Thursday, November 29, 2012

Does physics make you less religious?

I'm sure that this has never crossed your pure and innocent minds, but as a godless physicist, I fit into a sort of godless physicist stereotype.  But is there any truth to the stereotype?  Does studying physics tend to make you less religious?

Nope!  At least, not undergraduate physics.  According to this longitudinal study, studying biological or physical sciences has no overall effect on the religiosity of students.  Humanities and social sciences have a negative effect.  Education and business have a positive effect.  Or that's what the summary says.

I looked at the paper too, and as you'd expect there are a few more wrinkles.  It seems that studying physical sciences does have a slight negative effect on the self-assessed importance of religion, but no significant effect on religious attendance, whether the church should have less influence, or other religious measures.  For some reason engineering causes people to think the church should have less influence, and that less should be left up to God, but there was no significant effect on other measures.

This is in addition to a larger background trend where average religious attendance declines 12% in the 5-6 years after high school.  It also ignores the selection effect where the kind of people who enter into certain majors are more or less likely to be religious in the first place.

The study does not report raw religiosity scores in different majors (presumably it was reported elsewhere), but it does discuss how religiosity affects what majors students switch into.  Higher religiosity scores predict a higher probability of switching into education, humanities, biology, and a lower probability of switching into social sciences.  There appears to be no significant affect on switching to physical sciences.  Higher religiosity also increases the chance that people will go to college.

So on average, science doesn't make people less religious, and we have the evidence to show this.  If it seemed otherwise, that was an illusion caused by your limited and biased sampling of reality.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Liberationism in atheism?

On my other blog, I wrote about the liberationist/assimilationist distinction in LGBT politics.  Basically, we have the choice of emphasizing that LGBT people are the same (assimilationism), and thus deserve equal rights, or emphasizing that LGBT people have the right to be different (liberationism).  For those of us who don't live in the land of politicking and soundbites, it's obvious that there's no contradiction between the two messages.  But when it comes down to the overall message of the movement, and funding priorities, there's a lot of conflict.  For instance, a lot of people question the prioritizing of same-sex marriage, when it's basically only important to LGB people who want monogamous relationships which conform to current marriage norms.

So I was thinking about whether this distinction is useful in other movements as well... say the atheist movement.  Are there atheist liberationists and atheist assimilationists?

I enjoy drawing parallels between different social movements that I participate in, but in this case my answer is no.

Emphasizing similarities and emphasizing differences are two strategies for achieving social acceptance and equal rights.  But my sense is that this isn't really all that vocal atheists fight for?  Sure, it's partly about fighting for social acceptance, but it's also about criticizing religion, fighting for the acceptability of criticizing religion (which should be no more taboo than criticizing political beliefs), and fighting against policies and social values that are boosted by religious beliefs.  Instead of arguing over different possible strategies to gain social acceptance, atheists instead tend to argue the priorities of their different goals.

 I suppose that this is the blogging equivalent of publishing negative results even when they're less interesting.  But maybe there's more to say about this?

The primary distinction drawn in atheist circles is the militant/accomodationist distinction (I use pejorative terms for each side because there is a lack of neutral terms).  Might this be mapped to liberationism and assimilationism somehow?  Assimilationists argue that accepting LGB people provides a large benefit for a rather minimal change to the status quo, while liberationists argue that a large change to the status quo is called for.  You could say that "militant" atheists want to change the status quo more drastically than "accomodationist" atheists.

This could mean nothing, but my sympathy for the "militants" grew when I learned more about queer politics.  I saw people like PZ Myers and Greta Christina applying their "pull no punches" attitude equally to religion and to queer and feminist politics.  By contrast, Friendly Atheist has been more equivocal about feminism and assimilationist in its queer coverage.  My views assimilationism/liberationism are mostly moderate, but the "moderate" views of queer people tend to be much more liberationist than the "moderate" views of straight people.

Eh, I don't know.  The connection seems weak.  Any thoughts?

Monday, November 19, 2012

Quantum interpretations are scientific

Quantum Mechanics is famous for having multiple interpretations.  Among them, the two most common interpretations are the Many Worlds Interpretation (MWI) and the Copenhagen interpretation.

According to the Copenhagen interpretation, when you measure a system that is in a mixed quantum state, then the system "collapses" into a definite state (that is, a state that gives you only a single result for your measurement).  There are different probabilities for the system to collapse into different states, but it will always be a definite state.

In contrast, MWI says that there is no collapse.  Rather, when you measure a system in a mixed quantum state, now you are in a mixed quantum state.  One component of your state consists of you having measured one outcome; another component consists of you having measured the other outcome.  These different components don't interact with each other, and evolve independently.  The ultimate consequence is that the entire universe is in a mixed state with many components that don't interact with one another.  Thus the name "many worlds".

MWI and the Copenhagen interpretation give identical predictions in all experiments.  So it's impossible to falsify one in favor of the other.  That's why some contend that the interpretation question is non-scientific.  I do not agree, for two reasons:

1. Different interpretations suggest different directions for future theories.
2. Experiments might have something to say about Copenhagen vs MWI after all.

1. Directions for future theories

I want to quote something Richard Feynman said.  Not because Feynman said it, therefore it was right, but because Feynman put the idea into my head.  This occurred in a lecture series Feynman gave at Cornell (specifically, the second lecture, section 8).  Feynman explained that there are three different ways to state the law of gravitation:
  1. Each object senses where all the other objects are, and feels a force towards each object of magnitude GmM/R^2.
  2. There is a gravitational potential in every point of space, governed by laws that only look at its surrounding neighborhood, without looking at far away objects.  The gravitational force is determined by this potential.
  3. Given a start and end point, an object travels by the path that minimizes a particular quantity.
So the question is, which of these theories is correct?  Is this a scientific question?  Feynman said:
They are equivalent, scientifically; it is impossible to make a decision, because there's no experimental way to distinguish if all the consequences are the same.

Psychologically, they're very different in two ways.  First, philosophically, you like them or don't like them--training is the only thing you can do to beat that disease.  Second, psychologically they're different because they're completely unequivalent when you go to guess at a new law.

As long as physics is incomplete, and we're trying to find out the other laws, and to understand the other laws, then the different possible formulations give clues as to what might happen in another circumstance.  And they become not equivalent in psychologically suggesting to us to guess as to what the laws might look like in a wider situation.
Physics has developed a lot since we discovered the law of gravitation, so we know for a fact that the different interpretations have different uses.  The second theory has helped us understand some of the fundamental character of quantum field theory.  But the third theory gave us Feynman path integrals, which are related to Feynman diagrams, an easy way to represent fundamental particle interactions.  The first theory has not been very useful, and that's that.

MWI and the Copenhagen interpretation are in the same situation as the law of gravity.  They're equivalent in terms of predictions, but they lead to different ways of thinking which suggest different directions for expanding physical theories.  The first thing that comes to mind is that MWI is deterministic and unitary (meaning it is deterministic if time plays backwards too).  That's useful because it suggests that we can continue coming up with fundamental laws that obey time-symmetry.  There may be other uses too.

As I argued in "Multiverses are scientific", scientific ideas can serve many roles.  There are observations, hypotheses, experiments, theories, predictions, and so forth. Quantum interpretations also fulfill a role in science--they suggest different directions for future theories.  They do not fulfill the role of hypotheses which can be tested.  And that is okay, because not all scientific ideas need to fulfill every single role at once.  A hypothesis doesn't also need to be a theory, and an interpretation doesn't also need to be a hypothesis.  So the fact that the interpretations are not falsifiable doesn't necessarily mean it is unscientific.

2. How to (possibly) verify MWI

First, I need to explain how the Copenhagen interpretation and MWI, despite their differences, vary continuously into one another.  Consider a thought experiment where a mechanical device detects whether a radioactive atom decays within a half-life.  If it does, then it turns on a laser pointer, which provokes a cat to run through a hallway.  At the other end of the hallway, I can see if the cat appears or not.  Whatever I see, I publish my results for other scientists to see.

The question is, when does the collapse occur?  Does it collapse when radioactive atom observes itself decaying?  Does it collapse when the mechanical device observes the radioactive atom?  Do the mechanical device and radioactive atom both collapse when the cat sees the laser pointer?  Do the cat, device, and atom collapse when I see the cat (or not)?  Do the cat, device, atom, and I all collapse when other scientists see my results? Etc. etc.

If you answer "no" ad infinitum, you are taking the MWI.  But if you eventually answer "yes", you are taking the Copenhagen interpretation.  To make the Copenhagen interpretation similar to the MWI, all you have to do is say "no" lots of times before eventually saying "yes".

We don't know the answer to all those questions, and cannot know.  But we do know the answer to the first few is "no".  We can verify that small systems are in mixed states because we can measure interference effects.  With more complex systems, it's harder because of the sheer randomness that occurs when you have lots of particles at a non-zero temperature.  In my knowledge, the largest quantum system created was 40 microns in length, and needed to be cooled down to 0.1 K.

It will be hard to push that limit, but we definitely could, in very small steps.  We could push the Copenhagen interpretation closer and closer to MWI, though we will never quite reach it.  Alternatively, MWI could be falsified if it's found that mixed states do not exist past a certain point (ie if no interference is found where it is expected).


People sometimes say that MWI is unscientific, because it posits parallel worlds that cannot be observed.  This is mistaken because it assumes that every single idea in science needs to be verifiable.  Scientific ideas may also serve other roles, such as suggesting future directions for theories which themselves would be experimentally verifiable.  Secondly, it so happens that MWI is partially verifiable in very small increments.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Inner triangle area

I haven't posted a puzzle for a long time.  So here's one.

I start with any old triangle.  I construct the three red lines shown above by the following:
1. Take one side of the triangle and divide it into thirds.
2. Draw a line from the one-third point to the opposite corner.
3. Repeat for the other sides of the triangle.  Make sure to pick the appropriate one-third point so that it resembles the above figure (which is to scale).

Find the ratio of the area of the pink inner triangle to the area of the large black triangle.  Prove it.

See the solution

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Why ace community demographics matter

This was cross-posted on The Asexual Agenda.

Some time ago, I did analysis of the 2011 Asexual Awareness Week Community Census.  It is the largest asexual community survey (~3400 respondents) that we have.  Now I find myself referring to it time and time again, because it is so relevant to virtually everything we talk about in the asexual community.

For example, a common dynamic in the asexual community (especially AVEN) is that people feel so alone, and want to find other people who are just like them.  "Aren't there any other aces who experience _____???"  The other day I reassured someone on AVEN that plenty of aces feel repulsed by sex.  But  I can say more than that.  Repulsed people are in the majority in the community (55%).  You may have felt alone, but that was just a matter of perception!  A lot of times when people feel alone, it is just a matter of perception.

Of course, not all the things we talk about in the community are common.  For example, many people doing visibility work are quick to tell people that aces can also have or enjoy sex.  And that's true.  But sometimes people complain that this is too confusing.  If people who have sex and like it can be asexual, does the word even have any meaning?

But it isn't really that confusing, as long as you have a sense of perspective.  Yes asexuals can like sex, but it's only a small minority (1% of asexuals, 4% of gray-As, and 11% of demisexuals, 4% overall).  Doesn't it make sense that at least some asexuals would like sex?  And even though I am among those 4%, I think it's perfectly sensible for people to frequently discuss things that are relevant to only 96% of the community.

Or consider the perpetual debate over whether heteroromantics and aromantics are queer.  Did you know that only 22% of the community is heteroromantic?  And only 13% of those people identify with the LGBT community?  I'm not going to forsake queer heteroromantics just because they make up a measly 2% of the community, but it should give us a sense of perspective.  When we argue that heteroromantics have the right to some space in LGBT communities, we should remember that most heteroromantics aren't interested in exercising that right.  I'm more worried about aromantics, among whom 31% identify with the LGBT community.

Besides the critical perspective offered by the survey, there's a lot of stuff that's just plain interesting.  For instance, you can see some of the differences between AVEN and tumblr, the two major asexual communities of today.  Compared to tumblr, AVEN has more men (16% vs 11%), more heteroromantics (25% vs 17%), and fewer bi/panromantics (19% vs 27%).  This isn't too surprising if you're familiar with the respective cultures of tumblr and AVEN.

Currently, even further analysis of the data is in the works (not by me).  What other trends will we dig up?

Math links

There's a cool video of a generalized version of Conway's Game of Life.  Normally, the Game of Life involves a bunch of squares in a grid turning off and on, but in the generalized version involves points on a continuous plane turning on and off.  (via Mathpuzzle)

Also, I'm a little incredulous that this "School of Hard Sums" is a real TV show.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

How well did Nate Silver do?

The news is saying that Nate Silver (who does election predictions at FiveThirtyEight) got fifty states out of fifty. It's being reported as a victory of math nerds over pundits.

In my humble opinion, getting 50 out of 50 is somewhat meaningless. A lot of those states weren't exactly swing states! And if he gets some of them wrong, that doesn't mean his probabilistic predictions were wrong. Likewise, if he gets them right, that doesn't mean he was right.

I thought it would be more informative to look at Nate Silver's state-by-state predictions of Obama's vote share. That way, Nate could be wrong even in states like California.  So here's what I did for each state: I took the difference between the final prediction of FiveThirtyEight, and the vote share reported by Google this morning.  Then I divided this difference by Nate's margin of error.  See the results in a histogram below.

What the figure shows is that Nate's predictions were more accurate than Nate himself claimed!

The mean of the actual distribution is -0.14, which means that Obama did slightly worse than Nate predicted, but by an amount that can be explained by random error.  The standard deviation of the distribution is 0.5, which means that Nate predicted an error that was twice the actual error.

Of course, Nate's reported error is likely due to expected systematic error.  For example, if all states were slightly more in favor of Obama, that would be a systematic error.  Assuming that Nate Silver predicted a spread of 0.5, he must have expected a systematic error of about 0.85 in one direction or the other.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Cloud Atlas and yellowface

On this blog I talked a bit about Cloud Atlas, the novel by David Mitchell, and I anticipated the film, released last week.  I was dismayed to find that the film makes use of "yellowface", using cosmetics to make white actors appear Asian.  This has been criticized by Jezebel and the Media Action Network for Asian Americans.

I should say that I very much liked the film, though not quite as much as the novel.  It's an epic that connects six different stories from 1849 to after the apocalypse.  It's the sort of complicated movie I wish were more marketable to the public (but it was a flop).  Nonetheless, I believe in disconnecting how much I liked the movie from recognizing the problems with the movie.  I should not feel like I have to defend the movie just because I liked it.

The basic gimmick of the film was that the same actors played in each of the same stories, sometimes in major parts, sometimes in minor parts.  The stories occur all over the world, and involves many different ethnicities.  One of the stories occurs in a future Korea, and many non-Asian actors are made to look Asian.  Here are a few examples (scrounged from the Cloud Atlas Wiki):

The top left character is one of the major characters of the future Korea story.  The other two are minor characters.  The wiki claims that the lower one, who must have appeared for all of one second in a three hour film, is played by actress Halle Berry.  Frankly I'm not sure I believe that one.

I think the top two look like Vulcans.  It was actually really distracting when I watched the film, even aside from whatever problems of race.  I get the sense that the make-up artists are among those people who can't tell Asians apart, and therefore can't tell an unconvincing Asian when they see one.  Not that there's anything wrong with having trouble distinguishing Asian faces, but surely it should be a required skill in this particular job?

There are some potential mitigating factors (which I am about to explain are not very mitigating).  The main protagonist of the Korea story is played by the Korean actress Doona Bae.  And throughout the movie, actors are switching races and genders all the time.  For example, Doona Bae plays a white woman (in 1849), and a mexican woman (in 1975).  Halle Berry, besides playing the above character, plays a Jewish woman (in 1931), cameos as an Indian woman (in 2012), and plays a protagonist who happened to be Latina in the book.

Doona Bae as Sonmi-451.  Taken from the wiki.

But it's not a symmetric situation.  Asian actors and characters are frequently excluded or sidelined in American film.  Here you have a story that calls for and demands Asian actors, but they still cast one of the two major characters as a white actor.  And originally, Doona Bae's role was promised to Natalie Portman.  WTF.  Would it have been so hard to cast the two main characters with Asian actors, and give those actors minor parts in the other stories?  Before I heard anything about the movie, I publicly said I was looking forward to the multiracial cast, so you know I'm disappointed.

Or alternatively, if it's really so hard to find good Asian actors, they could have just left the actors white.  They may be living in future Seoul, but surely future Seoul also has ethnic minorities who are culturally Korean and take on Koreanized names?  I noticed that in the post-apocalyptic story, they briefly show a bunch of people who were dark-skinned in the novel, but in the movie they didn't bother giving the actors blackface.  The dark skin is thematically important because it's supposed to show a racial role reversal from 1849--the technological civilization is made of dark-skinned people while the native islanders are light-skinned.  But the movie quite reasonably decided not to show this because that would require giving actors blackface.  But for some reason, it's okay to give actors yellowface even when there is no major theme hinging on their being ethnically Asian.

Lastly, I do not think it is coincidence that they cast an Asian woman but not an Asian man.  I note that IMDB mentions three other Asian actresses with minor parts, but no men.  For some reason Asian women are more sexualized and thus more appealing to American audiences.  So there's that annoying gender dimension as well.

Mike Le argues that it is problematic because it puts "a megaphone to the lips of an A-list actor so he can announce “chink” before an audience of millions."  As I understand it, he means that white actors are free to enact Asian stereotypes and exert excessive control over the public image of Asian Americans.  I agree that this is a problem in general, but in this case I'm not sure what particular stereotypes they were enacting aside from the stereotypical appearance depicted by the terrible make-up job.  So I disagree with Mike on this particular point.

In summary, Cloud Atlas used a white actor to portray a major Korean character, using a distractingly bad make-up job.  But the main problem is that they continued the practice of excluding Asian actors from American film, this time even when the script demands Asian actors.  If they could not find Asian actors, they should have left the characters white, just as they left white actors white when they played canonically dark-skinned characters.  I also find it disturbing that they cast several Asian women, but no Asian men.  All in all, this diminished my enjoyment of the film.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

The founding fathers

Next time you hear about the founding fathers of the U.S., remember that the founding fathers are responsible for our plurality voting system and the electoral college.  And that's why Ohio is electing the president.

In fact, originally, the vice-president was to be the runner-up.  The founding fathers sure knew what was best.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

My tolerance for BS

Recently I was asked (in private communication) how I'm able to tolerate so much BS, despite being all into critical thinking.  My interlocutor, of course, had some specific examples of BS in mind, and the simplest explanation was that I simply didn't agree that those particular examples were BS.

But this still raises the question, how does my enthusiasm for critical thinking affect my standards?  Do I sniff at fallacies all the time?  Do I only read blogs and news sources that feature consistently sound reasoning?  Do I choose friends and communities based on their critical thinking skills?

In my opinion, it doesn't really raise my standards much, in terms of what I read and who I associate with.

In part, someone who argues well is indistinguishable from someone who I agree with a lot.  So if I surround myself with people who I perceive to argue well, that's a recipe to surround myself with people who agree with me.  That might be nice, but it's not exactly a critical thinking value.

The other problem is my general sense that nearly everyone makes bad arguments some of the time.  It's just not feasible to limit myself to those who don't.  Another way of putting it is that I disagree with everyone, so I'm not particularly bothered by the fact that I disagree with any particular person.  I don't think skeptics are reliably better, they just think about it more often.

I do have a tendency to recognize fallacies and cognitive biases wherever I go.  I've joked that many of my friends are cognitive biases personified.  There's Rationalize-All-Established-Habits, Everyone-Must-Hate-the-Same-Things-As-Me, I'll-Believe-What's-Flattering-or-Politically-Convenient, Take-the-Most-Dramatic-Interpretation-Possible, etc.  And of course my boyfriend, Inattentional-Blindness.  But I can't blame my friends for being human.