Monday, December 5, 2011

The Yoga Nazi

Sorry, but if you're Catholic then yoga is out of bounds. Why? According to this page,
Yoga is incompatible with Catholicism because the best known practice of Hindu spirituality is Yoga.  “Inner” Hinduism professes pantheism, which denies that there is only one infinite Being who created the world out of nothing.
So if you're Catholic, or even Christian, Jewish or Muslim, then NO YOGA FOR YOU!!

Glad we got that sorted out.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

My IEEE-EMBS Lecture

You might be wondering what IEEE and EMBS stands for.  IEEE is an international engineering association.  EMBS stands for the Engineering in Medicine and Biology Society, one of IEEE's many societies.  The Waterloo student EMBS chapter holds invited lectures now-and-then, and I was happy to give one of those lectures today.

I had a choice: I could do the safe thing and talk about image registration, a topic that I've published in, or I could talk about my real passion, the brain. I chose to talk about the brain. The title was "Computational Neuroscience".  The image on the right is the poster advertising the talk.

The lecture went well (from my perspective, anyway).  Addie was nice enough to lend me her kitty stuffy so that I could demonstrate what a neurophysiology experiment entails.

I was gratified to see the lecture hall fill up.  The room wasn't very big, but it felt nice to know that some people were willing to stand for an hour to hear what I had to say.

My take-home message:
Your sensations, perceptions, thoughts, feelings, memories, intentions, beliefs... are all patterns of neural activity in your brain.
Don't believe me? You'll just have to go to my next lecture.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

7 Billion People

October 31, 2011, is the day that UN forecasters estimate the earth's population reached 7 billion people. Man, it wasn't long ago that the population was a mere 6 billion (1999).  Heck, I can even recall 5 billion (1987). And though I don't remember it, I was 4 years old when the earth reached 4 billion (1974).

The CBC "Offbeat Math" page has some interesting ways to interpret how many people that is. One that struck me is that if we were ALL at a concert - standing room only - we'd take up half of PEI. That doesn't seem like that much to me. But if we all stood hand-in-hand, we'd form a chain 7 million km long, nine times the distance to the moon.

Finally, the web page has a video interview with Joel Cohen, a math biologist from Columbia University. He makes it clear that we are prospering on borrowed time. One of the interviewers says that growing world population is a boon to the stock markets, and a dream scenario for investment in general (I can only assume that he's playing devil's advocate, and asking what other people might be wondering). Prof. Cohen repeats his stance, that this rate of growth cannot continue and current prosperity is at the expense of future generations.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Nerd jokes

Here's one for all you mathletes.

This moment of nerdiness was inspired by a T-shirt sold by MathSoc. It had the slightly more straight-forward

That's math for ya'. Full of hidden messages. It would be fun to look for satanic messages like the credulous do when they listen to audio recordings in reverse.

Evangelical Pastafarian

Happy Halloween. Here is the costume I donned for a party over the weekend. Can you guess what I am?

Here's a hint. Though you can't see it in the pictures above, I'm actually wearing a name-tag.

That's right. I was dressed as a Pastafarian, a member of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Arrr matey!

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Aggressive Door-to-Door Sales: National Water Heater Scam

Last night after dinner, there was a knock on our door... great, salespeople. Two young guys. One introduced himself, and said the other was a trainee. He said they were from National Home Services, and were in the neighbourhood replacing outdated rented water heaters.

We had someone similar at our door a few weeks ago, but I can't remember the company. After that encounter, I looked online and decided that I was happy with our current arrangement with Reliance Home Comfort.

That's what I said to the two guys from National... "Thanks for coming by, but we will decline."

Apparently, that wasn't sufficient to send them away. As I was closing the door, he kept talking, "But we're a Canadian company..."  I re-opened the storm door and said, "Do you even know who we rent our water heater from?"  To which he answered, "It's either Reliance or [some other company that I can't remember>]."  I retorted with, "See, you don't even know what we have. Thanks for your visit, but we will decline."

As I proceeded to close the door again, he had a stern facial expression and maintained eye contact with me. Think about it. That's highly unusual, and struck me as aggressive. At this point, I experienced a twinge of fear that these guys could possibly go beyond a sales call, and get nasty... I pictured them vandalizing my property or harassing my family.

I opened the storm door again and said, "OK, I don't want to be rude. I told you we're not interested. Thank you, and good luck."

I finally closed the door.

Try googling "national water heater". Most of the hits are warnings about scams.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Suck it, Alt Med

The Canadian Medical Association wrote to the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario, slamming their draft policy on alternative medicine. The CBC did a good job of covering it.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

My brain arrived by mail

In my research, I study the brain and how it works. It's useful to have a feeling for the shape of the brain, and where the parts are. So, I purchased a brain model from

I was pleasantly surprised. It's approximately life-sized, solid rubber, and weighs over 3 pounds. Basically, close to a real human adult brain (except for the rubber). Here is a view from the bottom.

It also comes apart. Here is a sagittal view of the left hemisphere.

It has 8 pieces in total. These are the 4 pieces for each hemisphere.

And it even comes with a handy dandy stand, shaped especially to fit your cranial curves.

I'll use it when I teach about the brain.

Monday, June 27, 2011

I can be good without God... not.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) recently posted billboards that look like this,

I know... Dylan is such an ass-wipe.

Or he's religious.

At least, that seems to be the opinion of a nearby church in Columbus Ohio. The billboard is on their property (I suppose under lease), and they asked the advertising company to take the ad down.

But let's think about this. Can Dylan be good without God?

Since the church asked to have the billboard removed, then they must disagree with it. Technically speaking, the logical negative of the statement is

Either Dylans is not good, OR he believes in God.

And that's an inclusive OR, so it includes the case where Dylan is a jerk AND he believes in God. Maybe that's what they had in mind.

Do they know something about Dylan that we don't? Perhaps they have insider information that shows Dylan is actually a real butt-head. Or maybe they found out that he's a closet Christian.

In any case, it goes to show that being an atheist is not seen as an asset in today's society. But that's prejudice.

More likely, the church is hoping to keep its members from being enlightened.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Summer solstice: it's worth celebrating

Today is June 21. It's summer solstice, the longest day of the year in the northern hemisphere.

For my birthday last May, I asked for a globe. I wanted to be able to illustrate solar-system phenomena to my kids, as well as show them the true geometry of our world. For example, the shortest path from Vancouver to England passes through the arctic circle.

A couple days ago, I pulled the blinds over the window, grabbed a lamp and my globe, and showed my 3 kids what summer solstice means, why it happens, and how it's linked to the seasons. It's the day when the earth's spin axis is maximally inclined toward the sun. Here's another - more technical - way of putting it. Imagine a line connecting the sun and the earth, passing right through the centre of each. Now draw another line along the earth's spin axis, also through the centre of the earth. Those two lines form an imaginary plane. Another imaginary plane is formed by the earth's orbit around the sun. A solstice occurs when those two planes are perpendicular.

You might have heard of the arctic circle, equator, and the tropics. These earth zones are all defined by the earth's tilt and are related to the solstice.

(Taken from this video.)

The tropics are the range around the equator, from 23.5o north (Tropic of Cancer) to 23.5o south (Tropic of Capricorn), where the sun is directly above at some time of the year. We never get that in Canada... we're not in the tropics. The closest we get is today, summer solstice.

Finally, here is a picture of Tricia on our honeymoon.


What the hell does that have to do with summer solstice, you ask? Notice that her shadow is directly below her. This picture was taken in Mexico right around the time of the summer solstice, the only time I've seen the sun directly overhead.

(And Trish isn't too hard on the eyes either. :-)

Monday, June 20, 2011

Poor Gideons lose their unfair advantage

According to the KW Record, the Waterloo Region District School Board (WRDSB) voted 8-3 in favour of a motion to discontinue the tradition of allowing the Gideons to distribute the Bible to grade 5 students. It's about friggin' time.

Here's the interesting thing. It seems that it took the threat of a Muslim group distributing the Qu'ran to put the brakes on the entire practice. Because once the school board allows the Muslims, then they'll have to grant the same courtesy to the Anglicans, Jews, Hindus, Bhuddists, Baha'i, and the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

So, I'm glad that the school board put an end to all this nonsense. Don't worry about board trustee Cindy Watson's comment that the vote "sends a negative message that we are anti-Christian". Rather, the fact that they've allowed it for so many years suggest the exact opposite; the school board has historically been far too pro-Christian. This vote was a corrective adjustment to make it equal for all religions.

But Watson said something that I liked, "Banning the Bible is not the answer." Apart from the fact that the Bible is not being banned, I quite agree with her. I'd like to see ALL religions taught in grade school. Perhaps the grade 5 kids could spend a week learning about each of the major religions. Once these belief systems are compared head-to-head, it becomes patently clear how ridiculous they all are. Think of it as part of the childhood vaccination schedule.

I sure hope the Muslims are pressuring the government for a publicly-funded separate school board.

(Thanks to Chris Burke for pointing this out to me.)

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Homeopathic "doctors"

Here is a short video from a colleague of mine, Iain Martel. It seems that many homeopaths are illegally using the title "doctor" or "Dr.", even though these designations are protected by the government.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Fairy Land 3D

We went camping last weekend and had lots of fun. Trish got the kids making "Fairy houses" and she blogged about it. Don't get me wrong... I'm not claiming that fairies exist; they're only slightly more probable than God.

We took a bunch of pictures of the fairy entrances, and I noticed that two of my pictures -- when shown in succession -- give the illusion of 3D.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Popoff makes me sick (that's irony)

Peter Popoff appeared in Toronto a couple weeks back. Some of my skeptical friends attended.

(The exposé letter they showed at the end... that was written by me.)

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Measles outbreak in Quebec

Instead of the usual "one or two cases of measles every year", Quebec has seen over 200 in the last month.

If only there was some way to prevent measles.

Oh yah, there is...

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

The Geo Centre kicks ass!

I decided to go to the Johnson Geo Centre this morning to catch one of their sciencey movies called "Earth: The Power of the Planet". I know, I thought it sounded awesome too.

Unfortunately, a school group of 13-year-olds had the theatre booked to see a movie on volcanoes instead. Fortunately, it was actually a really amazing movie. After that, I watched the movie I planned on. It was also great.

Let me share with you some of the amazing things I learned.

The giant meteorite thought to have caused the extinction of the dinosaurs is not visible directly. It's on the tip of the Yucatan peninsula in Mexico. However, the outer rim of the crater is marked by cenotes, or sink holes... holes in the ground leading to elaborate caves filled with water.

Another amazing meteorite crater can be seen in Arizona.

View Larger Map

The movie on volcanoes had an excellent demonstration of plate tectonics. It showed a time-lapse movie of a lava lake in the Erta Ale volcano in Ethiopia, similar to this video,

I thought that was a really vivid illustration, especially since continents moving over millions of years is pretty hard to grasp intuitively.

Speaking of land moving, the movie also mentioned that some mountains grew about 5 metres after a single earthquake.

I was taken aback when "The Power of the Planet" movie went on and on about how special the earth is. Just the right distance from the sun, with just the right mass, and atmospheric CO2, etc. It was starting to sound like a privileged planet argument that you would get from Intelligent Design proponents. But in the end they were simply making the case that our (human) influence on the planet can disturb the balance and render earth unliveable. The take-home message: earth will survive a long time, but we might not. I think that's an important message.

Another interesting factoid I hadn't realized; about 700-million years ago, the earth was covered by ice and snow. They call it the "snowball earth".

I got to touch a rock that is about 3.8 billions years old. Newfoundland and Labrador is made up of multiple patches of earth plates, with dates of rocks ranging in age from 450 million years to 3.8 billion years. The rocks around St. John's are about 450 million years old... just babies. But that's old when you consider that the Rocky Mountains were formed a mere 100 to 200 millions years ago.

Iceland sits atop a huge plume of magma that protrudes up through the earth's mantle. It's right where two major plates meet. Iceland probably formed from an underwater volcano.

The centre also had a nice section on human evolution. I especially like their coverage of cultural evolution, "Speech and language gave rise to counting, writing, ... and much else that forms the foundation of culture, including art, music and religion."

Going for a jog... and calling 911

Finally got some nice weather here in St. John's, Newfoundland. So I went for a run to see downtown from the east side of the harbour. You can see the GPS track here.

I saw some quaint houses on the far shore, at the bottom of Signal Hill.

I also spotted what looks like fossilized ocean floor (something I saw earlier today in the Geo Centre).

I ran to the end of the road, to Cahill Point. While looking around, I heard a teenage boy yelling "Help..." I turned around and saw him standing on the top of a rocky hill, waving his arms. He was yelling, "HELP, my friend's dying!" Now, I was skeptical, but thought I'd better take some action. I waved back and called 9-1-1. I told the 911 operator what was going on, and that I wasn't sure if it was legit. He asked where I was, and I replied "Fort Amherst" (and he repeated "for-dammers"). There was another kid on the cliff who didn't seem too concerned, so I told the operator that I wasn't sure if it really was an emergency. He said he'd probably send someone anyway, and took my phone number (I run with my iPhone... spare me the geek comments).

As I was leaving, another kid came down the rocky hill slowly, and I asked him if he knew the kids up top. He said he did, and that they were joking. Turns out, the kid on top was just teasing his somewhat chubby friend who couldn't make it all the way up the hill. The chubby kid apologized for his friends, and I told him he should tell his buddies to look up the story of "The Boy Who Cried Wolf". Just then, a fire rescue vehicle came around the corner, lights flashing.

After finding out what was up, the fireman radioed the station to ask the other vehicles enroute to "stand down". Except for one... I'm wondering if it was a police car on its way to set the kids straight.

Incidentally, a couple with two children also heard the boy's calls for help, and we briefly discussed whether or not to call 911. Turns out, they are also from Waterloo, and live about a 10 minute walk from me. Small world... when one attends math conferences, anyway.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Now I know what they mean by "Not even wrong"

Warning. Watching these videos might induce intellectual comatose.

I've listened to lots of anti-evolution propaganda, but this junk makes William Lane Craig and Kent Hovind look like Nobel laureates.

Either they are deliriously incompetent, or unapologetically dishonest. They repeat that there are absolutely no transitional fossils over and over again. And say with authority that modern scientific evidence continues to disprove the theory of evolution. Believers in the theory do so because they want to live their nihilistic lifestyles without the guilt of god holding them back.

My favourite quote comes 8:40 into episode 5, "It's really not about convincing your intellect. It's about setting aside your pride and listening to your conscience."

Yes, truth is about trusting your gut. Gosh, the earth sure seems like it's the centre of the universe because I'm staying still and the heavenly bodies are all moving around me. It's obvious to me so it must be true. I won't worry my silly little intellect over all that data of planetary orbits around the sun. I'll just follow my conscience, because it knows best.

Science is hard. No one ever said that the laws of the universe have to be easy for you to understand. No scientist ever claimed that comprehending the theory of evolution was as natural as breathing. It takes effort to understand this stuff BECAUSE much of it falls outside of our common-sense experiences.

Here's another ripe quote from the videos.
The truth is the Bible is full of scientific facts. And the so-called science of evolution is the one that over time has proven itself to be the one that simply cannot stand up to scrutiny.
Redundant grammar aside, nothing could be further from the truth. People do not find predictions in the Bible, they find postdictions. That is, quotes that can be interpreted to be consistent with something already known. Example, Esaiah 40:22 mentions the "circle of the earth", and some take that to mean that the earth is spherical. However, a circle is not a sphere. The quote is also consistent with a flat pancake earth. Any similarity the Bible has to science is strictly coincidental, or a result of post-hoc rationalization and quote mining. (BTW - Muslims make the same claim about the Quran... see the comments).

On the contrary, I really like Steven Novella's recent quote,
In fact the entire history of human knowledge (factual knowledge about how nature works) is one of cultural beliefs (largely superstition or philosophy-based or simply quirky cultural history) being systematically replaced by science-based ideas. When we started to take a rigorous systematic look at nature with methods that control for bias we found that almost everything we believed about the world was wrong.
Finally, the videos do a pretty horrendous job of taking quotes from real scientists out of context. Well, here's a quote I got from the videos, "Evolution... is... true."

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Arithmetic fail

My sister-in-law asked me to clarify this simple arithmetic expression.

The question is, do they mean

Or, do they mean

In the absence of brackets to clarify, mathematical convention would suggest that option (1) is the correct interpretation since the division symbol pertains to the first operand on its right. In our case, it's a 2. If they had intended option (2), then they would have to enclose 2(9+3) all in brackets, as in

The problem is we don't know the mathematical sophistication of the person who came up with the question. How many times have I seen a "skill testing question" that looks something like this...

Following standard mathematical convention, my answer would be 16.166666... But, somehow that's less satisfying than the unconventional answer of 3.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Arithmetic fail

Looking through a book about 100 with Heather, we came across this page.

Let's recap.

3 + 7 = 10


30 + 80 = 100

Any questions?

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Craig vs Harris debate: Does Good Come From God

I listened to this debate between William Lane Craig and Sam Harris. Here is the first of 9 YouTube installments...

My thoughts...

Dr. Craig is a good debater. However, I disagree with most of what he said. For example, he said that the existence of God guarantees objective morals. That's not at all obvious to me. God could have simply decided that he wouldn't bother making objective morals. The Deist outlook, for example, is that God set the universe in motion (with physical laws, etc), and simply stands back to watch what happens.

Most of Dr. Craig's arguments seemed to be based on semantics.
God is intrinsically good.
Thus, good must come from God.

That's a simplified version, but captures the circular nature of the argument. I'm not buying it.

The real question is does the absence of God necessarily mean that there are no objective morals. Dr. Craig says "no". I agree with that.

And this is where Dr. Harris and I disagree. He claims that objective morals CAN come from natural causes. His book, The Moral Landscape, tries to make that argument. While I agree with almost everything that he says in the book, I don't agree that there is a universal, absolute way to define good and bad, or right and wrong. One of his arguments asks us to consider the universe with the worst possible misery for everyone. To him, this establishes a global anchoring point, and any move from that universe will result in less misery, and therefor be good. Though I haven't nailed it down yet, I feel that there is something wrong with this line of reasoning. Perhaps it has to do with the fact that -- no matter how bad the universe is -- I can always imagine a universe that's worse.

I cringe when I hear Dr. Harris authoritatively state things like female genital mutilation is objectively and universally wrong. It's not that I think genital mutilation is a good idea... I don't. But my reasoning is not motivated by a universal moral; it's based on my emotions. I would hate to see anyone subjected to that kind of torture, but that doesn't make it objectively wrong. It just feels subjectively wrong to me.

I routinely mutilate the bodies of other living organisms when I eat. Does that make me bad? Should I stop eating? And the rightness or wrongness of killing someone always seems to depend on the circumstances; were you defending yourself? These questions of morals always seem to hinge on your point of view. To me, that suggests that there are no objective morals.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

My first sermon

On Sunday morning, I gave a 20-minute talk during the service of the First Unitarian Congregation of Waterloo. My talk was entitled "Beliefs on Trial". My main point was that we cannot trust our own subjective impressions. There are many cognitive traps that we fall into, and they can lead us to believe in things that just aren't true. I gave a number of examples, including optical illusions, confirmation bias, and change blindness. Here is a video I showed, courtesy of Prof. Richard Wiseman.

The people there were very nice, and I really enjoyed myself. If I were a church person, THIS is the congregation I would belong to.

It's kind of a strange thing... many of the members are atheists and agnostics. And yet the service starts out with "Call to Worship". Begging the question, worship who?!

My sense is that this kind of church is meant for those who have rejected the other supernatural forms of religion (ie. ones that explicitly worship a supernatural God). But not going to church left a hole, so the Unitarian church is a way to have the community of a church, but without the guilt, hell and blind faith of most religions.

I thought my talk went well, and many nice folks approached me afterward saying that they enjoyed it. I appreciate that.

I had some interesting discussions after the service. In particular, I ended up talking to a woman who said she was a physician and a therapist. We talked about beliefs and how science does not know everything. True enough. But when the conversation turned to homeopathy, it came out that she is a believer. I said that there is no known mechanism for water memory. She retorted that "water memory" was just a place-holder description for an as-of-yet undiscovered phenomenon. That may be true. But there's still no evidence that it does anything. She seemed convinced that homeopathy works. But I reminded her of the main point of my talk, that it's easy for us to fall into the psychological traps and believe in the untrue. I was happy that someone else in the conversation saw things from my perspective.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Looks like Johnny Depp to me

Check out this image of the face of Jesus that appeared in a cheese pizza in Brisbane.You can buy it on eBay. Though, you can probably get a slice of pizza and a better photo of Johnny Depp for less.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Matlab liked my idea

Matlab is one of the most frequently used programming languages for science and engineering.

Though I can't verify it, it seems that Matlab has incorporated one of my ideas into its standard distribution.

Back in 2006, I was working on reconstruction algorithms for computed tomography (CT). Here is a video I made that demonstrates CT reconstruction. It takes the radon transform (at the bottom) and constructs the image slice (top).

I found Matlab's code slow, so I replaced the time-consuming part of their code with a faster version that I wrote. It was faster because I precompiled it using mex... nerd detail. I submitted my code to their File Exchange service so other people could benefit from it.

Anyhooo, in preparing my lecture on CT reconstruction today, I was suprised to see that Matlab's code was now faster than mine. WTF?!

I looked at their code, and saw that they had replaced the exact same part with mex code, just like I did.

Here is what a snippet of their original (slow) code looked like.

I replace it with the following code that calls the program I wrote (LinearBackproject).

And now this is what their new code looks like.

They even used my 0/1 flag (the last argument) to indicate to the iradonmex subroutine whether to use nearest-neighbour or linear interpolation.

Even if Matlab did use my code directly, I have no financial recourse. But it feels nice to be appreciated.

Friday, March 25, 2011

The Paradox of Choice: Book Review

Just finished listening to the audiobook version of The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less by Barry Schwartz.

I'd first heard of this book a while back, and it sounded amazing. I reconnected with it in a rebroadcasted episode of the Skeptically Speaking podcast (actually, radio show).

Here's the idea. You walk up to a samples table at the grocery store and are faced with 6 brands of jam. You can try any or all of them. After, you can choose to buy some jam, or mosey on with your other business.

Suppose instead that you are faced with 24 brands of jam instead of 6. Logic dictates that you're likely to find a jam that's superior to any of the 6 in the original scenario. Again, you are free to purchase.

Which scenario do you think garners the most jam sales? The 24-jam case? WRONG! Significantly more people opt to buy jam when there are only 6 brands to compare. ... I know... WTF!

Paradoxically (hence the title), including more options actually makes all options seem less appealing, even though it gives one more of an opportunity to find the BEST option. Why? Dr. Schwartz offers a number of reasons. For example, when faced with more options, you have more pressure to find the best.

Another example: Students taking a photography course were allowed to keep one of their prints. However, half were allowed to reconsider their choice, and had the option to change their mind and select a different one of their prints to keep. Even though very few actually exchanged their prints, a survey revealed that those with no option to trade were happier with their print. Somehow, adding the option to change their minds made the free-to-choose group less satisfied with their choice. Paradox.

While having too much choice can make you unhappy, he's careful to point out that too little choice can also be a problem. He's not condoning slavery and destitution. But most of us are offered more options than we can realistically understand.

One of his central theses is the differences between "maximizers" and "satisficers". A maximizer is someone who wants to consider ALL the options, and is seriously interested in finding the best. A satisficer, on the other hand, is someone who wants to find an option that is simply good enough. I can related to being a maximizer, thinking of each decision as a challenge. But Schwartz supplies ample evidence from the scientific literature that maximizers are less happy than satisficers. Well, that sucks.

Luckily, he offers suggestions on how to limit the impact of choice in your life, to make you happier and regret less. But you'll have to read the book to find out what they are.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Evolution and Beer, two of my favourite things

Now there's a beer for all you Darwinists,

The circular seal on the left says, "Created in 27 days, not 7". Here's what it says on the back label,

I bought it at a ski resort in Utah, near Salt Lake City.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

COSYNE Day 2: Mormon Temple Square

Many of the talks today were about the molecular mechanics of neurons. Not quite my cup of tea, since I didn't understand much.

I did, however, spend some time at the Mormon Temple Square. The buildings are beautiful. I was amazed to hear that this big chapel was started in 1853, and completed in 1889.

I toured the visitor centre. It was basically divided into 3 parts: (1) the building of the chapel, (2) the words of the modern prophet Thomas Monson, and (3) families.

I watched about 6 of the short sermons given by Thomas Monson, the current president of the Mormon church. He's also considered a prophet.

In one video about raising children, he talked about how early life experiences can affect a person. I was amused when he used phrases like "The evidence reveals..." He accepts scientific evidence when it's convenient, but rejects it if it contradicts his faith.

As I watched him speak, I became aware of the striking contrast between his talk, and the talks I'm attending at the conference. If anyone at the conference makes a claim that goes beyond their evidence, they are promptly called on it. Of course, you might argue that a sermon and a scientific conference are entirely different. But are they? In both cases, the expert is sharing their wisdom with others. The only real difference is that in a scientific conference you're free to question and demand evidence for claims. No so in religion.

I spent some time talking to a couple young lady missionaries; that's what they call the volunteers with the name tags that wander around looking to talk to visitors. One girl was from Ottawa, and she did almost all of the talking.

I asked her if Mormons were encouraged to talk to their peers about their beliefs. She said that they were, and that anyone would want to talk about their passion. I was relieved to hear that, and told her that I consider myself an evangelical scientist. I guess I agree with her on that, at least. So, she tried to talk me into becoming a Mormon, and I tried to talk her into becoming... a secular humanist, I suppose.

I was conscious that she kept us moving away from other visitors.

We basically established that her "evidence" is an emotional knowing, and is subjective. I told her - a number of times - that subjective truths can easily lead to irreconcilable conflicts. When religion A disagrees with religion B, who is right? Science, I continued, is based on objective truth, a reality that we can all agree on and share. She nodded politely. It seems that she prefers her own reality.

In case you're not aware, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints was started by Joseph Smith in 1830. Joseph had a revelation, in which God asked him to transcribe some gold plates into modern English. He was told where to find the plates, buried in New York state. The result was the Book of Mormon, considered by Mormons to be a new testament that rescues the Christianity that had gone off the rails. Disappointingly, the gold plates disappeared and went back to Heaven. The only remaining evidence is the Book, and the signed testimony of 11 witnesses that claim to have seen the plates.

That's a nice story, and might even be true. But I offered a different explanation. Perhaps Joseph Smith decided to start his own religion, so wrote a book and made up a story about it being divinely inspired.

The nice girl had never heard of Occam's razor, but I suggested that my explanation was in many ways more parsimonious... requiring fewer miracles (none, to be exact). That clearly pissed her off. She said, "Yes, even though there are 14 million of us", as if to imply that 14 million people can't be wrong. I said that many religions have lots of followers. I wish I'd thought to say that popularity dos not make something true. Flat earth, for example.

I felt bad for making her mad. I certainly wouldn't expect her to change her mind overnight, since her entire family would probably stage an intervention to reel her back in.

Friday, February 25, 2011


I'm at a conference in Salt Lake City, Utah. The conference is called Computational and Systems Neuroscience (COSYNE).

What have I learned so far?

That there are many MANY monkeys and mice out there with electrical probes in their brains. The majority of talks so far talk about measurements of neural activity in various regions of the brain, and the subsequent data analysis that tries to make sense of it all in light of the stimulus that caused the activity in the first place.

The first talk was amazing! E.J. Chichilnisky described a project in which they put a piece of a retina on an electrical array (that picks up electrical activity), and shone various configurations of light on the retina. Correlating the input image with the output electrical activity, he was able to isolate the activities of individual cone photoreceptors, as well as how the cones pool their activity for individual retinal ganglion cells - the long, thin neurons that are bundled to form the optic nerve. Basically, elucidating the wiring diagram of the retina, and what image processing gets done in the back of your eyeball. Cool.

I also learned that the visitors' centre of the Mormon Temple (The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints) is open from 9am to 9pm. The "sisters" that I spoke to were very friendly. I'm really curious to check it out, and find out what makes these people tick. I think I'll spend an hour or so tomorrow looking around and asking questions.

One more thing. I got a kick out of Chichilnisky's talk when he said that his "focus was on the retina".

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Homeopathetic logic

It's so cute when homeopaths try to talk all sciency. This web page tries to offer responses to common challenges to homeopathy.

Here's the challenge...
Argument #3: There is no scientific proof from placebo controlled human trials that homeopathy is effective therefore homeopathic remedies are nothing but a placebo.
And the response...
Rebuttal #3: Placebos are by far the best studied medicines. Their benefits have been evaluated and proven in every placebo controlled study ever conducted. Placebos definitely have an effect; in fact they have become the standard by which all pharmaceutical are compared. ...
How can you test the efficacy of a placebo in a placebo-controlled study? It's like saying you can fly by pulling up on your bootstraps.

But let's not lose sight of the most glaring issue. To quote the Homeopathy Evidence Check from the British House of Commons,
In our view, the systematic reviews and meta-analyses conclusively demonstrate that homeopathic products perform no better than placebos.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Free hotel

I just booked my hotel for the conference ICIAM. What a bargain! Here's the confirmation page.

Indeed, I had to enter my VISA number to pay $0. Hmm... somehow this seems too good to be true. I'll wait a bit, and then call to confirm the reservation.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Reverse Speech: Hear what you want to hear

That's the title of my latest SkepticNorth blog post. Check it out.

Thanks to my sister's band, The Rotten, for the picture of Jan, their lead singer.