A noteworthy addition to Sagan’s baloney detection kit

You can lie with numbers as effectively as you can with words, so this collection of rules for critically evaluating Big Data claims is timely. I think they missed at least one, though. It was caricatured in a recent xkcd:

I’m seeing a lot of these lately. For example, here are the most popular porn searches by state. I’m sorry to say that this is mostly garbage data, useless to everyone.

These data are produced by basically subtracting (or dividing) away the mean and amplifying the differences. I suspect that there is a great sea of banal commonality to porn searches, and they’re more or less the same everywhere…but all the similarities are erased to accentuate slight variations that might be minuscule. If everyone in America were searching for “insect porn”, which would be an interesting and weird piece of data, and one guy in New Hampshire slipped and typed in “incest porn” instead, New Hampshire would be lit up in these maps as the freaky state that wasn’t watching mantis copulation videos.

You might be saying to yourself that this is a trivial example — OK, let’s be cautious in interpreting data techniques that rely on amplifying minor differences, since they can mislead you about the overall state of the system. However, there is a technique that gets published all over the place in the scientific literature that is doing exactly the same thing: it’s called fMRI. This is not to imply that MRI data is bogus, because it’s very good at detecting consistent differences in pattern, but it’s also very good at highlighting chance variation, and it takes a lot of processing to smooth out the roughness in the raw data, and the whole point of the technique is to erase background activity.

I used to do ratiometric imaging, which has similar potential pitfalls. We used a fluorescent dye that would exhibit subtle wavelength shifts in the presence of calcium, so you would visualize activity in the brain by taking a photo at one wavelength, and then a second photo at a slightly different peak wavelength a fraction of a second later, and then taking the ratio of the two. If there was no shift at all, the images would be identical, so every pixel would have a ratio of 1 — which we’d scale to a displayed color of black. If a pixel was fluorescing a little more at the second wavelength, you’d have a ratio slightly greater than 1, and we’d pseudocolor that to something a little brighter.

Again, this is a perfectly legitimate processing technique and the fluctuations we observed were valid and consistent, and you could even calibrate the ratios against known concentrations of calcium and get good estimates of the actual amount of free calcium at each time point in a recording. However, here’s the thing: if you looked at the raw data, or if you looked through the eyepieces at the tissue, you’d see that everything was gently glowing, and that there was actually artifactual fluorescence all over the place, and there was also continuous, low-level calcium flux everywhere, all the time. That information was discarded. Also, when you see the pseudocolored images rendered by these sort of techniques, there’s an awful lot of point variation that is smoothed away, because we tend not to like our pretty pictures spattered with lots of salt-and-pepper noise. We blur it all out.

This is a special problem for methods like MRI, which tend to be at a painfully low resolution (each pixel represents thousands upon thousands of cells), and is also grossly indirect — it’s measuring oxygen and blood flow, not actual electrical activity.

To that list of Big Data cautions, I’d also add that you have to be conscious of what is actually being measured, limitations of the technique, and how you can be misled by assumptions about the resolution. Data can be massaged into all kinds of ridiculous conclusions if you’re not aware of every step of its manipulation.

You could hurt somebody with that much projection, fella

Wow. This is Eric Trump on Hannity, explaining how the Democrats have no morality — they aren’t even people — while defending his virtuous pussy-grabbing father.

Well, I guess Eric is supposed to be the dumb one…oh, wait, or is it supposed to be Donald Jr.? When the intelligence scale is jittering down somewhere around the floor, it sometimes gets hard to tell.

How not to be a panel moderator

I’ve seen this happen so often, and not just to women. You’re on a panel; it’s not a debate, but an opportunity for a group of people who supposedly respect each other to discuss a topic. Then there’s one guy (and in my experience, it’s always a guy) who’s practically vibrating with enthusiasm and is eager to interrupt at any point with his point. He may not even disagree with other panelists — he’s just absolutely certain that he can explain everything better than everyone else. A prime example of this occurred at the World Science Festival. Here’s the perspective of one attendee.

So, after thinking about this over night, I’ve decided to share something that happened at the WORLD SCIENCE FESTIVAL yesterday afternoon in NYC that changed me. Or rather made me step into who I am in a larger way.
As some on my feed have seen, I was live-feeding the beginning of the panel discussion on FB. That panel was made up of some of the greatest and most famous minds in the world in Inflationary Cosmology, String Theory, Cosmology and Physics based Philosophy. The panel was made up of 5 men and 1 woman. And the moderator was a science writer and journalist for The New Yorker.
In the first hour of the panel discussion you can see clearly, if watching the video, that Veronika Hubeny, the only woman on the panel is barely given any opportunity to speak. And the Moderator, Jim Holt even acknowledges this.
In the last 20-30 minutes of the 90 minute discussion Jim Holt finally pushes the conversation to Hubeny’s field of expertise, string theory, and this is what ensued:
He asked her to describe her two theories of string theory that seem to contradict one another.
And THEN, without letting her answer, proceeded to answer for her and describe HER theories in detail without letting her speak for herself.
We could clearly see that she was trying to speak up. But he continued to talk over her and dominate the space for several minutes.
I should say that this panel was taking place in a large auditorium as it is an extremely high-profile and always sold-out event. And the panel discussion was being live-streamed across the world and they say that millions of people watch these videos after they are made public. (Which they already are).
So at this point, after seeing very clearly that she was not going to be given space to speak and in fact having her own theories described to the audience by the moderator, I am in full outrage. My body is actually beginning to shake. The sexism is beyond blatant. It is happening on stage and NO ONE, not a single other physicist or panelist is stepping in to say anything about it. And I can hear other audience members around me, both men and women becoming more and more agitated with what is happening. Jim Holt, even at one point, asks Veronica a question and she laughs because he has been answering his own questions about her work…and he makes fun of her for ‘giggling’.
So at some point while he is Still talking about Her theories, I just can’t handle it any longer.
With my hands shaking,
I finally say from my seat in the 2nd row of the audience, as clearly, directly and loudly as possible;
“Let. Her. Speak. Please!”
The moderator stops.
They all stop.
The auditorium drops into silence.
You could hear a pin drop.
And then the audience explodes with applause and screams.
Jim Holt eventually sat back, only after saying I was heckling him
And he let her speak.
And of course, she was brilliant.
So, the panel discussion ends.
My hands are still shaking. I’m still upset by the incredible sexism that has been demonstrated this afternoon. But I also realize that I just spoke up in an auditorium full of people that are listening to people that are considered gods in the international science world. I was just overwhelmed by it all
We get up to leave.
And then it happens.
Person after person come up to me. Both men and women.
The first woman, right behind me, reaches over and embraces me and says, “Oh my god. what you said was the most important thing that was said all day. Thank you. Thank you.”
And then people start filing out of their aisles and wind their way over to me:
“Was that you? Thank you so much for speaking up. Thank you.”
“Was that you? Oh god, what he was doing was horrific. Thank you. I wanted to do something but didn’t know how”
“Was that you? I wish I had the courage to say something, thank you! Thank you so much”
“Was that you? You said what everyone here was thinking. Look I had even been writing in my notebook what you eventually said (shows me his notebook with ‘let her speak’ written over and over.) But you said it. You said it. Thank you.”
“Was that you? Thank you! I felt so powerless to do anything.”
And on.
So we were all thinking this.
So I walked out. And my friend who was sitting about 8 rows behind me, came up to me with a huge grin and said
“That was you, wasn’t it? Of course it was. YES!!!!! I will be telling this story for years.”
And the whole time, my hands are still shaking. And I’m felling light-headed. And I just want to scream out into the lobby “WHY IS THIS SEXISM STILL HAPPENING? WHY, does someone like me, with No status in that room, have to be so extraordinarily bold and speak up? And why was it so frightening to do so?”
And I’m thinking. “God, please god let this be an opening for those that were here today and the tens of thousands that watched the live-streaming of the panel yesterday and the hundreds of thousands that will watch the video this year- to speak up when we see this happening. And please let me not be afraid to do this again
…and again
…and again”
Because it was scary.
Please keep giving me courage.

I’m going to be on a bunch of panels at Convergence next month. I’ve done this many times before. When I’m on these panels, I tend to be very conscious of time and opportunity — I’m mentally measuring everyone’s contribution, to both make sure I get my turn with my very important opinion, and also to make sure I’m not dominating the conversation. It’s OK to say your piece and then sit back and listen.

The problem is particularly severe when you’ve got a chatty moderator who does his job of setting up a question and giving each panelist their moment to shine, but then can’t shut up and insists on explaining his perspective and interpretation of everything. Moderators should be there to smooth the flow of discussion among the panelists; they are not King Hot Stuff of the subject. Learn this: if you’re the designated moderator, it’s because you’ve been asked to serve the panel, not because you are the greatest expert who deserves the most time.

Moderators are not the show. They’re the guy who shines the spotlight on the people who are the show.

What happened to 2029?

Ray Kurzweil has been consistent over the years: he has these contrived graphs full of fudged data that tell him that The Singularity will arrive in 2029. 2029 is the magic date. We all just have to hang in there for 12 more years and then presto, immortality, incomprehensible wisdom, the human race rises to a new plane of existence.


2029 is getting kind of close. The Fudgening has begun!

The new date is 2045. No Rapture of the Nerds until I’m 88 years old. So disappoint.

Kurzweil continues to share his visions for the future, and his latest prediction was made at the most recent SXSW Conference, where he claimed that the Singularity – the moment when technology becomes smarter than humans – will happen by 2045.

Typical. You’ve got a specific prediction, you can see that it’s not coming true, so you start adjusting the details, maybe you change your mind on a few things (but it’s OK if you do it in advance, that way it doesn’t count against you), and you do everything you can to keep your accuracy score up, to fool the gullible.

Yeah, he’s got a score. 86%.

With a little wiggle room given to the timelines the author, inventor, computer scientist, futurist, and director of engineering at Google provides, a full 86 percent of his predictions – including the fall of the Soviet Union, the growth of the internet, and the ability of computers to beat humans at chess – have come to fruition.

Do any of those things count as surprising predictions in any way? They all sound rather mundane to me. The world is going to get warmer, there will be wars, we’ll have substantial economic ups and downs, some famous people will die, some notorious regimes will collapse, oceans rise, empires fall. Generalities do not impress me as indicative of deep insight.

Furthermore, that number is suspicious: you wouldn’t want to say 100%, because nobody would believe that. And you don’t want to say anything near 50%, because that sounds too close to chance. So you pick a number in between…say, somewhere between 75% and 90%. Wait, where did I get that range? That’s what psychics claim.

So, how accurate are psychics on an average? There are very few psychics who are 99% accurate in their predictions. The range in accuracy for the majority of real psychic readings are between 75% and 90%.

He’s using the standard tricks of the con man, ones that skeptics are supposed to be able to recognize and deal with. So how has Kurzweil managed to bamboozle so many people in the tech community?

I’m going to guess that being predisposed to libertarian fantasies and being blinded by your own privilege tends not to make one very skeptical or self-aware. Either that, or Kurzweil is very, very good at fooling people. I’m going to go with the former.

No! Totally unacceptable!

A performance of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar featured the titular character in contemporary dress.

In this summer’s rendition in Central Park, Caesar is “dressed in a business suit, with a royal blue tie, hanging a couple inches below the belt line, with reddish-blonde hair,” according to Laura Shaeffer, an audience member who spoke to a local radio station.

Then there was the murder scene, with blood spurting everywhere. People were very upset at the scene with a character looking a heck of a lot like Trump. So am I.

Julius Caesar was brilliant and competent, maybe too competent, as he ruled Rome with the force of his will, his dignitas, his armies, his history of victory. Any comparison with Donald Trump is intolerable and inappropriate. I demand that the company cease besmirching the memory of a truly intelligent and historically important man.

You are not being censored!

Well, probably. Not most of you anyway.

We stealthily migrated to a new host server in the dead of night, and everything went smoothly except for a few minor glitches…one being that our comment whitelists kinda got lost. If you posted something and it did not get automatically approved, give it a little time and we’ll get around to whitelisting you again.

If we like you, that is.

Petty and stupid is no way to go through life, son

I ask your forgiveness in advance: this is a video of two of the most unpleasant, least intelligent people in show business, Donald Trump and Piers Morgan. I’ll understand if you don’t click on play.

He actually challenged London mayor Sadiq Khan to compare IQ scores! I am torn. On one hand, IQ scores are overrated and culturally biased, so I’d rather not grant them an unearned validity; on the other, Trump is a profoundly stupid man, and I’d kind of like to see the result of a fairly given IQ test (that is, not the crap you see in online surveys on Facebook).

I’d also like to see his tax returns.

There are a lot of things Trump likes to brag about but doesn’t want actually scrutinized because he’d be exposed as a lying liar.

Robert Price and the embarrassing wing of atheism

Add this one to your “atheism doesn’t make you rational” file: Robert Price being Robert Price again. A couple of years ago, he sparked controversy at an HP Lovecraft convention (he’s also a well known Lovecraft scholar as well as an atheist philosopher/theologian) by basically endorsing Lovecraft’s racism, and further using Lovecraft’s words to support racist policies in the US. Here are the comments he made at that time.

If we can manage to look past [Lovecraft’s] racism, we will manage to see something deeper and quite valid. Lovecraft envisioned not only the threat that science posed to our anthropomorphic smugness, but also the ineluctable advance of the hordes on non-western anti-rationalism to consume a decadent, euro-centric west.

Superstition, barbarism and fanaticism would sooner or later devour us. It appears now that we’re in the midst of this very assault. The blood lust of jihadists threatens Western Civilization and the effete senescent West seems all too eager to go gently into that endless night. Our centers of learning have converted to power politics and an affirmative action epistemology cynically redefining truth as ideology. Logic is undermined by the new axiom of the ad hominem. If white males formulated logic, then logic must be regarded as an instrument of oppression.

Lovecraft was wrong about many things, but not, I think, this one. It’s the real life horror of Red Hook.

Oy. White males invented logic? That’s mythic bullshit. And then to reference the Lovecraft story, The Horror at Red Hook, possibly his most blatantly racist story…to Lovecraft fans, that’s a real dog whistle.

At the time, Price denied the racism.

Having now read several posts from those who were offended by my remarks Thursday night at 1st Baptist, including several friends, I must say I am astonished and very grieved. I am amazed at how they misunderstood me. How can they think I was replicating HPL’s racism, that I was attacking Affirmative Action (didn’t they hear the word “epistemology”?), etc.?

How dare you think he was racist for reciting racist tropes? And how could you possibly think he was criticizing affirmative action?

Well, now he has removed all ambiguity with another racist essay. I have to comment on this one.

I call it the Trayvon Martyr Syndrome [That’s a rather offensive appropriation of a murdered black man, pretending it was some kind of psychological syndrome]. It is a wider phenomenon, and a particularly nefarious one. There had been substantial progress in putting racism behind us in America [No. There was progress in papering it over. Look up sundown towns, redlining, racial profiling, segregation. This stuff has left a historical legacy of discrimination. It ain’t over yet], thanks to the courage of great reformers and real martyrs like Dr. King [I’ve noticed a fondness for dead civil rights leaders among some racists trying to appear tolerant. King was hated by white folks in his time]. But the Obama administration (advised by Al Charlatan) cynically fomented race hate for cheap political advantage and set us back years in race relations [How? Cite one comment by Obama in which he advocated anything other than tolerance]. Who knows why? Well, the Left has successfully used the “Law of Attraction” [Does Price know that this isn’t a law, and it doesn’t work?] to manifest an ugly race-hate climate that didn’t exist until they conjured it into being by insisting it was real [So racism didn’t exist until Obama, and it’s all black people’s fault for making white people hate them?]. And it became real. Their cop-hatred [Yeah, getting shot by cops does tend to make one hate cops] and obnoxious demonstrations [Demonstrations and protests are supposed to annoy their targets; he’s annoyed that Black Lives Matter didn’t make racists comfortable with their racism], invading restaurants and rebuking diners for imagined racism and “white privilege,” had the predictable result: they had goaded the objects of their wrath into the very antagonism they had accused them of. [It’s all their fault for pointing out my racism!]

Or consider the tendency to defend black hooligans and criminals simply because they are fellow blacks, as if to call one a criminal amounts to indicting all African Americans. [No one is doing that, except the people who equate blackness with criminality.] The most idiotic example of this must surely be a black Leftist official in Baltimore claiming that to call anyone a “thug” is racist. Uh, you mean because there is an inherent link between “black” and “thug”? [Incorrect. Take a look at the news media, this is a shockingly common trope. If a black person is gunned down, there is an immediate attempt to tar their reputation with a search of their arrest record; being a murdered black man means it’s pretty much guaranteed that you’re going to get called a “thug” in the press. Murdered white men, no matter how guilty or heinous their crimes, become “troubled loners”] Who except you is saying that? It is you who are inviting the rest of us to think so!

[Wait for it, wait for it, you knew this was coming…]

The sheer absurdity of all this blather about systemic racism was obvious from the fact that white America had elected the first black President! [That a coalition of progressive white voters and minorities and women got together to elect a black man does not mean that all the other racists in the country were absolved; it also does not mean that the institutions that support racist policies suddenly evaporated]

A man who voted for Reagan and George W. Bush, wants to elect Sarah Palin, who praises Trump and voted for him, does not get to claim that because other people voted for Obama, racism does not exist. He’s walking talking writing raving evidence to the contrary.