Tuesday, September 25, 2007

The Discovery Institute's Latest Fellow, Mahmoud Ahmadenijad?

First, read this transcript of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's talk at Columbia University.

Now, ask yourself: wouldn't he be perfect as a Discovery Institute fellow?

The Discovery Institute wants to allow supernatural causation in science, "to reverse the stifling dominance of the materialist worldview, and to replace it with a science consonant with Christian and theistic convictions." (Wedge Document)

Ahmadinejad says "One of the main harms inflicted against science is to limit it to experimental and physical sciences..." and "... the material is just a shadow of supreme realities..."

The Discovery Institute wants us to "teach the controversy" about evolution. Ahmadinejad wants us to teach the controversy about the Holocaust: "...if, given that the Holocaust is a present reality of our time, a history that occurred, why is there not sufficient research that can approach the topic from different perspectives?"

I think the Discovery Institute should move quickly to hire him, before Ahmadenijad is offered a position at the Institute for Historical Review.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

FaithMB = (Ignorance) + (Intellectual Dishonesty)

Marvin Bittinger is a retired professor of mathematics education and author of many textbooks. From Pharyngula I learned about his new book, The Faith Equation: One Mathematician's Journey in Christianity.

The "Faith Equation", it turns out, is this: Faith = (Mind) + (Heart) + (Will).

Now, after you've stopped laughing, here is my revision of his equation:

FaithMB = (Ignorance) + (Intellectual Dishonesty)

Now I wouldn't be so arrogant as to claim that everyone's faith is based on the pillars of ignorance and intellectual dishonesty; I know a lot of skeptical, searching, intellectual Christians. Here the subscript "MB" on faith indicates that it only refers to the faith of one Marvin Bittinger.

Why do I say intellectual dishonesty? First, there's the matter of Biblical prophecies. Part of Bittinger's book deals with various prophecies in the Bible. He considers each one, evaluates its probability, and multiplies the probabilities together to get a very small number. He concludes the result shows that the fulfillment of these prophecies is a miracle. I'll point out that claims of Biblical prophecies that can be easily dispelled by reading TIm Callahan's book, Bible Prophecy: Failure or Fulfillment?, but that's not my main point. No, the main point is Bittinger's claim here that "the Bible contains hundreds if not thousands of prophecies which have come true, with none failing".

None failing? How about the prophecy in Matthew 24, where Jesus lists a number of coming events, such as "sign of the Son of man in heaven" and "angels with a great sound of a trumpet", etc., etc. and then says "This generation shall not pass, till all these things be fulfilled." Well, it's 2000 years later, and none of these things have happened.

The second example comes here, where Bittinger claims "Whether the earth is 10-15 billion years old (old-earth opinion) or 5-6 thousand years old (young-earth opinion) is subject to debate in scientific and theological circles". Here Bittinger shows his ignorance, because nobody claims the earth is 10-15 billion years old. The current best estimate for the age of the earth is about 4.5 billion years, and this is based on multiple lines of evidence.

The intellectual dishonesty comes in because it is not true to say that the age of the earth is "subject to debate in scientific ... circles". There is simply no debate. The evidence for the 4.5 billion year age is so strong, and the evidence against is so weak, that the question simply does not come up any more.

Another example: on page 49, Bittinger claims, "Our nation was founded on the motto 'In God We Trust'". That will certainly be news to historians, who will point out that (a) the Constitution is a secular document that doesn't mention "God" and (b) the unconstitutional motto "In God We Trust" was only approved in 1864, long after the US was founded.

The really depressing thing is that this combination of ignorance and intellectual dishonesty is the norm in Christian apologetic circles. As evangelical Mark Noll once wrote, "The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind." Too bad Marvin Bittinger did not heed his warning.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

By Jove, I Think He Doesn't Get It: A Night with Professor Higgins

Michael Higgins is a Catholic religious scholar, author, and local legend who is currently President of St. Thomas University in Fredericton, New Brunswick. Last night he delivered the inaugural Michael Higgins Lecture at St. Jerome's University, a church college affiliated with my own university, the University of Waterloo. The title was, "It's Tough Being God These Days", and the main theme was the new atheism.

A night with Prof. Higgins is always entertaining, as he is a witty and erudite speaker. At one point, speaking of atheists, he said, "We used to burn them", which got a good laugh. Despite his wit and erudition, I have always found Higgins' talks unsatisfying. To me, a Higgins talk is best likened to eating at an overrated Parisian restaurant. You are taken with the setting and the opulence and the view of Notre Dame. But then the food comes, and you are disappointed to discover that most of the effort has been expended on the surroundings, and little on the meal itself.

Last night was no exception. There was a bit of chest-pounding against atheism and the usual suspects of Dawkins, Hitchens, and Dennett, a rather dispirited defense of religion and an acknowledgment of some religious sins, a brief theological analysis concluding that "God is big", and a limp finish that consisted of quoting some of his favorite religious writers. I left hoping for more.

Unlike some Catholic commentators, Higgins takes the current wave of atheism seriously. He views it as a significant trend, labeling it a "virulent and subcompetent atheism" that is "seismic in its implications". However, he thinks the arguments are nothing new: "everything originated in the 18th and 19th centuries". He denigrates the "industry" of atheist writers such as Dawkins, Hitchens, and Dennett, arguing that their books are "aggressive and vituperative". Their hubris is "stunning". They ridicule "without fear that it is indecorous or unjust".

Higgins is very impressed by John Cornwell, who wrote a reply to Dawkins. He quoted Cornwell as saying that in the past, atheists were content to dispute the arguments of believers, but the current wave of atheists likes to ridicule the believers themselves. (But listen to this interview with Cornwell and Dawkins, where Cornwell is caught blatantly misrepresenting what Dawkins had to say.)

To his credit, Higgins says that religion is partly to blame. The new wave of antipathy is, he admits, "religion's own fault". He cites religion's "capacity for terror" and cites as an example "honor killings". "Religion's capacity to divide is considerable," Higgins concedes.

But it's too easy, Higgins says, to blame the excesses of religion on religion. Honor killlings do not represent religion, but terror. "No holy man" could ever claim terrorist acts as "a life-giving force". The issue, Higgins argued, is not to eliminate religion, but to eliminate the caricature of religion, to delegitimize those who speak on behalf of religion but do so inauthentically.

Atheists have the spotlight now, Higgins says, and so the media interprets religious stories in that light. The recent revelations about Mother Teresa were not interpreted according to the "theology of God's absence", but rather that she was a hypocrite or worse.

Luckily, he observed, theists outreproduce atheists, so there is little danger. The answer to the new atheism is not in "noble silence". "God is bigger than our systems" and "Once we recognize God's bigness we recognize our own fanaticism". There must be "respect between people of faith" and "Catholicism can lead".

Now, my analysis. Higgins claimed that those who attack religion are ignorant of it. He even went so far as to suggest, in answer to a question, that Hitchens was mentally unbalanced. I have a two-word answer: courtier's reply.

Higgins says that the new atheism engages in a "caricature" of genuine religion. My reply: look around you. We have a local Catholic school board actually debating whether to give the HPV vaccine to girls, not because of the cost or the unproven nature of the vaccine, but because it might encourage them to engage in sexual activity. We have Muslims rioting and killing in Pakistan because of a rumor that a Christian had desecrated the Koran, all the while insisting that Islam is a peaceful religion. We have Mother Teresa working with poor and sick people, while refusing to endorse the birth control that might genuinely help them. We have Jerry Falwell blaming 9/11 on "pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians". It's not possible to caricature religion because, these days, religion caricatures itself.

I'm sure that Higgins would reply with a version of the "No True Scotsman" fallacy, because that's what he did in his talk. These kinds of actions, Higgins would say, are not genuine religion. I say, they represent genuine religion for millions of believers, and they find their justification in the holy texts themselves. Look at Kirk Durston, a local religious leader who excuses genocide in the Bible when God does it. Look at Muslims who draw their inspiration for violence from passages in the Koran such as “Believers, make war on the infidels who dwell around you. Deal harshly with them.”

I'm not saying all religious believers are of this stripe; far from it. But religion has been treated with kid gloves far too long. Higgins decried the treatment of religion in the media, calling it shallow. But when did you ever see a believer quizzed in the pages of your local newspaper about whether their beliefs are supported by evidence? Or if their beliefs are genuinely beneficial to society? In my local newspaper, faith is always treated as a positive aspect to one's personality. I see skepticism, not faith, as more worthy of respect. "There lives more faith in honest doubt, Believe me, than in half the creeds."

There was time for a few questions, and here's the one I asked. I asked why is it, when theists want to attack atheism or science, they often use religious language to do so? As examples I cited this article by a theist who suggested that evolutionary biologists answer criticism of evolution with "Darwin said it, I believe it, and that settles it," which is evidently a reference to the famous bumper sticker with "Jesus" replacing "Darwin". I pointed out that Prof. Higgins himself used this language, when he favorably cited another writer as referring to "evangelical atheists". In reply, Higgins first took exception to my use of the word "theist". (Hey, I was just trying to be inclusive; what word woud he have me use?) Then he denied that this tactic was frequently used. I find it hard to take his answer seriously, as there are many more examples. To cite just one, fellow Catholic writer Denyse O'Leary refers to the new atheism as an "anti-God crusade". Not only do theists use this religious language in attacking atheists, they use religious language that recalls the worst aspects of religion.

In the end, I don't think that Professor Higgins gets it. The new atheists have been emboldened by religion's excesses, but they don't base their arguments on that alone. Fundamentally, the new atheists are simply not convinced by religion's claims. When we hear Higgins assert that "God is bigger than our systems", we want to know, where's the evidence that what you are talking about even exists? We don't see God-talk as helpful in resolving issues; when God-talk is introduced, it moves us away, rather than towards, a solution based on rational consideration of the issues. Higgins wants to appropriate human values, such as compassion and tolerance, to religion's domain, but these values are subscribed to by theist and non-theist alike. In the end, religion doesn't have as many virtues as Higgins claims, nor does the new atheism have as many faults as he would have us believe.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Funding Ontario Religious Schools, Revisited

For comedy, there's nothing better than the protestations of the principals of local religious schools, as they try to assure us that, should they get provincial funding, they'll really be no different from other provincial schools. Previously, I pointed out that Bob Moore, principal of Guelph's John Calvin Christian School, doesn't seem to know what the word "evolution" refers to. He apparently thinks it has something to do with "origins of the universe".

Now, in the September 12 issue of the Kitchener-Waterloo Record, principal Julius de Jager of the Cambridge Christian School is the next to demonstrate significant confusion. He states that the Ontario curriculum document "does not require a teacher to teach as fact the Darwinian theory of adaptation". The poor muddled fellow can't even bring himself to use the word "evolution", it seems.

Next, de Jager adds, "Nor does it [the curriculum document] preclude a possible explanation that God created an amazing diversity in plant and animal life." Oh, right. That really sounds like science.

Guys, if you're trying to convince us that religious schools should get funded, you're doing a pretty bad job.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Objective Journalism

The current wave of interest in atheism, fueled by religion's excesses, really does represent something new. For proof, consider the photo below, sent to me by a colleague, from an independent bookstore he recently visited:

This kind of display would have been simply unimaginable at any other time in the history of North America.

And today, Representative Pete Stark (D-CA) will give his first speech after coming out as a non-theist. Again, I can't imagine any congressman having the guts to admit this in the past 50 years. (Maybe in the age of Ingersoll, but not recently.)

To any reasonable observer, these kinds of events do signal some kind of sea change in opinion.

But then, "journalist" Denyse O'Leary isn't a reasonable observer.

My parents were journalists, so I learned something about the proper practice of that craft from them. All journalists have biases, but good journalists learn to recognize them, so they don't say remarkably stupid things like, "the [atheist] crusade exudes an unmistakable air of desperation". Good journalists actually interview people who disagree with them, and summarize their views fairly.

Ahh, but fairness and objectivity mean nothing when God's on your side.

It's All About the Science, Right?

These intelligent design advocates crack me up sometimes. While the leaders furiously insist that 'it's all about the science', the grass roots behind them are constantly giving away the store.

Check out this barely literate solicitation from the elders at Trinity Baptist Church in Norman, Oklahoma, where they are trying to raise funds to bring William Dembski to speak at OU. Could the religious motivation be more clear?

"Our prayer for this entire effort is for God to open doors so the power of His gospel would be made known to groups of people who need to hear the truth."

This group is so intellectually bankrupt that they don't seem to care whether or not Dembski's claims are true -- they only want to use him as an evangelical tool. (And if they really needed $10,000 for the event, they might wind up financially bankrupt, too!)

I want people to understand and accept the theory of evolution because it's true, because it makes a nontrivial statement about the world we live in, because it's essential to understanding HIV, drug-resistant tuberculosis, and other important public issues, because it offers deep insights into why we behave the way we do, but not because it will 'lead people to atheism'. I'd much rather have scientifically-knowledgeable theist neighbors than ignorant atheist ones.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

That's a Nice Rack!

Here's a moose with a great rack of antlers. Photo courtesy my graduate student Dalia Krieger, who snapped this on a recent backpacking trip in eastern Canada.

How Do You Read Recursivity?

If you'd like to receive Recursivity via a news feed, then try these links:



and let me know how they work for you.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

David Warren's Ignorance

David Warren continues to display that special blend of arrogance and ignorance that could be named after him, if Michael Egnor hadn't already been eponymized.

In this column he writes:

It is because Darwinism has embedded itself so deeply into the assumptions of our age, that it must be attacked frontally. For Darwinian assumptions cloud our view of reality. They subvert our grasp of moral issues. They make it possible for people to be dismissive, not only of art, philosophy, and religion, but of the requirements and limitations of true scientific research. They eviscerate the human spirit, by insisting that, in the last analysis, everything is random and meaningless. Conversely, they justify true fascism (“survival of the fittest”), and all the horrors of eugenics, abortions and euthanasia.

Moral relativism could not stand, except on a Darwinist base, and reason itself is rendered defenceless, by the notion that all nature was randomly contrived.

I don't know why theists like Warren continually trot this nonsense out. Darwinian evolution is a scientific theory about evolution that explains the diversity of life as we see it today. If it has implications that are depressing or repugnant to Warren, then too bad. As paleontologist George Gaylord Simpon wrote, If a sect does officially insist that its structure of belief demands that evolution be false, then no compromise is possible. An honest and competent biology teacher can only conclude that the sect's beliefs are wrong and that its religion is a false one.

Warren claims "Darwinian assumptions ... subvert our grasp of moral issues". He is foolish and mistaken in two ways. First, Darwin's theory is not an assumption, but a conclusion, based on hard research by hundreds of biologists, theist and non-theist alike. Second, Warren apparently knows nothing at all about current work on the evolutionary origins of ethics. I happen to think that Richard Alexander's book, Darwinism and Human Affairs, is one of the deepest and most profound works ever written on morals. If Warren has read it, I'll eat my hat.

Evolution says nothing like "everything is random and meaningless". Randomness plays a part in evolution, but it isn't the whole story. Randomness is represented by mutations and accidents, but selection -- a decidedly non-random process -- is also essential.

Warren confuses the descriptive nature of "survival of the fittest" with a prescription: this is how we ought to behave. But of course, he knows so little about evolution that he doesn't understand that co-operation is not ruled out by evolution, but rather is a result of it; see, for example, The Evolution of Cooperation.

Warren is the perfect blowhard. Supremely confident in his assertions, and demonstrating his supreme ignorance at the same time. Why the Ottawa Citizen continues to employ him is a mystery.

Monday, September 17, 2007

On Design

Well, since Michael Egnor has sort of answered my questions, it's time for me to try to answer his. I'll try to be less evasive than he was.

One thing I'd like to point out is that Egnor seems to be under the misapprehension that the information theory that mathematicians and computer scientists actually study has something to do with inferring design.* This is simply not the case. Open up, for example, the book on Kolmogorov complexity by my colleague Ming Li, and you won't find a word about inferring design. (It's ID advocate Bill Dembski, of course, who is largely responsible for this confusion.) So, contrary to what Egnor thinks, as a mathematician and computer scientist I have no particular expertise on the general topic of "inferring design". It's just not something we do; maybe he should ask a SETI researcher, or a forensic investigator. But then again, Egnor has no particular expertise on the topic, either.

First, some general remarks about "design". I'll start by saying that I don't know exactly what he means by "designed". One of the favorite games of ID advocates is equivocation, so it's important to pin them down on a precise meaning. ID advocates rarely say plainly what they mean by "design". Do they mean simply that something has a pattern to it (as in "the design of a snowflake"), or do they mean something that has a "function", or must there necessarily be some teleology involved? I think it's incumbent on ID advocates to make clear what they mean. But I'll look at all three possibilities.

If ID advocates intend the first meaning ("pattern"), then the answer is clear: design need not imply a designer. The world is full of patterns that arise from the constrained nature of the physical universe. We can explain the overall pattern in a snowflake, for example, by referring to the symmetry in a water molecule in ice combined with the homogeneity of conditions as the snowflake forms. We don't normally bring in supernatural beings to explain snowflakes.

ID advocates, such as Bill Dembski, have nevertheless tried to rescue this hopeless case by bringing in probability. Dembski has argued that if an observed event fits a pattern, and the probability of this fit is extremely small, then the event must be due to design by an intelligent being. But as Wesley Elsberry and I have shown, his claim is based on incorrect mathematics combined with specious arguments. Dembski likes to say something on the order of 'witnessing specified events of low probability implicates design'. But the correct claim is merely 'specified events of low probability are never witnessed at all; if they are, that is prima facie evidence that your probability estimates are wildly off'.

Here's an example: there's a fellow with a web page who claims to have witnessed at least three independent meteorite falls. (The pictures he shows aren't meteorites, but let's ignore that for a moment.)

Now this page suggests that the probability of witnessing a meteorite land near you during your lifetime is about 1 in 2.5 million. So if the events are independent, we conclude that the probability of a particular person witnessing 3 meteorite falls in their lifetime is about 1 in 16 million million million. Even taking into account the total population of the world, this fellow's claim seems extremely unlikely. Could it have happened? Yes, but if so, we would have to consider some other possibilities: maybe the distribution of meteorite falls is extremely uneven, so that many more meteorites fall at this fellow's location than others. Maybe somebody's having him on, shooting meteorites out of a cannon towards his house. Maybe there's some other explanation entirely. In either case it's not that a specified event of low probability was witnessed; it was that our probability estimates were wrong. Dembski says design must be inferred when all other explanations are ruled out, but if my analysis is followed, inference to design no longer has the privileged place that Dembski accords it.

The second possible meaning of "design" corresponds to the inferred function of some object; this is basically the old argument of William Paley involving the watch found on the heath. While this argument may have been convincing two hundred years ago, it's convincing no longer, for the obvious reason that we know that evolutionary processes can produce function. We have good experimental evidence of this from novel mutations that, for example, allow some bacteria to digest nylon byproducts. As a computer scientist, I must also cite the artificial life experiments of Karl Sims, who showed how nontrivial and novel behaviors could evolve through mutation and selection -- something Dembski claims is impossible. Dembski has never addressed Sims' work.

The third possible meaning of "design" involves teleology; we infer a designer when we see something designed for a purpose. But either this begs the question, or it reduces to the previous paragraph about "function". So in all three cases, I don't think that seeing "design" implies a "designer".

ID advocates are always accusing others of 'wanting to eliminate the design inference from science'. Of course, this is pure nonsense. Archaeologists, for example, routinely attempt to deduce the roles that various objects played in the lives of the cultures they study. But, as Elsberry and Wilkins point out in their article from Biology and Philosophy, there is a huge difference between inferring design based on artifacts for which we have a causal story like human construction, and inferring design based on some causal story lacking any details whatsoever. They refer to this latter attempt, commonly used by ID advocates, as "rarefied design", and characterize it as "based on an inference from ignorance, both of the possible causes of regularities [that might explain the event] and of the nature of the designer."

One more point: I don't think that the question "is it designed?", in the absence of any candidate for a designer, is particularly interesting. That is, in the absence of motive, I don't think that knowing that something is designed tells you anything at all. I can do no better than to quote from Elsberry and Wilkins, who say

The problem with a simple conclusion that something is designed, is its lack of informativeness. If you tell me that skirnobs are designed but nothing else about them, then how much do I actually know about skirnobs? Of a single skirnob, what can I say? Unless I already know a fair bit about the aims and intentions of skirnob designers, nothing is added to my knowledge of skirnobs by saying that it is designed. I do not know if a skirnob is a good skirnob, fulfilling the design criteria for skirnobs, or not. I do not know how typical that skirnob is of skirnobs in general, or what any of the properties of skirnobs are. I may as well say that skirnobs are "gzorply muffnordled", for all it tells me. But if I know the nature of the designer, or of the class of things the designer is a member of, then I know something about skirnobs, and I can make some inductive generalizations to the properties of other skirnobs.

Now to Egnor's question. He wants to know why SETI is different from deducing design in biological systems. Referring to the fictional movie, Contact, where scientists received a blueprint for constructing a mechanical device, he asks, "If the scientific discovery of a ‘blueprint’ would justify the design inference, then why is it unreasonable to infer that the genetic code was designed?"

The answer is that I don't think that these situations are at all comparable. In the case of SETI, the fact that we are receiving a narrow-band signal is already suggestive, since we don't currently know any simple physical process that could produce these signals. This isn't a definite conclusion, though, because we have no idea what the probability of intelligent beings is, and we can't rule out narrow-band signals arising from some other physical process we simply don't know about.

In SETI, we are specifically looking for intelligent beings. These beings presumably live in another part of our universe, and presumably they evolved through natural processes, in much the way we did. This being the case, we hypothesize that, like us, these beings are interested in contacting other intelligent life, and would do so through radio waves. All these are assumptions based on our characterization of the "personality", if you will, of the originators of the signals. If any of these guesses are wrong, or if we are alone, we won't succeed. Our argument is based on analogy with our own thought processes, not "specified complexity" or other ID nonsense.

ID advocates, however, rule out any deductions based on the identity of the Designer. Yet, in real science, questions about intention and identity arise all the time in archaeology. To give just one example: in the 1890's, historian Arthur Evans heard of mysterious seal-stones from Crete. The identity of their creators, as well as the script used, was then unknown. Evans went on to identify the stones as the product of a civilization now called Minoan, and eventually one of the scripts, Linear B, was deciphered. The fact that ID advocates refuse to consider the really interesting scientific questions "who designed it?" and "why did they design it?" shows that they're not doing science.

To say that SETI is like the genetic code means that we have to hypothesize some designer who designed something for some reason. But where's the designer? In SETI, we can pinpoint a place in the universe where the signals are originating from. If the signals encode a machine, we can reasonably deduce that the intention is that we are to build it. But in the genetic code, who is the hypothesized designer? Where did they originate? When did they carry out their design? What is the intention of the design? All the really interesting questions are ruled as 'out of bounds' by ID advocates. Until they really come to grips with these questions, they're doing religion, not science.

As an example of something I'd find convincing, if we were to find a crashed spaceship with plans showing how to build a bacterium, and scientists carried out these plans and found that they really did construct life, then I'd find this very strong evidence that life on earth was designed.

Another point of disanalogy is that we know that DNA changes and evolves through time by processes such as mutation, gene duplication, and selection. There are even some very tentative answers to how the genetic code evolved. So the alternative hawked by ID advocates, that 'somebody made this sometime for some purpose, but we don't know where, when, or how', is not very impressive. In exactly the same way, a theory that lightning is 'caused by some intelligent being, but we don't know exactly how or why' is not very impressive, either.

Finally, DNA doesn't carry any of the hallmarks of human design, the kind of design we are most familiar with. Genes, for example, are often pleiotropic; they have multiple interacting effects. Human design, on the other hand tends to separate systems so they don't interact. Human activities tend to produce texts that are quite compressible; but a typical genome is hardly compressible at all. Biological entities reproduce themselves, but few, if any, human designs have this property. When we consider an analogy, like the one Egnor proposes, to be fair, we have to consider points of disanalogy, too. (For more examples of disanalogy, see Mark Isaak's article in Reports of the NCSE, Volume 23, no. 5-6.)

Let's alter the Contact story. Suppose the signal didn't encode a machine, but rather a sequence of DNA bases S. When we create DNA corresponding to this sequence, and stick it in a cell, we get an organism that tells us all about life on some other planet. Now the analogy is even closer than before; yet I think it is clear that our inference about the origin of S is still different from any inference about our own DNA. Indeed, it is entirely reasonable and scientific to infer that S is designed by intelligent beings on another planet, but our own DNA evolved.

Finally, on an unrelated note, Egnor takes me to task for my lack of civility. This is pretty rich, considering that Egnor's buddies at the Discovery Institute routinely insult the appearance of scientists, call them dishonest, and play games such as adding fart noises to Judge Jones' Dover decision. I say, clean your own stable first. Scientists are angry at the constant misrepresentation and juvenile antics of ID advocates, and we're not going to take it any more.

* Addendum: Because ID advocates have a track record of misunderstanding even the most trivial point, I should add that of course information theory could be used to separate, for example, human-generated text from noise. As I already mentioned, natural language text is quite compressible, while noise would probably not be compressible. But here we are not detecting design per se as some abstract category; rather we are using an empirical distinction between two things we have observed: natural language text, and noise.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Towards a Canadian Republic

Good news for people who find the loyalty oath to the Queen --- a requirement for becoming a Canadian citizen --- to be an embarrassing anachronism inconsistent with Canada's devotion to "freedom of thought, opinion, and expression". Charles Roach and his group, Citizens for a Canadian Republic, are back in the game, thanks to a judge's dismissal of a shameful motion by Canada's Attorney General to prevent the suit.

Should Discovery Institute Spokesmen Be Charged with This Offense?

Excessive mooing.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

José González does Dawkins

I don't watch TV, but even I know about this amazing Sony ad featuring the music of José González and 250,000 bouncing colored balls:

González is a Swedish musician, and the song in the ad is "Heartbeats", a cover of a song from a group called "The Knife".

Now he has a new album out, and guess what? It's based, at least in part, on Richard Dawkins.

I know what I want for my birthday!

Friday, September 14, 2007

More Egnorance

Well, I see Michael Egnor is at it again.

He calls my my response "odd". Apparently, where Dr. Egnor comes from, it is considered "odd" to object when someone manufactures fake quotes and attributes them to you. No apology from Dr. Egnor is forthcoming, however.

Dr. Egnor says nothing at all about the fact that both he and Tom Bethell think that SETI researchers look for prime numbers to detect intelligence, when in fact SETI's own website approvingly quotes Louis Narens explaining why this might not be a good idea. (Thanks to Eric for pointing this out.) Apparently, where Dr. Egnor comes from, it is considered bad form to retract phony claims.

Dr. Egnor says nothing at all about his friend Tom Bethell's support for crackpot views on AIDS. Apparently, where Dr. Egnor comes from, if you discourage efficacious treatment for a life-threatening disease, that's just fine. He's in good company: other prominent creationists, such as Phillip Johnson, maintain the same views. Here's an issue where a word from Egnor, a medical doctor, could really have an impact. The silence from Dr. Egnor is deafening.

No, what really gets Dr. Egnor all worked up is the fact that I didn't answer his question (although the answers in the responses at the Panda's Thumb seemed pretty good to me).

In the meantime, I sent the following question to Dr. Egnor by e-mail:

Dear Prof. Egnor:

I wonder if you see any irony in the fact that, while intelligent design proponents are complaining about the suppression of their views and the unwillingness of scientists to debate, you attack me from a weblog that does not allow comments, while the Panda's Thumb and Recursivity are open to comments from everyone ... including you.

Regards, Jeffrey Shallit

P. S. Is it your general practice to steal copyrighted photos from people's websites without asking their permission?

So I'll make you a deal, Prof. Egnor: you answer my questions, and I'll answer yours. You first.

P. S. If you're going to cite me, Prof. Egnor, please spell my name correctly. Thanks.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Aww. Michael Egnor Notices Me

Well, I see that physician and Discovery Institute shill Michael Egnor has noticed me.

Egnor, a man whose arrogance and ignorance has already led to the coining of a new word, is unhappy about my critique of Tom Bethell. So unhappy, in fact, that he has to resort to forging fake quotes from my article.

Egnor claims that I called Bethell "a liar" - he uses those two words, and puts them in quotes. Any reasonable person would come to the conclusion that they appear in my article. Only problem is, the word "liar" doesn't appear anywhere in my piece, as a text search will easily confirm. Gee, a Discovery Institute spokesman misleading the public - what is the world coming to?

What I said was, "Bethell then goes on to repeat a common lie of the intelligent design movement..." Repeating a lie doesn't necessarily make one a liar; it is possible to repeat a lie from sheer ignorance.

Next, Egnor misrepresents the thrust of my observation about SETI. Egnor says, "Professor Shallit ridicules Bethell’s observation that Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (S.E.T.I.) research demonstrates that, under appropriate circumstances, the scientific inference to intelligent design in nature can be a legitimate interpretation of data." Actually, I did nothing of the sort. If we were to receive a coded message from outer space reading "Welcome earthlings! We are your reptilian overlords. Submit or be absorbed!", I would gladly join the hordes defending our beloved planet from invaders.

What I actually was objecting to - and it would be clear to anyone with connected brain cells - was Bethell's false claim that the people at SETI carry out their objectives by looking for "such things as a sequence of prime numbers". They don't look for prime numbers at all, as I showed by quoting directly from the SETI web pages.

Egnor makes the false claim that Bethell was just using an example from the fictional movie Contact. Although prime numbers do appear in Contact, Bethell said nothing at all about that movie, as a simple text search of Bethell's article will show. Bethell's claim was about what SETI researchers actually do; his claim was incorrect, and Egnor still doesn't understand why.

I find it strange that Egnor, a medical doctor, would defend Bethell, a man whose command of science is so unhinged that he has problems with relativity and thinks there is no AIDS epidemic in Africa.

Addendum: there's also a delicious irony involved in Egnor's post. The DI and intelligent design proponents are always whining about how legitimate scientists want to shut down debate about ID. Egnor's post, however, is on a web log that doesn't allow comments. The Panda's Thumb and Recursivity, by contrast, permit and encourage comments. Who, really, wants debate?

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Bethell the Buffoon

Check out the final exchange about intelligent design between John Derbyshire and Tom Bethell, where Bethell insists that creationism and intelligent design are as different as chalk and cheese. (Part 1 here; Part 2 here.)

In it, Bethell demonstrates once again why he is a blathering buffoon. Bethell tells us that "Structures or signals of specified complexity permit an inference to design without any necessary recourse to the supernatural" without bothering to mention that "specified complexity" is junk mathematics and doesn't permit an inference to anything at all, except that Bethell is rather gullible to accept William Dembski's assurances as gospel.

Bethell then goes on to repeat a common lie of the intelligent design movement: that the SETI Project (Search for Extraterrestrial Life) spends its time looking for "such things as a sequence of prime numbers". Sorry, Tom, that was the movie "Contact". You know, fiction?

In real life, SETI researchers look for look for narrow-band signals, because such signals don't appear to originate from simple systems, and because we believe intelligent beings, if they exist, would use a method of communication similar to ours. Repeat after me: SETI detection doesn't use prime numbers, "specified complexity", or red herrings. Bethell claims he's actually visited the SETI project, so how come he doesn't know this? Is it dishonesty, or simple stupidity?

Next, Bethell shows a profound misunderstanding of information theory when he claims, "Francis Crick, the co-discoverer of the structure of DNA was asked how the all-important coding information found its way into the DNA in the first place. It's so complex that a reliance on random events will never get us there." Bethell apparently doesn't understand that in the Kolmogorov theory of information, complexity is the same as randomness. It's easy to get complexity; all you need is a source of random events.

Here's a funny one: early on, Bethell solemnly intones that "Science is not properly based on authority, however." Later, however, in discussing the RNA world hypothesis, he says, "But I'm told that the alternative, the "RNA world," has huge complexities of its own. It's all pure guesswork." Oh. So he's been told that the RNA world hypothesis has problems, and he apparently accepts that without even looking into it. But I thought science wasn't based on authority? Mr. Bethell, meet your opponent, Mr. Bethell.

Mr. Bethell needs a good closer, so to finish up he reaches deep into the creationist playbook and comes up with the Colin Patterson story. It goes without saying that Bethell gets the details wrong; Patterson, for example, did not deny common descent. For the sake of argument, let's pretend for a moment that Patterson is on Bethell's side. Then the point of Bethell's misremembered anecdote is that we should rely on the authority of Colin Patterson, but not on the authority of all the other biologists who accept that evolution is the best explanation we have for the diversity of life as we see it today.

Altogether, a rather unimpressive performance for Mr. Bethell, who has been denying evolution for 30 years without learning anything about it. Funny -- he behaves just like a creationist.

Principal of Local Christian School Gives Away the Store

As I've previously discussed, there is a current push by some religious groups and the Ontario Tories to fund private religious schools. John Tory, leader of the Conservatives, awoke a firestorm of controversy when he stated that it would just fine if Christian schools decided to teach creationism.

In a September 8 letter to the editor published in our local paper, the Kitchener-Waterloo Record, Bob Moore, the principal of the John Calvin Christian School in Guelph, Ontario, calls the teaching of creationism a "bogey man". He went on to say "...evolution and creationism are non-issues." So far, par for the course.

Now, here's where Moore inadvertently gives away the store. His very next sentence is "The actual scientific study of the origins of the universe in any faith-based school would be remarkably similar to what McGuinty experienced when he was educated in a Roman Catholic faith-based school, and I suspect that he thinks he was well-educated."

Only problem is, evolution is a theory of biology that has nothing to do "the scientific study of the origins of the universe". This is exactly the kind of confusion sown by creationist tracts.

Unwittingly, Principal Moore has demonstrated a lack of understanding of evolution, and the reason why private religious schools shouldn't be funded.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Canadian Muslim Group Invites Al-Zarqawi Supporter as Speaker

Well, I see my colleague Mohamed Elmasry is at it again.

Elmasry, you may remember, is the Electrical and Computer Engineering professor who claimed that Israeli citizens were fair game:

COREN: So everyone in Israel and anyone and everyone in Israel, irrespective of gender, over the age of 18 is a valid target?

ELMASRY: Yes, I would say.

Elmasry later apologized for his remark.

Now, in his role as "Chair and National President" of the Canadian Islamic Congress, he's bringing Al-Zarqawi supporter and general froot loop Yvonne Ridley to speak in Montreal, Toronto, and Waterloo. Yes, that's certainly the way to improve relations with the Jewish community.

A convert to Islam, Ridley has urged British Muslims not to cooperate with the police and has been an apologist for both Al-Zarqawi and a Chechen terrorist involved in the Moscow theater hostage crisis.

Recently she has blustered that "However if any of those Zionist idiots continue to try and paint me as an anti-semite I must warn you ... one of my closest friends is one of Britain's best defamation lawyers." Let's see, the last British journalist that blustered about libel in the same way was David Irving... and that didn't work out so well for him, did it?

In response to accusations of anti-Semitism, Ridley writes "Well a semite is a person who can be an Arab or a Jew ... hmm, so these dingbats are accusing me of hating the entire Jewish and Arab world?" Except that, as Robert Wistrich points out in Antisemitism: The Longest Hatred, "`Antisemitism' is a problematic term, first invented in the 1870s by the German journalist Wilhelm Marr to describe the `non-confessional' hatred of Jews and Judaism which he and others like him advocated... `Antisemitism' -- a term which came into general use as part of this politically motivated anti-Jewish campaign of the 1880s -- was never directed against `Semites' as such.... ...As a result, for the last hundred years, the illogical term `antisemitism', which never really meant hatred of `Semites' (for example, Arabs) at all, but rather hatred of Jews, has come to be accepted in general usage as denoting all forms of hostility towards Jews and Judaism throughout history."

I don't like the fact that B'nai Brith "would have supported" a ban of Ridley from Canada. By all means, let the attention-seeking froot loop speak. Her own words demonstrate her intellectual bankruptcy and the dangers of mixing religion with politics.

Mathematics in a Jack Reacher Novel

Lee Child is the author of a series of 11 novels involving Jack Reacher, an ex-Army MP who travels around the US, shooting up bad guys, saving the good guys (and gals), all while having no fixed address and no possessions. Think of The Saint, but more laconic, and on steroids.

In the latest Jack Reacher novel, Bad Luck and Trouble, we are suddenly informed that Reacher has "some kind of a junior-idiot-savant facility with arithmetic." (This characteristic never appeared before in any other Reacher novel.) Reacher uses the number 8197 as his ATM card PIN "because [97] was the largest two-digit prime number, and he loved 81 because it was absolutely the only number out of all the literally infinite possibilities whose square root was also the sum of its digits. Square root of eighty-one was nine, and eight and one made nine. No other nontrivial number in the cosmos had that kind of sweet symmetry. Perfect."

Of course, 0 and 1 also have the property that their square root equals the sum of their digits, but Reacher apparently dismisses these as "trivial".

This kind of property -- that a number's square root equals the sum of its digits -- is exactly the kind that most mathematicians would dismiss as uninteresting. There are at least two reasons. First is the privileged position given to base-10 numeration. In base 10, the square root of 81 equals the sum of its digits, but that's not the case in base 2, where 8110 = 10100012, so the sum of the base-2 digits is 3. Why should we single out base 10, rather than some other base?

Second, the reason why 0, 1, and 81 are the only numbers with the Reacher property is essentially trivial: the sum of a number's digits grows, at most, something like 9 log10 n which, as n goes to infinity, is much less than sqrt(n). So we already know, with essentially no calculation, that there can only be a finite number of Reacher numbers in any base; the fact that there are three of them is not particularly interesting.

[Exercise: 81 also has the property that its fourth root equals the sum of its digits, when expressed in base 2. Find another number besides 0 and 1 with this property. Extra credit: explain why nobody cares.]

Elsewhere in the novel, Reacher explains how he would choose a 6-digit password:

"Six characters? I'd probably write out my birthday, month, day, year and find the nearest prime number." Then he thought for second and said, "Actually, that would be a problem, because there would be two equally close, one exactly seven less and one exactly seven more. So I guess I'd use the square root instead, rounded to three decimal places. Ignore the decimal point, that would give me six numbers, all different."

So what's Reacher's birthday? Keep in mind that, according to the novels, he seems to be between 35 and 55 years old. I'll give the answer in another post - if anybody cares.

Update: (April 3 2015). Here's a genuine mathematical question. Fix a base b, such as 2 or 10. Are there infinitely many numbers n such that n is a power of the sum of the base-b digits of n? Reacher's number 81 works in base 2 and base 10, for example. For base 2, the first few examples are 0,1, 81, 625, 7776, 16807, 46656, 59049, 1679616, 1475789056, 6975757441, 137858491849, 576650390625 and form sequence A256590 at the On-Line Encyclopedia of Integer Sequences.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Stupid Tory Tricks: Religious Schools In Ontario Could Teach Creationism, Get Public Funds

The aptly named Progressive Conservative leader John Tory, in his push to fund religious schools in Ontario, says it would be just fine with him if Christian schools teach creationism as a legitimate alternative to evolution.

For those outside Ontario: here, public funds are used for the public schools and for the "separate schools" -- those that are run by Catholic religious groups. These Catholic schools are a parallel system, with their own elections for school boards, and are an unfortunate result of the compromise that led to Confederation 140 years ago. As a result of the London Conference of 1866, separate schools were guaranteed in in Québec and Ontario, but not some other provinces. Section 93 (3) of the Constitution Act (formerly called the British North America Act) reads

(3.) Where in any Province a System of Separate or Dissentient Schools exists by Law at the Union or is thereafter established by the Legislature of the Province, an Appeal shall lie to the Governor General in Council from any Act or Decision of any Provincial Authority affecting any Right or Privilege of the Protestant or Roman Catholic Minority of the Queen's Subjects in relation to Education:

Not surprisingly, other religious groups, including Protestant and Jewish groups, have objected to the special treatment received by Catholics in Ontario. But instead of attempting to end public funding for all religious schools, the Progressive Conservatives have made funding of all accredited religious schools part of their party platform in the upcoming provincial elections. Polls show, however, that the majority of the public is opposed to this change. Rick Johnson, head of the Ontario School Boards Association, resigned his position to run for one of the opposition parties, the Liberals.

According to an interview with Tory I heard on the CBC this afternoon, “They teach evolution in the Ontario curriculum, but they also could teach the facts to the children that there are other theories that people have out there that are part of some Christian beliefs."

If I could vote in Ontario (I can't, since I'm only a permanent resident, not a citizen), I certainly wouldn't give my vote to someone who doesn't know the difference between a fact and a theory, and who thinks that creationism is a scientific theory that is suitable for teaching in Ontario's science classes.


Go read this column from an editor of the Galesville Republican, a small paper in Wisconsin. The writer, a certain Rose Eddy, compares the Freedom from Religion Foundation (an excellent organization devoted to the separation of church and state - I'm a member) to the Ku Klux Klan, the Nazis, and Al Qaeda.

There's been a lot of whining in my local paper about how "people of faith" are misrepresented in the mainstream media. The funny thing is, the kind of misrepresentation Christians get in the media is nothing compared to the abuse regularly heaped on atheists.

Saturday, September 01, 2007

Shortest No More

Well, as I anticipated, my shortest google query that returns no results no longer qualifies. So I'll have to try another. This time, though, I'll cleverly disguise it so that google won't find it.

The first three letters of my query are "zk0".

And the last two letters are "q" followed by 1+6.

Can anyone find a query of 4 letters and numbers that returns no results?