Esoteric Dissertations from a One-Track Mind

August 13, 2008

Sanity Prevails in Federal Court

Filed under: Education, religion, science — codesmithy @ 11:30 am

U.S. District Judge James Otero ruled that the California university system can deny course credit from schools that use textbooks that declare the Bible is inerrant and reject evolution.  It is rather typical that the plaintiffs in the case would claim discrimination.  The ruling is not about religious freedom, but rather applying the same standard to all applicants.  This standard is necessarily secular because it is based on evidence we can all agree upon.

Religion, by its very nature, is based on credulity not skepticism.  Religion may satisfy certain human psychological needs but that is irrelevant to whether or not it is actually true.  The fact that religion plays off those needs means it should rationally be examined more critically, not less.  Any thing that promises eternal bliss or suffering should be examined under the most profound scrutiny.

As such, science, with its relentless skepticism, erodes religion.  The solution that the fundamentalists have stumbled upon is further indoctrination, manufactured disinformation, and ignorance.  What they seek from the rest of society is accommodation for their agenda.

I would like to believe that the cases are frivolous; their outcomes clear from the outset.  However, history shows such unconditional belief in the court system to be misplaced, which is why it is refreshing to see the system actually work.

July 20, 2008

Modern Science Writing

Filed under: books, culture, science — Tags: — codesmithy @ 10:21 am

I finished reading The Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing edited by Richard Dawkins.  I can’t think of another book that I so enjoyed reading.  It is an anthology, and therefore suffers from uneven tone and style.  The upshot is that there are a few authors I would like to read more of, such as Lancelot Hogben, Lee Smolin, and of course Carl Sagan.  It also convinced me not to read Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time of which there is a brief selection in the book.

I think the book is best enjoyed in small doses.  This sensibility comes from the fact that one should be thinking when reading it, not about the words on the page, but what it says about us, and the universe we live in.  What we are, what we are made of, the indifferent rules that govern us and what the implications are for the limited freedom we do enjoy.  As an thought experiment, try to imagine the life of an individual carbon atom, formed by a nuclear reaction in a star, which just so happened to find itself trapped in limestone on earth.  Imagine further that this atom somehow manages to enter into the carbon cycle where it might become part of you.  Part of your DNA, your hair, your brain.  But a carbon atom’s existence as literally part of you is just less than a blink of an eye in the grand-scale of its experience.  Every atom of your being has some extraordinary tale of natural history.  This is the mind-expanding world one enters as one reads the pages of Modern Science Writing.  How terribly parochial many of our conceptions of the world seem when placed on the canvas of the cosmos.

This is knowledge that deserves to shared, deserves to be contemplated by all mankind.  But when pondering this, there comes another crashing reality of natural history, how I came to read the book.  Perhaps I am guilty of projecting my particular aesthetic onto the rest of humanity, but nevertheless the book costs approximately $35.  The local county library has 1 copy, and there are two holds as I write this.  The point is that the high price of this book has a practical effect, it limits the knowledge to a specialized class.  Kate Muir points out that “the Victorians, with their public lectures and royal societies, gloried in debate and celebrated the thrills of fresh knowledge.”

I don’t think think it is quite fair to critique the popular culture of different eras.  Bemoaning the anti-intellectualism of the masses on one-side without considering how science is presented seems a tad disingenuous.  It is natural that science gets more specialized as it progresses.  A predictable consequence of this is that it may take work to make discoveries fit for mass consumption, as opposed to the Victorian era, where some new discovery could just be presented.

The danger that the discoveries of science become esoteric knowledge of a specialized class is real.  To guard against this, science must be communicated to the public, freely and openly.  Hence we find ourselves in contradiction, as to gain access to the knowledge is comparatively expensive and ignorance is free.  When should science pass into our shared cultural heritage, and should it take as long as some piece of fiction?  Is there some better way to compensate scientific authors for their work?

In closing, I don’t begrudge the money I did pay for the book.  It is extraordinary.  I enjoyed as much to think that it deserves to be integrated as part of our cultural heritage as quickly as possible.  But, this knowledge is constrained by the societal conditions in which it was produced.  Does science exist for the benefit of a specialized class, or is its purpose to enlighten humanity?  In the context of current economic conditions, it rests in the former more than the latter.

June 30, 2008

On Angry, Arrogant Atheism

Filed under: culture, religion, science, Uncategorized — Tags: , — codesmithy @ 7:22 am

Recently, PZ Myers ripped Gordy Slack for “bad” articles on creationismGordy Slack’s reply is revealing in its own way.

It surprises me that PZ is so pissed off by my efforts to understand why so many Americans reject evolution. If you ask them, and I have bothered to ask hundreds or thousands over the past two years, many will tell you that more than anything else, it’s the arrogant zealotry of cocksure ideologues that turns them off to evolution. They see people calling their intuitions and worldviews retarded and corrupt, and they march the other way. That’s one reason why we evolutionists have done such an abysmal promotions job even though we’re armed with the most delightful and seductive and potent theory ever. If we can’t sell evolution, we must be doing something wrong. Right? I’m just saying that we might start by resisting the urge to spit bile in the face of potential buyers.

Gordy Slack’s original article, such as it was, painted creationism as a form of legitimate skepticism.  It conferred respect on creationism for its truly adversarial relationship to science, noting things that apparently creationists pointed out, and science eventually proved them right.  PZ Myers’ point was: no, scientists were saying the same things, and unlike the creationists, they found the hard evidence to prove it.

Creationism is fundamentally reactionary and denialist.  The line between honest skepticism and denialism can usually be discerned by asking a simple question.  Both the skeptic and the denialist will claim there is not enough evidence to support a particular claim, what differentiates the two is their answer as to what evidence would be necessary to change their belief.  The true skeptic will be able to produce a few pieces of evidence that would convince them.  A denialist will sometimes openly say no amount of evidence will convince them, or if they are more sophisticated, they will just leave it at an unspecific more.

The fact of the matter is that the theory of evolution by natural selection is one of the best and heavily supported scientific theories we have.  The rejection of evolution rests on a logical fallacy, the fear of its ramifications, not the lack of evidence.  The arrogance of the atheist, or the evolutionary scientist is the mere questioning of the unassailable church doctrine.  The thinking goes, if those atheists weren’t so arrogant and just accept the fact that the bible is unerringly correct, then there wouldn’t be a problem.

There are many that believe there is some way to reconcile the theory of evolution and religion.  I am not denying that there are ways to reconcile the two beliefs, but there are none that I find particularly intellectually satisfying.

What the creationists of the world seek from the scientists is simple: accommodation.  And this is what makes atheists so angry.  It sends the message that if one is petulant enough, stubborn enough, loud enough, irrational enough, that it is possible to get the most reasonable of institutions to cave.  Science, as an ideal, is imperfectly implemented by humans.  We try our best, and sometimes we fail, but the central tenet is that we try to succeed, and we are fundamentally honest.

I used to believe standing by a principle was easy.  Science was some forgone conclusion, why wouldn’t someone want to be rational?  Why wouldn’t someone want to know more about the physical world around them?  My upbringing was religious.  I saw going to church on Sunday as some sort of insurance policy.  I thought there was some ancient break where god was regularly intervening in the world and then he quit for some reason.  Later, I realized that the person who went to church on Sunday was the same on Monday.  The tales of great miracles occur regularly, but when examined closely they more closely resemble hoaxes or tales of the credulous, not divine intervention.  Finally, I was able to stitch together a coherent, rational view of natural history that exposes the very strange creatures that we are and what we believe.

I admit it.  I’m a little bit bitter about that.  I can only compare and contrast my own experience of confirmation with this statement from the Brights.

Hello, parents/guardians! Please read the following Brights’ Net’s “rules” for youngsters signing up to be counted in the constituency of Brights.

1) The decision to be a Bright must be the child’s. Any youngster who is told he or she must, or should, be a Bright can NOT be a Bright. [The Brights’ Net doesn’t wish to count children who are not taking the step for themselves.]

2) Children should know they can change their mind at a later time (as can any person).

3) A child must be able to independently sign onto the Brights’ Net site, read and understand the definition, conclude they are a Bright, and then locate and complete the sign-up form without assistance. (Parents should feel free to discuss likely implications of “being a Bright” with the child, but the child must be capable of abiding by the guidelines.)

Can you imagine a church adopting such a policy before we start labeling children Christian?

Religion is at war with the world.  At war with the truths we discover.  Has religion ever endorsed some new discovery and gone, wow, this is better than we thought?  The universe is far older, larger, grander, more complex and elegant than our prophets led us to believe.

This willful ignorance is something to be angry about.  Furthermore, I will not lie, mislead or deny the truth as I see it to accommodate those who want to wallow in a delusion.  If this makes me arrogant, so be it.  I ask nothing less than an intellectual revolution towards rationality, a new permanent enlightenment of our species to replace the decadent thinking of the here and now.  Thinkers unite!  You have nothing to lose but your superstitions and an undimmed view of universe to gain and explore.

June 24, 2008

Kanzius Redux

Filed under: culture, media, science — Tags: — codesmithy @ 9:40 am

From the I can’t believe this story hasn’t died yet file, John Rossi III pointed out that the Naples Daily News ran an article on John Kanzius.  The headline asks: “can this man cure cancer?”  The answer is, of course, no.

As I wrote before:

[T]he difficult part is developing the nano-machines or viruses that will attach themselves to cancer cells, not killing the cancer cells after they have been tagged.

Apparently, Kanzius is getting some help from medical professionals on that part.

Somewhat more amazingly, the device is being touted as a way to desalinize water.  As I wrote in a comment.

Kanzius’ device is horrible for desalination. Breaking the hydrogen-oxygen bond is an awful road to go down from an engineering perspective, because the remainder of the process is going to be spent trying to recover that energy. Not to mention of radio waves that will invariably miss the bonds.

However, because one Professor emeritus at Pennsylvania State University examined the device, Rustum Roy, the article is able to report that research is ongoing.  According to Roy’s general biography, he is described as “the leading contrarian” among U.S. scientists. Being a “leading contrarian,” he doesn’t seem to answer the most basic scientific question when he examined the device, what is the device’s output/input efficiency.

http://www.rustumroy.com/Scans/Observations%20of%20polarized%20MRI%20vol%2012%20is%201.pdf

Kanzius’ device can be used for desalination, but it has an incredibly low probability of being practical given the technology that already exists.

Tellingly, what should have been a minor intellectual curiosity has become a phenomenon through repeated credulous reporting.  Case in point:

The possibilities about what the machine might accomplish run rampant. Can it defeat viruses? Heart disease? No research has begun on those hopeful thoughts, but Kanzius has submitted patents for the treatment of other diseases. “One of those viruses could be HIV,” Kanzius says. “The viruses are actually easier to work with than cancer cells,”

Kanzius also says it may be possible to target plaques in arteries.

The article later provides information on where to donate.

No big company has stepped in to fund research into Kanzius’ machine, so the money has to come from somewhere else. He’s established the John Kanzius Cancer Research Foundation. Its Web site — http://www.kanziuscancerresearch.com — has drawn a rash of donations as media reports on the device have spread.

It never ceases to amaze me how circularly driven this whole enterprise surrounding John Kanzius is, how the media repeats the most outrageous speculation unchallenged, then seeing little pieces sprout up from the credulous.  How do you counteract that?  How can we promote critical thinking when we are constantly assaulted with the most credulous, mindless blather.  What is the speed of stupidity?  Here is one clue.  RF Induced Hyperthermia (apparently the name for Kanzius’ desalination method) has a stub on the Wikipedia page for desalination.

June 19, 2008

Derren Brown – Person Swap

Filed under: books, science — Tags: , — codesmithy @ 9:29 am

I’ve been reading “Kluge: The Haphazard Construction of the Human Mind” by Gary Marcus.  The book builds on a few points in “The Logic of Failure: Recognizing and Avoiding Error in Complex Situations” by Dietrich Dorner.  However, Marcus goes a bit further and tries to provide an evolutionary basis for our errors in judgment.

Human beings have a number of quirks.  The egotism of the human species is somewhat astonishing in this regard.  One would think with our brains, we would be most able to recognize our faults and limitations.  “Kluge” goes through a number of ways humans behave irrationally from the ability to be primed to bias one towards a particular answer, to confirmation bias and motivated reasoning.  We are definitely creatures that very much live in the moment with some limited deliberative capabilities hooked in.

As such, the book recommends watching Derren Brown’s Person Swap.  It shows just how flaky our immediate memories can be.

So, without further ado:

Recognizing that we are creatures with limitations and whose reasoning is imperfect is the first step in avoiding some of the problems that can befall us.

June 17, 2008

Biology From Chemistry

Filed under: science — Tags: — codesmithy @ 9:34 am

The question of how life arises from chemicals that we think of as inert is called abiogenesis.  The following video provides an overview of Dr. Jack Szostak’s work at Harvard Medical School.

(h/t PZ Myers)

Neat.  Life is so much more interesting when you actually study it.

June 14, 2008

Reuters Falls for Water-Powered Car Hoax

Filed under: culture, media, science — Tags: , , — codesmithy @ 9:07 pm

I used to think reporters were college educated. The critical by-product of that education was a supposed ability to examine the world critically. A recognition of the fact that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. A sensibility that if someone does something completely unheard of, it is worth consulting some experts in the field to see what they have to say about it.

These expectations are lowered when it comes to local broadcasts. I can understand that there might be a lack of talent in certain sections of the country where there are, nevertheless, television stations. That does not stop me from criticizing those stations, but I can understand the lack of rigor to a certain degree. However, when those same tendencies are demonstrable in a wire service, it surely demonstrates the intellectual depravity that exists in institutions that purport to be authoritative news sources.

Without further ado, here is yet another water-powered car hoax reported unquestioned by Michelle Carlile-Alkhouri for Reuters. One can compare and contrast the reporting here to reporting displayed in “Energy Ignorance: Making Saltwater Burn.” There are additional claims of different water-powered vehicles in the comments. If Michelle Carlile-Alkhouri had even a passing understanding of thermodynamics, she would recognize the fundamental issue to making a water-powered car work: where is the lower energy product? For conventional vehicles it is apparent with products like carbon dioxide. If the process is chemical as Kiyoshi Hirasawa, CEO of Genepax, claims then there needs to be a lower energy product somewhere. It can’t be the water, because that is also an input. Hydrogen and oxygen are higher energy products, so they aren’t it. My guess is that it is the “generator” which one will find connected to a battery. The lower energy product will be inside the battery. That is your energy source, not the Rube Goldberg contraption they set up to delude and mystify.

But, it is worth noting this is how the news reports the unequivocally, provably false. What hope is there for issues that aren’t so cut and dry?

Michelle Carlile-Alkhouri and other people responsible for this “report” let this propaganda go unchallenged. This would be an embarrassment if printed in a middle school newspaper, let alone a wire-service story that is capable of being repeated in numerous outlets. To the extent that the media turns an uncritical eye to these charlatans is a disservice to us all and displays the degree to which those who claim to inform us will sell out their patrons and hovel them in ignorance in service to personal profit.

June 9, 2008

Improving the Bible

Filed under: culture, religion, science — Tags: , , — codesmithy @ 9:58 am

(h/t Pharyngula)

In an episode of what might be preaching to choir, Phil Hellenes (AFAIK) explores what a creation story would look like if it corresponded with current scientific understanding of chemistry, biology, astronomy among others.

If there were a book that described in general details, planetary formation, stars, nuclear fusion, the vast time-scales involved, details which had to have been dictated from someone/something with a greater knowledge that far exceeded the tools and understanding of the time I don’t think there would be much doubt such knowledge had to have come from someone/something that possessed a greater understanding of the universe, quite possibly a personally-interested god. As it stands, any conception of god has to reconcile the fact that this god seems to have handed down some incredibly flawed works.

The easy reconciliation is to reject the premise, or at least examine it skeptically. An atheistic conception of history can reconcile holy works as social products of certain societies. Accepting the holy books as unassailable truth and working backward causes all sort of mental catastrophe as this discussion between Lee Silver and a creationist demonstrates.

It was quite the coup for the church to laud faith. I think it does take more faith to believe in god now than it during the Dark Ages. At least during the Dark Ages, there wasn’t a very clear understanding of genetics. Today, one has to be a denialist in order to believe. Faith in god isn’t just a “belief that does not rest on logical proof or material evidence.” (source) Today, faith in Jehovah, Allah, etc. requires a belief that is held in contradiction to logical proof and material evidence.

Maybe this is too harsh, theodicy has always been problematic in the conception of god. As this quote from Epicurus shows:

Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God? (source)

However, this is just a logical problem that can be apologized for with notions of free will.  When the physical evidence starts piling up, then the cognitive dissonance really starts kicking in.  It is probably too much to ask of a person to overthrow a belief they have so much personally invested in overnight, especially given the social circumstances that enabled the indoctrination in the first place.  This isn’t an excuse for apathy, every opportunity should be taken to point out how absurd these beliefs truly are.  It is just to understand the magnitude of the problem and adjust the expectation.  I think we could see a non-religious majority in America in my lifetime.  It is my hope this will make us more rational as a nation, but there are no guarantees.

May 26, 2008

RE: Why People Don’t Trust Free Markets

Filed under: capitalism, economy, politics, science — Tags: — codesmithy @ 7:32 am

Michael Shermer wrote a post on his blog called “Why People Don’t Trust Free Markets.” Shermer is the founder of the The Skeptics Society and editor of its magazine Skeptic. Skeptic magazine is dedicated to investigating and debunking junk science and supernatural claims.

For me, Shermer is a little bit of a mixed bag. He gave a good talk at TED on “why people believe strange things.” I criticized one of his columns in Scientific American on “Rational Atheism.” So any criticism of Shermer should be tempered against the good work that he does. It is a phenomenon that people tend to hold greater disdain for those they disagree with slightly than completely. A young-Earth creationist can be dismissed as haplessly misinformed. Their employment of logical fallacies and poor evidence is not notable, it is expected. Shermer, as a person who advocates a more rational understand of the universe, employs similar canards; it feels like an outright betrayal. He should know better!

Shermer starts off by quoting Ludwig von Mises:

The truth is that capitalism has not only multiplied population figures but at the same time improved the people’s standard of living in an unprecedented way. Neither economic thinking nor historical experience suggest that any other social system could be as beneficial to the masses as capitalism. The results speak for themselves. The market economy needs no apologists and propagandists. It can apply to itself the words of Sir Christopher Wren’s epitaph in St. Paul’s: Si monumentum requires, circumspice.

Noam Chomsky breaks apart this argument when asked if capitalism is making life better?

As Chomsky correctly notes, one could say the same thing about slave societies. As a skeptic who knows the importance of tracking the failures as well as the successes, I am surprised he employs this line of argument.

Next Shermer goes on to state:

Market solutions to social problems are generally received with skepticism. Businessmen are distrusted, corporations looked at askance, and there is a well-known resentment against those who have most benefited from markets.

I’m surprised Shermer doesn’t offer any examples for this. What is an example of a market based solution to a social problem? Would school vouchers be a fair example? Or is “a market solution” turning over a municipality to a private entity.

Businessmen should be distrusted. Anytime some one is trying to sell you something, their claims should be looked at skeptically, especially because they have obvious incentive to cheat.  Corporations are distrusted because they are incredibly powerful and largely, publicly unaccountable institutions.  By their very nature, they are one-share, one-vote, not one-person, one-vote.  This has major ramifications for so-called “externalities.”  See ship breaking in Bangladesh for an example of externalities.

As for resentment towards the biggest winners in a free-market, I know of no way to meaningfully quantify it.  Even for Bill Gates, his book “Business @ the Speed of Thought” was a best seller near the time it was released.  Is that antipathy?  Is that resentment?  Buying a book that he wrote?  Yes, there are people that don’t like Bill Gates, but that seems indicative of any public figure.

Shermer then gives a sketch of historical development from hunter-gather tribes explain “evolutionary egalitarianism” or the collective reversion for “excessive greed and avarice.”  Then Shermer pulls a remarkable rhetorical trick:

Throughout most of the history of civilization as well, economic inequalities were not the result of natural differences in drive and talent between members of a society equally free to pursue their right to prosperity; instead, a handful of chiefs, kings, nobles, and priests exploited an unfair and rigged social system to achieve gains best described as ill gotten.

I would love to see this great break in history where society moved to a pure meritocracy based on a free market.  It is telling that whenever a country democratically decides to redistribute land to undue some of the “ill gotten” gains of the past, the United States has seen fit to intervene as was the case in Iran, Chile and Guatemala.

The most laughable part of the piece, and the most unconscionable is Shermer citing “well-documented liberal bias in the academy and the media against free markets.”  It absolutely must be screaming in the back of Shermer’s mind that the argument he employs in this section is exactly the same tactic intelligent-design advocates use to claim bias against their espoused ideas.  There are not two, equally valid sides to every issue.  Setting up a false dichotomy and adhering to the doctrine of “centerism” is incorrect on its face.   Arianna Huffington posits it as equal time for lies.  If Shermer wants to demonstrate some bias against free market ideology, he needs to improve his method.  He needs to look at individual stories and pick out irrefutable inaccuracies.  The “centerist” doctrine he tries to employ is worse than worthless.

Shermer then concludes:

This is, in fact, why WorldCom and Enron type disasters still make headlines. If they didn’t — if such corporate catastrophes caused by egregious ethical lapses were so common that they were not even worth covering on the nightly news — free market capitalism would implode. Instead it thrives, but just as eternal vigilance is the price of freedom, so too must it be for free markets, since both are inextricably bound together.

Capitalism and freedom are not inextricably bound together.  They are frequently diametrically opposed propositions.

Naomi Klein investigated the link in “China’s All-Seeing Eye.” Shermer sentiment is no more true than when Milton Friedman pitched it.

May 14, 2008

Richard Dawkins: What is Natural?

Filed under: culture, environment, politics, science — Tags: — codesmithy @ 7:53 am

(h/t Richard Dawkins)

Richard Dawkins gave a talk at the “New Scientist & Greenpeace Science debates” where he examines what is “natural.”  In it, he explains the “natural” thing for the human species to do is wreck the planet.  It is “natural” for us, as one species in nature, to maximize our short-term prospects, to be greedy.  This selfishness combined with our unprecedented success now puts us at odds with some of the ecosystems on which we depend.  These ecosystems are straining under the pressure we have inflicted either intentionally or unintentionally in pursuit of our immediate needs.

Dawkins believes the human species is uniquely poised to meet this challenge between short-term greed and continuing prosperity.  The giant brain which has been such a boon to our immediate success as a species can be applied to issues surrounding our long-term survival.  As Dawkins states, this is anything but a natural prospect.  In fact, it means setting aside short-term impulses in exchange for long-term goals.  Dawkins believes we have the capacity for such action and I agree.  The only question is if we have the collective will to carry it out.  The simple answer is: we’d better, but reality will be the ultimate judge.

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