Friday, September 16, 2005

Math Blogs

In this post, P. Z. Myers briefly discusses a comment from Seed magazine to the effect that there are more blogs in chemistry and physics than in biology.

Which got me thinking: Does anyone out there know of any math blogs worth reading? Back when I first decided to enter the blogosphere, and had not yet decided what to blog about, I considered doing one myself. I ultimately decided evolution would be more fun and probably draw a bigger audience. But I'm sure there's someone out there performing the thankless task of making mathematics a little more approachable.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Brooks' Column

I'm sure that somehow this reflects badly on me, but I actually liked David Brooks' column today. It's a parody of the Roberts hearings.

And, for those who were following the comments to Monday's post about William Dembski, let me just point out that Brooks' column is parody. You see, Brooks has provided an exaggerated, but clearly recognizable, picture of what is really going on. That's what parody is.

This is in stark contrast to presenting Richard Dawkins' words out of context, doctoring those words to boot, and then topping it off by using the doctored quote as the basis for attributing a viewpoint to Dawkins precisely opposite to what he actually believes. That's not parody. That's lying. There's a difference.

Evolution, Shmevolution, Part III

Other bloggers have beaten me to the punch, but I may as well throw in my two cents.

I liked installment three of the series. The opening segment by Ed Helms, about the evolution of the Hooter's restaurant chain, was amusing if not brilliant.

But then came Lewis Black, who showed clips of two of the more pathetic young-Earthers: Ken Ham and Kent Hovind. Black is always hilarious, and he did a good job here. He mostly let Ham hang himself with his own childish, idiotic words. But what I really liked was his discussion of Kent Hovind. Hovind is an especially odious figure in this debate, since he bills himself as Dr. Kent Hovind. As Black pointed out, calling himself Dr. suggests that he actually has a PhD in something. What he actually has is a mail order degree from an obscure Christian “college&rdquo. You can read more about him here.

Anyway, Black had the temerity to point out that this guy is basically a fraud pretending to possess credentials he doesn't have. In this he is different from just about every mainstream media outlet who has ever covered Hovind. Usually they write bemused but polite articles about Hovind's dinosaur “theme” park in Florida. Once again it takes a comedy show to point out the obvious.

Then came a panel discussion with Ed Larson, William Dembski and Ellie Crystal. It was a bad idea to do a panel discussion with such limited time; even when they have one guest the interviews are too short to really get deeply into anything. And I can't imagine where they found Ellie Crystal. Not only was she some moonbat New Ager, but she couldn't express herself coherently at all. After watching the interview I haven't the faintest idea what she thinks about anything.

Larson was good. He forthrighthly defended evolution, and since he was sitting next to Dembski it was good that he was a historian (and not a scientist).

But the best moments of the interview came in Stewart's exchanges with Dembski. There were two in particular. At one point Ellie Crystal attempted to explain how she thinks about these things. What she said made no sense at all. Stewart then turned to Dembski and asked, pointedly, “Why shouldn't that be taught?” Exactly right. Crystal wasn't saying anything dumber than what the ID folks say, and if “Teach the controversy” is to be the rallying cry there is no reason not to present her views in classrooms.

I have a feeling something got left on the cutting room floor at this point, because there was an awkward transition to a new topic.

The other excellent moment was when Stewart got Dembski to admit that his religious conversion came before his interest in ID. Given the format this was a damning admission. Stewart also pointed out that his impression of the ID folks was that most of them had a religious conversion before promoting their “science.” Again, exactly right.

I'm obviously highly biased when it comes to judging Dembski, so take this for what it is worth. Leaving aside the specifics of what was actually said, I thought Dembski came off as defensive and humorless. It's hard to imagine any fence-sitting Daily Show viewer came away with a favorable impression of him.

The final installment is tonight. According to the website the guest tonight is Gwynneth Paltrow. I suspect she won't be talking much about evolution.

So, overall I've been happy with the segments. They are orders of magnitude more accurate and more informative than most of the media coverage of this issue. The guests have been a big disappointment, however. Chris Mooney on Monday night was good, but otherwise it's been all downhill. Kurt Vonnegut had nothing to say, and the panel discussion was a mess. And why didn't they manage to book an actual scientist?

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Zimmer on Animal Morality

I just came across this post at Carl Zimmer's blog discussing some further examples of disgusting (both morally and physically) mating rituals around the animal kingdom. He was replying to the same New York Times article I discussed in my previous post. He has it exactly right. If conservatives expect us to learn good moral lessons from the penguins, they need to explain why we shouldn't also learn lessons from the vastly more common examples of wretched animal conduct.

March of the Penguins

I finally got around to seeing it last night. It's very well done, despite the occasionally over anthropomorphized narrative. Highly recommended. My esteem for penguins has gone way up. Meanwhile, my opinion of leopard seals and skua gulls is way down.

Inexplicably, many conservatives seem to think the film is a useful weapon for their side in the culture wars. They think this because they are, if this New York Times article is a reliable guide, completely insane. Let's consider some excerpts:

In part, the movie's appeal to conservatives may lie in its soft-pedaling of topics like evolution and global warming. The filmmakers say they did not consciously avoid those topics - indeed, they say they are strong believers in evolutionary theory - but they add that they wanted to create a film that would reach as many people as possible.

“It's obvious that global warming has an impact on the reproduction of the penguins,” Luc Jaquet, the director, told National Geographic Online. “But much of public opinion appears insensitive to the dangers of global warming. We have to find other ways to communicate to people about it, not just lecture them.”

I didn't feel like they were soft-pedalling evolution, and I'm pretty sensitive to these things. I'm not sure where in the film it would have been appropriate to mention the subject. Likewise for global warming. If global warming is having some demonstrable effect on the mating rituals of penguins, it might have been nice to give it a mention. Otherwise, I don't think the film would have benefitted from including it.

Likewise, the only allusion to evolution in “March of the Penguins” is a line near the beginning, intoned in the English-language version by the narrator, Morgan Freeman: “For millions of years they have made their home on the darkest, driest, windiest and coldest continent on earth. And they've done so pretty much alone.”

Ugh. In yesterday's post I praised the Daily Show for managing to do a segment on evolution that did not have any serious scientific inaccuracies. Meanwhile, the Times does an article that mentions evolution tangentially, and they blow it.

The age of the Earth and the evolution of life are separate topics. Capice? Is that so complicated? The only ones who equate the two are especially dim young-Earthers, and certain New York Times reporters.

Incidentally, if references to the great age of the Earth are to be equated with evolution, then we should also mention that, actually, the film makes several comments about the age of the Earth.

But the really crazy part comes later:

To Andrew Coffin, writing in the widely circulated Christian publication World Magazine, that is a winning argument for the theory that life is too complex to have arisen through random selection.

“That any one of these eggs survives is a remarkable feat - and, some might suppose, a strong case for intelligent design,” he wrote. “It's sad that acknowledgment of a creator is absent in the examination of such strange and wonderful animals. But it's also a gap easily filled by family discussion after the film.”

Evolution can't explain the mating rituals of penguins? Evolution can't explain it?

A mindless process operating over millions of years is the only thing that can possibly explain a mating system this cruel and wasteful. What's the creationist or ID explanation, for heaven's sake? Explain to me how a just and loving God afflicts his creation with so ridiculous a mating system.

Go on! Explain it to me. Is this the reulst of sin entering the world? That's the standard creationist explanation for every other bit of nastiness in nature. Like it's really plausible that Adam and Eve sin somewhere in the Middle East, and God decides to torture penguins in Antarctica.

Are the penguins learning some great moral lesson through all of this hardship? Anthropomorphizing aside, I think the lesson is lost on them.

Or maybe they're there for us to learn from? Maybe. But then what are we supposed to learn from the vastly more frequent cases of wretched, disgusting, immoral animal behavior:

[Sarah Hrdy] studied a population of monkeys, Nahuman langurs, in northern India. Their mating system is what biologists call harem polygyny: dominant males have exclusive sexual access to a group of adult females, as long as they can keep other males away. Sooner or later, a stronger male usurps the harem and the defeated one must join the ranks of celibate outcasts. The new male shows his love for his new wives by trying to kill their unweaned infants. For each successful killing, a mother soon stops lactating and goes into estrous. The death of her infant converts her more quickly from a potential to an actual resource for the male's reproduction. This is why infanticide is adaptive for the male.

His murderous efforts do not always succeed. The females are often sisters or other close relatives and may share a genetic interest in the survival of a threatened baby. So the mother may have help in defending her offspring. Unfortunatly the male is much bigger and stronger and often does succeed. Deprived of her nursing baby, a female soon starts ovulating. She accepts the sexual advances of her baby's murderer, and he becomes the father of her next child.

Do you still think God is good?

(Emphasis in Original). (George Willimans, Plan and Purpose in Nature, pp. 159).

A fine question, and one the conservative mentioned in this article are unlikely to answer. If the penguins are supposed to be teaching me something about monogamy and sacrifice, explain what the monkeys are teaching me.

You better hope the penguins are the product of evolution, because any God directly responsible for what the penguins go through every year is a sadistic monster. The penguins themselves are very inspiring. A God who directly created them is not.

My Christian friends assure me, sometimes with annoyance, that this is a bad argument. Usually they do this in lieu of actually explaining why it is a bad argument.

Later we come to this:

Other religious conservatives have seized on the movie as a parable of steadfast faith. In Sidney, Ohio, Ben Hunt, a minister at the 153 House Churches Network, has coordinated trips to the local theater to see the film. (He describes the organization as a Christian denomination with nine churches spread over Ohio and Minnesota.)

“Some of the circumstances they experienced seemed to parallel those of Christians,” he said of the penguins. “The penguin is falling behind, is like some Christians falling behind. The path changes every year, yet they find their way, is like the Holy Spirit.”

Mr. Hunt has provided a form on the Web site that can be downloaded and taken to the film. “Please use the notebook, flashlight and pen provided,” it says, “to write down what God speaks to you as He speaks it to you.”

The only religious thought I had during this movie was that if I wasn't an atheist before, I certainly am now.

Sorry if I seem miffed about this. But cherry-picking the handful of inspiring and beautiful things in nature as the basis for drawing conclusions about God is pretty silly. Richard Dawkins, as usual, summed things up pretty well:

The total amount of suffering per year in the natural world is beyond all decent contemplation. During the minute it takes me to compose this sentence, thousands of animals are being eaten alive; others are running for their lives, whimpering with fear; others are being slowly devoured from within by rasping parasites; thousands of all kinds are dying of starvation, thirst and disease. It must be so. If there is ever a time of plenty, this very fact will automatically lead to an increase in population until the natural state of starvation and misery is restored.

(Richard Dawkins, River out of Eden, pp. 131-132)

At this blog I often defend the idea that evolution and theism are compatible. Indeed they are. I see nothing in evolution that should shake the faith of a committed Christian.

But I think I will never understand a person who can spend even a few minutes pondering the sheer awfulness of nature and conclude the world is superintended by a just and loving God. And I will definitely never understand someone who can come to that conclusion, and then have his faith shaken by the minor realization that life evolved by natural processes over millions of years.

The rest of the article is worth reading. Go have a look.

Evolution, Shmevolution, Part II

Looks like it's disagree with P. Z. Myers week here at EvolutionBlog. Regarding part two of The Daily Show's week of evolution segments, Myers thought it was better than part one, whereas I thought it was not as good. Kurt Vonnegut looked completely out of it, and he's an odd choice for a guest for an evolution show (they barely talked about evolution at all). The opening interview with a primatologist from the Bronx Zoo also fell flat, in my opinion.

But there were two excellent moments. One was where he skewered the asinine idea that the designer in ID is not necessarily God. Stewart said, “Basically, Intelligent Design is the idea that life on earth is too complex to have evolved without a guiding hand. We're not saying it's God, just someone with the basic skill set to create an entire universe.” Exactly right. So why haven't mainstream news outlets managed to make this obvious point in their coverage of this issue?

The other moment was unrelated to evolution. In discussing the hearings for potential Supreme Court chief justice John Roberts, arch right-wing Oklahoma senator Tom Coburn got all choked up about the extreme partisanship and polarization of Washington culture. Stewart wisely pointed out that Coburn is a major source of much of that polarization. (Alas, I don't have the specific quotes Stewart used, since the transcript does not seem to be available online.)

Indeed, as reported in The New Republic shortly after the election (also not available online, alas), Coburn won that race in large part because of the power of fundamentalist churches, which invariably preached to their audiences that it was God's will that they vote for Republicans. As Matt Miller describes here, Coburn described his race with Democrat Brad Carson as being a contest of good against evil, and believes the gay agenda is taking over America. He supported Alan Keyes, on of the most vicious and partisan conservatives out there, in the 2000 presidential race. For him to get choked up about partisanship now is pure phoniness.

But only Stewart bothered to point that out. The cable news chat shows invariably showed the clip of Coburn getting choked up, then shared a reflective moment about the evils of partisanship. Pointing out blatant right-wing hypocrisy is not part of their job description.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

God Bless Jon Stewart

As you surely know by now, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart is doing a week of shows about evolution.

My reaction was rather more favorable than P.Z. Myers' take. I thought a lot of the humor was very funny, especially Stewart's opening piece about the history of the controversy. I thought the finch with the corkscrew beak was funny, as was the giraffe spitting fire, and the schematic depiction of various creation myths. And the mere fact that a media organization is doing a series of segments on this subject that is unambiguously pro-evolution is definitely cause for delight.

But what I really liked ws the simple fact that Stewart and co. managed to the entire segment without uttering a single scientific howler. Why is it that The Daily Show is able to give a reasonably accurate overview of this subject when countless mainstream newspapers and magazines get even the most basic aspects of it wrong?

Monday, September 12, 2005

Dembski Baffles Me

I try very hard to take the ID folks seriously, but their actions make it clear that they are not serious people.

For example, William Dembski's blog, Uncommon Descent, is one of the first I check out every morning. When he started this blog some months ago, I figured his intention was to present a scholarly and serious public face for ID. I expected that, precisely because people like me are always accusing them of being charlatans desperate to play in the bigs despite their complete lack of talent and insight, he would attempt to show the world just how legitimate ID really was. Since a blog allows you to present your ideas without any editorial inteference or space limitations, I though he might try to respond in a measured, thoughtful way to the various criticisms of his work.

Boy was I wrong. From such promising beginnings, Dembski's blog has descended into a total joke. It seems his main goal nowadays is simply to strut and preen for his small cadre of devoted admirers. People on my side more cynical than myself would say that has always been his goal. But speaking as someone who once wrote, to my eternal shame, that Dembski should be read and taken seriously (note the end of my review of his book Intelligent Design, available here (PDF format)), I feel especially let down.

Let's consider some examples. In this post, from September 9, Dembski asks his readers to send in their favorite quotes from biologist Richard Dawkins. He provides a few examples of quotes he feels reflect especially badly on Dawkins. Here is one of them, exactly as Dembski presents it:

Even if there were no actual evidence in favor of the Darwinian theory, we should still be justified in preferring it over all rival theories.

Since anyone familiar with Dawkins' work knows it is preposterous to suggest that he thinks we should accept Darwinian theory, or any other scientific theory, for reasons other than the strength of the evidence, one suspects that this quote is out of context. Over at The Panda's Thumb, PvM provided the greusome details in this post. We will consider the details in a moment. For now let me just mention that the Dawkins quote is not simply out of context, it is actually doctored. Dembski removed a phrase from it without providing an ellipsis.

Now, among serious people interested in debating novel ideas and discussing big questions, it is considered highly unethical to distort someone else's words. It is also considered juvenile and vaguely pathetic. But Dembski, by contrast, considers it very clever:

Fast forward to my blog entry yesterday titled “What’s Your Favorite Dawkins Quote.” There I gave as my favorite Dawkins quote “Even if there were no actual evidence in favor of the Darwinian theory, we should still be justified in preferring it over all rival theories.” I stated the quote this way on purpose, leaving off a little parenthetical in that sentence that doesn’t at all change its significance. I was waiting how long it would take for kneejerk Darwinists to jump on it. See for yourself at The Panda’s Thumb: “Dembski quote mining Dawkins.”

Very revealing. Here's how Dembski sees this discussion:

DEMBSKI: Here's Richard Dawkins admitting that Darwinism should be accepted regardless of the evidence.

PANDAS THUMB: Actually the quote is both out of context and doctored. Dawkins' point was something else entirely.

DEMBSKI: Ha ha! I deliberately misrepresented the quote just so I could make fun of you when you corrected me.

Charming. Dembski continues:

Now, you may be thinking that I’m just making this all up after the fact. Let me assure you that I’m not. Unlike the evolutionary process with which they are so enamoured, kneejerk Darwinists are supremely predictable. In the future, when I do something like this, I will provide prior confirmation with a date-time stamp elsewhere on the Internet.

Indeed. When I see someone telling lies about the work of people I respect, I do what I can to set the record straight. Shows you what a close-minded, predictable dumbass I am. I'm sure we can look forward to a post in which Dembski insults PvM's mother, and then gloats over the predictable anger it provokes from the other side.

Dembski continues:

By the way, in case you’re wondering what is the point of this exercise, it is to highlight that Dawkins regards evolution as an axiom that does not require empirical confirmation (note that he has made this point in other places and not just in the above quote). What’s gratifying is to see the kneejerk Darwinists at The Panda’s Thumb falling all over themselves trying to justify Dawkins’s ludicrous claim.

After reading this I, predictably, went to my bookshelf, pulled out my copy of The Blind Watchmaker, and looked up the quote. And here I must gently chide PvM. In the post I linked to above, he does not fully expose just how distorted Dembski's use of the quote really is. Here's Dawkins:

The obvious way to decide between rival theories is to examine the evidence. Lamarckian types of theory, for instance, are traditionally rejected - and rightly so - because no good evidence for them has ever been found (not for want of energetic trying, in some cases by zealots prepared to fake evidence). In this chapter I shall take a different tack, largely because so many other books have examined the evidence and concluded in fsvor of Darwinism. Instead of examining the evidence for and against rival theories, I shall adopt a more armchair approach. My argument will be that Darwinism is the only known theory that is in principle capable of explaining certain aspects of life. If I am right it means that, even if there were no actual evidence in favour of the Darwinian theory (there is of course) we should still be justified in preferring it over rival theories. (Emphasis in original)

And later:

First, I must specify what it means to `explain' life. There are, of course, many properties of living things that we could list, and some of them might be explicable by rival theories. Many facts about the distribution of protein molecules, as we have seen, may be due to neutral genetic mutations rather than Darwinian selection. There is one particular property of living things, however, that I want to single out as explicable only by Darwinian selection. This property is the one that has been the recurring topic of this book: adaptive complexity. (Emphasis in original).

No one has ever accused Dawkins of being a bad writer, and it's hard to see how he could have made his point any more clearly. I'll leave it to my readers to decide if Dembski's description of Dawkins, that Dawkins believes Darwinism should be accepted axiomatically, is born out by this quote.

And, in case you're wondering, Dawkins has never expressed the view Dembski attributes to him here. I think I know the quotes Dembski has in mind, but none of them say what Dembski is suggesting.

Incidentally, I have written before about Dembski taking perverse joy in provoking other people to correct his errors and distortions. The gory details are available here.

Okay. So Dembski is making stuff up and other people are correcting him. What else is new? At least with this entry I had the opportunity to reacquaint myself with a portion of Dawkins' writing I had not looked at in a while.

But most of Dembski's recent posts do not even rise to this level of interest. For example, in this post he boasts that since it is his blog he does not have to allow comments if he does not want to. A rare example of Dembski saying something that is true. Of course, bloggers more serious than he allow comments in the (often forlorn) hope of sparking thought-provoking exchanges of ideas, not because they feel they have to. Dembski, apprently, has no interest in such things.

And then there's this post, in which Dembski concocts a little story (attributed to an unnamed colleague) meant to show the callousness of scientists relative to the sensitivity of religious believers. Follow the link if you want the details, but the story is about a scienitst and a rabbi travelling with their grandchildren on an airplane. The rabbi's grandchild constantly checks on him while the scientist's does not. The moral, apparently, is supposed to be that acceptance of evolution causes you to ignore your grandparents.

P. Z. Myers explored the many reasons this is stupid here. For my part, I found it interesting that when Dembski invented a story in which one character is a religious fiugre called upon to say something deep and insightful, he chose a rabbi, not a minister or priest, for that purpose.

I could go on, but I think the point is made. The interesting thing is that even as Dembski wastes every one's time with one juvenile post after another, he somehow never got around to mentioning that the new issue of Progress in Complexity, Information and Design, the ID “research” journal of which he is the general editor, is now available online. As I will discuss in a future post, it is understandable that Dembski would not want to call attention to this embarrassing journal.

So let's settle up. Dembski edits a blog in which he only allows comments from his most fawning lickspittles. He boasts that, merely by telling lies about other people's work, he can provoke angry responses from other bloggers. But he does not boast about the new issue of his professional journal, and does not direct people to the numerous insightful articles contained therein.

This is the best the ID folks have to offer?

In this review of Phillip Johnson's The Wedge of Truth, I commented that Johnson was a sad case. In his early books on this subject he at least tried to be a serious commentator and attempted to make a decent argument for his beliefs. But his later books got so silly and strident, that he revealed himself as just another dopey religious hack (as virtually all critics of evolution eventually do). Dembski, apprently, is following the same course. Stuck in the bowels of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, he no longer even aspires to be taken seriously. He is content to rule over his own demented kingdom, desperate for the praise of people the rest of us don't even bother to ignore.

If any of Dembski's supporters are reading this and feel moved to comment, I beg you to stay on the topic at hand. Do not tell me about some post at the Pandas Thumb or Pharyngula or here that you did not like. Do not sieze on Dawkins' reference to faking evidence to lecture me about Piltdown man or Haeckel's embryos. The subject at hand is the way Dembski conducts himself at his blog. In particular, please answer the following question: Do you think Dembski is clever for deliberately misrepresenting other people's words for the purpose of provoking an angry response?