Archives July 2010

Massachusetts Passes Electoral Reform; Right Wing Freaks Out

Yesterday, the Massachusetts state legislature passed a law changing the way its electoral votes will be allotted. This is part of a movement to switch to direct election of US presidents by popular vote.

The idea is that each state’s electors will vote for whichever candidate wins the popular vote. But this law will not take effect until enough other states have passed similar laws. So far, five states have done so: Hawaii, New Jersey, Illinois, Maryland, and Washington.

Makes sense, right? One person, one vote is how we elect senators and representatives, school board members, and so forth, and it seems to work fairly well.

But, of course, there may be arguments against it. The Boston Globe quotes an opponent of the measure as saying,

“The thing about this that bothers me the most is it’s so sneaky. This is the way that liberals do things a lot of times, very sneaky,” he said. “This is sort of an end run around the Constitution.”

Cogent, well thought out, and well articulated. All except the part between quotation marks.

Okay, maybe the bit about “end run around the Constitution” carries some weight. The most obvious way to change the way presidents are elected would be to amend the constitution. But that would require two thirds of the states to ratify it, and this project seeks to achieve substantively the same effect without as much trouble, one state at a time.

A glance at the comments at Free Republic elaborates on why this law is a bad idea. Apparently the main argument is that it happened in Massachusetts and other states that went for Obama in the last election, and since liberals sank the Titanic, killed Davy Crockett at the Alamo, and tempted Eve in the garden of Eden, everything they do is automatically tainted with evil.

Another argument is that Massachusetts is foolish for passing this law, since it means that if a majority of Massachusettsans vote one way, but a majority of the rest of the country votes another, then Massachusetts’s electors will vote differently from the people in their state.

Um, yeah. That’s pretty much the idea. But apparently some people have a hard time wrapping their head around this. Some of the people making this argument show signs of not having read enough of the article to realize that this law will only kick in if states with a total of 270 electoral votes all do the same thing. These people are also often under the impression that Sarah Palin can get a majority of votes in 2012.

Others appear to be under the impression that if this passes, only the populous states will matter, and that smaller states will be taken completely out of play. I’m guessing that this arises from some idea that since California and New York reliably vote Democratic, that everyone in those states votes the same way. In fact, a look at a county-by-county map of the 2008 election shows what I thought everyone already knew: that every state has both Democratic and Republican voters.

In fact, this plan would make states like California and yes, even Massachusetts worth campaigning in for Republicans. Maryland is solidly Democratic, but that’s mainly because of the Baltimore-Washington corridor. Outside of that area, people are a lot more conservative. (Of course, by the same token, Democrats would want to campaign in Austin and Little Rock.)

Under the present system, my vote is taken for granted by both major parties: the Republicans don’t want to tailor their platform to win my vote because they know they won’t get Maryland. And the Democrats can afford to take Maryland for granted because it’s not like it’s going to suddenly turn red. The end result is that elections are settled by a handful of swing states.

If the president were elected by popular vote, then a hundred votes in downtown Baltimore would be just as valuable as a hundred votes in rural Kansas, so all fifty states would be in play. (Actually, I’ve heard enough horror stories from friends in Missouri and other battleground states that I might come to regret what I just wrote. I think the saying “be careful what you wish for” applies here.)

One nightmare scenario I saw mentioned was that one-person-one-vote would lead to “mob rule”. Meaning, presumably, that if a majority of people wanted a certain person to be president, that’s who would be chosen. Of course, these are the same people who defended California’s decision to strip millions of people of their right to marry the one they love by calling it “the will of the people”.

I suppose that popular elections could skew toward city residents. On one hand, this is perfectly fair, given that there are more people living in urban than in rural areas. But there might be concern that only cities would be worth campaigning in, and both parties would ignore rural areas.

Of course, as I mentioned before, a vote in the city would still be worth as much as a vote in the country, and the fact that there might be as many people in a Manhattan block as in a hundred square miles in Nebraska doesn’t change that. This is reflected in the fact that advertising space and time (and other dimensions that advertisers may have discovered) are more expensive in more densely-populated areas. If the market is efficient, then reaching a hundred Manhattanites costs as much as reaching a hundred Kansans. Then again, my gut feeling (I don’t have any numbers to back this up) is that advertising is cheaper per person in Manhattan than in rural Kansas. Population density does come with economies; for instance, you don’t need a car to stuff leaflets under a hundred doors in Manhattan. Of course, if this makes cities more attractive to political parties, then advertisers will notice, and the market can sort things out.

But all in all, I get the impression that a lot of conservatives have a hard time distinguishing “what’s good for me” from “what’s good for the country”. That, and a fetishistic attachment to having things be the way they were in the olden days, back when travel and communications were difficult, and women and brown people couldn’t vote.

Godwin con Variazione

We’re all familiar with Godwin’s Law, that “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1.”

Allow me to propose a few variations:

As a discussion goes on, the probability of a theist bringing up Pascal’s wager approaches 1.


As a discussion on gay rights goes on, the arguments against gay marriage will be pared down to “buttsecks is nasty”.

I think it’s safe to say that the corollary to Godwin’s Law applies in both of these cases as well: if you believe in God because you’re afraid of being punished for not believing, or if you think that your distaste overrides people’s civil rights, then you’ve lost the argument.

Sheep and Cats

One expression I’ve heard a lot lately (most recently at TAM 8) is “herding cats”. As in, organizing skeptics/atheists is like herding cats. The implication in most cases was that this makes us nearly impossible to organize into groups.

I think this conclusion is unwarranted. The reason it’s easy to herd sheep (or cattle, or other herd animals) is that they tend to stick together and do things as a group. So all you need to do is get a leader or bellwether to go where you want, and all the others will follow, because everyone else is doing it. In other words, proverbial sheep feel strong peer pressure, while proverbial cats feel very little.

But it doesn’t follow from this that cats can’t be directed where you want them to go. Rather, you need a different approach. It’s not that proverbial cats are contrarians who refuse to do what every other cat is doing; rather, it’s that they don’t give a damn what the other cats are doing, and will go where they like, for their own reasons.

If you’ve ever had a cat, you know that all that’s necessary to summon it is to make the sound of a can opener, or shake the can of treats, or open the laundry dryer. In other words, you have to give the cat a reason to come, other than “I said so”. This approach scales well: shaking the can of treats can summon five cats as easily as one. Each one makes an individual decision to go where the treats are, regardless of what the other four are doing.

And that’s presumably what happened at TAM: 1300 people, who would respond to “Come on! Everyone else is going!” with a shrug and a “So what?”, looked at the program and individually made a decision that that’s where they wanted to be. The same thing happens at any number of smaller associations.

In other words, you can’t herd cats by pushing them. But you can gather them in groups by inviting them, by giving each one a reason to show up.

And by the way, I see a parallel between this and the following: why is it that “Everybody knows that this country was founded on Christian principles, so that’s what we should teach in schools” is an argumentum ad populum fallacy, while “99% of biologists accept evolution, so that’s what we should teach in schools” isn’t?

In the first case, people’s ideas are not independent, but rather influenced — and perhaps determined — by those of the people around them. In general, ideas can spread not because they’re true, but because they’re popular. In the second case, for the most part, every biologist has been exposed to the evidence for evolution, and ideally has come to an independent conclusion. That is, the first conclusion is popular because it’s popular. The second conclusion is popular because there are lots of ways to look at the evidence, and they all point to the same conclusion.

On the other hand, choreographing cats, now that’s a challenge.

Breaking: Kent Hovind in Solitary

From Kent Hovind’s outfit, Creation Science Ministry’s Facebook page comes word that Kent is now in solitary:

Creation Science Evangelism Pleas pray for Dr. Hovind. We were just informed that he is solitary confinement. We are not sure why he is there and how long he must stay. He is need of your prayers. Thank you!

No word on how prayer is supposed to help, or what he did this time, though I’m sure we’ll be seeing a selectively-edited account of the events at some point.

(And just to keep the schadenfreude from getting out of control, I should add that solitary confinement is not something I’d wish on anyone.)

Update, 17:17: According to this thread at the JREF forums, this isn’t the first time Hovind has (been said to have been) placed in solitary. And given creationists’ penchant for repeating ancient and out-of-date information, for all I know this latest instance may be referring to something that happened three years ago.

The Thing, and the Name of the Thing

Yesterday, during a routine medical examination, I found out that I have a dermatofibroma.

Don’t worry about me. My prognosis is very good. I should still have a few decades left. It means that at some point I got bitten by an insect, but a piece of stinger was probably left behind, and scar tissue formed around it.

But if you thought, if only for a moment, that something with a big scary name like “dermatofibroma” must be a big scary thing, well, that’s what I want to talk about.

I’ve mentioned elsewhere that as far as I can tell, the human mind uses the same machinery to deal abstract notions and patterns as it does with tangible objects like coins and bricks. That’s why we speak of taking responsibility, of giving life, of sharing our troubles, and so forth. (And I bet there’s research to back me up on this.)

A word is the handle we use to grab hold of an idea (see what I did there?), and sometimes we’re not very good at distinguishing between the word and the idea. I know that it’s a relief to go to the doctor with some collection of symptoms and find out that my condition has a name. Even if I don’t know anything about it, at least it’s a name. It’s something to hold on to. Likewise, I remember that back in the 80s, simply coming up with the name “AIDS” seemed to make the phenomenon more tractable than some unnamed disease.

I think a lot of deepities and other facile slogans work because people tend not to distinguish between a thing, and the word for that thing. Philosophers call this a use-mention error. C programmers know that it’s important to distinguish a variable, a pointer to that variable, a pointer to a pointer to the variable, and so forth1.

The solution, I’ve found, is to keep a mental model of whatever the discussion is about, kind of like drawing a picture to help you think about a math problem. For instance, if a news report says that “seasonally-adjusted unemployment claims were up 1% in December” and I wonder why the qualifier “seasonally-adjusted” was thrown in there, I can think of department stores hiring lots of people for a few months to take handle the Christmas rush.

Richard Feynman describes this process in Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman. In the chapter Would You Solve the Dirac Equation?, he writes:

I can’t understand anything in general unless I’m carrying along in my mind a specific example and watching it go. Some people think in the beginning that I’m kind of slow and I don’t understand the problem, because I ask a lot of these “dumb” questions: “Is a cathode plus or minus? Is an an-ion this way, or that way?”

But later, when the guy’s in the middle of a bunch of equations, he’ll say something and I’ll say, “Wait a minute! There’s an error! That can’t be right!”

The guy looks at his equations, and sure enough, after a while, he finds the mistake and wonders, “How the hell did this guy, who hardly understood at the beginning, find that mistake in the mess of all these equations?

He thinks I’m following the steps mathematically, but that’s not what I’m doing. I have the specific, physical example of what he’s trying to analyze, and I know from instinct and experience the properties of the thing. So when the equation says it should behave so-and-so, and I know that’s the wrong way around, I jump up and say, “Wait! There’s a mistake!”

This sort of thinking is a way to have the analytical and intuitive parts of your mind working in tandem. If you have an intuitive understanding of the system in question — be it computer code or preparing a Thanksgiving meal for twelve — you can apply that intuition toward understanding how everything is supposed to work. At the same time, your analytical mind can work out the numerical and logical parts. Normally, they should give the same result; if they don’t, then there’s probably an error either in your analysis or in your intuition.

The downside of this approach is that I tend to get very frustrated when I read theologians and philosophers — or at least the sorts of philosophers who give philosophy a bad reputation — because they tend to say things like “a lesser entity can never create something greater than itself” without saying how one can tell whether X is greater or lesser than Y, and without giving me anything to hang my intuition on. And if a discussion goes on for too long without some sort of anchor to reality, it becomes hard to get a reality check to correct any mistakes that may have crept in.

Since I started with jargon, I want to close with it as well. Every profession and field has its jargon, because it allows practitioners to refer precisely to specific concepts in that field. For instance, as a system administrator, I care whether an unresponsive machine is hung, wedged, angry, confused, or dead (or, in extreme cases, simply fucked). These all convey shades of meaning that the user who can’t log in and do her work doesn’t see or care about.

But there’s another, less noble purpose to jargon: showing off one’s erudition. This usage seems to be more prevalent in fields with more, let’s say bullshit. If you don’t have anything to say, or if what you’re saying is trivial, you can paper over that inconvenient fact with five-dollar words.

In particular, I remember an urban geography text I was assigned in college that had a paragraph that went on about “pendular motion” and “central business district”s and so on. I had to read it four or five times before it finally dawned on me that what it was saying was “people commute between suburbs and downtown”.

If you’re trying to, you know, communicate with your audience, then it behooves you to speak or write in such a way that they’ll understand. That is, you have a mental model of whatever it is you’re talking about; and at the end of your explanation, your audience should have the same model in their minds. Effective communication is a process of copying data structures from one mind to another in the least amount of time.

That geography text seemed like a textbook example (if you’ll pardon the expression) of an author who knew that what he was saying was trivial, and wanted to disguise this fact. I imagined at the time that he wanted geography to be scientific, and was jealous of people in hard sciences, like physicists and astronomers, who can set up experiments and get clear results. A more honest approach, it seems to me, would have been to acknowledge from the start that while making geography scientific is a laudable goal, it is inherently a messy field; there are often many variables involved, and it is difficult to tease out each one’s contribution to the final result. Add to this the fact that it’s difficult or impossible to conduct rigorously controlled experiments (you can’t just build a second Tulsa, but without the oil industry, to see how it differs from the original), and each bit of solid data becomes a hard-won nugget of knowledge.

So yes, say that people commute. Acknowledge that it may seem trivial, but that in a field full of uncertainty, it’s a well-established fact because of X and Y and Z. That’s the more honest approach.

1: One of my favorite error messages was in a C compiler that used 16 bits for both integers and pointers. Whenever my code tried to dereference an int or do suspicious arithmetic with a pointer, the compiler would complain of “integer-pointer pun”.

(Update, 11:43: Typo in the Big Scary Word.)

TAM 8 Miscellanea

Some notes I jotted down during talks at TAM 8:

My wife and I have an agreement: if Brian Williams ever becomes single, she gets to leave me and marry him. And if Rachel Maddow ever… um, changes her mind… then I get to marry her.
— Hal Bidlack(?)

I’m a vegetarian zombie. I only eat rotten fruit.
— Joe Nickell

At the Q&As after talks, most people would introduce themselves by giving their name and employer. But one person prefaced his question with:

Hello. My name would waste valuable time, and where I work is embarrassing.

Paul Provenza on George W. Bush:

He’s like a low-rent antichrist: two sixes and a five.

He thinks history will vindicate him. Who does he think he is, The Velvet Underground?

He also mentioned getting into a fight with a network censor who allowed a sketch that made fun of God, but not one about Jesus, because:

You can make fun of God, because he doesn’t exist. But you can’t make fun of Jesus, because he’s God’s son.

I’d brought Richard Dawkins’s The Greatest Show on Earth to read on the plane.* Colour plates 18-19 show a map of the Earth’s tectonic plates, including one labeled “Philippine Plate”.

So of course, given my precedent of having people sign books they didn’t write, I had to get Phil Plait to sign it:

* I didn’t get to read much of it on the way over, though: I didn’t get an assigned seat in advance for the flight from Detroit to Las Vegas, so instead of getting an aisle seat like I’d wanted, I got stuffed next to two Chinese young men in the very last row, by the window, the complete opposite of where I wanted to be.

But during the hustle and bustle of people competing to see how much crap can be shoved into an overhead bin without making the fuselage bulge, a Chinese man asked me if I’d be willing to trade seats with him so that he could sit with his sons. He even apologized that his was an aisle seat instead of the window that I so obviously wanted. I thanked him, and we traded.

When I got to my new seat, there was someone already in it, chatting up the good-looking lady in the middle seat. He went back to his seat in the row behind. A few moments later, a young woman from the row behind came up and swapped places with the lady the guy had been chatting up.

So my new seat neighbor turned out to be a geologist on her way to TAM. I suppose if we weren’t headed for the same convention on skepticism and rational thinking, it would’ve been easy to invoke mystical forces of fate or destiny. But of course that would’ve been silly.

At any rate, she was a better conversationalist than Dawkins’s book, so I didn’t get as much reading done as I’d thought.

Some More on Not Being a Dick

In an earlier post, I talked about Phil Plait’s “Don’t be a dick” talk at TAM 8.

This time, I want to look at the other side of that. To the question “does this mean we have to be boring lecturers all the time?”, I hope to answer “No”.

After all, we talk and write for all sorts of different reasons. Not all of us can, or want to be, teachers. Nor is that all that our readers want to read. FSM knows I enjoy reading Phil Plait and Ed Yong, but I’d go spare if those were the only voices on my side on the Internet. I also want there to be George Hrabs, Roy Zimmermans, Christopher Hitchenses, Hunters, and so on. And let’s face it: a good rant is fun to read.

For one thing, there’s a vast difference between being frank, direct, or blunt; and being a dick. Dawkins’s The God Delusion was frank and direct, but by no means would I say he was being a dick. Carl Sagan talked unapologetically about the size and age of the universe, and the relative insignificance of humanity in all that. But, again, not a dick.

Yes, you may say, a lot of people took offense at Dawkins, particularly for his “the God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction” comment. Of course, since what he wrote is true in all its particulars, one can only assume that the people who take offense haven’t read the Bible (teachable moment!), or know that Dawkins is right, but think it’s rude of him to point it out.

So by all means, say what you think.

Yes, people may be offended, but that’s because a) no one likes being told that they’re wrong, and b) a lot of people identify themselves by their religion or form of woo. If you say that astrology is stupid, what a lot of people will hear is that people who believe in astrology are stupid. This shouldn’t necessarily stop you, but of course it’s something to keep in mind.

One rule that I try to apply is: imagine that you’re in the future, after the woo that you’re railing against has gone the way of phlogiston and leeching, and that you’re rereading what you once wrote. Were you standing up for reality, or were you being an asshole? Was your reaction warranted, or did you go over the top? It might be instructive to revisit old arguments you’ve had some years ago — particularly religious or political ones — to see how they’ve stood the test of time, and what you now think of your former self. Now that the election’s over, do you still think it was right to call your opponent a retarded fascist, or whatever you said?

Another important thing to keep in mind is that most of the people who believe in woo simply don’t know any better. When Richard Dawkins said that “It is absolutely safe to say that if you meet somebody who claims not to believe in evolution, that person is ignorant, stupid, or insane (or wicked, but I’d rather not consider that)”, I’m pretty sure that in his mind, 90+% of creationists fell into the “ignorant” category, i.e., they’re not familiar with the mountains of evidence supporting evolution. At least, that’s been my experience. I suspect that the same is true of other forms of woo.

I’m always careful to distinguish between ignorance and stupidity. If I’m ignorant, that just means there’s something I don’t know. We’re all ignorant. I’m ignorant of economics, Japanese history, watercolor painting techniques, nuclear physics, and much more. There are a lot of interesting things I’d like to learn, but haven’t, because I’ve been busy learning even more interesting things.

With that in mind, remember that the next believer in woo that you talk to is almost certainly not someone cynically peddling bullshit to make a buck. They just don’t know any better. They may have been “cured” by homeopathy or crystal healing or seen their luck improve after installing feng shui carpeting, or their aunt swears by her echinacea suppositories, or whatever.

So at least at first, try to be a nice guy. Explain that they’re mistaken, or misinterpreted what they saw, or may not be remembering correctly, or were missing some crucial facts, or whatever.

At that point, one of several things might happen. The person might learn something from your comments, in which case you’ve passed by the chance for a good rant, but you’ve made the world a better place. Or they might disagree in an nontrivial and non-stupid way, which gives you the chance to have an interesting discussion. Or they might just go away, in which case they never would have seen your fantastic ass-searing rant anyway.

Or they might disregard everything you’ve said and refuse to understand your explanations or follow your links, calling your sources corporate shills or tools of Satan or whatever the fashionable epithet is these days. This constitutes moving toward willful ignorance. Or they might insult you, and call you a corporate shill of Satan or thimerosal douchenozzle. In other words, they might be a dick to you first.

At this point, you can tell yourself that “moral high ground” is a relative position, pour a gallon of cobra venom into the metaphor generator, and let loose. Just try to be less of a dick than the other person. There’s nothing wrong with defending yourself. But the longer you can be the soul of kindness and put off your righteous ire, the more opportunities you give the other person to shoot themselves in the foot, and the better you’ll look in the eyes of the other people following the thread (and you are playing to the audience, aren’t you?). Think of Tim Minchin’s Storm.

Alternately, you can jump to the defense of someone who’s being attacked unjustly. But again, be less of a dick than the person you’re responding to.

And then there are the times when you just need to vent at the stupidity and fuckedupedness of it all. In these cases, go after the people who really deserve it: the 2% or less who are either cynical manipulators, shameless profiteers, unobtainium-headed willful ignoramuses. Sylvia Browne; John Edward; the pope; Kent Hovind; Ray Comfort. They’ve been pushing their bullshit for years and made a pretty penny from it. They’re public figures. They’ve had every opportunity to learn better, but haven’t. Fuck ’em. They can take it.

But spare the children of hippies whose only crime was believing their parents when they said auras were real. There’s no shame in being fooled by a slick salesman, or by people who honestly believe a mistake, especially when those people are in a position of authority.

In short, I think there’s a lot of room for frank discourse — which I think is the usual euphemism for yelling at the other guy, or going on a tirade against frauds and charlatans — without being a dick. But yes, there are limits.

And as I said in the other post, don’t take my word for it. 80% of what I just said is probably wrong, and if you ever figure out which 80%, please let me know. And also, ask yourself whether what you’re about to say will do any good, or at least fail to do harm. Keep the end goal, whatever you envision it to be, in mind, and ask yourself whether you’re helping to move toward that goal.

A Brush With Celebrity

And not just any celebrity, but the highest:

Now, the next time someone tells me, “You’re not really an atheist. You secretly believe in God”, I’ll be able to say, “You’re right. And I have photographic evidence.”

The “Don’t Be A Dick” Heard Round the World

I feel chastised.

Undoubtedly the most controversial, most thought-provoking talk at TAM 8 was Phil Plait‘s “Don’t be a dick” talk, in which he decried what he sees as the rise of incivility in the skeptical blogosphere.

He wrote it down ahead of time so as not to ad lib and accidentally say something he didn’t mean, and since I have a recording of it, I should really quote him (slightly cleaned up) and not paraphrase, so as not to distort his meaning. I apologize in advance for the length of both the quotations and my response. To quote Blaise Pascal, I lack the time to make it shorter.

Read More

Another Creationist Myth Bites the Dust

We’ve all heard about the peppered moths of England: how soot from the Industrial Revolution turned English trees dark, and how as a result, peppered moths went from being mostly light-colored to being mostly dark.

One argument in creationsts’ bag of misinformation is that peppered moths don’t rest on tree trunks. Therefore, a textbook that showed said moths resting on tree trunks, in order to illustrate camouflage, was fraudulent. Therefore, the original study was fraudulent as well. Therefore, the entire theory of evolution comes tumbling down. (AKA creationist claim CB601.1.)

So anyway, here’s a picture of a visitor to my back yard back in May:

Moth on a tree trunk

Also, if these people are so upset at pedagogical inaccuracies in textbooks (or, as they might say, “lies”), why aren’t they up in arms over diagrams of the circulatory system that show blue blood? Or illustrations of the earth’s structure that show a gigantic wedge cut out of the planet, exposing the magma and core beneath?

Solar System
Planets are not pulled along on wires. This picture is lying to your children.

Update: fixed link.