Background Probability

The Agnostic Popular Front has moved to its new home at Skeptic Ink, and will henceforth be known as Background Probability. Despite the relocation and rebranding, we will continue to spew the same low-fidelity high-quality bullshit that you've come to expect.

Thursday, February 12, 2009


"The Legislature further finds that the teaching of some scientific subjects, such as biological evolution, the chemical origins of life, global warming, and human cloning, can cause controversy, and that some teachers may be unsure of the expectations concerning how they should present information on such subjects."

I find that whenever those who make the laws which govern the schools declare that certain scientific subjects cause controversy, we will almost inevitably find that they have thereby caused a controversy surrounding those very subjects. Moreover, I find that the scientifically useful data on abiogenesis, anthropogenic global warming, and human cloning are really quite scant compared to the overwhelming evidence from disparate fields supporting the biological evolution of species over time by descent with modification.

There are interesting legal and ethical debates to be had on the matter of cloning, a fascinating series of hypotheses to be batted about regarding the formation of the most primitive complex molecules, and a wonderful debate to be had (within my peculiar field of statistical modeling and simulation) on the predictive power of climate models. These are all debates which I enjoyed greatly during and after majoring in (hard) sciences in college and (harder) maths in grad school, and I wish all high-school kids would engage in these debates vigorously and with an eye to discovering new truths.

That said, the evolution versus creation debate stands apart from those abovementioned, in that it is in no sense a scientific controversy but rather a clash of worldviews, between those who see the world solely through the eyes of faith, and those who see it with their own eyes. Ancient Hebrew/Arabic/Sanskrit cosmogonies are pitted against modern scientific theories, in the hopes that citizens will frame this particular controversy as a stark choice between religious faith and scientific knowledge. It doesn't have to be this way, but surely this is precisely how folks like Kern and Brogdon see it.

All this bluster about helping "students understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories" is so much smokescreen, designed to obscure an intelligently designed wedge which starts with "scientific weaknesses" and ultimately widens out to the first verses of someone's favorite holy book. If you doubt this, just go back and look at the campaign propaganda of the legislators sponsoring and vocally supporting this bill.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Welcome to Wingnut Central


"The homosexuals get it — it’s a struggle between our religious freedoms and their right to do what they want to do.” – Sally Kern


By mysterious means both unbeknownst and unexpressed, the mere fact that sodomites are buggering each other silly down at the Habana Inn is somehow impinging upon the inalienable religious rights of the Kerns and other god-fearing heterosexuals.  I wouldn’t have thought that the rights of religious people to peaceably assemble, worship, and believe whatever sort of wacky nonsense they can dig up from the dustbins of history could be so easily subverted by reprobate sinners engaging in private acts many miles distant from the hallowed halls of Olivet Baptist Church, but perhaps there is some subtle queer witchery afoot?  Are the gays subverting the teleprompters of mega-church evangelists with gay porn, replacing the lyrics in the hymnals with LGBT manifestoes, or perhaps targeting evangelical men with indecent proposals that they just can’t refuse?  Somebody call Ted Haggard, he may be the only one qualified to explain to the public just how those nasty little buggerers are subtly slipping their depraved lusts into evangelical churches.


Or, it could just be that Sally and the JBS’ers are out to scapegoat a chosen few, in order to rally the fearful masses to their banner.



Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Universal Declaration of Human Rights

There is much in the way of praiseworthy aspirational language to be found within the four corners of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but it is not self-executing and it is questionable whether it has measurably advanced its own stated goals.  Moreover, it is doubtful whether its stated goals are universally beneficial to the human race. 

Take, for example, Article 25:

Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.

By implication, it would seem that an all-pervasive paternalistic cradle-to-grave socialism is the only ethical means by which a government may structure a society in accordance with universal standards proclaimed by the United Nations.  Even if we can forget that the U.N. as an organization has an incredibly weak claim to the status of moral exemplar to the globe, it is inexplicable that the socio-economic system of a price-coordinated economy (which has provided countless people with the abovementioned necessaries of life) gets such short shrift relative to the exaltation of the forcible redistribution of wealth (the implementation of which has starved millions to death in Asia alone). 


The general failure of pseudo-arguments asserting an ethical mandate for unfulfilled rights has been aptly demonstrated by Thomas Sowell:

One of the most remarkable—and popular—ways of seeming to argue without actually producing any arguments is to say that some individual or group has a “right” to something that you want them to have. * * * Take, for example, the proposition, “Every American has a right to decent housing.” If all that is really being said is that some (or all) of us would prefer to see all Americans living in housing that meets or exceeds whatever standard we may have for “decent housing.” then there is no need for the word “rights,” which conveys no additional information and which can be confused with legal authorizations or moral arguments, neither of which is present.

Moreover, if we are candid enough to say that such “rights” merely boil down to what we would like to see, then there is no need to restrict the statement to Americans or to housing that is merely “decent.” Surely we would all be happier to-see every human being on the planet living in palatial housing—a desire which has no fewer (and no more) arguments behind it than the “right” to “decent” housing.

However modest a goal, “decent” housing does not produce itself, any more than palatial housing does. Be it ever so humble, someone has to build a home, which requires work, skills, material resources, and financial risks for those whose investments underwrite the operation. To say that someone has a “right” to any kind of housing is to say that others have an obligation to expend all these efforts on his behalf, without his being reciprocally obligated to compensate them for it.

Focus especially on that last sentence.  If my worthless bum of a cousin has a moral right to be fed, clothed, housed, and medically treated at taxpayer expense, does this right imply any moral duty on his part to stop indulging his Article 24 “right to rest and leisure,” get off his fat ass, and find a job?  I would think the question answers itself, but the U.N. seems not to be even aware of the issue.

Monday, February 2, 2009

The Ultimate Boeing 747 Gambit

I’ve been hearing much made of this Richard Dawkins fellow coming to speak at the University of Oklahoma, so I decided to have a look at his most recent book. I did not get far before becoming overwhelmed with the sense that he believes that his brilliance in some areas (e.g. biology, zoology) makes him perfectly qualified to argue about other areas entirely (e.g. philosophy of religion) in which he lacks any serious training or experience. This is a familiar feeling to anyone who indulges in reading the shockingly amateurish journals of high-IQ societies in their spare time.

Here is a telling example:

Creationist 'logic' is always the same. Some natural phenomenon is too statistically improbable, too complex, too beautiful, too awe-inspiring to have come into existence by chance. Design is the only alternative to chance that the authors can imagine. Therefore a designer must have done it. And science's answer to this faulty logic is also always the same. Design is not the only alternative to chance. Natural selection is a better alternative. Indeed, design is not a real alternative at all because it raises an even bigger problem than it solves: who designed the designer?

Any entity capable of intelligently designing something as improbable as a Dutchman's Pipe (or a universe) would have to be even more improbable than a Dutchman's Pipe. Far from terminating the vicious regress, God aggravates it with a vengeance.

These passages demonstrate the sort of metaphysical naiveté which philosophy profs usually try to beat out of their students in their first year.

Let’s unpack Dawkins’ (mis)characterization of creationist thinking here:

  1. If something we observe is sufficiently improbable, complex, awe-inspiring, etc., then it must have been intelligently designed.
  2. The cosmos as a whole meets the above criteria, because it is so improbably, complex, awe-inspiring, etc.
  3. Accordingly, the cosmos as a whole must have been designed by an intelligent agent which cannot exist as part of the universe itself.
  4. Anything sufficiently complex to design XYZ is at least as complex/improbable/awe-inspiring as XYZ itself
  5. :. Said intelligent designer must also have been designed, per premises (1 & 3)

Never mind that Dawkins has written an entire book debunking premises (1 & 4) or that the amazing explanatory power of natural selection is impossible to apply at a cosmic level (e.g. various universes competing for the scarce resources of the metaverse). It is the attempted application of creationist premise (1) to a non-spatiotemporal cosmic übermind which one should find particularly troubling. Dawkins is actually arguing that if premise (1) holds true for the cosmos as a whole (or any constituent units thereof) then it also must hold true for anything outside of space and time as well. This fallacy of extrapolation makes the better-known fallacy of composition (of which Dawkins is certainly aware) seem like a cautious bit of standard logical induction by comparison.

People of every worldview must accept some aspects of the universe as brute facts which are fundamental and lack any possible explanation. For naturalists, it is nature itself, while for deists, it is the mind of god. One cannot expect either sort of person to seek a deeper explanation for that which they consider ultimately fundamental.