Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Another Inappropriate Name

What do you think when you hear the name "World of Science Canada"? Probably something to do with science, right?

Wrong. It's just another clunky evangelical site, featuring videos that have everything to do with evangelical Christianity and pretty much nothing to do with science. They feature my old pal David Humphreys, a former professor of chemistry at McMaster. If you have the stomach for it, watch a few of the videos. In one of them Prof. Humphreys claims that "justice delayed isn't justice denied", turning the old aphorism (usually ascribed to Gladstone) on its head.

But isn't that what fundamentalist religion does to everything good? Make it stupid and tawdry and change its meaning?

Saturday, January 25, 2014

They Offer Nothing But Lies, 5

The falsehoods are coming fast and furious at the creationist site, Uncommon Descent. Somebody (other than me) should try to catalogue them all.

Here are just two that caught my eye recently:

- Rob Sheldon claims that "The problem, as physicists will only tell you behind a closed and locked door, is that life violates the 2nd law of thermodynamics." This is false in two different ways: first, there is simply no evidence that any biological process violates the 2nd law -- it is one of the hoariest and least believable of all creationist claims. Second, there is no reluctance to consider thermodynamics in biology, as Sheldon implies; there are many books and papers that discuss it in detail. I don't know a single reputable physicist who believes that the 2nd law contradicts evolution, but the "closed and locked door" nonsense feeds the usual "theist victimization" scenario. Sheldon cannot cite any papers in the peer-reviewed physics literature that make his case; creationists like Granville Sewell publish their nonsense in creationist vanity journals.

- V. J. Torley (who is not a scientist and who does not, as far as I can tell, have any advanced scientific training) makes the claim that "if a student of biology or psychology at a secular American college were to voice the same sentiments now (I’m thinking especially of the statements made by Dr. King on the inability of matter to account for the human mind), that student would probably be given a failing grade and not allowed to graduate." Torley has simply no idea what takes place in biology or psychology courses at American universities; that's what allows him to construct this bizarre persecution fantasy.

I guarantee you that if a student of biology or psychology were to claim "there is something in man that cannot be calculated in materialistic terms", no one would pay any attention at all. (Maybe a few might roll their eyes.) There are literally thousands of Christian students in biology and psychology at American universities who hold this and other far less supported beliefs (e.g., transubstantiation, virgin birth, etc.) and nobody gives a damn. The idea that such a "student would probably be given a failing grade and not allowed to graduate" is completely without merit, but fits well with the "theist victimization" scenario I already mentioned.

Creationists have nothing to offer but lies.

P. S. A prediction: creationists will dredge up a single example of a student, probably an extremely poor student and/or offensive proselytizer, who was suspended from some university for another reason, and claim it was because the student denied evolution. They then will use this as justification for Torley's claim.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Shoddy Journalism & Tinpot Moderators at NPR

I love NPR, and listen and donate to it frequently. But the last 24 hours have soured me a bit, at least on some NPR employees.

Take a look at this segment, which ran yesterday morning on NPR.

It's not very good, but I suppose it's a little better than yesterday, when it had the line "There's also miraculous healings and prophesying" [at the charismatic Catholic church being discussed].

I took issue with this claim by posting on their Codeswitch blog. It's one thing to state that "parishioners report miraculous hearings". It's quite another thing to state flatly -- even if ungrammatically -- that these "miraculous healings" actually took place. Did the reporters witness any "miraculous healings"? Were medical records verified? I'm willing to bet they did not and were not.

In response to my posting (which was rapidly voted up), NPR first (silently) fixed the grammar but kept the part about "miraculous healings". Then they deleted my comment, together with the comments of many other people. When I complained about this, my comment was briefly reinstated by Codeswitch employee Matt Thompson. He agreed it had been deleted unfairly. Once again, it was rapidly voted up; NPR listeners know bad journalism when they see it.

After some time (I don't know when) my comment was deleted again. This time Matt Thompson refused to answer my e-mail to explain why. I then took my case to Gene Demby, who apparently runs this NPR blog. He couldn't come up with any good reasons to delete my comment or the comments of dozens of others. He only claimed that "the story was about a specific faith tradition; the deleted comments argued about its illegitimacy". Bullshit. My deleted comments were about the shoddy journalism of NPR's reporters, who shouldn't be reporting "miraculous healing" as fact if they had no evidence. A simple rephrasing would have made that clear; it's Journalism 101.

And even if other people's comments argued about the "illegitimacy" of a "faith tradition", so what? Are "faith traditions" somehow above the reach of criticism?

Tinpot dictators and control freaks like Demby should not be moderating blogs for NPR. NPR stands for "National Public Radio", not "National Pablum Radio". NPR should be using the loosest possible standards to ensure robust discussion and debate.

Update: Gene Demby is so insecure he actually blocked me from following him on twitter. This guy shouldn't be employed at NPR!

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Math Challenge #1

Here's the first of some math challenges, drawn from my notebooks. This is one from around 1977.

Observe that sin(333) + sin(355) = sin(22) is not an equality, but is true to about 9 significant digits. Explain. Find another similar almost-identity.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

When Veritas Doesn't Mean Truth

Did you ever notice that many irrationalist groups choose descriptive names that are just the opposite of their actual goals? For example, the American Family Association is devoted to destroying those families that happen to have gay people at their heads; American Thinker should be entitled "right-wing crackpots rearranging their prejudices", and so forth.

Then there's the Veritas Forum. Veritas, of course, is the Roman goddess of "truth" --- but this group is just an evangelical organization seemingly devoted to the opposite. For example, they're currently pushing a book by Mary Poplin, an anti-intellectual and embarrassingly shallow thinker who spoke at Waterloo three years ago. In her talks she made some questionable claims and played the martyr card. I think any self-respecting organization that seriously cared about the truth wouldn't be shilling for her.

The local Veritas group is sponsoring three events this week. Unfortunately, I probably won't be able to attend most of them due to other commitments. On Wednesday we get Joe Boot, a local Christian apologist who can you see perform here, in a debate against Dan Barker. Although I like Dan, he's not always the strongest debater, but here he absolutely destroys Boot; Boot seems to have little or no understanding of neuroscience, paleontology, or information theory, but is happy to pontificate about those subjects. He even repeats the longest-running falsehood in creationism! The tepid applause after his dismissal of evolution was pretty funny.

If anybody goes to these events, please post a description in the comments.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Moose in the Pool

From reader D. S. comes this picture of a moose in a swimming pool.

Happens every summer in Canada if you don't put out moose repellent.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Interview with Edward Caudill

Here's a great NPR interview with Edward Caudill, author of the new book, Intelligently Designed: How Creationists Built the Campaign Against Evolution. I haven't read the book yet, but based on the interview, Caudill knows his stuff.

Wednesday, January 08, 2014

The Intellectual Fraud of Intelligent Design

Back in 2001, Wesley Elsberry and I began working on a long paper in which we did what intelligent design advocates demanded: take their claims seriously and examine them. In particular, we looked at William Dembski's claims about "CSI" or "complex specified information" or "specified complexity".

Dembski claimed to have created a mathematical methodology that would accurately determine if something is designed or not. His method was rather complicated, involving (as we wrote then) "a choice of probability space, a probability estimate, a discussion of relevant background knowledge, an independence calculation, a rejection function, and a rejection region". In Dembski's view, each of these needed to be given in detail before design can be concluded.

Despite the fact that Dembski claimed that many things contained CSI, such as the 16-digit numbers on VISA cards, he hardly ever gave the calculations justifying these claims. In fact, as far as I can see, these calculations were only given for four things (as we discuss in our paper on p. 16), and even then, the descriptions were sometimes sketchy. And in one of Dembski's calculations, his numbers were off by 65 orders of magnitude. Years passed before Dembski conceded this.

In another article, Elsberry and I challenged intelligent design advocates to do the calculations that Dembski was unwilling or unable to do. It is now more than ten years later, and nobody has taken up the challenge.

So I always find it amusing when some intelligent design advocate starts babbling about "CSI" or "complex specified information" or "specified complexity" or "FSCO/I" without providing the six items Dembski said were necessary. The latest babbler is Casey Luskin, who proudly asserts that a sculpture in the Atacama desert "exhibits high levels of specified complexity" and is therefore designed. Needless to say, Luskin doesn't give any of the six things Dembski said were necessary.

Luskin's babbling can be reduced to "it looks designed, therefore it is". But one could assert exactly the same thing about the Giant's Causeway.

Anyway, Luskin is wrong. We conclude that the sculpture in the Atacama Desert is designed not because of "specified complexity", but because it is an artifact: a characteristic product of human activity. We know that humans sculpt things; we know that parts of the body are frequent choices for sculptors; we know that artists use iron and cement in their work. All this combines to suggest "artifact" as the most plausible hypothesis, not "created by erosion".

Intelligent design is a kind of intellectual fraud. It erects a complicated mathematical methodology to fool the rubes, but then it hardly ever uses this methodology to do any calculations. The goal is to wear the cloak of mathematical legitimacy without revealing the empty shell beneath. Smart people should see this scam for what it is.

P. S. Another one of our challenges was, using Dembski's methodology, to identify, as designed, some object on the earth whose status (designed/undesigned) is currently not known. This could be, for example, something found on an archeological dig. Needless to say, 10 years later, nobody's succeeded at that challenge, either. Looks like that methodology is real useful, right?

Friday, January 03, 2014

Ask The Editor: When Should I Include Page Numbers in a Reference?

Recently I got the following query from an author of a paper in a journal I edit:

When should I include page numbers when citing a specific theorem in a reference?

Here's my answer: page numbers, like much of mathematical writing, follow the "be nice to the reader" rule. This rule says, in effect, "Imagine you are a relatively naive reader of this paper. What information would you like the author to include to help you understand the paper and locate the references?"

Following this rule, if you're citing a result in a long book, you should certainly include the theorem or equation number, and probably also a page number. On the other hand, if you're citing a very short paper with one result, then it's probably not necessary.

As an example of what not to do, take a look at this paper, where the authors write (on page 17, just below equation (30)),

"by a result of Bourbaki [3], σ-parabolic subsets (respectively, σ-positive systems) of R are just parabolic subsets...

The reference [3] is to a 300-page book! (To be fair, this was an early version of the paper; in a later version they fixed this.)

Thursday, January 02, 2014

David Gelernter, Hypocrite

The whiny and porcine David Gelernter is back again, with an astonishingly un-self-aware screed entitled "The Closing of the Scientific Mind". For Gelernter, who despises atheists and thinks they are "crusading" and "dangerous", a closed mind means one that disagrees with him, or, worse, laughs at his incoherent religious ideas about the brain.

Gelernter huffs that "Scientists have acquired the power to impress and intimidate every time they open their mouths, and it is their responsibility to keep this power in mind no matter what they say or do". But this responsibility evidently does not apply to Gelernter himself, who once made the false claim in the New York Times that "the Supreme Court outlawed prayer and Bible reading in the public schools" and refused to retract it.

The sin of scientists is apparently that "too many have forgotten their obligation to approach with due respect the scholarly, artistic, religious, humanistic work that has always been mankind’s main spiritual support". Umm, mankind has been around for hundreds of thousands of years. During most of that time, there wasn't any "scholarly" or "humanistic" work to support anything at all. As for the "religious ... work" that has formed "spiritual support", aren't we entitled to ask whether religious claims are true? Or are we just supposed to say, "That's somebody's spiritual support and hence off limits; I should just be quiet"? What a grotesque and tiny-minded view of the human enterprise Gerlernter has. But then, he's the guy who once told atheists they should just shut up.

Another nasty thing that those scientists have done, says Gelernter, is "to belittle human life and values and virtues and civilization and moral, spiritual, and religious discoveries, which is all we human beings possess or ever will". Umm, no, we possess a lot more than that. What happened to understanding the world? That's not a "moral, spiritual, [or] religious discovery". And when most of the religious "discoveries" of the myriad faiths are either trite or self-contradictory, why do are we obligated to respect them? David Gelernter, I suspect, finds eating a BLT an offense against his god, while devout Hindus do the same for cheeseburgers. Bully for them, I suppose, but why does this represent a "discovery" that conveys anything useful to anyone of a different religion?

Gelernter claims that "[y]our subjective, conscious experience is just as real as the tree outside your window". What does that even mean? "Just as real" in what sense, and how does Gelernter know this? How about the subjective experience of a chimpanzee? Is that "just as real" as the tree? How about the subjective experience of a cockroach? Again, just as real? If I take PCP and hallucinate spiders crawling on me, how is that "just as real" as the tree?

Gelernter is a big fan of Thomas Nagel, and he can't tolerate any criticism of Nagel. Those who criticized Nagel are dismissed as (and I'm not making this up) "punks, bullies, and hangers-on of the philosophical underworld" and a "lynch mob" and a "mass attack of killer hyenas". Of course, what actually happened is that there was (mostly fairly mild) criticism of Nagel's book and ideas. Critics pointed out that Nagel didn't offer much of anything new, and had fundamental misconceptions about biology and science. Nobody picketed his university, or called for Nagel to be fired, or threatened him at academic meetings, or called for a boycott of his books -- all things that happen routinely to university professors who upset the far Right. When climate scientists are threatened, I don't see Gelernter sticking up for them. The hypocrisy is breathtaking.

Gelernter claims that "machines do just what we tell them to". This would be forgivable for an ignorant layman, but it is really unforgivable for a computer science professor. It's wrong in two ways: even extremely simple programs can be capable of complex and difficult-to-predict behaviors that can surprise their programmers. And second, many modern computers have access to truly random numbers (for example, arising from radioactive decay) that can make their behaviors truly unpredictable and not "just what we tell them to" do.

Gelernter hates the idea that brain is essentially a computer (even though this is supported by everything we know about neuroscience). But he can muster no coherent argument against it. His "simple facts" that dispute this are laughably inapposite:

1. You can transfer a program easily from one computer to another, but you can’t transfer a mind, ever, from one brain to another.

How does Gelernter know that you can't do this? We can't do it now, but how does he know we can't "ever" do it? In fact, I'd argue that every kind of communication between people is transferring a piece of one person's mind to another.

2. You can run an endless series of different programs on any one computer, but only one “program” runs, or ever can run, on any one human brain.

Again, how does Gelernter know this? Furthermore, this claim is disputed by, for example, Marvin Minsky's vision of the mind as constructed out of many different kinds of simpler programs running in parallel; see his book Society of Mind.

This silly reason is equivalent to saying that airplanes and birds don't both fly, because airplanes can carry many different passengers, while a bird only carries one.

3. Software is transparent. I can read off the precise state of the entire program at any time. Minds are opaque—there is no way I can know what you are thinking unless you tell me.

That may have been true in the 1500's, when Gelernter's brain seems to have been formed, but we've learned a bit in 500 years. It is now, in fact, quite possible for us to be able to determine what other people are thinking in some simple domains, and our ability to do this is likely to increase.

4. Computers can be erased; minds cannot.

Again, how does Gelernter know this cannot be done, ever? Just this week, there is a paper in Nature that suggests the opposite. And, as I get older, I find that more and more of my brain is being erased automatically.

5. Computers can be made to operate precisely as we choose; minds cannot.

Oddly enough, it's religion that has proven to be one of the best kinds of mind control. And there are others. Again, how does Gelernter know for sure that minds cannot be made to operate as we choose? If we can do it for cockroaches, why couldn't we (in principle) do it for humans?

These reasons are all so bad that I'm surprised Gelernter didn't say "computers are plugged into the wall socket, but minds aren't".

Gelernter's rant goes on and on. He seems to think that "students have been taught since kindergarten that you are not permitted to question the doctrine of man-made global warming, or the line that men and women are interchangeable, or the multiculturalist idea that all cultures and nations are equally good". Funny, I never heard any of these claims; it seems to be some sort of bizarre conservative delusion. Of course you are "permitted" to question anthropogenic global warming; but if you do, you should know what the current scientific consensus is, a bit of the relevant science, and apprise yourself of the goals of and funding behind the relatively small number of voices in opposition. No one says men and women are "interchangeable"; but it does seem to be true that many cultural beliefs about what women can't do are based more on tradition than some inherent biological limitation. (Read, for example, what was claimed about women and marathons.) Nobody says "all cultures and nations are equally good", but that doesn't mean we are obligated to teach our children exclusively about Western history in school. Maybe Gelernter would be happier in this kind of America.

Finally, he closes with this admonition: "The best and deepest moral laws we know tell us to ... treat all creatures, our fellow humans and the world at large, humanely." This from the same guy that a few paragraphs earlier was likening critics of Nagel to "punks" and a "lynch mob" and a "mass attack of killer hyenas". Really, you can't make up this kind of hypocrisy.