Sunday, January 29, 2006

Provo Daily Herald Kicks Buttars

Utah state senator D. Chris Buttars is at it again.

Buttars is the blockhead who planned to introduce a bill mandating the teaching of "divine design" in Utah schools, but withdrew under criticism. Now he's introduced Utah Senate Bill 96, which demands, among other things that "instruction to students on any theory regarding the origins of life, or the origins or present state of the human race, shall stress that not all scientists agree on which theory is correct."

But why stop there? After all, some scientists don't agree with relativity theory, either. Why should Einstein get a monopoly in Utah schools?

Thankfully, some people in Utah are standing up to this kakocrat. An editorial in the Provo Daily Herald is right on the point: "House should reject creationism bill". And the Salt Lake Tribune says the bill "[belittles] evolutionary principles in favor of an unwritten but clearly religious view of a very narrow kind".

Utahns, call your state senator today and state your opposition to this stupid and dishonest bill.

Saturday, January 28, 2006

Time Travel

I am travelling in time this weekend.

The Time Tunnel has just been released on DVD, and for a few hours it is 1966 and I am nine years old again, anxiously looking forward to another Friday night on ABC with our little black-and-white television set. Where will Doug and Tony end up this time? Will they ever get home?

Vietnam was just something grown-ups were arguing about. The wonders and terrors of sex were a long way in the future. Our astronauts were practicing for the moon, and I couldn't wait for them to get there. Munich was six years away and unimaginable.

I was still reading The Happy Hollisters, but the magic was beginning to wear off. I didn't want to be Ricky any more, but Pete seemed much too old. And besides, something new beckoned: I had discovered chemistry.

Every day after school I'd head down to the basement, to make blue ink, or an exploding volcano, or turn water into wine. I ran electricity through water and made test tubes full of hydrogen and oxygen, then mixed them together and exploded them with a match. I put too much silver nitrate down the sink and ruined the porcelain. Once day I got a brilliant idea to make a hydrogen blowtorch, and probably would have lost an eye if I hadn't been wearing glasses. My parents never heard about that episode.

I raced through Glenn Seaborg's inspiring account of how he discovered elements beyond uranium. Science was the answer to the world's problems, I was sure. Science would take us to the stars, provide free power, and cure our diseases.

In real life, I am nursing a cold, watching the episodes on DVD with my children, one of whom is the same age I was in 1966. The cheesiness of the plots and the crappy movie sets don't bother us. My kids feel the same wonder at the possibility of zipping through the ages as I did.

I know it's 2006 in real life, but in my head it's forty years ago. My father is still alive, with a mind undamaged by Alzheimer's, and ready to answer my questions. Is time travel really possible, Dad? Will there be bases on the moon when I grow up? Will I go there? Will you come with me, Dad?

Who says you can't travel in time?

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Local Bigot Headed for Ottawa

Voters in my neighboring riding of Kitchener-Conestoga have elected a local bigot, Harold Albrecht, as their representative in the Parliament of Canada. Shame on them.

For those who read our local paper, the Kitchener-Waterloo Record, Albrecht is infamous for a series of misinformed and nasty rants against sex and gay marriage. Here is a selection:

In an opinion piece published in the Record on October 29, 1993, Albrecht falsely claimed that "An analysis by researchers at the University of Texas estimates that when condoms are used, the risk of acquiring HIV from an infected partner is 31 per cent over a year's time. This study was reported in the Journal of Social Science and Medicine in June 1993."

Albrecht was evidently referring to this paper: Susan C. Weller, A meta-analysis of condom effectiveness in reducing sexually transmitted HIV, Social Science and Medicine 36 (12) (1993), 1635-1644. It's clear Albrecht never read the article, because he gets the title of the journal wrong: it's not the Journal of Social Science and Medicine, but simply Social Science and Medicine.

More importantly, Albrecht seriously misrepresented the conclusions of the Weller study. In the abstract, Weller concludes that "condoms may reduce risk of HIV infection by approximately 69%." A casual reader might think Albrecht is right, since 100% - 69% = 31%.

He's not. Albrecht is mixing up apples and oranges. The 69% figure of Weller represents the reduction in risk associated with using a condom. Let's say that the risk of getting HIV from an infected partner over one year's time without a condom is 10% (Weller's 1993 meta-analysis found figures varying from 4% to 19%). Then a 69% risk reduction means that with a condom, the risk of contracting HIV from an infected partner in one year decreases to about 3%. And 3% ain't 31%. Albrecht is either misinforming us, repeating misinformation, or innumerate -- not the best resumé for somebody headed to Ottawa to run things.

Furthermore, one should note that in 1999 Weller disavowed her 1993 study (see here), admitting that her earlier result was "was flawed because it aggregated studies with varying definitions of condom use, directions of transmission, study designs and types of index cases." In the newer paper [Karen R. Davis and Susan C. Weller, The Effectiveness of Condoms in Reducing Heterosexual Transmission of HIV, Family Planning Perspectives 31 (6) November/December 1999] Weller concluded that if one always uses a condom, the rate of transmission is 0.9 per 100 person years, or about 1% -- a far cry from Albrecht's 31%. (I'm not claiming Albrecht should have known in 1993 about a 1999 study, just showing his figures are all wrong.)

Albrecht next went on to claim "At a 1991 national conference on HIV held in Washington, D.C., none of the 800 sexologists raised a hand when asked if they would trust a thin rubber sheath to protect them during intercourse with a known HIV-infected person." This claim appears to be plagiarized practically verbatim from a 1992 fund-raising letter from known liar James Dobson. I doubt this incident ever happened. But even if it did, so what? All other things being equal, I wouldn't hold a gun to my head and pull the trigger, if it contained 100 empty chambers and 1 bullet. But, of course, all other things aren't equal. The Weller figures are for sex with a known HIV-positive partner, whereas what Albrecht is really getting upset about is teens having sex with other teens. Guess what? The HIV-infection rate among teens in Canada is quite small, so their risk of contracting HIV using a condom is much, much less than 1% in a year.

Albrecht then said, "Small wonder, when you consider that the human immunodeficiency virus is 1-25th the width of sperm and can pass easily through the smallest gaps in condoms." This claim is truly moronic. After all, water molecules are even smaller than viruses, but they don't seem to pass so easily through a condom. The World Health Organization debunks Albrecht's claim, stating that "Laboratory studies have found that viruses (including HIV) do not pass through intact latex condoms even when devices are stretched or stressed." Who are you going to believe, a prestigious non-partisan health group, or a bigoted fundamentalist?

Finally, Albrecht concludes with this admonishment: "Some of our brightest and best young people are being placed in a position of grave danger by being fed half-truths which, by simple mathematical deduction, are also half-lies." Pretty ironic, considering all the misinformation Albrecht was dishing out.

In 1995, Albrecht wrote a nasty opinion piece against Planned Parenthood, snidely suggesting it should change its name, and false claiming "The work of Planned Parenthood has very little to do with planning." Actually, most of their work, from workshops to condom distribution, concerns planning.

In 2002, Albrecht wrote an opinion piece in which he claimed "Child pornography is considered to be an art form". Nothing supporting this bizarre claim was advanced. He also took objection to a local performance of Puppetry of the Penis, saying "I appeal to Kitchener council to "close the lid" and cancel this event." I'm sure that when Albrecht gets to Ottawa, we can expect similarly stirring defenses of freedom of expression.

In 2003, Albrecht produced one of his most despicable rants, this time against gay marriage. He said "If one is truly committed to the marriage vows of fidelity, these same-sex marriages would succeed in wiping out an entire society in just one generation. So much for a bigger family." What ignorance! I have two relatives in a same-sex marriage, and they are happily raising two children with no infidelity involved. (I leave it for those with an outlook slighly broader than Albrecht's to figure out how.)

He went on to say "Nature alone points to the ridiculous "wisdom" of calling these relationships marriage. Thankfully, only a very small percentage of people will fall for this thinking -- but the ongoing damage to future generations will reveal this "wisdom" to be yet another step away from the beautiful relationship that God has created and defined so clearly."

And "Marriage is God's idea, not man's; therefore, He alone has the authority to redefine it."

Somebody needs to tell Albrecht that his god seems to have lots of weird ideas. For example, in Leviticus 19:19 god tells us that we can't wear clothes that have two different kinds of material. In Leviticus 20:18, we are told to deport any couple that has sex during the woman's menstrual period. Just because his god makes these weird demands, doesn't mean that they are binding on the rest of us.

Gentle readers of this blog, have you noticed the common thread running through all of Albrecht's rants? Yes, it is sex. The man truly hates it. He must really be obssessed with sex, considering how many of his published pieces deal with it.

So how did my neighbors elect this nasty bigot to Parliament?

Here's how: the Conservatives hid him from scrutiny. From the Record, January 20 2006:

Harold Albrecht, a Conservative running in Kitchener-Conestoga who is known for his views against gay marriage, was hustled away from reporters and into a banquet-hall kitchen yesterday where handlers refused to bring him out.

"He's in a meeting,'' a Tory official insisted, pushing a door closed as Albrecht stood next to empty dish racks.

In today's National Post Father Raymond J. De Souza claimed that Stephen Harper's "caucus is the most intellectually principled and serious in several generations". Albrecht's misrepresentations and bigotry, documented here, belie that claim.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Christianity and Computer Science

In this post, I'll review Thomas VanDrunen's essay, "How is God's Creativity Manifested in Computer Science?", from the volume Not Just Science. (For an introduction to my reviews of this book, go here.) VanDrunen is an associate professor of computer science at Wheaton College.

Like the other essays in Not Just Science, VanDrunen's contribution is arranged around a series of questions. In addition to the question of the title, the following questions are listed:

  • Can a machine perform logic?
  • Can a pipe and gate machine do math?
  • Can a machine remember information?
  • Can a machine remember instructions?
  • What are the limitations of computer science?
  • What are the limitations of computation?
  • What are the limitations of benefit?
  • What does the existence of computers say about human creativity?

As you can see from reading the questions, there is a real disconnect between VanDrunen's title, which asks about God's creativity, and the content of the chapter, which barely addresses that question.

This essay is easily one of the most fatuous in Not Just Science. For one thing, there is the level of exposition, which seems geared to the 4th grade level. For another, the scholarship is deficient. VanDrunen seems unaware that Donald Knuth, Turing award winner and author of the multi-volume work, The Art of Computer Programming, has written a book, Things a Computer Scientist Rarely Talks About, on the religion-computer science connection. While I can't whole-heartedly endorse Knuth's book, at least it offers a novel perspective.

Now, back to the essay. VanDrunen starts off by using an analogy of water flowing in pipes to model electronic circuits, and gives a very cursory explanation of how circuits can be used to perform addition.

Next, he uses a parking meter as a simple model of computation, and brings in the notion of finite automaton. So far, nothing at all about Christianity or "god's creativity", but he does produce the following misleading statement: "There are more powerful models [than finite state machines] that each involve some structure to store an infinite amount of information, and these are often more useful for describing modern computers with their massive capacity." Clearly, VanDrunen has a Turing machine in mind here. But as I emphasize to my student in CS 360 every term I teach it, a Turing machine does not store an infinite amount of information. While it is true that a Turing machine has an unbounded tape as storage, at each step of the computation, only a finite number of cells have been accessed; the rest are all blank. So it is misleading to imply that a Turing machine stores an infinite amount of information; it would be more correct to say that its storage capacity is unbounded.

Next, VanDrunen asks "What are the limitations of computer science?" Oddly enough, the answer says nothing about limitations at all; it is simply a description (and a poor one, at that) of the standard algorithm for determining the distance from a source vertex to all other vertices of an edge-weighted graph.

In the next question, VanDrunen finally gets around to some theological content. In the course of discussing the travelling salesman problem (for which we currently have no efficient algorithm), he says

Stubborn problems like this are what drive human curiosity, but they can also be humbling reminders of human limitations. Christians can bring a perspective to a field like computer science, remembering that it is God who allows for progress of human knowledge and He who also restricts it. Just as humans are limited, so are the machines they build. There are some mysteries that will never be fathomed; there are some problems that computers will never solve.

My reaction to this is bewilderment. Do you really need to be a Christian or a theist to realize that humans are limited? Or that there are some problems computers will never solve? After all, it was Alan Turing, an atheist, who gave the first example of an unsolvable problem, the halting problem for Turing machines. And how exactly do Christians believe that their god "allows for progress of human knowledge" or "restricts it"? Do they think their god actively intervenes on a daily basis, ensuring that some scientific experiments work out, while others don't? What kind of science does God encourage, and what kind does he discourage? What, precisely, does he not want us to know?

In the next question, the ungrammatical "What are the limitations of benefit?", VanDrunen repeats the tired maxim, "The computer is nothing more than a tool." I'm not sure exactly what he means by "nothing more". Yes, a computer can be viewed as a tool, but could it be more? Could computers interact with people in much the same way that people do? Can a computer compose genuinely good music? Paint a great painting? Write a terrific poem? Have feelings? Write a better essay than VanDrunen's?

In the last question, VanDrunen observes that "many of the first to experiment with computing machinery were also intently involved with Christian apologetics". No examples are provided, except perhaps "Fredrick [sic] Brooks", author of The Mythical Man-Month. But even if this claim is true, so what? Many of the first to experiment with computing machinery were not involved with Christian apologetics, such as Alan Turing. What conclusion does VanDrunen want us to draw?

As I alluded to earlier, I think there are many questions where Christianity (or religion, more generally) could intersect with computer science. For example, studying finite automata suggests the question, are people deterministic finite automata? If so, what implications does this have for the Christian view of free will? Studying randomized algorithms suggests the question, can people make truly random choices? Does free will depend on randomness? Studying growth rate of functions raises the question (after Knuth), is it possible that God (if he exists) is finite and very large, but not infinite? Studying artificial intelligence raises deep questions about the origin of creativity and the uniqueness of humans. Is the human mind a computer? Will computers ever achieve a level of intelligence we would recognize as equivalent to humans? Could a computer have a soul? If computers behave just like people, are they entitled to the same rights as people? And so on. But none of this is addressed by VanDrunen.

In pointing out that computer science could raise interesting challenges for Christianity, I don't want to suggest that there is much in the other direction. The implications that VanDrunen draws are so puerile that they might suggest that Christianity has virtually nothing to say of any interest about computer science.

VanDrunen's essay is worse than most in this volume, but unfortunately typical in the shallow way it grapples with the issues. Reading it brings to mind Mark Noll's quip, "The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind."

Stay tuned for reviews of more essays in this book.

Christianity and Science

I am currently slogging my way through Chappell and Cook's book, Not Just Science: Questions Where Christian Faith and Natural Science Intersect. It's not a pleasant experience, for a variety of reasons that will become clear, but it does reveal a lot about the mindset of evangelical Christians.

Not Just Science is a collection of short essays written by a variety of Christian authors, mostly professors at Wheaton and Calvin Colleges. The topics include cosmology, philosophy, geology, mathematics, and computer science. The essays are in a sort of catechism format, arranged around a series of questions and answers.

There are some things right about the book. The authors take a generally skeptical line about intelligent design, which is refreshing. They are not as dogmatic or intolerant as some, and they seem generally willing to cite books and papers that argue from a non-theistic or atheistic perspective. Many authors appear somewhat informed about the topics they write on (in contrast to others working on the Christianity-science turf, such as the appallingly ignorant Denyse O'Leary). That much is welcome.

On the other hand, there are many things wrong: the utter vacuity of some of the essays, the juvenile tone of others, the poor editing that leaves some sentences hanging in thin air, and the lack of an index. The main problem, however, is that the authors don't really confront the hard problems that science poses for religious belief. For example, did the alleged miracle of the Resurrection violate physical law? More generally, how should we understand the relationship between our current model of the universe and Christian miracles? Why is it that the miracles of 2000 years ago seem so rare today? Was Jesus haploid or diploid? If the Christian god is outside the universe, how precisely does he intervene inside it? Was Jesus a miracle worker or a clever conjurer? Does archaeology suggest the Bible is not inerrant? Are religious claims subject to scientific scrutiny? Why does the account in Genesis differ so much from what we know about cosmology? None of these questions is really addressed.

In the next few weeks, as time permits, I'll be addressing individual essays in this book. The first will be about computer science, my own field. Stick around for the fun.

Friday, January 13, 2006

Maria Duval Scam

Terry Polevoy's blog discusses this scam, which is now in Canada.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Blowhard of the Month: David Warren

I recently had the misfortune to stumble on a really revolting corner of the web, the not-so-modestly-named DavidWarrenOnline. Warren appears to be a journalist, and for the Ottawa Citizen, no less -- a newspaper that, back when Peter Calamai worked there, was sometimes worth reading. Judging from their employment of Mr. Warren, however, the Citizen has sunk into a swamp from which it will not soon recover.

Explore that website and you will find the very worst sort of ignorant bigotry: screeds against gay marriage, the validity of human-caused global warming, and (big surprise) evolution, all served up with a really insufferable helping of religious smugness. And the writing! I was raised by newspaper reporters, who never missed an opportunity to tell me how my writing could be improved. But it appears Mr. Warren received no similar assistance. His columns frequently wander and maunder, heading this way and that, but never actually arriving anywhere. Who in their right mind would give this supercilious dolt a weekly column?

If you, too, want to suffer as much as I did, you can start with four of Mr. Warren's columns about evolution. In his December 29 2004 column about Homo floresiensis, he reveals his doubts that it is a new species of the genus Homo. Informed doubt would be welcome, but Mr. Warren's doubts aren't based on anything more scientific than the fact that he once saw a woman in Calcutta about the same weight "and only slightly taller" than H. floresiensis. He then reveals that he suspects all hominid species are just varieties of Homo sapiens, and quotes one of his readers as saying, "Evolution? Probably a pile of crap. It seems to spring from the same faulty thinking reservoir as Marxism and other failed ideological constructs of the early 20th century." Dee-lightful!

In his next column, Warren says that " 'evolution' is not a science but an ideology a quasi-religion a colossal scientistic put-on; that 'evolutionary science' is a cant expression a pretence unworthy of a scientific researcher." (For some reason, all of Warren's columns before April 23, 2005 are missing commas. Perhaps someone bought him a big box of commas last May.) Not a single example is proffered to support this bizarre claim. He also says that "science cannot even tell you how a species is defined". I guess Warren has never heard of the "biological species concept" -- an idea taught in every introduction to evolutionary biology course. And yes, I am aware that the BSC is not universally applicable, but that is because biology, dealing as it does with billions of interacting complex systems, is not always clean and simple. I bet Mr. Warren cannot give a definition of "newspaper" that is universally applicable, but that doesn't prevent him from writing for one.

Warren also repeats the creationist lie that speciation has not been observed. Even the most cursory of searches would have led him here and here, where enough speciation events are provided to convince any reasonable person. If Mr. Warren is not a creationist, as he claims, why does he behave exactly like one?

In his third column Warren treads the same familiar ground again, claiming that "If [evolution] didn't exist biological inquiry would not be slowed in any way. It might even be accelerated." That is like saying, "If 1 equalled 2, mathematical inquiry wouldn't be slowed; it might even be accelerated." Yes, indeed, if one starts with a counterfactual premise, one can certainly prove anything.

But let's be charitable for a moment, and assume that what Warren really meant to say is that evolution is not germane to biological inquiry. That will certainly be news to those researching AIDS, bird flu, or working on reconstructing evolutionary trees, or trying to understand invasive species, or studying antibiotic resistance.

In Warren's fourth column, he discusses the discovery of Repenomamus giganticus, a carnivorous Cretaceous mammal. Here is Warren is all his self-satisfied ignorance:

As anyone familiar with the existing evolutionary charts will know a powerful warm-blooded mammal has no business being found in the early Cretaceous strata of about 130 million years ago. Especially one with a clearly organized carnivorous set of teeth like R. gigantus -- or like his smaller cousin R. robustus with the trademark slightly-displaced mammalian stomach and a little dino he just ate ripped up inside. Mammals of that epoch are supposed to be tiny mole and shrew-like jobs subsisting on seeds and insects....

It wouldn't necessarily bother the "Darwinists" theoretically if the whole evolutionary sequence were turned upside down: for the "theory" doesn't predict anything. It only explains things after the fact.

Now, PZ Myers has already explained why Warren and the creationists he echoes are talking out of their hats. But some additional points are worth considering:

First, note that Warren gets the name wrong: he calls it Repenomamus gigantus, whereas the correct name as published in Nature, is Repenomamus giganticus. This is pretty good evidence that Warren is getting his account from secondary sources (which frequently got the name wrong), rather than reading the original account. But you know, those smug and busy journalists just don't have the time to check the primary source.

Second, the very first paragraph shows that Warren doesn't have any idea what he was talking about. As the article in Nature clearly states, the largest previously known Cretaceous mammal was the size of an opossum, not a "tiny mole and shrew-like job".

Third, Warren brings up the old falsehood about evoution not making any predictions. Even the most cursory examination will show this is wrong. Consider, for example, Alexander's prediction of what a eusocial mammal would look like. Many other examples are known.

All this ignorance coupled with arrogance means that Warren is my nominee for Blowhard of the Month. (Readers, feel free to nominate additional names deserving of this accolade.) Now, after four columns of this tripe, do you think readers of the Citizen kept quiet? Of course not. According to Warren's own account in the Idler, readers sent in objections in droves. What was Warren's reaction? Did he back down, admitting that perhaps his knowledge of evolution has a few gaps and holes?

Of course not -- blowhards never concede anything. Instead, he crowed that "I took care not to write anything that would be scientifically naïve". Yeah, right. And, of course, he repeated the tired old "Evolution has grown into a rival religion" line.

A couple of weeks ago, Warren reflected for a second time on his experience of critiquing something he knows very little about. He labeled the criticism he received as "hatemail" [sic]. (Blowhards have trouble distinguishing the two.) He then implied that evolution "is a more dangerous enemy than twisted Islam over the longer run." What a public service Mr. Warren offers: Run, quick! Here comes the local evolutionary biologist!

Finally, Mr. Warren leaves us with this thought:

The popularity of "Intelligent Design" is growing because it offers a way for science to get out of the face of religion. This is also why the Darwinoids hate and fear it: because the whole point of their Darwinism is to get in the face, of Christianity in particular. “ID" uses exactly the same fact-sets as all the biological disciplines; it merely leaves God to open minds, rather than consciously trying to “eliminate that hypothesis”. In time it will prevail, for the truth always does.

Arguing with pompous blowhards like Mr. Warren is a waste of time. He can't be convinced of any error, because he already knows the Truth. Facts aren't important.

As an ironic postcript, I recently learned that the Ottawa Citizen was founded by Elkanah Billings, one of the originators of Canadian paleontology. I wonder what Billings would have thought of the Citizen pushing the smug ignorance of Mr. Warren.

Friday, January 06, 2006

The World's Worst Memes

Richard Dawkins coined the term "meme" in his 1976 book, The Selfish Gene. Roughly speaking, a meme is a small unit of culture, like the four thematic notes "da-da-da-daaa" of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. Dawkins noted that memes are analogous to genes, and Susan Blackmore expanded upon this observation in her 1999 book The Meme Machine.

Memes are contagious, and spread from mind to mind almost like viruses. Some memes, like "Look both ways before you cross the street", are evidently beneficial to the minds they inhabit. Some are probably neutral, like Jimmie Walker's "Dy-no-mite!" or the chorus of "Who Let the Dogs Out". But many memes, while possibly beneficial to individuals, seem positively harmful to understanding the world and to society as a whole. They get repeated because minds have some sort of affinity for them, when even a small amount of reflection will show they are false.

I have in mind memes such as

  • "The Constitution protects freedom of religion, not freedom from religion."
  • "Guns don't kill people, people kill people."
  • "If it saves even one life, it's worth it."
  • "God loves you."

These are usually uttered with complete self-satisfaction, as if the fatuous speaker believes himself endowed with some extraordinary sagacity the rest of us lack.

If, say, you're on a plane and your seatmate utters one of these, you can deduce with almost complete certainty that the person saying it is a zombie, one whose mind has been taken over by a meme that is doing its utmost to spread itself. Don't waste time arguing with such a person, because it is hopeless. Just exchange seats with someone a few aisles away.

Idiotic memes are nothing new. Gustave Flaubert wrote a Dictionnaire des idées reçus as an appendix to his novel Bouvard et Pécuchet in which he presented hundreds of what I might call "conversational response memes": if someone mentions X in a conversation, you should immediately say Y. Does someone mention architects? You should immediately say "Architects? They're all stupid, they're always designing houses and forgetting to put in the staircases!"

One characteristic that seems to help memes succeed is rhyme. Everybody knows "A stitch in time saves nine", even if they can't explain what it means. "An apple a day keeps the doctor away" spawned an hilarious take-off by the cartoonist Bernard Kliban -- the caption is "An apple every eight hours keeps three doctors away". I don't know why human minds have affinity for rhymes (Mark Turner could probably tell me), but a rhyme has the power to make a bad meme more attractive. For example:

  • "God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve."
  • "Jesus is the reason for the season."

What are the world's worst memes? I've mentioned a few already, but here's one: "Evolution is only a theory." In just five words, the speaker demonstrates they (i) don't know what a theory means in scientific parlance; (ii) don't understand that evolution has roughly the same status in science as the germ theory of disease, or the heliocentric theory of astronomy; (iii) don't know a single piece of the multiple, independent lines of evidence amassed in support of evolution. So much revealed in such a short saying!

I now open up the floor to your suggestions. What are the world's worst memes? Go ahead, give me the really bad ones -- the ones that are so bad, so breathtakingly fatuous, that just to utter one is to be classified as an idiot.

I'd be particularly interested in dumb memes that rhyme.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Tony Auth on Dover

Tony Auth of the Philadelphia Inquirer has this take on the Kitzmiller v. Dover case. I love the expression on the land fish's face.

I am an Observer of the Legal Scene - Who Knew?

It's like this, see? I was, like, reading Amy Knight's How the Cold War Began: The Gouzenko Affair and the Hunt for Soviet Spies, y'know. And all of a sudden, the wording seemed sort of familiar, y'know? So I, like, looked in the endnotes and found this on page 335:

As one observer of the Canadian legal scene expressed it: "Stringent libel laws may have made sense five hundred years ago, when British royalty wanted to stop the nobility from duelling by giving them a legal remedy against character slurs. But we don't live in the time of Henry VII any longer." Jeffrey Shallit, "It's Time to Reform Canadian Libel Law,"

Gosh. Me, an "observer of the Canadian legal scene". Who'd a thunk it?

Seriously, though, if you want to read a professional's opinion of Canadian libel law, read Kimberley Noble's Bound and Gagged: Libel Chill and the Right to Publish, not my little opinion piece from our local paper, the Record. Noble persuasively makes the case that the reason there is so little investigative reporting in Canada is Canada's restrictive libel law. For another example that makes Noble's case, see here.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Is Methodological Naturalism Warranted?

I got this message from a colleague who is a devout Christian:

If the American science community agrees with [Judge John Jones III in the Dover case] then American science is not the search for truth. Instead it is some sort of search for the best explanation that fits some preconceived notions. Whether the notions are religious or secular, theistic or atheistic, I think that attitude will ultimately cripple scientific endeavor, just like religious restrictions did in the middle ages. Yes, atheistic assumptions have advanced science quite well but can you prove they are necessary to science and take precedence over ultimate truth?

I find so much to disagree with in just one paragraph!

First, science isn't the search for truth, and I don't know any scientists or philosophers of science who think it is. Science is about modelling the natural world with models that are necessarily imperfect. Newton's laws are good approximations, not truth; they were refined by Einstein to better, but still incomplete, models.

Second, I don't think science has "preconceived notions", at least not in the way my colleague means. Science uses a certain method of inquiry, to be sure, and that method consists of pieces such as hypotheses, experiments, theories, testability, repeatability, peer review, and a reliance upon evidence. Praying for revelations or appeals to dogma are not part of the scientific method, but neither are bingo, choral music, or playing frisbee. Could there be important aspects of the world that only prayer could reveal? Or only bingo could reveal? Perhaps, but I personally don't see any at the moment. Nothing is preventing religious scientists from getting information through revelation; science simply demands that there also be some hard evidence for any resulting claims. Ramanujan claimed he got revelations from the Hindu goddess Namagiri, but that didn't stop mathematicians from appreciating his results, finding his mistakes, and providing proofs for the correct results.

As Stephen Weinberg has remarked, "The fact that Newton and Michael Faraday and other scientists of the past were deeply religious shows that religious skepticism is not a prejudice that governed science from the beginning, but a lesson that has been learned through centures of experience in the study of nature."

Third, I don't think science makes "atheistic assumptions". I have yet to open a science textbook and find the statement "There are no gods". Rather, science is non-theistic; that is, it proceeds without making claims about gods or lack thereof. I think the record shows pretty clearly that when religion enters the practice of science, the result is really bad science. To see just one example, look at the grotesque Bible Codes phenomenon.

Finally, I don't see any need to prove that methodological naturalism is necessary to science. I am perfectly willing to argue empirically that methodological naturalism has served science well, and those advocating adding supernatural causation to science have yet to show any benefit to science. When they do, give me a call.

Sunday, January 01, 2006

On Not Admitting You Are Wrong, or What Dembski and Wolfram Have in Common

Science often depends on experiments, and experiments are notoriously prone to error. Even if the experiment's results are correct, the conclusions may be wrong. And even if the experiment and conclusions are correct, they may represent only part of the truth. Sometimes scientists are simply wrong, and they need to admit it. While they don't do experiments, a similar obligation falls on mathematicians.

Most mathematicians and scientists recognize this obligation. In 1989, for example, the mathematician I. J. Good published a corrigendum to one of his previous papers. This wouldn't be noteworthy except that the paper he was correcting was published in 1941, nearly 50 years before.

Unfortunately, it doesn't always work that way. A classic case is that of René Blondlot (1849-1930), a French physicist who believed he had discovered a new kind of radiation, which he called "N-rays" in honor of Nancy, his native city. You can read about this case in Walter Gratzer's book The Undergrowth of Science, and I am following Gratzer's account here.

N-rays, Blondlot said, had all sorts of unusual properties. They could go through paper, wood, quartz, and mica, but not water or rock salt. They were emitted by animal and plant tissue. When N-rays hit the human eye, people could see better. Some other physicists confirmed his results, and found other strange properties of the rays. Blondlot's results were often based on very subjective data, such as a line of glowing phosphor increasing or decreasing in brightness based only on visual observations.

However, others failed to confirm his results, notably German physicists such as Heinrich Rubens, Otto Lummer, and Paul Drude, and English physicists such as Lord Rayleigh, Lord Kelvin, and William Crookes. Nationality began to influence the controversy: one Blondlot supporter later claimed the Germans could not detect the effect of the rays because "their sensibilities were inferior and were further blunted by their bruish diet of beer and sauerkraut" (Gratzer, p.20).

Ultimately, N-rays met their scientific death when R. W. Wood, a Johns Hopkins physicist, visited Blondlot's laboratory. In a 1904 letter published in Nature, he made a devastating revelation. While observing an experiment in a dark room in which the N-rays were refracted by an aluminum prism, Wood surreptitiously removed the prism from the apparatus. The French experimenters, unaware of Wood's actions, went on describing exactly the same phenomena as before.

But Blondlot and many of his supporters did not concede. One French scientist, Turpain, attempted to reproduce Blondlot's results, failed, and submitted his results to Comptes rendus for publication. They were rejected by the editor who said, "Your results can be explained simply by supposing that your eyes are insufficiently sensitive to appreciate the phenomena." (Gratzer, p. 21) Turpain replied, "If N-rays can only be observed by rare privileged individuals then they no longer belong to the domain of experiment." (ibid) When Blondlot died in 1930, his posthumous papers showed he continued to believe in and experiment on N-rays for many years after Wood's debunking.

The case of N-rays is a spectacular example of a failure of a scientist to admit he was wrong. Even in this case, though, science's self-correction won the day. After Wood's debunking, N-rays vanished from the scientific literature.

Blondlot's tale is a cautionary one. By contrast, I offer a case where the proper behavior was displayed, from Richard Dawkins' 1996 Richard Dimbleby lecture:

A formative influence on my undergraduate self was the response of a respected elder statesmen of the Oxford Zoology Department when an American visitor had just publicly disproved his favourite theory. The old man strode to the front of the lecture hall, shook the American warmly by the hand and declared in ringing, emotional tones: "My dear fellow, I wish to thank you. I have been wrong these fifteen years." And we clapped our hands red.

Admitting you are wrong is a basic part of the mathematical and scientific ethic. In the days of the Internet, mea culpas can be more public and more effectively distributed then ever before. For both of my published books, for example, I maintain public errrata pages. The errata and addenda for my 1996 book now take up ten pages!

But not everyone agrees. Take two controversial books published in the last few years: A New Kind of Science by Stephen Wolfram, and No Free Lunch, by William Dembski.

Wolfram's book was published in 2002. Roughly speaking, the main thesis is that even very simple interactions give rise to complex phenomena that are hard to predict. Over 1280 pages, this thesis is developed and applied to many different areas, including mathematics, physics, economics, and biology; it is touted as a genuine revolution in science. Critics, generally, speaking have not been kind. (See here for a compendium of many different reviews.) I find the book interesting, with many fascinating digressions. The pictures are nice. But the importance of the main thesis is wildly overstated, and Wolfram never really gives a formal definition of "complex" that would satisfy a mathematician or physicist; rather, he relies on an informal definition of complexity based on appearance to the human visual system. If he did use a more formal definition -- let's say Kolmogorov complexity -- then his claims become incoherent, trivial, or wrong.

Dembski's book was also published in 2002. Dembski defines a new kind of complexity, which he calls "specified complexity" or "complex specified information". He then discusses properties of this measure, which he claims satisfies a law called "The Law of Conservation of Information", and concludes that specified complexity cannot be generated by natural causes. He then finds specified complexity in biological structures such as the [sic] bacterial flagellum, and concludes the flagellum cannot have arisen through natural causes. Needless to say, most reviewers have not been kind to Dembski either. (See here for some reviews.) Like Wolfram, Dembki's definition of complexity suffers from subjectivity, as it depends critically on the knowledge base of the observer. When one tries to make the definition more precise, Dembski's claims become incoherent, trivial, or wrong.

The analogy between the work of Wolfram and Dembski is imperfect. Wolfram, for example, has a genuine record of achievement, winning a MacArthur "genius" grant, and creating the software system Mathematica. Many of his papers continue to be cited by scientists and mathematicians. By contrast, Dembski, though possessing numerous degrees, has had a negligible impact on mathematics and science.

Nevertheless, there is one thing they have in common, and this brings me back to the start of this entry. Neither Wolfram nor Dembski have seen fit to make available errata pages for their books. In this, they fail in their intellectual obligation. Back in October 2002, I sent Wolfram a list of various errata in his book. Eventually one of his assistants acknowledged the errors, but Wolfram has never made them public. (Some of them can be seen here, due to the persistence of Evangelos Georgiadis.) Considering the extensive web presence for A New Kind of Science, surely an errata page is not asking too much.

Similarly, in April 2002 I sent Dembski a review in which I pointed out many mistakes in No Free Lunch, but Dembski only acknowledged one of these errors publicly and it took him three years. (My review later appeared in the journal BioSystems.)

Both Wolfram and Dembski seem to be taking a page from Canadian feminist Nellie McClung, who reportedly said, "Never retract, never explain, never apologize –- get the thing done and let them howl!" This might be a good motto for a social activist, but for a scientist or mathematician it is a dereliction of duty. If you want to be taken seriously when you're right, it's a good idea to be upfront about it when you're wrong.