Saturday, December 31, 2011

Local Pastor Tells Whopper About School Prayer

According to the Canadian Press, local pastor Mark Koehler's telling fibbies about school prayer in Ontario.

He is quoted as saying, "We’ve taken prayer out of school. We can’t say certain greetings at Christmas time."

Really? Students are prevented from praying in Ontario schools? That's news to me.

Pastor Koehler is legally prevented from saying "certain greetings"? I wonder what law that is.

The truth is that prayer has not been taken out of school. Rather, in Zylberberg v. Sudbury Board, the Ontario Court of Appeal ruled that a sectarian prayer offered by school administrators violated the Charter. This doesn't mean students can't pray on their own.

And of course, there's nothing preventing Koehler from saying "Merry Christmas" to anyone he wants.

Pastor Koehler should read his own Bible - I seem to remember the 9th commandment had something relevant.

Monday, December 26, 2011

The Creationists' Big Lie

This recent post by Cornelius Hunter exemplifies, in one sentence, the special combination of arrogance and ignorance that creationists possess:

Random events are simply not likely to create profoundly complex, intricate, detailed designs.

Even if one is able to come up with a rigorous scientific definition of terms like "profoundly complex", "intricate", and "detailed", this is a remarkably arrogant claim. How does Hunter know this to be true?

The answer is, he doesn't; he just believes it because his religion demands it. And it isn't true: we have abundant evidence from the field of artificial life that the claim is false.

To look at just a single example, take the work of Karl Sims. He has shown that virtual creatures can evolve intricate and novel locomotion strategies by a process of mutation and natural selection. This 1994 video shows some of the behaviors that evolved.

There's a good reason why none of the principal ID creationists (Dembski, Behe, Berlinski, Hunter, Luskin, etc.) address the challenges to their claims posed by artificial life: the rebuttal is so devastating that they can find nothing to say.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Another Fake Magnet Man Scams AP

What is wrong with the Associated Press?

Just a few months ago, they were scammed by a Serb family who claimed their child was magnetic.

Now they're back again with pictures of Etibar Elchiyev, a Georgian man who claims "his body acts as a magnet".

Sad to say, my local paper, the Waterloo Region Record, fell for this scam again, publishing the AP photo in their December 15 2011 issue.

Greatest Triple Play of All Time?

Hey, the runners can't be blamed too much if they didn't realize this ball was caught.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

"The Little Christmases" by Louise Lee Outlaw

Here's a poem by my mother entitled "The Little Christmases". It appeared originally in The Lutheran, Vol. 9 No. 24 (December 15 1971), pp. 6-7.

Christmas is least of all
The wreath on the door
The lights on the tree
And the block on the calendar
Marked 25.

Christmas is the day
A week after Christmas
When the tinsel lies in sad sparkles
All over the house
And the tree droops, forsaken,
And the ornaments are once again just things
To put away --
And a little boy comes to you and says:
"I'll help, Mom."

Christmas is the day in February
When the snow closes your house
From the world and your boy-man goes forth to shovel
And the phone rings and the aged neighbor says:
"Just want to tell you about your son:
He shoveled my walk, he wouldn't take a cent,
I offered, but he wouldn't take a cent."

Christmas is the day in spring
When your husband comes through the kitchen door
And says, "You look like a little girl,"
And hands you the first crocus
To put in a jelly glass on the table.

Christmas is the wedding anniversary
When everything goes wrong.
The child is sick; the dress, the special dress
Stays drooping in the closet, and the dance
Is never danced, nor the wine drunk,
And in between thermometer and doctor calls,
The two friends come, bearing a flower pot
With three geraniums
Dug from their garden.
"Everybody's got to have an anniversary,"
The two friends say.

Christmas is the summer night with the band on the pier
And Sigmund Romberg's bright blare in your ears,
And far below, the dark waves' orchestration,
And your husband turns to you and says,
"Next year we'll have a boy in college."
And you look at each other
In wonder and sadness
The salt on your cheeks
Is from the leaping ocean spray.
If ocean spray can be so warm.

Christmas is the private time
On any night of the year
When grief strikes, loss invades,
Hurt shatters, and the heart,
Groping for solace,
Stumbles on the memory of a smile
Smiled years ago,
Or the echo of a gentle voice,
Or a kindness that dropped upon you,
Sudden as a star ...
All the little Christmases come back to you,
And reaffirm the blessedness of life.

Christmas is least of all
The wreath on the door
The lights on the tree,
And the block on the calendar
Marked 25.

Or anything that ever could be wrapped.

My Review of Le Fanu's "Why Us?"

Here's my review of the atrociously bad book, Why Us?, by James Le Fanu. It appeared in Reports of the National Center for Science Education, 31 (6) (2011).

Thursday, December 15, 2011

You Can Lead a Creationist to Knowledge...

...but you can't make him think, as this post at Uncommon Descent makes clear.

It doesn't matter if bad creationist arguments are debunked, because they just keep bringing up the same bad arguments over and over again, as if no one ever explained why they are bad.

Here we have lawyer Barry Arrington (not a mathematician or biologist, as far as I can see) explaining Dembski's concept of design detection and making exactly the same bogus claims we debunked long ago.

Problem #1: the notion of "specification" is incoherent. Arrington says “ten straight flushes in a row" is a legitimate specification because "This pattern is not post hoc". OK, how about "100 straight flushes in a row, except one is not". Is that legit? Why or why not? How about "50 out of 100 deals are straight flushes"? Is that legit? Why or why not? How about "one straight flush, then a straight, then a flush, then 3 consecutive 4 of a kind, then two more straight flushes"? Why or why not? We explain the problem in detail in our paper.

Bottom line: there is a good way to decide about the reasonableness of a "specification" -- namely, Kolmogorov complexity -- but it is not anywhere near as simple as "valid" or "invalid" or "independent" or "not independent". When you use Kolmogorov complexity as your basis for deciding about specifications, then you get the theory of Kirchherr, Li and Vitanyi, not Dembski's theory.

Problem #2: Even if you can make the notion of "specification" reasonable, we showed that Dembski's claim about the "law of conservation of information" is bogus. The result is that his conclusions about design don't follow.

Problem #3: The proper way to do probability, the way that everyone else except creationists does it, is to pre-specify a region and then see if your observation matches that region. If you do so, and the probability of hitting the region out of the whole space is very very very small, then the proper conclusion is not "design"; it is simply that you estimated the probabilities wrong. It could well have occurred because a person arranged it that way, but it could also be because you didn't know about some non-human process that could result in the same observation. In our paper we illustrate this with some examples.

That's what makes creationism different from legit science: creationists just pretend that criticism doesn't exist and recycle the same bad arguments over and over.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

More Quality Reporting at Uncommon Descent

Sneery O'Leary, the World's Worst Journalist™, spends most of her blog space attacking scientists and reporters more talented than she is.

But would a New York Times reporter be so foolish as to confuse Massimo Pigliucci with Massimo Piatelli-Palmarini?

Probably not. But Sneery is.

Screenshot, for when it gets dumped down the ever-growing Uncommon Descent memory hole:

Funny Word Order in a Poster Advertising a Study on Word Order

I like linguistics, although I don't know much about about it. (Much of what I know comes from reading Language Log, which should be on your blogroll.)

A few weeks ago I was at McMaster University, and I saw this poster advertising for participants in a study about word order:

Mastering the correct word order in English often seems one of the hardest tasks for German and French speakers. French mathematicians, for example, often write things like "We study here the case x > 2" instead of "Here we study the case x > 2".

The funny thing is the bizarre word order in the sign itself! Maybe it was deliberate, but I still found it amusing.

In case you can't read the text, here it is:

We are seeking German language speakers from Austria, Switzerland, Liechtenstein or Germany for a linguistic study on the relation between word order and articles currently living in the Hamilton area...

I had to read it three or four times before I realized they were seeking German language speakers currently living in the Hamilton area.

Friday, December 09, 2011

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

The Ellsberg Paradox

Yesterday, at Waterloo Ignorance Day, one speaker mentioned the Ellsberg paradox, which I hadn't heard of before. Believe it or not, it is named for Daniel Ellsberg, who would later become famous for releasing the Pentagon Papers.

Here it is: you have an urn with 90 well-mixed balls. There are R red balls, Y yellow balls, and B black balls. You know only the following information: R = 30, and Y+B = 60. You now get to choose between

Gamble A: win $100 if you draw a red ball vs.
Gamble B: win $100 if you draw a black ball.

You are also given a choice between

Gamble C: win $100 if you draw a red or yellow ball.
Gamble D: win $100 if you draw a black or yellow ball.

Which choices do you prefer? A over B or B over A? And C over D or D over C?

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

A Discovery Institute Flack Responds

Oh, look! The Discovery Institute flack Jonathan McLatchie has responded with a barely literate screed.

In addition to his charming mangling of English grammar and the spelling of my name, he asks, "Does Shallit really think that we haven't heard of processes such as genetic drift and endosymbiosis?"

Well, I bet McLatchie has, since he seems to have studied some biology. But I wasn't talking about McLatchie, as is clear from my text. Johnson, when the video was shot back in 1993, apparently didn't know a damn thing about drift - and that was the issue I was addressing. McLatchie tries to switch attention from Johnson in 1993 to all ID advocates today. Nice try at misdirection, Jonathan!

McLatchie goes on to claim, "I'm sure Phillip Johnson is aptly aware of the various kinds of selective process: balancing selection, stabilizing selection, disruptive selection, directional selection to name just a few."

Then why did Johnson lie and claim selection could not produce change? And why did he claim natural selection acted to preserve neutral mutations? No, it's clear Johnson was just being pig-ignorant. And McLatchie thinks it's just peachy. Why any Christians would want to be associated with such dishonesty is beyond me. But as we all know, it's just fine to lie for Jeebus.

Monday, December 05, 2011

Ten Ways to Know When to Change Your Airplane Seat

You've just reached cruising altitude, and the passenger in the seat next to you turns to you and says something. What lines should tip you off that your seatmate is a mindless zombie with whom rational discussion is pointless? Here are a few that tell you to move to a different seat immediately, but feel free to nominate your own.

1. "Classical philosophers for several millennia have pointed out that that existence of nature itself presupposes Someone who is uncaused existence. The evidence for an Uncaused Cause is massive-- you can fill a library with the arguments in its favor."

2. "Universals are immaterial-- truth, beauty, goodness, love".

3. "The abortion industry is big business."

4. "Frauds like climate scientists can't operate under cover anymore."

5. "[Jesus' birth] is the most beautiful and astonishing story ever told, even more beautiful and astonishing because it is true."

6. "We all worship something... Atheists no less than Christians."

7. "The Screwtape Letters is a literary masterpiece"

8. "After 200 years of Malthusian pseudoscience, when are overpopulation morons going to admit they're wrong?"

9. "contraceptive culture is promiscuous and inculcates a disrespect for the sanctity of life"

10. "There's been no warming in a decade, and they lied about it."

And extra points if you can figure out who said all ten of the things above.

Saturday, December 03, 2011

This Video Should Be Shown to all Biology Students

I think this 1993 interview with creationist law professor Phillip Johnson should be shown to every biology student at every American university.

After the biology students stopped laughing and shaking their heads at the sheer pig-ignorance and numerous blatant lies smugly spouted by Johnson, they'll have a much better understanding of the Religious Right's assault on science, and be better prepared to rebut their local creationists.

The most significant misunderstanding Johnson repeatedly exhibits is that he thinks modern evolutionary biology is synonymous with his understanding of the meaning of the term "Darwinism": all biological change is due to mutation and natural selection. The fact that other mechanisms, such as genetic drift and endosymbiosis, are now an essential part of the picture, seems to have escaped him completely. Ignorance or dishonesty? I'm not sure; maybe it's a mixture of both.

So how many other misunderstandings, misrepresentations, and lies can you identify? Here are just a few I saw:

"Well, if I'm out of my element, then Charles Darwin must have also been out of his element, because his training was in medicine and theology, although he was in fact a very good scientist, self-taught, a gentleman amateur like others of his time. Charles Lyell, the father of modern geology, was a lawyer."

Very deceptive. Science as an institution at the time of Darwin and Lyell was quite different from modern science. It is extremely hard (although not impossible) for an amateur, untrained in science, to make a significant contribution to science today.

As for Lyell, it is quite misleading to just say that he was a lawyer and not also mention that at Oxford, Lyell attended lectures by Buckland; at Edinburgh, by Jameson; and he was a colleague of Mantell. Lyell gave up law, travelled extensively and did geological research on the ground in many locations, publishing his papers in scientific journals. If Phillip Johnson ever did any geological research on the ground, and published papers on his research in geology journals, he might be accorded some respect. As it is, he's just a laughingstock.

"There aren't really any specialists in evolution; it's a generalists' country."

This is simply false. Any evolutionary biologist is a specialist in evolution. There are, ferchrissakes, many annual conferences on evolution.

If Johnson's point is that evolution, as a scientific theory, depends on different fields such as paleontology and genetics, then this is no different from any other scientific theory that has multiple underpinnings, such as climatology.

"[I'm] explaining to them [evolutionary biologists] what they overlooked. That in fact, their books are not convincing because they're assuming at the beginning of the inquiry the point that they claimed to have demonstrated at the end, and so there's a thinking flaw. So instead of responding to that, naturally they say, "Oh, why don't you shut up? And leave us alone, so we can continue to get away with this."

This is just the usual Christian martydrom lie. No scientists has said anything remotely like the quote Johnson gives. Biologists have laughed at Johnson's ignorance, that is true. But scientists have also written detailed rebuttals of Johnson's bogus claims. Also, the implication that biologists know they are being deceptive is an outrageous slander. But that's not the only slander Johnson casually tosses off.

"The sophisticated people in the universities know that this is founded on philosophy. But because it's their philosophy, you see, they think that's fine. And because they have contempt for the public, they think that it's alright to mislead the public through you know, propaganda, because the public doesn't really deserve to know the truth, because they're not intellectuals like we are, so we can say anything we want to them. That is a widespread attitude..."

Considering that Johnson was a co-founder of the Discovery Institute's Center for Science and Culture, a group dedicated to nothing other than misleading the public about evolution, this is pretty rich.

[on the term "creationist"] "So that what the scientific establishment tends to do is to say, that well first place we'll put everybody in that group into a very narrow box and then we'll dispose of them by ridicule. And then having got rid of all our enemies by that set of language tricks and propaganda mechanisms, we'll say the only thing left is us, so everybody is supposed to believe the way we do. That's what they call the scientific method these days, and it's just a very reprehensible kind of propaganda."

For me, "creationist" doesn't just mean "believer in Noah's ark". It means any person, like Johnson, who repeats long-discredited arguments (paucity of the fossil record; "finches are just finches", etc.) about evolution as if they were never rebutted. As for ridicule, if you make ridiculous arguments, expect to get ridiculed. That's the way science works.

"We do know of one natural process - natural selection - which is excellent at preventing fundamental change, because it eliminates the mutants - the overwhelming majority of mutants, practically all ones which are either of no benefit at all to the organism or actually harmful - will be eliminated in the end by natural selection."

Johnson seems completely confused here. One kind of natural selection, stabilizing selection, does indeed act against extreme changes. But to imply that this is all that natural selection can do is either extremely ignorant or extremely deceptive; there is, for example, directional selection that is very good at producing change. And, of course, I hardly need point out that natural selection does not act to remove neutral mutations, as Johnson claims.

"Some creatures become extinct, some species become extinct, and others come into existence somehow -- no one knows how."

Another lie. Maybe Johnson doesn't know how speciation occurs, but biologists do. All Johnson has to do is pick up a biology textbook or, for example, Coyne and Orr's book, Speciation (admittedly not yet published when the video was made). Mechanisms of speciation include geographic isolation, founder effects, sexual selection, polyploidy, hybridization, and others. We may not know all the causes of speciation yet, and scientists argue about the relative importance of the mechanisms I've mentioned. But to say "no one knows how" is a gross misstatement.

"The fossil record hasn't gotten any better, in the intervening century and a third... [since 1859]"

Another blatant lie. Archaeopteryx was discovered in 1861. Since then, we have thousands and thousands more discoveries that add significantly to our understanding of evolutionary history: Diplodocus, Maiasaura, Paranthropus, Australopithecus, Ardipithecus, Pakicetus, just to name a few.

These examples, chosen just from the first 22 minutes of the video, give the flavor of the ignorance and misrepresentation offered up by Johnson. This video would make a great educational experience and expose the dishonest anti-intellectualism at the heart of creationism.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

No, Virginia, Intelligent Design Isn't Dead

I recently received this query from a young girl:

Dear Recursivity:

Some bloggers, like Jason Rosenhouse and Jerry Coyne, have said that intelligent design is dead. Papa says, "If you read it on Recursivity, it's so." Please tell me the truth; is ID really dead?

(signed) Virginia O'Hanlon, 115 W. 95th St., New York

and here is my reply:

Virginia, those little bloggers are wrong. They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They do not believe except what they see. They think that nothing can be which is not comprehensible by their little minds. All minds, Virginia, whether they be men's or children's, are little. In this great universe of ours man is a mere insect, an ant, in his intellect, as compared with the Christian god and his inordinate fondess for beetles.

Yes, Virginia, intelligent design still lives. It flourishes as certainly as fundamentalist and evangelical Christianity exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no creationists. It would be as dreary as if there were no Virginias! There would be no childlike faith then, and everyone would have to read biology textbooks and learn what the theory of evolution actually says. Bill Dembski and Michael Behe and Phil Johsnon would be out of jobs. We should have no enjoyment, except in sense and sight. The eternal light with which religion fills the world would be extinguished.

Not believe in an Intelligent Designer! You might as well not believe in fairies! You might get your papa to hire men to try to find traces of the Intelligent Designer, but even if they did not see Him, what would that prove? Nobody sees the Designer, but that is no sign that there is no Designer. The most real things in the world are those that neither children nor men can see, like David Berlinski's mathematical achievements or Denyse O'Leary's command of the English language. Did you ever see fairies dancing on the lawn? Of course not, but that's no proof that they are not there. Nobody can conceive or imagine all the wonders there are unseen and unseeable in the world.

You may tear apart the baby's rattle and see what makes the noise inside, but there is a veil covering the unseen world which not the strongest man, nor even the united strength of all the strongest men that ever lived, could tear apart. Only religion and intelligent design, not science, can push aside that curtain and view and picture the supernal beauty and glory beyond. Is it all real? Ah, Virginia, in all this world there is nothing else real and abiding, except maybe Howard Ahmanson's checkbook -- if you know what I mean.

No Intelligent Designer! Thank God! he lives, and he lives forever. A thousand years from now, Virginia, nay, ten times ten thousand years from now, we will continue to smear scientists and destroy public education. As long as there are credulous Christians and Muslims looking for something, anything, to prop up their faith, intelligent design will live. As long as there are Religious Right warriors like Bruce Chapman able to dole out the big bucks to third-rate law school graduates like Casey Luskin, intelligent design will live. As long as there are ignorant sociologists hoping to cash in like Steve Fuller, ID will live. As long as faux journalists like Denyse O'Leary need you to buy their books, ID will live.

Don't believe everything you read, Virgie baby. Intelligent design's still around.

I Used to Live in New Hampshire

... and I liked it there.

But take a look at this and you will see the utter insanity of the New Hampshire Republican party.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

A New Self-Published Creationist Book?

Oh, lookie!

Our local creationists at the University of Guelph, Kirk Durston and David Chiu, have teamed up with wacky David Abel and Donald Johnson on a book!

(Kirk Durston is the creationist who thinks that his god magically calms angry bulls, and David Chiu is the guy who stuck in an irrelevant citation to Dembski's work in a paper having nothing to do with Dembski, and told me he did it as a "courtesy".)

Judging from this excerpt, it's not likely that real scientists will take it seriously, with laughably bogus claims such as
- "Fifteen years ago, it started to be realized that `junk DNA' was a misnomer."
- "All known errors during replication result in a decrease of both Shannon and functional information"

I wondered who would publish this drivel. It's a place called "Longview Press". Never heard of it? I hadn't either. But this page suggests that it's just David Abel's private little enterprise. Wow, what a surprise.

It's in keeping with the intelligent design vanity journal, Bio-Complexity, which seems to have a hard time finding papers to publish (7 in 2 years). But hey! It has no problem publishing papers by people who are on the editorial team. And look: David Abel is there, too.

And they wonder why we call it pseudoscience.

Addendum 1: even the University of Guelph library, where Durston and Chiu are based, doesn't have the book in its collection.

Addendum 2: Thanks to Bayesian Bouffant for pointing out the self-congratulatory description of the book on Amazon. I especially love this part: "Change in the FSC of proteins as they evolve can be measured in “Fits”— Functional bits. The ability to quantify changes in biofunctionality during evolutionary transition represents one of the most important advances in biological research in recent decades. See especially, Durston, K.K.; Chiu, D.K.; Abel, D.L.; Trevors, J.T. 2007, Measuring the functional sequence complexity of proteins, Theor Biol Med Model, 4, 47".

Well, if it's "one of the most important advances in biological research in recent decades", then it's amazing how few citations there are to this groundbreaking paper. ISI Web of Science lists exactly 4 citations, 3 of which are self-citations by Abel and Trevors. Wow, that is sure important and groundbreaking.

He's Definitely in Favor of Romney for President

Politicians of all stripes are generally spineless opportunists, but Mitt Romney has got to be an extreme example of the genre.

See the video.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Waterloo Ignorance Day

This looks like a lot of fun (details in the poster here).

That's the difference between science and religion. Scientists are happy to admit when they don't know something, and they view it as a challenge to learn more, while religionists like to "revel in the mystery" and just sit there.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Encomiums for Incompetence: The Case of Phillip Johnson

It's been 20 years since the publication of that exemplar of religiously-motivated incompetence, Darwin on Trial, by lawyer Phillip Johnson, and the creationists are salivating over the anniversary.

Johnson, who had no training or expertise in biology, but did have a recent conversion to Christianity following a divorce, penned a book that was widely panned. And with good reason: Johnson had nothing new to say, preferring to trot out the old creationist canards such as gaps in the fossil record, natural selection is a tautology, and many others.

Johnson's book had basically no effect whatsoever on the scientific debate about evolution. To see this, one only need look at Web of Science (previously called Science Citation Index). I searched for references to Darwin on Trial and found exactly 6 citations. Three were reviews of the book in La Recherche, Nature, and Zygon. Two were articles in International Journal for Philosophy of Religion and Theology Today. Finally, there was a citation in the book Does God Belong in Public Schools?

To illustrate the contrast, I also searched for Dawkins' The Selfish Gene on Web of Science, and found 3,954 citations in dozens of fields: ethology, biology, genetics, engineering, modeling, computer science, and economics, just to name a few.

Google Scholar provides another example of the disparity. Darwin on Trial gets 393 citations, while The Selfish Gene gets 12,727 citations. Looking at the citations themselves is also quite revealing: Darwin on Trial is cited primarily as a negative example (in books such as Tower of Babel: The Evidence Against the New Creationism) and there are only 12 citations in the primary biological literature, largely negative -- such as this article by Forrest and Gross.

So Johnson's book had little impact. But if you think that's going to stop creationists from hagiography, you're wrong. Tom Bethell, a reliably blathering buffoon, has emerged to produce this encomium (no comments allowed, of course). The single funniest line: "Phil Johnson was a highly skilled and tactful electronic correspondent".

Yes, I remember very well when Johnson visited the Usenet newsgroup He, a recent convert to evangelical Christianity (oh! the irony!), liked to say things such as "My purpose is not to insult anyone, however, but to free minds. Many of you have been indoctrinated not to question assumptions that are based on ideology rather than evidence. You can be free of that indoctrination if you wish to be." He also claimed, "It is my practice always to respond to well-informed and intelligent criticism", but when well-informed and intelligent commenters pointed out that Johnson's doubts about whale evolution were ill-founded, they were surprised to find that Johnson never responded to them at all.

Ultimately, it turned out to be a pretty brief visit: Johnson's ignorance of biology was quickly exposed, and he left in a huff. So much for his "skilled and tactful" e-correspondence.

So, creationists, enjoy your 20-year anniversary of more religiously-inspired foolishness masquerading as scholarship. Anyone who's willing to dig into the record can see how pathetic it is.

Friday, November 18, 2011

More Books

How could I have forgotten these?

21. John Sayles, The Anarchists' Convention

22. J. D. Salinger, Nine Stories

23. Alexander Solzhenitsyn, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich

24. Miles Franklin, My Brilliant Career

25. Benjamin Franklin, Autobiography

26. Glenn T. Seaborg and Evans G. Valens, Elements of the Universe

27. E. L. Konigsburg, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler

28. Richard D. Alexander, Darwinism and Human Affairs

29. Martin Gardner, In the Name of Science

30. Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel

31. J. Anthony Lukas, Common Ground: a Turbulent Decade in the Lives of Three
American Families

32. Larry McMurtry, All My Friends are Going to be Strangers

Thursday, November 17, 2011


My wife and I own a lot of books - I once estimated something like 10,000. We have so many that some of them are in boxes in the attic, boxes in the basement, and in rented storage. So I was interested to read this article in the Financial Times where some famous authors are interviewed about their book collections. There are also some nice photos of their libraries.

Those interviewed were also asked to list their top 10 books. I've read hardly any of the books listed in that article, but it did prompt me to make my own top list. These are books that had the most influence on me in various ways. They are not listed in any particular order, and I've probably forgotten a lot of important ones.

1. All Quiet on the Western Front, Erich-Maria Remarque

2. Look Homeward, Angel, Thomas Wolfe

3. The Lord of the Rings, J. R. R. Tolkien

4. An Introduction to the Theory of Numbers, G. H. Hardy and E. M. Wright

5. The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins

6. A Handbook of Integer Sequences, N. J. A. Sloane

7. The Art of Computer Programming, Donald Knuth

8. Recreations in the Theory of Numbers, Albert H. Beiler

9. Men of Mathematics, E. T. Bell

10. The Happy Hollisters and the Haunted House Mystery, Jerry West (Andrew E. Svenson)

11. The Caves of Fear, John Blaine

12. Mathematics, David Bergamini

13. Arrowsmith, Sinclair Lewis

14. The Martian Chronicles, Ray Bradbury

15. The Basketball Diaries, Jim Carroll

16. Catcher in the Rye, J. D. Salinger

17. APL\360 User's Guide, K. E. Iverson and A. D. Falkoff

18. Basic Programming, John G. Kemeny and Thomas E. Kurtz

19. Getting Even, Woody Allen

20. A People's History of the United States, Howard Zinn

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Small Minds are Easily Amused

Over at Uncommon Descent we learn the most amazing things about mathematics:

Take the last two digits of the year in which you were born and the age you will be this year and the result will add up to 111.

It works for everyone this year.

Shshsh! Don't tell Denyse about people born in 2001. It might upset her world view.

I don't know which is more pathetic, the Toronto Star for printing this drivel, or Denyse O'Leary, for thinking it was interesting. Or maybe me, for thinking it is worth pointing out the mistake.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Friday Moose Blogging

From reader "MiKo", here is some great footage of a moose being induced to leave a swimming pool.

It probably would have been easier just to announce that moose swim was over, and that wolf swim was next.

Monday, November 07, 2011

"Pathological Liar" Horowitz Reflects on His Own Mortality

Let's see: start with a guy who claims that left-wing intellectuals are responsible for the death of culture because they are intellectually dishonest.

Let him be the book reviewer for a book written by a fierce right-wing partisan described over and over again as a "pathological liar" (and with good reason).

Have the reviewer say not a single word about the well-documented dishonesty of the author of the book he is reviewing. And, for good measure, have the reviewer make ill-considered remarks about neuroscientists, claiming that their goal is to "empty life of its mystery".

Result: pompous drivel applauded by my favorite faux journalist.

But it is funny!

Friday, November 04, 2011

Friday Moose Blogging

For your entertainment, here are some Quebecois enjoying their time with a moose:

We never get to enjoy this where I live.

Saturday, October 08, 2011

Creationists Get it Wrong Again

Since Uncommon Descent became, for all practical purposes, Sneery O'Leary's personal blog, it's become an amusing fountain of stupidity. The only question is, which particular bit of idiocy is worth remarking about?

Well, this one is. Sneery approvingly quotes the following excerpt from David P. Goldman's book, How Civilizations Die (and Why Islam Is Dying Too):

Richard Dawkins and other self-styled New Atheists postulate that humankind evolved a genetic predisposition to altruism. This assertion is something of a flying spaghetti monster. Among all American ethnic groups, Jews share the most consistent gene pool – as studies have established beyond question – the result of two thousand years of marrying within the same community. Yet secular Jews show the least altruism – at least in the form of willingness to raise children – of any group of Americans, while religious Jews show one of the highest degrees of altruism by the same measure. A religious explanation of altruism, not a genetic one, fits the facts.

This one is just too funny! Goldman, whose education was in music theory and German (!), is so far out of his depth he's gasping for air. "Altruism" - as it is understood by biologists - is about individuals acting to increase the fitness of others at the cost of decreased fitness for themselves. It was developed by Hamilton and Maynard Smith, not Dawkins (although Dawkins has popularized it.) For closely related organisms, as in parents and their biological children, altruism is explained by the theory of kin selection, and has nothing to do with belonging to a "consistent gene pool". Whether you're Jewish or not, the chance that a particular allele is inherited from your father is 50%.

Relatedness is important in the biological theory of altruism not because two individuals might share many genes (Goldman's "consistent gene pools"); it is important because the degree of relatedness controls the probability that two such individuals share a specific gene with altruistic effects. Furthermore, once such a gene arises, it will be fixed in the populations with high probability, so that nearly members of the population will possess it. These misunderstandings of the theory are so pervasive that there are articles devoted to correcting them.

It's clear that Goldman has never read Alexander's Darwinism and Human Affairs -- one of the deepest and most important works in philosophy ever written. (Or, if he has read it, he's misunderstood it thoroughly.)

Furthermore, no one is saying that culture can't influence altruism as it is practiced in humans. I don't doubt that the cultural practices of religions can affect altruism, but the effects can be both positive and negative. Frequently this manifests itself as altruism to others who share your particular sect's beliefs, and hostility to those who don't (as this famous Emo Phillips joke illustrates). Teasing out the separate genetic and cultural effects of such a complex phenomenon in humans is likely to be difficult.

The biological theory of altruism has been tested (not "postulated"), and it even has been tested in artificial life settings. It has passed these tests. Pretending, as Goldman does, that it does not "fit the facts" is just a delusion.

But then what would you expect from Goldman, whose past is less than savory? And what else would you expect from Sneery O'Leary?

Sunday, September 25, 2011


Found this one in my basement. Can anyone identify the species? It's about 4 cm tall.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Silly Monarchists

Here's an opinion piece by monarchist Jeffrey Tighe in the National Post.

If this is the kind of reasoning the monarchists are proud of, then the republicans have already won.

Tighe invents a straw man, claiming that republicans believe "all world cultures are of equal value in Canada, except the “British” one". Actually, I think the British are admirable in many ways -- I just find the idea of an unelected head of state, chosen solely by heredity, to be childish and archaic.

He ends with "There’s room for all who wish to enter its walls, but living here requires a commitment to Queen and country". I guess I'm not welcome then.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Clever Serbs Scam Gullible AP Reporter

Jovana Gec, an AP reporter, was scammed by a Serb family near Belgrade into believing that two children have "magnetic" properties that allow silverware to stick to their bodies.

The accompanying photos do not show a single piece of silverware attached to the body in a position parallel to the ground.

There are two possible explanations. The first, which I doubt, is that the children have swallowed powerful NdFeB (neodymium) magnets.

The second is more prosaic, but much more likely. The "sticky" items are simply being balanced on the kids' bodies, aided by a bit of sweat. Here is a video of a similar claim by another Serb family that looks completely unimpressive. It was debunked by Benjamin Radford back in February, but apparently Ms. Gec was too lazy to do a web search.

And - no surprise - my local paper, the Waterloo Region Record decided to run this article in a prominent position on page F10. That's par for the course for the Record.

Recursivity's Bad Journalism award of the month goes to Ms. Gec and her credulous editors at the AP, with honorable mention to the Record for reprinting it.

Friday, September 09, 2011

Friday Moose Blogging

We haven't had a moose post here for quite a while, but this story definitely makes up for that.

Thursday, September 08, 2011

Robots as Companions

Here's an interview with Sherry Turkle, originally released back in April, but replayed yesterday.

For me, here was the most interesting exchange:

Nora Young: "So if we imagine a future where we have robotic companions, the way we now have Roomba vacuum cleaners and Furbies, what's the problem with transferring our idea of companionship to things that aren't actually alive, what's at risk of us losing?"

Sherry Turkle: "Well, these are companions that don't understand the meaning of our experiences, so it forces us to confront what is the meaning of a companion. It's like saying, 'I'm having a conversation with a robot.' Well, you have to say to yourself, 'You've forgotten the meaning of a human conversation, if you think a conversation is something you can have with a robot.'"

Now, I understand that an interview like this is necessarily shallow, and I haven't read Turkle's latest book on the subject. But still, this interview seems to suggest a real misunderstanding on Turkle's part.

Yes, when we interact with technology that mimics living creatures, we run the risk of having an overly-optimistic mental model about how much the technology "understands" us. That's the lesson of ELIZA. But in terms of "companionship", many of our companions fail to understand us, in exactly the same way.

When you tell your troubles to your dog, how much do you think your dog understands? A little bit, obviously -- a dog can pick up on your mood and react appropriately. But it seems unlikely a dog will "understand" the details that your best friend just died of AIDS, or that your latest book got a bad review, or that your spouse just walked out on you. Nevertheless, a dog can be a great companion. Why is a living dog a legitimate companion, and a robot dog not?

Even when we interact with other people, they will often listen and express sympathy (and we will happily receive their sympathy and feel comforted by it) without really understanding. As children, we had our crises that were beyond our parents' understanding. And now, as a parent, my children have emotional lives that are largely hidden from me. Yet we can comfort each other, and be good companions, without the deep understanding that Turkle seems to think is required.

Turkle seems to have a mental model of "understanding" that is too black-and-white. Just as, in the famous words of McCarthy and Dennett, a thermostat can be said to have "beliefs", so too can animals and robots have "understanding" of our experiences and needs. Here, by "understanding", I mean that animals, young children, and robots have limited models of us that suffice to provide the appropriate responses to comfort us. A dog can come and lick your face or curl up with you. A child can come sit in your lap. A robot can commiserate by asking what's wrong, or saying it's sorry to hear about our troubles, or even make the right facial expression.

I think it's foolish to obsess about what such a robot "understands". For, after all, we can do the same thing with dogs and young children. How much do they "really" understand of our troubles? Less than an adult human, probably, but the experience is not necessarily worthless despite this lack of understanding.

When Chuck paints a face on a volleyball and makes it his companion in the movie Cast Away, nobody stands up and says, "You idiot! That's just a ball with a dumb face on it." We don't say that, because we understand what loneliness is like and the value of companionship. When Wilson falls overboard later in the movie, we understand why Chuck is so devastated.

I know the value of human conversation, but I still think you can have a conversation with a robot. As I said, I admit there's a danger in overestimating how much a robot understands about us. But children who have grown up with technology have a better understanding of the limitations than those adults who were fooled by ELIZA decades ago. They're not going to be fooled in the same way. Already, as Turkle points out, they've constructed a new category for things like Furby, which is "alive enough". And furthermore, the technology will improve, so that future robots will have better and better models of what humans are like. As they do so, they will become better companions, and questions about whether they "really" understand will simply seem ... quaint.

A Stupid and Violent Antisemite

While playing chess at FICS, I received the following message:

HUNriderrr tells you: if u r a jew--so i guess-- then tell your disgusting israel government NOT TO DEAL with turkey..ok???...othherwise we w will #$%& all jews in world       (punctuation marks in original)

Well, I'm not Jewish. But even if I were, why would the the Israeli government necessarily be "mine"? And even if I were Israeli, why would the proper response to the Turkish flotilla raid be a threat to "#$%& all jews in world"?

The confused mind of the antisemite is sometimes hard to fathom.

P. S. He lost the game.

Monday, September 05, 2011

9/11 Deniers Ride Again

There's good news and bad news on the 9/11 denier front.

The good news is that Jonathan Kay has a new book, Among the Truthers, containing a perceptive analysis of the commonalities among 9/11 "Truthers", Obama "birthers", and other fringe conspiracists.

The bad news is that the 9/11 deniers are soon to host yet another laughable truther meeting, which they pompously call the Toronto Hearings, September 8-11, at Ryerson. Here's an article in the Canadian Press that mentions it.

Many of the usual Canadian 9/11 crowd will be there, including Michael Keefer, Graeme MacQueen, and Adnan Zuberi.

I hope some of our local skeptics can attend and report on it.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

A Fountain of Stupidity

There's a certain kind of columnist who, whenever some deplorable event occurs (such as the recent riots in Britain), doesn't hesitate to use it to rail opportunistically against some perceived moral failing. Reliable scapegoats to blame include liberals, immigrants, and atheists. And the morons who read these columnists eat it up.

Michael Coren is that sort of columnist.

He offers "six ways to prevent a repeat of London, Vancouver, Toronto scene". But his "six ways" are mostly vague appeals to religious morality, with no specifics.

Let's look at each of Coren's solutions in turn:

1. "Reduce the role of the state and, as a balance, increase the role of the family."

Right, because in the days when the state played little role in supporting health and the poor, there were never, ever, any riots in Britain? The Economist dismantles that claim. England has a long history of violent youth; the Economist traces it back to at least 1751.

Coren says, "parents are not informed by law if their underage daughters tell doctors or teachers they are sexually active, but they are left to face the consequences when teenage pregnancy or STDs occur." But ironically, he supports a church that declares birth control to be a sin. No disconnect there, no sirree.

2. "State-supported education and health care may, arguably, serve a purpose, but state-supported welfare and social services have become so all-embracing that individual self-reliance has evaporated. The balance is important here. Neither the fanatical libertarian nor the obsessive socialist model works."

I'd agree with the last line, but not the first. Where's the evidence? The last time I looked, European social democracies such as Sweden and Norway were prospering (in terms of objective measures, e.g., healthy life expectancy, longevity, child mortality, and homicide), while more libertarian countries such as the US do not do as well. And European social democracies lead the world in scientific papers per capita; no sign that social democracy has sapped "self-reliance" there.

3. Stop the war on religion. Whatever your view of faith and God, the massive decline of religious observance and community in Britain has removed one of the glues that held the country together.

This is just an insane fantasy. There is no "war on religion", metaphorically or otherwise. God-soaked commentators like Coren are just so used to not being questioned about their beliefs that they mistake demands for evidence, or questions raised about their beliefs and their consequences, as a "war". In reality, it's just that religion is increasingly being subjected to the same standards as other truth claims about the world. Religion has been exempt from these standards for far too long. If, for example, Coren supports the Catholic Church's ban on condom use and thinks that this ban is a boon to people in developing countries, let him make that case without appealing to sectarian dogma.

I don't deny that religion can hold people together. But it can just as easily drive them apart. There are many reasons why immigrants came to North America, but the religiously tolerant climate of their home country wasn't one of them. Coren doesn't present any evidence that the "war on religion" led to the riots, and as the Economist article shows, similar violent events have occurred in England for at least 250 years.

4. Control immigration, so it is based on the cultural and social needs and unity of the host population as well as on compassion and economic growth.

And what do you think immigration is based on now? Go read this page from Citizenship and Immigration Canada to see the kinds of professions that Canada is looking for. Surely physicians, nurses, social workers, and psychologists contribute to the "cultural and social needs" of the country.

5. Liberate the police from the whims of political correctness and government fashion.

Right. If only the police had been able to taser those damn rioters, that would have taught them a lesson. After all, it's not like the police had anything at all to do with the immediate cause of the riots.

6. Do not romanticize the worst of lower-class antics on TV and in cinema and music. Entertainment once presented a world worthy of aspiration, now it glorifies the mud and muck.

This is exactly the same argument that the small-minded made 60 years ago against classics like Caldwell's Tobacco Road. Coren is no better.

Boors like Coren don't have any interest in thinking deeply about the causes of mob violence and how to remedy them. They're just interested in blaming the usual suspects from some assumed position of moral superiority. From their mouths, a fountain of stupidity spews forth.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Challenge: Identify this "Design Theorist"

Without using a search engine, see if you can identify this "design theorist" from quotes from his 1992 book:

  • "The product of the total number of these identified relationships would thus give an `overall probability' for assessing if what we are seeing ... favors a design --- or merely chance."
  • "What is the probability for this being merely a random situation?"
  • "Some critic will immediately leap up and shout, `But, that's assuming a strictly random process.... [subject] is not a random process..."
  • "Which gives less than one chance in a hundred million that this unique relationship ... is random!"
  • "If we are looking at multiple levels of connection and association, Occam's Razor would tell us to choose the simplest model for it -- which here appears to be that we are looking at Design!"
  • "What are the odds against that randomly occurring?"
  • "The product of the two preceding probabilities ... leads to an overall probability of less than one chance in 70 trillion that this ... is the result of merely random forces!"
  • " direct support for the Intelligence Hypothesis..."
  • "...the overall probability is overwhelming-- That what we are observing ... [is] ... designed."
  • "We are seeing `the products of Design' ... and all that that implies."

Hint: It is someone with the same kind of credentials and respect as our other beloved "design theorists".

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Sucking Up to Royalty Again

Peter MacKay, Canada's Defence Minister, is renaming Canada's air force and navy.

They will now revert to their pre-1968 names, the Royal Canadian Air Force and the Royal Canadian Navy.

Licking the boots of royalty is, regrettably, still popular in Canada. Many Canadians still prefer to be subjects of the ruler of a foreign country instead of standing up on their own feet.

You can express your opinion about this silly move.

Saturday, August 06, 2011

Those Creationists are Just so Darn Cute When They Try To Do Math, Part II

Here's your favorite ignoramus "reporter", Sneery O'Leary, trying to understand the mathematics of infinite sequences:

...Series terminate, according to their nature.

For example, the number 1 is the terminus of the natural numbers. It just is. There is no natural number below 1.* If you do not like that, you do not like reality.

Some series terminate because they depend on a higher or larger series at a certain point, one that governs them...

*0 is a placeholder, signifying: No number occupies this position.

Hopeless confusion in all measures here.

- confuses sequences with series
- doesn't understand that the "natural numbers" often (but not always) are considered to contain the integer 0 (it's just a convention, and not one that is universally followed)
- thinks that 0 is not a number
- confuses the sequence of natural numbers with decimal representation of numbers
- thinks sequences always terminate
- etc.

But remember - her blog is the reliable source for news, destined to replace the New York Times!

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Sometimes Raymond Tallis Sounds Just Like a Creationist


Here are three points of concordance:

- use of dismissive and propagandistic terms, such as "Darwinitis", "neuromania", and "neuromaniac"
- insisting that the position he is arguing against constitutes "orthodoxy", as if it were a religious doctrine
- dismissing "materialism" and ignoring the lack of evidence for immaterial objects

Of course, I don't think he's actually a creationist. But I do wonder why he adopts their tactics.

Maybe he should have chosen another dismissive term in place of "Darwinitis", because it already has a definition:

a complaint that afflicts those of a literary bent and strong attachments to pre-scientific culture, who find in the theory of evolution a disturbing and mysterious challenge to their values (Anthony West)

Come to think of it, that sounds like a reasonably good description of Tallis (replace "evolution" with "evolutionary & neural explanation of consciousness")

Matthew Taylor probably wasn't the best choice for an opponent to Tallis. I imagine that Daniel Dennett (whose last name was comically mispronounced by Tallis) would have him for breakfast.

Both speakers agree that human beings are the only ones who "think about thinking". I wonder how they know this with such certainty? For example, how do they know that dolphins do not think about thinking?

Monday, August 01, 2011

Those Creationists are Just so Darn Cute When They Try To Do Math

From Eric Holloway, we learn:

Interestingly, Kolmogrov complexity is uncomputable in the general case due to the halting problem. This means that in general no algorithm can generate orderliness more often than is statistically expected to show up by chance. Hence, if some entity is capable of generating orderliness more often than statistically predicted, it must be capabable, at least to some extent, of solving the halting problem.

From the moronic misspellings of "Kolmogorov" and "capable" to the moronic misunderstanding of algorithms, what they can generate, and the halting problem, this is just too funny for words.

But remember, Uncommon Descent is destined to replace the New York Times as the respected source for news!

Friday, July 22, 2011

Bethell the Buffoon Rides Again

I previously wrote about Tom Bethell, the blathering buffoon and faux journalist who never met an anti-evolutionary argument that was too stupid for him to parrot.

Now he's back again in the New Oxford Review. It's not surprising at all that the forum he chose is a self-described "orthodox Catholic magazine". What other magazine would publish this drivel? (Well, maybe National Review.) It takes a lot of chutzpah to call evolution "dogma" and then later publish in a rag that boasts its "unswerving loyalty to her Pope and Magisterium".

Bethell doesn't give any indication that he interviewed anyone except ID hacks for his screed. That's journalism? No. A real journalist interviews people who don't agree with his preconceptions. And the text shows it. How many misrepresentations, selective quotations, and misunderstandings can you find? No creationist chestnut is too stupid to repeat. He even drags out the corpse of the Colin Patterson quote! (It was debunked long ago.)

But the single funniest line is the claim that "Doug Axe and his assistants at the Biologic Institute may end up surpassing the Darwinists in pure research". Not bloody likely, especially if Axe continues to publish in an ID vanity journal where he is the Managing Editor.

Naturally, ID's other faux journalist, Denyse O'Leary is fully on board with Bethell. The funniest thing about O'Leary is that she calls herself the "UD News team", and suffers from recurring fantasies that her blog is going to replace the New York Times.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

All the Ricochet Videos

Someone asked me for the links to all the Ricochet videos featuring Claire Berlinski attending the "secret" Italian conference on political correctness, the unappreciated genius of her father, David Berlinski, and other extremely important scientific topics. That's not so easy, because the Ricochet site is really hard to navigate. But here they are, to the best of my ability to produce them.

Great Expectations Under the Tuscan Sun, June 11

This Morning's Panel: Political Correctness, June 13

Mike Denton and the Coming Post-Mechanistic Era in Biology, June 14

Why Are Young American Scientists Too Afraid to Appear in This Video?, June 14

Why Haven't Our Great Expectations of the Sciences Been Met?, June 14

Your Questions Answered, or at Least Asked, June 15

Great Expectations: Two Memories,
June 16

Free Markets, A Lunar Eclipse, the Engines of Innovation, and Intelligent Design, June 16

From Popper to Gödel: Your Questions Answered, June 16

The most interesting new discovery for me was this: "The point of the conference was to ask: What if we've been looking at these problems in too limited a way? What if in fact, the so-called materialist hypothesis has already achieved most of what it can achieve? What if the most interesting ideas in science are precisely the ones no one wants to talk about, because they might lead to spooky metaphysical conclusions?

One presentation suggested a path from a new program for inquiry in biology toward interesting results in biotechnology. The ultra-secretive people--I may now reveal--were investors, mainly in the high-tech industry, who are at the end of their tether with orthodoxy about the ideas they are and aren't allowed to think about. They're asking themselves, "If we look at these problems in a different way, might we invent something new, something from which we can make a lot of money?" Yes, you read that right: a lot of money. Capitalism, engine of human progress, strikes again."

Of course, this is utter bilge. On the one hand, there's absolutely no reason to think that believing in imaginary sky fairies is going to help you build better hardware or software. On the other, there's no one in high-tech industries who says "you're not allowed to talk about this idea" because it brings in "spooky metaphysical conclusions". That's just some bizarre wacko fantasy.

There's only one man I know who combines these kinds of bizarre obsessions and is interested in investing: George Gilder. How much do you want to bet that Gilder was behind this foolishness?

Monday, July 11, 2011

See me at Polaris 2011 in Toronto - July 16

I'll be speaking at the Canadian science fiction & fantasy convention Polaris in Toronto on Saturday, July 16, and you're invited to attend.

My talk is at 1 PM and is entitled "Misinformation Theory: How Creationists Abuse Mathematics" and is described here. It's part of the skeptical track sponsored by the Centre For Inquiry and its Committee for the Advancement of Scientific Skepticism. Three others, including Larry Moran of Sandwalk, will also speak.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

I Explain Academia to Thomas Cudworth

Over at Uncommon Descent, Thomas Cudworth asks why prominent evolutionary scientists did not attend the Evolution 2011 conference in Norman, Oklahoma this summer.

Actually, to say "asks" is far too generous. He's doesn't seem at all interested in the answer; he's clearly intent on denigrating evolution's defenders by implying their absence indicates something is rotten with their scientific credentials.

This is just a Swift Boat-style attack: if the record of your own side is completely deficient, attack the other side's. Sadly for Mr. Cudworth, it is the scientific credentials of prominent ID proponents that are not exactly stellar. For example, in this post I examined the citation record of William Dembski, and in this one, I examined the scientific output of David Berlinski. Mr. Cudworth might equally want to ask, why has William Dembski not presented his work at an AMS meeting? Why does his work receive so few citations?

Nevertheless, since he seems so completely unfamiliar with how academia works, I will try to answer Mr. Cudworth's question as if it were genuine.

First, scientists are typically funded by a variety of funding agencies, which help to pay the cost of you and your students to attend a conference. Once you add up airfare, conference registration fees (often $300-$600 or more), transportation to and from the airport and to and from the conference site, and hotel, attending a conference can easily cost $2000 -- more if the conference is on another continent. Eventually, it becomes more important for your students to go to conferences than for you to go - you don't really need to advance your career very much, and it's better that your students get some visibility. So, given limited financial resources, you might choose to send them instead.

Second, conferences take up time, and many of us teach 9 months of the year or more, meaning that it is not so easy to simply pick up and shuffle off to a conference while teaching. Scientists who engage in field work (like some paleontologists) might spend most of their free time in the field collecting, or in the lab, preparing and analyzing specimens.

The bottom line is that, for reasons of time and funding, the typical academic scientist might attend only one or two conferences a year. Of course, there are jet-setters that attend 5 or 10 or 20 conferences a year, and some people (for example, those at small teaching colleges who get little funding) might attend no conferences at all.

Now, given that many of us have to choose the one or two conferences in a year we want to go to, we have to choose carefully. Do we really want to attend a huge conference like Evolution 2011, with a thousand or more attendees, covering a wide area that might have only a small intersection with our competence? Or should we attend a small workshop with 30 or 40 participants that is tightly focussed on our current interests? In my field, I might want to attend (just to name a few) STOC, FOCS, STACS, ICALP, DLT, DCFS, MFCS, LATA, SIAMDM, SODA, CIAA, WORDS, and CanaDAM. Clearly this is impractical. I have to choose.

So why would someone like Kevin Padian choose to go to Evolution 2011 instead of another conference in his area, vertebrate paleontology? Answer: there's no obvious reason he would. I have no idea what meetings Padian goes to, but I'm sure he has the same kinds of constraints I do.

And, as you get older, you slow down. When I was younger, attending a conference was more fun. Now that jet lag impacts my sleeping, and my health isn't always perfect, attending a conference can sometimes be a chore. I don't know for sure how old Paul R. Gross is, but I think he was born in 1928, which would make him about 82. Heck, at age 82, I sure hope I'll still be alive and attending conferences, but I don't know for sure. In any event, I'm happy to put Prof. Gross's scientific record up against Behe, Jonathan Wells, and other ID advocates. Richard Dawkins, at age 70, is no spring chicken either.

My thesis adviser once told me that he only attends conferences where he is presenting a paper. That might be yet another reason why someone might not attend a conference: he or she has submitted his papers to conferences more tightly focussed on his area of interest. Robert Pennock seems to be more of a philosopher and cognitive scientist; he might choose to attend conferences like the "Midwest Cognitive Science Meeting" instead.

The bottom line is that it is extraordinarily foolish to attempt to infer something about someone's scientific competence by their non-attendance at a single professional conference; only someone unfamiliar with academic science would attempt to do so.

But let's not fool ourselves. Cudworth is not interested in the answer. He just wants to score rhetorical points. When he says, "In most scientific areas, non-experts don’t pretend to stand in for experts" and asks, "how many of the self-appointed defenders of Darwinian evolution have demonstrated competence, proved by research and publication, in the field of evolutionary biology?", he might just want consider the competence of his own side. Why are lawyers Phillip Johnson and Casey Luskin, and philosophers Stephen Meyer and David Berlinski, and journalists David Warren, Tom Bethell, and David Klinghoffer, and mathematician William Dembski, such loud and ignorant voices against evolution, when they are not biologists? Indeed, my impression is that the vast majority of creationists and ID supporters are not biologists. Certainly this is true for people like Denyse O'Leary, Angus Menuge, Robert Coons, Henry Morris, Walter Bradley, Richard Milton, just to name a few.

Mr. Cudworth, there's a giant mote in your own eye.

Addendum: Cudworth responds by digging himself into an even deeper hole.

Amazing: it's not just that these guys are ignorant and arrogant - they're proudly so.

More Silliness from Claire Berlinski

I spent a little more time digging into the treasure trove of dreck that is Claire Berlinski's video oeuvre.

Ms. Berlinski, it seems, was present at a by-invitation only conference in Italy entitled "Great Expectations". It's hard to find anything about this conference online because, you see, it was "secret". But it's not hard to figure out the agenda. After all, the people present seem to have been

- Paul Nelson, creationist and remarkably unproductive philosopher for whom Paul Nelson Day was named. Watch Nelson squirm, evade, and do everything possible except answer the question of how old he thinks the earth is!

- Robert Marks, intelligent design proponent and writer of some remarkably silly papers about evolutionary algorithms

- David Berlinski, father of Ms. Berlinski, author of some remarkably bad popular books about mathematics, and contributor to such eminent scientific journals as Commentary. You can see Berlinski in all his superciliousness here. (Yet more superciliousness: David Berlinski on Gödel; David Berlinski on Popper.)

Berlinski claims we should be more open intellectually and some ideas are off limits to discussion. As usual, he's wrong. We just laugh at his ideas, and those of Nelson, because they are so incoherent. Even his daughter doesn't seem to buy it!

- Moshe Averick, creationist rabbi and sucker who apparently fell hook, line, and sinker for the scam that is "specified complexity", despite it having been debunked long ago

- Stephen Meyer, creationist, philosopher, and author of a a bad book containing misunderstandings of information theory. You can see his
videos here: Part 1A, Part 1B, Part 2, Part 2B, Part 3, and Part 4. It's funny to hear Meyer claiming that he "works on the origin of life". I wonder what experiments he has done and what labs he does them in. You can also hear Meyer extolling his creationist journal, Bio-Complexity, which has thus far published a grand total of 4 articles and one "critical review" -- every single one of which has at least one author listed on the editorial team page. It's a creationist circle jerk!

Meyer is allowed to repeat his bogus claim that "Whenever we find information, and we trace it back to its source ... we always come to an intelligence, to a mind, not a material process." Ms. Berlinski doesn't question him at all on this, despite the fact that it is evidently false.

- Richard von Sternberg, professional creationist martyr and co-author with Meyer of a drecky article filled with misunderstandings and misrepresentations.

- Michael Denton, author of a wildly wrong book, filled with misunderstandings about basic biology. Video here.

- perhaps Jonathan Wells. I can't be absolutely sure, but Meyer in this interview refers to cancer, and Wells is well-known for his wacky ID cancer theory. Of course, "journalist" Berlinski doesn't ask many hard questions. In the one hard question she does ask, about what are the best arguments against ID, Meyer can't even bring himself to mention the name of the person responsible.

You can watch Ms. Berlinski's "interviews" with Marks and Averick here (at a site where you have to pay them money to leave comments). You'd think with some of Marks' work on the record as being deficient, a journalist would have some hard questions to ask. But no, a giggling Ms. Berlinski lets Marks maunder on, making bogus claims like "All biological models of evolution which have been implemented in computer code only work because the information has been front-loaded into the program and the evolutionary process in itself creates no information" without asking any tough questions at all. (Marks, by the way, seems to think that Shannon coined the word "bit", when it fact it was Tukey.)

Reading the comments at that page is a real hoot, too. We have one commenter who "grew up with Information Theory from its early days", yet makes the false claims that (1) "there is still vigorous debate about which algorithms produce a truly random number; (2) "Whether you can determine the stopping point of a Turing machine is unsettled"; (3) "Many of these problems are essentially involved with extending Godel's Theorem beyond the realm of integers"; (4) "you have to consider what in Computation Theory is termed np-complete or in Penrose's term, non-computable". He also adds, helpfully, "I hope this sheds some light". Indeed it does, but not the kind of light he thinks.

It's just so funny to hear the people in Berlinski's interviews talk about how "orthodoxy" is "stifling" discussion when at least three of the attendees are members of conservative religious denominations that claim for themselves the right to determine truth for everyone else. Project much?

One thread that runs through many of Berlinski's interviews can be summarized as follows: "Waah! We're not taken seriously!" I'm not at all impressed with this. If you want to be taken seriously, don't hold "secret" conferences and make dark implications about being suppressed. If you want to be taken seriously, do some serious science; don't post videos with fart noises making fun of court decisions you don't like. If you want to be taken seriously, respond to critics in a professional way; don't depend on igorant attack-dog lawyers as your surrogates. If you want to be taken seriously, don't use credential inflation on your supporters and denigrate the actual scientific achievements of your detractors. You want some respect? Then earn it.

Saturday, July 09, 2011

In Which I Explain Things to Claire Berlinski and Paul Nelson

Claire Berlinski, right-wing "journalist" and daughter of the nonentity David Berlinski, thinks something is strange because real scientists don't want to appear in her home video with creationist Paul Nelson.

Since you seem rather dense, I will try to explain it to you, Claire. It's because creationists and anti-evolutionists have a history of making phony and dishonest videos, and because real scientists have better things to do than to appear in your propaganda film. It's because your undergraduate degree in history and doctorate in international relations don't even remotely prepare you to understand the scientific issues you claim to be interested in. And having creationist philosopher Paul Nelson there probably didn't help things, either.

Claire, Claire... you'd do much better if, instead of trying to "expose" evolution, you actually read some evolutionary biology textbooks. Futuyma is a good start.

Friday, July 08, 2011

Shorter Robert George: I'm Only a Bigot Because Philosophy Demands It!

The shame of Princeton University, Robert P. George, is at it again.

What's really funny about George and other "natural law" advocates is they never, ever discover that "natural law" is in violation with beliefs they already hold. No, somehow, miraculously, "natural law" demands that their prejudices be true!

Of course, George can't say this out loud, so he's required to surround it with academic bafflegab like "sexual intercourse (the behavioral component of reproduction) consummates and actualizes marriage as a one-flesh union of sexually complementary spouses naturally ordered to the good of procreation". And he makes ridiculous, over-the-top claims like "New York has abolished marriage as a matter of civil law and replaced it with a counterfeit that New Yorkers’ children and grandchildren will be taught to accept and approve as if it were the real thing." And he makes bogus claims, as when he states, "It is to give up on the truth that children need both a father and mother, and benefit from the security of their love for each other." (For the truth, go here.) In my field, if you said stuff like this, with so little to back it up, and expected to be taken seriously, people would just laugh at you. But in philosophy, or politics, or constitutional interpretation, or whatever field George thinks he is master of, it's considered to be important work. Go figure.

The really sad thing about George's claims about gay marriage is that you can transform many of the claims, mutatis mutandis, to similar claims about interracial marriage. And George's bigotry against gays will seem as quaint and baseless in 20 years as proscriptions against interracial marriage do today.

Sunday, July 03, 2011

No Wonder Michael Egnor is So Confused about Biology

He thinks dolphins are fish and embryos and fetuses are babies.

How did he ever graduate from medical school?

Monday, June 27, 2011

Avoiding Sum Cubes

One of the most interesting and challenging open problems in combinatorics on words is to decide whether there exists an infinite word over a finite subset of N, the non-negative integers, with the property that it contains no two consecutive blocks of the same length and the same sum (a "sum square").

For example, 01231301020103102310313231301020131013230 is a word of length 41 with this property, but if you append any one of {0,1,2,3} to it, it no longer does. Appending 0 gives the sum square 00; appending 1 gives the sum square (3231301020)(1310132301); appending 2 gives the sum square (103132313010)(201310132302); appending 3 gives the sum square (132)(303). So this word cannot be extended to an infinite word avoiding sum squares; the longest such is of length 50. Of course, there could be an infinite word avoiding sum squares over some other subset of N; no one currently knows.

This problem was originally stated by Pirillo and Varricchio in 1994, and independently by Halbeisen and Hungerbühler in 2000.

Today we posted a preprint in the arxiv that solves a related unsolved problem. Instead of avoiding sum squares, we show that we can avoid sum cubes: three consecutive blocks of the same length and same sum.

The construction is actually quite simple: the infinite word in question is the fixed point of the morphism
0 → 03
1 → 43
3 → 1
4 → 01,
and can be obtained by repeatedly applying this morphism starting with 0. Here are the first 50 terms:
03143011034343031011011031430343430343430314301103 .
I found this morphism several years ago.

However, proving that this word has the desired property is not simple. The proof was recently achieved by Luke Schaeffer, using ideas of James Currie at the University of Winnipeg and Julien Cassaigne at the Institute de Mathématiques at Luminy in France.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

More Lousy Reporting from the Record

Yet another crappy article in my local paper, the Waterloo Region Record. This time it's about the Waterloo Region school board's decision to end the practice of distributing Gideon bibles in school.

From the headline ("Bible ban in schools ignores its influence") to the content, the article is misleading and inaccurate. Nothing was "banned" by the Board's decision. Students are free to bring bibles to school, and bibles aren't being removed from libraries. The only thing that was changed by the decision is that an explicitly evangelical organization will no longer be allowed special dispensation from a public school board to distribute its sacred text to a captive audience of 5th graders, a right granted to no other organization and no other religion.

The author's article, Liz Monteiro, didn't interview a single person in favor of the decision. False claims by Cindy Watson, the school board trustee who voted in favor of continuing the practice of distributing bibles, that it is "not proselytizing", were allowed to go unchallenged. David Seljak, who is usually sensible, is quoted as saying "To eliminate the study of religion from our curriculum is an exercise on mythmaking that borders on propaganda." Only problem? Nothing about "eliminat[ing] the study of religion" was at issue in the School Board's vote.

Andrew Mills, a youth pastor, is allowed to make the remarkable claim that "It's a false dichotomy to think faith is opposed to learning." Well, let's go to Wilmot Centre Missionary Church and see how many books on evolutionary biology (not creationist books) are in their library. Of course faith is opposed to learning. By its very definition, faith leads to beliefs that cannot be questioned and cannot be swayed by evidence.

All in all, more lousy reporting from the Record.

Friday, June 24, 2011

More Egnorance

Just as I suspected, Egnor's blog provides even more hilarity.

Here he claims:

'Separation of church and state' is not in the Constitution and is not Constitutional Law.

Well, the words "separation of church and state" are not in the US Constitution, but neither are the words "right to a fair trial". Yet I doubt Egnor would make the same claim about the right to a fair trial.

It is a clear falsehood to imply that the concept of separation of church and state is not in the Constitution. Of course it is - right there in the First Amendment - and no reputable lawyer claims otherwise. It is just plain weird how someone can proclaim his religion with such pride, and yet violate its tenets so casually.

I really wonder why becoming unhinged about evolution means you also become unhinged about global warming, separation of church and state, etc.

Waterloo Region School Board Ends Gideon Distribution

For years, the Gideons have distributed bibles to grade 5 students in local schools here in Waterloo. No other religious group was afforded this access, a practice which is clearly discriminatory.

Back in November, the issue came up in the Waterloo Region School Board, and the board then voted to continue the practice.

Kudos to Ted Martin and Kathleen Woodcock, who were the only members of the School Board sensible enough to vote no.

But then - horror of horrors - it was suggested that groups other than Christians be allowed to distribute their religious propaganda, too.

Suddenly the Board had a change of heart, and voted 8-3 to end the practice.

Here are the members who voted to continue it:

* Cindy Watson
* Harold Paisley
* Colin Harrington

Shame on them.

Mary is the Ideal Christian?

Oh, look: the brilliant brain surgeon Michael Egnor has a blog, which is called (I kid you not), "Egnorance".

This is destined to be an endless fountain of unintended amusement.

Already we have the renowned Dr. Egnor claiming that Mary is "the original Christian disciple, and a model and a mother for all of us".

Let's see: Mary

* had affair with some guy not her husband
* got pregnant by him
* lied about it
* convinces gullible husband that it was actually some god who raped her

Yes, I'd say that she certainly is a good role model for theists.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

T-Shirt Idea

Wikipedia says, "To understand recursion, you must first understand recursion." ThinkGeek even sells a t-shirt with that slogan on it.

But I think a much better version of this would be:

"To understand recursion, you must first understand recursion - 1".

Based on this, I submitted the following idea to ThinkGeek:

Who knows, maybe they'll make it into a t-shirt.