Monday, June 30, 2008

Journalistic Credulity

Continuing with the theme of crappy journalism, this weekend on Wait Wait ... Don't Tell Me!, I learned about a hoax perpetrated on the New York Times back in 1992.

Rick Marin wrote an article about "grunge music" and the Seattle alternative music scene that appeared in the "Styles" section on November 15. Apparently he wanted a lexicon of slang, and so he turned to Seattle-based Sub Pop Records for advice. Sales rep Megan Jasper reportedly just made up a bunch of phrases on the spot, such as

Swingin' on the flippity-flop: hanging out

Harsh realm: bummer

Cob nobbler: loser

Lamestain: uncool person

This made-up lexicon was swallowed whole by Marin, and the Times apparently printed it without any fact-checking.

Maybe Marin isn't representative of journalism as a whole, but the lesson still is that a good journalist ought to be skeptical of all claims, and make a serious effort to fact-check. Rick Marin: what a lamestain!

Friday, June 27, 2008

Science Unites - Religion Divides

Here's an article about my friend Mark Gluck, a Rutgers neuroscientist who organized a joint Israeli-Palestinian conference on Alzheimer's disease. It's a good example of the best science can offer: people of different backgrounds, politics, and religion joining together to solve real problems in a spirit of scientific inquiry.

Religion and ancient animosities would have kept these scientists apart. Rational and skeptical inquiry can unite them.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Peter McKnight Not Confused by Expelled

Peter McKnight, writing in the Vancouver Sun, gives a clear-headed appraisal of the crackpot documentary Expelled, which has just opened in Canada. Among the best tidbits, Ben Stein is reported to have replied, "It's none of their f---ing business" when McKnight asked him about the ADL statement on Expelled.

I predict that Expelled will flop even more egregiously in Canada than it did in the US. Reasons: there are not as many far-right religious crackpots in Canada; Canadians don't really care so much about US church-state battles; it's only playing in a relatively small number of theatres; and the producers are so desperate they're giving tickets away to a freethought group.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Oh, the Inanity! Slack in The Scientist

I've never read anything by Gordy Slack before, but based on this opinion piece in The Scientist, I'm not likely to in the future. Slack tries to defend the ID crowd, but all he comes up with is a confused mess.

Slack claims that ID advocates "make a few worthy points". But his examples demonstrate nothing of the sort.

1. Slack says, "While there is important work going on in the area of biogenesis, for instance, I think it's fair to say that science is still in the dark about this fundamental question." (Judging from the context, it seems that Slack really means abiogenesis.) He continues, "I think it is disingenuous to argue that the origin of life is irrelevant to evolution. It is no less relevant than the Big Bang is to physics or cosmology." This is just idiotic. Evolution is, by definition, what happens after there is a replicator to replicate. What came before is certainly relevant to biology, but it is not, strictly speaking, part of evolution itself. Even if some magical sky fairy created the first replicator, it wouldn't change all we know about the mechanisms of evolution today. Slack compares the Big Bang to physics, but then he doesn't compare the origin of life to biology, but rather to evolution. Isn't it clear that the analogy is faulty?

I disagree with Slack that we've made little progress in understanding abiogenesis. (What is this paper, chopped liver?) But even if mainstream science has made little progress, what progress has ID made? Nothing. No scientific papers, no testable models, no predictions. Nada. Zilch.

2. Slack says, "Second, IDers also argue that the cell is far more complex than Darwin could have imagined 149 years ago when he published On the Origin of Species." And so what? ID advocates weren't the ones to discover the cell's complexity, and they weren't the first to observe it was more complex than originally thought. (Darwin, by the way, knew well that the cell was not an undifferentiated blob of protoplasm; the nucleus was discovered in 1833.) And Darwin got lots of things wrong, so why is it even relevant to modern evolutionary biology what Darwin thought 149 years ago? The ID advocates would only have a worthwhile point if mainstream biologists were denying the complexity of cellular processes. But they don't. Mainstream biologists discovered the complexity. So what's the point?

3. Slack says, "Millions of people believe they directly experience the reality of a Creator every day, and to them it seems like nonsense to insist that He does not exist. Unless they are lying, God's existence is to them an observable fact. Denying it would be like insisting that my love for my children was an illusion created by neurotransmitters." I don't understand why something should be considered true simply because millions of peeople believe it. After all, there are probably millions of people who believe in witches, or that Elvis is still alive, or that 9/11 was a vast government conspiracy. But without evidence to support these claims, there's no reason why I need to take them seriously. Slack's comparison to "love for my children" being an "illusion" is remarkably inapposite. As a materialist, my guess is that love is, indeed, a product of neurotransmitters. But that doesn't mean that the experience of love is an "illusion". The neurotransmitters create the experience, but that doesn't mean the experience doesn't exist. Belief in a deity, however, is different. You can have the experience of a supernatural presence, but that doesn't mean the experience corresponds to anything outside your head. I don't see why Slack doesn't understand the difference.

4. Finally, Slack says that those who accept evolution can be dogmatic followers, too. "I met dozens of people there who were dead sure that evolutionary theory was correct though they didn't know a thing about adaptive radiation, genetic drift, or even plain old natural selection." Any field has dogmatic followers. But this has nothing to do whether ID is correct, is science, or has anything useful to say.

The really big point, the one that Slack misses completely, is the transparent dishonesty of nearly everything about intelligent design. ID advocates have to lie, because the evidence for evolution is so strong that they have no choice. That's something that even John Derbyshire understands, but Slack doesn't display any awareness of it.

All in all, this is one of the lamest defenses of ID I've ever seen.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Psychic's Report Basis for Child Abuse Investigation

An appalling story out of Barrie: the Simcoe County District School Board reportedly started an investigation into sexual abuse of a child after receiving a report from a psychic consulted by the child's educational assistant at the school.

As reported by Canadian Press, the psychic claimed "a youngster whose name started with "V" was being sexually abused by a man between 23 and 26 years old" and so the Children's Aid Society was called to investigate.

If the facts are as reported, this is a horrifying and ridiculous intrusion into family life based on utter nonsense. The Simcoe County District School Board owes the parent and child an apology.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

The Davis-Weller Study on HIV Transmission Misrepresented Again

In 1999, Davis and Weller published a paper in Family Planning Perspectives entitled "The Effectiveness of Condoms in Reducing Heterosexual Transmission of HIV". Their meta-study combined results from other studies about couples where one partner was HIV-positive and the other not, with respect to how often a condom was used. Unfortunately, their conclusions (and the conclusions of an earlier study by Weller alone) have been systematically misrepresented by conservative Christian activists.

I've written about this misrepresentation before. In 1993, Harold Albrecht, a local MP, misrepresented the earlier study by claiming 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."

Now the work of Davis and Weller has been misrepresented again. Our local paper, the Kitchener-Waterloo Record, has a "Community Editorial Board", where local residents are tapped to write a series of opinion pieces. (I was on the Board in 2000, and you can see my columns here.) Yesterday the Record carried this column by Harriette Mostert, who is described as a "part-time teacher and a longtime community volunteer".

Mostert claimed that this NIH report says that "HIV/AIDS carries a 15 per cent risk of transmission even with a condom". However, the NIH report was referring to the Davis-Weller study, and it is being misrepresented again.

The Davis-Weller study found that using a condom reduces the risk of HIV transmission by 85%. Now, you might think that Mostert's 15% figure is just 100%-85%, and so she's correct. But you would be wrong.

Davis and Weller were studying the reduction in risk obtained when using a condom; Mostert incorrectly labels this the "risk of transmission". They're not the same at all. I think most people would interpret "risk of transmission" as meaning "the chances that you will get the disease in a single encounter", and indeed, that's the interpretation I got when I asked several people what they thought it means. Or maybe it means "the chances that you will get the disease in a year"? The lack of units should raise warning bells in the mind of any educated person.

The answer is that Davis and Weller found that in one year, 6.7 infections per 100 person-years occurred when a condom is not used, and 0.9 infections per 100 person-years occurred when a condom is always used. The reduction in risk is therefore (6.7-0.9)/6.7, or approximately 85%. Contrary to Mostert, the "risk of transmission" when using a condom is less than 1 infection in 100 person years. There's no way this can be characterized as "15%".

Mostert uses this bogus figure to argue for "chastity or monogamy", and smugly concludes "Interestingly, this is also consistent with the ideals set out in many faith communities." She fails to note that the very study she cites concludes "These data provide strong evidence for the effectiveness of condoms for reducing sexually transmitted HIV."

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Google Maps Easter Egg

Eric Veach of Google just spoke here at Waterloo about Google Maps in the J. W. Graham medal seminar. He told us about various strategies involved in making Google Maps work, including prerendering the maps, and dividing the work up so it can be done in parallel, with more processors allocated to denser parts of the world.

He also revealed the following easter egg: try getting driving directions from San Francisco, CA, to Sydney, Australia. The resulting itinerary takes about 41 days, but that's because much of the trip isn't by car.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

The Open Problem Garden

The Open Problem Garden is a fledgling site that deserves more contributions.

There's not very much information about the purpose of the site, but from what I can gather, it's intended to be a repository for open problems in mathematics and theoretical computer science. I think that's a great idea, but the number of contributions is still pretty small (only about 150 problems so far). If you know some good open problems, please consider adding them to the site.

I added a a problem about discrete iterations, which I'll repeat here because it is so easy to state, yet frustratingly difficult to solve.

Start with two integers, a and b, with a > b > 0. Now repeatedly replace b with a mod b, counting the number of steps it takes to get to 0, and call this P(a,b). For example, if we start with a = 35 and b = 22, we get

35 mod 22 = 13
35 mod 13 = 9
35 mod 9 = 8
35 mod 8 = 3
35 mod 3 = 2
35 mod 2 = 1
35 mod 1 = 0

It took 7 steps to get down to 0, so P(35,22) = 7.

The question is, at what rate does P(a,b) grow? It's not hard to see that for some a, P(a,b) can be as big as Ω(log a). (Take a = lcm(1,2,..., n)-1 and b = n.) But what's a good upper bound? I conjecture it's O((log a)2), but the best that's been proven so far is O( a1/3).

Oh, and by the way -- I offer $50 for the solution to this problem.

Friday, June 06, 2008

Which Plumber Would You Choose?

This is an advertisement at the corner of Victoria and Margaret Streets in Kitchener, Ontario:

On the left: Mike the Plumber, with a Christian cross replacing the "t" in "the".

On the right: TIger Plumbing, with (apparently) no religious references in their advertisement.

I'd definitely choose Tiger Plumbing. It doesn't matter to me one whit what religion my plumber is; what I care about is how good he or she will do their job, how quickly they can come, and how reasonable their prices are. But I definitely wouldn't choose anyone who explicitly announces their religion in their ad, either, because that suggests an unhealthy preoccupation with their creed, not to mention the insinuation that they are somehow more reliable/honest/reputable simply because they adhere to some particular religion.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

The Best That Theists Can Provide?

Here's a attack on skepticism and atheism by Edward Tingley, a professor at Augustine College in Ottawa. It's not very good.

Tingley seems to concede that there's no evidence for the Christian god. But that doesn't mean his god doesn't exist. Oh no! We must seek his god with our "heart". But what is the "heart"? Tingley says it isn't "feelings". But he doesn't say clearly what it is.

Tingley says the atheist can't distinguish between a god that doesn't exist and a god that does exist, but hides. But the theist can't distinguish between these alternatives, either. And a god that hides might just as well be no god at all, for how could we possibly know what that god did or what he/she wants? Maybe god really wants us all to be atheists, and salvation is reserved for those who don't believe.

The easiest way to see how Tingley's argument fails is to take his essay, and every time "God" appears, substitute "Odin":

"If we do not know that Odin even exists, we hardly know how he behaves. So we cannot begin this ascent with any dogmatic presumption about his behavior. Maybe, if he exists, Odin would show himself directly to our senses. But maybe he wouldn’t. Maybe he would hide from us..."

"What reason do I have to subordinate the possibility of Odin's existence to the powers of my senses?"

"All of the people who say that they are “atheists through skepticism, because they see no evidence that Odin exists,” are patently unthinking people, since by virtue of turning skeptic, no one has ever done anything—employed any logic, gathered any evidence, found any way forward—to reach a conclusion about whether Odin exists. So these atheists have not reached a conclusion; they have made a commitment."

If TIngley tried to use these kind of arguments to convince people that belief in Odin was justifiable, most would just laugh. And yet they are supposed to be good arguments against atheism and for his theism. Go figure.

Addendum: Does anyone else see the irony in someone insulting skepticism while teaching at an institution that demands the following statement of faith:

We subscribe without cavil to each of the clauses in the earliest general confession of the Church known as the Apostles' Creed:

I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth.

I believe in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord. He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary. He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended to the dead. On the third day He rose again. He ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of God, the Father Almighty. From thence He shall come to judge the living and the dead.

I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic* Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. Amen.

* "universal"

Yup, that sure sounds like someone who is committed to an impartial search for truth!