Category Archives: Psychoceramics

Still alive

Today at work we were discussing the self-styled “simplest weather report ever”, umbrellatoday.com. Also useful is the similarly-designed hasthelargehadroncolliderdestroyedtheworldyet.com (via a GChat status message). Personally, I keep meaning to quote Buffy the Vampire Slayer‘s Oz on the subject: “But we know the world didn’t end, ’cause… check it out.”
In my new career the big question to ask is not whether the world will end, but whether one can make money off people’s belief that it will. Intrade doesn’t seem to have a futures contract on whether the LHC will destroy the Earth, but you can buy or sell the discovery of the Higgs boson.
Of course, if you are trying to destroy the Earth, and you’ve lost confidence in the LHC, you might find your Plan B at this page.

Frank Tipler {TECH}s up the Bible

When I was in high school, a physicist named Frank Tipler published a book called The Physics of Immortality. The book purported to show that modern cosmology was not only compatible with Christianity, but predicted something like Christian theology including the concept of an afterlife. At the time I was still a believer, and was becoming interested in physics, so I was curious to see what the book had to say.
It was bad—really bad. So much so that even with only a high school knowledge of physics, and a predisposition to accept its conclusions, I found it ridiculously implausible. It wouldn’t even have made it as bad science fiction (although Charlie Stross borrowed the concept in a more interesting way in Iron Sunrise). Years later, taking Caltech’s intro astronomy course, I had the pleasure of hearing the professor deliver a very unflattering digression on Frank Tipler.
I was reminded of all this when I found out (via Sean Carroll) that Tipler has a new book out: The Physics of Christianity. And it sounds even sillier, if possible. It seems that Tipler is now interested in explaining various Biblical miracles though physics, for example: (from Victor Stenger’s review)

In the case of Jesus walking on water, protons and electrons in the normal matter in a layer of water under his feet are annihilated. The neutrinos produced go off invisibly downward with high momentum, the upward recoil enabling Jesus to keep from sinking.

This is actually similar to what you see in other The Physics of… books, such as in The Physics of Harry Potter‘s explanation of how the Sorting Hat could be implemented with SQUID sensors. But those books are, as Sean Carroll points out, just fun exercises in comparing fictional worlds to the real world. On the other hand, Frank Tipler is trying to explain supposed actual historical events, and it’s hard to see what the point is of making up some story about a hypothetical decay process underpinning various miracles. Does it really change anyone’s understanding, believer or not, to go from “Jesus could walk on water because he’s omnipotent” to “Jesus could walk on water because he could annihilate protons with electrons on demand, because he’s omnipotent”? It doesn’t do any explanatory work.
And so what all this suggests to me is that Frank Tipler thinks the Bible should be more like Star Trek. A while back I found this post on an RPG-related blog, which explains how technical language gets inserted into Star Trek scripts:

I am told that the writers of Star Trek scripts do not usually come up with all of the jargon that the characters use. Instead, they just make the notation {TECH} wherever the characters should say something technical, and someone else will come along to fill in each such instance with some chunk of technobabble. This has an important story consequence: since the science is completely arbitrary, it’s necessarily the case that the plot can’t really hinge, in a compelling way, on the technical and scientific choices the characters face. It’s all just {TECH}, and at best technobabble can provides sci-fi color, and at worst it’s an excuse for a deus ex machina resolution.

So I imagine that Frank Tipler reads the Bible and sees a bunch of {TECH} notations that he feels compelled to fill in himself. And the last sentence of that quote describes the effect pretty well, which is why even as a believer I found Tipler’s book unsatisfying.

The brilliant unintentional comedy of Conservapedia

I don’t normally go reading crackpot right-wing sites for my own amusement, but Conservapedia is one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen. In fact, I’d be certain it’s a parody if not for Andrew Schlafly’s presence as a major editor. As the name suggests, Conservapedia is supposed to be a “fair and balanced” (in the Fox News sense) alternative to Wikipedia, which apparently suffers from liberal bias. The editors of Conservapedia have helpfully (and hilariously) listed their grievances against Wikipedia, which include such major offenses as:

1. Wikipedia allows the use of B.C.E. instead of B.C. and C.E. instead of A.D. The dates are based on the birth of Jesus, so why pretend otherwise? Conservapedia is Christian-friendly and exposes the CE deception.

and

5. Wikipedia often uses foreign spelling of words, even though most English speaking users are American. Look up “Most Favored Nation” on Wikipedia and it automatically converts the spelling to the British spelling “Most Favoured Nation”, even there there are far more American than British users. Look up “Division of labor” on Wikipedia and it automatically converts to the British spelling “Division of labour,” then insists on the British spelling for “specialization” also.[3]. Enter “Hapsburg” (the European ruling family) and Wikipedia automatically changes the spelling to Habsburg, even though the American spelling has always been “Hapsburg”. Within entries British spellings appear in the silliest of places, even when the topic is American. Conservapedia favors American spellings of words.

Now, this project is still fairly new so one doesn’t expect to find extended entries on many topics. Nonetheless I was disappointed to find that many entries are… well, “half-assed” doesn’t quite describe it. It’s more like 1%-assed. A lot of entries consist of a single sentence lifted from an appropriately slanted textbook (sample title: Exploring Creation With Biology). (I want to mention that I hit the “random page” button once to find that example.) And a lot of the more likely fodder for entertainment (such as the entry for evolution) has already been edited by visiting liberals in an attempt to either correct or parody, either of which makes it less funny. Nevertheless, the best examples of teh crazy occur where you don’t expect: these guys object not just to evolution but to relativity, and there are some other gems as well. (I’m linking to people who have quoted them, since the original entries have probably changed by now.) I recommend just clicking random pages until you find something good.
Although the temptation to troll the site is immense, I have to agree with those who say we liberals should leave it alone and see what develops. The intra-wingnut edit wars alone should be worth it.

The Female Brain: not a zombie erotica title

While we’re on the subject of gender bias: One of my pet peeves is when people employ bogus neuroscience or evolutionary psychology arguments to back up gender stereotypes. This is distressingly common, and especially annoying when it only takes a few seconds to think about it and realize that the stereotype in question isn’t even true. Sure, I may know a lot of eccentric people, but I doubt they’re genetic mutants just because they don’t conform to some “Men are from Mars, women are from Venus” scheme. And of course, these kinds of false or socially-constructed stereotypes are one of the major factors driving the gender gap in the sciences.
Thus it was with some dismay that I learned of the recently-released book The Female Brain by Louann Brizendine, which advertises itself thusly:

Brizendine reveals the neurological explanations behind why
• A woman uses about 20,000 words per day while a man uses about 7,000
• A woman remembers fights that a man insists never happened
• A teen girl is so obsessed with her looks and talking on the phone
• Thoughts about sex enter a woman’s brain once every couple of days but enter a man’s brain about once every minute
• A woman knows what people are feeling, while a man can’t spot an emotion unless somebody cries or threatens bodily harm
• A woman over 50 is more likely to initiate divorce than a man

From what I know about neuroscience, it struck me as extremely unlikely that there are “neurological explanations” for these things, even putting aside the fact that most of them aren’t true of people who aren’t lame sitcom characters. It turns out that my skepticism is well-founded: Mark Liberman at the excellent Language Log examined the claims in the book, and found that (despite lots of footnotes) there’s little to no science supporting them. (There’s a collection of links in this post.)
Unfogged’s LizardBreath remarks, “I’ve reached a point with pop-science accounts of how women differ from men, where I firmly assume that any claim that science has shown a physical cause for behavioral differences between the sexes is bullshit.” I’ve been at that point for a while now, too.

I don’t even have a sock drawer!

There were a ton of LaRouche disciples on campus yesterday, with their card tables set up in Sproul Plaza and huge stacks of LaRouche literature to hand out. At one point I think there was some kind of LaRouchie a capella performance. What’s up with this? Is it a big recruitment drive? (There are always a few hanging around but this was far more than usual.) It’s not well timed on their part since this week is also ASUC elections, and the campus is already crammed with placard-bearing students who want to annoy you about politics. The LaRouchies are nearly lost in the crowd. Fortunately, there are a number of secluded pathways through campus for those of us who merely want to walk to lunch unmolested.
I’ve always wondered where LaRouche manages to find all these intense, aggressive young people that are always shouting from their card tables. They’re very passionate about a guy who is obviously batshit insane. (Dave Barry once remarked: “Where you have a brain, Lyndon H. LaRouche, Jr., has a Whack-a-Mole game.”) I’m guessing they snap up gullible college freshmen and indoctrinate them early, hence this big campus appearance. They’ve also been capitalizing on anti-Bush sentiment, although they seem especially obsessed with Dick Cheney (maybe he figures in the grand LaRouche conspiracy theory).
Ideally the LaRouchies and the ASUC campaign people will end up shouting at each other, and the rest of us can slip by unnoticed.

Serial psychoceramics

How not to earn credibility for your crackpot physics theories: spam them to physics graduate students, in paragraph-sized pieces sent every few hours, with subject lines like “Stephen Hawking died Today”. And ask for monetary donations. For your amusement, here is the latest installment in the continuing series:

Subject: Stephen Hawking died Today (4-24-06)
The number two search Yahoo (4-24-06) result for “wave-particle duality” http://alpha.qmul.ac.uk/~zgap118/ states that:
“Light is a deformation of electric (E) and magnetic (B) fields in an area of space.”
Maxwell states that light is not a substance but a process going on in an ether which forms an electromagnetic wave structure of light (Maxwell, vol 2, p. 765). Maxwell’s ether does not exist in a vacuum yet light propagates in a vacuum which is proof that Maxwell’s structure of light does not physically exist.
Maxwell’s structure of light is represented with a continuous electromagnetic field structure where the planes perpendicular to the axis of propagation form a continuous electromagnetic field structure. A finite segment of the electromagnetic plane, of Maxwell’s structure of light, forms an infinite number of positions. Each position, on the electromagnetic plane, forms an electric field; consequently, an infinite number of electric fields forms an infinite total energy. Maxwell’s structure of light is not physically possible.
Maxwell, James. “The Scientific Papers of James Clerk Maxwell”. Dover Pub. vol. 2. Edited by W.D. Niven. 1965.

I think at a minimum one should try to pass calculus before trying to overthrow Maxwell. I’d be eagerly awaiting the next episode (due sometime this evening) but I already instructed Thunderbird as to the appropriate destination of these messages.

Are the dolphins embarrassed too?

Via alicublog, Peggy Noonan has a hilariously crazy column up in which she asserts that (a) she is such a delicate flower that she feels violated by the fact that modern culture does not adhere to Victorian standards of propriety, and (b) for Lent, she is giving up not being an obnoxious prude. One might wonder how we would know the difference, but fortunately she’s come up with a catchphrase:

Lent began yesterday, and I mean to give up a great deal, as you would too if you were me. One of the things I mean to give up is the habit of thinking it and not saying it. A lady has some rights, and this happens to be one I can assert.
“You are embarrassing the angels.” This is what I intend to say for the next 40 days whenever I see someone who is hurting the culture, hurting human dignity, denying the stature of a human being. I mean to say it with belief, with an eye to instruction, but also pointedly, uncompromisingly. As a lady would. All invited to join in.

Can you believe that someone wrote that, and it was published in The Wall Street Journal? Peggy, you are embarrassing the humans. Anyway, I for one look forward to seeing her quoted on Overheard in New York trying out her new slogan.

ID Whack-a-mole: Nevada

Shellock sends along this story about a guy trying to get anti-evolution provisions into the Nevada constitution. Fortunately, he seems to be one of the less organized species of crackpot:

Las Vegas masonry contractor Steve Brown filed his initiative petition with the secretary of state’s office, and must collect 83,184 signatures by June 20 to get the plan on the November ballot. To amend the Nevada Constitution, he’d have to win voter approval this year and again in the 2008 elections.
Brown said Tuesday that he hopes that volunteers will help him collect the signatures, but at this point has no name-gathering organization set up. A Democrat and member of a nondenominational church, he said he hoped for broad support from people who share his views.

(Emphasis mine.) Presumably some creationist lobbying group could step in and help gather the signatures, but I don’t think even the Discovery Institute is that dumb. I know it’s a bad idea to bet against the stupidity of the American people, but I expect this particular proposal to fizzle out. Actually, given that the movement here consists of one dude, I wonder why it’s getting any press coverage at all. There are plenty of crazy guys on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley whose theories and legal proposals are equally newsworthy.
(I see Pharyngula also has this story.)

Bart Gets an Elephant

I meant to post this last Thursday but a number of things distracted me. Anyway, the lunchtime conversation that day concerned the latest issue of Nature, which contains a commentary piece proposing that endangered African megafauna (e.g. cheetah, elephants, lions) be “restored” to the American Great Plains (where similar species lived before the arrival of humans). (Slate posted a version of this piece the same day, for those of you without access to Nature.)
This idea is very appealing to the 10-year-old boy in me, but otherwise it sounds like a recipe for disaster. Transplanting species across continents is the sort of thing prone to unintended consequences. And the human inhabitants may not be too excited about this; there’s already been one death-by-tiger in the midwestern U.S. without shipping them en masse.
The authors have to some degree already considered this, as they included a plot illustrating “potential economic/cultural value” vs. “potential economic/cultural conflict” by species. About this I only wish to say that someday I hope to publish a paper in which my data points are represented by little animal-cracker-like pictures of lions and elephants.

Bad Science of the Week: Ev Psych

Slate has a nice piece up today pointing out flaws in evolutionary psychology. Long-time readers may remember that ev psych annoys me to no end, as it is usually someone making up some just-so story about life on the savanna to justify preconcieved notions about human behavior. All too often this is in service of some sexist claim or double standard. Hence I always love finding pieces that debunk ev psych. Here’s an excerpt from the Slate article:

EP claims that our minds contain hundreds or thousands of “mental organs” or “modules,” which come with innate information on how to solve particular problems—how to interpret nuanced facial expressions, how to tell when someone’s lying or cheating. These problem-solving modules evolved between 1.8 million and 10,000 years ago, during the Pleistocene epoch. And there the selection story ends. There has not been enough time in the intervening millenia, EP-ers say, for natural selection to have further resculpted our psyches. “Our modern skulls house a Stone Age mind,” as Cosmides’ and Tooby’s primer on evolutionary psychology puts it. The way forward for research is to generate hypotheses about the urges that would have been helpful to Stone Age baby-making and then try to test whether these tendencies are widespread today.
What’s wrong with this approach? To begin with, we know very little about the specific adaptive problems faced by our distant forebears. As Buller points out, “We don’t even know the number of species in the genus Homo”—our direct ancestors—”let alone details about the lifestyles led by those species.” This makes it hard to generate good hypotheses. Some EP-ers have suggested looking to modern-day hunter-gatherers as proxies, studying them for clues about our ancestors. But this doesn’t get them far. For instance, in some contemporary African groups, men gather the bulk of the food; in other groups, women do. Which groups are representative of our ancestors? Surely there’s a whole lot of guesswork involved when evolutionary psychologists hypothesize about the human brain’s supposedly formative years.

Now I am aware that a small fraction of ev psych research is actually worthwhile. But the stuff that gets media attention is almost always total bullshit.