Friday, March 31, 2006

Moose News Roundup

Here's the Friday moose news roundup:

From the Edmonton Sun, we learn that Robert Lee McLaren of Pugwash Junction, Nova Scotia, has received a 20-year hunting ban for shooting a robotic moose.

From Aftenposten in Norway, we are saddened to learn about a flying moose that landed on the roof of a Mazda driven by Leo Henriksen. The poor moose bounced off the roof and then was hit by a car driven by Randi Olsen.

From MSNBC, we can view a video of a moose that crashed through the windshield of a car in Leominster, Massachusetts driven by Juleigh McDowell, and ended up sitting in the passenger seat with its head out the broken window.

And finally, from the Anchorage Daily News, we have this photo of a young moose that crashed through the roof of a shed in Alaska.

All in all, the life of a moose is difficult.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Stupid Creationist Letter Award for March

The letters section in my college alumni magazine is always a source of amusement, with its monthly fulminations by doddering retirees about some new outrage. When I was a student, the alumni (including, to my shame, our latest Supreme Court justice) were incensed by the admission of women and gays. Now the outrage is directed towards President Tilghman, who had the temerity to point out that intelligent design is a religiously-motivated crock.

A certain Thomas V. Gillman from the class of 1949 raises the usual specious objections. Are you ready to play anti-evolution bingo with some excerpts?

"...she [President Tilghman] dismisses the arguments for 'intelligent design' as specious and representative of only the voice of Christian fundamentalists. That simply is not so." Really? Then how does he explain this quotation of William Dembski, who is one of the leaders of the movement? "I think at a fundamental level, in terms of what drives me in this, is that I think God's glory is being robbed by these naturalistic approaches to biological evolution, creation, the origin of the world, the origin of biological complexity and diversity. When you are attributing the wonder of nature to these mindless material mechanisms, God's glory is getting robbed." (Fellowship Baptist Church, March 7 2004)


"The evolutionary theory of natural selection is just that, a theory." Yes, "only a theory", the hoariest chestnut in the creationist playbook!


"Dr. Tilghman speaks of [evolution's] remarkable resilience to experimental challenge over almost 150 years' as evidence of its validity, when this is really nothing but an admission of failure on the part of the scientific community to ratify the theory..." Do I understand correctly? The fact that evolution has survived every experimental test means, according to Gillman, that the theory has failed? Alex, I'll take "incoherent babble" for $100!


"It [evolution] is not a biological law". The usual misunderstanding about the distinction between "theory" and "law"!


" [evolution] has become increasingly tenuous, as indicated by the numerous writings raising objections to it." Yes, the old many scientists reject evolution chestnut!

O! BINGO! We have a winner! Mr. Gillman, you are the winner of this month's Stupid Creationist Letter Award! Congratulations.

P. S. For more Gillman fun, see here.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Islam: Religion of Tolerance?

From today's Associated Press, we learn that an Afghan man could be sentenced to death for converting to Christianity.

The judge is reported to have said "We are not against any particular religion in the world. But in Afghanistan, this sort of thing is against the law. It is an attack on Islam... The prosecutor is asking for the death penalty."

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Nancy Pearcey: The Creationists' Miss Information

I don't know about you, but whenever I want to learn about information theory, I naturally turn to the creationists. Why, they know so much about geology, biology, and paleontology, it only seems reasonable that their expertise would extend to mathematics and computer science.

Take Nancy Pearcey, for example. Here, for example, we learn that Ms. Pearcey has studied philosophy, German, and and music at Iowa State; that she has a master's degree in biblical studies; that she is a senior fellow at that temple of truth, the Discovery Institute; and that for nine years she worked with former Watergate conspirator and convicted criminal Charles Colson on his radio show, "Breakpoint". Why, those seem exactly the sort of credentials one would want in an instructor of information theory.

Infused with a thirst for knowledge, I headed immediately to my university's library to get her 1994 book co-written with Charles Thaxton, The Soul of Science: Christian Faith and Natural Philosophy. I didn't let the fact that it was donated by Trinity Missionary Church deter me; after all, this fine institution has donated other important books to our library, such as Larry Witham's By Design: Science and the Search for God.

The endorsements for The Soul of Science reassured me I was on the right track. David Shotton, a biologist at Oxford had this to say: "...the clarity of their explanations for the nonspecialist, for example, of Einstein's relativity theories or of the informational content of DNA and its consequences for theories of prebiotic evolution, are quite exceptional, alone making the volume worth purchasing." And there were equally enthusiastic endorsements from other experts in information theory, such as Phillip Johnson and Stephen Meyer.

I then turned to page 239. There I read the following explanation of information theory:

A structure with no order at all---for instance, a random set of letters---requires few instructions. If you want to write out a series of nonsense syllables, you need only two instructions: 1) "Select at random a letter of the English alphabet (or a space) and write it down," and 2) "Do it again." In the natural world a pile of leaves is random. It can be specified by saying 1) "Select at random some type of leaf --- oak, maple, birch --- and drop it on the pile," and 2) "Do it again." A random structure can be specified using few instructions. Hence it has a low information content.

Well, I think everyone would have to agree that this explanation is exceptionally clear and geared to the nonspecialist. Unfortunately, it is completely wrong.

According to information theory as elucidated by Kolmogorov, one does indeed measure the information content of a structure in terms of its shortest description. A string of a thousand A's "AAA.....A" has low information content because we can encode it as "Print A 1000 times". But it is a basic result of the theory -- so basic that I prove it in the very first class on Kolmogorov complexity at my university -- that a string of letters chosen uniformly at random has high information content, with very high probability. That's because such a random string is very unlikely to be generated by a simple program.

Where did Pearcey and Thaxton go wrong? They make two mistakes. First, although the procedure they suggest ("select at random a letter" and "do it again") indeed appears to be short, it does not constitute a description of a specific string. Run their procedure a second time, and you'd get a different string. Second, in Kolmogorov's theory, the description of a string must be completely deterministic; no "select at random" instructions are allowed. These are the kind of mistakes that could only be made by people completely unfamiliar with even the most basic aspects of information theory.

Of course, Pearcey and Thaxton aren't really interested in the information content of sentences or leaf piles. Their goal is to demonstrate that life is too complex to have evolved through natural means. But since high information content can result from random events -- for example, mutation -- it is not surprising at all that DNA can be viewed as a string with high Kolmogorov information. In fact, as Greg Chaitin has observed, pretty much the only way to get large amounts of information in the mathematical sense is to either do a really long calculation, or to exploit a source of randomness. DNA's high information content is prima facie evidence it resulted, in part, from an essentially random process.

So I left the library, disillusioned. How could the creationists be so wrong? Could they have allowed their personal religious beliefs to get in the way of their understanding? Or could they be deliberately misinforming the public to support their evangelical goals? No, the answer is clear: all the experts in information theory must be suppressing the truth.

Obviously, my classes on Kolmogorov complexity must take on a new aspect: teach the controversy!

Friday, March 10, 2006

Erin My Views

Yesterday I traveled to Erin, Ontario, to participate in their Extended Learning Opportunities (ELO) lecture series. This venerable series of lectures is now in its 25th year, and features lectures by professors and others on topics of current interest.

My talk was entitled "Intelligent Design: Creationism in a Cheap Tuxedo", and was well-attended by about 60 people, mostly retirees.

Here's a brief summary of my talk. I started with the impact of Darwin's theory of natural selection, and how it inspired a creationist backlash. I talked about the influence of Canadian "flood geologist" George McCready Price and the recently-deceased Henry Morris. I then talked about and debunked six standard creationist claims:

  1. The earth is only 10,000 years old
  2. Fossils are the result of Noah's flood
  3. Evolution is only a theory
  4. The theory of evolution does not make predictions
  5. Beneficial mutations have not been observed
  6. The Cambrian "explosion" contradicts gradual evolution

I also talked about the common creationist tactics of quote mining, quote editing and misrepresentation, and quote fabrication. I showed how Henry Morris fradulently altered a quote from a paper of Ross and Rezak to support his claims about the Lewis thrust fault.

I briefly mentioned how the creationists lost court decisions such as Epperson v. Arkansas, McLean v. Arkansas, and Edwards v. Aguillard, and how this is the backdrop for the neo-creationists, the intelligent design movement.

I showed pictures of Michael Behe, William Dembski, Phillip Johnson, and Jonathan Wells, and emphasized that they are educated, intelligent people with advanced degrees.

I talked about Michael Behe and his book, Darwin's Black Box. I defined irreducible complexity, and using the examples of John McDonald and Kenneth Miller, showed why irreducible complexity is no bar to evolution. I talked about William Dembski, and his pseudomathematical claims about evolution, and why they were wrong. I showed Dembski's praise of Henry Morris, emphasizing the commonality between creationism and intelligent design.

I then talked about the Kitzmiller v. Dover intelligent design case, and discussed my (small) role in the case. (I was asked by the ACLU to be a rebuttal witness against Dembski. Although I was deposed in the case, Dembski dropped out, and so I was not needed to testify.) With the aid of Nick Matzke's wonderful slides, I showed how the textbook Of Pandas and People took passages that previously referred to "creationists", and changed them, sometimes incompletely, to "intelligent design proponents".

Next, I discussed the "teach the controversy" ploy, pointing out Robert Camp's recent survey of reseach universities, in which nearly every respondent said there was no genuine scientific controversy regarding evolution vs. intelligent design.

Finally, I put up a slide entitled "Why does it matter?" and explained how understanding evolution was crucial to being an informed public citizen on issues such as AIDS, biodiversity, and agriculture. I concluded by putting up the last frame from Ruben Bolling's cartoon, in which the foreign student says, "Yes, America, we would like very much if you would teach your children religious dogma instead of science. We'd like their jobs."

I have to admit, I had some trepidations about giving this talk in Erin, a small town in a part of Ontario known for its strong religious views. However, the reaction was surprisingly positive. Although there was spirited question-and-answer session that lasted 40 minutes, and the questions were acute and probing, there were no really hostile reactions at all. Most people appeared surprised that others would be taken in by the sham of creationism and intelligent design, and were quite comfortable with reconciling evolution with their religious views.

Although it is not easy, I tried to present the claims of creationism and intelligent design fairly, without ridicule. Afterwards, I was pleased about the kind words I received about the presentation. Several people particularly commented about my fairness.

I encourage others to try to take part in this public outreach. For too many years creationists such as Kent Hovind and Ken Ham have been preaching their fraud to a gullible public. As scientists, we need to take the initiative to get the real story out.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Solution to the Birthday Puzzle

Yesterday I posed the following puzzle: On what day of the year do the most people celebrate their birthday?

The answer I expected was, in fact, yesterday: February 28. The rationale is that about 1/(4*365) of all births fall on the leap day, February 29 --- so roughly 3 out of every 4 years, those lucky leapday people have to celebrate on some other day. For psychological reasons it seems very likely that most people will celebrate on February 28 instead of March 1, so this means that February 28 gets a boost of up to 3/16, or 18.75% more celebrants, averaged over many years.

This analysis, however, doesn't take into account the fact that human birthdays are not uniformly distributed. I've found several datasets on the web and in the literature, and each of them exhibits rather wide variablity. For example, an article by Geoffrey Berresford in Mathematics Magazine 53 (1980), 286-288 reveals that for one dataset (births in New York State for the calendar year 1977), the least likely day to give birth was December 11 (.2135%) and the most likely was July 6 (.3478%). The percentage spread for this dataset is 100%*(max-min)/min is 62.9%, easily large enough to swamp the leap year effect! In particular, significantly more people are born during July, August, and September than January, February, March, and this could easily change the results.

However, there are at least two problems with relying on the data from a single year. First, there is a huge weekly fluctuation in birthdays. At least in North America, people are much less likely to be born on a weekend than on a weekday. I imagine this is due, in part, to the fact that many people are born via Caesarean section, and doctors tend to take the weekends off. (A more sinister explanation might be that doctors tend to manipulate birth times with drugs to make sure they occur during a weekday.) Thus, we cannot rely on the data for single day, but need to average this over many years to make sure we get accurate data. Fortunately, there are some other datasets available. This one appears to be for the year 1978; it has a spread of 50.1%. One commenter suggested looking at this dataset, represents applications received over a 14-year period from a life insurance company, and so probably tends to average out the weekly effects. It has a spread of only 38.5%, if one ignores the data for February 29.

A second, but related problem is that some dates are more likely to fall on a particular day than others. For example, the 13th of the month is more likely to fall on a Friday than any other day! (This was noticed as early as 1933 in a Monthly problem; for the reference and an explanation, see here.) As it turns out, February 28 falls on a weekend 28.75% of the time, and February 29 falls on a weekend 28.5% of the time, whereas a uniform distribution would give about 28.57% for both. Coupled with the observation in the previous paragraph, this might be another reason why February 28 might be under-represented, although the effect is quite small, affecting only the 3rd decimal place.

If we use the insurance data mentioned above, then there were 1319 births on February 28 and 325 on February 28. Since in 3 out of every 4 years, the leapies will celebrate their birthdays on February 28, this gives an effective score of 1319 + (3/4)*325 = 1562.75 for February 28. This just barely beats out the otherwise-most-frequent date of August 15, with 1559 births. Here the difference is in the 3rd decimal place! Maybe February 28 really is the most frequently celebrated after all, but if so, it's very close.