Thursday, August 30, 2012

The Baloney Detection Kit: Pancakes and Hurricanes

Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson Blame the ACLU and Gays for 9/11

Stephen Colbert Blames Hurricane Isaac on Gays

"Here's how it works. Hurricanes form from rising moisture created by hot, steamy man-action aboard a gay Caribbean cruise. Now when that sin gets high enough it makes the angels cry, and those tears fall to the earth in the form of massive precipitation because homosexuals are a vital part of the water cycle -- that's why the gay symbol is a rainbow." -- Stephen Colbert

The seventh tool in the Baloney Detection Kit is:

7. If there is a chain of argument every link in the chain must work, including the premise.

   Alright, suppose you ate too many pancakes for breakfast, and they don't turn out to be as nutritious as you would have liked, soon you feel sick, you regurgitate, and then still feel so nauseous you need to call in sick at work, at which time your boss fires you, reminding you that during your last annual work review you had been warned that if you missed one more day you would be terminated. Upon reflection you feel you shouldn't have eaten so many pancakes.
   Freaking pancakes!
   Let's make a chain argument from the above example, shall we:
   If you eat too many pancakes, Then you will get sick. If you get sick, Then you will miss work. If you miss work, Then you will get fired. You ate too many pancakes, Therefore you got fired.
   One premise of this argument (there can be more than one) is if you eat too many pancakes.
    Freaking pancakes!
   The conclusion of that premise is you'll get sick, and so on, until the final premise and conclusion is reached: You ate too many pancakes, Therefore you got fired.
   There are four links in this chain: (1) you ate too many pancakes; (2) you got sick; (3) You miss work; (4) you get fired.
   All of these links must work if your conclusion is correct. You cannot leave out a link, or change it in any substantial way.
   I have to admit I am not an expert in technical logical reasoning. If my above example is wanting in some way, feel free, dear readers, to comment.
   Freaking pancakes!

8. "Occam's razor" - if there are two hypothesis that explain the data equally well choose the simpler.

   We've discussed the concept of Occam's razor just a few day ago ( )
   Where we learned : "Occam's razor (also written as Ockham's razor, Latin lex parsimoniae) is the law of parsimony, economy or succinctness. It is a principle urging one to select from among competing hypotheses that which makes the fewest assumptions."  -Wikipedia
   In other words given the facts the simplest answer to a problem is usually the one that is correct.
   There are innumerable examples of how this concept can and is applied in everyday life. Our story of finding the image of the Virgin Mary on the top of our pancake for instance.
   Let's say there are only two explanations we wish to consider on how this image got there. We won't even bring up the fact that no one knows what the Virgin Mary actually looked like. Won't bring it up at all, except that the only descriptive phrases regarding her generally state that she was a beautiful woman, and considering the region she lived in she probably had dark hair. With this information we can conclude that the Virgin Mary looked much like Jennifer Connelly. Well, maybe.
   In any case, one explanation is of a divine nature, that God wants to remind us that he/she/it is  still around and is a Christian, and caused the image to form on top of that pancake by some unknown process.
   Another explanation is that as the pancake batter poured onto the hot griddle different ares of it's surface cooked and cooled at different times and densities allowing the browning to randomly form a pattern that might look like the image of a female human being.
   Which of these two hypothesizes is the simpler? That some unknowable extraterrestrial being used some unknown process to form that image to promote themselves, or that the pancake cooked in such a way that it randomly formed a pattern on one side that may or may not have resembled a woman? Without further evidence to the contrary I'll go with the latter.
   One can always ask a few questions to determine the validity of each hypothesis, like:
   If God really wanted to promote himself (we'll use the masculine term only for brevity) why would he choose a pancake as the medium to present his message? After all, it could have easily been overlooked and eaten.
   If God really wanted to promote himself and do so using the form of Mother Mary, why didn't he do it on the side of Mt. Everest, or the Half Dome in Yosemite, or put her face next to Lincoln's on Mt Rushmore? Now that would have been a very dramatic and rather unambiguous display of divine interaction in our modern world, one that would have been hard put to be explained away.
   Or why doesn't he just show up himself? Is he shy? Does he have a bad case of acne or something? What the hell?
   On and on and on...
    On the other hand one can reasonably ask what are the odds of an image of the Virgin Mary forming on a pancake?
   Admittedly the odds would seem to be pretty low. But you have to consider such factors as; how many pancakes are made at any given time in the world (an argument can be made that if there are a enough pancakes continuously being made at some point you'll find one that looks like it has the Gettysburg Address burnt onto one of its sides), and how powerful is the tendency for our brains to form patterns from the optical input it receives, which may have evolved as a survival mechanism to distinguish possible predators, or other dangers from the physical environment in our distant past.
   Even after considering these factors it would still seem the cooking hypothesis is the simplest explanation (with a little chaos theory thrown in for good measure), and is more than likely the correct answer.
   In another example:
   On the September 12, 2005 broadcast of the Christian Broadcasting Network's "The 700 Club," host Rev. Pat Robertson, founder of the Christian Coalition of America and a former Republican presidential candidate, linked Hurricane Katrina to John Roberts nomination to the Supreme Court and legalized abortion.
   The assumption being that apparently God sent Katrina to destroy New Orleans, and by extension punish the United States, because Democratic senators were questioning Roberts about the Roe vs Wade decision making the use of abortion services constitutional.
   Let's disregard for the moment that Robertson provides absolutely no proof whatsoever for his hypothesis other than his being a so-called "authority," on what God is up to at any given moment (and where is Pat's insight when we need it regarding Hurricane Isaac bearing down on the Gulf at the time of the Republican National Convention? What is God trying to say here Pat? Or is it true that God takes exception to the Republican War on Women because she is one, as David Letterman has posited)
   If we look at the second picture above which quotes the lead character of HBO's "The Newsroom," an alternate theory is presented, that hurricanes are generally initiated due to local meteorological conditions and ocean temperatures during favorable seasons. This theory has the advantage of being measurable and available for review by a variety of scientists who work in the climate sciences.
   Which hypothesis seems the simplest to you dear readers, and which is the easiest to attempt to prove?

   And lastly:  
   9. Ask whether the hypothesis can, at least in principle, be falsified (shown to be false by some unambiguous test). In other words, is testable? Can others duplicate the experiment and get the same result?
   Could someone deliberately make a pancake that has an image of a woman on it?
   Why yes, they could.
   "Gentlemen, we can build it. We have the technology. We have the capability to build the world's first Virgin Mary pancake." -Oscar Goldman.
   Why would someone wish to do this?
   To get on Jerry Springer of course! And to possibly sell it on eBay. In other words for personal gain, or to gather notoriety.
   Also, arguments, hypothesizes, or propositions that are unprovable, or untestesable, and not amenable to experimentation arn't worth very much.
   You say hurricanes are caused by God's displeasure with the actions of humans. Prove it. You're making the assertion so the burden of proof lies with you.
   You assert that God exists. Prove it. It's not enough for you to tell me that the majority of American citizens believe that God exists. The majority of citizens are often wrong. Take the 2004 general election for instance when George W. Bush won the popular vote, 62,028,285 to John Kerry's 59,028,109. When Congress voted to go to war with Iraq 77% of the American people thought  that Saddam Hussein was responsible for 9/11. A larger percentage don't believe in Leprechauns, etc.
   You say UFOs exist. Prove it. It's not enough that you saw something moving in the sky that didn't look like an airplane (actually UFO's do exist. UFO means Unidentified Flying Objects, and there are hundreds of thousands of flying objects that remain unidentified, but that doesn't mean they are extraterrestrial spacecraft). It could have been an unladen European Swallow flying at maximum velocity for all you know.
   On and on.
   This ninth tool in our Baloney Detection Kit is directly related to the second and third tenets of the scientific method itself. Is the hypothesis amenable to experimentation, and if it is, will this experiment be able to be repeated by others.

   Dr. Sagan also included these two more suggestions when attempting to distinguish truth from baloney, which are to conduct control experiments when possible, especially "double blind" experiments where some of the people involved are prevented from knowing certain information that might lead to conscious or subconscious bias on their part, thus invalidating the results.
   And to check for confounding factors, or separate the variables. If you have a headache and you take two aspirin while sitting within an aluminum tube pyramid structure ("built with the sacred geometry ratios of the Great Pryamids at Giza!") and your headache goes away, which helped the most, the aspirin or the pyramid? The only way you'll find out is to wait until you have another headache and try one or the other pain reducing methods to see which is more effective.
   During the next two days we'll continue with Dr. Sagan's list of things we need to look out for when evaluating what is baloney and what isn't, Dr Michael Shermer's 10 questions, and an argument about what makes women happy (which I'm interested in finding out myself).

To be continued

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