Link Parade 6/30/13

Here’s a collection of things I wanted to talk about but don’t have a full post in me for.

1. Apparently, Ohio is also passing an abortion ban, presumably to create the jobs they keep saying is their priority. Miri has the details and is encouraging people to call John Kaisich and tell him to line-item veto that provision from the budget bill. I encourage you to go over there and get the details on how. I just did, and I don’t even think modern Republicans ever give a shit about public opinion, but it didn’t hurt me. The part that gets me, however, is this bit:

Doctors must inform patients seeking abortions exactly how much money the clinic made from abortions within the past year, and how much money the clinic stands to lose if the patient chooses not to get an abortion. In case it’s unclear, the point of this is to warn patients that there is a “conflict of interest” involved in providing abortions because clinics can make money from them. This is ridiculous because any medical procedure can make money for doctors and hospitals.

You’ll notice that with the advent of 501(c)4s and the GOP’s favorite Court ruling, Citizen’s United, that the opposite is true of them. If I were a principled Democrat in Ohio, every bill will have a proposed amendment that you cannot submit a bill in the state legislature without it saying how much you have received from the relevant special interest group and how much you stand to lose in campaign donations if the bill doesn’t pass.

2.Will Wilkinson talks about why Republicans would bother standing against immigration reform when it’s clear that even 86% of Republican voters think a “pathway to citizenship” is a good idea. And the answer is that they have a hard core base that really is dedicated to identity politics.

The energetic ideological base of the Republican Party is a nationalist, identity-politics movement for relatively well-to-do older white Americans known as the “tea party”. The tea party is interested in bald eagles, American flags, the founding fathers, Jesus Christ, fighter jets, empty libertarian rhetoric, and other markers of “authentic” American identity and supremacy. That America is “a nation of immigrants” is a stock piece of American identity politics, but the immigrants that made America America were, well, not Mexican, and spoke English, or at least Pennsylvania Dutch. Sorry Mexicans! Even if each element of immigration reform, taken in isolation, is agreed to be a good idea by a solid majority of Republican voters, Republican politicians must nevertheless avoid too-enthusiastically supporting this package of good ideas, lest they fail to project sufficient appreciation for the importance of keeping America American and putting Americans first.

This is where I think there is an element of cognitive dissonance present in a lot of GOP voters. They don’t think of themselves as hurting immigrants, they don’t want to hurt anybody, but they also want to feel more authentic, more American than somebody, and immigrants are a traditional target. They prioritize their desire to feel superior, better than, over their desire to help people who may have been raised in this country, entirely unaware that their parents brought them here illegally as babies. They aren’t entirely unfeeling toward other people, which is why they support parts of the bill, but a whole bill threatens their feeling of supremacy and that cannot happen.

3. This is the boy I wish I was when I was 13. In fact, this is the boy I wished I was when I was 13. Will Phillips has been a social justice activist since he was 10 years old. Matt Barber has questioned his motivations and suggested he’s been “brainwashed” (which is wingnut speak for “taught that other people matter”). He initially got famous for refusing to say the Pledge because he didn’t feel that we did have “liberty and justice for all.” Most recently, he spoke at the Northwest Arkansas Pride Parade. This kid is amazing and has a bright future ahead of him. Go read about him now.

4. TW: cults, murder, homophobia. “Lord” Pete Moses is the leader of a Judaism-based cult. And he has just been found guilty of murdering two of his followers, one of which was a 4-year-old boy who was killed because Moses thought he was gay. At the very least he will be going to jail, the sick fuck. Sentencing is next Friday.

5. If you have small children, you should fill out this form saying you would be interested in getting them this awesome toy to teach your youngsters about evolution. Even if you don’t have kids you should fill it out. This is not buying the product, they are gauging interest in it, and filling out the initial form will not ask you for credit card information, but will give you an opportunity to give comments.

6. If you remember me talking about Joe Klein and how he apparently doesn’t understand that atheists help people, there have been multiple updates. First, Klein himself tried to weasel his way out of his comments by claiming that he only meant organized atheist groups, which is still incorrect. Now Time has come out with its own statement, and basically they’re supporting Klein, which is why I highly suggest that you contact Time and let them know that this is utterly unacceptable, that inaccurate reporting has no excuse, and that you intend to cancel your subscription if you have one.

On a side note, I was helping my friend with her baby yesterday. Funny how Joe Klein wasn’t there to help.

7. This baby duck was born with a deformed leg. So, rather than give him a peg leg or letting him suffer, science has found a solution. Using a 3D printer, people made a mold for a silicone prosthetic leg and foot for Buttercup. All the feels for this one.

8. I was torn about this for a whole 3 seconds before recognizing the problems with it. Basically, it’s a website that is encouraging a movement for “Christian Domestic Discipline” which we are told is a consensual arrangement that includes male domination and punishments like spanking.

Christian Domestic Discipline is not BDSM. It is not a game. While we do not deny its sometimes erotic nature, it is ultimately not for erotic purposes. It is often much different than the domestic discipline you will find outside of the Christian faith.

The thing is, it sounds a lot like BDSM. However, my experience has taught me that I can’t trust that Christianists aren’t lying when they say stuff like “consensual”, and there is a question of whether a lifetime’s worth of being told that this is the natural order of things leaves a person in a position to meaningfully consent or not. However, giving the women involved in this the benefit of the doubt, I see nothing on their website about wives who want to exit this “consensual” arrangement, or merely drop that aspect of it without getting a divorce. I also see no mention of safe words and very little in the way of safety instructions to keep husbands from going too far (I suppose god will stop them?), which means it is very, very, very not BDSM. Essentially, as a Dom/sub relationship with a religious play component, this could be really hot. As a lifestyle with no escape routes, no safety instructions, and no apparent care for the lives of women who get into this other than value paternalistic nonsense, it sounds both dangerous and abusive, despite claims that it is not (because saying that something is not abusive/racist/homophobic/otherwise awful totes makes it true).

9. #4 on this Fred Clark link list. Just go read it.

I think that’s everything for now. Oh, if you haven’t, please go vote on my new tagline. It’ll only take a second and be really helpful.

Quantum Palaver

I spend a lot of time ranting here about the religious right and their absurd ideas about the universe, but make no mistake, I am just as hard on the new age left when they try to pull those sorts of stunts. It’s only that they have little to no power to affect the lives of others (or even themselves) that keeps them out of my writing. That being said, sometimes something so profoundly stupid is said, I have no choice but to respond.

Several days ago, a number of pseudoscientific frauds, including Deepak Chopra, wrote a letter to TED complaining that they’re being censored, something about freedom of ideas, upset that what they do isn’t considered real science, etc. The reason for this is that  TEDx talks by Rupert Sheldrake and Graham Hancock, two people who have done legitimate work early in their careers but somewhere along the way abjured science for endless “what if” games, we not posted on the main TEDx site, but rather on a site for talks that don’t really meet the criteria of advancing legitimate ideas for real discussion that TED tries to promote.

For the most part, Jerry Coyne has fun reveling in the fact that such a celebrated con artist as Chopra is upset by the militant atheist bloggers like himself who helped convince TED that they didn’t want to be involved with parapsychologists and people who spend their time searching for mythological items. I can’t blame him, that’s a pretty high honor. How many people must be trying to point out that Chopra and his ilk are full of shit on a daily basis? It would be like Timmy Dolan complaining about attractive, young, long-haired bloggers making life difficult for him.

But here’s the part where I lost it.

The reason becomes clear when you discover that non-local consciousness means the possibility that there is mind outside the human brain or even outside material reality, that a conscious mind is in some way intrinsic to the quantum universe, and that we all are quantum entangled.

Ok, stop right there. No. No, no, no. That’s not what that means. At all.

Which is why we’re going to discuss a little quantum physics. Don’t worry, I’ll try to make it as simple as possible.

“Quantum physics” does not mean “mind over matter.” That is the first thing that we need to understand before moving forward. You will hear a lot from new agers about how quantum physics suggests that good, happy, fuzzy feelings make the world an objectively better place by altering the fabric of existence with your mind. But let’s examine what they mean.

To start with, this is going to be difficult because while both sides of this debate use the terms of quantum physics, only one side actually employs the math of quantum physics, so I can’t show you where Chopra and Co. (which would be a great name for a rock band) got their math wrong. They have no math. And I struggle with math, so I wouldn’t be the best person to find their mistakes. But at least we can look at claims and see what they really mean. There will be a Tl;dr summary at the end of the big section, for those who don’t love physics.

Heisenberg and the Observer Effect

The first thing that you will notice about the claims of people like Chopra is that much of their nonsense stems from the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, which says that we can never know the exact position and velocity of an electron at the same time, and the Observer Effect, which says that the act of measuring something that exists in a quantum state (one that is undetermined) will actually make it deterministic. Here’s a good explanation of what quantum is examining:

In quantum mechanics we learn that the behavior of the very smallest objects (like electrons, for example) is very unlike the behavior of everyday things like baseballs. When we throw a baseball at a wall, we can predict where it will be during its flight, where it will hit the wall, how it will bounce, and what it will do afterward.

When we fire an electron at a plate with two closely spaced slits in it, and detect the electron on a screen behind these slits, the behavior of the electron is the same as that of a wave in that it can actually go though both holes at once. This may seem odd, but its true. If we repeat this experiment lots of times with lots of electrons, we see that some positions on the screen will have been hit by many electrons and some will have been hit by none. The observed “interference pattern” for these electrons is evidence of their dual wave-particle nature, and is well described by thinking of each electron as a superposition of two “states”, one that goes through one slit, one that goes through the other.

Chopra argues that because we can’t know where electrons are and where they’re going at the same time, and because the act of observation seems to make it so that one “state” is “chosen” over the other, then that means that we can choose the direction of electrons and, if we observe really, really hard, get enough electrons to go our way and therefore change the whole universe.

The problem with this is so manifold I hardly know where to begin. The first is that, as was pointed out in the quote, electrons don’t behave the same way as larger objects. Just because larger objects have electrons in them does not mean that making a bunch of electrons move in a certain way makes the object do that, and even if you could control the direction of large objects via their electrons, that doesn’t mean that the universe can be bent to your will.

The second problem is that there is no way to “choose” a direction for an electron to go. Ideas like The Secret try to push this idea that just expecting something to be true will make it true by “magnetically” pulling what you want to you via the concept of “like attracts like.” They even got Fred Alan Wolf, an actually physicist, to throw his support to this notion, but as is the case with most woo-ish nonsense, Wolf lends his pHD to those pushing the “quantum means like attracts like” crowd to make ridiculous and unsupported statements, then hides behind the training he isn’t using to come to those conclusions. If a medical doctor did the stuff Wolf does, they would be sued for malpractice.

Finally, even if it meant something to determine the direction of electrons, and even if we could specifically determine what direction they would go in, most of us have no way of doing so. This is where the woomeisters really try to pull a fast one. This is the informal logical fallacy known as Equivocation, which is using a word with two definitions to mean one thing when you actually mean the other. In this case, the word is “observer.”

The “Observer Effect” does not mean that when you look at an electron, it goes from being in multiple, quantum states to only being in one state. If that were the case, we wouldn’t know they were even in multiple, quantum states to begin with. What “observe” means, in this case, is to take scientific measurements of, not just to look at. The reason why electrons go from being in multiple states to just one is that the act of measuring forces that to happen.

Think of it like this: imagine you have a large bowl of water with a bullet vibe on the bottom. The surface of the water is calm, but you know that if that vibe is going, the water could be shaking like crazy down at the bottom, and you want to know whether the vibe is on or not. So you, like the good scientist you are, get some measuring tools to put into the water to see if it’s moving. However, by putting the measuring tools into the water, you’re disturbing the water, making sure that it’s moving. Whether the bullet vibe was on or not, the water is now in motion because of your attempt to measure. Before that, however, we couldn’t know whether it was in motion or not, and no amount of staring at it would have changed that.

Wave Function Collapse

Another thing that you’ll hear from Chopra is that “consciousness is a series of wave function collapses”. Basically, the argument seems to be that since there seems to be no physical “seat of the soul” or observable (using the scientific definition) evidence of a spirit or consciousness, that that clearly means they exist in a state of being that is superimposed on the material world and the act of looking around us makes the infinitely possible state of the universe collapse into a single one that we see via the above-mentioned observer effect. This is known as “quantum consciousness”, I believe, but it’s hard to tell for certain as people like Chopra excel at saying absolutely nothing at length.

Let’s do some math.

 | \psi \rangle = \sum_i c_i | \phi_i \rangle .

That equation above represents a wave function. I know it looks complicated, but it’s not that bad. The phi i at the end there represents all of the possible “alternative” states, which could be denoted as phi 1, phi 2, phi 3, etc. These each represent a different eigenstate, which basically is just the value around which other things change. For the math to work, an observable aspect of any given eigenstate is picked (either position or momentum, remember Heisenberg) and assigned an eiganvalue, ei, of the system.

So, what we have here is a bunch of possibilities and an equation to describe (not predict) them. We also have a hypothesis that if an electron is at a specific place, it will match at least one of the observations that we gave an eiganvalue to. So now we can test to see which one it is. The problem is that when we test it, we jostle and shake those electrons in the process, so like the slit experiment quoted above, we take something that behaves like a wave (going through both slits at once), and “collapsing” it so that it only behaves like a particle (goes through one slit in the metal or the other).

None of that has anything to do with consciousness. The “consciousness” bit was tacked on by a man named Roger Penrose who suggested that since the brain runs on electrical impulses, then it must exist in a probabilistic fashion like other electrons do. Therefore…somehow this means that consciousness exists in some superposition to our perceived position because of reasons. As a result, there is a whole cottage industry of people who push the “quantum consciousness” idea and extrapolate it to mean things it doesn’t.


Tl;dr Summary

We’ve gone into a lot of detail here, and there is so much more that we could go into, but the basic argument of Chopra and Co. is that because the brains are run on electricity, and because electrons behave as waves before they’re observed, then start acting like particles, that means that consciousness exists outside of the body and by thinking at things really hard, you change the way the electrons move, which means you can CONTROL THE UNIVERSE WITH YOUR MIND!

This belief rests mostly on misunderstanding what certain words mean and making logical leaps that aren’t supported by the evidence.

The reason why what Chopra and his gang does isn’t considered real science is because the only way it works is by assuming a very specific spiritual component to everything (i.e. they “know” there’s a soul, but there’s no physical evidence in the body, so clearly this quantum stuff explains where it is because where else could it be?). It makes no predictions that can be tested via experiment, it plays word games to sell books to people who really wish they could alter the universe with their thoughts (which, to be fair, is almost everybody) and think that there’s some secret that con artists like Chopra have because they’re calm and use big words.

I am remarkably happy that TED has decided that woomeisters shouldn’t be a part of the discussion that they’re trying to have. At least, they shouldn’t be taken seriously until such time as they can produce ideas that stand up to legitimate scrutiny. In much the same way that when theology tries to make scientific claims (age of the Earth, whether resurrection is possible, whether humanity as we know it could have descended from a single family, etc.) it should answer them scientifically, when new agers make scientific claims, they should also have to answer them scientifically. Word games and vague associations don’t count as evidence in a scientific context any more than Roberto Benigni’s 1998 Oscar acceptance speech is evidence that he wants to sleep with me (and you).

Literary criticism is very good at playing word games, because authors often play word games. I love doing it because I can tease out meaning from diction and syntax. However, scientists do not use diction and syntax to implant meaning into their work. They are concerned with observation and the implications of what they see. Chopra and Co. keep wanting to find hidden meaning that simply does not exist, and TED has no obligation to continue to allow them to embarrass themselves in front of audiences that know better.

Followup to the Religious Right and Science

This is courtesy of PZ today, but since it’s been exactly one day since some moron who’s pretty sure they got it right in the Bronze Age has tried to use the language of science to promote his equally absurd social agenda, here is another who legit doesn’t know how the whole “scientific” enterprise works.

Let’s talk about this one from a professor at Liberty University, since it seems some people took exception to my assertion yesterday at a degree at Liberty shouldn’t actually qualify as “education.”

[Judith] Reisman blames homosexuality on what she calls ‘erototixins,’ which she says are mind-altering chemicals. She stated that these toxins are somehow emitted through pornography.

She cited a lecture that referred to pornography as a ‘visual pheremone.’ The lecture also put forth the idea that these visual pheremones rewire the brain, thus causing the viewer to become gay.

In an attempt to add validity to her argument, Reisman cited a case where these pheremones were used on male Gypsy Moths in order to prevent them from mating with their female counterparts. She states that this somehow correlates to the way watching pornography can make you catch the gay.

With great minds like that on staff, who could doubt the quality of Jerry Falwell’s school?

Patent All the Things

In June I am moving out of the apartment that I share with my roommate, Scientist Supreme, to live instead with the Dread Lord of Bakery and his girlfriend, War Scribe (all nicknames are at the discretion of the people being named and will be changed upon request). This is a good move, and while I will miss living with Scientist Supreme, she and I will remain friends and it’s time she moved ahead with her relationship.

Before I leave, however, I have decided that I will file a patent on this apartment, claiming it as my own and charging a fee on top of rent for anybody who wants to live here, or tour it, or so much as look for it. In fact, I think I will file a patent on all apartments with this particular floor plan and mount vigorous legal defenses of my claim against anybody who makes a 2 bedroom, 2 bath with a small kitchen, a storage closet, and a laundry room.

What? You think that’s ridiculous? Well, it’s apparently in legal contention at the SCOTUS as a drug company, Myriad Genetics, is fighting for their claim that they patented two genes that are involved in breast cancer, BRCA1 and BRCA2. No, they did not invent these genes. They found them and found out what they did. And that means, apparently, that nobody else can research these genes nor even search for them. Currently, Myriad charges $3000 for a test that costs them $200 to perform in order to check these specific genes, the expression of which could raise the risk of breast or ovarian cancer by up to five times.

And here is where libertarians piss me off.

No, that’s not a non sequitur. For all the bleating about “liberty” and “personal responsibility,” there is the idea that the government should not be spending money on research, private companies should because they are innovators and blah blah blah. But, of course, private companies are motivated entirely by profit, full stop, so they will go to whatever lengths they can in order to ensure the highest possible payout and restrict anybody else from cutting into that, even if it means running to the hated government for protection.

What we see here is a company that is willing to gouge its customers, who happen to be women that need to know if they have cancer, and do so on the premise that the discovery of something that is not rare and that they didn’t create means that they now have complete control over it, even if that means more people have to die unnecessarily to maintain inflated prices and a complete lack of competition.

I’m not against copyright law. Really, I’m not. I like artists and creators and actually am one. But the way that we currently structure protections for the creators of things is inhuman. The purpose of copyright, of course, was originally designed to encourage people to bring their ideas into the public by promising that nobody else could take advantage of their hard work for 28 years. That would give creative types almost three decades to make money, acquire fame on their efforts, and encourage them to create more stuff.

Of course, current copyright law protects a work for 28 years as well. And then through the life of the creator. And then 70 years after that.

So, a set of laws that were designed to get people to create things and release them to the public now incentivizes people to create things for almost an entire lifetime after they are already dead. As CGPGrey points out in the video, after you die, you’re not writing anything new. All the law does as it stands is protect the rights of people to continue to leech off of the creativity of often long-dead company founders.

But what’s most horrendous about the Myriad case is that they didn’t even make anything. Patents are supposed to be protection for inventions, not the discovery of things that already exist without human intervention. If they want to patent the method by which they discovered these genes and their connection to cancer, that’s one thing, but this idea that they can patent the gene itself is no less absurd that my suggestion above that I can patent my apartment.

This is also why I am of the firm belief that research should be a public resource. This is not to say that we should eliminate private research, but rather that the drive to eliminate public research by cutting science funding, reducing NASA budgets, and deriding every experiment that sounds silly at first blush (the people who are complaining about studying snail mating habits and fruit flies are the same ones who would have complained about studying moldy bread in 1928). If it weren’t for public research there would be no zippers, no microwaves, no edible toothpaste, and no internet, since there was no immediate profit available for any of those technologies when they were conceived. Without public funding, we will only find a cure for cancer when it brings in more cash than perpetual treatments would.

There is absolutely no reason why a company should be able to patent something they did not create and purposefully slow down the process of using that information to save people’s lives. They are like Tycho Brahe, dribbling observations to Kepler in the hopes that the younger astronomer might say something that would spark a breakthrough in Brahe’s thoughts. Only nobody died because Brahe wouldn’t share his measurements and he doesn’t get to claim ownership of the stars he recorded, especially not in death.

I hope the SCOTUS will rule against Myriad and eliminate this idea that human genes can be patented, but I sincerely doubt that will happen. Not with the Roberts Court, who is more than half enamored of everything business-related. Still, maybe there is a chance that something being technically limited doesn’t make it less functionally unlimited, and therefore is unconstitutional.

Unfortunately, I suspect that Myriad will continue having their stranglehold on even looking for these genes, and poor women will just have to resign themselves to getting cancer they could have avoided.

NASA Can No Longer Afford Public Outreach

One of the most poignant and lasting memories of my childhood self was my obsession with space. This is nothing new, really. Lots of kids like space. This shouldn’t be a surprise. The thing is, it may be common, but a love of space never feels common. On the contrary, it feels special and grand. Sure, there are millions of other people who share that love, maybe billions, but compared to the universe, that’s still a pretty exclusive club.

So is just being from Earth.

While I may have found out that space is one of the most fascinating things (or combination of things) ever on my own, the catalyst for this revelation in me was when my school was visited by an astronaut. I don’t even remember his name, but I remember him talking about going up on the shuttle, doing experiments you can’t do on Earth, how we can one day start exploring again.

Unfortunately, more kids will not have the same opportunity I did. Due to the Sequester, NASA is having to cut all of their public outreach. No more school visits and informational websites, no more videos, no more attempts to promote work in STEM fields. All gone in an instant.

I cannot describe how much rage that inspires in me. Remember, the Sequester is dumb on purpose. It’s supposed to hurt. But it doesn’t have to happen at all.

Congress can repeal the Sequester and put in cuts that make sense. It would require that the troglodytes that are cheering it on because, you know, cuts, be worked around and shamed within an inch of their careers, but it can be done.

So call your representatives and senators. Let them know that science outreach means something. If we are to continue to advance our knowledge and remain competitive with the rest of the world, we need to embrace and promote STEM education, not feed it to the relatively small mass of ignorant trolls and their huckster leaders who have convinced them that science is a waste of money, a collection of opinions based on faith, rather than our best hope of building a better humanity that will one day spread to the stars.

Creating New Myths

Have you ever run into a situation where you try your best to explain something and accidentally end up creating a whole new incorrect belief?

The other day I was explaining evolution to a friend of mine. He’s a bit older and a very, very smart man who never really got the advanced education that his mind is clearly capable of. Nobody instilled a love for learning into him, and he’s just now discovering it in the form of 4 am debates with me and literary criticism. It’s a lot of fun and we have a blast just talking.

Suffice it to say, he asked me at one point, “Why couldn’t it have been that instead of humans coming from apes, they both came from the same animal that just split into two different paths?” I was floored, not only because I hadn’t really explained evolution properly, but also because he kind of hit on this himself just from my discombobulated rants. Again, he’s not stupid, he’s very smart, but he hasn’t been exposed to a lot of academic knowledge over the course of his life.

So I told him that’s exactly what happened as far as we know, that the evidence all points to that, and we had a nice hour of conversation on gradual change over time, genetic drift, etc.

Somehow, what he got out of that is that him being born without wisdom teeth was an evolutionary leap.

It reminds me a little of something Fred Clark wrote yesterday about trying to explain how Ouija boards work using a really clever pendulum example. Read the whole thing, I won’t ruin it for you, but be prepared to laugh and sigh at once.

Have you ever tried to explain something and created a whole new wrong impression by accident? I expect many more hours in the future about gradual change over time and how the lack of wisdom teeth probably grants very little evolutionary advantage in this day and age.

How Do You Make Action Figures?

Seriously. I want to know how these scientist action figures can actually be made, because I would collect the hell out of them. For now they’re only Photoshopped images based on TNG and DS9 figures, but wouldn’t it be so damn cool to actually have them?

You could have a Manhattan Project reunion. You could stage your own Cosmos mash-up between Carl Sagan and Neil deGrasse Tyson where they edit their versions together. The atheists can snub Stephen Jay Gould for coming up with NOMA. And, best idea of all: Scientist Yacht Party hosted by Jacques Cousteau.

Anyway, this is just me dreaming a bit. What would you guys do with scientist action figures?