Category: Reason Hell

I’ve Found My New Favourite

I returned to Voxopedia to see if it had been transformed into a temple to Englebert Humperdinck and found something even better: some maths crackpottery! I love this kind of stuff because it requires so much more investment of time and brain power to come up with stuff. There’s not been a good example of it at Voxopedia since the Pi=4 guy stormed off.

Let me introduce you to Bibhorr, who appears on his own Voxopedia page in aviator sunglasses in a rockstar pose: Said person is the inventor of the “Bibhorr formula” which also gets its own page:  [Archive version]

That page tells us that:

“Bibhorr Formula, universally known as King of equations, is a new mathematical equation invented by an Indian aerospace engineer. Bibhorr. The formula is a part of a set of three formulas first disclosed by Bibhorr in his research treatise. The formula that has evolved into a mathematical branch is considered as the foundation of ultra-modern science. It is an alternative to the traditional trigonometry, as it forms a relation between the all four elements of a right triangle.”

And the page then provides a breakdown of the terms in this formula. What it says (using conventional Western nomenclature) is that for a right angle triangle with sides of length a,b & c (where c is the hypotenuse and a & b are shorter sides) that the size of angle ∠A opposite to side a can be found using this formula:

Angle ∠A = 90 × [(c + a − b)^2 ] ÷ [a^2 + 1.5c × (c + a − b)]

You can ignore the 90 for the moment, what the rest of the expression forms is a fraction that use the lengths of the triangle to determine what proportion of a turn Angle A is. Swap out the 90 for pi/2 and you get the answer in radians. Plug in the lengths of an arbitary 45° right-angle triangle and the formula will spit out 45° because the main chunk of the formula comes to half. Which is neat. In fact you’ll get a decent match for any right angle triangle.

“Decent” but not correct. For example a 30°, 60°, 90° triangle does not give the correct values. This is a handy test case because the angles are simple fractions of 90 (1/3 and 2/3). Instead of a third, the formula gives a decimal approximation to a third that’s 0.001 and a bit out. Now that’s not bad for some purposes and it tells us what this formula actually is a species of: a trignometric approximation formula.

Trigonmetric approximation formulas are themselves fascinating and have been around for a long time. Obviously their importance has lessened as it has become easier to access accurate values for sine, cosine and tangent via printed tables and these days electronically. A particulalry notable one is Bhaskara’s sine approximation formula which is well over a thousand years old.

As a curiosity this formula is interesting. If it is genuinely novel, then that’s quite clever. However, it is only that: an interesting approximation formula which these days is actually more effort than using trig functions. Wayyyy back, the original scripting language for Macromedia Flash didn’t have trig functions and I remember having to look for trig approximation formulas back then.

So the crackpottery really derives from the associated claims about the formula i.e. that it REPLACES the trigonemetric functions rather than approximates them. The page goes onto claim that:

“Bibhorr formula also finds its application in the following areas:

  • Astrophysics: For finding inter galactic distances.
  • Aerodynamics: For finding various angles of attack of an aircraft.
  • Navigation: In finding real time locations of vehicles.
  • Geography: In calculating distances between far located geographical locations.
  • Robotics: In studying robotic arm movements.
  • Civil Engineering: In the study of various architectures.
  • Teleportation and Quantum Physics: In micro-level invisible particle patterns.”

The “King of Equations” had a short life on the actual Wikipedia where it was summarily deleted for obvious reasons

The question is what will the benighted souls at Voxopedia do?


Reading Bad Science So You Don’t Have To

Yesterday I made a mistake. I was aware of a kerfuffle around the publication in the notable open journal PLOS One of an article on the dubious notion of “Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria”. The mistake was not listening sufficiently when lots of people said the article was very, very bad and thinking “Yeah, but how bad could it be if it was published somewhere non-obscure?” A pernicious thought that I’m very glad I didn’t express out loud because then I went and read the article…

There’s a bad, bad mental habit of discounting objections to arguments that you haven’t paid attention to when those arguments come from people you perceive as being in some way partisan on an issue, even if you yourself are partisan on the issue. It is the insidious sibling of false balance and ‘both sides’ that assumes that criticism from ‘your’ side must be at least a bit exaggerated. So I’m starting with a mea-culpa: it wasn’t that I didn’t believe the critics of the article, just that I assumed they must be exaggerating its badness at least a little. It’s a bias of arrogance that assumes that because somebody feels passionate about something that their statements aren’t wholly reliable (arrogance because it’s not a rule you then apply to yourself).

Anyway, enough beating myself up. Some background.

The rights of transgender people have become an increasingly virulent political battlefield following a pattern that we’ve seen many times before: a group of people who have been systematically marginalised ask for what is little more than basic human dignity only to be met with a counter-reaction that is deeply confronting. The pushback from the Christian Right and the Alt-Right is one thing but the vehement reaction from some people in the centre and the left can also be terrible.

Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria” is a concept that has been floating around various anti-transgender rights groupings on the internet. It is essentially a pseudo-scientific term in the sense that it takes a basic (and false) claim and dresses it up in quasi-scientific terms. The claim is that many teenagers are claiming to have gender dysphoria because it is trendy or because of peer pressure. The concept has rested mainly on increased visibility of transgender people in society and structurally is no different than similar claims made about people being gay or lesbian. As social stigma is reduced and as people find more open social support, more people will be public about core aspects of themselves. (see also this link )

However, there are people who are keen for “Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria” to be a thing, that is somehow a “real” medical condition that should be recognised as a false-positive when a young person claims to be transgender. Essentially it is a way of trying to medicalise the argument that “it is just a phase”.

Into this space has come a paper published in the journal PLOS One entitled “Rapid-onset gender dysphoria in adolescents and young adults: A study of parental reports” by Lisa Littman. It is currently available here and it really is a very bad study.

There is a whole series of posts starting here that pull the study to bits in various ways that are worth reading and in particular this post: gets to the heart of what is so very wrong with the paper.

The paper claims to be a kind of exploratory study of “rapid onset gender dysphoria” as a hypothesis and uses a report from parents to suggest that such a phenomenon exists as an actual condition. The paper then speculates on causes and recommends some actions by medical practitioners. However, the paper is not just methodologically flawed, it is actually an unwitting study of something else altogether.

The study involved posting a questionnaire on several parent websites but those websites were websites were “rapid onset gender dysphoria” was already being discussed and which included activism around the concept. The survey posted itself included leading question such as:

“How many of your children have experienced a sudden or rapid onset of gender dysphoria, which began after puberty?”

In the survey instrument that is the first question after the basic demographic questions. Put another way, the study assumed the existence of the phenomenon and then surveyed people likely to also believe in the existence of the phenomenon and then reported positive results as confirmation that the phenomenon existed.

Put another way, it would be like surveying people on an internet forum where people discussed and shared studies of UFO sightings, asked them “How many UFOs have you seen?” and then credulously used the number of positive reports as a lead into to discuss whether the UFOs were from Mars or another galaxy. Too silly an example? Perhaps, but here is a different analogy. The study is very like surveying internet forums known for GamerGate activism and asking them “How many cases of bad ethics have you seen in games journalism?” and then concluding that the volume of responses showed something meaningful about how reviews of video games function.

Essentially it is a very complex form of question-begging.

There are some formal ways that the paper adopts valid methods. There is a survey and the responses were collected and (I assume) tabulated correctly. It’s not necessarily invalid to collect data from parents to possibly identify a medical condition in their children. However, the basic structure of what was done fundamentally changes the meaning of all the results from what was intended.

To salvage the work done and turn the data into something meaningful would require recognising that it answers no medical questions at all. Instead, what has been done is a survey into *beliefs* and specifically beliefs among a community of people i.e. the study is sociological and the topic is “really” how a pseudoscientific idea becomes entrenched in some internet communities. Ironically, the study focuses on concepts such as “social contagion” and yet somehow misses that the study itself reveals how ideas spread due to peer pressure and apparent topicality.

What lessons are there to be learned? Well for me I should have not wasted my time reading a paper that everybody had already told me was bad. It was bad, bad not just interestingly flawed or mistaken.

A Philosophical Muddle

The political extremities are always strange places to visit. The far-right of Catholicism (or perhaps better described as the Catholic part of the far-right) in particular has some strange features. Recruiting as it does from the same mélange of social panics and prejudices, the outcomes it preaches fall in the same spectrum as the rest of the far-right: anti-immigrant rhetoric, nationalism, rhetoric against transgender people, rhetoric against LGBTQI people in general and the same confused appeals for free speech for those who wish to restrict free speech.

On top of that toxic soup is a layer of Platonic philosophy: abstractions are things and are real things in a way that actual real things aren’t. Here’s Dragon ‘Award winning author and freelance editor’ Brian Niemeier on the nature of God:

“When Christians–and some theist philosophers like Aristotle–say God, we don’t mean an old man on a mountaintop composing a global naughty/nice list when he’s not conjuring boulders he can’t lift. Such a being would fall into the category of a creature, albeit a powerful creature, existing within the material, temporal order.

What we mean by God is the uncreated, all-powerful, and absolute Being who transcends the created order.”

From there he segues into some classic arguments for the existence of god that follow the basic structure of abstract thing can be observed in reality, therefore, the abstract thing must exist as a thing in itself, therefore, some ultimate abstraction of the thing must be a god.

As regular readers will know, I think such arguments are flawed but it is worth acknowledging they are powerful arguments in their own way despite their head-scratching elements. What interests me most about them, is that by their nature they define and limit what kind of thing ‘god’ must be. In Brian Niemeier’s argument, his god is the essence of pure being – it is the thing that is what it is ultimately to ‘be’. Fair enough, imagine such a thing exists — I can take that as a credible belief. Where that becomes laughably absurd is when somebody asserts such a belief AND asserts that the core principle of being that transcends the universe spends its days worrying about whether people are wearing the wrong clothes, kissing the wrong people or not bing prayed at in Latin (obviously far-right Catholicism really needs mass to be said in Latin).

I’m stuck trying to imagine what is more rational. If a person has to believe their religion must validate their petty prejudices about other people would it not be more rational to believe in a petty & temperamental god. Apologies to any lingering Zeus worshipers but I can see how Zeus, as a character, might have strong opinions on such things. Niemeier notes that his god is not “composing a global naughty/nice list” but also believes that without a specific magic ritual, said in the right language, you can’t access the abstract principle of being qua being.

Think about it this way. The abstract number 7 has as much claim to existence transcending mere physical existences as “being” or any other abstraction — perhaps more so as there is the practical and powerful discipline of arithmetic that deals with things like 7 whose conclusions have real world implications. If you wish to take the Platonic* stance on the existence of 7 then I can’t regard your position as irrational. However, if you tell me that the number 7 has strong views on immigration policy** or that you can’t really relate to the number 7 unless you do arithmetic in Sanskrit then I think I’m entitled to look at your beliefs somewhat askance.

‘But that’s just an argument from incredulity’ well, yes it is an appeal to how absurd the idea is but to put it in more concrete terms, if a thing is the pure abstraction of X then its only quality can be X or qualities of which X is a member. Imagine the quality of ‘colour’ as a thing in itself (if that was possible) and call that X. In such a case X can’t be red and it can’t be blue, by being abstraction of colour it can’t be a particular colour. Going closer to the point, consider the abstraction of ‘opinion’. The abstraction of opinion cannot be a particular opinion as it is, by definition, the abstraction of the common qualities held by all opinions.

The above is not an argument for the non-existence of god, its not even an argument against the existence of an ultimately transcendent god (although I don’t believe in either). What it is that you can rationally have some ultimate transcendent principle of principles in a Platonic hierarchy or you can have a god that thinks about things and cares about what is going on but those two things can’t be the same without promoting absurdities.

*[Platonic here refereing to ‘Platonism’ in the mathematical philosophy sense that is derived from Plato but which doesn’t neccesarily reflect what Plato said.]

**[Although if 7 did have strong views on immigration policy then I’m sure they would be very compassionate and progressive views]


The Surprisingly Inevitable Al-Right Rehabilitation of Stalin

It is still early days and I don’t expect the alt-right to start waving flags with Stalin’s image on in it any day soon but the man who was once the top villain in the right’s roster of the evils of socialism is getting a new image.

For those of us on the left this is both unexpected and predictable. As the right has increasingly ditched a facade of libertarianism and increasingly become open in its authoritarianism, the attraction of the ultimate ‘strongman’ politician is obvious. Stalin has a lot of innate appeal for the alt-right: unlike Hitler, Stalin was not a loser; Stalin was a nationalist and Stalin enacted extreme ethnic policies including forced relocations of populations. An ideology that is intent on valourising the powerful man who exerts his will on the world around him may be ideologically closer to the Nazis but by their own standards Stalin better resembled their ideal. Looking for a superman, they start to eye the self-styled man of steel.

In my sample of one, crypto-fascist Vox Day has of late been making some steps in this direction:

“One thing that you really come away with is a tremendous respect for the evil intelligence of Stalin, he was much, much brighter than Hitler.”

A minor comment but remember this is from somebody who values IQ and military prowess as core aspects of a man’s worth (“man” used there not in a gender-neutral sense).

This rehabilitation is wider and deeper than Stalin’s own shift towards fascism. The pro-Trump right necessarily has to admire Vladimir Putin — by casting Putin as an ally, any collusion between Trump and Putin becomes a matter of Trump pre-emptively working with an ally rather than obvious treason. Putin himself, as an authoritarian, anti-progressive nationalist is an attractive figure to the pro-Trump right. Putin’s public statements on Stalin are mixed, condemning Stalin’s more obvious evil acts while praising his WorldWar 2 leadership, nationalism and industrialisation. The extent to which Putin’s government is itself funding or promoting the alt-right is not known.

The deeper aspect is the weird mythology being embraced by the alt-right. This mythology is hard to describe as it is often contradictory or so absurd as to be unclear whether it is genuinely believed. The mythology embraces such things as the bizarre ‘Pizzagate’ conspiracy theory, the related ‘Storm’ conspiracy theory (fabricated from an offhand comment by Trump regarding the ‘calm before the storm’),existing anti-semitic/anti-masonic conspiracy tropes from the nineteenth century refurbished for modern times and to top it all Christian apocalyptic millennialism.

In Vox Day’s version of this mythology at least, Trump and Putin are heroic figures saving the world from a globalist conspiracy (or “Neo-Babylonian Death cult” aka “The Cabal”) that would have otherwise led to a US/Russian nuclear war, in the aftermath of which the conspirators would have taken over the world (or what was left of it). I’m afraid this requires a lengthy quote from Vox, as it is one of those Jordan Peterson-like flights of association that make very little sense in their full context but even less sense as small quotes:

“Now what is the architectural statement that is being made by the EU Parliament in Strasbourg? What they are very clearly stating in a language that anyone who speaks architecture can understand is that they represent Babel. They are the new Babel, and so the connection that a lot of people don’t make, the connection that a lot of people don’t realize is that these are the same people who in the U.S. are called neocons. They’re the same people who in the old Soviet Union were called communists, Bolshevik,  and eventually, Trotskyites. The difference between Stalinism and Trotskyism in the 1930s was that Trotsky stood for world revolution.

Stalin on the other hand picked up the idea of communism in one country. Now obviously the Soviet Union was not a good place, it was not anywhere you’d like to live, it was a economic contradiction in terms, it was bound to fail. Alexander Solzhenitsyn did a good job of chronicling the evils of Stalinist communism, but the fact is was that once communism ceased to be Trotskyite, it ceased to be the primary vehicle for world revolution. And because of the growing power of the United States, because of the fact that in the United States you had the only surviving industrial economy, you know you had the only global power that had not been destroyed during World War II, that became the center of the world revolution. They don’t call it Trotskyism, they called it neoconservatism, but if you read Irving Krystol – he’s the father of Bill Kristol, the fake conservative and Never Trumper – the neoconservatives were the heirs of Leon Trotsky, they’re the heirs of global revolution, and that’s why the neocons are constantly pressing for war with everyone, but they’re particularly pressing for war with Russia because Russia has escaped their grasp. They began to lose their grasp on it thanks to Stalin.”

I leave the anti-semitic subtext as an exercise for the reader.

The key sentence is this: “They began to lose their grasp on it thanks to Stalin.” In the mythology Stalin’s struggles with Trotsky where the struggle of a nationalist versus an agent of the globalist conspiracy which by the distorted reasoning of the mythology puts Stalin on the side of the Christians against “the Cabal”.

I suspect we’ll see more favourable or nuanced takes on Stalin from multiple far-right sources in the future.

[Links included for reference. I’m not doing archived links currently as it felt like I was archiving obnoxious stuff as free labour.

Additional link: ]

Review: The Incredibles 2

There is a lot of nostalgia around the original Incredibles film and not without reason. The film managed to capture a sense of superhero stories with a story that understood the history of the genre without feeling the need to treat it with reverence. Arguably it demonstrated that the best approach for a superhero film was to create its own cast of heroes (a theory refuted by the MCU). Yet it was also very much a Pixar film which meant clever artful animation telling character and emotion driven stories with an appeal across ages.

At the time Pixar eschewed sequels (with the exception of Toy Story) and despite the implications of the end of the film, a second Incredibles movie seemed unlikely. Time moves on and Disney-Pixar is keen to capitalise on the IP it owns. Could a sequel possibly manage that same balance of action and character?

Absolutely. Starting almost at the same point as the last film ends. The Parr family are still juggling the demands of a young family (work, baby, school) with the pressure to use their powers for good in a world where superheroes are still illegal. The good news is that there is popular (and financial) pressure to decriminalise superheroes and Elastigirl is exactly the hero who could be the public face of a move to win people over.

As with the original film there is a right-leaning individualism that suits the superhero genre well. Some of the stay-at-home-dad jokes feel like they are from an older decade but they serve to point out how physical and psychologically exhausting childcare is (although more so when your baby can move through additional dimensions).

The underlying super villain plot is genuinely exciting (although not hard to work out the twist). As other have pointed out, there is a reliance on some strong flashing light sequences that while artfully done, probably should have had a warning.

Clever and warm and character driven, The Incredibles 2 still manages to be one of the best superhero films in what is now a crowded category. At the same time it is a family driven drama full of compassion and humanity. I really loved it. I’m going to watch many times 🙂

Freddy Nietzsche – The Fastest Draw in the West

A True Story – In Places.

Due to sundry events to which I am merely a spectator, I found myself on the online encyclopedia known as ‘Wikipedia’ the other day. Now due to a slip of the cursor, I clicked on the wrong link and found myself on the biography of one Johnny Ringo, a gentleman of the nineteenth-century persuasion.

420px-johnny_ringoNow my first thought was, I should imagine, much the same as any student of the romantic world of America’s wild west: “Wait, isn’t that a photograph of Friederich Nietzsche, well know nineteenth-century philosopher and author of Thus Spoke Zarathustra?”

I mean it does look an awful lot like him.

I mean it looks EXACTLY like him, more or less.

440px-nietzsche187aPut another way, this picture of the man who coined the term Übermensch ( is clearly the same person. Yes, yes, the haircut is slightly different but that’s the same expression, eyes, nose, huge moustache and THE SAME COLLAR AND TIE. It’s basically the same guy but photographed at a different angle and with better quality film.

‘No, wait!’ I hear you cry, ‘that’s nuts and you’ve been reading too many wacky internet theories and your critical powers have turned to mush you silly, silly man. Everybody in Victorian times looked like that even in countries not actually ruled by Queen Victoria.”

Now, I will concede that nineteenth-century photography and male grooming habits may disguise important different facial features because of fixed expressions, evolving technology and huge amounts of facial hair but I did a test. You can do it yourself. Look up pictures of Johnny Ringo’s contemporaries such as Wyatt Earp or Doc Holliday or others involved in the Gunfight at the OK Corral and check to see if any of them:

  • Also look Nietzsche (answer: no they don’t)
  • Also look like any other contemporaneous notable philosophers (answer: no they don’t)

‘Yes, but it is still a superficial…’ let me stop you right there dear reader. Look at this image below. This is the two images above superimposed. I swear to the ghost of William of Ockham that I’ve only done the following to them: flipped the Johnny R image left-right, resized it uniformly and change the opacity of the layer so you can see Freddy N underneath.


The ears don’t quite match up and Freddy’s moustache is a bit wilder, but otherwise? That, people, is a match.

No, no, it is no use holding your palm to your face and shaking your head like that and mumbling ‘I remember when this blog used to make sense’. We have to face facts. Friedrich Nietzsche and Johnny Ringo were the same dodgy desperado! One, the scourge of Tomb Stone Arizona and the other the scourge of German philosophy!

‘OK, despite you demanding we all practise non-cynical scepticism and examine outrageous ideas critically, you have convinced me that these two people who led public lives on two different continents are the same person but how is that possible?’ – Good question!

So Freddy was born in 1844, Johnny was (ostensibly) born 1850 – an age difference easily obscured. Indeed, Freddy would have spent much of his life under the gentle and damp weather conditions of Prussia and hence probably would have looked young for his age among the rowdy cowboys of Cochise County, their skin prematurely aged by the harsh sun and dry dusty conditions.

Now up to about 1876, Freddy’s life is very public and well documented. Over that same period, an outlaw known as Johnny Ringo was active in Texas and was involved in the so-called Mason County War. Clearly, those two people are different.

In 1876 Freddy becomes disillusioned with Wagner and possibly is suffering from his experiences as a medical orderly in the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71). Now the “official” history of Nietzsche has him becoming an ‘independent’ philosopher – essentially breaking formal ties to institutions by 1879 and living off a pension and travelling with friends.

In reality* this was all a cover – an elaborate facade constructed with the aid of friends, relatives and accomplices. In truth, Freddy had left to become a cowboy outlaw in the Wild West. Entranced by lurid tales of gunslingers and adventures and a world where men were men and nobody could spell ‘nihilism’, Freddy had found the perfect antidote to his pessimism and disenchantment. Instead of watching Wagner play-acting as Seigfried, Freddy could make his way to a world where epic heroes still walked the earth and had their deeds written as sagas.

Somehow, Freddy managed to be both exactly right and exactly wrong about that.

In truth, the era of the Wild West was already in its final stages. Railroads now crossed the continent and law and order was being systematically (often brutally) established.

The one place that was still the epitome of the Wild West was Tombstone Arizona — a bustling but often lawless town, still growing off the back of mining boom. The miners were mainly immigrants – including many from Germany. It was there Freddy headed, taking up the identity of an outlaw who had died in Texas and the first thing he did was to join an outlaw gang of cowboys known as the Cochise County Cowboys.

“Johnny” first turns up in Tombstone in 1879 around the time Nietzsche ‘officially’ had resigned as professor of philology at the University of Basel. No more lecturing bored Swiss students! Now he’d be rustling cattle and raising mayhem!

The events in Tombstone over the next four years have become legendary. Nietzsche himself didn’t participate in the infamous Gunfight at the OK Corral (despite what the movies say) but he tussled with Doc Holliday and pursued Wyatt Earp as part of a rival posse established by the county sheriff. Meanwhile, in Europe, Freddy’s friends staged elaborate ways of establishing that Nietzsche was still in Europe.

Officially, “Johnny” died in 1882 due to a gunshot to the head – which may have been self-inflicted or may have been an execution. In truth** we will never know whose body that really was but what we do know is that after an appropriate amount of time for Nietzsche to make his way back to Europe, he turns up in Leipzig looking for an academic position, having ‘split’ from his ‘friends’ Lou Salomé and Paul Rée (in truth*** he didn’t know them – they had been hired to maintain the cover story).

From there the official narrative starts up again. Nietzsche’s sister, inspired by Freddy’s wild west adventure decides in 1886 to start a new life in Paraguay with her antisemitic husband. “Been there, done that.”**** says Freddy, treating the ‘Americas’ as a single entity and not meaning that he literally had been to Paraguay.

And there you have it. The strange, fabricated forgotten history of Friedrich Nietzsche Outlaw Cowboy and how he nearly (but not quite) fought at the Gunfight at the OK Corral.

True story.*****

*[for some values of reality]

**[for some values of truth]

***[‘truth’ as in ‘make this story work’]

****[In German but it is from Nietzsche that we get this phrase]

*****[in some reality or other surely?]