Sunday, October 30, 2011

Flat Earth Darwinist

I am a lucky enough person to be able to run during my brief lunchtime at work. I enjoy more than simply the luck that comes from realizing the grace of a tolerant work environment. When I run I escape into a wilderness where the curvature of the earth can be seen over dry land. Buildings, and for that matter anything manmade, refuse to contaminate the horizon. I can see forever, and then the world simply ends. If I were inclined to be a flatlander the scenery through which I run could be used as stark proof for my beliefs.

I am not inclined to believe the earth is flat. It is true that before I escaped puberty the first grainy images of the earth from space were popularly displayed. It is true that many hundreds of years before I was born the idea of a flat earth had already been largely discredited. Maps and globes that proudly displayed a spherical (or pretty darn close to spherical) earth were the standard means of representing our planet for a very long time before I ever saw one. Yet, if we go back in time far enough, we will find people who honestly believe that the earth is flat. How can this be?

When I look out to the edge of the earth I know there is something beyond it. When I look out to the edge of the earth I also realize that it is just not all that far away. When I put the farthest thing I can see in reference with something, like a mountain or a big rock, I realize that the earth disappears at a distance I could walk to in a day. It would be a really long walk, but the distance is easily grasped. When I try to think of the distance between earth and Alpha Centauri I become dizzy from the use of unimaginable orders of magnitude. When I try to think of the horizon I am ticked with the idea that a good marathon runner could span that distance in a few hours, and that even I could run it in just a couple hours longer than that.

The Marathon derives its name from a historic battle fought in the summer of 490 BCE. Around that time there were supposedly large numbers of people who thought that the earth was flat. Not only did Pheidippides run farther than the edge of the world, but the battle of Marathon itself was against an enemy who had traveled in ships from a distance many times greater than the distance to the edge of the world. If the ancient folks really believed that the earth was flat then the whole “falling off the edge of the world” element was probably not so important. There must have been some set of explanations for why the horizon existed which were sufficiently untestable that they filled the need for explanation. The edge of the visible world could be explained away as an annoying phenomenon; deal with it and move on.

The reason we can be so easily convinced that someone like Pheidippides thought he was running on a flat earth is that we can easily see how a flat earth theory works. When we build, conceive of distances, or do most any mundane manipulation of geospacial coordinates we can treat the earth as flat with impunity. Most of our lives can be productively spent treating the worlds topography as an “I don’t care”. Though modern civilization has created many thousands of activities that require the realization of a spherical earth most people would be unaffected if they were forced to believe that the earth was flat. How could you force them to believe such nonsense? How about threatening them with something nasty…like eternal damnation? Just get someone to write a book, or pretend to discover some hidden plates which have the flat earth gospels on them.

You may think I am being mean spirited in suggestion of even imagining pulling off such a whimsical intellectual falsehood. What good would it do? Hmmm…let me think about that one.

Isolating a large group of productive individuals on the basis of self-limited understanding of the universe might produce a useful well-defined cadre of like minded individuals. Here you would have a cluster created by mutually supported gullibility. What else would they believe? What lengths would they be willing to go to in order to protect the underpinnings of their mutually held delusions? The flat earth gospel would be an effective screen for ideas that might disrupt the cluster. Belief that the earth was round would be a good indicator of the potential presence of other contaminating ideas. Converts? Converts are great! If you can really be convinced that the earth is flat you should be able to be convinced of anything!

I think that the potential use of flat earth ideology is too damaged by centuries of contaminating thought to be of much use. It would be better to find a gentler, softer, less invasive concept to use as a ideological filter. Racism and nationalism have been used to great effect, but by design they are limited in their scope. A scientific concept would be best. One that has only been around for a few hundred years at most would be ideal. The concept should have little impact on most of the population if it is abandoned, but should be sufficiently well known that people can actively discredit it.

I know just the one:

The theory of Natural Selection (i.e. Evolution)

Friday, October 28, 2011

Placebo Effect

The use of placebos in the clinical treatment of disease conditions would appear to be a no-brainer. Since the pioneering work of Henry Knowles Beecher, and his defining paper of 1955, the placebo has been a concept of great note. The placebo (Latin: "I shall please") effect is the production of a measurable response to a medical intervention which has no physically therapeutic elements. The placebo effect has been observed with drugs (sugar pills), surgeries (sham interventions), and psychotherapy (lies). The unifying feature of placebos is the misinformation given to the patient; they are told they are receiving competent medical intervention when they are not.

The idea of lying to patients in order to improve the prognosis of their treatment raises all sorts of moral questions. There is a lot of literature discussing these moral dilemmas; this entry is not part of that discourse. I try to avoid writing about morality except in cases where I want to. However, one can imagine how a potentially powerful positive effector that just happens to be a great excuse to lie gathers more support than a simple treatment that does not encourage untruth. Some of that collection of untruth concerns claims of the effectiveness of placebo treatments.

The idea of a strong placebo effect has survived for decades with only sporadic targeted examination. Placebos are typically used as negative controls in medical tests; there are rarely placebo negative controls. The placebo effect is usually examined relative to a generalized out-of-test population. Over the past decade the placebo effect has been more carefully examined. The results are interesting.

1) Placebos do not cure cancer or set broken legs.
2) They are generally ineffective in situations where a clear binary (either cured or not cured) outcome is clearly defined.
3) They are good pain relievers, causing an almost 7% decrease in perceived pain.
4) They only work against pain in 35%-40% of most populations.
5) They are wildly effective in some people.
6) They are effective anti-depressants.
7) They are much better than no treatment for many psychological illnesses.

These data suggest that claims of disappearing kidney stones and vanishing brain tumors are no more common after lying to a patient than giving them the straight dope. On the other hand the severity of the pain caused by passing the kidney stone can be reduced with lies.

The conditions most demonstratively affected by placebo use are those with a neurologic component. That the brain can change itself is a repeating motif of this blog.

The questions of how the benefits of a placebo effect can be more robustly applied to susceptible conditions is worthy of more intense examination.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Big Rod's Taco Time

I was recently part of a conversation where someone was choosing a name for a yet-to-be-born baby. They were sure (without any evidence) that the future baby would be a boy. Certain attributes of the pregnancy were interpreted as clues to the baby’s gender. Apparently some relatives were interpreting the same clues as indicating that the baby would be a girl. I mistakenly thought that the disagreement over the gender of the child (due just as winter imagines itself in 2011) was good natured fun. Gender assignment is apparently serious business for some folks. I should issue a general warning to be careful in all matters concerning the gender of a yet-to-be-born fetus.

I should also state that the statement: “Why don’t you name him Richard because everyone will be calling him Dick” may not be well received.

This sensitive minefield of interpretation lies in the frequently irritating landscape of cultural sensitivity. The misinterpreted borders of this undiscoverable country lie where languages assign different meaning to similar phonemes. In Norway the term “Sakte Fart” refers to slowing down, and has nothing to do with inhaling flatulence.

Names often create the most difficulty. I knew a young lady who spelled her first name “Bich”. She insisted that it be pronounced “Bick”, and we often complied with her wishes. I found a coffee mug imported from China with the slogan “Shut up Bich” printed on it. I think the coffee mug’s slogan was misspellt.

A former acquaintance had a roommate named “Yu Suc” who pronounced his full name as: “You Suck”.

These, of course, are simply disconnects of sound and meaning. These are examples of actual cultural difference. These can easily be humorous should attitude rise to the occasion. The most sensitive areas of culture do not hide behind veils of noise.

Cultures are made of people, and many people will defend their inclination to ignorance with great force.

Near my house is a fast-food restaurant called “Big Rod’s Taco Time”. Here is a snapshot of its street sign:

Once, while driving by this establishment in a vanpool peopled with three Mormon bishops (one former) I asked:  "So if you saw a film called 'Big Rod's Taco Time' what do you think it would be rated?"

The question -which I thought was a clever joke- was met with blank stares.  Should I try and explain or  should I just let it go?  Which would be more amusing?

"Do you think such a movie would be shown as a double feature with the lion king?"  I asked.

"Sure" one of the bishops replied "Why not?"

This was not getting anywhere "OK if one of the lion king characters were to have the nickname 'Big Rod' would it be the warthog or the meercat?"

"That doesn't make sense" replied the one bishop whose attention I still barely had "None of them were named Rodney, and Rod is a nickname for Rodney"

"Did any of you go to the  stake party at the farm?" the last bishop whose attention was now lost to me asked the others "That piglet put down a real steamer.  I thought someone was going to step in it.  I watched for 15 minutes, and people came close, but nobody stepped in it"

"Yeah, I think I saw that doodie" replied another bishop "It looked like it was a person's"

"My Brittany [which is breed of dog] made a pile out front of the church last week"  The former bishop looked up from his iPhone and chimed in  "I'm was sure from the smell that someone tracked it in."

They went on till the van-ride was over about poop smells, people stepping in poop, what poop looked like, and more things "poopy" than I was prepared to imagine.  I was stunned.  Here I had shyly tread out a phallic innuendo joke and found myself drowning in scatology.

The squeals of laughter and wild eyed enjoyment of the bishops made me nervous.  I could not keep up with the rapid-fire use of anything but the word s**t to describe poop.  I was a pre-teen once so I've got an extensive scatological vocabulary, but I found myself confused in the presence of these practiced masters.  When one of them responded to a loving description of a pizza-generated-canine 'number two' only to be asked if they had ever seen a pizza 'number three' I was lost.  What is a 'number three' anyway.  I was afraid to ask.  What if there were fractional equivalents and a scratch-and-sniff training set to tech the intricate spectrum of deification to children?  I did not want multimedia poop props pulled out in an enclosed van.

 It just goes to show that it is dangerous stepping into the minefield of human communication.  You never know what you will step in.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Blue Jello

So, I get hit with the anger issue again.  This time I was talking with someone who assumed I was a Mormon.  This assumption stems from the fact that I don’t drink alcohol, smoke cigarettes, and religiously avoid the ingestion of any psychoactive materials.  There are people (who might be called pissants) who point out that caffeine is a powerful psychoactive chemical, and I ingest lots of coffee and the like.  There is usually not coffee at events where I might be confused as a Mormon so that lack of purity was not immediately obvious. 

There is a type of conversation where two Mormons will test each other’s status by listing their vices.  When I am being honest in such a conversation it can appear like I am touting the robustness of my mormoness.  Usually the conversation segues into a listing of church duties and it becomes obvious that I am not LDS. 

When I make statements like: “I don’t do anything for the church, in fact I don’t even attend,  because I am not LDS, and I have no intention of ever becoming LDS” the statements are carefully dissected by the LDS listener who sometimes gleans a hint at the possibility that I am not Mormon.   

If they get the hint they usually ask: “So you are NOT LDS?”. 

“No” I say “I am not LDS”. 

Then, and they always do this, they say: “That’s OK”.

I often find myself wanting to retort with: “I think so too”, and sometimes I do.

Occasionally the Mormon conversant is less than pure in his (invariably a white male) mormonhood.  When they admit to “tasting a few beers on the weekends” the conversation shifts from further delving into our mutual purity reports into other matters.  Often the matters are political.  I once got a detailed description of the nuts-n-bolts of the Lewinsky-Clinton affair; I should have resisted my urge to ask if he had bought his wife a blue dress.  On the occasion that precipitated this blog entry the conversation shifted to atheists; I successfully resisted the urge to proclaim that I was an “Adult Onset Atheist”.

“What about that Richard Dawkins fellow, he is so mean and angry” said the pasty middle-aged man who thought I was a mormon.

“Dick?” I replied.

“HaHa good one, yeah these atheists just hate everything good in the world” he chuckled back.

“I hate it when that happens…” I said “But I always pictured Dawkins as a soft spoken English person with an agreeable somewhat pithy disposition.  I don’t think I would like to have him on my dissertation committee, but can’t really say why without giving the idea more attention than it deserves.  Why do you think him so angry and mean?”

“I know he appears nice and well mannered” he replied. 

I found myself thinking “He seems some way, but you have inside information to the contrary?"  You, who have been talking to me one-on-one for ten minutes and still think I am a tithing member of the LDS church?  OK, bring it on.

“He is just hiding his extreme anger, sometimes it even comes out in what he says” He continued.

“What did he say that you found particularly angry or mean?”  I asked; thinking at the same time that it would not be very hard to tease angry mean and lowbrow comments from me out of this blog.

“I can’t think of any” he said “but he is always saying such mean things”

It was time to end the conversation about unidentified ephemeral somethings that conclusively proved poorly-defined evilness in somebody I’ve never met.

“Have you seen the deserts?” I asked “I hope they have some Blue Jello; It is my favorite!”

Blue Jello?” he replied “I don’t think I’ve ever seen Blue Jello.  Are you sure they make Blue Jello?”

“Yes, Its my favorite.  I’ll have to go pop into the kitchen and check” I replied while edging away “The Blue Jello…is…y’know….Blue

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Herding Cats

Herding cats is difficult on a good day. Problems arise due to the disconnect between a person’s desire to communicate and have their needs understood, and the cat’s utter ambivalence to the very existence of the human. Because of the complexity of the human emotional mix it is often easier to experience emotional validation from a pet cat than to get it to travel as a member of a pack towards a waiting cat trailer.

Perhaps it is the loneliness of the open prairie or the confined cat-smell of the great feline holding pens of the Midwest, but men’s minds wander while out herding cats. The concepts of personal validation get mixed with more tangible expressions of understanding. Did kitty refuse the tinned catfood because she dislikes tuna-seafood offal surprise, or is my sofa throw too frayed? Cat herders begin to imagine feeling and reason behind the spindle-shaped cat pupil. Die-hard cat herders blur the line between manipulating the behavior of cats and their own moral condition.

“Rarely have we seen a person fail who has thoroughly committed themselves to herding cats. Those who do not are people who cannot or will not completely focus themselves on the task of cat herding, usually men and women who are constitutionally incapable of being honest with themselves. There are such unfortunates. They are not at fault; they seem to have been born that way. They are naturally incapable of grasping and developing the deep understanding of cats which demands rigorous honesty. Their chances are less than average. There are those, too, who suffer from grave emotional and mental disorders, but many of them can herd cats if they have the capacity to be honest.” – Manual of Cat Herding 1st edition

The inability of most cats to follow direction is immediately obvious to those who work amongst them. Over 10,000 people go to the emergency room every year due to cat-related injuries; most of these are caused by tripping over the cat. Do cats trip humans on purpose? Some believe so, but how can one tell?

There are two cats that live in my house. By repeating my mistake of regularly feeding them I prevent them from running away. That is where the control ends. Every morning I shuffle out to the kitchen in the pre-dawn dark; every few months the household is awoken by a terrifying squeal. If the cats are attempting to channel my activity they are doing using what appears to be an unacceptably dangerous method. I think it more likely that the cats are acting out independent of the possibility that they might be irreparably stepped upon.

It is easy to convince oneself that there is comprehension in the activities of many things in our lives. The best measure we have for how comprehension works is our own mind. This leads to false conclusions.

On October 22nd 1901 Annie Edson Taylor put her cat in a barrel, and threw it over Niagara Falls. It took a while to retrieve the barrel, but the cat was generally unharmed. Annie decided it would be safe to go over Niagara Falls herself; in the same barrel. Unfortunately for Annie the sounds of impending death coupled with the erratic movement of the plummeting barrel took hold of her sanity. In short it scared the bezeebus out of her.

“If it was with my dying breath, I would caution anyone against attempting the feat... I would sooner walk up to the mouth of a cannon, knowing it was going to blow me to pieces than make another trip over the Fall.” -- Annie Taylor, shortly after being removed from her barrel

Annie, despite making a living as a clairvoyant in her later years, was unable to see terror in her cat’s eyes. She made the mistake of thinking that her trip would prove as inconsequential as her cat’s.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Friday's Underwear

I’ve been told that there is going to be a rapture again this Friday. The information I’ve gotten is mixed on whether one will be raptured with clothing on:

Or if one’s clothing will be “left behind”. Whatever your heavenly wardrobe might be it is never a bad time to do a load of laundry, and remember to wear clean underwear on Friday.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Might Be Awesome

The last time someone said “if things had been different they would not have been the same” to me it was about a sports event. It was said with a look of serious contemplation about the latest University of Utah vs. BYU football game. The game is called the “holy war” because BYU is owned and operated by the Mormon Church and the University of Utah represents the rest of secular America to the largely Mormon residents of Utah. Utah beat BYU 54-10, and this was cause for some serious consideration. Somehow spectator sports justify the most blatantly foolish statements.

I have, in all seriousness, made the statement: “if things had been different they would not have been the same”, and it was not about a sporting event. I made the statement in reference to one of the seminal events in the formation of science as a philosophical discipline. To clarify I need to backtrack a tad; back to some unspecific year around 1590.

"Galileo, perhaps more than any other single person, was responsible for the birth of modern science" -- Stephen Hawking,

Galileo Galilei had just gotten an appointment to chair of Mathematics in Pisa, and was performing his experiments on acceleration due to gravity by dropping baseballs off the leaning tower of Pisa. He dropped the balls from each floor, and then plotted the velocity. This is what he saw:

Galileo did this with bowling balls, and golf balls, and they all had exactly the same curve. This proved that Aristotle was wrong. Aristotle was (perhaps incorrectly) quoted as saying that objects accelerated to a constant velocity that was proportional to their weight. They did this because they wanted to be closer to objects of their same type, and apparently there was a limit to the effective acceleration of their desire.

We are accustomed to the notion that years add knowledge to the collective social “knowing”. Just think of the idea of zero. For thousands of years mankind could count, but apparently did not know what zero was.

There must have been word problems on ancient arithmetic tests like this:

Ezekiel has seven scrolls in his basket. He gives five scrolls to Mathew, and two scrolls to John. How many Scrolls does Ezekiel have left? Well I don’t know either; it’s magic!

Perhaps Ezekiel’s apparently empty basket was full of the desire for more scrolls. Perhaps it was the same palpable desire that Aristotle knew held him to the earth. The ancient world must have been a much more passionate place for its great thinkers to see desire in all things.

Many of you know that the story of Galileo dropping assorted sports balls off the leaning tower of Pisa is apocryphal. Not only were the sports I suggested he pilfered equipment from not invented till many years later, but he had no reliable mechanism for measuring the large velocities generated by free-fall. Instead he used some “spheres” and inclined planes.

Worse yet is the fact that if he had been able to conduct the Pisa experiments as described he would have gotten very different results. A baseball dropped from a height at sea-level air density reaches a terminal velocity of 80.4 ft/sec at about 100 feet of fall. The terminal velocity is where the friction of the air equals the acceleration due to gravity, and the falling baseball just can’t go any faster. Instead of the previous graph Galileo would have seen this:

What is worse is that the denser bowling ball would have a greater terminal velocity. Galileo would have proven experimentally that Aristotle was correct. Instead of forces and vectors science would be speaking the language of desire and love.

More specifically I should have said:
“If things were more amazing then they might be awesome”
Sounds much more reasonable.

Friday, October 14, 2011

What's this NOMA for anyway?

There is nothing that can be obtained through deity worship which cannot be accumulated faster and more efficiently without it.
One of the major problems with the practice of deity worship is that it halts, or at least seriously impededs, many types of forward progress. Technological progress has been, at least for the last couple of centuries, one of the least impeded; progress in the disciplines often lumped together as “the Humanities” are the most. With recent trends in anti-intellectual, and especially anti-science, rhetoric in the USA it might appear that I’ve gotten it backwards. Let me take a couple of minutes from you to explain.

Many of the attacks on science are attacks on “basic science”. Although all technological progress can be attributed to basic science we are still making significant technological advances based on very old basic science. In order for basic science to become a rate-limiting step in technological advancement it would be necessary to first establish a several-millennium Nuevo-dark age. Applied scientists and engineers are the true drivers of technological progress. Applied science is far enough removed from the philosophical musings of basic science to protect it from most attacks. Attacks on engineers and applied scientists are usually personal, or based on the basic science they support.

The fact that we are still making major technological advances using the basic science of Isaac Newton (1643-1727) is strong testament to the fact that the basic science we already know still has a lot of useful advancement left in it.

It may appear that some embattled basic science is needed to form a comprehensive picture without which applied science is incoherent and impotent. The concepts collectively known as evolution (1865) immediately come to mind. There are two reasons, besides the fact that I can accurately describe myself as an evolutionary biologist, that evolution so quickly comes to mind. The fist is that the attacks on evolution have generated a false controversy surrounding it. Since it is so often being spoken of it is on the tip of the pointy mind of mine that it comes to. The other is that modern medicine operates using well-worn comparative understandings of structure and function; the relationship of the structures is organized through our understanding of their development through the evolution of species. Modern Medicine is a major grouping of positive technological advancements.

How would we maintain our comprehensive picture of life that facilitates modern medicine without the basic science of evolution? We would use magic of course! Things just are the way they are as the result of the unknowable and apparently capricious motivations of a creator. Similarities are just part of the divine mystery.

It is interesting to note that “Intelligent Design (ID)” creationists have recently created a dogma-approved subclassification of evolution called “Micro-Evolution”. Micro-Evolution (MiE) describes the adaptation of strains of fast reproducing organisms, like bacteria, to selective pressures. Since the adaptation of bacterial strains (like enterococci) to selective pressures (like antibiotics) result in many thousands of deaths worldwide it is significantly disadvantageous to force ignorance of the phenomenon. When the applied technological importance of even the most embattled of basic sciences becomes undeniable the useful bits can be extracted for assimilated.

I’ve often thought that a well-educated ID’er could devise an effective alternative hypothesis to MiE. Mixing uncomfortable definitions of bacterial species with elements of synergy and horizontal gene transfer one could develop a Gaia-like localized response hypothesis. If talk of evolution becomes illegal I will author such a hypothesis using a rude-sounding pseudonym.

Technology can progress with torturously mutilated basic science, but the humanities cannot.

I have been quoted (even in this very blog) as admiring the artistic and moral accomplishments of religious society. Even basic science has experienced tremendous advances within rigorously religious structure. Isaac Newton, for instance, was a fringe-idealed religious nutter, yet he created concepts in mathematics and physics of unparalleled importance. These great accomplishments are independent of religiosity.

For centuries accomplishments by the non-religious were severely restricted as non-religiosity was illegal. If something was to be accomplished it would be by a religious person; if it was to be a highly regarded accomplishment it would most likely have to come from a highly religious person. Only after the rise of secular movements did the religiosity of the accomplisher have any possible affect on the genesis of the accomplishment.

Science appears to many to involve only non-religious things:

"A legitimate conflict between science and religion cannot exist. Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind."

- Albert Einstein
"Science and religion are two windows that people look through, trying to understand the big universe outside, trying to understand why we are here. The two windows give different views, but both look out at the same universe. Both views are one-sided, neither is complete. Both leave out essential features of the real world. And both are worthy of respect."

- Freeman Dyson
"Science makes major contributions to minor needs. Religion, however small its successes, is at least at work on the things that matter most."

- Oliver Wendell Holmes

The humanities, however, have long been the undisputed domain of religion. But what progress has been made in creating a more humane society except where religious views have been re-forged, or at least tempered, by secularism? It is a compelling observation that: as religions abandon religiosity they accomplish more of that which they supposedly do best.

I might strongly disagree with the assertion that compulsion by a powerful deity is an effective tool for achieving social morality, but even if it is effective; is it the only tool? If we appreciate the sentiment in the biblical commandment 8 (“thou Shall Not Steal” Ex 20:2-17, Deu 5:6-21) haven’t we accomplished most of what we have accomplished for personal property rights by devising ways of protecting them, and prosecuting civil laws curtailing theft?

The essence of religion has been compared to poetry and art:

“Religion is poetry plus, not science minus." -- Krister Stendahl
"Religion is the art of the poetic. Science is the art of the provable. Politics is the art of the possible." -- Paul H. Carr
Compare the languid verses of the twelfth century with Ginsberg or Corso. Compare the cartoonish medieval iconography with even such mundane works as the mass-pulp Japanese mangas. You will not see an essence in the earlier works that services any purpose greater than being a seed that the later works developed from.

Great works may be possible based simply on creative answers to the question: “What does the deity think about this?”. A still greater body of work is possible from answers to the question “what does the human mind think of this?”. The human mind is shaped by the inputs it perceives, and especially those inputs in which it perceives artistic design. By making art for people we change them, and change the type of art that has the most impact on them. Culture can therefore “progress” faster.

Even if we have not exhaustively realized the potential of religiously-motivated humanities we have certainly demonstrated that it will take increasingly unacceptable amounts of time to get the last good bits out.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Sunscreen and Love

Since yesterday was “National Coming out day” I think today should be “National closet organizer day”. Everyone in the US can ceremoniously tidy up their closets. We can pull out our warm jackets from storage, and question once again if we will ever really wear those shoes. You know the shoes I’m talking about. Perhaps we can donate them to a good charity. Then we can imagine someone unknowingly “walking a mile in them”. It is advisable to have a notebook handy while cleaning out one’s closet in order to jot down any stray metaphors one can identify out of the clutter.

In Salt Lake City yesterday a few hundred folks dressed in pink shirts and gathered together for a group hug. I learned about the gathering late last night (early this morning?) via a large picture on the Salt Lake Tribune’s website. The idea was to form a human pink dot to show support for LGBT folks who are considering coming out of the closet. I would have loved to have been in that crowd. I even have a pink T-shirt I obtained as the result of an unfortunate laundry incident.

The kids were in school, and I never get invited to these types of things by myself. As a pasty middle-aged man I am the image of the type of person who locks people into closets –both literal and metaphorical- and keeps them there for his pleasure. I would think the celebration of coming out of a closet would be severely dulled if coming out simply meant changing closets.
Pink Dot

Sometimes it is difficult for people to “come out” about what they feel about themselves. A young (25 year-old) woman in Hildale Utah “came out” of her polygamist relationship with Warren Jeffs yesterday. She ran away to a neighbor’s house (the neighbor just happened to be the self-proclaimed leader of a rival polygamist sect) with little more than the clothes on her back. The FLDS men surrounded the house, and the resulting standoff went on for some time. Eventually the Sheriff and deputies showed up and transported the young woman to safety. She should be welcomed out of her closet too.

I think “National Coming Out Day” should be extended to embrace almost anyone leaving a metaphorical closet. I can imagine a world where the act of declaring one’s sexual preference is less controversial than declaring ones political party, and not because of an extreme inflammation of the already too violent partisan rhetoric. I can imagine a time when the question of what type of person someone might be interested in is less important than the question of whether they are interested in me; for me that time is now.

“Come out into the sun, we’ve got sunscreen and love”

Unfortunately one of the things we remember on “National Coming Out Day” (October 11th) is the last day 21-year-old Matthew Sheppard lived. He died on October 12th 1998 after a week-long battle to survive injuries he incurred while being tortured on October 6th. Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson convinced Matthew that they were gay so he would accept their “ride home”. When they were done torturing Mathew they tied his body to a fence to serve as crow-food. When they found him 18 hours later (a passing cyclist thought he was an interesting scarecrow until he looked closer) his face was covered in blood except for two thin tracks where his tears had washed his face clean. Matthew never recovered from his coma.

It is somewhat insensitive of me to dilute the denunciation of such horrific acts with a vapid call for some sort of general peace, love, and understanding. This is probably one of the reasons why I don’t get invited to these things.

The other is my general lack of interest in some particulars. As a scientist I’m asked questions about the validity of evidence to support a biological basis for homosexuality.

“Why does it matter?” I ask: “If it is a choice or not? Shouldn’t people be able to make these sorts of choices without being harassed?”

I don’t like looking at people's adult choices as a congenital defect. I don’t think we need to expend resources researching LGBT as if it is a disease that may someday be cured.

I know there are people hamstrung by questions about morality. Even if I take off my shoes and socks I will run out of digits counting just the churches I can think of that define homosexuality as a sin-thing. How can anyone come out knowing that god thinks their lifestyle is an abomination? Well…I’ve got an idea…Try Atheism.

“Come Out Come Out Wherever You Are”

That’s right! You too can live a moral adult lifestyle of your choosing. Learn to cast off religious guilt by casting off religion. No need to talk to your invisible friends in the dark. We are waiting in the sunshine with sunscreen and love!

And if you still have those voices you might want to see someone about them.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

It probably snowed in 1492

I “knew” it would snow. I may have been a bit fuzzy on the prospect of the first snow occurring the first weekend in October, but I “knew” it would snow eventually. I couple this to the fantastic belief that the very solid surface I'm standing on is actually a rather insignificant speck of matter flying unaided through a vacuum-like void called “space”. This planet wobbles as it spins around a continually ongoing nuclear explosion, and that wobble causes seasons. All these increasingly astronomical explanations couple to provide a belief system that my belief in allows me to “know” that it will snow. Some people call that belief of mine “faith”.

One very common definition of faith that I'm given is: “Faith is belief in something without evidence”

This is often extended by degrees to: “Faith is belief in something without enough evidence”, or: “Faith is belief in something without direct evidence”, or even further to: “Faith is belief that the evidence is true”

My operational definition of faith is: “Faith is belief in something despite evidence to the contrary”.

I sometimes extend my definition (especially for my deist friends) to: “Faith is the knowledge that something exists when all the evidence cannot refute it's non existence”. I like to meditate on the double negative in the extended version; it is not a good definition to use late at night or in trivial conversations.

I have been abused by belief in things whose evidence was faulty; mostly faulty evidence purposefully provided by other people. I don't think my disillusionment in these cases was a crisis of faith; it was a crisis of trust. Sometimes I have had faith in trust. Sometimes I have hung onto the notion of trust long after the “evidence to the contrary” has almost buried me.

This early snow will not bury me. Though it has caught every leaf on every plant by surprise. The Ginkos had not even turned yellow, and now they are white. I “know” this early snow will melt before the leaves turn, but the leaves will turn and fall, and new deeper snows will fall and cover them.

I would like to have a way to tell what is going on in another person's mind; preferably a way that did not involve a power drill. Instead I have a faith like something that will not scrape off my shoe. I have a faith that leaves a scent once everything is gone. Simple words will send me. When the words are gone the memory of them will send me still.

The snow is mostly gone now. It fell while melting, and attained at least two inches of stable depth before it stopped falling, and the melting became dominant. Now there is rain, and the snow is vanishing even faster. It will snow again. It will probably snow again before November.

It is the wobble of the earth which does it. This wobble takes a year, which is much too slow for my 30 minute attention span, and so I have no direct evidence for it. I live close to the great Bonneville salt flats so I have seen the curvature of the earth over dry land. There are few places on earth to do that. I can say that I know the earth is not flat without the use of scare quotes.

A couple hundred years BC a man called Eratosthenes of Cyrene proved that the earth was spherical, and even calculated the circumference of the planet. He observed the sun's reflections at the bottom of wells in the cities of Aswan (which sits on the tropic of cancer) and Alexandria (which is quite a bit north of Aswan). On the summer solstice the sun's reflection was in the center of the Aswan well, and not in the center of the Alexandrian well. Measuring the amount of off- centeredness of the summer solstice sun in the Alexandrian well he calculated that the sun was 1/50th of a circle off of being directly overhead. He then hired someone to pace off the distance between Aswan and Alexandria, which turned out to be about 800 kilometers (about 500 miles). Multiplying 800 by 50 gives 40,000 for the circumference of the earth. The current value (measured using all sorts of fancy high-tech gadgets) for the circumference of the earth is 40,075.16 kilometers.  Eratosthenes was off by 75.16 kilometers (almost 47 miles). 

On Monday the USA celebrates Columbus day. I learned in primary school that he proved the earth was round. He did it in 1492.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Nuthins gonna change

This is the third of what looks to be a three part series on atheism in recovery.  The other two parts can be found here, and here

The biggest problem with methods of recovery from addiction is that they are too often unsuccessful.

The most common interaction people have with drug addicts is when the addict has done something to turn them into victims. Whether this is because the addict has actually perpetrated a crime to obtain money for drugs, or more commonly simply because the cumulative psychological effect of the drugs has rendered them emotionally numb in a world full of feeling humans, the addiction is often an excuse rather than a focus for treatment. Often the victims will not even know addiction is a driver in their victimization unless the individual has been caught outright or if the victimizing behavior is the result of a relapse. Usually when one knows that they are the victim of a relapsing addict's behavior it is not the first relapse the addict has had.

A reduction in the magnitude of addicts' impact on society is a poor indicator of a particular treatment approach's success rate. Certainly it is the most important measure as far as a faceless culture’s attention is concerned. If addicts quit behaving so inconveniently then –as far as society was concerned- they would cease to have a problem. This is a criminality approach to viewing drug addiction; it does not address the numbers of people who suffer from in the downward spiral of drug dependency.

Treatment effectiveness can be measured using metrics like one-year and five-year outcomes post treatment. Most treatment options involve a traceable client-patient relationship involving beds and money. Data has been generated from several treatment options. The data varies enough to support the fully salaried efforts of numerous experts, but much of it falls into the 50% effectiveness range. This means that 50% of the individuals completing a treatment remain drug-free (although many data sets focus only on particular chemicals) for a year or five.

The problem with these data is that the selections of their sample sets are highly discriminatory. It is likely that people who would be likely relapsers would not make it into a program, or would not graduate. How much of the data is actually stating that “people who are identified as unlikely relapsers have only a 50% likelihood of relapsing”.

It is interesting to note that two of the major drug-addiction-focused 12-step groups (AA and NA) conduct semi regular “membership surveys”. These suggest that it is a little more than twice as likely to have a person respond that they are in their first year of recovery than that they have been drug-free for one, two, three, four, or five years. This suggests that the success rates are similar for 12-step and medical treatment options. However, there is much overlap in the sample sets; most patients from medical treatment facilities attend a 12-step group after graduation, and many 12-step group members went through a medical treatment facility.

Since addiction is a treatable disease there should also be a background remission rate. Some place this level at 5%. So 5% of people recover from active addiction without identifying a particular treatment. Many of these untreated and cured folks report the ability to use social quantities of drugs like alcohol after their spontaneous cure.

Those addicts whose disease prevent them from ever rigorously seeking help are poorly captured by any data set. Some data has suggested that certain groups (like cocaine-addicted prostitutes in Los Angeles) may on average seek help over a dozen times a year with very low-rates of success (<5% per attempt). Attempts to statistically capture these populations have resulted in hyperbolic assumptions that adjust overall success rates down to levels similar to published spontaneous cure rates. In other words vigorous hand waving while appealing to the degradation of an emotionally-vulnerable community allows all treatment options to be rendered statistically worthless.

To some this appears like an exploitable week point common to available treatment options. Disingenuous comparison between a concrete treatment option and the hand-waving adjusted general data should show that any specific treatment option is ten times as effective as all of the options in the general pool. Since addiction treatment is profitable these comparisons do not go unchampioned.

Since most options in the adjusted general pool take advantage of 12-step programs the 5% impotency statistic has been cited as the effectiveness rate of 12-step programs. Though capitalistic competition is seen in this use of the 5%-12-step statistic, the most common use I’ve seen of this is by religious groups attempting to secure converts.

The “god” of the 12-steps is too secular. Several 12-step groups have splintered from AA in order to establish more rigorously religious groups. It is worth noting that attempts are being made to establish non-religious recovery groups that translate the 12-steps into more rational principles of recovery. I should really write more about them than I do. However, the classic theistic approach to psychological issues is quite different than that practiced in any 12-step group.

In a 12-step group one does not find people chanting or “laying-on” of hands. There is little fasting or burning incense. Some meetings have candles, but none have Ouija boards. In short the amazing magic is missing. There are however, damaged minds willing to accept fantastical explanations for mundane occurrences. And that is prime convert material for most theistic religions.

Recently there was a very minor protest at a major meeting of a 12-step organization. Several young men in bright yellow shirts denouncing AA handed out fliers, and engaged anyone who would listen. They were pushing the 5%-12-step statistic as proof that only their divine solution would cure addiction. These guys even went so far as to pronounce that since the succsess rate of 12-step groups was equal to the spontaneous cure rate that everyone in 12-step groups would burn in a lake of molten sulfur. I hate it when that happens!

12-step groups have been around long enough to be a stable and recognizable pool of potential converts. Usually the fishing for converts is not attempted via the dissolve the 12-step group for god dynamite fishing technique the guys in yellow shirts would like to attempt. Instead the convert is wooed from within the 12-step group. It is not unheard of to have organized cadres of missionaries attempting to surreptitiously harvest converts, but most attempts are made by the divinely inspired individual.

You can imagine the damaging effects an internal holly war could have on any organization, In order to minimize certain things that could harm 12-step groups they have each also adopted principles of group conduct they call the “12 traditions”. Number 6 reads:
“6. An A.A. group ought never endorse, finance, or lend the A.A. name to any related facility or outside enterprise, lest problems of money, property, and prestige divert us from our primary purpose.”

It is widely understood that any specific religion is an “outside enterprise”. To the devout individual their actions may not be connected to a specific religion, and are therefore exempt.

While the yellow-shirted protestors randomly wandered around outside the main meeting of the conference was going on inside. 20,000 former-addicts gathered to hear the motivational words of two carefully-chosen individuals. Here is a carefully-chosen sample of what they heard:

You want a laugh? I'm watchin' TV last night; the PBS special. Now they must think I'm stupid, or you're stupid, but I'm gonna share it: It was the discovery of -humans- of mankind. They had a little Lucy thing y'know. This little skull. This, this monkey they found then all of a sudden we all tied to it. I'm just bein' sarcastic. And they're sayin that's us; right? They've got a new one, a baby one, called Salam. I'm getting somewhere, trust me. This is a new one. So I'm listening to them. They say that NOW from Lucy to Salam that the monkey came out the tree. Jumped out of the tree. Learned how to stand upright. They also went on to say that the arms of the Salam and the Lucy were monkey's so they could swing in the trees to stay away from predators. If the predators is on the ground why the hell would I want to learn how to walk? THAT DON'T MAKE NO SENSE! Y'know I was sittin' up there like: Are you for real? Y'know like who you tellin' this to? Are you kidding me? The whole thing about [a specific 12-step group] is that what we tell you is what it is in the book! Nothing is gonna change. Lucy ain’t gonna manifest from swingin' no tree!

Apparently either the big stage proves too strong a temptation for some undereducated proselytizers seeking to make a big haul of converts, or the 12-step fellowship’s vetting process for main speakers is beginning to select for a strongly theistic message.

I’m not sure this is a trend more than it is evidence of what has been a long-standing threat. There are no secular institutions that are not potentially under attack from those who would crush them into more theistic dust. Those institutions that are seen as consisting of the most intellectually week are probably the most attractive targets.

Just look at what’s happened to the GOP!