Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Non-religious weddings boom in Australia

Non-religious (civil) weddings in Australia have boomed over the last decade.

See this "Civil weddings now double the number of religious" media release (pdf) by the New South Wales government, and this newspaper article on the corresponding figures in Victoria (which together account for 60% of Australia's population).

So I made a graph. It shows the percentage of weddings that were civil ceremonies by year for the two states (with the corresponding remainder - the religious weddings - percentage shown over on the axis on the right).

Non-religious weddings in Australia
Data Sources: NSW Registry of Births Deaths and Marriages
and Victorian Registry of Births Deaths and Marriages

By 2002 religious weddings were already in a minority... and presently they're outnumbered about two-to-one. If anything, from the NSW figures, the trend is accelerating.

Of course, lots and lots of people just aren't getting married at all. They're not in these figures, and they're growing too.

(edited Nov 2011 to fix dead link)

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Pew online Political News IQ survey

Pew have a Political News Quiz up, here, and you can see how you went compared to a national US survey.

I did okay on that:
Here's Your Score: You correctly answered 12 of the 12 possible questions along with approximately 2% of the public. You did better than 98% of the general public.

If you do it, once you get a graph like the above, there are some further links on the left with more information; the link How you did, question by question takes you to a list of which questions you got right or not and the percentage of correct responses on each question from the previous survey.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Finished "The Greatest Show on Earth"

Extremely short version of a book review, kinda.

In short, I was quite impressed with it.

Dawkins, though given to occasional infelicities, is a very engaging writer. Good coverage of a lot of the evidence for evolution. Highly recommended.

It's also a book that sits well beside Coyne's Why Evolution Is True - there's definitely value in having both.

I'd write more, but I am not feeling up to much analysis of the book right now.

[To be more specific, I now have a partially collapsed left lung, as well as some scarring on the right lung, which is apprently otherwise okay now. I feel a bit crap, to be honest.]

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Ten, no eleven! things that shit me about research seminars

1) People who can't stick close to time. There's a time limit for a reason - people have other places to go. The last 5 talks I attended all went way, way over time; if you can't get the point across in the time, you don't understand what's important about your work.

Don't these people have ANY idea how long they're going to take? Unless I am interrupted a lot, I can usually time my talk to within a few minutes or so, based off nothing more than the number of slides I have; generally close enough to finish with time for a few questions before the scheduled time is up. I check my watch a couple of times as I go, so if I am running well over for some reason (which almost never happens), I can skip ahead to the more critical stuff. How can someone go almost twice the allocated time without realizing? (And if they do realize and do it anyway, who the hell do they think are?)

2) Morons who think that putting their entire PAPER on slides is acceptable practice. In 12 point.

As soon as I see someone holding their slides in portrait orientation, I start to sweat (well, hardly anyone carries actual physical slides any more - but a few of these guys still do). I'm in for a lot of eyestrain, and they are absolutely guaranteed to run way over time. And they're going to spend the entire talk with their back to me. The back of your head just isn't that interesting.

For some reason, by far the most common offenders on this are LaTeX users. I don't know why. I can read your freaking text 5 times as fast as you can say it. Maybe more. If I want to read your freaking paper, I will read your freaking paper. I do NOT want to listen to you READING your freaking paper to me. This is not going to get me interested in what you did.

If you can't summarize it, you don't understand it well enough to be giving a presentation. If you won't put in the effort to summarize it, why should I put in the effort to sit through it?

3) People who think it's necessary to go through proofs, protocols, algorithms or whatever in excruciating detail. If I want extreme detail, I will read your damn paper. If you did something particularly clever to prove a result, tell me briefly what that was, but otherwise, unless it's the only thing your paper is about* don't do more than present the result, tell me why it's interesting and what you can do with it. Outline the proof if it's really brief.

* and if it is all you can talk about, I probably won't be back at your next talk.

4) If I have to ask "Why should I care about this?" (though I may put it more politely than that) then you have already failed.

That's the entire point of giving a presentation, something you should convey in the first few minutes. If we got to the end of your talk and I am asking, you didn't even hint at it.

If I ask and you still can't answer, you have no business giving a talk on it.

5) People who think that spouting bullshit is better than answering "I don't know". I don't expect every speaker to have a ready answer for every question - that would be ridiculous. "I don't know" is okay, "but I'll find out and let you know" is better. But whatever you do, don't bullshit me. Chances are I will know the moment you open your mouth. If not, I will likely find out a few minutes after the talk has finished. I will NOT be impressed.

6) People who think that brown text on a purple background is a good idea. Black on white is readable. Many other colour combinations are definitely NOT. And fancy wipes and shit - it's distracting, not interesting. Knock it off. Your talk should be interesting. If you have to fuck around with brainbending colours and wipes and fades and crap, you're not spending time on the content. ... and starwipe!

7) People who can't answer basic questions about how they got some particular result (e.g. "Did this come from the survey or the interviews?"). If you don't know your own research that well, why would I believe it's your own work? Even if I do, why would I trust anything else you say about it?

8) People who make some amazing assertion but don't have a good answer for "what is your evidence for this assertion?". Look, if you're going to make a claim, someone is going to make you justify it. If it's an extraordinary claim, you have to have really good evidence.

If you can't justify it, don't make the claim. Just don't.

9) People who put three words and some clipart on a slide and present 5 slides total... (and STILL, unbelievably, somehow manage to go 45 minutes past the allocated 45 minutes).

If you don't have some actual content, you're wasting my time. Have something to say, and don't spend longer than necessary to say it.

10) People who start their talk with a list of assumptions, every one of which is known, beyond a shadow of a doubt, to be completely false in practice, well beyond any sense of "approximation"*. And then finish their talk without attempting to address why their results are in any way relevant, or even identify which assumptions their results are robust to deviations from, and which ones are more critical.

If your work is always a bunch of unexamined, unrealistic assumptions followed by some unenlightening proof of a result and no applications, I am sorry, but I don't think your work is brilliant. I think it's masturbation, with grants.

*("assume a spherical cow" can be just fine, in the right context)

11) People who obliviously break a bunch of these rules, over and over, and never seem to learn a single thing year upon year. Even if you're utterly incapable of self-reflection, at least pay enough attention to notice what works and what doesn't when other people present.

Thursday, October 8, 2009


I just had to get this one down. It's too crazy not to.
"When we applied for non-profit status in the UK, and faced delays greater than for a new religion, the Charity Commission wrote back to us, and I quote: 'Kindly explain how scientific education benefits humanity.' "
-- Richard Dawkins, on the Richard Dawkins Foundation
Source: Dinner with Dawkins on Flickr (jurvetson), via Too Many Tribbles

[Aside on health: still recovering, 7 weeks down the track. Getting there slowly. And I still can't get my blog page to load for some reason.]

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Admiration and disagreement...

Mark Chu-Carroll has an excellent blog, Good Math, Bad Math - (I get the feed, which I don't do with all that many blogs). It's reliably intelligent, clear, unfailingly educational and tolerates fools not at all.

But I have to note a point of disagreement with him now.

Mark takes Phil Plait of BadAstronomy to task over what he sees as Plait employing dualism.

Actually, I don't object so much to that, though I think he's making slightly more of it than was necessary; and especially given Phil was in the process of debunking nonsense.

But then he commits what I see as a much graver error than Phil's fairly weak expression of dualism (which he refers to as "sloppy dualism").

In discussing "sloppy dualism" he says:

"But moving from non-determinism to choice is a problem. If you're consistent, and you reject non-physical entities and influences in the world, then you are no exception.

There's no scientific reason to believe that we have free will."

No problem so far - there is really little to no evidence that we have it - and indeed, some experiments do seem to suggest that we in fact may not have it. I know it *feels* like we have it, and we certainly base our society around the assumption that we possess it - but neither of those things means that we do. Our choices can certainly be influenced, that much is clear (which is why so much money is spent on advertising, for example).

He goes further:
"There's non-determinism; but there's not choice."

Okay, fine. We haven't demonstrated that we really choose in the sense of exercising free will -- though I can make some arguments - a series of thought experiments (though you could easily carry them out) - that seem to show we can at least simulate something like that. But that's a post for another time.

He's already begun to push the boundary here - he's gone from saying "we haven't demonstrated choice" to seeming to assert that we can't have choice in a purely naturalistic framework.

[This is not necessarily the case, of course. For example, Penrose suggested that quantum effects come into it. I happen to think Penrose was utterly wrong (not just about microtubules, but the whole quantum-consciousness concept), but the point still stands - there may be ways to have a natural/materialist explanation of these matters, Chu-Carroll's assertions notwithstanding. The onus is on him to make a much better demonstration of impossibility.]

But let's be generous - maybe he's not asserting that - maybe I'm misreading him?

Well, no, he really is. Here's where he goes completely off the rails:

"Choice is the introduction of something, dare I say it, supernatural: some influence that isn't part of the physical interaction, which allows some clusters of matter and energy to decide how they'll collapse a probabilistic waveform into a particular reality."

He has certainly gone beyond anything you can reliably infer fromn Plait's words there. He's also snuck in a whole load of extra stuff with little justification.

But he goes on:

"The funny thing is that at the end of the day, I agree with him. I've mentioned before that I'm a theist. The reason that I'm a theist is because I believe in consciousness."

I have no problem with Chu-Carroll's variety of theism. He's (with the possible tiny exception, which I don't begrudge him) entirely rational - his theism is utterly beside the point here; my problem is with his reasoning.

The progression appears to be (someone please nudge me if you detect a straw man):

- "consciousness is complex" (granted)

- "choice requires consciousness. We don't see a possibility for that to happen in physics" (not granted - I don't see that it's been ruled out even if we can't see a mechanism for it)

- "I therefore have no natural explanation for consciousness" (I don't agree, but let's pretend his argument goes through for now)

- "therefore god"

Wait. WHAT?

This is hoary old argument-from-ignorance - specifically, it's argument from personal incredulity:


The favourite canard of every YEC, every evolution-denier, every muddle-headed biblical literalist...

...from Mark Chu-Carroll? Colour me amazed. Stunned.

Natural explanations are sufficient for everything we can reliably, demonstrably explain at all. But he throws it over rather casually.

The fact is, as Greta Christina points out,

"When you look at the history of what we know about the world, you see a very noticeable pattern. Natural explanations of things have been replacing supernatural explanations of them... as we understood the world better, and learned to observe it more carefully, the religious explanations were replaced by physical cause and effect."

"The number of times that a supernatural or religious explanation of a phenomenon has been replaced by a natural explanation? Thousands upon thousands upon thousands."

"The number of times that a natural explanation of a phenomenon has been replaced by a supernatural or religious one? The number of times humankind has said, "We used to think (X) was caused by physical cause and effect, but now we understand that it's actually caused by God, or spirits, or demons, or the soul"?

Zero Exactly zero."

I commented on his blog (from which I have taken the liberty of extracting part).
The below is simply suggesting a possibility for what we perceive as consciousness - because I am not convinced we have really established consciousness is *real*, let alone that we can't ever explain it naturally:

- Let's take as given (I hope) that the ability to infer intent in the action of other animals has useful survival benefits (as in "that tiger is heading toward the river - it's probably looking for a meal" vs "that tiger's just gone toward its cave after a feed - it's probably looking to have a sleep"), whether the animal in question actually possesses consciousness or even actual intent. Such an ability becomes even more critical in an intelligent social species, like say, wolves or baboons, or even more so in bonobos, chimps, or ourselves, of course.

- Given that inferring intent is potentially useful for survival, demonstrate that what you call consciousness is not something as simple as say, our intention-inferring brain's attempt to rationalize what it observes itself doing.

If it's potentially something reasonably trivial (almost a side effect, perhaps), why invoke something complex without a reason to do so?

- -

Make no mistake, "god" is the most complex possible explanation. Or rather, it's the ultimate non-explanation, because we are never presented with a set of observations with which it's inconsistent. Because it can be plunked down to "explain" any observation, it's completely useless. It's the end of inquiry. It must therefore be the absolute last resort as an explanation, because its the worst possible explanation. And we're nowhere near a last resort.

So the point I was making up there is, before we start saying "consciousness is tricky, therefore god", we need first to demonstrate that there's some "there" there - that consciousness is something "real", something big - not something relatively simple, like a side effect of other brain processes - that we need a complex explanation for.

And then we need to demonstrate that natural explanations are utterly ruled out - and because we have yet to find a single case where we demonstrably can't have a natural explanation, or require a supernatural one, it had better be a very good demonstration.

Mark Chu-Carroll hasn't even come close to making his case.

[As noted before - I can post, but I can't read my blog at the moment. So I can't really see how this looks, except for a rough preview. Apologies if there are errors; as a result I will probably make a lot of tiny edits without specifically marking them as edits, as I notice them from the preview. Please excuse that.]

Blogging anniversary

Tomorrow, October 5 is the second anniversary of the first post to Ecstathy, so today marks the final day of my second year of writing this blog (one of four, in fact, but this one is my most active and second oldest).

I've made about 220 posts, and since I started measuring (a good while after I started the blog), I've had around 17000 visitors - not big, by any means, but many more than I ever expected.

Hopefully I've still got something to say in another couple of years.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Ardi: probably not an actual ancestor

Again, find an interesting fossil, and the media is full of hyperbole.

Ardi is probably not a human ancestor. Ardi is probably not a common ancestor of humans and chimps.

The hominin family tree is very bushy. There's lots of "cousins" in it.

It's much more likely that Ardi's species is a close relative of a human ancestor than a direct human ancestor - but Ardi is probably very like a direct human ancestor that lived at the same time (a bit like looking for Cro Magnon and finding Neanderthal - it's really a very good approximation). It's even less likely that Ardi is the most recent common ancestor of humans, chimpanzees and bonobos. Again, Ardi is probably somewhat like that common ancestor, but to my understanding the branch point is a good deal older than Ardi - the figure I usually see is 6-7 mya, Ardipithecus ramidus is a bit over 4.

You don't need to call your great aunt "grandma" to feel close to her.

The fossil is a very exciting find. We don't need to make it something it's likely not, for it to be fascinating.

(been trying to post this since news first came, but haven't been able to get on blogger for some reason)