Thursday, August 15, 2019

My Lunch with Jerry Garcia


I will now tell you my Jerry Garcia story. To appreciate it, you must remember that Jerry was missing part of a finger on one hand.

I was having lunch with a close friend in a crappy Mexican place on Telegraph Ave in Berkeley, California; it must have been about 1983. The restaurant was called La Villa Hermosa, and is long gone. (There is a photo of it here.)

Sitting at the next table was a bearded man who looked familiar. I studied him carefully, while eating my refried beans. Eventually I figured it out. I nudged my mathematician friend gently under the table and said softly, "Hey, that's Jerry Garcia over there."

She looked over doubtfully, and said, "That's not Jerry Garcia."

I insisted, "Yes, it is."

So my friend, who was never one to observe social niceties despite being only a little more than five feet tall, stood up, walked over, put her hands on her hips and demanded of him, "Are you Jerry Garcia?"

He looked at her, held up one hand (clearly missing part of a finger), and said, "No, Jerry Garcia is missing a finger on the other hand."

She came back to my table, satisfied, and announced smugly, "See? I told you so. That wasn't him. Jerry Garcia is missing a finger on the other hand."

I swear it's true!

Friday, August 02, 2019

David Gelernter Makes a Fool of Himself Again


As academics age, some of them get cranky. I don't mean "cranky" in the sense of ill-tempered, although that's also true. I mean "cranky" in the sense of "being a crank", that is, being "a person who is obsessed by fringe ideas and beliefs". I've written about this before.

Some of them become 9/11-truthers. Some of them get cranky about anthropogenic global warming. One became cranky on the subject of Turing's proof of unsolvability of the halting problem.

One of the most popular crank topics is evolution, and that's the subject of today's blog. Yes, it's David Gelernter again. Prof. Gelernter, who teaches computer science at Yale, recently wrote a review for the far-right Claremont Review of Books entitled "Giving up Darwin". All the warning signs are there:

  • Gelernter is not a biologist and (to the best of my knowledge) has no advanced formal training in biology. That's typical: the crank rarely gets cranky in subjects of his own competence. (I say "his" because cranks are almost always male.)
  • Gelernter has basically done almost nothing in his own field for the last 20 years (according to DBLP, he's published only two papers in CS since 1998). That's also typical: intellectually-fulfilled academics are usually happy to contribute more to their own fields of competence, and don't have the time for bizarre detours into other fields.
  • Gelernter is also a devout theist, and has written books praising the wisdom of his particular religious sect. Nearly all the intellectual opposition to evolution comes from theists, who "find in the theory of evolution a disturbing and mysterious challenge to their values" (to quote Anthony West).
  • Gelernter pals around with other anti-evolution cranks, like Stephen Meyer and David Berlinski.
  • Gelernter, like most anti-evolutionists, is politically conservative and is obsessed with what he feels are the intellectual failings of liberals.
  • Gelernter's review was not published in a science journal, but in a politics journal run by a far-right think tank.
  • His review cites no scientific publications at all, and makes claims like "Many biologists agree" and "Most biologists think" without giving any supporting citations.
So, not surprisingly, the porcine Gelernter makes a fool of himself in his review, which resembles a "greatest hits" of creationist misconceptions and lies:
  • In the Cambrian explosion "a striking variety of new organisms—including the first-ever animals—pop up suddenly in the fossil record". Debunked here.
  • "most species enter the evolutionary order fully formed and then depart unchanged". What could it possibly mean for a species to appear not "fully formed"?
  • "no predecessors to the celebrity organisms of the Cambrian explosion": actually, some believe the Ediacaran biota were some of the ancestors of those of the Cambrian explosion, but you won't find the word "Ediacaran" anywhere in Gelernter's review.
  • the 10-77 figure of creationist Doug Axe for the improbability of obtaining a stable protein (Debunked here.)
  • the false claims of Stephen Meyer about "functionally specified digital information" (debunked here and here, among other places)
And there are lots of other problems in the review. Gelernter shows no sign of having read about, much less understood, basic facets of modern evolutionary biology, such as evo-devo and gene duplication, which are critical to understanding how it works.

Altogether, yet another embarrassing performance for Prof. Gelernter. And a cautionary note for aging professors: before you start attacking another field, make a little more effort learning about it. Unless you enjoy being a crank.

Monday, May 27, 2019

Yet More Egnorance


Michael Egnor, the man for which the term "egnorance" was coined, is at it again, sneering at experts while demonstrating he knows little about linguistics, philosophy, or ethology.

In this piece he makes a number of claims that are either flatly false, or contradict what we know, or are given without any justification at all. Why he thinks this kind of pompous tripe will convince anyone is beyond me. Maybe, in their jobs, neurosurgeons get accustomed to making pronouncements that everyone else accepts without questioning.

I lack the time to do a complete fisking here, but I'll mention a few of his bogus claims.

1. "The accepted definition of reason is simple and straightforward: it is the power to think abstractly, without concrete particulars."

Whenever Egnor talks about something being "accepted" or "simple and straightforward", you can be pretty sure that the opposite is the case. Anyone who wants to check Egnor's claim can just go to the Oxford English Dictionary and type in "reason". There are three senses for the word, two as a noun and one as a verb. The uses as a noun include 17 different subdefinitions and another 15 or so different usages in phrases. The uses as a verb include 8 different subdefinitions. The word "abstract" appears nowhere in any of these subdefinitions (it does appear in two citations, but not in the sense Egnor refers to). So Egnor is wrong twice: the "accepted definition" of the word is neither simple nor straightforward, and the meaning Egnor claims is not an "accepted" one.

2. "Only man thinks abstractly; that is the ability to reason. No animal, no matter how clever, can think abstractly or reason."

Egnor's made this claim before, and it was refuted before. He just repeats it here, with no evidence, without addressing previous objections.

Of course, if you understand the theory of evolution, you realize his claim is likely to be utter nonsense. Abstract thinking is not a black-white thing; it's a range of capabilities that, even among people, we see a huge variation in. Any capability with huge variation is subject to selection, and so it can evolve. Since people are descended from earlier ape-like creatures, it is quite believable that non-human animals would also display the ability for abstract thought, in varying degrees. And they do! Ethologists, who actually study this kind of thing, disagree with Egnor. (Also see baboons and crows, to name just a couple more examples.)

3. "Reason is an immaterial power of the mind—it is abstracted from particular things, and cannot logically be produced by a material thing."

This is vintage Egnor -- a flat assertion, made with no evidence, and contradicting what we know about (for example) machine learning. Machines can abstract from specific cases to more general concepts; that is exactly what is done routinely in machine learning. (To cite just one example, see here.)

Egnor offers no rationale for why reason has to be "immaterial", and when he says something is "logical", you can be pretty sure there's no actual logic involved.

4. "This immaterial power of the soul is precisely what makes man qualitatively different from every other living thing. And I am not “forced to lean on supernaturalism” by pointing this out. I’m merely making an observation that’s obvious to all. Man, and man alone, has the power to reason."

Souls don't exist; there's no evidence for them. There's no evidence for "immaterial powers". Egnor's claim is disputed by many, and it's a plain lie to say it's "obvious to all".

5. "We routinely ask questions that entail reasoning. Animals never do."

How does Egnor know animals never do this? He never says.

As we know from the example of Ben Carson, it is perfectly possible for a neurosurgeon to be good at their job, but incompetent when it comes to anything else. Egnor is yet another data point.

Friday, April 05, 2019

Monday, January 28, 2019

Inference - A "Journal" Exposed


I wrote before about Inference, a weird "journal" that bills itself as an "International Review of Science", but has published some very questionable pieces by some very questionable people.

Back when they were hiding their editorial board, I deduced that David Berlinski was involved with it somehow, and my deduction was later proved correct.

Now a real investigative journalist has taken the job of looking further into this bizarre venture. It's physicist Adam Becker, and he's published his exposé in Undark.

Turns out that lots of people, when they find out the kind of stuff that Inference publishes, decide not to get involved with them, despite the large amounts they're paying for pieces. And it also turns out that Peter Thiel is one of the big funders. You know, the same Peter Thiel who has donated to far-right politicians like Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, and Dana Rohrabacher.

I wonder if Becker's piece will convince legit academics, such as Andrew Yao, that they don't want to have anything to do with Inference.

Moose War


Canada and Norway are engaged in a Moose War.

I have to say, Norway is definitely winning. Their moose makes ours look pitiful by comparison.

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

The Only Map that Matters


...is a moose map.

See?

(Hat tip: J. C.)

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Happy Quaternions Day


"Here as he walked by [in Dublin] on the 16th of October 1843 Sir William Rowan Hamilton in a flash of genius discovered the fundamental formula for quaternion multiplication i2 = j2 = k2 = ijk = -1 & cut it on a stone of this bridge."

It's the 175th anniversary.