Saturday, September 29, 2012

I have chosen Wisely


Aly & I are getting married in a week and I, Lance Armstrong, am going to become Lance Wisely.

There are a number of reasons for this.  (Seven, apparently.)

1) Changing my name represents transformation to me.  Armstrong and Wisely already have their own connotations as a word or word group, but my family name also carries meaning to me from my personal experiences.  Much of that is negative - my father in particular emphasized physical strength and intimidation, was full of bluster, sexism, racism, and a deep lack of concern for anyone but himself and those he considered to be, at that particular moment, extensions of himself.

I do not wish to be him, and to me, becoming Lance Wisely carries that meaning, as well as the lifelong quest for knowledge and wisdom that I'm happy to be defined by.  Wisely embodies who I want to be, and Armstrong doesn't.

2) I'm a little tired of having a famous name.  It does make self-promotion a little easier, so it's not all bad.  Everyone does make the same 3 or 4 clever jokes at the checkout counter, though.  It was cute for about 5 years.

3) Aly left this choice to me.  She was willing to change her name if that was what I wanted, and largely indifferent to which choice I made.  In fact, if she had a preference, I'm not sure what it was, and I've asked several times.

This disarms a lot of things in my brain that would normally interfere with a decision like this.  Competitiveness, control issues, masculine identity, and so on.  Not framing the conversation as a conflict is a big part of creating a space where I'm emotionally capable of making choices that aren't reflexive.

4) Related to #3, my culture disapproves of this sort of thing.  When someone tells me what to do, my reflexive response is:

Fuck you, culture!  Honeybadger doesn't give a shit!  (It isn't an accident that I work for myself.)

5) Less reflexively, there's a gender norm here that is worth breaking.  Women sometimes change their names, and sometimes don't, and sometimes hyphenate or something.  Men generally don't change their names; it's still a little taboo.  That is going to start conversations, and those conversations are going to be about gender roles.  Most of them are going to start with some version of an attack on my masculinity, and present an opportunity for me to challenge those assumptions.

6) It's the more interesting choice.  What will happen if she changes her name to Armstrong?  Nothing, mostly.  That's what lots of people do; it's expected.  What will happen if I change my name to Wisely?  Shit, man, I'm not sure.  That's kinda uncharted.  At minimum I'll have those gender conversations, as well as a bit more insight into what it has been like for women to change their names.  It's something that has provoked a lot of soul searching - your name is your identity, after all.

7) I want to be an example of freedom from these expectations to my children.  You can't tell kids that gender norms are bullshit when you're happily living them.  I don't care what my children do or don't do with their names if they marry, but I do want them to feel comfortable discussing all of the possibilities with their spouse.  Are we going to have individual names or a family name?  What would that family name be?

It's a small piece of what real equality sounds like.

The change is going to be inconvenient in a lot of ways - so many accounts and contacts to change names with. Plus, I own a business!  The complications should be temporary, though, and these other aspects will be present for a lifetime.  Fortunately NC is one of a handful of states that will let a man change his name in a steamlined fashion when getting married.  I'm already wishing "streamlined" meant "with a magic wand."

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

My favorite thing about Christianity

Is kindness towards imperfection.  The concepts of forgiveness, and redemption.  The act of extending  social graces to people who are hostile, or who otherwise transgress community values.  The belief in the ability of each of us to be better people and better members of the community when loved and supported.

I really like that.  I don't know what fraction of Christians actually practice this, but I feel like this value is more present in that community than in others that I have experienced.

I don't believe that its always appropriate to love your enemies or turn your cheek.  A person must use some judgment in determining how to respond to an opponent.  Anger, ridicule, and even violence can be context appropriate responses.  Those things are not off the table, but we seem to have forgotten that compassion is an available and attractive option.  Also, escalation is easy.  De-escalation, not so much.

Humanizing people is always worth doing, regardless.  I can humanize Osama Bin Laden, but I still believe killing him was the best available course of action.  Even in the case of someone that you might be inclined to denounce as evil, humanization is valuable.  It's humbling, for starters.  Even the Nazis were regular people.  Had families and spent time with their children.  Liked dogs.  Experienced fear, and wanted to build a better world.  These people were not "other", they were not intrinsically, necessarily immoral, as a group.  They did not think of themselves as villains.  They were as human as you, and when you absorb that it becomes a cautionary tale against what we are capable of doing to others when we believe that we are in the right.

In less extreme cases, our enemies may morph into mere opponents.  Our opponents may further transform into people we disagree with only on specific issues.  There is so much complexity in the world, in a culture, in each human being.  We are not cardboard cutouts, or caricatures, or archetypes.  We are not straw-people.

Many of our contentious interactions are religious or political.  We're talking to Christians and Muslims and Atheists.  We're talking to Republicans and Democrats and a whole spectrum of people who are disgusted with both.  We're talking to people who are "anti-choice" or "anti-life", to "feminazis" and "rape-culture apologists".  Probably we're just talking at them.  I am not suggesting false balance here, nor condemning moral outrage or confrontation.  I am saying that one or several problematic positions do not define a whole person, even if those positions are thoroughly awful, and that the possibility for redemption is always there.*

We are not able to dialogue with straw-people, because the scarecrow doesn't have a brain (no wonder he disagrees with me!)  To have cooperation there must be a good-faith conversation with real people.  We must acknowledge that we might be wrong, or that they might be wrong and still not be Hitler.  We might both be wrong, or we may be disagreeing about a topic on which objective truth is difficult to access.  Too often single points of disagreement lead to the stance that an opponent's entire character must be flawed.  Cardboard cutouts are only useful at the shooting range.

A diplomat was asked: "Do you trust Iran?"
"I trust Iran to act in their own self-interest.", he replied.

This was not a slight, but a powerful statement about the nature of diplomacy.  If we can find common interests, then we can find grounds for cooperation, even if you don't like me.  Even competing companies, who supposedly treat their adversaries with gladiatorial ruthlessness, engage in coopetition.  This is possible because it is in the best interest of both to do so, because many games are not zero-sum even among clear competitors.  I have deep problems with the right-wing evangelical juggernaut that is Focus on the Family, but they and I both believe that reducing the backlog of children waiting for adoption is a worthwhile thing to do.  We have common ground, and could potentially cooperate on that specific endeavor.

I think it's hyperbole to suggest that creating a wider sense of community is necessary.  We can, and do, get along without it.  We will probably survive as groups even if things come to bloodshed, and some of us don't survive as individuals.  I do think that a wider sense of community is necessary to human flourishing, however.  We have a choice here.  It isn't between annihilation and utopia,  but  between a spectrum of possible conflict and a spectrum of possible cooperation.  One of these choices is clearly better than the other.  We virtually all want to be good, and do good, and experience good things.  People simply disagree on what that means, and how best to get there.  There may be limits to the common ground we can find without compromising personal principles, but a quick survey of the landscape tells me that our conversations are stopping far short of those borders.

Sometimes its just a question of what we choose to emphasize.

*Psychopaths are a special case, and one that I'm ignoring here.

Friday, August 31, 2012

Election Economics: We've got our minds on our money, and our money on our minds.

We're all thinking about the economy, why it sucks, and what to do about it.  Here's some data for you:

First, debt. Nancy Pelosi was rated Pants on Fire (No!  Bad Senator!  Bad!) for her graph of who increased the debt by how much.  She fixed the most glaring issue and came up with this one, which still had to be fixed further because it was based on only part of Obama's current administration.  The numbers for everyone but Obama are correct, and I've fixed the Obama numbers, so this graph is right now.

I took the current debt ($16B) and the CBO projections for debt at the end of 2012 under a hypothetical Obama administration, and came up with 55% (dark blue, present increase) and 74% (light blue, increase by 2012) , respectively.  Couple of things to keep in mind:
1) These numbers are percentage increases, and the percentages are of a larger number as we move from left to right on the graph.  1% is more (a lot more) during the Obama administration than it is during Reagan's.
2) These numbers are not shown as a % of GDP
3) With an increase from about $10.6T to about $16T, the swelling of federal debt under Obama has been truly massive.  This is partly his own relatively modest spending increases, partly previous spending committments from W. Bush, and partly reduced federal revenues from the economic downswing and tax breaks.

Here's the net loss/gain of jobs by month (large version here)

That's certainly an improvement from when Obama took office.  There's another view of similar information here.

Now let's look at GDP:

The notch of that "V" is 2009.  GDP is back up and higher than ever.

The Dow Jones has not returned to its historic high, but it's doing quite well:

And corporate profits are at a record high:

And tax rates are lower than they have been in recent history.  So all of those job creators are actually doing really well.  Improvement in jobs tends to come late in a recovery though, and this recovery has been a slow one.  We're the bright blue line labeled as the 2007 recession.

This recession was also particularly deep (I believe the Obama presidency starts at the 12 month mark on this graph, right when employment was in the middle of a swan dive.)

That said, we stopped our economy from hemoraghing jobs faster in the U.S. than some other economies:
The stimulus package in particular is credited with adding somewhere in the ballpark of 1.8 million jobs, depending on who you ask.  See that red line heading back up a full 2 years before the blue one?  As bad as we've had it, things could have been a lot worse.

If you believe in supply-side economics then all of those job creators riding our record GDP, strong stock market, record profits, and low tax rates should turn into a fountain of jobs any day now.  I'm not holding my breath.

We've stopped the bleeding, and things are improving, slowly.  If you're rich you're doing pretty well.  If not, we still haven't made up for the massive unemployment spike from the 08-09 nosedive, and household income is still down by something like $4k/year.

I actually feel pretty good about what Obama has done with what he was given.  Romney appears to be proposing more of the same "let's cut taxes for the rich and wait for the jobs-fairy" plan that has been the GOP party line for some time now.  You know, the same one that Bush used.  I'm not buying it anymore, and I'm not sure why anyone else is.

Henry Blodget lays out the difference between the Obama approach and the Romney approach going forward.  They both have their merits, but my preference is clear.  Private economic activity is still weak, and excessive austerity measures would, in the short term, take the recovery backwards some.  Do you see that downward blip at year 8 on the gray line (Great Depression) above?  That's austerity measures in 1937.  I would not like to see one of those blips on our chart.  Obama's plan perhaps does not go far enough to address our debt issues, and that is worth considering, but let's get this jobs economy rolling again before we get too crazy with the hatchet.

Saturday, August 25, 2012


Neil Armstrong represents many things to me.

He was an Eagle Scout.  He was a college graduate at time when that was about as common as graduate degrees are now.  He was a test pilot, a Naval Officer, a Korean War veteran, a teacher, and of course, an astronaut.

In my boyhood mind, he was the astronaut.  I felt an affinity to him because we shared a last name, and I wanted to go to the moon, too.  Some kids changed their answer, from time to time,  to the question: "What do you want to be when you grow up".  My answer never wavered;  I wanted to be an astronaut.  When I finally realized that kids with glasses don't grow up to be astronauts, I stopped knowing what I wanted to be, and I never knew again.

Neil represents another era to me.  He was an All American Hero™ in a day when something like that could be said without irony or eye rolling.  The famous phrase, "One small step for (a) man, one giant leap for mankind." shows a humility that has receded from our culture.  The Apollo mission was a decade long project that Americans threw their unified will into.  It was wrapped in enthusiasm for scientific advancement, the spirit of exploration, and fear of the USSR - that great and terrifying specter of communism, and godless, evil men.  This was a time when The Future™ was still a vision of flying cars, and gee, weren't we getting close?  A time when Neil Armstrong would meet and marry a woman who was at Purdue studying home economics.  A time when the face of America was a straight, white, male face, and mostly we had not yet grasped that there was any problem with this.

I'm sad that Neil Armstrong is gone.  For better and for worse, all of those other things are gone, too.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Atheism+ and Richard Carrier: Exclusivity, labels, and names.

I mentioned in yesterday's post that some of Richard Carrier's rhetoric regarding Atheism+ made me uncomfortable.  His description of the values of Atheism + is spot on, and I support that entirely.

Here is the section he adapted from Christine Reese:

"A. Atheism and skepticism should embrace diversity (and not just be a bunch of white guys reading a bunch of white guys). In fact, we should be really keen on expanding our experience and horizons in that regard, aiming to learn as much as possible, and provide resources to help all our comrades in arms.
B. Atheist and skeptic communities should encourage everyone to apply skeptical analysis not just to religion, pseudoscience, and woo, but to socialmoral, and political policies, theories and activists.
C. Considering the history of religion and how it has even warped secular life and thought in countries around the world, atheists and skeptics should spend as much time and energy deconstructing illogical and/or inhumane secular policies and claims as they do actively fighting religiously-based interference. We have to be as critical of ourselves and each other as we would expect anyone to be of religion, so we can be sure we don’t make the same mistakes. We must police the rot within, if we are to stand strong against our foes without.
D. In the field of education, atheists and skeptics should help promote courses and curricula that include logic and abstract thought rather than focusing all efforts on science. We need to train kids with a universal toolkit of skeptical and critical thinking about all issues in their lives, not just the scientific, but the social, political, and ideological as well. And we need to take seriously the effort to push for that and make it happen at the fundamental and national level."
Seriously excellent stuff.  He goes on to list (and expand in detail):
"1. We believe in being reasonable.
2. We believe in being compassionate.
3. We believe in personal integrity."
Also good.  He quotes Jen McCreight's description of the "plus":

"We are… 
Atheists plus we care about social justice, 
Atheists plus we support women’s rights, 
Atheists plus we protest racism, 
Atheists plus we fight homophobia and transphobia, 
Atheists plus we use critical thinking and skepticism."

Very, very good stuff.   But Richard expresses other sentiments that are really turning me off, not from Atheism+, but from his approach to the matter.  Emily Deitle has already expressed most of my thoughts on the matter in the updated section of her post on the matter.  James Croft, who was among the voices saying "Um, that already exists, and we call it Humanism." has issued a statement of support that is awesome, and mature, and focuses on what matters here - our shared values.

"If Atheism+ is about “walking the walk”, then it really is the walk that is important, not the banner that people walk under. If some people want to walk the same path as I under a different banner, then I’m happy to walk beside them – ultimately we’re heading to the same place."

Yes, yes, yes.

But Richard Carrier also has those troubling sentiments of  "GTFO" and "for us or against us".  He finishes with:
"In the meantime, I call everyone now to pick sides (not in comments here, but publicly, via Facebook or other social media): are you with us, or with them; are you now a part of the Atheism+ movement, or are you going to stick with Atheism Less? 
Then at least we’ll know who to work with. And who to avoid."
No, no, no.  That's a false dichotomy.  Richard was accused of this in the comments, and responded that
"A proper dichotomy does not become a false dichotomy just because you say so. You have to actually demonstrate it’s a fallacy by identifying an excluded middle. So why don’t you try doing that (you know, actually try to make an argument)."
Alright, here it is. Plenty of people support these values, and identify as secular humanists, and do not feel the need to take on the label of Atheism+.  Others may take a different label, or no label.  Some may just consider these things to be part of being a decent person, and find the label unnecessary.   They are the excluded middle.

Lucy Wainright, and others like her who aren't on board specifically because of this rhetoric, are the excluded middle.

People who believe in equality but oppose particular labels, or have a different understanding of what those labels mean are the excluded middle.

Now, part of Richard's point is the same thing that Greta Christina and others are pointing out.  In order to create a safe space and an effective movement for people in groups X, Y, and Z, we must exclude the people who are being assholes to them.  Yes, absolutely.  Carrier seems to be going beyond that, and drawing the false dichotomy that you're either "Yay, Atheism+!" or total douchenozzle.

That sentiment is dead weight on a great movement.  Let's throw it overboard and get this thing off the ground.  It's important to talk to people who do not fully share our values, and not "avoid them."  I reserve GTFO for the incorrigible or disruptive.  For the people who do support our values, insisting that they take our labels is the same selfish, territorial nonsense that James Croft caught and gracefully corrected in himself.  Good on him.  Let's follow suit, and work together with all reasonable, decent people, whatever they may call themselves.

Thursday, August 23, 2012


"Atheism Plus" is here, and I'm in.

For those of you unfamiliar, there has been a rift in the "atheist movement", centered around whether diversity and equality are important issues to us, or if we wish only to promote the obvious-to-all-of-us assertion that gods are not real.

In a way, that description is too generous.  The "atheism movement" generally opposes all sorts of nonsense - homeopathy, psychics, alien pyramid construction crews in ancient Egypt, and so on.  The movement has not genuinely restricted itself to the lack of belief in gods.

Nor should it.  The same skeptical values and thought that have led us to reject bad assumptions about Yahweh and Brahma have also led us to reject supernatural claims in general.  I would list those values as humility, honesty, integrity, and curiosity.  It isn't just a question of skeptical values, though.  Skepticism is also a skill - it's being able to evaluate our beliefs, even especially our dearly held beliefs, based on the evidence.  It's being able to change those beliefs, however personally uncomfortable that might be, when we realize that we were wrong.

Skepticism leads us to reject Big Foot - a creature that would actually be pretty plausible except that there is no evidence for it. That is the standard; we must follow the evidence wherever it goes.  Quantum is thoroughly, maddeningly ridiculous, but we know it is true because the evidence is there.

The atheism community, particularly the New Atheist movement, has been pretty outspoken about the importance of this skepticism.  Religious people are often told that they need to be able to apply these skeptical values and skills, and to follow the evidence wherever it leads, even if it means abandoning a belief structure that their entire social and moral life is built around.  A lot of atheists are very comfortable with this narrative, but there's a hypocrisy there, because some seem unwilling to challenge their own dearly held beliefs and assumptions when it comes to questions of social equality.  Some of us mock those who are unwilling to examine their worldview against the evidence, while remaining unwilling to examine our own worldviews against the evidence.  That is what this schism is really about.

I'm not into demonizing people much.  My style is softer than that, which is what I intended to convey with the label "Heretic with a Heart."  I really believe that most of the evil in the world is done by people who mean well, people who are just oblivious to the implications.  It's important to have voices who will deliver the "slap in the face", and it's also important to have voices who will calmly say "I think you're wrong, and this is why."  My voice is the latter.  Many of the voices in Atheism+ are the former, but I agree with their values, so I'm in.

A few posts on the topic:
Jen McCreight (the origin of A+)

Greta Christina

Richard Carrier   (This post is long but includes a discussion of the values of Atheism+)

Carrier's sentiment is a little more "you're either for us or against us" than I'm comfortable with.  I think it's important to treat people as complex beings who can be right about one thing, and wrong about another.  I want to give both credit and blame where they are due.  I want our disagreements to be both passionate and civil.  That can be hard, but it's worth doing.  I'm not in because Carrier has called on people to declare for a side, but because these are my values, too, and I explicitly support them.

Is this our official logo?  I'm not sure.  I also feel like there must be an A++ joke in there somewhere, but I just can't come up with a quip about object-oriented-atheism.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Hello, privilege. It's not that nice to meet you.

First, "privilege" is a loaded and misunderstood term.  If you have never read it before, please take the time to read the very excellent Of Dogs and Lizards: A Parable of Privilege.  Seriously, read it and come back.  I'll wait.

Back?  Ok, awesome.  So the first time I noticed privilege was when I noticed it in other people who were in a majority about an issue that I was a minority on.  Privilege is rather easy to see from that side.  I was pagan at the time, and there was a local lawsuit regarding a high school graduation that was taking place at a local megachurch with an enormous cross in the background.  A non-Christian objected and filed suit.  The details of the case are not terribly important.  An electrical engineer that I worked with at the time commented that she thought the whole thing was ridiculous - what was the big deal about a cross?  I tried to get her to imagine what an uproar there would be if Christian parents had to take graduation pictures of the children in front of a 40-foot tall pentacle, but mostly my co-worker just couldn't imagine what it would be like to not belong to the mainstream belief system.  Those thorns were unknown to her, because she had never been pricked by them.

I didn't know it was called privilege back then, but this was the beginning of me realizing that people could act like assholes without meaning to, without realizing it, and with a surprising inability to even have it pointed out to them.  What is being said to them is just so far outside of their worldview that it can't be absorbed;  not easily, anyway.

Apart from the area of religious identity, I've been on the privileged side of privilege.  When Barack Obama was elected president, I was stunned by how emotional Black Americans became.  I knew that they would be excited, obviously, we were making history here, and an obvious stride towards equality.  Still, I was taken aback by the intensity of it.  I asked a black woman to give me some insight.  This is what she said:

"After this, I can tell my children that they can be anything they want to be in this country, and not be lying to them."

It was a glimpse of how little idea I had about what it is to be black in this country.  I still didn't know it was called privilege.

More recently, Elevatorgate broke out in the atheist community.  The setting is an atheist convention, 4a.m.  A female speaker, who had earlier during her talk said that she was uncomfortable with being sexualized at these conventions, was just leaving the bar.  She announced that she was tired, and heading to bed.  A man got on the elevator with her, expressed that she was interesting, that he would like to talk to her more, and asked if she would like to come up to his room for coffee.  She declined, he accepted that gracefully, and that was that.

Later, in a vlog entry, she described the incident and said "Guys, don't do this."  The comments became heated quickly, with women generally saying "Yes, don't do this." and men generally saying "Don't do what? Talk  to women we find interesting?" It became a thing and descended into a lot of name-calling, and I think contributed greatly to the forming of a schism within the atheist movement.  At the core of it all is privilege, or to use a clearer description, the issue is that women and men see this narrative completely differently.

In general, men see a guy who was polite, who asked a question, was told no, and accepted that no.  This is what we're supposed to do, right?  "No means no!"  Ok, got it.  But how do we know what her answer is if we don't ask?  What's wrong with asking a polite question?  And so on...

This was basically my view of the matter when I read about it.  It was expressed by Richard Dawkins, and many others.  Basically, "The guy did nothing wrong, he asked a question.  So what?"

Honestly, I would have dismissed the whole thing right there, except for some people who I trust to be fair-minded about these things blogging in support of the woman.  So I looked deeper.  I started by asking my partner, Aly, what she thought of the whole thing.  Her response was immediate, and echoed what many other women had said.  Basically, "Getting into an elevator with me at 4am and asking me back to your room is not ok." There was some room in Aly's view for context, body language, and so on, but clearly the issue was more complex than a simple invitation, and the elevator setting and late hour both had a lot to do with that.  She described for me what it is like to live in perpetual fear of being raped, which reduced me to tears.  Again, I had no idea that women are living like this.  I mean, was aware that they had to be cautious or something, but... what the fuck?  Ever Mainard illuminates some of this in her stand-up routine, Here's Your Rape:.  A Jezebel article described this routine as being within the realm of acceptable rape humor, for making fun of rape culture rather than rape victims, but I mostly found it horrifying because I've never before gotten to see this from a woman's perspective.
"The problem is that every woman in her entire life has that one moment when you think, 'Oh! Here's my rape!'"
Seriously, W.T.Fuck?  How do we accept a society where anyone has to live like that?

I knew by now that privilege was the label for why I couldn't perceive how painful and difficult it was to be not-me in this context.  It still baffled me some, and I still experience cognitive dissonance about it, but I believe her.  She would know what it's like to be a woman, after all, and I wouldn't.

Last night a friend sent me a link to Schrodinger's Rapist, another post that I really, really highly recommend.  Again, reading through this, I find myself thinking "Are you kidding me?  What's wrong with that?".  But then I scroll down, and I read the comments, and I see all of the women who strenuously agree that this is how they feel about it, and I doubt myself.  I still don't understand it all, and I still haven't reconciled my worldview with theirs, but...

I also know that they're not just being hysterical, or overreacting.  Their position seems foreign to me because they live in a different world than I do, but I believe them.  It contradicts my intuition that I should have the right to strike up a polite conversation with anyone, anywhere, at anytime.  Still, I can see that I'm in the position of "privilege" in this context, that there are thorns that have never pricked me, that I am unaware of some things that are very important to the people who are disagreeing with me.  It's cause to pause, to refrain from dismissing, and to really try to understand where they're coming from.

This is where it all starts.  I'm wrong about some things, after all.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

To grow, we must examine

A letter from a professor chastising some of his Christian students, and a blog entry from Natalie Reed chastising some of her fellow atheists both remind us of the same thing:

It is important to be willing to consider other viewpoints.

Sometimes an opposing viewpoint is hard to read.  Sometimes the discomfort of cognitive dissonance causes us to shut new ideas out.  Sometimes we feel personally attacked.  Sometimes our assumptions just get the better of us.

I have struggled with all of these hurdles.  I think most of us have.  Kathryn Schulz gives a great TED talk on being wrong, and the challenges involved in even recognizing it.  One of her points is that, while we all know what it fees like to discover that we have been wrong about something (the horror!), the wrong opinions that we still hold feel exactly like being right.  No one is aware of being wrong in the present, because the moment you realize a view is wrong you cease to hold it.  We are only aware of being wrong in the past.  It's a universal problem with human thinking.

"...trusting too much in the feeling of being on the correct side of anything can be very dangerous.  This internal sense of rightness that we all experience so often is not a reliable guide to what is actually going on in the external world."

Statistically, we can be virtually guaranteed that not all of our beliefs are correct.  I don't know how to calculate that, but the odds against must be extraordinary.

Realizing this is a tremendously important part of skepticism, of critical thought.  It is not enough to pat ourselves on the back for the things we have (supposedly) gotten right.  I'm not satisfied that we are simply willing to change our opinions when presented with compelling evidence.  We can acknowledge that some of our beliefs must be wrong, and then endeavor to discover which ones.  I am wrong. I don't what about, but dammit, I'm wrong about something.

Listening to, and genuinely, generously, examining the viewpoints of others is an excellent way to discover some of our own wrongly held views.

p.s.  Her book, Being Wrong, is a joy to read.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Making Monty Hall intuitive

In my last post I explored the Monty Hall problem, and specifically the differences between the standard version in which Monty has knowledge, and what I called the Opponent version in which a door is revealed randomly.

In this post I won't go into that detail, I'm going to assume that you're now familiar with both versions and you know that the Monty version wins 2/3 of the time if you switch, while the Opponent version is still 50/50, even if you don't understand why.  In the comments of that original post I described an alternate way to view the problem that, for me at least, makes this whole thing really obvious.  I haven't seen it described that way elsewhere, so I want to elaborate in the hopes that this will help some people intuitively see why Monty Hall works, as well as why that isn't initially obvious.

I want to show you the smoke and mirrors at work.

I'm going to describe a number of scenarios.  It will not be obvious at first, but every one of these scenarios will be equivalent to the standard Monty Hall problem.  I will begin with a version in which it is (probably) super-obvious to you that switching is the right thing to do, and then move gently towards the standard Monty Hall description where things are less obvious but still identical when you look behind the curtain. In all versions, the problem is the same as the standard Monty Hall except in the ways described.

It is my hope that you will see that these problems are all the same, and that they only differ in how well they hide the advantage you receive by switching.

Version 1.  The super-obvious version:
You pick Door 1, but it is not opened.
Monty gives you the option to instead choose to open both Doors 2 and 3, and if the prize is behind either one of them, you win.
Should you switch?

This one is obvious, or should be.  You get to win if the prize is behind either Door 2 or Door 3, giving you a 2/3 chance to win if you switch.  Critical concepts that will be repeated in all other versions are:
- This is a 2-for-1 guess, that is why you get a 2/3 chance to win if you switch.
- Another way to look at that is that you've been given the opportunity to make 1 choice that actually reveals a pair of doors.

All future versions will contain these same features; that is why they work.

Version 2:
You pick Door 1, but it is not opened.
Monty tells you that, if the prize is behind Door 2, he is going to move it to Door 3.  If the prize is behind Door 3, he is going to leave it there.
You are then given the chance to open Door 3 instead of Door 1.
Should you switch?

Yes, absolutely.  Door 3 now wins if it had the prize originally, or if the prize was originally behind Door 2.  Only if the prize was originally behind Door 1 does switching lose.  You have a 2/3 chance, and again we have been given a single choice that essentially reveals a pair of doors.

Version 3:
You pick Door 1, but it is not opened.
Monty tells you that you can pick Doors 2 and 3 as a pair, and if the prize is behind either one of them, he will open that door, and you will win.
Should you switch?

Yes.  If the prize is behind either door you win, giving you a 2/3 chance by switching.  Again the doors are treated as a pair.

Version 4:
You pick Door 1, but it is not opened.
Monty tells you that you can pick Doors 2 and 3 as a pair.  If you do so and the prize is behind one of them, he will open the other one (the loser) and then let you actually open the winner.
Should you switch?

Yes.  If the prize is behind either door you win, giving you a 2/3 chance by switching.  Again the doors are treated as a pair.  Notice how close we are to the description of the original problem.

Version 5:
You pick Door 1, but it is not opened.
Monty tells you that he is going to open a losing door from the pair of doors made by Doors 2 and 3.  He will then give you the option to switch to the unopened door.
Should you switch?

Yes.  Same as before, these doors are treated as a pair.  2/3 chance to win by switching.  Notice how this is identical to the previous version.

Version 6, the original problem re-framed to not specify which door Monty opened:
You pick Door 1, but it is not opened.
Monty tells you that he is going open a losing door, but he will never open the door you've already picked.  He will then give you the option to switch to the remaining door.
Should you switch?

Yes.  2/3 chance to win by switching. Though he hasn't said so explicitly, Monty is treating Doors 2 and 3 as a pair because he isn't going to open the door you already picked.  His choice therefore is out of Doors 2 & 3, and by using his knowledge to eliminate a sure loser from that pair, he makes it so that you have 1 choice that wins if either of these doors has the prize.  It is more obvious that they are a pair here, than in the standard Monty version, because we have not specified which of the two is a loser, and which remains.

Version 7, the original problem:
You pick Door 1, but it is not opened.
Monty tells you that he is going to open a losing door for you.
Monty opens Door 3, revealing a goat.
You are given the option to switch to Door 2.
Should you switch?

Yes.  You have a 2/3 chance to win by switching.  What makes this trick your mind is that you are likely to frame the problem as "Should I pick Door 1 or Door 2?" when the correct framing is "Should I pick Door 1 or the door that remains from the Door 2/Door 3 pair?" (which in this particular case happens to be Door 2)  As in all other versions, Doors 2 & 3 are treated as a pair.  You get to win if the prize was behind either of them.  You get a 2-for-1 guess, but if you're thinking of Door 2 as itself and not as representative of the pair, then your brain is likely to experience the disbelief that makes this a veridical paradox.  Your choice is not between two doors, but between a single door and a pair of doors. When given the opportunity to switch to a pair of doors, your brain gets it.  When given the opportunity to switch to a door that represents a pair of doors, your brain can easily miss the hidden value there.

The Monty version (knowledge based choice) isn't the same as the Opponent version (random choice) because in the Opponent version the opponent is opening a door that might be a winner.  If the prize is revealed, you lose.  Monty never reveals the prize, he reveals information that gives you the option to make a 2-for-1 guess.  In this way, Monty's action is guaranteed to help you, whereas the opponent will cause you to immediately lose 1/3 of the time (the times when he guesses correctly.)  Nothing that the opponent does creates a situation where you can win if either of 2 doors has the prize.  The opponent does not create a 2-for-1 guess for you.

Does this help make the problem intuitive for anyone else?

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Knowledge and Monty Hall

Sam Harris' book, The Moral Landscape, introduced me to the Monty Hall problem. People who love big words call this problem a veridical paradox, which basically means that the correct answer defies common sense.  Most people, even after having the answer explained to them, still have this unsettled feeling about it.  If you've never seen this before, you are almost guaranteed to think "but that can't be right!"

You can read about the problem on the Wikipedia page I linked above.  You can also read a description by Barbara Drescher here.  The purpose in bringing this up is to illustrate how our brains can fail us.  How common sense can be dead wrong.  How an assumption about the world can therefore be dead wrong, and how critical it is that we look deeply and think critically.

This applies to all sorts of things.  Evolution, for example, is not an intuitively obvious process, and I suspect that this is the source of much resistance to the idea.  Even after understanding evolution I sometimes think about the complexity of even a goldfish and think "wait, that isn't designed?"

So back to Monty Hall.  Here's the most popular version of it:

Suppose you're on a game show, and you're given the choice of three doors: Behind one door is a car; behind the others, goats. You pick a door, say No. 1 [but the door is not opened], and the host, who knows what's behind the doors, opens another door, say No. 3, which has a goat. He then says to you, "Do you want to pick door No. 2?" Is it to your advantage to switch your choice?

The answer is yes, it is to your advantage to switch, because if the odds of Door No. 1 winning are 1 in 3, and the odds of Door No.3 winning are 2 in 3.   Your brain might riot at this suggestion, but its true.  I will briefly describe why this works a little later, but the links to Wikipedia and Drescher above include pretty pictures, so you may prefer that.  The odds are not equal between these two doors.   The key thing that your brain probably does not intuitively recognize is that you have the ability to take advantage of someone else's knowledge.

Drescher's description of the problem and its solution included this phrase:
"The issue of knowledge is a factor in our processing of the problem, but it’s not what Monty knows that matters. It’s what you (the subject of the problem) know."

It is not clear to me whether Drescher has misunderstood the deeper nature of the problem, or if she has just been unclear with her wording.  In any case, the phrase "it's not what Monty knows that matters" is very misleading.  What Monty knows is crucial.  What Monty knows is what makes this whole thing work.  What Monty knows about which door is the winner is what makes these two options unequal.

To illustrate this, we can change the problem slightly.  This time, instead of Monty opening the other door, we will alter the problem so that you have an opponent:

Suppose you're on a game show, in the final round with your opponent.  Because you are ahead, you are allowed to reserve a door (but not open it) before your opponent picks.  Behind one door is a car; behind the others, goats.  You pick Door No. 1 but the door is not opened.  Your opponent picks Door No. 3 and this door is opened, revealing a goat.  Your host now gives you the opportunity to switch to Door No. 2 if you wish.  Is it to your advantage to switch?

In this case, the answer is no, it does not matter.  Door No.1 and Door No.2 in this version of the problem have equal chances to be correct, and the difference is that your opponent did not have any knowledge of which door was the winner when she picked Door No. 3.  It was not a revealing of information, it was a guess.  You do get more information, in the sense that you now know that Door No. 3 is a loser, but in this version that doesn't help you pick between 1 and 2.  Here's why:

I find this easier to explain in the multiple universes sense.  In the original problem, there are 3 possible universes that you could be living in:

Universe 1:
C G G   <- the prizes behind the doors
1  2  3   <- the door numbers
^  ?  ?    <- the various guesses and reveals
In this universe there is a car (C) behind door number 1, and you have picked this door as shown by the (^) symbol.  In this case Monty will reveal either door 2 or 3 and if you switch you will lose.  This is the 1 case out of 3 where switching is not to your advantage.

Universe 2:
1  2  3
^  ?  X

In this universe there is a car (C) behind door number 2.  You have picked door 1 as shown by the (^) symbol.  In this case Monty will always reveal door 3 (X), because Monty knows which door has the car.  This is a case where you win if you switch your guess.

Universe 3:
1  2  3
^  X  ?

In this universe the car is behind door 3, you have picked door 1, and Monty will always reveal door 2 (X) as a loser, because Monty knows.  This is a case where you win if you switch your guess.

So that's the original problem, and in 2 of the 3 possible scenarios you win if you switch your guess.

Here's the altered version.  In it, your opponent's guess is random, as was yours.  For clarity we will pre-assume that you have guessed door no 1, and your opponent has guessed door no 2 in all cases.  Since neither of you know anything about which doors is the winner, this configuration of guesses is essentially the same as any other.

Universe 1:
1  2  3
^  L  ?

In this universe the car is behind 1, and your opponent has lost by guessing door 2 (L).  If you switch you will lose.

Universe 2:
1  2  3
^ W ?

In this universe the car is behind 2, which your opponent has guessed (W).  You lose.  If you have a choice to make at all, you are not in this universe.  Critically, this is the condition that never happens in the version where Monty reveals a door that he knows to be a loser for you, and this is what makes the two versions different.  In the previous version this Universe is a winner for you, but in this one it is a loser.

Universe 3:
1  2  3
^  L  ?

In this universe the car is behind 3, and you will win if you switch.

Out of these 3 universes, you can only be in 2 of them if you have a choice to make at all, and of those 2 possibilities, in one of them you win if you switch and in the other you lose if you switch.  It's 50/50 this time.

So there's an extra layer of paradox.  You picked 1, and someone opened another door, revealing a goat.  Should you switch?  It depends on what the person who opened the door knows.  If Monty opened the door with the deliberate intent to reveal a loser to you, then you should switch because that makes your odds 2/3.  If an opponent selected a door randomly and just happened to reveal that same losing door, then your chances are not affected by switching.  One door is as good as the other.

This is so counter-intuitive that I built a computer simulation of the problem just to verify that I'm not crazy.  The car placement is random.  The contestant's guess is random.  In the Monty version, Monty's reveal is not random, it is based on Monty's knowledge.  In the Opponent version, the opponent's guess is random from the remaining choices.

Here's 1 million runs of the Monty version (Monty reveals, information added):
Opportunities for you to switch: 1,000,000
Wins: 667,103

As we claimed, you win 2/3 of the time in this version by switching, and you always have the chance to switch.

Here's 1 million runs of Opponent version (Opponent guesses, no information added):
Opponent guesses correctly: 333,246 times. (no chance for you to guess)
Opportunities for you to switch: 666,754 times.
Wins by switching: 333,417 times.

As you can see, in this version you win about 1/2 the time that you are given the opportunity to switch, or 1/3 of the time overall.  In the Monty version all of those times when the Opponent guessed correctly would have instead been converted to a condition where you win if you switch.

We might as well call your opponent Scotty, because Scotty doesn't know.  (NSFW, sexual humor, language.  Also, Matt Damon!)  Monty does know, and knowing is half the battle... or 2/3rds... or something.

Failures of human reasoning fascinate me.

Monday, April 30, 2012

Morality roundup

A few things worth sharing on the topic of morality:

First, and perhaps most importantly, Jonathan Haidt gives a TED talk on the differences in moral thinking between liberals and conservatives.  I think liberals in particular will find this to be an interesting challenge to some of their preconceived notions. (19 min)  Haidt also has a book on this topic, titled The Righteous Mind., which I have not read.  Haidt is in the territory of moral relativism, cautioning us against the presumption that someone else's view must be wrong.

Next, in another TED talk, Frans de Waal explores moral behavior in other mammals: (17 min)  He has written The Age of Empathy, which I have not read.

and Jessica Pierce describes some additional instances of animal morality that we have observed.

Finally, in this debate between Sam Harris and William Lane Craig, the origins of morality are explored.  Harris is describing and defending the ideas that he has put forth in his new book, The Moral Landscape, which I am still reading.  Harris' position is that morality stems from the well-being of conscious creatures, and that once we accept this assertion, morality can be objectively examined, even if it is neuroscience is not yet advanced enough to make this a practical matter in many cases.  Harris' ideas challenge both the conservative notions of morality from God or other authority, as well as the liberal notions of moral relativism.  Craig's position is the traditional theological notion that morality comes to us from divinity.  Unfortunately Craig's opposition is largely focused on his refusal to accept that Harris has any basis to assume that well-being has any relationship with morality.  While I recommend seeing the entire thing for fairness and context, in my opinion it is Harris and his ideas that makes this video worth the two hour investment.


My personal take is that there is value in all of these.  Haidt seems to describe morality as it is actually implemented by different people, and de Waal describes that natural origin of our moralistic impulses.  I think the conservative ideas of morality sanctify principles that preserve the group in the face of extreme adversity.  Probably these are behaviors that served us well in our more tribal past, but it does not seem to me that those ideas still serve us well now.  I'm sure it will take you less than 10 seconds to think of several examples where authority and morality were at direct odds with each other.  In-group thinking is valuable when groups compete, and destructive when they lose the opportunity to cooperate.  Finally, purity would have been valuable in a time when medicine, sexual education, and contraceptive care were not available, but in modern times puritanical thinking seems to act to the detriment of women more than it accomplishes anything else.

Finally, while I embrace the idea of the equivalence of many different cultural values, I think Harris is right that there is an objectivity, or at least some objective elements, to morality.  To say that it is abhorrent to stone rape victims to death, and to say that it is proper - these are not morally equivalent positions.  We do not live in a world where all moral opinions are equal.

Overall, I am still exploring and refining my ideas on human morality, and have much more reading to do.

What do you think?

Friday, April 27, 2012

God's will is a dangerous idea.

I want to address the claim that "goodness" comes from doing God's will.  Some would even define goodness as being "an action that God wills", and that outside of knowing God's will, humanity cannot access goodness or morality.

These are very dangerous ideas.  The people who hold them are often good people - moral, well-meaning people who probably reason that God, being infinitely good, would never will anything bad.  From that perspective this idea makes sense, but let's look deeper:

1) God's will makes an action moral (and morally compulsory), no matter how awful we might otherwise think the action to be.  This is not a hypothetical point.  All of the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam) descend from Abraham.  He was ordered by God to murder his child, and was going to do it, and in the Abrahamic faiths this is considered a righteous thing.  In this story, Abraham was stopped from committing the deed, but the message of the tale is still clear: When God orders you to commit an atrocity, you do it.  No questions asked.

2) In the minds of believers who subscribe to this, God willing an act either makes that act intrinsically moral or overrides all other moral considerations (depending on how exactly they view morality.  For some there is no belief in "other moral considerations" to conflict with God's will in the first place because "do God's will" is the ultimate source of moral law.)

3) This can, and does, lead people to commit acts which they would otherwise condemn as immoral.

4) In cases where someone is thoroughly convinced that they are doing God's will, there is essentially nothing that can convince them that what they are doing is wrong.  No argument can be made against this; God's will trumps all.

5) We find, even if you accept that God is real and has a will regarding human behavior, that people are extremely inconsistent in their understanding of what God's will is.  God's will really only comes to people through 3 sources:  divine text, spiritual leadership, and personal revelation.  None of these provides any means of determining God's will which can be generally agreed upon by believers.  Not only have the followers of Abraham split into 3 major religions, but within each of those religions there are myriad sects, each with their own particular interpretation.

For Christians, Christ brought a new message of love and fellowship to the religion, but also said  "Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them."   These messages seem to conflict, and Christianity is rife with disagreement over what is or is not still the law in their post-Christ version of the Abrahamic faith.

On homosexuality, for example, Christianity varies widely.  Some think that God's will is that homosexuals should be killed, and the Old Testament directly supports this.  Others believe that homosexuality is a sin like any other, but that homosexuals themselves are still to be loved.  Still others fully support and embrace homosexuals.  A similar variety of opinion exists within Judaism, and indeed across world religions.  Reasonable people of faith acknowledge that "sincere Christians can legitimately reach different conclusions on particular issues in good faith." So what then, is the will of God?  It's a question that either no one can answer, or that everyone can answer and believe that they have the one true interpretation of God's will.  As moral systems go, that is about as subjective as you can get.

6) According to the Old Testament, God has willed some things that almost any of us would find atrocious.  This creates a situation where any command from God is plausible, because literally nothing would be out of line with what God has willed in the past.  He did destroy the whole world after all, and has promised to do it again.  If you accept that as a godly and good action, then nothing is off the table. Even the bringing of (nuclear?) Armageddon then becomes not a question of morality, but of timing.  I do not suggest that most religious people would come to this conclusion, only that the conclusion is available to them and consistent with the doctrine of "God's will."  (And surely, on a planet with 6 billion people, there are more than a handful that are truly this crazed.)

7) All of these together create a belief structure where it is possible for a person, in good faith, to believe that  it is not only righteous to commit an atrocity, but morally required of them.  History is rife with examples of this, and I will not repeat them all here.  Suffice to say, if you looked into the heart of Al-Qaeda, or the Army of God, or the IRA, you will find people who sincerely believe that they are doing God's will.  The same is no doubt true of Christian terrorists, Jewish terrorists, Muslim terrorists, and religious violence in general.  God's will, God's will, God's will, and God's will.

That is the power and danger of this idea.

At the core of it all is the simple notion that normal human morality can be trumped, that there are circumstances in which it would be ok to murder your child.  It is similar in this respect to the secular notion that "the ends justify the means."  Both of these assert that good can be accomplished through acts that we would otherwise consider to be evil.  Even though I believe that "the ends justify the means" is a very dangerous idea, I also acknowledge that it can at times be true.  We can, in these circumstances, weigh the good that we expect, the evil to be done, and look to whether any net good is done.  The real danger in that case is that the good result is often promised but seldom realized, whereas the evil done to achieve it is immediate and irrevocable.  Almost all evil is performed in this fashion - villains do not wake in the morning, twist their mustaches, and set out to be as awful as possible.  Even Hitler believed that what he was doing was morally justified, and so, we must be careful of our moral systems and how we allow ourselves to justify our actions.  Any action justified with "the ends justify the means" should be considered thoroughly and with suspicion.

Not only does the doctrine of "God's will" allow us to trump normal human morality, but it does so in a fashion that is so vague, so subject to personal interpretation, that anyone can take any position whatsoever, claim it to be the will of God, and stubbornly believe that.  Indeed, this is precisely what we see in the world and in history.  The fact that most religious people will never go on a killing rampage for God does not excuse them for supporting a moral structure that can be is used to justify such actions.

"God's will" as an entire moral system is an idea that is morally bankrupt, both in theory and in practice.  The key point here is not that religious people are immoral; that is obviously not true.  The point is that this moral structure is wrong, and that those moral people who subscribe to the doctrine of "God's will" are moral despite this doctrine, and not because of it.

We simply must keep ourselves in check with a moral system that has objectively understandable benefits to ourselves and to others.  Humanism is one such system.  There are others, each concerned with the effects of our actions on ourselves and others.  This is the foundation of morality, and this is why killing your child is not moral, even if you believe with all of your heart that God wills it.  A moral belief structure that cannot make this distinction is a gateway to justifying evil, and history bears this out.  A path of actual morality does not necessarily demand that you abandon your faith, or God, or your religion, but it does require that the doctrine of "God's will" be put aside.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Evolution is wrong because birds.

A specific person, skeptical of evolution, asked for a plausible explanation to the question "How did flight evolve?"

There are layers of answers to this question, and others like it.  I will start with the general and move toward the specific.

1) A missing piece of the story does not sink the theory.
Let me explain by way of analogy.  A detective is investigating a murder.  The victim was murdered in front of a dumpster in an alley with a single shot from a specific .357 magnum revolver.  Despite public controversy surrounding the matter, the detective knows that this is the murder location because all evidence indicates that the victim was shot here:
- There is a .357 magnum sized bullet hole, corresponding damage, and the characteristic burns and other marks (I won't get graphic) associated with a gunshot wound of this caliber, in the victim's skull.
- A .357 magnum bullet, as well as blood and other biological material from the victim's skull, were found embedded in the front of the dumpster.  Ballistics matches the bullet to a .357 magnum revolver which
- Was found in the dumpster, with signs of having been fired, as well as blood splatter from the victim.
- There is a huge amount of the victim's blood, almost all of it, in the dumpster.
- All blood at the scene matches the victim.
...and so on.  It's airtight, the killing happened here.

-The body was found on the roof of a nearby hotel.
-There is very little blood in the vicinity of the body, nor any other signs that someone was murdered here, apart from the body.
-The blood, which has settled and rigidified due to livermortis, is in the victim's back even though the victim is facedown.
-Going through the security tapes for the hotel, which are all date/time stamped and appear to cover all entrances and exits to the hotel, there does not appear to be anyone lugging a body up to the roof at any point.
-The body does not show additional damage that might be expected during careless transport.

Now, the detective has every reason to believe that the victim was murdered in the alley, in front of a dumpster, by a person with the .357 magnum they found in the dumpster, and that the body was thrown in the dumpster where it drained of blood and was later moved to the nearby roof.  He has no idea how the body was later moved to the roof.  He has no idea why.  He can't explain how someone could have gotten the body up there without showing up on the security footage.
All of the ideas he can think of might seem implausible, such as:
- The body was moved by helicopter?
- The killer later wrapped the body in plastic and carefully hoisted up to the roof?
- The security tapes have been expertly tampered with?
- The body was cleverly hidden inside of luggage when it was moved?

None of these may seem satisfying to the detective, but it doesn't matter, he doesn't need to know the details of how the body got moved to the roof to know that this is what happened.  The victim could not possibly have been killed on the roof, because the evidence does not match that scenario.  The evidence is that this person was shot in front of the dumpster in the alley.  There's a huge hole in his narrative, but it doesn't change the fact that the victim was murdered in the alley, and not on the roof.  Nothing else explains the evidence; there are no other plausible options.  Whatever questions he might have about who, or how, or why, the location of death is a fact.

People can say foolish things like "There's a body on the roof and you think he wasn't killed there?  Like someone is really gonna carry a body to the roof.  Derp derp.  They even checked the security footage, and the body was miraculously not damaged during the "move". There's proof positive that no one moved this body."  (I'll spare you the caps lock.)

These people might be convinced, and might convince others.  They might start and generate a huge following, and have YouTube videos with 2.3 million views, and memes mocking the detective, but they still have no idea what they're talking about.  They are amateur armchair detectives, they are flatly wrong, and the fact that no police or other serious investigators put stock in their version should indicate this to them, but they will prefer instead to assume some vast conspiracy to defile the truth in the name of some imagined agenda.

And so it is with Theory of Evolution.  There are countless species on the Earth, and we do not need to know the details of how every feature of every species evolved to consider evolution an indisputable fact.  Evolution is fact because there is no other explanation for the evidence.  Even if scientists had no idea whatsoever how flying might have evolved, that would not disprove evolution, nor even cast any doubt upon it.

2) The "unbelievability" of a particular theory to a non-expert means nothing.
As do all of the arguments that sound convincing to non-experts, but have not swayed experts.  I want to be clear that I am not invoking an Appeal to Authority Logical Fallacy here.  It does not follow that evolution is necessarily true because expert scientists believe it.

However, a person who is not personally an expert in the subject is also not qualified to dismiss expert opinion on a matter.  This is not to say that a non-expert couldn't uncover evidence or think of an argument that would overturn an established matter, but if experts have seen that evidence and heard that argument, and are unimpressed, and are still satisfied that the theory holds true, then there is no credible reason for a non-expert to believe otherwise.

It is the fool who prefers the word of the non-expert, or to rejects a matter simply because it is not personally understood.  (This would be the Personal Incredulity Fallacy).  It is, of course, not completely impossible that the non-expert is actually correct, but it's very unlikely, and if you go through life believing non-experts on all matters you're going to live an existence of ignorance.  This is the realm of conspiracy theorists, snake oil purchasers, perpetual motion machine builders, seekers of Tesla's "free electricity", and so on.  Don't fall for it.  All those PhDs aren't stupid, or missing some obvious thing that you read on the internet.

3) The actual answer to your question
Is that the evolution of flight is an area under investigation, and there are several schools of thought.  You can read some about it here in this article, or this one, or this one which I found by laboriously... no, wait.  I just googled "what good is half a wing evolution".  Answers about evolution are all over the internet.  Seriously, try it sometime.  You could also read this book, or, if you think you'd be able to read Dawkins without bursting into flames, this one.

4) Wash, Rinse, Repeat?
Most Creationists, after having one doubt addressed, will simply move to the next one.  This is generally because the questions are not being asked in good faith, but in an attempt to find the "gotcha" problem that will stump the evolutionist and demonstrate how wrong they are.  (Oh, the irony.)

Please don't do this.  Seriously.  I totally understand if evolution seems completely and utterly not-plausible to you.  It's a pretty mind-blowing revelation, but look, so is Quantum, and Quantum is just true.  I hate Quantum, it sounds like total nonsense, but apparently the universe doesn't care how I feel because Quantum is real.  If you still have doubts about a scientific theory, see points 1 & 2.  Google it, read some books, study the subject.  If you aren't convinced by popular science write-ups and aren't satisfied with accepting expert opinion, then become a genuine expert yourself (Hint: this involves graduate work at a university).  Only then will any clear-thinking person see your disbelief of an established scientific theory as anything other than an unfortunate misunderstanding on your part.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Echoes of the Big Bang

This XKCD claims a triumphant victory for science.  I never knew what Randall Monroe was referring to, and now I do.  I want to share it with you, because it's beautiful.

After the Big Bang, the universe was extremely hot - hundreds of millions of degrees.  So hot that atoms as we know them could not form.  It was also expanding very rapidly, and cooled as it did so.  Until about 400,000 years after the start, the high temperatures prevented electrons from settling into orbit around a proton to from a hydrogen atom; they would just get ripped away.  We say that matter was ionized, that it was plasma.  That hot plasma was opaque to light in the same way the clouds or fog are. We say that it scattered light. This lasted until things cooled down to a balmy 3000K.  (0K is absolute-zero.  273K is where water freezes.)  

At 3000K, electrons could join protons and form atoms as we know them - no longer ionized, no longer plasma. Once the electrons joined up with protons to make hydrogen that wasn't ionized, these atoms let light pass through pretty easily; the fog had cleared.  At the moment when those atoms began to form, which was fairly sudden, light could freely make it's way across the universe, and did.  Light began traveling from everywhere to everywhere. (I call it light, but it would not have been in the visible spectrum.)

That opaque cloud of ionized matter is called the Last Scattering Surface.  The time when atoms formed is called the recombination epoch, so named because of "recombination" of the protons and electrons into hydrogen, though they were in fact combining for the first time ever.  The "light" that is radiating through the universe from this event is now known as the Cosmic Microwave Background.  We can measure this, and we have.

A satellite called COBE (Cosmic Background Explorer) took the measurements, and they correspond so exactly with the values that the Big Bang Theory predicts, that when overlayed they make a single curve.  The difference between them is less than a pixel in that image.  This is why XKCD put out a fist-pump for science, but it isn't the part that gives me chills.

That plasma cloud is called the Last Scattering Surface because it is the last thing that ever touched (scattered) one of these photons before they reach us.  Photons bounced off the Last Scattering Surface, a cloud of hot plasma, 13.72 billion years ago, traveled across the universe for essentially as long as it's been around, and have arrived here on Earth.  They are coming equally from all directions, these ancient travelers, and we are bathed in them constantly.  Most of the radiation is up at 160Ghz, but some of it also exists down at radio frequencies, and this Cosmic Microwave Background makes up about 1% of the white radio noise we have here on Earth.

This means that when you see snow on an old television, or hear static on an FM radio, a little whisper in that is the recombination epoch.  The universe is reaching out to us from a time so ancient that stars had not yet been born.  Those empty TV channels and radio stations that we thought of as nothing, they were actually playing the beginning of everything.  

Shhhhh, I'm listening to the Big Bang.