Total Drek

Or, the thoughts of several frustrated intellectuals on Sociology, Gaming, Science, Politics, Science Fiction, Religion, and whatever the hell else strikes their fancy. There is absolutely no reason why you should read this blog. None. Seriously. Go hit your back button. It's up in the upper left-hand corner of your browser... it says "Back." Don't say we didn't warn you.

Friday, June 29, 2007

I dunno if it's the dumbest, but it's certainly up there.

Blogging pal Plain(s)feminist is participating in a new meme over on her blog that I feel compelled to pass on. Specifically, the meme is as follows:

"For this meme, I'm going to ask you to answer three (hopefully not dumb) questions: What is the dumbest question you have ever been asked? Why was it dumb? And, even though it won't help, because answering a dumb question never does, what's the answer? (Or, as I like to think of them: The Big Dumb Question, The Big Dumb Reason, and The Big Dumb Answer.)"

To preface this you need to understand that for a time in college I served as the lab assistant for an astronomy course. I had, and still have, a strong amateur interest in space and astronomy so the professor offered me the position when his only truly qualified assistant quit. My duties were pretty simple- pick up/drop off the vans for the lab sections, assist with telescope operation, lead study sessions, and help with in-class lab assignments. It was during one of these in-class labs, when the students were using planetarium software to do a worksheet, that I encountered my answer to this meme.

(1) What is the dumbest question you have ever been asked?

"Is that when the constellations enter the Earth's atmosphere?"

(2) Why was it dumb?

Well, constellations are groups of stars that form a pattern when viewed from the Earth. Leaving aside the fact that the constituent stars in a constellation are often separated by tremendous distances and are not actually related to one another,* there's the simple fact that constellations are composed of stars. Stars are enormously hot, enormously massive balls of gas. The smallest stars are vastly larger than the Earth. Thus, constellations couldn't enter the Earth's atmosphere because, if for no other reason, our world would be ripped apart by tidal stress and plunged into hot fiery death first.

(3) What is the answer?

Well, the short answer is "No." The longer answer is what I wrote above. The answer I actually gave at the time was to stop, scratch my head, and comment, "I really need to take a minute here guys because, just to ask that question, there has to be so much that you don't understand, I'm not even sure where to start." Perhaps not the kindest response but, hey, I was just starting.

Anyone who wants to continue this particular meme, be my guest.

* Imagine you're in a city looking at a sky scraper in the distance and a small house just in front of you. The two appear together because they're in the same direction, but are so widely separated that they aren't truly geographically proximate. The same is often true of the stars in constellations.

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Thursday, June 28, 2007

The nightmare continues...

Way back in the day* I was not a blogger. I didn't really "get" blogging and looked at it as a somewhat self-indulgent hobby. I tended to think that it was an enormous waste of time and an excuse for people to feel more important than they actually are.** Then all that changed- Brayden, curse him, convinced me to enter the blogging world with a post that is, if nothing else, insulting and poorly written.*** The day that first post went online was June 28th, 2004; meaning that today is my three-year Blogiversary.

The last three years have been interesting ones for me. I've insulted folks, both intentionally and unintentionally, engaged in fascinating debates, and generally become more informed. It's been my experience that committing to post something five days a week tends to make me more alert for interesting or bizarre news. Does this give me a more complete perspective on the world? Well, maybe, maybe not, but I figure I have to be doing better than the Conservapeons. The most enjoyable part of becoming a blogger, however, has been getting to know- and even meet- other bloggers. There's quite a rogues gallery out here on the old intertubes. In addition to Brayden, who has abandoned his old haunts for the very successful, I've gotten to know Jeremy of Jeremy Freese's weblog, Tom Bozzo of Marginal Utility, as well as his co-blogger Kim and, to a much lesser extent, Ken. As if that weren't enough, there's Tina, now of Total Drek,**** Alan of the eponymously named blog, Plain(s)feminist, who always has something interesting to say, and Tom Volscho whose blog is much more intelligent than my own.*****

And, of course, the fun continues as I always seem to be meeting new and fascinating people via the blog. There's Dan Myers, S.S. Stone, and of course Brad Wright, who each have their own unique take on things.

So what is in store for the future? Probably more ranting about the intelligent design folk, more mockery of Conservapedia, and more juvenile humor. Hopefully, also, more learning, more fun, and more encounters with people who are more interesting them myself. Regardless, I know one thing for certain:

As long as I have my blog, I will always have a way to procrastinate! And that's all that matters.

* "The day" meaning, in this case, 2004.

** Actually, that's largely still my position on the matter.

*** It goes without saying that this set the tone for my future blog posts.

**** Sort of. She's way too busy being productive to actually blog much.

***** Not much of a feat, really, since some cereal boxes are more intelligent than this blog.

As a side note: the pictures I selected for individuals are a result of equal parts imagination and sheer laziness.

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Wednesday, June 27, 2007

I done went and did me some gender.

To most people gender is not a particularly difficult concept. Men are men, women are women, and life is good. Of course, this really isn't the case since we also have individuals with ambiguous genitalia and transexuals, not to mention that sex, an aspect of biology, is different from gender, an aspect of social life. Thus while a male may be unambiguous from a biological standpoint, possessing all of the standard features, a man is a particular social role that can be occupied by males. Or females, as it happens, since there have been times in history when the role of a man was successfully performed by someone who was biologically female. Sometimes this works out well, but other times... not so much. In any case, sex and gender are not as easy and clear as folks like to think.

It is because of this duality of sex and gender- what we are born with and the performance that we must master- that sociologists talk of "doing gender." One isn't simply "a man," but must learn to behave in a way that convincingly portrays a man. Likewise, females learn to be women, adopting the behaviors that are expected of them by society. Sometimes these behaviors are fairly trivial, such as my holding doors open for women, sometimes they are quite significant, such as perceptible differences in writing styles, and sometimes doing gender can be a difficult and dangerous experience.

This last case, when gender can be a threat to life and limb, is exemplified by a recent post from Tara Smith, proprietor of the fine blog Aetiology. She comments on one aspect of doing gender: the Brazilian wax. For those who don't know what a Brazilian wax is, I invite you to click on the preceding link, but if you're faint of heart allow me just to assert that it's probably one of the most painful things I can imaging doing to myself that doesn't involve a belt sander. In any case, the purpose of the wax is to remove as much hair from the pubic region as possible, since this hair is judged as "non-feminine" in many western societies. As aesthetic practices go, uncomfortable but not dangerous, right? Um... not so much. Smith comments on a recent article describing just how badly this kind of thing can go:

The particular individual described in the case report, however, already had untreated type 1 diabetes--a risk factor for a number of infections, including those caused by group A streptococci (Streptococcus pyogenes). This is the bacterium responsible for "strep throat" as well as serious invasive disease, including streptococcal toxic shock syndrome (STSS) and necrotizing fasciitis (the "flesh-eating disease.") In the days following her bikini wax, she came down with a fever, and had swelling and pain in the waxed region (along with a "copious vaginal discharge.") Still, she didn't seek medical attention for another week, when she was in really bad shape. She presented to the ER with not only "grossly swollen" external genitalia, and pain so extreme that she had to be put under general anesthetic just so her physician could perform a gynecologic exam. She was so swollen that, according to the legend to Figure 1 (which you can find online, as the article is freely available), "she was unable to pass urine, and the vaginal space was obliterated by edema."

Now doesn't that sound great? Amazingly, however, there's more:

You might think the story ends there. You would, of course, be wrong:

Six months later, the patient again attempted to remove her pubic hair by shaving herself; however, she had difficulty visualizing the area. She subsequently developed a recurrence of herpes and cellulitis of her vulva. She was readmitted to the hospital and was treated with valaciclovir and penicillin, and her condition improved...Despite her traumatic experiences, the patient was keen to undertake further removal of pubic hair.

The paper is as much about the psychology of beauty and the lengths one will put themself through as it is a report of the infection. STSS can be a deadly infection, especially when it is complicated by necrotizing fasciitis. Yet despite her recurring streptococcal infection, she was "keen to" submit to future hair removal procedures.

Smith is, obviously, correct except that this paper isn't about the psychology of beauty so much as the sociology of gender and role expectations. If doing gender was optional, and not all that important, it seems likely that this individual wouldn't continue undergoing procedures that threaten her life. Yet, here we are, with a patient who gives new meaning to the old slang "fire crotch."* This is not an individual psychological aberration, but simply an expression of the pervasive and overwhelming pressure to do gender- pressure that leads to other disorders like anorexia and bulimia, not to mention acute numbnutsitis. In our society we are often terrified of being mis-identified as the incorrect gender and go to considerable lengths to avoid such a fate. On those rare instances when we can't identify a person's actual gender, we often become quite uncomfortable. If you don't believe me, just think about that old Saturday Night Live skit, "It's Pat!"

Only rarely do individuals manage to capitalize on a certain amount of gender-bending and, when they do, it's almost always just a smidge disconcerting. A prime example of this is the Russian pop singer "Vitas," who is supposedly male, yet effectively sings soprano. No, really:

Is he male? Is she female? Does it matter? No, not really- if he produces good music his sex is irrelevant and yet... yet, our minds continally return to that point: what is his/her sex? Is he doing "male" or is she doing "female?" It is a sign of just how bound by gender we are that indeterminancy is so distracting.

I'm not going to suggest that doing gender is good or bad and I'm not going to talk about sexism: readers of my blog doubtless already have an idea how I feel about sexism. Instead, I just want to say this: people often complain that things are more complex now. They say that, in the past, men were men and women were women. Now, supposedly, that's not true anymore. They're right, of course, it isn't that simple anymore, but you know what else?

It never has been that simple.

* Seriously, people, you do understand how difficult it was for me to get this far through the post without making a horribly inappropriate joke, right?

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Tuesday, June 26, 2007

The Doomsday Machine

My blogging buddy Tom has remarked from time to time that he would have finished graduate school a year sooner if it hadn't been for the allure of Civilization- a videogame so addictive that it's spawned a term.* I don't know how serious Tom is about this claim but I have little trouble believing it- I am, myself, something of an addict with good turn-based strategy games. Unfortunately, this means that I have to face the possibility of an even more devastating "Graduate Student Killer" than Civilization. I refer, of course, to Sword of the Stars.

What is Sword of the Stars (SoTS)? Well, first and foremost, it's essentially "Civilization" in space. A game that focuses on expanding territory, technology, resources, and eventually military forces. It also weds turn-based strategy to a real-time tactical combat system in a way that seems artificial at first and then makes perfect sense. Perhaps more importantly, however, SoTS is the logical successor** to Master of Orion 2, one of the best games of this type ever produced. Now, it goes without saying that Sword of the Stars has fancy graphics. This has become a prerequisite for modern games and SoTS is no exception:

The graphics are not its main strong point, however. Its real strengths fall into two categories: gameplay and feel. In terms of gameplay, SoTS is one of the most varied strategy games to come out in a long time. It has an easy user interface that permits immense customizability. The technologies available to a player are randomly varied each game to prevent a single build list from predominating. Each of the species in the game has unique strengths including totally different forms of FTL travel- which compel significant changes in strategy and tactics both playing as them and playing against them. Additionally options like galaxy size, galaxy shape, galaxy type, time limits, resource limits, and so on, allow a considerable diversity of game dynamics. It's safe to say that the number of possible combinations vastly exceeds any one person's endurance. If there's any one area SoTS falls down it's in the limited diplomacy options. The only treaties possible are non-aggression pacts and alliances, and it's not clear how one goes about sucking up to one's rivals. Even here, though, there is a solution (more on that later).

The second major strength, feel, is particularly impressive. SoTS is not a game with a weak backstory. Instead, each species is given a lovingly crafted history, psychology, and biology. The game itself is obviously informed by a knowledge of science fiction as it contains realistic drive systems like pulsed fission, fusion, antimatter, and so on. Additionally, while many games have random encounters, SoTS is one of the few to use an advanced idea like a von Neumann probe instead of the classic, but cliched, "space amoeba." This gives SoTS an unusually strong sense of richness and depth. This isn't hurt at all by the producers' efforts to sell the game on its story rather than simply "we have more pixels than anyone else! 0wn3d!!!" For example, how many companies produce and release cinematic trailers for the sheer hell of it?***

In short, it's a flexible, fun game with enough depth to keep an intelligent gamer interested. Frighteningly enough, however, that isn't what makes this such an efficient grad student killer. The true danger is that it has- and I'm totally serious- a very slick and functional multiplayer. Yes, that's right: you can play your friends online, save the game, and then all come back to it at a later time. It all works beautifully with a sort of simplicity we don't often get in gaming. It's even clear that the game was designed with multiplay in mind since, while the diplomatic options are limited, there's a superb chat engine**** built into the game to facillitate complex negotiations between human players. It's not just that the game is addictive, it's that it can addict multiple grad students at once. And with a pricetag of around $20.00, it's affordable for those of us on a somewhat limited income.

So, in summation: we're all doomed.

* The "civ effect," which is when you tell yourself "Just one more turn..." and then don't surface for five hours.

** Some might argue that the logical successor to Master of Orion 2 is, in fact, Master of Orion 3. My response is that those who claim MOOIII is the successor to MOOII obviously haven't played Master of Orion III. It's more or less a spreadsheet tutorial with fancy graphics.

*** Okay, really, they produced it in the hopes of selling games. I get that. Still, it's nice to see them emphasizing the depth and story rather than that there are a billion ways to blow other ships up.

**** Easy to use and chock full of actual depth. Members of two different species can't chat until they've researched the technology to provide translations. Until then, any chat messages they send will be rendered as gibberish. Now THAT'S attention to detail.

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Monday, June 25, 2007

The magic eye

Many of you may remember a number of years ago when those "Magic Eye" pictures came out. For those who don't, they're semi-abstract patterns of colors and shapes that, when viewed properly,* will produce an emergent 3D picture. It's a fairly cool concept though, to be frank, I am almost entirely unable to see them myself.

I was reminded of these pictures the other day when taking a look at Conservapedia's mainpage. Since that page has expired, I include a handy screencap with the relevant passage circled in red. As always, click the below for a larger version:

For those too lazy to look yourselves, the text reads:

Shut down government science research, now that science research can be funded through the internet. See how the American government refused to fund a small test that the public wants done here. Is the problem that government will not fund anything contrary to the Theory of Relativity? [links original]

The story that the Conservapedia folks refer to is about John Cramer, a physicist and science fiction writer, who wants to test a theory of "reverse time." Cramer developed his approach as a way to resolve the inconsistency between relativity theory and quantum mechanics- the brief version is that relativity asserts that the speed of light is the fastest information can travel. At the same time, quantum mechanics has shown that a pair of particles that is "entangled" will respond synchronously to events regardless of distance, which implies the transmission of information at faster than light velocities. Both theories are highly successful, but their direct contradiction of one another is problematic at best. What Cramer hopes to do is explain it using some sort of time reversal which, as it happens, is not explicitly prevented by relativity. It just seems unlikely since, so far as we can tell, we never observe it. In any case, having been denied funding through traditional sources, Cramer is now essentially taking donations from private citizens via the internet. It's an interesting approach that has, so far, garnered $35,000.

There's a lot that I could say about this issue, but I'll limit myself to just a few remarks. First, this research isn't really a challenge to relativity. The disagreement with quantum mechanics is the challenge and this research will hopefully resolve it in a way that creates fewer problems for physics than it solves. As such, if scientists thought there was a real chance this approach would work, it would receive funding rather than be panned.

Secondly, funding agencies declined to supply Dr. Cramer with cash probably for the simple reason he himself recognizes. Specifically, that it's not very likely to work out:

"I'm not crazy," he confirmed. "I don't know if this experiment will work, but I can't see why it won't. People are skeptical about this, but I think we can learn something, even if it fails."

This is viewed as a longshot project and in an environment where there are far more grant-seekers than grants, long-shots will be at a disadvantage. I have no qualifications to judge Dr. Cramer's ideas, but his colleagues don't seem terribly hopeful. In any case, there's no conspiracy here.

Third, I have no problem with what Cramer is doing and I hope he gets the opportunity to test his ideas. My guess is that they won't work but, really, I'm rarely against inquiry in principle. I do, however, suspect that if I were to have to make the call about where to direct scarce research funding, I would probably go with the best balance between payoff size and probability of success that I could find- which likely wouldn't favor Cramer.

Fourth, if you're wondering why the Conservapeons making snide remarks about relativity, I can enlighten you. See, relativity provides part of the basis for concluding that the Universe is really, really, really friggin old. So, if you're a young Earth creationist** (i.e. YEC) relativity is right up there with evolution in terms of arousing fear and hatred. I'd feel sorry for the YECs but, hey, it's hardly my fault that their worldview is so screamingly inconsistent with observable reality.

Fifth, I know Republicans favor reducing the size of government,*** but do we really want private citizens deciding what science to fund? I mean, no offense, but a sizable proportion haven't quite adjusted to the falsification of geocentrism yet. Do we really think that the average plumber or tax attorney is qualified to judge the merits of a study on dopamine inhibition for treatment of muscle spasms in patients with brain trauma?

Sixth and finally is the slight issue of scale. Our comrades on Conservapedia are suggesting that the government doesn't need to be involved in science funding anymore because the internet can do it, and offers as proof the $35,000 raised for an experiment. This screams that the Conservapeons have no more idea how science is funded than they do about how good science is conducted. The Hubble Space Telescope, for example, cost six billion dollars over 30 years. Think we're going to get that kind of generosity, over that span of time, via the internet? The human genome project? Try $2.7 billion dollars. The Tokamak Fusion Test Reactor, a step on our way to sustainable fusion power? It cost upwards of $560 million dollars. In short: $35,000 may sound like a lot but, judged against the total expenditures on scientific research across multiple fields,***** it's a pittance.

If nothing else this experience just demonstrates, once again, that the folks on Conservapedia view the world as though it were a magic eye picture: if they cross their eyes and try hard enough a nice picture of a sailboat pops out, yet they can't see what's right in front of their faces.

* "Properly" in this case meaning "With crossed or unfocussed eyes."

** i.e. a flaming nutball who should not be permitted to play with sharp objects.

*** Specifically, they're for reducing the size of those portions of government that don't use sophisticated multi-million dollar weapon systems. When it comes to things that go kerblooie, Republicans are like pedaphiles in a preschool.****

**** Yes, I am a horrible human being for making that analogy. At the same time, how positive an analogy would you construct about folks who get so excited by the chance to build bigger and better ways to maim and destroy others?

***** You know, like epidemiology, cancer research, materials science, electronics, physics, psychology, sociology, etc.

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Friday, June 22, 2007

The Death of Significance?

At Decision Science News (another h/t to Brad DeLong), Dan Goldstein prints a comment from J. Scott Armstrong who has "concluded that tests of statistical significance should never be used." [Emphasis mine.] He is not conducting statistical performance art, and I substantially agree with the conclusion. A couple random remarks:
  • There are results which lead to a conclusion that social science researchers tend to tweak their statistical models to cross significance thresholds so they can produce positive results with (presumably) greater probability of publication. But,
  • To do so invalidates the published inferences. Because,
  • The "classical" statistics reported by most software packages are invalid under any pretesting (i.e., deciding on a model specification based on results from preliminary estimation). And,
  • The prospects for computing or simulating correct statistics are as good as the quality of the researcher's choice trail. But,
  • A lot of social science "theories" don't determine the full set of explanatory variables, making the lure of statistical model diagnostics attractive. Though,
  • There are families of models (e.g., the 'flexible functional form' cost models in economics, which I work with) where individual coefficients have no theoretical interpretation, in which case the researcher has no direct basis for evaluating the consequences of a restriction. More broadly,
  • Properties of social science data often mean we need to use consistent but inefficient estimators; sometimes "better" significance from inappropriate estimation methods have little meaning. (*) Last,
  • Some researchers (not least many who publish empirical results in top economics journals) tend to focus excessively on statistical significance to the detriment of more interesting discussions of the non-statistical significance of their results. (Views differ.)
Armstrong's reasonable recommendations are:
Authors... instead... should report on effect sizes, confidence intervals, replications/extensions, and meta-analyses.
For those of you with institutional access, links to the International Journal of Forecasting article are at the Decision Science News link.

(*) This sometimes leads to wacky advice being given to everyday applied researchers from econo- or sociometricians, of the "if a result from an inconsistent esitmator goes away with a consistent (but inefficient) procedure, be suspicious [or vice-versa]." Armstrong's bottom-line recommendations address the reasonable suspicions that might arise.

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Thursday, June 21, 2007

A Fishy Case Against the 'New Atheists'

Brad DeLong points to Adam Kotsko, who not only liked Stanley Fish's "Atheism and Evidence," but indeed lamented that the Times Select paywall keeps it from a broader audience. So let me expand on my previous reaction to Fish.

Fish criticizes Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins for their confidence that natural explanations will be found for currently not-well-understood phenomena of human behavior and consciousness. He invokes Francis S. Collins to name a scientist who would
argue that physical processes cannot account for the universal presence of moral impulses like altruism, “the truly selfless giving of oneself to others” with no expectation of a reward. How can there be a naturalistic [i.e., evolutionary] explanation of that?
Fish, let alone Collins, shouldn't need an economist to answer, "easy." Behaviors that don't seem to maximize individual fitness but may improve the population fitness aren't a problem for evolutionary explanations. (Elaboration of this concept, I gather, is Dawkins's major contribution to evolutionary theory.) Taking the politically charged subject of human behavior out of the picture, evolutionary accounts explain how, for instance, the gene that causes sickle-cell anemia can persist in populations at high risk for malaria despite the fatal consequences for individuals who get two copies of it.

(If I wanted to be snarky, I would say that writers inclined to lofty phraseology like "the universal presence of moral impulses like altruism" should read more anti-"death tax" polemics. I'd also wonder why Kotsko's postmodern allergy to overarching meta-narratives isn't aggravated by such questionable assertions of universality in human motivation.)

What Fish's argument really does is lays down a bet against future achivement of science:
Of course one conclusion that could be drawn [from hitherto limited progress in obtaining naturalistic explanations of human behavior] is that the research will not pan out because moral intuitions will not be reducible to physical processes. That may be why so few of the facts are in.
It's not good when you're trying to make the case that others are making logical leaps to leap to a conclusion that purportedly limited progress in a relatively new field of scientific research implies a problem beyond naturalistic explanation. Fish may offer the argument in the (not totally unreasonable) expectation that there will remain uncertainty over the physical processes that might be responsible for "moral intuitions" for the remainder of his life and thus that he won't be around to suggest that this explanation for the limitations of present knowledge is facially foolish.

Younger folks might not want to risk too much of their wealth on the anti-materialist position, for there's already evidence suggesting that behavior not totally unlike "moral intuitions" are in fact emergent properties of physical processes. For example, many people who are more-or-less miserable find themselves not as miserable while taking SSRIs. This suggests that "misery" is, at least in part, a property that's mediated by the chemical reactions SSRIs interfere with. A non-materialistic alternative explanation would seem to imply that SSRIs have some mystical effect on the "soul" or "spirit" despite being the products of scientific research that makes no appeal to mysticism, not to mention being manufactured in non-magical labs by secular corporations.

Yet this is likely a pillar of Kotsko's affection for Fish's essay, since Kotsko dislikes "reductionism." It is Kotsko's own business if he finds the set of all explanations from the in-principle effable world inadequate. But labeling "naturalism" in this sense as "reductionism" of the bad sort does some violence to much-less-innocent forms of reductionism, such as reducing people to reified utility functions and enacting policies that are sensitive to the assumptions one places on H. Economicus. (Cf. Waldmann's Wager.)

Kotsko starts quoting Fish in what is little more than a "past performance is no guarantee of future results" argument:
[Fish:] A very strong assertion is made – we will “undoubtedly discover lawful connections between our states of consciousness [and] our modes of conduct” – but no evidence is offered in support of it; and indeed the absence of evidence becomes a reason for confidence in its eventual emergence.
I'm inclined to call this as the first of a couple of flagrant fouls, insofar as I don't think this fairly characterizes the basis for confidence in future scientific progress. First, there is plenty of evidence of "lawful connections" between natural processes and "states of consciousness" and/or "modes of conduct" (q.q.v.) which frankly are obvious enough that it's inappropriate to criticize the Harrises and Dawkinses for not reciting them. Second, it takes something like willful blindness to suggest that science doesn't have an excellent track record in developing naturalistic explanations for natural processes. Third, also on the obvious side, the toolkit available to would-be students of the brain-ethics link has been rapidly expanding — think of the prospects for a computational biology research program based on 1980s technology. Last, the system under consideration is rilly rilly complex and it stands to reason that such "facts" as may be teased out of naturalistic explanations will take time to develop.

Kotsko also quotes what, to me, is Fish at his most infuriating:
[Fish:] [Dawkins says there] are “good Darwinian reasons for individuals to be altruistic, generous or ‘moral’ towards each other.”
So there's the answer to the "how can there be a naturalistic explanation" question.
[Fish, continuing directly:] Exactly! They are good Darwinian reasons; remove the natural selection hypothesis from the structure of thought and they will be seen not as reasons, but as absurdities. I “believe in evolution,” Dawkins declares, “because the evidence supports it”; but the evidence is evidence only because he is seeing with Darwin-directed eyes. The evidence at once supports his faith and is evidence by virtue of it. [Emphasis added.]
That's flagrant foul #2. Note the demotion of "natural selection" to a "hypothesis" as opposed to a natural mechanism that can be demonstrated empirically in the wild and/or simulated in a variety of lab-type settings (not least, the human body). The Darwinian explanation is that the behavior makes the group better off despite (maybe) having cost to some individuals, which frankly doesn't sound facially absurd under, say, a Divine Selection Hypothesis where "good works" facilitate more pleasant after-lives. (An economist might argue that it's not necessarily true that altruism necessarily is "costly" to the individual; at a minimum, I would argue specifically that it narrows the real scope of source-of-moral-behavior conundrums.) More to the point, Dawkins makes no claims that obviously can't be explained in terms of neuron interconnections and brain chemistry.

Fish carries this idea of circular reinforcement of belief systems to the point of gross misrepresentation:
The reasoning is circular, but not viciously so. The process is entirely familiar and entirely ordinary; a conviction (of the existence of God or the existence of natural selection or the greatness of a piece of literature) generates speculation and questions, and the resulting answers act as confirmation of the conviction that has generated them.
Even if you believe that the exsistences of God and of natural selection are "convictions" of equal stature — I doubt you'd get buy-in from either the theist or the atheist directions — the claim that answering "speculation and questions" necessarily reinforces the foundational convictions is just so much bullshit. Kotsko (presumably with Kuhn and/or Feyerabend in mind) criticizes falsificationism as the "Newtonian mechanics" of the philosophy of science, suggesting that scientists should better represent how the process of science really works. But science does not tell us that Newtonian mechanics are useless. Neither Kuhn nor Feyerabend is correctly read as demonstrating that scientific theories are inherently self-reinforcing. The actual dynamics might not be "maverick researcher proves the establishment wrong to universal acclaim," but convictions leading to scientific theories that ultimately explain stuff badly aren't renowned for their social-Darwinistic fitness. Falsification doesn't have to be the whole story to be a useful concept.

Part of the problem seems to be that Fish and Kotsko go at least a bit off the anti-empirical deep end. This is especially evident in Kotsko's claim that "[t]heological claims are also falsifiable within any given theological community -- it's not as if people can just say any old thing and be accepted." [Emphasis added.] Since theological claims aren't empirical, it could be argued that he really means something other than "falsifiable." To swipe a thought from Robert Waldmann, theological "facts" may be derived in logically correct ways from theological axioms, but since those facts not only are non-empirical, but often claimed not to be subject to empirical validation (i.e., they constitute "articles of faith" independent of empiricism). This renders them something other than testable theories in the scientific usage.
Kotsko makes a valid point that it's wrong to treat theological dogma as immutable.
[D]ogma does change over time. If everything was unequivocally "set" for all time in some indisputable set of revealed propositions, then the history of Christianity, with its many controversies and many moments of genuine uncertainty as to which side would win, would literally make no sense at all.
But this, too, undermines another contention of Fish's:
[Fish:] Asking that religious faith consider itself falsified by empirical evidence is as foolish as asking that natural selection tremble before the assertion of deity and design. Falsification, if it occurs, always occurs from the inside.
At best, this depends on what you mean by "religious faith." Looking at a document such as the 1950 encyclical Humanae Generis (a Ground Zero for religion-science interactions), it's clear enough that a core of Catholic faith is put beyond the reach of empirical falsification. But it would seem to demand evidence that there isn't pressure on aspects of religious faith from emprical science. It seems beyond credulity that the processes by which many religions dropped (or diminished) tenets that the solar system is geocentric, that mental illnesses are not caused by demonic possession, or that the creation of the universe was according to the accounts in Genesis were generated "from the inside."

Ultimately, Fish warns that his own beliefs can't be inferred from his arguments and he may think the entire preceding argument is total bullshit and he won't say. ("Despite what some commentators assumed, I am not taking a position on the issues raised by the three books; readers of this and the previous column have learned nothing about my own religious views, or even if I have any.") So maybe the whole exercise has been an extended masturbation or devil's advocacy session; Fish isn't telling. My guess is left as an exercise for the reader.

(Cross-posted at Marginal Utility.)

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Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Meanwhile in Second Life...

Following up on Slag's post, today's Personal Journal brings (free!) news of the latest in corporate colonization of the Second Life virtual world: virtual job fairs and virtual job interviews.

Pace Slag, I don't really wonder why people neglect their First Lives. I've done it plenty in various less-than-immersive virtual realities, if much less so since I've had kids and a spouse to keep my spare time occupied. A commenter likewise suggests you might as well ask why people enjoy passive entertainments such as television. I have little doubt that my own preference for interacting — up to and including use of virtual weapons of mass destruction — with 'bots instead of remote humans (*) will eventually be viewed as an odd side-effect of computing youth in the pre-intertube age.

Two of this year's Hugo best novel nominees in fact explore worlds in which people with interactivity preferences like mine would end up grievously future-shocked. A minor plot point in Peter Watts's Blindsight [full text!] involves a shift of norms such that in-person sex is considered deviant; Charlie Stross's Glasshouse is set in a far-future in which the ability to save one's (biological) state vector easily, combined with an ability to manipulate it virtually at will, makes radical body modification commonplace. Merely living in a virtual reality as, say, a talking velociraptor is old hat technology from the prequel-ish Accelerando.

Nor is the arrival of business activity to SL any surprise. Back in the Summer of '94, some summer school classmates and I had agreed that a central problem for creators of immersive virtual worlds would be getting clients to engage in enough productive activity to pay their (mostly First Life) bills. (**)

The more interesting question is whether mainstream society is up to the technology. The W$J article suggests maybe not.

A handy sidebar offers hints for the SL job hunter. The first is, don't go to an interview as "a troll or a mermaid" when interviewing with an employer with a "conservative workplace culture." I might'a thunk that employers with really conservative workplace cultures don't recruit in Second Life, though there's a danger that some such firms may step out on the wild side to establish cool cred with Generation Z. Anyway, while sensible, the Journal's advice conflicts with Linden Lab's "be who or what you want to be" pitch, evidenced by the three avatars I saw on successive visits to the SL home page: a blue-haired young woman with a cybernetic outfit suitable for Exo-Force, an angelic (as in winged) young woman in a diaphanous dress, and a man with comically exaggerated pecs and shoulders wearing a zoot suit.

One interviewee is reported as having gone through a training class prior to a recruiting session, and nevertheless gives his interview avatar a name other than his real name. Interestingly, while applicant pseudonymity — vanishingly rare in most real-world employment searches — it seemingly was expected of this situation; another fair-goer underwent a virtual sex change. This underscores a fundamental WYSINNWYG problem with the medium. The article relays predictable stories of applicants and interviewers alike comically unable to control their avatars. The flip side is someone whose expertly designed and controlled avatar conceals some sort of repellent personal characteristics. (***)

Nor does the medium necessarily test relevant aptitudes. The fellow with the pseudonymous applicant-avatar was seeking an executive chef job, for which skill at typing in an IM setting is not obviously relevant. Nor, for that matter, is possession of a computer capable of meeting SL's system configuration recommendations, except for occupations where the associated signal of technodorkery might be informative. For everyone else, the Journal helpfully suggests not to run other apps along with SL. You don't want to get pwned because the SL client bogs down your obsolescent computer.

The bottom line, naturally, is that virtual interviews economize on moving around recruiters, interviewers, and interviewees in meatspace. Operators of overstuffed airliners, take heed: business travel demand is not inelastic.

(*) Possibly without good cause, I put the array of blog-related dealings with various people I've never met or even interacted with at closer range than e-mail exchanges (including but not limited to all of my co-bloggers) in a separate category.

(**) I don't think we would have foreseen that the price of SL-level immersion would be trivial relative to that of an extensive cable TV package, but that was back when Doom II was the state of the art and the (superior) Marathon was yet to be released.

(***) One memorable job talk I attended was given by a candidate who raised suspicion by failing to get tenure at Snowbelt State despite being a student of a Famous Professor; delivering the talk half-concealed behind the whiteboard led us to doubt his client-interaction skills.


What's wrong with First Life?

Can someone explain the appeal of SecondLife to me, please? It's an online virtual world where people create avatars for themselves, and interact with other people's avatars. You can buy land in the virtual world (paying with real money), and you can use the land to build whatever you want. People have set up businesses in SecondLife, and some professors are teaching classes and holding office hours entirely in SecondLife.

The program now has 7.2 million members, more people than Israel, Ireland, or Singapore. According to their web site, people spent $1.7 million there yesterday.

The program is a downloadable client, and it doesn't work on either my desktop or my laptop. But seriously, what's the big deal? Why is this thing so popular?

My favorite SecondLife story is this. In the last French presidential elections, each of the political parties set up a virtual headquarters in SecondLife, including the far-right National Front party of Jean-Marie Le Pen. The far-right SecondLife virtual party headquarters attracted virtual protesters - and the protests quickly turned virtually violent. Why not just have a real protest in front of the real headquarters?

Why is SecondLife so popular? Sociologists and computer addicts, any theories?


Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Another danger of radiation

After I posted about Chernobyl yesterday, this is a good time to reflect on an even greater danger of the modern age, by way of another story. This story too has a moral that deals with the nature of science and society - but it's not a happy one.

Sure, it's dramatic when a nuclear reactor explodes and spreads radioactive dust for thousands of miles, killing as many as tens of thousands with cancer. But there are smaller dangers of our radioactive age that may turn out to be even greater.

In 1985 in Goiânia, Brazil, a radiation clinic moved to a new location. Against international and Brazilian regulations, they left a radiotherapy machine in the old building. The machine contained a single tube of cesium chloride made with the radioactive isotope Cesium-137. Cesium-137 emits gamma rays, a highly dangerous form of radiation that can pass through lead and can wreak havoc on human tissue and DNA.* The source at Goiânia had contained enough cesium to create about 50 million radioactive decays per hour. If you stood one meter away from it for one hour, you would receive a radiation dose of about 4.5 grays (all figures from the Wikipedia article).** What would that dose do to you? Probably nothing but irrevocably increase your cancer risk - which is hardly nothing. But if you spent about three full days one meter from the source, your risk would go up to this level:
Severe radiation poisoning, 35% fatality after 30 days (LD 35/30). Nausea is common (100% at 3 Sv), with 50% risk of vomiting at 2.8 Sv. Symptoms onset at 1 to 6 hours after irradiation and last for 1 to 2 days. After that, there is a 7 to 14 day latent phase, after which the following symptoms appear: loss of hair all over the body (50% probability at 3 Sv), fatigue and general illness. There is a massive loss of leukocytes (white blood cells), greatly increasing the risk of infection. Permanent female sterility is possible. Convalescence takes one to several months.

Back to
Goiânia. Brazil has a huge population of squatters that move into abandoned buildings and desperate poor people who scavenge abandoned buildings for scrap metal to sell, to make a few extra centavos. Inevitably, on September 13th, 1987, two men salvaged the radiation therapy machine for scrap. Their names were Roberto dos Santos and Wagner Mota. They both later developed extensive radiation burns, and one had to have his arm amputated.

They tried to open the casing of the cesium source, but were unable to. They did, however, break the opaque window to see the source emitting a strange and beautiful blue light. dos Santos and Mota sold the source to Devair Ferreira, a junkyard owner, who intended to make a ring for his wife, Maria, with the mysterious and beautiful substance.

You probably see where this is going. Ferreira had two of his employees break into the casing to get at the source. Both later died of radiation poisoning. Ferreira showed the source to his brother, Ivo, who scraped some of the dust onto the floor of his home. Ivo's daughter,
Leide das Neves Ferreira, ate meals off the floor. She died on October 23rd and was buried in a lead coffin, sealed with concrete.***

Meanwhile, Devair Ferreira sold the casing of the source for scrap metal, spreading the radiation poisoning around the community. Fortunately, no deaths have been directly traced to the scrap metal, but it's impossible to tell how many people will develop cancer later in life as a result.

Over the next few days, the Ferreiras showed the cesium chloride to many of their friends, and many of them became sick. No one knew why. On September 28th (15 days after the source was found), Maria Ferreira suspected that the mysterious substance might be the cause and took it to a local clinic. The doctor there correctly suspected what had happened. Soon after, the International Atomic Energy Agency was called.

On October 23rd, Maria Ferreira died of radiation poisoning, although she may have saved many other lives by correctly guessing the reason her friends were getting sick.

A massive environmental cleanup started throughout the city of Goiânia, which caused some level of panic in Brazil. The Wikipedia article has more information about the cleanup. The IAEA concluded that the danger is largely gone.

What makes this such a sad story is that these were truly innocent victims. I talked about Dinesh D'Souza yesterday, who is the kind of person who will viciously attack the methods and conclusions of science but would gladly accept radiation therapy if he had cancer, and gladly posts his diatribes on a computer without a word of gratitude for Alan Turing.

No, the people at
Goiânia didn't know any better. Brazil is in a fairly unique situation as a country, straddling the first and third worlds in such a way as to make the Goiânia accident most likely. The country is rich enough to have modern medical care including radiation therapy, but poor enough that there are millions of uneducated poor people who can survive only by scavenging scrap metal from hospitals. A nearly identical accident happened with a truck driver in Mexico in 1983 and thieves in Estonia in 1994.

And that leads to the question of science and society. Who was responsible for the deaths of Maria Ferreira,
Leide das Neves Ferreira, and the two junkyard workers? Certainly the owners of the clinic who left the machine, who were later charged with criminal negligence. Certainly the education system and media in Brazil should bear some responsibility for creating a society where people can't recognize the radioactivity symbol.

But do Henri Becquerel and Marie Curie bear some responsibility too? I think they do. Some people might argue that they are too far back on the chain of causes - after all, Curie died 53 years before the Goiânia accident. But, as scientists are always quick to point out, basic research can have applications that could never be predicted at the time. The positive future applications are nearly always used as support for basic research. But you can't take credit for the good and disown the bad. Once you bring something into the world, you take responsibility for it.

Many of the scientists working on nuclear energy understood this. Henry Kendall founded the Union of Concerned Scientists, and other scientists fought to get nuclear programs controlled by the Department of Energy rather than the Department of Defense.

In an age where we have millions of desperately poor people, a few committed terrorists, and radioactive samples in abandoned buildings all over the former Soviet Union, we should understand this too.

*[Pedantic note for youse physicists]Cesium-137 doesn't emit gamma rays directly; rather, it decays by beta decay into Barium-137m, which is metastable and has a half-life of only 2 minutes. Barium-137m decay is responsible for the gamma ray emissions.[/Pedantic note]

**For what follows, I'm assuming that 1 gray = 0.01 sievert for gamma decay, which is suggested by the Wikipedia article on radiation sickness, which gives Q = 1 for photons and N = 0.01 for skin (which I assume equals external exposure). Someone please correct me if these are the wrong values.

***I may be confusing you with all these Brazilian names, especially when so many of them are named "Ferreira," but I think it's important that these people are remembered.

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Monday, June 18, 2007

Let's all go to Chernobyl...

...and see what happens. Let's at least go in a thought experiment, and maybe we'll learn something.

On April 26, 1986, the nuclear power plant in Chernobyl, Ukraine, USSR exploded, causing the radioactive core of the plant to melt, releasing highly radioactive elements into the surrounding air. Radioactive poisons covered the town and drifted on winds as far away as Ireland. So far, at least 56 people have died due to exposure, but health officials estimate that more than 9,000 people could die someday, directly because of Chernobyl poisoning. Or maybe more than 30,000 people, depending on who you ask. Predicting health effects of radiation exposure is not easy.

The city of Chernobyl is now a ghost town (click that link - it is really heartwrenching, especially the pictures of the school and the ferris wheel). Today, much of the radioactivity has dissipated, but it's still highly dangerous to go into the plant. But you could* - and if you did, you would discover a very important lesson about the nature of science and its role in our lives.

The accident occurred during the middle of the night. The poorly-trained night shift crew was running a scheduled maintenance test to see how little power the backup generators would require to maintain the safety systems that kept the reactor cool. Allow me to repeat that, to reveal its full insanity... TO SEE HOW LITTLE POWER THE BACKUP GENERATORS WOULD REQUIRE TO MAINTAIN THE SAFETY SYTEMS. They certainly did find out, and proved that truly, human stupidity knows no boundaries. The Wikipedia article has a more detailed explanation of how the disaster occurred.

A cloud of radioactive particles - plutonium, strontium, iodine, and other elements - spread into the air, and increased radioactivity levels were seen as far away as Ireland. The U.S. Office of Scientific and Technical information published a detailed report about the radiation release.

The area within 30 km of the plant was evacuated, and is now the previously-mentioned ghost town of Chernobyl. Children in that area immediately received a radiation dose of up to 50 grays of radiation exposure (as written in Wikipedia, but not referenced).**

The most deadly radioactive element from Chernobyl was Iodine-131, which has a half-life of only 8 days. So the surrounding area is fairly safe - in fact, Belarus has declared part of the Chernobyl-fallout-affected area as a nature reserve. But the reactor itself is still sealed inside a concrete structure. Workers go in to make repairs on the structure - they work in full protective gear, only a few minutes per day.

What would happen if you went inside the structure, unprotected, and spent a lot of time there? You probably wouldn't notice anything wrong, but your chance of developing cancer would irrevocably increase. With more time and exposure, you would start to get sick, with nausea and vomiting as your immune system started to fail. If you happened to be pregnant, you would almost certainly miscarry. With more radiation exposure, you would start bleeding internally, and your immune system would start to fail. Manhattan Project scientist Louis Slotin died nine days after this level of radiation exposure, after heroically directing a burst of strong radiation toward himself and saving eight other people in the room.

This is not at all pleasant. So how do you protect yourself? Scientists and engineers have developed radiation safety devices and measures, most prominently Geiger counters and radiation badges (film badge dosimeters). Geiger counters click when they detect radiation, and radiation badges change color when they have received an unsafe dose. When you hear clicks or you see the badge change, you know it's time to leave. When I was an innocent undergraduate (geo)physics student, they gave us badges for an experiment we did measuring radioactive decay. The badge never changed - a testimony to the good safety procedures that we put in place. If I ever saw mine, or anyone's change, I would have left the lab immediately.

And that's the lesson about the nature of science. Drek previously commented on some misguided statements by Dinesh D'Souza, who said:

The atheist writer Richard Dawkins has observed that according to the findings of modern science, the universe has all the properties of a system that is utterly devoid of meaning. The main characteristic of the universe is pitiless indifference.... If this is the best that modern science has to offer us, I think we need something more than modern science.***

But if D'Souza ever went to Chernobyl, he'd understand that science does not work that way. Yes, the universe is pitiless and indifferent, but hey, did we really need science to tell us that? All of human history has been us struggling against pitiless, indifferent nature! I think we've done pretty well for ourselves.

If he went to Chernobyl, what D'Souza would realize is that science can protect you. Let me repeat what I said above: What would happen if you went inside the [Chernobyl power plant] structure, unprotected, and spent a lot of time there? You probably wouldn't notice anything wrong, but your chance of developing cancer would irrevocably increase.

But not if you had a radiation badge! If Dinesh D'Souza went to Chernobyl with a radiation badge, the discoveries of science would save your life. He would know when he stayed to long, and he would leave. Similarly, if he developed cancer, "good" radiation could save his life. In fact, Iodine-131 is used in some radiation diagnoses and treatments. It's the very same isotope that killed so many people at Chernobyl, just in a lower dose. And what human endeavor discovered what dose of Iodine-131 would heal instead of kill? Science!

What science faces off with a pitiless, indifferent world, science can win. But what science can't do is tell you why you should care enough to help the world. That's the job of religion, or law, or custom, or just common human decency. Science and morality work together to make our world a better place. But we need both.

And that's the lesson of Chernobyl.****

*OK, so you really couldn't. The door is locked and there are guards. But this is a thought experiment.

**I'm trying to give a comparison to chest x-rays or similar medical radiation exposures, but it's hard to find information, and the differing biological effects of exposure to different kinds of radiation make comparisons difficult. Can anyone help with this?

***No, I'm not quote mining. Read his original blogpost if you like.

****Another lesson: Don't be an idiot. For example, don't try to see how little power a nuclear reactor will need to operate safely. But we know how much power is enough - a little more than we need - to keep the reactor safe. Science can help you with that too.*****

*****Then there's the question of whether nuclear power is a good idea. That's a question for both science and morality too! It's also a topic best left for future posts.

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Friday, June 15, 2007

Helpful hints

Total Drek Helpful Hint #1: When meeting people for the first time, it's wise to avoid saying whatever comes to mind. This is especially true when meeting visiting faculty or going to conferences. It's also helpful when meeting the family of one's significant other.

This may seem difficult but, really, it cuts both ways as hopefully if you avoid telling your girlfriend's father about what a lynx she is in bed, he will decline to comment on how you're a good-for-nothing freeloader. This sort of discretion will also often extend to various tasks- so as a guest you may be asked to help set the table, but probably will not be asked to kill a rat with a broom and your bare hands.*

The more you know.

* Though this is by no means certain, believe you me.**

** Yes, I'm fucking serious!

Special thanks to the fabulous webcomic xkcd.


Thursday, June 14, 2007

Um... you do see the irony, right?

Regular readers of the blog know that I keep an eye on Uncommon Descent, the blog of "Wild Bill" Dembski. Okay, that's something of a fallacy- the blog is organized by Dembski but, by and large, it's manned by Dembski's cronies. To quote the venerable Ben "Obi Wan" Kenobi, "You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy." In any case, Uncommon Descent is the hangout for proponents of Intelligent Design creationism, an approach to biology that takes the argument from ignorance to new and more grandiose levels of stupidity.

In any case, keeping an eye on the IDers over there is an interesting intellectual exercise for me. On the one hand, I enjoy following the writing of those I disagree with- if nothing else, it keeps my brain limber. On the other hand, even my admittedly gymnastic mind isn't really the equal* of those cerebral contortionists and their god-of-the-gaps argument. Fortunately for me, however, they occasionally drop the evasive reasoning and just go for out and out hypocrisy.

Recently Paul Nelson wrote a post consisting of the following:

Whacha gonna do with all that junk…

…such as, for instance, those LINE elements?

Wired magazine weighs in with an article about the shifting fortunes of so-called “junk DNA.” Anyone following the ongoing discovery of functional roles for DNA once assumed to be evolutionary rubbish should agree that this is the very worst heuristic for biology:

I don’t know what X does; therefore, X probably does nothing.


Ha! Quite the zinger Paul! What an example of stupid reasoning, "I don't know what X does; therefore, X probably does nothing." Leaving aside the fact that scientists never asserted that any such thing was definitively true** there's the small issue that you're an ID supporter- and ID uses reasoning that goes something exactly like this:

"I don't know how X could have occurred naturally; therefore, X must have been produced by god!"***

Indeed, quite the unassailable logical edifice y'all have constructed there. Hell, your own adherents even realize this:

"I don’t know what it does therefore it must be vestigal” world view is far more deletirious to the mission of science than “The specified complexity is impossible to evolve by random chance, therefore, it must be designed” world view could ever be.

And thus decide to choose between two logical fallacies by deciding which one is less personally annoying. Nice.

I don't really have a deeper point here aside from just observing out that if the irony gets any thicker I'll need a diamond-toothed chainsaw to cut my way through.

UPDATE: Steve Reuland over on the Panda's Thumb has also posted some commentary on this issue. It's much more intelligent than my own and you should go take a look!

* I am, at best, using "equal" in an ironic sense here. I know Dembski is probably a smart guy but, really, his assertions about probability make me want to scream. Why must the bad man keep hurting Drek's brain with absurd arguments?

** The scientific perspective is that we should expect some DNA to be genuine junk but, really, there's never been consensus that it was ALL without function.

*** I am well aware that the IDers would claim that their "designer" is not necessarily god. I just regard that claim as entirely disingenuous.

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Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Making my point for me.

Regular readers of this blog may recall that, a while back, I suggested a little hobby for folks. Specifically, I suggested an effort to edit Conservapedia* articles to help keep them in line with observable reality. This is, of course, a significant task since Conservapedia appears almost designed to introduce and preserve factual inaccuracy. At the time I indicated that I would be keeping an eye on the conservapedia entry for "Atheism" as atheism is very near to my heart, and it seemed to me that it would be a likely candidate for a pretty brutal hatchet job.

Well, ladies and gentlemen, it's time for a status report of sorts. You see, I've been watching the atheism page and it's been quite an experience. After some editing by myself and others the atheism page reached a relative high point back in March. You can see an example of this antique if you're interested. In this earlier incarnation it had a number of sections, including one on atheist morality:

Atheists often base their moral code upon emotion, experience, empirically derived ethics, or some combination thereof.[Citation Needed] It is important to note, however, that just as many religions disagree on specific moral points, and there is sharp disagreement within many religions (e.g. denominational disputes within Christianity), atheists differ substantially from each other in the details of their moral beliefs. Thus, it is difficult at best to summarize the beliefs of the "average atheist."

Atheists typically hold that no religious text can be our only source of morality although all of them may contain useful ideas or principles. As atheists do not believe in any form of deity, books purported to be based upon the wishes of such deities are inherently suspect. Additionally, many atheists point out that all religious texts contain, and often ascribe to God, extremely immoral acts such as the Israelite expulsion of heathen nations from Canaan (i.e. ethnic cleansing), the stoning of homosexuals to death, questionable treatment of women and the institution of slavery. Additionally, atheists often point to a large number of prominent contradictions present in the bible and other religious texts. The presence of such contradictions challenges claims that these works are the infallible word of God.

Atheists sometimes subscribe to the secular humanist idea that it is far more desirable to do what is right because you believe that it is right, rather than because you fear divine punishment or desire divine reward. Atheists sometimes condemn religious desires for exclusive reward (and the punishment of others) such as are found in many religious texts. [links omitted to save my sanity]

And on the atheist population:

In the Great Britain 2001 census, 15.5% of the population identify themselves as having no religious beliefs 2001 Census. This category included agnostics, atheists, heathens and those who wrote Jedi Knight. However other articles suggest a much higher rate of around 52% in the UK once agnostics have been considered.

More specific research on atheists conducted in 2006 suggests that the true proportion of Atheists is 4% in the United States, 17% in Great Britain and 32% in France. The Christian research organization, the Barna Group, reports that 12% of Americans are atheist or agnostic. Given that the methodology of the Barna Group study does not distinguish between atheists and agnostics, it is impossible to say if their results support, or contradict, the 4% figure. Estimates of the prevalence in atheism in the United States are, however, almost always much lower than comparable estimates from Europe.

It is important to keep in mind that surveys containing an option for "no religion" are not necessarily identifying solely atheists. Indeed, many individuals may believe strongly in some form of god but not subscribe to any one particular religion, and as a result will enter a response of "no religion" on surveys. As an example, 14.39% of the respondents to the 2004 General Social Survey in the United States claim to have "no religion." Of a subsample (197 respondents) of those persons with no religion who answered a second question on the origins of man, 19.80% believe that God created man while an additional 43.15% believe that God created man by guiding evolution over time. Thus, cumulatively 62.95% of those with "no religion" still believe that God was directly responsible for the creation of man in some fashion. Clearly, then, many of those claiming to have "no religion" are not atheists. These data are available and can be analyzed online GSS Data Online. Additionally, some atheists consider atheism to be a religion and will not respond that they have "no religion" on surveys, often preferring an "other" option.

Are these the best written sections ever? Of course not- but they represent a start. In fact, if we count the number of words in the entry for atheism way back in March we find a modest score of 1,455. Now let's consider the entry as it stands today. The most obvious change is the addition of a fabulously helpful visual aid:

When we get past that, though, we find that things have changed rather a lot. Take the section on atheist morality:

Although it is difficult to generalize about atheism because it has no creed in a way that Christianity, Judaism, and Islam do, atheists typically hold that no religious text can be the only source of morality; they do not look for their morality in revelation, but rather in reason or some other internal force. However, many atheists believe that religious texts contain useful ideas and principles, such as the Golden Rule. Such people would, however, assert that useful principles entered religion because they are useful, and not the other way around. As atheists do not believe in any form of deity, books purported to be based upon the revealed words of such deities are not considered to have any more inherent moral authority than books written by people, as they consider them to be one and the same.

Or the section on atheist population:

It is difficult to accurately determine the proportion of the population that is atheist because survey definitions, and even real life definitions, are often unclear. Some people are unsure of the existence of God, but they are sometimes counted as atheists. People who think that the existence of god cannot be proven or disproven are called agnostics (see Agnosticism). Furthermore, surveys containing an option for "no religion" are not necessarily identifying atheists. Individuals may believe in some form of god but not subscribe to any particular religion.

Specific research on atheists conducted in 2006 suggests that the true proportion of atheists is 4% in the United States, 17% in Great Britain and 32% in France.

In fact, if we calculate the word count for the new version we get 774 words- or a scant 53% the size of the previous incarnation. This, of course, ignores the potential quality differences between the versions but I think most of you will agree that quality, as well as word count, has declined. When we compare both versions to Wikipedia's entry on atheism we find that the "liberal" encyclopedia clocks in at 5,324 words- vastly exceeding even the most thorough version of the Conservapedia article.

Now, what I find interesting in all this isn't that the Conservapedia article is shorter than the Wikipedia article- there are, obviously, fewer people working on Conservapedia- but rather that it has actually gotten shorter over tme. One would expect the opposite trend to hold sway. It actually appears that the total effect of producing a "Wikipedia for conservatives" is a shield against being exposed to too much information or too many perspectives. I suspected as much from the beginning, but it's nice to see Conservapedia more or less proving my point for me. It also gives me a rather charming idea for a new conservapedia slogan:

"Conservapedia: For people who think ignorance is strength!"

Catchy, eh?

* The encyclopedia for people who think that electricity is the result of tiny angels running in place!

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Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Should've seen that coming.

I'm a little busy this morning, and behind schedule, so I'm afraid you will have to do without my usual craptacular thoughts on things. No great loss, I know. However, since I know you crave diversion, I thought I'd point all of y'all to something vastly more interesting than myself. There are many folks who believe in, and patronize, psychics. If the number of palm readers and fortune tellers who set up shop in a city isn't sufficient to convince you of that, just consider the popularity of television shows like The Ghost Whisperer and Medium, not to mention old school classics like Uri Geller. Unfortunately, there is absolutely no evidence that psychic powers exist and most, if not all, feats performed by alleged psychics have been duplicated by trained magicians like Harry Houdini, Penn & Teller and James Randi.

To that list we can now add Karen Stollznow who came up with an interesting way to "test" the sort of psychic services available today. How did she do this? Well, by attempting to become a psychic herself:

A psychic can claim to be ‘skeptical’, but can a skeptic be psychic?

Is psychic ability in the eye of the beholder?

These questions arose when I stumbled across a job opportunity for psychics, advertised at Job sharing, casual work and second, even third jobs are necessary evils in today’s world. Some replenish stock in supermarkets at night, others telemarket or work behind a bar. Only the very few can earn a few extra dollars as a psychic. That would require a specific skill, wouldn’t it? But what kind of skill? Real psychic ability or cold/warm/hot reading skills and a glib manner?

The job advertisement was a call from an “ethical psychic network in the US, as seen on TV”, seeking psychics and tarot readers (“pros only”) to work from home for chat room, telephone and email readings. Absolutely Psychic is operated by ACM Entertainment, a company whose very name suggests the solemnity with which we should view the entire industry.

The company recruits "psychic associates" online, advertising in chat rooms, on mailing lists and job boards, seeking staff from as far away as New Zealand and the UK. Interested parties were urged to submit an application via an online form. Professing no psychic or indeed any paranormal abilities whatsoever, I wondered how far I could infiltrate until I would be revealed to be a skeptic posing as a psychic.

It's an interesting project and well worth the effort. While going to fortune tellers for entertainment is perfectly fine, it's not uncommon for people to rely on them for advice and guidance. In some cases, this has provided scam artists and confidence men with an easy way to fleece the public. If that wasn't enough, it's common for alleged psychics to contact desperate families during missing child cases and offer their services for hundreds to thousands of dollars. Not a bad haul for providing no service whatsoever. Now, one would expect that a group composed of high quality psychics would have seen Karen coming from a mile away but, in fact, she got rather far in the interview process. How far, you ask? See for yourself and prepare to be amused.*

In any case, head on over and take a look. It's an interesting read and well worth the time.

* I'd say "amazed" but, really, if you're amazed that psychics are full of shit, I don't really know how you can stand to read this blog.

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Monday, June 11, 2007

Makes you wonder

From time to time going about my daily life I happen to run across signs that things are not going well for some people. These signs may be subtle, they may be faint, and they may require professional skills to interpret. This sign is none of those:

For those who don't want to click on the picture to get a larger image, it's a sign I found on the jewelry counter of my local Target informing customers that they can't pay for alcohol in the jewelry department. I just wish I could have been around to see some of the incidents that must have made this sign necessary- some guy popping the twelve pack of Bud light up over the cubic zirconia rings and asking someone to check him out. Just priceless.

And if pondering that isn't enough for you, well, maybe I have something else to keep you busy. Remember last Friday's post when I discussed some recent research on the dislike of evangelical Christians within the academy? Brad Wright sent some of his readers to take a look-see and they've been commenting on it. One of them even suggests that I should be kept away from impressionable young minds.* If you're looking for something to do, head on over and watch them rip into me. It should be fun for the whole family!

* Kind of a hard argument to counter when you stop to think about it.

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Friday, June 08, 2007

A difficult issue...

Sociologist Brad Wright recently posted on his blog about a study released by the Institute for Jewish and Community Research. This study basically sets out to discover the feelings of American faculty towards those who believe in god, whatever form that god or gods might take. The findings do indicate that American faculty are less religious than the public at large (particularly mathematics, natural science, and social science faculty) but they also suggest strongly that the academy is not totally inimical to religion. I say that because something like 73% of faculty indicate that they want their children to have some kind of religious training and, overall, most religious groups are viewed relatively favorably by faculty.

The major exception to these findings, as Dr. Wright points out, are evangelical Christians. The study asks respondents to rate various religious groups on an attitude thermometer, where 100 indicates maximum warm feeling, 50 indicates neutrality, and 0 indicates maximum cold feeling. It then reports on the percentages of faculty who feel "cold/hostile" towards certain groups. Presumably, "cold/hostile" means that the attitude thermometer score was below 50. The results, taken from the study, are interesting:

Indeed, based on these results, it would appear that 53% of faculty are cool/hostile towards evangelical Christians. This makes evangelicals, far and away, the most disfavored group, and the only one to crack the 50% mark. Speaking as someone in a social science department, I don't find this difficult to believe- evangelical Christians are not, in my experience, a particularly liked group among my colleagues or even those in neighboring departments.

Dr. Wright, who identifies himself strongly as a Christian, is disturbed by this research and goes on to discuss the implications of the study:

1) Double-standard. It indicates a double-standard regarding tolerance and diversity and academia. Imagine the outcry if so many professors disfavored other religious groups, such as Jews or Muslims? What if the same was said about other groups: gays, blacks, Hispanics, the disabled. I'm not saying that Evangelicals face more prejudice than these other groups in society in general, but rather prejudice against evangelicals is widely accepted in academia. In fact, when asked about these findings, a union representative defended this unfavorable posture as cultural resistance, not prejudice. (BTW, "cultural resistance" is highly valued in academia, ironic given our central place in the formation of culture). I can't imagine any professors arguing for "cultural resistance" against any of the other groups listed above.

2) Prejudice vs. discrimination? Does this mean that the unfavorable attitudes toward evangelicals gets translated into unfavorable treatment of them in the classroom? Probably. Central to studies of social psychology is the link between attitudes and behavior. It's not a perfect correlation and its strength varies by personal, situational, and attitudinal factors, but it is usually there. In a sense, though, it doesn't matter how much professors act out their unfavorable believes toward evangelicals, for just having them constitutes prejudice. These attitudes based on race are called racism, based on ism, against Jews antisemitism... all bad things.

3) Students' response. There's an old quip that "it's not paranoia if people are really out to get you," and some of that is going on here. I have long noted the discomfort many evangelical students feel in expressing their worldview in the classroom. Want to commit an instant faux pas in the classroom? Say the word "Jesus" in any context other than swearing. The unfavorable attitudes toward evangelicals held by a majority of professors suggests that this stifling of expression is both inevitable perhaps well advised, given professors' power in the classroom.

And it is here that I start feeling uneasy. I feel uneasy, first off, because Dr. Wright is approaching this issue as though an overwhelming majority of faculty members are virulent haters of evangelical Christians. As it happens, this is untrue- barely over half of faculty report negative feeling which means that 47% are neutral or positive. This is not to say that such a large level of coolness isn't problematic, potentially, but it's hardly a crushing majority. It's also a little unclear exactly how "cool" faculty are towards evangelicals as the study doesn't report means. There's a big difference between a mean score of 15 and a mean score of 45- both are "cool/hostile" but one is a lot more "cool/hostile" than the other. Now, obviously Dr. Wright is correct that intolerance of evangelicals does constitute something of a double standard in an institution that seeks to be accepting of all. That said, there's something unique about evangelicals relative to other groups that may help account for it. We'll return to that in a moment.

Dr. Wright also brings up the posibility of discrimination or prejudice against evangelical Christians and concludes that it almost certainly occurs given the link between attitudes and behaviors. I have mixed feelings about this point- on the one hand, I think attitudes and behaviors are connected but, on the other hand, it assumes that we lack professionalism. Readers of this blog know that I am a staunch atheist who would likely rate evangelicals quite low on the attitude thermometer. Yet what you don't know is that one of my favorite past students was an evangelical Christian. When discussing the course material with her I often found myself using biblical metaphors and analogies to help her understand and, in the process, likely convinced her that I, too, was evangelical. She was not my only evangelical student either, I've had many, and I have always worked hard to scrupulously avoid treating them any differently from other students. Does a negative attitude necessarily translate into negative treatment? No, but it does put a heavy burden on us to be professional. I also, to be frank, take issue with Dr. Wright's claim that, " doesn't matter how much professors act out their unfavorable believes toward evangelicals, for just having them constitutes prejudice..." All jokes about "thought crime" aside, do we really want to take the position that your opinions are the problem rather than your actions?

Turning to Dr. Wright's observation that evangelical students may feel hesitant to bring up their religious views in class, we discover some particularly informative points. Specifically, Wright comments: "Want to commit an instant faux pas in the classroom? Say the word "Jesus" in any context other than swearing." But is this true? Is it impossible to bring up Jesus in a religion class? A philosophy class? An ethics class? Of course not- although it may not be on topic (i.e. when discussing Nietzche's thoughts on ethics, Jesus' views are beside the point). In these courses the views of a variety of religious figures are relevant and often discussed. Then again, is it appropriate to bring up Jesus, or Mohammed, or Buddha, or any other deity or prophet in Physics 101? How about a genetcs course, or non-Euclidian geometry, or even neurology? Not so much. In these cases, Jesus' views are quite beside the point as we aren't discussing moral philosophy, religion, or history, but instead are discussing highly technical scientific issues. In point of fact, no religious figures are really appropriate topics of conversation in a great many classes unless, for example, they did post-graduate work in particle physics.

And, as it happens, the pressure that evangelical students feel to not discuss Jesus in these classes brings us back to cultural resistance and the point I alluded to above. The defining characteristic of evangelical Christianity is that it is evangelical- its adherents are strongly pressured to "spread the word" as it were. As such, they make themselves potentially disruptive to a classroom in a way that non-evangelical Christians do not. Saying that academics have negative feelings towards evangelical Christians* is, in this context, not dissimilar to saying that we have negative feelings towards students with behavioral issues.** Academics may not dislike evangelicals, per se, but simply find their behavior disruptive to our work.

Then consider the evangelical community, which includes figures like David Horowitz who routinely villifies faculty for all manner of real and imagined offenses. Consider my favorite cousin, an evangelical Christian, who reads novels that tell how university professors are the witless tools of dark satanic forces.*** Consider that many evangelicals distribute propaganda mocking us and our theories as part of a well-planned and hideously expensive campaign to discredit modern science. Is it any surprise that faculty have some negative feeling towards evangelical Christians? I'm honestly surprised that only 53% of faculty view evangelical Christians negatively. Far from being a sign of prejudice, that the number is so low suggests that tolerance is alive and well in the academy.

I am not saying that it's good that evangelicals are viewed negatively, but let's keep a sense of perspective here. Faculty feel under attack from evangelicals and have to suppress their speech in class about Jesus for good and justifiable reasons. The purpose of the classroom is to teach course material, not to indoctrinate, and that goes as much for the students as for the instructor.

Maybe faculty do feel the need to engage in some cultural resistance, but it doesn't look like they're resisting any harder than they absolutely have to.

* And I once more feel compelled to point out that academics are still pretty accepting.

** Really and truly, how long do you think you're going to be able to maintain a productive classroom atmosphere with a diverse group of students if classmembers are free- at their discretion- to preach to other students?

*** Totally serious here, people.

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