Tuesday, 20 September 2011

What Lay People Should Know about United Kingdom/Great Britain/England (video; informative)

Here is a brilliant video explaining the difference between United Kingdom, Great Britain and England.differentiating.

This is not my video.
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Monday, 12 September 2011

What Lay People Should Know about Superstition – Open Minded or Gullible? (argumentative)

by Zad Datu

So, the question here is “Is it closed-minded to dismiss superstitious claims or is it gullible to accept them?” Let us for now categorise claims into three groups: (1) undocumented unscientific claims, (2) undocumented scientific claims, and (3) documented scientific claims.

If scientists themselves – those who have made it a career to investigate upon any phenomenon; to build models capable of making testable predictions resembling the phenomenon; to test the models with repeatable experiments fixing it to correctness with falsifiable, measurable and observable evidence; in which the results are submitted to peer review; and then subjected to replication by other scientist; and if proven replicable, to meticulously asses the accuracy of the model for further improvements; and if possible to also provide explanations to the phenomenon – will not impulsively accept documented scientific claims from another scientist without studying the documentation, how could it be reasonable for us non-experts to do so? Especially after fraudulent scientific claims such as the ridiculous 1835 discovery of moon-people civilisation, the Tasaday Tribe, and of course the Piltdown Man, all of which stomped its way into headlines and fooled the world. I must mention the physics hoax called The Sokal Affair by physicist, Alan Sokal, whose intentions were to experiment whether the journal would publish an article as long as it sounded good and flattered the editors’ ideological preconceptions.

So now, if documented scientific claims should not be impulsively accepted, how could scientists impulsively accept undocumented scientific claims, and furthermore how could us non-experts do so? – Let alone undocumented unscientific claims. Not that undocumented scientific claims are necessarily more credible than the unscientific ones. False claims hoaxed under the disguise of scientific sounding terminologies are as much of lies as unscientific claims. It just sounds more credible, that’s all.

It is flawed thinking to say that one should give 50-50 acceptance to both views, or 50-50 balance to both parties. It is not sexism to say that men are generally smarter than women, it is not racism to say that Malays are lazy whereas Chinese are hardworking (a Malaysian issue), neither is it speciesism to say that dogs are smarter than cats, or humans smarter than dogs (Wait, wha...? Debatable, you say!? Am I sure that men are smarter than women, you ask?... Are dogs really smarter than cat?... Fine, lets put it as “primates are smarter than fishes”. As of men versus women, do I really need to justify this?... Future article perhaps... But anyway, you get the picture). Yes, these statements do not give equal credits to both parties, but they are not prejudiced either. Prejudice judgements are those based on preconceptions and inadequate knowledge. These statements are based on observable facts. Similarly, it is not prejudiced to trust scientific claims whilst dismissing superstitious claims.

I trust, or have faith in the information presented by the scientific community because I understand their method of investigation which I approve of, and I believe that they do so for the sake of knowledge without ulterior motives, as they do not assert absolute certainty but rather presents only what has been uncovered at the moment. “What about the hoaxes?” you may ask. It is exactly these hoaxes which prove the community’s credibility, as they are eventually exposed and scorned upon by mainstream scientists. I have a slight lesser faith in the scientific media as I myself have discovered misleading or inaccurate representation by scientific articles found in respected magazines and newspapers. If it really matters, researching into the readily available scientific papers which the articles are referenced on is an option. For me, this is enough in most cases. But if it isn’t for you, then you could investigate into the paper’s peer reviews, and if this too isn’t enough, you could attempt replicating the results. This process further demonstrates the credibility of the scientific community.

An excellent example of identifying what sources of information are credible and investigating into them.
In contrast, sources of media which I have much lesser faith in are the political media and community as well as governmental versions of recent histories. The reason for this is obvious – ulterior motives. Sources of information which I have zero faith in and which I consider to be the most unreliable are those of the superstitious, because firstly, these claims are not based on science – and when I say science, I mean well assessed, established and proven documented facts. Secondly, these claims are not references to any published research papers or studies which could be investigated upon. With this logic, it is perfectly reasonable and necessary to be sceptical, as scepticism is the default position and the burden of proof lies on the party making the claim.

However, I do recognise that not every claim requires evidence for me to accept. “I just smoked a cigarette” doesn’t trigger me to ask for evidence. But if that same claim came from a non-smoker friend whom I know very well, then I would be triggered. Claims which should be subjected to scepticism and the burden of proof are those which attempt to introduce a radical understanding of the subject. Superstitious claims attempt to introduce radical understandings on physics, biology, and nature.

But what if a trusted someone claims to have a ghostly encounter? Or worst, what if I myself experience such an encounter? Firstly, we should be very aware that our eyes can fool our minds, and so can the mind fool itself; that we are susceptible to hallucinations, illusions and delusions; that our senses cannot be entirely trusted at all times. This is exactly why men have invented all sorts of instruments capable of precisely measuring all sorts of sensations which neither our nor any other animals’ sensory organ can’t detect, which can be calibrated to a standard scale and where improvements are constantly being developed.

Secondly, somebody who says “I know what I saw because I’ve never seen anything like it before,” is completely self contradictory. Nobody can possibly know what they’re looking at if they’ve never seen anything like it before. If I encounter an uncanny experience unlike anything I’ve encountered before, the rational conclusion is not “I know what it is”, but rather “I know it’s not a dog, not a cat, not a human and etc.” The only way someone could know exactly what it is that they’re encountering for the first time, is if he or she is an expert in the field. For example, only a butterfly expert could identify that the insect he or she has never come across is an undiscovered species of butterfly, as it could very well be a butterfly which resembles another type of insect or a non-butterfly insect which resembles a butterfly.

What about self-claimed ghost experts? – Witchdoctors, psychics and ghost whisperers. Some may be intentional frauds, some may be honest fools. Those who are honest are simply under the spell of ‘bird-brain syndrome’ [refers to the first 7 paragraphs of Superstition – Types and Origins (brief)], if I may call it. Until now there have not been any demonstrable repeatable experiments or falsifiable observable evidence to justify such existences. If there are, the scientific community are readily open to rewrite science textbooks all over the world to introduce the proven new radical understanding, as they have been doing so ever since Galileo – flat Earth to spherical Earth; Earth as the centre of the solar system to the Sun as the centre; Newtonian physics to Einstein’s General Relativity and to Quantum physics; and countless more.

This video of an alleged Human-Fish went somewhat viral through handphones in Malaysia back in 2005. The background song are Qur’anic verses, perhaps to ease the spirit or something alike – a common practice amongst religious Muslims.

I've encountered this video independently twice, both with its own tale behind the ‘curse’. The first simply that a fisherman just so happen to catch this creature brought it back to his village and everybody agreed that it was a man cursed into a fish. The second story was that a girl was cursed by God into this disgusting form because she was kicking her mother in the mid of her solat.

The alleged Human-Fish is, in fact, a guitarfish, a fish in the same family of rays. What is shown is the underside of the guitarfish.
It is not just gullible but also very closed-minded to impulsively accept radical claims without assessing their credibility but rather accepting it simply because it agrees with one’s taste of truths.
“Yes, Bruce Lee was killed in a duel with an Indonesian Silat master (a Malay martial art). I know this for sure because my uncle said so,” – a myth which many Malaysians believe.
“Some styles of Silat were banned in Malaysia because the powers they possess from Jinn (or genies, an Arabic folklore which predates and found its way into Islamic beliefs) they summoned by reading Qur’anic verses were just too powerful.”
“According to his bomoh (the Malay equivalent of a witchdoctor), he was cursed by someone assisted by another bomoh.”
“This must be true! This human-looking-fish shown in this video has got to be the result of a curse placed upon a girl by God for her sinful acts toward her mother during her prayers, just as I was told a minute ago.”
These are just some of the examples of radical claims which many impulsively and unquestioningly accept with inspiring awe, unknowingly solely to their taste of truths, which I have witnessed firsthand. If accepting every or any claim presented to you, no matter how ridiculous it is, is what you call “open-mindedness”, then you have placed your God given capacity for logical reasoning to redundancy.

Superstitions are myths. Just imagine the MythBusters testing the plausibility whether girls singing in the kitchen would result in higher probability of marrying old men, whether bigfoot really exist, whether Silat masters can summon powers from Genies, or whether Feng shui really works.

For some of these superstitions, their myths are untestable and unfalsifiable due to their vagueness, non-precise and inconsistent nature, making it a perfectly useless claim – as useless as the claim of an invisible intangible inaudible pink unicorn, a Chinese teapot revolving around the sun but too small to be seen even by our most powerful telescopes, and an invisible floating incorporeal heatless-fire-breathing dragon living in my garage.

But for those which are testable and bustable, guess what conclusion Adam and Jamie would come to – MYTH BUSTED!

Related article:
What Lay People Should Know about Superstition – Types and Origins (brief)
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Monday, 5 September 2011

What Lay People Should Know about Superstition – Types and Origins (brief)

by Zad Datu

In the 40s, American psychologists, B.F. Skinner had his philosophy about human behaviour challenged – a philosophy insisting that all behaviours including that of humans are results of reinforcements. The white haired, round spectacled professor explains that people do not routinely travel to their local gambling club because they enjoy every moment of pulling down on jackpot sticks, but rather a result of the built in schedule of the reinforcement.

The foundations of his philosophy are his experiments on training animals, mainly pigeons, to perform certain behaviours such as pecking on a button or turning around. Each hungry pigeons are placed in a box attached to a feeding machine, dubbed the Skinner box, in which the pigeons would be rewarded with a piece of corn whenever they perform whatever behaviour Skinner wishes to programme into the birds.

Superstition is a uniquely human behaviour, so our behaviours can’t be the results of reinforcement after all – this was the statement that challenged Skinner’s philosophy.

Skinner responded by modifying the experiment so that rather than rewarding the birds upon a specific behaviours, the machine feeds them one piece of corn every fixed interval or randomly. Skinner observed that the pigeons developed repetitive behaviours. Some were jumping up and down, some bobbing their heads, some flapping their wings, and all other sorts of obnoxious behaviours. Skinner observed that whatever movements the pigeons happen to be carrying out when the first corn piece popped out, the pigeons would repeat them hoping to be rewarded again, which coincidently out pops another piece.

That bird brains of theirs fooled themselves into thinking that it is these movements which triggers the reward, repeating them as the machine continues to release more food. This, Skinner concluded, demonstrates superstitious behaviours in animals.

So here’s the thing: superstition isn’t a uniquely human occurrence. Superstition also exists within animals. Animals and humans have to be natural in detecting patterns– to detect the patterns of their potential prey, the pattern in the climate which promotes rich vegetation, or the patterns of predators to keep out of harm’s way – to make predictions for their very survival. Combine this necessity with a complex brain, they beauty and brilliance of mathematics emerges, as counting and measuring is needed for more accurate predictions. But if this brilliant combination is accompanied by horrible reasoning, out emerges a side-effect, best exemplified with people who self-convincingly conclude that the faces they make out from still photos of smokes, and spoken words out of static noise from sound recordings of empty quiet rooms are signs of spirits. Pigeons and humans alike, when one seem to detect patterns which aren’t really there, yet remain convinced, this is superstition.

Natural rock formation which seems to conjure up images due to our innate pattern detecting brain.
Athletes and club supporters are easy example of this bird-brain behaviour. “The last two times I wore this underwear during a match, I performed really well, and I won. I’m going to wear it again for my next match to increase my chances,” some athletes may have in their mind. “I was holding my pee when my team was doing really well. But then when I decided to visit the loo to let it out and came back, they started performing really badly. Next time I will never go to the loo during a match,” some club supporters would say.

Then there is the folk beliefs type of superstition. It is a product of our ancestral elders storifying false consequences of undesired customary bad habits to the young ones, preventing them from developing.
“Do not harm animals, or your child will be born crippled.”
“Do not shake your legs when you are sitting down, or you will always be in debt.”
“Do not sit on the porch and stare outside,” a mother would advice her daughter, and if the daughter questions why, “You will get married at a late age,” would be the given reason.
“Do not sing in the kitchen,” a mother would advice her daughter. “Why?” the daughter asks, and the mother would answer “Or you will marry an old man.”
“Do not cut your nails at night,” a mother would advice her child. “Why?” the child asks. “You ask too many questions!” the mother snaps. Actually, there are quite a number of reasons for this. One of them is that it will shorten one’s life.
These are just some of the pantang larang, or prohibitions, that we have in Malay folk beliefs.

Pontianak, a Malay equivalent of a female banshee-like-vampire; toyol, a goblin-like-spirit invoked from a human foetus; orang minyak or “oil man”, an oily women-raping hominid capable of disappearing into thin air; mawas, the Johorean (Malaysia) equivalent of Bigfoot; and orang pendek or “short man”, an Sumatran (Indonesia) miniature Bigfoot are Malay cultural examples of another category of superstition – folklore, be it just a creature, or creatures with a well developed tale behind its origins.

The existence of an upright-walking, furry, 10 feet tall ape and gigantic flying birds of prey sounds very plausible since they do not contradict with biological knowledge and that there already are similar known existing creatures. In fact, there was an ape species called Gigantopithecus which lived in Asia about 1 million years ago measuring up to 10 feet tall and 540 kg – closely resembling the North American Bigfoot or Sasquatch and its other varieties (including Himalayan Yeti, Australian Yowie, Brazilian Mapinquary, South American Maricoxi, Chinese Yeren, Caucasus Mountain’s Almas, Kenyan Chimiset, Siberian Chuchunaa, Japanese Higabon and Vietnamese Nguoi Rung), and a Family of birds-of-prey called Teratorns which lived in North and South America roughly throughout 20 to 2 million years ago with wingspans measuring up to 12 feet and weighing 15 kg – closely resembling the Native American’s mythical creature, Thunderbird. As of the Scottish Loch Ness Monster, they perfectly resemble the Pleisiosaurs – again, plausible. One version of the Chupacraba is simply a hairless goat-blood-sucking dog-like animal – very plausible indeed.

So, unlike the physically and biologically implausible existence of garlic-allergic sunlight-allergic cross-shaped-allergic non-shadow-casting non-reflection-casting bat-morphing human-blood-sucking murderous caped crusaders, or green-coated cocked-hat-wearing wish-granting elderly bearded Irish dwarves with pots of gold hidden at ends of rainbows, “Bigfoot, Thunderbirds and Loch Ness monster, aren’t superstitions after all” you may ask. Wrong! Not only did their mythical existences develop long before the discovery and long after the extinction of their prehistoric counterpart, but more importantly, unlike ghost and daemons of the Middle Ages, modern day Bigfoot, Thunderbirds and Loch Ness monsters have not been discovered, studied upon, well documented, peer reviewed, published, and presented with specimen as evidence and listed in a biological taxonomy of life. The seemingly implausible mysterious life forms capable of crawling its way into people, possessing them, distorting their physical appearances, perceptions, behaviours and well being, and are always around us yet invisible to the naked eye, capable of moving through walls were scientifically uncovered to be smaller than the size of a pin head which we now call microorganisms or germs. “To be possessed by daemons” in the medieval times now translates to “to be infected by germs”, or simply “to fall sick”. Psychiatric illnesses, the bizarre alien hand syndrome and sleep paralysis, on the other hand, are reminiscence of the more extreme cases of daemonic possessions.

A video report on Alien Hand Syndrome from BBC News.
The following link is a clip from Discovery Science which explains the syndrome very well:
Sleep paralysis is a rather particularly interesting one. It is where the natural paralysing mechanism that takes place during sleep, necessary to prevent us from physically acting out our dreams, continues to function upon waking up or starts functioning upon falling asleep, resulting in losing total physical control including speech while our mind remains awake and aware. If that doesn’t terrify you, then hallucinations of two shadowy hominid figures pressing down onto your chest just after a few seconds of tremor accompanying the paralysis surely would. At least, that’s what I experienced before breaking free. Most do not break free and fall back asleep to later wake up being certain it was all real, traumatised by the mysterious murderous attack. This is where folklores of daemons sitting or pressing on a sleeper’s chest such as the Scandinavian mare dating back to the Norsemen Middle Ages are bred into cultures. Cultures around the world put the blame of these eerie experiences onto their own invented daemons – the English and Anglo North American Old Hag, the Chinese guǐ yā shēn, Japanese kanashibari, Korean gawi nulim, Mongol khar darakh, Vietnamese ma đè, Tamil Amuku Be, Turkish karabasan, Icelander lidércnyomás, New Guinean Suk Ninmyo, Nepalese Khyaak, Ethiopian dudak, Zimbabwean Madzikirira, Swahilian jinamizi, Persians bakhtak, Greek Mora, Vrachnas or Varypnas, and majority of Muslims including here in Malaysia blames the Shiatan and evil Jinns. The most modern folklore, yet science fiction, manifested from sleep paralysis, primarily in the US, puts the blame on a human-skeleton-resembling extraterrestrials – the folklore of alien abduction.

Aside from that, the sightings of Bigfoot, Thunderbirds, Loch Ness monsters and Chupacrabas, or any other creatures for that matter, are separate matters from the plausibility of their existence. The sightings are separate superstitions on their own, not any less superstitious then the sighting of Einstein and Beethoven having a delightful conversation at a coffee shop in this current day, taking note that Einstein and Beethoven were real existing people.

The next topic in question is whether it is closed-minded to dismiss superstitious claims or is it simply gullible to accept them. This, I leave it for the next article on superstition to tackle.

Succeeding linked article:
What Lay People Should Know about Superstition – Open Minded or Gullible? (argumentative)
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