Legacy – the only immortality for a skeptic

Hello there fellow bloggers, readers and browsers,

I was recently reading through my issue of Scientific American (which I subscribe to), and I came to the columns in the back of the magazine, and the one written by Michael Shermer really appealed to me. It is entitled ‘Climbing Mount Immortality’. The whole topic of the column was to discuss mortality and how it shaped our civilizations., but what really appealed to me was the topic of immortality itself. Don’t worry, I’m not going to go all spiritual-after-life crazy on you, I want to discuss the concept of Legacy.

Legacy is the only immortality a skeptic can subscribe to. Albeit a very partial immortality, it is the only one there is. If one believes that there is no afterlife, then the only way in which that person can survive in the minds of those around him, is by doing something to remember him for.

This concept is very readily visible for Alfred Nobel. You will be aware of the Nobel prize. If you are, (you should, or you should stop looking at my blog right now) then you will know that it is an award given to scientists, essayists and peace activists for showing exemplary skills in their area, and making great discoveries.
Seeing that 99% of people know about the Nobel prize, Alfred Nobel could say that he is a success.

What most people don’t know about Alfred Nobel is that he was actually the inventor of dynamite. He created this lethal weapon off war in the hope that ‘war would become so bad, that it would be done by nobody’. But this did not happen, wars just became bloodier and more violent, and you must feel for Nobel for having his invention turn into such a disaster in his mind. This is what inspired him to set up the Nobel prize.

He was worried that all of the world would see him as an evil man for thousands of years to come. So what he did was posthumously donate all his money to set up the Nobel prize. this has worked because now, instead of everybody seeing Alfred Nobel as a villainous person with sinister intentions, we see him as the most famous and prestigious prizes handed out to scientists.

The idea of legacy has an impact on me, I want people to remember me after I die, not just by my family for being a brother or a son or a husband or a father, but by the world as a person who changed a field for ever, like Einstein, Hawking or Nobel. This is the only way for me to stick around after my death, I wont be able to experience it, but my family will be proud, and so will I on my deathbed, knowing that I can be content with what I have done with my life.

I will leave you with a quote from Amanda from Saw II, “The answer is immortality. By creating a legacy, by living a life worth remembering, you become immortal.”

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Roy Williams is making yet another straw man

I am reading through god, actually, by Roy Williams and I have decided that I am going to be blogging about all off the big errors he makes in his logic. Today’s post will be about how Roy has yet again oversimplified and misrepresented atheism, agnosticism and skepticism. Roy has made the claim that atheists fall into two categories when it comes to how we perceive ourselves (humans) in the universe. He has summed them up as follows:-
One extreme is the belief that humans are just another animal, they are in no way different from chimps or mice or dogs or frogs or sheep or mosquitoes.
The other end of the spectrum is that humans are superior to all other things in the universe, and are very special. and are gods of the universe, humanism. 

Williams then shoots down the first point by saying that humans are a special sort of animal, with conscience and cognition.
He also then dismantled humanism by saying that we do not have free power over the whole universe, and that we do not have the whole universe to use as a mining site.

I am going to be arguing about these two misconceptions in today’s post.

When Williams states that some atheists believe that humans are just other animals, to some extent I agree with him, but he has taken it beyond the extreme, a classic straw man argument. Any atheist who believes that humans are just another mammal will agree that humans are a very unique type of animal. We do have very good cognition and a conscience to base our decisions on. but atheists do not say that humans are just exactly like chimps and apes and we have no special worth on this planet.

The other end of the spectrum is also just the same straw man. Most humanists believe that humans are a special type of mammal, but that they have arrived out of all other mammals. No humanist that I know believes that humans are gods of this planet.

Williams then asserts that humans are unique and that this must mean that there is a god which designed us. I do not think that this is a logically valid assumption. It is easily explained by nature how a species like us could have come into being, but I will talk about that tomorrow night.

I will leave you with a quote from John Ralston Saul, “Humanism: an exaltation of freedom, but one limited by our need to exercise it as an integral part of nature and society.” John Ralston Saul, a Canadian author of some note.

Red Flags to watch out for

I am going to start blogging every now and then on some red flags you can find to help you distinguish a pseudoscience from a real science. These are very important to learn and can help you to make a quick judgement on the reliability of websites or books or articles, without having to do a big scientific study or finding one that had been done to assess the validity of people’s claims.

I will start out by making a clarifying statement. Just because an article or ‘scientist’ displays some red flags in his reasoning, logic and evidence, does not make that argument false. The same goes for a logical fallacy. An argument can never be proven to be wrong, but if the only evidence for it is illogical and suspicious, then it should be disregarded.

The red flag I will be discussing today is one which is as much a difference between science and pseudoscience as it is a red flag. It is the hyping up of very flimsy evidence to prove ones case. This is what distinguishes the scientists from the cranks. I will give some examples.

A few weeks ago, I blogged about a great new battery technology which is able to generate power from the ambient heat from a person’s body, or a light, or the sun, or just heat which exists around us. Now this is a pretty amazing application of technology, but the scientists who were behind it played it down quite a lot. The same things happen with all of the great new discoveries in the search for the god particle, the Higgs  Boson. At one stage, late last year, there were a series of big steps made towards finally finding this elusive particle, and I was getting very exited about it, because they were very close to uncovering the particle. That was the opinion of most of the scientific and skeptical blogging community, and I got the feeling that the discovery was right around the corner.
But there were the scientists behind the discovery, just saying, “You know what, we are getting close, but we haven’t found it yet, lets just keep low and celebrate and dance when we finally uncover it.”
This is very humble of them, and it is very telling.

Could you imagine if a perpetual motion crank got a hold of evidence 1% as much of a breakthrough as that of the new battery? It would be all over the news, they would be asking for Nobel prizes, holding press conferences and they would probably be set for life.

This is a big red flag, if somebody is holding up their entire medical practice or ideology on one or two flimsy testimonials, and they are drumming them up like when man landed on the moon, then you should be suspicious. If somebody, however, is playing down a big scientific discovery, then you can probably lend credit to the reliability of the website.

I will leave you with a quote from Xi Zhi, “Large skepticism leads to large understanding. Small skepticism leads to small understanding. No skepticism leads to no understanding.” Xi Zhi, A Chinese Calligrapher of some note.

Nuclear Power: Why it’s great

Greetings skeptics, and fellow internet users.

Here in Australia there has been a lot of discussion about nuclear power, both political, and scientific, so I am going to add my voice to the talk with some points in both science and politics.
It’s a relevent discussion for a few important reasons.  One is the fact that the earth is warming and caused by man, and something had to be done about it. We are also eventually going to run out of oil, and we need something to replace it.

The first point I am going to make is that nuclear power is extremely environmentally friendly. There are no carbon dioxides emitted in the process. The only greenhouse gases emmited when creating nuclear power is what is used when the big machinery hauls the uranium out of the ground. This should sent the environmental nuts crazy, but apparently not. The only way to make them happy is to live in caves, liking lichen of the walls for food.

Apparently, if one blows up, then it will cause a huge amount of damage to the environment around it. Come on, in Australia, about 95% of the population lives on about 5% of our land mass, and the other 95% doesn’t have much other life on it either. If we plonk our nuclear power plants out in the middle of the Australian desert, then nothing will be harmed except sand and rocks.

Come on, surely we can find SOMEWHERE to put a nuclear power plant!

The next question raised by greenies (to use the conservative, outback term) is, “Where do we put all the waste from the plant?” I think this is another simply answered question. All of the places where we mine our Uranium is in the middle of no-where, if we put the power plant next to the uranium mine, then its a short trip, it goes from the hole in the ground to the power plant, it goes through the power plant, and then it goes back in the hole. It can’t really be that hard. Again, we have a huge amount of land that we don’t use for anything, this is a prime candidate for the dumping of our nuclear waste.

The last topic I will discuss here is the idea that nuclear power is dangerous, “look at what happened in Japan” They say. Well, they are all forgetting the point that this event happened on an Island about the size 1 twentieth the size of Australia, You could throw a stone from one side to the other. Even if one did blow up, it would endanger the lives of the workers there, and that’s it. These workers could be easily evacuated and the whole problem would be over with.

That’s all for today, I have a feeling I will be blogging about this sometime in the near future as the election comes up and this discussion looms, I will leave you with a quote from Ronald Reagan, “All the waste in a year from a nuclear power plant can be stored under a desk.” Ronald Reagan, a politician of some note.

Is this just me?

Dear skeptical colleagues,

I am going to be blogging about something which has been getting on my nerves for a while now, and I want to know if something like this happens to most skeptics around non-skeptical fellows. I am constantly being talked to by my family as though I am not a skeptic, and am just an annoying contrarian who just disagrees with everything any body says. My most common response is, “That depends on what you say.”, and then I get a simple, “yes Jack.” as if to say that there is no hope and that they are going to just stop discussing it because he will just keep on denying. I find this very annoying, and I really do get the idea that they have no idea what I actually stand for in my life.

It’s not just my parents, and I have heard experiences from other people who are skeptics who just get addressed as closed-minded people who just argue for the sake of arguing. I am going to challenge that point.

It all flows from the point that Christopher Hitchens strived for his whole life, “It’s not what you think, but how you think.” I do not tell you that you are wrong so that you know that you are wrong and you can correct that mistake next time, I tell you how you are wrong.  I like to understand why some people tell me outrageous things, especially in lay people, because if they have arrived with some serious logical flaw, I like to correct their thought process.

For this reason it also follows that it is what you say to me that matters. I will not disagree with whatever anybody says to me. The skeptics I talk to on the internet and at school I will happily agree with almost everything they say, because I agree with their logic, their evidence and their conclusions. This is definitely a very un-contrarian thing to do. But when somebody says to me that if they look hard enough they can see the other side of the moon (true story), then I get angry and ask them “Why the hell are you saying that? What possible logic could lead you to the conclusion that you can see the other side of the moon? Do you understand the concept  of a sphere? What is going on in there?” (I don’t say that, I am a lot more calm (most of the time)).

The problem is that my family (the people I have to spend the most time with in my life) often say very stupid things, and I try to help them, but they just feel uninterested because it’s all sciencey and over their heads. Its annoying. Please contact me if you also have experiences like this, I want to hear how you deal with it.

I will leave you with a quote from Mikhail Bakhunin, “From the naturalistic point of view, all men are equal. There are only two exceptions to this rule of naturalistic equality: geniuses and idiots.” Mikhail Bakhunin, A Russian revolutionary of some note.

The Job of Skeptics in Science

Greetings, skeptical and freethinking fellows,

I was recently addressed with a question from a family member about what makes being a scientific skeptic any different from being a scientist. They were obviously looking for the “Oh, we desire much more proof and are very cynical of everything new that comes up.”, looking for the big follow-up “Bam! You’re just a closed-minded skeptic.” But they didn’t get the response they were hoping for, and I will be extrapolating on my response to them today.

I will start with an opening difference between a skeptic and a scientist, and how it is useful to have a skeptical group in the scientific world.
What it means to be a scientist. A scientist is a person who devotes their entire career to a small topic in science, such as archaeology,  paleontology, nuclear physics, neurology or cardiology. Now that’s great, we need scientists spending as much time on a topic that they specialize in, so that all the details can be figured out, but a scientist can be very ignorant on fields that are not important to him, and this means that they can be very gullible on topics that do not relate to their interests and specialties. An engineer needs no knowledge of biology to get through university, so it is quite possible that this engineer could be a young earth creationist.

Skeptics are often the people set with the task of just stepping back a little, and looking at the whole picture. I will use the analogy of a wall, where the wall is science. Each scientist can be working on his little 2 x 2 inch part of the wall, and not have any idea what is going on in the other thousand 2 x 2 inch segments of wall. The skeptic is the person who just looks at the whole wall from 20 feet away, so that the whole picture can be seen. Obviously, when you stand 20 feet away, you cannot get the details of all of the little cracks and crevices of the wall, that is the scientists job, but the skeptic looks at the whole picture.

It is also the skeptics job to defend the wall from outside scientists who also want a look at the wall but aren’t doing a very good job of it. If somebody who isn’t part of the group inspecting the  wall decides to come over and take a hammer to the wall (creationists, homeopaths, acupuncturists, PSI researchers and ghost hunters), then it is the skeptics job to shoo away the person attacking the wall and tell them that it is wrong for them to be attacking the wall.

Of course, the skeptic can’t know all the details of all of the wall. He just needs to take the important bits from each scientist, and stitch together all the parts to make a wall.
Science is a brick wall, the closer you are to the wall, the more you understand what is in front of your face, but the more ignorant you become of the other parts of the wall.

I will leave you with a quote from Miguel De Unamuno, “The skeptic does not mean him who doubts, but him who investigates or researches, as opposed to him who asserts and thinks that he has found” Miguel De Unamuno, a Spanish Playwright, poet, author, essayist, novelist and philosopher.

Is skepticism a religion?

Hello to all of my skeptical fellows,

I was recently addressed with a point from my father, it is one of his main attacks on scientific skepticism and atheism, and I have heard it from others. He stated that skepticism is a religion and it is no different from any other ideology (ideologies are different to religion, but this is what my father said, not me). I think this is an interesting misconception and I will be talking about it in today’s post. There are dozens of differences between skepticism and religions, and I will only touch on a few today, but I may do some more at a later date.

One of the main reasons why the world view which is scientific skepticism is different to different world views such as Christianity or Marxism is that skepticism is the only ideology which has any tangible relationship with reality, and is willing to change its ideas to fit the evidence. Scientific skepticism is the only ideology which will change any of its views when it has definitively been proved to be incorrect. You may say that the Catholics are able to be swayed by the evidence too, and I agree that the Catholic church has done well to support evolution and an old-earth theory of the world, but they will only do it to the extent that it does not go against their main base ideology that god exists and Jesus rose after three days.

Scientific skepticism is also unlike religions in that they do not worship, nor acknowledge the existence of a supernatural or supreme deity. Of course, if it is proven that such a supreme being does exist, then we will change our views to say that there is a supreme deity, but most scientific, skeptical, agnostic atheists are pretty sure that that will never happen.

Scientific Skepticism is also the only ideology which does not have any preconceived notions about the universe which we live in. It is happy for the science and the evidence to show the way they should think about the world. No other ideology has started with no predisposed beliefs and let the evidence take them where it takes them.

Scientific skepticism is the only ideology which, upon there not currently being any evidence about the subject, will simply say “We don’t know what is going on here.” This is unlike all other religions and ideologies which will fill this gap in their knowledge with whatever predetermined beliefs they have about the universe.

That is all for me today, I will be posting about this again soon. I will leave you with a quote from Mark Twain, ” When even the brightest mind in our world has been trained up from childhood in a superstition of any kind, it will never be possible for that mind, in its maturity, to examine sincerely, dispassionately, and conscientiously any evidence or any circumstance which shall seem to cast a doubt upon the validity of that superstition. I doubt if I could do it myself.” Mark Twain, an author and humorist of some note.

I am going to be adding a question to the each post from now on, and you can give your answers in the comments or by emailing me. Today’s question is ‘How many DNA base pairs are there in the human genome?”