Sunday, January 29, 2012

Stephen Talbott Doesn't Understand Randomness

Anyone who waded through Stephen Talbott's dreary, wrongheaded columns about the Internet 15 years ago know him as a tedious and remarkably uninformed writer.

Here we are treated to yet another case of Talbott's vapid maunderings-- this time about evolution. I don't see that Talbott has any professional training in evolutionary biology, and he repeats creationist canards uncritically. Anyone citing the creationist journalist Tom Bethell (whose work is filled with misunderstandings and falsehoods) favorably is hard to take seriously.

The most remarkable thing about it is that Talbott doesn't seem to have much understanding what the word "random" means in a physical and biological context. "Random" doesn't mean that every outcome is equally likely. For example, if I flip two fair coins repeatedly and write down "1" each time I see two heads, and "0" otherwise, the resulting list of outcomes evidently has a strong random component, despite the fact that any particular bit does not have a 50% chance of being "1" or "0".

Instead, Talbott prefers to give us crap like this: All we can possibly mean by “random occurrences” relative to an organism is “occurrences that have not yet been woven into the meaningful life story of the organism.”

No, that's not all we can possibly mean. There is not a shred of evidence that cosmic rays, for example, are anything but random. (The one paper Talbott cites is largely about exposure to intense man-made radiation sources, not cosmic rays.) Furthermore, Talbott seems to be confusing the role of mutations in germ cells (which are the only ones that are heritable) with others.

Talbott apparently has an aversion to hard science. He doesn't do any experiments, or report his finding in the language of science. His whole shtick revolves around some vague "holistic" analysis which has never produced anything of interest scientifically. That's why he's reduced to publishing his drivel in places like The New Atlantis.

25 comments:

Melville said...

> The most remarkable thing about it is that Talbott doesn't seem to have much understanding what the word "random" means in a physical and biological context. "Random" doesn't mean that every outcome is equally likely.

Can you pinpoint the paragraph in Talbott's essay in which this definition is given? This definition sounds so outlandish that I can only see it being imputed to him by an ideological opponent.

Takamas said...

"Instead, Talbott prefers to give us crap like this: All we can possibly mean by “random occurrences” relative to an organism is “occurrences that have not yet been woven into the meaningful life story of the organism.”

No, that's not all we can possibly mean. There is not a shred of evidence that cosmic rays, for example, are anything but random. Furthermore..."

I'm honestly trying to understand your rebuttal. Not that I understand what Talbott was saying, but I also don't understand how your response rebuts his statement. It seems like you're focused on cosmic rays, all by themselves, being random, but Talbott used the expression, "relative to an organism." If I'm misunderstanding you, please let me know.

Melville said...

I don't know who Bethell is, but it doesn't matter that Talbott quoted him. Talbott supports Bethell's first quote by quoting famed evolutionist Richard Lewontin, and Talbot lets Bethell's second quote get challenged by Gould. So, what's this about "repeating uncritically"?

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Melville:

I teach computer science, not reading comprehension. Perhaps you can find a bright 7th-grader who can explain it to youl

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Takamas:

How do you think point mutations occur? Cosmic rays are one mechanism. Do you think the randomness of cosmic rays will result in a deterministic process?

Melville said...

As a mathematician, you should be able to understand the following equation: "I'm stumped by the questions" = "Let's insult the questioner."

Jeffrey Shallit said...

As a moron, you should not understand the following: some people are just too stupid to educate.

SLC said...

Re Melville

I don't know who Bethell is, but it doesn't matter that Talbott quoted him

Just for the information of Mr. Melville, Mr. Bethell also rejects the Theory of Relativity, thus putting him firmly in the crank column.

Melville said...

SLC: Bethell might just be a crank, but it wouldn't be merely because he rejects (actually, "challenges" may be more accurate) a very strong theory. It takes more than that to be considered a crank.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

And Melville is certainly an expert on what makes someone a crank.

Melville said...

Hopefully, your insults will just remind your readers that you were unable to find anything in Talbott's article that pointed to that odd definition of randomness.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Hopefully, you will take a course in reading comprehension to help you figure out what Talbott said and why I objected to it.

Anonymous said...

Sorry Jeff, this is off topic, but Mr. Melville, are you a creationist(if so old or young)?

Melville said...

Anon, I'm not sure what you're thinking when you use the term "Creationist." If you're asking if I believe in God, the answer is yes. I believe the universe is not ultimately an accident. The universe got its non-accidental start billions of years ago. But beyond that, I'm open to different views on the mechanics of it all.

Jeffrey, which creationist canard did Talbott repeat uncritically? (Oh why should I bother asking?; you'll just say I can't read.)

Anonymous said...

Hi ho, this is anon again. My question was quite straightforward, but in an effort to be far more clear I'll add to it. Creationists can broadly be classified as young or old earth creationists that differ roughly on how old they think the earth to be, among other things. Thus, a young earth creationist can commonly be quoted as believing that earth is roughly 6-10k years old. As opposed to old earth creationists who can be quoted as stating that the earth is 50K-100K years old, all the way up to the actual age of earth(approx. 4B years old). Furthermore, old earth creationists commonly hold that genesis provides a framework for how the world was actually physically assembled. Now, I see that you are a theist but are you either a young or old earth creationist?

Melville said...

Didn't I answer how old I thought the universe was?

Anonymous said...

hi once again, I saw that you think the uni. is billions of years old. What I'm trying to figure out is whether you're a creationist(of some type). Note, I was being quite explicit when I wrote that old earth creationists think that genesis provides a framework for how the world was actually physically assembled. I thought it was clear enough that I was asking if that's what you also think. Put another do you think that the old earth creationists are wrong.

Melville said...

Before I get too personal about my beliefs, I'd like to know the reason for your question. If I like your reason, I'll answer your question.

Anonymous said...

Hi ho, my reason is pure curiosity.

JamesW said...

Mr. Shallit,

I find your gratuitous insolence loutish. Can't you engage in terms of civil conversation? You are not a worthy interlocutor.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Somehow I think people who say things like "I find your gratuitous insolence loutish" are not engaging in civil conversation themselves.

Come back when you have an actual argument, instead of being a tone troll.

JamesW said...

Why would I want to present an "argument" to the likes of you? "If you wrestle with swine, they love it and you get dirty." "Tone troll" indeed!

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Why would I want to present an "argument" to the likes of you?

Your inability to (a) conduct a civil conversation and (b) rebut a single thing I said, is noted!

Like Talbott himself, Talbott's defenders are unable to use any facts or logic.

Melville said...

How do you know JamesW is a Talbot defender?

Jeffrey Shallit said...

The same way I know you're a troll, Melville.