Faith Balanced By Reason

I recently ran into someone using that phrase in a discussion I was involved in. In about half a second this jumped into my brain:

Because the truth is there is no such thing as "balancing" faith with reason, at least not the kind of "faith" we are talking about in the context of religion which is where this phrase is inevitably utilized. Faith is UNreason. Faith is what is resorted to when you realize reason isn't going to support you believing in that thing you really want to believe in. But people don't want to look at it that way, so they instead try to make this silly argument that if they mix in enough reason over here then that it somehow mysteriously offsets the areas where they're not being reasonable over there.

Sorry folks, doesn't work that way.


The Abortion Debate

So I was reading Andrew Sullivan's blog the other day and came across a reference to this bit of nonsense from E.D. Kain. The entire thing can be read at the link, an excerpt follows:

If you believe in your heart of hearts that an unborn child is nevertheless a child – a living, growing, human being – and yet the law of the land dictates that said living, growing human being is not in possession of even the most basic right – the right to life – then how different is this from slavery?

Ugh. Let us re-phrase Kain's idiotic comment in a different context. I believe we can all grant that I am a person? And that I myself enjoy a "right to life"? Tomorrow I am diagnosed with a serious illness. My liver is shutting down. I'm dead in a day if I don't find a liver donor to donate a piece of their liver to me to keep me alive.

There is one compatible donor available.

They say no.

OMG Slavery! My right to life has been denied to me!

Is anyone incapable of seeing the idiocy of that statement? Yes... I have a right to life... however NO person, anywhere in our society, under any conditions... enjoys the kind of "right to life" Kain is claiming is being denied to the fetus. A right to life that over-rides another person's right to control over their own damn body. I cannot declare that because I need a piece of that person's liver to continue living they are legally required to consent to the surgery to cut it out of them and give it to me because I have a "right to life".

But let's go further.

I've been in a car accident. Some idiot drunk driver swerved into my lane and I'm in bad shape. I need a blood transfusion or I'm going to bleed out. I'm a rare blood type. There is exactly one person available who give me the blood to keep me alive. Just give me some damn blood... a little prick with a needle and some temporary inconvenience. Almost non-existent risk. I STILL can't invoke any "right to life" to make that person do it because it's their damn body, not mine.

The person in question is the drunk driver who hit me.It's his fault I'm in this situation! Guess what? STILL can't force them to do it. Their body, their call, no exceptions EVER. And I am not being in any way made a "slave" by having some non-existent right to commandeer another person's body to keep me alive denied to me. And there is damn good reason for that, going down the road where you start saying people can place themselves in positions where they irrevocably forfeit the right to control over their own bodies? THAT gets us slavery.

And if I, an undisputed person with a "right to life", can't require another person to do something as trivial to their body as give a little blood against their will to save my life then someone explain to me what "right to life" Kain is blathering about that would let another "person" require a woman to undergo an entire nine month pregnancy and the act of birth against her will, which is what we are talking about when we talk about making abortion illegal.

If Kain wants to toss the word "slavery" around he might want to take a good long look at what the word means and then have a good long think about what making abortion illegal would involve. He's directing the term at the wrong side of this argument.


Ervin Laszlo's Forum

Anyone who has actual read through the older postings here may be aware that an article he wrote provoked the first substantive post on this blog.

Since then he's established what he is calling the "Forum On Science And Spirituality". So far it is heavy on the latter and light on the former.

The most recent posting there to catch my eye is one that decided to make use of a popular tactic employed by people who peddle bizarre claims that science has dismissed or shot down. It goes something like "oh yeah!? Well scientists thought Einstein was wrong once upon a time!".

The offending article in question is right here.

My response can be read in the comments section there, or right here:


I find myself continually disappointed in the understanding of basic scientific principles demonstrated by contributors to what is supposed to be a “science and spirituality” forum. This time we find ourselves confronted with the old canard that once upon a time people resisted proposals from the likes of Einstein or Galileo and therefore science types should be more open minded to new ideas because they’ve been wrong to dismiss hypotheses before.

Completely overlooking the fact that these were both examples of science working the way it is *supposed* to work. Science is skeptical by design, and for good reason. You are not entitled to simply stroll in with a new hypothesis that sounds interesting and have everyone instantly take you seriously. You WILL be challenged, vigorously and ruthlessly. Your idea WILL be required to bring evidence to the table to support it… the more “revolutionary” it is the higher the bar will be set because the more currently established evidence it must call into question and require re-interpretation of and we don’t just do that willy nilly because someone thinks “wouldn’t it be neat if…” That would result in limitless wastes of everyone’s time to the detriment of the entire process. Sagan summed this principle up most succinctly with his observation that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”.

You will notice that initially harshly challenged these revolutionaries may have been.. but they were given opportunity to make their cases, and when that was done their ideas were relatively rapidly accepted, incorporated, and built upon. If you have a revolutionary idea that is actually correct, then you can find the evidence to demonstrate that and you can present it, and your hypothesis will undergo *and survive* all the testing and challenges and attempts to falsify it which it will then be endlessly subjected to and science will continue it’s march forward with your new idea tucked firmly in with the other theories and hypotheses which have met the very deliberately harshly rigorous criteria science sets for claims to knowledge. If you cannot bring that evidence to the table then your idea will rightly be marched right over top of and ground underfoot.

To imply that the proper and deliberate application of the critical review required by the scientific method is nothing more than the stubborn clinging to of “old dogmas”, and to attempt to draw any degree of relation between this and the resistance to contradictory information encountered in the confines of religious teachings and church hierarchies demonstrates a profound lack of familiarity with how science operates and why it enjoys it’s unparalleled success at uncovering new information about the world while slaying erroneous or just plain useless ideas one after another.



I miss that guy... as a posting at Pharyngula just highlighted.

Ignorant, Stupid, or Delusional?

a.k.a. "the three degrees of cluelessness".

It's an unfortunate fact that there is a strong tendency for people to lump these three things together, mainly because their observable effects tend to be prettty much identical... the making of spectacularly stupid statements.

The problem is if you don't differentiate between someone saying something stupid because they've never been taught any better, someone saying something stupid because they're genuinly not bright, and someone saying something stupid because they've decided they have a preferred view of the world and to hell with any pesky facts that contradict it... then you've basically decided that you're not in the business of changing anyone's mind about anything. The status quo is just fine with you. For example, this guy appears to have no interest in doing anything but hurling invective at people on the internat all day. Does he need to differentiate between the ignorant and the stupid to do so? Well, no. I'm not sure exactly what he gets out of doing what he does, but whatever.

For those of us interested in actually teaching people things however differentiating between those three classes of people matters. Because an alternate set of terms for them is:

Teachable, Teachable With Difficulty, and Not Worth The Effort.

If you are responding to every stupid infactual statement someone makes by calling the person who makes it a retarded fuckwad you are driving away those that might be educated with even a little effort. And if the existence of people who make stupid statements is irritating enough to you that it evokes that kind of response one would think you had a legitimate interest in reducing their numbers. Which means at least engaging with the teachable, if not the "teachable with difficulty".


At first glance it can be hard to tell the difference between these three types of people of course. Some individual came storming in to your discusion of the evidence for the age of the earth ranting about how the magnitic field of the planet is decaying therefore the earth HAS TO BE YOUNG!!!!


Ranking Presidents

Every few years the Sienna College Research Institute conducts a survey of historians to rank the US presidents. they just finished the latest round since 2002. Anyone who follows politics in the US even a little will probably have heard Bush or his supporters saying how history will judge his legacy kindly. Well, history has a long way to go:

Worst Ever: A. Johnson, Buchanan, Harding, Pierce and G.W. Bush

Bush was ranked 5th worst of all time.

Now that alone is pretty bad... but frankly if I was surprised by anything it was that he managed to come in that high. So I decided to figure out why. It's just... sad.

The rankings were conducted based on 20 independent criteria... these were Bush's rankings in each (out of 43):

Now, there are 3 categories he did uncharacteristically well on relative to his general performance... and 2 he did somewhat better on. Let's take them in order.

Bush's Great Presidential Strength
Criteria # 7. Bush's top score out of all 20 criteria evaluated. He ranked 18th out of 43 on this one. It was....


I shit you not.


Defining a Bailout

Did I mention I'm Canadian?

Well, I am. And recently while I've been keeping up on economic news I've been encoutering two really popular themes about the home country.

  1. "Canada's banks are really, really stable."
  2. "That's a LIE! The government gave them a massive bailout!!!"
So, which is it? (Spoiler: It's the first one.)

First, some examples of people making the latter claim. This guy at Pacific free Press"Sean" in the comments section. The people at "Global Research". etc...

I'm particularly dissapointed in that last one... I'd expect someone who uses the word "research" in the name of their very organization to, well, research things. And it's not like it takes a lot of reseacrching to find the problem in these claims after all. Opening a dictionary and looking up the definition of two little words would get the job done:

  1. Bailout: noun. A rescue from financial distress.
  2. Insurance: noun. A promise of reimbursement in the case of future loss.
Now, let's look at what that link at "Global research" has to say about how the Canadian governemnt "bailed out" the Canadian banks, shall we? I'm going to go ahead and highlight a word in the statement they spend consireable time ranting about:

"Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) will purchase up to $25 billion in insured mortgage pools as part of the Government of Canada’s plan, announced today, to maintain the availability of longer-term credit in Canada." (Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation Supports Canadian Credit Markets, CHMC Press Release, 10 October 2009)
So apparently the Canadian banks were rescued from the financial distress of... holding a bunch of mortgages that they were guaranteed not to lose a penny on.

Wow, they must be so grateful for that "bailout".

What actually happened, is that the government bought the mortgages so that the banks would have more cash on hand to engage in more lending. And the reason the government wanted this to happen is because at the time the global recession was seizing up credit markets all over the world and they wanted to make sure Canadians kept ready access to credit while this was happening. It was a simple recession-fighting measure that had nothing to do with rescuing (a.k.a "bailing out") the Canadian banks. There was nothing to rescue them from.


People who just aren't helping.

This will require a little background...

A few weeks ago while I was engaging in some discussion about evolution in a comments section somewhere I encountered a poster who goes by the name of "Human Ape" who is... well, very angry about some things. That's something I can empathize with, since I happen to get pretty angry about a lot of the same things he does.

I didn't really have much interaction with him but apparently he clicked through the links to my blog, read some stuff here, and posted a comment in "The Creationist Mindset" post stating, and I quote:

"Lance is a typical creationist. Too stupid to understand anything. I admire the patience you have with idiots."
I replied, and moved on. Then the other day while I was wandering through the blogosphere I came across this post on his blog.

First of all, asshole Christians, intelligent design creationism and Bible creationism are the exact same things, and if you deny this obvious fact you're a fucking liar.

If you retards call magic "design" it's still magic. Understand Christian assholes? If not you can fuck off.

...and, well, it continued on.

Recognizing the author as the same person who just three weeks ago was admiring my "patience with idiots" I left a comment suggesting that getting that worked up about the issue was counter-productive and he really might want to try taking a deep breath and counting to 10 before posting these things. Which led to this, and this.

Apparently in three weeks Human Ape's position on the possession of patience with dealing with creationists had gone from "I admire that" to "that makes you responsible for terrorism".

That's quite the impressive turnaround in his worldview in less than a month.

Now the problem I have here isn't with some angry person on the internet calling me names. It's with some angry person on the internet running around everywhere making atheists look like people with Tourette syndrome and serious anger management issues. I'm engaged in an effort to employ reason and logic to bring undertanding of certain complex scientific realities to people who don't understand them and don't believe in them... and I really don't need my position being associated with conduct like this. It doesn't exactly make my task easier. I can understand the occasional outburst, dealing with this particular debate can ger *really* incredibly frustrating... but when you start declaring that the only two sides of the issue are that you're either screaming profanity at creationists or you're a terrorist sympathizer we're a little beyond that.

Now apparently making this point to this particular person is not really an option that is available consideering the response it generated the first time I tried it... but for anyone else out there feeling frustrated when you discuss evolution or religion with fundamentalists and feeling the urge to scream obscenities at them... could you please fight it? For me?

I'll give you a cookie...


That Pesky Second Law of Thermodynamics

It seems creationists never get tired of this one. I've lost count of how many times I've been told that it makes evolution impossible, and I just ran into someone using it again over here.

Let's begin by getting something straight. This is the actual, real life, second law of thermodynamics:

∫(δQ/T) ≥0

It is not some kind of cosmic legislation written down in the Universe's list of statutes that states "things shall not get more complex naturally!" It's a mathematical expression. More precisely, it's a mathematical expression that describes a specific set of conditions. But when you need to explain what that means to people who don't "speak math" you have to translate it into english instead, which is where the problem happens.

You can do it well:

"The total energy available to do work in an isolated system can never increase."  or... "The total entropy of an isolated system can never decrease" or several other formulations that are all equally valid. (The "isolated system" part is particularly critical)

Or you can do it like creationists:

"The Second Law of Thermodynamics, simply stated, says that everything has a tendency to run down, decay and get worse, if left to itself.

Click the link, I don't make this stuff up. They actually say this. The second law of thermodynamics makes abandoned houses get run down and cars left outside get trashed. It's not just that guy, I've heard this so many times I've lost track. Ugh.

While we're on the subject, you can do the same thing with the meaning of entropy.

Real definition: Entropy = The total energy in a system no longer available to perform work.

Creationist definition: Entropy = Disorder and decay!

Now to get into why creationists have no idea what they're talking about when it comes to thermodynamics we should start by defining some terms...

Entropy: See above
System Boundary: The dividing line between the system you are examining and it's surrounding environment. Can be physical, or simply definitional... but MUST BE SPECIFIED.
Open System: A system which can exchange matter and energy with it's surroundings across the system boundary.
Closed System: A system that can exchange energy but NOT matter across it's boundary.
Isolated System: A system that cannot exchange either matter or energy across it's boundary.

It's only in that last one where the second law says you can't see a decrease in entropy. Where there is no external source of energy providing fuel for the process the system is going to continuously use up the energy it has available to work with until it's all gone.

Creationists try to claim the second law means evolution is impossible because it causes localized decreases in entropy. For the second law to actually say that was impossible evolution would have to be doing this without getting the energy for it from anywhere... the earth would have to be an isolated system that does not receive any external energy input.

So... the next time a creationist tells you the Second Law makes evolution impossible then assuming it's daytime tell them to go outside, look up, and ask them if they see a giant ball of burning plasma in the sky bombarding them with light and heat. (a.k.a.... energy!)

I almost feel embarassed to be burning a post on such a worn out issue, but as long as creationists keep using it people need to keep correcting them I guess.


The (Vastly) Underappreciated Importance Of Falsifiability

I would say this is something that's usually only properly appreciated by people with a science background... except I've met so many people who work in the sciences who also don't get it that I would feel dishonest making that claim.

The quick and dirty version of the concept of falsifiability is if you're going to make a claim, or present a theory/hypothesis... you need to know how to tell if you're wrong. That sounds like it should be simple and straightforward but it just flies right over the heads of an astounding number of people on a regular basis. Religious people in particular, but it's not just isolated there. I know a disturbing number of people who think of themselves as rational scientifically minded individuals and are actually quite skilled and knowledgeable in the sciences, who simply do not properly appreciate why falsifiability is so important. They reach the point of knowing they have to be able to tell if they're wrong so they can slap a "right" or "wrong" label on an idea and stop there. It's a little more than that.

See, the primary way we figure out if we're wrong about something is we use it to make a prediction, then test it. When we hit a situation where something is unfalsifiable it's generally for one of two reasons.
  1. It can be used to predict nothing. 
  2. It can be used to predict anything.
Now in the first case it should be obvious that this makes whatever idea you came up with effectively worthless. It doesn't actually contribute to our understanding of how the world works in any way whatsoever if it can't make any predictions about how that world will behave. As soon as I post that list however I find people have a tendency not to understand why that second one is bad. Being able to predict anything! Wow! That's great!

No... that's useless.

In this context, "predict anything" means no matter what happens, no matter what outcome a test has, you can claim it was predicted by your "theory". To demonstrate why this is so spectacularly pointless, an example of such a "theory":

Newton Vs. The Matter Directing Elves