The Flight of the Rainbow Owl

Even with an ocean of knowledge at their fingertips, people will believe anything. I found people credibly tossing this photo around on FB.

Behold the “Rainbow Owl”.

The Rainbow Owl is a rare species of owl found in hardwood forests in the western United States and parts of China. Long coveted for its colorful plumage, the Rainbow Owl was nearly hunted to extinction in the early 20th century. However, due to conservation efforts, recent years have seen a significant population increase, particularly in northwestern Montana[...]

[...]A leading Rainbow Owl research team from the University of Montana in Missoula has earned the nickname “The Disco Squad” for their creative use of disco music in the field. “People think it’s crazy, but we are about twice as likely to encounter owls in the field if we bring along a portable stereo,” says Herman Roark, a doctoral student working with the Disco Squad, “And they are most responsive to disco. So far, we have had the most success with ‘The Hustle.’”

Now I am no ornithologist, but I have a casual interest in owls and gee, I just think I would have seen this before if it was real. But, if I left it at that and called it crap, I would have been committing a logical fallacy: the argument from incredulity (or personal ignorance).

Good thing for me it’s not too hard to google “rainbow owl.” Of course the first thing to come up was this snopes article. Guess what? It’s FAKE! No shock. Nor am I particularly clever for suspecting it as a fake, because it was pretty obvious. The big surprise is that quite a few people on fb seemed to be taken in by it.

I hate misinformation, but I can’t put too much blame on the pranksters who made this. The disco stuff is hilarious.  Snopes doesn’t say anything about where it originated, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it was a satire piece somewhere.

But people on FB were passing it around as fact. Just another bad mark on our scientific literacy report card.

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Shoving reproductive health care into the middle, and excluding it.

Posts on facebook expressing a point of view with bad arguments aren’t totally useless. They’re very useful to illustrate common fallacious arguments that crap like this is based on.

So this one says either you want the government in your life or you don’t. If you want the government out of your bedroom, you shouldn’t get assistance paying for contraceptives or abortion. If you want assistance paying for abortion or contraeptives, you shouldn’t want them to stay out of your sex life.

This is an easy one. It’s a very common logical fallacy known as the “false dichotomy” or “false dilemma”. The assumption forces a black and white choice and excludes anything in between, in a case where there is clearly a huge middle ground. It makes the assertion that it’s wrong or ridiculous for someone to want good medical coverage and civil liberties at the same time, since one involves government social programs, and the other a lack of government involvement. If we go along with this idea, then in order to not be a hypocrite, anyone wanting to keep their sex lives unregulated by the government must be an anarchist and anyone who wants comprehensive health care must want CCTV cameras in every bedroom and laws on every sex act. It doesn’t make much sense, does it?

It might also be considered a non-sequitur, since it puts two things that are not necessarily related to each other in direct opposition. The level of involvement and control of government in the moral decisions of a person’s private life have little to nothing to do with good, comprehensive medical coverage. But this image forces them into a single continuum of government involvement. It’s quite a bit more complicated than that, of course.

For more about this stuff, check out the Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe’s awesome comprehensive page on logical fallacies.

 

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It’s Totally Not a Duck

I don’t know about you guys, but I woke up this morning chomping at the bit to deny women their legal right to control of their own bodies. I said to myself, “Man! I really want to stop this abortion thing, but I don’t want my friends to think I’m religious!” Well, rest easy, me! Secularprolife.org has a solution, their “secular” approach to being anti-choice!

I couldn’t believe it, but there it was on Skepchick, a report from the American Atheist’s conference. The post has a photo of their booth, backed by a big fetus-bearing poster that says, “because my embryology textbook tells me so.”

Well, it’s a cute tactic. But you can’t just pull the switcheroo and put a biology textbook in there thinking I’m gonna go for that. It’s missing the point. I don’t take any point of view because one book tells me so. I corroborate my information with many different sources. Science textbooks are notoriously fraught with mistakes, after all.

This website itself appears to strongly advocate abstinence and doesn’t really offer much in the way of scientific info. Their brochure claiming a fetus is a person has a terse list of short, badly backed reasons, “philosophical” info and a few clips from law books of different countries. So what?

I have no proof that this organization is actually a front put up by religious people, but that’s okay, because I don’t need to prove that to find this abhorrent. You see, one of the major reasons religions like Christianity raise my bile to begin with is their negative preoccupation with sex and their consequent desire to latch on to a woman’s womb and control it. I don’t like seafood. If some douchebag hands me something and says, “Try this. It’s not seafood!” and then it tastes like seafood, well that sucks, even if it wasn’t really seafood. Not interested.

Sorry, fish and chips! Image Some rights reserved by David Ascher

 

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Reason Rally, I was with you in spirit!*

This weekend apparently around 30k atheists, agnostics, secular humanists, etc. filled the National Mall in Washington D.C., showing that we actually are capable of some sort of united action. Bravo! Unfortunately, I couldn’t make it, but I did get into a theological discussion with an old friend of mine, who is now a devout Christian. 

Some arguing….

Will Radik:…It’s currently (and may be forever) beyond our comprehension. I don’t see why god is an answer to infinite regress. So nothing couldn’t spring from nothing, therefore god and then he made the stuff out of nothing. It doesn’t answer any questions. It’s just saying you have an answer when you really don’t. Where did god come from?

He didn’t come from anywhere because he’s magic. 

So he sprang from nothing then? 

No… he didn’t have to because he’s god. 

Huh? 

Well you see god nullifies the idea that creation created itself because he’s not in creation! Whatever sphere he’s in doesn’t count and therefore he’s immune from infinite regression!

Oh. Huh? So wherever god is in existence didn’t have to create itself, nor did he. For some reason. Uh. Forgive me, but it just sounds like made up nonsense gyrated to be inaccessible and therefore non-falsifiable. 

“The people who would say “Show me observable evidence” were actually the ones who had none.”

You’re shifting the burden of proof. If you tell me the world is made of green cheese, the burden is on you to prove it, not on me to prove that it’s not. There’s no need to prove the lack of existence of a god exist because there’s nothing to indicate that it needs proving in the first place. 

Anyway. Feel free to believe what you want, but don’t say that everyone demanding evidence has none, because that’s silly.

Also I don’t think your claim that atheists (or agnostics, if you want to get technical) don’t know anything about Christianity is a little presumptuous. Maybe in your anecdotal experience, but not in mine.

Will Radik’s religious friend: If we claim that god created space and time, you say that space and time always existed and that god cannot exist because he would be bound by them. So instead you simply say that space and time must be universal absolutes with eternal and infinite qualities. But where do space and time, gravity, mass and energy come from, and what forces these forces to act in the manner they do? No one knows, you say, yet you say it cannot be an eternal and infinite absolute that made it this way. But you cannot say why this is.

Will Radik: That’s exactly the sort of gyrating I’m talking about. 

“If we claim that god created space and time, you say that space and time always existed and that god cannot exist because he would be bound by them.”

I never said god (or gods) cannot exist. I never said time and space always existed. in fact we’re pretty sure that they didn’t, at least in our universe. But that doesn’t preclude that it came from another universe which had time and space. 

“So instead you simply say that space and time must be universal absolutes with eternal and infinite qualities.”

I never said that, either. See above.

“But where do space and time, gravity, mass and energy come from, and what forces these forces to act in the manner they do? No one knows, you say, yet you say it cannot be an eternal and infinite absolute that made it this way. But you cannot say why this is.”

When did I make any assertion that “it cannot be an eternal and infinite absolute?” All I said was that plugging a divine being in as the answer to infinite regression is not a satisfying answer, since it doesn’t explain how he (or any other divine creator being) would escape that regression. hence the question is still open.

You see, you’re confusing my saying I don’t have the answer (and I don’t believe you do) with me saying I do have an answer. Aquinas was smart and his “proofs” are interesting (as an exercise in logical obfuscation) but they don’t have truth in their premises, and are thus not sound despite whatever “truth preserving” qualities his logical gyrations have.

Will Radik’s religious friend: The idea that another universe might exist is also without evidence. Additionally the burden of proof is upon atheists to prove spontaneous generation without a catalyst is possible, because the evidence of all of existence is more likely to have come from an origin or catalyst than to have no source at all.

 

Will Radik: “The idea that another universe might exist is also without evidence.”

Show me where I said there are definitely other universes. You’re arguing against a straw man there. Of course, if you were up on your cosmological physics, you would know that it’s likely there are other universes and we might be getting close to scientifically verifying it. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/physics/blog/2011/11/However. That’s interesting, but it’s a complete non sequitur and I’m not sure why you even said this. 

“Additionally the burden of proof is upon atheists to prove spontaneous generation without a catalyst is possible, because the evidence of all of existence is more likely to have come from an origin or catalyst than to have no source at all.” 

I don’t think so. First off, you’re thinking about something we don’t even have the cognitive capacity to understand and applying ideas from our narrow perspective like, “catalyst” and “nothingness” to it. You have no frame of reference for a discussion of the origin of everything, but you’ve slapped the name of God on it and said case closed, and then, you try to shove the burden of proof unto people who say you’re imagining things, when you’re the one making extraordinary claims. Nice try, but it’s clear you’re lodged within the channels of your biased wish-thinking and not any logical thought process.

Atheists don’t have to prove anything, because they’re not the ones making extraordinary claims. They’re simply refuting your extraordinary claims, or at least advocating that we question them rather than just accepting them as fact when we they have no basis in fact whatsoever.

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I Considered Acupuncture

Summer is not a good time to have your hands go useless on you. I had been learning how to crochet. I learned basic stitches and enjoyed the simple pleasure of it. My girlfriend took me to second-hand stores and bought me old magazines with pictures of granny-squares. Maybe I could make one of those afghans I liked so much when I was a kid.

I’d had trouble with RSI’s (repetitive stress injuries) in my hands years ago. I used the computer so much that I developed serious pain, numbness, and weakness in my hands. At that time I was just in my first semester of college and I had the idea that I wanted to learn how to play the keyboard (piano). You know—electives. The little music education building at DeAnza College was charming and strange and I found something amusing in the friendly but utterly merciless attitude of the nice old lady teaching piano. But when my hands started hurting, piano class was the first thing to go, and the computer got a lot less play (I could never beat the Koreans at Starcraft, anyway.)

I kept the two hundred dollar keyboard I’d bought myself. I’m not sure why, but it came in handy years later. A good friend of mine liked it a lot and I traded it to his parents in lieu of hospital bill money when I accidentally hit him between the eyes with a pizza cutter disc. They, in turn, gifted it to him for his birthday. It ended up feeling like an everybody wins kind of situation.

Last year, however, I didn’t feel like a winner at all, sitting around trying to think of what to do to not strain my hands in the middle of summer. The macrame and crocheting (newfound hobbies) had brought the dormant RSI’s back in full force. I could turn on the sprinkler to water my ill-fated pumpkin plants that I planted too late. I couldn’t play any more console video games. The computer was on ration. (I could never give up the computer entirely. It’s in my blood.)

Then I discovered the dancing game my girlfriend liked to play sometimes on the console. The console had a camera and a laser. It could see you and tell how well you were dancing. I sucked at first, but I got better. I danced a lot. It made me feel pretty good. It felt therapeutic.

This led me to think about what other things I could do about it, and I considered acupuncture. I reasoned out loud at my girlfriend, “It has to have something to it if there are enough people getting it done to keep all these places in business, right?” Portland has a lot of acupuncturists. In fact, Portland is a big center of what’s nowadays commonly (spuriously, I think) referred to as “Complementary and Alternative Medicine.”

I wasn’t any kind of hard core skeptic, but I definitely had an evidence-first kind of operating system running my brain. Acupuncture seemed silly to me, but I was willing to try it when faced with a chronic condition that involved some pain and debilitation. And I really did fall into the trap of believing that it must have something to it just by the sheer volume of the industry. For some reason, observation of the masses and their questionable reasoning, which drove my rejection of Christianity at the age of 14 and my outright spurning of mainstream media a couple years after that, had not kicked in this time.

Now, a scant half-year later, I know a lot more about how acupuncture is essentially worthless but appears to work in some cases due to the expectations of the subject. More importantly, I know about something that would have kept me from falling into that trap of thinking had I known it then, and that’s the idea of logical fallacies.

Specifically, the idea that acupuncture must have some merit because so many people are willing to pay for it would be called the “argument ad populum.” I was telling myself, “so many people can’t be wrong.” I was investing authority in the masses. (the argument ad populum is a form of the argument from authority, which claims that something is true just because someone who has authority or whom we should trust on credentials alone says so.) This is faulty reasoning because the majority can easily be wrong, and though I’d figured that out in other cases using my intuition, I failed to make the connection that time, and I didn’t really have the concept available to me as a simple rule, as I do now.

Luckily, as the healthy living and the natural healing power of my body gave me back a good part of the functionality of my hands, I didn’t stay desperate enough to repeatedly consider acupuncture. I let the idea drift off in my ADD way and then fell headfirst into the media of skeptical activism, in which I’ve been happily immersing myself since.

In fact, I just wrote a 17 page paper for my composition class final about how “complementary and alternative medicine,” including acupuncture, is baseless and doesn’t work. As soon as I’ve thoroughly checked it over to make sure it’s not easy for one of the cranks I wrote about to attempt to sue me for slander, (they often do this to silence criticism) I’ll post it up here for ya’ll. Until then, take my word for it and stick with the good ol’ science-based medicine. Or don’t take my word for it. Take a look around the excellent blog Science-Based Medicine.

 

There’s a whole list of logical fallacies on the Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe page. Plus a little guide on how to use them. They’re pretty fun for picking out problems in political arguments and other propaganda, among other things.

http://www.theskepticsguide.org/resources/logicalfallacies.aspx

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Presented without comment: a paragraph from Moby Dick

Squeeze! squeeze! squeeze! all the morning long; I squeezed that sperm till I myself almost melted into it; I squeezed that sperm till a strange sort of insanity came over me; and I found myself unwittingly squeezing my co-labourers’ hands in it, mistaking their hands for the gentle globules. Such an abounding, affectionate, friendly, loving feeling did this avocation beget; that at last I was continually squeezing their hands, and looking up in to their eyes sentimentally; as much as to say,-Oh! my dear fellow beings, why should we longer cherish any social acerbities, or know the slightest ill-humour or envy! Come; let us squeeze hands all round; nay, let us all squeeze ourselves into each other; let us squeeze ourselves universally into the very milk and sperm of human kindness.

-from Moby Dick, by Herman Melville

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How’s about a little Sagan?

Pseudoscience differs from erroneous science. Science thrives on errors, cutting them away one by one. False conclusions are drawn all the time, but they are drawn tentatively. Hypotheses are framed so they are capable of being disproved. A succession of alternative hypotheses is confronted by experiment and observation. Science gropes and staggers toward improved understanding. Proprietary feelings are of course offended when a scientific hypothesis is disproved, but such disproofs are recognized as central to the scientific enterprise.

- Dr.Carl Sagan,The Demon Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark

Image

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