Monday, July 17, 2006

Another Literary Challenge

Evidently my first literary challenge was too easy, so here's another.

What American literary giant lived in this house, and what was it called in his books?

An O. Henry Challenge

Inspired by a recent trip to Greensboro, North Carolina --- birthplace of O. Henry --- I offer the following challenge.

Which famous short story of O. Henry contains a mathematical error in the very first paragraph, and what is the error?

To make it easier, I'll point to an archive of O. Henry stories here.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Pamela Winnick's Science Envy

Pamela Winnick is an attorney and former reporter for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette who has written several articles that lean against evolution and in favor of intelligent design. I recently forced myself to read her 2005 book, A Jealous God: Science's Crusade Against Religion. It wasn't a pleasant experience.

Winnick's book covers a variety of topics: abortion, population control, eugenics, medical experimentation, the Scopes trial, the theory of evolution, intelligent design, and fetal tissue research. Her thesis -- if this rambling, disjointed book can be said to have one -- is contained in the book's final paragraph:

"The Galileo prototype of the scientist martyred by religion is now purely a myth. Science long ago won its war against religion, not just traditional religion, but any faith in a power outside the human mind. Now it wants more."

Throughout the book, scientists are depicted as crazed, power-hungry, and immoral. Only religion, Winnick implies, can rein in these dangerous nuts who threaten society.

Winnick's claim that "science long ago won its war against religion" is far too glib. Ironically, 2005 also saw the publication of Chris Mooney's The Republican War on Science, a far-better-documented book that shows in depressing detail how American science has been subjugated to the political and especially religious goals of the Christian right.

Winnick's reporting is sloppy. Incidents are slanted to support her thesis, names are misspelled (Stanislaw Ulam's last name is comically morphed into "Ulsam"; Richard Lewontin's middle initial is given incorrectly), quotes are mined (sometimes incorrectly), and some "facts" are just plain made up (see below).

Here's an example of a mined quote. Winnick claims, "In a 1997 piece in the New York Times, Dawkins famously remarked that anyone who doesn't believe in evolution is "stupid, and ignorant and ... wicked" (emphasis added)." However, Dawkins' actual remark was "It is absolutely safe to say that if you meet somebody who claims not to believe in evolution, that person is ignorant, stupid or insane (or wicked, but I'd rather not consider that)." Winnick entirely changed the meaning of the quote by replacing Dawkins' "or"s with "and"s. (If you don't understand the difference, take a logic course.) Further, his remark didn't appear in 1997; it appeared in an April 9, 1989 book review by Dawkins.

On page 162, Winnick juxtaposes a quote by Dawkins about altruism with the following: "You have to be an intellectual to believe such nonsense," George Orwell once remarked. "No ordinary man could be such a fool." But Orwell was not writing about Dawkins or altruism, and Winnick provides no reason why Dawkins' ideas are "nonsense". This isn't reporting, it's pure cant.

(By the way, Winnick got the Orwell quote wrong, too. The real quotation comes from Orwell's Notes on Nationalism, and goes as follows: "One has to belong to the intelligentsia to believe things like that: no ordinary man could be such a fool.")

As might be expected of someone with no scientific training, Winnick displays multiple misunderstandings of science. And despite the fact that Winnick claims to be a "practicing Jew and liberal Democrat", her book uses the same nasty and dishonest rhetorical tricks that are the staple of far-right Christian creationists.

First, let's look at some of Winnick's misunderstandings. On page 19, she writes that "A fertilized egg immediately undergoes cellular division and, unless destroyed, grows into a full-term infant." As another reviewer already noted, this glib sentence omits the important fact that at least 60% to 80% of fertilized eggs fail to implant.

On page 110, Winnick claims that although evolution cannot be observed, "evolution could be inferred from the rapid variations that occur within a given species. During his famed five-year voyage aboard the HMS Beagle, Darwin observed these variations first hand. On a stop in the Galapagos Islands, he noticed the different beak sizes and shapes among the finches that had flown in from the mainland, each settling on a different island." Winnick fails to understand that the Galapagos finches are not merely variations "within" as species (here she merely echoes a typical creationist objection to evolution), but different species -- in fact, 13 different species in the Galapagos. And of course, evolution can be observed, as speciation has been observed in both the laboratory and the wild. How many times can these creationist falsehoods be repeated? Why does Winnick not subject these false claims to some critical scrutiny?

Later on the same page, Winnick writes (in a footnote) that "The word "theory" when used in science is different from its ordinary use. A scientific theory is considered virtually the same as fact." While the first sentence is correct, one can only stare open-mouthed at the ignorance of the second. A theory is not the same as a fact; otherwise how could one speak of competing scientific theories? Rather, a theory in the scientific sense is a coherent system of explanation for natural phenomena, testable by experiments, that makes predictions and explains observations. Some theories are better supported than others; only the really well-supported theories, such as gravity and evolution, can be considered as similar to facts, keeping in mind that in science every explanation is provisional.

Winnick also claims that "Darwin's theory was inspired not by science, but by the politics of his time." Although it is true that Darwin hit on natural selection by an analogy with Malthus, it is misrepresentation to suggest that his theory was inspired by politics alone. Has Winnick never read the Origin of Species? If so, she would have known that Darwin patiently built his scientific case for evolution on a host of supporting facts, not politics. And her history is wrong, too, since Darwin began his transmutation notebook (the "B" notebook) in 1837, but didn't make the connection with Malthus' essay until 1838.

The really annoying part of the book, though, is Winnick's mean-spirited rhetorical tricks. Consider her treatment of population growth. Although it is an undeniable fact that exponential growth of the human population on Earth cannot be sustained forever, Winnick dismisses these concerns as "racist", and repeatedly compares population-control advocates to Nazis. Those who warn about the consequences of unrestricted growth are described as "population zealots". Paul Ehrlich is described as a hypocritical "fraud" who preached population control despite the fact that "he knew he was wrong".

What is Winnick's evidence that Ehrlich was a "fraud"? According to her, population growth is not a concern because in the US, live births per thousand decreased from 123 in 1957 to 85.7 in 1968. That's like saying the national debt is not a problem if the current budget deficit is decreasing. And of course, it ignores the fact that while fertility rates have leveled off in the US, they are still very high in other parts of the world. 1% population growth per year is still exponential growth, and will ultimately cause the same kinds of problems as 5% growth -- it will just take longer.

But then, Winnick is no stranger to misrepresentations. In 2001, she claimed
"I am, however, writing a book about the subject showing how the media and scientific elite has stifled meaningful debate on the subject. In doing so, I am indeed supported ($25,000) by the Phillips Foundation, an organization which takes absolutely no position on the subject of evolution, but which seeks to promote fair and balanced reporting in all subject areas."

However, Wesley Elsberry took a look at the Phillips Foundation web page and found that Winnick's fellowship was then described as follows:

Project: "Examination of How Media and Established Scientists Treat the Subject of Evolution," analyzing why there seems to be little tolerance for teaching creationism in America.

(Since then, the Phillips Foundation has altered its web page and the description of Winnick's project.)

Another misrepresentation occurs on page 91, where Winnick attempts to paint yet another scholar with the Nazi brush: "In German and Austria, with their collective guilt about the Holocaust, Peter Singer is considered so repulsive that his writings are banned."

This claim immediately set off alarm bells in my head, and no citation is provided, so I wrote to Peter Singer to ask him if there any truth to Winnick's claim. Here is Singer's reply:

"None at all. My writings are freely available, and several of my books are in German translation. Practical Ethics, for example, has been available in the popular yellow series published by Reclam since the 1980s."

So much for Winnick's reliability.

Sometimes, in her quest to indict scientists and exonerate theists, Winnick resorts to bizarre non sequiturs. Here is Winnick on intelligent design (page 188): And though the [intelligent design] movement was often accused of being "Christian,", in fact only a few of them were Protestant evangelicals. A few were Catholic." Gee, the last time I looked, Catholics were Christians, and Christians weren't composed solely of Protestant evangelicals.

Another creationist trick that Winnick uses is to take people who have know little about evolution, and elevate them to the position of authorities. Phillip Johnson, a law professor with no biological training, is described as "brilliant". Ironically, on page 195, Winnick asks "how likely was it that Alec Baldwin or Kim Basinger or any of the many other glitzy Hollywood stars had ever seriously studied biology or understood Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection or ever read anything on the subject other than PFAW press releases?" Offhand, I'd say it's about the same likelihood that Phillip Johnson or William Dembski or David Berlinski has seriously studied biology, but Winnick doesn't hesitate to tout them as experts.

No creationist saw is too unreliable for Winnick to repeat. Here are a few examples:

-- the Chinese paleontologist anecdote is repeated uncritically on page 198
-- the 1966 Wistar Institute Symposium is brought up on page 122
-- Fred Hoyle's "tornado in a junkyward" is mentioned on page 172

Liberal Democrat or not, this book cements Pamela Winnick's reputation as a flack for the Christian right. It is not a fair, reliable, or objective look at the battles between science and religion. It appears to me that Winnick has a bad case of science envy.

Saturday, July 08, 2006

Student Requests Me to Help Him Fool Job Interviewer

Here's a pathetic e-mail message from a student, asking me to help him fool a job interviewer:

I am a student from India doing my final year
computer engineering bachelor degree. Actually i am in
need of some help from you since I have come to know
from net that you are quite a reknowned man in oure
field. Actually I am about to face an interview in
some 20 days time and if I succeed in that I will be
getting a job in the prestigious DEFENCE RESEARCH AND
DEVELPMENT ORG of my country. in general the
interviewers are impressed if a student have some good
knowledge in Theory of Computer Computation-Languages,
Turing machine, Context free grammar etc. Now I have
had this subject in my last sem but since this subject
is so abstract that I failed to make any deep
knowledge in it. Sir can you kindly help me in this
regard by providing me with some free ebooks and
websites through which I can have enough knowledge in
the given little time so that I can IMPRESS the
interviewers for a damn job. If you have some other
better idea, I shall be highly grateful.
I shall remain ever grateful to you.
yours faithfully
H------ B------------------

I couldn't make that one up if I tried.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Oliver Sacks on Evolution and Intelligent Design

Oliver Sacks, the world-famous neurologist and author, spoke at the national convention of the Freedom from Religion Foundation on November 12 2005, where he accepted the "Emperor Has No Clothes" award. In the excerpt below, taken from the June/July 2006 issue of Freethought Today, he briefly discusses intelligent design:

"How could a passionate and intelligent and curious person think about the world 5,000 years ago, or even 400 years ago, when there was so little scientific knowledge? Systematic investigation, science as we know it, really only started in the 17th century. We humans have a craving to understand, to get the big picture, to see some sort of all-embracing pattern, and religion has obviously filled that need for millennia. Before Darwin, it was very difficult to understand the richness of the biological world, how innumerable forms of animals and plants came to be. But to believe in a creator and so-called intelligent design now, a century and a half later, is bizarre, an intellectual retrogression, only intelligible in terms of the mind being dominated by emotional drives and needs.

Science increasingly obviates the need for a creator god, and increasingly "intelligent design" is a theory of the gaps: "You can't explain the bacterial flagellum? He made it." But the gaps in our knowledge of nature are steadily being filled -- this has always been the history of science.

It is frightening and grotesque that something like "intelligent design" should be presented as science, or used to replace science, particularly in our schools. Religion classes are fine; I enjoyed religion classes when I was in school [in the U.K.]. There were religion classes, art classes, and science classes, and they didn't contaminate each other. They were all different. But the situation we have today, where such lines are blurred, is very dangerous."