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Aggregating Skeptical Thought

The Encyclopedia of Life is… um.. alive!!!

I have been waiting for quite some time, May of 2007 to be exact, for this but the Encyclopedia of Life is now online with it’s first 30,000 species. Although it looks like I’ll have to wait a bit longer since the site seems to be overwhelmed right now, which I suppose is a good sign.

For those who don’t know what the EOL is here is my short blurb from last year about the site.

[ The Encyclopedia of Life] will attempt to compile a complete list of all known species (about 1.8 million, yowza) and estimate it will take 10 years to complete. After all the known species are compiled they will open it up to extinct species (such as dinosaurs).

 There are some fundamental differences between Wikipedia and the EOL. Wikipedia is open to all to contribute whereas “the key detail and science parts of the [EOL] will be compiled and reviewed by experts.” They are both similar in that they will be free to anyone to use and contribute.

However, there are 2 cool features that really separate this project apart. The first is will allow the information contained on a given species to be “graded” into multiple level and will allow school-age children (and me) access to less technical scientific data and researchers, biologists and graduate students (not me) a much greater level of detail. Check out the polar bear example to see this in action. The second will allow anybody to contribute sightings, photos or video, to any given species.

Filed under: Environment, Internet, Science, ,

The Atheist Market in Fort Wayne, IN

I’ve been sitting on this USA Today article, Americans freely change, or drop, their religions, for a couple days now. I’m not really sure what to make of this survey. Part of me sees the statistic that atheist/agnostics make up about 4% of the U.S. population and see that in a pessimistic light. Just to put that number in perspective if you take the total population of the city of Fort Wayne, IN (where I am located) with a population of about 215,000 (500,000 if you include the Metro Fort Wayne area). This means about 8,600 of my fellow Fort Wayners are atheist/agnostic, about 19,000 if you inclulde the whole Metro area.

One of the statistics for Indiana particularly is the number of unaffiliated people. And of course the number of unaffiliated people is the whole point of the article. I wonder how many of them would simply declare atheist/agnostic if the social pressure to believe in God were removed. I think all these things in the hopes of understanding what percentage of those people would participate in an atheist group, like Freethought Fort Wayne. I don’t really have any stats on what is the likely percentage of any group to actively participate in a group of some kind. For example, let’s say that any given grouping of people will have 20% of its members actually participating in groups. Let’s say there are 1,000 people in a given area who self-identify that they are Bird enthusiasts so it’s reasonable to assume that the most members of an organized, self-identified group of Bird enthusiasts would be 200 members. Your job as the the Bird Enthusiast evangelist is to get your group to that magic 200 number. If for example you advertise or whatever and you can only ever get 75 people to join then you know that you are doing something wrong or missing a whole target group of about 125 people. But without that 20% number how could you ever know that 75 people isn’t supposed to be the max number.

It’s easy to say there are 8,000-20,000 potential members of an atheist/agnostic group in the Greater Fort Wayne Area and let’s be honest if you state that you are “unaffiliated” and not simply agnostic then you are very, very unlikely to join a group that self-identifies with atheism since you can’t even fill out an anonymous survey and say you are atheist. What percentage of those group members would be willing to actively participate in a group,  1%? 2%? 10%?

Part of me holds out hope because even with a 1%-2% participation rate that creates a pool of 80-400 members. Can you imagine that 80-400 possible members in Fort Wayne, imagine the potential pool of candidates in Indianapolis with 4 times the population. Actually I could probably find out the membership of CFI- Indiana and reverse calculate and estimate of what Fort Wayne could draw, I’ll re-edit when I get that information.

Filed under: Religion, , , , ,

Takes one to know one

I recently posted my thoughts on the Epidemiology of Global Climate Change. In that post I detailed 3 arguments global warming skeptics often employ to prove why global warming isn’t real.  I addressed in the previous entry the more important question regarding not only why global warming is real but that man is the cause. I would like to take a moment and quickly dispatch one of the other arguments. It turned out to be relatively easy once I spent a moment to think it through. I will reiterate the position,

1) I’m (the Skeptigator) not a climatologist and therefore unqualified to make any reasonable judgment on my the validity of climate science, which is true.

On its face this seems like a fairly substantial argument. This argument itself is a logical fallacy, actually you could group it into a number of them but the most relevant to this post is the “Unstated Major Premise“. The unstated premise here is that the global warming denier (who is usually not a climatologist themselves) is rejecting out of hand the science of global warming. I am simply supporting the position of the experts, the denier is actually making the implied statement, “I am fully qualified to reject all of the evidence for global warming” however this statement is implied in their accusation against you. Hence the very clever title to this post.

The science behind global warming while admittedly not as concrete as say gravity or evolution there is still a preponderance of evidence in suppport of a anthropogenic (man-made) cause of global warming.

So the next time someone accuses you of not being qualified simply say to them, “I know I am but what are you”

Filed under: Environment, , ,

Blog Redesign

As I occasionally do, I have picked a new theme. Figured I needed the 3 column format for all my stuff. Hope you like, I was getting bored with the former Zen look.

Filed under: Internet

MacGyver for President

I’ve been watching some of the first MacGyver episodes on Joost (you can get GI Joe and the original Transformers there as well). I can’t believe how much science-based jerry-rigging he would do. In the first episode, there’s a planetarium, lasers, neutralizing sulfuric acid with sodium hydroxide, using a fire hose to jack up a steel beam.

I don’t know if any of that is possible but it’s pretty cool either way. I love MacGyver. This is a show I would love to see Richard Dean Anderson reprise his role in.

Filed under: Internet, , , , , ,

Ask Palpatine

I stumbled across the following vodcast on iTunes, called Ask Palpatine. Man, is that funny; here’s a little taste.

I’m not a Star Trek/Star Wars nerd by any stretch but this is funny.

Filed under: Internet, ,

More Junk in the Vertebrate Trunk

I apologize for the lame title but it made me laugh, and I think we all realize how important that is.

Here’s another article, “Junk” RNA May Have Played Role in Vertebrate Evolution, that details recent research that finds that formerly designated “Junk” RNA (similar to “Junk” DNA but different) may have actually assisted in the evolution of vertebrate species from their invertebrate pre-cursors.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, the term “Junk” DNA or RNA is such an arrogant, self-damaging statement that it literally irritates me. Now I will say I see the term Junk DNA is now being used with quotes, perhaps this is the beginning of the move away from the term, also all of the quotes from the scientist do not use the term Junk DNA so perhaps my irritation should be directed at the journalist instead, however the meme has been started and it will take time for it to end.

Filed under: Environment, Evolution, , , ,

Neutral on Net Neutrality

Being of the uber-geek kind of person, these topics interest me more than the average Joe. I also think being in the IT industry (and having started as the lowly help desk guy and worked my way through network administrator and then back down as a lowly developer and now up to software development manager) I may have more insight into the positive or negative impacts that some seemingly innocuous laws can actually have.

One of the issues that I follow is the debater currently in the Congress regarding “Net Neutrality“. Basically, the issues centers around whether or not ISPs can restrict (or price discriminate) the different kinds of traffic that is sent/received on their networks. An example of this would be charging customers more to play broadband video from their websites than simply hosting webpages or static image files. Using this example the local internet provider could charge YouTube more for internet access (because of their content) than say if YouTube simply had pictures that you could download.

This issue is one that is separate from bandwidth. Chargin for bandwidth is simply *how much* traffic you pay for versus *what kind* of traffic you pay for. I and others have no problem with being charged more for bandwidth. That’s like being charged for having multiple phone lines. Of course you should be charged for this. Applying Net Neutrality issues to phone lines, this would be like being charged more use your phone line to send a fax versus calling your mother on Mother’s Day.

Some of the underlying issues regarding Net Neutrality are highlighted by the phone analogy.

  1. It doesn’t cost the telephone company anymore or less for me to call mom or send a fax, the cost of the resource is fixed.
  2. The only way for a telephone company to know when to charge me differently is to actually listen to the phone calls, which raises privacy issues
  3. And perhaps most importantly being charged to do different things has the potential to stifle innovation using these resources. Would fax machines have been invented? What impact would pricing teirs have had on the early days of the Internet when most people’s mode of access used a dial-up modem (which is fundamentally the same and indistinguishable from a fax signal*). Would people have been willing to pay more to connect the Internet on top of the charge from Compuserv or AOL?

In the 3 examples above simply substitute ISP for telephone company (and mom for webpages and fax for broadband video ) and you now understand what Net Neutrality means.

Wired.com has an article, Bill Bars Web Traffic Discrimination, details recent legislation introduced reaffirming the “Neutrality” of the Internet. Or more specifically it,

“… suggest[s] that the principles which have guided the Internet’s development and expansion are highly worthy of retention, and it seeks to enshrine such principles in the law as guide stars for U.S. broadband policy”

Perhaps the most valid complaint (at least in my mind) is that this new legislation while establishing Net Neutrality as a guiding principle for the U.S. it also gives the FCC additional regulatory powers over what ISPs can and cannot do. For example, Comcast was recently smacked around for throttling certain customers bandwidth, which they pay for,  specifically regarding peer-to-peer file sharing in order to provide adequate bandwidth to additional customers. As a customer, would you be happy when you call Comcast to complain that your Internet is slow and they tell you it’s because your neighbor is downloading music and using up a larger piece of the shared pie and that because of “Net Neutrality” their is nothing they can do?

* Technically not true but for the sake of this example we’ll just keep things simple.

Filed under: Internet, Politics, , , ,

CO2 Weight Translation

Because I’m a nerd I found this article, What is the weight ratio of CO2 released to fuel burned, over at Sciam interesting. It’s part of their Ask An Expert series.

Thus, the weight ratio of CO2 produced per octane molecule burned is 352/114, or roughly 3 to 1.

The only problem with this little factoid is that I can’t translate this into my reality (let’s assume I don’t understand chemistry so well, you know, for the sake of argument). So I googled this little factoid out of a page on the EPA’s website, Emission Facts: Average Carbon Dioxide Emissions resulting from Gasoline and Diesel Fuel.

CO2 emissions from a gallon of gasoline = 2,421 grams x 0.99 x (44/12) = 8,788 grams = 8.8 kg/gallon = 19.4 pounds/gallon

CO2 emissions from a gallon of diesel = 2,778 grams x 0.99 x (44/12) = 10,084 grams = 10.1 kg/gallon = 22.2 pounds/gallon

And before you think diesel is still evil remember that it is more fuel efficient than gasoline. So while you may be polluting more per gallon you are still going much further per gallon, I’ve read but can’t seem to find right now that using gasoline and diesel engines in comparable vehicles that the diesel equipped vehicle will get on average 10-15% in increased MPG over it’s gasoline counterpart.

Here’s some more goodies on converting gas/diesel to CO2 from wikipedia, including a write up of the new EPA CAFE standards for evaluating fuel efficiency in model year 2008 and newer vehicles.

I know Consumer Reports has been a big advocate in trying to change the CAFE rating process to more accurately reflect today’s driving conditions. Here’s a recent article on their blog regarding what it would really take to get the U.S. to 35 mpg. Keep at it guys.

Filed under: Environment, , , , , ,

The Epidemiology of Global Climate Change

I am first going to admit to 3 things. I am not a doctor, I am not a climatologist and I know you can’t have an epidemiology (see definition) of global climate change. Oh and the book Conjuring Science (see Brain Food) inspired me to write this post.

I have been having a number of discussions regarding Global Warming with someone who I very much wish could see past their conservative politics and actually appreciate the considerable scientific evidence. Personally I think he disagrees with the policy recommendations that many global climate change “believers” propose and therefore rejects the science of global climate change. Obviously this is backwards but nonetheless his position.

I searched for sometime to come up with a good way to explain why I personally accept global climate change. He has put forth a number of different reasons why global warming isn’t real (Milankovitch cycles, delayed CO2 forcing) but there are a few statements that I think are the most common and the most credible accusations to the average Joe,

  1. I’m (the Skeptigator) not a climatologist and therefore unqualified to make any reasonable judgment on my the validity of climate science, which is true.
  2. He brings up Global Cooling and Paul Ehrlich’s Population Bomb as recent examples of science having it wrong and therefore what makes Global Climate change as a scientific position that much better than those.
  3. His last allegation is that if you follow the money, those scientists who say global warming is real get funding, those who don’t are marginalized within the scientific community and therefore do not get the funding. This creates a disparity in the ability of believers finding evidence and deniers not being able to have the resources to find evidence.

As I have time and as I become confident that my rebuttals are logically sound and easily explained to a non-believer I will post them. What I would like to do is explain my rebuttal to the first allegation.

Let me first say that this claim is probably some kind of logical fallacy, probably some variation of the Argument from Authority, meaning if I were some kind of authority I therefore could be believed to be speaking the truth but since I’m not therefore I am not speaking the truth. This might not be correct but let’s be realistic even if it were true pointing out logical fallacies really carry any weight for a normal person. I can’t say, “That’s an Argument from Authority logical fallacy and therefore I don’t have to dignify your statement with a response.”

Anyway, perhaps the best analogy is the science behind smoking and your health. Put simply, we know that smoking is bad for your health by the same methods that we know that global warming is caused by mankind. Let me be clear I don’t know anyone that denies that the Earth is warming anymore, the argument usually lies in whether mankind is the cause (and what we should do about it, but let’s figure out how to accept responsibility first and then work from there).

There are 2 primary methods for doing studies regarding the effects of smoking on health. There are empirical methods (or replicatable demonstrations) for determining causation and there are statistical methods for determining causation. Well, first and foremost you really can’t use replicatable demonstrations since you can’t take one person and clone them and then make one smoke and one not smoke and then see which one got lung cancer or emphysema. Not only is this scientifically impossible it’s probably ethically wrong even if it were. So we are stuck using admittedly an inferior way of knowing something by using epidemiological-statistical methods.

Epidemiological-statistical methods can never give you 100% certainty they can only give you varying confidence levels. A particular study by the EPA will come to the conclusion that second-hand smoke is detrimental to your health with a confidence level of 95% (p <.05). What does that mean? It means that the scientists are pretty damn sure that the results of their study show that the net effect is detrimental to your health. In fact, when it comes to this kind of study having a p-value less than or equal to .05 is about as certain as you are ever going to get.

There are enough studies out there that the preponderance of the evidence/results of these studies show that a staggering 87% of all lung cancer in the U.S. is the direct result of smoking. These studies had to use epidemiological methods for determining that smoking/tobacco use were the single largest contributing factor to the development of lung cancer. If you control for age, weight, sex, ethnicity, income, access to healthcare, work environments and whatever else they do science finds over and over again that smoking is the key factor.

What does this have to do with global warming? You guessed it. We can’t rely on empirical methods alone for determining causation of global warming for several reasons. First and foremost, the time scales involved are too great for humanity to be able to make any reasonable, direct observations, second the scope of observing planetary changes and interactions to the climate in real-time is beyond our current technology. So what are we left with? Our understanding of small-scale, regional effects on weather and lots of statistical data. We know that when you remove most of the trees from a large tropical island there is marked decrease in rainfall. Why is that? It’s because the removal of those trees has interfered with the natural cycling of water from ground to atmosphere. This example is a good demonstration of the kind of man-made interference that has local effects that can be understood and more importantly it reveals important mechanisms of how our planet works.

We can analyze all of this statistical data (with computer models, simulations) and begin to make predictions about what should be happening in the future and validate those predictions against what should have happened in the past. We can continue to refine these models as our understanding of different variables increases. Obviously this is an oversimplification of the process involved but the basic idea is there. Over time we have slowly “controlled” for factors as we were able to measure them, understand their impact and interactions in a very complex system. We have gotten to a point that the evidence is significant enough that the IPCC not only released a consensus report on the reality of global warming but gave a 90% confidence level that mankind is responsible for that warming. What gets lost in translation for many people is that a scientific consensus is a significant thing and that a 90% confidence is pretty damn confident. To put that in perspective, I’m mixing sciences here, many studies regarding the detrimental effects of second-hand smoke have confidence levels of 80-85%. Is long-term exposure to second-hand smoke detrimental to your health? Who knows? But we are 90% sure that mankind is responsible for global warming.

Do I personally think a lot of the rhetoric surrounding global climate change and the imminent disaster to mankind is alarmist? Yes. I personally think people are turned off by all the doom and gloom that surrounds global climate change. The opposing viewpoints are too often given equal weight in the media and too often the talking heads from either side are the worst kind of caricatures, you have the “poor gas in the lake it don’t matter” deniers on one end and the “shit in a bucket and smoke eat grass” hippies on the other.

I think if people could accept that we are the cause of Global Climate Change we can begin to make some concrete changes NOW for our future. Let’s do it now while the cost of those changes is small. Should gas be artificially jacked up to $10.00/gallon? No that’s stupid. Let’s do some reasonable things. Start replacing the most commonly used light bulbs in your house with CFLs. The new 2008 EPA CAFE standards in the U.S. are a good start, let’s keep raising the bar. There’s a whole bunch of common sense things that can be done now. I’ll have to compile a list of things sometime.

Filed under: Environment, Health, , , , , , ,

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