Thursday, August 30, 2007

Skeptic's Circle #68

The latest Skeptic's Circle is now up over at Aardvarchaeology. Read. Learn. Skepticize.

As a side note, I'm going to be moving up to grad school tomorrow, and I won't have internet connected until Wednesday. So, don't go calling the cops if you don't see me commenting on your posts in that time.

Open thread as usual, though pointing out that "Skepticize" isn't a verb is FORBIDDEN - it's a word now.

Proceed with your information binge...

Thursday, August 23, 2007


Just found this comic, and I had to share it. I know some of my readers are big video game players, and you should get a kick out of this (click on it to see full size).

Proceed with your information binge...

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Shermer on Colbert

Just found out as I was watching it, but Michael Shermer was on the Colbert Report tonight. In my opinion, he did a marvelous job of explaining some basics principles of skepticism, such as the problem with anecdotes and confirmation bias. Hopefully this interview will show up on YouTube soon, and I'll put up a link if I find it. Otherwise, try to catch one of the reruns of it.

EDIT: Bob's informed me in the comments that you can find the interview on Comedy Central's site here, though you'll have to watch a short ad first.

Proceed with your information binge...

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Skeptic's Circle #67

Ask yourself this: What's the coolest plot concept in Japanese animation and manga?

No, cooler than ninjas.

Cooler than pirates, too.

Magical girls? Are you kidding me?

There ya go: Giant robots. And the Skeptic's Circle has decided to harness their awesome power to combat weaponized woo. You'd better check it out; what's a giant robot without a prodigious teen pilot?

Proceed with your information binge...

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

The Greater Good

First of all, I apologize for taking so long getting this post out. Writing fiction always takes me longer than non-fiction, and I can't say why. Anyways, the point of this will become clear at the end, trust me.

Without further ado, it's story time. As an added bonus, I've decided to place this story within the world I'm building for by Litcraft story, so enjoy your first taste of it. Don't worry too much about guessing what point I'm getting to, just read. (Okay, I guess there was a little further ado. No more now, I promise.)

The Greater Good

The country of Derra was by no definition a military superpower. On the contrary, it had the smallest standing army of any nation in Wasparia. With the harshly aggressive Pratt Empire and the Republic of Cratakia fighting for dominance of the continent, it would seem to be a wonder that Derra had survived.

On closer inspection of the situation, however, a number of reasons for Derra's safety revealed themselves. The first of these was simply that Derra never did anything to anger anyone else. They never attacked anyone, never interfered in any wars that didn't involve them, and didn't have any significant amount of natural resources that couldn't better be found elsewhere. The only reason any country would ever be able to find to attack them would be expansion for the sake of expansion - which had indeed been a sufficient motive in many historical wars.

The other big reason that Derra remained safe is that every other country found its independence to be valuable to them. Without wars to distract them, Derra had made tremendous scientific and engineering advances, and it gladly sold the fruits of its research to anyone willing to buy. Derra's advances improved life for everyone, and no one wanted to risk halting their production by engaging them in a war.

That didn't stop them warring with each other, of course. Derrans, being culturally inclined to disdain war, generally looked down on this, but they generally had no power to stop it and so could do nothing. There was, however, one small, virtually unknown organization of Derrans who did something, working to make the world a more peaceful place. They had no official name, but those who knew about them called them the Peacemakers.

Officially, they didn't exist. Unofficially, the Derran government for the most part simply didn't know about them, and those who did worked to keep it that way for the rest. Plausible deniability was essential. If Derra were found covertly meddling in Cratonian or Prattish politics, matters could easily get worse than if nothing were done at all. However, if a certain warmongering Cratonian senator were caught in a scandal and forced to resign in shame thanks to an anonymous tip to a prominent news agency, a needless war could be quietly averted.

If anonymous were all there was too peacemaking, it might not have been nearly so critical to conceal their existence. But sometimes more extreme measures had to be taken. What was the life of a petty bureaucrat worth next to the thousands of innocents who could be killed in a war? And yet, the direct cause of harm to one person even to save thousands of others, would widely be considered a moral wrong. And when the Peacemakers end up having to kill an innocent person to prevent even more innocent deaths, the moral implications get even worse.

In the end, however much the human mind might be programmed to respond that actions such as murder can never be justified, there's a point where reality has to step in and point out that just because the brain is hardwired against doesn't mean it isn't the best action. Human minds evolved to best handle the vast majority of situations they would encounter in a relatively harsh environment. The civilization of humanity happened comparatively rapidly, and many wild instincts never evolved out. Pattern recognition which led to better identification of predators in the wild leads to counterproductive superstitions in civilization. Civilization complicates things, and these complications lead to many situations where the instinctual response might not be the correct one.

So Alton tried to convince himself, at least, as he waited for his target to appear. He was officially a Peacemaker - as official as they got, at least - but only just. He'd graduated the week prior, and this was his first mission. And what a mission it was! His superiors were wasting no time in giving him the hard tasks.

Melor Kren was the archetypal "warmongering senator," and he was Alton's first target. The problem was that the Cratonian succession system was set up so that any death of a senator would result in them being replaced by a chosen adviser of theirs, typically one with comparable ideas. Even if the chosen successor was also made unavailable, the law demanded a substitution of a "like-minded individual." In short, any senator's death could only result in someone else with the same viewpoint taking their place.

This could be avoided, however, if the senator instead chose to resign for any non-medical reason or was impeached. In that case, the law required a special election be held, under the principle that public opinion could well change after such an event. Thus, the solution to the problem of getting Kren out of power was to find or manufacture a sufficient scandal to force either his resignation or impeachment.

To make this work, the character of Kren had to be critically analyzed. He was first and foremost a nationalist, believing in the ultimate superiority of Cratonia and that it was its destiny to quash the barbaric Pratts and bring civilization to the other nation. He was also a devout follower of the Order of Origin, and spoke often of its principles. He was fond of using his religiousness to emphasize his moral character in campaigns.

The obvious choice was thus to go after his moral character. If his reputation could be destroyed, his embarrassment could easily be sufficient to force a resignation. However, upon close investigation it had become apparent that there were no significant flaws to his morals (at least according to the Order's doctrine). He honestly had no proverbial skeletons in his closet. The worst he could legitimately be accused of is making campaign promises he never intended to keep.

The only apparent chink in his armor came from a recent tabloid article which had implied him to be engaging in an affair. The actuality turned out to be that he was simply getting back in touch with an old friend who happened to be female. He wasn't even keeping it a secret from his wife, who had no problem with the situation and found the tabloid's accusations amusing.

But the story was still on the public's mind, and Kren had considered it below him to address it, which had led to him looking evasive about it. It seemed to be the perfect opportunity to manufacture a scandal and "expose" Kren of infidelity. But the problem with this plan was even if the public could be thoroughly convinced of his infidelity, Kren himself knew he was innocent and would be unlikely to resign over it.

That left impeachment. Simple marital infidelity wasn't an impeachable offense, nor were most actions that could be tied to it. The only action that actually was impeachable that might work was, quite unfortunately, if he were to murder his "mistress" to cover it up. A convenient disappearance was also unfortunately out of the question, as Cratonian law required either a body, a disappearance long enough for the victim to be declared dead, or a trustworthy eyewitness and an explanation for the absence of the body. Setting up a fake murder with an eyewitness would be next to impossible, and if she went simply missing, Kren would be left in power for far too long.

It was the most unfortunate situation for a Peacemaker to find himself in. In order to fulfill his mission and prevent Kren from inciting Cratonia into war, he'd have to kill an innocent woman and ruin the life of a well-meaning if misguided individual and his family. Kren's son had recently left for college, and would require his father's high senatorial salary to pay for it, and his daughter was still at home under his direct care. Both of them would be victims as well. Few people would describe this as a good course, and most wouldn't even hesitate to call it evil.

But must a judgment of morality stop at the action? Don't the ultimate results matter? But all his instincts were telling him that it was the hallmark of evil to believe that positive results could justify immoral actions.

And yet, what of all those lives that would be destroyed in a war? Kren was the most vocal proponent of war, and those in favor currently held a small but solid majority. A vote was likely to be held soon to authorize a war, and by then it would be too late. Embarrassing Kren out of office would cut out his vote and most likely cause a few moderates to think twice. The vote itself might never even come to pass without him pushing for it. It was clear-cut: Kill one innocent woman through action, or let untold thousands die through inaction.

* * * * *

I'm going to take a break from the story here, and ask you to think for a few minutes about the issues here. What's really the right action? In a slightly different vein, how should the story end?

There's no simple answer to this, but I do have an ending which I think you'll find satisfying. Once you have your own answer ready, read on to see mine.

* * * * *

No matter how much he tried to convince himself that the greater good could justify murder, Alton just couldn't fully convince himself of it. His ingrained morals just couldn't be overturned on the basis of one event. Maybe the senior Peacemakers had become hardened enough by death they could overwrite their basic instincts, but Alton couldn't.

So was that it then? Would he let war break out because of his weak stomach for violence? Why did they ever pass him if he couldn't pull off the deed? Surely his superiors had seen his reluctance to kill while he was in training. And why would they send a novice on such a critical mission? It didn't make sense.

Alton's mind drifted to wishful thinking of other ways, however implausible, of war being averted. Half the senate could have a change of heart and miraculously vote against it. Or maybe the populace could start speaking out against war and convince them. For that matter, if Kren were to have a change of heart, his position reversal would do even better than his impeachment at swaying the tide and averting war. But what could possibly convince him?

No time left; she'd come into view. He could pull the trigger and end her life. It would at first look like an initiation killing, the typical test to join one of the street gangs active in this area. But on further investigation, it would be revealed that she had only been in this neighborhood because of call from "Kren" asking her to meet him nearby. The gun used to commit the deed had been stolen from the collection of an associate of Kren, and sufficient evidence was planted to allow this to be traced. Kren would be impeached, out of office, and war would be averted.

But it wasn't going to happen that way. Alton was going to let her go, and then he'd desperately try to think of some other way to salvage the situation. He had no idea how he could do it, but there had to be some way to sway enough votes. If he could only get them to think of the human cost of war, maybe their better nature would cause them to think twice.

Alton lowered the stolen gun and sat back. He was going to let her live, and hope that against all odds this wouldn't cost others.

But then, against all sense in a neighborhood such as this, she stopped, just as she was in front of him. She looked like she was waiting for something. After a few seconds, he saw a smile appear on her face as she turned, looking directly at him.

Alton froze. This wasn't supposed to happen. How did she know he was there? What would happen if he were caught? He had to run. As he was bracing himself to make a break for it, her words made him freeze again, "Alton. Wait."

"How do you know my name?" He said back, still trying to judge if it was too late to flee. It probably was.

"Because I was in on the plan," she said. "I'm with the Peacemakers too. When Kren started making motions towards war, I was sent in under the guise of one of his old friends he'd lost touch with. I've been using our time together to convince him out of his course of action."

She was obviously waiting for Alton to say something, so he prompted her with the question he figured he was supposed to ask, "Then why was I here?"

"Your final test. We needed to make sure you had the right character. Peacemakers are trusted with a lot of autonomy, and they need to be able to make the right decisions on their own."

"So what was the right decision then? To sacrifice an innocent life for the greater good?"

"Not this time. I'm sure by now you've figured out that this time it wasn't worth it; it was better to work on changing Kren's mind. You realized this, and refused to kill, despite your orders to the contrary. You thought for yourself, and realized that it wasn't worth it. Therefore, you pass."

Alton stood in silence for many minutes, letting his mind adjust itself to the new situation. Eventually, one question rose to the surface of his mind: "Will I ever actually have to kill an innocent person?"

"I've never had to," the woman replied. "Maybe sometime the situation will come up, but you'll have to judge for yourself then. There are no simple answers."

* * * * *

Now at this point, you might be wondering what possible point I could be intending to make here. The point here is to raise an alternative interpretation, but before getting into that, a little discussion on this story.

What I've used here is a trope often known as the Secret Test of Character. The hero is subjected to some challenge in which they're ordered to do something which they believe to be wrong. They refuse to do it, and find that refusal was actually the correct choice. A real-life version of this went on in the Milgram Experiment, where most participants failed miserably.

This idea came to me when I was thinking about Pascal's Wager last week, while learning about this trope was also fresh on my mind. I ended putting the two together and asked myself: What if the world itself and the choice of whether or not to worship God is such a test?

If you read back through the Bible, you see God doing and ordering many clearly immoral things, including multiple instances of genocide. And yet, he orders you to believe in and worship him, on pain of eternal torment if you don't. If you superimpose this on the Secret Test of Character, then it might seem that God is really testing humanity to see who had the guts to stand up to him and declare that his actions are immoral, and that he is not worth worshiping - assuming he exists at all.

So here's one more alternative deity you can postulate in response to Pascal's Wager, whenever you hear it: A God who only permits those people who refuse to worship him because of his atrocities (if they happened) into heaven. Therefore, the solution is not to believe.

(Comments are open for whatever issue you feel like talking about. I've raised a lot of issues in this story, so feel free to discuss them as well.)

Proceed with your information binge...

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Skeptic's Circle #66


Ook! Eek ook-ook OOK!

Proceed with your information binge...