Archive | December 2012

The Weekly Gnuz & Lynx Roundup for 12/29/2012


Srinivasa Ramanujan

Srinivasa Ramanujan (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This week, my family was able to see The Hobbit on Christmas Eve, or this Newtonmas, or Festivus, or Saturnalia, or Yule, or whatever else your favorite holiday this year would be… The kitties are doing well, and I’ve been poking around a bit online for tidbits of information, like research on the ancient Indian Gupta empire and its leading intellectual achievers, particularly the astronomer and mathematician Aryabhata, who is said to have invented the concept of zero and hypothesized that the Earth went around the Sun. Here’s hoping that you are all snug and warm, with lots of cool things to do. ^(;,,;)^

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Lawrence Krauss: Our Godless Universe is Precious

Fractals of the Week: Mad, Mad Mandelbulbs for the Call’s 4th Bloggoversary


G’day….This week I had completely forgotten that this day marks the fourth year of this blog, originally founded in December 28 of 2008. This is really my third blog, with the first a WordPress site titled Troythulu’s Log, now extinct, and this site’s closer in time Blogger sister site The Collect Call of Troythulu. This site does predate I am Troythulu, but not by much. It’s been a long, wild ride, and I hope it gets wilder still. Thank you all who’ve motivated, corrected, admonished, and inspired me this whole time. There was much fooling with MB3D during this week and last, and here are some results of that bit of fractal lunacy, with a couple of wallpapers at the bottom for good measure. Despite the occasional slow rendering time, this app is incredibly rewarding.

Thank you, and enjoy the coming year!

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Atop the Mountains Shorn

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Crucible Blu

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Atop Blood Mountain

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Crucible Frost

Crucible Red

Crucible Red

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Crucible Electrum

All JPEG, PNG & GIF images in this post are original works by the author,created by

way of XaoS, Mandelbulber or Fractal Domains, and are copyright 2012 by Troy Loy.

Post Hoc Reasoning, Special Pleading, and Ad Hoc Hypotheses


The powers of the paranormal, if they exist, cannot be very great if they are so easily thwarted by mere doubt. It seems as though, in the world of supernatural claims, doubt is the strongest magic of all. It can cancel anything, except science, which actually needs it to work. At least, this is the impression I get from the claims of paranormal believers when attempts to replicate initially successful parapsychology studies fail. And fail they have once the controls of the initial study are improved, reducing statistical significance closer to chance levels and shrinking effect-size to zero.

It seems to me that even with perfect methodology there would still be a chance for false-positive results, and that what these studies show is not what they are claimed to — only that something other than chance may be at work, and giving no indication of what that may actually be. It could be due to poor experimental design, inappropriate use of statistics, errors in reasoning, bad data collection, and rarely, but often enough to taint the entire field of study, fraud.

One thing never fails, though, and that’s the rationalizations offered for this failure to replicate. This post deals with a species of error in reasoning: Special Pleading, the Post Hoc [after this, or “after the fact”]fallacy, or Ad Hoc [for this (only)]hypothesis, and sometimes just “covering your ass by making shit up.” I also aim to show that it is not always a fallacy under the right circumstances.

This fallacy, regardless of its name, is an attempt to rescue a claim from disproof by inventing special reasons why it should be exempt from the usual standards of evidence, to deflect criticism without demonstrating that these alleged reasons are in fact true or actually exist apart from the claim they attempt to defend. Every attempt has been made to boil the following examples of its use down to their essence and to avoid committing straw-persons:

Psi phenomena are shy, or jealous. They do not work in the presence of skeptics. Skeptical doubt cancels them.

What about this one?

Successful replications do occur, but the doubt of skeptics reading the journals they are published in reaches back through time, retroactively changing the experiment and causing it to fail.

Or…

Psi is elusive and a delicate phenomenon. Imposing excessively strict controls (read: adequate ones) in a study impedes Psi’s natural functioning in a sterile laboratory setting.

What I find interesting about this sort of reasoning in its fallacious form is that it is considered acceptable in some circles.

Never mind that many of the replications are attempted by other believers and by those without an apparent bias against the paranormal, and another such rationalization goes something like:

They (believers or neutral parties who don’t get results) are burdened with a repressed skepticism that causes their replication attempts to fail, no matter what belief or neutrality they claim to have. These hidden attitudes unconsciously sabotage their efforts.

Never mind the fact that this argument is made on the basis of mere supposition and absent the use of a valid psychological test. Those who reason thus are essentially claiming to be able to read minds, the very thing that some of these replication attempts have failed to demonstrate.

This phenomenon, the success of some to get positive results in their studies and others to get negative results based on their belief systems, is in parapsychology known variously as the Shyness Effect, the Wiseman Effect, or, in a form broadly applying to any field of science where attitudes may unconsciously influence results, the Experimenter Effect, or Observer-expectancy effect, and this is one of the reasons for double-blinding studies and other forms of experimental controls.

A good example was a series of medical studies for a procedure known as the portacaval shunt, and in the analysis of these studies, it was discovered that those who were more enthusiastic about the procedure tended to get false-positive results more often than those not so inclined. And this was from a study assessing an experimental surgical method, not magic mind-powers.

Above were some examples of this form of argument used as a fallacy, but are Ad Hoc hypotheses always and everywhere bad reasoning?

Fortunately, no.

This can be a perfectly good way of reasoning, as long as at least one of the following conditions is met:

  • The reason for failure to demonstrate something has already been shown, or can be, to exist independently of the hypothesis it is used to support. There must be valid evidence that it is true and relevant as a viable supporting reason.
  • The Ad Hoc hypothesis is both interesting and fruitful in predicting new phenomena that could in principle be tested even without being true or existing itself. The key point is that it must be testable, whether by verification or falsification if a general or a particular claim.
  • The Post Hoc reasoning is used to invent new and creative ways to test a claim, and as long as it is used to further inquiry and not merely to thwart the goal of critical reasoning by making up silly excuses as needed.

A good example of an Ad Hoc hypothesis that was both interesting and fruitful was Einstein’s addition to General relativity of the Cosmological Constant, which though he later rejected it and called it his “greatest blunder” has shown to be useful today in the concept of Dark Energy to explain the accelerating expansion of the universe. Another would be the the Lorentz contraction offered to explain the failure of the  Michelson-Morley experiment to detect the Earth’s motion through the Ether, later incorporated into Einstein’s Special relativity.

One thing to note about many forms of argument used as fallacies:

Philosophers and communications specialists may differ on this, but informal fallacies are not so much violations of argument form as they are violations of argument procedure, as attempts to subvert the rules and goals of constructive argument and critical discussion. In this sense, they are abused, often out of ignorance but sometimes out of intellectual dishonesty, as rhetorical devices masking themselves as cogent arguments when they are not. For ethical, productive argumentation, try to keep this in mind and avoid this yourself whenever possible. Happy debating.

The Ubiquity of Belief: On the Outside, Looking In — A Skeptic’s Perspective


Christopher Hitchens

Christopher Hitchens (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

G’day. As a former theist and paranormal believer, I hold what I understand only to varying degrees of probability, nothing as completely certain outside of formal logic and maths, and those as certain only by virtue of arbitrary but accepted and useful conventions of logic.

As a theist, I had been brought up to see my religion as uniquely privileged to the Truth™ and in this I find that I was not unique at all.

Many of us raised or indoctrinated later in life into a religious belief system find it difficult to pierce the bubble of continuous doctrinal reinforcement and confirmation bias that surrounds us.

As a theist, I’d been paradoxically blinded to religion by that very thing. Religion was so much a part of my thinking that it was always in the background, always so well, blindingly obvious as to be just out of sight, and hence out of mind.

I never noticed it in the cultural environment I grew up in. It had never come to my attention how religion and religious belief was so pervasive.

In the religious tradition of my upbringing, I had been taught that unbelievers (everyone not a Bible-believing Adventist) were at best delusional and at worst evil. How ironic that it was only a few years later I became one of those same unbelievers, as my indoctrination waned from a lack of reinforcement.**

The same applies to my paranormal beliefs. Growing up with shows like In Search Of, including having attended a lecture at Edgar Cayce’s Association for Research & Enlightenment, I accepted nearly every sort of claim that made the tabloid headlines at the time.

Yes, the beginnings of an interest in science were there, but lacked a crucially important tool; a well-calibrated and functioning baloney detector.

Dr. at the November 29, 2005 meeting of the NA...

Dr. at the November 29, 2005 meeting of the NASA Advisory Council, in Washington, D.C. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There was neither the understanding nor the skill to filter the good science from the very, very bad science.

I knew about people called skeptics, but knew very little of them, and not in a positive light. They were ill-tempered meanies, spoiling my fun by debunking all of those cool things the media said psychics were doing. Skeptics too, were unbelievers held in almost the same light as those evil atheists.

Almost, though not quite as bad.

It was the 1970s, during the birth of an organized skepticism I knew next to nothing about, and the paranormal was everywhere in the popular culture, from tabloids, to movies, to comic books, toys, animated cartoons, television, and paperback fiction billed as nonfiction. There was so much of it out there that it was almost invisible. Again, hidden in plain sight.

I was literally, in a psychological sense, blinded to the prevalence of supernatural and paranormal belief by immersion in that very belief. I suppose It’s possible to internalize a set of beliefs so much that you think of that set as normal, acceptable, and desirable, and only notice when they are lacking, like those diabolical black-hat atheists and skeptics who I had foolishly thought so in denial of obvious reality and normalcy.

Part of Image:Planetary society.jpg Original c...

Part of Image:Planetary society.jpg Original caption: “Founding of the Planetary Society Carl Sagan, Bruce Murray and Louis Friedman, the founders of The Planetary Society at the time of signing the papers formally incorporating the organization. The fourth person is Harry Ashmore, an advisor, who greatly helped in the founding of the Society. Ashmore was a Pulitizer Prize winning journalist and leader in the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s and 1970s.” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There resided in my skull not a smidgen, not a molecule of good critical sense.

But things changed since my teens. There was the move from magical thinking and religiosity to, in time, a worldview valuing reason and evidence, if nothing else because that was what helped you make credible arguments whether you won or not, and the novel discovery that it’s okay to be wrong as long as you admit it, correct it, and move on.

But is it possible that I’ve just traded one sort of blindness for another? Was there now credulity for skepticism?

That’s just as silly as it sounds, since the first thing learned as a skeptic is to consider all sources, all authorities, as fallible, and to follow any claim to its primary source whenever possible. There is questioning and testing of even conventional claims when better data comes to light, even those of other skeptics and scientific research workers.

Such is the case with any branch of science. Even established findings are subject to this, and many may need revision or rejection in the face of better observations when these are made. Science questions itself much more than it’s critics assert with every new finding it makes, much more than in most other endeavors.

Try to find that in politics or religion without it resulting only in doctrinal schisms or ideological purges.

There is the testing and so the questioning of assumptions, to see whether they at least are still useful in producing effective results, whether they are true as well as useful. Assumptions which fail such inquiry are abandoned for better ones. Skepticism has a set of values that apply to it, but is not itself an ideology nor a belief system. It’s a method of asking questions which requires only that we accept the answers we get even if we must force ourselves to accept what the data say despite our wants and wishes.

I see the skeptical approach at work plain as day as well as the effects and influence of religious and paranormal claims everywhere now.

Others, better skilled than I are to be learned from, not hero-worshiped, their knowledge tested, not taken as a given, their authority questioned within the bounds of good reason, not knee-jerk rejection, their facts and credentials checked in relation to those of similar training, experience and knowledge background.

English: Ann Druyan (born June 13, 1949) is an...

English: Ann Druyan (born June 13, 1949) is an American author and media producer known for her involvement in many projects aiming to popularize and explain science. She is probably best-known as the last wife of Carl Sagan, and co-author of the Cosmos series and book, along with Sagan and Steven Soter (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There are men and women I admire and respect, not uncritically, the living and the departed, who have taught me much of value, who’ve enjoined me to learn more on my own, and I hope I’m not embarrassing those major contributors of skepticism and secular thought still among us by mentioning their names; Michael Shermer, the late Martin Gardner, Neil deGrasse Tyson, the late Carl Sagan, Ann Druyan, the late Paul Kurtz, Lawrence Krauss, Sam Harris, the late Christopher Hitchens, the late Isaac Asimov, Ray Hyman, Joe Nickell…

I believe that for a robust skepticism, one must know the human side of their heroes, both the light and the dark. To know them in the context of their lives and relation to the world they lived in. The glitter and the tarnish. For a realistic worldview, nothing else will do.

**text added, paragraph #6, at 12/26/2012, 1:24 am EST.