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Thoughts on The Martian September 3, 2015

Posted by Ubi Dubium in Books.
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Just finished The Martian, by Andy Weir.

Woot!!!!  This is one of the most wonderfully nerdy books I’ve read in a long time.  I’d spend a lot of time talking about it here, but XKCD already summed it up so well:

The Martian

Hovertext: I have never seen a work of fiction so perfectly capture the out-of-nowhere shock of discovering that you’ve just bricked something important because you didn’t pay enough attention to a loose wire



I ♥ Pluto! July 18, 2015

Posted by Ubi Dubium in Events, Wow.
Tags: , , ,

Over the past few of weeks I’ve been pretty obsessively following the news from the New Horizons probe.  It’s distracted me from the volcanocam and even the photos of Ceres from Dawn!  I’ve watched the images rapidly go from small and smudgy:

Pluto May

To showing some surface features:

Pluto June

To an amazing image of a world that’s far more interesting then I would have imagined:


Wow!  Look at the color, and how few craters there are, and it even has a heart!

Of course, in space, there’s not actually an up or down, and so the orientation of this photo is rather arbitrary on the part of NASA.  They could have published it like this:

Pluto inverted


Then instead of saying “Pluto has a heart!”  We’d be saying “Pluto is mooning us!”  Which is probably a good reason for NASA to have the photo orientation the way they do.

Here’s probably my favorite image from this past week:

Love Pluto





Advance Book Review: Faith vs Fact March 29, 2015

Posted by Ubi Dubium in Books.
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I was fortunate enough to win an advance copy of Jerry Coyne’s upcoming book, Faith vs Fact, from Goodreads.  Jerry Coyne is a professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolution at the University of Chicago, the author of the book Why Evolution is True, and blogs copiously at his wordpress blog, likewise named Why Evolution is True.

The full title of the book is Faith vs. Fact, Why Science and Religion are Incompatible.  Spoiler – Fact wins!  (Although, if you are familiar with Coyne’s writing at all, that’s not really a spoiler. Regular readers of Coyne’s blog will find no surprises here.)  This book is a clear and carefully constructed outline of the conflicts between science and religion, written from the point of view of a strong advocate for science. (more…)

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!”


15-question Atheist Challenge September 17, 2012

Posted by Ubi Dubium in Brain Glitches, Rants.
Tags: , , , , ,

I found this list of questions on Everyday Infidel, and liked them much better than the usual accusatory questions coming from theists.  So I’ll give these a shot.

  1. At what point did you know you were an atheist? Why did you become one, what were the factors leading up to the decision, if you weren’t always one?
  2. What religion did you grow up with? Did you have positive or negative experiences with religion?
  3. Are you a more outspoken or more apathetic atheist? Why?
  4. Do you think religion is obsolete and should be wiped completely off the face of the Earth, or does some good come out of it?
  5. Did you lose any friends because you decided to be an atheist? Did your family flip out?
  6. How do you feel about so-called “militant atheists” such as Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris?
  7. Except for God, do you believe in anything supernatural or pseudoscientific? (Ghosts, alien abductions, spirits, souls, demons, psychics, magic, Harry Potter, etc.)
  8. What’s your political alignment? Does your atheism influence how you vote and how you feel on issues?
  9. Even though you’re an atheist, have you ever experienced a moment that could be called “religious?” Like an epiphany about the world or complete peace?
  10. Are you spiritual, or are your feet always on the ground?
  11. Do you have/plan on having a career in the sciences? Alternatively: which branch of science intrigues you most?
  12. What happens when we die? Do you fear death?
  13. Would you ever date/marry somebody who follows a religion? Be honest.
  14. On a scale of 1-10, how happy are you with life at this moment, and why?
  15. Recommend a book. 🙂 (Doesn’t have to be relevant to atheism, just any good book.)

1.  I can’t pinpoint a specific moment, because it was more like a long slide.  Tons of chuch as a kid, but also tons of Carl Sagan, Jacob Brownowski, and science fiction.  In college I encountered more varieties of religious craziness than I had seen before, while also stuffing my head full of math and physics and great books.  Finally it all started clicking.  If the fundies and Brother Jed were believing in something ridiculous, how was the stuff I supposedly believed not ridiculous?  Did I even really think any of it was true?  I was religious when I started college, and mostly an atheist by the time I finished, although I would have probably said “agnostic” at the time, because that “atheist” word was scary.  More reading and study solidified it from there.  I didn’t really become active about atheism until my children started encountering harassment in school for not being religious.  That ticked me off, and the internet was becoming a real resource for me right about then, so things just clicked.

2. Raised Presbyterian, and pretty much nothing but positive experiences.  I did all the things a good church kid was supposed to do:  Sunday school and church services and bible school and youth groups, and retreats, and conferences, and youth choirs (I was a soloist) and regular choir and handbells and potlucks.  It was a great community full of lovely people. Some years back we had a reunion for the youth group.  It was great seeing them all again.  Then they sat down to have prayers and a bible study and I just wanted to scream.  (I was nice and didn’t say anything.  But I have not done any further events with that group, either.)

3. Online I’m outspoken, and increasingly so, but on the job that would be problematic, so IRL I’m pretty closeted, or at least tactful.  My colleagues and my chorus (except for one singer) have no idea I’m an online atheist or that I blog. My RE class knows I challenge them on critical thinking, but since its a UU class I don’t try to push my own views on them, nor do I tell them about my blog.  My immediate friends and family know, in my extended family a few have some idea, but they don’t know about the blog either.  Spouse and Kids read the blog, but they’re used to me, and my kids are more outspoken about non-belief than I am.

4. I think that any of the good that comes “from religion” comes from good people who are doing good things, often in spite of their religion.  Religion can provide an organizational structure for some good works, but I don’t think that religion is overall a net positive for humanity.  “Wiped out?”  Religion is a really pernicious infection, and all past attempts to “wipe it out” by force have been miserable failures, or simply were replacing a repressive religious ideology with a repressive political ideology.  I’d like to see religion collapse because people, as individuals, realize they don’t need or want it anymore.  When that happens, humanity will have finally grown up.

5.  I have not lost any friends, because I’ve been away from religion for over 25 years, and my current friends all know me as a non-believer.  There are people from my churchgoing days that I have not reconnected with, and that’s deliberate.  People tell me “Facebook is great, you can catch back up with all those people you grew up with and haven’t seen in years!”  One of the reasons I’m not on Facebook is that I’d rather not catch up with some of them.  I do have a Fundie brother-in-law who flipped out just a few years back.  I’ve talked about him elsewhere on this blog.

6. I think applying the term “militant” to anyone in the current atheist movement is a huge misunderstanding of what the word “militant” means.  Terrorists who blow up people are militant.  Rebels who form militias and overthrow governments are militant.  The most agressive thing any of the current famous atheists have done is write a book, and disagree with people in public.  That’s not militant.

As to the contributions of those mentioned, they have been very valuable in helping to “break the spell” (as discussed by the fourth of the four horsemen, Dan Dennett).  Up until recently, there has been a taboo against criticizing religion at all, it had this special and undeserved protected status.  How can we even suggest to somebody that they should discard faith, when the value of “having faith” is a subject that we cannot even discuss?  The books that have come out in recent years have gone a long way towards opening up this conversation.  While I don’t agree with their positions on every issue, they have helped many many people discard superstition, and I thank the authors heartily for their contributions.

7.  The only non-scientific belief that I hold that I can think of is a general feeling that things are generally going to work out OK for me.  And maybe that I have too much confidence in the ability of human beings to work together to fix their own problems.  But woo-woo thinking drives me up a wall.  For instance, I was at the UU where I teach RE, and they were kicking off the year by having the kids start in the service.  One of the pastors told the kids that love is a literal “force field” surrounding them.  I tried not to show my frustration too much, because I want to continue to be welcome as a teacher, but UDK#2, who was standing next to me, just facepalmed.

8.  My political alignment is somewhat to the left of most current Democrats, but I’m not an extremist.  I also happen to think that the conservatives often have some good tools, but which could be put to much better use.  Financial incentives are a very powerful way to get people and corporations to do what you want.  But the right wing appears to be completely ignorant of the idea of “the tragedy of the commons”, or how interdependent our world has become,  and most of the time are just behaving selfishly and irresponsibly.   I vote in favor of science, reason, compassion and integrity, and against theocrats, whenever possible.  Since, with our current structure, voting for a third-party candidate is effectively not voting, sometimes I wind up voting for who will do the least damage, rather than who I think is really great.  I always vote, though.

9.  Sure, like everybody else, I sometimes have feelings of overwhelming awe, or connectedness with the universe, or a huge emotional response to someone or something.  I would not call these “religious” or get them confused with anything “supernatural”.  They are just something really cool that brains do.

10.  What does “spiritual” even mean?  I hate that word, because everybody throws it around like it’s a great thing to be, but nobody can adequately explain it.  Some people boast “I’m not religious, but I’m spiritual!”  Well I’m not spiritual, thank you very much.

11.  Well, I majored in physics, but did not wind up managing to make a career in the field.  So since then, I’ve simply been intensely interested in everything happening in science, and in recent years I’ve had a special interest in cognitive biases.  And I guess it’s all paying off a little now, since I’m teaching RE to 6th graders, and I can bring large dollops of science and critical thinking into the curriculum.

12. When we die, we decompose and our consciousness does not exist anymore.  The only part of us that remains behind is the effect we had on other people, and our descendants .  If there’s some sort of afterlife or reincarnation, I suppose that would be cool, but I don’t have any real evidence to think that this is the case.  If it were true, I am very confident that it would not resemble any afterlife as imagined by any human religion.  (As an aside, if reincarnation worked, it would not be following known physical laws, so I don’t see any reason why it would be restrained by linear time either.  So you might reincarnate as someone in the past.  Or as someone you know right now.  Better be nicer to everybody then, just in case!)  I don’t find not existing scary, I did it for a long time before I was born.  Now dying, that part’s scary, because it’s often painful and prolonged.  Not looking forward to that.

13.  Would I ever date or marry somebody who follows a religion?  I’ve been married to my spouse for over 25 years, and we’re both non-believers, so that really has not been a question that I’ve thought about.  So let me phrase it as ‘How would I feel if my daughters wanted to date or marry somebody who follows a religion?”  I think I’d be upset if either of them fell for a religious fanatic.  I’d also be highly surprised if a religious fanatic were interested in dating them, because both of them tend to be very blunt about what they think of religion. The only way I could see it working is if they were dating someone who was technically religious, but mostly an apatheist.

14. Scale of 1-10?  Hmmm.  7?

15.  I can’t keep it to just one book.  There are a couple that were the “Wow, that changes everything!” kind of books for me:  The Selfish Gene (Dawkins) and Godel Escher Bach (Hofstadter).  I also just read Don’t Believe Everything you Think by Thomas Kida.  I resent this one a little because I had been thinking I should write a book, and now he’s gone and written pretty much exactly the book I was planning to write.  But go read it, it’s got good summaries of a lot of the stuff I tend to talk about.

Something from Nothing? May 5, 2012

Posted by Ubi Dubium in Rants.
Tags: , , , , ,

First the backstory.  My spouse (Ubi Dubius) has a Fundamentalist brother (who I will call Ubi Credulus).  For some time this brother had been giving us increasingly preachy xmas presents.  There had been VeggieTales videos for the kids (see my previous post about that) a copy of The Passion of the Christ, a slipcased beautifully bound copy of Bishop Ussher’s book, that sort of thing.  At the same time I had been sending their family pieces of religious jewelry for their kids that I had been given in my childhood.  When he asked if I shouldn’t be giving them to my own kids, I said that it would not be appropriate, and then quickly dropped the conversation.  I was hoping to make our position clear, while also making it clear that I did not want to get into a lengthy conversation about it.

 Well, we finally had to do something when he gave us a copy of Expelled.  Was he being deliberately insulting, or just clueless?  Ubi Dubius and I had a talk about it, and decided that we really had to return the gift to him, quietly and without a big scene.  Which we did.  But that prompted an email exchange between my spouse and Ubi Credulus that went on for quite awhile.  He threw out a lot of the classic Fundie challenges, the ones that they think are so great, but that absolutely fail when used on an actual unbeliever.  (I think there was a fair amount of cut-and-paste there, but perhaps he was just regurgitating all the apologetics he has been fed.)

 This is an excerpt from one of Ubi Credulus’s messages:

 When a person with a naturalistic point of view entertains the idea that an intelligence is a valid cause of the universe they are no longer naturalistic, by definition, and therefore they are prohibited from entertaining it... 

If everything came out of nothing then the nothing wasn't nothing... it was something.  All that matter had to come from somewhere.  What scientific theory can you reference to show there wasn't a cause?  Empirical evidence has never found a case for something that has begun to exist without a cause.

Ubi Dubius did a very nice job in a reply email of addressing the fallacy about “prohibited from”, and the old first cause argument. So I won’t tackle those now.  Maybe another time.

What I wanted to talk about this was this false assumption that I hear all the time:  “You atheists think everything came from nothing, so your belief is even sillier than ours.”  So I wanted to talk about this “nothing” that it’s claimed we believe in.

 First, we have  no examples of “nothing” that we can possibly study.  Every part of our universe, even those parts that look like empty space, are full of something.  Cosmic background radiation, electromagnetic and gravitational fields, the constant neutrino flux, (and maybe dark matter/dark energy, I lack the expertise to have an opinion on that,) everywhere in our universe there is too much something.  So there is really no way that we can say anything about “nothing”.

 There is another thought that I have had for several years, and I just saw Lawrence Krauss quoted in the latest Scientific American, that perhaps “nothing” is not even stable.  Perhaps it’s not at all ridiculous to have something come from nothing.  We don’t know, and we don’t currently have any way of finding out.

 And I would not say that I think the universe popped in out of nothing.  I think that about 13.7 billion years ago a small singularity rapidly expanded into the space-time universe we have now.  That’s where the evidence points.  What came before?  Well, if time as we know it also started at this singularity then “before” has no meaning in this context.  But putting that aside, can we talk about something “outside” of that singularity that might have caused it? 

 Sure we can speculate, but until we have some way of gathering evidence and testing hypotheses we can’t really have any real answers.  Maybe there are a lot of universes.  Maybe they naturally bud off each other.  Maybe a universe is some sort of vacuum fluctuation. Maybe the singularity was from a previous universe that contracted, so we have a sequence of “big bangs” each followed by a “big crunch” and another “bang”. All cool ideas, but I have insufficient reason to “believe” any of them yet, because we don’t have any information to lead us to which one, if any, might be true. “We have no information” does not justify jumping to a conclusion of “therefore god”.  That’s the “god of the gaps” argument, which fails as usual.

 But not having the right answer does not mean that we can’t rule out a bunch of wrong ones.  I can be confident the universe wasn’t the work of the Invisible Pink Unicorn or the sneeze of the Great Green Arkleseizure.  It wasn’t Leprechauns either, or Ptah, or Odin, or Zeus.  And it wasn’t the war totem of a tribe of Bronze-Age mideastern goatherders.  And I don’t care if those goatherders wrote a book that claimed they knew the right answer, they didn’t.

 I don’t believe “everything came from nothing”.  I think we don’t yet know where everything came from, and I’m OK with not knowing.  I prefer having an interesting mystery to investigate rather than devoting my life to a bunch of wrong answers somebody made up thousands of years ago.