The Digital Plague

It occurs to me that many of you may not be aware of a very serious epidemic that’s been silently ravaging the globe, so I’d like to take this time to talk with you about it. Before I begin, let me start with the obligatory disclaimer: I am not an epidemiologist. I do not have a degree in virology or anything similar. What you are about to read may not be 100% medically accurate, and I apologize in advance for any inaccuracies. Where I lack the medical jargon to deliver this information with clinical precision, I have instead substituted analogy. In the many places I am sure to deviate from good science, you are encouraged to take my words as the metaphor they are intended to be. Do not give in to the affliction I am soon to discuss. Engage your irony sensors before objecting. Let us now begin to discuss the digital plague—digititis, if you will.

Common symptoms include:

Headaches, vomiting, and nausea in one’s neighbors. Mental flatulence. Reflexive disagreement. Inflamed sense of self-importance. Uncontrollable urge to make everyone know how right one is. Inability to back down. Intermittent fusion of one’s cranium and buttocks.

Of course, this list is not comprehensive, and some of the items need elaboration, so let’s begin, shall we?

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TAM 2012

Do you like science, skepticism, rationalism, critical thinking, magic (the real unreal illusion kind), humor, and other awesome things? If so, go here, and lose the rest of your day to TAM 2012 related things, including links to recordings of various presentations.

Don’t blame me for any loss of your day, though. Seriously.

Edit: Boo. All the big stuff is on the first page. It gets pretty thin pretty fast. I’m sure more will be released in the future, since apparently most of the talks were recorded. Patience is not a virtue of mine, however. (Aw hell, it’s not even a virtue.)

Here are the videos worth watching so far:

Carol Tavris, Ph.D. – “A Skeptical Look at Pseudoneuroscience” – TAM 2012

Jamy Ian Swiss – “Overlapping Magisteria” – TAM 2012

If you don’t know what rbutr is (Shame on you!), watch this one (the audio sucks): rbutr at TAM2012 – Tim Farley’s Workshop

The Sound a Duck Makes

Hey, you know what’s bullshit? Aromatherapy.

“As a holistic practice, Aromatherapy is both a preventative approach as well as an active method to employ during acute and chronic stages of illness or ‘dis’-ease.”

No, sticking nice smelling things in your nose on on your feet or chakras or whatever other nonsense is not preventive medicine. It’s just perfume for newage hippies.

“It is a natural, non-invasive modality designed to affect the whole person not just the symptom or disease and to assist the body’s natural ability to balance, regulate, heal and maintain itself by the correct use of essential oils.”

Hey guys, guess what! If you use vaguely sciencey-sounding words like modality, people might not notice that you’re completely full of it! Yay!

The body is not some discrete entity that gets sick because it’s not “vibrating at the right level.” It isn’t full of an invisible, intangible* energy web that controls physical well-being. We get sick because either 1) foreign invaders are thriving inside of our bodies by killing off the native fauna and too rapidly reproducing; or 2) because some of the organisms comprised by “the body” are themselves damaged. The body is a microcosm of cooperating and competing life forms. Our brains give us the illusion of selfness, but we are, each of us, a multitude.

It’s a bit funny, I think, that both sides of the political climate use the same ridiculous argument. On the right, “evolution is just a theory.” On the left, “germ theory is just a theory.” Seriously guys, science has got this one covered too.

* How strange that only newage woo-meisters are capable of detecting this "energy!" There's one
group that really profits from the placebo effect. And people accuse Big Pharma of immorality...

Nature’s Law and Gods

The Laws of Nature

What are “laws of nature?” In the conventional sense of the word law, we see a meaning akin to “a rule that people must abide by.” In the governmental sense, laws do not absolutely restrict; they can be broken, even if there are penalties for doing so. When discussing natural laws, this is not the case. Natural laws cannot be broken. This tells us that we are dealing with a very different sort of idea when we use this version of “law.”

I fear I may have just set the stage for a massive deception, however. If you conceive of natural laws as similar to those of the legal sphere (only unbreakable), you’re going at it entirely wrong. The laws of nature are not some combination of metaphysical sliding scales that determine the speed of light, logical progression, mass, energy, or the deliciousness of cheesecake. The laws of nature are deceptively mislabeled—they do not decide the parameters of reality; they merely describe the things we’ve identified as consistent in the observations we’ve made about our universe. These “laws” have been rewritten several times as new information has been discovered. Newtonian physics led to relativistic physics. Observations made under a microscope do not apply to forces acting at the Planck scale or in quantum physics.

In the same way that we might describe a tune played in a minor scale as somber or one in major as uplifting, the laws of nature describe the observable cosmos. As we discover new things, we are forced to refine or reevaluate what we had previously taken to be “law.”

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Disproving Evolution

Creationists love to try to disprove evolution, but they always miss the mark. Why is that? Well, the most obvious reason is that they simply don’t understand it. That’s what perplexes me so much. How can you hope to attack a scientific model you know nothing about? It would be like telling a Muslim that Islam is wrong because it forces its adherents to eat pork!

When I engage with Christians about specific doctrinal issues in the Bible,* I’m often told that I don’t properly understand Christianity. (This particularly amuses me when I’m using one Christian’s arguments against another’s. See also.) In my limited understanding of the Bible, I am told, I simply do not understand the greater context in which a specific passage (e.g., the pro-slavery ones) is meant to be taken. The Bible has contradictions, and each Christian handles these in their own way. Science works differently; because it’s far less individualistic, there’s less room. The scientific process works only thanks to a vigorous interpersonal process of bias-elimination, falsifiability, and objectivity. It’s a collective process, meaning that many minds contribute to the development of any given theory.

This makes it incredibly implausible that one ignorant creationist (and all of the young Earth ones fall under this category) will find “the one proof” that “evolution is false.” If you’ve thought of it, chances are that some biologist somewhere has already encountered the idea. If your criticism had any merit, the evolutionary model would be rewritten to account for it or discarded entirely.

Within the specific perspective of individual creationists, of course, it’s not all that surprising when they believe their criticism disproves evolution. This is because they are simply mistaken about what evolution is. What they are attacking (and indeed, probably successfully!) is nothing but a straw man—an erroneous construct that does not correspond to the actual position it is meant to refute (in this case, the scientific theory of evolution). If I were to suggest that all Christians are immoral because they are all pro-slavery, this would be a straw man because, while the Bible does advocate slavery, most Christians do not support this practice. Both Hanlon’s razor and personal experience suggest that creationists are not deliberately misrepresenting the theory of evolution; they have merely been grossly misinformed about what that theory says.

Jerry Coyne has a list of seven things that could actually disprove (or seriously discredit) the theory of evolution, and it’s a pretty good, concise analysis. In the event that you come across one of those ignorant creationists, this list can be a helpful thing in answering the question, “How would you know if you’re wrong?” These are concrete, evidential findings that we might expect if the theory of evolution were wrong.

How would creationists know if their beliefs are wrong? If the answer is “we can only know after death,” that should set off a pretty big red flag.

* As time goes by, I do this increasingly infrequently. Why? I've come to realize that most Christians do not
actually believe in the Bible. Instead, they believe in their own personal interpretation of the Bible, which
often actually just means the interpretation that their priest/pastor/whoever has told them to believe.

As an aside, I'd also like to point out that an omnipotent god would be capable of guaranteeing that its holy
book would be instantly and unambiguously interpretable so that anyone in the world would be able to precisely
follow that god's mandates without requiring sixteen years of training in apologetics.

Screw Your Preconceptions (Part 2)

As a follow-up to this post, I’d just like to point out the difference between sex and gender. Sex is seen as biological while gender is a social construct. What it means to be a man or a woman varies by culture (masculinity in Mexico is not at all the same as masculinity in Japan, for example). What this means is that a person can be biologically XY (sex) while also being female EDIT: a woman—thank you to ellenfremedon for the correction—(gender). Even this man-woman dichotomy is an erroneous preconception, however! Humans have more than two sexes, and genders vary so much across the world that I wouldn’t want to have the job of counting them all. And just in case you were wondering, etiquette dictates that you refer to someone with the pronoun appropriate to their gender, not their sex. (When in doubt, ask, but don’t be a jerk about it.)

Simple Answers for Simpletons

It can’t just be me—surely other people have noticed the freakishly high frequency at which people who are trying to sell you something will insist that their product is easy to understand. In the public sphere, every time I hear a politician advocate for common sense solutions, I throw up a little in my mouth. Running a country (especially one with over 300 million people in it) is not easy. It’s can’t possibly be simple. Anyone who tries to convince you otherwise is lying to you.

Here’s a simple statistic: the US government spends over $400 million dollars … per hour. Can you even imagine that much money? Most people don’t make anywhere near that much in a single lifetime. (Indeed, most won’t even earn even one percent of that.) The US government spends that much every single hour.

Common sense has absolutely nothing to do with such a system.

You know what else common sense has nothing to do with? Anything. This alleged common sense thing is complete crap. It’s just crap. Common sense is an intuition, and intuitions are inconceivably unreliable. Seriously.

Creationists say that biologists are wrong about evolution. Why? Because it’s easier to believe goddidit. According to them, that’s a common sense answer. Those creationists who insist on trying to develop further reasons have been rather prolific, and you could end up wanting to claw your own eyes out before you finished reading all of their nonsense. (I recommend you stop before reaching that point.)

Denialists of global climate change deny that the planet is warming. Why? Because some scientists’ emails were leaked without context, and some of the stuff they said looked fishy, so obviously all scientific conclusions about climate are false. To them, easier to believe in a conspiracy than it is to understand all the complicated science that goes into climatology.

Birthers continue to insist that Barack Obama is ineligible for the office of the Presidency. Why? Because he’s black. Or something. Actually, I don’t really get this one at all. I guess “amazingly sophisticated multi-generational international anti-American plot” seems far more likely to them than “all the available documentation that demonstrates his US citizenship is authentic.” Whatever.

The point is that there are a lot of people who try to oversimplify reality to sell you a message, and these people are terribly misinformed. (I wanted to say evil, but Hanlon’s razor won out. I’m willing to believe that most of them are just well-intentioned fools.)

So in keeping with this spirit of oversimplified and/or completely wrong answers being given in lieu of actual reasoning, I’d like to address this little gem I came across today. Get your barf bag ready because it offers “six straight-forward reasons to believe that God is really there.” And you know what? They’re uniformly terrible reasons.

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