Brent Rasmussen's picture

Relatively Speaking

Chris Campbell of Thinking Christian takes a step in the right direction with his post today. He ponders relativism as it relates to, and maps to, reality. But he assumes that this god-thing of his exists without any evidence at all. It's an interesting blind spot that he has.

[link] It seems to me that when discussing the question of whether there is a God or not it usually comes down to relativism. Those that discuss God or religions even will eventually begin to say "everyone has their own view of God, and that's ok." There is a real interesting quote at the beginning of each episode of the Discovery Channel show The Mythbusters: "I reject your reality and substitute my own," exclaims one of the shows hosts. He may or may not know it but this is the mantra of the Post-Modern world that we live in today. If I don't like the world as you describe it I can just ignore it and live in my own little world. If that world doesn't work out for me then I will just reshape it to a different view and try again.

I agree that Campbell's commentary about substituting our own "realities" for others "realities" has a valid point. Left to our own prejudices, emotions, perceptions, etc., each and every human being on this planet would not agree on the facts or the truth of anything at all.

Fortunately we have the scientific method that that we can use - any one of us! - to ferret out the facts, the truth of things, in an objective fashion that all can agree upon if they simply follow the method.

More below the fold...

Brent Rasmussen's picture

Here's Your Sign

The Commissar asks an interesting question about the recent revelation that Jerome Armstrong, of MyDD and Daily Kos, is a believer in astrology.

[link] I don’t recall reading PZ Myers, DarkSyde, Ed Brayton, or Brent Rasmussen denouncing astrologists. Let me be clear. I seriously doubt that Markos sent out a “dummy up on the astrology-bashing” to his apparatchiks. Almost certainly the Left’s “Defenders of Science” simply haven’t perceived astrology as a threat. Okay, let me put it on your radar screen. An advisor to a serious Democratic presidential candidate is an astrologer, as well as an admitted stock swindler. 29% of Americans believe in astrology. I think a little distancing would be in order, from the Left’s “Defenders of Science.” (If they have in the past, I’d be delighted to correct this post.)

You know what? I don't think I've ever wrote a post "denouncing astrologers". Astrology is quite possibly one of the lowest-priority subjects on my plate, right behind phlogiston.

I have two things to say here. Commissar, please listen up.

I do not affiliate myself with the Daily Kos is any political fashion at all. I do not consider myself a political "apparatchik", or "agent of the apparatus", of the Daily Kos. I have never taken orders from the Daily Kos. I do not even read the Daily Kos except to read science posts by Darksyde that he does not post here also at UTI.

I am pretty non-political, actually. I suppose my atheism causes quite a few folks to place me into the "lefty" category. As does my co-blogger association with Darksyde who writes front-page articles (mostly on science!) for the Daily Kos.

However, the reality is much more bland than that. I was a conservative Republican for the lion's share of my voting years, and have just recently changed my party affiliation to independent. Heck, I still consider myself an old-school fiscal conservative - you know, the folks who looked a hell of a lot like little-"l" libertarians. I do not agree with the "new right's" slip into what looks suspiciously to me like the "old left's" concern with my fucking private life. But I realized that there are exactly two types of people in politics; Those who want to control other people, and those who do not want to control other people. (in corrolary, the citizens of the US fall into those who want to be controlled, and those who do not want to be controlled, obviously.)

Everything else - every label, classification, etc., blah blah blah, is just window dressing.

The second thing is this:

I denounce astrology as a smelly, steaming pile of made-up, woo-woo, wishful thinking and sympathetic magical nonsense. If Jerome Armstrong truly believes in that crap, then my estimation of him just fell through the floor - regadless of his politics, political acumen, or his good intentions with respect to the Democratic Party.

The political system must remain secular, or we all get the shaft at one point or another. That includes astrology. However, I do not believe that mixing astrology into politics is as dangerous to our society at this time as mixing religion into our politics is.

Commissar, I see what you're trying to do - and I happen to agree with you. Nut cases seem to be spread evenly throughout the population - right, left, center, or out in left field. It is right and proper that we take the time to focus on these screwballs and not align ourselves with them.

But I do not agree with the Commissar's assessment of the relative weights of these two pseudo-sciences, astrology and creation science. It's comparing grapes to watermelons.

Alon Levy's picture

Single-Sex Schools

I know I haven't made good on my promise for heavy Singapore-bashing, but here's one teaser: single-sex schools perform no better than coed ones, despite a persistent myth that having boys around distracts girls and hurts their academic performance.

In Singapore this myth is official government policy, and up to and including tenth grade, most schools are single-sex. The government commonly appeals to fraudulent studies and myths to support authoritarian policies, framing itself in opposition to idealism and feel-good politics. But pragmatism is often a veneer for despicable, unjustifiable positions, and this case, both in Singapore and elsewhere, is a good example of it.

Ultimately single-sex schools are not about improving girls' performance any more than abstinence-only education is about reducing the risk of STIs. Both are equally about sexually repressing teens and children, and covering it up in pseudo-realist language.

Brent Rasmussen's picture

How Big Is Really, Really Big?

Mind-blowingly cool.

[link] This page is 9 quadrillion pixels wide by 9 quadrillion pixels tall. Thus it contains a large number of pixels:


otherwise known as 8.1 nonillion. In scientific notation, that's 8.1x10^30, hereafter shown in the form 8.1e30.

This means that the repeating background image has 5.4e28 stars on it-- about as many as there would be if our universe was multiplied to a million times it's current observable size.

Futhermore, at 77 pixels to the inch, this page takes up 3.4e18 square miles and is 1.844 billion miles on a side-- an area roughly equivalent to a section of the plane of our Solar System with the sun at the center and the orbit of Saturn on the outside edge (a square 22 AU on a side). That's about 17 billion times the surface area of the Earth.

(Tip of the ballcap to Jake over at Salt On Everything.)

Brent Rasmussen's picture

Just Right

By Dr. Charles A. Coats of the First Avenue Christian Assembly in Chilliwack, B.C. dredges up that hoary old apologist's argument, The Argument From Probability, and does his darndest to make it fly.

[link] The number of electrons in our universe must be fine-tuned to better than one part in 1,038. That's a one with 38 zeros behind it.

How precise is this? Well, imagine covering the entire continent of North America with dimes. Now make the stack go as high as the moon, 239,000 miles away. (As a comparison, the number of dimes it would take to pay the United States federal government debt would only cover one square mile a few feet deep.)

Now take this stack of dimes covering North America all the way to the moon and multiply it times 1,000,000,000 (one billion). Mark one dime in the billion stacks with a secret mark, and blindfold a friend. Send him through the billion stacks and have him randomly pick one dime.

More below the fold...

Alon Levy's picture

The YearlyKos Education Panel

I've been meaning to post something about public education since I became a frontpager here. Now TeacherKen provided me with an excellent opportunity in the form of a write-up of the YK education panel. The two main speakers were Jamie Vollmer, a businessman with ties to public education, and Tom Vilsack, the very pro-public education Governor of Iowa.

Vollmer's speech was the sort that nobody with even marginal knowledge of education outside the US would make even as parody. Most egregiously, he claimed that "for every mile a decision is made farther from where the school is, the dumber the decision will be." Anyone who knows something about what goes on in European countries, both Western and Eastern, will know that Vollmer has no idea what he's talking about, for the US has one of the first world's most decentralized education systems and at the same time performs close to its bottom.

Indeed, part of the problem in the US is that it's almost alone among developed countries in having no national standards students must meet to graduate. In Britain, graduation depends on passing a series of non-standardized tests called the A-Levels. Germany has a similar scheme called Abitur. France has the Baccaleauréat. International schools have IB, which is fortunately starting to make headway in the US.

Brent Rasmussen's picture

Failure To Communicate

"What we've got here is failure to communicate." -Captain, Road Prison 36, Cool Hand Luke

A lot of words used by Christians seem like they actually mean things - but do they really? How do you define "God", for instance without lapsing into inchoherence and circular references?

Forbes magazine recently ran a story on how some "Christian thinkers" are concerned that we are "losing heaven".

I gotta tell you, I read through the entire article and realized at the end that it is 100% gibberish. Semantic content zero. I read the words, and it looks like sentences, but it is completely and utterly incomprehensible to me as an atheist. And this content-free "news story" is printed in a major US magazine - as if it actually means something. Amazing.

So, I re-wrote it to show all the fine Christian types exactly what I'm talking about.

Heh. Enjoy.

[link] Belief in Blippyboo is going to you-know-where. And belief in Frizzlesnap is in trouble, too.

That's the concern of some Frankian thinkers, including Jeffrey Burton Russell, an emeritus professor of history at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and author of the new book "Paradise Mislaid: How We Lost Frizzlesnap and How We Can Regain It" (Oxford).

Alon Levy's picture

Bear Poops in Woods; Hillary Clinton Says Stupid Thing

One of the most common myths about the millennial generation is that it's composed of spoiled brats who don't care about anything and know nothing of the value of work. Although there is one true thing about this belief, namely that millennials tend to be the products of the self-esteem culture where everyone's above average, the bulk of it has very little to do with reality.

So, when Hillary Clinton said that young people think work is a four-letter word because they try to get the best jobs they can out of college instead of settling for the first offer, it was clear she was engaging in ex recto rhetoric. Now the New York Times has the evidence to prove that Clinton's rhetoric was not just pulled out of thin air, but also factually wrong:

Lost in the argument over whether young people today know how to work, however, is the mounting evidence produced by labor economists of just how important it is for current graduates to ignore the old-school advice of trying to get ahead by working one's way up the ladder. Instead, it seems, graduates should try to do exactly the thing the older generation bemoans — aim for the top.

The recent evidence shows quite clearly that in today's economy starting at the bottom is a recipe for being underpaid for a long time to come. Graduates' first jobs have an inordinate impact on their career path and their "future income stream," as economists refer to a person's earnings over a lifetime.

Another thing that is lost in the constant whining about the moral strength of people under 25 is that instant gratification isn't a particularly new invention. Instant gratification in the form of instant messaging may be new, but then again instant gratification in the form of television was new in the 1960s, too. Let's not forget that Animal House was not made in 2002.

Alon Levy's picture

Reality has a well-known liberal bias

Hat-tip to Pharyngula: apparently, some student at some American university believes in segregated education - not between whites and blacks, but between liberals and conservatives.

[link] After 34 years of college teaching, I thought I had heard just about every imaginable student complaint. Last week, however, a freshman in my 300-seat US History Since 1865 course came in to discuss her exam with one of the graders and proceeded to work herself into a semi-hissy over the fact that we had spent four class periods(one of them consisting of a visit from Taylor Branch) discussing the civil rights movement.

"I don't know where he's getting all of this," she complained,"we never discussed any of this in high school." One might have let the matter rest here as simply an example of a high school history teacher's sins of omission being visited on the hapless old history prof. had the student not informed the TA in an indignant postcript, "I'm not a Democrat! I don't think I should have to listen to this stuff!" [Emphasis added]

Usually, it's considered an elitist liberal idea to keep conservatives uninformed and only let liberals have education. Apparently, some conservative agrees with that stereotypical view.

Now conservative think tanks are going to have to expand into undergrad education, where they can properly teach their students right, conservative material without liberal bias interfering. Then they can produce worthless diplomas and let the students find crappy jobs at the same places that accept degrees from unaccredited bible colleges. Everyone will be happy - the think tanks will get more money, bible colleges will have competition, conservative students will be able to get a degree without learning anything, and academics won't have to deal with this particular form of crap.

Alon Levy's picture

More Captcha Problems

EDITED to include another comment.

For some reason, UTI now wants me to enter a captcha code when I'm registered, even when I use Internet Explorer, which used to be immune to that. So for now, I can't comment on UTI at all. I could provide you with a public key and then comment anonymously and digitally sign my comments, but that'd be too much work for someone without any encryption software, like me, and besides, I don't think anyone who reads my comments will bother checking that the signature is correct. This means that until I can comment, I'll write responses I think are worth highlighting as frontpage posts, simply because that's all I can do.

Now, Gordo responds to my post about university admissions, saying that universities should strive to admit students according to their class rank (if I'm misrepresenting your view, tell me and I'll edit this):

We know that minority students tend to have lower grades and test scores than white students. There are only two possible explanations: either the minority students are disadvantaged, or they're genetically inferior.

I reject the notion that they're inferior because there's no scientific evidence that the races are different in any significant way. In fact, it's very hard to come up with a biological definition of "race." Race is an almost entirely social construct.

So that leaves disadvantage as an explanation. When you've rejected the idea that whites are superior, the necessary conclusion is that minority students who finish in the top 10% of their classes are as intelligent and eager as the whites who finish in the top 10%. So if these minority students underperform when they get to college, the solution is not to keep them out, but to address their needs.

To this I say, I think what's likeliest is that in many ways, some black students are disadvantaged in such a way that they can't recover merely by going to a good university. Sometimes minority students' schools are so bad that they don't come close to preparing them adequately for college; indeed, the study you link to compares the percentages of graduating seniors of each major race/ethnicity who have completed the courses required by UC for admission, and whites have a much higher percentage than blacks and Hispanics (and Asians have a high percentage than whites).

Some gaps can only be bridged in the next generation, by cracking down on discrimination and aggressively promoting equal-funding schemes. Although the IQ gap isn't genetic, it's probably impossible to eliminate in this generation; that is, it's impossible to raise the average IQ of currently living blacks from 93 to 100, but it is possible (and happening right now, albeit at a fairly slow pace) to ensure that the average IQ of blacks born in the future will be 100 rather than 93.

Needless to say, I'll change my mind if I see a study showing that class rank is a better predictor of college performance than absolute metrics like GPA and SAT. It's almost certainly true that students in sufficiently high percentiles of their classes deserve to get in, which is why I support percent plans. But still, the primary method of promoting racial equality on campuses should be to directly improve majority-minority schools (integration could only work if there was a way to get white parents to send their children to schools that are currently failing).

(additional comment below the flip)

Alon Levy's picture

College Admissions

A few days ago, I found a very insightful New Yorker article about American Ivy League college admissions. Ordinarily, in the United States people who support accepting students based purely on high school grades and SAT scores tend to be more anti-affirmative action and thus more conservative than people who prefer emphasizing diversity, well-roundedness, and personal essays. But in fact, the switch from a purely meritocratic system to a more subjective one was in origin a ploy to keep Jews, public school students, shy bookworms, and other undesirables out.

In 1905, Harvard College adopted the College Entrance Examination Board tests as the principal basis for admission, which meant that virtually any academically gifted high—school senior who could afford a private college had a straightforward shot at attending. By 1908, the freshman class was seven per cent Jewish, nine per cent Catholic, and forty-five per cent from public schools, an astonishing transformation for a school that historically had been the preserve of the New England boarding-school complex known in the admissions world as St. Grottlesex.

As the sociologist Jerome Karabel writes in "The Chosen" (Houghton Mifflin; $28), his remarkable history of the admissions process at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, that meritocratic spirit soon led to a crisis. The enrollment of Jews began to rise dramatically. By 1922, they made up more than a fifth of Harvard's freshman class. The administration and alumni were up in arms. Jews were thought to be sickly and grasping, grade-grubbing and insular. They displaced the sons of wealthy Wasp alumni, which did not bode well for fund-raising. A. Lawrence Lowell, Harvard's president in the nineteen-twenties, stated flatly that too many Jews would destroy the school: "The summer hotel that is ruined by admitting Jews meets its fate . . . because they drive away the Gentiles, and then after the Gentiles have left, they leave also."

Brent Rasmussen's picture

Magic Gravity Elves

Please Note: This post appeared on UTI originally on December 21, 2004. -Brent

My local paper, the Arizona Republic, had an op-ed piece this morning about Intelligent Design, Evolution, and what should be taught in our public school science classes. Interestingly enough, it's written by a non-local named Mark Landsbaum - a former LA Times writer. I haven't fisked any creationists lately, so I'll do this guy line-by-line.

More below the fold...

Brent Rasmussen's picture

A Bargain Basement Kent Hovind

Tom Ritter is a high school chemistry teacher with a dilemma. How to reconcile his duties teaching public high-school students chemistry and physics when those fields depend so heavily on evolution?

Did I mention that Professor Tom is a creationist? And that he has issued a $1000.00 "challenge" to "evolutionists" to debate him in mid-May on the topic; "Is evolution the only rational explanation to explain life and the existence of modern organisms?"

Apparently, Tom Ritter is Lebanon Pennsylvania's rather shopworn version of Dr. Dino.

Ritter, a chemistry and physics teacher, is astonishingly ignorant when it comes to evolution.

[link] “Personally, I don’t have much interest in evolution, creation or ‘intelligent design,’” Ritter said. “I’m interested in science. I believe teaching evolution as fact perverts science. You could teach evolution as a theory, and I’d have no problem with that.

Evolution is both a fact and a collection of theories. The fact is that evolution occurs. No sane person would even think of denying this. The theories are attempts to best explain how evolution occurs. A science teacher who doesn't understand this should be fired. It's inexcusably ignorant - willfully ignorant.

Alon Levy's picture

Education Reform

A while ago, there was a thread on Pharyngula about the importance of learning math that turned into a 300-comment flamewar. One of my comments in that thread articulated a proposal to reform secondary education by more or less bringing college down to the secondary level; unfortunately, it was consumed by a blaze of flames about American patriotism, so it didn't get any commentary, which I think it should have.

The basics of the idea is to apply college mores to high school learning in two stages, of which the first is more solid and the second more radical. The first stage involves adopting a somewhat European system - most importantly, instituting end-of-high-school exams. There's no need to make passing them a requirement for graduation; it will be alright to just make passing them a requirement for college admission. The AP tests could be good enough, but recent research shows that their standardized format makes them bad predictors of college grades (but note that European non-standardized high-school leaving exams are fairly good predictors); perhaps IB would be better for that purpose. While right now very few American students take either IB or AP, in Europe the rates of graduation from academic high schools, which requires passing IB-like exams, are in the 50s and 60s.

The second stage does not strictly speaking require the first to be complete, but will be easier to implement after the first: essentially, treating high school students like college students.

DrCelebre's picture

Worst Professor in the Universe

Hey everyone! Go to the contest for Worst Professor In The Universe and cast your vote for Professor Timothy Shortell. You'll recall that he called religious believers "moral retards" a while back and caused quite a dust up at a public, liberal arts college in New York. For that he deserves the title. (And our thanks.)

He's currently in fifth place, only about 65,000 votes behind Professor Todd Gitlin. I am confident that the infidel hordes at UTI can swing this election. Let's show them how dangerous atheism really is!

Brent Rasmussen's picture

I'm Not A Biologist, But...

How many times have you heard some IDiot start a sentence this way? It makes me laugh every time. I came across it again today while reading about the proposed elective course called "Philosophy Of Design" that is going to be taught by a soccer coach in the California town of Lebec in the Tehachapi mountains. (Tip of the ballcap to PZ, of course.) Apparently the course will consist entirely of playing videos from the ICR and other ID propaganda mills.

Heh. The public in Lebec were even told that the course was "to help students apply critical thinking to questions about evolution and Intelligent Design". Hehehe... Funny stuff. Propaganda videos from the wack-jobs at the ICR are now considered training for "critical thinking". It's a perfect illustration of how the ID movement co-opts "scientific sounding" words and phrases, then regurgitates them to the public in order to dazzle them with bullshit.

A Rational Being's picture

What Would Jesus Do? | 12/12/2005 | Williams denied clemency

Here, once again, we can see the hypocrisy of America's Christians. Tonight or sometime tomorrow morning, they will kill someone. I call it government sanctioned murder but it is also Christian sanctioned murder.

I'm not apologizing for Mr. Williams's mistakes. He made some poor choices (those bad choices, by-the-way, do not make him a bad person). But do his poor choices give us permission to kill him?

The American Christians are powerful. They've stopped "gay marriage" across the country. They've thrown many roadblocks in the way of a legal abortion. They've rallied to elect one of their own for president. They've influenced legislation, and the supreme court. They've changed school curricula across the country. They've put the nonsense idea of Intelligent design in a spotlight right next to the solid science of Evolution. They have lots of power. So why didn't they stop this murder?

Christians, I hate to throw your own words back at you, but I want you to see your hypocracy in stark terms, "What Would Jesus Do?"

Based on what I've seen in my 40+ years, Jesus would have us kill our fellow man, treat men and women of different sexual orientation as sub-human, prevent a women from bringing an unwanted child into the world, and teach kids mythical nonsense over hard science.

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