Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Consciousness Explained (almost)

I'm almost done reading Consciousness Explained by Daniel C. Dennett. It's an attempt to tackle the slipperiest of problems, the nature of consciousness (in case you didn't quite get that from the title). Dennett proposes what he calls the Multiple Drafts model, in which many systems in the brain each do their own processing in parallel, and some sort of neurological competition ultimately allows only one process to make it all the way; that's the thought that becomes conscious. He hasn't elaborated on what sort of competition is going on, but I can easily imagine it in a dynamical-systems context.

Of course, it's a purely materialistic theory of consciousness. I agree with that point of view; there is no need to conjure the supernatural.

That said, I can't say I blame people for not accepting the materialistic explanation of consciousness. The feeling that "I am me" is difficult to resolve without leaning on some vital force. Can this feeling of consciousness really have emerged as my brain developed, and will it really just disappear once my brain stops receiving oxygen and sugar?

At any rate, I am enjoying the book. His multiple drafts model reminds me of an explanation I once read about multiple personality disorder; it could be that different brain subsystems become decoupled and partition the "host's" history into separate memory banks. That blew me away!


Saturday, December 19, 2009

Birthday numeracy

The other day, I realized something amazing. Here it is.

My birthday is May 14, 1970. That's 05/14/1970. I realized that
5 x 14 = 70.

5 + 14 = 19.

So, you could represent my birthday using only 5 and 14.

I know... I'm so cool.


Saturday, December 12, 2009

Poor Tiger Woods, a victim of human biology

Given the media attention that Tiger Woods is receiving after cheating on his wife, it seems an opportune time to mention the book I just finished listening to. It's called Strange Bedfellows: The Surprising Connection Between Sex, Evolution and Monogamy, written by David P. Barash and Judith Eve Lipton. Here is my review of the book.

This delightful and to-the-point book goes over the necessary material to understand the battle between monogamy and polygamy. It explains how each of the two strategies are evolutionarily advantageous, but also goes over their down-sides. Lots of examples are taken from zoology (gorillas, bonobo monkeys, prairie voles, etc.). Putting humans under the same zoological microscope, a myriad of evidence suggests that we fit the class of "mostly monogamous".

The end of the book is a little patronizing, as if trying to soften the news for those who have trouble accepting our biological reality.

All-in-all, a great little book. Well worth a read (or listen).


Friday, December 11, 2009

Flimflam inoculation 6: Conspiracy theories

9-11 truthers. UFO afficionados. Holocaust deniers. Anti-vaccinationists. And the poor, poor repressed intelligent design proponents. What do they all have in common?

Belief in a conspiracy.

Why are conspiracy theories so popular? For the answer, let's think about evidence. If you want to convince someone that your claim is true, you offer evidence. Evidence can take the form of experimental results, casual observations, logical deductions from agreed-upon facts, or any combination thereof. For example,

Claim: Air has mass.

Evidence: Blow on paper, and the paper moves because of the transfer of momentum. Air is attracted to earth by gravity. Air is made up of various molecules that, themselves, have mass.

Seems simple enough. What could possibly take that scientific process off the rails? Well, a problem arises when someone makes claims that are impossible to prove false, called "unfalsifiable" claims. For example, consider the claim that "the two towers of the World Trade Center collapsed as a result of a secret government anti-terrorism propaganda campaign". With regard to evidence, there are 3 possibilities.

Case 1: Evidence in support of claim
(ie. fire from planes was not hot enough to melt beams)
This is the kind of evidence that could actually be useful, and warrant further investigation. However, a handful of strong evidence is better than an ocean of weak evidence. In the context of conspiracy theories, this often takes the form of "anomaly hunting", looking for anything that seems at all inconsistent with the mundane explanation.

Case 2: Evidence contradicting the claim
(ie. beams are weakened by high temperatures, even if they don't melt)
This is the kind of evidence that SHOULD put the claim to rest. But this is where conspiracy theories go off the deep end... by stating that the evidence was made up by those involved in the conspiracy. This approach is unfalsifiable because it allows the conspiracy theorist to dismiss any evidence that contradicts their theory. The only way around this is to generate evidence yourself. However, that will only work for YOU; telling others will result in you being denounced as a co-conspirator.

Case 3: No evidence in support of the claim
This is where conspiracy theories really REALLY go off the deep end... by claiming that the absence of evidence is due to a big cover-up. Think of how many times you've heard "Government cover-up", "classified", and "they don't want you to know". This explanation for lack of evidence is also unfalsifiable, since the absence of evidence is, by definition, evidence for it.

That's not to say that conspiracies can't happen. They can. The problem is that people get carried away with them because (1) they are unfalsifiable, and (2) they can be used to promote any agenda. And who doesn't like a juicy story now and again?

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Flimflam inoculation 5: Inappropriate use of the word "energy"

To the scientifically illiterate, the word "energy" conjures up notions of warmth, life and goodness. However, a thermonuclear bomb delivers energy... at a very high rate.

Pseudo-scientific pursuits often misuse the word "energy". Take, for example, this snippit from the FAQ of the PCU College of Holistic Medicine

What are the fundamental differences between traditional Chinese medicine and Western medicine?

With its origin in ancient Taoist philosophy, traditional Chinese medicine views a person as an energy system in which body and mind are unified. Western medicine, however, does not share this holistic view as it isolates and separates a disease from a person. Chinese medicine views the body as a small universe, while Western medicine views it as a planet in isolation.

Diagnosis of illness is also approached differently. In addition to finding information about the history of the illness, traditional Chinese medicine diagnosis looks at different parts of the body such to gain valuable information about internal organs and their energies. For example, the tongue is often carefully examined to give detailed patient diagnosis.

Upon diagnosis, a TCM doctor will prescribe a treatment to restore the balance of energy channels in the body. Treatments such as acupuncture, herbal medicine, food cures, massage and/or exercises will be used. The TCM doctor will treat the entire person, including both the physical and the mental aspect.

Restore the balance of "energy channels"? What does that mean?

As a first-order check, ask yourself if the energy can be measured in Joules or Calories. Those are the scientific units by which energy can be quantified. In that context, what is meant by "internal organs and their energies"? Is it the amount of chemical potential energy stored in the molecules? Is it the organ's kinetic energy (from movement)? I suspect it's none of those, but rather a feeble-minded surrogate for "magic".

In addition to its fallacious use of "energy", what else does the FAQ get wrong? Hmmm, last I checked, Western Medicine (which I interpret to mean "science-based medicine") DOES view the body as a system of interacting mass and energy (measured in Joules). And what's with the rather abstract metaphor of viewing a person as a universe, and not "as a planet in isolation"? A universe is in isolation, is it not? It's the planet that is influenced by other stars, planets, etc. Am I missing something here?

Contrary to the FAQ's implication, science-based medicine infers diagnosis (1) by considering the history of illness, and (2) by looking at body parts, (in addition to other sources of information such as test results, etc.). However, science-based medicine does not make wild claims like the health of one's liver is conveniently displayed on their tongue. But apparently that's part of Traditional Chinese Medicine.

Misuse of the word "energy" - or "force" for that matter - is often a sign that someone is trying to sell you something by employing science-sounding jargon. "Quantum physics" is another common import for con-artists. When you hear those terms with no obvious relation to their scientific definitions, seek a second opinion from a real medical professional.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Flimflam innoculation 4: Proof by example

If you're still not convinced that the AssBlaster can shave pounds off your hips in just 5 minutes, listen to what these people have to say.

Person A: "I was amazed at how quickly my weight dropped."

Person B: "It worked like a charm for me... you gotta try it!"

The part of the interview they don't show you...

Person A: "Come to think of it, that was around the time of my chemotherapy."

Person B: "The AssBlaster was a great warm-up for my Ironman triathlon training."

The point is, testimonials do not give you all the information you need to establish if the claims are true. Instead, testimonials are directed at the standard loopholes in your psychology. They are not meant to prove anything, but are meant to make you BELIEVE. That's why the skeptical hairs on the back of your neck should stand up when someone starts feeding you success story after success story. Delivering testimonials is often a sign that real evidence does not exist.

If they had a product that really worked, then they would do a blinded and controlled study. Here's a recipe:
  1. First, come up with a hypothesis: eg. "Using the AssBlaster for 1 week will reduce your weight by 10 pounds and your waist measurement by 1 inch".
  2. Then, randomly choose a bunch of people and split them into 2 groups (A and B). Have group A use the AssBlaster, and group B do the same exercise as group A but without using the AssBlaster.
  3. Measure the relevant quantities before and after a trial period (eg. weight, and waist measurement). The people doing the measuring should be "blinded"... they shouldn't know who is in group A and who is in group B.
  4. At the end of the trial period, study the data in a quantitative, statistical manner to see how likely it is that the data supports your hypothesis. You're look for a bigger drop in weight for members of group A compared to members of group B. Likewise for waist measurement.
The presence of a "control group" (B, in this case) is very important. It allows the scientists to establish an association between the hypothesized cause and effect while minimizing other confounding factors. This is really the only way to test the claim, unless you know some basic mechanism that is so plainly obvious that everyone believes you already (eg. "Not drinking or eating for a week will reduce your waist size by 1 inch.")

(For more examples of testimonials, see my post on the Canadian Decompression and Pain Centres.)

In summary: If some claim sounds too good to be true, you might be right. If the only evidence they offer in support of their claim is testimonial, run... FAST!


Flimflam inoculation 2: Appeal to consequences

(OK, so number 3 came before number 2)

Ever heard this dull-witted line of reasoning?

Hitler believed in evolution.
Therefore, evolution is not true.

Or how about this one?

Christians all around the world are helping those in need.
Therefore, Christianity must be true.

Even if Hitler DID believe in evolution (I doubt he even understood it), the fact that he was a douche-bag doesn't say anything about the truthfulness of evolution. And while it's terrific that people help each other, the simple fact that many people agree on something does not make it true. Most people used to think the world was round.

The "appeal to consequences" logical fallacy often takes one of these forms:

If X, then Y.
I really like Y.
So X is true.


If X, then Y.
I really don't like Y.
So X is false.

Neither of those conclusions follow logically. But the like or dislike of "Y" can be very compelling and distracting.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Britain kills UFO hotline

That's the title of a short article in The Record today. It says that "the Defence Ministry has quietly shut down its UFO hotline as a cost-cutting measure, and will no longer investigate any sightings." A Defence spokesperson said that none of the 12,000 alleged UFO sightings over the past 50 years has panned out to be real aliens.

My favourite line of the article: Roy Lake, founder of the London UFO Studies group, said "I think the government knows damn well what's going on up there, and they're covering it up." Wow, UFOs and government conspiracy... that's a new one.


Friday, December 4, 2009

Intelligent design's only skill is evasion

Whenever someone criticizes intelligent design, ID proponents whine that the criticism was unfairly based on a false definition of ID. For example, Chris Mooney's book The Republican War on Science was critical of ID, so the Discovery Institute quickly drummed up a response, stating

Mr. Mooney's attack upon the scientific theory of ID has a common theme of mischaracterizing the theory and tearing down only a straw-man version of intelligent design.

This is one of the chief advantages of an ill-conceived pseudo-science... the ability to ooze out of the way of any criticisms. I've seen this same complaint lofted by IDers over an over.

So, just what is the proper definition of intelligent design, anyway? According to the Discovery Institute's web page,

The theory of intelligent design holds that certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause, not an undirected process such as natural selection.

OK, so we have a definition. Hmmm... let's try to figure out what it means. First of all, what is meant by "best explained"? According to what objective measure? None... it's purely subjective, making the definition useless.

The definition also implies that intelligence is not directed by natural processes. Guess what. Science only deals with natural causes, defined as the "systematic knowledge of the physical or material world gained through observation and experimentation". That is, claims made about things outside of nature and the physical universe are not science.

And how about this elaboration on the "science" of ID;

ID theorists argue that design can be inferred by studying the informational properties of natural objects to determine if they bear the type of information that in our experience arise from an intelligent cause.

Does that say "in our experience"? Whose experience? Yours? Mine? Theirs? Science is NOT subjective... if it were, it would be called religion. The whole scientific enterprise is an attempt to find out objective truths about our universe.

Contrast that foggy definition to Wikipedia's first two sentences on evolution:

Evolution is change in the genetic material of a population of organisms from one generation to the next. Though changes produced in any one generation are normally small, differences accumulate with each generation and can, over time, cause substantial changes in the population, a process that can result in the emergence of new species.

Notice how it's stated in specific terms. We can measure the frequency of genetic alleles. We can make measurements of an organism's phenotype. How can you refute any of that... it's really more of an observation than a scientific claim. We already know that populations of organisms can change substantially. The step to "speciation" is just semantics.

Take-home message: While intelligent design proponents huff and puff about being treated unfairly by the scientific community, there is a reason for it. Their claims are not scientific. The ID movement is a sociological phenomenon, designed to allow society to hang onto antiquated irrational beliefs for one generation longer.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

It looks like Marilyn Monroe to me

This picture accompanied a short article in The Record on Saturday Nov. 28.

Yep, a religious woman in Methuen, Mass., says the image reassures her that "he's listening". It actually looks more to me like Marilyn Monroe. Or maybe George Washington. But Jesus?!?

This is called pareidolia.