Sunday, November 25, 2007

Project Prevarication, Part One: Portents of a Perniciously Potent Problem

I do love alliteration. Last night, a friend of mine and I were drinking and talking, and the subject of relationships came up. Perhaps understandably, the conversation turned from there to talk of lying. My friend told me two stories in which he...let's say "miscommunicated"...information either to someone with whom he was in a relationship or about someone with whom he was in a relationship (we'll get to the stories in a second). My philosopher sense started tickling with both the stories, and we discussed them in relation to the definition of a lie for a while. For much of last night and virtually all of today, I've been preoccupied with the issues we raised last night, and it seems that the more I think about them the stickier the problems become.

In this first post, I just want to lay out the problem as I see it--I want to show that it is sufficiently complex to warrant further investigation. Once that's done, I'll start exploring some of the potential solutions in more depth, and see if I can find a solution that seems satisfactory. For now, though, an introduction to the problem.

Those verbally inclined readers who saw the title will no doubt have deduced that the problem at hand has to do with the lying. Specifically, I'm concerned with doing a conceptual analysis of the notion of a "lie" to see what exactly we mean by that term; I want to investigate what counts as a lie (and what doesn't), and see what those things that count as lies have in common--if we succeed at this task, we'll be in a position to give a tight definition of the concept of a "lie."

Let me start by laying out the two cases my friend told me about. I'm going to call them Case 1 and Case 2.

1. My friend was involved in a long term relationship, but had recently cheated on his partner. His partner became suspicious, and asked him if there was something going on between him and the mistress. My friend responded with a sarcastic tone of voice, saying "Oh yeah, I'm totally sleeping with X." His partner, assuming that the sarcasm indicated that he hadn't really slept with X, was mollified.

2. In another instance, this same friend (this time single) was involved in a relationship that, for various reasons, he wanted to keep under wraps, preferring to give the public impression of a platonic relationship. The girl was coming to stay with him for a weekend, and a third party asked where she planned on sleeping. My friend replied "Well, my couch folds out into a bed, and I have a spare set of sheets." The third party, assuming that his question had been answered, dropped the inquiry.

My question, then, is a relatively simple one: did my friend lie in either case (or in both)? (1) in particular is problematic I think--his literal words were truthful, but their intended purpose was (by his own admission) to give a false impression to his interlocutor. What are we to make of cases like this? Is a lie tied to the actual symbolized semantic content (i.e. words), or to the intention of the speaker? Can one lie with body language? What about (arguably) non-symbolic things like voice inflection or tone?

A few answers to these questions spring to mind, but the more I think about them, the less satisfactory they appear to be. I'm still thinking about this, and will be posting more in the near future. In the meantime, I'd love to hear your thoughts, dear reader.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Signs That the New "Breakthrough" You Read About Might Be Pseudoscience

My last post got me thinking that it might be useful to come up with a list of signs that the new invention/breakthrough/idea you heard about might be pseudoscience. As I said in the last post, in many instances pseudoscience is coming to take the place of spirituality or mysticism as the leading purveyor of crap. This is not to say that spirituality and mysticism aren't still crap (they most definitely are), just that there's a new kid on the scam artist block, and he's wearing a lab coat that looks suspiciously big on him.

Suppose you turn on the morning news, and see that the world is all atwitter because someone has apparently invented....let's say a cloaking device. Like any normal human being, you're excited about the prospect of invisibility. Before you start planning your grand bank heist, though, you might want to stop and ask yourself if this is for real. There are a few warning signs that you should look for that might point to the conclusion that said cloaking device is (unfortunately) bogus. Here they are:

1. The inventor announced his discovery in the press (or advertisements) before the journals.

This is a good early warning sign, as real scientists will virtually always present a legitimate discovery to the peer-reviewed community before touting that discovery in the public sphere (or trying to sell it). There's good reason for this: if the inventor made a mistake in his measurements, forgot to carry the one in his calculations, or has simply created something that is not reproducible, the peer-review process will catch the mistake before everyone gets all excited about something like free energy. That's one of the reasons the scientific process works so well--new discoveries get scrutinized from every angle before they go into production. Scammers know this--and also know that they've got nothing legitimate to offer--so they will announce their "amazing new product" to the much more credulous mainstream media first.

2. You've never heard of the guy pitching it (and neither has anyone else)

Is the inventor the night janitor at McDonald's? Be skeptical. Of course, there really are unrecognized prodigies out there, and it is within the realm of possibility that some undiscovered genius tinkering in his garage might give the world the flying car, but it is highly unlikely. Perhaps unfortunately, the fact of the matter is that someone without a scientific background is most likely not knowledgeable enough in physics, electrical engineering, chemistry, and other disciplines that would integral in the creation of our cloaking device. Most big discoveries come from people who have dedicated their lives to their discipline, and who have access to the resources (e.g. grad students) necessary to develop groundbreaking new technology.

3. It seems like too big a leap

Would it surprise you to learn that the very first computer had 2 gigs of RAM and a 3.0 GHz CPU? It should, because it's false. The first computer (depending on how you define the term) was either the abacus (~2500 BCE) or Babbage's Analytical Engine (1837) which, though never constructed, paved the way for modern computing in terms of design. The important point is that the modern computer was not invented from scratch overnight, but rather evolved slowly as small improvements on previous designs accrued. Issac Newton famously said of his advancements (e.g. the invention of calculus and the revolution of physics) "If I have seen a little further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants." Newton recognized that his own work built upon centuries of work by others, and most other legitimate inventors recognize the same; be skeptical if someone claims to have invented a cloaking device if you've not seen any prototypes/earlier work he might have built on. Giant steps don't just happen over night.

4. The Inventor won't explain how it work, and won't demonstrate it in public

When asked to explain how his cloaking device works, does Mr. Inventor demur, dodge the question, or simply refuse to explain? That should be another warning sign. Someone with an actual amazing invention to share is going to want to tell everyone about it, describe how it works in detail, and give as many transparent demonstrations as possible--the more people who know about it, the better! If Mr. Inventor really has created a cloaking device, he should be shouting it from the rooftops and showing it off everywhere (the better to win a Nobel Prize). Be wary too of scheduled demonstrations that are called off at the last second because of "technical difficulties," or if Mr. Inventor claims that how his device works is "a secret."

5. The Inventor is willing to explain how it works, but the explanation is full of buzzwords and empty of substance.

This one's a little trickier, and really only applies to those with at least a modicum of scientific understanding (which likely means you, if you're reading this blog). Watch out for inventions whose inner workings are explained with hand-wavy appeals to "quantum mechanics," "electromagnetism" and the like. Just as with Number 1, this has to do with the fact that the average person doesn't know much about science (and knows it), and thus is easily wowed by lots of buzz words. If you're a computer person, you already know this is true: next time someone asks you to fix his computer, try explaining the problem in totally nonsensical (but impressive sounding) terms (e.g. "Well, it looks like your fiber optics are overclocked, which is causing problems in your heat sink. I'll have to defragment your RAM and remagnetize your transistors. This might take a while"). He'll accept it, in just the same way that many people will accept an explanation of a cloaking device along the lines of "It creates quantum electromagnetic inference, which blocks light in the visible spectrum." It does what? That doesn't really make any sense, but if you didn't know that, you might accept it as an explanation. Do a little research, and see if the buzzword heavy statement you saw in TV goes any deeper--if it doesn't, you've probably got a fraud on your hands.

It is worth mentioning that though these signs should make you skeptical, the presence of one (or even more) doesn't necessarily indicate a scam, and a clever scammer might find a way to hawk his product without triggering these warning signs. Be critical, be skeptical, and make up your own mind.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Some Reality Apologetics

The ostensible purpose of this blog (if you believe the title) is to present a cogent and entertaining defense of reality. In practice, that means that when I see evidence of egregious supernaturalism or magical thinking in the mainstream (Fox News doesn't count), I like to point it out as the poppycock it is. This is particularly important when the hucksters peddling the poppycock in question are using it to prey on the hopes and dreams of the innocent, which brings us to today's post.

Most of the time, supernaturalism of the sort that irritates me (so really any sort) comes in the guise of religion or spirituality. See this post for an example of this. I suppose it can only be expected, though, that given the more scientific and technical nature of modern society, supernaturalism has arisen in another guise--science as magic. This is not terribly new, I guess, as it dates back at least to the proverbial "snake oil" that's been around for centuries, but the level of sophistication has certainly risen; instead of potions and elixirs, now we get quantum entanglement and DNA.

Our lesson for tonight comes in the form of an "invention" built by one Mr. Danie Krugel, an ex-cop from South Africa. This "invention" (and I use the term loosely) is (wait for it) a "quantum DNA-GPS box" that can supposedly locate anyone anywhere in the world if it is fed a strand of hair or a bit of dead skin. Seeing the word "quantum" in an invention's title should immediately set off alarm bells, because it's a beloved moniker of the modern-day shyster; there's so much we don't understand about quantum mechanics (and the average lay-person understands only a fraction of that) that an unscrupulous salesman can explain just about any seemingly magical effect by an appeal to quantum mechanics. Little-understood science, here, has taken the place of little-understood magic.

Leaving aside for a moment the question of how an ex-cop has the know-how to create ANYTHING harnessing quantum mechanics or DNA, let's have a look at how Mr. Krugel's device (supposedly) works. According to him, you insert a sample of the subject's DNA into a little box, it does "something" and then (somehow) uses quantum mechanics to spit out the subject's location in GPS coordinates. Useful? Hell yes. Plausible? Less so. Mr. Krugel has been less than forthcoming about how his device works, which should be another immediate warning sign--if he could really do what he claims, he's be first in line for a Nobel Prize (among many other awards), and so we're forced to ask why he isn't publishing in scientific journals, distributing the device for other scientists to look at, and generally doing all the things that a legitimate inventor with a legitimate (and totally amazing!) invention would be doing.

Thus far, it seems that we've got nothing more than a run-of-the-mill crank on our hands--guy claims to invent something spectacular and revolutionary, demurs when asked to explain how it works, announces a big test of the device, fails to deliver on this promise, and then makes up excuses about why he failed to deliver. This is nothing new (Steorn's free energy machine, anyone?), but what Mr. Krugel is doing with his "technology" is disgustingly novel: he's claiming to be able to find abducted children, then leading their parents on months long treks through Africa, only to have his quarry (who, he assured the parents, was "alive and on the move") discovered very dead in the forest, victim of a snake bite, then reporting the finding as a successful demonstration of his invention. This is, I think it goes without saying, absolutely despicable. Even if Mr. Krugel does not have malicious intent, does he really think that the best place to refine his prototype is in such a high-stakes arena? What about the countless man-hours that might be wasted looking in the wrong place if he is incorrect (as it seems he often is)? Does this man have no conscience?

Questions of morality aside, this device seems to "operate" on some very sketchy science. How does it pinpoint the location of the sample's "sister" DNA? How is it not fooled by the myriad of skin cells and hairs each of us sheds every day? How does a little tiny box extract DNA from a strand of hair, something that generally takes a forensic laboratory and copious amounts of time? Why would DNA exhibit any kind of special quantum interaction? It's just a molecule like any other, and it seems akin to saying "put some salt in this box, and I'll locate all other salt in the universe." Why does it seem to only work once in a while?

Here are a few easy things Mr. Krugel could do to demonstrate that his product is real:

1. Publish. Get a paper in a peer-reviewed journal about how the device works, and let other scientists critique it.

2. Give a public, open, clear demonstration of the device's function. Let's get a random sample of people, have them donate some DNA, and see how close Mr. Krugel's device comes to pinpointing their location. I'd be impressed by a 30% success rate (especially if he could get a location narrowed down to a half-mile radius or less), which is far less than his claimed 90% success rate.

3. Explain to the public how it works. No mystical appeals to mysterious physics, no jargon--just a simple, clear explanation about a new technology. People do it all the time, even with very complex equipment.

Do these three things, Mr. Krugel, and you'll at least have me listening. Until then, I'm pretty sure you're a liar, and quite possibly a horrible human being as well.

Edit: One additionally disappointing thing about this story is the degree to which the media has jumped on the Daine Krugel bandwagon, reporting the story about his working "helping" to find a missing girl with the same dry earnestness you'd expect them to employ when discussing, you know, actual forensic techniques. This, more than anything else, is why shysters like Mr. Krugel pitch their "inventions" to the media rather than the scientific community; normal media is much easier to fool, and much easier to wow with terms like "quantum entanglement."

Friday, November 16, 2007

Hobo Names

Because it's Friday night, and I'm bored and alone at work, here's some comic relief.

Most of you are undoubtedly familiar with John Hodgman, Daily Show correspondent and "PC" in the "Mac vs. PC" ad campaign. For those not familiar, he's very, very funny and has an amazing gift for timing (which is 90% of comedy). I stumbled today on an hour long MP3 of him reciting (in his usual deadpan) 700 hobo names he made up, while someone else plays a meandering rendition of "Big Rock Candy Mountain" on the guitar in the background. If you, like me, have an hour to kill, I'd highly suggest a listen: some of the names are absolutely hilarious. To whet your appetite, a sampling of some of my favorites:

Stingo the Bandana Origami Prodigy
Thermos H. Christ
Lord Winston Two Monacles
Abraham the Secret Collector of Decorative China
Linny, the Lint Collector
Pa Churchill
The Young Churchill
The Young Curchill's Hated Bride
Gooseberry Johnson, Head Brain of the Hobosphere
Blind Buck, and Woozy the Invisible Seeing Eye Dog
Fake Cockney Accent Allan Strip
Sir Francis Drank
Mariah Duck Face, the Beaked Woman
Shape-shifting Demon
Irving Alva Edison, Inventor of the Hobophone
Pring, Ultra-Lord of the Hobo Jungle
Fourty Nine State Frank, the Alaskaphobe
Panzo the Spiral Cut Ham
Sanford Who Lacks Fingerprints
Hando Whatever That Lizard Is That Walks on Water
El Caballo, The Spanish Steed
Father Christian Irish, the Deep Fat Friar
Bum Hating Virgil Hatebum
Thor the Bum Hammer
Most Agree It's Killpatrick
Myron Biscuit Spear, the Dumpster Archaeologist
Shagrat, Orc of the Ozarks
Unger and his Dust Storm Bride
Rocky Shit Stained Mankowitz
Rocky Shit Stained Mankowitz Part II: The Quickening
Experimental Hobo Infiltration Droid 61-K

I especially like "Sir Francis Drank."


Philosophy for Kids

Courtesy of the British Psychological Society's Research Digest Blog comes confirmation of something I've been saying for a long time: philosophy (i.e. advanced conceptual critical thinking skills) ought to be included in any school's curriculum in just the same way that training in math, reading, social studies is. Snip from the digest:

One hundred and five children in the penultimate year of primary school (aged approximately ten years) were given one hour per week of philosophical-inquiry based lessons for 16 months. Compared with 72 control children, the philosophy children showed significant improvements on tests of their verbal, numerical and spatial abilities at the end of the 16-month period relative to their baseline performance before the study.

Now Topping and Trickey [the study authors] have tested the cognitive abilities of the children two years after that earlier study finished, by which time the children were nearly at the end of their second year of secondary school. The children hadn't had any further philosophy-based lessons but the benefits of their early experience of philosophy persisted. The 71 philosophy-taught children who the researchers were able to track down showed the same cognitive test scores as they had done two years earlier.

These ten year olds got one hour per week of philosophical training for a year and a half, and are still seeing "significant gains" (I don't know what that means, because I don't want to pay $18 to read the study--anyone at a university, feel free to look it up and comment). This is even more interesting when you consider that the study also found that, two years later, the control group (those without any philosophical training) had actually declined cognitively, while the study group had continued to gain. Those are rather impressive results.

Critical thinking--the ability to objectively and critically evaluate the statements and arguments of others, form reasoned opinions, and express those opinions clearly and precisely--is an absolutely vital skill these days (even if you're not going to dedicate your life to philosophy), and this is definitely something we should be training our kids in. Who knows--maybe we'll even get a better President out of the deal some day...

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Some More Extended Mind Stuff: External Memory

National Geographic recently ran a feature on memory, highlighting two well-known case studies: "EM" (who has both retrograde and anterograde amenesia as the result of a viral infection that destroyed most of his hippocamus, the part of the brain responsible, among other things, for turning experiences into long-term memories, leaving him in a "spotlight" of consciousness, aware only of his sensations from moment to moment), and "AJ" (who has a hyper-accurate memory, and can recall in detail every day of her life since seventh grade). Additionally, they discuss memory in general, saying the following about the effect of technology on memory:

But over the past millennium, many of us have undergone a profound shift. We've gradually replaced our internal memory with what psychologists refer to as external memory, a vast superstructure of technological crutches that we've invented so that we don't have to store information in our brains. We've gone, you might say, from remembering everything to remembering awfully little. We have photographs to record our experiences, calendars to keep track of our schedules, books (and now the Internet) to store our collective knowledge, and Post-it notes for our scribbles. What have the implications of this outsourcing of memory been for ourselves and for our society? Has something been lost?

My disagreement with the extended mind thesis is documented, but that ontological dispute aside, I'm certainly willing to admit that the average person--even the average educated person--must remember many fewer facts today than 50 or 100 years ago in order to function. This is, as the National Geographic indicates, because the average person has immediate access to much more reliable information than the average person 50 or 100 years ago. Does the fact that the access to information is immediate and trustworthy (with the aid of the appropriate technology) make it memory in anything like the sense of biological memory? No--but that's not my point here. I want to discuss the question raised in the last two sentences of the National Geographic snip above: has something been lost in switch from storing information toward skill at accessing information? Again, I think the answer is a resounding 'no.'

It seems, actually, that something has been gained. The October/November issue of "Scientific American: Mind" magazine includes an article by James R. Flynn about the 'Flynn Effect'--the enormous increase in IQ in the last 100 years. The article notes that "Gains in Full Scale IQ and Raven's [IQ test score] suggest that our parents are some nine to 15 points duller than we are, and that our children [i.e. me and, more than likely, you] are some 9 to 15 points brighter." That would imply that our (i.e. post-baby-boomers') grandparents' generation had an average IQ of around 75--that's mildly mentally retarded by today's standards. I think most people will agree that their grandparents were not mentally handicapped, so it seems that something odd is going on here.

The Scientific American article argues (convincingly, I think) that this paradox is explained by the fact that people today are, from a very young age, trained much more for analysis and data processing than ever before. The obvious question, which I don't think the article satisfactorily addresses, is "why is this the case?". The answer, I think, should be relatively obvious: the fact that I have very easy access to vast information--more information that my grandparents could have dreamed--so long as I know how to access it means that much, much more of my brain is dedicated to skill at accessing and processing data compared to my grandparents, who had to dedicate substantial portions of their brains to storage of data.

Again, I think the question of whether or not my skill at using Google constitutes memory (it doesn't) is irrelevant to this discussion: the point is that the fact that I know I can access virtually any fact virtually whenever I want means that I don't have to remember, say, the formula for the area of a pyramid. Instead, I can spend the effort that I might have spent to memorize all those facts toward increasing my critical thinking skills--again, which is what IQ tests primarily measure.

Access to information has increased at an amazing rate even within my (relatively short) lifetime, and I suspect that it will continue to increase as technology advances. It is interesting to consider how human intelligence will advance in kind.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

I'm a big fan of vocabulary use, and I'm a big fan of people not starving to death. Thus, I'm a very big fan of The project, run by the same folks that run is the sort of thing that makes you wonder "why didn't I think of this?"

The crux of the site is a multiple choice vocabulary quiz--you'll be given a word and four choices for the definition, then asked to pick the correct one. For every word you correctly define, FreeRice will donate 10 grains of rice to the UN's End World Hunger campaign. Ten grains may not seem like much, but it adds up rather quickly; correctly define ten words, and you've donated a bowl of rice that will feed one person.

The game has 50 "levels," and dynamically scales as you progress; when you miss a few questions in a row, it dials itself back a difficulty level, and when you get a few questions right in a row, it bumps the difficulty up. According to the website, it is "very rare" for people to get past level 48. My current record stands at 46 47, so I urge you to go to the website and try to beat me (oh, and feed some people while you're at it).

Monday, November 12, 2007

New Look

How do you like the new look? Thanks to my kick-ass friend Brian (who, sadly, has no blog to link to) for making the header graphic!

No Really, Democrats Are Different (Somehow...Maybe)

I hope everyone's getting excited for the approaching National Bible Week (November 18th--one week from today!). Congress certainly is, as evidenced by this gut-wrenching parade of Democrats taking up actual Congressional time to talk about how awesome a 2000+ year old piece of poorly written fiction is. Watch the video (care of Shakesville), but maybe take an anti-emetic first:

The Democrats like to talk about being the party of reason and intellect (opposing themselves to those dirty irrational Republicans), but every now and then something like this comes along to expose that for the egregious lie it is. How is it possible that in the 21st century, with all the problems of war, terrorism, global climate change, unemployment, and more war, these leaders of the Democratic party think that it's acceptable to take up any Congressional time to praise this garbage?

PZ Meyers over at Pharyngula takes this opportunity to ask "Can We Form a Rationalist Party Now?", a dream that I certainly share. However, Alonzo Fyfe, the Atheist Ethicist, points out that this might not be the best idea. Snip:

Assume, for the sake of argument, that rationalists tend to support Democrats over Republicans. If a Rationalist Party removes the rationalist vote from the Democratic Party, the Democratic candidates are going to have to make up those votes somehow. The only option is to embrace theocracy even more strongly than it has in the past, in order to seduce a larger percentage of theocratic voters out of the Republican Party. The result is to drive both major parties (the only parties capable of fielding viable candidates) even closer to theocracy.
This is a real danger, as we saw in the 2000 election with the Green Party--in a two party system, mobilizing any relatively large minority group (as rationalist voters would be) always runs the risk of simply making them not count. As Alonzo points out, the magic number in the American system is 51%; anything lower than that and you might as well not exist. This, of course, isn't true across the board, but at a national scale it is more or less the case. Our system, in contrast to other democracies (e.g. the UK) is a winner-take-all two party system: it doesn't matter who came in second or third--only the winning party counts. Unfortunately, that means that even if the Green Party (or the Rationalist Party) makes a very good showing, they don't win anything.

So what's the answer? In the long run, election reform; the system in the United States is outdated and in need of several serious overhauls. In the short term, I suspect that Alonzo is correct in that Rationalist Voters should focus on establishing a "Rationalist Caucus" within the Democratic party rather than a "Rationalist Party" itself. In other words, the best option is to try to steer the Democrats away from blindly endorsing superstition (as they are on that video) and toward recognizing that a substantial number of their constituents are not impressed when they profess to blindly accept the false beliefs of people long dead.

Oh, and how about a "National Constitution Week" to go with that National Bible Week?

Tuesday, November 6, 2007


I haven't abandoned this blog, there just haven't really been any items I've felt like commenting on recently. Things will pick up again--they always do...

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Brain Bag

Every now and then, I wish it were socially acceptable for me to carry a purse. Now is one of those times, given the design of Jun Takashi's new handbag:

Kick. Ass.


(Hat-tip to BoingBoing)