Dear Gentle Readers: At the bottom of this essay, I’m collecting links to reviews of Behe’s book The Edge of Evolution, replies to reviews and so forth.
Well, now the burden is off me, and I can devote my book-reviewing time to good books, like the works of Hector Avalos. Mark Chu-Carroll has reviewed Michael Behe’s new book, The Edge of Evolution. In short, it’s as bad as I thought it would be. When I first heard about it, the only information available was the flap copy: the publisherâ€™s blurb and four laudatory quotes. I found that with a trivial amount of Web-searching, each laudator was revealed to be a creationist sympathizer â€” which didn’t bode well for the contents of the book itself. What, they couldnâ€™t get even one serious biologist to say something good about it?
My prediction, although in principle falsifiable, was not falsified but instead borne out by further investigation. Don’t you love it when that happens?
Behe’s new book comes at an interesting time in the ongoing struggle against arrogant ignorance. Once upon a time, the law mandated that Genesis be taught in science classrooms; then came “equal time” for science and mystical anti-science, followed by “creationism” and “creation science” which then became “Intelligent Design,” about which we had to “teach the controversy.” (Of course, like a linear portrayal of biological evolution, this little “X followed by Y” story focuses only on one path, on a single twig of a ceaselessly diversifying bush. Just as there are still living descendants of the dinosaurs, there are still Old Earth Creationists, ideological descendants occupying their own branch of the phylomemetic tree.) After the thumping “Intelligent Design” got at Dover, many of us wondered how the opposition to reason would reinvent itself. One strategy, embraced by at least one twig, is to rebrand the very word evolution: Read More »
Our seminar series might or might not be getting into category theory in the coming months. (We’re already drawing diagrams and showing that they commute; not everybody knows it yet!) To facilitate this process should we ever go in that direction, and to provide a general public service, I’m compiling a list of useful category-theory resources extant on the Wobosphere. My selection will be pedagogically oriented, rather than emphasizing the latest research; I’d like to collect reading material which could plausibly be presented to advanced undergraduate or beginning graduate students in, say, their first semester of encountering the subject. I’ll be both happy and eager to update this list with any beneficial suggestions the Gentle Readers have to offer. Read More »
Normally, when one sees a book title of the form The Physics of Imaginary Thing X, the implication is that X (Star Trek, superheroes, the Buffyverse, etc.) is being compared to the real world in order to illuminate how the real world works in a fun and memorable way. What would it take for warp drive to work, and how much energy is required to o’erleap a tall building in a single bound? If, as they often are, the movies are horribly wrong, can we use that wrongness to explain what is right?
Plenty of possible titles exist for future works in the same genre, but it looks like Frank Tipler has taken the matzo with his latest:
Carl Zimmer’s The Loom occupies a prominent place in my RSS reader, and right now, he and his readers are chatting it up about how Web 2.0 (or perhaps Web 3.1, Web 95 or Web ME) can help the cause of science journalism. Go and contribute! (My own thoughts run along a slightly different track: what are the shortcomings of Web 2.0 which we can address while improving the communication of science?)
And now that we’re thinking about journalism, I’d like to call the Gentle Readers’ attention to Dean Starkman’s piece in the Columbia Journalism Review blag discussing Lou Dobbs and leprosy. The short version is this: Dobbs said that 7,000 new cases of leprosy have occurred in the United States during the past three years. That’s not true. The real number is 431. Dobbs went uncorrected by NPR and 60 Minutes, and was not called out until today’s New York Times. As David Leonhardt writes in that publication,
When Lesley Stahl of â€œ60 Minutesâ€ sat down to interview Mr. Dobbs on camera, she mentioned the report and told him that there didnâ€™t seem to be much evidence for it.
â€œWell, I can tell you this,â€ he replied. â€œIf we reported it, itâ€™s a fact.â€
Unfortunately for Dobbs, numbers are not so pliable. (For example, reporting that the number of Iraqi WMDs was greater than zero did not make that assessment a fact.) To understand this situation, we should backtrack to the source. Read More »
So far, no one seems to have taken up the challenge to create an object-oriented lolcode (“lolcode++”?) or a functional lolcode (“lolcaml”?), but I’m not certain of my ability to track memetic evolution as we approach the lolsingularity.
I have little to add to this, except that I just realized what a stack-based lolcode should be called: Read More »
I walked away to give my lecture on quantum mechanics, and I came back to find a brief, affronted note from a creationist.
You have to understand how upsetting I found such a transition. I love lecturing. I’ve got thespian blood — my grandmother performed with Orson Welles’ players — and every trip to the blackboard is a chance to shine. What’s more, I was speaking to people who had a strong math background, so I could employ matrices, commutators and other linear algebra trickery without fear. My lecture, part of our effort to get the math people up to relativistic speed with the physics we want to study, started with the canonical commutation relations between position and momentum, derived the form of the momentum operator in coordinate space, and solved for the position representation of momentum eigenstates. I then covered the particle-in-a-box and the simple harmonic oscillator, after which I did a little kaon physics to lead up to Bell’s Inequality, which we will discuss next time.
And after all that fun, I had to come back to my laptop and read indignant creationist snark. I considered my response during the walk home, and after due contemplation, I decided to embrace Scott Aaronson’s comment policy: Read More »
Via the Panda’s Thumb comes notice of Mark Perakh’s review of Stephen M. Barr’s Modern Physics and Ancient Faith (2003). I recommend reading the whole review; Perakh demonstrates that Barr’s book, like Ken Miller’s Finding Darwin’s God (1999), offers some lucid descriptions of modern science but devolves into poor reasoning and non sequiturs when it touches notions of faith.
None of Barr’s arguments or Perakh’s counter-arguments are particularly new (which is one sign of how decrepit a business this “natural theology” really is). Barr organizes his book by describing successive “plot twists,” discoveries which supposedly upset the tidy materialism of a century ago. You could guess that quantum mechanics figures prominently; a couple linear operators fail to commute, and people run around saying reality’s been undone. Kurt GÃ¶del also makes an appearance: Read More »
A while back, I installed the wp-slimstat plugin to track the statistics of who’s visiting Science After Sunclipse. It offers some interesting forms of entertainment. For example, I now understand why the denizens of the Blagnet occasionally post the search strings which lead people to their sites. “louann brizendine bio” surprised me, but it was a pleasant surprise, since I was writing about the bad science in her book The Female Brain. Anytime a debunking is visible, I’m happy. (I’m a little boggled that my post appeared on the first page of the Google hit parade, even beating out Language Log. This might be a carnival effect.)
If you’re looking for a treatment of Behe’s work which is slightly less snarky than my own rant, see TalkOrigins.org’s illuminating discussion of Irreducible Complexity and Michael Behe. The documents linked therein demonstrate beyond a doubt that the concepts he has used so far are plagued with wrongness, and nothing I’ve seen so far indicates that The Edge of Evolution has anything more to offer. (I picked it up in the bookstore last weekend, but I didn’t read every page. I don’t need to eat the whole egg to know that it’s rotten. If people are absolutely desperate, and if the folks at ScienceBlogs and the Panda’s Thumb don’t beat me to it, I’ll try to avoid gagging long enough to write a review. But really, I’ve got good books and real science to talk about, too!)
Well, yet another monument to human stupidity has opened its doors to the paying public. It reminds me of the Mencken character in Inherit the Wind: “Darwin was wrong — man is still an ape, and his creed is still a totem pole.”
Funnily enough, I just picked up a paperback copy of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods (2001), from a friend who’s jettisoning her fiction before moving to California, sunny land of graduate schools. In this novel, Gaiman presents his own theory of American roadside attractions: Read More »
The first Google hit for the word “preacher” is the Wikipedia article on the comic book series about the hick-town Texan preacher who fuses with the nigh-omnipotent bastard offspring of an angel and a demon and then goes on a quest with his gun-toting girlfriend and a hard-drinking Irish vampire in order to hold God accountable for abandoning the world.
Dear Messrs. Ellis, Ennis and Gaiman: can we please do the same with God? (You’re almost there with Lucifer.)
I was actually pointed to Preacher via two sources: a drunk bloke in an Irish bar full of expatriates in Lyon, and the webcomicUnshelved. Funny how the world works, ain’t it?
From Snakes on a Blog. Other possibilities naturally suggest themselves: “I has a spin” (or “scalar cat can has no spin!”). If anyone can make a picture appropriate for the caption “SO(3) Cat can has double covur,” I’ll award you the first-ever Sunclipse Group Theory Popularization Medal.
The text comes from Transmetropolitan volume zero, Tales of Human Waste. Of course, the animator (John Franglen) changed the corporation names to ones which exist today. If I walked outside and saw a franchise gun store, a fast-food joint selling cloned human meat and a giant television screen alternating between images of a Chinese woman eating candy and a news anchor announcing that radical French terrorists released a parasitic hentai fetish meme into the San Francisco fish market, well, I’d be afraid I’d eaten the moldy rye bread again.
Oh yes, if any of my three readers are browsing from work, Spider does use a couple words referring to the biological process which brought us all into being in order to express strong emotion.
Framing is back. Sheril Kirshenbaum is writing guest posts over at Chris Mooney’s place (1, 2 and 3 so far). In her first three posts, she’s talking sense, though her writing isn’t exactly rocking my geological column.
(That sounds a little dirtier than I intended. Ah, well, I’m not an old fossil yet.)
The interesting thing is that nothing of what Kirshenbaum has written involves deep anthropological foundations. You could have said exactly the same things before the framing kerfluffle and with no knowledge of Lakoffian whosiewhatsits. Now that the subject has been called back to my mind, I think I can offer an executive summary of what bothers me about the whole “framing” business. Read More »
Oh, dear. John West of the Disco Institute is in a furious snit because, after refusing to grant tenure to Guillermo Gonzalez, Iowa State University did promote Hector Avalos, of the Religious Studies department, to full professor. You can just tell that West is spitting mad that Iowa would dare to keep Avalos around, and thinks it a grave injustice that one scholar would be accepted, while their pet astronomer gets the axe. So now they’re going to do a hatchet job on Avalos.
After reading about Avalos’s books Fighting Words (2005) and the forthcoming The End of Biblical Studies (2007), I decided to buy both of them. The former should arrive on the twenty-fifth and the latter a few days into June.
Being the amateur hack that I am, I’ll write up my impressions here after I’ve read what Avalos has to offer. Until then, I’ll be finishing John Allen Paulos‘s A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper (1995). Short take on it, so far: it has its good points, but it’s not as solid as Innumeracy (1989, new edition 2001) and Beyond Numeracy (1991).