Friday, 28 March 2008

The Lying Liars and their Dirty Lies

Accuracy and evidence seem to be two words that escape fundamentalists, where what they are saying doesn't matter if it's backed up. All that matters is pushing their belief as if it were fact and if lying about scientific discovery helps them do so, then it's somehow justified. I spoke a couple of entries ago about wilful ignorance, it seems I'm giving the benefit of the doubt to some people that really don't deserve it. One thing I've come to learn is that people are ignoring evidence to the point they utter outright falsehoods in an attempt to silence dissent. That irks me to no end, I think I'm under my own delusion; one of which people will willingly tell the truth as they see it. There has to come a point where someone's ignorance can no longer be excused, especially when they are subjected to the same evidence as the rest of us.

Sharing (lies) is caring (about God)
There isn't much better than lying to someone's face. We've all had that door-knocker before, the one who picks up on your scientific nature then tries to spiel off something that sounds vaguely scientific in an effort to show they are an authoritative source. Unfortunately for them, their attempts are specious at best, and outright wrong at worst. And not for one second I'm convinced they believe it either, it's just another tactic to turn your life over to the mythical entity that is Jesus Christ. For them I feel that the science is just another tool to inspire belief. Too bad their understanding of science is ignorant to the point of absurdity.

I was inspired to write this blog thanks to this video. It's an investigative report into youth earth creationists leading home schooled children though a museum so they can explain science from a biblical perspective. Believe what they want eh? That's fine. Except that they are lying to the children deliberately. Now I could bore you with a point by point refutation of the absolute absurdity the people in charge are spieling off as fact, but it's obvious. The journalist does a half-decent job of calling them out. What I take exception to is the way they place the argument in the children's heads. To set up a false dichotomy about a Tyrannosaurus is just absurd. To say that humans lived for 800 years pre-flood is stupid. To say scientists use circular logic to get the age of the rocks is an outright lie. Not to mention dismissing displays as art instead of science. It's clutching at any straw necessary and hoping that it's strong enough to carry a child's mind, and at that age it probably is.

It feels so unmercifully unrelenting to the point of nausea. They believe something else, there is nothing stopping them from doing so. But to deliberately lie to children to get them to believe what they do surely has to come to the point where they can see that their position is out of line with human knowledge and evidence. Sometimes you can't back up what you believe with evidence, but to go contrary to evidence is blind ignorance.

Repelled - no propaganda allowed
The old way is far more personal than the new way, but the propaganda machine that is media is a far more effective and global way to reach people. Why go around street to street converting others when you can make a website to potentially reach millions? Or better yet make a video which could be distributed and viewed en masse. We are seeing creation museums open based on websites deliberately spreading misinformation, films like Expelled complaining that Intelligent Design doesn't get a fair go in the science classroom. It's not about being right scientifically, it's about been seen as scientific by the unscientific public in an effort to show that their belief is compatible with science. All they have to do is ignore mountains of evidence, attack the character of evolution advocates personally, drop the J word a few times and use the bible as history.

Anyone who wants to see a poorly written propaganda vessel, just head here. The irony of the name is far outweighed by the idiocy in the blog. For something meant to be dealing with evolution (a science), he sure goes on about God (not science) a lot. The blog itself is an absurd amalgamation of everything possible one could muster to make something that sounds scientifically possible that really doesn't disprove a thing. But this is the kind of nonsense that people push as ways of marginalising one of the strongest scientific theories out there. I've had the displeasure of actually debating the fool who wrote it, he's more infuriating than even his blog would have led me to believe. He even uses his blog as an authoritative source for his arguments. The most ironic thing about it is the quotes he uses:
"A mind bent on suppressing or hindering the truth will ultimately find the lie it is chasing." - Ravi Zacharias
How appropriate...

It will be interesting to see what the full write-up is on Expelled once it hits theaters. The PZ Myers incident really shows how pathetic the movie is, on the one hand having him in the movie and thanking him in the credits while on the other hand not even allowing him to see the finished product. Thankfully Dawkins was there to give his thoughts on the movie, though The Discovery Institute is still pushing the lies for the sake of belief. I'm looking forward to watching the film, I'll download it, sit back, have a few brews and enjoy it in the same way I would an episode of Bullshit! A poorly researched episode of Bullshit! that employs every dirty trick imaginable, but still that's where the appeals lies to me. Unlike it's target audience, I do have a reasonable knowledge of science, I do have a reasonable knowledge on the start and end points of freedom of speech and I do have a knowledge on what constitutes religious belief masquerading as science as a means of getting it taught to children.

Selective scepticism
The internet is a wonderful vessel for information, it's a way to connect with people around the globe. Same goes for television, radio, films, books, etc. They are ways of communicating ideas between one another, and because these have become the new trusted source of information, the imperative for truth is paramount. Media is easy to manipulate, it's self-confirming and plays on peoples emotional response to the point where ideas so abstract and irrational can get paraded as truth by the willing viewer. Though you need to wonder how much some of them still believe in an inerrant bible.

Is the earth really flat? Is there a light source that isn't the sun? Does the sun orbit around the earth? Are bats birds? If the bible is inerrant the answer to all these should be yes. Yet the scientific method can demonstrate otherwise. We can see the earth as being spherical from space. We see that we orbit the sun which provides us light where day and night come from the earth rotating. Bats are mammals, which have evolved wings. Yet we don't see creationists questioning astrophysics, it's an outright attack on a science that shows we weren't crafted by God out of dirt, but by a process of mutation over billions of years. Why the double standard? I honestly don't know. Evolution is one of the strongest sciences out there, but it's somehow incompatible with an inerrant bible that is compatible with a round earth orbiting a light-giving sun.

Evolution should not be under attack in the way this is, all science is a system of discovery and falsification that is constantly updating. Yes it should be questioned, but the arena for that should not be in a public forum, it should be in scientific laboratories where the claims can be analysed and tested. Otherwise it's deliberately stirring up controversy for the sake of irrational arguments to bypass a rigorous screening process and enter the minds of the masses. It's a point where truth is irrelevant and the thing that matters is that people believe what you do, regardless of the evidence. And in a world where spreading anecdotal information as fact is easier than ever, these irrational ideas are being perpetuated by those selective enough to take it in without question. The meme that is Creationism has found it's ultimate conduit.

Wednesday, 19 March 2008

Probability (and how to use it)

It seems that a lot of people like to throw around probability when arguing, though it's even more apparent that most of these people don't know how to do it. It does help having a solid knowledge of mathematics but it really isn't necessary. It's not hard to know the difference between a single event and a chain reaction.

Evidence-based approach
It should be made clear right off the bat that science doesn't work on probability alone (with the exception of quantum physics). It works on evidence.

If I pick my iPod off my desk and leg go of it, what will happen?
There are three options:
* It will fall to the ground
* It will stay where it is
* It will move away from the ground
Using probability there is a 1 in 3 chance of each one happening

So that's it, a one in three chance? Well no. Since my iPod is a piece of junk (seriously, don't buy iPods) I don't mind conducting this experiment. I let go of it a total of 20 times, if it were just pure chance as people suggest probability is, I would see a even distribution on the three options.

The results were:
* fall to the ground - 20 times
* stay where it is - 0 times
* move away from the ground - 0 times

So what this shows us is probability isn't simply working out the possible outcomes and assigning an equal weighting to it. Probability should always be tied to evidence. And the more times we do a test, the more we can see it working. Repeatability is an immensely important factor in the scientific process. From observation and repeatability we can derive theories, formulas to explain the results and it allows us to test those theories under multiple conditions. I don't think anyone would dispute gravity as being anything other than a law, yet it's not proven. Gravity is a theory, just like evolution is. You can never prove science by example, only disprove it.

This is great news, it gives us relative certainty in an uncertain universe. It means that if you jump off a building you will fall. And using laws derived from observation, you will accelerate until you hit an object that will push back harder on you than you will on it. And it will almost certainly kill you as observable evidence shows that the human body can't absorb forces of that magnitude.

Evidence is the fact we have to work with in science, with evidence we look for an explanation to make sense of it. They don't call an idea a theory until it is quite rigorously scrutinised with suitable evidence to support it.

Coin flip logic
To understand the difference between combination and chance, let's look at a simple test of flipping coins. They have a 50/50 chance where it can either be heads or tails. Makes for a useful tool in seeing how to analyse a repeatable task statistically, and how to understand how combinations work.

Flips - 10
H - 6

T - 4
After 10 flips, heads is more common. This is were repeatability comes into it. Let's go on.

Flips - 10
H - 3
T - 7
Cumulative total: H - 9
T - 11
Now there are more tails, but we can see it's getting closer to that 50%. Of course the experiment is biased by the way I flip the coin, there is no way to make this truly random. But we can see that it's getting closer to that 50% chance mark. One more time for good measure

Flips - 10
H - 7

T - 3
Cumulative total: H - 16 T - 14
The more you do something that has an certain probability, you can see that probability manifest in statistics. Rolling a die is another way to do this, rolling enough times should yield you statistics that show approximately a 1 in 6 chance for each possible result. With a deck of cards, a 1 in 52 chance, though you'd need to do it a lot of times to see that manifesting. The more variables, the more testing is needed to see accurate statistical significance.

The most interesting pattern is the sequence is the patterns involved. In the last throw sequence there was 5 heads in a row. The probability for that to happen is 1 in 32 (1/2 * 1/2 * 1/2 * 1/2 * 1/2). So on throw 5, what was the chance of me throwing a heads? It was still one in two. Patterns themselves are improbable, but the steps that make up the patterns are not. Which brings me to evolution.

Evolution and God
Evolution has overwhelming evidence to support it, it's been observed, there are extensive fossil records, the DNA evidence, genetics, the list goes on. Yet people still talk about the probability of evolution. How could we be an ancestor to modern prime-apes one day then humans the next? That would be highly statistically unlikely. But we didn't go in one step, we went in thousands of small steps. Take the average age of reproduction as 25 (a very conservative estimate) and there would be ~240,000 generations between our great ape ancestor 6 million years ago and us. 240,000 generations of environmentally caused mutations, diverging species (most of which died out), and suddenly the steps are a lot smaller. We don't have to lose all fur, walk upright, grow a bigger brain and develop complex vocal chords all in one hit. we can do it in small stages.

And the evidence points to this, through fossil records we can see a gradual change over hundreds of thousands of years. Even now we are still evolving as a species, there are mutations we can see in descendants of certain areas that aren't there in others. What we can do with probability is work out the rate of mutation and see if that is realistic over a 6 million year time frame. In one jump, I agree it's very unlikely. But evolution does not work in huge leaps. Evolution is a very gradual process, so the likelihood of slight mutations at each step is far more likely.

Moving on to God, a lot of people make the fallacy that God's existence is the probability equivalent to a coin flip, he either exists or he doesn't. Now when I say God, I am talking about the anthropomorphic deity that is the centre of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. In this context We are told that God is a vastly complex deity, one of infinite intelligence and power, one who is all loving and concerns itself with the melodramatic squabbles of the human race. Now there are two things that come out of the creation story that don't add up; the first is how a being such as God came to exist, and how life formed out of nothing. If the being called God can be explained, then the 2nd event seems somewhat rational with logic, if there is a being with the power to create a universe, surely it would follow it could make humans from dirt.

As I explained above, when it comes to probability, it's always about it's intrinsic link to evidence. God is not 50/50 any more than the existence of Zeus. In the case of scientific enquiry, it takes a sceptical approach and asks for evidence. And at present there is no evidence that God exists any more than Bigfoot, The Loch Ness Monster or Albus Dumbledore. The best we can do is look at the world around us and use a critical eye on the evidence to see how much of a logical leap that is. As Carl Sagan said: "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence"

It's all to do with plausibility. If I were to say I'm levitating as I type this, no-one would believe me. They would call me a liar, ask me for evidence. And that is perfectly reasonable, it's an extraordinary claim that I'm doing something out of the bounds of human reality. Would anyone here take it on faith or say there is a 50/50 chance of it being true? I really hope not. A picture could show me levitating, but pictures can be taken mid-jump or doctored on photoshop. A video would be more conclusive, but again they can be edited easily on a basic computer or I could be concealing my levitation by a concealed trick. We need to understand that probability is absolutely useless without evidence and context.

The principle of parsimony
Don't get me wrong, probability is a powerful tool when used correctly. But it's abused time and time again by people who don't seem to understand how to use it. We see Pascal's Wager come up again and again. We see bile like The Probability Of God littering our shelves. Absurd claims that evolution and abiogenesis are improbable. All these sound good, but they aren't using probability properly. It seems as dangerous a practice as quote-mining for anything that can vaguely sound theistic in scientific journals. It's not that hard to understand how parts come together. Science is all about breaking down the how and finding how each little part works. If we can explain the pieces and can explain how the pieces can come together it makes it a far smaller assumption than just seeing the whole and thinking it came together in one big step. We apply the principle of parsimony because it gives us the most accurate representation we can possibly get. Probability plays it's part but only when used properly.

Saturday, 1 March 2008

The Art Of Being Wrong

Knowing where to begin is always a difficult question, when writing it is vital to capture the readers attention with the first few words, and then from that they'll work out whether it's worth your time. Indeed in a society where any chump can give his opinion, we work towards an instant gratification of our own senses and time. If one blog can't provide it, we can immediately switch to another that will. Now that technology is available for mass consumption we are seeing a shift away from the written word and towards video blogging, where any wanker can rattle on and post absolute nonsense that somehow satisfies the masses. In short, the written prose is a dying art. Podcasts, Youtube videos, things that require a little more than the ability to ramble on in a semi-coherent manner, we can see it and digest it without really having to think about it. The written word thus is marginalised.

Not to say that video blogs are a bad thing. I listen to podcasts, scour Youtube for my quick fix. There are some real gems hidden within the usual crap on there. When used properly the tools are incredibly powerful, very effective and quite convincing. Therein lies the danger. The otherwise worthless opinions of people who could scarcely make a living as a coat rack and being paraded as heroes and maestros, brilliantly laying down proofs and destroying the other side. But to anyone with a functioning brain, they are the overwhelming evidence that society is going down the shithole. So what does this have to do with the art of being wrong?

Instant Gratification Society
What this has to do with being wrong is a simple procedure called confirmation bias. Basically putting it, confirmation bias is counting the hits and ignoring the misses. We see this happening all the time, everyone is guilty of it. And with a society where gratification comes so instantly, we are often put in a position where the bias not only happens, but happens in such a way that is manufactured. In effect the media shapes our mind by being selective in what is broadcast. Try condensing the events in the world down into a 22 minute program, leaving enough time for sports and weather and there is very little about what can be broadcast. And thanks to the need for ratings, it seems to more and more follow the idea of "if it bleeds, it leads". The net poses an interesting twist to this where the choice is now yours. You can in effect choose how you filter, something that is wonderful. But there is a great danger in that in most cases people look purely for items that confirm whatever they already believe in. By filtering personally, they are ensuring that any dissenting voice is silenced. This way minds become very polemic.

So thanks to the internet we have come to expect things instantly. Right now I'm sitting at work annoyed that I'll have to wait another 4 hours to go home and download the new NIN CD (and yes, I am paying for it!). It's that kind of immediate response I'm talking about. TV shows that previously took months to come onto Australian television are able to be downloaded at the touch of a button, why should we wait anymore? At least TV networks are trying to correct this and are showing episodes almost as they appear in the US. The home DVD market has revolutionised how we watch TV, instead of tuning in and putting up with ads, we simply throw on a DVD. So when shows are only shown here at ungodly hours, on pay TV or not at all, it's a lot easier for us to have an alternate means of watching some of these programs.

So that is the society we live in now. One were fad diets come and go faster than magazines can cover them. Where miracle pills and surgery are favoured opposed to hard work. Where we expect immediate results for our actions, why read a book when we can watch the movie instead? This is a society where bookstores dedicate more shelf-space for religion & spirituality than science. Where someone can make a DVD like The Secret and can rake in a fortune. No regard to the truth of the matter, the promise of the spectacular from no work seems far more appealing to our natures than the truth behind it. We are a society that wants what we can get here and now, and for a species that is prone to confirmation bias, that creates even more problems.

The Secret and other lies
It seems the perfect tie-in to this discussion, something I've wanted to rant about for quite a while. Endorsed by the likes of Oprah and with a seemingly never ending stock of DVDs & books on the shelves for people to buy, The Secret embodies everything that we have come to expect from "new age" spiritualism; hollow fluff, promising the world, mixing consumerism and material worth all in a convenient package. I'd like to say now I really don't care about how people spend their money, it's theirs to waste. I certainly waste enough of mine on mind altering purchases. What I hope to achieve here is write a coherent explanation of how it works so we don't need to rely on superstitious nonsense as a means of answering. In short, The Secret is bullshit. And here's why:

There are countless testamonials to The Secret's authenticity. People believe it works, so it must work correct? Well no. There are two aspects here that ensure that people will believe. Firstly, one of the steps is belief. There are three steps to The Secret.
1. Ask the universe for what you want
2. Believe that the universe will grant it to you
3. Receive the gift
It's all about positive thinking, if you don't believe hard enough that you'll get what you want, it's your fault it didn't happen. In effect this makes The Secret self-confirming, a tautology designed to fit nicely with the second reason that ensure people believes... yes you guessed it: confirmation bias. So if it doesn't work often we just ignore that, but when it hits it's testimony to it working. Now we have a very simple way of determining the truth of someone's claims, it's called a double blind study. We set up an unbiased way to conduct the experiment in controlled conditions and gather accurate statistical results. If The Secret did work, it would pass. If not, it would be like any other hack nonsense that is fundamental in the modern mix of consumerism and belief.

Now this isn't to say that positive thinking doesn't do someone good. It would be hard to argue otherwise. But that isn't what The Secret is promoting. It's advocating that the universe will respond and reward that positive thinking. Like attracts like. In effect The Secret boils down to almost exactly the same idea as a personal god, only without the anthropomorphic connotations. The comfort that the universe will reward for the right mindset must be staggering. The universe cares about them and what they think, it's God in a metaphysical form. Only without rewarding in an afterlife, it's rewarding now. Though this is starting to become an all too common idea of God in some evangelical communities, but that is something I'll get to in a minute. There is just a bit more left to destroy of The Secret first.

As I was saying before, The Secret is all about personalising the universe. They make such ambiguous claims like it's ancient wisdom. Ancient wisdom is itself a contradiction, but it gives the illusion to the user that it's been tested and demonstrated. It was also ancient wisdom that the earth was flat and the sun orbited the earth. Not to say that anything in the ancient world is unfounded, just that these days we have ways of testing their claims. It's called progress for a reason. It claims like attracts like, which in physics it's the opposites attract. Just use a magnet to find this out. But there is no force that attracts our thoughts as spiritual vibes to manipulate the universe to our whim. That form of psychokinesis is simply an absurd notion. What happens if two people are competing for that same parking space? There's only one there, they both are using positive thoughts... Bet it will be the one who is in the right place at the right time. When we have perfectly rational explanations for something, why should we even consider an irrational one?

Alternative medicine should not be trusted. It doesn't stand up to double blind tests, in fact most treatments refuse to subject themselves to a double blind study, though by doing so it could validate the process. The danger of invalidating though is far too great, not to mention the absurd notions of their explanations would not stand up to scientific scrutiny. There is a great danger in avoiding conventional medicine for the sake of these placebos and that is death. It's not uncommon to hear about people who shunned regular treatment for entirely treatable diseases and as a consequence hit an early grave. That is sad, but it's that persons own fault. What ticks me off the most is that people make a profit from another's suffering. I have no doubt that most of these charlatans believe what they are saying is right. But believing something is right doesn't make it right. They aren't lying, but they are wrong. (finally we made it)

Wilful ignorance
It's time to lay into the more conventional sycophants, namely creationists. So you might be alongside us sceptics in condemning alternative medicine, but with your faith healing, you are no better. Again, there is the claim of the miraculous, anecdotal evidence, confirmation bias, a tautology in case it fails ("the lord works in mysterious ways") so where do you creationists get off calling New Ageism nonsense? That really gets me about religious nuts criticising the beliefs of other religious nuts. It's quite laughable, at least to me because all of their ideas are crazy. Yes, god made us out of clay, then put a tree in a garden which we ate that made us aware of sin then spent 4,000 years waiting for God to come down in human form and forgive us on the proviso that we believe that we should be forgiven. Forgive the snickering you hear, it's my reason circuit malfunctioning.

Now I can say assuredly that creationists are wrong. Again, I'm sure they believe that what they are saying and doing is true. But belief that it's true doesn't make it true. It's one of the same old arguments you hear for the bible's account of Jesus' life. The people who wrote it down believed it was true and what reason would they have to lie? Well none, but not-lying doesn't equate to telling the truth. I can believe with all my heart that a dragon is flying above my house providing heat with it's fire breath, and winter simply is when the dragon hibernates, but no matter how much I believed that to be true, and no matter if I were able to convince others it were true, it wouldn't make it true. I can't prove it false, but I can come up with a rational explanation for how the seasons work. It's to do with the Earth's tilt and orbit around the sun. So why would I go with the dragon one? It flies in the face of reason.

But that is exactly what creationists do. They aren't all idiots, they just love the idea of God. Love it so much that anything that flies in the face of that must be wrong. This is what I call wilful ignorance. The evidence that evolution is the cause of our species is immense, to say it's false is to spit in the face of reason. The bible is inerrant, the bible says that God created us from clay, we must be created from clay. Right? Well wrong. The bible is not inerrant. It doesn't take much of a look to see it contradict itself, make absurd statements, write about a history that is not backed up by other cultures histories or archaeological evidence, to see that it's a bunch of stories, parables and allegories designed to help a society gel and for the individual to have a closer experience with God. But some people can't have the metaphor without the literal and we get an intellectual backwash where ID is being promoted at the expense of real science. Not that I think many of those who support ID know what ID is about, just that it sounds good.

So when they spread their assertions and their propaganda, they are spreading falsehoods deeply entrenched in their heads as fact. And we'll see the same arguments over and over again.
* Evolution doesn't pass the 2nd law of thermodynamics (yes it does)
* Evolution is only a theory (Only?!?)
* There is no evidence for evolution (yes there is)
* Carbon Dating is unreliable (Bullshit!)
* Evidence of the great flood is the Grand Canyon (You still want me to take you seriously?)
You've got to wonder how they get away with saying that stuff over and over. They are wrong, they are very wrong. But when we get propaganda websites like Answers in Genesis writing pseudo-scientific nonsense that sounds accurate to the uneducated. By taking myth as fact, we are seeing an attempt to rewrite history at the expense of accumulated knowledge. Is there a god? I don't know. I lean to the side of probably not. But will a global flood be proof of one? No. Yet the two are intricately tied together so that by proving the flood you prove the God. Though by believing in God, it's proof of the flood... it's all very circular.

The art of being wrong
So now is the point where I try and tie all this in, wrap in up in a few short sentences that are a great summation of my arguments. The truth is I ranted on a bit, the previous text is nowhere near as concise I would have liked. There is just too much to rant about and rip apart, and although I don't feel like making something this long is a good way of communicating, I feel that anything shorter would have missed stuff out. Hell, even now I feel I've only scratched the surface and I would probably write a whole book about it. Though there are already many other authors out there who have done so, and done so in a way much more proficient, accurate and in an elegant manner.

I'm sitting here now, listening to Ghosts I-IV on my iPod, it's been a few days since I started this entry but I really felt I needed the time to embellish and explore the ideas on the issue. This is as focused as I can get on an issue, it took a lot of restraint not to go off on tangents, like I said enough to write a book. And who has time for books these days? The internet age is all about conveying as much information is as short a space as possible. Something I can't do because I feel the urge to explain myself. Maybe in the future I should just videotape me talking for 5 minutes. Though I can't think of anything more mundane. But in a society where volume is greater than quality, the art of being wrong has never been easier.