Friday, January 30, 2015

Ratio Christi and Militant Christian Apologetics: Does God Exist? (Disc 1)

(That title will make sense as you read on.)


Surprise! Fortunately for me, I was excused from my second class so I would be allowed to attend the meeting held by Ratio Christi. I left my class at 6:50 PM so I'd have a safe 10 minutes to get to the meeting at 7:00 PM. I went to the room on the card, carelessly read the sign that said "... panel after video" outside of the room, went inside, and sat down.

It was a documentary, already halfway through, about some girl who had gone missing and was suspected to be involved in prostitution and human trafficking. It was a private case, attempting to locate her. It was upsetting to me, but I kept watching, knowing that there would be a panel at the end. I noted that there were only a few people in there, and thus it was a bit of a disappointment, but I continued on, confident and ready. Someone got up and left while I sat there, and so I caught a glimpse of a sign across the hall. "Christ-" was the only thing I could read.


I left the room with my stuff to look at the sign. "Ratio Christi meeting relocated to B001" it read, or something to that effect. I looked at the time. 7:05. Crap, I'm late, and I was too stupid to look around for confirmation that this was the place!
Joker indeed.

So I rushed out of the room, headed to B-wing, found the room and walked inside. I was met with two smiling faces and cheerful "hellos!" by two guys at the front of the room, as well as four other people sitting in the front row of the classroom. Let's call the two guys "Thing 1" and "Thing 2," since I can't recall their names for the life of me, and because I'm unnecessarily a dick. They introduce themselves, I tell them my name, and I sit there awaiting the meeting to begin. It turned out that they weren't even aware of the room change until that day, which sucked for them, but hey, what can you do? I don't want to demarcate when during this meeting more people came in, but by the time I left, there were 11 people, including myself. "Not exactly taking over the mind of this 'university,'" I thought to myself with a smirk. They had even been there for several semesters, as I learned from overhearing conversations between some of the other members. I was the only new attendee.

Finally the meeting started, and I began to feel a bit concerned. On the projector screen was a PowerPoint on "History of Islam and the West." Oh boy, I thought to myself. Not only will I have nothing to write about, but I'll also be subjected to a Christianocentric interpretation of the historical events surrounding Islamic scripture. Thankfully, this wasn't the entirety of the meeting, and it also wasn't that bad. The only thing that was bad about it was the lack of knowledge many people in the room had of Islam (not even knowing who they think Mohammad is), and the one comment made by Thing 2 where he tried to excuse the Crusades by explaining how Mohammad's wars were much worse by comparison. Ugh.

So after reviewing the material they learned in the prior meeting and going over the last bit of information for the day, they moved onto the good stuff. They played Disc 1 of "Does God Exist?" by TrueU, which is a disc set dedicated to establishing a scientific basis for Christian faith. In my last post covering these guys, I explained why this is a failure to begin with. If you haven't read that post yet, I'd recommend doing so now. It's not as substantive as this post will be, but it's still important.

They had already watched the first four sections of the disc: Faith & Reason, and Big Bang Cosmology parts 1-3. The first section was an introduction, and the second through forth sections were covering the scientific merits (or presumably, lack thereof) of the Big Bang Theory. The fifth section, however, was perfect for me: DNA by Design Part 1. The reason this was perfect for me is because only a few months ago, I was convinced by the very arguments that were made in the video, and began seriously reconsidering the idea of intelligent design (ID). I later learned that it's all a bunch of rhetorical nonsense, and I was a fucking dip for listening to any of it. Now, I will share with you all what those arguments were. I was hoping I could find a copy of the video so I could record a response to it for YouTube, but alas, I'd have to pay for it, and I'm poor. A text refutation will have to suffice, for now, based on the notes I took.

The Video

Look at his tiny ass head! God damn!
So the video starts off by introducing Dr. Stephen Meyer, author of Signature in the Cell, which is a book covering the same topic. Dr. Meyer is an intelligent design advocate and helped establish the Discovery Institute. He has a B.S. in physics and earth science (and, presumably, BS), and a PhD in history and philosophy of science. He is in no way, shape or form a credible source of information for genetics and evolutionary biology. However, an argument is to be judged based on its merits, not on who the person arguing is, no matter how disproportionate their head is to their torso. Let's examine those arguments, then.

He starts off by talking about proteins and DNA, noting that they require a specific order (which he later denotes as sequence specificity), and that they contain "information" (which he notes is the key word in this video). I put "information" in quotes for a specific reason myself, and that is that "information" is never defined once in this video. While this may seem tedious to someone not familiar with information theory, it's actually very important, because we can't conflate multiple types of information that have well-established definitions (such as Shannon or algorithmic information) together, as well as with the common interpretation of the word. It's a rhetorical device that these guys commonly use, and in fact will go out of their way to avoid defining what "information" is most of the time because of what it would mean for their arguments. Thankfully I don't need to go into a refutation of that bullshit here because it was rarely applicable.

Moving on from this, Dr. Meyer kind of beats around the bush with an exhaustive introduction into genetics, talking about how "a garden needs a gardener," etc. I won't waste my time reviewing those parts of the video, but instead I'll get to the meat of his fatuous argument. He goes on about proof of the origins of life, or that "soup of amino acids" that formed the first proteins. This is referring to abiogenesis which, I should state right now, is not something that has been rigorously proven yet. I'll talk about that after I'm done reviewing the video.

Meyer refers to the Miller-Urey experiment which allegedly showed that the environmental conditions necessary in early earth for the origins of life were possible. Basically, they passed an electrical discharge through a synthetically arranged atmosphere made up of methane, ammonia, hydrogen and water. After doing so, what came out was a pool of amino acids with some other biomolecules. In essence, they showed that the alleged soup that life came crawling out of could have been created from the atmosphere of gasses that were assumed to be present on early earth. The problem is, as Dr. Meyer noted to one student, that since that experiment, we are now aware that the earth had a different atmosphere than what was used in the experiment, and thus the amino acid pool wouldn't have come about in the way the experiment displayed. Still, the experiment serves some use: it shows that, under some conditions, the basic building blocks of life can form spontaneously without intervention from an intelligent designer. This, in itself, invalidates any need to defer to ID for the answer to the origins of life.

Wrong gasses, same point. Checkmate, atheists! Wait...

He continues on by talking about the creation of proteins, and how in order to make sense, the arrangements of amino acids need to line up in a specific way. He then draws an analogy to language, and how letters of the alphabet have to be arranged in specific ways to be useful. If you need more information on this, look up "Complex Specified Information" (CSI). It's more bullshit from the Discovery Institute.

Anyway, so he hammers in this point, highlighting that the most important feature of proteins are the sequences, how DNA directs them (drawing an analogy to code and Boeing machines which are coded to create other machines, etc.). The problem with this is that he's using an analogy that, functionally, isn't valid. DNA is only a language or a code insofar as to how we interpret it. TCAG does not naturally occur, represented the way it is here, in the genetic "code." Instead, there are valid sequences which can function properly, and we simply choose to represent the four amino acids that form this sequence by the letters TCAG. We could do the same thing for chemical reactions (and we do). We could also do the same thing for something like tornadoes: there has to be a very specific arrangement of environmental factors which can lead to the creation of a tornado. They can't just spontaneously appear out of nowhere from random environmental factors. Instead, it has to be specified. Unfortunately for Dr. Meyer, this doesn't mean that tornadoes are intelligently designed; and if they were, that'd only make God more of a douchebag.

The only reason the "coding" analogy works is because the information that comes from DNA is preceded by DNA itself, as opposed to the other way around. That doesn't mean it's actually a code or a language though, because that language still needs to be represented and interpreted by another language - our language - in order for it to be valid as such. In much the same way, the environmental factors which create a tornado can be seen as "code" which produces the "information" which leads to the creation of a tornado. We must then interpret that information from that code in order for that interaction to make sense.

TL;DR: On its own, DNA is not a real "code" in the sense that it is not a valid language with linguistic properties. The same goes for chemical interactions, weather events, and shit like whether or not the Goo Goo Dolls will come to play at your college's spring concert (which, for my college, they did, yay!). These things must all be interpreted by us, humans, for that analogy to make sense. It has no inherent linguistic properties in the way English does. It's a fucking analogy guys. Give it a rest.

One thing that was noted at the end of the video for the next part of this topic was whether or not "undirected" processes, such as what Darwin suggested, can explain all of this. This was something I wanted to mention during the meeting, but by the time I decided to give my input, that part of the conversation was long gone. At the beginning of the video, Dr. Meyer claims that life came about via the undirected process of natural selection. The problem with this is that this component of evolution, natural selection, is the only component that actually is directed! The very premise of the question he's answering is flawed because it's so glaringly wrong that you'd think he never took a course on evolutionary theory, or even made the slightest attempt to understand it.

After the Video

So concludes the video, and so concludes my sanity. Afterwards, there were several talking points raised by Thing 1 and Thing 2 in opposition to scientists in general, and evolutionary theory. I'll paraphrase them here, just to give you the gist:

Scientists just arbitrarily define new species. They get research money to find a new species; therefore, they're going to find a new species and get that money.

Nope. This is affirming the consequent. Just because it is in someone's financial interest to do something, that does not mean they would do it. Scientists by and large do what they do to expand on the scientific body of knowledge. A lot of people in the room didn't even know how species are defined, and so I had to step in to clarify, even though I promised myself I wouldn't try to correct them and instead let them defend their own cases. Thing 2 talked about how stupid it is that we have so many species of bees just because of simple differences like wing length. This isn't all that goes into the definition of species. What also goes into it: how often the two populations interact, what their ecology is (diet, behavior, etc.), their morphology, their potential to interbreed, etc. It's not just a simple difference in a single phenotypic trait that decides whether or not a species is a species.

In fact, it's not easy to define a species at all, hence the species problem. The fact that they were so blissfully unaware of this scientific dilemma explains why they'd think it'd be so easy for a scientist to get grant money to find a new species. It was funny really, but I felt bad too, since there were a lot of people in that room I could tell were only coming there because they felt at home. I hate to burst their bubble. I'll talk about one person in particular in a minute.

Scientists say "we don't know the answers to the mysteries of the origins of life, but we have faith that one day we'll find it," therefore we don't believe in ID, creationism, etc.

The first part of this statement is absolutely noncontroversial, except the part about "having faith." Instead, scientists admit to not knowing the answer, and accept that. They don't assert any solid answers that they don't have, and they find this perfectly acceptable; therefore, just because we don't have the answer to how the origins of life came to be doesn't mean we have to accept ID. That's a god of the gaps argument.

Another one that I just want to briefly mention is hand wringing over what the definition of a scientific "theory" is. I never suspected I'd ever encounter this level of stupid in real life; however, the girl who was pounding her chest about it rather scared me, so I decided it'd be best to not try to challenge her again.

The argument over which came first, the first protein or the first protein to create that protein, is like the "which came first, the chicken or the egg" debate.

This nearly made me pee myself. It's such a bad argument, especially because I can come up with an answer to both on the spot if asked. Which came first, the chicken or the egg? Neither. We understand the chicken and the chicken's egg by a modern snapshot of what it means to be a chicken. Becoming a chicken was a much longer, more gradual process, and at no point could you say that the egg was a chicken egg, or the organism that came out of it was a chicken. Only now can we make that determination. It's a fundamental principle of evolution.

On a more advanced note, though, this is the correct answer; however it depends on how you define the egg.

So which came first, the protein or the protein that made that protein? Ignoring how bad this question is to begin with, the answer would be neither. Instead, the first protein would've arisen out of a spontaneous chemical reaction, such as what could've been the case from the Miller-Urey experiment.

What was even more hilarious about this one was that the scary girl that was crying for war over the other bullshit continued on for this one. She was asked, "if you were a scientist, which would you say came first, the chicken or the egg?" Her answer? "If I were a scientist, I'd say neither, instead they both came from a unicellular organism."

No, no, no! You were half right, and then you skipped millions of years of gradual change which covers the very concepts of micro-evolution! The very concepts that you supposedly agree with! Agh! It's so embarrassing.

It's astronomically improbable for the proper sequences of amino acids to form functioning proteins.

To anyone with statistical knowledge, this is just rhetorical nonsense, again. An example a friend of mine (as well as Lex) brought up recently was a deck of cards, and this is something you can do in front of you right now. Get a deck of cards and shuffle it well, for about two minutes. Make sure the cards are randomized to the best of your ability. Now, lay out the cards in order and make note of the order (you don't need to remember it, just acknowledge that there is, indeed, an order to them).

The probability of you having gotten that precise order is 1 in 80,658,175,170,943,878,571,660,636,856,403,766,975,289,505,440,883,277,824,000,000,000,000. If you want to impress your friends with your counting abilities, that's ~80.7 unvigintillion. To illustrate it for them, explain that 1 billion has 3 sets of zeroes (one set equals 3 zeroes), while 1 unvigintillion has 22 sets. If you thought your chances of winning the lottery or being struck by lightning were unlikely, check this shit out.

The thing is, this isn't at all surprising to anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of statistics, as I said. The difference is between ex ante and ex post probabilities. Prior to having shuffled the cards, the ex ante probability of you getting that exact order is represented above. After shuffling, the probability of you having gotten that exact order of cards is 100%, or 1 in 1. The point being, no matter how unlikely something seems, it can happen. Unlikely things happen all the time.


I honestly don't think I'm missing anything, but if something else returns to my memory, I'll add it here. Towards the end of the meeting, a quiet girl attempted to display her findings from her research that she was so happy to have found, but kept getting talked over, even as she was writing it on the board. In the end, she never actually got to talk about it out loud. I felt so bad for her, because she seemed really sweet, and in a way reminded me of someone else who's important to me. After the meeting was adjourned, Thing 2 came up to me over a comment he made during my spiel about the species problem about me sounding like a guy on the radio. We talked, found out that we went to elementary school not too far from each other, and had a grand old time. He asked me if I wanted to join them for Bible study, and said he assumed I was Catholic.

Right here is where I had to make a choice. I decided earlier that if I went to the meeting and someone asked me what my beliefs were, I would refuse to answer and state only that I was an objective observer. I didn't know whether or not I'd be judged for my beliefs, and I honestly didn't want to be. However, by the end of this meeting, I was feeling comfortable enough to say something, especially considering two things:

1: It'd be a good social experiment.
2: This was the first, last, and only meeting I'd ever be able to go to, honestly.

So I went ahead and told him no, I'm an atheist.

Atheism - my inner demon, apparently.
Immediately, his expression, voice, essence - everything just fell. He became less talkative, things got more awkward, and at every possibility, he tried getting someone's attention to point me out and bring up that I'm an atheist. The only thing that delayed him from telling nearly everyone was that I had told him I skipped out on most of my second class that day just to come to the meeting. He told that to Thing 1, to which Thing 1 replied, "you're a guy that I can deal with." I'm under the assumption that he now regrets those words.

The shy girl came up to me and asked me about a comment I made earlier on, with very interested eyes, about how I went to CCD (Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, basically a weekly elementary school education based on Christian doctrine and teachings). I told her yes, to which Thing 2 interrupted and said I'm not Catholic. The thing about that was that I wasn't even mad he was still making a big deal out of that. I was pissed that he interrupted the girl I was talking to, like everyone hadn't been doing that enough all night.

Anyway, so I had to clarify that I was an atheist again, to which the girl replied "Oh... aw..." She then proceeded to recommend a book to me, which I promptly wrote down and fully intend on reading, even though it was basically a post-confessional attempt to convert me.

Before Thing 2 could tell more people, other students from the meeting came up to me overhearing how I wouldn't be able to attend future meetings, saying I could still come a little around after 8 and still catch the videos, and then go to Bible study with them after. I told them I'd consider it, but really, it's so late that I just want to go home and get dinner by that point. Aside from that, I don't feel comfortable with them anymore.

I didn't think I'd care that much, but walking home from the meeting with my girlfriend (who, forgive her soul, waited for me for over half an hour), it started to sink in. It wasn't overt discrimination, but it was a very clear change of heart that I experienced from people who were otherwise friendly and seemed genuinely interested in having me around in the future. Whether it was intentional or not, they really were affected by my lack of faith, and that hurt. Especially that shy girl - the one who was so opposed to trying to assert herself and speak up when people interrupted her, made it very clear that she was disappointed by the fact that I didn't share the same beliefs as her. It seemed awkward, and instead of trying to talk to me, it seemed clear that she was trying to leave as fast as possible after that, even as I was trying to get the names of the authors for the book she recommended. It was disheartening.

So concludes my experience with Ratio Christi, at least for now. If I happen to get my hands on those videos or accidentally come across more of their literature, I'll respond to it here. I have a few final messages, though, to conclude this post.

To the people who were at that meeting, thank you for being so hospitable. It's unfortunate that the majority (or perhaps the totality) of you are ill informed and not prepared to defend your faith. I wish you would expose yourselves to better sources of information than the speaker and his resources. It was a shame to hear you all speaking so poorly of the scientific community at large.

To the individuals I specifically mentioned, thank you for taking the time to get to know me, but your treatment of me after discovering that I wasn't amongst your ranks was pretty detestable, whether it was conscious or not. It's no way to make a dissenter feel welcome. "Atheist" shouldn't be a boogeyman to you people.

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To Ratio Christi in general, it seems my prejudgments of you were correct. You failed to provide any convincing argument on behalf of your faith, and displayed how impossible it will be for you all to "take the mind of the university for Christ," because you couldn't take mine, and for anyone who is even mildly informed in the subjects you discussed, you won't convince them either. You're going to have a very difficult time convincing anyone, really, who doesn't already share your views, of your scientific knowledge and backing. Especially in college, where students have access to resources and materials, whether they be books or professors, to help answer the questions they have, the quality of your arguments and claims isn't good enough to win the majority of the informed public.

And to everyone else, thank you for reading, and I'll see you next time!

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Ratio Christi and Militant Christian Apologetics: Introduction

I love it when I get a chance to be a militant atheist. Really, I do. There are very few real-life situations where I can express my lack of faith proudly and in such a way that other people will learn from it. I encountered such a scenario over this past summer when two Christian apologists from California came to the east coast to talk with people about their religious beliefs. I was able to challenge them on their beliefs and display a few instances where they were just being ridiculous, like thinking a child born somewhere else in the world, never exposed to Christianity, would be sent to Hell if they died and didn't believe.

Parry! Thrust! Pray! Trust! I'm so fucking clever.
Don't get me wrong. I wasn't a dick. I went out of my way to be respectful to them because they were collecting data, and in an area where over 80% of the population is Christian, what were their chances of talking to two brothers - one a staunch atheist, the other a deist - about their belief? It was an unlucky situation for them, and so I gave them the easiest time I could. It was actually very enjoyable.

But the difference from that situation and a typical one is that these two guys weren't trying to push their faith on us. They were trying to have a discussion and collect data. When that happens, I'm fine; but the moment they decide they're going to start pushing their beliefs on me is the moment I start pushing back. I'm defensive, but still militant.

Such was a situation that came upon me today. It was a day of involvement, where various clubs and organizations set up tables in the main campus building to attract students and find new membership. I don't like these days because it's almost always the case that every other student happens to vanish into nonexistence the moment I walk into the hallway, and so I'm always alone (or with my girlfriend) and having to walk down the center of the hall as the people from the tables turn into criers for one (or two), or just stare at us like creeps. Ew.

Today was different, though. Some guy happened to be standing out past the tables, and so was close enough to me to hand me a card with information about the club. I didn't want to just be rude, so I took it and thanked him. He just stared at me, menacingly. Ewww.

I looked at the card and laughed to myself. "Oh god," I thought, "here we go." It was a card from a global Christian apologetics movement. Ewwwww!

To the left, you'll see either side of the very nice card I received. On the bottom half is an introduction, along with the date and location of their meeting. Unfortunately that's tomorrow, dead smack overlapping my second class of the day, and so I won't be able to make it. Shame. I would've loved to be able to write a post about the actual arguments they make, but instead I'll have to comment on the bad job they did trying to sell their thoughts to me.

For those of you who can't read their introduction, I'll transcribe it here:

"Ratio Christi (Latin for "The Reason of Christ") is a global movement that equips university students and faculty to give historical, philosophical, and scientific reasons for following Jesus Christ. RC student clubs meet regularly to bring together faith and reason in order to establish the intellectual voice of Christ in the University. We defend the truth of God, the Bible, and the Resurrection, while sharing Christ's message and love to skeptics. The Christian faith is rational and true - not blind!"

The intro is flawed for a lot of reasons. First of all, it claims to give "scientific reasons" for following Jesus Christ. Unfortunately, for an organization that is attempting to bridge faith and reason and has a lot of grounds in philosophy, this is a major breach of the is-ought gap. Assuming we could scientifically verify that Jesus Christ existed, that he was the son of God, and that the God of the Christian Bible exists and is the all-powerful, all-intelligent being that he is made out to be, it would still not give us any reason to follow him or his son. Quite frankly, even if God did exist, I wouldn't follow or worship any of the shit he brings to the table, because he's an asshole.

Thus their premise falls short immediately. They can't give any scientific reasons for following Christ because you cannot provide a scientific argument for the worship of something. This is purely an epistemological issue concerning belief and adherence to doctrine, not science. Science only seeks to explain things - it makes positive propositions, not normative ones.

At the end, it states in partially highlighted script: "The Christian faith is rational and true - not blind!" By definition, it has to be blind, because "faith" is trust in something without evidence (or is at least understood to be. Some definitions liken it to belief). The purpose of calling it the "Christian faith" is, once again, supposed to be an epistemological claim, not a scientific one. It's belief without evidence, but instead, some other type of warrant.

So color me unimpressed by their sales pitch, but I wanted to learn more about these guys. What type of apologists are they? Why do they try to draw a line between "blind faith" and regular faith? I guessed they were militant because of their description, but then I saw their tagline on the front of the card, "Taking back the mind of the university for Christ."

"Well, they already lost me," as my girlfriend put it.

If you liked it then you shoulda put a crown on it.
So now that I've gotten the chance to look at their website (this ordeal took place a few hours ago), I've learned a bit more about their mission. They're fundamentalists. A few key notes of their beliefs:

- "According to the Bible, we view marriage as a conjugal and covenantal union of one man and one woman, ordained by God from the creation of humanity, and historically understood by believers and non-believers alike, to be the most basic institution in society."

- "We specifically deny “theistic evolution,” yet realize that this is a position that must be vigorously debated in order to show the weaknesses in both the scientific and theological evidence for macro-evolution."

- "We believe that there is a personal devil who can exert vast power but only as far as God permits him to do so; that he shall ultimately be cast into the lake of fire and brimstone and shall be tormented day and night forever. Other, both good and evil, supernatural beings exist."

That last part really gets me. God allows Satan to corrupt human beings and exert his evil powers onto humanity. How benevolent. I don't know what they mean by "other supernatural beings," but I suppose angels and unicorns (no, seriously, look it up) are among them. That they don't believe in evolution is even more laughable. You're never going to take over universities by trying to disprove evolution. The biology department will rip your asshole out and crown you with it, then write "INRB" above your head (Iesus Nazarenus, Rex Bardus, or "Here Lies Jesus, King Stupid" in really shitty Latin most likely). The same goes for opposing homosexuality. A quick note on evolution again, though, they've immediately done what every other apologist group promoting young earth creationism (YEC) does, and that's draw a functional line between macro- and micro-evolution. Presumably by stating their disbelief in macro-evolution, they are stating their belief in micro-evolution.

This is what's great about this part: an introductory level biology textbook could tell them why making such a dichotomy is fallacious. A quote from biologist Douglas J. Futuyama explains why this is the case (straight off of Wikipedia too!):
"One of the most important tenets of the theory forged during the Evolutionary Synthesis of the 1930s and 1940s was that "macroevolutionary" differences among organisms - those that distinguish higher taxa - arise from the accumulation of the same kinds of genetic differences that are found within species. Opponents of this point of view believed that "macroevolution" is qualitatively different from "microevolution" within species, and is based on a totally different kind of genetic and developmental patterning... Genetic studies of species differences have decisively disproved [this] claim. Differences between species in morphology, behavior, and the processes that underlie reproductive isolation all have the same genetic properties as variation within species: they occupy consistent chromosomal positions, they may be polygenic or based on few genes, they may display additive, dominant, or epistatic effects, and they can in some instances be traced to specifiable differences in proteins or DNA nucleotide sequences. The degree of reproductive isolation between populations, whether prezygotic or postzygotic, varies from little or none to complete. Thus, reproductive isolation, like the divergence of any other character, evolves in most cases by the gradual substitution of alleles in populations."
The only difference between macro- and micro-evolution is that of time, as many skeptics and scientifically literate individuals will tell you. There is no qualitative or functional difference between the two. Evolution is evolution, and evidence for one is evidence for the other. I know this is obvious to most of the people reading this, but I'm using these guys as a foil for typical creationist arguments. Don't give it much attention.

So what else did I find about them? Well from their page on apologetics and why they feel it's important, I found this (included in such a way that shows their disdain):
  • 72.9% of professors at elite universities say that “The Bible is an ancient book of fables, legends, history, and moral precepts recorded by men” 
  • 84.1% of professors disagree with the statement “The theory of intelligent design IS a serious scientific alternative to the Darwin theory of evolution”
  • “. . .it is clear that on the whole, and measured in various ways, professors are less religious than the general U.S. population” . (p.9)
They see it as an issue that the vast majority of professors disagree that intelligent design (ID) is a serious scientific alternative to Darwinian evolutionary theory; but if they had any basic understanding of scientific theory, they would know why. ID is fundamentally flawed due to the fact that it's inherently a "god of the gaps" argument. It can't be proven that a divine being is what set evolution in motion, especially since we don't even solidly know what the cause of evolution was. It also can't be invalidated until we find the real reason; but by that point, a backup plan will already be set in place, thus invoking infinite regress.

Creationism is very scientific, just "like us!" I crack myself up.
It pains me to see this going around. The whole "we're scientific too!" thing is just so contrived, it nearly makes me sick. I'm one of those "freedom of speech should only extend to those things which aren't patently false" kind of guys. If what you're saying is very provably not true, then you shouldn't be allowed to say it, especially to specifically convince people of its truth in an academic setting. It's disingenuous. Among their faculty are only three people with a postgraduate degree in any type of biological science, and two of them have little-to-nothing to do with evolutionary science. They also have two people with bachelors degrees in biology, but hey, you can fail one test on fundamentals of evolution and still pass. Point being, they have very few resources directly related to evolutionary science. Most of their experts are in apologetics, philosophy, and (get this) law. I guess if you're going to try to push something that's glaringly untrue, you'll need a few good arguers in there.

That's really all I have left to say on this matter. Like I said, I really wish I could attend their meeting to see what actual arguments they bring up - since then I could actually be talking about something of substance - but alas my work is more important than theirs. Yes, I just said that.

Thank you all for reading, and I'll see you next time!

Update (1/29/2015): I got to go to the meeting after all! I'll be writing a post about my experience in the next couple of days. Keep your eyes peeled. I'll link to that post here when it's finished. I promise it'll be more substantive than the post above.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Gaming Nostalgia with Man Crates: My Epiphany

I still have an opened pack of Red Vines in my drawer at home.
The community manager for Man Crates has (not so) recently asked that I (as well as many others) write a post on the moment that got me hooked on video games. Man Crates is a new company that ships awesome gifts for men in custom wooden crates that have to be opened with a crowbar. I'm sorry, but I don't care what kind of stuck up jerk you are: that sounds awesome from an entirely objective point of view. If you need a gift for your guy, or yourself, or whoever - I don't care who it is - then you should definitely check them out. For this topic in particular, I'd recommend their Retro Gamer Crate.

Originally, they were in contact with Lex about the topic, but Lex referred them to me, probably because she's a loser and won't write about something as exciting and engaging as this, so now I've gotta do her work for her.

I'm kidding, except for the part about how engaging this is.

Specifically, I'll be talking about a recipe: the combination of events, smells, foods and accessories that brought me to become a gamer. Those things that I can look at with a slightly aching heart and remember the good old days, going back even to 8-bit. Actually, my first console was the N64, but I had plenty of exposure to the SNES, and eventually went back to the NES. That was after I became a gamer. But what led up to that moment? What was I doing before then? What kind of gamer am I now, anyway? I'm going to take a moment to answer that last question first, and then go in reverse from there.

A few weeks ago I went to a game store not too far away from my house, called Next Level. The first time I had ever been there was on a stop of curiosity, on my way home from picking up Little Caesars. Now I keep going back whenever I find it convenient, because what mainly interests me about that place is their selection of collectibles, which most other game stores don't really offer me (at least, the ones that are near me don't).

Anyway, I'm losing myself. I went to that game store again a few weeks ago and looked around. Unlike the other times I had been there, there was a lot more activity. It seemed to be a group of friends who knew the store owner, because they were having a good ol' time with him. They were laughing, passing around snacks- wait, snacks? Can I have some?

The stuff of my dreams, basically.
I looked towards the back half of the store and saw a group of people sitting on some rather comfy looking couches, all watching as one of them tried to play his way through Castlevania II. The guy sucked at it, but that wasn't what I paid attention to at the time. What I noticed was this: a group of friends sitting on couches with bags of Doritos, boxes of pizza, bottles of soda, cookies, etc. just talking, laughing, and playing video games with their friend who owned a video game store. Filling inside me was an unprecedented level of envy. I've never coveted something so greatly before in my life. The very thought of being in any one of their shoes at that moment in time seemed like heaven to me. Friends, food, and video games; FFV - my paradise. What I wouldn't give to live a life like that.

Then I remember something upsetting: my life used to be like that.

I didn't appreciate it at the time, though. I didn't appreciate the simple moments of playing Mario Kart DS with a dozen people on the bus on the way to middle school. I didn't savor the times of playing random video games I had never even touched before, on consoles I'd never touched before, while over at a friend's house, just because that's what I felt like I wanted to do. I didn't keep those times close, because I didn't realize how engrained into my soul gaming was.

I still feel this way, and so it begs the question still: what brought me to this? Why does this sort of passion burst from my heart whenever I think about the lethal FFV combo? What makes me desire such a life, and cherish such memories?

There's never a sharp transition from non-gamer to gamer. I feel as though it has to be a slow, evolving process that brings out your personality and interests before it manifests into what can really be considered "gaming." What's true gaming? The level of investment in video games and the related matters that would have gotten you pushed off the slide as a kid if you grew up in or near the same generation I did. A lot of you know what I'm talking about.

I was never like that, though. I was never so intimately connected with video games that I was bullied for it. It didn't express itself so potently through me or my behavior. I was a late bloomer I suppose; at least, a later bloomer than I would've liked to be. If I could add more years onto my time as a true gamer, I'd do it in a heartbeat. But I can't, so I have to embrace the time that I've had thus far.

So, when did it begin?

Me as a kid, basically.
It was some time in the spring, while I was still in school - elementary school. I was known for never putting down my Nintendo DS whenever I could play it. At home, on the bus, in the car, going with my parents for pet food: you name it, I had my DS with me, and the thing was always 2 inches away from my nose, the screen fogging up from the heat of my adolescent breath. People would comment on it too, but it didn't matter to me. The convenience of being able to immerse myself in the latest copy of Pokemon while still pacing my steps was too enticing to pass up just because people thought it was weird. I was a weird kid, I knew that, so why the heck should that matter?

But one day, I felt something weird. Something like neglect, like I had been neglecting someone, or something. I looked to the corner of my room beside my dresser and saw my dusty old N64 - the same one I had grown up with - buried underneath a tangled web of A/V cables. My DS was in my hand, with a copy of Dragon Quest Monsters: Joker in progress and a charger cable chaining me to the electric outlet in the wall. I started to reflect on how long it had been since I had actually played a game on that console. What was the last game I played? I couldn't remember, but there was one plugged into the system; so out of curiosity, I lifted up the cables and set them to the side, making sure that none of the clumps of dust fluttered around and into my hair or eyes. Nestled in the cartridge slot was my collector's edition copy of The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time.

I'd never beaten that game. It was my favorite game of all time next to Donkey Kong 64 and Kirby 64: The Crystal Shards, and yet I'd never beaten it. Why? Because of that frickin Water Temple. I had unknowingly set myself up to not be able to ever beat the game with that save file. My only option was to start a new game, but I was so aggravated by that fact when I learned it that I abandoned the game altogether. I regretted that moment.

So with my DS still on and charging, I hooked up my N64 and started a new game, feeling myself anticipating every bit of dialogue and every note to every song that I had already experienced what must have been at least a year prior.

The musty feeling of the evening's twilight filled my room and engulfed my senses as I recognized that soon it would be dark out. My room was a little too hot, but it always was. The dust from the displacement of my N64 from earlier created a misty cloud in front of my TV, but I didn't care. It felt like a holiday for some reason, as though I shouldn't have even been in my room to begin with in that moment. Again, I didn't care. Something was tugging me in: waiting for the moment that Navi would flutter on screen and allow me to finally take control of my character, Link.

I was eating something. I can't remember what it was, but I was eating something. It wasn't even something I really liked, but you know what happens when you put food next to your hand while you're watching a good movie or TV show, or playing a video game. It just disappears, and crumbs scratch the edges of your lips. I had a cup of something too, probably white grape juice, but I don't remember that either. I'm lucky enough to so vividly remember this time anyway.

That DS stayed on for the next 3 days, but I didn't touch it. I played straight through Ocarina of Time, making sure to use a guide for the Water Temple so I didn't mess up again and have to repeat the whole thing. The corners of my room had empty water bottles and dirty paper plates from snacks and drinks that I had consumed over the course of those few days that I had been playing my N64. That was a bad habit of mine as a kid, and even as an older teenager.

I think I've finally gotten over it now, but where did that habit come from? Those days.

One of few things that'll make me, a grown ass man, cry.
When I finally finished that game, I sighed out. The ending credits were so memorable. The music was lively. It felt like I had accomplished something, and something more than just beating a video game. I had no idea what it was, but it enveloped me. It was the first and only time I didn't feel any
need to try to skip the credits or turn off the game before it was over, and I'm glad I didn't. The ending scene where Link and Zelda reunite as children was perfect. It wasn't too little, and it wasn't too much. For all that had happened, and for all that was taken from them in those 7 years, that very last scene was absolutely flawless.

Feeling something new inside me, I turned off the game and swapped my TV back to Cartoon Network. I immediately turned to my side and picked up my DS, intending to pick up Joker. The light immediately flicked on and the music started up mid-tune, reminding me that I had set the game aside without turning the console off several days before. It was surprising, and funny, but I picked up something else from that. The situation said something about me that I hadn't realized before, and it was just how consumed I was by video games. I had such a wide selection of games that I could pick up after beating Joker, and after that, there were game stores all around that I could visit to buy something new. There were games I could borrow from my brother. There were games being released soon that I could ask for.

But all that was on my mind was games. Games, games, games.

And realizing all of that, and seeing what it said about me as a person, I smiled in my head and thought the very same words I heard echoing in my brain when I saw those guys absolutely sucking at Simon's Quest at Next Level:

"I could get used to this."

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Police Brutality And The Efficacy Of Body-Worn Cameras

I'm back!

I wish I could've addressed this study the day it came out, but I've been dealing with a whole host of things that's kept me from getting back into blogging. Besides, I didn't receive word of this study until the day after Christmas -- there were a ton of distractions that kept me from even reading it. That being said, I'm more than happy to review this study's findings now, because it really is good news.

In a study entitled "The Effect of Police Body-Worn Cameras on Use of Force and Citizen's Complaints Against the Police: A Randomized Controlled Trial," published in the Journal of Quantitative Criminology, Ariel et al. review what is the first scientific report on the topic of whether or not police body-worn cameras work in terms of decreasing the rate of excessive force by police. As the title suggests, it also reviewed the effects of body-worn cameras on the rate of complaints raised by citizens against the police for excessive use of force.

Eric Garner: one of many examples.
The area the study was conducted in was Rialto, California -- a place that has already gained notice in the media for its decline in violence and complaints after the implementation of body-worn cameras, and so was used as evidence by police forces all over the United States in support of the use of the technology. Since the introduction of body-worn cameras to the Rialto police force, police use of force is 2.5 times less than before. At the very least, it was to be noted that wearing body-worn cameras could provide evidence in cases of police brutality, and so there was no justifiable reason to not implement them.

But the present study is a randomized controlled trial to see not only if that's the case, but what other benefits could be found in implementing body-worn cameras. Over the period of 12 months, a sample of 54 officers (but the number of patrol shifts, n = 988, was the primary focus) were randomly assigned to either experimental shifts or control shifts, where they would either be equipped with body-worn HD cameras or not, respectively. After examining the results, it was found that use of force by officers wearing cameras fell by 59%, and reports against officers dropped 87%. This is interesting not only because of how great the effectiveness was of implementing the body-worn cameras, but it was actually protective against seemingly unreasonable complaints brought against the officers. So not only can the cameras serve to provide evidence in cases of excessive force, but they can be preventative as well, as institutionalized camera usage requires that the officer warn the citizen before any exchange that they're being recorded, thus impacting the psyche of those involved.

It's important to note that the statistics provided can, of course, convince people that cases of excessive force are widespread. This isn't necessarily the case: in the present study, it was observed that the implementation of body-worn cameras decreased complaints filed against officers from 0.7 per 1,000 contacts to 0.07 per 1,000 contacts. It was already a fairly low number, but the difference was still statistically significant and has wide implications for areas that may have higher rates of complaints filed against the police.

It's also important to note that the study drew a dichotomy between excessive force and reasonable force, where force of any kind was defined as a non-desirable response in police-public encounters. This is a very vague definition for force, but the researchers saw it desirable to keep it this way because whether justified or unjustified, the aim was to examine the officers' relationships with the community and how the utilization of body-worn cameras would impact this. At the same time, the study authors warn that this should not be taken as solid evidence to start steamrolling this technology into usage, and also consider the possibility that the reliance on these cameras will cause lack of consideration or prosecution in cases where video evidence does not exist.

This wouldn't be too much of a problem if the usage of cameras didn't face other challenges, such as whether or not they'll even be on. It's been found that most of the time, body-worn cameras are either turned off or are conveniently "lost" prior to situations where they may be needed most. It's hard to understand how it's even possible for police officers to be allowed to turn their cameras off, thus defeating the purpose of putting them there in the first place. In my opinion, the removal of cameras from the officer's person or shutting them off should be done at the station, not in the field.

Neglecting to mention privacy complaints as well (I really don't want to get into that), my response to this study is this: it's about damn time. The United States is rather well-known internationally for their militarized police; and to be forthcoming about my own biases, I entirely agree. The American police are far too edgy and trigger happy to do their jobs properly. As the authors suggested, this study isn't the end, but it should definitely be the beginning of a more careful and rigorous observation so that we can determine whether or not the use of these cameras is effective enough to be implemented across the country. And of course, if that's the case, then don't include a readily accessible off switch.

Thank you all very much for reading.

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Ariel, B., Farrar, W., & Sutherland, A. (2014). The Effect of Police Body-Worn Cameras on Use of Force and Citizens’ Complaints Against the Police: A Randomized Controlled Trial. Journal of Quantitative Criminology DOI: 10.1007/s10940-014-9236-3