Thursday, April 26, 2007


The blog is mysteriously empty, and Infophile is nowhere to be seen. The only sign of life is a single shred of black paper on the floor. Picking it up, you find the following message written on it in white ink:

I apologize for the inconvenience, but it would seem that Infophile is off preparing to host the next Skeptic's Circle. Can't say exactly what he has planned, but looking back through his blog, it actually appears that he left hints in a few places. Apparently whatever he's doing has been in the works for quite a while.

If you've got posts to submit, send them along to TheInfophile (at) gmail (dot) com (you never know how advanced spammer technology may get; they could even be reading handwritten notes now). I don't know if he'll be checking his e-mail there, but I'll be sure check it for him just in case. His password shouldn't be that hard to crack. Hmm, I'll probably be able to check it around 9 PM Eastern time on Wednesday, May 9th, so if you get it in before then I should be able to get it up in some decent form. After that, well, maybe I'll tack on a link at the end for you.

Until then, I've got some work I need to get at. The museum's really gone into disrepair due to lack of funding, and if Infophile isn't going to be doing much around here, I might be able to find some surplus funds to spend on renovating it.

-Nate Black

Proceed with your information binge...

Skeptic's Circle #59

The latest Skeptic's Circle is now up courtesy of IAMB.

Open thread as usual, but pointing out to Bronze Dog the difference between limericks and haikus is FORBIDDEN.

Proceed with your information binge...

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Why Blogism?

(Hey, it worked for Skepticism!)

Well I got tagged for this by TheBrummell (yes, it did get around to me), so here goes, a list of reasons why I blog:

  • It's something to do. Honestly, this might actually have been the biggest reason for my starting this blog. I had a ton of free time at work (what can I say? I was so good at my job they couldn't find enough for me to do), and I needed something to do. So I blogged. I still have lots of free time around school, and I'm on a short vacation right now, so I still need something to do.
  • Community. When I started this blog, I was just losing touch with all my friends from high school. I didn't plan on using this blog to make new friends online, but when it started to happen, it became a reason to keep going.
  • Interacting with "famous" people. Sure, anyone can go and post on the blog of someone moderately famous in the blogosphere, but it's an entirely different feeling when they come and post a comment on your blog. (Yes, he was correcting a minor mistake I'd made, but I've corrected him on occasion too, and I maintain that I'd prefer to be corrected than leave a mistake up.)
  • I can help grease the wheels of skepticism. I noticed early on that most of the big swaths of skepticism are already covered in various places by very good bloggers. I've found a few subjects that went unmentioned and covered them myself, but that's not my primary contribution to the cause. The most popular posts I've done have actually been what I call "Greasing" posts, where I talk more about the philosophical side of what we're doing. This includes my Why Skepticism? posts and the Distilled Wisdom series, which give explanations of why this is important and how you can argue better, respectively. While these posts aren't directly attacking woo, they serve the purpose of helping other bloggers attack it better. For instance, my second Why Skepticism? post showed how Godel's Incompleteness Theorem actually serves to help disprove faith rather than put a limit on science, as many woos are prone to claim.
  • I can teach people about science. One thing I've noticed is that many people are genuinely interested in learning about the scientific picture of the world. The problem is that they see huge barriers such as having to be great at math and studying and getting an undergraduate degree before they can even be told qualitatively what's going on. With this blog, I can create a bridge out to them to teach them roughly what's going on without having to drown them in math. It's no coincidence that my Quantum Mechanics for Dummies post is the most frequent target of Google hits (beating out Faith no More lyrics and Bible quotes by a wide margin).
  • I get to randomly reference Terry Pratchett, this note included.
I can't think of the expected five people to tag with this that haven't already been hit, but I'll send out a couple to Akusai and Tom Foss. Let's see what you've got.

Proceed with your information binge...

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

And on a lighter note...

I was just watching Stranger than Fiction today (good movie; watch it if you haven't), and it inspired an idea. In it, one of the characters refused to pay 22% of her taxes one year because she didn't agree with what the government was spending that portion of the money on (national defense, "corporate bail-outs," etc.). Now, of course we don't really have the right to do that; the government is certainly within its rights to spend money on those things.

But what if the government is spending money on something it specifically does not have the right to spend it on. Something like, say... faith-based initiatives? Not only does it favor religion over no religion, it favors Christianity over all other religions (no money has gone to any non-Christian initiatives). This is a clear breach of the establishment clause if I ever saw one.

What's the government's excuse? The money they gave to faith-based initiatives wasn't specifically earmarked to be given to it, but was just general funds. Actually, that's not their excuse of why it's alright; that's their excuse for why people shouldn't be able to sue them to get them to stop it. They don't actually have an excuse for why it's alright.

Now, a case brought by the Freedom From Religion Foundation on this issue (the issue of whether they're allowed to sue at all) is currently awaiting a verdict in the Supreme Court, so we'll have to wait and see what happens there. If it turns out that they can sue, then they most likely will, and we'll have to wait even more to see how that turns out.

But, let's say worse comes to worst, and they lose either of these cases, and you feel like practicing a little Civil Disobedience. Well, the government spend $2.1 billion dollars on faith-based initiatives in 2005, and the total budget was around $2,050 billion dollars, so that's about 0.1% of their budget (please check my numbers if you can, there's a good chance I made a mistake somewhere). So, if you don't want to pay for faith-based initiatives, then only spend 99.9% of your taxes and send along a note to the government explaining that you will not spend tax dollars on programs that violate the constitution.

Is this illegal? Probably, but so is what the government's doing. Two wrongs don't necessarily make a right, but they've already made one wrong. One more on our part isn't going to make things any more wrong.

Proceed with your information binge...

Monday, April 23, 2007

The Nature of the Beast

Alright, I feel that enough time has past that people will be willing to explore what could lead someone to do something like the massacre at Virginia Tech, and yet it's still fresh enough of people's minds that they care. Of course, I suspect there are still people who won't be able handle any reality other than the shooter being possessed or inhuman. If you're one of those, then for your own piece of mind, I recommend you don't proceed below the fold.

It takes one to know one

What I'm going to talk about today is what could possibly lead an individual to the depths of insanity seen in the VAT shooter, Cho Seung-hui. But before I get into it, I should explain why I feel qualified to discuss this. Simply put, it takes a certain type of mind and a certain mental state to do what he did. I have that type of mind, and I've come closer to that mental state than is healthy.

My parents suspected me of being autistic for a while, but I didn't quite fit in with any form of it. I had some of the developmental disorders commonly associated with autistics, such as lacking normal social instincts and savant-like intelligence, but too much of the picture didn't fit. There's no real diagnosis for what I have; I've come to believe it's just some unique mental state. For brevity though, I call it pseudo-autism, as thinking of it being like autism makes a lot of things in my life make more sense.

Many people with disabilities like this nowadays are fortunate enough to get adequate help, and come through alright. In my case, since I was never diagnosed with anything in specific, I couldn't get the right type of help. I bounced from psychologist to psychologist and none could ever really do anything for me. On top of my other problems, I faced clinical depression (image manic-depression, except instead of bouncing up and down, you bounce down and down). They tried to medicate me for this, but they couldn't find anything that worked until just last year.

As such, I shared many of the experiences growing up that Cho did. I was a social outcast. I had trouble fitting in with others. I faced emotional crises of my own, and the ways in which I responded bear a striking similarity to how he did. I even reached a breaking point which I'm sure he did too, and it caused both of us to twist - and this is importantly where the similarity ends, as we twisted in different directions here. But I'll go into that in more detail later.

Life at the bottom

To set the stage, there are a few things you should know about his early life. He was at first seen as cold and uncommunicative by his family. When he arrived in the US at the age of 8, this was diagnosed as autism. However, despite this diagnosis, he apparently never received any instruction to help him overcome the drawbacks of it.

Imagine yourself in his position. You're eight years old, and your family has just moved to another continent where nobody speaks your language. On top of that, you've got a developmental disability which makes it seem like no one speaks your language even when they do. So he has tons of trouble communicating to others, and nobody is teaching him how to in a way he can understand.

So, go back to your own experiences in elementary school. What happens to the kid who can't speak English well, lacks normal social instincts, and has trouble learning? He's designated the official target of not only the normal bullies in the school, but all the other students who need someone to bully as well. This is, of course, what happened to young Cho.

No one responds well to being bullied. The ones who come out best are those able to pass the bullying on to someone with an even lower social status than them. But there has to be someone at the bottom, and what are they to do? Some withdraw into themselves and avoid social contact as much as they can. Some lash back, and are then usually penalized by an oblivious administration for it. Some of them find groups of people in the same situation, and stick together with them.

The latter group often comes out of the experience relatively alright, but the other types of kids aren't so lucky. Those who lash back get in trouble constantly, and take up a role of the outsider, the trouble-maker. These kids aren't to be confused with the popular "bad boys," who break the rules and either get away with it or are applauded for it. Instead, these kids are the criminals. They break rules and are caught and/or reviled for it.

Worlds inside

And then there are those who withdraw, which is where Cho fits in. Socialization is a big part of human life, and someone deprived of it will do whatever they can to fill the void. Sometimes these people will be picked up by cults and find their acceptance from them. Others will try to get involved in organized religion. Both of these types of groups are particularly attractive to a kid in this situation simply because they aren't going to refuse him. But the problem is that the ideals and beliefs of these organization often won't be compatible with the kid's, so it just won't work.

One other substitute that many drift to is a one-sided relationship. Generally, this tends become an obsession with a certain type of music, often from a single artist who the child feels some amount of empathy towards. The messages in the music tell the kid that there's someone that understands their situation (or something similar to it), and they aren't so alone. This doesn't completely fill the void from a lack of socialization as there's no give-and-take, just receiving the messages, so problems will still remain.

Some of them (particularly autistics) go into a maelstrom of creativity within their own minds. They imagine up worlds, and generally find a place for themselves within them. Many write this out, giving the world a window into their minds. Others keep it all within their heads. Sometimes these imagined worlds are obviously fantasy, but other times they're very closely tied to reality. In these cases, as the child spends more time interacting with their imagined world than the real one, the line between reality and fantasy can start to blur.

So where does Cho fit into this? His parents tried to bring him into religion so he could find acceptance there, but the cycle just repeated. Other members of his Christian youth group bullied him as well, so he had to withdraw from this as well. He didn't withdraw entirely from religion, though, but just the community within it.

He then went into a period of internally fantasizing. Being rejected by others of course caused him to be angry and feel persecuted, so this colored his fantasies. When he was asked to do creative writing in school, this anger came out and it scared the teachers involved.

One other potential development within him was the development of a new persona. It's quite possible that he also started to hate himself for being different, and as such wanted to distance himself from himself. The resolution to this would be to try to change himself into someone else. This alternate persona would have to differ from his old self in key ways. For instance, instead of withdrawing, it would be one to fight back. It seems quite possible to me that this persona was the "Ishmael Ax" found scratched on his arm.

Cho was in pain, and he saw others who were enjoying life. This wasn't fair; it wasn't just. How is it that they were able to take enjoyment while he was forced to suffer? He hated those who were rich, who could afford the luxuries in life his family couldn't. He hated those who were in relationships and could find love (notably the physical side of it) from another. Hence, his railings against "rich kids" and "debauchery." As for the "deceitful charlatans," that's most likely rage against those who preached alternative religions. They were the ones who caused people to not get the message that what they were doing was wrong.

And then the dogma of Christianity, which he still believed in, started to color his fantasies. He saw himself as a Christ figure, being persecuted by the sinful. A lone good man in a world of sin, forced to suffer for it.

The breaking point

At some point, he must have faced severe stress from some source. Maybe he saw the girl he fantasized about from afar in a relationship with another man. Maybe it was a particularly nasty bout of the same bullying and persecution. Either way, something put tremendous pressure on his already-fragile psyche.

This breaking point is another fork in the paths of different people who have undergone this type of past. Some of them implode and take their own lives in suicide. Some of them explode back out at the world in a crazed attempt at revenge. Others twist, but I'll describe this last one later. For now, let's talk about what happened with Cho, one of those who exploded.

The crack that happened in his mind occured at the delineation between fantasy and reality. Religion itself had probably weakened this slightly, leading him to believe that the supernatural was possible, but eventually the line went further than that. In his mind, it wasn't just all possible, he was at the heart of it. In his mind, he became Jesus Christ reborn, with the mission to execute justice on the sinners.

Aside: No, I'm not blaming religion here, just describing what likely did happen in this case. If the religion were removed, I have no reason to believe things would necessarily have been better. He could just as well have gone on the same rampage if he were an atheist, if his mind found some other justification for taking this type of revenge.

Judging by the timeline, this probably happened a fair amount of time before the actual attack. He was clearly out of touch with reality for a fair bit before it, as he was planning it and falling deeper into insanity. He wrote up a "manifesto" to tell the world why he had done this. He made a DVD of various pictures of himself that the news would just love to show off, giving him even more fame. After all, as much of the world would have to know of the second coming as possible, right?

And then, at last, he executed his attack. He made an apparently targeted strike against a particular girl, Emily Hilscher. Perhaps she had inadvertently jilted him somehow. Then he went on to take out as many people as possible in the second shooting, ending with himself. After all, you can't be a martyr if you don't die.

Taming the Beast

Now, it wouldn't be fair to talk about how I went through much of that myself and not tell you how I've resolved it and gotten past it. Hopefully if anyone out there is facing a similar struggle, they might be able to learn something. Now, this isn't a full descriptor of what I've gone through, but there are some aspects that I might fill in later.

Not everyone who reaches a breaking point implodes or explodes. I reached that point myself, and I took a third option. In one of my severe attacks of depression, I fell down far, and came face-to-face with the beast within. This is the beast that leads to the uncontrollable rage seen in shooters like this. It's also the source of many primal urges within humanity that nowadays aren't compatible with our society and often are simply unjust (ie. instinctual racism).

Most people (so I believe) have this beast deep within them, and they spend their lives denying it. No, they aren't violent people, they aren't petty, they aren't xenophobic, they say to themselves. They're civilized. But this civilization is built in contradiction to the beast, and they have to deny it as being part of them in order to keep functioning in a civilized manner.

For those who reach the breaking point, the civilized persona has failed them in some way. Those who are capable of giving it up do so, and the beast is released. Those who can't break down and take their own lives. Some people retreat from it and go back to the person they were - often just leading them to face another breaking point in the future.

In my case, I faced the breaking point and retreated many times. I saw the beast within me, and I couldn't accept letting it loose (I was able to acknowledge that many other people were decent and didn't deserve an "explosion" from me). But the civilized persona I'd built up as I grew up wasn't working; it kept leading me back into bouts of depression, so something had to change.

What I chose to do in the end was to rebuild myself. I started out deep down, where I shackled up the beast securely. I wouldn't be able to deny it, but I would be able to build beyond it and create a persona better than what my instincts would have led me to be. This new persona would be based on logic and ration. It would be calm, intelligent, and it would be willing to correct itself when it was in the wrong.

The process wasn't easy; not by a long shot. It started back when I was in my second year of high school, and it hasn't finished yet. It probably never will end, just as most people never finish growing up. But it's only very recently (in the last year) that I've been able to accept myself and be proud of who I am.

The most recent step in this was accepting the mantle of the skeptic. It actually matched up with my goals very well - skeptics acknowledge the flaws in normal human reasoning and work beyond them. They've shackled up the beast of unreason, and built a system of logic and reasoning to operate in its place. I took this on myself, filling in one of the last big gaps in who I am.

On one last note, I have to recommend to anyone who wants a bit more of an idea of what the beast is like that they pick up a copy of the Discworld novel, Night Watch. One of the major themes in is exploring the inner struggles of Sam Vimes, Commander of the Watch. He too faces a constant struggle with the beast he sees within him. To keep it in control, he created the persona of "the Copper" (also called "the Watchman" in Thud!). He uses the symbol of his badge to keep himself in control, symbolizing the rule of law over anarchy. I'm much the same way, though with a slightly more intellectual bent to the struggle.

Proceed with your information binge...

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

In Consideration

As you've probably heard (unless you're more out of the loop than I am), 32 people were murdered at Virginia Tech in the USA's largest-ever mass shooting by a single individual. I have something I'd like to talk about in relation to it, hoping to explain how an individual could sink to those depths, but I'm going to wait a bit.

The events are still way too recent for me to talk about a subject which might make the gunner look a little less bad. For now, I'll just let it be and let people mourn for the dead and curse the killer. Once it's a bit less of an open wound, then I'll talk about it.

It's just sad that so many others don't have this small amount of tact. Already, we've got Debbie Schlussel blaming it on Muslims, Ken Ham blaming it on atheism, and Jack Thompson blaming it on video games. Even though I'm just blaming it on the depraved psychology of one individual, I'm still going to wait before going into it. People like these just sicken me.

Proceed with your information binge...

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Swear by Letters

Just announcing that I've now completed by list of reverse-censorships. The last term to be added was "Zuffle," which I found while browsing the Z section of Urban Dictionary. It's defined as: (definition hidden below the fold)

To wipe your cock on the curtains after having sex at a posh bird's house.

The word itself may not sound bad, but the meaning of it is enough to merit inclusion.

Proceed with your information binge...

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Skeptic's Circle #58

The latest Skeptic's Circle is now up courtesy of Geek Counterpoint, so go and check it out.

Open thread as usual, but use of the Epidermis-letter in your replies is FORBIDDEN.

Proceed with your information binge...

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Reverse Censorship

I read yet another article on the 'net today talking about "The N-word," and the fiasco around it, and I noticed that although the article was completely against banning the word, it was never once said uncensored. This then raises the question (no, not "begs the question") of how someone who doesn't know what word is being talked about is supposed to know to avoid it.

Let's go to a specific example, a regulated online community, such as an MMORPG. To maintain a "Teen" rating, most MMORPGs ban the use of profanity. But what qualifies as profanity? It would be nice if they could just give us a list of words we shouldn't say, but the closest they'd ever come (not that I've seen any even do this) is along the lines of "The F-word, the N-word..." If you honestly can't figure it out from that (picture a foreigner learning English to see why someone might not be completely up on all this stuff), you're F-worded.

In response to all this silly "The (Letter)-word" stuff, I've decided to turn it on it's head in protest. Now, the applicable letters are to be known as "The (Profanity)-letter" instead of simply stating the letter. I've purposely avoided actually using any profanities up to this point, but that stops below the fold. If you're mature enough, head below. If not, grow the fuck up and read it anyways.

I've filled in whatever letters I could think of, but a few are left blank. If you've got any suggestions, please leave them in the comments.

Update: The list is now complete, but if you have any better suggestions for certain letters, let me know!

A shall thus be known as "The Asshole-letter"
B shall thus be known as "The Bitch-letter"
C shall thus be known as "The Cunt-letter" (Alternatives: Cock, Cocksucker)
D shall thus be known as "The Damn-letter" (Alternative: Dipshit)
E shall thus be known as "The Epidermis-letter" (People will think it's crude)
F shall thus be known as "The Fuck-letter"
G shall thus be known as "The God-letter"
H shall thus be known as "The Hell-letter"
I shall thus be known as "The IDiot-letter"
J shall thus be known as "The Jesus-letter"
K shall thus be known as "The Knockers-letter"
L shall thus be known as "The Lesbian-letter" (Cross-reference: "The L Word")
M shall thus be known as "The Motherfucker-letter"
N shall thus be known as "The Nigger-letter"
O shall thus be known as "The Orgasm-letter"
P shall thus be known as "The Prick-letter"
Q shall thus be known as "The Queer-letter"
R shall thus be known as "The Retard-letter" (Alternative: Rectum)
S shall thus be known as "The Shit-letter"
T shall thus be known as "The Tits-letter"
U shall thus be known as "The Unclefucker-letter" (Thank you, South Park movie)
V shall thus be known as "The Vagina-letter"
W shall thus be known as "The Whore-letter"
X shall thus be known as "The XXX-letter" (Yeah, it's pointless, but the pointlessness is the point of this list)
Y shall thus be known as "The Yarbles-letter" (It means "Testicles," originally from A Clockwork Orange, but picked up elsewhere)
Z shall thus be known as "The Zuffle-letter" (Just the concept is enough, even if it doesn't sound so bad.

Proceed with your information binge...

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Physics Q&A #2: The Fundamental Forces (part 1)

Welcome back to Physics Q&A, where I answer physics questions sent in by readers in order to help give you all an understanding of how the universe works. This week I'll be addressing the fundamental forces of nature, explaining how they work and how they differ.

First, let me just give you a brief overview of the forces, before we get into the details of how they work:

Acts on: Everything that has either mass or energy
Effect: Weak attraction between objects with mass or energy

Electromagnetic Force
Acts on: All charged particles and light
Effect: Attractive force between objects of opposite charge, repulsive force between objects of same charge. Acceleration caused by and/or causes light waves. Effects of special relativity give rise to magnetic effects between moving charged particles.

Weak Nuclear Force
Acts on: Leptons, quarks, and neutrinos
Effect: A bit complicated. Basically, the trick here is that all Weak interactions change the form of the particles involved. As such, it's really not a good idea to characterize this as a force, but more as an "interaction." Some people extend this to all the fundamental "forces."

Strong Nuclear Force
Acts on: Quarks
Effect: Binds quarks together to form baryons, or binds baryons together to form nuclei.

That's the essentials of it. If you want to get into the nitty-gritty of how they work, head below the fold.


Let's start out with the oddball force: Gravity. As far as modern physics can tell, gravity acts in no way like the other forces. While the other three fit well under a model of interchanging particles (called "Gauge bosons"), Gravity fits best under the model of General Relativity.

So, at this point, you're likely wondering exactly how this model works and how it differs from Newtonian gravity. Of course, the actual equations aren't simple, but I can still explain it in qualitative terms.

The key realization that gravity worked differently than other forces was the fact that a particle's acceleration due to gravity was independant of its own mass. This then tied in with a law of mechanics you may or may not have heard: The path an object takes when under the influence of no outside forces is independant of its property. But, does this mean that the converse (If an object's path is independant of its properties, it's under the influence of no outside forces) must be true?

Logically, it doesn't have to be, but it's something at least worth investigating, and that's what Einstein did, leading to his formulation for General Relativity. In doing this, he realized that, for instance, a person standing on a surface in a gravitational field would feel a normal force pushing out from the surface that would be exactly the same as a person outside a gravitational field would feel if that surface were being accelerated upwards. This formed what is known as the Equivalence Principle - that a gravitational field is equivalent to an "acceleration" of space.

So, he set up equations as if an object in freefall (a path independant of its properties) were in a natural path, and holding it out against gravity were unnatural. This led to the formulation of what's known as the Schwarzschild metric, the fundamental equation of GR. (If you've forgotten what a metric is, I recommend you check my last Physics Q&A post.)

That's the history of it, but what does it all mean? In essence, the presence of any type of energy warps space such that the natural path of objects through time now curves towards it. You can picture this as matter sitting on a giant rubber sheet, with "time" pulling downwards. Objects like Earth then warp the sheet around them:

Someone standing on the surface of Earth also feels time pulling them downwards, but now they also see that space under them is slanted towards the center of Earth. This means that if their path goes that way, they'll get ahead in time faster, so they're also pulled inwards. Now, this isn't exactly how it works, but it's good for visualization.

The Electromagnetic Force

Let's proceed onto the simplest of the three forces that can be explained from the Particle Physics model: Electromagnetism. I'll just be focusing on the electric side of it for this post, as it's all that's actually needed for the fundamental model (magnetism is just the interaction of it with special relativity).

First, the basics of it: Objects have one type of charge, which can be either positive or negative. Objects with the same sign of this charge feel a repulsive force between each other, objects with the opposite sign of this charge are attracted to each other. The force of this repulsion or attraction is proportional to the magnitude of each charge and the inverse-square of the distance between the particles to a first-order approximation.

On very small scales, electromagnetism works through what's pictured as an exchange of particles (in this case, photons). To picture this, imagine you and a friend are standing on a sheet of ice. You have a heavy ball, and you throw it over to your friend. As you release it, conservation of momentum pushes you back. Then, as your friend catches it, conservation of momentum pushes them away from you as well.

That works for the repulsive case, though the attractive case is a bit more difficult. For this case, you have to imagine that the ball you're throwing has negative mass. This way, when you throw it out, it's momentum is like it's going backwards, so you're pulled forwards too. And when your friend catches it, they get pulled closer to you as well.

Since this is the simplest case, I'll take this chance to introduce you to Feynman diagrams, which are what we use to chart this exchange of particles. In these diagrams, we start out by writing out the initial particles at the bottom and the final particles at the top. For instance, if it's an interaction between two electrons, this step would look like:

Then, we draw some possible connection between the beginning and end. In this case, the simplest is simply each of the electrons at the beginning making a straight path to one of the end ones, but this represents no interaction between them, so it's not very interesting. If we want to do some actual interactions, we need to first define what type of vertices are allowed. For EM interactions, there's only one basic type of vertex: Some charged particle comes in, emits or absorbs a photon, then goes out:

A few notes on the lines:

  • Straight, solid lines represent massive particles (such as electrons)
  • Other types of lines represent gauge bosons. For instance, photons are represented by squiggly lines as seen above.
  • The arrow on the line represents the direction of travel of a normal particle. If it points in a direction opposite that of the momentum of the particle, this is considered to be the corresponding anti-particle.
We don't need to worry about the last point for this interaction, since no antiparticles are involved. So, using this type of vertex, we end up getting two possible interactions that only include two vertices:

Once we go through a ton of complicated math using these two interactions, we can come with equations to govern it. However, it turns out that there are also a ton of possibilities (infinitely many) that use more than two vertices, but they're much less likely to occur. In the end, you get an infinite series of interactions which you can sum up, and the convergence is how things will end up behaving in the real world.

One of the big strengths of this manner of handling physics is that it doesn't only govern forces between two unchanging particles. For instance, we can also use it to represent an electron and a positron annihilating each other. To do this, we use the last point of my explanation of what the lines mean above. This way, we could make a reaction where an electron and a positron come together and turn into a photon. However, we run into a problem with this reaction in that it turns out to be impossible for momentum to be conserved. It is possible to conserve it, though, in a somewhat more complicated reaction that produces two photons:

But wait! If we can't conserve momentum for a single vertex, how come we can use that vertex within the chart? The trick here is that the internal lines we're using don't represent actual particles - there's no point in time you could freeze the interaction and see an intermediate electron. These are what we call "virtual" particles. They never actually exist in real space, but travel through imaginary space to help mediate the reaction. As such, they don't have to obey standard equations of motion, so they're allowed to have imaginary momentum or negative energy and other crazy stuff.

Now, I'm getting the feeling that a lot of you likely aren't completely following at this point, so before I continue on to finish up with the even more complicated forces, I'm going to stop the post here and open it up to questions.

Proceed with your information binge...

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Theocracy north of the border

While most people are blogging against Theocracy in the good old US of A, I figured I'd raise a little international awareness and talk about what's going on north of the border in the better old CN of D (add in "eh?"s as appropriate). The first question that should be addressed is whether or not we actually have separation of church and state up here. The answer's a bit complicated.

There are two ways we can measure whether a country is theocratic or secular: de jure (in law) and de facto (in fact). Since it's simpler, let's look at what the law says first. The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, roughly similar to the United States' Bill of Rights, starts off with the preamble:

Whereas Canada is founded upon principles that recognize the supremacy of God and the rule of law:

Tch! First sentence and they're already invoking their god. Not looking good. Of course, it doesn't say specifically which god, but we can presume they mean the Christian god. Things get a bit better in the "Fundamental Freedoms" section:

Fundamental Freedoms

Fundamental freedoms 2. Everyone has the following fundamental freedoms:
(a) freedom of conscience and religion;
(b) freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication;
(c) freedom of peaceful assembly; and
(d) freedom of association.

Okay, so we're at least guaranteed freedom of conscience and religion. Of course, that must also imply freedom from religion (I won't dignify arguments to the contrary with a response here). Unfortunately, this adds up to all we see in the Canadian Constitution with regards to religion. There's no Establishment Clause, so they're free to establish a state church if they so wish, and Canada still pays nominal respect to the British Monarchy who "rules" by supposed divine right.

So, things are kind of a mixed package. Everyone has freedom of religion, but the government is free to establish a state religion and promote over others. There's also nothing stopping the government from giving favor to religions, such as giving churches tax-exempt status, funding faith-based programs, etc. And it's at this point that we come to the absolute worst clause in the Charter:

Exception where express declaration 33. (1) Parliament or the legislature of a province may expressly declare in an Act of Parliament or of the legislature, as the case may be, that the Act or a provision thereof shall operate notwithstanding a provision included in section 2 or sections 7 to 15 of this Charter.

You might want to go back and read it again; it does indeed say what you thought it said. We're only guaranteed all these rights as long as the government doesn't explicitly declare that they're disregarding this document. Although it's not explicitly stated here, the law also makes clear that any such act will have to be renewed every 5 years (a subtle reprieve). As former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney said, this clause makes the Charter "...not worth the paper it is written on." This means we only really have freedom of religion until some local legislature decides we don't.

Now, if you aren't a Canadian citizen, you might be wondering whether or not this clause is ever actually used. Let me assure you, it is. Quebec used it to make French the only allowable language on commercial signs from 1977-1993. Alberta used it to enforce sterilization on people they considered "unfit," including "new immigrants, alcoholics, epileptics, unwed mothers, the poor and native people," from 1928 (before Germany started doing this) to 1998. Obviously, some legislaters aren't afraid of committing gross violations of human rights with this clause. Just do a search for "Notwithstanding Clause" to see more about it, if you wish.

Okay, so as de jure separation of church and state goes, we're pretty much screwed. Fortunately, things aren't quite so bad de facto. It turns out there's one other clause that has often saved people from separation of church and state infringement:

Multicultural heritage 27. This Charter shall be interpreted in a manner consistent with the preservation and enhancement of the multicultural heritage of Canadians.

Note that this is section 27, so even the Notwithstanding Clause can't trump it. Although it's occasionally been abused (such as to suppress free speech in a couple case), this clause has also stopped the government from enacting blue laws on many occasions, as legalizing the values of one particular religion would go against the multiculturalism of Canada.

The problem is, atheism isn't a religion. It also isn't a culture, so there's nothing stopping the government from favoring all religions over none. In fact, they have been doing this in many ways, including giving churches tax-exempt status and publically funding religious schools outside the secular public school system (in fact, for a period, Newfoundland didn't even have a secular school system at all. Fortunately, this has since been reversed and now only secular schools receive public funding there. Quebec, however, still has only religious public schools).

However, the saving grace of Canada has been simply having more rational people in power than places like the US. Even without a law mandating separation of church in state, if the people are willing, the system can end up working out better. Take a couple hot topics of the recent years: Abortion and Gay Rights.

First of all, abortion. I won't get deep into the subject now, except to state that outside of religious motivations, there is zero reason to ban abortions at least before the brain has started to develop (if you care to debate, the comment thread is open). So, banning abortion can be seen as a measure of overblown religiousity.

In Canada, it turns out there are very few active protests against the right to abortion, and in every province (except Prince Edward Island, Canada's answer to Rhode Island), women are free to obtain abortions which are even covered by the universal healthcare system. You don't see Christian groups posing as abortion centers, who then delay pregnant women until it's too late. You don't see legislaters offering $500 a head for adoptions. Overall, things are pretty decent up here when it comes to this subject.

Now, let's look at Gay Rights, another issue that religiosos get all up in arms about. In total 7 provinces (there are 10 in total) have legislation guaranteeing equal rights for gays (compared to zero states), while another two are planning to introduce legislation soon. The only province left out is Alberta (you know, the eugenicists). Compared to the States, Canada is a bona fide haven for gays.

However, there are still a few issues here. Some groups, such as Atheists (and variants), but also including Wiccans and Neopagans are often the targets of vicious intolerence, the likes of which is comparable to the intolerence atheists receive in America. Not everyone feels this way, but it's enough that most people of one of these religions (or lack thereof) don't go public with their beliefs. You can also see this playing out legally in custody battles between parents of differing religious beliefs; often, when the custody winner has one of these minority religious, they're forbidden from teaching it to their children. Overall, this gives the impression that mainstream religions such as large sects of Christianity are still much preferred.

And note that this intolerence is despite the fact that most Christians in Canada are pretty secular. Over 70% of the population is Christian, but only around 20% attend church regularly (compared to 40% in America). And yet many are still intolerant of people who actively declare they have no religion. Apparently it's fine to act as if you have no religion as long as you call yourself a "Christian," but if you call yourself an "atheist," you're in trouble.

So, there's your update on how things are looking in Canada. We have a lot of the same problems as the US, with a few little differences. We aren't as close to being a theocracy de facto, though we're a lot closer de jure. We're just lucky that we've gotten mostly rational people in government, but if things turn around we could be in deep trouble.

Proceed with your information binge...

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Your Turn

Okay, I can't really predict "whatever you want," so here's what you're going to do. Go open up a text-editing program, such as Notepad. Write in whatever the hell you want to finish off this dream. Once you're satisfied, drag the window over the big empty space below, and that's what you do.

Okay, ready to wake up now.

Proceed with your information binge...

Fact or Fiction

"So, you still think this is actually happening, eh?" Black says.

"Yes," you say. "Things just feel too real for me to say it's a dream."

"Well, what say we try something then?" he suggests. "I didn't come here unprepared to face off with woo myself, and one of my preparations just might help here."

Black goes off to the side of the stage and picks up what appears to be a gun. "What I have here is Occam's .44 Magnum. You may have heard of Occam's Razor, which says that the simplest explanation that fits the evidence is generally the best. Well, with all of the woo that's been popping up in recent years, it's often been found wanting. Thus, I came up with this. Instead of shaving off excesses, it simply blasts it away.

"So, here's what we're going to do. You get to represent the theory that this is actually happening and is part of a nefarious plot to undermine reality, while I'll represent the theory that this is simply a dream or hallucination. I'll try shooting each of us, and if one theory is excessively complicated, the gun should blow it out of our heads."

"Um... I'm not sure about this..." you say.

"You having second thoughts about your theory?" Black asks. "Well, let's see how mine holds up." Before you can react, he points the gun to his temple, pulls the trigger, and... *click* Nothing. "Guess mine isn't so bad. Your turn?"

"Um, maybe I'll just try waking up now..."

Proceed with your information binge...

What Dreams May Come

"So, you agree this is probably a dream or hallucination of some sort," Black says. "Well, there's a simple way to get out of it then."

"What?" you ask.

"Try to wake up. I'll do it too, in case it's my dream. You ready?"

Try to wake up.

Wait... if this is a dream, then you can do whatever you want, right?

Proceed with your information binge...

Into the Night

You seriously think you can ever convince someone like this they're wrong, much less do it before reality is rended apart? As Jonathan Swift observed, "You cannot reason a person out of a position he did not reason himself into in the first place." You've got no chance.

And yet you try. On and on your argument goes. Objectively, you're winning, but that doesn't really matter. Time goes on with no end to the argument. Before reality itself splits, you find yourself wishing there were some magical "Back" button you could press to go back in time and not start this argument...

Seriously, press the "Back" button on your browser.

What are you waiting for?

Fine, fine. You want to see what absolute chaos looks like? Here ya go.

Proceed with your information binge...

Behe-ind the Madness

You're transported back to the auditorium where this all started. Nate Black is there, doing something on Infophile's computer. Noticing you, he says, "Ah, you're back. Find out anything that might help us?"

"Yes," you say. "I think I've figured out who's behind this all, though I don't know if we can do anything about it."

"Really? I've been doing some tests, and I have a theory on it myself. What did you come up with?"

"From what I've found out," you say, "it seems that Michael Behe and the Discovery Institue are behind this. They've loosed the boundaries of reality tonight to advance their goals of getting creationism accepted."

"Hmm, interesting. And how did they do it?"

"I can't say," you reply.

"Yes, that is a tough point. All of history up to tonight is perfectly consistent with our scientific understanding of reality. And then it diverges completely. Odd, to say the least. With everything we know, this absolutely should not be happening, Discovery Institute or not."

"You said you had a theory, though. What is it?" you ask.

Black replies, "Quite simply, that this isn't happening. To be honest, the hypothesis that I'm hallucinating or having a very lucid dream seems a lot more likely than that reality has come unhinged."

"Well, I know I'm conscious here, so I can't just be part of your hallucination, can I?"

"I could say the same to you. Maybe you're just part of my dream saying you're conscious. It's impossible to make that distinction to be honest. Either way, what do you think? You still think this is actually a plot by the Discovery Institute?"

"Yes, it's probably them."

"It might be a dream..."

Proceed with your information binge...

Does Tom Cruise?

You're transported back to the auditorium where this all started. Nate Black is there, doing something on Infophile's computer. Noticing you, he says, "Ah, you're back. Find out anything that might help us?"

"Yes," you say. "I think I've figured out who's behind this all, though I don't know if we can do anything about it."

"Really? I've been doing some tests, and I have a theory on it myself. What did you come up with?"

"From what I've found out," you say, "it seems that Tom Cruise and the Church of Scientology is behind this. They've loosed the boundaries of reality tonight to advance their goals of recruiting people into the church."

"Hmm, interesting. And how did they do it?"

"I can't say," you reply.

"Yes, that is a tough point. All of history up to tonight is perfectly consistent with our scientific understanding of reality. And then it diverges completely. Odd, to say the least. With everything we know, this absolutely should not be happening, Church of Scientology or not."

"You said you had a theory, though. What is it?" you ask.

Black replies, "Quite simply, that this isn't happening. To be honest, the hypothesis that I'm hallucinating or having a very lucid dream seems a lot more likely than that reality has come unhinged."

"Well, I know I'm conscious here, so I can't just be part of your hallucination, can I?"

"I could say the same to you. Maybe you're just part of my dream saying you're conscious. It's impossible to make that distinction to be honest. Either way, what do you think? You still think this is actually a plot by the Church of Scientology?"

"Yes, it's probably them."

"It might be a dream..."

Proceed with your information binge...

If a test occurs in the woods and no one's around...

"Oh yeah, name one!" the student challenges you.

"How about the various tests of astrology?" you counter. "Astrology working goes against almost everything we know about physics, but it's been tested all the time, and it's found wanting every time. You could say the same thing for homeopathy."

"Bah, those tests were heavily flawed."

"I haven't even told you of any speciic tests and you're already assuming they're flawed? Just because they don't agree with what you think, eh? I could give you paper after paper, and you'd be hard pressed to manufacture flaws for all of them. At least for scientific claims we actually have papers; it seems all too often that we get obscure references to some poor evidence for some claim."

"If you'll excuse me," the professor says. "We actually have a guest speaker today (against all my recommendations), and I don't think security can hold him back any longer."

"Very well," you say, and take a seat.

The professor walks off stage and is promptly (and quite surprisingly) replaced by celebrity nutjob, Tom Cruise. After introducing himself, he starts off is speach, "How many of you have ever had a question that no one could answer?" Everyone in the class raises their hand.

"What if you were guaranteed that whatever you asked, you'd get an answer. What would be the best question you could ask? Well, tonight, I'm giving you the opportunity. Through the revelations of Scientology, I'm able to answer absolutely any question you might pose. So, shoot away."

Taking your chance, you shoot up your hand. Your enthusiasm is noted by Cruise, and he calls on you first. You ask, "I've noticed a lot of very strange events going on today, and I'm sure others have as well. What's causing all of this?"

"Ah, I'm glad you asked," he replies. "Tonight is a project organized by the Church of Scientology in order to prove to people our validity. In order to do that, we've loosened the boundaries of reality, so a few extra things may slip in, but rest assured, we'll take charge of it all soon enough. Next question..."

Well, no reason doing anything else, you have your answer. Time to go back and report what's going on.

Proceed with your information binge...


"Why should we be the ones who have to do all the work to satisfy your testing?" the student asks. "If you want to find evidence, you figure out how to test it."

"We could do that," you reply, "but then you'll come back and say we didn't get your idea right. The only way we can be sure to get your theory is if you're the one who tells us how to test it."

"What's your hang-up with testing everything anyways?"

"If you can't test it, how do you know it's real? For instance, take the suggestion that while a man was unconscious, he went up and spent an hour and a half in heaven. There's absolutely no way we can go back and see if it was just a dream of his, or whether he actually did go to heaven. If we just accept everything anyone says, we'll be led into chaos. We need some filter to determine what's true, and scientific testing is the best we have."

"Heh, you'll see," the student says.

"And what do you mean by that," you ask.

"Well, what would you say if God came down from heaven and told you Himself that, for instance, he'd created the world and all the creatures in it?"

"I'd say it's still an untestable claim, and we only have his word for it."

"So you wouldn't accept the word of God Himself about reality?" he asks.

"If I'm a priori convinced it's God and he wouldn't lie, then maybe I would. But you'll have to clear that hurdle first."

"Well, let's just see. I have good word, directly from Michael Behe of the Discovery Institute, that you should be seeing something like this very soon." This statement is met with laughter from the majority of the class, but given what you've seen tonight...

Head back to report that Behe and the Discovery Institute might be behind this.

Stay here and continue the debate until you reach some resolution.

Proceed with your information binge...

High Learning

How you ended up there you can't quite describe, but you find yourself seated in a large auditorium, with class currently in progress. The professor has a large runestone on display, and is explaining to the class:

"I have here the Kensington Runestone, one famous example of hoaxed history. It was found in 1898 near Kensington, Minnesota. The text on it suggests that Scandinavian explorers reached the middle of North America sometime around the 14th century, but there are significant doubts as to its validity. Now, let's see if you've done your homework. Can anyone tell me what one of the reasons for doubting its authenticity is?"

A student raises her hand, and when the professor calls on her she speaks up, "Didn't the couple who found it admit that it was a hoax?"

"Oh, no, you're getting it mixed up with the Ica stones," the professor replies. "Those were the stone carvings of humans mingling with dinosaurs that have been touted by creationists as evidence that humans and dinosaurs once lived together. Of course, as you mentioned, they were admitted to be a hoax."

"But that doesn't prove they really were a hoax!" another student speaks up.

"Really?" the professor says. "An admission of guilt won't do it for you?"

"It could have been coerced, or they could have been lying because they didn't like the conclusion it led to," the student says.

You decide to speak up, "If an admission won't do it, even in addition to the fact that the fossil record supports the view that humans and dinosaurs never coexisted, then what evidence would you need to believe it's a hoax?"

"More than you've provided," the student says. "Besides, can we really trust all this evidence coming from so-called experts? Science has a long record of ignoring possible avenues of research just because they don't fit in with their pre-conceived ideas, so how can we expect them to be right? And it's not like they can answer the really important questions anyways."

You glance to the professor, but he seems to be alright with allowing this discussion to continue amongst the students. In the time you spared doing this, another student speaks up, "That's right! I still haven't seen scientists testing out the role of various types of vibration in mediating the body's overall wellness!"

Explain that before science can test a proposition, it needs to be made specific enough and be falsifiable. Vague notions of "Wellness" are untestable.

Explain that scientific tests of notions that go against the popular consensus occur all the time. They're just ignored because they don't coincide with what woos want to believe.

Proceed with your information binge...


As you arrive at your next destination, a feeling of relief comes across you. Where is this...? Ah, it's a Newsweek office. No major credulity here recently, and didn't they also publish an interesting article about statistics recently?

You're about to request a trip off to another locale - the atmosphere here is nice, but you have work to do - when a reporter rushes in shouting, "Mr. Jameson! Breaking news!"

A gruff man at a nearby desk spins around in his chair and asks, "Yeah? What is it? I haven't got all day, you know!"

"Uh, sir, it seems that Scientologists are starting to claim that Tom Cruise has been imbued with the reincarnated soul of L. Ron Hubbard."

"So? Why should I care what those nutjobs are up to?"

"Because they've somehow hijacked multiple TV networks to broadcast this message," the reporter explains.

"What!?" Jameson exclaims. He motions to you. "You, whats-yer-name, turn on the TV!"

"Uh, yes sir," you say, and turn on a nearby television. True to the reporter's word, Tom Cruise is on TV broadcasting his message.

This could be bad, you think to yourself. We can't let the Scientologists get any more dupes. Could this night be their plan to do exactly that? But wait, didn't Behe act like he had something to do with it as well?

It's probably Behe behind all of this...

It's probably Cruise behind all of this...

Proceed with your information binge...

Time running out

You arrive in what looks like some sort of office. Judging by the displays on the walls, it appears to be for Time magazine. Nearby, you see an incensed Richard Dawkins acting just like a militant atheist - arguing passionately with an employee.

Approaching the pair, you politely interrupt and ask what the problem is. Dawkins explains, "Time recently selected me as one of their hundred most influential people, and while I appreciate their selection of me, their choice of profiler for me was nothing more than an insult."

"Why? Who did they choose?"

"Michael Behe," he replies, disgust barely veiled behind his polite demeanor.

"Wait, you mean the same Behe who disagrees with virtually everything you stand for, in both evolution and religion?"

"The same."

You turn to the employee Dawkins was arguing with and start yelling at him yourself. When you've calmed down enough to hear a reply, the employee explains to you that, "There was nothing we could do! The Discovery Institute threatened to sue us if we didn't provide a balanced perspective, and letting Behe profile Dawkins was the only thing they'd accept."

"What? They can't sue you over a matter like that; you're entitled to free speech."

"That's what I thought," the employee says, "but apparently things have changed. Have you looked at the constitution recently? The first amendment has disappeared from it. Something really doesn't want us to have free speech if it disagrees with their view."

"Hmm, there's no way the Discovery Institute has the political clout to pull off something like that," Dawkins comments.

Unless they attack reality directly, and force out the belief in free speech, you think to yourself. But what about Cruise's comments earlier? He seemed suspicious as well...

It's probably Behe behind all of this...

It's probably Cruise behind all of this...

Proceed with your information binge...

An Impossible Foe

As you finish explaining the state of cancer research to the woman, you hear a rude snort from off to the side. Looking over, you see a man who's risen to fame by using his scientific credentials to undermine legitimate scientific pursuit: Michael Behe.

"You've got to be kidding me!" he says. "Of course they're just in it for the money. And it's not just them, it's the entire scientific institution. Do you think they actually care about finding reality? It's all just reinforcing their own dogma and covering up for each other's mistakes, while coming up with new revelations every day to distract us."

"Are you suggesting that multiple lines of independant research all coming to consistent conclusions is evidence of a cover-up?" you ask him.

"No, if you want evidence of a cover-up, you have to follow the money. How much money do you see going to fund people who express disbelief in evolution?"

"That's because people who don't believe in evolution are showing immense ignorance of science or they're showing that they'll always put their religious beliefs ahead of the pursuit of truth, neither of which makes a good scientist."

"Truth!?" he says. "Heh, after tonight, I doubt you'll look at 'truth' the same way again..."

Filing that odd comment away for future consideration, you switch to a different subject and ask him, "What are you doing here anyway?"

"I'm here to promote my new book," he says.

"You mean they're actually giving publicity to that piece of crap?"

"At least read it before calling it a piece of crap, if you don't mind."

"Fine, but I doubt I'll change my mind. Now, if you don't mind, I've got a busy night ahead of me," you tell him.

Could Behe or the Discovery Institute be behind what's going on tonight? Better return and report on your suspicions.

Other media outlets are likely in danger as well, best to check them out first.

Proceed with your information binge...

Outside the Norm

The woman snorts at you. "I know what happened to me. The doctor was wrong. Are you saying that my experiences aren't a good indicator of what happens in reality? Isn't that the entire basis of science?"

"Not always," you reply. "Science recognizes that individual observations can be off, and compensates for this by making many many measurements. Once something is confirmed over and over again we can be pretty certain it's right, though never entirely certain - there's always the possibility our method of observation was flawed, or we just got a really rare set of data. Nevertheless, it's the best method we have, and it's led to immense progress..."

"Oh give it up already!" you're interrupted by a voice from behind you. "Science is nothing more than another system of belief."

"Science isn't a belief system," you explain. "It's a method of obtaining knowledge, not a set of knowledge which we already believe with no doubt." As you turn around to approach the newcomer, you face a visage you've seen highlighted in the media all too often: Scientology's unofficial celebrity spokesman, Tom Cruise.

"Now you're just playing word games," he says. "It's not like it matters anyways; you're already too late to stop us."


"Never you mind; I've got work to do," Cruise says as he turns and walks off.

"Um, excuse me?" The lady you'd been talking to says. "What was all of that about?"

"I'm not entirely sure," you reply. "But I think I have an idea who might be behind this..."

Return to report your suspicions.

Head on to a different media outlet.

Proceed with your information binge...

Media Madness

You couldn't explain the process if you tried, but you're transported to a bustling newsroom. Nearby, you can hear a woman telling her story to an executive. Apparently, she'd been told by a doctor that she and her husband would never be able to conceive. Nevertheless, they were able to do so, and this proved the doctor wrong, exposing the flaws in the modern medical establishment.

She then continues with her pet conspiracy theory: That Big Pharma doesn't want to cure cancer because it would be bad for business. After all, we've been fighting cancer for decades now, and have only been able to cure the more minor types.

Explain to her that a single anecdote doesn't disprove the validity of the medical profession. They're still right more far more often then they're wrong, even though there are always extreme cases.

Explain to her that there has indeed been significant progress made in the fight against cancer. The fact that it hasn't been won only shows how difficult a foe cancer is, not that medical researchers would rather let people die than run out of work.

Proceed with your information binge...


"Is anyone here a doctor?" you call out.

You hear a few affirmations, one of which manages to push his way to the front. He comes up and gives Infophile a cursory examination before proclaiming to the room, "This man... has been shot!" Consistent with the laws of narration, a bolt of lightning can be seen and heard striking outside immediately after this statement.

"Um, that wasn't much of an examination. I don't even see a bullet wound on him. Are you sure you're a real doctor?" you ask.

"Of course I am!" the man replies indignately. "I'm Christian Friedrich Samuel Hahnemann, also known as the father of homeopathy. And this makes me particularly well-qualified to examine this individual as he's not only been shot - he's been homeopathically shot. That is, he's been shot by no bullets at all!" Another bolt of lightning.

"We really have to start screening these things, at least to get rid of the obvious psychos," a fellow skeptic comments. "A modern woo is bad enough, but here's someone who thinks he's a woo who's been dead for over 150 years."

"Hmph, crazy am I?" Hahnemann says. "If you're so certain who the crazy one is, then how about you take a look outside?"

Another skeptic rolls her eyes and replies, "Fine, fine. But do you mind telling us in advance what you expect us to see? If you don't make a prediction beforehand, you can come back and claim later that anything odd we see was what you'd expected."

"Just look," he says. "Trust me, it'll be enough to assuage your doubts."

"Um, I think we have a problem here..." you hear from a skeptic who'd gone off to check outside during the previous exchange.

"What is it?" you ask.

"I think it's Bigfoot... and he's being abducted by aliens."

You're about to rush out to confirm for yourself (a claim like this just has to be confirmed firsthand), but when Hahnemann starts to speak, you just have to stop to hear whatever he has to say next: "So you see! It's already too late. When your eyes were distracted from the actual world, we staged a coup. It now works according to our rules!" Hahnemann breaks into a maniacal laugh as his body fades away. As it vanishes, a ghost-like apparition breaks out of it and disappears through a wall.

"...Okay, did anyone else just see his body disappear and a ghost rush out?" you ask timidly. You hear grumbled assent from the rest of the skeptics assembled. "...Right. So, what next?"

"Well, do we really have to do anything?" one skeptic asks. "If homeopathy actually works, couldn't that be a good thing?"

"Sure," another replies, "until someone uses its principles to kill someone by shooting them with no bullets."

"Okay, well what about other alternative medicine? What if stuff like 'Traditional Chinese Medicine' actually works?"

"Okay, that might not be so bad, but we're going to get some of the negative claims of alties along with it. Now you can expect that everyone who had mercury-containing vaccines will actually become autistic, or that morning-after pills will actually do nothing."

"And what about woo that contradicts other woo? What's going to happen in those cases?"

"I'll tell you what's going to happen," a new voice says, as a figure steps out of the shadows on stage. "Reality will be torn apart, until there no longer is such a thing as an objective reality. It's how many of them already see the world, and soon enough it will be the case. By my estimates, we have only tonight to fix things. After that, it'll be too late."

"Wait a second... you're Infophile!" a nearby skeptic exclaims at the newcomer.

"Heh, not quite. I'm his alter ego, Nate Black. Back in January, Infophile received word of an attempted coup by the other faction, so he set up plans to counter it, the primary of which being me. I was created for this very moment, such that even if Infophile were taken out of the picture, someone would be around who knew what was happening.

"So, here's the situation. Woos have struck at the foundation of reality, and it's now determined by the popularity of ideas. Simply put, the argument from popularity actually works now. Many like-minded woos have grouped together so that in certain areas, their beliefs will take form."

"Wait, hold on," one skeptic says. "You're going to have to excuse me if I'm a bit skeptical of all of this. Woo taking over the world in one night? Seems very far-fetched, even taking into account the Bigfoot abduction sighting and the ghost of Hahnemann."

"Perfect. Keep up that attitude and we might have a chance. The firmer your grasp on reality, the better you'll be able to fight back. But just remember, now isn't the time to get stuck in an Ivory Tower of skepticism. Tonight, we have to fight.

"Now, there's a ton of varied woo out there that we're going to have to fight, so we're going to have to split up to take on the woo we're each best capable of fighting. Don't worry about traveling; I've got 'connections.' You're probably best at predicting where the woos are going to start to group, so you tell me where you think you'll need to go."

They could be going after the media...

They're going to be trying to take over education.

Proceed with your information binge...

A Crumpled Note

Flattening out the note found in Infophile's hand, it turns out to indeed be a list of contributors for the Skeptic's Circle. But what about the big plans he said he had, and don't you care about the fact that he appears to have just been shot? Well, you could go back and try to figure that out, or you could just go on and read the list of sites for this Skeptic's Circle if you're short on time... cheater.

Submitted Posts

Aardvarchaeology: Swedish Study of the Kensington Rune Stones
Action Skeptics: Mr. Bigfoot Goes To...Wherever The Capital of Canada Is
The Bronze Blog: Doggerel #78: Vibration
The Bronze Blog: Doggerel #79: Wellness
The Bronze Blog: Doggerel #80: "What's the Harm?"
The Bronze Blog: Doggerel #81: "[Evil Guy] believed in [Theory]"
The Bronze Blog: Why versus Why
Conspiracy Factory: An anecdote about anecdotes Selectivity from FRC
Fearless Philosophy For Free Minds: The Mysterious Ica Stones
Holford Watch: Food For The Brain: What Is the Evidence for Allergy or Intolerance Testing in Children
Hot Dogs, Pretzels, and Perplexing Questions: Perplexing Question #1: Paradox of the Question
Junkfood Science: Seeing only fat
Junkfood Science: When you feel scared and worried...
NeuroLogica Blog: I'm Certain You're Going to Love This One
News from Hawkhill Acres: I'm an Agnostic and So Are You
Pooflingers Anonymous: Comedic Value
Providentia: Making An Impression
Science After Sunclipse: Newsweek on Sex-Ed and Statistics
Science After Sunclipse: The Edge of Evolution
Science After Sunclipse: Time: You're On Notice!
Science and Progress: Systematic review of nutritional supplement for the treatment of allergic rhinitis
The Second Sight: It's Not What It Looks Like! I Was Only Raising My Ch'i!
Wandering Primate: Traditional Chinese Medicine: A History Revealed (Part 1, Part 2)

Next Time

Date: May 24th
Location: Memoirs of a Skepchick
Contact: skepchick [at] skepchick [dot] org

Proceed with your information binge...

Thursday, April 05, 2007

If this is design, I recommend you sue God for malpractice

Aside: One Romanian prisoner actually did try to sue God over how his life turned out. His case was dismissed because God was neither "an individual or corporation." He probably should have limited his case to just suing The Father, rather than taking on all three at once.

A friendly neighborhood troll brought this article to my attention yesterday. Since it claims to rebut an argument I've used myself on a couple of occasions (Who designed the designer?), I felt obligated to address it.

The article starts off with the old ID favorite false analogy of design: Mt. Rushmore.

Suppose someone says: “X is designed,” or “Intelligent design is the best explanation for X.” Make X any event or structure you like. Think, for instance, of Mt. Rushmore. It clearly gives evidence that it was designed—sculpted, to be exact. Would it make any sense for someone to protest, “Well then who sculpted the sculptor? Who designed the designer? Ha! Q.E.D.”

That objection is ludicrous. We know Mount Rushmore was designed regardless of the identity or causal history of the sculptors, and we know it based on what we observe.

Let's list some of the evidence that Mt. Rushmore was intelligently designed, just for kicks:
  • We have first-hand accounts from people alive at the time of its design and construction
  • The mountain clearly depicts the faces of four human beings. The chances of this occuring from non-intelligent causes (erosion, etc.) and happening on the same planet where this species exists are astronomical.
  • The four humans depicted are important historical figures from the same country in which Mt. Rushmore is located.
That's pretty damning evidence. For comparison, let's see what evidence of intelligent design creationists use for the universe:
  • It's complicated. And in a "specified" way, whatever that means.
(Sound of crickets chirping.) Hmm, doesn't seem to add up to as much as the Mt. Rushmore evidence, if I do say so myself. You know what else is a problem between the two? In the case of Mt. Rushmore, we know that the designer was human, just like us. This gives us a ton more we can predict about him, and all this fits in with what we see.

Oh wait, they've got a non-human example as well:

This is true even in those cases where the designer is (probably) not human. (I’ll speak of a designer in the singular because, all things being equal, Ockham’s Razor reminds us not to multiply entities unnecessarily). In principle, SETI researchers could discern intelligent signals if any such signals are ever detected by their equipment. Presumably these would come from an extraterrestrial source.

This one was covered quite well by Skeptico a while back, so I'll just quote his response to this:

Of course, that explanation doesn’t apply to SETI – they are not looking for humans. But even so, it’s not so different – SETI are still looking for intelligence that lives in the same universe and obeys the same laws of physics that we do. That means we do know something about the putative ET and can make assumptions and predictions about how they would try to communicate with us. For example, we know that:

… the microwave band contains a naturally-produced emission line, a narrow-band "broadcast", at 1,420 MHz due to interstellar hydrogen. Every radio astronomer (including extraterrestrial ones) will know about this hydrogen emission. It may serve as a universal "marker" on the radio dial. Consequently, it makes sense to use nearby frequencies for interstellar "hailing" signals.

SETI use these assumptions to predict where to look for ET signals. IDists have no such assumption to guide their search.

Secondly, unlike ID which looks for complexity, SETI is looking for artificiality:

In fact, the signals actually sought by today’s SETI searches are not complex, as the ID advocates assume. [,,,] A SETI radio signal of the type we could actually find would be a persistent, narrow-band whistle. Such a simple phenomenon appears to lack just about any degree of structure, although if it originates on a planet, we should see periodic Doppler effects as the world bearing the transmitter rotates and orbits.


… the credibility of the evidence is not predicated on its complexity. If SETI were to announce that we’re not alone because it had detected a signal, it would be on the basis of artificiality. An endless, sinusoidal signal – adead simple tone – is not complex; it’s artificial. Such a tone just doesn’t seem to be generated by natural astrophysical processes. In addition, and unlike other radio emissions produced by the cosmos, such a signal is devoid of the appendages and inefficiencies nature always seems to add – for example, DNA’s junk and redundancy.

IDists are looking for complexity, because they think complexity must have been designed. SETI are looking for an artificial signal – a simple tone that does not appear in nature – because they know what an artificial signal looks like.

Hey, anyone else notice that this article, which is supposedly a rebuttal to a specific argument, hasn't even gotten to it yet? Instead, it's using an opportunity to spout out their old canards. Let's just skip down to where they get to the point:

Now someone from the Skeptical Inquirer will quickly ask: “Ah, but who designed the designer?” The satisfaction induced in the inquirer is immediate. But how exactly does this refute the truth or “assertability” of (ID)? It not only fails to refute (ID), it doesn’t even address it. It just changes the subject. By itself, the question has no more logical force against (ID) than any question someone might ask, such as: “Who designed the designer’s mother-in-law?” or “Ah, but what was the price of pork futures yesterday?” Non sequiturs aren’t refutations. They’re fallacies. The fact that someone can form new words with their mouths and string them together into an interrogative sentence in the wake of (ID) does not bear on, let alone refute (ID).

Wait a second, did he say "pork futures"? Excuse me for a minute, while I call up Terry Pratchett and inform him that he's being referenced by the enemy (yes, he believes in evolution). ...Alright, he knows, now back to the article.

When someone uses the "Who designed the designer?" argument, what they're actually trying to do is point out that the arguments used in ID lead to a logical absurdity. Pointing something like this out is quite valid argumentative practice.

Here's how it works: IDists use a measure of complexity to infer that the universe must have been designed. The skeptic then points out that God is either less complex than the universe, or at least as complex as it (that covers all logical possibilities). If he's less complex, then it's possible for complexity to arise out of a less complexity, so there's no reason that couldn't have happened right in our universe, so ID arguments are invalid.

On the other hand, if God is at least as complex as the universe, then ID's own arguments can be applied to God as well, implying that God must have been designed as well. This leads us to either an infinite regression of gods, or some point at which one arises from less complexity. The former case is an absurdity, while the latter case involves ID's arguments being invalid.

So, we're left with two possibilities: Either ID's arguments are invalid, or they're valid but lead to an absurdity. What's a non sequitur about pointing out that your opponent's argument leads to an absurdity? The article continues:

For instance, the skeptic may argue that Ockham’s Razor (the regulatory principle that we not multiply entities without need) should stop the regress of explanation at the object itself, rather than pointing beyond itself to a designer.

Personally, I've never heard of a skeptic using Ockham's Razor in this manner. Sounds like a straw man to me, but I'll admit it's possible some skeptics have tried this tactic. If they did, I'll leave it to them to defend themselves.

Sometimes the question takes a slightly richer form. Recall that design arguments usually proceed by trying to explain some property of X in terms of intelligent design—say, specified complexity in the coding regions of DNA (as William Dembski and Stephen Meyer have argued) or the “fine-tuning” of physical constants (e.g., gravity or electromagnetism). Let’s call whatever property on which the design theorist argues for design a “design property.” But any designer of that design property, the objection goes, will have to have at least as much if not more of the design property. So the ultimate origin of the design property has not been explained. It’s just been moved, like dust swept under a rug. Design inferences, therefore, have no explanatory virtue. (Richard Dawkins has been a leading exponent of this form of the argument.) It’s better, this argument goes, to stop the regress of explanation with X itself.

This form of the argument combines Ockham’s Razor with a worry about an infinite regress. We’ve already seen that only a truncated and simplistic form of Ockham’s Razor makes any trouble for intelligent design by outlawing all design inferences, which is absurd. But what about the infinite regress worry? Let’s assume, for a moment, that any designer of X (any designed object) must have at least as much specified complexity or fine-tuning (or whatever design property to be explained) as X—the designed object. How does this undercut (ID)? It doesn’t. (ID) could still be justified, well supported by the evidence, and true, even if there is a real regress.

As long as we’re simply asking: “Is X designed?,” and can infer design on the basis of some property of X, such as specified complexity, then the fact that the designer must also “contain” at least as much specified complexity as X is not material. This is because the design theorist need make no pretense of answering the question: “Where does specified complexity (or fine tuning) ultimately come from?” He can address, in fact he usually is addressing, much more modest questions, such as: “Where did the specified complexity in X come from?, “Is specified complexity in X a reliable marker of intelligent design?,” “Is specified complexity generally a reliable indicator of intelligent design?” and so forth. (ID) here is a proximate explanation, not an ultimate explanation.

He goes on with this, but I'll stop here to spare your sanity. Notice how he isn't answering the meat of the accusation (that such an infinite regress of more and more complicated gods is absurd), but instead just argues that it isn't his job to explain where God came from. However, something tells me that if you ran into this guy on the street and asked him if he'd admit the possibility of God having been created by some greater god, he'll adamantly deny it. This seems to be how they always work, acting somewhat moderate and open to ideas while in a formal debate, then switching back to extreme, absolute views once the debate's over.

You see? That's what a non sequitur looks like. My argument about the absurdity of an infinite regress of designers addresses the issue directly, while here, I'm just accusing my opponent of being disingenuous about his beliefs (note though that I still suspect it's true).

The IDiot rambles on for a while longer, and I'll spare you from it. Instead, let me point out what differentiates ID claims about design of nature from examples such as Mt. Rushmore: The methods used to determine design. For the latter case, we look at what we know about humans and what we expect from them, in the former, it all boils down to "It's complicated."

So, what happens if we apply the "Who designed the designer?" argument to the designer of Mt. Rushmore? Well, we're asking who "designed" a human. Well, it's not quite design, but we know where humans come from: Their parents. Trace it back far enough, and we go back through simpler species, maybe a few jumps more complicated species in places where the simpler species had a survival advantage, so evolution pushed it down. Eventually, we'll get back to the point of abiogenesis, which we have some good scientific data to believe is possible. Everything's logical along the way, and we don't run into any absurdities by extending it backwards, quite different from when we look at the "design" of the universe.

So there's your answer to why we don't ask who designed the designer for mundane events: We get mundane answers. However, if you postulate a designer for the universe based on abstract concepts like "complexity" or "fine-tuning," asking the question reveals that using these measures as an implication for design results in a logical absurdity, and this is why it's such a popular argument.

Proceed with your information binge...