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.

Monday, December 31, 2007

"You got to know when to hold em, know when to fold em,"

Despite the fact that I am a sociologist- a notoriously left-wing occupation- I feel relatively positive about private industry and capitalism in general. My reason for this is not the lingering effects of my Republican upbringing or a false impression that capitalism is the best thing evar but, rather, because of a certain sense of pragmatism. I am fairly positive about capitalism for much the same reason that Winston Churchill is a fan of Democracy: Capitalism is the worst type of economics, except for all the other forms that have been tried. So, while I am by no means a booster of gigantic corporations, I am at least neutral about their possible virtues and vices.

The exception to this general rule, however, are insurance companies. I do not like insurance companies. Now, don't get me wrong: I have no problem with the concept of an insurance company. The idea is, itself, fairly sound and works more or less the same way a casino works. A casino makes a deal with its customers that, if they play certain games and a given set of events transpire, then the casino will pay the player a certain amount of money. If another set of events transpire, however, then the player will pay the casino a different amount of money. Since the likelihood of winning and losing is known to the casino they can guarantee that they make money more often than not. It's a fairly simple contract and not an unreasonable one, though I confess I have no interest in casino gambling myself. Fundamentally, insurance companies make the same contract with their users and, as such, are more or less casinos. Their players clients agree to pay a fixed amount of money on a predetermined schedule and the casino insurance company agrees that, if a certain set of events come to pass, they will pay the player client a certain amount of money. Again, since the probabilities of certain types of payouts are well understood, the insurance company should be able to structure their game such that, aggregated over many players, they will win more than they lose.

Now, I have benefitted from insurance companies in the past. During my recent medical issues I was spared considerable expense because I had health insurance and, so, am grateful to them. At the same time, however, I fear that all too often my smooth experience with them is the exception rather than the norm. My parents, for example, who live in central Florida recently had their home insurance cancelled because they live in Florida. No, seriously, it was cancelled because many insurance companies are trying to reduce their vulnerability in states that may be slammed by hurricanes.* This would make sense except that my parents live in Central Florida- so far from the ocean that for a hurricane to cause the sort of catastrophic damage seen in New Orleans with Hurricane Katrina, the state would effectively have to sink.** So, it's a little like refusing to let someone play in a poker game because you once lost big to someone else who had a similar sounding name.

Yet, this isn't my biggest reason for disliking insurance companies. No, my biggest reason is that sometimes the bastards cheat. Case in point, the company that provides insurance for grad students (which my wife and I rely on) recently changed here at Drek State University and we have been, in a nutshell, fucked with our pants on. We were screwed in two unique ways, actually. The first is that while we have supposedly gained prescription drug coverage, that coverage requires that we spend a godawful amount of money on medications ourselves before the insurance kicks in. Not so bad except that, given our state of relative poverty, it was possible before this to get price breaks from the pharmaceutical companies. Not anymore, though, because now we have drug coverage. Yay! The second, however, is that the company recently sent my wife a notice that her asthma treatment may not be covered because it is a pre-existing condition. To this I can only reply: bullshit.

You see, we did not choose a new insurance company- our employer did. As such, when the new company comes in it is required by law to assume the liability carried by the old company. In other words, there's no such thing as a pre-existing condition for current employees. Yet, here we are with the paperwork ruling her asthma as such. Here we are with substantial charges that are being bounced back to us and here we are with a most-likely protracted paperwork fight on our hands. I feel confident that we'll win this thing but, in the meantime, it's stressful and expensive. And I'm forced to wonder if this is accidental. I would like to believe that their computer system just has a glitch in it but, really, this glitch stands to benefit the insurance company financially. If just 10% of all those on campus who get hit with this "glitch" fail to demand their rightful coverage, then the company has just saved an awful lot of money. I get suspicious when "glitches" work that way. And what happens when insurance companies pull stunts like this with less-educated workers who don't know how to figure out their rights and push for them?

And that is what pisses me off. See, if you want to gamble, that's fine. I don't have a problem with that. This pre-existing condition crap, however, is a little like opening a casino, taking people's money, and then refusing to pay when they "win." That's not being a businessman, that's cheating, and I dislike cheats immensely.

As Kenny Rogers says, you've gotta know when to hold 'em and when to fold 'em, but that doesn't mean you can just grab the pot and make a break for it whenever the hell you feel like it.

* Indeed, I often think that Florida should be referred to as the "Death from the Sky state" given the prevalence of lightning strikes, tornadoes and hurricanes.

** Not impossible, I know, but more likely as a result from a large impact than from a hurricane.

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Friday, December 28, 2007

Just awesome.

In place of anything approximating a post from me today, allow me to direct you to RationalWiki and, specifically, to their excellent article Evidence against a recent creation. It is, in short, an excellent introductory summary to the numerous independent lines of evidence that lead scientists to the conclusion that the world is really, really old. Or, to be more exact, to the conclusion that it is much older than the 6,000-10,000 years that Young Earth Creationists insist on. Whether you're interested in this issue in and of itself or not, it's an interesting read- if only to show off how science does its job and why scientists are sometimes so sure of their conclusions.

And, in taking a look at it, consider our earlier discussion of openmindedness. Does it mean that you aren't openminded if you make a decision based on an overwhelming preponderance of evidence? Most people would probably say no. And, while you're pondering all that, consider the comments left to my post by Mr. Andrew Schlafly.* What is openmindedness, really? Can you be openminded if you draw a conclusion? Will Batman escape from the clutches of the Joker?

Only time will tell.

* Technically, that link projects to an article on Conservapedia hosted over at Uncyclopedia, but I can only link to the same article at Wikipedia so many times, you know?

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Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Let's not get ahead of ourselves...

The Scene: Drek and his wife are walking their dog, bundled up against the cold and admiring the newborn day.

Drek's Wife: Hey. Today is the first day of the rest of your life.

Drek: Let's hope so.

Drek's Wife: What else would it be?

Drek: I'd rather not think about that.

Drek's Wife: How about 'tragically ironic?'

Drek: Yeah. That's pretty much the issue right there.

Drek's Wife: Fair enough.

For those of you who have been wondering, blogging has been sporadic because my wife and I have been wrapping up details left over from the wedding, preparting to go on our honeymoon, and generally celebrating the holidays. Some of you may wonder how I, an atheist, can celebrate holidays at this time of year. The answer of course is: with a considerable sense of cognitive dissonance.

Hang in there folks- regular blogging will resume sooner or later.

Probably later.

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Monday, December 24, 2007

This feels weird to me too.

Regular readers of this blog know that, from time to time, I comment on things going on over at Conservapedia. Regular readers also realize that, more often than not, these comments are somewhat negative as many Conservapedia articles are so rife with logical inconsistency that I have a difficult time parsing them.* So, it may come as a surprise to many of you that I recently came across something that I find genuinely... interesting.

I refer, of course, to an essay by Andrew Schlafly titled Quantifying Openmindedness. In it he proposes, in essence, that since we have scales that supposedly measure IQ** or Body Mass, we should be able to develop a way of measuring openmindedness. Essentially, he is arguing for the development of a new psychometric technique. I see no necessary reason why this should be impossible and, indeed, think it is an interesting idea. So how might we go about it?

Well, first, we need to define the thing that we're trying to measure. What is "openmindedness"? Schlafly defines it as follows:

By "openmindness" I mean a genuine willingness to consider the evidence before rejecting an idea. I do not mean tolerance, or a rejection of absolute truth, or skepticism. Openmindness means here what the dictionary says: "receptive to arguments or ideas."

So, the aspect that Schlafly is most interested in is the simple willingness to consider evidence before judging an idea.*** So, for all intents and purposes, we are interested in assessing whether or not the process of reacting to information has a certain character but are not interested in the outcome of that process. Put another way, we don't care whether or not the subject makes a correct determination about the evidence but only whether or not they consider it.**** I might modify this slightly to make it more amenable to testing by simply stressing that openmindedness entails a willingness to seriously consider the views of those with whom you disagree. Having reached, more or less, a definition of the concept, we can now turn to operationalization, or converting the concept into measurable indicators.

Again, Schlafly beats us to the punch suggesting a scale for openmindedness that is based on the idea that openmindedness is the converse of closedmindedness. In other words, we can measure unwillingness to consider ideas and assume that the less unwillingness is present, the more openminded a person is. This is a fairly strong assumption but we'll take it as a given. Using this perspective, in the scale below, each time you report that an item is impossible you get 1 point. The higher your score, the lower your level of openmindedness. Note, as well, that some items are reverse-coded. Ignore, as well, that some questions should be answered "yes" or "no."*****

Do you think it is impossible that more widespread gun ownership reduces the rate of crime?

When President Ronald Reagan told Mr. Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin Wall, did you think that it was impossible for the Berlin Wall to be torn down?

Did you think, or still think, that the Strategic Defense Initiative is impossible?

Do you think that it is impossible that the Shroud of Turin is authentic?

Do you think that there must be a material explanation for remarkable homing and migration behavior of birds and butterflies?

Do you think that it is impossible for the speed of light to have been different in the past?

Do you think that it is impossible to measure openmindedness?

Do you think that it is possible that there is no god?

Do you think that it is possible that evolution did not occur?

Do you think that is impossible for the power of 2 in Newtonian gravity, whereby the gravitational force is proportional to 1/r2, to be more precise with an exponent that is slightly different from 2, such as a gravitational force proportional to 1/r2.00000001?

This scale isn't a bad first effort, but there are some serious problems with it. First and foremost, many of the questions have the form "Is it imposssible that X is possible?" This is a confusing way of phrasing the question and the whole process might be better served if each item were a statement and respondents simply indicated whether that statement were possible or impossible.****** A second issue is that many of these questions deal with matters of empirical fact. The first item, for example, could be resolved with adequate data. As a result, a particular answer may simply indicate awareness of research. The same issue is true of the question about bird and butterfly migration, as I have touched on elsewhere. The migration question is, additionally, double barreled: It's impossible that it MUST or it's possible that it MUST? I don't know how to respond to a question that links possibility to certainty in such a fashion. Similarly, the last item simply indicates a willingness to accept the possibility of measurement error- hardly a sign of openmindedness. Finally, the questions encode Mr. Schlafly's perspective on things. So, for example, item 8 asks if it is possible that there is no god. For Mr. Schlafly, a theist, an answer of "yes" certainly indicates openmindedness. For myself, an atheist, the same answer indicates nothing of the sort.******* Many other items on the list are similarly flawed such that dogmatic acceptance of certain ideas might be confused with openmindedness.

To correct this problem, my wife and I have developed a possible alternative methodology. In our approach subjects to be tested will be exposed to a two-stage computer-mediated procedure. In the first stage the subjects will receive a battery of questions, some of which will determine their views on certain socially significant issues (e.g. abortion, stem cell research, etc). These opinions will then influence the second stage. In the second stage, the subjects will be asked to read several persuasive essays and report on how convincing they are. Four essays will then be presented: one essay supporting a postion the subject agrees with, one essay that they neither agree nor disagree with, and two essays supporting positions they disagree with. The computer will then time how long it takes for each respondent to complete reading each essay. A person who is more openminded should spend as long or longer reading the essays they disagree with as they do the essays they agree with or are ambivalent about. A person who is less openminded, in contrast, will spend less time reading (and considering the arguments of) the essays they disagree with. Note that we don't actually care how persuasive the essays are perceived as being- although that would be interesting data to analyze- but only how long they spend considering the essays. We are, as discussed earlier, interested in the process rather than the conclusion.

This approach has several advantages including that it does not encode a perspective into its questions, that it is more difficult to deliberately confound (since it measures something the subjects are not attending to), and it more directly assesses reactions to ideas that a subject disagrees with. On the other hand, it is more time consuming, more difficult to administer, and will require more preparation. Particularly, the essays would need to be normalized to the same level of reading difficulty and persuasiveness and pretesting would need to be carried out to determine mean reading times for those who both agree and disagree. This would, however, permit the usage of fairly standard statistical techniques to see if an individual is significantly more or less openminded than the population at large.

In all likelihood there are problems with this approach but I do think it solves many of the problems with Mr. Schlafly's approach and could warrant further development. And, if nothing else, it shows that every now and then Conservapedia does produce something that's worth taking seriously.

* What I mean is that the points made in some of the articles are logically unrelated to one another. It is as though I asked, "How much do those books weigh?" and you responded, "Ham!"

** Of course, there is the slight issue that we don't really know what IQ actually measures. Indeed, E.G. Boring once commented that IQ tests measure whatever it is that IQ tests measure. I digress, however...

*** Technically, he is interested in a willingness to consider evidence before rejecting an idea. However, if rejection is a foregone conclusion then I think we must agree that the subject is hardly openminded. I'm also forced to wonder why Schlafly is uninterested in the alternative meaning of openminded: "unprejudiced; unbigoted; impartial."

**** If we were more interested in correct determinations, we would probably be keenly interested in skepticism: "A doubting or questioning attitude or state of mind; dubiety."

***** Ignore, as well, that Mr. Schlafly has obviously never been taught how to construct surveys or psychometric instruments.

****** e.g. "There is an all-powerful God. __Possible __Impossible"

******* If the question were phrased as "Is it possible that there IS a god" I would still answer "yes." That is a side issue, however.

As a Side Note: For those who are curious, my answers to Schlafly's scale are (impossible=1 and possible=0): 0, 0, 0, 1, 0, 0, 0, 0, 0, 0. I think it impossible that the Shroud to Turin is "authentic" (whatever that means) because there is ample evidence indicating that it is of more recent origin than the first century AD. So, my score is 1/10 or .10. I'm not going to touch the "follow-up questions" because they are needlessly convoluted.

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Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Commenting would just ruin it.

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Monday, December 17, 2007

The jokes, they just write themselves.

Those who keep an eye on the news are probably aware that Pope Benedict XVI recently made a statement about global warming. To quote from the relevant article:

Pope Benedict XVI has launched a surprise attack on climate change prophets of doom, warning them that any solutions to global warming must be based on firm evidence and not on dubious ideology.

The leader of more than a billion Roman Catholics suggested that fears over man-made emissions melting the ice caps and causing a wave of unprecedented disasters were nothing more than scare-mongering.

The German-born Pontiff said that while some concerns may be valid it was vital that the international community based its policies on science rather than the dogma of the environmentalist movement.

Most of you can probably see this coming but, because my self-control is limited at best, I'm forced to make just a few comments here.

(1) Am I really seeing a warning against dubious ideology from a guy who believes that he is god's direct mouthpiece on Earth? The same guy who asserts that god is a father, that father's son, and an insubstantial spirit simultaneously? Oh, and there's that deal about a little wine and a tiny dry cracker magically turning into the blood and flesh of a man who died at least two thousand years ago?* See, there's this pot, and there's this kettle, and one turns to the other and says, "Yo, you are so black!"

(2) He's criticizing scare mongering? Doesn't the Catholic church claim that failure to follow their teachings and obey their authorities will result in eternal, unending torment? You know... something about a lake of fire? Wasn't excommunication a pretty serious matter in Europe for a span of several centuries and, likewise, remains a pretty heavy-duty stick for tending the flock in the modern age? I guess he's sure in a position to recognize scare-mongering, but criticize it? Not so much.

(3) I'm really happy to hear that the Pope wants policy to be based on science rather than on dogma. I'm sure that Galileo Galilei would agree. Hell, Galileo strongly advocated heliocentrism and was only dubbed heretical for something like three hundred and fifty years.** In other words, by the time they apologized to Galileo we had already sent probes to other planets, pretty much laying the whole geocentrism controvery to rest.*** This explains the origin of the saying, "When it comes to science, never bet against the Catholic church."

I'm just sayin, is all...

* Three cheers for ritual cannibalism!

** It could rightly be asked how long the Catholic church will have to take shit for its boneheaded support for geocentrism. Oh, I don't know, how about 350 years? Sounds fair to me. So, if we start the clock from when John Paul II apologized for the whole Galileo thing, we'll have to retire the geocentrism jokes in about 2342.

*** Okay, well, not completely.

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Thursday, December 13, 2007

Nicely explained.

Regular readers of the blog know that I have something of an axe to grind with a number of creationists. It isn't that I don't think you can be allowed to believe that everything was created in place if you choose to, but I object to seeing science perverted in order to support such a ludicrous notion. Hell, I've even spent considerable time dealing with these sorts of issues in the past. Thankfully, however, it turns out that I'm not the only one with a yen for debunking the dubious claims of xientists. Amazingly, we now have a nice series of YouTube videos that do a very nice job for me. For example, there's this effort explaining why creationist probability calculations are so utterly flawed:

And then there's this effort to explain a few "fun facts" about the solar system:

They're interesting, they're informative, and they're just the tip of the iceberg because there's a whole series of such videos by the same producer. Including this brilliantly-scathing one:

Check them out, enjoy, and stop bugging me.

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Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Warning: This post contains a terrible pun!

Yesterday I posted about a pending court case where a creationist Xientist* is suing the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution over their decision to fire him. He claims that the firing was due to his disbelief in evolution and, as such, it violates his civil liberties. Woods Hole is arguing, in contrast, that his beliefs make it impossible to carry out his job duties adequately. The argument that I made at the time was, effectively, that I wanted to support the creationist since I think people should be able to believe whatever the hell they want on their own time but that I doubt strongly that he would have been able to perform his job adequately. There's just something about being asked to perform work that violently clashes with your own beliefs that takes some of the wind out of one's sails.

Not content to leave it at that, astute reader Bookmobile decided to mention a similar case. Similar except that, this time, it appears to be the creationists who are doing the firing. I refer, of course, to the forced resignation of Chris Comer, the Director of Science Curriculum for the Texas Education Agency (TEA). The NCSE has a nice press release on the subject, but an excerpt should bring you more or less up to speed:

Chris Comer, the director of science curriculum for the Texas Education Agency, was forced to resign after forwarding a short e-mail message announcing a presentation in Austin by Barbara Forrest. The Austin American-Statesman (November 29, 2007) reported, "Comer sent the e-mail to several individuals and a few online communities, saying, 'FYI.'" Less than two hours later, Lizzette Reynolds, the TEA's senior adviser on statewide initiatives, complained to Comer's supervisors, writing, "This is highly inappropriate ... I believe this is an offense that calls for termination or, at the very least, reassignment of responsibilities ... it assumes this is a subject that the agency supports."

The e-mail was then cited in a memorandum (PDF) recommending Comer's termination, the American-Statesman noted: "They said forwarding the e-mail not only violated a directive for her not to communicate in writing or otherwise with anyone outside the agency regarding an upcoming science curriculum review, 'it directly conflicts with her responsibilities as the Director of Science.' The memo adds, 'Ms. Comer's e-mail implies endorsement of the speaker and implies that TEA endorses the speaker's position on a subject on which the agency must remain neutral.'" Other reasons for recommending her termination were listed in addition.

But Comer told the newspaper that she thought that the long-standing political controversy over evolution education in Texas was responsible: "None of the other reasons they gave are, in and of themselves, firing offenses," she said. NCSE's executive director Eugenie C. Scott suggested that Comer's termination seemed to be a warning to TEA employees. "This just underscores the politicization of science education in Texas," Scott said. "In most states, the department of education takes a leadership role in fostering sound science education. Apparently TEA employees are supposed to be kept in the closet and only let out to do the bidding of the board."

For those who don't know, Barbara Forrest is a philosopher of some repute who has spent a great deal of time analyzing the intelligent design fiasco. Particularly, she testified in the landmark Kitzmiller et al. vs. Dover Area School District et al. case and wrote a fascinating account of it which can be found elsewhere. So, basically, Comer was passing along knowledge of a talk to be given by a participant in one of the major court cases between science and religious extremism to take place during the early 21st century.

So, given my views, was this firing justified? Well, first off, did Comer's beliefs interfere with her ability to do her job? My first answer would be: it's hard to say. We don't know, based on this information, what Comer's beliefs are. She could be a Christian, or a Buddhist, or an Atheist- we simply don't know. If we don't know her beliefs, it's difficult to conclude that they were the problem. My second answer, however, would be "no." Comer's job was to deal with issues related to science education and informing groups of a public lecture by an important and eminently qualified figure in this area is fully appropriate. Moreover, there appears to be no implied support in the e-mail unless you are determined to find same- more or less in the spirit of our old pal, Connie Morris. Do I think this firing was justified? No, I do not.

That said, Comer probably should have been a little more careful. I don't think there's much of an implication of "support" from the TEA in her actions BUT as a public servant it's important to treat the views of your constituents with respect, even if those views are brain-meltingly irrational. She probably should have been disciplined in some way- TEA-bagged, if you will- but firing is too extreme a response to someone who was basically doing her job, but with perhaps a smidge too much gusto.

Even in a fundamentalist state like Texas, if you hire someone to promote science education, you should probably be prepared for the possibility that they might... you know... promote science education.

* I'm debating making "Xientist" my new way of referring to those who claim to be scientists but who have strong ideological commitments that really make this impossible. Thus, William Dembski, Michael Behe, and many species of post-modernist would all qualify as xientists rather than scientists.

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Tuesday, December 11, 2007

I know I've given an opinion on this before...

Those of you who follow the creationism vs. science foolishness are probably already aware of the new court case that's brewing. For those who don't keep up with this, however, it appears that the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution is being sued by a creationist biologist Nathaniel Abraham, who is now an Associate Professor of Biology at Liberty Baptist University.* The dispute is over Abraham's firing following his admission that he personally does not believe in the evolutionary explanation for the development of life on Earth. To quote an article on the subject:

The zebrafish specialist said his civil rights were violated when he was dismissed shortly after telling his superior he did not accept evolution because he believed the Bible presented a true account of human creation.

Creationists such as Abraham believe God made the world in six days, as the Bible's Book of Genesis says.

Woods Hole, a federally funded nonprofit research center on Cape Cod, said in a statement it firmly believed its actions and those of its employees in the case were "entirely lawful" and that it does not discriminate.

Abraham, who was dismissed eight months after he was hired, said he was willing to do research using evolutionary concepts but that he had been required to accept Darwin's theory of evolution as scientific fact or lose his job.

The Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination dismissed the case this year, saying Abraham's request not to work on evolutionary aspects of research would be difficult for Woods Hole because its work is based on evolutionary theories.

Abraham said this condition was never spelled out in the advertisement for the job and that his dismissal led to severe economic losses, an injured reputation, emotional pain and suffering and mental anguish.

Needless to say, the kids at Conservapedia are reacting with their customary discretion:

So, on the one hand we have Abraham who says he is willing to use concepts that he believes are basically crap in order to perform his job** and, on the other hand, we have Woods Hole arguing that such ideas impose an unreasonable burden. Who is right here?

Previously, I have thought about an issue similar to this and argued that the employer can fire the employee. In that case, however, the employee's religious belief made it impossible for them to fully carry out the requirements of the job. In this case, Abraham is arguing that he is willing to behave as though he believes in evolution as an explanation for life of Earth, but that he does not personally adhere to any such belief. Does this change things?

Well, arguably, yes, it does. Realisitically a person should be free to believe what they want in their free time so long as those beliefs do not inhibit their job performance. Were Abraham applying to be a tour guide at a natural history museum, he might have a case. What he was attempting to do, however, was obtain a position doing scientific research, which is a little different. Academics are paid, more or less, to produce research. Good research solves problems extant in the literature and, as such, requires considerable determination, hard work, and creativity. Do we really believe that Abraham could set aside his personal convictions well enough to be as determined and creative in the pursuit of evolutionary explanations as an evolution-accepting scientist? If we do think he is capable of that then, by extension, I should be a perfectly valid candidate for sunday school leader at a fundamentalist church. Certainly I believe their doctrines are crap but, hey, I'm a good speaker and get along well with kids- I can totally do that job! Somehow, I doubt that I would be a reasonable candidate or that most people would argue I should be permitted to perform such a job.*** Likewise, vegans would probably not be so great as employees at meat packing plants and Greenpeace members probably wouldn't be too welcome at Exxon. The issue isn't that Abraham is totally unable to do the work but, rather, given his beliefs he would simply be a lackluster employee.

If he were a biology professor at a University, then sure, I would support his arguments. If we were a chemist, or a physicist, or a mathematician, then I would support his arguments. But disbelieving, right from the start, the theoretical core of the work you have been hired to do? And doing so on theological rather than scientific grounds? Well... I think Woods Hole has a point, much as it bothers me to argue such.

I, more than many folks, want people to be free to hold their own beliefs. That said, I just can't bring myself to believe that an employer should have to pay you to do a shitty job because of those beliefs.

* Yes sir, Liberty Baptist where the motto is: "If the science was good enough for the early 19th century, it's good enough for us!"

** As a side note: while it doesn't say so in the article, I'm forced to wonder how the issue came up. It's not as though academics routinely ask each other, "Hey, Nate, do you personally believe in evolution?" As best I can figure, either Abraham's work product gave him away or he brought it up on his own. Either way, his disbelief in evolution was apparently a significant enough issue that it came to the attention of his employers in the first place.

*** One might also reasonably ask why I would want a job teaching children things I believe to be dangerous falsehoods and, similarly, might wonder why Abraham wanted a job performing research on a theory he stridently disagrees with. I could suggest answers, but will decline at present.

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Monday, December 10, 2007


Today we at Total Drek would like to offer our condolences to the familes and friends of those who were killed or wounded at the New Life Church in Colorado Springs and the Youth With a Mission facility in Arvada, Colorado. For those who don't already know what I am talking about, one or more gunmen entered both of these locations this past Sunday and opened fire. So far as we can tell, the attacks were not directed at any specific individual within the churches and, instead, were simply violent actions directed against (perhaps) the institutions in general. It is safe to say that I disagree with some of the positions taken by these groups, as well as their evangelical goals, but I feel nothing but sympathy for them in their current situation. It is the duty of all members of a society to resolve differences without recourse to violence. Yesterday, in a way, we all failed.

I would also like to thank the operators of Conservapedia for, thus far, not blaming either "liberals" or atheists for this tragedy. That shows a greater than typical degree of humanity on their part, for which I thank them. Attempting to score points off of this, regardless of your perspective, would be simply disgraceful.

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Friday, December 07, 2007

Oh, Mitt Romney, you lovable scamp.

Last night Mitt Romney took some time to explain to us why we should consider voting for him essentially in spite of the fact that he is Mormon. Put another way, his speech was basically an attempt to reassure the voters that he's not totally batshit crazy. It goes without saying that I have no particular problem with Romney's being Mormon. Don't get me wrong, as an atheist I don't think his beliefs make all that much sense, but I can say that equally about all religions. I also don't believe that just because someone disagrees with me about certain things- even fairly significant things- it means they can't do a good job.

No, frankly, what I find problematic about Romney's chat with the nation is his claim that, "Americans acknowledge that liberty is a gift of God, not an indulgence of government." As has been noted elsewhere, not all Americans believe such nonsense and yet remain as loyal to this nation as anyone else. Still, I guess it's heartwarming to know that I can serve such a noble purpose- helping to unite the godfearing behind Romney through the power of their mutual dislike of atheists. Just gives me that warm, squishy patriotic feeling, ya' know?

Romney's plea for religious tolerance is additionally a little ironic given the current hoopla over the movie The Golden Compass, a children's film with the actress/Martian spy Nicole Kidman in a leading role. Apparently a variety of religious associations object to the movie, not because it isn't good for kids, but because it might provoke them to read the later books of the trilogy it is based on. Why are we trying to discourage children from reading? Well, because the later books have been described as atheist fantasy novels* and there is thus fear that they might corrupt the minds of countless tykes. As you can probably guess I have little sympathy for these groups. Certainly the movie may be a sort of anti-religious propaganda, but given that I recently saw Linus give a speech on the wonders of our saviour Jesus Christ during a broadcast Peanuts special, I think you'd really have to admit that a tiny handful of pro-atheism books and movies for kids are not unreasonable. I'm just sayin. And in any case, if you're afraid that your religious "truth" is so fragile that it can be shattered by a well-written children's book, I'd say that you need to have as much faith in your beliefs as I have in mine.

I'm in complete agreement with Romney that people shouldn't vote against him because he's Mormon. But until people also don't vote for him for that reason, I think we still have a problem.

* "Atheist fantasy" may sound like a contradiction in terms given the appreciation for rational thought among atheists, but really fantasy is quite a popular genre. My favorite atheist fantasy, for example, is the one where we're not treated like degenerate freaks just because we don't believe in god.**

** Wait, no, sorry. That's not a fantasy, that's Europe.

As a side note: If this post seems unusually incoherent, there is a good reason for that. Not that I'm going to tell you that reason.

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Thursday, December 06, 2007

End of the year semester blues.

For most of us in the realm of academia, we are at the end of the semester. Believe it or not, this is a melancholy time for many of us. On the one hand we're saying goodbye to students that we may have grown fond of over the past few months or even past few years. On the other hand, we're also usually so tired from a busy, busy semester that the idea of saying goodbye can be a smidge joy-inducing.

Speaking for myself, I am pleased to see this semester close. Usually I am regretful at handing my students off to another instructor but, frankly, this time around on the last day of class I was tempted to lock the door and set fire to the room. Okay, not really, it's just been that my distribution of students has been very bi-modal. Either they're brilliant- and some of them this time around really are- or they're so damned lazy it makes my teeth hurt. I have one student who reads a newspaper in class and only stops to either (a) ask a question that implicitly criticizes my teaching ability* or, (b) eat her latest sack of grease from one of our many fast food establishments. Not that I mind if people eat in my class, I couldn't care less, but then again people don't normally bring in the family size bucket of KFC for lunch.** In any case, it's not that I mind people eating in class, or even reading the paper. As long as the paper doesn't block someone else's view it won't throw me off of my game. I do, however, mind someone being an ass about my teaching when they haven't been putting in even a modicum of effort.

But, lest I become too bitter, I should comment that the other mode in my distribution has been great. I have several students who work hard, study carefully, and are actually willing to accept responsibility for their own mistakes.*** I even have one student who has told me that my class has really fired her up about sociology. Given that I teach a class that most undergrads fear and loathe, I take that as quite the compliment. I have even run across one student this semester whom I have helped get into a grad class for next year. I would like nothing more than to see this student eventually enter grad school in sociology and would not be surprised if she surpassed the lot of us in a few years. In this line of work it's good to get used to the idea that there will always be someone who is better than you at certain things, but it's pretty damned neat to spot someone you expect to become better than you and help them get that way. I mean, what's the point of teaching if your students never surpass you?

So, basically, I have those end of the semester blues. I'm tired, I'm grumpy, I'm annoyed, I'm sad, I'm excited and I'm hopeful all at the same time. And I'll do it all over again next semester. And you know what?

I love my job.

* Not that my teaching is perfect but my evaluations to date give me good reason to believe that I do not, in fact, suck.

** Actually, the strangest thing I ever saw someone eat in class was corn. Doesn't sound odd? Well, keep in mind that they were eating it on the cob with the husk peeled back down around their fist. It was so unexpected it actually knocked me off of my groove for a moment or two.

*** Unsurprisingly, not all poor grades are the fault of the student in question but all too frequently undergrads seem to assume that NONE of their poor grades are their own fault.

As a side note: Dan Myers has an excellent post over on his blog that I highly recommend you read. It's a very good message for those of us who are feeling a bit toasty this time of year.

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Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Christmas on the Internets...

I often time have a hard time figuring out what to give people for holidays. Granted, I'm not as bad as my father who once gave my mother a toilet seat for their anniversary, but I still labor under certain deficiencies in that area. As such, I would normally be very pleased to receive gift-giving advice. Keep in mind that "normally" doesn't mean "in this case." I received the following helpful suggestion recently:

So, basically, they're suggesting that this year we should be giving the gift of cock. I honestly don't know what amuses me more: that they're giving a discount on an item guaranteed to make something else bigger* or the kinds of advertising slogans that just naturally flow forth...

"This year, give him the gift that keeps on giving. But if it keeps giving for more than six hours at a time, alert your physician."

"Is that a candy bar in your stocking, or was Santa just happy to see you?"

"Even Frosty doesn't have a carrot like this!"

Honestly, how did we ever get by without shitty spam?

* A discounted increase?

As a side note: This just completely baffles me.

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Tuesday, December 04, 2007


A while back I was having a chat with an academic who does a lot of simulation studies. That is, his research doesn't use data collected from the world but, instead, employs a set of simplified mathematical models to explore the effects of processes. Particularly, he uses what are known as "actor-oriented" models, meaning that they simulate a whole bunch of entities that make choices about their behavior. In other words, they model the behavior of a set of actors under certain conditions. As we were discussing this he related a story about his local IRB* which had asked him to provide assurances that the simulated actors in his work weren't being harmed. This was the source of a great deal of mirth since, all things considered, the "actors" are little more than a mathematical abstraction. Their ability to be victimized is, therefore, effectively nil.

Humorous as this is, it fits in rather appropriately with something that I've been thinking a lot about lately. It'll take a while to get to my point, however, so please get comfy.

When people think about the Human brain they often use a computer analogy: the brain is the hardware and our thoughts, feelings, personality, and so forth are the software that runs on that hardware. Most people think that we can adjust our beliefs and behaviors (software) without changing the hardware and, likewise, can change the hardware in a way that impairs the ability of that software to execute. As it happens, this latter assertion is more or less true as prefrontal lobotomies and Phineas Gage have amply demonstrated. The former of the assertions, that the software can change independent of the hardware, is less well-validated since the brain stores information in the physical configuration of its neurons but, for the purposes of this argument, let's ignore that. We can agree that it is reasonable to think of our "selves" as a sort of software that is run on the hardware of the brain like Windows is software run on the hardware of a personal computer. The thing is, if we accept this argument a question naturally arises: could we run our "selves" on a different kind of hardware?

The question is one that has been more or less present since at least the work on Turing machines, or universal computers that can perform the computations of any other turing machine of equal or lesser complexity. Put another way, imagine we have two computers of unequal capacity. If both are Turing machines then the more powerful machine can simulate the function of the less powerful machine even if their original hardware is very different. This is the logic underlying hardware emulation programs that can allow you to play old Nintendo console games on your personal computer. The PC is sufficiently more powerful that it can imitate the behavior of a different set of hardware. Given all this, we have to wonder if it might be possible to somehow duplicate the software of the human mind into a different set of hardware- effectively changing the substrate** on which our minds rest without changing the mind itself. Might we emulate the hardware of our brains on an electronic computer well enough to essentially "run" a person in emulation?

Let's assume for a moment that we can do this but that the copying process is destructive. That is, making the copy of a person's software unavoidably destroys the original. Thus, when we copy a person they come to reside within an electronic computer and their original biological brain is now empty. Having done this, we communicate with the transferred human who retains their original faculties, memories, and personality. If we communicate with this new digital version we find that we cannot tell any difference between them and their original biological form. Except, you know, for the fact that they now live in a box. Under these circumstances, would we regard the software in the box as a human being? Probably.

Now let's go a step further: imagine that the copying process has become more sophisticated. We can now duplicate a person's mind on an electronic substrate without destroying the original. If we do so, can we still regard the entity in the computer as a person? Arguably, we have to. Nothing has changed in our example except that the original individual still lives on in their biological substrate. There is no real difference between the entities in the electronic substrate in each example and, as such, we would still have to regard the copy in the computer as a person.

Now imagine that someone creates a piece of software from scratch that can interact with us just as fluidly and engagingly as a copied human mind. If we try we cannot determine that this entity is not a copied human except through learning of its true origins from a third party. Under these circumstances, do we have to regard this artificial software as a person? Well, I would argue the answer is "yes," and such is the logic underlying the Turing test. Since the only way I can tell if another human is intelligent is by seeing if they act in a way that seems intelligent, I must use the same logic to determine if a piece of software or an entity in a different kind of biological body (e.g. Dolphin, sentient extra-terrestrial) qualifies as a sort of person. So, a competely artificial piece of software that is indistinguishable in interaction from a copied human self must be regarded as being a person and, by extension, is entitled to the rights and protections of same.

Remember how I said it would take a while to get to my point? Well, we're finally here. The issue I've been grappling with lately is this: we don't just extend legal protections to humans. We also extend protections to non-human entities through animal cruelty laws and research protocols that make it difficult to perform research on different kinds of animals. It's much easier, legally speaking, to do certain kinds of things to planaria than to chimps. What happens, however, if we create a piece of software whose behavior is effectively as complex and adaptive as, say, a dog? Put another way, if we were to use our mind-copying technology on a dog we would find that the copied dog is indistinguishable from this new artificial software. Does that mean that this new piece of software deserves the same protections as a dog? If we create a piece of software as intelligent and adaptable as a chimp, does it then warrant the same protections given to a chimp? I am, more and more, forced to the conclusion that yes, such pieces of software would warrant the same protections afforded to their biological equivalents.

What particularly disturbs me about this line of thinking is that, in the realm of video games, there is a constant drive towards more and more "intelligent" enemies. "First Person Shooter" games like Quake or Half-Life often advertise that their simulated, programmed adversaries are more lifelike, more intelligent, and more challenging than before. In this constant drive to improve the simulated adversaries for human players- adversaries that are often casually annihilated in the course of game play- what happens when the new opponents develop behavior as sophisticated as a rat? How about a dog, or a raccoon, or a chimpanzee or, eventually, another human? If the software enemy becomes indistinguishable from the biological equivalent, does that mean that it deserves the same protections? And, likewise, does it make killing that simulated opponent the moral equivalent of murdering a dog for sport? Will we eventually reach the point where we recreate the gladiatorial bloodsports of Rome in silicon form? And will we have the decency as a species to take the appropriate action when that time comes?

Just a little something to think about when you're getting your simulated actors ready for their prisoner's dilemma.

* Institutional Review Board- a body that reviews research proposals to make sure that they aren't unethical or dangerous.

** I'm using the term "substrate" to refer to any medium on which the software can run. So, in this example, we have a biological substrate (i.e. the human brain) or an electronic substrate (i.e. an electronic computer). In either case, we're just talking about kinds of hardware.

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Monday, December 03, 2007

Battle lines

Imagine, if you will, a war. I don't mean a common war, with dying on each side until a settlement is reached, but rather a WAR. The kind where each side is bent on exterminating the other. An endless arms race that forever results in skirmishes, counter-attacks and occasional breakthroughs. Imagine that this war has gone on for as long as anyone can remember, and that it shows no signs of abating. Indeed, every time one side or another gains an advantage it is only a matter of time before their new confidence is shattered by the endless inventiveness shown by the opposition. It is a conflict that goes on and on and on and will never, ever end. It can only end when one side or the other has been totally erradicated.

It may sound as though I am describing some event from fiction- some mythical fantasy civilization or even plot from sci-fi. Yet, as it happens, what I am describing is not fiction. This war is real, it's being fought as we speak, and we are all participants in it. I refer, of course, to the unending battle between ourselves and a seemingly endless variety of micro-organisms who are attempting to colonize us.

Doubtless at this point you think that I'm exaggerating. You're thinking of the occasional cold or flu, the annoying sniffles that strike now and then. These, however, are but insignificant skirmishes that are almost always won by the stalwart defenders of your person: your immune system. Ah, the immune system, a complex biochemical response to disease that starts by making your body inhospitable to invaders and progresses all the way to scorched-earth. Some parts of your immune system exist solely to exterminate those cells of your own that are subverted by invaders. It's a little like bombing one of your own cities that has been captured by the enemy so that they cannot use its factories. Seem harsh? Well, maybe so, but it's also necessary. Our bodies represent a vast stockpile of resources that hungry bacteria and viruses can exploit for their own benefit. We are the means for their reproduction. Our survival depends on thwarting their efforts to subvert our own capabilities. If we fail, even briefly, geometric growth will bury us beneath the weight of our opponents' numbers.

The alternative to this war, to the constant fight for biological integrity, is often quick death. Sometimes, however, it is something else- something that many might consider almost worse. One Indonesian man suffers from HPV, a virus that afflicts many in the developed and less developed worlds with relatively minimal effect. Unfortunately, his immune system is compromised. It is less capable, less brutal, less efficient than most and as a result he is unable to fight the HPV invaders to a draw. In this man, they are winning, and the results are simply horrible:

Many people think of evolution as being "red in tooth and claw." This is fine, as far as it goes, but it suffers from a degree of myopia. We maintain the pleasant fiction that the lords of evolution are those creatures with the biggest weapons, the most cunning tactics, and the most powerful muscles. In reality, the struggles between animals for survival are but tiny eddies in the much larger conflagration that is continually waged between organisms that are far too small for us to see. Our continued ability to wage our macroscopic struggle for life depends on our continued victory in the microscopic one.

Our best weapon in this is the fact that we can think, we can reason, and we can produce new tools to help our immune systems keep us safe. Tools like vaccines, antibiotics and public health measures generally. At least, that's if we could just stop fucking arguing about whether there's a war on in the first place or whether it wouldn't be better to just surrender.

Look, you wanna "support the troops?" Great: start with the ones that are saving your ass from pneumonia on a daily basis.

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