Thursday, October 27, 2005

Meeting Mooney and Paulos in Charlottesville

Wow! What a great night! Not only did I meet two of my personal heroes, but I also finally managed to track down the UVA Visitor's Parking Lot. What more could one ask for?

First up was Chris Mooney, who spoke to the College Democrats about his magnificent, if hugely depressing, book The Republican War on Science. I got to speak to him briefly after the talk, and he was kind enough to autograph my copy of his book. Very cool.

Mooney's presentation concluded at around 7:00. Happily, I happened to notice a flier hanging up announcing that John Allen Paulos was speaking. That night. At 7:30!

Golly! What are the chances that both talks would be on the same night, scheduled in a way that made it possible to attend both, with very little dead time in between? Must have been intelligently designed just for me!

Who's John Allen Paulos? Well, he's a professor of mathematics at Temple University, but he's better known as the author of Innumeracy, and many other books. Most recently he is the author of A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper. He gave an excellent talk about common mathematical fallacies that routinely arise in the news media.

Two points that arose were especially relevant to this blog. During his talk he mentioned that all of the fancy mathematics in the world can not salvage a bad model. If the assumptions that go into your model are false, then any inferences you draw from them will be worthless. I had to laugh, since that is exactly what William Dembski has been doing in his preposterous series of articles allegedly on the mathematical foundations of ID.

The other point came during the Q&A. Someone in the audience, I swear it wasn't me, asked what he thought of people who argue that life is too complex to have evolved by natural means. The questioner specifically mentioned ID. Paulos was withering in his contempt for that attitude. Sadly, I did not record his exact words, but as I recall he described it as scary that so many people buy into such arguments.

I had the chance to exchange a few words with him after the talk, and I mentioned that creationist probability arguments are a classic example of fancy mathematics being employed in the service of bad assumptions. He agreed.

I'll definitely have to go buy his book.

All in all, a very successful evening.


At 8:26 PM, Blogger Heathen Dan said...

Wow, what good fortune indeed! I've always enjoyed Chris Mooney's articles for CSICOP and I have two of Paulos' books (unfortunately, an acquaintance borrowed A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper two years ago, I never heard from her since). I'll make sure not to lend Innumerancy to any math major ever!

At 6:16 AM, Anonymous STSmith said...

Actually, Paulos's most recent book is A Mathematician Plays the Stock Market. Highly recommended for its dual mathematical and psychological take on many Wall Street shibboleths such as efficient market theory. And Paulos shares/vents his WORLDCOM hammering.

At 1:02 PM, Blogger pseudolus said...

I am in the middle of A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper, right now, and it is terrific. I envy you the wonderful oppurtunity you had to see these great speakers. We need more exposure of such thinkers, all the press the ID bunch are getting (and uncritical at that) just blows my mind.

The Age of Reason ushered in by The Enlightenment 300 years ago seems to be coming to a close. I despair for our children and granchildren.

Thank you for a great blog!


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