Sunday, 15 August 2010

Adverts shooting their own foot. (Game)

Game is a UK computer game shop. They sell new and pre-owned games.

Yesterday I saw one of their adverts, raising awareness of their pre-owned range. It was aimed at the FPS market. (FPS = First Person opposed to RPG (Role Play Game) or RTS (Real Time Strategy) - gaming is full of TLAs (Three Letter Acronyms)). The advert had the words "I'm hit!!!" on the top, with the message below it "Pre-owned bullets fly just as fast as new ones."

The message is clear. An FPS game is just as good whether you buy it new or pre-owned, but the choice of slogan there is baffling. In real life a pre-owned bullet doesn't fly faster than a new one, because it's gunpowder charge has already been used, and the bullet has likely been deformed.

Furthermore, fans of FPS gaming are likely to know this.

So who is the advert aimed at, exactly?

Thursday, 5 August 2010

Richard Dawkins' Books: A Holistic* Review

* "Holistic" is used as a sort of in-joke with myself.

I have a love/hate with Richard Dawkins' books. The Selfish Gene and The Blind Watchmaker are beautiful, wonderful fantastic books. While they don't make for easy reading, this because they don't contain easy ideas. Most importantly, they play to Dawkins' strength: evolutionary biology.

In The Selfish Gene Dawkins, bit by bit, builds up an argument that - given an imperfect and competitive reproducer - evolution by natural selection is not something likely to happen, but an inevitable consequence. Anyone presented with the case that not every member of a species reproduces (obvious) and that offspring are not clones of their parents (similarly obvious) is led to the inescapable conclusion that evolution is a fact. The book is well written enough to sustain interest, and in depth enough to flatter the reader. Anyone who can read should read this book.

The Blind Watchmaker pulls a similar trick. The focus of the argument is more on emergent complexity out of apparent simplicity, and is where Dawkins starts to lose the plot in his writing - fortunately after this book. It is in this book that he starts showing interest in theology, and the introduction suggests that the book was motivated by theological arguments. In this book he does a remarkable job of he unenviable task of making the arguments clear. He comes out with some beautiful demonstrations of complexity arising from simple rules. This book is another must read.

Sadly, Dawkins is a poor theologian, and I find his more religion-focussed books poor.

In the first instance, I'll look at Unweaving The Rainbow. This book is an attempt to demonstrate the natural beauty in the world around us from a purely secular viewpoint. Sadly he has a poor crack at it. Maybe his impression is different from mine, but I'll give you an example. Chapter 3 is "Barcodes in the Stars", where he points to the heavens to look at the beauty in rainbows, and at spectra - the spectra of stars are where we discover pretty much everything about them. When you look at the spectum of a star, it looks like a rainbow with lines cut out of it. I find the process by which we analyse these lines, and deduce or induce colossal amounts of information from this to be wonderful, fantastic and brilliant. The resemblance of a stellar spectrum with a barcode is entirely secondary. And yet Dawkins uses this analogy, referring to the stars barcode.

In a book about beauty in nature this feels wrong. Forgive the laconic attitude here, but when was the last time you looked at a barcode and thought it should be on the wall in the Tate Modern? (Actually, scrap that, the Tate Modern will take pretty much anything.) Dawkins here disappoints. He has missed the point in trying to explain that things in nature aren't the most beautiful thing about it - although there are some beautiful things in nature - but processes.

Finally, and you knew it was coming, The God Delusion. As an atheist, I find this book to be a horrible parody of everything I'm supposed to stand for. I don't hate religion or the religious, I don't find religion offensive, moralising or dangerous. Dawkins veers between plain wrong, to callously offensive. He tells us, for instance, that the trouble in Northern Ireland, Isreal, and terrorism are all caused by religion in one way or another. Rubbish. While the media may have deceptively labelled the two sides in Northern Ireland "Catholics" and "Protestants", the conflicts have nothing to do with religion and everything to do with owns that piece of land. The troubles in Isreal have nothing to do with Jews and Muslims and everything to do with the native people being turfed from their land so some Western countries can artificially meddle with them, and terrorism is more related to American oil interests then religion. While some involved in these cases may use religion as an excuse, in a secular world these things would still be happening, but with different reasons cited.

While Dawkins is right that religious extremists are worrying, all extremists - religious or not - are worrying.

That isn't even the worst part of the book.

The worst part is the way Dawkins argues his case.

He says the book is for everyone. It is not. Only those who believe in his ideas will see the book through to the end. He doesn't argue against certain points sometimes, so much as just ridicule them and I fail to see how Dawkins could have thought anyone would be convinced.

Take the ontological argument, for example. The argument runs, approximately, as follows:
1. If I am thinking of the Greatest Being Thinkable, then I can think of no being greater
1a. If it is false that I can think of no being greater, it is false I am thinking of the Greatest Being Thinkable
2. Being is greater than not being
3. If the being I am thinking of does not exist, then it is false that I can think of no being greater.
4. If the being I am thinking of does not exist, then it is false that I am thinking of the Greatest Being Thinkable
Conclusion: If I am thinking of the Greatest Being Thinkable, then I am thinking of a being that exists

(From Wikipedia)

Now, you may be looking at that thinking "that doesn't quite work..." (and you'd be right) even if you can't put your finger on it. Those who use this argument like to challenge you to point out where the logical flaw is, and it isn't simple to put your finger on it. So, how does Dawkins refute this argument that, while clearly flawed, isn't obviously disprovable?

He suggests the proof is self evident, and mocks it by presenting it as an argument between a pair of children. I did not make that up.

Of course, if you know the ontological argument is rubbish, you may find this wildly hilarious (though I doubt it) but if you know God exists because of this argument you will just close the book and give it away thinking "what an idiot!"

How should Dawkins have argued the case? By breaking it down into logical steps, as follows:
1. DEFINE: A perfect being HAS THE PROPERTY OF existance.
2. DEFINE: God IS a perfect being.

This is a tautology. The ontological argument defines God to exist, and cannot be used to argue that God does exist. THIS is what Dawkins should have written. This how he should of argued. This is how I know he can argue.

I recently bought a copy of "The Greatest Show On Earth", but haven't read it yet. I pray to the Flying Spaghetti Monster that it is a step backwards.

Tuesday, 3 August 2010

On Westminister Skeptic, and the problem with skeptics

Today I went to see Frank Swain talk at Westminister Skeptic. There were a few other faces I know from the blogosphere too, which was cool.

It was nice to meet a friendly bunch of people, it was nice to meet someone who shared my view on Richard Dawkins (Hi, Irene!) - which I'll save for another post - and it was an excellent talk on "The Problem With Skeptics".

In essence, Frank argued that the skeptic community were often perceived to be aggressive and arrogant and he finished by asking "How can we challenge these people?" (These people being those who believe that homoeopathy works, and such).

In the question and answer session I proposed that the best way of talking to believers was through Socratic Questioning. This is to challenge beliefs through asking questions, rather than stating facts. There are several reasons why this works well which I didn't really have time to go into in detail, so this is my soapbox.

The first benefit of this is that it is far less confrontational than the bare display of facts. Nobody likes to be told their wrong, and this way no one tells them outright they are wrong.

It is also more engaging. Everybody loves to talk about themselves and by asking questions you invite people to talk about themselves.

Some people will never be won around. Some people fundamentally believe, for example, that Jesus Christ died on the cross and was raised from the dead. They will never be convinced otherwise. Instead of confronting them, the questioning will instead find this given straight away ("I have total faith in this belief" or something). At this point, change the subject to wiffleball, or something. You'll never convince them.

Where people can be won over, this method is far more effective than bare presentation of facts. For a start, bare presentation is, in some ways, just another argument from authority. By leading someone through the lines of reasoning by which we skeptics form our beliefs we not only lead them to what we consider to be the truth, but we also demonstrate the way of thinking that we employ which is - in my opinion - far more important.

Furthermore, it isn't patronising when done correctly. It shows confidence in the other person that are bright enough to understand our ideas. (A common criticism of skeptics is that we are arrogant by seeing to assume that non-believers won't understand it. A criticism that is not wholly unjustified.) Furthermore, by making them find the idea themselves they are more likely to understand and accept it.

A final point is that it is good for you as well. You may receive answers you were not expecting, which throws a different light on the subject you were discussing. It may challenge your views! If you are a true skeptic, you will welcome this. Furthermore, in order to convince anyone with this method you will have to be familiar with the subject matter. How many of you could convince me that the Earth orbits the Sun with nothing but a telescope and as much time as you wished?

But what is the best way to do this? It isn't particularly easy. Be careful not to simply veil criticism by phrasing as a question. Don't you think that would be most unwise? People will see straight through it.

The best way to go about this is to show an interest in someone's beliefs before asking any leading questions. This will help you establish a rapport and understand some of the nuances. Asking where a particular belief comes from, for example. You can quite often spot those who can't be won around here.

An example might go:

PERSON: I believe that Jesus died on the cross and was raised from the dead.
YOU: That's interesting. Why do you believe that?
PERSON: Because the Bible tells me so, and is the divine word of God himself.

You'd be best here not to argue the point. However, if the same person argued that evolution was a myth, you could more easily lead them to the conclusion that evolution is an inevitable result from imperfect reproduction and natural selection, by asking the right questions.

This can be done with blog posts too, even though there isn't actually a dialogue happening. All it takes is a little more work. If you want to argue a case, present the opposing viewpoint. Present it fairly and without sarcasm - if you are actually right there is no need to distort or strawman the opposition (and if you are wrong then you'll learn something). Phrase headings as questions. Not "Homoeopathy is wrong" but "Is homoeopathy correct?" to be less confrontational. When making the opposition case link to their own sources, if possible. Doing this will allow those who disagree with you to agree up to a point. Even if they don't like your conclusions they are far more likely to actually read what you've written.

I hope this is helpful.