Dialog on the Mind

A recent discussion reminded me of an old joke; adjusted for the current subject, the dialog goes like this.

“You spend all this time attacking creationist claims about ‘the mind,’ but you haven’t put forth your own ideas about what the mind is.”

“The mind is a product of the motion of atoms in the brain, constrained by but not directly predictable from physics and chemistry. To quote the famous philosopher Daniel Dennett, ‘Who are you and how did you get in my house?'”


“Well, that’s what he said when I asked him about it.”

Michael Egnor and Spiritual Pay-Per-View

The weight of evidence, gathered over at least two and a half millennia, indicates that the mind is a product of the brain. Some people find this notion disquieting, and consequently they marshal various arguments to try and dispel the unpleasant conclusion. I haven’t done a quantitative study on which sophistries are the most common, but I have the strong impression that this one is widely used: the soul isn’t “in” the brain, the denier says, any more than television programs are “in” the TV antenna.

This argument would be a whole lot more convincing if damage to different parts of the brain didn’t have different effects, and if imaging of brain activity didn’t show that particular activities and even modes of thought manifest themselves in different, characteristic parts of the nervous system. We’d have to be tuned to a whole premium package of Soul TV channels, each received by its own wet antenna, and each broadcast by its own Ethereal Broadcasting Company — a whole industry of Spiritual Pay-per-View!

The latest devotee of this dubious proposition is — almost inevitably — Michael Egnor.
Continue reading Michael Egnor and Spiritual Pay-Per-View

Feynman on Quantum Mechanics


[The video previously referenced here, one of Richard Feynman’s Messenger Lectures, is no longer available due to copyright concerns. I should make perfectly clear that I’ve never had a copy of this Feynman video or any other on my server; I found it one day during a bit of idle Google-searching, and the film to which I linked was stored on Google’s servers. Offhand, I don’t even know how to make a video stored on my own computer play in a nice little box.]

Power-law Distributions in Empirical Data

Throughout many fields of science, one finds quantities which behave (or are claimed to behave) according to a power-law distribution. That is, one quantity of interest, y, scales as another number x raised to some exponent:

[tex] y \propto x^{-\alpha}.[/tex]

Power-law distributions made it big in complex systems when it was discovered (or rather re-discovered) that a simple procedure for growing a network, called “preferential attachment,” yields networks in which the probability of finding a node with exactly k other nodes connected to it falls off as k to some exponent:

[tex]p(k) \propto k^{-\gamma}.[/tex]

The constant γ is typically found to be between 2 and 3. Now, from my parenthetical remarks, the Gentle Reader may have gathered that the story is not quite a simple one. There are, indeed, many complications and subtleties, one of which is an issue which might sound straightforward: how do we know a power-law distribution when we see one? Can we just plot our data on a log-log graph and see if it falls on a straight line? Well, as Eric and I are fond of saying, “You can hide a multitude of sins on a log-log graph.”

Via Dave Bacon comes word of a review article on this very subject. Clauset, Shalizi and Newman offer us “Power-law distributions in empirical data” (7 June 2007), whose abstract reads as follows:
Continue reading Power-law Distributions in Empirical Data

Ranking the News Agencies

Those of us who have cause to dislike Time Magazine now also have cause to snicker. The University of Maryland’s International Center for Media and the Public Agenda (that’s a mouthful) has just released a study of how “global media outlets” fare when rated on transparency. As their introduction puts it,

The Libby, Enron and Arthur Andersen cases have all put the issue of “transparency” in the forefront of the news. But how transparent are the media themselves? How candid are they about how they cover the news? How willing are the media to make their reporting and editing standards public?

The answer, it appears, is “not very.” Out of twenty-five major websites, fewer than half published public corrections to mistaken stories, and only seven made more than a token effort to state their policies on journalistic ethics. Each of the twenty-five news outlets was scored in five categories, between “excellent” and “not acceptable,” to compute an overall numerical score between 0 and 4. The Guardian led the pack with 3.8, followed closely by the New York Times at 3.4. Sky News is the worst, summarized verbally as flat-out “not acceptable” with a numeric ranking of 0.4.

And guess what publication Sky News just barely edged out?
Continue reading Ranking the News Agencies

Bug Girl on DDT-Resistant Mosquitoes

If the idea of vampire bugs wasn’t frightening enough, how about vampire bugs which are immune to fire, silver and garlic?

That’s the story Bug Girl tells in her latest installment, “DDT, Junk Science, Malaria, and insecticide resistance.” It’s a clear display of Darwin at work, which anybody who has experienced a midsummer night in Alabama can appreciate.

This installment follows last week’s piece, which debunked the recent attacks on Rachel Carson.

Oh No, Not Again

Dammit, Warren, we don’t need you spreading pseudoscience along with everybody else. The Heim theory “spacedrive” is a total crock. Remember, this is the nonsense which John Baez called “a run-of-the-mill crackpot theory” and of which Sean Carroll said,

Just so nobody gets too excited — this paper is complete nonsense, not worth spending a minute’s time on. If I find the energy I might post on it, but this is no better than the other hundred crackpot preprints I get in the mail every year.

For details, you can start here and here. It looks like I might have to dig that post out of my “drafts” pile after all. . . .

New Scientist has a lot to answer for.

More on Behe’s The Edge of Evolution

The list of reviews and follow-ups to reviews continues to grow. The reality-based community has not been kind to Michael Behe’s The Edge of Evolution, and they’re expressing their reasons why with wit and verve.

The latest addition to the list comes from Jerry Coyne, professor at the University of Chicago. Entitled “The Great Mutator,” a free copy can be found here. I quote the final three paragraphs below the fold, with some added links for the folks who like extra reading.
Continue reading More on Behe’s The Edge of Evolution

Software Agonies: SciPy

In connection with some super-top-secret project — as in, it’s so classified I could figure out what I’m doing, but then I’d have to kill myself — I’ve been coding some programs with SciPy, a bundle of open-source science, math and engineering tools for Python. The thing I need the most is a platform-independent way to plot graphs, and for the most part, SciPy has worked pretty well. I’ve only had one truly infuriating problem so far. That problem, to which I devoted more of my life than I’d like to think about right now, stemmed from the following bug.

SciPy uses Matplotlib to make its visual output, and as the name suggests, Matplotlib was designed with MATLAB syntax in mind. Those of you who have done subplots in MATLAB — multiple graphs tiled onto the same figure — may recall that the subplot command has two valid syntax forms: subplot(211) and subplot(2,1,1), the first being the older form. According to the Matplotlib documentation, both forms work.
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Quick Post: Voices on the Net

Whoo! The Powers That Be keep inventing deadlines for me, so I will feed the blagobeast with a quick, quote-heavy post. Mark Chu-Carroll’s review of Behe’s The Edge of Evolution has attracted the attention of some creationist trolls, and some of the responses have been both memorable and pithy.

A mysterious being known only as Xanthir, FCD said the following:

As Mark implied, the distinction between micro- and macro-evolution is artificial and false. It amounts to drawing a line in the sand and saying, “Evolution can change things this much, but no further.” It says this without any reason why evolution wouldn’t be able to go past that point, and what’s more flies directly in the face of reams of actual data. It’s basically akin to splitting math into micro- and macro-arithmetic, and saying that numbers greater than a billion are part of macro-arithmetic and don’t occur through natural counting processes, and thus things that involve numbers past that line must have been created whole rather than building up from smaller quantities. The problem with that, of course, is that you can always add 1. Same thing here — you can always add one more mutation.

If you prefer the point made by early-1990s music video, see my earlier post, “Square One on Infinity” (and don’t say I didn’t warn you).

For the standard TalkOrigins critiques of the creationist micro/macro ploy, see here and here.

1 / 3 = 30%

OK, there’s so much to pick on in the Creation “Museum” that it constitutes a classic “target-rich environment,” but one of Media Czech’s photos is just too good to pass up:

Click to enlarge

First, I think rounding off to one significant figure represents a great advance for creationist mathematics. Dividing 1 by 3 to get 30% is a big improvement over their other, ahem, arithmetic issues (insisting on 6,000 when the actual figure is 13.7 billion, for example). Second. . . .
Continue reading 1 / 3 = 30%