Thursday, March 17, 2005

Kentucky Bound

Boca Raton was nice and all, but the real action is in Bowling Green, Kentucky. I'll be particiating in the Midwest Section meeting of the AMS this weekend. As you can see here, I will be providing the entertainment from 9:00-9:20 on Saturday morning. Regular blogging resumes on SUnday, assuming Blogger has its act together by then.

Wednesday, March 16, 2005


David Berlinski recently published this anti-evolution op-ed in The Wichita Eagle. Other writers have already performed the thankless task of ripping it to shreds (see in particular P. Z. Myers' thoughts on the subject here, as well as this fine counter op-ed form Michael Everhart, President of the Kansas Academy of Sciences.

Still, I can't resist throwing in my two cents.

Berlinski swears the he is not an ID proponent. Indeed, his article “Has Darwin Met His Match?” in the December 2002 issue of Commentarydoes a decent job of skewering the main claims of ID proponents. (It also contains a lot of inane criticisms of evolution, but we'll come to that later).

Despite this, he is perfectly happy to sit on the ID side in debates, he contributes elaborate mathematical papers to their anthologies, he publicly praises the work of people like Michael Behe and William Dembski, he parrots ID talking points in op-ed pieces, and he is perfectly happy to associate himself with the Discovery Institute.

Berlinski has fashioned a little niche for himself as a scientific gadfly. He has the scientific and literary ability (he holds a PhD in mathematics from Princeton University) to spew high-level nonsense, and he has proven himself willing to sing the song his right-wing benefactors want to hear. Specifically, he feels no shame in telling people that scientists are all mixed up about everything, and that they need a lot of clear-thinking common folk to set them straight.

Commentary has pretty much adopted him as their science guy, and he has published a steady stream of flapdoodle in their pages over the last decade. He started with “The Deniable Darwin” in which he used his bloated and pretentious writing-style to obscure the fact that he was merely repeating some of the hoariest anti-evolution cliches ever offered. Next came “Was There a Big Bang?&rdquo in the February 1998 issue. Three guesses what that one was about. More recently there have been articles about evolutionary psychology, and a truly bizarre one in which Berlinski attacked an obscure technical paper on eye evolution.

I say bizarre because Berlinski's argument would have been entirely meaningless to anyone who had not given a careful reading to the paper he was attacking, which is to say, to just about everyone who reads Commentary. It is safe to say that Commentary's editors hadn't the faintest idea whether there was any merit to Berlinski's claims (there weren't). So why did it get published? Because the editor's understood in some vague way that it was anti-evolution, and they like that sort of thing.

Since Berlinski makes his living as a writer and not as a scientist, these attacks of his are very cheap. No one expects him to enter a laboratory and emerge with the solution to an actual problem. You never get the impression from his articles that he is trying to direct scientists towards more fruitful avenues of research. Mostly you get the impression that he is someone who writes primarily to show the world how well he writes.

You also get the impression that he is someone who wants to be part of the fray, but does not want to do the hard work of earning his place at the table. He knows his articles will attract a handful of indignant letters from scientists, and that, by answering the letters, he can create the illusion that he is an important person.

He knows that the critical letters will be carefully edited for length. He also knows the critical letters will be balanced by an equal number of friendly letters. And if that's not enough of an advantage, he also knows that he will be given virtually unlimited space to respond. In such a forum, Berlinski can not lose.

All of this might be forgivable if Berlinski were actually making decent arguments in his articles. But he is not. To see that Berlinski doesn't really know what he is talking about, consider this statement from the 1997 Firing Line debate on evolution and creationism:

It is always easy to persuade yourself that you've understood something when you haven't understood a thing. The issue before us is not whether retroactively we can explain an adaptation, but whether we can draw that adaptation from general principles. That is what Darwinian theory cannot do. And this is the requirement of normal science.

That statement is so stupid it's hard to believe Berlinski was serious. Of course the issue is whether we can retroactively explain an adaptation! My goodness, hasn't the alleged inability of evolution to explain various complex structures been the main anti-evolution argument for the last 150 years? How did the blood clotting cascade evolve? The flagellum? Bird flight? The firing mechanism of the bombardier beetle? The human eye? The immune system? The immunity of the clown fish to the sea anemone? And on and on. Berlinski was sharing a debate platform that night with Michael Behe, who had just written a whole book criticizing evolutionists for not retroactively explaining various complex systems. Why didn't he turn to Behe and calmly inform him that he had missed the whole point?

The simple fact is that one major goal of evolution is to unravel events that happened in the past. That means retroactively explaining adaptations.

And it is not Darwin's fault that there is an inescapable element of chance in the evolution of a species over time. It is not a defect in evolutionary theory that it can not predict from general principles the specific adaptations that will arise in the course of evolution. Rather, it is a simple fact of nature that such predictions are not possible.

Berlinski also has some funny ideas about what constitutes normal science. He seems to think that it is large quantities of abstract mathematics that transforms a random discipline into a bona fide science. For example, in his November 2004 Commentary article “On the Origins of the Mind,” he excoriates evolutionary psychology for not making sufficient use of differential equations. And in the op-ed linked to above he writes:

The suggestion that Darwin's theory of evolution is like theories in the serious sciences -- quantum electrodynamics, say -- is grotesque. Quantum electrodynamics is accurate to 13 unyielding decimal places. Darwin's theory makes no tight quantitative predictions at all.

Of course, quantum electrodynamics studies simple things, like electromagnetic fields, whereas evolution studies complex things, like the changes in the gene pool of a species over vast periods of time. Scientists simply use the tools that are appropriate for the problems they face. Mathematics is very useful for describing simple, repeatable phenomena. It is less useful for describing complex, unpredictable phenomena.

The business about “thirteen unyielding decimal places” is a delightfully technical line to put before scientifically ignorant readers, but he knows perfectly well that it is a silly standard for judging scientific merit.

For example, to me it seems highly significant that with tens of millions of fossils described and cataloged, not one is out of place from an evolutionary standpoint. I think it's relevant that studies in comparative anatomy and genetics show just the patterns of similarities and differences that would be necessary for evolution to be a viable theory. I find it fascinating that every complex system studied in detail shows clear evidence not of being a pristine creation from nothing, but rather of having been cobbled together by natural selection.

Would Berlinski have us ignore all that becuase the predictions evolution makes are generally not couched in the language of mathematics?

In the end I mostly regard Berlinski with pity. He is a dishonest purveryor of ignorance, of course, and as such deserves all the scorn that he gets. But he is also someone who had the talent and werewithal to have a real career in mathematics, but instead chose to throw it all away in a series of cowardly hit-and-run attacks on his scientific betters. Somehow he reminds me of this scene from Rocky, in which Rocky (played by Sylvester Stallone) is arguing with his manager Mickey (played by Burgess Meredith):

STALLONE: ...Ya know, I been comin' here for six years, and for six years you been stickin' it to me. I wanna know how come.

MEREDITH: You don't wanna know!

STALLONE: Yeah, I wanna know how come!

MEREDITH: You wanna know?

STALLONE: I wanna know now!!

MEREDITH: Okay, I'm gonna tell ya! Cuz you had the talent to become a good fighter! And instead of that, you became a leg breaker for some cheap, second-rate loan shark!

STALLONE: ...It's a livin'.

MEREDITH: It's a waste o' life!

Let me give the final wrod to Ken Miller, who delivered my favorite smackdown of Berlinski in the aforementioned Firing Line Debate:

MILLER: However, recent studies of speciation--I am sorry to pick this specific species but it's relevant to your question--recent studies of speciation in sunflowers have shown conclusively that a news species can be established in terms of a speciation isolation mechanism with as few as ten genetic changes.

BERLINSKI: Yes, I have read the same science papers you have, but those are very close. A dog-like mammal and a whale are very far.

MILLER: Ah, that's right, and the other side of the room is very far away and it should not surprise you that I get there with one step at a time, and that's what we are talking about.


Blogger Blues

Sorry for the lack of recent posts. Blogger seems to have had a nervous breakdown over the last few days. Happily, it appears to have recovered, so let's get caught up...

Monday, March 14, 2005

Kasparov Retires

It figures that the biggest chess story of recent memory would happen while I'm away.

Gary Kasparov has announced his retirement from professional chess at the age of 41. He made the announcement at the conclusion of the annual tournament in Linares, Spain.

The Linares tournament is generally considered the most prestigious tournament of the year. It is also frequenly one of the most boring as the top players, afraid of losing, play very cautiously against one another and make a lot of draws.

This year, however, Kasparov was very motivated. Until the last round he played superb chess, reminiscent of his glory days, to tie for first in the tournament. Coming on the heels of his impressive victory in the Russian Championship last November, he showed conlcusively that he is still the best player in the world. He is definitely going out on top.

The Linares tournament was significant for another reason: The Bulgarian grandmaster Veselin Topalov tied for first with Kasparov. Topalov has been among the world's best for years, but this is a real breakthrough for him. He did it in grand style too, winning his last two games to catch up to the seemingly uncatchable Kasparov. In fact, he dealt Kasparov his only defeat of the tournament in the final round. Beating Kasparov in his final professional game provides a small measure of revenge for Topalov. Several years ago he lost to Kasparov in a game most people consider to be one of the most brilliant attacking games of all time.

The other news of the tournament was the poor performance of Peter Leko. He scored twelve straight draws to finish in the middle of the pack. Leko has been playing well lately, tying his match with Kramnik and winning the strong tournament at Wijk Aan Zee earlier this year. A strong performance here would have cemented his place among the world's elite. Now he must once again deal with accusations that he is, basically, a wimp at the board.

The final standings in the tournament are available here.

But we really ought to give the final word to Kasparov. The British newspaper The Guardian interviewed him here. It seems he's interested in entering Russian politics.

His decision to quit after Linares seemed bizarre because he had been back to his very best. So why, at 41, has he decided to retire? “I made a conscious decision well before the tournament,” he says. “These kind of decisions you don't make overnight. It takes time before you decide to quit one of the most successful careers in the history of any sport. I grew up with chess, built up my character with chess, won everything at the chessboard, gained recognition as the best chess player. So for me every aspect of life was related to chess. In your early 40s in chess you don't feel like retiring, especially if you are still the No1-rated player in the world. But I had to find a new target. My nature is that I have to excite myself with a big challenge.”

That challenge is Russian politics. Except that Kasparov says the very term “Russian politics” is a misnomer. “I wouldn't say that I'm entering Russian politics, because politics doesn't exist in Russia in the terms you use here,” he explains. “I will be trying to help Russia to get back into normal political life and to make sure my country lives in a civilised way.”

Kasparov is already a leading figure in a pro-democracy organisation called Committee 2008: Free Choice, which was formed last year. Now he has decided that the threat to freedom of expression in Russia is so great that he needs to devote himself to campaigning full time.

He has been talked of as a possible presidential rival to Vladimir Putin in 2008, and he doesn't rule out standing for office at some stage, but his real concern is that there will be no election to stand in. “People say to me, 'Garry, are you planning to run in 2008?' I say, 'Run for what?' The trend in Russia is very clear: Putin is abandoning democracy as an institution. He doesn't want there to be an election. There will be an appointed parliament that will then appoint the president. It will be like a perpetuum mobile.”

Also interesting was this quote:

“On the American political scale I would probably be somewhere near Arnold Schwarzenegger,” he says. “Economically conservative but socially liberal, definitely pro-choice, non-religious. I don't qualify as a new Republican. But on the other side I will be for lowering taxes and reducing the size of the state.” In any case, he says, because Russia has no conventional politics, terms such as left and right are redundant. “That's why we can work with strange bedfellows. You just have to find a number of vital elements that people can agree on. It's about wrecking the nomenklatura state and bringing law back to Russia.”