it can be easily refuted. Just a couple of thoughts…

Okay, the first paragraph is obviously stuffed full of common arguments that Bronze Dog has already addressed, but he makes a good point in the second. When I pointed out that most of the arguments she raised there had already been addressed, he replied with:

I wasn’t sure but I thought there may have been a history. However, I did not know that she had used those same cheap and pointless arguments before. Some people don’t deserve to be respected, but their right to believe what they want does. I just thought it was kind of cruel to provoke someone like that into starting a debate and then laugh at her stupidity and insult her intelligence, no matter how little there appears to be of it due to her argument. I think one of the biggest mistakes that many creationists make is using emotional arguments to try to sway another person rather than logic and reason. Then, rather simply (sic) asking to have some time to research and find a satisfactory answer when they become stumped or admit that the other person has a good and sometimes valid point, they slink away complaining and demanding that they not be persecuted. This is a sad result of people not owning their faith and taking charge of what they believe. I would bet that if you asked most of these people serious questions about their faith they wouldn’t know the answer because they haven’t ever held it dear enough in order to actually own it and figure out how to defend it intelligently.

I simply sober myself by realizing that in the end, we are not all that different in our beliefs. We believe that one day, the world came into being. Then, life started on its own or at the hands of a mighty and loving creator. Many people believe in evolutionary creationism where evolution was guided by the creator. I know that this is the big separation in our beliefs, but when it comes down to it, we both have faith in something. You have faith that the universe came into being and that life occurred and has progressed until it became man. I have faith that a creator made all of this. You have faith that the scientific evidence that these theories are based on is true and you have judged that this provides enough evidence for you to decide that that is your belief. I can respect your right to believe that even though I disagree with the ideas. I on the other hand have decided on my own, not because a pastor or my parents or a teacher shoved it down my throat, but because I want to that a Creator was involved. I believe this based on the Bible, which for me is my main source of evidence. If there is scientific evidence, I will use it and there is some though very little at all. Not really much when compared to the mound of evidence claimed by evolution. To be honest, I wouldn’t cite most of it as I don’t know that I trust it any more than I completely trust all of the evidence of evolution. I am not saying that all of it is this way, but there have been far too many frauds coming up with evolution and for creation for me to take either sides evidence at face value without extensive research into it.

For his assumptions of my faith, I pointed him to my first Why Skepticism post. Overall though, this is the type of person I like debating. He's obviously intelligent, and he takes care to provide as good of arguments as he can. He isn't already entrenched in the internet battlefield, so he doesn't see all the arguments already out there, but I can't fault him for that.

Other things I like about him:
  • Generally good grammar
  • He never drops a point; he either keeps arguing it or concedes
  • He doesn't pretend his faith is something else

Given all of this, I classify him in my most reasonable category of opponents. I still think he's wrong about religion, but I suspect that in continued debate I could plant a seed of doubt in his mind (or possibly - dare I consider it? - could realise that he has a good point).

Expect to see more thorough examinations of dropping the point and how to handle different types of people on the other side of the fence in future Distilled Wisdom posts.

Proceed with your information binge...

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

The other slice of bread

I don't want things to get too heavy all at once, so I'm sandwiching in that huge mathy post with really irrelevant things. Today, I'm going to prove that all it takes to be a psychic is a little common sense. To do that, I'm going to make a prediction of my own, one that's virtually infinite in scope and with an estimated success rate of over 95%.

Here's my psychic prediction: While reading this post, you...

  • Blinked
  • Breathed
  • Swallowed
  • Have been at a computer
  • Have been in the proximity of water (that might just be the water in your body I'm sensing)
  • Have either not clicked on a link within this post or thought of the word "contraneoantidisestablishmentarianistically"

Additionally, within the last week you...

  • Ate something
  • Drank something
  • Slept
  • Saw something that could be described as "red"

And, for the coup de grace, I predict that you will soon think about pink elephants.

To further prove I'm a psychic, if even one of those predictions was inaccurate, I guarantee you double your money back!

Proceed with your information binge...

Monday, August 07, 2006

Why Skepticism? (Part 2)

Alright, I'm finally getting around to this. When reading what I have below, please keep in mind that I haven't done much work with formal proofs (I'm a scientist, not a mathematician), and this is aimed at a less math-savvy audience, so there may be a few things in it a pure mathematician wouldn't like. This part of the Why Skepticism? mini-series deals with philosophical skepticism; that is, the doubt of any form of knowledge.

I'm going to make an incredibly bold claim here. I intend to mathematically prove the Agnosticism is the only viable philosophy (if one accepts some basic tenets of Mathematics and Logic). You're of course invited to argue with it (and by argue, I mean make formulated arguments, not simple denial), but please make the effort first to understand it, and question any part you don't understand.

I was Wiki-surfing at work the other day, and I came across this page (it's long, so I'll be summarizing the key parts): Gödel's incompleteness theorems

The first theorem it contains is: "For any consistent formal theory that proves basic arithmetical truths, it is possible to construct an arithmetical statement that is true but not provable in the theory. That is, any consistent theory of a certain expressive strength is incomplete."

The statement refered to here generally takes the form "This statement cannot be proved within this paradigm."

Here's the proof sketch of this given in Wikipedia:

The main problem in fleshing out the above mentioned proof idea is the following: in order to construct a statement p that is equivalent to "p cannot be proved", p would have to somehow contain a reference to p, which could easily give rise to an infinite regress. Gödel's ingenious trick, which was later used by Alan Turing to show that the Entscheidungsproblem is unsolvable, will be described below.

To begin with, every formula or statement that can be formulated in our system gets a unique number, called its Gödel number. This is done in such a way that it is easy to mechanically convert back and forth between formulas and Gödel numbers. Because our system is strong enough to reason about numbers, it is now also possible to reason about formulas.

A formula F(x) that contains exactly one free variable x is called a statement form. As soon as x is replaced by a specific number, the statement form turns into a bona fide statement, and it is then either provable in the system, or not. Statement forms themselves are not statements and therefore cannot be proved or disproved. But every statement form F(x) has a Gödel number which we will denote by G(F). The choice of the free variable used in the form F(x) is not relevant to the assignment of the Gödel number G(F).

By carefully analyzing the axioms and rules of the system, one can then write down a statement form P(x) which embodies the idea that x is the Gödel number of a statement which can be proved in our system. Formally: P(x) can be proved if x is the Gödel number of a provable statement, and its negation ~P(x) can be proved if it isn't. (While this is good enough for this proof sketch, it is technically not completely accurate. See Gödel's paper for the problem and Rosser's paper for the resolution. The key word is "omega-consistency".)

Now comes the trick: a statement form F(x) is called self-unprovable if the form F, applied to its own Gödel number, is not provable. This concept can be defined formally, and we can construct a statement form SU(z) whose interpretation is that z is the Gödel number of a self-unprovable statement form. Formally, SU(z) is defined as: z = G(F) for some particular form F(x), and y is the Gödel number of the statement F(G(F)), and ~P(y). Now the desired statement p that was mentioned above can be defined as:

p = SU(G(SU)).
Intuitively, when asking whether p is true, we ask: "Is the property of being self-unprovable itself self-unprovable?" This is very reminiscent of the Barber paradox about the barber who shaves precisely those people who don't shave themselves: does he shave himself?

We will now assume that our axiomatic system is consistent.

If p were provable, then SU(G(SU)) would be true, and by definition of SU, z = G(SU) would be the Gödel number of a self-unprovable statement form. Hence SU would be self-unprovable, which by definition of self-unprovable means that SU(G(SU)) is not provable, but this was our p: p is not provable. This contradiction shows that p cannot be provable.

If the negation of p= SU(G(SU)) were provable, then by definition of SU this would mean that z = G(SU) is not the Gödel number of a self-unprovable form, which implies that SU is not self-unprovable. By definition of self-unprovable, we conclude that SU(G(SU)) is provable, hence p is provable. Again a contradiction. This one shows that the negation of p cannot be provable either.

So the statement p can neither be proved nor disproved within our system.

Now, that's a little interesting, but the second Incompleteness Theorem is the important one here: For any formal theory T including basic arithmetical truths and also certain truths about formal provability, T includes a statement of its own consistency if and only if T is inconsistent.

Let p stand for the undecidable sentence constructed above, and let's assume that the consistency of the system can be proven from within the system itself. We have seen above that if the system is consistent, then p is not provable. The proof of this implication can be formalized in the system itself, and therefore the statement "p is not provable", or "not P(p)" can be proven in the system.

But this last statement is equivalent to p itself (and this equivalence can be proven in the system), so p can be proven in the system. This contradiction shows that the system must be inconsistent.

What this means: If a paradigm claims it's consistent, it's inconsistent. A paradigm can be proven to be consistent only from the perspective of a more powerful paradigm. (Seen from the rephrasing of the second theorem to "If an axiomatic system can be proven to be consistent and complete from within itself, then it is inconsistent.")

A little note at this point: Inconsistent basically means that it includes contradictions, such as the paradigm being able to prove both p and not-p. Note that we can use "inconsistent" as a rough synonym to "flawed" here.

Now, here's where we expand it to the human mind. Everything you know, including every law by which your conscious and subconsious minds work and every perception in your life can be treated as such a paradigm (assuming that your mind is logical enough to accept basic arithmetical truths and the definition of natural numbers, though even without that the arguments probably still apply). This leads us to the following two possibilities of how the mind sees itself:

1. Your mind cannot prove its own consistency. In this case, your mind accepts the possibility that it might be flawed, meaning there could be a mistake somewhere. Therefore, there must be doubt.

2. Your mind can prove its own consistency. In this case, as we've just proven, your mind is either inconsistent or incomplete, splitting into two more possibilities:

2a. Your mind is inconsistent. There's something you're wrong about, but you aren't admitting or noticing it. You should have doubt, but you don't.

2b. Your mind is incomplete. This means that a more complete paradigm can then judge whether or not your mind is consistent. Since we cannot go beyond our mind, we have no way of knowing whether it would judge our mind to be consistent or not, therefore it might be inconsistent, so we might be wrong about something and should therefore have doubt.

"Alright," you might be saying. "So the mind as a whole can't be proved to be consistent. But what if I isolate a portion of my mind, and use the rest to check for that small portion's consistency?"

That's perfectly fair, and you can then prove the consistency of that portion from the point of view of your mind as a whole. But there's a problem here: You can't prove the rest of your mind is consisted, because of the proof above. And if you can't prove it's consistent, it might be inconsistent. And if it might be inconsistent, you might have made a mistake in checking the consistency of that smaller part. And with this possibility comes the possibility that that smaller part actually isn't consistent. So no part of your mind can be free from doubt.

But there's a potential problem. If this proof is sound, it casts doubt on even itself. So what's the point of having it then? Well, its existence and failure to have been disproven might be said to shift the burden of proof to anyone who wishes to claim that absolute knowledge is possible. If they cannot disprove this, they leave open the possibility that their absolute knowledge may not be absolute, and with that comes the possibility that it may be wrong.

Okay, so what the hell is the point of that anyway? What does this deal with that my "dark closet" in Why Skepticism? (Part 1)? This deals primarily with claims of non-evidence-based faith, those people who claim to just know from something inside of them the truth of God's WordTM. This proof shows that it's impossible for them to know this for sure, however much they may wish otherwise.

"I was working on a flat tax proposal, and I accidentally proved there's no God." - Homer Simpson

Proceed with your information binge...

Time for Another Neologism

I finally got around to looking up the definition of "antidisestablishmentarianism," and interestingly enough it's:

A political philosophy opposed to the separation of church and state, esp. opponents in 19th century England against separating the Anglican church from the state.

Well, since we've got a new movement here in America trying to do the same thing, how about we call them "neoantidisestablishmentarians"? And for those of us who are trying to fight back against them, how about "contraneoantidisestablishmentarians"? So, our movement as a whole would be "contraneoantidisestablishmentarianism" and we operate "contraneoantidisestablishmentarianistically." Try saying that in one breath.

Proceed with your information binge...

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Go to Hell, Mel

You've surely heard by now that Mel Gibson, who recently produced an entire movie seemingly devoted to perpetuating the misconception that the Jews killed Jesus, was recently arrested on suspicions of drunk driving. He then let loose a series of profanities and anti-Semitic slurs.

Normally I wouldn't bother posting on something like this, which is common knowledge by this point. But on the radio this morning, I heard an interview with someone involved in the case (I missed the beginning, so can't say who it is), and this person is claiming that it gets worse. A lot worse. But apparently the evidence of this is being covered up. Sounds like a conspiracy theory to me, but with Mel, I'll give the conspiracy theory the benefit of the doubt. We'll apparently be "shocked" when the tape is released.

This person seemed to have some affiliation with, which looks like a tabloid site but is backed by AOL/Time Warner. These were also the people who broke the original transcripts of Mel's remarks, so they might be trustworthy here. Either way, take this new development with a grain of salt.

So why do I care about this at all? Well, I've had it in for Mel since The Passion, which as I mentioned seemed to promote the misconception that the Jews killed Jesus. This misconception is particularly notable as it's been the excuse for countless acts of anti-Semitism throughout history, including the Holocaust itself (Granted, Hitler's motives may have been more political, but he played off the latent anti-Semitism). That belief is now widely disregarded by scholars, as a Roman governor such as Pontius Pilate was unlikely to hesitate to execute anyone who presented potential threat to Roman rule, as Jesus did.

Also, a clerical note: I've been having some problems with comment spam recently, so I've turned on Word Verification for commenting to temporarily block it out. I apologize for the inconvenience, and I'll try turning it off in a bit to see if the spammer has cut off. Also, it seems that Blogger for some reason doesn't tell you which post a comment is posted on when it's e-mailed to you, which makes it all the harder to find and delete it. If anyone knows a better way to handle this, please let me know.

Proceed with your information binge...

Thursday, August 03, 2006

The Magic-Debunking Mystery-Solving Tour is Coming to Take You Away

The 40th Skeptic's Circle is now up at Daylight Atheism. Follow Ebonmuse on a tour of the newly-opened Daylight Atheism Museum of Superstition and Pseudoscience (and don't be put off if you hear a random "Quack!" in the distance; it's all part of the experience).

Proceed with your information binge...

Distilled Wisdom #2: How to Sound Reliable

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 useful advice. (No mixed metaphors this time, good!)

Today I'll be covering what you can do to sound reliable. Why is this important? Because if you don't sound reliable, people won't listen to you. Your arguments may simply be hand-waved away, sound as they may be. At the worst, people may come to suspect the opposite of what you say, simply because you said it.

This time, I've actually got a few different tips for you:

1. Don't lie
2. Watch for logical fallacies in your reasoning
3. Cite your sources
4. Admit your errors

1. Don't lie

As one professor at my university said, "The most common fallacy is the 'fallacy of lying.'" People often have hidden agendas behind their arguments. To fulfill these agendas, they'll sometimes make arguments that they know to be fallacious in order to lead people to think what they want them to think (see: Sophistry). More often, they simply take the easy route and lie about the facts.

Neither of these should be done, but lying is the more counterproductive of the two. When an opponent spots a lie, it is a lot simpler to simply point it out than it would be to explain a logical fallacy. The public is also a lot more likely to be able to comprehend the explanation of the lie and what was done wrong. You'll simply be labeled a liar by them and that will be the end of it. Being known for lying is also generally perceived as worse than being known for making deliberately fallacious arguments (even though both are ways to deliberately misrepresent reality).

So, in short: Don't do it.

2. Watch for logical fallacies in your reasoning

Many people make logical fallacies simply because they don't know any better. The only way to fix this is by learning what they are, and for that I refer you to The Fallacy Files. There's a lot there, but it's all worth reading when you have the time.

The rest of the time, logical fallacies are committed intentionally in order to lead the audience to your desired conclusion. This is often harder for the opponent to debunk than simple lies, as the audience must be educated in why what you did constitutes a fallacy rather than simply pointing out a contradiction between what you say and reality.

The flip side to this is that it is a lot easier for a smart opponent to spot a fallacy than it is for them to spot a lie. In order to spot a lie, they need to be educated in that particular field. In order to spot a fallacy, they merely need to be educated in logic and critical thinking. For instance, I know little about evolutionary biology, but I'm still able to spot fallacious reasoning used by many creationists.

So, in short: Don't do this either.

If you're wondering what you are supposed to do if you can't support your point without lying or using fallacious arguments, I have a simple response. You shouldn't be arguing that point. Find a point that is arrived at by using facts and good logic and support that.

3. Cite your sources

A recent study shows that negative speed (that is, going backwards in time) is a reality - for light if nothing else.

Believe me on that? Probably not. It seems outrageous, and I'm just a random blogger. However, what if I said:

A recent study shows that negative speed (that is, going backwards in time) is a reality - for light if nothing else.1

Know what that little superscripted 1 is? It's a citation. My seemingly outrageous claim is backed up by a reputable source confirming it. The "Yeah, right!" response has turned into a "Whoa!"

The first rule I use for citations is, "Assume no one has any reason to take your claims as truth." Of course, this may not work for you, particularly if there is a good reason for people to take your claims in a particular area as truth. This doesn't mean that every claim about reality should be cited, as many are simply common knowledge. You can't be expected to provide a reference confirming that the sky is blue, now can you?

The second rule I use for citations is, "When presenting matters of fact, cite the enemy if possible." This way, even if the source is proven to be inaccurate, it's a point in your favor. If it's not possible to cite the enemy, use a neutral source. Using a source that supports your position will open you and them to claims of bias.

For an example of this, look back to my Render unto Caesar [nothing] post. I used citations for two quotes from the Bible. What words are in the Bible is a matter of fact (well, a particular version of the Bible, at least), and any site should agree on this. Since my argument could be perceived as anti-Christian, I used a distinctly pro-Christian website as a source. If they turn out to be wrong or purposely distorting the quotes, I can turn this around into a point against them anyways. Plus, Christians are a lot less likely to attack the credibility of my source this way.

The final rule I use is, "When explaining the theory or opinions of a group, cite that group if possible." The reasoning behind this is that if you cite their enemy's description of them, you run a high risk of describing a Straw man argument. Unfortunately, some theories, such as Time Cube, are simply incomprehensible from the explanations of their proponents. Others are veiled in secrecy by their proponents, like Scientology. For either of these cases, a second-hand source must be used in order to give an accurate description, and a neutral, non-critical source is best. (Wikipedia is generally good; neutrality is one of their main goals.)

4. Admit your errors

One thing I really respect about The Bad Astronomer is that he'll always publicly admit when he makes a mistake on his site. He'll edit it in so that it shows the correct information, but he'll make a note that it's been changed and preserve the original text. Contrast this with what you see happening on too many woo sites to mention, where the claims are changed frequently when they're found to err (often towards being vaguer rather than truer), yet no mention is made. These people are trying to present themselves as infallible, which is a lie itself.

Imagine you're in a position of hiring one of two people for a job. You ask each of them, "What do you do when you find out that you've made a mistake?"

The first says, "That never happens; I don't make mistakes." (" time I thought I did, but it turned out I was actually correct.")

The second says, "I correct it and take note of it. If the mistake was told to anyone else, I make sure that they know I was wrong so that they won't pass it on even further. I also try to figure out what might have caused me to make that mistake in the first place, so I won't do it in the future."

If you believe that human beings can be perfect, then you might hire the first person. But if you admit that everyone has some flaws, you'll hire the second person without another thought. The person who learns from their mistakes and tries to correct them is going to a lot fewer mistakes slip through in the end than the one who denies making mistakes at all.

On a final note, the reason we communicate at all is so that others will listen to us, and if people stop believing you, they're going to stop listening to you. Give them reasons to believe you.

* * * * *

Distilled Wisdom Index

Proceed with your information binge...

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

My Comment Deleting Policy

I figured that after my recent rant about comment deleting, I owe you guys the courtesy of explaining my position on the matter. Simply put, I try to avoid doing it; it keeps things more honest. But, there are some times I will.

I may delete your comment...

  • If it's simply spam.
  • If it's simply flaming or trolling.
  • If it breaks any law of the U.S. or Canada. (I'm not going to risk being a party to it.)
  • If it's a double post. The original will, of course, be kept.
  • If you request that I do so, I agree with your reasoning, and it wouldn't cause confusion by being missing.
  • If it's completely irrelevent or off-topic.

However, I might not delete your comment...

  • If it's humorous enough to keep and mock.
  • If its existence makes you look bad, and I don't feel like helping you look good.

I'll leave on the "recoverable" option for most deletions, though I won't bother for deletions of double posts and some really outrageous spamming.

Proceed with your information binge...

You know what really grinds my gears?

Having my comments deleted. I don't spam, I don't flame, and I don't make irrelevent personal attacks. I do occasionally make double posts when faced with technical problems, and that's the only time I'll accept (and even encourage) one of my comments being deleted.

I was wandering around blogspace yesterday, and came across a person who was having some personal problems (keeping stuff anonymous; I don't want to be a jerk here). I had some relavent experience to share, so I went out of my way to make a long, hopefully helpful comment to their blog. I came back today and checked on them, and I found that the comment was deleted with no mention of it (I'd seen it previously up there, so I know it hadn't gotten eaten by a spam filter). I checked my e-mail in case this person had bothered to leave a note, but nothing. Then I checked my other e-mail account just in case, but still nothing (I'm somewhat inconsistent in which I use and display, so they theoretically might have found either).

I put a lot of effort into that particular comment. I was trying to help. Even if I failed in that measure, at the very least you should respect my intent and leave it there. Maybe add a note saying "Thanks, but I don't think that'll work for me." I can't fathom what mental process may have led to you thinking that deleting it was the best path.

If the problem is that you don't want random people coming in and commenting, then there's a simpler solution: Close off or moderate commenting. Blogger lets you turn on comment moderation so that all comments will be sent to you first to check if you're okay with them appearing. Other blog servers have different things you can do. A lack of moderation or limited commenting is telling people that it's perfectly fine to comment here.

When I get around to part 3 of Distilled Wisdom (How to sound reasonable), you can be sure that unnecessary comment deleting is going up there as a huge DON'T. Oh yeah, and I'll try to get part 2 up sometime soon today. Sorry for the delay and interruption.

+10 points if you caught the Family Guy reference in the title.

Proceed with your information binge...