Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Statistics Fail

image found here. source?
History suggests that if you rescale, shift, and truncate two time series, it's usually quite easy to make them look very similar. This does not mean anything at all, it's simply fishing***. The graphic is suggesting that the US is following Japan into economic deflation, which would be bad. However, this is showing a subset of inflation data (food and energy*) compared on an annual percent change scale* which is shifted by 12.5 years** and truncated before 1989/2001**, and suggesting they are somehow the same. Yeah, right.

* possibly arbitrary.
** almost certainly arbitrary.
*** Statistical jargon alert: "Fishing" is a word for the practice of looking at your data in so many different ways that you eventually find an association simply by chance, and then reporting that association as if it was what you were looking for in the first place. See also: bullshit, cheating, lying, multiple comparisons.

Found on NYT, but the source of the graphic is not clear. I sure as hell wouldn't put my name on it.
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Sunday, November 7, 2010

Issac Asimov on The Relativity of Wrong

A link from Terrence Tao's blog (hat-tip!) sent me to this article by Issac AsimovThe Relativity of Wrong. The whole article is great, and it contains a quote I especially like and have used a time or two. I think I had forgotten the where first read it, so I'm glad to be reminded of the source. I have quoted the relevant part below, with my favorite part in bold.
The young specialist in English Lit, having quoted me, went on to lecture me severely on the fact that in every century people have thought they understood the universe at last, and in every century they were proved to be wrong. It follows that the one thing we can say about our modern "knowledge" is that it is wrong. The young man then quoted with approval what Socrates had said on learning that the Delphic oracle had proclaimed him the wisest man in Greece. "If I am the wisest man," said Socrates, "it is because I alone know that I know nothing." the implication was that I was very foolish because I was under the impression I knew a great deal.

My answer to him was, "John, when people thought the earth was flat, they were wrong. When people thought the earth was spherical, they were wrong. But if you think that thinking the earth is spherical is just as wrong as thinking the earth is flat, then your view is wronger than both of them put together.
Good stuff. Go read it.
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Saturday, November 6, 2010

Science Fail #2

This Science Fail shtick is harder than I realized. Apparently really good fails don't just grow on trees, and it took me much longer than expected to turn this up. For entry #2 I delved into this short SCIAM news article mentioning a historical climate warming event. Fortunately for me, most any mention of "climate" these days is very likely to bring out the worse in people.

"Without people there to destroy the vegetation in building houses and killing the animals for food,the plants would get very large and so would the animals. The larger the animals had to get to reach the top of the plants, the more the CO2, and both plants and animals put off a great amount of heat. From the large pools of oil and coal, we know that there were places where there was a lot of plants and a large number of animals - like at a watering hole. So that tells me that if you want to cut down on CO2 build up - don't let a lot of plants and a lot of animals hang out together." (link to source, currently comment #12)

The fun part is, the trolls and pundits are going hard at each other in the comments, so this might not even be the worst fail to be found there. I chose this one because it is not overtly political, and it is fails on so many levels. Where to begin? Zoology fail, Biology fail, Ecology fail, Geology fail, time-scale fail ... It's all good. 

Finally, a shout out to my friend NS at Science and Math Defeated. Thanks for the link, and back at ya!

See Science Fail #1.
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Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Anti-Anti-Science Chatbot

Have you ever participated in a near endless online discussion with someone who has their own definition of science and reason?


Do you happen to have some computer programming skills?

If you answered yes to those, it may have occurred to you to write an automated program to automate replies to bad arguments. I have certainly thought about it more than once, but I don't have the right set of programming skills to carry this off very well, nor do I have the time for that sort of fun. Fortunately, someone else does.

Nigel Leck, a software developer by day, was tired of arguing with anti-science crackpots on Twitter. So, like any good programmer, he wrote a script to do it for him.
The result is the Twitter chatbot @AI_AGW. Its operation is fairly simple: Every five minutes, it searches twitter for several hundred set phrases that tend to correspond to any of the usual tired arguments about how global warming isn't happening or humans aren't responsible for it.

Now before this turns into the wrong argument, this post isn't about AGW one way or the other, or any specific point of disagreement. Solving real problems requires than people communicate honestly with one another, and automated replies do nothing to create real communication. Someone will create an "auto-bot" sending automated messages to tie up the "anti-bots" (assuming this hasn't happened already), and anti-anti-bots to tie-up the anti-bots and ... ... you get the idea. Pretty soon people won't be in the loop at all, and people just won't communicate.

The XKCD webcomic recently presented a different take on a similar problem with SPAM. If you have enough bots creating comments, and all comments must pass a filter of being "Constructive and Helpful", you effectively filter out all the people who are not capable of constructive comments as well. MFA.

XKCD: Constructive

In the comments on the Chatbot article, someone starts slinging the words "ad hominem" around without really knowing what it means. This might be another good response to program into the Chatbot.
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Saturday, October 30, 2010

The Real Secret of the Super Rich?

I found an interesting series of blog articles, starting here:

What caught my interest isn't so much that this reveals any surprising secrets, but that it is a reasonable mathematical analysis of the value of education and ability explained in simple terms. Simplified, but it makes a good point all the same.

I am less certain about the author's holistic politics, which are also interesting. However, I don't really have the time or energy right now to evaluate this properly. I do see a certain appeal in his mathematical approach to politics, but I remain skeptical that this approach can't be manipulated to fit specific goals, rather than the math driving the policy.
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Saturday, October 23, 2010

Science Fail #1

I'm borrowing the schtick of another blogger, who has not been actively lately. I hope he won't mind?
The idea of a "Science Fail" is to post a statement comment that fails in a completely self-explanitory way. Editing on my part is not allowed; each quote must fail on its own merits, or lack thereof. Go see Dirty Harry's Science Fail blog for many shining examples.

So what is this, Reality Show science? Leave to the Americans to get data by blowing something up or smashing something into something else. Keep this up and someday the Moon will be as livable as East Baghdad. (link to source)
If only Terraforming were that easy!

Found on Sciam.com
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Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Data Science, Science Data

Image Nature News
The latest Nature News has an article titled Computational Science: ... Error, describing the increasing difficulty scientists face as the computer programming required for research becomes more and more complex. I face a similar prob in my work. Much of the work I do requires a fair amount of database management as a precursor to the analysis. Most of this is basic SAS programming, with some tricky bits here and there, but it is all within reach of my programming skills. Most researchers don't have my programming skills (and with a BS in CoSci, many statisticians don't have my programming skills), which is one of the reasons they might come in for statistical help in the first place. Database management is an important skill for an applied statistician, but it is not my primary skill ("Dammit Jim, I've a statistician, not a bricklayer").

The point of this is not to blow my own horn, but that I have a set of skills for managing databases that is nearly independent of my statistical knowledge. The Nature News article points out the problems with programming skills, but the same problem exist with database skills: Some researchers don't understand the basics of recording data in an organized manner, and disorganized data can lead to as many problems as disorganized programming.

It is not too unusual for researchers to bring me data (typically in a spreadsheet), and sometime I spot specific problems that could be error in how they collected and recorded the data. This is fairly important, because if the data is wrong then my analysis will be too. Sometimes I can fix these errors for them, other times I have to have the researcher fix the problems, because it requires medical knowledge and familiarity with (or access to) the original data source to make the correction. Once these bugs have been ironed out, all it well and I do my statistical thing.

There is another sort of error though, and it is much more subtle. These are the errors in the data that don't really look like errors. When someone brings me their data and there is nothing obviously wrong, I probably don't question it, and proceed with the analysis. There are some common ways this might happen: cut & paste errors, "bad" sorts that scramble the data, inconsistency in data entry, all simple mistakes. Sometimes evidence of these errors shows up during my database management prep work or during the analysis itself. Obviously if a mistake is found, it gets fixed. However, if my experience with finding errors in the late stages of analysis is any indicator, then if seem likely that some of these errors are never found. The "garbage-in, garbage-out" principle applies, and some of the analyses I've produced were likely garbage, because the data was garbage.

The good news is this sort of error is unlikely to contribute much to the larger of body of scientific knowledge. By the nature of statistics (and with an assumption of some randomness) these subtle errors are unlikely to produce significant results, less likely to be in agreement with other published studies, and certainly unlikely to be verified by follow-up studies. The bad news is that some simple, perhaps even careless mistakes can ruin months or even years of research effort, which is a waste of effort.

Finally, this brings me that other set of skills: teaching. Whenever I have the opportunity to work with people who are starting off on new research projects, I try to teach the basic data-skills, the do's and don'ts, to help them get good data and do good research. Not everyone is interested in spreadsheets and databases, but it is not too hard to convince researchers that a little extra effort up front to get good data will pay dividends down the road when it comes to publications. It certainly pays me dividends when it comes to actually doing the statistical analysis - my primary skill - rather than spending hours (or days, or weeks) trying to track down what went wrong with the data, or unknowingly analyzing junk data.
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Wednesday, September 29, 2010

On the Rise of Science Comedy

I bring you Helen Pilcher of Nature.com on the rise of science comedy:
The comedic potential of particle accelerators or neurotransmission may not be obvious, but in the right hands they can be a recipe for mirth. And science has its own cast of wacky characters — from bongo-playing physicist Richard Feynman to gold-nosed astronomer and moose owner Tycho Brahe.
Moose owner? Now I'm, jealous! The full article also discusses the Ig Noble prizes, which are always a hoot.

And Shame! I haven't posted here for a month. What can I say, except that life is BUSY.
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Friday, August 27, 2010

Biostatistics vs. Lab Research

I had this same conversation just this morning!

Somehow I doubt the full humor of the situation will be apparent to most people, but this conversation occurs at my job on an occasional basis. A sample size of N=3 is a barest minimum for even a t-test, and on that basis alone probably isn't enough, but I'm willing to set that aside for the bigger issue, because it depends on the question.

It is a matter of the question asked. Not all experiments are the same, nor are all samples the same. In my conversation this morning, there was a basic misunderstanding of the sample unit. There was a sample size of N=3 in one group (treatment), and another group of 3 serving as a control. The problem (well one of the problems) was that the controls were not used as an independent group, but rather as a way to normalize each of the first 3. Instead of having two groups of 3 each, that we really had was a single group of 3 pairs of subjects (matched pairs). This lead to a few hours of trying to untangle What had been done versus what needed to be done. Frustrating, but then education is an important part of my job too.
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Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Thor's Hammer?

From POPSCI - Trapping Lightning in a block of acrylic.

There are many unusual things to see around Newton Falls, Ohio—the Wal-Mart with hitching posts for Amish buggies, the Army base with helicopters and tanks proudly arranged on hills—but I was here for the most unusual thing of all: the local Dynamitron. I was here to make frozen lightning.
Click over to POPSCI for the full story and a video. Cool stuff.

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Thursday, August 5, 2010

Scientopia Goes Online

Many of the diaspora from Scienceblogs have reconvened at a new site, including several I read regularly. Check out Scientopia to see what these science bloggers are up to.
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Monday, July 26, 2010

On The Flight Path (more missing cockatiel)

An update on the search for our lost bird -

We had a false alarm Thursday. A lead on a found cockatiel turned out not to be our bird.

Yesterday I spotted our bird flying past th house! It was only for a few seconds, and then he flew out of sight again, leading to much calling about the neighborhood. Very exciting, and very frustrating too. Catching a bird that does not want to be caught is a difficult task.

Today we had another lead, also not our bird, but the people who found her? are moving, so we asked if we could take care of her and they agreed. Anyone else looking for a lost bird?

This photo shows male and female grey cockatiels (common or wild type). I'll get a better photo up as soon as I can.

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Wednesday, July 21, 2010

ESCAPED!!! (Winged, and not at all dangerous)

Escaped on July 19th, 2010, in the vicinity of Greenway Terrace and Empire Drive, Waukesha, WI. We call him “Bird”, a Male Cockatiel, Common Grey in color, 14 years old with full flight feathers, small metal band on right leg. He is unlikely to respond to calls, but he may call to people if he wants attention.

Should you spot this bird, please call 262-565-3463 as soon as possible, so we can try to retrieve him (or email to EastwoodDC AT gmail.com). He is semi-tame, but not used to being handled by strangers, and may fly away if not approached carefully.

If you feel you must try to capture him yourself, one person (an adult!) should approach slowly and offer a finger for him to step onto. You can the then clasp your hands over his wings or wrap him in a towel, until you can transfer him to a secure container. Trying sneak up and throw a towel over him will only scare him away.

I realize that posting this on the internet is a real longshot, but just maybe someone will spot him and Google "Lost Cockatiel".
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Saturday, July 17, 2010

This was going to be longer

This was going to be a longer post, but then I got in a fight with the new Blogger editor, ending in my switching back to the old Blogger editor. Therefore, this post is shorter. This post was going to have a stronger theme, but I used up all my time on the aforementioned editor. Therefore, this post is a loosely themed collection of links. Take it for what it is worth.

Monday, July 12, 2010

The Airspeed of an Unladen Swallow in Flight

"WHAT ... is the airspeed of a laden swallow in flight?"
One of the classic questions of science popular culture Monty Python fans, but before weighing down a 20 gram bird with the fruit of a Cocos nucifera, someone really ought to look into how they fly normally.

And of course, someone has.

"In order to maintain airspeed velocity, a swallow needs to beat its wings forty-three times every second, right?"

Actually, wrong. By comparing the European Swallow with bird species of similar body mass, we can estimate that the swallow beats its wings 18 times a second with an amplitude of 18 cm:

SpeciesBody massFrequencyAmplitude
Zebra Finch13 g27 Hz11 cm
European Swallow20 g≈ 18 Hz?≈ 18 cm?
Downy Woodpecker27 g14 Hz29 cm
Budgerigar34 g14 Hz15 cm

Check out the full article at Style.org.

Or ... you could go with the original research!

Now that I think about it, I must have posted this once before. But what the heck, it's worth repeating. :-)
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Friday, July 9, 2010

Now This is Progress!

Robot fetches beer. We should all have one of these.

[Hat-Tip-2 Terrence Tao (via Google Buzz)]
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Saturday, June 26, 2010

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Second Verse: The Census Will Be Wrong

This is a follow-on to my post of three days ago: The Census Will Be Wrong. We Could Fix it. My friend Matt sort of set me off with his comments - I think he likes to do that :-)  - and my "longer response" has turned into a post of it's own, and inspired another yet to come.

Matt writes: I think the author underplays the risk of political/agenda hijinks... The first thing that came to my mind when I read this was that craptastic Lancet paper about civilian deaths in Iraq. Perception is reality, and statistics have gotten a bad rap from a few bad actors. Them's the breaks.

First of all, this is by no means a flame aimed at my friend, and anyone who says otherwise is itching for a fight. This is intended to be my professional opinion with some lightly researched examples to illustrate the problem.
  1. The current census "head count" is known to be flawed (1), and both Democrats and Republicans attempt to take advantage of this (1). 
  2. The mathematics of statistical resampling are apolitical. It's simple a better way to do it, and less subject to error and bias.
  3. Statistical resampling is a simple concept wrapped in a lot of boring math. The basic idea is to go back re-check some of the original counts, and fix them.
  4. The Lancet surveys of war casualties in Iraq is arguably flawed, but a flawed paper in no way invalidates a field of mathematics, or for that matter even the methods of that paper. By way of equally flawed logic, we should abandon all automobiles because Chrysler made the "K" car (That last bit makes more sense than I thought it would.).
  5. The Lancet paper is, if anything, an example that of a study that would benefit from resampling. At a glance - and that's literally all I've given it - the war causalities estimates may suffer more from a lack of precision than a lack of accuracy.

There seems to be a common thread here that many people just don't get what statistics can really tell us. Part of that problem is the growing pains of a fairly recent area of mathematics working it's way into a culture already stressed with information overload. Another part of the problem is that statistics have been poorly taught, frightening students with the math and failing to convey the meaning behind it.

That last sentence expresses one of my original motivation for this blog: to hell with the math, I want people to understand the meaning. Keeping with this theme, my next post will be about the statistical meaning of Accuracy, Precision, and Bias.

Here are some odds and ends I dugs up while researching this post:
-Article about 1999 Supreme Court decision on statistical resampling.
-The 1999 Supreme Court decision on statistical resampling.
-There are some additional comments on the blog of Jordan S. Ellenberg, author of the Washington Post Op-Ed.
-Unrelated Census Hijinx
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Monday, May 10, 2010


For some unknown reason I occasionally post something dance related.

[Found on TED]
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Saturday, May 8, 2010

The census will be wrong. We could fix it.

This is sort of a professional pet peeve among statisticians, and the issue comes up with every census;

Jordan Ellenberg writes: Opponents say that statistical adjustment would violate the constitutional requirement of an "actual enumeration" of the population. Justice Antonin Scalia wrote in 1998 that the Constitution's language was "arguably incompatible . . . with gross statistical estimates." The sampling adjustment is indeed an estimate of the population -- but so is the unadjusted number, which estimates that the number of Americans missed is zero! To choose the raw count is to be wrong on purpose in order to avoid being wrong by accident.

Emphasis added. There are demonstrably better statistical methods to perform census estimates, and they should be used.

[Hat Tip 2 Terence Tao]
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Friday, May 7, 2010

You Can't Trust Science!

I get it - I get the whole Atheism versus Religion thing. In matters related to science, the atheists generally have it right, and it's not too hard to find someone who is: A) a kook, and B) religious, that is sadly wrong on a given scientific matter. I'm cool with that.

There one thing that bugs me though; this video offers a good example of a bad argument. It is an error to say that because religion has little to offer in terms of scientific thought and progress, it has nothing to offer at all. Religion has a lot to offer*, just not in the realm of science and technology. There are valid criticisms of religion, but criticizing religion for not being scientific is just silly.

Likewise, atheism may be entirely agreeable to scientific thought, but it is the scientific thought and not the atheism that creates progress and technology. Giving atheism credit for science and technology is equally silly.

All I'm saying is that science and religion have to be appreciated on their own merits. And if you just want to see the boobs, they appear at 3:20 into the video. ;-)

* I won't go into what religion offers and/or what it has accomplished, because that is a matter of individual beliefs, and your mileage may vary. I won't get into that argument.

[Hat Tip to One Good Move]
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Friday, April 23, 2010

Apollo 11 Launch in Slow Motion

Found on Weird Science - Eight minutes to watch 30 seconds of rocket launch. Enjoy your front-row seat, and be glad you weren't actually ON the front row ...

Apollo 11 Saturn V Launch (HD) Camera E-8 from Mark Gray on Vimeo.
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Tuesday, April 20, 2010

First Video Directed by an Octopus

The first video directed by an octopus, and it's a chase scene!

I wonder how long before this is up on Pharyngula?

[Tip-O-Hat 2 IO9]
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Monday, April 19, 2010

Fair and Balanced and the short term memory of a gnat.

For your Monday morning amusement - Fox News never lies - Oh wait ...
Mark Evanier writes: The other day, Bill O'Reilly slapped a Congressman around for saying that Fox News was spreading the lie that if you don't buy health insurance, you'll go to jail. Here's an excerpt from that discussion and it's followed by...well, you can guess what it's followed by...

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Saturday, April 17, 2010

Intelligent Anagrams

I like Anagrams.
I like poking fun at Intelligent Design.
I like it when good things go together.

Discovery Institute --> Service Nutty Idiots
Discovery Institute --> It Sired Nutty Voices

Irreducible Complexity --> Extol Imbecilic Prudery
Irreducible Complexity --> Proudly Exert Imbecilic
Irreducible Complexity --> Dourly Imbecilic Expert

Answers in Genesis--> Seesawing Sinner
Answers in Genesis--> Sneering Ass Swine
Answers in Genesis--> Sneering Ass Wines
Answers in Genesis--> Sinners in Sewage
Answers in Genesis--> Ninnies Asses Grew
Answers in Genesis--> Insane Sewer Signs

Brought to you with the services of the Internet Anagram Server at Wordsmith.Org.
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Monday, March 8, 2010

Smoking Lettuce, Redux

An anonymous commenter replied to a video and comments I posted last June (see Smoking Lettuce). My posting has been lax lately, so the reply gets a whole post to itself. 

To briefly summarize, Representative Steve Buyer thinks smoking lettuce is the same as smoking cigarettes. I copied a statement from Buyer's web site stating that the FDA is under-funded and over-stressed and that they have no business trying to regulate a risky product; I agree to the first point and strongly disagree with the second. Oh ... and I might have implied that Representative Buyer is not the sharpest knife in the drawer.

But enough summarizing, you can read the original post if you must, let's get on to Anon's comment:

Anonymous said...
...Was he right? About the lettuce?

Well, actually, in the problems he outlined (Cancer, heart disease, and respiratory problems) he was right - you WOULD have similar problems. Now, in terms of the 'good stuff' - doubtful. Lettuce obviously wouldn't have whatever it is in tobacco that makes people keep smoking it (though I couldn't profess to know, in that I find smoking repulsive).

His point about the FDA? Yeah, it's overburdened and trying to sink its roots into nooks and crannies whenever it can. And when it tries regulating something that is already known to be dangerous - cigarettes - then it means your money is being spent insuring the 'safety' of a product that is KNOWN to be dangerous. How stupid can you get?!

And in the real world that most people don't like thinking about, the increased price on ciarettes as a result of the regulation would inflate the prices of legal smokes. So smokers get their cheaper cigs from elsewhere with less regulation - and the LEGAL distributors suffer, through no fault but the government's.

So yeah, what's up with Steve? Must be smoking lettuce or something.

Hello Anon,
Thanks for stopping by to comment. I suspect you have a certain political inclination on this, which is fine, but I think your concerns on this issue are misplaced.

You may indeed have similar problems with smoking lettuce, but I doubt there will ever be a serious study on the effects. However, I am certain that tobacco is naturally higher in aromatic hydrocarbons, tars, and has a number of ingredients artificially added (like formaldehyde). Aside from the smoke, chewing tobacco also has links to diseases such as oral cancer, and I am reasonable sure that you can chew lettuce all you want with no particular risk of cancer. So I can't prove that smoking lettuce is safer than smoking tobacco, but I strongly suspect it is true.

The stuff that keeps people smoking tobacco is nicotine, also naturally occurring, except that the tobacco companies strictly control the "dose" of nicotine delivered much in the same way that pharmaceutical companies control the dose of other drugs. If I recall, was the FDA's basis for the regulation of tobacco; tobacco may be naturally grown, but cigarettes are produced to the tolerances of prescription drug, are highly habit forming, are a serious health risk, and are marketed to kids. Now nicotine itself, addictive properties aside, isn't especially harmful, but it keeps their customers locked in a nearly unbreakable habit, and exposing themselves to the other harmful properties over-and-over again, sometimes for life ... and often a rather shorter and less healthy life. Tobacco companies know darn well that if someone starts smoking as a teenager they are much more likely to stay a smoker for life, and generally have a long history of bad behavior when it comes to making a few bucks for themselves. Industries that behave badly deserve the regulations they get.

I will agree that the FDA is over-stressed and under-resourced. I absolutely disagree that controlling a highly addictive drug with dangerous side effects is beyond their jurisdiction. You don't have to look too hard on the FDA site to find something that we know is dangerous and needs to be regulated. We know that high-traffic intersections can be dangerous, right? And since everybody knows this, we can just take down all those silly useless stop signs and traffic lights. Right??  No???

I don't know what to make of Anon's comment about taxes on cigarettes, which are already very heavily taxed already. I worry these taxes tend to be an extra burden on the poor, but I have no sympathy for those in the business of distributing cigarettes. If the distributors don't like it, then there are plenty of other products they can make money distributing.

So to wrap this up; No, Steve Buyer was not right ... about the lettuce.

Addendum: TBA
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Saturday, February 27, 2010

Science is Flattening

Science is Flattening, at least that what the Flat Earth Society would have us believe. 
John Lynch links to this Guardian article about the resurgence of the FES, which is actually a very fair and open treatment of the topic. Here is a tidbit from the front page of the Flat Earth Wiki:

Throughout the years it has become a duty of each Flat Earth Society member, to meet the common Round Earther in the open, avowed, and unyielding rebellion; to declare that his reign of error and confusion is over; and that henceforth, like a falling dynasty, he must shrink and disappear, leaving the throne and the kingdom of science and philosophy to those awakening intellects whose numbers are constantly increasing, and whose march is rapid and irresistible. The soldiers of truth and reason of the Flat Earth Society have drawn the sword, and ere another generation has been educated and grown to maturity, will have forced the usurpers to abdicate. Like the decayed and crumbling trees of an ancient forest, rent and shattered by wind and storm, the hypothetical philosophies, which have hitherto cumbered the civilized world, are unable to resist the elements of experimental and logical criticism; and sooner or later must succumb to their assaults. The axe is uplifted for a final stroke - it is about to fall upon the primitive sphere of the earth, and the blow will surely “cut the cumberer down!”
The FES is nothing if not ambitious. Their Wiki contains a number of interesting explanations of common arguments against the Flat Earth hypothesis, of which I shall present a few:

On High Altitude Photography

Most amateur pictures of the earth are not doctored. Flat Earth Theory holds that there is elliptical curvature from the edge of space, one hundred miles in altitude. Any photograph showing a curved elliptical horizon from very high altitudes poses no affront to FE.
Curvature results from the fact that on a flat earth we are looking down at the circular spotlight of the sun. A circle is always curved in two dimensions. When looking down at the circular area of the sun's light upon the earth we see elliptical curvature.

On Occam's Razor

Occam's Razor asks us which explanation makes the least number of assumptions. The explanation which makes the least number of assumptions is the simplest explanation. Occam's Razor works in favor of the Flat Earth Theory. Several examples exist below.

What's the simplest explanation; that my experience of existing upon a plane wherever I go and whatever I do is a massive illusion, that my eyes are constantly deceiving me and that I am actually looking at the enormous sphere of the earth spinning through space at tens of thousands of miles an hour, whirling in perpetual epicycles around the universe; or is the simplest explanation that my eyes are not playing tricks on me and that the earth is exactly as it appears?
When I walk off the edge of a chair and go into free fall while observing the surface of the earth carefully the earth appears to accelerate up towards me. What's the simplest explanation; that there exists hypothetical undiscovered Graviton particles emanating from the earth which allows them to accelerate my body towards the surface through unexplained quantum effects; or is the simplest explanation that this mysterious highly theoretical mechanism does not exist and the earth has just accelerated upwards towards me exactly as I've observed?

On Undersea Cables 

Q. If a cable company put down a cable its length would have to be longer than predicted (by round earth geometry) if the world were flat. If somebody put down a bunch of cables and found that they were longer than they'd expected, wouldn't they tell somebody?

A. But the cables are always longer than expected. It's just explained by underwater currents, soil irregularity, winds and errors in placement, et cetera. And somewhere in that is lost a mistake caused by a slight misunderstanding of the Earth's shape

This last one is actually quite testable. All it would take is a bit of data about undersea topography, the chord length between points on a sphere, and the actual amount of undersea cable laid down. I wonder if anyone in the FES has bothered?

[Coincidentally, the beautiful image on the left is currently on my computer desktop.]

On The Burden of Proof

Q. Isn't the burden of proof on you to prove it?

A. No. You're the one claiming that NASA can send men to the moon, robots to mars, and space ships into the solar system. We're not claiming those things.
You're the one making all of these fantastic claims. You're the one claiming that earth orbit exists, government contractors can land man on the moon, send robots to mars, and that we can do all of these amazing never before done things.

The burden is on you to prove these things to us. You're the one making the claim. The simplest explanation is that NASA really can't do all of that stuff.

If two people are having a debate, should the burden of proof rest on the shoulders of the person who make the most complicated claim, or should the burden of proof rest on the shoulders of the person who makes the simplest and easily observable claim?

In a discussion on the existence of ghosts should the burden of proof be on the group mumbling "just because you can't see something doesn't mean that it doesn't exist," or should the burden of proof be on skeptics to prove that ghosts *don't* exist?
The burden of proof is always on the claimant and never on the skeptic. The burden of proof is on you.

I'll answer that. You don't get to be a skeptic just because you do or don't believe in something. Skepticism requires honest understanding of the facts; it requires credible hypotheses; it requires evidence that rises above a reasonable threshold of crackpottery. It is not the burden of the skeptic to explain to every crackpot why the pot is cracked. Indeed, answering an irrational query with rational arguments can be something of a fool's errand. That doesn't mean the skeptics shouldn't try, just that the skeptic is not responsible for the willful irrationality of the crackpot.

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Friday, February 26, 2010

Coffee and Breast Size, the Saga Continues

 Improbable Research presents the latest in ongoing research on the link between Caffeine and Breast Shrikage. The real story is that in women that carry a certain allele (CYP1A2*1F, if i grok), caffeine plays a role in regulating a hormone associated with both breast size and cancer risk.

See Coffee and Breast Size at Improbable Research, or you can skip the fun and go straight the grounds of the matter (pdf).

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Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Deniers != Skeptics

Author David Brin has a nice essay up about the difference between Deniers and Skeptics of Human Generated Climate Change. Here's an intro:

What factors would distinguish a rational, pro-science "skeptic" - who has honest questions about the HGCC consensus - from members of a Denier Movement who think a winter snowstorm means there's ni net-warming of the planet?

Is such a distinction anything more than polemical trickery?

Well, in fact, it happens that I know some people who do qualify as climate change "skeptics." Several are fellow science fiction authors or engineers, and you can quickly tell that they are vigorous, contrary minds, motivated more by curiosity than partisan rigor. One who I could name is the famed physicist Freeman Dyson.

(In fact, if truth be told, there are some aspects of HGCC that I feel I want clarified -- that seem to be poorly-justified, so far. I am an ornery, contrarian question-asker, of the first water!)

After extensive discussions with such folk, I found a set of distinct characteristics that separate thoughtful Skeptics from your run of the mill, knee-jerk Denier dogma puppet.

Here's the first one:

The first, second, and last, can be found at Contrary Brin.
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Thursday, February 4, 2010

Space Elevator Oops

Tensile versus Shear Strength, from XKCD

Don't forget to click thru for the mouse-hover message!

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Arthur Benjamin and Mathemagic!

Celebrity for the math-geek, and some good advice for students (quoting from memory):

Arthur Benjamin: "The number of math courses you take in college is the single best predictor of your future income."

Steven Colbert has an answer for that too, but he always has an answer*.

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Arthur Benjamin
Colbert Report Full EpisodesPolitical HumorEconomy

* Always, except maybe for that time when Jane Fonda was on the show. ;-)

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Monday, January 18, 2010

Lord of the Hadrons

Three Particles for the Heisenbergs under the sky,
Seven for the von Neumanns in their halls of stone,
Nine for Mortal Men doomed to die,
One for the Schrödinger on his dark throne
In the Land of Dirac where the Strange lie.
One Particle to rule them all, One Particle to find them,
One Particle to bring them all and in the darkness bind them
To give them Mass where the Charms lie.

[Hat Tip to Sir Al Dente -- Thanks Al! (What a Looney!), and of course JRR Tolkien]

PS: Anyone else remember the Superconducting Super Collider?
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