Pet Peeve # 7,347: X-Men, and why aren’t certain people more upset?

The kids thew on an X-Men III DVD,and I peeked in on it a bit. Can’t really watch it because the X-MEN CONCEPT IS SO STUPID. It’s not just that they get evolution wrong, but they get it wrong in the worst sort of way: the opening voice-over explicitly claims to be talking about ‘Eeevolution’ and asks us to accept that they’re like all scientific and stuff, while then going completely off the rails about how natural selection works.

This makes midichlorians seem a completely reasonable bit of storytelling by comparison.

‘Eeevolution’ is not waiting around for some cosmic mad scientist to roll the mutation dice. Evolution isn’t even, strictly speaking, a theory – it’s more of an observation. The characteristics of groups of living things appears to change over time in a peculiarly orderly way. The theory is, as Darwin so nicely put it, that species arise from natural selection in a manner parallel with how farmers and breeders ‘improve’ their crops and stock.We’ll call this theory ‘Natural Selection’ for short.

Key points of the theory of natural selection that are contradicted by X-Men:

– there’s no such thing as ‘progress’: cows are not intrinsically ‘better’ than dinosaurs, which are not better than slime mold. Dinosaurs and cows and slime mold would each almost certainly die if thrust into the environment for which either of the other 2 species is adapted. There is simply no place to stand *within the theory* from which to judge ‘better’ or ‘worse’. Natural Selection does not ‘leap forward’.

– Mutation are not directed. Mutations are ‘mistakes’ that are fatal or crippling about 99.99% of the time, indifferent about .009% of the time and potentially helpful maybe .001% of the time. In the X-men, there’s an unacknowledged *somebody* causing mutations that 1) are not fatal or crippling; and 2) clearly intended to be advantageous.

– Mutations do not, as far as is known, cause full-blown functional capabilities not remotely foreshadowed in current functionality. In other word, fish don’t suddenly, in a generation, go from living in the murky deep to breathing air and nesting in trees. X-Men do.

– Finally, natural selection works within the laws of the material world. Nothing ever evolves to the point where it can violate the laws of physics. X-Men are utterly unencumbered by any natural or logical law. Create mass (as wolverine does when heals without eating or getting smaller) out of nothing? Control non-ferrous metals using some mysterious power that doesn’t seem to need any power source other than a vivid imagination? Control the weather without even standing in front of one of those accu-forecast thingies? Not a problem for X-Men.

As my kids say; Dad, it’s just a dumb comic book. And so it is. But it speaks volumes that very very few people – I’m the only one I know – have their suspension of disbelief ruined by this utter misrepresentation of science. That’s why we hate midichlorians, after all – in a fairy tale, you don’t explain the structural engineering that allows the bean stalk to reach the sky or the aerodynamic properties of  flying brooms.

Where are those people, I wonder, who are so deeply concerned that some religious person might not accept evolution that they feel obliged, one assumes in charity, to attempt to browbeat and humiliate creationist bumpkins? Why aren’t they picketing theaters for the crime of X-Men, which presents evolution as magic, and scientists as magicians, and logic as unimportant, and the laws of nature as more like guidelines than actual rules? If they were really concerned about Science(tm), X-Men is a much bigger and more damaging challenge than mere creationism – because creationism doesn’t usually pretend to be science.

maybe promoting science isn’t really the motivating factor?

The Space Princess Equation!

While I readily admit the inexorable fell logic of John C Wright’s  Space Princess Corollary to the Drake Equation, I feel sadly compelled to exhume and add the even more scientific Lex Luther Theorem, as we’ve discussed here before and as revised to be even more scientifilicious:

FR = percentage of a population that is Filthy Rich, here determined to mean ‘worth $1B or more’;
SS = percentage of a population that’s super Smart, here using a 200 IQ as the cut-off;
HS = percentage of a population that are homicidal sociopaths;

Now, it should be clear that FR * SS * HS * Total Population = the probable number of super genius homicidal billionaires in a population at any one time. (1) If the number falls below 1 for a given population at a given time, it’s only a matter of time before one arises as people die and are born – Total Population can be viewed as all the people who ever lived over a long enough period of time.

A Filthy Rich Super Smart Homicidal Sociopath has the means and the motive to exterminate life on earth – or on any other planet where intelligent life arises – based on exactly the same logic Mr. Wright laid out above. One must conclude that, Nature being Nature everywhere, it’s only a matter of time before not only a FRSSHS arises, but a FRSSHS Space Princess arises! How ’bout them apples? Of course, Mr. Wright, it would seem, has already met several alluring young things that meet this description. In short: We’re doomed.

Finally, we have:

CA – chance that a FRSSHS will succeed in his attempts to Completely Annihilate everybody. So:

FR * SS * HS * Total Population over time * CA = chances all intelligent life on a planet will get exterminated. We could divide by time, and determine exactly how long, on average, an intelligent species will exist before a FRSSHS Space Princess arises and kills them all off.

The beauty here, as opposed to Drake Equation, is that we’re making (almost) no baseless assumptions: there really are billionaires, sociopaths and super geniuses walking the planet as we speak – something like a 1,000 billionaires, several thousand super geniuses and tens of millions of sociopaths. And I’d propose that CA (success rate of our FRSSHS) approaches 1 as technology improves – engineer a virus, burn off the atmosphere, poison the oceans – these are now pretty imaginable steps a sufficiently smart, rich and crazy man could take.

See how tidy and all-explaining this is, how logically rigorous? It does not deny the Drake equation, yet explains Fermi’s Paradox – and casts a doomed pall over all human life! Damn, I just love science!

1. Just in case some pedantic statistician (Flynn) drops in – yes, we’re assuming the variables are uncorrelated, for the simple practical reason that this is a blog post and I’ve long forgotten the math needed to tidy it up, if I ever knew it.

On the Topic of Bogus Research

Go read The TOF Spot: A Footnote to the Previous Post on the Decline of Science, in which Mr. Flynn points out, as a footnote to his previous essay, a study of a total of fewer than 10 babies “proves” that racism starts really, really young.How did the “researchers” discover this? By showing this tiny group of 5 and 9 month old babies pictures of white faces and black faces and timing how long the babies focused on them, then throwing round a few statistic-y sounding words and doing some division, then announcing that, because these white babies focused on white faces some tiny amount longer than they focused on black faces – well, there you go!

This almost leaves me speechless (but no luck): that the authors are not laughed off stage, laughed out of their jobs and laughed into never showing their faces in public again is a failure of common sense, common decency and the peer-review process. Did I mention this is peer-reviewed?

Good Lord.


Science Distinguishes Hard Thinking verus Faith, Using the Ever-Popular “Smart Versus Stupid” Cleaver…

Here we go again. Intuitive, meaning of course “stupid” in this context, people are more likely to believe in God than analytical, meaning “smart” people.  Right. The article is helpfully titled “To Keep the Faith, Don’t Get Analytical”, in case we missed the point.

In fairness, the study itself seems a little more more circumspect than that – but not much.

(Took me a minute to overcome my intuitive error and see the correct answer in the example given in the article. Guess I’m a gullible rube – big surprise, there.)

So, the question becomes: does the study prove what the article says it proves? Does the study even prove what the study claims to prove? Let’s dig in a little:


“Recently there’s been an emerging consensus among [researchers] … that a lot of religious beliefs are grounded in intuitive processes,”

Warning klaxons should sound whenever alleged scientists use the word “consensus”. What we’re looking for is “evidence” or “experimental results”,  not “consensus” .  I believe you could easily get a consensus among scientists that “my field of study should be better funded” or “hot members of the targeted gender should find scientists more attractive” or maybe “huge, throbbing foreheads should be the key marking of sexual desirability.” Whatever. But nothing in a consensus indicates anything about that consensus being backed by science – only backed by *scientists*, a subtle but critical distinction.


Science, and why it arose only in Christendom

Here is a great little speech given by John C Wright. I’ve commented there.

While the subject of the talk was the relationship between Science, Romance and Science Fiction, the esteemed Mr. Wright, in his usual manner, recaps a lot of history and philosophy to get there – and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Check thou it out!

Conservatives & Science

To repeat: I am of the ‘A Pox on Both Your Houses’ party. I’m not attacking one and defending another. What I am doing is pointing out that this is a prime case of Lying through Statistics:

Turns out, according to a study, of all things, that Conservatives have less confidence in Science than others.

I hardly know where to begin. How about pointing out that ‘esteem’ and ‘trust’ are not words with any bearing on science – do I trust scientists? Hold them in esteem? Should anyone? Does the fact that Elle, for example, esteems certain women mean I should trust them? About what? Maybe climate change? Economic policy? The limits of scientific understanding? Where to get some totally pumped up kicks?

Maybe the problem has to do with ‘esteemed’ and ‘trusted’ scientists like Carl Sagan turning out to be disingenuous publicity hounds more interested in their Q-rating than, you know, actual facts that can be backed up with real science. Or fundamentalist loonies like Richard Dawkins, who believes that his admirable work on popularizing evolutionary theory means that we are obliged take his opinions on topics upon which his ignorance is blindingly obvious as Gospel. Trust either of those guys? Yes – if I need an estimate of total energy output of a main sequence star during different phases of its life cycle, or a plausible explanation of the evolutionary development of certain characteristics of beetles. But about the ‘probability’ of intelligent life in the universe? (hint: there’s no probability of a second case if there’s only one known case – there’s no probabilistic analysis of a single unique case). Or of the adequacy of science to answer ‘why’ questions when, by definition, science considers such questions irrelevant to science? Really?

And, then, let’s talk about the scientific validity of a study based on self-reporting by sample populations. The scientific conclusions from such a study can only be very timid – all you might be able to say is something like: the respondents of this survey who self-identified with the undefined category ‘conservative’ also self-identified as having less trust – another undefined term, in context – of science – ditto – than respondents who self identified as independents or liberals, terms which are also undefined.  If you think that conclusion is the equivalent of Conservative Have Less Confidence In Science Than Others, then, well, you might need to avail yourself of a remedial course on the scientific method.

But, hey, it’s clear from the rest of the article that the author either doesn’t understand or care about the scientific method – he’s interested in painting Conservatives as ignorant bumpkins, as opposed to the clearly more enlightened, urban and sophisticated independents and, especially, liberals. His efforts run aground on, what do you call those things? Oh yea, FACTS. You know, the stuff science is supposed to deal with?

Here’s one: If you have a degree from an American University, are you more likely to be a Democrat or a Republican? Turns out that you’re significantly more likely to be a Republican. But isn’t holding a degree an indicator of superior intelligence? So, how does one explain such a thing?

Conversely, if you are a high school drop out who votes, what are you likely to be registered as? What do you think? Why aren’t the results of  a study on this issue plastered all across the newspapers and interwebs? Since just about everybody but me agrees that academic achievement correlates almost exactly to native intelligence, shouldn’t the above issues be critical to our understanding about the relative intelligence of the members of political parties?

How about I write a survey – it’ll have to be a thought experiment unless somebody’s got a couple hundred grand or so to fund it – where I ask people who they voted for in the last presidential election, a series of true or false questions about the Chicago Political Machine, (Sample; over 50 people associated with the CPM are currently doing time in prison – true/false/don’t know)  and then ask them to identify sciences:

Are the following fields sciences?

– Freudian Psychology

– Jungian Psychology

– Other Psychology

– Sociology

– Economics

– Astrology

– Political Science

and then crunch some correlations. I’d be guessing the results might be informative.

Personally, I care little about whether members of the Stupid Evil Party had more or less success in school than members of the Evil Stupid Party. But I’m appalled and infuriated at the continued misuse of science for political ends by hacks like the authors of that study and the piece linked above.

The Right Answer: “We Don’t Know”

The most powerful and certain argument against the “ends justify the means” argument is that we simply do not know the ends, all we know is the means. All we choose is the means. Prudence doesn’t mean we’ve got a crystal ball whereby we see past the means and choose only the ends. We cannot choose the end. Pretending that our choice of means is really a choice of ends is an arrogant, foolish lie.

“Nobody knows”. That was the answer Richard Feynman’s dad gave him, when, as a boy, he asked why, when you rolled a wagon with a ball in it, and stopped, the ball keeps going until it hits the front of the wagon.

Good question. Complete scientific ignorance might lead to the honest answer ‘I don’t know”. Ignorance of philosophy coupled with some science might lead to a complicated side-stepping,  into Newton’s Three laws of Motion.  The senior Mr. Feynman was astute enough to give the right answer: nobody knows.

The good question, the one young Richard asked, is not how, or according to what rules do we measure, or the history of the exploration of motion, but the simple ‘why’.  And, it turns out, to this day, nobody knows. The best answer within a scientific context: we call the general case of this thing you are seeing ‘momentum’, and it is evidently a fundamental feature of physical reality. Turns out the only way we can have an observable world (observable by us, at least) is if momentum is just such a fundamental feature exactly the way it is observed. Why it is such a fundamental feature is unknown – we can’t even begin to answer that question, except to say, were it not so, we wouldn’t be here to ask it.

“We don’t know” turns out to be the right answer to almost all of life’s interesting questions, if we’re talking about either the scientific approach or strict logic. While it is clearly true that we almost never know what’s going on now or what has just happened, it is triply true that we don’t know what is going to happen.Those things we can know, or are even  somewhat confident about, are precious and few.

Yet, if we sift a little, we can easily see how much of today’s social and political arguments are about predicting the future based on things we don’t even understand today. Two examples, one from science and one from morality. Continue reading “The Right Answer: “We Don’t Know””

Which is Harder?

Making an important technological advance, say discovering penicillin, or civilizing the French?

You may be thinking: the French are civilized? But of course! Don’t let the recent unpleasantness of the last 250 years or so – revolutions, equality and brotherhood in the form of mass murder of innocents, that whole applied Cartesian thinking thing*, Gerard Depardieu – detract from the vast leaps made by the descendents of the Franks from 300 A.D. to the 15th century.

Continue reading “Which is Harder?”

Manned Space Flight Funding: Update

Now it appears that the Webb space telescope, planned replacement for the Hubble and the single most exciting space project since, I dunno, Mercury, is in trouble, what with the late economic unpleasantness.

As is inevitable when cutting edge make-it-up-as-we-go science meets massive federal bureaucracy, the project is factors over budget and years behind schedule. I’m sure you’re shocked to hear this.

But let’s look at the numbers:

Webb was originally budgeted at about $1.6B, and scheduled for launch around now. Now, it appears 2020 is the earliest realistic launch date, with costs up around  $6.8B. Classic case of a run-away government project, and an easy target for this year’s ‘let’s-pretend-we’re-cutting-the-budget’ crowd of Congress-droids.

Two things:

‘freakin’ AWESOME’ – to use a scientific term – hardly describes the Webb. It is the coolest science project EVAH. I, and millions of other geeks hyperventilate just thinking about it. We’d all trade a pile of superconducting super colliders for one Webb.

– Here’s the point pertinent to the current topic of manned space flight – even at $6.8B, you could buy over 73 Webbs for the laughably low-balled price of $500B, which is what wild-eyed optimists, after several bong hits, claim it would cost us to get people to Mars.

And – here’s the real point – we’ll discover more stuff, test more theories, blow more minds, and get a better opportunity to get closer to our Creator – in short, do more science – in a month of Webb operation than we’ll do in a Mars trip.