Flaming Telephone

(Note to people reading this in a future when they’ve grown up never using a telephone for voice communication with another human: we used to have a game where a message would be distorted by serial whispering, and we found this amusing.)

So apparently Thomas Nagel, who’s an honest-to-Cthulhu serious philosopher, published a book last year called Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False“.

Here’s what Brian Leiter and Michael Weisber wrote in their review in the Nation, on Oct. 3:

Nagel now enters the fray with a far-reaching broadside against Darwin and materialism worthy of the true-believing Plantinga (whom Nagel cites favorably). We suspect that philosophers—even philosophers sympathetic to some of Nagel’s concerns—will be disappointed by the actual quality of the argument.

Here’s how Steven Pinker linked to Leiter and Weisber’s review, on Oct. 16:

Here’s how the New Republic reported Pinker’s tweet on Mar. 8 (five months after Pinker tweeted):

[…] Steven Pinker took to Twitter and haughtily ruled that it was “the shoddy reasoning of a once-great thinker.” Fuck him, he explained.

And here’s how Barry Arrington at Uncommon Descent links to the New Republic, today:

The New Republic reports that Pinker has taken to cyberspace to stir up the Darwinist mob against Nagel. Every whiff of heresy against the true faith must be ruthlessly stamped out. Torquemada had his Auto-da-fé. Pinker has his Twitter account.

With journamalism of this caliber, I wouldn’t be surprised if UD responded to this post by saying that I set babies on fire. After eating them.

But remember: it’s the atheists and Darwiniacs who are “shrill” and “strident”.

What’s Three Orders of Magnitude Among Friends?

(Alternate title: “Numbers Mean Things”.)

The increasingly-irrelevant Uncommon Descent blag had a post today, commenting on an article in Science News.

Right now, UD’s post is entitled “Timing of human use of fire pushed back by 300,000 years”, but when it showed up in my RSS reader, it was “Timing of human use of fire pushed back by 300 million years“. This mistake survives in the post’s URL:
http://www.uncommondescent.com/human-evolution/timing-of-human-use-of-fire-pushed-back-by-300-million-years/

From skimming the Science News article, it looks as though a new study found evidence of fire being used one million years ago, pushing back the earliest-known use of fire by 300,000 years. So presumably the previous record-holder was 700,000 years ago.

The author at Uncommon Descent reported the 300,000-year difference as “300 million years”. But hey, what’s a factor of 1000 between friends?

To illustrate, imagine a student in school in 2012, writing a report about, say, e-commerce. At first, she dates the origin of e-commerce to 1994, when Amazon.com was founded. But upon further investigation, she finds an example of a company selling stuff on the Internet in 1987 and revises her report to say that e-commerce is 25 years old, not 18. That’s about the magnitude of what the scientists found.

Now, along comes UD and reports this as “Origin of e-commerce pushed back to 22,000 BC.” That’s the size of their mistake.

It’s easy to make fun of primitive people whose counting system goes “one, two, three, many”. But the truth is, we all do this to some extent. Imagine a newspaper headline that says, “Federal budget increases by $600 billion, including $300 million increase in NASA funding.” Did you think, “holy cow! NASA got half of that extra money!”? If so, I’m talking to you: you’re not counting “one, two, three, many”, but you are counting “ten, hundred, thousand, illion”.

At any rate, I still question the numeracy of whoever wrote that UD headline. If you’re going to spell out “million” in letters, it should trigger a reality-check mechanism in your brain that makes you ask, “Wait a sec. 300 million years ago. That’s the age of dinosaurs or earlier.”

Stop Calling Neocreationists Creationists, Dammit!

Here’s the blurb attached to the latest episode of the Intelligent Design the Future podcast:

On this episode of ID the Future, Casey Luskin exposes how evidence given for macroevolution in The Language of Science and Faith is too weak to hold any weight. In their book, Francis Collins and Karl Giberson make the all-too-common claim that macroevolution is merely microevolution over a prolonged period of time. Are the proposed mechanisms really as simple as they sound? Luskin discusses the insufficiency of Collins and Gibersons’ argument in Part 5 of his continued review of The Language of Science and Faith.

Gosh, it’s nice to know that ID is not creationism, nosirree! It’s a completely different thing altogether, you betcha!

But wait, what’s this? Huh. It turns out that “Microevolution is true but not macroevolution” is on Answers in Genesis’s list of arguments that creationists shouldn’t use.

Okay, maybe there’s a difference between ID and young-earth creationism after all, if Luskin is still pushing arguments that even AIG has disavowed.

But ID Isn’t Creationism, Nosirree!

IDists’ favorite pastime, apart from slagging evolution, appears to be distancing themselves from young-earth creationists, even though the differences are legion:

Age of the Earth:

YECs: 6,000-10,000 years old.

IDs: No comment.

Identity of the designer:

YECs: Jehovah, god of the Bible.

IDs: No comment.

Scientific merit of ideas:

YECs: Evolution is just as much grounded in faith as the belief in a magic man in the sky, so the two are equally valid.

IDs: ID is just as scientific as evolution, if not more so. Is too!

Does evolution occur?:

YECs: Only to a limited extent.

IDs: Only to a limited extent.

Common descent?:

YECs: Only to a limited extent. But there’s no way humans can be related to any other species.

IDs: No comment, though humans almost certainly aren’t related to any other species.

Resolving difficulties: how do you explain X?:

YECs: Evolution doesn’t explain X!

IDs: Evolution doesn’t explain X!


See? The two are worlds apart! There’s no way anyone could see any similarity between the two, unless maybe they had a few pounds of pattern-matching circuitry between their ears.

So anyway, a few days ago, the ID the Future podcast promoted a new edumacational web site, TrueU.

Which seems like the right time to bring up Dr. Sidethink’s corollary to Murphy’s Law:

Anything Labeled “Truth” contains more bullshit than stuff labeled “Bullshit.”

At any rate, the reason IDtF was promoting TrueU is that Stephen Meyer is one of the authors, in addition to being the director of the Disco ‘Tute’s Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture, ID’s main faith tank.

If you poke around TrueU, you’ll see that it’s mainly concerned with kids heading off to college and losing their faith (and selling DVDs in the process).

Oh, did I mention that it’s also a project of Focus on the Patriarchy, an explicitly-Christian, right-wing, homophobic organization?

Yeah, this is the sort of thing that makes it really hard not to crack up when IDiots claim not to be creationists, so I won’t even try. It’s like they’re saying “Sure, he’s fucking me in the ass, but he’s standing on the floor, so technically we’re not in bed with each other.”

Just Because We Can’t Define It Doesn’t Mean It’s Not Science

You may want to save this post at Uncommon Descent, in case it disappears down the memory hole.

If you’ve been following Intelligent Design, you’ve probably run across William Dembski’s notion of Complex Specified Information, or CSI. Basically, the argument is that if a system has CSI above a certain level, then it was intentionally designed (just as “Wherefore art thou Romeo” exhibits design, while “Mp YuMsAAVVa UU MbMZlPVJryn Viw MfHyNA FHh” doesn’t). Living beings (or their genomes) have sufficiently-high CSI, and were therefore designed. QED.

So the question from day one has been, “so how exactly does one calculate CSI and get an actual number?” From what I’ve seen, the standard answer is “go read Dembski’s book”. None of my local libraries have Dembski’s book, but from the reviews I’ve read, I gather that for all his talk about CSI, he never gets around to sitting down and describing how to calculate it.

And now for some reason, the people at Chez Dembski have invited someone going by the name of MathGrrl (whom I guess to be a frequent commenter; I stopped reading the comments there a long time ago, so I don’t know) to write a guest post. And not only that, but one in which she basically asks, “so anyway, how does one calculate CSI?”.

The first fifty comments consist mostly of “Yeah, well, evolution doesn’t explain it!” and handwaving, followed by a bunch of comments from MathGrrl to individual commmenters, all “Yes, but that doesn’t help me calculate CSI.”

Which is odd: you’d think that the first dozen or so comments would be links to FAQs, and maybe some Mathematica code to do the calculation. But no. And it’s not because they’re too busy to answer MathGrrl’s question, since a lot of them go on at length about how she’s not asking the right questions, or not using CSI correctly, or maybe some other measure of complexity would be better suited. But I’m not seeing a whole lot of anything that looks like math.

The thread looks, to me, like a gaggle of astrologers arguing about the proper way to calculate a horoscope.

So once again, getting information out of creationists is like pulling teeth.

Update, Mar. 25, 2011: The 200-comment mark has been reached, and no definition in sight. In fact, comment #201, by PaV, says:

Dear MathGrrl:

To provide a “rigorous definition” of CSI in the case of any of those programs would require analyzing the programs in depth so as to develop a “chance hypothesis”. This would require hours and hours of study, thought, and analysis.

You come here and just simply “ask” that someone do this. Why? You do it.

In other words, “Math is hard! Develop our theory for us!”

(Update, Aug. 4: Fixed typo.)

Information vs. Other Stuff

One common creationist objection to evolution is “where did the information come from?“.

There are many responses to this. But one thing that often gets lost in the noise is: it doesn’t matter.

What matters is, how do new organs appear? How do new body parts, behaviors, genes, chromosomes appear? As long as that happens, it matters not one whit whether “information” goes up, down, or sideways. In fact, if you define “information” as “the entropy of the universe, with a minus sign in front”, it’s easy to demonstrate that evolution requires a decrease in “information”.

The problem is that it’s fairly easy to show with a few examples that “new” organs, aren’t actually new, but really just variations on a theme. Think of bat wings and human hands, for instance. There are also many known types of mutation, including gene duplication, that can plausibly lead to the sorts of variation we see.

These examples are simple and clear enough that lay people can understand them. So creationists focus on “information” and play the same game as with “kind”, “God”, and “designer”: use a word that everyone thinks they understand, at least somewhat, rely on handwaving, intuitive arguments to make their case, and stubbornly refuse to provide a formal, testable underpinning for this intuition.

There’s a big difference between understanding a thing, and merely knowing the name for it. The “where does information come from?” argument plays on the fact that you can have a name for an ill-defined concept. So my advice is to treat “information” the same way as “quantum charm” or “GDP” or “melanoma”: if you don’t have a good idea of what the term means, ask your interlocutor to clarify until you’re sure you’re talking about the same thing.

And if it turns out that under some definition, an increase in “information” is impossible, well, who cares, as long as it doesn’t prevent the evolution of limbs and organs?

ID and the 2LoT

I keep hearing from cdesign proponentsists that ID is not creationism. That ID is totally a scientific theory with predictions and everything that they’d love to show except the dog ate their lab notes the mean old bourgeois scientific establishment is suppressing the truth.

And then Bill Dembski posts this:

The 2nd Law of Thermodynamics has never been a friend of materialistic evolution. Granville Sewell’s arguments concerning it at the following two links are worth pondering:

Link 1: from the book IN THE BEGINNING

Link 2: video presentation “A Mathematician’s View of Evolution”

You can read the preface (PDF) of the Disco Tute’s latest emesis, in which Granville Sewell writes:

The origin and development of life seem to violate the second law of thermodynamics in a clear and spectacular way; however, such arguments are routinely dismissed by saying that the second law does not apply to open systems, such as the Earth. The author counters this idea with the tautology that “if an increase in order is extremely improbable when a system is closed, it is still extremely improbable when the system is open, unless something is entering which makes it not extremely improbable.”

Sewell either doesn’t understand the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics, or he’s deliberately lying.

Perhaps the most layman-friendly version of the 2LoT is

Heat generally cannot flow spontaneously from a material at lower temperature to a material at higher temperature.

Right now, I’m sipping a drink with ice cubes in it. How did those ice cubes form? I started out with water at room temperature (say, about 20°C). My freezer then “sucked” the heat out of the water, bringing it to 15°C, then 10°C, then finally 0°C when it froze. And where did that heat go? Into the room.

You can test this for yourself: go stand by the back of a fridge, or an air conditioner, and you’ll feel that the air coming out is slightly warmer than the ambient air.

In other words, what my freezer does is move heat from a material at lower temperature (the water) to a material at higher temperature (the air in the room).

But note that the 2LoT says “spontaneously”. That’s a key word. The only reason my freezer works is that it’s getting electrical energy from the wall socket. If you put water into a freezer that hasn’t been plugged in, it’s never going to spontaneously freeze, any more than water will spontaneously go uphill.

But it’s possible to pull heat out of a colder object and into a warmer one using a freezer, just as it’s possible to move water uphill using a pump. But both of these come at a cost: you have to keep adding energy into the system. If you pyt a small amount of energy into your pump, you can move a small amount of water uphill; if you want to move a lot of water uphill, you need to put more energy into the pump. Ditto with freezers. It’s possible to freeze Lake Michigan in a week, but not with a common household freezer.

Sewell’s rebuttal to people who actually know what the fuck they’re talking about is:

if an increase in order is extremely improbable when a system is closed, it is still extremely improbable when the system is open, unless something is entering which makes it not extremely improbable.

That “something [which] is entering” is sunlight. If I put my freezer inside a capsule (insulated against heat loss) at 20°C, then shoot the capsule into space, and put water in the ice tray in the freezer, it’ll never turn into ice.

But if I then hook the freezer up to a solar panel, and point the panel at the sun, then yes, the freezer will cool the water and heat up the rest of the capsule. But then the capsule is no longer a closed system, since energy from sunlight is entering it. And thus, something that’s very very improbable (read: impossible) in a closed system becomes possible in an open system.

In fact, that’s what photosynthesis is: plants take energy from sunlight, and use it to force CO2 and water molecules together against their wish, to make sugar molecules. The sugars can then be broken up to release energy where it’s needed. It’s like using a solar panel to charge batteries that can then be used wherever they’re needed.

I’ll leave you with Sewell’s conclusion, a dumb-bomb of such potent moronicity that it ought to be banned by international arms treaties:

The conclusion: “If we found evidence that DNA, auto parts, computer chips, and books entered through the Earth’s atmosphere at some time in the past, then perhaps the appearance of humans, cars, computers, and encyclopedias on a previously barren planet could be explained without postulating a violation of the second law here. But if all we see entering is radiation and meteorite fragments, it seems clear that what is entering through the boundary cannot explain the increase in order observed here.”