Friday, April 04, 2003

Crank Alert "According to intelligent design, Darwin's theory fails for essentially the same reason that Hilbert's program failed. Hilbert's program for mechanizing mathematics failed because Gödel was able to demonstrate that logical rules of inference could not connect all mathematical truths back to a reasonable set of starting points (that is, a recursive set of axioms). Likewise Darwin's program for mechanizing biological evolution fails because it can be demonstrated that the Darwinian mechanism lacks the capacity to connect biological organisms exhibiting certain types of complex biological structures (for example, irreducibly complex or complex specified structures) to evolutionary precursors lacking those structures." -William Dembski, (posted here ).

William Dembski provides the intellectual heft, such as it is, to the intelligent-design movement. Alas, the alleged demonstration of Darwinism's inadequacies exists only in his imagination. Note also the gratuitous reference to Godel, whose work has absolutely no relevance to the point Dembski wants to make. Many of the "irreducibly complex" or "complex specified" structures he has in mind have been explained by scientists working in the field. (Incidentally, Dembski's fancy-sounding terminology exists nowhere outside of ID writing. The use of non-standard terminology is often another giveaway that you are reading the work of a crank). Such explanations are met by a lot of indignant head-shaking and arm-folding on the part of ID ignorance peddlers. They are no less true for that.

Stupidity in Louisiana A Louisiana representative has offered a concurrent resolution before the state House of Representatives suggetsing that " encourage the development of students’ critical thinking skills, city, parish, and other local public school systems should refrain from purchasing textbooks that do not present a balanced view of the various theories relative to the origin of life but rather refer to one theory as proven fact."

I think we all know what theory the rep. has in mind. Of course, you would be hard pressed to find a textbook that actually refers to evolution, or any other theory, as proven fact. There is currently only one scientific theory on the subject of the origin and development of life. Religious demagogues gesturing madly at their Bibles do not constitute a rival theory.

More information can be found here.

Thursday, April 03, 2003

Giant Squid Found A giant squid was captured by fishermen working in Antarctic waters. Read more about it here.

Has Commentary Lost its Mind? The April issue of Commentary magazine features the article "A Scientific Scandal" (not available online) by David Berlinski. The article claims to expose a systematic campaign of distortion regarding the article "A Pessimistic Estimate of the Time Required for an Eye to Evolve." Written by biologists Dan-Erik Nilsson and Susanne Pelger, the article, which appeared in the prestigious Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, attempted to calculate an upper limit on the time required for the major features of the vertebrate eye to evolve from a simple, light-sensitive patch of cells. Their calculation yielded an estimate of slightly less than 400,000 years, vastly less than the time available for such a structure to evolve. This constituted a major blow to the anti-evolutionist claim that there has not been sufficient time in Earth history for the evolution of such a complex structure.

Berlinski claims "...I suggested that Nilsson and Pelger's arguments are trivial and their conclusions unsubtantiated. I also claimed that representations of their paper by the scientific community have involved a serious, indeed flagrant, distortion of their work." People with some experience reading the literature of pseudoscience will immediately recognize such hyperbolic sentiments as coming straight out of the crank playbook. In fact, Nilsson and Pelger's article represented a significant advance in our understanding of the plausibility of evolving an eye by Darwinian means in the available time. None of Berlinksi's major arguments withstand scrutiny. I will have more on this later, but for now it is enough to wonder why Commentary, once a reliable source of sensible conservative thought, has decided to make itself a platform for pseudoscience.

Neurotheology II As a follow-up to my post of March 31, check out the article "God on the Brain" from BBC II. It describes how people who suffer from temporal lobe epilepsy, in which uncontrollable electrical discharges occur in the brain, often experience religious visions.

Dracula Theme Park? From the current Smithsonian comes this amusing item about the possibility of constructing a Dracula theme park in Transylvania.

Wednesday, April 02, 2003

On the Distribution of Prime Numbers It looks like a major breakthrough has been made on a classic mathematical problem. Prime numbers are those divisible only by one and themselves. Thus, the numbers 2, 3, 5, 7, 11, 13, 17 and 19 are all primes. For over two centuries mathematicians have been studying the distribution of prime numbers among the integers. For example, there are four primes smaller than ten, but only 26 primes less than 100. Up to a trillion, on average one in twenty-eight numbers is prime.

However, though the appearance of individual primes is impossible to predict, their average behavior is quite regular. The prime number theorem tells us that for large values of x, the number of primes smaller than x is very close to x divided by log x. However, this does not imply that you can't find pairs of primes that are much closer together than the prime number theorem would lead you to believe. For example, if p and q are two large, consecutive primes, with p larger than q, a naive application of the prime number theorem might lead you to believe that p-q divided by log q is pretty close to one. Actually, it has been known for some time that you can find infinitely many pairs of primes p, q for which that quotient is smaller than 1/4.

The newly announced result, proven by D. Goldston, and C. Yildirim, is that actually for any fraction, no matter how small, you can find infinitely many pairs of consecutive primes p, q so that p-q divided by log q is smaller than that fraction.

The result is presently going through peer review, but hopefully it will hold up. If it does it represents a major leap forward in our understanding of the distribution of prime numbers. A brief explanation of the result can be found in this article from Science News. A more detailed summary is available from the American Institute of Mathematics here.

Tuesday, April 01, 2003

Links Sought I have been gradually expanding my list of links, and I would appreciate the help of readers of this site. Let me know if there is a science peridoical, blog, or anti-pseudoscience site you think I should link to. E-mail them to me at

Right-Wing Liars Check out this article from Salon today. It describes a recent Wall Street Journal editorial in which writer Dorothy Rabinowitz attributed a quote to liberal pundit Roger Wilkins. In her column, Rabinowitz wrote:

"The most interesting concern thus far," Rabinowitz wrote, "came from commentator Roger Wilkins, who mused on the Lehrer show that the journalists would get too close and feel for the military men who would seem to them, after all, to be 'fellow human beings.'"

This was allegedly said on a recent broadcast of The News Hour with Jim Lehrer. Also included in the article was a pull-quote reading, "One critic worried that reporters might come to view the military as fellow human beings."

The trouble is that neither Wilkins, nor any other panelist, said any such thing. One more piece of evidence that today's rabidly right-wing pundits are not above making things up to promote their viewpoint.

Creationism and Free Speech A standard creationist ruse in arguing for the inclusion of their views in high school biology classrooms is to invoke free speech. The idea is that excluding creationism is tantamount to censorship. This argument has great rhetorical appeal, since most people know little of the scientific issues involved but will respond sympathetically to claims of fairness.

The latest example of this ruse is described in this article from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. It relates to the recent decision by the school board in Cobb County, Georgia to exclude theories of creationism or intelligent-design from science classrooms. The Board is now being sued by two angry parents, on the censorship grounds described above.

The claim is spurious, of course. Free speech does not entitle you to teach any crackpot theory people happen to find comforting. Following creationist logic we would have no grounds for excluding flat-Earthism, geocentrism, or more dangerous nonsense like the idea that Black people are genetically inferior. What gets taught in science classrooms should have some connection to what scientists do. Creationism does not fit that description.

Monday, March 31, 2003

Neurotheology Is religion all in the brain? Perhaps. Neurotheology is a new branch of science that attempts to explain religious experiecne as the result of physical processes in the brain (implying that religious experience is no more veridical than a drug-induced hallucination).

Scientists have found that when portions of the brain's temporal lobes are stimulated, certain varieties of religious experience can be induced. However, the effect is not the same for all people. This article in The Washington Times last week describes an experiment done with famed biologist and atheist Richard Dawkins, in which portions of his brain were stimulated via magnetic fields. But while Dawkins described feeling some weird sensations, he did not describe having any religious experiences.

The scientist performing the experiment points out that Dawkins scored low on a preliminary test designed to test susceptibility to temporal lobe stimulation. One test does not warrant a general conclusion, and certainly other atheists have reported having religious experiences when exposed to this sort of stimulation. It is quite possible that small, genetic variations in people's brain structure can affect their likeliness to believe in God.

What is undeniable is that many varieties of mystical experience, such as out-of-body experiences, can be reproduced by the appropriate stimulation of certain areas of the brain. The fact that such experiences are invariably reported during periods when the brain is under unusual stress strengthens this conclusion. People who offer mystical experiences as evidence of the truth of religious claims should reconsider their argument.

Eric Alterman Just finished reading Eric Alterman's magnificent book What Liberal Media?. He makes a compelling case for what is already obvious to most thinking people: The major media outlets in this country have a conservative, not a liberal bias. Fox News is just the tip of the iceberg. Buy the book and read it, but be warned that you will have to stop every few pages to get your temper under control. Alterman's book can be obtained here.