Thursday, November 15, 2012

Republicans fight reality with rhetoric once again

The Republican Joint Economic Committee recently released an article entitled: Historical Tax Rates: Rhetoric vs. Reality. This article was an attempt to attack a recent Congressional Research Service (CRS) report which found that changing the top marginal tax rate had little effect on the economy. The problem is, that despite this article's title alleging combating rhetoric with reality, the Republican article is full of its own rhetoric and its own misleading statistics. But to be nice I will start with the one thing that they correctly stated:
While the effective marginal income tax rate is more relevant than the top statutory income tax rate, neither rate fully reflects the overall burden of taxation on the economy. A comprehensive measure would include every kind of tax (income, sales, property, estate, etc.) collected at every level of government (federal, state, and local). Without a more complete measure, it is impossible to accurately determine how much or how little taxes affect the economy. (emphasis added)
You would think that after pointing out that it is impossible to accurately determine how taxes affect the economy without comprehensive analysis that Republicans would stop their parties mantra that increasing tax rates will negatively impact the economy. You would also think that they would then advocate doing more research to determine the effects of higher taxes on the economy. But rather than waiting for that sort of analysis they put on their hypocrite pants and state:
Given the much greater share of income now subject to the top [tax] rate, any future [tax] rate increase will have a much greater effect on the economy.
It doesn't get much worse than this when an article waits only 4 paragraphs to completely contradict itself. I wonder whether the authors merely forgot that they wrote it was impossible to accurately determine how much or little taxes effect the economy without more data or whether they are just so trapped in their own ideological world that they forgot reality also applies to them.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Lets Redefine Marriage

American progress has been characterized by redefining our notions of equality. When we founded this nation equality was limited to white males and freedom was limited by the color of your skin. As we have grown as a nation we have redefined these words and we are better for it. Slowly, we changed our understanding of freedom to include all races not just people of European descent. If we had not changed our definition of freedom to include all people we would still have slaves today.

We also changed our definitions of equality. No longer do we treat only white men as equal. We have expanded our definition of equality to include all races, women, and men. If we had not women would still be forbidden from voting and segregation would still plague our society.

Social progress is itself defined as changing the definitions of our most sacred institutions to create a more equal and loving society. This is one of the greatest things about our Nation. Despite our history of discrimination and hate, we have grown as a nation to become more accepting of outsiders and different points of view. Over and over we have redefined words such as equality and freedom to become more inclusive of the differences between us.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Vanderbilt all-comers rule

I recently saw a video that pulled the classic dishonest straw man trick.  The video discusses a policy at Vanderbilt university called an "all-comers" policy. This policy is a non-discrimination policy and applies equally to all university student groups (but not fraternities and sororities).  The policy has sparked a debate by christian student groups who dishonestly claim that the policy prevents them from choosing their members based on religious belief.  But, before we get into the debate lets look at the policy itself.

Friday, June 29, 2012

Where can you get Universal Health Care?

Its been a while since I posted anything but a recent CNN health article titled "Where in the world can you get universal health care?" gave me the need to post again.  This CNN article talks about some of the countries that have universal health care but by using the simple rhetorical trick of omitting facts the article makes it appear that universal health care is not widely used in the first world when in fact it is the most common health care system in the first world.  The health care debate in the U.S. is at a peak right now after the recent supreme court ruling upholding the new health care bill.  Thus, this CNN article discussing the countries where universal health care exists is timely.  However, the article is also highly misleading due to its rather absurd omissions.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Un-Labelling GMOs

figure 1.
Modern banana (top)
Wild banana (bottom)
In case you are new to the debate, GMO standards for Genetically Modified Organisms (sometimes called GEGenetically Engineered) and refers to plants and animals whose DNA have been modified by Humans.  The term GMO is itself a bit of a misnomer; not because it is inaccurate but instead because it is misleading.  In reality every living thing has been genetically modified by evolution which is constantly modifying the DNA of animals through the process of natural selection.  Additionally, nearly all food we eat today has been genetically modified through the process of artificial selection—we have been selectively breeding plants for thousands of years and most of us would not recognize the natural versions of many of the foods we eat today (such as the banana that has been drastically changed by selective breeding).  Thus, the term GMO when applied only to foods modified by humans is a misnomer because it suggests that only synthetically modified foods are genetically modified when in fact all foods have been genetically modified either through natural or artificial selection.  So to use the term GMO correctly we should say that every living thing is a GMO.  However, to avoid confusion I will use GMO in the modern sense of the word that refers only to those living things that have had their DNA modified directly by humans.

Now that we have the definition of GMOs out of the way lets move to the current debate.  Despite the fact that current research is showing that GMOs are safe to eat and are a promising avenue for achieving more environmentally friendly farming techniques there are many groups against GMOs.  One thing these groups are fighting for is to force foods containing GMOs to be labeled so that consumers can choose not to buy them.  Many countries already have such regulations and some countries have even forbidden the selling of GMOs.  In the U.S. this battle is just now starting in places like California where enough signatures were gathered to put up a measure on the ballot this November.  But remember, all food we eat is genetically modified.  Thus it appears a bit absurd to force sellers to label these foods as GMOs unless there is a health difference.

Is there then a reason that we should force GMOs to be labeled?  This question raises up three primary issues: 1. is there any evidence that GMOs are dangerous and thus should be labeled for safety reasons; 2. do consumer's have a right to force labeling merely because they want it; and 3. does consumer choice create a right to know what is in food?

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Is there really a Bengal tiger in Puyallup?

Breaking News: Bengal tiger spotted in Puyallup!  If you live in Washington you've probably heard this  exaggerated headline.  The problem is that no one actually even claims to have seen a tiger.  But yet we see headlines like these: Tiger on the loose in Washington StateTiger on the prowl between Tacoma, Puyallup; or  Tiger sighting reported in Pierce County.

As usual this appears to be a case of exaggerated news reporting.  It is of course possible that people did see a tiger, but from the facts being reported so far it sounds a little far fetched.  In fact there were only two reports of sightings and it appears that neither sightings claimed that it was a tiger just that they saw a "fairly large" cat.

One witness even stated: "it was a blond animal with black stripes, that's all I said."  Animal control then took this description and said it "sounded like" a tiger.  But if we look further at the description given by the witness we have some clues to what this really might have been.

The witness stated that he saw a large cat walking away from him in the tall grass that was blond with black stripes.  In Washington we do not have native Bengal Tigers, but we do have native cougars that are known to range widely.  Tiger's are orange in coloration whereas cougars tend to be tan, or blondish.  Imagine what a cougar would look like walking through tall grass on a sunny day... it would be a blondish big cat with black stripes from the shadows cast by the grass.  So what is more likely, that the man saw a non-native Bengal Tiger or that he saw a native cougar walking through tall grass dappled with shadows?  Remember that this man did not even claim to have seen a tiger, he claimed to have seen a large cat.  It was only animal control who added the tiger label.  I of course am making my judgments based off of minimal information only having seen a brief interview of the man.  Thus, perhaps there was more information that lead animal control to believe it could be a Bengal Tiger.

But from the man's statement: "that's all I said" it appears he may even have been surprised by the Tiger claim.  Additionally, we have to wonder who hasn't at least seen pictures or video of a tiger if not seen one at a local zoo.  Thus, I would assume the man who saw the cat knows what a tiger looks like and if he didn't think it was a tiger on his own I find it hardly plausible that animal control could identify it as a tiger based on his description.

This sounds like a case of exaggeration and misidentification.  It is of course possible that there is a Bengal Tiger on the loose, but judging from the statements being released by the news outlets it sounds much more likely that a cougar was simply wandering through the neighborhood.  Apparently sensationalism dictates that news outlets should should state, as fact, the most implausible explanation for an event and then make sure that the implausible explanation becomes the bold lettered title of the story.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

What is "nothing"?

The definition of a fundamental word is often the most important part of a philosophical debate.  This is especially the case in the debate over how “something” arose from “nothing.”  The word nothing is the tricky word here because it is hard to imagine what "nothingness" would actually be or what we actually mean when we say the word nothing.  This difficulty can be seen in a recent criticism of a book by Lawrence Krauss.

Lawrence Krauss recently wrote a book explaining how modern cosmology and quantum mechanics can answer the question of how our universe could have arisen from empty space.  However, this book is not without criticism.  David Albert submitted one such criticism as a book review in the New York Times.  The problem is Albert failed to fully think through his argument.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

CAM trying to break into Oregon

Complimentary and Alternative Medicine (CAM) is a belief system based on faulty reasoning and poor logic. Take for example this article discussing integrating CAM into the Oregon healthcare system.  As usual the article is full of non-sequiturs arguments that sound compelling but do not really support the overall claim. The reason CAM promoters use non-sequiturs is that an actual discussion of whether CAM treatments worked would lead any reasonable person to choose to not use CAM.

Remember the first question we should ask prior to using a treatment is: does it work? Then if it does work we should implement it. The problem is that most of CAM has not been proven to work and for much of it to work it would need to contradict some of our most trusted scientific ideas.

Jamie Sewell, the author of an article discussing Oregon's new Coordinated Care organizations (CCOs) (part of Oregon's Health care system) wants to see CAM used in these new CCOs. Her reasons are all flawed. First she cites the flawed idea that CAM treats the whole patient where modern medicine does not. This is simply a misunderstanding of modern medicine. Modern medicine treats underlying cause of disease when possible and when not it treats the symptoms. CAM often claims to provide treatments for things that modern medicine currently cannot treat.  But when closely scrutinized these CAM treatments are almost universally shown to not work. In reality CAM preys upon those who desperately want treatment when none exists by offering them false hope. Sewell points out that Oregon's CCOs are designed to reduce costs. Providing useless CAM treatments won't make patients any better and will just increase costs. Hardly the outcome intended by the CCOs.

Sewell also points out that CAM often costs less and often results in better patient satisfaction. Well, even if true those points are not relevant. If a cheap treatment doesn't work then every penny paid for it was a waste. A patient who is "satisfied" by a fraudulent CAM cancer cure is no healthier than a person who took no cure at all. Even worse, they may have delayed getting real medical treatment and thus decreased their chances of surviving.

Science has weighed in on CAM and shown most of it to not work. Thus, CAM has retreated to using rhetoric rather than evidence to support its position.  Those promoting CAM need to stop and take a deep look at their arguments. If all your arguments are based on misleading rhetoric it might be time to change your opinion.

The birth control mandate has nothing to do with religion

A common news topic in this election year is the controversy surrounding the birth control mandate in Obama's health care bill. The religious, especially Catholics, claim that the mandate to provide health insurance that covers birth control free of charge violates their religious rights because it goes against their beliefs. Well, they are wrong it does not violate their religious rights.

The bill does not tell Catholics that they must change their beliefs. It does not require them to use the contraception that would be provided free of charge. It does not even require them to personally provide such contraception. It merely says they must have a health insurance plan that provides birth control for those who wish to have it. The Catholics thus are mostly complaining that their funds might be used to cover something they don't believe in but that their employees want.

Well, we have plenty of history of forcing people to do things they don't believe in. We forced racist employers to stop discriminating when hiring. We all need to pay taxes which support wars and public programs many do not believe in. Part of being in a society is realizing that we will not all agree on every program that is ran by our government. That is not to say that we should not fight those programs that we believe are wrong. But claiming that a law discriminates against you because it violates your beliefs shouldn't be taken seriously. The proper argument is to try to show that your beliefs should be accepted by society as a whole.

The Catholic church faces a problem. Society as a whole is largely beginning to disagree with them on the issue of contraception. They cannot win the battle against contraception so they have fallen back and are desperately clinging to a sinking ship and trying to plug the round hole with the square peg of a religious discrimination claim.

Think about what the Catholics are trying to deny. If they have employees who want birth control they want to reduce access to birth control for those employees. They are thus attacking the right of those who believe in birth control to use birth control.  If Catholics wish to claim that their religion is being discriminated against they must also admit that they wish to discriminate against their employees who believe in and wish to use birth control.

But discrimination is really not the issue here. This is simply an issue of social policy debate: is universal access to birth control and other contraceptives a good thing and should we mandate it? That is the true debate. The issue of religious discrimination is merely a sideshow attempt to draw attention away from the real issue because that battle is one the Catholics likely cannot win.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Am I agnostic or atheist? Well I'm both and yes that does make sense...

In a recent debate Richard Dawkins (who has become a common subject on this blog) stated that he was not 100% sure that a god does not exist to the extreme surprise of the moderator. This is a position he has often stated and anyone who has read his books will know this is Dawkins' position. However, most people assume that an "atheist" completely denies the possibility of any god's existence. This is a general misunderstanding of the position of most skeptical atheists.  By skeptical atheist I mean one who comes to atheism due to scientific skepticism.

I call myself a skeptical atheist by which I mean I do not believe in god because I have never found any evidence presented to prove his existence to be convincing even in the slightest. However, at the same time I call myself an agnostic because I cannot know for sure whether or not a god exists. This is not a contradiction or a paradox though, on its face, it may seem to be one. To explain lets start with the definition of each:

  • Atheist: a person who does not believe in god.

  • Agnostic: a person who does not know whether god exists

Note the difference. Atheism is a statement of belief while agnosticism is a statement of knowledge.  There is a somewhat nuanced difference between these two terms. The difference lies in the degree of certainty we apply to each. We generally say believe when we are less than certain about the truth of an issue because we lack the evidence to really be sure we are correct. Knowledge on the other hand generally refers to ideas that are supported by so much evidence that we feel absolutely sure they are true.

Take Santa Cause for example. I do not believe in Santa Clause and most adults would say that they do not believe in Santa clause. On the other hand most children do believe in Santa Clause. But can we say that we know Santa is not real? Some people might say yes because Santa is obviously a fictional human invention. I would disagree.  Despite the fact that the modern version of Santa as a Jolly old white bearded man living at the north pole was an invention of fiction this does not mean he does not exist...

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The ghost owl...

A few nights ago I awoke from a deep sleep, groggily looked around my room, and found a pair of menacing dark orange eyes staring at me from outside my window.  After a few moments it faded away. My initial thought was that I must be imagining it but when I cleared my eyes and looked again the eyes had returned, yet again they only lasted a second before they disappeared. After a few more repetitions of the disappearing and reappearing eyes occurring at regular intervals I decided it must be caused by a reflection in the window from a light in my room. So I jumped up and looked around. Immediately when I stood up the eyes disappeared yet no lights were pointed at the window so I sat, pondering for a second.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Outlandish Rhetoric of the week: Lord Carey

All week long I have been reading ridiculously dishonest, misleading, or just plain incorrect articles (such as this one) by people promoting or representing religion.  My frustration at reading these poorly thought out articles in major publications has left me wondering which ones are worse, more dishonest, misleading, and wrong. So I decided to make an award for the most outlandish rhetoric of the week to award the person who makes the most dishonest, misleading, or simply incorrect argument of the week. I know it is Monday and thus the beginning of the week but I have to start sometime so I'll start today.

Today's choice was a tough one. On the one hand there was a Daily Telegraph article trying to smear Richard Dawkins with the absurd connection that he had a single extremely distant ancestor who owned slaves.  I almost picked this one, but as absurd and dishonest as that was I have to give the award to Former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Carey for his recent comment on the movement in the UK to legalize same sex marriage.  He says:
I was baffled because this Government’s proposal [to legal same sex marriage] constitutes one of the greatest political power grabs in history.
‘The state does not own marriage... The honourable estate of matrimony precedes both the state and the church, and neither of these institutions have the right to redefine it in such a fundamental way.
This trumps the misleading Dawkins slavery smear merely because of the absolute absurdity of Carey's misleading statement. At least the Dawkins smear was based in truth even if it was completely irrelevant and dishonest.

Hutton and Dawkins separated by equivocation

A recent article at the Observer covers a short debate between Will Hutton and Richard Dawkins.  The two spar back and forth (among other things) over the issue of whether secularism requires atheism. However, reading their arguments I see that they really just differ on their definition of secularism. If either had taken the time to define the word they wouldn't have had the argument.  So before I provide you with quotes from each let me show you the definition of secularism being used by each.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Why do the religious think they deserve special treatment?

There's been a lot of demands recently by the religious (most recently the Catholics) for special treatment.  For some reason they do not feel the need to obey the laws of our society and think that because they have religious beliefs that they should not have to obey the law. This is utterly ridiculous. Religious belief does not and should not excuse unlawful behavior.

These ridiculous claims for special treatment have arisen today in both the UK and the US. In the UK Catholics complain that rules requiring providing of adoption services for gay couples should not apply to them. In the US Catholics complain that rules requiring provision of birth control under employer insurance plans should not apply to them. This absurd plea for special treatment should not be respected but should instead be ridiculed for the absurdity it is.

We generally do not allow special treatment based on beliefs.  A person who does not believe in taxes still has to pay their taxes (religious institutions in the US noticeably do not pay taxes but this is not due to a lack in belief in taxes but due to a belief in separation of church and state). A person who believes in free access to art is still liable for copyright violations when they illegally download movies.

Even religious belief does not grant special privileges.  Those whose religion requires the use of drugs for religious ceremonies do not get to use drugs. Those whose religion allows polygamy do not get to engage in polygamy. Those whose religion requires the stoning to death of disobedient children are still liable for murder. These things are self-evident, the mere fact that one's beliefs run counter to a law does not grant a special right to break that law because the law applies equally to all.

Laws requiring provision of birth control or provision of adoption services may seem different than laws prohibiting behavior such as polygamy. Rather than prohibiting behavior these laws require a person to behave in a certain way. But if you think about it we generally do not allow personal beliefs to be used to avoid such laws. Racists restaurant owners are not allowed to discriminate against customers and thus avoid anti-discrimination laws merely because they hold racist beliefs. We find it acceptable that society can force these owners to serve people of all races no matter if it contradicts their personal beliefs.

Imagine if we give in to the Catholics and say that a person does not have to obey the law if it runs counter to their beliefs.  First, if we allow the religious to escape the law because of the belief we must allow all to escape the law due to belief. It is unconstitutional to make a law that favors the religious. Thus, an exemption based on religious belief would be unconstitutional. The only constitutional way to allow an exception would be to allow everyone who disbelieves in a law to be exempt. When it comes to laws that require behavior this would castrate the law, no one would follow it but the people who already perform the behavior, and again racists restaurant owners would be allowed to discriminate.

This is the absurd result that the Catholics are arguing for.  Even more absurd is the claim that these laws are religious discrimination. I addressed this issue here. These laws clearly do not discriminate against the religious because they apply equally to all citizens. Discrimination requires singling out a group for special treatment. Thus, the irony is, the Catholics are actually asking for religious discrimination against all other belief systems when they demand to be exempt from the law.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

A single quote does not make a conspiracy

Back in 2009 we were presented with the Climategate scandal which, at first, appeared to be a scandal involving climate change scientists but in fact turned out to be a news media scandal of poor and perhaps even dishonest reporting.  Hacked emails were released to the public and out of 3,000 documents and emails spanning 14 years the news media latched on to two or three sentences that when read out of context sounded damning.  Today the Heartland Institute (famous for fighting against global warming science) has now had some of its own documents released which are being used to imply a scandal.

The original Climategate scandal turned out to be nothing but an embarrassment for the media.  They should have been clued in by the fact that the day to day emails being sent back and forth showed no controversy and that they could only find a controversy by cherry picking a minuscule fraction of what was written. Additionally, the news media failed to take the time to do proper journalistic research and determine what the quotes meant before releasing them. Instead they promoted the idea that there was a controversy.

Thus, when the investigations into the scandal were said and done it turned out that the there was nothing controversial going at all and we learned that climategate was, as the New York Times called it, merely a manufactured controversy.  The reason this controversy existed was because people jumped on the bandwagon too quickly and assumed what single quotes meant rather than taking the time to learn what was being said.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

How Buffett Rule critics try to dodge the 30% tax rate by referencing the marginal rate

One of Obama's proposed tax policies for 2013 is the implementation of the Buffet Rule.  This rule is fairly simple, it sets a minimum tax rate for those who make more than $1 Million at 30%.  The reason we need this rule is to plug up loopholes in the tax code that tax dividends and capital gains at 15%. These loopholes allow people who have massive amounts of assets to essentially pay a 15% tax rate on all of their income because these people can structure their income as capital gains and dividends rather than ordinary income.

The current tax system vastly favors investors over average workers by taxing pure investors at lower rates.  The Buffett rule tries to plug this loophole for those making more than a $1 million by requiring them to pay at least 30% of their income in taxes.

The tax foundation has an article in its Tax policy Blog with the inflammatory title: "Buffet Rule would Cause Marginal Tax Rate of 90%."  Before you become mislead by that title remember that the buffet rule actually sets a tax rate of 30%.  The use of the number 90% in the title is totally misleading because the actual tax rate is 30%.  So where do they get this misleading 90% tax rate?  Well for simplicity's sake let me dive in with a simpler example than they use that shows just how absurd their argument is.

Friday, February 10, 2012

How to debate alternative medicine

I am an outspoken skeptic and when I hear someone mention alternative medicine I have never been afraid to express my doubts about whether a particular alternative treatment actually works.  As a skeptic I generally disbelieve in most alternative medicine because most of it is at the least unsupported if not outright contradicted by evidence and research. Thus I try to show others this lack of evidence to help them avoid risks to their health and the potential waste of money and time.

However, no matter how much evidence I used to support my claims I could not change peoples minds.  I could describe cognitive biases, the placebo effect, and the importance of non-anecdotal evidence all day but even if I could manage to draw out agreement on a few points people always jumped back to "it worked for me."  I debated like this for a long time and my success rates were near 0%.  Even some people who I thought I had convinced I later heard going back to their original beliefs.

So what was the problem?  Why doesn't presenting evidence change peoples minds? Well lets go back to peoples final answer: "it worked for me."  People "knew" alternative treatments work because it worked for them.  Thus in their minds I am clearly wrong; their experience "proves" it works and no matter what point I might make there must be something wrong because they know it works.

Even worse I am attacking them personally.  They just told me that the know it works because of personal experience.  My response in their ears is "you are delusional."  Even though I might be clearly saying we all have problems with bias and perception, the fact is, I am attacking their specific belief and they will take it as an accusation of being delusional.

So who is going to listen to you when you accuse them of being delusion then refuse to listen to what they know is "obviously true?"  The answer to this rhetorical question is, of course, nobody; nobody will listen to you when what they hear is an attack on their credibility and beliefs.

The reason I write this post is to explain how I have tried to get around this problem with mixed success.  There is no sure technique that will convince everyone and some people are beyond convincing.  So without further ado lets get into this...

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Equivocating theories

The first step I now take when I sit down to debate a subject with someone is to define the terms we will be using.  I cannot count the times in my younger years when I debated with a friend for hours only to finally discover that we actually agreed on everything and our only debate was really over how we should define some word.  I'd like to pass this long learned lesson on to Madison Murphy who recently wrote an article entitled "Evolution: theory not fact."  Murphy here argues with scientists but does not understand what they mean when they say "theory" and thus she ends up using theory in a different sense than they do.  Murphy is equivocating here, she is shifting between different definitions of the word theory.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

What is Religious Discrimination?

House speaker John Boehner apparently doesn't understand religious discrimination.  Religious discrimination occurs when someone discriminates against another person based on their religious beliefs.  Thus, if I choose not to hire someone because they are religious I am discriminating against them.  Likewise if the Federal government makes a law forbidding Jewish people from marrying then the government is discriminating.

It is not religious discrimination when the government makes laws to protect the population.  If the government says it is illegal to use drugs this forbids everyone, religious or non-religious, from using drugs.  It may have the incidental effect of preventing religious practices that involve the use of drugs but this does not mean the law is discriminating against the religious.  Any law may have an effect on the ability to practice a religion; such prohibitions are not discrimination because they apply equally to all people.

Thus, when the Federal Government requires all health plans to provide contraceptives they are not discriminating against any religion because all health plans must provide contraceptive whether or not they are run by religious individuals.  The mere fact that this law may offend Christians does not make it discriminatory.  We live in a democracy where we will not all agree on every law passed and any law may offend some.  The proper way to contest laws is to use our democracy to change the law.   However, House speaker Boehner recently complained about this new requirement saying: "This attack  by the federal government on religious freedom in our country must not stand and will not stand . . . "

The requirement to provide contraceptives does not attack religious freedoms.  The religious are still free to believe what they wish.  Religious freedom in the United States has never meant that the religious are allowed to behave in any manner required by their religion.  The Bible in Deuteronomy 21:18-21 commands parents to have their disobedient children stoned to death by town members.  Would it be religious discrimination to charge a christian parent with murder after stoning his child to death?  Obviously not, because though our society respects religious belief and the freedom of ideas we feel the right to step in and prevent behavior that we deem immoral or improper.

It appears that Boehner is really just trying to use inflammatory language to prove his point.  By invoking the discrimination gambit Boehner attempts to tap into the powerful outrage that Americans feel when confronted with discrimination.  This outrage is a crafty trick to convince people to oppose the law out of rage rather than carefully analyzing the law for what it really attempts to do.

Since Boehner likes to use inflamatory arguments let me close with one of my own.  Boehner has attacked the right of the government to make laws that protect us but also might have an effect on religious practices. Boehner is implicitly arguing that Christians like himself should not stand for State murder laws blocking their religious right to slaughter their disobedient children.  So vote for Boehner, he'll fight for your right to kill your kids.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Open debate and closed minds

I recently read an article in the Telegraph that uses logic so backwards that I had to reread it two times to ensure that I wasn't mistaken.  Even after the third read I'm not sure whether the article is sincere because the article is a textbook example of Poe's Law (that it is impossible to differentiate between religious extremism and an exaggerated parody of religious extremism).  The article discusses a recent decision of the University College of London's student union to require any presentation on the issue of abortion by student groups to invite both pro and anti-choice speakers.  Thus a pro-choice rally must invite anti-choice speakers and vice versa.

Christine Odone, the author of the Telegraph article argues that requiring every presentation to have speakers from each side will "shut down all intellectual questioning . . . ."  Odone and I must have very different ideas on what intellectual questioning is.  Whether abortion is morally acceptable is a matter of moral belief that is debatable and is a contentious issue today.  This is not an issue of fact where the evidence all stands on one side (such as the debate of whether the earth is flat or round).  It is an issue that is debatable with no clear answer.

Forcing individuals to be exposed to a differing viewpoint and step outside an insulated world of like minded individuals is a powerful tool for increasing intellectual questioning.  It is thus absurd to argue that requiring debate will stop intellectual questioning.  Odone seems to think having an open mind means being able to completely ignore the arguments of the other side.  The only way her arguments make sense is if she believes the pro-abortion stance is so much stronger and well reasoned that debate will result in conversion of all anti-choice to pro-choice thus ending intellectual questioning on the issue.

However, there is an actual issue residing in this resolution of the UCL student union.  The issue is whether forcing both sides to be presented on a contentious issue is actually an acceptable method of debate.  After all this is the same "teach the debate" technique that creationists in the US are trying to use to push creationism alongside evolution.  However, there is a big difference between evolution controversy and abortion controversy.  Evolution is an issue of fact (whether or not the evidence supports evolution) and the facts all lay on one side.  Teaching the actual evolution debate would require demonstrating to children why evolution makes so much more sense (in light of the facts) than creationism.

Abortion on the other hand is a subjective moral belief and thus there can be legitimate debate on either side of the issue.  Exposing people to the other side of an issue is a good technique for creating intellectual questioning.  However, I feel that there is something improper about limiting a resolution such as this to just abortion issues.  Thus, I can (slightly) understand why Odone feels that universities are "anti-christian" with resolutions such as this that are targeted primarily at countering religious anti-abortion beliefs.

If the student union wishes to ensure that students are exposed to both sides of an issue why haven't they created a resolution that requires all debates on moral issues to include a speaker from both sides?  As it stands, the choice of the student union to specifically target abortion and not all moral debate demonstrates a biased stance on the issue.  If the student union really wants to encourage critical thinking and debate on issues then they should require such debate on all moral issues.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Alternative medicine and the lesser of two evils

A recent article at the conversation (an Australian news website) titled Alternative medicine can be scientific say besieged academics discusses the integration of Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM) into mainstream university health programs in Australia.  The article takes a present both sides of the issue stance and thus quote from those who want alternative medicine out of universities and those arguing for its inclusion.

Those trying to stop the integration of CAM into universities point out that allowing integration "give[s] such ideologies undeserved credibility."  And that such undeserved credibility could lead to greater problems:
"The great danger . . . [is] that people who have chronic health problems or who have been persuaded that doctors do not have the answers are delaying the 'proper investigation and treatment' of their illness by instead seeking help from therapists offering alternative medicine."
On the other side the article quotes a Dr. Wardle,("a NHMRC Research Fellow at the University of Queensland’s School of Population Health and co-director of the Network of Researchers in Public Health and Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NORPHCAM), an international group promoting clinical research in CAM").

Dr. Wardle's primary argument for integrating CAM into universities is that CAM practitioners who are university trained won't be quite as dangerous as the "fringe element" who lack university training.  Wardle himself admits that there is "a lot of crap" practiced in CAM.  However, Wardle ignores the underlying complaint of his opponents that Universities promoting CAM may cause the public to rely on these "crap" treatments because, as he argues, at least the treatments won't be quite as crappy.

Friday, January 27, 2012

More Anti-Global Warming dishonesty

Apparently science is now a democracy because we keep hearing about scientists signing up and saying they disagree with global warming.  Take for example this new piece in the wall street journal entitled No need to panic about global warming bragging about being signed by 16 scientists.  Apparently the author of this opinion piece believes that facts can be voted on.

But science is not a democracy.  We cannot simply vote on what we want to be true, instead we must have evidence to find out what is true.  If we could vote on truth I would say its high time we held a vote on whether or not cancer exists.  Unfortunately, the fact that science is about evidence rather than getting names to support you is something that politicians and the general public don't seem to understand.

The very fact that those opposing global warming are resorting to polling names of those who oppose global warming as opposed to citing studies should clue us in to the fact that they are wrong.  If the evidence showed that the earth isn't warming then the warming denialists could cite to that evidence rather than just trying to find names to support them.  As it stands the only way for the global warming denialists to argue is to use rhetorical tricks to cover up the fact that all the evidence stands against them...

Unreason and lack of understanding by Be Scofield

 Yesterday Be Scofield wrote an article attacking atheists for four points: 1) that atheists claim religion is harmful, 2) that atheist attempt to convert the religious, 3) that atheism is cultural imperialism, and 4) that conversion attempts are racist.  Rather than trying to make a reasoned analyses he simply uses a number of rhetorical tricks to avoid the complexity of the issue.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

The loyal but dishonest opposition

After watching Tuesday nights State of the Union by President Obama and the opposition response by Mitch Daniels I couldn't help but use Daniels' speech as a basis of my next post (read the response here or watch it here).  Obama as usual gave a speech with solid logical points (though with a good amount of rhetoric).  On the other hand, Daniels gave a speech that obscured the problems and confused the issues.

Although, I find many factual as well as logical issues with Daniels' speech I want to focus on one particularly egregious argument Daniels makes.   Daniels attacks Obama's attempt to protect the people of the United States from predatory financial techniques through his new consumer bureau.  But his attack ignores the reality and uses a sneaky technique to try and gain support for his position against new regulations.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Skeptical Sexism

In this post I want to join the debate regarding sexism in the skeptical (and nerd) communities.  This has been an ongoing debate within these communities and for good reason.  There really is a problem with sexism and the debate keeps getting made worse by poor arguments and misreadings of other people's arguments (here's looking at you Dawkins).  I think these problems could be largely eliminated if people would try to remove emotion from their responses (which puts people on the defensive) and if the framing of the issues took on a more neutral stance.

What I want to do in this post is address the problems I have, as a male, with the presentation of arguments against sexism.  While I may agree with most arguments put forward on the side fighting sexism I often find myself initially turned away by the presentation.  I can understand why men are defensive to these arguments, because when I read them my first inclination is to feel attacked and go on the defensive.  You might argue that I am being sensitive and you are right.  But, I think its important to remember that if you are trying to convince a specific audience, then you should address your point to that audience...

If I am trying to show a believer in poltergeists that the coffee cup falling off the table is better explained by other phenomena and I start off saying those who believe in poltergeists are idiots, well then I probably won't make much progress.  But if I step back and frame the issue in a way that the believer understands (such as asking how do you know it was a ghost and not an alien, gnomes, or elves) then I am likely to make more progress.

I want to address a number of ways sexism is framed that I think are unproductive and could be better done, but because of the extent of each topic I will limit myself to one of the following topics per day

1.  Privilege: stop using the word privilege, you might be using the word correctly but it is likely to turn a lot of men away.
2.  Marketing:  Marketing targeted at men isn't sexist, its just marketing, but it may have sexist effects.
3.  Rude & Inappropriate Behavior: I totally agree, there is way too much rude & inappropriate behavior by men toward women, but just because it is rude or inappropriate doesn't mean its sexist.
4.  Gender Stereotypes Aren't Always Bad: I hate to say it, but even though you might think gender stereotypes are bad, doesn't mean everyone agrees or that they are.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Sometimes its ok to use stereotypes

I read a blogpost today regarding the idea of Schroedinger's Rapist.  This essentially says that a woman approaching a man in an unsafe place can't know if that man is dangerous and thus should treat him as dangerous.  For some reason men seem to think that this is sexist for women to assume that men are dangerous without knowing.  Perhaps this is sexist but regardless I would say its a smart practice and women should do it.

To convince any men who doubt me of this let me use a little reductio ad absurdum.  For those of you who don't know this argument let me explain.  Reductio ad absurdum is simply the process of taking an argument to its extreme sometimes absurd conclusions.  The point is to show that the other person doesn't agree with the extreme application and thus the rule itself must either be false or at least partially incorrect.

So, I want to show that most men would want women to assume men are dangerous whether or not its sexist.  Imagine your closest female relative.  Perhaps your daughter, perhaps your sister, perhaps your cousin, perhaps your mother.  Now imagine she just met a girl who seems nice and was invited back to that girls house.  She calls you and asks if she should go.  I would assume most men would say sure, that doesn't sound too bad.  But imagine that she actually just met a man, talked to him for a few minutes and he invited her back to his house.  Again she calls you.  Do you tell her to go or not go.  I would think any reasonable man would say not to go just to be safe regardless of whether it is sexist.

I think most men don't like the assumption that men are dangerous because they are offended that someone might just presume they are dangerous.  If I know I am a good person but someone just assumes I am dangerous that does seem to be a bit offensive.  Thus, I can understand this sentiment somewhat.  But if you turn the issue around to the much bigger concern of safety then I think most men would agree its a good idea for women to assume an unknown man might be dangerous.

Statistically speaking a woman is much more likely to be attacked by a man than another woman.  Only an idiot doesn't pay attention to statistics when it comes to safety.  If I find out that an airline has a 10% crash rate I won't fly that airline, I'll pick one with a lower crash rate.  Likewise, no woman should have to gamble with her health in order to avoid being sexist.

I don't know perhaps my argument is sexist, but you know what, its also sensible.

Ken Ham has a shady answer

PZ Myers over at Pharyngula has a pretty good take down of a ridiculous answer to the question: "how do we know other religion's aren't true" posted by Ken Ham a prominent member of the young-earth creationist movement.  However, this answer by Ken Ham was so insane and dishonest that I find it necessary to also address Ham's answer.

Now to start I want to point out that this answer is in the "Kids Answers" section on Ken Ham's webpage.  Thus  the answer is being addressed at those who might not have the necessary knowledge and tools to analyze the answer.  To me this makes Ham's answer that much more foul and insidious.  However, I have to say that I bet that a lot of kids could even see the glaring logical problem sitting in Ham's answer.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Wandering thoughts: Freedom

If you have paid attention to politics in the United States you have heard the word "freedom" shouted from all different sides.  Freedom has become a political slogan used to rally people to whatever cause a politician may promote.  From waging war on a foreign nation to shrinking the size of our government freedom always seems to be the laudable goal.

But what is freedom?  Absolute freedom is simply a synonym for anarchy, because without government and rules that is how we would live.  But anarchy is not really freedom either.  How much freedom exists in broken nations where government has failed leaving warring factions battling in the streets?  How much freedom exists in inner cities where the police cannot enforce our laws forbidding violence?  Are men and women truly free if they fear for their lives and safety when they walk down the street?  How free are we when our financial institutions lie unregulated and risky investing destroys our economy?  How free are we when a monopoly operates unchecked and prices skyrocket?  Freedom cannot arise out of liberation from all rules but instead requires subjecting ourselves to those rules that, while restricting some of our freedoms, give us greater freedoms in the end.  Thus, freedom from government is not enough because we need government to give us freedom from each other.

Freedom requires a delicate balance between restrictions and rights. We come together as a society to gain the benefits and protections of a cooperative communal group, and in this coming together we must give up some freedoms in order to gain the benefits of cooperation. With too many rights the people who do wrong can escape justice. With too many restrictions the innocent are oppressed. There is no easy solution, some things that seem overly oppressive may be necessary while some things that seem necessary may create benefits that are too small to justify the sacrificed liberty.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Meaning of Life

I was reacquainted with the age old question "what is the meaning of life" recently when reading a book called War of the Worldviews by Deepak Chopra and Leonard Mlodinow.  Throughout the book, Deepak brings up the issue of the meaning of life numerous times.  This question, often described as the "ultimate question," the "big question," etc...  is an oft debated question and considered to be vastly important.  However, as anyone who has addressed this question knows there has never been an agreed upon answer and in fact there have been many vastly different answers to this question.

After reading Deepak's book and a recent article by Deepak discussing the meaning of life I felt I had to break down this question.  However, in this post I won't answer what the meaning of life is but I'll explain exactly why it hasn't been answered.  And the answer to that question lies in an understanding of language and rhetoric.  So what is the answer...
Answer:  "What is the meaning of life" is a bad question that can't be answered because it is far too ambiguous to be meaningful.  In fact, under some interpretations the question itself may simply be a meaningless question such as "what shape is an idea?" 
In other words, remember when your teachers told you there was no such thing as a dumb question.  Well, in a sense they were right because you can learn something from trying to answer any question.  But in another sense they were wrong, some questions can't be answered because the words composing the question aren't meaningful when strung together.  "What is the meaning of life?" is one of these meaningless questions (if you'll pardon my pun).