Saturday, October 22, 2005

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Chomsky's Trust

Re: The Branding of the World's Top Intellectual: Noam Chomsky

This article is a rather straightforward (and fairly boring) instance of the logical fallacy known as Ad Hominem Tu Quoque.

"For example, when one is arguing 'Jack is a murderer', Jack or Jack's defendent says 'You're a murderer too'. The response is only blaming the claimer for the same thing he/she did as well. This doesn't refute the fact Jack is a murderer, but only draws away the attention by involving another person." More here.

It is worth noting that, if the measures proposed by Chomsky are accepted, that Chomsky would then be subject to the same conditions as everyone else. So Chomsky is in fact willing to give up the advantages gained by having a trust, but rather than take unilateral action (which is not in any way entailed by his position) is lobbying in such a way as to change the law to reflect this.

Presumably the author of this article knows that this is an old and tired fallacy, a well-worn version of the old saw that "socialists must be poor", one that has no grounding in logic or reason, and reflects, therefore, yet another instance of sleazy argumentation on TCS.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Evidence and Obesity

Re: No Fizzy Drinks, Please...

The author wants us to believe the counterintuitive conclusion that "children who eat larger amounts of so-called junk food actually had less chance of being overweight."

To support this contention, he cites three studies, providing references for none of them, but all of which, he asserts, find no correlation between poor eating habits and obesity.

I have tracked down all three studies, however, and have found that he blatantly misrepresents two of them and contradicts the recommendations of the third.

1. The author cites "a recent Canadian study." The study in question is Paul J. Veugelers, PhD and Angela L. Fitzgerald, MSc, Effectiveness of School Programs in Preventing Childhood Obesity: A Multilevel Comparison.

While the author would have us believe that the researchers found no correlation between poor eating habits and obesity, the study concludes explicitly, "Students from schools participating in a coordinated program that incorporated recommendations for school-based healthy eating programs exhibited significantly lower rates of overweight and obesity."

2. The second study, a World Health Orghanization study, is alleged to show that eating junk food actually results in weight loss.

This study is a report from the WHO MONICA project, and is specifically Silventoinen K, Sans S, Tolonen H, Monterde D, Kuulasmaa K, Kesteloot H, Tuomilehto J; Trends in obesity and energy supply in the WHO MONICA Project.

The WHO MONICA study concludes, "Increasing energy supply is closely associated with the increase of overweight and obesity in western countries. This emphasizes the importance of dietary issues when coping with the obesity epidemic."

3. The third study, published in the International Journal of Obesity, is cited as showing that there is no correlation between snacking and obesity.

This study, one of many reports from the Growing Up Today Study (GUTS), is specifically A E Field1, S B Austin1, M W Gillman, B Rosner, H R Rockett and G A Colditz, Snack food intake does not predict weight change among children and adolescents.

This study, as the title suggests, suggests that the eating of snacks does not predict obesity. However, 'snaks' are very different from 'junk food', and the researchers allowed all manner of snacks. Moreover, the participants, all children of nurses, self-reported their eating habits, a weakness not considered significant by the authors but questioned by other commentators.

Even so, the authors of this study write, "Most snack food items are of poor diet quality, thus regardless of the lack of association between intake of snack foods and subsequent weight gain, it would be prudent to recommend consuming snack foods only in moderation."

It is evident from the three sources cited by the author of this article that none of the reserachers would approve of the conclususion being fostered here. They would not assert that their studies say that eating junk food is harmless, and all three studies explicitly recommended healthy eating programs in schools, exactly the opposite of what this article is asserting.

It is not surprising, therefore, that the author provides no citations or links, as the scale of his deception would be evident. Moreover, it should be noted that among the dozens and dozens of studies on this subject, these three studies are not merely typical, but indeed, the most moderate.

If you look at the ADA evidence summary, for example, you see the majority of studies showing a greater and more defined correlation between unhealthy eating and obesity.

I might add that nobody claims that eating habits constitute the sole cause of obesity. Exercise is obviously a major component, as is the form of consumption (liquid calories, for example, have a much greater impact than solid calories, since the body does not register their intake). Further, parental genetics also constitutes a major determinate.

That said, as mentioned, all of these studies recommend dietary programs along with exercise and healthy living habits. It is unclear why the author offers an argument here against school programs designed to implement the recommendations of these reports.

But it is very clear that the research data is blatantly misrepresented, in what can only be termed a sleazy and underhanded fashion. The editors of Tech central should question their standards for publication, as honesty and integrity do not appear to be among the criteria considered.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

Oil and Scapegoats

Re: Choices-Energy


Instead of going after smoking, cable and lotteries why didn't you go after McDonalds, Coca-Cola and Lays? Or after convenience stores? Or taverns? Or sports arenas?

For that matter, why would you go after Indonesia, which though it has 241 million people, ranks 17th in consumption in the world, at 1.063 million barrels, about 1/20th of U.S. consumption and even less than Canada.

Or, for that matter, why go after Rome? Yes, it subsidized food, for otherwise it would have had starvation in the streets. But the decline of Roman agriculture was not subsidized food, it was depopulation due to war and raids and eventual conquest at the hands of the Goths and the Vandals.

Do you drive a car or truck? Why not give it up and lobby the government for public transportation?

Do you live in the country? Why not move into the city and save us all the cost of maintaining roads, infrastructure, police and everything else where it's not needed?

Do you heat with carbon-producing fuels (oil, gas, wood, thermal-electricity)? Why not invest in solar heating?

Do you purchase products made with plastics, products requiring wrapping and packaging? Why not buy only in bulk, eschewing packaging of any kind, save reusable containers you bring yourself?

Rob - I am sympathetic with the points of view and arguments you advance here in this blog. I am very much on your side.

But when you start pointing fingers and picking scapegoats, when you start saying things that suggest that it's ok to let the poor starve, or to go without basic needs, you lose me. We can't afford to go down that road. None of us can.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Net Metering

It is a little bit under the radar - there was a mention on the radio last week and this morning I saw a short article in the local newspaper. The idea is 'Net Metering', which is in short the concept of customers producing their own power and contributing to the provincial power grid.

I have thought about this for a long time. In particular, I have thought about it while chugging away fruitlessly on my stationary bicycle, an activity designed to reduce my girth (it hasn't) and improve my health (it probably has; I know I don't get lower back pain any more).

At any rate, while I know that my exertions would probably only dimly power a light bulb, it seems to me that I would feel like I was getting something more out of the exercise were I to know that I'm also powering my home.

Now I don't know whether there exist power-conversion kits for stationary bicycles yet. Mine is, in fact (and ironically), a net consumer of power, as it required batteries to light the little LCD display. Even so, there are many ways someone at home can create their own power - little windmills, solar panels, press-ganged pets, the like.

So I wrte to NB Power asking for details on the program and this morning the reply came back, which I pass on here:

Policy A customer may connect a generation unit that uses renewable fuels and has a nameplate rating of up to 100 kW to the NB Power Distribution - Customer Service (Disco) grid. The output of the generation unit may be used to offset the customer's own consumption. Monthly credits not used within any month may be carried forward and used to reduce future consumption until March 31 of each year.

Enrolment Limits The aggregate capacity of net metering projects and embedded generation on the distribution system within NB Power territory is capped at 21 MW.

NB Power Consultation Before the proposed generation facility installation is initiated, the customer must apply to Disco for necessary approvals to join the program.

Renewable Fuels The electricity that is generated must be in compliance with Environment Canada's Environmental Choice Program published in "CERTIFICATION CRITERIA DOCUMENT CCD-003" and must be generated from: alternative use electricity; biogas-fuelled electricity; biomass-fuelled electricity; solar-powered electricity; water-powered electricity; wind-powered electricity.

Connection Details The technical requirements for connection are recorded in the Technical Specifications for Independent Power Producers.

Metering Disco will provide a meter that will record customer's consumption and customer's net excess generation in accordance with Disco's meter reading procedures. The generator will be responsible for providing a live phone line to the meter.

Billing Monthly energy consumption will be reduced by the customer's generation. The customer will be billed at the appropriate retail rate for the balance of their requirements. Any net excess generation within a billing cycle will be carried forward to the next billing cycle. At the end of March in each year, any accumulated net excess generation will be zeroed out without compensation to the generators.

Associated Documents Application for Net Metering, Agreement for Net Metering, Technical Specification for Independent Power Producers, FAQ's, Rate Schedules and Policies
OK, well it's not A-B-C simple. So it's not (yet) like buying a microwave and plugging it in. No new technology ever is.

But here's the thing. Though total power contribution is capped at 21 megawatts, that is still a non-zero contribution to the province's demand of (as I recall) 800 megawatts. And even though you don't actually make money off the plan (it is only applied to your own consumption) it nonetheless enables people to contribute to the power grid.

And I think this is the way forward. It is the way forward because it supports (the beginnings of) a distributed energy generation plan, rather than the centralized mega-plant system we use today.

When we look at the cost of things like the Lepreau nuclear plant renovations, or the cost of the orimulsion deal, or even New Brunswick's coal-fired plants (that are among the worst polluters in North America), the thought of moving toward a distributed grid using renewable sources looks a lot more promising.

Sunday, October 09, 2005

Contra Canadian Media

Prompted by an article in Maisonneuve, the story is circulating once again that the Canadian blogosphere is impotent, that it should be more like its American counterpart and break some big stories.

It all goes to foster the myth that we are somehow underdeveloped in Canada, that we would be so much better if only we were like the Americans. This is a constant theme in Canadian media, especially that which leans further to the right.

But it's based in bias and misperception. The supposed impotence of the Canadian blogosphere is more fiction than fact, created mostly as a result of Canadian journalists looking inward at themselves and their own impact in the blogosphere rather than looking outward at the larger impact Canadian bloggers actually are having.

So that's the discussion I have been having over the weekend on two Canadian media sites, Azerbic and Canadian Journalist.

I began with the former, writing as follows:
You must have been talking to Norman Spector - he trotted out pretty much the same argument at Northern Voice, the Canadian blogging conference, last year in Vancouver.

But I'll ask here what I asked then:

- why is the measure of impact the breaking of a major political scandal?

My measure is somewhat different. My own blog (which, I might add, ranks a lot higher than the 'major' Caanadian blogs you cite above, at least according to blog measurement services like Technorati, Feedster and PubSub) is not dedicated toward tearing things down, but rather, toward shaping something new.

The Canadian blogs I read (most of which also rank higher than obscure blogs like Wells and Coyne) are doing the same.

We are having an impact. But we don't define impact the way you do.

- why is the measure of impact measured by impact within the mainstream media community?

Read this again: "many of the most talked-about bloggers in Canada are mainstream media types such as Wells, Coyne (even though he doesn't blog) and me."

Talked about by whom? By (of course) each other. But if you cast your net wider, you will find, I am sure, many more talked-about Canadian blogs.

It seems to me that this supposed 'meekness' of Canadian bloggers is more a product of the Canadian media establishment than of any particular trend in the Canadian blogosphere.

Certainly, I can understand why the Canadian media would simply assume that its own writers must be the most important Canadians in the blogosphere - after all, it does have that 'huge' (and, I might add, monopolistic) media platform from which to establish a readership.

And I can see, given that they rarely venture outside their own sphere, and given that they simply do not cover the Canadian blogosphere beyond their own acquaintances, why they might think that they really are the Canadian blogosphere.

And, of course, it is in their interests to do so. What newspaper wants to admit that there is an equally viable - if less scandal-ridden - voice in Canadian media?

The Canadian media doesn't talk about the Canadian blogosphere. That's hardly the blogosphere's fault - it tells us much more about the nature of canadian media than it does about the Canadian blogosphere.

Venture outside the closed little media circle. Look at Canadian blogs, maybe those listed in Blogs Canada, maybe those you find via Google. Look at the pages and pages of solid Canadian content out there.

Why - it's a huge story and Canadian media is just missing it. If you went out there with an open mind and the question "how much of the internet is being built by Canadians?" or "how much new thinking (social networks, web 2.0, semantic web) is being driven by Canadians?" your discoveries will astonish you.

The Canadian blogosphere has much much better things to do than to cater to the latest fake news scandal trotted out by corporate spokespeaople pretending to be journalists. We have a future to build.

You're welcome to join us, if you can spare the time from your day job.
And a few minutes later I posted to Canadian Journalist an abbreviated version:

I know that the Canadian media deems itself to be the measure of impact in the blogosphere. But in this, it is mistaken.

Canadian bloggers have better things to do than to break fake scandals in the media. We will leave the senseless sensationalism to those who do it best.

The Canadian blogosphere (at least, that part of it not comprised of paid apologists for political factions) is mostly ignored by the Canadian media (who cling to the fantasy that their own blogs are the most important in the Canadian blogosphere).

But the fact that Candian bloggers are not covered in Canadian media tells us more about the nature of Canadian media than it does about the Canadian blogosphere (which is alive and well, thank you).

The Canadian blogosphere will do what it does best: advance new ways of thinking, build the internet, foster dialogue, and connect with people around the world.
I got a one-liner in response on Azerbic, but a detailed response on Canadian Journalist (which I won't quote here; please follow the link), prompting my additional comment:
You wrote,
Well, I guess it all depends on which parts of the blogosphere one is talking about. Many Canadian bloggers, particularly of the political type, seem to crave MSM recognition.
That's kind of like saying many Canadians, particularly the politicians, seem to crave media recognition.

What does not follow from such a statement, however, is a strong generalization about Canadians. Sure, we'd like to be noted for our work. But coverage in the paper isn't what gets us out of bed in the morning. And it isn't what defines whether we had a good day, a good career, a good life.

In the same way, Canadian bloggers, and the blogging community in general, measure success differently. Minimally, 'success' in a blog is attacting readers, being linked to from other blocks, maintaining a voice in one's community - speaking, connecting, interacting.

You asked,
And what, pray tell, does it say about the media?
It tells us that Canadian media isn't interested in covering the blogosphere, much less understanding it, unless it is on terms set out by Canadian media, specifically, that Canadian media sets the agenda regarding what's important, that writers from Canadian media constitute the parts of the blogosphere worth covering, and that anything that would threaten or undermine the central role or interests of Canadian media is ignored.

You commented,
Which are all good things, but the purpose of the article -- and by extension, my post -- was to examine why the Canadian blogosphere hasn't produced a major story yet.
By 'major story' you no doubt mean 'story covered by Canadian media' as opposed to, say, 'story that is major'. Because there have been major stories in the Canadian blogosphere, and their lack of coverage in Canadian media does not make them less major.

Social networking and Web 2.0, for example, is a major story, and at the centre of Web 2.0 is Flickr, the company founded by and brought to prominance by the blogosphere. Maybe I'm missing something (and with most of Canadian media buried behind subscription or registration walls, it's pretty easy) but this whole Web 2.0 thing seems to have escaped Canadian media.

Or how about Bill C-60, which is the closest thing there is to front page news in Canada's blogosphere - see Google blogsearch - and aside from Michael Geist, is back page stuff in the traditional media - see Google news search.

Now I admit, neither of them is of the 'minister resigns in scandal' story, the sort of bread-and-circuses coverage of political affairs that keeps Canadian newsreaders distracted while the country is sold to corporate interests (one of which is represented by Canadian media).

You ask,
And while I'm at it, what is your basis for making this truculent statement? "... who cling to the fantasy that their own blogs are the most important in the Canadian blogosphere."
This: "many of the most talked-about bloggers in Canada are mainstream media types such as Wells, Coyne (even though he doesn't blog) and me."

And, in turn, the blogsphere rankings of those 'most talked about' blogs. Azerbic, 148 sites linking, ranked 11,766. Coyne, 354 sites, ranked too low to to rank. Wells, 251 sites, ranked 28,224.

As compared to, say, Canadian bloggers such as Tim Bray, 1,346 sites ,ranked 3,743. Or Dave Pollard, 924 sites, ranked 2,304. or Cory Doctorow, with 16,627 sites, ranked 107.

When is the last time we say Bray, Pollard or Doctorow (to name only three) in Canadian media?

My own view is that the Canadian media does not know, much less engage with, the blogosphere. It defines itself as something apart, walling itself off, defining its own agenda. That it would recognize a 'major story' unless it was in a press release, or at best, leaked by a player in the interminable Martin-Chretien faction feud. That it is owned by, and advances the interests of, its corporate ownership.
This drew another response (see the same link as before), prompting my third comment:
The core of your argument lies here:
I would say vast swaths of the Canadian news media don't have a clue about the blogosphere, but there is a longstanding problem of technophobia amongs journos. If the media does set its own agenda, why is that a problem? It should be driven by the blogosphere? Again, mini-blogospheres -- along with other online communities of interest -- tend to be organized around narrow topics. The journalist's role is to determine when that being discussed by the few is interesting and important to the many.
And let me even accept that as a premise.

Then it is my observation that what the journalists are determining to be important in the blogsophere is... themselves.

Your response characterizes other topics (ie., those not about journalists and their areas of interest) as 'technology', 'narrow topics', covered by 'mini-blogospheres'.

But the empirical evidence regarding what is important in the Canadian blogosphere suggests something different. That what people are reading, linking to and talking about is not what the journalists are talking about.

A subtext of your argument lies here:
It wasn't a strong generalization about Canadians. It was a comment about the section of the Canadian blogosphere I know best -- the political bloggers.
That may be, but the language you use doesn't support that. Consider how you started your article:
Canuck bloggers not breaking many stories... attempts to answer why Canuck bloggers haven't generated a shockwave of a scoop
These are statements about the 'Canadian blogosphere' and not some segment of it. That's why I interpreted them as such.

And that's why I reacted as I did - because it amounts to implying that the 'Canadian blogosphere' just is that segment that writes about political themes, and not least, Canadian media and its opinions.
So that's where it stands now.

The Canadian media interprets the blogosphere (and for that matter, most of everything else in Canada) through its own lens.

Part of this lens is directed toward protecting and enhancing its position as the unofficial 'official voice' of Canadians, telling us what we think is important. Which means, minimally, that the most important things Canadians must be reading are things written by - who else - the Canadian media. Things that are not a part of that constitute 'narrow topics', 'interest groups', and the like.

The other part of it is that the Canadian media is not a neutral observer. The rise of the web in general and the blogosphere in particular serves to undercut the management of the news that has characterized Canadian media for decades, a management that massages what we read in order to represent corporate interests in a favorable light, and popular interests as narrow' and 'trivial'.

Friday, October 07, 2005

The Paucity of Intelligent Design

Re: Why Intelligent Design Is Going to Win

This must be comedy Friday at Tech Central Station. Well, let's go through the author's (*cough*) argument point by point.

ID will win because it's a religion-friendly, conservative-friendly, red-state kind of theory... families that reproduce people tend to reproduce ideas, as well.

Someone tell that to the Chinese. They outnumber everyone, yet the international language is English, the dominant world religions are Christianity and Islam, and the world economy is driven by capitalism, not communism.

Sure, the United States may well turn to a religion-dominated policy and social agenda; it has happened before. That's what the Islamic world did a couple of centuries ago. Look where it got them.

The world does not end at the American border, and having a majority inside the U.S. only constitutes no useful majority at all. The rest of the world will move on.

ID will win because the pro-Darwin crowd is acting like a bunch of losers. "Ewww... intelligent design people! They're just buck-toothed Bible-pushing nincompoops with community-college degrees who're trying to sell a gussied-up creationism to a cretinous public! No need to address their concerns or respond to their arguments. They are Not Science."

Ewww... intelligent design people! They're just buck-toothed Bible-pushing nincompoops with community-college degrees who're trying to sell a gussied-up creationism to a cretinous public! No need to address their concerns or respond to their arguments. They are Not Science

Oh, wait, I said I would disprove the argument.

The point is, intelligent design is a religion-driven anti-intellectual position adhered to (and directed toward) mostly uneducated people, and it is Not Science.

Asserting this does not make an opponent of intellectual design a loser, merely untactful in stating the truth.

Perhaps were evolutionists to adopt a slick fallacy-filled propaganda campaign, fed through the revenues of dishonest evangelicals that fleece little old ladies out of their life savings, forming an unholy alliance with corporations and others who wish to trade on public ignorance to promote socially irresponsible and dangerous public policy, then it would be more 'plausible' and evolutionists 'not losers'.

After all, if you can get people to disbelieve scientists over this evolution thing, you can get them to disbelieve scientists over global warming, or over hurricane dangers. You can save your company a pile of money on emission reductions or levee building taxes. And if people are caught in the floodwater, well, that's the will of God. Intelligent design and all, you know?

But scientists don't work that way. They know that science is not - as Kern's whole column seems to suggest - some sort of propaganda exercise designed to maximize influence or profits. Science is about observation and reason, about evidence and justified belief. About seeking the truth, and when found, telling the truth.

People like me look with disdain at intelligent design not because they are losers; they look at it with disdain because it's fraud - massive psychotic cold-hearted fraud.

ID will win because it can be reconciled with any advance that takes place in biology, whereas Darwinism cannot yield even an inch of ground to ID... The entire edifice of Darwinian theory comes crashing down with even a single credible demonstration of design in any living thing. Can science really plug a finger into every hole in the Darwinian dyke for the next fifty years?

That's a bit like arguing that a belief in Santa Claus will succeed because Santa Claus can explain math, but math can't explain Santa Claus.

To be sure, an instance of Sanata within the domain of math - the calculus version of flying reindeer, for example - would pose a problem for math. It might even shake math to its very foundations, like Hilbert spaces did.

But it's not like science cannot handle such counter-examples. It has happened before. Consider physics: the world believed in Newtonian physics until nature intervened and bent light. And consequently, physics advanced from Newtonian physics to relativism.

The question is, though, does intelligent design pose such a problem? Is there "even a single credible demonstration of design in any living thing"? What would count as such a demonstration? Why hasn't such a demonstration been brought forward? Why is it always described in the hypothetical, as it was above?

This point is merely the assertion that "evolution is true - unless it isn't." Well, fine. It's true, and until some actual evidence is adduced to the contrary, will continue to be true.

ID will win because it can piggyback on the growth of information theory, which will attract the best minds in the world over the next fifty years. ID is a proposition about information. It contends that the processes of life are so specific and carefully ordered that they must reflect deliberate action.

We can believe that 'all the best minds are in information theory' but it is a bit harder to believe that 'all information theorists are proponents of intelligent design', which is what you would have to believe in order to believe the preceeding point.

Moreover, the author demonstrates what appears to be a willful misunderstanding of information theory. "Is it possible to speak of a "science" of concepts? Right now, the scientific establishment says no." (You see, in real science you'd need to reference this.) Information theorists would be quite puzzled by Kern's assertion here - I mean, what the heck is logic? Or semiotics? Or, for that matter, information science? Of course there's a science of concepts - and Kern is spreading misinformation when he says there isn't.

In any case, contemporary information theory can offer a great deal of support, not to intelligent design, but to evolution. Consider, for example, 'signal drift' - the idea that a message, through a series of successive transmissions, changes into a new message (gossip is like that too, and nobody claims that gossip is evidence in favour of intelligent design).

Or consider social network theory, an area transfixing information theorists. Mathematics, observation and analysis have combined to show how order can emerge spontaneously from networks of interconnected, autonomous, and (importantly) undirected entities - hordes of crickets, for example, chirp in chorus, not because of some design, but because they can hear each other chirp.

To suggest that information theory supports intelligent design is laughable.

ID will win because ID assumes that man will find design in life -- and, as the mind of man is hard-wired to detect design, man will likely find what he seeks.

Um... sorry, I have to go laugh for a couple of minutes...

OK, I'm back.

Yes, humans detect design (they aren't exactly hard-wired (read up on neuroplasticity), but they detect design (or, more accurately, patterns of relations... but 'design' is close enough)).

But this supports intelligent design if - and only if - every instance of 'design' in the universe is an instance of 'intelligent design'.

Now that's going to be a tough sell.

Take a handfull of coins. Toss them in the air and watch them as they fall to the floor. Now - irrefutably - they have landed in some sort of pattern, a design.

But was it 'intelligently designed'? Or is it just some schmuck tossing a handful of coins randomly in the air.

Look more closely at the coins now. You will notice that the coins have been arranged in triangles. Now before you tossed the coins, did you intend to create a bunch of triangles? Almost certainly not! And yet - there they are.

So clearly - there are instances of unintelligent design. Which means that proponents of intelligent design, if they want to make the 'hard-wired for design' argument work, need to show (a) that there is some way to tell the difference between intelligent design and random design (good luck on that one - may I recommend teleology as a place to start), and (b) that humans are wired specifically to detect instances of intelligent design, and not random design.

Moreover, in the words of the immortal Mick Jagger - "You can't always get what you want." Even if humans are hard-wired to look for something, there is no guarantee that they'll find it.

Which reminds me - where did I put my fat-free chocolate doughnuts? Must... have... doughnuts...

The only remaining question is whether Darwinism will exit gracefully, or whether it will go down biting, screaming, censoring, and denouncing to the bitter end.

Again, Kern writes as though this were some sort of political campaign.

We don't teach that 2+2=5 in math class, and nobody accuses us of censorship as a result.

We don't teach it because it's not math, and moreover, people brought up to believe that it is math would be dangerously misinformed.

So why do people say intelligent design is not a science?

Two reasons.

First, science is a system of principles and methodologies employed to determine whether a given principle is true or a given methodology is truth-preserving.

In other words, the whole point of science is to distinguish between things that are true and things that are not true.

Does intelligent design do this? No.

- first, there's no way to tell whether or not intelligent design itself is true or not true. There is no proof, that could subsequently be tested. There's no distinction between evidence that would count in its favour, and evidence that would count against.

- second, intelligent design itself offers no guidance on whether anything else is true or not true. Was all grass purple ten thousand years ago? Intelligent design not only doesn't tell us, it gives us no advice on how we would proceed to find out.

These are not trivial flaws. They are critical, and failing to take them into account leads to dangerously misleading information.

Take, for example, flu vaccines.

The flu virus, as we know, mutates. We know this because we can look at the virus one year to the next and see that they are different.

For people who design flu vaccines, a critical question is, what will the flu virus mutate into next year? Now it's true they don't know exactly. But before you jump all over them (as ID theorists tend to do), ask yourself, what does intelligent design say about this?

Will the flu mutate into a pink elephant next year? Evolution tells us, 'probably not'. Intelligent design? Haven't a friggin clue! There is nothing in intelligent design that will tell us whether or not the flu will mutate into pink elephants.

Think about that for a moment. What the heck kind of science is that?

Now - why is this dangerous? Well, people who think there's just no telling what the flu will be like next year are also the sort of people who can be disposed to think that flu vaccines are more harmful than the flu, and therefore, don't take them.

Never mind history, which tells us that the flu killed millions of people in 1918-19. Never mind science, which tells us that the flu will mutate into something humans have no natural immunity against.

No - such people are just as likely to believe people who thing flu vaccines are some sort of communism, or people who don't want their taxes to pay for flu research and vaccine distribution. Such people cannot distinguish between assertions that are and are not scientific, and as a result, expose themselves to serious illness for no reason.

Second, science is a system of principles and methodologies designed not merely to describe but also to explain why something is the case.

That's what evolution does. It not only sais that, say, primates evolved into humans, it also explains why, say, primates did not evolve into pink elephants.

Intelligent design is silent on this question.

Telling us why things are the way they are helps us in our daily lives.

Which engineer will you trust? The one who when asked why the bridge will stand, explains in terms of tensile strength, mass and gravitation? Or the one who, when asked the same question, says 'Because God wills it'?

Knowing why plants grow distinguishes between those farmers who fertilize and irrigate their crops from those who pray for rain.

In summary:

- You can't know whether or not intelligent design is true, and

- Even if it is true, you can't do anything useful with it.

The author may think that an empty and unprovable theory will succeed. But, obviously, reason and evidence played no role in the drawing of this conclusion.

U.S. Drugs, Canadian Prices

Re: So Much For American Sovereignty

Well, I must say, that was a pretty funny article. Not intentionally so, perhaps, but funny nonetheless.

Let's deal with patents first. Patents are not some sort of god-given right. An application for a patent is a request that the government interfere in a free market by creating an artificial monopoly.

In a genuine free market, there would be no patents, because there would be no enforcement of them. If someone else can, say, grow wheat more cheaply, make hamburgers more efficiently, or produce the same drug you do at half the cost, then they are free to do so.

Patents are established in order to encourage the development of new products - more government interference in the marketplace. They are a recognition that the development costs will not be undertaken without a certain reward. So the government agrees to allow, via the artificial monopoly, the producer to earn more than the free market would normally bear.

Now what has happened is that industry has successfully lobbied for extensions on these patents. Moreover, significant demand for new drugs has allowed them to dramatically increase prices (remember, price is not set according to 'cost of production' but by 'willingness to pay').

In other nations, such as Canada, governments were subjected to similar lobbying pressures. For example, over the last ten years, the pharaceutical industry twice managed to convince the Canadian government to extend patent protection.

But the Canadian government, while agreeing to interfere in the marketplace as requested by the pharaceuticals, determined that the cost of unregulated price increases would impose too much of a burden both on its public health care system, which is funded by the taxpayers, and by individual purchasers, for drugs not covered under the plan.

So they made a deal. The pharaceuticals would get their patents, open research facilities in Canada (a promise never kept), and agree to be subject to a ceiling on prices. Thus, the Canadian government agreed to interfere in the marketplace on behalf of (mostly American) pharaceutical companies, allowing them to recoup their research costs, but held that this reward should not be unlimited.

The pharaceuticals agreed. What choice did they have? Canada has an advanced pharmaceutical industry. Manufacturers in Canada can fairly easily produce the same drugs as their American counterparts; the only thing stopping them are the patents prohibiting production. If the Americans companies rejected the deal (and, remember, nobody is forcing them to sell in Canada) then they would get no sales in Canada.

Canadians look at U.S. drug prices and roll their eyes. Any artificial monopoly, and especially one on a basic service, is subject to regulation. Why the American government would allow drug prices to soar beyond the ability of most people to pay for them was, to Canadians, a matter of puzzlement and amazement.

Perhaps they believe, like the author, that a limit on drug prices is some sort of 'transfer of wealth'. In a way, I suppose, it is a transfer of wealth - just as criminal law 'transfers wealth' from the mugger to the person who gets to keep his own wallet.

It is, in other words, ridiculous to talk about a transfer of wealth in an area where legislation already applies. Were the pharaceutical industry completely free of government regulation, then such an argument might apply. But with extensive government intervention through the creation and protection of patents, if there is a transfer of wealth, it flows from the purchaser to the vendor.

So there we have it. U.S. markets are not 'held hostage' to foreign political pressures. Nobody in Canada cares how the United States prices drugs. If there is importation of drugs from Canada to the United States, that's the Americans' problem. Don't like it? Just add a tariff - U.S. governments have had no hestitation to do so, even illegally, in other areas, such as wheat, softwood lumber, and more.

The fact is, American governments are not willing to stem the flow of imports, because their constituents would not stand for it, and are instead banking on a (well-funded) campaign of lobbying and intimidation in those countries to get them to abandon both price controls and the interests of their own citizens.

Meanwhile, at home they propagandandize in TCS about patents being 'free market' and price regulation being a 'price transfer' - a logically and intellectually dishonest campaign of disinformation.

Viking castle at Peel, Isle of Man, Great Britain. More photos from the Isle of Man.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Preserving the Tradition (2)

David Wiley offers a measured, though contrary, commentary on my post.

He writes,
If people did not treasure and preserve the histories of their fields,
not only would we not know about phlogiston theory, heleocentric
orbits, and using leeches, but there would be nothing to keep us from
making these same mistakes again.
This is, in my view, incorrect, and for two related reasons (both based on Kuhn's analysis).

First, from the point of view of the practitioners, none of these theories were wrong; they represented the best and most up-to-date science in the field. They weren't 'mistakes', in any genuine sense of the term. True, these theories turned out to be wrong in fact, but the lessons we learn from their proponents are not lessons on how to avoid similar mistakes, save, perhaps, the lesson that orthodoxy can sometimes be wrong. But the proof of this is in the demonstration, not the history.

Second, we can't make those sorts of mistakes again. It's a case of "you can't get there from here". A practitioner in chemistry today cannot arrive at phlogiston theory - the language of chemistry cannot express it. Phlogiston has no atomic number, no weight, enters into no known reactions. Similarly, an astrophysicist - whose first lesson in the discipline was 'the Earth orbits the Sun' - cannot make a mistake calculating gravitational influence and arrive at geocentricity. We will make, are making, new mistakes, but these won't be and cannot be recognized as such except from the perspective of the future.

History is important. But we need to distingush between preserving the history *of* the discipline and history *in* the discipline. There is a role for historians, a significant and important role, but it is not the same role as one who is a practitioner of the discipline.
 It is only through the careful
preservation and study of what came before that one can come to a
serious conclusion that the current line of work must be rejected, and
that efforts must proceed in a new direction in order to be fruitful.
Again, I do not believe this is correct.

It is true that the motivation for change typically comes from within a discipline - or perhaps more accurately, from within the frame described by the discipline, if not the discipline itself. It stems from explanatory gaps, predictive failures, contradictory or incoherent assumptions, limits in applicability. Modern Newtonian physics stipulated that light, being massless, could not be influenced by gravity. But light bends in a gravity well, a phenomenon that can be observed whether or not one is a Newtonian. This and a dozen other problems prompted a justified scepticism.

But the successor to Newtonian physics was not to be found from within the domain of Newtonian physics. It required, not a careful understanding of the flaws, but rather, a change in the way of seeing the world. It required, in this instance, that Einstein 'step out' of the theory and to imagine a world in which the rules did not apply. What would happen were mass not constant, were time not invariant? The 'serious conclusion' is propelled not by the rejection of the old theory, but by the discovery and elaboration of the new one.

Kepler did not require a knowledge of geocentricity in order to arrive at his equations; what he required were Tycho's careful observations and that radical new mathematical theory employing algebra and Cartesian coordinates. And indeed, one would argue, that had Kepler held as his primary objective the maintenance and propogation of the discipline, he would not have been able to step out of a world dominated by Euclidian geometry and Aristotlean impulses in order to replace a theory that was, for all practical purposes, working fine.
We need not stay in line with the current methods of working toward
goals in order to do our own work toward those goals. Frequently
history and literature point us in useful directions; just as often
that record helps of steer clear of known dead ends.
Knowing the history *can* be useful, and it would be foolhardy to deny that it is sometimes actually useful. But a knowledge of the history is not necessarily useful, and it is not the only thing that is useful.

To turn to our present discipline, a knowledge of history informs us that beating our children will not produce the best learning, were we able to contemplate such a theory. But in order to see the way forward, we are better prepared with a grounding in neuropsychology, modern scientific methodology, anthropology and sociology, and the times being what they are, economics. Better to spend time immersing oneself in these practices than in the method and practice of applying the rod or the basics of phrenology.

Indeed, I hasten to point out, not infrequently even the goals change. In contemporary 'learning science' the goals are, I guess, higher grades, better test score, or if we get all meta about it, better and deeper knowledge of mathematics, language, science and history. My own feeling is that the future will find this narrow and irresponsible, when the genuine objectives of learning are social (lower crime rate, improved health, increased knowledge) and personal (life satisfaction, self-expression, sense of worth) and will ponder why we ever thought a knowledge of trigonometry, except in unusual circumstances, ever led to this.

The Zorastrians care.
Well, yes, but it would hardly follow that we must all become Zorastrians, or, for that matter, that the preservation of Zorastrianism is the purpose of religion.
While not exact in number, I stand by my comment in sentiment. The
vast majority of people who move through our programs are looking for
a certification. They're not looking to become stewards of anything.
For example, they will be interested in literature that shows that
certain approaches "work." They will be largely disinterested in
familiarizing themselves with the history of very illustrative
failures. 'I mean, who cares about a bunch of stuff that didn't work?'
I'm sure that the majority of people do not perceive themselves as the stewards of the English language either, but for all practical purposes, they are. And while a study of Latin would no doubt be useful in some circumstances, it is not in most, and in fact, the majority of people do not study Latin. And it's not that our ancestors have somehow failed in their stewardship of language, and it is not that the use of Latin, rather than English, in ancient times was somehow a mistake, that it somehow didn't work.

This is important: a tradition, a discipline, a field - these are not preserved by a select few. They are preserved by *all* the people working in the discipline, and importantly, most of all by that majority of people looking for a certification and a job. It may please professors to believe that they have a unique role, but you can no more manufacture a tradition than you can manufacture behaviourism. And, indeed, the sense that there is something that is the tradition, discipline or field distinct from what the practitioners actually practice is a fallacy. The discipline of archaeology just is what the combined efforts of those who practice archaeology do.

Or to put the same point another way: who would be so brazen to claim that the preservation of a tradition, discipline or field is uniquely the preserve of those who hold PhDs in it, or of those who hold professorships at universities, and that the remainder of the practitioners are in every sense historically insignificant? Who would say that teachers contribute nothing to what we know and understand and feel as teaching, and that the only record of importance is that carried forward by the doctors and the professors? It is important to remember that the university studies that licensed the teacher form only a small part of his or her life and experience in the field. Perhaps the professors are racconteurs, but to suppose that they define the field, that they somehow uniquely preserve it is not only the ultimate of hubris, it is also empirically wrong.

I have no doubt that David did not mean exactly this when he wrote the words above, and feel certain that he would reject the proposition just expressed above. But if not this, then what? Remove the stricture of exclusivity, and the notion of 'stewardship' loses its force. It becomes apparent that the idea of professors or PhDs as stewards is a mythology, a common story that binds the faithful together and fosters a sense of exclusivity, but is nonetheless a fabrication.
Particularly at the doctoral level, tradition *is* passed on from one
person to another - from advisor to advisee. Tradition is also
propogated via groups who share a common practice, but far too often
that practice has nothing to do with being a steward of the field. It
much more frequently has to do with job interviews, the latest web
application development framework, and the cool new name we're calling
the field (I guess it's learning sciences for the next seven years or
so?).
In order to make this assertion work, it is necessary to identify a distinction in kind between 'tradition' and 'practice'. Most such distinctions, I suspect, will amount to distinctions similar to that between 'the story' and the 'telling of the story' - a difference, that is, that is only apparent.

I had a lot of 'tradition' passed down to me from advisor to advisee. As time passed, I found it impossible to distingush between the story and the teller of the story. I, too, have a story to pass along; being barred by lack of certification from the practice one-on-one counselling sessions with the children of rich parents, I pass on my stories in alternative fora, such as this one. Am I a part of the tradition? Is the story I tell distinct from the teller? Where is the distinction? What was it that was measured for in the dissertation, in the exam? Does only the professor of English carry on the tradition of the language? Or does Jorn Barger, the man who coined the word 'weblog', now homeless and penniless, and certainly not a professor, get some of the credit too?

The definition of a PhD, of a professor, cannot be *what* that person professes. This way lies madness and confusion.
If the old is not preserved, but absorbed and reformed, then what will
the next generation read?
The new.
Will they read the commentaries of their fathers rather than the originals?
Probably.
Will we all read Geometry textbooks from Pearson rather than Euclid?
Of course. I did (though I think it was McGraw-Hill). Historians may read Euclid, and write synopses that will translate the original from the Greek and from the ancient view of the world into a form I can understand. But a full and complete knowledge of geometry is possible without a reading of Euclid.
Many will. And they will not be
stewards of the field in the way I think they should. You see, I
believe it becomes increasingly harder to be a responsible steward,
because the amount you must know, love, and build upon becomes larger
with each generation.
Would Fermat still be Fermat had he never read Euclid? Hilbert? Bourbaki? I have no idea whether any of these thinkers actually read Euclid, but I venture the proposition that they would be just as much 'stewards of the field' whether or not they read Euclid.

You don't have to read your grandfather's journal to become his inheritor; you just have to have his genes.
Imagine if the Fugues of Bach were not preserved
and treasured, per se, but were absorbed and reformed by current
cultural influences, so that today's student of music gets Britney
Spears and 50 Cent.
Were Britney Spears and 50 Cent to comprise the entirety of contemporary music this would be a good point. But this is hardly the case, and nobody seriously supposes that any student of music would limit his or her studies to these two artists. It is illegitimate to take a part of the contemporary tradition, imply that it is inadequate, and then employ this as an argument against the contemporary tradition.

Let us take Bach, who remains (just barely) part of contemporary music (unlike, say, the mostly lost and unlamented Johann Adam Reinken). Would it be necessary to hear original performances of his music in order to preserve the tradition, or will a recording by the London Symphony Orchestra be sufficient? Must we read commentators from 1723, or will diluted opinions from the 1800s serve to inform us? Do we need to study and learn *all* of the music from 1723, or is what has been carried forward and reformed in numerous way by our predecessors sufficient?

And even more to the point - suppose every music PhD and professor were (perhaps because of modern hip hop) to suddenly collapse and die, leaving us for a period of time with no music PhDs or professors - would Bach at that point become 'lost'?

I think that remembering Bach is important, remembering Reinken rather less so, but that this memory is carried on by the musical community as a whole - including Britney Spears and 50 Cent, whether or not they have ever even listened to Bach. Music professors and PhDs play a role - but it is not *that* role.

 A steward of the field of music will know both,
and will not reject the one because it is old. Neither will they
devalue it because it was "proved" wrong later. It is an important
part of our intellectual heritage that has value to later participants
in the field, and preserving this kind of knowledge is exactly what a
steward should do.
But nobody here is claiming that things should be rejected because they are old or devalued because they are wrong.

Again - we need to distingush between preserving the history *of* the discipline and history *in* the discipline.

To say otherwise is to say (for example) that 50 Cent is *not* a musician, not a steward of music, unless he plays Bach. And, less persuasively, that one is not a musician, not a steward of music, unless he also plays Reinken.
Here, I have to agree. I think there is some of this going on in the
professional organizations in our field right now. There is a
difference between (1) reverencing what the field is trying to do and
(2) reverencing the way the field is trying to do it.
When I talk of 'ossification' I am speaking not merely of reverencing the way the field is trying to do something, but also what the field is trying to do.And more - what entities people in the field deem exist, what constitutes an appropriate vocabulary, who, even, constitute the founders of the field, the tradition that is being kept alive (one wants to speculate about the legions of subversives who kept the name Nietzsche alive).
Outcasts are cast out by the high priesthood. That is to say, new
ideas are only seen as radical when academics - of all people - refuse
to open their minds. Or in other words, whether a person becomes an
outcast or not has much less to do with them than it does the rest of
the field. But you can not reject the importance of (2) above simply
because there is a tendancy to over-reverence it. This would be like
outlawing peer-to-peer networks because there's a risk that someone
might pirate a Britney Spears and 50 Cent song on them.
Perhaps. But my disagreement isn't like that.

It's more like a dispute over whether there is such a thing as 'piracy' at all, over whether the associated behaviours ought to be called something else (such as 'file sharing'), and over whether file sharing is even something thatg is wrong at all.

Orthodoxy is willing to work with me so long as we both agree that it's piracy and it's wrong; then they can see a middle ground where some (limited) peer-to-peer networks might be allowed (under strict monitoring and DRM, of course). Challenge that presumption, and it is no longer a dispute about methodology, it's a dispute about the nature of the enterprise as a whole.
You are arguing for openmindedness, for a society
or field that can accept ideas that seem less connected to the
tradition than others might. This is of course exactly what is needed.
Right. That is what I am arguing for. And more.
However, I see no reason why deep reverence for a field must be
equated with closedmindedness.
It becomes closemindedness when it becomes *definitive* of the field.

And when you define the purpose of a PhD as stewardship, you make this deep reverence definitive of the field.

Stewardship cannot be definitive. Indeed, as I suggested above, it should not be considered a role of a particular caste at all.

The object of our enquiry lies elsewhere.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Preserving the Tradition

While I respect the position described by David Wiley, I disagree with it, for two reasons.

First, rather than 'treasure and preserve' and 'extend', we in academia routinely dump the work of our progenitors. These routine upheavals, Kuhn's 'paradigm shifts', are genuine schisms, representing divisions so sharp that even the language of the discipline changes. Would we require that an aspiring chemist be completely versed in phlogiston theory? That an astrophysicist calculate heleocentric orbits? That doctors prove their competence in bleeding and the use of leeches?

Second, if only one person out of a hundred becomes a steward of the discipline, then we've already lost. What tradition we do inherit is not passed from person to person like a torch, but rather moves forward in time through communities of practitioners. I mean, there are Zorastrians, the stewardship has been maintained, but who cares? The community moves on.

It seems to me that there is a very important sense to the idea that the nature of a discipline is recreated through each successive generation. The old is not preserved, per se, but absorbed, along with a body of other social and cultural influences, reformed, and cast in a new light, born again almost literally with each rising of the sun.

Moreover, the more rigidly a disciplinary community strives to 'treasure and preserve' and 'extend' its inheritance, the less likely such a community is to be the locus of the discipline reborn. When such ossification is fostered, the inheritors of the community will be just those who 'just get their paper and go on to take that academic appointment or professional job', while the one person who 'catches the vision' will be just the one person who was tossed out as insufficiently reverent.

Indeed, what was surprising about Thomas Kuhn was not that he shattered the foundations of logical positivism, but that he did so from within the field, publishing (with great irony) in the International Encyclopedia of Unified Science. We are more likely to inherit our tradition from one who was an outcast - a Descartes, rebeling against the Scholastic tradition, a Luther, hammering home his opposition to the Catholic church, a Thoreau, writing about freedom from inside a jail, an Einstein, laboring as a patent clerk, a Wittgenstein, rewriting language while a prisoner of war.

And the thing is - open societies, those that can embrace heresy and make it their own - endure. Those societies that place a premium on treasuring, preserving and extending, they lose everything. If this is not reflected in the nature of the university, or the purpose of a degree, well, communities move on.

-- Stephen

David Wiley wrote:
I am very much in the "steward of the discipline" camp. To me, the
notion of stewardship implies a sacred trust. It is a responsibilty to
take the work, sacrifice, and dedication of generations before that we
have been so fortuante to freely inherit, and to treasure, preserve,
and most importantly, extend this work to continue to benefit humanity
and bless mankind. It is no small thing to be a steward of a field
like education, biology, chemistry, literature, art, and even military
science. Hundreds and thousands of people have worn out their lives to
bring to light one or two small contributions to these great bodies of
expertise and knowledge.

While those who know me will agree that on the surface I am very easy
going and informal, deep down I have a great reverence for the
opportunity to serve (and I do consider it service) in this
stewardship capacity, and (as sappy as it may sound) I feel a great
responsibility and desire every day to use this opportunity to benefit
those around me. I just hope to make my contribution or two before my
life is worn away, and I hope that someone treats my efforts with the
same respect.

Perhaps my thinking is summed up in the language of the signs seen
outside so many campgrounds: Leave it better than you found it.

I guess my answer to the question "what is the purpose of doctoral
education?" is that it involves the enculturation of stewards into an
ever rotating collection of people who reverence their responsibility
to their fields and the rest of humanity in this way. Will we get this
out of all of our students? Definitely not. Will we see this attitude
in 1 out of 100? Probably not. Most will just get their paper and go
on to take that academic appointment or professional job it qualifies
them for. But a precious few will catch the vision, and so long as one
or two do, then all the rest of our work is justified.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

The Purpose of a PhD

I write from the perspective as one without a PhD, who went through a PhD program, argued with his supervisor about the existence of sentences in the brain, went ABD, my dissertation never examined, and has proceeded to teach, research and write as though he had a PhD anyways (though of course never pretending to actually have one). You can judge from my work whether such an attitude is warranted; I'm content with what you conclude either way.

Certainly, the role of the PhD in practice, from my perspective, means 'stewards of the discipline' in the fullest sense. Sure, there is on the one hand, the desire to maintain the 'vigor, quality, and integrity of the field.' But it seems to me as well that there is a desire to preserve a certain orthodoxy of doctrine, to ensure that a person who professes, say, 'philosophy of mind', professes in that subject as understood by the examiners. Heretics (however defined) need not apply.

But that's the high road. The other aspect of the purpose of a PhD, more cynically expressed, is to serve as a way to short-list applicants for academic positions. After all, position advertisements all specify 'earned PhD required' rather than, say, 'scholars, stewards of the discipline, who will engage in serious research throughout their careers to advance the frontiers of the field and transfer the new knowledge generated through research into applications that enhance human learning and performance,' etc.

An even more cynical view might hold that the purpose of such a program is to raise tuition fees and to always have on hand a stock of cheap teaching labour. Of course, such a purpose should never enter into a formal definition. But one wonders what the enthusiasm of departments to offer PhDs would be were tuitions reduced or eliminated, and were PhD students paid professorial, or near-professorial, wages.

For myself, I found taking the courses and, even more so, completing the comprehensive exams, to be valuable exercises. Though I would say spending the same amount of time engaged in teaching, research and writing would have been valuable in any case. It's hard to say; counterfactuals are like that. The parts involving starvation-level wages and pretending to be a cognitivist I found less valuable.

From my perspective, at this stage of my career, a PhD has no value other than means of getting a job. My cynical self believes that many current PhD students view it in the same way as well, which may explain their placid acceptance of their current experience. And I wonder how many universities view it in the same way.

Monday, October 03, 2005

Religion and Morality

Doodah wrote, if your morals are not tied to a system or belief or god or something you consider bigger than yourself, you are basically setting yourself up as your own god. you can change your morals whenever you want.

This depends on what you believe are the limits to what you can know and understand.

A person, presumably, could discover the principles of mathematics without a prior system of belief or god. The simple stuff, at least, such as 2+2=4.

And presumably, once having discovered that 2+2=4, it is well-nigh impossible to change your belief. People who believe that 2+2=4 do not on some sort of whim or delusion of self-grandeur change their belief into one where 2+2=5.

It is true that morality is not a matter of logical principle, such as mathematics (though some writers, such as Spinoza, held that it is). But nor either need mathematics be the one branch of reason where, once a belief is founded, it is essentially impossible to revise.

It's a bit like the principle of momentum, the theory of gravity, optical illusions or the Where's Waldo pictures. Once you see how it works, you pretty well can't see it any other way again.

Religion, on this account, acts as a visual aid. It points to moral truths which, once known, cannot be discarded. But as much as proponents would like to convince you otherwise, it is not the sole source of such truths, nor are all the things religion points to instances of such truths.

It is certainly arguable that a proposition such as 'civilized society requires a proscription against killing' is as epistemically sound as '2+2=4'. It is a conclusion virtually everyone, no matter what religion or whether they believe in one or not, reaches.

Yes, if you want the principle to be operative, you have to buy into the framework. For '2+2=4' to ever apply, you need to have counted at least two objects. For a proscription against killing to apply, you have to entered into civilized society.

But the truth of these principles is independent of the framework. Even if you are not counting objects, '2+2=4' is nonetheless true. Even if you live outside civilized society, 'civilized society required a proscription against killing' would still be true. These principles do not say that anything in fact exists or is the case; they represent relations between things, based on the inherent nature of those things, where this nature is recognized through observation, like where Waldo is.