Friday, July 27, 2007

New Study Shows "Cell Phone Tower Allergy" All in the Mind

I have two relatives who believe that electromagnetic fields are having a deleterious effect on their health.

Although I doubt this new study will convince them, it's still relevant. Elaine Fox, of the University of Essex, studied 44 people who claimed they were sensitive to cell phone towers and 114 normal people. They then exposed them to signals from the mast, sometimes telling them when the tower was on or off, and sometimes not telling them.

When the subject did not know whether the tower was on, they were not able to decide any better than chance whether the tower was on or not. When they knew, the sensitive people exhibited significantly more symptoms than the ordinary people.

This establishes with reasonable certainty that "cell phone tower allergy" is all in the mind. Their symptoms may be real, but they're due to fear and hysteria, not the signals.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Good and Bad Reporting

Contrast this article from yesterday's National Post about the rise of atheism with this series by local religion "reporter" Denyse O'Leary.

The National Post article points out that the non-religious in America have grown from 8% to 14.3% of the population between 1990 and 2001, and that a 2006 study shows 20% of young adults are non-religious, up from 11%. The article discusses the recent atheist books by Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Christopher Hitchens, and quotes prominent atheists such as Dan Barker and Annie Laurie Gaylor of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, and Herb Silverman, an atheist mathematician who successfully challenged a South Carolina law that established a religious test for public office, in conflict with the US constitution.

Now, any sensible person would conclude from the statistics in the National Post article and the wave of best-selling atheist books that interest in atheism is increasing, and the Post reporter has a brief analysis why: former UW professor Michael Higgins is quoted as saying "There is a profoundly anti-religious sentiment that exists in the culture-at-large as a result of 9/11" and "There is a souring against religion. There is a general perception that most political and social problems have been generated by religion [and] this comes from the danger people fear as a consequence of 9/11."

Now look at O'Leary's "reporting". She calls the rise of atheism an "anti-God crusade". (Isn't it strange that when theists want to insult atheism, they resort to using explicitly religious language that recalls the bad aspects of religion?) And she suggests that the rise in the interest in atheism is really due to the failure of materialism. She even denies that atheism is on the rise, claiming "atheism ... is stagnant or withering away". Of course, no actual statistics are provided to support this claim. I wonder what it would be like to live in O'Leary's topsy-turvy world.

In her series, O'Leary doesn't do any actual reporting. You will look in vain to find O'Leary actually interviewing anyone, particularly an atheist, to find out what they believe. No, O'Leary resorts to quoting the work of real journalists, journalists who have actually bothered to do the legwork required for an article. Instead, the series consists mostly of sneers and insults directed at atheists and amateur psychologizing:

"...Materialist science is in trouble. And the trouble does not stem from traditional religions, though materialists are - as one might expect - quick to blame their troubles on traditional religions and to reassure themselves that - despite all the evidence - traditional religions are doomed. But, materialists are also smug and thus cannot imagine or respond to any source of trouble arising from their interpretation of the evidence.

They have apparently decided instead to target the Christian religion as the source of their problems. One outcome is that, as we shall see, many materialists want to start a new religion to compete with the traditional ones, including a Darwin Day (Christmas, Eid al-Fitr, and Chinese New Year all rolled into one?)..."

Along the way, O'Leary manages to plug her books. (No article by O'Leary is complete without self-promotion.) She resorts to the hoariest clichés, calling atheists "militant" and "dogmatic".

There is an interesting parallel here between O'Leary's parasitic use of other reporters' work to construct her series, and the behavior of creationists. Like creationists, O'Leary didn't do any actual research of her own. Like creationists, O'Leary isn't interested in exploring her subject, the evidence, or why people believe they way they do. Like creationists, O'Leary spends most of her time denigrating a view she doesn't accept.

My parents were journalists. Some journalists are friends of mine. Ms. O'Leary, you're no journalist.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Turku's Fibonacci Smokestack

From my student, Dalia Krieger, here's a picture of a smokestack in Turku, Finland, that displays, in neon, the first 10 Fibonacci numbers. Why is it there? I have no idea. But why should Finland have all the fun? Let's put the Thue-Morse sequence on some smokestacks.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Why Do They Always Lie?

Take a committed theist, ask him or her to say something about atheism, and just wait. The lies will come pouring out of their mouth like water from a fountain.

This article by Peter Berkowitz, who teaches law at George Mason, and is a "senior fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution", is no exception. How many lies can you find?

It starts in the smarmiest possible way, taking a cliché from Ecclesiastes to argue that the new wave of atheism books (which Berkowitz calls, unimaginatively, the "new new atheism") is confirmed by "biblical wisdom". This is the equivalent of the traditional response of the theist when an atheist makes a good point: ignore it, and say "God loves you anyway".

Next, Berkowitz sneers at Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, and other atheist writers by describing atheism as a "profitable business" --- as if writing books that people want to read is somehow morally objectionable, and as if religious organizations haven't been raking in the tax-exempt cash for years.

We have to wait until the fourth paragraph before we get the first outright lie. Berkowitz claims "... the new new atheism proclaims its hatred of God and organized religion loudly and proudly from the rooftops". The only problem is, atheists don't hate the Christian God or any other god, any more than we hate the tooth fairy or the Easter bunny or Emma Bovary. You can't hate something that doesn't exist, and fictional characters don't inspire hatred the way real dictators do. Atheists might hate how a misguided belief in a deity or deities causes people to misbehave, and we might hate the division that religion causes, and we might hate some institutions of organized religion (and have a good reason to do so), but we don't hate Berkowitz's god.

The fifth paragraph has another lie. Berkowitz claims "[The new new atheists] contend ... we can now know, with finality and certainty, that God does not exist..." Really? Is that really what they say?

Nope. Take Richard Dawkins, for example. In The God Delusion, he makes the point that you can't know with certainty that there is no god. On page 51, for example, Dawkins defines a strong, or category 7, atheist as someone who says "I know there is no God, with the same conviction as Jung `knows' there is one." He then says "I'd be surprised to meet many people in category 7" and that he does not count himself in this category. He says he is "in category 6, but leaning towards 7 - I am agnostic only to the extent that I am agnostic about fairies at the bottom of the garden." A category 6 atheist says, according to Dawkins, "I cannot know for certain but I think God is very improbable, and I live my life on the assumption that he is not there."

There is much more to dispute in Berkowitz's piece, but I confess I grow weary at the weak excuses he uses to prop up religion, the straw men he erects to attack Hitchens, and the transparently sneering rhetoric. Hitchens, Berkowitz says, "shows no awareness that his atheism, far from resulting from skeptical inquiry, is the rigidly dogmatic premise from which his inquiries proceed, and that it colors all his observations and determines his conclusions." But modern atheism isn't a dogmatism, since it offers no creed to rigidly adhere to, only a disbelief in the creeds of others. To call this dogmatism is to insist that the barefoot man really does have a secret cobbler he visits on the side.

Berkowitz can't resist implying that his religion would never, ever result in the nasty kind of violence we see emanating from Islam: "today's bestselling atheists suppress crucial distinctions between the forms of faith embraced by the vast majority of American citizens and the militant Islam that at this very moment is pledged to America's destruction." What he fails to see is that that American majoritarian faith also results in reprehensible violence. To name just three examples from the last year:

  • Charles Carl Roberts, home-schooled by religious parents, killed 5 and wounded 5 more Amish schoolgirls in October 2006 because he was angry at God.

  • Brian K. White, a religious musician, beat to death a 75-year-old former Soviet political prisoner in New Jersey because the man refused to buy his religious CD's.

  • Joshua Royce Mauldin, who claimed he was called by God to be a minister, seriously burned his 2-month-old daughter's face by jamming her in a microwave.

Berkowitz concludes by claiming, "Of all the Bible's sublime and sustaining teachings, none is more so than the teaching that explains that humanity is set apart because all human beings--woman as well as man the Bible emphasizes--are created in the image of God". Berkowitz may feel this is "sublime" and "sustaining", but I just regard it with sorrow. What could be more responsible for our ecological crisis than this silly, deluded view that man is somehow elevated above everything else in nature?

If this mess of lies and foolishness is the best the theists can offer, then the atheists have already won.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Innumeracy In "Zits"

The July 12 2007 panel for the "Zits" comic strip has the main character, Jeremy, computing how much he's getting paid.

Panel 1: "I can't believe I'm getting paid ten bucks an hour for this!"

Panel 2: "That's like, five bucks every half hour!"

Panel 3: "Or 16.6¢ per minute ... or, uh... only .0027¢ per second."

Panel 4: "Time flies when you're having fun, but it totally drags when you're getting paid by the hour."

Which one of the authors of this strip, Jerry Scott or Jim Borgman, can't divide?

Added July 23 2007: I received the following reply from Jim Borgman:
"You're right. Jeffrey. Sorry for the error. Maybe we should have you
look over our syndication contract?"

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Literal Answers to Rhetorical Questions

As mentioned on Weekend Edition, here is a funny page giving literal answers to rhetorical questions, many inspired by popular songs.

But the number of examples is not very large. We need some other examples. Here are a few:

Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?

Joltin' Joe is buried in Holy Cross Cemetery in Colma, California.

What's new, pussycat?

Nu is the frequency of a wave in physics, an Egyptian god, a Chinese ethnic group, and a former Burmese prime minister.

Can you come up with some more questions and answers that deserve to be on that page?

Friday, July 06, 2007

Intelligent Design: The Scientific Theory That Improves Your Bottom Line

I see that William Dembski, fresh from raking in thousands of dollars for not testifying in the Dover trial, has now branched out into explaining his business savvy to the masses. Look at this announcement for a conference at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary for a conference entitled "Intelligent Design in Business Practice: How design assumptions impact management, leadership & organization".

This page has more details. Since ill-conceived ideas like this have a history of vanishing without a trace, I'll repeat the description below:

Successful business leaders are intelligent designers, guiding organizations along innovative paths to achieve ends otherwise unattainable. Intelligent designers are not micromanagers, who short-circuit the freedom and creativity that organizations need to thrive. At the same time, intelligent designers do not encourage unbridled autonomy, which sets organizations adrift, causing them to lose focus and discipline. By striking a proper balance between guidance and autonomy, intelligent designers promote a synergy between organization and leadership that can actualize undreamt possibilities. Intelligent design for now is best known as a scientific alternative to Darwinian and self-organizational approaches to biological origins. This conference brings together scholars and business leaders to discuss the implications of intelligent design for business practice. In particular, this conference will explore how design principles shape the beliefs of leaders about the people they lead, the nexus of innovation, the incentives to entrepreneurship, and the methods for managing organizational change. The overarching theme of this conference is "the business leader as intelligent designer."

Wow. A conference not to miss! Probably they can have breakout sessions entitled "Destroying Darwinism for fun and profit", "God wants you to be rich", and "Street theater: fruitful career choice?"

A Mystery Story by Joseph Shallit

My father, Joseph Shallit, was a journalist who also wrote short stories and books. Here's a short story he published in 1947, in Dime Mystery Magazine, called The Witch's Way. It is evidently based on some experiences he had in the Philippines while in the Army in World War II, and was anthologized as recently as 10 years ago, in the volume 100 Crooked Little Crime Stories.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Academic Vanity Scams

Today I was delighted to receive a letter from the American Biographical Institute (ABI) nominating me for an award.

"Dear Dr. Shallit," it began. "You have been chosen for a distinct honor that is unparalleled in regard to this Century's historical records... Your nomination is endorsed by the Governing Board of Editors for Great Minds of the 21st Century."

For only US $395, I learn, I can get a "Hardbound Luxury Keepsake Issue of the 2007/2008 Edition of Great Minds of the 21st Century embellished with gold engravings". For US $595, I can get a "Great Minds of the 21st Century Medal, a two-inch diameter medal stamped from a solid piece of metal with a hand crafted die and bearing the image of Great Minds of the 21st Century also finished in a radiant golden tone". For US $295, I can get a "Proclamation Plaque, a beautiful two color 8 1/2 inch by 11 inch certificate hand inscribed with your name and chosen citation proclaiming you as a Great Mind of the 21st Century and confirming your inclusion in this reference title."

How pleased I was to share such a prestigious award with someone like Tan Man Ho. Not.

Yes, it's an academic vanity scam.

No legitimate award requires you to pay for anything related to the award, and no legitimate institution would send a prestigious award announcement via bulk mail.

Believe it or not, a lot of people fall for this "nomination" and send off hundreds or even thousands of dollars for books and plaques commemorating awards and titles that exist only in the remarkable and lucrative imagination of the American Biographical Institute. (The "director" of the ABI also runs related organizations such as the "United Cultural Convention" (UCC) and the "World Academy of Letters" (WAL) .) My nomination letter helpfully includes a section where I can nominate ten colleagues (presumably suckers even more gullible than I am) for their own special recognition: a vanity scam combined with a chain letter.

This Wikipedia article helpfully summarizes some of the bizarre titles that people accept, such as "Ambassador of Grand Eminence" and "Genius Laureate of the United States".

Here are a few people, some notable, some not so notable, who have fallen for this solicitation, or from similar ones from the "International Biographical Centre" (IBC) in England:

Irving John Good, the renowned mathematician and statistician, lists on his CV the following dubious honors:

  • "International Order of Merit" from the IBC
  • "Man of the Year" from the ABI
  • "Most Admired Man of the Decade", from the ABI
  • "500 Leaders of Influence", from the ABI
  • "International Cultural Diploma of Honor", from the ABI
  • "The Key Award", from the ABI
  • "American Medal of Honor", from the ABI
  • "Hundred Most Intriguing People of 2002", from the ABI
  • "Congressional Medal of Excellence", from the ABI (How much do you want to bet that the US Congress had nothing to do with this award?)

Timothy Goodwin, who is a "web analyst/developer by profession, a systems analyst, computer hardware technician, computer programmer and karate practitioner", has so many "awards" from the ABI and related organizations on his web pages that I can't list them all. Just a few highlights:

  • "Ambassador of Grand Eminence", ABI
  • "Congressional Medal of Excellence", ABI
  • "Genius Laureate of the United States", ABI
  • "World Medal of Freedom", ABI
  • "One of the Genius Elite", ABI
  • "Da Vinci Diamond Award", IBC

Helpfully, Mr. Goodwin also has a web page showing off all his medals.

Mr. Goodwin is listed as a "Life Patron of the International Biographical Association", which is probably more true than he realizes. I wonder how much he's paid for all those plaques and medals. Patron, indeed.

Erhard Kremer, a mathematician at the University of Hamburg, lists more than 20 honors from the ABI or the IBC, including "Genius Laureate of Germany 2005" (ABI).

Jagdish C. Ahuja, a statistician at Portland State University, lists 19 awards from the ABI and the IBC, including being named "One of the Genius Elite" and "Ambassador of Grand Eminence".

The pastor of Christ Church in Pleasanton, California, Robert W. Evans, is evidently not above a little worldly recognition: `In 1992, Dr. Evans was selected as the “Most Admired Man of the Decade” by the International Biographical Institute, and in 1993 he was selected as the American Biographical Institute’s “Man of the Year.” '

Paul Bartlett Ré, an artist at the University of New Mexico, "has been the recipient of a dozen major awards honors, including The Legion of Honor from the United Cultural Convention, The Order of American Ambassadors and The Genius Laureate of the United States, The World Lifetime Award from the American Biographical Institute, and The Da Vinci Laureate and Hall of Fame from the International Biographical Centre in Cambridge, England."

Although most who accept these honors seem to be men, a few women also display them with pride.

Dana Barry, a researcher at Clarkson University, lists on her web page the following nominations:

  • "Woman of the Year", ABI
  • "Leading Educator of the World", IBC
  • "International Peace Prize", UCC
  • "Einsteinian Chair of Science", WAL
  • "International Educator of the Year", IBC
  • "One Thousand Great Scientists", IBC
  • "One Thousand Great Scholars", IBC

Sandra Breitenbach, a researcher at Oslo and Amsterdam, lists many of these awards. Just a selection:

  • "American Hall of Fame", ABI
  • "Great Minds of the 21st Century", ABI
  • "Da Vinci Diamond", IBC
  • "International Cultural Diploma of Honor", ABI
  • "International Peace Prize", UCC
  • "Ambassador of Great Eminence", ABI

Even the former president of Richard Stockton College, Vera King Farris, a woman with many genuine accomplishments, lists, apparently without irony, her “The Lifetime Achievement Award for Excellence in Higher Education” from the UCC.

The UCC even awards a "Noble prize" (check the spelling; Alfred Nobel had nothing to do with it). Among its recipients is Shri V. K. Choudhry, a creator of horoscope software. I can think of no one more deserving.

The number of people who have accepted these "awards" (do a web search) is really remarkable. I guess everyone, particularly in academia, craves a little (or in some cases, a lot of) recognition. As for me, I guess I'll have to settle for "3rd place - egg carrying contest", that I received in 1962. But it did come with a nice ribbon.

Monday, July 02, 2007

Liars for Moses

So many fundamentalist Christians end up lying to defend their faith against evolution that it's easy to forget that other flavors of theist also play the same game.

Read this column by Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, for example. In it, he repeats some of the dumbest creationist lies about evolution, such as

  1. The second law of thermodynamics is in contradiction to evolution

  2. Nearly all mutations are deleterious

  3. Gould's theory of "punctuated equilibirum" means "giant leaps" in the fossil record

Add in the usual misunderstanding of what it means for evolution to be a theory, and the curious charge that "many scientists who harbor an unreasonable objection to faith are making science into a new religion", and the resulting mix shows Boteach to be about as smart as your average fencepost and not as honest. Perhaps sensing this, he includes a comment where a physicist praises him for his sagacity.

Just another liar for Moses.