Self-Trauma in the Name of Chastity

If correlation did correlate with causation, then I guess this would be the inevitable consequence of not getting laid:

Princeton student Francisco Nava (class of 2009) forged a series of e-mail threats, sending them to four students who belong to a “conservative values” organization, in addition to a professor who had aligned himself with that organization. To add weight to the threats he delivered to his own Anscombe Society, Nava found a brick wall and scraped his head across it, then broke an Orangina bottle over his own cranium.

No joke.

Nava faces disciplinary proceedings, in addition to possible legal repercussions due to filing a false police report — and a great many quizzical looks.

I was never much of a joiner in college. Even when I had the time, I just didn’t have the spirit, for the most part. I doubt I would have tried to attract attention for our cinema club by bashing myself with blunt objects and then blaming it on elitist written-word devotees from West Campus.

(Tip o’ the fedora to Mollishka.)

Varieties of Wall-Banging Experience

When traveling through the Internet, one often encounters crackpot physics, and after some familiarity with the genus, one begins to organize the specimens into species. I often find myself remarking upon a particular characteristic of pseudo-physics: the use of verbal instead of mathematical arguments. Instead of positing a premise and doing the math to deduce consequences of that premise, we get a whole pile of jargon, pulled from different sources and decorated with equations to disguise the fact that the “arguments” are essentially plays on words, with the whole thing bent towards bolstering some pre-established conclusion. What do you do in order to debunk this kind of nonsense? One option is to focus on a few highlights and show that they lack validity; however, addressing all the points may balloon out into a full physics course of its own.

This problem is accentuated when a single piece of crankery indulges in misunderstandings of quantum mechanics, special relativity, general relativity and other fields, all together in a single vessel of fractured ceramic. The anti-Einstein polemic recently unearthed by PZ Myers is a good example of such a “target-rich environment,” as was biocentrism woo. Another example, currently unfolding before our cybernetic eyes, is Salvador Cordova’s ongoing misunderstanding of quantum mechanics (commentary here, here, here, here, here and now at Tyler’s new place too — and we’ve hardly gotten started).

When I have an idle moment, I might pull the thoughts I’ve scattered around my fellow skeptics’ blog threads into a unified post, but for now, I’ll just refer the Interested Reader to the links provided above.

Physics from Open Yale Courses

Yale has started putting course material online in a systematic way, following in the grand tradition of MIT’s OpenCourseWare. Among the handful they’ve uploaded so far, the two which catch my eye the most strongly are Fundamentals of Physics and Frontiers and Controversies in Astrophysics. These classes come with Quicktime video of the lectures, and all material is licensed under Creative Commons BY-NC-SA.

Hat tip: Peter Suber.

Euler and Diderot

From Dirk J. Struick’s A Concise History of Mathematics (1967), quoted by Shallit:

There exists a widely quoted story about Diderot and Euler according to which Euler, in a public debate in St. Petersburg, succeeded in embarrassing the freethinking Diderot by claiming to possess an algebraic demonstration of the existence of God: “Sir, (a+b^n)/n = x; hence God exists, answer please!” This is a good example of a bad historical anecdote, since the value of an anecdote about an historical person lies in its faculty to illustrate certain aspects of his character; this particular anecdote serves to obscure both the character of Diderot and of Euler, Diderot knew his mathematics and had written on involutes and probability, and no reason exists to think that the thoughtful Euler would have behaved in the asinine way indicated. The story seems to have been made up by the English mathematician De Morgan (1806-1871). See L. G. Krakeur and R. L. Krueger, Isis, Vol. 31 (1940), pp. 431-32; also Vol. 33 (1941), pp. 219-31. It is true that there was in the eighteenth century occasional talk about the probability of an algebraic demonstration of the existence of God; Maupertuis indulged in one, see Voltaire’s Diatribe, Oeuvres, Vol. 41 (1821 ed.), pp. 19, 30. See also B. Brown, Amer. Math. Monthly, Vol. 49 (1944).

Krakeur and Krueger state that his investigations into mathematics “dominated Diderot’s youthful activities and represent an important phase of his universal interests.” They speculate that a lack of mathematical background among scholars who studied the man impaired those scholars’ ability to address this part of Diderot’s life.

Status Report

I caught a cold.

This happened on the same day that I was drafted into helping write a response to a comment on a paper my colleagues had published in Science some months ago.

The post I have closest to completion is full of equations, too, so I won’t mind if it’s not your thing. . . .

Cordova’s “Advanced Creation Science”

Salvador “Darwin was a flatulent puppy-killer” Cordova has decided to enslave quantum mechanics in the service of Intelligent Design, or as he calls it, “Advanced Creation Science.” It’s amazing how poorly they hide the religious agenda, isn’t it? I was a little surprised when Michael Behe admitted on national television that ID was a tool for God’s Christian Soldiers to fight back against science, but letting your medievalism all hang out is apparently a ubiquitous practice among the ID crowd.

Anyway, Sal was, like, completely floored that Fourier transforms are used in both quantum physics and electrical engineering. He says he has to take a year to blog his “Advanced Creation Science” in full detail, but I have the feeling it will all reduce to the following:

Fourier transforms are used in engineering; Fourier transforms appear in quantum physics; therefore, quantum physics must have been engineered by Jesus.

Anyway, Tyler DiPietro and I are chatting about this over at his place.

UPDATE (11 December): Mark Chu-Carroll has weighed in.

UPDATE (14 December): More from Tyler here.

Sunday Sokal

The following comes from a preface which Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont wrote for a book of Jacques Bouveresse, a preface entitled “Modesty, Rigor and Irony.” Bouveresse, it so happens, had been criticizing the literary/critical establishment for the same sins which Sokal and Bricmont enumerated in Fashionable Nonsense (1997), only he went farther, got there first and delivered even harsher jeremiads.

Bouveresse also astutely analyzes the sociology of intellectual life and the tactics used by some media stars (and their supporters) to immunize their ideas from reasoned critique. Here is one (pp. 64–65): First, you make some ambitious and revolutionary philosophical claim, citing in its support a prestigious scientific result such as Gödel’s Theorem; then, when critics become too precise and insistent, you explain that your use of science was “only metaphorical” and you berate your critics for being so bloody literal-minded. Here is another (pp. 18–20): Start again by making a flamboyant assertion that is either illogical or unsupported by evidence; then, when challenged, pose as a victim and accuse your opponents of being “flics de la pensée” [thought cops], “gendarmes” and “censeurs” [censors]. When people who control major collections in the publishing houses, hold chairs in the universities and have prominent positions in the media repeatedly pretend that any criticism of their views amounts to censorship, it is, as Bouveresse observes, quite comical indeed.

Comparing Bouveresse’s observations of French lit-crit circles to the antics of American cdesign proponentsists is left as an exercise for the reader.