Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Smoking causes cancer, GMO's are harmless. What is hard to understand about that.

We didn't always know that smoking was bad for you.  It used to be viewed as perfectly healthy.  Over the years, the scientific evidence from many studies accumulated, and the consensus came around to the view that smoking does indeed cause cancer.

The tobacco industry fought this view.  They conducted their own studies, which of course showed no link between smoking and cancer.

When you have studies that point in opposite directions like this, how do you know what to believe?  Do we simply reject the studies done by the tobacco industry because we know they have a stake in the game?


We look at the studies they did.  We try to replicate the results.  We treat them as we would any scientific study, and let them stand or fall on their merits, not on the basis of who is funding them.

Fortunately, when we do this, we find that the studies that show the link between smoking and cancer are stronger by far than the studies showing no link.  We update our beliefs on the basis of the evidence we have available.

Could GMO's be like smoking?  Could it be that we find out down the line that they are very very bad, but for now Monsanto and others are preventing us from seeing the truth?

Maybe, but it's very unlikely.

Why so unlikely?

There have been studies done that make claims that fall on both sides of the issue, and what we see is the exact opposite of what we saw in the case of smoking above.  The strongest studies show no evidence of harm caused by GMO's and the studies which show harm are weak and poorly designed.  This could change in the future, but as of now we have no indication that it will change, and the best evidence out there says we have nothing to worry about.

Great, but why is this important?

Recently, Green Peace activists trashed a field of a special genetically modified form of rice.  It was meant to be given to children in areas where vitamin C deficiency is a large cause of death.  The rice had been modified to supply vitamin C.  See where I'm going with this one.  Because certain groups are out to demonize a product that is most likely harmless, children in developing countries aren't getting the nutrients they need to survive.  The bottom line is that science denial causes real harm in the world.  Even assuming that GMOs are harmful, I would rather my kid live to see adulthood than die of malnutrition.

Here's a link to a meta-study regarding the safety of GMOs compared with traditional methods:

Here's a link to the infamous Seralini rat study claiming that GMOs cause tumors:

Saturday, September 7, 2013

An Analogy on the Project of Naturalism

I wrote this back in April in a discussion I was having.  I think it's a decent analogy for the human condition, but as always, an analogy shouldn't be overstretched.

I imagine that I am in a tiny submarine with no doors, drifting in a giant ocean. All that I know about the ocean comes to me through the various screens and microphones situated in my cockpit. I have no way of knowing whether those are giving me an accurate portrayal of the world, but it is all I have.
How could I go about gaining knowledge of the ocean? I can't just go outside and experience it directly. I can just give up, and just navigate using what works, not worrying about whether I am right. That doesn't seem like the best route though. I am curious about the ocean, and I think it worthwhile to understand it. Plus, I don't want to run into something unknown that will rupture my hull. I have both practical and theoretical reasons to try to understand, despite my limitations being stuck in the ship.
Everybody else is in a similar ship, though I can't know how their screens and microphones are working. I try to get knowledge from them in those areas of the ocean I have yet to explore.
It will be impossible for me to ever know if I am totally right as to the nature of the ocean, but that doesn't mean I can't try. There are plenty of times that I find out I am wrong, and these can serve as guide posts as we go along. The more wrong ideas I get rid of, the closer I am getting to the truth. Though it is certainly possible that there is really nothing outside of my sub, that seems a flat, uninteresting, and implausible explanation for the richness of what I experience through my portals.

It appears to me that something like this is the case.  We have no way of independently verifying our senses.  It could be argued that we are simply the submarine and not the pilot, but I don't think that subtlety is a big issue here.

The take away points for me here are the following:

  1. There is no answer key or users guide for life.  We all do the best we can with the faculties we have, and there are no guarantees.
  2. It is always possible we are vastly mistaken, even in our most deeply held beliefs.  
  3. Even with no guarantees or certainties, we should still try to do our best to develop good ways to eliminate false beliefs and maintain true beliefs. 
  4. We can't get outside of ourselves to see the world from an "objective" viewpoint.  It isn't even clear if such a viewpoint is even coherent.
Obviously, these are just starting points from the position of epistemology.  They say nothing of values, or how we should act if such a view is correct.  What I suggest is simply that these points be kept in mind when we reason about things that are beyond the mundane.  

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Meeting with Jehovah's Witnesses: Second visit

They came back!

After two weeks wondering if I had simply scared them off, I received a knock on the door this morning.  One of the JWs was back, but with her husband this time.  She was sick, which explains the absence of 2 weeks.

We talked about some of my beliefs, and some of their beliefs.  We touched on the bible a bit, but not too much.  They recognized that without first having a trust that the bible is the word of God it wouldn't do much good to just tell me what it says.  We talked a little about the problem of evil, about epistemology and skepticism, about science and philosophy.  The Watchtower they gave me last time had an article on Plato, which I had to bring up.  I think we will get into evolution at some point.  The JWs are old earth creationists, but one of the things we talked about is how the bible is scientifically accurate.  Something there doesn't quite compute, so we'll see what develops.

I told them that I didn't want to waste their time, but I would be happy to keep meeting with them as long as they wanted to do it.  I hope that they enjoy our interactions as much as I am so far.  It doesn't appear they have any illusions about converting me, but we'll see how that goes.  They gave me a book called "The Bible - God's Word Or Man's?"  I don't think I will learn much from it (I studied that stuff for years), but I will read it throughout the week.  It will give us some things to discuss when we talk next time.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

When "Anti-Christian" means "We aren't getting our way"

My writing here shouldn't be construed as saying that all Christians are anything like the ones who composed this list, It is simply a critique of the ridiculous presented below. 

I came across this today:

Top Ten Anti-Christian Acts of 2012

There is so much wrong with it I am having trouble finding a place to start.

Lets do a quote:  “The trends that our top ten list reveals are very disturbing. No one can deny the all-out attempt to restrict our Christian liberties and censor our Christian values,” said Dr. Gary Cass from DefendChristians.org. “There does not appear to be any sign that this struggle is waning, rather it seems to be intensifying. We will be here to fight for our Christian faith and values.”

I agree with him 100% that the trends on that list are disturbing.  If this list is in any way representative of "Christian faith and values" then the church is really in trouble.  

Firstly, notice that all but two of the items on the list have to do with the anti-gay positions taken by some Christians, and not Christianity itself (We'll get to those later).  Of the two remaining, NEITHER OF THEM HAVE ANYTHING TO DO WITH CHRISTIANITY!!!!

One of them is about an attack on some Obama-Care protesters.  I really like the built in assumptions in that one.  Obama-Care is part of the liberal agenda, the liberal agenda is anti-god.  Therefore the protesters must have been good Christians and the attacker was committing an anti-Christian act.  See here for more information, this article (which is from a very conservative / christian site, by the way) says nothing about the abortion mandate OR that the group was Christian (though I wouldn't doubt they were).  Though physical attacks are always a bad scene, there is just no evidence this one was religiously motivated.

The other one involves a teacher inviting a "Terrorist sympathizer" to give "pro- Islamic" lectures at a school.  Even if every word of this line item was true (which I seriously doubt) it STILL wouldn't constitute an anti-Christian act.  At worst it would be a terrible idea, and a pro- Islam act.  A pro- Islam act is NOT the same as an anti- Christian act, as if that really needed to be spelled out.  To be upset that children are being exposed to a religion other than yours is the height of hypocrisy, especially given some of the other items on this list.  If religious freedom means being able to share your views freely, this involves ALL religions, not just the dominant one.

As to the other eight, it just saddens me to think that restricting the human rights of same sex couples is so important as to almost entirely populate a list of "Anti-Christian" acts.  It reinforces the view that Fundamentalism is really about bigotry.  Many of these items don't have anything to do with Christianity either (see items 10, 9, 5, and 2) and it isn't even worth it to go through line by line.  Read the article if you want.

So the number one item is (drumroll please):
" 1. President Obama endorsed homosexual "marriage,” invoking Christ to try to justify his anti-Christ position. In his announcement, Obama said “...when [I] think about our faith, the thing at root that we think about is, not only Christ sacrificing himself on our behalf, but it’s also the Golden Rule, you know, treat others the way you would want to be treated.”

A Christian, who also happens to be the leader of our country, speaking publicly about Jesus to millions of people.


Don't even get me started on the biblical assumptions underlying that statement.  Jesus never said a single word about homosexuality, don't ya know.

Officially, we live in a secular nation, not a Christian one.  Christians are the dominant religion here though, and exist in a position of privilege.  I don't see that position slipping any time soon, and yet still you find articles like this one, lamenting that the church is losing its power to oppress the disenfranchised.  How backwards is that from what Jesus came to do?  You have a religion that started with a man who came to love the oppressed and unlovables, and continued through terrible persecutions.  In some countries you can still be put in jail for your religious beliefs.  In Texas, salvation through Christ is being taught... in public schools!  Yet all of that is forgotten because some people think that all people have inherent dignity, regardless of who they love.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Meeting with Jehovah's Witnesses: Motives and Aspirations

On Saturday, two Jehovah's witnesses came knocking at our door.  They were wanting to talk to me about Satan.  It has probably been about four years since the last time we have had any JWs over, and I am always interested in talking about important subjects.

I invited them in, but they didn't stay too long.  They asked me what I though about Satan, and I told them I thought it was a construct made up and often employed for the purpose of control.  They shared a verse with me about what Jesus said about Satan in the book of John and gave me some pamphlets.  When they asked if they could come back next week, I said "Sure, same time is fine." After they left, Gabe asked me why they were here.  I explained that they believe something different than I do, but they care about us and want us to believe the same things they do.  "What things?" he asked.  "Well, they believe there is a magic person who tries to make people do bad things."  I explained that we all are responsible for our own actions and that there is no magic person who makes us do thing against our will.

Most people wouldn't even think about inviting them back for more study, so it is probably worth it to explain why I would do such a thing, and why I would want to write about it.  First, I find it hard to pass up a chance to talk to people about what's important.  Secondly, I am interested in what they have to say.  I don't expect either party will change their mind, but I can at least listen, share my difficulties, and see what they have to say.  I want to make it clear though that I am not trying to mock or take advantage of them.  I will tell them up front they are unlikely to change my mind, but that I am open to hearing what they have to say.  I care deeply about truth, as I hope they do, and conversing with people who disagree with you is often a good way to move towards the truth.

As far as for writing, the main reason is that I think people might be interested.  The JWs are pretty ubiquitous, and others might want to know what a study is like.  I want to both chronicle my experience and to show the arguments that they use.   Hopefully it will be both entertaining and informative.

Expect a post every week or so, they are coming on Saturday mornings.  I suspect they will want to bring everything back to a bible study, and that the first conversation might involve the alleged Hebrew Bible prophecies of Jesus.  This is just a guess though, judging from what info I have been able to glean from their website.

I guess we'll see.  It's going to be an adventure.

Sunday, November 25, 2012


     One of the things that inspired me to start blogging again has been my experience lately with Massive Open Online Courses.  So far it has been a great experience, and it is really something I can get behind.  Though I don't think it will be the only thing happening in the future, I believe that this concept will play a huge role reshaping education for the information age.  My experience thus far has been with the startups Coursera and Udacity, and toward the end I will look more specifically at each of them.

     For you who don't know, MOOCs are a form of online education that aims for the same goals as an actual class, as opposed to just a tutorial or a surface level introduction to a subject such as is typical on the internet.  They come in a variety of flavors, but there are quite a few common links.  The classes are free, available to anybody who wants to sign up and take them.  Typically you will be in class with people from all over the world, including people who don't have access to higher education otherwise.

     Another thing is that they are very interactive.  You aren't just watching lecture videos.  There are questions along the way to test comprehension and make sure you are paying attention, as well as problem sets after each unit.  The discussion forums are always active, giving you the ability to get extra clarification or discussion on the topics covered.  There are final exams testing whether or not you learn the material, that you have to pass in order to get a class certificate.

     Speaking of certificates, most of the classes you take give you a certificate if you do well on the homework and final.  You don't get actual college credit, but you are able to track your progress, and demonstrate to others that you are learning these things.  Both will provide your transcript (and resume, if desired) to companies looking for skilled employees, so at least for now the certificates could potentially do something for you.

     At the moment all the MOOC's I have encountered skew heavily toward the tech fields.  There are some humanities courses, some math courses, etc. but for the most part they work best for computer science type fields.  This is great for me, but limiting overall.

     The other limiting factor I have encountered is more personal.  It is something that is a problem with all online classes, but seems worse for the MOOC's.  This of course is the motivation factor.  There is no class you need to show up for, and you aren't even paying for the class.  It is easy to not take it seriously, and I find myself having to consciously remind myself to take it seriously.  So far it has gone well for me, but I have witnessed quite a few dropouts already in my Crypto class.

     So as to some specifics,  the two differ in some significant ways.  Coursera teams up with top universities, getting people in the top of their field to offer content.  In addition, The classes are more traditional in that they go for a set time, with material released week by week and assignments with due dates.  They also have a much wider course offering at this point.
     Udacity, on the other hand, creates its content in house.  It is always available, and the classes are completely self - paced.  Their classes are basically all CS classes, with the exception of one physics class and one statistics class.  It feels slightly less class like, and you can re-take all the assignments until you get them right.  The big upsides are that you can start a class whenever you want, and learn at your own pace, both of which aren't possible with Coursera.

    They both have their strengths and weaknesses, and for what its worth I think they are both worth checking out.  I have completed one course through Udacity and am working on a second.  I am currently enrolled in one with Coursera, and am starting two more in January.  If you are interested in the tech fields and are a decent self learner, I can highly recommend checking them out.


Tuesday, November 20, 2012


I have re-opened my blog in a severly truncated form.  Sorry for any lost references or links.  For anybody still listening I should be writing again in the near future.