Friday, August 24, 2012

How Not to Debate

I'm already working on a bunch of new talks for various conventions. At Archon 36 this year, I'll be an invited Guest and will be debuting a new talk I'm nearly finished writing, entitled "Everything You Know About Quantum Mechanics Is Wrong" looking at how QM is actually used in science vs. how it's portrayed in pop-media like Sci-fi and new age spirituality. I also apparently volunteered myself to do a talk I haven't even started, on the history of Mars rovers and exploration.

But I'm thinking I may have to write another new talk on how to actually debate. After going to several years of things like Skepticon, it seems that people have become equipped with huge amounts of information to use in a debate with pseudo-scientists and the like, but there hasn't been any discussion of how to debate them effectively, to diffuse the intellectually dishonest tactics they use, and to make your own position clear.

For example, this morning a friend posted a link on facebook decrying religious intrusions into government. A friend of his left a comment stating:

This nation was founded as a Christian nation. It's because of our Christian forefathers that people in this country have the right to worship as they please. Maybe a little more appreciation for Christians is in order...don'tcha think?
Obviously I took this apart. Founding fathers had many Diests some outright hostile towards Christianity, the sources they refer to and draw inspiration from even more so, treaty of Tripoli, most religious references on money and in pledge only added recently, etc...

I closed it off by stating I'd give respect Christians when it was earned "by collectively understanding history instead of trying to rewrite it; when they use their faith to help others, not oppress them; when they can admit their vast power and privilege instead of trying to constantly play martyr; when they know as much about their own faith as those outside it."

For good measure, I even linked to Myth of a Christian Nation by a Christian pastor as an example of someone that does earn that respect.

The response was pretty typical: He ignored everything that was said and demanded I "explain ... why God is quoted constantly by almost every forefather". Note that he didn't even dispute my points. He just threw out a new one as if that somehow negated everything I said.

He went on to prove my points on playing the victim card by whining about me stating conditions for respect when he demanded it via entitlement. Lastly, he tried to claim it didn't matter because "the case for Christ still stands." Thereby changing the subject away from the original discussion on America being a "Christian nation".

It was pathetic, but ever so common.

My response was to point out that founders cite the bible in many other works because, "bible because it's the single most read book in history. It provides us with a common language by which to communicate, grounded in something nearly universal. Excellent communication tool. If Star Wars were as universally watched, people would likely be quoting that just as much".

An easy argument to knock down, but it doesn't stop them from throwing it out in desperation. I called him on these things and stated that I was through debating with him until he could make a salient point.

His final response?

"I bet you get laid about as much as I win the lottery."

This is the caliber of people skeptics often face. The tactics are depressingly common and I think it's time for a summary of how to deal with them.

So does anyone know if something like this already exists? If not, what sorts of things do you think should be included in a discussion?

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

CNN Has Unintelligent Commentary Too

I don't think anyone was shocked when Fox News had some awful article trying to distract everyone from the GOP's war on women's rights. But now CNN is trying the same thing.

In CNN's article, they too try to ignore issues that effect women by turning the focus on how women have disproportionately lost jobs in this recession. And of course, the blame is laid at the feet of Obama. No explanation as to why or how, except that he's president. So it's his fault.

Neither Fox nor CNN has bothered to take the time to consider the general level of sexism in our country in which women disproportionately hold low income jobs that are more likely to be trimmed since they're faced with a glass ceiling. Admittedly that ceiling does have some cracks in it. Which is awesome. But then again, it's Ryan Paul's party that's trying to stop laws that are at work prying those cracks open.

UPDATE: CNN is trying yet again to distract from what are typically considered women's issues. This article, written by Kay Bailey Hutchison, a Republican congresswoman, actually does address a few of the issues after going on and on about how what women really care about is how the economy is doing. Which I'm sure they do, but trying to downplay the concern about their rights to equal pay, to be free of violence, and control their own bodies, in light of the economy isn't a realistic picture. When she does get to legislation, it's interesting to watch her cognitive dissonance. She brings up some legislation she wrote in 1975. As if that's indicative of the current party in any way. She discusses helping to create a "Homemaker IRA". But who does she say she worked with to create it? A Democrat. She says that when the Violence Against Women Act was up for renewal this past year, that she tried to put in an amendment that would enact harsher penalties that was eventually defeated. But which party was it that was trying to tear down the act? Oh yes. Republicans. She says she believes that we need to encourage women to go into STEM fields and they need more education. I couldn't agree more. But it's not the Democrats trying to gut educational funding. So while Ms. Hutchison may be doing a few good things within her party, she's apparently blinded herself to the virulently anti-woman campaign her party has been waging.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

This Passes for Intelligent Commentary? Oh right. Fox News.

Over at FoxNews, they have a commentary ranting about how awful it is that women like Obama more than Romney. The article starts off with just simple statistics. Women in general give Obama a moderate lead of about 9%. And it's worst amongst educated women where Obama holds a lead of nearly 60%. Ouch.

Obviously the writer thinks this is a huge problem and admits that the GOP has a "very big problem when it comes to female voters." And then she proceeds to miss the point entirely.

Instead of inquiring at all about why this might be, she lays the blame not at the feet of the GOP, but at the feet of women themselves; they're too stupid to figure out why they should vote Republican.

The argument is that Obama protects their rights "entitlements" and that they're pathetic and dependent on them. The women can't do anything for themselves, so they need big government to protect them.

And that's where the commentary on women leaves off. It doesn't stop to consider that they might actually need that protection because as much as feminism might be about being independent, it's rather hard to do anything independently when you've had your rights to control your own body and financial independence stripped.

It doesn't stop to realize that domestic abuse against women is exceptionally high which is why we need the Violence Against Women act.... which Republicans are trying to repeal.

It doesn't stop to consider that women are raped an order of magnitude more than men and that we need to recognize the extent of ways in which this occurs.... which has Republicans trying to redefine rape to exclude many forms.

It doesn't stop to realize that women are disproportionately paid less than men for the same jobs which is why we need the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act.... which Republicans are trying to repeal.

It doesn't stop to realize that women have legitimate medical conditions which birth control is the most effective method of treatment which is why we need the Affordable Care Act.... which Republicans are so busy trying to repeal, they can't seem to get anything else done.

But according to this author, it's not the GOP that gives women legitimate reasons to distrust them. It's Obama.

Why? All of their arguments rest on the idea that Obama hurts women business owners. We'll pretend that's true for a moment, but note that the article doesn't say "hurts women business owners more than men". The author tries to make a gender issue out of something that's not in an effort to distract from issues that actually are rooted in gender. Which might just be why those darn educated women flee the GOP.

It's pathetic and childish of the author to try something like this. But then again, that's about all the right wing can manage: Missing the point and misdirection.

Thursday, August 09, 2012

Example of Why Math is Important

A few years ago, when I was teaching an Algebra 1 class, I had a student tell me he didn't need to know math because he was going into the diamond business. Of course, I knew nothing about the diamond business at the time, but still pointed out that knowing how to convert currencies was necessary as was determining how well cut a diamond was which would require geometry.

Ironically, while I've been struggling to find another teaching position in the past year and a half, I've been working in the jewelry business. My job is a cross between Antiques Roadshow and Pawn Stars specializing in jewelry.

I'm constantly impressed by just how much I use math skills and how difficult communicating ideas with people is that have no math skills.

One of the most common ways is to determine the weight of a diamond (diamonds are measured in carats, which is a weight). Since they tend to come to us already in jewelry, we can't weigh them directly. Instead, you find the volume and multiply by the density. At least, indirectly. The way it ends up working is you measure the height, width, and depth of the stone, multiply that together, and then look up a factor that already wraps together the density and accounts for the volume of that box you just calculated that's been cut out.

Most often, people don't remember what the total weight of their diamonds was when they bring it to me. I'll measure it out for them and ask them if it sounds familiar. But getting them to understand what I'm saying is a trick because diamonds very rarely come in exact whole numbers of carats. I've tried giving people the weights in decimals, fractions, and percentages. But people don't get these types of numbers. They constantly ask me if "six tenths" is more or less than a half. If I were an unscrupulous person, I could lie and offer people far less than what things are really worth since they're too confused to accurately understand these things.

Another example of things that people don't understand is relative values. Admittedly, this is somewhat of a complex issue because there's a lot of factors that go into something like that. I had a customer recently that was certain that they were going to get more for their jewelry than they paid for it originally because "gold prices are so high!"

What they often don't understand is all the other factors besides just raw materials.

For example, let's say a ring had $200 worth of gold in it 15 years ago. The raw materials are usually assembled into a piece of jewelry by a manufacturer who then sells it to a jeweler who then resells it to a customer. Since jewelry is one of those things that people don't tend to buy every day, they have to have a pretty high markup to stay in business. As such, at each of those steps, there's a markup of about 3 times. So $200 becomes $600 becomes $1800. And that's being generous. There's a lot of jewelry we see that, while it has a lot of stones in it, they're a bunch of very small ones, so the work went into setting all the stones, when the stones are so small they're virtually worthless, driving the markups even higher.

In that past 15 years, the value of gold has gone up by about a factor of 8. So those raw materials (often what we value a piece based on since jewelry styles change and a ring from 15 years ago often won't sell) are now worth about $1600. Certainly still shy of what was originally paid. But that would be if we could offer 100% of what the materials were worth. Even dealing in large volumes with a refinery, we will lose about 5% of that. Plus our company has to be making something too. As such, from that $1600, we generally do a split of 2/3 for them, 1/3 for us (most places do 50/50 or worse). So now the offer goes from $1600 to around $1000.

But how do you explain this to someone who doesn't know math? When they don't understand these things, even very good, fair offers get passed up and people continue owning thousands of dollars in items they don't even wear.

Knowing math helps you make sure you're being treated fairly as a customer, both as a buyer and a seller.