Tag Archive: science

June 12 2011

Determining our fates with cold, apathetic, wonderful math

Minnesota is currently debating how to redraw our state district borders, as we do every 10 years, with new census data to guide us. Creating fair, impartial boundaries seems impossible, because it’s always tempting for the party in power to gerrymander everything to give themselves more power. I’ve long been critical of the shape of our 6th district, home of state shame Michele Bachmann. It conveniently bends around liberally-leaning downtown areas and grabs many of the richer, fiscally-conservative parts of the state and merges them with rural, socially-conservative parts of the state.

But how the hell do you draw fair, unbiased district boundaries? On the one hand, people don’t want their communities split down the middle. On the other, it’s really easy to lump certain communities together to create districts that are easy for one party or the other to control.

Here’s one way that’s pretty interesting: math.

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July 27 2010

Essential books for atheists, skeptics, freethinkers, or whatever

This is something I’ve been meaning to put together for a while, but I was inspired to finally do it by the American Freethought podcast. They put out a list of essential books, with the results taken from numerous important atheists/skeptics/freethinkers/whatevers. Their list is good, but there’s a lot of stuff on there that I have no interest in, or I think is overrated. (On the Origin of Species is an important book historically, but there are far better books on evolution for you to read, with up-to-date science.)

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May 28 2010

Why psychic abilities probably aren’t possible

Usually when someone is arguing that psychics aren’t real, they talk about cold reading, self-delusion, and the willingness to believe. In other words, they explain how a psychic is doing what they’re doing.

I’m going to try a different take. I’m going to try to show that what psychics claim to be doing is impossible, by using evolution as our guide.

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April 24 2010

Abortion: where do you draw the line?

I’ll start this out by saying that I’m in favor of abortion rights. I’m pro-choice. I’ll spare you my reasoning, because you’ve probably heard it all before, and who the hell wants to hear it again?

But one question I’ve always wondered is: where do you draw the line? When is it too late to perform an abortion? When does an embryo become a human?

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April 18 2010

This is nature’s way of reminding us who’s the boss

If you haven’t heard already, there’s currently a volcano acting up in Iceland. It’s called Eyafallajökull, which is almost entirely unpronounceable by American tongues.

Apparently, (according to that unending font of human knowledge, Wikipedia) Eyafallajökull has erupted 3 times in all of recorded history. And each time, its eruption has been a mere precursor to the eruption of another nearby volcano, the much more active Katla. Eyafallajökull has already caused a lot of disruption, especially in European air travel, and I can just imagine what kind of chaos Katla might cause.

Eyafallajökull has also provided us with an incredible show over the past few days. It’s not just ash and lava, as if that weren’t cool enough already. As you can see at the link below, it’s also causing an incredible lightning display. This is the raw power of nature, on display for all to see.

These images come from another site, which is currently down due to excess traffic. I don’t know if the person who runs this site is associated with the other site, or if they just took the images and reposted them. Once I find out for sure, I’ll update this link accordingly.

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November 16 2009

Fun with Vaccination

UPDATE (Mar. 3, 2010): If anyone’s still hanging on the edge of their seat for this one, it’s been more or less resolved. I told the person who was threatening me that I wasn’t going to back down, and they’ve so far left me alone. That was back in November, of course. They had no legal standing on this.

UPDATE (Nov. 16 2009): Currently, the caller from this interview is threatening me with legal action. I’ve modified the post with a few more “seems to be”s to cover my ass. I think I’m fully within my rights to say what I’ve said here, but since I was called by the caller’s lawyer, I’m not taking any chances.

I just got done listening to a recent segment on NPR’s Science Friday (hosted by Ira Flatow) where they discussed the anti-vaccination movement, and even after 20 minutes, I’m still quivering with rage and frustration.

Science Friday: Childhood Vaccinations

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November 9 2009

What I do in my spare time (to prove to myself how huge of a nerd I am)

Ever get a problem in your head that you obsess over for days, or even weeks (or longer)? This is the one I’ve been working on for a while.

At some point, I started to wonder about dice rolling. Specifically, I wondered about the difference between rolling a single 12-sided die and two 6-sided dice. How do the two compare? Obviously, with a 12-sided die (which I will refer to as d12, in grand D&D tradition) every number on the die has an equal chance of being rolled (8.33%), ignoring variations in dice shape, weight, texture, etc.

But what about when you use a pair of six-sided die (d6)? Like a d12 (or any properly made dice) each number has the same chance of being rolled (16.67%). But when using them in a game, you add them up. How does that affect your odds of getting certain numbers?

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July 8 2009

Communication Breakdown

Kingston_Phoneboxes

It’s hard to talk to people about supernatural or paranormal claims, especially when you’re a Skeptic with a capital S. People think you’re just closed to anything that doesn’t fit into a strict naturalistic worldview, which just isn’t true. I like to say that I’ll believe in anything, literally anything, as long as it’s backed up by evidence. That doesn’t usually help though.

I think part of the problem is just in how we divide the world around us, by definition. Everybody agrees that the natural world exists (and if they don’t, run!) but people also divide things into two other categories, mentioned above, so they think that reality is split into the natural, the supernatural, and the paranormal (possibly others, but I’m going to focus on these three). The natural, of course, is everything around us that can be studied and explained by science. The supernatural is the spiritual world, the realm of religion and mysticism. The paranormal is stuff like psychic powers, aliens, cryptids, and ghosts.

However, terms like “supernatural” and “paranormal” are unnecessary. They just complicate things, don’t actually define anything, and give many claims more credence than they deserve. It’s time we stopped using them.

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June 23 2009

What’s so bad about living forever?

2010pic2

I just read a very interesting article about a girl who hasn’t aged in 16 years (which isn’t exactly an accurate statement, but fits well enough). The story briefly talks about how studying the girl’s bizarre condition could potentially teach us a lot about human aging, and perhaps even how to prevent it.

But I was a bit troubled when I read this:

In the long term, the idea that the aging process might somehow be manipulated raises serious questions about what human beings might do with that knowledge.

“Clearly, that’s the science fiction aspect of it,” said Walker, describing the social and ethical dilemmas that would arise. “We can’t have continued reproduction and people who don’t age.”

This confuses me, and makes me wonder why a doctor would say such a thing. Surely he has no problem with treating people medically to prolong their lives. Aging is a natural process, but so are cancer and seizures and disease. Thanks to medical science, the average human lifespan has doubled over the past 2000 years or so (I didn’t bother to look up that number, by the way). In a way, aging is just another problem with our bodies for scientists to fix.

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May 21 2009

Choosing death: should Daniel Hauser be allowed to die?

Many of you out there have probably heard about the case of Daniel Hauser, a 13-year-old who was recently ordered to receive chemotherapy for his cancer, instead of sticking to “alternative” treatments like a special diet, vitamins, and ionized water. At the moment of this writing, he and his mother are on the run to avoid the chemo and deal with the cancer their own way. (Look at me! I’m writing something that’s actually current! This must be what being a journalist feels like!)

I could focus on criticizing their choice of treatment, but I’m not going to (beyond this paragraph). It should be obvious to most of us that this family has bought into some crazy, dangerous nonsense. This is a perfect example of why “alternative medicine” is dangerous: not because most of it is completely worthless, but because it causes people to forego real, scientifically-proven medical treatments.

The bigger issue here is whether it’s ok for the government to step in and choose someone’s medical treatment, and how far we as a society should allow someone’s faith and beliefs to go, and whether society as a whole has any say at all. Essentially, the question is: should we let Daniel Hauser die?

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May 14 2009

Recommended Podcasts

I spend a lot of time listening to podcasts while at my computer (especially while playing WoW) and also on my MP3 player in the car, and when out for a walk, and whenever I have the time. I listen to a LOT of podcasts, and I’m always looking for more. Here are my favorites, and if you know of any others that I’d probably like, please post a link.

What the hell is a podcast?

It’s like radio, but on a computer. Most podcasts are published via an RSS feed that links to the files on the podcaster’s server. You can just download them manually if you want, but there are programs out there that will let you subscribe to the podcast feed and automatically download new episodes when they become available. The program I use is MediaMonkey, which is probably the greatest audio program ever. Other people use iTunes, though I don’t know why. I think WinAmp can handle podcasts too, and I’m sure there are others. Anyway, on with the show.

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April 22 2009

Book Review Quickies #1

I read a lot of books, and if I have the time or inclination, and if a book is good enough or relevant to this blog, I like to write reviews for them. However, my time is not infinite, and I have a big backlog of books to review. So rather than just let my mental list get longer and longer until I forget what’s on it, I decided to just do some “quickie” reviews, to urge others to check these books out.

In this edition:

  • Trick or Treatment: The Undeniable Facts About Alternative Medicine
    by Dr. Edzard Ernst & Simon Singh
  • How We Believe: The Search for God in an Age of Science
    by Michael Shermer

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March 21 2009

Energize your mind with new-age bullshit


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When I started this blog, I thought I’d be writing primarily about cool science news items, and shedding light on the latest scams, and maybe even writing about politics and religion if I had time. Well, as you can see by the Categories box to the right, I had that completely backwards. The problem is that I really don’t have much to contribute to a scientific news item, besides “this is cool”.

However, I think I’ve gotten pretty good at identifying pseudoscientific claptrap when I see it, and this certainly qualifies for that description:

If you watched that video, you’re probably either thinking “that’s obvious nonsense” or “wow, maybe I should start doing that”. Actually, you’re probably also thinking “that’s the worst reporting I’ve ever seen” and I agree with you there.

A classic joke among us skeptics goes something like this:

Q: “What do you call alternative medicine that actually works?” A: “Medicine.”

A lot of people are inclined to believe in alternative medicine, because they see it as a viable alternative to modern medicine. What many people don’t realize is that there’s really no such thing as “alternative medicine”. There’s medicine, and then there’s unproven and disproven treatments. This “Superbrain Yoga®” seems to be a mixture of both unproven and disproven treatments. Continue Reading

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March 4 2009

Richard Dawkins returns

Richard Dawkins, biologist, retired Oxford professor, writer, and the most well-known atheist in the world, is back in Minnesota to do a lecture at the U of M. That’s today, so obviously I’m not writing this to break the news. In fact, I’ll be there tonight; I bought my ticket the day it was announced. I’ll also probably write about it here in the next few days.

But anyway, I wanted to point to an interview he did just this morning on MPR (Minnesota Public Radio, the local branch of NPR) that I think was pretty good.

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One thing I’ve noticed about Dawkins, and I’ve heard/watched many of his interviews, debates, and discussions online, is that he sounds almost exactly the same regardless of his mood. He often sounds irritated, and he may very well be, but I think that’s mostly just the way he talks. He’s also very careful with what he says, and for good reason: there are lots of people out there who are looking for him to slip up somehow so they can take his words out of context.

I think the best way to hear the “real” Dawkins is to listen to his audiobooks. I’ve read both The God Delusion and The Ancestor’s Tale, and both via audiobook, and he’s much more relaxed in those. You get a much better sense of the wonder he feels about science, and he doesn’t come off as the angry fundamentalist atheist that many of his opponents seem to think he is.

Of course, what he’s talking about goes against what many people believe, and Dawkins doesn’t sugar-coat anything.

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February 11 2009

Correlation isn’t causation, but…

I saw an interesting chart today.

Gallup recently released the results of a poll they conducted, in which they asked people how important religion is in their lives. The results are pretty interesting.

I was pretty surprised that the USA is listed as “less religious”, but I guess that shows just how extreme many other countries are. I’m sure we’re at the high end of “less religious” anyway.

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February 3 2009

Something I’ll never be capable of understanding

I was in Barnes & Noble just now, browsing through the science section. I came upon a book called “String Theory Demystified” by David McMahon. I’ve been meaning to find a good book that lays out String Theory and Quantum Physics in a way that even a Graphic Designer can understand, and this book looked perfect. Just 306 pages, well organized, seems well-written.

Here’s what I see on page 5:

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That’s from the friggin’ Introduction. The rest of the book is filled with even more complex equations.

I’m sure the book is great, but it’s clear to me now that this is WAY over my head.

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October 20 2008

Why John McCain must not become president

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This reminds me of some other president…except he used peace signs instead of the thumbs-up.

A lot of people think that this is just another presidential race, with the winner getting to bring their own particular ideas and policies to the table, but that little else will change. But that’s not true. At least, not for one of the two big-party candidates running.

If John McCain is elected president, he will directly or indirectly subvert or dismantle key elements of this country that have made it great, and we’ll come out of his presidency even worse off than we are now. Here are several reasons why, and hopefully at least one of them will convince you to vote for someone else.

 

Four More Years

Most people agree that Bush is a horrible president who has damaged this country in uncountable ways. His shoot-first-and-ask-questions-later style has made the USA a joke to some countries, and many others now look at us as a huge threat to them.

McCain has been trying to distance himself from Bush, understandably. He’s been running on a platform of change since he was nominated, though everything I’ve heard from him has sounded like more Bush policies.

But these aren’t just Bush policies. These are Republican policies. No president can get anything done without his party backing him. Bush’s advisors, cabinet members, and other policymakers are from the Republican party, and as a whole, they’re the ones who have been pushing the ideas that have been ruining this country for the past 8 years.

But McCain says he’s going to change things. How? Where is he going to get his staff? From the Republican party, of course. Most of the people who will be prominent in his administration will be people who were part of Bush’s administration, or at least the ones who haven’t resigned in disgrace or aged too much. And where’s he going to get his policies? It’s common knowledge that McCain has voted in line with Bush 95% of the time.

Four more years of Republican presidency means four more years of Republican policies driving us further into the ground.

 

Deregulation

Look, I’m not going to pretend that I understand how the economy works. In fact, I’m hesitant to even address the issue, because I’m quite possibly wrong, and I’m probably not even able to articulate my true feelings adequately. But I’m going to put what I think out there anyway, and if I’m wrong, I hope someone will correct me, and I’ll rewrite this section. I’ll try to keep this general.

It’s becoming painfully clear that letting businesses do whatever the hell they want is a pretty bad idea. Even before this huge economic downturn came about, it was obviously a problem. Look at Enron. Look at WorldCom. 8 of the 10 biggest bankruptcies in US history have happened in the past 10 years. But let’s not just look at the failures. Let’s look at the current state of business.

What are your choices for high-speed internet service? In my area, you can get Cable through Comcast, or DSL through Qwest. Those are my only options, and last time I checked, Qwest didn’t even offer DSL in my area. So my choice is Comcast or dial-up. And recently, when Comcast was filtering all BitTorrent network traffic, what was my option? Could I "vote with my feet" and switch services? No. My choice is to take what Comcast gives me.

This sort of monopolization is rampant in the telecommunications industry. Look at all the cell phone companies that have been gobbled up by larger companies – you may not even realize they’re gone. AT&T was ruled a monopoly in the 80’s and split up, but its various chunks have re-congealed like a T-1000, and now AT&T is even bigger than it once was, AND it’s in the cell phone industry now. This topic is starting to get away from me, so I’ll reign it in. I do recommend that you learn about how the cell phone industry works in other countries; what we have in the US is pretty archaic.

Letting the Free Market run free seems like a good idea – let market forces take care of everything. But everything can be tainted and subverted by greed. Huge companies can make huge profits for their shareholders, but inevitably they’re forced to make "business decisions" that affect millions of people. Huge companies can stifle innovation and emerging markets, as well as individual freedoms, with a simple policy change, like Comcast’s BitTorrent policy. (Fortunately, the FCC stepped in and told Comcast that they couldn’t limit certain types of traffic like that.) Without competition, growth stagnates, and companies bloat.

The problem with John McCain and the Republican party is that they don’t see the need for regulation in business. They think that the Free Market will take care of everything. McCain has firmly supported deregulation in the past, though lately he’s come to see that regulation CAN be a good thing, thanks to the tanking of our mostly-unregulated economy. But I don’t think that philosophy will last long enough for him, and it certainly won’t last long enough for the party.

We definitely shouldn’t over-regulate the economy and business. Too much regulation is just as damaging as no regulation. But taking steps to ensure that all markets have healthy amounts of competition and oversight is essential to the well-being of this country and its economy. It also seems that the Republicans are still clinging to economic policies that just don’t work, or don’t work very well. Supply-Side Economics (or "trickle-down" as it’s most commonly known) is a system that unfairly favors the rich, and its benefits to the general public seem pretty negligible. But McCain and the Republicans keep pushing this lousy idea, and I can’t help but wonder if they’re doing it because of their perverse worship of Ronald Reagan, or just because they like it when the rich get richer.

I don’t want this to seem like I’m saying that Republican policies caused our current financial problems. But they’ve certainly contributed. (So have Democrat policies.)

 

The Christian Right

This is a touchy subject. If I say the wrong thing, I could make some people think I’m some evil atheist liberal who wants to outlaw religion. But only half of that is true: I’m not evil, and I don’t want to outlaw religion.

It’s interesting that the party that claims to want as little government as possible is also allied with the fundamentalist Christian Right, which is arguably the biggest group working towards restricting and regulating what we can and can’t do in America today. They want to break down the constitutional separation of Church and State, and they want to impose their interpretation of biblical scripture on the entire country.

I don’t want to get too deep into this subject, because it’s a HUGE subject. It’s hard to separate the Christian Right from normal Christianity. Indeed, the Christian Right believe that they ARE normal Christianity. They’re not, but they ARE powerful, and they’re formidable. If you want to learn more about what they’re all about, I strongly recommend the book American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America by Chris Hedges. Think Taliban.

In the words of Susan B. Anthony, "I distrust
those people who know so well what God wants them to do because I notice it always coincides with their own desires."

 

Sarah Palin

Speaking of religious nutjobs, here’s Sarah Palin. Holy crap. I don’t even know where to start.

Looking at Palin’s actions and policies, I see someone who just doesn’t give a flying fuck about the First Amendment. (I feel like I’ve been linking to that page a lot lately.) She’s a Christian Right extremist, and she’s been working for years to push her fundamentalist views on her state, and will continue to do so to the entire country if she’s given more power. And if she became President (the chance that McCain could die while in office is quite significant) the result would be…well, I shudder to think of it. It’s not just that she’s a fundy wingnut. She doesn’t even understand that evolution is real and creationism is nonsense; she wants both taught in science classes. Cripes.

Also, the most important part: she’s absolutely unqualified. Her foreign policy experience is nonexistent. She can’t explain her policies without first memorizing them verbatim or reading them from cuecards. She’s the female version of Bush.

If I had written this post 2 months ago like I intended (I’ve been working on it for about a month now) I would’ve wondered what reason McCain had for choosing her, and I probably would’ve commented on his judgement. But in the past couple weeks, the reason has become all too clear: Sarah Palin is doing his dirty work. She can (and does) suggest that Obama is a terrorist, or that he’s a Muslim, and distract people from the real issues (which the McCain campaign is weak on) and she can stoke the fires of hate and fear like a pro. By choosing Palin, McCain can keep his hands clean and distance himself from her disgusting tactics. It’s amazing to see what a party will do when they’re losing.

 

Judges & Abortion

There’s a very good chance that the next president will have to appoint at least one judge on the Supreme Court in the next 4 years. Currently, the court is balanced between 4 liberals, 4 conservatives, and 1 swing voter. However, if one of the non-conservatives retires or dies (which is considered to be most likely) and is replaced by another Conservative like McCain has said he’d do, it could have some pretty serious repercussions for our rights and way of life.

The Christian Right has been trying to get Roe vs. Wade overturned for decades, and there’s a very real chance that that’ll happen if we get another conservative on the bench. Why is this such an important issue? After all, I used to think it was just a red herring issue being used to divide the country (it is).

If Roe vs. Wade is overturned, it will give lawmakers across the country the opportunity to outlaw abortion. This is a very real and serious issue for many reasons. For one, it lets the government take away a little part of your freedom and dictate what a woman can or can’t do to her own body. Apparently, the anti-government bent of conservativism doesn’t apply in this case.

Look, nobody likes abortion. It should be a non-issue. We need to redefine the way we look at sex as a society. We need much better pregnancy-prevention education in this country; abstinence-only education doesn’t work (illustrated best, and most ironically, by Sarah Palin’s own daughter) and in order to prevent unwanted pregnancies, we need to push birth control, not wishful thinking.

So, back to abortion. Why should we keep abortion legal? Well, did making drugs illegal stop drug use? Of course not. In other countries, where abortion IS illegal, it still happens. If you want an abortion, you can get one, and the conditions are probably pretty unsafe. Or, there’s the old coat hanger method.

You can either keep abortion legal and safe, or make abortion illegal and unsafe. Stop abortion with birth control.

 

Energy

We all know that the world will one day run out of oil. Estimates of when that will happen vary quite a bit, but it’s probably going to be within my lifetime. So why the hell should we spend MORE money on oil and its associated infrastructure if we know it’s going to run out soon?

Running out of oil is going to be painful for our country, and the entire world. Eventually, we’re going to have to switch to something else. But a conversion at such an enormous scale is going to take decades, and cost a lot of money. The longer we put it off, the harder and more expensive it’s going to be. So why does it make sense to spend more money on oil? Where’s the wisdom in sticking with more of the same? (That may be a much better title for this post.) We can throw our money at oil, or we can throw our money at alternative energy sources.

The plan that seems to make the most sense to me is for the government to provide incentives for car manufacturers to switch to battery powered cars. This will allow us to use a variety of methods to generate the electricity to power those cars (and homes, and other stuff). Then, the government gives incentives for the production of electricity via sources like wind, solar, nuclear, water, geothermal, and other renewable sources. No single method is going to replace oil; certain parts of the country are better at generating power via certain sources than others.

Money is tight right now, and the government probably can’t fund both alternative energy and oil-based energy. We know which one we’ll be using in the future, and which one is running out. This seems like a no-brainer.

 

A note regarding Barack Obama

This post was written to show why a John McCain presidency would be harmful to America. It was not written to compare/contrast his policies with those of his opponent. Personally, I will be voting for Obama, and I think he’ll be a pretty good president. But that doesn’t mean I agree with all of his policies. It also doesn’t mean that I don’t agree with any of McCain’s policies. McCain does have some good policies, and Obama does have some bad ones. Policy differences are a matter of personal preference, and if that was all that was at stake here, I wouldn’t have bothered to write this post.

I’m not saying you should vote for Obama. Go ahead and vote for Ron Paul, or Bob Barr, or Ralph Nader, or Homer Simpson, or whatever. But for the good of this country, don’t vote for John McCain.

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October 6 2008

Book Review: “50 Reasons People Give for Believing in a God” by Guy P. Harrison

I couldn’t find a good image on the net to steal, so I just tossed my copy in the scanner. I do plan to actually buy the book someday.

This is the book I wish everybody on the planet would read. Or at least my friends and family.

The best thing about this book is that it conveys the reasoning behind atheism without being even remotely condescending toward believers. It wasn’t written to convert people, or prove who’s right and who’s wrong. It’s just trying to inform.

Not only does the book inform you about atheism and, being a book with a “western world” mindset, Christianity, but it also delves into many other world religions, some of which I’ve never even heard of. Harrison seems to have led a fascinating life so far, traveling the world and seeing many different types of people and cultures, and he gladly shares some of his stories and experiences while at the same time using them to illustrate the idea he’s trying to convey in a given chapter.

The format of the book is ideal for this sort of topic. Each of the titular 50 reasons is given its own chapter, and each chapter can be read on its own, without having read any of the previous chapters. The chapters are, on average, about 7 pages long. This means that each chapter covers its intended topic thoroughly without going overboard with unnecessary prose or over-elaborate explanations.

No matter what you believe, this book will give you a lot to think about.

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September 6 2008

A poll on the differences between atheists & Christians

Yesterday, I found Sam Harris’ web site, and I’ve been going through it reading all the articles. As I mentioned (or at least alluded to) in my review of his book “Letter to a Christian Nation”, I think he’s a great author, and he seems able to explain even hard-to-understand issues in ways that everyone can follow. One of the best articles I’ve read explaining atheism to the religious (besides Harris’ actual books) is “10 Myths – and 10 Truths – About Atheism“.

But what I really want to point out in this post are the results of a survey he conducted in preparation for an experiment to examine the brains of atheists and Christians using fMRI, which should be quite interesting when it’s completed.

Following the 3 links at the bottom of the page will lead you to graphs showing the results of the poll, which are quite fascinating. Some statements, such as “I am in very good physical health” show pretty much no difference between atheists and Christians (or at least, their opinions of themselves). However, some show some very telling differences, such as the graph that shows political stances – atheists are mostly liberal, while Christians are mostly conservative. Not a big surprise, but it’s interesting to see just how true it is.

The first link’s graphs are a mix between statements that both groups think the same on, and statements that they differ on. The second link is almost entirely statements that both groups agree on, like “I’m worried about the state of the world” or “I am very honest with myself”. The third covers religious beliefs, and there’s where the huge differences come in. Most of the graphs display most atheists on the far side of an issue, while most Christians come in on the far opposite side of the graph. These are questions like “it’s important to raise children with a belief in God”

If you’re a graph junkie like me, you’ll probably spend at least half an hour going through this stuff.

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August 18 2008

The 21-gram soul

Ah, the mainstream media doing what it does best: reporting science.

This is a pretty interesting concept.

As the story goes, a doctor named Duncan MacDougall proved that the soul exists because he found that people weigh less (about 21 grams) after they die than they did just before death. These results were reported in the New York Times numerous times after the study was performed…in 1907.

I guess science reporting was as crappy 100 years ago as it is now. But, rather than just dismiss this out of hand as we probably should, let’s analyze it a bit.

First, it’s pretty lazy logical thinking to assume that, even if there IS a difference in weight, that it automatically means that it’s the result of the soul leaving the body. It’s only 21 grams (or 3/4 of an ounce), so we’re not talking about a whole lot of weight. I’m no doctor, but I can think of a few ways that this could be attributed to something besides a phenomenon that has never been proven to exist.

  1. Breath leaving the body. Contrary to popular belief, air DOES have weight, though it’s very low. When a person dies, their lungs deflate, and a lot of air is expelled from the body. I wouldn’t even bring this up, except for the fact that the missing weight is only 21 grams. It also goes hand-in-hand with my next idea:
  2. Moisture leaving the body. Your breath has moisture in it, after all. Just breathe on a piece of glass and it’ll fog up. When the breath leaves the body, it takes some moisture with it. I’m guessing that the moisture is probably heavier than the actual air.
  3. Snopes has what I think is the most reasonable explanation, from the American Medicine journal:

    “…MacDougall…failed to take into account the sudden rise in body temperature at death when the blood stops being air-cooled via its circulation through the lungs….[The] sweating and moisture evaporation caused by this rise in body temperature would account both for the drop in the men’s weight and the dogs’ failure to register one.”

    More on the dogs later.
    (I feel like a real reporter or something. I just used a quote from a medical journal.)

  4. Were such large scales in 1907 even able to measure with such accuracy? Maybe I’m underestimating the technology of the time. MacDougall says in his paper that his “scales were sensitive to two-tenths of an ounce”. That doesn’t seem accurate enough to me, especially considering how difficult it must be to balance a body on what must be a pretty large scale.

Anyway, we’re still talking about 21 grams here.

Let’s examine the study itself now. Was the study well done? What was the sample size?

Six. He weighed six people before and after they died. This is nowhere near a sufficient sample size for any scientific or medical study. Except that two of the six subjects weren’t able to be weighed, so really it’s just four people in this study. Only one of the 4 actually lost 3/4 of an ounce, and the others were far less exact. This study is quite a mess.

Ok, I think I’ve beaten this into the ground. However, MacDougall still may have stumbled upon something here. Maybe somebody has duplicated his results over the years. Well, I did do some limited searching for similar studies, and I didn’t find any evidence that supports MacDougall’s claims, although that doesn’t mean that the evidence isn’t out there. In fact, I did find one study that showed that the body actually increased in weight after death, but it was a pretty lousy study too, and they were weighing sheep.

You know, these days it would be very easy to perform our own scientific study of this “phenomenon”. Some modern hospital beds have built-in scales and automatic monitoring that could easily detect this weight loss, if it’s happening. It should be fairly easy to look at the weight logs of a few thousand people who died in a hospital equipped with these beds and figure out if they’re losing any weight when they die.

Of course, even if you established that they do, you still need to establish that it’s linked to the soul leaving the body, and to do that you would first need to prove that the soul actually exists. Good luck with that, and remember Occam’s Razor.

On a related note, I just sent this subject in to Skeptoid as a suggestion for a future episode. I’d love to hear Dunning’s take on it, but I’m sure he’s got much more important stories to tackle.

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September 4 2007

Water bubble experiments in space


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This video shows 3 different experiments that scientists conducted in zero gravity, presumably on the ISS. They’re really quite amazing, especially the last one.

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