Why couldn’t this have come out earlier in the semester?

At the beginning of the term, I was constantly repeating the mantra, “your data is your data” to the students — they came in expecting that science experiments had a foreordained conclusion, like a recipe that you followed and at the end you got cake. If there was no cake it’s a failure! That’s not true, though, that even if it doesn’t end up as you expected, it was still data. Unexpected data just takes more work to interpret (they don’t like that part) or that you need to do more experiments to puzzle out how it happened (they like that even less).

I’m grading lab reports now, and can say that they seem to have figured it out. They’ve stopped judging their results and are instead asking questions and analyzing, which is all I really want.

This would have been a good comic to include in their training early on, though.

Thinking about Xmas presents for the family, on a budget

You know, you have to love the look of joy on their faces when they open a surprise box. I imagine it would be like the Australians who opened a box intended for nesting opossums and saw this:

I know I’d be excited. Wouldn’t you?

Unfortunately, there’s a shortage of Huntsman spiders here in Minnesota. We’ve got lots of Pholcus, though. I’m thinking of going down into the basement and scooping up a swarm of cellar spiders, putting them in a gift-wrapped box with a ribbon, and mailing them off to the grandkids.

How can they not be delighted?

Who do you worship?

Something curious that I’ve noticed is that, as various atheist organizations implode in scandal and chaos, the percentage of “nones” in the population is steadily rising. Why should we have a rising tide of general secularism as all the charismatic superheroes of atheism are found to have feet of clay? Here’s one answer: the leaders of organized religions are revealing themselves to be blatantly corrupt.

I think that also explains my atheist conundrum. You can be a grifter as a New Atheist leader, too! We all of us, religious and non-religious, are entirely capable of disavowing that selfish asshole who has annointed themselves as Our Leader while still accepting the fundamental metaphysical philosophy underpinning our beliefs. The real split isn’t between atheist and theist, but between freethinkers and dogmatic authoritarians.

Silverman screws up, again

I think I’ve been on this rollercoaster before: David Silverman Suspended Pending Investigation Into Touching Incident.

Silverman was accused by Vitsmun of violating her bodily autonomy by “caressing” her back as she put on her shoes at a party with other like-minded non-believers. She provided screenshots purportedly showing their interactions following the incident.

Yeah, I was following this story as it was emerging on Facebook. It sounds harmless at first — she’s bent over to put on her shoes, he just touches her lower back — but then I thought about it, and realized I would never do that to anyone. Why? Why are you touching her? Especially when you’re on notice already for crossing boundaries? And when I read Vitsmun’s account, it’s clear that she is very sensitive to these kinds of touching issues for good reason, and it stressed her…and it doesn’t matter if you think your behavior was fine, if the other person doesn’t, you did wrong.

Now Silverman is calling Vitsmun “evil” and a “shitty fucking asshole liar”. I think it’s clear who the bad guy is here.

So AAI is suspending him with pay while piously climbing up onto a high horse.

“AAI has very high standards of behavior for its Board of Directors and staff. We fight for human rights around the world and do not tolerate any Board Director or staff member violating anyone’s rights,” the statement says. “We also believe strongly in evidence, reason, and due process. We have today initiated an investigation into this incident and we will make our conclusions known in due course. In the meantime, we have suspended David Silverman on full pay until the investigation is completed.”

Where were these “very high standards of behavior” when they first hired him? That statement is not honest. Since hiring him, AAI has received nothing but shocked dismay and bad press, and they’re slowly realizing that this person might well be a catastrophe for their organization, and that’s why they’re trying to kick him to the curb.

Can I be in Generation Who-Gives-A-Crap?

I really detest the whole business of trying to categorize whole generations as one thing or another. Population cohorts are part of a continuum, and they’re diverse, and sticking artificial boundaries and characters on them has about as much validity as the Chinese Astrology trash you get as a placement at restaurants.

But OK, here’s one attempt to summarize the nonsense.

There sure are a lot of overlaps in that mess. I was born in 1957, which makes me a “baby boomer”, or specifically, a “trailing edge boomer”. I’ve got siblings who are Generation X. My kids are all Millennials, while my grandchildren are, cheerfully, members of the Dying Earth clan. Great. Glad to know who I can invite to parties. I guess I must have a lot in common with all my fellow Boomers who voted for Trump, just because we were born within 20 years of each other.

Clearly, class and race are far less significant in shaping who we are than the calendar.

The Spherical Spider

I have not been advertising this aspect of my research, but I have been striving towards developing a Perfectly Spherical Spider. Here’s my first success.

What good is a spherical spider, you might ask. The benefits are legion. For one, think of their utility in physics problems.

Actually, what happened is that I’ve started trying to breed the spiders with my impoverished bunch of small, young males, and because I was concerned about preventing nuptial cannibalism, I gave the lovely females a big banquet on their wedding night, and boy did they eat. It may have worked against me, because a) this female hasn’t budged in a couple of days, and I don’t think she can move, and b) the male I put in her cage gave every appearance of being fascinated and terrified, and orbited her at a distance of 5-10 cm. I’m hoping he might have darted in at some point over the weekend and done the deed, but who knows? I’ve pulled him out now and will place him with a possibly less intimidating female.

Isn’t she lovely, though?

Physicists: they make silken draglines, you could probably use spherical spiders in pendulum problems, too. You can’t do that with spherical cows!

The police could always use horoscopes, dowsing, and psychics to find culprits

I imagine the police would find a way to use astrology to simplify investigations.

“The victim was murdered on the 19th of November, at 6am, Chief!”

The chief consults a complex chart on the wall. “The killer had to have been a Virgo, with Mercury in the sixth house. That narrows it down! Quick, use the database to round up all the suspects!”

OK, maybe slightly exaggerated, but you’ve got to admit it’s not much of a reach for an institution that still uses handwriting analysis and lie detector tests. Now it’s revealed that they’ve also been using something called Scientific Content Analysis, or SCAN, a totally made up scheme for reading between the letters and lines of interview transcripts to get the interpretation the police want.

How does it work? Well, you need to spend a fair bit of money and get training to really understand it, but basically it’s a set of rules for plucking out quirks in a text and leaping to conclusions.

For Avinoam Sapir, the creator of SCAN, sifting truth from deception is as simple as one, two, three.

1. Give the subject a pen and paper.

2. Ask the subject to write down his/her version of what happened.

3. Analyze the statement and solve the case.

Those steps appear on the website for Sapir’s company, based in Phoenix. “SCAN Unlocks the Mystery!” the homepage says, alongside a logo of a question mark stamped on someone’s brain. The site includes dozens of testimonials with no names attached. “Since January when I first attended your course, everybody I meet just walks up to me and confesses!” one says. Acronyms abound (VIEW: Verbal Inquiry – the Effective Witness; REASON: REport Automated SOlution Notes), as do products for sale. “Coming Soon! SCAN Analysis of the Mueller Report,” the website teased this year. LSI offers guidebooks, software, kits, discount packages, cassette tapes of seminars and, for computer wallpaper, a picture of a KGB interrogation room.

It’s a classic pseudoscientific scam. Identify a population of gullible marks, in this case police departments all across the country. Promise an easy solution to a difficult problem. Require them to learn arcane and irrelevant rules for interpreting data. Get paid. Avinoam Sapir has been raking in the dough for decades with this scam.

One other interesting twist is that he’s marketing only to the police, so the general public is largely unaware of the garbage the police are using to snare putative “criminals”. And it’s working! There are people languishing in jail, convicted of serious crimes, because they used shorthand, abbreviations, and had sloppy handwriting!

He noted that while summarizing the day Hernandez disappeared, Joyner had not used the word “I,” writing, for example, “went home,” not, “I went home.” “That in itself is a signal of deception,” the detective wrote. Instead of writing “my girlfriend,” Joyner had written “a girlfriend.” What’s more, the detective wrote, Joyner’s handwriting was larger and more spread out in the answer’s last two lines than in the previous seven.

When asked why the police should believe his answers, Joyner had written, “I have nothing to hide.”

“This is not the same as stating I did not lie,” the detective wrote.

Well, at least they’re not using craniometry to determine guilt. I don’t think. Maybe there are cops wandering around passing judgment on the shapes of skulls, and we’re just waiting for ProPublica to do an expose.

George Church has a fancy hammer. You’re all looking a bit like nails right now

George Church is a smart and interesting guy, and now he’s been featured on 60 Minutes. It’s a strange interview, though, and I don’t believe a lot of his claims.

Yeah, right, a dating app based on your genes. I don’t believe it, except as an ambitious eugenics program to give scientists an excuse to do social engineering with fallacious premises. There is such a thing already, as in, for instance, screening in some Jewish communities for lethal alleles; beyond that specific use, though, I don’t see much point in caring about minor variations…unless you want to suppress them. That was only a small part of the program, though, highlighted by CBS because it is so radical and sensational. One thing he does go on at length about is his biomedical goals: “Today, his lab is working to make humans immune to all viruses, eliminate genetic diseases, and reverse the effects of time.”

I have two objections to his dream.

  • I think he’s forgotten about this phenomenon called evolution. Viruses are going to be evolving much more rapidly than he can engineer humans; humans are going to mutate faster than he can tweak their genes.
  • He disregards multifactorial interactions, and seems to think there’s a straightforward linear scale of gene effects that can be optimized. We don’t know whether, for instance, increasing longevity genetically is going to have secondary undesirable genetic effects. It’s definitely going to have horrible effects socially, but those don’t exist in Church’s world.

None of that is an argument for stopping his kind of research, which I think has great benefits as well. I just don’t think he’s very good at thinking outside of an imagined linear progression.

Also troubling was his response to one question. On everything else, he’s glib and confident, and then he got asked about the ethics of accepting money from Jeffrey Epstein…and suddenly he’s hesitating and stammering and clearly trying to think of a way out of this question. His answer is that he can’t be expected to screen donors that rigorously, and that tainted money can be used for good ends, as, for instance, the way tobacco money was used to sponsor legitimate research.

Does he stop to consider that there’s a problem in a system that allows large corporations to thrive on lies and addicting innocent people to dangerous chemicals, and that maybe such organizations are not the best to control what sciences get funding? No.

His is a lab that thrives on huge donations from extremely wealthy people, and getting featured on 60 Minutes is going to raise his profile and probably bring in more donations from extremely wealthy people. That ought to be raising all kinds of concerns about the nature of a system that relies on excesses of wealth in certain classes of people who then have the privilege of distributing some of that wealth in a pattern of personal patronage. That he is the current recipient of such largesse apparently makes it impossible for him to see the flaws in that system.