Sunday, January 31, 2010

Anti-science science enthusiasts

While we're discussing compatibility of science and religion, I want to reiterate: just because someone claims to be totally pro-science does not make them pro-science. In fact, I'd say that anti-science advocates tend to be just as enthusiastic about science as is the rest of the public. They don't think of science as their enemy. But they are wrong; science is indeed their enemy.

Example #1: Deepak Chopra. Deepak Chopra, if you didn't know, is one of the biggest supporters of quantum nonsense. I think Professor Farnsworth from Futurama described him best. However, Deepak Chopra thinks of himself as pro-science, as can be seen in one of his recent columns.
No skeptic, to my knowledge, ever made a major scientific discovery or advanced the welfare of others. Typically they sit by the side of the road with a sign that reads "You're Wrong" so that every passerby, whether an Einstein, Gandhi, Newton, or Darwin, can gain the benefit of their illuminated skepticism.

It never occurs to skeptics that a sense of wonder is paramount, even for scientists. Especially for scientists. Einstein insisted, in fact, that no great discovery can be made without a sense of awe before the mysteries of the universe.
Look, he's talking about the greatness of scientists like Einstein, Newton, and Darwin. He's talking about the awe and wonder of science. But at the same time, he attacks "skeptics", not realizing that every great scientist shares most of the ideals of skepticism. Revolutionary ideas in science necessarily meet resistance because for every correct revolutionary idea, there are countless incorrect revolutionary ideas. You just don't hear as much about the failed ideas because history naturally forgets them.

In short, Deepak Chopra likes the idea of science, but opposes that which is essential to science.

Example #2: The Muslim Student Alliance is often out on Bruin Walk handing out free flyers and copies of the Q'uran. One time, I saw a pamphlet which explained how the truth of the Q'uran is confirmed by modern science. One humorous example sticks out in my mind. The Q'uran describes one stage of human creation like a mudghah, a "chewed substance". Therefore, if it turns out that a stage in the human embryo looks like a chewed substance, this is positive evidence of the Q'uran's truth.
What do you know, the human embryo indeed looks like a piece of gum with suggestive teeth marks. Next thing you know, they'll compare the early state of the universe to smoke because it's made of opaque, dense, hot gas (and somewhere in the middle, they'll confuse the early universe with nebulae). Seriously?

This argument, along with the rest of the pamphlet, arises from a deep respect for science. If they didn't respect science, they wouldn't try so hard to find ways for science to confirm their beliefs. Furthermore, unlike Creationists (who, by the way, also usually believe themselves pro-science), they fully accept the conclusions of science. But even if they have pro-science motivations, are they in fact pro-science?

Nope. Their motivations are betrayed by an abuse of science in their actions.

Example #3
: Francis Collins. I've mentioned this example multiple times in the past, but that's because I think it is a good example. Francis Collins is a great scientist. He headed the Human Genome Project, and currently serves as the director of the National Institutes of Health. If his scientific success doesn't make him pro-science, I don't know what does.

But being pro-science doesn't stop him from saying a one or two things that are anti-science. Francis Collins believes that morality exists only among humans and could not have evolved. Never mind that there's a whole field which studies the evolution of altruism, and it contradicts these beliefs. Why does Francis Collins believe this? One of C. S. Lewis' arguments for Christianity is that only God could have created human morality; Francis Collins is a big fan of C. S. Lewis.

Now, Francis Collins is a spectacular example of how great scientists can be outspokenly religious, with no conflict. But it's a good thing he doesn't specialize in evolutionary altruism, or he might be a spectacular example of how religion carelessly obstructs science without even trying. C. S. Lewis wasn't trying to get science wrong, he was just trying to advance an apologetics argument, one whose premise turns out to be false.

Unlike the first two examples, Francis Collins doesn't just claim to be pro-science, he really is pro-science. But he could do just a little better.

And maybe even I could do better! Just because I claim to be pro-skepticism doesn't make me flawless.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Asexuality presentation

Oh, look, I made this presentation on asexuality.


A few things to note. First, I say a lot more than I include in the slides, so the slides are incomplete. Second, the target audience is college-age queers. Third, I did not intend to make Dan Savage look so bad.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Compatibility of science and religion

In the endless back and forth about whether science and religion are compatible, sometimes I feel like I'm hearing the same thing on both sides.

"There may be plenty of respectable scientists who are also religious, but a lot of religion is impossible to reconcile with science!"

"There may be a lot of religion that is impossible to reconcile with science, but there are plenty of respectable scientists who are also religious!"

Disagreement FAIL.

Chad Orzel suggested that the difference between the two views is a different definition of compatibility. One side defines compatibility in some sort of logical, philosophical, or rhetorical sense. That is, you can use science to argue against religion, and vice versa. The other side defines compatibility more empirically. That is, they are compatible if there exist people who are fully in favor of both science and religion.

But a difference in definitions does not constitute a real disagreement. To demonstrate, let's split one word into two, each with a different definition (this tactic should be in every analytic thinker's toolbox).

Compatible(1): There is no reasonable conflict between the two ideas.
Compatible(2): People can hold both ideas without conflict.

I think we can all agree that science and religion are compatible(2), but not compatible(1). Of course there are respectable religious scientists. Of course science has reasonable conflict with at least some of religion. Where is the disagreement?

I think it could be simply a disagreement of degree. Clearly, there is some conflict with science and religion, but the two sides probably disagree with how much conflict there is. This is a difficult question to analyze in a small space, because you really have to determine which beliefs conflict with science on a case by case basis, and then determine how much weight to give each case. This is the sort of thing you could write an entire blog about. So I won't go into it just now.

The other disagreement seems to be on which definition is most relevant. Except, I think they're both relevant in different situations. If someone asks me whether you can fully support science, even if they're deeply religious, I say you would have company if you did that. If someone asks me whether there is any conflict between religion and science, I say yes, though some people who are not me feel they have resolved that conflict.

And what definition should the National Center for Science Education use? Clearly, they should use compatible(2), which is ascertainable fact, and avoid a stance on compatible(1). To assert compatible(1) to any particular degree is to assert an opinion. It's not necessarily completely horrible for a national organization to offer an opinion, but it can cause problems. For instance, friends who disagree with that particular opinion (ie Sean Carroll) may start criticizing you.

Okay, so maybe you don't care what a bunch of bloggers think. That's understandable.

Speaking of bloggers, what definition of compatible is relevant to a blogger like me? I think that compatible(1) is most relevant, because a blog like this is all about offering opinions based on reasoning. If I start talking about compatible(2), there would be little to disagree about, because it is ascertainable fact. Furthermore, it would be logically irrelevant, a logical fallacy. It doesn't matter how many people favor both science and religion, it doesn't make them right. Logical fallacies have a certain power over our mind, but none of it is rightfully earned.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

BASS protests the Westboro Baptist Church

The Westboro Baptist Church (run by the Phelps family) is the group best known for those colorful "God Hates Fags" signs, which they use to picket soldier funerals, among other things. They appeared at Beverly Hills today, so we organized a group of mostly BASS members to go counter-protest them.

Shirley Phelps-Roper in Beverly Hills

But it may not be entirely accurate to say that we were "counter-protesting" the Phelps family. I feel like that's almost taking them too seriously, because they are a tiny fringe group that receives a disproportionate amount of attention. One could argue that we ought to ignore them, but I think that they're quite harmless, more likely to hurt their own cause than help it. So we might as well have our fun, seeing these celebrities of hate.

The Westboro Baptist Church appeared at two locations, first at a Jewish University fund raiser, and second at the Golden Globes.

Yes, they are singing

Yeah, so they hate the Jews, because they killed Jesus. But before you label them as haters, I should explain that their hatred is a "perfect hatred", as opposed to the "human hatred" of the KKK. That is to say, they hate what God hates. And God hates nearly everything. Jews, fags, and America are just the beginning!

The saddest part is that even the kids are indoctrinated into hating Lady Gaga, or "Lady Gaygay" as they call her

So a group of five or six Phelps family members set up at the corner of an intersection. A surprisingly high percentage of the passing cars would slow down to honk, shout, or flip them off. But the Phelps family just happily sings and laughs the whole time. For them, this is a worshipful experience, which just goes to show that one person's religious experience can be another person's hate speech. They may be creepy, but at least they're entirely peaceful, and you can just go up and talk to them.

We were the largest group there, but there were a few other individual counter-protesters. You could always tell the counter-protesters by their cameras. However, most passing cars would have difficulty distinguishing us from the Phelps family, since a small rainbow flag was the main indication (we neglected to bring signs). Later, when some cops told us to go to the other side of the intersection,* we were more clearly opposed to the Phelps family, and we got a lot more support from passing cars.

*I think the cops were worried about possible violence. We're entirely peaceful, and more amused than angry, but I perhaps that's what they all say.

Us, on the opposite side of this ridiculous seven-way intersection

Later in the day, the Westboro Baptist Church appeared at the Golden Globes. But our trip to the Golden Globes was relatively disappointing. For one thing, it was raining, in Beverly Hills of all places. For another, I don't have good pictures yet.

There were many people there to counter-protest the Westboro Baptist Church, but an even larger number of people to watch for real celebrities in passing limos. Speaking of real celebrities, we saw Sarah Silverman, who came to mock the church. I now like Sarah Silverman just that much more. But she might have been a bit disappointed, because only two people from the Westboro Baptist Church showed up, and they had regular black and white signs rather than the distinctive colored ones. We can find better than that at UCLA!

I will leave the final word to the Westboro Baptist Church:
God HATES DOOMED america. We have been telling you about this for almost twenty years, and the entire time you have been mocking us. LITERALLY! God is mocking you right back, stupids. [sic]

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Toupées and stereotypes

The Toupée fallacy goes as follows:
I have never seen anyone with a toupée that I couldn't spot. Therefore, I can always tell when someone has a toupée.
It's a fairly obvious fallacy, wouldn't you agree? Just because you haven't seen anyone with an unspottable toupée doesn't mean there isn't anyone. In fact, it would be impossible to spot an unspottable toupée, pretty much by definition.

If you limit yourself to people with toupées that you could spot, then of course it will seem as if you can spot every toupée. If you really want an accurate assessment of your toupée-spotting abilities, you need a way to also include people with toupées that you didn't spot. It's impossible to do so under everyday conditions. Obviously, you're not going to go around asking every person you meet whether they are wearing a toupée. They're not all going to answer sincerely, especially the people who are embarrassed to admit wearing a toupée.

As an example of a real-world use of the toupée fallacy, consider stereotypes, specifically those of gay people. They're stereotypically flamboyant and effeminate in a really obvious way. Of course, some gay people really are that way (and there is nothing inherently wrong with that), but as an overarching generalization, it's quite inaccurate. Allow me to claim (without any empirical evidence) that this stereotype is at least in part due to a toupée fallacy. Most people rarely spot a gay person that isn't really obviously gay. They often assume that the gay people they can spot are representative of the entire group.

Atheists, too, are really hard to spot, unless they make it really obvious in some way. For example, they will usually only be spotted if they choose to argue about religion. Is it any surprise, then, that atheists are stereotyped as being angry and argumentative?

This is one reason why it is important for people to "come out", both in the case of sexual orientation and in the case of atheism. Only when everyone in the minority is visible does the toupée fallacy disappear. (Of course, negative stereotypes would exist even without the toupée fallacy, as is the case for Black people and women. But I hypothesize that the toupée fallacy influences the magnitude and direction of stereotypes.)

If there's a larger lesson here, it's that our everyday experiences can lead us astray. Our everyday experiences are not a representative sample of reality. Particularly in the case of invisible minorities, what you see is a small, unusual subset. It is useless as evidence. If you think surveys and statistics have problems (and they do), just imagine the problems you encounter when relying on anecdotes and other ordinary life experiences.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Coloring a donut

Let's say that we have a map which is split into many different regions. We want to color each region such that no two regions of the same color share a border. It has been proven that only four distinct colors are required, no matter what the map is.

There are two parts to the proof:
  1. Some map requires at least four colors.
  2. No map requires more than four colors.
Part 2 is complicated! It required computer assistance to check over a thousand cases.

But part 1 is easy. Here is one such map.

One of the assumptions of this theorem is that the map is on a flat plane. But what if we have a map on a donut's surface? It turns out that we need seven colors. Can you find a map on a donut that requires at least seven colors?

You can send solutions to skepticsplay at gmail dot com. A tip: you can represent a donut with a flat square in which each edge wraps around to the opposite edge.

solution posted

Thursday, January 7, 2010

In which I am unrelatable

While I was traveling, I read Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!. A collection of humorous anecdotes isn't exactly what I consider ideal reading material, but being in physics, everyone talks about Feynman a lot (and also I had nothing else to read).

I think Feynman is a rather interesting character, and I like a lot of his ideas. But I can't really say I like him as a person. Is this a common opinion, or will all the physics buffs start calling to burn me? It's probably all the practical jokes he plays on people. I can't stand practical jokes. Oh, and then there are all the stories of Feynman chasing women. Maybe some people find that to be a humanizing quality, but I just find it weird.

Come to think of it, maybe this is my fault. Here I am thinking Feynman is an unrelatable person, when it's really me who is unrelatable. I hate fun, you see. Well, not really, not consistently, anyway.

One of the major themes in the book, I think, is the image of physicists. Feynman defies a lot of the stereotypes of stodgy old physics professors. He went to topless bars, played Samba while in Brasil, taught himself to draw and crack safes. But of course he's not doing it just to defy stereotypes or be "wacky". He's doing them for fun, because he likes to play around with all sorts of things. In fact, he seems to dislike the image of "here's a professor of physics... and he plays the bongo drums!" Why should it be a special surprise that he should play the bongo drums as opposed to anyone else playing the bongo drums? What's so bad about physicists that it should be surprising when they do anything fun?

So there's some stereotype pressure on physicists to be all boring and serious, and do nothing outside physics. There's also pressure in the other direction to be more "human", whatever that means, so we can break stereotypes. I think this happens with a lot of stereotypes actually. There is pressure to conform, and there is pressure to deviate. Everyone loses, basically.

Forget it! I will be as unrelatable as I please. Guess what? I don't care for the beauty of a rainbow. Sometimes, deriving mathematical equations is my idea of a fun time. But I admit to liking puppies.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

A simple infinite series

By request, I will show you how to calculate the following:

P = (1/2 + 3/8 + 5/32 + 7/128 + ...) / (1/2 + 1/8 + 1/32 + 1/128 + ...)

Let Q/2 be the numerator and S/2 be the denominator. Here is a visual solution:

And if you like calculus, here's an alternate way to calculate Q:

I guess now my blog will greet new readers with a wall of math for the next day or so.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Solution to two math problems

See the original problems

Putnam problem A1:

Take any two points, call them A and B. Construct four squares as shown below:

For each of the four squares, you can write out an equation. You can also write out an equation for the larger square ADBH. Combining all these, you can show that f(A) + f(B) = 0

So if there were any point P such that f(P) = c, then the function f would be -c on the rest of the plane. This doesn't work unless c = 0. Therefore f is zero on the entire plane.

Coin-flipping game:

This is the formula for the expected N, given that N is odd:

(1/2 + 3/8 + 5/32 + 7/128 + ...) / (1/2 + 1/8 + 1/32 + 1/128 + ...)

Those infinite sums actually aren't too hard to calculate if you know what you're doing. It comes out to 5/3, so a fair price would be $1.67.

But if you are really averse to calculating infinite sums, there are other ways to do it. You can write a computer simulation, for instance. Some puzzle purists think that's sort of cheating, but I think it's very practical. I wrote one myself to check my answer, and what do you know, I had made a miscalculation on my first try.

I have another clever solution, but it's tough to follow.
First we need to know the probability that N is odd in any given attempt of the game. Let's call this value P(O).

P(O) = (1/2 + 1/8 + 1/32 + ...)
= (1/2 + 1/8 + 1/32 + ...) / 1
= (1/2 + 1/8 + 1/32 + ...) / (1/2 + 1/4 + 1/8 + 1/16 + 1/32 + 1/64 + ...)
= (2/4 + 2/16 + 2/64 + ...) / (3/4 + 3/16 + 3/64 + ...)
P(O) = 2/3

Let's also name a few other numbers:
P(E) = probability that N is even = 1/3
E(N) = expected value of N = 2
E(N|O) = expected value of N, given that N is odd
E(N|E) = expected value of N, given that N is even

We also use the identity:
E(N) = E(N|O) * P(O) + E(N|E) * P(E)

We also need a key realization. If you ignore the first coin, E(N|E) is exactly the same as E(N|O). So we have the following equation:
E(N|E) = E(N|O) + 1

Combining these two equations, and the known values, we can calculate:
E(N|O) = 5/3

So 5/3, or $1.67, is our answer.
This problem may seem all abstract, but I was thinking about it because it came up in a physics discussion. I was arguing with one of my professors about muon decay rates. But that's too complicated, so I won't go into it.

Yeah, so, I realize some of these solutions are kinda hard to understand. Just ask! For instance, I can go ahead and explain how to calculate that infinite sum if people are really interested.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

God doesn't play D&D

God does not play Dungeons and Dragons.

-Einstein (paraphrased)
As usual, I was reading the internets when I found this interesting article called "Confessions of a Dungeons & Dragons™ Addict". It's written by a born-again Christian, M. Joseph Young, who started playing Dungeons and Dragons (D&D). Soon his friends got wind of it, and informed him how evil and dangerous the game was. They handed him lots of tracts to demonstrate the point (and I bet the infamous "Dark Dungeons" Jack Chick tract was among them). But Young quickly saw that the tracts just made a lot of arguments that were awful and wrong. So he starts countering the arguments.

What's amusing is that Young has to make such obvious points. Stuff like, "Yes, there are demons and devils, but they mostly function as opponents," "Even if a player's character is evilly aligned does not mean the player is evil," and "The magic is fictional." There are also plenty of references to C. S. Lewis, a favorite Christian fantasy author. This stuff is trivial! It reminds me of the time that a Christian magazine quoted me as opposing book burnings. There's something going wrong when it becomes necessary to say such obvious things.

Less amusing, but still odd, is how Young describes his D&D games. He likes to discuss the philosophical and theological implications of the game with his players. Ooookay. I won't condemn. But I would feel pretty awkward in that situation. I've played a bit of D&D, and I already feel awkward enough about role playing. It does not seem like the proper venue for evangelism. I'm curious if Young has thought about the common image of Christians as always trying to insert evangelism everywhere, no matter how inappropriate.

Young goes on to state the real problems that D&D poses for Christians. He says it costs time and money. No argument here, and that's why I don't play much. He also says that since Christians don't like D&D, many D&D players end up not liking Christianity. Again, no argument here.

But there was one point that really stuck out to me:
Like most games--all those which use dice or cards--Dungeons & Dragons(tm) assumes that dice and cards fall in a random pattern along statistically predictable probabilities. It is extremely difficult for us to deal with this assumption. The question of whether dice and cards fall at random or are divinely controlled is far beyond the scope of this article, but the answer goes directly to the nature of the sovereignty of God.
Extremely difficult? As far as anti-God arguments go, this is pretty weak. It's somewhere up there with the Babel Fish. I mean, seriously? "God controls everything... but what about dice?!" Does something so simple as probability really trip up theology? I don't know, maybe I'm just so used to the secular worldview that I can no longer imagine why such trivial things can cause such tremendous philosophical difficulties. Perhaps it might be clearer if I tried to form an explicit argument as to why this is silly.

Probability is a statement about our knowledge. If we say that a die has 1/20 chance of rolling a 20, that means that given our knowledge of the dice, there is a 1/20 chance of rolling a 20. The die may roll all sorts of numbers given different initial conditions, but to us, those initial conditions are indistinguishable. It has nothing to do with God.

Easy. I think so anyways. But perhaps not as trivial as the "D&D magic is fictional" bit. So never mind that. The following part was, I think, much more surreal.
Christians who play such games should grapple with the issue and form an opinion about it. Note that it is possible to avoid all such games by only playing those games which pit skill against skill--athletic competition, chess, checkers, reversi, competitive puzzles such as tic-tac-toe and dots--but these are the games most susceptible to the problems of the competitive spirit, the idea that one wins and therefore all others lose. That may be a far more dangerous challenge to the principles of the gospel than the more intellectual question of whether the assumption of statistical randomness is an affront to the sovereignty of God.
Note that right away, one possible solution to the philosophical problem of probability is to avoid games which involve chance. Young, to his credit, rejects this solution, but for the wrong reasons. Doesn't it strike you as odd that the solution to a philosophical problem is to avoid a situation where you'd have to think about it? Isn't that a bit like sticking your fingers in your ears whenever you encounter an argument that you fear might be persuasive?

I find it especially striking that the idea was introduced so casually, without a bit of self-awareness. What is going on in Christianity that such bizarre and wrong ideas can be thrown around without a second thought?