My Least Favorite Kind of Internet Atheist

Of all of the various kinds of internet atheist (see Taxonomy of Atheists), my least favorite are the cult atheists who pretend to be polite and open minded. They’re very recognizable because they always introduce themselves with something like, “I haven’t seen any evidence for God, but if I did I would become a theist. Do you know of any evidence for God?” They’ll tend to start out polite, often saying things like, “perhaps I’m mistaken, can you show me where?” It sounds great.

Then when you give them what they’ve asked for, such as presenting them or directing them to one of the arguments which shows that literally all being is evidence for God (e.g. the argument from motion, or the argument from contingency and necessity), their true colors come out. They’re still gentle of speech, but they say things like, “this is an argument from ignorance,” (they love to pretend that logic is an argument from ignorance) or accuse it of some other error which it obviously doesn’t have. They’ll typically throw in some insults, at this point, though gently phrased insults. “I think you might be engaging in wishful thinking” is no less an insult for being said in tea-time language.

As you proceed, the veneer of politeness tends to drop, with accusations becoming much more direct, and everything you’ve explained to them—at their request—rejected out of hand. The more you talk to them, the clearer it becomes that they don’t believe any of their principles, and when you have finally cornered them on something, they just ignore it and tend to claim that they’ve shown something that they didn’t, a few steps back in the conversation. Sometimes they declare victory and accuse you of just not being willing to admit it, sometimes they just claim to have shown you’re irrational or whatnot. They’re an enormous waste of time, and I think that’s their goal.

I’ve dealt with more than a few of them, over the years, and I’ve learned that they all have a tell—their act like they’re new to the subject. They pretend to be fair-minded, but also completely ignorant of the subject. If pressed, they will admit that they’ve heard things about it before, but this gives the lie to their presentation of fair-mindedness. A reasonable person, on asking for evidence of something, will save the other person time by explaining what they’ve already encountered and what their problems with it are. They don’t do this because wasting someone else’s time is their goal.

The other part of this tell is that they are pretending to be the new to the subject. The only people who are completely new to the subject of whether God exists are young children and (possibly) people raised by wolves who have barely learned English. Well, that’s not quite true, since I left off the qualifier of “reasonable.” Reasonable people investigate important questions, they don’t merely ignore them until someone decides to spoon-feed them information about them. If for some strange reason a reasonable person has come across no convincing source of information on the subject of God in real life, he would not merely go onto social media and ask complete strangers for evidence that God exists. A reasonable person (in this odd circumstance) would do some online searching and find sources that seem to be high quality. Or he might even read a book or two on the subject. (And then, as I noted above, if he’s asking randos on social media, he’ll give them some idea of where he’s starting from and what he already knows.)

The Putative Arrival of Self-Driving Cars

A friend of mine was talking about how self-driving car technology is almost ready for general use and gave as evidence that this is likely to be the case that Waymo is already operating an autonomous ride-sharing service in Phoenix, Arizona, and has recently expanded to San Francisco.

So I looked into this.

It is true that Waymo is operating a driverless ride-sharing service, called Waymo One, in Phoenix Arizona, and has been doing so since 2018 (with a several month pause due to COVID-19, back in 2020). However, this is slightly misleading. According to Waymo One’s FAQ, “Our Waymo One fully autonomous ride-hailing service operates within parts of the Phoenix metropolitan area, including Chandler, Tempe, Mesa and Gilbert.”

Here’s a map of Phoenix, Arizona, which Wikipedia linked to, and I’ve circled Chandler, Tempe, Mesa, and Gilbert. (Approximately; there might be a bit of these places outside of the purple circle—I’m not familiar with Arizona geography and couldn’t find similar interactive maps for Tempe, Mesa, Gilbert, and Chandler.)

Waymo chose Phoenix because (being in the desert and pretty far south) it’s basically a place with no weather. So in this best-case scenario for the Waymo self-driving car, three years into running their autonomous service they’re still not running in most of the Phoenix metro area. Heck, they’re still not even running in Phoenix (proper).

At this rate… I’m not even sure that there is a rate of expansion. Extrapolating their progress in the last 3 years, it might be another 100 years before they offer rides in all of the Phoenix metro area.

But they’ve expanded to San Francisco!

Yeah, they have. Except that in San Francisco the Waymo One cars have an “autonomous specialists riding in the driver’s seat.” Also, the ride-sharing program is only open to people in the “trusted tester program,” which is “a confidential research program within Waymo One, where select riders will have access to our service and can share their experiences directly with our team to help shape the future of autonomous driving”. (I’m quoting from their FAQ.)

So “expanded to San Francisco” means that they are now running some number of tests, using safety drivers, and with passengers who have signed NDAs and can’t tell anyone how badly it’s going.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think that self-driving cars are impossible. I doubt that Waymo’s hyper-detailed maps approach is really the way forward, but as the saying goes, of all things the future is the hardest to predict.

I think it’s important to be realistic, though. There is no reason to believe that self-driving cars are just a few years away from being a standard option on cars at the dealership.

Why Talk About the Downsides of Atheism

In this video I talk about why it’s good to talk about the downsides of atheism, despite it generally being more attractive to be positive rather than negative; to make the case for something and not to merely make the case against one of its alternatives. That reason is that people often take the “cheese pizza” approach. If they think that there’s a common denominator, they will pick that to avoid conflict. By talking about the problems with atheism, it can help people to realize that there is no plain cheese pizza; that there is no common denominator.

Blue’s Clues 25th Anniversary Message And Parasocial Relationships

Recently, whoever it is that makes the show Blue’s Clues hired the original actor to deliver a message to fans. It’s quite curious:

I was too old to watch Blue’s Clues and my children didn’t come along until after Steve (the character in this message) left, and they’ve never watched Blue’s Clues anyway, so I don’t have an emotional attachment to the show, or to the character. I think I randomly found an episode of Blue’s Clues once, for a few seconds, while flipping to the channel I actually wanted to watch. That’s enough to make me aware of the show and so to recognize the actor, though (like me) he’s now much older.

From what very little I know of Blue’s Clues, it was always a highly parasocial show. The host would talk to the viewer as if they were there, so this is in keeping the format of the original show. I have my doubts that this is a good idea in a children’s show, but it is downright creepy in something aimed at adults.

Parasocial relationships supplanting real relationships is, I think, one of the great dangers of the modern world. There’s also a great temptation to it on the part of creators because there are so many lonely people who will cling to the feeling of having another person with them even though they know that it’s just a recording of someone who doesn’t even know that they exist. Even worse, many creators feel a parasocial relationship to the people they don’t know and don’t interact with except as a view/like/star/thumbs up/etc. statistic, which encourages them to participate in that parasocial relationship, inviting their viewers further into it. They will talk about highly private moments in their life, saying (I think, truthfully) that they want to bring their friends, that is, their viewers, along with them. As I mentioned in The Fundamental Principle of Science, the problem isn’t the liars, but the sincere but deluded people that an environment selects for. They sell the lie all the better for believing it themselves.

After all, the actor on Blue’s Clues left after a few years.

Awful Scientific Paper: Cognitive Bias in Forensic Pathology Decisions

I came across a rather bad paper recently titled Cognitive Bias in Forensic Pathology Decisions. It’s impressively bad in a number of ways. Here’s the abstract:

Forensic pathologists’ decisions are critical in police investigations and court proceedings as they determine whether an unnatural death of a young child was an accident or homicide. Does cognitive bias affect forensic pathologists’ decision-making? To address this question, we examined all death certificates issued during a 10-year period in the State of Nevada in the United States for children under the age of six. We also conducted an experiment with 133 forensic pathologists in which we tested whether knowledge of irrelevant non-medical information that should have no bearing on forensic pathologists’ decisions influenced their manner of death determinations. The dataset of death certificates indicated that forensic pathologists were more likely to rule “homicide” rather than “accident” for deaths of Black children relative to White children. This may arise because the base-rate expectation creates an a priori cognitive bias to rule that Black children died as a result of homicide, which then perpetuates itself. Corroborating this explanation, the experimental data with the 133 forensic pathologists exhibited biased decisions when given identical medical information but different irrelevant non-medical information about the race of the child and who was the caregiver who brought them to the hospital. These findings together demonstrate how extraneous information can result in cognitive bias in forensic pathology decision-making.

OK, let’s take a look at the actual study. First, it notes that black children’s deaths were more likely to be ruled homicides (instead of accidents) than white children’s deaths, in the state of Nevada, between 2009 and 2019. More accurately, of those deaths of children under 6 which were given some form of unnatural death ruling, the deaths of black children were significantly more likely to be rated a homicide rather than an accident than were the deaths of white children.

It’s worth looking at the actual numbers, though. Of all of the deaths of children under 6 in Nevada between 2009 and 2019, 8.5% of the deaths of black children were ruled a homicide by forensic pathologists while 5.6% of the deaths of white children were ruled a homicide. That’s not a huge difference. They use some statistics to make it look much larger, of course, because they need to justify why they did an experiment on this.

In fairness to the authors, they do correctly note that these statistics don’t really mean much on its own, since black children might have been murdered statistically more often than white children, during those time periods in Nevada. It doesn’t reveal cognitive biases if the pathologists were simply correct about real discrepancies.

So now we come to the experiment: They got 133 forensic pathologists to participate. They took a medical vignette about a child below six who was discovered motionless on the living room floor by their caretaker, brought the ER, and died shortly afterwards. “Postmortem examination determined that the toddler had a skull fracture and subarachnoid hemorrhage of the brain.”

The participants were broken up into two groups, which I will call A and B. 65 people were assigned to A and 68 to B. All participants were given the same vignette, except that, to be consistent with typical medical information, the race of the child was specified. Group A’s information stated that the child was black, while group B’s information stated that the child was white. OK, so they then asked the pathologists to give a ruling on the child’s death as they normally would, right?

No. They included information about the caretaker. This is part of the experiment to determine bias, because information about the caretaker is not medically relevant.

OK, so they said that the caretaker had the same race as the child?

Heh. No. Nothing that would make sense like that.

The caretaker of the black child was described as the mother’s boyfriend, while the caretaker of the white child was the child’s grandmother. Their race was not specified, though for the caretaker of the white child it can be (somewhat) inferred from the blood relation, depending on what drop-of-blood rule one assumes the investigators are using to determine the child is white. Someone who is 1/4 black, where the caretaker grandmother was the black grandparent, might well be identified as white, or perhaps the 1 drop of blood rule is applied at the grandmother could be at most 1/8 black for her grandchild to qualify to the racist experimenters as white. Why do they leave out the race of the caretaker despite clearly wanting to draw conclusions about it? Why, indeed.

More to the point, these are not at all comparable things. It is basic human psychology that people are far less likely to murder their descendants than they are to murder people not related to them. Moreover, males are more likely to commit violent crimes than females are (with some asterisks; there is some evidence to suggest that women are possibly even more likely to hit children than men are but just get away with it more because people prefer to look away when women are violent, but in any event the general expectation is that a male is more likely to be violent than a female is). Finally, young people are significantly more likely to be violent than older people are.

In short, in the vignette given to group A, the dead child is black and the caretaker who brought them in is given 3 characteristics, each of which, on its own, makes violence more statistically likely. In group B, the dead child is white and the caretaker who brought them in is given 3 characteristics, each of which, on its own, makes violence more statistically unlikely. For Pete’s sake, culturally, we use grandmothers as the epitome of non-violence and gentleness! At this point, why didn’t they just give the caretaker of the black child multiple prior convictions for murdering children? Heck, why not have him give such medically extraneous information as repeatedly saying, “I didn’t hit him with the hammer that hard. I don’t get why he’s not moving.” I suppose that would have been too on-the-nose.

Now, given that we’re comparing a child in the care of mom’s boyfriend to a child in the care of the child’s grandmother, what do they call group A? Boyfriend Condition? Nope. Black Condition. Do they call group B Grandma Condition? Nope. White Condition.

OK, so now that we have a setup clearly designed to achieve a result, what are the results?

None of the pathologists rated the death “natural” or “suicide.” 78 of the 133 pathologists ruled the child’s death “undetermined” (38 from group A, 40 from group B). That is, 58.6% of pathologists rules it “undetermined”. Of the minority who ruled conclusively, 23 ruled it homicide and 32 ruled it homicide. (That is, 17.2% of all pathologists ruled it accident and 24% of all pathologists ruled it homicide.)

In group A, 23 pathologists ruled the case homicide, 4 ruled it accident, and 38 ruled it undetermined. In group B, 9 ruled it homicide, 19 ruled it accident, and 40 ruled it undetermined.

This is off from an exactly equal outcome by approximately 15 out of 133 pathologists. I.e. if about 7 pathologists in group A had ruled accident instead of homicide, and 7 pathologists in group B ruled homicide instead of accident, the results would have been equal between both groups. As it was, this is a big enough difference to get statistical significance, which is just a measure of whether the random chance you see 95% of the time is sufficient to entirely explain the results. What it doesn’t do is show a pervasive trend. If 11% of the participants had reversed their ruling, the experiment would have shown that the 18.6% of forensic pathologists on an email list of board-certified pathologists who responded to the study were paragons of impartiality.

There’s an especially interesting aspect to the last paragraph of the conclusion:

Most important is the phenomenon identified in this study, namely demonstrating that biases by medically irrelevant contextual information do affect the conclusions reached by medical examiners. The degree and the detailed nature of these biasing effects require further research, but establishing biases in forensic pathology decision-making—the first study to do so—is not diminished by the potential limitation of not knowing which specific irrelevant information biased them (the race of the child, or/and the nature of the caretaker). Also, one must remember that the experimental study is complemented and corroborated by the data from the death certificates.

The first part is making a fair point, which is that the study does demonstrate that it is possible to bias the forensic pathologist by providing medically irrelevant information, such as the caretaker being far more likely to have intentionally hurt the child. Why didn’t they make all of the children white and just have half of the vignettes including the caretaker with multiple previous felony convictions, who was inebriated, repeatedly state, “I only hit the little brat with a hammer four times”? If we’re only trying to see whether medically irrelevant information can bias the medical examiner, that would do it too. But what’s up with varying the race of the child?

While it’s probably just to be sensationalist because race-based results are currently hot, it may also be a tie-in to that last sentence: “Also, one must remember that the experimental study is complemented and corroborated by the data from the death certificates.” This sentence shows a massive problem with the researcher’s understanding of the nature of research. Two bad data sources which corroborate each other do not improve each other.

To show this, consider a randomly generated data source. Instead of giving a vignette, just have another set of pathologists randomly answer “A”, “B,” or “C”. Then decide that A corresponds to undetermined, B to homicide, and C to accident. There’s a good chance that people won’t pick these evenly, so you’ll get a disparity. If it happens to be the same, it doesn’t bolster the study to say “the results, it must be remembered, also agreed with the completely-blinded study in which pathologists picked a ruling at random, without knowing what ruling they picked”.

Meaningless data does not acquire meaning by being combined with other meaningless data.

The conclusion of the study is, curiously, entirely reasonable. It basically amounts to the observation that if you want a medical examiner making a ruling based strictly on the medical evidence, you should hide all other evidence but the medical evidence from them. This, as the British like to say, no fool ever doubted. If you want someone to make a decision based only on some information, it is a wise course of action to present them only that information. Giving them information that you don’t want them to use is merely asking for trouble. It doesn’t require a badly designed and interpreted study to make this point.

Copied Little Accidents

Back in the 1980s and 1990s there was a painter by the name of Bob Ross who ran a delightful television show on PBS called The Joy of Painting. Bob Ross used an extremely fast wet-on-wet technique of oil painting in which he would paint a beautiful landscape painting in realtime during his half-hour show. He would talk to the audience in one of the most calm voices a human being has ever been given, and talk about how we’re making whatever world we want and that there are no mistakes here, just happy little accidents.

What I discovered recently was that not only did Bob Ross not invent the quick painting technique he used, he didn’t even invent the happy little accidents. Now, to be clear, this was not something that Bob Ross tried to hide. In fact, he credited his mentor. He mentioned that he got the technique from Bill Alexander in the first episode of the first least, and he dedicated the first episode of the second season to Bill Alexander:

Bill Alexander didn’t invent the concept of painting wet-on-wet with oil paint; that dates back hundreds of years. What Bill Alexander did was to create the technique of making landscapes using wet-on-wet techniques involving large brushes and a strong pallet knife so as to be able to paint a landscape in half an hour.

But Bill Alexander didn’t just invent the technique. He also taught it on his own PBS show. It was called The Magic of Oil Painting and ran from 1974 to 1982. (The Joy of Painting started in 1983, so Bob Ross was continuing what his teacher did, he wasn’t competing with him.)

It’s interesting to watch an episode of Bill Alexander’s show, as you can see that Bob Ross did copy quite a lot of it:

Bill Alexander was born Wilhem Alexander in 1915, in Germany. He was drafted into the Wehrmacht in World War 2 but was captured by the Allies and, after painting portraits of officers’ wives, made his way to the United States where he took up residence after the war was over.

He had the same positive attitude, looking at mistakes as things you just roll with and learn how to use. He was not as soft-spoken, and his German accent makes things sound more harsh than they were, which brings us to an interesting point: it is very rare that an innovator becomes famous for his innovations.

This is a pattern that ones sees the world over, and throughout history. The peculiarities and genius needed to come up with an idea that no one has had before—or at least no one in one’s culture has had before—is rarely compatible with that common touch which really helps to make it intelligible to the public at large. It is extremely common, then, that the innovator’s invention is made famous by someone who is just strange enough to understand the new idea but not strange enough to have come up with it on his own, but his not being strange enough to come up with the idea is what makes him able to communicate it to people who aren’t at all strange.

Multiple Murderers

An interesting plot element in a detective story is having multiple murderers. This can really complicate the life of the detective because each murderer may have a truly unbreakable alibi for the murder he didn’t commit. While the detective (and everyone else) labors under the assumption that one person committed both murders, the only viable suspects will probably have no motive.

As I think I’ve mentioned before, one of the really interesting ways of doing this is to have the two murderers murder each other, though one with some sort of time-delay mechanism such that he’s already dead by the time it goes off and kills the other fellow. (Poison is an excellent murder weapon for this case.)

Another scenario for multiple murderers occurred to me: a primary murderer and an after-the-fact accomplice who kills the original murderer to hide his after-the-fact involvement in the first murder. For convenience, let’s name our murderers: John and Steve.

John murders someone, let’s say his wife, Alice. John didn’t plan it out, though, and needs help disposing of the body and erasing the evidence, so he goes to his friend, Steve. Steve reluctantly helps John because he doesn’t want to turn him away, but on the other hand really wishes that John had left him out of it.

The detective begins to investigate and starts coming up with clues that point to John, but also to John having an accomplice, at least after the fact. This alarms Steve, who never wanted to be involved, who got nothing out of the murder, and who doesn’t want to see his life go up in smoke because of John’s bad decisions. Steve begins to think of how to get out of this, and the one solution he comes up with is murdering John. Only John knows it was Steve who helped him, and Steve does have an excellent alibi for when Alice was murdered. If Steve can make it look like John was killed by the same person who killed Alice, he’ll be home free.

This would make for a good mystery, I think, because the detective would first have to disentangle the two murders as not done by the same person, then figure out what happened in the first murder, and from there figure out who the second murderer was. It gives a nice progression of realizations and reveals without everything coming at once, which is the key to a really good mystery novel. (Short stories do better with a single denouement.)

A Calorie is a Calorie Doesn’t Even Work for Cars

I recently saw a discussion online about lab-grown meat (cultured muscle cells in a growth medium), in which someone was describing the potential problems with it—which boil down to it probably has a different nutrient profile and the assumption that it is equivalent to meat from a living animal is completely unjustified. Animals are phenomenally, astonishingly complex and respond in a myriad of ways to their environment. Meat grown from cells cultured in a lab would be grown under radically different conditions from meat on an actual animal, so we know that it will be different. There will be different quantities of micro-nutrients and probably of macro-nutrients, too. (Protein is a catch-all term; there are actually nine essential amino acids which we have to get from our diet, and different proteins have very different quantities of the 26 amino acids which make up proteins.) He complained that people (scientists) often regard the human body as if it was something simple, like a car, with food being a simple fuel, like gasoline, where you just put in gasoline into the car and it goes, instead of the astonishingly complex thing that it is with significant second- and third-order effects from the complexities of the food that we eat.

It struck me as funny that this overly simplistic model of cars doesn’t even work for cars. You will not get the same gas mileage from low, medium, and high octane fuels, despite them having the same energy. (The octane rating refers to the average length of the hydrocarbon chains; high octane gasoline has longer average hydrocarbon chains.) You also will not get the same acceleration from the different fuels; an engine designed for high octane gasoline will produce less power with low-octane gasoline; the reverse can be true as well. (The reason for high-octane gasoline is that it can tolerate higher compression ratios than low-octane gasoline can and so more powerful engines can take advantage of this to produce more power. In an engine with a lower compression ratio, it doesn’t matter that the higher octane gasoline can tolerate more compression because it won’t get it.)

And heaven help you if you put diesel fuel into your gasoline engine, despite it also being a long-chain liquid hydrocarbon with only slightly more energy per gallon than gasoline.

In other words, “a calorie is a calorie” doesn’t even work with cars and the fuels you can buy at the gas station.

It should be noted that there is a domain where “a calorie is a calorie,” assuming that one limits this to the sensible macronutrients such as glucose, protein, and plant and animal fats. In very minor cases does it work to consume large quantities of ethanol, despite it technically containing calories that we can extract. In no cases does it work to drink gasoline or diesel fuel despite them having plenty of calories in them. Those (I hope, obvious) caveats aside, a calorie is a calorie when you are trying to fuel hard labor.

Suppose you have a person who you want to swim for eight hours a day. Swimming can consume around 900 Calories per hours (depending very much on body size, etc), so that will take 7,200 Calories per day in addition to base metabolic needs. If we assume that the base caloric requirement is 2,000 Calories per day, then the swimmer will be consuming 9,200 Calories per day. That is, if we feed the swimmer fewer than 9,200 Calories, the swimmer will be in a Caloric deficit and will eventually starve to death. (More realistically, their ability to do work will go down and we won’t get the full 8 hours a day of swimming out of them.) When it comes to “will this person have enough energy to do the work we want them to do,” it is indeed true that “a calorie is a calorie.” They may or may not be productive of overall health, but when it comes to the question of energy balance for work performed, this is pretty accurate. This doesn’t come up much in life (unless you’re running a sports team or prison chain gang), but this is the context where it’s true.