News from down under: the TRUE skeptical women side with the guys!

Something funny happened in my and Stephanie’s trackbacks today. On Adelaide Atheists’ Meetup group, one of their male members wrote up a post asking women to endorse the Skeptic Women petition. The thread was titled, “I wish to promote the statement below issued by a group of women atheists/(true) skeptics and ask women to consider supporting their position.”

Let’s ignore the “no true skeptic” for a brief moment here, and the fact that the two women replying both strongly disagreed — and that the poster and two other guys argued with them, explaining to them why they’re wrong.

Stop laughing.
[Read more…]

Privilege, Dialogue, Harassment, and the Anti-Availability Heuristic

The Availability Heuristic is a well-known cognitive bias that primes people to more readily believe something when they can easily come up with examples. Of the cognitive biases that I’ve encountered among rationalists in the skeptical and atheist communities, this bias is the one I’m most capable of coming up with examples. I am therefore primed to believe more readily that atheists and skeptics are not immune to this bias — myself included.

But there’s a little-discussed inverse to this bias, where examples are generally filtered out of one’s daily existence because they don’t impact on you directly, and thus, you are less ready to believe someone claiming to experience them. I call this the anti-availability heuristic, though I’m sure there are better names for it.
[Read more…]

Evolving pseudo-creatures in computer simulation to run a short course

I love the idea of simulating evolution through computer models. The purpose of such an exercise is not so much to prove that evolution happened, or to prove that complexity can evolve from simple rulesets (though that’s certainly important), but to show that randomness and flexibility in solving tasks can create novel approaches that are more creative even than anything that intelligences like ourselves have worked out.

This particular example shows some behaviours from creatures built out of four types of blocks that emulate hopping, running and dragging themselves along a course, in a simulation where creatures that make it across a trial field quickest are rewarded by having more offspring in subsequent generations.


[Read more…]

Climate denial and the Industry of FUD

I’ve had this link to Climate Crocks on my tabs for forever, intending to blog about it as soon as possible. Today I was listening to Minnesota Atheists Talk Radio, on AM 950 KTNF, and Stephanie Zvan was interviewing Greg Laden about the climate denialists who’ve been trying to sue him into the ground for talking about the settled science that is whether or not the climate is changing for the worse, and whether or not humans are responsible. During one of the intro/outros Stephanie mentioned how similar the astroturf seems to the progenitor of the corporate-interest-sponsored organized disinformation campaign that was the Big Tobacco industry in the 90s, and I remembered this tab immediately.

This talk documents the origins of the US’s “Tea Party”, built by corporations to prey on the anti-liberal sentiments of the far-right segments of the already-far-right Republican party, calving off a chunk of them to be a populist movement against corporate regulation.


[Read more…]

Staver/Barbar: California law turns sexual abuse victims into gays and transgender

The specific laws they’re talking about, that are preventing kids from receiving counselling? The “change therapy” laws of course, which forbid religious “therapists” from trying to un-gay-ify kids. Their reasoning is that children who are predated upon by pedophiles have no recourse but to go with any gay feelings they have thereafter.

The premise that gays and transgender folks end up “that way” because of abuse as kids is patently wrong. And even if it was right, it is no justification for subjecting children to the mental and emotional abuse that reparative therapy represents.

I especially like that they’re trying to change the name “reparative therapy” to “change therapy”. It ain’t going to work. We already know that it doesn’t work [pdf], and we know what appropriate responses are to homosexuality.

It’s an incorrect and damaging response to a problem that’s entirely fictional. We don’t even have to get into the motivations these people have to attack homosexuals for their orientation — yes, the thin and threadbare rationale they have for their judging homosexuality as a problem is, of course, their religious beliefs. Otherwise they wouldn’t have called the ban “bullying and abuse” — devaluing both words, in the face of the very real abuse they’re being told they can no longer perpetrate.

Baby turtle eats raspberry

I’m posting this to prove a point, on top of the obvious squee and funny factors.

That point is, human beings can be complete monsters sometimes. Treating cute little turtles as sport, as though there was any contest between the turtle and an automobile. For shame. Look at that turtle, having trouble eating a raspberry! Look at its raspberry beard! They are adorable and nigh helpless and people still swerve to hit them.

Maybe humanity doesn’t deserve to survive this global warming nonsense we’ve brought on ourselves. Bah.

Asteroid 2011 AG5 missed the keyhole

Welp, there goes another apocalyptic prophecy — this one grounded in reality, mind, but it means we can scrub the 2040 doomsday off our calendar.

Earlier in 2012 only a few observations of AG5 could be made before it got too close to the Sun to see. Those allowed the crude estimate of where it would be in 2040, and that big fuzzy volume of space included the Earth.

However, new observations taken with the monster Gemini telescope in Hawaii allowed a far better orbit to be calculated. The path of the asteroid in 2040 was found, and now clearly does not include the Earth. It will be a clean miss, by about 900,000 kilometers (550,000 miles). This is more than twice the distance to the Moon, if that helps.

With this new calculation, we have little to worry about in 2040. Though, it seems, humanity does love a doomsday. I don’t expect this will truly dissuade people who want another hit of that doomsday high.

Hat tip to Phil Plait in his new digs at Slate.

IQ test exposes the myth that is ‘g’

The idea that there’s a single scalar value that measures anything like “general intelligence” (“g”), commonly known as “IQ” or “intelligence quotient”, has been pretty much blown out of the water by this comprehensive study by the University of Western Ontario’s Brain and Mind Institute.

Our attempt to answer [the question of how to quantify relative intelligence] dates back more than five years, when Roger [Highfield] encountered work that I had conducted with Adrian [Hampshire] at the Medical Research Council in Cambridge on a reliable way to carry out cognitive tests online so we could monitor rehabilitation after brain injury, the effect of smart drug trials and so on.

Roger wondered if we could use this test to carry out a mass intelligence test. Drawing on earlier data from brain scans, Adrian and I came up with a series of tests which we knew would trigger activity in as much of the brain’s anatomy as possible, combining the fewest tasks to cover the broadest range of cognitive skills.

[Read more…]

Animation student’s thesis: Pale Blue Dot

Adam Winnik produced this lovely animation for Carl Sagan’s poetic musings on our place in the cosmos, as his school thesis. From his video’s description:

I’ve been enrolled in illustration at Sheridan College for the the last 4 years and this is my final thesis project. I have always thought of Carl Sagan’s writings as “scientific poetry” since they lack the cold touch that science is often cursed for having. I think Sagan’s words resonate more than ever, and will continue with each generation until the human species “wakes up”. The first time I heard this excerpt from his book “Pale Blue Dot” it literally changed my life, and I hope it does for you too. Enjoy.

Pale Blue Dot – Animation from Ehdubya on Vimeo.

I was especially amused by the “derp”‘s all over the holy man’s holy book.

@Felix3333 pointed out something I missed though — if this was the only example of human culture you saw, you’d think the human endeavour is mostly only man’s domain. This picture shows why you might get that impression.

Tryptophan isn’t to blame for your food coma

Even at Thanksgiving, even as a child, I was always “that kid”, who couldn’t leave well enough alone when someone said something blatantly false, or worth questioning and examining further. My father kept admonishing me to be on my best behavior for company, which invariably meant not challenging unevidenced or ridiculous beliefs.

This was one of the ones that filtered into my subconscious and I even caught myself thinking this very thing a few years ago, til I was corrected on it. All because I was asked to turn off my skepticism as a child.

I guess I’m posting this to tell you not to squelch people’s skepticism of strange unevidenced beliefs even if those beliefs are seemingly harmless.

Unless you know there’s absolutely no goodwill to burn, let the walking Snopes database do their thing, because as annoyed as the person may be who is corrected, they’ve actually had a valuable service done to them even at the cost of a little holiday peace. A service that helps insulate people from making mistakes, and having factoids filter into their brains as though they were facts, which might introduce errors in their reasoning later in life.

And if there’s absolutely no goodwill to burn at the Thanksgiving table, and you must suffer the tyranny of someone spewing factoids, both harmless and harmful? Well, consider a smaller and more intimate Thanksgiving meal next year.

But yeah. Sorry for the tangent. Turkey doesn’t cause food comas. And I wish I could spend the American holiday with my American friends and family, so enjoy your time with them. And I hope you find a balance between the factoid-spewers and the fact-checkers so you can all enjoy your meal.