Sunday, December 19, 2010

All of Chemistry About to be Rewritten!1!!1

Did everyone hear about how, "For the first time in history, a change will be made to the atomic weights of some elements listed on the Periodic table of the chemical elements". Apparently it has to do with atomic masses changing depending on where you are. Weird, huh?

No. I'm not making that up. It's what the article says. Really:
sulfur is commonly known to have a standard atomic weight of 32.065. However, its actual atomic weight can be anywhere between 32.059 and 32.076, depending on where the element is found. (Emphasis added)
Oh wait.... they're talking about "weight". Not mass. Silly me.

Oh wait. Silly them. Get outside of a gravitational field and there's no weight! Thus these ranges are a bit off.

Oh wait... that's still not what they're talking about? Well why didn't they say that?

What's really going on is that some people are wanting to include the ranges of stable isotopes (different atoms altogether) of certain, common elements. So.... they're not really changing anything. They're just pulling a bit of info off of the table of isotopes and including it on the periodic table.

No big deal really. Except now students are going to be a lot more confused about what number to plug into the formula they don't understand either. Yes. Let's compound the problems early.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Biggest Whiners over DADT

After long hand wringing, it looks like the horrible policy of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" is going to be repealed. I think the effects will be interesting, but what's caught my eye more, are articles like this one, which make it clear who really care about the policy: The fundamentalists.
"Chaplains who aren't able to proclaim what they believe is true about this issue ... means that the soldier then, the airman, the sailor, the guardian, the Marine aren't able to get the full opportunity to hear religious faiths," retired Army Chaplain Brigadier Gen. Douglas Lee tells CNN.
Quotes like this one are what really get to me. Nowhere does repealing the policy say that chaplains can't proclaim that they think gays are evil. It just guarantees that servicemen and women will be able to be open, and perhaps for once, instead of their fellow service members nodding in agreement, they'll be able to stick up for their friends. It's harder to feel comfortable about bigotry when you have to be face to face, work side by side, and entrust your life to the people you're condemning.

This came in the wake of a report looking at the effects of reversing the DADT policy. According to the article, "Only three out of about 145 chaplains who participated in the study suggested they would quit or leave if the law were changed."

I'm not sure if that's good or bad. I think it's great that these bigots will leave and be preaching hate to less people, but at the same time, I have to wonder how many more will stay and do it anyway.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Speaking Event: 1/26 @ Illinois College

Next month, I'll be speaking at Illinois College in Jacksonville, Illinois. As usual, my talk will be a variation on the Anime Mythbusters panel I've been touring to various conventions around the midwest. However, this time I'm speaking in a more academic setting, so I'm going to be including a bit more about how this entire thing ties in with science and the real world.

I'm being sponsored jointly by the math and Japanese departments, so this should be one interesting audience to talk to. It will be Wednesday, January 26, 2011 @ 7:00 p.m. in Kirby Learning Center Room 6.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

More on Darwin vs. the Sun - Science & Epistomology

Over at Universe Today, I just posted an article looking at a Catholic magazine and review called the Month from 1889 in which they covered the controversy over the age of the Earth as required by both Darwin and astronomers. History has shown Darwin as the victor in that, but there's something I left out of the article and wish to comment on here. Namely, the closing statement of the article.

Essentially, it concludes that because science, at that present moment could not fully answer the controversy that,
Science then, even by its own showing, is altogether incompetent to furnish us with a guiding line, by which we may regulate and order our lives. And as the nature of man instinctively feels the need of some such guide, and will be content with nothing less than the truth, it follows that a trustworthy basis for faith and deed must be sought elsewhere.
Although this article is now over 120 years old, I still hear this exact same argument used today (as well as the anti-science one I quoted in the UT article). I left this part of the UT article because it doesn't deal with science as much as epistemology and was better suited for here.

This sort of thinking pisses the hell out of me. While it makes a true statement, that humans are curious and want to know how things work, it promotes the cheapest and most superficial form of knowledge available, if one can even call it knowledge. Namely, it suggests that if you cannot have a satisfying and correct answer immediately from science on demand, then we should reject science and go for anything else that provides convenient and easy answers. The article promotes a search for truth, but provides no basis for establishing it and rejects the only reliable means by which to do so.

The ultimate irony in this is that the article spent several pages extolling the knowledge gained by science from Kelvin, Newton and other visionaries. But only because it provided the author with easy answers that confirmed his own biases. I suspect that if the author had lived in those times, he may have rejected the findings he later accepts. It's only from the retrospective vantage that the answers look clear.

This article highlights the confusion often apparent when new territory is being explored, but as with so many things before, the actual answer eventually came though. However, it didn't come by turning away from the search because it wasn't immediately gratifying. It came from working hard and looking for evidence. As Dan Meyer has said before, "no problem worth solving is that simple."

I cannot agree with this statement more. Instead of allowing for these cheap answers, as gussied up as they may be, we need to demand real answers. And we need to be promoting this to students and the public at large. Are things unknown in science? Absolutely. Are some of the things being hashed out today going to be wrong? Absolutely. Does this mean everything in science is wrong? Hell no. Does it mean that we should forsake science and turn to snake-oil salesmen? Absolutely not.

Those like the author of the article who answer yes to the last two of those questions should get no respect. It vexes me greatly that they still do.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Congratz to JT Eberhard

For those that don't follow his blog, JT just announced that he has taken a job with the Secular Student Alliance where he will be their new Campus Organizer and High School Specialist.

For those that don't know JT, he's the guy that put together Skepticon. Having a guy that pulled together such a large and amazing convention as that working together with the SSC to help form new secular student groups at a time when such groups are exploding and flourishing is probably one of the best things that can happen for the skeptical community right now.

So congratz to JT. We know you'll do great. And you'd better. Because we're watching.

PS: Bwa ha ha ha!

"My days of not taking you seriously are certainly coming to a middle"

At work, one of the residents* learned that I was a science major. He told me that a friend of his, a pastor, had visited Einstein and had written an interview. He had a copy and would copy it and give one to me. Being that I've been working a great deal recently on astronomical history for a large project of mine (details when it gets closer to completion), I was very interested in seeing this.

Last week, he brought the copy by and.... well, I'll just repost the majority of it here and let everyone see what they think before I give my conclusions.
The housekeeper answered the door, and I asked if I could see Dr. Einstein concerning a particular matter. She invited me in and referred me to Einstein's secretary, who at the time was his stepdaughter. The stepdaughter went upstairs to check with Einstein and, upon returning, told me that her stepfather was willing to see me. I walked upstairs to his office.

Three walls were lined with books. The fourth "wall" was really a huge pane of glass that afforded a beautiful view of the Princeton University golf course, with the tower of the Princeton University Graduate School in the distance. Near the door hung portraits of Einstein's heroes, Mohanda Ghandi and the English physicist Michael Faraday.

Einstein was dressed in baggy trousers and a long-underwear shirt, the latter sporting what appeared to be soup stains. A pair of scruffy wool-lined slippers covered his bare feet. His hair was gray, bushy and very long - a preview of the hairstyles of the 1960's. He say back in his chair, puffing contentedly away on a long curlicue pipe.

Einstein was never much concerned about his physical appearance or about material things in general. His home was not at all the palatial mansion I had thought it would be prior to me arriving in Princeton; rather, it was a plain wooden-fram structure already 120 years old. Some of its shutters were cockeyed, and the whole place wanted paint, but the inside was quite neat, even spartan, which I attributed not to any efforts of Einstein's but to his stepdaughter and housekeeper.

He invited me to sit down. I told him who I was, and then I posed a question of a religious-scientific nature (I have long since forgotten what my question was). He gave me his answer, and since he seemed to be in a rec eptive mood, I continued with other questions.

"Dr. Einstein," I asked, "do you believe in God?"

He replied: "I suppose the average atheist would consider me a believer in God, whereas the average believer would call me an atheist or agnostic. Actually, I do believe in a supernatural force."

I then asked him a few questions about the Old Testament - what, for instance, he believed concerning Noah, Moses, David and the Psalms. He showed from his answers that he was acquainted with Old Testament Scriptures, evidently because he had been brought up in a Jewish home.

From this point, I proceeded to the New Testament, saying, "Dr. Einstein, I believe that Jesus Christ is the divine Son of God. How about you?"

"No," he replied. "I can't believe that."

"I believe," I continued, "that Jesus Christ made atonement on the cross for us human beings so that we might become children of God and heirs of heaven. How about you?"

"No," he responded. "I can't go that far with Jesus Christ."

Following his answers, he often laughed and chuckled a bit, and in this chuckling I could sense a tone of derision. This was especially apparent in connection with the subsequent remark I made.

"Dr. Einstein," I said, "according to the Bible, if we are lost, we have ourselves to blame. If we are saved, we have God alone to thank."

"To this he responded: "If that is the case, then I'll have to blame your God for giving me a mind that can't accept Jesus Christ as the Son of God and Savior of the world." Here is where his laughs and chuckles struck me as being particularly derisive, although I knew he meant no meanness by them. They simply seemed to say, "Young man, how can you be so naive as to accept that nonsense?"

It is evidently true, as the Scriptures say, that "the man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned" (1 Cor. 2:14).

Though humility was not especially in evidence on Dr. Einstein's part during the bulk of my 40-minute visit with him, yet a semblance of it did become apparent at the conclusion. As I left, I sad, "Dr. Einstein, I'd like to invite you to our Lutheran worship services at Westminster Choir College Chapel. I'd like to be able to tell my grandchildren one day that I preached to the smartest man in the world."

To this he replied, "Oh, no, I'm not the smartest man! I'm not the smartest man!" Once again he laughed and chuckled, but this time there was no derisive tone. He meant it.

Let's condense that down.

1. Arrogant preacher waltzes into someone else's home, without prior invitation.
2. Said preacher declares steadfast belief and asks if other person holds them.
3. Said preacher feels mocked when laughed at casually for having beliefs without bothering to support them.
4. Insinuates other person is not as intelligent as they seem for not sharing said beliefs.

This is a pretty perfect micro-summation of the general problem I have with religious blowhards like Jerry Falwell. They have large, public platforms, declare their beliefs, whine about persecution and intolerance when other people don't give them inherent and undue respect, and then insult the people that only go so far as to disagree and make it known!

While that's annoying enough in and of itself, the larger problem to me is that so many people seem to think this is a perfectly respectable position. There's not one iota of logic or reason in it. It only works if you already accept the conclusion that the absurd position is valid. It can only perpetuate itself by circular reasoning.

It's bad thinking. It needs to stop. These people aren't victims. A bit of scoffing isn't going to hurt them. But playing it off as if it does certainly hurts others.

* - I'm currently working at a retirement community while I finish getting my certification. I passed my last test and am just waiting on paperwork to go through so I can get back in the classroom!

PS: For those that aren't familiar with the post title, it's taken from the series Firefly in which Malcom Reynolds sarcastically informs Jayne that he's considering taking him more seriously after Jayne offers to trade a rifle for Mal's supposed wife.

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Louisiana Gearing Up for Another Evolution Battle?

It looks like Louisiana school boards are looking to insert the "teach the controversy" nonsense into their classrooms. They're scheduled to have a debate on whether or note they need to balance their textbooks with "information questioning the theory of evolution."


This comes after the school board asked a review council to look over the textbook before approving it and weigh in. Fortunately, it looks like the team is at least somewhat qualified as there was an 8-4 vote to approve it by that council. Obviously the school board was looking for a different answer because they're still stalling to try to open up "debate" on the issue. This sounds reminiscent of the Kansas Evolution Hearings in which the school board flew in "experts" in Intelligent Design on the taxpayer's dime to tell the board what they'd already decided on.

Of course, the advisory council obviously has some scientifically illiterate fools on it.
State board member Dale Bayard said he plans to vote against the texts—which the state textbook-adoption committee overwhelmingly approved—and will urge his colleagues to join him.

“The textbooks in the life sciences that were proposed ... did not include all science that is currently available on the subject [of evolution],” he said, asserting that some findings “refuting” the theory have been ignored.
Additionally, the author did have to do the job of poor journalism and get quotes from someone completely unrelated to the discussion, talking to a Reverend from the 'Louisiana Family Forum, an advocacy group whose stated mission is to promote “biblical principles in the centers of influence”'.

Right. Because a reverend is an expert on what should be taught in science classes. And not to be satisfied with just trashing evolution, he went on to state he had "other issues such as global warming and “embryonic issues.”"

Thanks for reminding us that this isn't just an attack on evolution. It's an attack on science.... being waged in our classrooms. It's disgusting.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Oops. Got the title Wrong.

An article recently posted on alternet seems to think it's "shocking" that a non-religious parent has been deemed unworthy to receive equal custody of his child based on his agnostic position. While it's reprehensible and clearly shows just how little persecution the religious majority receives, despite their pleas to the contrary, it's in no way shocking. It happens quite frequently. And it's one of the reasons we need events like Skepticon: to remind the public that non-religious people are people to, deserving of the same rights as everyone else. Funny thing is, we don't get them.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Failure: Impossible

A few weeks ago, I came across this article about a school district in Alexandria, Va. which has removed the failing grade (F) from it's possible grades. Instead, failing students will receive an Incomplete (I). The idea behind this is that the school feels an F is to final. It tells students that they're over. They're done. They didn't make it. Move on because you can't do this.

To me, it's an insult to our intelligence. I'm no psychologist, but effectively, an F and an I mean the same thing: You didn't complete the course work and if you want the credit, you'll have to try again. Are kids really so dumb as to think that this changes anything?

The only thing I can see it changing is that it may not impact a student's GPA. Most times, when an I grade is used, it's a placeholder that isn't counted for tabulation of GPA. Translation: It can't hurt you. It can slow you down, but so long as you get it done, you suffer no penalty for not keeping up. Since when does this work in the real world? All we're doing is lowering the bar.

I understand the hardships of feeling like you're behind. I felt like it much of my college year. But here's the thing: Unless you're feeling challenged, you won't work to better yourself. Telling kids that they can't fail essentially removes that pushing force.

Sure, it's not a force that will drive all students. Some won't care if it's there or not, but I can't see such students caring if you call it an F or an I either. But there are students that do need that threat to keep them working. And taking that away just feels like we're letting those students down in the long run, even though they may think they like it in the short run.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Skepticon III: Day 2

Apologies if this seems a bit incoherent. I wrote most of this while the talk were going on with only minor revisions. After everything going on, I've been too tired to really sit down and edit it. As such, due to the need for sleep, I missed the first talk Saturday about sexuality in atheism.

The first one I made it to is DJ Grothe's talk. I wasn't sure what the talk was focusing on since it didn't have a title. But as I walked in, he was talking about what skepticism is. He claimed it should be applied to anything and every thing: from religion to politics to consumer products. But while skepticism should be broadly applied, individual groups should be narrowly defined.

Yet while narrowness provides focus, it can also cause stagnation. After all, "How many times do you want to look at Bigfoot."

Turning that to look at whether Skepticon is misnamed, he concluded it wasn't since atheism is applied skepticism (sometimes) on one topic.

There seems to be a "MENSA effect" in which the speaker says, "I'm smart. I'm right. You're smart, so you know I'm right." This can lead to a hierarchy which can lead to a zealotry. While this philosophical back patting can be fun and soothing to those involved, it's not really productive. The result becomes infighting (see: accommodationism). We should go full throttle after the woo peddlers who cause harm, but let slide the infighting. While those that are not skeptical in one regard can't help there, they can in others.

Religious believers get offended more because life after death has more of an emotional impact than disproving dowsing and we need to respect that. Don't go overboard in coddling beliefs. Have "tender hearts" in caring for people. Too much nay-saying makes you a crotchety curmudgeon. Too much tenderheartedness "makes you lax about the truth." Just being wright is not going to cut it. We have to be right and good and effective. Thus, there should not be any purity tests, and nothing out of bounds in skepticism.

The third panel of the day (2nd I attended) was Joe Nickell, a former detective and magician and now works for Committee for Skeptical Inquiry. He made it clear that he's an atheist for the reason that there's no good evidence, but he concentrates on claims for which there can be evidence.

"Let us not be a 'dubunker'," he said. He objects to the term because it implies we start knowing the answer. Sure, there may be no ghosts, but what's more interesting is what is causing the phenomenon that people call ghosts.

Joe wrote "The Mystery Chronicles" and was promoting his book. One example he discussed (presumably discussed in the book) was a young black brought up on charges of murder before finger printing was common. At the time, they took detailed measurements of the body for comparison with records. When the records were ran, a near exact match was found of someone in a prison. The two looked nearly exactly the same.

Ultimately this could be resolved through fingerprinting, hopefully. Yet the fingerprints were strikingly similar as well. The obvious conclusion was that they were identical twins.

Good story.

But what of the Amityville Horror in which Ronald Buch Defaile murdered his family. A year later the family that moved into the house claimed demons. But the events there were significantly different than the normal claims for haunted houses. So Joe investigated.

"Devil's footsteps in the snow" "doors and windows ripped off" "police called to counsel the family".

But the records showed the police were not called. The doors had never been damaged. On the date with the snow, there had been no snow. The story fell apart. The family's attorney admitted that the family made up the story to try to get a new trial for the murderer by claiming demonic possession.

Liberty hall is another supposed haunted house. Yet the curator admitted to having made it up. When the later curator decided against ghosts being good for business, tour guides stopped telling people and the sightings mysteriously disappeared.

On UFOs, Joe had investigated those as well. In 1952, Flatwoods apparently had an alien sighting on September 12. A group of children and a woman and a dog had an encounter. They saw a bright light across the sky and thought it landed in a nearby field. They grabbed a flashlight and investigated finding creature with glowing eyes and "terrible claws".

Other reports showed the light over several states and as such, was likely a meteor. Another person living there encountered the kids and confirmed they were genuinely scared. He went to investigate in his pickup and left skid marks and oil which was later interpreted as a UFO evidence. Yet no one would listen.

Mothman was another case Joe investigated. The key description was that of ruby red eyes which is characteristic of bard owls. Joe also looked into alien abductions and concluded it was waking dreams and hypnosis.

Spontaneous human combustion was another topic. The main case involved a woman who took sleeping pills while smoking in a flammable chair and nightgown. Joe implied the wick effect in which human fat burns well containing the flames and making the burning efficient.

Faith healing, Bigfoot, the Loch Ness monster, were other topics Joe covered with a critical eye.

I was a bit late getting back to Dan Barker's talk thanks to lunch and a lack of parking.

As I walked in, Dan was talking about him, while religious felt himself receiving instructions from God to sit in the middle of a corn field. After sitting around he felt stupid.

He then started discussing the National Day of prayer being ruled unconstitutional, "pending appeals." In response, conservative groups have filed amicus briefs arguing the National Day of Prayer is not religious. Heh.

(Additionally, clergy in tax codes, excludes house payment or rent as rent. This is also being challenged as well.)

1952, Billy Grahm had a 6 week revival meeting encouraging the National day of prayer and a bill was put forth by Pat Robertson's father. Truman quickly signed it. Some presidents were slow about it which made it hard for the religious right to build an event around it. Thus a bill was passed to lock it on the same day in deference to religious groups.

A lawsuit was formed and eventually won, even though the judge generally disagrees in a strict separation. The day or prayer was directed outwards to the people. The Marsh decision says such cases can only be directed internally.

Richard Carrier was next up. His talk was regarding a book called "The Christian Delusion". The book is a response to the challenge that Dawkin's "God Delusion" was unscholarly. His talk outlined the possible positions of Christianity and addressed each one. He talked really fast so the rest of this summary is going to be more along the lines of an outline.

Are Christians Delusional? This requires a definition of "delusion"
1. Colloquial: A false belief
2. Psych: A false belief based on an incorrect inference about external reality that is firmly sustained (a) despite what almost everybody else believes and (b) despite what constitutes incontrovertible and obvious proof.

Delusion consists of certainty (absolute conviction), incorrigibility (not changeable by compelling counterargument or proof to the contrary), impossible of falsity.

Different kinds of delusion("Official Dr. Carrier scale")
1. Mildly delusional - men overrate their looks, women under
2. Majorly Delusional - only concentrating on this today
3. Worrisome
4. Crazy
5. Batshit insane

Modern Christianity drops Eve, but sill has an imaginary friend who magically manipulates the world for me and he also magically impregnated a woman two thousand years ago and she bore him a son who underwent ....

- nominal/apathetic
- dunno/metaphoric
- It's true as told (and Jesus is coming from outer space to kill you soon (40%)

The happy split:
- Personal theism + Jesus was cool (mildly)
- Jesus is truly the Son of God and Whatnot (majorly)

What if someone came up to you and said
- Friend name Zalmoxis
- Is real
- Never dies
- Ancient Demigod
- Cleansed soul with blood sacrifice
- Grants them power of living forever
- Lives in magic place
This religion actually actually existed in 425 AD

EX: Heaven's Gate
Get new bodies in alien spaceship flying by vs. Get new bodies in a magical alternate universe

Quantum teleportation and neural engineering vs God needs blood sacrifice

Carrier proposed the first was more realistic since spaceships, quantum teleportation and the potential to modify brains actually exist where as there has been no such evidence for spirits in heaven or the power of blood sacrifices.

He then discussed part 2 of the book (skipping part 1) entitled "Why the Bible is not God's word" which had a few chapters in it:
Cosmology of the Bible (Ch 5)
The water globe was by the Egyptians, Babylonians, Sumerians, and Bible

Bible is not reliable source (Ch 6)
1. Inconsistent with self
2. Not supported by archaeology
3. Contains fairy tales
4. Failed prophecies
5. Many forgeries

Part 3: Why the Christian God is not Good
Ch 8: Yahweh is a moral monster
Ch 9: Darwinian Problem of Evil

BONUS: "The Will of God" Richard Carrier

Part 4: Why Jesus is not the risen son of god
Ch 10: Jesus: Myth and Method
Ch 11: Why the Resurrection is Unbelieveable
Ch 12: At Best Jesus was a failed apocalyptic Prophet

Christianity is Implausible, Bizarre and Patently Untrue.
Richard's intent was to show how the parts discussed so far refuted the various forms of Christianity:
Bible is God's word (Part 2)
Jesus is the Son of God (Part 3)
God is Good (Part 4)
This refutes most Christians.
Part 1: "I don't need evidence Christians"
Part 5: "But we need it Christians" - Society needs Christianity
Ch 13: Christianity does not provide basis for morality - Christianity is one among many, and not even good

Ch 14: Atheism was not the cause of the holocaust - Darwin or Martin Luther
Ch 15: Christianity was not responsible for modern science
BONUS: Christianity was not responsible for American Democracy

Part 1: Why Faith Fails
Ch 1. Cultures of Christianities
Ch 2: Christian Belief through the Lens of Cognitive Science
Ch 3: The malleability of the human mind
Ch 4. The outsider test for faith revisited

Outsider test for faith - You must test your own religious claims and texts by the same standards you apply to other religions. If your religion's claims and texts fare no better, then your religion is just as wrong as theirs is.

Choice of religious belief is positively correlated with cultural and geographic familiarity and access (science is the same everywhere).

Religious belief is negatively correlated with intelligence, education, and self-esteem.

Hyperactive Agency Detection (David Eller, Valerie Tarico, Pascal Boyer, Daniel Dennett, etc....)

Jason Long
- fear based messages suppress critical reflection
- time increases confidence faster than evidence
- rationalization is an autonomous instinct
- instinctive false generalization (as soon as we find one argument is found flawed, we toss the whole thing out even if the rest are good)
- confirmation bias is innate (only see/seek support)

Pscyhology trumps reason: This is bad news
- Face to face vs. indirect communications
- Avoidance behavior
a) swallowing lousy argument
b) avoiding exposure to opposition
- Fallacy of poisoning the well actually works

Why no outsider test
1. We don't have to test our faith by the same standards
2. Our religion passes the Outsider test because we have evidence

Sam Harris, Moral Landscape
- Belief is an emotion
- we have located it in the brain
- Can misfire like any other emotion
Ex: Phobias

Pscyhology trumps reason: good news
- The more someone is forced to defend a belief, the more you have to think about it and can counteract everything else
- Cognitive dissonance increases the starker (and more important) are the options/contradictions
- Combine and sustain both = effective @ deconverter

Book is meant to be a toolkit

Again, I arrived somewhat later on James Randi's talk. In it, he discussed his experiences in promoting skepticism and debunking woo.

He discussed Peter Popov's story, the "faith healer" who Randi became famous for catching in his act, calling out people to heal by name with the aid of God his wife and a radio transmitter.

He addressed how to get critical thinking in school. He claims parents would be very leery of it since they wouldn't be able to control the content directly and students could (and would) ask the wrong questions. To illustrate this, he discussed an experience which he declined to talk at a school because parents had told the school they didn't want him to address religion and he wouldn't guarantee he wouldn't respond to a question.

The 7pm talk was PZ Myers (yeah, I know how to spell it!) After lamenting that he wasn't invited to take his clothes off for the calendar, he reminded us that he's one hell of a drinker.

His real talk was on science education. Much of his job is pedagogical concerns and he started with the analogy of a poker game being like evolution in that
- A deck of cards is a great symbol of chance and variety
- It illustrates of the power of combinations
- It's a game with winners and losers, like selection.
- Everybody understands poker.

However, it has problems.
- It's a freakin' analogy, people!
- As the concepts get more specific, it falls apart.

But where the concepts fail can also be illustrative. He selected a volunteer and played a single hand. Neither got a royal flush but the lesson was that you don't have to be "perfect" to win.

The second lesson was that you can discard and draw which is analogous to mutation. The difference is that mutations are random. Mutations are also 0.000004% of the genome. 1:5 cards is 20%. Bit different.

A bigger difference is that one life = one hand. The only way to possibly change is to have children which is mostly a clone.

This illustrates Weismann's Barrier.

His next point was most of our cells aren't involved in reproduction. The only ones that are are the germ cells. In his life, he has "ejaculated three cells into the next generation". And that's it. The comparison was to that of a rocket: Something giant and lumbering with a grand fireworks show whose only "purpose" was the small capsule at the top.

To PZ, he didn't define himself by 3 cells. He defined himself by the fireworks and that next generation's job is to produce their own.

Coming back to poker, he discussed various types of mutations and how they could be approximated with cards. Additionally, if the deck is cut, a change in the pattern can show where it was.

Another comparison was wild cards to something known as reaction norms, which is how things respond to certain environments.

The last point was the problem of sex. One of the explanations for the reason of sex is the red queen hypothesis. This states that parasites are constantly adopting to eat us, so by randomizing our hand, it makes them harder for them next time.

Of course, the question all this poker talk begs is what the dealer must be like? By looking at the genome, we can figure out how the dealer must operate. These evidences are things like "junk" DNA. We know it's junk because
- These regions accumulate variations far faster than coding regions of the genome. They are not constrained by functional selection.
- We understand the mechanisms behind the generation of most of it: retro viral insertions, for instance, are random.
- Variations can be induced in experimental animals. Point mutations, deletions, duplications, and frameshift mutations within the "junk" does not seem to affect phenotype in most cases.
-The most striking example: Fugu
FUGU: tiny genome 390Mbp vs 3,300Mbp for humans, 20,000+ genes, relatively small amount of junk; <15% repetitive sequences, and make good sushi (

So what can we infer about the dealer?
- He lacks foresight
- His major concern is the fidelity of reproduction
- All creativity is product of chance
- Lots of mistakes
- He's no more interested in humans than he is in Fugu or fruit flies or sponges.

This implies that "God" is DNA Polymerase. Or the FSM.

The last speaker for Saturday was Rebecca Watson. Her talk was on "How to Ruin Christmas (For Pretty Much Everyone Involved)".

After talking for 15 minutes on how much she abused her handler, she finally got around to starting.

An example of a typical letter she gets around the holidays:
Dear Atheist Abby: My children believe in Santa and at this point I'm happy to let them enjoy this fantasy as I do think that some moral lessons of living and appreciation can come out of it.

But I began wondering what do you do about the Christmas conundrum... If you really are skeptics to the core....

Rebecca called this "Santa Morality" If you're good you get toys. But you get nothing if you're bad ... or if you're poor.

Complaints with Santa:
Encourages materialism
Causes psychological damage
discourages skepticism
forces parents to lie

Does it really cause psychological harm? Science says 90% of all death row inmates believed
1100% of children in Santa studies died (or will eventually)

Srsly: Santa does not screw you up. Most were happy when they figured it out.

preschoolers with imaginary friends are more creative, more social, and more empathetic.

The Candy Witch (Wooley et al. 2004) Introduced kids to myth of candy which (made up). The candy witch comes on Halloween and leaves candy. Some kids got candy, others didn't. Older kids believed more than younger kids because they used logic and evidence. Younger couldn't interpret candy as being evidence for premise.

Which is more helpful: telling kids to ignore the evidence, letting kids continue to puzzle it out?

In that context, Santa is a rational belief. Presents appear. Cookies are consumed. I sat on his lap, FFS. Strong anecdotal evidence.

As such, encouraging kids to puzzle it out, absolves the charge of discouraging skepticism.

As far as lying is concerned: Lying teaches kids to be skeptical of authority. "I'll know I succeeded as a parent when my kid says, 'Bullshit mommy'."

Rebecca's talk was absolutely hilarious and was probably the best of the entire con.

The afterparty was in a room with horrible acoustics so we didn't hang around. Regardless, my friends and I stayed up far too late having our own party. As such, we completely missed Day III.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Skepticon III: Day 1

Today started far too early. The first panel was at 11:30 and for some reason, we decided to get up around 9:30... after being up talking with old friends until nearly 5am. Oops.

We were a few minutes late to the first panel on Skepticism on sexism which was essentially a review of all the bad reasons people are sexist. The speaker noted that those against women's reproductive rights are "mostly Christian". It's the new focus of conservative groups formed in the 1960's to oppose desegregation.

But aside from the blatantly religious motivations for sexism, she noted that there were several pseudo-scientific reasons people bring up to justify their sexism. It often attempts to justify sexism by implying that it's not truly present and simply a result of unequal abilities in the first place or that people want it. They claim women are genetically inclined to be nurturing. It just so happens that men's "natural" abilities tend to be for high paying fields.

She argued that sexism hurts women by allowing them fewer opportunities, gives them socialized reasons to have low self-esteem and fear of being assertive, and burdens them with lower incomes, more depression & more likely to be abused.

It hurts men by forcing them into a constant battle, encourages "emotional stunting" (like in Jackass), and lowers their lifespan.

It also hurts society because we lose out on half the human race's talents. Investing in women also pays more because they tend to invest more in families and their economy.

Overall the talk was pretty good.

The second talk was by David Fitzgerald, pimping his new book, "Nailed" which reviewed the historicity of Jesus. It essentially had 3 main points:
1) No contemporary sources of Jesus' life mention him. The ones that are cited were well after Jesus.
2) The Gospels are mostly plagiarized and contradictory.
3) Other sources have no corroborating evidence.

His conclusion: There's no reason to believe that Jesus really existed.

David was a hilarious speaker and went ~15 minutes over time, but no one seemed to mind.

The third talk was by Debbie Goddard regarding diversity in the skeptical movement. In general it was a large recap of much of the discussion on Blag Hag with Ms. Magazine.

It also examined differences in minorities and beliefs. It found many superstitions fall off with age. Exceptions were religion, ESP, communication with the dead, ghosts, and aliens.

The skeptic community tends to attract people with high levels of educations, leisure time, no young kids @ home, some disposable income. Blacks don't have disposable income and are most religious. Surprised?

Not really. But should we care?

Debbie says yes. Otherwise we'll be laughed at in the same way we laugh at the Tea Party for lacking diversity (heaped with their rather blatant racism). Additionally, critically thinking is improved by diverse ideas, diversity breeds diversity (like biodiversity), and humanism, skepticism and critical thinking should be universalizeable, good for all. Getting young people is also important since young people are the future of the movement.

Debbie seemed pretty disorganized as a speaker and it wasn't especially engaging. Sadly, it was the lowlight of the day.

Fourth was John Corvino speaking on the parallels between the gay movement and the atheist/skeptic movement and coming out in both.

John said coming out isn't an event; it's a process and often has to be repeated. In his experience, coming out as an atheist has been harder than as gay since the gay movement has gone public in a far greater respect than atheists have for a good while now.

The response from the religious right hasn't been a real argument, it's been a panic. Skepticism, John says, is a methodology by which forces people to calm down and look at the facts. All in all, he found 10 parallels between the two forms of coming out:
1.Deep personal significance
2.separate “mental book”
3.possible bad reaction
4.Marked as “flawed”
5.need for community: We cant' count on parents for wisdom and support if parents aren't gay/atheist
6.“Dumb” questions
8.“dropping hairpins” - letting out hints
9.confidence matters

John also touched on the accommodation discussion stating "I cannot remain silent because I cannot forget what happens when they think they have infallible backing for their fallible prejudices."

The last two segments were discussion panels. The first was on accommodation.

In general, the panelists were pretty unified. Accommodationism is worthless. While it may score some quick points, the idea that we can cut out any of our points is to sacrifice the principles on which skepticism as a movement has been founded.
As John put it: " Integrity means being true to yourself but not necessarily saying it every time you can as loud as you can."

While de-emphasizing portions may be a tactical choice in some situations, that's not what accommodationists are calling for.

John told a good story in which a theist wrote Dan Savage regarding how to help with the recent spate of gay suicides without having to respect being gay because being told to would hurt the writer's feelings. Savage's response was "Fuck your feelings."

John said this wasn't his style and he wouldn't have responded the same way, but I think Dan had it exactly right: When it's someone's life and liberty vs. your feelings, based on lack of critical thinking and superstitions, your feelings should get no respect. If people think they should, they're not really working to treat the problem, merely treating a symptom. On the gay suicides, while downplaying the criticism of the religious bigotry might get us allies to find a few bullied kids helped, it doesn't fix the problem of why they're bullied in the first place.

Another sub topic that kept coming up was whether or not the NCSE actively pushes theism. PZ claimed it does. John disagreed but couldn't explain why. PZ meanwhile, noted that the NCSE only has material that supports the notion that religion and evolution are compatible, but not that evolution can be compatible with religion, thereby lending its credibility only to the fuzzy sort of watered down theistic evolution.

Regardless, we can accommodate somewhat on some issues, but to sacrifice integrity for some quick victories is folly.

The last panel was on whether or not skepticism leads to atheism. Again, the panelists were pretty agreed: Yes.

It's not a 100% guarantee, but if you're honest about skepticism, then it should.

The only even remote bit of dissent came from James Randi who said he didn't have much of a problem with a friend of his who, being skeptical in every regard, still consciously chose to believe in theism because it made him feel better, yet still admitted that he had no evidence or logical reason to do so. Randi accepted this because the person was at least intellectually honest enough to admit it was an irrational position and it was based solely on utility and didn't harm his critical thinking in any other regard.

Overall, it was a good day of talks and I'm looking forward to Saturday.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Skepticon III

I leave to head to Skepticon III this evening. Details to come.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

The World Must be Ending: I Agree with a Republican Sponsored Measure

I never thought I'd see the day, but coming up for vote in Oklahoma is a measure initiated by a republican. Should the amendment pass, it will prohibit the use of Sharia law as a basis for rulings in court cases.

This seems like it should be common sense. Court rulings shouldn't be made in deference to religion or religious law. Yet apparently this needs reminding since a Muslim husband repeatedly beat and raped his wife and after his wife filed a restraining order, a judge struck it down on the basis that it was his religious beliefs that promoted it.

Thankfully, this was appealed and an appellate court upheld the restraining order. But the point still stands: Religion cannot be used as an excuse to mistreat others. As has been stated elsewhere, your rights, including religious ones, end where the rights of another begin.

Predictably, Muslims are whining that this is somehow persecution. It's not. America is a nation of secular laws that apply equally. You don't get exemptions and exceptions for religion.

My only complaint is that this bill doesn't go far enough. If this is going to be a reminder that we don't use Islamic law in our courts, it needs to also remember that Christian morals and laws aren't permitted either.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Science of Star Wars

Back when I started putting together my Anime Mythbusters panel, one of the inspirations was the series of "Science of ________" shows.

One of those, Science of Star Wars, is now available online. It's a fun watch. Light on real science though.

Comet Hartley2

For those that haven't heard, Comet Hartley 2 is making it's appearance right now. It's not really exceptional as far as comets go and is only expected to peak at around 5th magnitude, but it's still the best we're getting this year.

I went out Saturday night to my aunt's house outside St. Louis where it's fairly dark (enough so to see the Milky Way) to go hunt for it. I think it must have vanished because, armed with sky maps and a 4" reflector, I spent three hours looking for it and found a whole lotta nothin. Everything I got in the eyepiece was distinctly stellar and I panned all over the damned field.

Anyone else look for it and have similar experiences? I notice that the link above points out that the coma is already over 1º in size, so this thing is huge. Perhaps I just wasn't expecting something so diffuse and passed right over it. The last comet I found was comet 17p Holmes and it was quite small in size at that point.

I'll go out again in a few nights if it's clear and try again. It's getting cold, but thankfully, my aunt has a hot tub.

Astronomer's Humor: Part 3

From my friend Luis Vargas:
How, then, does this initial temperature profile evolve in time? There are classical methods for determining T=T(x,t) for t>0. One of the basic results is that one can start with an exciting temperature profile T(x), for instance one that resembles the skyline of Manhattan or the panorama of the Alps, and after some time the temperature profile always looks like the landscape of Nebraska.

Source: R. Kippenhahn and A. Weigert, "Stellar Structure and Evolution". pg 33, 3rd ed (1994)
Wait... I thought it was Kansas that was flatter than a pancake...

Saturday, October 09, 2010

Astronomers Humor: Part 2

Sometimes gender stereotypes are harmful. The shoehorning of gender roles has long limited freedom of choice for women, and still hampers their average earning potential.

Yet for some reason, we still joke about these stereotypes. Women's mood swings are the driving action of many comedies. Men failing to ask for directions is a standby. Women collect shoes and eat chocolate. Men love sports and beer.

This jestful stereotyping popped up in a paper I've been reading for a UT article. In it, the author notes that there seems to be an obsession with size.... of telescopes obviously. Bigger is better!

In a Freudian footnote, he adds:
1Speculation as to whether this is connected to the gender of most astronomers is outside the scope of this paper, but as the gender balance improves, it will be interesting to look for a reduction in the preoccupation with size.
Yep. That's it. Astronomers are compensating. *titter*

Oh wait.... was he being serious?

Thursday, October 07, 2010

Another exorcism death, and a credulous judge

In 2007, Janet Moses died from drowning during a botched exorcism in New Zealand. The family responsible for this was tried for manslaughter and recently convicted.

Exorcisms ending in death are tragic, but sadly common enough I've created a post tag just for them. In many of these cases, the law comes down fairly hard, but in this case, the family gets little more than a slap on the wrist. According to the article, the heads of the family that led the exorcism received
six months' community detention and a daily curfew. In addition they had to do 300 hours community work and 12 months' supervision.
I've always understood the purpose of punishments to be a deterrent for future actions (as well as, frequently, compensation for damages from past ones). But this sentence is so light, it doesn't effectively serve either purpose.

In addition, the judge in his sentencing remarks, doesn't even condemn the base practice of dangerous exorcisms themselves. Instead, he recommends that before carrying them out, people seek the advice of cult practitioners, as if they're somehow any more qualified:
But what can be stated is that tohunga or kaumatua should be consulted by whanau where makutu is suspected so that the whanau receive the correct expert advice as to how to deal with a situation, as such advice will be tempered by ensuring what is to be carried out by such exorcism remains within the laws of New Zealand as set down by Parliament
So apparently, if you kill someone by consulting the proper quack, New Zealand is fine with it.

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

UT Posts: 9/10 - 10/5

Trojans May Yet Rain Down - A look at Neptunian Trojans and their potential as reservoirs as short-period comets.

Does a "Rock Comet" Generate the Geminids? - Can rocky bodies produce the stream that causes the Geminid Meteor Shower?

White Dwarf Pulsars? - Can white dwarfs pump out cosmic rays like the standard Neutron Star variety?

Electric Resistance May Make Hot Jupiters Puffy - Does a magnetic interaction with stellar winds heat hot Jupiters and make them expand?

The Case of the Missing Bulges - Why do some galaxies have bigger bulges than others?

A Varying Fine Structure Constant? - Does the fine structure constant vary in different places in the universe?

The Hercules Satellite: A Galactic Transitional Fossil - Is the Hercules Satellite galaxy on the verge of being eaten by the Milky Way?

Type II-P Supernovae as a New Standard Candle - Can these supernovae be normalized to tell distances?

The Thick Disk: Galactic Construction Project or Galactic Rejects - How his the thick disk of the Milky Way formed?

Monday, October 04, 2010

Why I Laugh at Creationists - That's Not a Journal

I've been hanging out at JT Eberhard's blog (the guy running Skepticon) lately thanks to my friend Steve dropping a link there on facebook.

I first started reading it from this post of his responding to a rather vacuous creationist named Bakersdozen2. BD2 tossed out the usual list of Creationist fallacies, among them the bifurcated fallacy of "Big Bang is wrong, thus Goddidit."

Fallacy aside, the premise of the Big Bang being wrong is one that needs some serious evidence. I've addressed the Big Bang before and demonstrated that there's several independent lines of evidence that converge to support it. So how does BD2 support that the Big Bang is wrong?

Initially he linked to an article in an Indian Newspaper citing an article in the Journal of Cosmology. The main point of the article was that we haven't detected gravitational waves, thus the Big Bang is wrong.... as if the linchpin of the entire Big Bang Theory is gravitational waves....

I went ahead and looked for the original article and eventually found it... on If you're not familiar with viXra, it's an alternative to, which is a preprint server for several types of scientific publications. viXra decided it didn't like the "censorship" practiced by those ebil scientific journals and all those hoity toity types at arXiv (where you have to be vetted by someone in the field before you can upload, so a minimal peer review process), so they started their own club.

I bet readers are already groaning anticipating what viXra really is: A home for crackpots. And you'd be right.

But that's guilt by association. Perhaps, just perhaps, this article is legit. No idea why it wouldn't have been put on arXiv first, but it apparently made it in a real, peer reviewed journal.... right?


The "Journal of Cosmology" is a sham.

First, check out it's "peer review" process:
Authors should submit the names, affiliations, and email addresses of 5 scientists qualified to review their paper
Yeah... that's right. You can pick your own reviewers. It says not to pick "friends", but that doesn't mean you can't pick someone that's not already sympathetic to your position and not going to give it a real shake. That's not peer review. That's cronyism.

While I've been informed that this is standard practice for some journals, a legitimate journal should at least review the reviewers picked and make sure they the proper qualifications and the job is done. How does this journal do?

Let's take a look at some of the articles. Here's one that the author of the paper BD2 likes to cite. It's about the "Myth of the Big Bang". Here's a quote that sums up the article:
Although most cosmologists will deny it, their Big Bang interpretations of data require it: a geo-centric universe with Earth as the center and measure of all things--exactly as demanded by the Judeo-Christian religion.
Wha? The Big Bang is Creationism is disguise?! Then why do so many Creationists have a problem with it?

Oddly enough, in this case, the Creationists actually understand the theory better than the author. The author claims
Therefore, data marshaled in support of the Big Bang place Earth at the center of the universe, with claims of age, distance, expansion, acceleration all relative to where the Earth is now
Uh... no. We use the Earth as a reference frame, but one of the centermost understandings of all of cosmology is that we do so because it's convenient. Not because it's the way things really are.

How did that slip by peer review? I guess the author recommended some elementary school students to review it. Behe would be proud.

So where does this guy come from and how does he know so much about Cosmology?

Well, he's from the Brain Research Lab. Oooh.... Research Lab. Sounds legit. Or not. They don't actually do research. They just produce stuff for the people that do.

But what about the original article BD2 referenced?

It's rubbish too. And it's not hard to see why. It's essentially the same game Creationists play - If you can poke enough holes in something, it will collapse, so make people think it's full of holes. The author cites numerous studies that attack various points of the Big Bang. Every single one falls flat. They're either things that the author simply doesn't understand (superstructure in the universe), or things that have never been justified (non-Doppler shift interpretations of redshift). His sources are crap too. Aside from the horrid nonsense I already pointed out he likes, he's also citing E.J. Lerner, a plasma cosmology lunatic. But even if they were supported, it provides no converging explanation for anything. Good theories tie many things together. This author thinks he's onto something when everything points in a different direction. Bad science. Bad journal.

Some of the other articles don't look too bad (although I've only glanced through a few of them). There's some written by some legitimate scientists actually working in their own fields including the person that started the "journal". In fact, he has quite a few, which is interesting. That's not a conflict of interest at all....

Overall, pretending this "Journal of Cosmology" is a credible source, is a bunch of nonsense. It's horribly and obviously flawed. But then again, so are Creationists.

UPDATE: Nancy, over at Universe Today, has also taken note of how another article fails to meet critical standards from experts in the field. This time on sponsoring missions to Mars. While one could argue that disagreements will always exist in cutting edge fields, the glaring inadequacies of these articles have shown that these aren't just disagreements over uncertain issues. These articles contain fundamental errors at the basic level. I mean, really? Selling property on Mars to fund missions in violation of international treaty? How did that one sneak by?

In general, it seems like most of the worst articles come from a guy named Rhawn Joseph, who this journal apparently loves and gives a free pass. He's a quack. PZ smacked him down last year. He, or one of his sycophants left a comment on my Big Bang post linking to some video about how the Big Bang never happened. I was going to do a full debunking of it and even downloaded it, but the sheer density of stupidity just hurt too much. I had 4 pages of notes and wasn't even 10 minutes in before scrapping it.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Book Review – Denialism

During my last round of book buying, I found a book amidst the science section with a title that fit perfectly with many of the topics I've written about. It is Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet, and Threatens Our Lives by Michael Specter.

I remembered hearing about it somewhere before so I picked it up. When I got home, I checked out the reviews on and almost decided to return the book. It's not that it has a bad rating (3/5 stars), but many of the top rated reviews said that, while the topic is certainly important, it lacks the rigor to support the danger implicit in the subtitle and worse, failed to get much into why denialism exists and what should be done about it.

But for some reason (probably laziness) I kept it and after finishing my last book, I did my general roll of the dice to determine what I'd read next from my pile and this book ended up being the scientifically selected winner. It's taken me almost 2 months to get through it, but now that I have, I think this book is one of the more important ones in the conversation.

The book starts out with Specter's thoughts on what may be part of the reason for why the rejection of science has become so commonplace. He suggests that it is due to some large failures of science that have caught the public eye. Specifically he cites things like the Challenger disaster, Chernobyl, Three-Mile Island, and Vioxx (the latter being the main focus). As he puts it
Thirty years ago nobody discussed the principal motive behind scientific research: nobody needed to. It was a quest for knowledge. Today, the default assumption is that money matters most of all, and people tend to see science through the prism of commerce.
The rest of the book is spent addressing several of the major forms of denialism.

The first is that of vaccines causing autism. In it, there is a very telling quote from Jay Gordon, Jenny McCarthy's pediatrician.
Let me state very simply, vaccines can cause autism. . . . The proof is not there yet. It will be found
Belief first. Evidence later. This is a hallmark characteristic of denialists.

The entire chapter is laced with success of vaccination efforts and the costs of not vaccinating. Although Specter never comes right out to say it, the message is clear: We cannot let unsubstantiated (or worse, disproven) fears stop us from using methods that we know save far more lives than they even hypothetically cost.

Specter's next target is what he calls the "organic fetish" and the scare over genetically modified foods. This is a topic I haven't gotten much into, but Specter makes many good points in the chapter. All food is genetically modified by hundreds and thousands of years of artificial selection. But by adding genes to add nutritional value as well as growth, we can and have improved the quality and quantity of food we produce. Given that "natural" foods haven't been fortified with extra vitamins, GMOs are in reality much better for us than the organic ones. In addition, they are designed to last longer and need less pesticides which are harmful to both our health and the environment. It's pretty much wins all around, except perhaps for a loss of some flavor.

While a loss of flavor vs a gain of nutrition isn't a huge problem in the US, where we don't have much of a problem getting balanced meals (whether or not we choose to is a different story), other nations don't have that luxury. GM foods would allow for poor nations to produce enough food of sufficient quality to feed their people. But many nations have chosen to ban GMOs because of the fear-mongering of the anti-GM crowd and instead, will let their residents starve. I think this is one of the many points Specter makes that really back up the claim made in his subtitle. When fear trumps progress, people die in the meantime.

The "alt-med" fad was the topic of the next chapter. From homeopathy to nutritional supplements, Specter addressed the effectiveness of each and concluded that few were of any value (of those that he did concede were some vitamins, calcium, and folic acid for pregnant women). And worse, many were outright harmful. One example he cited was that of Ephedra, a drug that "boosts adrenaline, stresses the heart, raises blood pressure, and is associated with an increased risk of heart attack, stroke, anxiety, psychosis, and death." Which is probably why the FDA finally banned it, causing outrage in the alt-med community, because, yet again, "[b]elief outranks effectiveness."

The bigger problem I, and Specter see, is that this nonsensical belief takes funding away from research that has true potential. In no case is this more true than the alt-med one, in which the denialism camp has fought so hard, they've conned the US government into funding a major scientific organization, the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), to review treatments that have already been demonstrated not to work.

This organization does operate scientifically, doing rigorous tests and coming to valid conclusions, the point is that these reviews shouldn't need to be done in the first place. Instead, we now spend $121 million annually to tell ourselves what we already knew: None of these "medicines" work. Thus far, the NCCAM has not approved a single treatment. Compare this amount with the funding for autism research from the government in a year which is only $118 million. Bunk science gets more funding?!

The last of the body chapters was on the need to recognize geographical background (or race) as an important consideration in medicine and how the taboo of race has largely prevented research into how differences in people of different lineages affects their responses to medicines. Again, the message is clear: while we deny the science, people die.

Specter concludes with a somewhat hopeful note. He discusses the potential of synthetic biology, real Intelligent Design of organisms, to change our manufacturing processes and potentially assist in everything from energy production, to cleaning up the atmosphere, to creating medicines. It's a rather utopian ideal, but the message is clear for anyone that's been paying attention; this could be our future. Are we going to let fear take it away?

Overall, I think the book was extremely well written. My worst criticism is that it didn't go far enough. Many of the points could have been spelled out even more instead of letting readers draw the conclusions that the material points them to. After all, the people that most desperately need to read such a book, can't seem to draw intelligent conclusions for themselves. Without this, the book is little more than preaching to the choir, but I think this stems from another major point that Specter didn't address, which is the root cause of denialism.

While I agree that fear is a major component of it, I think there's another component that was completely overlooked which is that of the general level of scientific ignorance in the world. But such points weren't really the topic of the book. After all, the subtitle was "How irrational thinking hinders scientific progress", not "Why is there irrational thinking". Ultimately, I think the latter is a far thornier topic and there's no single answer. Rather, there are many, only one of which Specter touched on. I'd love to see another book on that latter topic though. I think this, along with such a book on the "why", as well as some other books illustrating other harms of pseudoscience could easily be bundled together to make one of the most important arguments for rational thinking today.

So while others may criticize this book for its incompleteness, I think it's fine. It fulfilled the goals set out by its subtitle. There definitely need to be more, but that's the job of other books.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Texas Loses out on Education Funds

I hope Texans are embarrassed right now. They've got a huge ass for a governor.

In 2009, when the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act started handing out funds to stimulate the economy, a sizable chunk of this was earmarked for schools. But what did Governor Rick Perry do?

He accepted the money and then cut school funding by an equal amount. In other words, he pocketed the money to use for the state's rainy day fund, bypassing the earmark.

Seeing this was more than a bit of a dick move (although it's happens all the time), Rep. Lloyd Doggett of Austin added an amendment to a more recent federal handout making sure Texas couldn't pull the same trick again.

So what did Perry do? When applying for $830 million for schools, Perry wrote in on the application that the feds had no right to tell Texas how to use the money it was being given and they could shove it. He told the Austin American-Statesman that he would, "look for ways around the requirement that the Texas governor assure that the state would maintain a level of education spending for the next three years."

Naturally, Texas' application was turned down. So where does that leave schools?

Apparently, 14,500 education related jobs are in danger in Texas due to budget shortfalls. The money was to follow a Title I distribution which would give the majority of the funds to areas with the poorest students so it would invigorate the highest need communities.

This coming after promoting creationism and "performance-based payment for teachers" which fails to take into account the difficulties of certain areas and demographics, thereby making a bad problem worse.

Education in Texas is looking more and more like a joke lately. As I finish my certification, I look more and more at areas I'd consider teaching. Texas is definitely on the list of places not to even consider.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

UT Posts: 9/1 - 9/9

The Race to Stellar Formation - A look at how feedback mechanisms in star forming regions can impede further formation.

Ultraluminous Gamma Ray Burst 080607 – A "Monster in the Dark" - A gamma ray burst hidden behind a cloud of gas in its home galaxy tells us about conditions in early galaxies as well as hinting at an explanation for "dark" GRBs.

How to Crash Stars Together - A look at the conditions necessary for stellar collisions to become likely.

The Black Hole/Gloublar Cluster Correlation - Study reveals relationship between mass of SMBH and number of globular clusters in galaxies.

The Origin of Exoplanets - Do exoplanets form in disks like our solar system, or do they form independently?

Two New Asteroids To Pass Earth This Week - Two newly discovered asteroids swing by the Earth, closer to us than the moon.

Aesthetics of Astronomy - A look at how the public interprets astronomical images.

The Other End of the Planetary Scale - What's the distinction between small stars and large planets?

Does Tidal Evolution Cause Stars To Eat Planets? - Tidal bulges by "hot Jupiters" could cause orbital decay.

Do Stars Really Form in Clusters - And what does it even mean to be "in" a cluster?

Follow-up studies on the June 3rd Jupiter Impact - What did we learn about the object that struck Jupiter on June 3rd, 2010?

Friday, September 03, 2010

Cutting Grass on the Moon

I cut the grass today.

This is nothing exceptional really. I do it every week or two. But today, I found it rather challenging. For some reason, it took decidedly longer than usual.

I suspect that it was due to me cutting areas I'd already done because I was having a great deal of trouble telling where I'd already cut. Usually I do this by looking to see where the grass was suddenly an inch shorter, or by looking for the depressions caused by the wheels on the grass.

Today, both were exceptionally hard to find.

So what was different? Certainly it wasn't he grass. It's the same yard I've mowed over and over. The lawnmower didn't suddenly get lighter and not leave any impressions.

There was only one thing that changed: The time of day. Today, I cut the grass near noon. Usually I cut the grass in the early morning. But aside from it being nice and cool in the morning, how could the time of day possibly make a difference?

To answer this question I had to think about the moon.

If you've ever looked at the moon through a telescope, you may have noticed that there's certain times that it looks better than others. Generally, the best times are near the quarter moons (1st and 3rd) where the moon is half-lit from our vantage point.

The reason that these times are especially good is that the sun is striking the visible surface at a shallow angle. As a result, any topological changes that are above a nearby surface will cause long, sharp shadows. This is especially important in craters where crater rims are often raised slightly above the nearby terrain and can cast shadows into the bowl of the crater. Meanwhile, the opposite side of the crater will receive sunlight and be well lit.

This alternation of light and dark provides a sharp contrast to help define the features and make them stand out. When the moon is in the full phase, the sunlight is beating straight down making the shadows small and contrast almost non-existent.

The same thing happens when I'm cutting the grass. At noon, the Sun is at it's highest point making even the minor shadows that something as diffuse as grass can cast rather minimal. In the early morning hours, the sun is sill lower on the horizon, but strikes the grass at a shallow angle allowing for greater contrast. The grass I haven't cut can cast a shadow on that I have. Furthermore, the wheels will create additional low lying areas that can also pick up shadows and stand out.

With this in mind, I think I'll avoid cutting the grass near noon in the future. The only problem with that is, now I'll have to wake up early. And us astronomers are naturally nocturnal.

Thursday, September 02, 2010

TV Review - Bad Universe

Oops. I'm on the fail wagon. I only just got around to seeing Phil Plait's Bad Universe. Tardy. I know.

Overall score: Solid A.

Phil's enthusiasm, as always shows through and the show is a ton of fun because of it. Right from the very beginning the viewer hits the ground running with the doomsday scenario of an asteroid hitting the Earth. It jumps then, to simulating an impact and the resulting crater, to simulations of a nuke on an asteroid, through other tests, and finally a solution. The road is paved with tons of explosions.

But in the end, I felt... dizzy. While all the information was there, it didn't feel especially organized. It jumped between asteroids of varying sizes, compositions, and even to big nasties that weren't asteroids. Not that all these topics aren't important do discuss, but I often felt it kept going back and forth.

And worse, something very important was left as merely a single line that got brushed off. This isn't the exact quote, but I think it's pretty close:

"The damage from an impact comes from its kinetic energy which is determined by its mass and more importantly, its velocity."

Yep. KE = 1/2mv2. See that squared term? That means that the velocity is gonna get real important, real fast. And that paraphrase I just gave, is the entire story of velocity in this show. There's an obvious reason for this though: The vast majority of the asteroids that could hit us are all from the same groups and the velocity range is narrow. The mass range isn't. So obviously that's what the focus would have to be on, but the jumpiness I mentioned earlier left it hard to get a clear picture of what size will do what damage.

Here's the breakdown:

Beachball = ~60 ft across
Stadium = Miles across
Few Miles across = No more dinosaurs

Great. But what about that HUGE gap between stadium and dinosaur killer? There was a ton that could be talked about there that would have been really great to get a real grip on how size corresponds to damage because it's not exactly easy given that mass doesn't scale linearly with size (given it's dependent on volume and all).

Obviously, there's quite a bit that had to be left out for the sake of time and to be fair, that was a perfectly reasonable thing to leave out. Because what the main focus of the show wasn't what the dangers and effects are, but what we can do to stop it. When viewed in that light, that's why I can give the show such a high approval rating despite not liking that some of the science was left out; The show achieved its goal.

In the meantime, there were some great lines. Working "epic fail" into a serious show = win.

But the best line in the whole show, one that makes me glad I wasn't drinking anything at the time, came from Dan Durda. As they're about to test the effect of a kinetic impactor on a large, spherical rock, Phil makes a joke about how it looks like they're about to make the Death Star. Without missing a beat, Dan responds, "Yeah, so let's blow this thing and go home." For those not fanboy enough to get the response, go watch this.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Solar Storms Follow-Up

On Friday, I wrote about some really poor science writing from Yahoo. While most of the garbage was stuff that an obviously clueless writer on Yahoo's part tossed in, but the base of it came from this article. It claimed solar scientists were worried about the upcoming solar cycle being the worst in 100 years and that trillions of dollars in damage could be the result.

I left a comment pointing out the gross misrepresentation of the position of scientists and the likelihood of such an event and the author, David Reneke, responded by shoving his foot even further down his throat.

Go take a look at it and see if you can figure out all the problems with his response before my reply makes it through the moderation queue. (HINT: There's not a single paragraph that didn't have major problems!)

PS: Does anyone know where this guy teaches? His personal website notes that he teaches at a college level, but doesn't mention where. Given the shoddy grasp of what people are saying and the sloppy sensationalism, I'm of a strong mind to write the head of his department.

UPDATE: Three days later and my reply still hasn't made it through the moderation queue. So I'll outline the problems here:

1) The author doesn't understand the English language. He claims he said "'could be' not 'will be'". But let's look at what he really said:
"Huge Solar Storms to Impact Earth", "the Earth will be hit", "solar storms that will cause the Sun".... Where's that uncertainty?

The only place a "could" pops up is when the author talks about the effects. In other words, he's saying the storm will happen, but the effects of it are where the uncertainty lies.

2) The author quote mines and conflates arguments. The quotes he has are universally in regards to the effects of a massive outburst. Yet he takes them out of context and presents them as if they're talking about this solar cycle. They're not.

3) The author provides no sources for the main point of the article. He names "space weather conference in Washington DC attended by Nasa [sic] scientists, policy-makers, researchers and government officials", but what is that really talking about? It's not whether or not it may or may not happen, but rather, every source he cites is in regards to the worst-case-scenario planning.

4) The author ignores contrary sources. I provided two sources from NASA's solar science department that show the main tracers of solar activity are predicting the next solar cycle's activity is going to be lower than the last solar cycle which flatly contradicts his premise. Yet he still asks "where’s the reference source?". Herp derp.

5) The author engages in baseless sensationalism. Since the above points show that the author has no basis for saying this storm will occur, the entire point of bringing it up is nothing but alarmism. It's bad journalism.

Conclusion: This guy doesn't understand basic astronomy or journalistic standards. I'm still looking for contact information on some of his supervisors to try to make sure this guy doesn't continue to get a national platform for his gibberish.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Penn & Teller - Not "dicks"?

Earlier today, Phil posted a link to a clip from a new episode Penn & Teller's show Bullshit on vaccinations and praised it. He called it "really effective" and "a brilliant move".

I don't have cable, and I don't watch the show too often, but I've seen a few episodes and one of the things that I seemed to remember is that Penn isn't exactly nice. In fact, I remembered him being pretty direct in calling a spade a spade, hence the title of the show.

So I dug up a few episodes of their show to see just how direct Penn & Teller were in their name calling. In their episode on Creationism, they call Creationists (not their ideas, but Creationists as a group): "Pesky", "desperate, deluded", "assholes", "scary", "stinking", and "foolish".

In the episode on the Vatican, he describes the Vatican (the core of Catholic faith), a "festering swamp of intolerance, greed, paranoia, hypocrisy," full of "callous disregard for human suffering".

In the episode on the Bible, they're pretty tame, only referring to "evangelical assholes" and calling people that supported the 10 commandments in the Alabama courthouse "uneducated".

Is this wrong? I think the core of that question goes back to what I tried to discuss in my last post on this topic: What defines a "dick"?

My argument was that things like the above aren't being dickish. They're perfectly reasonable given that some people need that societal pressure of being made fun of to reevaluate their position. This is echoed by Les at SEB.

But even if it is what people need to hear, isn't it still being a dick? I think the key here is moderation. It's the difference between what makes an ad hominem fallacy, and what makes a strongly worded argument. In the former, there is no logical basis or evidence. It's simply character assassination. In the latter, it's spice to the mix. You want a little to get people to sit up and pay attention, but it shouldn't be overwhelming.

My biggest problem with Phil's speech and his subsequent follow up, is that he's repeatedly failed to draw this line. He's left it worthlessly vague, giving no concrete examples by which to distinguish leaving people to infer what he's meant. Does it include people like myself, Les Jenkins, Jerry Coyne, PZ Myers, Richard Dawkins, and Penn & Teller, who will all outright call Creationists and other woo-woo peddlers "fools", or is the line further out leaving only people whose "logic in those situations is left by the wayside"?

One of Phil's major points was that, before you say something, you should stop to consider if it's really helping. Well, how has chiding people for doing something that hasn't been defined helping?

Friday, August 27, 2010

How not to write a story - 2012 + Solar Cycles + Sensationalism = Stupid

I've written about bad science journalism before. In fact, every time I've used my Science Journalism tag, it's been a bad article. And guess what. Here's another one:

Yahoo News is reporting a solar storm in 2012 is about to hit the Earth with a force of "100 million hydrogen bombs".

Let's work this out a little. A hydrogen bomb releases about 240,000 x 1012 Joules of energy. Multiplying that by 100 million means we'd get 2.4 x 1025 Joules of energy. The specific heat of air is ~1 J/(gºK) and there's about 5 x 1021 g of air on the Earth.

Multiply all that together in the proper manner and you get that the energy dumped into the Earth would raise the atmospheric temperature by 4,800ºK or 8,200ºF. In essence, Yahoo is claiming that the world is about to end.

But what is the author worried about? Only that this approaching storm has "the potential to wipe out the entire planet's power grid." Well damn! I mean, being dead sucks but no power?! Really?

Obviously something's wrong here. The number quoted isn't the actual amount of energy that would hit the Earth. It's the energy released in a large solar eruption. But almost none of it will hit the Earth. We're just too small a target and that energy is spread out way too much.

So does that mean there's no danger?

No. There is some, and the article hits on it. Large solar storms have the potential to destroy satellite's delicate circuit systems, destroy ozone, and all sorts of other effects. But is it something to really be worried about?

The answer is, who knows? Solar levels are damned near impossible to predict because most of what drives them is taking place inside the sun, where we can't really see it. In fact, the most recent solar cycle was supposed to have gotten underway last year. But it's been slacking. There's been a curious lack of solar activity as generally indicated by sunspots. They're starting to appear now, but no one's really sure why the extra long lapse.

So making predictions is a really tricky business. Looking too far ahead has large uncertainties associated with it. But that doesn't stop people from trying. In fact, there's large groups of astronomers that work on it. Check out NASA's page on Solar Prediction. There's a nice little graph on that page showing the sunspot activity predicted for this year based on ratios "between the size of the next cycle maximum and the length of the previous cycle, the level of activity at sunspot minimum, and the size of the previous cycle."

Given that, there can be some decent predictions and what does next year's look like? It's about half as active as last year's. Yet Yahoo's source (an amateur astronomer from Australia), claims that "[t]he general consensus among general astronomers (and certainly solar astronomers) is that this coming Solar maximum (2012 but possibly later into 2013) will be the most violent in 100 years".


And where is the peak on that graph? It's certainly NOT 2012. It's well into 2013. Radio flux predictions agree.

So why the 2012 bullshit? The article outright says it: "those who put the date of Solar Max in 2012 are getting the most press."

The media is playing on a feeding frenzy, reporting sensationalistic science without context, understanding what the quotes mean, or checking their facts.....

No way....

EDIT: One more irony - The amateur astronomer from which they're getting a lot of their clueless quote mining has this to say: "solar storms that will cause the Sun to reach temperatures of more than 10,000°F occur only a few times over a person’s life."

Hmmm.... last I checked the normal surface temperature of the Sun is 5,778ºK which is (drumroll please!) ~10,000ºF. So only a few times over a person's life are solar storms energetic enough to..... not change the temperature of the Sun.....

Right. I'm done with this one.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Don't be a Dick - My Take

I've been slow on responding to what's been a hot topic recently, but what else is new?

This topic, as the title of this post suggests, is Phil Plait's talk at TAM8 which has been retrospectively titled "Don't be a Dick".

Essentially, the point Phil makes is that being overly aggressive and confrontational doesn't do much to further the cause of rational thinking. In fact, it hinders is because when someone is challenged, their natural inclination is to entrench themselves. This isn't to say we shouldn't continue to challenge pseudo-science or other such topics in an impassioned manner, but Phil's claim is that we've lost passion and changed over to arrogant condemnation in which "hubris is running rampant, and that egos are just out of check and sometimes logic in those situations is left by the wayside."

I'd left off from commenting on this because I figured that someone else had probably already said what I was going to. But after following the response over the past week, the point I wanted to make has gone completely left out. So I guess I will comment.

First off, I'd like to agree with a lot of what Jerry Coyne said at WEIT. If you don't want to read his commentary, it boils down to this: Phil doesn't cite a single source of what he's describing because he assumes it's too "trivial". From that, Coyne concludes, not that it isn't happening, but it's not as widespread as Phil is claiming and Phil would likely have had to call out some popular skeptics like PZ.

I agree with this 100%. In his talk, Phil makes a point of how we need a united front from believers and non-believers alike to really combat pseudo-science because, without the extra help, we're just too few. Phil's a uniter so I can see why he wouldn't want to call someone out when a simple nudge would (hopefully) suffice. I'm not going to find much fault with that.

However, what I do have a problem with is being sloppy with definitions. Where's this magical line between strong worded, accurate rhetoric and being a "dick"?

To me, this is the key point that was somehow completely lost. When does the line get crossed and instead of reaching out to people, we're truly turning them away?

One of the most frustrating things, but also the most true things I've ever learned about learning was told to me by one of my astrophysics professors at KU; When we complained of how difficult his tests were, he'd always respond that "learning shouldn't be easy or comfortable."

And looking back, it's absolutely true. The greatest personal growth I've gone through, and I suspect most people go through, is that intellectual growth that had to be fought for. It was fraught with anxiety and self-doubt, being lost in the forest and stumbling around till I found the right path, but in doing so, learned the lay of the land well enough that I learned what wasn't the right path.

Unfortunately, too many people don't want to be told they're on the right path. They're comfortable where they are. Furthermore, we have a society in which relativism reigns. It's not kosher to question anyone else's beliefs, no matter how damaging they might be to themselves, or worse, to others.

In an ideal world, we could simply point this out and, hallelujah, they'd come around. But, as Phil admits in his speech, it's quite often hard to do this because you can't reason someone out of a position they didn't reason themselves into in the first place. Sometimes more is needed.

As I just mentioned, such people don't have the good sense to look around, see the harm they're causing and feel bad enough to fix it. They're often blinded by their own ignorance in a stunning display of the Dunning-Kruger effect. More is needed.

If someone doesn't feel bad that not-vaccinating their children is taking a deadly gamble, not just with their children's lives, but the lives of numerous others, they should. If someone doesn't feel bad that they killed one child through "faith healing" such that they would continue to use the same practice on another of their children, they should.

Such people often don't realize just how stupid they're being and need it pointed out. They need to be made to feel bad about it. If the facts won't do it, language might.

This isn't new ground I'm breaking here. Religion has known this for a long time. In fact, much of the foundation of religion is all about making people feel bad so they can sell them some snake oil that will make it all better.

While in college, I can recall several instances in which groups would stand around the campus pretending to do research for psychology study via a survey. They'd ask questions that boiled down to whether or not you'd violated God's commandments, and when they were finished, point out your "moral failures" and how you needed God. This doesn't always work, but more importantly, it often does. Many people are swayed by this sort of thinking. They're pulled into a manufactured guilt trip and it is the source of deep and unyielding faith. The religious call this "convicting" people of their sins.

It's a sneaky tactic, but one that we as skeptics can use in a much more intellectually honest way. After all, what we're selling is real. Critical thinking improves the quality of life and allows numerous more who wouldn't live otherwise, to enjoy that life. That's a demonstrable fact.

So how can we use this to our advantage?

By using strong, accurate, unequivocal language people are often taken aback. And although they can entrench themselves, I maintain there's a key time in here that's the most critical point for learning to take place.

When someone is told they're ignorant on a given position, the most natural response is to deny it outwardly. However, they really have to scramble at this point. No matter what, they're going to have to review their position, either internally to make damn sure they're not as ignorant as claimed. Or externally as they throw up their arguments to argue the claim. The problem is, that both of these ways allow them to repeat their "logic" process of how they arrived at this position and this is the risk. If the same process is repeated, it only becomes ingrained which is the exact opposite of what we're trying to achieve. How could anything positive come of that!?

But what's important here is that in that review process, there is the chance to change the flow. If new information is given that must be factored into that review, it can change the conclusion. And I think that's the key.

If the discussion is kept too light, it doesn't engage people sufficiently that they're really forced to internalize new information and see how it fits with their previous views. Skeptics are people who do this without needing motivation, but many people just don't (although the like to think they do). They're overwhelmed by confirmation bias and but don't even know what that means. They need that swift kick in the ass to get the ball rolling and as my astrophysics professor told me, "it shouldn't be comfortable."

So that's my general thought. You don't need to use this method straight off. See what sort of person you're dealing with. Test the waters. Toss out the facts and see what they do with them. If they internalize it, great. If they just leave them sitting there without addressing them, then perhaps it's time to make them start having to work through their ideas by putting them on a stronger defensive. But this is main point I want to make: Those facts must be there. And I'd like to think (hope) that this is what Phil was wanting to get at when he noted that "sometimes logic ... is left by the wayside."

When people review their position, they need to have the facts. And not just that, often people that don't reason themselves into a position won't know what to do with the facts they're given. So after giving the facts, we need to help people sort them out instead of just tossing them at people and walking away. Education is an investment, both for the person receiving and the person giving.

And that's the key to me. The line between being a "dick" and simply being strident is making sure that there's more than just name calling. There needs to be facts, and evidence, and the willingness to help someone sort through them once they realize they might just need to. And that investment is about as far from "dickish" as you can get even if there is a little bit of prick in the mix somewhere.