Quotulatiousness

April 24, 2015

Framing every conservation issue in terms of “extinction” is counter-productive

Filed under: Environment, Science — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

Stewart Brand wants us to stop presenting so many conservation concerns in the headline-grabbing “Fluffy Bunnies At Risk!” format:

The way the public hears about conservation issues is nearly always in the mode of ‘[Beloved Animal] Threatened With Extinction’. That makes for electrifying headlines, but it misdirects concern. The loss of whole species is not the leading problem in conservation. The leading problem is the decline in wild animal populations, sometimes to a radical degree, often diminishing the health of whole ecosystems.

Viewing every conservation issue through the lens of extinction threat is simplistic and usually irrelevant. Worse, it introduces an emotional charge that makes the problem seem cosmic and overwhelming rather than local and solvable. It’s as if the entire field of human medicine were treated solely as a matter of death prevention. Every session with a doctor would begin: ‘Well, you’re dying. Let’s see if we can do anything to slow that down a little.’

Medicine is about health. So is conservation. And as with medicine, the trends for conservation in this century are looking bright. We are re-enriching some ecosystems we once depleted and slowing the depletion of others. Before I explain how we are doing that, let me spell out how exaggerated the focus on extinction has become and how it distorts the public perception of conservation.

Many now assume that we are in the midst of a human-caused ‘Sixth Mass Extinction’ to rival the one that killed off the dinosaurs 66 million years ago. But we’re not. The five historic mass extinctions eliminated 70 per cent or more of all species in a relatively short time. That is not going on now. ‘If all currently threatened species were to go extinct in a few centuries and that rate continued,’ began a recent Nature magazine introduction to a survey of wildlife losses, ‘the sixth mass extinction could come in a couple of centuries or a few millennia.’

The fossil record shows that biodiversity in the world has been increasing dramatically for 200 million years and is likely to continue. The two mass extinctions in that period (at 201 million and 66 million years ago) slowed the trend only temporarily. Genera are the next taxonomic level up from species and are easier to detect in fossils. The Phanerozoic is the 540-million-year period in which animal life has proliferated. Chart created by and courtesy of University of Chicago paleontologists J. John Sepkoski, Jr. and David M. Raup.

The fossil record shows that biodiversity in the world has been increasing dramatically for 200 million years and is likely to continue. The two mass extinctions in that period (at 201 million and 66 million years ago) slowed the trend only temporarily. Genera are the next taxonomic level up from species and are easier to detect in fossils. The Phanerozoic is the 540-million-year period in which animal life has proliferated. Chart created by and courtesy of University of Chicago paleontologists J. John Sepkoski, Jr. and David M. Raup.

The range of dates in that statement reflects profound uncertainty about the current rate of extinction. Estimates vary a hundred-fold – from 0.01 per cent to 1 per cent of species being lost per decade. The phrase ‘all currently threatened species’ comes from the indispensable IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature), which maintains the Red List of endangered species. Its most recent report shows that of the 1.5 million identified species, and 76,199 studied by IUCN scientists, some 23,214 are deemed threatened with extinction. So, if all of those went extinct in the next few centuries, and the rate of extinction that killed them kept right on for hundreds or thousands of years more, then we might be at the beginning of a human-caused Sixth Mass Extinction.

April 2, 2015

“… women think about their bodies in much more complicated ways than men do”

Filed under: Health, Science — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 04:00

Amanda Smith on some of the reasons why human male and female shapes are so different from one another, unlike most mammals:

“It just seems that women think about their bodies in much more complicated ways than men do, and that’s kind of bewildering when you’re a man,” he says.

Apart from mere curiosity, Bainbridge has a professional interest: “I’d always thought it was strange that humans are the one species where our females are curvy — you don’t really see that in other species”.

He addresses that question in his book: Curvology: The Origins and Power of Female Body Shape.

At birth, he writes, human babies are around 12 per cent fat by weight. Throughout childhood that average fat level remains consistent between boys and girls. However, by the end of puberty girls of average weight will have have a body composition of 24 to 30 per cent fat, while boys hardly change at all.

“There is a very spectacular stacking on of adipose tissue during those years, and of course that’s what makes women such a distinctive shape compared to men,” says Bainbridge. “Men have got the same as most animals, it’s women that are absolutely exceptional.”

March 16, 2015

Yes, men and women do have “conflicting strategies” in relationship-seeking

Filed under: Science — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 04:00

Amy Alkon responds to a recent Guardian piece lamenting men’s choices in (younger) women:

Evolutionary psychologists David Buss and David Schmitt theorized that men and women have “conflicting strategies” in seeking romantic partners, emerging from our differing physiologies and the ensuing differences in what sex can cost us.

Because a woman can get pregnant from a single sex act and be stuck with a kid to drag around and feed, women evolved to care a lot less about a man’s looks than his ability and willingness to be a “provider.” A veritable mountain of research suggests Buss and Schmitt’s theory is right.

For example, anthropologist John Marshall Townsend and psychologist Gary Levy showed women photos of an ugly guy in a Rolex and business attire and a handsome guy in a Burger King uniform. Women overwhelmingly went for the business lizard over the burger stud.

But back to the guys. Ancestral men could just walk away after sex and still pass on their genes. So men evolved to want to have sex with as many of the most healthy, fertile women they could. And what does health and fertility look like? Well, female beauty: Youth, clear skin, symmetrical features (reflecting health and no icky parasites); long, shiny hair; and a figure that’s more hourglass than beer vat.

The difference in what men and women prioritize in partners is best summed up by my friend Walter Moore. A guy complained to him that women are only attracted to wealthy men. Walter joked back, “That’s so unfair because we don’t expect them to be wealthy; all we ask is that they look like models.”

February 26, 2015

Humanity’s not-so-distant cousins

Filed under: History, Science — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 05:00

Real Clear Science has an excerpt from Yuval Harari’s recent book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind:

Scientists also agree that about 70,000 years ago, Sapiens from East Africa spread into the Arabian peninsula, and from there they quickly overran the entire Eurasian landmass.

When Homo sapiens landed in Arabia, most of Eurasia was already settled by other humans. What happened to them? There are two conflicting theories. The ‘Interbreeding Theory’ tells a story of attraction, sex and mingling. As the African immigrants spread around the world, they bred with other human populations, and people today are the outcome of this interbreeding.

For example, when Sapiens reached the Middle East and Europe, they encountered the Neanderthals. These humans were more muscular than Sapiens, had larger brains, and were better adapted to cold climes. They used tools and fire, were good hunters, and apparently took care of their sick and infirm. (Archaeologists have discovered the bones of Neanderthals who lived for many years with severe physical handicaps, evidence that they were cared for by their relatives.) Neanderthals are often depicted in caricatures as the archetypical brutish and stupid ‘cave people’, but recent evidence has changed their image.

According to the Interbreeding Theory, when Sapiens spread into Neanderthal lands, Sapiens bred with Neanderthals until the two populations merged. If this is the case, then today’s Eurasians are not pure Sapiens. They are a mixture of Sapiens and Neanderthals. Similarly, when Sapiens reached East Asia, they interbred with the local Erectus, so the Chinese and Koreans are a mixture of Sapiens and Erectus.

The opposing view, called the ‘Replacement Theory’ tells a very different story – one of incompatibility, revulsion, and perhaps even genocide. According to this theory, Sapiens and other humans had different anatomies, and most likely different mating habits and even body odours. They would have had little sexual interest in one another. And even if a Neanderthal Romeo and a Sapiens Juliet fell in love, they could not produce fertile children, because the genetic gulf separating the two populations was already unbridgeable. The two populations remained completely distinct, and when the Neanderthals died out, or were killed off, their genes died with them. According to this view, Sapiens replaced all the previous human populations without merging with them. If that is the case, the lineages of all contemporary humans can be traced back, exclusively, to East Africa, 70,000 years ago. We are all ‘pure Sapiens’.

A lot hinges on this debate. From an evolutionary perspective, 70,000 years is a relatively short interval. If the Replacement Theory is correct, all living humans have roughly the same genetic baggage, and racial distinctions among them are negligible. But if the Interbreeding Theory is right, there might well be genetic differences between Africans, Europeans and Asians that go back hundreds of thousands of years. This is political dynamite, which could provide material for explosive racial theories.

In recent decades the Replacement Theory has been the common wisdom in the field. It had firmer archaeological backing, and was more politically correct (scientists had no desire to open up the Pandora’s box of racism by claiming significant genetic diversity among modern human populations). But that ended in 2010, when the results of a four-year effort to map the Neanderthal genome were published. Geneticists were able to collect enough intact Neanderthal DNA from fossils to make a broad comparison between it and the DNA of contemporary humans. The results stunned the scientific community.

It turned out that 1-4 per cent of the unique human DNA of modern populations in the Middle East and Europe is Neanderthal DNA. That’s not a huge amount, but it’s significant. A second shock came several months later, when DNA extracted from the fossilised finger from Denisova was mapped. The results proved that up to 6 per cent of the unique human DNA of modern Melanesians and Aboriginal Australians is Denisovan DNA.

January 17, 2015

QotD: “Radicalizing the Romanceless”

Filed under: Politics, Quotations — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

Barry is using my second-favorite rhetorical device, apophasis, the practice of bringing up something by denying that it will be brought up. For example, “I think the American people deserve a clean debate, and that’s why I’m going to stick to the issues, rather than talking about the incident last April when my opponent was caught having sex with a goat. Anyway, let’s start with the tax rate…”

He is complaining about being single by saying that you can’t complain about being single – and, as a bonus, placating feminists by blaming the whole thing on the manosphere as a signal that he’s part of their tribe and so should not be hurt.

It almost worked. He only got one comment saying he was privileged and entitled (which he dismisses as hopefully a troll). But he did get some other comments that remind me of two of my other least favorite responses to “nice guys”.

First: “Nice guys don’t want love! They just want sex!”

One line disproof: if they wanted sex, they’d give a prostitute a couple bucks instead of spiralling into a giant depression.

Second: “You can’t compare this to, like, poor people who complain about being poor. Food and stuff are basic biological human needs! Sex isn’t essential for life! It’s an extra, like having a yacht, or a pet tiger!”

I know that feminists are not always the biggest fans of evolutionary psychology. But I feel like it takes a special level of unfamiliarity with the discipline to ask “Sure, evolution gave us an innate desire for material goods, but why would it give us an deep innate desire for pair-bonding and reproduction??!”

But maybe a less sarcastic response would be to point out Harry Harlow’s monkey studies. These studies – many of them so spectacularly unethical that they helped kickstart the modern lab-animals’-rights movement – included one in which monkeys were separated from their real mother and given a choice between two artifical “mothers” – a monkey-shaped piece of wire that provided milk but was cold and hard to the touch, and a soft cuddly cloth mother that provided no milk. The monkeys ended up “attaching” to the cloth mother and not the milk mother.

In other words – words that shouldn’t be surprising to anyone who has spent much time in a human body – companionship and warmth can be in some situations just as important as food and getting your more basic needs met. Friendship can meet some of that need, but for a lot of people it’s just not enough.

When your position commits you to saying “Love isn’t important to humans and we should demand people stop caring about whether or not they have it,” you need to take a really careful look in the mirror – assuming you even show up in one.

Scott Alexander, “Radicalizing the Romanceless”, Slate Star Codex, 2014-08-31.

December 27, 2014

ESR on the origins of open source theory

Filed under: History, Technology — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

Eric S. Raymond acknowledges the strong influence of evolutionary psychology on the development of open source theory:

Yesterday I realized, quite a few years after I should have, that I have never identified in public where I got the seed of the idea that I developed into the modern economic theory of open-source software – that is, how open-source “altruism” could be explained as an emergent result of selfish incentives felt by individuals. So here is some credit where credit is due.

Now, in general it should be obvious that I owed a huge debt to thinkers in the classical-liberal tradition, from Adam Smith down to F. A. Hayek and Ayn Rand. The really clueful might also notice some connection to Robert Trivers’s theory of reciprocal altruism under natural selection and Robert Axelrod’s work on tit-for-tat interactions and the evolution of cooperation.

These were all significant; they gave me the conceptual toolkit I could apply successfully once I’d had my initial insight. But there’s a missing piece – where my initial breakthrough insight came from, the moment when I realized I could apply all those tools.

The seed was in the seminal 1992 anthology The Adapted Mind: Evolutionary Psychology and the Generation of Culture. That was full of brilliant work; it laid the foundations of evolutionary psychology and is still worth a read.

(I note as an interesting aside that reading science fiction did an excellent job of preparing me for the central ideas of evolutionary psychology. What we might call “hard adaptationism” – the search for explanations of social behavior in evolution under selection – has been a central theme in SF since the 1940s, well before even the first wave of academic sociobiological thinking in the early 1970s and, I suspect, strongly influencing that wave. It is implicit in, as a leading example, much of Robert Heinlein’s work.)

The specific paper that changed my life was this one: Two Nonhuman Primate Models for the Evolution of Human Food Sharing: Chimpanzees and Callitrichids by W.C. McGrew and Anna T.C. Feistner.

In it, the authors explained food sharing as a hedge against variance. Basically, foods that can be gathered reliably were not shared; high-value food that could only be obtained unreliably was shared.

The authors went on to observe that in human hunter-gatherer cultures a similar pattern obtains: gathered foods (for which the calorie/nutrient value is a smooth function of effort invested) are not typically shared, whereas hunted foods (high variance of outcome in relation to effort) are shared. Reciprocal altruism is a hedge against uncertainty of outcomes.

October 27, 2014

QotD: The value of co-operation as a social strategy

Filed under: History, Quotations, Randomness — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 00:01

In any species that lives lives other than the solitary, brutish, and short variety, members cooperate. Cooperation is often a utility maximizing approach for basic economic reasons: if I’m well fed because I had a good hunting day, and you’re hungry because you had a bad day, a marginal calorie is worth much less to me than it is to you, so I should share some of my catch with you. This is true for two reasons: first, because if we’re kin, your future reproductive success redounds to the benefit of (some of) my genes, and second, because you might return the favor a day or a year later.

Nature, however, is better at generating frenemies than friends. A better way for me to reproduce my genes is to use a mixed strategy: helping you when it’s easy, defecting when I think I can get away with it, etc. I should ideally take food from you when offered, yet give back as little as I can get away with. I should be seen to be a good ally, and fair, and yet stab you in the back when I can get away with it.

In social species, there’s advanced technology to accomplish these goals: I can marshal alliances, vote people off the island, harass males away from fertile females, seize more than my share of the food for myself and my offspring.

It doesn’t matter if it’s nice; it matters if it’s effective. Gnon has no pity and laughs at your human ideals…especially because he created your human ideals to help you be a convincing liar in social games.

And thus deception slithered its way in to the garden of Eden and/or earthly delights.

What is the take away here? It is this: evolution has crafted every one of us for one mission: to pass our genes on to the next generation. The fact that you, or you, or you, have chosen not to have kids does not refute this; in fact, in supports this. Your genes will not be present in the next generation, and Gnon will laugh.

And what effects does this mission have on us? High libidos? Well, yes, some of that — but so much more. We’re the ape with the run away brains. Any ape that just had a high libido is long removed from the gene pool. Only the apes that also are excellent at joining alliances, marshaling allies, sniffing when the winds are changing, and defecting strategically reproduced with enough success to have contributed meaningfully to our genome.

A million years ago this alliance-making skill meant being on the right side of the alpha ape…and perhaps sneakily supporting the up-and-coming number two male.

Ten thousand years ago it meant being a member of a hunter gatherer tribe, and making status-degrading jokes about the one guy who was acting a bit big for his (deer hide) britches.

A thousand years ago, it meant … well, by a thousand years ago, social alliances for status games were starting to look pretty damned modern. It meant cobbling together wacky alliances from diverse groups like Diggers, Levelers, and Fifth Monarchists in order to overthrow one set of rulers and establish yourself in their place. Once in power there are all sorts of food-and-sex optimizing strategies for those good at the alliance game… like enslaving the foot soldiers of the old regime and selling them into slavery overseas, seizing their land, and more.

Clark, “Gamer Gate: Three Stages to Obit”, Popehat, 2014-10-21.

September 12, 2014

QotD: Unwelcome ideas about evolution

Filed under: Quotations, Science — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 00:01

People who say they are against teaching the theory of evolution are very likely to be Christian fundamentalists. But people who are against taking seriously the implications of evolution, strongly enough to want to attack those who disagree, including those who teach those implications, are quite likely to be on the left.

Consider the most striking case, the question of whether there are differences between men and women with regard to the distribution of intellectual abilities or behavioral patterns. That no such differences exist, or if that if they exist they are insignificant, is a matter of faith for many on the left. The faith is so strongly held that when the president of Harvard, himself a prominent academic, merely raised the possibility that one reason why there were fewer women than men in certain fields might be such differences, he was ferociously attacked and eventually driven to resign.

Yet the claim that such differences must be insignificant is one that nobody who took the implications of evolution seriously could maintain. We are, after all, the product of selection for reproductive success. Males and females play quite different roles in reproduction. It would be a striking coincidence if the distribution of abilities and behavioral patterns that was optimal for one sex turned out to also be optimal for the other, rather like two entirely different math problems just happening to have the same answer.

The denial of male/female differences is the most striking example of left wing hostility to the implications of Darwinian evolution, but not the only one. The reasons to expect differences among racial groups as conventionally defined are weaker, since males of all races play the same role in reproduction, as do females of all races. But we know that members of such groups differ in the distribution of observable physical characteristics — that, after all, is the main way we recognize them. That is pretty strong evidence that their ancestors adapted to at least somewhat different environments.

There is no a priori reason to suppose that the optimal physical characteristics were different in those different environments but the optimal mental characteristics were the same. And yet, when differing outcomes by racial groups are observed, it is assumed without discussion that they must be entirely due to differential treatment by race. That might turn out to be true, but there is no good reason to expect it. Here again, anyone who argues the opposite is likely to find himself the target of ferocious attacks, mainly from people on the left.

David D. Friedman, “Who is Against Evolution?”, Ideas, 2008-08-29

July 31, 2014

Ostracizing Richard Dawkins

Filed under: Media, Religion, Science — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas @ 09:14

Damian Thompson points out that the “offensive” things that are getting people upset at Richard Dawkins are exactly the same sort of things they applauded when he was attacking Christianity:

‘Richard Dawkins, what on earth happened to you?’ asks Eleanor Robertson in the Guardian today. Ms Robertson is a ‘feminist and writer living in Sydney’. She follows to the letter the Guardian’s revised style guide for writing about Prof Dawkins: wring your hands until your fingers are raw, while muttering ‘Oh, what a noble mind is here o’erthrown’.

For some time now Dawkins has been saying rude things about Muslims and feminists. This makes him a bigot in the eyes of the Left — and especially the Guardian, which is extraordinarily and mysteriously protective of Islam. As Robertson puts it:

    ‘Sure, he wrote some pop science books back in the day, but why do we keep having him on TV and in the newspapers? If it’s a biologist you’re after, or a science communicator, why not pick from the hundreds out there who don’t tweet five or six Islamophobic sentiments before getting off the toilet in the morning?’

Note how The Selfish Gene and The Blind Watchmaker — masterpieces of lucid thinking that advanced humanity’s understanding of evolution — have become mere ‘pop science’ now that their author is upsetting the wrong people.

[…]

It’s hard to deny that Dawkins’s ‘secular fundamentalism’ — as liberal commentators now describe it — makes for an embarrassing spectacle. When enraged pensioners pick fights with total strangers, one’s natural reaction is to go and sit somewhere else on the bus.

But Dawkins was just as offensive when his target was Christianity; it’s just that the Left didn’t have a problem with his description of Pope Benedict XVI as a ‘leering old villain in the frock’ who ran ‘a profiteering, woman-fearing, guilt-gorging, truth-hating, child-raping institution … amid a stench of incense and a rain of tourist-kitsch sacred hearts and preposterously crowned virgins, about his ears.’

As I said at the time, that article — in the Washington Post, no less — ‘conjures up the image of a nasty old man who’s losing his marbles. It’s not very nice about the Pope, either.’ But Dawkins has not become any crazier in the intervening four years; he’s simply widened his attack on blind faith, as he sees it, to include Muslims and feminists.

May 23, 2014

“Mammals don’t respond well to surveillance. We consider it a threat. It makes us paranoid, and aggressive and vengeful”

Filed under: Cancon, Government, Liberty — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 08:58

Angelique Carson reports on a recent IAPP Canada Privacy Symposium presentation:

If marine biologist-turned-best-selling author Peter Watts is an expert on anything, it’s mammals. Speaking to 400 or so privacy pros and regulators gathered last week at the IAPP Canada Privacy Symposium to talk privacy and data protection, he used that experience to send a rather jarring — and anything but conventional — message:

Mammals don’t respond well to surveillance. We consider it a threat. It makes us paranoid, and aggressive and vengeful. But we’ll never win against the giant corporations and governments that watch us, Watts argued, so all we can develop is a surefire defense.

Think “scorched earth.” If we can’t protect the data, Watts posited, maybe we should burn it to the ground.

Hear him out: Mammals will always respond to the surveillance threat as they would any threat — with aggression, in the same way the natural selection process has shaped every other life form on this planet.

“Anybody who thinks their own behavior isn’t at least partly informed by those legacy circuits has not been paying attention,” he said.

Watts pointed to author David Brin’s assertion during his keynote recently at the IAPP’s Global Privacy Summit that while our instinct is to pass a law aimed at telling governments and corporations to “stop looking” at us, we should instead turn our gaze to them in the name of reciprocity.

“It’s not telling them do not look,” Brin said during his speech. “It’s looking back.”

But Edward Snowden is currently living in Russia after he tried to “look back.” And as someone who’s worked a lot in the past with mammals, Watts knows that, biologically, looking back is a bad idea: “To get into a staring contest with a large, aggressive, territorial mammal primed to think of eye contact as a threat display … I can’t recommend it.”

“Natural selection favors the paranoid,” Watts said.

H/T to Bruce Schneier for the link.

January 17, 2014

Have you read these books or have you lied about having read them?

Filed under: Media — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 09:16

Ben Domenech discusses the books that “everyone must read”, but very few have actually done more than turn the pages a bit, or perhaps scanned the Wikipedia entry for:

The truth is, there are lots of books no one really expects you to read or finish. War and Peace? The Canterbury Tales? The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire? Announcing that you’ve finished those books might surprise a lot of people and make them think you’re abnormal or anti-social, unless you’re an English or History major who took their reading very, very seriously. Perhaps the shift to ebook format will diminish this reading by osmosis – and book sales, too – since people can afford to be honest about their preference for 50 Shades over The Red and the Black since their booklists are hidden in their Kindles and iPads.

So here’s my attempt to drill this down to a more realistic list: books that are culturally ubiquitous, reading deemed essential, writing everyone has heard of… that you’d be mildly embarrassed to admit you’ve never read.

10. Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand: The libertarian moment has prompted a slew of people to lie about reading Ayn Rand, or to deploy the term “Randian” as a synonym for, say, competitive bidding in Medicare reform without even bothering to understand how nonsensical that is.

9. On the Origin of Species, Charles Darwin: Many pro-evolutionists online display no understanding that the pro-evolution scientific community rejects the bulk of Darwin’s initial findings about evolution.

8. Les Miserables, Victor Hugo and A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens: Virtually every bit of literature about the French Revolution could be tied here, though ignorance of it might inspire fun future headlines, such as “De Blasio Brandishes Knitting Needles, Calls For ‘The People’s Guillotine’ To Be Erected In Times Square.”

7. 1984, George Orwell: A great example of a book people think they have read because they have seen a television ad. On Youtube.

6. Democracy in America, Alexis De Tocqueville: Politicians are the worst about this, quoting and misquoting the writings of the Tocqueville without ever bothering to actually read this essential work. But politicians do this a lot – with The Federalist Papers and The Constitution, too.

5. The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith: Smith’s invisible hand is all that many people seem to know about his work, but his contributions were more sophisticated than that, rejecting a simplistic view of self-interest and greed as the motivating factors in a healthy economy.

4. Moby Dick, Herman Melville: If you haven’t managed this one yet, consider that William F. Buckley, Jr. did not actually read this until he was 50, remarking then to friends: “To think I might have died without having read it.”

3. The Art of War, Sun Tzu: Misunderstood and misapplied by people who’ve never bothered to read it, Sun Tzu’s advice is as much a guide to war as it is to avoiding combat via deception and guile, and to only fight battles one is certain of winning.

2. The Prince, Niccolo Machiavelli: Viewed by people who don’t understand the context as a guide to mendacious political gamesmanship and the use of hypocrisy and cruelty as political tools, Machiavelli’s work is likely a brilliant work of sarcastic trolling which contradicts everything else he wrote in life – which is one reason it was dedicated, sarcastically, to the Medicis who exiled and tortured him.

1. Ulysses, James Joyce: I own this book but have never read it.

Yeah, there are a few books I’m ashamed to admit I’ve never read or, in the wonderful phrase used on the Bujold mailing list, “bounced off”. I’ve read lots of Rand’s non-fiction, but have only ever finished We, the Living in her fiction works. I have read Nineteen Eighty-Four, and own copies of most of the others, but haven’t finished most of them (and haven’t even begun with the Darwin, Dickens, Hugo, or Melville titles).

January 7, 2014

Weinersmith’s Infantapulting Hypothesis

Filed under: Humour, Science — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 10:07

Published on 6 Jan 2014

Zach Weinersmith, cartoonist behind Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal and soon-to-be father, delivers his theory of adaptive infant aerodynamics.

BAHFest is the Festival of Bad Ad Hoc Hypotheses, a celebration of well-researched, logically explained, and clearly wrong evolutionary theory. The first event was held on October 6, 2013, and we plan to do more in 2014. Additional information is available at http://www.bahfest.com/

November 14, 2013

Scientific facts and theories

Filed under: Environment, Science, Space — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 10:32

Christopher Taylor wants to help you avoid mis-using the word “fact” when you’re talking about “theories”:

These days, criticizing or questioning statements on science can get you called an idiot or even a heretic; science has become a matter of religious faith for some. If a scientist said it, they believe it, and that’s that. Yet the very nature about science is not to be an authoritative voice, but a method of inquiry; science is about asking questions and wondering if something is valid and factual, not a system of producing absolute statements of unquestioned truth.

It is true that people need that source of truth and it is true that we’re all inescapably religious creatures, so that will find an outlet somewhere. Science just isn’t the proper outlet for it.

[…]

The problem is that there’s no way to test or confirm this theory [plate tectonics]. You can make a model and see it work, you can check out types of rock and examine fault lines, and you can make measurements, but that’s only going to tell you small portions of information in very limited time frames. Because the earth is so huge, and because there are so very many different pressures and influences on everything on a planet, you can’t be sure without observation over time.

And since the theory posits that it would take millions of years to really demonstrate this to be true, humanity cannot test it enough to be certain. So all we’re left with is a scientific theory: a functional method of interpreting data. In other words, it cannot be properly or accurately describe as fact.

This is true about other areas. The word “fact” is thrown around so casually with science and is defended angrily by people who really ought to know better. Cosmology does this a lot. Its a fact that the universe is expanding from an unknown central explosive point (although there is a fair amount of data that’s throwing this into question). We can’t know because we can’t have enough data and there hasn’t been long enough to really test this.

Michael Crichton’s criticism of global warming was along these lines. He didn’t deny anything, he just said its too big and complex a system that we understand far too little about to even attempt to make any absolute or authoritative statements about it. Science has gotten us far beyond our ability to properly measure or interpret the data at hand, but some still keep trying to make absolute statements anyway.

[…]

And that’s the heart of a scientific theory. It isn’t like a geometric theorem (a statement or formula that can be deduced from the axioms of a formal system by means of its rules of inference), or a theory that Sherlock Holmes might develop (a proposed explanation whose status is still conjectural). A scientific theory is a system of interpreting data (a coherent group of general propositions used as principles of explanation for a class of phenomena). It’s a step beyond a hypothesis, which is simply speculation or a guess, but is not proven fact.

Confusing theory with fact is really not excusable for an educated person, but some theories are so wedded to worldviews and hopes that they become a matter of argument and even rage. Questioning that theory means you’re an idiot, uneducated, worthless. If you doubt this theory, you’re clearly someone who is wrong about everything and should be totally ignored in life, even showered with contempt.

For all its rich vocabulary, English fails to correctly differentiate among the various uses of the word “theory”, which allows propagandists and outright frauds to confuse the issues and obscure the difference between what science can say about an issue and what believers desperately want to be true.

October 29, 2013

Colby Cosh on IQ

Filed under: Japan, Science — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 00:01

In his latest Maclean’s column, Colby Cosh talks about the odd evolutionary advantages that accrue as you get further from the equator:

A new study in the biometric journal Intelligence presents surprising data from Japan that reveal that IQ, imputed from standardized tests given to a large random sample of Japanese 14-year-olds, varies strongly and persistently with latitude. The Japanese are usually thought of — even by themselves — as being quite homogenous ethnically; the myth of the sturdy, super-cohesive “Yamato race” has not yet been entirely obtruded out of existence. But it turns out that the mean IQs of students in Japanese prefectures apparently vary from north to south by two-thirds of a standard deviation — a spread almost as large as the “race gaps” in cognitive performance which trouble education scholars in multicultural countries like ours. Sun-drenched Okinawans, as a group, do not test as well as the snowbound citizens of Akita.

It is an article of liberal faith that IQ is a bogus tool cooked up by white supremacists to justify imperialism and slavery. I am happy to nod along, but the monsters who developed IQ tests certainly never planned on creating strife between the two ends of Honshu Island. Kenya Kura’s study demonstrates the usual statistical connections between IQ and social outcomes, including physical height, income, and divorce and homicide rates. IQ may be a phony racist artifact, but if shoe size predicted life success as well as those stupid little logic puzzles do, every middle-class parent you know would have one of those Brannock foot-measuring thingies mounted proudly on the wall. That is why IQ persists in the top drawer of the psychometrics toolbox.

January 14, 2013

The Muslim worldview and the theory of evolution

Filed under: History, Religion, Science — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 09:28

Ghaffar Hussain reminds us that historically Muslim societies were much more open to scientific thought than they are now:

So why didn’t these ideas take off and integrate into the fabric of mainstream Muslim thought and society? There are a number of reasons.

Firstly, Muslim empires in the past believed in centralising knowledge rather than disseminating it en masse. Centres of learning, such as Baghdad and Cordoba, had their houses of knowledge in which scientists would work, preserving and developing on, primarily, Hellenistic knowledge. There was no printing press, and even when it did arrive it was rejected, thus such knowledge was largely reserved for an elite audience. When centres of learning were conquered and destroyed, as Baghdad was in 1256 by the Mongols, most of the knowledge was lost too.

Secondly, the religious authorities of the time were largely opposed to ideas being put forward by scientists and other rationalist thinkers such as Ibn Rushd, and before him, Ibn Sina. They felt threatened by non-theological attempts to ascertain truths and Muslim leaders often sided with the religious authorities for political reasons.

Thirdly, literalist and dogmatic strands of Islamic theology have been aggressively promoted all around the Muslim world over the past few decades or ever since huge oil deposits were discovered in the Arabian Gulf. The Saudi state, in an attempt at cultural imperialism, has done its best to mainstream Wahabi thinking in Muslim communities everywhere. The result: a retardation and stagnation of thinking in parts of the world that were already very stagnant.

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