Friday, December 25, 2009

On Christmas break

In previous years, I've written Christmas posts talking about the reason for the season: axial tilt. I also explained the Milankovitch Cycles. But I'm going traveling a bit (and I can't think of anything more to say about axial tilt anyways), so I'll return in 2010. I guess this means you have more time to solve the last puzzle I posted.

So I'll just leave you with one last thought for the decade. You know all those Christmas movies and stories where Santa is real, but only the kids believe it? One of my friends pointed out to me that the parents would have to be blind to disbelieve Santa. Where do they think those extra presents come from? "I don't remember buying that gift, but I must have done so if it's under the tree." If you think about it, the parents are essentially flat earth atheists.

Merry Christmas!

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Christmas atheist advertising

One thing that has changed in atheist news in the past year or so is the advent of atheist advertising. I don't remember what the first advertisement was, but I think the first one that hit it big was the one that says "There's probably no god. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life." Nowadays, you can see news of atheist advertising popping up all over the world the whole year round. You can keep track of the subject on Friendly Atheist, but there's so much of it that I daresay the story is boring by now.

Of course, around Christmas season, the atheist advertisements become Christmas themed, and they seem to increase in volume. And of course they would! Christmas is when they get the most media attention!

The above is an advertisement put out by the American Humanist Association. Their website has a bunch of videos of its news coverage.

You can see from the news coverage that some people are getting the message of the advertisement horribly wrong. No, it's not an attack on Christians. It's not meant to challenge people's faith. It's certainly not meant to be a complete argument against theism. And no, atheists don't "loathe the baby Jesus."

There's one particular common response which I would like to correct. Some people think that the advertisements are anti-Christmas. It's all part of the War on Christmas, supposedly. But look just look at the ad! There are a bunch of smiling people in Santa hats! How much clearer do they have to make it that they're pro-Christmas?

I mean, who here is fighting a war on Christmas? Is it the atheists who apparently enjoy such playful traditions as the Santa hat, or is it people like Bill O' Reilly or Garrison Keillor, who insist that everyone must celebrate the holidays their way or no way?

After a year of hearing about all these atheist advertisements, it's become clear that people are offended no matter how nice they are. Therefore, in my opinion, future atheist advertisements should try to be as friendly as possible, since people will be offended anyhow. The friendlier they are, the more apparent it will be just how silly and wrong people are to be offended. My proposed message:

Merry Christmas! Happy Holidays! Enjoy winter break!
-From a godless atheist

Monday, December 21, 2009

Coming out, a second time

Every year, around this time, my mother sends out some sort of family newsletter to a bunch of relatives. It's some sort of Christmas tradition. I barely see the newsletter myself, but last I saw, I noticed that she plugs my blog. Okay. She has permission to do that. I don't mind, but it makes me slightly uncomfortable saying what I'm about to say.

I have chosen to identify as gay.

There's a long and unusual story behind this. Though I am 21, this is not something I've been hiding all my life. It was not something I was just too afraid to admit to myself until recently. It was simply never obvious to me. It still isn't obvious to me.

Only half the gay experience

The fact of the matter is that I relate to one half of the gay experience much more than I relate to the other half. That is, I relate to the experience of not being interested in women. I'm not particularly interested in men either. That's why, last summer, I chose to identify as asexual, meaning that I am attracted to neither gender.

I still identify as asexual. Asexual and gay. I would actually like to identify as something inbetween, but unfortunately, there isn't any well-known word to describe such a person. In any case, there are many different ways to be between asexual and gay. It's not simply a spectrum between the two. It's more like a multi-dimensional space. To simplify things, I will only talk about where I am in this multi-dimensional space.* Please realize that I represent no one but myself.

*If you are familiar with the asexual community, you know that many asexuals experience a separation between the romantic and sexual. However, I do not, so you can assume I'm talking about both together.

Yeah, so I'm not really into girls. I've experienced some degree of alienation my whole life, starting in seventh grade, because I just didn't get why all my friends would go on so much about the opposite sex. It continues to this day, when my roommate points out hot girls to me, and my only reaction is "huh?"

I tend to put a low value on attractiveness, because I can barely distinguish it from unattractiveness. Perhaps I could teach myself to recognize the difference, the same way I could teach myself to recognize the difference between different kinds of English accents, but what would be the point? It still wouldn't provoke any emotional reaction, so I don't care about it. Some people have told me, "That just means you're not shallow." But this presupposes that I'm attracted to something deeper than outer beauty, such as a good personality. It doesn't work that way, not for me. I like people with interesting personalities, but as friends.

How it's different with men

It's the same with men, but not quite. I can almost tell when men are attractive. But the feeling is rather disappointingly weak, and I'm left wondering whether it's strong enough to be functional. I have decided that it is functional.

To the point: I attempted a same-sex relationship this fall. This is the first time I've mentioned it on my blog, and now that we've broken up, I would prefer it be the last. I wasn't really into the guy at first, but gradually I felt something. Towards the end, I was happy just to be in his presence. I also had the really weird experience of wanting to kiss and make out with him. If you think about it, it's a rather oddly specific desire, like having an innate desire to shuffle cards, or an innate phobia of whales. But I'm told that this is what people normally experience, and now I have experienced it. It hurt when he broke up with me, but I'm over it.

So it seems like a pretty clear case of me being attracted to the guy. Why was this the first time? I feel like it was caused by a sustained intentional effort to think of the guy as a potential life-partner, but I'm not sure I believe that this is possible. I do believe that the fact it was a guy was essential. I just can't imagine it working with a girl, though I reserve the right to correct myself if I am in error.

Oddly, throughout the relationship, I continued to identify mostly as asexual. I felt like I could tell people, "I'm asexual, but I'm also in an ordinary same-sex relationship," and that would convey the complexities of the situation. But I need a better way. Therefore, I now identify as both gay and asexual. I am gay in the sense that I am seeking a same-sex relationship. But I am predominantly asexual in my everyday reactions to people.

Some thanks

I fully realize that the act of switching between sexual identities opens me up to some criticism from all sides. That's fine by me. I'm changing my identity for me, not for anyone else.

I will freely admit that I've felt a lot of internal conflict about it. I was worried, and am worried that I could be wrong. Maybe I'm fully asexual, and not gay at all? Or fully gay and not asexual at all? Maybe I was just too afraid of asexuality, and wanted to deny it? Maybe I can't let go of asexuality because that would imply that I made a mistake?

If it appears that I've overthought the situation, you haven't even seen half of my thoughts. Questioning my sexuality has been the most depressing experience of my life. It helped that I was queer-positive from the beginning, but I was still hit hard. And just imagine how many teenagers have to go through this, many without the support of their parents. I consider myself lucky for having the parents I do, and the friends I do. I think you will be hard-pressed to find a non-queer group which is as queer-positive as are skeptical college students. Because of where I am, I've felt little pressure to hide myself (obviously, or I wouldn't be open about this on the internet).

I'm also grateful to the asexual community. Some critics worry that asexuality can be a self-fulfilling prophecy, but they needn't worry. It is the prevailing attitude in the asexual community that the label is always descriptive, and never prescriptive. People who move away from asexuality after a period of self-discovery get full support from the community. There is no sense of betrayal. I continue to support asexuals and the asexual community. I continue to relate to many of their experiences, and will continue to offer an asexual perspective where it is needed.

And finally, I'm thankful to all my readers for putting up with my venting about my personal life. It probably wasn't boring, but it was far from the intended topics of my blog. I've spent a lot of time thinking about it, so it may very well continue to leak in, or perhaps it won't. Either way, thanks for reading.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

The science of closed boxes

A friend pointed me to an article in New Scientist, "Why we shouldn't release all we know about the cosmos". The article suggests that data on the Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation (CMBR) should be released slowly, not all at once.
If the whole data set is released at once, as is planned, any new ideas that cosmologists come up with may have to remain untested because they will have no further data to test them with.
It took a moment, but eventually I realized that they were suggesting the method of blind analysis.

We also used blind analysis in LIGO data (LIGO is the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory, a gigantic device designed to detect gravitational waves). Whenever LIGO records a set of data, only 10% of that data is released. That 10% is called the playground. We analyze the heck out of that playground! There's a huge computer program, called the data analysis pipeline, which is used to decide if there are any events in the playground which look like real gravitational waves. A large group of scientists build on the pipeline, finely adjusting parameters, adding new bells and whistles. And the whole time they are doing this, they are not allowed to peek at the other 90% of the data. That box is closed!

This is the sort of box I want you to visualize

Once the scientists are satisfied with the pipeline, they "open the box". That means they get to look at the other 90% of the data. But once the box is open, they're not allowed to change the pipeline in any way. If they want to add more bells and whistles to the pipeline, they have to wait until the next time LIGO takes a set of data, perhaps in a year or more.

What is the meaning of this silly ritual? Is it some sort of Christmas tradition among data analysts?

There are all sorts of ways you can bias your analysis. If you know what the results are every time you try a different method of data analysis, then you can, to some extent, "select" results you like. That's bad! We want the results to be unbiased, so that everyone can agree on them. Therefore, in blind analysis, there are two stages. First, you choose a method of data analysis without looking at the full results. Then you apply that method to the full results without changing it.

I read the paper which is reported in New Scientist, and they have another cool explanation of the same idea. The goal in science is to compare a bunch of different models, and determine which model best explains our observations. But first, we need to come up with those models. The models will be educated guesses based on all the evidence we've collected thus far. So if we want to test the models, it's somewhat redundant to use the present evidence; we should instead collect new observations to test the models.

The problem in cosmology is that at some point, there will be no new observations to make. There is only one universe. There is only one CMBR map, with all its random statistical fluctuations. If you stare long enough at those statistical fluctuations, chances are good that you'll find some false pattern. The pattern will be very difficult to falsify, since there is no more data to collect after that. The solution? Release data piece by piece, so that there will still be new data to test our models.

So you see, even something which sounds as boring as data analysis can have all these counter-intuitive tricks involved. Hiding data in a closed box? It sounds silly, possibly even counter to science's goal of obtaining as much true information about the world as possible. But if it's necessary to filter out human biases, I think we should do it!

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Running BASS: First quarter

As I mentioned earlier, this year I am the president of BASS, UCLA's only skeptical and secularist group. Now that the first quarter is over, perhaps I can tell you a bit about how that's going.

Basically, as president, I have several roles:
  1. Pursue any opportunities that show up. Opportunities come in all kinds. Sometimes its something as simple as a BASS member who wants to make a presentation about their favorite skeptical topic. Other times, it's some evangelist with a zany scheme involving Origin of Species. Or it's an article in the Daily Bruin which needs a skeptical response. Or a new funding opportunity. Or a show or exhibit that BASS people might be interested in seeing.

    Sorry to say, I didn't get any real speakers to come over this quarter. This is, of course, my fault. Because as president, every failing of the group is ultimately my fault. Which brings me to the next role.

  2. Represent the group. Usually, this just means that whenever I tell people about our group, everyone recognizes that I am the authoritative source. But more concretely, it means that I do most of the correspondence with other groups, like the Independent Investigations Group, or with the media.

    Speaking of which, I was recently mentioned by name in the cover story of a major magazine! Let's just say that I am now on public record as opposing book burnings. You can thank Ray Comfort for, ehem, advancing the dialogue to the point where such things need to be said.

  3. Write meeting agendas. That means I choose discussion topics. This actually gets rather tiresome, and I wish I could somehow get someone else to do it. As much as I am a never-ending spring of topic ideas, it means that I am indirectly dominating the entire discussion. I want other people to have a say. People who are not upper-middle class hapa male physics students like I am. But other people are so reluctant to suggest topics. I think even last year, I was picking most of the topics.

    I have found, however, that people are generally more willing to make topic suggestions if it means they get to make a presentation on that topic. I'm not sure why this is. But it's great because presentations stimulate some of the best discussions, and they allow for topics which really require some research to discuss.

  4. Constantly, constantly bug other officers to do their jobs. BASS members, especially the most active ones, tend to be very fascinating, eccentric characters. It's really hard to describe them without describing them individually. But they can also be kinda flaky--in all sorts of individualistic ways. Some will say they'll do work, but never get around to it. Some will resign with little or no notice. Some will oscillate periodically between productivity and absence. Etc. Etc.

    The hardest part of my job is keeping them all in line, making sure that they do what they're supposed to do. I suppose it's easier than doing all the work myself, but sometimes I wonder. In the defense of the officers, they're really busy people. They're college students. They have classes, midterms, swine flus, and, uh, parties... But maybe this is my problem. If I were less sympathetic, maybe I'd be a better president. What do you think?
The other week, a journalist asked me how I came to be president of a secular student group. Was it because I had a great passion for fighting irrationality, for becoming an activist? Well, obviously, I have some passion for the topic, and I do believe that skeptical and secular activism are important. But plenty of BASS members are more passionate than I am. What it really takes is some organizational skill.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Two math problems

Last weekend, I took the William Lowell Putnam Competition, a national math competition for college students. It consists of twelve problems to prove in six hours. The median score is about zero. Sounds intimidating, huh?

Most of these are a bit more difficult than the kind of puzzles I intend to put on my blog, but here's an easier one which I feel is appropriate.
Problem A1: Let f be a real-valued function on the plane such that for every square ABCD in the plane, f(A) + f(B) + f(C) + f(D) = 0. Does it follow that f(P) = 0 for all points P in the plane?
If you are interested in seeing other Putnam problems, I refer you to the Art of Problem Solving Forum.

And here's another math puzzle, which is completely unrelated.
You play a game with me which involves flipping a coin. I flip the coin repeatedly until I get a heads. Let N be the number of times I flipped the coin. If N is even, we start the game over from the beginning. If N is odd, then you win N dollars. What is a fair price to play this game? (Hint: it's not $3)
If you're wondering how I did on the Putnam, I expect to get four correct, just like last year.

See the solutions

Monday, December 7, 2009

On the hiding of climate data

I've been hearing a lot lately about this "ClimateGate" story? Someone hacked the e-mails of a bunch of climate scientists, and found evidence of fraud. That's pretty outrageous, isn't it? Seriously, what kind of person goes into science, which is a method of revealing truth, only to cover up and fabricate? Not my kind of scientist, that's for sure.

But then I actually saw what they consider evidence of fraud.
I’ve just completed Mike’s Nature trick of adding in the real temps to each series for the last 20 years (ie from 1981 onwards) and from 1961 for Keith’s to hide the decline.
I can see how someone might see this as evidence of a fraud. This scientist is talking about using a "trick" to "hide the decline" in temperature! But because of my limited research experience in data analysis, it's clear to me that it's completely innocuous, even without seeing the context.

In my experience, a significant part of data analysis is all about knowing what data to keep and what data to throw out. That's right, I threw out lots of data. Well, I didn't really throw anything out in the sense of deleting it from computers. I just excluded it from the analysis and from the results.

Let me explain a bit more about my research from over two years ago. I was looking at data from magnetometers, which very precisely measure changes in the Earth's magnetic field. One of the problems was that every so often, the Earth's magnetic field would jump up by a factor of a trillion or more. I wanted to cover this up! The public shouldn't be allowed to know! So what do I do? One by one, I went through these gigantic spikes in the data, and removed them. In retrospect, this was not a very efficient way to do it, but then I was an undergraduate researcher, so my time was pretty worthless anyways.

Why did I throw it out? It was bad data. I didn't like it. I clearly had some sort of personal vendetta against the data. More seriously, it's because these gigantic spikes in the data are caused by glitches in the magnetometer devices or other electronics. What exactly causes these glitches? Well, how should I know? I'm just an undergraduate researcher, not an engineer, and all I know is that the magnetometers occasionally acted really funky. If the earth's magnetic field really were jumping up by a factor of a trillion, I'd expect to see the effects all across the earth, at all magnetometers all at once. And I don't. So it was bad data. I didn't like it. I hid it in a little corner marked "raw data".

In my experience, data analysis is more or less one long string of choosing which data to throw out.

Of course, you don't just throw out data willy nilly. You have to come up with justifications for it. And saying, "I like the conclusions which we would draw from this data, but not that data," is not sufficient justification. It's tricky, because you don't want to bias yourself towards a previously held belief by only selecting the evidence which confirms the belief. There are some famous examples where scientists threw out data they thought was bad, but later turned out to be good. For example, before the cosmic microwave background radiation from the Big Bang was discovered, scientists had actually seen it on radio telescopes, but they thought it was just noise caused by pigeon droppings. Another example is the ozone hole, which was initially filtered out as bad data for about a decade. It's true, cientists make mistakes sometimes, but not because they're conspiring against the public, but because Science Is Hard.

Of course, those examples are the exception, not the rule. Data analysts throw data out on a regular basis, and the vast majority of the time, it's because they ought to.

So in the case of the climate researchers, even without looking at context, we know they probably had a good reason to throw out data. In fact, I know they have a good reason, because I looked it up. Apparently it has to do with the unreliability of using tree growth data to determine the temperatures of the last few decades. I don't really understand any of that, because I don't have much interest in climate science, but it should at least be clear that the justifications for their methods have been published out in the open. If climate scientists are indeed throwing out data that should be kept, it's not because they're part of a secret conspiracy.

So why is it that the e-mail talks about using a "trick" to "hide" data? Isn't that a bit odd word choice? Not really. "Trick" is commonly used to mean simply a clever method. "Hide" means that they're hiding unreliable data by putting more reliable data in its place. I have trouble seeing what the big deal is.

Tell you what it looks like to me now. Confirmation bias. People wanted to find a conspiracy, so they looked through a thousand e-mails and found a few e-mails to confirm their beliefs.* You'd think that if there really were some giant conspiracy, it would show up in more than just a few. But let's all just forget about the rest of the e-mails and documents. We don't like the data, so let's just throw it out, eh?

*Yes, there were a few others, but they don't impress me. I think the worst example was a request to delete some e-mail correspondence. In the interest of brevity, my response consists only of two words, "Hanlon's" and "razor".

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Matchstick solutions

See the original problem

Solution images are linked below, so as not to immediately spoil it.

Solution to cherry glass
Solution to six squares

If matchstick puzzles interest you, I recommend the collection on Puzzle Playground.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Paranormal investigation and kidneys

I don't know if any of the regular readers noticed or remembered, but over a month ago I wrote something about the Independent Investigations Group (IIG), and the reasons why we need to investigate paranormal claims. And then I removed the post. But now it's up again. There's a funny story behind this.

Back in October, I sat in on an IIG meeting. One of the things they talked a lot about was this woman, Anita Ikonen, who was flying in from North Carolina next month to have her ability tested. Her claim? She can tell whether someone is missing internal organs by just looking at them. So IIG proposed the following test: Given six people with eleven kidneys, determine which person is missing a kidney, and also determine whether it is the left or right kidney. Perform this test three times. If she gets all three correct, she would move on to formal testing for the $50,000 prize. If she gets one or more incorrect, she fails the test.

It may seem like a simple enough test, but there are all sorts of things that could go wrong. For example, if people lost their kidney through disease, this might change their smell or skin color slightly. Therefore IIG only used kidney donors. What if the kidney donors have scars? Let's give all the subjects identical clothing which would hide those scars. At the IIG meeting, they were talking about bunny suits, but it seems in the end they just used t-shirts, jeans, and straw hats. with sheets covering their hair. Also, they all have their back facing Anita, to reduce the possibility for cold reading.

Furthermore, the audience should not know beforehand who is missing their kidney. We didn't want Anita cold reading the audience. Nor should the experimenter know. And ideally, nor should the test subjects themselves. The test subjects would be told: "Each of the other five people are missing a different internal organ. Anita will be looking for one particular missing organ. You are the control group, without any missing organs." Or that was the plan, anyways. I'm not sure whether they were able to pull it off, or if information leaked to the test subjects.

At the IIG meeting, I pointed out that the test subjects could determine that she was looking for kidneys if they just looked at the IIG website. It was in the public meeting summary from the previous month. They agreed that they should probably remove that information. Actually, I don't think they ever did remove the information. Oh well.

Anyways, I remembered that I had mentioned the kidneys on my own blog. So I decided to take it down. My blog is probably too obscure to really leak the information, but I figured that there was no harm in taking it down to be safe.

The post has been put up again because Anita Ikonen has already been tested on November 21.* The results? You can see a video of the entire test on UStream. She got one trial correct out of three. Therefore she failed. End of story.

Or not. As Jim Underdown said, "If there’s one thing more frustrating than trying to get paranormal claimants to prove their abilities, it’s getting them to admit they failed after flunking a legitimate test." Though Anita Ikonen admitted that she failed the test, she felt still felt as if she probably had something special. After all, she did get that one trial correct, and supposedly that was the one trial she felt sure about. She also got the correct person and wrong kidney in another trial. So as she put it, it's like she got half right.

I think it's very human to cling onto closely held beliefs as Anita is doing. I don't blame her for it. But she's still wrong.

Getting "half correct" does not mean there is a 50% chance that she still has some ability. By pure guessing, getting half correct is exponentially more likely than getting all correct. By pure guessing, there's a 23% chance of getting at least one trial correct. There's a 1/1728 chance of getting all three correct, which sounds small, but IMO is not nearly small enough. It's an acceptable false alarm rate only because this is the preliminary test.

And furthermore, she did not get half correct. She got one third correct. If her claims really were true, we would expect her to get the right person and right kidney. If anything, the fact that she got the right person but wrong kidney suggests cold reading. Cold reading is much more effective at determining the correct person than it is at determining the correct kidney. For example, you might be able to guess the right person by their fidgeting (one audience member claimed to have guessed two correctly based on fidgeting), but fidgeting probably tells you very little about which kidney is missing.

And there is another caveat. Most kidney donors donate their left kidney. Anita guessed the left kidney every time.

Note that cold reading is possible even if the reader is unaware of it. For example, when she guessed the left kidney every time, was this because she was intentionally playing the numbers, or because experience had taught her intuition to expect missing left kidneys?

So looking at the results, I think it's quite likely that she got one just by chance. It's also possible that she was doing cold reading. Either way, she failed to pass the test. End of story.

*See the IIG website for more information on the Anita Ikonen test. Regrettably, I was not available to see the test myself, though I did skim the UStream video. I was otherwise occupied.

Friday, November 27, 2009

I go to a conference

The other day, I attended an undergraduate research conference. Fun! I made a presentation on my summer research on classification of gravitational wave candidates. I try to make at least the first few slides very easy to understand, and here's a little peek.

This is a basic picture of what my research was about. You have a bunch of events, some of which may be spiraling binary black holes or neutron stars, and some of which may be noise caused by something entirely different. Each event has multiple associated parameters (such as "x" and "y" shown in the diagram, but there could be many more). So to classify them, we need to choose some dividing line. In two dimensions, finding a dividing line is easy. In twelve dimensions, not so much.

Anyways, that's just the introduction to my presentation, and there's obviously a lot more to it than that.

Funny thing about research, often the topics can get mind-numbingly specific. When people ask me what I did research on, I tell them, "gravitational waves", but of course that couldn't really have been my research topic. There's far too broad a subject for just one research project. If I want to elaborate further on my research, I explain that I worked on data analysis for LIGO. Still too broad. I could explain that I worked on the classification of candidate gravitational wave events for inspiraling compact binary systems. Still too broad, but now also incomprehensible to a general audience.

It makes me think of how pseudosciences often try to imitate science's use of complicated technical words. In my experience, the abstruseness of science and scientific language isn't placed there to provide an air of authority, it's there out of necessity.

Ironically, the presentations at the conference that interested me the most were not in my own field, physics, but in pure math.

In a strange coincidence, I encountered a poster all about a two-player game that I had once posted on my blog, Puppies and Kittens! Apparently the game is known to mathematicians as Wythoff's Game. The poster was about a generalization of Wythoff's Game, called Linear Nimhoff. The game starts with a set of vectors, such as {(1,0),(0,1),(1,1)}. There are two piles, which will be henceforth referred to as puppies and kittens in a pet store. (1,0) corresponds to buying one puppy; (0,1) corresponds to buying one kitten; (1,1) corresponds to buying one puppy and one kitten. During each player's turn the player selects one of the vectors, and buys an integer multiple of that vector. Whoever buys the last pet wins the game.

If you mathematically analyze the game, you find that there are "winning" and "losing" positions. If, for example, you are able to leave one puppy and two kittens in the pet store at the end of your turn, then you have won the game (provided that everyone plays the game perfectly). If you can determine what all the winning and losing positions are, then you have solved the game!

If you start with the vector set {(1,0),(0,1),(1,1)}, then it is called Wythoff's Game. But in general, you can have any set of vectors. Wythoff's Game is solved, but the general game is not solved. The poster did not have some amazing new general solution, but it was able to characterize the solution. Apparently, all the winning positions lie "near" one of several lines in the plane. The slopes of these lines can be determined from the initial vector set. Sounds pretty exciting if you ask me. But don't ask me what the practical applications are. I have no clue.

Another cool coincidence was that I saw a presentation on intrinsically knotted graphs. It's a coincidence because a fellow blogger (hi Susan!) did undergraduate research on the same thing, and had named her blog Intrinsically Knotted. Click the link for an explanation of what that is. The presentation I saw was about proving graphs to be "minor minimal"--that is, removing any edge of the graph will remove the intrinsically knotted property.

In summary, research in physics and math are a lot of fun. And if you like, you can extrapolate this hypothesis to other fields represented at the conference, like chemistry, biology, or even the social sciences.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Ray Comfort and Kirk Cameron visit UCLA

As I wrote before, Ray Comfort and Kirk Cameron were planning to distribute their "special" edition of Origin of Species to universities across the country. This special edition came with a special intro to refute evolution, and explain how Darwin was responsible for Hitler, etc.

Here's what happened. We knew for a long time that Ray Comfort was planning to distribute the books on the 19th of November. But on the morning of the 18th, I woke up and read this: Ray has a change in plans. Ray Comfort announced the morning of that he was coming in a day early! So we had to change our plans too. The original plan was to have volunteers hand out counter-flyers and bookmarks from the NCSE, while simultaneously holding a table on Bruin Walk where we would offer free t-shirts, stickers, and discussions. But given the sudden switch, we were just going to hand out counter-flyers and bookmarks.

I had classes all day, so I actually didn't get to see most of it myself. But I had a one-hour break. During my break, I found that Ray Comfort and Kirk Cameron had shown up on Bruin Walk personally. How flattering! I thought they were planning to go to Berkeley. I didn't ever get to speak with Ray Comfort, but I did get to speak with Kirk Cameron.

Kirk Cameron and me (on the edge in green)

Kirk Cameron expressed a bit of disappointment that there weren't more people protesting them. So asked him why they changed the day. Apparently, they were afraid of huge protests and book burnings. Apparently Dawkins had suggested one time burning the books. Silly Dawkins! I told Kirk that his expectations were silly. Really it was just our group and these bookmarks. I don't understand how they, on the one hand, want to get lots of attention, but on the other hand, want to avoid attention by switching the day at the last minute. Kirk Cameron was unable to clarify this for me.

He was also unable to satisfactorily explain why they had originally removed four chapters from the book. Apparently, including all the chapters would be too expensive and make it too daunting to read. He basically said they were waiting for people to call them out on the missing chapters. I told him that he should have foreseen that people would think it's dishonest to remove chapters.

Ray Comfort had actually chosen a really terrible day to distribute books, because the entire campus was thinking about the UC Regents' proposed mid-year tuition fee hike. There was a huge student protest on the 18th, with more than 500 demonstrators and fourteen arrests, but they were against the UC Regents on the other side of campus. In fact, if they had stuck to the 19th, they might have seen an even bigger demonstration against the UC Regents with about 2,000 protesters. I've been told that the reason the demonstration on the 19th was bigger is because that's when they were originally planning to vote on the fee hike. They were busing people over from other campuses and everything. However, they rescheduled the vote to the 18th, supposedly to avoid the big protest.

I told Kirk Cameron that the way they rescheduled the book distribution drew a very unfortunate parallel between them and the UC Regents. In retrospect, I don't think Kirk Cameron had any idea what I was talking about, since I'm not sure they were even aware of what was going on on campus. Also in retrospect, if there is a parallel between Ray Comfort and the UC Regents, it's probably the Regents who come out looking worse, not the other way around.

I also asked Kirk Cameron if they would be distributing books again on the 19th as originally planned. He said they would. But he lied. I didn't see them anywhere the next day. Too bad, we were distributing the free t-shirts that day, and he might have gotten one. Now we ran out. Oh well.

Spencer (left) and Ray Comfort (right) with a bookmark in his pocket

Ray Comfort soon stood on a soapbox and gathered a crowd around a mini stage that had been chalked on the ground. He asked people to come up to "home plate" so he could have an "open discussion" with them. This open discussion involved Ray Comfort yelling questions at them while his own crowd cheered at him. He asked "Have you ever lied in your life? ... What do you call a person who lies? ... Have you ever stolen anything in your life?" I think the idea is that we're all liars, thieves, and adulterers, and we need Jesus to save us. Unfortunate implication: it's okay to lie if, like Ray Comfort, you've accepted Jesus' forgiveness. If you're familiar with Ray Comfort, you know that this whole routine is the one bullet in Ray Comfort's toy gun; he has to collect it back every time he shoots because he has no other bullets.

That whole spectacle made it clear that Ray Comfort was more concerned about evangelism than about evolution, whereas our group cares more about how stupidly anti-evolution he is. When he asked each person on home plate, "Are you an atheist?" I wanted to ask him "Are you a Young Earth Creationist?" but I've been told that if I were actually up there, he wouldn't have given me a chance to ask any questions.

I had to go to class, so I'm not sure what else happened. However, I note with some amusement that Ray Comfort offered to pay the printing costs for the bookmarks. Ray Comfort, we are not the Secular Student Alliance (though we are affiliated), we are the Bruin Alliance of Skeptics and Secularists. Furthermore, I don't know how much the bookmarks cost because they were created and paid for by the National Center for Science Education. I don't know about the NCSE, but our group would happily accept any donations. Our treasurer would get a kick out of that.

I think the idea is to make up what he lacks in honesty with generosity. And make no mistake, Ray Comfort can be very generous. I've heard that he once visited the Atheists, Agnostics, and Rationalists at UC Irvine, and paid for their entire dinner. On the other hand, he seems to be less generous with his fellow Creationists. Though Creationists across the country were distributing his books for free, I heard that many of the distributors themselves had to buy them off of Ray Comfort.

But this is all my perspective. There were plenty of other BASS members who showed up. Here are a few other reports:
Spencer (from whom I stole the photos)

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Countering Comfort

Ray Comfort and Kirk Cameron... Ray Comfort and Kirk Cameron...

They are two evangelists who always make me want to face palm. I am of the opinion that there is no clear dividing line between reasonable and unreasonable opponents. And yet, Ray Comfort and Kirk Cameron manage to place themselves firmly in the realm of the completely ridiculous. They are best known for presenting the Atheist Nightmare. It's a banana. Atheists have no way to explain why the banana fits so perfectly into our hands with a non-sl... oh, just watch the video.

People have asked me if they were serious about the banana argument. Yes, I think they were, for the most part. They may have been slightly facetious. But sadly, the banana is representative of their level of arguments (though with more than the usual innuendo). They're also known for arguing that evolution would predict the crocoduck as a transitional species, and that if evolution had happened, male forms would have had to wait millions of years for the female forms to evolve.

I mean, seriously, how did he manage to find arguments which are worse than the standard Creationist ones?

Guess what Ray Comfort and Kirk Cameron are doing now? They're printing a special edition of Origin of Species, with a fifty page introduction written by Ray Comfort. They will distribute these to universities across the country, including my own, on this Thursday, November 19th. See Kirk Cameron explain. The introduction will be full of standard Creationist arguments and misrepresentations of Darwin, science, not to mention history. Comfort believes that Darwin caused Hitler, basically.

In a US News blog, there was a bit of "debate" between Ray Comfort and Eugenie Scott about the book (see Ray, Scott, Ray, and Scott again). Among other things, Eugenie Scott revealed that Ray Comfort's edition of Origin of Species would not only have a special introduction, but also be missing four crucial chapters. Ray Comfort responded that he was putting the four chapters back in. Eugenie Scott's response:
In his response to my post, Comfort strangely failed to explain why he expurgated that material from the first version. Elsewhere he wrote that it was "abridged because it was too many pages (too expensive) for a giveaway." But now he's going to try to give away even more copies of this more complete version? I'm glad I'm not his accountant.
Zing! Sadly, these tactics are representative of Ray Comfort's intellectual integrity. It's also been alleged that he plagiarized part of his introduction.

Happily, the above quote is representative of how awesome Eugenie Scott is. I was so pleased with Eugenie Scott's responses that I contacted NCSE (the National Center for Science Education, headed by Eugenie Scott) to ask if they would help us respond to Ray Comfort on our campus. They invited me to a google group for just that purpose, and pointed me to their website, Don't Diss Darwin. And they have counter-flyers and bookmarks ready to print out.

This is great, because the initiative required to design our own flyers is a precious commodity in BASS (the skeptical student group on campus). A few people criticized the flyer on various points, but I challenged them to make their own. If they could do that, I would pass the flyer on to NCSE, and distribute copies on campus. No one was up to the challenge.

The best part is, NCSE mailed us a box of free t-shirts donated by Sweet! I'm wearing one right now. The nice thing is, even if we can't find Ray Comfort's distributors, we can still give out this pro-evolution stuff to celebrate the sesquicentennial of the publication of Origin of Species! I think I love the NCSE.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

The quantum mystic's paradox

As explained in a previous post, quantum mechanics allows for particles to be entangled. Basically, that means that the quantum state of two particles must be described together; they cannot be described separately.

A concrete example: Two electrons, which we'll name A and B, are emitted from a source in opposite directions. We can use a magnet to measure whether each electron is spin up or spin down. After repeating this experiment many times, we determine that 50% of the time, A is spin up and B is spin down. The other 50% of the time, A is spin down and B is spin up. This is because, before any measurements are made, A and B are in a mixed state of 50% (A up and B down) + 50% (A down and B up). They are entangled.

This basic idea of entangled particles led Einstein, Podolsky and Rosen to formulate the EPR paradox in 1935, which argues that quantum mechanics cannot be a complete theory. Imagine that A and B are entangled as above, and sent to opposite sides of the galaxy. Then I measure the spin of A. Before my measurement, the spin of B was undetermined, in a quantum mixed state. After my measurement, the spin of B is known, even though I never touched it, never even got close to it.

The problem is that it seems the state of B is affected instantly even though it is a hundred thousand lightyears away. Was there some sort of signal sent from A to B faster than the speed of light? If there were such a faster than light signal, this would not merely be strange and counterintuitive, but also paradoxical. According to Relativity Theory, if something travels faster than light, then there exists a reference frame in which it is traveling backwards in time. So now we have a signal traveling backwards in time, violating causality. What's to stop us from sending a message back in time to tell our past selves not to send the message?

The resolution: if there is indeed a signal traveling faster than light, this signal could not possibly transmit any information. If you can't transmit information, you can't send a message to your past self, and you can't violate causality.

Let's say I wanted to send a faster-than-light message across the galaxy. A message is basically composed of zeroes and ones. So let's try to send a short message across the galaxy, a single "1". When I measure A, I have a 50% chance to get spin up and 50% chance to get spin down. From this information, I can know the state of B. But I don't choose the state of A or B. So how can I choose to send a "1" rather than a "0"? I can't send any messages this way. The only thing I can send is random noise, which is exactly what my colleague across the galaxy would have gotten even if I had made no measurements at all.

Of course, I am greatly simplifying the EPR paradox and its resolution. This is all just to say that quantum mechanics escapes paradox by the skin of its teeth. Its position is delicate. And most forms of quantum mysticism just trample all over it.

More specifically, it's said in quantum mysticism that quantum mechanics is non-deterministic, and that we affect outcomes by observing them. Therefore, as the argument goes, observers can choose their own reality. And that's why thinking positively causes good things to come your way, and thinking negatively causes bad things to happen to you. It's not because positive thoughts lead to positive actions. It's quantum mechanics. (Implication: the positive actions themselves are unnecessary.)

From a common sense perspective, the quantum mystic's argument is just riddled with flaws. But as if that weren't enough, there is another flaw from a physics perspective: the EPR paradox returns! If I could in fact choose the outcome of a measurement, then I could use this quantum psychic ability to send coherent messages faster than light. All I have to do is choose to observe electron A as being spin down, and electron B is guaranteed to be spin up. I've just sent a single "1" across the galaxy instantaneously. Repeat the experiment many times, and I could send a bunch of zeroes and ones backwards in time.

It turns out that quantum mysticism doesn't just violate common sense, it violates causality too. So now it's just that much more of an extraordinary claim, and requires just that much more extraordinary evidence.

Mind you, I wouldn't recommend actually using this argument against quantum mysticism, since the target audience probably doesn't understand a word of it. It's all in good skeptical fun to think about it.

An inappropriate time to bring up this argument

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Planting seeds

One of the more egregious abuses of the idea of open-mindedness is when people say, "If you were more open-minded, you would have changed your mind already." Whenever I hear this, I just look down and shake my head. For one thing, it's begging the question--would I in fact have changed my mind by now? But the much deeper error is the unrealistic expectation of how easily people change their minds. You can't entirely change a person's point of view with just one conversation. And if you expect to change everyone's mind so easily, you will be disappointed in all your rhetorical endeavors, and become a bitter cynic.

I suppose this is why people say, "You're not there to change people's minds, but to plant seeds of doubt."

I am not a fan of this metaphor. It makes it sound as if all you need to do is go up to people, ask a provocative question, and then leave. You've planted a seed, so your job is done! Because you already know how great your own arguments are, there's no need to listen to any responses, or to make sure that you've really conveyed your point. It sounds an awful lot like trolling.

Perhaps it would be better to say that you're not just planting seeds, but also watering the plants. But I'm still not a fan of the metaphor. It makes me imagine trees growing in people's brains.


But there's an important point behind by the "planting seeds" metaphor. People really don't change their minds after just one conversation. They may be corrected on facts, and they may concede smaller points. But on larger issues, it simply doesn't happen quite like that. More often, people change their minds through several conversations with different people. By reading many different articles with different points of view. By doing a bit of introspection on top of all that. At least, that's how I do it.

And so, in any single conversation, you can't expect to make major changes in a person's point of view. That doesn't mean they're close-minded, it just means they're normal. Nor does it mean that discussion and persuasion is completely futile. You can persuade people, it's just not easy, that's all. It's probably better this way, since you wouldn't want people to be persuaded by every huckster they come across.

But the tricky thing is, that means that whether you make good arguments or bad arguments, there will be little observable difference. If you never succeed in persuading anyone, is it because persuasion is a slow process, or is it because your arguments just suck? How do you tell?

Personally, I try to distinguish between good and bad arguments by examining their logical soundness. Use some critical thinking to see if the conclusion really follows. Also, listen to other people's responses, see if they find any flaws that you've missed. Just because an argument is logically sound doesn't guarantee that it is effective at persuading people, but it's a fairly good start.

I'm curious if my readers have any other answers to the question: How do you know whether your arguments are effective?

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Matchstick puzzles

Four matchsticks form a glass, as shown above. By moving only two matchsticks (and without moving the cherries), get the cherries out of the glass. You don't want to break the glass, so it should be in the same shape when you've finished.

Fourteen matchsticks are arranged to create four squares. Move only three matchsticks so that there are six squares. The matchsticks may not cross each other, and they cannot be broken. Every part of every matchstick must be part of a square (ie no loose ends).

Solutions have been posted

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

For the Bible Tells me So

I saw a documentary called For the Bible Tells Me So, which is about how the religious right is breaking families apart with their homophobic rhetoric. It was really good, but really depressing. I was tearing up.

It followed a bunch of families in which the parents were really religious and conservative, and one of their children turned out to be gay. It was rather heartbreaking to watch all these really nice people go on to reject their children. Eventually, many of them came to accept their children, and some go on to be activists. Others never fully accept it, or accepted it too late.

One of my friends said it was really hard to watch, because it showed what he wished would have happened with his parents, but didn't. Awwwww

This movie made me feel grateful that I left religion years before I ever started thinking about my sexual identity. The two issues for me are completely disjoint in time. Good thing too, because together they'd make quite a tangled mess. Separately, they're still tangled messes, but together they are a bigger tangled mess. It's so much simpler to just think about what's good and bad, rather than think about what a omnipotent omnibenevolent being thinks is good and bad. With all the back and forth about what the Bible says about homosexuality, it's nice to be able to just say, "The Bible is not a moral authority. The end." Being an atheist has definitively improved my life.

Did you know that the Catholic Church accepts homosexual tendencies, but believes that acting on these tendencies is a sin? I think I knew this before, but the movie made it hit home. It's unacceptably regressive to insist that a certain group of people never ever act upon the feelings of love they experience. Dear Catholic Church, this displeases me with you in a way that leaving your religion did not. You suck. You, and Maine.

After the movie screening, someone came up to the front and told us, "If you left the church, but want to return, know that there are options." I hope this doesn't sound too strange for an atheist to say, but I think it's great that there are options, that there are queer-positive religious communities. I think it's terrible that people have to leave their church just because of their sexual orientation. I think people should leave churches, yes, but I don't think anyone should be forced out. People should be leaving because they want to.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

I vicariously write a letter

Remember how, some months ago, I promised I would one day write a letter? Because writing letters is one of the easiest ways to be an effective skeptical activist? Yeah, neither do I. Forget I mentioned it.

Well, I haven't done that. I have written exactly zero letters. Not once have I read an article which was totally wrong or inaccurate, and then sent off a critical e-mail to the news source. Not once have I read an article which promoted skepticism, and then sent off an e-mail to thank the writer. I suppose you could say I opted for the harder way to be an activist, which is to keep a skeptical student group organized. Naturally, as an organizer, my job isn't to write these letters myself, but to delegate that job to other people.

Anyways, on October 21st, the Daily Bruin featured two articles in its Science and Health section which were sympathetic to Integrative Medicine. “Integrative,” if you weren’t aware, is one of those buzzwords of alternative medicine.
Wellness remedies can work best in tandem
UCLA Center for East-West Medicine fuses integrates alternative, conventional medicine for better treatment
I told people in BASS (the aforementioned skeptical student group) that if no one responded to this article, they would make the sad panda sad. Fellow BASSier Daniel rose up to the occasion, and sent the following letter, which was published in the Daily Bruin yesterday.

Alternative medicine requires scrutiny (scroll down to second letter)
It's a start. I should definitely vicariously write letters more often.

Monday, November 2, 2009

More on hate crime laws

Speaking of hate crimes, Barack Obama recently signed into law the Matthew Shepard Act, which expands hate crime laws to include gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, and disabilities.

Actually, in my experience, a lot of people in the atheist community tend to oppose hate crime laws. A crime is a crime, they say, whether it is motivated by hate or not. The dividing line between a crime and a hate crime is basically a belief or idea. Should we really be punishing people more harshly just because they hold a particularly hateful belief? Doesn't that come dangerously close to punishing beliefs, infringing on free speech?

As for myself, I will tentatively come down on the side that is supportive of hate crime laws.

Laws and law enforcement should be pragmatic. Laws are not about punishing people for actions they've already done, but preventing them from doing those actions in the first place. When we make a punishment harsher, we're making a trade-off. On the one hand, we're further discouraging the crime from happening in the first place. On the other hand, we're being a little more unfair to the people who end up committing the crime anyways.

I like to think of the benefits of a law being a smooth function of the harshness of the punishment. Somewhere in the middle of that function, there exists a maxima, where the derivative of utility with respect to harshness is zero. Okay, I'll stop with the math now. The point is that there is some happy medium where the law is neither too lenient nor too harsh.

However, this happy medium exists at different places for different kinds of crimes. For example consider the insanity defense. The insanity defense is where the defendant admits the crime, but claims to have been in a mental condition which prevented them from distinguishing right and wrong. When someone makes an insanity defense, they tend to receive softer punishments. Or rather, they get committed to a psychiatric institution, which is just a different kind of "punishment" altogether. Now, I know very little about law, but the rationale seems obvious to me. No matter how harshly you punish the insane, you will never discourage them from being insane. Whatever part of the brain it is that responds to the threat of punishment, that's not the part which causes legally insane people to break the law.

Now contrast with hate crimes. Hate crimes are done willfully, perhaps more willfully than typical crimes. If someone hates a group so much, is normal law going to effectively prevent them from committing crimes against that group? No, because their motivation goes beyond fear of simple legal punishment. Sheer force of will is not so easily stopped. Furthermore, hate crimes typically cause greater damage than the mere actions would indicate. They inspire fear in the entire group, and can have huge negative effects on an entire community. Therefore, the happy medium for hate crime laws is a little more on the harsh side than you would otherwise expect. And that's why it's justified to have harsher laws against hate crimes.

But this is all politics and law, of which I admittedly know very little. I'd be happy to hear opposing points of view, and we can argue about it a bit.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Can't blog now, busy

Due to an assortment of things, including schoolwork, research, BASS issues, personal issues, and looming grad school applications, I don't have the time to write. Therefore, Skeptic's Play is not going to be updated for the next week or two. But I still keep track of comments.

If you have a reader, subscribing to this blog is a good way to be notified of updates.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

A talk on Mormonism

In the last BASS meeting, we had a talk by a student here who is an ex-gay Mormon. No, wait, I got that backwards. He's a gay ex-Mormon. And he's such a great speaker, we all love him.

In fact, we were anticipating such a great talk that we took a voice recording! Go listen to it!

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Marriage privatization, hate crimes

One of the interesting ideas surrounding the issue of same-sex marriage is marriage privatization. It's one of those libertarian ideas, based on the idea that the less government is involved, the better. Therefore, it would be better if the government wasn't involved in deciding what is "marriage" and what isn't. The government would provide people with the right to civil unions, or allow them to create their own relationship contracts, but that's it. This does not mean that marriage would be outlawed or anything like that. It just means that private individuals will choose for themselves whether to call it marriage or not.

I think it's not a bad idea. If it were a proposition on the next ballot, I'd probably vote for it. Of course, it's not on the ballot, not as far as I know.

What has been on the ballot is the legalization of same-sex marriage. Now, what's really strange to me is when I see it argued that we shouldn't vote for the legalization of same-sex marriage because no kind of marriage should be officially recognized by the government. That's just silly! There are two completely separate issues going on, and there's no need for conflict between them. There's the matter of private vs government recognition of the term "marriage" and then there's the matter of equality vs inequality. If we allow same-sex marriage, that is a step towards equality. It is not a step away from privatization of marriage.

I mean, it's not as if the legalization of same-sex marriage will somehow make it harder to privatize marriage. It's not as if we'll then have to pass two separate propositions, one to privatize opposite-sex marriage, and one to privatize same-sex marriage. It will be no easier nor harder if and when it happens. In the mean time, we have equality to think about.

Anyways, I was thinking about this, because I saw a very similar argument being made about hate crime laws. From this article: "Why GOP leader opposes hate crimes protections for gays". Rep. Tom Price opposes the extension of hate crime laws to sexual orientation, because he opposes even the existing hate crime laws protecting race, color, religion, and national origin. But when I see this argument, I think it's rather silly. It's one thing to oppose hate crime laws. But since we have them, why should we be unfair about them? If hate crime laws start to protect sexual orientation and other categories, this is neither a step towards nor a step away from the removal of hate crime laws.

However, if you thought that argument was stupid, here's an even worse argument from House Republican Leader John Boehner, from the same article:
In an email, Boehner spokesman Kevin Smith said Boehner "supports existing federal protections (based on race, religion, gender, etc) based on immutable characteristics."

Boehner's position, then, appears to be grounded in the notion that immutable characteristics should be protected under hate crimes laws. And while religion is an immutable characteristic, his office suggests, sexual orientation is not.
That's so self-evidently stupid, I don't even know if I need to comment any further.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Guess the Meaning III

What phrase is suggested by this picture?

Also see Guess the Meaning I and II. They're a lot of fun, though I find it's difficult to gauge or control their difficulty.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Spread out the sky

Most religious people do not think of themselves as antiscientific. No, they love science. They especially love it when science confirms previously held beliefs. One common argument is to point to a sacred text and say, "We know this is true now, because of science. But the ancient authors could not have known this unless they were divinely inspired. Therefore, science confirms our religion!" I've seen this same argument in pretty much every major religion. Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism... But I will focus on a specific example from the Old Testament, one which I've heard more than once.

Thanks to recent developments in cosmology in the past century, we now know that the universe is expanding. The authors of the Old Testament could not possibly have known this without divine inspiration. So how is it that we have passages like that of Job 37:18? Job 37:18 says that God "spread out the skies". Clearly this is a reference to Big Bang cosmology, or maybe even inflationary cosmology (an even more recent scientific development).

While this argument is rooted in respect for science, it's so counter to basic critical thinking that it's hard to take the respect seriously. Do people who make this argument even bother to read the entire verse? Is that so hard?
Can you, with Him, spread out the skies, Strong as a molten mirror?
I mean, where does the mirror come in? Why isn't that part of the verse ever quoted in the argument? I guess it's because science has never thought of the skies, nor the universe, as a molten mirror. Quoting the entire passage would make the argument transparently stupid. I should also mention that it's not clear that "skies" refers to the universe, nor that "spread" refers to a process of expansion. In fact, I've heard that if you go back to the original language, it actually means "spread" in the sense of spreading a tent.

But even beyond that, even if we supposed that the passage was really referring to God expanding the universe, the argument is still nonsense. Suppose we had instead discovered that the universe is in a steady state. Would Christians then find a collection of passages which apparently refer to the steady state universe? I bet they could. If you throw enough vague guesses around, some of them will hit the target, no matter where that target is.

The problem is that once you already know what you're supposed to find, you will probably be able to find it. But if there were really something there, rather than just a collection of random guesses, then you should be able to pick out the pattern before you know what you're supposed to find. And obviously, this hasn't happened. No one has ever looked at Job 37:18 and decided that this means the universe is expanding. That would quite possibly be the worst piece of evidence for expansion that I've ever heard. And even if they did, "the universe is expanding" is a pretty nonspecific hypothesis, and could be right by lucky guessing. Big Bang theory is obviously so much more than just "the universe is expanding"--there also has to be some mathematical modeling for it to be specific enough to be falsifiable.

Right here is where people begin to protest, "That's not how the Bible works! You can't look at the Bible and make predictions. You can only look back at it, and see that the predictions of science were there all along." Well, let me tell you. That may not be how the Bible works. But it is how evidence and arguments work. Therefore, the Bible doesn't work as evidence, or as an argument. Stop using it as such, and perhaps I will stop attacking it as such.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Why investigate?

The Independent Investigations Group (IIG) is a local organization which fights on the front lines against paranormalism and pseudoscience. That means that they're actively investigating and testing paranormal claims, and informing the public about the results. Similar to the James Randi Million Dollar Challenge, IIG offers $50,000 to people who can show evidence, under proper testing conditions, of the paranormal.

Among the people they are currently investigating is a guy who claims he can psychically determine whether there are mirrors in a covered box, and a woman who claims that she can psychically determine whether or not someone is missing a kidney. The silliness of these claims prompted a friend of mine to ask, what is the point? Why are we even bothering to debunk things that are already self-evidently bunk?

I agree, there are some problems inherent with the $50,000 and Million Dollar challenges. The vast majority of people who apply for these challenges are delusional rather than dishonest. If they were simply dishonest about their claims, they wouldn't attempt the challenge, because they already know they'd lose. In fact, this is what the big time psychics do (ie Sylvia Browne, James Van Praagh). When publicly asked about the Million Dollar Challenge, they pretend that they've heard about it for the first time, and claim that they will try it at a later date. Then they simply forget that it was ever mentioned. Repeat as necessary.

Instead, the challenge applicants mostly consist of obscure cranks, the kind who mostly keep their crazy ideas to themselves. They're a particularly harmless breed of crazy. A lot of them have no understanding of how to construct a proper scientific test, and some of them just seem like they need help.
The Million Dollar Challenge solves this problem by only allowing applicants who have some media presence, but I imagine that the $50,000 challenge gets all sorts of weird folks.

But perhaps it's not quite as worthless as I've made it sound. The mirror guy is probably harmless, but the kidney woman is actually making medical diagnoses. That's not harmless at all. And though the big time psychics and woos simply ignore the challenge, it obviously puts some pressure on them. That's why they ignore it, after all.

The challenge also functions as a sort of preventive measure. Your typical scientist simply doesn't care about fringe claims. Perhaps they're justified, but it makes them appear dismissive. So unless someone takes action, the woo remains unchecked, leaving it to grow and propagate. Wouldn't it be great if we could nip the next big woo in the bud? And since we can't know which pieces of woo will go big in the future, we're going to have to debunk a lot of things which appear mostly harmless.

As for the possibility that we might actually discover something revolutionary, I do not think that is the primary reason for the challenge. As claims become more extraordinary, the likelihood that they are true decreases exponentially. Therefore, if our only goal were to discover something new, we would do what professional scientists do, and turn our attention to more reasonable things. Of course, there's still a tiny chance that the IIG will actually discover something amazing, and that's one more tiny perk to the job. But the primary purpose is to fight paranormalism, and keep woo in check.

You may still wonder about the effectiveness of the $50,000 and Million Dollar challenges, and you wouldn't be entirely alone. In fact, until recently, the James Randi Educational Foundation was planning to discontinue the Million Dollar Challenge in 2010. They eventually changed their mind, and the challenge will continue. Obviously, this is something they have thought about a lot.

And happily, it's not the only strategy employed by skeptical organizations. For instance, the IIG is currently investigating Healing Touch quackery in the UCLA hospital. They're not going to wait around for the nurses to apply for the $50,000 dollar challenge, they're actively investigating the issue and working to inform the public about it.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

My deconversion story

Today is a good day to write my never-written-before deconversion story.

I came from a Catholic family. Relatively liberal Catholic. Not so much in the political sense, but in the sense of being rather open and lenient about religion. I went to church every week, yes. I also went to Sunday school (except it was on Wednesday, and was referred to as CCD). But beyond that, not much was made of it. For instance, I knew how to pray, and knew I was supposed to be doing it regularly, but I never really did. It just didn't seem important.

I don't remember when, but somewhere around middle school or so, I stopped attending mass. Not because I disagreed with it. I just thought it was the most boring experience ever. It happened nearly every week, my mother would drag me to church (my father usually didn't come). Then I would sit in a pew, counting out the hour in seconds. I hardly listened to the service. I just don't have the auditory processing ability to parse more than a few words of a boring homily as it echoed across the church. I hated going to church. I didn't care if it was one of the commandments. I figured that God's purpose wasn't really to make me miserable every week. My mother was mad at first, but that quickly tapered off over time.

The next phase of my life, high school, is vital to this story. I had previously gone to public schools, but my high school was run by Jesuits. Jesuits, if you didn't know, are basically the intellectual branch of Catholicism. This was not your stereotypical Catholic school, taught by strict nuns. Only a few of the teachers were really Jesuits. And a lot of them were flaming liberals. Everyone was required to take a class called "Social Justice" in which we learned about world hunger and cultural imperialism and so forth. We were taught evolution, and regarded the Evo/Creo issue with a rather critical eye. We were also required to do some serious community service (more than 100 hours). I still have a lot of respect for the Jesuits; they are one of the few religious groups which is definitively pro-intellectual.

But I still never thought of myself as particularly religious, even at this time. For instance, I refused to get confirmed. The sacrament of Confirmation, as I understood it at the time, was supposed to be the time where a person really chooses to be Catholic, since obviously we don't choose what religion we're born into. Therefore, I refused to get confirmed just because my mom wanted me to--that would defeat the entire point! I gotta give my younger self kudos for standing up for such a noble (if hopelessly idealistic) principle.

But I was interested in some of the religious classes, because for the first time, I was getting a formal education on this thing that I was supposed to be believing. I mean, wouldn't it be good to know what it is you believe? I was especially interested in the theology classes, because they actually covered justification for belief. I was already into skepticism by that time, so I was a firm believer in having justifications for belief. If you're looking for the one thing which more or less precipitated my deconversion, this is it. I believed in justifying beliefs. Of course, I thought that my religious beliefs probably were justified, even if I didn't know the details. If there wasn't any justification, well, that would be such a tragedy, I don't even want to think what would happen.

Before we covered arguments for God and Christianity, the teacher made sure to emphasize that there is also faith. He told us to not expect much from the arguments, not to rely on them. He said that individually, the arguments are weak and disappointing. Only together do they make the case, and only with faith do they reach the goal. But of all the arguments, I found the "don't rely on arguments" argument to be the worst. That's exactly the sort of argument someone makes when they know they don't have a case.

So without going into details (which could potentially fill a blog), I was disappointed, just as predicted. I saw the merits of a few arguments, but many of were simply worthless. And when the arguments are worthless, combining them together doesn't really help. Around the same time, I also found an intriguing website (to obscure to mention) which turned a critical eye towards Catholic apologetics. I found that the website talked about the exact same things I had been learning in class, and made some worthwhile observations which even I hadn't noticed on my own. I didn't agree entirely with the writer, who was some sort of pantheist, but he largely made better points than the apologetics did.

The whole website made me feel very conflicted. I knew I was doing something wrong, without being told. Even though they always say that it's okay to have doubts, I knew I was crossing some sort of line that was not meant to be crossed. Even though I have the most open family, I was afraid. And yet, I also knew that every viewpoint needs criticism, and religious beliefs are no different.

Note that there are several things which are conspicuously missing from my deconversion story. The Bible never figured importantly one way or another. Neither did heaven or hell. I never thought of Christians as being hypocritical. Anti-scientific attitudes were absent. The problem of evil was never an issue. Perhaps this is reflected on my blog?

My last year of high school I spent in a sort of limbo. I still considered myself Catholic, and I still considered myself believing. But I knew that the floor was out from underneath me. So like many a cartoon character, I just kept on going without looking down. If I looked down, I'd fall.

It was only really in college that I considered myself an atheist. That was when I discovered the larger online atheist community (previously, labels never mattered). But I hid it in real life for over a year. I was afraid, and only told a few people. I now recognize this fear as completely silly and unfounded. I've met hardly anyone who has reacted negatively. And I'm completely capable of handling those who react negatively. It was never a big enough deal that I should have felt the need to hide it. The biggest danger, really, would be if my family reacted negatively. They found out a little while after I started blogging, through my blog. The reactions, well, weren't entirely positive, but they were largely accepting and open. I gotta say, some people at BASS have really messed up relationships with their families, but I was lucky. I have a great family. I never should have been afraid of how they'd react.

If there's one overarching theme to my deconversion story, it's fear. Why? I was never afraid of hell. My family was open enough. It was all self-imposed. Was there some sort of rule against serious doubting which I learned through osmosis? Was I simply not a very confident teenager? I don't know why I was afraid, but I know that's not how it should be. There should be no taboo against doubting, not even a little one. That's just antithetical to critical thinking. And I'm not just talking the token doubts where you are "lost" and hoping to be "found". I'm talking real doubts, where you're lost, and are willing to end up somewhere different from where you started.

Monday, October 5, 2009

My 2nd Bloggiversary

Hooray! As of today, I've blogged for two whole years! Some statistics: Skeptic's Play has over 400 blog posts and about 1400 comments. Never mind that almost half of those comments are probably my own, and the most popular post is Puppies and Kittens (it comes up in a common image search).

Now, what I'd really like to have for my bloggiversary is a site redesign. But it probably won't happen! So let's settle for a "best of the past year" link list. Lame, I know.

Bell's Theorem explained (and background)
Fractals from Newton's method
Near the speed of light

Critical thinking!
Why "pseudoskeptic" is a worthless label
What the Bleep do We Know!? reviewed
Extraordinary vs Impressive

Why I'm not an agnostic
Godel's modal ontological argument
Science meets religion

The Pill Puzzle
Guess the Meaning II
Two measuring problems

The three nihilists of Watchmen

Also see last year's bloggiversary. Note that this list is not meant to be complete, since I already have the archives for that.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

I attend queer student meetings

Wow, this has been a long week. I have been working continuously to organize the officers of BASS, the Bruin Alliance of Skeptics and Secularists. I'll tell you later how that went.

At the same time, I was also attending a few queer student group meetings this week. The reasons for this are many.
  1. I am interested in how other student groups run. I've only ever really participated in BASS, and BASS is not exactly the model of organization.
  2. I want to actually join at least one group. I've decided that joining a student group can be one of the greatest joys in life.
  3. I am very interested in queer issues, and am very much in favor of queer rights. Why shouldn't I participate in groups which reflect this?
  4. I'm asexual, so in a sense I'm a little queer myself. Or does that make me an ally? Whatever.
It used to be that one of the obstacles to participating in any queer student group was fear. I think a lot of straight would-be allies have this same fear, that they might be thought gay. It's not necessarily fear of homophobia. I'm willing to stand up to homophobia. It's the fear that the opposite sex will assume that you're gay, and thus avoid you. I don't know whether this fear is justified or not, but I realize now that it simply doesn't apply to me, as an asexual. What do I care if the opposite sex thinks I'm gay? I don't care if people think I'm gay.

Anyways, there are a dozen undergraduate LGBT groups at UCLA. Most of those are part of the Queer Alliance, which is a coalition of seven different groups. I attended the main Queer Alliance meeting, a Fluid meeting (focusing on bisexuals and pansexuals), and an SCME meeting (Student Coalition for Marriage Equality). Here are my observations:
  • Ironically, first meetings are not the best way to select groups. Most of the first meeting is taken up by introductions, ice breakers, and announcements. I guess I'll be doing the same thing next week.
  • At least in SCME (which is the most politically oriented), there were actually several people I knew from BASS there. Hooray for secular support for marriage equality!
  • I was sort of worried that during introductions and ice breakers, they'd ask us to state our sexual/gender identity. If they asked me whether I'm queer or an ally, I wouldn't know how to respond! Luckily, they all know better than to do this, at least on the first meeting.
  • No, I did not out myself. Perhaps simply for lack of opportunity. I'm also afraid that either I would not have sufficient time to explain it, or I would completely derail any previous discussion. But I want to be out. Let me tell you, three years ago, when I first considered myself atheist, I was a real closet case. It was completely irrational of me. I want that to never happen again.
  • There are some interesting gender disparities going on in some of these groups. The vast majority of the bisexual/fluid group was made of women. Supposedly, most of the SCME members are either gay men or straight women. I do not know enough LGBT history to have any idea why this is. Anyways, being in the gender minority turns out to be a little disconcerting, even when I know that the group isn't doing anything wrong!
  • The bisexual/fluid group played a game called definition darts. It involved a dart board with a bunch of LGBT-related words. This dart board made me extremely happy! Why? One of the words was "asexual". Another was "LGBTQQIAA" (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, intersex, asexual, ally). I know that the extra A is only further encumbering an already cumbersome acronym, but it still made my week.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Entanglement explained

Most popular explanations of quantum entanglement will describe it as a mysterious connection between particles. It's "spooky action at a distance", to quote Einstein. However, it is my firm opinion that mysteriousness and spookiness should not be excuses to stop explaining things. It should not surprise you to know that physicists understand quantum entanglement a lot better than they let on. It's just that it's rather mathematically involved, and therefore difficult to explain to popular audiences. Lucky for you, I enjoy attempting such futile tasks.

Let us build entanglement from the ground up, starting with wavefunctions. Here is an example of a wavefunction:

The wavefunction is just some abstract mathematical object which can be used to describe the particle. If you square the wavefunction, like this...
...then you get the probability of finding the particle at different locations. The particle is most likely to be found in that big hump in the middle, but there's also a chance that it will be found on either of the humps on the left or the right. There's also a very small chance that it will be found much further away from the center.

Another thing you can tell by looking at the wavefunction is the particle's momentum (mass times velocity). The momentum of the particle is related to how wavy the wavefunction is. For instance, if the wavefunction looked like this...
...then the particle will have a much higher momentum than in the first wavefunction. If you try to measure the particle's velocity, it will probably be moving very quickly either to the right or to the left.

But particles don't just move to the right and left. They can go right, left, forward, backwards, up, and down. We live in a three-dimensional world. The above wavefunctions only show one of those dimensions. Here is an example of a two-dimensional wavefunction:

What does this wavefunction tell you? If you try to measure the Y position of the particle, it will appear near the center. However, the X position of the particle is a bit more uncertain. It will either appear to the right, in the valley, or to the left, on the hill.

But "left" and "right" are relative. If we just turn around 180 degrees, left becomes right, and right becomes left. If we turn around 90 degrees, the X and Y coordinates switch places. And if we turn 45 degrees...

...we get this.

Let's say we tried to measure the Y position of the particle, and got something to the left of center, right where that big hill is. Then we already know that the X position will probably be to the left of center too, before we directly measure it. And if we found that the Y position was to the right of center, we could predict that the X position would also be to the right of center. The X and Y coordinates of the particle are correlated. I might even say that the X and Y coordinates have a "mysterious connection" between them.

What makes this mysterious correlation so special? Why do we need to say that the particle is in both places at once? Couldn't we just say that we don't know its precise location? Couldn't we just say that there's a chance that both X and Y are right of center, and a chance that they're both left of center? The answer is no. The particle is in both locations at once, until we measure it. Recall that the momentum of the particle is described by the waviness of the wavefunction. If the particle were only in one of the two locations, that would affect its waviness, so to speak, thus affecting its momentum.

That's the basic idea of how we add new dimensions to quantum mechanics. We take what's called the Cartesian product of the X axis and the Y axis, and we get the X-Y plane. We can take another Cartesian product with the Z axis to make it three dimensional.

When we look at a quantum mechanical system with two particles, it is not described with two separate wavefunctions. There is always only one wavefunction. Instead, we take the Cartesian Product of the two particles' positions, like so.

Notice that the positions of the two particles are now mysteriously correlated. This may occur even if the particles are very far away from each other. By measuring one particle, we instantly get information about the other particle, even if it's light-years away. But before we take any measurements, both particles are in both locations.

Of course, each particle really requires not one, but three dimensions to describe its position. So for two particles, we really need six dimensions to describe them both. If we have three particles, we need a 9-dimensional space. If we have thousand particles, we need a 3000-dimensional space. In principle, the entire universe would be described with a single wavefunction with an absurdly huge number of dimensions.

And that's not even including non-spatial dimensions, which also have to be multiplied in. Non-spatial dimensions include spin and polarization. In fact, most popular explanations of quantum entanglement start out with correlations of polarization between two photons. It's the same idea, really. The main difference is that there are only two polarizations (horizontal and vertical), but there are an infinite number of positions (ie 1, 1/100, pi, 42). That makes it much easier to analyze and study under controlled conditions.

Let's take a step back and see what happened here. If we have a multi-dimensional wavefunction, the different dimensions can be correlated with each other. Adding new particles is just a matter of adding new dimensions to the wavefunction. Therefore, separate particles, too, can be correlated with each other. These correlations can extend across large distances. Measuring a particle here can instantly and indirectly measure a particle on the other side of the galaxy. It's almost, but not quite, as if you received a message from the other side of the galaxy at a speed far faster than light. The consequences of entanglement, even I'll admit, are quite profound and mysterious. But where entanglement came from is not mysterious. It was just quietly encoded in the math all along.