« October 2007 | Main | December 2007 »

Friday, November 30, 2007

Website Update - New Info on Factoids, Top 10 Pages on Homepage

My Factoids Debunked & Verified page is turning out to be quite popular (at least compared to other pages on this site). A reader, Susan G., a clinical audiologist from Kansas, sent me some feedback on two of the factoids dealing with, obviously, ears. I've included her comments in the page. Also, I decided to add a small feature to the main home page, including links to the 10 most popular pages on this site. I figured, that's a good way for people to get an idea of some the of the best I have to offer (best as voted for by Internet traffic, not necessarily my favorite pages). I'll try to update that list every month - it'll be interesting to see if it changes at all. I'm also going to try to go through and make lists for months past, but I'm not making any promises on how long it will be until I've gotten that compiled.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Iraq Death Toll - Rebuttal to a Chain E-mail

The other day, I got an e-mail titled, "Statistics on Military Deaths," claiming to put into perspective the deaths caused by the Iraq War. It examines total military fatalities since 1980, showing that there were actually higher fatalities in the 80's than there are now, during the war. Since the information came in an e-mail forward, I was skeptical right off the bat, and decided to research it a little. The total death statistic is accurate, however, it's misleading in a number of ways - ignoring the causes of deaths, and ignoring the total number of people in the military over that time span. So, for anyone who's gotten this chain e-mail, I'm posting the reply I wrote to clarify it.

Here's the original e-mail that I received:

Below is some very interesting data referencing deaths in the military. I guarantee you will not read this in your local newspaper nor will you see it on the daily news broadcast. I pray this will encourage you to enlighten folks around you as to the brave and courageous young people serving in our military.

Deaths in the Military
1980 ......... 2,392
1981 ......... 2,380
1982 .......... 2,318
1983 .......... 2,465
1984 .......... 1,999
1985 .......... 2,252
1986 ......... 1,984
1987 .......... 1,983
1988 ......... 1,819
1989 .......... 1,636
1990 .......... 1,508
1991 ......... 1,7 87
1992 .......... 1,293
1993 ......... 1,213
1994 .......... 1,075
1995 .......... 1,040
1996 ............974
1997 ............817
1998 ...........826
1999 ............795
2000 ............774
2001 ...........890
2002 .......... 1,007
2003 ......... 1,410 [534*]
2004 ......... 1,887 [900*]
2005 .......... [919*]
2006 .......... [920*]

Figures so noted with an asterisk (*) indicates deaths as a result of Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom. You may initially feel confused when you look at these figures--especially when you see that in 1980, during the term of President Jimmy Carter, there were 2,392 US military fatalities. What this clearly indicates is that our media and our liberal politicians pick and choose and tend to present only those facts that support their agenda driven reporting.

Another fact our left media and politicians like to slant is that these brave men and women losing their lives are minorities. Wrong again - The latest census shows the following:

European descent (white) ... 69.12%
Hispanic .... 12.5%!
African American .... 12.3%
Asian .... 3.7%
Native American ... 1.0%
Other ..... 2.6%

The fatalities over the past three years in Iraqi Freedom are:
European descent (white) ...74.31%
African American ... 9.67%
Asian ..... 1.81%
Native American ...1.09%
Other .... 2.33%

These statistics are published by DOD and may be viewed at: http://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/natsec/RL32492.pdf

God Bless America

Here's the reply that I sent back. I didn't do too much editorializing in my e-mail; I just let the facts stand by themselves. Note that for this blog entry, I'm putting smaller versions of the graphs, to fit the format of the blog, with links to the full size graphs. I also apologize for the headings to the tables - I had to make the font smaller so that they, too, would fit the format of the blog.

I've learned to be very skeptical of just about everything I get in e-mail, especially if it's politically motivated (whether from the left or right). So, I went and looked up the report this e-mail cited as it's source, and found that the e-mail was a bit misleading in the stats it reported. The total death number is listed in two tables in the report, which show the total number of military personnel, and breaks down the causes of death. It looks like the main driver behind higher deaths in the 80's was accidental deaths. Part of this was simply because there were more people in the military, and part of it was that there were more accidental deaths per capita then. Without doing some more research, I don't know whether the improved safety of the military now regarding accidental deaths is due to a specific initiative of the military, or a general trend for all jobs that include using dangerous machinery.

Anyway, here are the relevant tables from the report. Make of them what you will, but at least this gives a fuller picture than the e-mail.


Table 4. U.S. Active Duty Military Deaths, 1980 Through 2006,
Part I, Total Military Personnel
Calendar Year Active Duty (a) Full-Time(est.) Guard-Reserve Selected Reserve FTE (b) Total Military FTE Total Deaths
1980 2,050,758 22,000 86,872 2,159,630 2,392
1981 2,093,032 22,000 91,719 2,206,751 2,380
1982 2,112,609 41,000 97,458 2,251,067 2,319
1983 2,123,909 49,000 100,455 2,273,364 2,465
1984 2,138,339 55,000 104,583 2,297,922 1,999
1985 2,150,379 64,000 108,806 2,323,185 2,252
1986 2,177,845 69,000 113,010 2,359,855 1,984
1987 2,166,611 71,000 115,086 2,352,697 1,983
1988 2,121,659 72,000 115,836 2,309,495 1,819
1989 2,112,128 74,200 117,056 2,303,384 1,636
1990 2,046,806 74,250 137,268 2,258,324 1,507
1991 1,943,937 70,250 184,002 2,198,189 1,787
1992 1,773,996 67,850 111,491 1,953,337 1,293
1993 1,675,269 68,500 105,768 1,849,537 1,213
1994 1,581,649 65,000 99,833 1,746,482 1,075
1995 1,502,343 65,000 94,585 1,661,928 1,040
1996 1,456,266 65,000 92,409 1,613,310 974
1997 1,418,773 65,000 94,609 1,578,382 817
1998 1,381,034 65,000 92,536 1,538,570 827
1999 1,367,838 65,000 93,104 1,525,942 796
2000 1,372,352 65,000 93,078 1,530,430 758
2001 1,384,812 65,000 102,284 1,552,196 891
2002 1,411,200 66,000 149,942 1,627,142 999
2003 1,423,348 66,000 243,284 1,732,632 1,228
2004 1,411,287 66,000 234,629 1,711,916 1,874
2005 1,378,014 66,000 220,000 1,664,014 1,942
2006 1,378,014 66,000 220,000 1,664,014 1,858
Source: Defense Manpower Data Center, Statistical Information Analysis Division, [url removed for web page formatting], accessed on June 27, 2007.
Notes: As of February 28, 2007 (reflects preliminary counts for 2006 and revised figures for 2004 and 2005).
a. Official Department of Defense end-strengths as of December 31 for military pay accounts. Excludes full time Guard and Reserve.
b. Full time equivalent (FTE) is based on official Department of Defense fiscal year end selected reserve strength (10% of the figure is used to estimate days on active duty).
Table 5. U.S. Active Duty Military Deaths, 1980 Through 2006,
Part II, Cause of Death
Calendar Year Total Deaths Accident Hostile Action Homicide Illness Pending Self Inflicted Terrorist Attack Undeter- mined
1980 2,392 1,556   174 419   231 1 11
1981 2,380 1,524   145 457   241   13
1982 2,319 1,495   108 446   254   16
1983 2,465 1,413 18 115 419   218 263 19
1984 1,999 1,293 1 84 374   225 6 16
1985 2,252 1,476   111 363   275 5 22
1986 1,984 1,199 2 103 384   269   27
1987 1,983 1,172 37 104 383   260 2 25
1988 1,819 1,080   90 321   285 17 26
1989 1,636 1,000 23 58 294   224   37
1990 1,507 880   74 277   232 1 43
1991 1,787 931 147 112 308   256   33
1992 1,293 676   109 252   238 1 17
1993 1,213 632   86 221   236 29 9
1994 1,075 544   83 206   232   10
1995 1,040 538   67 174   250 7 4
1996 974 527 1 52 173   188 19 14
1997 817 433   42 170   159   13
1998 827 445   26 168 10 161 3 14
1999 796 436   37 150 13 145   15
2000 758 398   34 138   151 17 20
2001 891 437 3 49 185 1 140 55 21
2002 999 547 18 51 190 6 160   27
2003 1,228 440 344 36 207 16 167   18
2004 1,874 604 739 46 270 19 188   8
2005 1,942 632 739 49 281 72 150   19
2006 1,858 465 753 30 205 238 155   12
Source: Defense Manpower Data Center, Statistical Information Analysis Division, [url removed for web page formatting], accessed on June 27, 2007.
Note: As of February 28, 2007 (reflects preliminary counts for 2006 and revised figures for 2004 and 2005).

Since I had to copy the data into Excel to make the tables, I figured I might as well plot them out, too. Here're graphs of the data, showing the general trend of decreasing military deaths, with the sharp increase starting in 2001. The first graph is deaths per Full Time Equivalent number of personnel, the second is just total number of deaths, broken down by category.

Total Military Deaths per FTE vs. Year
Total Military Deaths by Cause vs. Year

I didn't research the ethnicity claims, since the data cited in the original e-mail shows the numbers to be not too far off from the general make-up of the population, anyway.

Finally, and this is just a nit pick, but the e-mail said it was DoD that published the data, but cited a report from the Federation of American Scientists.

Like I said, I didn't do too much editorializing in that response. But, this is a blog, so you should have expected me to offer my opinions. Here they are.

The thing that bothered me the most from the original e-mail was the statement, "What this clearly indicates is that our media and our liberal politicians pick and choose and tend to present only those facts that support their agenda driven reporting." When the author of the e-mail could have just as easily copied two tables, they instead picked only one column out of those tables, and ignored all the other data (total number of personnel, causes of deaths) that put it into perspective, and then accused others of being biased. Now that takes some gall.

Second, what's the point they're trying to make? That this war hasn't caused a significant increase in the number of soldiers dying? Or is the point that it's okay that they're being killed in action now, because 25 years ago they would have just died in accidents, anyway. I think it's pretty clear, especially from the plotted graphs, that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have caused a substantial increase in the number of soldiers that would have been killed otherwise. You may think those numbers are acceptable, but don't pretend that they're not significant.

For another thing, this e-mail is only looking at deaths. How many people are being injured, and are now disabled, due to this war? Is it significantly higher than peace time? I don't know, and I haven't done the research, yet, but that's another big human cost.

This e-mail only tallies the deaths of U.S. soldiers. The cost in total human life is far greater than that. A report that came out in October of 2006 (over a year ago) estimated that more than 600,000 people died in Iraq than what would have happened had the U.S. not invaded (Washington Post article). That's a great deal higher than some estimates, but it's also the most scientific method I've seen of estimating the death toll, and the one I'd put my money on as being closest to the right answer. But even if you go by more conservative estimates, at the same time as that report came out, George Bush stated that over 30,000 civilians had died, the British-based Iraq Body Count research group estimated 50,000, and an Iraqi nongovernmental organization estimated 128,000 deaths between the invasion and July 2005. No matter which estimate is right, that's still a huge number of people dead.

Finally, I'll say that this e-mail completely ignored the financial burden of the war. I realize that it may seem a bit callous to start talking about money in relation to human lives, but the reality is that we live in a world of limited resources, and we have to choose where to apply those resources. Money that goes to support a war means that it isn't supporting other initiatives (such as research into alternative energy - a pretty important priority, I'd think, given the current path we're going on with global climate change).

I'm not going to use this entry to discuss the justifications or political outcomes of the war. I'm just going to say that no matter how you feel about those things, don't ignore that this war has cost us dearly.

Fischer, Hannah, Kim Klarman and Mari-Jana "M-J" Oboroceanu. CRS Report for Congress: American War and Military Operations Casualties: Lists and Statistics. 29 June 2007. Congressional Research Service. [accessed 19 November 2007]

Friday, November 16, 2007

The Golden Compass, His Dark Materials

I took just a little too long in getting to this review - the books aren't as fresh in my mind as they could have been. I apologize for that, but I still think that some people might be interested in my general impressions, especially considering that the first movie will be coming out shortly. Plus, it's not like I was planning on doing a detailed summary of the entire plot.

Something to get out of the way right at the beginning, is to say that if you're a devout Christian, and you don't appreciate criticism of your religion, these books aren't for you. They're a kind of anti-Chronicles of Narnia, and certainly don't present Christianity in the best light. Now, if that sort of thing doesn't bother you too much, and you can appreciate a work of fiction based on a modified version of Christianity, read on...

His Dark Materials is a trilogy written by Philip Pullman. It consists of three books, The Golden Compass (titled Northern Lights in some other countries, notably the UK), The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass. The story focuses mostly on a girl named Lyra Belacqua. She's from a universe very similar to ours, but not quite the same. The most obvious difference is that in her universe, people's souls are tangible, in the form of animal companions known as daemons, that accompany the people throughout their lives. The difference that I personally thought was most fascinating, and which was actually one of my favorite parts of the entire trilogy, is the way events had played out slightly differently in Lyra's world. For example, science and technology had developed at slighly different rates than in our universe, with scientists studying quantum mechanics, but with cars not yet having been invented. These differences also affected political & cultural aspects of the world - for example, the Muscovites living in what we would call Russia, and "New France" still being in use to describe Canada (in fact, there's a Wikipedia entry on some of this terminology).

At the start of the story, Lyra had lived her whole life so far at Jordan College, Oxford, as an orphan raised by the professors. When the Lord Asriel visited the college, Lyra snuck into the meeting where he discussed a strange "Dust" that he'd been studying in the polar regions. Not long after, the beautiful Mrs. Coulter arrived to take Lyra into her custody, to give her a proper education and upbringing. The morning she was to leave, the headmaster of the college secretly called Lyra to his office, and gave her a strange device. Without time to give her proper instruction, all he could tell her was, "It is the Alethiometer. It tells the truth. As for how to read it, you'll have to learn by yourself." Later that day, she left Oxford, and her adventure began.

All in all, I liked the books, but didn't consider them great. Perhaps my expectations were too high. I bought them largely on the recommendation of several commenters on another blog, in a discussion on the last book in the Harry Potter series. Most of those commenters considered the Dark Materials trilogy to be far superior. I also started reading the novels knowing that they were critical of Christianity, and with my recent "deconversion," I really wanted to like a book with that type of theme. Unfortunately, these books weren't the masterpieces I had hoped for. The style of writing took a while to grow on me - the books didn't grab me right from the very beginning. The ending also left me a little less than completely satisfied. I appreciate that Pullman didn't give it a Disney, and they all lived happily ever after, ending. But, it almost seemed to me that he forced some of the negative outcomes. It was as if he had decided from the outset that his story was going to have a bittersweet ending, so he had to invent the plot devices to get it there.

Before you continue reading this paragraph, I should give a spoiler warning. I'll try not to give away anything too big, but this paragraph may give away a little more than some readers would like to know... Probably the biggest thing that bothered me about this story, is that it still set humans as being apart from other animals (and the related sentient beings from parallel universes, but I'll just call them all "human" for this discussion, so I don't have to keep putting that disclaimer). It was only humans that had souls and daemons, and only humans that got to go to the afterlife. Why? Perhaps this had something to do with trying to stay as close as possible to the framework of Christian mythology, or Milton's Paradise Lost, upon which much of Pullman's story is based. But, if you're going to break from that mythology enough to have God as merely the first sentient being, and not the actual creator, it would seem to me that you're pretty free to change the mythology as much as you want. And especially for the purposes of this discussion, if you're going to have humans evolve, why would you show them as being fundamentally different from other animals, when in reality it's just differences of degree. For a story coming from this perspective, I would have liked to have seen humans portrayed as just another animal in the grand scheme of life. As long as I'm in this spoiler paragraph, I'll also point out that I had a problem with Lyra's entire motivation. She had the alethiometer, knew how to read it, and could understand when it wanted her to do something. But, when much of the theme of the book seemed to be to question authority and orthodoxy, why did she naively trust the alethiometer? How was she to know that she wasn't being manipulated by some nefarious entity?

Still, as I said, I liked the books overall, and there were many aspects worth commending. As I've already mentioned, despite the forced feel, I appreciate that Pullman gave it a bittersweet ending, when it seems that too many stories I read are sugar coated. And I very much enjoyed the alternate history that he developed for Lyra's world, and the setting it created. Aside from that, my favorite part was the character development. There wasn't a stark divide between good and evil. Characters did good things and bad things. Some did more good things than others, and some did more bad things than others. Obviously, we were supposed to sympathize with Lyra and her cause, but you could still follow the motivations of those on the other side. And even after the story was over, you're still not exactly sure who to like and who to dislike.

So, in the end, I would recommend these books, and not just because I'll earn money if you buy them through the links I provided. In fact, if you do follow those links, you'll see that all three books are rated at least 4 stars on Amazon (for now, at least - we'll see what happens as they get more publicity due to the movies, and if certain people start giving them poor ratings due to philosophical differences). They tell a pretty good story, and do get you thinking about some interesting topics. Just don't expect too much out of them, and you won't be disappointed.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

AiG's Creation Museum Follow-Up

Ticket from Creation MuseumBack in May, I wrote an entry, Creation Museum/Creationist Rule of Thumb with the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics, to coincide with the opening of the new Creation Museum, operated by an organization known as Answers in Genesis (AiG). Since the "museum" hadn't opened yet, I couldn't very well criticize the museum itself, so I instead picked a page from AiG's website, The Second Law of Thermodynamics: Answers to Critics, and criticized it, instead. I also used that entry to introduce a rule of thumb of mine: Anytime somebody tries to use the Second Law of Thermodynamics to refute evolution, you should realize you're dealing with somebody who doesn't understand science or who is a flat-out liar. If you're actually trying to learn something, you should save yourself the time and quit paying any attention to them, as you can't really trust anything they have to say about science.

Anyway, now that the museum's been open for a few months, people have gone to visit it, and it turns out to be just as bad as everybody expected. Just recently, the sci-fi writer and blogger, John Scalzi, paid the museum a visit, and posted his review on his blog (if the term, "horseshit," offends you, you may not want to follow that link). It's a fairly good review, but the part that makes it the best one I've seen of the museum so far (and admittedly, I haven't really gone looking for them), is the flickr set of 101 photos from the museum. It's not just Scalzi's opinion - you can see for yourself the idiocy on display.

To give you a taste of the review, here are a couple excerpts:

Let me say this much: I have to admit admiration for the pure balls-out, high-octane creationism that’s on offer here. Not for the Creation Museum that mamby-pamby weak sauce known as “Intelligent Design,” which tries to slip God by as some random designer, who just sort of got the ball rolling by accident. Screw that, pal: The Creation Museum’s God is hands on! He made every one of those animals from the damn mud and he did it no earlier than 4004 BC, or thereabouts. It’s all there in the book, son, all you have to do is look...
But seriously, the ability to just come out and put on a placard that the Jurassic era is temporally contiguous with the Fifth Dynasty of the Old Kingdom of Egypt — well, there’s a word for that, and that word is chutzpah. Because, look, that’s something you really have to sell if you want anyone to buy it. It’s one thing to say to people that God directly created the dinosaurs and that they lived in the Garden of Eden. It’s another thing to suggest they lived long enough to harass the Minoans, and do it with a straight face. It’s horseshit, pure and simple, but that’s not to suggest I can’t admire the hucksterism.

I suppose I should add one more excerpt, to make it clear that it's the stupidity of AiG he's criticizing, and not Christianity in general:

To be clear, the “horseshit” I’ve been speaking of is not Christianity, it’s creationism, which to my mind is a teleological quirk substantially unrelated to the grace one can achieve through Jesus Christ...There are lots of Christians who clearly don’t need to twist their brain like a pretzel to get around the idea that the universe is billions of years old and that we’ve evolved from earlier forms.

Anyway, I guess this entire entry was just a drawn out way to put a link to Scalzi's review. Go read it, and especially visit the flickr set, to see just how bad the Creation Museum really is.

Note - this entry was slightly modified from the original version, to include the third excerpt.

Friday, November 9, 2007

How to Spot an E-mail Hoax

Hoax Fairy PictureI've written about this a couple times before (actually, re-reading that second one, I still think it's pretty good and would recommend it to people who haven't read it, yet), and I've seen it written about in places far more popular than my website, but people still seem to be as gullible as ever.

I don't personally receive many hoax e-mails myself, anymore. I think I've sent enough people links to Snopes, that they've either started checking their e-mails themselves, or gotten so fed up with me that that they took me off their distribution lists. But, my wife still gets quite a few, and working at a spot where she's not allowed onto the Web to check, she'll forward the e-mails to me and ask me to check them for her.

Well, she sent me one the other day about a supposed Amber Alert, after having received quite a few from the same person. When it comes to missing children, it really seems so easy to just forward it on, and you almost feel bad being skeptical about it, but it still doesn't do anybody any good to forward on a hoax. Actually, I'd bet that if you're constantly getting fake Amber Alerts, you're not going to pay as much attention when a real one finally comes your way. The thing that really caught my eye about this one, was that it was completely missing a date, and most of the information (physical description, last location seen, etc) that you'd expect to see in such an alert. So, I was nearly positive it was a hoax before even looking it up, but I still checked just to be safe.

Well, that got me to thinking - it really is pretty easy to spot most e-mail hoaxes before you even try to verify them. So, I thought I'd post a quick list of the tip-offs I use to spot hoax e-mails.

  1. It's an e-mail Okay, that might sound a little sarcastic, but really - be skeptical of any information you get from an e-mail, especially one that's been forwarded. Much more often than not, they're hoaxes or lies.
  2. No date This is probably the biggest tip-off for anything supposedly coming from an official organization (virus warnings, amber alerts, product recalls, etc.), but applies to news and current events, as well. Even if the message might have been true originally, chain e-mails have a way of long outlasting their useful life, and may be describing something from 10 years ago or more.
  3. No references If a person on the street you'd never met before told you an outlandish story that they'd heard from their friend, who'd heard it from a friend, who'd heard it from a friend, would you believe them? So why would you believe it when it comes from an e-mail? Look for the original source of the story.
  4. Too good to be true Usually, when a story sounds too good to be true, it is.
  5. Politically related A lot of the time, people let their emotions get in the way of their good sense. If a story villifies someone's political enemies, they seem to shut off their critical thinking skills entirely (well, I guess a lot of people don't really have all that good of critical thinking skills to begin with, but that's a topic for another time).
  6. Religiously related These e-mails could go in the Too good to be true or Politically related categories, but I get so many of them that they deserve their own mention. Just because an e-mail has the word "God," don't give it a free pass. Treat it just as skeptically as you would any other e-mail.
  7. Send this email to everyone in your address book If an e-mail has a phrase like this near the end, you can almost be positive that it's a hoax.
  8. Factoids Any time an e-mail consists of a long list of trivia, you can be just about sure that most of those facts are wrong, or at the very least misleading. I've even got an article on my main website where I researched every single claim in one of those types of e-mails.
  9. It's an e-mail Yes, this bears repeating. Most chain e-mails floating around the Internet are hoaxes or lies - be very skeptical of any information you get via e-mail.

There still are some amazing true stories out there, and every once in a while I'll be surprised, when I go to Snopes (and don't forget - Snopes can be wrong, too) and learn that a story from an e-mail actually did happen. Still, with the ratio of junk to good, you're best off being skeptical of every e-mail until you've verified it.

More info: TruthOrFiction.com's "Signs of Common eRumors"

« October 2007 | Main | December 2007 »