Monday, November 23, 2015

Facts about the human body. Did you find them as (un)fascinating and (un)weird as me?

A friend posted a link on his FB wall whose click-bait title blares, "23 Fascinating and Weird Facts About The Human Body. Wow."

When friends post these sort of fact lists, I often like to go through them to challenge their initial premise (usually that I will be shocked, amazed, fascinated, tickled, or some other sharp reaction). I have yet to find a list that actually I actually found lived up to its premise, and I have also yet to find a list of facts that is 100% factual.

So here's the list of the 23 "Fascinating and Weird Facts" and my responses to them:

1.The brain doesn’t feel pain: Even though the brain processes pain signals, the brain itself does not actually feel pain.

Not fascinating; the brain was not evolved to be in direct contact with the environment. If the brain actually could feel any pain, *that* would be fascinating.

2. Women have a better sense of smell better than men: Women are better than men at identifying smells.

Women - on average - have a better sense of smell than men - on average. Again - on average - women are better than men - on average - at identifying smells. Many specific cases will differ.

3. Babies are stronger than oxen: On a pound for pound basis, that is. For their size, babies are quite powerful and strong.

This is not only limited to babies and oxen. This is a general characteristic among any group of animals of a type. Pound-for-pound, a mouse is stronger than an elephant; an ant is stronger than a samurai beetle; and a house cat is stronger than a great dane. But so what? This is due to issues of scaling and inherent limitations of physics and biology that come with larger body size.

4. A higher I.Q. equals more dreams: The smarter you are, the more you dream. A high I.Q. can also fight mental illness. Some people even believe they are smarter in their dreams than when they are awake.

I am skeptical. I haven't heard of the study that came up with this result, and given the problems of whether IQ tests actually measure intelligence and the many flaws with dream recollection studies, I'm wondering how much validity this statement carries.

5. Your smell is unique: Your body odor is unique to you — unless you have an identical twin. Even babies recognize the individual scents of their mothers.

No duh. Just like finger prints and DNA. Even between identical siblings; if one sibling eats only Indian food and the other eats only Japanese food, they will have different body odors. If they grow up in different places, they will also have different body odors.

6. A sneeze can exceed 100 mph: When a sneeze leaves your body, it does so at high speeds — so you should avoid suppressing it and causing damage to your body.

Yes, this is true. But learned once, its repetition hardly fascinates any more.

7. Your nose remembers 50,000 scents: It is possible for your nose to identify and remember more than 50,000 smells.

Yes, this is true. But learned once, its repetition hardly fascinates any more.

8. Your hearing decreases when you overeat: When you eat too much food, it actually reduces your ability to hear. So consider eating healthy — and only until you are full.

Ah. This is something new. And now that I have read the blurb, it is no longer fascinating.

9. Babies always have blue eyes when they are born: Melanin and exposure to ultraviolet light are needed to bring out the true color of babies’ eyes. Until then they all have blue eyes.

This is blatantly false. Go to East Asia. Go to the maternity wards. Look at the eyes of the East Asian babies. You can go through ward after ward without coming across a blue-eyed newborn. (Although blue-eyed East Asian babies do exist; they are really friggin' rare.) I was not born with blue eyes. My wife was not born with blue eyes. Our daughter was not born with blue eyes. The only fascinating thing about this "fact" is that it blatantly isn't.

10. Most men have regular erections while asleep: Every hour to hour and a half, sleeping men have erections — though they may not be aware of it.

Not really fascinating; if you are male then you have personally experienced this, and (unless you are a solipsist or an egomaniac) you likely have come to realize that you are not a special case. If you are female, you likely don't really think about this.

11. Sex can be a pain reliever: Even though the “headache” excuse is often used to avoid sex, the truth is that intercourse can provide pain relief. Sex can also help you reduce stress.

If you've had sex in the past, you might well have encountered the many psychological and physiological benefits that sexual intercourse *can* bring about. If this is a fascinating fact, you either haven't had sex, or you haven't had sex that moved you in this manner.

12. Your brain operates on 10 watts of power: It’s true: The amazing computational power of your brain only requires about 10 watts of power to operate.

Key word here is *about* 10 watts. The other thing though, is to recognize that your brain is an energy *hog* - and that energy conversion from food is not terribly efficient. A significant portion (if not the majority) of your caloric use during the day actually goes to feeding your brain.

13. Chocolate is better than sex: In some studies, women claim they would rather have chocolate than sex. But does it really cause orgasm? Probably not on its own.

Chocolate is better than sex for some women and almost no men.

14. Your feet can produce a pint of sweat a day: There are 500,000 (250,000 for each) sweat glands in your feet, and that can mean a great deal of stinky sweat.

See comment on #8.

15. Throughout your life, the amount of saliva you have could fill two swimming pools: Since saliva is a vital part of digestion, it is little surprise that your mouth makes so much of it.

See comment on #8.

16. You probably pass gas 14 times a day: On average, you will expel flatulence several times as part of digestion.

See comment on #8.

17. 80% of the brain is water: Instead of being relatively solid, your brain 80% water. This means that it is important that you remain properly hydrated for the sake of your mind.

See comment on #8.

18. Bones can self-destruct: It is possible for your bones to destruct without enough calcium intake.

Yeah. It's called osteoporosis.

19. You are taller in the morning: Throughout the day, the cartilage between your bones is compressed, making you about 1 cm shorter by day’s end.

See comment on #6.

20. Your tongue is the strongest muscle in your body: Compared to its size, the tongue is the strongest muscle. But I doubt you’ll be lifting weights with it.

See comment on #3.

21. Being right-handed can prolong your life: If you’re right-handed, you could live up to nine years longer than a lefty.

As a lefty, I learned about this study a long time ago. It's based on correlation, not causation. Also, see comment on #6.

22. It takes more muscles to frown than to smile: Scientists can’t agree on the exact number, but more muscles are required to frown than to smile.

See comment on #6.

23. Pinkie toe: There is speculation that since we no longer have to run for our dinner, and we wear sneakers, the pinkie toe‘s evolutionary purpose is disappearing — and maybe the pinkie itself will go the way of the dodo.

Or it could go the way of the appendix. This is not so much fact as wild conjecture. True, there is no apparent value to the presence of a pinky toe, but there also isn't any natural selection pressure to get rid of the pinky toe.

So, yeah, a bunch of *yawn*, with one blatant falsehood (#9) and one general arm waving (#23). I remain unfascinated.

Wednesday, November 04, 2015

How I think about the question of bathrooms, changing rooms, and transgender students in school

Looks like I am again on a different side of another social issue from a friend of mine. And potentially many of their friends and family. This time, it's about whether transgender kids can use the bathroom of the sex they identify as (as opposed to the one they were assigned at birth.) As a preface, I don't know how my perspective stacks up with that of the "social justice warrior" types which tend to flog these issues with authoritarian zeal we so often see associated with authoritarian mindsets, but I think that I can say that my perspective is likely (hopefully) somewhat different. But I want to first start with the position that one's conclusions may likely differ greatly depending on whether you believe sex and gender to be the same or different.

This is what my friend's comment was on the topic:
While I sympathesize with transgender individuals, I will not let [my daughter] share a locker room with a male. ... The school already made reasonable accommodations. If this is how public schools will work, [my daughter] will not be attending.

As a biologist, I read my friend's comment and thought, "How are you defining 'male' here, since we both know the dominant role that hormones play in determining primary sex characteristics during development and secondary sex characteristics during puberty?" From this perspective, we can see how biological sex and socially defined gender don't always match up. Given the various ways that biological outcomes don't align with strict US gender norms of recent history, there are a number of cases where a child can be sex-ambiguous, but have their gender assigned to them by a doctor at birth, only to have that designation change later in life, as in the case of intersex and hormone-deficient individuals. Neither of these cases are necessarily "transsexual" (let alone transgender), but given how little people understand about physiology and gender identity, they will likely get folded in with transgenderism.
  • Therefore, would you have a problem with your daughter sharing a locker room with a school mate who is intersex, was assigned the male sex at birth, but then developed as a female during puberty?
  • Also, would you have a problem with your daughter sharing a locker room with a school mate who, due to a hormone deficiency condition, has been taking hormone therapy since before they started puberty?
  • Furthermore, in both of the above cases, even if these classmates developed as female throughout puberty, what would your position be if they publicly identified (or privately confided to your daughter) that they were male?

These issues of how biological sex doesn't align with socially defined gender create some problems with consistency, since saying that an intersex child who was designated male at birth but then naturally develops as female *should* be allowed to use the girls locker room, despite believing themselves to be male can easily appear to be creating a double standard on sex and gender identity. True, you could make the big lift of attempting to educate the entire populace about the biological definition of intersex and how it's different from questions of transgender, but I doubt that it will be very successful. But beyond the problems that biology throws in the path of sex and gender, there are alternate scenarios that are actually about transgenderism and identity:

  • Imagine a scenario in which one of your daughter's classmates (or friends) underwent sex transition and became male (i.e., took their transgenderism into transsexualism, which is currently quite rare, but could become more common in the next 17 years). Would you insist that this classmate (or friend) now use the male changing room (since they are now male) or continue to use the female changing room (since they were born female)? (Would that answer be different prior to starting the sex change? And, if so, at what point during that transition would you insist that this classmate use the other locker room?)
  • Given the size of public schools, it is quite possible that one of your daughter's schoolmates will be transgender. Would you have a problem with your daughter sharing a locker room with a school mate who doesn't publicly identify as transgender during their school years, but in adulthood comes out as transgender? Yes, this means that there could be a student who is born female, secretly (or publicly) identifies as male, and is in the locker rooms having fantasies about their classmates, and might even imagine what it could be like to marry one of their classmates after they change their sex or marry their classmate despite choosing not to change their sex or any number of adolescent fantasies about their crushes (who they happen to be sharing the locker room with, since locker room assignment is based solely on sex).

And then there is the personal scenario:
  • Would you have a problem if your daughter told you that she actually identified as male, and was being being barred from using a toilet and changing room by other parents' unfounded preconceptions about the motivations of your child?

In addition to the above biological and conditional questions, there is the humanitarian question of what to do with someone who, by announcing that they are a gender non-conformist, automatically out themselves as a major potential social pariah. From this perspective, what is the potential benefit that an individual would have in outing themselves as a "boy who says he's a girl"? Unlike what some people might fantasize, I would posit that this an announcement that is unlikely to win you any brownie points. Even if you can win the public fight to use toilets and changing rooms that better align with your identified gender, once you go into that room, you are only going to be met with suspicion, scorn and ostracism by the vast majority of fellow students in there. Your motivations will continue to be questioned at every turn, as will your worth as a person. For the imagined boy who is going to try this in order to take a peek at girls or somehow bully and abuse their female classmates, this is a markedly stupid and shortsighted plan; he will be ostracized from many male groups and he will be ostracized from many female groups; his potential options for "sneaking a peek" at his classmates will almost assuredly be thwarted, and any opportunity he does have will likely be punished by his new gender peers. And for the girl who identifies as male? It will likely be just as bad, but in different ways. So I doubt that the majority of students who are saying they identify as transsexual are doing it for the jollies.

In sum, with the ability that we have in changing biological sex - a technical capability that is continually advancing - we are moving into a world in which biological sex can be as arbitrary as cultural definitions of gender. I think that it is because of sex transition that I think is one of the major reasons why transgender has become increasingly visible. However, in the case of children and adolescents, there continues to be a general hesitancy in going through with sex reassignment (although there are some cases where it is happening, and it could well become more common as our children grow into adults), which reduces the question to one in which individuals with one set of sex organs can only say they don't identify as being part of the larger group of people who have those same sex organs, but remain unable to do much about it until they become adults. (With a proportion of those then choosing to undergo the sex transition they were unable to do as minors.)

At the end of the day, the genie is out of the bottle, Pandora's box has been opened, etc. The question (at least in my mind) is not how to continue to enforce what is becoming a set of social norms that are incongruous with physical, technical, and (increasingly) social reality, but rather how to seek ways in which we can reassess social norms (which are - in the end - highly arbitrary) to better match the world that we are becoming, while trying simultaneously to cleave to core tenets of what it means to be who we are. And no, I don't consider toilet and locker room sex assignments to be a core tenet, just like I don't consider slavery or women not being able to vote core tenets, despite them both playing central roles in shaping the US during its history.

On the question of toilet and locker room access, my position is actually to have gender neutral locker rooms as an option for students who don't identify with the sex they were assigned at birth or by society. If you do identify with the sex you were assigned at birth, then you use the sex-defined bathroom and changing room. Boom. This option can also include people who are non-sexual, many of whom have similar levels of angst and paranoia when it comes to the question of sex segregation and toilets. Yeah, some might call this special pleading based on gender, but I agree with that argument as much as I agree with the historical argument that allowing women to attend university is special pleading based on gender.

There are plenty of other points that could be raised (including a comparison of gender norms across societies and through US history, how toilets became sex segregated in the US, or how demanding sex segregation based on birth sex actually creates very troubling outcome scenarios, especially when it comes to people who have undergone a sex change transition), but one of the main problems that I see is that of imposing social gender norms on a perceived binary in which sex=gender, despite it being more complicated than that. And as the fluidity in sex moves toward the fluidity of gender, the strict sex=gender binary of bathrooms and locker rooms (as with anything where there is a strict sex=gender binary) will come increasingly under question, uncovering the real interesting complexity of humanity that the binary merely obscured, but actually existed there the whole time. The knee-jerk response of, "not for my society!" only serves to create second-class citizens within a democratic system that is meant to protect the rights of the minority against the tyranny of the majority. And those are my two cents.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Was Castro being prescient when he said this?

Recently, I saw a meme going around Facebook about Castro saying, "The US will come to talk with us when they have a black president and the world has a Latin American pope." (Well, he probably actually said, "Estados Unidos dialogar√° con Cuba cuando tenga un presidente negro y haya un Papa latinoamericano," but it's basically the same thing.) That was in 1973.

Now, in 2015, it turns out that the Latin American pope helped ease the official strain between the United States and Cuba, and the current, black US president has actually reopened the US Embassy in Havana and has promised to normalize relations with Cuba going forward.

So what Casto said in 1973 actually did come true! Well, yes, but...

Possibility of a Black President in 1973
In 1973, the world was a very different place. In terms of race, the United States was only a few years removed from a decade of major race riots, and the very idea of a black president of the United States was laughable. (Hell, it was not really conceivable when Bush won re-election in 2004, after race relations - while still not great - had definitely improved substantially since the 1960s and 1970s.) Let's not forget that the US did not have a non-White president until Barack Obama won in 2008.

Possibility of a Non-European (let alone a Non-Italian) Pope in 1973
In terms of the papacy, the last time there was a non-European pope before Francisco was... 708AD. That was Pope Constatine, who was born in the Umayyad Caliphate in what is modern-day Syria. Indeed, for much of the previous 1000 years, the papacy was split between France, what would become Italy, and the various incarnations of what was and would become the Holy Roman Empire (later Germany), basically splitting along the lines of the Western Schism.

More specifically, for much of the 20th Century, the Papacy was held by Italian popes (with only Pope Pius X (1903-1914) and Pope John Paul II (1978-2005) being the two non-Italian 20th Centry popes). As a person who grew up Catholic, it's likely that Castro knew that the tendency of the Papacy had recently been for Italian popes (with the 19th Century being completely made up of popes from modern-day Italy), and the likelihood of the papacy shifting to someone from outside Europe (even outside of Italy) seemed highly unlikely. (Heck, even the possibility of having a Polish-born pope was seen as unlikely, given the fact that there had never been a Polish Pope before.)

So when Castro said, "The US will come to talk with us when they have a black president and the world has a Latin American pope," it's unlikely that he was being prescient. It's more likely that he was citing two highly unlikely (possibly impossible) things happening.

And the thing is that this statement wasn't even historically accurate. The US started negotiations during the Clinton presidency, with Clinton easing trade restrictions in 1999. And Clinton actually had a sit-down conversation with Fidel Castro in September of 2000 (which was months before the election). So, yeah, although Clinton might have colloquially been known as "America's first black president," the pope at the time was not Latin American.

Prescient Statements and Confirmation Bias
Then there is also the problem of confirmation bias associated with any prophetic or prescient statements: we believe the ones that match up with historical events and we discard the ones that don't. We have to remember the historical context of the world that Castro grew up in and was living in as well as the historical evidence that shows that Castro liked to talk in poetic language. If we take these into account, believing that the specific quote in which Casto talks about the US returning to talk with Cuba when there is a black president and a Latin American pope is actually a confirmation bias, since we are interpreting a poetic statement against actual events that have come to pass. The fact that the first black president and the first Latin American pope helped thaw US-Cuban relations could also be an issue of a self-fullilling prophesy, with Cuba (specifically Raul Castro) becoming far more open to the idea of reopening relations with the US headed by a president that was seen as being a game-changer and a pope that was also seen as being a game-changer. (Not quite a self-fulfilling prophecy, but a part of good statecraft is knowing how to create a good self-fulfilling prophecy.)

True, Barack Obama and Pope Francis are both seen as game-changing figures in world politics. True, the idea that the US would have a non-White president within 40 years of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., was unbelievable. True, the idea that there would be a non-European-born pontiff since Constantine over 1300 years earlier was also unlikely back in 1973.

Hindsight is 20/20, and now, in a world with a black US president and a Latin American pope, the ideas that this was not possible just seem as laughable as the idea that the sound barrier could not be broken or that man could leave the atmosphere of Earth. But before those events happened, these were held up as barriers that just could not be crossed. And now that they are crossed, the mere idea that we once thought them uncrossable, unachievable is laughable.

...and so we give credence to prophesy, because, as sense-making, rationalizing beings, we are really good at allowing confirmation bias to creep into (and even dominate) our thinking.

Was Castro's 1973 statement prophetic?
Yes, if you take his statement as the poetic one that implies that the US will only return to talk with Cuba when global politics change so radically from the condition in 1973 (and the deaces preceding it) that (1) the US would not only no longer have yearly race riots, but that the politics of race would so dramatically change that the US would no longer look like what it was in the mid-1900s and (2) the Vatican would go against over 200 years of almost-unbroken tradition and elect a non-Italian pope (or - more generally - go against almost 1300 years of history and elect a non-European pope).

So, in that general sense of, "The US will return to talk with Cuba when the world no longer resembles the world of today," then yes, he was right.

But it would be playing into confirmation bias to say that there is any evidence that he actually correctly predicted the specific conditions that would bring the US back to talk with Cuba was when there was a black US president and a Latin American pope. But the coincidence is really cool.

Monday, September 21, 2015

AZ congressman thinks he's a better Catholic than the Pope (and a better climate scientist than all climate scientists)

Apparently, the Pope isn't Catholic or Christian enough for AZ Congressman Paul Gosar, who wrote an open letter to In it, he tells why he is "boycotting" the papal address to the US Congress. And in it, he also shows himself to be incapable of making a logical argument. (Either that or I can't follow his logic.) So here's his letter (along with my comments).

(tl;dr version: Gosar is a nitwit who is pandering for votes from constituents who also don't believe in climate change.)
It is difficult to convey the excitement I first felt when it was revealed that His Holiness Pope Francis was invited to Washington D.C. to address the world from the floor of the House of Representatives. (Great! So you'll go and pay attention to the man who is the head of your Church?) Many believed, like I did, that this was an opportunity for the Pope to be one of the world’s great religious advocates and address the current intolerance of religious freedom. (Aaaand here you prove to be an idiot. The purpose of the Pope's visit was announced beforehand, and it shouldn't come as a surprise to you that it's about his last Encyclical, Laudato Si'.) An opportunity to urgently challenge governments to properly address the persecution and execution of Christians and religious minorities; to address the heinous and senseless murders committed by ISIS and other terrorist organizations. (Again, this is not why he is travelling around the world. He is travelling around the world in order to talk about the implication of his Encyclical.) An opportunity to address the enslavement, belittlement, rape and desecration of Christian women and children; to address the condoned, subsidized, intentionally planned genocide of unborn children by Planned Parenthood and society; (You are intentionally being an idiot; the Pope is traveling around the world telling people about the Christian and Catholic message of the Encyclical. He is doing other things, too, but his main point is about the Encyclical. And as a Catholic, you should know how big of a friggin' deal a Papal Encyclical is, and - relatedly - why he would want to talk about it on his state visits.) and finally, an opportunity for His Holiness to refocus our priorities on right from wrong. (This is the first point that is about how the Pope is framing his Encyclical: refocusing our priorities on right from wrong. Too bad it is clear even now that you don't think that the Encyclical does this, or that the point of the Encyclical is contained in the list of moral issues that you feel the Catholic Church and the US government are failing the American people on.)

Media reports indicate His Holiness instead intends to focus the brunt of his speech on climate change--(Duh. His Encyclical is about climate change. Seriously, have you read the Encyclical put out by the head of your Church? You claim to be a good Catholic, but I think you haven't taken the time to actually read the Encyclical. And with you choosing not to be in DC to hear what the Pope has to say about it, you are choosing to remain ignorant. "Well done.") a climate that has been changing since first created in Genesis. (Yeah... The Encyclical talks about this and why this framing of it is not useful.) More troubling is the fact that this climate change talk has adopted all of the socialist talking points, wrapped false science and ideology into “climate justice” and is being presented to guilt people into leftist policies. (I'm sorry, but I've read through the Encyclical, and I saw all the references to Biblical morality and moral messages from various Christian saints... all of whom died centuries - if not a millennium before the the idea of "leftist policies" was even imagined as a thing. However, if you were to reframe the writings of the saints and the apostles in a modern political framework, then Jesus, the apostles, and the saints all tend to be talking about "leftist policies." In that light, then, the teaching of Christianity are what you should be blaming, not the Pope, but that would cause really obvious logical problems to your argument from your Christian faith...) If the Pope stuck to standard Christian theology, I would be the first in line. (He is. He cites previous pontiffs, saints, apostles, and Jesus Christ. If these people aren't part of "standard Christian theology" then who are?) If the Pope spoke out with moral authority against violent Islam, I would be there cheering him on. (Christianity was around centuries before the rise of Islam. There is nothing in the Bible talking about Islam. As such, Islam - specifically - isn't a part of "standard Christian theology," which is what you bemoaned the Pope not talking about in your previous sentence. And here you are also bemoaning the Pope for not talking about non-standard Christian theology and political policies. Dude, pick a logical argument and stick to it!) If the Pope urged the Western nations to rescue persecuted Christians in the Middle East, I would back him wholeheartedly. (This is *also* not part of "standard Christian theology." It is a part of public policy, which you seem to be against the Pope talking about when it lines up with "leftist" policies that are based ont he Bible, but when it's about non-"leftist" policies that have no Biblical connection, you wish the Pope would talk about them... as the major part of his visit to talk about his Encyclical? Seriously, you are packing a bunch of pride in there!) But when the Pope chooses to act and talk like a leftist politician, then he can expect to be treated like one. (And when the Pope chooses to act like the head of the Catholic Church, you will choose to act like a member of the Catholic Church? You feel like you had a wrong committed against you, but you choose not to turn the other cheek? How un-Christian of you.) Artist and columnist Maureen Mullarkey (who isn't the Pope) effectively communicated this fallacy stating, “When papal preferences, masked in a Christian idiom, align themselves with ideological agendas (e.g. radical environmentalism) [they] impinge on democratic freedoms and the sanctity of the individual.” (But when papal preferences, maked in a Christian idiom, align themselves with idological agendas (e.g., expanding war in the Middle East), they don't impinge on democratic freedoms and the sanctity of the individual?" How friggin' logically inconsistent!)

The earth’s climate has been changing since God created it, with or without man. (Seriously, this is a tired old rag that shows next to no understanding of what climate science is, let alone what science is. It also shows that you have no interest in actually reading or understanding the Encyclical.) On that, we should all agree. (No, because it's a loaded premise.) In Pope Francis’ encyclical on the environment (written with the consultation of that great seminary the EPA and its embattled (only because of knuckleheads like you) head Gina McCarthy), he condemned anyone skeptical of the link between human activity and climate change (because there are almost no rational, science based arguments against it, and even those that are based in the scientific method are highly problematic.)  and adopted the false science (calling climate science "false science" without appearing to know any science is another example of poor thinking) being propagated by the Left (and the right and the center; not everyone conforms to your view of the world and what to do about it). If the Pope wants to devote his life to fighting climate change then he can do so in his personal time. (He is doing exactly that, silly. He is speaking to the US Congress on his personal time, too! Seriously, this is such a strange and non sequitur statement that I don't know what to do with it.) But to promote questionable science as Catholic dogma is ridiculous. (And now you have a problem with your statement of being a "proud Catholic," since a "proud Catholic" who fundamentally disagrees with a papal encyclical is showing themselves to be far more proud than Catholic.)

Furthermore, I am a proud Catholic. (Who just chooses - based on inconsistent logic that isn't based in any apparent relevant science - to oppose the leader of his Church.) I chose to attend a Jesuit college in the Midwest, not just for my undergraduate but also my graduate studies (D.D.S.). I received an excellent education where I was taught to think critically (If this letter is an example of how you were "taught to think critically" then you got a poor education in this area.), to welcome debate and discussion (And by "welcome debate" you apparently mean "write an open letter to a right-wing online news site about how you don't agree with the Pope, the science of climate change, and the impacts of climate change on the world's poor, and that you would rather completely not engage in any chance of debate or discussion on this topic, but instead will choose to hightail it back to Arizona and pout about how bad the Pope is.) and to be held accountable for my actions (By making public policy decisions that aren't scientifically valid?); a trademark of a Jesuit education. (Yes, these are trademarks of a Jesuit education... all of which apparently never actually became internalized.) And finally, I am a Conservative, a member of Congress, a constitutionalist and adamant defender of our Republic; an American that believes in strict adherence to the rule of law and a firm believer in our First Amendment protections, in this particular discussion, the freedom of religion. (This statement fails utterly in even bringing up the philosophical point that it is not possible to be a proud Catholic - or member of any religion - and also a staunch American - or citizen of any nation. Another lack of distinction for the AZ Rep.)

So at this pivotal moment in world history, His Holiness, Pope Francis, is intending to spend the majority of his time on one of the world’s greatest stages focusing on climate change. (Again, yes. Again, it's because that is what his Encyclical is about. And again, if you had read the Encyclical, you will see why he believes that it is actually an important point to bring up on "the world's greatest stages.") I have both a moral obligation and leadership responsibility to call out leaders, regardless of their titles, who ignore Christian persecution and fail to embrace opportunities to advocate for religious freedom and the sanctity of human life. (He is not ignoring Christian persecution. He is just not talking about it as the primary purpose of his visit to the US. It is possible to hold positions on a topic without speaking about that topic all the time. You do know that, yes?) If the Pope plans to spend the majority of his time advocating for flawed climate change policies, then I will not attend. (Because you are open to "debate and discussion"? Oh, wait, it's because you aren't, and it's because you need to do something to transform your tantrum into vote-pandering.) It is my hope that Pope Francis realizes his time is better spent focusing on matters like religious tolerance and the sanctity of all life. (I'm sure that he does have opinions about these matters. In fact, he's talked about them.) As the leader of the Catholic Church, and as a powerful voice for peace throughout the world, His Holiness has a real opportunity to change the climate of slaughter in the Middle East (Which means encouraging more warfare in the Middle East against violent Islam?)… not the fool’s errand of climate change. (Again, it's clear that you haven't read any of the Encyclical, let alone any of the science about climate change and the impacts of climate change. Or the reports from the UN, Oxfam, and Save the Children. Or military and CIA reports about the security implications of climate change. But what do they know? Those organizations are all just on a fool's errand, right?)

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Do these facts will *really* sound like BS? Really? Only if you don't have the background knowledge.

A friend of mine had a list of "30 Facts That Sound Like BS, But Are Actually True. #12 Makes You Think." I had a click over there to see how many of these facts struck me as BS. Most read like they were plausible, and a few of them I already knew about. But are they really true? Looking through the list, one will note that many of them deal with comparing two different timeframes or dates against each other (which humans are horrible at doing), while others are pieces of somewhat specialized knowledge (with most of these being mathematical and spatial in nature). So it's not surprising that many of these will sound like BS to someone who hasn't really been taught (or internalized) how utterly crap human beings are at thinking about the passage of time, how statistics work, or recognize that the rationalization their brains automatically make to fill in "gaps" in knowlege is not the same as actually knowing a fact.

Lets tease apart these 30 facts by pulling on sources of information. Some of these will just need a simple assessment of a date, but where necessary (and when I'm up for the calculation challenge), I will show my work. I will also make any notes that provide greater context to the answer, if I deem it warranted. (Note, I am using Wikipedia for most of these sources, since I consider that it's credibility has improved enough that it's adequate to be used for assessing the veracity of the sources for this list of facts.)

1. Mammoths were alive when the Great Pyramid was being built.
  • Construction started on the Great Pyramid at Giza in 2560 BC. (Source)
  • The most recent wooly mammoth tooth came from a specimen on Wrangel Island that died roughly 4,300 years ago (Source). Rounding to the nearest century, that means that the mammoth that grew that tooth was alive around 2300 BC.

2. Betty White is older than sliced bread.
  • Betty White was born on January 17, 1922. (Source)
  • Machine-sliced white bread was first sold in 1928. (Source)
Note: Eventually Betty White will die, and six years after that event, this fact will no longer be true.

3. From the time it was discovered to the time it was stripped of its status as a planet, Pluto hadn't made a full trip around the Sun.
  • Amount of time Pluto was a planet: roughly 76.5 years.
    • Discovery of Pluto (February 18, 1930). (Source)
    • Downgrade of Pluto (August 24, 2006). (Source)
  • Length of solar revolution for Pluto (aka "orbital period"): 247.94 Earth years (Source)

4. The lighter was invented before the match.
  • Invention of the lighter: 1823 (Source)
  • Invention of the (modern, friction) match: 1826 (Source)
Note: This one requires the major caveat of it being a modern, friction match. Using sticks impregnated with sulfur to start fires has a faaar longer history, but to modern eyes and users, these wouldn't be considered to be "matches" in the sense that we know them.

5. Anne Frank and Martin Luther King Jr. were born in the same year.
  • Anne Frank born: June 12, 1929 (Source)
  • Martin Luther King, Jr., born: January 15, 1929 (Source)
Note: Betty White was born before either Anne Frank or Martin Luther King, Jr.

6. France last used a guillotine to execute someone after Star Wars premiered.
  • Last execution in France by guillotine: September 10, 1977 (Source)
  • Premiere of Star Wars: May 25, 1977 (Source)

7. Harvard University was founded before Calculus existed.
  • Founding of Harvard University: 1636 (Source)
  • Formalization of calculus:
    • By Isaac Newton, publication of Method of Fluxions: 1671 (Source)
    • By Gottfreid Leibniz, publication of Nova Methodus: 1684 (Source)

8. If you have 23 people in a room, there is a 50% chance that 2 of them have the same birthday.
  • Also known as the "Birthday Problem" (Source)
Note: This all presumes that having the year of birth among the people in the room is not considered. Interestingly, the chances that two people in a room have the same birthday increases to 99.9% when your room has 70 people.

9. It’s never said that Humpty Dumpty was an egg in the nursery rhyme.
  • It's true that the rhyme never says that Humpty Dumpty was an egg, and there are some publications of the rhyme that don't show him as an egg:

Presumably, though, our association with Humpty Dumpty being an egg sitting on a wall likely comes from him being portrayed exactly in this manner in Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass:
HOWEVER, the egg only got larger and larger, and more and more human: when she had come within a few yards of it, she saw that it had eyes and a nose and mouth; and, when she had come close to it, she saw clearly that it was HUMPTY DUMPTY himself. 'It can't be anybody else!' she said to herself. 'I'm as certain of it, as if his name were written all over his face!' (Source)

10. The water in Lake Superior could cover all of North and South America in a foot of water.
  • Water volume of Lake Superior: 2,900 cubic miles (Source)
  • Land area of North and South America: 16,428,000 square miles (Source)
To get the depth of water that would cover North and South America from the water volume in Lake Superior, you need to divide volume by surface area (because volume/surface area=depth):

2,900 cubic miles / 16,428,000 square miles = 0.0001765 miles
0.0001765 miles * 5280 feet/mile = 0.9321 foot

Or almost 1 foot of water. (Due to rounding errors, 1 foot is a good estimate.)

11. North Korea and Finland both border the same country; Russia.
  • Russia has a 17.5 km border with North Korea. (Source)
Note: A more interesting fact (at least in my mind) would be to point out that Poland and North Korea both border Russia, since the Polish border with Russia is with the Oblast (federal state) of Kaliningrad, which doesn't share any land border with Russia itself, even though they are on the same continent. (In this way, it's kind of like how Alaska is with the rest of the US.)

12. When you get a kidney transplant, they usually just leave your original kidneys in your body and put the 3rd kidney in your pelvis.
  • The transplanted kidney doesn't replace any of the existing kidneys. (Source)
Note: The presumption that the donor kidney replaces one of the original kidneys likely is your brain automatically making a rationalization to "fill in" information that you don't have. This is the one thing on the list that surprised me, since I felt that I knew that kidney transplants meant a kidney replacement. (There's that old human brain, working away at fooling us into thinking we know how the world works.)

13. Oxford University is older than the Aztec Empire.
  • Oxford University founded: 1096 (Source)
  • Aztec Empire founded: 1428 (Source)
Note: The Aztec Empire collapsed in 1521, meaning that it was around for only 107 years. In comparison, Oxford University has continued existing for 919 years.

14. National animal of Scotland is a Unicorn.
  • The unicorn is Scotland's national animal. (Source)
Note 1: This fact requires a somewhat loose understanding of what a "nation" is and what a "national animal" is.

Note 2: On the list of national animals in Wikipedia, there are 9 (including Scotlands) that are listed as "mythical": the druk (dragon) of Bhutan (which is also on their flag), the double-tailed lion of the Czech Republic (which is on their coat of arms), the phoenix of Greece, the turul of Hungary, the garuda of Indonesia, the Chollima of North Korea, the Rooster of Barcelos of Portugal, and the Welsh Dragon of Wales.

Note 3: Many of the non-mythical national animals actually have mythical stories associated with them. The animals just happen to be real, though.

15. The Ottoman Empire still existed the last time the Chicago Cubs won the World Series.
  • Fall of the Ottoman Empire: 1923 (Source)
  • Last time the Chicago Cubs won the World Series: 1908 (Source)

16. The lighter the roast of coffee, the more caffeine it has.
  • Caffeine content in the beans diminishes very slightly as one moves from light to dark roast when comparing the same source of coffee beans. (Source)
Note 1: There is a lot of variation between coffee beans from different parts of the world (and also within a plantation), so making blanket statements about all dark roast coffee always has less caffeine than all light roast coffee is not going to hold water. (And this fact gets around that point by its specific wording, which could refer to how the caffeine levels in one particular batch of coffee beans changes as roasting occurs.)

Note 2: This fact is true about the amount of caffeine in the beans, and - due to expansion associated with roasting - this miniscule difference can be mildly extended when making a cup (or pot) of coffee if you measure your coffee with scoops. However, if you measure your coffee by weight, then the amount of caffeine in the coffee doesn't change beyond this miniscule difference.

17. A speck of dust is halfway in size between a subatomic particle and the Earth.
  • Diameter of a speck of dust: 10e-9 m-10e-2 m (Source)
  • Diameter of subatomic particles
    • Absolute theoretical minimum diameter (Planck's length): 16.162×10e-36 m (Source)
    • Minimum confirmed sizes: 10e-16 m (Source)
  • Diameter of the Earth: 6.4×10e6 m
Due to the wide range of possible diameters for a "speck of dust," we will only deal with orders-of-magnitude when finding the mid-point, and remember your laws of doing math with exponents, and you get (using 10e-16 m) a measure of:

18. If the timeline of earth was compressed into one year, humans wouldn't show up until December 31 at 11:58 p.m.

  • Formation of the Earth: 4.54 billion years ago (plus or minus 40 million years). (Source)
  • Human evolution:
    • Evolution of Homo genus: 2.8-1.5 million years ago (Source)
    • Evolution of Homo sapiens: 400,000-200,000 years ago (Source)
What percent of time was the genus Homo around?

2,800,000 years/4,540,000,000 years = 0.062%

0.062%*525,960 minutes/year = 324 minutes
= December 31, 6:36PM

What percent of time was the species Homo sapiens around?

400,000 years/4,540,000,000 years = 0.0088%

0.0088%*525,960 minutes/year = 46 minutes
= December 31, 11:24PM

I looked around for different numbers to figure out if these values could be minimized even more to approach the "December 31 at 11:58 PM" value listed, but I couldn't really get it down any further. Even using the upper range for the formation of Earth and the lower range for the evolution of Homo sapiens, I could only get the estimate to 23 minutes before midnight.

19. If you were able to dig a hole to the center of the earth, and drop something down it, it would take 42 minutes for the object to get there.

  • It would take 42 minutes to fall all the way through Earth (not to the center). (Source)
Note: This assumes an object falling through a vacuum with all the mass of the Earth centered in a theoretical point in the exact center and no issues caused by the radiative heat in the core.

20. We went to the moon before we thought to put wheels on suitcases.
  • Moon landings
    • First human object on the moon: USSR Luna 2 on September 13, 1959 (Source)
    • First human on the moon: USA Apollo 11 on July 20, 1969 (Source)
  • Wheeled suitcase patent: 1972 (Source)

21. A human could swim through the arteries of a blue whale.
  • The diameter of the blue whale aorta: 9 inches (Source).
Note 1: A human baby could possibly swim through the aorta.

Note 2: At the entry to the heart, the diameter of the aorta is far greater than 9 inches:

22. If you could fold a piece of paper in half 42 times, the combined thickness would reach the moon.
  • Average distance to the moon: 238,900 miles (Source)
  • Average thickness of printer paper: 0.004 inch (Source)
Each fold doubles the previous thickness. So the progression goes:
0 folds: 0.004"
1 fold: 0.008"
2 folds: 0.016"
4 folds: 0.064"
8 folds: 1.024"
16 folds: 262.144"
32 folds: 17179869.18"
42 folds: 17,592,186,044" = 277,654 miles

23. On both Saturn and Jupiter, it rains diamonds.
  • The finding was reported at the 2013 American Astronomical Society meeting. (Source)
Note: But the finding (which is based on calculations) may be wrong.

24. Saudi Arabia imports camels from Australia.
  • Feral Australian camels are exported to Saudi Arabia (and other countries) as a delicacy (Source)

25. You can line up all 8 planets in our solar system directly next to each other and it would fit in the space between Earth and the Moon.
  • Total diameter of the planets: 392,758 km
  • Distance between Earth and Moon: 384,400 km (Source)

26. The youngest known mother was 5 years old.
  • The youngest recorded mother was 5 years, 7 months old, who gave birth on May 14, 1939, in Lima, Peru. (Source)
Note: The son she gave birth to in 1939 died in 1979. She had a second son, who was born in 1972.

27. The Earth is smoother than a billiard ball, if both were of the same size.
  • Close, but perhaps not. (Source)

28. Nintendo was founded in 1889.
  • Nintendo was founded on September 23, 1889. (Source)
Note: The company tried various ventures until it settled on video games in the 1970s.

29. If you take all the molecules in a teaspoon of water and lined them up end to end in a single file line, they would stretch ~30 billion miles.
  • Volume of water in a (US) teaspoon of water: 4.9289 mL (Source)
Now to do some conversions that we learned back in high school chemistry:

4.9289 mL H2O = 0.0049289 mole H2O
0.0049289 mole H2O × 6.02e23 molecules/mole = 2.9672e21 molecules H2O
2.9672e21 molecules H2O × 2.9e-10 m/molecule H2O (Source) = 8.61e11 m
8.16e11 m × 6.21371e-4 m/mi = 5.35e8 miles

535 million miles

Note: If you do the calculation with a US tablespoon volume, you get 1.6 billion miles. It's not until you plug in the volume for a US cup that you get 28.6 billion miles, which is close to 30 billion miles.

30. In Australia, there was a war called the emu war. The emus won.
  • There was an unsuccessful wildlife management operation dubbed by the media as the "Emu War" in Australia. (Source)

In sum, of these 30 facts, I could't find evidence to support the claim for three listings (#18, #19, and #29) Two of the listings were questionable, because of the number of implicit caveats needed to make them each true (#4 and #27).

The rest were all true. But these facts are not terribly useful in telling us anything other than people are not good at conceptualizing numbers. Indeed, most of the time, facts are only useful when you apply them to a framework or to a question. While it may be trivially interesting to know that Martin Luther King, Jr., was born in the same year as Anne Frank, it only gains some sort of meaning when it is framed in the context of a larger framework, such as dangerous outcomes due to the perceptions of race in the early to mid 20th century.

It is because facts by themselves are not really that useful in learning something that most academics are not terribly interested in facts in and of themselves, but rather look at what collections of facts say about questions that are being asked.

So, whether it's this set of 30 facts (of which I couldn't get three to work out) or another set of N facts, their factuality is only of greater use when placed in the context of related facts that surround a question that has been posed within a framework of knowledge. Otherwise it's just something that might (if it randomly happens to get mentioned) get you some points on trivia night. (Maybe.)

Thursday, September 03, 2015

Totally unsurprising news: Using religion to justify your contempt of court doesn't work

So Kim Davis is going to jail for contempt of court for refusing to comply with a former judicial decision saying that she had to issue same-sex marriage licenses to same-sex couples who apply for them and are legally allowed to get married, despite what personally held religious belief she might have.

The Liberty Counsel, who is representing her, had a rather silly rationale as to why she shouldn't be held in contempt: she was incapable of doing her job.

No, I'm serious; their whole argument was that she was incapable of doing her job as county clerk, because her religion didn't allow her to comply with the law.

Yeah... the judge didn't buy that either.

What the judge did was to put her in jail, saying that fines would unlikely force her to comply with an order that she was already choosing not to comply with. One additional benefit of putting her in jail would be that the county clerk would then actually be incapable of doing her job (since she would be in jail), allowing the county's judge executive to issue marriage licenses.

Tuesday, September 01, 2015

Hey Kim Davis, "religious liberty" isn't the freedom to use a governmental office to impose religion

Increasingly embattled Rowan County Clerk, Kim Davis, put out a public statement that sought to explain why she continues to refuse issuing marriage certificates to same-sex marriage, despite the Supreme Court basically refusing to hear her petition to continue to not fulfill her job as a County Clerk, because of her religion.

Here's here statement [along with my assessment of her claim].
"I have worked in the Rowan County Clerk's office for 27 years as a Deputy Clerk and was honored to be elected as the Clerk in November 2014, and took office in January 2015. [Okay...] I love my job and the people of Rowan County. [Okay... Apparently her definition of "loving the people of Rowan County" includes not issuing some of those people marriage certificates because of her personal religious beliefs.] I have never lived any place other than Rowan County. [Irrelevant point to the capacity of someone fulfilling their duties.] Some people have said I should resign, but I have done my job well. [Not doing your job and ignoring a court decision about you not doing your job is not what I would call doing your job well.] This year we are on track to generate a surplus for the county of $1.5 million. [Irrelevant. But consider how much more money you could generate for the county if you issued same-sex marriage certificates!]
In addition to my desire to serve the people of Rowan County, I owe my life to Jesus Christ who loves me and gave His life for me. [Irrelevant. Your job is not to serve Jesus Christ.] Following the death of my godly mother-in-law over four years ago, I went to church to fulfill her dying wish. [Irrelevant. The death of your mother-in-law over four years ago should not affect your capacity to do your job now.] There I heard a message of grace and forgiveness and surrendered my life to Jesus Christ. [Irrelevant. The "message of grace and forgiveness" should not affect your capacity to do your job.] I am not perfect. [Irrelevant.] No one is. [Irrelevant.]  But I am forgiven and I love my Lord and must be obedient to Him and to the Word of God. [Irrelevant. Your being forgiven by your deity should not affect your capacity to do your job.]
I never imagined a day like this would come, where I would be asked to violate a central teaching of Scripture and of Jesus Himself regarding marriage. [Irrelevant. The job of county clerk could well change to include things that previously weren't part of the job.] To issue a marriage license which conflicts with God's definition of marriage, with my name affixed to the certificate, would violate my conscience. [Irrelevant. If you personally have a problem with fulfilling the new duties of your job, then you have a choice of seeking to delegate that duty to someone else who doesn't have a problem of fulfilling the requirements of the law, or you can choose to resign your job, now that it contains duties that you would not wish to fulfil if you were to choose whether to run for this office now.] It is not a light issue for me. [Irrelevant. The "heaviness" of whether a county clerk is required by law to sign marriage licenses for same-sex couples is not yours to question beyond that of whether you wish to keep your job and do your duty or quit your job and keep your conscience.] It is a Heaven or Hell decision.[Irrelevant. Your perception of outcomes in your afterlife are not included as a metric for fulfilling the duties of your job.] For me it is a decision of obedience. [Irrelevant. If you cannot fulfill the duties of your position, then your obedience to your deity should not trump your duty to the law.] I have no animosity toward anyone and harbor no ill will. [Irrelevant. The issuance of marriage licenses requires neither animus toward anyone or harboring good or ill will toward anyone.] To me this has never been a gay or lesbian issue.[Irrelevant. Questioning the basis of why the government issues marriage certificates is not the point of your job; your job is to issue marriage certificates.] It is about marriage and God's Word. [Irrelevant. Your job is not about determining how your deity will wish to enforce his will upon others; your job is to fulfill the laws of men.]  It is a matter of religious liberty, which is protected under the First Amendment, the Kentucky Constitution, and in the Kentucky Religious Freedom Restoration Act. [Irrelevant. Religious observance is allowed only to the extent that it does not diminish the personal freedoms and religious liberties of others. This is why religious human sacrifice is not covered by religious liberty, the state constitution, or the various religious freedom restoration acts.Our history is filled with accommodations for people's religious freedom and conscience. [Irrelevant. Serveral levels of judicial decisions have been specifically clear on the specific issue of same-sex marriage rights, just as judicial decisions have been specifically clear on the specific issue of mixed-race marriage rights. Both of these specifically explain why religious beliefs held by certain people were inhibiting the freedoms of other citizens who didn't share those religious beliefs and why religious freedom and conscience were not adequate arguments to continue to deny equal civic rights to others.] I want to continue to perform my duties, but I also am requesting what our Founders envisioned - that conscience and religious freedom would be protected. [Irrelevant. This is a red-herring argument. "Our Founders" also envisioned a nation that included slavery as a fundamental part of life, but specific amendments to the Constitution and specific Supreme Court decisions have moved the nation away from "what our Founders envisioned" ... which is exactly a system that others of "our Founders envisioned."] That is all I am asking. [You are asking for special rights to impose your religious beliefs and motivated morality upon people who don't share your personal religious beliefs or motivated morality. Just like they are not allowed to use an office of government to foist their beliefs and moral judgments upon you, you don't get to use your governmental office to do it to them.] I never sought to be in this position, and I would much rather not have been placed in this position. [You specifically did seek to be in the position of county clerk. You ran for the position and won an election, so you are lying to say that you didn't seek out the position of county clerk. While the specific duty of issuing marriage certificates to two men or to two women who want to get married was not part of your job when you started, it did become part of your job. And considering how same-sex marriage has been wending its way through the court system well before you even ran for office, it is likely that you had a suspicion that county clerks might well be required to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. ...but if the possibility never even crossed your mind, then you were either massively naive or horribly uninformed as to the larger socio-political forces in the country. But all that is irrelevant to the question of your capacity to fulfill the duties of your office at the present time, based on the present law to the people you were elected to serve.] I have received death threats from people who do not know me. [That is truly unfortunate, but an irrelevant argument as to why you have not and are not doing your job.] I harbor nothing against them. [Repetitive and still irrelevant.] I was elected by the people to serve as the County Clerk. [You are not serving the people as the county clerk.] I intend to continue to serve the people of Rowan County, but I cannot violate my conscience. [Irrelevant, and you are creating a false choice. You always had the choice to resign from your position, and you still retain that choice.]"
What I get from her statement is that she thinks that failing to do her job and ignoring a court order in so doing is somehow actually doing her job. What I get from her statement is that she doesn't understand that she is not allowed to use her government office to impose her religious beliefs upon other people who don't share her religious beliefs. What I get from her statement is that she wants people to know that she is a "good person" instead of being a good county clerk (and that the two are somehow in opposition to each other). What I get from her statement is that she doesn't consider it to be her job to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, because it wasn't part of her job when she won her election. Finally, what I get from her statement is that she seems to prefer serving her version of her deity more than the people of her county, despite her statements to the contrary.

And to that last point, I actually applaud her. She is completely wrong on every other point, but - at least according to what I see - she is being consistent with her internal logic.

If her office were up for re-election, though, I hope that the citizens of the county choose to vote based on how she fulfilled her role as County Clerk, and not that of religious arbiter.