Monday, August 26, 2013

Wikipedia factoids

I just found this in a Wikipedia article:
The following are well-known examples of factoids, and the facts which clarify or debunk them. ...

It is often reported that Toronto was named by UNESCO as the most multicultural city in the world. ...

Nonetheless, the belief in this status persisted for years, even finding its way onto UNESCO's own web site.
I am always glad to have Wikipedia correct my factoids, but why is it wrong to report what UNESCO says on its web site?

There is also a useful List of common misconceptions, but for many items, the common belief is not much different from the truth. For example:
Black holes, contrary to their common image, do not necessarily suck up all the matter in the vicinity. If, for example, the Sun were replaced by a black hole of equal mass, the orbits of the planets would be essentially unaffected, but in other situations a black hole can act like a cosmic vacuum cleaner and pull a substantial inflow of matter. ...

Mammals did not evolve from any modern group of reptiles. ... The mammals themselves, being the only survivors of the synapsid line, are the "cousins" rather than "siblings" of modern reptiles. ...

For instance, despite appearing as a word in numerous dictionaries, "irregardless" is sometimes dismissed as "not a word".
At least there are sources for most of the items.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

The age of denial

Physics professor Adam Frank writes in a NY Times op-ed that we are in an age of denial:
Today, however, it is politically effective, and socially acceptable, to deny scientific fact. Narrowly defined, “creationism” was a minor current in American thinking for much of the 20th century. But in the years since I was a student, a well-funded effort has skillfully rebranded that ideology as “creation science” and pushed it into classrooms across the country. Though transparently unscientific, denying evolution has become a litmus test for some conservative politicians, even at the highest levels.
Well-funded? Hardly. Nearly all the money is in anti-creationism evolution, such as this UC Berkeley site. There is not one school district in the USA teaching creationism. There used to be a class at Ball State University that included intelligent design among many other readings, but a campaign to fire the professor has resulted in the class being canceled.

Frank would be more persuasive if he could give an example of a scientific fact being denied.
So many Oregon parents have refused vaccination that the state is revising its school entry policies. And all of this is happening in a culture that is less engaged with science and technology as intellectual pursuits than at any point I can remember.
Compliance with the recommended schedule of 20 or so vaccinations dropped to 94% in Oregon. Those who refuse are not necessarily denying any facts. Most of the vaccines are against diseases that are not present in Oregon anyway.
During my undergraduate studies I was shocked at the low opinion some of my professors had of the astronomer Carl Sagan. For me his efforts to popularize science were an inspiration, but for them such “outreach” was a diversion. That view makes no sense today.
The trouble with Sagan is that he became primarily involved in philosophical and political issues of dubious scientific merit, such as intelligent life on other planets and nuclear weapon disarmament.

Contrary to Frank, I think that respect for science is higher than ever. I don't see the public denying scientific facts. It is to the public's credit if they are skeptical about political pronouncements by scientists.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Punishment for disrespect is death

Here is a lesson in Islamic justice:
At approximately one hour and 18 minutes into the programme Mr Nazimi answered a question from a caller, who was identified as “brother Yasir Nahif” (“Mr Nahif”), who asked:

“What is the punishment for the individual who shows disrespect for Prophet Muhammad?”

In response to the question from Mr Nahif, we noted the following remarks made by Mr Nazimi:

“There is no disagreement about this [the punishment]; there is absolutely no doubt about it that the punishment for the person who shows disrespect for the Prophet is death. No one [among the Islamic scholars] disagrees about this. No one disagrees about this. The Koran, hadeeth [orally transmitted quotes of Prophet Muhammad], the actions of the companions of Prophet Muhammad, all testify to this [punishment] and there is no room for doubt in it. Whoever shows disrespect for Prophet Muhammad will be given death penalty. The procedure for carrying out the death penalty is that if there is an Islamic government operating in a country, then the Islamic government will carry out the implementation of this punishment to the one who shows disrespect for the Prophet. However, if there are no Islamic laws [implemented], if Islamic Law is not being abided by, if the Islamic Law is being shredded and is in tatters – and this environment prevails in Pakistan, then [drops the sentence].
So no one in an Islamic country knows the truth about Muhammad because there is no free speech there.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Americans are from the USA

Chris Kirk writes:
My new Colombian friend scolded me for misinterpreting “American.” Didn’t I realize, she lectured, how unfair, imperialistic, and U.S.-centric it is for U.S. people to steal the terms “America” and “American” to refer specifically to their country and themselves? ...

So let me say on behalf of all Americans to anti-“Americans” everywhere: We’re not going to stop using “America.” We should not stop. Get over it.
People from the United States of Mexico call themselves Mexicans. People from the United States of America call themselves Americans, and so does the rest of the world.

But what's with all the Chinese people suddenly calling themselves Asian? Did China get renamed as the Chinese States of Asia? Are they trying to be confused with Russians and East Indians? They used to call themselves Chinese.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Decoding brain scans to read minds

When I post about mindreading, it is usually about perceptions of what is going on in the mind based on external behavior. But there has been huge progress in brain scans understanding coarse brain activity. Neurokeptic reports:
A neat paper from Schoenmakers et al of the Dutch Donders Institute reports on Linear reconstruction of perceived images from human brain activity

It introduces a new mathematical approach for decoding (or ‘brain reading’) the image that someone is looking at, pixel-by-pixel, based on the pattern of neural activity in their visual cortex.
The paper claims to reconstruct letters from brain scans, as shown below.


Monday, August 19, 2013

Religious belief in the genes

Tim Spector writes:
I am frequently asked by journalists to recall the most surprising finding of our twin studies. The study of religion and belief in God is the one that always comes to mind, and the results are not easily accepted by many people. Most people can accept diseases or height and even weight being genetically heritable to some extent, but when it comes to our personal beliefs we tend to be more skeptical. For many, the idea that there is a genetic component to our faith -- or lack of it -- is a stretch too far and damages the concept of self-determination that we hold so dear.

Nevertheless science has shown us clearly that one level of belief in God and overall spirituality is shaped not only by a mix of family environment and upbringing -- which is not surprising -- but also by our genes. Twin studies conducted around the world in the U.S., the Netherlands and Australia as well as ours in the U.K. show a 40 to 50 percent genetic component to belief in God. ...

Skeptics among you might say that the twin studies showing similarity for belief are just reflecting some cultural or family influence that wasn't properly corrected for in the study design. However in one study of adopted twins, the researchers looked at religious belief in a number of adopted twins raised apart. They found exactly the same result -- greater similarity in identical twin pairs, even if raised apart. The conclusion is unavoidable: faith is definitely influenced by genes.
We have laws against discriminating against various immutable inborn characteristics, and laws against religious discrimination, but no one wants to believe that religion is inborn. After all, people freely join or leave religions all the time.

I am referring to Christianity and similar religions here. For Christians, religious belief is accepted as voluntary. Islam and Judaism have the concept that if you are born into the religion, then you can never leave.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Trayvon bought watermeleon juice

I followed the Shooting of Trayvon Martin pretty closely, but I always thought that Martin was out buying Skittles and iced tea. But I just learned that he actually bought watermeleon juice, not iced tea.

Okay, it is not the most important fact in this case. The case was important because President Barack Obama, MSNBC TV, and the American black community have chosen to popularize it as the most egregious example of black persecution in the nation today. There is nothing wrong with buying watermeleon juice, but there is something wrong with our leaders systematically lying to us for the purpose of provoking racial animosity.

The whole prosecution was based on the outrageous claims that George Zimmerman made an incorrect assumption, and that Mertin died thru no fault of his own. There was no testimony that any assumption was false, and a lot of testimony that Martin was viciously and criminally beating Zimmerman. Obama and the others chose a lousy poster boy for their racist cause.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Teaching feelings in class

A Science Friday broadcast last week was on emotional intelligence:
Some psychologists say teaching emotional literacy in school is key to better behavior—and better grades. Marc Brackett and Maurice Elias, two experts in social emotional learning, talk about how emotional literacy is woven into a standard curriculum, and how it can tackle problems like bullying and absenteeism.
That may sound plausible, but they lost me at this point:
We believe that all emotions are valid. We don't value any emotion over another. [at 9:50]
They go on to say that it should be normal for all the teachers and students to share their emotions and feelings with others at school.

No, this is crazy. I want the chemistry teacher to teach chemistry, and not subject the class to his personal emotional feelings.

This is another example of the feminization of the schools. See Boys Adrift, by Leonard Sax for many other examples.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Heritability of baseball and business

The latest Freakonomics podcast claims that business competence is not heritable, and gives this example:
DUBNER: So traits that are important for something like sports are pretty heritable. Consider the son of a Major League Baseball player. You want to know how much more likely it is that he’ll also play in the majors compared to the average kid? Eight hundred times more likely. Not eight times, eight hundred. ...

McGUE: Other traits are much less heritable. Most behavioral traits would be a lot less heritable than height. So personality characteristics, maybe the heritability estimate would be on the order of forty to fifty-percent. IQ might be higher. Might be fifty, sixty, some would argue seventy-percent. Do you know the story of the Vanderbilts?

The original Vanderbilt, at least the original rich one made his money in the railroad business in the 19th century. ... But after that the wealth started to really digress. To where today, if you think about it, how many leaders of industry do you know named Vanderbilt? You don’t know any. Even though that was his goal a hundred and fifty years ago, to establish this family dynasty. You don’t know of any famous Vanderbilts in the railroad business or anything.
Yes, we all do know a famous and accomplished member of the Vanderbilt family. CNN TV anchor Anderson Cooper is the son of Gloria, the one who was supposedly the proof of the family's decline. The show did not mention Cooper. (Cooper himself is gay, and not likely to have an heir.)

The show actually have several examples of heirs to successful businesses who went on to also be extremely successful, both in the USA and overseas.

I did not know that rich Japanese businessman will legally adopt a 25yo son in order to have a more competent heir, and that this is so common that the median age for adoption in Japan is about 25.

Thursday, August 08, 2013

Harvard attack on science

Harvard psychology professor Steve Pinker writes:
When Harvard reformed its general education requirement in 2006 to 2007, the preliminary task force report introduced the teaching of science without any mention of its place in human knowledge: “Science and technology directly affect our students in many ways, both positive and negative: they have led to life-saving medicines, the internet, more efficient energy storage, and digital entertainment; they also have shepherded nuclear weapons, biological warfare agents, electronic eavesdropping, and damage to the environment.” This strange equivocation between the utilitarian and the nefarious was not applied to other disciplines. (Just imagine motivating the study of classical music by noting that it both generates economic activity and inspired the Nazis.) And there was no acknowledgment that we might have good reasons to prefer science and know-how over ignorance and superstition.
The Harvard quote is much worse than that. Even those supposedly negative aspects of science have helped millions of people, and hardly harmed anyone. The quote says a lot about the prejudices of Harvard professors.
The humanities have yet to recover from the disaster of postmodernism, with its defiant obscurantism, dogmatic relativism, and suffocating political correctness. And they have failed to define a progressive agenda. Several university presidents and provosts have lamented to me that when a scientist comes into their office, it’s to announce some exciting new research opportunity and demand the resources to pursue it. When a humanities scholar drops by, it’s to plead for respect for the way things have always been done.
The Harvard education is obsolete. The students would probably be better off if the humanities departments were abolished.

Upddate: Philospher Massimo Pigliucci disagrees with Pinker.

Tuesday, August 06, 2013

East West differences

Here is evidence that Easterners (ie Chinese) think differently from Westerners (ie Americans). The videos have tests that you can take for yourself, to see the differences.

One difference is that Americans emphasize nouns while Orientals emphasize verbs. The preference for nouns and objects means that Americans take more objective views.

Computer programmers also have such a split. Early programmers preferred the verb view, and languages were procedural. Eventually they were overtaken by object-oriented languages and programming.

Americans are also much more individualistic. These differences in world-view can be shown by asking questions about interpretations of drawings. Some of these experiments have disproved some previous ideas about the universality of human nature.

The extreme collective view is fictionalized as the Borg of Star Trek:
The goal of the Borg is assimilation. That means destroying individualism by merging everyone into a collective consciousness. Before taking over, they say, "You will be assimilated" and "Resistance is futile."
The book The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently...and Why has more detail. Here are examples:
Most toddlers who grow up in a European language environment learn new nouns at twice the rate at which they learn verbs. East Asian toddlers learn verbs at a faster rate than they learn nouns. (p. 149)

When asked to describe themselves either in particular contexts or without specifying a situation (e.g. I work very diligently on school projects, I am a loving child, or I like to cook with my friend vs. I am loving, diligent, or I like to cook ) Japanese people had difficulty describing themselves without referencing context; Americans not only preferred to describe themselves in terms of universal attributes, but many had trouble understanding the concept of describing themselves 'in context' at all. (p. 53)
I have no idea whether these differences are cultural or genetic. The book seems to assume that they are cultural, but GNXP blog writes:
Nisbett has a collection of studies that he bandies about, which reinforces stereotypes and preconceptions about "Asian thinking" vs. "Western thinking."

The West is reductionist, the East is holistic
The East is accepts contradiction, the West must be consistent
The West focuses on the object, the East observers the context

...and so forth. This is a recapitulation of tried & true generalizations. ...

As a psychologist, I assume Nisbett knows of the work of Jerome Kagan, which shows quite clearly that different races have somewhat shifted levels of extroversion from infancy. I don't know where this would fit in in with Nisbett's theories, but it seems likely that a given cultural matrix would shape individuals over generations by selecting for a certain personality type that is congenial to succeeding when certain social assumptions are ubiquitous. A good test would be Asian children adopted by white Americans and raised in The United States.
Some other differences are that America has nuclear families, while Asia has extended families. Someone who grows up in a nuclear family is much more likely to believe in individualism and personal autonomy. Another difference is that Western languages use a phonetic alphabet, while that invention seems to have never reached the Far East. Perhaps a phonetic alphabet leads to reductionist thinking.

Asian women often prefer to date white American guys, for reasons listed here, here, and here. Or read about the dysfunctional Korean dating scene. But these omit what I think is the biggest reason -- family type. When an Asian women marries and Asian man, she marries into his whole family. She will forever have in-laws telling her what to do, and she will never be good enough for them. If she marries an American man, she only has to keep her husband happy.

Update: T. Greer raises questions about the rise of the West:
Between 1760 and 1820 Europe's wealth exploded - and so did its energy use. The two trends are intimately related. ...

With this knowledge we can amend the original question. "Why did the West diverge from the rest?" is replaced with the more focused "Why did Western nations have the technical and scientific expertise to pioneer non-animate energy sources and an economic system that allowed these new methods of production to spread across the West?" ...

Rather than focus on why Europe diverged from the rest in 1800 we should be asking why the North Sea diverged from the rest in 1000.
There is no agreement about the answers. Possible causes are Christianity, nuclear families, and scientific advances.

Saturday, August 03, 2013

Google scientists make unscientific attack

Google has attracted these leftist scientists:
In 2011 Google appointed 21 Google Science Communication Fellows (GSCF) – academics representing the cream of US climate-change science – and tasked them with exploring new ways of communicating the issue to the public. On Thursday, 17 of the GSCF did just that, and called out Google for its own failings in an open letter.

This public shaming of their sponsors was inspired not by Google's operational practices, they said, but by its political actions – specifically Mountain View's active support for Senator James Mountain "Jim" Inhofe (R-OK).
The letter says:
Among his most notorious statements, Senator Inhofe has outrageously claimed that climate change is "a hoax on the American people" and, in the absence of a shred of factual evidence, accused climate scientists of being "criminals."
Sen. Inhofe does like the word "hoax", but usually for catastrophic global warming. I never heard him say that climate change is a hoax, and the letter does not provide a reference.

This is pitiful. When scientists complain about someone else being anti-science, I expect them to show off their scientific thinking and document the errors. This letter does not.
But Inhofe's assault on the scientific community is not a difference in climate policy; it's a strategy designed to promote dysfunction and paralysis; to destroy the reputation of scientists and the legitimacy of their institutions; and to undermine our ability to find common ground.
Now they are doing mindreading about motives. Here is a description of Inhofe's book:
Americans are over-regulated and over-taxed. When regulation escalates, the result is an increase in regulators. In other words, bigger government is required to enforce the greater degree of regulation. Bigger government means bigger budgets and higher taxes. "More" simply doesn't mean "better." A perfect example is the entire global warming, climate-change issue, which is an effort to dramatically and hugely increase regulation of each of our lives and business, and to raise our cost of living and taxes. In The Greatest Hoax, Senator James Inhofe will reveal the reasons behind those perpetuating the Hoax of global warming, who is benefitting from the general acceptance of the Hoax and why the premise statements are blatantly and categorically false.
Again, this is sloppy language because the book says that man-made catastrophic global warming is a hoax. It seems plausibe to me that Inhofe's motives are exactly what he says, and that his strategy is not designed for any of the things alleged in the letter.

Inhofe is not a scientist, and may misstate the science for all I know. But these scientists are just making a stupid personal attack, and they should know better.

Meanwhile, the UK BBC reports on alarmist research:
Shifts in climate are strongly linked to increases in violence around the world, a study suggests.

US scientists found that even small changes in temperature or rainfall correlated with a rise in assaults, rapes and murders, as well as group conflicts and war.

The team says with the current projected levels of climate change, the world is likely to become a more violent place.