Sunday, January 31, 2010


I love PhD comics. Here's another one that's right on the mark.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

For Good Reason

One of my favorite podcasts lately has been Point of Inquiry. DJ Grothe has great guests and he does a great job of showing multiple different approaches to rational thinking. So it was with mixed emotions that I heard the news that DJ would now be President of the James Randi Education Foundation. I suspected that this would mean fewer episodes of Point of Inquiry.
Well I was pleasantly surprised to see DJ is hosting a new podcast for the JREF called For Good Reason. Check it out. I just finished listening to it and I enjoyed it. This episode had an interview with James Randi about the future of his organization as well as some information about some scams that have hit the news lately. I don’t know if DJ will be able to continue to be able to host both podcasts but I look forward to future episodes.
One small disappointment: In the intro to the podcast there is a segment by Jamie Ian Swiss. It’s brilliant but has a few not safe for work words. I loved the podcast but would have loved it more if I could have been able to recommend to my kids and family members without having to give this caveat. I think many podcasts in this genre disqualify themselves from a large audience, school children, by not exercising a little restraint when it comes to their language.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Nonsense Intolerance cont.

As I’ve stated before I have a pretty low tolerance for nonsense masquerading as science. Well last Thursday I hit DEFCON 4.
On the way home from work I stopped by the library to pick up a few books that I had on hold. I also noticed that Victoria had a few on the shelf too. So I picked them up. One of them was a DVD titled simply “Brain”. The cover looked like a National Geographic type program. It looked interesting. I even had a pleasant conversation the librarian about how interesting it looked. After dinner Victoria suggested that we sit down as a family and watch it.
It started off just fine. Slick computer graphics showed cutaways of the brain. They then moved over to interview scientists who were doing research on that particular part. The format kind of reminded me of the Universe series that we really love. So the format felt comfortable. The first half hour of the program was just fine. I take issue with a little bit of the ethics of using this type of brain science to improve combat forces but the science was well done. Then it took a turn off the deep end.
The last half hour was about ESP. They extensively interviewed the unremarkable cold-reader, John Edward and explored his so-called psychic ability as if it was a foregone conclusion. That’s when I really blew my top. The first step to investigating any phenomena is to see it the phenomena really exists. You don’t speculate as to how something works until you’ve determined that it works. But that is exactly what Dr. Dean Radin did. And they gave him the last ten minutes of the show to spout his nonsense.
I completely lost it during one scene. Radin had speculated that during one of his readings Edward’s heart rate would synchronize with his subjects. When he tested it and found that their heart rates did not synchronize he interpreted this clear defeat by claiming that he must be syncing with the person who had passed on. Unbelievable! His test failed completely and he interprets the results as a success. But not just any success, a success that is unfalsifiable. How in the world could we test to see if Edward is syncing with a person who has crossed over? Radin has obviously convinced himself that psychic phenomena is real and all of his results, positive or negative are interpreted to support that forgone conclusion. The kids were laughing at me by this point. I was not reserving any comment and they thought it was funny that I was yelling at the TV. “You do know that they can’t really hear you, don’t you, Dad?”
I was patiently waiting for the token skeptical response. They had it. It was about a 15 second shot of the cover of Skeptical Inquirer with overdubbing that said little more than some in the scientific community question Dr. Radin’s research. That's it? Something as controversial as psychics and you can only spare 15 seconds and one still graphic.
After the program was over Victoria noticed that the program was produced by the History channel. If there is a more inappropriately named TV channel I can’t think of it. A close second it ABC Family. What in the world does a program on ESP have to do with History? But this is the same station that has marathons on UFO stories, etc.
So afterword I took advantage of the teaching moment to talk to the kids about what psychics really do. I showed them a few videos of psychics being tragically wrong and having no remorse about the consequences of their wild guesses. I then took out a deck of cards and showed them how I could steer the kids into picking the card I had chosen and making them think that they had chosen it. I then showed them a video of Dr. Richard Wiseman doing a psychic prediction and explained to them exactly how it works.
Hey I’d think it was really cool if ESP really existed. But it’ll take more than these con artists and their carefully selected rubes to prove it to me. Shame on the History channel for giving an once of credibility to these con artists and pretending that there is any scientific validity to ESP.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Appeal to Anti-Authority

If you’ve been following my blog for more than a few posts you’ll know that periodically I like to talk about logical fallacies. I just think it’s helpful to recognize the flaws in our thinking and make sure that we understand why the logic is incorrect and how to recognize it.
A commonly used logical fallacy is the appeal to authority. Just because somebody with authority in one field voices his opinion in a field outside his expertise does not make him an authority in that field. I’ve grown quite weary of the numerous Albert Einstein quotes being used to support things besides physics. His opinions on politics and religion hold no more weight than yours or mine. His opinions on physics however, are within his expertise and hold a little more weight. But even then there should be evidence to back up his claims and not just a pronouncement by a famous scientist.
What has me upset lately is that I see that many people are embracing an odd variation of this fallacy. I’ll call it “appeal to anti-authority”. In its simplest form the more credible somebody’s authority and evidence the more likely they are to be wrong. And the converse is also true. The more humble somebody’s experience the more likely they are to be right. Take this ad as an example. The advertiser is asking us to not trust our dentist, the real authority, and instead trust a single mom’s procedure to whiten teeth.
I just don’t know how to even respond to this twisted anti-logic. Should I now avoid going to my local garage when I have car trouble? Perhaps I should seek out somebody who explicitly has not had any training in Toyota Tundras to fix my check engine light. Yet this is exactly what many people do and it really scares me. Rather than trusting thousands of immunologists and getting vaccinated they are trusting the anecdotes of actors and putting kids at risk of catching serious diseases. Rather than trusting the evidence presented by thousands of climatologists they choose to believe the talking heads, most of whom don’t even have degrees in journalism let alone anything that grants then any authority on scientific matters.
I saw a series of books the other day at the library. The all started with the line “The Politically Incorrect Guide to…” I find it very sad that more and more Americans are accepting something being politically incorrect as proof that it is true. Something being politically accepted or politically incorrect is irrelevant to the truthfulness of the claim. What does the evidence say? I don’t care who believes the claim or who is offended by it.

“...the fact that some geniuses were laughed at does not imply that all who are laughed at are geniuses. They laughed at Columbus, they laughed at Fulton, they laughed at the Wright brothers. But they also laughed at Bozo the Clown. “
Carl Sagan

Monday, January 18, 2010

One of my Favorite MLK Jr. Quotes

“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” Martin Luther King Jr.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Picking Cotton

In 1984 Jennifer Thompson was raped. She spent one hour with her rapist’s face just inches from her own. She made a concerted effort to study her rapist’s face and learn every detail about him. If she lived through the night she wanted to be able to lock this guy up forever. And that is exactly what she did. However after being in jail for eleven years DNA proved that the man she had locked up without any physical evidence, just based on her description, did not commit the rape. Picking Cotton is this story

I’ve always been suspect of human memory, particular when it comes to our justice system. I’ve had personal experiences where my own memory did not line up with other facts. I know that how I remember the incident could not have been the case but somehow my recollection of the events has been altered. My experiences are completely trivial when compared to the eleven years that one man, Ronald Cotton, spent in prison for something that he did not do.

Since his release Cotton and Thompson have become very active in educating police systems at how to avoid the mistakes that happened in their case.

Reading this book was not easy. Sections will and should make you very uncomfortable. The serious miscarriage of justice that happened is not to be taken lightly. Cotton and Thompson’s story will have you squirming in your seats the next time you watch a cop show and they lock somebody up just based on witness identification. Or worse, the next time you hear of a death row inmate being denied a stay of execution and his conviction is based on even less than Ronald Cotton’s conviction.

Far from being bitter about the loss of so much of his adult life Cotton recognized that he and Thompson were victims of the same man, the real rapist Bobby Poole. Their story is one of the most heart warming tales of forgiveness that I have ever read. It will have you questioning a lot of your preconceptions about, justice, memory and what it truly means to forgive.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

The Peltzman Effect

Yesterday I listened to a podcast that talked a little bit about the Peltzman Effect. In simplest terms the Peltzman Effect is a theory that claims that the safer people believe they are the more likely they are to engage in risky behavior. I need to do more reading on this but the topic seemed to confirm my own observations. From what little I’ve read this is primarily an economic theory. If you believe that your investments are insured to a certain amount you’ll take more risks than if they were not. I’ve also seen many manifestations of this in other areas. Do high-wire walkers take more chances if they have a net? Increase the safety of cars by adding anti-lock brakes and massive crumple zones and some people take this as permission to bump draft on the highway like it’s a Nascar race. In my own experience I can think of several examples from the years when I used to do much more rock climbing. I did much more dangerous things on top-rope that I ever would have done on lead. And I took much more risks on lead that I ever would consider without a rope.
It seems that the appearance of removing the risk, even if it’s only marginally safer makes people behave disproportionately to the added benefit of the safety net. The net effect seems to be that people feel even more detached from the consequences of their decisions. The safety nets, the ropes, and the ABS brakes may actually encourage more risk taking and be less safe.
I’ve given this issue a lot of thought lately for many reasons. I’ve been considering getting my VW bus on the road again and it has no ABS brakes and the crumple zone is pretty much the driver’s and passenger’s legs. I’ve been trying to get in shape to do more rock climbing than I have in years past. But the biggest reason I’ve chosen to blog about this today comes from just being a father.
It’s natural to want to pad the sharp edges that you bumped into as a kid so your kids won’t have to learn the hard way. I also try hard to provide a decent financial safety net for my children. But I fear that in a small way I may be experiencing a little bit of the Peltzman Effect. By making things a little nicer for my kids than I had it I seem to be encouraging them to take risks that I would not have taken. I made a lot of stupid mistakes as a child. I wasn’t shielded from the consequences and in most cases felt the full brunt of those mistakes. As a parent it’s much easier said than done.
There’s a British sci-fi comedy that I really love, Red Dwarf. I think sci-fi allows you to explore ideas and themes that you really couldn’t explore in other formats. In one episode one of the main characters met his alter ego from a parallel dimension. In one dimension this character, Rimmer, was a sniveling middle management suck up with no loyalty and was inept and virtually friendless. In another dimension the same person had become, Ace, the dashing space pilot that everybody wanted to be around and was the hero of everything that he attempted. The two tried to figure out at what point in their life their paths took such drastically different paths, one becoming Rimmer and the other becoming Ace. They concluded that many years ago one of them cheated on a test and got caught, the other did not. The ironic thing is that Ace was the one that got caught and Rimmer had gotten away with it. Having that wake up call early in his life had caused Ace to sit up and re-evaluate what his life would become while Rimmer never had such a wake up call.
My fear is that I’m doing too much to interfere with the natural consequences and not letting my kids get the wake up call they need. As a parent who wants only the best for them that’s much easier said than done.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Random v Inappropriate

My kids, particularly the oldest two, have developed this annoying habit of saying something completely unrelated to the conversation that everybody else is having and then when they get funny looks just saying, “What? I’m just being random.” For instance during the middle of a conversation on where to eat one of them will just start singing a song that has nothing to do with food. “What? I’m just being random.”
Well yesterday I’d had enough. I don’t remember what we were talking about but we were trying to figure something out. It was probably about trying to co-ordinate our schedules. Well one of the kids pulled this act again and started talking about something completely off topic. And, you guessed it, I got the same response about just being random. So I went on a diatribe something like this.
“No, you are not being random. You are being inappropriate. A six-sided die is random. Occasionally, when you are looking for a six you will get a six. And when you are looking for a one occasionally you will get a one. If your outbursts are truly random then every now and then they should be on topic and still be classified as random. Since none of your outbursts that you label as random are ever on topic the conclusion seems to be that you are trying to be off-topic. Since you’re trying to be off-topic you aren’t being random. You are just being inappropriate. And I don’t appreciate it.”
At this point Victoria was laughing hysterically and told me that I had to blog this before I forgot about it. My only regret was that one of the prime offenders was not in the car and I’ll likely have to give this speech again soon.

Baloney Detection Kit

This is a very well done video that explains the basics of skepticism. Thanks to teacherninja for point this out to me.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Vigilant Realism

A few weeks ago Victoria pulled me aside to watch and interview with Barbara Ehrenreich on The Daily Show. Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America. A few years ago Ehrenreich was diagnosed with breast cancer. She was overwhelmed with well meaning people telling her to avoid any negative emotions and to stay positive. She began to look deeper into this cult like attitude that so many people have that you can jinx your health, relationships, and your carrier if you don’t always keep a positive attitude.
Not many of us enjoy being around a cynic all the time. Don’t mistake Ehrenreich’s criticism of the giddy optimism promoted by so many as cynicism. It isn’t. She merely points out that being unrealistic about things can be far worse than just the occasion outward sign of frustration of negativity.
Last month while reading Emotional Awareness the Dalai Lama and Paul Ekman pointed out that optimism can be just as destructive as pessimism if it prevents us from seeing events as they really are. Ehrenreich builds on this theme and shows case after case where people have been deluded by their own optimism. She goes in dept to point out how destructive this mindset can be. Blinded by optimism we set reason and rational reactions aside.
This book pulled from and added to many of the books and issues that I’ve been studying for the last few years. She tackled many of the peddlers of irrational optimism like, Oprah, Rick Warren, Joel Olsten, Zig Ziglar and many others.
Unfortunately we live in a time when a book that is literally about nothing more than wishful thinking is a best seller and celebrities and actors are seen as authorities on just about any topic just because they can share a personal anecdote. I’m sorry a personal anecdote is where science starts, not where it ends. Just because Suzanne Summers feels better after a colonic doesn’t make it science and foregoing real treatments can kill you with or without a positive attitude.
I really enjoyed seeing a book that was so passionately pro-science and anti-magical thinking get such good press. I couldn’t put it down.

“A vigilant realism does not foreclose the pursuit of happiness. In fact, it makes it possible.” Barbara Ehrenreich