Friday, December 31, 2010

Books Read in 2010

This was a good year for getting a lot of reading done, including a number of fairly lengthy books, thanks to going back to school full-time for the fall of 2009 and spring of 2010.

Books read in 2010:
(Previously: 20092008, 2007, 2006, 2005.)

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Review of CMI's "Voyage That Shook the World"

John Lynch and I have co-authored a review of the Creation Ministries International film on Darwin which will be appearing in vol. 30 of Reports of the National Center for Science Education and which may be found on their website.

My previous blogged review of the film is here.

I gave a little more background on the film here.  John Lynch has said more about it here, herehere, and here, mostly about the deception used to get interviews by prominent historians.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

What to think vs. how to think

While listening to a recent Token Skeptic podcast of a Dragon*Con panel on Skepticism and Education moderated by D.J. Grothe of the James Randi Educational Foundation, I was struck by his repeated references to Skepticism as a worldview (which I put in uppercase to distinguish it from skepticism as a set of methods of inquiry, an attitude or approach).  I wrote the following email to the podcast:
I am sufficiently irritated by D.J. Grothe's repeated reference to skepticism as a "worldview" that I will probably be motivated to write a blog post about it.
There is a growing ambiguity caused by overloading of the term "skepticism" on different things--attitudes, methods and processes, accumulated bodies of knowledge, a movement.  To date, there hasn't really been a capital-S Skepticism as a worldview since the Pyrrhonean philosophical variety.  A worldview is an all-encompassing view of the world which addresses how one should believe, how one should act, what kinds of things exist, and so forth.  It includes presuppositions not only about factual matters, but about values. 
The skepticisms worth promoting are attitudes, methods and processes, and accumulated bodies of knowledge that are consistent with a wide variety of world views.  The methods are contextual, applied against a background of social institutions and relationships that are based on trust.  There is room in the broader skeptical movement for pluralism, a diversity of approaches that set the skepticisms in different contexts for different purposes--educational, political, philosophical, religious.  An unrestricted skepticism is corrosive and undermines all knowledge, for there is no good epistemological response to philosophical skepticism that doesn't make some assumptions.
Trying to turn skepticism into a capital-S Skeptical worldview strikes me as misguided.
To my mind, what's most important and useful about skepticism is that it drives the adoption of the best available tools for answering questions, providing more guidance on how to think than on what to think, and on how to recognize trustworthy sources and people to rely upon.  There's not a completely sharp line between these--knowledge about methods and their accuracy is dependent upon factual knowledge, of course.

I think the recent exchanges about the Missouri Skepticon conference really being an atheist conference may partly have this issue behind them, though I think there are further issues there as well about the traditional scope of "scientific skepticism" being restricted to "testable claims" and the notion of methodological naturalism that I don't entirely agree with.  Skepticism is about critical thinking, inquiry, investigation, and using the best methods available to find reliable answers to questions (and promoting broader use of those tools), while atheism is about holding a particular position on a particular issue, that no gods exist.  The broader skeptical movement produces greater social benefits by promoting more critical thinking in the general public than does the narrower group of skeptical atheists who primarily argue against religion and especially the smaller subset who are so obsessed that they are immediately dismissed by the broader public as monomaniacal cranks.  The organized skeptical groups with decades of history have mainly taken pains to avoid being represented by or identified with the latter, and as a result have been represented by skeptics of a variety of religious views in events of lasting consequence. Think, for example, of the audience for Carl Sagan's "Cosmos" and his subsequent works, or of the outcome of the Kitzmiller v. Dover trial.

In my opinion, the distinction between skepticism and atheism is an important one, and I think Skepticon does blur and confuse that distinction by using the "skeptic" name and having a single focus on religion. This doesn't mean that most of the atheists participating in that conference don't qualify as skeptics, or even that atheist groups promoting rationality on religious subjects don't count as part of the broader skeptical movement.  It just means that there is a genuine distinction to be drawn.

(BTW, I don't think atheism is a worldview, either--it's a single feature of a worldview, and one that is less important to my mind than skepticism.)

Previous posts on related subjects:
"A few comments on the nature and scope of skepticism"
"Skepticism, belief revision, and science"
"Massimo Pigliucci on the scope of skeptical inquiry"

Also related, a 1999 letter to the editor of Skeptical Inquirer from the leaders of many local skeptical groups (Daniel Barnett, North Texas Skeptics, Dallas, TX; David Bloomberg, Rational Examination Association of Lincoln Land, Springfield, IL; Tim Holmes, Taiwan Skeptics, Tanzu, Taiwan; Peter Huston, Inquiring Skeptics of Upper New York, Schenectady, NY; Paul Jaffe, National Capitol Area Skeptics, Washington, D.C.; Eric Krieg, Philadelphia Association for Critical Thinking, Philadelphia, PA; Scott Lilienfeld, Georgia Skeptics, Atlanta, GA; Jim Lippard, Phoenix Skeptics and Tucson Skeptical Society, Tucson, AZ; Rebecca Long, Georgia Skeptics, Atlanta, GA; Lori Marino, Georgia Skeptics, Atlanta, GA; Rick Moen, Bay Area Skeptics, Menlo Park, CA; Steven Novella, New England Skeptical Society, New Haven, CT; Bela Scheiber, Rocky Mountain Skeptics, Denver, CO; and Michael Sofka, Inquiring Skeptics of Upper New York, Troy, NY).

UPDATE (December 1, 2010): D.J. Grothe states in the most recent (Nov. 26) Point of Inquiry podcast (Karen Stollznow interviews James Randi and D.J. Grothe), at about 36:50, that he has been misunderstood in his references to skepticism as a "worldview."  This suggests to me that he has in mind a narrower meaning, as Barbara Drescher has interpreted him in the comments below.  My apologies to D.J. for misconstruing his meaning.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Does Vocab Malone understand the implications of his own position?

Vocab Malone, with whom I had a blog debate about abortion and personhood last year, recently came across this comment of mine on the Point of Inquiry podcast with Jen Roth, an atheist who argues for the immorality of abortion:
Was Jen Roth ultimately arguing that personhood is something that a human organism has for its entire lifecycle? At what starting point? Conception, implantation, or something else?

I find it completely implausible that an organism at a life stage with no capacity for perception, let alone reason, counts as a person. Nor that a particular genetic code is either necessary or sufficient for personhood.

I think every point that she made was brought up in a debate I had with a Christian blogger on the topic of abortion, who similarly argued for an equation between personhood and human organism. I wonder if she has any better rejoinders. Does she think that IVF and therapeutic cloning are immoral? IUDs?
Vocab claimed that my argument was a "Chewbacca argument," a smoke screen, or a slippery slope argument, but in fact it is none of these.  I posted the following comment in response to him:
The argument I made is not a slippery slope argument, it's a reductio ad absurdum.  Your position is that the human organism is a person and has a right to life from fertilization to death (and presumably beyond), so you've already gone down the "slippery slope" and must of necessity say that IVF, therapeutic cloning, and IUDs are immoral because they result in the destruction and death of fertilized ova.  My position is that it is absurd to think that these things are immoral, and if you were to avoid the slippery slope by agreeing with me, you would have contradicted a logical consequence of your own position--thus, a reductio ad absurdum by being committed to a proposition and its negation.
A slippery slope argument is an argument that says your position is committed to some consequence because there is no criterion that you can use to draw a line to avoid.  For example, if I argued that your position committed you to giving a right to life to all animals, and required you to be a vegetarian, or that it required you to give a right to life to every organism with DNA, and required you to hold a position like the Jain religion that all killing is wrong.
As it happens, you never did supply an account of just what it is about the human organism that gives it a right to life or personhood--you offered no constitutive account of what properties entail a right to life or personhood, other than a genetic one.  I made the case near the end of our debate that you are probably implicitly assuming that personhood comes from a soul, and that souls are connected to human organisms at the point of fertilization, but there's clearly no evidence for that position, scientific, philosophical, or theological.
BTW, my argument is also clearly not a Chewbacca argument or smoke screen, which is a simple non sequitur.  To think that, you would have to fail to understand that the items I identified all result in the destruction of fertilized human ova.
It's important to note that not all slippery slope arguments are fallacious--if there really is no criterion to stop the fall down the slope, the argument is valid.  As Vocab never did explain what it is about human organisms that make them rights-bearers, I think he does face the slippery slope argument I presented unless he can offer some criterion for distinguishing human organisms from other organisms with respect to having a right to life.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Pamela Gorman edits her own Wikipedia entry?

Former Arizona state legislator Pamela Gorman, or someone claiming to be her, took issue with the following passage in her Wikipedia entry:
Also in 2005, Gorman was one of several Arizona legislators who supported parental rights legislation which was also supported by the Citizens Commission on Human Rights. She attended the grand opening of the Church of Scientology's "Psychiatry: An Industry of Death" exhibition in Los Angeles in December 2005 at the request of Robin Read, President of the National Federation for Women Legislators.
The edit, which was described as "clarification of falsehoods entered about me and other organizations" and came from Cox Communications Phoenix IP, added the following right after that text:
It was a quick visit which did not include any meals or other "fluff." The goal of the trip was to determine what the Citizen's Commission on Human Rights was about, as they were becoming heavily involved in NFWL. The cost of the roundtrip flight for the small group to tour the museum was reported by CCHR, according to Arizona disclosure laws. Gorman's political enemies have tried for years to make a leap from her touring a museum as a favor to the president of her professional organization to her actually being a Scientologist. Further attempts to alter this page with falsehoods of this nature may be met with legal action.
I'm not aware of any online claims that Gorman, who is an evangelical Christian, is a Scientologist, only that she was one of several Arizona legislators who sponsored legislation on behalf of a Scientology front group and accepted gifts from the Church of Scientology.

It's good that Gorman was willing to give a bit more context, but it should be noted that this was not simple "parental rights legislation which was also supported by the Citizens Commission on Human Rights," it was a bill that was at least partly written by CCHR. As the Arizona Republic reported at the time, the original text required not only parental consent before mental health evaluations by schools, it required that parents read CCHR anti-psychiatry propaganda before signing a consent form:
Another bill introduced this year would have required written consent from parents for any mental-health screenings in schools. The bill was similar to other measures passed in previous years and vetoed by the governor. Sponsored by Sen. Karen Johnson, a member of the commission's international advisory group, the bill had a bipartisan group of 36 co-sponsors. Still, it failed by a tie vote in the Education Committee, in part because of testimony of mental-health advocates.

The original text of the bill would have required parents to sign a lengthy consent form that contained paragraph after paragraph of negative information about psychiatric practices.
Information about CCHR is easy to come by on the Internet (e.g., at Wikipedia or, so it's unclear why Gorman needed to accept a round trip flight to Los Angeles on the CCHR's dime to find out "what the Citizen's Commission on Human Rights was about," or why she sponsored their bill.

Monday, September 13, 2010

James Dobson's dog-beating story

In James Dobson's 1978 book, The Strong-Willed Child, he writes about using a belt to beat his dachshund into submission:
Please don't misunderstand me. Siggie is a member of our family and we love him dearly. And despite his anarchistic nature, I have finally taught him to obey a few simple commands. However, we had some classic battles before he reluctantly yielded to my authority.

The greatest confrontation occurred a few years ago when I had been in Miami for a three-day conference. I returned to observe that Siggie had become boss of the house while I was gone. But I didn't realize until later that evening just how strongly he felt about his new position as Captain.

At eleven o'clock that night, I told Siggie to go get into his bed, which is a permanent enclosure in the family room. For six years I had given him that order at the end of each day, and for six years Siggie had obeyed.

On this occasion, however, he refused to budge. You see, he was in the bathroom, seated comfortably on the furry lid of the toilet seat. That is his favorite spot in the house, because it allows him to bask in the warmth of a nearby electric heater...

When I told Sigmund to leave his warm seat and go to bed, he flattened his ears and slowly turned his head toward me. He deliberately braced himself by placing one paw on the edge of the furry lid, then hunched his shoulders, raised his lips to reveal the molars on both sides, and uttered his most threatening growl. That was Siggie's way of saying. "Get lost!"

I had seen this defiant mood before, and knew there was only one way to deal with it. The ONLY way to make Siggie obey is to threaten him with destruction. Nothing else works. I turned and went to my closet and got a small belt to help me "reason" with Mr. Freud.

What developed next is impossible to describe. That tiny dog and I had the most vicious fight ever staged between man and beast. I fought him up one wall and down the other, with both of us scratching and clawing and growling and swinging the belt. I am embarrassed by the memory of the entire scene. Inch by inch I moved him toward the family room and his bed. As a final desperate maneuver, Siggie backed into the corner for one last snarling stand. I eventually got him to bed, only because I outweighed him 200 to 12!

Dobson's book is a promotion of corporal punishment in child rearing. This story is complementary to Jerry Falwell's cat-killing story, written at a time when Christian fundamentalists didn't seem overly concerned about abuse of animals--the 1970s.  It's also complementary to the story of Mike Huckabee's son killing a dog, and Mormon Mitt Romney's dog abuse story.

Thankfully, most of us today recognize that abusing animals is a sign of psychopathy.

UPDATED: To lengthen quote and correct source book title, as per Snopes.  The original 1978 hardcover version of the book is available for $0.01 on Marketplace.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Gun-toting, Scientology-supporting, Bible-thumping, climate change-denying Pamela Gorman wants to be elected to Congress

Former Arizona State Representative Pamela Gorman, whose promo video proudly proclaims her to be a gun-toting Bible thumper, spent some of her time in the Arizona legislature supporting Scientology front groups and denying the existence of human-caused global warming through her affiliation with the sleazy Heartland Institute. Here's her video:

Monday, July 05, 2010

Would you like some Scientology with your libertarianism?

A few years ago, I noted that popular and wealthy libertarian investment writer Douglas Casey was making tacit references to L. Ron Hubbard doctrine in his writing.  For example, I noted that he wrote (in an article titled "The New Praetorians" in the March 1996 issue of Liberty magazine):
I have long believed that about 80% of the human race are basically people of good will.  About 17% can be classified as potential trouble sources--PTS's--who will basically bend with whatever wind prevails.  Only 3% are actively destructive sociopaths.  But that 3% tend to gravitate toward politics, the military, the media, the financial system, and other centers of power."
I noted that the term "potential trouble source" (PTS) derives from Hubbard, who also identifies a similar percentages of the population into the categories of PTS and "suppressive persons" (SPs).  In a letter to Liberty which they refused to publish, I noted:
L. Ron Hubbard wrote much about "potential trouble sources" (PTS's) and "suppressive persons" (SP's) whom he claimed made up 17.5 and 2.5 percent of the population, respectively (see Jon Atack, A Piece of Blue Sky: Scientology, Dianetics and L. Ron Hubbard Exposed, 1990, Carol Publishing Group. p. 155).  Hubbard's views on PTS's and SP's are set out at length in his book An Introduction to Scientology Ethics, where his definitions of crimes and suppressive acts make it clear that he is no friend of liberty.  The Church of Scientology has a long history of harassment and barratrous litigation against its critics which continues to this day on the Internet (see Spy, February 1996; Wired, December 1995; Skeptic, June 1995; and the Internet resources linked from
I've further noted that Casey was on the financial committee of Libertarian Party presidential candidate Harry Browne in 1996, along with Michael Baybak.  Baybak is a Scientology OTVIII who played a major role in a sidebar story to Time magazine's famous 1991 "Cult of Greed and Power" article about Scientology, titled "Mining Money in Vancouver."

Finally, I noted that a Scientology-critical website that publishes Scientology service completions shows multiple Scientology courses completed by a Douglas Casey, who may well be the same libertarian investment writer.

My objection is not that Casey is a Scientologist, though I think it is legitimate to criticize anyone who knowingly supports the unethical activities of the Church of Scientology.  Rather, my objection is to his making unfounded claims based on Scientology and Hubbard doctrines without being open about his sources.  It's a common tactic by the Church of Scientology and other cults to use front groups and try to conceal their nature until after they've persuaded someone to participate in a program--the Unification Church calls it "heavenly deception."  I've also wondered to what extent Scientology principles are used in Casey's investment advice, and whether Casey has promoted investment in Scientology-related companies, and whether there were any other Scientologists on Browne's financial committee, but I haven't seen any evidence of those things.

A recent interview with Casey on his own website points out that he is something of an apologist for the Church of Scientology and Hubbard:
L: It actually sparked something of a religion for a time. People were adopting Heinlein's Martian philosophy and starting "crèches" around the country. Do you know if it's true that L. Ron Hubbard, another SF author, founded the church of Scientology as a result of Heinlein betting him he couldn't do it and make it stick?

Doug: There's no way to know the actual facts, of course, other than Hubbard started researching Dianetics just after World War II. But they were friends, after all, and both SF writers. The model for the character of Michael Valentine Smith was supposed to have been Hubbard – there were supposed to be a lot of similarities between the two. The religion racket can be an easy way to make a million dollars, but I don't think that was on Hubbard's mind when he founded Scientology. A surprisingly large percentage of the human potential movement was a direct result of his work. He was sincere in promoting it, notwithstanding a lot of negative PR surrounding the subject.
Hubbard's sincerity may be legitimately questioned by anyone familiar with his biography.  And I'm not sure "a surprisingly large percentage of the human potential movement" being inspired by Scientology (e.g., est, Landmark Forum, Eckankar, etc.) is to its credit.

Last month, the website The Daily Bell published an interview with Casey titled "Doug Casey Revisits the Greater Depression" in which Casey referred to the Roman emperor Tiberius as "a degraded being," another use of Scientology terminology.  This prompted a commenter who identified as an ex-Scientologist to ask if Casey was a Scientologist, and another commenter to point to my website on Casey.  This prompted a response from The Daily Bell:
Doug Casey is the author of numerous hard-money/free-market best-sellers and has established himself as a reliable and prominent libertarian-oriented commentator over years and years.

He may or may not have Scientology connections (we have no idea) but unlike DC we don't see any overt or even covert evidence of specific dogma infecting his commentary - which is concise, to-the-point and in-line with the free-market message that he's been purveying for decades.

Scientology is alleged to be a "bad church." But modern Western governments inflate economies to ruination, cost tens of millions pensions and savings, freely wiretap, prosecute and imprison millions, foment endless authoritarian regulations and illogical laws, mandate poisonous vaccines, engage in punitive taxation and serial warfare, etc. ...

We think we would be more concerned if Casey were an apologist for modern Western regulatory democracy rather than a courageous and principled opponent of it. We are grateful for his voice and message, especially during the 20th century when very few spoke out.

Again, we have no knowledge of any affiliation of his with Scientology, but we do know what we can read on the printed page. We believe that Casey has contributed greatly to an understanding of free-markets, especially in the 20th century when he emerged courageously as a prominent spokesperson at a time when there were very others.

But let us reverse the issue. What is the agenda of those who are bringing up a Scientology link? Casey doesn't mention it. His arguments are the same as they have always been - lucid, elegant and inspiring.

In fact, it seems to us a despicable canard - and an obscene red-herring - to read an honest interview freely given and then drag someone's alleged religion into it. It is like questioning one's veracity simply because he or she is Jewish or Roman Catholic.

Please respond to what is on the page, not to some malicious or false gossip about someone's supposed religious affiliation with a church that is alleged by some to do bad things - with many accusations coming from Western governments such as France, Germany or the United States.
I've submitted the following response comment to The Daily Bell:
Since I am here accused of "some malicious or false gossip about someone's supposed religious affiliation with a church that is alleged by some to do bad things" and of "a despicable canard - and an obscene red-herring" and asked "What is the agenda of those who are bringing up a Scientology link?" I would like to respond.

My criticism of Casey is not for being a Scientologist, but for injecting Scientology doctrine and claims from L. Ron Hubbard into his writing without being explicit or open about it.  This criticism is neither malicious nor false, but is backed up with specific citations.  Further, the Church of Scientology is not merely "alleged by some to do bad things," it has been caught doing so, which has been repeatedly and thoroughly documented (e.g., its breaking into numerous government offices and engaging in wiretapping, its attempt to frame author Paulette Cooper for a bomb threat which led to her arrest, its illegal covert operations against the mayor of Clearwater, FL, its attempt to cover up its responsibility in the death of Lisa McPherson, its formal policy of harassment using the legal system, and on and on).  Many of the documents that expose Scientology's involvement in such activities were seized in FBI raids in the mid-1970s or have been leaked by ex-members and are available on the Internet at locations such as,, and
This week will offer an opportunity for many to hear Doug Casey speak at the FreedomFest in Las Vegas, July 7-11 at Bally's/Paris.  If you have some familiarity with Scientology and the writings of L. Ron Hubbard, listen carefully, and let me know if you hear anything of interest.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Bowlarama 2010

I have about 5 weeks to reach my fund-raising goal for this year's Bowlarama.
Please visit my donation page and make a donation, big or small. All money goes to the care and feeding of cats and dogs rescued from the euthanasia list at the county pound. Phoenix area people know that area shelters are taking in record numbers of animals so far this year. RESCUE helps reduce euthanasia rates at the county pound.
All three of our dogs were given a second change by RESCUE. I've attached pictures of a few others that are currently in RESCUE's care, waiting for their forever homes.
Did you know that the number one killer of healthy dogs in this country is "euthanasia?" RESCUE is the last voice for dogs and cats awaiting this terrible fate at Animal Control and the Humane Society. RESCUE is a "no kill" organization and animals stay with RESCUE for as long as it takes to find them a home that meets their needs. RESCUE has only one paid staff member and over 275 volunteers. Our veterinary, boarding and food expenses run about $9-12,000 a month.
RESCUE has saved and placed over 9,400+ dogs and cats, and for every animal we adopt, we are back to save another.

Discredited doctor comes to Phoenix

British former surgeon Andrew Wakefield, whose discredited and abusive research was responsible for the resurgence of measles outbreaks in the UK and the U.S., is not just coming to Phoenix this Saturday, he is being celebrated by the Autism Society of Greater Phoenix at the Ritz Carlton Hotel.  Wakefield's 1998 paper in The Lancet reported symptoms of inflammatory bowel disease in twelve children with autism, and speculated that the cause was the MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) vaccine.  What it didn't report was that Wakefield had a financial interest in his own alternative vaccine, that he had been paid by attorneys who were trying to prove that MMR vaccines were harmful, that his test subjects were recruited by those attorneys from among their plaintiffs, or that Wakefield engaged in unnecessary colonoscopies, colon biopsies, and spinal taps on children in his study.  Ten of Wakefield's 12 co-authors published a retraction of his interpretation of the paper, and the original paper was withdrawn by the journal this year.  Wakefield's name has been struck from the register of British medical doctors as a result of his unethical behavior.

The publication of his paper was responsible for a significant drop in UK vaccination rates due to fear of a link to autism, which was accompanied by a rise in measles outbreaks (but no drop in autism diagnosis rates).

It is a pity that the Autism Society of Greater Phoenix is promoting an unethical, discredited quack.

Saturday, June 05, 2010

Abe Heward's new blog on software testing

Veteran software tester Abe Heward has started up a blog on software testing, which I'm sure will also include many items of epistemological, economic, and skeptical interest.  He's already got posts on how the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy is relevant to software testing, why good testers aren't robots (and the flaws in one company's attempt to treat them as if they were), and on opportunity cost and testing automation.

Check it out at

Monday, May 31, 2010

The market for creationism

Todd Wood of the Center for Origins Research at Bryan College has gotten around to doing what I haven't done, updating my analysis of the market for creationism that I did in early 2007.  He confirms some of the trends I noted, such as that the market for creationism has been growing and is dominated by Answers in Genesis.  His update goes further, and includes a comparison to the National Center for Science Education, noting that he market for criticism of creationism has grown along with the market for creationism.  He also points out that the groups involved got a boost revenue in 2005 during the Dover trial, that the AiG split from Creation Ministries International doesn't appear to have hurt AiG, and that "Godquest," formerly known as Creation Science Evangelism, the Hovind organization, is the #3 creationist organization for revenue behind AiG and the Institute for Creation Research.

Wood reports the following numbers for recent years:
$14.6 million market
AIG: 61.6%
ICR: 30.6%
*CEM: 4.2%
*CRS: 1.7%
*CM: 1.6%
*CSC: 0.4%

$15.8 million market
AIG: 65.7%
ICR: 26.8%
CEM: 3.1%
CRS: 2.0%
CM: 1.9%
CSC: 0.4%

2005: **
$10.8 million market
AIG: 50.4%
ICR: 40.3%
CEM: 5.1%
CRS: 1.0%
CM: 2.5%
CSC: 0.6%

$21.3 million market
AIG: 64.1%
ICR: 30.9%
CEM: 2.2%
CRS: 1.1%
CM: 1.3%
CSC: 0.3%

$25.6 million market
AIG: 69.5%
ICR: 27.6%
CEM: no data
CRS: 1.2%
CM: 1.1%
CSC: 0.3%
CMI: 0.3%

$33.3 million market
AIG: 68.2%
ICR: 26.2%
CEM: no data
Godquest: 2.8%
CRS: 0.7%
CM: 1.0%
CSC: 0.2%
CMI: 0.9%
Check out Todd Wood's post for more details.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Martin Gardner, RIP

The prominent skeptic Martin Gardner, mathematician, philosopher, magician, and writer, died today at the age of 95 (b. October 21, 1914, d. May 22, 2010).  He was one of the founders of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (now Committee for Skeptical Inquiry), and had been part of the earlier Resources for the Scientific Evaluation of the Paranormal along with CSICOP founding members Ray Hyman, James Randi, and Marcello Truzzi.  Long before that, he wrote one of the classic texts debunking pseudoscience, Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science (the Dover 2nd edition was published in 1957).  For many years (1956-1981) he was the author of the Scientific American column, "Mathematical Games" (taken over by Douglas Hofstadter and retitled "Metamagical Themas"), and he wrote a regular "Notes of a Psi-Watcher" column for the Skeptical Inquirer right up to the present.  His 70+ books included a semi-autobiographical novel, The Flight of Peter Fromm, a book explaining his philosophical positions including why he wasn't an atheist, The Whys of a Philosophical Scrivener, and an annotated version of Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland works, The Annotated Alice.

He had been scheduled to appear by video link at the upcoming The Amazing Meeting 8 in Las Vegas, where a number of other skeptical old timers will be appearing on discussion panels.  His death is a great loss.

I never met Gardner, but was first introduced to his work reading his "Mathematical Games" column in the late 70's, and then his Fads and Fallacies and Skeptical Inquirer columns.  Gardner, Isaac Asimov, Carl Sagan, and James Randi were the first major figures I identified as skeptical role models.  One of the great honors of my life was receiving the Martin Gardner Award for Best Skeptical Critic from the Skeptics Society in 1996.

A Martin Gardner documentary that is part of "The Nature of Things" may be found online, and Scientific American has republished online its December 1995 profile of Gardner.  Here's a transcript of a February 1979 telephone interview between Martin Gardner and five mathematicians (thanks to Anthony Barcellos for transcribing it and bringing it to my attention in the comments below).

Various tributes:
UPDATE (June 11, 2011): An interesting chapter on Martin Gardner from George Hansen's book, The Trickster and the Paranormal, is available online as a PDF.

Thursday, May 06, 2010

Origin of the term "woo"

Earlier today on Twitter, Adam Bourque (@A_Damn_Bourque) asked if anyone knew the origin of the term "woo" as applied to the paranormal.  I know I've heard the term used for at least a decade (or two or three?), but after seeing that neither the Skeptics Dictionary entry on "woo woo" nor threads at the JREF Forums had an etymology, I decided to take a look at Google Books.

"Woo" wasn't a good search due to the homonym, and "woo woo" led to lots of matches in stories of children imitating fire engine sirens, but adding "astrology" and "occult" as additional terms led to some useful matches.

On my first pass, the oldest reference I found was in Nicholas Evans' novel The Loop (1999), p. 244:
And anyway, being a woman in the macho world of wolf research was hard enough without everyone thinking you'd gone woo-woo, the term her mother used to scorn everything from astrology to vitamin pills.  And in truth, although Helen didn't doubt there were more things in heaven and earth than could be seen with the aid of a microscope, on the woo-woo scale she was definitely at the skeptical end.
 Hey, it's even a book with a skeptical character!

Next, by adding "astrology," I found a slightly earlier nonfiction reference, Kate Bornstein's My Gender Workbook (1998), p. 121:
Don't get me wrong, I believe in a lot of woo-woo stuff.  I'm a double Pisces with a Taurus Moon.  I was born in 1948, the Year of the Rat.  I use several I-Ching software programs on my computer, and I've been reading tarot cards for nearly thirty years.
Not a skeptic, in that case.

Then, by adding "occult," another earlier nonfiction reference by sociologists of religion, James R. Lewis and J. Gordon Melton, in Perspectives on the New Age (1992), p. 3:
I also found that the characterization of New Age psychism as being "woo-woo" and "airy-fairy" was true of only some of the more public New Age channels.
But then, pay dirt--a source going back to May 1844 that looks like a likely candidate for the origin of the term, in The North British Review, vol. 1, no. 11, p. 340, in a review of (or excerpt from?) Report by the Commissioners for the British Fisheries of their Proceedings of 1842, "Our Scottish fishermen" (pp. 326-365):
When beating up in stormy weather along a lee-shore, it was customary for one of the men to take his place on the weather gunwale, and there continue waving his hand in a direction opposite to the sweep of the sea, using the while a low moaning chant, Woo, woo, woo, in the belief that the threatening surges might be induced to roll past without breaking over.  We may recognize in both these singular practices the first beginnings of mythologic belief--of that religion indigenous to the mind, which can address itself in its state of fuller development to every power of nature as to a perceptive being, capable of being propitiated by submissive deference and solicitation, and able, as it inclined, either to aid or injure.
Though this isn't enough to be certain, this looks like a very likely origin of the term.

Thanks to Adam for prompting this search.

UPDATE: Josh Rosenau at Thoughts from Kansas points out a 1986 St. Petersburg Times story:
Are cookbook publishers that desperate? … This season they present us with two "new and unique" horoscopic cookbooks - A Taste of Astrology by Lucy Ash and Cosmic Cuisine by Tom Jaine - adding another dimension to star-inspired cookbooks.
Both authors are British (of undisclosed signs) but they are, most uncannily, on much the same woo-woo wavelength. They do not suggest casing out a potential romantic partner according to sign language.
In the comments below, I point out two older cases of "woo woo" I've found in ghost stories as a sound:

Groff Conklin's 1962 The Supernatural Reader, p. 101 has these two sentences, but the page context isn't available from Google Books: "Someone else giggled, and from the darkness beside the building came a high-pitched, 'Woo-woo!' I walked up to Sam and grinned at him."

Cecil John Richards, Wind Over Fowlmere and Other Stories, 1953, p. 116: "...going 'woo-woo woo-woo-woo' in its deep gruff voice just over my head. ... And then Hargreaves led us once again into the realm of the supernatural."

UPDATE (May 7, 2010): Anton Mates found and posted this news item from 1984 at Josh Rosenau's blog and in the comments below:

Philadelphia Inquirer, The (PA) - Sunday, October 21, 1984
So who is this New Age audience? Mostly upscale folks in their 30s and early 40s, the ones weaned on Baba Ram Dass and Woodstock and hallucinogenics, macrobiotic diets and transcendental meditation.
George Winston, who practices yoga and who currently has three albums on the jazz charts (his five Windham Hill recordings have reportedly sold more than 800,000 copies; his LP December has just been certified gold), has jokingly called this crowd the "woo-woos." In a 1983 interview in New Age Journal, Winston, asked if he knew who comprised his audience, answered that there were some classical fans, some jazz, some pop and "all the woo-woos." 
"You know," he added, "there's real New Age stuff that has substance, and then there's the woo-woo . A friend of mine once said, 'George, you really love these woo-woos, don't you?' and I said 'Yes, I do love them,' and I do. I mean, I'm half woo-woo myself."

Chinese astronomy and scientific anti-realism

On the last day of my class on Scientific Revolutions and the law, one of the students in the class, Lijing Jiang, gave a presentation titled "To Consider the Heavens: The Incorporation of Jesuit Astronomy in the Seventeenth Century Chinese Court."

Her presentation was about how Jesuit missionaries in China brought western astronomy with them, and how it was received.  This added a very interesting complement to the course, as much of the early part of the semester was about the Copernican revolution (using Kuhn's book of the same name).  Part of what happened early on in astronomy was a division between cosmology and positional astronomy, with the former being about the actual nature of the heavens, and the latter being about creating mathematical models for prediction, to be used for navigation and calendar-setting that incorporated features not intended to represent reality (like epicycles).  These two types of astronomy didn't really get reconnected (aside from the occasional realist depiction of epicycles in crystalline spheres) until Galileo argued for a realist interpretation of the Copernican model.  And that didn't fully catch on until Newton.

In China, calendar reform was very important as they used a combination of a lunar month (based on phases of the moon) and tropical year that had to be synchronized annually, and an unpredicted eclipse was considered to be a bad omen.  The Chinese had gone through many calendar reforms as a result of these requirements, and they considered that theories needed to be revised about every 300 years (in other realms as well, not just astronomy).

The Jesuits happened to bring Copernican astronomy to China in the late 16th/early 17th century, with a goal of impressing and converting the Emperor.  They got their big chance to make a splash in 1610, when the Chinese court astronomers mispredicted a solar eclipse by one day, which the Jesuits predicted correctly in advance.  But this turned out in a way to be poorly timed, as the Counter-Reformation decided to start cracking down on Copernican heliocentrism after 1610, making it a formal doctrinal issue in 1616.  The Jesuits in China thus switched to the Tychonic system which was geometrically equivalent to the Copernican model but geocentric.

Multiple factors persuaded the Chinese to maintain a relativistic, anti-realist understanding of positional astronomy beyond the Scientific Revolution.  In addition to Taoist and Buddhist views of life involving constant change and their past experience with calendars suggesting revisions every 300 years, the Jesuits presented another example of apparent arbitrariness in cosmological model selection, and they continued to stick with the Tychonic model as the western world switched to heliocentrism.

You can read Lijing Jiang's blogging at Science in a Mirror, where she may post something about her presentation in the future.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Social psychology done wrong

The work of ASU emeritus professor of psychology Robert Cialdini, author of the classic book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, has shown that if a sign or card suggesting that somebody do something also indicates that most other people are likely to do that, it increases compliance with the request.  The wording of this sign, put up in ASU bathrooms all over campus by the Health and Counseling Student Action Committee, may well have the opposite of its intended effect.  Somebody should have read their Cialdini before making these signs!

Sunday, May 02, 2010

Politics and science in risk assessment

There’s a widespread recognition that public policy should be informed by both scientifically verifiable factual information and by social values.  It’s commonly assumed that science should provide the facts for policy-makers, and the policy-makers should then use those facts and social and political values of the citizens they represent to make policy.  This division between fact and value is institutionalized in processes such as a division between risk assessment performed by scientists concerned solely with the facts and subsequent risk management that also involves values, performed in the sphere of politics.  This neat division, however, doesn’t actually work that well in practice.

“Taking European Knowledge Society Seriously,” a 2007 “Report by the Expert Group on Science and Governance to the Science, Economy and Society Directorate, Directorate-General for Research” of the European Commission, spends much of its third chapter criticizing this division and the idea that risk assessment can be performed in a value-free way.  Some of the Report’s objections are similar to those made by Heather Douglas in her book Science, Policy, and the Value-Free Ideal, and her analysis of a topography of values is complementary to the Report.  The selection of what counts as input into the risk assessment process, for example, is a value-laden decision that is analogous to Douglas’ discussion of problem selection.  Health and safety concerns are commonly paramount, but other potential risks--to environment, to economy, to social institutions--may be minimized, dismissed, or ignored.  Selection of methods of measurement also can implicitly involve values, as also is observed by Douglas.  The Report notes, “health can be measured alternatively as frequency or mode of death or injury, disease morbidity, or quality of life,” and questions arise as to how to aggregate and weight different populations, compare humans to nonhumans, and future generations to present generations.

In practice, scientists tend to recognize questions of these sorts, as well as that they are value-laden.  This can lead to the process being bogged down by scientists wanting policy-makers to answer value questions before they perform their risk assessment, while policy-makers insist that they just want the scientific facts of the matter before making any value-based decisions.  Because science is a powerful justification for policy, it’s in the interest of the policy-maker to push as much as possible to the science side of the equation.  We see this occur in Congress, which tends to pass broad-brush statutes which “do something” about a problem but push all the details to regulatory agencies, so that Congress can take credit for action but blame the regulatory agencies if it doesn’t work as expected.  We see it in judicial decisions, where the courts tend to be extremely deferential to science.  And we see it within regulatory agencies themselves, as when EPA Administrator Carol Browner went from saying first that “The question is not one of science, the question is one of judgment” (Dec. 1996, upon initially proposing ozone standards) to “I think it is not a question of judgment, I think it is a question of science” (March 1997, about those same standards).  The former position is subject to challenge in ways that the latter is not.

In reality, any thorough system of risk management needs to be iterative and involve both scientific judgments about facts and political decisions that take into account values, taking care not to use values in a way to achieve predetermined conclusions, but to recognize what sets of interests and concerns are of significance.  This doesn’t preclude the standardization of methods of quantification and assessment, it just means that they need to be able to evolve in response to feedback, as well as to begin from a state where values are explicitly used in identifying what facts need to be assessed.

[A slightly different version of the above was written as a comment for my Human and Social Dimensions of Science and Technology core seminar. Thanks to Tim K. for his comments.]

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Science fiction scenarios and public engagement with science

Science fiction has been a popular genre at least since Jules Verne’s 19th century work, and arguably longer still. But can it have practical value as well as be a form of escapist entertainment? Clark Miller and Ira Bennett of ASU suggest that it has potential for use in improving the capacity of the general public “to imagine and reason critically about technological futures” and for being integrated into technology assessment processes (“Thinking longer term about technology: is there value in science fiction-inspired approaches to constructing futures?" Science and Public Policy 35(8), October 2008, pp. 597-606).

Miller and Bennett argue that science fiction can provide a way to stimulate people to wake from “technological somnambulism” (Langdon Winner’s term for taking for granted or being oblivious to sociotechnical changes), in order to recognize such changes, realize that there may be alternative possibilities and that particular changes need not be determined, and to engage with deliberative processes and institutions that choose directions of change. Where most political planning is short-term and based on projections that simply extend current trends incrementally into the future, science fiction provides scenarios which exhibit “non-linearity” by involving multiple, major, and complex changes from current reality. While these scenarios “likely provide...little technical accuracy” about how technology and society will actually interact, they may still provide ideas about alternative possibilities, and in particular to provide “clear visions of desirable--and not so desirable--futures.”

The article begins with a quote from Christine Peterson of the Foresight Institute recommending that “hard science fiction” be used to aid in “long-term” (20+ year) prediction scenarios; she advises, “Don’t think of it as literature,” and focus on the technologies rather than the people. Miller and Bennett, however, argue otherwise--that not only is science fiction useful for thinking about longer-term consequences, but that the parts about the people--how technologies actually fit into society--are just as, if not more important than the ideas about the technologies themselves.

It ends with some examples of use of science fiction in workshops for nanotechnology researchers which have been conducted by Bennett and suggested uses in science education and in “society’s practices and institutions for public engagement and technology assessment.” About the former suggested use, the authors write that “The National Science Foundation, which has by and large not been in the business of supporting science fiction, might be encouraged to fund training and/or networking exercises that would foster greater interaction among scientists and fiction writers.”

While some steps have been taken to promote interaction between scientists and fiction writers--most notably the National Academy of Sciences’ Science and Entertainment Exchange project headed by executive director Jennifer Ouellette who spoke at last year’s The Amazing Meeting 7--this interaction is mostly one-way. The project is conceived of as a way for science to be accurately communicated to the general public through entertainment, rather than facilitating the generation of ideas for technological innovation and scientific development from the general public or the entertainment stories that are created. The SEE promotes the idea of collaboration between scientists and entertainment producers on the creative works of entertainment, but not necessarily directing creative feedback into science or building new capacities in science and technology, except indirectly by providing the general public with inspiration about science. Similarly, the Skeptrack and Science Track at the annual Dragon*Con science fiction convention in Atlanta provide ways for scientists and skeptics to interact with science fiction fans (and creators of science fiction works), but the communication is primarily in one direction via speakers and panels, with an opportunity for Q&A. (Unlike the notion of a SkeptiCamp, where all participants are potentially on an equal basis, with everyone given the opportunity to be a presenter.)

[P.S. The Long Now Foundation is an organization that makes the Foresight Institute’s time horizon look short--their time frame is the next 10,000 years, with a focus on how to make extremely long-term projects work and how to create an institutional framework that can persist for extremely long periods of time. (The obligatory science fiction references are Walter M. Miller, Jr.’s A Canticle for Leibowitz and Neal Stephenson’s Anathem.)]

[A slightly different version of the above was written for my Human and Social Dimensions of Science and Technology core seminar. Thanks to Judd A. for his  comments--he raised the concern that SkeptiCamp is connected to a rationalist form of skepticism that is concerned to "narrow the range of 'acceptable' beliefs" rather than widen it.  While this may be true, depending on what the class of "acceptable" beliefs is prior to applying a skeptical filter, it need not be--applying scientific methodology and critical thinking can also open up possibilities for individuals.  And if the initial set of beliefs includes all possibilities, converting that set to knowledge must necessarily involve narrowing rather than expanding the range, as there are many more ways to go wrong than to go right.  But this criticism points out something that I've observed in my comparison of skepticism to Forteanism--skepticism is more concerned about avoiding Type I errors than Type II errors, while Forteans are more concerned about avoiding Type II errors than Type I errors, and these are complementary positions that both need representation in society.]

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Haven't we already been nonmodern?

Being modern, argues Bruno Latour in We Have Never Been Modern (1993, Harvard Univ. Press), involves drawing a sharp distinction between “nature” and “culture,” through a process of “purification” that separates everything into one or the other of these categories. It also involves breaking with the past: “Modernization consists in continually exiting from an obscure age that mingled the needs of society with scientific truth, in order to enter into a new age that will finally distinguish clearly what belongs to atemporal nature and what comes from humans, what depends on things and what belongs to signs” (p. 71).

But hold on a moment--who actually advocates that kind of a sharp division between nature and culture, without acknowledging that human beings and their cultures are themselves a part of the natural order of things? As the 1991 Love and Rockets song, “No New Tale to Tell,” said: “You cannot go against nature / because when you do / go against nature / it’s part of nature, too.” Trying to divide the contents of the universe into a sharp dichotomy often yields a fuzzy edge, if not outright paradox. While Latour is right to object to such a sharp distinction (or separation) and to argue for a recognition that much of the world consists of “hybrids” that include natural and cultural aspects (true of both material objects and ideas), I’m not convinced that he’s correctly diagnosed a genuine malady when he writes that “Moderns ... refuse to conceptualize quasi-objects as such. In their eyes, hybrids present the horror that must be avoided at all costs by a ceaseless, even maniacal purification” (p. 112).

Latour writes that anthropologists do not study modern cultures in the manner that they study premodern cultures. For premoderns, an ethnographer will generate “a single narrative that weaves together the way people regard the heavens and their ancestors, the way they build houses and the way they grow yams or manioc or rice, the way they construct their government and their cosmology,” but that this is not done for modern societies because “our fabric is no longer seamless” (p. 7). True, but the real problem for such ethnography is not that we don’t have such a unified picture of the world (and we don’t) but that we have massive complexity and specialization--a complexity which Latour implicitly recognizes (pp. 100-101) but doesn’t draw out as a reason.

The argument that Latour makes in the book builds upon this initial division of nature and culture by the process of “purification” with a second division between “works of purification” and “works of translation,” “translation” being a four-step process of his advocated framework of actor-network theory that he actually doesn’t discuss much in this book. He proposes that the “modern constitution” contains “works of translation”--networks of hybrid quasi-objects--as a hidden and unrecognized layer that needs to be made explicit in order to be “nonmodern” (p. 138) or “amodern” (p. 90) and avoid the paradoxes of modernity (or other problems of anti-modernity, pre-modernity, and post-modernity).

His attempt to draw the big picture is interesting and often frustrating, as when he makes unargued-for claims that appear to be false, e.g., “as concepts, ‘local’ and ‘global’ work well for surfaces and geometry, but very badly for networks and topology’” (p. 119); “the West may believe that universal gravitation is universal even in the absence of any instrument, any calculation, any decoding, any laboratory ... but these are respectable beliefs that comparative anthropology is no longer obliged to share” (p. 120; also p. 24); speaking of “time” being reversible where he apparently means “change” or perhaps “progress” (p. 73); his putting “universality” and “rationality” on a list of values of moderns to be rejected (p. 135). I’m not sure how it makes sense to deny the possibility of universal generalizations while putting forth a proposed framework for the understanding of everything.

My favorite parts of the book were his recounting of Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer’s Leviathan and the Air Pump (pp. 15-29) and his critique of that project, and his summary of objections to postmodernism (p. 90). Latour is correct, I think, in his critique that those who try to explain the results of science solely in terms of social factors are making a mistake that privileges “social” over “natural” in the same way that attempting to explain them without any regard to social factors privileges “natural” over “social.” He writes to the postmodernists (p. 90):

“Are you not fed up at finding yourselves forever locked into language alone, or imprisoned in social representations alone, as so many social scientists would like you to be? We want to gain access to things themselves, not only their phenomena. The real is not remote; rather, it is accessible in all the objects mobilized throughout the world. Doesn’t external reality abound right here among us?”

In a commentary on this post, Gretchen G. observed that we do regularly engage in the process of "purification" about our concepts and attitudes towards propositions in order to make day-to-day decisions--and I think she's right.  We do regard things as scientific or not scientific, plausible or not plausible, true or false, even while we recognize that there may be fuzzy edges and indeterminate cases.  And we tend not to like the fuzzy cases, and to want to put them into one category or the other.  In some cases, this may be merely an epistemological problem of our human (and Humean) predicament where there is a fact of the matter; in others, our very categories may themselves be fuzzy and not fit reality ("carve nature at its joints").

[A slightly different version of the above was written for my Human and Social Dimensions of Science and Technology core seminar. Thanks to Gretchen G. for her comments.  An entertaining critique of Latour's earlier book Science in Action is Olga Amsterdamska's "Surely You're Joking, Monsieur Latour!", Science, Technology, and Human Values vol. 15, no. 4 (1990): 495-504.]