Monday, January 30, 2006
Can You Trademark a Blog Title?
I was curious to see where my blog ranks if I tried to search for it in Google. I typed unsolicited opinions into Google to see how popular my little piece of the Internet was. Unsurprisingly, this blog didn't even make it into the search results. Surprisingly (or not), I found another Blogspot blog using a similar title, with a slight twist. That blog is named Unsolicited Opinion (with no s). This blog is Unsolicited OpinionS.
Needless to say, my illusions of being at least somewhat original were shattered. The guy even uses a tag line to end most of his posts: "But that's just my ... Unsolicted Opinion." Why didn't I think of that? We do share at least one opinion on the inanity of the so-called "War on Christmas" (I wrote about that last month here) and a brief sampling of his posts indicates some interesting thoughts. This, of course, crushes my ego even further.
Finally, I checked his archives to see when his blog started. Even though my blog wasn't as cool as his, maybe at least I could claim that my blog was first on the block. My first post on Unsolicted Opinions was on Wednesday, June 15, 2005. The first post on Unsolicited Opinion: Thursday, June 16, 2005. SCORE!!!
So now I can say, with confidence, thanks for visiting to the first, the ORIGINAL, Unsolicited Opinions. ;)
Thursday, January 26, 2006
The Weather and Evolution: An Interesting Analogy
I've been following the whole evolution versus intelligent design political battle for the last few months, and I see that scientists face a huge challenge in getting a fair representation of evolution in the media. The major ID organization, The Discovery Institute, has a massive PR apparatus that can spin falsehoods and anti-evolution propaganda faster than a runaway ferris wheel (can anyone give me a better metaphor?). The supporters of science have no such PR machine, and many of the arguments for evolution involve explaining a significant amount of detail on what evidence for evolution exists and how scientific conclusions were made. This amount of information doesn't really fit that well into a short newspaper article or a few pithy soundbites.
Most people don't seem to be inclined to listen to a boring science lecture with lots of minute uninteresting details (well, *I* don't think they're uninteresting, but then, I'm a geek). So below I present an argument for evolution that perhaps might do better at capturing the general public's attention while still being interesting. Any comments or suggestions are appreciated (as if anyone is actually reading this!).
Do you rely on the daily weather forecast? I do. Every morning before work, I watch the news to hear what the day's weather will be like. I even look at the 5-day forecast when there's a special outdoors event coming up that I want to attend. As we are all aware, weather forecasting isn't perfect. Sometimes meteorologists get it wrong. It rains when they said it would snow. We get a sunny day instead of the expected rain. However, on most days, the weather forecast is reasonably reliable. And meteorologists continuously collect data so that they can modify their predictions as new information becomes available.
Most people would consider meteorology to be good science, despite scientists' inability to predict the weather with 100% accuracy. I'm no expert on the science behind weather modeling, but I'd be surprised if it wasn't grounded in physics and chemistry. Despite the significant increase in our knowledge of both physics and chemistry in the last few centuries, we still are unable to make semi-reliable weather predictions beyond more than 2 weeks into the future. We can't predict where tornados will touch in down in the midwest early enough to warn people to evacuate. Most people would label the weather as "random" in the sense that people, with our limited understanding and simplified models, cannot predict weather changes with complete certainty.
Now suppose there was a hypothetical group of people who looked at meteorology and decided it was flat-out wrong. "The weather displays amazing complexity," they say. "The weather cannot just be the product of natural forces acting randomly! The very existence of the weather and its complexity implies that there must be an intelligence that designed the weather!" What would you say to that? Would you agree or disagree? If you disagree, you might argue that scientists have been able to make predictions about the weather based only on natural forces, and have found no evidence for a designer. "Those predictions don't prove anything," your opponents would say. "Why can't the meteorologist models predict weather more than a few days in advance? And even then, sometimes those predictions are wrong. Long-term weather trends can't be predicted, and natural disasters are almost never recognized by meteorologists! How do we explain this complexity without the existence of a designer?"
At this point you might ask your opponents to explain why this intelligent designer makes natural disasters that kill people, such as lightning strikes that can cause fires and burn down buildings. "We can't know the purposes or mechanisms of the designer," the intelligent weather design (IWD) proponents say. "Perhaps the designer was displeased with the people in those particular buildings, and decided to punish them. But look at the complexity of the weather! Look at snowflakes! Such complex patterns *CANNOT* have arisen by random chance! Meteorologists are just blind to the facts that all evidence points to an intelligent weather designer. Their theories only work in limited cases, and can't explain all weather! They have an inherent bias to philisophical materialism, and that means they've excluded the possibility of a designer a priori! They're blind to the real evidence!"
"Uh, Okay. Well, who is this intelligent designer, according to your theory?" you might ask. The IWD proponents' answer: "Well, we're doing real science, so we can only use empirical evidence to make a conclusion. The evidence clearly points to the existence of an intelligent weather designer, but we cannot determine the designer's identity. However, given the majesty and complexity of the weather, it seems completely logical to assume that designer is God." You ask, "But you said meteorologists excluded the possibility of an IWD. Does that mean they think meteorology proves God doesn't exist?" And they reply, "Exactly! Meteorologists are part of a consipiracy to get God out of public life. Their meteorology is a flawed theory that denies the glory of God! With IWD theory, you can see that science proves God's existence!"
These guys don't seem to be making sense. You ask another question: "Well, wait a minute. I've watched the weather report countless times on the news, and it's reasonably accurate. Sure, I've never heard a weather announcer claim God controls the weather (they keep talking about things like "warm fronts" and "cold fronts") but I've never heard a weather announcer claim meteorology proves God doesn't exist. Why have you reached that conclusion?"
The IWD proponents' response: "Those meteorologists never talk about how the weather is intelligently designed, do they? They claim the weather is just "random and unpredictable." They claim they know everything there is to know about the weather, but their models can only make limited predictions, and even those are often wrong! How can anyone who believes that the weather is random also believe in an all-powerful God who controls the weather and the entire universe! They are athiests trying to use meteorology to destroy your faith in God!" At this point, you smile, nod, and back away slowly, avoiding eye contact.
Okay, I know, this story sounds really over the top. Weather science has nothing to do with the existence or non-existence of God, right? No one would really be silly enough to dispute that meteorology is "flawed" or that scientists who study the weather are motivated to prove that God doesn't exist by showing that the weather is "random and undirected." I'm just making a flawed analogy to defend my misguided support of evolution as science, right?
Well, no. It turns out, some people in the 18th century refused to put up lightning rods to protect their houses from lightning strikes. They saw lightning as the manifestation of God's will, and lightning that destroyed peoples' houses was divine punishment. Then Ben Franklin came along with his electriciy experiments. He invented the lightning rod, and it was surprisingly effective at preventing fires due to lightning strikes. People were skeptical at first, but couldn't deny the practicality of Franklin's invention. Eventually, some churches were the only major structures that did not have lightning rods. Some religious leaders saw the lightning rod as blasphemy, because it thwarted God's will, and refused to install them in their churches. In the end, ironically, the only buildings to continue to suffer "God's wrath," were those same churches. Of course, people eventually came to their senses and realized that lightning wasn't divine judgement, but a result of natural physical processes. They also didn't conclude that this therefore proved God doesn't exist.
We can look back, and see how foolish those people were being. Ben Franklin used science to invent something that would help prevent loss of life and property damage. Why would anyone cling to superstition in the face of good science? Why would anyone claim that one must either accept the glory of God, or the conclusions of science, but not both, with no exceptions? Why, indeed.
But what is the difference between evolutionary theory and meteorology? Evolution describes the process by which species change over time. Genetic mutation, a major process behind evolution is "random" in the sense that we cannot predict what mutations will occur. But natural selection is a process that acts on these mutations in predictable ways. Similarly, the weather is based on the well-defined processes of physics and chemistry, but is unpredictable due to "random" variations. All the data that's been collected, from anatomical similarities across animal groups, to the fossils of extinct animals and plants, to all the genetic information in DNA, supports evolution. Evolutionary theory explains quite well the diversity of life on Earth. Like any other scietific theory, it is not complete. Scientists don't claim to know everything about evolution. Finally, evolution is a conclusion based on a vast amount of empirical evidence, not a religious commitment to atheism. Evolutionary theory does not imply atheism any more than meteorology does.
The only difference between my weather story and evolution is that evolution lacks a "killer app" like a lightning rod that would obviously and conclusively demonstrate its use to most people. Things like bacteria resistance to antibiotics has been shrugged off by creationists and ID proponents as "microevolution," and evolutionary predictions like the eusocial behavior of naked mole rats are too dry and abstract for most people to relate to.
Perhaps, with the sequencing of both the human and chimpanzee genomes complete, scientists will discover some insight about humans by examing the chimpanzee genomes that couldn't be explained without evolution. This might lead to some treatment for genetic diseases or cancer that would be based on the similarity of chimpanzee and human DNA due to their close relation via common descent. Of course, this is just speculation. I think the weather analogy makes the point that evolution is science and is not out to destroy reigion. The story can be easily grasped by someone who is not a science geek, despite there not being a good evoultion "killer app" example. What do you think?
P.S. I didn't invent the weather analogy. A commenter on The Panda's Thumb linked to the lightning story in a discussion. I've merely tried to dress it up a bit and make it entertaining. Although, I admit, I might have failed miserably.
Wednesday, January 18, 2006
MLK and Ben Franklin: American Heroes
On Monday, January 16, in the US we observed the holiday commemorating Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday. Yesterday, January 17, was the 300th birthday of Benjamin Franklin, one of America's founding fathers. Okay, I know I'm a little late, but these are two Americans who contributed so much to the ideals of liberty, justice, and knowledge, that I think they still deserve a belated shout-out.
Ben Franklin is perhaps best known for his slightly foolish experiments with static electricity, but he accomplished quite a bit in helping foster the ideals of what would become the United States of America. He was a distinguished scientist, inventor, diplomat, and statesman. It's hard to imagine how one guy could do so much in one lifetime. Check out this website commemorating Ben's big 3-0-0. It's got lots of links to info on his life and achievements.
King's famous "I Have a Dream" speech is an inspiration that still resonates today. He fought not only for the rights of Black people, but for the rights of all Americans. The Civil Rights Movement changed so much in such a short time. I can't comprehend the things my parents went through, a mere generation ago, and the opportunities that have been available to me because of the sacrifice of so many. King is largely responsible for moving America so much closer to living up to the grand statements set forth in the Declaration of Independence:
"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."
There's a show on Cartoon Network's Adult Swim late night programming called "The Boondocks." It's based on a controversial comic strip by Aaron Mcgruder that deals quite bluntly with race and politics in America. I never read the comic strip before, but I like the show. The satire is very funny, and if you can stand excessive use of the N word, I recommend checking it out. What does this have to do with Martin Luther King Jr.? Read on.
This week's episode dealt with an "alternate history" in which Dr. King was not killed when he was shot in Memphis in 1968. He went into a coma for 30 years and reawoke in the year 2000. Thus, he was alive to witness the events of September 11 and the dramatic change in America that has taken place since. Shortly after 9/11 he participates in a TV interview in which he is asked about what he thinks America's response to the terror attacks should be. The show has the King character respond in the way I think King, as a minister and an advocate of non-violence would; he talks about Jesus and turning the other cheek to our enemies rather than responding with escalating violence. These comments are not well received. The 21st century media brands him a traitor and anti-American. He is attacked and denegrated by the media and the American people turn their backs on him.
What really struck me as I watched this show was that this scenario, as weird as it sounds, seems quite plausible. If King were alive today, what would he say about the direction America is headed in? Somehow I doubt he would approve. And would his opinions be carefully considered as the words of an American icon and champion of civil rights, or would they be ignored and dismissed, with King branded as a liberal (when did that word become an insult?) un-American traitor? Given the degeneration of public discourse in American politics and the climate of demagoguery and mudslinging from both the left and the right, I don't think it's an unreasonable speculation. It got me thinking, which prompted me to write this post.
Tuesday, January 10, 2006
How to talk to a Modernist
Happy New Year!
I regularly read David Brin's blog. He's a science fiction author who's got some really interesting ideas about modern civilization. Unfortunately, on one of his latest posts, there has been bit of a dustup between him and another blogger, Whiskey1, in which they've both gotten angry and disgusted with each other. I personally think both these folks are smart, thoughtful people, who would benefit more from continuing rational dialog with each other. I posted this message to both their blogs in an attempt to get them to see things from a neutral perspective. Yeah, I know, it probably won't do any good, but I had to give it a shot. Oh, well. Here's my two cents:
Ugh. Is it too late to plead for calm and forgiveness from both sides? David, Whiskey1, you guys have let a series of small misunderstandings mushroom into fullblown mutual disgust that I think is unwarranted and unhelpful.
Stop inhaling the indignation fumes and look at what the other guy is telling you! David, a couple comments up you mentioned the "Paraphrasing Challenge" that I actually think is a great way to have a constructive argument, but then you didn't do it regarding Whiskey1's arguments. In an attempt to bring the situation into perspective from a neutral observer, I'll try it for both your arguments. Let me know if I don't accurately represent you.
The pragmatist in me tells me that this won't do any good mending fences between two strangers on the Internet. Why should you guys listem to me anyway, right? However, the optimist in me tells me that at the very least I'll improve my own arguing skills, and I can't make the situation any worse. The worst that can happen is that you both, in addition to hating each other, hate me as well, right? :) Well, here we go:
You're upset because you perceive Whiskey1 leveling a personal attack at you by "putting words in your mouth" and asserting that you hold positions that you don't actually hold. You're also miffed that he has missed the main point of this particular blog post to rant about your use the phrase "aristocratic tax cuts."
You're upset because David doesn't address the substance of your critiques and chooses instead to respond with insults. You perceive hypocrisy when the guy who espouses that we should avoid falling into the trap of false dichotomies and vilifying one's enemies resorts to nothing more than personal attacks when confronted with counter arguments.
Did I get your positions right? For what it's worth, here's my perceptions on both positions:
When I look at Whiskey1's posts, I see some good constructive criticism in there. Granted, he makes some claims about your position on tax cuts that seems like a big leap from your one "aristocratic tax cuts" statement. However, I could also interpret this as a rhetorical device to get you to see what effect your words might have on people with different perceptions and assumptions than your own. Even though you are against "class warfare," the "aristocratic tax cuts" language can evoke that perception in some people, particularly the rational conservatives and libertarians you want to reach. Whiskey1 pointed this out to you, and perhaps overreached by claiming that you actually are against tax cuts for anyone. However, you didn't calmly refute that claim, or respond to the critique that maybe your use of "aristocratic" langauge was a poor choice. Yes, the body of your writing on this blog and elsewhere refutes this, but your direct responses didn't address Whiskey1's substance, which is poor form in an argument.
I also submit that, as the guy who is shouting warnings at every opportunity about avoiding the "indignation high" and trying to see your opponent as a fellow rational human being rather than an evil monster, you have some high expectations from the peanut gallery. Speaking for myself, I expect you to "practice what you preach" and show us how it is done when you argue. Not that I expect you to be perfect (you are still human after all) but I do expect that you should have a better-than-average perception that distinguishes mere misunderstandings from pure malice. And I know, you have time constraints, this blog is a hobby, and you're not as careful in the comments as you are in the main post. I'm willing to give you plenty of consideration for all those factors. Still, I think you missed an opportunity here not to indulge your anger.
And Whiskey1's opinions of you are not hidden away behind your back, they're two clicks away on his blog. And they're not slander (or I guess libel, since it's in print). Other than some profanity, they're no worse than anything he's said "to your face" in your blog. He also gave you some substantial compliments.
I think you could have addressed the point about "aristocratic tax cuts" better. I think your constructive criticism would have been better received had you not made the assertion that David was calling regular people aristocrats. At least, that's the way I initially perceived your comment. And, come on, you know David isn't espousing the traditional liberal "tax and spend" canard.
Yes, he was wrong to call you a moron and not address the substance of your criticism. But, minus the moron (point in your favor) isn't that what you've done with his main post? You've ignored his major point about tyranny to focus on a poor choice of language regarding the Bush tax cuts, and then expanded that to claim that David is against tax cuts for the middle class. Isn't that a bit of a leap? In previous exchanges, you've seen that David is rather impulsive, even rude, when responding to comments on his blog. He's got limited resources, and sometimes he'll overract to statements that on further consideration can be interpretted less hostilely. But haven't we all done that sometimes? I also realize that it seems like pretty hypocritical behavior for the guy who coined CITOKATE to insult you rather than address your criticisms. I'm not defending that. But rather than trying to resolve his misunderstandings of your position, you've added fuel to the fire by holding on to your own misunderstandings of his position regarding "aristocratic tax cuts."
... So does any of this make sense? Do you think maybe you both are overreacting to perceived insults? I realize that this is maybe too late since the real insults have already started flying on both sides, but I thought it was worth a shot to try and make peace. Maybe the "indignation high" has worn off?
I'm reminded of the Simpsons episode "Two Bad Neighbors" in which George H.W. Bush moves into a house across the street from the Simpsons. Homer and Mr. Bush immediately dislike each other, much to the chagrin of their wives. When Marge invites Mrs. Bush over for tea, they discuss their husbands' behavior:
Barbara: I really feel awful about your lawn, Marge. George can be so stubborn when he thinks he's right.
Marge: Well, Homer, too. They're so much alike.
Barbara: Too bad they got off on the wrong foot. It's just like the Noriega thing. Now, he and George are the best of friends.
There is much wisdom in the Simpsons. :)