Monday, July 31, 2006

Making the baby spaghetti cry

I'll ruin the lingering aftereffects of yoga if I read any more of this, but anyone who's hankering for a good dose of misguided internet idiocy should check out the Flying Spaghetti Monster hate mail. In addition to presenting a shining cross-section of the type of Christians who make Christians look bad (i.e. the "you don't agree with me so I hope you die and rot" type), it includes several gems of insular anti-scientific ignorance.

A sampling:

"It has not been proven that the earth existed before humans, this is a belief based on data." (This is my number one favorite. "That's not proof, it's just a predictive explanation based on overwhelming evidence!")

"is it because the devil is telling you that you're so undeserving for God's grace that you can't admit guilt in any way?" (Can't you get a perfect picture of the girl who wrote this just from reading it? It's a sad picture, involving bad skin and early pregnancy.)

"If Darwinism can be taught in schools, ID should be too, students have the right to hear ALL the theories. Stop pretending like FSMism is a real theory." ("Students have the right to hear all theories I like.")

"you are a stupid little guy with no girlfriend, so you're depressed. writing about your fake, gay loving man whore god. to get attention. all its gonna get you is a foot so far up your a** your gonna have ingrown toenails growin out your ears."

"It's all faith, sir, and you well know that there is no science or philosophy that can substantiate your claims to the origins of life, because we were NOT there to witness it. But we WERE there to witness Christ and his death." (Er... define "we.")

"if you have a holy bible king james version then i want to ask you to turn to genesis 1:1 in the beginning god created the heaven and earth. now where in the bible dose it say that spaghetti monsters created to earth" (Seriously, Bobby. Did you get this from the Bible, or what? Because if it's in the Bible you need to cite your sources!)

"people like you are scum, I hope you die by the hands of some sick perverted guy who will skullfuck you and then use your skin to make lampshades." (Real Christian of you, buddy.)

"your a fuckin faggot and burn in hell. if i knew you personally id slit your throat and watch you suffer as i laugh and do a fat cocaine like off of your dead body. I would then light you on fire, light my cigerette off of the ashes, smoke weed with the fire and piss on the ashes. then i would take your ashes roll them into a blunt and smoke them." (Seriously, I'm a better Christian than these guys, and I'm an atheist.)

"I'ts sad so many people believe in this ridiculous religion. Oh wait, maybe I shouldn't say believe, because I don't they any of them would be willing to die for 'FSMism' or evolution either for that matter." (Not only is this person not getting the joke, which is expected, but they have the weirdest interpretation of the word "belief" I've ever seen. I mean, I believe that bran muffins are full of fiber... am I supposed to be willing to die for that?)

"Fuck you and the flying spaghetti monster. Postmodernism is a self defeating concept. Read Josh McDowell's book for a good overview of what life is truly about you dumbass humanist...I'm still having problems teaching my dog 2+2=4. I hope to someday prove Darwinian philosophy and be able to have my dog recite Shakespeare to me. Then I will believe Evolution is true...Retarded Bobby Henderson....will burn in hell unless you give your life to Jesus Christ." (This one was so good that I had to quote multiple parts, but that last two ellipses are in the original. Some kind of... stylistic... thing. This comment is particularly good because the author subsequently started threatening a libel suit, then claimed his account had been broken into, presumably after someone explained to him that a reprint of something you actually wrote does not constitute libel.)

Luckily, there are a few redeeming moments, such as Charlie's letter, which actually took me in for about three seconds:
"So let me explain this to you nice and slow; the Bible is the answer, it is what is to be differed to at all times; the Bible is 100% true- it says so in the Bible. Now, as far as science goes, who the hell do you think your are to call Intelligent Design "illegitimate science," technically, evolution is the only scientific theory yes; and technically, midgets are people... So we aren't to concerned with technicalities are we?"

Wow, okay, emergency savasana time.

Friday, July 28, 2006

Free books for bloggers?

I am temporarily doing some publicity work for my old press, which means I have the capacity to send people review copies if they really are going to review them. One of the nice things about working for the National Academies Press, especially in publicity, is that Academies reports really are definitive -- I don't have to make anything up about how important they are, because we really are pretty much the preëminent organization for objectively evaluating a situation and generating nonpartisan science policy advice. It's no hardship to hawk books that are genuinely important. (The trade books all seem really good this season, too, though we've had one or two missteps in the past.)

Anyway, I may be a bad blogger and a worse blog-reader right now -- first I was too bummed about unemployment, then as soon as I got a job I started getting up so early and working so hard that I sleep in all my free time! -- but I still think science blogging is Where It's At. I can't think of a better place to promote useful books (especially ones that are actually readable for free online) than in a community of scientists who read and respect one another. So if you spot something you'd like to review, let me know, and I can send it along. I already wrote to Dr. Free-Ride about some books I thought she'd like, and I bet Bora would be interested in the new trade book about sleep. All it requires from you is that you read it, and if you like it, link it and let me know that you linked it. (If you don't like it, I'm still interested.)

I don't want to directly approach too many bloggers, because I don't want to be perceived as some kind of hard-seller. The appeal of this job for me is that I get to believe in the books I'm promoting, and beyond that, that it doesn't even matter if I believe in them -- they're kinda definitive either way. So my goal is not to go all PR on your collective buttocks, but just to make this stuff available. It's a temporary job so this isn't particularly advancing me in any way, but basically I'd just love to see NAP books getting exposure on the blogosphere. Shoot me a note at firstname dot lastname at gmail if you see a report you'd like to review.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Trespassers Will

The job search has been unfruitful and frustrating, a lot more frustrating than a job search needs to be even in the current economy, so I haven't felt up to posting. (I'm having a hard time even staying informed -- even Daily Show is too depressing right now, and forget reading science blogs. I can't sustain liberal rage and self-pity.) Thank goodness, then, for the BP Kongsberg Underwater Image Competition, and the cutest damn Helicocranchia pfefferi -- "piglet squid" -- that a girl could possibly want:

The other photos are gorgeous too, and definitely worth checking out. This, combined with the fact that everyone who doesn't think I'm underqualified thinks I'm overqualified, definitely contributes to my desire to do a career 180. Anyone want a photographer or something?

Thursday, July 06, 2006

The internet ruins Senate naptime

On Iowahawk, guest blogger Sen. Ted Stevens follows up his recent explanation of the dangers of net neutrality by explaining how the internet can bring chaos into your home or office. Basically, it's very simple. When the tubes are full of cream cheese and movie stars, you can't get your talkies and the internet will turn down the thermostat. This is Onion-caliber work.
I just the other day got, an internet was sent by my staff at 10 o'clock in the morning on Friday and I just got it yesterday. Why?

Because it got tangled up with all the celluloid clogging the internets on the way to the Western Union, and by the time the Internet-o-gram boy got the to my office it was already Senate nap time so he just shoved it under my door. This is what happens when you rely on internets, and when our young internet delivery boys start smoking the marijuana and lose all sense of responsibilty.

And when my aides woke me up for this vote, do you know what I realized? The internet had sneakily rearranged my office furniture, and I was unable to find my spectacles and pill organizer.
Seriously, people, stop the madness. The tubes are delicate, and we must stop clogging them with zoot suit lotharios. The internet is not a truck. It's NOT a TRUCK!

Is science a sandwich?

I got into an argument recently about whether, if Einstein hadn't described the theory of relativity when he did, someone else would have inevitably done so at some later point. The claim had been made that "what Einstein did was find something that was already there. Like a sandwich. Now sure, Relativity is a really well hidden sandwich, but if it is true, and it could be found, it would have been eventually." The discussion got pretty repetitive after a while, with the other party just sort of reiterating his point (which I'd already established I didn't agree with!) instead of arguing it, but since it taps into some of my most strongly-held philosophies about science, I thought it was worth giving the digested version of my points here. I also realized that I'd written a paper back in undergrad (!) that dealt with some of what I was trying to say, so I've cribbed liberally from my own work in this post.

For starters, I think it’s important to debunk the idea that science consists of discovering things that are already there, as though the Actual Rules of the Universe were just out there waiting for someone clear-sighted enough to perceive them. Don’t worry, I’m not going all Parmenides; there may be something out there, and our science may closely approximate it. But in no case can we interact with truth directly without using science as an interpretive tool. In effect, truth is a theoretical entity, something it seems reasonable to believe in but with which we cannot interact. It is more useful, then, to talk about the verifiable qualities of a theory –- how well it predicts, how well it explains –- than to question whether it "describes reality." If science amounted to drawing a complete map of a well-defined territory, then we could critique a scientific theory on the basis of how well it accords with reality. But to launch such a critique, we would need access to the territory. Instead, we must (and do) treat science as our best means of navigating a territory we cannot see. And it’s foolish to imagine that there’s only one way to do this, or any significant difference between the best version of one method and the best version of another. Very good echolocation versus very good feelers? The distinction is minimal.

To imagine that all scientific discoveries thus far would have inevitably been made, changing only the order, assumes that there is a way that science must look. This assumption isn't justified if you view science (as I do) as "the best explanations we can manage" rather than "an explanatory system that is coextensive with reality." Of course we always try to get theories that have more predictive value, but we can do that in a number of ways; there's no "true" version of science. And since a lot of discoveries are predicated on others, changing the timing could change a great number of things. For instance, we might have discovered relativity without Einstein, but we might just as easily have come up with a theory that worked equally well but wasn’t exactly the same. In fact, given that the scientific context would be so different -– imagine getting through the early 20th century without relativity, if you can cope with counterfactuals! Imagine, just for starters, the state of technology! –- it’s reasonable to assume that this other theory wouldn’t look exactly the same. It would give us another method of navigating the unseen territory. The only way we could imagine that 1950s relativity would look exactly like 1910s relativity would be if we assume that science is purely a process of discovering things that are Really Out There, of making our map look more like some verifiably existent landscape.

Saying that "science is developing towards an understanding of the world" is like saying “the human race is evolving towards an organism that is well-adapted to its environment." It is understood that the evolution is not complete, but also that there is no one thing that "complete" would mean, no one thing that this well-adapted organism must look like. There is no reason to imagine that the current state of the species represents the only way we could have adapted to the environment on Earth. Why must the smelling mechanism be on the face? Why round pupils, and not oval (like a cat) or rectangular (like a goat)? What’s so maladaptive about a tail, or feather-like plumes on the head? They’re not as harmful as an appendix, that’s for sure, and yet we’ve got one of those. The human race could have had any number of different traits without significant harm, and there are any number of ways in which we could have achieved the useful traits we have today (for instance, it’s important to have jointed limbs, but why must the joints only go one way? Why one ball-and-socket and one hinge per limb?). We are adapted to our environment because we evolved this way, but we didn’t evolve this way because it was the only way we could have ended up adapted to our environment. To say so is effectively to say that there is a blueprint for an effective human race (not necessarily that there is a designer, mind you, but that there is only one good design). Either evolution is teleological, or it could have happened differently.

It’s easy to look at some of the hypotheticals I’ve been posing and to say, for instance, "well, pretty much all mammals have one ball-and-socket and one hinge joint per limb." This is important. Because we evolved from other mammals, we retained certain characteristics of those animals that were useful or at least not maladaptive. A change somewhere far back in the game -– maybe Tiktaalik grew an extra leg, for no really good reason except that there was no reason not to -– might have altered all subsequent development. Make it two extra legs, actually, because symmetry is useful. Natural selection would then select among six-legged forms, not four-legged ones, and subsequent developments would be based on that model. It would be pretty far-fetched to imagine that you could somehow get a bipedal human out of that! And yet we would have evolved based on exactly the same processes.

The same is true of science; a change in scientific history might have had a profound effect on our current theories, but it would not mean that we didn’t end up with the most useful theories possible based on the history we had. That’s how science works: as Bas Van Fraasen said, "Do not ask why the mouse runs from its enemy. Species which did not cope with their natural enemies no longer exist. That is why there are only ones who do." Only scientific theories with the best predictive and explanatory power, based on what we know, can survive – but that doesn’t mean that the theories we subscribe to now are the only useful theories we could have developed, any more than the evolutionary need to flee predators means that a mouse couldn’t have had pointy ears.

Viewing science as an evolutionary process makes it clear that we cannot logically conceive of science as aiming for truth, any more that we can consider an individual species to be aiming for a completely evolved form. More importantly for the current debate, we cannot assume that the current state of either science or species represents an inevitable conclusion. The goal is to be adapted and to be adaptable, not to accord with an inaccessible Truth or an invisible Design. There is more than one way to do this, and any change in path would have altered background and context so much that we might end up with something completely alien to what we know now (but, importantly, still about equal in adaptiveness/usefulness!). To claim otherwise, to claim that any scientific advance that’s been made so far would have been made eventually by someone regardless of altered time or background, is to claim that there is only one thing that science can be.

Monday, July 03, 2006

Global warming lacks a mustache

For complicated reasons, I suspect that this editorial was emailed to me by accident, but it's a pretty thought-provoking and worthwhile read nonetheless. The author, Harvard psych professor Daniel Gilbert, examines the reasons why people find the (small) threat of terrorism to be a much more serious cause for concern than the (huge) threat of climate change. Check out this great lede:
No one seems to care about the upcoming attack on the World Trade Center site. Why? Because it won't involve villains with box cutters. Instead, it will involve melting ice sheets that swell the oceans and turn that particular block of lower Manhattan into an aquarium.

The odds of this happening in the next few decades are better than the odds that a disgruntled Saudi will sneak onto an airplane and detonate a shoe bomb. And yet our government will spend billions of dollars this year to prevent global terrorism and … well, essentially nothing to prevent global warming.
It's a catchily-written article, and most of the factors that the author describes are very sensible. For instance, global warming doesn't have a human face; it lacks agency, so we don't fear it the way we fear something backed up by a conscious desire to harm. (In fact global warming does have a face, and it's the face of big business and American government -- but if you try to address the agency behind the change, people accuse you of tinfoil-hat moonbatism, so fair enough.) We're also undermotivated because global warming is a future threat, not an immediate one. And then there's the classic "frog in the boiling water" explanation: if change happens gradually enough, you don't notice. It's too bad about that frog analogy, which Gilbert wisely does not invoke (Al Gore did, but acquitted himself by plucking the cartoon frog out of the water at the last moment and putting it on a little beach chair, hurrah!). I don't even know if it's true that you can boil a frog in this manner, and regardless, it pushes the whole thing into the realm of cliche -- which is a serious problem, because this is a serious blind spot:
Environmentalists despair that global warming is happening so fast. In fact, it isn't happening fast enough. If President Bush could jump in a time machine and experience a single day in 2056, he'd return to the present shocked and awed, prepared to do anything it took to solve the problem.
Very easy to say "oh, the storms are no worse than last year." Kind of a shocker when you realize that last year was also part of a long and hideous decline.

I've got a few quibbles with the article. First, it doesn't say anything we don't already know -- similar to critiques of An Inconvenient Truth, though I think that particular preaching would have pretty good reception outside the choir, if we could just get non-choirboys to listen to it. Second, there's the fact that it purports to contrast responses to terrorism with responses to global climate change, but still uses the argument that "people are quick to respond to clear and present danger"; the contrast here is muddy at best, now that even the Gov has finally given up on pretending that terrorists will blow up Peoria tomorrow. But most particularly, I have a problem with Gilbert's constant use of the second person plural. In addition to the points above, Gilbert argues that global warming is treated as a non-issue because it doesn't offend our sensibilities:
The second reason why global warming doesn't put our brains on orange alert is that it doesn't violate our moral sensibilities. It doesn't cause our blood to boil (at least not figuratively) because it doesn't force us to entertain thoughts that we find indecent, impious or repulsive. When people feel insulted or disgusted, they generally do something about it, such as whacking each other over the head, or voting. Moral emotions are the brain's call to action.
Sorry, but I just saw An Inconvenient Truth last week, and I am morally offended. (I would have been morally offended earlier if I knew how acute and profound the problem was.) Inaction, in this case, is an idea I find indecent and repulsive. I think a lot of us do. And there are certainly people of whom it can be said that global warming "doesn't violate [their] moral sensibilities," but damned if I'm going to be lumped in with them.

Of course, I realize that there's no delicate way to change that "we" to a "they" in this particular editorial, and I suppose I'm conflating "global warming" with "inaction about global warming" (though really, inaction is a cause and a facilitator, to the degree that they're not substantively different). But I think we should encourage this to become an issue about which people are morally outraged. There may not be a moral outrage perpetrated on people we know right now, and that's a legitimate mental block, but there are grievous outrages perpetrated on people not far in the future, people we might even live to see. (Actually, there are moral outrages perpetrated on people right now -- the people whose homes and families have been destroyed by unusually violent weather patterns -- but those people are poor and usually nonwhite, so we can't expect them to motivate the current administration.)

Basically, here's what I'm trying to say. First, read the article, because it's amusing. Second, evolve. Gilbert gives an accurate portrayal of the inherent cognitive biases that allow us to have skewed views of danger. This is how human minds work, okay. But another way that human minds work is that they don't have to be constrained by "how human minds work." Rise above it. Fear the agency behind inaction, since there's no agency behind the thing itself. Notice gradual change. Comprehend non-immediate threats. And get outraged at all of it.

Footnote about that frog in An Inconvenient Truth: seriously, you do not know how glad I was that the frog got rescued. That made the film for me. I am keenly sensitive about the fates of vaguely anthropomorphic animals. Dan's gotten to be an expert at saying "the whale/bunny/lemur/axolotl was fine, it got rescued" as soon as he hears the distinctive "animal in jeopardy" wail. There are meat-eaters who defend themselves by saying that they know what's involved in slaughtering animals and they find it to be ennobling or natural or whatever. Not me. If I lived on a farm I would never eat meat again.