RCimT: some resources for #atheists attempting to debate with #creationists

Not up to doing a full RCimT today either. So I’ll pick out some tabs that I had in the Religion category that are good resources for people debating on the internet to rebut specific lines of argumentation.

“Evolution is just a theory!” — Learn what a scientific theory is: a good general explanation of the difference
“If God exists, you stand to lose everything; if he doesn’t, I stand to lose nothing” (aka Pascal’s Wager) — Why it’s not a “safe bet” to believe in God: a dissection of this argument and why it fails utterly (hint: “which God?”)
“Surely if so many people believe in God, they can’t be wrong!” — Why do we believe in God?: BBC on Robert Winston’s book The Story of God
“Why are the laws of physics as they are, and not some other way?” — Turtles much of the way down: an excellent explanation on why the question may not even matter, and how we should be unafraid to say “we don’t know” when we don’t, actually, know.
“The Bible condemns abortion!” — What the Bible says about abortion: a list of every salient proclamation about the personhood of fetuses in the Bible, not that the Bible is in any way an authority.
“America is a Christian nation!” — Americans: not as religious as they think they are (though I’d be tempted just to say “so? Popularity doesn’t make something right.”)

And while we’re handing out resources for debate, if you’re ever in over your head on a particular topic, you can always look to the intertubes for help. It is often the case in debate — the Dunning-Kruger Effect has a side-effect of causing people who don’t know what they’re talking about to believe they know for sure, and people who know a little about what they’re talking about to undervalue their opinions because they realize they’re not authorities in the matter. However, whatever line of argumentation stumps you on the spot, you can be relatively assured that someone has heard it and put forth a convincing argument against it at Talk Origins, complete with sources in most cases. Additionally, you’d be well advised to brush up on Logical Fallacies for a list of places that humans often go wrong in the completely human-created endeavour of logic.

The backlog of tabs is a bit onerous at the moment. Perhaps I’ll start merely tweeting links instead of saving them up forever to build some larger narrative, then never managing. That might be a better way of doing things. Also, I’m going to attempt to include appropriate Twitter hashtags in the titles — hope you don’t mind seeing extraneous #’s everywhere.

RCimT: Playing scientific catch-up

Day 3 of my attempt at clearing out old links from my queue of stuff to blog about. Sadly, this one I can’t fit into a coherent narrative, except to say that science rocks.

ClimateCrocks posted a trailer for the movie Carbon Nation, touted as a “climate change movie for people who don’t believe in climate change”. It’s like the movie form of this comic. Frankly, whether you think climate is changing or not, people MUST see that the progress we can make by weaning ourselves off this addiction to hydrocarbons far outweighs any potential economic risks, even if you don’t believe there’s any threat.

There’s some interesting early results from a study regarding public archiving of scientific data — it by all appearances increases scientific contribution by more than a third. Open access to information and data removes one of the larger barriers to scientific contribution, as I have long suspected in other areas of human endeavour.

On a related note, unpublished scientific data may hide the “decline effect”, a noted scientific phenomenon where initial publications show greater effect than subsequent trials. Also unsurprising — if the data “picked” for the first few trials was picked from a superset of data that doesn’t show as great an effect, or if the data in subsequent trials was intentionally skewed against the initial results in an attempt to disprove them, showing all the data would certainly discover both scenarios.

This water flea has more genes than humans — 31,000 genes to 23,000. It is interesting to me that the number of genes it takes to make so complex a creature as a human being is in fact lower than the number of genes to create so tiny a creature as a water flea, but it rings true with the idea that everything in this universe operates like fractals – simplicity can give rise to great complexity, in some cases, accidentally and without inherent design.

Scientists have made a great breakthrough with regard to influenza vaccines — they have discovered a way to vaccinate against a protein common to them all. This could eventually lead to a single vaccine to eradicate influenza in much the same way as we have eradicated polio and smallpox. That is, until some pseudoscientific celebrity gains popular traction against the vaccine and it resurges as a result.

Good news for depression patients — we may soon be able to put things in your brain to make you better. Sounds like sci-fi, sounds like “playing god”, but deep brain electrostimulation may actually significantly improve chronic depression sufferers’ quality of life.

Steven Novella takes on the odd but prevalent belief that scientists are withholding the cure for cancer. Fact is, cancer is a class of diseases or issues, not a single monolithic thing that can be cured. We can cure many of them, such as Hodgkins Lymphoma, but not all of them. Interestingly, we may soon be able to tell which cancers will spread and which will never metastasize at all.

Apparently humankind’s proposed emergence as a modern-LOOKING people first, then a modern-ACTING people second, is less than accurate. We’ve discovered some evidence that the earliest peoples developed both language and ritual, two of the main intellectual hallmarks of our species.

Toxicologists and experts states apart have confirmed that despite the government’s assurances, Gulf seafood is tainted with oil. And/or dispersants, which is just as bad. Take care where your seafood comes from, folks. Though you really should take care as it stands, to eat seafood from sources that are sustainable.

Scientists have for the first time observed the formation of a planet in a protoplanetary ring of dust and debris. I love that this far into our knowledge of stellar and planetary evolution, we keep seeing “firsts” that scientists can collect data on and confirm existing theories.

Meanwhile, science continues apace in its other charge — knocking theories down. Or less so theories as common knowledge — Ben Goldacre covers the revelation that “sniffer” dogs may actually be responding to subtle cues from their masters rather than to any scent of drug or explosives they really learned to seek out. In this way, they may be something like the horse that could do arithmetic. In a funny bit of confluence, I learned just today of a new invention: the Wasp Hound. Wasps can evidently be trained to pick up scents better than any dogs.

That’s everything I had saved up in my Science post-fodder hopper. Perhaps I shall unload my Religion tabs tomorrow. Seems a fitting day for it.

There is no larger trend of women being forced to be baby-makers

I don’t really have much more to say about the whole forcing-women-back-into-the-alley tactics of the Republican party, supported by people whose ideation of their religion includes prohibitions of abortion that are wholly unmentioned in their foundational texts. But I’m certain they’re the only parties in this world that think women exist solely for the purposes of procreation. Other instances are totally isolated.

Take, for instance, the twisted logic by which Republicans defund Planned Parenthood, ostensibly to prevent abortions, inevitably leading to more underage pregnancy when these kids cannot access contraceptives.

Take, for instance, the baby factory recently broken up in Bangkok. The Vietnamese women who were coerced or kidnapped and pressganged into having children were freed, thankfully.

Take, for instance, the vile attacks on a female reporter whose public rape in Egypt was evidently not punishment enough for practicing a man’s job while in possession of a vagina.

Take, for instance, this chaplain saying a female soldier’s rape was God’s will for the sin of not coming to church often enough. (Never mind that she’s also doing “a man’s job”.)

Take, for instance, the misogyny suffered by a woman who happens to own a pair of breasts, as though this should come as a great shock to a man of the intellectual caliber necessary to have produced the Death Wish films.

Take, for instance, the defunding of a Liverpool rape center when the numbers of people being helped are rising steadily and being carried over year after year.

Take, for instance, the demonstrable lies necessary to sustain the anti-sex lobby’s political agenda to reduce sex back to its (religiously) “rightful” role in society as a shameful act done only for the purposes of making babies.

Take, for instance, the Canadian judge’s decision to let a rapist walk because the victim “wore makeup” and “wanted to party”.

Take, for instance, Nebraska attempting to make legal the murder of abortion service providers, in a move that was recently stopped in South Dakota.

Take, for instance, the proposed Georgia law that all miscarriages should be investigated in case some of them turn out to be resultant from “back alley” abortion attempts.

These are, of course, all isolated incidents and should not be taken in aggregate to determine that any particular group of people — vagina-owners or otherwise — are under assault by society at large. Just, you know, make sure you have that baby if you happen to accidentally conceive. If you know what’s good for you. Even if you were raped, even if doctors say neither of you will survive, and even if you die from the attempt.

Our first tentative steps onto the shore of the ocean of space

There’s nothing that sparks my imagination with quite the ferocity that space does. And with good reason — in its vastness, we find out so much about ourselves and our origins. It is in space exploration — even if limited to launching more and better probes and building more and better telescopes — that we will find answers to the questions that philosophers have bandied about as purely intellectual exercises since we climbed down from the trees.

Over at BoingBoing, there’s a discussion about Titan’s chemical makeup and eventual fate entitled “A Tale of Two Planets”, where it is noted how similar Titan is to proposed models of Earth’s early history. The fact that complex organic molecules exist there indicates that life could very well already exist as well, or could even start up during the sun’s death throes, should the abiogenesis hypothesis prove true.

On a similar track, Universe Today does a plausibility check on whether sentient life could emerge on planets orbiting red giant stars within their Goldilocks zones, which is interesting considering how sci-fi likes to portray red-giant-based life — as old, wisened, enlightened civilizations given the long time frames they would have had to evolve. The major problem is the very short time frame that a red giant star would have to power a planet’s potential evolution from Titan-like, to Earth-like, so unless these civilizations moved to more distant planets in their solar systems as the sun started to grow, it seems rather unlikely. Red giants are stars in a very late phase of stellar evolution, and generally tend to grow as their fuel is spent and they start fusing heavier elements during their final stages. Knowing that life has taken 3.7 billion years to reach the stage it’s at now here on Earth, that gives us an idea of how quickly sentient life can arise, but the one data point we have doesn’t give us nearly enough information to know whether we’re quick studies or slow learners in that respect.

One thing is for sure, though — we humans are definitely making up for lost time. We recently managed to create and trap antihydrogen, which was a big enough deal. Now we’ve evidently discovered a way to directly detect black holes via the “twist” they give to light that barely escapes it. That means we might actually have a way of obtaining some small shred of information about a black hole outside of the inferential information we get from observing its surroundings. We could create “black hole detectors”, telescopes that are designed to look only for this twisted light and pinpoint where black holes are in our galaxy and beyond.

Another piece of technology with a lot of promise, which was up until recently only science fiction, is the solar sail. Japan’s leading the way in the creation and deployment of real-life solar sails, which turn out to have most of the properties hypothesized. With the ongoing miniaturization of technology, deep space probes will become more feasible, cheaper to produce and easier to use to obtain data about our universe. We will also be able to create probes designed to sit between us and the sun and give us an early warning system for potentially harmful solar flares.

Despite all this new information, amazing insight, and depth and breadth of acquired knowledge, there’s still room in humanity for ridiculous and patently unevidenced “just-so” stories, like that Betelgeuse will go supernova in 2012. Maybe it will, maybe it won’t. If it does, we won’t see the results for another 600 years, though, because it’s 600 light-years away. And since it’s so far away, it certainly won’t destroy the Earth like the crazies seem to think. Nor will the mysterious tenth planet Nibiru crash into us, since there’s no such fucking thing. And besides, Pluto was correctly demoted, so that would make it the 9th planet, jerkwads. Never mind that there’s nothing at all special about the year 2012 anyway, except to a certain class of egocentrics that will probably plague mankind til the end of time.

Speaking of which, when will time end, anyway?

Create a number of random-content, random-size files in Bash

Not likely to get a proper post out tonight, unfortunately. So here’s a little snippet of Bash code I’m working on, for the implementation of a new clustered file system for work. For stress-testing, I’m going to need to create a bunch of little files of random contents and sizes, and see whether the clustering works properly. Here’s how I’m going to do it.

#generate random files

if [ ! $# -gt 0 ]; then
echo "usage: $0 <numfiles> [<blocksize> <maxblocks>]"
echo " <numfiles>: number of files to create,"
echo " <blocksize>: size of file blocks (default 1024 bytes)"
echo " <maxblocks>: maximum number of blocks per file (default 100)"
echo ""
echo "Parameters after the third provided number are ignored."
echo ""

if test "$2" == ""; then
echo Using blocksize $BLOCKSIZE

if test "$3" == ""; then
echo Using max blocks $MAXBLOCKS

for I in $(seq 1 $NUMFILES)
echo $((($RANDOM % $MAXBLOCKS) +1))
dd if=/dev/urandom of=testfile.$I.$RANDOM.bin bs=$BLOCKSIZE count=0 seek=$((($RANDOM % $MAXBLOCKS) + 1))

Remember, when you create a file using /dev/urandom, don’t ever use the cat command to read its contents in a shell, because you’re liable to mangle your shell’s text output and all text thereafter might get mangled too, until you close that terminal and reopen. If you’re running a headless server, you might even have to reboot it, which probably isn’t a good idea.

Sex, Science and Social Policy

Stephanie Zvan’s first Research Blogging post is on the cherry-picking tactics used by people trying to shape social policy regarding the sex industry — tactics you might be familiar with, given their prevalence in arguments against the realities of evolution and climate change. The post is a whopper. (And I mean that in terms of size and impact, not as a euphemism for it being a lie.)

When it comes to the politicization of scientific topics and science denialism, everyone knows about the forces opposing our understanding evolution and global warming. Would it surprise you to see similar tactics on display when the subject is sex?

In the well-known cases, political actors band together with researchers who continually produce results favoring the politicos pet topics. It’s not that hard to produce the desired results, even when the mass of evidence doesn’t support your side. It simply requires that these researchers restrict themselves to dealing with tiny slivers of the available information on their topic. Global warming deniers look at temperatures in only one location or across one short period of time. Evolution deniers focus on unanswered questions and stay far away from the genetic evidence.

The results are what you would expect. They see what they want to see. They support what they want to support.

Keep reading.

Old Agriculture is Dying

I’m typing this on my recently new Aspire One netbook. It’s booted to Ubuntu 10.10 because I dislike the way Windows operates. Between my husband and I we have 4 computers, we used to have 5. I’m also watching him play Little Big Planet 2 on our PS3 and 40″ Sony LCD which I helped choose. Video games are one of our favourite past times. My iPhone 3Gs buzzes in my pocket and it’s a text from a friend in MN. It buzzes again and it’s a twitter mention from another friend in FL. The wonderful little gadget is practically surgically attached to me. I’m young enough that by the time I started doing projects in elementary school that required any research at all computers were necessary. Tech is my life, I am a geek and I love this modern world I live in.

There’s a point to this, it’s meant as a contrast. I also work at a local vineyard/winery which is really just a fancy way to say I do farm labour for a living; I farm grapes. I’m also damn good at what I do. I work hard, I use complicated heavy machinery and I help to produce good crops.

I recently read this 56 page 2010 report on the state of agriculture in Atlantic Canada. Twice. It’s sad, and scary, and heartbreaking for all the reasons it ought to be as local farms are disappearing. It’s also frustrating however in a unique way for people like me. I’m a 25 year old woman who enjoys video games and travel, who is interested in the world’s politics and cultures, who eats sushi and cares about scientific progress. I also care about farming.

I hate to say it but this report frames it all wrong. It wants consumers to care about farming, and about the state in which farmers are currently living. It wants people to know where their food comes from and to buy local. It wants young people like me to give a damn. Why then did it feel like they were sneering at me the whole time? Read it if you can as I get the feeling that it’s not just Atlantic Canada who is having problems in the agricultural sector, but I’m going to try to go through it here and address a few concerns I have. Grab a seat and a drink. (Do you know where it came from?) [Read more...]

Potholer54 rips apart Christopher Monckton, then reveals his own identity!

Turns out he’s retired journalist Peter Hadfield. No shit! Damn, I love this man. Having heard him on so many CBC News broadcasts as a kid, I still had no idea that’s why Potholer54′s tone was so familiar and soothing. And he’s not just tearing apart creationists any more — oh no, he’s on to bigger and more immediate dangers to humankind’s survival, like “Lord” Christopher Monckton and his climate apologetics.

If this isn’t enough to show Monckton as a hack-for-hire, Peter Sinclair of Climate Denial Crock of the Week has some more for your consideration.