Summary of Entries on Urban Legends

What objectivity and the study of philosophy require is not an “open mind”, but an active mind — a mind able and eagerly willing to examine ideas, but to examine them critically.

~Ayn Rand

Urban legends are a huge anti-favorite of mine. Sometimes, I feel like half of my time on Facebook is correcting blatantly erroneous memes.

Here is a sampling of the recent ones: Collapse )

With the existence, for many years now, of TV shows like “MythBusters” and websites like, I do not understand why our culture seems to be getting worse at spreading such viral nonsense instead of better.

I do not mean to come across as “holier-than-thou” about this. For one, I myself have been duped more than enough times — including several of the above initially, before I researched them. No one likes to learn that he or she has been deceived. Part of my anger at the phenomenon of urban legends is seeing so many of my friends and family victimized by lies and deceit.

“But these things are all harmless,” you may say. “What does it matter whether people believe these things or not? What does it matter if some of them contain ‘little white lies’?” I think this issue is more important than that. Beyond the simple matter of no one liking to be deceived, I feel that there are a few other issues worth raising: Collapse )

I should point out that not all legends end up being false. (I highly recommend a visit to the nearest Ripley's Believe It or Not Museum as a demonstration of this.[10]) Truth is often, after all, stranger than fiction. Do not reject anything outright that seems unbelievable, but at least take the time to analyze it.

I also should point out that if I spread a false urban legend, I myself may not be lying, but I am still spreading a lie. The intent is (much) better, but the result is (sadly) the same, despite my good intentions. It is one thing to be deceived; it is quite another thing to then spread that deceit around for others to be deceived, so I should be more careful.

I will summarize this entry with the following statement: If our BS-detectors are so off that we cannot detect an obviously Photoshopped grisly bear in a tent, how are we going to detect the political spew coming out of the mouths of Democrats and Republicans or the over- and under-hyped “news” from a media who care far more about ratings and money than about truth? Please, dear readers, let us all have “active minds”. not “open” ones. Let us show a little skepticism where warranted. Let us not help the spread of falsehood.

Let us care about truth again.

(Click here for a full list of my entries on urban legends.)


Seriously, everyone should have this webpage bookmarked for reference:

Summary of Entries on Science

Not unexpectedly, seeing as I am a chemist, I have written about science quite a lot. Here are some recurring themes and opinions about science I have covered over 73 entries on this blog:
  • Science is, first and foremost, a method.
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    Science is not about knowledge or truth;[5] it's a source of knowledge or truth.

  • Science is not the only valid source of knowledge.
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    Not all sources of knowledge, however, are equal. Because our perceptions are faulty,[8] we must be careful. As I hinted above, I value science far above anecdote.

  • Science is about predictions and models, not facts.
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    And many things in this universe, such as light, do not fit neatly into any single model. Is light a particle? or wave? or neither? or both? Science doesn't need to be able to answer that question to still make useful predictions about how light behaves.

  • Science strives to find universals by starting with particulars.[10]
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    It is good at predicting probables but not actuals.

  • Scientists are biased humans.
    Or to put it differently, scientists are humans. No single person shares the same experience of reality;[11] no single person observes anything in an un-biased manner.[12] Collapse )

  • Scientists are prideful, greedy, power-hungry humans.
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    Science is a tool; and people will always misuse tools.[15] And because it is only a tool,...

  • Science is not generally a good source of philosophical, moral, or ethical arguments.[15, 16]
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  • Nor should philosophical principles dictate science.[19]
    Likewise, theological principles should not dictate science. (Besides, if one's theology is correct, there shouldn't be any conflict....)

  • Contrary to the opinion of most, science actually requires faith.[20][21]
    (I clarified this in my last public entry.)

  • And because it involves faith, it often takes paradigm shifts to bring us closer to the truth.[22]
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  • The news media misrepresent science all too often.
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  • People tend to fear science that they do not understand.
    This is understandable — especially in light of the poor job the media does.
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  • Science is awesome![37][38][39]

(Click here for a full list of my entries on science.)

Future Entries
  • On the Urban Legend of the War on Science

*I should note that just because something is in the past does not mean it is not predictable. The Big Bang happened in the past, yet because we still see light from the past, we can make testable observations about the past and predictions about other things we might observe in the future, which, if actually observed, convince us that the Big Bang happened. Evolution happened in the past, yet we can still make testable hypotheses about how it works to support that it happened. For example, see here.

Summary of "And What It Is Not" Entries

I am a man who cares very much about definitions. I would argue that many disagreements arise simply because the ones in disagreement are using different definitions of the words. I have shared my wish that words were more precise, that is, that they did not have such a wide range in meanings.[1] If words have fewer meanings, there is less chance of two people in an argument using different ones.

In addition, a common unfair tactic used in arguments these days is in misusing words. This is a case of definition accuracy.

It works like this:
  • It is agreed on that something, X, is bad.
  • Something that is not X, Y, is said to be X when it is not.
  • The argument is made, "Therefore, Y is bad. I win!"

  • It is agreed on that something, X, is good.
  • Something that is not X, Y, is said to be X when it is not.
  • The argument is made, "Therefore, Y is good. I win!"

    This is similar to name-calling and is not a valid argument.

    A problem with people misusing words (inaccuracy) is that, if it happens long enough, the formerly inaccurate definition is accepted as an alternate definition, and the word in turn becomes less precise.

    (A second problem, which many of my readers have pointed out, is that misusing words, such as "racism", for example, weakens the power of those words when they are used properly.)

    Thus, I have found it helpful for my own purposes to comment on words I've heard commonly misused. Below is a list of the majority of such definitions I have discussed here with links to their entries (beginning with one new definition):
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    (Click here for a full list of my entries on definitions.)

    (This is the first time I've ever used a "definition list" in HTML....)

    Edit: added a "can" to comments on "hate" to remove accidental implied necessity of evil actions
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    One Thousand, Five Hundredth Entry

    Well, that took long enough....

    If any of you were around for my 1,000-entry milestone (back in November of 2006[1]), you will know that I always go back and summarize entries periodically. I do this mostly for myself, as it helps me recall what I've talked about and let's me see how my thoughts have evolved over time, etc. And if you are curious about what I think but don't want to skim through a thousand and a half entries, hopefully, these summaries will be interesting to you....
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    More on Abnormal Normality: On Being XXTX

    I have never had any interest in taking a Meyers-Briggs test. I don't like to be categorized, but more than that, in my past experience, every time I have ever taken any such personality test, I have come up in the middle. I have described this before as being "abnormally average".[1]

    But, this last week, I was convinced by my friend, J.M., to take one of the tests — in his words, the most complicated one he had seen.

    My results?


    If you are confused, expecting to see some familiar Es, Is, Ss, Ns, Js, or Ps, that is understandable. X is apparently used when you come out exactly in the middle. And over 107 questions, I really did come out exactly in the middle....

    ...Except for in the area of thinking vs. feeling. In that area, I was considered 100% T.

    I should note that I am an extremely emotional person; I just tent to bury them away. It is not that people who are T have fewer feelings than people who are F. People of T type can still be very empathic to others as well. The M-B Type Indicators have to do specifically with how one makes decisions; one's MBTI says little about his or her general personality. I did not realize this until after I took the test and was shocked that I was not XXXX. Which sent me to read more about the system online.

    In other words, someone with F is not necessarily less of an intellectual or less of a thinker; it just means that he or she prefers to choose options based on gut over logic.

    Which leads me to my first problem with MBTI classification: in my (very strong) opinion, T is superior to F. MBTI writing strongly emphasizes that no one type is better than another, but it is very core to my world view that deciding things based on logic always trumps emotionally based decisions.

    This is not to say that I never use emotions in making decisions. No, the fact of the matter is that I just decided to buy a chocolate milkshake at 1:30 because I felt like doing so. However, there was also no logical reason arguing why I should not do so.

    I mean no offense to any of you who may be F type. It may also be that I am not fully understanding how someone of F type makes decisions, so correct me if I'm way off.

    It's just that in my own experience — and, from what I can observe, so too in the experiences of others — emotions are faulty. Sure one can make logical flaws as well, but logic is not subjective, whereas one's feelings are. Better to prefer to make decisions based on objectives, I say — especially if mistakes can be made in both cases.

    My other issue is that the different ways are called dichotomies. I do not see why someone — and apparently I do — cannot use both S(ensing) and (i)N(tuition) while making decisions. Why can one not be "ambidextrous"? Why is it assumed that no one prefers to use both methods simultaneously?

    More on Descartes: His Second "Proof"

    My third ever entry on this blog had to do (in part) with René Descartes and his famous Cogito, ergo sum.[1] I have referred back to that entry many times in discussions here about epistemology, how my belief in my own existence is (after believing in logic) the second most secure of all my beliefs.[2]

    While I highly respect Descartes — he's the first real philosopher I ever read — and, in theory, love his stated method of searching for truth by means of the "clear and distinct", beyond his initial cogito, I do not think he very successfully proved much of anything else.

    I've returned to Descartes again recently, because I have been off-and-on attending a philosophy discussion group started by one of my best friends from college, J.M. The group has been meeting for about ten years now, but I did not join in until a few months ago when they entered the era of modern philosophy, which Descartes had a major role in ushering in. Thus, I have reread Descartes and been introduced to the works of Baruch/Benedict de Spinoza and, most recently, Nicolas Malebranche.

    Last night, at the meeting, there was some discussion about the "dualism problem" created by Descartes and how much of a departure it was from previous ideas of a union of body and soul.[3]

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    Ever since Descartes created this problem (although some have shown that it is an idea present even in infants[4]), other philosophers after him have sought to solve it. Descartes' own solution, as I mentioned, was an interaction between the two substances mediated by the pineal gland in the brain.

    Malebranche's solution is termed "occasionalism". For Malebranche, there are two substances (as you read him explain above); however, they have no interaction. It just happens to be the case that God occasions it that, whenever we choose to do something with our body in our mind, our body then responds in such a way that it appears as if our mind had caused that action.

    But is there really a "problem" at all? Only if you accept one of the "proofs" that mind and body are separate and independent substances. Spinoza solved the problem by denying the premise. His solution is termed "neutral monism". For Spinoza, there is only one substance in the universe at all; mind and body are simply different ways of looking at the same thing.

    I do not agree with Spinoza's limitation to only one substance in the whole universe, but I find both Descartes' and Malebranche's proofs of dualism lacking. Descartes argued that, because it was possible for him to imagine himself without a body, this proved that his mind had "need of no place nor [was] dependent on any material thing." But this is not a logical argument. Let's use my favorite software/hardware analogy[5] once again. I can easily enough imagine a computer program without a computer, but said program needs a material computer and depends on it for it to have any meaningful function or existence.

    Likewise, Malebranche's alternative argument I find unconvincing. Malebranche rhetorically asks, "Is a thing that has length, breadth, and depth capable of reasoning, desiring, sensing? Certainly not!" But this is not a proof; it's essentially saying, I cannot think of a way to explain how one can arrive at "perceptions, reasonings, pleasures, desires, sensations" from spatial relations, therefore, it cannot happen. This, if I understand the term correctly, is an argument ad ignorantium. In the lease, it is confusing something unexplained with something unexplainable.

    On Artificial Senses

    a short(er) entry for a change...

    One of my earliest entries was on a pet-peeve or "anti-favorite" of mine — the commonly taught error that we have five senses,[1] when all of us have (at least) six — the sixth being balance/spatial orientation, not an ability to see dead people.

    If you have ever watched a science-fiction/fantasy movie, you have likely seen some's ideas of artificial senses, be it Spider-Man's "spider sense" or telepathy/empathy or something of that sort. And you have most likely seen a cyborg in some movie or other — Robo-Cop or the like.

    This is no longer the stuff of science fiction. A British scientist and professor of cybernetics at Oxford, Kevin Warwick, recently has installed cybernetic implants into his own body permanently, making him into the world's first true cyborg. With the implants hooked directly to the nerves in his arm, Warwick can, with his brain alone, both control robotic objects (such as robotic arms or electric wheelchairs) as far away as other states (via the Internet) and receive input from mechanical sensory devices.

    While mind-control of objects is fascinating, I am far more intrigued by the idea of "extra-sensory input". In other words, Warwick has created for himself additional senses! In this case, the sense he created was essentially sonar. Using sound waves emitted from a hat linked to the cybernetic attachment on his arm, Warwick can sense how far or close objects are to him with his brain just like a dolphin or bat can. He can walk around a room with his eyes closed.

    I really need to read his book, because I am dying to know what the qualia of sonar is like.[2] Is his perception of distance through this new sense synesthetic?[3] Or has his mind created entirely new qualia for him to experience?

    On Educational Success and Parenting or What Poplin and (Especially) Chua Got Wrong

    I am an excellent (written) test-taker. I am good at educated guessing. I am (or used to be at least) also really good at memorizing. I educated-guessed my way through the final exam of a biology course for which I had skipped almost all the classes to score a B. I could stay up the night (or two nights in a row) before an organic chemistry exam and score 100%. I earned a scholarship coming to Hopkins, because I was assumed to be one of the best incoming grad students, based on my test scores. After my entrance exams, I was told that I could pick my own grad courses because I probably wouldn't learn anything from them anyhow.

    I'm not saying this to brag, but to make a point, because the fact of the matter is that I'm a terrible lab experimentalist. I'm horrible at doing experimental science, because all of the knowledge I had beforehand was memorized; I was never taught how to solve real world chemistry problems in a methodical way, via observation, hypothesis, experiment, and theory. I feel like I am only just learning these things now after many wasted years in grad school.

    I'm sure it's the same in many other fields. I can memorize thousands of dates for events, but this does not mean that I really understand why the dates are important in history or that I could make a movie somewhat accurately portraying life in a given time period. One can know all the theory behind the color wheel and one-point perspective, but this doesn't mean he or she can paint. I've earned very good scores in all of the eleven or so language courses I've finished, yet I am not fluent in a single one of them. One can ace the SAT English section and be an awful writer.

    True learning is not memorization. Nor is it high scoring in standardized tests.

    I should say here that I do not think that testing is worthless. It is important to learn to memorize by repetition and drills. It is known that such learning frees one up to use other regions of the brain for problem solving skills. My point is that testing alone should not be the sole determinant of educational success.

    And this is one of my major problems with both Poplin's research and Chua's parenting methods — I think they have a poor definition of academic success.

    Despite publishing a paper in the 80s about how social science studies should be more qualitative than quantitative, Poplin's own study, which I discussed in my last entry, judges teachers based on how well students scored on standardized tests. I see this as problematic, though perhaps it is less of an issue for her study, because she only looked at math and English teachers. Math and English (grammar, at least) are more fact-based subjects.

    But having taught no small amount of science classes, it is obvious to me that test results are little indication of whether one understands the bigger picture. The students almost always just memorize. After the test, they A) forget almost everything and B) miss the fundamental and general principles in their memorization of the specific cases. While in my case, I did manage to come away with the fundamentals of organic chemistry theory when in college, I did not also learn how to apply that theory in the real world at all.

    As I made clear in my previous entry, I strongly agree with Poplin on the need for and benefit of strictness in the classroom; however, it is with her other findings about traditional teaching methods being better that I take issue. I would agree that traditional methods lead to the best test results — hers are not the only studies overwhelmingly showing this — but I disagree that test results reveal the best students.

    Chua makes all the same errors (in addition to being a hypocrite, in my opinion, which I'll note at the end). She opens her Wall Street Journal article by defining this idea of success as academic — "math whizzes" and "musical prodigies" she gives as examples. She claims that she never allowed her children to get any grade less than an A or fail to be the #1 student in any subject — except for gym or drama. She forced her children to play the "more academic" piano and violin and forbade them to play any other instruments. She forbade them to perform in plays.

    A's and the "#1 student" label are based on test scores, which again say little about how successful her children will be in the real world. Playing the violin extremely well does not mean that one will be a great composer or create musical art. Being #1 in science doesn't mean that one will make grand scientific discoveries. And what is wrong with other instruments outside of piano or violin? What is wrong with drama? If Chua really cared more about hard work and not giving up, as she claims, why could one not show hard work in gym or drama class or playing the flute?

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