Thursday, May 31, 2012

"Aliens" is a Terrible Explanation

Skeptics (or "sceptics" if you're foreign. Or Canadian.) deal with a lot of things that are more or less entirely untrue. Bigfoot (doesn't exist) and Nessie (doesn't exist, and is probably otters) and other so-called cryptids, ghosts, conspiracy theories, and aliens. That list isn't exhaustive, by the way.

There's a lot of overlap in those areas, and not simply because people who believe in one of those phenomena are likely to believe in others, but because people who espouse them as explanations tend to commit the same logical fallacies, mostly involving the fallacy pictured above.

That picture is a popular internet meme, actually. The man in the picture is Giorgio Tsoukalos, and it's from a History Channel show1, a purported documentary about the mysteries of the past. Tsoukalos typically resorts to another incarnation of the meme.

The only real mystery in the show is why his hair looks like that.

The picture up top refers to the logical fallacy, the Argument from Ignorance, or argumentum ad ignorantium if you're wearing a top hat and monocle.

When there's no evidence, do you know what conclusions you can draw? None. Do you know what you do in response? Investigate with an open mind and see where the evidence takes you. Instead, what UFOlogists and cryptozoologists2 argue is that if you can't prove it wasn't aliens, then it must have been aliens. Or if you can't prove there's no bigfoot, then obviously bigfoot exists. Similarly, creationists tend to feel that if you can't prove their religious proposition false, then it must be true. Even Lisa Simpson was able to point out how spurious that argument is. As the popular saying goes, "You can't prove a negative"3.

When we're dealing with ancient history or obscure phenomena, there usually is a paucity of evidence. What has to happen then is building models based on what little evidence there is. Unfortunately, what happens then is that "[BLANK]-hunters" tend to be anomaly-hunters. Something strange! You can't explain it, therefore I'm right! As you can see, it's the argument from ignorance again, only instead of a lack of evidence, it's the explanation for the evidence. Either way, the supposed inability to disprove a hypothesis is taken as proof of the hypothesis.

In fact, alternative explanations can be provided! Let's look at ghost-hunting; this is a field rife with anomaly-hunting. Ghost-hunters simply aren't investigators. They take all their adorable little equipments and hunt for strange things. EM field! Ghost! ... or wires in the wall. Why not investigate and see if you can't eliminate other possibilities before jumping to "ghost!"? Take photographs and what do you find? Shining dots or lines! Ghost! Except they only show up when you use a flash, and didn't show up before the advent of flash photography. The glowing dots? Dust. The glowing lines? Reflections off straps or bars. Like I said, they've never shown up without a flash, which is why "flash artifact"4 is a better explanation than "ghost".

What about when there's little evidence? Like aliens being the proposed explanation for a lot of phenomena, from crop circles to abductions to cattle mutilations. There are of course explanations for these phenomena. Drunk guys, nightmares, and natural decay respectively. However, alien fanatics love to pull out Occam's Razor; our ONE explanation is better than your three explanations! But that's not how Occam's Razor works. First, it's not actually proof in itself; it's a guide to better logic. Also, Occam's Razor actually supports the skeptics, not the fanboys. The alien hypothesis is singular, but that doesn't make it simple.

Once you open it up and start unpacking it, you find that the alien hypothesis actually contains a lot of assumptions, almost all of which are wildly improbable.

  • First, we have only one datum for life. We can make absolutely zero assumptions about the existence of other life. Life could be common, it could be rare, for all we know, we could be unique. We simply know nothing, so the assumption that there's other life out there is unfounded, unwarranted, and decidedly not simple.
  • We do know that regardless of how common life is, multicellular life must be far less common. Life on Earth spent billions of years as single-celled organisms. So the assumption of multicellular life elsewhere is another wild leap.
  • We also know that intelligent life is even less common, because we have precisely one example on a planet teeming with life, so there's yet another wild leap of assumption.
  • Then we start venturing into the ream of fantasy, because the example of intelligent life we have (us) can barely even make it off our planet, and certainly can't colonize, so assuming the extant, multicellular life forms out there are capable of leaving their planet is a fantastic5 assumption.
  • And if we were to bankrupt ourselves pouring all our resources into it, we could build an interplanetary spaceship that would take many thousands of years delivering a shipload of corpses to a foreign star, so assuming that that life could travel between the stars is beyond fantastic.
  • Then it has to assume that, having made the journey across the unfathomably vast gulf between the stars ... they fuck with farmers by probing them, half-eating their cows, and fiddling with their crops.

Assumption piled on assumption piled on assumption, with an argument from ignorance as the cherry on top. Similarly, which is more likely, that thousands of people hunting the woods have failed to find an elusive species of apeman, or that the apeman doesn't exist?

It's not so much that skeptics want to come along and shit in the apple pie and spoil your fun... it's that you're wrong and you keep saying you're not.

1 - We need to take that name away from them. They suck now. I don't think they deserve "The Mystery Channel" either. Maybe "The Mysteriousnessosity Channel".

2 - Some people think that if you put "-ologist" at the end of something, then that gives you authority and credibility. Unfortunately, when it comes to the general public, they're usually right.

3 - Actually, you can, but its usually a long and exhaustive process. As in you have to exhaust various possibilities until you're left with a single, plausible hypothesis. It's called abductive reasoning. It's what scientists and Sherlock Holmes do. Well, what Sherlock Holmes does when written well.

4 - In science, an artifact is something you avoid if at all possible, and account for and ignore if you can't. If your equipment always records a sudden spike at a certain point in the experiment, it could be something happening to the experiment or it could be something happening to the equipment. The latter always has to be ruled out before the former can be adduced.

5 - As in it's a fantasy.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Children as Natural Scientists

Carl Sagan was a devoted educator who spoke to children of all age groups. His observation was that children are intensely curious, spontaneous with their questions, and infectious in their desire to learn. They're unafraid of looking ignorant and leap at the chance to explore. Teens, on the other hand, introverted, afraid of looking stupid, anti-intellectual, and have been beaten down by a culture and system that doesn't value scientific exploration or education in general. His opinion was that children are born natural scientists and have their intellects bored out of them.

On the other hand you have the view that children are extremely magical thinkers, natural teleologists, and incredibly gullible. Children will leap to any explanation that seems, to them, plausible. Ask a child and you'll learn that clouds are for raining, rocks are for animals to scratch themselves. Tell a child anything and you will be believed.

So which is it? Are children natural scientists or natural theologists? Will they explore and learn or will they make crap up and stick to it regardless?

Neither extreme is true.

Children are natural explorers and they're driven to learn. Just put them in any new and interesting environment and watch as they explore the shit out of it. Part of the problem of childhood gullibility, in my opinion, arises from this. They're built to take in new information and put it into a comprehensive worldview. That's an aspect of scientific exploration.

Children can be natural theologians, as well. They don't just explore and discover; they're willing to make shit up at the drop of a hat. They develop and explore wild fantasies just as easily and happily as they'll explore a natural history museum. They're also thoroughgoing teleologists1 from an early age. Show a non-speaking infant a video of a square and a triangle moving across a screen, one after the other, and the infant will register surprise when the one "stops following" the other. These are aspects of theology.

But children aren't full scientists or theologians. Leaving aside theology as a useless practice not worth exploring, science isn't just curiosity. It's hard work. It's a systematic approach to asking and answering questions, to collecting and analyzing data, to questioning your own assumptions. As Einstein said, science is 1% inspiration, 99% perspiration. Childhood provides inspiration in abundance, but the discipline and hard work simply isn't there.

1 - Teleology, ascribing purpose to things. Like how the appendix in other animals is used to break down plant-matter and in humans to cause death.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Weak-Willed? There's Hope!

Aristotle and the ancient Greeks wondered about how to achieve eudaimonia, the happy life. A better way of translating it would be "human flourishing". Not just simple happiness or base pleasure, but a full, satisfied, aesthetically and philosophically complete state of being. One of the things they recognized as a stumbling block was akrasia, lack of self-control, acting against your better judgement, lack of willpower. For example, going to the gym and working out will improve your overall health and fitness, but eating a 500-calorie cupcake will make you happy right now without having to sweat for 45 minutes. Which one takes willpower to achieve?

Fast forward a few thousand years, and science steps in to help fill out the picture. It turns out that we actually have a limited supply of willpower. You can only resist temptation for so long before you give in and indulge. That's why it actually is a good idea to empty your home of all the temptations you're trying to avoid. When the temptation is staring you in the face, it's slowly emptying your willpower-tank of fuel. Then it's empty and you give in. And lots of things empty the tank, all of them the things we'd like to do. Saying no to a drink (or another drink). Saying no to food. Saying no to sex. Good lord... Fortunately, there are ways to help!

First, one of the things fueling willpower is glucose, sugar. A little bit of candy will provide you with the boost you need to tell your ex where to shove it when he shows up drunk and horny. But what if you need willpower to say no to sweets? You're kind of screwed. This explains why dieting is hard; you need sugar to say no to sugar. Catch 22.

Except! That it turns out Aristotle was right about something for once! Willpower actually is like a muscle. Use it or lose it, and in using it, improve it! By making it a point to expose yourself to temptation and resist it, you'll make it easier to resist temptation in the future. Sure, you can wear yourself out just like at the gym, but a smart workout plan will let you build up strength without wearing yourself down in the process. So if you need to be better at dieting, then change your route to work so that every morning you walk by that awesome bakery, and stop, and stare, and smell that delicious, wonderful smell... then keep on walking. It's probably better to have a different route home, though, because at the end of the day you'll be tired, your blood sugar will be lower, and it'll be harder to resist those donuts. Do this when you're not dieting and it'll make dieting that much easier.

So what's your Achilles heel? What do you need to learn to say "No!" to? Find a way to expose yourself to it in small doses and controlled circumstances and say "No!" to that. Then increase the dose to improve your control.

Something that's really good for everyone is that exercise improves willpower. The link between the two hasn't been elucidated, but who cares? Going to the gym and getting fit improves both body and mind; hop to it! This might explain why it gets easier to work out the more you work out.

Here's another strange thing; using your non-dominant hand1 to perform tasks will help. You don't have to learn to write with your off-hand or play the violin; even simple tasks will help you with this, like eating with your off-hand. My guess is that Just switching to a different hand forces you to concentrate on what are normally mindless tasks, meaning you bring willpower to bear. But that's kinda just making stuff up. The important point is that it works.

Bad news for atheists, polytheists, and secularists; being a believing, practicing member of a monotheistic faith helps your willpower. Because they spend their lives saying no to everything worthwhile in life.

And there's a website for you: . Essentially you make a bet, get a friend to keep an eye on you, and use the site to keep track of everything. If you lose, you pay, and adding a concrete, immediate cost can make a nebulous, abstract goal immediate and easy to stick to. You don't need the website for this; just make the bet with a friend and make sure he's unscrupulous.

And Apps! There are apps you can download that will check if you're doing what you want to do. There's one that uses GPS to make sure you're actually going to the gym, and if you don't go for a long enough period of time... it takes money off your credit card and either sends it to people who are doing well, or to an organization you hate. Imagine knowing you're putting on weight and sending $100 to the Tea Party. Sure takes the jam outta that donut.

Now for some bad news. Your beliefs about your willpower can affect your willpower. So meta. But if you think your willpower can be depleted, you're more likely to give in to temptation. Of course, if you believe your willpower can be strengthened with practice, you're less likely to give into temptation. Oh, wheels within wheels. Also, any sort of work that tires you out will decrease your willpower, too. That's why it's easy to quit smoking every morning and buy another pack of cigarettes on your way home.

Now I'm going to have some fun: This is why Granny Weatherwax and Commander Vimes are so awesome. They want to be bad, but require themselves to be good. All day, every day they're resisting the temptations of their darker natures, thus after a lifetime of watching their behavior every moment, they're each living avatars of willpower. Death himself takes a respectful step back when Granny walks by, and Sam Vimes can fight a 10,000 year old quasi-demonic thing of pure vengeance to a standstill2.

Don't know what I'm talking about? Shame on you! Go spend money.

1 - The left hand, for the most of us.


Monday, May 28, 2012

My Library: Slavery By Another Name

Buy this. Read it. Do it now. I cannot stress enough how much you need to read this book. It's also a documentary. What it should be is required reading in every high school.

Something happened after the Civil War that wasn't even a little bit funny. Everyone immediately began lying their asses off about what just happened, how everyone felt about it, and why. The lies were so pervasive that even Heinlein, that bastion of liberal/libertarian thought who included minorities and biracial characters in his books as equals as a matter of course, bought into them. "No one can free a slave save that the slave frees himself."

As soon as the Civil War was over, white southerners went back to business as usual: slavery. The north said "No! We did not just watch a million boys die screaming so you could pretend it never happened." Thus Reconstruction. During the Reconstruction (which was, in all ways, a foreign occupation of a hostile native population; training for Vietnam), a black middle class sprang up over night and began building a healthy, vibrant community.

Of course, a foreign power can only occupy a hostile territory so long in the face of a terrorist insurgency. Eventually the north lost the will to stop the south from being violently evil and so gave up, declared the Reconstruction over, and left. The next century would be one of utter terror and misery for black Americans, one which actually managed to make slavery worse.

A slave is property, and can be treated as foully as his owner wishes. They usually were: raped, tortured, and mutilated at will, kept in the most appalling ignorance and misery. However, antebellum slaves were at least valuable property, fetching the price of a good horse. This meant their owners had an incentive to keep them minimally healthy, which they usually did. After the Reconstruction ended, blacks in the South were everyone's property and no one's. They endured the tragedy of the commons in the most horrific and inhumane fashion imaginable. Blacks were to be used and abused by all and sundry; kidnapped off the street and sold into the worst kinds of hell on the flimsiest pretext for a few dollars; worked to death in a matter of months; controlled by a minority white population with the very real threat of rape, torture, and death. No longer any one person's property, they were no longer valuable, and it showed.

It was this climate that brought America to the lowest point in it history. President Woodrow Wilson was a white supremacist who thought "Birth of a Nation"1 was a wonderful film whose truth everyone should see. He segregated the federal government, eliminating the last jobs blacks could attain outside of white control in the south, putting the final stamp on their new slavery. During his presidency, lynchings spread as far north as Duluth, Minnesota. It was from this climate that Gone With the Wind sprang, with its myths of happy, stupid negros and gentle, compassionate planters and a brave, bold band of brothers2.

Slavery by Another Name exposes the dark truth of more than a century of American racial hatred. Chris Rock made audiences laugh by describing the most racist people he knew as old, black men. But an eighty year old man in 1990 would have been born in 1910, and would have grown to adulthood learning that you never, ever upset a white man, or you'd be lucky if he just killed you then and there. If you weren't lucky, he might have you arrested and sold into the worst kind of hell. He would have seen his sisters raped and heard a judge say that a black woman, as an unquenchable font of lust, couldn't truly be raped and was just enjoying it loudly and with violence. He would have seen his brothers and uncles beaten, murdered, and kidnapped; if he ever saw them again, they would have been warped beyond recognition.

Learning these truths is why everyone absolutely must read this book. That is the legacy of four hundred years of slavery. And that's why I get so pissed off when some ignorant little stain tries to claim that the Civil War wasn't about slavery. It absolutely was.

1 - Racist propaganda about the rise of the KKK. Also the first film written as such, with a dedicated score also written for the film. Today it's only watched by racists and by film students, for very different reasons.

2 - What Kuklos Klan means, literally. Circle of Brothers.

Friday, May 25, 2012

A Dialog on Profiling

A few weeks back, Sam Harris wrote some articles in defense of profiling (TLDR; we should stop random screenings at airports and focus on people who are obviously Muslim) that, predictably, generated a shitstorm in response, including a post from me, which I'm absolutely certain he read.

Another result was a 13,000+ word dialog between Harris and Bruce Schneier, a security expert who disagrees with Harris. I quite look forward to reading it, though it'll take a while. I wonder if and how it'll change my position. (TLDR; I think profiling is a useful forward defense, but will fail utterly to predict who actually carries the bomb through the gate)

You can find the dialog here.

Like OMG, Facebook DRAMA! Only not.

Not mine, personally. Hell, not even a friend's. Just, you know, in general.

When want to I see the funny, I go to The Meta Picture. Mostly, it's just funny pictures. Occasionally they bring the adorable. Once in a blue moon, they think racism is hilarious1. Once a week they throw out the same old misogyny. It helps that half their audience is 16-year old morons.

This particular concept pops up every so often: girl posts about having a bad day, but doesn't want to talk about. Implication: Irony! She's talking about what she doesn't want to talk about! Truth: teenage boys are fucking ignorant.

In the past I've just sort of thought, "Oh, teen drama, not funny then, not funny now." Then a friend posted something on facebook that let me put it in context and suddenly it all snapped into place. She's a friend from grad school, married, with an infant. All she said was "in serious need of prayers right now. any would be appreciated. thanks so much!" and immediately got an out-pouring of support, with no one asking what happened. No drama. Just someone having a bad day, wanting some support, and getting it. End of story.

That's all it is, and that's what the Meta dipsticks don't understand. It's about feeling a negative emotion, acknowledging it, expressing it, getting support, and moving the hell on. It's a healthy way of dealing with emotion. Dwelling on the negative emotion by obsessively going over the details? Not so much with the healthy. Of course, the only way to communicate that to 16 year old jackasses is in meme form. So all we need is someone with photoshop.

I don't always have bad days, but when I do, I don't want to talk about it, I just want a hug from a friend.

1 - Seriously, anti-ginger prejudice is a thing. People get the shit kicked out of them for having red hair.

Cultural Anthropology: Skeptics Guide Edition

So I'm working through the archives of the podcast "The Skeptics Guide to the Universe". It's interesting listening to the stuff they're talking about because, honestly, 7 years isn't a huge time for social issues. It's huge, politically speaking. Among other things, we're no longer under the disastrous presidency of the second Bush administration. Conservatives have changed tactics since then and are attacking abortion, evolution, and all their other nonsensical wedge issues on a state level, forcing through hundreds of anti-woman and anti-science bills, rather than relying on their friend in the White House. Socially speaking, though, the stuff is all more or less the same. Libertarians are still denying climate change, fundies are denying all science (though not the products of science), women are still getting the shaft whether they want it or not, and black people are still being murdered in the streets with no real justice in sight.

So this particular episode was broadcast September 7, 2005, with guest Steve Milloy. You may not have heard of him; he's the author of the blog Junk Science, a contributor to Fox News Channel, and a member of the Cato Institute. At least two of those should raise red flags. The reported purpose of Junk Science was to report on what he considered bad science with a libertarian bent, but listening to him speak1, he sounds like a rather typical libertarian nutter. He actually accuses government agencies, under President Bush of having a pro-GCC agenda so they can continue to secure funding. The Republicans controlled the White House and both houses of Congress at the time. He's also just this side of calling environmentalism a mass conspiracy controlling science and science funding.

So I decided to check out and was kind of surprised to see that my address bar could autofill it; turns out I visited it some months back, linked by someone at scienceblogs2, I believe. I don't know what the site used to be about (Milloy on SGttU claims to attack all bad science used to support political agendas), but if you look at the tag cloud now it's all climate all the time. Scroll down and you'll see the occasional post about pesticides (DDT: Weapon of Mass Survival... seriously, it's a t-shirt) or other forms of energy debate (he's anti-wind, anti-anti-coal, etc).

Perhaps the funniest statement? That "it's been quite a struggle to get a skeptical voice on climate change heard." In 2005. My ass. He claims that the green conspiracy gets all the funding to the climate crazies, whereas level-headed skeptics like the Cato Institute are just so under-funded. The Cato Institute. Owned by the fracking Koch brothers. The thing is, he probably believed it then and probably still believes it now.

I think this is helping me understand why the right denies climate change. Part of it is the entrenched belief in the markets. Belief in free market libertarianism has been central to the right's ideology for several generations now, and they simply cannot abandon it in any way shape or form. This is oddly wedded to their ideas on American exceptionalism and isolationism.

Still, free market ideology insists that the market will identify all problems, and either solve them (if they're already around) or correct so that they don't occur (if they're down the road). They can't accept the tragedy of the commons. It's why they've opposed all environmental issues to date. Not only do they want to avoid anything that could cost businesses money, but there's a psychological issue as well.

We all leap to defend our sacred cows, regardless, and pointing out that free markets simply cannot solve some problems. Think of it as a practical application of Gödel's Incompleteness Theorems; no matter the system, some problems cannot be solved within that system. Unfortunately, the free market system has become thoroughly central to Republican and Libertarian ideology and in a form that cannot admit weakness. In their system, FMT can solve health care, and hunger, and poverty, despite the fact that the health care crisis, hunger, and poverty are all caused, not cured, by the scarcity inherent to Free Market Theory.

Like I said before, I think this is mostly a libertarian issue rather than a fundamentalist one. It's just that the two groups have significant overlap thanks to the Republican party's duarchy.

To get back to Steve Milloy before I close this out; the dude's a nut. He honestly believed in a liberal government conspiracy even when the conservatives were in control of the government. I can't imagine the last seven years have made him any less unhinged.

1 - Even with his hosts, who were lukewarm on consensus regarding climate change 7 years ago; I don't know where they stand now, when the consensus is rock solid.

2 - Before the exodus to Freethought Blogs, I think.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Be Positive, Atheist

Tris Stock over at My Godless Life has started a multi-part refutation of an article by Christian apologist Wayne Jackson. In it he claims that negative atheism is the default position (I agree). Negative atheism stands on the very firm ground that supernaturalists all utterly fail to provide any support for their positions and not accepting their hypotheses is the correct position to take. He also claims to have met very few positive atheists, those who go on to make the assertion that there are no gods. I don't know how many he's met, but I'm one, and I want to argue (again) that I'm right.

I'm a positive atheist, and I know I'm not alone in that. Leaving aside philosophical arguments about the incoherence of the god concept and other such, I rely on a Bayesian analysis.

Simply put, in a Bayesian analysis you way the evidence in the probability that it supports a hypothesis and the probability that it does not support your hypothesis. For example: is there any mayonnaise in my fridge? Without looking in my fridge you can guess that there probably is because your extensive experience with American culture has provided you with evidence for the ubiquity of eggy emulsions of oil and vinegar. So you weigh a lifetime of observational evidence against the two hypotheses: there is mayonnaise or there is not. Sight unseen, the evidence weighs in favor of the presence of mayonnaise.

But then you open the door of the fridge and you see no mayonnaise. This new evidence is added to both hypotheses. It doesn't add strength to the "there is mayo" hypothesis, but it does add strength to the "there is no mayo" hypothesis. You can contend that it weakly adds to "the mayo is in the cupboard" hypothesis, but it's simply not as powerful an argument as the "no mayo" hypothesis.

You can take it further by looking in the cupboards and under the stairs and in the dog, and each place you fail to find mayo takes strength away from the positive hypothesis and piles it onto the negative hypothesis.

Bayesian analyses can be very rigorous, using actual numbers and probabilities, provided you're a good statistician and can actually do that math. Even if you can't, however, you'll see that we're typically intuitive Bayesians, even if the numerous logical fallacies to which we're prone interfere.

Let's apply it to unicorns. A few centuries ago it was possible to be agnostic about unicorns to the extent that "Well, we haven't been all around the world yet". But then biologists started scouring the world and recording every little thing they saw. Everywhere they went that they failed to unicorns piled up evidence in favor of the "no unicorns hypothesis".

The alternative hypothesis is, and has always been, "There are unicorns, but we haven't seen them yet", which became fatuous two centuries ago. Once upon a time the lack of evidence for unicorns applied to both hypotheses equally because the pool of places we'd been and things we'd seen (and communicated to the world about) was small. Now the only way to sustain the "haven't seen them" hypothesis is to claim that unicorns are like squids, living somewhere remote and inaccessible (which no one does) or to claim that they're like rare jungle flowers, living high up trees motionless and even if you do see them it's easy to mistake them for another species of unicorn that's already been recorded.

What about god? They god hypothesis only gets away from this kind of analysis by special pleading. Somehow it's perfectly reasonable to dismiss all other supernatural phenomena because absence of evidence actually is evidence of absence when you would expect evidence, but not the god phenomenon, no sir. That gets my dander up because the only kind of god you could make that claim for would be the deist god and, really, what's the difference between a god that doesn't exist and a god that has all the characteristics of non-existence except the final one1? All other deities I've heard posited are active and interventionist, and the believers all claim to have evidence. Why, once their evidence is proven spurious, would we suddenly accept their claim that their god is beyond evidence? I don't see a need to bend over backwards for them in that way.

The three hypotheses under consideration are T) There is a god and we have evidence, D) There is a god, we just haven't seen him, and A) There is no god. Obviously all atheists have considered and rejected T, because the purported evidence really isn't. Miracles, scriptures, revelations, they all fail as evidence because there are other hypotheses for each of them that better explain the evidence. Also, eve when you consider them all together, they don't count as evidence because each class of purported evidence as a whole has better explanations.

Thus the argument comes down to whether we live in a time where we simply haven't explored enough of the world to know whether our unicorn exists, or if that unicorn doesn't exist.

SETI is a good analogy here. There may be intelligent life elsewhere in the universe that, despite our ongoing exploration, we haven't yet found evidence for. Does that count as evidence against the proposition? Yes, actually. However, the amount of the galaxy we've examined is so small compared to the amount we haven't gotten to yet that agnosticism is still the default position. For the three hypotheses of SETI, we've got nothing going for "other life exists", a very tiny amount for "we're alone" and a whole heaping massive galaxy in the corner of "we haven't explored here yet". The longer we explore, the longer we continue to fail to find evidence, the more we scrape away from the agnostic position and add to the negative position. Of course, all it will take is one piece of evidence to add to the "yep" pile to render the other two moot.

The difference between SETI and the god search is that absolutely no one claims that god is far away. The god hypothesis always, always posits that we don't need to cross the unfathomable depths of space to find their god. It's supposed to be right here. All of a sudden the "we haven't explored here" option loses all its weight, because we have explored there. The whole of human existence has been the exploration of that position, and the signal has always come back null. We're constantly told that we should expect evidence, and we have absolutely none in favor of the position. Therefore, the only conclusion is not merely to reject the position as unproven, but to affirm its opposite: the position is wrong.

1 - Hint: There's no difference. The deist position should be treated as identical to the atheist position. So, I think, should the Spinoza position.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Freeing the South

Is there a way to free the South from the Republican Party's stranglehold? I have a proposal and I'd like to hear input.

First, I know there are liberals in the South, but they're a rather quiet, though significant, minority. In addition to the incredibly large black minority (often majority) and the Hispanic "sleeping giant", there's a significant quantity of good old-fashioned liberals and progressives. I also think there's an untapped market.

I think someone should start a Christian Progressive Party1. This is partly because the Democratic party has a serious branding problem in the South, along with the word liberal. However, I think there are a lot of people out there like my friend Tony, who want to identify both as Christians and as not-Republicans. They focus more on the charitable aspect of the New Testament and less on the fire and brimstone. Or, to put it in Terry Pratchett's terms, their goal isn't to punish the wicked, but to protect the innocent. I think a political party could make significant headway in the Bible Belt by advocating for strong leftist principles in line with a Christian worldview/morality. I don't think it would ever be a majority party and, I suspect, would usually caucus with the Democrats, but I think it would be a good start.

How would the party begin? I think it would have to begin at local political levels, in a few large cities in the south. I think it could make significant headway in Charleston, Charlotte, and Atlanta (the only Southern cities I'm at all familiar with). From there it could expand to state elections before running in national elections (Representatives, Senators). Really, I think part of the Republican stranglehold on the South is that they've too long dominated the labels of "christian" and "moral", and a lot of progressive voters are depressed at the futility of voting for a democrat.

There's already several third-parties on the right, such as the Constitutionalist and Libertarian party. There's also the Christian Liberty Party which used to be part of the Constitutionalists. I don't know if there's any way to split apart the Republican bloc; unity and uniformity are too central to the conservative worldview for that to be a realistic approach. However, I wonder if there might be a way to siphon off voters with a Christian Traditionalist Party. A group that wants to focus on building strong communities and other Conservative buzzwords.

What do people think of either of those possibilities?

1 - Not me, for obvious reasons.

Why Deny Climate Change?

I don't know.

It's clear to me where evolution denialism comes from. It's a fundamentalist religious motivation at one extreme, whereas at the most mild it's human exceptionalism1.

The Republican party is the political wing of the denialism movement and encompasses evolution and climate change, but it's less clear to me where the climate denialism comes from.

Clearly, both are motivated by the fact that we're dealing with very large, very slow issues; it's the same thing that motivated skepticism (scepticism for the euros) about continental drift in the fifties. The difference is that no one had a strong attachment to the status quo for drift, and the evidence eventually overcame the objections2. Similarly, evolution involves the very slow change of entire species over thousands of generations and climate change involves the change of the entire climate, all the ecosystems, all the oceans, and the entire atmosphere, over decades. We can't see a daily change, therefore it doesn't really happen, right?

Like evolution, there's a range of climate change denialists. At the extreme, you have people who deny that the change is happening at all. We're not getting warmer! Then there are those who think it's all part of natural cycles of warming and cooling, like the opposite of an ice age. Then there are those who admit there's an uptick in temperature, but it's an aberration, probably caused by the sun or something3. Then a shade closer to truth is that we are getting warmer and it is strange, but it's not caused by humans. Finally you arrive at the fact of the matter, and that's anthropogenic climate change.

This brand of denialism doesn't really spring from the religious well. There is an element of religious fervor to it, namely that man can't fundamentally alter what god has created, but that's not the main wellspring. It's mostly libertarian in origin. This is the same attitude that fought tooth and nail to protect chlorofluorocarbons and leaded gasoline. As with other denialisms, it's resistant to facts, but within a decade or so it will bow to inevitable truth. I hope.

That definitely won't be the case for evolution, where 150 years of evidence has failed to budge the fundies. Oh well.

I don't really understand why the libertarian movement would be GCC denialist, though. The Republican Party is anti-GCC because it might be expensive for business? Or because it's the environmentalist position and as soon as they understood that they had to stake out the opposite position? Either way, they're dicks, but why the apparent passion from the masses? Is it because they're so dedicated to their bloc that they honestly don't have to think about their positions? And what about the people who do think about their positions and don't put it in religious terms?

Honestly, I think it's just the libertarian opposition to any form of interpersonal cooperation that doesn't involve carrying guns in the woods. Working together? Sounds communist.

1 - Believing humans are exceptional. Everything else might evolve, but we don't!

2 - The real problem with drift was that it didn't have a mechanism at first and no one could imagine the continents simply plowing through the oceanic crust. They were right to deride that image, but philosophically in the wrong. Philosophy, honest philosophy, requires that you attack the strongest possible interpretation of your opponent's position, not the weakest straw man. The mechanism is that the continents don't plow through the oceans floor, but are instead pushed by the movement of the ocean floor itself.

3 - The sun goes through cycles of dimness and brightness, and the Earth is slightly warmed and cooled as a result, but right now it's on the decline and we're still getting warmer.

Monday, May 21, 2012

On Drawing Mohammed

So yesterday was Draw Mohammed Day. As always, the notion is patently offensive to Muslims everywhere, who threaten death to anyone who violates their religious precepts. It's also offensive to bleeding heart liberals, who don't want to offend anyone, whether they're murderous barbarians, bean-eating vegans, or regular cubicle-monkeys.

A while back I got to thinking about the issue of offense when I posted this comic over on google plus. A friend of mine was offended because it explicitly links terrorism and religion, while linking atheism with cool nerdery. While I believe that that's true (religious extremists are motivated by their religion. Is there even such a thing as an atheist extremist?), I don't particularly want to offend my friend. I don't know if it's really possible to make the point that religion motivates great evils and doesn't motivate great goods because of how it warps human behavior without being offensive. Religion is so closely held that every criticism is taken as a personal offense, in my experience.

Still, I strive to avoid giving offense in most cases because 1) it's counter-productive to swaying people to my point of view and, 2) I try not to be a dick. In this specific case, I don't want to offend my friend because I kinda like him. He's an okay dude.

However, I fully support Draw Mohammed Day, because many Muslims are so hyper-sensitive that a political cartoon causes the Muslim world to riot and burn buildings and murder people. Fuck that noise. Just because I don't particularly don't want to offend people doesn't mean I can't. Anyone absolutely has the right to be offended. No one has the right to never be offended. In this case, they're demanding, with threat of violence, that everyone obey THEIR rules. Or else.

That sort of non sense gets my dander up. That attitude can crawl up its own ass and die. To that end, here, a day late, is my contribution to DMD.

The "P" stands for "pedophile". Because you might as well go all in.

Evolution Myths Part II

So I already covered a number of myths about evolution. Now I'll cover some more. They won't complete the entire list of erroneous things people believe, but maybe it'll flesh out our understanding both of evolution and of the weird crap people believe about it.

Of Course There Are Monkeys
The denialist loves to ask, "If we evolved from monkeys, why are there still monkeys?" Part of this is to deliberately set up the notion that evolution declares an equivalence between humans and monkeys to drive a wedge between the audience and evolution. However, this myth at its core misunderstands speciation.

Some species lives in a region A. It spreads, it grows in number, it explores the limits of its environment, then spills over into a second region B. Over time, geology happens and regions A and B are separated, isolating the two groups. Geology continues to happen, climate slowly changes, the environment changes. Perhaps region A becomes wetter and turns into a marshland while region B becomes more arid and turns into a grassy area with some stands of trees. The population of our species lives and adapts to each of these new climates. They mutate, they change. Their physical forms change and less obvious biological changes occur within. Eventually the two have changed enough that they can no longer interbreed. You now have two species where before you had one. At no point could you look at either and say, "Ah, this is clearly different to what came before." The change is always very slow, very gradual, and there will never be a clear dividing line.

Regions A and B don't even need to change for speciation1 to occur. Simple separation will be enough. Random changes will still accumulate in both groups and eventually genetic drift (also known as allelic drift) will build up to the point where the two groups will be chemically infertile. The geographical separation doesn't need to be drastic; it doesn't have to be something like a mountain chain springing up or an island separating from the mainland; simple distance will suffice. A ring species is one that has a long enough range that divergence has occurred between the individuals at either end. Subspecies A can interbreed with B, which can mate with C, which can make babies with D, which can totally start a family with E, but A and E are far enough apart that they're they're no longer interfertile. That's speciation in progress.

Another key item to note is that speciation doesn't mean that you start with species A and all of a sudden you have species B branching off of it. You begin with species A, then species A will split into subspecies B and subspecies C, still similar enough to interbreed but separated by geography2. They will continue to diverge until you have two separate species. They will still be obviously related, like the many species of cats alive today, and they'll also be clearly related to the ancestor species (with which they may or may not be able to interbreed; like ring species, but with time instead of space).

As for humans, we share a common ancestor with the two species of chimp, the common chimp and the bonobo. We share a more distant ancestor with the other great apes, the gorillas, and even more distant with the orangutan. None of those ancestors were the same species as any extant species.

The question above "why are there still monkeys" is like asking, "If you came from your grandparents, why are your grandparents still alive?", and what they're really asking is "If you came from your grandparents, why do you have cousins?"

Evolution Is Not a Tautology
Denialists like to claim that evolution doesn't contain any information. Natural selection chooses the fittest to survive, right? But how do we know which are the fittest? They're the ones who survive! It's circular! Like a donut!

Fitness has an actual definition. It's the relative propagation of a trait in a population. It's actually a mathematical definition. If the relative abundance of a trait increases from one generation to the next, then fitness is greater than one. If it decreases, it's less than one. For a single organism, it's defined as the relative contribution by the individual to the gene pool for that particular trait. Fitness is a multigenerational consideration and has to do not merely with how well an organism survives, but how it thrives and contributes to the survival and alteration of its species.

Evolution Does Not Predict Chimeras

Behold, the mighty crocoduck! That particular mythical creature is the favorite of Kirk Cameron, erstwhile child actor cum fundamentalist rabble-rouser. The denialist believes that speciation means mermaids and catdogs. That between species A and its successor species B, you'll find something that is literally half of species A stitched to species B. Evolution does NOT predict this. It definitely doesn't predict a transitional form that's two halves of modern species. This is a gross misunderstanding of the nature of transitional forms.

Look at red and yellow on the rainbow. In between you'll find orange. Zoom in some more and you'll find a color between red and orange. Zoom in further and you'll find another color, neither red nor orange, nor red-orange, but red-red-orange. Zoom in further and you'll find something that's redredorange-redorange in between the two. You'll never find a discrete line dividing any two colors. you'll also never find a color that's a bit of red stapled to a bit of orange.

As it is with the colors, so it is with evolution. When A changes to B, it does so very slowly, very gradually. Tiny, incremental changes accumulate. A lizard gives birth to a dizard that gives birth to a bizard that gives birth to a bzard that gives birth to a bzrd that gives birth to a burd that gives birth to a bird, and it all takes millions of years. You never see something with the head of lizard and the tail of a bird. A transitional form is something like this:

That's an archaeopteryx. Discovered just two years after Darwin published On the Origin of Species it was a stunning confirmation of exactly what his theory called for: a transitional form between reptiles and birds. You can see that it has feathers, wings, and scaled hindlimbs like both bird and lizard. However, it still has a toothy snout like a reptile, along with a long, reptilian tail among those feathers. You can also see differentiated fingers on its fore-limbs, which aren't yet wings; birds will lose those fingers to create a fully functional wing. The archaeopteryx is an actual example of a transitional form. That's why evolutionary theory took the world by storm; it accounted for all the facts and made incredible and accurate predictions like this. That's what a theory does.

The chimera is not the prediction of evolution. It's the prediction of religion and myth, a magically created creature with no antecedents in the fossil record and no natural way of appearing.

Humans Are Still Evolving
The last myth I'll cover here, and one I haven't put on the TVTropes page yet, is that humans are somehow above evolution.

Lots of people, even people who are fully willing to accept that evolution occurs, that the earth is 4.5 billion years old, that the universe is 13.7 billion years old, and that humans actually aren't the be-all and end-all purpose of creation in a universe so vast that we don't even count as lint... they just don't accept that we're evolving. I believe it's related to the notion that we're rational animals (not really), smart enough to avoid stuff like that (we're really not), and that we've seized control of our destiny thanks to our intelligence (absolutely false. It is to laugh).

We're totally evolving. As I said last time, each of us is born with dozens of mutations. We can't know where we'll end up. Hopefully we'll end up without some of awful crap I mentioned last time. Who knows, maybe we're turning into this guy.

Well, that's it for now. There are tons of myths out there about evolution, but these have been some of the most popular. Maybe later I'll talk about global warming denialism.

1 - The term for the formation of a new species.

2 - Geography is too specific a term. I should be saying that their habitats become separated. If one group spends all its time on the ground and the other spends all its time in the tree tops, then they can still be isolated enough to speciate.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Evolution Myths

There are those who deny that evolution happens. Or they admit that it does happen, but only a little bit. Or, fine, it happens, but not to people. Or maybe it happened to people in the past, but we're too smart for that now. There are degrees of evolution denialism, just as there are degrees to religious fundamentalism. People who don't like evolution have their silly little beliefs; these are they, and why they're wrong.

Some of you may notice a lot of overlap between this page and the Useful Notes -- Evolution page over at TVTropes. That's because I wrote a significant chunk of that, and I make no bones about it. Other people have also contributed to it, not least they made it not look like ass. They also tidied up the verbiage and corrected quite a bit of my biology. Anyway, on to destroying some myths!

Evolution Has No Goal
Evolution is a stochastic (non-deterministic) process. It's not building toward anything in particular; hell, it's not building toward anything at all; hell, it's barely even building. Evolution moves around randomly, sampling the landscape of potential forms and behaviors. It fills every niche. In so doing, it creates new niches, then it fills them, creating new niches to fill! Leave it to a nineteenth century poet to say it:

Great fleas have little fleas upon their backs to bite ’em,
And little fleas have lesser fleas, and so ad infinitum.
And the great fleas themselves, in turn, have greater fleas to go on;
While these again have greater still, and greater still, and so on.

De Morgan: A Budget of Paradoxes, p. 3771

Evolution is sort of like a gas; it expands to fill the space it's in. But it's also simultaneously creating that space. It's a weird, squirmy, umpty-dimensional gas. Wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey. But it doesn't have a goal. It doesn't pick winners.

The most tragic consequence of this myth is what it did with the notion of the superior race, which was around long before Darwin developed his theory. The Nazis were the most famous purveyors of this myth, but it was widespread among many groups in many nations until the Nazis demonstrated how utterly horrific it is when taken to its natural conclusion. This myth, and its natural end, are both used by opponents of evolution as an argument against it, but evolution doesn't predict this.

A human, a tree, a sea slug, and an E. Coli bacterium are all highly evolved organisms, flourishing in their environments and striving to pass on their genes. None is superior to the others, none more highly evolved. A cheetah is particularly well adapted to running down fast prey, but it will never outfight a bear, which will never be as deft with its paws as a raccoon, who can't swim with the fishes, who don't know how to do math. We are each of us what we are, with nearly the same 3.5 billion years of evolutionary history behind us. And a tree won't have nukes, anger and lower back problems2.

Evolution: More than Mere Chance
Evolution is an unguided, stochastic process with randomness at its heart, but randomness isn't the only thing their is. Natural selection is an incredibly powerful tool that immediately weeds out negative changes and strongly favors positive.

Imagine 1000 people flipping coins. If they flip every five seconds, how long before they come up all heads? On average, 1,697,702,940,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 years. That's 10^284 times longer than the universe has been around.

Now, imagine that they all flip and keep the heads. Everyone with tails flips again, and they keep the heads. Anyone who has tails flips a third time, and so one. How long before we have all heads? 500 + 250 + 125 + 62 + 32 + 15 + 8 + 4 + 2 + 1 + 1 = 1000 heads in 11 flips, on average, for a total of 55 seconds. Flipping randomly hoping to get a particular outcome is unrealistic, but once you throw in the power of selection, you take away the sting.

Whether life on our planet is as dramatic as my coin toss example depends on the power of your imagination.

Evolution Promises Very Little
Evolution doesn't promise us the best of all possible worlds. It promises us the bare minimum to get where we are right now. That's why we have lower back problems. And wisdom teeth that get impacted. And a tiny piece of intestine that likes to crawl up its own ass and die. And then there's the pregnancy thing. And the pelvis thing. And our knees. And we're blind and deaf. And our children are completely fucking helpless for about a decade and a half. And have I mentioned that we can't run very fast? And we're no good in the cold. Or the hot. Or the water. And man alive the desert will kill us so fast.

And that's just what's wrong with human beings. Evolution isn't magic. It'll find solutions for all of our problems, but it'll take a few thousand generations, and it'll find new problems along the way.

Evolution is About How Life Changes
It isn't how life began. The origin of life is called abiogenesis. ('a' - not, 'bio' - life, 'genesis' beginning. 'abiogenesis' - how life came from non-life). Evolution is about how life, once it's here, has developed and changed. Descent with modification and natural selection is the theory that explains the observed process of change in life already extant.

Abiogenesis is a hella interesting field that lies in the borderland between geology, chemistry, and biology. So far we know that it took at most about half a billion years for life to appear on Earth, however it formed, because we have fossils of bacteria nearly four billion years old. We can know something about the conditions, and geology and chemistry and physics are all working together to piece together those conditions and give us a clearer picture. Then biochem steps in and works out how you get from those to how life can appear. It's a wonderfully fascinating endeavor.

But it's not evolution.

I'll be honest; we might not ever know exactly how life evolved on Earth. If we're phenomenally lucky, then perhaps we'll get to observe it happening on another planet, or maybe we'll make incredible breakthroughs in theoretical chemistry and physics and develop a fantastic model of the early Earth. I don't know; ignorance actually is an acceptable position to take in science. "I don't know" is always the starting position, and a possible finish line. It's never a satisfying position, but it's acceptable in the face of little or no evidence.

But abiogenesis and the current state of that field of study have no bearing on evolution. Evolution is so well established that trying to overturn it is like trying to overturn gravity. When I say we have tons of evidence for it, I mean literal tons. We're talking about actual rocks here.

We'll cover more myths in part II.

1 - The line originally appeared in a poem by Jonathan Swift, who was mocking the idea of self-similarity in fractals. What I quoted is from a mathemetician later in the century who was also discussing fractal self-similarity. But it works.

2 - Those three lines I lifted right from the TVTropes page. I wrote the original, but it's been edited since, and I have to give props to user memememememe for fleshing it out.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

My Library: The Constants of Nature

The Constants of Nature: From Alpha to Omega -- The Numbers that Encode the Deepest Secrets of the Universe by John D Barrow.

Boy, with a title like that, how could the book go wrong?

This is one of the books I picked up on that class trip to DC a few years back. It didn't enthuse me then and I hadn't picked it up since. It was a bitch and a half getting through the thing because it's a pile of mystical numerological bullcrap from end to end, all wrapped up in the flawed thinking of someone who's a die-hard devotee of the strong anthropic principle. I might not have known that if I hadn't worked my way through the archives of the Rationally Speaking podcast. They were discussing the anthropic principle and some of its forms when they mentioned a book by Barrow and Frank Tipler which argues for the strong anthropic principle.

The Weak Anthropic Principle (WAP) says that we shouldn't ascribe too much importance to the fact that we're able to observe the universe. Only in a universe where intelligent life is able to arise will their be intelligent life capable of wondering at the fact of its own existence. Proponents of the Strong Anthropic Principle [SAP] (among them Barrow and Tipler) argue that the universe can only be such that intelligent life will arise. Barrow and Tipler then go further to espouse the Full Anthropic Principle (FAP)*, namely that the existence of intelligent life is why the universe exists. It should come as no surprise to anyone that Tipler went on to write The Physics of Christianity, wherein he purported to demonstrate that physics proves that all of Christianity is absolutely true. So, yeah, that tells you where he was coming from with his anthropic argument.

Leave it to that luminary of British thought, Douglas Adams, to come up with the perfect counter-argument. Barrow and Tipler are like a puddle of water marveling at the hole in which it exists, "How remarkable that this hole is so perfectly formed that my shape fits in it exactly with no excess or lack anywhere!" Clearly, any universe in which life exists will only exist in such a form as allowed by that universe.

Barrow only infrequently mentions the anthropic principle here, but his mystical wooshit informs this book throughout. He ascribes a very deep meaning to dimensionless numbers of various kinds, and to the search for a Theory of Everything that will be able to calculate those constants without the need for experimental observation.

What are dimensionless numbers? If you were to divide the speed of a falling brick by the speed of a train heading to Chicago, their units (distance per unit time) would cancel out, leaving you with a number (in this case a ration) without units, also known as dimensions. Now, those two speeds are rather arbitrary, but other numbers are not. The fine structure constant (approximately 137) is e^2/hc. Unfortunately, there's no quick way to put that well, because that shouldn't be 'h', but 'hbar', which is h/2pi. e is the charge of an electron, h the relationship between energy and wavelength in light, and c the speed of light. There are a few other constants in there that, with the appropriate units, multiply out to be equal to one, but which are important for getting rid of dimensions. Because all that stuff is based on fundamental constants, rather than arbitrary ones, the fine structure constant has the same absolute value regardless of your units. There are others, such as the ratio between the mass of a proton and the mass of an electron (approximately 1837).

What importance do these have? Could be none, could be all. Physicists occasionally like to tinker with formulae and see if they can't produce these constants (it helps that they have a graspable value, unlike, say, the number of protons in the observable universe, 10^40). They also like to ponder whether constants are truly constant, or if they change over time (which truly does have importance, and it appears to be that they are and they don't).

The problem is that Barrow then dives right off the deep end and starts swimming around in anthropic horsecrap. If the fine structure constant were a little bigger, there'd be no stars. If it were a little smaller, stars couldn't form carbon. The universe exists so that we can be hearelkaglaplgaph!

I agree that it's an interesting question whether the constants can be changing in this our universe. Whether they're actually constant is an important physical fact to identify. I agree that it's an interesting question whether the constants could be other than they are; could the universe have formed differently or are the constants bound to one another in certain ratios? As Einstein put it, did God have a choice in making the universe?** I agree that it's an interesting question whether physicists will ever be able to derive fundamental constants from first principles rather than having to derive them from experiment (I doubt it).

I strongly disagree with Barrow's metaphysics. Astronomers have observationally verified that we are not merely small. We are not merely insignificant. We're pollution. We're an accident. The universe is almost entirely composed of nothing. Dark matter and dark energy compose 99% of everything, and all the stars and all the planets and you and me are cosmic lint. His anthropic crap is beyond crap. It's the crap that crap craps. Like I said, we have no notion what the significance of various numbers might be (beyond communicating with alien intelligences, probably none), but until we find some, it's okay to search for that significance, it's not okay to assume there is any.

I struggled to get through this book, and gave up when I'd finally had enough of the awful science, terrible statistics, and miserable shit assumptions behind the anthropic principle (he suggested that the dinosaurs were killed by a meteor because they'd reached an evolutionary dead end wherein they'd been selected for size rather than intelligence. I wish I were making that up.), and I strongly doubt I'll ever pick it back up.

Next up: Slavery by Another Name, by Douglas A Blackmon

* A very large part of me takes unrestrained joy in the fact that that acronym is the same as Japanese onomatopoeia for the sound a guy makes when masturbating. Thanks be to the internet for spreading otaku culture across the Pacific! The Full Anthropic Principle is so much mental masturbation.

** Einstein was not a theist. He was a believer in "Spinoza's god", a sort of pantheist. His question there does not imply that he actually believes in a creative deity that tinkers with the universe, but is a musing on whether the universe could be other than it is.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Is SETI Pseudoscience?

In one of the episodes of the podcast Rationally Speaking, Julia Galef and Massimo Pigliucci* cover a topic that he covered in his book, Nonsense on Stilts: is the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) a pseudoscience?

Massimo's book is about various forms of woo and mysticism and how they cloak themselves in the language of science to ward off criticism. I don't know if he's in the book, but Deepak Chopra is one of the worst offenders in this regard. He uses scientific buzzwords, usually from quantum mechanics, to sell his brand of "alternative medicine"**. When pressed, he admits that he's just speaking metaphorically and doesn't mean to imply that his quackery is based on the actual meaning of those words. However, when challenged on the mystical woosense of it, he reverts to using the scientific language, saying it's not mysticism, it's SCIENCE! Fuck Deepak Chopra.

Anyway, Massimo places SETI in a murky gray area on the edges of pseudoscience. It is a scientific enterprise: it follows all the rules of science and is done by scientists (astronomers), and doesn't ever pretend to be more than it is. However, it lacks any data confirming its hypothesis (that there is more than one technological civilization in the universe) and one of the attributes that is generally held to make an enterprise scientific; falsifiability.

For example: what would falsify evolution? As myth puts in the mouth of JBS Haldane, "Rabbits in the precambrian". The theory of evolution predicts that more complex forms arise from simpler forms, and not the other way around, and not without precursors. Thus rabbits in the precambrian, far more complex than their time allowed and without precursors, would violate the theory and require a new explanation. Or, more simply, what would violate gravity? A heavy thing floating. What would falsify the god hypothesis?

SETI isn't falsifiable. It's rather akin to the god question, or Russell's teapot; the only way to prove there's no life anywhere in the universe is to search the entire universe simultaneously. However, it's in a gray area because it's a question with a definite answer and there's no reason to believe that there is or is not life; we have absolutely no evidence. That said, none of the SETI scientists claims that their hypothesis is true, merely that it's worth investigating.

If the hypothesis isn't falsiable, is it testable? Absolutely. That's what they're doing now; they're scanning the sky for signals. If they got a signal, it would confirm the hypothesis in a heartbeat. But they've been at it for 60 years with no answer. What if they scan for another 500 years with no answer; would that still not confirm a lack of life? There would still be no negative, there. Julia raises a good point here; if you search for long enough and get no answer, that's fairly good evidence that there isn't life out there, and the longer you search without an answer, the stronger the evidence gets that we're alone. Of course, life may be incredibly rare and we might just miss a rare broadcast (our broadcast from the moon only went out once... so much for that).

One of the arguments people make in favor of SETI is essentially the Drake Equation. No matter how improbable intelligent life is, the universe is so incomprehensibly big that there must be an incredibly large number of other civilizations. In fact, the Fermi Paradox shows up in a few science fiction books***: if there are so many civilizations out there, why haven't we found them? Massimo argues that the principle of mediocrity is very flawed. The principle says that there's nothing special about us (we're not unique), if one advanced civilization exists and isn't special, that means there must be more (or, even with low probability, a large volume of space and time guarantees it will happen many times). To which Massimo replies, "Skateboarding is a normal behavior here, does that mean it happens everywhere?" There's no reason to suspect that our civilization is unique, because we also have evidence of a unique phenomenon. The universe only happened once. All we have is evidence of a technological civilization. We can't assume anything else, not that we're unique, not that we're common, nothing.

They spent some time discussing the Drake Equation and raised some good points: the complete lack of evidence we have about life and planets in the rest of the galaxy goes double for most of the equation. We just don't know anything about it. They also raised a really good argument against anything about SETI; nothing has changed about it in the fifty years it's been in existence. That is pretty damning. Even if they're not gaining new evidence about the existence of life themselves, the many developments in the last five decades in physics and astronomy really, really should have influenced the theory and work of SETI.

Though they spent a lot of time discussing the likelihood of life on other planets, they didn't really raise any significant objections to SETI that convinced me it borders on pseudoscience. Since Massimo is a philosopher of science, I expected he would have spent more time talking about the conflict between its evidence-based nature and the fact that it is, in all practical ways, unfalsifiable. Instead it was a long discussion of our absolute ignorance of extrasolar conditions. Maybe he didn't want to spoil too much of his book. :) I think it's a fully scientific endeavor, but one whose scope is so broad and the odds so slim that it will never achieve its goal. However, the discovery of standard candles occurred by accident, so who knows what SETI will come up with? The act of systematically scanning the sky with radio telescopes is a good thing in itself. Of course, I say that about all science, so what do I know?

If you're curious, my personal stance on extraterrestrial life is that I think it's common. Not necessarily intelligent life, but life in general. I base this on the thermodynamics that makes chemical bonding prolific, and complexity inevitable. I also suspect that our current estimates of the goldilocks zone where life can exist is too conservative. I don't have any evidence, of course; this is all just cherished private suspicions. The complete absence of evidence on conditions outside of our solar system means that I must be, officially, agnostic.

Also for the curious, NASA's estimate for the answer to the Drake Equation: 2.3. That is to say there are either two or three civilizations capable of broadcasting in the galaxy. And we're one of them.

* Quick rules for a Rationally Speaking drinking game:
Drink whenever Julia complains about common misconceptions about reason or skepticism.
Drink whenever Massimo says, "and so on and so forth".
Drink whenever one of them says, "Well, it depends on what you mean by..."
Finish your drink if Julia disparages the value of philosophy.

** What's it an alternative to? Medicine.

*** Like Variable Star, put together in notes by Heinlein and written by Spider Robinson. Good book, clearly the separate work of two great writers.

Monday, May 14, 2012

What is Evolution?

Me, I love to learn. Back before I used RSS feeds, I checked my daily funnies* by hand; first clicking individual bookmarks, then wheel-clicking folders to open them ALL AT ONCE. Glory! Anyway, when I was gifted with wheel-clicking by Firefox, I added five random wikipedia pages to my funnies list. It was pretty neat. There are a lot of small European villages with their own wikipedia articles**. Nowadays I have the RSS feed, so I get tons of articles from atheist blogs, skeptical blogs, feminist blogs, science blogs, and my daily funnies. So I'm reading less wikipedia, getting more informed about some niche advocacy groups, stretching my brain a bit to accommodate unfamiliar science (there are more biologist bloggers than physicist bloggers, I find), and getting my daily chuckles.

So why not post a brief intro on evolution? Even intelligent, well-educated people are ignorant about a lot of things. Why, I have friends who pay for homeopathic "medicine"! And they went to college!

But that's another post.

Essentially, evolution boils down to two principles. Descent with modification and natural selection.

Descent with Modification
You are like your parents, but not exactly like your parents, and a similar observation is true of all living things***. This isn't just that your DNA is a mix-and-match of your parents', but also that each offspring contains multiple mutations. When the DNA gets read and copied, the copy contains errors. For example, each human receives somewhere between 60-120 mutations. Given that there are billions of base pairs in the human genome, that's remarkably high fidelity.

Not all mutations are negative (a common fundamentalist myth). To be sure, many are; any living organism is a highly evolved machine, and a mutation can really throw a monkey in the wrench. However, mutations can also be beneficial. For example, roughly 10% of people of European descent have a copy of a gene that renders them resistant to AIDS. Having two copies makes you resistant to infection by HIV in the first place, while having only one slows its development into full-blown AIDS.

That said, the vast majority of mutations are neutral. As I said, we're all walking around with dozens of mutations, but we're mostly not obviously supermen and also not casting as extras in post-apocalypse films. Nevertheless, mutation is vital, because without it, there would be no change, no differences from one generation to the next, nor between individuals, and without differences, there would be no...

Natural Selection
This isn't really "survival of the fittest", popular though that phrase is, but that's a part of it. In the end, evolution is about reproduction. Really, it's about having grandchildren. Who have grandchildren. Who have grandchildren. Fitness has a mathematical definition: the proportion of individuals displaying a trait after selection compared to the proportion before. In this case, "selection" means the process whereby the group decides who has offspring and who doesn't. Mating season for bears, say, or the prom for drunk teenagers.

Notice that the item in question isn't an individual organism, but a specific trait of that organism. What precisely is being selected has been a source of contention in biology for some time now. Richard Dawkins was long a proponent of the idea that the gene is the natural unit of selection; see his book The Selfish Gene. Others have argued, with merit, that the unit of selection is the genotype, the phenotype, the organism, populations of organisms, or even entire species. Not only do all these arguments have merit, I suspect that all are true, to a degree.

An individual gene can be particularly beneficial or particularly harmful in itself, and be selected for or against. No gene acts in isolation, though; rather they act as cartels, cooperating to build the organism and its parts, and those cartels can be selected for or against. And those cartels can only be considered in the context of the genotype of which they are a constituent, and its ability to build and maintain an organism. And that genotype isn't immune to how it interacts with the environment to produce a phenotype; a genotype that thrives in one environment may produce a different, and indeed inferior, phenotype eleswhere. Once the organism has been constructed, it is then tested and selected in its environment, first as an individual, then as a member of its particular group, which is then considered as a component of an ecosystem, and then the species as a whole is tested against all the systems they've managed to penetrate. I can't imagine that any of these can be neglected (though the timescale under consideration surely favors some over others), and I expect they all inform one another to remarkable degrees.

There is such a thing as selection against a trait. You don't have children? You're a failure.**** You have children? Good for you! But if they don't have children, you're a failure. You have grandchildren? Good for you! But... All individuals die, all species go extinct, but their DNA can go on as they mutate and evolve into something new, something fit, something beautiful, however temporary. The dinosaurs, for example are all gone, but not entirely.

There is also a way to select for, rather than against. A truly exceptional individual can see to it that his genes propagate quite well into the next generation, and the generation beyond. Like I said, there's a measure of fitness, and a fitness score of greater than one means you're really spreading your seed. However, whatever trait(s) makes an individual fit is always temporary and provisional, because it's fitness as proved against a certain environment. Also, once the trait is spread through the entire population, the best you can hope for is a fitness score of 1. Still, there is always that burst of glory.

So there it is. My understanding of evolution. Next time I'll talk about some of the common myths (a few were mentioned), and why they're wrong.

* You know, funnies, comics. The things that, in newspapers, are three panels of minimalist drawings coupled with mediocre humor and that, online, are freed from all constraint and delve into varying styles of artwork that ranges from acceptable to gorgeous and humor that covers the gamut from chuckles to guffaws and stories anywhere from slice-of-life to wild speculative fiction. In other words, awesome symphonic taste sensations as opposed to the bland, de-flavored, luke-warm sugar free tapioca you get in the paper.

** Essentially, "BLANK is a village in the BLANK province of BLANK. It has a population of BLANK. They fucking LOVE football."

*** Evolution is more complex for bacteria, which can exchange genetic information, forming less a tree of life and more a web of life, but let's not confuse the issue.

**** No you're not. Among other things, because it's not just about you, it's also about your genes, your family, and your species. So long as any of those survive and thrive, thanks to your actions, then you're not a failure; you're a success. Also, thanks to writing and whatnot, it's not merely our genes that can survive our deaths, but the knowledge and works we've created. Nature invented immortality when it discovered life; we've invented another kind.

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Why are Greenhouse Gasses?

What is a greenhouse gas? The greenhouse effect is pretty simple: something prevents heat from escaping. In your actual greenhouse, it's the glass; it traps air inside the house, which is then warmed by the sun, and that heat cannot then escape. You might recall from your middle school days that there are three ways heat can move: conduction, convection, and radiation. The first involves the transfer of heat from one object to another by touch, the second involves moving heat by moving the hot object to a new location, the third keeps the object in one spot and lets it glow, sending heat in the form of radiation. A greenhouse blocks convection because the air is trapped inside, and it also blocks radiation because glass is typically opaque to infrared light (heat light). Conduction can happen, as the warm air inside the greenhouse can touch the walls, which can then touch the air outside, but air is such a piss-poor conductor of heat that that's fairly negligible.

A greenhouse is a perfect analogy because 1) our planet is surrounded by vacuum, making conduction impossible, 2) our gravity well holds on to our atmosphere rendering convection moot, and 3) our atmosphere contains IR-opaque gasses like the glass of a greenhouse. In fact, much of the reason our planet is warm is thanks to these greenhouse gasses: water, carbon dioxide, methane, and ozone. You'll notice that the majority constituents of our atmosphere, oxygen and nitrogen, aren't on that list. That's because of the way molecules work when it comes to infrared radiation.

Molecules move. They move in space as they whiz around; that's called translation. They also spin around: rotation. Finally, they can wiggle and jiggle: vibration. It's the vibration that's important, because vibrations can absorb infrared radiation. In fact, it's a class of vibration that absorbs infrared, and it's why greenhouse gasses are different from oxygen and nitrogen.

Let's take carbon dioxide as our example. Carbon dioxide can vibrate in four different ways, two of which are exactly identical, and three of which can absorb IR. (images stolen from this guy. If I understand blogger's kajigger right, then I'm hosting it here, so it's only stealing the image and not his bandwidth)

There's the symmetrical stretch, in which the two oxygen atoms move simultaneously and identically to/from the carbon.

There's the asymmetrical stretch, in which the oxygen atoms move simultaneously and identically to the left and to the right, while the carbon moves in the opposite direction to keep the center of gravity in the center.

Finally, there's the bend, in which the two oxygen atoms move up/down (or forward/back) while the carbon does the opposite, keeping the center of gravity still. There are two of these, and they're called a "degenerate" state because they're functionally identical, but mathematically distinct. If the backbone of the molecule is the z-axis, then these stretches lie in the xz plane and the yz plane.

This is where things get a little complex. Unless the two atoms of a molecular bond are identical (as in an oxygen molecule, where both atoms are oxygen) then they don't share the electrons of the bond equally. One will always pull harder on the shared electrons. In carbon dioxide, oxygen pulls harder and as a result it is slightly negative and carbon is slightly positive. Overall, this cancels out because the two oxygen atoms are opposite one another; think of it as two perfectly matched teams in a tug of war. But that situation changes when the molecule vibrates. In the asymmetric stretch, one of the bonds becomes longer and the other shorter, and the pulling is uneven. In the two bends, the oxygens are suddenly pulling in the same direction. Either way, the pull no longer perfectly cancels. Only in the case of the symmetric stretch, where the bonds remain perfectly equivalent, is there no change.

It's that change that's important. Any time there's a change in what's known as the dipole moment (the arrangement of those partial charges thanks to uneven sharing of electrons), then the vibration absorbs infrared light. Explaining the "why" of that would go beyond the scope of this post. Suffice it to say that carbon dioxide has three different ways to absorb IR, its two bends and its asymmetric stretch. Light comes in, the molecule absorbs it, and starts bending or stretching. The more light comes in, the more frantically it bends or stretches.

Still only half the story. Because the other half is that that light will eventually be re-emitted. The kicker is that it can re-emit the IR any which way. It might be up toward outer space, or it might send it back down toward the surface of the Earth (odds are roughly fifty-fifty). And that's why carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas. It stops some of the heat coming up from the surface and sends it back down. The more carbon dioxide there is, the more likely this will happen. And this effect doesn't just happen once. Heat can get passed back and forth between the earth and our warm, snuggly greenhouse blanket any number of times.

That's why carbon dioxide (and water, and methane, and other molecules) are greenhouse gasses. That's also why oxygen and nitrogen are not. Every oxygen molecule is two perfectly identical oxygen atoms; they share electrons equally and no matter how hard it vibrates that will never change. Same for nitrogen. They'll never absorb infrared.

So how important is the greenhouse effect? We have an average surface temperature of about 14 centigrade, or 57 Fahrenheit. Without our atmosphere, it would be about -18 centigrade, or approximately 0 Fahrenheit. And that's with an atmosphere composed of roughly 1% greenhouse gasses. A lot of that is our atmosphere's ability to store heat in other ways, but I don't particularly want to stress the system. That is not how you test a bridge.

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

Why Profile?

Sam Harris wrote "In Defense of Profiling" last week in which he makes the point that, in searching for people who are going to put bombs on planes, the TSA should focus on people who are likely to put bombs on planes. What it came out as was "start searching Muslims".

Profiling is usually just racism as far as most people are concerned. This is justified, because that's how it was used and defended for a long time. Pull over someone for driving while black. Actual profiling isn't like that. It's a long list of characteristics that help identify potential suspects. It's a forward defense, a way of seeking out potential offenders for deeper investigation. It's not going to tell you who's carrying a bomb or who robbed a bank, just what kind of person might have.

And it's a forward defense; it's not what you run when the enemies are at your gate, or might be. And that's because terrorists aren't stupid. When the guards start searching every unmarried, bearded Semite between fourteen and forty, the terrorists hand a rocket launcher to grandma Aisha, a bomb to pregnant Muslima, and a grenade to baby Ahmed.

Profiling specifically seeks out the usual suspects. Unfortunately, those guys aren't stupid, and they sure aren't going to come to you. Profiling deliberately does not seek out unusual suspects. It's not going to find the person who doesn't fit the profile, and that's who the usual suspect is going to recruit to actually carry the bomb onto the bus.

Finally, profiling based on race is pointlessly stupid. The vast majority of Muslims aren't terrorists. Frisking every last obvious Muslim isn't going to net any positive results; it'll waste a lot of time and money, and it will make a lot of people angry, and with good justification. I'm going to show you a picture of the typical American terrorist. Get ready, because it might set off a lot of alarm bells.

That's the sort of guy who's going to bomb a clinic or shoot a doctor. What, are you going to get the TSA to put checkpoints at the door of every church in Kansas and tell them to look for a clean-cut white guy whose severely plain shirt is tucked securely into his khaki pants? Because that's racial profiling.

Actual profiling would tell them to look for clean cut Christians who protest at clinics, who hand out leaflets advocating violence, who harass doctor's families and neighbors, who harass the women walking into clinics. That's how you catch an American terrorist. Profile the Christians. But if you want to prevent a terrorist from boarding a plane, profiling will only take you so far. You also need the exhaustive and annoying procedures that piss off everyone.