Texas is at it Again

March 16, 2010 Leave a comment

It seems that the Texas Board of Education has started another round of silly curriculum changes. In the past they have done their best to put evolution into question, and now they are going after history.

It seems like the primary purpose of their changes is to stop teaching the history of the philosophical ideas of a separation of church and state. Probably most bizarre to me is their plan to ignore Thomas Jefferson. It seems incredibly odd to ignore a figure of such importance to the founding of the United States of America in American classrooms. It would be like our classrooms in B.C. ignoring John A. MacDonald.

There are however some changes that seem perfectly fine to me (if I accepted the idea that government control over what children learn is a good thing, but I am taking that as a given right now). Some of these changes seem to have a lot of the left-wing blogs (like the linked Huffington Post article) angry. The curriculum will now refer to the U.S. as a constitutional republic rather than a democracy. Why? Because the U.S. is a constitutional republic moreso than a strict democracy. There also seems to be some concern over how history class will now examine the devaluation of the U.S. dollar and the abandonment of the gold standard. How are those topics bad? Why shouldn’t we explain to our children the effects of an inflationary policy. $10 in 1913 buys roughly what $218 does now. If you look simply at the expansion of the money supply it is even worse.

The political arena is sometimes a harmful place to decide what children learn.

Categories: History, Politics, Skepticism

A New Face on an Old Argument Part 1

March 13, 2010 15 comments

I was recently came across the website cosmicfingerprints.com and found an article that made the audacious claim of being able to prove that God exists through just a few simple arguments. These arguments also undermined evolution in the process.  As an athiest and a darwinist, I was skeptical from the outset. Skepticism turned into frustration as I continued reading. The title asks the question “does a computer networking expert have something new and important to say about the evolution vs. intelligent design debate?” In this instance, the answer is clearly “no.” After reading the brief article and listening to the MP3 clip which accompanies it, I was convinced that this computer networking expert indeed had nothing new or important to say. In my experience following creationist vs. darwinist debate, I have come to expect a fair amount of faulty logic on the part of the former party. But what really annoys me is when creationists use outright lies to try and persuade people to their point of view, because not only are they tricking people into forming irrational beliefs, but good, reliable science often finds itself a collateral casualty.

In the author’s first argument, there are a myriad cases of faulty logic, and it would be exhausting to systematically go through them all, so I’ll just focus on the central fault in the argument. The author begins by arguing a distinction between a code and a pattern. Patterns can occur from chaos, and are commonplace in nature (an example would be weather patterns). Codes, on the other hand, are inherently the products of a designer. The author contends that DNA is a code, since it contains information. Information can only be created by a conscious mind. Therefore, if DNA contains information, it was created by an intelligent being (presumably God).

Intuitively, this almost makes sense. But stop and think about for a moment, and you’ll probably recognize this argument as an adapted teleological argument, or the “argument by design.” The argument by design basically asserts that living things are very complex, well suited for the roles they perform; in short, living things appeared to have been designed to live the ways they do. Consequently, they must have had a designer, or so the argument goes. This answer would certainly seem plausible to someone without  another, more supported explanation for how complex, well-adapted living things arose. But for approximately 150 years, we’ve had a better, scientific explanation: evolution. Evolution functions in some very intricate ways, but there are three main “ingredients” with which it works. Firstly, mutation and other genetic changes result in variation that causes living things to become different than one another, by chance. Secondly, selective forces such as the environment organisms live in causes certain individuals with better adapted traits to survive more easily, and to leave more offspring than others. And thirdly, heredity of genetic material ensures that offspring tend to resemble their parents. The result is that over time, better adapted individuals tend to leave more offspring such that their more successful traits become more common over time. This is the fundamental process of evolution, and over the billions of years life has existed on this planet, it has had the capacity to produce complex individuals which are well-adapted to their environments. There is absolutely no doubt among good scientists that evolution is responsible for all living things we see today. With this powerful fact that is supported by immense amounts of evidence, evolution is a superior theory with which to explain the origins of complex life than the unsupported ‘God hypothesis’ (credit to Richard Dawkins for that phrase).

So what does this have to do with an article about codes and patterns? The above section is useful in demonstrating a point: apparently meaningful thing like complex and well-adapted life that may seem to have been designed can sometimes be explained by sheerly physical phenomena. Live things function as though they have been created with a purpose (to survive, to grow, to reproduce, etc.) but this can all be explained by understanding evolution, a force which is completely devoid of intention. The same logic applies to the idea of DNA being a code, rather than a pattern. DNA certainly does seem function as a code might. It contain thousands to millions of chemicals arranged so that the “blueprints” of life can be passed down from one generation to the next. Certainly this seems like a code written by someone or thing that intended DNA to carry information. But as we saw before with the teleological argument, the apparent design of living things and their components, DNA included, can be explained wholly and completely by evolution, without the need for an intelligent designer to have ever existed. DNA is just a pattern. It is just molecules which have arranged themselves over billions of years into a complex structure because those molecules that did so became replicated, again and again, causing them to become more common and more elaborate over time. DNA has resulted from sheerly physical processes, and consequently does not carry true information because it is not a message. It is just molecules which have arranged themselves over billions of years into a complex structure because those molecules that did so became replicated, again and again, causing them to become more common and more elaborate over time. And since DNA is only a pattern, there need not have been a conscious mind behind it. And there need not have been a God.

This article claims to have presented a new and interesting argument for the proof of God. But this first argument is an old one that has been defeated before. And the article is not so much interesting as it is an irritating attempt at misleading people towards erroneous beliefs.

(I have taken some partially deserved flack for this post. Please see the comments section for this criticism and my response to it, as well as a few revisions I have made to this post.)

An Ageing Country

March 11, 2010 Leave a comment

On a recent episode of Radio Freethinker we talked about issues surrounding overpopulation and aging populations. Because of time constraints I was unable to fully discuss the economic and political issues facing Canada and other countries that are facing rapidly ageing populations. I’ll use this blog post to better explain some of these issues.

I recently read an article in the Globe & Mail about the non-partisan Parliamentary Budget Office releasing a report skeptical of the Conservative Government’s belief that they can easily return to fiscal responsibility without massive changed to taxation or spending. What the report ultimately argues is that the effects of Canada’s aging population are being ignored by the official reports coming from the government. According to the low estimate of the PBO, Canada will reach a federal debt to GDP ratio of  200% by roughly 2070 as opposed to the official estimate of maxing out at 32.1% in 2011 and then falling. These two reports paint very different futures for Canada’s fiscal policy, and I want to explain some of the economic issues that the official report seems to ignore.

The primary economic issue that arises from shifting population demographics is a shifting dependency ratio. In general, the dependency ratio is the ratio of the working age population to children and those over 65. This way of measuring isn’t perfect, as some people over 65 are still employed, and some people of prime working age are not, and are dependent on others, but overall it provides a general approximation of the actual ratio.

According to the PBO report( which uses a dependency ratio that ignores children, which exaggerates the effect somewhat), as of 2008, Canada has a 5 to 1 dependency ratio. This means that there are currently 5 working age Canadians for every Canadian 65 and older. If we assume that working age Canadians and retired Canadians have roughly an equal standard of living (measured in dollars spent by them, or for them, a year), then it logically follows that each working Canadian has to give up 20% of their production in order for each retired Canadian to have an equal standard of living. The PBO report also projects that by 2033 this ratio will be 2.5 to 1. This now means that every working age Canadian will have to give up 40% of their production in order to maintain equal standards of living for retired Canadians.

Assuming we don’t have unexpected technological increases, or higher than usual investment, this will mean that the average standard of living in Canada will stay fairly constant or at the very least grow little. Increases in productivity will be partly offset by a labour market decreasing faster than total population.

On top of this basic economic problem, there is also the political problem of how this will be payed for. If senior care is largely payed for by government then this will mean that the government will have to raise taxes are strongly cut back in other areas. The political ramifications of this will likely be immense, as people don’t generally like rising taxes, especially if the benefits go to other groups. If senior care is largely payed for by savings from seniors themselves (which is likely no longer a possibility, as baby boomers are expecting the government to provide their health care as well as other benefits), then their decreased consumption in the past would have caused increased investment which would increase future productivity. This would help offset the effect of a lower dependency ratio discussed earlier.

The PBO report focuses on the consequences which affect the federal budget, but a large part of social program spending is done by provinces. About 80% of health care costs are payed for by the provinces and territories. Health care costs are also disproportionately high towards those 65 and older. In British Columbia, the cost in care per year is 4 times higher for those 80 and over compared to those aged 1 to 64. As the number of people 65 and older increases, health care costs will rise dramatically.

Whether Canadians like it or not, we will soon be facing large economic issues, and political decisions will decide who pays. Will retired people face lower than expected standards of living so that workers can make more? Or will workers give up some of their consumption in order to better provide for retired Canadians?

CFI Canada Conference: Day One

March 6, 2010 1 comment

Most of the day one activities focused on organizational issues which I won’t talk about here, but I want to give people some information on the different organizations here and some of their important goals.

Centre For Inquiry Canada, the hosting organization, is involved primarily with education related to science, medicine,ethics, and skepticism in general. They promote open and free dialogue on various issues. They are also now a registered charity so you can donate and get a tax receipt! CFI has branches all around the world (although most are in North America) and through these regional groups they host many smaller events such as pub nights for skeptics and presentations and discussions focusing on a wide variety of topics.

The Freethought Association of Canada which is the charity behind the widely reported atheist bus ad campaign, is now working on the Enjoy You Life! campaign. This campaign seeks to encourage non-believers of all types to get involved in worthwhile charitable causes. Some of these issues, such as expanding access to condoms in Africa, might be ignored by religious charities. They also want to break the stereotype that religion is necessary to advance charitable causes.

The Canadian Secular Alliance is the politically oriented secular organization. Their goal is to effect public policy that touches on secular issues, including freedom of expression, non-religious education, and the many different tax breaks for charities that save them well over a billion a year. With the recent announcement by the Harper Government about looking at the wording of the national anthem, the CSA is now focusing on getting a committee to look at whether keeping “god” in the anthem really reflects the diversity of Canadians. If you want to get more politically involved in skeptical and secular political issues, the CSA is a great place to start.

Categories: Skepticism

Austrian Economics vs. Keynesian Economics: A Rap

This catchy rap is also informative! I was going to write a blog article explaining the lyrics but then I found out that I was beat to it by “VA Classical Liberal” at the Daily Kos (and to be honest, he or she probably did a better job than I would have). This debate has never been more important with countries all around the world following Keynesian policies to try and get out of their economic mess and yet very few people have even a basic understanding of the economic arguments against these policies. Most people have some basic idea of Keynes theory, but if their introduction to it was anything like mine, it was treated more like gospel than a theory. I would highly recommend taking 15 minutes and reading over the blog post on Daily Kos and getting a brief taste of Austrian Business Cycle Theory.

Categories: Economics

Goddess of the Market

February 28, 2010 1 comment

I recently finished reading Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right by historian Jennifer Burns. As someone who enjoyed Ayn Rand’s novels and likes elements of her philosophy I was drawn to the book. There have been many Ayn Rand biographies but up until now they were almost exclusively written by passionate supporters (and as a skeptic, I want something at least a little more objective) or others writing without access to all the historical information held by the Ayn Rand Institute.

Probably one of the most memorable aspects of Ayn Rand’s life to me is how she started out as a skeptic, and a pretty good skeptic at that, but succumbed to dogma and eventually cut herself completely off from other ideas and the constructive criticism of her own ideas. She was born in Russia in 1905 to a well off Jewish family. Her father worked hard, from a disadvantaged position, and created a successful small business. During the Bolshevik revolution Rand had to watch as her fathers livelihood was destroyed and as her county’s freedoms were being eroded. Her once prosperous family was now starving, and it wasn’t as if the wealth was simply transferred, it was gone, almost everyone was starving.

She eventually made her way to the U.S. because she thought of it as the land of the free. As she arrived however, American intellectuals were beginning to lean farther and farther to the left and many advocated for the U.S. to follow Russia’s footsteps. The stark contrast between the vision of the American intellectuals and the reality as she saw it in Russia guided much of her early work. She was motivated to research and study questions of philosophy, economics, political science, and many others trying to figure out why freedom seemed to work and totalitarian control did not. It was this skeptical search that led to her trying to create a unified philosophy explaining why individual freedom, and self-interest, leads to the greatest outcome for society.

The problem was that the more she developed this philosophy, the more she moved away from seeking out conflicting ideas, from engaging in debate and in general, from being skeptical. Closer to the end of her life she would often refuse to speak to others unless they agreed 100% with her entire objectivist philosophy. She even changed parts of her older novels so that they fit into her now fully formed objectivist philosophy.

Her story came as somewhat of a warning to me, and I suppose to skeptics in general. The more you feel that evidence and logic backs a theory or belief, as Ayn Rand felt about her philosophy, the more skeptical you should be, the more you should question your evidence, and the more you should check your logic. Critical inquiry doesn’t stop when you believe you have reached the truth, and if Ayn Rand realized this her philosophy might have ended up as something more than just dogma.

Evidence for Health Supplements

February 27, 2010 Leave a comment

I recently found an awesome web page that has compiled data from many different properly blinded and controlled studies into the efficacy of popular health supplements. It shows this data in a simple infographic. You’ve probably encountered many people who swear that X health supplement cures Y health ailment and now there is an easy web page to check the effectiveness of X without having to do much research. For those interested, the linked google docs file has more information about the studies used.