Sunday, December 31, 2006

Constructing Logical Fallacies for Fun And Profit

The Anthropic Principle is about as Odds-Are-One-y as anything outside this blog gets. We observe that there is life in the universe, ergo the universe must have evolved such that it can support life. In the possible universes where this didn't happen, nobody is hanging around the coffee shop on the corner discussing such things (because of course in universes whose physical laws don't support life, they don't drink coffee. They drink Post-Galactic, Black Hole-Warmed Plasma Beverage. Duh). You might conclude that this is the logical end of the line: there is no point in futher discussing the meaning of us being here versus being not here, because in only one of those cases can there be any discussion of any kind (this is certainly the viewpoint held and frequently advocated by those of us here at OaO). But there are still interesting questions one could ask about what We being Here Now might signify.

If Earth were the only planet one were aware of, one might reasonably wonder what the odds were that this one planet happened to exist at a particular distance from a middle-aged Type-G star such that water could exist in liquid form (yes, I know the odds of this are one, as it has already happened. Be with me in this other, non-OaO place for a second...). This being the popular scientific view for most of the history of man, a reasonable scholar operating under these a prioris might have looked at them and made this seemingly entirely logical inference: "I can think of two explanations for the existence of this planet which can support life. Either it was blind luck or it's the action of an unseen demiurge. The former is incredibly unlikely, therefore by strict laws of probability, it has to be the latter."

Actually, there was a third explanation: the universe is filled with an astronomically large number of stars, an astronomically large number of planets, and has been around for 13.7 billion years or so, so the appearance of at least one planet that has liquid water is not that surprising. The more perceptive among you will notice that the above argument looks an awful lot like an application of Occam's Razor. You might therefore conclude that the flaw in its reasoning is that there was at least one possible explanation our scholar didn't think of. But this is not why the argument is flawed.

We can summarize the logic behind the inference above like this:
  • I observe phenomenon X.
  • Phenomenon X has two possible explanations: E1, which has probability P1 of occurring, and E2 which has probability P2 of occurring.
  • P1 is much lower than P2, therefore E2 is the more likely explanation for X.
First, note that this is not Occam's Razor, which (very roughly) states that a simpler explanation for an observed phenomenon is more likely than a complex one. More to the point, there is no law of logic or mathematics that states this. It's a completely fallacious construction. Here at OaO, we say it this way: once the phenomenon has been observed, any odds go out the window.

As I've learned from The Trouble With Physics, this is of interest to current scientific thinking because they're now asking the same question about the universe. Given that we only observe one universe, it seems rather unlikely that it would be one with physical laws that allowed the formation of stars, galaxies, and planets. Having been fooled the first time around, the popular conclusion is that therefore there must be a multitude of 'verses, all with different physical laws, that can't be detected by current means. It's a good metaphor for the Earth being just one of many planets. But that's the only argument in its favor: again, the argument for it falls into the the same logical hole--the seeming incredible unlikelihood of the only universe we observe supporting intelligent life does not create any likelihood of many unseen others. There's no logical inference that would say that it does.

Next: The Fun and Profit part!

Friday, December 15, 2006

The Single

A couple of months back Salon held a song contest from their music blog. Thinking there would never be a better demographic upon which to inflict my music than Salon readers, I took Mrs. Transient Gadfly's favorite song of mine and produced the living crap out of it. I was, at the time I entered it, quite proud of my creation and full of, you know, whatever it is that people who are rock stars in their own minds are full of. Then the contest actually happened, and I neither made the finals, nor the honorable mentions, nor was there any acknowledgment that I existed on the earth or produced music from its surface--and, to make the implied rejection all the more clear, Salon featured some fairly terrible songs along the way (most of them were great, but some of them really weren't). It turned out I had produced a song that was, as far as the music bloggers at Salon were concerned, neither particularly good, nor particularly bad, nor in any way notable. It was apparently just not worthy of mention.

I understand being a professional musician to be an incredibly hard, crappy way to make your living--record labels want to screw you, promoters don't want to pay you, you live in hotel rooms, generally don't make very much money (with, obviously, a handful of very famous exceptions), and have to live in the perpetual hope that the next song or next album is going to be the one that puts you over the top. That doesn't mean I haven't lived my entire adolescent-to-adult life secretly longing to be one. It just means that I haven't ever gone after it with any amount of fervor that I couldn't later dismiss with a shrug of the shoulders saying, "oh well, I didn't really want that anyway."

I did kind of want it. A little bit.

Men Of Luggage (4:12)
(if this link doesn't work for you, try our Artist's Page on

Next: Man's inhumanity to Man!

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

A Brief Missive

Dear Jim Rutz,

Eating Soy did not make you gay
. You're. Just. Gay. Totally, totally, gay.


(with a nod to broadsheet).
Next: An exposé on textured vegetable protein!