The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Dead Sea Scrolls

Hey, it's once again archaeology related. Wild!

Kaylia sent me the link to this article in the New York Times. The holders of the Dead Sea Scrolls are creating high-resolution digital photos to put the entire collection online.

This is cool for many reasons. First off, when things like this are made accessible, it increases public interest in archaeology and history, which makes my job easier and more fun. Secondly, this will allow more scholars to access the scrolls, which will allow more debate, which will allow a better understanding of what the scrolls mean to the history of western religions. All in all, pretty damn groovy.

I've got that nifty kinda' feeling that I always get when cool things like this happen.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Where I Stand

A comment from Msnc on my last blog post (and my previous Rick Warren blog post) pointed out something that should have been obvious to me (so, a note of thanks to Msnc) – because of the generally polarized nature of any discussion regarding religion, people who hold a position that cannot be easily summed up in a word or a phrase tends to be disregarded, and that person is assumed to hold a position rather different (and often more inflammatory) than the position that they actually hold (and the position to which they are assigned is often one that, really, nobody holds).

So, I want to clarify my thoughts on religion and the existence of the divine.

I describe myself as an atheist. I do this knowingly and consciously, but not without the risk of being misunderstood. I do not claim to absolutely know that there is not god/God/gods/goddess/etc. What I do claim is that, based on my own personal observations and my understanding of how the world works, I can say that the god that I most often hear people describe – one who interferes routinely in human affairs, whose fingerprints are found on all aspects of the world, and who has a plan for each one of us personally – is extremely unlikely. Put another way – it’s a low-probability hypothesis.

A deistic deity, one who set the universe in motion and then let it run its course, is much more likely, but still a low probability hypothesis. There are many different hypotheses for how the universe began, and I know of no reason to think that a god setting it into motion is any more likely than any of the other hypotheses. In fact, it seems less likely than many of them.

But again, I am talking of probabilities – I do not claim to know the absolute truth, I am admitting that, like all of us, I can only go on the information available to me and determine what seems most likely. If new evidence comes to light, I will be forced to re-evaluate my positions. I become frustrated with people who refuse to re-evaluate in the face of evidence (such as evolution deniers or flat-Earthers) or who allow themselves to become suspicious of or hateful towards those who don't fall in their camp (thus my irritation with Rick Warren), and my frustration sometimes becomes invective (a fact that I am not proud of, but that I have to admit is true - though my level of vitriol has consistently been outdone by the host of media spokesmen from "the other side" - at least I'm not claiming that anyone deserves to be tortured for eternity) – but I do not ever believe (as folks seem often to claim I do) that I am inherently superior to these people. I do believe that I am being more honest (if for no other reason than that I speak in probabilities and not absolutes), but honesty is simply one trait, and any person is composed of many traits, both positive and negative.

I do hold that many ideologies (and religions are ideologies) hold codes of conduct, belief, and behavior that are harmful. That is not to say that the people are inherently inferior, but that their beliefs (which they hold for a wide variety of reasons ranging from the understandable to the absurd) may cause them to behave in ways that do not serve them, their communities, or the world at large. But I believe this based on evidence, and I am happy to discuss this with anyone who disagrees, provided that they are respectful of me as I will try to be towards them.

And this is where labels become a problem. Many folks will claim that because I do not claim to know whether or not the divine exists and am merely assigning probabilities, then I am an agnostic and not an atheist. In a technical sense, this is perhaps true, and int he past I have used this label for myself for that very reason. However, my experience with those who claim to be agnostic is that there is a general sense that the existence or non-existence of divinity are both equally probable – a notion that doesn’t hold water. And so I don’t use that label. I use the label atheist because most of the self-described atheists with whom I have crossed paths hold the same position as I do on this subject, and don’t claim absolute knowledge, but simply that the probability is weighted towards the non-existence of a god.

Do some of these folks hold themselves to be superior to believers? Yes, some do. But most of them don’t. The problem is that the loud-mouths are the most likely to be heard, and are also typically the most belligerent.

Do we think that we are closer to the truth of the universe than believers? Yes. But, believers believe that they are closer than us. The 50/50 agnostics think that they are closer than anyone else as well (or that they have a better idea of how likely it is to find the truth). So, if thinking that you are right is arrogant, then that is a label that can be applied equally across all of humanity (except for Joe, over in the corner there).

I would argue that thinking that you are right is only arrogant if you fail to meet two conditions: 1) you are aware of why you believe what you do and have a basic humility as a result, and 2) you fail to adjust your beliefs when evidence shows them to be false, or at least unlikely.

So, the believer who is aware that they are believing in a god based on faith and not evidence, and who is willing to accept new information is not arrogant. Neither is the atheist who sees the world in probabilities and is willing to adjust those probabilities as new information becomes available. The one-liner in the previous post refers specifically to those who fail to meet these two criteria, and then accuse others of arrogance.

So, that is where I am coming from. My thoughts on this matter have changed over the years, and no doubt will change in the future again (contrary to some claims, my mind has not decayed and I have not become set in my ways, as is known to those who have produced good counterarguments to beliefs I have held). What direction my beliefs will go I cannot say, as that will be dependent on evidence that I am not yet aware of.

A retort to Warren and Others

Last week, I vented my spleen about comment from Pastor Rick "Repackaging Halfwit Homilies" Warren.

Well, as so often happens wonderfully, someone else, in this case Daniel Meissler, summed it up much more succinctly than I ever could have:

Let me get this straight. You think the Creator of the Universe cares personally about your life, and that you know, with absolute certainty, what he wants for all of humankind.

While I think that we’re basically alone, not very special, and are just fumbling through our random existence trying to do the best we can.

And I’m the arrogant one?


From Ebon Muse, a neat little primer on John Stuart Mill's Method for Critical Thinking. Sweet.

Oh, and from Hemant Mehta, fun with Elizabeth Dole, hoping that prejudice and fear-mongering is thought to be a winning combination in North Carolina.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Let Loose the Chihuahas of War!

The land developer sat in his office. He looked at the photos of his wife and two children on the desk, feeling certain that he had made the right decision. Of course he had made the right decision, Lisa, Jack, and Andrea’s futures would now be secure, as would his. With the new shopping mall being built on the land that he had brokered, he would now have all of the money he needed. He could now relax and enjoy the fruits of his labor – he’d have the peace of mind and the security he needed to be a better husband and better father. Certainly, he would.

Why did this one detail keep bothering him, though.

Sure, we make it out to be a big deal, but is it really? How many thousands…no millions…of people die every day? Why was this one death hanging on his conscience so? He hadn’t even pulled the trigger.

Besides, the man would have prevented the developer’s great works. If he had filed that cultural resources report, the mall would not be built, and the dreams of the developer…the dreams of HIS family…would be unrealized.

No, it was for the best. Everything would be fine.

** ** ** ** **

Across town, at the beach, the Friday night crowd was enjoying the Eddie Money Concert. Between the music, the booze, and the fact that everyone felt secure in their geographic location because Eddie kept telling them where they were, spirits were high. Life was good.

And then the ground began to shake. It was barely noticeable at first, between the vibrations from the sound system and the movement of the crowd, but it became stronger and louder quickly. So, it became clear that the sound was coming from a spot just to the east of the stage, and the crowd began to part, clearing the epicenter of this strange, small earthquake.

Then, without warning, a pillar of flame shot up, piercing a hole in the ground where it exited. As the top of the pillar began to dissipate, and the constituents fly towards the ground, yipping angrily, it became clear that this was no pillar of flame – it was a pillar of flaming Chihuahuas. From the bowels of Hell they came – THE CHIHUAHUAS OF WAR!

As the Chihuahas filled the air above the stage, the column of their kin shooting up from the ground began to dissipate, vanishing after a few minutes as the last of the yappee barking rats from the netherworld flew into the air. All of the Chihuahuas then began to circle above the hole in the ground from where they had come, and a faint glow could be seen emanating from the hole.

The crowd formed a wide circle around the hole, needing to witness whatever would happen next, yet wanting to be far enough to escape.

A figure began to rise from the hole – a human figure, but grabbed in black and with eyes that burned with the fury and despair of Gehenna itself.

The archaeologist had returned from Hell – he had a cultural resources report to file, and a trowel full of furry and hellfire to deliver to a certain land developer.

Thanks to Kaylia for the photo.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Object Photos

The building at 5-Points in Santa Cruz

So, I am going to be working out of town for a couple of days starting tommorrow, but in the meantime, I thought I'd post more photos. I had previously posted photos of people and of landscapes, this time it is photos I have taken of objects. If you don't like them, and I can't say that I blame you there, then pretend that they are paparazzi photos of celebrities. In fact, I'll offer two sets of comments on each photo, one describing what it is, and one for those pretending that it's something else.

First off is this image of one of the "natural bridge" hollows carved out of the sandstone at Lighthouse beach in Santa Cruz.


Here we see Mary Kate and Ashley Olson visiting "Stan the Man", their favorite crack dealer. Although other dealers offer equal quality at lower prices, Mary Kate and Ashley believe in loyalty, and so they keep coming back to Stan.

Next up is a photo of birds occupying a railing at a park in Santa Cruz. I saw them ont he rail, realized this was a great picture, and managed ot get a shot before they all flew away.


Here is an image of Keanu Reeves with his new agent, arguably the most powerful agent a celebrity could have, Satan. Despite his tremendous influence and power, Satan doesn't demand too large a cut of his star's earnings, instead opting to lead them down the road to temptation and thus entrap them eternally. All in all, it's a win-win situation.

This next photo is in colcor, despite the fact that it looks as if it is black-and-white. It's a picture of a dry portion of the bed of the LExington Reservoir near Los Gatos, CA. I was walking around the reservoir looking for photo opportunities, when I noticed the cracking pattern of the dry bed.


Here we see a retro photo of Betty Davis back in her hey-day. Note the red on her lips - that's not cosmetics, it's the blood of a baby she has devoured. She says that bathing in the blood of innocents is what keeps her skin vibrant and beautiful. Oh Betty, you card!

I was working on a project in Watsonville, and drove by this building on my way home. In balck-and-white on an overcast day, it looked both fascinating and rather creepy.


This is Richard Simmon's new home, the upper floor is his living quarters, and the lower floor is where a group of obese accolytes run on treadmills to power the city of Los Angeles as overlord Richard walsk the floor and encourages them with cheerful words, oldies music, and a cat-o-nine tails.

Finally, there is this one. I was doing powerline surveys (to ensure that work on some power lines would not damage archaeological sites) near Fresno, and while walking underneath them, I became interested in their structure. So, I snapped this shot, which looks to me like some sort of demented industrial spiderweb.


And so we bid this look at our favorite celebrities farewell with a shot of Julia Roberts passed out in a gutter, a bottle of jack Daniels in one hand and a package of expired tortillas in the other. Please join us next time on Lifestyles of the Big and Decadent!

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

The Purpose Driven Half-Wit

A quick heads up from From Hemat Mehta.

Rick Warren, author of "The Purpose Driven Life" was interviewed on Nightline. When asked if he could vote for a non-Christian for president, he answered that he could vote for a Jew, and then followed it up by saying that the only non-Christian he couldn't vote for is an atheist, because "the presidency is to big for one man" and "atheism is arrogant."

Now, Warren is someone that I have always thought was a dick, and I am not too worked up over what he thinks. What bothers me is that the sentiments he expresses are, in my experience, extremely common, and that really irks me.

Okay, first off, it's one man. Even if that man (or woman) believes that they have a god/goddess/fairy/magical huffalump in the sky helping them, they don't. It's simply not true, no matter how they try to rationalize it. So, you're voting for one person, no matter what they believe.

Secondly, how is atheism arrogant? I hear this all of the time. But nobody is ever able to explain to me how it is that saying "hey, there's no evidence to support the claim that a god exists" is somehow more arrogant than "the almighty creator of the universe has a plan for me personally!"

Beyond that - it is supremely arrogant to say "the weird, inconsistent belief system that I subscribe to IS ABSOLUTELY TRUE because I have faith (read - I base this entirely on assumption and have absolutely no rational reason for making this claim)!" To say that the universe is ordered in a particular way because you (or your ancestor) simply said that it was, with no logical support, is astoundingly arrogant.

So, really, it's the theists that Warren and others like him would support who are the arrogant ones - claiming that they know based on nothing more than their own assumptions that the all-powerful force behind everything is looking out for them - not the "arrogant" atheist that he wouldn't vote for.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Ethnography of the Assless Chaps

This is another one that I wrote for back when it was an on-line magazine. Again, I have asked them multiple times if they’d mind me putting it up on my own blog, and received no response (to be fair, they’re pretty damn busy over there, so I don’t take it personally). So, on the off-chance that the good folks over there read this and object to me re-posting it, I’ll talk with them about it later. But I wrote it, I’m proud of it, and I’d like to display it. So, there ya’ go.

Some time back, a friend of mine, who shall be known here as “Lunsy,” told me about the home of the Assless Chaps.

Many of us are familiar with the leather pants that have had the posterior removed thanks to the wonderful consciousness-raising work done by such social activists as the Village People and Prince (AKA weird symbol-guy). What few people know, however, is the remarkable story of the people who make this garment.

Lunsy, in her tireless work as a procurer of leather products for the good people of Kansas, discovered that these leggings were produced primarily in a small village in the Florida everglades. Lunsy knew little of the place except that few people traveled there and that all companies producing knock-off chaps were put out of business through a little-known, but tough patent law from the early days of the American republic. She went onto explain that the execution of said law often resulted in public floggings and defenestration of the CEO’s and head garment designers of the companies that attempted to make fake chaps. Other than their potentially litigious nature, however, little was known of these people.

Upholding my duty as an anthropologist, I mounted my Schwinn, put it into 10th gear, and headed east.

A few weeks later I found myself in the Everglades. I knew I was near the village as the leather trees all around me were bearing fruit, and each sheet of leather had a strange hole grown into the middle of it. Finding that my trusted Schwinn was of little use in the swamp, I dismounted and continued on foot, pausing occasionally to empty the mud and leeches from by boots.

After several hours of trudging through fetid water and attempting to surf on top of alligators (they were not cooperative), I began to hear human voices. I followed the sound of the voices, and found myself peering through a patch of tall grass at the village of the Assless Chaps.

It became immediately apparent why they were known as the Assless Chaps and not simply the “Assless People.” The women of the village appeared perfectly normal, and indeed many would not have appeared out of place in a painting by the master artist Rueben or in the “Baby Got Back” video. The men, however, all had such astoundingly under-developed gleuteals that while they had their belts tight, they still routinely had to reach behind themselves to pull their pants up. Indeed, it was only the chaps who lacked asses.

I was soon spotted, and given the well-developed and sexily sculpted backside that my keyboard exercises and steady diet of apple fritters has given me, I could not blend in and hide as Malanowski so successfully did in the Pacific islands.

At first the villagers gathered around, as if uncertain whether to send me packing or place me in their primitive crock-pots (indeed, they clearly had been buying the Ronco telephone-order versions, so primitive were they that they lacked a local K-Mart). Eventually, a man dressed in a loose-waisted Armani suit came forward and introduced himself to me as “Bob.” Bob served this village in a capacity known as “the mayor.” Bob took me to his home, and as his wife proceeded to stew up lemonade in their crock pot, we sat on amazingly well-cushioned chairs while he told me of the history of his people.

The ancestors of the assless chaps were once scattered throughout Europe and had mingled with the general population. So long as the common items of clothing were tunics, kilts, togas and the like, these people did not stick out in any significant way.

However, with the fall of the Roman Empire and the coming of the panted hordes of northern Europe, the fortune of those who lacked backside development began to change. Those who were unable to keep their pants up without considerable effort found themselves ostracized, often running afoul of the decency and sumptuary laws of the new European order. Although the women rarely showed the lack of backside that the men did, it was known that it ran in families, and so women who had kinsfolk without proper cushioning would find themselves unable to find husbands.

The people who had this genetic anomaly found themselves segregated into communities that were usually downstream of leper colonies and technology salesmen conventions. It was a miserable existence, with fear and superstition forcing further ostracism. Indeed, every year on All Hallows Eve, it was common for storytellers and village elders to warn children that if they misbehaved, the “flat-backers” would come to “steal your bum, and wear it about, and eventually wear it out!”

It was at this point that Bob had to wipe tears from his eyes as he spoke of this tumultuous part of his people’s history. A few moments later, Bob’s wife brought us mugs of warm freshly-brewed lemonade, and he continued his story.

The Assless Chaps had tried settling in Scotland, where the local custom of wearing kilts could hide their physical differences. However, their unwillingness to eat rocks and violate sheep led to their eventually expulsion from the islands.

Eventually, a group of the Assless Chaps found themselves on a Spanish boat sailing to New World. They settled far away from the Spanish mission, and learned that the local population did not mind having them around as their constant drooping-drawer appearance provided the natives with much amusement. Even when the Spanish colonies failed, the Assless Peoples found their community thriving as the primary purveyors of slapstick comedy to all neighboring peoples.

Over the year, occasionally an errant son or daughter would leave the Assless colony to seek their fortune in the broader world. The two best known of whom are Twiggy and Fiona Apple, two of the rare women to show the outward signs of belonging to the Assless community.

However, the real change in fortune for these people came with the development of the motorcycle. For decades, the men of this community had been wearing leather workpants that had the backside cut-out in order to reduce the weight and make it easier to keep the pants up. After all, why waste material and add weight to provide protection to a non-existent body part? With the invention of the motorcycle, outsiders began to see some use in the traditional Assless work-pant as a piece of safety equipment and fashion accessory.

A second market appeared in the mid-60’s as musicians began to adopt the distinctive pants in an effort to appeal to such markets as bikers and interior decorators. Ever since, the fortunes of the Assless Chaps have been increasing.

Today, the community is vibrant and alive with a culture free of fart jokes and filled with a rustic joy. While the bacteria counts on their sofas and kitchen chairs may be higher than one might be comfortable with, these people are nonetheless a beautiful and exciting community.

As I walked back through the swamps, I had a new appreciation for these people. So what if they lack butts and a K-Mart. They made up for it in a rich culture and leather sales.

Now if I can just keep the leeches out of my boots.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Books I Love – Probably More Than You Want to Know About the Fishes of the Pacific Coast

I think I’m going to, from time to time, write up a brief review of the books that I love that have aided me in my work or my research. And the first installment of this will be a book I well and truly love – and appropriately written by a biologist by the name of Dr. Milton Love (whose laboratory at UC Santa Barbara is named, of course, the Love Lab) – Probably More than You Want to Know About the Fishes of the Pacific Coast.

The Basics: This book is an encyclopedic catalogue of the various fish to be found along the Pacific Coast of North America. It is well indexed, clearly written, and useful for anyone who is doing any work that involves Pacific Coast fish. Information includes habitats, fish foods and predators, ways in which contemporary fishermen catch the fish in question, and other information specific to each fish.

Why I love it: First off, it’s a damn funny book. I know that this sounds odd, being as how it’s the sort of book that ought to be dry and factual, not given to any humor. But, the book is hilarious. Consider:

- In the chapter on the Monkeyface Stickleback, Dr. Love insists that the fish looks nothing like a monkey, but does bear a resemblance to Joseph Stalin, and then recommends that the fish immediately be re-named the Stalinface Stickleback.

- In the chapter on fish parasites, he argues that the most important reason to know about fish parasites is so that you can gross out your family members. He then goes on to tell the story of a marine biologist who named all of the parasite that he discovered after his wife, and shortly thereafter died a rather horrible death.

- In a Q&A session at the beginning of the book, he discusses the potential for fish to do you emotional harm, and compares low-IQ chess-playing mice to fish in a discussion of the relative intelligence of different kinds of animals.

- In the about the author section, Dr. Love reveals the importance of purchasing Rodeo Drive in Beverley Hills for use as a UFO landing strip.
Beyond that, the book is an excellent resource for information. The frequent silliness and oddball humor in no way detracts from the book’s value as a resource for people who need to know basic information about Pacific Coast fish.

How it helped me: As stated, the book is an excellent source of information. If I needed to know what sorts of tactics would need to be used to catch certain types of fish (and therefore what, if any, type of social organization would be necessary), this book provided the necessary information. If I needed to know whether or not the presence or absence of various fish indicated environmental shifts, the book provided the necessary information. If I needed to know whether or not a certain fish was so difficult or easy to catch that its presence suggested high or low status in the people eating it, the book provided that information.

But, just as importantly, the book perked me, and the folks I spent lab time with, up. Working in an archaeology lab can become mind-numbing and dreary at times. Hours spent bent over a tray looking at small pieces of stone, bone, shell, etc. can get to you. When the mood in the lab began to falter, someone would pick up the book and read one of the entries. Frequently, the information on the fish described would get us talking about the rather fascinating subject of marine life. Even more often, the book would get us laughing, and make it easier to finish our work.

So, check it out. It’s an interesting book, but also a fun book.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The Hovering Cat Principle

Note: The following essay was originally written for, which was an on-line magazine before it became a large (and fairly groovy) blog. I have written and asked if they mind me posting it here, but have received no response. So, I figured that I wrote the damn thing, and if there's a problem, they can let me know. I gave them notice.

So, please enjoy this essay on cutting-edge science.

I recently spoke with a friend of mine who is studying materials engineering at the local university. As I did not get his permission to use his name in a public forum, I will call him “Slappy.”

Slappy and I began to discuss energy prices, and the possibilities of alternative energy sources. It was during this conversation that he revealed an energy source so simple and yet reliable that it is a wonder that nobody has made use of it.

It is a well known fact that cats always land on their feet, and it is a long-standing principle of energy science that if one were to attach two cats at the back, so that their feet are pointed directly opposite of each other, then they will hover above the ground spinning, for if one cat lands on its feet the other must land on its back, and this can not be. This “hovering cat principle” has caused much amusement in academic circles since its discovery by Thorax Berkenshire, the village idiot of Lancaster who discovered the principle when he attempted to attach two cats to a spit for cooking over an open candle.

As early as the 17th century, enterprising mill owners attempted to utilize the “hovering cat principle” (hereafter referred to as the HCP) to power their mills by inserting a metal rod between the cats, thus causing it to spin as the cats spun. This rod would then be attached to the gears of the mill to provide motor energy without the use of a stream or a pack of under-paid cabana boys. In the early 20th century, Henry Ford built a prototype model T which contained two attached cats in place of the internal combustion engine to power his vehicle.

Of course, cats are expensive, and people tend to be a bit irate over the idea of sacrificing two cats to the name of energy efficiency. Moreover, the cat hairs getting caught in the machinery tended to reduce the use-life of all other parts of the mechanism. In addition, it is difficult to feed a cat that is spinning at high speeds, and so the cats eventually died, and as anyone who has studied Newton’s original texts knows, a dead cat does no necessarily land on its feet, thus causing the mechanism to break down. As a result, the HCP was eventually abandoned as a potential energy source.

Slappy developed a solution. It is unnecessary to use two cats, one need merely choose another, simpler, less expensive item that must also land on one side and not the other. Slappy’s innovation was to replace the second cat with a piece of buttered toast which, as we all know, must land butter-side down.
Now, this innovation settled the matter of losing two cats to the engine, and also reduces the amount of cat dander around to gum up the mechanism, but it did not settle the problem of feeding a spinning cat. So, Slappy set to work on this, and found a solution.

Now, as those of you who are students of science know, Schroedinger argued quite lucidly that if one were to place a cat in a box in which one could not see the state of the cat, and therefore could not be certain of the welfare of the cat, the cat must be both alive and dead for the purposes of all equations generated dealing with the state of the cat. This, too, would apply to the toast, as moldy, stale toast in rancid butter does not necessarily land butter-side down. Just as light is a particle when examined for the properties of a particle and a wave when examined for the properties of a wave, so to the cat must be both alive and dead, and the toast both warm and tasty, and stale and rancid.

So, if one were to staple buttered toast to the back of a cat in such a way that the toast would become detached if the cat were to die, placed a metal rod between them, placed them within a box, and measure for the shift in weight that would come from a falling cat, one would have a device that would turn the rod forever, while also constantly registering the shift in weight of the falling cat that could be harnessed in some other way.

In this way, the HCP can be utilized to solve the current energy crisis while simultaneously only harming a cat in the most abstract and theoretical sense.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

The Road to Hell is Paved with Partisan Rhetoric

It is often observed that the American public is rather ignorant of their own government, the impact of human activities on the world at large, and of the world outside of U.S. Borders. There are many terms used to label this problem: provincialism, scientific illiteracy, isolationism, and just plain willful ignorance. Many people claim that this is due to the media, but while it is true that the news media (especially in recent years) has been focused more on profits and viewership than on accurate reporting, the media reports on many things that simply never make it into the popular consciousness. So, while the media bares some responsibility, it is not entirely to blame.

My own impression is that the real problem is a mix of people not wanting to accept inconvenient realities, people wanting their own prejudices reified rather than examined, and a media that is more than happy to serve up a diet of this sort of thing (though it is fair to point out that the media only serves what there is an appetite to consume).

We live in a society in which people rather routinely feel the freedom to ignore truths that don't fit with the view of the world that they wish to have. Whether it be a lack of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, anthropogenic global warming, the fact that both the Bush and Gore camps did some questionable things during the 2000 election recount, Michael Moore's tendency to exaggerate and engage in emotional manipulation, or Rush Limbaugh's tendency to tell flat-out lies on a regular basis, we as a culture tend to provide great weight to those scraps of information that support our preconceptions, while ignoring or attacking information – regardless of the validity of said information – that conflicts with our preconceptions.

Because it is emblematic of the problem, easy to discuss due to the nature of data, and a subject that I am very familiar with, most of this section will draw examples from the distortion of science in public discussion. However, these tendencies can be found in any form of information.

If you Don't Like the Facts, Ignore Them and Hope they Go Away
One of the first problems with the audience is the tendency for viewers/readers/listeners to ignore or reject any fact or argument that contradicts their own preconceived notions, no matter how valid the argument may be. This is perhaps most obvious in discussions concerning sex education and birth control.

Opponents to teaching about birth control in sex education curriculum claim that teaching about birth control encourages promiscuity, that birth control is ineffective, that birth control is demeaning to women, and that condoms (a special target of these folks) have a high failure rate. Each of these is untrue. Consider:

- Rates of sexual activity are fairly constant among young people, regardless of whether they are taught about birth control or not. Indeed, in areas where "abstinence only" is the order of the day, rates of STD's, unplanned pregnancies (and, not coincidentally, abortion), and other problems associated with risky sexual activity tend to be higher. Even in programs which ask for a "virginity pledge", the age of vaginal intercourse is only delayed by a year or so, and rates of unprotected oral and anal sex (which many believe leaves the virginity intact) increase. Oral sex is, all things considered, less risky than vaginal intercourse (though by no means safe from STD transmission), but anal sex, because of the possibility of tissue damage allowing a pathway for pathogens such as HIV, is riskier than vaginal intercourse – especially when a condom is not used. In other words, the data indicates that "abstinence only" education has little effect on the frequency of adolescent and young adult sexual activity, but does reduce the precautions taken AND may push them towards riskier activities.

- Birth control is not ineffective. Yes, it has a failure rate (variable by form of birth control, but generally low), but so does every medical practice. Indeed, my own impression is that heart surgery probably has a higher failure rate, I have yet to see anyone protesting heart surgery as a medical practice (well, the Christian Scientists, but they're nutty anyway). Organ transplants definitely have a higher failure rate, but nobody uses this as an excuse to attack that medical practice. The reality is that most medical contraceptive methods, when practiced according to instruction, have a very low failure rate. Those that have high failure rates – for example, the contraceptive sponge, tend to be phased out of the market for that very reason.

The irony of this is that the same people who scream about the alleged ineffectiveness of birth control are also the same people who oppose abortion rights. This is not to say that all anti-abortion rights activists oppose birth control, but rather that the people who oppose birth control are almost entirely comprised of a (unfortunately growing) segment of the anti-abortion rights folks. In other words, they oppose the only proven method to reduce the number of abortions – thus proving themselves to be out of touch with reality.

- There is also a claim that birth control is demeaning to women. While there are many rationales given for this claim, they all have one thing in common – they don't stand up to any scrutiny. Essentially, this claim is based in the idea that women exist solely to produce children, and that they have no other real purpose – a belief that actually is demeaning towards women. It is no coincidence that the increasing availability of birth control has happened alongside women gaining rights in the workplace, at home, and in society. In fact, if anything, the availability of birth control gives women more control over their lives – and therefore is empowering, not demeaning.

- Condoms come in for a lot of abuse from these folks. Claims exist that condoms have a breakage/slippage rate of 15% to 20%, which the CDC's and other studies have proven untrue (actual rates are probably closer to 2-4%, and there are health care professionals and scientists who believe that THESE rates might be too high). Moreover, claims that condoms are useless against STD's are exaggerations at best. To be certain, condoms are of only limited use against herpes and the papiloma virus – this is due to the fact that the lesions (and hence pathogens) associated with these diseases can be present in the area around the genitals and not just on the genitals, thus allowing contact with vulnerable skin even with a condom. However, condoms have been shown to be very effective against diseases that require an exchange of body fluids (such as HIV, syphilis, and so on). So, while there is good reason to be cautious and avoid promiscuity even with a condom, they are MUCH more reliable and useful than the anti-sex folks would have you believe.

So, all of this being the case, how do the folks who promote "abstinence only" education and who oppose birth control deal with the fact that their claims are easily proven to be bullshit? Simple – they either ignore the data altogether, or they trot out flawed studies that appear to support their claims and ignore all data that says otherwise. Basically, it's a bit like a television fan who ignores anything negative said about his favorite show, and who voraciously consumes everything that is positive. The difference is that the television fan is merely tinkering with entertainment, the anti-sex folks are engaging in misinformation campaigns that severely alter peoples lives (and deaths, with deadly venereal diseases being amongst the things that their methods are ineffective at addressing).

The problem is that many people feel that it is acceptable to simply ignore facts that they dislike. This is rather like an ostrich sticking its head in the sand. Just because something is ignored doesn't mean it will go away, and just because something is denied does not mean that it isn't true.

Simplifying and Complicating
Another two habits that many folks get into are those that involve either over-simplification of complex issues in order to arrive at a conclusion that meets the individuals interests, or to use unnecessarily complicated explanations as to why their beliefs are true even when the data indicates otherwise.

In the case of global warming, people tend to over-simplify in one of two, often contradictory, ways: First, they note the existence of natural climatic variability, and conclude that all current change is therefore natural. This ignores the fact that, while natural climatic variability is a very real phenomenon, it does not appear to explain the rather rapid increases in global temperatures over the last century, and especially the last few decades. Natural variability tends to have rather different characteristics, and is dependent on low amounts of emitted greenhouse gases (such as CO2) in the atmosphere. To cite that there is natural variability and then ignore all data concerning the nature of the variability is to lie through over-simplification.

Another way in which people oversimplify climate change is through citing things that seem on the surface to support their claims, but really don't. I recall reading in 1996 that "only liberals would be stupid enough to believe in global warming when we are having record rainfall." Now, if the earth is warming, then this increases the rate of water evaporation, which, in turn, increases the amount of water in the atmosphere in some locations, which, in turn, causes increased rainfall in some locations (such as California). So, rather than "disproving" global warming, this increased rainfall was consistent with the predictions.

Complicating the Picture
When faced with the fact that increased rainfall is in keeping with global warming (as are increased number and severity of other storms, including hurricanes), and that 20th century global temperature increases are unusual, the usual response of those committed to opposing the notion of anthropogenic global warming is to state something to the effect of "global temperature is complex, and therefore you can't single out any one element."

Climatic change is indeed complex, no doubt about it. And it is certain that there are many different forces, both natural and man made, at work. Absolute certainty is lacking, but that is ALWAYS true in science. Science is always about probabilities, not certainties. The knowledge that we have of chemistry, climate, and ecology are all consistent with the idea that the burning of petroleum, coal, and other activities that emit greenhouse gases WILL increase the global temperature (not to mention cause other problems such as acid rain and air pollution). This is a high probability claim, one that is consistent with responsibly gathered data. In other words, it is a strong, solid hypothesis, and the claim that the matter is too complicated or that there is significant debate over what is happening is a flat-out lie.

There are many matters that are extremely complex, and many that are quite simple. Most matters fall somewhere in between. However, to intentionally and willingly oversimplify or complicate matters to justify an a-priori conclusion is dishonest, wrong, and in the cases where it serves as a justification for practices that will impact others across a wide range of time and geographic space (as is the case with global warming, pollution, and even many economic and political policies) is flat-out evil and irresponsible.

Moving the Goalposts
Another approach used by those who are ideologically committed to a point is what is often called “moving the goalposts", that is, stating that one must have a given type or amount of information to reach a different conclusion, but then changing the requirements when the initial requirements are met. Really, the tendency of oversimplifying or complicating matters is an example of this, but I want to discuss it in a much broader sense in this section.

A classic case of this is obvious when one looks at the public arguments concerning evolution and creationism (I say public arguments because evolution is a central ,unifying theory of biology, and one that is widely accepted and respected – in other words, the controversy, such as it is, is purely public and not scientific).

My own experience with evolution deniers is that discussions with them move through a few stages:

Stage 1 – they reveal that they don't actually know what evolution is, despite their claims to the contrary, and therefore have unrealistic expectations as far as the nature of the information available.

Stage 2 – (if you get this far) they accept what evolution actually is, but state that they will not accept it as valid because data X,Y, and Z have "never been discovered" and therefore giant gaps exist in the theory.

Stage 3 – You point out that data X, Y, and Z (as well as A, B, C, and Q) have, in fact, been gathered (or are irrelevant), and that their claims about the lack of supporting evidence are, in fact wrong. They will then state that information L, M, N, and O are missing, and therefore evolution has huge gaps (though the gaps are smaller than they at first thought).

Stage 4 – You point out that data L, M, N, and, and O have been gathered (or are irrelevant), and that their claims about the lack of supporting evidence are, in fact wrong. They will then state that information 1, 2, 3, and 4 are missing, and therefore evolution has huge gaps (though the gaps are smaller than they at first thought)

Stage 5 – You cycle through stages 3 and 4 ad nauseum, with the claims of "missing data" becoming increasingly more and more bizarre and absurd.

You will never convince them, not because the data is not on your side (it is) and not because you are out of touch with reality (you aren't, they are, though they will claim it is the other way around), and not because you haven't thought the matter through (you have, they haven't – though that won't stop them from accusing you of being "spoon fed" when they are in fact the person guilty of that).

The simple fact is that they are unwilling to accept reality, they have made up their mind about what they want to believe, and they will continue to try to find "faults" in your argument. When they can't find faults, they will either make them up (usually putting words into your mouth – my grandfather, is a master of this game), create "straw men" (claim that you are making easily dismissed claims that you are, in fact, not making), or claim faults that simply don't and/or can't exist (go to Google and look up “Crocoduck” for an example).

You will also find the same pattern in discussing issues such as: Social security (both those who want to change it and those who don't want to tend to engage in this game), Iraq (especially with the alleged Weapons of Mass Destruction), World Trade Center conspiracies (those who claim that the government did it are huge fans of this sort of thing), and people who favor economic systems (I guarantee that whether someone favors Marxist communism or unfettered capitalism, you will find this sort of pattern).

When Ideology Trumps Reality
I could continue on with other sorts of rhetorical tricks that people use to convince themselves and others of foolish things. However, I think I covered the big items above. Regardless, the problem is that these folks are disregarding a reality that they dislike for a fantasy that meets what they want. It doesn't matter whether one is labeled as conservative, liberal, progressive, reactionary, radical, or cheesecake lover, these activities are common in all groups.

That being said, it does concern me that the current definition of "conservative" is such that folks who place themselves under this banner are increasingly more and more likely to engage in these types of behaviors on a wider variety of issues than the rest of the population. So, while all groups engage in this, it is the current crop of self-styled conservatives who are routinely among the worst. If you need evidence of this, I would suggest looking at the way that the current administration has abused, when not flat-out opposing, science to appeal to its allies in business and on the religious right. It deeply disturbs me (and if you are in any way a responsible individual, it should also disturb you) that issues as important as climate change, terrorism, and medical science are routinely distorted, twisted, and often lied about in order to score political points.

Now, this sort of behavior would simply be amusing if it wasn't for the fact a huge number of votes are routinely mobilized on this sort of rhetoric and actively encouraged to engage in it. While, the media and politicians bare some responsibility for the state of things, they wouldn't get any traction if the populace wasn't more than happy to support empty rhetoric and nonsense.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Landscape Photos

Well, I have been gone for the last week, working at a Hell Hole (really, that's the place's actual name - check it out). Between working out there and preparing a presentation, I've not had time to write any new posts, so here's some more photos - I know...lucky you (BWAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA [that's sinister laughter, by the way])

First up is this one that I took on a semi-cloudy day on the beach in Aptos. It looks like it belongs on one of the those inspirational posters that the Baptist families I knew growing up always had hanging in their homes. Too bad it was taken by an atheist.

And speaking of Hell Hole, here's a photo I took there during the Tahoe Fires last year. The smoke in the air created this really interesting red glow as the sun set:

I love playing with light in photos, and the more interesting the colors and textures, the more I enjoy taking the photos. The downside is that I tend to take photos of certain types of things again and again, such as a slough of sunset photos -

However, I have also found that I enjoy playing with reflecting light in images, and so bodies of water have become a constant source of photos:

That first one I especially like - something about the silhouettes of people int he image really works for me.

And, finally, I love playing with symmetry and vanishing points, so the appeal of this image to me should be obvious: