No Christopher Hitchens - Jane Genova: Speechwriter - Ghostwriter: VANITY FAIR, 8/2011

Jane Genova: Speechwriter - Ghostwriter: VANITY FAIR, August 2011 - No Christopher Hitchens
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July 14, 2011

No Christopher Hitchens

VANITY FAIR was the platform for iconoclastic author Christopher Hitchens to popularize his controversial theories. One of the most famous was his "Missionary Position" article [and book]. Hitchens framed Mother Teresa as nothing but a miserable human being who was leveraging Catholic dogma for her own political gain. That was the mid 1990s.

It was then that many of us grassroots [as opposed to official think-tank ones] thinkers noticed this bold mind and followed it. Together we went on an intellectual journey all the way to having a good laugh at the notion that God is great.

The August 2011 issue of VANITY FAIR has no commentary by Hitchens. In an earlier column he noted how quickly the cancer was galloping. No longer could he enjoy the pleasure of food or the satisfaction of orally expressing his point of view.

We may not be getting any more fresh copy from Hitchens.

He lived the life he wanted. Like Edith Pilaf, he expressed no regrets. However, we wish he had embraced healthy living and, like so many of us Friends of Bill, left the booze and the smokes behind. Did he not do that because the trauma of his mother's suicide brought a darkness to his being that success couldn't lighten?


Absence of Evidence is Evidence of Absence

Absence of Evidence is Evidence of Absence


Why did I make this proof?

People quite often state wrongly that "Absence of evidence is NOT evidence of absence." Why do they do that? Perhaps because they do not know better? And with this proof they get the possibility of knowing for sure that "Absence of evidence IS evidence of absence.", which is quite useful in many situations, such as these:

Absence of evidence for...
  • ...fairies, trolls, and ghosts...
  • ...weapons of mass destruction in Iraq...
  • ...crop circle aliens...
  • ...gods...
  • ...Microsoft patents in Linux...
  • ...miracle healings...
  • ...credentials...
  • ...CO2 from machines causing global warming...
  • ...UFO space ships...
  • ...telepaty, ESP, and telekinesis...
  • ...Linux stealing code from SCO corporation...
...means they get less likely all the time.

This is the reason that faith is bad. Faith is the assumption of truth when evidence is absent. This absence of evidence is evidence of absence of truth. So faith in itself is evidence of falseness. Therefore, faith is not a road to truth, but instead a road to falseness.

Blindly following orders is also bad. The absence of a good reason for an order is evidence that the order is bad, since absence of good is bad.

Carl Sagan is often quoted as saying "Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence", but he meant it as an example of what fools mean, and has since been consistently misquoted as something he meant.
Correct quote by Wikiquote.
Misquote by Quotationspage.

One source of this confusion may be that "evidence" is a near synonym to both "proof" and "sign/indication" which are two different concepts. Using these words instead gives the two following correct sentences:

  • Absence of sign/indication is a sign/indication of absence.
  • Absence of proof is not proof of absence.

More serious is the American Statistical Association, who even sells a T-shirt with the wrong slogan on it. Being statisticians, they really should know better. Considering the large number of members who could have pointed out this error, it is rather telling that it is still there.

There was a previous version of this proof, but this new one is much shorter, simpler, and it also defines the concept of evidence, which is also very useful and absolutely necessary to understand what the proof is about, which many never did understand.

I have seen that the comprehension of this "absence of evidence" concept is one of the main differences between sensible and gullible people. Gullible people will not and cannot understand this concept.

A less proofy explanation:

For those of you who have not learned Bayesian inference yet, here is an explanation with words, examples, and analogies:

More women than men wear skirts.
Both women and men can use trousers instead of skirts.
Skirts for men are kalled kilts, and are usual in Scotland.
Thus there are 4 possibilites:

A man without a skirt
A woman without a skirt
A woman with a skirt
A man with a skirt

A skirt is evidence of a woman, because
there are more women than men wearing skirts.

So, if you see someone NOT wearing a skirt,
then it is more likely a man.

Lastly, an anecdote from Roar Lauritzsen about Absence of Evidence:

"Suppose you are a programmer, and you are looking for bugs in a program. At first you cannot sleep at night because you are convinced that there must be a bug somewhere, you just haven't found it yet. To find the bug, you test the program to see if you find something that doesn't work as you expected. If you found something, it would be evidence that there was a bug. If you test the program a lot, and still find no evidence of a bug, this increases your confidence that there is no bug. In other words, it counts as evidence for the absence of a bug, and you are finally able to sleep better.

After a while, your program is thoroughly tested, and you still find no evidence for a bug. You begin to suspect that there might not be a bug after all. However, if there is no bug, you will have no purpose as a programmer. You feel as if your life depends on the existence of a bug. You are now looking for the Bug that will save you. You believe that there must be a Bug, so you test your program even more thoroughly. When you still cannot find any evidence for a Bug, you start to rationalize: Although I cannot find any Bug, that does not prove that there is no Bug. You are now a true believer in the Bug."

PS: A nice comment, in Spanish.

PS: A nice article, with pretty pictures.

2010-5-13: I am on Seth Robert's blog

2010-5-14: And then on boingboing

Buy a mug or shirt with the proof!
Absence of Evidence is Evidence shirt Absence of Evidence is Evidence of Absence shirt


‪Symphony of Science - 'We Are All Connected' (ft. Sagan, Feynman, deGrasse Tyson & Bill Nye)‬‏ - YouTube

‪Symphony of Science - 'We Are All Connected' (ft. Sagan, Feynman, deGrasse Tyson & Bill Nye)‬‏ - YouTube

Statistical Numbing. Why Millions Can Die, and We Don’t Care. | Risk: Reason and Reality | Big Think

Four year-old Khafra was near death three days ago when he was brought to the refugee camp hospital. He was emaciated, his ribs showing through his taut dry skin. He panted for breath. His desperate eyes bulged. His mother Alyan could only sit at his side and watch, helpless, sad beyond comprehension, but herself too malnourished to cry. Doctors are still not sure Khafran can be saved.

The famine in the Horn of Africa has left more than 12 million people malnourished, including half of Somalia’s population. The U.N. says 640,000 Somali children are starving, and more than 29,000 children in southern Somalia have starved to death in the last 90 days.

Which of those two paragraphs was more emotionally powerful? It should have been the second, shouldn’t it, based on the scale of the suffering, 640,000 starving kids to one? But the first paragraph almost certainly carried more emotional punch. The famine in northeast Africa is once again forcing us to confront the truth about the way our brains work, a profound truth with sobering implications. As smart as we think we are, as rational as we believe our powerful brains enable us to be, our perceptions are the product of both reason and emotion, a combination of the facts and how those facts feel, and sometimes this emotional/instinctive/affective system can produce perceptions with tragic consequences.



Science and religion - Ramblings of a carnivore

Science and religion

He held forth on a great range of topics, on some of which he was thoroughly expert but on others of which he may have derived his views from the few pages of a book at which he had happened to glance. The air of authority was the same in both cases.

Roy Harrod (about John Maynard Keynes)

Science is what scientists do. It is difficult to find a better definition of the word. No one agrees completely on what methods and rules should make up science. But there are still aspects of science that are generally agreed upon and that make more sense than others. One goal, if not the only goal of science, is to find facts and explain the world as it really is. Science is searching for truths rather than lies and untruths. Interestingly, a whole field of intellectuals work and live as scientists without actually having a clear definition of the word science. But it is not given that we need a strict definition. We generally know what people are talking about when they say something is true or false. Our language often works perfectly fine in conveying such vague ideas “truth.” Leaving out deeper philosophical considerations, words like truth, reason and fact actually make sense to most of us. It is true that the earth is round (or more correctly closer to an oblate spheroid) and it is false that the earth is at the center of our solar system. Natural selection is a fact and so the creation of all living beings by a god is a lie.

Dean Ornish
Whenever I write about many of the “scientists” in the field of nutrition, I often feel compelled to put the word “scientist” in quotes. I know they work as scientists, but are they following scientific principles? Are their results, scientific results? Is, for example, Dean Ornish a scientist? Is his work focused on finding truths and facts based on logic and reason? Because it seems to me that he disregards a great deal of data when he comes to his conclusions and that he has a great ability to cherry pick and interpret any cherry picked data to fit his existing world view. This makes many of his conclusions wrong, and many have argued correctly that he is in fact wrong about many things.

Ornish works as a scientist, even if he has not always followed agreed upon principles designed to filter out the truth. Should I then disregard anything he says? No, of course not. That would mean to disregard basic aspects of human nature, one of which is our great ability to screw things up. We all do, but unfortunately, some more than others. Thus, I have to consider anything Ornish has to say. This does not, however, mean that he has earned my trust.

Ornish is just an example here, and is in no way unique in his field. Scientists regularly work in unscientific ways. As Thomas Sowell puts it:
The ignorance, prejudices, and groupthink of an educated elite are still ignorance, prejudice and groupthink…
Although scientists should always put new theories to the test and assess their validity, this is not always done. Ideas are often accepted more on the basis of resonance with peers than empirical verification. In fact, as Sowell puts it, scientists act just like the rest of us:
If they are simply people who are like-minded in general, then the consensus of the group about a particular new idea depends on what that group already believes in general- and says nothing about the empirical validity of that idea in the external world.
The fact that ideas are wrong does not mean they can’t be accepted by a great many people, and even sometimes by the majority of people. The ideas of Hitler, Lenin and Mao for example, was and are still accepted by millions as being very good ideas indeed, despite their lack of logic and empirical testing. The belief that humans are cured of illness because needles are jammed into immeasurable magical energy points or that homeopathy makes any sense at all, are also beliefs with numerous followers despite being completely devoid of reason. Religions, as the prime example, gather millions of followers without being in anyway rational.

By no means does working as a scientist or working in a scientific field mean that you are a reasonable person. Religion is in many ways the opposite of reason as it usually requires a lack of, or disregard of reason to exist. It is then difficult to understand how someone can work as a scientist or in a scientific field and at the same time believe in a higher power when there is absolutely no evidence for the existence of such a higher power.

An important part of science is the falsifications of hypotheses. Not every theory needs to be falsified, but many theories will be nonsensical if they cannot be falsified. The existence of a god cannot be falsified, that is, one cannot prove that there is no god. That, however, does not make the existence of a deity any more plausible. Although the existence of a god cannot be falsified, we do know enough about the human psyche, the history of the earth and the universe and the history and evolution of religions to say that any of the proposed gods are extremely unlikely to exist. I will not do the whole discussion of why religion is nonsensical. Others have done so before and have done so far better than I ever could. I can, however, recommend and refer to writers such as Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Daniel Dennet. (Here is a short talk by Dennet, and while at TEDs, make sure to also watch Dawkins talk on militant atheism.)

Writing critically about religion is going to hurt many people’s feelings. Religion is personal. It is at the core of the identity of many, and challenging religion is challenging who people are. But religion is a part of human existence. It affects us personally and as a society, and most importantly, there is no reason to think that religions are benign or that they do not affect the wellbeing of humans negatively. So religions should be discussed and I am taking the side of the critic.


Superior performance and neural efficiency: the im... [Brain Res Bull. 2006] - PubMed result


Department of Psychology, University of Graz, Universitaetsplatz 2/III, A-8010 Graz, Austria. ro.grabner@uni-graz.at


Superior cognitive performance can be viewed from an intelligence perspective, emphasising general properties of the human information processing system (such as mental speed and working memory), and from an expertise perspective, highlighting the indispensable role of elaborated domain-specific knowledge and acquired skills. In exploring its neurophysiological basis, recent research has provided considerable evidence of the neural efficiency hypothesis of intelligence, indicating lower and more focussed brain activation in brighter individuals. The present EEG study investigates the impacts of intelligence and expertise on cognitive performance and the accompanying cortical activation patterns in the domain of tournament chess. Forty-seven tournament chess players of varying intelligence and expertise level worked on tasks drawing on mental speed, memory, and reasoning. Half of the tasks were representative for chess, while the other half was not. The cortical activation was quantified by means of event-related desynchronisation (ERD) in the upper alpha band. Independent effects of expertise and intelligence emerged at both, the performance and the neurophysiological level. Brighter participants performed better than less intelligent ones which was associated with more efficient brain functioning (lower ERD) across all tasks. Additionally, a high expertise level was beneficial for good task performance but exerted a topographically differentiated influence on the cortical activation patterns. The findings suggest that superior cognitive performance and the underlying cortical activation are not only a function of knowledge and domain-specific competences but also of the general efficiency of the information processing system.

[PubMed - indexed for MEDLINE]

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