Monday, December 21, 2015

10th Blogiversary!

Ten years ago, this blog, Recursivity, was born.

I've had a lot of fun with it, even though I never really had very much time to devote to it. A thousand posts in ten years sounds like a lot, but I wish I could have written a thousand more.

Generally speaking, my readers have been great. In ten years, I think I only had to ban two or three commenters, including one Holocaust denier. Thank you to everyone who read what I had to say, and even more thanks to those who took the time to comment.

Here are 25 of my favorite posts from the last ten years:

  1. Why We Never Lied to Our Kids About Santa: my absolute favorite, and still appropriate. You can criticize atheism and religion, but if you really want to get a reaction, just criticize the myth of Santa Claus.
  2. Robert J. Marks II refuses to answer a simple question: still waiting, more than a year later.
  3. Hell would be having to listen to Francis Spufford: Damn, he was boring.
  4. By the Usual Compactness Argument: for mathematicians only.
  5. Ten Common LaTeX Errors
  6. I defend a conservative politician's right to speak on campus
  7. Science books have errata. Holy books don't
  8. No Formula for the Prime Numbers?: Debunking a common assertion.
  9. In Memory of Sheng Yu (1950-2012): my colleague - I still miss him.
  10. Another Fake Magnet Man Scams AP
  11. William Lane Craig Does Mathematics
  12. Why Do William Lane Craig's Views Merit Respect?: Nobody gave a good answer, by the way!
  13. Stephen Meyer's Bogus Information Theory
  14. Religion Makes Smart People Stupid
  15. Test Your Knowledge of Information Theory
  16. David Berlinski, King of Poseurs
  17. Graeme MacQueen at the 9/11 Denier Evening
  18. Mathematics in a Jack Reacher novel
  19. The Prime Game: This appeared in my 2008 textbook, too.
  20. Debunking Crystal Healing
  21. Nancy Pearcey, The Creationists' Miss Information
  22. Academic Vanity Scams
  23. Time Travel: my second favorite, which nobody seemed to like that much.
  24. Janis Ian Demo Tape: the best part was that Janis Ian herself stopped by to comment!
  25. The Subversive Skepticism of Scooby Doo: my third favorite.
Happy Holidays to everyone, and may 2016 be a great year for you.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Merry Kitzmas!

It's been ten years since the landmark decision of Kitzmiller v. Dover was handed down, the case that exposed the religious fraud of that absurd pseudoscience, "intelligent design". The ID movement, and especially its "think tank", the Discovery Institute, has never recovered.

I had the honor of meeting the lead plaintiff, Tammy Kitzmiller, a few years ago at one of the trial reunion parties. (I played an extremely minor role in the case, meeting with the lawyers for the plaintiffs and preparing as a possible rebuttal witness, but I never appeared in court because one person on the other side never testified.) A more pleasant and modest (yet determined!) person you can't imagine. In fact, all the people involved in the case in various ways, including Eric Rothschild, Nick Matzke, Steve Harvey, Kenneth Miller, Wes Elsberry, Genie Scott, and Lauri Lebo are about the nicest and most interesting people I've ever met. The contrast with the other side couldn't be more stark.

Ten years later, what's happening? Well, the Discovery Institute and their friends continue to churn out lies pretty much unabated, but nobody's listening any more. Even the "academic wing" of intelligent design seems to have given up. Bill Dembski just threw in the towel. At the same time Casey Luskin tries to boast about all the scientific work published by ID advocates, the flagship scientific journal for the movement has only published a single paper in calendar year 2015, despite getting a new editor and having an editorial board with 29 members.

There's just so long you can keep up this charade.

Meanwhile, the same nasty, deplorable tactics that renamed the Discovery Institute the "Dishonesty Institute" continue unabated. When one of the Kitzmiller team recently got a paper accepted to Science, one of the world's most prestigious scientific journals, all the Discovery Institute (and their slavering friends) could do is make ridiculous and groundless insinuations about misconduct. Truly, they have no shame at all.

Why do the ID folks behave so reprehensibly, over and over again? Of course, it has nothing at all do with science. They behave this way because they are motivated solely by their conservative religious beliefs. Recently a window opened on the ID world view, when one creationist was so disillusioned by their behavior that he posted a private e-mail message from ID advocate Barry Arrington that clearly revealed their motives. Arrington wrote

"We are in a war. That is not a metaphor. We are fighting a war for the soul of Western Civilization, and we are losing, badly. In the summer of 2015 we find ourselves in a position very similar to Great Britain’s position 75 years ago in the summer of 1940 – alone, demoralized, and besieged on all sides by a great darkness that constitutes an existential threat to freedom, justice and even rationality itself."

When you view your opponents this way, then no tactic is off limits. Lying is permissible because otherwise the "great darkness" will win. Insulting, making insinuations, likening your opponents to Nazis or Communists or fascists are all perfectly fine tactics, because your opponents constitute "an existential threat to freedom" and "justice". Treating your opponents as subhuman is ok, because after all, they threaten "rationality itself". And of course, they never, ever, admit they were wrong about anything.

I feel sorry for the ID folks today, I really do. Ten years after Kitzmiller, ID advocates are like the Millerites on October 23 1844, when their predicted triumphal ascent into heaven didn't happen. They are wandering around feeling puzzled and alone, and it's natural that they will lash out against any available target in an effort to cure their misery. It won't work, I'm afraid. Intelligent design is, for all practical purposes dead. Prop up the corpse all you want -- it won't work.

Meanwhile, science and evolutionary theory continue unabated. Those of us who enjoy and respect science (and there are lots!) continue to think about and solve interesting problems. The joy of discovery is genuine for us. May you find it, too.

So, to you and yours, I wish you a very merry Kitzmas.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Polish Immigrants a German Problem?

Only if the immigrants are moose.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

1000 citations for "Automatic Sequences"

I don't normally like to use this blog to advertise my own achievements, but this one was too fun to pass up.

Back in 2003, Jean-Paul Allouche and I published a book, Automatic Sequences, with Cambridge University Press. There's some info about the book, including errata and some reviews, here.

Just this week, our book reached a milestone we could not have anticipated 12 years ago: 1000 citations on google scholar:

It is our most cited work.

Of course, this number is a bit misleading, since it double-counts papers on the arxiv that later appear in conferences and journals. Nevertheless, I'm really pleased that our book (despite its defects) has been so useful and influential. And thanks to my great co-author, Jean-Paul Allouche!

Saturday, December 12, 2015

The Difference Between Republicans and Democrats

Here is a chart that illustrates, better than anything I've seen, the fundamental difference between the two US political parties.

It wasn't always this way. There were lots of honest Republicans when I was growing up, from Philadelphia's Thacher Longstreth, to Millicent Fenwick, to Gerald Ford. Now I can hardly think of a single one, with Bob Ehrlich (former governor of Maryland) being an exception.

Today's Republican party is home to the craziest, most extreme, lying lunatics ever assembled in one place.

And it's no coincidence that of all the lying liars that represent the party today, the biggest lying liar of them all is Ben Carson -- who is also a favorite of the creationists.

To today's Republicans and creationists alike, the truth means absolutely nothing.

Discovery Institute Lies Again!

Oh, look! The Dishonesty Discovery Institute is out with yet another video. What a thrill.

Don't bother watching it, though. There are no new arguments at all. It's just the same lies as usual, repackaged for the nth time. You wonder why their spokesmen don't get just a little bit bored repeating the same misinformation, practically verbatim, over and over. It's more like they are evangelical hucksters than scientists. Why would that be?

  • Citing the 1966 Wistar Institute Symposium -- and pretending it was an important and influential scientific meeting, when in fact it had basically no influence on biology at all. And then pretending that the questions raised haven't been answered since then. Misrepresenting the symposium has a long history among creationists.
  • Doug Axe citing his 11-year-old 10-77 claim, long debunked. As far as I can see, Dougie hasn't gotten anything published in a real scientific journal since 2008. All his recent publications seem to be in the intelligent design vanity journal Bio-Complexity or similar crappy venues. I wonder why the Ahmansons continue to fund this embarrassment.
  • Stephen Meyer repeating his lie once again that "Whenever we see information, especially when we find information in a digital or typographic form and we trace it back to its ultimate source, we always come to a mind, not a material process." Of course, that's not true. The environment is full of information, or how would we able to do weather prediction? (I don't buy the implicit claim that the mind is not a material process, either.)
Intelligent design is so over. Get a life, guys. Do some actual work, or give up and stop pretending this charade is real science.

Friday, December 11, 2015

More Sprinkler Moose

Devoted readers of this blog (are there any?) will recall this post from 2008 with baby moose playing in a lawn sprinkler.

Apparently it's a thing, now. Here's a new video.

Hat tip: R. M.

Monday, December 07, 2015

Another Philosophy Fail

This article by Notre Dame philosopher Gary Gutting is interesting, but not in the way that Prof. Gutting seems to think. It's interesting because it demonstrates the intellectual bankruptcy and uselessness of the kind of philosophy that a lot of academics do.

Gutting presents the cosmological argument for the existence of a god, and seems to think it deserves to be taken seriously.

I say, it doesn't. Not only that, the fact that a well-respected philosopher thinks it does, and gets it published by a well-respected publisher like W. W. Norton, demonstrates that something is terribly, terribly wrong with much of academic philosophy.

Here, briefly, are just a few things that I think are wrong.

1. Gutting never defines "cause" or "caused". The words are very difficult to make rigorous, which is one reason why if you pick up a textbook on physics (say, Halliday and Resnick, the book I learned physics from), you won't even find them in the index (although of course the words themselves occur in the text). We sort-of-understand the colloquial and loose meaning of "cause" when it is associated with the events that are common in our lives, such as car accidents and elections and hot plates and Thanksgiving turkeys, but what guarantee is there that this understanding can be extrapolated to events on the micro or macro scales that physics deals with? Gutting seems to think that our folk understanding of these words is enough. I say it isn't.

2. After having acknowledged the looseness of the words, it nevertheless does seem that in nature there are genuinely uncaused physical events (like the radioactive decay of a particular uranium atom). Gutting doesn't even mention this possibility, except when it comes to his magical "first cause". So if events like the decay of this particular uranium atom has no explanation, why should we be so confident that all other kinds of physical events actually have explanations? This exemplifies another feature of much of academic philosophy, which is that it seems almost entirely divorced from what we have actually learned about the physical world. He is basically arguing to a Middle Ages audience (or even earlier).

3. There is no really good reason to always dismiss an infinite regress of causes, nor is there a good reason to dismiss a circular chain of causes (e.g., A causes B, which causes A). Of course, these don't seem to happen much in our daily lives, but again, we are talking about events (the creation of the universe) which are wildly different in scale from our ordinary experience. We don't experience cosmic inflation in our daily life, either, but that's not a good reason to dismiss that physical theory.

4. Gutting's description of "contingent" and "contingency" suffers from the same defects as "cause" and "caused". What does it mean to say "Germany might not have won the 2014 World Cup"? After all, possibly the universe was created by a supreme being who has an inexplicable love for German soccer. Perhaps everything was created and set in motion deterministically by a supreme being just so Germany won the 2014 World Cup and no other outcome was possible, even in principle. And just because I can imagine a different outcome doesn't mean a different outcome is possible; if I try very, very hard I can just barely imagine a square circle or a good philosopher, but that doesn't necessarily mean those things are possible.

5. Finally, I think what's wrong with this reasoning like Gutting's is that it is a kind of pseudomathematics: applying precise logical rules to vague concepts like "explanation" and "contingency" and "cause" without providing a rigorous mathematical or physical basis for those concepts, and then expecting the results to be meaningful. When you do that, it's kind of like doing a physics experiment and reporting the results to 20 significant figures when your measuring devices only provide 3 significant figures. You run the risk of thinking you're being precise and logical, when in fact you've only extrapolated your vague and inchoate understanding of what's really going on.

I realize in making these complaints I'm in a tiny minority. Nevertheless, I think my objections have at least some validity. What do you think?

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Another Intelligent Design Fail

Over at the creationist blog, Uncommon Descent, they just don't know when to shut up.

They present the story of an artifact which may be a 45,000-year-old flute. Then again, it might just be a partially eaten bear femur. And they present it with the title "Design inference: is it a Neanderthal flute?"

But wait a second. Don't the ID folks have a mathematically rigorous method of detecting design? I thought intelligent design was a thought revolution that was going to have significant impact on almost every field of science, including archaeology.

Then why hasn't anyone in the intelligent design field jumped in with their "mathematically rigorous" method and resolved the question about the flute? Why are there no papers by the ID giants like William Dembski and Jonathan Wells and Stephen Meyer and Paul Nelson submitted to Science and Nature about artifacts like this? Or even submitted to their own vanity journal, which has published a total of one paper this year?

The answer should be obvious. Intelligent design is a massive intellectual fraud. It's a completely useless tool in science which can't even answer the simplest challenges put to it.

ID is not really about science at all -- it's just a cover for conservative Christianity.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Zonnestraal in Hilversum

Another cool set of buildings I saw in the Netherlands was Zonnestraal, an old tuberculosis sanitarium in Hilversum. The goal was to let as much light in as possible, and indeed, the buildings are practically entirely glass. My architectural in-laws tell me it's extremely famous. It's still being used as a physical rehab facility. There's also a family connection, as my wife's great-grandfather worked there in 1921-2 and wrote a little book about his experiences, which was published in 1923.

Monday, November 23, 2015

"Thinking Machines" Lecture at Waterloo November 27 -- And a Free Bingo Card

At first glance, this upcoming lecture at the University of Waterloo looks like it might be interesting:

Date: Friday, November 27, 2015 - 7:30pm
Lecture Title: Mathematics and Thinking Machines
Talk abstract: In the nineteenth century, mathematician Charles Babbage designed a programmable calculating machine that could execute algorithms with an accuracy and speed surpassing human abilities. Though Babbage’s mechanical computer remained unbuilt during his lifetime, his interest in developing machine intelligence anticipated twenty-first-century concerns about the promises, limitations, uses, and misuses of machine-generated data. This lecture will consider how our conceptions of thinking machines have evolved over the past 200 years and what issues may arise in the future. What does it mean to imagine machines “thinking”? What avenues are made available to us by the power of machine mathematics? And in what ways do calculating machines challenge our sense that human cognition is an exceptional phenomenon?

But when I look at the people speaking, I'm not so confident.

Nevertheless, I'll probably go.

To keep myself amused, I've made the bingo card below. It contains just a few of the worst arguments (courtesy of people like Michael Egnor, David Gelernter, John Searle, Roger Penrose, and Hubert Dreyfus) that I've heard proposed against the idea of thinking machines.

If you want to join me, print out a copy and bring it. Try not to disrupt the lecture by shouting "Bingo", though.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Library at TU Delft

There were lots of interesting buildings in the Netherlands. Here is just one: the library at TU Delft. Outside there is a large grassy ramp leading to the top, punctured by a cone. Inside, the cone gives light to the lower floors. At the far wall are all the books.

The building won a bunch of awards, and was designed by Mecanoo and built in 1996-7.

Friday, November 20, 2015

The Dutch Support the People of Paris

Here's a sign in the Delft (Netherlands) train station on Monday, November 16. It says (roughly) "Respect the victims of the Paris bombings with one minute of silence in stations and in trains at 12:00 Noon".

Saturday, November 07, 2015

Are All Neurosurgeons Crazy?

I'm beginning to think so, what with Ben Carson claiming that the pyramids were used to store grain, not to bury rulers and that he had a violent past.

So it's not really a surprise to see that walking Dunning-Kruger effect-man, Michael Egnor, claiming that humans can't be apes because "Human beings have mental powers that include the material mental powers of animals but in addition entail a profoundly different kind of thinking" and "Human beings think abstractly, and nonhuman animals do not".

I'm really curious to know how Dr. Egnor knows with certainty that nonhuman animals cannot think abstractly. I guess he is just egnoring all the research that suggests just the opposite. It's not like this is hidden stuff; Egnor could read, for example, the books of Dutch primatologist Frans de Waal.

Maybe not all neurosurgeons are this batshit loony. After all, another thing that Carson and Egnor have in common is that they are both creationists. Maybe that's the real problem. Maybe you have to be immersed in jeebus-juice to believe, like Egnor does, that "Human rationality is different because it is immaterial." I guess our thinking powers are just magic; all that neurocircuitry is just there for show.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Torley Defends Dembski, Attacks Me, Over Bogus Schopenhauer Quotation

Over at the creationist website, Uncommon Descent, we have the logorrheic Vincent Torley trying to defend the behavior of creationist William Dembski with regard to a bogus quote of Schopenhauer.

I've discussed this alleged quote of Schopenhauer before, and you can see a summary of what I found out here.

A rough summary is as follows (you can read more here, if you like): I noticed a bogus quote in one of Dembski's articles, which he attributed to Schopenhauer. It is a quote that had interested me for a long time, long before I ever saw Dembski use it. I had already done some research on it, and I knew that Schopenhauer did not really say what was attributed to him. I pointed this out to Dembski, who was (in private correspondence) quite contemptuous of my point, and asked me to prove to him that Schopenhauer never said the alleged quote. Of course, this is impossible, and a completely unreasonable demand. The burden of proof is on the quoter, not the person disputing the quotation! The quote then appeared, unaltered, and still attributed to Schopenhauer, in one of Dembski's books. Not only that, Dembski later belittled me publicly for the fact that I chose to investigate the quotation! So much for respect for scholarship.

But this isn't the only time Dembski has been sloppy with quotations, as I documented before. There's a pattern here, which Torley doesn't address, of course.

Apparently Torley is quite taken with the fact that 10 years later, Dembski used the bogus quote once more, but this time wrote "In a quote widely attributed to Arthur Schopenhauer". I guess it only took ten years for my point to sink in. Torley seems to think this shows how ethical and scholarly Dembski is. Others might differ with that assessment.

For all his logorrhea, Torley essentially acknowledges my point. The quote is bogus, and Dembski knows it is bogus, and Dembski doesn't seem to care that others have put in the time and effort to trace its origins, while he nevertheless continues to use it. All that effort expended when any reasonable colleague would just have written, "Thanks, Jeff, for letting me know about the quote. I'll be more careful in the future."

What could be more emblematic of the intelligent design movement?

Friday, October 16, 2015

Every Moose Was Kung Fu Fighting

From my colleague Jean-Paul, here's a video of a moose skirmish in Alaska. Or, if that one doesn't work for you, try this link instead.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Neat Trompe L'Oeil Bike Rack in Sacramento

While visiting my childhood friend, musician & cartoonist Mark Stivers in Sacramento, I spotted this neat bike rack.

Here's what it looks like from one angle. Just an ordinary, but weird, bike rack, in three pieces.

Here's what it looks like from another angle.

According to this page, the rack was designed by Jason A. Silva.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Another Non-Biologist Thinks He Can Teach Biologists About Evolution

It really cracks me up how religious people with no biology training think they have some special insight into evolution that the people who actually study biology somehow haven't figured out.

Granville Sewell, William Dembski, Barry Arrington --- the list goes on and on. And here's another name to add to the list: Steve Laufmann. It shouldn't surprise you that this dolt is published by the Discovery Institute, a group whose fundamental purpose is to confuse the public about evolution.

Laufmann, who claims to be an expert in "information systems", but cannot seem to manage to complete his own web page (check out all the "lorem ipsums" under "The Blog"), has absolutely nothing new to say. It's all the usual claims without evidence, like "Random events cannot create complex information, except in two circumstances: (a) there is some predefined notion of a desirable outcome, and (b) any "positive gains" toward that outcome are protected from random degradation through some external mechanism. Both of these special circumstances require intention, which the physical laws cannot offer." Laufmann clearly doesn't know a damn thing about information, since random events are, in fact, essentially the only source of information, and it doesn't require anything like "a predefined notion of a desirable outcome".

Oh, and if you had any doubts that Laufmann's doubts are based in religion, check out this page, where he is described as a "long-time ministry leader".

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Lobby of the Philadelphia Record, early 1940's

Here's a postcard showing the lobby of the Philadelphia Record newspaper building. The card seems to be postmarked 1945, which suggests this photo is from the time that my parents worked there as newspaper reporters. (The couple at the right center even looks a little like them!)

The building still stands, at 317 N. Broad Street, where it is now high-end apartments.

It seems like a beautiful lobby. I wish I could have seen it, and I wish there were a much higher resolution version of this photo. (This one appears to be a colorized black-and-white photo.)

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

You'll Know Them By Their Love ... and By Their Honesty

From Ed Brayton, we see this appalling video of how "loving" Christians yell at a lesbian couple getting a marriage license in Kentucky.

Yup, you'll know them by their love.

And, in related news, Barry Arrington loves to label those who disagree with him as liars, while providing this gem: "The death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ is one of the most reliably documented events in all of human history."

Yup, more reliably documented than the Battle of Waterloo, the dropping of the bomb on Hiroshima, the assassination of Lincoln, the invasion of Normandy, the sinking of the Titanic, ...

You'll know them by their honesty.

Wednesday, September 09, 2015

Robert Marks II: Still Refusing to Reply One Year Later

Wow, has it been a year already? A year ago, I wrote to the illustrious Robert Marks II, asking him about a claim he made: "we all agree that a picture of Mount Rushmore with the busts of four US Presidents contains more information than a picture of Mount Fuji".

No reply.

No reply after three months.

Or six months. (Just an auto-reply.)

Isn't this just typical of creationists? Make wild claims and refuse to back them up when challenged.

Monday, September 07, 2015

They Offer Nothing But Lies, Continued

Here we have the amusing spectacle of Denyse O'Leary offering nothing truthful at all, with regard to speciation.

What is a "species" anyway? If you listen to Darwinblather, you’d never think to ask.

Right you are, Denyse! If evolutionary biologists studied speciation, there would be articles and books about it in the scientific literature, written by prominent Darwinists (and even some philosophers!). But of course, there are no such things. (Don't follow those links, Denyse!)

In short, no one knows.

In short, Denyse doesn't know. I can guarantee she never read Coyne's book.

Look, I (O’Leary for News) am not saying speciation doesn’t occur. I guess so, but don’t really care.

What Denyse O'Leary doesn't know could fill several large stadiums.

James Barham, A Very Confused Philosopher

As you know, I'm very skeptical about the ability of most philosophers to say anything interesting (or even true) about science. Here is yet another example of bad philosophy, this time from James Barham.

Really, I wish anyone who wants to prattle on and on about the deficiencies of Darwinism would take, at the very least, undergraduate courses on the theory of computation and artificial intelligence. It would save a lot of electrons being wasted the way Barham does.

It starts badly, with a claim that the "Darwinian consensus" (whatever that means) is "gradual[ly] crumbling" and that the "official explanation" (no kidding -- like a 9/11 truther, he really says that) "of the nature of living things---and therefore of human beings---that we've all been led to believe in for the past 60 or 70 years turns out to be dead wrong in some essential respects."

Yeah, yeah. We've heard that for more than a hundred years; it's what Glenn Morton called the "longest-running falsehood in creationism".

"The machine metaphor was a mistake---organisms are not machines, they are intelligent agents."

This is precisely the kind of silliness that a good course on the theory of computation could avoid. Why does he think that a machine cannot be an "intelligent agent"?

"For one thing, it [Darwinism] meant that all purpose is an illusion, even in ourselves, which is absurd. We know that is not true from the direct evidence of our own experience."

No, the biological theory of evolution does not mean that "all purpose is an illusion". Trouble results from using the vague word "purpose", which means many things to different people. It is not a concept that has a precise scientific definition (what are the units of "purpose"?), although Barham tries to provide one: he says, "Purpose is the idea that something happens, not because it must tout court, according to physical law, but rather because it must conditionally, in order for something else to happen." Well, that's not what most people mean by purpose, but even so, practically any computer program would exhibit purpose under Barham's definition. And nature is filled with objects that can serve as a basis for computation, including DNA and sandpiles. There is simply no logical barrier at all to computing devices arising through natural processes.

There are a few philosophers who have something interesting to say about evolution, but Barham is not one of them.

Sunday, September 06, 2015

A Silly Paper in a Silly Journal

The International Journal of Mathematics Research, also known as IJMR, is officially a Silly Journal™. Here's why:

Reason #1: The journal's URL, as provided on some papers they have published, is given incorrectly: it says "", but the correct URL is "". You have to be particularly incompetent to run a journal which cannot publish its own URL correctly.

Reason #2: The journal's listing of their editorial board contains spelling errors, lists at least one editor twice, and contains not a single person in the countries where mathematics research is strongest (e.g., USA, Canada, France, Germany, Netherlands, UK, Russia, Italy, Australia). Also, no e-mail for any of the editors is given.

Reason #3: Recently they published this paper: Ali Abtan, "A New Theorem for the Prime Counting Function in Number Theory", in Volume 7 (2015). Containing ungrammatical and false claims like "So till now their is no formula for the prime counting function π(x) as you see from the end of 18th century till now" (completely ignoring the work of Meissel, Lehmer, Lagarias, Miller, Odlyzko, and others), this paper is a mess. Understanding why the paper is silly is a bit more involved, so I'll start by explaining one aspect of what makes a paper good.

A general principle about theorems is that they should be (within reason) as general as possible. For example, if you prove that if some property of a specific set S holds, then before publishing it you should think about what more general property S has that makes it possible to get the result. Here's a specific example: recently I saw a reddit post that pointed out that every prime p greater than or equal to 5 can be expressed as p = (24n+1)½, for some integer n. This is totally uninteresting, but the reason why it's uninteresting is that this property has basically nothing to do with primes at all! Rather, it is trivial fact that every number q that is relatively prime to 6 has the property that q2 ≡ 1 (mod 24), a fact that can instantly be verified by computing (6k+1)2 and (6k+5)2 and observing that k(k+1) is always even. Since every prime greater than or equal to 5 is relatively prime to 6, the result follows immediately. But, I emphasize again, the result is really about numbers relatively prime to 6, not primes. It captures basically nothing interesting about primes at all.

Now, in Abtan's paper, what is the silliness? He states the following formula for the prime-counting function π(x), which is the number of primes ≤ x. (For example, π(10) = 4.)

π(x) = (Σ2≤px p + Σ2≤n<x π(n))/X.

Now, as stated, this formula contains two silly features. First, X is undefined; it should be x. (Where were the editors or referees for this paper?!?) Second, the formula is manifestly incorrect when x is not an integer (for example, try x = 2.5). So we shouldn't use x, because among mathematicians, x usually implies a real-valued variable. Let's use N instead.

With these two corrections, the formula becomes correct:

π(N) = (Σ2≤pN p + Σ2≤n<N π(n))/N for integers N ≥ 1.

Let's overlook the fact that the formula is completely useless for computing prime numbers or π(N), and instead focus on the formula itself. Remember the principle: try to figure out the class of sequences for which such a formula might hold. Well, let's try some interesting but completely unrelated sequence, like the squares. Instead of π(N), we might define sqrt(N), the number of positive integer squares ≤ N. Does a similar formula hold?

Yes! In fact, more or less exactly the same formula holds:

sqrt(N) = (Σ1≤i2N i2 + Σ1≤n<N sqrt(n))/N for integers N ≥ 1.

How can this be? Well, the obvious answer is that Abtan's formula (for which he gave a long and complicated induction proof) has nothing to do with primes at all!

Let us generalize Abtan's formula and give a very, very simple proof of it. (It is often the case that if you generalize a theorem properly, it becomes easier to prove than a specific case might be.)

To generalize it, let S be any set of positive integers. S could be the prime numbers, or the positive square integers, or anything else. Let πS(n) denote the number of elements of S that are ≤ n. Then we claim that

πS(N) = (Σ1≤sN and sS s   +   Σ1≤n<N πS(n))/N for integers N ≥ 1.

This has an easy proof by diagram! To see it, draw a histogram of the function πS(n) from n = 1 to N. For example, for the primes and N = 12, this would look like

The total number of red boxes is clearly Σ1≤n≤N πS(n).

Now consider the rectangle bounded by the lines x = 0, x = N, y = 0, and y = πS(N):

The total number of boxes here is clearly NπS(N).

How about the boxes in the rectangle which are not colored in red? Well, the top row is all blank boxes until the first prime hit in this row, which is 11. So there are 10 boxes. In the next row, there are all blanks until the first prime hit, which is 7. So there are 6 boxes. And so forth. So the total number of white boxes is Σ2≤pN (p - 1) (or, more generally, Σ1≤sN and sS (s - 1).) Thus we have proved

NπS(N) = Σ1≤sN and sS (s - 1)   +   Σ1≤n≤N πS(n).

This is the nice version of Abtan's formula. To get his formula, just add πS(N) to the left sum and subtract it from the right, then divide by N, to get

πS(N) = (Σ1≤sN and sS s   +   Σ1≤n<N πS(n))/N.

So we see that Abtan's formula has nothing to do with primes at all, really.

Any competent referee would have seen this immediately. Congratulations, IJMR. You're officially a Silly Journal™.

Wednesday, September 02, 2015

Old Issues of APL News

I digitized these a long time ago, but I can't find any record that I posted about it! So here are some old issues of APL News, a newsletter about the computer language APL published from 1978 to 1982 by Ken Iverson. I contributed a little to it.

Friday, August 28, 2015

We Escaped from Adventure Room!

For my older son's 21st birthday, four of us went to Adventure Rooms in Kitchener. (There's also one in Niagara Falls.) This is a game for 2 to 7 players where you're locked in a room and have to use the clues present to escape within one hour.

You have to sign a non-disclosure agreement, so I can't say much about it, other than it reminded me a little of one of the very few modern computer games I've played, "Myst". There were lots of red herrings and false paths to follow, more than I would have expected.

If you enjoy problem-solving, you might enjoy this; if you enjoy computer games (I don't, particularly), probably even more. Only about 20% of all teams competing manage to escape. We got out with about 1 minute and 50 seconds to spare. Everybody contributed significantly to the solution; we would not have gotten out if any one of us had not been there, but we also had a bit of luck.

This was a lot of fun, and our team size of four was close to optimal. Fewer, and you just don't have enough bodies to follow all the possible routes. Larger, and the number of people make it hard to coordinate and put together disparate clues.

If I had one suggestion to the owners, it would be to discard the very chintzy little reward you get for solving the puzzle, and replace it with something like a $5 gift card good for one of their alternate adventures.

No Moose in My Bike Lanes

The main problem with living in Kitchener, Ontario, is that this never happens.

Yield for Pedestrians...and Moose!

We're not the only ones using the bike lanes sometimes...

Posted by The Alaska Life on Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Sunday, August 23, 2015

"Good Fences" - A Math Puzzle App by Craig Kaplan

My colleague Craig Kaplan (who also designed the cover of one of my books) has released a new app called "Good Fences" on the Apple store. It's a geometric puzzle game based on tiling by shapes. Given a shape, you have to drag copies of it to completely surround it. There are also some variations.

It looks like fun! Give it a try.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Rafee Kamouna Owes Me $500 Today - But Will He Pay?

Rafee Kamouna, who has been claiming for years that he has proved something important about the P versus NP problem, bet me two years ago that his marvelous work would appear in the Journal of the ACM by today.

Needless to say, it hasn't.

By the terms of our bet, I was to pay him $1000 if it appeared, whereas he only has to pay me $500 because it hasn't.

Rafee, I'm prepared to accept my money now. You can contact me for payment instructions.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Chan Lawsuit Illustrates Why Canadian Libel Law Needs Reform

The sight of a Canadian politician suing a Canadian newspaper and a Canadian professor for libel should cause anyone who favors lively debate on current issues to think something is terribly, terribly wrong.

And Michael Chan, MPP for Markham-Unionville and Minister of Citizenship, Immigration and International Trade, isn't the first politician to use libel to try to shut down criticism. Brian Mulroney famously threatened a suit against the Canadian government itself. Unbelievably, he actually got the government to back down and pay him a $2 million settlement.

The US has the right approach here. The bar for public figures like Chan and Mulroney should be set extremely high. Otherwise, we get what we have in Canada: libel chill makes investigative journalists too scared to take on powerful figures.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

How Atheists Find Meaning

Read this excellent Buzzfeed article about how various atheists find meaning in their lives without a god.

Then read this this comment by Barry Arrington on the article. Arrington does nothing but sneer, saying the atheists in the article exhibit "gobsmacking stupidity", have a "lack of intellectual honesty" and "[spout] self-contradicting pseudo-profundities".

But he doesn't give a single example of what he thinks is wrong!

On a more personal note, who would you rather have lunch with? Arrington, or the genuine humans depicted in Buzzfeed, full of modesty, joy, sorrow, intellectual curiosity, and love?

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

J. P. Moreland Thinks He Understands the Brain

I absolutely love this video by J. P. Moreland, a fourth-rate philosopher and ID advocate who teaches at a fifth-rate Bible college (Biola University, which gets its name from "Bible Institute of Los Angeles", the more honest name they used for many years).

I can't think of a better example of the intellectual bankruptcy of the kind of "Christian thought" that gave us both intelligent design and the "evolutionary argument against naturalism". Biola also hosted the conference that resulted in Mere Creation, a volume that included one of the most laughable mathematical articles ever, written by (you guessed it) David Berlinski.

As you watch the video, keep in mind that "Biola holds to the key doctrine of Biblical inerrancy, the idea that the original writings of the Bible were without error with regard to both theological and non-theological matters. As a final guarantee of strict adherence to its theological worldview, the university requires every faculty member, when first hired and again upon application for tenure, to submit their understanding of and complete agreement with each item of the doctrinal and teaching statements to the Talbot School of Theology for evaluation." [wikipedia]

Moreland seems to think that philosophy, and specifically Christian philosophy, holds the key to understanding the mind.

In this short video, how many misunderstandings and silly assertions can you find? Here is a brief list:

  1. incoherence and untestability of his definition of "soul": "an immaterial substance that contains consciousness and animates the body"
  2. no definition of "consciousness"
  3. "consciousness actually resides in the brain" (all those sensory organs we have are, I suppose, completely irrelevant to consciousness)
  4. "Darwin admitted when he came up with his theory of evolution that it could not explain the origin of mind" (as if modern evolutionary theory depends on what Darwin thought in the 1800's)
  5. "the problem for the atheist is how you can get mind from matter" (as if computers or brains are not made of matter)
  6. "if I'm just a body and a brain, then probably at the end of the day drugs ... and things of that sort will be the ultimate tools to help change people" (as if, for example, if you want to reprogram a computer, then offering new data to that computer can have no effect at all on that computer's behavior)
  7. "consciousness is immaterial"
  8. "if you start with matter from the Big Bang, and all you do is rearrange it according to the laws of chemistry and physics, you're not going to be able to get a conscious rabbit out of that material hat" (as if bodies and brains are not rearrangements of matter and energy)
At the end, Moreland reveals his real agenda. He's not really interested in understanding the brain at all. What he wants is to "generate ideas that will be useful to the spread of the Gospel and the promotion of the kingdom of god". When that's the real goal, it's not surprising at all that the ideas generated are so completely incoherent and uninformed by science.

Wednesday, August 05, 2015

ID Supporters Interviewed; Count the Misrepresentations

Oh, look, a religious group interviews two ID supporters while claiming to examine the biological theory of evolution. No need, of course, to interview a real biologist.

Here are some brief comments:

  1. "evidences": why is it that creationists nearly always use "evidence" in the plural, while almost everyone else considers it a mass noun?
  2. McLatchie: "information uniformly traces its source back to an intelligent cause"; "We know in all realms of experience of cause and effect that information uniformly traces its source back to an intelligent cause"; "specified complexity uniformly comes from an intelligent source". McLatchie shows that he is a good little parrot who is able to read Stephen Meyer and regurgitate him practically word-for-word. Don't let the fact that all these claims are lies deter you, Jonathan!
  3. Bridges: "We know that the Darwinian mechanism are [sic] not capable of building this type of information and the only known source is something like conscious activity." Another lie. In fact, we know that evolutionary algorithms can produce extremely complicated designs. Creationists always sidestep this objection; you can't even find a reference to Sims in any of the major ID books.
  4. McLatchie: "or if you could demonstrate that some mechanism other than intelligent design could explain specified complexity then that again would destroy the design inference. So intelligent design is falsifiable". To the extent that's true, it's been falsified. Of course, "specified complexity" is a charade, as Elsberry and I have shown. But even using the bogus definitions of Dembski, it's easy to generate specified complexity (as we also showed in that paper).
  5. McLatchie: "intelligent design predicts that the ratio of functional to non-functional sequences should be astronomically small", "whereas the neo-Darwinian scenario predicts that it should there should be a relative abundance of stable and functional protein folds within combinatorial space". Of course, this is false. Intelligent design doesn't make any such prediction, because the intelligent designer is not constrained. He could make functional sequences abundant or rare, as he chose.
  6. Bridges: "if 99% of the relevant data set [i.e., the fossil record] is missing how could a theory dealing with that data set purport to give us a literally true story of the type of organisms that lived in the past and their potential genealogical relationships?". Well, Bridges just shows that he knows nothing about science. 99% of most of the relevant data sets in geology, biology, astrophysics, and other fields are not available for us to study directly; yet we still have accurate theories about orogeny, stellar evolution, and so forth. Heck, 99% of the data about my grandparents' emigration to the US is missing, but I can still give you a literally true story of how they got here.
If the interviewer had really wanted to understand evolution, he could have interviewed Jerry Coyne or Richard Dawkins or dozens of other scientists. But, of course, he doesn't. His goal is to prop up the faithful.

Similarly, you're never going to see Jonathan McLatchie or J. T. Bridges being interviewed by an actual science program. The only way they can get airtime is in religious forums like this. So much for the pretense that ID is actually about science.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Barry Arrington Channels Thomas Lanier Clingman

Thomas Lanier Clingman (1812-1897) was a Christian pro-slavery Senator from North Carolina who today is memorialized in the eponymous Clingman's Dome, the highest point on the Appalachian Trail.

Here are some excerpts from a speech Clingman made on the floor of the Senate, January 18 1860, as reported in the Wilmington Journal, February 2 1860, page 4:

"If the negro were in fact in all other respects like the white man, his blackness would have been of no more consequence than the difference between black and red hair or light and dark eyes. The feeling against him grows out of the fact that he is in all respects different from the white man and inferior...

"...Omnipotence has made a difference between the white man and the negro..."

"When, sir, some twelve years ago I, in discussion, threw out suggestions about the difference of the races, I was denounced as one who attributed injustice to Almighty God in alleging that He had made the negroes inferior..."

"For the inequality of the negro Providence is responsible, as He is for the entire creation which surrounds us. When human laws are in accordance with the system of nature they are wise; but if in oppositien [sic] to it they are productive only of mischief..."

"Hitherto they [the Abolitionists] have enlisted the sympathies and feelings of the North by falsely assuming that the negro and white man have in all respects the same nature. Let the inequality which the Creator has made be recognised, and their systems fall to the ground..."

"But we are asked how we will go about making a revolution or dissolving the Union ? ..."

You can read the whole thing yourself. To summarize: Clingman viewed the equality of black man and white man as absurd; that this inequality was ordained by his god and "the system of nature"; that only "mischief" could result from ignoring this; and that if the North persisted in its absurd views then revolution might be the consequence (although Clingman concluded that this would probably not happen).

Now go read Barry Arrington on gay marriage at the pro-intelligent-design blog. (What Barry's bigotry has to do with intelligent design is, as usual, unclear.) The similarity between Arrington's rhetoric and Clingman's is astonishing. (One difference is that Arrington misrepresents the truth, as when he states "Every time the people have voted on the “right” to same-sex marriage they have rejected it by fairly wide margins." Perhaps Arrington thinks the good inhabitants of Maine are not people. But why should a lawyer be aware of legislative history?)

Some people claim the debate between evolution and intelligent design is about science. It's not. All the science is on the evolution side. The debate arises almost entirely from a medieval, ignorant, and uninformed view of the world that has more in common with 1860's North Carolina than it does with a modern secular democracy.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Amtrak Censoring Atheists?

I took Amtrak from Toronto to New York and back this week. Thankfully, there was some spotty wi-fi coverage offered by the railroad, but there were significant limits. You could not download any file larger than 10 Megs, which put a stop to my plan to listen to some podcasts. But even more surprisingly, I discovered that some atheist videos were not allowed... such as this one.

I checked some other youtube videos of similar size, but these were not blocked (despite what it says here), and furthermore, the error message I got was different from when I tried to download a podcast that was too big. It suggested I should contact Amtrak by e-mail if I thought something was blocked unfairly, so I did that. They promised a response within 24 hours but, not surprisingly, it's been 24 hours and I've received no explanation.

So, what's going on, Amtrak?

Friday, July 03, 2015

Moose Affect Memory

From the CBC comes this interesting story of a man who had a moose encounter and promptly lost his memory.

This is not surprising at all to moose aficionados.

Wednesday, July 01, 2015

Obama and "Amazing Grace"

Of all the songs that gave momentum to the civil rights movement in the US, "Amazing Grace" stands out (for me) as one of the most repulsive.

For one thing, the Christian doctrine of grace is really reprehensible. "Grace" means that humans are "depraved" because of Adam's fall, that they cannot rationally respond to an offer of "salvation" from Christ, so the Christian god actually overrides man's will so he will "repent" and "be saved", and that Christ's offer is meant for the "elect", which is independent of one's moral character or good works. To the extent that this nonsense is meaningful, it is evidently quite sick: it denigrates human beings as worthless wretches, and it allows those who believe they are among the "elect" to feel superior to everyone else.

For another, the song was written by a slave trader, John Newton, who underwent a religious conversion after a life-threatening storm at sea (but nevertheless continued in the slave trade for several years afterwards). How this became a civil rights anthem is anyone's guess, but it seems wildly inappropriate.

Far better, in my opinion, is "We Shall Overcome", which is both lyrically and melodically superior.

So I have to admit that when President Obama sang "Amazing Grace" at the eulogy for Rev. Clementa Pinckney, I was not particularly moved at all. However, I certainly recognize that, for the community he was addressing, the song has strong resonance. But "We Shall Overcome" would have been a much better choice.

And even worse was Obama's remarks on religion:

"Blinded by hatred, [the killer] failed to comprehend what Reverend Pinckney so well understood — the power of God’s grace... This whole week, I’ve been reflecting on this idea of grace. The grace of the families who lost loved ones; the grace that Reverend Pinckney would preach about in his sermons; the grace described in one of my favorite hymnals, the one we all know — Amazing Grace. How sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me. According to the Christian tradition, grace is not earned. Grace is not merited. It’s not something we deserve. Rather, grace is the free and benevolent favor of God."

I'm sorry, Mr. President, I think "grace" is one of the most repulsive of all Christian beliefs.

"The hands that help are better far than lips that pray." -- Robert Ingersoll

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

I Don't Recommend This Although It Looks Like Fun

For one, thing, it appears to be illegal.

But in a better world, the rich would walk, while the poor would ride moose.

Moose Demonstrates Inherent Superiority to Cat

With all due respect to Jerry Coyne, the moose is clearly superior to the cat. This video from Youtube proves it.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Gay Marriage is a Constitutional Right

The Supreme Court's decision is already being greeted with predictions of doom, destruction, revolution, and so forth by the far Right.

Guess what will really happen? The same thing that happened in Canada.

Nothing at all, except that a small segment of the population will now have the protections usually associated with marriage. And the opponents will, in twenty or thirty years, be seen as archaic as opponents of interracial marriage do today.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Noel Sharkey's Mistake

I heard a radio piece about a new "emotionally aware" robot being introduced in Japan. The interviewer talked to Noel Sharkey, a UK computer scientist.

Sharkey cast doubt on the "emotionally aware" claim. The robot is not really emotionally aware, Sharkey claimed; rather, it's just using an algorithm to detect emotion in humans and respond appropriately.

I wonder just how Prof. Sharkey thinks people detect emotion in other humans? If not an algorithm, what does he think is going on in the brain? Is it magic?

I'm always amused to hear people -- even computer experts like Sharkey -- complain that computers can't "really" do something, whether it be compose music, or write poetry, or detect emotion. But these naysayers never seem to explain what it would mean to "really" do these things. It's like complaining that airplanes don't "really" fly because they don't flap their wings the way birds do.

Friday, June 19, 2015

The Connection Between Intelligent Design & Anti-Gay Bigotry

Those of us who have studied the intelligent design controversy know well that it is a political and religious movement, not a scientific one.

Here is yet more evidence. This ridiculous "pledge" against gay marriage was signed by two major figures of the intelligent design movement: Jay Richards and Jonathan Witt.

Jay Richards and Jonathan Witt are both senior fellows of the Discovery Institute, the principal propaganda arm of the intelligent design movement. Neither of them, of course, has any advanced scientific training. That lack of knowledge doesn't prevent them from writing, at great length, about the supposed flaws of evolution, and the virtues of intelligent design.

Denialism is a principle part of the worldview of the signers. When they write things like

  • "We affirm that marriage and family have been inscribed by the Divine Architect into the order of Creation."
  • "Marriage is ontologically between one man and one woman"
  • "the truth that marriage can exist only between one man and one woman is not based on religion or revelation alone, but on the Natural Law, written on the human heart and discernible through the exercise of reason"
  • "No civil institution, including the United States Supreme Court or any court, has authority to redefine marriage."
  • "Neither the United States Supreme Court nor any court has authority to redefine marriage"
  • "marriage intrinsically involves a man and a woman"
one can only recall that exactly the same kinds of things were said when Loving v. Virginia was decided, and then roll one's eyes.

Judge Leon Bazile wrote, when he upheld Virginia's anti-miscegenation law, "Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents. And but for the interference with his arrangement there would be no cause for such marriages. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix." Is the congruence between Bazile's decision and the statement that Richards and Witt signed not completely obvious to everyone?

Denialism of social change like gay marriage and denialism of scientific theories like evolution are just two sides of the same coin. Both are essentially rooted in mindless adherence to religious dogma and the fear that if one does not adhere to the same principles, then chaos is the result. They were wrong about Loving and they're wrong today.

Friday Moose Blogging

From Washington state comes this heartwarming story of a moose that shut down a high school. You can't be too careful when there are moose terrorists on the loose. I blame Obama.

Hat tip: RM.

Monday, June 08, 2015

Uncommon Descent Coward and Hypocrite Timaeus Attacks Larry Moran

Wow, a whole thread at the creationist blog Uncommon Descent devoted to attacking Larry Moran!

The cowardly "Timaeus", an academic who is not brave enough to use his real name, takes issue with Larry Moran's blog because "I couldn’t find a single article on evolutionary theory [by Larry] in a peer-reviewed journal on the subject for over 10 years into the past. For someone who has so many opinions on evolution, and voices them so loudly in non-professionally-controlled environments such as blog sites, you are surprisingly absent from the professional discussions. Perhaps you can explain the inverse relationship between your popular involvement in debates over evolution and your visibility in the technical books and articles on the subject of evolution."

Timaeus goes on to say "Larry Moran is a nobody in evolutionary theory, a biochemistry teacher at Toronto with an interest in evolutionary theory who is convinced he knows more about it than almost everyone else on the planet, but with no track record to corroborate that opinion."

"That’s the problem with the internet age. Through web sites and blogs, it gives people the ability to be prominent, and many readers assume that prominence equals importance."

It's true that Larry seems to have done most of his research work in the 1980's and 1990's. Without much work, I found articles by Larry in famous journals like Molecular and Cellular Biology, Journal of Cell Biology, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (US), and Developmental Biology. Since then, he's been involved with Principles of Biochemistry, a major textbook. As anyone who's worked on a textbook like this knows, it's an incredible time sink. Larry deserves our appreciation and thanks for devoting himself so selflessly to biological education.

Science is often a young person's game. Many scientists do their best work in their 20's and 30's. Later on they often go into administration, or write textbooks. Larry is not much different from many scientists in this regard.

Timaeus seems to think you have to do research in evolutionary theory in order to discuss it. That's sort of like saying that you have to do research in analysis in order to discuss freshman calculus. Pretty much any mathematician can differentiate and integrate; it's a basic tool of many fields. Similarly, evolution underlies much of modern biology. Most biologists will have had advanced training in the theory of evolution. Creationists and ID advocates typically have misunderstandings at a very basic level, and that's what Larry is correcting.

Timaeus claims "It seems to be merely his [Larry's] own private judgment that he knows more about evolutionary mechanisms than anyone else, that he thinks more clearly than anyone else, etc.". Later he says "But Moran apparently takes himself quite seriously as an evolutionary theorist". And later, "why does this guy think he is so important a figure in modern evolutionary theory". Who says Larry knows more about evolutionary mechanisms than anyone else? Where did he ever say he was "an evolutionary theorist"? Where did Larry ever say he is "so important a figure"? Timaeus seems to have just made that all up.

Timaeus seems to not understand what a blog is. He says "[Larry] could not write in that style in an academic journal of evolutionary theory. Any article written in that style would be rejected. So would any book, if written for a serious academic scientific publisher." But a blog is not an academic journal or a book; it's often just an outlet for things that interest the blogger. Timaeus seems not to understand that.

Furthermore, Timaeus doesn't apply the same standards to Uncommon Descent. Does Timaeus think the ravings of Barry Arrington, Denyse O'Leary, and William Dembski on that blog could be published in an academic journal? Does Timaeus remember the fart noises that Dembski so delighted in? Or the time Barry Arrington cited a fake quote that he attributed to Margaret Sanger? Did Timaeus offer a word of objection to these (which are just two of dozens and dozens of similar examples)?

Timaeus huffs that "[Science] does not belong in the arena of culture war and popular rhetoric. It belongs in the arena of sober professional discussion." Actually, popular science has existed for a very long time. Famous scientists like Einstein and Watson and Sagan all wrote popular books. As for "culture war", surely it is the creationists and ID advocates who have spent most of their time in culture war and popular rhetoric, and hardly any time at all in research. For evidence, all you have to do is look at Bio-complexity, the flagship ID journal. Here it is June, and they don't even have a single article posted yet for 2015. Last year they published a total of 4.

Timaeus sneers, "But it is interesting that often the people who are the most dismissive of the views of others are those with the least scientific accomplishment themselves — or those who at one time had accomplishments themselves, but as they have become older have tended to “coast” and involve themselves more in popular book-writing, blogging, flashy stage debates, etc. (e.g., Dawkins, Coyne, Ken Miller)."

Let's see: Denyse O'Leary writes endlessly about "Darwinism", which she dismisses as "publicly funded nonsense". What scientific accomplishments does she have?

Barry Arrington writes about information theory, but doesn't understand it at all. What scientific accomplishments does he have?

David Klinghoffer does the same. What scientific accomplishments does he have?

I don't see Timaeus offering any criticism at all of these folks. And this is the same Timaeus who says "You are so partisan it’s disgusting." Timaeus, you're a hypocrite.

(By the way, Timaeus, Dawkins is 74. Coyne is 65. Moran is about 67, I think. Maybe Timaeus will still be producing good research at those ages, but not everybody can. I'm 57 and I definitely feel like I'm slowing down. But calling it "coasting" is really offensive. A little charity is called for.)

The commenters on that post at Uncommon Descent aren't much better. Mapou (that is, Louis Savain), says "The shrill tone of people like Moran, Coyne and Dawkins is a sign of desperation. This culture did not exist 20 years ago." What? Has Savain never read any Duane Gish? The anti-evolutionists have been shrill for at least 90 years; I own a book by Louis T. More published in 1925 that sounds just like ID creationists today.

Timaeus says, "I’m not happy to listen to self-appointed referees laying down the law, week after week, in column after column, regarding who is ignorant, who is wrong, etc., in areas in which their own expertise has not been demonstrated." Then why does he read Larry's blog? No one's forcing Timaeus to listen.

Timaeus goes on to say, "I’m not against genuine academic discussions about evolution, policed by traditional academic rules; but the blogosphere has created a new, in-between kind of debate over evolution, led by scientists who are taking time off from their day jobs to become internet stars and gain internet followings, and who seem to think that their pronouncements on these academically unchecked sites have the same epistemological status as the conclusions of a well-executed research program. I really dislike this trend. It blurs the distinction between serious academic discussion and bar-room conversation in what is to me a dangerous way. Larry Moran, Jeffrey Shallit, P.Z. Myers, and others are guilty of this."

Oh, goody, I get criticized, too. Hey Timaeus, I've got news for you: I'm not an "internet star". My little blog hardly gets any readers at all; Uncommon Descent and Pharyngula both get many more hits than I do. I've never claimed anything like "[my] pronouncements on these academically unchecked sites have the same epistemological status as the conclusions of a well-executed research program"; you're just making that shit up. As for P. Z. Myers, one reason why people read him is that he's a damn good writer. Read his essay "Niobrara" for a sample. Hell, if I could write that well, I'd probably have more readers.

Timaeus says, "but there may be some less partisan people out there who just assumed that Larry was someone like Mayr or Ayala or Gould". Geez, you'd have to be a real moron to assume that Larry was on the same par as Mayr or Gould. Anybody who spent five minutes looking could see that his specialty is biochemistry and not evolution. Timaeus should give Larry's readers more credit; maybe they're not as stupid as Timaeus seems to think they are.

How something is being said is very important. Arrogance and abrasiveness, dismissiveness and name-calling, get in the way of genuine conversation. This is why Matzke, Shallit, Moran, Myers, Abbie Smith, etc. have made evolution/design conversations worse rather than better. Oh, great, I get another mention! Apparently I've made "evolution/design conversations worse rather than better". Timaeus makes no mention of the long article in Synthese I wrote with Elsberry in which we showed why Dembski's use of information theory is nonsense. But then, hardly any ID creationists have taken notice of that article or my other work on the subject. It took Dembski three years to admit a fundamental flaw in one of his calculations. What do you think, Timaeus? Is Dembski making the conversation worse or better? How about Dembski and the fart noises?

As for name-calling, just read Uncommon Descent. Evolutionists are routinely labeled as racist, as ignorant, as deluded, as "tax-funded" fools, and so forth. Clean up your own stable, first. It really reeks.

Timaeus says to a commenter, "If you are an evolutionary biologist, why can’t you tell us who you are and where you work? Not being an ID proponent, you can’t possibly lose your job, grants, career, etc. if your employer knows your real name (which is unfortunately the case for myself and several others here)."

Oh, right, the usual ID paranoia. I really, really doubt that Timaeus is in any danger by outing himself as an ID creationist. Sure, people will laugh at him the way we laugh at academics who engage in 9/11 conspiracy theories or global warming denial. But it seems very, very unlikely he would be in any danger of losing his job.

Timaeus sneers, "It is perhaps a certain provincialism derived from your experience (or more likely hearsay knowledge) of certain American research universities or university departments, where there are professors hired solely to do research, which causes you to make this error. You imagine that Toronto is something like that. But in most countries outside of the USA (and even in the USA at many if not most universities) the job teaching/research is a package deal. You don’t switch from one function to the other; you do both."

Actually, Timaeus is wrong. Generally speaking (but not always) professors are expected to do teaching and scholarly work, not necessarily just research. Writing and updating a major biochemistry textbook certainly falls under the kind of scholarly work professors are expected to do.

Finally, to answer one more of Timaeus' questions, why don't most famous evolutionary biologists get involved in attacking ID? For the same reason most famous mathematicians don't get involved in attacking Cantor crackpots, or famous computer scientists don't get involved with those who think Turing's proof of unsolvability is wrong: they have better things to do. They are happy to leave these quixotic quests to those few of us who are fascinated by cranks and pathological thought.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Alan Borovoy (1932-2015)

I am very sorry to learn that Alan Borovoy, a courageous fighter for free speech and civil liberties, has died.

He was for many years an important force in the Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA), the Canadian version of the ACLU. I strongly recommend his book Uncivil Obedience.

Saturday, April 04, 2015

Pity the Poor Beleaguered Creationist

Here's a creationist I had never heard of before: John Gideon Hartnett, an Australian physicist. In a recent blog post, he makes some good points about how science is not a foolproof process, but then goes off the rails entirely.

Hartnett says, "If you say evolution happens, it is disingenuous, because you really mean that natural selection and mutations happen. This is part of operational biological science. But Darwinian goo-to-you evolution does not happen!"

This is misleading in a number of ways. First, that's not what is meant by "evolution happens". Evolution is caused by many different kinds of processes, including sexual selection, genetic drift, founder effects, and others not mentioned by Hartnett. Second, biological evolution is generally understood to include claims like common descent.

By "goo-to-you evolution does not happen", it sounds like Hartnett is claiming that we do not see 3.5 billion years of evolution taking place in 5 minutes. But this, of course, is a ridiculous straw man. We don't see mountains rising 3000 meters today either, but that doesn't mean that the theory of plate tectonics is somehow invalidated. Many aspects of science involve looking at past events that are not always easy to duplicate, and trying to understand how they took place.

Hartnett feels persecuted: "Last year I gave a lecture at my university “8 Reasons Why Evolution is Foolish” and after the event I got all sorts of negative comments coming back through my line manager. Apparently geologists and biologists (read ‘evolutionists’) complained to the Dean of the Faculty of Science, that I was even asking questions, let alone criticizing the science, in areas of biology, geology, cosmology etc., and that it looks bad for the university. It only looks bad because I was questioning their religion of science, not operational, experimental science."

Look, if you can't stand criticism, why are you in science? Criticism, even harsh criticism, is a standard part of the scientific process. Hasn't Hartnett ever attended a science conference? And if you think you're critiquing evolution by bringing up long-debunked arguments like "circular reasoning" is used to date fossils, then you're not doing science, you're just being an idiot. When you say "Information comes from an intelligent mind, not by random processes", you're just demonstrating that you know nothing at all about information theory.

Hartnett shouldn't wonder why he gets no respect for his anti-evolution rants. It's because his arguments are worthless, ignorant, and have been debunked long ago. That's not the behavior of a scientist; it's the behavior of a religious fundamentalist. Big surprise.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

The Shallow World of Conrad Black

Why anyone would care why convicted felon Conrad Black has to say is beyond me.

Why anyone would give this supercilious dolt 1500 words in a major newspaper to attack atheists is also beyond me.

Nevertheless, that's what the National Post just did.

Bigotry against religious denominations is not generally tolerated. But bigotry against atheists gets 1500 words. As a thought experiment, what major newspaper in North America would publish a column entitled "The shabby, shallow world of the militant Jew"?

There's really no point fisking this crap in detail; it's already been done a million times before, since Conrad Black literally has not a single original word to say. I'll just point out a few things:

"militant atheist": as I've said before, it's a good bet that if you hear somebody repeat this cliché, you're dealing with a propagandist or shoddy thinker. Black repeats the cliché several times. People like Peter Singer and Richard Rorty are derided as "vocal atheistic militants", but then what is the term for John Lennox, the glowing subject of the column? Is he not a "vocal Christian militant"? (And who the heck is the "David Hawking" that Black refers to?)

"Dr. Lennox is one of the world’s most eminent mathematicians": No, I'm sorry, he's not. This is a typical example of credential inflation, one of the favorite tools of creationists and propagandists. You should not be surprised to see Conrad Black use it.

Dr. Lennox is certainly a good group theorist, but "one of the world's most eminent mathematicians" is a gross exaggeration that, I dare say, even the good Dr. Lennox himself would disavow. Dr. Lennox has not won the Fields medal. Dr. Lennox has not won the Cole Prize in Algebra, Dr. Lennox's field. As far as I can see, Dr. Lennox has not won any mathematical prizes at all. According to MathSciNet, the main reviewing journal in mathematics, Dr. Lennox has published 70 works since 1970, or about 1.6 papers per year. This is a good, but not outstanding record. His papers have received a total of 292 citations. (By contrast, MathSciNet says I have published 182 papers since 1975, which have received a total of 1125 citations. And I want to emphasize that I am certainly not "one of the world's most eminent mathematicians".)

All this pompous protestation aside, Black is on the losing end of this debate. More and more young people are rejecting the bogus claims of organized religion. Christianity and Islam cannot survive in their present form; it's only a matter of time. Either they will dominate the world through totalitarianism, or evolve closer to Deism, or they will slowly vanish.