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Tuesday, September 29, 2009

We are the Reasonists

Garry Trudeau generally has his head in the right place when dealing with crazies and this time seems no different. We identify ourselves squarely in the last frame.

There is a surprising number of people who accept things they have no evidence for. I would almost go as far as to say "everyone." Probably including us, we just don't know it, or think that our evidence is valid when it is not. We are not infallible but our knowledge of our own fallibility helps.

Truthers, birthers, moon landing hoaxers, antivaxxers. Astrologers, psychics, reiki practitioners, homeopaths. Science is an excellent tool for Finding Things Out, applying that set of rules will ensure you that you get only the truth, or at least our closest approximation of the truth. We can apply Science to all these things and cut through the bullshit easily.

But as Trudeau says in the last panel, we are a minority group, small, not very influential. The human mind has an amazing ability to believe crazy shit just because you are told it by someone else. Always question things. Even what I say. Question things, research them properly, and investigate thoroughly. It is the only way we can be sure that we do not get fooled. We have the necessary tools. It's time we taught everyone to use them.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Creationism in Norway

It hasn't really been much of an issue here before. Here in Norway we enjoy a generally secular society, free of the meddling of the religious. Perhaps one of the reasons is that we have an official state church, and it has grown increasingly more laid-back and accepting in the later years, in order to attract more members. But that is not the main issue here.

Dagbladet.no has an article this week (link is in Norwegian) about creationists. There is really not a big movement for it, but it serves as a warning sign that most likely we can experience them here soon.

On the right here is a graph which I am somewhat proud of. It is a response to the question of whether one accepts the Theory of Evolution or not. Norway scores quite high, though not all the way at the top. (Norway has always been slightly behind Denmark and Sweden in issues like these)

Down way at the bottom is the United States and Turkey. They are what the article mainly concerns itself with. From Turkey we get Harun Yahya, well-known crackpot creationist. In our eyes he does not have a leg to stand on at all, all his claims are bogus and easily falsified.

The biggest objection from creationists is of course that Evolution leads to Social Darwinism. We disagree vehemently. Ol' Pappy Dawkins says so quite outright in The Selfish Gene, on the very first page of the book, "My own feeling is that a human society based simply on the gene’s law of universal ruthless selfishness would be a very nasty society in which to live."

There is an "is/ought" dichtotomy here. Just because the world we live in from nature's side is ruthless and cruel, does not mean that we should apply that to our own society.

Anyway, back to our creationists. I never quite understood why their main objection is with evolution and not with, say, the big bang theory. Or abiogenesis (though a lot of them seem to confuse evolution with abiogenesis and, surprisingly often, with cosmology too)

If the creationism movement ever gains a footing in Norway we will be on the frontlines demanding that the proper, Norse version is taught. It is way more badass than this pansy Christian one that they are usually trying to peddle.

(Wikipedia's version)

In the beginning there was nothing except for the ice of Niflheim, to the north, and the fire of Muspelheim, to the south. Between them was a yawning gap (the phrase is sometimes left untranslated as a proper name: Ginnungagap), and in this gap a few pieces of ice met a few sparks of fire. The ice melted to form Eiter, which formed the bodies of the hermaphrodite giant Ymir and the cow Auðumbla, whose milk fed Ymir. Auðumbla fed by licking the rime ice, and slowly she uncovered a man's hair. After a day, she had uncovered his face. After another day, she had uncovered him completely: Búri.

Ymir fathered Thrudgelmir, as well as two humans, one man and one woman. Búri fathered Borr. Borr had three sons, Vili, Ve, and Odin, who killed the giant Ymir. In the vast flood of Ymir's blood, Þrúðgelmir was also drowned, although not before he had fathered Bergelmir. Bergelmir and his wife hid in a hollow tree trunk and survived. Odin and his brothers used Ymir's body to create the universe : they ground his flesh into dirt, and the maggots that appeared in his flesh became the dwarves that live under the earth. His bones became the mountains, and Odin strewed his brains into the sky to create the clouds. The universe comprises nine worlds, of which this earth (Midgard) is central.

They placed four dwarves: Norðri (North), Suðri (South), Austri (East), and Vestri (West) to hold up Ymir's skull and create the heavens. Then using sparks from Muspelheim, the gods created the sun, moon and stars. As Odin and two others (differing between the Poetic Edda and Prose Edda) walked along the beach, they found two pieces of driftwood. From these, they created the first human beings: Ask and Embla. Ymir's eyebrows were used to create a place where the human race could live in; a place called Midgard.

The gods regulated the passage of the days and nights, as well as the seasons. Sól is the personified sun, a daughter of Mundilfari, and wife of Glen. Every day, she rides through the sky on her chariot, pulled by two horses named Árvakr and Alsviðr. Sól is chased during the day by Sköll, a wolf that wants to devour her. It is foretold that Sköll will eventually catch Sol and eat her during Ragnarök; however, she will first give birth to a daughter as fair as she. Sól's brother Máni, the personified moon, is chased by Hati Hróðvitnisson, another wolf. The earth is protected from the full heat of the sun by the shield Svalinn, which is placed before Sól.

I could get behind that one.

Book Review: The Monty Hall Problem

Humans suck at probabilities. We've mentioned that before on this blog, nothing really new there. The astounding part is the way we will go to such ends to defend our choices once we've made them. Mention this problem at any gathering or forum and I guarantee a huge discussion will ensue. It is one of the sure things.

You are a contestant at a game show. You are given a choice between three doors. One of the doors conceal a car, the other two goats. You choose a door at random. The host opens one of the other doors, revealing a goat. Then you are given the choice to switch your choice to the other still-closed door. In order to maximize your chance at winning, should you switch?

Nobody seems to be able to agree on this. (Well unless you've read this book, in which case you know the answer.) The thing is, we enter here an area where mathematical probabilities do not work the way you are used to them working, the way your brain wants them to work.

It's counterintuitive and confusing. Nothing in this problem is as common sense would try and tell you. Don't listen to your intuition. It's wrong. Only the pure math is right.

Rosenhouse goes well into detail on why we think the way we think. Then it's backed up with math - there is a fair bit of math in this book. Fortunately, most of it is high school calculus level, so it is easy to comprehend. But the real interesting part is when it talks about why our brains get such a cognitive error in calculating the probabilities for winning this game show. Come to mention it, our brains get majorly confused when trying to calculate probabilities for most events more complex than a coin flip. (And as will also be shown, even the probability of that depends on how the question is phrased)

The Monty Hall problem (the problem, not the book) has hundreds of real-world scenarios it applies to. Really, it's like the FedEx arrow - once you've seen it you will see it everywhere. In our never-ending quest for rationality, it would be good of you to learn how to spot them, and how to properly calculate them, so you can avoid falling in this very common pitfall.

Spoiler alert: You should switch doors to maximize your chance at winning.

Jason Rosenhouse also writes a blog,
EvolutionBlog, which we recommend.