Friday, April 07, 2006

Dunford on Pianka

Mike Dunford has writeen this excellent post pointing out the manifest distortions in the coverage of the Pianka situation provided by the Texas newspaper The Seguin Gazette-Enterprise. Dunford's conclusion:


The article in the Seguin Gazette-Enterprise contains numerous misquotes and out of context quotes. All of them err in the same direction - making Pianka look bad. It is almost impossible to believe that this is the result of anything other than deliberate effort on the part of the paper.


Now follow the link and read all the gory details.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Another Transitional Form Found. Yawn.

Meanwhile, science marches on. Paleontologists have found a clear transitional form linking ancient fish to land-dwelling animals. The New York Times provides this decent run-down of the basic facts of the situation.

P. Z. Myers has more details on the subject, and he includes links to places where you can learn still more. I particularly liked this quote, taken from a review article about the finds published in Nature:


First, it demonstrates the predictive capacity of palaeontology. The Nunavut field project had the express aim of finding an intermediate between Panderichthys and tetrapods, by searching in sediments from the most probable environment (rivers) and time (early Late Devonian). Second, Tiktaalik adds enormously to our understanding of the fish-tetrapod transition because of its position on the tree and the combination of characters it displays.


This fossil is an impressive find and certainly helps to fill in some gaps in our knowledge of the fish to land-dwelling animal transition. But the mere fact that it is unambigously transitional really shouldn't be such big news. After all, there are droves of such fossils already known.

The Real Problem

Since I'm in high dudgeon today, let me also comment on another annoying tidbit.

During a brief car ride this evening, I heard about two minutes of The Michael Reagan Show on the radio. Reagan had the night off and there was a guest host in his place.

Apparently some time before I turned on the radio the subject of evolution arose. A caller identifying himself as a scientist called up to object to what had been said previously. Since Reagan, and presumably any guest host sitting in for him, is a typical member of the brain-dead radio right, I think I can guess what had been said previously.

To my suprise the caller began by saying something like, “Claiming that evolution is just a theory misses the point,” and started to go into a pretty good explanation of theories and models and how science works. Along the way he remarked that everything in science is a theory.

The host took this as an opportunity. “That's not true!” he thundered. “For example, there's the second law of thermodynamics! That's a law, not a theory! One's a law and one's a thoery!! Why would you say that everything in science is a theory when some things are described as laws!!!”

Considering the slow, patient, and sadly ineffective way in which the caller was presenting his views, I gather that he probably was very knowledgeable indeed about science. But it didn't matter. Every time he got three words out the host cut him off to reiterate his blather about the differences between laws and theories.

The point? The next time someone tells you that insensitive, overtly atheistic remarks from Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett are a major source of the problem for evolutionists, I encourage you to laugh in their face. Viewing things that way gives way too much credit to the anti-evolution side. It implies far too much thoughtful consideration and sober reflection.

The real problem is that if you did a poll in which you asked people whether discussing the second law of thermodynamics versus the theory of evolution indicates that the former is on solid evidential ground whereas the latter is not, I think you would have upwards of 70% of the people answering yes. And that idea is so jaw-droppingly pig-ignorant that it pretty much defies response. How is it that so many people can reach adulthood holding such delusional views about science?

Is hostility towards evolution caused by a few insensitive remarks by people like Dawkins and Dennett? Or is it caused by having a large segment of the population that doesn't know anything about science? You make the call.

The Governor's Office on Pianka

The Seguin Gazette-Enterprise has also posted this article on the Pianka situation. Among other interesting nuggets, it contains the following reaction from Kathy Walt, press secretary for Texas Governor Rick Perry:


The very same day TAS declared its stance, Kathy Walt, press secretary for Gov. Rick Perry, expressed disdain over what Pianka calls his “doomsday talk.” Walt called the scientist’s viewpoints “abhorrent” and likened them to Hitler’s “hate-filled Third Reich.”


Golly! Walt must really have racked her brains coming up with that comparison.

I also found this interesting:


“He praised diseases such as Ebola for being efficient killers, and he showed a slide of rows of skulls to drive home his point,” Mims wrote in one of three petition letters to TAS. “I recall that one skull had flashing red eyes and that [Pianka] expressed his views about mass death and disease in good humor.”


That's pathetic. Apparently if you are discussing Ebola it's very important constantly to furrow your brow and express your disdain for the virus. If Mims is in the audience, be careful to add, “Bad Ebola! Bad, bad Ebola!” every few sentences.

Pianka Transcript

The Seguin Gazette-Enterprise, which I gather is a newspaper in Texas, has posted this transcript of a talk given by Dr. Pianka at St. Edwards University in Texas. It is not the talk given to the Texas Academy of Sciences, which is the one that is drawing all the attention. But it covers the same material and one suspects it is essentially the same talk.

The whole thing is a bit long, but it is worth reading in its entirety. I say that both because most of what he says is pretty interesting, and also because it confirms in every particular what I said yesterday. Folks, have no illusions about what is going on here. The reaction to Dr. Pianka's talk is standard issue phony outrage. It's what the right-wing fanatics and the ignorance peddlers always do. They make their living being in a perpetual state of righteous rage. The substance of what Pianka said holds no interest for them. Nearly all of the talk presented here is given over to a listing of basic facts about the ecological damage humanity has been causing over the past few decades. You have to look pretty hard to find anything that is remotely contrvoersial.

But facts and calm argumentation mean nothing to the zombies who are coming after Dr. Pianka. They see only another opportunity to promote their favorite sterotype; that academe is a hotbed of godless monsters set on indoctrinating your kids with a lot of hateful nonsense. They operate unencumbered by any sense of decency, integrity or conscience.

Which is not to say I agree with everything Dr. Pianka is saying. There were several places where I would have liked to have asked him precisely which creature comfort he'd be willing to give up to mitigate all the environmental damage we are causing. But the basic facts are now completely obvious. Absolutely nothing Dr. Pianka is saying deserves the condemnation that it is getting. Anyone who continues to parrot the insanity about Pianka calling for the extermination of most of the planet does so in complete disregard for the truth.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

The Pianka Affair.

On March 31, young-Earth creationist Forrest Mims posted this account of a talk given by ecologist Eric Pianka before the Texas Academy of Sciences. According to Mims:


But there was a gravely disturbing side to that otherwise scientifically significant meeting, for I watched in amazement as a few hundred members of the Texas Academy of Science rose to their feet and gave a standing ovation to a speech that enthusiastically advocated the elimination of 90 percent of Earth's population by airborne Ebola. The speech was given by Dr. Eric R. Pianka (Fig. 1), the University of Texas evolutionary ecologist and lizard expert who the Academy named the 2006 Distinguished Texas Scientist.


Mims' account can be dismissed out of hand. There is no way a prominent scientist would call for mass murder by Ebola (both because no one would actually wish to see such a thing, and because anyone who did wouldn't be dumb enough to say it publicly). And if someone did advocate such a course, he would not receive a standing ovation for it from an important scientific group.

In the days following Pianka's comments it became clear that what he actually believes is that it is inevitable that overpopulation and overexploitation of the Earth's resources will lead to a catastrophic event for humanity, probably via a major outbreak of some disease. For example, he spells out his views very clearly in this brief essay. Also enlightening is this short article posted at the site of an NBC affiliate in Austin. It is also clear that he occasionally expresses himself a bit inartfully, but that there is no doubt about what he believes.

If you think that's the end of it, then you haven't fully appreciated just how thoroughly rotten many ID proponents are. William Dembski, for example, has done a slew of posts at his blog in which he slavishly accepts Mims' account in complete defiance of all evidence to the contrary. In this post, for instance, he boasts of calling the Department of Homeland Security to invesitgate Pianka. One suspects that Dembski doesn't believe for a second that Pianka is any threat to anyone. But in his sick little world such considerations are irrelevant.

According to this article from the Austin American-Statesman, Pianka is being interviewed by the FBI. It is unclear whether Dembski's antics had anything to with that. The article does contain this interesting nugget, however:


[Pianka] is particularly troubled by the recent explosion in the human population. He says we now take up about 50 percent of all livable space on Earth and that people should have no more than two children. Humans, and the way they've multiplied, are “no better than bacteria,” he says.

Such talk makes Forrest Mims' skin crawl.

Mims, an author and amateur scientist who heard Pianka speak in early March before the Texas Academy of Science, said Pianka's remarks were degrading and that he was deeply disturbed by Pianka's comments comparing different diseases and their potential to decimate the human race. He's one of dozens of bloggers who have expressed displeasure with Pianka's point of view.

A Gazette-Enterprise reporter who heard Pianka speak Friday on the same topic quoted him saying disease “will control the scourge of humanity. We're looking forward to a huge collapse.”

“It was 'Twilight Zone' material. It was like sitting in a science-fiction movie,” Mims said Tuesday, adding that he is worried young doctors and scientists with access to deadly diseases might take literally what he claims is a call by Pianka to control population growth through the spread of disease. “The big concern is this professor is instilling this in the minds of students.”


Let's take the comments of that unnamed reporter first. Even the little out-of-context snippets presented here seem perefectly clear. The scourge of humanity refers to the incredible overexploitation of the Earth's resources by short-sighted people. And Pianka is not looking forward to a huge collapse in the same way that my students are looking forward to summer vacation. Rather, he is saying that such collapse is inevitable unless we change our ways.

Don't believe any blogger or commenter who claims to interpret those phrases to mean that Pianka hates human beings and longs to see them die horrible deaths. Everyone understands that Pianka does not believe that.

As for Mims, he's rather given himself away here. Pianka speaks bluntly about subjects that make him squeamish and uncomfortable. So Mims writes a dishonest hatchet job about Pianka's talk, and spins ridiculous scenarios about young medical students moved to mass murder by Pianka's ideas. Right. And Pianka's the crazy one?

Meanwhile, in the comments to this post by P.Z. Myers, we find this:


I took Evolutionary Ecology from Dr. Pianka a few years ago. He'd frequently get sidetracked onto:

  1. Cool Australian lizards.
  2. His buffalo.
  3. How much he disliked his neighbors who kept killing rattlesnakes.
  4. How some horrible disease is going to wipe out huge chunks of the population any year now, and how pleased he will be when that happens.

So, yep, sounds like Dr. Pianka to me. The quotes in the article all sound pretty familiar.


Similar comments have been posted elsewhere.

Does point number four contradict what I have said previously? Of course not. You see, we simply start from the premise that Pianka is sane and reason to the conclusion that he will not be happy when civilization as we know it collapses for lack of people to keep it going.

So why would he make statements that could be interpreted otherwise? It has been suggested elsewhere that Pianka was joking, but I don't think that's really the best way of putting it. I suspect that in context Pianka was expressing his frustration at the dominant political culture in this country. The tone with which he made these statements is lost when you see them printed on the page. I'm willing to bet that no one who actually heard him make such a remark really pictured him happily eating popcorn on his front porch while his neighbors were dropping dead around him because of some dread disease.

We live in a society in which expressing the perfectly sensible opinions that we are havresting the Earth's resources at an alarming rate, and that if we don't control our numbers nature will find a way of doing it for us, immediately gets you branded as an environmentalist wacko or a left-wing extremist. You are called anti-capitalist, and probably anti-American. If in addition you happen to be a college professor while making those points, you will be accused of indoctrinating impressionable students (who apparently should be taught simply that unchecked, voracious consumption is a marvelous thing). You will be used as an example of the insanity of modern academe.

I'd bet real money that on those occasions where Pianka appeared happy about the looming downfall of humanity he was merely expressing his frustration at the unwillingness of people to think about the unsustainability of our way of life. What pleasure he was expressing was at the thought of arrogant, short-sighted people getting their comeuppance for not heeding his warnings.

Which leaves only one question. Is he right? Is humanity headed for a major population “correction”? Will it come in the form of a plague?

I don't know. But it looks to me like in much of the world famine, tsunamis, violent weather, genocide and war are already doing their part to control the world population. We may not need a virus to force us to change our ways.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

The Monty Hall Problem, Part Two

I'm afraid I'm very pressed for time today, so only brief blogging.

The answer to Variation One of the Monty Hall Problem, given at the end of yesterday's post, is that it now makes no difference whether or not you switch. Really.

The answer to Variation Two is that your best strategy is to stick with your initial choice until there are only two doors remaining. No other strategy will give you as high a probability of winning.

I'll go into some of the mathematical aspects of these problems in later blog entries, though some of my commenters to the previous post have already done an excellent job of it (note particularly Micahel Ralston's excellent comment explaining the difference between the situations where Monty Hall does, or does not know where the car is.)

Richard Wein points out that the Times version of the problem, quoted in yesterday's entry, is rather vague, since it is not stated explicitly whether Monty Hall knows where the car is. He's right about this, though I think it's stronlgy implied in the Times version that Monty Hall does know where the car is and therefore always reveals a goat.

If this is the point Somerby had in mind in saying that in the Times version it makes no difference whether or not you switch, then I will be very impressed. I don't believe that to be the case, however. Somerby's reply was so snide and harsh towards the Times reviewer that I think he was treating it as obvious that after Monty Hall opens one of the doors there is a 50-50 chance of winning. I don't think he was making subtle points about what Monty Hall does and does not know.

As of this writing Somerby has not revisited this problem.

Anyway, there's lots more to say about this problem, and I'll try to get around to it in the near future. Let me thank all the commenters to the previous post for their thought-provoking replies.

In the meantime, you can have a look at Wikipedia's entry on this subject. It contains several other variations in addition to the ones I mentioned.

Monday, April 03, 2006

The Monty Hall Problem

The Monty Hall problem goes like this: You are presented with three identical doors. Behind one of them is a car and behind the other two are goats. You want the car. Monty Hall tells you to choose one of the doors. Regardless of which door you choose, at least one of the two remaining doors will have a goat behind it. Monty Hall, who knows where the car is, then opens one of the doors that has a goat behind it. He then gives you the option of either sticking with the first door you chose, or switching your choice to the other unopened door.

Question: What should you do? Should you stay where you are? Swtich? Does it make a difference?

This problem is a staple of courses in elementary probability theory. Virtually everyone, upon hearing this problem for the first time, reasons as follows: After Monty Hall opens one of the doors, there are only two doors remaining. Therefore, regardless of which door you choose you have a 50-50 chance of being right. So it doesn't matter whether you stay where you are or switch to the other door.

This argument is clear, convincing and wrong.

I suspect that every mathematician who has ever presented this problem to a lay person has had the following experience: Mathematician explains problem. Lay person reasons as above. Mathematician explains that, actually, you double your chances of winning by switching doors (more on this in a moment). Lay person gets annoyed, agitated and belligerent. Lectures mathematician on the subtleties of the problem. Repeats, ad nauseum, that after Monty Hall opens one door there are only two, equally likely, doors left!.

I was reminded of this when I came across this blog entry, from The Daily Howler, posted on March 31. The blogger, Bob Somerby, was commenting on this review of a new book about probability theory intended for nonmathematicians. The reviewer wrote:


Before scoffing, chew on the now famous Monty Hall problem, named after the host of “Let's Make a Deal.” A contestant knows that concealed behind three doors there are two goats and one new car. The contestant chooses Door No. 1. The beaming host opens Door No. 3 to reveal a goat, and then asks the contestant if he would like to change his choice to Door No. 2. Two doors add up to a 50-50 proposition, obviously. So why bother? Because the odds have actually shifted. The chances are now two out of three that changing to Door No. 2 will obtain the car. (Emphasis Added by Somerby)


Somerby replies:


Say what? We don’t know what the Kaplans wrote to provoke that highlighted sentence. But for the record: If the contestant changes to Door No. 2, he’ll obtain the car half the time—and “half the time” is not “two out of three.”


Ugh. That's totally wrong, I'm afraid.

The following day Somerby revisited the topic. Apparently some e-mailers informed Somerby that he was mistaken. Sadly, Somerby decided to dig in deeper:


Many e-mailers wrote to insist that there is a counterintuitive “Monty Hall problem” of the type we discussed yesterday (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/31/06). We haven’t had time to review this in detail, but:

We didn’t dispute that there’s some such effect—an effect which the Kaplans describe in their book. What we said is this: Whatever that counterintuitive “Hall effect” might be, the Times review doesn’t seem to describe it. We’ll persist in our statement about the situation as described in the Times review: In that situation, it just isn’t true that the contestant would gain an advantage from switching his guess. We’ll grudgingly try to sort through the matter. But what a bad time for this storm to reach land—on a weekend when tyrannical guvmint allows us just 47 hours.


Oh my. The description of the problem given in the Times may not be a model of clarity, but it is clear enough to make the point. Somerby is wrong and the reviewer is right.

I don't know about any counterintuitive “Hall effect”, but the mathematics of the situation are not especially complicated. When the contestant makes his initial choice he has a probability of 1/3 of being right. In other words, he will get it right 1/3 of the time and get it wrong 2/3 of the time. Nothing Monty Hall did in opening one of the doors changes that simple fact. By sticking with your initial choice you will be wrong 2/3 of the time. By switching, you will win 2/3 of the time.

Or think of it this way: Your initial choice is correct 1/3 of the time. Does it really make sense to say that when Monty Hall opens one of the remaining two doors your chances of having made the correct choice magically jump to 1/2?

Or try it this way: Suppose you choose door number one, and Monty Hall opens door number two. The choice Monty Hall then gives you is not really Door Number One vs. Door Number Three. Really the choice is Door Number One vs. Not Door Number One. Since door number one is only correct 1/3 of the time, surely it makes sense to swtich.

Still not convinced? Okay. Suppose you had 100 doors. The doors conceal one car and 99 goats. You choose door number one. Monty Hall then opens 98 goat-bearing doors. Are you seriously claiming that in this situation it makes no difference whether you switch or not? If you are not seriously claiming that, then explain to me how this situation differs from the original version. (In my experience, this way of putting it usually gets people to realize that things are not as simple as they originally thought. One time, though, I had a student in my office who was absolutely convinced that it made no difference whether or not you switched. No matter how I tried to explain it he woudn't give in. So I whipped out this example and smiled. Without missing a step he informed that even in this case it would make no difference whether you switched. I stopped smiling.)

Want more? Try this computer simulation. Do it many times and keep track of your statistics.

Think the computer simulation is rigged? Fine. Get out a pad and a pencil. Make a list of every possible scenario. (For example: Car behind door number one, you choose door number one, Monty Hall opens door number two.) It's a little tedious, but there aren't that many possibilities. Then put a little mark next to all the scenarios in which you will win by switching. I think you will find that by switching you will win 2/3 of the time.

Somerby's a smart guy, and I suspect he will eventually come to realize that he has made a mistake here. I've been a big fan of his blog, which is mostly devoted to exposing the blatant, jaw-dropping insanity that spews forth from our nation's press corps and political pundits, for a while now. But lately he's been annoying me a bit by hammering various liberal pundits for what strike me as pretty minor sins. So consider this brief essay a small measure of payback.

Let me close with two amusing variations on the Monty Hall problem.

Variation One: Monty Hall does not know which of the three doors contains the car. You choose one of the doors. Then Monty Hall chooses one of the remaining doors and opens it. It contains a goat. He then gives you the option of sticking with your original door or switching. What should you do?

Variation Two: This time there are five doors, concealing one car and four goats. You choose one of the doors. Monty Hall, who knows where the car is, opens one of the remaining goat-bearing doors. He then gives you the option of switching. You make your choice, after which Monty Hall again opens a goat-bearing door. Again you have the option of switching. This process continues until there are only two doors remaining. What is your best strategy?

Answers in a subsequent blog entry.