National What Month?

The world would be a safer place if Sean Carroll didn’t go around telling people it was National Poetry Month. For you see, I took two semesters of Poetry Workshop (easiest course credit I ever got). I also took a couple archy and mehitabel books with me to Amsterdam one lovely spring, which I read in between researching my supersymmetric quantum mechanics paper, visiting the Van Gogh Museum and generally enjoying the sights. All of that probably sloshed together and fed into the following, which is entitled “workshop”.
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Michael Egnor: Manipulative Liar

Michael Egnor is back, with yet more drivel about reverse engineering. This time, he’s upset about a new blog post by Michael Lemonick (the one whose blog started Michael Egnor‘s career as a DI shill in the first place, although Egnor had a history of kookiness). Lemonick speaks some plain and simple truth:

If the DI had been around when people thought lightning was stuff the gods threw when angry, we might still not have electricity.

That didn’t make Egnor very happy:

It’s ironic that Mr. Lemonick would choose electromagnetism as a vignette for the design inference in science. The two scientific pioneers of classical electromagnetism, Faraday and Maxwell, were particularly devout Christians who inferred design everywhere in nature. They believed that God designed everything—including electricity. Their approach to science was pure design inference, undiluted by atheism or materialism. Contra Mr. Lemonick, we have electricity because of men who believed in God and in the evident design in nature.

Mr. Lemonick misunderstands the philosophical origins of modern science. The Scientific Revolution emerged within, and only within, Judeo-Christian civilization, and nearly all of the scientists who gave us modern science—Copernicus, Pascal, Galileo, Newton, Kepler, Leibniz, Harvey, Vesalius, Linnaeus, Lavoisier, Mendel, Pasteur, as well as Faraday and Maxwell, were devout Christians who inferred design in all of nature. They worked entirely from the design inference.

In a word, NO. They worked from the idea that Nature exhibits predictable regularities, which is an entirely different animal. They also worked from the evidence, which is a concept the creationists of all stripes, ID included, have had a hard time understanding. Most important of all, they accepted the facts which their observations revealed to them. Scientists of religious persuasions take our discoveries about Nature as indications of the divine imagination, but they do not refuse to acknowledge discoveries because they conflict with prior dogma — and, my friends, that’s all the Discovery Institute has ever done. There’s a big gap — no, a gaping chasm — between thinking that God set the world up with some intelligible order which people can understand and refusing to acknowledge that order because it clashes with your personal notions of the divine blueprint.

Taking an honest search for Nature’s patterns expressed in the mindset of earlier times and conflating that with the Discovery Institute’s manipulative propaganda tactics is despicable behavior.
Continue reading Michael Egnor: Manipulative Liar

In Soviet Russia, Evidence Frames You!

Heh heh heh. Mark Liberman, my conduit to a respectable Erdős number, had this to say today:

Most of us are pretty good at “audience design“: fitting how we express ourselves to what others are ready to hear. We notice when someone else is especially bad at this; but everyone’s image of other people’s minds has some blind spots. Cross-cultural communication often runs aground on such misperceptions, or at least so we’re told those who aim to teach us how to interpret the table manners and negotiating ploys of other cultures. And one of the deeper cultural divisions within our own society appears to be the one that separates lawyers from everybody else.

As the rest of the post suggests, if scientists have problems with the word theory, lawyers have trouble with the word fact.

It’s interesting that from the linguists’ perspective, “most of us are pretty good” at this audience design trickery. Rather than a technique which we must master at our peril, they take it as a basic assumption that “speakers adjust their speech primarily towards that of their audience in order to express solidarity or intimacy with them, or conversely away from their audience’s speech in order to express distance.”

Interlude: Framing

The “framingkerfluffle continues apace at and elsewhere (also here). For a primer on this subject, see my earlier remarks here. I like Joshua’s most recent take, which can be summarized in the phrase, “Let’s look at the data.” I also like what “Revere” has to say at Effect Measure:

Nisbet and Mooney argue that just presenting the facts in favor of evolution or climate change isn’t sufficient. As a university teacher for 40 years I couldn’t agree more. It’s a matter of good pedagogy, which isn’t just displaying facts. If it were, we wouldn’t need teachers. But the implication that good teaching is “packaging” — aka, “spinning,” although they prefer to think of it as “framing” — doesn’t follow, unless all good teaching is called “framing,” in which case all we have done is substitute one word for another.

“All good teaching is framing” has no more content than “All is God”, “All thoughts are memes” or “Everything is love.” You don’t get to say “All is full of love” unless you’re a Björk-22 model gynoid from the Yamtaijika Corporation. I’d add that if you really want to use a jargon word, you should pick one which doesn’t have an everyday meaning: picking a word which everybody thinks they understand even though they actually need a background in the subject is setting yourself up for confusion. Call it “Lakoff framing” or “Goffman framing” or something of the sort.

You know what this whole thing reminds me of?

Continue reading Interlude: Framing

A Lower Bound

This is how Carl Sagan begins the introduction to The Varieties of Scientific Experience.

In these lectures I would like, following the wording of the Gifford Trust, to tell you something of my views on what at least used to be called natural theology, which, as I understand it, is everything about the world not supplied by revelation. This is a very large subject, and I will necessarily have to pick and choose topics. I want to stress that what I will be saying are my own personal views on this boundary area between science and religion. The amount that has been written on the subject is enormous, certainly more than 10 million pages, or roughly 1011 bits of information. That’s a very low lower limit. And nevertheless no one can claim to have read even a tiny fraction of that body of literature or even a representative fraction. So it is only in the hope that much that has been written is unnecessary to be read that one can approach the subject at all.

This arithmetic does, I think, shed an interesting light on the Courtier’s Reply.

It’s rather common practice in some domains of the Blagnet to list one’s current mood or the music to which one is currently listening. I don’t have a handy collection of mood-marking icons (and if I did, I’d break them, because I’m a proud iconoclast), but I should note that my stereo is currently playing Infected Mushroom‘s 2003 album Converting Vegetarians. Stored in MP3 format, the two discs of this album occupy 239,317,690 bytes of hard-drive real estate. That’s roughly 1.9 × 109 bits, about one fiftieth of Sagan’s estimate for all theological writing, for two and a half hours of music. So, one hundred CDs of psy-trance (which could in principle include Goa and Suomisaundi) would take us into the regime of natural theology, content-wise.

The Psychedelic Mind Expander lists 636 different CDs released during 2006 alone, lumping together the Ambient, Breaks, Drum & Bass, Goa, Progressive, Psychedelic, Techno and Trance sub-genres (I get the feeling nobody else knows how to assign these labels, either — has anybody actually conducted a blind discrimination test between Drum & Bass and Neurofunk?).

It’s no wonder I have a hard time keeping up with divinity studies. Good thing we have theologians like Ishkur to organize the information for us.

String Kings: The Director’s Cut

Via Cosmic Variance, this may be the best thing to come out of theoretical physics cinema since String Wars: The Popper Menace. Steven Miller at Science Mobster (with a very familiar-looking theme) gives us String Kings: The Director’s Cut. Longtime aficionados of the genre will recall the theatrical release and DVD version, but like Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, Scorsese’s String Kings grows beyond compare when seen as the director intended.

Meanwhile in New York City, Peter Woit (Turturro) is seen in his apartment practising with a gun in front of a mirror in a scene Scorsese has very obviously recycled from his previous urban alienation classic “Taxi Driver”. Like de Niro before him, Turturro gives a compelling and subtle performance here, depicting a man on the edge and giving us hints at the festering rage bubbling underneath as he toys with the loaded weapon and talks to himself repeatedly: “Listen you stringheads…you anthropicists…this is one man one who isn’t going to take it anymore….One man who stood up against the…the orbifolds, the fluxes…the stabilized moduli, the braneworlds, the landscape, the swampland…Someday new real data is gonna come and rain down…rain down…rain down and wash the Arxiv clean…Now I see it clearly…my whole life is pointed in this one direction…I see that now…there was never any choice for me”.

Look for the sequel in late 2008.

Wobosphere Trick of the Day (plus seminar)

0. Go to Google Maps.

1. Click “get directions”.

2. Get directions from New York, New York to Paris, France.

3. Scroll down to item 23 in the list of directions.

4. Return in time for the seminar tomorrow afternoon at NECSI, where we shall discuss the first two (possibly three) sections in chapter four of Ash.

(Tip o’ the beret to Audentes at the Achenblog. It also works with Boston, Massachusetts.)

Roseanne: Your Guide to the World of Facts

Via a bloke (or blokette?) named Technogeek, I present for your delectation Roseanne Barr on black holes:

Quantumarai Eve is a black hole in time/space… mythologically she is the declawed clone of Lilith. Lilith is the actual hidden female face of the once removed from male Eve. Lilith is like Kali, and other goddesses before her, a powerful destroyer. She has the last word while men sleep. She, like all goddesses was a focal point to keep the women in line, as they feared she would kidnap and kill their newborn male babies. Much of women’s time in matriarchal tribes was spent in pacifying her(fear of the female’s hatred of the children of other women). There was a Priestess to intercede on behalf of women.

All of this female (denser energy) myth even now is a way to explain cosmic black holes. The female end of the gender pole is about receiving and the male end is about transmitting. The black hole cannot transmit, only receive…its explosion creates light and belches matter out…it becomes male upon its “birth”. Everything comes from black holes, not their effect..that is the error in calculation that is being corrected by science right now, and makes all other myths obsolete…thank you for understanding my poetry! The snake is a wormhole!

General relativity never made so much sense!

Everything Was Beautiful

. . . and nothing hurt.

I do feel that evolution is being controlled by some sort of divine engineer. I can’t help thinking that. And this engineer knows exactly what he or she is doing and why, and where evolution is headed. That’s why we’ve got giraffes and hippopotami and the clap.

Kurt Vonnegut on The Daily Show

I woke up this morning to learn that Kurt Vonnegut has died. This would have been a marvelous occasion to go back to bed.
Continue reading Everything Was Beautiful

WTF-complete: Mister and Miss Ogyny

The following is not anything grand; it’s just for entertainment.

Every once in a while, I like my procrastination to benefit the world at large (well, for small values of “world” and “large”). When I get in a mood like this, I hop over to Wikipedia and see if I can make myself useful, doing things like calling nutty articles to the attention of WikiProject Physics. I haven’t done this much of late — my wikipessimism and wikindifference have increased dramatically since last summer — but today I happened to check Articles for Deletion, the forum where self-promoting garage bands are beaten with clue-by-fours until they see the glorious light of reason (or oblivion, whichever comes first). While scrolling through the list to see if any new perpetual-motion machines or “Einstein was a cheater” anti-relativity loonballs had showed up, guess what I found.


Speedy Delete – Wimmin are incapable of hatred. Misandry is an artificial construct of the Patriarchy created because they hate it when feminists assert themselves and try to deconstruct the Phallocentric male-female power dynamic – 15:18, 11 April 2007 (UTC)

Continue reading WTF-complete: Mister and Miss Ogyny

I Was Framed!

Not too long ago, the way the outside world tells time, Matthew Nisbet and Chris Mooney published a paper in Science on the topic of “Framing.” Well, ’tweren’t really a paper — truth be told, it was more like an Op-Ed with footnotes. This being the Internet, humorous and ironic points have all been pointed out before you can get to them: as several people have said before, this essay on how to improve science communication was locked behind a subscription wall like a callipygian slave girl in the harem of academic orthodoxy.

What, you think I just went a simile too far? You try reading an explosion of interacting, conflicting blogs with scores of articulate and angry commenters, and just you see if you can stop your twenty-two remaining neurons from spewing up a metaphysical conceit of saturnine if not Jovian proportions.

There’s a technical definition of “framing” in the anthropological literature (or rather, a “turf battle” of several vaguely related and conflicting definitions, which doesn’t help), but the general sense in which most people seem to have interpreted the notion is that scientific ideas — global warming, evolution, Pluto not being a planet no more, etc. — should be wrapped in carefully chosen rhetoric like viruses coated in lipid membranes stolen from their hosts in order to evade the immune system, which is in this case the public’s reluctance to listen to scientific issues. It’s been said that this is really no different than what we science folk do every day when writing our grant proposals, speaking at conferences, glossing over the subtleties in freshman biology class and so forth.

Unfortunately, what could and should have been a useful discussion about communicating science when our society needs it most turned out, well, broken. To illustrate, I can hardly do better than quote PZ Myers:

I’m not playing dumb, I really am confused. I’ve got people telling me I already use frames, that I use frames well, that I use them badly, that I’m ignoring frames at my peril, what I’m describing isn’t framing, what I’m describing is framing, that frames are this thing or that thing or this other thing.

I’m getting next to nothing that’s practical. OK, don’t call it “evolutionary theory”, call it “evolutionary biology”. Is that it?

Maybe I do need a course in this.

I would like to argue that the confusion and general cross-purposes painfully evident in the Blagnet discussion indicates two things: first, that the initial Nisbet–Mooney paper was a thrust in the wrong direction, and second, that we are confronting a fundamental limitation of the way the Web currently operates.
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Where Was I When They Were Passing Out the Wit?

Scott Aaronson has a new comment policy:

If you reject an overwhelming consensus on some issue in the hard sciences — whether it’s evolution, or general relativity, or climate change, or anything else — this blog is an excellent place to share your concerns with the world. Indeed, you’re even welcome to derail discussion of completely unrelated topics by posting lengthy rants against the academic orthodoxy — the longer and angrier the better! However, if you wish to do this, I respectfully ask that you obey the following procedure:

1. Publish a paper in a peer-reviewed journal setting out the reasons for your radical departure from accepted science.
2. Reference the paper in your rant.

If you attempt to skip to the “rant” part without going through this procedure, your comments will be deleted without warning. Repeat offenders will be permanently banned from the blog. Life is short. I make no apologies.

It looks like Dave Bacon can now talk about time travel, but my own conspiracy theories will have to wait. But soon, I promise, the real meaning behind supersymmetric quantum mechanics will be made clear. They laughed at me when I suggested that the BPS interpretation of shape invariance may have a non-topological origin. The fools — I’ll show them all!
Continue reading Where Was I When They Were Passing Out the Wit?

CRE paper

Friday 4/6/07 we reviewed Rao et al. (2004) IEEE Trans Info Theor, V 50 (6) “Cumulative Residual Information […]”, here.

We decided that while the motivation for the paper was valid, that it was undesirable for a number of reasons — mostly that the CRE of many well-behaved distributions (power laws notably) diverged. We’re all currently working on better generalizations.

Gamma-Ray Burst of Damocles

Back in 1979, Isaac Asimov let loose a book called A Choice of Catastrophes. It covered a whole spectrum of Very Bad Things, from the end of humanity (a relatively mild outcome) to the extinction of the Universe itself. Being Asimov, he voiced his concerns about overpopulation and the degrading environment, but the publisher nixed his take on another threat: terrorism. (If I ever make a third visit to Boston University’s Asimov Archive, I’ll have to try hunting down the original draft.)

Our understanding of catastrophes has advanced since 1979. We’ve learned more about the potential disasters lurking in human nature, and we also know a few more things about what the sky might have in store for us. So, give a big cheer for the one, the only, the inimitable Phil Plait, who is unleashing upon an unwitting world Death from the Skies!

Continue reading Gamma-Ray Burst of Damocles

"no matter how gifted, you alone cannot change the world"