Friday, May 16, 2008

Post-Colonialism and Racism

I've been involved in a couple of discussions lately, particularly one that touched on how to compensate for historical wrongs due to colonialism, and one about racism and how to deal with it. My thoughts aren't organised enough to write a thought provoking post right now, but I want to put this stub here for anyone who wanders past and would like to comment.

Briefly, within New Zealand I have been most impressed with policies which treat the lingering effects of colonialism without referring directly to race. For instance, Maori are disproportionately represented in low socio-economic groupings; rather than providing specific remedies for Maori the government has implemented social programmes to allow access to higher education for the poor.

On the other hand, I am not impressed with a (small) number of places which are reserved for Maori in the highly competitive medical school intake (I know the problem is more nuanced than this, but it will serve for a general indication of my beliefs).

But this is just for starters, and off the top of my head. Please feel free to post anything even tangentially related below.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Consequences of Infinity

I read this recently on Pharyngula. It's an example of an argument I think is fallacious, but I've never seen anyone called on it.

If life is constant change and you are never the same person you were at any previous time, then if you lived forever, you would eventually become every possible person there is.

I've seen the same argument used as proof that there must be intelligent aliens somewhere if time/space is infinite. Consider a similar argument phrased in terms of integers.

There are an infinite number of integers. If I randomly pick an integer an infinite number of times, I must eventually pick '2'.

This sounds plausible, but it would be possible to randomly only pick odd numbers forever, which would clearly not produce a '2'. There are an infinite number of odd numbers, and even the same infinity as there are integers, but let's not go there.

So, is this a fallacy? What is it called?

Open Thread

Hooray for poll widgets! Boo for poll widgets without a comment page! Also boo for no 'Contact Me' form. Scribble your mad scribblings here.

Armchair Evolutionary Morality

From a discussion on Slashdot, the original topic was something unrelated.

I'm just wondering why, genetically speaking, it should feel so good to hear about justice being served?

(The original question was longer, but that's the gist of it)

If co-operation is beneficial for groups, co-operation by an individual will benefit the group and thereby themselves, reinforcing that behaviour in the gene pool.

If a group is largely co-operative, defecting (in the terminology of the prisoner's dilemma) may benefit you greatly and be a detriment to the group as a whole. This would be selfishness, since only you benefit.

If a group is mostly co-operative but there are occasional defectors, it is to the benefit of the group to exile or beat the living crap out of the defector, since they are harming the group - and thereby reducing the reproductive success of defectors - so this should be reinforced.

In a pre-rational species, behaviour would be reinforced by associationg good feelings with successful behaviours. This can arise without any planning if individuals start with randomly genetically coded preferences or dislikes for behaviours and are (naturally) selected for if they like beneficial behaviours.

Finally, since people generally like co-operating (even without a clear benefit to them) we can assume that it has been beneficial in our recent evolution. It should also feel good to hear about justice being served, since that is a natural pairing with enjoying co-operation.

Also, in my experience people who say that humans are inherently selfish are just pushing an agenda, probably a religious one, which says that you should submit to their benevolent control because you don't know what's best for you.

Of course this is all an extremely simplified view. There should be an equilibrium between co-operation and defection which is based on how easy it is to successfully defect. This would imply that people should enjoy gaining by defection BUT only if they are not found out and punished by the co-operators, even though they are themselves co-operative in most situations.

Then we get into gossiping, so we know who has defected in the past... but spreading false rumour then becomes a successful defective behaviour as long as you're not found out.

And there are Us vs Them issues where groups can co-operate within themselves, but still defect relative to other groups without wrecking internal co-operativeness. This tends to have a genetic basis, since co-operating with your relations at the expense of strangers increases your genes' reproductive success, even if the total result is damaging to society in general.

That last point is, I think, the largest problem with our society at the moment. Praising the defective actions of people in your in-group while refusing to co-operate with an out-group without rational cause is rife, from school sports teams all they way up to international relations. It is something that happens most often when we go with 'gut feelings' instead of reasoning, and is the natural result of fear-mongering in the media and by government.

Boy, what a rant. I hope some of that was useful.

I'm interested to know if there was anything obviously wrong with that, allowing for the fact that it's entirely unreferenced and hastily written on a random web site.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Member of the Order of Wally

This went largely unremarked at the time, I wish to preserve it for posterity.

I now you don't cvare b/c u want to do waht you want to do but if u think aboutit theres a REASON we were all made and that is we are made in FLORIDAS IMAGE-but not women-dont you look down when you pee yuo will see it [[and waht about the pictures of EPCOT canter did they get faked?? and even if yo dont believe in florida FLORIDA still bleieves IN YOU and LOVES you so stop thinking, ur so smart and ill PRAY for you that you LOVE Florida even if you dont wnat to ;-)

And dont say Im a troll or a Poe wahtever that is b/c Im as real as flordia

Posted by: Borwnien, OW | May 5, 2008 2:41 PM

From Pharyngula, I can't believe in Florida anymore #50

I assume that OW stands for Order of Wally. I think this concept has great value.

Monday, May 5, 2008


Why is the graphical theme of my blog not used for the comment page?

Why do my posts show the time posted, but not the date?

Answer: Settings -> Formatting -> Timestamp Format

Can I use custom CSS styles in my posts?

Answer: Edit -> Layout HTML. There  are inline CSS definitions. I'll post an example here if I get around to changing anything.

Why is there no "Contact Me" widget on Blogger? There is on Wordpress. Google search suggests various third party sites you can use to insert a contact form, but I don't want to bring yet another party into the picture.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Does faith respect dogma?

Do the religously faithful start with a preconception of how their god behaves and mold the available dogma to fit this view? Example: Christians believe that God is love, despite various atrocities attributed to Him in the Old Testament. If there are such preconceptions are they determined by society, or by biological factors? How has its adoption in the New World affected Catholicism?

Surely there are volumes dedicated to these questions. 

Has anyone ever honestly argued that God is a mean old bugger, as evidenced by the Old Testament, but we're stuck with him so we should make the best of it? Inspired by a post[Pharyngula, Yoko has an opponent, Dennis N #77]

(8 May 2008): One of the journal articles I casually acquired lately deals with transmission of religion and attitudes! How serendipitous. I haven't taken the time to digest it properly yet, but this looks promising:

Religious affiliation appears to be purely cultural , whereas religious attitudes and behavior, including church attendance, show varying degrees of genetic inheritance in addition to the influence of the shared environment and assortative mating.

-- Transmission of religion and attitudes, Lindon Eaves, Brian D’Onofrio and Robert Russel, Twin Research (1999) 2, 59–61

(27 May 2008): I'm going to close this question; I'm still interested in it in abstract, but I'm definitely not going to be deliberately researching it. The main reason for this is that any research would involve reading about and considering the horrible, inhuman acts committed in the name of religion and then considering whether said horrible, inhuman acts were attributable directly to religion, or merely to horrible, inhuman people looking for justification. Call me cowardly, but there are many things I want to do with my life and reading about the details of crimes committed by one person against another is not close to the top of the list. No, I haven't seen The Passion of the Christ.

When is a view 'widely held' in science?

In this week's New Scientist (New Scientist, April 19, 2008) there is a brief column entitled "Moon's birth put Earth in a spin" that includes this sentence:

The moon is widely thought to have formed after an object roughly the size of Mars crashed into the Earth 4.5 billion years ago, throwing up a cloud of debris that eventually coalesced into a rocky sphere.

I don't disagree with this at all. I am peripherally aware of a couple of moon formation theories. I probably could have told you that impact plus debris ejection was a favourite. My question: when is it correct to say that something is "widely thought" in science? Equally, how would one challenge this assertion?

Thesis: a certain absolute number and proportion of relevant scientists, as well as a ranking among competing theories are all necessary, but not sufficient to say that a view is widely held.

Example: If a view is held by less than 20% of relevant scientists in a field, less than a dozen scientists in total, is less popular than two other theories or is less than half as popular as the dominant theory, it is not widely held.

If anyone who reads this thinks that my hypothetical numbers could be improved, can think of another factor that would determine whether a view was widely held or not, or would like to leave some random abuse - please do so! Abuse will be deleted though. Unless it's funny.

The Introductory Post

What is this blog about?

It is about questions. Burning questions. Questions that must be answered. Also trivial questions, poorly posed questions, musings (in question form), questions best left unasked, questions I should have just Googled but posted on my blog instead.

It is about science. It is about truth. It is about logic. It is about intellectual honesty. It is about properly citing sources if I can be bothered.

It is about communication. It is about conversation. It is about exposition. It is about metaphors that stampede across a Jurassic landscape, their bellows resounding in the humid air.

It is about time I stopped rambling. It usually is.

This is of course a vanity blog and I don't intend to do anything except post things which interest me. In many ways this is a trap. I hope lure in unsuspecting commenters from Pharyngula and trick them into writing something insightful.

A warning on structure. I intend to post questions. As I idly come across information which answers a question, I will append it to the post so that the question is incrementally answered over time. I intend to leave a timestamp on each edit for archaeological purposes, but I strongly suspect that this kind of knowledge accretion will make the RSS feed entirely useless for tracking question updates.

About labels. I am going to label questions open questions or closed questions. All questions will start out open, and I will close them when I think they are answered, boring or irrelevant. There is no practical effect from closing a question, it is just a hint as to what I am thinking about lately.