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Faith in Soothsayers

March 30, 2011 Leave a comment

People really are stupid, at least a lot of them are. Maybe I’m focussing on a biased sample but stupidity is the only diagnosis I could possibly get from some of the comments I have heard recently in the New Zealand media. Now I am talking about a popular social commentator and contributors to talkback radio, and these aren’t exactly places where common sense and logical thought flourish but, wow, this is just sad.

The subject was the “Moon Man”, Ken Ring, a local expert on earthquake prediction (if you want to be generous) or a nutter (if you want to be less so) and his prediction of a major earthquake near full moon this month. While there were some aftershocks on that day (aftershocks following the big Canterbury earthquake of last year happen every day and will continue for a while yet) there was no big one as he predicted. So it would seem that he was wrong. But you wouldn’t think that based on what some people were saying.

One newspaper commentator noted that without a background in science it was hard to distinguish between the scientists and the nutters. She listed a series of scientific issues and concluded with “Who knows?”, and “There’s a lot of us who might as well be living in the 16th century given our gullibility and our desire to put our faith in soothsayers”. That is actually a very relevant and accurate observation (although it’s also a very obvious one).

So what were “the people” saying? One caller to a talkback radio station the day after the major quake predicted by the “Moon Man” Ken Ring failed to eventuate said this: “I’ve got nothing against the dude, you know I welcome anyone who is going to give us warning because to me warning is preparation.”

Yes, OK. Warning for what? Warning for something that didn’t happen apparently. Isn’t being warned about something that isn’t real almost as bad as not being warned about something that is?

Here’s another: “What Ken Ring has done for me is made sure that we now are prepared and I say thank God for this”.

Huh? Prepared for what? Prepared for a major earthquake which didn’t happen? The experts have been saying there will be continuing smaller aftershocks and probably one major one. That’s exactly what has happened. What has Ken Ring contributed to that exactly? Nothing. In fact it’s worse than nothing because he has contributed a lot of false information.

Here’s an interesting one: “No one died in an earthquake in New Zealand yesterday and should that not be the focus?”

Yeah that’s good. But no one died not because of Ken Ring’s warning but because there wasn’t a major earthquake. Are we now giving Ring credit for an earthquake not happening which he told us to prepare for?

And finally the most bizarre of all: “Caller: He warned us. If he hadn’t told us to do that well we wouldn’t have been prepared for it. Host: But he’s a scaremongerer [sic]. According to the John Campbells of this world. Caller: Well he needs his head read. Yeah”.

If he hadn’t warned us we wouldn’t have been prepared for something that didn’t happen apparently. And anyone who questions this nonsense needs his head read? Really? If any heads need reading I think I know where I would suggest that it might be best to dispense that psychiatric help!

Dozens of experts have stated that there is no reliable way to use the Moon’s position to predict earthquakes and that there is no reason to think Ken Ring could predict them accurately. Why don’t people just accept that? And if they can’t just take the experts’ word for it have a look at the facts. If you do that it’s very apparent that the the experts are right.

But most people don’t listen to experts. They listen to talkback hosts like John Tamihere who said. “We’ve spent millions of dollars on all this sort of seismology stuff and on all the king’s horses and all the king’s men and Ken Ring is as good as any seismologist in this country. Full stop.”

Full stop. Is that right John. Does saying full stop at the conclusion of a mindless and ignorant opinion like that make it more real? I’m afraid it doesn’t really work that way although I’m sure your listeners are happier to have reality simplified in such a way that they don’t have to think too much. Unfortunately you’re wrong. Full stop.

And Tamihere’s co-host got a bit mixed up as well. He said: “He [Ken Ring] got pretty close to it… [the time of the original Canterbury earthquake]”. Unfortunately he was looking at the wrong date. When corrected he said “Yeah anyway but then they’re vicious towards him, vicious!”.

Yeah, anyway. You’re a moron. Full stop.

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The Nuclear Danger

March 29, 2011 2 comments

The recent problems surrounding the Japanese nuclear power plants, along with the two famous historial nuclear accidents: Chernobyl and Three Mile Island, often make people comment that nuclear power is not a good option. Many people in New Zealand say they are glad we are nuclear free, from both weapons and power generation. But how real is the threat from nuclear power?

Is the threat of a nuclear accident really as bad as some people think? It seems to me that a lot of the fear is generated from ignorance. The word “nuclear” is scary to most people. When you go to the hospital for an MRI scan do they mention the real name for the technique is nuclear magnetic resonance imaging? Is it just an accident that the “N” word has been dropped?

The fact is that many countries cannot realistically provide the energy they need any other way apart from nuclear so it’s here to stay whatever you think of it. And the accidents which have happened have all involved old first generation plants, some of which were poorly constructed and maintained (read about Chernobyl some time – it would have been funny if it wasn’t so serious) and many of which were run beyond their original expected life.

And concerning the recent events in Japan. How many people died as a result of the earthquake, the tsunami, and the nuclear problem? That’s right, despite the amount of news coverage of radiation leaks, not a single person has been killed or even seriously injured by radiation. But the tsunami killed tens of thousands. Should we be scared of water instead?

Even the grossly mismanaged Chernobyl disaster only resulted in 31 confirmed direct deaths. WHO suggests it could reach 4000 and Greenpeace are suggesting 200,000 (although their obvious political bias greatly reduces the credibility of this figure). Sure that’s bad – even one death is bad. But it’s a small number compared with other disasters which have happened. I heard that living near a storage pond for waste from a coal fired plant produces the same risk as smoking a packet of cigarettes a day. How many deaths does that cause which we don’t even hear about?

There has never been a major problem with a second or third generation power plant and new technologies of the future will make nuclear power look even better: safer, more efficient, producing less waste, producing less material which could be used for weapons, and a lot more environmentally friendly than the alternatives.

The people who say they genuinely care about the planet should be encouraging research and construction of modern nuclear power facilities. If some of the promise of future technologies can be realised (and I’m not even starting to talk about fusion here) then our oil based civilisation can be revolutionised. Electric cars are the future of transport for example, but plenty of cheap electricity (generated without producing a lot of atmospheric carbon) will be needed. Nuclear power is the best way to achieve this.

How many people know that coal fired power plants produce more radiation than nuclear plants? Oak Ridge National Lab showed that the effective dose is 100 times higher from a coal plant and that after 100 years of operations coal plants worldwide would have released 830,000 tons of uranium into the atmosphere! Sure, I agree that nuclear can create a much greater immediate hazard if things go wrong, but the radiation from burning coal is a factor which many people don’t even consider.

Nuclear power is one area where I disagree with traditional “left-wing” or “green” dogma. Of course there are many others as well (although I also agree with a lot of their core beliefs) which is one reason I resist those tags being applied to me. We should look at all technologies as a whole. They all have good and bad points. Concentrating on the bad while ignoring the good, or ignoring the bad in alternatives, is not a good way to reach the most sensible conclusion.

I’m not saying nuclear power is something we don’t need to worry about. Old plants should be decommissioned when their safe life is over. Very strict regulations should be applied to all plants. And if there are safer alternatives we should use them. But we need to look at all the facts and not just reject a useful technology because its name contains that one scary word “nuclear”.

The Test of Time

March 27, 2011 Leave a comment

I have had an iPad for about a year now so I thought it was about time I went over the good and bad points of the device and which apps, games, and functions have stood the test of time. I’ve spent a lot at the Apple app store since I got the device (in fact it started before that with my iPhones) but not every purchase has got much use!

So first the general successes. The iPad is a very usable device for inputting text. The virtual keyboard isn’t quite as good as a real keyboard but after you get used to the lack of movement in the “keys” it is almost as good. I have entered a lot of text and never felt too frustrated by the experience.

It’s also a very nice casual gaming platform. The graphics are remarkably good for a battery powered compact device and the best games have very nice user controls using the touch and tilt functions. Some games where the user interaction hasn’t been so carefully designed can be very frustrating though. I think that is the critical factor which separates the good from the bad.

I only use the iPad as a casual book reader. It’s great for spending 10 or 15 minutes scanning through a magazine or for looking up some technical information in a manual, but it’s not so good for reading for extended periods of time. It’s just a bit too heavy and the glossy screen can also be a problem for this function. So if you just want a book reader don’t get an iPad. If you want a general purpose handheld device which can also read books occasionally then it is still the best.

It’s brilliant as a photo and movie viewer except for the potential problems with the glossy screen again. Do you get the impression I don’t like glossy screen? I spent $150 extra getting the anti-glare hi-res screen on my MacBook Pro and it’s the best investment I ever made. I realise that making a matte screen for a touch device which resists smudges and is easy to clean is a lot harder though.

Apps in general have improved greatly over the year I’ve had the iPad. Developers have really found ways to make apps which suit the overall iPad experience and the enhancements in iOS, such as multitasking, have also improved the overall usability.

I really appreciate another couple of general things about the iPad too. First, it has excellent battery life. I rarely find myself running out of power although I do recharge it every night whether it needs it or not. And second, it is very reliable. Crashes and other weird behaviour are extremely rare – in fact the device and OS is almost unbelievably reliable. There are also few, if any, real threats in terms of malware. The whole experience of using an iPad is almost totally free of that sort of technical issue.

So what isn’t so good – apart from the glossy screen? I think the necessity to connect to a computer for setup, some updates, and some data transfer needs to go. I can imagine many people wanting an iPad instead of a computer. Does that make sense when they are told they need a computer even to get the iPad initially set up?

The other thing that constantly annoys me is the data transfer between devices. Moving files, photos, messages, etc between my iPad, iPhone, and Mac is not as easy as it should be. There are numerous apps which help and Apple provide some mechanisms as well but it often gets back to email. That isn’t ideal. I would like to see automatic syncing of all documents between devices through the cloud. Hey, maybe that’s what Apple is going to use their new data center for.

And now some apps which I use regularly. First, the games. Angry Birds remains a classic, of course. Plants versus Zombies provides hours of fun because of the many games within the game. I quite enjoy Age of Wind (a sailing ship combat and trading game) too. I played Medieval HD consistently for several weeks although I haven’t played it so much recently. 10 Pin Shuffle is an excellent bowling game with lots of variations which I still play occasionally many months after buying it. MX Mayhem (motorcycle riding) is another game which is still fun because of the free updates which keep arriving.

And on to the “productivity” programs. Pages is still my favourite for word processing and text editing, and Keynote is also nice although I don’t have need for it that often. Simplenote is handy for writing short notes which instantly synchronise with my computer. Star Walk is probably the astronomy app I use most for casual observing (I use SkySafari for more serious astronomical activities). Evernote remains a useful tool for recording material for later use on multiple devices. iSSH is my favourite utility for controlling computers through the terminal or screen sharing. The iPad IMDb program is so convenient to use for looking up information about movies and I use that quite often. And I subscribe to many magazines through Zinio although I think the reading experience in that could be improved.

That’s about it for the apps that I use almost every day. There are many other fine iPad programs which I use less often but those are the big ones. I will probably skip the iPad 2 and wait for the next version, because although the cameras, extra speed, and lower weight of the new device are nice I don’t think I can justify the “investment”. So until the next revision does arrive I will look forward to collecting more useful apps on the current iPad.

Dogs vs Cats

March 24, 2011 Leave a comment

One of the problems of being a freethinker is… well… it’s that you’re a freethinker! Look at the freethinking communities in modern society: skeptics, atheists, progressives, science supporters, none of them seem to have much political, economic, or social power. Why is this?

One reason I think is that freethinkers are hard to organise. It’s like herding cats. Conservatives, traditional religious people, and other people who aren’t that interested in more abstract things like art, science and philosophy, are often better organised. They are more like “pack animals”, more like dogs. They work in a group.

Of course it’s easier to work in a group when your belief system is based on an ideology or a dogma instead of being something you have developed yourself through years of careful thought and examination of the evidence and facts.

I have found that conservatives, for example, have a very uniform set of beliefs and you can often see exactly where those ideas came from – sometimes down to the catchphrases they use. And it’s often very obvious that they haven’t put the slightest thought into establishing the veracity of the beliefs they have adopted from others. They simply mimic what they are told someone with their worldview should think.

And it’s not just the right which is at fault. I’ve heard some equally ridiculous nonsense from the more committed members of the political left. They parrot catchphrases from left-leaning political parties and NGOs and they clearly have put about as much research into what they think is real as the people from the opposite extreme. So this isn’t a simple left versus right argument, it’s a thinking versus non-thinking one.

So there seems to be significant agreement amongst the members of both political extremes. On the other hand the more freethinking types I mentioned above almost always disagree with each other. They’re not likely to disagree over things that are clearly true but they will often disagree about the details and how to act to achieve a certain aim.

For example, almost all freethinkers will disagree with the idea of teaching religious dogma in schools, particularly when it is disguised as science such as intelligent design or creationism (note that these aren’t actually science). Some opponents of this will say go on the offensive and make the creationists look like the fools they are. Others will say be nice because we don’t want to gain an aggressive reputation. And others will say let religion be taught because kids can tell fact from fiction anyway (although often they can’t).

But the conservative Christians will be almost united behind the idea that religion should be taught. They might not care whether it’s disguised as science or not, but they will be a lot more united, committed and organised than their opponents.

It’s easy to be committed when you aren’t really interested in the facts. It’s easy to be organised when you believe what your leaders tell you instead of being skeptical of their claims. And it’s easy to be united when you refuse to think for yourself. So their ignorance, laziness, and corruption is actually a huge asset to the conservatives. When you want to stick to facts, fight fair, and think about the ultimate consequences of your actions it’s hard to compete.

So it might seem that rationality, skepticism, and logical thinking are doomed. Well maybe they are since the majority of people don’t think, act, or vote that way and in a democracy it’s the majority that rules.

I don’t think it would be good for the freethinking community to become more like their opponents and start becoming better organised politically through accepting a common ideology. For example, although I agree with some of what Greenpeace does I disagree with a lot too so I would never join that organisation. And although I disagree with almost everything New Zealand’s libertarian party, Act, believe in, there are actually a few things that I agree with them about.

When you think for yourself nothing is ever black and white. The world is very subtle, nuanced, and interesting. I love that way of thinking but it’s not going to lead to an organisation with any real political clout. That’s unfortunate because it’s really exactly what the world needs more of.

But I’d rather be right, moral and totally lacking in political influence than a mindless automaton who has political power but is just an extension of some corrupt religious or political group.

Oh, and one last thing: I’ve got nothing against dogs. I love dogs and aren’t so keen on cats. But I don’t think they are necessary a great model for human behaviour!

Religion Extinct?

March 23, 2011 2 comments

According to the title of a recent Radio New Zealand news item, which was based on the research of an American mathematician, religion is set to become extinct in New Zealand. You might think I would see this as really good news because I have pointed out many times in the past that religion is a common cause of many problems, not the least of which is pure, plain ignorance.

But let’s go back to my blog entry of yesterday. In that I said that everyone should be skeptical of news items which they want to be true. That includes atheists who hear news items based on real research which seems to show that religion is becoming irrelevant. So is this an example of one of those times when we should be skeptical? Well yes, of course it is.

The item on radio was just over 3 minutes long and examined the subject very superficially. The researcher who was interviewed didn’t even have the New Zealand data available and the statistical and modelling methodology was only mentioned very briefly. So really we have no real reason at this point to think religion will become extinct here at all. In fact the researcher specifically said the outcome could be extinction or the religious part of the population becoming a very small minority.

I’m sure the basic conclusions are true: there is a steady rise in the number of people claiming no religious affiliation in consecutive sets of census data. This in true in most western countries but is most obvious in more “progressive” countries like New Zealand and the Netherlands (the only other country mentioned in the interview where the researcher estimated a rise in no affiliation from 40% now to 70% by the middle of the century.)

But is religion actually becoming extinct in New Zealand? Based on the interview it was impossible to tell. And even if we were told all the facts and the statistics and the modelling is correct does that even mean the conclusion is that religion will become extinct?

That seems unlikely. First, there is likely to be a core group of believers in traditional religions which won’t give up their beliefs easily. Sure many of those will succumb to old age and therefore no longer be relevant as time progresses but they will pass on their beliefs to the next generation as well.

Second, failure to identify with an organised religious group doesn’t mean the person isn’t religious. Well at least that argument could be made depending on your exact definition of what “being religious” really means. People might want a more “free” form of spirituality which means they don’t identify with a traditional religious group but they might still be thought of as religious according to a wider definition.

Third, predictions of future trends are notoriously difficult to make, especially in the social sciences. It would be interesting to see if an independent study using different methodology came to the same conclusion.

So there is considerable cause for skepticism here although I agree that the basic decline of religion is likely to continue. So if I conclude that religion isn’t actually likely to become extinct and I (in general) don’t like religion, should I be upset about that? No, of course not!

Although I see a lot of problems associated with religion I also see some good in it as well. Even if everything else is ignored it is an interesting social phenomenon which makes life more interesting. I can’t imagine anything worse than a society where everyone agrees about the deepest philosophical questions!

And from a personal perspective I would be upset if religion became extinct because I enjoy a good debate and fundamentalist believers are some of the most entertaining to debate with!

Plus there is the social good which religion provides. Many people rely on their church for support and friendship. Even if the beliefs of that church are entirely bogus they can still provide a useful social service. And there is the charitable work done by some churches as well. Sure, none of this can only be provided by a church but at the moment it is churches which are doing it so I agree that’s good.

So I am very skeptical about the claim of religion becoming extinct in New Zealand (or anywhere else) and even if it was true I think it would be unfortunate anyway!

Be Skeptical!

March 22, 2011 Leave a comment

Everyone has some preconceived ideas. Before a topic is discussed or examined we usually have an idea of what we want the answer to be. For example, fundamentalist Christians will always start out with the idea that evolution is wrong and creation is right, many conservatives will have convinced themselves that global warming isn’t true before they hear any real evidence, and (yes, it’s true) most scientifically oriented people will believe conventional scientific knowledge is correct before seriously examining the alternatives.

In an ideal world we would always start with a “blank slate” and only decide what is true after looking at the evidence. Plus we would try to source the evidence from a range of credible sources. And we would accept that any conclusion we did reach was provisional and could be changed if new evidence appeared.

But few people think that way. In fact probably no one is capable of being totally rational and looking at all the evidence in a totally fair way, but that doesn’t mean that some aren’t a lot better than others.

If there was one bit of advice I would give people it would be this: if you hear some information that you really want to be true (maybe because it supports your political or religious views) then be very suspicious of it. In fact the more it supports your existing views the more suspicious you should be.

In an ideal world all information from credible sources would be treated equally but the type of information I mentioned above is more likely to be given greater emphasis by the individual which is why I suggest trying to equalise the situation by being especially skeptical of it.

So if you are a creationist and you see a news item which claims to have discovered proof of the Flood then be skeptical. If you are a global warming denier and a person claiming to be an expert shows statistics proving global warming isn’t true then be skeptical. And if you are an atheist and you hear someone has found absolute proof that Jesus didn’t exist then be skeptical of that too!

I have been a victim of this phenomenon several times myself. Before I became more familiar with the principles of skepticism and logical thought I accepted certain evidence without giving it sufficient critical examination. Then later when I used that information in a debate and my opposition showed it was untrue I looked like a bit of an idiot!

More recently I have been a lot more careful and my credibility in debates and arguments has risen as a result. More recently I have been a victim of the phenomenon more through the tedium of having to constantly show why my opponents are wrong.

Global warming deniers repeat the same old misinformation (for example temperatures haven’t risen since 1998) presented by people who claim to be experts (but almost universally aren’t) and I easily show how they are wrong. But a week later they will be back with the same claim again! As my old science teacher said: everyone makes mistakes but only a fool makes the same mistake twice. Be skeptical!

And creationists repeat the same old nonsense, for example there are no transitional fossils, but when I show them a list, including photos, they suddenly aren’t interested and change the subject. But they are back with another article by a “creationist scientist” a week later making the same claim again. Be skeptical!

And sometimes my allies can be almost as bad. They quote unreliable media reports about new scientific discoveries or simplify the real facts to support their pre-held beliefs. I know what they are saying is unreliable so I have to add a disclaimer to that effect. They should be careful about accepting information, especially from mainstream news sources, which supports what they want to believe is true. Be skeptical!

There are some things which are just so ridiculous that there is basically zero chance of them being true. Creationism would be an example. There are others which are well supported but still not well enough understood to be certain about. Global warming would be an example of that. And there are others where the basics are practically certain. Evolution and most other established scientific theories would be in that category. But everyone has a different idea of the veracity of their beliefs. They would be a lot more likely to have realistic beliefs if they did just one thing: be skeptical!

The End of What?

March 18, 2011 Leave a comment

Recently there have been a lot of events around the world which have seemed more severe than what we are used to. Locally there were the Christchurch earthquakes, now there is the Japan earthquake followed by a tsunami and now a possible nuclear accident. There have been many extreme weather events too: record highs and lows in temperature, extensive flooding in Australia, etc. Plus there is the political turmoil in the Middle East which seems to be more widespread than it has been in the past.

So what does it all mean? I have heard a few people question whether it is some sort of sign of the end of the world. Of course the religious nutters have been predicting that for 2000 years and have zero credibility, but this is a less specific thought that some more moderate people seem to share.

But let’s look at this sensibly. What do they actually mean by “the end of the world” anyway? Do they mean the planet itself is going to explode, or drift off into space, or be physically destroyed in some other way? Or do they mean life will be eradicated on the Earth so that it will seem like an end from that perspective? Or do they mean some sort of supernatural phenomenon might happen resulting in a change so huge it might seem like the end?

When you ask them they don’t seem to know (apart from the religious nutters who mumble on about the second coming of Christ or some other nonsense). There’s just this vague feeling of something bad rather than a specific idea of what will actually happen.

So first, there is no feasible mechanism which would result in the physical destruction of the planet. Even the Sun expanding into a red giant in 6 billion years won’t totally destroy the Earth. Sure, it will fry it pretty badly, but that event is a long time away anyway and earthquakes and other events this year are clearly unrelated.

What about destruction of life? Once it got established life has survived an amazing range of disasters including ice ages, meteor impacts, super volcanoes, massive fires, and many others. The recent disasters, as bad as they were, barely even begin to compare with the global disasters of the past!

The worst global disasters resulted in 90% of species dying off, but those extinctions took a long time and were triggered by truly cataclysmic global events. A few earthquakes or floods don’t seem to be very relevant compared with that.

I’ve already dismissed a supernatural event. There have been so many predictions of this sort in the past that it’s barely worthy of even the slightest consideration. But let’s give it that anyway. If a major supernatural event was about to happen would it be heralded by perfectly ordinary, although severe, natural events which already happen every year anyway?

What would be the point? If some god was trying to warn us that something big is about to happen why do it with events that just happen anyway? It seems a bit pointless really. I mean if there were multiple meteor strikes and the craters spelled out the word “repent” I might take it a bit more seriously but some earthquakes just seem to be part of the usual run of disasters we get every year.

So it seems to me that the end of the world is not, in fact, imminent. In fact the whole idea of “the end of the world” is actually quite meaningless… at least until we see something like that supernatural meteor message.