Reimagined and Revamped. Fighting the spread of nonsense often feels like a Sisyphean task. However, the joy is in making the information available, not the hope of conversion.

iPhone blogging with shozu

No cut and paste
Not easy to upload picture
No preview
I can see using this for twitter and little else

Posted by ShoZu

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Class 1M radiation


I was browsing amazon for a gift for my sister. I was looking for a portabel DVD player, and I tend to look at the negative comments first to see if there are any compelling arguments against buying something. I came across this one:

I bought this because it looked high quality, then at the back of the DVD player when i took it out of the box says it has Class 1M radiation. They don't put that on the retail box, because it would lose money, but they put it on the bottom of the DVD player so they are not legally accountable. That means that if you have glasses, the laser is invisible and will go right into your eye, amplified, and damage it. I don't know about you but i don't want radiation in my eyes, I'm getting rid of this junk.
I couldn't help giggling. talk about not knowing anything. First off someone needs to catch up on what the word radiation means.

But beyond that all DVD players are rated Class 1M radiation. So are all CD players, optical drives and laser pointers. Why? Because there is a laser in there. Yeah a little dinky laser that reads the pits that are burned into a CD or DVD. The funniest part of this is that he is griping about something about this classification being worse because he is wearing glasses, but the laser is on the inside of the machine with the door closed! It turns off when the door is opened.

Anyway, this sort of comment from ignorance cracks me up. I thought I would share.

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TechBit; fMRI

Excellent news. Nice work. A panel of judges has decided to not pretend that fMRI can be used as a lie detector. Did they read my article on fMRI before deciding this? [toots own horn]

Nice to see reason in our government working.

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Adolph Hitler has been reborn

From the latest edition of Idiot Parents and their Doomed Offspring...

Deborah Campbell, 25, said she phoned in her order last week to the ShopRite. When she told the bakery department she wanted her son's name spelled out, she was told to talk to a supervisor, who denied the request.

Why would the bakery at ShopRite do that? These idiots named their son Adolph Hitler. And just to show that they didn't favor one child over another, their daughter is named JoyceLynn Aryan Nation Campbell and Honszlynn Hinler Jeannie Campbell. (do you get the feeling that they are too stupid to realize that the name was supposed to be Himmler?

Can't get a cake from ShopRite. Boo fuckin hoo. Nice work, your kids are doomed.

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Platinum Free Fuel Cells

Just saw this pop up in my New Scientist feed. Here is the headline:

Platinum-free fuel cell promises cheap, green power

My first reaction when I saw that was, "No! No! No!" and then I got mad again that the technical press just seems to not care anymore. What am I ranting about? Well lemme explain.

I have talked about fuel cells before. Well mostly one fuel cell in particular. I don't want to go over what they are or the specifics of how they work again. There are great resources on the net for that. for this post, you will need to go to those links to freshen up on what a fuel cell is, and understand the difference between power and energy is. Wikipedia has a nice picture of a PEM fuel cell here it is.

The most common proton exchange membrane (PEM) fuel cell has a layer of catalyst on either side of a membrane. This catalyst is usually Platinum, but could also have some palladium and/or ruthenium in it to achieve different properties. Scientist have been futzing with the catalyst for decades to try to achieve higher and higher power densities (the amount of power per square centimeter of membrane). To some degree they have done this.

Another aspect of fuel cells that has improved is the efficiency of fuel cells. Efficiency is a measure of the amount of energy pulled out of the fuel and used for work (or useful heating) relative to the theoretical energy contained within that fuel. Companies like MTI Microfuel cell has claimed 30% for their microfuel cells (because they get 1800 Wh/kg of fuel, whereas the theoretical limit of methanol is 6000), whereas other PEMs and other fuel cell systems can claim 60% or higher. The only reason a fuel cell is considered green is because it should have greater efficiency than an engine or other fuel burning competing method. If a fuel cell has crappy energy efficiency its simply not a green product.

OK, so what is wrong with the New Scientist article? The claim is that lowering the platinum cost of a fuel cell will lower the cost of the fuel cell. The article claimed that the reason to use platinum is because:
Platinum has so far been the metal of choice because the membranes used in fuel cells create a very acidic environment, and the metal is stable in such corrosive conditions.
That may be technically correct but it is hardly the sole reason for using platinum. The bigger reason is that no other catalyst gives as high a power density or energy efficiency. Besides, the membranes don't "create a very acidic environment", they are acidic. The acidity is what makes the protons go through the membrane while the electrons go around.

So then the next claim comes:
Now, though, Lin Zhuang's team at Wuhan University in Hubei province, China, has designed a new membrane that is alkali, not acidic - making it possible to use a much cheaper, nickel, catalyst.
Again, not technically wrong. I'm sure this guy has done this. What this is saying is that instead of a membrane in which protons move from one side to the other, negative ions, called anions, like hydroxyls (OH-) are moving from one side to the other. But it is hardly news worthy. Acta sells an anion exchange membrane from Tokuyama. And there have been others. The Medis fuel cell, while it does not have a polymer membrane, it too was a alkaline fuel cell.

Alkaline fuel cells have been around for decades. In fact the first fuel cells that went up to space we also alkaline fuel cells. They do have the advantage that they do not need platinum to achieve their highest power density, they can use nickel or iron. But the alkalinity of the Zhuang fuel cell and the fact that they have an anion exchange membrane are hardly news.
The team's new polymer proves easy to make into fuel-cell membranes, and can also be mixed with the catalyst itself - this increases the contact between the two components and boosts efficiency.
Uhhh. the PEM membranes can also come in a form that is a liquid and be mixed with catalyst for better contact. Not news.

Previous attempts to change the acidic conditions inside fuel cells involved using liquids, not solids, says Zhang, but they risked forming carbonate deposits that can clog up the cell.
Apparently Zhang is not keeping up with the literature. There have been previous alkaline membranes.

A working prototype of the new low-cost fuel cell shows a "decent" performance of 50 milliwatts per square centimetre at 60 °C. "The power output is still lower than that of fuel cells using platinum, but such a comparison may not be appropriate because platinum fuel cells have been studied and optimised for decades," Zhuang says.
Yes and the catalysts for alkaline fuel cells have been worked on for decades also. Not news.

The part that gets me is the idea that platinum is the major cost of a fuel cell. Its simply not. Lets find a fuel cell for sale. Here is one.

This sucker can put out 330W and it weighs in at 1.7 Kg. How much catalyst is that? Well we need to know a few things.

Active area per cell: 19.4 cm2
Number of cells: 60
Total Active Area: 1164 cm2
Pt loading: 0.7 mg/cm2

So the entire amount of platinum in this system is: 815 milligrams.

How much does that cost? As of this writing platinum is costing 830 dollars per ounce. or 26 dollars per gram.

So the entire cost of all the platinum for this entire 3000 dollar system is: 22 dollars.

See what I mean? Even if you double the cost of the platinum to gain performance, and then double it again because it needs to be refined to very small and pure particulate. We are still less than 100 dollars of the 3000 dollar system.

The cost of refined nickel isn't free either. I get antsy whenever I see claims of fuel cell costs dropping because someone figured out a way around the use of platinum. In a fuel cell system, the plates need to be made, the plates need to be assembled with the membrane and gas diffusion layers and gaskets between them. Then the fuel cell stack needs to be installed in a system which has controls and fuel ports, pumps and valves. You get the picture.

My last gripe about that useless article is the following...

Not once was efficiency mentioned. Not once. So how can any sort of claim about "greenness" be made? If the efficiency is not above at least 45% I say you don't get to use the word "Green".

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New look

Well, I've simply had too many complaints about the white on black template I was using. Plus I'm finding it everywhere, so many people use the same template that I was, it was getting silly (although this is strange since so many people dislike it). It seems to be a popular template. So I have changed it. Hopefully this one is a little easier to read. Please forgive strange color choices in my old posts, I'll try to fix at least some of my popular posts.

Blogger doesn't really give a lot of choices for templates and I am not that handy with html, so it will take me a little while to fix this up. I hope this works better for everyone.

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No wonder people don't trust scientists anymore. Read this CNN headline:

Scientists baffled by mysterious acorn shortage

Oooh! very scary! So, ok, I read it. In the article:

Virginia extension agent Adam Downing said acorn production runs in cycles, so a lean year is normal after a year with a big crop.
Downing said recovery from last year's big crop, combined with a much wetter-than-usual spring, probably accounts for the acorn absence.
I see, so the only ones who are baffled by the acorn scarcity are the authors of this article and the alarmists worried about the squirrels. Scientists do not seem so baffled.

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DECT scares

Via Skeptico and one of his readers I became familiar with a new scare.

Now, I know that some people think that they are electrosensitive, others think that cell phone use leads to cancer. This question was asking about s specific wireless technology called DECT and whether or not it could be dangerous. He got turned on to this worry due to a number of articles about it. Like this one and this one. One thing to point out.. every single article I can post eventually points back to this single article on the subject. Shall we raise the nonsense flag now? No, I think we can delve into it a bit.

Before we start, I think we should go over radiation and radiowaves. There is so much equivocation out there about various terms its no wonder people get freaked out.

Radiation: When we talk about radiation we are talking about the projection of energy from a source, which travels through some sort of medium (it could be air, or vacuum, or camel poo) which eventually get absorbed or reflected by some other object (which is usually referred to as a body, initiating even more equivocation, it doesn't mean human body). This energy could be in the form of sound waves, water ripples on a pond, light, gamma rays. These are all radiation. Clearly we do not have to worry about most of this radiation. We do not worry about standing in front of car headlights, or putting in a 100 watt bulb.

The main radiation we worry about is ionizing radiation. This is the nasty stuff because it can lift electrons off of molecules and change chemical structures. We don't like this kind. But even this kind is probably less scary than you think.

Is plutonium a scary substance to you? Well it can certainly be used as fissile material, and the Pu238 form of it emits radiation certainly. Lots of it, but it is alpha radiation which cant even penetrate your skin. Its the Pu239 isotope that is more worrisome as that is the one used as fissile material and emits gamma rays. So even in the world of ionizing radiation, not everything is the bad stuff.

Most of the radiation we worry about are high energy radiation like X-rays and Gamma Rays which are ionizing. we don't really worry too much about non-ionizing radiation like visible light, infrared or radio waves like you get over your FM radio or TV.

These forms of radiation are generally absorbed (like how a black surface will absorb visible light) or reflected (like how a white surface reflects visible light) or transmitted (like visible light through glass). Often when one type of light is absorbed it may get emitted as another form of radiation. For example, when sunlight hits the earth the rocks and soil absorb the visible light and then emit some of that energy as infrared light (as a side note, the mechanism for global warming is due to the fact the CO2 transmits visible light but reflects infrared light, so sunlight goes right through it, hitting the earth ,which emits heat that gets reflected back).

OK, I hope this takes away some of the mystery of the scary word Radiation. If someone says radiation, the first question should be "What kind?".

Frequency: It appears that frequency is often equivocated with intensity, or power, or energy. It is of course none of these things. Frequency is simply the a measure of how many periods of a wave pass by in one second. So if we have scary radiation, like say ripples on a pond, you can count how many waves hit the edge of the pond in 10 seconds. You can then get the frequency, in Hertz (Hz) simply by dividing:

frequency=number of waves/number of seconds

The same goes for sound waves, radio waves, ultraviolet waves and gamma waves. In fact, the spectrum of frequencies is well mapped out, here is a terse one.

So if you look, there is a whole range of frequencies with names of things we are generally not afraid of: Visible light, infrared, radio. Smack in the middle of this list is microwaves.

Microwaves: The only reason microwaves sound scary is that we have devised machines that generate them to cook food. How does this work? Well, as I mentioned before, if an object absorbs one type of radiation, it will heat up and perhaps emit some energy as another type of radiation. This is what happens to your food in a microwave. The machine emits what is essentially light, at a different frequency than what we can see, which gets absorbed by the water in the food and heats the food. It heats so much that it cooks it. To be crystal clear, this is no different than sending infrared waves to your food to cook it like your stove or oven does. It does not cook your food from the inside out, anymore than your oven can cook your food from the inside out. The cool part about a microwave oven is that many of the plates and containers that we put in there transmit microwave radiation and therefore don't heat up (however some ceramics and glasses do absorb microwaves and do heat). The reason that it heats your food is that the power of the emitter is very high and the frequency of the microwave is tuned for optimal water absorption, which happens to be about 2.45 gigahertz. The reason you don't want to stick your hand in a microwave is because it will cook, not because of any effects of ionizing radiation.

One more note about radiation: you are constantly exposed to it. There is ionizing radiation from space and from the ground, you get exposure from CAT scans and X-Rays at your doctors office, you get it from all around you. Only a small fraction of the radiation you are exposed to comes from consumer products, combined!
Well this was just a short primer on electromagnetic phenomena, I hope it demystified some of it for you. Its not magic and it is well understood. Now, on to some quick misunderstandings:

There is no conclusive evidence that cell phones or power lines cause cancer. Cell phone towers don't cause suicide rates to rise.

You cant pop popcorn with cell phones. Your microwave can pop popcorn, not solely due to the frequency but mostly because of the power. A microwave oven produces in the range of 700 watts of microwave power that gets converted to heat in the water inside the popcorn (popcorn pops due to the water inside of each kernel). A cell phone only puts out 1 to 3 watts, its simply not enough power to boil water of any significant amount.

I think we are ready to talk about DECT radio systems.

What is DECT?
Digital Enhanced Cordless Technology is simply a standard, like NTSC for your television is a standard or like how there is an TCP/IP standard for your computer to communicate with the internet, or how there is a standard the defines the size and shape of your power outlet. The DECT standard defines the way the phone or baby monitor works. It defines the frequencies it will operate on, the way in encodes the voice data, the way it communicates with the hand set or base station, the power it will transmit at and a whole host of other things. You don't put DECT in a phone any more than you can put NTSC in a TV. The TV conforms to an NTSC standard and a DECT phone conforms to a DECT standard.

Yes, it operated the the area of the electromagnetic spectrum that we colloquially call 'microwaves'. No, it is not like a microwave oven. The frequencies it uses are not tuned to heat water and further, the specification fixes the transmission power to only 10 milliwatts (remember how much an oven uses?). Even if it used the exact same frequency as a microwave oven, the power is so abysmally small it wouldn't heat up a the water that fogs your glasses when you come from a humid area into an air conditioned one!

So what of this study I linked to? Their claim is that DECT phone lead to sleeplessness. The author of this article is very confused. Lets dig down a bit:

A major difference between the older cordless phone and the DECT cordless phones is that the DECT phone’s base station continuously emits pulsing microwave radiation at full power as long as the base station/charger is plugged into the 240 VAC wall socket. This means that the base station, usually placed on a bedside table, or on a work desk, is broadcasting a 2.4. or 5.8 GHz transmission (in Australia) regardless of whether the handset is charging in the base station cradle or being used 300 meters away.
So what? The author is confusing frequency with power. Full power for this device, as previously mentioned is 10 milliwatts (25o milliwatts peak). Those pulses he is referring to, those are the peaks, most of the time the power is only 10 milliwatts. This is an amazingly low amount of power. The phone works well due to the way it encodes and transmits the information, not because it has a powerful signal.

in a New Zealand study on the health impacts on residents living near an AM and
FM radio tower in Ouruhia, NZ in 1998, there was a significant incidence of both chronic fatigue (37%) and sleep problems (35%).

This 'study' he refers to is simply not a scientific study as he implies. Its a report on the concerns of people who live near a n FM radio tower. Are you telling me that people who live near a a technology they don't understand that looks incredibly ugly are complaining? Remarkable. I'm floored. /sarcasm.

In a large-scale five-year study on people living near a short-wave transmitter in
Schwarzenburg, Switzerland, 55% of residents suffered from disturbed sleep, 35% from full insomnia.The researchers reported that “sleep difficulty was especially disturbing. This leads on to increasing fatigue and reduced feelings of well-being.”

Sleep difficulty leads to fatigue? No way. Of course its completely irrelevant. First you have to find that the radio tower actually causes sleep deprivation. A summary of the result he is referencing finds:

In the study conducted in 1992 an increased prevalence of sleep disturbances (problems of sleeping through) in the vicinity of the transmitter were demonstrated. The short time series analysis (three times 10 days) pointed in the same direction, however, these results, due to missing one-to-one exposure measurements, were difficult to interpret. We were not able to do person oriented measurements of exposure at that time and we still couldn’t do it today because of the unwieldy measurement equipment.
So basically people can't sleep in the region but they were unable to directly associate it to the transmissions. It could have been traffic congestion, local economy causing stress, the smell of manure. Maybe the power supply for the phone is buzzing. Who knows?

In 1993 neither an acute nor a chronic effect on sleep quality or 6-OHMS could be demonstrated in humans. In cows no chronic effects were obtained either.
I'll refrain from the sarcasm, and lastly..
In 1996 during another cross-sectional study it has been confirmed that sleep disturbances in the vicinity of the transmitter are more frequent as compared to the non-exposed control area. Furthermore, it could be shown that the exposed population applied coping measures by avoiding heavy meals and coffee consumption in the evening. There was a tendency for higher uptake of sleeping pills within the exposed area.
The last two sentences are completely irrelevant. Yeah, sleeplessness sucks and people take pills if they cant sleep. That has zero to do with a radio tower in the area. But the conclusion lacks the justification, just like the 1992 summary. Is the zone of people that are close to the tower a high traffic area? are they low income? Here is their answer.. [crickets]

There are no conclusions after studying this for 10 years, and the author of the first article is unable to come up with any results of a study that is even a grade C.

He then goes into a litany of possible things DECT can cause. For this I refer you to the wackos that have the exact same list for Nutrasweet, milk, flouride, the mercury militia, and other unsupported causes of everything bad. ooh some are calling it Microwave illness.

Basically study after study after study shows that although people think that they have electromagnetic sensitivity, when actually testing in blind (grade B) conditions, they lose their ability to be sensitive to it any more. Its not that these people arent suffering, they are just trying to get relief from the wrong place. They need a therapist, not a scientist or a medical doctor.

If you arent worried about your TV, or sleeping near your cell phone, or having heated sheets or leaving your computer on, then you really shouldn't worry about the effects of a DECT phone. There is simply no mechanism by which it can bother you, and better than that, there is really no evidence that the actual tiny emmissions from any radio device actually affects anyone, mechanism or not.
Submit to Skeptical Blog Anthology 2009

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Atheist Charities 2008

Well its the season of giving again! Get out your solstice pen and write a check or two. It doesnt matter how much, it doesnt matter who to. This year I am focusing my donations on organizations that are working hard to keep science class to have as subject matter.. you

It doesnt hurt, it only takes a few minutes and even if you only send 20 bucks, great!

Another idea I see floating around is to give to these charities in lieu of giving a gift to someone. Just give a card to the people you were going to give gifts to and tell them where you donated too.

Anyway, here is the list of a-theist charities from last year. I have added many of the suggestions I got. I look forward to more suggestions that I can add in for next year. keep em coming!

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Skeptic's Circle

The latest Skeptic's Circle is up at Ionian Enchantment.

I like the African motif.

I have a post in this one, but you probably already knew that as most of you probably came here from there, instead of the other way around. :)

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What Tech is Listening to.

Thank Us for podcasts.

I have to admit, when it comes to internet things, I tend to be slow. If its a gadget or a new technology, I am usually quite familiar with it pretty fast. So the latest in physics, biology, communication, etc etc I tend to stay on top of.

But things like social networking, blogging, and podcasts I have been quite slow on the uptake. I had what would now be called a blog post when I was a professor at a local college, but it was just plain text that was more like a diary, and it only had 2 entries.

Social Networking is still something I don't use although I have a facebook page, and I'm part of Linked In. I have yet to use either of those for anything useful (although I did manage to find a long lost friend on facebook once). I have yet to use Linked In for anything useful (have you?).

Twitter just seems like a pain in the ass to me and I have a hard time believing anyone cares. Maybe if I was Brad Pitt, people would want tweets, but lets be serious, who wants to write little blurbs all day? Not me.

Anyway, 2008 was the year I got into podcasts. These are awesome. iTunes does a pretty good job of letting me find them and stay subscribed to them so I am always getting the latest as they become available. I listen to them while walking the dog, assembling stuff at work, driving, whatever. I have truly increased my rate of learning due to them, and I am so happy these came into existence, even bad ones.

So I thought I would post a list of what I am listening to, and hope you join in and suggest some more. Even though I am subscribed to 23 podcasts, it is still not enough to listen to every day. This is because of the frequency the long shows are put out and also due to the fact that the daily shows are usually quite short.

I doubt you'll be surprised with most of these. I put a (5) next to my 5 most favorite. In alphabetical order: What Tech is Listening to....

The Amazing Show starring James Randi
I haven't heard many of these as I only recently subscribed. Its pretty much as you would expect. Randi talks about some of his experiences and interview someone related to the field of science or skepticism.

APM: Future Tense
This is a quick podcast, usually less than 10 minutes. But it has some nice overviews of recent computer or IT related news or technology.

Atheists Talk
This is just a recording of the Radio Show that is on AirAmerica. Its generally an interview with someone prominent in atheism or science. Its put together pretty well, but I gotta tell ya. I am pretty sick of those idiotic Cucumber's commercials. Even if I went to Minnesota, I would not go to the buffet.

Bad Astronomy
Well to be fair, I just subscribed (as I was writing this post). But I am quite familiar with Phil Plaits blog and recent work. I have no doubt that this will be a good podcast.
[Edit: LOL! The first Podcast I listened to was Phil telling me that he wasn't going to be doing podcasts for a while!]

Digital Bits Skeptic
This is another short podcast. The host, Andy Kaiser, reads an article submitted to him (or one that he wrote) on one subject or another. I found this podcast to be hit or miss. The latest entry drove me nuts, but the entry on classic fairy tales was truly interesting.

Discovery News
This is a short podcast and presents a short blurb on two or three new things in the world of science. Its actually a video podcast, but I have found that just listening to it works just fine. Its very short, one or two minutes.

Discovery Health Channel
Virtually the same thing as above but longer and focus on health and medicine subjects.

Free thought Radio
I'm a bit mixed on this one. Podcasts are good when they are focused, but perhaps this one is too focused on a subject that I like, but do not particularly interested in. Its mostly discussing the latest things that the Freedom From Religion Foundation is responding to. I donate to these guys and I think they do good work, but I'm not that interested in the details of their work. They do also interview prominent atheists and agnostics.

The Infidel Guy
I'm sure you can guess. It more interviews with prominent atheists or skeptics. The interviews are better than in other places.

Make Podcast
Hey, I'm an engineer and tinkerer. I like to hear and read about fun and funny stuff that people are making. I have some fun ideas, but other people often have cooler ones. Sometimes these are ridiculously easy and far below my skill level, but often there's a goody in there. Web Guns, Home built Electric Cars, and so forth.

The Money Pit Home Improvement Radio
Its similar to Car Talk, except with home repair (and these guys aren't as funny or ridiculous). I just started this one, so I don't have much input on it. I have 2 buildings that I have renovated and built a house, so there has not been too much new stuff for me here. But they have been accurate with good advice

Pat Condells Godless Comedy
Well I heard of this guy via Pharyngula. He's a good listen, even though its updated so infrequently (once or twice a month, much like this blog!). I enjoy is bluntness and sarcasm.

Point of Inquiry (5)
This podcast is put on by the Center For Inquiry, another group I sent some money to. DJ Groethe is a very skilled interviewer and what I like about him is that he is pretty good at quickly giving an accurate representation of what a dissenter might think about a topic being discussed. For the most part he has very interesting guests that I don't find on other podcasts. He discusses religion, science, history, pseudoscience and many other topics. All well done.

This is another podcast that I have not been listening to for very long. Mark Crislip does a good job of discussing health related nonsense. He doesn't really have a voice for radio, but I like his humility. He goes pretty in depth on a subject. Can't say more on this one yet.

Real Time with Bill Maher
Look, I know that Bill Maher is an anti-vaccinationist, often sloppy, thinker. But come on, this show is quite funny and has a good format. It really the only opportunity I get to see republicans getting slapped around.

The Reality Check
Well, lets just say these kids are trying. Its by a group called the Ottawa Skeptics. Its nice to hear some folks doing some research on a subject and present and discuss it. The show is low quality (are they using PC microphones over Netmeeting to do the show?), and they are often frustratingly vague or sloppy sometimes. But I like the subject matter and they are clearly making efforts to clean up the show. Its not in my top 5, but with some work, maybe they can get there.

Science Talk (5)
This podcasts is a weekly show hosted by Steve Mirsky. This podcast is an offshoot of scientific American, so you can expect (and receive) a variety of scientific areas of study and good guests who are doing interesting things. My only nit is that they Totally Bogus bit is annoying. Its done better by the folks at SGU.

Secular Nation Podcast
To plagiarize from their website: Produced by Atheist Alliance International, featuring articles and news from Secular Nation Magazine. This is a bit bleh. This is a another podcast where the host reads an article and once in a while interviews someone. I often tune out while listing to this one. I'm not sure whats wrong, its not always boring, just sometimes.

Well To be honest, i was just pissed that they just switched up my name and made a podcast. I have only just subscribed to this one. No impression yet.
[Edit: OK I've listened to two of these. Not bad. I didnt like the first episode where they talked about detecting fake ads. They made up two rules for doing this and then applied them completely non-objectively. But I did find myself googling the topics they were talking about just to see what the scaminess was, so I like it from that end]

Skeptics' Guide 5x5
This is a short podcast that just does a quick blurb on a subject which could be some sort of woo, pseudoscience, denialism, or misunderstanding. Its well done, but the main show is better. I like that they give me a little SGU fix.

Skeptic's Guide to the Universe (5)
To be honest, when I first heard this one, I thought it was garbage. It sounded like a couple of prepubescent dorks cracking Star Trek jokes around a pretty girl who herself didn't have much to say. However, I have really come to appreciate this one. It is hosted by a number of people who are big in the skeptic blogosphere. The subject matter is good, and they take a sharp knife and cut through a lot of woo. They discuss various fallacies to help listeners recognize them. The interviews are good and interesting for the most part (but to be honest I don't enjoy the shows that they do "on location"). The Science or Fiction bit is fun too, but I don't believe that they don't know the right answer up front. The news items they read are usually too available.

Skeptoid (5)
If I am going to pick a #1 podcast I think this is it. Brian Dunning does such a great job of putting this show together. I wish I knew where he got is choice of subject matter from as they are wide ranging and fun. There are no interviews (sometimes he just answers students questions), which I quite like, he just picks a subject and goes for it for 10 to 15 minutes. This may be the only podcast that I go back and listen to old episodes of.

Stuff You Should Know
This comes from I have not listened to many, and so far the hosts aren't completely annoying, but it sure has taken them a while to get to the subject matter, which they do with bizarre segues. Regardless, this is not skeptic reporting, its a little more like a science show, but it not surprisingly talks about how things work. Not just gear and things, but for example the latest one was about OCD. So it is really just an fact download about some subject or another. I am enjoying it so far.

This American Life
This show hosted by Ira Glass is simply great. I may not always like the story, but they are so varies and so well done I look forward to the next installment every week. this show taught me what the heck the Paper Trading collapse was and how it was instrumental in the fall of our economy. But then they have ghost stories or talk about fad dolls. Its funny, insightful, upbeat or depressing. I recommend this to everyone.

Well that's it. I am fully aware that this list is kind of homogeneous. That is why I wrote this post. I was hoping for your ideas on some good podcasts (please not more skeptic stuff! I think I have enough). Or perhaps you can use this as a meme, make your own blog post about what you are listening to. I don't care, I just need more to make it through the week!

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fMRI doesn't do what you think it does.

I'm writing this because I keep reading, quite often now, that something is true since an fMRI study shows neural activity during the application of <insert pseudoscience here>. But the interpretations of these studies, regardless of the conclusions in the actual study itself, are often wrong. So I thought I'd do a little overview of fMRI and why some of these conclusions can not be made based on the results of an fMRI scan.

First, lets start with the basics:


Your red blood cells have hemoglobin molecules (hundreds of them) which have a cool feature. They can hold on to oxygen molecules when they are available, and release them when needed. Your red blood cells can take on oxygen in an oxygen rich area, you know, like on the surface of the inside of your lungs, and get pumped around and when they get into the capilary system, the oxygen leaves when the red blood cell gets near tissue that needs it.

Oxyhemoglobin is the hemoglobin when it is rich in oxygen.
Deoxyhemoglobin is the hemoglobin when it oxygen free.

It turns out the oxyhemoglobin and deoxyhemoglobin have different magnetic properties. Oxyhemoglobin is diamagnetic, meaning when a magnetic field is applied to it, it will generate an opposite magnetic field. Bismuth shares this property. Deoxyhemoglobin is paramagnetic, meaning application of a magnetic field will make the molecule magnetic, kind of like a piece of iron. Needless to say, the characteristics are very weak, but they happen to be measurable.

Well, we have known for over 100 years, that neurons in your brain use less oxygen when they are not being used. Makes sense, doesn't it? Therefore when areas of your brain are active, more oxyhemoglobin is converting to deoxyhemoglobin than in other areas of the brain.

There are some very good resources on the internet that describe how an MRI scanner works, so I wont really go into it here too much. To sum up: The big magnet in the machine is turned on an aligns hydrogen atoms in your body in a certain direction. This action gives the atoms some energy. When the field is turns off, the hydrogen atoms go back how they want, they relax, and give off some energy. The released energy is detected by the machine, and it uses these measurements to make an image. Most of the hydrogen atoms in your body are in water molecules, which is why such differences can be seen between tissues that have more or less water in them, like bones, organs and blood vessels.

fMRI uses an MRI scanner to detect the differences in magnetic signature of oxyhemoglobin and deoxyhemoglobin over and above the normal energy release of hydrogen atoms. But here is the most important point of fMRI: It is a statistical analysis. It is not a direct measurement of neural activity. In order to image an area where there is activity, a thought has to be made, and an image taken a couple of seconds afterward (because the oxygen conversion is not instantaneous). This process must be repeated a couple of times to be able to filter out false positives.

All an fMRI tells you is where there is more activity compared with other nearby regions. It does not tell you why a region is being stimulated. That is always up to the investigator.

Which is why fMRI studies paired with known pseudoscience almost always gets into trouble.

fMRI and the Woos
It doesn't take long to find fMRI being used to justify nonsense. Here is a short list.

fMRI and Reflexology (pressing areas on your feet helps areas of your body)
fMRI and Acupuncture (and again and again and again....)
fMRI and Rolfing (what a name huh? Its essentially a woo form of massage)
fMRI and Healing Touch (or any of the non touching healing woo, like Therapeutic Touch or prayer, heck here's the whole kit and kaboodle)

and so on. While I am quite tempted to rip apart each and every one of those studies, I'd get distracted from my main point. Suffice to say, I simply can't understand why studies that concern these areas of obvious nonsense can't be constructed and carried out in a way that would make them respectable.

The main issue with these is that the fMRI is studying a neurological response of the patient, not the effect of the procedure. If the patient thinks that procedure is going to affect his liver, then neurons that are associated with the liver are likely to shine. If you try out two different procedures (say reiki and acupuncture) that are both supposed to treat the same malady, it is highly likely that the same area of the brain will light up.

The only way to get any information about the neurological response to a treatment with an fMRI is to compare it to a sham treatment, where the patient doesn't know if he is getting sham or not.

fMRI doesn't do what woos think it does.

Here is proof that the brain simply lights up in response to what the patient thinks is true, not what is actually true.

To summarize that study, 30 people, half of whom thought (pretended?) they were electrosensitive, were placed in an fMRI machine. They were told they would touch a cell phone and a thermode which would be set to various temperatures. They asked the participants to rate their level of discomfort from 1 to 5.

Not surprisingly both groups had similar fMRI responses to the thermode. Similar areas of the brain lit up, and similar levels of discomfort were reported. However, not surprisingly, when it came to the cell phone, those that were electrosensitive had areas of their brain light up that were not similar to those that were not sensitive to electricity.

Also not surprising was that fact that the cell phone was fake. It had no electricity at all.

The point is that fMRI doesn't do what more of the woo-mongers think it does. It doesn't prove that acupuncture is real, or that meridians or qi or and of these magical forces are real At best it may show that the patient thinks the magic energy is real, and nothing more.

Sidenote on this study: Reading the comments at the article, its clear the woo-meisters are complaining that the study was doomed to fail since it was done with an MRI machine (once again, unsurprisingly). If that were really an issue, why weren't the patients in constant acute pain? I'm sure Emily Rosa could work out a test for electrosensitivity.

Sidenote on woo and fMRI. Even if the brain lit up in response to these pretend therapies, it still doesn't mean that they provide any benefit. The list of things they pretend to cure is endless, an fMRI doesn't show anything with regard to their efficacy, only the patients perception.

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It never ends

Well God continues to talk to people.

A man who rammed his truck into a woman's vehicle on a highway early Friday told authorities he crashed into her while going more than 100 mph because God told him "she needed to be taken off the road.
Apparently she just wasn't driving right.

apparently the sherriffs office found that there was evidence that god was really there!
"God must have been with them, 'cause any other time, the severity of this crash, it would have been a fatal."
But then...
A psychiatric evaluation has been ordered for a man.
But why? There are millions of people in America who think God talks to them or at least listens to them. Should we not order psychiatric evaluations for them too? Besides if god was really there as they contend, why do they suspect his mental faculties?

Today sure was a doozy

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One more time

Remember this guy?

Well he's back, but this time not with the sack cloth and god talk. Turns out, he's going to jail.

Can someone tell me again how the bible leads to morality?

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micronuke vs solar: some quick math

Hyperion Power Generation has been making some waves recently. They, like Toshiba, have designed a micro-nuclear plant. When I say 'micro' think "powers a small town", not "fits in your back yard.

I first heard about Hyperions device on SGU, where one of the group said something like: "well if it can power a town for 7 years, then it can power my bunker for 100 years!".

Sorry, it doesnt work like that. The reaction takes place whether you use the power or not. The fuel is hot, and as it gets expended, it cools, which is why the life time is limited.

Edit: Rod Adams corrected my original contention that this was not how these reactors worked. They in fact should last longer if they are used less. This is not due to a control mechanism within the nuclear reactor. The fuel itself is designed such that if the temperature starts getting too hot, then the reaction dies down. It self regulates. It is the act of extracting heat (either by diverting it and using it, or by boiling water into steam for a turbine) that controls the reaction. Its a very safe way of doing the reaction, and further the fuel should last longer with less use. However, I'll note that Hyperion still has not claimed any life longer than 10 years, I'm not sure if this is due to the expectation that the load will always be there, or if there is another decay mechanism, related or unrelated to the actual nuclear reaction. More info and thoughts here.

No where do they say exactly what the fuel is, but I wonder if they are not taking waste from a normal nuclear plant and instead of planting it in a cooling pool, they are simply encasing it in concrete and providing a path for heat to get out.

Edit: In fact they do say what the fuel is. Its uranium hydride.

Anyway, this comment and the one on their website got me thinking. Here is their claim:

"Hyperion’s innovative energy technology is even more affordable than many developing “alternative” energy technologies."
Well on a $/watt basis this is 100% true. Checking current solar module prices, we have 3-4 dollars per watt. Non-utility installation will double this price (these prices are the #1 reason why solar is not more ubiquitous). If you convert the heat to power you get about 25 megawatts, they claim. So we are really talking about 1 dollar per watt. This is supposed to include security, installation and so forth. I dont know if it includes the turbine and water system required to get the power, but lets assume not.

But what about the energy capable of being created over the life of the product?

Well the lifespan of the hyperion device is about 5 to 7 years (lets give it the upper end). 25mW*7 years*365 days/year*24hours/day
*.001 kW/W = 1.5x10e9 kWh= $0.016/kWh.

Wow, that is pretty good. Industrial electricity costs about 5 cents/kWh, and residential can be 2x to 3x higher than that!

What about solar? For 25 million dollars at 4$/W, you can get about 6.25 MW. But the life of a solar panel is very very long. The general thining is that solar panels last 20-25 years. Some companies are claiming 35 years. For for our 25 million dollar investment, we get:

6.25 MWe *25 years*365 days/year*24 hours/day*.001 kW/W = 1.37x10e9KWh= $0.018/kWh

Yeah that is a bit more expensive, but that looks like a wash to me, because we have not gone over the fine details of each of these, mostly because this data is not available from Hyperion. these details include:

  • Installation: Does the price tag include the turbine and new water system? Does it include the water routing? Does include the tie in to the grid?
  • Maintenance: Does this price include the security guard? The upkeep of the turbine? The upkeep of the power switching and load ballancing hardware (less lectricity is used at night).
  • End of Life: Does it include waste disposal? Digging the unit back up?
Solar has similar questions associated with it. So once again, the Hyperion system is not a clear winner and to claim that it is less expensive than "alternative" energy solutions is really pushing it. Further, photovoltaic solar panels may not be the best comparison to make.

Solar thermal, which provides energy storage, and therefore does not suffer from the cyclic power generation of photovoltaic solar systems, is a far more likely substitute. Costs for a ST system show that a kWh can be had for as litle as $0.10, in a single year, not as analyzed above over the life of the plant! Geothermal is another system that may be more applicable for comparison.

All that being said, Im am totally for the deployment of the Hyperion systems for the following reasons:
  • They do not emit greenhouse gasses
  • They are inherently safe and can not melt dowm
  • They are a simple device with few mechanics involved for its operation (besides the turbine)
  • They are clearly cost effective
  • They provide a decentralized power system. this is beneficial with regard to loading on the power grid, i.e. a blackout need not effect large areas. But also they make terrible targets for enemies as damage from an attack would be very minimal.
  • They are economically feasable now, they do not need government sponsorship (something the republicans call socialism) to make them financially effective. Solar, wind, geothermal, biodiesel and other forms of alternaive energy do not share this feature right now.
Nuclear fuel is cheap and most of it comes from people who are friendly with us (Canada and Australia). At least they are friendly now.

So I say, if your community wants to invest in this system, Go For it! You could provide cheap power to your residents which may in turn boost your local economy.

But as a national plan, we need to get to the far harder to do "alternatives". We need to get a carbon capturing system in place. Algae to oil methods are the only viable method, but we are suffering from the current inability to convert the algae into oil in a financially viable (read: energy positive) way. We know how to grow it and what species to grow, we know what methods work to convert the oil to fuel. But we are stuck and the actual oil extraction part.

Similar problems abound with solar, right now the energy it takes to make a panel is only 1/7th of the energy is produces over its lifetime. This is a crappy ratio and is one of the things that leads to the high cost of the PV modules.

My moral of the story is here, endorse the local installation of decentralized, passive nuclear power, but ask your politicians to fund the alternatives, nuclear is not a long term solution. Oil and natural gas are not a long term solutions. Solar (including solar thermal and wind), geothermal, and algae are the long term solutions we need to figure out how to make financially competitive to excel forward.

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Agree with an opinion on Fox news

Note: This post is not part of the Finding Common ground Series

I use that google news gadget that inseminates my brain with news odds and ends all day. I'm not sure how it chooses what to show me, I mean I've told it 100 times to not "show me items like this" whenever some sports thing comes up. I also do that for that TMZ papparazzi crap. But again and again, it seems to think I need to be fed the latest sports and Brittney 'news'.

Anyway, somehow FoxNews has made it into Google's newsfeeder and it feeds me spoonful after spoonful of everlasting crap every day for the last few days. However today I got something I agree with.

Everyone wrote an open letter to Obama (except me, but I was tempted). I'm not sure what people are expecting there. Do you think Obama suffers from SIWOTI syndrome? Do you think that Rahm Emmanuel is going to say to Obama, "Hey, there's this obscure blog with 100 readers, you should read this!".

Anyway, it was an opinion piece, another Open Letter to Obama. I'm really doubting that Obama is taking much that Fox has to say to heart, but I gotta say, I think this guy has a lot right and it is non-partisan.

He discusses 7 points. Here they are:

  1. Increase government transparency.
  2. Open up the White House
  3. Swear off executive privilege
  4. Revamp the Transportation Security Administration
  5. Investigate the Bush administration
  6. Make fighting public corruption a top priority of your justice department
  7. Use the pardon
It was the first one that got my attention. I wholeheartedly agree with this. Unless they are discussing military tactics, why shouldn't all of government be on a web version of CSPAN all the time? Want lobbying and back room dealings to stop? Make all offices and meeting rooms have cameras in them with each feed available on the internet. Yes, I know it wont change back room dealings 100%, the dealings will be in the bathroom or back alley. I don't care, it is virtually impossible for these politicians to put on their show 90% of the time. They are trained to do it for when they are in session, can they keep it up in their office? I doubt it. Further, there should be no such thing as a FOIA request. Documentation, that is not military tactics, should be available to anyone all the time, yeah that includes your emails, senator.

I was inspired to this attitude after reading Davin Brins "Transparent Society". It seems weird at first, but think about it. Look at the points he is making. Yes, I would feel safer walking down the street with cameras everywhere with live feeds to everyone in the world able to watch than I would walking down the street with feeds to a select few chosen by the local and federal government. Opening up government for civilian inspection is a great idea (and yeah, that is more than this guy was suggesting).

As for #2, well surely a review of the rules about access to the White House is in order. This doesn't personally affect me or most Americans, but it would be nice to know that I could take my daughter on the same tour of the white house that I got to take when I was a kid.

#3 is related to #1, if your don't do anything smarmy, you wont need executive privilege. Don't get a blow job in the oval office from an intern, don't go to war based on no evidence, and so forth and you won't need executive privilege. Why not portray it as a poor tool to use? Or shall we say a tool that is used by poor presidents.

There are of course a few items that I have a hard time justifying as highly important. Yeah it sucks to go through an airport. But is it really one of the top 7 things to get done? Economy is not on this list. Nuclear proliferation is not on this list. Propelling our education system back into the 21st century is not on this list. Gaining CO2 free energy Independence is not on this list. But Mr. Balko thinks that reducing the time he has to spend at an airport should be a high priority? Sorry my heart isn't really bleeding for you. I agree with his point that I truly don't think we have any evidence that we are any safer at an airport than we were pre-9/11, but still I don't this one really lighting a fire under anyone's ass.

I'm not a a member of "Washington's standard-bearers", but I don't see a good reason to spend copious amount of money (tens of millions of tax dollars) repeating the nonsense the republicans pulled on Clinton. So, no, this will just make Obama look bad. I don't see anything positive coming out of that activity. Americans fell for the Republican party line and got exactly what they promised, even after they were warned and warned some more.

Yes, the justice department should hold a flag for incorruptibility. I'm sure there is a lot of work being done there but it seems that they are simply being guided by things the media find out. Why did they take down Spitzer? something seems terribly wrong with some of the priorities and government corruption directly leads to the decay of democracy. What is one of the very first things we, as Americans, point out about getting aid into third world countries? Its difficult because of corruption. Corruption in our government is the fast road to democratic decay.

As for the pardon...I'm sure we'll see some. But really, with 202,000 federal inmates and 2.2 million in state penitentiaries, I don't really see a reason to devote significant resources to this activity regardless of how admirable the goal. Seems to me that this is not a presidential level activity, but something that could be taken up at the state level or within the justice department.

Anyway, as I said. These are all good things to go after, and I do agree with them with the exception of #5. But aside from #1, I don't really see any of them as so important that they must be addressed before the other burning issues.

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Bridge over Troubled Water

This post originally appeared at Finding common Ground. I have cleaned it up a bit since its original post. I realize this one is a bit foofy.

You, and only you, are 100% responsible for the way you react to everything.

You are never 100% responsible for someone else's actions, but when it comes to the way you respond to events or people, no one controls what you choose to do. Someone may say to you, "You make me do this". This is never the case, its simply laying blame.

You may make me feel angry. Something can feel unfair. An event may feel hurtful. Someone or something may genuinely, physically and emotionally hurt you. But none of those things force you to a specific action, ever.

Only you can decide your response.

The choices of reactions are many: retribution, justice, escalation, withdrawal, depression, and outright tantrums are all common, and perhaps easy, responses to negative events that happen to each and every one of us. More often than not, emotion trumps rationality. Everyone is susceptible.

How about forgiveness? How do we find it in ourselves to forgive people, or look past events, or even forgive our own mistakes? Is it possible to forgive someone for rape or the murder of a child? If so, why should we forgive such an evil act?

The Buddhists teach that forgiveness is the path to a healthy mind and positive Karma. That being able to forgive horrible acts will lead you on path to enlightenment. Other religions teach other aspects of forgiveness (and sadly many of them focus on how you can receive forgiveness from God, rather than how to dispense forgiveness to your fellow human).

Depending on the degree of the insult, the amount of effort to forgive can be anything from trivial to insurmountable. Frankly, there are thresholds and mechanisms by which forgiveness can be had, but they depend on your willingness to accept that sometimes forgiveness is not required.

If, for the moment, we focus on the actions of others that do not result in lasting harm, we can perhaps find a mechanism by which forgiveness comes easier. Actions such as these include deceit, lies, gossip, rudeness, and many misunderstandings. In general, these negative actions of other people do not let you end up with permanent harm or unresolvable hardship, although obviously they can. It is best to recognize the cause of the negative actions and then, by defining it, find forgiveness. Doing this will lead to stronger and longer relationships, happier outlooks and a generally positive life. Basically, if you don't end up in jail, maimed, or in the poorhouse, why be angry if you can find a way to forgive? There are a variety of reasons for people to do bad things to you, here are three examples.

Hanlon's Razor:

Never assume malice when stupidity will suffice.

Clark's Law:

Never assume malice when ignorance will suffice.

Selfish Success:

People do things a certain way because that is what has yielded good results for them in the past.

Understanding that these may be the underlying reason that someone acted poorly towards you makes it easier to forgive them for that action and to help them understand how these things affect you.

Actions by other people that leave you in significant hardship or receiving harm, perhaps don't need to be forgiven. One may ask how does forgiveness for these action help humanity? How does it reduce suffering and increase happiness? That answer could very well be that forgiveness does not accomplish that goal and should not be dispensed. Forgiveness for negative actions that result in permanent harm may not better humanity, community or even family. Instead another form of closure will be needed. I personally think jail is pretty good, I wish jail time for horrific deeds resulted in a lifetime of breaking rocks in the winter, but I guess we don't all get what we want.

"Water under the Bridge", is a healthy attitude can be achieved by remembering that if the result of someones poor actions is not long lasting, then you are truly not affected affected by it, no matter how much it may feel like you are. Understanding the mechanism by which the person is choosing to act help for you to achieve forgiveness. But it is not your only choice and no one says its required. Seek closure, not necessarily forgiveness.

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Pinker on Morals

This post was originally found at Finding Common Ground.

In the discussion forums, [Edit: these are gone] I suggested reading an article that appeared in the New York Times that happened to come out at the same time as this community arrived on the planet and we all wrote our first posts.

Well I wanted to reiterate that request because he makes, in a far more eloquent and fact filled essay than I could have written, a damn good elucidation about our morals. He shows how we all have a similar moral structure, but that there are also morals that are community based and that as time passes we 'moralize' various aspects of our civilization. He discusses a god construct (one that I think is actually weak and easy to respond to) and its applicability to our moral responsibilities. He also, at the end, describes rather well how science and our deconstruction of our moral minds is better for humanity. Understanding why we feel a certain way is the best way to confirm its validity.

Now, if the distinction between right and wrong is also a product of brain wiring, why should we believe it is any more real than the distinction between red and green? And if it is just a collective hallucination, how could we argue that evils like genocide and slavery are wrong for everyone, rather than just distasteful to us?

Putting God in charge of morality is one way to solve the problem, of course, but Plato made short work of it 2,400 years ago. Does God have a good reason for designating certain acts as moral and others as immoral? If not — if his dictates are divine whims — why should we take them seriously? Suppose that God commanded us to torture a child. Would that make it all right, or would some other standard give us reasons to resist? And if, on the other hand, God was forced by moral reasons to issue some dictates and not others — if a command to torture a child was never an option — then why not appeal to those reasons directly?

He then goes on to leave God talk behind him. I think this perpetuates the lack of communication between atheists and religious folks. He left out the obvious answer: God loves us. He loves us more than we are capable of loving each other. He loves us so much, knows us so well that he knows what each of us will do and choose.

With this rationale about god, of course he can define a set of morals that helps us to live together, without his own set of selfish reasons.

However, the rest of the article describes various perspectives of morals of our species (and similar morals that occur in monkeys and other animals, making clear that a moral foundation is not strictly a human trait). but the case is made that our moral sense is not purely a genetic trait, but a very complex one, that involves and requires the interaction between individuals in a community.

Morality, then, is still something larger than our inherited moral sense, and the new science of the moral sense does not make moral reasoning and conviction obsolete. At the same time, its implications for our moral universe are profound.

Information always leads to more free will and a more free society. Science is the only mechanism by which to advance along those lines. no other construct of humanity has done as much to increase our population, make it safer, make it live longer. this doesnt mean there are not ethical challenges along the way. But understanding ourselves and deconstructing those challenges are the best way to advance.

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Godless Morality

This post was originally found at Finding Common Ground.

Atheists Can't be Moral.

If I had a nickel for each time I heard that! (I'd probably have around 3 dollars)

How is it possible for someone who has no fear of an afterlife, no fear of a god or gods, no desire to life forever and no obvious reason to care about anyone else, to have any form of a moral code? How can someone like this find the intestinal fortitude to help people in trouble? Why would they ever donate to a charity, be kind to strangers, or raise children properly? What stops them from murderous rampages, stealing, raping, torturing and other personal atrocities?

The list of possible negative moral outcomes of atheism is endless. Atheism has been attributed to some of the worst atrocities in all of our history, some of the worst decisions and worst economic policies.

So how can we expect to trust an atheist? How can they possibly be allowed to teach our children, run our government, lead businesses, or even participate fully in our society? Even one of our previous presidents, the first George Bush, specifically said that atheists can’t be citizens. When reviewing all the negative aspects attributed to atheism, he doesn’t seem crazy for saying this does he?

Of course all of this is bunk. There are somewhere near a half billion atheists on this planet and if we were really a bunch of murderous rapists, no society on the planet would survive. I’m also sure I don’t need to go into every single atrocity, bad policy, and bad person that had a religious background.

The problem is that there is a deep misunderstanding of where morals come from, or at least where atheist morals come from. An atheist can look out into the world of religion and see where religious people think they get their morals from. It’s one book or another, the teachings of one pastor or mullah or shaman or whatever. When we examine these books, however we as atheists are totally confounded as to how the religious folks think they derive morals from these books filled with killing, raping, incest, blind faith, power struggles, intolerance and so forth.

For whatever reason, human beings have the same basic set of morals. Religious folks think that God put them there (or at least he defined them and if you don’t follow them he will be condemn you), atheists generally think that we have them because they make us successful as a species (although there are a few who may think that aliens put them there). However, we all have them, and regardless of culture, religion, and background they are all very close to the same.

When faced with moral dilemmas people of all religions and background, for the most part, make the same choices as atheists. This sort of thing has been determined from a variety of scientists and anthropologists who would give moral dilemma tests as easy as “If you see a little boy drowning in the river, do you save him or do you keep you clothes clean and dry?” all the way to something like “You control the track a train goes on, you find that your parents are tied to one track and 5 well respected scientists you don’t know are tied to the other, which track do you choose?” [update: forgot to mention that I got these examples from the God Delusion, and Dawkins got them from somewhere else]

The supernatural is not needed to define a very high level of morality. Our actions and reactions can be vetted to produce these three effects:

  1. Increase happiness among our fellow human beings
  2. Decrease suffering among our fellow human beings
  3. Increase free will among our fellow human beings

These goals are not mutually exclusive, and in many cases, these three goals conflict. But it is in these three outcomes of our actions we can all agree are best for our society and humans in general. Religious background is irrelevant as these goals encompass all the morals described in any text that relate directly to people (as opposed to those that relate to deities).

Base, individual actions are easy to put up against these goals. Murder, rape and stealing all obviously conflict against all three of them. So clearly at the very root level they work very well. But when we examine things at a societal level it gets much harder. Conflict between these goals is inevitable. Using these goals as a pretext to any of the hot topic issues will immediately incite debate, measurement and evaluation.

But that is the exact reason for having morals. They keep us from actions that may eventually hurt other people. The best part of keeping this trilogy of goals in sight is that the debate will be about tangible, measurable, effects of proposed actions and keeps a discussion about what God wants out of it. Hindus, Muslims, Christians of the various forms, and atheists will not be able to come to a conclusion of the morality of societal level actions if we are bickering about what one version of God wants opposed to someone else’s version. Why god wants something may be a valid addition to the discussion, but ending debate simply with what god wants is not. This way everyone is free to enjoy their religion and do the things they think their god requires of them (including trying to get other people to believe them), but when it comes to populations as a whole, we are best served by those three goals.

Why would an atheist bother with even those goals? Is it not obvious? We want happiness, less suffering and increased free will, just like everyone else. Happiness comes with security (but not oppressive security) and prosperity, reduced suffering comes with community, and free will comes with tolerance. The small percentage of people, from all backgrounds and religious beliefs, who are bad, who cause pain, who are dishonest and so forth, interfere with these same desires all human beings share. Why would atheists have some bizarre sense of morals when we have the exact same base desires for ourselves and our families as most everyone else?

Religion provides no guarantees of morality, examples abound throughout all of history and current events. We must accept that regardless of religious upbringing, a certain percentage of our population will do bad things and make other people suffer, the best we can do as the thinking moral majority, is to make our actions and reactions, including legislation and enforcement, be subject to the trilogy of goals and measures by which they are evaluated against.

As I write more in the future on the various topics, I will often use this trilogy as a backdrop. I look forward to the various ideas and interpretations in our quest to find common ground.

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