Friday, February 5, 2016

Answering Quora - What questions (and answers to these questions) led you to become an atheist, or to denounce your belief in religion?

The Out Campaign: Scarlet Letter of AtheismOnce again, I'm going to recycle a Quora answer for this website. This time, the question was, What questions (and answers to these questions) led you to become an atheist, or to denounce your belief in religion? (follow the link to see other people's answers). My answer was similar to things I've said on this site before, but I do like the way this essay turned out.

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I can't say there was one single question or moment of epiphany that led me to abandon Christianity, but in hindsight, I think I can identify some of the first major seeds of doubt that led me down that path.

First, let me be clear that prior to becoming an atheist, I was a devout Christian. My family went to church nearly every Sunday. I attended CCD and was an altar boy. We were active in church activities. I read the entire Bible. I prayed privately every night, not to mention innumerable small prayers throughout the day, and truly thought I could feel God's presence when I prayed. I wasn't faking it or just going through the motions. I was very sincere and earnest in my religious beliefs.

Like most Christians, I had minor doubts throughout my life, but I did my best to either rationalize them, or simply push them to the back of my mind and ignore them. I think the big moment for me came when the Intelligent Design movement was around its peak popularity. Prior to that, I'd always accepted the mainstream scientific view of the history of Earth and the rest of the universe. And I rationalized it with the Bible by assuming that the Genesis accounts were figurative, though without ever giving those accounts any real scrutiny. I naively assumed that most other Christians also accepted mainstream science, and that it was only fringe types that took creationism seriously as a literal story. It was the Intelligent Design movement that finally made me aware of the extent of creationism. And that realization made me wonder if I was being a bad Christian by accepting the scientific view of the history of the planet & the universe when so many other Christians were saying that you had to accept creationism. So, I began to research the topic from both points of view, particularly in biology. I learned a whole lot more about evolution than what I was ever taught in high school biology class, and I read various creationist websites to see their arguments. Needless to say, there's a reason why evolution is so overwhelmingly accepted in the scientific community, so this only strengthened my acceptance of the scientific viewpoint. And the outlandish and many times dishonest arguments put out by the creationists greatly tarnished the reputation of Christians in my view.

But, that wasn't enough by itself to make me leave my faith. After all, I'd already accepted the mainstream scientific view prior to that - I just didn't realize how many other Christians didn't. So, with a bit of hubris, I thought I might be able to reconcile this conflict. I decided to study the Bible even more closely to figure out the best way to reconcile it with reality, since by this point I was aware that my figurative interpretation was a bit strained. I didn't read the Bible cover to cover again, but I did focus in on certain areas, read commentaries and studies by others, and allowed myself to notice and acknowledge the contradictions that my faith didn't allow me to see clearly before. And I'm not just talking about Genesis Chapter 1 vs. science, but all the books, including the discrepancies in the Gospels. I eventually came to realize that the Bible wasn't divinely inspired, but even this wasn't enough to make me abandon my faith. After all, there's no logical requirement that the Bible has to be divinely inspired in order for God to exist. But at this point, having gone so far as to question the divine inspiration of the Bible, I was well on the path to questioning all of Christianity.

There were a few other big questions & issues that happened somewhat simultaneously with the above. The first was how the Bible dealt with homosexuality. From secular ethics, I could see nothing wrong with homosexuality. It was just something two people did that didn't affect anyone else. Further, it seems almost certain that people's sexuality is innate, and people don't choose who they're attracted to (not that sexuality is necessarily purely genetic, but some result of development that we have no conscious control over). So, if homosexuality wasn't all that wrong, and people had no choice in who they were attracted to, how could a just God condemn it so vehemently, and have commanded punishments as harsh as stonings?

Another question was the whole concept of Hell. This one actually predated my investigation of the creationism vs. reality debate, but I didn't let myself fully consider it until I was questioning everything about religion. I recall reading a book by Douglas Adams while I was still a Christian. It was after Adams had died, and I remember feeling so bad that a man that good could be suffering in Hell because he was an atheist and hadn't accepted Jesus. It made me lament all the countless others who would suffer similar fates. At the time, I blamed Adams - how could he have been so stupid as to not accept Jesus, knowing the consequences. Later, once I'd begun to question things, I wondered how a supposedly loving god could inflict that type of punishment on anyone, let alone for a crime as minor as disbelief.

And granted, those issues about homosexuality and Hell are arguments from consequences, or emotional appeals, rather than evidence. After all, there's no reason a god would have to be fair or just or loving. But they certainly made me question the traditional representation of the Christian God.

The final issue wasn't a question about religion, but a life change for me. I became a father. I hadn't fully abandoned my faith, yet, but with the responsibility of raising my daughter, I wanted to be damn sure that I raised her properly and didn't teach her falsehoods or indoctrinate her the way I had been simply out of tradition. So, that gave me extra motivation to look deeper at religion and try to get to the bottom of it.

Of course, that's far from the full extent of the questions and issues I considered. At the risk of shameless self-promotion, I'll include a link to a collection of essays I wrote during my process of deconversion, Leaving Christianity: A Collection of Essays. But the original question was about the issues that led me to become an atheist, and those were the initial ones that put me on the path to leaving religion behind.

Website Update - Top 10 Page List for January 2016

Top 10 ListThe first month of the new year is over, and with the end of a month, it's time again to look at the server logs to see what pages from this site have been popular.

There were several newcomers to the list this time around, but all the newcomers were actually older entries from a few years ago. One of the newcomers sort of made sense, Rick Santorum (an entry where I criticized Santorum - and reading over it again, boy is he a despicable politician). Given the current presidential race, I can understand why people might have been researching Santorum. The other newcomers to the list are a bit more puzzling why they just recently became popular - Arguing on a Website - Explaining Evolution, E-mail Forward - Obama's Reaction to Ft. Hood Shootings, and Ray Comfort's New Movie - Evolution vs. God. The Ray Comfort one's a little surprising because I had later entries where I reviewed the movie in depth, and those entries had made this list before,

Overall traffic was in line with what it has been for a while.

Anyway, here's the list for last month.

Top 10 for January 2016

  1. Origin of Arabic Numerals - Was It Really for Counting Angles?
  2. Response to Rabbi Steven Pruzansky - Why Romney Didn't Get Enough Votes to Win
  3. Retroactive Soapbox Entry- Fed Up with U.S. Public, Part II
  4. A Skeptical Look at Bio-Identical Hormone Replacement Therapy
  5. Rick Santorum
  6. Arguing on a Website - Explaining Evolution
  7. E-mail Forward - Obama's Reaction to Ft. Hood Shootings
  8. Letter to Pharmacy about MBT Shoes
  9. Response to Global Warming Denialist E-mail - Volcanoes and Global Cooling
  10. Ray Comfort's New Movie - Evolution vs. God

Friday, January 29, 2016

Answering Quora - Thought Experiment: Pretend that the Triune God of the Bible actually exists in reality. What would such a Being owe you, and why?

The Out Campaign: Scarlet Letter of AtheismI've once again used up my lunch breaks this week writing on Quora, so I'm going to recycle an answer for this blog entry. One Quora user posted the following question as a thought experiment, Pretend that the Triune God of the Bible actually exists in reality. What would such a Being owe you, and why? Below is my response, with a few edits from my original Quora answer.

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First of all, this is a bit difficult to answer because the God of the Bible isn't a totally consistent character. I mean, just in physical representation, he goes from a very anthropomorphic god with somewhat limited powers and knowledge in Genesis (he walked in the Garden of Eden and had to go physically visit Sodom to see for himself how the people were behaving), to more of a disembodied all powerful spirit in later books. He also exhibits different personality traits, sometimes being very vindictive and doling out group punishment for the sins of individuals (like the plagues of Egypt harming even the slaves, even though it was the Pharaoh who Yahweh had his disagreement with - not to mention the hardening of Pharaoh's heart to prolong the suffering), other times saying everyone will be punished or rewarded for their own actions, and other times saying it's only faith that determines our fate and not our actions at all. So, which 'God of the Bible' are we going with? And then, you have to figure out how much of God's actions/behaviors you're willing to accept as givens in answering this question.

So, let's just start out with creation (assuming a literal creation for this thought experiment). At that point, having created new sentient beings with no experiences of their own and no culture to guide them, Yahweh would have an obligation to help them get things set up. Just imagine it as a mad scientist on Earth creating artificial life and setting it loose on a deserted island. You'd expect him to teach that life how to survive, probably set them up with some shelter and tools, suggest some rules of ethics, maybe give them a constitution and some form of government, etc.

Then, I can see it going two ways, still using our mad scientist as an analogy. He could just step back and not interfere at all after that, owing them nothing, but also expecting nothing in return. He could leave these beings on their own, free to develop their society as they saw fit, modifying their laws and ethics as they developed themselves. Or, he could continue to give them a hand and advice in running things, since he has a lot more experience to draw from. But, he still shouldn't expect anything in return. These beings didn't ask to be created. He didn't do them a favor by creating them. He acted of his own accord to create them. He's the one that put them in the position of having to figure out how to live their lives.

Let's go along further with assuming that he is the intervening type. And further, that he's going to reward the people who follow the rules he laid down, and punish the people who don't. First, he would owe us ethical rules. No arbitrary rules like not wearing clothes with mixed fibers, and no cruel rules like ordering parents to stone disobedient children, or ordering communities to stone homosexuals. And the whole animal sacrifice thing would be out. (Note, read about the Euthyphro dilemma for a discussion of why gods can't dictate morality by fiat.) Second, he would owe us an unambiguous declaration of the rules he expects us to follow - nothing like the Bible with all its contradictions and translation/transmission errors. I mean, just imagine our mad scientist giving his created beings a hodge podge of rules as confusing as the Bible, written in a language other than their native language, and then going out and punishing the ones who made mistakes. It would be horrible.

Let's take this intervention further, and even though it shouldn't be the case in a fair universe, that he does expect worship, and that he's going to reward the people most faithful to him, and punish the people who don't worship him. In that case, I think he would at least owe a clear, unambiguous demonstration to every generation that he does actually exist so that we can be sure which religion to follow. If our mad scientist tried to demand worship, the first thing we'd do is consider him an amoral narcissist. But if he kept himself hidden entirely, and never made any personal appearances, or even television appearances or interviews, and then sent out secret police to find and torture citizens of his island nation who wondered whether he'd died since nobody ever saw him anymore, we'd think he was a monster.

For the last thing I'm going to consider, let's take this punishment further - not just the finite punishments of the Old Testament God, but the eternal damnation to Hell of the New Testament God. First of all, I'd say that we were owed not to have to worry about a punishment like that to begin with. It's barbaric. If our mad scientist wanted to pull out the nuclear option on his private island, banishment would seem to be enough, rather than actual torture. And there's no need for a dichotomy. If he wanted to reward especially good beings, he could give them special treatment without actually punishing all the rest. If God were real, and heaven were only for his most faithful, I think we'd be owed at least a third option in the afterlife of mere existence without the torture of Hell, or even a fourth option of simply ceasing to exist, which would still be preferrable to eternal torment. And why would a punishment have to be eternal, anyway? And like before, assuming this is all real, I think we'd be owed clear, unambiguous evidence that Hell is a possible fate awaiting us, not just some myth like so many other myths in human history (like trying to learn the trials described in the Egyptian Book of the Dead so we'll be prepared for that possible afterlife).

To sum up, if there actually were a creator god, once he (he and not she because it's the Biblical God) made sure society was up and running, I don't think he'd really owe us anything, but I don't think he could really expect people to owe him anything in return. Assuming he was going to demand worship and dole out rewards and punishments, especially a punishment as barbaric as Hell, I think he'd owe us clear evidence of his existence, and clear documentation of his expectations and rules. Basically, he should act like a decent, ethical being.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Science and Engineering Indicators 2016

NSB LogoThe NSF has released their Science and Engineering Indicators report for 2016. It's a great report put out every two years documenting many aspects of Americans' relationship to science and engineering. For the past several reports (2004, 2006, 2008, 2010, 2012, & 2014), I've made it a habit to examine one specific aspect - public understanding of science. In particular, I've examined the data on how many questions people can correctly answer on a short quiz of basic scientific questions, how that has changed over the years, and how the U.S. fares against other countries on those (mostly the) same questions.

For all of the tables I'm about to publish, note that I copied the data and notes from the NSF report, but I've formatted the tables to fit onto this blog. I made the graphs myself to help visualize the data, as these particular graphs weren't in the report.

First, here's the table showing how Americans fared on a question by question basis on some basic scientific facts. The table includes data from 1988 on up to the most recent poll in 2014.

sei_2016_trend.png

Those results aren't particularly encouraging. I point this out nearly every time I cover this report, but around 1 in 4 Americans don't know that the Earth orbits the Sun, and around half of Americans don't know that electrons are smaller than atoms! Those are simple, basic, scientific facts.

To help visualize that data, especially the trends on how it changes over time, here it is plotted on a graph by year.

sei_2016_trend-graph.png

Americans' knowledge has remained largely steady over the past decade and a half, though there were a few changes. Americans' knowledge on antibiotics improved the most, but has kind of plateaued since around 2006. There does appear to be a recent trend of improvement on the questions concerning the Big Bang and human evolution. Hopefully that trend is real and continues on into the future.

Next, here's the table showing how the U.S. compared to other countries.

sei_2016_comparison.png

I played around with different ways of plotting that data, but there's just so much that it's too confusing to put it all on one graph. If you're interested in seeing a graph for each individual question, you can click on the thumbnail below to embiggen* the graphs.

sei_2016_comparison-graph.png
Click to embiggen

However, I did come up with a way to do a comparison of sorts - I took an average of the percentage of people that correctly answered questions. As an example, if it was only two questions, and 100% of people answered the first question correctly, while only 50% answered the second question correctly, the average would by 75%. I did this average three ways - overall, the physical science questions, and the biological science questions. If a country didn't pose a certain question, it wasn't included in that country's average. I admit that this is a very rough way to do a comparison, but here's how each country fared.

sei_2016_comparison-graph_avg.png

The U.S. actually does rather well in this comparison. It's not number 1, but it's not too far off.

I also suspected that America's over-religiosity might be affecting those questions that contradict a literal young earth creationism interpretation of the Bible, so I redid all those averages exluding the Big Bang and evolution questions.

sei_2016_comparison-graph_avg_no_yec.png

As suspected, this did improve America's performance. This is heartening, that creationism hasn't caused huge damage to Americans' scientific understanding overall.

One lesson from this that I've pointed out before, is to keep these results in mind every time you see a poll showing people's attitudes towards anything scientific. For example, every time you see a poll showing that the majority or plurality favor teaching creationism in public schools, or a poll showing high levels of skepticism towards global warming, remember that this is the same public where a quarter of all people think the Sun orbits the Earth, and where half of all people don't realize electrons are subatomic particles. How informed can they be on scientific issues when they don't even know such simple facts?

The other major lesson is that we need to do a lot better job of teaching science. When you live in a democracy and everyone has a say in the government (at least by way of voting for representatives), you really need a well educated populace for it to work effectively. This is especially true of science in the modern age, when so many pressing issues require accurate understanding of science.

I suppose that on the plus side, as much as alarmists decry the falling quality of American education, at least in this one area, the data shows that Americans' knowledge has stayed largely the same. There's definitely room for improvement, but at least we haven't gone backwards.


*'Embiggen' is a perfectly cromulent word.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

White House Petition to End Criminal Occupation in Malheur Wildlife Refuge

White House LogoIf you're anything like me, you're probably tired of seeing a bunched of armed insurrectionists occupying the Malheur Wildlife Refuge up in Oregon. It's criminal, anti-American treason, bordering on terrorism. These thugs have taken over public land that belongs to all of us, recently vandalized portions of it, and there are even reports that they've been following local citizens to their homes and sitting outside their houses in cars to watch them. And they have the gall to call themselves Patriots. Granted, they're out in the middle of nowhere, and haven't yet done anything to endanger to the public, so escalating this into an armed conflict is probably taking it too far. But currently, these criminals can come and go with impunity, and the authorities haven't even cut their electricity, yet (source - NPR). If you'd like to send a message to the feds that it's time to do something about this, click on the link below to view and sign the petition:

Arrest Ammon Bundy and the armed occupiers of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge.

For reference, here's the text of the petition:

President Obama,

We respectfully request that you end the armed occupation of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge immediately. At the very least, you owe the American people an explanation as to why the area has not been isolated. Members of their organization can come and go as they please, members of the community can visit the occupied facility, and other right-wing extremist groups such as the Idaho III% can show their support.

Law enforcement inaction up to this point is an egregious violation of public safety and emboldens their erroneous assertions that the US Government has no Constitutional Authority.

Please end the siege of the refuge and arraign Ammon Bundy as soon as possible.

Friday, January 8, 2016

Answering Quora - If you were to build an advanced civilization optimized for economic and technological progress and growth, how would you go about it?

A cropped portion of Robert McCall's mural,The Prologue and the PromiseWell, I spent some time on Quora again this week, taking away my normal blog writing time, so I'm going to recycle a Quora answer here. The question someone asked this time is the title of this entry, If you were to build an advanced civilization optimized for economic and technological progress and growth, how would you go about it? They went on to add just a tiny bit of clarification, "How would you structure its government, economy, culture, etc.?" I put a little bit of thought into an answer, which I've copied below.

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First off, I wouldn't want to optimize civilization for 'economic and technological progress and growth'. I'd want to optimize it for the maximum welfare of the people. And while economic and technological progress and growth are certainly part of that, they're a means to an end, not the goal itself, and shouldn't take precedence over the ultimate goal of maximum well-being.

And to be honest, while I have plenty of gripes over specific issues with government, I'd still follow the general pattern of the U.S. and the world's other prosperous democracies. First off, it would be a democracy (or more accurately, a representative democracy or republic) to ensure that laws were based on the will of the people. And even though individuals don't always know best, the Wisdom of the crowd phenomenon shows that group decisions are often very good. But, to protect against the tyranny of the majority, I'd have something like the Bill of Rights to ensure that basic rights for everybody are encoded right into the structure of government. I'd also want separate branches of government, all with equal power, to provide oversight to keep any one branch from becoming too strong.

As far as the economy, it should be a mix of a well-regulated free market and public institutions. Free markets are great at optimizing a good many things, but unregulated free markets lead to situations like a Charles Dickens novel or the robber barons of the 19th century U.S. Even well regulated free markets don't always produce the results we want for society at large, so robust public funding for basic research is also essential for long term progress. Just consider the current failure of the free market economy to produce new antibiotics. We, as a society, would really like those medicines to combat disease, but they're just not profitable enough for drug companies, so there's very little private research into new antibiotics. This is where public funding through the government should come into play, either funding research directly, or providing strong incentives for the private sector. As another example of the interaction between the public and private sector, consider GPS. The required satellite system was a huge investment, and probably wouldn't have been undertaken by any private company. But now that the satellites are in place, private industry and the free market have found many, many innovative ways to use that system.

To promote technological progress in the private sector, a patent system is essential. It's the best way to reward innovation, giving the incentive for people to come up with new ideas, knowing how much they could profit from it, and that the idea can't just by copied by anybody.

Education is critical, both for citizens to make well informed decisions when voting, and also if you want a work force of intellectuals who can drive your economic and technological progress and growth. I would structure education slightly differently that it's currently done in the U.S., mainly on funding (but not so different from other nations). I'd fund schools on the national level, not the local level as is currently done, since the current system puts the most money into rich areas where many students are already advantaged, and the least money into poor areas where many students are already disadvantaged. At the least, spending per pupil should be equal for all students, but it should probably even be skewed to put more funding into poor areas to help overcome disadvantages and get them on a more equal footing with rich areas. How much untapped potential is there in the current system?

For higher ed, I'd make it at least cheap enough to where a person could work to pay their way through school, without incurring a huge debt in the process. Even better would be free university education. It's an investment in the future intellectual workforce of the country.

So, I guess the short answer is that I'd go with pretty much what already exists in the prosperous democracies.

Image Source: A cropped portion of Robert McCall's mural,The Prologue and the Promise, downloaded from ImagineeringDisney.com

Website Update - Top 10 Page List for December 2015

Top 10 ListI'm back from the holidays (other than a short weekend trip to San Antonio, I didn't 'leave' - I just took some time off from work and so didn't have lunch breaks to work on this blog), and with the end of the year, it's time to look at the server logs for December to see what pages were most popular on the site. The list was mostly the same pages that have been popular for the last few months, but there were two surprises. The entry, Response to E-mail: One Nation Under Wal-Mart?, made the list for only the second time. It's kind of old, written back in 2013, but maybe with the upcoming election season the chain mail I was responded to has started making the rounds again. Similarly, the entry, Response to Another E-mail on U.N. Arms Trade Treaty, made it for the first time ever. It's another entry from 2013 that I can only guess is popular because of recent politics (though December was too early for Obama's recent series of executive actions designed to curb gun violence to have had any effect on traffic on this site).

There were not big surprises this time. Every page that made the list had made it before, though it had been a little while for one of the pages (What's the Point of Intercessory Prayer?).

Overall traffic was in line with the rest of the year, and up just a bit from the past couple months. In fact, by two metrics, Visits and Pages, it was the busiest month of the year, though by other metrics, like Unique Visitors, Hits, and Bandwidth, a few other months did better.

Anyway, here's the list for December.

Top 10 for December 2015

  1. Origin of Arabic Numerals - Was It Really for Counting Angles?
  2. Email Debunking - 1895 8th Grade Final Exam
  3. Response to Rabbi Steven Pruzansky - Why Romney Didn't Get Enough Votes to Win
  4. Retroactive Soapbox Entry- Fed Up with U.S. Public, Part II
  5. Response to Global Warming Denialist E-mail - Volcanoes and Global Cooling
  6. Obamacare Lives (A Discussion of the Individual Mandate)
  7. The 2014 Texas Republican Platform
  8. Obamacare Lives (A Discussion of the Individual Mandate)
  9. Review of Ray Comfort's New Movie - Evolution vs. God, Part I
  10. Response to E-mail: One Nation Under Wal-Mart?
  11. Response to Another E-mail on U.N. Arms Trade Treaty

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Happy Wright Brothers' Day, 2015

Wright Brothers' First Flight, December 17, 1903

On this day in 1903, the Wright brothers became the first people to achieve a dream of humanity for thousands and thousands of years - flying. Yes, their legend is a little overhyped in some circles. There were aviation pioneers who had preceded them, and contemporaries working on the problem at the same time who would have figured it out eventually, but the Wrights were the first. Moreover, with their systematic approach and especially with their focus on control, they were years ahead of everyone else. When they gave their first public demonstrations in France in 1908 (they'd spent that intervening time improving their flying machines), crowds were awestruck.

To quote myself from a previous entry, "Flying has become so common place today that we take it for granted. People complain about the cramped seats, the long lines to get through security, the bad food (if you even get any) on flights. But just remember how long people have dreamt of flight, for how long people looked to the skies wanting to emulate the birds. Flying used to be the stuff of myth and legends, reserved for the gods. Now, we can all get in an airplane, and soar above the clouds. It really is something special."

So as you go about your business today, take a moment to look up and find an airplane, and marvel a little at the achievement.


For more aviation-themed information on this site, you could browse the Aviation Archive on the blog, or check out the Aviation Section of my static pages. Or you could jump to some of the highlighted pages I've listed below.

Related Entries/Pages:

Previous Wright Brothers Day Entries:

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Merry Secular Christmas - Buy White Wine in the Sun, Support Autism Society, 2015

As has become my tradition to celebrate Christmas on this blog, and as I've said nearly verbatim for a few years now, every year around this time I post Tim Minchin's song, White Wine in the Sun. As described on Minchin's site, "This is a captivating song and a beautiful and intelligent exploration of why Christmas can still be meaningful even without religious beliefs. There's just the right amount of sentiment and some very gentle humour illustrating Tim's feelings about Christmas and the importance of family and home. It is a heart-warming song and may make you a little bright eyed."

Tim Minchin has his own tradition - donating all the proceeds from the sale of the song from around Christmas time to the National Autistic Society, a tradition that he's keeping again this year, including all sales from November, December, and January. So if you don't already own your own copy of the song, go buy it and help support a good cause.

As something new this year, here's a link to the lyrics, even though they're mostly easy enough to understand just listening to the song.

And now finally, here it is (but don't let the fact that you can listen to it from YouTube stop you from buying your own copy).

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Weird Engineering Unit - The Slinch

Standard MassTechnical fields are full of units that most non-technical people have never heard of. It gets even weirder with customary U.S. units, given the history of how these units came about. The most obscure unit I've ever actually used for real practical applications is the slinch.

If you're not involved in a technical field, you may not be familiar with the idea of coherent or consistent units. Basically, it's the idea that you shouldn't need any fudge factors in an equation because of the units you're using. For example, power can be calculated as a force times a speed, or P=F*V. Using consistent U.S. units gives an answer in ft-lb/sec, while using metric units gives an answer in N-m/sec (also known as Watts). A non-consistent unit of power that most people are familiar with is horsepower. If you multiply force times speed, you then have to divide by a fudge factor of 550 to get your answer in horsepower, or HP=F*V/550. And the fudge factors only work if the inputs are the units you're expecting. If people wanted to use mph instead of ft/s for the velocity, then you'd need another fudge factor on top of that, HP=F*Vmph*(5280/3600)/550. Equations can get pretty messy if you're not using consistent units, having to multiply all those fudge factors together.

In the standard units used for engineering in the U.S., pounds are a measure of force, not mass (this is already a distinction some people are unfamiliar with, confusing weight and mass). The unit for mass, which most non-technical people would already consider an obscure unit, is the slug. But trust me, I use slugs on a nearly daily basis as an engineer. On Earth, a slug weighs approximately 32 lbs (i.e. F=mg). Or for you metric people, it's equivalent to about 14.6 kg (which measure mass, not weight).

But the engineers who do stress calculations don't always use the normal FPS (foot-pound-second) system, because everyone's used to seeing stresses reported in lbs/in², or psi. And if you were using the normal FPS system, your stresses would come out in lb/ft², and you'd have to do a conversion at the end of your calculations to put the results in the psi that most people are used to seeing*. That's not a huge deal for spreadsheets or hand calcs, but it does make it more difficult for certain finite element programs. So, the stress guys sometimes use a different set of units based on pounds and inches, with the mass unit being the slinch. A slinch is 1/12 of a slug (i.e. the ratio between feet and inches). On Earth, a slinch weighs approximately 32/12 lbs, or 2.7 lbs.

Of course, a lot of these weird units could be simplified if all the engineers in the U.S. started using the metric system like the rest of the world, but that's not the way it is right now, so I've got to use units that other U.S. engineers are familiar with. And if Wikipedia is to be trusted, the metric stress guys have their own weird mass unit of glugs in the centimeter-gram-second system.

* Speaking of weird stress units, I remember working with a foreign engineer one time who gave me her results in Pascals, which is the normal metric way to do it. When I asked her to convert her results to U.S. units, she gave them to me in N/ft².

Image Source: Wikimedia Commons, slightly Photoshopped to remove a dead fly

Note that this entry was adapted from a response I left on Quora.

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