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.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

A Tale of Two URLs...

Today's post is in honor of the 150th anniversary of the publication of Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities. There's a lesson at the end, so pay attention:

When, as I am sometimes wont to do, you enter into your trusty browser, you will find yourself confronted with this:

This is, of course the webpage for the very nice statistical package Stata.*

On the other hand, if you enter into your browser, you will instead be treated to this:

Which I can only describe as, from left to right: Jesse James- Outlaw Accountant; Charles the Emo Furry; and the Little Lebowski.

And the lesson? It's simple really: Don't skimp when you're registering your domain name. Even if you don't think you want that dot-org version, do you really want to find out who does?

* If your preferred package isn't Stata, fine. I don't care. That isn't the point right now.

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Wednesday, April 29, 2009

A brief lesson.

For today's post I'd like you to take part in a little activity. For our activity compare this:

With this:*

At the age of 7, I could recite all 66 books of the Bible in 19 seconds. My father insisted on this because he was frustrated at waiting as his children flipped back and forth trying to find the verses he was preaching from. Afterwards, if one of us took to long my father would stop in the middle of his preaching, cast a gimlet eye on the offender and demand that, “Somebody smack that kid!”


For me, the story of Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church is a very long and painful one. But the first time that the wider community became aware of them was in 1991, when my father led his church in Topeka, Kansas to stage a protest against gays at a local city park. (Almost the entire membership of the church consists of 9 of my 12 siblings and members of their immediate families.)

The community reacted with outrage at the mean-spirited and hateful nature of the protest, and sentiments on both sides escalated quickly. However, far from discouraging my father, this incited him to much greater efforts at publicly protesting all that he decided was wrong. The church was soon staging dozens of protests every week, against local politicians, businesses, and citizens who dared to speak out against him and his church.

And ask yourself: who has something to teach whom about the proper living of one's life?**

* Where "this" refers to the entire linked talk, not just the passage I quoted as a teaser.

** As a side note, I should point out that Nate Phelps' narrative convinces me more than ever that Fred Phelps' extremism is not a consequence of Christianity so much as his own personal madness. That said, I do think the bible contains quite a bit of horrific violence and extremism all its own, but Phelps isn't crazy because he's Christian.

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Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Somewhat lacking in diagnostic potency, I'd say.

Perhaps as a consequence of yesterday's post I found myself poking around on Conservapedia again last night and stumbled across something amusing: their article on influenza. Why is it I find an article on contagious disease amusing? Well, for two reasons. The first is that it's really quite impossible to understand why influenza is such a persistent pain in the ass for mankind without possessing at least a basic grasp of evolutionary processes. And, as we all know, according to Conservapedia evolution is complete bunk.* Those of you who keep up with the creationism vs. science battle may be aware of the "micro-evolution vs. macro-evolution" nonsense they like to invoke but, given the recent Lenski Saga I don't think Conservapedia often makes that distinction.

The second reason I find the article amusing, however, has to do with their list of symptoms for the flu. Particularly the last one:

For those of you who can't read the image, that last symptom is "death." Now, granted, the argument could be made that the term "symptom" is sufficiently broad to cover death. That said, I think most of us would class death more as an outcome than a symptom per se. I keep laughing quietly to myself, imagining a doctor commenting, "Well, it could be the swine flu. You have nausea, dizziness, vomiting, and chills... but death is really the clincher. Tell you what- take two aspirin, drink a lot of fluids, and if you develop death, come back in and we'll give you some anti-virals." Then again, given that a few days ago Conservapedia was referring to the swine flu as a parody/joke, I guess this shows progress. No, seriously, not kidding:

So I guess we've learned something today: every now and then even Conservapeons can learn something.

* In fairness, the version of evolution they like to condemn is complete bunk. But, as they aren't advancing arguments against actual evolutionary theory, this doesn't mean much for scientists.

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Monday, April 27, 2009

Just a quick fix.

Some of you may have noticed that I haven't blogged much about Conservapedia lately. That is more or less because it is in the process of self-destructing completely. Which is to say that they've suffered another mass exodus of (relatively) competent editors and are now down to Andy Schlafly and his close, hand-picked set of minions. This is working about as well as you might expect.*

Nevertheless, a few quick updates from today's Conservapedia front page.

First, if Richard Dawkins happens to read my blog, I'm sure he'll be not even slightly interested to know that Conservapedia is calling him off. Sort of:

Does this mean Conservapedia is spamming the UK? And you thought being offered a bigger penis was annoying!

Message to Richard Dawkins: Today Conservapedia began its UK campaign as far as letting people in the UK know about its evolution article! Soon many more people in the UK will be better informed concerning why the evolutionary paradigm is pure and unadulterated bunk!

What does that mean? Who the hell knows? More importantly, who the hell cares? Not Richard Dawkins or the British people, I'm sure. Nonetheless, this isn't the end of Conservapedia's "devastating" campaign against evolution:

You just wait until Jesus comes! He'll show you! He'll show all of you!

Conservapedia has been told by a YouTube creationists that a flurry of support for the Conservapedia evolution article is going to begin soon at YouTube and it is going to be much bigger than the past! Conservapedia is awaiting details. We certainly hope it is true! Move over little YouTube evolutionists dogs, some big, old creationists dogs are movin' in!

Conservapedia has unexpectedly just learned that a well known creationist is going to email 600 fellow creationists about the Conservapedia evolution article. Another creationist just unexpectedly told Conservapedia that he is going to inform tens of thousands of people about the Conservapedia evolution article. Evolutionists, the pace of people knowing about the Conservapedia evolution article is quickening! Creationists of the world, spread the news about Conservapedia's evolution article far and wide and quickly! Faster, stronger, higher! [order flipped from pic to preserve sequence of posting]

So... yeah. They've been told by somebody that they're totally going to post some videos that, like, totally use Conservapedia. That's... um... badarse? Also, news flash, creationists are telling other creationists about a shitty article that supports creationism. Nice outreach, there. In other news, pastor stuns flock, preaches TO the choir!

From the Bureau of Made Up Statistics Department comes this delightful entry about one of Schlafly's looney pet projects:

You forgot santorum!

Essay:Best New Conservative Words is merely 2 terms away from displaying perfect geometric growth (one more needed for 1800s, and one needed for 1900s). With conservative insights expanding at a rapid geometrical rate, liberal ideology cannot last.

That's right, ladies and gentlemen, Schlafly has started categorizing and counting words that he claims are conservative and liberal. And, obviously, the more conservative words there are, the better conservatism must be! QED, bitches!!1!

In case you're curious, the list of conservative words presently includes bureaucracy,** copyright, constant, Hawthorne effect, parenting, straw man, and wannabee. New liberal terms include atheist,*** big bang, imperialism, isolationism, moderate, unfair, and unitarian. Never mind, as a side note, that many of these aren't so much "words" as "terms" or even "short phrases." I'm just sad he didn't think to include saddlebacking because, you know, we woulda at least earned that one.

Finally- and this is a shout-out to Shakha- we have this delightful little number:

*cough* *cough* FORE!!!

According to the World Health Organization, the Government of Mexico has reported three separate events of influenza-like-illness. In the Federal District of Mexico, surveillance began picking up cases of influenza-like-illnesses starting on March 18th, 2009. The number of cases has risen steadily through April and as of April 23rd, there were more than 854 cases of pneumonia from the capital. Of those, 59 have died. (As of April 27: 81 dead in Mexico and 1,384 cases.)

A potentially deadly new strain of the swine flu virus cropped up in more places in the United States (Texas, California, Kansas and New York; confirmed U.S. cases: 20.) and Mexico on Saturday, in what the World Health Organization called "a public health emergency of international concern." Symptoms include fever, disorientation, stiffness of the joints, vomiting, and loss of consciousness ending in death.

UPDATE: Twenty cases of swine flu have been confirmed in the United States and the White House stepped up efforts to monitor the predicted pandemic outbreak as a carefree President Barack Obama took advantage of the summer conditions in Washington on Sunday to play a round of golf.... [emphasis added]

I have to admit I'm with them on this one. When a potential major international health crisis is brewing, a good president does NOT go and play golf. No, in a crisis, everyone knows good presidents read The Pet Goat. Duh. Also: Dude, we may have a serious crisis on our hands,**** people have died, is this really the time to score cheap points off of Obama? Sorry, my mistake, "global pandemic" is doubtless one of those new liberal words.

And this is why I read conservapedia. When you can get this much craziness from just one day's reading, who needs another source? Conservapedia: For all your crazy needs!

* Worse than that, actually, since one of them is a probable parodist who range blocks entire countries for being too liberal.

** Max Weber, NOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!!

*** New? Dude, we've been around pretty much as long as humans in general!

**** Actually, based on reports I've been hearing today, I think we may be okay. Here's hoping, anyway.

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Friday, April 24, 2009

Lessons from childhood.

Some of you may have seen the trailer for the upcoming movie "The Skeptic." Now, I don't want you to get excited: it isn't a fictional confrontation between James Randi and Uri Gellar.* Instead, it's the tale of one man who doubts the existence of the supernatural and subsequently discovers that his house is... you know... haunted. Check out the trailer for the full effect:

Ah, those silly skeptics! How stupid they are for doubting the existence of things that have never been documented in any reliable way ever! That's just ludicrous! What will they doubt next? Leprechauns? Unicorns? Poor, poor skeptics.

And the odd thing is, this trailer got me thinking: wouldn't it be neat if there were a more realistic depiction of this scenario? Skeptic inherits old house, strange noises/fleeting images occur, he investigates... and discovers a number of drafts and other perfectly natural phenomena that account for the apparitions. Family fixes up house, sells for a nice profit, and lives happily every after. I guess someone might call that scenario boring, though. I mean, really, what show could possibly succeed by presenting an apparently supernatural situation and then revealing that it's all perfectly explainable through natural means? Has there ever been a movie or TV show that tried such an obvious failure?

And that's when it hit me: "presenting an apparently supernatural situation and then revealing that it's all perfectly explainable through natural means" is a description of every episode of Scooby-Doo ever made:

Jinkees! I tried to convince the public I had psychic powers! And I woulda gotten away with it, too, if it weren't for you meddling kids!

Yeah. Clearly a show about skeptics unmasking frauds couldn't possibly be successful. Riiiiight.

* Dude. That would be SO awesome!

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Thursday, April 23, 2009

I love it when people explain why I'm amoral.

As many of you know, I keep an eye on Uncommon Descent, the blog of Wild Bill Dembski. Now, given that the Intelligent Design folk have gone to extreme lengths to claim that they aren't about religion, you'd think that this blog would focus mostly on research and science. You'd think that, but you'd be wrong, at least in part because intelligent design has about the same relationship to science as astrology. And that's not hyperbole, that's what Michael Behe says.* So, in any case, during my recent reading on Uncommon Descent I stumbled across a delightful little post that explains why atheists are either amoral, or logically inconsistent. Seriously. It's a short post, so I reproduce it here verbatim. And just so you know, the post I'm quoting itself is quoting someone else. I added quotation marks around the quoted last two-thirds or so to help keep it clear:

In an earlier post I lamented the apparent extinction of what I called “Nietzsche atheists,” by which I meant atheists with the courage and honesty to accept the bleak conclusions logically compelled by their premises. Some of our atheist friends seemed to not know what bleak conclusions I was referring to. Here is a comment that sums it up nicely. This post is adapted from kairosfocus’ comment to that earlier post. He refers to Hawthorne on ethics and evolutionary materialist atheism and writes:

"Make two assumptions:

(1) That atheistic naturalism is true.

(2) One can’t infer an “ought” from an “is.” Richard Dawkins and many other atheists should grant both of these assumptions.

Given our second assumption, there is nothing in the natural world from which we can infer an “ought.” And given our first assumption, there is nothing that exists over and above the natural world; the natural world is all that there is. It follows logically that, for any action you care to pick, there’s nothing in the natural world from which we can infer that one ought to refrain from performing that action.

Add a further uncontroversial assumption: an action is permissible if and only if it’s not the case that one ought to refrain from performing that action. This is just the standard inferential scheme for formal deontic logic. We’ve conformed to standard principles and inference rules of logic and we’ve started out with assumptions that atheists have conceded. And yet we reach the absurd conclusion: therefore, for any action you care to pick, it’s permissible to perform that action. If you’d like, you can take this as the meat behind the slogan “if atheism is true, all things are permitted.” For example if atheism is true, every action Hitler performed was permissible. Many atheists don’t like this consequence of their worldview. But they cannot escape it and insist that they are being logical at the same time."

So, in other words, if atheism is true, all things are permitted, and no behaviors can be condemned. Bring on the rape and murder! Yee-haa!

Yeah, right. That's really the way it works. The thing is, as you might guess, I find this argument to be very, very stupid and, as a consequence, tend to view people who advance it as stupid. It's the ethics equivalent of someone arguing that the sea swallows the sun once a day because it looks that way from the shore. You can see why they think that but, really, it's such a massive inferential blunder that you have to wonder if they're competent to feed and dress themselves.

The thing is, there are several basic problems with the reasoning above, and I want to talk about them very briefly. I say very briefly because I'm balanced on the cusp between wanting to do a good job, and wanting to do something more useful. So, hey, there you go.

First, it's important to keep in mind that the author's second assumption* "One can’t infer an “ought” from an “is.”" actually negates all morality. For a moment, take this assumption as true. Then assume we know god exists. Further, we know that god wishes us to do certain things. These are "is" facts. God IS real, his wishes ARE real. Based on the second assumption, however, we cannot use these "is" facts to infer any "oughts" (e.g. we "ought" to obey god). Now, one might argue that if god created the universe then he obviously knows what is and is not good, but this doesn't really follow. My parents "made" me yet, nevertheless, it's entirely possible for a parent to tell a child to do a bad thing.

Second, one of the problems here is the somewhat funky way that some strains of religious people*** view the relationship between ethics and behavior. Consider the insanely convoluted sentence, "an action is permissible if and only if it’s not the case that one ought to refrain from performing that action." It would have been simpler to write, "All actions are permitted unless there is a specific proscription against it," but that implies too much freedom. Instead, the emphasis is always on what we are not supposed to do, how we are not supposed to act. And this is a basic difference between atheism and many other belief systems. By any large, I think of things we shouldn't do as the exception rather than the rule. Further, I break the world down into three separate classes of behaviors: things I SHOULD do (because they're ethically good), things I SHOULD NOT do (because they're ethically bad), and things that don't really matter (because they're ethically neutral). So, for example, I SHOULD tell the truth and carry out my responsibilities, I SHOULD NOT steal, murder or rape, and it's entirely up to me whether I spend an hour of free time reading a book or playing a computer game.**** I think folks that argue about how under atheism, everything is good, are getting hung up on the fact that under atheism, most things are neither good nor bad.

Third, and finally, there's a basic problem with the idea that "oughts" cannot come from the natural world. Many, many behaviors that benefit both the group and the individual emerge naturally. Fish school, birds flock, chimpanzees groom each other, dogs hunt together, ants build nests. Hell- multicellular organisms are, themselves, prime examples of cooperation between different sub-organisms. From my perspective, the majority of our ethics emerge naturally out of what we are as a species and how we live. I will, however, concede that there's no way to explain weird shit like "Don't wear garments of more than one kind of fiber" without recourse to a sky beast.

And really, the final issue here is simple: I don't really understand how conservative Christians find their belief system satisfying and they don't really understand how I can find mine satisfying. Fair enough. But it's always dangerous to assume that just because you don't get it, it isn't there to be gotten. Many Christians are quite ethical, as are many atheists. Obviously the philosophies work for us. And one can't simply assume themselves out of an empirical fact.

* Since it's hard to find a clean link to back this up, check out the transcript for day 11 of the Kitzmiller et al. v. Dover Area School District et al. trial where we find the following exchange between Michael Behe and the lawyer for the plaintiffs:

Lawyer: And using your definition, intelligent design is a scientific theory, correct?

Behe: Yes.

Lawyer: Under that same definition astrology is a scientific theory under your definition, correct?

Behe: Under my definition, a scientific theory is a proposed explanation which focuses or points to physical, observable data and logical inferences. There are many things throughout the history of science which we now think to be incorrect which nonetheless would fit that -- which would fit that definition. Yes, astrology is in fact one, and so is the ether theory of the propagation of light, and many other -- many other theories as well.

Keep reading below that point because it's utterly fascinating.

** Note as well that the definition of "assume" is "To take for granted or without proof." In other words, it's just a "fact" that we impose on the situation because it's convenient. I will readily admit that any chain of logical inference must begin with one or more assumptions. That said, it's hardly the case that one cannot argue about the reasonableness of said assumptions. I may as well start with the assumption that "One cannot understand material reality if one believes in god" and go on to conclude that Christians can't be good scientists. The argument is in the assumption- the unreasonable assumption, I might add- and any logical conclusions therefrom are trivial.

*** I do not refer specifically to Christians here and, by and large, think this pertains only to the more wacky members of many religious groups.

**** For the sake of argument, I'm ignoring the possibility that my wife might want me to participate in an activity.

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Wednesday, April 22, 2009

There are no words.

As you all know, I'm a regular follower of Jorge Cham's Piled Higher and Deeper. This may be the most heartbreakingly beautiful comic I've ever seen him create:

I have a lot of conversations with people who think that scientists and medical practitioners are engaged in some elaborate conspiracy to profit off of human misery. To them I can say only this:

Grow up.

Sometimes there are no easy answers. Sometimes there are no simple solutions. Sometimes the war can never be won. But it's the fight that makes us human. And humans are amazing.

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Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Things we like.

(Cross-posted on Scatterplot.)

I don't talk about sociology all that much given that I'm a soc blogger. This is basically for two reasons: (1) talking about my professional ups-and-downs might give away my sub-area and, thereby, my mild-mannered alter ego and, (2) I spend so much of my time writing about my professional work anyway, why on earth would I make it my hobby to write about my professional work? I mean, seriously, I love the... er... dedication of the orgheads, but if I didn't blog about zombies now and then my work time would be much less productive.

The side effect of all this, however, is that it may sometimes appear like I don't enjoy my job very much. Nothing, as it happens, could be further from the truth. I love my job. I enjoy going into the office to do it. I can't imagine doing anything else. It's just that I don't talk about what I'm doing that much and, when I do, am more likely to be complaining about something that's bugging me. Such, I think, is human nature.

So on the hunch that some of you are the same way, I want to pose a little activity: tell us a little about what it is that you love about sociology. What keeps you fired up about the job? I mean, you're here, you're still doing it- it's got to be because you love it, you don't hate it, or you're trapped in by simple path dependence. So what's the deal, scatterbrains and scatterfans?

For anyone who is curious, I'll start: one of my favorite things about this job- no kidding- is revising papers. I don't mean revising them before you send them out, I mean revising them with reviewer comments in-hand. I get as many incomprehensibly weird reviews as anyone, and possibly more than most, but there's something deeply satisfying to me about opening up a paper you thought was finished, reworking big chunks of it, and then closing it back up with the feeling that it's a stronger and more compelling piece of work than it was before. I love watching a paper that you thought was strong transform into a much more robust version. I love that sense that despite the efforts of a reviewer to kill it,* your paper has emerged more unstoppable than before. Like Dracula. Or a zombie.**

And after that? Eh. I love hanging out with so many people who are geekier than me.

Okay. Your turn.

* For those who haven't heard me expand upon this before, I have a sort of back-of-the-envelope theory that almost every paper will have one reviewer who, for mysterious reasons, wants to kill you just to watch you die. Most reviewers, however, end up being quite helpful and well-intentioned for all we may be angry at them for not recognizing the brilliance of our work. I mean, it's OUR work! How can it not be brilliant, right?

** My papers lend themselves well to zombie comparisons: shambling undead nightmares that seek only to consume the brains of others.

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Monday, April 20, 2009

Short answer? No.

So, given my customary madness I recently found myself over on Creation Ministries International where they have a delightful little press release propaganda essay titled "Anti-creationists: Do they fear an overthrow of Darwin in the U.S.?" Right from the title, as you may guess, I had a few predictable reactions. The first is summed up in the title to this post. The second is something along the lines of, "'Anti-creationist'? I'm an anti-creationist, now? I always thought I was just pro-science!" Ah, viva la difference! I am reminded of nothing so much as those who claim that atheists are anti-god. Right, sure, just like I'm anti-unicorn.

To my surprise, however, the actual text of this missive is more entertaining than the title. Shocking, I know, but absolutely true. Read it yourself for some real giggles, such as:

To teach merely the scientific evidence against evolution is only a tiny sliver of what creation science teaches. But the Darwinists have made it clear that they cannot tolerate even that sliver. I think they know that once students begin considering scientific evidence, Darwinists have lost the war, because they know (at least the leaders know) that they have no real evidence on their side. [emphasis added]

Riiiight. Because, you know, it's vastly more scientific to conclude that an invisible, undetectable, omniscient, omnipotent sky-beast made everything. It seems to have eluded the writers at CMI that "parsimonious" and "simpleminded" aren't synonyms. Perhaps equally interesting is this passage describing the fight between intelligent design creationism and science:

But because the Darwinists “control the microphone” (Professor Johnson’s phrase for media dominance), they can still get away with what Phillip Johnson called “cheap lawyer tricks”, such as attacking the man (by labeling him “creationist” for example) rather than discussing the ideas. [emphasis added]

Leaving aside the obvious humor of labeling the opposition "Darwinists" and then bitching about being labeled "creationist" there's the amusing fact that, by and large, labeling someone who believes in creationism a creationist is probably not nearly so "insulting" as repeatedly linking evolution to Hitler. Not that, you know, creationists ever try that particular bit of ad hominem.*

Best of all, however, is the piece's optimistic vision for the future:

Perhaps every time an evolutionist lobby group shrilly attacks people who oppose them, a few more of the majority may wonder, “What’s all the fuss about? Maybe the issue is important after all. Maybe the Darwinists should be confined to churches of their own, and not permitted to run the schools.”

And no doubt every time a bell rings an angel gets its wings. There's a lot of territory being fought over in the creationism vs. science throw-down but, all the same, I don't think there's any "silent majority" that would confine evolutionary theory to some sort of nebulous "church." Insert creationism and lousy logic into schools? Oh, sure, that might happen. Confine science to churches, however? That I don't see happening any time soon.

But apparently I'm a demon-inspired true criminal of the world community, so what the hell do I know?**

* I don't have time to find the link but This American Life over the weekend had a bit about a woman talking to a preacher about her lack of faith following the death of someone important to her. I was horrified to hear that he went off about how evolution is linked to Hitler. Sympathy fail.

** Seriously, how's THAT for ad hominem?

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Friday, April 17, 2009

The total dummies guide to never using a total dummies guide ever for anything. Ever.

I don't know what to say at this point except, "Oh my god! Where has this website been all my life"? This would have been so useful when I was getting married:

Or even the last time I had a conversation with my cousin about the (c)rapture:

I feel... I feel like somehow I've come home!

As a side note, I do not mean to imply that my wife jumped me on our second date or that divorce is looming in our future. I really just wanted to point out, as humorously as possible, just how bad an idea it would have been for me to write a vow for the wedding. Seriously.

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Thursday, April 16, 2009

The importance of doubt.

People who know me realize that I am- believe it or not- somewhat opinionated. Okay, stop laughing. What a lot of folks don't necessarily realize, however, is that I have a healthy degree of doubt about my own observations about the world.* This isn't to say that I lack self-confidence or I don't believe that my opinions are correct- like all people, I generally do believe my opinions are correct. It's just that as I have gotten older and learned more I have developed a healthy appreciation for the value of doubt. Let's face it- we're all imperfect, we all make mistakes, and however much you may believe in your own views, you need to make at least a tiny mental note to be careful about trusting them too much.

This is partly why I have a hard time accepting things like miracles. A miracle is, by definition, an event outside of common experience that cannot be reproduced at will. Often they are poorly documented- or documented only by those who have a vested interest in their confirmation- and fly in the face of everything we know about the world. And, generally speaking, events that seem to violate established, rigorously-tested scientific theories tend, on the average, to do so only in appearances and not in actual fact. Wrapped up into this category of miracles are the supposed appearances of religious symbols through otherwise natural processes- such as the Chicago overpass Virgin Mary, the Jesus toast, and so forth. These last items are examples of what is known as pareidolia, or the tendency to see faces or symbols in random or non-specific stimuli. One common example from the more secular end is the so-called man in the moon** or the face on Mars. What's happening with pareidolia, of course, is the complex feature detectors in your brain are being tricked by "noise" from the real world. And if they're tricked enough, then your brain essentially concludes "Hey, there's a face!" Given the commonality of pareidolia, and our growing knowledge of how the brain processes information, I thus tend to conclude that most religious icons that somehow appear in the natural world are- more than likely- not evidence for divine intervention.

But how do you teach about Pareidolia? How do you teach people to retain doubt about something as basic as whether or not they see a face? Well, as it turns out, you use iPhoto. You see, iPhoto includes a feature that identifies faces in an image. This is a neat trick that is meant to help people label their pictures and it works much like the human brain:*** it sorts through a mass of features and identifies those combinations that usually signal a face. The problem, of course, is that like humans, iPhoto suffers from pareidolia. It sometimes concludes something is a face when, really, it isn't. And now, several enterprising souls have produced a flickr gallery of some of iPhoto's flubs.

Some you definitely understand:

Others... not so much:

Funny? Yes. But also, a great tool for teaching the importance of doubt.

* Ask my wife if you don't believe me. She's been around for about a million remarks from me to the effect that "My opinion is X, but I may be influenced by Y, so I could be wrong." Fortunately this tendency did not express itself during our wedding ceremony.

** I don't love this example, actually, because the moon has never once looked like a face to me. Seriously.

*** albeit much, much more slowly. Whereas the brain has a massively parallel processing system that enables it to pick out faces very quickly, iPhoto is stuck with a more or less linear architecture. The only thing that saves iPhoto is that electronic processors are much faster than our electro-chemical hardware.

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Wednesday, April 15, 2009


As a side note: I think I've been to this dinner party. My wife is usually equally desirous that I hold my tongue. Usually I do. Damned if I understand, however, why it's not impolite for someone to spout off poorly informed horseshit and it is impolite for me to call them on it.

Well, okay, I do understand that, I just think it's stupid. Never mind.

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Tuesday, April 14, 2009

This way to the egress.

For many of us in the northern hemisphere, it's been a long and grim winter. Spring is approaching, or already here, and that means we're getting ready to shed our sweaters and coats and return to shorts and short-sleeved shirts. For those of us in the northern hemisphere who happen to be of paler complexions, this means that we're about to expose that pasty skin we've been developing for months on end. Oh noes! Whatever shall we do to prepare for bikini season?*

Well, if you work in an office, I really have the solution for you:**

Only at can you use an exclusive piece of software to convert your very own LCD monitor into a low-power tanning panel. That's right! You can sit at your computer for ten minutes a day and develop a lovely cooked turkey skin tone on a strictly limited portion of your body. Seriously, I took a screenshot:

I particularly enjoy the "mobile app" they advertise so that you can use your iphone as some sort of freakish tanning implement. I can't seem to figure out how much this service costs- not without, at the least, using their "free session"- but what I find amusing is that you apparently don't buy the software. Instead, you effectively buy time and they send your monitor the necessary commands remotely. So, in essence, you're tanning with equipment you own and are just paying them for the privilege of ramping your monitor up to what I feel confident are performance specifications not intended by the manufacturer.

Does this technology work? Well, no. It is in fact a hoax perpetrated by skcin, a skin cancer charity in the UK. It's a brilliant hoax, though, and you should take the free trial through to see just how brilliant.

Who says the internet never produced anything good?***

* I often hear "bikini season" referred to in commercials and I know what they mean is "the season when you will wear a bikini." Obviously they hope the reminder will encourage the consumption of all sorts of products meant to prepare you to display your body. Nevertheless, I prefer to interpret "bikini season" in much the same sense as "duck season." Teams of quiet hunters waiting in blinds for unwary, wild bikinis to emerge from the brush. Sighting down the barrel, the shock of recognition, and BLAM! Two or three bikinis lay dead on the ground, ready to be tied to car fenders are driven to market. Good times.

** That is, if you're also somewhat gullible.

*** Well, if you're a big fan of porn, you've probably believed in the bounty of the internet for a long time now.

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Monday, April 13, 2009

The funny thing about probabilities.

In a number of the classes I've taught I always make a point of talking for a bit about probability. This is partly because I just find probability and statistics cool as hell. Seriously, I'm that guy. Additionally, however, this is because I think a basic understanding of probability is very useful in a person's life. One way in which I think it is useful is helping to dispel nonsense ideas about how unusual or unbelievable an event is.

See, as many of you know by now many events that may seem unusual or noteworthy are- from the perspective of probabilities- quite unremarkable. A good example is to think about flipping a coin: unless we worry about it landing on precisely the edge, there's a 0.50 probability that it will land heads or tails. Moreover, these probabilities are independent, meaning that one flip does not influence the next flip.* Given these two facts, we can find the total likelihood of a series of flips by multiplying the probabilities of each flip together. What this means is that the probability of, say, three heads in a row is: p= 0.50*0.50*0.50= 0.125 (i.e. a 12.5% chance). Similarly, the probability of five heads in a row is: p= 0.50*0.50*0.50*0.50*0.50= 0.031 (i.e. 3.1% chance). Obviously, the more flips we add, the lower the probability of five heads in a row. Most people grasp this type of logic on a fundamental level.

The problem emerges because most people don't ask themselves the next question: what's the probability of, say, a heads then two tails, then two heads? Well, the probability of a heads or a tails is 0.50, so that calculation would look like this: p= 0.50*0.50*0.50*0.50*0.50= 0.031 (i.e. 3.1%). If you're feeling like you've seen this before, you have at least a marginally functional memory: it's the same probability as the five heads in a row. In fact, it doesn't matter which specific sequence of heads and tails we're interested in- we'll always get the same probability for any set of five flips.** And even more fun, while the likelihood of any one of those combinations is only 3.1%, the likelihood that we will get one of them when we flip a coin five times is 100%. In other words, while a guess as to the specific outcome will only be correct 3.1% of the time, nevertheless, we know with certainty that one of those low probability outcomes must result from the process of coin flipping. This is important because it teaches us an important lesson: just because an event is improbable, it does not mean that it is all that interesting. Put differently, any time you flip a coin five times in a row, there is a 100% chance that some improbable event (defined as p< .05) will occur. This is, as a side note, why researchers should not fetishize statistical significance. Significance is an extremely useful heuristic for dealing with the confirmation bias and related foolishness, but in and of itself cannot tell us when something is important.

This is also important because it relates to the arguments of Intelligent Design Creationists.*** One of their primary "arguments" is that life cannot have evolved because the cumulative probability of a sequence of mutations producing the structures we see is very small. As you might surmise at this point in the post, this is problematic at best because some outcome from any sequence of mutations is inevitable, even if any particular outcome is vanishingly unlikely. So, staking your argument on the idea that this set of outcomes is unlikely is implicitly assuming that this set of outcomes is the only way life could have worked. Add in the fact that natural selection and evolution work to make some things more likely, and you start to see the weakness of probability based arguments for design.

And this brings us to the real point of this post:**** it looks like those arguments have just gotten a bit weaker.

Researchers Paul Higgs and Ralph Purditz of McMaster University in Canada***** have shown that 10 of the 20 amino acids commonly in use in terrestrial biology are thermodynamically favored. What does this mean? Simply that the basic laws of physics favor the development of these ten amino acids and, moreover, their prevalence is predicted with a high degree of accuracy by those laws. In other words, folks, when it comes to half of the amino acids biology uses we aren't talking about a series of unrelated coin flips. We're talking about a series of flips with a very, very weighted coin. To quote the abstract:

Of the twenty amino acids used in proteins, ten were formed in Miller's atmospheric discharge experiments. The two other major proposed sources of prebiotic amino acid synthesis include formation in hydrothermal vents and delivery to Earth via meteorites. We combine observational and experimental data of amino acid frequencies formed by these diverse mechanisms and show that, regardless of the source, these ten early amino acids can be ranked in order of decreasing abundance in prebiotic contexts. This order can be predicted by thermodynamics. The relative abundances of the early amino acids were most likely reflected in the composition of the first proteins at the time the genetic code originated. The remaining amino acids were incorporated into proteins after pathways for their biochemical synthesis evolved. This is consistent with theories of the evolution of the genetic code by stepwise addition of new amino acids. These are hints that key aspects of early biochemistry may be universal. [emphasis added]

On a scientific level, this is a really neat finding. But on another level, it's one more nail in the coffin of the hoary old creationist probability argument. And that's just fun.

Albert Einstein is sometimes credited with remarking that god does not play dice with the universe. This most recent finding, though, suggests that if he does, the dice are loaded.

* When the outcome of one event influences the likelihood of a second event, these events are said to be conditional probabilities.

** If this seems intuitively wrong, it's for a simple reason: Most of us don't distinguish strongly between "three heads and two tails" and "three tails and two heads". These sets of outcomes tend to get lumped into a common category of "mixed heads and tails" in our minds. Since there are so many more mixed outcomes than non-mixed (obviously, there are only two possible non-mixed outcomes, the total likelihood of which is 6.2%, meaning that all mixed outcomes occupy the remaining 93.8% of the available probability space) this gives the impression that it is the non-mixed combinations that are so very unlikely. Nevertheless, each mixed outcome is a distinct result that is just as unlikely- on its own- as getting five heads.

*** C'mon, you knew we were getting here eventually!

**** What? You didn't think just felt like talking about math, did you?

***** Shout out to Tina of Scatterplot for the work of her colleagues! Woot!

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Friday, April 10, 2009

You were advised that from time to time this might transpire Vol II

This is, hands down, my favorite music video:

Catchy, yet, educational!

Also available here if YouTube is still acting weird and the above won't play.

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Thursday, April 09, 2009

It's funny because starfish are clingy.

If you're sufficiently curious, the end makes more sense when you've seen the first episode.

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Wednesday, April 08, 2009

So good, I wish I could have written it myself...

I'm running late because of a fun visit to the doctor so, in lieu of my usual drivel, please enjoy this much better written material from Pandagon. It's about one of our favorite topics- vaccines:

It’s painful for me to write this, because I don’t like criticizing people I generally admire, but if I’m going to get on the right for sex-phobia and anti-science thinking, I have to do it for the left, too. I hinted at my frustrations in my article about the reproductive health panel at WAM, but truth told, I was banging my head against my desk in frustration when a handful of anti-vaccination types absolutely destroyed any science-based, productive conversation by making the entire discussion about how Merck only invented Gardasil because they enjoy profiting off killing people. It’s one of the most frustrating illogical habits of the left, to assume that because someone makes money at something, that action is almost surely immoral and probably actively evil. You definitely get that every time someone tries to make a scandal out of the fact that liberal and feminist bloggers have advertisements, and you get it in the anti-vaccination hysteria.

Within the course of 10 minutes worth of questions, I heard every right wing myth about the HPV vaccination repackaged as an earnest feminist concern. They didn’t test it at all! With a side dose of acting like this is the first vaccination anyone ever invented, and this is a scary new technology. Truth is, they actually put it through the standard vaccination testing and approval process, and yes, they tested it on boys, too, so that right wing meme that’s seeped into liberal thinking is also what we liberals call “problematic”. The reason it was only approved for girls initially, I suspect, is that the FDA assumed it would be mandated like most childhood vaccinations are (because it’s no different than other childhood vaccinations, except for one thing---what could that be?), and it was easier to sell it as a way to stop girls from getting cancer. That was stupid, because if they’d done both genders right up front, they could have avoided even really dwelling on the fact that HPV is a sexually transmitted disease, which could have prevented people from having “questions” they don’t have about other routine vaccinations.

It's a great post and well worth your attention. So get over there are read it!

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Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Meanwhile, back on the ranch...

Yesterday, as you will recall, I posted a brief, though pointless, plea to internet wingnuts everywhere to stop being quite so stupid. And, in response, Tina over at the much esteemed Scatterplot decided to call me out. How? Well, by challenging me to participate in stick figure science. For those who don't know already- and I was one of you until yesterday- this is a project by the Florida Citizens for Science to help deal with misconceptions about science and scientific knowledge. Or, as they explain:

Public understanding of science, especially biology/evolution, is horribly low. Folks who push antievolution efforts on local, state and national stages prey on that weakness. One such gap in knowledge is the use of the word "theory." When the general public uses the word, it means one thing; when a scientist uses the word, it usually means something completely different. We see this a lot when antievolution folks claim that "evolution is only a theory." The news media mistakenly runs intelligent design and evolution alongside as two competing theories in their stories and accompanying graphics. Lawmakers take advantage of this when proposing antievolution legislation.

Besides the misuse of the word theory, antievolution efforts rely on false arguments such as gaps in the fossil record, the ever changing nature of science, and scientists being afraid of honest critical analysis.

Contest for ages 13 through adult:
Your job is to create a cartoon that can be used to educate the general public and especially decision makers (state legislators, school board members) about the truth behind one false argument. Choose an argument, either one I've mentioned above or another one you are familiar with, and create a cartoon that corrects the record.

Contest for ages 12 and under:
Your job is to create a cartoon that tells everyone "why understanding science is important."

But wait! I can't draw!
Don't worry. The name of the contest is "Stick Science" for a reason. All entries must be drawn using stick figures. Even if you are a professional artist, you must still use stick figures. The main focus will be on your creative idea, not your artistic talent. This doesn't mean you can be sloppy, though. Your entry needs to be as clear as possible. You are welcome to add "artist's notes" to the cartoon to make a certain point clear if your stick figure drawing ability doesn't allow you to express it. But your writing and drawing needs to be understandable. You're not going to win anything if the judges can't figure out your cartoon.

Your cartoon can be funny or educational or a combination of both; however, the cartoon should not be mean-spirited or single out a real person for ridicule. Your entry can be a single pane like a political cartoon, or it can be three or four panes like a daily comic strip, or it can be several panes in two rows similar to the Sunday comics. As long as your cartoon fits on a standard 8.5" x 11" piece of paper, either vertically or horizontally, you are good to go.

We have "celebrity" judges and great prizes awaiting your cartoon!

So why am I mentioning this? Well, just because I don't want to be the only person making an ass of himself. So, I invite all of you to produce and submit your own entries, due on May 31st according to the rules. What am I going to draw, you ask? No idea, but I'm already thinking about it.

And so far my main question is: how do I make a good ass joke with a stick figure?

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Monday, April 06, 2009

In which Drek has a bit of a breakdown.

Some of you may recall as far back as last Friday when I provided you with a poorly-written, absurd bit of frippery relating to a bra designed by a chiropractor. At the time I intended this to be a fun post about one of my favorite topics* and didn't expect much of anything to come of it. This should have been a warning to me.

What has emerged from this post has been, among other things, a running argument with an anonymous commenter who seems to be insisting that Victoria's Secret is at the heart of a vast conspiracy to keep the public in the dark about the carcinogenic properties of female undergarments.** And I'm only exaggerating slightly, which is to say that the commenter didn't name Victoria's Secret specifically. Otherwise, my description is bang-on.

Now, as you might expect, over the weekend I took the time to do some reading on the subject, tracked down the scholarly article that keeps being touted as proof of this link, and wrote a fairly thorough pair of responses. I am, of course, under no illusions that they will work with my anonymous antagonist, but hopefully it will help inform the next poor schlub who runs across my blog.

As I was discussing with my wife this weekend, however, this exchange has made me aware of something. People, I appreciate the honor that "The Soc Shrine" showed me before they left, and I do genuinely enjoy doing battle with all sorts of pseudoscientific nonsense, but really and truly, I can't be an expert in every bullshit story on the internet.

I mean, crap! Let's think about my track record for a moment: Creationism/intelligent design? Covered. Vaccines and autism? Covered. Graham Hancock? Covered. Biblical astronomy? Covered. Apollo moon landing "hoax"? Covered. Greg Buell? Covered. Ramtha? Covered. Conservapedia? Covered. And now, apparently, I've moved on to bras and breast cancer. I am starting to get a serious case of pseudoscience burnout. Let's face it, too: I have better things to do with my time than research the next poorly thought out horseshit idea someone's psychic gives them.

And so, crazy internet wingnuts, I'd like to make a request: before you bug me about your wacky ideas and how there's a vast conspiracy trying to keep us all sick would you at least do your fucking background reading? Please? And can you at least stop to ponder if your "theory" has even the vaguest hint of plausibility about it? It's not that much for me to ask, okay? And my track record shows that I'll argue with you until you're satiated. Just, please, can we elevate the level of discussion from "abysmally stupid" to maybe a nice, pleasant "surprisingly stupid"?

Is that really too much to ask?

* I'm either referring to boobs or pseudoscience. I leave it to you to decide which.

** I, of course, mean the undergarments of females. I have no idea what sex the undergarments themselves may be, although I didn't think they reproduced sexually in the first place.

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Friday, April 03, 2009

This is why I should have been a masseuse...

So, owing to my consistent interest in all things to do with boobs, I thought I should mention an exciting new health technology: the brassage. What is the brassage? Well, it's a bra. More than that, however, it is a bra that allegedly can increase your health. That is, if you wear bras in the first place. If you're not wearing a bra on a regular basis, this thing probably isn't for you.

In any case, the brassage integrates "technology" developed and marketed by "Lymphatic Enhancement Technology, Ltd." whose website is nothing short of awesome. And that is particularly true of the picture that greets you when you first arrive:


Seriously, check out their website- the arrows are animated:

Now, you may be wondering if this bra improves health by reducing wind resistance, but this isn't the case. No, supposedly, this bra enhances health by preventing nasty toxins from building up in your breasts. See, ladies? Going braless isn't just a fashion or feminist statement anymore: it's about health. And where did this amazing revolution come from. Why, from one Jayson Sher:

After seven years of researching scientific data compiled by medical doctors, scientists, holistic practitioners, massage therapists and academics, Dr. Jayson I. Sher, D.C. along with a team of medical advisors, engineers, designers, and consultants, successfully developed LETflow, a revolutionary new technology that works in conjunction with natural body movement to provide undetectable gentle micro-massage of the tissues above, around and near these extremely delicate lymphatic vessels. This massage aids the body in promoting and enhancing the lymphatic system's natural ability to remove and transport toxins, cellular debris, and other harmful chemicals from the breast tissue, promoting a healthier physiological environment. The bra containing the virtually invisible LETflow technology undetectably enhances lymphatic circulation, increases comfort to the wearer while maintaining the fashion and style of the brassiere.

Did you get all that? The bra supposedly massages your breast* so as to release nasty toxins. So, am I really praising the brassage? Well, not really. For one thing, the "D.C." that follows "Dr. Jayson Sher, D.C." stands for "Doctor of Chiropractic." And y'all already know the score with chiropractic.** More importantly, however, is the simple issue that for all of the bounteous claims about it, it doesn't seem to work:

"The Federal Trade Commission has not concluded any investigations against the marketers of the Brassage," says press officer Betsy Lordan. As a matter of policy, however, FTC doesn't comment on ongoing investigations, she says.

Meanwhile, what about the claims that the bra's massaging bumps sewn into the side "stimulate lymphatic flow," which promotes healthy breast tissue, according to the company's website.

Erteszek is also quoted in other media outlets as saying the "wellness bra" helps to prevent breast disease.

Not so fast, says an expert from the American Cancer Society. "There is no credible evidence to suggest that local accumulation of toxins has a role in breast cancer risk," Ted Gansler, MD, director of medical content for the American Cancer Society, tells WebMD.

"And there is no scientific evidence that this type of bra or any other has any impact of women's risk of developing breast cancer."

What about the bra's claim of stimulating lymphatic flow? "Unless you have had surgery or a treatment that damages lymphatic vessels, your lymphatic flow will be just fine, regardless of what bra you wear or even if you wear no bra," Gansler says.

On its website, the American Cancer Society also addresses the topic of bras and breast cancer, posting information in response to a previous email rumor that claims wearing a bra for the entire day compresses the breast's lymphatic system, resulting in toxin accumulation that cause breast cancer.

In respond, the ACS says: "There are no scientifically valid studies that show wearing bras of any type causes breast cancer."

So, you would presumably be just as well off getting the same massaging effect from a couple of pre-pubescent boys, with the potential caveat that I'm sure the boys would be more than happy to massage breasts for free.

Am I about to launch into some deep discussion of health and beauty products here? Maybe a digression into a chat about gender?

Nah. I just wanted to talk about boobs, and figured consumer advice was as good a reason as any.

You're welcome!

* So, basically, this is the "Tune in Tokyo" theory of medicine.

** i.e. it doesn't really work.

As a side note: If this post seems unusually incoherent, it's because I'm busy submitting a paper today. Seriously, why the fuck must we send along three paper copies at this point?

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Thursday, April 02, 2009

Teh awesome!

I don't know if this is what Shakha meant by a special prize but, if not, it should be:

Or, as it's described by the publisher:

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies features the original text of Jane Austen's beloved novel with all-new scenes of bone-crunching zombie action. As our story opens, a mysterious plague has fallen upon the quiet English village of Meryton—and the dead are returning to life! Feisty heroine Elizabeth Bennet is determined to wipe out the zombie menace, but she's soon distracted by the arrival of the haughty and arrogant Mr. Darcy. What ensues is a delightful comedy of manners with plenty of civilized sparring between the two young lovers—and even more violent sparring on the blood-soaked battlefield as Elizabeth wages war against hordes of flesh-eating undead. Complete with 20 illustrations in the style of C. E. Brock (the original illustrator of Pride and Prejudice), this insanely funny expanded edition will introduce Jane Austen's classic novel to new legions of fans.

Finally! A book that combines my love of Victorian fiction with my passion for zombies!* Granted, it sounds like a joke from a Jasper Fforde novel** but who cares? It has zombies, it has haughty English women, is has sexual tension, and it has plot twists that seem bafflingly absurd to those with a modern sense of propriety! What's not to like?

* I threatened offered to buy this for my wife for her next birthday but, really, I don't think she's that interested. Tis a shame, really.

** If you haven't already, you really should take a look at his Thursday Next series, starting with The Eyre Affair.

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Wednesday, April 01, 2009

xkcd: Sociology Style!

Some of you may remember early last month when I posted a spiffy comic about correlation, courtesy of xkcd. It was actually quite popular, even appearing on Sociological Images.

Now, for all those dedicated Sociology grad students and faculty who have ever had to review an article with a questionable* approach to statistical analysis, comes this slightly modified** version of that original seminal comic:

*** p=.001, ** p=.01, * p=.05, ~ p=Let's just pretend for a moment, okay?

Ah, stars. What did we ever do without you?

* And by "questionable" I mean "absurd."

** Special thanks to a reader in a department that shall remain nameless, who apparently got the idea from a hand-drawn version hanging on their professor's door. And yes, I'm sure I could be more vague, but what do you want from me? I'm pseudonymous- if my readers want to remain anonymous, who am I to argue? Come to think of it, I wouldn't want to admit to reading me either.

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