"Agnostic"... The Most Abused Word In The English Language

Well, probably. I don't have hard data or anything but if it's not number one it has to be in the top five.

If I were to tell you, the reader, that I was an agnostic I would put good money down that you would think I had just told you I was something that was somehow...somewhere... between an atheist and a theist. Because that is how everyone uses the word, despite the fact that that is ridiculous and nonsensical.

Here is how the words "atheist", "agnostic" and "theist" actually properly relate to each other:

Do you believe it is possible to KNOW if a diety exists?
Do you BELIEVE a diety exists?YES12
Now, depending on your answers to those two questions you are going to fall in one of those four boxes. And this is what you are as a result:

1: You are a theist.
2: You are a theist AND an agnostic.
3: You are an atheist.
4. You are an atheist AND an agnostic.

There... simple, right? And yet nobody gets this correct. It's incredibly annoying.


A Quick Note on Health Insurance and Free Markets

Having lived through the recent unpleasantness that was the public debate over health care reform in the US there are a lot of observations I could, and probably will, make. Number one on the list, and the focus of this post, is the bizarre level of blind faith a very large number people in the US place in the idea that just turning any economic problem over to "the market" will automatically fix it.

Before getting into why this idea is spectacularly wrong when it comes to things like health insurance, let me get something out of the way first.

1. No, I'm not a communist.

2. No, really, I'm not a communist.

3. I LIKE capitalism. It works really well for lots of things. If I got to build my very own custom-designed society from scratch and I had to figure out what system to put in place to keep its people supplied with basic commodities like food and clothing and transportation and books and televisions and little yellow rubber duckies for the bath, I'm going with the market. It's GREAT at that kind of thing.

Unfortunately, instead of treating it like the useful tool that it is and putting it to use doing things it's designed to do and then hanging it up on the wall when you're finished, there is this large segment of the US population (I'll call them... Republicans) that has decided to practically deify it and declare it's the right tool for ALL jobs economy related. And this is where we run into trouble. Because a free market *sucks* at handling insurance. Any insurance at all really... but especially something like health insurance. To illustrate why this is let's take a look at a very simple example of how market forces act on two different businesses.

The Creationist Mindset

This will be a quick one, just felt the need to comment on something.

After making my "people don't understand probability" post I was scanning the intertubes looking for relevant examples and found someone had written a letter to the editor all about how evolution was so unlikely, therefore we should be teaching creationism in schools.

I signed up to comment and... disagreed. In some moderate level of detail.

The response was for the letter writer to declare that I was an imposter. That "Grant" was not my real name. And to imply that I was there serving some shadowy agenda.

I am still unclear on who I was supposed to be if not myself... why this person I was supposed to be would disguise themselves as "Grant" (Does my name carry some kind of attached prestige which would lend weight to my arguments I'm not aware of)... what cause was supposed to have "sent" me... and why they would care to do such a thing. So I asked, employing levels of sarcasm that were perhaps excessive but really, really obvious.

The response was for the person in question to declare that I had admitted that I was not posting under my real identity (because I had asked why I, Richard Dawkins... or perhaps the ghost of Steven J Gould, would care to disguise myself as this "Grant" person) and they began basking in an apparent sense of validation that they were right about their conspiracy theory.

Now, my point here is that I could just dismiss this as an isolated incident of a crazy person on the Internet, except that this is the kind of mindset one needs to have in order to deny evolution in the first place. The belief that the entire world's scientific community is somehow engaged in some vast plot to make you believe evolution happened, for mysterious unexplained reasons. Which is... well... crazy.

For anyone interested, the exchange in question can be found here: (click me!) and the conspiracy theorist in question is the letter writer, Lance.


Popular Media Sucks At Science

If you wanted to look for a root cause of why the general public seems to often have serious issues with scientific literacy and understanding the true state of current scientific understanding of the world around us, look no further than the title of this post.

Now, I'm not criticising journalists for not being scientists. That's not their job, and I have no desire for it to be their job. What I would like, very much, is if they put a little more effort into making sure their readers kept this fact in mind whenever they wrote stories about science. Case in point...

Recently, in the Journal of Physical Chemistry B, there appeared a report on a study that had been conducted. The title of this report was "DNA Double Helices Recognize Mutual Sequence Homology in a Protein Free Environment"

It's highly technical, it's very complicated, and very very few people who are not geneticists are ever going to actaully read it or fully understand it if they tried. We're not going to make the attempt here, but I am going to produce a block of text from the conclusion of the report for anyone interested in seeing what it looks like, and for purposes of comparison to what we'll look at next:


People Don't Understand Probability

For my first substantive post here I'm going to take a look at an issue that's bugged me for some time. Reading a recent article written by Ervin Laszlo that once again demonstrated the problem is actually what finally pushed me to go ahead and start blogging.

The argument he presents is one a lot of people throw around without really understanding what they're saying. It can be basically summed up as "This thing happened... it was amazingly unlikely this thing happened by chance... therefore something must have caused/created/designed it." In order to illustrate why that article is completely wrong I usually find it's easier to deal with a different example of highly improbable outcomes occurring.

The odds of winning the Powerball lottery purchasing a single ticket are roughly 1 in 195 million. Let's say last week Joe Lucky bought one ticket and won the jackpot. The odds of him doing this by chance were, as stated, 195 million to 1. That's ridiculously unlikely. Do we therefore conclude the lottery was somehow designed to make him win since it was so unlikely that he would win by chance?

No, we don't. Most people understand that we don't. What most people do not fully understand is the reason we don't.

Kickoff post.

I've been mulling over whether I should create a blog or not for years now, and I've finally decided to jump in and see what happens. Before I start doing my part to fill the internet with the opinions of people who sometimes kind of know what they're talking about a few details about myself.

I'm 32 years old, male, married, and a systems engineer at a semiconductor equipment manufacturer in Silicon Valley.

I'm an atheist, socially liberal, economically conservative. For anyone putting that in the perspective of American politics no, economically conservative does NOT mean I economically agree with Republicans... who wouldn't know economic conservatism if they were clubbed over the head with it. I'm not planning on restricting my posting on this blog to any one particular theme, but you can probably expect me to do a lot of spouting off about religion and politics. One of my personal pet subjects of discussion is evolutionary theory so expect to see that subject coming up relatively often.

That about covers the basics, I'll let my impending rambling and ranting fill in the details.