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Archive for March, 2009

An Alternative World

March 31, 2009 2 comments

I listen to a lot of podcasts and podcasted radio programs as well as keeping up with the general news in other forms, especially on the internet. I also read conventional newspapers a bit although not as much as I used to. I could survive without “conventional” news sources like newspapers, TV and radio quite easily, as long as I could get the news through the web, including video, and get the in-depth material from podcasts. I also use selected blogs to get an alternative perspective on the news.

I don’t go out of my way to get a particular perspective on the news. In fact I deliberately subscribe to information sources which are contrary to my usual philosophy. For example, I subscribe to a podcast which supports paranormal explanations of phenomena I would usually be skeptical of, and I subscribe to a newsletter from our libertarian, right wing political party here in New Zealand.

The thing I notice is that the skeptical and scientific sources seem to agree with the general sources on the controversial topics I am interested in. For example, I never hear a podcast or news bulletin or read an article in any mainstream source which even remotely treats evolution as anything except a fact. And the same applies to global warming although I do recognise there is a bit more debate about that.

Its not just that the news sources I use have a bias towards the status quo because I see plenty of debate on subjects like American policy in the Middle East, environmental issues, and other areas of controversy. So what is really happening is that there really is no controversy in areas like evolution and global warming because they have been proven to any reasonable person’s satisfaction.

The thing that I often wonder is how do unreasonable people feel about these issues? Creationists must hear constant discussion of evolution without the slightest indication that there is any doubt about its veracity. What do they do then? Maybe they just switch off or maybe they just don’t listen to any information source which is likely to support evolution. Of course, that would be almost all of them!

In fact I do see a trend amongst people who believe nutty things: people like creationists, global warming deniers, for example. They all have their own “alternative world” where their pseudoscientific and illogical beliefs are discussed in the same way as factual science is discussed in the “real world”. In other words they can listen to their own false material and pretend its just as relevant as the scientific and mainstream stuff I listen to.

This material often takes the form of paper and electronic newsletters from groups pushing a particular agenda, tv and radio news programs which treat their own controversial opinions as if they were true, blogs written by extreme nutters who deliberately warp the truth, and discussion amongst friends and family with the same baseless views as them.

But who’s to say that I’m not equally deluded? I admit I mainly use scientific sources so aren’t I getting my material from sources which are just as biased as theirs? Well no, because as I said above, I deliberately access contrary views to my own (and that can be really painful) and I also use mainstream sources (especially newspapers like the New Zealand Herald and the BBC, and radio like Radio New Zealand National).

If I suddenly noticed these mainstream sources treating creationism or global warming denial seriously I would certainly have to reconsider my conclusions on those subjects. And that’s another difference. I have no emotional attachment to any particular belief. If evolution turned out to be untrue that would be fascinating because we would then have to start on a whole new theory. And if global warming turned out to be untrue I would be really happy because then we wouldn’t be facing the potentially disastrous future we are now.

It would be so easy to pretend that we are god’s special creation and we go to heaven when we die, and that global warming isn’t true and we can just carry on the way we are, but I think its more important to face cold, hard reality than a convenient fantasy – no matter how nice that fantasy might be!

UFOs Identified

March 30, 2009 Leave a comment

Recently the British Department of Defence released its files on its investigation of UFO sightings. They took it very seriously but in the end the final result was inconclusive. That means that no one could definitely say that UFOs are visitors from outer space but they also couldn’t say that they weren’t.

That’s not really surprising because, in many UFO cases, there is not enough evidence to reach a reasonable conclusion. Lack of evidence usually means the phenomenon doesn’t exist but we can never be sure because its almost impossible to prove a negative.

Before I go any further I should clarify a few points. First, UFO stands for unidentified flying object. By this definition they certainly exist because there are flying objects which are unidentified. But many people think UFO means alien visitors and that is the definition I am discussing in this post. We also usually mean the alien visitors have visited Earth and they are responsible for the strange lights, alien probings, and other assorted phenomena.

I don’t think aliens have ever visited the Earth but I do think other intelligent life exists in the universe. How do I know that they haven’t visited us here? First, because if they had it would probably be more obvious; second, because the way life originates and evolves in the Universe means it might be still quite rare; and third, interstellar travel is just really hard.

So what are UFOs if they aren’t visitors from outer space? They are astronomical objects, atmospheric effects, aircraft, and various other effects, sometimes viewed under unusual conditions. And they are things we just haven’t identified yet. Its that simple.

Natural is Bad

March 28, 2009 Leave a comment

Many people like to take “natural remedies” to help with their medical issues. These range from treatments like herbs, to crystals, faith healing, and other methods involving a supernatural element. Actually the reason I am even discussing this issue is because of a natural remedy my wife (who is quite enthusiastic about this sort of thing) has been advised to stop taking because of potential complications.

The real question is do these treatments actually work? Actually the answer isn’t simple because the question isn’t well defined. It depends a lot on which particular type of alternative, natural treatment you are talking about, and how you define success.

Let’s start with herbs and other “natural” remedies. There is no doubt that some herb and plant based cures work. Some conventional drugs are derived from plants (or were originally derived from plants and might now be synthesised artificially) so its clear that they work. For example, aspirin originally came from willow bark and chewing willow bark was a traditional way of reducing pain.

So if aspirin is available in a “natural” form in willow bark would we not be better to use that? Well no, actually. There is a particular component in willow bark that works but, like every active ingredient, you can take too much or too little for the treatment to be safe or effective. Chewing a chunk of willow bark will not give you an accurate dose, but taking a carefully measured amount in a pill can. Also its difficult to avoid contamination with other material in the natural form of the treatment.

So if there’s a choice between what is essentially the same thing in a natural or artificial form I say take the artificial alternative. But what about herbs which don’t have a conventional medical alternative? Its entirely probable that some of them work. It seems reasonable to think that there are some naturally occurring materials which haven’t been isolated and therefore aren’t available in conventional medicine. Is it OK to take a herbal form of these?

I don’t think so. At least not without careful consideration of the potential outcomes. There are really two types of drugs (or call them natural alternative treatments or whatever): the ones which don’t work and the ones which have side effects. If it doesn’t work (and I’m sure the vast majority of alternative treatments are in this category) why take it, and if it does work it will have side effects so its potentially dangerous to take it.

A herb in this latter category is St John’s wort. There are some scientific trials showing it does have a real effect but we also know it interacts with other drugs and can cause dangerous effects in the wrong dose. Most other herbs have no evidence at all showing they work, although there are a few studies which indicate some herbs might have limited efficacy.

There is certainly no evidence that natural remedies can prevent cancer or have any other spectacular effect of that sort. And many studies show that homeopathy, faith healing, and other “new age” treatments are useless. Well maybe not totally. Some studies show these work about as well as a placebo. In other words they do nothing but thinking they might work is enough to help by itself.

So ironically its best to use alternative treatments which don’t work but they only work if the patient doesn’t know they don’t work (so that the placebo effect is effective). Herbs which do work can cause more harm than good through interactions, contamination, and inaccurate doses.

Unfortunately there are also two other considerations. First, people might use ineffective natural treatments instead of real ones and that will lead to them not being treated effectively. And second, many natural remedies are quite expensive so people are wasting their money on nothing (literally nothing in the case of homeopathy).

Taking those factors into account I think the only real advice I would give is to stay away from natural remedies completely. Labelling stuff as “natural” might give the impression it is safe but that’s really just meaningless marketing. Don’t waste your money or risk your health with that sort of nonsense!

Reasonable Force

March 26, 2009 Leave a comment

The latest controversy (well at least one of the latest) to erupt here in New Zealand involves the case of a store owner defending himself against an attack from some teenage robbers – or at least they would have been robbers if he hadn’t defended himself and scared them off.

The attackers were armed with a knife but the shop owner retaliated with a bat and because of the resulting harm to the attackers he was charged by police. Yesterday he had the charges dropped after a depositions hearing in a district court but was that the correct outcome?

The vast majority of people seem to support his actions and many are criticising the police for even prosecuting him when they say he was clearly acting in self defence. The law allows reasonable force to be used in self defence and that’s the only fair approach although the problem is, of course, what “reasonable” force is.

Because its not always clear what is lawful in these situations I think the police were right to proceed with the prosecution. But I hope the court costs of the defence will be covered at least.

There are extreme views at both ends of the spectrum. Some think that killing the attackers would have been doing the world a favour whereas others (a small minority) seem to think using force, even in defence, isn’t justified at all. As is usually the case, both of these extremes are wrong and the existing law allowing reasonable force is clearly appropriate.

One person who commented said the youths were attacked from behind while they were running away. This might not be seen as self defence, but I haven’t seen any confirmation that it actually happened that way. If it did happen like that then it could easily be seen as going beyond reasonable force.

So it really gets back to the details of the individual case. Encouraging an environment where disproportionate retaliation is allowed would be counterproductive, first because it would escalate the level of violence, and second because it would encourage deliberate vigilante behaviour.

I think the police did the right thing in referring this case to the court and I think the court did the right thing in dropping it (although I would need to know the details to say that for sure). OK, so a bit of bureaucracy was required and that, no doubt, cost the tax payer, but I don’t think we should take shortcuts when it comes to dispensing justice.

Categories: news Tags: , , ,

A Useful Mac Program

March 25, 2009 Leave a comment

Occasionally I discover a new Mac program which is just so useful that I have to tell everyone about it. This time the program is something I have been using for a while now but I have just discovered new functionality which makes it even more useful than I previously thought. The program is TextExpander. If you use a Mac you should read this entry and consider using this program.

The basic function of TextExpander is to expand text (as you might have guessed). Its a background process which waits for you to type a shortcut and then inserts the expanded text into the current program you are using at the insertion cursor.

This means that you can type a short sequence of characters and have a much longer or more complex sequence substituted. For example, if I want my email address inserted I just type oj“ and TextExpander expands that to “ojb@mac.com”. That only saves a few characters but I can use a different short sequence to expand to my full 6 line postal address or even more – in fact pages of text if necessary.

I use a two character mnemonic followed by two backquotes because I never need to type two backquotes otherwise. That means TextExpander won’t expand stuff when I don’t want it to. The sequence can be anything though. If I was never going to just type oj by itself I could have that expand to my email address instead.

So that’s an example of a simple substitution but it goes beyond that. TextExpander can also substitute dynamic data like the date and time. For example, if I want Greenwich Mean Time inserted I just type gm“ and I get “Wed, 25 Mar 2009 15:32:29 GMT” substituted. I have similar shortcuts for the date and time in different formats and other data.

Another powerful feature is that the substitution doesn’t have to be text. If I wanted my signature inserted as a graphic for example I could just type ms“. Obviously the program I’m expanding into would need to support graphics for this to work. Text substitutions seem to work everywhere, even in the Finder where I can insert the date into a file name by typing dm“ (the dm here stands for day-month-year. I use ym“ to give a year-month-day date, such as 2009-03-25).

Recently I discovered a feature which I had never noticed before. TextExpander can run an Applescript and substitute the result instead of doing a simple text substitution. I use the TinyURL web site to create short URLs which can be used in Twitter and other places. To get a short URL I can copy (or cut) the long URL I want shortened then type tu“. The shortened URL is then substituted by TextExpander (which sends the long URL on the clipboard to the TinyURL web site, returns the shortened version and substitutes it into the current document).

I can see that using Applescript might allow me to generate all sorts of useful dynamic data. Applescript can call Shell scripts, can access databases, documents, and just about anything else, so there is no limit to what can be done. I will create a page on my web site with useful substitutions, scripts, and other tips soon.

You might think that remembering all of those shortcuts is hard but it isn’t really. Its just a matter of choosing sequences which make sense but don’t get triggered accidentally. After a while it becomes so natural that I type them on other peoples’ computers and wonder why nothing happens! As well as that, all the substitutions can be accessed from the TextExpander menu, but that partly reduces the speed of the whole system.

TextExpander is published by Smile on My Mac. Their web site is http://www.smileonmymac.com/TextExpander/ and the program is US$29.95 shareware.

Categories: computers Tags: , , ,

Those Christians!

March 24, 2009 Leave a comment

There have been many occasions in this blog where I have been critical of religion and treated it with general disdain. I have also explained my reasons for being an atheist and presented the opinion that it is the only truly ethical philosophical position to take. Despite the fact that science, which is basically irreligious, is the most important aspect of modern civilisation there is still a large majority of people in the world who are religious.

I would contend that the major reason for this is pure habit and laziness. If there was something overwhelmingly convincing about a religion (and most believers claim their particular religion is something special) then we might expect people all over the world to more-or-less spontaneously convert. That doesn’t happen. People tend to stick with the traditional beliefs of their society and generally only convert through vigorous persuasion – and sometimes through force or what is effectively bribery!

So if atheism is so great why isn’t it taking over the world? Well maybe slowly it is. Even in the US, which has had a strong religious tradition, there are signs that religion is beginning to slip as the dominant belief system.

For example, the current US president still claims to be a Christian but I think we would say he is a quite different type of Christian than the previous one! At least he doesn’t let religion interfere with valuable science (like stem cell research) and he doesn’t think god talks to him by telling him to smite his enemies!

A recent survey in the US showed a gradual increase in people reporting themselves as atheists and a corresponding reduction in those who said they were religious. To be fair, the number of atheists is still only 15% but this is in a country where atheism is treated with great disdain by a lot of the population.

The title of the article reporting the survey was: There’s a new power in America Рatheism. This is true, I think, despite the rather low percentage of atheists. At least now atheism is being discussed and, with the new president, extremist religion has lost a lot of its power.

Outside the US its a mixture of gains and losses. Discussions originating from people like Richard Dawkins have made the atheist and scientific perspective more prominent but there are the occasional counter-attacks by fundies trying to push creationism into schools and other areas where it doesn’t belong.

Its all good fun really, as long as it doesn’t incite more violent reactions like the “Christian” I heard on a recent US radio show who threatened the atheist presenter by saying he would “punch your fat head in for Jesus”. Ah those Christians… they’d do anything for Jesus!

Trust the Law?

March 23, 2009 Leave a comment

On several occasions in this blog I have criticised the legal system but I have also pointed out that it usually gets things right and while it could be better it could also be a lot worse. I’m talking about the legal systems in most modern, western countries here: most of Europe, the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, etc, not some of the more corrupt systems in developing countries.

I know that there are times when the law fails: either an innocent person is convicted or a guilty person escapes justice, but we cannot expect a system to be perfect. Another system which establishes the truth through systematic examination is science. Its a slightly different mechanism to the law and in some ways it is complementary. The two systems together: science and the law, make a powerful combination.

If you follow my blog you will know this is leading somewhere – these rambling, general introductions always do! So what is is this time?

There are many areas of skepticism which interest me but two which are really annoying are the groups who reject vaccination and the groups who want to inflict their own silly religious beliefs on other people, especially children. Both of these issues have been tested by science and by the law and in both cases there has been agreement that the beliefs of the fringe groups are nonsense.

Recently a court case in the USA rejected the idea that the MMR vaccine causes autism. This has been a problem in many countries recently. We had a case here in New Zealand even (a country which often escapes the worse effects of the crazies) where people’s refusal to immunise their kids resulted in a dangerous outbreak of measles. So both science and the courts have rejected the idea that the vaccine causes autism. Will that stop the crazies? Of course not. They will have to believe in a slightly bigger conspiracy now – one which involves both scientists and judges – but the credibility of their beliefs has never been a serious concern to them in the past.

A while back now the famous Kitzmiller vs Dover Area School District case in the USA threw out the introduction of “Intelligent Design” into classrooms because it was just religion thinly disguised. Judge Jones, a conservative Christian, not only rejected the attempt to introduce it but he thoroughly berated the people trying to use this subterfuge to push their own religious ideas onto children. How low do you have to be to use brainwashing techniques in schools just to forward your own beliefs? Do they have no merit on their own? Apparently not.

So in this case science and the law agree again. Not only does the law agree but the particular person was someone who would be far more likely to be biased towards the teaching of creationism than against it. As it happens the judge did a great job and no personal bias was evident at all. But again the creationists (or intelligent design proponents – there’s no real difference) will claim its all part of a conspiracy. A conspiracy so strong that even a conservative judge is involved! Do they sound a little bit deluded to you? Yes, I think so too!

As I have often said, both the law and science occasionally get things wrong. When they do they usually correct the error later (especially in science). What chance is there that these two powerful, independent forces would both rule against the pseudoscientist nutters and both be wrong? That chance is surely really low. I think we can safely say that, unless really strong new evidence is discovered, the safety of vaccines is assured and the credibility of Intelligent Design is destroyed.

We can almost always trust science and the law. Together they are even stronger.