Saturday, March 30, 2013

A Missed Teachable Moment

I attended Jonathan Witt's talk on intelligent design last Thursday here at Waterloo.

Prof. Witt made many good points. He talked about the distinction between "hypothesis", "law", "fact", and "theory". Although he didn't quote Stephen Jay Gould, I think it is fair to say that he agreed with Gould's definition of "fact" as "confirmed to such a degree that it would be perverse to withhold provisional assent". Prof. Witt pointed out that evolution is both a fact (in the sense that common descent is well-confirmed and organisms today are different from those in the past) and a theory (in the sense that we have explanatory mechanisms such as mutation, natural selection, and genetic drift, to name a few, that explain how evolution took place). He also did a good job in exploding the silliness that is Behe's "irreducible complexity".

Prof. Witt did get some minor details wrong (like the old name of the Discovery Institute's Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture, which is now simply called the Center for Science and Culture). I also had some quibbles about his assertions that religious claims are unfalsifiable. Clearly some religious claims have that character, like "faith alone saves". But when religions claim, for example, that intercessory prayer works, or that a wafer actually becomes the body of a person, or that a statue cries tears of real blood, these can be tested. Even claims about the afterlife, which might look unfalsifiable at first glance, can be addressed to some extent, based on our current understandings about the biological building blocks of living beings, and chemistry, and physics.

The most significant disagreement I have with Prof. Witt was during the question-and-answer period. A student told the story of a group of evangelists who, suffering hunger and poverty, prayed to the Christian god for food and dozens of fish jumped into the boat, enough to feed everyone. He asked, What did Prof. Witt make of this event? (It wasn't clear to me whether this was the Bible story or a claimed modern-day story.) Prof. Witt answered that "Correlation is not causation", which I think was a rather weak answer.

Here is how I would have answered. First, I strongly doubt that the claimed event took place. Reports of miracles are common, but experience tells us that upon closer examination, these "miracles" almost always were entirely made up, or were wildly exaggerated, or had prosaic explanations. Remember the miracle of the juniper bush?

Second, let's suppose the event really did take place as claimed. How uncommon was it? Heck if I know; maybe fish jump into boats all the time. One would have to estimate the probability of the event, and the number of people in boats who prayed for food.

Third, science doesn't do so well in explaining one-time anecdotes. If the claim is that prayer works, how can we test that? Well, there have been a number of tests of this claim for intercessory prayer, and the results are not too favorable to the hypothesis that prayer works.

If prayer did work in a more or less consistent basis (say, 1% of all prayers were answered), this would represent a currently-unaccountable regularity of the universe that we could study. How, exactly, does this answering work? What if you pray for X and I pray for not X? Does your probability of success increase if you pray more fervently, or more frequently, or if you get more people to pray at the same time? Or if you pray for reasonable things versus unreasonable things? All these can be tested.

Ultimately, I think Prof. Witt missed a teachable moment.

Why I Talk the Way I Do

Because I was born in Philadelphia, that's why.

Here a short radio piece about Philadelphia's unique sounds and how they are changing.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Paul Erdős Would Have Been 100

If Paul Erdős were still alive, he would have been 100 today.

I met Erdős for the first time in 1977, at a conference in number theory at Miami University, when I was an undergraduate. It was, if I remember right, my first scientific talk, and I spoke about my results on continued fractions with bounded partial quotients. Erdős was in the front row. I remember feeling crushed because in the middle of my talk, he fell asleep. But then, a few weeks later, I found a postcard in my university mailbox from him, asking for a reprint. What an honor it was for an undergraduate! I still have that card somewhere.

I must have seen Erdős speak in the years following that, but if so, I don't remember it very well. I think he spoke at Berkeley when I was a graduate student. My memory is that he was not a very good speaker. He would do things like say, "Let x be a real number" and then just write down "x" on the board. Then he'd say, "Let y be a power of x" and then just write down y on the board. Not the best way to express ideas! He also said something like "It's hard to be bold when you're old and cold and you fold."

But when I was a professor at Dartmouth College -- it must have been in 1989 or 1990 -- he came to spend a few days, and we talked about a problem on Pierce expansions that I was having trouble making progress on. In just a few minutes, he had an idea that he thought would reduce the upper bound in my problem to n1/4. I went back to my apartment and thought about it a bit, only to discover that Erdős had made a mistake! His idea only reduced the bound to n1/3. Nevertheless, it was a significant improvement. We put the result together with some other ideas and it was published in the Journal de Théorie des Nombres de Bordeaux in 1991.

While he was visiting Dartmouth, I was assigned the task of picking him up from his hotel room and taking him to dinner. I remember when I picked him up, I washed my hands in his hotel bathroom, and was amazed by the number of pill bottles he had laid out. Apparently he was a bit of a hypochondriac, and he was also known to take speed to stay awake. This was also the first time I heard him call a child "epsilon", as he famously did.

I didn't have the chance to work with him ever again after that. Too bad! I would have loved the chance.

Doug Axe Doesn't Understand Information Theory


Here we have the Discovery Institute's favorite biologist, Doug Axe, demonstrating his ignorance of information theory:

"... So, really, you put all that together, we now understand something about digitally-encoded information in cells, encoded in the genome. We understand why it's there: to encode proteins. And we understand how the proteins function to do the chemistry of life. And we also have the ability to measure, to some degree, how much information is there. If you put all that together, we now see something that looks very much like human designs, where we use digitally-encoded information to accomplish things, and we know that it's impossible to get information on that scale through a chance process that Darwinism employed."

This is false. We don't "know" any such thing. Axe cannot point to a single paper in the peer-reviewed literature that correctly explains why one can't "get information on that scale through a chance process that Darwinism employed". This is just something that creationists repeat over and over again without real justification.

In fact, just the opposite is true. Ironically, I am lecturing about Kolmogorov's theory of information today in my class CS 462. In that class we show that it is, in fact, while it is possible to produce information through a deterministic process (for example, by iterating the map xxx), it is even easier to produce as much information as you like through a random process -- precisely the opposite of what Axe is claiming.

"I remember thinking at the time that this looks like something, not just the product of engineering but the product of brilliant engineering. And that was the point where it occurred to me that someone needed to do the experiments to test whether that was really the case or not."

No experiment that Axe has done has tested the question of whether life occurs through the process of "brilliant engineering" or not. No one has a testable definition of "brilliant engineering" and no one has a procedure to test whether something is "brilliant engineering". Wes Elsberry and I gave eight challenges related to this kind of claim back in 2003. Ten years later, and not a single creationist has taken up our challenges.

We recognize human engineering because we are good at recognizing artifacts: the characteristic products of human activity.

"It's strange how your preconceptions really color the way you process data. And some people just went along with what they were taught, and I never tended to do that. I was always questioning what I was taught, including Darwinism."

And of course, creationists are miraculously free of preconceptions. That's what they're known for!

Here are a few other conventional ideas Axe has rejected:

  1. It's not a great idea to publish your papers in a vanity journal where you yourself are the managing editor.
  2. If you're a scientist, it's not a great career move to work for a "scientific" institute that gets most of its funding from the Discovery Institute --- a group with a documented history of misrepresentations, and driven by religious and political goals.
  3. It's not a great idea to have your colleagues extol the brilliance of your work, especially when referring to papers that have received few, if any, citations.
But hey, just go right ahead and ignore those conventions. You're a questioner, right?

"If you believe that everything was cobbled together through random processes, then there would be a lot of junk, there'd be the residue of cobbling sitting there and that's why people jumped to this junk DNA hypothesis. They found out that a very small fraction of the genome actually encodes proteins --- that was the one aspect of genomes that we understood well, is that they encode proteins --- so they assumed all the rest of it is junk. Well, the truth is, we didn't know what the rest of it was doing, but that doesn't mean it's junk. And it's becoming increasing clear that it isn't junk, and that's a significant prediction. It's not a prediction that Darwin himself made, but it follows very readily and naturally from Darwinism, and it turns out not to be correct. And that's becoming increasingly clear."

Axe misrepresents the history. Junk certainly could arise from an evolutionary algorithm, but it need not. It's logically possible that junk could have such a high evolutionary cost that it would tend to be weeded out. Acceptance of junk DNA came from data, not just theory. If you maintain that there is little or no junk in the genome, you have to explain exactly why different species of Allium have such wildly different genome sizes.

Axe likes to claim that he questions everything. But he hasn't questioned the ENCODE claims, even though they've been widely criticized. I guess that's due to his miraculous lack of preconceptions.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Tom Bethell is Our Best Friend

I've written before about Tom Bethell, the completely clueless journalist who likes to write about evolution despite not understanding even the most basic things about it.

I really like Bethell. Why? Because, over and over again, he makes it completely clear how stupid and dishonest the creationist movement is. And the fact that Discovery Institute happily features his blathering can only be good for our side. What could be better than to see creationists discredit themselves so frequently?

Bethell's latest complaint? That evolution's "central claim" is "unlimited variation" and that this unlimited variation "has not yet been observed".

The first claim is simply false. Evolution is heritable change in a population over time. The theory of evolution describes the mechanisms (mutation, natural selection, sexual selection, genetic drift, founder effects, etc.) that explain how this change takes place. Speciation has been observed, so the usual creationist claims that evolution is limited to change "within species" have been thoroughly discredited.

But the funny part is Bethell's second claim: that unlimited variation has not yet been observed. What would it mean to observe unlimited variation? At what point could we put our foot down and say, "Hey, now we know that unlimited variation has finally been observed!"? The whole meaning of the word "unlimited" is that it is without bound. It's like alleging (incorrectly) that the central claim of cosmology is that the expansion of the universe goes on forever, and then saying "That endless expansion has not yet been observed!"

What we do see is evolution taking place today, and we have the fossil record that shows the changes in the past. You have to be particularly dense or dishonest to deny this.

Please, Tom, keep it up. You're our best friend.

Solution to the Plouffe Puzzle

Yesterday I posted the following puzzle from Simon Plouffe: why are there so many zeroes in the base-10 expansion of sqrt(51)/14 = 0.51010203061020 ... ?

Here's the answer. Let f(x) = (sqrt(1-4x2) + 2x - 1)/(2x - 4x2). Then it is not hard to see that f can be expanded as a power series
f(x) = 1 + x + 2x2 + 3x3 + 6x4 + 10x5 + 20x6 + ...
where the coefficients are binom(n, floor(n/2)), the central binomial coefficients.
It now follows that
f(1/t)/t = 1/t + 1/t2 + 2/t3 + 3/t4 + ...
= sqrt(t2/4 - 1)/(t-2) - 1/2.
When we substitute t = 100, we get
sqrt(51)/14 - 1/2 = 1/100 + 1/1002 + 2/1003 + 3/1004 + ...
which explains the expansion we see.

We can get even more of the central binomial coefficients by taking t to be larger powers of 10. For example, for t = 1000, we get
sqrt(249999)/998 = 0.501001002003006010020035070126252462 ... .

Saturday, March 23, 2013

A Puzzle from Simon Plouffe

Here is a fun puzzle from Simon Plouffe: consider the decimal expansion of sqrt(51)/14. It starts

0.51010203061020 ...

That seems like a lot of 0's at the beginning! Is it just a coincidence, or is there something deeper behind it?

Answer tomorrow.

Friday, March 22, 2013

"God and Reason" short course - Final Thoughts

The "God and Reason" short course given by four Christian professors at my university is now over. I was able to attend 7 of the 8 sessions. Here are my comments on the course and the talks: My colleague Jeff Orchard also blogged about the lectures. He attended all of them! Here are his accounts: Now that the course is over, here are some brief reactions.

Although the course was entitled "God and Reason", this was (as I guessed) a misnomer. Reason played very little role in what was presented, with the last presenter, John North, even disparaging reason as a tool for understanding the world. A much more representative title would have been "Why you should be a Christian" or (as the presenters sometimes called the course) "Christianity 101".

The course was largely evangelical in nature. There was not that much scholarly content. The usual evangelical claims were presented, and only rarely was there any acknowledgment that these claims were controversial or debated or (even, in some cases) largely abandoned by serious scholars. One claim, made by Prof. Matthews, that there are "85,000 quotations from or allusions to the NT in documents of early church fathers, 100-200 CE", seems very likely to be false. I raised this issue with Prof. Matthews but never received a response about it.

It was clear that much of the reason for being a Christian was based on emotion and culture, rather than reason.

By far the best talks were given by Robert Mann. This is probably, in part, because he has given a course covering some of the content of his lectures before, and also because I think he takes more seriously the objections of non-believers. He also had the best argument, which is the argument of "fine-tuning", although I don't find it very convincing.

It also didn't seem to me that the professors (with the exception of Robert Mann) were really interested in answering the challenging questions put forth by some in the audience. It seems we were more of an annoyance than offering a chance to explain some questionable point in Christian doctrine in more detail.

Not everybody seemed to agree with me. I saw some comments on Facebook that said things like "I love this course! It is the best one out of all of the courses I have taken so far at university because "the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge"."

Overall, I would give this course a "C-", with some sessions (those of Robert Mann) getting an "B+".

How could the course be better? For one thing, I'd like to hear people who are really experts in the fields they address. Why no religion professor? Why no historian specializing in the middle East of Jesus' time?

Here's another idea. Guy Harrison has a new book out, entitled "50 Simple Questions for Every Christian". I haven't read the whole book yet, but there are significant excerpts on amazon and here, and it seems really good. I'd love to see a short course built around that book, where Christian academics do their best to answer the questions that skeptics usually ask. It would have been a lot more interesting than what was presented.

God and Reason, Session 8: "The Next Step"

I attended the final session of the "God and Reason" course given by Christian professors at my university on Wednesday, March 20. This one was entitled "The Next Step" and was given by John North, a professor of English. If you would like to see more of John North's style, there is a youtube video from 2003 available.

Although the course was entitled "God and Reason", any pretense that reason was an important consideration was abandoned in this talk, which was just straight Christian evangelism. I found it pretty hard to stomach. As usual, I report what was said, with my comments in brackets.

Beyond reason: Jesus said, "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind." (Matthew 22:37). There are 3 aspects of humans: heart, soul, and mind. Loving God with our mind is an obvious challenge [for] students. Tennyson: "There is more faith in honest doubt, believe me, than in half the creeds", which shows that we should think about our faith and not just mumble dogma over and over. Doubt springs from a kind of faith.
[No, it doesn't. Doubt is the opposite of faith. Faith is believing in the absence of evidence; doubt is saying the evidence is insufficient.]

In my [North's] field, all my literary heroes are Christians: [Edmund] Spenser, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Donne, Milton, Gray, Bronte, Tennyson, Browning, Hopkins, e. e. cummings, Dickinson. Pascal: the heart has its reasons. It is the heart that experiences God and not reason. Pascal was one of many renowned scientists and academics who were Christians. This shows it is possible to be a Christian and be respectable intellectually.
[Who doubts that? But all of the people Prof. North named lived in predominantly Christian societies, so it is not very surprising that most of them were Christians, any more than it would be surprising that literary heroes who wrote in Hebrew or Yiddish would mostly be Jews.]

[A name conspicuously absent from North's list is Percy Bysshe Shelley, who was expelled from Oxford and lost custody of his children after he published The Necessity of Atheism. How many people of those times would have dared to admit they were atheist, considering the consequences?]

[This reminds me, by the way, of a talk that Michael Higgins gave at Waterloo 6 years ago. Speaking of atheists, Higgins said, "We [Catholics] used to burn them", and this got a good laugh. Just imagine if he had said the same thing of Jews! I doubt there would be much laughter. This shows the double standard that our society has for believers and non-believers.]

John Henry Newman (1801-1890). Wrote The Idea of a University and An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent. In the latter book he argued that scientific standards for evidence and assent are too narrow and inapplicable in daily life. Logic and its conclusions are not transferable to real-life decision making. "Logic is loose at both ends" - it initially depends on restrictive assumptions and is thus unable to fit its conclusions neatly into real world situations.
- I can believe with understanding
- I can apprehend (beyond belief) or intelligently accept without understanding

[By the way, the points above that Prof. North presented seemed to be taken more or less verbatim from Wikipedia, without citation. But maybe Prof. North wrote the Wikipedia article, I don't know. I haven't read Grammar of Assent. All I can say is, the process of science relies very little on formal logic. The manner in which scientists actually reason, which is based on forming hypotheses, figuring out how to test them, being skeptical of claims and even more skeptical of one's own beliefs, and consilience, is very useful in daily life, and I use it all the time.]

He objected to claims like "It doesn't matter what you believe as long as you believe in something and are true to yourself." [But who makes claims like that? Of course it matters: "It is morally as bad not to care whether a thing is true or not, so long as it makes you feel good, as it is not to care how you got your money as long as you have got it." (Edwin Way Teale)]

Prof. North claimed that hospitals in Egypt are "notorious for routinely using black Christians for body parts" and that this is "well-documented". [Perhaps; I am hardly an expert about this. I found this article and, later, this one. I don't know exactly what his point is. After all, Egypt is a strongly religious and monotheistic society. Furthermore, Israel has been accused of similar practices.]

Prof. North talked about his petition against sex selection used in "partial birth abortion". He seemed to imply this was happening routinely in Canada. [I am not aware of this.]

Prof. North said: "Consider"
- if Jesus is the creator of the universe, who exists beyond time, then he is able to relate to each human being intimately & uniquely
- if Jesus does love the world as a group & each individual then he will answer the private prayer of a child or an adult
- if Jesus respects our integrity, he will let us turn away from him
- He is both a macro and micro God
[Well, this is just babble. What does it mean to "exist beyond time"? Why does "existing beyond time" say anything about a desire or ability to relate to us? Why must it mean he will answer prayer? What about all the prayers that are not answered? So much foolishness!]

Prof. North said:
- every little child is worth the world
- even aborted ones through partial-birth abortions
[Again with the partial-birth abortion business; he seems very preoccupied with this. Well, if every little child "is worth the world", why does the Christian god let so many of them die of starvation, disease, and natural disasters?]

Prof. North said:
- of the thousands of people I have ministered to as a volunteer at the local hospital, almost note have said they don't believe in or hope for an afterlife.
[Well, I have no doubt that there is some self-selection going on here. Probably non-believers would not want to talk to a Christian evangelical on their deathbed. I know I wouldn't.]

Prof. North said:
- rich people donate more near the end of their lives, in order to ensure hope in the afterlife.
[Well, that could be one possibility. But another possibility is that people dispose of their assets when they realize they won't need them.]

On intimacy:
- forgiveness is the basis of faith and is the basis of all relationships
[No, it's not. Most of my relationships are not based on "forgiveness" - the relationships I have with my students, colleagues, tradespeople, physicians, and so forth.]

"Without the shedding of blood there is no remission..." (Hebrews 9:22)
[More foolishness. We routinely forgive people without the shedding of blood.]

Prof. North discussed a student of his, Kelly, who read Don Knuth's book "3:16" at his suggestion and became a Christian. [Unfortunately I missed the punchline because Prof. North spoke so quietly. He asked his student, Kelly, why she had changed her mind, and she said, [inaudible].]

"The only forgiveness big enough is the death of God himself."
[This makes no sense at all. The Christian god is immortal, and so cannot die. Jesus is either not god, or he didn't die. And how does someone else dying forgive anyone else's sins? I am at a loss why anyone believes this stuff.]

Loving with one's soul:
- our soul might be described as our self-hood, our unique nature, our gifts and talents
- the Lord walks and talks with each of us in a unique way, at a depth no one else can
- Hence this is companionship of the most profound kind
- I [Prof. North] have a deeper relationship with God than with my wife
[Well, I am really glad that I am not married to Prof. North. I would be profoundly insulted if my spouse told me she had a deeper relationship with some imaginary being than with me. ]

Prof. North then described how he prayed to help the people of Africa in some way. Later his prayers were answered, because he was able to connect some people who invented a technique for laying plastic pipe cheaply from a helicopter with the government in South Sudan, so now the people of Juba will have fresh water that they never had before.
[Well, this is, on a superficial level, a nice story. But who would fail, given the opportunity to connect people together to achieve social good, to do the connection? It has nothing to do with religion. And the belief that you are somehow so special that a god would deliberately deprive hundreds of thousands of people of fresh water just so you could have the virtuous feeling of helping them -- well, it simply beggars the imagination. I fail to see how a Christian, who invests so much in "humility", could think that his prayer is at the root of what has occurred, or that the whole situation is somehow positive! Why didn't his god simply put a good freshwater lake down near the people, instead of working through John North?]

Early intimacies:
- "Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me." (Revelation 3:20)
- "knock, and it shall be opened unto you" (Matthew 7:7)
- "Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls." (Matthew 11:28-29)
[But, for gosh sakes, if you don't, then have fun rotting in hell forever. Yes, that is really "gentle".]

Later intimacies:
- "You shall hear a voice behind you saying, This is the way, walk ye in it" (Isaiah 30:21)
- "Know that I am with you always" (Matthew 28:20)
- "Your sin and iniquities I will remember no more" (Hebrews 8:12)
There is no such thing as a "good Christian". "Blessed in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints" (Psalm 116:15).
[Sounds like a recipe for suicide bombers to me.]

Prof. North concluded the series with these suggestions:
- read the bible (gospel of John, particularly)
- find fellowship
- pray
- ask for prayer of others
- "Be still and know that I am God" (Psalm 46:10)
- "Study to show yourself approved of God" (2 Timothy 2:15)
- accept the call to good works.
[Not much "reason" here. Just lots of god-talk.]

[I didn't stay for the questions, because I don't like being preached at.]

The *Good* Jonathan Witt Gives a Talk

What are the odds? Two guys on opposite sides of the evolution/creationism debate, both named Jonathan Witt?

Well, the good Jonathan Witt will be speaking at Waterloo next week, 5:30 PM, RCH 110, on March 28 about ... Well, you can probably guess. Come one, come all!

If you want the evil Jonathan Witt instead, contact the Discovery Institute.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

God and Reason Session 7 - "Could There Be Just One True Religion?"

I attended session 7 of the "God and Reason" course given by Christian professors at my university on Wednesday, March 13. This session was entitled "Could there be just one true religion?" and, like session 6, was given by Prof. Wayne Brodland. It was attended by approximately 50 people.

This was easily the weakest presentation so far. Part of that was due to the weakness of the question, to which the answer is obviously, "yes", there could be. The real question seemed to be "Is Christianity the one true religion?".

As usual, my comments are in brackets. The rest of the text is my best representation of what was presented, and I hope it is accurate.

Religion, Prof. Brodland, says (quoting a dictionary), "a belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, esp. a personal god or gods". Most cultures embrace religion because it gives structure and meaning to life, provides moral guidance, tells us how to interact with gods, and describes an afterlife.

Quoting David Pallin, he classified aspects of religion as follows:

Is there a God?                         - Ultimacy
Does he communicate with us?            - Agency
Does he tell us how to please him?      - Personality
Can we engage him on our terms or his?  - Holiness
We assume, Prof. Brodland said, affirmative answers to these 4 questions.

A priori, there could be more than 1 true religion, or there could be just one true religion. We must look at specific claims of religions to address the question.

Prof. Brodland briefly compared Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism, as follows:

Hinduism, 4000 BCE, 0.9 billion adherents
- indigenous to India, no single founder
- sometimes called a family of religions
- Vedas - holy (revealed), seldom read or understood today
- supreme oneness of Brahman, many gods or godesses [sic]
- involves yoga, meditation, etc.
- cycle of life

Islam, 622 CE, 1.6 billion adherents
- holy book is Qur'an, prophet Muhammad
- devout often memorize & recite it in Arabic
- only one God
- other important prophets
- 5 pillars:  belief, worship, charitable giving, fasting during Ramadan, pilgrimage to Mecca
- relative weight of good and evil determine heaven or hell

Christianity, 30 CE, 2.1 billion adherents
- grew out of Judaism
- holy book, the bible
- God is 1 in three
- main focus is knowing God through Jesus
- Quote of Sam Pascoe: "Christianity started out in Palestine as a fellowship; it moved to Greece and became a philosophy; it moved to Italy and became an institution; it moved to Europe and became a culture; it came to America and became an enterprise."
- Jesus was Messiah, Jesus' death was sacrificial, Jesus rose from the dead

- "If I just do my best..."
- "If I just do enough good..."
[It wasn't clear to me what the last part was referring to. "If I just do my best", what? I go to heaven? But if one doesn't believe in heaven, then I don't see the point.]

Some options to consider:
- all religions are true
- several are true
- only one is true
- no religion is true

All religions can't be true because their claims contradict each other:

For example, Christianity says Jesus died on the cross, but Islam says he did not.

Hinduism says many gods and godesses [sic], but Islam and Christianity say only one god.
[But Christianity can be viewed as polytheistic, as the Trinity can reasonably be thought of as three gods -- not to mention all the minor deities of Christianity, such as Satan and angels.]

Hinduism says many ways to god, but Christianity says "no one comes to the Father except through me".

These are "fundamental and irreconcilable incompatibilities". So it is not possible to assert "all religions are equally good". [But who asserts that? Certainly not me. I think there is a hierarchy of religions, with Christianity and Islam being among the worst.]

Most religions have an exclusivity assertion.

The possibility that "no religion is true" is improbable given evidences [sic] for god given previously by Prof. Mann. [Even if you accept alleged fine-tuning as evidence for a god, that just leads you to a vague form of deism, not to any particular religion. For all we know, the only true religion is one that has 23 gods on Tuesdays and 37 gods on other days of the week, and demands that we only worship the prime-numbered gods and must ignore the others. And why is it that evangelicals, almost alone among all other English speakers, use "evidence" in the plural? For almost everyone else, "evidence" is a mass noun.]

We expect a theory to explain known data and make testable predictions. How does one "test" something? You can test scientific, economic, political theories. You can test a can opener by using it for its intended purpose. Religious claims all related to God, so tests should, too. But we cannot easily test those kinds of claims, e.g., claims about the afterlife. So we use data from the world where we live.

The "theory" of Christianity claims:
- God reveals himself
- We can talk to him & he speaks to us
- God does things outside the natural realm
[Well, I have tested such claims myself. I was raised as a Christian, but the Christian god never spoke to me or revealed himself. I have never seen any sort of miracle. Furthermore, again and again, reports of claimed miracles turn out to have ordinary explanations or are the result of fraud.]

The nature of faith: God provided enough evidence that we could reasonably choose to follow him, but not so much we are forced to do so. God didn't make the case more watertight so that we could choose to follow him out of our own free will. [On the contrary, the evidence provided for a god is extremely weak, and claims like this try to take the clear lack of evidence and make it into a virtue.]

Why I [Prof. Brodland] am a Christian:

1. My observations compel me to the conclusion that there is a God:
- order
- beauty
- function
I study the embryo in my research - the complexity of building it says it didn't "just happen".

[Except that we know there is a process to create "order" and "function" through perfectly ordinary means: namely, evolutionary algorithms. "Beauty" is more intangible, but very simple processes can create complicated images, such as the Mandelbrot set, that people often find beautiful. Nobody says it "just happen[ed]"; instead, we try to figure out exactly how. Positing some supernatural being doesn't explain anything, because it explains everything. It makes no predictions and offers no help in solving scientific problems.]

2. Credibility of the bible. When I [Prof. Brodland] read a scientific paper or book, I look for
peer review
references to other work
maturity of thought
multiple authors
consistency of meaning but differences in perspective, details, and text [in other accounts]

The same things apply to the Bible. [Not really. The Bible, by its very nature, is not like a scientific paper or book; it is part history, part mythology, part narrative account, part fabrication, part injunctions about how to behave, part psychedelic ravings. It has not been "peer reviewed" in any reasonable sense.]

3. Dialogue between us and God (and his works).

4. Personal experiences:
- answers to prayer
- restoration of hearing
- other actions of God [unspecified]
[Why doesn't god heal amputees? Why does the Christian god content himself with extremely minor miracles like restoring hearing, but does not do a damn thing for the thousand of children who die each year of starvation and disease? For the millions who died in the Holocaust? Frankly, I think it is a bit self-centered to think that a god that is the creator of the universe concerns himself with our minor illnesses. And any such god that cures minor illnesses but does nothing about really serious problems is evidently a moral monster unworthy of our attention.]

5. It best fits the pieces together.
[Well, I would strongly dispute that. Christianity and its claims seem wildly at odds with the world we see. Polytheism, by contrast, seems much more reasonable, as does a single psychopathic god that delights in torment. What kind of god would create both the speedy deer and the speedy cougar to eat the speedy deer? A god that enjoys blood sport, I guess. Or maybe two different gods, the god of speedy ungulates and the god of speedy felines.]

Prof. Brodland closed with a parable: God came to earth and lived in a cabin in the woods near a highway. He would send his son Josh, who would talk to people who stopped along the highway and said, "Do you want to meet my father?" Some people said yes, but after learning there was no easy road to the cabin, would give up. Others agreed to follow Josh, but when the road became muddy, they gave up. But people who were humble got to the cabin and met God."
[I don't see what being "humble" has to do with it. It seems the very opposite of humility to think that you are important enough for the Creator of the Universe to be overly concerned with you or your sex life or your fate.
Nor does accepting the claims of the majoritarian religion of your country make you humble. Frankly, if I was approached by some guy at a rest stop who insisted that I follow him on a difficult path through the woods to meet God, I'd back away slowly and get in my car.]

That concluded the presentation. This time I was able to stick around for the question-and-answer session.

Q. Doesn't evolution account for some of the claims you made [presumably about order, function, etc.]?
A. People who study evolution recognize difficulties with that point of view, just like people who advocate creationism recognize difficulties with it. I don't want to go into that debate here.

Q. Isn't religion unfalsifiable?
A. I've seen things that are evidences [sic] of a supernatural being. As Francis Schaeffer says, we have excellent reasons for accepting Christianity, but not proof. We can accept Christianity and not be idiots. Science deals with things on an impersonal basis, so it is not the right tool.

Rob Mann, in the audience [who gave lectures 1 and 2 in the series], agreed that naturalistic claims are falsifiable and supernatural claims are not. But, he said, the lines are not so clear in the social sciences.

[I then asked]
Q. We know that the claim of Christianity that prayers will be answered has been rather definitively refuted by the scientific literature on intercessory prayer, which has found either no result or very tiny effects, with some people even getting worse when they are prayed for. [One of the studies that found positive effects, by Cha-Wirth-Lobo, later turned out to be fraudulent.] Can you name a single claim of Christianity that has been verified in the scientific literature?
A. No, because Christianity's claims related to the supernatural world, not the natural world. [Well, that doesn't really answer the question. First, we don't know there is a supernatural world. Second, if the supernatural world were completely divorced from our world, it might as well not exist. The whole debate revolves around how the supposedly supernatural world interacts with our world. But if it does interact with our world, those effects can be tested. They have occasionally been tested, and they have largely failed.]

Q. How about followers of other religions? Do they go to heaven?
A. It's a hard question. For example, people who lived before Jesus were saved because Jesus' saving power works retroactively. But Jesus says, "Nobody comes to the father except through me."
[Answering such a question leads to a dilemma. Hard-core evangelical Christianity demands that the answer is "no", but this answer is not politically palatable, so often the question is met with evasion. Most people's sense of justice suggests to them that people who haven't heard of Jesus shouldn't go to hell, but the Bible makes no exceptions. The choices seem to be (a) either agreeing that the bible is mistaken, or at least not the last word or (b) taking the hard line that, yes, some innocent people are going to hell, thereby implicitly agreeing that the Christian god is a moral monster or (c) claiming that the evidence is so strong that you have no excuse not to believe, even if you haven't heard of Jesus.]

A Little-Known Graph Inequality

Here is a very simple, yet little-known result that proved useful to me recently. I'm surprised it is not better known, since it seems to be a natural question.

Suppose you have a directed graph G = (V,E) with n vertices that is strongly connected (so there is a directed path from every vertex to every other vertex). Consider the length of the shortest closed walk W that visits every vertex. In the worst case, how long can W be?

Here, as usual, by a "closed walk" we mean that we start at some vertex and return to it, and we are allowed to repeat vertices and edges. We measure the length of W by the number of edges, and write it as |W|. Such a walk is sometimes called a "Hamiltonian walk" in the literature.

The answer is floor((n+1)2/4). This simple result was apparently first proved by Yahya Ould Hamidoune, in Proposition 2.1 of his paper published in Discrete Mathematics 26 (1979), 227-234. Hamidoune just recently passed away; he was apparently one of Mauritania's most famous mathematicians, and proved many deeper results than the little proposition above. But his graph inequality might prove useful to others, so I reproduce his proof here.

To see the upper bound, let L be a longest simple path in G. (A simple path does not repeat edges or vertices.) Let V-L = { vi : 1 ≤ i ≤ k }. Let v0 be the last vertex in L and vk+1 be the first vertex in L. Let Li be a simple path from vi to vi+1. Then a Hamiltonian walk W is obtained by following the edges in L0, L1, ..., Lk, and then those in L. So the number of edges in W is at most (k+2)|L| = |L|(n+1-|L|). But it is easy to see that r(n+1-r) is maximized when r = ceil(n/2). You can now check that in this case, r(n+1-r) = floor((n+1)2/4), as claimed.

To see that this is best possible, consider a graph where there is a directed chain of floor(n/2) vertices, where the last vertex has a directed edge to ceil(n/2) other vertices, and each of those vertices have a single directed edge back to the start of the chain. The shortest walk covering all the vertices traverses the chain, then an edge to one of the other vertices, then a single edge back, and repeats this ceil(n/2) times. The total length is then (floor(n/2)+1)ceil(n/2) = floor((n+1)2/4). So the bound is tight.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Another Shameful Shutdown of Free Speech at Waterloo

Today I attended a talk by our local MP, Stephen Woodworth, held at the University of Waterloo. Woodworth is the guy who introduced Motion 312, a transparent ploy to head down the road to outlaw abortion. I went to ask him (for what is perhaps the 5th or 6th time) what he thinks would be the proper penalty for a woman who has an abortion, a question he has resolutely refused to answer (despite claiming on his website that he is eager to answer questions from the public). I wanted to get it on the public record that he refused to answer yet again. But I didn't get the chance.

Halfway through the talk, Mr. Woodworth was shut down by protesters carrying a variety of signs and shouting. I tried to get them to stop, saying (roughly) that I was on their side, that I've been a pro-choice activist for years and was responsible for the pro-choice posters that were, for many years, displayed in local buses here in K-W. But the whole point of having a university is so all kinds of ideas, controversial or not, can be debated. And free speech is a core value in a democratic society, so they should let Mr. Woodworth make his points and save their questions for the end. But my view didn't carry the day.

Unfortunately, the protesters won their cheap victory in this little skirmish. After a few minutes of their antics, the student anti-abortion group that sponsored the talk called for a 15-minute recess and started dismantling the microphone. At that point, a real dialogue began between Mr. Woodworth and some of the protesters, so the event wasn't entirely a loss. We got to hear Mr. Woodworth refuse once again to admit that outlawing abortion is his real goal. But the shutdown of his speech is yet another bad day for Waterloo, a campus that has a history of being intolerant of many forms of controversial speech, from the administration's censorship of computer newsgroups and information about the Karla Homolka case, to the administration's removal of student newspapers, to protesters that shut down a talk by Christine Blatchford.

Fifteen years ago, the pro-choice posters that our group put up in local buses were relentlessly vandalized by the anti-abortion side. Our posters said, "You have three choices when faced with an unplanned pregnancy: parenting, abortion, adoption". Anti-abortion vigilantes crossed out abortion, or defaced the posters with "abortion is murder", or just stole the expensive plastic placards and discarded them. But how can I have the ethical high ground to object to that, if I don't defend Mr. Woodworth's right to speak on the other side?

It can feel morally satisfying to say that you are protesting "against oppression", or "for women's rights" or that Mr. Woodworth's presence on campus "makes me feel threatened". Maybe all that's true. But how does it give you the right to prevent someone from speaking?

Some people rationalized the protest by saying that Woodworth, as an MP, has plenty of chances to make his views known, so the protest wasn't an important infringement of his right to speak. Maybe so. But how about my right to listen? On what basis do the protesters get to quash that?

I'm not going to rehash all the arguments in favor of free speech here. If you're interested, I strongly recommend Rodney Smolla's Free Speech in an Open Society, an excellent discussion of free speech and its limits.

Maybe the protesters perceive that they've won a little victory with their actions. In reality, they lost. Jerry Rubin-style political theater just plays into the hands of right-wing politicians. Now Mr. Woodworth will be able to play the martyr; people who agree with him will sigh and mutter darkly about how the Left is always intolerant. Mr. Woodworth compared the protesters to fascists. He'll gain sympathy points from many people who are undecided.

By shutting down Mr. Woodworth, the protesters implicitly say, "Mr. Woodworth's ideas are simply too powerful for us to counter with our own. We are unable to battle him in the marketplace of ideas, so we act this way instead." Have a little faith in democracy! Woodworth's Motion 312 failed 203-91; even 74 MP's in his own party weren't fooled and voted against it.

If protesters objected to Mr. Woodworth's views, they could have protested quietly, or scheduled their own parallel event, or stuck around to ask really hard questions at the end. (Some did. Bravo for them.) Heck, I don't begrudge a good heckle, boo, or shout-out from the audience once in a while. But protesting so intrusively that the speech couldn't go on is way over the line.

The protesters also could organize to vote Mr. Woodworth out of office in the next election. Now that I'd like to see!

By behaving the way they did, though, the protesters discredited themselves and gave the University's reputation yet another black eye.

Friday, March 08, 2013

Gish and Chavez: I Won't Miss Them

Duane Gish is dead. I won't miss him.

I first heard Gish speak when I was a graduate student at Berkeley; it must have been around 1980. He gave his usual Gish gallop. Although I'd heard Walter Bradley speak in Princeton a few years earlier, this was the first time I had been exposed to really hard-core creationism. It angered me that such a transparent fraud would speak in the name of science. Hearing Gish lie over and over again was what got me involved in fighting pseudoscience.

Hugo Chávez is also dead. It's always mystified me why the Left elevates people like Chávez and Che Guevara to the status of heroes. Although he did improve social conditions in the country, he also was essentially an authoritarian who first tried to gain power through a coup d'état, and later, after being elected, kept power by a cult of personality. Chávez was intolerant of the political opposition and routinely had opponents arrested. I won't miss him, either.

Ancient Arctic Camels Were the Moose of Their Day

From the CBC, we learn that Pliocene camels were the moose of their day. The technical term appears to be "really huge herbivore".

Wednesday, March 06, 2013

"God and Reason" - Lecture 5 - "Is the Bible Reliable?"

On February 26th, I attended the 5th lecture in the God and Reason course given by Christian professors at my university. It was entitled "Is the Bible Reliable?" Attendance was way down compared to previous talks; I estimate there were about 60 in the audience.

I was looking forward to this one, because I saw it as a test of the commitment of the people running the course to fairness and academic standards. Christian evangelists have been claiming for hundreds of years that the Bible is reliable, when this is simply not the case. For example, Luke 3:23 says that Joseph's father was Heli, but Matthew 1:16 says Joseph's father was Jacob. And who first visited the claimed empty tomb? Was it Mary Magdalene (John 20:1), or did others come with her, as it says in Matthew and Mark? And there are dozens of other problems. While it's true that evangelists claim some answers for these contradictions and inaccuracies, many of these answers are contrived and implausible.

I was expecting a straightforward admission that this is the case, but I was disappointed. Not a single contradiction or error was mentioned.

This session was given by David Matthews, professor of statistics at Waterloo. Like the other speakers, he was effective and clear. As usual, my comments are in brackets.

He started with "What is the bible?" - 66 books, attributed to various human authors, in 2 parts. The Hebrew scriptures: 39 books from Genesis to Malachi, an account of continuing interaction between the Jewish nation and a god. The New Testament: 27 books, written in Greek, from Matthew to Revelation, depicting various accounts of the life and ministry of Jesus, and events in the years after Jesus' death.

Claim: the bible is reliable (in the sense that it is consistently good in quality or performance, able to be tested). It is trustworthy as an historical account, primarily of the sayings and teachings of Jesus. He focussed on the "synoptic Gospels" (Matthew, Mark, Luke), and John:
Matthew - a tax collector who became a disciple
Mark - younger companion of Peter
Luke - educated Greek, close companion of Paul
John - fisherman who became disciple

Three books of the Bible (Matthew, Peter, John) are eyewitness accounts.

How soon after the events were the various gospels compiled? He gave two sets of dates: a "conservative" set and a "generous" set:

Matthew 85-90 CE  45-75 CE 
Mark 65 CE 65 CE
Luke 80-85 CE 59-63 CE
John 90-100 CE 70-95 CE

From the standpoint of historical research, Prof. Matthews claimed, the elapsed time since occurrence is satisfactorily short. [Perhaps I am reading more into in it than what Prof. Matthews claimed, but I do not believe historians establish some kind of standard of the form "less than 100 years = satisfactory", "more than 100 years = not satisfactory". Instead, we know that human memory is extremely malleable and unreliable, even just a few years after major events. And it is relatively easy to create false memories through a variety of techniques, e.g., Thomas and Loftus, Memory & Cognition 30 (2002), 423-431.]

Early versions of the bible: Codex Vaticanus (350 CE); Codex Sinaiticus (350 CE). [Wikipedia says of the former, "It was at that point that scholars realised the text differed significantly from the Vulgate and the Textus Receptus"; so much for claims of reliability.]

Prof. Matthews then compared these versions to other ancient manuscripts:

Work                  When written         Earliest copy      Elapsed Time    # copies 
Iliad, Odyssey 900 BCE 400 BCE 500 643
Gallic War 100-50 BCE 900 CE 1000 10
Herodotus, Histories 480-425 BCE 900 CE 1300 8
New Testament 65-100 CE 350 CE 300 5300

[It wasn't clear to me how any of this is really relevant to the claimed accuracy of the bible. There are thousands of copies of Madame Bovary and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion known, too, but the existence of many copies doesn't make them a more accurate rendering of events. And who thinks all the events depicted in the Iliad and Odyssey really took place?]

Fragments of the bible are known, said Prof. Matthews:

Rylands Papyrus               part of John      130 CE
Geneva-Bodmer Papyri II       most of John      200 CE
Chester Beatty Papyri         parts of NT       200 CE

There are also documents of the early church fathers, dated 100-200 CE and, Prof. Matthews claimed, more than 85,000 quotations from or allusions to some part of the NT in these documents. [This claim of 85,000 is, apparently, a subject of some dispute. It seems to come from the work of John W. Burgon, a defender of the inerrancy of the Bible, but apparently some have taken issue with Burgon's methodology, such as Gordon Fee. I am not even remotely an expert on this, so I could be wrong.]

More early documents: Polycarp's [69-155 CE] letter to the Philippians; Polycarp's student, Irenaeus (c. 120-202 CE) of Lugdunum; Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History.

Results of modern archaeology support the claims of the Bible. For example, Gospels and Acts mention many secondary details about towns, people, events, and buildings that are substantiated elsewhere, e.g., John 5:2 mentions a pool near the "sheep gate" which was found in excavations in 1888 and 1964, near St. Anne's church.

[Again, it is not clear to me how any of this impacts the claims about Jesus. Madame Bovary gets many of the details of mid-19th century France right, which is not surprising because Flaubert lived then. But that doesn't mean that the events depicted in that novel actually happened. It would be really surprising if writings of the time did not depict places and people of the time with at least some accuracy.]

Prof. Matthews said Josephus accurately depicts the death of Herod. If he was accurate about details like this, why would he not be accurate about others? He quoted the Testimonium Flavianum, but did not make any mention that many scholars think that this passage has been augmented and modified to make it more supportive of the biblical story.

To summarize, Prof. Matthews claimed the Bible is trustworthy because
- it depicts eyewitness accounts of the apostles or companions of the apostles
- all accounts were written before 100 CE within 70 years of the events depicted
- the Bible is corroborated by archaelogy and non-Christian documents
- when you read them, they resonate with authenticity
- if what they report never happened, why would early Christians risk death and persecution?

[I don't find any of these things remotely convincing. There are detailed eyewitness accounts of alien abductions, written within a few years of the supposed events. Does Prof. Matthews find these convincing? ]

[As for the last issue, this is a common trope of evangelists, but I have always found it puzzling that anyone finds it convincing. Let's look at Mormonism. Eleven men signed a statement that they had seen the "golden plates" supposedly discovered by Joseph Smith. This statement was obtained shortly after the supposed event took place. But these golden plates reside in no museum today, and there is no good evidence they actually existed. One of the witnesses, Hyrum Smith, was martyred for his religion on June 27 1844, when, awaiting trial in Carthage, Illinois, he was attacked by a mob and shot in the face. Hiram Page, another claimed witness to the golden plates, was "severely beaten by a group of non-Mormon vigilantes on October 31, 1833", probably because of his religion. If Smith and Page hadn't seen the golden plates, why would they have risked death and persecution for their religion? Does this mean that what Joseph Smith said is true? Of course not. The golden plates might have been fabricated, or witnesses could have been intimidated by other followers to agree (falsely) to claim they saw the plates, or they could have wanted to believe so badly they convinced themselves they saw them, and so forth.]

[It is easy to come up with plausible alternative explanations of the supposedly miraculous events in the Bible (and in Mormonism, too). Christians have a heavy evidentiary burden to shoulder if they want to claim these events have been established beyond reasonable doubt. Prof. Matthews didn't even come close to meeting this evidentiary burden.]

Tuesday, March 05, 2013

God and Reason, Lecture 6: Who Was Jesus?

I attended Lecture 6 in the God and Reason short course given by Christian professors at my university. Once again, attendance was down signficantly since Lecture 3. Once again I had to leave at 5:20 PM, so I missed most of the question and answer sessions. Today's lecture was given by Civil Engineering professor Wayne Brodland, and was entitled "Who Was Jesus and Did He rise from the Dead?" Prof. Brodland has won a teaching award at UW and his presentation was (like others in the series) well-done and easy to follow. However, it was very heavy on the Christian evangelism and quite light on the reason, in my opinion. As usual, my comments are in brackets.

He started by comparing his method for ascertaining truth in the laboratory with how he ascertains truth in his faith:
In his lab:
1. start with data (theory, experiments, computer simulations)
2. Sometimes he doesn't like the data and struggles to explain it
3. Employs "circularity" and seeks the best fit for jigsaw-puzzle pieces
4. Strives to constantly update his understanding
5. Submits his understanding to peer review
6. Tries to advance knowledge
7. Prefers simple closed-form answers.

In his faith:
1. start with data (Bible, experience, personal conversations)
and then 2 through 7 are the same.

Prof. Brodland claims he uses the same approaches to ascertain truth in the lab and his faith. [I don't think this is the case at all. For one thing, in science we try very hard to disprove our hypotheses, by setting up experiments to test them. What are the corresponding experiments Prof. Brodland has done to try to disprove his faith? None that he spoke about; if anything he seems extremely willing to take personal experiences as confirming of his faith, even if they are quite tenuous; see below. For another, "peer review" means submitting your work to reviewers that are often hostile, not just talking about your faith with friends who share the same opinion. Where is the evidence that Prof. Brodland has explored Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, Islam, and so forth with equal research that he has done on Christianity?]

Prof. Brodland went on to discuss the tools used for data collection and analysis. He divided these tools into three parts, which he called "body", "soul", and "spirit". By the "body", Prof. Brodland means the five sense and scientific instruments that detect physical phenomena. By the "soul" Prof. Brodland means "logic to organize ideas and make inferences" [which seems like a very strange definition of "soul" to me]. And in the last category, "spirit", Prof. Brodland refers to "communication from the supernatural realm". Naturalists or Deists, he claimed, only recognize the first two. whereas Christians are more "broad-minded" because they allow another kind of information, namely information from the supernatural realm, to influence them. [Prof. Brodland could be even more broad-minded by allowing information from Zeus, Bigfoot, and extraterrestrials to influence him. In other words, it's not clear to me that being "broad-minded" in this sense is a virtue.]

He then compared Jesus to Einstein, Fourier, and Pasteur. They all risked their credibility and changed the world with their ideas. For Einstein, it was relativity; for Jesus it was "love your enemies" and "I am the truth and the life". He then presented many passages from the New Testament that showed that Jesus claimed to be the son of the Christian god.

Who was Jesus? Prof. Brodland claimed he is the son of the Christian god and the only other possibilities are that he was (a) self-deluded (b) a liar (c) just a good teacher or (d) just a legend. He dismissed (d) as implausible by saying that there are "lots of extra-Biblical sources" proving Jesus' existence. [This is false or misleading. There are a handful of extra-Biblical sources, and not one is contemporary. Some of these extra-Biblical sources are widely acknowledged to be Christian fabrications, such as certain passages in Josephus. And these extra-Biblical sources are clearly just reporting what they have heard from others and are not first-hand, independent sources.]

He dismissed (c) by saying that if Jesus was not the son of the Christian god and yet taught that he was, he could not be a good teacher. [This also seems quite unreasonable. Has Prof. Brodland never been mistaken in something he taught? Then I guess he is not a good teacher, either, by this criterion. On the contrary, it is perfectly possible to be a good teacher and still be mistaken, even about fundamental claims.]

Prof. Brodland dismissed (a) and (b) by saying that Jesus' claims are validated by his resurrection. [He did not consider the other obvious possibilities: Jesus was misquoted, or Jesus was misunderstood, for example.]

Prof. Brodland gave three claims he felt were good reasons to believe in the resurrection:
1. The disciples were despondent and a triumphal re-appearance of their leader was not on their minds.
2. They were feeling defeated and not likely to have hallucinated his return.
3. In ancient times it was believe that the soul was good but the body weak or corrupt, and hence resurrection was not part of their thinking.

[None of these seem like even slightly good reasons to me. On the contrary, if the disciples were despondent they would be very quick to grasp any way to be less despondent. All they needed was one person who claimed to see Jesus and many followers would be quick to glom on to this as a "miracle". Furthermore, it is simply not true that resurrection was not in the minds of people of the ancient world. Some say Asclepius was resurrected by Zeus after being killed by him, for example.]

Did Jesus rise from the dead? Prof. Brodland said we could test this hypothesis against the null hypothesis by considering data in 3 areas:
- the empty tomb
- reports by witnesses to his being alive
- change in the witnesses' attitude after resurrection

The tomb: all 4 gospels report an empty tomb, some written only 30 years after the event, when eyewitnesses were still around. The eyewitnesses would have complained if inaccurate reports had circulated. Since they didn't, the reports must be accurate. [How does Prof. Brodland know there were not eyewitnesses who took issue with these reports? There could well have been, but since we have so few documents from that time and place, how would we know? Furthermore, there would have been great pressure at early church meetings to suppress any such documents, if they existed.]

Also, secular sources don't challenge the fact that the tomb was empty; instead they put forward alternative explanations for it. [Well, one alternative explanation is that the disciples went to the wrong tomb. So the "real" tomb might not be empty.]

No body was ever produced and no shrine was built. If there a body, there would be a shrine there. [Prof. Brodland seems to have inadvertently supported the most obvious explanation: the body was removed by enemies of early Christianity, fearing that the resting place would become a shrine.]

Reports by witnesses: there were over 500 witnesses that reported seeing Jesus. [This is quite misleading. There were not 500 individual witness reports; instead there is a claim by Paul to that effect, a claim that is not substantiated by the existence of the supposed reports.]

Changes in Jesus' followers: disciples "suddenly" started appearing in public; many died horrific deaths because of their beliefs. If they had just made it up they would not be so willing to die. [Again, this is very misleading. Most of the people "willing to die" probably did not experience the resurrection themselves but were simply told about it by others, and believed it. Many people died willingly as followers of cult leader Jim Jones, but that doesn't make Jim Jones's claims true.] The Church grew quickly, even where the government wanted it suppressed. Today, many report personal experiences of Jesus. [Yes, and many report other kinds of extraordinary experiences, but it doesn't follow that these experiences correspond to reality. Does Prof. Brodland believe in Bigfoot, extraterrestrials, and Elvis still being alive?]

Prof. Brodland concluded by telling about his personal experiences. He suffered from deafness and stated that doctors said he had nerve damage and would be deaf for life. However, after he started praying and asking for friends to pray for him, "Jesus healed me". An audiologist confirmed that his hearing improved. "Those are the facts. When I asked Jesus to heal me, he did. This is powerful personal evidence that Jesus is alive and he did respond. I have the records to show. This is such a strong piece of evidence and you can test my claims." [How does he know it was Jesus? This is a classic case of the post hoc, ergo propter hoc fallacy. A scientist should know better.]

I had time to ask one question. I said that I too, have suffered from hearing problems. I too visited doctors and had tests and the doctors said there was nothing they could do. But the problem has largely resolved itself with time, and my hearing is much better -- all accomplished without prayer. I said that I had not prayed, but if I had (say) prayed to Zeus and gotten better, would this be evidence of the existence of Zeus?

Prof. Brodland did not really address my question. To paraphrase his answer, he said that he had his story and he was sticking to it. That well may be, but it is not very good evidence for Jesus when there are spontaneous improvements in nerve damage all the time. It even happens in hearing loss, although apparently it is rare (I don't claim to be an expert). This page, on the other hand, claims spontaneous remission is common! Prof. Brodland certainly should understand the extremely weak status of personal anecdotes as evidence. Good evidence would be to test many people, each with similar conditions, some of which pray (or have friends pray for them) and some don't. That would be an example of the scientific method that Prof. Brodland claims to follow. Unfortunately for Prof. Brodland, studies of intercessory prayer do not provide much confirming evidence at all.

All in all, this was just another exercise in Christian evangelism, full of fallacies and incorrect claims. It does not surprise me, though: the case for Christianity always has been extremely weak.

Sunday, March 03, 2013

Allouche Special Issue Published

A special issue of the Journal of Integer Sequences has just been published in honor of Jean-Paul Allouche's 60th birthday. There is also a brief introduction written by Valérie Berthé and me.

Creationists Live in Bizarro World

Sometimes I think creationists live in Bizarro World, where everything is backwards.

Take a look at this creationist letter to the editor by Terry Scambray, a retired college English instructor. It's in response to this perfectly reasonable opinion piece by Chemistry prof emeritus George B. Kauffman.

Even as you begin to read, the creationist clues are there. An English professor commenting on science? Surely he is a bit out of his depth. And indeed, the start of his letter is not so auspicious: "it's disappointing to read George Kauffman assert last week in The Bee that everyone should accept Darwin's "creation" story because a Quaker, physicist congressman had a House Resolution passed saying that we should!" But Kauffman never said any such thing. It's surprising to see an English professor with such poor reading comprehension, but maybe he taught English at Bizarro College.

Scambray goes on to huff, "Animals and plants appear in the fossil record fully formed and remain unchanged through millions of years. No knowledgeable individual denies this." The first assertion is pure creationist babble. What would it mean to be not "fully formed"? And, of course, species have not remained unchanged through millions of years. We know that each individual is likely to carry mutations and differ from its ancestors. Similar phenotypes do not imply lack of genotypic change. Furthermore, we have excellent examples in the fossil record of significant phenotypic changes. Is Scambray ignorant or a liar? That's too harsh; perhaps he just lives in Bizarro World.

Scambray claims, "Over millions of generations of laboratory testing, fruit flies, as one example, when subjected to genetic changes have not changed into anything but mutated, crippled fruit flies." Really? At my university, we have access to articles that say something different. Maybe at Bizarro College, they don't.

Mr. Scambray, if he has ever visited the Galapagos, must have visited a parallel Galapagos, because he claims, "Thus the [Galapagos] finches changed a little, adapted, while remaining fundamentally unchanged." He doesn't seem to understand that there are 15 different species of finches, all descended from a common ancestor that colonized the Galapagos millions of years ago. Things must be different in Bizarro World.

Mr. Scambray is not alone, however, One of his good buddies is - surprise! - creationist Cornelius Hunter. Hunter has biological training, but was he able to spot the flaws in Scambray's article? Apparently not, because he thinks Scambray "destroy[ed]" Kauffman's arguments. They have a good time together there in Bizarro World, as Scambray himself favorably reviewed Hunter's books back in 2009.

That's the end of today's tour of Bizarro World. Have a safe return to planet Earth.