Archive for the 'General' Category

Oct 11 2022

How Much Meat Should We Eat?

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This is one of those complex questions that comes up frequently when talking about related issues, and it’s always challenging to give a short answer. Often there are unknown or speculative elements to the analysis, which make it difficult to have an objective or definitive answer. What I would like to do here is mostly frame the relevant considerations and give my current understanding of the evidence, with possible caveats. Obviously this is going to be a quick overview of a lot of complexity – I see it more as a starting point than a firm conclusion.

There are really four questions hiding in this one question about meat consumption, and I will address each separately. These are: health effects, environmental effects, ethical considerations, and local considerations such as cultural tradition.

Starting with the last item first, this can actually be the trickiest to answer. What should be our attitude toward populations with a deep cultural history that includes things like hunting whales or polar bears, using endangered animals parts for folk remedies, or destructive farming practices. Animal rights organizations try to walk a fine line:

“For those of us who are not members of those communities, it is not our role to decry traditional practices that have important cultural, nutritional, and other necessary value, particularly when they are used respectfully and humanely.”

But what about when their practices are not humane? And what is considered respectful? Often such considerations are tainted by a “noble savage” myth that such peoples always live in harmony with nature, but human populations throughout history have generally been disruptive to their environments. There is no perfect answer here. Those from developed nations do have little moral standing to lecture native populations about nature management. Often we are essentially asking them to change their practices to help solve a problem we created. But then again, should we allow whale species to be hunted to extinction because we feel guilty? It’s a no-win scenario. We just have to take a balanced approach that thoughtfully considers many factors, and searches for acceptable alternatives.

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Apr 24 2022


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Since many of my regular commenters are intent on talking about their Wordle scores in the comments, you can now use this thread rather than my Topic Suggestions. Please put the following phrase at the top of every comment to avoid spoilers (fresh comments appear on the homepage, so people can see them even if they are not reading this post).

“To all WORDLE fans
We are discussing today’s WORDLE puzzle.
If you do not want to see the answer,
then please avert your eyes.

For those who may not know, Wordle is a popular word puzzle created by Welsh software engineer Josh Wardle in 2013. After it became popular it was purchased by the New York Times, who now hosts the game. The game has become popular partly because people like publishing their solutions on social media. The game has also provoked a lot of questions. There is no evidence to suggest that playing Wordle makes you smarter, and we now have a lot of research that shows that puzzle games like this make you better at the specific game, but does not boost general intelligence. However, the game may make people feel smart. That’s because it is easy to underestimate how quickly word options can be eliminated, and therefore how quickly we can whittle down the options to the correct answer, so we feel really smart when we get it.

Math nerds have also used the game as an opportunity to teach about entropy and information theory. How much information do you get out of each guess? What is the optimal starter word? If you played a statistically perfect game, what would your score distribution be?

Which country has the best Wordle players? Well, if Twitter is a fair indication then it’s Sweden. What’s the best state? North Dakota.


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Jul 17 2020

The Coming Population Bust

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I often discuss the fact that the world’s population is set to approach 10 billion people by 2060 or so. Right now we are approaching 8 billion. This is a potentially serious issue, mainly for food security. We are already using most of the arable land on the planet, and will need to produce more food on the same, or hopefully less, land if we are to sustain these populations without devastating ecosystems (more than we already have). We also need to produce enough energy and goods while dealing with that whole global warming thing. So many people might find it interesting that some scientists are warning about a coming decline in human populations.

This all has to do with fertility rates, which have been dropping around the world. The drop is not uniform, but the global average fertility rate has declined over the last century from 4.6 to 2.4. Equilibrium level is a fertility rate of 2.1, and if the number drops below that, then population numbers decrease. Here is where things get tricky – extrapolating current trends into the future. We lack a proverbial crystal ball, and so have to make a lot of assumptions, which can prove incorrect. Even if the assumptions are reasonable, it’s hard to predict game-changers. These can come in the form of unanticipated technology, or radical social change. Even more subtle social change can shift the equations and make a big difference when you are extrapolating out 80 years. Did anyone 80 years ago predict anything meaningful about the world today? To be fair, many did, but they were broad brushstrokes like most people owning cars, and being able to communicate with anyone in the world by telephone. The question is – are the broad brushstrokes enough to predict trend lines in fertility rates, or will the unknown details derail these predictions?

Here’s what we do know. The primary reason for decreasing fertility rates is not biological, it’s social. It relates directly to improved rights for women, who can then choose to work, to use contraception, and to control how many children they have. This is an undeniable good thing – women should have these rights, and there is no going back (unless you envision a future much like Gilead in The Handmaiden). This is why, for those who think reducing the human population is a good thing, they should focus their efforts on women’s rights. That will accomplish their goal.

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Nov 22 2019

Going Down Under

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For the next two weeks I will be traveling to New Zealand and Australia to attend two skeptical conferences:

Christchurch, NZ, Nov 29 – Dec 1. 

Melbourne, Dec 6-8

In addition, tomorrow (Nov 23) we will be debuting our new stage show, the Skeptical Extravaganza 2.0, in Los Angeles (sorry, this is sold out). This show is a lot of  fun – it’s kind of a skeptical variety show, interactive with the audience, designed to mainly just have fun but to also expose the audience to some basic principles of neurological humility and skepticism.

We have three upcoming shows in the Northeast – this page will provide updated information on our show dates and locations as well as links to get tickets. If you want us to come to your city or region, there is also a place on that page to submit your request. If we get enough requests from the same location, that will definitely influence our schedule.

The SGU events page will also list show dates, in addition to all upcoming SGU events.

Over the next two weeks I will still be posting, but not as regularly, depending on my travel and prep schedule. We do tend to be more active on twitter (@SkepticsGuide) while we are traveling. So no promises, but do check back for more content over the next two weeks.

Now off I go to Middle Earth.

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Jan 04 2019

Asimov’s Predictions for 2019

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In 1984 science fiction writer Isaac Asimov wrote an article for the Toronto Star making predictions for 2019. I thought that was an odd date to pick, but as The Star explains, 1984 was 35 years from the publication of the book by that name, so they wanted to look 35 years into the future.

I am interested in futurism, which is notoriously difficult, but it is an excellent window onto the attitudes, assumptions, and biases of the people making the predictions. Asimov’s predictions are no exception, but they are particularly interesting coming from a professional futurist, and one with a reputation for being particularly prescient.

What did he get right, and what did he get wrong, and why? He focused on what he considered to be the three biggest issues for the future: “1. Nuclear war. 2. Computerization. 3. Space utilization.” I think this list itself reflects his bias as a science-fiction writer. They are reasonable, but he could have chosen medicine, agriculture, transportation, or other areas.

In any case, on nuclear war he was pessimistic in a way that was typical for the height of the cold war, and prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union. He said if we have a nuclear war, civilization is over, so not much more to say about that. Instead he just wrote:

“Let us, therefore, assume there will be no nuclear war — not necessarily a safe assumption — and carry on from there.”

He spent most of the article focusing on the impact of computers on society. This was a frequent topic of his fiction. He famously was correct in his prior visions of the future in the broad brushstrokes of – computers will get more powerful, more intelligent, and more important to civilization. But he also famously got the details wrong, imaging giant computers running things. He missed the trend toward smaller, ubiquitous, and embedded computers.

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Jun 25 2013


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I’m still on vacation. I had an encounter with some hummingbirds this morning. If you live in the North Eastern part of the US and you see a hummingbird in the wild, then it is overwhelmingly likely to be a ruby throated hummingbird. This is the only species that is endemic to the area. There are occasional reports of other species of hummingbird, but they are likely accidentals.

This little guy is a male ruby throat – the reason for the name is quite visible in the photo.

I usually don’t see hummingbirds perched like this. I have a feeder, and the hummingbirds usually hum in, hover while they feed, then flit away.

They are famous for their rapid wing speed, beating their wings up to 53 times per second. Their high metabolism means they have to consume up to twice their body weight in food each day. In addition to nectar, they will also eat insects and spiders.

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Apr 02 2013

SBM Temporarily Down

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This is just a quick note to inform my readers that the SBM website is temporarily down. There appears to be an automated bot attack trying to hijack our servers. We thought we fixed it yesterday but it went down again overnight. Troubleshooting is commencing. We will have it back up as soon as possible.

Update: SBM is back up, and fully functional. You will need to reset your password to sign in and comment, however. Sorry again for the inconvenience.

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Feb 02 2013

Donate Girl Scout Cookies to the Troops

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If you would like to donate Girl Scout cookies to the troops but don’t have a hookup yourself, here’s your solution. Just use the PayPal button below, choose the amount you would like to donate (increments of $4, as it’s $4 per box), and my daughter, who is in the Girl Scouts, will take care of the rest.

Thanks in advance for your generosity, and I’m sure both the Girl Scouts and our forward deployed troops who are jonesing for thin mints or tagalongs will appreciate it.


The deadline is past. Thanks to everyone who donated. We raised 85 boxes of cookies for the troops.

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Sep 10 2012

Science Debate 2012 Answers

Published by under General is a group dedicated to promoting the discussion of important scientific issues in American politics. They formed around the idea of holding a science-themed debate in the 2008 presidential election, and have continued since then. They were never successful in getting the two campaigns to agree to a live debate concerning scientific topics, but they did agree to submit written answers to questions. This time around, in the 2012 presidential election, it also appears that there will be no live debate, but both campaigns have submitted written answers to science questions.

The idea behind ScienceDebate is this – from their website:

“Whenever the people are well-informed,” Thomas Jefferson wrote, “they can be trusted with their own government.”

Science now affects every aspect of life and is an increasingly important topic in national policymaking.

I remember Carl Sagan hitting this theme often, in Cosmos and in his interviews. He said, for example:

“We live in a society exquisitely dependent on science and technology, in which hardly anyone knows anything about science and technology.”

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Dec 16 2011

Christopher Hitchens 1949-2011

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News of the death of Christopher Hitchens has by now worked its way around the internet and around the world. I first heard of it from a fellow skeptic in Australia. Hitchens was a great intellectual light in this world and it is always sad to see such a light go out.

I have been reading his column for years. Every Monday I eagerly read his take on world news or modern culture. He was an exceptional investigative journalist. You did not have to agree with his point of view to gain insight into the issues he covered. In fact he was one of those rare writers who was more useful and provocative when you did disagree with him – because he challenged your views with overlooked facts and interesting analysis. I am really not aware of anyone writing today who will fill the niche he occupied in my weekly reading.

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