Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Math in Rochester

I'll be leaving for Rochester, New York tomorrow to participate in the 19th Annual Midwest Conference on Combinatorics, Cryptography and Computing. We'll be meeting at the Rochester Institute of Technology. I'll be giving a scintillating, twenty-minute talk about the Cheeger constants of block design graphs (never mind) at 11:40 on Saturday. If I have any readers in Rochester, I'll look forward to seeing you there!

Regular blogging will resume on Monday.

Happy Anniversary to Isaac and Emily

They're my cats, and I brought them home exactly one year ago today. They're the cutest, sweetest, bestest cats ever! Someone's getting tuna fish tonight...

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

The Miers Nomination

Over at The Weekly Standard, conservative pundit William Kristol describes himself as disappointed, depressed and demoralized over the nomination of Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court.

The good folks at Red State are even more blunt. Check out comments like this:


Bush thinks he has people instincts. He doesn't. Putin?!

This is pathetic. Air out of my lungs pathetic.

And the thing is, I'm not even sure if the instinct about people we'd hope for is the one he's looking for. Roe (or any other social issue) is simply not on his front burner. I've feared this, and now I'm convinced it's true. In fact, I think he and Rove are intentionally not placing anti-Roe votes on the Court. Roe stands, both Miers and Roberts uphold it (although upholding restrictions) and it becomes clear we have a 7-2 Supreme Court in favor of Roe. At that point, I vote McCain or even Giuliani (although I don't donate) and just don't bother myself with the lost cause on the abortion issue.


Meanwhile, I heard Rush Limbaugh on the radio today protesting that Bush is showing weakness by not nominating a known conservative ot the Court. It makes it look like he wants to avoid a fight, whereas Limbaugh believes he should welcome that fight.

Ordinarily all of this would make me very happy. The trouble is that I don't see any basis for all of this conservative hand-wringing.

In fact, my fear is exactly the opposite. I suspect that Miers is Borkette. She's probably so fanatically right-wing that Bush figured a nominee who openly held Miers' views would surely be voted down, or only confirmed with great difficulty. So he had to find a stealth crazy person with no track record in order to get those views on the Court.

This is one time I hope the consevatives are correct!

Lewontin in the NYRB

The latest issue of The New York Review of Books has this lengthy article from Harvard genetecist Richard Lewontin. His subject is recent books by Michael Ruse, Peter Richerson and Robert Boyd. He writes:


The development of evolutionary biology has induced two opposite reactions, both of which threaten its legitimacy as a natural scientific explana-tion. One, based on religious convictions, rejects the science of evolution in a fit of hostility, attempting to destroy it by challenging its sufficiency as the mechanism that explains the history of life in general and of the material nature of human beings in particular. One demand of those who hold such views is that their competing theories be taught in the schools.

The other reaction, from academics in search of a universal theory of human society and history, embraces Darwinism in a fit of enthusiasm, threatening its status as a natural science by forcing its explanatory scheme to account not simply for the shape of brains but for the shape of ideas. The Evolution–Creation Struggle is concerned with the first challenge, Not By Genes Alone with the second.


Yes, but. One of those is a considerably more important threat than the other. A handful of overzealous academics does not worry me as much as a vast ocean of religious zealots who have control of much of the government.

The whole essay is worth reading, but Lewontin gets some important things wrong:


What, then, is the source of the repeated episodes of active political and social agitation against the assertions of evolutionary science? One apparent answer is that it is the expected product of fundamentalist belief, which rejects the easy compromises of liberal exegesis and insists that every word in Genesis means exactly what it says. Days are days, not eons. But there's the rub. A literal reading of Genesis tells us that it took God only three days to make the physical universe as it now exists, yet nuclear physics and astrophysics claim a very old stellar system and provide the instruments for the dating of bits and pieces of the earth and of fossils spanning hundreds of millions of years. So why aren't Kansas schools under extreme pressure to change the curriculum in physical science courses? Why should physicists be allowed to propagate, unopposed, their godless accounts of the evolution of the physical universe? Something more is at stake than a disagreement over the literal truth of biblical metaphors.


Kansas HAS made changes to its physical science curriculum because of creationist pressure. Last time around the School Board did not just eliminate evolution, but also the Big Bang, from its standards. Furthermore, publishers of geology textbooks used in the state were editing out references to the Earth's great age. I was living in Kansas while this was going on.

The only reason you don't see more agitation in this direction is that biology figures more prominently in the high school curriculum than astronomy and geology.

So Lewontin is wrong to suggest that anti-evolutionism in the heartland is any more complicated than a lot of religious zealots following their beliefs to their logical conclusion.

The following passage is worth considering:


Flowing from his view that scientific evolutionary biology can be turned into a kind of religion, Ruse is worried that the commitment to using only natural phenomena in the attempt to explain the history and variety of organisms is a "slippery slope" down which evolutionists may glide from the firm surface of hard-minded methodology, of which Ruse approves, into the slough of unreflective metaphysical naturalism. We demand that our scientific work be framed with reference only to material mechanisms that can, at least in principle, be observed in nature because any other method would lead us into a hopeless morass of uncheckable speculation that would be the end of science. But we should not, in Ruse's view, confuse that rule of conduct with a revelation of how the world really works. Maybe God is lurking out there somewhere but He doesn't leave any residue in our test tube, so we will be tempted to assume He doesn't exist.


The worry that God exists but leaves no detectable trace is reminiscent of Carl Sagan's dragon analogy. A person comes to you and says there is a dragon in his garage. You say, great, let's go see it. He says you can't see it because the dragon is invisible. You say, let's sprinkle some powder on the floor so that we will detect the dragon's footprints when it steps on the ground. He says that it's a floating dragon that never makes contact with the ground. You say, let's set up heat sensors to detct the dragon's warmth. He says it's an incorporeal dragon that gives off no heat.

At some point, surely, you're allowed to ask how an invisible, floating, incorporeal dragon is different from no dragon at all.

Likewise with God. The basic idea of trying to find in nature some divine signature is not inherently ridiculous. The fact that we do not find one is highly significant. I am, indeed, tempted to conclude that God does not exist because we have failed to discover any empricial trace of Him.

Anyway, go read the whole essay. I'll leave you with Lewontin's wise words about the intellectual vacuity of ID:


But the theory of ID is a transparent subterfuge. The problem is that if the living world is too complex to have arisen without an intelligent designer, then where did the intelligent designer come from? After all, she must have been as complex as the things she designed. If not, then we have evolution! Otherwise we must postulate an intelligent designer who designed the intelligent designer who..., back to the original one who must have been around forever. And who might that be? Like the ancient Hebrews the ID designers fear to pronounce Her name lest they be destroyed, but Her initials are clearly YWH.

Monday, October 03, 2005

The Times on Dover

As if to confirm the opinions expressed in the previous post, today's New York Times gives us this article about the ongoing trial in Dover.


The trial presents a particular challenge for the journalists from science magazines. In the courtroom hallway during a break last week, Celeste Biever, a reporter for NewScientist, was interviewing a courtroom regular, a bearded local pastor who says he considers evolution a lie.

“You want half-bird, half-fish?” she asked, drawing a dotted line on her notepad.

“Yeah, why not,” the pastor said.

Later, out of the pastor's hearing, Ms. Biever said with fascination, “He thinks evolution is a bird turning into a fish turning into a rabbit” - one straight line of common descent, instead of a tree with common roots.


And later:


“We're not just science cheerleaders, and I don't want to overlook any valid argument for intelligent design,” Ms. Biever said. “As far as I'm concerned, I haven't heard one yet.”

As for the pastor, after four days of listening to science experts dismantling the case for intelligent design, he was unimpressed.

“They're babblers,” said the pastor, the Rev. Jim Grove, who leads a 40-member independent Baptist church outside of Dover. “The more Ph.D.'s you get, it seems like the further away from God you get.”


Mr. Grove is so confused that he thinks evolution involves ridiculous chimeras like a half-bird half-fish. Then he casually dismisses the experts testifying in the trial as babblers. Tell me again about how the problem here is a handful of overzealous atheists.

Woodward on ID

The New York Times ran this op-ed, by Kenneth Woodward, in Saturday's edition. Woodward arrives in the right place; that ID is a lot of nonsense and evolution poses no threat for a serious religious believer. But mostly it's the usual condescending, creationists-are-just-responding-to-those-mean-old-atheists, silliness. Woodward writes:


For some religious fundamentalists, this may indeed be a way of making room for God in science classes. But for many parents, who are legitimately concerned about what their children are being taught, I suspect that it is a way of countering those proponents of evolution - and particularly of evolutionary biology - who go well beyond science to claim that evolution both manifests and requires a materialistic philosophy that leaves no room for God, the soul or the presence of divine grace in human life.


Woodward suspects wrong. His argument is a common one, but it is never backed up by any evidence. It is amazingly condescending. Those poor fundamentalists hear someone like Richard Dawkins defend atheism, and are so discommoded by the experience that they try to seize the reins of government to promote their religion in science classes. Makes perfect sense.

Heaven forbid we should expect people to actually learn a bit of biology and form their own conclusions about evolution's metaphysical significance.

People like Woodward make these sorts of dopey, facile arguments because the reality of the situation is far too terrible to accept. Opposition to evolution stems almost entirely from ignorance. Almost without exception the people fightng to change the science standards can not give a coherent explanation of what the theory of evolution actually says. The only thing they know about the subject is that someone told them once that evolution contradicts the Bible.

I base this conclusion on several years of attending creationist conferences, talking with the attendees at those conferences, and reading large quantities of creationist literature.

Woodward seems to acknowledge this fact later on, but he quickly lapses back into simple-mindedness:


It is unlikely that parents who want intelligent design taught on equal footing with evolution read books by Drs. Wilson, Rose or Dawkins. Chances are they are among the Americans who are more likely to believe in the Virgin Birth than in evolution. That tendency appalls some people but should surprise no one.

Most Americans, as they go about constructing lives and building families, making choices and exercising free will, do not think of themselves as gene survival machines or as random products of an impersonal process that whispers, in effect, “I am all that is.” And most Christians do accept the Virgin Birth as part of a larger religious narrative that tells them there is a God who created the world - one who cares so passionately about humankind that his only son took human form.


Translation: Most people can't be troubled to learn about the copious evidence for evolution when it's so much easier to believe in comforting fairy tales.

I'm glad Woodward sees through the sham that ID really is. I suspect, though, that if he spent more time actually interacting with hard-core creationists he would be less sanguine about finding rational explanations for their behavior.

Recent ID Talks

P. Z. Myers provides a revealing account of a talk by Michael Behe in Minneapolis:


His game begins with Mt. Rushmore. Look at Mt. Rushmore; it's complicated and contains specific, recognizable forms; therefore it is designed. This is the key first step in his rhetoric, getting the audience to agree that because something looks designed, therefore it was designed. Of course, he's glossing over the fact that we also know that Gutzon Borglum hit that mountain with dynamite and jackhammers, and that the mountain is shaped in specific ways that other mountains in our experience are not, and that it has been given a detailed resemblance to specific organic forms with which we are familiar…we have evidence that it was designed and built by an intelligent agent. That wouldn't serve his purpose, though, so he plays the game of claiming we know it is designed just by looking at it.

Then he throws out a picture of a bacterial flagellum, and claims that because it looks complicated and machine-like, it is therefore designed. One big problem: knowing that one complicated thing (Mt. Rushmore) is designed does not mean that every complicated thing is designed. He has not established the premise of his argument.

He went on and on with the misleading comparisons, talking of the cell as filled with highways and trucks and factories and all kinds of machines, and quoting Dawkins and Alberts as using the word “machines”. To Behe, machines must be the product of purposeful design, and therefore every time Richard Dawkins uses the word “machine”, he is validating Behe. This is dishonest nonsense, of course—he is loading his use of the word “machine” with a bunch of rhetorical baggage that Dawkins and Alberts are not. His audience of religious fans, though, share that baggage so it sails through without a complaint.


Meanwhile, Tara Smith discusses a recent talk by Privileged Planet author Guillermo Gonzalez:


At this point, he went into Dembski’s Design Inference, and he made a big deal out of this being a “peer-reviewed” book. He then talked about specified complexity. He said that IC is a special case of SC—an indicator of activity of an intelligent agent, and used SETI (man, does he love that SETI example), archaeology, and forensics as examples. He then trotted out the Mt. Rushmore example, and said that complexity plus specificity always are a sign of intelligence.

Next he touched on the explanatory filter. Again, used the example of Contact and SETI (poor Sagan must be rolling in his grave). He asks first, do we have contingency? If yes, do we have complexity? If no, it’s chance. If yes, go on to ask—do we have specificity? If no, it’s again chance; if yes, then we can infer design. (I was looking around at this point; the crowd reaction was hilarious. Some literal jaw-drops, lots of laughing, and generally a group of people that weren’t swayed by the BS). The reaction was even better when he half-described Dembski’s calculations, and threw out his 10 to the 150th-power figure. I swear I heard guffaws.


Michael Behe's Darwin's Black Box was one of the first books I read when I got interested in this subject. At the time I read it I knew very little about evolution, or biochemistry. I was a fourth-year graduate student in mathematics.

It quickly became clear that Behe had a single argument: If a biochemical system required numerous, well-matched parts to function, then it could not have evolved via a gradual step-by-step process. That, in its entirety, was the content of his book. The rest was simply a lot of irrelevant biochemical minutiae.

That argument is transparently wrong. It's wrong as a matter of logic, for the simple reason that the fact that a modern system needs all of its parts does not imply that all of those parts have always been necessary. It wasn't difficult for me to hypothesize various scenarios (based on elimination of redundancy, for example) for how Behe's irreducible complexity could evolve gradually. It was gratifying later to read the responses of actual biochemists, and find that my scenarios were biologically plausible.

Meanwhile, Dembski's arguments about specified complexity are likewise ridiculous. If you know the basics of probability theory and biology, you realize immediately that the sorts of calculations Dembski is discussing can not be carried out in nontrivial, real life situations.

So here we have two of ID's biggest stars parroting brain-dead arguments to lay audiences. The arguments Gonzalez and Behe are making are wrong as a matter of fact, not opinion.

Myers notes:


I can't say that it was an entirely wasted evening, though. I learned that Intelligent Design creationism is still dead in the water, and that one of the few legitimately credentialed scientists working within the movement is still an empty babbler without a whisper of scientific support; the most amusing part of the talk was his opening line, when he gave a disclaimer that the provost of his university wanted him to say, that his views do not represent Lehigh University.


I'm not surprised Lehigh is embarrassed by Behe's conduct. I'm sure Iowa State feels the same about Gonzalez. ID folks like to portray themselves as martyrs; unwelcome in university science departments because of their religious views. Actually, it is only rank stupidity that science departments find distasteful.