Saturday, November 21, 2009


I got a comment on my last blog, and one of the topics that came up was that of conspiracy theories. The commenter expressed that he was a believer in alternative medicine, and used a conspiracy theory as reasoning. The idea was that "Big Pharma" (meaning pharmaceutical companies) somehow suppress studies that show alternative medicine works. This is incredibly weak logic, but somehow this argument pops up a lot when talking to alternative medicine believers. However, the conspiracy theory argument is worthless when debating anything. Why? Let's discuss, shall we?

First of all, the conspiracy theory is a Hail Mary pass. I'm not a football guy, but I've heard this analogy used before in regard to other things, and it works here. A Hail Mary pass is a move made in desperation; when it appears that you're going to lose the game and you have nothing left to lose, a Hail Mary pass has very little chance of succeeding, but you might as well try. When someone brings up a conspiracy theory in a debate, it's like saying "I have no evidence to back up my position, so I will now proceed to make some shit up and hope you buy it."

Which is not to say they're LYING, necessarily, I think most conspiracy theorists believe in what they're saying, it's just that they have no logical reason to believe it. Look, I get it. I understand people like to root for the underdog, and they like to feel like they have access to knowledge that other people don't, or are being kept from. I think it's a big reason why people believe in alternative medicine, they want to feel like they've figured out how to cheaply and naturally keep themselves healthy when everyone else is paying exorbitant prices to the evil pharmaceutical corporations that want to keep them sick and keep them buying medicine. The trouble is, it's all bullshit.

How do I know? Because if any conspiracy theory had any OUNCE of credibility to it, it would be MAJOR MAJOR news. Every single newspaper and media outlet across the globe would be talking about it. And whoever uncovered it would win the Pulitzer prize, the Nobel prize, book deals, etc. And I'm talking about not just the Big Pharma conspiracy, but about a number of bullshit theories. Take your pick: UFOs have been coming to Earth for decades, but the government keeps them under wraps; 9/11 was orchestrated by the Bush administration; John F. Kennedy was assassinated by the government... a lot of these have to do with the government now that I think about it.

So the FDA, or "Big Pharma" (how I hate that term), or whoever, suppresses data proving that alternative medicine works? Let's examine this for a minute. Science is not something that exists only in America, funded solely by the American government or American corporations. It's EVERYWHERE. Scientists all over the world, in every country, perform tests every single day. Whether they're under the employ of giant corporations, or universities, or the government, or even if they're just students or amateur scientists, every single scientist has one goal in mind: revolutionizing their field. It's how you get awards, it's how you get published, it's how you become remembered after you die. We remember Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein and Galileo Galilei because they revolutionized science, not because they maintained the status quo. There IS no status quo in science, and scientists all over the world are trying every day to overturn previously accepted scientific theories.

The fact is, if a SINGLE credible study was published, anywhere in the world, that supported alternative medicine, it would be MASSIVE worldwide news. It would appear in every scientific journal, every newspaper, it would be HUGE. And if alternative medicine worked, there would be these kinds of studies published EVERY DAY.

No government can suppress this stuff. No corporation can do it, no single organization or entity can suppress real science. It just can't be done, especially not in the modern world of the Internet and 24-hour news stations. The Catholic church tried for centuries to suppress science, but it still got out. That's how we know the Earth revolves around the sun. That's how we know Evolution is a fact. That's how we know the Earth is 4.5 billion years instead of 6,000. Real science cannot be suppressed for long.

So remember next time someone tells you a conspiracy theory: it's a Hail Mary pass. They got nothin'.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Opinion vs. Fact

A few months ago, I was at my mom's house when somehow the topic of discussion got on Jenny McCarthy and her anti-vaccination nonsense. If you've been living on Mars for the last few years, the story in a nutshell is that some doctor found a link between childhood vaccinations and autism, until it was discovered that he faked his data and there never was any link between the two. Numerous testing done since his initial study report no link between vaccinations and autism, yet despite this certain members of the media went nuts and started spreading the idea that the two were somehow causally linked, resulting in frightened parents refusing to vaccinate their children, which in turn resulted in the rise of mumps and measles and other completely preventable diseases, and even deaths.

One of the biggest opponents of vaccines in America these days is Playboy centerfold Jenny McCarthy, who maintains that her son developed autism as a result of vaccinations, but that she cured his autism by giving him a wheat and dairy-free diet.

As unbelievable as her story is, the more unbelievable thing is that a lot of people are buying it.

But that's not what I'm going to talk about here. I was at my mom's house and Jenny came up in conversation. I mentioned she was anti-vaccination, and my mom didn't know what I was talking about. I gave her the quick run-down, and she said something that blew my mind. She said "well, honey, everyone's entitled to their opinion."

I love my mom with all my heart, but I couldn't believe something like that could be said by an otherwise intelligent adult. I said something like "yeah, but not when they're wrong," and dropped the subject, but it's taken me a little pondering to figure out exactly why she's wrong. Surely everyone IS entitled to their opinion, right? And I'm pro-freedom; I'm totally in favor of everyone's right to believe every bit of insanity they want to believe in. So why CAN'T Jenny McCarthy believe what she wants?

Here's why. Because there's a difference between fact and opinion. Jenny McCarthy saying that her child came down with autism after getting a vaccination is not an opinion. It's a statement of fact; only it's not a true fact, it's provably wrong.

Opinions are one thing, facts are totally another. If I say I believe "Abbey Road" is the best Beatles album, that's my opinion and I'm entitled to it. Someone else can make a very good case for why they believe "Sgt. Pepper" is a more cohesive album, but it's not going to change my opinion about "Abbey Road" if that's the album I personally prefer.

But if I said that the world is 6,000 years old? That's a statement of fact, and it's demonstrably false. I'm entitled to believe the world is 6,000 years old, but everyone else is completely entitled to tell me that I'm wrong, and should do so.

Jenny McCarthy's son did not get autism from a vaccine. Alternative medicine does not work. Intelligent design is not a viable alternative to the theory of evolution. These are not opinions, they are statements of fact. Let's stop allowing people to spout bullshit and treat them like it's their opinion that they're entitled to.

Proselytizing for science

I'm trying to get into blogging a bit more, which is why I've been writing so many blogs recently. The reason why is that I've been considering starting a podcast, but without any experience doing it (other than being on Sidetracked a handful of times), it's a little intimidating to just start doing it. So I've decided to start blogging for a bit, try to organize my thoughts, and see if there's anyone out there that might be interested in listening to what I have to say.

Most of these blog entries will be about random thoughts that occur to me, and I spend a lot of time reading and thinking about science and skeptical topics. I'll probably do some blogging about comics and video games as well, and probably The Beatles, since these are things that I spend a lot of time thinking about as well, but I'm actively trying to get the word out about skepticism a bit more. I've decided to be a proselytizer for science.

That's a bit of a misnomer, really. Proselytizing involves trying to convert someone to a religion, and science is the furthest thing from a religion you can have. Religion is based on faith in what cannot be proven (but which can be disproven, oddly enough), but science is based on evidence, facts, and truth. Not believing in science is literally the same as not believing in reality. Which describes a lot of religions, actually. Spreading science and truth is NOT proselytizing, it's educating. It's like calling a math teacher a "proselytizer for algebra."

So what do I mean when I say I'm going to be proselytizing for science? Isn't proselytizing bad? Oddly enough, it's not. Despite the fact that I disagree with Christians on a fundamental level, I can't argue with the fact that they are trying to get the word out about their faith. If I believed in Jesus and truly believed that people who didn't believe in him were going to Hell, I'd be out there trying to convert nonbelievers too. But I don't believe in Jesus, or Allah, or Zeus, or any other supernatural being. I believe in science, and I believe that rejecting science is not only bad on a personal level, it's bad for humanity.

There are small but extremely vocal segments of the population that are actively anti-science, both on the left and the right side of the political spectrum. These people are fucking it up big time for everyone else, and need to be stopped. Fundamentalist Christians who want to include their religious dogma in science classes mascarading as "intelligent design" need to be stopped. Jenny McCarthy, spreading misinformation about vaccines and directly causing the rate of measles and mumps to rise (and causing children to die) because of her bullshit, needs to be stopped. Muslim men that force their wives and daughters by threat of violence to cover their faces and bodies in public need to be stopped. "Psychics" that take advantage of grieving survivors need to be stopped. Alternative medicine practitioners and chiropractics that peddle bullshit and snake oil on an unsuspecting public need to be stopped.

In the past I've rolled my eyes at these people and kept my mouth shut out of respect, but these kinds of people don't deserve respect. I have no respect for someone who tries to take advantage of people by telling them herbs will cure their cancer, or telling them they can talk to their dead loved ones, or telling them there's a god in the sky who will send them to Hell unless they give 10% of their paycheck to the church. These people are loud, they are forceful, and to the unskeptical observer, they are BELIEVABLE. Skeptics have to be just as loud and just as prominent. We HAVE to get the word out there, or the bullshit is just going to spread. The world will get more spiritual, more religious, and science (and humanity as a result) will suffer.

So I'm starting small. I'm going to start blogging and I'm not holding anything back. From now on I'm a warrior on the side of truth. Maybe if this works out I'll start a podcast. Maybe I'll move on from there to books and magazine articles. Maybe someday I'll be giving speeches at TAM or other skeptical conferences. Or... maybe none of that will happen and I'll get tired of this in a month. We'll see.

My iPod playlist as a metaphor for evolution

I've talked about my awesome iPod playlist in great detail before, so I won't bore you with the details again, but in a nutshell I have a playlist on my iPod that I listen to while driving and while working. It is a smart playlist, which means it updates itself, and when I listen to a number of songs from it and then sync my iPod again, iTunes removes those songs I've listened to and replaces them with new songs at the end of the list. All the songs are rated, so 5-star songs show up more often and 3-star songs show up infrequently. I posted about this on a board that both I and Kevin Sheath (writer of Lightshade and The Sundays) post on, and he pointed out that the playlist is based on "performance, feedback, revision" and is a metaphor for natural selection.

I had never thought of it that way before, but it works. Essentially, natural selection is the guiding force (or one of the major guiding forces) behind the theory of evolution. Every generation, random mutations in DNA cause tiny changes in offspring; it might be a slightly longer neck in a giraffe or slightly sharper eyes in an eagle. But if the mutation causes the organism to survive better in its environment (to get more food than others of its species or to live longer), it has a higher statistical probability of passing on its genes to the next generation; in other words, havin' sex and makin' babies. Over the course of many many generations (ie., millions of years for a mammal or perhaps several decades for bacteria and other single-celled organisms), individual species can undergo so many changes that they no longer closely resemble their distant ancestors, and become classified as a completely different species. This is evolution, which means "change over time."

When I started using my playlist about a year ago, most of the songs that showed up in it were completely random, because I didn't have a lot of songs rated. Over the course of months, songs that I loved (ie., 5-star songs) started having a higher chance of showing up in the playlist than those I didn't like very much (ie., 3-star songs). And songs I hated altogether, such as 1-star tracks, had zero chance of showing up in the playlist. The playlist got better and more enjoyable for me to listen to, because the ratio of songs I liked to songs I didn't like became higher and higher.

This is natural selection, or more accurately, artificial selection (selection of genes by human rather than nature, such as selective breeding in dogs or food crops). Genes (songs) that are better adapted to their environment (more likely to be pleasing to my ear), are more likely to procreate (show up again in my playlist on a frequent basis), and the structure of the species (my playlist) changes over time. The playlist is very different than it was a year ago, when songs I didn't like very much showed up often. Over time I rated these songs poorly or deleted them from my iTunes library outright, and the chance that they'd come back dropped dramatically. Songs I like started showing up more and more, and songs I love started showing up very frequently.

Science is all around us.

EDIT: Kevin informs me this idea is touched on briefly by rapper Baba Brinkman on his song "Unity of Common Descent," from his album "The Rap Guide to Evolution." You can listen to it streaming here.

What I'm Reading: God Is Not Great, John Lennon, etc.

When I was young I read constantly, but in recent years the amount of books I read has dropped off dramatically. However, recently I've started getting back into reading and I'm rediscovering why I enjoyed it so much back then. Nowadays, though, I'm starting to get into reading more non-fiction, as I would read mostly science fiction when I was younger. Here's what I've been reading recently.

God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything by Christopher Hitchens.
I bought this book on a whim because I had $10 in Borders points, and Cristina was interested in reading it. I'm about a third of the way through now, and it really is a fascinating book about the kind of damage that religion does to humanity, both on an intellectual level (keeping people from learning the truth about the way the world works) and on a physical level (torturing and killing nonbelievers, genital mutilation [and I'm counting circumcision in this], the Vatican opposing safe sex, etc.). However, the title of the book kind of turns me off and is a big reason why I haven't read it up to this point. Despite being an out-of-the-closet atheist for close to twenty years, I don't consider myself anti-religion and don't consider religion to be inherently bad. It's the nutjobs that give it a bad name for everybody else; the anti-intellectuals that try to keep evolution out of school classes, the bigots that try to exclude gays from participating in marriage, the fundamentalists that fly planes into buildings... the list goes on and on. But this is not most believers, and I would never advocate taking away anyone's right to believe whatever they want to believe, no matter how much I disagree with them or how wrong they are. I just feel that religion should not get a free pass. When a priest molests a boy, he should go to jail. When a rabbi removes an infant's foreskin with his teeth and gives him genital herpes in the process, he needs to go to jail. When a Christian Scientist denies medicine to her child because she believes that prayer is the only thing you need to get better, she needs to go to jail. Religious freedom does not apply when you're actively harming children in the process.

John Lennon: The Life by Philip Norman
I haven't gotten too far in this book yet... I was reading it before I got "God is Not Great" but I started reading GiNG one day because I didn't have the John Lennon book with me and I became so fascinated with GiNG that the John Lennon book got pushed aside. But John Lennon: The Life is a massive 800-page biography of the rock legend that covers his entire life, from birth to death. So far I've gotten up to his pre-adolescence, but I'm sure I'll enjoy the book immensely once I get into the Beatles era. I also heard that a Paul McCartney biography was just published, so I might pick that one up next. Just don't ask me to read a Ringo Starr biography.

Death From the Skies!: The Science Behind the End of the World by Philip Plait, PhD
Phil Plait (aka The Bad Astronomer) is one of my favorite science bloggers, who writes mainly about astronomy but in such a way that laypeople like myself can understand, and really comes across as being excited and inspired by the cosmos. I share a bit of that excitement about outer space, so I love reading his stuff. Last year he came out with a book called Death From the Skies, which is a book about all the nasty stuff out there in space that can kill us on Earth. Stuff like asteroids and meteors, black holes, solar flares, gamma ray bursts, and even the death of the sun and the end of the universe show up in the book, and Plait explains them clearly and effectively for laypeople to understand (although I'm still trying to wrap my head around black holes and quantum mechanics). He also talks about what it would be like for people on Earth to experience, say, an asteroid collision or a supernova, or what it would be like to fall into a black hole. Forget disaster porn like "2012," this book actually has real science in it.

The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution by Richard Dawkins
This is the best book on the subject of evolution I've ever read (although admittedly I haven't read many). It's mind-boggling that a century and a half after Charles Darwin published his theory of evolution, there are still people that don't believe it's true, or believe that it's "just a theory," despite 150 years of solid evidence that has proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that evolution happened, is happening, and will continue to happen until the end of life on Earth. The Greatest Show on Earth displays all the evidence for how we know evolution is a fact, and Dawkins writes for laypeople in this book. For instance, I never understood how carbon dating worked, but now I do thanks to this book. He goes into the fossil record, DNA analysis, continental drift, selective breeding, and all the other undeniable ways we have of knowing that evolution is a fact. Despite Dawkins' reputation as a militant atheist, this book is not about religion, and he only touches on the subject a handful of times. Richard Dawkins is first and foremost an evolutionary biologist, and this book is about evolution. If you don't understand the theory, or don't understand how we know it's real, or even don't believe in evolution at all, READ THIS BOOK.

Shutter Island by Dennis Lehane - SPOILER FREE
I was interested in reading this book ever since watching the trailer for the upcoming Martin Scorsese adaptation starring Leonardo DiCaprio. The story involves two FBI agents (DiCaprio and Mark Ruffalo) who come to an island housing a mental institution to investigate the disappearance of Rachel Solando, an inmate who apparently "evaporated right through the walls." We soon learn DiCaprio's character Teddy Daniels had ulterior motives for being there, as he's looking for the arsonist who set his apartment building on fire years earlier, killing Teddy's wife in the process. He has reason to believe the arsonist is being kept on the island, although the officials deny it. The first three-quarters of the book are fantastic, as I devoured the book over the course of a couple days. The mystery is set up in a way that I had to keep turning the pages to find out what was going on, but it unfortunately ends in an extremely cliched and predictable way. It's so predictable, in fact, that when I saw the trailer with my fiancee Cristina, she guessed the ending before the trailer was even over. I hoped while reading the book that this was not actually the ending, but alas.