Saturday, May 31, 2008

"Religion is a Lie" is a Lie

This name of this domain,, promises something completely different from what it delivers. While it pretends to be critical of religion, in fact it is nothing more than the usual gibberish-for-Jesus.

When your product is intellectually bankrupt, is it any wonder that you have to lie to sell it?

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Pretentious Sign Contest

OK, let's have a pretentious sign contest!

The winner will receive a prize.

Rules: the sign should be as pretentious as possible, saying something simple in a flowery or ridiculously verbose way.

Here's my nomination:

Translation: "Be nice to the janitor! Put trash in trash cans."

Now, it's up to you.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Expelled a Failure!

Well, no surprise to anyone who's followed the story, but the ID documentary Expelled is essentially dead in theatres.

According to Box Office Mojo, not even creationists are dumb enough to pay good money to watch this turkey. After its opening weekend, Expelled attendance fell off exponentially in weekend gross, with each weekend earning less than 1/2 the previous. Theatre count also decreased each week; only 83 theatres nationwide are showing this loser now. Similarly, the amount taken in per theatre decreased each week, down to this week's $423/theatre. You could probably get more by showing Battlefield Earth.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Oreo Innumeracy

"30% Less Fat per 2 Cookies"? How much less fat per 1 cookie?

OK, I can think of a plausible reason* why it's phrased that way, but mathematically, it just sounds stupid.

* Because 2 cookies is the serving size, and maybe there's a legal requirement that any claims about "less fat" must be expressed in terms of the serving size.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Strange Duck Behavior

It feels like something out of a Gary Larson cartoon.

The local ducks have suddenly learned to hang out on rooftops. I've lived in the same house for 18 years, and I've never seen this before, but suddenly, this year, more and more ducks and geese are perching and even sometimes nesting on rooftops.

Here are two pictures I took yesterday of a duck on the house next door, a good 20 feet above the ground. It looks like he is surveying the territory prior to swooping down and nabbing some unsuspecting child.

Be afraid. Be very afraid.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Royalists in France

One of the things I find embarrassing about Canada is its devotion to the monarchy; it seems remarkably childish to me. As columnist Allan Fotheringham once remarked, "Grown-up nations do not need, as head of state, a woman -- however nice --who lives across a large ocean in a castle in a foreign country."

But on a recent trip to France, I saw something even more strange: a poster for the Alliance Royale. This is, believe it or not, a political movement to restore the monarchy in France. It seems largely spearheaded by someone named Yves-Marie Adeline, who actually has a blog for his royalist views. There is also an FAQ which is remarkable for its obliqueness, although it does forthrightly admit that "A law that applies uniformly to everyone leads to injustice".

Luckily, this party hasn't won any seats, as far as I can tell. Indeed, they seem to be garnering something like .03% of the vote.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Is IDiocy Genetic?

Far-right crackpot Phyllis Schlafly weighs in on Expelled, repeating the usual lie that "Dr. Richard Sternberg, a biologist ... lost his position at the prestigious Smithsonian Institution after he published a peer-reviewed article that mentioned intelligent design."

Now I see that her son, Roger Schlafly, has the same affliction: about the transparent effort to relabel creationism as intelligent design in the book Of Pandas and People he writes: "Judge Jones found that the Pandas book was subsequently edited to remove references to creationism, and made inferences about the motives of the Pandas authors. I think that it is bizarre to denigrate folks for complying with a court decision."

This transparent effort to exonerate the writers of Of Pandas and People for their editing just won't fly. It is completely obvious to anyone with connected brain cells that the replacement of "creationism" with "intelligent design" was not a good-faith effort to "comply with a court decision", but a dishonest and deceptive way to make an end-run around the intent of the decision.

Roger Schlafly thinks "Evolutionists [are] preoccupied with motives". But in the law, as in everyday life, motive is often taken into account when judging the actions of people: Actus non facit reum nisi mens sit rea.

It seems that, in this case, IDiocy has a genetic component.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Science Quiz

This is the laboratory of a Nobel-prize winning scientist, located on a street in Europe bearing the name of that scientist. Whose laboratory is it?

Monday, May 19, 2008


One of the nicest things about France is that streets are named after writers, painters, mathematicians, scientists, and other people of accomplishment. Here's a picture of a street sign in the 14th arrondissement, showing a street named after Étienne Bezout (1730-1783).

I became interested in Bezout a few years ago when I wrote an article entitled "Origins of the Analysis of the Euclidean Algorithm" for Historia Mathematica. One of Bezout's accomplishments was his textbook, Cours de Mathématiques à l'Usage des Gardes du Pavillon et de la Marine, which went through dozens of editions, first under Bezout, and later, at the hands of others. Supposedly even Napoleon I learned mathematics from Bezout's book.

Do Books on Atheism Belong in the Science Section?

Here's a picture of the science section at a bookstore in Trudeau airport in Montreal:

Among the books prominently displayed are

I don't understand why these books aren't in the religion or philosophy section.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Denyse O'Leary Will Teach You The Craft of Writing

Oh, boy, I really can't wait for this workshop, where I can pay $359 to hear Denyse O'Leary, dean of Canadian journalism, instruct me on how to construct sentences --- like this one:

Phyllis Schlafly, the nemesis of radical feminists who is just SO not invited to Hill Clinton's inagural (which may never happen anyway, the way things are going) puts in her two cents worth on the Expelled movie about the trials of being an intelligence design theorist in an ivy league of Darwin cultists:

It really takes an exceptional talent to combine this much fatuousness, name-calling, misspelling, and an inability to provide the correct name of her own movement, all in a single sentence.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Your Daily Dose of Woo

One of the commenters led me to this website of Richard Bartlett, a Seattle chiropractor who thinks he can heal people using quantum mechanics.

The website consists of the most absurd woo, such as "Matrix Energetics is a complete system of healing, self-care and transformation. It is a transferable and teachable phenomenon, powered by intent, which has a physical and observable effect every time. Complete beginners as well as seasoned health care practitioners are able to perform and utilize this work to affect change-with no waiting and no running of energy. Anyone can learn this skill and practice Matrix Energetics."

Well, if it has a physical and observable effect "every time", let's see some peer-reviewed studies that prove it. Are there any? The website doesn't provide any. It does have a section called "Research", where you can read about "polycontrast interference photography", which seems to be yet another form of woo.

Bartlett seems to have a cartoon understanding of quantum mechanics, such as when he writes
"There’s something called the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. What that says, essentially, is you cannot observe a system without entering into that observation and therefore changing it. Scientifically, this means that if you look at something and attempt to measure its velocity, you lose track of its actual location. If you try and track its location, you lose the ability to measure its velocity. You can never actually measure both at the same time; you can observe one and change the other."

You can bet that with seminar costing as much as $545 a shot, with multiple levels, Bartlett is raking in the cash from gullible sick people.

Reply to William Lane Craig

Two readers of this blog have pointed out this post at William Lane Craig's blog. In the post, he responds to a question about my debate with Kirk Durston. Craig says I exhibit "ignorance on parade".

Well, there's a lot of ignorance to go around. My debate was with Durston, not with Craig. I was responding to Durston's claim (made at 05:37) that "Mathematics dictates that time itself would have had to have a beginning at some point in the past." In the debate that Durston took part in just a few days earlier at McMaster University, he claimed that Hilbert, in his 1925 paper, "On the Infinite" had proved mathematically that there could not be an infinite regress of causes." But this is not true. All Hilbert did in that paper was claim that then-current consensus about the physical universe was that no infinite quantities existed in it. That's a far cry from any kind of mathematical proof. William Lane Craig, like anyone else, can go read Hilbert's paper and verify that this is the case.

I pointed out that in fact, there is nothing mathematical that rules out an infinite regress of causes. For example, you could have an event at time -(n+1) causing an event at time -(n) for all positive integers n. Thus, an event at time -2 causes an event at time -1, an event at time -3 causes an event at time -2, etc. There is nothing logical or mathematical to rule this out. You can even have an infinite regress of causes if time has a beginning. If time begins at time 0, then you can have an event at time 1/(n+1) causing an event at time 1/n for all positive integers n. Thus, for example, an event at time 1/3 causes an event at time 1/2, an event at time 1/4 causes an event at time 1/3, etc. Again, nothing logical or mathematical rules this out.

Now you might say that once we bring our current state of physical knowledge into the picture, the first scenario is ruled out. But even modern physicists consider the possibility of infinite time-like curves that occur in the past of some other point; for example, in their study of Malament-Hogarth spacetime. Thus, I would contend that apologists like Durston and Craig have a really naive view of spacetime, one that is essentially based on the understanding of 100 years ago, not modern physics.

When I called Durston on this at the debate, his response was really comical. Here it is as I have transcribed it, beginning at 1:06:48:

"First, regarding Hilbert. He [Shallit] pulled a mathematical trick
there. Those of you who are used to summing infinite series
will know that if the x decreases exponentially, it comes to a
finite value. So let me explain how this really works.

Let's assume... now I don't know whether he's saying that.
Has he dodged the issue here, as to whether or not the past is
infinite or not? So let's assume the past is infinite. So
let's call this debate time 0, this hour here of the debate is
time 0. The next hour after this will be time 0+1, time 2, and
so forth. And in the past, we'll go to, the last hour before
this debate will be negative 1 hour, hour negative 2, and so forth.
Now if you want to assume, and this is to illustrate why there's
a problem of traversing an actual infinite series in
reality. Let's say that each step in the series is one hour
long. Now what he seems to be arguing, or what he's insisting
here, I'm not sure, is that Hilbert, that the past can be
infinite, that is, there's an actual hour infinitely separated
from this one here. So let's call that -infinity. We'll never
get there by getting in a time machine and going back, so let's
just take a quantum leap back into the past, we're now at minus
infinity. Now some of those of you who are familiar with
infinite set theory might be a little uncomfortable at this
point because if the past is, if you're saying it actually is
infinite, what you mean is that there actually is an hour back
there that is infinitely separated from this one. So let's
count our way down now. Infinity minus 1, infinity minus 2.
It's one hour each, not an exponentially decreasing amount of
time like that little equation he put up there, but just a
steady hour each time.

Or you could go with a multi-universe, this universe is a
product of another universe, and we're working our way down
from -infinity to the present. At what point in time will you
arrive at 0? You will never traverse an infinite series in
reality if you must stop at a discrete amount of time for a
constant amount of time in between. And that pretty much lays
to rest this notion that time itself can be infinite as far as
the past goes. It can be potentially infinite. you can do
lots of mathematical things, I can hold my hands together and
say there's an infinite number of mathematical points, no
problem, those are imaginary. But the moment you have a
discrete amount, that occupies a discrete amount of time, like
a minute, or a second, or an hour, and it is not decreasing
then suddenly you have a problem, if you want to actually
traverse that infinite series in reality."

After Durston's casual slur on my character at the beginning, this is completely incoherent. My equation was not "exponential", so that criticism is nonsensical. Secondly, it is perfectly possible to have an infinite past without having any point at infinite distance from the current time; for example, we could define times -1, -2, -3, etc., without having to define an actual point called "-infinity". (In exactly the same way, the negative integers are an infinite set that does not contain an integer called "-infinity".) This is not exactly a controversial point, but it is a misconception common to undergraduates. Mr. Durston, a graduate student, should know better.

Craig doesn't seem to understand what the debate was about. He says, "What's really peculiar is Shallit's "that was then, but this is now" move—as though views of mathematical existence are tied to the times!", thereby entirely missing the point. Hilbert's claim was about the 1925 understanding of physical existence, not mathematical existence. And anyway, views of mathematical existence do change through time. Consider, for example, the views of people like Brouwer.

Craig says, "On Shallit's view the universe still came into being a finite time ago and therefore requires an external cause." No, I didn't say that at all, and I don't hold that. In my second example, I said that "you can have an event at time 1/(n+1) causing an event at time 1/(n) for all positive integers n". This doesn't say anything about time 0, and it is logically possible to have an infinite chain of causes stretching back in this way, with nothing happening at time 0 at all - an uncaused beginning.

In general, Craig seems to have an extremely naive, almost childish view of infinity. Read Craig's reply to Sobel. On page 9 he says, "Imagine an actually infinite regress of past causes terminating in the present effect. In this case, the regress of causes terminating, say, yesterday, or, for that matter, at any day in the infinite past, has exactly the same number of causes as the regress terminating in the present. This seems absurd, since the entire regress contains all the same causes as any selected partial regress plus an arbitrarily large number of additional causes as well. Or again, if we number the causes, there will be as many odd-numbered causes as there are causes, which seems absurd, since there are an equally infinite number of even-numbered causes in the series in addition to the self-same odd-numbered causes."

It seems that what bothers Craig is perfectly understandable to any mathematician: namely, that the set of positive integers has the same cardinality as the set of integers greater than n (for any positive n), and the same cardinality as the set of even positive integers. All this was well understood 125 years ago, but it seems the Christian apologists haven't caught up.

Altogether, I would say these arguments by Durston and Craig are embarrassingly naive.