A Short History of Medicine

•September 25, 2009 • Leave a Comment

Quick and dirty, this is stolen from the wonderful Dr. Harriet Hall’s slideshow at the Skeptics Toolbox conference last month:

A Short History of Medicine:

  • 2000 BC: eat this root.
  • 1000 AD: that root is heathen, say this prayer.
  • 1850 AD: that prayer is superstition, here, drink this potion.
  • 1920 AD: that potion is snake oil, here, take this pill.
  • 1965 AD: that pill is ineffective, here, take this antibiotic.
  • 2000 AD: that antibiotic is artificial, here, eat this root.


God Vs Science: a frustrating fable

•September 21, 2009 • 10 Comments

The other day a friend sent me a link to a story entitled “God vs. Science,” which is supposedly a transcript of a conversation between an atheist professor and a religious student about the existence of an omnipotent God and the philosophy of evil. I won’t repost the story, as it is quite long, but you can find it here (there is one important difference between the version I was sent, and the one at that link: the version my friend sent me made the claim that the student was, in fact, one Mr. Albert Einstein). My friend said that reading the story made her “blood boil”, but she wasn’t sure exactly why it was so frustrating.

Below is the (unedited) response I sent, with thoughts on what the story gets wrong, and why it may be so frustrating for people who disagree with its intended lessons.

Wow, it sure is arrogant.

The professor (i.e. ‘science’) is a weak and desperate man who really isn’t using any science at all – his arguments are all bad philosophy and rhetoric. There’s a lot of messing with word definitions, as if the way the english language is set up has anything to do with reality (‘faith’ in brain ownership = ‘faith’ in Jesus? ‘existence’ of a concept = ‘existence’ of a physical object?). That’s one of my biggest frustrations with religious apologetics; so much of it seems deliberately confusing, with the same words being used in different ways without ever being strictly defined. Presenting the professor like that makes the assumption that science and religion are on the same intellectual level, which of course we know they aren’t, and that they both use the same kinds of arguments, which of course we know they don’t.

By the end of it, there isn’t really any logical argument or specific claim being made, so there’s no way to respond to it. The person who posts that story can sit back smugly, and the only thing you can really do is start arguing semantics, which isn’t very satisfying. Maybe that’s the source of the frustration? I guess you could say that a good God wouldn’t make a universe whose neutral state is evil, but that would be sinking down to their level and giving them undue credibility.

Of course, the line at the end about the student being Albert Einstein is just ridiculous. That claim alone forces the story to have happened at a specific university during a brief period of time. If it were true, we would be able to identify the exact professor! Not to mention that Einstein as a student was average at best, and wouldn’t have been going around challenging his teachers. The story would also have to have been told originally by one of a small number of classmates Einstein had, yet of course no sources are given. I wonder if the semantic arguments even make sense in German. Einstein was also Jewish (at least culturally – he was openly atheist as an adult), and the theology in the story is distinctly Christian.

I found this on Snopes, which discredits the Einstein connection, but also has some good points on why the story itself is appealing to the religious, and why it might be particularly maddening for the non-religious:

Can anyone else offer further insight into why the story might raise the temperature of one’s blood? Or perhaps I’ve made an error myself, and someone wants to defend the arguments of the apocryphal student?

Alaska Hank

•August 14, 2009 • Leave a Comment

This is how the world should be.

About a year and a half ago I was browsing Craigslist’s ‘free stuff’ section, and I saw an ad for Alaska Hank. Alaska Hank had a really cool project going on. He was collecting recyclable material – mostly bottles and cans – in order to raise enough money to buy a ticket for a cruise to Alaska, a life-long dream of his. It was a very ambitious project, certainly novel, and it had an admirable social and environmental component too. At the time, I had a fairly large pile of bottles and cans growing in my kitchen, and I didn’t particularly revel in the notion of cleaning, sorting, and transporting them all to the depot for a few lousy bucks. So I called up Alaska Hank, thinking if nothing else, he’d be doing me a favour carting away this mess.

Hanks Van

Hank showed up in a bitchin’ van, branded with his website and slogan. He had to have been the nicest guy I’ve ever met, and I know some pretty friendly dudes. Alaska Hank is a man who knows what life is about. He’s an older guy, retired, but the enthusiasm he showed for his project and for the goal he was working toward was rare and impressive. It was really clear that meeting people, helping them out, and working towards a goal were just as important to Hank as was the goal itself. After helping him load up his van, I wished Hank all the best with his fundraising and the eventual cruise, and he went on his way.

I got periodic updates from Hank via an email newsletter. The recycling effort went well, Global and CTV ran segments on him and his project, and sure enough he hit his goal and got his cruise not long after.

That was a year ago, almost exactly. I haven’t thought about Hank much since then, but the other day I was looking at the pile of bottles and cans in my kitchen. It was getting fairly large, and I didn’t particularly revel in the notion of cleaning, sorting, and transporting them all to the depot for a few lousy bucks. So I looked up Hank’s website, wondering if he had another trip he was saving up for. Turns out he never stopped collecting recyclables, but now all the money raised was going to Christmas gifts for the children’s wards at local hospitals, and to food and clothing charities for the homeless of Vancouver. What a guy!

He just left with my load of beer bottles and pop cans. I suspect that he actually made a special trip from North Vancouver just for me, because I had asked if he could come before the weekend, not realizing he makes regular trips on Mondays. He is as clearly committed to this charity work as he was to the original cruise project – probably even more so. Alaska Hank is a hell of a guy. I hope I can find the sort of meaningful personal fulfillment he has when I’m at his age; really, at any age. That’s how the world should be.

Vancouver Psychic and Healing Fair

•July 25, 2009 • 4 Comments

So the other day I went to a psychic fair. I really don’t have much to say about it! It was quite a disappointment. I was hoping to record some of the conversations I had with the exhibitors, but the background noise plus the emptiness of their arguments would have made any recording not worth the bandwidth. See Blogosaurus for a summary.

The only thing I can really add is just to emphasize again the utter lack of substance in the newage arguments. At least religious apologists have spent a lot of time and effort constructing complex and seemingly airtight arguments. Now, I  believe they can be refuted, but it takes a skilled debater to find the chink in the armour of an apologist, and often, by formal debating standards, the apologist comes out on top.

With these psychic healers and clairvoyants, there isn’t even an argument to dispute! The concept of evidence is nonexistent. Technical, scientific words are flung with abandon like shit in the chimp cage on burrito Tuesday.  I didn’t even get the sense that it was in any way malicious. I think everyone there was totally honest. The prices of their wares were not outrageous, they weren’t attempting any hard sells, it seemed like they were just trying to support a modest lifestyle by selling absurd bullshit that they totally believe works, yet can’t defend with a shred of credible evidence.

OK, now I’m just ranting, which isn’t what I wanted to do. Really, I have nothing to say. Hopefully these guys offer a more substantial windmill against which to tilt.

A Note On Moral Consistency

•July 20, 2009 • 23 Comments

A little over a year ago I found myself exposed to a some ideas and paradigms that were mostly new to me. I won’t get into the specifics of those ideas – they form the majority of my topics here anyways. It all got me thinking that I should take a close look at my morals, ethics, and beliefs, as I had never really followed any sort of guiding principle in building them initially. What I ended up doing, essentially, was breaking down my existing set of beliefs and convictions and rebuilding them on a solid, logical foundation – a sort of Peano Metaphysics. This is a work in progress, and it’s not exactly a formal process, but it has turned out to be a far bigger task than I had anticipated.

My beliefs about existence in the natural world – my ontology and epistomology – haven’t changed very much. I’ve always been more or less scientifically minded, so I have a pretty good grasp of what constitutes evidence, what it is reasonable to believe, etc. I have certainly rounded out my knowledge of evolution, psychology, and philosophy of science, which has helped strengthen some of my beliefs, weaken others, and given me a great deal of insight into the nature of belief itself.

Building an internally consistent moral framework has been much trickier. What I would like to end up with is a relatively small and simple list of axioms that can be plugged into any situation and worked through to their logical conclusion to arrive at a satisfying solution. I used to operate on a case-by-case basis, judging each moral dilemma as unique, and full of shades of grey – not the kind of thing you apply rules to. On the surface, that sounds like the more reasonable position, but it often leads to contradictions, and I have come to think that a moral system without a logical, prescriptive nature is difficult to distinguish from an ad hoc, anything goes, whatever feels good right now system.

The problem with this endeavour is that a small and simple list of axioms followed to their logical conclusion often lead to quite unsatisfying answers. The choice then is whether to accept the seemingly objectionable conclusion, or modify the axioms. My usual approach is to try out the conclusion for a while, to see if it stands up to scrutiny. Sometimes I’m surprised by the result, and sometimes I end up looking like a lunatic and have to drag my tail between my legs back to the drawing board. I imagine this can be very frustrating for my friends, the unwilling participants in my personal experiment, who are being subjected to this madness.

I really do think that consistency is important. I can think of three people who really embody a truly consistent morality: Peter Singer, Penn Jillette, and Fred Phelps. They certainly don’t share the same morality; their underlying axioms are quite different. For example, Singer is a utilitarian who thinks we should offer certain ‘human’ rights to non-human apes, Penn is a fervent humanist who has said he would gladly kill every chimp on earth with his bare hands to save the life of a single heroin addict, and Fred Phelps says God Hates Fags.

Generally I tend to agree with Penn (though on the above example I’m with Singer), and Peter Singer offers some novel ideas that have really made me think (Dawkins has called Singer “one of the most moral people in the world“). Phelps has an ontology and epistomology so far removed from my own that we might as well be speaking different languages. Still, I have a certain kind of respect for people who are willing to follow the logic of their principles no matter where it may lead. When Penn says his heart lies with the kooks, I think this respect for moral consistency is what he means (the theatrical and scripted ‘Bullshit’ notwithstanding).

[Note: I use Phelps more as a representative of all religious fundamentalism. There are individuals whose theology is far more consistent than Phelps’. When I say I respect him, it is very heavily qualified. Given his assumptions, his conlusions are logical. It’s the fact that he accepts the premises he does that makes him a monster. Perhaps those who accept the same premises, but reject the necessary conclusions are no less monstrous, they just lack the conviction to carry out monstrous acts.]

10 Things About Which I Am Irrational

•June 29, 2009 • 8 Comments

I’ve heard a lot about the book Supersense, by Bruce Hood recently. It sounds really cool – it’s about the irrational and superstitious beliefs that everyone, including the most hardcore skeptics, have. I think it’s very important for people like me, who advocate publicly for science and reason, and against such superstitions, to understand, acknowledge, and even embrace our own propensity for illogical thinking. It seems to me that not all irrationality is bad. A life devoid of all wonder and emotion would be hardly worth living, but at a certain point and within certain criteria, unreasonable beliefs can become harmful. So what, exactly, is it that I oppose? Where is this line, and what are these criteria? This is something I need to think about very carefully. Perhaps I’ll have an answer after reading the book.

For now, I have compiled a short list of my own beliefs which are not grounded in empirical facts. Some of these I could probably do without, and others I could not bare to part with. Here they are in no particular order:

1. Humour

Humour is universally irrational. It completely defies explanation (poor Richard Wiseman). Some things are just funny, and some things just aren’t. I don’t even know how I could reconcile this into a rational framework – the humour response seems largely autonomic, probably evolved for a very good, but intractable reason.

2. Signed books and other memorabilia

The example of a supersense that Bruce Hood uses in most interviews is the killer’s sweater. If you ask a group of people who would be willing to put on a particular sweater (for a $10 incentive, or something), just about everyone agrees. If you tell them the sweater belonged to a serial killer (but is currently clean and sterile) most of the hands go down. We have an irrational negative association with objects belonging to bad people. I don’t think I’ve got this response so much. I kinda feel the initial repulsion, but I believe that if I were in that situation, I would reason myself out of it pretty quickly and wear the damn sweater.

However, I do suffer from the opposite effect. Collectible items that once belonged to famous people, or are associated with an important event have more intrinsic value to me than identical objects with boring histories. I have a collection of books signed by the authors which I hold in much higher reverence than their unmarred counterparts. This is silly! I would do well to sell these books to another irrational dope and buy a brand new clean version, pocketing the profit. I kinda like this irrational belief though, so I’m not actively trying to drop it, even though I probably could. Does this make me a hypocrite? Maybe.

3. Basic morality

Some actions illicit a bad feeling in me. Some, a good one. I feel all warm and fuzzy when I help out a friend, and I feel icky when I act like a dick for whatever reason. Is it objectively, empirically, absolutely bad to steal? I can’t imagine why it would be – I don’t believe in a god who sets moral principles which then exist as universal laws. Morals, like humour or pain, are an evolved response to certain stimuli that turns out to be beneficial to the genes that cause it. As with humour, I can’t even imagine how I could go about eliminating this, and as with the autographed books, I wouldn’t want to if I could.

4. Optimism about the future

This sums it up pretty well (Idiocracy is a movie about cultural de-evolution via dumb people procreating faster than smart people). Not all of the evidence points to a bright and shiny future. I do think there is a solid rational basis for thinking things will just get better in the long run, but it’s far from certain. Yet I choose to be optimistic. I really don’t like the anti-technology theme that sometimes seems so pervasive in modern culture, from Frankenstein to Battlestar Galactica. Every generation seems to think they’re fine, but their kids are doomed. I dunno – I think the kids are alright! You can find examples of moral panic stemming from comic books, then television, then rock music, then video games, then the Internet, and surely my own generation will find… whatever, augmented reality, to be the end of civilization. Maybe it is! Maybe it’s not! Lacking any and all hard proof, I maintain a positive outlook. Sue me.

5. Rejection of existential angst

I believe that life has no ultimate meaning beyond that which we give it while we’re alive. I believe that when I die, I will completely cease to be. I will have no awareness, no rebirth, no consciousness in any form. The billions of years after my death will feel much like the billions of years before my birth. Once I am dead, all of my goals, all of my work will be for naught. It might matter to those still living – I may have a profound impact on humanity for thousands of years. But to me, none of that will matter at all. Dying 100 years from now after a happy and successful life is ultimately no different than dying right now. Yet I choose to live. I choose to pursue goals. I choose to seek happiness. I can’t rationally justify this, but I see no signs of giving up.

6. Fiction

I know fully well that the characters in novels and movies are made up. Bruce Willis is an actor, not an alcoholic cop with nothing left to lose. So why do I react as if these characters are real? Why do I cheer for a nonexistent protagonist, or cry when a drawing of a deer becomes a drawing of a dead deer? I deliberately consent to having my evolved empathetic software “tricked” by circumstances that did not exist in my evolutionary environment. This is another superstition that I could drop, but choose not to.

7. Free will

A friend recently asked, “Does the whole nature vs nurture debate just ignore free will, or does it suggest it doesn’t exist?” and my response was, “The entirety of the universe bludgeons us with the fact that free will doesn’t exist.”

This, I believe. Either the universe is completely deterministic, or quantum events are fundamentally random. The latter theory is by far the favoured one by all reasonable interpretations of current evidence. Neither option leaves any room for free will as we innately understand it. I guess I can’t say that I act as if free will existed, because I can’t imagine what it would be to act as if it didn’t! It certainly makes no sense to choose to act as if I had no choice. This is a tough one, but I think it’s safe to say I’m not totally rational about it on a day to day basis.

8. Music

Just like humour. I likes what I likes. My tastes are more of an observation than a choice, I just happen to be observing inwardly rather than outwardly. Same answer goes for movies, books, food, paintings, etc. There’s no accounting for taste.

9. Drugs

I got brainwashed from a young age, and it stuck. I don’t use illegal drugs. I do use legal drugs: be it recreational alcohol consumption or medically prescribed drugs. I fully support the legalization of most drugs, and in theory (though I’m not 100% convinced) I support the legalization of all drugs. I accept that marijuana is less dangerous than alcohol, and I sometimes engage in activities that could get me in more legal trouble than marijuana could. I have no good argument not to partake on occassion, but it’s something I irrationally and falsely associate with other undesirable qualities. I developed these associations during childhood and adolescence, and I’m as yet undecided on whether I want to shed them. I believe that I could if I so chose.

10. Weird rituals

This one is kind of odd. Perhaps I suffer from a very mild case of OCD, or perhaps I’m right in the normal range of a spectrum of behaviours that everybody exhibits.

Yeah, another XKCD. I’d include my feelings toward this comic as #11 on this list if it weren’t utterly and completely rational to love it.

Anyways, I do that crazy tile walking thing. No reason, I’m merely compelled to do so. More than that, I have a frequent compulsion to make percussive patterns with various parts of my body, particularly when driving or riding in a vehicle. For example, I might make a pattern of tongue clicks, toe taps, and muscle flexes to match the tempo of passing lamp posts. I know, I should be locked up in a padded room, right? I have no idea where this even comes from, and frankly, sometimes I wish it didn’t happen. The majority of the time it’s not a nuisance, and only bothers me when I’m trying to focus on something more important, but can’t.

So that’s my list. I’m sure there are many more items that I have missed – probably because they’re so pervasive that I don’t even consider them to be irrational. I bet I’ll identify a few more after I read Supersense. I’ll keep you posted!

What are some of the irrational beliefs and behaviours you have?

Facebook and Fan Pages

•June 25, 2009 • 2 Comments

I love Facebook more and more all the time.  The recent changes they’ve made to the home page “feed” have fundamentally changed the way I view and use the site. I’ve found link sharing to be enormously helpful in finding useful and interesting information, and becoming closer to my friends.

This is my profile. If you enjoy my blog and would like to be bombarded constantly with the links and videos I find most interesting day-to-day, become my friend!

One thing I’ve been using in particular is the fan pages system. This allows you to get updates from businesses, organizations, products, etc as if you were their “friend”.

The pages system has a lot of potential, but right now it really sucks. It feels tacked-on, and amateurish. I would love to see it become a fully integrated part of my profile. When I add a band or movie or whatever to my ‘favourite’ list on my profile, I want to be automatically added as a fan, and start receiving updates regarding the band’s latest CD, when the DVD of the movie comes out, new books by that author, etc.

For that to happen, there must be some verification process for official fan pages. That’s not hard – Twitter does it.

This way, the personal information section of the profile would become less arbitrary. Sure, a list of movies and books is great, but what if I want to list my favourite philosophers or restaurants? It’s all fair game using fan pages.

So I was browsing the existing pages for stuff to add and declare my support for, and I noticed a surprising lack of pages in favour of vaccines! This is something I care about, as a scientific skeptic, and something that really needs publicity in light of Oprah, Jenny McCarthy, and the whole anti-vaccine movement. So I made one. Everybody become a fan of vaccines! Share it on your profile! Yay!