Sunday, September 30, 2012

Stephen Woodworth Goes Down in Flames

Stephen Woodworth, our local MP, introduced a private member's bill to have the House study the question of whether a child is a "human being before the moment of complete birth".

Of course, the whole thing is a scam -- one that our local journalists couldn't or didn't see through.

Deep down, I don't believe Woodworth isn't interested at all in this question. I think that what he really wants to do is ban abortion (in consonance with his Catholic duty), and he's using this bill to try to achieve his goal through semantic games.

Suppose you're building a house. You dig the foundation. Is it a house yet? You pour the concrete. Is it a house yet? You start framing the house. Is it a house yet? You put in the window frames. Is it a house yet?

When does it become a house?

Some people might say it is a house as soon as you start building it. Others might say it is a house when it is ready to move in. There's no correct answer here, because the word "house" covers a lot of ground -- think of "abandoned house", "ruined house", "half-built house", "reconstructed house", and so forth.

Any line that you draw is arbitrary.

Of course, for legal reasons, sometimes we have to draw these arbitrary lines. Why should a 19-year-old be able to drink in Ontario, but not someone who is aged 18 years 364 days? This distinction makes no sense at all; it's purely an artificial legal construct that represents a guess about responsibility and maturity.

Arguments about DNA miss the point, too. It's not about whether the fetus has human DNA, because it clearly does. The argument is all about at what stage the fetus becomes a "person" (another ill-defined word!) that has the rights we expect people to have in a free society. And it's about how long those rights can be subservient to the rights of the woman in whose body the fetus is growing.

Viewed in this way, deciding whether a child is "a human being before the moment of complete birth" is just a political game. I don't expect much different from politicians, but I did expect more from Woodworth -- I had much more respect for him before this.

If he were sincere, he would answer my question, "What penalty would be appropriate for a woman who has an abortion?" He refuses to answer, and our local journalists are too cowardly to ask.

I'm happy to see that the bill went down to defeat, 203 to 91. But the main thing is to elect someone else to Parliament next time around.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Three Cheers for Carol Wainio!

Carol Wainio, who has been exposing the sloppy habits (or worse) of certain Canadian newspaper columnists, including David Warren and Margaret Wente, for a couple of years now, is finally getting some well-deserved attention.

For anyone with a brain, Wainio's carefully-documented examples of what appears to be Wente's serial plagiarism would have required, at the very least, a serious investigation at the Globe and Mail. Instead, Wainio was ignored or insulted.

Not any more.

When the Globe's public editor issued a whitewash of Wente's behavior, they were inundated with complaints.

The CBC -- displaying the journalistic integrity apparently lacking at the Globe and Mail -- has dropped Wente from their media panel.

Will there be further repercussions for Wente? Personally, I think the examples Wainio has assembled amount to a good case for firing Wente. She wouldn't be missed.

Meanwhile, Wainio is shunning the publicity. She deserves an honorary degree, at the very least, for having the courage to persevere in face of the shameless silence of most Canadian media. Or maybe even the Order of Canada.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Religious Philosophy Exposed!

This is great!

Jerry Coyne reports that Maarten Boudry, philosopher at Ghent University in Belgium, succeeded in getting a fake theological/philosophical abstract accepted at two theology conferences. Both accepted it, and Reformational Philosophy put it in the proceedings (look under the pseudonym "Robert A. Maundy").

For those of us who have suspected for quite a while that there is something seriously wrong with some parts of modern academic philosophy (where, for example, Alvin Plantinga is "respected" and his EAAN gets serious treatment instead of laughter), this is some small vindication, although perhaps not proof.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Eleven Years Later, 9/11 Truthers Find Ways to Look Even More Ridiculous

Eleven years ago today, I was on sabbatical at the University of Arizona and listening to NPR when I heard the shocking news that the United States had been attacked by terrorists. Most of us quickly suspected Muslim religious extremists were the perpetrators, and we weren't wrong. My colleagues and I speculated that, despite the evidence, conspiracy theorists would quickly find some other group to blame: the CIA, Mossad, Bush, etc., and we weren't wrong either. Soon there were dozens of false claims circulating: that hundreds of Jews had been warned before the attack; that Larry Silverstein, owner of WTC 7, had given the order for controlled demolition of the building; and so forth. Only crackpots, we thought, would subscribe to these nutty claims.

But we were wrong. Many formerly respected academics, and some not so respected, signed on, and some spun elaborate and preposterous scenarios.

Nowadays, with extensive documentation of the role of Osama bin Laden and his henchmen in the attack, such as Lawrence Wright's The Looming Tower, few rational people doubt the generally-accepted account of 9/11. Yet the truther movement lives on, although it has become more and more marginalized. They are reduced to creating self-appointed "expert panels" consisting of physical therapists, actors, and religious studies professors, that do "investigations" whose loony conclusions are pre-ordained.

The really sad thing is that these folks, with their zeal, could have actually done something useful about the real abuses of Bush and Obama: Guantanamo Bay, illegal dententions, the expansion of the surveillance state, and so forth. Instead, they advance lies, sow discord, damage the reputation of the United States, and discredit themselves.

Friday, September 07, 2012

Don't Hit That Moose!

From Recursivity reader D. S. comes this lovely tale of a driver who knows his priorities: avoid the moose at all costs!

Monday, September 03, 2012

Bad Referee Reports

Most mathematicians and theoretical computer scientists don't know how to write a referee report. Maybe this is not a surprise, since we don't explicitly teach this in graduate school, and we expect people to pick it up by reading the reports of others. But if most people don't do it well, how do we expect young professors to learn?

Good reports should

  1. put the paper in context - is the subject well-studied? Or is it a backwater where people haven't worked in years? Will people want to read it?
  2. evaluate the paper - Is it a real breakthrough in the area, or just one in a series of similar results? Does the author introduce some new useful technique?
  3. evaluate the writing - is it clear? How could it be improved? Can arguments be restructured to be simpler and clearer? Are too many important subresults left to the reader?
  4. evaluate the bibliography - is it complete enough, or (in the other direction) are many irrelevant papers cited?
Good reports should be specific. Don't just say "the writing is bad"; give specific examples of bad writing and how the writing could be improved.

Here is an example of a really bad report:

This paper is of absolutely no interest. I showed it to my colleague, Professor X, and she agrees. I recommend rejection.

A good referee report should be useful to the author. This report doesn't tell the author anything that he/she can use to improve the paper. Is it bad because the problem addressed is too trivial? Or because the results are already known? What is an author expected to do after receiving a report like this? Commit suicide?

Here's another example of a bad report:

Tiling problems have been studied for many years. They are of great interest in combinatorics and logic. This paper is a good contribution to the subject, and I recommend acceptance.

A good referee report should be useful to the editor, too. This report doesn't tell the editor anything useful! Are the results really deep and novel? Or is it just another in a series of similar small results? Not only that, a report like this suggests strongly that the referee didn't really read the paper with care, and just skimmed the paper in a few minutes. Are there really no papers that the author missed citing? Are all the equations really correct in all respects? Is there nothing that could be improved?

Sunday, September 02, 2012

Michael Egnor Fails Intelligence Test

I've said it before, and I'll say it again: Alvin Plantinga's EAAN (evolutionary argument against naturalism) is so mind-bogglingly flawed, that if you meet anyone at a party who claims to believe it has merit, you should immediately find someone more interesting to talk to, because it's really unlikely you're going to have a good conversation.

Any bright high school student can see the flaws in a few minutes. In this way, it functions as a sort of intelligence test for the philosophically inclined. The fact that some philosophers actually took the argument seriously and a few collaborated on a volume entitled Naturalism Defeated? illustrates the sad state of modern philosophy. It's the philosophical equivalent of taking a bogus proof that 2 = 1 and writing an entire book explaining why it is wrong. Yes, you can do it, but why bother?

So guess who accepts it and thinks it is "obviously valid"? Why, that paragon of ignorance and arrogance, Michael Egnor.

It's not surprising, since commenters at his site have tried over and over again to explain to Egnor what the theory of evolution says, but he just can't get it.

Saturday, September 01, 2012

Painted Turtles

Painted Turtle (Chrysemys picta), Rockwood Conservation Area, near Guelph, Ontario. The larger one is about 20 cm in length.
Photographer: A. Lubiw.