Archive for February, 2009

I find it difficult to talk about how I feel about people, because I do not necessarily understand what specifically is meant by different commonly used terms.  Today I’ll focus on liking someone and caring about someone.

When it comes to feelings, everything is on a continuum, yet we speak binary.  “I like that person.”   “I care about that person.”  Binary speak is easier, but information is lost. 

First, let’s talk about caring levels.  One way to measure caring level is the amount of unpleasantness you are willing to accept in exchange for something that makes the other person feel better.  For example, you might be willing to hold a door for someone you have never met (although I am generally against door holding).   Or you might help an elderly woman change a flat tire.  In those cases, you have inconvenienced yourself to a small degree in order to benefit someone else.  If you didn’t care about humans at all, you wouldn’t feel bad about ignoring even the simplest pleas for help.  At the highest caring levels, you are willing to take on much more for someone else.  For example, perhaps you are willing to spend hours a day in a hospital in order to comfort a family member who is not well. 

 I am not sure if that is the best way to think about caring.  We need to make an additional distinction first, I think.  Your willingness to accept unpleasantness might be driven by the desire to signal caring.  We certainly benefit from having others think that we are caring people.  So there is incentive to fake caring.   Suppose, for example, your spouse is hospital bound with some terminal disease.  Perhaps you want to just leave them there and travel to the Bahamas.  But, you know that your friends and family would think you’re a terrible person, so you stay by his/her side.  I wouldn’t count that as caring. 

So…  perhaps your caring level for person X  is based on the degree to which tasks that you normally would find unpleasant are not viewed by you as unpleasant if it benefits person X to a large enough extent.  Think about a (cost to you):(benefit to them) ratio.  The more you care, the higher the ratio you are willing to accept without thinking of it as a burden or sacrifice. 

Now, let’s think about the idea of liking someone.  I tend to think of liking someone as enjoying their company.  The more you enjoy them, the more you like them.  I’m not sure if that’s the best way to look at it.  Because you could enjoy someone (e.g., think they are interesting), but not like them as a person (e.g., they could be selfish or mean).  Liking implies a positive character judgement, I think.  Hm, so let’s say the degree to which you like someone is positively correlated with the amount of enjoyment you get from them and how good you think their character is.

Liking levels and caring levels need not agree.  For example, you could care about someone a great deal but not really enjoy them (e.g., perhaps you care deeply about a parent or sibling but don’t enjoy their company).  You also could like someone a lot and not care much about them (e.g., someone that you enjoy talking to, but wouldn’t be willing to help out much if they needed it). 

If you like someone a lot, you probably have some incentive to exaggerate how much you care about them.  You want them to like you. You want them to spend time with you.  So you signal to them an exaggerated level of caring. 

Similarly, if you care a lot about someone, you have incentive to exaggerate how much you like them.  Because you care about them, you want them to be happy. People are happy when they think people like them. So, you signal to them an exaggerated level of liking.

In general, I think we tend to exaggerate whatever level is lower (caring or liking) in order to balance it out.  (that’s just a theory I made up in the past few minutes)

What is the point of this post?  I have no idea.

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How often change oil?

I don’t know much about cars, but it sounds to me like there is no reason to change the oil every 3000 miles (link).

To satisfy my own curiosity and to shut Mr Service Manager up, I decided to actually send my oil to a lab to be tested.  … When my luxury mobile had about 120,000 miles, I sent in a sample each at 3,000, 5,000 and 7,000 miles after the oil change.  The results that came back was astonishing and very educational.  It showed that all the 3 samples had pretty much identical metallic contamination – very very low – indicating very little wearing of the engine.  They all indicated no anti-freeze – indicating that the head gaskets were good and the integrity of the engine block.  The oil analysis report also indicated no gasoline contamination – indicating that the piston rings and combustion metering was perfect. Most importantly, the report indicated that all three samples showed very little change in viscosity over the period of use, indicating that the oil had not deteriorated.  I shared the reports with the service manager, buttering him up with kudos for the fine engineering of the brand’s car engine. He was satisfied that I’m not ruining the car by changing oil every 7,500 miles – I claim that I could have gone another 7,500 miles with the state of the oil they just poured out.

The 3000 mile / 3 month (huh?) rule always struck me as something that wasn’t evidence-based.  I should write a post sometime on non-evidence-based rules-of-thumb that people treat like Christians treat gospel. 

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During a recent friendly discussion about religion, someone pointed out that “believing is seeing.”  In other words, I probably will not see evidence of God until I first believe in him.  Once I believe in him, I will begin to see the evidence.  Apparently. 

Well, I agree that believing is seeing.  As Errol Morris put it

 If we want to believe something, then we often find a way to do so regardless of evidence to the contrary. Believing is seeing and not the other way around.

Yes, if you believe in something you will see evidence for it.  However, I do not consider that to be a good trait.  That is what happens with placebos.  We believe they are helping us, and it affects our psyche.  Placebos can improve our subjective well being.  A placebo will probably not, however, decrease an HIV patient’s viral load.  Similarly, belief in God does not increase the actual evidence in favor of God; it just affects our cognitive evidence selection mechanism.

An example

Let us consider a simple example involving superstition.  I have heard people say that “bad things come in threes.”  Some people are more specific, and believe that “deaths come in threes.”  I will focus on the latter phrase.  What does the phrase mean?  I believe they are saying that if someone close to you dies, then two other people close to you will die in the near future.  Deaths happen in groups of three.

If we were to graph the deaths of people close to us on a time line, it would look something like this (if the saying was true):


Here, D represents the death of a person who was close to you.  You will notice that the deaths are grouped in 3’s. 

Now, keep in mind that the death of someone who is close to you is also the death of someone who is close to a lot of other people.  It then becomes a very difficult math problem.  How could God makes sure that deaths occur in 3’s for everybody? You could pretty much rule out the factual basis of the claim on this argument alone.  Nevertheless, let’s proceed with the example.

In reality, the time line graph would look different.  A real time line of deaths of people close to you might look like this:


Here, the black D’s represent the deaths of people who were very close to you (e.g., a parent, best friend, etc.).  The brown D’s represent the deaths of people who were not as close to you (e.g., a cousin, a friend from years ago that you did not see too often).  You will notice that the deaths do not appear to occur in groups of 3.  However, believing is seeing!

Convienent thresholds

If you believe that deaths come in threes, you will see it.  You will become a victim of confirmation bias, due to an inconsistent application of thresholds.  Which deaths ‘count’ in the group of 3?  How much time has to pass between deaths before a new death is not counted as part of the group?  Threshold flexibility makes it easy to confirm your beliefs.  Behold!


An ‘X’ through a D means that we are ignoring that death.  We ignore some of the brown D’s on the grounds that the person wasn’t close enough to us to ‘count.’  We accept brown D’s in the set when convenient.  Also, notice the varying time window.  We are pretty generous with the time window in the third set. 

In some cases we might even ignore a black D if it clearly does not fit with the other groups.  We will just forget about that disconfirming evidence.  We tend to only remember evidence that confirms our beliefs.

Another example

The 23 enigma: “the belief that most incidents and events are directly connected to the number 23, some permutation of the number 23, or a number related to the number 23.”  Yes, the clever person can find a way to connect an event with the number 23.  However, the clever person could do the same with just about any other number they picked.  Believing is seeing.


When something positive happens that seemed unlikely at the start, people will attribute it to God intervening.  But if that same event had turned out bad, they generally wouldn’t attribute it to God’s intervention.  An example of this occured in January 2006, where at first it was falsely reported that some miners had been rescued alive after being trapped for 4 days.  See the headline in the Boston Herald:


As Greg Saunders put it

Now that we know the twelve miners were killed, does this mean America’s prayers weren’t answered? Just like gambling addicts remember their big wins but not their losses, the fate of the twelve miners has transformed from a faith-inspiring act of God to another horrible tragedy in which it’s impolite to mention religion at all.

Again, here, we are talking about how evidence is selected.  Once you believe, it’s easy to see evidence of ‘miracles.’


So far I have given reasons why you should be very skeptical of claims that rely on belief first.  In fairness, however, I need to consider the other side.  It is possible that some evidence in favor of God is very subtle and very difficult for a non-believer to notice.  If the evidence is real, however, the believer should be able to point out the evidence to the non-believer. What is it that the believer is seeing that confirms their belief?  Can they explain it to the non-believer?  And if not, is it really evidence?

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Let’s assume that God exists.  Let us also imagine that God did not write a book that described his wonderful attributes.  We would then be in the position of learning about God based solely on what he created.

If we look for God’s attributes based only on what he created, what would we conclude?

God is a fan of extreme sports

If you look around, you will see living things in violent, bloody competition of survival.  I would conclude that God enjoys extreme sports.  Think about it.  If you were to design a world with different living creatures, would you put them in survival competition against each other?  Imagine you created different types of artificial intelligence with unique purposes.  Picture robots performing different functions.  Would you create them in such a way where they have to try and destroy each other to survive?  Of course not. Not unless you enjoyed the battles (which is possible).

In response to this argument, one of my friends said “living things live and die… that’s the natural cycle of things.”  It seems natural to us, because that is what we know.  It doesn’t have to be that we though.  God could have created a world where animals weren’t trying to eat each other. 

Someone pointed out to me that all living things used to be peaceful, until the original sin ruined it all (I’m paraphrasing).  Apparently tigers used to be herbivores?  I don’t know.   However, we wouldn’t know that the world used to be a peaceful place had God not written a book telling us how wonderful he is.  

God is a poor engineer by human standards

Many living things are poorly designed.  You can find a long list here.  For example:

Crowded teeth and poor sinus drainage, as human faces are significantly flatter than those of other primates and humans share the same tooth set. This results in a number of problems, most notably with wisdom teeth.

Or this:

Male beetles of several Callosobruchus species have sharp edges on their sperm-delivery organs. The females’ ducts grow a bit of extra toughening but not enough to make sex safe from the risk of injury.

God is cruel

Even if you accept the premise that it is necessary for animals to kill each other in order to ‘maintain balance’ (which I don’t), you would still have to conclude that there is a lot of suffering that is completely unnecessary.  A designer who found it necessary to have animals kill each other could still have had them anesthetize their prey first.

Why is our conception of God different?

Most people think of God as loving, pure and just.  Why?  If we look at nature, that is not what we see.  Our opinion about God is apparently strictly based on what we learned about him from the book(s) he his written (or movies he has directed).  Should the inconsistency between what we see and what we are told be a concern for those who are searching for truth?

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I like dramas that are fairly intense.  I particularly like when that intensity is broken by music at just the right moment.  Here are two examples.

First, in The Lives of Others, Georg Dreyman finds out about the death of his friend.  He doesn’t say anything; he just plays Sonata for a Good Manon the piano.  The most powerful moment is the reaction of Capt. Wiesler, who has been part of a surveillance effort.  To me, this is the best scene in the movie.

Another example is from Magnolia.  The movie is really about a bunch of sad, lonely people. Here, they all sing Aimee Mann’s Wise Up.  Perfect song at the perfect moment. Just the right tone. 

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If you visit creationist websites, or discuss evolution with the ID crowd, you’ll see/hear arguments about why evolution couldn’t be true.  I was glad to see Steven Novella refute the most common claims made against evolution.  The most common one I have heard is that evolution does not increase genetic information, and therefore macroevolution (a popular term by the ID/creationist folks) is impossible.  Steven dismantles this claim:

All mutations increase genetic information…  If you start with one version of a gene and then it mutates in one offspring but not in another – now you have two versions of that gene. That represents an increase in information. Also, entire genes may be duplicated in the reproductive process. If you start with one copy of a gene and end up with two copies – that is an increase in information. This is especially pertinent to evolution, because one copy can continue to perform its original function while the redundant copy is free to mutate and evolve a new function.

The idea that natural selection removes variation from the gene pool is true but a non sequitur. Mutations, duplication, and recombination increase information and increase variation and then natural selection causes differential survival of that variation which is better adapted to its niche.

The whole post is worth a read, if you are interested in the topic.  As tempting as it is to ignore creationist arguments, we need to keep refuting them.  Especially when 39% of US adults believe it’s ‘definitely true’ that “God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years.”

update:  you can watch Intelligent Design on Trial (h/t Jim Emerson)

update 2:  new gallop poll on evolution

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I like this post a lot, because it is something that skeptics have to deal with on a regular basis.  How do you respond when someone is enthusiastic about something that you think is absurd and factually incorrect?  Like astrology, for example:

What exactly is the polite response when someone at a dinner party asks, “What’s your sign? I bet you’re a Taurus!”

I said, “You do realize that Jupiter and some random stars have no effect at all on you, right? I mean, why is it that you’re protected from the magical personality rays of the constellations when you’re buried a few inches deep in flesh and fat, but the second you come screaming out of your mom, the magical personality rays pierce through the brick, mortar, insulation, tile, and electrical wiring of to the third floor maternity ward of the hospital in which you have emerged to touch you with the magical essence of “Taurus,” you stubborn little baby bull!”

I am a bummer at parties.

No one was any more skeptical of astrology, and I ended up looking like the big jerk I actually am. So I’m trying to develop a personal etiquette code for situations such as this.

Suppose someone told me that they saw a psychic.  My initial reaction would be to mentally roll my eyes and think that they are stupid and gullible.  Because that’s what humans do.  We quietly, harshly judge each other — at least initially (don’t deny it, you know I’m right).  After a second or two I’d calm down.   At that point, what is the best response?  Should I just fake it — pretend that I don’t think they’ve been scammed (i.e., lie to validate their feelings and prevent social awkwardness)?  Should I be honest, and show my contempt for the topic? Or should I delicately suggest that perhaps some psychics might possibly not be able to tell the future all of the time (i.e., treat the person like a fragile antique vase)?  Hm.  I suppose the best answer is this:  withhold judgement, and engage the person in a discussion.  However, even politely challenging someone’s beliefs can spoil a party.

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