Monday, February 03, 2014

Science as Religion

There seems to be a common drive among atheists to place Science into the same place as God in a religious structure. For example, Moldbug cites Richard Dawkins as believing in "Einsteinian religion". This involves a fundamental misunderstanding of what science is and what science can do.

Science is not Truth; it is not even truth. Science is a process, not a body of knowledge. Science is the scientific method. It is a process for testing theories that (hopefully) helps us asymptotically approach true knowledge. How rational is it to worship a process?

Oh wait. This is the same culture that believes so strongly in the rule of law. Except that all laws are interpreted and implemented by men. So there is no way around human judgment. Oops.

So why do otherwise intelligent folk who really should know better pretend to worship science? Purely as a cudgel to wield against the more conventionally religious? Or do they just feel the universal religious impulse and to deal with the cognitive dissonance they redirect it into something seemingly irreligious? That would be an inconvenient truth.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Charlie Brown and Politics

The perfect metaphor to understand the US political system is Charlie Brown and the Football. That clip is perfect. There is even a written contract, and you can see how much that is worth. If you are not sure what each character represents after the government shutdown, then I don't think I can help you. That laid bare the farce that is politics in this country.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

The Golden Age of Lies

I have not updated here in eight years, apparently. I lack a burning drive to write, but I do have an insatiable intellectual curiosity that I have been feeding. I've updated the link list with some of the current blogs that I read. If there's a thread connecting them, it is that we live in a society based on lies. It would be an exaggeration to say it is a Golden Age for lies and liars.

Our financial system... based on lies.
Our political system... based on lies.
Our health care system... based on lies.
Our educational system... based on lies.
The Standard American Diet... based on lies.
The interaction between the sexes... based on lies.

I do not intend to expound on each of them here. I can provide links or you can peruse the link list. Welcome to the Dark Enlightenment.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

More NYT Nonsense

The New York Times health section is making it too easy today. Let's start with the final paragraph of this article to lay out the conclusion:

“They show quite convincingly, yet again, that overweight and, in particular, obesity, raise the risk of mortality,’’ Dr. Stampfer said. “It really should be the final word on this issue that’s arisen as to whether overweight is actually bad for you or not.”

Strong words, eh? Too bad he can't back them up. Here's the main claim being made regarding the modestly overweight:

The researchers said the more telling analysis arose when they focused on 186,000 healthy men and women who had never smoked. Among men and women, being overweight raised the risk of death 20 percent to 40 percent compared with normal-weight people, the researchers said.

Sounds scary. Let's examine some of the methodological issues so that we can aspire to the correct level of scared-ness. First, the population is drawn from those in the AARP. As the article acknowledges:

Because all the participants were recruited from AARP, they are not exactly representative of the population as a whole, and the participants reported their weight themselves, which contributes to some uncertainty in the results.

Kudos for the honesty.

Dr. Leitzmann said neither factor would probably skew the results considerably because “it’s a very large sample of people.”

Statistically the word skew has a specific meaning and the more correct term would be bias. Also, the good doctor is full of it. A large, non-representative sample is still non-representative. One possible advantage is that with a large enough sample you could select a random subsample that is representative of whatever population you're trying to capture (in this case the whole US). The article does not say whether they did this or not.

Secondly, the size of the sample reduces uncertainty but it does not reduce bias. In this case it means that peoples self-reported weight has been measured very accurately. It does not mean that their actual weight has been measured accurately at all.

Errors in reporting weights — people sometimes say they weigh less than they actually do — would also not produce a large effect, he added.

At least he acknowledges the potential bias, but, as I said above, it is not possible to know if the results are truely accurate or not.

Additionally, the mechanism for categorizing people as overweight is the body-mass index (BMI). The BMI was invented over 150 years ago. Its purpose is to categorize those with average body composition. Anyone with abnormal body composition, will not be categorized correctly. As an example, I am just below the overweight cut-off with my BMI, even though I am in excellent health. The disparity is due to my lifting weights and the subsequently higher muscular composition of my body.

“No single study is able to solve a controversy of this magnitude,” Dr. Leitzmann said, but he recommended that anyone overweight “should be looking to lose weight.”

I have to respect his honesty in his conclusion here. He may be reaching a bit, but he at least acknowledges that his study is not the end-all be-all of all research. Unlike Dr. Stampfer, who was not involved in the study, but throws out the concluding quote found above. This study suggests the possibility that being slighly overweight increases mortality, but it does not even come close to being the "final word" on the subject.

The study is an example of an observational study, in which a sample of existing data is analyzed for correlations. These types of studies are far inferior to randomly selecting the sample and assigning people to one category or the other. Obviously this is not possible to examine this problem; it is not realistic to randomly assign certain people to be overweight or normal weight. That means that there will be no single study, no matter how large, that will definitively answer the question.

Somatization Some of THIS

I found this New York Times article deeply offensive. Here's the lede:

People with a long history of medically unexplained symptoms — aches, pains, fatigue, dizziness and other complaints for which doctors can find no physical cause — might finally find relief.

Literal meaning: Hey, all you who people who modern medicine can't help, we might be able to help you.

Sounds pretty promising, right? Unfortunately the next paragraph blows that out of the water:

Two new studies by researchers who specialize in the baffling condition called somatization syndrome, estimated to affect up to 3 percent of adults, suggest that the quest for a physical explanation may take on a destructive life of its own. Instead, those with the syndrome should focus on practical strategies to regain normal function and relieve symptoms, the researchers say.

Wow. That is poorly written. Let's dissect that nonsense. First, they make up a name, somatization syndrome, as a catch-all for everything that doctor's can't seem to diagnose. That's unhelpful.

Then the article obliquely says that nothing is wrong with these people; it's all in their head. Well, golly-gee, if doctor's can't figure out what's wrong with you what does that leave? Nothing. You must be fine; you're just crazy. It can't possibly be the doctor or modern medicine that's at fault. No sir-ee, if doctor's can't diagnose it that means it doesn't exist.

Of course, they can't be honest and just tell you that they think you're crazy right to your face. That wouldn't be very effective. So instead, later in the article, they introduce "cognitive behavioral therapy" to, as the second paragraph says, "focus on practical strategies to regain normal function and relieve symptoms". RIIIIIIIIIGHT. They couldn't send people to psychologists because that would imply they were crazy, so let's make up a pseudoscientific therapy to go along with our pseudoscientific syndrome. Yeah, that's the ticket.

I'm sure that there are some subset of people with unexplained symptoms that are mildly hypochondriatic, but piling everyone with vague symptoms but no diagnosis in the same category is absolutely ridiculous. The arrogance is astonishing. To think that EVERYONE that doctor's can't diagnose is a whack-job is breathtakingly vile and condescending.

I've been looking for the following headline: "God Dead: Doctors/Lawyers Take Over", but I have to say I haven't seen it quite yet. Why don't they just admit that doctors are people too, and maybe, just maybe, they don't know everything.

Full disclosure: I have twice had many months-long illnesses that doctors could not diagnose. Both times I had to self-diagnose and treat. I now have a healthy skepticism about modern medicines' ability to do anything beyond antibiotics and trauma.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006


Just want to point out two articles claiming to explain women. They seem remarkably similar. I'm not going to make any pronouncement as to how accurate the picture they portray is, except to say that I sincerely hope they are far from universal.

The first, from Michael Williams, points to a translated article about how women (allegedly) view the world.

The second, is an old article by Spengler at the Asia Times, that is referring to the possibility of women priests. He uses that as a launching point to discuss the general psychology of women.

Read at your own risk.

The Tower of Babel and Jargon

In Genesis, there is a story in which man tries to build a tower high enough to reach God. In punishment for such hubris, the Lord creates a proliferation of language among the peoples of Earth, such that they are divided and unable to muster such organizational capacity again (see wikipedia entry). I don't know if the story is literally true or intended allegorically, but it doesn't affect what I have to say.

Every professional field has their own language, consisting of various acronyms and words used with sometimes vastly different meanings than the norm. Economists talk of "declining marginal utility", the military has FUBAR and "five-by-five", businessman have "core competencies" and "shareholder value", engineering has "system-of-systems" and "modeling and simulation environment". Take each individual word from these terms, find its meaning, and you will find that it is at best tangentially related to the underlying meaning of the relevant term. Why is this? Why do these obscure terms exist? What drives the need to create technical jargon that often obfuscates as much as it elucidates? Why did I just use such big words?

I submit that it all goes back, conceptually, to the Tower of Babel. Apocryphal or not, it cannot be denied that there exists an enormous number of languages. Communication, and therefore cooperation, would be much easier for disparate peoples if all spoke a single language. With such manifest advantages, there must be a good reason why different tongues exist, beyond mere accident.

Language serves two purposes beyond its primary one of communication. The first is as a means of inclusion. Language is an identifier of what group an individual is a member. The second is the converse, as a means of exclusion. To define a group, there must be both members and outsiders, or else the distinction is meaningless. This directly relates to the biblical story, in that the abundance of languages is presented as a means of division and disorganization.

In every field, the use of jargon has two purposes. The first of these is communication. The use of specialized language allows often complicated ideas to be more efficiently presented than if each nuance was perfectly explained. This is the ostensible reason for jargon usage; because it facilitates communication among those who understand the terms. The problem with this is that often the meaning of technical jargon is at best imperfectly understood. There often don't exist clear, well-established meanings for technical terms. This can cause often painful miscommunication when two parties disagree on a terms meaning, especially when the difference is not explicitly addressed.

The second purpose, which I've been alluding to since the introduction, is to define membership in some group. Membership in some group helps to establish credibility to reinforce the trust of the hearer in the speaker's argument (see this column by Arnold Kling on trust cues). So while technical jargon can often seem to be irritating and unnecessary, it actually has an important role to play in both stating a position and in getting another person to believe in that position.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

In defense of pessimism

Varifrank has an excellent piece referring to all the doom and gloom predictions that have been made pretty much since Thomas Malthus, two hundred years ago. He doesn't explicitly reference Malthus, but I think the blame for much of the apocalyptic we're-going-to-run-out-of-X-resource nonsense can be dated to him.

Varifrank refers to Hal Lindsey as the "king of silly predictions". I've never heard of him, but I do remember Lester Brown of the Worldwatch Institute. I participated in high school debate, and ten years ago the topic was U.S. foreign policy towards China. I'm not going to assume familiarity with high school debate rules; basically there were two teams of two who would face off in each round. One team would present some sort of plan addressing the topic for that year, including whatever evidence they could muster, and the other would try to poke holes in their case.

My partner and I that year built a case that we needed to take land from the Conservation Reserve Program (basically, a program that pays farmers NOT to farm a portion of their land) to grow food for the Chinese. Why would the Chinese need this food? Because they waz gonna starve! At least, that's what Lester "the Molester" Brown said (Note: not his actual nickname, just an unfunny play on his name). In retrospect, the idea is laughable. The Chinese economy had posted double digit growth rates since the late '70s, and they were going to starve? Even at the time I didn't really believe it, but high school debate is about winning, not the truth.

Obviously Mr. Brown was incorrect. But a quick Google search reveals that he is still making paranoid prognostications. He now works for the Earth Policy Institute (biography here), where he continues to fear-monger regarding world population and resources. The lack (rather than the surplus) of the former is fast becoming a problem (at least for the developed world), and the latter is, after decades of predictions to the contrary, more plentiful than ever.

After a comparison of our lives today and those a hundred years ago, Varifrank has this to say:

"We are all the descendants of those who came before us, who in each of their lives saw and experienced things daily that would make each of us wet our pants in fear. We face none of those horrible things in our lives today, yet we are more in fear of life itself than any of those people were in theirs while they faced very real threats and not the imagined ones of that we face in ours."

My response is that humans have a deep-seated need to fear. And furthermore, this isn't a bad thing. Fear is a powerful motivator, as Machiavelli realized when he famously argued it was better for a ruler to be feared than loved.

None of the apocalyptic predictions regarding the future have come true, and I believe it is at least in part because the predictions were made. Instead of self-fulfilling prophecies they became self-defeating prophecies. By loudly proclaiming that the sky is falling, these oft-foolish predictions are taken seriously by a few who perhaps help put policies in place to pre-empt their impacts.

Do I have any real evidence for this? Nope. I'll just point to the fact the world hasn't ended as evidence that apocalyptic predictions (no matter how ridiculous) are no threat.

They are also extremely fun to ridicule.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Quick hits

Two quick items:

First, this item from Ravenwood, about one poor would-be anti-war protesters dilemma.

"Sometimes I just get so mad that my country is committing mass murder. What power have I to stop it?

I am going to start reading up on Ghandi. This is the breaking point. I have to do something drastic, like go on a hunger strike chained to a light pole next to the NBC building in Chicago. But it's starting to get cold and I have my thesis to work on and classes to finish up this semester."
(Emphasis mine.)

Now, that's funny. I would try to make a political point by suffering through a hunger strike, but it's just too cold and I'm busy.

On a slightly less humorous note, there's this article from National Review Online concerning divorce.

"As recently seen on The Today Show and Good Morning America, "divorce parties" are all the rage. Was your marriage on the rocks? Well, the divorce papers are signed and it's now time to play "pin the blame on the ex" and "throw the wedding ring in the toilet" games — or so it is if you talk to the likes of the author of The Woman's Book of Divorce: 101 Ways to Make Him Suffer Forever and Ever."

I have suggestion. If you are the type of woman to buy a book subtitled 101 Ways to Make Him Suffer Forever and Ever, then the most effective way to "make him suffer" would be to stay with him.