Archive for the ‘philosophy’ Category

The Iron Law of Confirmation Bias   2 comments

Ben Goldacre posts over on Bad Science about the distressing tendency of people to reject that which does not confirm their already-held beliefs.

Their views on each issue were added together to produce one bumper score on the extent to which they thought science could be informative on all of these questions, and the results were truly frightening. People whose pre-existing stereotypes about homosexuality had been challenged by the scientific evidence presented to them were more inclined to believe that science had nothing to offer, on any question, not just on homosexuality, when compared with people whose views on homosexuality had been reinforced.

When presented with unwelcome scientific evidence, it seems, in a desperate bid to retain some consistency in their world view, people would rather conclude that science in general is broken. This is an interesting finding. But I’m not sure it makes me very happy.

This is in and of itself not a terribly astonishing finding (depressing though it may be).  There is a very large body of evidence to show that people are resoundingly poor at objectively measuring evidence using a consistent standard.

Simply put, if a study has a conclusion with which you agree, you tend to ignore the limitations of the study and place more trust in the conclusion.  If a study with the same exact design has a conclusion with which you disagree, you have a tendency to focus on the limitations of the study and place less trust in the conclusion.

Even if the methodology is precisely the same.  Depressing, isn’t it?

Unfortunately, this tendency is not minimized by intelligence quotient.  Smart people, as I’ve said before elsewhere on this blog, are not guaranteed to be wise.  As I observed over the weekend to the pater familias, people who have invested huge quantities of time and training in a field (and thus have a justifiable belief in their own expertise in that field) unfortunately have a tendency to assume that competence possesses fantastic osmotic capabilities.

Which is fascinating, as they’d jump straight to how much work they had to complete to gain basic competency in their own field as a justification for their position for their beliefs in their field… but the expertise acquired by someone else through their own study of some other field is trumped by… well, I’m not really sure.  The “obvious truth”, I suppose.

People who are mathematical mavens assume that they understand economics better than they actually do.  People who are biologists assume that they understand psychology better than they actually do.  Successful politicians assume that they can understand engineering, everybody assumes they understand everybody’s theology, and so on.

You see this a lot when you start arguing about the philosophy of science.  Scientists, as a class, make fun of other fields in order of their likelihood to line up with postivist standards of measure.  Mathematicians famously make fun of scientists (and the philosophers make fun of the mathematicians).  I’ve thrown this XKCD comic up before, it’s a classic which illustrates the situation fairly well:

Sadly, as you move away from mathematics towards physics, you move away from an axiomatic system to constructive empiricism.  You lose truth, but you gain facts, something I’ve mentioned before.  The problem, of course, is that your facts are based upon your ability to observe, which is largely contingent upon the accuracy of your measurements.  The farther away from physics you go, the more uncertainty you get in your measurements, and the more qualifications you need to put upon your observations (which has the distressing tendency to produce the, “Social scientists aren’t *real* scientists” attitude among the hard science crowd).

This follows, of course, when you have a biologist who has a particular ideological stance, but some whippersnapper sociologist comes along and challenges that ideological stance.  The biologist, of course, depends upon science for their livelihood, so they can hardly disclaim science.  They can cheerfully disclaim sociology.

The point?

You know, I’m really not sure I’m going to bother to say.  If you’re reading this, and you agree with me, you’re already going to know what the point is.

And if you don’t, you’re going to disagree with the point, right?

Posted July 7, 2010 by padraic2112 in philosophy, rants, science, Uncategorized

Existence Statements & Probability   2 comments

Posted September 23, 2009 by padraic2112 in philosophy, science

This Made Me Laugh For About 2 Minutes Today   Leave a comment

From Dr. Free-Ride’s blog:


This goes a long way to explaining my sense of humor.

Posted September 21, 2009 by padraic2112 in humor, philosophy

More on Argument   1 comment

Corey and I were having a discussion over Gale recently, and during a conversation he said this:

“In my highschool philosophy class, we had a Professor (or an Associate Professor?) from a school (I think it was UMKC) come in and talk about framework arguments one day, asserting that most every argument you’ll ever hear is a framework argument, and unless you can get past that you’re wanking.  That’s what it seems to me that 99% of internet “debates” are.  You know?”

Corey’s right.

For those not dabbling in philosophy, syllogistic logic, or argumentation theory, a framework argument goes something like this: “I believe in a class of thought (liberalism, libertarianism, free-market capitalism, Zoroastrianism, logical positivism, whatever).  Your point is contraindicated by some premise in my class of thought.  Ergo, your point is wrong.”  You see this a *lot* in political discourse.  You also see the inevitable related behaviors: “Your point is a point that is commonly associated with a class of thought with which I disagree, ergo I will assume that you are a believer in that class of thought and argue against the class of thought, rather than the point (which I will coincidentally ignore completely, as it is inconvenient),” and “Your point is a point that is commonly associated with a class of thought with which I agree, ergo I will assume that you are a believer in that class of thought and assume all base principles are true in our discussion.”  There’s also my most favoritist extended version of this, “Your point is a point that may or may not be associated with the fringe of a class of thought with which I disagree, but I will counter your point by using a badly-constructed reductio ad absurdum to imply you’re a loony.”

Not to give reductio ad absurdum a bad name in general, but it’s so grossly misapplied in today’s discourse I would like to see a two year moratorium just on the principle of forcing people who misuse it to find something else to abuse horribly.

This is annoying when you’re not a liberal, and conservatives assume that you are because you are discussing a political stance that is commonly associated with liberalism, or vice versa.

It’s deuced rare to see anyone acknowledge that this is even a problem in today’s “discourse”, much less write a couple of thoughtful posts on the subject.  From the first link:

This is critical – free market advocates, particularly in recent months, have tended to adopt pretty straightforward anarcho-capitalist rhetoric even though precious few of those advocates are actually anarcho-capitalists. The reason this is such a problematic line of attack is that anarcho-capitalist rhetoric only makes sense if you’re willing to go the Full Monty in favor of anarcho-capitalism.  If you’re not willing to go that far, then you have to be able to argue against a particular government proposal for intervention or in favor of a particular proposed deregulation on terms specific to that proposal.  Simply assuming that what already exists is in some way more of a free market than what would exist if a particular government action were taken too often ignores the way in which the very system one is defending is already dependent on any number of government interventions. [ed. note: emphasis mine]

I suspect that Mr. Thompson and I might disagree on a topic or two, but at the very least arguing with him over beer and peanuts would likely be the sort of discussion that would be worth having in the first place.

Posted August 24, 2009 by padraic2112 in philosophy, politics, rants, religion, science

What Is The Law?   1 comment

The Oingo Boingo fan immediately responds, “NO SPILL BLOOD!”

That’s not what I’m going to talk about today, though.  I’m going to be talking about some other laws.

First, The Law of The Instrument.  In the book, “The Psychology of Science”, written back in 1962, Abraham Maslow famously said, “When the only tool you have is a hammer, it is tempting to treat everything as if it were a nail.”

Second, The Law of Unintended Consequences.  Often times in complex systems, an action has unforseen reactions, due to the layering of dependent variables.

If you ever run across one of those silly internet tests that attempts to tell you what your political affiliation is, you may be surprised with the results.  I’m still looking for a good one, because whenever I take those tests it invariably tells me that I’m a Liberal, and yet I find myself arguing with Liberals at least as often as I find myself arguing with Conservatives.  This recent discussion over at Phil’s blog is a perfect example of the sort of proposition that is usually supported by liberals with which I disagree.

The question at hand, for those who don’t want to read the entire screed is, “Should vaccinations be mandatory?”

(I’m really verbose on that particular thread, which is one reason why I haven’t been blogging recently on my own blog)

Now of course, you’re getting the standard votes of “no” for the standard reasons.  The Slippery Slope (“Nanny State!”)  The Religious Freedom argument, and so on.  Of course, you’re also getting the standard “yes” votes, for the standard reasons.  Nobody’s actually interested in the *first* question anyone should be asking, which is, “is this practical?”

From a philosophical standpoint, the question of individual freedom vs responsibility to the community is a question that is never going to go away.  It’s certainly well advised to have these discussions, I’ll grant you .  [edited to add]  For the record, I agree with Janet; people who don’t get vaccinated are rightly categorized as free riders.  [/edit].  However, if we’re going to be discussing one of the central, weighty issues concerning human societal structure, perhaps we ought to start with those questions that actually have a reasonable chance of being worthwhile.

As I argue over at Phil’s place (and also at Janet’s and at Jimmy’s), a government-enforced mandatory vaccination program is going to be expensive.  More importantly, most of that money goes directly to overhead.

See, audit is by its very nature very inefficient.  What you are attempting to do, in any audit process, is verify that something has happened.  This has several design considerations.  For starters, you need to recognize that if you’re auditing a process that is infrequently bypassed, *most* of the time you’re pouring money down a hole.  For the parents out there, here’s a humorous example: when you’re potty training, your toddler is somewhat likely to have accidents.  Therefore, when you take off the diaper and go with underpants, you’re going to spend a certain amount of time checking with your toddler fairly frequently.  “Did you go to the bathroom?”  “Do you need to go to the bathroom?”  “I think you need to go to the bathroom.”  “Honey, before we leave, I want you to try and go potty.”  In frustration alone (if you have a headstrong child), this can be a taxing process… your payback comes because you avoid cleaning up a mess in public.

However, once the child gets the gist, you don’t bother auditing them anymore.  They voluntarily go potty on their own.  You might have an occasional accident, but the occasional accident happens so infrequently that it’s simply no longer worth your while to constantly badger your toddler to go to the bathroom (unless of course you’re a control freak, but then you’re going to have slightly messed up children, and that’s a topic for another post altogether).

Enforcing government mandated vaccinations is a very costly proposal.  Some of the questions you need to consider (dragged from my commentary over at Phil’s) include:

  • What behavior are we trying to enforce?
    * A full vaccination schedule? Partial?
  • Who decides what’s on the list?
    * The CDC? How often to they revisit the list?
  • Who are we covering?
    * Just school-age children? Infants? Adults?
  • How many of them are already doing what we want anyway?
    * In which coverage windows?
  • How do you propose that they prove their compliance?
    * Required to… enter public school? What about private schools? Daycare? Drive a car? Register to vote? What are your avenues for authorization?
  • How do you propose that we trust the authorization mechanism?
    * Who can sign off? Doctors? EMTs? Nickel clinic workers? How do the people who *check* the authorization actually check it? Do they check a doctor’s signature against an authoritative database? Is there a physician ID number? Who has access to this information? How do you secure it? How do you ensure that FERPA, HIPAA, and other privacy regulations (in the case of the U.S.) are followed and enforced?
  • How do you have a reasonable audit?
    * You must assume that in the above there are going to be people who attempt to circumvent the process. Your audit design must therefore incorporate every weak part in the chain to a suitable degree, and in the above there are thousands of venues. How do you make sure that doctors are legitimately signing the forms? How do you make sure that school clerks who don’t believe in vaccination aren’t just rubber-stamping forms out of a sense of political freedom? How do you prevent fraud? How do you prevent forgery?
  • How do you enforce the audit?
    * What is your penalty system when people circumvent the process? Do doctors lose their license? Do you expel children, so they’re now uneducated and unvaccinated? Do you revoke driver’s licenses, so drivers now can’t get insurance? Revoke licenses for professionals?

Now keep in mind that most people vaccinate already (of course, there are communities of non-vaxxers, but we’re talking about universal policy here, not fixing the outliers)… so all of the above checking, auditing, authorizing, with all of the attendant red tape, paperwork, and frustration is being borne by all those people who vaccinate voluntarily to no benefit.  We’re not even considering legal costs, legislative costs, etc. involved with getting such an initiative on a ballot and past the inevitable court challenges.

Whatever you believe that is going to cost per capita (and keep in mind, there’s 80 million children under the age of 19 in the U.S. – thanks to Jimmy for checking my numbers there – and 306 million people), that’s going to wind up being a pretty big chunk of change.  The NIH funds cancer research at the National Cancer Institute to the sum of $660 million dollars (in 2007).  Cancer kills a half a million people every year.  If you’re going to convince me that this audit process is going to be worthwhile, you’re going to have to convince me that spending all that money is a better idea than just taking the lump sum and transferring it wholesale to the NCI.

Or better yet, give the money to the NIH or the CDC and ask *them* how they think it ought to be spent.  I bet dollars to donuts anyone who works at the CDC would recommend spending that red tape money on buying vaccinations for those that can’t afford ’em before funding red tape.

[edited to add]

Dr. Paul Offit, director, Vaccine Education Center, and chief, Division of Infectious Diseases, Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) penned an editorial in 2007 in the WSJ that indicates that it’s likely he’d disagree with my last paragraph.  Then again, perhaps not; I don’t know that anyone has ever offered him a few hundred million dollars and asked him to choose between research or enforcement.  It would be an interesting data point in the argument, though.  The existing mandatory vaccination laws in the U.S. (for public school or daycare entry) do have a demonstrated reinforcement value, which is not considered above (that is, many people might otherwise vaccinate but forget or are lazy or what have you… and the existence of these laws reminds them that they need to get their vaccinations) – thanks to Jimmy for those links.

Now, that may or may not indicate that the existing laws are an effective mechanism, but I’ll grant that point – the reinforcement value alone appears to be pretty significant.  I’m not suggesting we change the status quo.  I don’t think this is necessarily compelling evidence that major changes to the existing laws (covering home schoolers, or extending mandatory vaccination requirements to adults) are going to be effective, however.  The low hanging fruit aspect means that every additional person you want to compel is going to require that much more in the way of audit and enforcement, so the existing mechanisms are not likely to scale in a linear fashion.

[editing done]

The law is a good venue for fixing a lot of societal problems.  It is generally, however, very bad at efficiently auditing any behavior… if you can find a good counterexample feel free to leave it in the comments, but on the whole government audit processes of public behavior tend to spend lots of money and not substantially alter citizen behavior… the “War on Drugs” is the poster child for this.

Don’t think the law is your only tool.  Then your only response to behaviors you don’t like is to criminalize it.  This usually doesn’t fix your problem.

Posted June 10, 2009 by padraic2112 in parenting, philosophy, politics, science

Follow Up To Vegetable   4 comments

Visitor Paul dropped by to leave a comment regarding my last post.  It deserves some attention, so although I replied there I’m un-burying the lede and re-posting it here.

Paul sez:

It’s PZ Myers, incidentally.  [ed note: I misspelled Professor Myer’s patronymic]

Great post, I agree with Megan. Interesting about PZ Meyers–although I’d never heard of him–Philip Pullman always bothered me for this very reason–although he is actually one of, I believe, the most brilliant authors around, and I love his books, his outspoken, snide, supercilious atheism drives me bonkers. Again, it’s not the atheism per se, but the assumption that anyone who cares about their religion is by default an ass… [for clarification, this is another comment to which Paul was responding]

As opposed to the default assumption by most religious folks that anyone that is an atheist is morally and ethically bankrupt, and/or really believes in God and is just rebelling? That never seems to bother most people. Your critique seems very one-sided, and is one reason many atheists are happy there are people like Pullman and Myers willing to be outspoken and blunt about these things. It’s not to everyone’s taste, but nothing is.

My reply was thus:

> It’s PZ Myers

Fixed, thank you Paul.

> As opposed to the default assumption by most religious folks that anyone that is an atheist
> is morally and ethically bankrupt, and/or really believes in God and is just rebelling?

This is an over-generalization, and it’s simply not generally true. That said, it may be true in your particular community… if so, in my opinion this sort of behavior ought to be condemned outright. I spent a good long time in Catholic school, and I knew quite a few atheists. None of them were regarded as morally or ethically bankrupt. In fact, during my comparative religion class, the Jesuit teaching the class started day one by saying that, “About half the people that take this class become really good Catholics. The other half become atheists. Both of those results are successes in my book.” I know three people who went to a seminary (three different denominations); they’re all atheists or agnostics now.

> That never seems to bother most people.

Again, you’re overgeneralizing, although it may be true in your particular community. Among people I know, this is actually regarded as a pretty big problem.

> Your critique seems very one sided, and is one reason many atheists are happy there are people like
> Pullman and Myers willing to be outspoken and blunt about these things.

I’ve visited PZ’s blog a few times, and I’ve heard this. I’ve also heard more than one person say that people like PZ and Pullman let them know that it was okay for them to be atheists and they weren’t monsters for not believing in God. While I’m glad that these people find out that they’re not monsters, I don’t know that because PZ was the first person to tell them so he deserves a pass for behavior I think is generally harmful.  [ed note: Phil Plait is another good example of someone who can fight the woo without deliberately being a jerk, so finding PZ before Phil should not give bonus credence to PZ’s methodology]

There are lots of people who are atheists who are critical of religions on the grounds that parts of the religion deserve criticism. That doesn’t make it okay to ridicule people’s beliefs universally [ed note: it breaks rule #3, unless you’re an atheist who used to attend a seminary].

To be clear, I have no problem with anyone, religious, atheist or otherwise, critiquing a church’s stance on public policy. Fire away at the Pope’s stance on contraception… he’s said things that simply are not supported by evidence and he should be called out on it.

I have no problem whatsoever with anyone, religious, atheist or otherwise, critiquing a moral stance adopted by someone who is religious as being an unacceptable reason for seeking public policy change. Catholics who oppose abortion must admit that their stance is based fully and entirely upon their theological position of what constitutes human life, ergo they have no business trying to make it illegal, as it violates the Establishment clause. Moreover, it’s a waste of time and resources. If you want to reduce abortions, find out what sorts of things reduce unwanted pregnancies (like contraception) and what sorts of things give pregnant mothers who don’t want a child a reason to carry the pregnancy to term (like, your financial support and compassion).

I don’t have a problem with anyone stating baldly that a religious dogma that contradicts science is wrong. People who claim that the earth is 10,000 years old are wrong, period… and their right to be wrong ends when they try and establish it as a reason for public policy decisions or even teach other people that their beliefs are correct without fear of contradiction.  But lots of smart people believe things that are wrong (check out Tesla’s Wikipedia page). *This does not make them stupid, it just makes them wrong*.

I have a real problem with anyone who believes that their intellectual correctness gives them carte blanche to condemn or ridicule a human social organization outright, without fully understanding or studying it, simply because it has a public position that is wrong. The Catholic church, for example, has been around for a very long time. The Catholic church, as an organization, has done some horrible things. It’s legitimate to point those things out as a reason why we ought to be glad we don’t live in a theocracy. But it’s bankrupt to claim that because these things have happened, that the church has done no good; that’s like claiming that because the U.S. broke some treaties and screwed over the native American population that the U.S. government has done no good.

As for my critique being very one-sided… I’m sorry, but I don’t see it that way at all [ed note – I don’t think Paul has read much of my blog].  For every person who enjoys PZ’s style of just calling anyone who claims a faith an outright idiot, there’s someone who enjoys doing exactly what you mentioned earlier; calling atheists morally bankrupt and disparaging their ethical character. This rightly angers you when it is applied in your direction, no? So why do you consider *intentionally angering someone with whom you disagree* to be a legitimate form of social discourse?

The fact is, once you accept the label “Culture Warrior”, you’re accepting a role of self-righteousness.  Even if your stance is correct, you do not generally win converts from the other side by being self-righteous.  If your claim is that you’re fighting a lack of knowledge, how can you possibly justify deliberately couching your message in an envelope of scorn and ridicule?  Certainly, people who think like you may flock to your cause, and raise your banner.  By your original premise… you’re not trying to reach those people.  You’re supposedly trying to reach the ones who believe things that are wrong, and by your very presentation they are not going to listen to you.  In fact, they are going to turn around and accuse you of being things you aren’t (such as immoral or unethical).

[edited to add] –  Paul has some follow up comments (read the comment thread for more details), but this ought to be sucked into the main post:

I cited another poster in the comments and meant my second paragraph as a response to what I cited.

This is one of the unfortunate drawbacks of the blogging medium and the comment thread mechanism, it is sometimes difficult to follow threads of thought without getting confused what people are actually talking about.  Mis-attribution on my part leads to a post that may seem overly critical, because Paul wasn’t talking about what I thought he was talking about.  Comment thread is an interesting read, though, so I’m not going to tag this post as “unnecessary” 🙂

Posted March 25, 2009 by padraic2112 in philosophy, rants, religion, science, social, Theme Thursday

Dialogue and The War of Words   3 comments

Dr. Free-Ride recently wrote a post about animal research and the dialogue between those who perform it and those who object to it.  This is a generalizable problem, not only between scientists and lay persons, but between any two distinct groups who are legitimately trying to communicate with each other.  The problem is severely exacerbated when the two groups have different cognitive processes, which is why wrangling between scientists and theologians or two different political partisans is so common.

The general problem is that the two sides are literally talking past each other, since they have no shared context in which to establish a meaningful framework.  Moreover, since these discussions often result in fundamental challenges to models of the world, there is a huge disincentive for either side to work at establishing that shared context.  So it’s not really a dialogue at all, it’s just a conflict.

I’ll take the easy example of the conflict between “pro-life” vs. “pro-choice” in the United States.  Fundamentally, this conflict is broken at the root; it cannot even be properly considered a debate.  Neither side (for the most part) is interested in even establishing ground rules.  This is pretty obvious just by looking at the labels the two sides have chosen for themselves – who isn’t for choice?  Who isn’t for life?  Just about everyone who isn’t a raving psychotic regards these two things as generally nice things, and yet to involve yourself in the conflict you must, by definition, take up a position that is antithetical to one of those nice things.  If you accept the position of “pro-life”, by the foundational principles of the opposing team, you’re now “anti-choice”.  If you accept the position of “pro-choice”, by the foundational principles of the opposing team, you’re now “anti-life”.

This is patently ridiculous, I don’t know anyone who is “pro-choice” who actually goes around killing random living things in an attempt to eliminate all life, and I don’t know anyone who is “pro-life” who wants to put a computer chip in everyone’s brain to enforce Absolute Compliance with The True Way.  Interestingly, however, I know plenty of people on both sides of the debate who actually consider all of their opponents to be exactly like that.

This is a perfect example of where effective rhetorical techniques have been used to actually attack and destroy the capability of reasoned dialogue.  Decades of spin have actually worked at removing shared context between these two sides.  The people who feel most strongly about the conflict have a vested interest in forcing undecideds in the middle to come on board their bandwagon.  At the beginning, framing your position to make it attractive to the center gets people on board with your program.  After time, however, when the middle is carved up, it is no longer about attracting new people who might be persuaded to think the way you do, it’s now about destroying the opposition.

The unfortunate result is that a fairly complicated issue is now reduced to a steaming pile of platitudes that have literally less than no meaning.  Look at the political comment threads on a social news site like Digg or Reddit and you’ll get a nice view of several different steaming piles.

This was illustrated so well in the recent Presidential debate.  At one point, Senator McCain actually used “sarcasm tongs” when using the phrase, “health of the mother”.  Why would he do this?

Well, to the “pro-choice” crowd, the “health of the mother” is a very, very important point in their foundational view of the conflict.  Their reasoning is that people should never be legally forced to put themselves in a situation that can be sufficiently dangerous to their own existence.  Seems reasonable.  To the “pro-life” crowd, however, the “health of the mother” isn’t about the health of the mother at all; to them, this phrase has been re-contextualized by “pro-life” leaders to mean “liberal doctors get to decide arbitrarily that the fetus can be killed, because it can always be rationalized as being for the health of the mother.”

On the flip side, the pro-choice movement generally regards any attempt to limit abortion accessibility as fundamentally wrong, as it could be abused to force a woman to give birth against her will.  Outright banning of second-term abortions, or banning of particular procedures is no longer a question of allowing a viable fetus to be removed and supported on its own or the merit of the procedure, it’s “chipping away at abortion rights.”  Inside the pro-choice movement, it’s fairly difficult to discuss nuance in cases; is it morally wrong to abort a second term fetus that may be able to survive on its own if the conception was the result of rape and the mother is not at risk?  That’s a legitimate question, but it requires people to examine what it means to be a mother, to be a person, and inherited guilt… all of which are very difficult metaphysical questions.  If there is a reasoned debate inside the pro-choice community about when and where it is appropriate for society to judge the source of the pregnancy as being relevant to the decision that the mother should be able to make, it first requires the pro-choice community to admit that society has some right to influence that decision, which opens the door to the possibility that society may impose a tyranny, and that can’t be considered.

The core issue here is a lack of trust.  Since the two sides of the conflict have steadily eroded the shared context between the two groups while strengthening the shared context inside its own community, each side can now easily (albeit erroneously) rationalize anything the other camp says as being completely untrue; neither side is willing to concede that any proposition put forth by the opposing side has any grain of truth to it.  Are there doctors who will perform an abortion for reasons other than saving the life of the pregnant woman?  Certainly; this must be true.  Does this mean that every abortion performed for the “health of the woman” is performed for absolutely trivial reasons?  No; of course not.  However, for either side to admit that these things are true undermines their foundational positions, and thus must be ridiculed as unlikely or impossible or irrelevant rather than accepted for the truth that it is.

Rhetoric can be the mortal enemy of reasoned debate; misused, it destroys shared context with the people that do not think like you do, and strengthens the contextual bonds with people that do think like you.  It allows two sides to load the same phrase with diametrically opposed connotations, which further obfuscates the ability of people to communicate clearly with each other.

Tangent – this is why people like PZ Meyers bug me; because they are making no attempt to find any sort of common ground with anyone except people that already agree with them, and they make no attempt to present their positions in a way that fosters trust with those that disagree – indeed, they go out of their way to destroy the possibility of trust with those that disagree.  It is impossible to foster reasoned dialogue with someone if they have no reason to trust you, and it is impossible to actually end a conflict with anything other than violence without using a reasoned dialogue and a healthy debate.

Unless you just wait for the other side to die of old age.  Sometimes, the issue you’re debating is one that requires a bit more in the way of timely resolution, however.

Posted October 30, 2008 by padraic2112 in philosophy, politics

Why Is There A Watermelon There?   Leave a comment

Scott Aaronson over at Shtetl-Optimized describes a project for the summer of 2009 that I find very interesting.

The web app — tentatively called “Worldview Manager” — is intended to help people ferret out hidden contradictions in their worldviews.  Think of a kindly, patient teacher in a philosophy seminar who never directly accuses students of irrationality, but instead uses Socratic questioning to help them clarify their own beliefs.

The problem of hidden contradictions in people’s thought processes is a huge one.  I’ve mentioned here on my own blog (and on countless others in comment threads) that the failure of the U.S. educational system to teach logic is a major hole in brain training.  You see the consequences everywhere, but they are perhaps most blatantly obvious whenever you come across a discussion board or comment thread involving politics.

Training people how to think rationally is desperately needed, but this idea has some interesting implications itself in attacking the problem from the other end.  The biggest weakness I can see immediately is that the exams will be difficult to structure properly (something Scott acknowledges himself in the post).  In the comment thread, Gareth pointed out these two exams that follow the same idea that Scott has:

They’re somewhat simplistic, and I find myself critical of some of the assumptions (you can read the details in the comment thread of Scott’s post), but the FAQ does acknowledge some of my criticisms, and any way you slice it they’re still interesting.  Take ’em and post your results in the comments here (for the record, I scored “7% tension” on the philosophy health test and “2 hits” on the God exam).

I think it would be a fun project to work on, if you’re a CS student you should check it out.

Posted October 10, 2008 by padraic2112 in philosophy, research, software, web sites

Mandatory Skill – Indy, COVER YOUR HEART!   Leave a comment

If you’re a walking, talking, cognitively aware adult human being, I’m about to tell you something that is going to scare the crap out of you.  Then, I’m going to make you feel better about it (and then I’m going to pontificate about it, feel free to ignore that part if you want).

Each year, heart attacks kill about 250,000 people, and the total death toll for all coronary failures is a whopping 432,000+.  The U.S. population is somewhere around 300 million right now.  On average just about 685 people right now, today, are going to complain of pain in one side, grab their chest, keel over, and die. That’s about one every two minutes.

Of course, there’s quite a few *more* people who are going to complete steps 1-3, but before they can get to the “die” part, something else happens.  There are roughly 1,200,000 new heart attack incidents per year.  Since there’s 300 million people in the U.S., that means about one in every 250 people is going to have a heart attack this year alone.

How many people do you know?

Statistically, this means that it’s not unlikely that over a 70-ish year lifespan, you’re going to be a direct witness to at least one fatal heart attack.  Without immediate, effective CPR from a bystander, a person’s chance of surviving sudden cardiac arrest decreases 7 percent to 10 percent *per minute*.  Do a little research on emergency response times for your local area, you might be dismayed at the results.  8-10 minutes is a pretty common “official” response, the practical response time between when someone calls 911 and when an EMT touches a patient is often much, much longer.  95% of the people who die from heart attacks die before they reach a hospital.

Not very cheery, is it?

Here’s the good news.  If you know basic CPR, you can essentially double the chance that the person who keels over in front of you survives.  If you have ready access to an AED and use it within three minutes of a cardiac arrest, the odds of survival skyrocket to nearly 70% – 90% if you get it done in the first 60 seconds.

Now, there’s a lot of additional information available.  CCR (CPR with compressions only, no rescue breathing) is more effective for heart attack victims, but the American Heart Association still recommends the rescue breathing technique – probably because basic Adult CPR assumes that the average layperson can’t differentiate between a heart attack and any other medical cause that makes you keel over and your heart stop.  AED use *after* the first 5 minutes may cause damage to the heart, but of course this doesn’t matter so much in the field because the brain starts to die about four to six minutes after the heart stops.  Unless you’re a trained medical doctor in a full medical facility, getting the heart going as quickly as possible is the only thing that is going to keep your brain from dying.

But none of that matters more than knowing the basics.  You want to be a hero?  Take a CPR course.  Odds are damn good that someday you’ll save someone’s life.  If you work in a company that has over 200 employees, get your boss to buy an AED (they’re about $1,200) and train a dozen people how to use it (about $100 per person).  $2,400 is chump change for a life… heck, if your boss is a middle-aged, slightly overweight guy who eats a lot of fast food, it could very well be his own life he’s saving.

Begin the pontification:

Hey, if we spent the TSA’s budget for the next year ($7,100,000,000) just on buying AEDs and training a dozen people how to use them, we could equip 2,958,333 ready response teams, and train 35,500,000 (over 10% of the population) how to use these devices (and give them ready access).  Chicken scratch analysis (assuming standard distribution of heart attacks during a 24 hour period, or about 3/5 of them, would occur during non-sleeping hours when *someone* would witness the event) shows that we’d have about a 70% chance of saving the lives of about 150,000 of those cardiac incidents.  That’s 105,000 people.  We could cut the death rate from heart attacks down to 145,000-ish.

105,000 people.  Thirty-five times the number of people who died on 9/11.  Every year.  Heck, this is a horribly basic analysis, let’s say I’m off by an order of magnitude.  That’s still 10,500 people a year.

Posted August 14, 2008 by padraic2112 in philosophy, science, security, social

Brain… hurts   5 comments

The Interwebs (at least, a subsection of ’em) are all a-twitter about Ben Stein’s upcoming “Expelled”.

In reading some of the threads, I came across this note:

“There are people out there who want to keep science in a little box where it can’t possibly touch God. ” – Ben Stein

If this is, indeed, the opening line of the movie, it pretty much illustrates precisely why this movie is (probably, I haven’t seen it yet obviously) going to be a complete pile of drivel.

Mr. Stein, science is based upon precisely two main root principles:

  • The Universe behaves according to some set of laws.
  • Those laws can be illuminated by observation of said Universe.

By any meaningful definition of God (that I’ve read, anyway) He (or She, or It) is not constrained by these laws, but instead exists outside of them. This means, quite simply, that science (as a discipline) is incapable of quantifying God. Studying God is not a scientific endeavor.

Intelligent Design is not a scientific theory, and has no place in a science classroom. There is no meaningful standard of evidence. I cannot produce evidence that counters the basic principle, that there is a “lawmaker”, because the lawmaker must, by definition, be outside those laws, and outside my observation. Science has no tools to examine this phenomena.

Science ought to stay in that box.

Posted March 21, 2008 by padraic2112 in philosophy, science