## Main Blog Page

All recent posts are listed here in reverse chronological order. For a more focused view you can use the "Blog Topics" listing on the right - and the little icons on the right of the topic names toggle display of subtopics (if any).

## Even Total Recall Includes False Memories

November 19th, 2013

This article in The Atlantic points to research on people who can remember what they ate for breakfast on a specific day 10 years ago (and are found to be accurate a high percentage of the time when tested)  but it turns out that even these people often have completely convincing memories of “facts” that turn out to be false.

## David Suzuki Jumps the Shark

November 18th, 2013

According to this report  in Vice-Canada, David Suzuki has claimed that “If, in fact, the fourth plant goes under an earthquake, and those rods are exposed, it’s bye-bye Japan, and everybody on the west coast of North America should evacuate. Now if that isn’t terrifying, I don’t know what is.” And if that isn’t in fact complete nonsense, then I don’t know what is.

## Whence Comes Real Growth ?

November 17th, 2013

In the course of checking whether Ramez Naam’s GDP figures (in Decoupling Growth From Energy and Carbon) were inflation adjusted, I came across nice looking site about visualizing economics. The graph there matches Naam’s and is clearly identified as illustrating an inflation-adjusted real per-capita GDP growth rate of about 2% per year (pretty consistently over about 150 years).  This led me to wonder if I am really twice as materially “well off” as I (or rather the social peer of my presentself) was in 1970. The quality of my life as  a whole is hard to compare but that of my communications and entertainment infrastructure is certainly well beyond the purchasing power of any normal member of society at that time, and it is indeed of real value to be able to easily and freely connect by video link with children half a world away. Then I had about a dozen or so close friends who I engaged with regularly in person and now I have about half of that; but also, through this website, I have an audience of as many thousands of eager readers. Yeah right! Actually 5994 of those readers are spambots and the half dozen real people who have ever commented here may barely make up for the less close half dozen of my more local friends.

## Transparency vs Privacy

November 15th, 2013

David Brin cheers on The Coming Transparent World while Jaron Lanier is decidedly less enthusiastic.

Lanier’s solution is to implement ownership of personal data with the right to deny access and charge whatever price we want for such access.  Of course, although that might be built in to the protocols for transfer of digital information, it could never be made effective for traditional means of communication. Or can you envisage a way of preventing me from telling someone else your phone number that I just purchased?

## Inspired by Faith

November 14th, 2013

Ophelia Benson picks up on an interesting minor point in an essay by Conor Friedesrorf where he attributes some of the goodness of his friend to the influence of religion: “Nick happens to be one of the best people I know. Even though I don’t have faith in the same things that he does, I see how his faith makes him a better person. I see how he makes the world a better place, and how his belief system drives him to do it. And whenever I think about Nick, I think to myself, you know, I disagree with the Catholic faith on a lot of particulars, but there must be nuggets of truth within it if it inspires people like Nick to be this good.”

At first it seems odd that Mr Friedersorf does not give his friend full credit for his own goodness. Does he really suspect that it’s only the benign influence of the church that gives us Saint Nicholas instead of Old Nick? But actually that’s not so impossible. The same religions that enable some people to be far more evil than they would otherwise have been may also support increased goodness in others. There’s really no contradiction in that and it’s not obvious where the overall balance lies. (It may also be true that religion played an essentially positive role at some stages in our cultural development but that it no longer does so. )

## A Taste of His Own Medicine #honeygate

November 5th, 2013

The “Dear Muslimo“ scorn being heaped on Richard Dawkins over his lost honey would be undeserved were it not for his own earlier mockery of Rebecca Watson’s mild complaint on behalf of women who feel uncomfortable as a result of unwanted attention at a convention. Dawkins’ sarcastic “Dear Muslima” letter implying that Watson and her ilk should shut up about their little issues because they’re not the biggest issues was offensive at the time, but his blindness to the parallel is quite amazing.

## Does “Falsifiable” Really Mean “Provably False”?

October 30th, 2013

In Why Falsifiability, Though Flawed, Is Alluring: Part I , William M. Briggs argues that “most theories scientists hold are not falsifiable” because “if the predictions derived from a theory are probabilistic then the theory can never be falsified. This is so even if the predictions have very, very small probabilities. If the prediction (given the theory) is that X will only happen with probability ε (for those less mathematically inclined, ε is as small as you like but always > 0);, and X happens, then the theory is not falsified. Period. Practically false is (as I like to say) logically equivalent to practically a virgin.

I think he’s right – at least if “falsifiable” means “provable to be false”. But I don’t think most scientists really demand scientific theories to be falsifiable in that sense. And many don’t even try to use that word any more; they are more inclined to use a less binding word like “testable”.

A theory might then be considered adequately testable if it can be used to predict that in some repeatable experiment there are outcomes of very low probability. If we see such outcomes we say that the theory fails the test (though it could in principle still be true) and we reject it (ie strongly doubt it) – at least until the relative  frequency of failure events in repeated experiments falls to somewhere near the predicted probability.

## Big Tents – Inclusive or Confining?

October 29th, 2013

There has been a lot of heated reaction recently to a couple of incidents in which people have apparently denied the sincerity of others’ statements of belief.

Oprah Winfrey responded to atheist swimmer Diana Nyad’s expression of wonder and awe at the universe with “Well, I don’t call you an atheist then. I think if you believe in the awe and the wonder and the mystery, then that is what God is. That is what God is. It’s not a bearded guy in the sky.” And Richard Dawkins, in conversation with Bill Maher, declared that Barack Obama and Pope Francis must really be atheists.

Most of the commentary has been outrage expressed with less restraint than by Paul Brandeis Raushenbush in How Not to Talk About the Beliefs of Others where he at least acknowledges a positive aspect in both cases. “Oprah and Dawkins/Maher are being simultaneously arrogant and complimentary. Arrogant, in that they assume that anyone who has a similar world view as they do is secretly ‘one of them’; and complimentary, in that they are saying I admire you enough to claim you for my own belief system.”  And “What we can learn from these two vivid examples is that we all have the right to decide how to identify ourselves in terms of religion or lack thereof. It is not for others to affix their identity upon us, or strip ours from us.

But rather than interpret these two events as someone claiming to know the content of another’s mind better than they do themselves, it may be more charitable to interpret both as explaining that their own professed label is actually more inclusive than perceived by the other.

With this interpretation it is not denial or stripping of identity but just a clarification that the speaker’s own identity label is intended to be more encompassing than may have been thought.

The downside, which is there of course, is that defining one’s own view as a ‘Big Tent’ is often used as a strategy for discouraging self-identification with the alternative label. Oprah discouraging self-declared atheism, and Dawkins discouraging self-declared religious feeling, may not be denying the actual beliefs of the other but are threatening them with censure for their choice of label.. You may not be a bad kid, but if you dare to wear the wrong colours then you belong with the gang from the other side of the street.

## What Is Bjørn Lomborg Trying to Achieve?

October 28th, 2013

What Is Bjørn Lomborg Trying to Achieve? – asks Keith Kloor in his blog at DiscoverMagazine.com, and with reference to his recent profile in Cosmos.

Kloor says “it’s worth asking at this stage in his career if  Lomborg is a voice of reason, a professional pot stirrer, or a trollish ankle-biter. The answer probably depends on where you sit in these debates.” I suspect from his tone in Cosmos that Kloor sees it as maybe an 80,20,0 mix, but for my part I would put it as more like 30,50,20.

Maybe I should revisit the 2002 controversy in more detail to see if a deeper look would change my view.