Monday, December 21, 2015

10th Blogiversary!

Ten years ago, this blog, Recursivity, was born.

I've had a lot of fun with it, even though I never really had very much time to devote to it. A thousand posts in ten years sounds like a lot, but I wish I could have written a thousand more.

Generally speaking, my readers have been great. In ten years, I think I only had to ban two or three commenters, including one Holocaust denier. Thank you to everyone who read what I had to say, and even more thanks to those who took the time to comment.

Here are 25 of my favorite posts from the last ten years:

  1. Why We Never Lied to Our Kids About Santa: my absolute favorite, and still appropriate. You can criticize atheism and religion, but if you really want to get a reaction, just criticize the myth of Santa Claus.
  2. Robert J. Marks II refuses to answer a simple question: still waiting, more than a year later.
  3. Hell would be having to listen to Francis Spufford: Damn, he was boring.
  4. By the Usual Compactness Argument: for mathematicians only.
  5. Ten Common LaTeX Errors
  6. I defend a conservative politician's right to speak on campus
  7. Science books have errata. Holy books don't
  8. No Formula for the Prime Numbers?: Debunking a common assertion.
  9. In Memory of Sheng Yu (1950-2012): my colleague - I still miss him.
  10. Another Fake Magnet Man Scams AP
  11. William Lane Craig Does Mathematics
  12. Why Do William Lane Craig's Views Merit Respect?: Nobody gave a good answer, by the way!
  13. Stephen Meyer's Bogus Information Theory
  14. Religion Makes Smart People Stupid
  15. Test Your Knowledge of Information Theory
  16. David Berlinski, King of Poseurs
  17. Graeme MacQueen at the 9/11 Denier Evening
  18. Mathematics in a Jack Reacher novel
  19. The Prime Game: This appeared in my 2008 textbook, too.
  20. Debunking Crystal Healing
  21. Nancy Pearcey, The Creationists' Miss Information
  22. Academic Vanity Scams
  23. Time Travel: my second favorite, which nobody seemed to like that much.
  24. Janis Ian Demo Tape: the best part was that Janis Ian herself stopped by to comment!
  25. The Subversive Skepticism of Scooby Doo: my third favorite.
Happy Holidays to everyone, and may 2016 be a great year for you.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Merry Kitzmas!

It's been ten years since the landmark decision of Kitzmiller v. Dover was handed down, the case that exposed the religious fraud of that absurd pseudoscience, "intelligent design". The ID movement, and especially its "think tank", the Discovery Institute, has never recovered.

I had the honor of meeting the lead plaintiff, Tammy Kitzmiller, a few years ago at one of the trial reunion parties. (I played an extremely minor role in the case, meeting with the lawyers for the plaintiffs and preparing as a possible rebuttal witness, but I never appeared in court because one person on the other side never testified.) A more pleasant and modest (yet determined!) person you can't imagine. In fact, all the people involved in the case in various ways, including Eric Rothschild, Nick Matzke, Steve Harvey, Kenneth Miller, Wes Elsberry, Genie Scott, and Lauri Lebo are about the nicest and most interesting people I've ever met. The contrast with the other side couldn't be more stark.

Ten years later, what's happening? Well, the Discovery Institute and their friends continue to churn out lies pretty much unabated, but nobody's listening any more. Even the "academic wing" of intelligent design seems to have given up. Bill Dembski just threw in the towel. At the same time Casey Luskin tries to boast about all the scientific work published by ID advocates, the flagship scientific journal for the movement has only published a single paper in calendar year 2015, despite getting a new editor and having an editorial board with 29 members.

There's just so long you can keep up this charade.

Meanwhile, the same nasty, deplorable tactics that renamed the Discovery Institute the "Dishonesty Institute" continue unabated. When one of the Kitzmiller team recently got a paper accepted to Science, one of the world's most prestigious scientific journals, all the Discovery Institute (and their slavering friends) could do is make ridiculous and groundless insinuations about misconduct. Truly, they have no shame at all.

Why do the ID folks behave so reprehensibly, over and over again? Of course, it has nothing at all do with science. They behave this way because they are motivated solely by their conservative religious beliefs. Recently a window opened on the ID world view, when one creationist was so disillusioned by their behavior that he posted a private e-mail message from ID advocate Barry Arrington that clearly revealed their motives. Arrington wrote

"We are in a war. That is not a metaphor. We are fighting a war for the soul of Western Civilization, and we are losing, badly. In the summer of 2015 we find ourselves in a position very similar to Great Britain’s position 75 years ago in the summer of 1940 – alone, demoralized, and besieged on all sides by a great darkness that constitutes an existential threat to freedom, justice and even rationality itself."

When you view your opponents this way, then no tactic is off limits. Lying is permissible because otherwise the "great darkness" will win. Insulting, making insinuations, likening your opponents to Nazis or Communists or fascists are all perfectly fine tactics, because your opponents constitute "an existential threat to freedom" and "justice". Treating your opponents as subhuman is ok, because after all, they threaten "rationality itself". And of course, they never, ever, admit they were wrong about anything.

I feel sorry for the ID folks today, I really do. Ten years after Kitzmiller, ID advocates are like the Millerites on October 23 1844, when their predicted triumphal ascent into heaven didn't happen. They are wandering around feeling puzzled and alone, and it's natural that they will lash out against any available target in an effort to cure their misery. It won't work, I'm afraid. Intelligent design is, for all practical purposes dead. Prop up the corpse all you want -- it won't work.

Meanwhile, science and evolutionary theory continue unabated. Those of us who enjoy and respect science (and there are lots!) continue to think about and solve interesting problems. The joy of discovery is genuine for us. May you find it, too.

So, to you and yours, I wish you a very merry Kitzmas.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Polish Immigrants a German Problem?

Only if the immigrants are moose.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

1000 citations for "Automatic Sequences"

I don't normally like to use this blog to advertise my own achievements, but this one was too fun to pass up.

Back in 2003, Jean-Paul Allouche and I published a book, Automatic Sequences, with Cambridge University Press. There's some info about the book, including errata and some reviews, here.

Just this week, our book reached a milestone we could not have anticipated 12 years ago: 1000 citations on google scholar:

It is our most cited work.

Of course, this number is a bit misleading, since it double-counts papers on the arxiv that later appear in conferences and journals. Nevertheless, I'm really pleased that our book (despite its defects) has been so useful and influential. And thanks to my great co-author, Jean-Paul Allouche!

Saturday, December 12, 2015

The Difference Between Republicans and Democrats

Here is a chart that illustrates, better than anything I've seen, the fundamental difference between the two US political parties.

It wasn't always this way. There were lots of honest Republicans when I was growing up, from Philadelphia's Thacher Longstreth, to Millicent Fenwick, to Gerald Ford. Now I can hardly think of a single one, with Bob Ehrlich (former governor of Maryland) being an exception.

Today's Republican party is home to the craziest, most extreme, lying lunatics ever assembled in one place.

And it's no coincidence that of all the lying liars that represent the party today, the biggest lying liar of them all is Ben Carson -- who is also a favorite of the creationists.

To today's Republicans and creationists alike, the truth means absolutely nothing.

Discovery Institute Lies Again!

Oh, look! The Dishonesty Discovery Institute is out with yet another video. What a thrill.

Don't bother watching it, though. There are no new arguments at all. It's just the same lies as usual, repackaged for the nth time. You wonder why their spokesmen don't get just a little bit bored repeating the same misinformation, practically verbatim, over and over. It's more like they are evangelical hucksters than scientists. Why would that be?

  • Citing the 1966 Wistar Institute Symposium -- and pretending it was an important and influential scientific meeting, when in fact it had basically no influence on biology at all. And then pretending that the questions raised haven't been answered since then. Misrepresenting the symposium has a long history among creationists.
  • Doug Axe citing his 11-year-old 10-77 claim, long debunked. As far as I can see, Dougie hasn't gotten anything published in a real scientific journal since 2008. All his recent publications seem to be in the intelligent design vanity journal Bio-Complexity or similar crappy venues. I wonder why the Ahmansons continue to fund this embarrassment.
  • Stephen Meyer repeating his lie once again that "Whenever we see information, especially when we find information in a digital or typographic form and we trace it back to its ultimate source, we always come to a mind, not a material process." Of course, that's not true. The environment is full of information, or how would we able to do weather prediction? (I don't buy the implicit claim that the mind is not a material process, either.)
Intelligent design is so over. Get a life, guys. Do some actual work, or give up and stop pretending this charade is real science.

Friday, December 11, 2015

More Sprinkler Moose

Devoted readers of this blog (are there any?) will recall this post from 2008 with baby moose playing in a lawn sprinkler.

Apparently it's a thing, now. Here's a new video.

Hat tip: R. M.

Monday, December 07, 2015

Another Philosophy Fail

This article by Notre Dame philosopher Gary Gutting is interesting, but not in the way that Prof. Gutting seems to think. It's interesting because it demonstrates the intellectual bankruptcy and uselessness of the kind of philosophy that a lot of academics do.

Gutting presents the cosmological argument for the existence of a god, and seems to think it deserves to be taken seriously.

I say, it doesn't. Not only that, the fact that a well-respected philosopher thinks it does, and gets it published by a well-respected publisher like W. W. Norton, demonstrates that something is terribly, terribly wrong with much of academic philosophy.

Here, briefly, are just a few things that I think are wrong.

1. Gutting never defines "cause" or "caused". The words are very difficult to make rigorous, which is one reason why if you pick up a textbook on physics (say, Halliday and Resnick, the book I learned physics from), you won't even find them in the index (although of course the words themselves occur in the text). We sort-of-understand the colloquial and loose meaning of "cause" when it is associated with the events that are common in our lives, such as car accidents and elections and hot plates and Thanksgiving turkeys, but what guarantee is there that this understanding can be extrapolated to events on the micro or macro scales that physics deals with? Gutting seems to think that our folk understanding of these words is enough. I say it isn't.

2. After having acknowledged the looseness of the words, it nevertheless does seem that in nature there are genuinely uncaused physical events (like the radioactive decay of a particular uranium atom). Gutting doesn't even mention this possibility, except when it comes to his magical "first cause". So if events like the decay of this particular uranium atom has no explanation, why should we be so confident that all other kinds of physical events actually have explanations? This exemplifies another feature of much of academic philosophy, which is that it seems almost entirely divorced from what we have actually learned about the physical world. He is basically arguing to a Middle Ages audience (or even earlier).

3. There is no really good reason to always dismiss an infinite regress of causes, nor is there a good reason to dismiss a circular chain of causes (e.g., A causes B, which causes A). Of course, these don't seem to happen much in our daily lives, but again, we are talking about events (the creation of the universe) which are wildly different in scale from our ordinary experience. We don't experience cosmic inflation in our daily life, either, but that's not a good reason to dismiss that physical theory.

4. Gutting's description of "contingent" and "contingency" suffers from the same defects as "cause" and "caused". What does it mean to say "Germany might not have won the 2014 World Cup"? After all, possibly the universe was created by a supreme being who has an inexplicable love for German soccer. Perhaps everything was created and set in motion deterministically by a supreme being just so Germany won the 2014 World Cup and no other outcome was possible, even in principle. And just because I can imagine a different outcome doesn't mean a different outcome is possible; if I try very, very hard I can just barely imagine a square circle or a good philosopher, but that doesn't necessarily mean those things are possible.

5. Finally, I think what's wrong with this reasoning like Gutting's is that it is a kind of pseudomathematics: applying precise logical rules to vague concepts like "explanation" and "contingency" and "cause" without providing a rigorous mathematical or physical basis for those concepts, and then expecting the results to be meaningful. When you do that, it's kind of like doing a physics experiment and reporting the results to 20 significant figures when your measuring devices only provide 3 significant figures. You run the risk of thinking you're being precise and logical, when in fact you've only extrapolated your vague and inchoate understanding of what's really going on.

I realize in making these complaints I'm in a tiny minority. Nevertheless, I think my objections have at least some validity. What do you think?