Thursday, November 26, 2009

Flimflam inoculation 3: Argument from ignorance

From the pamphlet entitled "Creation or Evolution" published by the United Church of God,
These discoveries reveal that the simplest living cell is so intricate and complex in its design that even the possibility of this coming into existence accidentally is unthinkable.
Unthinkable? Maybe to you.

What the author is saying is that if they can't figure it out, then no one can. That's a pretty bold statement, don't you think? Are they the world expert on everything? Nope.

The fact that you don't understand something does not give you permission to conclude that it is false. This irrational flatulence is common, and often called "argument from ignorance".

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Flimflam inoculation:

Many of the podcasts I listen to spend time going over some of the common errors in logic that confuse people into believing something silly. I'd love to put together a talk some day on how to detect these logical fallacies, and go on tour spreading the skeptical gospel.

Here is one installment.

Correlation is not Causation

This has a fancy name: "post hoc ergo propter hoc", meaning literally "after this, therefore because of this". OK, I've had my Latin fix for the day.

Consider this common example. Evidence suggests that children with larger feet are better readers. Shocking, isn't it?! Well, not really, when you consider that kids in grade 1 tend to have smaller feet than kids in grade 5. But it's human nature to interpret the statement as meaning either
  1. shoe size somehow affects how well kids read, or
  2. reading ability affects how quickly feet grow.
The fact is that neither is true. The two things just happen to be influenced by a common factor, age! The only thing the data tells us is that reading and shoe size are correlated... it doesn't tell us which caused which. In this case, neither.

Another infuriating example: When someone says, "I went to the chiropractor, and my back felt better within a week", it does not prove that the chiropractor caused their back to get better.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Mixed messages

In the past, I've tinkered with iterated function systems (IFS). I recently had this idea to couple (alternate) two IFSs.

I call it "Layers of Meaning". (click for an enlarged view)


Saturday, November 14, 2009

Good News

"Good News" is the title of the free magazine subscription I'm receiving from the United Church of God. The good news is that every couple months I'll receive a magazine with lots of anti-scientific propaganda for me to debunk. For example, the one I got yesterday is subtitled "Creation or Evolution: Which Is More Believable?" That depends, of course, on how you view the world.

Here are some juicy nuggets from the latest installment.

In an article entitled "The Evolution vs. Intelligent Design Debate" (an interview with Dr. Jonathan Wells, one of the senior "scientists" at the creationist propaganda machine The Discovery Institute), Dr. Wells claims that "no one has ever observed the origin of a new species... by variation and selection". That's a bit like saying that no one ever observed continents crashing into each other because of plate tectonics. It tends to happen too slowly for a single person to notice.

Another article, "How Darwin's Theory Changed the World", tries to paint the picture that the theory of evolution has eroded society into anarchy and unbridled self-indulgence. On the topic of sex... "In the minds of many, sex is solely for pleasure, and children are an inconvenience." Actually, the theory of evolution is the first and only natural explanation for sex. Saying that we have sex because God told us to is like saying that we have speed limits because the government imposed them. There is a deeper purpose behind speed limits, and there is a deeper reality behind the phenomenon of sex. But religion won't find it. Science and the theory of evolution are needed to fully understand it.

One more... in the same article they state "Anything and everything can be justified once you take God out of the picture." Sorry, but you've got it backwards. First of all, "anything and everything" HAS been happening since the dawn of time, so clearly God wasn't able to stop it. Furthermore, science is not in the business of offering justification for things. Science is a way to learn about how the world works, and cannot be used to make right-versus-wrong judgements. That's more of religion's territory. For example, the Bible contains a number of references to genocide. And what do we make of religions that contradict each other? They might justify YOUR extermination. Doncha kinda wish we were all on the same page in the book of reality?


Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The rights of humans and robots

Just finished listening to Love and Sex with Robots by David Levy. It was somewhat interesting. I'd give it a 3 out of 5.

A solid part of his thesis is that if something has life-like characteristics, we instinctively think of it as alive. Even if we know consciously that it's a robot, our brains use the same subconscious circuits as for real living things. It's not uncommon for people to project human qualities onto inanimate objects (eg. "Damn computer, why are you doing this to me!").

Supposing that we can someday have sophisticated robots that are autonomous and intelligent, what sorts of rights will we give them? Will it be illegal to "kill" a robot? Could someone go to jail for raping a robot (the book discusses sex with robots, as the title suggests)?

The answers seem obvious to me. Or at least the factors to consider are obvious.

Perhaps the most fundamental human motive is reproduction and the survival of one's offspring. Indeed, the whole sex-with-robots idea is a result of hijacking the human drive to reproduce. But it doesn't stop at sex; the reproductive instinct continues with investment in one's offspring to increase their chances of success (grandchildren, etc.). This all sounds very unromantic, but rest assured that all the accompanying emotions (lust, love, protectionism, pride, jealousy, etc.) are part of the evolutionary machinery that gets the job done. So, robots will not enjoy the same rights as humans because there is no genetic investment.

We will, however, invest in robots in other ways. Not just financially, but socially. Consider a well-trained family dog. A dog is not very closely related to its human owner, but the owner and dog have formed an attachment because of the time that each has invested in the other. We bestow some rights onto dogs, but dogs typically have fewer rights than humans. I argue that the rights afforded to something are proportional to the human investment in that something. Children are no different from dogs and no different from robots, except for the amount of investment.

In the end, ethical decisions must have a sound basis in evolutionary stability. That is, ethical decisions should be made in a way that promotes our own genes and memes. Everything outside that is simply missing the point.


Poor kitty corpse

I went running with a couple friends last night. As we stood at a quiet street corner talking after our run, a man came to us and asked us if we knew who's cat was lying on the road. We looked down the street and saw a white and black lump on the road. After staring in silence for a moment, we went over. There it was, a black and white cat, motionless on the cold road. Pristine, except for the small puddle of blood that had trickled from its mouth. I checked for a pulse, but -- to be honest -- I don't know how to check a cat for a pulse... the neck doesn't seem to be the right place. Thought the cat was still warm, there were no signs of life. No breathing.

Someone phoned the number on the collar, and a minute later a woman and her teenaged daughter came out. The woman seemed OK as she approached, but then stopped abruptly. We somehow mumbled that the cat was dead, and she instantly broke into loud sobbing. Poor woman... I can relate to her, having lost Meiko a few years ago.

Meiko (a.k.a. "Beeks") R.I.P.

The woman placed a blanket she brought one her fuzzy friend, pulled it up to his neck as if tucking him into bed. Shaking, she said, "I can't look at his face!" and continued wailing loudly.

We all agreed that the cat should be moved, but where and how? A cyclist on the scene disappeared and returned with a few pieces of corrugated cardboard. My running friends and I slid the corpse onto the cardboard, and we wrapped it all in a sheet that a neighbour brought out. Handing it to the woman and her daughter, then cried as they took their lost friend home.

One thing that struck me as odd... in the middle of the ordeal, I expressed to the lady that I could understand her feelings for her cat because we have cats too. She stopped crying at looked directly at me, and asked "Are they outdoor cats?" I said "yes". I think she felt guilty for letting her cat go outside. Vets tend to suggest that indoor cats live longer. In my opinion, a short life outside is better than a long life inside. But that's purely a value judgement.


Monday, November 9, 2009

Musical debut of Carl Sagan and Stephen Hawking

I would call this video "cheesy" if it weren't so profound and well-done. Instead, I find it inspiring.

This video was created by John Boswell. You can find more similar on his web page Well done, John!

November 7th was the first annual Carl Sagan Day. Carl Sagan is another of my heroes.


Friday, November 6, 2009

Potty-mouth Count

This YouTube video was on Richard Wiseman's Blog. I'm tempted to suggest that you make sure there are no kids around when you watch it, but I'm not sure why.

What does it say about our human tendency to fill in missing information?


Thursday, November 5, 2009

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

One-sided rubbish

That's the subject line I used in the comment e-mail I sent in response to this ridiculous article. It's part of the "Darwin was wrong" propaganda that the United Church is trying to bolster. Here is the rest of the e-mail.

I noticed that Darwin doesn't really say anything in this faux conversation. He simply sits there and takes the beating.

If you want someone to fill in the stuff that Darwin would say in response, I be happy to oblige.


I doubt they'll take me up on my offer.