Sunday, December 27, 2009

Philip Skell - The Cowardly Creationist

I recently received some unsolicited e-mail from Philip Skell, an elderly chemist who use to teach at Penn State, and a minor ID creationist. I have to admit, it was a bizarre experience.

Skell is well-known for his monomania: claiming that the theory of evolution is not relevant to medicine or experimental biology, and repeating this claim over and over again in numerous articles and op-eds. This, despite the fact that Skell is not a physician or biologist, and, as far as I am aware, has no training in these subjects. But he does like to flaunt his membership in the National Academy of Sciences.

He started off by saying "You may find the attached essay pertinent to your recent writings concerning the David Koch project." -- which was strange, because I have never written about David Koch or his "project". He then signed off as "member, NAS" and attached one of his anti-evolution opinion pieces, this one published in the journal Politics and the Life Sciences. There is nothing really new in it; Skell made the same points in an earlier piece in The Scientist, and he's recently made them again in an issue of that eminent scientific journal, Forbes.

However, Skell's claims are strongly disputed by actual biologists. For example, Nesse and Williams, in their book Why We Get Sick: The New Science of Darwinian Medicine, explain in detail how understanding evolution contributes to the improved practice of medicine. P. Z. Myers, in two different posts, has explained in detail why Skell is wrong. And Gary Hurd has also pointed out Skell's misrepresentations.

When I mentioned this to the good Prof. Skell, what happened? Like the brave Sir Robin, he ran away in a huff: "As a follower of PZ you have no intellectual honesty. I prefer not to hear further from the likes of you. Sayonara!!!"

Poor Dr. Skell. He's used to intimidating the rubes with his degree and his NAS membership. But when somebody who actually knows something about the subject is cited, he vanishes in a puff of smoke and three exclamation marks.

Philip Skell - the cowardly creationist.

[For more Skell sessions, see his encounter with Jerry Coyne and his ideas being disowned by a member of his own family.]

Saturday, December 26, 2009

The World's Worst Journalist Attacks!

So, it looks like Denyse O'Leary, the world's worst journalist™, didn't like my simple example showing that Stephen Meyer's claims about information are false.

Meyer claims information can only come from a mind. But this is clearly not true. For example, meteorologists collect information all the time about the environment: wind speed, wind direction, precipitation, etc. Based on this information, they make predictions about the weather. But this information did not come from a mind - it came from the environment.

O'Leary is unable to refute this argument, so all she can do is babble in response, as follows:

What mind indeed? If we experience either snow or dull, freezing rain here tomorrow, why should I be surprised? This is the season officially known as winter.

Well, that certainly showed me!

When confronted with my simple counterexample to Meyer's silly claim, it seems intelligent design advocates have three choices:

1. They can deny that things like wind speed, wind direction, etc. are actually information. Then they have to claim that weather forecasters make their predictions without any information as input at all. This hardly seems like it will convince anyone.

2. They can claim that the physical world's attributes are the products of a mind. But then everything is designed, so it is pointless to claim they have a novel argument for the designedness of biological organisms, since their claim is universal.

3. They can concede that wind speed, wind direction, etc. are information, but not the particular kind of information they had in mind. This is not likely to convince anyone either, since by Meyer's own definition these measures qualify as information. Nor is it likely to convince anyone who has examined the many critiques of Dembski's CSI.

So expect the intelligent design advocates to resort to more childish tactics. Already the commenters have taken to making fun of my name, and calling me stupid and dishonest. Yup, that's the way to answer the argument.

Monday, December 21, 2009

My Three-Word Review of Avatar

"Dances with Na'vi".

Friday, December 18, 2009

Creepy Politician of the Month: Nadine Morano

Imagine that you're the "Secretary of State for Family" in France, and you're caught fibbing on video. An indignant citizen then comments "Hou la menteuse" (Oh, the liar!) on the website. What do you do?

Why, you subpoena the Internet provider to get the commenter's IP address, obtain her identity, and sue her for "public insult towards a member of the ministry", of course!

That's what creepy politician Nadine Morano did to Dominique Broueilh in France. Her appalling suit inspired Sarkozy adviser Henri Guaino to suggest that scrutiny by ordinary citizens on the Internet represented "the beginnings of totalitarianism". Come to think of it, maybe he deserves the award.

Morano has since dropped the suit, and the comments on the website continue to pile up - the latest victim of the Streisand effect.

Best News in a While

Yes, I'm from Philadelphia, but I always regarded the Mummers Parade as one of the stupidest and most embarrassing Philadelphia traditions. And I'm not alone.

But wait ... this year the parade is in trouble. Due to budget cuts, the city of Philadelphia is asking the Mummers to pay for their own security costs, which may kill the parade.

Best news I've heard for a long time.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Five Laws of Choosing Referees

For the last few years I've been editing a mathematical journal - the Journal of Integer Sequences, which is a true open-access journal. Neither authors nor readers are charged; it is completely free.

Much of my time is spent dealing with referees: choosing them, trying to get them to agree to referee a paper, reading their reports, and sending them to authors. Along the way, I've had a number of interesting experiences: like the time I kept pursuing a referee despite the fact that he was dead, and the referee who sent me a report on a completely different paper that I had not sent.

I think I now have enough data to list five laws of choosing referees:

1. In general, famous mathematicians make lousy referees. (Of course, there are exceptions.) Famous mathematicians have a lot of demands on their time, which means they probably won't even answer your request to referee a paper. If they do respond, they'll probably say no, because they're so busy doing important work. If they do accept, they'll probably take a long time. Because they're famous, they're probably really bright - much smarter than me and probably the author of the paper - so if they do write a report, it tends to be really short, snarky, and dismissive of the results.

2. Graduate students make good referees in one respect: they tend to read the paper really carefully, and are good at spotting sections where the argument is incorrect or unclear. But they rarely have the mastery of the literature needed to know if something is new or original.

3. If you have to ask a potential referee several times whether they're willing to referee a paper, then don't bother phoning them or making much more effort to contact them. If they're so disorganized and impolite that they refuse to tell you yes or no quickly, then they'll never produce a report.

4. Referees from Asia tend - generally speaking - to write extremely short reports that are rarely helpful. Whether this is a function of the culture, or whether they're embarrassed by their English skills, or something else, I don't know. In contrast, eastern Europeans generally write good and helpful reports, despite their lousy English skills.

5. The worst referees of all are the ones that agree to referee the paper and then keep stringing you along for month after month, each time claiming that they're almost done the report, and it will be coming shortly. I once wasted 9 months pursuing a referee who kept claiming it would be there next week. So if you can't get a report from the referee within a month of the time they originally promised, give up - and tell the referee why you're giving up on them.

The Great Climate-Gate Debate at MIT

I attended The Great Climate-Gate Debate yesterday at MIT. It was videotaped, so maybe eventually it will be available online, but for the moment, here is a brief and possibly inaccurate description based on notes I took during the event.

It wasn't really a debate. None of the participants really addressed each other in any substantial way. It consisted of 5 10-minute presentations, followed by questions from the audience. My summaries of each speaker are given below, with my comments in italics.

The first speaker was Kerry Emanuel, a professor of atmospheric sciences at MIT. He contrasted the situation in science with politics. In science the truth will win out; but politics enters the scence because the coal industry will lose billions. They spend lavishly in campaigns to protect themselves. Just like the tobacco industry, which set up fake grassroots organizations to deny the connection between smoking and lung cancer, the anti-AGW [anthropogenic global warming] crowd sets up similar organizations. The tobacco industry's efforts were successful: it took decades before smoking began going down.

The anti-AGW efforts are even more successful. The scientific consensus is clear. All scientific organizations agree. Yet polls show that the percentage of the American public who believes that global warming is human-caused is decreasing. How did this come to pass? By deployment by vested interests of advertising techniques. Terminology is controlled. Deniers are called skpetics. Most of the people called skeptics are not really skeptics, since no evidence would persuade them. By contrast, people who take the problem seriously are called "alarmists". The public relations machine has been successful in branding atmospheric scientists as out-of-touch liberals who want to return to an agrarian society. On the other hand, deniers are compared to Galileo.

The thousands of e-mail messages that were stolen show scientists at work. Among them are a few lines of scientists showing human failings. Scientifically it means nothing. But it is a windfall for the anti-AGW machine.

The next speaker was Richard Lindzen, professor of meteorology in the Department of Earth Sciences at MIT. He started by denying that there is an anti-AGW machine. [Hard to take this seriously: exactly who does Lindzen think is behind ads like the ones reported here?] He doesn't know what AGW has to do with smoking. [It's because, as Emanuel clearly stated, the techniques used by the deniers on both sides are similar. Also, Lindzen himself -- a smoker -- is famous for his skepticism on the link between smoking and cancer, so I imagine it was a little dig at him.] It's a red herring. What we're here to talk about is e-mail and computer code. There's no chance that some machine unknown to Lindzen is behind this.

The relaeased documents are unambiguously dealing with things that are unethical and illegal. There is no good in any scientific organization endorsing this. The documents show scientists manipulating raw temperature data. [Uh, manipulation of raw data goes on all the time; that's why it's called raw data.] They refused to allow outsiders access to data. [Uh, because they signed a non-disclosure agreement]. They destroy data rather than release it. They don't allow responses to their papers to be published. This is not ethical.

What are the implication? It won't have much influence on Copenhagen. You don't get 20,000 people to change direction. Very few people can read these documents and not conclude that there was something bad going on. There is diminishing popular support for this issue. This is not mass hysteria, this is elite hysteria. The notion that science is prone to cheating and if Kerry [Emanuel] is right, that this is endorsed by scientific organizations, is detrimental to science. If your information environment is NPR and the New York Times, you believe one thing. If your information environment is talk radio, you believe another. He recommended Anthony Watts' blog. It's good that ordinary people can check the temperature measurements; people are discovering bizarre changes to the data.

Next was Judith Layzer, who is a professor of Environmental Policy at MIT. [I didn't get much out of what she was saying.] She is an observer of science. She concluded by saying that scientists are fallible but offer the best hope of understanding the natural world.

Next was Stephen Ansolabehere, professor of Political Science at MIT. [I didn't get much out of what he said, either.] Scientific evidence hasn't been vetted the way it should. So far it's in scientific journals, congressional committees, etc., not vetted in public the way it should be. However, the e-mails don't affect most of the data people are using. But it does raise a fundamental question of science - the importance of scientific standards. It raises the question of how science can maintain its standards as it gets pulled into public debates. Who is going to police scinece and maintain its public credibility? One of the great crimes is the violation of the standard of replicability. Who is going to discipline the scientists? What will the response be from scientific academies?

The last speaker was Professor of Atmospheric Science at MIT. He began speaking about the hockey stick. In answer to Lindzen, we care about a few tenths of a degree because it is important to compare current temperatures with historical data. He looked at the emails and was disturbed. He discussed the disagreement between Michael Mann & McIntyre-McKittrick. Around 1850, the blade "sticks out" (referring to rise in northern hemisphere temperatures). It did disturb him when looking at the emails to see the personal nature of the discussion. Are some of the e-mails unprofessional? Yes.

Were the people successful in preventing publication? Five papers by McIntyre were published and discussed in the 4th IPCC. There's a signficant case to be made that temperatures are higher - the "blade" has survived the scrutiny. It's unclear if the "handle" is straight or broken. People will think of other proxies. Were the people successful in the endeavor that seemed to be stated in the emails? No.

Was the research at E. Anglia critical to the case for climate change? He looked at this because he gave testimony about climate change. There are many different lines of evidence. Several independent data sets exist - the work at UEA is not the only group. Without even including analysis from UEA the conclusion that most of the warming is human-caused remains robust. Since 1997 to 2007 when he gave testimony in the House Ways and Means Committee, he changed his mind. The new data was enough to convince me that there was statistical significance to the conclusion. His view is that we have no other planet to retreat to if we are wrong. If we screw up this planet, what do we do?

Has the integrity at the IPCC been compromised by these revelations? UEA people were involved at IPCC. IPCC is arguably the most influential. Those emails did not lead to McIntyre-McKittrick papers not being discussed. Answer is no.

Is public perception of climate science affected? Media ability to scrutinize is a problem. E-mails contain a lot of juicy soundbites who want to write stories. Answer is yes.

Can we do better? Climate researchers need to step back from the tendency to polarization. Scientists have got to stop that process. That means having mutual respect. I have great respect for both of these guys (Lindzen and Emanuel) as excellent scientists. Find additional ways to communicate conclusions and the ways conclusions were reached. A single paper is not enough. Many results needed before consensus is reached.

Peer-reviewed literature is where science is done. Not in blogs or opinion pieces. These should not be the source of information. Can we do better? The answer is yes.

After the presentations, there were many questions. I did not take notes during the Q & A. If the event video is ever shown, you can see me asking a question towards the end.

Finally, one minor note that bugged me. Speakers referred to each other using their first names, making it hard to follow. If only the organizers had bothered to put a card in front of each speaker, with their full name, the audience would have been much better off.

Update: the video of the event is now available.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Moronic Holocaust Comparison

Check out this column in the Huffington Post. It starts

When I hear the term Kindle I think not of imaginations fired but of crematoria lit.

No, I'm not kidding. This has got to be the most insane Holocaust comparison ever written.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Chrystal's Algebra is Available Electronically

Hey - this is great. Chrystal's Algebra, an old textbook that has wonderful chapters on continued fractions and one that influenced Ramanujan, is available freely online here at the University of Pennsylvania.

If you want to go directly, try here for Volume 1, and here for Volume 2. The chapters on continued fractions are 32-34 in Volume 2.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Elyot Grant Co-Wins CRA Research Award

Every year, the Computing Research Association gives out awards for the best research done by undergraduates in North America. This year, my student Elyot Grant shared the top prize for males with Matt McCutchen from the University of Maryland.

Here are some of the problems Elyot worked on. First, he found a quadratic lower bound corresponding to a famous 1977 theorem of Entringer, Jackson, and Schatz that states that every binary string of length ≥ n2 + 6n contains an abelian square of order ≥ n. (An abelian square is two consecutive blocks where one is a permutation of the other; for example, reappear is an abelian square, as reap is a permutation of pear.)

Second, a problem of Alon and Spencer shows that for all ε > 0, there exists an infinite binary word such that any two consecutive blocks xx' of the same length t > N differ in at least (1/2 - ε)t positions. This raises the natural question, can the bound of (1/2 - ε) be replaced by a number > 1/2? Elyot proved the answer is no, using an extremely clever idea. This paper, co-written with my postdoc Thomas Stoll, appeared in the journal Acta Arithmetica.

Third, Elyot found beautiful results on “open” and “closed” languages, which are analogous to open and closed sets in topological spaces. His work with me and John Brzozowski was accepted for the DLT 2009 conference, and Elyot gave a beautiful talk on the subject.

So, congratulations to Elyot on this prestigious award!

Sunday, December 06, 2009

TV Station Can't Bring Itself to Show or Name Book

Every town's got one -- the prudish busybody who can't stand the fact that information about sex is available at the public library.

So when Marti Shigley found a copy of Eric Marlowe Garrison's Mastering Multiple Position Sex in her public library, she did what every censor wants to do: she checked the book out and is refusing to return it. She reportedly said, "When I opened it, I could not believe how graphic it was, and I thought my word if one of those kids had picked this up and looked inside of it they would have been ruined for life."

Shigley is a criminal and a first-class jerk. But what's even worse is that the local TV station, reporting on Shigley's crime, blotted out portions of the book's cover and refused to provide its title.

Now that's crappy journalism!

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Book Sale!

Just back from the Newton Public Library book sale, held in Auburndale. I love book sales, because they're an opportunity to build my pseudoscience collection without directly subsidizing the authors.

I picked up the 992-page The Evolution Handbook by Vance Ferrell, which is published an outfit called "Evolution Facts, Inc." and headquartered in Altamont, Tennessee. They seem to have a website, too.

What's fun about creationist books is that it's so easy to refute them. To show this, I conducted an experiment: I turned to three pages at random, and looked for the first lie I could find. Here are the results:

p. 176: "...the experts have so far been unable to agree on the length of a rubidium half-life. This renders it useless for dating purposes. This is because the samples vary so widely. Abrams compiled a list of rubidium half-lives suggested by various research specialists. Estimates, by experts of the half-life of rubidium varied between 48 and 120 billion years! That is a variation spread of 72 billion years: a number so inconceivably large as to render Rb-Sr dating worthless."

Reponse: BOGUS. In the early days of nuclear chemistry it was hard to be precise about very long half-lives, but better chemical and radiometric techniques have long removed the uncertainty. I looked online for Rb-87 half-lives, and I found strong concordance: for example, 4.7E10 and 4.88E10. This page discusses a variety of different estimates of the decay constant, all of which are within about 10% of each other. I don't know who "Abrams" is or where the estimate of 120 billion years came from, and The Evolution Handbook contains no reference on this point.

p. 531: "About 15 years before his [Dubois'] death, and after most evolutionists had become convinced that his find was nothing more than bones from a modern numan, Dubois announced his conviction that the bones belonged to a gibbon!"

Response: BOGUS. Paleontologists believe the remains are about 700,000 years old, although there is still some controversy about the femur. The claim about the gibbon is false.

p. 801: "Darwinism unleashed a moral holocaust upon the world, one which deepens with each passing decade."

Response: BOGUS. People have been killing each other since the dawn of mankind. Evolution is a scientific theory and a description of the world, not a guide about how to behave. The atrocities blamed on "Darwinism" are actually due to nationalism, religion, or political opportunism.

Not bad, eh? Three pages, three lies. Creationists have to lie, because the evidence is all against them.

Friday, December 04, 2009

Authoritarian School of the Month

Recursivity's award for the Authoritarian School of the Month goes this month to the Needville Independent School District in Needville, Texas.

These creeps have a rule against long hair for boys in their schools. But it's not the school's business to govern how students can wear their hair. If there are concerns, such as head lice, these can easily be handled by techniques used in other schools.

In this case, the jerks at Needville enforced their rule against a kindergartner who wore his hair long in keeping with his parents' religion. Luckily, the ACLU was there to defend the kid's rights. [Are you a member of the ACLU yet? If not, send them a donation.]

A judge ruled in favor of the kid, but the school appealed. Now the case is being heard in the Appeals Court.

I sure hope Needville gets their butts kicked back to Texas. Why school administrators delight in enforcing these bizarre and arbitrary rules against their students is beyond me. Schools should be about learning and helping students achieve their potential, not authoritarian discipline.

Pictures of the kid here.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

David Gelernter on Tolerance

The always-repulsive David Gelernter, who was attacked by the Unabomber and never seems to have gotten over it, appeared today on the NPR show "On Point".

Here's Gelernter on tolerance (from the 42:30 mark of the show):

David Gelernter: ... One of the most important verses in the Bible which says apply your own experience, you must be kind to strangers because you were strangers yourselves, you know what it's like. Tolerance is a Jewish idea, and emerged in this country from the Biblical community.

Caller Kathy: ... I'd like to comment on an earlier caller who was remarking about the disconnect between the principles that are in the Bible, and the actualities, especially the situation in Israel with the Palestinians. And your guest said that obviously that person had not been there and didn't know that Israel had the most just army in the world.

Well, number one, I'm Jewish, number two, I
have been there. And I will tell you that all of the commentary about how people should behave has been thrown out the window by the government and the military of Israel. And I have seen it with my own eyes - I'm not stupid. All you have to do is go through the separation wall which is an apartheid wall and see the miserable condition of Palestinians who are Muslims and Christians and see what is being done to them by the occupying Army of Israel.

Tom: Kathy, we've got the gist and our time is very short. Thank you for calling. David, how do you respond?

David Gelernter: It's always been the curse of Jews that the most vicious haters of the Jewish community have often been Jews themselves.

There's no question in my mind that Israel gets treated shabbily by the American Left, and Israel's record is much better than that of its neighbors. But on the other hand, one can't deny that there have been human rights violations against the Palestinians, of which house demolitions are a prominent example. David Gelernter's response here is grotesque and facile, and doesn't deal honestly with the question.