Monday, December 30, 2013

Another Crazy Journal Solicitation

Dear Shallit, Jeffrey,

With great sincerity, we are writing to you today.

We happened to have the opportunity to read your paper titled "On NFAs where all states are final, initial, or both" recently and are impressed by your research work in this field. Given that you share the same research interest with our journal Progress in Nanotechnology and Nanomaterials (PNN), we are writing to sending you our earnest invitation for paper submission.

No, you morons, nanotechnology has basically nothing to do with nondeterministic finite automata.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Denial Has Many Forms

Recently I spent about a week in Virginia, North Carolina, and Tennessee. I ate a lot of good food (I can recommend Parker's Barbecue in Greenville, NC) and met some genuinely nice people, including some distant cousins.

But some things I saw reminded me that the states of the former Confederacy are, in some ways, very, very different, even today, from the North. It's not just the statues of the confederate soldiers (here, from Windsor, NC):

(When I was in Colerain, NC in the summer, I met a guy with a Glock on the passenger seat of his pickup who told me to visit this statue in Windsor before "the niggers" got it taken down. He told me that the gun was to "put the fear of God" into anyone who would try to take it away from him.)

In Richmond I visited the Museum of the Confederacy. There were two men out in front, waving Confederate flags and handing out literature. The current museum location is scheduled to join forces with the American Civil War Center and move to a much larger venue elsewhere in Richmond. The protesters complained that the new sites are not "Confederate-friendly" and are "all about slavery".

I pointed out to one of the men protesting that slavery was obviously an important cause of the Civil War, but he denied this.

I find it a little surprising that 150 years later, there are still people fighting this war. In order to do so, they have to deny the words of the secessionists themselves. For example, here's what Mississippi wrote (in part):

Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery-- the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth. These products are peculiar to the climate verging on the tropical regions, and by an imperious law of nature, none but the black race can bear exposure to the tropical sun. These products have become necessities of the world, and a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization. That blow has been long aimed at the institution, and was at the point of reaching its consummation. There was no choice left us but submission to the mandates of abolition, or a dissolution of the Union, whose principles had been subverted to work out our ruin.

Here's what Texas wrote (in part):

In all the non-slave-holding States, in violation of that good faith and comity which should exist between entirely distinct nations, the people have formed themselves into a great sectional party, now strong enough in numbers to control the affairs of each of those States, based upon an unnatural feeling of hostility to these Southern States and their beneficent and patriarchal system of African slavery, proclaiming the debasing doctrine of equality of all men, irrespective of race or color-- a doctrine at war with nature, in opposition to the experience of mankind, and in violation of the plainest revelations of Divine Law. They demand the abolition of negro slavery throughout the confederacy, the recognition of political equality between the white and negro races, and avow their determination to press on their crusade against us, so long as a negro slave remains in these States.

And so forth.

I certainly concede that Lincoln didn't believe in the equality of races. I certainly concede that there were major issues other than slavery that contributed to secession. I certainly concede that the Civil War took a huge toll on both Confederate and Union lives, and had disastrous consequences for the South. I'll even concede that war might possibly have been avoided if Lincoln had attempted to simply buy the freedom of all slaves in the South. But to claim, as the men protesting outside the Museum of the Confederacy tried to do, that slavery was not an essential cause of the Civil War, is either dishonesty or lunacy. The seceding states themselves admitted it in detail.

When I came out of the museum, the protesters were gone. I saw a guy standing outside the museum, smoking a cigarette and walked over to him. It turned out to be S. Waite Rawls, CEO of the museum. In response to my question about the protesters, he rolled his eyes and said, "You can't reason with those folks." And I think he's right. The zeal of those protesters and their willingness to ignore the evidence reminds me of Holocaust deniers and evolution deniers. They have invested so much of their own identity in believing a falsehood that nothing could possibly convince them of the truth.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Virginia Heffernan Exemplifies What is Wrong With Journalism

Both my parents were journalists. In fact, in 1939, my mother was the first woman reporter at the Florence Evening Star in South Carolina -- a newspaper started by Melvin Purvis, the FBI agent who helped capture Pretty Boy Floyd and John Dillinger. My mother was a good writer who wrote about many topics, but she didn't write about science or mathematics. She never wrote about those topics because she didn't know anything about them. In fact, she never mastered long division. But she could write emotional and moving stories that would bring tears to your eyes. So I have great affection for journalism and its practitioners.

But my mother, and the editors who hired her, understood her limitations. They wouldn't have sent her to cover a science story because they all knew what her areas of competence were. Reporters were expected to know the basics of the area they covered.

That doesn't seem to be true for much of modern journalism. I hear over and over from scientists that whenever they read a popular article that touches on their area of competence, the writer gets everything wrong. And it's often true, in my experience, for articles discussing my own areas of mathematics and computer science.

This also seems to be the affliction of Virginia Heffernan, a writer who "came out" as a creationist earlier this year. According to Wikipedia, Heffernan has no advanced training in science or technology at all. Yet she happily wrote about technology and was described as an "Internet guru".

In her widely criticized Yahoo article, she claims to have read Darwin, but summarizes his argument incorrectly as "Whatever survives survives". (Has she been reading Michael Egnor?). She confuses evolutionary psychology with evolutionary biology; she doesn't understand the difference between "hypothesis" and "theory"; yet she feels competent to comment on evolution. Likewise, she characterizes the Big Bang theory as "something exploded". Maybe she confused the scientific theory with the TV show.

In her article, she cites Yann Martel for justification as follows: "1) Life is a story. 2) You can choose your story. 3) A story with God is the better story."

No, Virginia, science doesn't work like that. The universe isn't a story you can just "choose". The virtue of the scientific method is that it gives a way to distinguish between stories that make you feel good and the real state of affairs, using hypothesis testing, strong skepticism, and peer review. Despite her Harvard education, Heffernan doesn't show any sign of understanding this. You'd think that would make her question the value of her Harvard Ph. D., instead of questioning the science that allows her to post drivel on Yahoo.

Heffernan reminds me of another journalist: Malcolm Muggeridge. Muggeridge didn't understand or care very much about science either; he once wrote, "It is true that in my lifetime more progress has been made in unravelling the composition and the mechanism of the material universe than previously in the whole of recorded history. This does not at all excite my mind, or even my curiosity." Muggeridge's lack of interest in science had consequences: he once confused a good photographic film with a miracle. That's the kind of nonsense that happens when you think the universe consists of stories whose truth you can just choose at your whim.

Heffernan willingly exposed the limits of her competence and discredited herself. (In another example, she recommended a denialist blog here; it didn't seem to raise many alarm bells at the New York Times.) In the future, no responsible editor should hire her to cover science and technology. The real issue now is whether editors get the message Heffernan conveys, and do a better job assigning reporters to cover stories in their competence.

Friday, December 27, 2013

More Philosophical Silliness

While reading this moral argument against Darwinism by Doug Groothuis, keep in mind that the author reminds us, whenever possible, that he holds a Ph. D. degree.

Arguments like these convince me that a lot of philosophy is a kind of cargo cult mathematics. Practitioners don't do actual reasoning; they construct assemblages of words that mimic mathematical arguments, but fall far short of what a mathematician would consider acceptable.

Let's look at some of the techniques Groothuis employs:

1. Reliance on vague terms that one cannot possibly measure, test, or verify, such as "essential nature", "intrinsically valuable", and "human dignity". (If you have no argument at all, then you can always decry some practice you don't like by claiming it offends "human dignity"; it's a favorite ploy of Robert George.)

2. Quotation fabrication: Darwin never spoke of "less favored races", as Groothuis claims, and the term "favored races" that appears as a subtitle in On the Origin of Species actually refers to what biologists now call "varieties". If you google the phrase "less favored races", you find that it appears largely in creationist websites and a Republican congressional candidate.

3. An incoherent argument that concludes "But (4) is false, because of (5)" and "Therefore (6) is false because of (5)" But the terms (5) and (6) refer to nothing at all!

4. Rewriting history to claim that "our moral intuitions and the history of Western law" provides support for believing that "every human being, irrespective of race" possesses "intrinsic human dignity". Really? Whatever happened to slavery in the history of the US? How about all the Christian Southerners who claimed that slavery was ordained by God? How were black people treated in the US Constitution? In what year were women allowed to vote? If the history of Western law shows us anything, it shows us that our "moral intuitions" are not precisely fixed and are subject to change.

5. Pretending rigor by explaining grade-7 concepts like "modus tollens" and "reduction ad absurdum". Bad arguments don't get better when you use Latin.

But the silliest thing of all is the attempt to defeat a scientific theory, the theory of evolution, using moral reasoning. This makes no sense at all; it's like trying to justify a claim about chemistry by appealing to political theory.

I feel sorry for Groothuis's students.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

The Southern Confederacy Arithmetic

Here is an interesting piece of mathematical Americana: The Southern Confederacy Arithmetic by the Reverend Charles E. Leverett, published by J. T. Patterson & Co., Augusta, Georgia, 1864.

Probably not too many Northern mathematics texts had questions about bales of cotton (p. 140):

Example 1. — A factor sells 25 bales of cotton at $100 per bale : what is his commission at 2½ per cent. ?

Similarly, a Northern text would probably not have an example of an order from Jefferson Davis (p. 209), or helpful explanations such as "In some States there is no capitation tax, and the sum to be raised for the expenses of the Government is collected from each individual, in proportion to his property. In South Carolina, this is on land and negroes, and is called the general tax." (p. 142)

You can also find questions such as (p. 13)

(19.) From the creation of the world to the flood was 1656 years ; from that time to the building of Solomon's Temple, 1336 years; thence to the birth of our Saviour, 1003 years : in what year of the world was our Lord born ?

I suppose it's not as bad as it could be. There are no questions like "Nathan Bedford whipped 3 slaves every day of the week except the Lord's day. How many slaves did he whip in total?"

Wednesday, December 04, 2013

Value of Personal Knowledge - The Answer

Here's the answer to yesterday's quiz.

1910 was a different world.

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

Homeopathy Kills

I have a lot of sympathy for Tamara Lovett, whose child Ryan recently died, apparently because she tried to treat his serious illness with worthless homeopathic remedies.

I'm not sure she's the real culprit here. By all accounts so far, she was a good mother who cared about her child. But she was misled by homeopathic and naturopathic propaganda to believe that plain water constituted medical treatment. When homeopathic remedies are sold openly in Canada's drugstores and natural food stores, what is an uneducated person to think? To them, it certainly seems that this kind of nonsense is legit medicine. After all, the government doesn't prohibit it, and a place calling itself a "homeopathic medicine clinic" looks a lot like a real clinic.

Shutting down homeopathic clinics wouldn't necessarily prevent deaths like Ryan Lovett's. But it would go a long way.

The Value of Personal Knowledge

This is part of an advertisement from a magazine in 1910. Can you guess what the key to "achievement of the highest excellence is"? (Answer tomorrow).

Sunday, December 01, 2013

Creepy Deal Creating Public Religious School Finally Ends

I only live 20 minutes away from this school, but I never knew about it. Believe it or not, there's a Canadian public school that
  • has Bible reading
  • recites the Lord's Prayer every day
  • only allows Mennonite children to enroll
  • has no sex education
  • has no teaching of evolution.
Thankfully, the school --- which is about the best example of illegitimate Christian privilege I've ever seen --- is about to close. Just imagine if there were a public school that allowed only Buddhists, or Muslims, or atheists to enroll!

But why has it taken so long?