Sunday, January 29, 2006

In the beginning was the word...

In the end was the curse.

A starving Kenyan woman placed a powerful tribal curse on God, accusing him of sending famine.... "Whoever brought this famine, let him perish," the woman chanted, striking a cooking pot with a stick. "She accomplished the feat at 10 a.m. and waited for the results, but God's wrath struck at night. She died peacefully in her sleep," the Kenya Times newspaper said.

Strange. I've been cursing God for decades. I better get hold of that Kenyan incantation. Do I need to learn Swahili? ... Oh! I need a pot. Would that be aluminum or stainless steel or cast iron? Anything particular in the brew?

By the way, I am absolutely certain that hunger had nothing to do with her demise.

Unparalleled universe

From this week's What's New by physicist Robert Park:

ALTERNATE WORLD: A LEAP INTO HYPERDRIVE? OR MAYBE JUST HYPE? New Horizons, which is on its way to Pluto, is the fastest spacecraft ever built. Even so, the trip will take nine years. At the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics meeting last year, an award was given for a paper about a new propulsion system that could do it in a day. So why are we doing it the old-fashioned way? Because it works. There are two worlds. There is the world that sends robots to explore Mars, finds a vaccine for cervical cancer, unravels the structure of DNA, invents Global Positioning, etc. And then there is an alternate world that discovers cold fusion, homeopathy, the Podkletnov gravity shield, hydrinos, and the Heim space drive. Inhabitants of both worlds speak similar languages, look alike, even have identical DNA. It's not just that things don't work in the alternate world, that can happen even in the real world. But in the alternate world it doesn't seem to make any difference.

Surely, imagination is the engine of creativity; just don't sell or buy into something imaginary.

Friday, January 27, 2006


Got spammed by a certain Aluna Joy Yaxkin. Was about to delete the mail when her product I AM BLESSING WATER caught my eye and made me just too curious, not least because Tabar is still sloshing in my head.

If the site's claim is true then this hogwash came out just last November. Rather than point out all the gobbledygook and nitpick all the inane claims the site makes, go visit it, get entertained and have fun. That's the only blessing this site has to offer. After you've had your fill, you can then fume over the eye-popping price they're charging for two tablespoons of water.

I know I just said I won't do a critique, but this one bit I just have to share. On their home page, in the "Scientific Proof" section, the site says their product was inspired by the discoveries of Dr. Masaru Emoto [for details of the claims of this nutcase see Lower and Randi]. In the same section the site points readers to the web site of Dr. Stuart Hammeroff. Unable to restrain myself I asked Dr. Hammeroff whether his site or work does in fact lend support to the claims the I AM site is making. His NO couldn't have been more forceful. Moreover, he says this is hardly the first time his ideas/work have been hijacked.

PS: While going through the site don't fail to discover the ultra top-secret material that terrorists use to conceal their weapons from airport x-ray machines.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Pigliucci on Facchini

Remember Fiorenzo Facchini, the evolutionary biologist recently published in L'Osservatore Romano? Remember how he trashed ID and said it isn't science and doesn't belong in classrooms? But how he then flushed his brain down the loo to make room for delusions about an Invisible Designer, declaring "In a vision that goes beyond the empirical horizon, we can say that we aren't men by chance or by necessity, and that the human experience has a sense and a direction signaled by a superior design."?

Well, another evolutionary biologist--one whose cranium doesn't leak gray matter--has something to say about his fellow Italian and biologist's slip into woowooland. Dr. Massimo Pigliucci is nonplussed as I am by Facchini's (astral?) flight into the realm beyond the empirical horizon:

What does it mean for Facchini to go “beyond the empirical horizon”? And doesn't his conclusion invalidate his plea for separating science and religion? Such are the contradictions of people who use their brains in the lab but have to hang 'em outside the Church doors on Sunday mornings. And yet, it is precisely this sort of logical incoherence that makes fundamentalism and creationism so attractive to many people: when one rejects the empirical-scientific worldview altogether one doesn't have to reconcile the way things are with the way one wishes things were. Will we ever grow up emotionally as much as we have developed intellectually?

I don't know; maybe after we develop a vaccine against SMV (supernaturalis mentalis virus--uh, forgive my Latin)

Love is as love does

Pope Benedict XVI's first encyclical is entitled "God is love." I wonder which deity he's referring to. The one I know masterminded a worldwide slaughter of all humans and killing of all terrestrial plants and animals by drowning them; had commanded one of his toadies to sacrifice his son to test the toady's loyalty; had given His satan the thumbs up to inflict calamity after calamity after calamity upon some fella named Job culminating in the murder of his sons, again to test this bloke's loyalty; had hardened the heart of some king of an ancient city near the Nile, and because this king--whom He had made sure would be recalcitrant--didn't accede to His request He murdered hundreds or thousands of children--all first-borns I believe; had told His chosen tribe on various occasions to go forth and kill (and spare no one), pillage, and rape ....

Benedict certainly can't be talking about that deity, can he?

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Dennett on religion

Excerpts from an interview with Daniel Dennett:

[Religious] belief can be explained in much the way that cancer can. I think the time has come to shed our taboo that says, "Oh, let's just tiptoe by this, we don't have to study this." People think they know a lot about religion. But they don't know.


Certainly the idea of a God that can answer prayers and whom you can talk to, and who intervenes in the world - that's a hopeless idea. There is no such thing.

13 isn't among my phobias

Here's a another photo of that Mexico, Maine simulacrum.

Turns out that Veronica Dennis is rather superstitious:
Dennis, a home health aide in her early 40s, said if nothing else, she hopes the image is a sign that a run of bad luck that struck on Jan. 13, a Friday, has finally ended.

On that day, she said, she was let go from her job. The next day her daughter's boyfriend broke his leg delivering newspapers. On Sunday, as she and her daughter cleared ice off the driveway in anticipation of his return from the hospital, a fire broke out inside when a space heater ignited a bed.

Just to summarize the timeline:

Friday the 13th: Dennis lost her job
Saturday the 14th: her daughter's boyfriend broke his leg
Sunday the 15th: the fire

Questions to ponder: Have bad things always happened to Dennis during all the other Friday the 13ths in her life? Have bad things (never) occurred on days other than Friday the 13th? If we do an objective count, will we find that in fact more bad things transpire on Friday the 13ths than on any other day? To what degree of consanguinity/association/acquaintanceship/etc. are we allowed to mine malevolent events from? Should something unfortunate that happens to our daughter's boyfriend's colleague's mother be counted? Had Dennis been keeping a daily journal of malevolent events, would she (never) find "streaks" of bad luck in the past which do not begin on a Friday the 13th?

The brouhaha over Friday the 13th reminds me of the belief that odd or special things happen during full moons. As with the lunar effect, this undying belief in Friday the 13th is a case of selective attention. Becaue of constant exposure to the superstition, people have been conditioned to regard 13 as a bad luck number and Friday the 13ths as days to be wary of. When such days do arrive and should believers suddenly remember, "Oh my God! Today's Friday the 13th," they become particularly alert and go on a lookout for anything remotely bad--and not only happening to them but to their friends and family as well (and throw in media to report and highlight anything ugly or unfortunate happening to politicians, celebrities, etc. ). And when something bad does occur (in their judgement), bingo! it's used as a case of confirmation, thus reinforcing the belief.

And yet do a simple comparative analysis and you find that the number of bad things happening on all Friday the 13ths are no more and no less than on other days/dates. As with the results of a very long run of coin flips, occurrences of good and bad events even out across the days of the year over the years. If it were possible to compile a database for a large population spanning a good number of years/decades, we wouldn't see any "spikes" occuring for days falling on the 13th. On the other hand, it would be strange if bad things don't occur on the 13th (Fridays or otherwise), or if there were significantly less of them on those days. That would be very weird indeed and would beg for an investigation.

So there is no basis for friggatriskaidekaphobia. Sure would be great to go bungee jumping on a 13th. And I bet it would really be cheap to rent an office on the 13th floor. By the way, I have a black cat (well, nearly black), and I will walk under ladders until I clumsily bump my head on one of the legs (except that unlike the one that Nickell and Kurtz are walking under this small 8-foot aluminum one I have at home has its bracings just two feet from the bottom and they will definitely snag my feet!)

The fire department offers the mundane explanation for the simulacrum:
Mexico Fire Chief Gary Wentzell, who downplayed the image, said the image was caused by smoke seeping around the picture frame.

"What you're seeing when you look at it is the outline of smoke," he said. "When that room got all smoked up, the picture protected the wall behind it."

And although fire truck driver Marc Mayo wasn't present on the scene, he believes the simulacrum "is just an image from foam and smoke."

While the image above has an uncanny resemblance to statues and artists' depictions of Mary, she may not be here for long. Apparently, she's already transfiguring:
the image had lost its original luster and been smudged. It also was missing some of the smoke dust that Mexico fire Chief Gary Wentzell said created it.

Achooooo! ... Oops! Didn't mean to send Mary off so soon.

(Can't wait for the next religious simulacrum-pareidolia case of the year)

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Hecht of an opus

About a year ago I chanced upon Jennifer Michael Hecht's Doubt: A History in a local bookstore. Was tempted to buy it. Certainly was after checking it out on Amazon and reading the following quoted aphorism which I've sung as a mantra ever since.
Cited midway through this magisterial book by Hecht, the Zen maxim "Great Doubt: great awakening. Little Doubt: little awakening. No Doubt: no awakening" reveals that skepticism is the sine qua non of reflection, and discloses the centrality that doubt and disbelief have played in fueling intellectual discovery.

Being a most rational religion (as Huston Smith describes it in The World's Religions) I keep wondering why I'm not a Buddhist. Or maybe I already am--just as some theologians speak of Implicit Christianity, it could be that I am, unawares, an Implicit Buddhist. On the other hand, prove to me that this burger is somebody's reincarnation. (Notwithstanding, it is almost certain that what I'm about to sink my teeth into contains molecules that once belonged to someone.)

Still, I had doubts whether I would actually read Doubt since after taking in more than a pageful of history I always experience adverse somniferous side-effects. It was only after listening to Skepticality's interview with Hecht that I rushed to get a copy.

Buddha was right. The first law of nature is Life is Suffering. The bookstore had run out of stock. Fortunately, what they dub as their "Superbranch" still had the title. So, will they be so kind enough as to have a copy delivered to their non-superbranch for me to pick up? No! They insisted I had to learn the First Law through and through. (I also asked whether they had Sam Harris' The End of Faith. Nope, not according to their database. But it's a bestseller! Why don't they carry it? On further thought, I shouldn't be complaining. Half their store is devoted to Christian mythology, astrology, horoscope, the paranormal, Feng Shui, and other fairy tales for children. We don't want to scandalize our little ones with something that shouted the End of Faith, do we?)

Finally got my copy yesterday. Superbranch turns out to be a nirvana. They literally have tons of books in there. And, mirabile dictu, they have a "Natural Science" section! Snapped up two titles from that shelf.

In the first few pages Hecht has this fun appetizer she calls Scale of Doubt Quiz. Scribble your answers before scrolling down to the interpretation.

Answer "Yes," "No," or "Not Sure" to the following:

1. Do you believe that a particular religious tradition holds accurate knowledge of the ultimate nature of reality and the purpose of human life?

2. Do you believe that some thinking being consciously made the universe?

3. Is there an identifiable force coursing through the universe, holding it together, or uniting all life-forms?

4. Could prayer be in any way effective, that is, do you believe that such a being or force (as posited above) could ever be responsive to your thoughts or words?

5. Do you believe this being or force can think or speak?

6. Do you believe this being has a memory or can make plans?

7. Does this force sometimes take a human form?

8. Do you believe that the thinking part or animating force of a human being continues to exist after the body has died?

9. Do you believe that any part of a human being survives death, elsewhere or here on earth?

10. Do you believe that feelings about things should be admitted as evidence in establishing reality?

11. Do you believe that love and inner feelings of morality suggest that there is a world beyond that of biology, social patterns, and accident -- i.e., a realm of higher meaning?

12. Do you believe that the world is not completely knowable by science?

13. If someone were to say "The universe is nothing but an accidental pile of stuff, jostling around with no rhyme nor reason, and all life on earth is but a tiny, utterly inconsequential speck of nothing, in a corner of space, existing in the blink of an eye never to be judged, noticed, or remembered," would you say, "Now that's going a bit far, that's a bit wrongheaded?"

If you answered No to all these questions, you're a hard-core atheist and of a certain variety: a rational materialist. If you said No to the first seven, but then had a few Yes answers, you're still an atheist, but you may have what I will call a pious relationship to the universe. If your answers to the first seven questions contained at least two Not Sure answers, you're an agnostic. If you answered Yes to some of the questions you may still be an atheist or agnostic, though not of the materialist variety. If you answered Yes to nine or more, you are a believer.

Turns out I'm half a point away from being a rationalist materialist. Number 12 was one solid brick wall. It just broke my momentum. It's an epistemological question, and while science is certainly the most reliable means of knowing the empirical world, I'm just too ignorant at the moment--and cautious--to go beyond uncertainty about its ability to know everything. May Buddha enlighten me.

Feel free to share your own colors. (Believers are not mandated to betray themselves.)

Well, I still have 500 pages ahead of me and 3 other titles vying for my eyes. Hecht's take on the Book of Job promises to be engrossing. The man who shook his fist at God and blasted his 3 toady comforters is my hero.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Bug watch

A watch that detects malaria parasites. Do you think it's for real?
An inventor says he has developed a device with the form of a wristwatch that can detect a malaria infection before symptoms of the illness arise.

According to Gervan Lubbe, from South Africa, his device pricks the wearer’s skin every 6 hours and uses an electronic component to check for a "signature vibration" of the malaria parasite. He says that several medical journals plan to publish his papers on this new detection method, but declined to mention any names.


When the device detects the frequency of movement that Lubbe claims is unique to the malaria parasite, it flashes an alarm, prompting wearers to take antimalarial medication.

"Signature vibration"? That's a yellow flag to me. As with the malaria expert quoted in the article I'm sitting on the fence till there's more info on this. As for the device's ability to sniff out parasites, hope we'll soon get wind of the results of the controlled tests. (Have there been any?)

Lubbe claims to have a total order of 1.5 million units. At USD 280/pc. that comes to almost half a billion dollars. I wonder if Lubbe isn't stretching his figure just a bit.

Mr. Structured Water fizzes

As those of you who've been regularly tuning in to my blog may remember (nah, there can't be any), I wrote last year about how a certain Sandy Tabar is marketing "structured water" in Quezon City (April 11, April 25, April 27). On June 18, while googling, I stumbled upon Atty. Adrian Sison's blog in which he endorses Tabar's structured water and provides contact information. As you can see I left a comment on his blog, alerting him to the nature of the product and sharing water-related pseudoscience and quackery resources from chemistry professor Steve Lower and skeptic James Randi. I then contacted Tabar via email to inquire about his structured water.

A week later I received a reply. In that lengthy missive Tabar explains that his "structured water" is produced using "advanced nanotechnology." His process supposedly creates "energized clusters" which can "penetrate cell membranes easily" thus "maintaining maximum hydration," "something that other types of water cannot do." Moreover, he claims his water is a "natural antacid," has "anti-aging" properties, has benefited people with asthma, arthritis and cancer, while "its highly energized state recharges your vitality." For the complete litany of his audacious claims read his reply.

I recall visiting Sison's blog several times last year after I had posted my comment. The other day I checked it again and was surprised to find messages from both Sison and Tabar. When exactly these were posted I can't tell since I don't see any date stamp on them. My gut reaction to Sison's remark that "it is healthy water that doctors prescribe" was, You've got to be kidding; who exactly are these doctors, what are their names and their qualifications, and what did they base their evaluations and endorsements on? Could Sison have unthinkingly bought into Tabar's adverts?

As for Tabar's rant and crash course in the history of scientific revolutions, it's textbook woo that bears quoting in full (all-caps Tabar's):

Mr Edwardson Tan, thank you for your comment.

We have read and visited the sites you have mentioned in your comment some time ago. Yes indeed there are some quacks out there, but there are other types of quacks. Those that cannot and will not stop QUACKING and QUACKING - We hope and pray that you are NOT one of them.

But lest we fall into the trap of thinking like automatons without really thinking for ourselves, allow me to elucidate on the matter.

You see to think that water is simply water is akin to existing in the 6th century when the then Bishop of Antioch - Constantine, created a "Christian topography" depicting the Earth as a FLAT disk. Not only was it considered scientifically wrong to think that the earth was round, it was also HERETIC to say so.

It took more than 9 centuries before brave souls in Sept 1522, proved through the first circumnavigation of the world started by Ferdinand Magellan and completed by Juan Sebastian de Elcano that the earth is indeed ROUND and NOT FLAT.

Of course, today any 5-year old child will tell you that the earth is round matter-of-factly. And we take that fact today as common knowledge. My point here, my dear friend, is that one should think with an OPEN mind for OURSELVES and not take the opinion of others for FACT.

To find out if the food that one prepared is delicious or not NECESSITATES that one taste it. How will you know if you dont taste it? Thus we invite you to try STRUCTURED WATER first before you judge it. Please visit us at 96 Xavierville Ave., Loyola Hts. QC. Please call before coming at 4332222 or text 09228921256 - Who knows you may join countless others, who have dismissed structured water before as pseudo science but today are not only drinking it but introducing it to other people as well - because of the multitude of health benefits that they have experienced from simply drinking it.

I hope and pray that you accept our invitation and start to FREE yourself, and begin to take the first steps out of ignorance, to start to progress beyond the 6th century way of thinking.

Countless minds have done so. Imagine if COPERNICUS had not gone against the long held belief since the 2nd century that the earth was the center of the universe and not published his theories that formulated that the Earth and other planets moved around the Sun, where would interplanetary navigation be today?

In fact, Galileo Galilei's advocacy & support of this heliocentric system resulted in his famous trial before the Spanish Inquisition in 1633. There Inquisition consultants pronounced the Copernican theory heretical and admonished Galileo “not to hold, teach, or defend” the Copernican theory “in any way whatever, either orally or in writing.”

Imagine if the WRIGHT brothers simply accepted the common notion that man was not meant to fly; if THOMAS EDISON simply gave up after 999 failures before he could get the electric powered light bulb to work; if ALBERT EINSTEIN simply accepted the theorems of physics then and not come out with his theory of RELATIVITY - where would mankind be now?

Men should set their MINDS FREE , it will make ALL of us better people and help make a better world.

Galileo? Copernicus? Einstein? Edison? Wright brothers? What do any of these dudes have to do with structured water? Nowhere in his reply do I see scientific evidence that lends credence to his claims about his product, which is what really matters of course. In lieu of evidence I get a red herring, unsolicited history primer, which is suppose to send the message that I ought keep an open mind. Perhaps what Tabar means is that I should stop rocking his boat and doubting the veracity of his claims, that I should stop "quacking." Tabar is pissed. I've "quacked" too much, and have spilled the beans on the claptrap he's peddling.

As for Galileo, Copernicus, Einstein, well, I have news for you Mr. Tabar. Their proposals have been scrutinized and tested over and over and they've passed with flying colors. How about yours? Have you put your product to the test? What is this "structuredness" you're raving about? Has it been observed and measured in your product as you describe it? Given two groups of samples of your water--one group which has yet to be structured and another which has gone through your processing and is already structured--have chemists/technicians distinguished, with statistically significant success, between the samples in a randomized, doubly-blinded test? Are the extravagant therapeutic claims you make--such as anti-aging--in fact true? Can you please provide the clinical trials that have shown this? And while you're writing your next history lesson, how about including the names and proposals of the innumerable Tom, Dick and Harrys who've come up with more ideas than Einstein et al. combined but whose claims have proved to be dead wrong.

Tabar gives good advice though: "one should think with an OPEN mind for OURSELVES and not take the opinion of others for FACT." Indeed. And that's why I think for myself and don't take Tabar's fantastic medical claims as fact. That's why I don't listen to the wild claims of this biased source--a businessman whose life depends on selling this product and whose credibility depends on structured water's being accepted as scientifically and medically legit. Given the circumnavigation bit it seems Tabar at least has some (latent) understanding that empirical evidence is necessary to vindicate an idea. So why is it that he doesn't take his cue from his hero Magellan and "prove" that his product really has all the properties it possesses? Could it be--Zeus forbid--that it doesn't?

The irony is that he accuses me of having intellectually stagnated in the 6th century. I gather he pats himself on the back for subscribing to alternative medicine (and perhaps even New Age). I'm sorry Mr. Tabar but your brain is screwed. Scientists and medical researchers for more than a century have been using the scientific method and controlled studies to arrive at reliable knowledge of the empirical world. They certainly don't abide by your manifesto.

When I came to the line "I hope and pray that you accept our invitation and start to FREE yourself ... " the word FREE jumped out before I could read the sentence and thought he was offering me free bottles of his product. Well, I'm sorry to decline your invitation, Mr. Tabar. At PhP 10.00/liter your water costs nearly 400% more than the bottled water that gets delivered to my doorstep. You're certainly making a killing selling filtered water, while your buyers don't get anything more out of it except jugfuls of placebo, thanks to your pseudoscientific and snakeoil hokum.


While heliocentricity is the more parsimonious model compared with Ptolemy's geocentricity, the Copernican model still assumed circular orbits for the planets. But "any 5-year old child will tell you" the planets in our solar system follow elliptical paths. This assumption is the reason why Copernicus had to, just as Ptolemy did, posit epicycles, albeit fewer. That ad hoc explanation was still necessary to account for the prediction errors that a circular heliocentricity model makes. 1, 2

Friday, January 20, 2006

Mary's in Maine

A woman in Maine found the above image of the Virgin Mary on a wall of her burnt home. And I thought it was Little Red Riding Hood. My bad.
[Veronica] Dennis' home caught fire Sunday morning after a space heater in her daughter's bedroom ignited a bed and a nearby dog bed. The image was revealed when she removed a framed painting from the kitchen wall, which was blackened by smoke and fire.
So that's where she's been hiding all this time. Had to take a fire to smoke her out, huh. Dennis' neighbor Marlene Gile--now turned prophet--declared that
viewing the image led her to believe that it could be [a] message from a higher being.

"I just believe that God's letting her know that she's not alone. It means things will get better, and, like I told her, things will get better."

PS. Now the soot on the wall looks to me like a teepee with a cooking/heating fire going inside, or a volcano with ash spewing off its top, or ...

Superior Design

A pro-evolution anti-ID article in the Vatican's newspaper L'Osservatore Romano. What are the implications?
The Vatican newspaper has published an article saying "intelligent design" is not science and that teaching it alongside evolutionary theory in school classrooms only creates confusion.


The author, Fiorenzo Facchini, a professor of evolutionary biology at the University of Bologna, laid out the scientific rationale for Darwin's theory of evolution, saying that in the scientific world, biological evolution "represents the interpretative key of the history of life on Earth."

He lamented that certain American "creationists" had brought the debate back to the "dogmatic" 1800s, and said their arguments weren't science but ideology.

"This isn't how science is done," he wrote. "If the model proposed by Darwin is deemed insufficient, one should look for another, but it's not correct from a methodological point of view to take oneself away from the scientific field pretending to do science."

Intelligent design "doesn't belong to science and the pretext that it be taught as a scientific theory alongside Darwin's explanation is unjustified," he wrote.

The above notwithstanding, as with the Vatican's chief astronomer Fr. George Coyne, Facchini then proceeds to eject his brain to make room for delusions about an Invisible Designer: "In a vision that goes beyond the empirical horizon, we can say that we aren't men by chance or by necessity, and that the human experience has a sense and a direction signaled by a superior design."

The illusion of freedom

Tom Clark, director of the Center for Naturalism, is urging atheists to go all the way in their atheism. Apparently there are nonbelievers who disavow any belief in God but have not let go of their belief in the lesser deity--free will. There is the unquestioned and unscrutinized belief that "human beings have a special contra-causal freedom to cause things to happen without themselves being fully caused in turn." But science is challenging that assumption:
Rapidly accumulating evidence from biology, evolutionary psychology, and cognitive neuroscience suggests we are not causal exceptions to nature. There is no categorically mental agent or soul-essence floating above the brain which can exert a choice-making power that’s independent of neural processes. There’s nothing supernatural or causally privileged inside the head, just as there’s nothing supernatural outside it.

This makes perfect sense. If we atheists hold on to "free will" we are implying that we have contra-causal freedom. That our power of choice is not predicated on the biological self. That somehow we are able to transcend (in some way, in a limited way) the physical universe (and the "laws of nature") and make free choices. We border on invoking some paranormal phenomenon in even intimating that freedom of choice is contra-causal.

When you sit down and really think about it, it is irrational to suppose that we are free--that we have contra-causal freedom. Thus, as Clark rightly suggests, we ought to forsake the irrational belief in the little god. Richard Dawkins talks of the illusion of design in nature--living organisms may look designed but in fact are not. Realizing that free will is an illusion as well is the next step.

I had a preview of Tom Clark's ideas on the illusion of free will a couple of weeks ago. I also heard him on the Skeptics Guide to the Universe podcast. I've been nodding my head ever since. I'm really excited about this. As always, for us ontological naturalists science will be the enterprise that will unravel the mystery and show us the causal links and mechanisms by which human "free choice" comes about and operates. Among others, "genetic endowment, upbringing, and social environments" are surely prime factors.

It was an act of God

Surely God is mad at America. He sent us hurricane after hurricane after hurricane and it's destroyed and put stress on this country. Surely He's not approving of us being in Iraq under false pretences. But surely He's upset at black America also. We're not taking care of ourselves, we're not taking care of our women, and we're not taking care of our children.

--Ray Nagin, mayor of New Orleans

Truly unbelievable. There are humans who still sincerely perceive the forces of nature as the work of a deity, as signs from from a cop in the sky. And this in 21st century America.

If Nagin's deity is so upset over his nation's invasion and occupation of Iraq why in tarnations did this god not raze the White House instead? (A ten-mile wide asteroid appearing out of nowhere would've been pretty convincing.) Why didn't he sock it to the administration that got Americans into the mess in the first place? Why didn't this god prevent this administration from assuming power in the first place? And why would a supposedly omnibenevolent deity smite the black community for not taking care of themselves enough? What kind of a demented, sadistic, murderous deity does Nagin subscribe to?

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Sprackland on Behe's IC

Director of the Virtual Museum of Natural History Robert Sprackland gives this analogy for Michael Behe's concept of irreducible complexity:
It goes like this: I own an SUV, but am not a mechanic. I know that when I turn the key in the ignition, the engine starts. I do not know how the engine works, but I accept that (today at least) it does. According to "irreducible complexity," the fact that I don't know how the engine works doesn't mean that someone else might know. Instead, I am supposed to believe that God made the car. And therein lies the hubris.

(hat tip to The Bad Astronomer)

Listen to this fish story

Human Ears Evolved from Ancient Fish Gills
Humans and other land animals have special bones in their ears that are crucial to hearing. Ancient fish used similar structures to breathe underwater.

Scientists had thought the evolutionary change occurred after animals had established themselves on land, but a new look at an old fossil suggests ear development was set into motion before any creatures crawled out of the water.

Later in my dive back down to Atlantis I'll test how much I can breathe through my ears.

George Carlin and religion as the all-time ********

By way of God is for Suckers: There's an mp3 audio clip featuring George Carlin. I don't know. This may be the first time I've heard of this guy. But then again my memory sucks. His stand-up act is simply a riot. He minces no words and gives it straight from the shoulder:
When it comes to bullshit, big-time, major league bullshit, you have to stand in awe of the all-time champion of false promises and exaggerated claims, religion. No contest. No contest.

You may want to read the script too. But not after you've listened to him deliver it! No substitute for that.

You know what? Supernaturalism is the all-time bullshit.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

When Luskin sings

Casey Luskin on the "Philosophy of Design" class:

So what happens when ID is taught in a non-biology, non-science course? They change their tune.

This is a philosophy class where it's implicit that this material isn't being endorsed by the district as science. What objection could one possibly have to having students learn about material some people consider religious in a philosophy course? (January 10, 2006)


[I]f you do not cancel this course, and if you let this lawsuit go forward, you are going to lose and there will be a dangerous legal precedent set which could threaten the teaching of intelligent design on the national level. (January 13, 2006)

What was that about changing tunes?

The case that scared the hell out of DI

Pharyngula points us to this statement by Casey Luskin, an attorney for that creationist tank, the Discovery Institute. Noting how Frazier Mountain High School's "Philosophy of Design" is going to teach young-earth creationism and how two decades ago the US Supreme Court had already explicitly ruled that teaching this is unconstitutional, Luskin insists the school board cancel the class:
[T]he fact of the matter is that even if this course has been changed and improved, its past history as originally having been formulated to promote Biblical creationism as scientific fact makes this case legally problematic. Unless you get a very sympathetic judge, this course will be struck down as unconstitutional because of its problematic history.

... The young earth creationist history of this course places it on extremely shaky legal ground. I’m not here to tell you that you should like the law, but this is what the law is, and this course is extremely problematic and is on shaky ground.

There is a legal train coming at you and we can see it coming down the tracks. Unfortunately this course was not formulated properly in the beginning, and students were told it would promote young earth creationism as fact. Thus, the only remedy at this point to avoid creating a dangerous legal precedent is to simply cancel the course.


[I]f you do not cancel this course, and if you let this lawsuit go forward, you are going to lose and there will be a dangerous legal precedent set which could threaten the teaching of intelligent design on the national level [emphasis added]. Such a decision would also threaten the scientific research of many scientists who support intelligent design.

Because of the young earth creationist history of this course, this course is not legally defensible and it should be cancelled.

"A dangerous legal precedent" eh? Guess that's the motive behind this forceful dissuasion.

El Tejon School District is and shall forever be a creationism-free zone

Well, the ID class in California is history. They're pulling it out.
In the settlement, the defendants agreed to end the class and to ensure that no school in the El Tejon School District, including Frazier Mountain High School, "shall offer, presently or in the future, the course entitled 'Philosophy of Design' or 'Philosophy of Intelligent Design' or any other course that promotes or endorses creationism, creation science, or intelligent design."
I'm kind of disheartened that Frazier didn't put up a fight. It would've been instructive to see what the arguments of both sides would be and how the courts would rule on this case, given the class was declared philosophy. Maybe the defendants thought they couldn't fool customs officials.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

It works because I tried it and got well

One of the fundamental principles upon which therapeutic treatments rests is that if a person has a certain medical condition and receives treatment/medication T then she will get better as oppose to not getting better had she not received T. Indeed, if after taking a certain medication or undergoing some treatment and we don't get better (or we get worse), why have it?

What this means then, from the standpoint of assessing new treatments, is that if we receive T and we get better, this confirms that T indeed is therapeutically efficacious. If I take a new drug for a week and the symptoms and whatever was afflicting me up and disappear then the pills must've been effective, right? Unfortunately, it's not necessarily the case, even if at first blush the argument sounds perfectly sensible. You see this kind of reasoning commits the post hoc ergo propter hoc ("after this, therefore because of this") fallacy.

The post hoc argument is one wherein we conclude that event F is the cause of G merely because we observe G occurring after F. But a little thought makes it plain that just because F precedes G doesn't necessarily imply that F caused G. Innumerable events precede G, not just F, and innumerable events come after F not just G. The rooster may crow just before sunrise, but that doesn't mean it woke up the sun. In the case of disease and therapy, unsung but certainly working 24/7 behind the scenes, is our body's defense system. People have the misconception that drugs and medical procedures cure us, but in fact most treatments only help the body bounce back. And in many cases the body can do without medical intervention.

As an aside, it's also interesting to note that the post hoc fallacy is at the root of various superstitions:
I wear a new pair of socks--which my wife has just given me--to an interview for a position that has dozens of applicants. To my amazement I get the job. I then attribute my success to wearing this particular pair of socks. The next time there's some important event I wear these lucky socks.
Of course there is no causal link between wearing the socks and landing the job. More rationally, it was my resume, the answers I provided in the grueling interviews, and the impression I conveyed which clinched it. Magical thinking--"interpreting ... two closely occurring events as though one caused the other, without any concern for the causal link"--is very much alive in our society and does not automatically vanish as we graduate from childhood.

In general, attribution (causal) errors are rather common. I myself commit them every now and then when pinpointing the cause of various events. For instance while cooking dinner yesterday I had this wok in which I was heating oil to its smoking point on one burner and a saucepan full of soup on a high boil on another. The two pans were cheek to cheek. While waiting for the oil to heat up I began hearing sputtering inside the wok, indicating that there were drops of water in the oil. I had covered the wok earlier with a lid although the lid (from a discarded rice cooker) was a couple of inches smaller in diameter than the wok. The saucepan, on the other hand, was open. Because this was the nearest source of water I then surmised that some droplets from the bubbling and nearly overflowing soup were finding their way into the wok and seeping through edge of the lid. I could rule out moisture in the wok before I poured oil on it because I had made sure the wok was dry by heating it up to evaporate any residual moisture. So, mystery solved. Or so I thought. Moments later it dawned on me that I was utterly mistaken.The droplets had in fact come from the lid itself. Minutes before I had used it while cooking some other dish and it had condensation on the inside which must then have dripped into the oil, perhaps the moment I put it on, while the oil was still well below 100deg C. It should've occurred to me early on that the temperature of the wok was such that any tiny drop of soup landing on it would have immediately (and inaudibly) sizzled and nearly instantly evaporated; it wouldn't have had a chance to remain liquid, seep through the lid and roll down to the oil.

In this case rather than a post hoc I had committed a cum hoc ("with this") fallacy, whereby I had (mistakenly) assumed that being the only source of water at that time tiny drops of soup were shooting into the wok and causing the sputtering. If anything this vignette should hammer in the point that we ought to be as meticulous as possible, propose as many plausible explanatory hypotheses, and then mercilessly scrutinize and critique each of them instead of jumping the gun and going with the first (sensible) explanation that pops in our head.

Given that it is fallacious to jump to the conclusion that T works, how are we to determine whether T is actually efficacious? Well, the way to do it is to conduct controlled studies. And that's what scientists and medical researchers do to evaluate new treatments. Basically, they get two groups of people who are--as much as is feasible--the same in relevant aspects (age, lifestyle, socio-economic status, race, etc.) and have the medical condition for which T is being tested. They give one group a placebo, or if there is already medication that's been previously tested and known to be effective against the said medical condition they give them that. They then give the other group the substance or treatment T. To maintain objectivity and reliability the participants (either just the subjects or, as much as possible, both subjects and researchers) are kept blind as to who is receiving which substance. After the experiment if there's statistically significantly more people who get well in the group who took T, then T is judged more effective than the placebo (or the current medication/treatment).

Now let me just add a nuance to the basic statement I gave at the very beginning and refine it: If a person receives treatment/medication T then that person will get better or get better in a shorter period of time than had she not received T. The addendum there is necessary since a good number of conditions are self-limiting in nature. Most headaches for instance will go away whether or not you pop an aspirin or paracetamol. The common cold goes away within a couple of weeks if left untreated. The body with its defense system can mop up various bacterial infections without the aid of antibiotics. So if T does not lick the problem faster than the body can on its own, then receiving T doesn't make that much sense, unless T can rid us of or minimize annoying or debilitating symptoms during the period.

Because mere precedence does not imply causation it becomes clear why anecdotes and testimonials from people who've tried/received treatment T and gotten better are not evidence for the efficacy of T. To make this a little more concrete let's illustrate this with a hypothetical example.
Mr. Juan Cruz, 71 years old and living alone, is suffering from a swollen knee. Some weeks ago he'd heard Dr. Nightrit on the radio hailing the healing properties of virgin coconut oil (VCO) for both external and internal ailments. Confident that a real doctor--a cardiologist with decades of clinical experience under his belt and one who himself markets VCO--had endorsed this substance, Mr. Cruz gets himself a bottle of VCO and then religiously massages a spoonful on the affected area three times a day for a week. Less than ten days later the inflammation is all but gone.
To most people this would seem like a clear-cut case that supports VCO's therapeutic efficacy. But as we've seen above to jump to such a conclusion is logically fallacious. (You will notice too that Mr. Cruz had failed to shudder at the fact that Dr. Nightrit is hardly an objective and impartial source of information on VCO, given that he's got a vested financial interest in it. We'd also have to ask Mr. Cruz whether the doctor had specifically cited VCO's applicability to his condition. Just because substance X is said to be effective against "a wide range of internal and external conditions" does not make it a panacea and automatically translates and extrapolates to any condition. Bold claims about X's range and breadth of therapeutic application should not be a cause for excitement, rather it should elicit skepticism. Snakeoil anyone?)

Let's analyze the role of VCO in Mr. Cruz's case. The first question we need to ask is whether the kind of inflammation is the type that would have subsided with or without medical intervention. Is it merely a mild contusion? If it is then one must ask whether VCO's role in this whole incident was simply cosmetic. Assuming that application of the oil was therapeutic, we need to then ask whether it was the oil or the massage or the placebo effect or some other phenomenon that actually had therapeutic value. If we are able to establish that VCO per se had indeed a role to play in the healing process, we need to compare, among other things, how long it would've taken the inflammation to subside with and without the VCO. How significant is VCO as an anti-inflammatory? Moreover, it would be instructive to try out other oils and substances (perhaps cheaper ones) to see how VCO measures up to them. If a less expensive and more readily available substance is just as effective or more effective, prescribing/using VCO becomes less attractive, unless these other options have greater adverse side effects or if some other characteristic of theirs outweighs their advantages.

Even if we multiply the above anecdote by ten thousand, with people across the world swearing by VCO's effectiveness in treating various internal and external conditions, all we end up with is ten thousand fallacious conclusions and ten thousand times ten critical questions to ask. Only controlled studies--or more to the point, controlled, randomized, double-blind studies--will be able to provide us the most reliable information about the efficacy of treatments. Moreover, our confidence in a study increases as independent researchers are able to replicate the clinical trial and end up with similar results (while conflicting results should immediately give us pause).

A lot of people mistakenly believe that positive personal experience is warrant enough for them to recommend a new touted remedy to family and friends. But as I have hopefully shown, it just isn't so. Just because we tried it and got well doesn't mean it really works.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Magnetic logic gates

Well, the following is a surprise. Current integrated circuits (ICs) use transistors (bipolar and MOS) to form various logic gates--AND, OR, NAND, NOR--the basic building blocks of microprocessors and microcontrollers. But now engineers have successfully created nanoscale magnets that can be fashioned into logic gates.
Imre’s team have made a universal logic gate called a majority inverter. From this they can make any other type of logic gate needed for a circuit, including two critical logic gates known as NAND and NOR gates. All possible logic circuits can be made with these.

And because the gates are based on magnets they can be switched from one to another easily, allowing processors built from nanomagnets to be reprogrammed to do different jobs while they are in use, says the team.

Simulations show processing speeds of at least 100 megahertz should be possible using magnets 110 nanometres wide – with smaller ones expected to do much better. Consumer computer processors function at 2 or 3 gigahertz.
The part about reprogrammability is most interesting.

Weird beliefs, weird creatures, weird designer

Imagine what extraterrestrial observers would make of humans had they witnessed this:
At least 345 Muslim pilgrims were crushed to death on Thursday during a stoning ritual on the last day of the haj, the worst tragedy to beset the sacred event in more than a decade.

Saudi officials said the pilgrims were crushed at the eastern entrance of Mena's disaster-prone Jamarat Bridge as they jostled to perform the stoning between noon and sunset in Mena, a narrow valley near the holy city of Mecca.

"Pretty strange animals, these Homo sapiens, don't you think?"

"Uhh, who was it who Designed them?"

Friday, January 13, 2006

Do supernatural explanations increase our understanding of the world?

Posted in butterflies and wheels a year ago:

[R]eligion can't explain anything - not anything at all. Not really. It can pretend to, but it can't actually do it. Answering 'magic' to every question really doesn't explain anything whatever, does it. Well, answering 'God' for all questions that science can't answer amounts to the same thing. If science can't answer it, that means it's the kind of question which can't be answered by means of inquiry. Well - what else is there? Is there some other kind of epistemic endeavour that genuinely does find out things, but does it with completely different (yet still reliable, testable, coherent, logical, repeatable) methods? Some kind of science+++? Some kind of >science? No. No, what people mean when they say 'science can't explain everything' is that there are some things that can only be explained by making up the explanations out of our own dear heads, without checking them against anything. And that isn't an explanation. It's a story, or an aphorism, or a pretty thought, but not an explanation.

As we've seen, Pat Robertson, in his infinite wisdom, attributed Israel prime minister Ariel Sharon's stroke to God's retribution. Sharon, he claimed, was struck down by God because he carved up the Holy Land ceding part of it to the Palestinians. Robertson's flock probably finds his explanation comforting. It may even reinforce their belief that their deity must be feared and obeyed. But was Sharon's stroke, in fact, caused by a deity? Can Robertson or anyone discover the veracity of his causal explanation? Can anyone confirm or disconfirm it? Robertson can easily appeal to a "word of knowledge," to a private revelation, but how shall he or anyone distinguish it from a hallucination or the like? What test can he devise and perform to rule out all except supernatural communique? In beefing up his indictment Robertson pointed to his tradition's sacred text, noting how God had declared Israel to be his land and how God has "enmity against those who divide" it. But such appeals to ancient literature is as vacuous and ridiculous as pointing to Homer's Odyssey and--noting how Cyclopes are mentioned in it--asserting that these creatures do or did exist. The mere fact that something had been written about and claimed thousands of years ago hardly necessarily implies that they're true. The argument "But it's written in the Torah/Vedas/Quran/Bible!" holds no water. So what if ancient and revered text X says Y? Mere credulity, bibliolatry, ardent belief will never make something true/real. These principles are so elementary it's amazing how so many can fail to apply them.

Supernaturalistic explanations are, at best, speculation, at worst, outright fantasy. As we've said they may provide a sense of understanding of certain events in our lives and our world, but it is a false sense of knowing, for one cannot know and determine whether the explanation is true or false. Indeed, even supposed statements of fact about the supernatural cannot be known to be true since we cannot determine and check the veracity of these so-called facts. Thus, those who fervently believe and adamantly insist they are true are being most irrational.

I'd like to think that one reason, if not the main reason, for this irrationality is mere ignorance of how to think through their beliefs incisively, logically and critically. Or perhaps some just wittingly or otherwise turn a blind eye because the psychological and emotional rewards of having such irrational beliefs outweigh whatever benefits disillusionment offers.

Evolving and adapting to an ever harsher environment

Here's the course description of Frazier Mountain High School's "Philosophy of Design" class:
This class will take a close look at evolution as a theory and will discuss the scientific, biological, and Biblical aspects that suggest why Darwin’s philosophy is not rock solid. This class will discuss Intelligent Design as an alternative response to evolution. Topics that will be covered are the age of the earth, a world wide flood, dinosaurs, pre-human fossils, dating methods, DNA, radioisotopes, and geological evidence. Physical and chemical evidence will be presented suggesting the earth is thousands of years old, not billions. The class will include lecture discussions, guest speakers, and videos. The class grade will be based on a position paper in which students will support or refute the theory of evolution.
With such a description this class is not about philosophy. If they're going to pit ID against evolution discussing ID "as an alternative response to evolution" and discuss the age of the earth based on "physical and chemical" and other empirical evidence, then it's going to be a science class. And we all know how vacuous ID is as a science. It isn't science. It's pseudoscience. And it may not even be pseudoscience, but plain religion. And not just religion but a sectarian movement--a fundamentalist-evangelical consortium--with the goal of undermining science and science education.

If Frazier wants to have a philosophy class that includes ID creationism then limit it to a philosophy of science, to defining the characteristics of science, to defining what a theory is in the scientific sense, to debating why creationism in general or its variants including ID should be categorized as science/pseudoscience/nonscience, to the long-standing science-pseudoscience demarcation problem, to naturalism and materialism, to metaphysical questions, and the like.

The Philosophy of Design syllabus on the other hand fares much better. A good number of questions that the class will supposedly tackle are within the turf of philosophical inquiry. Of course, what the students will in fact be fed and what discussion topics/questions will be posed is another thing. Will the class be more or less faithful to the syllabus or does teacher Sharon Lemburg--wife of a minister of a fundamentalist church which believes in creationism--have something else up her sleeve?

Kenneth Hurst, a geologist and whose children attend Frazier, makes a good point by addressing, among others, this question posed in the syllabus. "Is evolution based on a religion?" Well, no. Evolution is based on empirical evidence. It is a very well-tested theory. And evolution isn't based on a philosophy either, as the syllabus seems to be implying. The allegation that evolution is religion goes back decades. But neither scientists nor the courts have questioned evolution's status of not being a religion. In 1981 Judge Overton stated in his Opinion: "[I]t is clearly established in the case law, and perhaps also in common sense, that evolution is not a religion and that teaching evolution does not violate the Establishment Clause."

For years creationists have been exploring various means to smuggle their brand of religion into classrooms. In decades past they merely appended the word "science" and called their movement creation science. That didn't earn them any Brownie points. The courts put an end to creation science's infiltration attempts in McLean v. Arkansas and Edwards v. Aguillard. Since then dropping the word God and references to the bible has been the strategy of ID. Its proponents had hoped that with such cosmetic exfoliations of patently religious terms and references it could avoid being described as religious and booted out for being so. But subterfuge certainly didn't work in Dover. Judge Jones was not to be fooled. And he did not suffer the fools in the Dover school board. After Kitzmiller the proponents of creationism have to become ever more subtle and cunning. I have to hand it to them. Using philosophy as its new Trojan horse is a most wily move. Has the creationism virus finally found a way to infect schools?

New home

Been having technical problems with my blog for months now. Been wasting too much time trying to get blog entries uploaded and formatted correctly so I've moved ... reluctantly. Experimented with but like a point and shoot instamatic it just doesn't offer bloggers enough controls. Not that I've explored various other blog hosts, but certainly has more manual controls to fine tune the blog. As with blogspirit it offers the blogger full html and css control of the blog skins. That's one of the clinchers. Downside: no blog categories option.

So it's going to be from today onwards.