Archive for the 'Skepticism' Category

2013 Predictions Revisited!

So last New Year’s, I made a bunch of predictions about what would happen during 2013. Let’s take a look and see how well I did:

   1) North Korean aggression will spark a Second Korean War. The war will quickly turn nuclear and end badly for North Korea.

Well, unless there’s been some secret war that’s been going on, I think this one didn’t turn out to be true. I suppose that’s a good thing.

Score: 0/1

   2) A star will go supernova and will be brighter than Sirius in the night sky.

Nope. I’m sure a star went supernova somewhere (in fact, given the sheer number of stars in the universe, about 2,500 went supernova while reading this sentence), but no visible supernovae are to be seen.

Score: 0/2

   3) There will be a massive earthquake in Europe.

A cursory search reveals that the most massive earthquake that occurred in Europe was a 6.4-magnitude quake in Greece on October 12th. Since that is relatively massive, I’m going to take that as a hit.

Score: 1/3

   4) The iPhone 6 (or 5S, whatever they call it) will be released and be a flop.

The iPhone 5S (as well as the lower-market 5C) was indeed released in 2013, but it seemed to sell as well as its predecessors, and got generally positive reviews.

Score: 1/4

   5) Astronomers will measure the existence of molecular oxygen in the atmosphere of an Earth-sized extrasolar planet, thus showing that it contains life.

This would have been massive news if it had occurred, so it’s obvious that this is a miss. Several extrasolar planets did have their atmospheric compositions measure, however, detecting such things as water vapor, but these were massive Jupiter-sized planets or larger.

On a slightly more serious note, I think this method is the most likely way that we’ll initially discover extraterrestrial life. All it takes is pointing it at the right star and doing the difficult work of picking out the planet’s light from the star’s. I honestly think that by 2020, we’ll probably know for relative certainty that there is extraterrestrial life, and that it exists on a given extrasolar planet.

Score: 1/5

   6) There will be a near-miss from an asteroid that will swing by Earth and come less than 10,000 km to the surface. It will not be discovered until after it has passed.

I couldn’t find an asteroid that specifically came within 10,000 km, of course that doesn’t mean one didn’t happen. There was, obviously, a relatively large one that did hit us on February 15th, in Chelyabinsk Oblast, Russia, causing some 1,000 injuries to people on the ground. It wouldn’t really count as a “near-miss”, but when you think about it, doesn’t a “near-miss” imply it didn’t miss…:) I’m going to count it, literally in this case, as a hit.

Score: 2/6

And now on to the celebrity deaths:

   1) Sylvia Browne

BOOM! Sylvia Browne died November 20th. This was the one I wanted the most. It may seem awful to wish that someone would die, then be happy when they actually do, but Sylvia Browne was probably one of the worst human beings to have ever lived. She would emotionally manipulate grieving people to line her pockets with cash, and didn’t give a crap about it. She would unhesitatingly tell parents of missing children that they were dead, subjected to horrible fates like being sold into sex-slavery in Asia, or even that they were still alive when they turned out to be dead the whole time. She totally knew what she was doing, knew she was ruining people’s lives, and all she could say was, “Screw ’em. Anybody who believes this stuff oughtta be taken.

Funnily enough, she predicted she would die at age 88. She was only 77 when she died.

Score: 3/7

   2) Joseph Ratzinger, Pope Benedict XVI

Well, Joseph Ratzinger is still with us on this Earth, but he did resign as pope, and is now styled as Pope Emeritus. Therefore, the pope did “die” in some sort of way…

Score: 4/8

   3) One of the Kardashians

I’m sure if you trace the family line back far enough, you could find a relative of the family that passed away, but nobody really notable died. I was mainly thinking of someone who would otherwise make the cover of People magazine.

Final Score: 4/9

So a 44% hit rate. I suppose if you were to relax the criteria, for example counting some Kardashian relative, or saying supernova did happen out there somewhere, I could claim a higher score. To really prove that any of the predictions made were false would basically involve proving a negative, which is pretty much impossible.

That’s the crucial thing in all this. To claim something is true, you need to have evidence to back it up. If you don’t have any, then there’s no reason to believe the claim in the first place.

Coming soon, predictions for 2014!

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Creationist Double Fail

A common creationist objection to the theory of evolution is the orbital recession of the Moon. It is well known that the distance between the Earth and Moon is gradually getting larger. Every year, the Moon is roughly 3.8 cm farther away than it was the year before. What creationists claim is that if you run the clock backwards, and let the Moon approach the Earth at that rate, it ends up colliding with the Earth long before the supposed age of the Earth-Moon system, thus showing that the world couldn’t be that old.

The usual objection is over the past 4.6 billion years (the age of the Moon), the rate that it’s been moving away at hasn’t been constant. The mechanics of lunar recession is complicated, having to do with the distribution of oceans and landmasses on the Earth (different distributions produce different gravitational “tugs” on the Moon as it orbits). Today’s rate is actually quite a bit higher than it has been in the past. So directly extrapolating today’s rate into the past won’t actually give you the correct answer.

And then…there’s this:

The Moon is currently 385,000 km away (on average. The Moon’s orbit is actually somewhat eccentric).

385,000 km / 3.8 cm per year = 10.1 billion years. Far older than the accepted age of the Earth.

So even if you do blindly extrapolate backwards, the Moon doesn’t actually end up colliding with the Earth. So not only do creationists not do their research, they also suck at math!

My Story

One of the problems with being an atheist is that you’re always perceived as something negative. And that perception really isn’t that far from reality. I mean most of what you hear about atheists is that they’re usually arguing or fighting against something. They’re trying to remove the 10 Commandments from government buildings, or getting prayer out of school, or they’re writing books blasting traditional religious thought.

While I do believe this is necessary at some level, there’s really nothing substantive about atheism or non-religion in general. There is secular humanism which does have positive core values, but that usually just gets lost in the mix.

I’ve also struggled to come up with something positive while at the same time promoting critical thinking. It’s kind of contradictory to lay out a set of positive values, but then saying “and be critical of everything, even what I just said”. Imagine if a Christian said, “God loves you and wants to save your soul, but also question everything. Even question whether this God exists in the first place.” It just makes it confusing.

So, what I thought I’d do was simply tell my own story of how I got to where I am today in my atheism. Well, not just atheism. Atheism is practically nothing. It is a mere sentence in the thick novel of my personal beliefs. I am a secular humanist, a transhumanist, and deeply convinced of the value and correctness of scientific methodology and of the ongoing scientific endeavor.

First, my parents. I grew up in a non-religious household. My mother is also an atheist, though not much of a critical thinker. She’s into things like Carl Jung and Carlos Castaneda; fairly flakey things about consciousness and perceiving the universe. But she’s not really hardcore into these things. She’s like the moderate Christian version of them. Sort of believes it, but isn’t devoted to it. My father was into Scientology, but was never a member; mostly because he had no money and they wouldn’t have him.

After my parents divorced, I lived with my mother and she decided to take me to the Ethical Culture of Brooklyn. If you don’t know, the Ethical Culture is a group dedicated to ethical ideas. Everyone was accepted, and no one was made to feel inferior because of their personal beliefs. It’s sort of a non-religious Unitarianism. But its main focus is on ethics: what is right, what is wrong, how we should act, etc, but also the discussion of those ideas, not just swallowing it whole without thought.

We stopped going after we moved to California. We tried the Ethical Culture here but didn’t it interesting enough to stay. A year later, when I was 12, I met a girl (now my wife) who asked me to go to her and her friends to church, which was the Methodist Church. I agreed, and found it kind of interesting. I eventually went through confirmation and joined the church, but I never really believed in it. I had just done because that was what everyone else was doing so I figured why not.

As it turned both she and her friends really didn’t believe in it either, and stopped going. I found myself alone there now, continually pressured to go by my mother. She obviously didn’t believe either, but she said I made a commitment to them and so need to see it out. Eventually I convinced her that I hated going and she let me sleep in again on Sundays.

It was during this time that I really started questioning religion and whether God exists. I hadn’t believed them before, but I hadn’t really been critical of it, and mostly didn’t even understand the concepts. I was an “implicit atheist”, where my non-belief was simply due to the fact that I hadn’t been indoctrinated into it. It was here where I shifted to “explicit atheism” where I did begin questioning and coming up with logical reasons why there is no God, and understanding just what “God” is. I now knew what I was rejecting.

So for a few years I did that until my sophomore year of high school when one of my friends, who was pretty devoutly Catholic, invited me to his church. I decided to go, but due to curiosity about what Catholics believe, not because I thought it might be a way to the truth. I went there for a couple years, and, I have to say, I actually enjoyed it. I didn’t think any of the Catholic dogma was true, but they were nice friendly people to be around. They weren’t pushy at all about their beliefs. I mean, I went to their youth group, called Life Teen, and there was a lot in there about what the church’s teachings were and how to be a good Catholic, but I was never singled out. I felt part of a group that was being taught. And I definitely learned a lot more about Catholic teachings than I did about Methodist teachings at the Methodist Church.

But I eventually decided to move on. During this time I had also really learned a lot about critical thinking and the scientific method, both from my teachers at school and online articles (particularly about.atheism.com). It was in these that I saw the true majesty of the universe. The fact that we have the tools to objectively understand the very fundamental nature of reality is astonishing.

The true power of science is in its ability to test and verify theories, and to discard those that do not conform to nature. It is this that really distinguishes it from religion. There is no faith, there is no condemnation of questioning, and there are no logical gaps and fallacies. There is just no comparison. Science is adaptable. It takes this premise that we don’t know anything about the universe, and tries to figure it out. It doesn’t claim a dogma, then try to work backwards to find the evidence for that dogma. Everything is open to investigation.

By the time I was in college I was pretty set in being an atheist. I still say that I would believe in God if there were sufficient evidence (and given the nature of the claim, the evidence would have to be extraordinarily good), but nothing has made it in so far. There are just no good reasons to believe that a supreme being exists in the universe, and a great many reasons to believe otherwise.

I still struggle with personal beliefs, though. I first discovered transhumanism when I was 19 through Marshall Brain’s web pages. At first I didn’t like it. It just seemed too bizarre and undesirable to me. But, eventually, I sorted through it with my mental critical thinking tool kit, and found there was something here. We could make people better, or rather, develop the capabilities to let people make themselves better. We could develop the technology to upload the human mind to become immortal. We could develop the technology to create vast simulated realities and live in them as literal god-like beings. It is practical.

I’ll close out here with my rejection of my belief in extraterrestrial life, and not just because it’s my latest personal discovery. I had believed that aliens must exist in some form somewhere. Given the incredibly vast number of stars in the universe, coupled with the relative ease it is to make life, the universe must be teeming with life and other civilizations. But, as I started to investigate the consequences of those beliefs, I found that they were incompatible with the universe I saw around me. Where were these aliens? I believed aliens would colonize a large volume of space, as large as they possibly could, and do it quickly, since their only limited by the speed of light. So why aren’t they here already? Eventually, I realized that the simplest explanation was that they didn’t exist at all. It was devastating to me. I wanted to believe that alien life existed so badly, but the evidence just didn’t bear it out. I had to discard that belief, but it was actually not so bad. Because of my experience with having to prune my beliefs when necessary, I found that I was glad I came to a logical conclusion. Critical thinking gets easier, the more you do it. Changing your beliefs that you hold dear, gets easier.

And it’s a good thing too. We don’t know the nature of the universe when we’re born. It makes no sense to then pretend to.

Atheism: Good Enough…

I like funny infographics. Here’s one:

(From here. L-R, T-B: Ernest Hemingway, Abraham Lincoln, Carl Sagan, Mark Twain, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Albert Einstein, Charles Darwin.)

Now, you might argue that not all the men pictured here were really atheists. While it is true that people like Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Benjamin Franklin did believe that there was probably some sort of god, it was only because scientific knowledge in that day was so lacking.

In the 18th and first half of the 19th century, there was no theory of evolution, or the big bang. It would have been very difficult to reject the Christian belief that god created everything, when there was no real alternative theory that could explain everything. If you could somehow bring these people into the 21st century, and teach them all that science has discovered along with the vast bulk of evidence that goes along with it, I’m almost certain they would accept it.

What we do know for certain is that all the people pictured were not faithful Christians, or believed in a personal god.  And that they were at least adherents to rational thought and skepticism, which is the most important thing of all.

Alien Civilizations VII: Black Hole Power

Some of you might remember my posts about the possible existence of alien intelligence. Executive summary:

Alien civilizations will tend to expand rapidly over intergalactic distances, eventually sweeping over our solar system. Such intelligence will harvest any and all resources it can for its own use, and thus be harvesting the solar system. Thus, alien civilization, if it existed, would be blatantly obvious. It is not, therefore, alien civilizations are unlikely to exist.

Now with my recent realization about black hole power, I have come to refine my arguments about alien intelligence. 1) Since a black hole power plant would be, in theory, a 100% efficient matter-to-energy converter, it will be the preferred method for alien intelligences to use. 2) Obviously, matter to fuel the black holes will still be necessary, thus alien intelligence will likely still harvest as much matter as they can. 3) Black holes are much more ideal for energy storage than antimatter, since literally nothing can escape them (except for Hawking Radiation as described earlier).

So, my former conclusion still holds.

But I did realize something interesting. Let’s say there was an alien intelligence doing this. They are expanding at slower-than-light speeds across intergalactic space, basically making them look like an expanding sphere of darkness where they have enclosed stars with Dyson Swarms (or perhaps collapsed them into black holes). This is basically what we see in the universe today. Huge intergalactic voids with “nothing” in them. And between these voids are thin streams of galaxies.

I made this argument before, but discounted it because Dyson Swarms would still allow waste heat to escape and thus be detectable over intergalactic distances (or, at least, a whole galaxy of infrared sources would be detectable).

The thing is, black hole power plants wouldn’t give off this waste heat. At least in theory. A whole galaxy of black holes would radiate almost no power, and thus be undetectable across the universe, except for their gravity.

Which would be even closer to what we see today: Dark Matter, Intergalactic Voids.

Basically, my idea is, we happened to evolve at a point in history where a number of civilizations have arisen in the universe and are just starting to bump into each other in intergalactic space. Our galaxy hasn’t been reached yet, but it will soon.

We can even apply the Anthropic Argument here. Basically, why are there no alien civilizations apparently around? Because they haven’t reached us yet. If they did, we wouldn’t have evolved to ask the question.

Anyway, despite all this rampant speculation, it is important to review Sagan’s quote at the top of the page: “We should not be afraid to speculate. But we should be careful to distinguish speculation from fact.” No matter what I may type here, it is ONLY empirical evidence that will decide on way or another. Speculation may have its place, but speculation must always give way to scientific evidence.

I don’t know if I’m right, but it is interesting to think about. It’s a jumping off point, not an end in itself.

And The Winner Is…

A) He will say his mathematics were in error. Thank you for playing…erm…this game that I just made up.

So yeah, as I already noted, and as you may already be aware, the Rapture did not happen. However, Camping has announced that, going through his “math”, he now predicts the whole thing will happen on October 21st.

Ok, the thing is, all this does is cause people who don’t know better to get panicky and so dumb things like sell their possessions. Yeah maybe it’s their own fault for not being critical enough in their beliefs but it still causes real harm to real people who might otherwise not have done anything.

Another thing that surprised me is how a lot of attention is still on Camping about his failed prediction. Usually when someone gives a date for the end of the world (or Rapture, whatever) when the day actually passes, people just tend to forget about it and the person who made the claim is basically let off the hook. But this time it seems to be different.

Anyway, my estimation of the odds of this happening on 10/21 are about the same as the last time:

The End Is Nigh (Impossible)!

So apparently there’s been this idea around that the Rapture is going to happen this Saturday, May 21. (See here)

There’s no point really going through Harold Camping’s arguments, since they’re all based on numerology and superstition, but needless to say I take a pretty dim view of them.

I predict that on May 22nd (or anytime thereafter), Camping will likely state either A) his mathematics were in error (as he did after a similar 1994 “prediction”), B) We’ll have to wait and see still, or C) the “Rapture” actually happened in some way (i.e. “So and so in Town X, Arkansas went missing that day and therefore was raptured!”). If he chooses “C” he’ll probably add that apparently very, very few people actually found favor with God and so the Rapture was microscopically small.

I will also state, for the record, if such a Rapture does indeed occur, whether it’s through hundreds of millions of people literally vanishing, or perhaps them apparently just dropping dead for no reason (i.e. just their “soul” was taken), I will immediately convert to his version of Christianity. That would be sufficient evidence to believe in God, in my view.

Anyway, I’m not going to lose any sleep over it. I’ll lose sleep over working overnight the next couple of days, but not this.