Sunday, July 10, 2011

I Explain Academia to Thomas Cudworth

Over at Uncommon Descent, Thomas Cudworth asks why prominent evolutionary scientists did not attend the Evolution 2011 conference in Norman, Oklahoma this summer.

Actually, to say "asks" is far too generous. He's doesn't seem at all interested in the answer; he's clearly intent on denigrating evolution's defenders by implying their absence indicates something is rotten with their scientific credentials.

This is just a Swift Boat-style attack: if the record of your own side is completely deficient, attack the other side's. Sadly for Mr. Cudworth, it is the scientific credentials of prominent ID proponents that are not exactly stellar. For example, in this post I examined the citation record of William Dembski, and in this one, I examined the scientific output of David Berlinski. Mr. Cudworth might equally want to ask, why has William Dembski not presented his work at an AMS meeting? Why does his work receive so few citations?

Nevertheless, since he seems so completely unfamiliar with how academia works, I will try to answer Mr. Cudworth's question as if it were genuine.

First, scientists are typically funded by a variety of funding agencies, which help to pay the cost of you and your students to attend a conference. Once you add up airfare, conference registration fees (often $300-$600 or more), transportation to and from the airport and to and from the conference site, and hotel, attending a conference can easily cost $2000 -- more if the conference is on another continent. Eventually, it becomes more important for your students to go to conferences than for you to go - you don't really need to advance your career very much, and it's better that your students get some visibility. So, given limited financial resources, you might choose to send them instead.

Second, conferences take up time, and many of us teach 9 months of the year or more, meaning that it is not so easy to simply pick up and shuffle off to a conference while teaching. Scientists who engage in field work (like some paleontologists) might spend most of their free time in the field collecting, or in the lab, preparing and analyzing specimens.

The bottom line is that, for reasons of time and funding, the typical academic scientist might attend only one or two conferences a year. Of course, there are jet-setters that attend 5 or 10 or 20 conferences a year, and some people (for example, those at small teaching colleges who get little funding) might attend no conferences at all.

Now, given that many of us have to choose the one or two conferences in a year we want to go to, we have to choose carefully. Do we really want to attend a huge conference like Evolution 2011, with a thousand or more attendees, covering a wide area that might have only a small intersection with our competence? Or should we attend a small workshop with 30 or 40 participants that is tightly focussed on our current interests? In my field, I might want to attend (just to name a few) STOC, FOCS, STACS, ICALP, DLT, DCFS, MFCS, LATA, SIAMDM, SODA, CIAA, WORDS, and CanaDAM. Clearly this is impractical. I have to choose.

So why would someone like Kevin Padian choose to go to Evolution 2011 instead of another conference in his area, vertebrate paleontology? Answer: there's no obvious reason he would. I have no idea what meetings Padian goes to, but I'm sure he has the same kinds of constraints I do.

And, as you get older, you slow down. When I was younger, attending a conference was more fun. Now that jet lag impacts my sleeping, and my health isn't always perfect, attending a conference can sometimes be a chore. I don't know for sure how old Paul R. Gross is, but I think he was born in 1928, which would make him about 82. Heck, at age 82, I sure hope I'll still be alive and attending conferences, but I don't know for sure. In any event, I'm happy to put Prof. Gross's scientific record up against Behe, Jonathan Wells, and other ID advocates. Richard Dawkins, at age 70, is no spring chicken either.

My thesis adviser once told me that he only attends conferences where he is presenting a paper. That might be yet another reason why someone might not attend a conference: he or she has submitted his papers to conferences more tightly focussed on his area of interest. Robert Pennock seems to be more of a philosopher and cognitive scientist; he might choose to attend conferences like the "Midwest Cognitive Science Meeting" instead.

The bottom line is that it is extraordinarily foolish to attempt to infer something about someone's scientific competence by their non-attendance at a single professional conference; only someone unfamiliar with academic science would attempt to do so.

But let's not fool ourselves. Cudworth is not interested in the answer. He just wants to score rhetorical points. When he says, "In most scientific areas, non-experts don’t pretend to stand in for experts" and asks, "how many of the self-appointed defenders of Darwinian evolution have demonstrated competence, proved by research and publication, in the field of evolutionary biology?", he might just want consider the competence of his own side. Why are lawyers Phillip Johnson and Casey Luskin, and philosophers Stephen Meyer and David Berlinski, and journalists David Warren, Tom Bethell, and David Klinghoffer, and mathematician William Dembski, such loud and ignorant voices against evolution, when they are not biologists? Indeed, my impression is that the vast majority of creationists and ID supporters are not biologists. Certainly this is true for people like Denyse O'Leary, Angus Menuge, Robert Coons, Henry Morris, Walter Bradley, Richard Milton, just to name a few.

Mr. Cudworth, there's a giant mote in your own eye.

Addendum: Cudworth responds by digging himself into an even deeper hole.

Amazing: it's not just that these guys are ignorant and arrogant - they're proudly so.


Aaron Baker said...

I think it's the beam, not the mote, that's in Cudworth's eye (if I'm remembering the King James version of the Sermon on the Mount correctly). Otherwise, a perfect take-down of an arrogant ignoramus.

Miranda said...

Wow, Jeff, you sure spent a lot of time explaining why people might not attend a conference. Considering that Cudworth said the same thing in his article, I wonder why you did so.

As a refresher, he had written: "There are all kinds of good reasons why a competent evolutionary theorist might not contribute to a particular evolutionary conference. Maybe some of these people elected to attend another evolutionary conference later this year, or early next year, or maybe their travel budget was exhausted. Maybe personal matters prevented them from going. "

The whole truth said...

Miranda, then what is the point of Cudworth's post?

Jenny said...

Wow, Miranda, you sure spent a lot of time defending your creationist dream men.

Note to Miranda: Kent Hovind and William Dembski are married men. Seek new hunks to drool over and defend.

Anonymous said...

Maybe it's because he has his panties in a wad Miranda. Let's stay on him so we can get more stupidity from him.

Before long he'll be spending more time blogging to boost his fragile ego than he spends teaching or flying to confrences.

He's probably a sucky guitar player too. Say, post a link to a recording of your best licks Shallit so we can have a good laugh at the noise you produce.

Jeffrey Shallit said...


You forgot to mention that I'm a lousy chess player and I only have a 7-note singing range.

Miranda said...

Dear "the whole truth": I can't address your tangent-of-a-question until you address what I wrote.

Jenny, I didn't defend Cudworth in my post. I criticized J. Shallit for not reading Cudworth's article carefully.

NickM said...

Padian, for one, goes to the Society for Vertebrate Paleontology meeting each year. He's not been to the Evolution meeting since the time I've been going. This is true for most (not all) paleontologists -- although as people are starting to do more joint analyses of fossils, DNA, phylogenies, etc., there is getting to be more paleos at the Evolution meeting and more nonpaleos at the paleo meeting. I am a coauthor on 2 talks at SVP this fall...

Anonymous said...

He also seems to believe that man-made global warming isn't happening. What a surprise!

Groofius said...

"Addendum: Cudworth responds by digging himself into an even deeper hole. "

How so?

Anonymous said...

Way to criticize Shallit, Miranda! You've done an excellent job of posting in the comments section of a Mathematics blog and criticizing the author's perceived lack of reading comprehension while continuously demonstrating your own! Perhaps you'd like to pontificate on sum cubes for us? Or the properties of recursive sets in general?

Or maybe you'd like to justify your ignorance and irrationality by repeatedly lashing out at this blog with inane ramblings and out of context quote mining while proving to every person who wastes precious seconds out of their life reading your posts that you have little to no wit, intelligence, or rational thought.

Congratulations again, Miranda! Thanks for wasting time, ours and yours, with your bullshit.

The GOD of Miranda said...


My loyal follower. You know I don't have patience for fools or the proud. I talk about it in My Book. Refrain from displaying your arrogant attitude in this forum and in your prayers to me (boasting that you are the most qualified person to lead the next church bake sale? Really, Miranda?).

Humble yourself, Miranda. Or spend an eternity listening to apologetics courses by Ken Ham. Ugh.

Miranda said...

Anonymous, your posting is perfect, except for one thing. All the criticism should be directed at yourself. Then it would be completely true.

Anonymous said...

You sir are a more patient man than I. I could never address persons with fun house mirrors installed in their heads where their minds should be with such calm and equanimity.

Miranda said...

Anonymous wrote earlier, when he was making a bit more sense, "Way to criticize Shallit, Miranda! You've done an excellent job of posting in the comments section of a Mathematics blog and criticizing the author's perceived lack of reading comprehension while continuously demonstrating your own!"

Was that a defense of Shallit and his reading skills? If so, I suspect he'll be a bit disappointed with it.

Why don't you prove, instead, that Shallit indeed read the article carefully, and justify his long explanation as to why people might not attend a conference, given that such an explanation was already in that article.

Anonymous said...

"Anonymous wrote earlier, when he was making a bit more sense"

Poor, poor, poor Miranda. She doesn't even realize that Anonymous is not one person, but just a name given to anyone who posts without identifying themselves. Sad really, now I actually feel bad for her.

Miranda said...

It's sad enough when we go by pseudonyms. But it's just pathethic -- and awfully confusing to everyone else -- when we simply go by "anonymous."

Anonymous said...

I attended Evolution 2011.

So did Orr, and Jerry Coyne, and Joe Felsenstein. And LOTS of mathematician/computer scientist types, none of whom were shocked at how wrong their maths find evolution to be. On the contrary, their various applications and programming seemd to solve a number of problems, and reveal some interesting insights.

I wonder if Codswallop went...