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Or, Satirical depictions of religious leaders should be illegal, says Ottawa imam.

This is a fascinating study in the art of getting things completely backwards. It should be mentioned up front that this guy (wrong-headed though he otherwise is) does denounce the terrorist attacks and refer to the terrorists as disturbed individuals—he’s disingenuous but not an apologist for monsters. (Nor did he claim that the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists bore the responsibility for their own deaths, unlike some old, white, male Christians¹.) That said:

"Imtiaz Ahmed...said it should be against the law to publish cartoons that depict religious figures in a derogatory way.

“Of course we defend freedom of speech, but it has to be balanced. There has to be a limit. There has to be a code of conduct,” Ahmed said."

“We believe that any kind of vulgar expression about any sacred person of any religion does not constitute the freedom of speech in any way at all.”

Ahmed said there should be limits placed on freedom of speech to prevent the publication of offensive material. He says that seems to be the case for events such as the Holocaust. Members of the public denounce those who say the Holocaust never happened.

It’s worth noting that his position is in fact against free speech. He’s for free speech…unless it’s just too offensive. However, the legal right to free speech is entirely about offensive speech; after all, it’s only once speech has been deemed offensive that anyone wants to silence it, and therefore only offensive speech ever needs, and uses, legal protection. In practice, “free speech except for really offensive speech’ is exactly equivalent to no free speech at all. (Incidentally, his words are incredibly offensive to free speech advocates; but of course he wants special protection only for religious speech, on the basis of…who knows?)

His remark about public denouncement of Holocaust denial is an even more stunning miss, because public denouncement of offensive remarks is precisely what free speech advocates strive for. Legal protection of free expression necessarily includes the protection of responses to said speech. That’s the whole idea of the principle: Let everyone speak their mind, and let those who are in the wrong be defeated by having their ideas exposed, rebutted, and rejected, not by shutting them up and forcing them to nurse their grievances and resentment in private.

¹ Stephane Charbonnier, the paper’s publisher, was killed today in the slaughter. It is too bad that he didn’t understand the role he played in his tragic death. Bill Donohue, everybody.

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Thus spake WLC.

“Fine-tuning ergo God” is like saying “The odds of drawing just these ten cards are so small, it must be rigged!” when we don’t know the composition of the deck: A glib generalisation, as though every drawing of cards corresponded to a deck of Bicycle playing cards and a probability distribution we are, supposedly, intuitively familiar with. There’s a bait-and-switch here, since for all we know the deck we’re really concerned with is (meta?)physically constrained to nothing but straight flushes. For all we know, the deck might have only ten cards to begin with or the cards might be stuck together with string and Scotch tape.

Of course it’s entirely legitimate to wonder why the parameters of physics are just what they are (and on some level there is presumably a reason), but I find it highly suspect when someone asserts that they were a priori improbable—how exactly do you determine the probability? Can you demonstrate, from first principles of making universes, that there’s a wide range of possible parameters whereof the chemically productive parameters form a small proportion? I’m sure the cosmological community would be fascinated to learn the principles.

Point one—I must call them points, for they aren’t really reasons—point one is juvenile, point three is perversely ironic in the light of two millennia of unresolved theodicy (don’t you think the Cathars had a better idea, until the Catholics murdered them all?), point four is presumably included for the sake of hilarity alone (surely no one is expected to take it seriously?), and point five must have been added after Dr. Craig got drunk and forgot to activate GMail Goggles, but point two is offensive in its duplicity.

Oh well. For this particular atheist, Christmas—well, I think of it more as “juletid” in Swedish, precisely cognate with Yuletide, a pagan term that merged with Christmas when Jesus’s birthday was moved to mid-winter to co-opt older religious celebrations like Saturnalia and, elsewhere, Yule—was never much about religion but rather family, presents, a tree (of likely pagan origin), and good food (much of it based on pork and so presumably frowned upon by Jews like the Nazarene). Or at least, it was not about religion when I grew up. Now there’s always a heavy dose of news articles, editorials, and opinion pieces by Christians who hysterically complain that their holiday is under attack (because they’re not allowed a monopoly), that Jesus and Santa Claus are white, so there!, or (á la Craig) assert that people like me are echoing slogans rather than thinking. I don’t go pissing in his crèche, but ye gods! (both Jesus and the older myths he was based on), this editorialising gets on my nerves.

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Some theologians and apologists (notably, I gather, the fairly famous Alvin Plantinga) hold forth a curious epistemic argument purportedly in favour of their theism. The argument in one form (not due to Plantinga) goes like this: Evolution optimises organisms for survival and gene dispersal, not correct beliefs, which would be favoured only if they enhance the above.

That is, because there’s no telling whether unguided evolution would fashion our cognitive faculties to produce mostly true beliefs, atheists who believe the standard evolutionary story must reserve judgment about whether any of their beliefs produced by these faculties are true. This includes the belief in the evolutionary story. Believing in unguided evolution comes built in with its very own reason not to believe it.

Now, the most obvious problem with this argument is of course that evolutionary theory does give us a reason to suppose that we can arrive at true beliefs, because it is difficult to conceive of any process whereby a tendency toward mostly false beliefs would be beneficial for survival or gene dispersal. I'm sure some scenarios can be dreamed up where fortuitous misconceptions would cause an animal to behave in a manner just as good, or even better, as correctness, and certainly we know of (and science corrects for) some tendencies toward, for instance, false positive errors and other biases, but here we must imagine something both subtler and more pervasive, and in particular a mechanism that accepts sensible input from the exterior world and systematically transforms this input into beliefs that are erroneous and yet more advantageous than the simpler mechanism of apprehending reality…

Still, I don't think that's the argument's worst problem. After all, the assumption of some divine entity provides no more guarantee that your senses are accurate than a naturalistic view! On the contrary: Although it's not a logical proof, I think I have outlined a good reason to think that evolution is in fact likely to produce brains capable of apprehending reality, not perfectly but with at least some fidelity. Assume the existence of an all-powerful being, on the other hand, and that all goes out the window. What grounds have you to suppose, if such a being exists, that the beliefs it chooses to have your brain produce are correct? It is completely arbitrary! The apologist might conceivably argue that his God is a God of truth and so forth, but those are just more of the same arbitrary beliefs. On the assumption that an all-powerful being exists, which can manipulate your senses and beliefs as it sees fit, your are at the utter mercy of its intentions; and its intentions are unknowable, because it can make you believe whatever falsehood it wants, and every “evidence” you might have that your vision of this god is the right one is equally susceptible to (infallible) falsification.

Ultimately, both atheists and theists must assume some fidelity of their senses a priori, whether they wish to admit it or not. Although every epistemology needs its axioms, the naturalistic world view introduces no more than necessary, and people like Plantinga and his fellow admirers of the Argument from Arbitrariness (if you will) would do well to avoid casting stones in glass houses, for once you assume the existence of ultimate beings, everything is arbitrary.

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@Pastorsmallwood: @haggholm I already told you once that is not a problem for me Things are defined as good because God says it in his word ,moral standard

@michaelAsmalls: @Pastorsmallwood @haggholm I'll go ahead and solve your little "dilemma". My moral standards are based off of what God says

The fallacy or incoherency of the above statement was illustrated over two thousand years ago by precisely that famous Dilemma that is here purportedly “solved”, in Plato’s dialogue Εὐθύφρων (Euthuphron or Euthyphro in English). Stated more simply and straightforwardly, consider the following hypothetical:

Suppose that the Christian god (henceforth “God”) exists. Suppose, furthermore, that he commands you to go forth and torture innocent babies to death. Would it be good to do so?

  1. “Yes, if God tells me to do it, it’s good by definition.” This is a logically coherent answer, but problematic in that it implies a morality that does not inherently condemn the torture of infants.

  2. “No; God would never do such a thing, because it is evil.” This is logically incoherent if you take the line that goodness is defined by God’s will: If good is defined by what God says, then he could very well say it and it would by definition be good. God cannot refrain from any action whatever on the grounds that it would be evil, because by definition whatever he does is good. He could torture babies, rape kittens, you name it—if good is defined by God’s will, it’s all good. In this case, the distinction between good and evil is mere caprice on God’s part.

    If you hold that Things are defined as good because God says it, then “God is good” means literally “God does whatever he wants”: nothing else. It is not really a meaningful statement.

    This can be resolved by saying that God would never do such a thing, because it is evil, and if he hypothetically did it, he would be evil. (Therefore, because he is good, it can only be considered hypothetically.) But in that case, God must be good according to some standard of goodness external to what he wants. Then he may be a moral authority (because, we might suppose, he’s been established as being very good), but not the source of morality (after all, it is only logically possible for him to be good in a meaning).

You might wonder how the intrepid Twitter posters from before respond to the Dilemma. The answer is of course that they faithfully, religiously, boldly, and forcefully stick their heads in the sand and refuse to answer at all.

@Pastorsmallwood: @haggholm Greek (geek) philosophy is simply intellectual arguments between those who have rejected God, God is supreme +the bible is truth

@Pastorsmallwood: @haggholm there is no dilemma in my mind God created the world and gave us his word to help to see our sin +show us his Son who alone saves

@michaelAsmalls: @haggholm I'm about truth. Not hypothetical. Find me in the scripture where it says that and then we will discuss

@michaelAsmalls: @haggholm don't make blanket statements.I will not discuss hypotheticals as asinine as the aforementioned of yours.it goes against Gods Word

Greek (geek) philosophy is simply intellectual arguments between those who have rejected God, God is supreme +the bible is truth—is that not marvellous? Explicitly dismiss logic and reasoning if it troubles you; it is better to recite by rote. I cannot help but be reminded of Martin Luther’s admonition that We know that reason is the devil's harlot, and can do nothing but slander and harm all that god says and does.

Even before I outgrew religion I always thought that if God had decided to give me a brain, I should probably use it. I suppose that is why I outgrew faith.

Addendum, after I responded to various “read the Bible it answers all questions and is the truth y’all” statements with a query into whether the man happened to be a parrot or a cassette player:

@Pastorsmallwood: @haggholm more insults , so biblical as Jesus hung on the cross people did the same thing thank you I'm humbled to suffer insults as he did

Even though Jesus’s mythical sacrifice wasn’t that big a deal, comparing my tweet to being crucified and taunted while slowly dying does sound not a little presumptuous and, well, flatly silly.

@michaelAsmalls: @haggholm @Pastorsmallwood we don't have to reason. The Word is not up for debate. It is fact, facts in which we ASSERT.

Do I even need to comment?

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A Twitter exchange¹ reminds me of one of the more peculiar rhetorical gambits many proselytising Christians will resort to when faced with unbelief: Just call on God’s name sincerely, or Only pray to Jesus for salvation, or similar.

Now, for a believing Christian I’m sure the gesture seems meaningful: When they call on their god’s name or pray, they believe they are communicating with something. However, it is bafflingly inane to suggest this to a disbeliever. I get their meaning: They feel that if we only tried sincerely, then surely God would show us the light, or something. The reason why it is so inane is that said sincerity is impossible. I cannot sincerely talk to an imaginary being. I am an atheist; I sincerely don’t believe that there exist any gods, and so obviously any act of mine of “speaking” to any such fictional entity would be a sham, and I would be disqualified on the sincerity point. Someone who does offer a sincere prayer must have belief that there is at least some recipient of the prayer. So of course everyone who offers that sincere prayer feels validated, but it’s no victory at all because only those who had already subscribed qualified.

Most likely it’s just another thing not properly thought through, an earnest but inane entreaty to the unbelievers, born perhaps from this peculiar habit of some believers to treat atheists as though they didn’t actually believe that atheism is real, as though atheists were not people who don’t believe in their god but instead people who just don’t like it.² (Many atheists do point out problems with that entity, of course, but the causality is here reversed. We are free to criticise because we don’t presuppose perfection and blind ourselves to flaws.)

If, on the other hand, it is not mere sloppy thinking but an intentional rhetorical trick, it’s cheap and sleazy.

I would urge the next Christian who feels a need to implore me to sincerely beseech Jesus to first set a good example by offering a sincere prayer to Thor, or if they prefer, to Vulcan, Set, Torak, or the Great Green Arkleseizure. I am willing to bet that none of them will actually do so—not sincerely.³

¹ No, I don’t have much to do today.

² In case it’s not already clear, let me state it plainly: We’re not atheists because we dislike your god. Most of us are atheists because we realised that there’s no good evidence that any such things as gods exist; because we take the same standards of reasoning that use when determining truth in other matters, when people fervently attempt to persuade us of things, and apply them to your gods. I don’t personally feel that being an atheist makes me smarter than religious people, but I do think I apply my intelligence more consistently, to areas you choose to shelter from critical thought and need for evidence.

³ My first datum seems to represent the approach of pretending not to hear.

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Pope Ratzinger feels that Nazism was an example of atheist extremism and that the Nazi tyranny wished to eradicate God from society.

Even in our own lifetimes we can recall how Britain and her leaders stood against a Nazi tyranny that wished to eradicate God from society and denied our common humanity to many, especially the Jews, who were thought unfit to live.

As we reflect on the sobering lessons of atheist extremism of the 20th century, let us never forget how the exclusion of God, religion and virtue from public life leads ultimately to a truncated vision of man and of society and thus a reductive vision of a person and his destiny.

Joseph Ratzinger (Pope)

I suppose he should know. Still, a certain Herr Adolf Hitler seems to have disagreed:

We were convinced that the people needs and requires this faith. We have therefore undertaken the fight against the atheistic movement, and that not merely with a few theoretical declarations: we have stamped it out.

I am now as before a Catholic and will always remain so.

Adolph Hitler (Führer)

The last quote is a bit dubious—Hitler was nominally Catholic, but the Nazi party embraced a lot of Pagan and mystic influences that his Catholic forbears would probably have liked to see burned at the stake. The Christian church bears responsibility for an awful lot of anti-Semitism (not just the Catholic church, of course: Martin Luther was perhaps even worse), but while Hitler enjoyed some of their doctrines, he was hardly a mainstream Christian—unless in the narrow sense of a mainstream Positive Christian, as the Nazi religious doctrine was called. And while the Catholic Church has been pretty widely criticised for not officially opposing the Nazi regime (though many individual Catholics and Catholic congregations did), it’s at the very least not obvious that this was not out of fear rather than doctrinal approval.

Still, it’s rather astonishingly ironic:

  • Hitler proclaimed himself a Catholic
  • Hitler boasted of having stamped out atheism
  • Hitler spoke widely of how he felt he followed in Jesus’s footsteps in fighting the Jews¹
  • The Catholic Church did not officially denounce Hitler or the Nazis (and has been widely criticised for it)
  • Pope Ratzinger was himself a member of the Nazi youth organisation, the Hitlerjügend, albeit this was probably pretty much compulsory
  • Pope Ratzinger now claims that the Nazi tyranny was not merely atheistic, but in fact an example of atheist extremism

¹ I never claimed he made much sense.

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So, I moved to a new apartment last Friday, July 16, across a staggering distance of three blocks. Naturally, I want my DSL service to move with me, and I’m a big fan of TekSavvy. However, dealing with TekSavvy qua third-tier ISP does have the disadvantage of involving one of the big telcos (Telus in BC, Bell in Québec, …). Past experiences have not been pleasant.

In brief, Telus owns the physical lines and switches. TekSavvy are responsible for my internet service, but Telus is responsible for setting up a connection so that my DSL modem can physically communicate with their gateway and DNS servers. Thus, whenever I ask TekSavvy to do anything that involves such low-level services (e.g. turning service off at one address, or turning it on somewhere), they can’t do it themselves—they have to place a work order with Telus.

I contacted TekSavvy fairly close to the move, as a lot was happening pretty quickly, and I was prepared to be cited a date rather late in the month. I was pleasantly surprised when the rep told me that they could probably have it activated as early as the 16th! —This was not to be, of course.

A few days later, they got back to me…and here was my first-ever poor experience with TekSavvy support. The email I received didn’t say what was wrong, but only that there was a problem with my DSL order and I had to call them. I did, and the woman I spoke to was, to put it mildly, not up to the very high standards I am used to with TekSavvy support. She had no idea what was going on, and started off by asking for all my address details (which they already had down correctly), then (after putting me on hold) told me that apparently DSL was not available at my new address. I wanted to know what was going on, and said so, and after many hesitations and stammerings and ultimately being put on hold thrice, it turned out that all that was really wrong was that Telus had moved my activation date to Tuesday, July 20. Oh well: This was to be expected; the 16th always did sound too good to be true. But I should have been told that right away in the email, or at least straightaway on the phone—rather than being on the phone for half an hour, on hold thrice, and on the verge of cancelling my service! (Remember, she told me that it was not available at my new address. I came dangerously close to switching to another ISP.)

Come the 20th, I get home after three hours of jiu-jitsu and sit down to check the status of my internet connection, which turns out to be none at all; I have no access and my modem finds nary a trace of any DSL access. I sigh and call TekSavvy again. There’s a bit of a wait, but when I finally do get to talk to someone it’s more what I’m used to with TekSavvy—a friendly, confident and (yes) tech savvy guy who knows what’s going on and can talk to me with a sense of humour and an attitude as though I, a customer, am smart enough to actually communicate with.

It turns out that Telus has in fact changed the activation date again. This time (heaven knows why) they opted to call me directly rather than have TekSavvy do so. This was unfortunate. The note on my account said that Telus tried to call me, but it seemed as though my phone was off and they were (it seems) unable to leave so much as a voice mail. (My phone was not off. My phone is never turned off.) Having thus tried once and miraculously failed to contact me in any way whatsoever, Telus did the reasonable thing and ignored the situation, thus leaving me unaware that they had rescheduled my activation.

I am of course sort of puzzled that this activation is such a big deal—why is this not a nigh-automatic process? They have all my account details in their systems; a computer should surely be able to do this work for them. I am also somewhat surprised that Telus were unable to contact me. They provide my mobile service. When my phone company are unable to figure out how to reach me by phone, I am mildly troubled.

Here’s hoping that they actually turn the damned thing on tomorrow.

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Your hardware has changed significantly since first install, it informs me, so you have to re-activate Windows. Would you like to do so now?

Sure, I installed some new devices…but they were virtual devices.

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…Is that he has only (just) published five novels. I’ve read several of them: Angels & Demons, The Da Vinci Code, but also Deception Point and the absolutely hilarious Digital Fortress¹. I have, since I first read him, suggested that he is the literary equivalent of MacDonalds food: Cheap, convenient, easy to cram down, requires no real (further) processing—but it’s bad for you, and while I won’t condemn anyone for reading it (after all, I have), I might think less of someone to whom it is more than an occasional guilty pleasure…

So how has this man made a name for himself without writing dozens upon dozens of books? And, if he can sell so many copies of each poorly-researched and ill-written book, why doesn’t he write more?

Dan Brown fun: The Telegraph has a list of twenty(ish) of his clumsiest phrases. Slate has a Dan Brown novel plot generator.

¹ The most egregious and memorable mistakes (determined by being the ones I can still remember) are the following—it should here be kept in mind that this is a book that puts on airs of being intelligent, and has cryptography at the very core of the plot:

  • Brown cannot seemingly tell bits and bytes apart. 64-bit keys and 64-character keys really aren’t the same.

  • By far the worst: The characters make constant reference to the Bergofsky Principle: Loosely, every type of encryption can be broken by brute force. In fact, an unbreakable encryption algorithm was known at least by 1913: The Vernam One-Time Pad.

  • This horrifies me: When Googling the phrase, I actually found an attempt at a technical paper that makes reference to the “Bergofsky Principle”!


Sep. 4th, 2009 12:50 pm
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When trying to figure out why our Excel-and-CSV importer didn’t like an Excel spreadsheet a client sent us, the real issue turned out to be…unexpected:

$ file /var/www/htdocs/eRezLife/carleton/erez/uploads/user_temp/3/student_import.xls
/var/www/htdocs/eRezLife/carleton/erez/uploads/user_temp/3/student_import.xls: ASCII text


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This time, they forced a dictionary app to remove offensive words.

The first version, submitted May 13, was rejected because it crashed when run on the iPhone 3.0 OS beta. Crosby said it was fixed and resubmitted before being rejected again weeks later because it contained vulgar language, that could "be found objectionable by iPhone or iPod Touch users."

It's been established that Apple is squeamish when it comes to so-called "objectionable" content. Earlier this year an e-book app was rejected because it carried a link to "The Kama Sutra," and CNET's own David Carnoy wrote a book called "Knife Music," whose electronic version was initially rejected from the App Store for containing a scene with graphic language.

But the Ninjawords app isn't like an e-book where you have to read the whole thing to get your money's worth. This is a dictionary, a reference guide, where one has to actually look up the word in question to see it and be possibly offended by it.

Matchstick apparently played ball and tried to remove as many offensive words as it could, according to Crosby. When it submitted the application again--this time a whole new app, thus losing its place in the approval line--it was again rebuffed because more words deemed inappropriate by App Store screeners were discovered by looking them up.

haggholm: (someone is wrong on the internet)

It would be disingenuous to imply that non-vaccination might not lead to an increased incidence in vaccine-preventable illness. It would be equally disingenuous to state that this possibility poses a great threat to America's children.

Dr. Jay Gordon, quoted at Respectful Insolence

It would be…disingenuous to state that this possibility poses a great threat to America’s children.

Never mind polio, which killed or crippled thousands of children every year before it was eradicated by vaccines, the fear of which ruled some people’s childhoods.

Never mind smallpox, an epidemic disease with an average fatality rate of 30%, also eradicated by vaccines.

Never mind Hemophilus influenza type b (HiB), a disease now nearly forgotten in pediatric wards thanks to vaccination, but which used to cause disease in one of every 200 children under the age of 5—whereof ½–⅔ developed meningitis, with a mortality rate of 5% and rate of permanent brain damage of 30%.

No—none of these, nor any of the other among the dozens of vaccine-preventable diseases now eradicated or dramatically reduced, pose a great threat; thus, because there’s no great threat, we should cautiously withhold vaccination just in case we ever find evidence that they cause any harm. We have no such evidence, but why jump the gun? It’s not like they prevent any great threat.

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There is a Japanese lunar orbiter named Kaguya that is scheduled to crash into the moon today at about 2:30 pm ET. Scientists hope to learn something about the moon’s composition by observing the debris that is kicked up.

In many traditions, including astrology, the moon represents the feminine. It is the yin, the intuitive, the emotions. Women are connected to the moon by their menstrual cycles while they are fertile, and all beings, including the earth herself, are affected by the pull of the tides.

Purposefully crashing something into the moon just to watch what happens is akin to a schoolboy cutting up a live frog to see what makes it jump. It is an example of the domination of the left-brained rational scientific approach over the intuitive.

Did these scientists talk to the moon? Tell her what they were doing? Ask her permission? Show her respect?

When we are connected into the web of life, we know that what we do to one part is what we do to all. Gaining knowledge by destruction is an empty victory.

Some idiot named Satya Harvey, Examiner

…There is so much to say that I don’t know where to begin or how to tackle it, so I’ll just let it stand on its own as a pinnacle of inanity.

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Bill Donohue is the President of the U.S. Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights and one of the noisier Christians in the current wave of theist/atheist debates—notably he took great offence when a biology professor used some of his own spare time to post a compromising picture of an anthropomorphised cracker on his personal blog, and suggested that this was grounds for the university to fire him.

Bill Donohue, in other words, is effectively a spokesman for an organisation which he presumably considers a great force of moral good in the world. As such, it is not entirely irrelevant to consider the man’s own personal character. Since my words would clearly be dripping with negative bias, I suggest that if you harbour any respect for the man, listen to him in a radio interview and you will soon be disabused of the notion that he deserves it.

haggholm: (someone is wrong on the internet)

I came across an article the other day (originally found via Pharyngula), Where is Everyone?, which aims to track the trend in how information is found and accessed over the past 200 years. This is a very ambitious, and very interesting project. The article starts with a colourful graph, and proceeds to analyse the implications of the graph:

Information flow

Of course, somebody asked the author (a Thomas Baekdal) what data the chart was based on, and he freely answered:

The graph was based on combination of a lot of things, a number of interviews, general study, general trend movements, my experience etc. I cannot give you a specific source though, because I used none specifically.

The graphs before 1990 are all based on interviews, and a large number of Google searches to learn about the history of Newspaper, TV and Radio - and more specifically, what people uses in the past. The graphs from 1998 and up to today, is based on all the things that have happened in the past 11 years, of which I have probably seen 1000 surveys (it is what I do for a living). And the graph from 2009 and forward is based on what I, and many other people predict will happen in the years to come.

One very important thing though, this is not a reflection of my opinion. This is the result a careful analysis. There are always variations, and different types of people. But I believe that this graph accurately reflects consumer focus.

…Have you ever seen such tripe in your life? Merely using different sources and methods for different time periods would introduce uncertainty to the results, but at least this would be inevitable. But, given this guy’s process, that doesn’t even register as a problem. He cannot give you a specific source though, because [he] used none specifically. He has probably seen 1000 surveys of the trends of the past 11 years, but can’t be bothered to cite even one. The x-axis has an arbitrarily compressed scale, skewing the shape and the speed of the trends. And, most damning of all, he gives no indication of how he measures the ‘information’ metric! (The only truly objective measure of information that I know of is Shannon’s ‘bits of entropy’, which is certainly very concrete—but there’s no indication that this is what’s meant, nor can I think of any way in which a person’s total information input can be objectively measured in these units.) How on Earth can anyone analyse the graph critically without knowing what the numbers measure?

The answer to the last question, of course, is that it’s impossible, except in the sense that I am analysing it critically here: Calling it bunk. By presenting a graph, he gives himself a veneer of scientific responsibility (Look, I have data!), but since the graph doesn’t actually objectively represent anything (so far as the reader can tell), it’s really just a distraction, an attempt to gain enough credibility in the reader’s mind that the purported analysis that follows is swallowed whole.

And he has the gall to claim that

this is not a reflection of my opinion. This is the result a careful analysis.

If he hadn’t pretended this (id est, if he had said up front that this is a mashup of various analyses of a practically unquantifiable commodity, but that he hopes that his argument, once followed through, will persuasively show a genuine trend), I might have given him some respect, but given what he actually did, he is either a fool or a liar. Either option should persuade you not to take him seriously.

To address the article as though it weren’t total bunk, his extrapolation into the future is on shaky grounds for reasons that should be painfully obvious even to someone who does buy into the graph: By extrapolating current trends into the future, he seems to be ignoring the fact that the big new things of recent years—social networks, social news, etc.—came out of nowhere and took internet culture by storm. What the internet does—the most important thing it does—is enable distribution of information to vast numbers of people with virtually no marginal cost. Logistically, I can reach a thousand people as easily as one; a million almost as easily as a thousand; a billion with only a little more difficulty with a million. When someone does come up with the next killer idea—the next Facebook or Twitter or Google, or whatever it may be—it can explode at an incredible rate. On the internet, where no one is limited by broadcast range, print batch size, or radio band constraints, the primary limiting factor is user interest. The Next Great Thing may grow slowly and incrementally, or it may explode geometrically, as fast as server capability can handle (and how fast that is depends on what the Next Great Thing is, which of course we don’t know).

In other words, even if I try to buy into the general idea, I think that his predictions are about as reliable as any ever are in futurology, and if I view the whole thing critically, it’s bunk. Either way, I can’t say I am impressed.

haggholm: (someone is wrong on the internet)

I hope someone at Apple gets severely reprimanded and/or fired over this.

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Oh, good, Oprah is going to give Jenny McCarthy a talk show, because she wants your kid to die of the measles.

McCarthy, a famous celebrity from the long-defunct Playboy magazine and much missed MTV channel, has been on a crusade to find an evildoer responsible for her son's autism. She settled on vaccines, because why not. And now she spends a great deal of time on TV explaining that the mercury that has not been vaccines since 1999 is giving all the kids autism, but it can be cured with Chelation therapy, which has so far only killed one or two autistic kids, so good on you, Jenny.

So famous TV empress Oprah Winfrey signed Jenny to a multi-year multi-platform deal that will include a syndicated talk show. The show will be called Finding Someone to Blame When Bad Things Happen.

Alex Pareene (?), Gawker

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Specifically, vitamin salesman Matthias Rath and his associates in and outside of South Africa have indirectly caused the deaths of untold thousands of people from AIDS by pushing and lobbying for notions that anti-retrovirals kill and vitamins should be taken instead.

Vitamins are good. If you must pick the one or the other, medicine to block viral transmission is a hell of a lot better.

And, of course, when exposed, these second-hand murderers have sued people all over the place (with a notable lack of success). In author Ben Goldacre’s own words:

This is the “missing chapter” about vitamin pill salesman Matthias Rath. Sadly I was unable to write about him at the time that book was initially published, as he was suing my ass in the High Court. The chapter is now available in the new paperback edition, and I’ve posted it here for free so that nobody loses out.

Although the publishers make a slightly melodramatic fuss about this in the promo material, it is a very serious story about the dangers of pseudoscience, as I hope you’ll see, and it was also a pretty unpleasant episode, not just for me, but also for the many other people he’s tried to sue, including Medecins Sans Frontieres and more. If you’re ever looking for a warning sign that you’re on the wrong side of an argument, suing Medecins Sans Frontieres is probably a pretty good clue.

The chapter may be found here.

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In areas like alternative medicine and the anti-vaccine movement, one argument that is frequently brought up is that the status quo looks the way it does because Big Pharma is suppressing the argumentor’s favoured research results—they suppress evidence that vaccines cause health problems because they are greedy and want to make money from vaccines even if harmful; they suppress evidence that homeopathy works because they are greedy and do not want to lose the drug market to homeopaths…

First, let me state quite baldly that I firmly believe that the large pharmaceutical companies fall pretty squarely in the Big Evil Corporation category and frequently engage in questionable or reprehensible behaviour. Certainly many of their executives are as motivated by greed, and as ruthless, as executives of other Big Evil Corporations, like oil companies. I do not dismiss out of hand claims that Big Pharma are doing questionable things. But obviously, that doesn’t mean that they are guilty of all the evils of which they are accused, and we have to look at the actual claims, and corroborating evidence, in order to figure out what’s what.

Frankly, I find the vaccine claim outright puzzling. I have taken vaccines for a number of different things. Every vaccine shot I have taken, even ones I had to pay for entirely out of my own pocket, have cost less than or around $50. Assuming that a vaccine requires one booster shot, that represent a sales potential of $100 for my entire lifetime, a statistical 80 years or so. That’s not a lot of profit.

On the other hand, if vaccines are not available for a disease, the disease has to be cured and controlled. Consider polio, a disease eradicated by vaccines:

There is no cure for polio. The focus of modern treatment has been on providing relief of symptoms, speeding recovery and preventing complications. Supportive measures include antibiotics to prevent infections in weakened muscles, analgesics for pain, moderate exercise and a nutritious diet. Treatment of polio often requires long-term rehabilitation, including physical therapy, braces, corrective shoes and, in some cases, orthopedic surgery.

Portable ventilators may be required to support breathing. Historically, a noninvasive negative-pressure ventilator, more commonly called an iron lung, was used to artificially maintain respiration during an acute polio infection until a person could breathe independently (generally about one to two weeks). Today many polio survivors with permanent respiratory paralysis use modern jacket-type negative-pressure ventilators that are worn over the chest and abdomen.

Suppose that some utterly ruthless Big Pharma executive sits down and does the math on this. We can either sell $100 worth of vaccines to quite a lot of people, but once only per patient lifetime…or, if we make no vaccine available (or allow it to be banned due to spurious health concerns) we can sell antibiotics, analgesics, braces, corrective shoes, surgical equipment, iron lungs…

I don’t claim to be an expert on the market, but I postulate that vaccines just aren’t big money makers compared to after-the-fact treatments, and obviously vaccines compete with curative and palliative drugs. As someone said in agreement with my opinion,

I had a friend working as an assistant on big pharm sponsored vaccine research project back in the early 90s. The pharm company eventually pulled funding for the research, and the researchers suspected that the motivation was that producing drugs to treat the illness in question was a better moneymaker than funding relatively expensive research to develop a vaccine. The vaccine would have essentially killed a bunch of the company's product lines.

Let me make this very explicit: This quote is pure anecdote and is not intended to be used as evidence, but presented as an example of why my argument is plausible. Nor do I have the market research and relative cost/profit analyses for vaccines versus conventional drugs. However, my point is that in order for the “Big Pharma” conspiracy theory to hold any water at all, this argument has to be addressed. In short, conspiracy theorists who view vaccines as poisoning for profit must believe that

  1. Big Pharma executives are so ruthless and greedy that they are willing to poison millions of children (including their own) for money;
  2. They do this, and get away with it with no sign of internal whistle-blowers (the critics are always outside critics, with no sign of leaked memos as is usually the case in attempts at corporate cover-ups); and
  3. Vaccine production is so profitable that even after R&D costs, it earns the company more money than selling curative and palliative treatments.
…And if they wish to be believed, they have to substantiate that.

Similar claims are often raised by supporters of “alternative” medical treatments like homeopathy and naturopathy. It’s not quite so sinister—they tend to accuse Big Pharma not of mass poisoning campaigns, but merely suppressing their own (surely superior) treatments for profit.

Once again, however, these economic accusations are very fast and loose and vague. Even if homeopathic remedies worked, would it really profit Big Pharma to suppress it? I would rather imagine that they would attempt to take over that market and drive the smaller players out. Simply by pushing for increased regulation (requiring similar standards of evidence of effectiveness and safety for “alternative” drugs as for conventional ones), they would kill a lot of companies that lack the R&D resources to run the necessary studies. (Why don’t they do it already? Well, since these treatments don’t work, the studies would never pass muster.)

Do I know that this is the way the finances would work out? Absolutely not! But the careful evasion of even raising the question makes me think that the alt-med advocates would rather no one think it through—it’s much easier, after all, to go with a knee-jerk Big corporate evil! reaction. There’s no reason to take the greed accusation seriously unless it can be shown to be logically coherent.

This argument has a second irony, of course: Alternative medicine is a huge industry. Billions upon billions of dollars are spent on “alternative” treatments every year—without all the R&D costs that real pharmaceutical companies have to battle with; freed of the expenses and vast time commitments of running large-scale, double-blind medical trials to show that the drugs work. Tu quoque is a logical fallacy, but when the argument amounts largely to character assault (Big Pharma is greedy and evil), it may be worth keeping in mind that “alternative medicine” is no more innocent of the character flaw at hand.

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Someone on a forum did me the distinct disfavour of posting the first 20 minutes of the trainwreck film, The Secret, where the “secret” refers to the “Law of Attraction”. Briefly, the idea is that thinking about things will cause them to come about—think about the bad things in life and bad things will happen to you; think about good things and they will happen instead. I’m not going to waste time and space talking about why this is preposterous. What motivates me to write this is rather my anger at this, and what I consider to be the harmful consequences.

Lots of people actually seem to believe in this crap. To some extent, that isn’t too surprising. The facile reasons are, first, that it certainly fits in with a lot of New Age magic; second, that the testimonials look good (the happy supporters they choose to speak out really are happy—of course they are, living in $4.5 million mansions…); and third, it is endorsed by highly visible and respected idiots, like Oprah.

More importantly, however, it ties in very neatly with things that are actually true.¹ Of course positive thinking tends to improve your life in many ways—it’s a well established psychological fact that acting happy tends to make you happier; happiness and confidence improve your interpersonal skills and relations; avoiding focusing on negative things frees you from brooding over misfortunes. None of this validates the “secret”. The fact that your mental attitude is connected to your mental state is painfully obvious, and a positive demeanour improving interpersonal relations (and through that avenue, your life) is only evidence that people respond better to happy, confident people than to sad or aggressive ones, and does not require the existence of some mysterious universal energy found by viciously abusing quantum physics.

All right, then, some hypothetical person might ask, what is the harm? It may be silly, but if it motivates people to engage in positive thinking, which you freely acknowledge is a good thing, then why should we discourage this stuff?

Apart from the fact that I am as dedicated as I am able to pursue truth, and consider it morally valuable in its own right, I do think that this silliness has a very sinister side.

The first and most obvious problem is that when people put their trust in anything that doesn’t actually work, there is a risk that they will eschew real, working solutions because they think they already have one. For instance, the 20-minute clip from The Secret has someone claiming: I’ve seen cancer dissolved.

Let me reiterate that. The Secret strongly implies that positive thinking can cure cancer.

That is when it ceases to be funny. People who swallow this whole are lead to believe that positive thinking suffices to cure cancer. This misinformation can kill. Nothing cures cancer like surgical steel (preferably with chemotherapy and/or radiation therapy as adjuvant therapies to prevent recurrence). Failing to seek proper help can kill you, painfully and horribly.

And, of course, we can extrapolate this to any other medical condition, or for that matter, any other problem.

The second repugnant consequence of this belief in the “Law of Attraction” is that while the film-makers focus strongly on the empowering effect, when positive thinking is believed to change your life, the explicit corollary is that negative thoughts lead to bad things happening. They make this very clear: These people assert not only that negative things will make bad things happen, but that whenever bad things keep happening to you, it is because you are thinking negative thoughts. It’s under your control, they say, and you have the power to change it—but if events are bad, you caused them to happen.

We know, of course, that this is bunk. However, those who believe it are also made to believe that all their misfortunes are their fault. If your house burned down, if you developed cancer, if you were raped—according to the makers of The Secret, this is your fault: You made it happen. This is not only nonsensical, it is also an extremely cruel thing to allege.

¹ There is a parallel here to the view of some bloggers, such as “Orac”, of “complementary and alternative medicine”, which are perceived to usurp some actually valid ideas, like nutrition and exercise: CAM practitioners prescribe good nutrition, exercise, and homeopathic remedies; good nutrition and exercise are clearly good for your health; therefore homeopathy must be good—stated so baldly, the intellectual bankrupcy of the notion is obvious.


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