Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Multiverses are scientific

Skeptics have their principles.  One of those is Occam's Razor: Do not multiply entities beyond necessity.  Another principle is that knowledge of the real world must be founded in empirical observation.  The theory that there is a multiverse appears to break both of these principles.  Why posit multiple parallel universes when one is enough, and when we could never observe those other universes?

There is a simple response to these concerns: Multiverses are not scientific theories in themselves.  Rather, multiverses are predictions of certain theories of physics.  The same theories that predict multiverses can make other predictions which are verifiable.

For example, take the theory that the universe is uniform on sufficiently large scales.  There are galaxy filaments, huge thread-like structures made of galaxy clusters and superclusters.  But if you zoom out, you will not find the galaxy filaments organizing into super-filaments, super-filaments organizing into ultra-filaments and so on.  Instead, you will find that they are placed uniformly and randomly.  That is a prediction we can verify.

But there is another prediction that can't be verified so easily: if the universe is uniform (and the curvature of space is non-positive), then the universe is infinite in extent.

While an infinite universe is more complicated in the sense that there is more stuff in the universe, it makes for a simpler theory with fewer parameters.  If the universe is infinite, then I don't need to measure its size and shape, or measure our position relative to its center.  In absence of evidence to the contrary, I will believe that the universe is infinite, because that is the simpler theory.

It is true that the scientific method requires hypothesizing, predicting, testing, interpreting, and theorizing, just like you see in middle school science fair experiments.  But this is absolutely not true if you chop science into little pieces (say, into individual PhD theses).  Science is not fractally structured.  A single scientist can work entirely on theorizing without doing any experiments herself.  Another scientist can work entirely on experimentation, and then just borrow interpretations from the other scientist.  And if you take a single idea in science, it's unlikely that it would fulfill the roles of hypothesis, theory, prediction, and interpretation all at once.

In saying that multiverses are predictions, not theories, I'm repeating a point made by Max Tegmark in Scientific American.  Tegmark also has a useful classification system for multiverses:
When talking about parallel universes, I find it useful to distinguish between four different levels: Level I (other such regions far away in space where the apparent laws of physics are the same, but where history played out differently because things started out differently), Level II (regions of space where even the apparent laws of physics are different), Level III (parallel worlds elsewhere in the so-called Hilbert space where quantum reality plays out), and Level IV (totally disconnected realities governed by different mathematical equations).
Earlier I said that multiverses are predictions of certain theories of physics.  Theories plural.  Different theories predict different kind of multiverses.  For example, the theory that the universe is uniform on sufficiently large scales predicts a Level I multiverse.  The theory that there is no quantum wavefunction collapse predicts a Level III "many worlds" scenario.  Certain theories of particle physics predict that the physical constants of nature will vary over very large scales, leading to a Level II multiverse.

Level IV is not predicted by any theory I know of.  So maybe Level IV multiverses are unscientific.  They can't all be winners!

Even though multiverses are predictions of certain theories of physics, the argument for multiverses that most people are familiar with is the anthropic principle.  The argument goes that the reason our universe is so exceptional as to allow life is that there are many parallel universes and we only see the exceptional one.  But while this is a satisfying result of multiverses, I don't think it is a very strong argument for multiverses.  It doesn't even predict any particular kind of multiverse.  This contrasts with the scientific arguments for multiverses, which are more specific in their predictions.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Asexuals construct things too

This was cross-posted on The Asexual Agenda

Previously, Calinlapin explained what a social construction is, and how many of the beliefs that asexuals fight are social constructions.  But I must admit that I am somewhat of a detractor from this idea.  To take a single example,
Everyone desires sex and has pleasure having it.
This is a social construction because it appears to be a natural consequence of our world, but it's really a belief that's contingent on our society and culture.  But--maybe the is the scientistic way of viewing it--isn't it easier to argue that the belief is simply false?  Let's look at it empirically.  Can we find anyone who does not desire sex or derive pleasure from sex?  Perhaps there are some reading this blog right now?

On the other hand, I also like to use social constructionism to understand ideas created within the asexual community.  Perhaps this is because as a gray-A, I am on the borders of many definitions, and I find it liberating to question those concepts, to realize that they are not inevitable.

Take sexual attraction, which is the keystone of the definition of asexuality.  Sexual attraction is typically conceptualized as being accompanied by sexual arousal, sexual fantasies, butterflies in the stomach, a desire to look at or touch the person, and probably some other experiences I'm unfamiliar with.  But as asexuals we understand that this conceptualization of sexual attraction is contingent on culture.  And as proof of this fact, in our own little asexual subculture, we separate out sexual attraction from sexual arousal from sexual fantasies, etc.

But do we realize that we're basically countering the social construction of sexual attraction with another construction of our own?  That the way we think of sexual attraction is contingent on our subculture, upon the history of our community?

Yes.  I think we do realize that.  But sometimes we don't act like it.

Of particular interest to me is the endless agonizing over what would count as asexual, and what wouldn't.  I did that too, once upon a time.  And it wasn't a bad thing; it helped me think over a lot of stuff.  But sometimes we are too slow to realize that one possible answer is, "There is no answer."  That is to say, there is no inevitable answer.  The answer could depend on whether you're in this culture or that culture, on whether you're in the asexual community of 2006 or the asexual community of 2012.

Note that I could be wrong about this!  If I say, "sexual attraction is a social construction", that is a statement that can be true or false.  Most likely, it's partly true and partly false.  Some things will change as asexual communities develop, grow, and split, and other things will stay the same.  If you want to know which parts are socially constructed, let's watch and find out!

I am a hopeless empiricist.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Kalam as an inductive argument

This post continues "A few things wrong about the cosmological argument", a looong series about a few minor problems with the cosmological argument.

One of my favorite worst arguments ever comes from What the Bleep Do We Know!?, a movie which is about how you can use quantum mechanics to create your own reality, reduce crime, walk on water, etc.  Anyway, the argument goes as follows:

1. Only conscious things can be quantum observers.
2. Human cells are quantum observers.
3. Therefore, human cells are conscious things.

(Queue CG-animated human cells having parties.  No seriously, that's what happens in the movie.)

You gotta hand to it to them, they make a valid argument--the conclusion follows from the premises.  But the premises are bullshit.  It simply isn't true that only conscious things can be quantum observers.

But even if they didn't know that before, shouldn't the second premise have cast doubt on the first?  If I said a piece of paper is a quantum observer (this is true), does that mean you should conclude that the piece of paper is conscious?  Or should you go back to the drawing board, because it means that not every quantum observer need be conscious?

On the other hand, consider another argument in the same form:

1.  Particles can never travel faster than light.
2.  An OPERA experiment showed that neutrinos are traveling faster than the speed of light.
3. That experiment must have a flaw somewhere.

And of course, it turned out that there was indeed a loose cable somewhere which caused the experimental error.  But even before we knew that, most experts would have guessed that there was an experimental flaw based on the currently available evidence.

Why is the neutrino example different from the conscious human cell example?  In both cases, the second premise casts doubt on the first premise.

Here is a key point to understand about the neutrino argument: it appears to be a deductive argument, but it is actually an inductive argument.

We know that all the experiments we have done are most consistent with a General Relativity view of space-time (in which particles cannot carry information faster than light), and inconsistent with anything simpler than that.  But we cannot know that particles can never travel faster than light in any situation unless we actually check every situation, including the situation of the OPERA experiment.

In the case of quantum observers, there is no inductive argument that all quantum observers must be conscious.  Because that's not even close to being true.


The basic form of the Kalam cosmological argument is similar:

1. Everything that has a beginning has a cause.
2. The universe has a beginning.
3. Therefore the universe has a cause.

In my view, the second premise calls into question the first.  Because here we have an object, the universe, which does not have a cause we know of.  And so if we assume it has a beginning, maybe it is a counterexample to our supposed rule that things that begin have causes?  So we must ask, how do we know that everything that begins has a cause?  Is it because we've looked at a lot of things that have beginnings, and found that all of them have causes?  Or is there some other argument that doesn't refer to empirical observations?

Note that it is easy* to come up with alternate forms of the first premise which explain our observations just as well.  For example, "Every event has a cause."  "Every object in the universe has a cause."  "Everything that has existed for a finite amount of time has a cause."**  "If something exists at one point in time, something must have existed before that point in time." Some of these allow us to conclude that the universe has a cause, and some do not.

*By contrast, it takes a theoretical physicist to think up possible laws of physics which look like General Relativity in every experiment we've done with the single exception of the OPERA experiment.
**Under some views of the universe, it has existed for a finite amount of time, but does not have a beginning.

In the future, I will discuss a bit about causation, but for now I want to point out a more antiquated argument for god that appears in similar form.

1. Everything that is real must have a mind to observe it.
2. Things continue to be real even when no humans or other material beings are observing them.
3. Therefore, there is a non-material being to observe things.

This argument may seem a little silly, but it has some personal significance to me.  It's one of the classical arguments I was taught in my Catholic education (we were not necessarily taught to think it was a good argument).  It was around this time that I knew a deist who eventually persuaded me that Catholicism was wrong.  The deist used the above argument, roughly, though I didn't buy it.

Since then I have learned that hardly anyone uses this argument or takes it seriously.  I guess it was just that one deist I knew!  But far be it from me to use an argument from popularity.  You should decide for yourself whether the argument is any good, regardless of how popular or unpopular it is!

"A few things wrong about the cosmological argument"
1. Actual and potential infinities
2. Actual infinities in physics
3. What is real?
4. The "absurdity" of Hilbert's Hotel
5. Interlude: God is infinite
6. Forming Infinity, one by one
7. Uncertain beginnings
8. Entropy: The unsolved problem
9. Kalam as an inductive argument
10. Getting from First Cause to God 

Monday, September 17, 2012

Paper summary: Biological markers of asexuality

This post was modified from tumblr and cross-posted on The Asexual Agenda.

I'm going to summarize the paper, Furthering our Understanding of Asexuality: An Investigation Into Biological Markers of Asexuality, and the Development of the Asexuality Identification Scale, a psychology masters thesis from 2011 by Morag Allison Yule.  As the title suggests, it’s divided into two parts, the first investigating biological correlates with asexuality, and the second developing a questionaire to identify asexuals.

Part 1: Homosexuality is known to correlate with digit ratios and left-handedness, and in right-handed men it correlates with the number of older brothers.  This is often taken as evidence that homosexuality is to some extent caused by prenatal developmental conditions.

You might ask, are there similar correlations with asexuality?  This study shows a correlation between asexuality and handedness.  Also, asexual men were shown to have more older brothers, and asexual right-handed women were shown to have fewer older sisters.  The sample was too small to demonstrate a significant digit ratio difference.  These results tend to show that asexuality is also partly caused by prenatal developmental conditions.

My comment: The author motivates this study as a contribution to the question of whether asexuality is a sexual orientation or dysfunction.  But in some ways this is wrong; dysfunction as a category isn’t defined by etiology.  Nonetheless, I find the results very interesting.

Part 2: Yule develops a questionnaire that distinguishes asexuals from allosexuals*.  Yule claims it is valid for people who have not yet come across the idea of asexuality.  It’s a simple 10-question survey, shown in Appendix C.

*miller's note: allosexual is an alternative term for non-asexuals

My comment: Based on what little I know, designing an informative survey is a highly nontrivial task, so kudos to the author.  But I hope I don’t see this later as an online test “to see if you’re really asexual”.  It’s not supposed to validate people’s identities, it’s supposed to be a statistical tool for researchers.  On a side note, I’m a little confused about how to score this survey, since it uses a scale from 0-50, whereas the number of questions implies a scale from 0-40.  Just as well.

(Via Ace-Muslim)

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Humanists on race

I'm interested in determining how well (secular) humanists do social justice.  Many people want to support social justice, but whether their actions and positions are really in favor of social justice is a different question.  Therefore, I proposed that I look at humanists' expressed opinions on a particular concrete social justice issue: colorblindness.

So here's my definition: Colorblindness is the view that the solution to racism is to immediately stop making any distinctions based on race or ethnicity.  It is the view that the only racism worth fighting is the explicit kind, rather than the systemic, structural kind.

In my opinion, colorblindness is counterproductive, because it leads to ignoring problems rather than solving them.  I am far from alone in this view (here's one example).

I will conduct this sort of like a controlled experiment, not because I'm being all precise and scientific.  Judging whether something is expressing colorblindness is hopelessly subjective.  I'm imitating experimental procedure because it is more fun that way, and because it has the best chance of changing my mind (since, after all, I will agree with my own subjective judgments).

The procedure: I will search for race and ethnicity on The Humanist (a magazine by the American Humanist Association), the Council for Secular Humanism (CSH) website, and the AtheismPlus forums (for control).  I will select articles at random from each site, and try to categorize them as "The colorblind", "Colorblindness rejectors", and "other".  This will not be just based on explicit positions, but implied ones.

The Humanist

After trying a few search terms (race, racial, racism, ethnicity, ethnic), I decided that The Humanist's search engine is not very good.  I settled on "racial", because it seemed to have the most meaningful results.  There were 10 results, and I picked 5 of them with a random number generator.  One article only used the word "racial" once, without discussion so I replaced that one with another random one.

The colorblind:

Colorblindness rejectors:
1. The Humanist interviewed Gloria Steinem, and in my opinion she indirectly rejected colorblind ideology several times.  For instance, she talks about how black women are more likely to be feminist; this is inconsistent with the view that black and white makes no difference.
2&3. Two articles are by Sikivu Hutchinson, who I already know would oppose colorblindness.  I think she founded the Black Skeptics group.
4. In an article about Thomas Jefferson, the author says, "As a society, we routinely deplore racial violence and say we are not prejudiced, but racism still exists."  Sounds like an explicit rejection!

1. A review of Less Than Human talks about race, but I don't think it mentions colorblindness in any way.

The Council for Secular Humanism

A search for "Racial" gave me 100 results!  I tried picking them at random, with little success.  I looked at 15 articles, and only one seemed relevant.  It seems that many writers like to list race alongside other things like class, ethnicity, and sex, without elaboration.  Since this wasn't working, I picked the last articles by looking at those with the top relevance scores (skipping 1 which I felt was not actually relevant).

The colorblind:
1. One article compares anti-atheism to historical racism, and I got a colorblind vibe based on what things it emphasized.  When anti-atheism is compared to racism, it's only the discrimination aspect of anti-atheism that comes up.  It's also sort of triumphalist about the nearing end of racism, speculating that "anti-atheism may well go the way of racism."
2. A manifesto by Paul Kurtz (founder of CSH) calls for "a new global ethics that transcends the ancient religious, ethnic, national, and racial differences of the past."  It asks us to "rise above parochial national and multicultural perspectives."  It also recommends "concrete practical reforms to achieve these aims", none of which include explicitly addressing race.  I am not sure how Kurtz intends to transcend issues of race without addressing them explicitly.

Colorblindness rejectors:
1. A short article credits the "growth of justice" to "the boldness of minorities that have demanded rights instead of merely bowing to commandments."  That sounds a bit like a rejection, since the author thinks speaking up, rather than ignoring differences, solves problems.
2. An article announces the founding and endorsement of African Americans for Humanism.  I consider creating specialized groups to be a rejection of colorblindness.

1. An article laments the "regressive" view that we should censor speech " deemed offensive and hurtful to presumptively vulnerable or historically oppressed groups".


Because AtheismPlus is a forum, rather than a series of articles, I can't use exactly the same procedure. Instead, I searched for "racial", and got 76 posts. I randomly picked a few posts, and looked at the pages containing them.  I tried to enumerate the number of unique users who seemed to be espousing colorblindness, vs those who were not.  As usual, I ignored a few threads which came up in the search but I felt were irrelevant.

1. Does "We are all Africans" Co-opt Black Identity?: For the sake of this experiment, I won't take a position on that question.  But some people criticized the statement for colorblindness.  I counted 4 who explicitly rejected colorblindness, and 11 who didn't explicitly mention it.
2. How to be more than a "White People's Movement": One commenter endorsed colorblindness, saying "As long [AtheismPlus] is inclusive and openly so, then there is no problem," and, "instead of thinking of it as a white people's club, just think of it as a people's club."  11 unique commenters made a point to disagree with this.  Only a couple commenters I wasn't sure about.

Conclusions (TL;DR)

Because of my prior negative view of Humanist organizations, I thought that they would take the naive, colorblind stance towards racism.  I was mostly wrong.  The Humanist takes a very progressive stance.  CSH has a somewhat regressive stance (and coming from the founder too), but perhaps this is a characteristic of CSH rather than humanism in general.  AtheismPlus got highest marks, as expected.

Perhaps- perhaps I was wrong about humanism.  When I reflect back on why I have such a negative view of humanism, one of the things I recall was reading an article by Paul Kurtz which I deeply disagreed with.  Maybe I just had a problem with Paul Kurtz and CSH!  What an epiphany.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Prioritizing goals without holding them as supreme

 Natalie Reed is a verbose blogger who can pack a lot of ideas in a single post.  I wanted to pull out and highlight one particular idea.
Any kind of Atheist Movement would by necessity be primarily composed of people who’ve chosen to prioritize atheism and secularism as a particularly important part of their lives and activism. At first how I assumed this went was people generally thinking “secularism is one of many important issues presently going on, and one that I happen to feel especially passionate about, so that’s where I’m going to be put a significant chunk of my energy and attention”. Cool. And I’m sure lots of atheists do have that as their approach. I’m fine with that, and think it’s important, because we do need a contingent of activists putting significant energy into maintaining political secularism and helping prevent the emergence of theocracy.  But lately it seems to me that a much more significant percentage than I’d assumed are people thinking “atheism is the most important issue, so that’s the one I’m going to focus on”.

Or, worse, when considered in light of the demographics that comprise the movement, “atheism is the only real civil rights issue, because I’m not personally affected by, and haven’t personally seen, any others, so they must either not exist or not really matter. DAWKINS RULES!”
Atheists should be acting like atheism is simply the issue they personally prioritize.  Instead, according to Natalie, they are acting as if atheism is the objectively most important issue, or flat out the only issue.  Let's call this problematic attitude "movement supremacy", because it's basically holding your own movement's goals as the supreme ones worth fighting for.

It's very difficult to tell if movement supremacy in the atheist movement, since all we have are our personal impressions of our tiny slices of experience.  But certainly it's an attitude that Natalie perceived, and it's one that I have perceived as well, mostly in non-student orgs.  Whether this reflects reality or illusion is another question.

Movement supremacy is not confined to the atheist movement, and it is instructive to consider other examples.  The first one that comes to mind is radical feminism.  And I'm not referring to feminists who are radical, I'm referring to a specific feminist movement which calls itself "radical feminism".  Radical feminists have acquired a reputation for subsuming all social justice issues into feminism.  Everything comes down to gender-based oppression.  And if someone claims that there is a problem that does not fit into this picture, that problem must not really exist.

This is not just an impression based on interpretations of rad-fem rhetoric, it's something you can see in action:  Rad-fems are very transphobic because trans people don't fit into their ideas about gender-based oppression.  A lot of binary trans people like being able to identify as their true gender, which conflicts with the idea that gender is nothing but a tool of oppression.  (Rad-fems have a poor reputation for dealing with asexuality as well.)

You can see why movement supremacy can be more than just an annoyance.  Movement supremacists can actively harm other causes.

Feminism is prone to movement supremacy because gender is something that pervades nearly all aspects of society, and thus it is plausible that it is The Most Important Cause.  Atheism, liberalism, libertarianism, and conservatism are also prone to movement supremacy because religion and politics are also very pervasive aspects of society.  It is harder to believe that heteronormativity or cissexism are the sources of all oppression, so movement supremacy is probably less common among LGBT activists.  On the other hand, a few vocal LGBT people complain that cis hetero asexuals don't fit into what they see as the real causes of oppression of sexual minorities.  So that's another sort of movement supremacy.

So, back to atheism.  The atheist movement is known for having many problems.  Women are underrepresented, and there seems to be an MRA-like faction.  Atheists of color are underrepresented as well, and it doesn't really get talked about enough.  How much of this is due to movement supremacy, rather than other sorts of awfulness?  We may never know (and anyways, the question isn't well-defined).

Having participated in at least four different movements, the alternative to movement supremacy is rather obvious to me.  My movement's goals are simply those which I prioritize.  Maybe because they have personal importance to me.  Or maybe because I have the experience or skills to be especially good at it.  It is not because my movement is the most important movement in existence, and not because everyone is morally obligated to join my movement.  If you don't believe in gods but aren't interested in atheist activism, that's your prerogative.  If you think your lack of personal experience with LGBT issues would make you a poor LGBT activist, you may be right.  Not everyone needs to be me.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Current lab work: Helium shortage

Did you know: there is a national helium shortage?

Little kids are gonna grow up without helium balloons in their childhood!  Football games will have to discontinue their ancient traditions of releasing thousands of helium balloons into the air at half time!  Perhaps more importantly, doctors will be unable to maintain the magnets of their MRI machines.  And most importantly for me, it will impact my research.

One of the things I do in my lab is cool superconducting samples with liquid helium.  A company delivers our helium in 100 liter dewars.  I roll this dewar to the elevator, press an elevator button, then run down the stairs to catch up with it.  This is a safety precaution, so that if there is a leak, it doesn't displace all the oxygen in the elevator and suffocate me.

Earlier, I had gone for a month and a half without helium.  During the time I meant to be experimenting, I read about the national helium shortage instead.

Helium is not a renewable resource.  Because helium is a very light molecule, at thermal equilibrium it moves faster than other air molecules.  Helium doesn't stay in the atmosphere very long because eventually the molecules go fast enough to simply escape the earth.  Instead we get our helium from natural gas deposits.

Back in 1960, the US government thought helium would be useful for military dirigibles or the space race or something, and they put lots of helium underground in the National Helium Reserve (NHR).  Later, the NHR would accumulate debt.  In response to the debt, congress passed the Helium Privatization Act in 1996.

So the government wanted to privatize helium, and to encourage this, they're selling off all the helium in the NHR.  At really low prices (enough to pay off the debt).  At a slow, fixed rate (I think this is a physical limitation of the extraction process?).  For an extended period of time (until 2018-2020).  Private helium companies can't compete with this, because they have to build all the infrastructure from scratch, while the NHR already has it.  And because helium is so cheap, a lot of users don't bother recycling it.

Something about this just seems dumb on Congress' part.  If they had kept helium nationalized and sold it at reasonable prices, I'm sure the debt would have been paid off by now.  If they wanted to encourage private helium companies, they shouldn't have mandated the fire sale.  They should have sold off ownership of the reserve like a publicly traded company or something like that.