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Thursday, March 13, 2014

Russell’s Teapot, the God Debate, and Cunningham’s Law

Back on Feb. 4, 2014 I got into a heated conversation with one of my friends (let’s call him Phil for the purposes of this story) about the absurdity of the Bill Nye “the science guy” vs. Ken Ham religious debate. In case you didn’t watch it, what transpired was the classic argument about whether science and the study of evolution through natural selection is superior to the belief that all life on Earth is a result of a divine entity (in this case protestant Christianity).

Side note: Bill Nye is a former aerospace engineer and one of America’s leading champions of the teaching of science in its public schools. Ken Ham is the curator of a Christian themed museum which, inter alia, attempts to show through physical evidence and the dispute of accepted scientific methods that the Earth was created in the manner described in the Old Testament or Hebrew Bible (more specifically, the book of Genesis).

What transpired was a nearly 3 hour debate involving one of the world’s oldest questions: “How did we get here?” As a person who considers himself intellectually flexible I attempted to set aside my personal biases and beliefs to consider both arguments equally with as much neutrality as possible. Both sides acquitted themselves fairly well using the now very predictable Power-Point slide show and lecture combo which has become de rigueur at such modern venues. Point and then counterpoint, followed each other like a well-choreographed dance. Argument and then rebuttal. It was really standard stuff for any debate. In fact, it wasn’t until the contest was half-way finished before I had an incredible insight which I later shared with my friend. I told Phil that the debate really wasn’t about which origin story is more valid, but in fact was really about a deeper and more insidious argument. The real story, which I believe was getting lost in the weeds, was about who bears the onus of proving an origin story? The person stating it? Or the person attempting to call BS?

Here is where my friend and I disagreed about who actually won the argument. According to Phil, Ken Ham had “beat the socks off” Bill Nye because Nye failed to produce a single physical specimen or other similar example of “the missing link” between human beings and other primates. I said, “what about the Tiktaalik (first example of a “walking fish”) that Bill Nye demonstrated in his Power-Point slide as proof of evolution through natural selection?” My buddy Phil wasn’t buying it. He said that the connection between the Tiktaalik and modern man was too distant, and therefore evolution and, by extension, natural selection fails. So then I said, “what about when Bill Nye brought up the fact that we share almost 98% of our genes with chimpanzees? As far as Phil was concerned, if it were true that humans and chimps share much of the same genetic code then somewhere on the planet there would exist a chimp capable of speech. In other words, Bill Nye’s arguments fell flat on their noses and the moderator should have rung a bell and rushed to lift Ken Ham’s arm into to air as if he had just won a 15 round heavyweight boxing match simply because Bill Nye failed to produce a talking chimp.

That’s when I told my buddy about Russell’s Teapot and although it did not forever change his opinion about the origin of the world, I think Phil gained a new found respect for my ability to analyze current events.
This post is already much too long so I won’t bore you with details that you can learn on your own by clicking on the hyperlink. (It’s basically a theory posited by one of the best logicians of the modern era in which he is calling BS on religion. Russell compares modern religions as behaving like people who make a claim that a porcelain dish is floating somewhere in space, yet invisible to even our most sensitive telescopes. Furthermore, the fact that nobody can prove that the teapot does not actually exist is therefore proof, in of itself, that the teapot does exist. Confused? Here’s Russell’s Teapot (“RT”) put even more succinctly:

The burden of proof is on the claimant, not the disclaimer.”

Bertrand Russell  at 44 yrs. (1872-1970)

That is when it dawned on me that this debate was doomed from the beginning because both sides were working towards different goals while using different sets of tools. For example, Ken Ham’s debate technique could best be described as a variant of a phenomena that I wrote about last week called “Cunningham’s Law” (“CL”). Here is that theory in short:

Ken Ham had essentially rigged the debate by saying, “Prove my improvable assertions wrong using evidence which cannot exist.” So in a sense Bill Nye entered this debate operating under the perception that Ham had somehow “posted the wrong answer onto the internet” and therefore it was Nye’s duty to attempt to “fix Ham’s code” by giving him the right answers.
Whereas, Ken Ham was operating under the principles of Russell’s Teapot. From his perspective, whatever evidence produced by Bill Nye, and the community of scientists that he represented, could never sufficiently convince him that a Christian God did not create the Earth in less than 6,000 years. Primarily because Ham knew going in, that “even the most sensitive telescope Nye could produce would invariably still be unable to detect the teapot that he had claimed was floating out in space”.

(please comment, repost and donate a dollar or two if you like this, thank you for your support!)

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Cunningham's Law and the Williams Corallary (+playlist)

Cunningham’s Law and the Williams Corollary

                 Ward Cunningham, Wikipedia Pioneer
(Photo by Carigg Photography and courtesy of:Wikipedia Creative Commons.)

                  Cunningham’s Law: “The best way to get the right answer on the Internet is not to ask a question, it’s to post the wrong answer." As quoted by Cunningham's friend and former Intel Corp. executive Steven McGeady

 Williams’ corollary to Cunningham’s law: "It's not enough that the question posited be incorrect; said question must also be so egregiously erroneous as to compel even the laziest of smug, know-it-all bastards to get off their judgmental haunches and chime in with the correction.” Taken from a comment posted on Reddit, March 8, 2014

Joel Z. Williams
Creator of the "Williams Corollary" to the Cunningham Law

In a discussion held on the popular news and information site Reddit, Joel Z. Williams responded to a comment left by "rockychunk" who stated that Cunningham's Law was fairly good but that it did not apply in situations where it was unclear as to whether the answer put forth was accurate or true. Joel Z. Williams agreed with "rockychunk" and expanded this concept to say that any answer put forth must deviate substantially from any plausibly correct answer in order to compel persons to intervene.

For example: Joel Z. Williams published an article a year prior to his discussion with "rockychunk" wherein he posted a formula he named the "Williams Peak". Although not a scientist, Joel Z. Williams created the formula using plausible variables such as the numbers of insecticide resistant bedbug cases reported to the Centers for Disease Control, the numbers of licensed Pest Control Operators in the U.S. and etc. Yet despite the article receiving heavy viewership for over a year, no scientist or other expert questioned his formula or otherwise called him to account. Joel Z. Williams attributed this phenomena to the fact that his formula contained all of the normal hallmarks of scientific legitimacy. Indeed, his correct use of letters to denote time, distance, costs, and etc., in his formula discouraged critical analysis from people unfamiliar with such fields of study.

 Joel Z. Williams pointed to the tactics employed by Nigerian con-artists working what has come to be known as an Advanced-Fee Fraud, or "419 Nigerian Prince Scam". These con artist purposely send out thousands of emails to potential victims which are peppered with misspelled words and poor grammar in an effort to weed out the more critically thinking victims. This process saves the Nigerian Prince scammers time because of a process called "self-selecting".  Victims who overlook the glaring "red flags" and do respond are usually more feeble-minded and therefore more pliable to their schemes. 

In other words, the majority of people would  immediately notice if a correspondence sent to them did not bear the hallmarks of legitimacy. Readily apparent  indicia of fraud such as bank notes bearing the logos of unfamiliar institutions, hand-written text on a supposedly legal document and etcetera. Smarter people would instantly say: "See? that's a scam, there's no longer any need to read further or otherwise concern myself with the intricacies of that person's sad story." whereas the more gullible person might ignore those obvious signs and say: "OMG that person is in extreme peril and I must act now to save them.".

In summary, if Joel Z. Williams wants to get the right answer on the internet regarding his formula for the Williams Peak, then he needs to rewrite the equation using obviously unscientific terms and other wildly inaccurate and unsubstantiated claims. That should sufficiently upset someone in the scientific community to the point that they would feel compelled to right a wrong and correct such an obvious and unforgivable error. (Note: The Williams Peak article is posted on this site in an article called "The Missouri Method").