Thursday, December 23, 2010

Dembski and McDowell misrepresent Dennett - is this a shock?

A while back a colleague of my father's sent me a book on Intelligent Design - the title in question is Understanding intelligent design : everything you need to know in plain language by William A. Dembski and Sean McDowell.

Now, I'm not too concerned with the "debate" about evolutionary theory (it's not a real debate) - that something like modern evolutionary theory is right is pretty much a working certainty for me. I've read a few books on it, and it seems to me to be right - if it turned out that it was wrong, that is, if the scientific consensus was somehow shifted by new evidence or whatever, I'd probably have to rethink a lot of things, but that's about it.

So although I've had the book a while, I've had other things to read and haven't really had the time (or inclination) to skim it.

This morning I was looking through my books and I saw Dembski and McDowell's book lying on my shelf, so I thought I'd flip through the intro.
It's pretty standard creationist stuff, there were a few passages that were logically confused, but perhaps I could forgive that ... there were also some pretty provocative things insinuated about the morality of people who believe in evolution, this is par for the course with creationists too.

But then I came across a blatant lie. A shameless lie that, if it makes it's way into the popular mythology of the creationist crowd, paints atheists, agnostics, naturalists, humanists etc. as being as bad as the Satanists of their imagination (you know, the supposed hordes of evil doers who slay cats in nightclubs and sacrifice babies in the name of their Dark Lord? Those guys)

Here is the li(n)e -

"[I]n Darwin's Dangerous Idea, Daniel Dennett suggests that religious believers who talk their children out of believing Darwinian evolution should be caged in zoos or quarantined because they pose a serious threat to the social order"
- Dembski & McDowell 2008 : 23
The only reason that they can get away with this is because their readers are almost certainly never going to read Dennett himself, and most of Dennett's readers will never (thankfully) come across this line because they'll never stoop so low (as I did) to read anything from these creationist nutjobs.

Dennett's Darwin book happens to be one of my all time favourite books - and so when I came across this line I was so angry I almost spat (if you can believe that). Anyone who knows/reads Dennett will know that he would never honestly say something like that. He is genuinely sensitive to human rights (as well as being a genuinely good human being). Secondly, the passage in which he mentions "zoos" he was explicitly speaking of preserving the cultural heritage of religion.

Let me quote from the passage in question -

"What, then, of all the glories of our religious traditions? They should certainly be preserved, as should the languages, the art, the costumes, the rituals, the monuments. Zoos are now more and more being seen as second-class havens for endangered species, but at least they are havens, and what they preserve is irreplaceable."
- Dennett 1995 : 519

The next mention of "zoos" comes on the following page

"What will happen, one may well wonder, if religion is preserved in cultural zoos, in libraries, in concerts and demonstrations? It is happening; the tourists flock to watch the Native American tribal dances, and for the onlookers it is folklore, a religious ceremony, certainly, to be treated with respect, but also an example of a meme complex on the verge of extinction"
- Dennett 1995 : 520

Having read those two passages, how is it possible to draw the conclusion the Dennett is talking about taking religious people and putting them in zoos?
It's not, without stretching the truth - and in this case the truth is stretched beyond the point of breaking - what we have here is the much spotted bald faced creationist lie.

Dennett does sound one warning to believers - and I think it's one worth repeating -

"If you want to teach your children that they are the tools of God, you had better not teach them that they are God's rifles, or we will have to stand firmly opposed to you: your doctrine has no glory, no special rights, no intrinsic and inalienable merit. If you insist on teaching your children falsehoods - that the Earth is flat, that "Man" is not a product of evolution by natural selection - then you must expect, at the very least, that those of us who have freedom of speech will feel free to describe your teachings as the spreading of falsehoods, and will attempt to demonstrate this to your children at our earliest opportunity. Our future well-being - the well-being of all of us on the planet - depends on the education of our descendants."
-Dennett 1995 : 519


Dembski, William A. and McDowell, Sean, 2008. Understanding Intelligent Design : everything you need to know in plain language. Harvest House Publishers

Dennett, Daniel C., 1995. Darwin's Dangerous Idea. Penguin Books

Power Balance Bollocks - The Stat attack

a collaborative post by Bryan Gruneberg and Blaize Kaye.

Note : If you find this post useful, please consider doing a blog post of your own on some of the other athletes that have endorsed this product.

If you have seen any recent pictures of the infamous Shaquille O’Neal slamming, ramming, or generally ripping up the courts, you might notice that around his wrist he is sporting a shiny hologram powered energy regulation device. We’ll refer to this as the Power Balance Bracelet. Shaq, the 15-time NBA all star, has recently endorsed the Power Balance “Technology” behind the bracelet. The Shaq-Attack says that he “could feel something uncommon with the Power Balance wristband on” and when he took it off, “he just went back to normal.”
In 2010 SlamOnline reported that a number of NBA players have been using the Power Balance Bracelet. The players explicitly noted were Shaquille O’Neal, Lamar Odom, Trevor Ariza and Paul Pierce. Apparently Odom even doubles them up, wearing one on each wrist. Odom reportedly “feels a difference on the court when [he] wear[s] the wristbands... it gives [him] more energy and balance when [he is] on the court.”

Of course Shaq and the boys are respected athletes. If you can nab one of them as your two-a-side partner for a street ball game, you have significantly increased your chances of kicking ass. Similarly, if you find one of them on the opposing team, you might want to tap out early. However, this is no good reason to trust the Shaq-Attack-Brigade when it comes to the technology behind the Power Balance Bracelet.
According to, Power Balance Performance Technology is designed to work with your body’s natural energy fields. It supposedly does this by “optimizing the body’s natural energy flow”. The Power Balance technology is comprised of a hologram and some mechanism for keeping the hologram close to the body. It is the hologram in Power Balance that is “designed to resonate with and respond to the natural energy field of the body.” Apparently the holding device is unimportant, as they seem to come in all shapes and forms ranging from silicon bracelets, to silver chains, to stickers for your surf board. Apparently water does not interfere with our “body’s natural energy flows”, but that is a topic for another post.
If the Power Balance Bracelet does in fact increase performance, as these athletes and the manufactures claim, then it is fair to expect that this performance increase should show in the players statistics. Now, one of the great virtues of US sports-fanaticism is that they are nuts about statistics. Their nuttiness is evidenced in the fact that Justin Kubatko started a site called which provides in-depth statistics about leagues, seasons and, of course, the players themselves.

Good news for sports fans, bad news for unscrupulous manufacturers and peddlers of hokum and fakery.

So how about we take a look at the statistics for some of these players, and see if we can extract anything significant? We will use the “Free Throws” measure as our unit of analysis. We will do this for a number of reasons, but primarily because Mr O’Neal is now the oldest active player in the NBA and we don’t want to open ourselves to the criticism or counter claim that, because of his age the Power Balance Bracelet might be having some kind of effect, namely, countering the attenuation in athletic prowess that human beings naturally experience as they grow older.

This isn’t a problem with free throws. Mr Ted St. Martin currently holds the record for making the most consecutive free throws - 5221 in a row, it took him seven and a half hours - and was almost at retirement age when he broke the record for a fourth time in April of ‘96. The previous record holder, Thomas Amberry, was 72 when he broke St. Martin’s earlier record. Age doesn’t really seem to be a factor when it comes to free throws, in fact, one should probably get better over time due to practice effects.

But age issues aside, there are other reasons for using free throws as a standard. Unlike almost every other element of basketball play, the free throw doesn’t have an opposing team actively interfering with the player’s performance. Sure, there are the crowds trying to distract the players, but it’s about as close to a controlled environment as we’re going to get. Furthermore, if there was some advantage that the players were getting from the Power Balance Bracelet, it could be argued that the “edge” that any individual player might be getting could have been offset by the “edge” given to opposing players who might possibly have be wearing bracelets of their own.
Free throws it is.
As far as we’ve been able to ascertain, Shaq began wearing his Power Balance Bracelet a little before his transfer to the Cleavland Cavaliers - unfortunately we don’t have exact dates, but the press release for Shaq’s endorsement of the product tell us that he started wearing it some time during his stay with the Phoenix suns which was during the 2008-2009 season.
Shaq has a career average of 53% from the top of the key - that is, he’s made only 53% of the free throws that he’s taken. His career high came in the 2002-2003 season where, wearing his LA Laker’s vest, he was able to make 451 out of 725 baskets for a whopping 62.2%.
PowerBalance was only established in 2007 so, at the very least, we know that they had nothing to do with that bumper year.
So Shaq has been actively “using” (actually, just wearing) the Power Balance Bracelet for one season, his 2008-2009 stint with the Cavs - how did he fare now that his “energy balance” has been optimised? Well, not that well to be honest, in fact “O'Neal averaged career lows in almost every major statistical category”.
In terms of his free throw success rate, he managed to make a paltry 49.6% of his baskets - which is under his career average, let alone anywhere near his career high.

And given the current season’s stats (it’s still early in the season though - perhaps it takes a while for energy to become aligned) it looks like Shaq’s free throw percentage will fall somewhere between 50-60%, like it has for the last 18 or so years.

But perhaps we’re being unfair; It’s well known that Shaq has had trouble with free throws throughout his entire career. So let’s take a look at Lamar Odom, who - if you recall - likes to double up on his Power Balance bracelets. Can we expect the result to be doubly unimpressive?

Lamar Odom is a 6 foot 10 inch, 220 pound L.A. Lakers player. Looking over some of his on-court action shots, it is difficult to imagine that Odom’s “natural energy flows” (if there were such a thing) are in anything other than pristine working order.

Like with Shaq, it is difficult to establish exactly when Odom started wearing his double-whammy Power Balance Bracelets. Again, we know that Power Balance can’t have affected Odom’s pre 2007 statistics because the company was not formed until then. However, we do know that Odom openly endorses the product at the Power Balance site ( Odom claims that “playing at a championship level requires him to perform at his peak day in and day out” and that “the Power Balance silicon wristband helps him keep that balance” - but do the stats concur?

Odom’s career average is a nicely squared away 70%. This means that of the 3320 attempted free throws, he has sunk 2323. His career best year was in 2002 where he sunk 77% of his free throws. This was a comfortable 5 years before the Power Balance Bracelet was helping athletes out. Assuming that Odom started wearing the Power Balance Bracelets (yes - notice the plural) in 2009, it would be fair to expect that 2009 and 2010 would be record high years for him.

But alas, 2009 saw Odom only able to sink 69% of his 202 attempted free throws. That is 8% less than his career high, and a percentage point less than his career average. Unfortunately for both Odom and Power Balance, the 2010-2011 season is not yet shaping up to be much brighter, with Odom only achieving 67% of his attempted 107 free throws, leaving him 3% down on his career average and 11% down on his personal best.

Given the unambiguous claims made by Power Balance and the individual athletes that endorse them, we would expect that in 2009-2010 these pros would have bettered, or at least matched, their personal bests. In fact, neither of the players we have looked at here got close to their records. Both players actually performed quite averagely.

But what else could we expect from a little rubber band with a hologram attached? Thanks Power Balance.

References :

Friday, December 10, 2010

Tetris and the site-specific hypothesis

Right, so I said I would post a little more about the fairly recent paper "MRI assessment of cortical thickness and functional activity changes in adolescent girls following three months of practice on a visual-spatial task" by Haier et. al.

If you do a quick Google search for "tetris and cortical thickness" you'll find a number of popular articles, blog posts, and news items detailing the findings from the lab of Haier and his colleagues - great, but it seems as though most of them have missed something important. Everyone is going on about brain thickness and efficiency (a concept that doesn't seem to be nearly as straightforward as the blogosphere makes it seems - more on this soon) and yet they almost all skip over one of the major findings as if it were an added extra.

I don't want to spend time going over the same ground as the hundreds of items you'll find online - but I do think that I can add something that seems to have been mostly overlooked.

take another look at the abstract :-
Neuro-imaging studies demonstrate plasticity of cortical gray matter before and after practice for some motor and cognitive tasks in adults. Other imaging studies show functional changes after practice, but there is not yet direct evidence of how structural and functional changes may be related. A fundamental question is whether they occur at the same cortical sites, adjacent sites, or sites in other parts of a network.
now carefully reread the last line and you'll see that they're not only interested in whether there are structural (thickening of the cortex) or functional (Haemodynamic response) changes, these facts had already been established in earlier studies but are interested in exploring what they call the site-specific hypothesis, the idea that when structural and functional changes occur in the brain, they'll tend to happen in roughly the same places.
Their investigations show that, in this case at least, the site-specific hypothesis doesn't seem to hold as there was almost no overlap between changes in BOLD (blood oxygen level dependent) changes and increases of cortical thickness (there were also no measured decreases in cortical thickness).

This is a pretty cool fact.

Of course I'm not saying that the results that there were structural and functional changes aren't interesting in themselves - especially considering what they've revealed about the areas that were affected through tetris practice. It's just easy to overlook a fairly interesting and potentially significant fact in all the fuss being made over the fact that playing a computer game "can make your brain bigger and more efficient".

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Why I am not not an atheist.

I never had the experience religious people call a "loss of faith" - did I once believe in God? Yes. Would I consider that belief as having FAITH? No, not at all. As a child I had absorbed this kind of common ontology from my culture, from friends and family. There was the soul stuff that belonged to God forever, and it would always be happy. And there was the body-stuff that belonged to the Devil, and if you let him, he would grab onto your soul stuff by convincing you to do bad things (back then it was things like smoke, drink, talk back to your parents and what have you - later it would be sex and further unthinkable soul staining activities). If the Devil managed to get hold of your soul stuff he would take a perverse and, critically, inexplicable pleasure in torturing you for eternity. A strange pastime to be sure, but surely justified by the fact that the Devil is evil through and through? And what's more, God - the intelligence that created EVERYTHING in 6 days (remember, he rested on the 7th) - is, psychologically, as one dimensional as the Devil; being as good as the Enemy is bad.

But the story of God and the Devil wasn't a particularly important part of my background beliefs, it was quite like my belief that if I dropped something it would fall to the ground, or that my father would be able to protect me from any variety of hulking threats.

Nothing particularly special.

If anything, God was a drag because, occasionally, my mother would decide that her children needed some of that old time religion - so we would all dress up and spend a few hours kneeling and intoning prayers that we didn't know at all - reading out of prayer books and trying to follow along with the well practised cadence of the parishioners. If we were lucky they would serve biscuits and weak tea after the service.

When I was a little older and my friends started taking religion seriously, I would occasionally decide to take my religion "seriously" - so I would kneel at the foot of my bed and say my evening prayers. Bless me father ... no, don't know that one ... Hail Mary ... don't know that one either ... Please God could you make everyone in the world happy. Amen. And that would be it, I would be in bed dreaming of building a time machine or of one day kissing a girl. But these spurts of religious interest never lasted more than a day or two.

I was never really invested in God, and - despite protests from the pews - I never really got the sense that God was very much invested in me, and WHY that was so would become clear soon enough. I must have been about 20 when I finally realised the centrepiece of our common-onotology was nothing but a trick of the light.

God, it turned out, was made up.

This wasn't at all a violent realization. There was no anger in me, no feeling of betrayal, no regret at having grown up with a lie. For me it was like waking up. I couldn't remember just when it happened, but there I was awake, stretching, and happy to be alive.

Perhaps I was a little giddy, a little uncertain, as we are when we first swing ourselves out of bed, but I was fully conscious and ready to live - even if I was a little disappointed that "living" now meant something quite different to the endless, actually infinite, stretch of time I thought I had in front of me.

My realization that, perhaps, there was no god was not accompanied by anything other than a shrug and a shudder.

I think that this is where my experience may differ a little from some of my friends'. Having never been weighed down by religion, I never felt that "escaping" from it was any more significant than giving up any other false belief - crucially, I felt no accompanying sense of "freedom" from a morality that had been imposed from above. For my moral self, the day I gave up believing in god was like any other day - it was my epistemological self that had lost a little weight.

But why am I angry?

I don't want to be angry - I don't possess the kind of personality that's driven by conflict - conflict, I confess, makes me feel slightly nauseous. I honestly want to live my life as well as I can, as virtuously as I can. I love my wife, I love my family, I feel compassion for the Congolese (to mention a slightly less immediate and more abstract emotional and moral engagement with the world - this kind of example is easily multiplied though).

I don't want to be angry - I say it again because I truly mean it - but I have to be. I have to be because there are people who tell me that my non-belief in god means, almost necessarily, that I am morally deficient. There are people who tell me that my belief in evolution is merely a thinly veiled excuse for an ethical free-for-all, no accountability, no morality, no consequences. Atheism and the belief in evolution are, apparently, nothing but a soul in rebellion.

This is what I can't understand though - my experience (and I'm hardly the only one) manifestly attests to the fact that one can give up on religion without giving a moment's consideration to the morality of it all, for my religion fell from me with the merest shrugging of the shoulders. I felt no more or less moral after giving up my belief in god.

It's not even that I'm concerned with the ultimate-truth-of-the-matter - whether or not there is some kind of ultimate answer that is there to fill in the void left by god is irrelevant to me - like Borges I am interested in and distrustful of almost everything, if that makes me an ol' time sceptic, so be it (although I don't think I am).

What makes me angry is people telling lies. Anybody who has ever opened their mouth to foul up the air with the nonsense that without god there is no meaning, no value, is lying about me and about all my fellow atheists. Our lives, projects, concerns, and loves are no less meaningful than those whose lives are informed by religion. Our lives are no less moral than those whose set of beliefs include the dubious - and generally comfortably vague - belief in an all knowing, all powerful, shockingly one dimensional being that, somehow, created them and the world around them and then magically invested it with meaning, with value.

Without these lies I would not be an atheist, I would just be a guy who happens not to believe in one of the many gods who have met their demise at the hands of time - and so I am forced to either accept these falsehoods, or argue back with all my might. Showing that my life is meaningful, ethical, valuable in spite of my non-belief.