Saturday, March 31, 2007

Reasons (not) to believe

I received a very thoughtful comment on my post, Calculating God, from a Christian who wanted to explain the specific reasons that he believed. Since he raised some reasons that I thought deserved more prominent address, I'm replying in a new post here rather than burying it in a comment.

His first argument was frankly one that I hadn't heard before (though this doesn't translate to it being convincing), that since the Bible was written in a "historical nature":

Some parts of the Bible are reported with a historical nature in the same manner as wars are reported. The wars in our history books are from recorded history that we accept because we have little reason to believe the alternative that people recorded a bunch of lies just to fool future readers of their documents.

Have you ever read J.R.R. Tolkien's The Silmarillioin? If not, I highly recommend you save yourself the pain. The book's written in a dull, historical manner that puts most history books to shame. But it was clearly intended as a piece of fiction. Tone doesn't necessarily imply genre.

Plus, there's another issue with the Bible: It was translated. Tone is very hard to preserve in translations, and what may have been an epic poem can easily be transformed into dull prose (as did indeed happen in many places in the Bible). When you add on this layer of complication, trying to draw any inference from tone is a hopeless endeavor.

So, with what intent was the Bible written then? The early parts were likely just people writing down mythology that had previously been passed down by oral tradition. As for the New Testament, Romans and Corinthians were compilations of letters written by Paul, and the gospels were most likely fables based on the character (or possible person) of Jesus mentioned by Paul. (I say "character" because to me, the evidence seems to indicate that Jesus never actually existed.)

At this point you might say, why believe something that seems obviously more likely to be false than true? Believing in this provides eternal heaven if you are right, and being kind of stupid if you are wrong. Rejecting this provides a little satisfaction from laughing at the dumb people and not "wasting" your time on a falsehood if you are right, but you have no idea what happens if you are wrong.

Ah, Pascal's Wager, long time no see! How's it hanging? Ooh, that's not so good. Yeow, that's even worse.

There are a few big problems with Pascal's Wager. The big one I always think of is that it assumes that belief is simply a matter of choice. Sure, I could go out and pay lip service to Christianity, but an omnipotent god were easily see through that. I believe things because I have reason to think they're true, and I don't have sufficient reasons to think that Christianity is true. And no, Pascal's Wager doesn't give me a reason to think it's true; it's just intellectual blackmail.

Another problem with Pascal's Wager is that there are multiple religions out there who all say that if you don't believe in them, you're screwed. It's not a simple choice between one religion and no religion, you have a choice between a myriad of religions. And if you apply the tools used by Pascal's Wager to this expanded view, your expected level of screwedness is infinite no matter what you choose.

Various psychological studies have shown positive correlations between religiousness and good health.

The effects of belief in something don't make a whit of difference as to whether or not it's true. It's possible for truth to hurt and for lies to heal, but they remain truth and lies respectively.

However, in this case, I'd argue that religion still does more harm than good (otherwise I wouldn't bother to speak out against it). With the suppression of science done by religious fanatics, the inquisitions, the witch trials, the attempts to limit the civil rights of others, the harms of religion clearly outweight the benefits in my mind.

By attacking a problem with personal research, knocking out the Flying Spaghetti Monsters and Islams of the religious spectrum...

No rebuttal here, just pointing out that FSMism is apparently now on par with Islam when it comes to religion.

Anyways, I've only covered here the parts of John's post I disagreed with. There's actually a lot in there that I do agree with (proof that not all theists are foaming-at-the-mouth insane), so go read it if you have a chance.


Suikoden rocks! (Sorry, I couldn't hold it back any longer. This is post #108 after all.)

Proceed with your information binge...

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Skeptic's Circle #57

The 57th Skeptic's Circle is now up courtesy of Aardvarchaeology, and if we all pitch in, we can clean up all these zebra droppings.

Open thread as usual, but taunting me for not having anything good and Suikoden-related to use for my next post (#108) is FORBIDDEN.

Proceed with your information binge...

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Breaking the Law

Possibly deadly and illegal picture below the fold. View at your own risk.

Inspired by a recent post on Skeptico. I've been holding on to this for a very long time, waiting for an appropriate opening (so long that Austen Atheist beat me to it by publishing his at a random time when he got tired of waiting. And no I'm not going to grace him with a link for stealing my idea).

Now, here's the question: Is this picture immoral? Should it be against the law? If you think so, please do the rest of us a favor and rid the world of yourself (preferably without taking the rest of us with you).

Proceed with your information binge...

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Convenient Myths

I promised you guys last time I'd get to debunking some of the arguments against Global Warming, but I figured I'd go a step further and also debunk some of the bad arguments made in favor of it (oddly enough, I couldn't find nearly as many of these). Onto the myths!

Note: This post was so long I decided to get into the habit of using a "fold" to hide the bulk of it. Don't want to overload everyone's browser unnecessarily.

The Myth: The Earth goes through warming and cooling cycles, causing ice ages and warm periods. It's simply been warming since the last ice age.

The Truth: It is true that the Earth goes through cycles, but there are a couple of problems here. The first of these is the linear assumption, which is where people assume that since it was at point A in the past and point B now, it followed a linear path between them and will continue on it. In truth, the cycles are anything but linear. Let's take a look at what they actually look like:

Okay, first of all there's a lot of random variance at any time, but ignore that for now and look at the overall pattern. It's pretty cyclical alright, but it's not like a simple sine wave or saw blade. Rather, we see a pattern of a sharp rise in temperature of around 10°C taking place in a span of around 10,000 years followed by a gradual cooling over the next 100,000 years or so.

Now, let's look at our recent history on the far right side of the graph. We see that we've just come off of a spike which has stayed strangely level afterwards. (The timescale of the graph is too much to attribute this leveling to human activities.) What we would expect to happen next judging from the long-term cycles is that the temperature would plunge back down into another ice age.

There's another variant to this myth, however, that relates to a more recent cooling period: the "Little Ice Age," which took place within the last millenium. See the following image:
During the Medieval Warm Period you can see on this graph, Greenland was actually temperate enough that colonies were set up there, but they had to be abandoned in the later years. We're now approaching those temperatures again in the recent century. Does this mean we're due for a melting of it? Time will tell... (well, hopefully not)

But anyways, onto the claim they're making. They say that the present warming is simply the Earth correcting itself after that Little Ice Age. But wait, as seen on the previous image, which way should the Earth be correcting itself next? That's right, it should be going downwards. Looking at historical trends, we don't see as much of short-term (on the scale of a few centuries) cycles as we do just random fluctuations, so we don't really have any reason to assume that from a short-term trend we're due to come back up.

In fact, if you want to be really pessimistic, you could argue that the escape from the Little Ice Age occured in the middle of the world's industrialization, and it's possible that this is what caused us to come back to a peak, and possibly rise some more. But that's just speculation.

There's one other problem here, with the Medieval Warm Period itself. It's hard to accurately gauge temperatures that far back in time, and when we can, it's often only in a few places in the world. The best evidence we have shows that outside of Europe, it was indeed probable that many areas experienced the warm period, but it's not conclusive. In fact, Antarctic Ice Core samples showed an additional cold period from 1000-1100 AD.

But there's another big problem with using the Medieval Warm Period to extrapolate anything about cycles in the Earth's climate: It was also the time of an extremely hyperactive phase of solar activity known as the Medieval Maximum. The relationship between the sun's activity and the temperature on Earth is well-accepted, especially by Global Warming skeptics who try to use it to explain the rise now. You know what they fail to point out? We're at the same temperature as in the Medieval Warm Period now, but the sun is not in a hyperactive phase (at least, nowhere near how it was back then).

The Myth: Temperature causes the CO2 levels, rather than CO2 causing the temperature levels.

The Truth: While it is true that temperature plays a role in changing the CO2 levels in the atmosphere (higher temperatures decrease the solubility of gasses in liquids, so CO2 is released from the oceans. The opposite happens as temperatures decrease, though not as quickly), it's also true that CO2 plays a role in affecting global temperatures. This latter process happens through the greenhouse effect, where CO2 in the atmosphere allows more heat to enter than to leave. Just because A can cause B doesn't mean B can't cause A as well.

In fact, the truth is even more frightening: Once the temperature starts to move up for some reason, it will cause more CO2 to be released from the oceans, which will cause the temperature to increase even more, which will cause even more CO2 to be released, and so on. With this in mind, it's easy to see why the upward spikes on the first chart were so sharp. The reason the downward trends weren't so sharp was because the process of the oceans reabsorbing CO2 in low temperatures is much slower than the process by which it releases it in high temperatures (only the interface between the atmosphere and water allows reabsorbtion, so it takes a long time for the water to get back up to its saturation point).

Now, there are a few big things we don't know: Why did the spikes stop? It's possible the oceans ran out of CO2 to contribute to the atmosphere, so the temperature leveled out. But then there's the problem of what caused the decline (this might also cover what caused the stop in the spike). And there's also the problem of what started the spike in the first place.

While these questions are intriguing, they're not necessarily relevant. In the current situation, the critical factors are that: 1. We're releasing huge amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere (no dispute here), 2. CO2 in the atmosphere plays a role to warm the Earth, and 3. This warming can cause a cascading effect resulting in sharp spikes in temperature. What caused the warming that brought us out of the ice ages isn't relevant here; the important factor is what might cause warming today.

I'll make one final note on this subject: It appears that the warming trends hit a maximum of around 2°C higher than our current average. This might imply we don't have to worry about unlimited warming, but we still do have those 2 degrees to worry about. And, as I mentioned a bit earlier, even a rise of half a degree could drastically change the face of Greenland, which is one of the biggest threats to us.

The Myth: Thermal expansion of water in the oceans could cause as much sea level rise as glacial melting, if not more.

The Truth: Water's a peculiar material in many ways. Part of its peculiarity is how its density changes with temperature and phase. Unlike most substances, its solid form is actually less dense than its liquid form (that's why ice floats in water). Additionally, for a region between 0°C and 4°C, water's density actually increases with temperature, in contrast to the general trend of most substances to decrease their density with temperature. This point is actually very important here, as the average temperature of the water in the oceans is 3.5°C - where an increase in temperature would cause it to contract.

Now, things are actually a bit more complicated. The surface temperature of water is around 10°C, and this is the water which gets warmed up first. This means that we'd actually start to see some expansion in this region. However, although the water in this region would expand, the thermal expansion coefficient is still pretty small at the temperature, so we won't likely see the predicted 5 meters of rise which was calculated using the expansion coefficient at 20°C. Instead, according to one model I've looked at, we could expect the next rise of a degree Celsius to only contribute a few centimeters. This degree could, however, cause significant glacial melting, and this would contribute a lot more than thermal expansion.

The Myth: Water vapor is the more important greenhouse gas, not CO2.

The Truth: Some estimates give the following proportions for how much different gases contribute to the greenhouse effect:

  • Water vapor: 36-70%
  • CO2: 9-26%
  • Methane: 4-9%
  • Ozone: 3-7%

So, in an average scenario, we have CO2 contributing about a third as much as water vapor, and methane about a third as much as CO2. Let's throw in some more numbers to make a probably-not-at-all-accurate estimate:

  • CO2 levels have increased by 31% in the last 250 years.
  • Methane levels have increased by 149% in the last 250 years.
  • So, if we assume a linear relationship, the greenhouse strength has increased by about 17% * 31% + 6.5% * 149% = 15%
  • The total effect of the greenhouse gases is to raise the atmospheric temperature by around 14°C.
  • If we again assume a linear relation, we get an increase caused by man of about 15% * 14°C = 2°C.

That's big. Let's go back to the chart of recent temperature cycles:The rise at the end of the Little Ice Age was around .6°C. Given that our rough estimate was 2°C, mankind causing a .6°C rise in this timeframe is well within reason. As for water vapor being the main greenhouse gas... does it matter? Raising the CO2 and methane levels alone is easily sufficient to cause significant change.

(Note though that there's far from a scientific consensus that that rise in temperature was actually caused by human activity; more so than other claims of global warming. I'm just pointing out its plausibility here, so don't take my word on faith.)

Now, that was just using a really simple model. Climate scientists have of course come up with better models. One model which a lot of them favor actually shows that the presence of water vapor in the atmosphere actually amplifies the effect of increased CO2 and methane. Another model that a lot of the Global Warming dissenters favor argues that instead the water vapor will dampen the effects of increased CO2. To me, both models seem like they're favored by the applicable groups of people mostly because they predict the same thing as the hypothesis they already favor. If both of their models have good points, the true answer probably lies somewhere in the middle. And as I showed above, estimates in the middle are still pretty damn bad.

The Myth: The "Hockey Stick Graph," which was used to show the sharp spike in Global Warming recently, is critically flawed and has been debunked.

The Truth: The graph of course has its share of statistical errors, as you'd expect from any chart of scientific data, particularly when delving this far into the past and then trying to average the entire planet's temperature. This does not equate, however, to it being "critically flawed." Let's take a look at the (in)famous graph:

The first big complaint about this graph is that it doesn't show the Medieval Warm Period at all. However, I'd like you to take a look at a part of the graph most people ignore: The error bars, which in this case are the shaded grey regions. A shift up in the early second millenium by a half a degree would account for the Medieval Warm Period and would be within statistical error. Also, it appears the before the 20th century, the temperature did appear to be on a slow decline, and it's possible that the very slightly warm temperatures at the left side of the chart in fact were the Medieval Warm Period.

Aside from this, there were a lot of criticisms of the statistics used to create this graph, and alternate models proposed. I'm not going to go into the actual criticisms here, as that's likely far out of the scope of my average reader's expertise, but I'll just point out a couple of things. First of all, remember that Global Warming is a politically controversial subject, and even a flawless paper that supports it is going to be criticized. The presence of a criticism doesn't imply the presence of flaws.

Secondly, there was a big independant review of the report performed by the National Research Council at the prompting of the US Congress over the last few years which published their results in 2006. Specifically, they summarized their results as:

  • Large-scale surface temperature reconstructions yield a generally consistent picture of temperature trends during the preceding millennium, including relatively warm conditions centered around A.D. 1000 (identified by some as the “Medieval Warm Period”) and a relatively cold period (or “Little Ice Age”) centered around 1700. The existence and extent of a Little Ice Age from roughly 1500 to 1850 is supported by a wide variety of evidence including ice cores, tree rings, borehole temperatures, glacier length records, and historical documents. Evidence for regional warmth during medieval times can be found in a diverse but more limited set of records including ice cores, tree rings, marine sediments, and historical sources from Europe and Asia, but the exact timing and duration of warm periods may have varied from region to region, and the magnitude and geographic extent of the warmth are uncertain.
  • It can be said with a high level of confidence that global mean surface temperature was higher during the last few decades of the 20th century than during any comparable period during the preceding four centuries. This statement is justified by the consistency of the evidence from a wide variety of geographically diverse proxies.
  • Less confidence can be placed in large-scale surface temperature reconstructions for the period from A.D. 900 to 1600. Presently available proxy evidence indicates that temperatures at many, but not all, individual locations were higher during the past 25 years than during any period of comparable length since A.D. 900. The uncertainties associated with reconstructing hemispheric mean or global mean temperatures from these data increase substantially backward in time through this period and are not yet fully quantified.

The basic conclusion of Mann et al. (1998, 1999) was that the late 20th century warmth in the Northern Hemisphere was unprecedented during at least the last 1,000 years. This conclusion has subsequently been supported by an array of evidence that includes both additional large-scale surface temperature reconstructions and pronounced changes in a variety of local proxy indicators, such as melting on icecaps and the retreat of glaciers around the world, which in many cases appear to be unprecedented during at least the last 2,000 years. Not all individual proxy records indicate that the recent warmth is unprecedented, although a larger fraction of geographically diverse sites experienced exceptional warmth during the late 20th century than during any other extended period from A.D. 900 onward.

Based on the analyses presented in the original papers by Mann et al. and this newer supporting evidence, the committee fi nds it plausible that the Northern Hemisphere was warmer during the last few decades of the 20th century than during any comparable period over the preceding millennium. The substantial uncertainties currently present in the quantitative assessment of large-scale surface temperature changes prior to about A.D. 1600 lower our confi dence in this conclusion compared to the high level of confidence we place in the Little Ice Age cooling and 20th century warming. Even less confidence can be placed in the original conclusions by Mann et al. (1999) that “the 1990s are likely the warmest decade, and 1998 the warmest year, in at least a millennium” because the uncertainties inherent in temperature reconstructions for individual years and decades are larger than those for longer time periods, and because not all of the available proxies record temperature information on such short timescales.

Scientist-to-Lay translation: Yes, there are statistical uncertainties. However, they are not significant enough to change the conclusion. It's hot in here and it's not just me.

I'll remind you that this came out from a committee commissioned by the Republican-controlled congress of the time under the (ongoing) censorship of scientists who espoused views or came up with results the administration doesn't like. Despite all that, the report was in favor of the validity of the Hockey Stick Graph. Must be some strong science if it can make it through those barriers.

Oh yeah, there was also one other review done. This one (known as the Wegner Report) was performed at the instigation of Representative Joe Barton, an outspoken Global Warming "skeptic" (don't worry, we're doing our best to steal that word back from them). The report also wasn't subject to peer review, and it didn't even result in changing the shape of the graph after fixing supposed errors. Compare: (The "Hockey Stick Graph" on the left, the graphs the Wegner Report came up with on the right)

(Source: NY Times)

Is it just me, or is the spike even more profound on the new graphs? And they had the gall to use this as evidence against Global Warming?

The Myth: Scientists were going just as crazy back in the 1970's about Global Cooling. And now they think it's Global Warming. Why should we believe them?

The Truth: There was speculation about Global Cooling back in the 1970's (though it wasn't called that back then. The term was invited by Global Warming "skeptics" who wanted to make it look like a comparable theory was proposed back then), but it was only by a few scientists and never got close to the amount of research that's been done on Warming. It never gained the consensus of scientific support that Warming did, so it's unfair to imply that the mass of "Scientists" believed in it.

In fact, since there was so little actual "hysteria" about it, let's go over every scientific paper published on Cooling:

Rasool and Schneider (1971) - Examined the possible effects of greenhouse gases and particulate pollution (such as from aerosols) on the climate. They found that greenhouse gases would result in warming the Earth and particulate pollution in cooling it, and guessed the latter to be more likely. They estimated that sustained effects of particulate polluntants could decrease the temperature of Earth by up to 3.5°C, and if this went on for long enough, it could cause Earth to drop into another ice age. Note that they didn't actually predict this would happen, they just proposed it as a possible future scenario. Nowadays, most scientists are indeed predicting that the Earth is going to warm up.

National Academy of Sciences Report (1975) - Often claimed to show fear of Global Cooling. In fact, all it said was that it's possible for the climate to change, they didn't know in which way it might, and so we should research it more. No big fears there.

Okay, we have one actual paper which shows any support at all for the hypothesis of Global Cooling. That's it. Some hysteria, eh?

Oh yeah, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that this is just a fallacious appeal to "Science was wrong before."

The Myth: This is the end of the post.

The Truth: Well, it may be all I'm putting up now, but I'm nowhere near closing the book on this subject. Feel free to argue in the comments, and if there's anything worthwhile that comes up, I'll add it in here (or edit one of the above sections). Particularly, I know that my conclusion about thermal expansion is contrary to what TheBrummell heard. If you've heard of some better model which does show significant expansion, I'd be interested in seeing it.

Proceed with your information binge...

Let's do the Timewarp Again

Sorry it's taking me longer to get the second part of my Global Warming post out; I had to skip town attend a grad school thing in Toronto, and had no internet access at my hotel. I'll hopefully have it out later tonight.

One other note: I realized from a recent comment that Blogger wasn't displaying my e-mail address (I thought I'd had it set up so it would, but the settings seem to randomly change on me). I've fixed that now, and while I was at it set up a G-mail address I'll be using for this blog "The Infophile (a with a circle around it) gmail (decimal point) com" (remove spaces, guess which characters I'm talking about in the parentheses. You never know how smart those bots are getting). No big deal, I'll still be checking any other address you've gotten from me, just trying to narrow it down to one address that will be used with this blog.

Oh, and if some of my post titles seem somewhat odd, don't worry about it. It's just part of my evil plan to ban prayer in public schools, make gay marriages not just legal but mandatory (to show them what a threat to marriage actually is), and create a tax on idiocy (or maybe just IDiocy).

Proceed with your information binge...

Intersection with an IDiot

The problem with people on ScienceBlogs doing this is that they all share the same sub-domain, so Google treats them all as the same site. Not so for Blogspot, which is why I'm joining in to pick up the slack which our poor blogging friends such as Orac and PZ are constrained from picking up.

(Explanation here)

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Proceed with your information binge...

Friday, March 16, 2007

The Geese have Returned

And with the return of the geese, it's official: Winter is now over. It took its sweet time coming, arriving in mid January, and it's ended in mid March. Only two months. Did I mention that this is Canada?

It was only a month ago that we were freezing our asses off, and people were making cracks about Global Warming. To which I generally replied, "Yeah! How dare it be cold in January! In Canada no less!"

This is one of the problems with getting people to accept that Global Warming is happening: Winter still comes. It's shorter and less intense, but there's still a winter, and those two (down from five) months confirm in everyone's mind that yes, things are alright, it still gets cold. This is likely a form of confirmation bias at work, with people picking and choosing the evidence they look at to fit what they want to believe. In cases like this, they can somehow manage to draw exactly the wrong conclusion from the evidence.

Here's the lowdown: Global Warming is a rise in the average global temperature at a given point in the year over time. In addition to the average rising, the complicated mechanisms of weather systems result in certain areas getting significantly hotter than the average rise, some areas getting colder, some areas getting drier, some getting wetter, and some seeing almost no change. What happened here was that winter was not only shortened from around five months to around two, but it was much less intense than in past years.

So, is that evidence of Global Warming? Yup. Does it prove it? Not by a long shot. In order to "prove" it (to the extent that any phenomenon can be proven), you have to look at trends the world over. When you look at the average temperatures for the past century, there's a very definite rise.

If you look at the CO2 levels in the atmosphere, there's an even more definite rise, and those levels are predicted to explode in the next few years. Historically, there's a very strong positive correlation between CO2 levels and global average temperature. We should be careful though, as correlation doesn't imply causation. It could be temperature causing the CO2 levels, CO2 levels causing the temperature, or something else causing both.

So, to test this, Climatologists came up with some testable predictions about what would happen if the rising CO2 levels do indeed cause rising global temperature. The obvious prediction is that we'll measure the average temperature as rising, likely to historically unprecendented levels (to match the unprecendented levels of CO2). It has indeed been rising, though we haven't seen the huge spike yet (likely due to lag time, as the sun's energy builds up, getting trapped in the atmosphere slowly).

There are tons of other effects of Global Warming that we've seen as well: Ice shelves in Antarctica are breaking up. Glaciers are receding. Lakes are drying up. Sea level is rising (from the melted ice). So far, none of these pose much threat (except for some of the lakes which have dried up, causing droughts in certain areas), but there's one big threat looming right in our backyard: Greenland.

The ice sheets covering Greenland are land-bound. Unlike floating ice, if land-bound ice melts, it will result in a rise of the sea level. And there's a lot of it to worry about. So much, in fact, that if it melts, thousands of coastal cities, including a number of metropolises, will be flooded. But we don't have much to worry about, right? The ice is melting slowly, so it won't be a problem nearly anytime soon, and we can react slowly, right?

Wrong. Greenland has one notable feature which makes it particularly menacing: The ice sheets are held in by a single, large plug. If that plug were to break, the water would no longer be locked on it and would burst out rapidly (on a global timescale, that is. We might get a couple of years at the outside to react, but judging by the reconstruction of New Orleans, that's still too fast for our government to react). And you know what? We've already observed the plug to be shrinking. The clock's counting down.

There's still a lot of resistance to the idea of Global Warming from people who have it in their best interests that it not be true, or at least that people not believe it to be true. For the most part, their arguments don't hold up. I'll be returning to this subject shortly to go over some of the most common objections to Global Warming.

Proceed with your information binge...

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Skeptic's Circle #56

The latest Skeptic's Circle is now up, courtesy of Shalini at Scientia Natura. Go and check it out!

Open thread as usual, but pointing out continuity errors in the Discworld books is FORBIDDEN!

Proceed with your information binge...

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Literary Geekery

Found via Orac, this list of the supposed most influential Sci-Fi/Fan books of the last 50 years has been making its way around the 'net. (Whether or not you like Richard Dawkins, you have to give him props for coming up with the concept of a meme.) So, I figured I'd give it a go myself. I'll note in advance that my Sci-Fi/Fan reading phase has been limited to maybe the last 5 years or so (yes, I'm that young), so obviously my list of what I've read won't be quite that grand.

Books I've read in bold (and since they are so few, with comments):

  1. The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien - First one on this list I actually read, and also notably the only "book" on this list that isn't a single book (technically it's six books in three volumes). It's a classic and did a lot to get people into the fantasy genre, but personally it seemed somewhat dull and cliche. Or maybe it just seems cliche because half the fantasy books since have copied it.
  2. The Foundation Trilogy, Isaac Asimov
  3. Dune, Frank Herbert - Only ever got halfway through it on my first read-through, but it's waiting on my shelf for when I get around to it.
  4. Stranger in a Strange Land, Robert A. Heinlein
  5. A Wizard of Earthsea, Ursula K. Le Guin
  6. Neuromancer, William Gibson
  7. Childhood's End, Arthur C. Clarke
  8. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Philip K. Dick
  9. The Mists of Avalon, Marion Zimmer Bradley
  10. Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury
  11. The Book of the New Sun, Gene Wolfe
  12. A Canticle for Leibowitz, Walter M. Miller, Jr.
  13. The Caves of Steel, Isaac Asimov
  14. Children of the Atom, Wilmar Shiras
  15. Cities in Flight, James Blish
  16. The Colour of Magic, Terry Pratchett - Need I say more? Okay, I will. To be honest, though the first book was good, it's a far cry from the best in the Discworld series (okay, it's close to the bottom, even though that's a very high bottom). Pratchett varies a ton in the themes of his more recent books, so different ones will resonate best with different people. For me, my favorite was Night Watch, thanks to my kinship with the character of Sam Vimes and his struggles with "The Beast."
  17. Dangerous Visions, edited by Harlan Ellison
  18. Deathbird Stories, Harlan Ellison
  19. The Demolished Man, Alfred Bester
  20. Dhalgren, Samuel R. Delany
  21. Dragonflight, Anne McCaffrey
  22. Ender's Game, Orson Scott Card - The whole series is interesting, if only to see Card's descent into madness.
  23. The First Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever, Stephen R. Donaldson
  24. The Forever War, Joe Haldeman
  25. Gateway, Frederik Pohl
  26. Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, J.K. Rowling - To me, the most notable thing about this series is that it proves that an outsider still has a shot to be a frakking huge success (word is, Rowling is now more rich than the Queen). The story is quite encouraging to novice writers, keeping many from giving up.
  27. The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams - 4
  28. I Am Legend, Richard Matheson
  29. Interview with the Vampire, Anne Rice
  30. The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. Le Guin
  31. Little, Big, John Crowley
  32. Lord of Light, Roger Zelazny
  33. The Man in the High Castle, Philip K. Dick
  34. Mission of Gravity, Hal Clement
  35. More Than Human, Theodore Sturgeon
  36. The Rediscovery of Man, Cordwainer Smith
  37. On the Beach, Nevil Shute
  38. Rendezvous with Rama, Arthur C. Clarke
  39. Ringworld, Larry Niven
  40. Rogue Moon, Algis Budrys
  41. The Silmarillion, J.R.R. Tolkien - Yes, Tolkien's the only author with more than one book on here (as far as I've noticed, at least). Don't particularly know what this is doing on here, though; it's a pale shadow of The Lord of the Rings.
  42. Slaughterhouse-5, Kurt Vonnegut
  43. Snow Crash, Neal Stephenson
  44. Stand on Zanzibar, John Brunner
  45. The Stars My Destination, Alfred Bester
  46. Starship Troopers, Robert A. Heinlein
  47. Stormbringer, Michael Moorcock
  48. The Sword of Shannara, Terry Brooks
  49. Timescape, Gregory Benford
  50. To Your Scattered Bodies Go, Philip Jose Farmer
6.5/50. Given that I've been reading for 5/50 years, I'd say that's not so bad. I have a lot of catching up to do, though. However, it does seem to me that there are a few significant books missing:
  1. Calculating God, Robert J. Sawyer - Imagine proposing a book like this to a publisher: "Okay, a guy and an alien get together, and have a conversation. That's the book." Nevertheless, it works. For those who haven't read it, the novel is mostly about a debate over the existence of God, between a believer alien and an atheist human. The catch here is that God only intervenes on large scales: causing mass extinctions in order to push towards intelligent life. In the end, it's revealed that this "God" is just another big space alien, and the whole argument is turned on its head.
  2. Good Omens, Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman - Unlike the metaphors both authors normally use, this book takes Christianity by the horns, from the Creation to the Apocalypse and beyond.
  3. Anansi Boys, Neil Gaiman - Something of Neil Gaiman's deserves to be on here, and this is one of the best and most recent. (Though if you've got a better suggestion of what you think his most "significant" contribution is, feel free to drop a comment (I'm looking at you, Akusai).)
Edit: As noted by Akusai in the comments, American Gods is probably the most fitting Gaiman novel. Anansi Boys is just too recent to judge its significance.

Proceed with your information binge...

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Calculating God

Welcome one, welcome all, to my 100th post! I know it's been a bit slow here, but I've been spending the time working on this one, making it as good as possible. What I wanted to do was to take on the hardest piece of woo to argue with I could find and end up tearing it to shreds.

Oh, and speaking of important numbers, it seems that there's this blogger who goes by the name of "PZ Myers," on a blog called "Pharyngula," who recently turned 50. While the squid fascination is a bit worrying (last guy I knew who acted like that ended up fervently worshipping Bel-Shamharoth out of fear that if he didn't, he'd be sucked into the Octavo), the guy does seem to be something of a decent skeptic. In honor of this event, I am officially adding Pharyngula to my blogroll. You're welcome.

Anyways, onto the woo! In my last big post, I talked about the Principle of Charity. Today I'm going to put that into effect and take on one of the best arguments in existence against my personal worldview. This would the argument from fine-tuning used by the religious to argue for the existence of a (more commonly "their") god. To put it frankly, this is the best argument I've heard from them, though it's by no means sufficient.

Constructing the Argument

First, to be as charitable as possible, I'm going to go in with my knowledge of physics to construct and refine the best fine-tuning argument I can (taking apart some of their actual arguments would be too easy, as they rely on strawmen, misinterpretations, special pleading, and sloppy logic which are all easily debunked). Let's start this by simply listing all the possible degrees of freedom in the universe; we'll get to narrowing them down later. For the sake of sanity, we'll be keeping within the regime of universes with the same fundamental forces as ours, which exhibit quantum effects, and with same number and orientation of directions (3 spatial and 1 time-like. The time-like nature actually comes straight from the spacetime metric, where a time-like dimension will have a negative measure. Why? It's complicated, and I'll do it in a later post if you guys want. Note that this also implies relativity). The reason for making this limitation is that without it, the total number of degrees of freedom will be a degree of freedom itself, possibly extending to infinity.

Anyways, the list. The number in parentheses after each entry is the number of degrees of freedom it potentially has. Yes, some of these are tied together; we'll prune later.

  • Speed of light (1)
  • Planck's constant (1)
  • Gravitational constant (1)
  • Permittivity of free space (electric constant) (1)
  • Permeability of free space (magnetic constant) (1)
  • Strength of weak nuclear force (2)
  • Strength of strong nuclear force (1)
  • Mass of the Higgs particle (1)
  • Fundamental charge (1)
  • Fine structure constant (1)
  • Curvature of space (1)
  • Composition of the energy in the universe (3, for matter, radiation, and dark energy)
  • Spacetime metric (4)
  • Independent components of the CKM matrix (4)
  • Independent components of the Maki-Nakagawa-Sakata matrix (4)
  • Particle masses (up to 12, for the 6 leptons and 6 quarks, all the known elementary particles aside from photons, which are by definition massless)
Total: 39

Oddly enough, Creationists have only been able to come up with around 26 constants. They likely performed some pruning on it themselves, but as you'll see, I'll go further. The first problem is that a lot of these overlap and actually represent the same thing. The second problem is one of scaling. This means that with certain constants representing conversions between units, you could scale the whole unit system throughout the universe and have no change in behavior. In addition to that, you can throw on one more scaling factor to everything with no harm done.

Okay, a piece-by-piece pruning of the unnecessary degrees of freedom:
  1. The speed of light, Planck's constant, and the strength of the electrostatic force all work as conversion factors, so we can set them to 1 without loss of generality.
  2. The time element of the spacetime metric is simply the speed of light squared, so we can get rid of that.
  3. Let's get rid of another spatial element of the spacetime metric with our freebee overall scaling factor.
  4. With only the other two components of the metric changed, it's just a scaling of Cartesian space (as if the universe were compressed or expanded along one axis). This wouldn't actually be noticeable to anyone within the universe, however, so these are out.
  5. The fundamental charge is part of the formula for the fine structure constant, so that's out.
  6. The magnetic constant can be determined solely from the electrostatic constant and the speed of light.
  7. The strong and weak nuclear forces have been pretty much combined (or at least, it's been shown to be likely they can be combined) into a force with electromagnetism, so those are likely dependant on the other factors.
  8. Of the elementary particles, only four actually play a role in the formation of life: The electron, electron neutrino, up quark, and down quark. The up and down quarks also have the same mass, so only 3 relevant degrees of freedom here. (Note that the electron neutrino is virtually massless and its mass plays little role, so it might seem like it should be out. But consider that if it were instead extremely massive, things might get screwed up. So, it is relevant.)
  9. Under the model of early exponential inflation, the curvature of space will be normalized to almost 1 very early on in the universe, so it's not relevant.
  10. The CKM and Maki-Nakagawa-Sakata matrices tie in with the electromagnetic force and the strong nuclear force (they describe oscillations between particles that exhibit these forces). It's likely a future theory will be able to predict them.
  11. We don't know that the Higgs particle actually exists at all, and if it does, it likely will have little effect on the formation of life.
So, here's our pruned list, using only constants that we know (or are very sure of at least) are independent and relevant. If we use constants that we don't have a good reason to believe are independent or relevant, then we're quite simply creating a bad argument, giving people one extra venue of attack. That's why we're only using the constants that we know matter.
  • Gravitational constant (1)
  • Fine structure constant (1)
  • Composition of energy in the universe (3)
  • Particle masses (3)
Total: 8

Okay, so with the best argument we can make, we have 8 relevant degrees of freedom for the universe which might need to be tuned quite precisely for life to evolve. It's not nearly as bad as the 26 Creationists usually claim, but it's sufficient that there's indeed some problem. It's at this point that the Creationist making the argument would argue that the fine-tuning necessary makes production of a universe that can support life like ours by random chance extremely unlikely. However, an omnipotent god could easily create this.

Problems with the Argument

The Scientific Model

The argument from fine-tuning rests on the assumption that the alternative model is one in which a single universe is created randomly. By relying only the choice between this model and the claim of a god, they're committing the fallacy of Bifurcation. While this is a possible model, science never claims this. In fact, modern science makes no claims as to what actually did happen. There are, however, possible models that would explain this (and yes, the existence of a god is one such model). However, none of these are (as yet) testable, so science can progress nowhere beyond the generation of these models. A few example models, aside from the aforementioned Goddidit and One Random Universe models:

The Flying Spaghetti Monster - Based on a parody religion, one model of the universe is that instead of being created by a god, it was created by a flying spaghetti monster. Yes, it seems ridiculous, but it's not falsifiable. Therefore, it's just as valid a model as the Goddidit model.

The Farting Raccoon - A parody of a strawman of evolution created by Ann Coulter. Despite those strikes against it, it does qualify as a valid creation model.

Okay, that's just joke models so far, but we can't rule them out. Most people do anyways, because they seem ridiculous. It's at this point that I'll point out that atheists see the Christian Goddidit model to be equally ridiculous.

Think about it: A Magical Sky Daddy poofs the universe into existence (twice, in different ways, if you believe the Bible). Then he creates man. Then he creates woman as company for man, and he declares sex between them - the only way to create more humans - a sin. He gives them no real intelligence or moral guidance, and then plants a tree with a big Neon sign saying "Don't Eat the Apples" and creates a snake saying "Eat the apples." His creations, which he had complete control over, then eat the apples, making them intelligent (obviously he didn't want us to be intelligent), and he punishes them. Yeah, that makes sense.

Onto more models:

The Deist Model - Some god or something (say, a godly kid for a science fair project) poofs this universe into existence, then sits back and does nothing with it. The whole noninterference part immunizes this to testing and being falsifiable.

Other Religious Models - Pretty much every religion has their own creation story, and most of them can be tweaked to be unfalsifiable, so these fit in here.

The Multiverse Model - This is the model used by many atheists. In it, there's not just one, but many (possibly infinitely many) universes, and different ones are created with different physical constants and initial conditions. This model is as yet unfalsifiable, but it does circumvent the problem of a universe like ours being unlikely - with many universes, it suddenly becomes likely or even a certainty that at least one will be like ours.

So, there we are with many alternative models. On the face of it, there's no evidentiary reason to believe in any of them over any of the others. At this point, the argument from fine-tuning has now failed to provide any reason why any of the models which involve a god is superior to the others, so there's no reason to accept it as proving anything.

There is one thing we can do, however, to prune down these models: Occam's Razor. Essentially, the more complicated and bizarre models are less likely to happen randomly at the beginning of everything, so they're less likely to be true. Almost all of these models assume something complicated preexisting, be it a Flying Spaghetti Monster, Farting Raccoon, or a god. Assuming something complicated like this at the beginning seems pretty odd.

However, the multiverse model doesn't necessarily have this problem. Sure, having an infinite number of universes is large and expansive, but it's not necessarily "complicated." In fact, you could argue for its simplicity by the fact that you can sum it up in a single word: "Everything." So, what seems to be more likely to simply exist at the beginning (or infinitely backwards if there is no beginning): An omniscient, omnipotent god capable of knowing precisely what parameters will result in human life and capable of creating a universe with precisely those parameters, or a maelstrom of possibility where everything that can happen does happen? To me, it's obviously the latter, which is why I prefer that explanation.

The objection most theists have to such a multiverse model is that the multiverse itself would have to be extraordinarily fine-tuned in order to create ton of other universes. They come up with an extensive list of mechanisms necessary for this universe production to go on. Despite the fact that these lists are generally loaded with assumptions of how this would have to work (why bother with extensive mechanisms at all, when we can just say the natural laws just let it spontaneously happen?), they don't seem to realize that all these mechanisms could just as easily be enforced on their god. If they don't have to be enforced on their god as well, then there's no good reason they should have to be forced on this model either.

Calculating God

Now, what happens once you apply the argument from fine-tuning to the hypothetical (well, let's pretend they don't have a specific god in mind) tuner? The same thing that happens with ID arguments from complexity, interestingly enough. We break down into three possibilities for the tuner:
  1. The tuner is more fine-tuned than our universe.
  2. The tuner is exactly as fine-tuned as our universe.
  3. The tuner is less fine-tuned than our universe.
If case 1 or 2 is true, then postulating a tuner solves nothing; we have just as much, if not more fine-tuning as we had before, so the same arguments would have to apply to this tuner (that is, if the argument from fine-tuning were valid). If the third case is true, then we've established that low fine-tuning can lead to higher fine-tuning, so what's the point of a fine-tuner at all? Why not postulate natural processes that lead to increasing fine-tuning?

(It's worth noting that different theologies put the complexity of their god at different levels, and there are indeed both gods more fine-tuned than us and gods less fine-tuned than us.)

If that sounds suspiciously like the same argument I've used against ID complexity arguments, that's because it essentially is. Oddly, these two Creationist arguments stem from different sources, but they both feature the problem of what happens when you apply them to their god. This is the point at which the Creationists just argue it away with special pleading: "Well, God is made of a material unknown to us, so we can't apply these arguments." However, the arguments are mathematical and independent of the structure of the universe, so whatever their god is made of, the arguments can still be applied. The only way out of it is if they postulate an illogical god (some do, but that's a whole other can of worms).

Alternate Life

There's one big assumption that underlies the fine-tuning argument: They say that the universe must be fine-tuned for life as we know it to exist. But what about some other bizarre form of life? Is there some society off in another universe with their version of IDiots claiming that the universe must be fine-tuned because without gravity being the strongest force and the fine structure constant precisely equaling 1/pi, life as they know it couldn't exist. There may be a myriad of islands of stability in the range of these constants that allow life to form. It might even be a continuum with a different version of life at almost every step along the way.

The common objection to this argument is that they're only comparing our universe to adjacent universes that differ only in small amounts from ours, and that these adjacent universes seem to be incapable of sustaining life. The problem with this argument is that we don't actually know that these universes are incapable of sustaining life.

For instance, let's take one example of how the universe would be different if we change one constant: Increasing the strong nuclear force by about 2%. Doing this, "diprotons" suddenly become stable (the residual strong nuclear force is enough to bind two protons together), and hydrogen would likely fuse into these instead of deuterium and helium. This then leads star formation off on a different path.

To this I respond, "Yes, and...?" What's to say this won't lead to some alternate form of life, which instead of using elements with nuclei made from a mixture of protons and neutrons, are made from multiple protons. There's no obvious way this will prevent life, so why assume it would? (Note: I'm using this as an example because it's the one they most often give. If someone reading this has a better example, please leave a comment.)


Although the fine-tuning argument does indeed raise some good points about the formation of the universe, and does force us to consider what led to it, where it really fails is in connecting this to the existence of any god, much less some particular god. The question is worth asking, though, is this argument why they believe in their god themselves? I doubt you'll find many who say that it is (though there are a few Deists who claim this, but no one who believes in a specific god and none of the big proponents of ID). If it isn't, why aren't they using the arguments that convinced them of God to convince us?

Unless... what convinced them of God were the biases and flaws in human reasoning (that are in fact expected results of evolution) which skeptics have recognized and work to overcome, and they're now trying to mold facts to fit their predetermined theories. It would seem a lot easier if they would just present some scientifically reproducible evidence of their god instead of conjecture based on scientific findings, but evidence seems to be beyond their means. I wonder why...

Proceed with your information binge...

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Skeptic's Circle 5 x 11

The latest Skeptic's Circle is now up, courtesy of EoR at The Second Sight. Please take a number and check it out.

Speaking of numbers, my next post falls on a post number whose importance is debatable: 100. Since that post is full to the brim as it is, I'll mutter on about the significance of 100 a bit here. The primary reason it's significant is that we work in a base-10 system, thanks to the number of fingers we have. From this, any landmark in a power of 10 becomes somewhat significant. 100 also has the added utility of being used for our percentile system, as it's both a clean power of 10, and it provides a balance of precision and brevity.

But wait a second, let's go back to number bases. It's obvious that whatever number base we use (outside of base 1 and bizarre negative bases), we'd call it "Base-10." And then, we'd count of significant milestones on numbers like 100 and 1000 (though for smaller bases, like what we'd call Base-2, 100 isn't so big). With this added twist, 100 becomes a significant milestone whatever base you're using, because the base then makes 100 significant.

Open thread here, though I've got a little puzzle for anyone who wishes to solve it: How could you count in Base Negative-Three? How about counting from zero downwards?

Proceed with your information binge...