Improbable…probably

I was thinking about probability the other day. Why? I heard a rather remarkable story. A man who was struck by lightning won the lottery…and his daughter was also struck by lightning. The odds of such a thing occurring? 1 in 2.6 trillion. Let me put that in perspective for you:

1 in 2,600,000,000,000.

Now why is this relevant? Because he beat the odds. Incredibly long odds. Odds that are so long it’s really hard to compare it to anything else. Which made me think about what it really means for something to be “improbable.”

A lot of people take improbable to be the equivalent of impossible when we’re talking about 1 in 2.6 trillion. Clearly, though, something being improbable–even incredibly, remotely improbable–doesn’t preclude its possibility. It seemed, as I pondered this, that improbability might not even make something more unlikely.

Given a system as large as the universe and a large enough span of time, one would think that incredibly “rare” events, like this man and his daughter both being struck by lightning and then winning the lottery, wouldn’t really be that rare. That given a large enough stage and enough time, even very unlikely things would play out.

Imagine that you and your daughter have both survived being struck by lightning (let’s hope this doesn’t really happen). To celebrate the fact, you decide to buy a lottery ticket because, hey, you’re feeling lucky after surviving that! Now imagine that you’re about to buy the ticket, and your friend who accompanied you (who apparently is a master statistician) points out, “Hey, do you realize that if you bought that ticket your odds of winning would be 1 in 2.6 trillion?” What would you think? It might not stop you from buying the ticket on a whim, but you’d probably think you have less than a snowball’s chance in hell of winning.

And yet, someone did exactly that.

And it didn’t take a billion years. He didn’t need to buy 2.6 trillion lottery tickets to make it happen. It took a very very very short amount of time on a cosmic scale to occur. So I asked myself, well does improbability even mean anything, then? Can amazing, mind-boggling things that seem to happen against all odds actually be commonplace throughout the universe? What if rare events and amazing coincidences happen all the time? To take this to a level worthy of Christopher Nolan’s Inception, there’s nothing that says very improbable things can’t happen often–they just probably won’t. In other words, the odds of the everything being favorable for rare things to happen frequently are slim, but not nil. It could very well be that things have happened to have occurred in a way as to allow improbable things to occur frequently.

Of course it could also very well be that I don’t understand math that well, and that these random thoughts I’ve had are totally wrong. In fact, that seems highly probable.

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Meme of the gaps

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I lifted this meme from a Facebook group for Christian scientists and science enthusiasts–yes, such things do exist. It’s funny because when atheists can’t explain something using science, that’s the same thing as using God to explain something without a known answer, get it?! Except that it’s not the same thing at all, and it’s a ridiculous meme for a variety of reasons.

First and foremost (and as I pointed out to them) all scientific inquiry begins with ignorance. That’s not fallacious–that’s what spurs people to look for answers in the first place. Virtually every single scientific principle we take for granted today started out basically like that cartoon chalkboard: someone observes a phenomenon, makes a hypothesis, tests said hypothesis, and either accepts or rejects the hypothesis based on the outcome of the test. The example I gave in my FB reply involved heredity.

Most people are familiar with Mendel and his pea plants. At some point, Mendel noticed that breeding a pea plant with a purple flower with one that had a white flower yielded another purple flower instead of some mixture of the two. So essentially Mendel was saying or thinking at some point, “I have a white and purple flower and breed the two, something something something in the middle, and then I get a purple flower instead of a cross between the two.” At this point, there’s no fallacy, contrary to what the meme claims.

And, spoiler alert, it was only through careful scientific observation and measurement that Mendel arrived at his now famous theory of inheritance.

So I find it somewhat comical that a group of Christians who profess to love science and be friendly with the scientific community would post a meme that essentially mocks the entire scientific process. I did not point this out to them because I don’t want to be a dick.

But this also brought up something that I thought was funny: many Christians, including ones in this Facebook group, complain that atheists are arrogant and selfish. Well what the hell is so arrogant about admitting ignorance?! But hey, at least they appear to be admitting that using God as a fill-in explanation is a fallacy.

I’ll give this group credit: they aren’t all YECs and they do a good job of actually highlighting and exploring scientific principles and discoveries…they just always find a God angle in there somewhere. Which is fine, whatever, as long as you don’t think that the world is 6,000 years old and some invisible man in the sky made us out of dust so that a talking snake could trick us into knowing evil. I can coexist with people who just take the Christian teachings and a belief in God, but view the rest as metaphor and allegory. And I’m all for people attempting to lead more scientific lives, even if that reason is to justify a belief in God.

Anyone can be a scientist

After a somewhat lengthy absence from blogging (I just didn’t have anything to say–sue me :P), I thought I would return by talking about a subject that is near and dear to me: science.

I love science. That’s not exactly a secret on this blog. Science is a way to learn about the world and universe around us, about ourselves, about where we came from and how we got here–all kinds of wonderful things. And one of the greatest things about science is its uniformity. Anyone, anywhere can “do” science.

But increasingly it seems to me that in the modern world we don’t treat science that way. We don’t treat it as something that anyone can do. All human beings are naturally curious, and hard-wired to ask questions and seek answers. But the system has shifted now to one of academics, which in my opinion doesn’t benefit anyone and may even be detrimental to science.

What exactly am I talking about? I’m glad you asked. The way modern science has been set up is that you aren’t really a scientist unless you have a PhD, and only those with a PhD do “real” research and experimentation.

Certainly, those with a PhD have a better chance of securing funding. But does pigeonholing science into this ivory tower sort of thing ignore that basic tenant of science–it’s uniformity? I would argue that it does.

These thoughts were born after reading some recent news stories. There’s the high school student who created a new test for pancreatic cancer. And then there’s the undergraduate student who proved a 60 year old theory about the earth’s magnetosphere. You know who else didn’t have a degree? Michael Faraday. James Clerk Maxwell wrote his first scientific paper at age 14, and although he received a formal education, by all accounts did a good chunk of his study and research at home. If you go back further in history, many of the greatest discoveries were made by people with little formal training, but keen minds. Astronomer William Herschel didn’t have a degree, and he discovered Uranus and that sunlight contained infrared radiation. Ben Franklin didn’t have any degrees. A more current example, Robert Evans is a minister in Australia with a degree in history and a passion for astronomy who has visually discovered 42 supernovae (which is a record).

And that’s what I think bugs me the most about the current system. Yes, people like the ones I mentioned above are probably exceptional minds. But it doesn’t take an exceptional mind to be a good scientist. I realize that may sound counter-intuitive, but you don’t need to be a genius to understand what science is, how it works, and how to apply it. You simply need to be curious and know how to apply logic and the scientific method to your endeavors.

I think that a lot of people have questions or ideas that, if pursued scientifically, could yield interesting and fruitful results. One of the greatest weapons of discovery and innovation is diversity–a wealth of different competing ideas is more likely to lead to the truth than a select few people pursing much narrower avenues. And by forcing people to travel down a lengthy and often expensive academic path in order to practice science, I can’t help but feel that we’re losing that diversity, and we’re turning a lot of people who would make contributions to science away from the field.

And I’m sure that the high school student and the undergraduate student in the previous examples are going to be strongly encouraged to pursue advanced degrees. But is that really necessary? Sure, they’ll receive some great mentoring, but do the extra letters after their name somehow make the things they’ve already discovered more real? No, of course not. Would it somehow make them more brilliant? Doubtful. They’re naturally curious and inventive. So beyond the mentoring, I have to wonder what forcing these people further into an academic system really accomplishes, especially in light of all that they’ve accomplished already.

I guess this is my rallying call to the masses. Don’t think that just because you didn’t get an advanced degree that science is beyond you, and that you can’t contribute to it. Don’t think that you need 10+ years of advanced postgraduate education and formal training and a fancy lab at Harvard to do a scientific experiment. Get a library card and start reading. Take classes at your local community college. Buy a telescope and set it up in your backyard. Create a little lab in your garage. Be a pioneer, like so many who have come before you.

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The first chef

Because my mind wanders frequently to random things, I occasionally wonder about cooking. Specifically, who came up with cooking? When you really stop to think about the average recipe or the foods that we all take for granted, it seems very strange that they exist.

Take break as an example.

Who the hell thought up the concept of ‘bread’? What was the process? One day, did someone just wake up and say, “You know what? I bet if I took that wheat, ground it up, threw in some yeast, baked it over a fire…you could eat it.” That seems like a very, very random thought for someone to have had. But how else does one invent bread?

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It’s not like bread happens by accident. It seems very unlikely that, one day, all of the separate ingredients for bread just happened to be knocked over into a mixing bowl, kneaded, and then it fell into an unattended oven for just the right amount of time. At some point in history, someone invented bread on purpose. I just wonder what the hell the thought process behind it was.

Some things were obviously accidents. Take booze. Fermented fruit? Totally possible and even likely once you invent agriculture and start to store large quantities of fruit. I could see how cheese and yogurt could also have been created by accident.

But there remain some things that I can’t help but wonder about. Like, who was the first person to cook meat? And why? For thousands of years people ate it raw, and then one day someone decides to stick it over a fire. Because something. I’m intensely curious to know how these things, these foods and these cooking processes came to be!

If anyone out there has their own theories and can shed some light on this, I would be most grateful. Now, if you’ll all excuse me, it’s time for lunch.

Read my lips: empty words on the campaign trail

I received a voter pamphlet in the mail today. It wasn’t for anything huge, mostly school board and water commission stuff. But, as most of you know, the political machine for national candidates is already in full swing. Ted Cruz, Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, and a host of others have already declared their presidential candidacy for 2016. It seems that the election process in this country is never ending. Someone is always campaigning for the next election, no matter how far off it is.

This local election, though, brought something to light that I think is problematic in all politics here in America. I’m the type of voter who reads everything in the pamphlet. They printed it and sent it to me using my tax money, so I might as well get my use out of it. But I read every single word in regard to a bill or a candidate before voting, all of the “for” and “against” arguments and all of the endorsements, everything. Prior to today, I felt like that was a good way to stay informed and to get a better sense of the candidates than the political attack ads run on TV.

I opened the pamphlet and began reading up on the candidates. And then I noticed something that I’d never noticed before. It looked something like this:

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I had never noticed that little text at the bottom of the page before. And it was underneath each candidate. Here it is close up:

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Oh? Is that so? Well, then why the fuck do I bother reading these? Apparently anyone who runs can pay to have whatever the hell they wanted printed, and nobody is going to check to make sure any of it’s true. I could run for office here and just completely make up my education, job history, and other qualifications–just totally pull them out of thin air–and nobody would ever know.

And that got me thinking about the national elections. Just like the printed ads in the pamphlet, political candidates will do anything to get elected. They’ll make promises, pledges, whatever. Those are empty promises most of the time, just like the words on the page of the pamphlet apparently.

All of those presidential debates, congressional townhall meetings, they’re all worthless. It’s simply a chance for candidates to pay you lip service. No politician can do even a quarter of the things they promise, because in the real world there are a multitude of factors in play that make it impossible.

But that’s what people get elected on, isn’t it? What they’re going to do. It’s all about what they can do for you in the future. Well, considering that they can promise whatever they want, how are you supposed to pick a candidate? Well, there’s a simple solution: look at what they’ve already done.

Ignore the promises and rhetoric. It’s meaningless, literally. But if there’s an incumbent in the race, you can certainly take a look at their voting record. That’s really the only measure you have at whether this person is representing your interests. And there’s a lovely site that I recommend every single person in America take a look at come election season:

https://www.govtrack.us/congress/votes

Using that site, you can see how every single member of congress voted on any particular bill. If they voted how you wanted them to, keep ’em in office. if they didn’t, elect the other guy or girl. Simple as that.

But what if the election is between two novices with no prior political experience? Well in that case it’s kind of a crap shoot, isn’t it? The political process is largely trial and error, for better or for worse. You pick the person who you think will do the best job (although what you’d base this on anymore is anyone’s guess. You may as well flip a coin with all the propaganda and rhetoric out there) and then when it’s time for the next election take a look at their voting record. Did they adequately represent you and your interests? If yes, keep ’em and if not throw ’em to the curb.

But I would urge people to run off the TVs, close the magazine articles, change the radio station, and avoid the stump speeches. They don’t tell you anything. Try actually participating in your democracy and actually look at how your representative votes on your behalf.