Sunday, August 27, 2006

Dating Strategy

Just for the record: I am not in the dating market and I haven’t been for 17 years. Nor do I plan to be in the dating market again for the rest of my life. Some recent events have got me pondering single life in the 21st Century.
With all of the weirdness out there I can only imagine how hard it would be for a girl to find a decent guy to date. The whole concept of picking up guys in bars just seems to me like just sifting through the garbage to find the best groceries. Wouldn’t it be neat to go somewhere to find some guys who where nice, compassionate, healthy, clean and not gay. You’d almost want to have a questionnaire of some sort to see if the guy you were interested in was even worth further consideration. Well wouldn’t it be great if you could get somebody else to ask those embarrassing questions for you and sort of rubber stamp which guys passed so you didn’t have to waste any time with the rest? This is exactly what I think happened to me last Thursday.

At least once a month I donate platelets at the Red Cross in a process called aphaeresis. I’ve been doing this for years but it has taken a special importance to me since my niece and a good friend of my son’s had been diagnosed with cancers. Before you are allowed to donate they take you into a small room and ask about 30 questions to try to determine how clean your blood is. “Have you ever, even once, had $3x with a woman who has taken drugs with a needle?” This is one of the more tame questions. Suffice it to say that if the nurses allow you anywhere near the tables then you are clean, you are not a drug user, you have no body piercings, no dirty tattoos, you are charitable and not gay. At this point I was officially rubber stamped. So when the other donor came in and saw me already with the needles in my arm donating she just had to make the judgment of whether or not she thought I was cute.
After we’d both finished donating she dropped a few subtle hints that she was interested. It was only after we were in the elevator that she realized her one flaw in her dating strategy. The nurses did not prescreen the married guys. They put blankets on us while were donating so we don’t get too cold and frequently our hands are covered, so she wouldn’t have been able to see my ring. Perhaps we should let the nurses in on this little flaw so they can put the single guys on one side of the room and the happily married guy on the other. Just add it to the questions that they already ask us.
So to the cute, early twenties, brunette who gave platelets last Thurday. Good luck on your search. I hope you find a nice charitable guy who is clean, not gay and also not already married. I admire your strategy and I’m sure it’ll work better than bar hopping.

After relating this story to my wife she decided to blog it too. Here is her version.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Inbox Myths

With the advent of email the world became much more in touch. Information that a decade ago would have taken days to cross the planet now only takes a few bulk emails. For the most part this is a very good thing. However, along with this benefit comes the redheaded step child of email, the completely unresearched mass forwarded urban legend.

Do any of these sound familiar? Oliver North was afraid of Osama bin Laden back in the 80s. Mars is closer than it has been in centuries. Fred Rogers and Captain Kangaroo were decorated war heroes. The 9-11 flights were picked because of their graphic significance if you change the font to wingdings in Word. If they don’t then you may be the only person on the planet who has not been in the loop on the latest email legends.

I’m consistently amazed at how otherwise sensible, rational people will believe and forward on anything that shows up in their inbox. A few years ago I just used to erase these little annoyances as soon as I saw them. But for the last couple of years I’ve felt this need to research the data and forward the correct information to everybody on the lists. I frequent several websites that research these legends. I also subscribe to an email newsletter from that unbiasedly verifies political claims. I’ve heard it repeated in the political arena that “a lie unchallenged becomes the truth in 24 hours”. Perhaps it is this desire to set the record straight that motivates me.

I’ve had a few people criticize my actions by assuming that I was taking a political position on the email one way or the other. If I state that an email critical of Democrats is not factual that does not mean that I support the Democrats. If I show sources that Fred Rogers was never in the Marine Corp that does not mean that I think any less of Mr. Rogers or the Marine Corp. More often than not the position that I am taking is simply, this is not a fact and I will not use it justify my opinions one way or the other. Many times the facts I uncover go against my personal beliefs and desires. I mean I would love if Mars was going to appear as big as the moon next month but the truth is it just isn’t gonna happen. I just want to make sure that if I take any actions or form any opinions based on these emails that they are based on fact.

I guess my only point here is to say don’t trust everything you see in your inbox. And if you want to find out if something is true or not just send the email and I’ll do my best to ferret out the truth.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Voodoo Science

I just finished reading the latest in my series of books exploring the complicated mix of science, theology, and politics. Voodoo Science: The Road from Foolishness to Fraud by Robert Park. There are lots of silly pseudoscience claims out there and Robert Park addresses many of the most common ideas. Topics ranged from homeopathy and perpetual motion machines to EMF causing cancer and US military skunk works.

Without throwing so much science into the discussion that he would bore anybody but a physicist, Parks is clearly able to explain why the claims of homeopathy are impossible to prove either true or false. He follows the same path with many other pseudoscience claims such as cold fusion and gravity shields. If for this alone the book would have been well worth my time.

Park goes one step further. He explains, as he calls it in his subtitle, the road from foolishness to fraud. He believes that most proponents of these pseudoscience claims start out with good intentions but not necessarily with the most careful science to support it. After multiple attempts to gain credibility and validate their claims at some point he believes they realize their mistake and either choose to own up to it and take a few lumps or to continue on knowing that they are perpetuating a fraud. Personally I believe that most of the new age medicine claims like acupuncture, homeopathy, and reiki fall into this category. I believe that at one point most of the practitioners believed what they were peddling. They then chose to either ignore the mountain of evidence against it and continue in their self deception or accept the evidence but keep selling their craft as if it is science. Either way they are deceiving someone, if only themselves.

The big surprise to me in this book was his attack on the manned space flight program. I’ve always believed that Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, the shuttle and the ISS were first and foremost political adventures rather than scientific expeditions. Park analyses all of the scientific gains we have achieved from manned space flight and concludes that there is not one single scientific discovery that could not have been made cheaper and exponentially safer by sending unmanned probes. Park admits that the science behind manned space flight is real and therefore should not be classified as “voodoo” however due to the manipulation of science by politicians and the ultimate uselessness of manned space flight he chose to include it in this book. Having always been a fan of manned space flight this chapter was particularly eye opening.
I really enjoyed reading this. Because it challenged my beliefs in certain areas I will remember it longer than books that simply confirm what I've already believed.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Confirmation Bias

In the past few years I have taken several philosophy and critical thinking courses and read many books on the subjects. I also spend a fair amount of time reading the interaction of politics, theology and science. Time and time again I see in my reading and in my life experiences that one of the biggest critical thinking errors that people make is that of confirmation bias. That is when you accept the evidence that supports your beliefs and you disregard the evidence that contradicts your beliefs. For instance, if I believed that lottery numbers had some cosmic significance then it would confirm my belief to know that on September 11th, 2001 the winning numbers on the New York lottery was 9-1-1. But in order to accept that I need to reject the thousand of other events that do not confirm my numerologist beliefs. What were the number in Oklahoma when the federal building was bombed? How about the numbers during the first attack on the WTC? etc. etc.

To ease you minds a little I am not a numerologist. However, I have been very guilty in the past of confirmation bias. When a scientific breakthrough would prove certain dietary claims that went hand in hand with the Word of Wisdom I would accept those claims to justify my faith in the Word of Wisdom. In the process however, I would also have to reject certain other evidences like the studies that shows that a glass of wine each day can have a positive effect on your health. I enjoyed following the expeditions of Thor Hyerdal who built reed boats and sailed them from Africa to South America. They tended to support the idea that Lehi’s voyage was possible. But to accept this evidence it also meant that I had to ignore the mountain of evidence in South America that shows no link at all to the ancient middle-east.

Many scientists refer to the brain as a belief engine. It takes input from our senses and then turns that input into beliefs that will help us predict and cope with our chaotic world. When we see one event that follows another our “belief engine” makes a connection. The more often that sequence of events is seen then the more solidly that connection is made. By seeing crops grow after planting seeds and watering them you teach your brain that watering seeds causes crops to grow. The problem our brain has is that just because there is a correlation that does not mean there is necessarily a cause and effect relationship. If we continue to believe that this correlation is a cause and effect relationship we end up with weird beliefs like lucky bowling shirts and other illogical beliefs.

Looking at my own decision with a critical eye has helped me a lot. It has forced me to stop wasting effort on paths that will only lead to disappointment and it has helped me to focus on the aspects of my life that really make a difference. No longer am I wasting time trying to figure out why my lucky bowling shirt is lucky. I have just accepted that it isn’t and my game has improved. By no means am I claiming that I have eliminated confirmation bias. However, being consciously aware of why I choose to accept certain beliefs has really helped me to reach a mental peace and make sense of my surroundings.

Just for the record, the “lucky bowling shirt” is a metaphor for other events in my life. I bowl about once a month and I don’t remember which shirt I had on any of those times. I rarely bowl over 100 even with the kiddy bumpers up so I don’t think I could call any of those shirts lucky. :)

Monday, August 07, 2006

The Republican War on Science

I recently finished reading another book that falls into the Coke v. Pepsi genre that I described last week. This in my review of The Republican War on Science by Chris Mooney

Like nearly all political books you have to take into account the bias of the author when reading. Even with this in mind Chris Mooney does a very good job at explaining the flawed science that influences public policy. He touches on the abuses of science by liberals and personally I think it would have been a better book if he had shown a little more introspection into these events to add to his credibility. In spite of this Mooney shows issue by issue how the Republicans exaggerate uncertainty on well established science like evolution and then ignore the same rules they used to tear down one theory as they present their own counter theory that has even more uncertainty and is less established. He also fully documents several instances of paralyzing any action by simply regulating it to the point that no action is possible.
In many ways this book is much more eloquent at expressing my opinions about the relationship between science and politics. If you think something is a good policy for social, moral or even religious reasons then have the courage to say that. For instance; It is possible to agree that burning fossil fuels is contributing to greenhouse gases and still think that any policy change is premature. Even if I disagree, I can accept that policy. There is no need to exaggerate and try to debunk well established climate science in order to make your argument seem stronger. If you think that abortion is immoral then base your policy decisions on that alone. Don’t attempt to back up your policy decisions by exaggerating the potential of the existing stem cells in laboratories.
This is Mooney’s first book and a lot of it was rather tedious. However, I would recommend it to any scientist or to anyone who believes that logic and reason should have a place in political policy.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Coke v. Pepsi

I read a lot of nonfiction books. In particular I enjoy science books, theology and politics books.
I enjoy reading books on both sides of the coin. I like to hear the opinions of both sides so I can make up my mind for myself. I have grown up a member of "The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints" and I enjoy reading books on LDS history and theology. In contrast I also read what many members would call anti-mormon books.
I grew up Democrat and have since progressed towards the Libertarian party. I enjoy reading right-wing and left-wing books because I share many views of each.
In the science arena I also enjoy reading books that challenge my religeous views.
I find that many of these books fall into the category of telling what is wrong with the other side.
Although I understand their perspective I think that all too often their focus is not on what is right about their own argument. Sometimes I feel like I am watching a series of commercials. The first one tells me that Pepsi is better than Coke. The next one tells me that Burger King is better than McDonalds. Having taking many debate and logic classes and having a personal affinity for logic based arguments I think there are many flaws to this logic. Just because Pepsi says it tastes better than Coke does not mean that drinking caffienated sugar water is healthy. Just because Burger King tastes better than McDonald's doesn't make fast food good for you either. The same also flows for the books that I've read. Just because Ann Coulter can point out several flaws in the liberal agenda does not say anything at all about the valitity of the conservative agenda. Just because science can't prove that God exists does not mean that atheism is a healthy and good way to live.
I would like to find a few good books out there that focus on just what they have to offer rather than spending most of their pages pointing fingers at the other guys.