Friday, May 31, 2013

Skepticism Blogs on Non-scientific Topics

Interested in websites that (often) do a good job of fact-checking the claims thrown up in our modern society? Richard Carrier pulled together six websites that do their best on exposing the nonfactual bases of many social claims.

The first one on his list is snopes, which is a really great one to go check whenever you receive an e-mail/see a FB post from "that relative" or "that friend" that really just "smells wrong". (Often, you can just copy-and-paste the factual claim word-for-word into snopes, and up it comes, often with fact-checked sources of rebuttal.) Some of these "facts" have been around for years and years, but rarely does their syntax actually change from when they were first written! For example, this breathless crowing over the duplicity of Obama over the ACA was written in 2009:
It goes on from there in its continued caps-locked-ness. Interestingly, I copied this first line and came up with Snopes. After almost four years after it was debunked, this line had been perfectly preserved from the above when it showed up in my Facebook feed. And Snopes does a good job of checking conspiracy theories of all stripes.

I haven't really checked any of the other sites, but at first glance, they look interesting. I might well check through some of them on a lunch break.

Monday, May 27, 2013

The world (and universe) is not about us... and that's exciting!

Neil deGrasse Tyson counters the depression that some people have associated with learning how insignificant we are (both as individuals as well as humans in general) when faced with the cosmos.

I've never understood the reasoning that underlay much of the arguments of heresy that accompanied the findings of Copernicus and Galileo, just as I've never understood the depression that some (not small number of people) assert they feel when their religious beliefs are assaulted by scientific understandings of how the physical universe actually works. As a kid, I was also of a mind of, "Woah, that's exciting that we are so small in this vast universe!" instead of picturing that it was a special creation made all for us by this or that religion's god(s).

The fact that we are one infinitesimally small collection of species on a relatively small planet circling and average-sized star toward the distant edge of an average sized galaxy shouldn't be depressing, just like the inability to grow wings and fly shouldn't be depressing. It's the existence we live, and we should be excited about the potentials that are there.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Mass-produced skyscrapers

The tallest building in the world will be constructed in only months:

Is this necessarily a bad thing? Does this mean that the near-decade spent on constructing the Freedom Tower in Manhattan is all just "wasted time"?

Well, maybe not a bad thing, and maybe "traditional" construction methods of building skyscrapers will come to be seen as "wasted time". Brian Merchant has the skinny on pre-fab skyscrapers. It's still a new application of technology, but if this takes off, we might well see another boom in skyscraper construction, which can - again - change the skylines of cities - as well as the street-level densities. Of course, we might also just end up with more sky-way connected cities, a-la Metropolis:

In fact, this could prove to be the catalyst to create the "cities of tomorrow" that prognosticators in 1900 and 1950 once dreamed of being here by 2000. Of course, the cynic/realist in me recognizes that The Jetsons will only remain as a cartoon, and not become reality; that Star Trek will only remain as a series of TV shows; that Lost in Space will never become our reality, either. But we can still dream our technicolor dreams. After all, some predictions made in 1900 did - after all - turn out correct(ish).

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Post #1300

Since I believe that I missed out on the rather arbitrary mark of 1000th post, I'm now taking the opportunity to point out - for no other reason than "just because" - that this post marks the 1300th since I started this blogging journey.

Hopefully there will be another arbitrary, more-than-1000 posts to come in the future.

Ruminations on miscegenation

Recently, there was a Heritage Foundation study that a liberalized immigration policy would cost the United States $6.3 trillion. The Colbert Report did a good job of explaining why the context of the Heritage Foundation's report is just ... huh?

Over at The Dish, Andrew Sullivan started up a series of posts - "Is Race Only A Social Construct?", and the posts (in usual Sullivan style) have been thought-provoking.

In the most recent installment - "Racists Love Race Science" - Sullivan concludes the post with this:
I cannot analyze myself – but I’m sure I am affected by my history on this. One part, as I’ve written before, is that my entire education was made possible by an IQ test at age eleven, which gave me entrance to what Americans would call a magnet school. I owe a lot to that test – and it was initiated by the left. Today’s liberals forget that testing IQ was once a leftwing idea. It was designed to rescue the poor from the trap of poverty by giving bright kids from poor backgrounds a swift entry to the British elite. That was the left of the 1940s – and you can look up Keynes and eugenics for further insight into how socialist this idea was in origin. Another part was, indeed, the reaction to my convening a debate on “The Bell Curve” at TNR, in the best-selling issue in that magazine’s history. I saw how some liberals really do not believe in free debate where race is concerned.

But I do not believe that critics of the whole project are fueled by groupthink or emotion alone. There’s a very solid case against race as anything meaningful in our culture, and an even stronger case that in the process of constant miscegenation, we are rendering the whole idea of race moot. I sure hope so. There’s also a strong argument that IQ is of extremely limited use – and, in fact, misses a whole range of intelligences that are often more important to our lives and cultures as humans.

I just refuse to wish the data away. The data shocked me when I first read it, and shocks me still.
As a person who grew up - like Sullivan - in a cultural milieu different from the United States, the structures of "race" were rather puzzling to me when I found myself "back" in the US in 1999. The subsequent fourteen years have given me perspective on the issue, but it continues to remain somewhat of a "foreign" perspective than my own, and I find that I don't have as strong or as deep a sense of (the American construction of) race. However, I do fully recognize that I am the product of miscegenation: a White parent and an Asian parent, and I see no problem with that.

I also sense that there is - in my generation and the ones following mine - less knee-jerk animosity or revulsion to the idea of being mixed-race. After all, it's not my "fault" that my parents didn't live up to someone else's idea about racial purity; I can't change my racial past anymore than anyone else. Being mixed race is - therefore - a moot point when it comes to the concepts of racial purity. I didn't ask to be born this way; I'm not asking to be different; if you can't deal with it, tough cookies.

Of course, the increasing presence of mixed-race (aka "hapa") people - I hope - seriously call into question the very concept of miscegenation, since it presumes that there are distinctions of race that can be made in the first place. However, if I'm half-Asian/half-White, and I get married to a halfie, then are my wife and I engaging in miscegenation, too? In an absolutist sense, the answer is yes: mixed-race individuals who procreate with mixed-race individuals are - by definition - mixing races. However, in the social contexts in which the term is used, the answer is far murkier.

The history of the term "miscegenation" revolves around ideas of racial identity and racial purity. Indeed, it is a relatively recent word, being coined in the US in 1863, in a pamphlet entitled "Miscegenation: The Theory of the Blending of the Races, Applied to the American White Man and Negro", as part of a political hoax to discredit Lincoln and his party by ascribing ideas of mixing the races (only seen as "white" and "negro" at the time; never mind that there were Asians and Native Americans around), which was seen by many Whites as disgusting. This animus of disgust - along with the associated idea of maintaining racial purity - has continued to be associated with the term. Indeed, even after the Civil War, there were laws made to make miscegenation illegal in certain states, and these were maintained through almost 100 years, until the SCOTUS decision in Loving v Virginia. Even after, though, the social taboo of miscegenation continued.

However, for my generation and for those following me, the idea that you could marry someone you love and want to spend your life with is not so strange, even if it means marrying outside your "race" or social class (or both). Of course, there are still some hold-outs (especially among the social conservatives), and a "good" example of this was the reaction among mostly White, mostly conservative, mostly Republican supporters of John Boehner to the marriage of his daughter to a black Jamaican who sported a respectable mane of dreadlocks. To say that the responses from the conservative base were all happy felicitations for the newlywed couple (i.e., the standard, polite, and well-meaning response) would be missing the mark. Indeed the Daily Mail had to stop any further commenting and expunged the existing comments. However, over at the New York Daily News, the comments by these readers were FAR from generous. Looking at the first dozen, we get a few prominently racist comments (and more were found throughout the comments section):
Michelle837 days ago
so many beautiful women ending up with human vomit on legs these days...
norman west7 days ago
she is just another white woman who went black except for who her father is.....she did this to hurt someone....most probably herself....she loathes who she is and despises her life and lifestyle....this is a real psycho that is laying a trip on her family and laying this nap head....with a 14 inch pipe for certain.......
HoChin7 days ago
Dominic doesn't look like he has a whit of education I bet the bride puffs the pipe as well.
Jon Player7 days ago
Boehner is actually darker than him lol
Based on the tone of these comments, it's pretty clear (to me) that they were fueled by anti-miscegenation, racial purity, and social maintenance sentiments. But what about their future children (presuming that they have any)? What sense does the idea of "racial purity" have when you are not at all "pure" and see no problem with it? What happens when more and more Americans are less and less "pure"? The number of mixed-race individuals in the US is growing; according to the US Census Bureau, it grew by three-and-a-half times in the last decade, and in some places - especially in West-Coast cities (and Hawaii), mixed-race Americans make up significant portions of the population.

... so what will "racial politics" look like among a group of people who aren't a single race? Will social pressures (either overt or covert) pressure mixed race citizens to "choose sides" in the dirty politics of racial hatred and bigotry? Will a refusal to do so mean that we are left out completely? Will it be possible to create a "we-don't-care-about-your-single-race-politics" bloc that tries to move thing away from (at minimum) a discussion of "race-is-white-and-black-only" into the realm of increased nuance and understanding that will become our future?

Furthermore, what will "miscegenation" mean to groups of children for whom mixed-race is the norm? When the population of mixed-race individuals tops 50%, will "racially pure" families become the ones who are strange and unnatural? Will there be pressures going the other way; to push more-pure people to meet, date, and marry more-pure people from another mixed-race grouping? Or will people just stop caring about using race as a predominant way to group people? After all, into what stereotypical race-based category would you a "1/2 filipino, 1/2 scottish/german/english" young girl, a "hawaiian, chinese, english, irish, puerto rican" woman, a "half white (irish/german/swedish/italian), half asian (cambodian/thai/chinese)" little boy, a chinese, english, irish, and fijian man, or any person like me and those on the Hapa Project?

Thursday, May 09, 2013

Liking that song from ... Wait... WHEN did you say that was released?!?

I just realized that Laid by James:

... was released in 1993. That's 20 years ago. That means that this song came out when many of this year's crop of juniors at university were born.

Which got me thinking: what was a major song when I was born; a song that would be the analogue to Laid for that 20-year-old junior? A song that would likely have been playing as a "soundtrack throughout my life"? (Well, I don't know if Laid would have played so often in the US, but it was all over the airwaves in the UK whilst I was living there.)

On the week of my birthday, the chart-topper in the US (for people interested in the UK chart-toppers for that week, here you go) was Undercover Angel (I said, "What?"):

...Da Doo Ron Ron (which I did hear quite often growing up) was climbing the charts, moving in at #2:

... Coming in at #3 was Looks Like We Made It, up two places:

... and Bill Conti's Gonna Fly Now (better known as the theme from Rocky) dropped from #1 to #4:

Looking through the list of the top 40 for that week, I notice Margaritaville (in at #9), another song that's dogged me my whole life,

Abba's Knowing Me, Knowing You (in at #19), a song that was on the cassette (and later, the CD) that my mom would play in the car,

Life in the Fast Lane by the Eagles (at #21), and

Kenny Rogers' Lucille (#25).

ALSO: the main theme of StarWars debuted on the week I was born:

cool, but ... yeah, I'm getting old.

Wednesday, May 01, 2013

Sometimes I Just Can't Understand Religiously Motivated Reasoning

In the comments section of a Mother Jones article, titled "Charts: How Much Danger Do We Face From Homegrown Jihadist Terrorists?", I found a comment that I just couldn't wrap my head around, since it was so poorly constructed (weird formatting and bad grammar in the original):
can find no justification for the crimes perpetrated by Christians in the
teachings of Jesus. When Christians do evil, it is because they deviate from
what Jesus taught. When Muslims do good deeds, it is because they disobey their
prophet. When they follow him they become evil. A good Christian becomes Mother
Theresa. A Good Hindu becomes Gandhi. A good Buddhist becomes Dalai Lama. A
good Muslim becomes Osama Bin Laden. Today
the secular and liberal western culture is influenced by the repressive Islamic
culture. We punish people who speak the truth against Islam. This insanity is
not because of secularism. It is the blasphemy law slowly seeping into our
secular laws. Western secularism is becoming Islamized.
Hrm. How does any of this make sense historically, religiously, or ontologically?

"You can find no justification for the crimes perpetrated by Christians in the teaching of Jesus." This must mean that either (A) all potential crimes carried out by Christians weren't actually crimes if they followed some interpretation of what was written as a teaching of Jesus or (B) there aren't a lot of Christians out there. If you believe that Jesus made Peter the first Pope, and that the Pope is therefore the mouthpiece of God here on Earth, then none of the actions of the Crusades or Inquisitions (against the Muslims, against heretical sects of Christianity, against the Central and South American peoples) were actually crimes, since these were commanded by Jesus through the Pope. OR these acts were crimes, because the Pope isn't the mouthpiece of God here on Earth, which means that the bloody wars of the Reformation MUST NOT have been crimes, since these were done to restore the Church to their original meaning. OR these acts were crimes, because the Pope actually is the representative of God here on Earth. Similarly, the American Revolution had to be a crime since it was done in direct opposition to the divine right of the King of England. Or maybe it wasn't a crime, since the Anglican Church didn't recognize the nature of the Pope. Of course, this argument is highly problematic, since the leaders of the American revolution weren't Catholic... But this type of argumentation would definitely work to explain why the French Revolution was a crime... until Napoleon re-took the throne. Of course, his reign was destined to fail once he committed the crime of emancipating the Jews and Protestants... Unless you believe the Pope to not be the divine representative of God, and then ....

... oh, wait. This whole thing is just too complicated, and none of the commentator's original statement makes any relevant sense to this discussion. At all. In fact, its own logic chases its own tail and ultimately - like Oroborus - eats itself.

The next two sentences - "When Muslims do good deeds, it is because they disobey their prophet. When they follow him they become evil." - make no sense to me for a couple of reasons. First is the question of who decides "good" and "evil." (The ontological question if you will.) As outsiders to a group, we can only consider the actions of that group based on our own group's sense of "good" and "evil." However, we must also recognize that members of that other group will likely have their own classifications for those things. Furthermore, the definitions of these things change over space and time, too, even within the same "group." For example, if we could somehow travel back to a Georgian plantation in 1800, slave ownership would not be considered to be "evil", while - several states north - it would... but members of both locations would each consider themselves to belong to the same group: "Americans". Travel forward 100 years to 1900, and then you will find discord around that Georgian plantation about whether the practices of slavery were actually "evil". Travel forward yet another 100 years to 2000, and you will find that the question of slavery being "evil" has been accepted, even in around that Georgian plantation. Similar examples can be found with most issues that we break down into "good" and "evil" (including the morality of women wearing trousers). To claim any deed of another group to be "good" or "evil", one must first recognize that one is imposing their personal definitions upon what they see. To not do this is... troubling... to say the least.

Next, though, is the bald assertion that amounts to "good Muslims do evil things". WTF? This assertion is doubly bald-faced when it is found in a comments section of an article that actually described how few Muslim Americans are perpetrating violence of any kind. Now, to be charitable, one could interpret this commentator's meaning to be, "Well, look at all the bloodshed from North Africa to Pakistan!" Okay... let's do that: Syria is currently in a civil war, while Libya, Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, and Afghanistan are countries in which revolution and government overthrow just recently has taken place. Let's take a look at the comparative level of violence in the United States during those periods.

During the US Civil War, ~750,000 soldiers died and ~50,000 civilians (~2.6% of a population of ~31,000,000) using mid-19th century armament and medicine. (These figures may well represent an underestimate, given the problems of tracking deaths during those years.) Currently, the Syrian civil war has killed ~120,000 (~0.5% of population of ~23,000,000) using late-20th/early-21st century armament and medicine. So, compared the US Civil War, the Syrian Civil War has a long way to come to be as violent as the US Civil War (which was fought primarily by people who considered themselves to be Christian; a good number likely considering themselves to be "good Christians").

But surely the violence in Libya, Algeria, Egypt, Iraq and Afghanistan are all pretty high, too, showing the violence of these vastly Islamic-identifying countries, right? Well, the years following the US Revolutionary War weren't all peace-filled idyllic years. Following the defeat of the British in 1783, the United States had to contend with a series of violent "incidents" (including a major military attempt at rebellion), most of which are characteristic of a young government that hasn't (yet) established robust governance structures. In fact, the US has been - until very, very recently - a place where violent incidents have been the norm. And this is what the Mother Jones piece described. In comparison to the heavily-Christian United States, the countries of the Arab Spring, along with Iraq and Afghanistan, cannot reasonably be stated to be more violent than the United States of 1783-1793, nor can one reasonably state that any of this violence is specifically caused by the predominant religions of the countries. (Indeed, even when religion is invoked as a reason for armed conflict, it's often just a justification for political motivations, but even if you do count these as the actual justification of the associated wars, Christian holy wars against other Christians lead the death toll, followed by Christian holy wars against non-Christians.)

While one might allow the logical problems behind labeling things as "good" and "evil", the actual lack of historical accuracy in these two sentences is just ... really bad. However, the fact that these two sentences - devoid of any historical accuracy - pale in comparison to the lack of logical coherency that follow in the next four sentences.

Since when does "A good Christian becomes Mother Theresa"? Are this commentator saying that all real "good Christians" are Albanian nuns working (and conducting some questionable actions) in Kolkata? If so, then that's a pretty small group of people who can be "good Christians." In fact, by that definition, almost no one can be a "good Christian." But even if this commentator didn't specifically mean Mother Theresa, it implies that one has to be invested in the Catholic Church to be a "good Christian." Sorry, but wars have been fought over that question. ... wars fought (on both sides) by "good Christians." Furthermore, you would have been hard-pressed to find slave-owners in the American South who didn't consider themselves to be "good Christians", either. Among the membership of many white-supremacist groups, one will also find many who believe themselves to be "good Christians." And - outside, among the vast swath of "moderate Christians" - one would be hard-pressed to find many who would actively protest who can and can't choose to call themselves "Christians." So... this definition of "good Christian" is laughable at best.

Since when does "A good Hindu becomes Gandhi"? "Gandhi" is a family name, not a religious status, a position in a religious hierarchy, or anything like that. The commentator might erroneously be referring to Mohandas Gandhi's religious title of "Mahatma". However, if one looks at the actions of religious Hindus through the history of the Indian sub-continent, one will find many (many, many, many) who justify violence against others. Indeed, Gandhi was - until that time - a bit of an exception when it came to advocating non-violence as the sole means of anti-colonial activism, and he was a major exception when it came to embodying his advocacy. At the time, he was considered by many prominent Hindus to be religiously (or dogmatically) suspect, and not what embodied a "good Hindu". So... this definition of "good Hindu" is also laughable at best.

Since when does "A good Buddhist becomes Dalai Lama"? What about all the other branches of Buddhism? Is the commentator really saying that a member of the Japanese Jodoshinshu sect of Buddhism (for example) can become Dalai Lama? If so, you are betraying a massive ignorance of Buddhism. Indeed, this statement makes even less sense than stating, "A good Christian becomes Pope." No. Not even... No. *facepalm* This definition of "good Buddhist" is even more laughable than the definitions of "good Christian" and "good Hindu".

Finally, since when does "A good Muslim becomes Osama Bin Laden"? Even if we say, okay, you really meant to say, "... LIKE Osama Bin Laden", where is evidence for this? The commentator hasn't got any, other than the sayings of fundamentalists who want to emulate people like bin Laden. Taking what fundamentalists say as gospel would be the same thing as taking what the members of the Westboro Baptist Church say makes a good Christian and only using that metric to discuss all of Christianity. If the commentator were smart enough recognize the Westboro Baptist Church is an extremist group claiming to be Christians, and is - therefore - not allowing them to dictate the commentator's definition of "good Christian", then why does the commentator allow him/herself to fall for what a Muslim extremist group claims to be the definition of what "good Muslims" are? The commentator proves to have failed at maintaining logical consistency with the real world. However, considering the "evidence" and "logic" you have displayed above, this statement is not surprising.

Finally, this commentator appears incapable of recognizing that there is a double standard that people like him/herself are perpetrating in the name of equality. Commentators like this person often feel that their religion (Christianity) is being unfairly punished for the actions of a few people who claim to be Christian, but fail to recognize that they are doing the same thing to all non-Christians. It's in this mindset that the final lines of this comment are seen: "We punish people who speak the truth against Islam. This insanity is not because of secularism. It is the blasphemy law slowly seeping into our secular laws. Western secularism is becoming Islamized." Apparently, "Western secularism" can only be that thing if we punish people who speak this commentator's "truth" about Islam. Going further, it's likely that it's only if we impose this commentator's viewpoint of Christianity (it's conveniently never defined) that we can save "Western secularism" (failing to note that secularism specifically deals with "the principle of separation of government institutions, and the persons mandated to represent the State, from religious institutions and religious dignitaries".