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That One Spooky Thing (Part 3.1) April 7, 2014

Posted by ubi dubium in Brain Glitches.
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Continuing with the way our brains impose patterns on random noise…

I want to discuss an important idea called “priming”

First, fill in the blank to make an English word:  S O _ P


That One Spooky Thing (part 3) February 13, 2014

Posted by ubi dubium in Brain Glitches.
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OK, back on the subject of “You no longer believe, but there’s this one thing that happened that you can’t explain, and makes you think there’s something to all this supernatural stuff”

My list of suggested explanations looks like this, and I’ve covered the first three entries in the prior posts (linked below):

  • It’s a natural occurrence that’s rare or unfamiliar to you
  • It’s technological
  • It’s somebody deliberately tricking you
  • It’s a problem of faulty perception and/or faulty memory, perhaps combined with some of the above
  • It’s “supernatural”

The fourth item on the list, faulty perception and faulty memory, is such a big topic that I’m going to write more than one post on it.


Ham on Nye February 6, 2014

Posted by ubi dubium in Brain Glitches, Responses, UbiDubiKids.
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There’s been so much discussion of the recent “debate” between Bill Nye and Ken Ham, so I’m not going to do a full review.  Bill did a good job, and Ken Ham was exactly the ideologue that I expected him to be. For a full commentary, see elsewhere.

But during the debate, there were a couple of things that Bill missed saying, and I was practically jumping up and down in my seat, saying “C’mon Bill, there’s a really good point I want you to make here, and you’re not making it!”

The first one is probably a small thing, and it’s where Bill missed Ham’s direct misrepresentation of the results of a radiometric dating test on a lump of lava containing carbonized wood. (I have not researched the particulars of this claim, I’m just discussing what was claimed at the debate.)  Ham claimed that the stone had been dated at 45 million years, and that the carbonized wood had been carbon dated at 45,000 years.  And Bill didn’t catch the glaring error here.  Carbon dating can’t go farther back than about 45,000 years or so, so if you use that test on something way older, the only result you will get back is 45,000+, and it can’t say how much older than that the sample is.  If you use the wrong tool to do your measuring, you get unhelpful results.  To me, this is like trying to weigh an elephant using a bathroom scale that goes up to 300 lbs.  No matter how accurately calibrated the scale is, if you try to weigh an elephant on it, the only answer you’ll get is “more than 300″ or “off the scale”.  If you try to claim that the scale said that the elephant weighs 300 lbs, therefore the scale is useless, you’re just wrong.  And to claim the radiometric date of a rock sample can’t be correct at 45 million years old because a carbon date came back as 45,000+ is also just wrong.  And I’m pretty sure that someone would have pointed this out to Ham at some point, which makes him not only delusional, but a liar.

The second one, though, is a huge point that I really wanted Bill to hammer home.  Ham claims that creationism is science, but it cant be, because he is doing it backwards.  People doing real science start with the evidence, and draw their conclusions from the evidence, even if the results are not what they expected.  They then test their conclusions against the real world, and if they don’t hold up against all the evidence the conclusions are modified or thrown out.

Ham starts with his conclusion, then looks for specific evidence to back it up, and ignores everything else.  And he said flat-out that there is nothing that would get him to change his mind about his conclusion.  As a result, he’ll never discover anything new about the world.  That’s not how you do science, that’s how you do confirmation bias.  And that’s why his creationism is not a valid subject for science class.  I wanted Bill to really tackle him on this, and he didn’t.  Of course, Ham did a lot of Bill’s job on this, by stating that there’s nothing that could ever change his mind.   But I think Bill should have directly said “You’re doing it backwards” at some point during the evening.

p.s. I also have to point out that I love the way Bill kept referring to the venue as a “facility” and never once called it a “museum”.  Nice touch, that.

p.p.s. During the evening, Ken Ham actually said this: “Now, the Bible says, ‘If you come to God believing that He is, He will reveal Himself to you, and you will know.’ ”   He said it twice during his talk.  UbiDubiKid#1 was watching it with me, and she almost fell out of her seat laughing each time.  In between being overcome with fits of laughing, she said, “He’s just made the perfect circular argument!  Decide you believe in god, and then you’ll know there’s a god!”


That one spooky thing (continued) January 21, 2014

Posted by ubi dubium in Brain Glitches, Responses.
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(In this series:  Part 1   Part 3  Part 3.1 )

Okay, more on this.  If you have deconverted from religion, and have gotten rid of most or all of your superstitions, what do you do with that one strange experience that you can’t explain?  How do you work that out?

My list of possibilities looks like this:

  • It’s a natural occurrence that’s rare or unfamiliar to you
  • It’s technological
  • It’s somebody deliberately tricking you
  • It’s a problem of faulty perception and/or faulty memory, perhaps combined with some of the above
  • It’s “supernatural”

And last time I talked about natural and technological things that might be misinterpreted.  So lets continue with

Deliberate Hoaxes

People like to think that they are hard to fool.  And often they are completely wrong about this.   As Richard Feynman so famously said:

The  first principle is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest  person to fool.

So let’s look at an example of a time and place where people are willing to be fooled – faith healing.


That one spooky thing January 14, 2014

Posted by ubi dubium in Brain Glitches, Responses.
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1 comment so far

Olympic Blimp UFO

This is in response to several comments by Wylekat on Ex-Christian.net on this thread: http://new.exchristian.net/2013/05/why-do-most-people-easily-trust.html

Ordinary claims require ordinary evidence, and extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.  That’s a really straightforward guideline.  It’s really useful for evaluating claims of things that supposedly happen or should happen predictably.  Things like whether intercessory prayer can heal people, whether homeopathy works, and whether psychics can actually talk to the dead or read minds.  It’s doable to set up a carefully controlled study to see if the effect that’s claimed is really there.  (James Randi has $1,000,000 waiting for anybody that can reliably demonstrate a paranormal ability under  conditions controlled to eliminate confirmation bias and cheating.  Nobody’s won it yet!) (more…)

Joyfulness for Festivus December 23, 2013

Posted by ubi dubium in Wow.
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Yes, I know that Festivus is supposed to be for Airing of Grievances and Feats of Strength.  But this song has been refusing to get out of my head for the past several days, so I’m going to Share Some Happy for Festivus instead.

Level Up from Vienna Teng

Level Up!

What do we mean by a Primitive Belief? December 17, 2013

Posted by ubi dubium in Questions, Responses.
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Recently I was responding to a longwinded xian commenter on a lengthy comment thread on Friendly Atheist.  At the end of a really preachy comment, he finished with:

“Think about it, God abhors human sacrifice, and yet he decided to go against his own feelings and permitted the death of his only son for your salvation. Sounds like a pretty generous God to me.”

To which I replied:

“Sounds like a bunch of mythology made up by primitive humans to me.”

In the following comments on that thread he took exception to his beliefs being described as “primitive”, and there was some discussion among other commenters about the idea.  But that got me to thinking about what we mean when we describe a person, or especially a belief system as “primitive”?  I’d like to have a good definition worked out, so the next time I describe something like creationism as a “primitive belief” and I’m challenged on it, I’ll have a good response.

An example of why this is tricky:

In a reverse of the usual anthropological studies, six representatives from a “primitive” tribe in New Guinea visited Britain.  They were not impressed with most of what they saw of modern culture, and had no interest in adopting western ways, except for two things. First, they loved the idea of adding feathers to arrows to make them fly straighter, and planned to adopt that innovation immediately. The second thing they decided to adopt?



So are we dealing with primitive people here or not?

We could restrict the definition of “primitive” people to those who lived a long time ago.  But that’s not necessarily a help, since there were decidedly non-primitive philosophers living in Athens at the same time that Judea was full of superstitious goatherders.  We could include “uneducated” in our definition, except that I’m sure ancient priests spent years studying their holy texts, and would have considered themselves educated, but I’d still probably describe many of them as “primitive”.

So maybe we should see if we can come up with a definition of a “primitive belief system” instead.

The fact that a belief is old doesn’t necessarily relegate it to being “primitive”.  The beliefs that things fall when you drop them, that tigers are dangerous, and that killing members of your social group is bad are all very old ideas, but we still think they are valid.  And I’d want to have a definition that we could apply to tribal superstitions, cargo cults, and long-dead religions, as well as to old institutional beliefs still held by modern people.

So how about this to start:

A “primitive belief system” includes:

  1. Belief in some kind of supernatural forces actively working in the world, that substitutes confirmation bias and wishful thinking in place of concrete evidence.
  2. Belief that those supernatural forces want specific things from humans.
  3. Belief that those supernatural forces can be propitiated by sacrifice or ritual.

That’s my first stab at a definition, but I’d like to throw it open to discussion to refine the idea. What would you add or change?


This article has also been posted on ex-christian.net on 12/19.  Please see http://new.exchristian.net/2013/12/what-do-we-mean-by-primitive-belief.html#.UrMHx6go6po for additional discussion on this topic.

Merry…erm…Deluge? December 4, 2013

Posted by ubi dubium in Rants.
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Near my office is a service station that goes all out with decorating for holidays, and it’s all inflatables.  For Halloween it was surrounded by animated ghosts, spiders and black cats.  Come Thanksgiving, it was pilgrims and turkeys waving at passing motorists.  Now for Christmas they have outdone themselves.  Every inch of ground around their parking lot is filled with inflated Santas on motorcycles, elves on trains, and teddy bears and Tigger and anything else they could cram in, all moving or waving somehow.

But even considering all of that, this one made me do a double take:


Thoughts on Anna Karenina November 3, 2013

Posted by ubi dubium in Books.
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(Spoiler Warning)

I’m continuing with my project of reading all those great books I had always meant to get to, by listening to them on CD during my daily commute.  I’ve read through Moby Dick, Crime and Punishment, and Great Expectations this way, among many others, and enjoyed them all.

So I was expecting to likewise enjoy Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy.  It’s been called the greatest novel ever written,  and it certainly has the makings of what could have been  a masterful novel.  It has one of the greatest openings of any novel I’ve read: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”  Brilliant.  Then it sets up three different, but linked families:  First, the Oblonskys, with a jovial, personable, philandering husband, and a long-suffering wife exhausted by bearing and raising child after child.  Then the Karenins, with a fussy, officious, and boring husband and his wife Anna, Mr. Oblonsky’s sister, a passionate emotional woman who adores her son, but finds none of her other emotional needs met by her marriage.  She finds what she is looking for in Count Vronsky, the dashing but shallow beau of Mrs. Oblonsky’s sister Kitty.    The third family is Kitty and her suitor Levin, their awkward courtship and the early days of their marriage as they work through problems with communication and jealousy. (more…)

Truth in Advertising October 23, 2013

Posted by ubi dubium in Rants, Uncategorized.
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Homeopathy Ad

OK, so a week ago Sunday the Parade Magazine that came in The Washington Post ran this ad.  (Sorry my scan is a little blurry.  Click on the photo to see it more clearly.)

One line of medicines to treat all these different conditions?  Suspicious.  So I read over the ad to see what kind of medication this was.  No mention of it in the main text, but when I went and got a magnifying glass, and looked at the images of the packaging, there it was in the upper right-hand corner.  Illegible to the naked eye, and almost as bad under magnification. It said “homeopathic.”

Can you see it?

Homeopathic closeup

I went to the website for this company, and it was also pretty difficult there to figure out that they were selling homeopathic “remedies”.  I thought that there ought to be some kind of oversight to prevent this sort of fraud, but this was during the government shutdown, so maybe they were taking advantage of the lack of regulators.  But I needed to complain to somebody, and Rite-Aid’s logo was right there on the page, so I found their ethics complaint website, and sent in the following:

On Sunday, October 15, the attached advertisement ran in the print edition Parade Magazine which I received with my Washington Post, and as you can see this ad had your name and logo in the lower left-hand corner.

I spent some time reading the ad, attempting to determine what sort of medication this was, and what the active ingredients were.  Eventually, I got out a magnifier and was able to just make out that each package was labeled “homeopathic”.  Nowhere else in the ad could I find this indicated, and the labels were illegible without magnification.  It appears that this ad is deliberately concealing the nature of what is being sold, a dishonest practice.

Homeopathic preparations generally do not contain any measurable level of active ingredients, and clinical trials have shown them to be no more effective than a placebo.  While I understand that there is a market for such products, a major pharmacy should not give the impression that it endorses their use.

If Rite-Aid allows its name to be associated with an advertisement for a medication, I would expect that the ad would meet at least a minimum standard of honesty about the identity and efficacy of the product.  I would expect that the word “homeopathic” to appear legibly in the ad, and that there be a disclaimer such as “these statements have not been evaluated by the FDA” or “The FDA does not evaluate these remedies for safety or effectiveness,” or a disclaimer that Rite-Aid does not guarantee anything beyond their safety and lack of side effects.

Considering that this company, Magnilife, is using your name and logo to sell boxes of sugar pills for $20 each, they stand to make quite a profit off the reputation of Rite-Aid.  I ask, as a concerned consumer, that you respond as to whether their use of your logo and name was authorized, and what your policy is regarding truth in advertising in ads that bear your name.

As of today, I have heard nothing back from Rite-Aid.  If I do get a response (and I doubt that I will), I’ll post an update.

Update – I checked at the Rite-Aid website on 10/31/13, and as of yet they have given no response.


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