Archive for the 'Logic/Philosophy' Category

Oct 13 2014

Anomaly Hunting and the Umbrella Man

This is not a new story, but it is worth repeating. At the moment that bullets were being fired into JFK’s motorcade, a man can be seen standing on the side of the road near the car holding an open black umbrella. It was a sunny day (although it had rained the night before) and no one else in Dallas was holding an umbrella.

This is exactly the kind of detail that sets a fire under conspiracy theorists. It is a genuine anomaly – something that sticks out like a sore thumb.

The event also defies our intuition about probability. Even if one could accept that somewhere on the streets of Dallas that morning one man decided to hold an open umbrella for some strange reason, what are the odds that this one man would be essentially standing right next to the president’s car when the bullets began to fly?

Our evolved tendency for pattern recognition and looking for significance in events screams that this anomaly must have a compelling explanation, and since it is associated with the assassination of a president, it must be a sinister one.

Continue Reading »

Share

31 responses so far

Sep 23 2014

Flavors of Nonsense

I, like most people, like to categorize things. It helps me keep my mental space organized and tidy. A good system of categorization is also like a framework on which I can hang specific facts and details. Categories are most useful when they reflect underlying reality, rather than superficial or arbitrary features. Categories are therefore often at the nexus of facts and theory in science – they can organize the facts in a way that reflects the underlying theory. 

You have to be cautious, however. Reality often does not cleave in clean straight lines. There are likely to be exceptions to any rules one devises for defining specific categories. Groups tend to be fuzzy around the edges. While categories can be a useful tool for organizing ideas, they can also become a mental prison or straightjacket.

Is Pluto a planet? It depends on how you define planet, and why you would define planet in any particular way. Is there a difference between planets, dwarf planets, and planetoids? Or do these objects exist along a spectrum and scientists are simply drawing arbitrary lines for convenience? Is schizophrenia one disease or a group of diseases, how do we categorize the subtypes, and do they reflect real underlying differences in cause? Are such labels helping or hindering research?

Continue Reading »

Share

28 responses so far

Jun 12 2014

Dumb Things Creationists Say

Having read deeply into the creationist literature and having had countless discussions with creationists, one thing is clear to me – creationists do not understand evolutionary theory.

To be fair, most people don’t really understand evolutionary theory, but creationists have a particularly poor understanding. Their problem goes beyond generic scientific illiteracy. They primarily learn about evolution from secondary hostile sources – other creationists. What they learn is creationist made-up nonsense about evolution, which they confuse for the science of evolution. This condemns them to mostly attack pathetic straw men rather than what scientists actually claim about evolution.

For example, Michael Egnor (remember him?), the creationist neurosurgeon who blogs for the Discotute, claimed that if evolution were true, then brain cancer should evolve a better functioning brain.

Today I am going to pick on another example of “if evolution were true, then…” creationist nonsense. This one comes from Creationtoday.org, in a Youtube video Derek Isaacs, a young-earth creationist, claims that:

“If evolution is true and it’s all about the male propagating their DNA, we had to ask hard questions like, well is rape wrong?”

It’s a little disturbing that Isaacs finds this a hard question, but let’s break down the many fallacies in this statement.

Continue Reading »

Share

41 responses so far

May 27 2014

The Brain Is Not a Receiver

Whenever the discussion of a dualist vs materialist model of the mind comes up, one common point made to support the dualist position (that the mind is something other than or more than just the functioning of the brain) is that the brain may not be the origin of the mind, but rather is just the receiver. Often an explicit comparison is made to radios or televisions.

The brain as receiver hypothesis, however, is wholly inadequate to explain the relationship between the brain and the mind, as I will explain below.

As an example of the brain-receiver argument, David Eagleman writes in his book Incognito:

As an example, I’ll mention what I’ll call the “radio theory” of brains. Imagine that you are a Kalahari Bushman and that you stumble upon a transistor radio in the sand. You might pick it up, twiddle the knobs, and suddenly, to your surprise, hear voices streaming out of this strange little box. If you’re curious and scientifically minded, you might try to understand what is going on. You might pry off the back cover to discover a little nest of wires. Now let’s say you begin a careful, scientific study of what causes the voices. You notice that each time you pull out the green wire, the voices stop. When you put the wire back on its contact, the voices begin again. The same goes for the red wire. Yanking out the black wire causes the voices to get garbled, and removing the yellow wire reduces the volume to a whisper. You step carefully through all the combinations, and you come to a clear conclusion: the voices depend entirely on the integrity of the circuitry. Change the circuitry and you damage the voices.

Continue Reading »

Share

1,707 responses so far

May 12 2014

Correlation and Causation

Every skeptic’s new favorite website is Spurious Correlations. The site is brilliant – it mines multiple data sets (such as causes of death, consumption of various products, divorce rates by state, etc.) and then tries to find correlations between different variables. The results are often hilarious.

The point of this exercise is to demonstrate that correlation does not necessarily equal causation. Often it is more effective to demonstrate a principle than simply to explain it. By showing impressive looking graphical correlations between phenomena that are clearly not related (at least proposing a causal connection superficially seems absurd.), it drives home the point that correlation is not enough to conclude causation.

Continue Reading »

Share

49 responses so far

Feb 17 2014

New Science and Religion Survey

A new Rice University survey of 10,000 people explores issues of science and religion. Surveys are always fascinating, giving us a “lay of the land” of what people around us believe. However, they are also very tricky. Results can vary wildly based upon how a question is asked, and what questions surround them. This study was presented at the AAAS meeting, and is not published, so I don’t have access to the actual questions.

With those caveats in mind, here are the main results:

50 percent of evangelicals believe that science and religion can work together, compared to 38 percent of Americans.
18 percent of scientists attended weekly religious services, compared with 20 percent of the general U.S. population;
15 percent of scientists consider themselves very religious (versus 19 percent of the general U.S. population);
13.5 percent of scientists read religious texts weekly (compared with 17 percent of the U.S. population)
19 percent of scientists pray several times a day (versus 26 percent of the U.S. population).
Nearly 60 percent of evangelical Protestants and 38 percent of all surveyed believe “scientists should be open to considering miracles in their theories or explanations.”
27 percent of Americans feel that science and religion are in conflict. Of those who feel science and religion are in conflict, 52 percent sided with religion.
48 percent of evangelicals believe that science and religion can work in collaboration.
22 percent of scientists think most religious people are hostile to science.
Nearly 20 percent of the general population think religious people are hostile to science.
Nearly 22 percent of the general population think scientists are hostile to religion.
Nearly 36 percent of scientists have no doubt about God’s existence.

Continue Reading »

Share

107 responses so far

Jan 28 2014

Occam’s Razor vs Hickam’s Dictum

Every year since 1998 Edge magazine asks a large group of public intellectuals a provocative question and then publishes their answers. This year the question is: What Scientific Idea is Ready for Retirement?

Gerald Smallberg (Practicing Neurologist, New York City; Playwright, Off-Off Broadway Productions, Charter Members; The Gold Ring) gave as his answer, “The clinician’s law of parsimony.” He writes:

“As an absolute, the Law of Parsimony is floundering. Not because it is aging poorly, but rather because it is being challenged more and more by the complexity of the real world and its need for a valid counterweight. From my vantage point as a physician in the practice of clinical neurology, its usefulness, which has always been a guiding principle for me, can easily lead to blind spots and errors in judgment when rigidly followed.”

Continue Reading »

Share

56 responses so far

Jan 24 2014

Debating Faith Healing

Published by under Logic/Philosophy

In Idaho since 2009 four children were allowed to die of treatable illnesses because their parents relied upon faith healing alone. Their families were members of the Followers of Christ.

These cases have sparked a renewed debate in Idaho about allowing parents to deny their children basic medical care based upon their religious beliefs. Idaho law currently contains this exemption:

 ”Treatment by prayer or spiritual means alone shall not for that reason alone be construed to have violated the duty of care to such child.”

Lawmakers are discussing changing the law so that parents would be required to provide medical care, even if it conflicts with their religious beliefs. State Rep. Christy Perry, R-Nampa had this to say:

“This is about religious beliefs, the belief God is in charge of whether they live, and God is in charge of whether they die. This is about where they go for eternity.”

Continue Reading »

Share

187 responses so far

Jan 13 2014

The GMO Narrative and Abstinence Only Farming

Nathaniel Johnson over at Grist has written a series of articles on genetically modified organisms (GMO). As an investigative journalist he decided to do what I call a “deep dive” on this one issue to try to sort out fact from fiction, and which side (anti or pro) has the better arguments. He acknowledges that this was a journey of discovery and he was learning as he went along.

His most recent article, I think, is the most interesting: What I learned from six months of GMO research: None of it matters. In this latest installment he discusses the meta-lessons he learned in his journey through GMO – which seem to me like core skeptical principles. His article is an eloquent discussion of these principles, worth a read in its entirety, but I will further discuss here.

The main thing that Johnson learned is that people generally do not arrive at and defend positions based upon a careful analysis of the facts. Rather they have a narrative that fits their world view, and they defend that narrative despite the facts. This, of course, is familiar territory for skeptics.

Continue Reading »

Share

46 responses so far

Dec 16 2013

The Logic of God

Published by under Logic/Philosophy

Fox News recently ran an opinion piece called: A Christmas gift for atheists — five reasons why God exists, by William Lane Craig. I usually don’t spend time here addressing issues of faith, but I will address any argument that purports to be based on logic and/or evidence.

Faith is often defined as believing without evidence. Hebrews 11:1 is often quoted:

“Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.”

I prefer Christopher Hitchens’ take:

“Faith is the surrender of the mind, it’s the surrender of reason, it’s the surrender of the only thing that makes us different from other animals. It’s our need to believe and to surrender our skepticism and our reason, our yearning to discard that and put all our trust or faith in someone or something, that is the sinister thing to me. … Out of all the virtues, all the supposed virtues, faith must be the most overrated”

Sometimes those who have faith also seek evidence and logic to back up their belief. This is a win-win for them because if the logic and evidence are found wanting, they can always then fall back on their faith. In any case – let’s take a look at alleged five reasons why God exists:

Continue Reading »

Share

255 responses so far

Next »