Wednesday, January 30, 2008

I'm Really, Really Glad That Alva B. Weir Isn't My Physician

At Prof. Kenyon's talk on Monday on "Myths About Atheism", he mentioned a study I was not very familiar with: a paper by Curlin, Dugdale, Lantos, and Chin in Annals of Family Medicine 5 (2007), 353-360. In this paper, the authors studied to what extent the religious beliefs of doctors influenced their decision to work in underserved areas. Their conclusion was "Physicians who were more religious in general, as measured by intrinsic religiosity or frequency of attendance at religious services, were much more likely to conceive of the practice of medicine as a calling but not more likely to report practice among the underserved."

It's an interesting study, and it's one of several that suggest that religious people aren't more ethical or socially responsible than non-religious people. What I found most interesting, however, was Prof. Kenyon's citing of this response to the Curlin study by one Alva B. Weir, a physician from Bristol, Tennessee, and affiliated with the "Christian Medical and Dental Associations". You can read the whole letter at the link; I'll excerpt two paragraphs below:

First, the article is an indictment of physicians who follow the great faith traditions, each of which mandates a responsibility for the poor. Though the most spiritual doctors do serve the poor more, the majority of doctors practicing their faith do not seem to take the mandate seriously. There seems to be a disconnect between the teachings of their faith and this selected practice of their faith. This suggests a contagion of a secular culture’s philosophy, “Each man for himself.”

On the other hand, the care documented for the undeserved by physicians of little faith suggests an influence of the faith traditions they deny. A culture completely dominated by a Darwinian “survival of the fittest” mentality would find it difficult to embrace care for the underserved except through very twisted social Darwinian theory. It is the great faith traditions of the world that have taken a religious mandate to care for the poor and imbedded it into our social conscience.

Did you get that? The only reason that religious doctors don't do more is that they have been contaminated with the "contagion" of secular culture. And the reason that non-believers do as much as they do is because they have been influenced by "faith traditions they deny". The contortions of reasoning required to come to these conclusions boggle the mind.

Long before Jesus ever existed, human beings cared for the sick and the poor. They did so not because of the injunctions of some religious faith, but because humans are social animals who are able to comprehend the suffering of others.

Denying the truth claims of religious traditions, such as the divinity of Jesus, does not mean one has to embrace "social Darwinism", a philosophy that has little to do with evolutionary biology and everything to do with selfishness. Nonbelievers can do good, and do it without religion. One can accept evolution as the best scientific explanation for the diversity of life, and still help one's fellow man.

I am really, really glad that Alva B. Weir isn't my physician, because his response displays bigotry against nonbelievers, and suggests a willingness to twist the results of the study to fit preconceptions.

Myths About Atheism

Tim Kenyon, a philosophy professor at the University of Waterloo, gave an enjoyable talk Monday entitled "Myths About Atheism". Prof. Kenyon is a clear and entertaining speaker. The talk was reasonably well-attended, and there was time for an hour's worth of Q & A at the conclusion.

Here are the 10 myths that Prof. Kenyon discussed:

  1. Atheists are angry at [insert favorite god here].

  2. Atheists are faking being atheists.

  3. Atheists are immoral.

  4. Atheism is Darwinism.

  5. Atheists think they can explain everything.

  6. Atheists hold that life has no meaning.

  7. Atheism = communism/fascism/etc.

  8. Atheism is faith-based.

  9. Atheism is a religion.

  10. Atheism dominates the media.

I think this is just the beginning of a much longer list. Here are a few that come to mind:

11. Atheists are dogmatic.

12. Atheists are militant.

13. Atheists choose atheism to avoid moral responsibility for their actions.

Can you think of any other common myths?

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Canada Needs an Active Science Advisor

The CBC reports that Canada's National Science Advisor, Arthur Carty, will retire on March 31, and that the office will be closed. (Hat tip to Pharyngula.)

Although it's shortsighted and foolhardy to eliminate the office of National Science Advisor, we really needed someone with more willingness to stand up to the anti-science faction at SSHRC, the social science granting agency.

You may recall that SSHRC turned down a grant application of McGill professor Brian Alters, who had proposed to study how intelligent design advocates have a malign influence on biological education, because there was inadequate justification that "the theory of Evolution, and not Intelligent Design theory, was correct."

Many scientists, including me, wrote to Carty asking him to take a stand on this ridiculous position. Carty never even responded. His secretary promised action that never occurred.

Canada needs a science advisor office, and it needs a science advisor that is willing to defend evolution.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Local Paper Exposes Magnetic Therapist

From time to time, I've been critical of our local paper, the Kitchener-Waterloo Record. But today they deserve a lot of congratulations.

Following up on a tip I told them about, today's front-page story exposes the questionable practices of Thorsten Wietschel, aka Sven Kugler, a "magnetic therapy" salesman.

Wietschel, or someone working for him, left the flyer below in my mailbox a couple of weeks ago.

As I uncovered by doing a Lexis search and informed the Record, Wietschel has a history of shady practices, including being charged with burglary and grand theft in California and being ordered by a court in Arizona to cease selling bogus medical products. Now he's in Kitchener for several talks in which he gives seniors a free lunch and then starts his pitch, offering expensive mattress covers lined with cheap magnets that he claims can help cure diseases. Apparently Wietschel is very smooth and convincing and has fooled people before.

The Record article by Brian Caldwell is well-written and pulls no punches. Hopefully it will prevent Wietschel from fooling more desperately ill people into buying his worthless magnetic mattress covers. Congratulations to Caldwell and city editor Harvey Taylor for a job well done!

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Happy Birthday, Donald Knuth!

Today is Donald Knuth's 70th birthday!

Donald Ervin Knuth was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on January 10, 1938. He received his BS and MS degrees from Case Institute of Technology and his Ph.D. from the California Institute of Technology in 1963.

Knuth is probably best known for his three-volume work, The Art of Computer Programming, which popularized the analysis of algorithms as a basic tool of computer science. Volume 4, on combinatorial algorithms, is in preparation and parts have been published as "fascicles", preliminary to the final version.

Knuth is responsible for the theory of LR parsing, which he invented in a 1965 article. This method forms the basis for most modern compilers.

Knuth is the inventor of TeX, a system for typesetting mathematics that is used today by most mathematicians and computer scientists to prepare their papers.

Knuth is the recipient of many awards, including the 1974 Turing award (computer science's highest award).

My blogging friends in mathematics and computer science have put together a little birthday tribute to him:

There might be some more contributions later, so check back!

Still not satisified? You can look at this 1999 Salon piece, or this offbeat biography of Knuth from a future historian, or this NPR interview, or Knuth's own home page.

Happy birthday, Don!

Donald Knuth and Me

To honor Donald Knuth's 70th birthday, I offer this personal reminiscence about Knuth's influence on me and the wider mathematical and computer science community.

My first exposure to Knuth's work was in 1973, when I had landed a summer job at the IBM Philadelphia Scientific Center with the APL group of Kenneth Iverson and Adin Falkoff. The Scientific Center, located at 3401 N. Market Street, had a wonderful mathematics library, and when I expressed some interest in computing some fundamental constants to many decimal places, the staff (probably Don Orth) directed me to Seminumerical Algorithms, Volume 2 of Knuth's magnum opus, The Art of Computer Programming. Reading it was like stepping into a new world.

Knuth revealed that doing a good job at programming was more than just putting together lines of code and timing them. One could actually analyze algorithms, determining their running times with great precision. One could prove mathematically that one algorithm was superior to another, and quantify how much better. And the analysis led to all sorts of amazing mathematics, involving asymptotic expansions, power series, and continued fractions. It fundamentally changed the way I viewed the computer.

Almost every page of Seminumerical Algorithms revealed something interesting. On one page, I learned about the binary gcd algorithm, an improvement on Euclid's algorithm. On another, a method for determining the continued fraction for any algebraic number that did not involve computing the number in decimal first. On another, the continued fraction for e-1/n and tanh z. On another, a faster way to factor integers. Lacking the funds to buy the book, I began to photocopy pages that interested me. After a month or so I had photocopied almost the entire book.

And look! Knuth even offered a reward for readers who found errors in his book! In 1975, as a high school senior, I found an error (a small mistake in a factorization table), and sent it off to Knuth. I can still remember the pride I found when I received a check from him in the mail the next week. I never cashed the check, and still have it as a souvenir. (In my letter, I told him how I found his book so exciting that I photocopied nearly all of it; it didn't occur to me that an author expecting royalties might not find this a welcome sort of praise.) He wrote back, "For this you receive a reward of $1; find more errors and you'll be able to buy vol. 3 -- or make a Xerox copy of the check and cash it 100 times." Eventually I would accumulate 4 Knuth checks totalling $22.72 -- all still uncashed.

Later, when I attended university, I began to understand Knuth's wider influence. Almost everywhere I turned, Knuth had been there before. When I was interested in computing Euler's constant to thousands of digits, his 1962 paper showed me one way of doing it. When I got interested in paperfolding sequences, I found that his 1970 paper with Chandler Davis, "Number representations and dragon curves", had already proved everything I had and more. I wrote a program to play the guessing game "Master Mind", but then I found his paper, "The computer as master mind", which showed that my ideas were not optimal. His 1966 paper, "An almost linear recurrence", introduced me to the beauty and complexity of non-linear recurrences (even though, as it turns out, Mahler and de Bruijn had already published stronger results). A little-known 1964 paper in the Fibonacci Quarterly introduced me to some interesting series that eventually led to some of my first published papers. I read his marvelous book Surreal Numbers one weekend, and it eventually turned into a junior paper on the subject.

When I was an undergraduate, I wrote a paper on continued fractions that appeared in the Journal of Number Theory. Knuth read it, and included it as an exercise in Seminumerical Algorithms, page 363. (He assigned it a rating of 40, which means a difficulty equivalent to a "term project".) I was amazed to receive a postcard from him, inquiring about my middle name -- Knuth is very thorough (some might say obsessive) about including the full name of each person cited in his index. So at age 21 I was pleased to find myself in the index to volume 2, with my unusual middle name, sandwiched between "Shakespeare, William" and "Shamir, Adi".

It wasn't until I became a professor that I really began to appreciate the depth and breadth of Knuth's influence. His 1965 paper, "On the translation of languages from left to right" almost single-handedly developed the techniques that permit fast compilation of programming languages. The Knuth-Morris-Pratt algorithm was a breakthrough that allows linear time pattern matching, and introduced me to what are now called Sturmian words. His 1976 paper, "Big omicron and big omega and big theta", advocated the now-universal asymptotic notation like big-Theta. And his work on TeX created a system that nearly every mathematician and computer scientist uses to write their papers, exams, and homework assignments.

Of course, Knuth is human, and along the way he made some mistakes. I think his development of MIX, an idealized assembly language, was a waste of time and never had any significant influence. And, since I'm not a Christian, his book 3:16 Bible Texts Illuminated leaves me completely cold. But someone who is so productive and influential is allowed a few wrong turns now and then.

I should also say something about Knuth's personality. He is a very kind and considerate person. This is brought out in his version of Christianity, which is extremely humble -- just the opposite of the judgmental fundamentalists and creationists. In 2000, when he visited Waterloo to receive an honorary degree and to deliver the Pascal lectures, he brought a copy of his Selected Papers, autographed it, and left it in my mailbox. It is a gift I will always treasure. He has an offbeat sense of humor, as one can see by examining his earliest publication, from MAD magazine. Yet when you are wrong, he does not hesitate to point it out. I have at least two letters from him pointing out errors or disagreements with my work.

So, happy birthday to Donald Knuth! May he live a long life - long enough to complete The Art of Computer Programming, and savor its completion!

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Fun With a Geiger Counter

A surprising number of household objects are radioactive, and you can verify this with a cheap geiger counter, available on ebay for less than $100. (But be sure you get a geiger counter, not a radiation survey meter. The latter is good only after a nuclear attack, and is not sensitive enough for the experiment I describe here.)

One of the most surprising, at least to me, is water softener pellets -- more precisely, the kind that are made of postassium chloride (KCl). A 20 kg bag (below) sells for about $10 at your local supermarket or hardware store.

Here's a picture of my smallest geiger counter in an empty tupperware container. As you can see, it's registering 12 microRoentgen per hour. Probably most of this background radiation comes from cosmic rays or the smoke detector in my study.

Now I load up the tupperware container with about 1 kilogram of potassium chloride pellets, and try again:

Now the geiger counter is registering 40 microRoentgen per hour. It's not very radioactive, but it is about 2.3 times background.

Why are these water softener pellets radioactive? Surprisingly, it's just due to the potassium content. About 1 in every 8500 potassium atoms is K-40, a radioactive isotope of potassium (and the one that is used in potassium-argon dating). The half-life of K-40 is about 1.3 billion years, which means that potassium-argon dating can be used to date very old rocks (see Dalrymple, The Age of the Earth). K-40 emits both beta particles and gamma rays..

Now, your body also contains potassium, about 140g worth for the average person. So are people radioactive? Yes, slightly. According to this table, potassium-40 accounts for most of the self-irradiation of the body, with carbon-14 a close second. Altogether, about 8000 atoms a second are decomposing inside your body, and this can be measured with a sensitive detector.

Other radioactive items you might find in your house include smoke detectors (some use Americium-241), mantles for gas camping lights (some use Thorium oxide to make the light brighter, although this is less common now), and vaseline glass (uranium is added to the glass to get the yellow color).

Friday, January 04, 2008

Credential Inflation: A Favorite Tactic of Denialists

One of the favorite dishonest tactics of denialists of all stripes is credential inflation. Credential inflation is the process by which those with little proficiency or knowledge of an area, or people with marginal credentials, are touted as experts. In this way, denialists can argue from authority, hoping that no one will challenge the credentials of their spokesmen.

Here are two recent examples of credential inflation. On the climate change denialist blog of far-right Senator James Inhofe, Christopher Monckton is described as a "UK climate researcher". In fact, Monckton is a former British journalist who apparently has no training in any relevant field, such as chemistry or atmospheric science. (His degrees were in classics and journalism.) He has not published a single peer-reviewed paper on climate change or environmental science. Monckton also has a public record of dishonesty, with a false claim that he is member of the House of Lords and a phony claim that he had to sell his ancestral home to pay off a puzzle prize.

I contacted the author of the Inhofe blog piece, Marc Morano. (Morano is a far-right hack who was involved in spreading the false Swift-boat claims about John Kerry.) Morano claimed in e-mail to me that "Lord Monckton has written many research papers on climate change", but was unable to substantiate this claim, producing instead a list of articles that appeared in newspapers such as the Telegraph and the Frontiers of Freedom website.

I then asked Morano about Monckton's training in climatology. He replied as follows:
"As far as I know Lord Monckton is not trained in climatology. But why do you only ask about climatology. The current global warming issue involved so many different disciplines, ie. Mathematics, economics, statisticians for modeling, Geologists for Earth's history, Astrophysicists for solar linking, oceanographers to understand CO2 emissions from oceans, etc."

To which I replied "You're right. Does Lord Monckton have any formal training in mathematics, statistics, geology, astrophysics, or oceanography?" To which Morano replied, "I do not know his entire educational background, but I do know that he has conducted climate research and even, I understand, got he UN to make a few corrections after he alerted them. That certainly qualifies as a "climate researcher." Maybe not peer-reviewed as you would like, but it still qualifies."

Shameless. I've pointed out mistakes in chemistry books, but that doesn't make me a chemistry researcher.

Here's another example of credential inflation. In a recent article on a Focus on the Family website, intelligent design advocate and evolution denialist William Dembski is described as a "leading scientist and mathematician". Now this is a claim that is easy to check. A real leading scientist or mathematician would have published at least a few very influential papers or books, receiving dozens of citations in the scientific literature. So I went over to the ISI Web of Knowledge (formerly Science Citation Index) website, to see how many citations Dembski has received. For a comparison, I chose Paul Vitányi, a colleague of mine who works in a similar area (information theory) and has the advantage of a fairly distinctive name.

I searched for "Dembski, W" using the "author finder" option. I then chose "WA Dembski" to search on (there is another researcher, W. J. Dembski, who actually has one paper that received more citations than all of Dembski's papers). According to ISI, Dembski has 5 items that have received citations. The total number of citations to his work is 5. I then asked for a citation report, and the following graph appeared.

Now, I did the same thing for Paul Vitányi. I chose "PMB Vitanyi" to search on, and found 60 papers cited a total of 358 times. Here's the same graph for Vitányi:

Examine the graphs carefully; the vertical scales are quite different.

So who, exactly, is the "leading scientist and mathematician" here?

Next time you see a denialist touting their expert, be suspicious. Credential inflation is one of their main tools.