Archive for October, 2008

Oct 14 2008

Mande Barung Bunk

Published by under Uncategorized

Dipu Marak is referred to by the BBC in multiple articles as a “passionate yeti believer.” Recently Marak’s passionate belief was put to the test, and he passed (or failed, depending upon your perspective) with flying colors.

The mande barung is the local name for an alleged ape-like creature believed to inhabit the Garo hills in Meghalaya, India. It is the “Bigfoot” of the region. Incidentally, the “Yeti” is the name for such a mythical creature in Nepal.

Why is Dipu Marak a passionate believer? He says:

“We have so many reports of sightings that I sincerely believe there is some sort of huge creature in the Garo hills.”

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Oct 13 2008

Artificial Consciousness

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My blog from last week on the upcoming Turing test provoked a great deal of interesting conversation in the comments – which is great. Short blog entries are often insufficient to fully explore a deep topic. Often I am just scratching the surface, and so there is often much more meat in the comments than the original post.

Some points came up in the comments that I thought would be good fodder for a follow up post.

Siener wrote:

Think about it this way: You are saying that a system can exists that acts like it is conscious, but unless it has some magical additive, some élan vital with absolutely zero affect on its behaviour it cannot be truly conscious.

That is not what I am saying at all.  From my many previous posts on the topic it is clear that I am not a dualist of any sort. I essentially agree with Daniel Dennet’s approach to the question of dualism. When I wrote that behavior alone is insufficient to determine if computer AI is conscious I was not referring to some magical extra ingredient, but a purely materialistic aspect of the AI itself.

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Oct 09 2008

Dowsing for Journalists

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There is good and bad journalism out there. Recently the quality of science journalism has taken a hit, most likely due to decreasing revenues for major news outlets. But every now and then I run across a piece of journalism at a major outlet that is so horrific I have to comment.

Yesterday in the New York Times, Jesse McKinley published a terrible piece about dowsing that was virtually devoid of any useful information. McKinley informed us that there is a drought in California – if you didn’t already know that, then you learned something new. Otherwise the piece was worse than useless, utter drivel.

McKinley seems to think it’s news that there are people who dowse – who walk around with sticks and think they can find water by the movement of these sticks. He gives us riveting anecdotes to reveal this amazing information:

“A neighbor’s well had gone dry, and this old fellow came out and he witched it, quite a ways away from the other well. Doggone it, I’ll be darned if they didn’t get water. That made a believer out of me.”

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Oct 08 2008

Preventative Hype

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A recent editorial in the New York Times by Dr. H Gilbert Welch discusses the role preventative health care, separating out the complex reality from the simple sound bite. He points out that both presidential candidates have made statements suggesting that increasing prevention can save health care dollars, while the evidence is not clear.

Dr. Welch gets the issue essentially correct. First, we must consider that there are different types of prevention. The first type, and perhaps what most people think of as prevention, is living a healthy lifestyle, including eating a well-balanced diet, exercising regularly, and avoiding bad habits like smoking. This type of prevention is clearly a net positive – it doesn’t cost anything and people live longer. Although the net health effects are clearly positive, the net financial effects are more complex. If people are productive longer, and therefore the proportion of healthy working citizens to retired or unhealthy citizens is greater, then the financial benefits are clear. But if living healthy merely extends retirement then health costs are merely delayed by living healthy, but they will catch up with us eventually. I think most people will agree that living a longer healthier life is worth any extra cost of entitlements for the elderly.

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Oct 07 2008

Are Humans Evolving?

Published by under Evolution

According to geneticist Steve Jones human evolution is grinding to a halt. Jones says there are several factors that drive evolution: mutations, natural selection, and randomness. He further argues that the decrease in older fathers is leading to a decrease in mutations, since the sperm of older fathers contains many more mutations than younger ones.

This is an interesting argument, but I find several problems with it. First, I am curious as to what the data say about the average age of fathers. I would have thought that this was increasing, not decreasing, as people are having children later. Jones points to alpha males who would father hundreds of children even into their 70’s or 80’s. It is true that in primate species where males have harems, like baboons, alpha males can father a significant portion of the next generation, but this in not true for homo sapiens. Humans dominantly follow a pair-bonding model of mating, even though there is much cultural variation.

Also, at least in the article about his lecture (I have not heard the lecture) there is no mention of recombination. When male and female gametes come together their chromosomes mix randomly in a process called recombination. This can bring gene variants (alleles) together in combinations that have never previously existed. Typically, the contribution of recombination to genetic variation is underestimated and the contribution of mutations overestimated. Both are important.

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Oct 06 2008

An Upcoming Turing Test

Published by under Skepticism

In 1950 Alan Turing, in a paper entitled Computing Machinery and Intelligence, a practical test to determine if a computer possesses true intelligence. In what is now called the Turing test, an evaluator would ask questions of a computer and a person, not knowing which was which and with text only communication, and then have to decide which was the computer. If the evaluator cannot tell the difference (or if 30% of multiple evaluators cannot) then the computer is deemed to have passed the Turing test and should be considered intelligent.

On October 12 the Loebner Prize for Artificial Intelligence will conduct a formal Turing test of six machines (the finalists in this year’s competition) – Elbot, Eugene Goostman, Brother Jerome, Jaberwacky, Alice, and Ultra Hal. (It seems that AI will have to endure whimsical names, probably until true AI can demand more serious names for itself.) The prize for the victor is $100,000 and a gold medal – and career opportunitites that will probably dwarf the actual prize.

Ever since Alan Turing proposed his test it has provoked two still relevant questions: what does it mean to be intelligent, and what is the Turing test actually testing. I will address this latter question first.

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Oct 03 2008

Hyperactive Pattern Recognition

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People like patterns. More specifically, we have a need to feel a sense of control over ourselves and our world, a perceived prerequisite to control is understanding, and we seek patterns in order to make sense of the world. As a result we tend toward hyperactive pattern recognition.

Understanding of the role and power of pattern recognition – especially seeing patterns that are not really there – has become a core tool in the skeptic’s toolbox. Skepticism in part is the study of how people confidently arrive at false conclusions. Skepticism is the pathology of belief. Seeing patterns that are not real, meaning they are illusory, is a major contributor to false beliefs.

It also takes many forms. Visually this phenomenon is known as pareidolia – seeing a face in the clouds, or the outline of the virgin Mary in a window stain. There is also auditory pareidolia – hearing words in static or random noise. Some ghost hunters claim electronic voice phenomena (EVP) as evidence for spirits, but they are just listening to hours of recording seeking illusory auditory patterns.

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Oct 02 2008

Hubris, Thy Name Is Jenny McCarthy

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There are many words I could attach to the dangerous freakshow that is Jenny McCarthy – self-made advocate for the pseudoscientific notion that there is a link between vaccines and autism: deluded, self-righteous, irrational, the Mayor of Wooville, etc. But I am always interested in the process that gets people to their profound confusion. I believe at the core of Jenny McCarthy’s tragic crusade is an utter lack of humility.

Her lack of humility also seems consistent with someone who has never risen to a level of competence, let alone mastery, in any intellectual discipline. Those who have understand on some level the value of excellence and expertise, and the gulf that separates superficial public knowledge (or what has been called in the internet age, the University of Google knowledge) from a functional depth of understanding.

This brings to mind yet another word that could apply to McCarthy – sophomoric. She has garnered just enough knowledge to think she knows what she is talking about, but not enough to appreciate the depths of her own ignorance.

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Oct 01 2008

Entangled Logic

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ESP researcher Dean Radin has a blog called Entangled Minds. Back in January he wrote an entry called Why I’m Not a Skeptic, which I only recently saw, hence the delayed response. In his post Radin specifically addresses two comments that I made in a previous blog entry about ESP.

I was disappointed with Radin’s response – not because they amounted to apologetics for ESP research (I would have expected nothing else), but because they were so unsophisticated and old. It was the type of response I expect from a rank and file believer, not one of the recognized leaders in this field.

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