Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Skepticism is good, skepticism is wise.

In my former religious life, I never gave a second thought to the fact that there were authorities who were always correct. I almost feel physically ill at the thought that I used to believe that somehow, someone could always be right.

But this is not the case in the skeptical and scientific community. The most beautiful things in life are getting your ass handed to you and having the maturity and intellectual capacity to admit your fault. From the beginning, I have defended Ben Radford and his role in the skeptical community. Not only was he a resource for my short lived on-campus freethought group, he is a hell of a paranormal investigator. I do think he was wrong on some issues, but that doesn't mean he is some sexist piece of shit. It doesn't take much to see how reactionary our community gets, and I really think that a lot of the criticism aimed at Radford was due to characterizations. Yes, it is important to address societal problems regarding gender conformity. Yes, sexism should be shot down immediately. Yet, we have to keep in mind that we interpret information in ways that accomodate our worldview- that is Ben Radford was made out to be a piece of shit when there wasn't a whole bunch out there that pointed to misogyny. 

He has responded to the mini shitstorm that was RileyGate with some valid points.  

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Immortality, suckas!

Whabam! The year is 2006, and you are in THE FUTURE. You notice that there are people commuting to work on jet-powered back packs. Whizzing over head are flying motorcars! This is the world of the future- streamlined, optimized, and shiny.

But did we mention the people piloting those automobiles were 300 hundred years old?

Immortality has captivated (wo)man's mind since, well, we came up with shit like an immortal soul. We don't deal particularly well with death and the extinguish of our essential being. It disturbs us.

In less than a century, we have done something incredible- we have raised the average lifespan by thirty years. This is no small feat. Science has given us marvelous things, but one may argue the greatest being....fat babies. The strongest correlation that we have to longevity in life is birth weight. Look at these pretty data

If you follow this link you get some good explanation. Basically, what we see is that as birth weights became higher, so did life span. This is due to prenatal development- higher birth weight babies had optimal development. However there is a limit that we seem to be reaching. 

It appears to be something we want in moderation. Ultra high birth weight babies also suffer the same fate as their under weight friends- an earlier death. They are at risk for obesity and cardiovascular disease. 

The reason we were able to drastically add 30 years in under a century is because we were able to engineer food for mom. Better nutrition and prenatal care means ideal conditions for a baby's development. The Haber- Bosch method may be the single greatest contribution to our longevity- and one of the single greatest inventions of all time. Want to know why you aren't starving right now, with a 7 billion other people on the planet? Yeah thank these motherfuckers. Half of the protein in your body was synthesized from nitrogen fixed using their method. Good stuff...

So back to immortality. It seems as we are approaching the upper limits of our longevity. Because as we grow older, we don't just face the problem of nutrition, but also chronic disease. Up until now in human history, our increasing life span can be accredited to better accumulation of resources. Our ancestors lived short, hard lives but didn't batter cancer in old age. This is the problem we face next- engineering our bodies so that they do not age.

Though this guy is pretty out there, and most of the scientific community rejects his 'answers', Aubrey de Grey raises many key problems in the race to live forever.

Of Gorillas and Men

The mountain gorilla found in Rwanda is the largest of the great apes (save for a few Americans). A silver back male often weighs in the range of 450 pounds of brute muscle. Amazing creatures these- strength of ten men, but also the most peaceful of us great apes. So why are we talking about them? Because there are roughly 790 of these mountain gorillas in existence today. Hunted by their cousins for meat and fur, their numbers dropped dramatically in less than a century.

And this is where we get relevant- not only was there a shift in populations of the mountain gorilla, but also a complete change in their social behavior. One of the most amazing observations in the social science realm was that of the familial structure changes of this primate. When these primates were being hunted, their mating strategy was  mainly one male with two to three females each bearing one or two children over the course of a lifetime. The group they existed in would have been for territorial protection and allocations of resources- the individuals acted with everyone's interest though they still pretty much left each other alone.

Yet there was a change after their slaughter- their mating strategy wasn't ensuring a future for their species. So what happened? The gorilla went from pairings to troops. A dominant silver back would take on 4-6 females and have any where between 2 and 6 children with each. The gorilla understood that they were dying out. So they made a change, which brings us to the topic of the day: Why can't humans save our own asses? Why do we resist change in social behavior?

Social sciences have a lot to say here- such as biases that we learn from psychology. System justification, false-consensus effect, and in- group biases are especially frustrating when we look at the world at large. These three illusions dictate the perception of every single person on the planet. They make us believe that others think and are in agreement with us. It makes us give preferential treatment to those like us. But worst of all they cement the status quo and inhibit social change.

In a world of seven billion people, this is dangerous. We hold not just false, but demonstrably inaccurate notions of what a solution is. As individuals we cannot fully and comprehensively asses how proper fucked we are. I am not talking about a New World Order or the Illuminati. I am talking about tangible threats to our ways of life. In a world of seven billion people, we can no longer drive SUVs out of convenience.

We can no longer stigmatize our women who decide to use birth control or obtain an abortion. Rather, we lend them support for realizing that it is wrong to add unnecessary burden to a world with 7 billion people. Our social awareness must shift- not only so we don't vilify women, but so we don't dig ourselves deeper.

We improve our situation by reevaluating our social structure- by shifting our values and needs. Though someone might not explicitly say 'I hate clean air' or 'I love human suffering'; by their actions alone can we deduce the amount of fuck they give. We cannot continue a cycle of ignorance and fall victim to tradition.

Politics and clergy kill. Our populations are not sustainable, yet human suffering is encouraged when proper reproductive care is denied to millions. Something as simple as a rubber film to cover your meat bits is denied due to archaic mind sets that sex must be punished. This contributes to human suffering and is reprehensible.

Tradition tells us that we must consume, that we must have offspring that consumes and that that offspring passes off more tarnished world to the next generation. There is a better way. Only by awareness and education can we solve these problems. Only through critical thinking and reasoning can we prepare a solution. The world is too small to run from our problems, it is high time we act.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Thus Spake Radford!

Old White Men, you make me embarrassed to become you!

Here  is his response to what may become known as Rileygate. (Yeah I hate that too). Ben is a wonderful local skeptic and has done great things for CFI. I have read most of what he writes and would consider myself a huge fan. For paranormal investigation there is none better. I think he has faltered here a teeny bit. There isn't really much that I can say that hasn't been said, other than his response isn't too tight. He may be right about Rebecca calling him out on some irrelevant stuff, but over all, there may be some tracks to cover.

Holy fuck this is going to blow up.