Friday, July 17, 2009

Diet Drinks

Earlier this week Aaron and I went to QT after scouts. We each got a fountain drink. Aaron asked me,
“What’s the deal with diet drinks?”
I got a little bit of a chuckle out of the question and told him that he needed to ask his mother that same question when she gets home. I then gave him a brief description of what her response would be. So last night we were walking around Ikea and Aaron pops the same question on Victoria,
“What’s the deal with diet drinks?”
Victoria went on complete autopilot and pulled out her prepared statement on why she dislikes diet drinks and read every point to Aaron, line by line. I’ve heard her diatribe about diet drinks several time. She didn’t miss a beat and hit every major point that I told Aaron she’d hit. At this point Aaron and I are just rolling and Victoria is just looking around confused, wondering what is so funny. We confessed that the previous few minutes were planned ahead of time and that she had played her part better than if we had handed her a script.
Last year I was in an online discussion and the subject came up that “the Mormon Church controls the Boy Scouts of America”. Like Victoria, and probably everybody else, I too have a cache of prepared diatribes that I pull out whenever certain subjects come up. I too went on autopilot and proceeded to state my reasons, and evidence that the Mormon Church does not control the Boy Scouts of America. I’d given the speech a few times before so I thought I knew what I was talking about. Over the course of the discussion it was shown that a couple of my facts were out of date. Specifically, I had made the claim that Thomas S. Monson was the only LDS member of the leadership committee of BSA. I was shown that although it used to be true there was at least one other member of the committee who was LDS. My prepared speech was out of date. The gist of it was still correct and I still stand by my initial claim, but my supporting details need to be updated. So I did a little more research to see what else had changed.
For the record I agree with Victoria’s assessment of diet drinks and I don’t know if any of her supporting facts have changed in the last few years. Both of us routinely just order ice water with a little bit of lime rather than ingest the artificial sweeteners in most diet drinks.
My only point in sharing these two stories is that they have given me pause for reflection. How many prepared speeches do we have cached away ready to give at a moment's notice? I’m sure we all have quite a few. Are the facts up to date? When was the last time you verified them? Have you given the issue an honest re-evaluation or are you still basing your opinions on the way things were when you first formed that opinion? Perhaps it’s time to pull out those speeches and give them a second look. If, after careful evaluation, you still feel the same and the facts still support your position, Great! If, on the other hand, things have changed the other direction does that effect your opinion on the issue? I just think that it’s healthy to periodically question our beliefs, especially those that we cherish the most.

Victoria is dead right about diet drinks. Most of them are rather nasty and unpalatable. I’ve become a little more tolerant of Sprite Zero lately but I still prefer just ice water with a little bit of lime. If you want to really have some fun with Victoria start talking about how you really love dark meat chicken. Incidentally I agree with her on that one too. She’s just got a better diatribe than I do.

Relative Dangers

A few weeks ago we got an email at work from the hive-overmind. The email told us that we needed to get rid of all plants that we might have in our cubes. The reasoning they gave for it was that “plants collect dust and can release spores into the air which may be harmful to people.” No sooner had I read that, I heard a coworker scream “Well yeah but they also collect CO2 and release oxygen which can be helpful to people!” I got a kick out of his response, especially since I’m the one labeled as the “tree-hugger”.
The email got me thinking about a much larger issue. How often do we avoid something because of the potential negative effects without properly weighing the potential benefits? And how often do we not consider the risks of what we would do instead?
We’ve heard it before with the controversy over airbags and children. Many group vilified airbags for a few deaths without considering the overwhelming benefit that airbags offer. One of my kids asked me a few years ago “Why do they put things in cars that kill kids?” He was talking about airbags. I had to explain that airbags are a safety device and in the overwhelming majority of cases they save kids lives.
Last week I was invited to go out to lunch with some co-workers. I respectfully declined since I wanted to get my lunchtime walk in. He told me that I was going to get killed walking along the roads around the office. He was concerned about the potential dangers of the traffic and ignoring the benefits of a 3 mile walk every lunch hour. Sure walking on the sidewalk can be dangerous but so can going out to lunch and eating a high fat lunch and then sitting in front of a computer for 8 hours a day.
I frequently get criticism for going rock climbing. I like to point out that, assuming everything is done correctly, the drive up and back is probably more dangerous than anything I would do on the rock.
I guess I'm just concerend that some really good ideas might be tossed aside for some relatively minor risks without consdiering the risks of what we would use to replace them. I can think of several hot button political issues that we should also exercise thsi same type of anaylisis.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Gambler's Fallacy.

After reading the Drunkard’s Walk I became even more aware of some of the logical fallacies that people use to support their beliefs and opinions. Last weekend I had a conversation with a few friends and I was surprised that three of them were all guilty of the gambler’s fallacy. The gambler’s fallacy is the belief that after a string of one type of result you become “due” for the other. It’s called the gambler’s fallacy because many believe that after a string of bad luck the odds start have to tip in their favor soon. In reality the previous events are completely independent of the next event. If I flip a coin the odds that it will be head is 1 chance in 2. Now suppose I have flipped 5 heads in a row already, does the coin know somehow “know” that it’s supposed to not be 1 in chance in 2 of falling heads but somehow it will be less likely? This is the most basic example, but I’ve heard highly educated people who should otherwise have a firmer grasp of statistics than the average gambler still make this same error in logic. Sometimes its with a sports player who hasn’t been performing as well as he should. Fans believe that he should be coming “due” for some good luck.
The conversation over the weekend focused around hurricanes. Many of us had gone to Florida and the gulf to help rebuild after the 2004 and 2005 seasons. They expressed the feeling that since the last few years showed less than average hurricane activity that we were “due” for a bad season. Just like the coin has no record of how the previous coin flips turned out the weather doesn’t keep track of the previous year’s hurricane counts. Now I support their position that we should be prepared to go down and assist again if those folks should need it. I just don’t agree with the logic that they used to get to that conclusion.

Creatures of Habit

So this morning as I walked to the door of our office building there was another employee waiting there. Our building has an electronic card reader and then about a foot above that is a button that opens doors. She was waiting outside because she didn’t think her card was being read. I walked past her and simply opened the door for her. She was amazed that my card worked and hers didn’t. Now here’s the catch. I hadn’t scanned my card. Apparently the card reader was working just fine but the handicapped door opener button wasn’t working. She had grown so used to her pattern of holding the card in her hand an hitting the button that when the door didn’t open she thought she was locked out, even though she could have just walked up to the door an pulled it open just like I did. Later on I noticed that a crew was out to repair the door, which was knocked out by the lightning last night.
I’ve heard similar stories of people think they were locked out of their cars just because the battery was dead on their remote. The event got me wondering how many times I’ve done similar things.

Monday, July 06, 2009

God's Problem

Bart Ehrman is a biblical textural researcher. He makes a living researching the original texts that we have used to compile the Bible in its current form. I’ve read many of his books. Perhaps his best is Misquoting Jesus, which I reviewed on this blog a few years ago. Ehrman quite convincingly showed that many of the doctrines that some Christian’s cling to are mistranslations and sometimes not even in the original texts. The book reads not as a direct criticism of faith in general but as a caution not to get too hung up on the wording of a certain passage that may have been drastically different or even non-existent in the original texts. I really enjoyed this book. Ehrman was in his element and speaking from his wealth of experience studying the original texts of the Bible, particularly the New Testament.

In the last few years, thanks to Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code and the discovery and preservation of the Gospel of Judas Iscariot, Ehrman has written other popular books that focused again on the original texts of the New Testament. I also enjoyed both of these books. They were right up Ehrman alley. In his book about the DaVinci Code he was able to shed light on what the texts actually claimed and not just how Dan Brown distorted them to tell his story. Other rebuttals of The DaVinci Code fell flat in comparison to Ehrman’s book. The others just came across as angry Christian apologetics rather than well thought out logical responses.

Ehrman was also one of the best choices to write a book about the Lost Gospel of Judas Iscariot since he was active on the team that studied and translated the recently recovered codex. I found his detailed personal account of what it took to translate and preserve this codex absolutely fascinating.

So with his history of very enjoyable books I was somewhat disappointed with God's Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question--Why We Suffer. Here Ehrman strays from strictly examining the texts and reporting what they say or don’t say. The book reads as a scholar who used to have faith but lost it. The cathartic story of his loss of faith is moving, but it’s a vastly different theme than his previous books. And in the long run I just didn’t care. It doesn’t matter to me if you are a man of faith or an atheist. You’re personal response to the information you convey should be irrelevant to the facts. Although I sympathize, his continual personal stories grew more than a little tiring. I felt that most of the book was an explanation to his family about why he no longer considers himself a Christian.

The rest of the book goes into graphic detail about how nasty, selfish and down right mean the God of the Old Testament appears in the texts. Although I agree with most of the analyses and statements he made I just didn’t feel like he was saying much, if anything, new. There are plenty of recent books that handle just this topic. Perhaps if I had read God’s Problem before I’d read The God Delusion or The End of Faith I would have a different opinion. Ehrman is better qualified to criticize than either Dawkins or Harris. Besides these two that I have read there are several others including the very mean spirited God is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens.

In this flood of what can fairly be called evangelical atheist books God’s Problem just seems to be needless repetition. I look forward to reading future Ehrman books as long as he focuses on what he does best and doesn’t get to preachy.

Sunday, July 05, 2009

The Drunkard's Walk

My poor blog has been neglected lately. Not because I haven’t had any good ideas to post about, but simply because I haven’t had the time to slow down long enough to type them up. I’ll get things back on track with a few book reviews.
Humans have what seems to be a pathological inability to comprehend statistics. We tend to think things are freak occurrences but, when you analyze the probability we see that they are actually quite ordinary. We interpret it as some kind of an omen when a stain on the wall of the burn pattern in a piece of French toast appears to vaguely look like you deity of choice. Yet how many pieces of toast have you had that didn’t look like that and why do you think that they would choose this way to manifest themselves?
In The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives Leonard Mlodinow explores exactly these issues. The book starts out with a very intriguing history of the study of statistics. If for this history alone the book would have been well worth the read. But Mlodinow makes the history much deeper by exploring the many ways in which we misunderstand statistics and what it means for something to be truly random.
I’ll share a short story form the book that illustrates how humans are very poor judges of what it means to be random. Several years ago when Apple first came out with their iPod they had a cool feature that would randomly pick the next song rather than play the list in order. Neat huh? Well they started to get complaints. Sometimes the feature would play songs from the same artist consecutively. And sometimes they would repeat the same song with only a song or two between playing. Occasionally it would even play the same song back to back. This lead people to believe that their randomizer function wasn’t working properly. After a bunch of complaints they changed the algorithms. They’ve inserted code that won’t allow the player to play songs from the same artist consecutively. It also makes sure that the same song is not replayed for quite some time. What I find really funny about this whole process is that in order to make the order of the songs seem more random they actually had to make it significantly less random. Apple had to go out of their way to create a pattern that was NOT truly random because humans thought that the truly random shuffler was flawed.
This is just one example of the many ways that we fail to grasp statistics and how randomness affects our lives. I found this book very entertaining and eye opening.