The Lower Quote, As If You Didn't Know, Is By Richard Dawkins, Son.

Friday, May 31, 2013

Comedy, Feminism, & Rape Culture

I love Jim Norton and his brash, completely honest style of comedy. He recently was on a show called Totally Biased to debate Lindy West of Jezebel. It was a good back and forth with points made by Norton and West that were valid. I tend to come down on the side of Norton in this, mostly because in a comedy club, you have to be ready for jokes to be made about anything. You really can't expect everyone to censor themselves because of your situation.

Penn Jillette once told a story of a woman who came to their show and, during an escape illusion where Teller is upside-down in a tank of water and appears to drown, had to leave. A close relative (husband, son, I can't remember) had recently drown, and this act was much too close to home for her to deal with and find humorous.

When a member of Penn & Teller's crew (or a theatre usher) asked her why she left while she was crying in the lobby, she told the story and the person apologized on behalf of Penn & Teller. The woman said that no apology was necessary because the issue was on her end and she just couldn't be there. The show itself was fine.

That's the way I feel about comedy clubs. The show is (usually) fine. As Norton said, there are a lot of shitty comics out there, but the good ones will take areas of discomfort and societal taboo and throw them in your face, hopefully with a funny punchline.

Here is Norton's tweet and the unedited debate from Totally Biased.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Rupert Sheldrake's "Banned" TED Talk

Watching Rupert Sheldrake's TED Talk is a little bit painful.

He says this:
"...there's conflict in the heart of science between science as a method of inquiry based on reason, evidence, hypothesis, and collective investigation, and science as a belief system or a world view. And unfortunately, the world view aspect of science has come to inhibit and constrict the free inquiry which is the very life blood of the scientific endeavor."
I find this disingenuous because people who understand science (i.e. most actual scientists and lay-people who have actively invested time to understand) get that all knowledge is tentative and based on increasing piles of evidence. Other people may not know this and just accept the word of "experts" because you can't be current and knowledgeable about everything. Some people accept science as a world view because they see the advances made by science and attach their wagon to that horse. If I can paraphrase Chris Hardwick, "Religion always updates and struggles to adapt their dogma when science makes new discoveries, and it *never* goes the other way." Some people just accept the scientific world view; is that right? No, but you can't get everyone to understand the nuanced position that science has in society and the world.

Sheldrake wrote a book called, "The Science Delusion" (catchy title...I wonder where he got that from?) where he takes, the ten dogmas of science and turn(s) them into questions." These 10 dogmas, as he calls them, are:
1. Nature is mechanical, or machine-like.
2. Matter is unconscious.
3. The laws of nature (Nature?) are fixed.
4. The total amount of matter and energy is always the same.
5. Nature is purposeless.
6. Biological heredity is material.
7. Memories are stored in your brain as material traces.
8. Your mind is inside your head.
9. Psychic phenomenon like telepathy are impossible.
10. Mechanistic medicine is the only kind that really works.

He makes some mildly disparaging remarks while listing these, like mentioning that governments only invest in researching mechanistic medicine and not complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) because they can't possibly work because they're not mechanistic. Apparently, he's never heard of Senator Tom Harkin or the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM).

Sheldrake goes into some detail on a couple of these "dogmas", starting with number 3, that the laws of nature are fixed. He calls this a "hangover" from an older world view. He quotes Terrence McKenna regarding science saying, "Give us one free miracle and we'll explain the rest." to the chuckles of the audience. I guess he's been too busy to check out Lawerence Krauss' A Universe From Nothing talk.

He says that in a universe that is evolving (a slight misuse of the term, but hey, who's counting?), why shouldn't the laws evolve? He makes the odd comparison that human laws evolve, so why not the laws of nature? Seems weird to me that he misunderstands this point - human laws change because we are involved in a constant dialogue with each other to figure out the best way to interact with each other, the planet, and its resources; natural laws are simply us trying to figure out how best to describe, document, and predict the observed actions in the universe. But what do I know?

He segues into his hypothesis of "morphic resonance", which is not supportable by much and has not been independently replicated by anyone. Dogs supposedly knowing when their owners are coming home and people supposedly knowing when they're being stared at do not good research papers make. In fact, there is a good deal of pseudo-scientific tap dancing with respect to Sheldrake, as evidenced by this article from Scientific American, which concludes:
(Sheldrake says)...skeptics dampen the morphic field, whereas believers enhance it. Of (scientist and skeptic Richard) Wiseman, he remarked: "Perhaps his negative expectations consciously or unconsciously influenced the way he looked at the subjects."

Perhaps, but wouldn't that mean that this claim is ultimately nonfalsifiable? If both positive and negative results are interpreted as supporting a theory, how can we test its validity? Skepticism is the default position because the burden of proof is on the believer, not the skeptic.
Exactly. Let's go with Karl Popper on this one, shall we? Unfalsifiable = unscientific.

He then says that, "Genes, in my view, are grossly over-rated. They only account for the proteins that the organism can make, not the shape or the form or the behavior." I will let the more educated biologists take this sentence apart for the nonsense that it is. He asserts immediately after this that, "Every species has a collective memory, even crystals do." I would *really* like to see ANY evidence for this, especially before he gets to assert it in front of a TED audience (sure, it's TEDx, so the standards are lower - obviously - but still, come on). We're at the almost 9 minute mark of the talk now and the woo is starting to flow like a river.

He gets into nonsense about rats who learn a new skill in London will somehow make it easier for rats anywhere else in the world to learn the same skill - he attributes this to morphic resonance, but we're more familiar with the Hundredth Monkey Phenomenon.

Sheldrake then moves on to the constants of nature. He seemingly makes much of the changing of the speed of light from 1928 to 1945, and then again in 1948. For a take-down of this stupid claim (and it *is* stupid) by Sean Carroll via Jerry Coyne, check out the latter's blog-post at Why Evolution Is True.

Sheldrake goes into a phenomenally misguided attempt to say that, because physicists have gotten different answers to universal constants (the speed of light and the gravitational constant), perhaps those constants are not "constant" after all. What if they're changing? (Never mind that instrument precision has gotten unfathomably better in the last 90 years) What if the Earth goes through, "patches of dark matter" as it goes around the Sun and that alters these measurements? He posits that because the scientists who measure these things are "dogmatic" and have set these numbers, there is no further inquiry; but he also, in the same breath, says that scientists are constantly re-measuring these constants and comparing them with each other all over the world. So, which is it?

He starts to wrap up by stating that, "Science simply can't deal with the fact that we're conscious." I would say that scientists are studying and trying to "deal" with the idea of consciousness and they are doing it in a much more tangible and helpful way than people like Sheldrake just making shit up to explain it. It's the difference between scientists (Einstein, in particular) tweaking Newton's idea of gravity as an invisible force that attracts masses into the theory that gravity is actually acceleration through curved space-time, and the other people who just made up "the Ether".

He says (I would go so far as to say "blathers") that we think our minds are inside our heads, but he believes that our mind projects outward and that our minds are outside our heads. Think about that over a nice spiced rum and coke for a spell. You might just faint dead away from the dumbness. No, our vision isn't light reflected off of material objects in the world that enters our eyes and is processed via receptors and nerves to our brains where they are interpreted...that's stupid. Your eyes are projectors!

Sheldrake then says that there is a, "great deal of evidence" that people can feel one another's gaze from behind. He says that, " we question these dogmas that have held back science so long, science will undergo a re-flowering, a renaissance." Yes, think about how much science has been "held back". Just in my grandmother's lifetime, she has seen the Model T Ford (came out in 1927) turn into a Lamborghini; a Sopwith Camel turn into spacecraft and an International Space Station with rotating crew; and phones that looked like this - I think her phone number was 6 (she was an "early adopter") - to the iPad and the Samsung Galaxy s4, which must be like magic screen windows to other parts of the world. Yep, science has certainly been held back.

This was a horrible TEDx talk. Disgraceful. I'm sure you'll die of not-surprise to see that Deepak Chopra said it was, "Brilliant". Sure, if you think that way. But, if that's the case, you probably think round is funny." You know what, I take back my opening sentence. Watching this was a LOT painful.

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Monday, May 27, 2013

One of the Best Headlines Ever

Vatican Corrects Infallible Pope. Yeah, it seems that the Pope (who is infallible and never makes mistakes because he's god's emissary on Earth) made a mistake when he spoke about atheists being able to meet the godfolks in Heaven.

The linked article says: "The Rev. Thomas Rosica, a Vatican spokesman, spelled it out for the world on Thursday. People who know about the Catholic church 'cannot be saved' if they 'refuse to enter her or remain in her,' he said." Well, that makes more sense. Stories like this are pretty great for atheists because, in their entirety, they don't matter and we just wait for the punchline. "Oh, we're getting to go to Heaven? Well let's see how this turns out!"

It turns out, shockingly as rain coming from the sky, that the pope is just a dude with a job with bosses just like the rest of us. His bosses are douchy and annoying and pedantic, even when you try to be a nice guy. Oh, and his bosses are people, just like ours.

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Thursday, May 23, 2013

The Pope Thinks We'll Be In Heaven Too!

Pope Frank said that atheists can be good and get into Heaven recently, which has caused a bit of a kerfuffle. Most people are saying that the Pope is a swell fella for acknowledging that we godless types aren't just baby-eating, amoral, murderous animals, but that we can actually be good and lead productive lives. Sure, that's great. Good for him.

The thing is, I really don't care what he thinks of me or my godlessness. I know I'm good and I know that the mass majority of godless people are great - that's painfully obvious. It's like he's getting a pat on the back for saying that women are people too, or that no, children shouldn't be raped. Why would you have respect for a person like that and let them lead you morally?

Nonsense. I mean, good on him, but jesus christ. Keep the fuck up, will ya?

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Letter to Health Canada re: Homeopathic Endorsement


I want to express my concern regarding Health Canada's acceptance and promotion of homeopathic "vaccines". It seems that the way homeopathic concoctions are prepared may not be evaluated in a fair way by the people who do such jobs at your office.

Homeopathy is based on two very odd "laws": the law of similars and the law of infinitesimals. The former states that homeopaths can, "correct symptoms of ill-health with substances that produce similar symptoms when tested on a healthy person." This is simply magical thinking with no basis in reality. If there were valid reasons to think this worked, real scientists would have followed it long ago. If homeopaths had proper evidence, they would have presented it long ago.

The second is the law of infinitesimals which says that the stronger the dilution of the active ingredient, the more potent the "medicine". This is nonsense chemically and mathematically.

But what if it does work by some weird, undiscovered principle of water, sugar, alcohol, or whatever. Where are the unambiguous tests that show it works? Where are the duplication studies performed by disinterested third parties that show positive results? Why are real scientists not convinced? Where is the Nobel prize in chemistry for new discoveries of properties of water (i.e. having "memory")?

Homeopathy has mostly succeeded in duping the public into thinking it is just "natural medicine", but it is not. It contains, in most cases, literally no medicine. Foisting it on the Canadian public - and as a vaccine for pertussis...for shame - is irresponsible and dangerous and Health Canada will have the illness and death of children on its hands sooner rather than later if it does not take a stand against this nonsensical pseudoscientific hokum.

Do the right thing: investigate from a scientific perspective and take any and all endorsements of homeopathy off of Health Canada's literature and web presence. You have done right with respect to the silliness that is ear candling, homeopathy is just as silly but is much more of a danger to the population.

Endorsing nonsense keeps sick people away from real medicine thereby allowing illness and death when it does not have to happen. Please rethink your position.

Michael McCarron

(Edit: if you would like to write as well, you can do so here)

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Monday, May 13, 2013

800 "Saints" All At Once!

Pope Frank made 800 new saints. That's so many at one time! How can he do that? I thought there were supposed to be miracles associated with the canonization?

Well, I'm glad you pointed that out, because what happened, see, was that 800 Christians were killed (martyred, really) by Ottoman Turks in 1480 (talk about your long time before recognition). What's supposed to happen is there should be two "miracles" attributed to the would-be-saint(s). Normal stuff: curing cancer, stopping the Sun, restoring an amputated limb...pretty standard, really.

As it turns out, all 800 of these folks were killed, "in hatred of the faith", so we can toss out one "miracle" claim, because Jesus. The second is that a nun (who has *NO REASON TO LIE OR MAKE SHIT UP*), who had cancer, according to the Church (who have *NO REASON TO LIE OR MAKE SHIT UP*), was cured after praying to a memorial to the 800 folks. So, that wraps that up, right people?
Implied Facepalm

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Friday, May 10, 2013

National Research Coucil of Dorks


"Scientific discovery is not valuable unless it has commercial value," National Research Council president John McDougall said in the linked article. Right next to him, our Minister of Science and Technology, Gary Goodyear, said, "There is (sic) only two reasons why we do science and technology. First is to create knowledge ... second is to use that knowledge for social and economic benefit. Unfortunately, all too often the knowledge gained is opportunity lost."

It's sort of like our Canadian version of John McCain and Sarah Palin mocking fruit fly research. Never mind that research done for interest's sake often leads to amazing and innovative developments for business, medicine, and more; these two guys really don't seem to have any idea about how science works.

Then there's this: “The day is past when a researcher could hit a home run simply by publishing a paper on some new discovery,” Goodyear said. “The home run is when somebody utilizes the knowledge that was discovered for social or economic gain.” Mr. Goodyear, in my opinion, hasn't the first clue of how science is done, what leads to "home runs", or how to get away from political talking points. Business doesn't drive scientific inquiry - curiousity and intellect does.

Boo, you two. Boo.

Thanks to Phil Plait for tipping me off to this and, you know, for being generally awesome.

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Wednesday, May 08, 2013

Health Canada Licenses Homeopathic "Vaccines"

I was just hipped to something terrible. Eve Rickert (aka @talksciencetome) mentioned that Health Canada has licensed so-called homeopathic "vaccines". How Health Canada, which states as its first goal that it, "Relies on high-quality scientific research as the basis for our work", could let anything homeopathic enter its recommendations is beyond me. Just saying that you rely on high-quality scientific research means that homeopathic mixtures/tinctures/concoctions/potions/fucking-magic-swirly-dust-pills (hereafter known as MTCPF pills) are gone from the shelves. Keep them, if you must, but don't "license" them or give them any sort of actual endorsement by a government organization that purports to have scientific rigor as a core principle.

I mean, for shit's sake, Health Canada has a whole page on ear candles that kicks the legs right out from underneath the charlatans who sell those stupid things.

Perhaps the Health Canada's General Questions - Regulation of Natural Health Products will lead us to some answers. Here we find this quote:
Under the Food and Drugs Act, NHPs (natural health products) must be classified as either a food or a drug since there is no other category in which to classify them. Because NHPs are taken for therapeutic reasons and not for caloric purposes or to address hunger, they are more similar to drugs than food.
Wait a second. So if I eat sugar pills for "therapeutic purposes", that makes sugar pills "drugs"? What happened to relying on "high-quality scientific research"?

Then there's this paragraph:
During consultations on NHPs, Canadians consistently asked for controls to make sure what is on the label is in the bottle and ensure a pre-market assessment of health claims. While creating another category distinct from both food and drugs was considered, an amendment at the level of the Act would have been necessary. Because the timelines and legislative process needed for a change of this magnitude would be long, it was decided that natural health products would be considered drugs under the Act, but with a set of regulations specific to NHPs.
This seems to be saying that Canadians want labels to be honest and reflect what's in the bottles they're buying (obviously). This is not the case with homeopathic MTCPF pills. They're sugar pills, as has been demonstrated, again and again. It's not medicine, they're not "drugs", they're nothing. If you take homeopathy for anything serious, like, say, eczema, you'll likely die.
all manufacturers, importers, packagers and labellers of NHPs use good manufacturing practices (GMPs) and have site licences. All NHPs that used to have a Drug Identification Number (DIN) now have either a Natural Product Number (NPN) or a Homeopathic Medicine Number (DIN-HM).
Maybe this is just my extreme bias showing, but having the word "medicine" associated with anything homeopathic is annoying and, quite frankly, disrespectful to actual medicine and the people involved in making/distributing it.

Say what you will about the pharmaceutical industry (and you should, and many important people have), for the most part, the scientists and R&D people know what they're doing. They put out medicine that saves and prolongs lives. They do this by doing real science; real, double-blind, placebo-controlled trials that ensure, as well as can be, that the drugs work and have an actual effect that outweighs any side-effects. Do they get it wrong sometimes? Absolutely.

But homeopathy is just "Big Homeo" - they sell sugar pills with literally no active ingredient for a massive markup to a public who they purposely keep in the dark as to what homeopathy actually is. Most people on the street just think homeopathy is "natural medicine" and that it is safe and effective, because, hey, Health Canada says they need a fucking "homeopathic medicine number". Thanks for nothing, Health Canada. Let's try to get back on the side of "high-quality scientific research", shall we?

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Tuesday, May 07, 2013

Where Do You Get Your Morals From?

First of all, holy crap, I haven't written anything in a long long time. There kept being these stories in the news from all over the world that I thought, "Man, I should blog about that...", then my kid would take a poop in the living room and priorities would change and it'd be two weeks later and there'd be a new Pope and I'd think, "Man, I should blog about that...."

Yes, I meant to put "poop" and "pope" in close juxtaposition.

Secondly, the Amanda Berry story is terrifying and disgusting and, thankfully, in possession of a happy ending. I really try not to be a death penalty guy, but goddamn is it hard sometimes.

Ok, on to what I actually want to write about. I get asked quite often while engaging in theological debates/discussions about morality. We see it all the time in debates online when the religious side bring up morals and asks, usually pointedly, some version of, "Well where do you get your morals from, if not from the Bible/Koran/Torah/Special Holy Book That Means So Much To So Many Of Us?"

Usually their argument boils down to: your morality *has* to come from somewhere, and it *can't* come from you, so my book has these really great ideas that you use in your life, therefore you got your morality from my book/God(s)!

A lot of the time, "moral relativism" is brought up as the evil of all evils that you MUST be on board with if you don't subscribe to biblical/religious morality. What this line of thought lacks, in my experience, is the knowledge that pretty much all religious morality is a hodge-podge of adapted and updated religious ideas. In fact, A.J. Jacobs wrote a book called, The Year of Living Biblically which, in its quirky and flity way, shows that you *can't* live by all the rules in the bible. It's impossible in modern society...or even way back when the thing was written.

The explanation that I use for modern secular morality comes from our roads. When I say, "our roads", I mean the roads all over the planet made by people. If you go to any country (particularly with automobiles) you'll see that they have rules for driving. Some on the left, some on the right; speed limits vary; merging, signalling, and stopping at intersections all have their rules. How did we come to have these agreed upon rules?

We talked about it. A bunch of people sat down and thought about what makes sense. These rules have changed over time and continue to be adapted and re-written, but they all come from people. They are, on the whole, coherent and make sense when explained in the context of the culture and society they came from. Talking about issues is how we solve problems.

Morality is no different, really. We are social animals who live together in groups. We then have rules for behaviour that make life with each other more pleasant and productive. You can't let someone go around stealing, killing, and raping (no "Commandment" against that last one, by the way) and still remain part of the group. So what do we do? We sit together and hash out some basic rules for how to get along. It really isn't that hard to see how morality (or driving laws, or rules for flying planes...) got its groundwork laid.

So there. I'll try to write again before the next major meteor shower happens...but don't hold me to it. There's always some poop to deal with.

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