Pseudoscientists Make Pseudo-Challenges

At some point, nearly every peddler of pseudoscience, whether it’s their full-time job or they’re just a random troll, will issue a “challenge”. They’ll protest “if the science is true, then do X/Y/Z for me!” Sometimes they’ll offer large cash rewards.

These challenges are as pseudo as their science.

Every one of these challenges is designed to be unwinnable. Even if it looks winnable up front, they’ll renege or change the rules post-hoc.

For example, in November 2011 the German anti-vaccination grifter Stefan Lanka claimed he’d give €100 thousand to someone who could provide a scientific paper proving the existence of the measles virus and measuring the diameter of a single virion. Sounds simple, no?

Simple diagram of DNA

Then-med-student (now-physician) David Bardens provided six papers (references below): isolating the unique virus from patients with measles, close studies of the effects on tissues of propagation of this virus, and of course the requested measurement of individual virions.

To which Lanka said “I said one paper!” and he refused to pay. Bardens tried suing him, but an appeals court said “sure, yes, this all pretty solidly proves measles is caused by a measurable virus, but technically he did ask for one paper so legally he has to win” (see ruling 12 U 63/15 from the Oberlandesgericht Stuttgart) and this was sadly upheld on appeal (I ZR 62/16 from the Bundesgerichtshof). Quoting the ruling from Oberlandesgericht Stuttgart in February 2016:

Die Beweiswürdigung des Landgerichts dahingehend, dass aufgrund des eingeholten Sachverständigengutachtens bewiesen sei, dass die vom Kläger vorgelegten Publikationen in ihrer Gesamtheit den Nachweis für die Existenz und die Erregereigenschaft des Masernvirus belegten und auch die Bestimmung des Durchmessers in der vom Beklagten verlangten Form gelungen sei, ist im Ergebnis nicht zu beanstanden.

transl:

The assessment of the district court to the effect that, on the basis of the expert opinion obtained, it was proven that the publications submitted by the plaintiff in their entirety provided evidence of the existence and causative properties of the measles virus and that the determination of the diameter in the form requested by the defendant was successful the result is not objectionable.

But, Bardens still lost his request for 100 thou. Measles? Proved! Lanka’s challenge? Riddled with technicalities.

You see, measles has been around for thousands of years of human history. It took centuries to slowly unravel how different diseases were spread, and the discovery of microscopic entities like bacteria and viruses helped cement the germ theory of disease.

Measles has been studied for centuries. Mapping out routes of transmission, disease vectors, modes of spread, all in line with how a pathogen would move. Then scientists developed the tools for finding and isolating said pathogens over centuries of meticulous work.

That is to say: Measles being contagious was discovered long before viruses were discovered long before it was easy to isolate individual viruses from sick individuals long before we could study a single virus’e’s impact on tissues at a high resolution in a controlled setting, etc etc.

No one paper is going to contain all of that, that would make no damn sense and also the result would be a rather long book.

The idea that you can turn on a microscope and see a virion holding a sign saying “on my way to cause measles” is so absurd that one starts to suspect Lanka is fully cognizant of his fraud.

A disease is the sum of all the effects a virus has on its host, from the smallest cell level up to the whole organism. Every level is its own publication: A paper showing what the virus does to a cell, a paper showing which genes it co-opts for itself, a paper showing damage to a whole tissue, and on and on.

On top of all that, the German court even noted that the measles vaccine is itself a very strong test of Lanka’s pseudoscientific alternative theory. If measles weren’t the result of a contagious virus, the astonishing efficacy of the vaccine would make no sense.

The “pseudo” part of “pseudoscience” doesn’t just mean “wrong conclusions”. It reflects how pseudoscience is a pale imitation, a shoddy pantomime of real science, right down to methodology. The belief that scientific conclusions are proved once and for all in singular papers, born of a singular experiment, is laughably wrong. Scientific conclusions and community consensus are built up over many experiments, meta-analyses, statistical tests, observations, and discussion. Every paper, no matter how strong its conclusions, stands on the backs of every other paper published before it.

Take gravitational waves. The paper that announced their observation is not, by itself, the proof. Because everything that paper assumes about physics to justify the methods of the LIGO observatory is the result of more than a century of prior papers proving that all works. Everything the paper was testing about the nature of spacetime is the result of a century of experiment and theory in General Relativity.

Whether by accident or design, this “one paper to rule them all” attitude gives hacks an out: They can just deny all the evidence, all of it, because no one paper meets their narrow requirements.

Creationists will demand a single paper with a single experiment showing a multicellular organism evolving new appendages. If you show them a paper on the fossil record of limb evolution, they’ll say there’s no mechanism. If you then show them any of the thousands upon thousands of papers about mutations and gene duplications, they’ll say that’s only the genes, they wanted an organism to change. If you show them an example in practice, like how Antarctic fish have proteins that act as antifreeze, and these proteins are coded by genes which were duplicated and subsequently mutated from genes they share with their cousins without antifreeze proteins, then they’ll say “well it’s not a big change, is it, we wanted something big”. So then if you show them sticklebacks evolving spines in response to changing predator conditions on human time scales, they’ll say “sure but where’s the mechanism” and you can try pointing back to those genetics papers but then we’re right back to “but that’s a different paper, I wanted one!”

Of course, synthesis papers summarise results of many studies, as do academic books, textbooks, sometimes conference proceedings… but that’s not just “one” paper is it.

You cannot win a challenge that was never real.

The other day I saw this infographic on Twitter and Instagram from the Unbiased Science podcast (no idea if they’re good, but Dr Elizabeth Bik and YouTube channel Debunk the Funk follow them on Twitter, that’s a good sign at least)

Unbiased Science podcast info-graphic:
"Ask yourself these questions when you see someone sharing health information online: One, do they make claims when they have no expertise in a relevant field? Simply writing a book doesn't count. Two, are they making statements that contradict relevant experts or scientific medical organizations? Three, are they promoting a cure, diet, or treatment that sounds too easy or too good to be true? Four, do they make all-or-nothing statements about health and wellness, especially about safety of products? Five, are they using a single study or anecdote to support their claim instead of the overall body of evidence? If your answered yes to any of these, consider that the source may not be reliable and look for alternative verification of the information you've been presented."

It’s not bad, but be careful not to give each point the same weight, and make sure every one is contextualised properly. Let’s start with question 1: Science deniers will often scoff and ask “who’s the arbiter of expertise?” and they’re not entirely wrong to do so. Many excellent science writers studied the fields they report on but never actively worked as research scientists, such as Angelai Saini, Carl Zimmer, Rebecca Watson and Ed Yong. All great, all worth reading and trusting. But they’ve also demonstrated their understanding in how they write, carefully citing their sources and explaining methods transparently, while garnering high praise from experts who are active researchers.

Continue reading “Pseudoscientists Make Pseudo-Challenges”
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I’m a Grumpy Old Man Here to Ruin Your Memes

You know those memes where someone will be like “in the Bible angels are described as <insert vaguely Lovecraftian / del Torific description of a monster> so they should really be drawn like this!” followed by a drawing of some nightmare acid-trip of a creature. Something covered in eyes and fire and wings, sometimes in a geometrically perplexing and unsettling configuration.

And frequently someone will respond with “oh boy, this puts a new context to them saying ‘be not afraid’ amirite?”

Well, no. See, the Bible has lots and lots of references to divine, heavenly creatures who are just regular dudes. The patriarch Jacob wrestles one in Genesis, and there’s no indication he’s wrestling anything than a dude. In fact, the Bible is brimming with descriptions of “angels” as looking like people but capable of eliciting intense awe on an emotional level.

Religious scholar Dr Andrew Henry just put out an excellent YouTube video with the full story.

Henry walks through the many different heavenly beings the Bible talks about. The word “angel” comes from a Greek translation of a Hebrew word for “messenger”, which is not used for any of the weird beings in the canonical texts for Jews or Christians. The weird beings do appear, but not nearly as frequently as the “messengers” who are generally implied to look like regular people. And of those weird beings, one grouping I’m not really even sure counts, because they could just be the wheels of God’s chariot and not separate entities. Henry then explains how the definition of “angel” evolved over the past two millennia, with Jewish and Christian theologians merging all those heavenly entities into a shared classification scheme for divine beings.

Also, when something is said to be a “wheel within a wheel”, what’s with artists going with perpendicular wheels? Why can’t it be like a car wheel with spinning rims on the hub cap? My pet theory is that’s what the Bible meant: God’s chariot has spinning rims.


Clip art of an hour glass, indicating this post is about history.

Education in the US: Explaining AP Classes and Florida’s Fanatacism

As with most things, education policy in the US is not set at a national level. Rather, individual states run their school systems, in turn delegating considerable power to local school districts. That’s why you’ll see news stories about local or state school boards choosing terrible textbooks written by propagandists, there’s a high degree of flexibility in what courses are taught and how.

So how are tertiary institutions like universities supposed to evaluate applicants when standards are so diverse? One solution would be to properly fund enough public universities to take everyone regardless, but that’s not America. Another solution is privatisation. The College Board is a private non-profit (to the extent that means a damn thing, as we’ll discuss) organisation that, among other things, creates curricula for Advanced Placement (AP) classes.

The concept behind AP is that high school students (grades 9-12) can take these classes that the College Board, and many colleges and universities across the US, consider to be equivalent to an undergraduate-level course. This also gets into complex territory about “quality” or “difficulty”, but that’s a nebulous concept to begin with. I think some people greatly over-estimate the gap in difficulty between early undergrad and late high school, the line is necessarily blurry. Universities are more concerned with what needs to be taught and teaching is about getting students to learn, not pushing them through obstacle courses. So whether a course is all that difficult or goes that deep isn’t really an indicator of whether it’s “college level”. That said, something being branded “AP” is not a guarantee of quality either, just a quasi-reliable standard curriculum across the country. Some AP courses are fine, some are not, some are genuinely a bit difficult, some anyone could do. Just like undergrad.

Recently, the College Board did a trial of a new AP course: African American Studies. And how did Florida’s extremely far-right governor Ron DeSantis respond? By banning it from Florida schools.

The curriculum was broad, because regardless of your political beliefs, you can’t study a culture or a history selectively. Queerness is a part of Black history. Feminism is a part of Black history. Black Lives Matter is a pretty major part of Black history.

The AP course acknowledged all this, but fascism is all about erasing history so that had to go out the window.

It’s part of a trend in Florida since the election of Ronny DeSantis. The “don’t say gay” bill was purposefully written vague to enable selective enforcement. Gay teachers can’t even mention if they have a spouse, but straight teachers continue to talk about dates, weddings, spouses, all that stuff that is smeared as “lewd” if a gay person brings it up. It’s dangerous.

And Florida’s legislature also passed, and DeSantis gleefully signed, a bill that preemptively bans all books, yes all books, from public schools, with any given book needing pre-approval by a state-sanctioned official.

Is it becoming any clearer why so many people call DeSantis an actual fascist? It’s not hyperbolic, he ticks a lot of the boxes and the boxes he doesn’t tick are often because he’s just a governor and still hamstrung by either federal law or internal resistance. Fun fact, given the low turnout, less than 32% of eligible voters in Florida cast a ballot for DeSantis in 2022. And many inelegibile voters really shouldn’t be, DeSantis has led a hard push of voter suppression. For example, in 2018 Floridians voted by a wide margin to restore voting rights to convicted felons, and the Florida Republican Party swiftly added enough extra hurdles and barriers that many still have no right to vote.

So, back to AP:

Yesterday, the first day of Black History Month in the US, the College Board announced it was scaling back the AP African American Studies curriculum. Bye-bye Black queer history, Black feminism, Black Lives Matter.

I do not envy being a teacher or educator under a despotic far-right regime. Managing to get factual information to the kids in such a system is fraught, difficult, tense. You can’t do everything you want and it hurts.

But when you cave in this obviously to the whims of the tin-pot dictators, you encourage them. You bolster their narrative. You effectively say to the public “eh, maybe they’re right”.

I’m not saying the right call is to keep everything and let AP African American Studies stay banned in Florida, maybe the right move is to scale it back to get something approved, but I am saying this was the wrong way to go about it. Also worth noting that misinformation about Black history is also extremely dangerous, false narratives about Black history were fed to me in my schools in South Carolina and it was pretty clear that’s why a lot of my generation grew up with a rose-coloured view of Jim Crow.

I should also note that for a “non-profit”, the College Board sure has one hell of a monetary incentive to sell its products. The CEO and President and other executives have salaries in the millions. How is that a non-profit then? Well, a non-profit is legally defined as an entity that does not earn profit, so must spend as much as it earns in a fiscal year. By spending lots of money on executives, that balances out. Neat trick, eh? The organisation doesn’t keep the money, so it’s a “non-profit”.

Aye-yi-yi. What a terrible broken system.

In addition to what’s been removed, there’s also additions. As NPR reports, “Black Lives Matter is listed alongside Black conservatism as a sample course project, labeled ‘Illustrative Only.'” This is another aspect of the whole “this feels wrong but could have been right” thing I’ve been talking about. Black conservatism and Black capitalism have left an impact on the US, given that the major political parties are far more comfortable with those movements, far more comfortable with Black politicians and activists who promote minor reform instead of real change, and so including that in the course is reasonable. But how this all went down, it doesn’t sound like a neutral presentation of one aspect of Black political history. And that’s the problem.

Because of the perverse incentives, and the blatant supplication to DeSantis, I do not trust the College Board’s decision was based on careful consideration of the best way to provide educational content under a restrictive regime. Instead it feels like they just signalled to every other state, to every other Republican, that they can win. That they can rewrite history.

Not a great way to start Black History Month.


Plain outline of the USA, excluding territories.

Back Off My Plankton

Far-right Congressman Jim Jordan (who has credible accusations he helped covered up sexual abuse when he worked at Ohio State University) recently tweeted this nonsense:

“Maybe we wouldn’t have a debt crisis if the government wasn’t funding plankton and salmon studies.”

Well, Jim, let’s set aside that spending on scientific research amounts to over 100 billion dollars of federal spending, which is not that much out of the trillions spent each year. Let’s set aside that a substantial chunk of that is actually defence or national security spending in some way (a lot of the money goes right to the DOD) or energy research, leaving not very much for other sciences. Let’s set aside the importance of a society that values “non-practical”, abstract, or esoteric research just for knowledge’s sake alone. And let’s set aside that there is no debt crisis Republicans made that up to justify stealing Americans’ social security.

My PhD thesis was all about plankton, specifically phytoplankton in the East Bering Sea. That is, the food for fish like pollock. Northeast Pacific pollock are one of the largest fishing industries in the US.

Quite a lot of jobs and quite a lot of the national economy would be affected if any major shocks occurred. Jordan is a climate denier, but is he going to deny fish eat plankton too? Or just deny that anyone in the US depends on the fishing industry?

Doesn’t matter, he just wants to trick voters into thinking the US economy is under more strain from the pittance the federal government spends on science than real threats like the entire financial sector’s speculative nonsense, the rent crisis, covid, student debt, and climate change.


Plain outline of the USA, excluding territories.

Guns Terrorise the US

Content warning: This short post is about gun-related deaths, mass shootings, and school shootings in the United States.

There were 51 school shootings in the US last year.

51.

32 children killed, 8 adults. 100 injured.

In 2020, firearm-related injuries, including accidents, homicides, suicides, and mass shootings, were the leading cause of death among young people aged 1 to 19.

Across the whole population, more than 45 thousand people in the States died from firearms in 2020.

In 1996, Congress passed a rule called the “Dickey Amendment” that banned the Centre for Disease Control from using funds “to advocate or promote gun control”, which for decades was interpreted as meaning they couldn’t study gun violence at all. Since 2020, this has slowly begun to change, and it’s important to have these numbers recorded and published.

But god damn how much more will it take to do something.


Plain outline of the USA, excluding territories.

Police Violence in the US

I have little to add to the discourse around the murder of Tyre Nichols by five Memphis police officers. Eventually, the officers responsible were arrested and charged, and their unit disbanded, but this kind of accountability continues to be rare and random, without systematised change to the institutions, these killings will continue.

What I would like to impart to my non-US readers is a bit of context. I cannot stress enough how fractured the US government is. America is really 50 countries in a trenchcoat.

There are thousands of municipal police forces, operating locally and often with little oversight from the state government, with next to nothing from the federal government. Don’t be fooled, this isn’t the same as actual community control over their local police, because all too often police officers aren’t local themselves (in fact when an officer is fired for brutality or criminal behaviour, they can just move cities or states and join another police department easy peasy). So we have thousands of local police that have to be disbanded or substantially altered and pretty much the one thing that unites all of them together is their opposition to any change. It’s not easy.

Which is not to say the federal government isn’t involve. In order to protect police from being subject to civil rights laws, the Supreme Court invented “qualified immunity“, which says that before any civil suits can be brought against a law enforcement officer at all, the plaintiff must already show a precedent for the specific violation they’re bringing suit over. In practice, this has resulted in the Court throwing outs lawsuits while saying you can’t sue a cop for something unless someone else already won a lawsuit against cop for that same thing, which they can’t do because it hasn’t happened yet. It’s effectively absolute immunity.

In Atlanta, Georgia, a forest adjacent to a Black neighbourhood is being converted into a massive training facility for police. Non-violent protesters have been camping in the forests trying to hamper the development, but in retaliation they’re being arrested on terrorism charges. On 18 January, protester Manuel Terán was killed in a raid. Police claim he fired first, but they took an entire day to recover a gun from the scene where he was shot, and despite wearing body cameras claim there is no footage. How fortunate for them.

One last story, a personal anecdote. A few years ago, in 2018, I was at a conference in Portland, Oregon, a city with a reputation (undeserved) for being liberal or even left-wing. It is a rare US city to have somewhat decent public transportation, but a couple of times I was riding the tram from the hotel to the conference venue, it would stop and cops would board through every door, each one covered in massive guns. Why? To mow down crowds in case someone didn’t have a ticket? To make themselves feel like Rambo, as they role play their ’80s action movie on a quiet morning tram?

This is America.


Plain outline of the USA, excluding territories.
Clip art of weighing scales.

AAAAAAAAAAAAA (Bad Graphs II)

Jordan Peterson.

How can someone this monumentally incompetent and incoherent have any kind of following, let alone exist.

It pains me to see anyone buy into what is obviously a fraudulent graph of lies. Today’s example of a bad graph is worse than the last one.

Let’s begin with two graphs of real data to ground ourselves before kicking off into the nonsense world of propaganda. First, the 1890-2022 annual average temperature anomalies averaged over the whole Earth, as calculated by the Japan Meteorological Agency:

Japan Meteorological Agency global average temperature anomaiy data from 1890 through 2022. Despite some small ups and downs, there is a clear upward trajectory with the global average n 2022 being more than 1 whole degree Celsius warmer than 1892

And here is temperature data for the Holocene, the current geological epoch that began over eleven and a half thousand years ago.

Figure 3 of Kaufman et al. (202) - Global mean temperature reconstructions for the past twelve thousand years. While some calculations show some warming over six thousand years ago, all show stable temperatures for thousands of years before human activity kick-started rapid global warming that exceeds all past temperatures.
Figure 3 of Kaufman et al. (2020): “Global mean surface temperature from the Temperature 12k database using different reconstruction methods. The fine black line is instrumental data for 1900–2010 from the ERA-20C reanalysis product26. The inset displays an enlarged view of the past 2000 years. See Fig. 2 for additional explanation.”

That graph is from Kaufman et al. (2020) and to be clear: It is not taken as definitive or indisputable. Finding temperatures from that long ago requires proxies: variables that can be measured in the present whose values would only be what they are given a specific temperature in the past. For example, because oxygen has multiple isotopes (atoms with different numbers of neutrons in the nucleus) and isotopes with more neutrons are heavier, then as temperatures decease, heavier oxygen atoms condense before the lighter ones. Thus, the ratio of oxygen isotopes within ice cores indicates the temperature of the atmosphere when the ice formed. For ice cores with layers dating back thousands of years, that’s a record of local temperatures over time.

But there are different methods for calculating a global temperature based off proxies. One issue to consider is coverage: twelve thousand year-old ice cores don’t span the whole planet, so local variations where the ice formed could throw off estimates for the whole globe. So one needs multiple proxies, with as much spatial span as possible. Even then, different methods for calculating temperatures and then averaging them into a global mean exist, so results differ. For example, Marsicek et al. (2018) differs from Marcott et al. (2013) in that the former calculates a much colder early Holocene, necessitating more warming before stabilising in the past few thousand years, while the latter calculates a warmer early Holocene, with a pronounced bump in the mid-Holocene that is fairly warm, before entering a cooling phase that was interrupted by anthropogenic global warming.

Though to be absolutely clear: None of these show any Holocene warming as rapidly as the past 200 years, all agree that any warming phase took thousands of years or at least many centuries. Nor do any of them show a Holocene maximum that’s as warm as the Earth is about to get this century.

And as more data are collected and better methods developed, the inconsistencies become less troubling. Bader et al. (2020) compare Marcott and Marsicek and use a paleoclimate model to propose that different periods of the Holocene were defined by two different modes (one warming and one cooling) of different magnitude, and pronounced in different regions (the tropics for warming, Arctic for cooling). And Bova et al. (2021) argue that the early-to-mid Holocene peak in temperatures (known as the Holocene thermal maximum) is actually a reflection of seasonal variation, that when properly converted into an annual average goes away and temperatures become more stable over the Holocene. This would be more in line with models, but either one could be wrong.

Importantly, current warming has already exceeded or will soon exceed every major reconstruction of the Holocene maximum, and will have done so far faster.

And yet. Lying liars and frauds continue to pass around either fake or completely mislabeled graphs of Holocene temperatures. And then hacks like Jordan Peterson pass them on.

Continue reading “AAAAAAAAAAAAA (Bad Graphs II)”

Oh God, This Is What They Think Math Is

Oh boy, this will take some unpacking.

Some days ago Ben Shapiro put out a video talking about his latest invention: An equation to measure the “legitimacy” of a government.

In short: It’s gibberish. Not misguided, not flawed or wrong due to mistakes that could be tinkered with, not simply a case of high uncertainty in hard-to-quantify variables.

Gibberish.

Ben Shapiro showing off his garbage pseud-equation.

L = [S + (RA) + I] / (VR‘⋅A‘)

Matt Lech on The Majority Report hit the nail on the head in his analysis: the fetishisation of STEM, turning it into a cult of ritual and a performance, without any understanding of STEM or social sciences, is what leads to nonsense gobbledygook like this. I’ll break down every term and why it’s ridiculous below, but the key takeaway I want to stress first is that Shapiro is part of the wider societal problem, even among centrists and the left, in how STEM is perceived (see also this earlier post on how we relate to maths).

To many, STEM is this pure, yet nebulous, perfectly objective truth. Social sciences are seen as not simply more complex or more subjective, but as inherently inferior.

But the staunch-intellectualism of people like Shapiro means they don’t actually know very much STEM. It becomes like magic, where any huckster can say “abracadabra, algebra-zam!” and a lot of people will believe that said huckster is a genius purveyor of pure truth, just because they claimed to use math.

And because these same people don’t bother to learn social science, they genuinely believe they can just chuck bad math at it and automatically do a better job.

Social science doesn’t work like this. Neither does math. Terms need to be clearly defined. Variables need to have units (see yesterday’s post for an introduction to that), or be explicitly dimensionless. Any operations need to be justified. If data are lacking we don’t know, then defaulting to basic arithmetic operations is fine, but you still need to explain your steps. You need to explain how you’d measure these terms.

You need to be clear how the terms depend on each other. You can’t just grab a bunch of words that sound relevant to “legitimacy” (which he also leaves undefined!) and slap them together and hope it fits. Some of those terms sound (without further clarification) synonymous. Others very obviously are functions of each other, maybe even entirely redundant. You can’t do this, this is not valid math!

That “legitimacy” is also undefined is important here, because Ben didn’t put together related terms that he’d been studying independently and popped out something new, he starts by wanting to derive an equation for legitimacy. Which means he needs to start with a definition to constrain his methods. He does not.

Seriously. This is not acceptable for any serious research field. Oh sure, we can all point and laugh at the bad research in peer-reviewed journals that looks like Shapiro’s equation there, but two things: 1) The whole thing about academia is we’re always on each others’ cases, gibberish like this won’t get far because other academics will tear it apart, even if some defend it. 2) Got bad news for you: gunk like this slips into STEM research too. There’s no way to weasel out of this: even if you (wrongly) look down on social science, by anyone’s standards, mathematician or social scientist, what Shapiro did here was garbage.

But because it looks like math, because it pantomimes aspects of STEM, on a purely superficial level, in a totally hollow way, that’s enough. Lech is right: STEM has been fetishised without any understanding of how it woks, turned into a magic spell for people to chant to lure in people to scam.

So let’s break this thing down.

You can watch him explain it here (assuming Twitter still exists…) but the gist is L is “legitimacy”. No clue how he intends to measure that, he seems to think that simply having the equation means he doesn’t need to define L any further, nor explain its units or properties, because that’s what the equation is for.

But the equation doesn’t clarify anything. He says S is “social solidarity”. Again, no definition, no units, no concept of how this is measured. Then R is “responsiveness of authority to input” and A is “avoidability of authority”. Why are these multiplied and not added? Shut up, that’s why.

Continue reading “Oh God, This Is What They Think Math Is”

Very Brief, Very Introductory Lesson In Units

This is going to be extremely into-level today, but there’s a reason for it, it’ll tie into a later post and if anyone needs clarification I want to be able to refer back.

If you encounter an equation, any equation, be it complex or simple as

a = b + c

then it’s essential that the units on the left side of the equal sign match the units on the right.

In the example a = b + c, all three variables must have the same units. If a is temperature measured in °C, then b and c must also be in °C. Otherwise it wouldn’t make sense. If b were a distance measured in metres and c were a temperature measure in °C, a would be some gibberish measure of “m + °C”, that doesn’t mean anything.

You can, however, divide and multiply numbers. That’s what speed is, “kilometres per hour” is just division: km/hr. A speed s can be expressed by the equation for distance travelled divided by time it took:

s = d / t

Here, d and t do have different units, and the result is s has its own units: km/hr.

Importantly, units follow basic algebra. You can multiply and divide and even cancel out units. For example…

10 metres / 5 metres = (10/5) (metres/metres) = 2

There’s no units at the end, they canceled out through division.

Anything units divided by time is how we measure the rate of change over time, but you can divide any two units. For example, on average, in the middle of a tectonic plate, if you dig downward, the temperature of the rock increases roughly 25°C with every kilometre you descend. This may not be a rate of change across time, but the same principle applies: The gradient s 25°C/km.

We call something made up of the multiplication and/or division of other units a “derived unit”. The unit of power, a Watt, is a unit representing the amount of energy (in Joules) over one second. That is, 1 W = 1 J/s.

No matter how complicated an equation gets, balanced units are essential. If you’re ever unsure what a variable’s units should be, but you know the others, you can figure it out. If you see

a = bx + c/y

You already know that bx and c/y must have the same units, or else you couldn’t add them. Maybe c/y is some velocity, as is x, and b has no units (we’d call it dimensionless), then you can sum up the two velocities and a is also a velocity.

As a concrete examples, here’s

x = at2 + vt + x0

This equation describes the distance travelled, x, given the amount of time elapsed t, the velocity v, the acceleration a, and the stating position x0.

If x0 is measured in metres, then so must vt and at2. Then if t is measured in seconds, v has to be in units of m/s, and a must be in m/s2.

Very simple, very basic, but very helpful if you ever get caught out with a novel equation that is very big and complex.

As a side note, exponents and logarithms are unitless too. If you see

a = becd = b⋅exp(cd)

or

a = b⋅log(cd)

where ⋅ indicates multiplication, then know that cd must be dimensionless, and have no units. If c is measured in m/s, then d must be s/m to cancel out both seconds and metres, leaving the result without units (because 1 metre / 1 metre = 1, without units). Then a will only have whatever units b has, after it is multiplied by the unitless result of the exponential or logarithmic function.

Tomorrow or Saturday I’ll finally address Ben Shapiro’s horrible excuse for an “equation”, and understanding unit algebra will be part of that.


End of an Era

Rebecca Watson is a science writer, activist, blogger, podcast host, and YouTuber who founded the blog Skepchick back in 2005. It quickly grew by adding other writers to its network of women in skepticism and atheism. To this day, skeptics’ communities are quite often heavily dominated by cis-het men, and all too often deeply toxic. But they don’t need to be toxic, and Skepchick allowed under-represented skeptics to have a voice. If movement skepticism seeks to promote separation of church and state, critical thinking, and freedom of expression, then all of these values should gel perfectly with feminism, civil rights, social justice, all of that. I say “should” because, again, simply proclaiming that one has these ideals doesn’t mean one lives them, and boy have I run up against a lot of misogyny, transphobia, homophobia, and racism in some skeptics circles.

So Skepchick was important as a means to connect people, to pushback against toxicity, to highlight topics that may have been ignored, to broaden the community.

It was also important to me personally. I became an atheist in mid 2008 when I realised god wasn’t real one day. I quickly got super into atheism as a movement, following people like Richard Dawkins quite closely.

And boy was I a dick about it.

But when I encountered Rebecca Watson and other Skepchick writers, I had to face some facts about my own biases and blindspots, and the movement I was so ardently supporting: There sure are a lot of men who’re violently angry at women for no reason!

For much of my young adult life, I claimed to be feminist while being pretty damned misogynist, because thinking oneself a good person doesn’t make it so. I’ve learned a lot since then, and Skepchick was a crucial part of my learning experience and widening my horizons.

I bring all this up because the network faded away over the last several years. Bloggers went off to do their own things elsewhere, and eventually the originator blog, the original Skepchick, was just Watson alone.

Watson thus announced a few days ago that that’s that. The website will remain to host transcripts of her YouTube videos (which she puts out regularly, they’re fantastic, check them out!) but the network is closed.

It’s the end of an era but the start of a new one. Skeptics isn’t what it once was in the late aughts and early ’10s. Here in the UK, I’m glad to know that Glasgow and Edinburgh Skeptics actively resist the toxic misogyny and queerphobia and racism that still plague many other groups around the world, but there is still a lot of work to be done.

Hell, Dawkins himself has been in a perpetual downward spiral for at least the last 15 years. Seemingly just out of spite.

But Skepchick’s impact was important to the community and to me. If nothing else, I’ll carry it with me.

Also again Watson is still around and kicking ass, as per usual, so go follow her work.


Clip art of weighing scales.