Archives March 2011

Because There Aren’t Enough Songs About Dogs

Outside of Country music, at least. And those dogs tend not to be space travelers.

Just Because We Can’t Define It Doesn’t Mean It’s Not Science

You may want to save this post at Uncommon Descent, in case it disappears down the memory hole.

If you’ve been following Intelligent Design, you’ve probably run across William Dembski’s notion of Complex Specified Information, or CSI. Basically, the argument is that if a system has CSI above a certain level, then it was intentionally designed (just as “Wherefore art thou Romeo” exhibits design, while “Mp YuMsAAVVa UU MbMZlPVJryn Viw MfHyNA FHh” doesn’t). Living beings (or their genomes) have sufficiently-high CSI, and were therefore designed. QED.

So the question from day one has been, “so how exactly does one calculate CSI and get an actual number?” From what I’ve seen, the standard answer is “go read Dembski’s book”. None of my local libraries have Dembski’s book, but from the reviews I’ve read, I gather that for all his talk about CSI, he never gets around to sitting down and describing how to calculate it.

And now for some reason, the people at Chez Dembski have invited someone going by the name of MathGrrl (whom I guess to be a frequent commenter; I stopped reading the comments there a long time ago, so I don’t know) to write a guest post. And not only that, but one in which she basically asks, “so anyway, how does one calculate CSI?”.

The first fifty comments consist mostly of “Yeah, well, evolution doesn’t explain it!” and handwaving, followed by a bunch of comments from MathGrrl to individual commmenters, all “Yes, but that doesn’t help me calculate CSI.”

Which is odd: you’d think that the first dozen or so comments would be links to FAQs, and maybe some Mathematica code to do the calculation. But no. And it’s not because they’re too busy to answer MathGrrl’s question, since a lot of them go on at length about how she’s not asking the right questions, or not using CSI correctly, or maybe some other measure of complexity would be better suited. But I’m not seeing a whole lot of anything that looks like math.

The thread looks, to me, like a gaggle of astrologers arguing about the proper way to calculate a horoscope.

So once again, getting information out of creationists is like pulling teeth.

Update, Mar. 25, 2011: The 200-comment mark has been reached, and no definition in sight. In fact, comment #201, by PaV, says:

Dear MathGrrl:

To provide a “rigorous definition” of CSI in the case of any of those programs would require analyzing the programs in depth so as to develop a “chance hypothesis”. This would require hours and hours of study, thought, and analysis.

You come here and just simply “ask” that someone do this. Why? You do it.

In other words, “Math is hard! Develop our theory for us!”

(Update, Aug. 4: Fixed typo.)

Cheap Signaling

I talked about appropriating the biological concept of costly signaling for general skepticism, and it occurred to me to wonder whether there’s such a thing as cheap signaling.

Costly signaling is when the investment required to transmit a message, like “trust me” or “have sex with me” is so high that only the worthy applicant (a trustworthy source, or a good mate) can send it.

Indiana driver's license, 1940
Cheap signaling, in contrast, would then be when the cost of transmitting a message is low enough that unworthy senders can afford it. So for instance, if your state’s driver’s licenses have a simple design, then anyone with a printer and a laminator can fake one, which allows sixteen-year-olds get into bars.

Or, more generally, are there any cheap tricks that someone can use to sell you something you don’t want?

Hm. Put that way, I think it’s obvious that yes, . Even aside from outright lying, there are subtler tricks like acting friendly, offering you free stuff to instill a sense of obligation, and the like. Basically, just look up “sales tricks” (which is all I did).

(And just in passing, I notice that there’s a bit of an industry in sermon stories. I’m guessing that that’s because a story told in the first person is more convincing than one in the third person.)

Justifying Evil

The thing I like about the various e-book reader apps for [insert mobile computing device here[1]] is that they allow me to read the first chapter of most recently-published books, without all the bother of having to brush the Cheeto dust off my shirt, putting on pants, and emerge from my mom’s basement into the burning light of day to go to the library.

And so, when Denyse O’Leary, William Dembski’s official in charge of dispelling all positive stereotypes about Canada, recommended Rabbi Moshe Averick’s book Nonsense of the Highest Order: The Confused and Illusory World of the Atheist, I downloaded and read the sample chapter. Read More

Costly Signaling for Lay Skeptics

This was originally posted at Secular Perspectives.

Let’s say you’re an average person, of average intelligence, average education, with an average job, and you’ve run across several news articles.

One says that an asteroid has just been detected that will hit the earth in 2015. Another says that taking vitamin B3 daily can improve your cholesterol levels. A third says that increasing defense spending will help balance the budget. Another says that evidence of extraterrestrial life has been found in an Antarctic meteorite. A fifth one says that the Gospel of Mark has been dated as having been written between 40 and 50 CE. And finally, a story that people who prayed to a statue of Krishna have been cured of cancer and blindness.

How do you, as a lay person with a full-time day job, determine which ones to believe, and which ones to disregard?

I don’t have a good answer, by the way. I’m hoping you can suggest something in the comments.

All such articles are trying to “sell” you an idea, in a broad, general sense. Sometimes the selling is literal, as when a company tries to convince you that you’re a pathetic malodorous loser who’ll never be accepted by the in-crowd or find true love unless you buy their product. Other times, it’s metaphorical: “I want you to know this, because…” well, that’s the question, isn’t it? “Because we’ll all benefit if people who will implement these ideas get elected.” “Because I’ll make a ton of money if you help elect people who’ll implement these ideas.” “Because I care about you and your health.” “Because this will help save your soul from eternal damnation.” “Because this idea, while bland, is true, and I think it’s better if we know the truth.”

It would be great if there were a single source to which one could turn to to get the truth, or if news articles came with a little checkmark, the way Twitter shows that “neilhimself” is the famous Neil Gaiman, while “NeilGaiman” is someone else. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. The problem is that true ideas and false ideas can look an awful lot like each other.

But it occurs to me that nature has come up with a solution to this problem. In sexual species, males often try to communicate that “you should mate with me; I’ll provide our offspring with plenty of food, and they’ll be resistant to parasites and predation.” In such cases, it’s often advantageous to lie: a male who convinces a female he’s in it for the long haul can impregnate her, then ditch her to impregnate someone else. Preferably while some other male sucker gets stuck caring for the liar’s offspring.

So what’s a female to do? How does she figure out who’s serious about helping to feed the kids, and who’s just trying to get inside her cloaca? One solution is known as costly signaling. “Signaling” refers to the “I’ve got great genes” message, above. The “costly” part means that the signal should be sent in a way that’s difficult or expensive (in time, effort, ability, etc.) to fake. The usual example is that of the peacock, who demonstrates his worth by the fact that he’s managed to survive despite having a huge, flashy tail that prevents him from flying, and hinders escape from predators. If he’s managed to overcome such a handicap, he must have superior genes indeed.

The idea of costly signaling is more general than that: it basically means that the signaler has to invest enough effort or resources into the communication to be taken seriously, that cheating isn’t worth it.

(As an aside, I can think of a few possible instances in human society: an engagement ring sends the message that “I’m willing to spend a pile of money on a small rock; so I’m in this for the long haul, not just for a quick fling”. Taking a prospective client to dinner or to a ball game says “We don’t do this for just anyone; but we’re willing to do what it takes to get your business.” And an Italian sports car and designer clothes say “I have so much money that I can afford to waste it on an expensive logo. Of course I’ll be able to feed our family and send our kids to college.”)

So getting back to my original point, it might be possible to identify costly signals to distinguish trustworth news sources from untrustworthy ones.

For instance, was the article published by a major news outlet, or by some local paper you’ve never heard of? In principle, the greater the reputation of the publication, the more editors and fact-checkers it has had to pass through to get published. Unfortunately, given the state of American journalism, this may not be as safe an assumption as one might hope.

A related criterion might be: do they have a fancy web site, or does it look like it was slapped together by someone’s kid in the 1990s? Unfortunately, this doesn’t work at all, since organizations like Americans for Prosperity, BP, and Answers in Genesis can easily afford good web designers.

Do the authors have letters after their name? An article on medicine written by an MD, or an article on science written by a Ph.D. is probably more trustworthy than one written by a beat reporter. The time and effort required to go through grad school or med school to obtain those letters should weed out the fakers.

Of course, the competence has to be in a relevant field: I tend to trust what Paul Krugman writes about the economy, because he has a degree and a Nobel prize in economics, but not if he writes about, say, medicine or geology.

And, of course, it’s very easy to just say that one has a Ph.D., or to buy a degree from a diploma mill, without putting in the effort to learn a subject well enough to speak authoritatively about it. To combat this, there accreditation institutes that investigate schools and give their stamp of approval to the ones that require students to learn something before graduating. Of course, now that a lot of people have learned to ask “is your degree from an accredited school?”, there are accreditation mills, which will accredit any diploma mill for a fee.

Has the author published any peer-reviewed research? Peer review is intended as a filter to make sure that research journals don’t publish any old garbage. This criterion is probably pretty good, though not flawless. For one thing, it usually requires effort on the reader’s part to seek out the author’s publication record. For another, various creationist organizations publish cargo-cult “peer-reviewed” journals where articles are reviewed by a panel of fellow creationist before publication.

Trusted endorsements: this might be called the poor man’s peer review. When Phil Plait, an astromer, writes a blog post that links to a post on astronomy, that’s a good sign. It means that the article on the other end of the link hasn’t raised Phil’s baloney-meter. That tends to make me trust the article more, because Phil would notice errors that I wouldn’t.

Does the site link to contrary views? In its heyday in the 1990s, one notable difference between the pro-evolution site and anti-evolution sites was that usually linked to the creationist sources they were discussing, and to creationist rebuttals of their articles. To me, this said “we’re going to make it easy for you to read the other side’s rebuttal, because we’re confident that the facts are on our side, and even if you read both sides, you’ll agree with us.”

Any others? Ideally, the sort of costly signal should be something hard for the writer to produce, and easy for the reader to verify, without requiring too much effort (because we want to dismiss bogus claims quickly) and without requiring special knowledge. And if the criterion fits on a bumper sticker, so much the better.

Me? On the Radio?

Yeah. The UMD Society of Inquiry has a radio show on WMUC (5 watts, broadcasting to the greater South Campus Commons Area. But it’s not owned by ClearChannel, which counts for something). One of the guys who was supposed to do the show today had to bail, so I got pulled in as an emergency backup replacement.

On the off chance that you’re interested, the show can be downloaded here (and the last 30 seconds here) until next Monday.

Maryland Gay Marriage Bill Fails

Well, fuckbunnies. The bill to allow gay marriage in Maryland passed the state Senate, got out of committee in the House, avoided getting stuck with several amendments (that would have sent it back to the Senate), and finally got to floor debate in the House, only to be sent back to committee.

The proponents of the bill figured they didn’t have enough votes to pass it. And AIUI sending the bill back to committee rather than allowing it to be voted on meant not forcing delegates to reveal how they would have voted. I’m just speculating here, but for all I know there might also be some procedural reason, like if a bill fails, it can’t be reintroduced for another two years; not having an actual vote might mean that it can be reintroduced sooner than that.

This is disappointing, but life goes on. I have no doubt that gay marriage will eventually become as normal as interracial marriage.

In the meantime, go home, knock back a couple of rum and cokes, and fantasize about the patriarchs at NOM gagging on a bag of cocks. You know that a lot of them will be doing the same.

Hachèlème bouguille

Way back when, when I was converting my tape collection to MP3, I ran across a song by legendary Genevan blues-rockers (don’t laugh) Le Beau lac de Bâle that I couldn’t recognize. It didn’t seem to correspond to any songs in the album track listings I could find. I tried googling the lyrics, but couldn’t find anything (yes, Virginia, there are things even Google can’t find).

Eventually, I stumbled upon this 45 RPM single, and learned that the mystery song was called “Hachèlème bouguille”.

You can listen to it here.

So as a favor to the next person to run into the same problem, here are the lyrics, in a form that Google can track down:

Vous vivez à sept dans un trois-pièces aux Palettes
J’attrape la migraine en y venant une fois par semaine

Ton frère Jean-Paul écoute toute la nuit Sex Pistols
Et ta soeur Yvette écoute du Wagner aux toilettes

Quitte cette maison de fous
Tu ferais mieux de venir avec nous
On est sympa comme tout
On t’offrira tout plein de Sugus et de cachous

Ton père est pervers, il ne joue qu’au strip poker
Il picole en caleçon devant la télévision

Ta mère tous les matins chante la messe en latin
Oui mais tous les soirs elle chante du rock dans sa baignoire

Quitte cette maison de fous…

Le petit Victor fait du ski dans l’corridor
Et la petite Aline, elle est en froc dans la cuisine

Et le grand Raoul qu’est dev’nu maboul à Kaboul
(Choubidoubi choubidoua)
Sur le balcon, il a une drôle de plantation
(Choubidoubi choubidoua)

Quitte cette maison de fous… (bis)

Quitte cette maison de fous
Et on t’offrira tout plein
Tout plein
Tout plein
De quoi?
De Sugus
De Sugus
De Sugus
Et de cachous

Okay, I should probably have posted this in French, shouldn’t I?