Wednesday, December 27, 2006

The Greatest Innovation of Theoretical Computer Science

Spiked magazine has asked me to contribute 200 words on the subject of the "greatest innovation in my field". Here's my answer:

In theoretical computer science, the greatest innovation is the realization that algorithms are mathematical objects, and can be rigorously analyzed in terms of their consumption of scarce resources, including space, time, and randomness.

One of the first to analyze an algorithm was the French mathematician Pierre-Joseph-Étienne Finck (1797-1870). In an 1841 book, he showed that the Euclidean algorithm for computing the greatest common divisor
of two integers uses a number of division steps that is linearly bounded in the number of digits of the inputs. Finck's work is all but forgotten today, but I discussed it in a paper in Historia Mathematica in 1994.

In recent times, much of the credit for the development of algorithm analysis certainly belongs to Donald Ervin Knuth (b. 1938), who in a series of books entitled The Art of Computer Programming, popularized many of the tools now used routinely to analyze algorithms. Almost overnight, algorithm analysis changed from a purely engineering approach involving coding and testing, to a rigorous branch of mathematics where the challenge is proving theorems.

Is Science the New Religion?

My local newspaper (and I use that term generously), the Kitchener-Waterloo Record, has reprinted this George Johnson article from the New York Times. The original headline, as given in the NYT, was "A Free-For-All on Science and Religion". But the Record chose to give it a different headline: "Could science be the new religion?"

Here's my response:

Dear Editor:

With regard to "Could science be the new religion?", Record, December
27, 2006:

I'll believe science is the new religion when

- we exchange gifts on Darwin's birthday
- we get a national holiday to commemorate the discovery of DNA
- scientists get the same access to the White House as Billy Graham does
- St. Mary's Hospital hangs pictures of Pasteur in all its rooms
- and the Record devotes as much space to science coverage as it
does to religion.

Until then, let's keep them separate.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

My University Sponsors "Healing Prayer" Sessions

My university, the University of Waterloo, is sponsoring sessions on "healing prayer". Imagine my surprise!

Here are the details: our university has a Recreation Committee. Most of they events they sponsor are things like outings to the local ski hill, or ASL classes. However, they have also been sponsoring some more questionable events, featuring topics such as Reiki, therapeutic touch, and Feng Shui.

The most recent event was a session on "healing prayer". Here is how the session was described on the UW Recreation Committee (UWRC) web site, until recently:

Monday, December 18, 2006: "Life Series" - Healing Prayer with Dr. Clifford Blake (First of Five Lessons). Humans have battled sickness, disease and calamity as long as they have been on earth. Lesson 1: A survey of some spiritual healing methods. An opportunity will be given to share experiences. Cost: no charge.

Oddly enough, although the talk has since vanished from the UWRC web site, the first session was still held yesterday. (I have been trying to find out from the UWRC why the talk descriptions have vanished. So far, no reply.)

Reader, I ask you to look at my summary of what Prof. Blake said in his talk, and tell me, is this the kind of talk our university should be sponsoring? (My comments below are in red.)

First, some background. The speaker, Clifford Blake, is a professor in the Department of Management Sciences. According to this page, Prof. Blake "has counselling ministries in spiritual and psycho-social development, and the empowerment of individuals, with a special focus on youths. He is actively involved in preaching, teaching and counselling in his local church and currently operates an independent counselling and healing ministry. At the community level Dr. Blake presents seminars on Black History and the African Genetic root, based on a synthesis of Holy Scripture, DNA research findings and fossil discoveries."

He began by stating his talk would be based on his scientific and religious background. Prayer, he said, has been used for thousands of years to overcome difficulties. But it hasn't been used as Biblical teachings prescribe, and so the results haven't been as good as they could be. He spoke of his own ministry and testimonials about healings. A man who had cancer, he said, was healed through a combination of chemotherapy and his healing methods. It was the combination of all, he asserted, that resulted in the cure. He advocated "magnetic methods" and "energy methods"; combining them is more efficacious.

He cautioned that traditional methods [by this he evidently meant conventional medicine] are excellent when it comes to analysis, but one shouldn't take them without question. Get other opinions: what are the side effects?

He then asked for testimonials from the audience. One participant advocated "Kriya Yoga" as "the fastest way to God". The miracles that she witnessed "could fill volumes". Someone who had Parkinson's is now almost symptom-free. A woman she knew had a stroke and was mostly paralyzed, but thanks to Kriya Yoga, she has now recovered. Additional examples were given.

Another participant discussed her experience being on a local bus where the bus engine died. She prayed, she said, and the bus engine then started up. When you put you hand on someone and pray, you can feel electricity.

Prof. Blake discussed other examples of healings he has participated in. A person at the university with a relative with obsessive-compulsive disorder was "completely cured" after one month visiting with Prof. Blake. A student with
"fractured legs" was able to walk "immediately" after being touched by Blake. He acknowledged that he could not prove he was responsible for the healing, but "if someone has a chronic condition for many years, and improves after my sessions, then that's pretty good evidence". A woman has x-rays before and after proving that a fracture was miraculously healed. He can bring letters from a woman in British Columbia who had leukemia; after he gave her a prayer in a letter, she was healed.

Prof. Blake then said he did not counsel people to not go to doctors. He then discussed "facts": drug companies keep their side effects a secret. For example, he said a recent study in the US showed breast cancer was down because women had decreased their estrogen replacement therapy. He had a relative who died of breast cancer after taking this therapy.

He then asked, what is the 3rd highest cause of death in the US. It is "iatrogenic causes" [meaning caused unintentionally by a physician]. A study in JAMA, he said, listed 225,000 deaths a year come from these causes, including 12,000 deaths from surgery, 7,000 deaths from medication, 80,000 from nosocomial infections, and 106,000 from "non-error adverse effects". He then asserted that these figures are "restricted information" and is "not published in general". He claimed that in order to read this study, he had to state he was "Dr. Blake" in order to get to the web site, because it was only available to doctors and not to the general public. A participant from the audience stated that the results of such a study would never be published in the local paper, the Kitchener-Waterloo Record.

[The claim about "restricted information" is false. There was no need for Prof. Blake to represent himself as "Dr. Blake" in order to gain access, as our university has a subscription to JAMA (the Journal of the American Medical Association), which is available for free to all members of the university community. In a few minutes, I was able to find the "study" Prof. Blake was referring to. It is not a study, but a "commentary" by Barbara Starfield [JAMA, Vol. 284, No. 4 (2000), 483-485] that discusses a study, "To Err is Human", published by the Institute of Medicine in 1999. Contrary to Prof. Blake's assertion that this was "restricted information" and the participant's claim that the results would not be published in our local paper, I was able in a just a few minutes to find dozens of references to the study in mainstream media, including one in our local newspaper.]

Prof. Blake then went to discuss his sister, who died "because she had diabetes and her liver was irreversibly damaged from medication".

He then discussed results on acupuncture: 50-90% report relief. Tai Chi is also useful.

He cited a study that said religious practices are useful in lowering depression [Braam, Psychological Medicine V. 31 No. 5 (2001), 803-814]. He talked again about "energy" and I asked what he meant by energy.

Prof. Blake stated that energy is a "wave pattern" that makes up our bodies. When we are sick, it is because our organs are "not vibrating at the frequency they were designed to operate at". Doctors are working on that, he alleged. The laying on of hands works because it "corrects malfunctioning energy". But you can't always tell if healing works, because according to the uncertainty principle, introducing a measurement changes the way the system operates.

He described a man with severe knee problems that he saw. The man came in with a cane, Prof. Blake laid hands on him and said a benediction, and the man walked out without his cane. People live healthier lives with religion.

Audience members asserted that "drug companies were only interested in profits".

Prof. Blake asserted that "Einstein was a very religious person" and "wanted scientists to become more religious".
[ I pointed out that what Einstein meant by religion was not what most people meant. For example, Einstein said in a 1954 letter, "It was, of course, a lie what you read about my religious convictions, a lie which is being systematically repeated. I do not believe in a personal God and I have never denied this but have expressed it clearly. If something is in me which can be called religious then it is the unbounded admiration for the structure of the world so far as our science can reveal it."]

Prof. Blake concluded by saying in the next session, he would discuss how prayers can be more effective and how you can get more consistent results from prayers. In my informal talk with him after the sessions, he asserted that this was due to his special recipe for herbs and oils that one must anoint someone with in order to heal, and the fact that only specially gifted people (presumably Prof. Blake is one of them) have the power to heal.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Skeptics Canada Opens an Office

I just received some good news in an e-mail message from Skeptics Canada: they are going to open an office in Toronto starting on January 1, 2007. The office will be at 873 Broadview Avenue, just north of Danforth. This is a great step forward for organized skepticism in Canada. If you're interested in fighting against irrationality in all its forms, consider joining Skeptics Canada.

Friday, December 01, 2006

The Prime Game

First, the game.

Ask a friend to write down a prime number. Bet them that you can always strike out 0 or more digits to get one of the following 26 primes:

2, 3, 5, 7, 11, 19, 41, 61, 89, 409, 449, 499, 881, 991, 6469, 6949, 9001, 9049, 9649, 9949, 60649, 666649, 946669, 60000049, 66000049, 66600049.

For example, if your friend writes down 43, you can strike out the 4 to get 3. If your friend writes down 946969, you can strike out the first 9 and the 6's to get 499.

(There's not always a unique way to do this, and of course it works with some non-primes, too: if your friend writes down 35, which isn't a prime, you can strike out the 3 to get 5 or vice versa. But if someone gives you a number where you can't strike out some subset of the digits to get a prime on the list above, then that number isn't prime. For example, you can't strike out any subset of the digits of 649 to get a prime on the list, but 649 isn't prime.)

I published this strange result in the Journal of Recreational Mathematics in 2000; there's a copy on my papers page. Believe it or not, there's actually some interesting mathematics behind it.

Let's say that a string of symbols x is a subsequence of a string of symbols y if you can strike out some symbols of y (not necessarily contiguous) to get x. ("Subsequence" seems to be the preferred term in North America, but in Europe they call this a "subword". However "subword" is used in North America to mean "contiguous subblock".) The relation "x is a subsequence of y" is a partial order, meaning it shares the following properties of the ordinary <= relation on integers:

  • x is a subsequence of x;

  • If x is a subsequence of y and y is a subsequence of x, then x=y.

  • If x is a subsequence of y and y is a subsequence of z, then x is a subsequence of z.

We now call two strings comparable if x is a subsequence of y, or vice versa; otherwise, we say x and y are incomparable. A set is pairwise incomparable if every pair of elements is incomparable.

Now, a very neat result about the subsequence partial order is that every pairwise incomparable set is finite. This isn't obvious, and it isn't true for every partial order. (For example, it isn't true for the order where "subsequence" is replaced by "subword".) You may enjoy trying to prove this.

We need one more concept: the minimal element. A string x in S is said to be minimal for S if whenever y in S is a subsequence of x, then y=x. Given a set of strings S, it's not hard to see that the set of minimal elements of S is pairwise incomparable. So it must be finite. And every string in S has the property that some minimal element is a subsequence of it.

Now, to get the prime game, let S be the set of strings representing primes in base 10. The list of 26 primes above is the set of minimal elements for S.

Determining the set of minimal elements isn't always easy. For example, if instead of the primes we use the decimal representations of the powers of 2, then no one currently knows how to compute the set of minimal elements. It's probably {1,2,4,8,65536}, but proving this seems quite hard.

A neat consequence of this result is that, given any language L, the set of all subsequences of strings in L is regular. We can't always easily determine the regular expression or automaton for L, but we know it exists.

Here's a link to a file of cards you can print, cut out, and perhaps laminate, with the prime game on them. Enjoy.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

The PEAR Has Finally Rotted

From the November 8 Princeton Alumni Weekly comes the welcome news that PEAR, the Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research laboratory, is closing.

Don't be fooled by the fancy name. "Engineering Anomalies" is just a fancy name for good-old-fashioned parapsychology. PEAR's director, Robert Jahn, has been trying to show psychic phenomena are real ever since I was an undergraduate. But with funding reportedly drying up on his unsuccessful efforts, PEAR could no longer be sustained.

PEAR has been an embarrassment to Princeton alumni since day one. Jahn and colleagues never succeeded in demonstrating any significant effect; one of the strongest results they claimed was an 0.02% advantage in coin flipping. Other claimed results, such as the ones dealing with "remote viewing", have been criticized for sloppy experiment design. And to my knowledge no one has succeeded in replicating their results. Jahn claims "it has been the most personally stimulating and rewarding intellectual activity I've ever been involved in". Pitiful.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Innumeracy in the Record

From the Kitchener-Waterloo Record, Friday, November 17, 2006,
page C1:

"Thirty years later, I've now written a newspaper column every week, 52 weeks a year, a total of 5,230 articles. It's an experience I wouldn't have missed. And what have I learned?"

Clearly not multiplication.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Higher Education at Conestoga College

Conestoga College is a community college based in Kitchener and three surrounding communities. They offer a large variety of useful courses in electronics, business, and other subjects.

Unfortunately, they also offer several courses that don't belong at a community college. These courses, as described in the Conestoga College catalogue for Winter 2007, make truth claims about ESP, psychic powers, astral projections, auras, and homeopathy that have no factual basis. I would not object to a course exploring these topics provided no truth claims were made. For example, a course carefully examining the evidence for and against psychic powers would be welcome. These courses apparently don't do that. Here are the descriptions:

Homeopathic Medicine - An Introduction

This 200-year-old system of healing is based on the principles of "like cures like", using tiny doses of plant, animal and mineral substances to stimulate the body to recover its balance. Learn about the philosophy and history of homeopathic medicine and the top 10 remedies homeopathy has to offer.

The Psychic World

This one-day seminar will help you to develop the dynamic powers of your mind. The course will cover such topics as E.S.P. games to increase your own abilities, learn how to meditate, how to see auras and decipher what the colours mean. We will discuss how to interpret your dreams and control them, Astral projection and more.

Advanced Psychic World

Advanced Psychic World continues where 'The Psychic World' left off. It will cover such topics as: alternative realities, ley lines, other styles of meditation, and astral projection. The class will be taken on two group projections. Students will need to bring a blanket and pillow.

Reincarnation - Who Were You?

This one-day workshop explores the possibility of past lives and what karma is. It gives some very interesting theories as to why bad things do happen to good people and why you are where you are today. This class also includes three group past-life regressions which may help the students to remember their previous lives. A blanket and pillow is needed for this class. The students should wear loose-fitting, comfortable clothing.

Why is Conestoga College sponsoring such nonsense? Who is in charge of approving the curriculum and how did these courses get approved? Call Conestoga College President John Tibbits at (519) 748-5220 and ask. Or send him e-mail at At the very least, Conestoga College should add a disclaimer to their catalogue saying that they do not endorse this pseudoscience.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Some of the Bums are Gone

Well, sanctimonious prig Joe Lieberman is still around. And Orrin Hatch, of course was never in doubt. Jon Kyl easily won re-election.

But hard-core culture warrior Rick Santorum -- the man whose last name has now become a synonym for disgusting -- is gone. Don't let the door hit you on your way out, Rick.

George Allen is currently trailing by about 8,000 votes. But I wouldn't be surprised if the Republicans find a way to steal this one.

Discovery Institute shill Deborah Owens Fink lost bigtime.

All in all, it's a pretty good election. Science won. Fundamentalists lost.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Throw the Bums Out!

If you're an American citizen, as I am, you can't help but be appalled by what's been going on in Washington lately.

Instead of addressing serious issues such as global warming, the Republican-led Congress has been on a hate-filled crusade against gay marriage.

Instead of trying to find a solution to the mess in Iraq, our clueless Commander-in-Chief is repeating "Stay the course" as if it were his own private mantra.

Instead of adequately funding stem-cell research, Republicans have been attempting to suppress it in the name of their love affair with the embryo.

Instead of trying to fix a broken voting system, Republicans have been intimidating voters, throwing legitimate voters off the rolls, and pushing defective voting machines.

It's time to throw the bums out. No, not every Republican is corrupt, and not every Democrat is a paragon of virtue. I won't feel bad if smug and pious Harold Ford fails to get elected. But here's my own private list of politicians that have to go.

#1: Rick Santorum: This anti-gay bigot is an embarrassment to Pennsylvania, the state of my birth. He's also claimed that intelligent design is a legitimate scientific theory that should be taught in science classes. His opponent, Bob Casey, is an opponent of abortion rights, but he'd be better than the vile Santorum.

#2: Orrin Hatch: He tries to look statesmanlike, but deep down he's a wingnut. He's an anti-gay bigot because "It's a religious belief to me that homosexuality flies in the face of biblical teachings." He supported the nomination of far-right Alabama attorney general Bill Pryor for the federal bench.

#3: Jon Kyl: Kyl has consistently voted against environmental protections. He's against abortion and stem-cell research. He opposed the chemical weapons treaty. I don't think his opponent, Jim Pederson, has much of a chance, but we can hope, right?

#4: Deborah Owens Fink: No, she's not in Washington, but this member of the Ohio school board has been pushing the pseudoscience of intelligent design in Ohio schools. She claims that evolution is "indoctrinated" in schools but has refused to provide any evidence of that claim.

#5: Joe Lieberman: If you look up "sanctimonious prig" in the dictionary, it says "see Lieberman, Joe". Failed to win the Democratic nomination, so instead of taking his licks like a man, he ran as an independent. Then had the temerity to claim "I didn't choose to run as an independent." Who did, then, Joe?

#6: George Allen: Let's see: Confederate flag lover, caster of a racial slur against an American of Indian descent, bizarre reaction when he learned he was Jewish, racial slurs as an undergraduate... What's not to like? And his campaign against Jim Webb has been worse than despicable.

So, get out and vote, and vote against these creeps.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

A Tale of Two Conferences

Recently I learned about two academic conferences. The constrast between them is rather striking, and illustrates the way in which evolution is legitimate, mainstream science, while intelligent design is pseudoscience.

The first conference is the IEEE Congress on Evolutionary Computation (CEC), to be held in Singapore in September 2007. The second is The God Hypothesis: Has Science Found God?, to take place this coming weekend at the University of Toronto, here in Ontario.

CEC will represent real science. Its international advisory board includes accomplished experts in the field, such as David Fogel. It is in the tradition of other, similar conferences, and is sponsored by the IEEE, one of the largest professional organizations of computer scientists. Evolutionary computation is an active area of academic study, in addition to having numerous applications to industry. The conference includes tutorials by well-known scientists, including Andries Engelbrecht. The announcement for this conference was sent out a year in advance, so that people working in the field can submit papers and make plans to attend.

Contrast this with the "God Hypothesis" workshop at Toronto. It starts with a talk by David Humphreys, a retired chemist from McMaster University, who now spends his time evangelizing for the Christian god. Humphreys has in the past been guilty of misrepresenting facts about biology. Humphreys claimed in a talk in 1996, for example, that "hemoglobin in all animals is alike". Next comes evangelist Hugh Ross, who also has made misleading and false statements in a number of different areas.

On Saturday, the speakers include Denyse O'Leary, a smug religion reporter who is abysmally ignorant of science, but doesn't let that deter her from making demonstrably false claims about biology. Although the Toronto area has many scientists who could have offered a skeptical point of view, such as the University of Toronto's Larry Moran, it seems that no prominent skeptics were invited to speak at this event,.

The "God" workshop is not sponsored by any academic society, but rather by the "continuing education division" of a religious college affiliated with the University of Toronto. There will be no contributed papers. To the best of my knowledge, the announcement only came out a couple of weeks ago.

If you want to learn about real science, attend a conference like CEC. If you want to hear Christian evangelists and their ignorant cheerleaders, go to the "God" workshop.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Tacos in Translation

There are no Mexican restaurants in the town where I live, so every once in a while when I am really desperate, I go to the local Taco Bell. Recently this has been more fun than usual, since the little packets of taco sauce, which previously were unadorned, now sport "cute" sayings in both French and English. I like them for two reasons: first, they illustrate the conciseness of written English compared to written French, and second, because they illustrate how difficult it is to translate while retaining all the nuances. "You had me at Taco", for example, is evidently an illusion to the line "You had me at 'hello'" from the movie Jerry Maguire, while the translation (as far as I can see) doesn't even try to come up with a similar movie allusion from a French movie. (Readers, please correct me if I am wrong.)

On the other hand, if the folks at Language Log get hold of this, I'll probably learn why everything I just said is wrong.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Countering HIV Denialism: The Letter the AMS Wouldn't Print

Serge Lang was an eminent Yale mathematician who died in 2005. His life and work was the subject of a long obituary by Jay Jorgenson and Steven G. Krantz in the Notices of the American Mathematical Society in May 2006.

While Lang had many mathematical achievements, in his later years he began to show serious signs of crankiness, writing scathing letters to a wide variety of targets, including the American Mathematical Society (AMS) itself. Some of these targets, such as Samuel Huntington, were legitimate. Others were not. Lang became obsessed with correcting what appeared in some cases to be debatable or trivial inaccuracies, and even insisted on publishing his voluminous correspondence in books such as The File and Challenges. I remember leafing through The File in Cody's bookstore while a graduate student at Berkeley, wondering why an eminent mathematician would think his complaint letters would captivate an audience. To me, it seemed the sign of an ego out of control. Ever since then, I've seen many copies of The File in the "remainder" section of bookstores, suggesting that the publisher couldn't sell the number it unwisely chose to print.

One particular obsession stands out: although having no medical or biological training, Lang became active in the HIV denialist movement. Here is what Jorgenson and Krantz wrote in their May Notices obituary:

In the last twelve years of his life Serge Lang developed a deep and energetic program to fight the current directions of research on the diseases AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome). A naive assessment of Serge's position is that HIV does not cause AIDS. But this would be an injustice to Serge. First of all, he was very careful. He very rarely made an error of fact. Secondly, he was quite a subtle thinker. His cause and his complaint, in fact, was that the search for a cure to AIDS had become politicized. At a certain point, the federal government simply commanded the National Institutes of Health to declare that HIV caused AIDS. The causal mechanism had not been identified, and the connection not logically established. To be sure, there is considerable ad hoc evidence of a link between HIV and AIDS. Certainly many of the modern treatments for AIDS are premised on that link. But Serge's assessment was that the existing data analysis does not support the conclusion that HIV causes AIDS.

The Notices then proceeded to give two-thirds of a page to the prominent denialist Peter Duesberg, who chose to use the space to repeat once again his long-debunked arguments against HIV as a cause of AIDS.

I felt the obituary and granting of space to Duesberg was inappropriate, and wrote the letter below to the editor of the Notices. Weeks went by with no acknowledgment, so I wrote again: no acknowledgment. I wrote again: no acknowledgment. Finally, after forwarding a copy to the Managing Editor, Sandra Frost, I got an e-mail message from the editor, Andy Magid, stating that the Notices would not publish my letter.

Here is what I wrote:

Dear Editors:

At the 16th International AIDS conference, which recently concluded in
Toronto, plenary speaker Stephen Lewis said, "[South Africa] is the
only country in Africa whose government continues to propound theories
more worthy of a lunatic fringe than of a concerned and compassionate

The "lunatic fringe" theories Stephen Lewis was referring to are, of
course, precisely those advanced by Serge Lang. The objections of
HIV deniers have been carefully examined, and thoroughly demolished by
the medical community (for a good summary, see Stephen B. Harris, "The
AIDS Heresies", Skeptic, V. 3 No. 2 (1995)). The misinformation
campaign of Lang and other HIV deniers has misled South Africa's
President Thabo Mbeki and resulted in countless misery and death.
Given that, I found it grotesque that your recent obituary of Lang
[Notices of the AMS, V. 53 No. 5, May 2006] should attempt to whitewash
Lang's bizarre and ill-conceived attacks against HIV as a cause of
AIDS. And I found it appalling that you would give space to Peter
Duesberg, another leader of this destructive campaign, to extol Lang's

Lang's HIV denialism will stand as a testament to how an egotistical
confidence in one's expertise can lead to folly and destruction.

(Prof.) Jeffrey Shallit
School of Computer Science
University of Waterloo

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

World's Tallest Tree Discovered

The San Francisco Chronicle reports that the world's tallest tree has been discovered in Redwood National Park. The tree, called "Hyperion", is 115.2 meters tall. (The previous record holder, a tree in Humboldt State Park, was only 112.8 meters tall.)

The tree is an area that was only added to the national park in the Carter administration, very close to an old clear cut. There's more information at the Sierra Club site here.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

They're Proud of Their Ignorance

Take a look at this ebay auction for a book about rocks and minerals. What gets me is the description: "And no mention of Evolution!" They're not just ignorant, they're proud of it.

The auction is for a book in the Sonlight Science series, science books for homeschoolers. Sonlight also offers six books on creation/evolution: not a single valid book on biology in the bunch.

How long can fundamentalists continue to lie to their kids?

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Alexandre Trudeau Whitewashes Castro

Alexandre Trudeau, son of Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, has written a truly repulsive reminiscence of Fidel Castro. Trudeau depicts Castro as a "great adventurer", and calls him a "visionary statesman", "audacious", and "brilliant". Cuba, Trudeau says, is "privileged" to have had such a leader.

Nowhere in this grotesque encomium is there any hint that Castro executed and imprisoned thousands of his political opponents. I wonder if Armando Hernandez, who was executed by a Cuban firing squad in 1982 for the crime of painting anti-Castro slogans on bedsheets, would agree with Trudeau's assessment.

It seems that some segments of the Canadian Left are so blinded by their reflex anti-Americanism that they feel it necessary to whitewash the bloody records of dictators. Shame on them.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Which Creationist is Lying?

Which creationist is lying about the purpose of Kansas' science standards?

Is it board chairman Steve Abrams, who claims in the August 1 New York Times that the new science curriculum in no way opened the door to intelligent design or creationism and that any claim to the contrary “is an absolute falsehood.”

Or is it Joel Borofsky, Dembski's "research assistant", who says here, "It really is ID in disguise."

Monday, July 17, 2006

Another Literary Challenge

Evidently my first literary challenge was too easy, so here's another.

What American literary giant lived in this house, and what was it called in his books?

An O. Henry Challenge

Inspired by a recent trip to Greensboro, North Carolina --- birthplace of O. Henry --- I offer the following challenge.

Which famous short story of O. Henry contains a mathematical error in the very first paragraph, and what is the error?

To make it easier, I'll point to an archive of O. Henry stories here.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Pamela Winnick's Science Envy

Pamela Winnick is an attorney and former reporter for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette who has written several articles that lean against evolution and in favor of intelligent design. I recently forced myself to read her 2005 book, A Jealous God: Science's Crusade Against Religion. It wasn't a pleasant experience.

Winnick's book covers a variety of topics: abortion, population control, eugenics, medical experimentation, the Scopes trial, the theory of evolution, intelligent design, and fetal tissue research. Her thesis -- if this rambling, disjointed book can be said to have one -- is contained in the book's final paragraph:

"The Galileo prototype of the scientist martyred by religion is now purely a myth. Science long ago won its war against religion, not just traditional religion, but any faith in a power outside the human mind. Now it wants more."

Throughout the book, scientists are depicted as crazed, power-hungry, and immoral. Only religion, Winnick implies, can rein in these dangerous nuts who threaten society.

Winnick's claim that "science long ago won its war against religion" is far too glib. Ironically, 2005 also saw the publication of Chris Mooney's The Republican War on Science, a far-better-documented book that shows in depressing detail how American science has been subjugated to the political and especially religious goals of the Christian right.

Winnick's reporting is sloppy. Incidents are slanted to support her thesis, names are misspelled (Stanislaw Ulam's last name is comically morphed into "Ulsam"; Richard Lewontin's middle initial is given incorrectly), quotes are mined (sometimes incorrectly), and some "facts" are just plain made up (see below).

Here's an example of a mined quote. Winnick claims, "In a 1997 piece in the New York Times, Dawkins famously remarked that anyone who doesn't believe in evolution is "stupid, and ignorant and ... wicked" (emphasis added)." However, Dawkins' actual remark was "It is absolutely safe to say that if you meet somebody who claims not to believe in evolution, that person is ignorant, stupid or insane (or wicked, but I'd rather not consider that)." Winnick entirely changed the meaning of the quote by replacing Dawkins' "or"s with "and"s. (If you don't understand the difference, take a logic course.) Further, his remark didn't appear in 1997; it appeared in an April 9, 1989 book review by Dawkins.

On page 162, Winnick juxtaposes a quote by Dawkins about altruism with the following: "You have to be an intellectual to believe such nonsense," George Orwell once remarked. "No ordinary man could be such a fool." But Orwell was not writing about Dawkins or altruism, and Winnick provides no reason why Dawkins' ideas are "nonsense". This isn't reporting, it's pure cant.

(By the way, Winnick got the Orwell quote wrong, too. The real quotation comes from Orwell's Notes on Nationalism, and goes as follows: "One has to belong to the intelligentsia to believe things like that: no ordinary man could be such a fool.")

As might be expected of someone with no scientific training, Winnick displays multiple misunderstandings of science. And despite the fact that Winnick claims to be a "practicing Jew and liberal Democrat", her book uses the same nasty and dishonest rhetorical tricks that are the staple of far-right Christian creationists.

First, let's look at some of Winnick's misunderstandings. On page 19, she writes that "A fertilized egg immediately undergoes cellular division and, unless destroyed, grows into a full-term infant." As another reviewer already noted, this glib sentence omits the important fact that at least 60% to 80% of fertilized eggs fail to implant.

On page 110, Winnick claims that although evolution cannot be observed, "evolution could be inferred from the rapid variations that occur within a given species. During his famed five-year voyage aboard the HMS Beagle, Darwin observed these variations first hand. On a stop in the Galapagos Islands, he noticed the different beak sizes and shapes among the finches that had flown in from the mainland, each settling on a different island." Winnick fails to understand that the Galapagos finches are not merely variations "within" as species (here she merely echoes a typical creationist objection to evolution), but different species -- in fact, 13 different species in the Galapagos. And of course, evolution can be observed, as speciation has been observed in both the laboratory and the wild. How many times can these creationist falsehoods be repeated? Why does Winnick not subject these false claims to some critical scrutiny?

Later on the same page, Winnick writes (in a footnote) that "The word "theory" when used in science is different from its ordinary use. A scientific theory is considered virtually the same as fact." While the first sentence is correct, one can only stare open-mouthed at the ignorance of the second. A theory is not the same as a fact; otherwise how could one speak of competing scientific theories? Rather, a theory in the scientific sense is a coherent system of explanation for natural phenomena, testable by experiments, that makes predictions and explains observations. Some theories are better supported than others; only the really well-supported theories, such as gravity and evolution, can be considered as similar to facts, keeping in mind that in science every explanation is provisional.

Winnick also claims that "Darwin's theory was inspired not by science, but by the politics of his time." Although it is true that Darwin hit on natural selection by an analogy with Malthus, it is misrepresentation to suggest that his theory was inspired by politics alone. Has Winnick never read the Origin of Species? If so, she would have known that Darwin patiently built his scientific case for evolution on a host of supporting facts, not politics. And her history is wrong, too, since Darwin began his transmutation notebook (the "B" notebook) in 1837, but didn't make the connection with Malthus' essay until 1838.

The really annoying part of the book, though, is Winnick's mean-spirited rhetorical tricks. Consider her treatment of population growth. Although it is an undeniable fact that exponential growth of the human population on Earth cannot be sustained forever, Winnick dismisses these concerns as "racist", and repeatedly compares population-control advocates to Nazis. Those who warn about the consequences of unrestricted growth are described as "population zealots". Paul Ehrlich is described as a hypocritical "fraud" who preached population control despite the fact that "he knew he was wrong".

What is Winnick's evidence that Ehrlich was a "fraud"? According to her, population growth is not a concern because in the US, live births per thousand decreased from 123 in 1957 to 85.7 in 1968. That's like saying the national debt is not a problem if the current budget deficit is decreasing. And of course, it ignores the fact that while fertility rates have leveled off in the US, they are still very high in other parts of the world. 1% population growth per year is still exponential growth, and will ultimately cause the same kinds of problems as 5% growth -- it will just take longer.

But then, Winnick is no stranger to misrepresentations. In 2001, she claimed
"I am, however, writing a book about the subject showing how the media and scientific elite has stifled meaningful debate on the subject. In doing so, I am indeed supported ($25,000) by the Phillips Foundation, an organization which takes absolutely no position on the subject of evolution, but which seeks to promote fair and balanced reporting in all subject areas."

However, Wesley Elsberry took a look at the Phillips Foundation web page and found that Winnick's fellowship was then described as follows:

Project: "Examination of How Media and Established Scientists Treat the Subject of Evolution," analyzing why there seems to be little tolerance for teaching creationism in America.

(Since then, the Phillips Foundation has altered its web page and the description of Winnick's project.)

Another misrepresentation occurs on page 91, where Winnick attempts to paint yet another scholar with the Nazi brush: "In German and Austria, with their collective guilt about the Holocaust, Peter Singer is considered so repulsive that his writings are banned."

This claim immediately set off alarm bells in my head, and no citation is provided, so I wrote to Peter Singer to ask him if there any truth to Winnick's claim. Here is Singer's reply:

"None at all. My writings are freely available, and several of my books are in German translation. Practical Ethics, for example, has been available in the popular yellow series published by Reclam since the 1980s."

So much for Winnick's reliability.

Sometimes, in her quest to indict scientists and exonerate theists, Winnick resorts to bizarre non sequiturs. Here is Winnick on intelligent design (page 188): And though the [intelligent design] movement was often accused of being "Christian,", in fact only a few of them were Protestant evangelicals. A few were Catholic." Gee, the last time I looked, Catholics were Christians, and Christians weren't composed solely of Protestant evangelicals.

Another creationist trick that Winnick uses is to take people who have know little about evolution, and elevate them to the position of authorities. Phillip Johnson, a law professor with no biological training, is described as "brilliant". Ironically, on page 195, Winnick asks "how likely was it that Alec Baldwin or Kim Basinger or any of the many other glitzy Hollywood stars had ever seriously studied biology or understood Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection or ever read anything on the subject other than PFAW press releases?" Offhand, I'd say it's about the same likelihood that Phillip Johnson or William Dembski or David Berlinski has seriously studied biology, but Winnick doesn't hesitate to tout them as experts.

No creationist saw is too unreliable for Winnick to repeat. Here are a few examples:

-- the Chinese paleontologist anecdote is repeated uncritically on page 198
-- the 1966 Wistar Institute Symposium is brought up on page 122
-- Fred Hoyle's "tornado in a junkyward" is mentioned on page 172

Liberal Democrat or not, this book cements Pamela Winnick's reputation as a flack for the Christian right. It is not a fair, reliable, or objective look at the battles between science and religion. It appears to me that Winnick has a bad case of science envy.

Saturday, July 08, 2006

Student Requests Me to Help Him Fool Job Interviewer

Here's a pathetic e-mail message from a student, asking me to help him fool a job interviewer:

I am a student from India doing my final year
computer engineering bachelor degree. Actually i am in
need of some help from you since I have come to know
from net that you are quite a reknowned man in oure
field. Actually I am about to face an interview in
some 20 days time and if I succeed in that I will be
getting a job in the prestigious DEFENCE RESEARCH AND
DEVELPMENT ORG of my country. in general the
interviewers are impressed if a student have some good
knowledge in Theory of Computer Computation-Languages,
Turing machine, Context free grammar etc. Now I have
had this subject in my last sem but since this subject
is so abstract that I failed to make any deep
knowledge in it. Sir can you kindly help me in this
regard by providing me with some free ebooks and
websites through which I can have enough knowledge in
the given little time so that I can IMPRESS the
interviewers for a damn job. If you have some other
better idea, I shall be highly grateful.
I shall remain ever grateful to you.
yours faithfully
H------ B------------------

I couldn't make that one up if I tried.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Oliver Sacks on Evolution and Intelligent Design

Oliver Sacks, the world-famous neurologist and author, spoke at the national convention of the Freedom from Religion Foundation on November 12 2005, where he accepted the "Emperor Has No Clothes" award. In the excerpt below, taken from the June/July 2006 issue of Freethought Today, he briefly discusses intelligent design:

"How could a passionate and intelligent and curious person think about the world 5,000 years ago, or even 400 years ago, when there was so little scientific knowledge? Systematic investigation, science as we know it, really only started in the 17th century. We humans have a craving to understand, to get the big picture, to see some sort of all-embracing pattern, and religion has obviously filled that need for millennia. Before Darwin, it was very difficult to understand the richness of the biological world, how innumerable forms of animals and plants came to be. But to believe in a creator and so-called intelligent design now, a century and a half later, is bizarre, an intellectual retrogression, only intelligible in terms of the mind being dominated by emotional drives and needs.

Science increasingly obviates the need for a creator god, and increasingly "intelligent design" is a theory of the gaps: "You can't explain the bacterial flagellum? He made it." But the gaps in our knowledge of nature are steadily being filled -- this has always been the history of science.

It is frightening and grotesque that something like "intelligent design" should be presented as science, or used to replace science, particularly in our schools. Religion classes are fine; I enjoyed religion classes when I was in school [in the U.K.]. There were religion classes, art classes, and science classes, and they didn't contaminate each other. They were all different. But the situation we have today, where such lines are blurred, is very dangerous."

Sunday, June 18, 2006

True Batshit Craziness

One of the delights of browsing at our local alternative bookstore, the Bookshelf Cafe in Guelph, Ontario, is the opportunity to encounter some real craziness, often in the form of wacked-out British conspiracy tomes. (Why are so many crackpot authors, for example, Arnold Arnold, from England?) No, I'm not talking about creationism, or astrology, or chiropractic -- you can meet those at any chain bookstore. I'm talking about the really insane drivel that can make you sit up and take notice.

Last night I had the pleasure to encounter Dark Moon: Apollo and the Whistle-Blowers by Mary S. Bennett and David S. Perry. I didn't buy it (since I have a policy of never supporting pseudoscientists by purchasing their works new) but I'll definitely be on the look-out for it at future used book sales, as it seems an essential addition to any good pseudoscience library.

Bennett and Percy are not your usual "the moon landings were hoaxed" crackpots. No, their argument is even more delusional than usual. They think people have indeed been to the moon -- it's just they weren't the 12 Apollo astronauts:

"The main thrust of this book is to question the entire validity of the official record of mankind's exploration of the Moon especially the Apollo lunar landings themselves. We are not however claiming that astronauts from Earth have never walked on the Moon. Our personal interpretation of the evidence is that surrogate astronauts were employed."

This lunacy reminds me of the old joke about the man who believed that Shakespeare's plays were not written by William Shakespeare, but by another man with the same name.

Bennett and Percy's arguments fall into two classes: long-debunked arguments about shadows, radiation, etc., and breathtaking non sequiturs. Here's an example of the second class:

"So what then are our own reasons for accepting the Roswell incident as genuine and meaningful? Well, one of them is the fact that the incident/placement occurred in 1947 -- and indeed at the midpoint of 1947.

At this juncture the reasonable reader might again throw up their hands and mutter: "Oh dear. These poor people really are mad." Yet we are quite sure that when we demonstrate the significant role played by the mathematical value 19.47° in astrophysics, alongside all other evidence, any doubting readers will retract and reconsider."

Now that's genuine fruitcake!

Monday, May 29, 2006

Indigo Caves In

Indigo Books and Music, Canada's largest bookseller, have removed all copies of the June 2006 issue of Harper's Magazine from their stores, because the magazine reprinted the controversial Danish cartoons about Muhammad.

Indigo's corporate headquarters is (416) 364-4499. Give them a call (hey - it's free on Skype) and tell them what you think of their cowardice.

Sunday, May 28, 2006

New Chess Endgame Record

From Marc Bourzutschky, a new chess endgame record: a certain position with king, queen, and night versus king, rook, bishop, and knight requires 517 moves to win. And here "win" doesn't even necessarily mean mate, it just means mate or capture of a piece, thus reducing to a simpler endgame. This kind of complexity is reminiscent of the complexity generated by the busy beaver problem, reminding us that simple systems can lead to all kinds of complex behaviors.

Debunking Crystal Healing

In a previous post on this blog, I discussed one of the main texts about crystal healing --- Melody's Love is In the Earth --- and showed that some of the advice presented there was actually dangerous.

Today, I'll discuss the evidence against crystal healing.

Crystal healers allege that crystals have "energy" that can be sensed. They report sensations such as warmth or tingling when a crystal is held in the hand, and that crystals can interact with energy in the body, with resultant medical effects. For example, this web page qujotes Marcel Vogel as saying "The crystal is a neutral object whose inner structure exhibits a state of perfection and balance. … Like a laser, it radiates energy in a coherent, highly concentrated form, and this energy may be transmitted into objects or people at will. … With proper training, a healer using a crystal can release negative thoughtforms which have taken shape as disease patterns."

Is there any actual evidence for this view? Although crystal healers like to call their practice "scientific", they never cite any controlled scientific studies supporting their claims. (Indeed, Melody reports that many of her claims were "channeled".)

The only scientific studies I have been able to find on the topic of crystal healing are by Christopher French and his colleagues at Goldsmiths College, University of London. These studies do not seem to be available on the web, although there is a news article here. Since they do not seem to be well known, I summarize the results here.

In a 1999 paper presented at the Sixth European Congress of Psychology in Rome, French and Lynn Williams gave a paper entitled "Crystal clear: paranormal powers, placebo, or priming?" In this paper they explored the possibility that the sensations that crystal practitioners report may be due, in part, to "priming"; that is, expecting certain sensations after being told or reading about them in reference books. They used 80 volunteers, half of which were male. The volunteers included customers from a New Age store, as well as undergraduates and non-students. Participants were given either a natural quartz crystal to hold, or a fake crystal made of glass. They were asked to report sensations such as tingling, heat, relaxation, and mood change. Those who had been "primed" to expect certain sensations reported these sensations more frequently (p = .008) than those who had not been primed. However, there was no difference in effects reported between those who handled the real crystal and those who handled the fake crystal.

French repeated the study with Hayley O'Donnell and Williams in a paper presented to the British Psychological Society Centary Annual Conference in Glasgow in 2001. Part of the motivation for the replication was that the original study was not double-blind, as the experimenter (Wiliams) was aware of which crystals were real and fake. The 2001 study was double-blind. This time, the "priming" did not have a significant effect, but once again, there was no difference in effects reported between real and fake crystals. The study concludes "...the fact that the same effects were found with both genuine and fake crystals undermines any claims that crystals have the mysterious powers which they are claimed to have. Instead, the power of suggestion, either explicit or implicit, seems to be the not-so-mysterious power that may convince many that crystals have the potential to work miracles".

I doubt these studies will convince crystal healers, any more than Emily Rosa's debunking of therapeutic touch has affected that practice.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Crystal Healing Considered Dangerous

At a recent used book sale, I picked up a copy of the Bible of crystal healing, Love is in the Earth: A Kaleidoscope of Crystals. The author is "Melody" (no last name given), who describes herself as a "scientist" with "Bachelor of Science and Master of Arts degrees in mathematics". The book was originally published in 1991; I got a copy of the 1995 edition, which has 726 pages.

The first 76 pages of Love is in the Earth consist of a mishmash of New Age nonsense, descriptions of different types of crystals (mostly using invented distinctions not recognized by geologists, mineralogists, or crystallographers), numerology, and a catalogue of how to use crystals to heal. The remaining pages provide a list of minerals, together with a description of what each mineral is good for.

Here is a sampling of the typical sort of hogwash that can be found in this book:

The energies of the mineral kingdom are "universal energies". Hence, when one contacts and is willing to receive this energy, and begins to exercise personal creativity via exercise of the Higher Will, one can contact and synthesize the energies from which the entire universe is comprised. This is the reason that crystals and other minerals are so very powerful and also why their powers must only be used through the highest consciousness of the individual. (p. 32)

Master Number 44: Metamorphosis and continued change throughout all times is concentrated with determination of both the acceleration and the ease of reformation of the self. The concepts of impetus and catalytic motion are reflected in the "forty-four" vibration. (p. 49)

Soak the crystal in brown rice for twenty-four hours; the rice balances and centers the energy, removing the negativity, while dissipating and transforming the negative to the positive. Upon completion of the "soak" the rice is purified and energized and is quite wonderful to eat. (p. 55)

Gasoline mileage has been enhanced by placing a quartz crystal on the carburetor and/or on the fuel line. Increases of up to 50% have been reported. (p. 65)

How anyone could be so foolish as to believe these bizarre, laughable, and unsupported claims is beyond me. Nevertheless, its devotees (nearly always women) can be found by the dozens at gem and mineral shows, picking up each crystal in turn and holding it in their hand with closed eyes, waiting for the crystal to "speak" to them. They are often derided as "healy-feelies" by serious mineral collectors.

What's worse, however, is that this book is potentially extremely dangerous to one's health. First, here is the obvious danger that people who fall for this nonsense might avoid seeking competent medical treatment for serious conditions. For example, Melody recommends the use of a form of sphalerite for "the treatment of AIDS" on p. 592.

Second, Melody recommends various ways of creating "elixirs" on pages 62 and 63; this involves soaking the mineral in water and/or alcohol and then drinking the water. While most minerals are not very soluble in water, this process could still lead the user to consume small amounts of toxic minerals -- particularly because Melody almost never gives any warnings about the toxicity of various minerals.

Take witherite, for example. This mineral is barium carbonate (BaCO3), which is so toxic that it has been used as a rat poison in the past. The fatal dose for an adult human is about 5 grams, which is not that much because of witherite's high specific gravity. (See more about barium carbonate here.) But Melody doesn't say a single thing about the toxicity of this mineral. Instead, she says "It can be used in the treatment of disorders of the digestive system, providing for a cleansing effect on the unitary whole"! (p. 695) Anyone who followed Melody's recommendation and made an "elixir" of witherite might end up solving their digestive problems for good.

Other toxic minerals that Melody recommends for various uses include

  • orpiment (arsenic sulfide) ("can be used to stimulate the intellect, to cleanse and to activate the solar plexus chakra, and to assist one in reasoning capabilities");

  • anglesite (lead sulfate) ("It can be used in the treatment of nervous disorders, to stimulate neural transmitters, and to promote the circulation of blood")

  • the radioactive mineral autunite (calcium uranyl phosphate) ("The energy emanating from autunite has been used to soothe the temper and to ameliorate heart disorders")

For betafite, a mineral which can be extremely radioactive, Melody suggests that it is "used to grid the body, via wearing and/or carrying". I would definitely not recommend wearing or carrying this mineral. You might set off radiation detectors at airports or borders, and you would be exposing yourself to a significant source of radiation, potentially leading to skin or other cancers.

If you know anyone who has fallen for Melody's decidedly unscientific fantasies about minerals, warn them. Many minerals are toxic, and should be handled carefully to avoid ingesting them or breathing their dust.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Dumbest Papal Remarks Yet

Pope Benedict is annoyed with Canada.

Is it Canada's poor treatment of native people that raises his hackles? Or the failure to live up to Kyoto?

Neither. We're not having enough kids.

Yes, you heard that right: Canadians are saying no to the Pope's grotesque vision of women as little baby factories, churning out more and more humans so they can praise his apparently insecure god. Never mind that most of the countries with high birth rates (for example, Congo, Pakistan, Afghanistan) are not societies that would please most of us.

His solution: Canadians must listen to their Catholic bishops. That's right: the way to increase the birth rate is to take instruction from men who have sworn an oath to not have children themselves.

Just when I thought Christianity couldn't get any sillier...

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Breaking News: A Creationist Dishonestly Doctors a Quotation

Yes, I know it is not really breaking news. Creationists have been dishonestly doctoring quotes for years. But still, each new episode can be breathtaking in its chutzpah.

The latest dishonesty comes from that paragon of boot-licking virtue, Salvador Cordova. In a recent post at Uncommon Descent, he says of intelligent design

Some critics claim that it’s ‘creationism in a tuxedo’. My response to them is: what’s so bad about being in a tuxedo?”

Although it's true that some people have called intelligent design "creationism in a tuxedo", the original citation is the far more damning appraisal that intelligent design is "creationism in a cheap tuxedo". I can understand why ID advocates would want to omit the modifier "cheap". After all, if your tuxedo is expensive, almost anyone can look good. But a cheap tuxedo demonstrates the wearer to be a poseur.

The phrase originates with Leonard Krishtalka, a professor at the University of Kansas and director of the Natural History Museum and Biodiversity Research Center. He used it in a presentation held in 2000 at the Lied Center at the University of Kansas. His use of it is documented in this article from November 2000 by Kansas physicist Adrian Melott, who would later go on to use it as a title of an opinion piece in Physics Today.

So, yet another example of creationists doctoring a quotation to make themselves look better. Stop the presses!

Monday, April 24, 2006

McKnight Gets It

Peter McKnight of the Vancouver Sun has this fine article about the Alters affair. Brian Alters, you may recall, is the McGill University professor who had his grant to study the detrimental effects of intelligent design propaganda on Canadians' understanding of science turned down by the federal granting agency, SSHRC, because (it claimed) there was inadequate "justification for the assumption in the proposal that the theory of Evolution, and not Intelligent Design theory, was correct."

I previously blogged about this sad story here. Incidentally, I finally received a response from SSHRC's Janet Halliwell about my concerns. The response appears to be a form letter, which refuses to forthrightly address the denial letter. In my opinion, in light of her misrepresentations, Professor Halliwell should resign from SSHRC.

Friday, April 14, 2006

Fibonacci poetry

would like
to tell you
about a new kind
of poetry
for math lovers.

based on
a sequence
of Fibonacci
invented eight hundred years ago.

kind of
poem the
syllables number
1,1,2,3,5,8, then stop.

blame me
if you find
this sort of poem
uninteresting. The blame goes
to one Gregory K. Pincus of Los Angeles.

(Hat tip to Mark Gluck.)

Monday, April 10, 2006

Stupid Creationist Letter Award for April

In my monthly feature, the Stupid Creationist Letter Award for April goes once again to a letter published in my college alumni magazine, this time by a certain Lance F. James.

This letter is, if possible, even stupider than last month's. It, too, is responding to President Tilghman's speech arguing that intelligent design is pseudoscience.

Let's play stupid creationist bingo again! Ready?

President Tilghman ... apparently believes that we should base our "science" of origins on faith in naturally occurring spontaneous generation, a notion debunked by Pasteur and a phenomenon never observed by anyone, anywhere at any time.

Amazingly dumb. Mr. James confuses spontaneous generation -- the ancient notion that complicated organisms, such as mice, could arise from decaying plants or meat -- with abiogenesis, the modern theory that the first replicators (likely rather simple molecules) could arise from chemical precursors. I wonder why he thinks Pasteur's experiments, which were performed in the mid-19th century, have anything at all to say about modern theories such as the RNA world?

And don't you love the irony of the theist complaining about unobserved phenomena?


While Dr. Tilghman is clearly free to make faith-based statements grounded in philosophical naturalism, she should not pass them off as hard science, and certainly should not insist that they be the only perspective taught in the nation's classrooms.

Faith-based statements? I see no faith-based statements in Dr. Tilghman's talk. Evolution is based on evidence, not faith. And of course, Mr. James confuses "philosophical naturalism" with methodological naturalism.


Darwinism as an explanation of origins is a theory in crisis.

Yeah, right, anything you say. Too bad Glenn Morton has this great page indicating that creationists have been proclaiming the death of evolution for 150 years now. Morton calls it the "The Longest Running Falsehood in Creationism". And I'll bet anything James considers himself bound by the 9th commandment. Go figure.


The fossil record is a continuing embarrassment to Darwinists.

Now, now, Mr. James. Where's your originality? Can't you come up with anything that's not straight out of the Index to Creationist Claims? But I guess you're right. The fossil record is a great embarrassment to Darwinists. That's why, just this week, the Darwinists were trying their damndest to cover up the latest find, Tiktaalik roseae, a transitional form between fish and tetrapods.


The volume and organization of information in DNA and the irreducible complexity of operating systems within the cell defy construction by Darwinian random variation and natural selection.

Poor Mr. James -- seduced by the nonsense of Behe and Dembski, but unable to see through their smokescreen. I teach Kolmogorov information theory at my university and I can tell you that information is trivial to generate. Any random process, including mutation, will do.


Mr. James, you're a winner of stupid creationist bingo. Congratulations! And I hadn't even gotten to the end of your letter.

My Letter to SSHRC

You may have read about the decision of SSHRC (the Canadian Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council) to deny McGill professor Brian Alters a grant to study the detrimental effects that intelligent design pseudoscience has on Canadians' understanding of evolution.

Here is my letter to SSHRC's President, Stan Shapson. (You can write Stan Shapson yourself, too. Be brief and polite, but firm.)

Dear Stan Shapson:

I am writing to express my incredulity at the reasons proffered by the Research Development Initiatives Program at SSHRC for the denial of a grant to Prof. Brian Alters to study the detrimental effects of intelligent design on the Canadian understanding of evolution.

Your committee wrote, in part,

"Nor did the committee consider that there was adequate
justification for the assumption in the proposal that the
theory of Evolution, and not Intelligent Design theory, was correct."

This is truly preposterous. The theory of evolution is one of the most-tested and best-substantiated theories in science. And, as Alters stated in his proposal, evolution is "the foundation on which all biological sciences are built". Intelligent design, on the other hand, is religiously-motivated pseudoscience pushed by charlatans.

It does not help the reputation of SSHRC that SSHRC's executive vice-president Janet Halliwell was then quoted in the Canadian press as saying Alters took 'one line in the letter "out of context" and the rejection of his application shouldn't indicate [SSHRC was] expressing "doubts about the theory of evolution".' [Ottawa Citizen, April 5]. To put it bluntly, this appears to be spin that is completely contrary to the facts. Prof. Halliwell has not responded to my e-mail inquiry.

An egregious decision has now been made worse by a failure to honestly admit the mistake and attempt to rectify it. I want to know how you plan to address this failure and I look forward to a prompt response from you.

Yours sincerely,

(Prof.) Jeffrey Shallit

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Worst Interview Ever

I just had the worst interview ever, with CHTV in Hamilton.

In my capacity as Vice-President of Electronic Frontier Canada (now sadly somewhat dormant) I do television and radio interviews. This was a phone interview for a TV show, a strange concept in itself.

The subject was ostensibly Craig Legare, an Edmonton man who was recently acquitted of attempting to lure a 12-year-old girl over the Internet for sexual purposes.

The show's producer, Lawrence Diskin, contacted me on Monday to see if I was willing to do an interview. In my preliminary discussion, I had pointed out that the problem is nothing new; as long ago as 1905, an editorial in the journal Telephony asked, "The doors may be barred and a rejected suitor kept out, but how is the telephone to be guarded?" I expected a calm discussion of how changing technology interacts with the law, and that's what the producer said he wanted. He didn't inform me others would be in on the interview.

When they called at 1:30 PM, I was surprised to find that Roy Green (apparently some right-wing local radio personality) would be on with me, as well as David Butt, who if I'm not mistaken was involved as Crown counsel in the grotesque and farcical 1993 police confiscation of paintings by artist Eli Langer.

No surprise, then, that the interview was just looking for a "gotcha" moment. When I pointed out that laws against luring must be crafted narrowly to avoid criminalizing things like sex education classes, or kids chatting about sex with each other, or reading each other Romeo and Juliet, the host immediately began to demagogue, asking "What about common sense, Jeffrey?" He wasn't interested in listening to my point.

Laws are bad when they are focused on a single medium of communication -- they make the mistake of attacking on the medium and not the message. If luring children for sexual purposes is the problem, let's make laws that address that problem, and not gear them to the Internet. Children can be lured just as well by someone leaning over your backyard fence, or calling your children on the phone when you are not home. The Internet isn't some entirely new threat; it just makes it easier. And laws geared to current media may prove inadequate when media change.

We should craft laws that address the behavior we consider criminal, and the laws should be so narrow that they don't also capture behavior we would consider legitimate. That was my point. I tried to make it, but the host was so intent on demagoguing, it seemed to go over his head.

Friday, March 31, 2006

Moose News Roundup

Here's the Friday moose news roundup:

From the Edmonton Sun, we learn that Robert Lee McLaren of Pugwash Junction, Nova Scotia, has received a 20-year hunting ban for shooting a robotic moose.

From Aftenposten in Norway, we are saddened to learn about a flying moose that landed on the roof of a Mazda driven by Leo Henriksen. The poor moose bounced off the roof and then was hit by a car driven by Randi Olsen.

From MSNBC, we can view a video of a moose that crashed through the windshield of a car in Leominster, Massachusetts driven by Juleigh McDowell, and ended up sitting in the passenger seat with its head out the broken window.

And finally, from the Anchorage Daily News, we have this photo of a young moose that crashed through the roof of a shed in Alaska.

All in all, the life of a moose is difficult.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Stupid Creationist Letter Award for March

The letters section in my college alumni magazine is always a source of amusement, with its monthly fulminations by doddering retirees about some new outrage. When I was a student, the alumni (including, to my shame, our latest Supreme Court justice) were incensed by the admission of women and gays. Now the outrage is directed towards President Tilghman, who had the temerity to point out that intelligent design is a religiously-motivated crock.

A certain Thomas V. Gillman from the class of 1949 raises the usual specious objections. Are you ready to play anti-evolution bingo with some excerpts?

"...she [President Tilghman] dismisses the arguments for 'intelligent design' as specious and representative of only the voice of Christian fundamentalists. That simply is not so." Really? Then how does he explain this quotation of William Dembski, who is one of the leaders of the movement? "I think at a fundamental level, in terms of what drives me in this, is that I think God's glory is being robbed by these naturalistic approaches to biological evolution, creation, the origin of the world, the origin of biological complexity and diversity. When you are attributing the wonder of nature to these mindless material mechanisms, God's glory is getting robbed." (Fellowship Baptist Church, March 7 2004)


"The evolutionary theory of natural selection is just that, a theory." Yes, "only a theory", the hoariest chestnut in the creationist playbook!


"Dr. Tilghman speaks of [evolution's] remarkable resilience to experimental challenge over almost 150 years' as evidence of its validity, when this is really nothing but an admission of failure on the part of the scientific community to ratify the theory..." Do I understand correctly? The fact that evolution has survived every experimental test means, according to Gillman, that the theory has failed? Alex, I'll take "incoherent babble" for $100!


"It [evolution] is not a biological law". The usual misunderstanding about the distinction between "theory" and "law"!


" [evolution] has become increasingly tenuous, as indicated by the numerous writings raising objections to it." Yes, the old many scientists reject evolution chestnut!

O! BINGO! We have a winner! Mr. Gillman, you are the winner of this month's Stupid Creationist Letter Award! Congratulations.

P. S. For more Gillman fun, see here.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Islam: Religion of Tolerance?

From today's Associated Press, we learn that an Afghan man could be sentenced to death for converting to Christianity.

The judge is reported to have said "We are not against any particular religion in the world. But in Afghanistan, this sort of thing is against the law. It is an attack on Islam... The prosecutor is asking for the death penalty."

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Nancy Pearcey: The Creationists' Miss Information

I don't know about you, but whenever I want to learn about information theory, I naturally turn to the creationists. Why, they know so much about geology, biology, and paleontology, it only seems reasonable that their expertise would extend to mathematics and computer science.

Take Nancy Pearcey, for example. Here, for example, we learn that Ms. Pearcey has studied philosophy, German, and and music at Iowa State; that she has a master's degree in biblical studies; that she is a senior fellow at that temple of truth, the Discovery Institute; and that for nine years she worked with former Watergate conspirator and convicted criminal Charles Colson on his radio show, "Breakpoint". Why, those seem exactly the sort of credentials one would want in an instructor of information theory.

Infused with a thirst for knowledge, I headed immediately to my university's library to get her 1994 book co-written with Charles Thaxton, The Soul of Science: Christian Faith and Natural Philosophy. I didn't let the fact that it was donated by Trinity Missionary Church deter me; after all, this fine institution has donated other important books to our library, such as Larry Witham's By Design: Science and the Search for God.

The endorsements for The Soul of Science reassured me I was on the right track. David Shotton, a biologist at Oxford had this to say: "...the clarity of their explanations for the nonspecialist, for example, of Einstein's relativity theories or of the informational content of DNA and its consequences for theories of prebiotic evolution, are quite exceptional, alone making the volume worth purchasing." And there were equally enthusiastic endorsements from other experts in information theory, such as Phillip Johnson and Stephen Meyer.

I then turned to page 239. There I read the following explanation of information theory:

A structure with no order at all---for instance, a random set of letters---requires few instructions. If you want to write out a series of nonsense syllables, you need only two instructions: 1) "Select at random a letter of the English alphabet (or a space) and write it down," and 2) "Do it again." In the natural world a pile of leaves is random. It can be specified by saying 1) "Select at random some type of leaf --- oak, maple, birch --- and drop it on the pile," and 2) "Do it again." A random structure can be specified using few instructions. Hence it has a low information content.

Well, I think everyone would have to agree that this explanation is exceptionally clear and geared to the nonspecialist. Unfortunately, it is completely wrong.

According to information theory as elucidated by Kolmogorov, one does indeed measure the information content of a structure in terms of its shortest description. A string of a thousand A's "AAA.....A" has low information content because we can encode it as "Print A 1000 times". But it is a basic result of the theory -- so basic that I prove it in the very first class on Kolmogorov complexity at my university -- that a string of letters chosen uniformly at random has high information content, with very high probability. That's because such a random string is very unlikely to be generated by a simple program.

Where did Pearcey and Thaxton go wrong? They make two mistakes. First, although the procedure they suggest ("select at random a letter" and "do it again") indeed appears to be short, it does not constitute a description of a specific string. Run their procedure a second time, and you'd get a different string. Second, in Kolmogorov's theory, the description of a string must be completely deterministic; no "select at random" instructions are allowed. These are the kind of mistakes that could only be made by people completely unfamiliar with even the most basic aspects of information theory.

Of course, Pearcey and Thaxton aren't really interested in the information content of sentences or leaf piles. Their goal is to demonstrate that life is too complex to have evolved through natural means. But since high information content can result from random events -- for example, mutation -- it is not surprising at all that DNA can be viewed as a string with high Kolmogorov information. In fact, as Greg Chaitin has observed, pretty much the only way to get large amounts of information in the mathematical sense is to either do a really long calculation, or to exploit a source of randomness. DNA's high information content is prima facie evidence it resulted, in part, from an essentially random process.

So I left the library, disillusioned. How could the creationists be so wrong? Could they have allowed their personal religious beliefs to get in the way of their understanding? Or could they be deliberately misinforming the public to support their evangelical goals? No, the answer is clear: all the experts in information theory must be suppressing the truth.

Obviously, my classes on Kolmogorov complexity must take on a new aspect: teach the controversy!

Friday, March 10, 2006

Erin My Views

Yesterday I traveled to Erin, Ontario, to participate in their Extended Learning Opportunities (ELO) lecture series. This venerable series of lectures is now in its 25th year, and features lectures by professors and others on topics of current interest.

My talk was entitled "Intelligent Design: Creationism in a Cheap Tuxedo", and was well-attended by about 60 people, mostly retirees.

Here's a brief summary of my talk. I started with the impact of Darwin's theory of natural selection, and how it inspired a creationist backlash. I talked about the influence of Canadian "flood geologist" George McCready Price and the recently-deceased Henry Morris. I then talked about and debunked six standard creationist claims:

  1. The earth is only 10,000 years old
  2. Fossils are the result of Noah's flood
  3. Evolution is only a theory
  4. The theory of evolution does not make predictions
  5. Beneficial mutations have not been observed
  6. The Cambrian "explosion" contradicts gradual evolution

I also talked about the common creationist tactics of quote mining, quote editing and misrepresentation, and quote fabrication. I showed how Henry Morris fradulently altered a quote from a paper of Ross and Rezak to support his claims about the Lewis thrust fault.

I briefly mentioned how the creationists lost court decisions such as Epperson v. Arkansas, McLean v. Arkansas, and Edwards v. Aguillard, and how this is the backdrop for the neo-creationists, the intelligent design movement.

I showed pictures of Michael Behe, William Dembski, Phillip Johnson, and Jonathan Wells, and emphasized that they are educated, intelligent people with advanced degrees.

I talked about Michael Behe and his book, Darwin's Black Box. I defined irreducible complexity, and using the examples of John McDonald and Kenneth Miller, showed why irreducible complexity is no bar to evolution. I talked about William Dembski, and his pseudomathematical claims about evolution, and why they were wrong. I showed Dembski's praise of Henry Morris, emphasizing the commonality between creationism and intelligent design.

I then talked about the Kitzmiller v. Dover intelligent design case, and discussed my (small) role in the case. (I was asked by the ACLU to be a rebuttal witness against Dembski. Although I was deposed in the case, Dembski dropped out, and so I was not needed to testify.) With the aid of Nick Matzke's wonderful slides, I showed how the textbook Of Pandas and People took passages that previously referred to "creationists", and changed them, sometimes incompletely, to "intelligent design proponents".

Next, I discussed the "teach the controversy" ploy, pointing out Robert Camp's recent survey of reseach universities, in which nearly every respondent said there was no genuine scientific controversy regarding evolution vs. intelligent design.

Finally, I put up a slide entitled "Why does it matter?" and explained how understanding evolution was crucial to being an informed public citizen on issues such as AIDS, biodiversity, and agriculture. I concluded by putting up the last frame from Ruben Bolling's cartoon, in which the foreign student says, "Yes, America, we would like very much if you would teach your children religious dogma instead of science. We'd like their jobs."

I have to admit, I had some trepidations about giving this talk in Erin, a small town in a part of Ontario known for its strong religious views. However, the reaction was surprisingly positive. Although there was spirited question-and-answer session that lasted 40 minutes, and the questions were acute and probing, there were no really hostile reactions at all. Most people appeared surprised that others would be taken in by the sham of creationism and intelligent design, and were quite comfortable with reconciling evolution with their religious views.

Although it is not easy, I tried to present the claims of creationism and intelligent design fairly, without ridicule. Afterwards, I was pleased about the kind words I received about the presentation. Several people particularly commented about my fairness.

I encourage others to try to take part in this public outreach. For too many years creationists such as Kent Hovind and Ken Ham have been preaching their fraud to a gullible public. As scientists, we need to take the initiative to get the real story out.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Solution to the Birthday Puzzle

Yesterday I posed the following puzzle: On what day of the year do the most people celebrate their birthday?

The answer I expected was, in fact, yesterday: February 28. The rationale is that about 1/(4*365) of all births fall on the leap day, February 29 --- so roughly 3 out of every 4 years, those lucky leapday people have to celebrate on some other day. For psychological reasons it seems very likely that most people will celebrate on February 28 instead of March 1, so this means that February 28 gets a boost of up to 3/16, or 18.75% more celebrants, averaged over many years.

This analysis, however, doesn't take into account the fact that human birthdays are not uniformly distributed. I've found several datasets on the web and in the literature, and each of them exhibits rather wide variablity. For example, an article by Geoffrey Berresford in Mathematics Magazine 53 (1980), 286-288 reveals that for one dataset (births in New York State for the calendar year 1977), the least likely day to give birth was December 11 (.2135%) and the most likely was July 6 (.3478%). The percentage spread for this dataset is 100%*(max-min)/min is 62.9%, easily large enough to swamp the leap year effect! In particular, significantly more people are born during July, August, and September than January, February, March, and this could easily change the results.

However, there are at least two problems with relying on the data from a single year. First, there is a huge weekly fluctuation in birthdays. At least in North America, people are much less likely to be born on a weekend than on a weekday. I imagine this is due, in part, to the fact that many people are born via Caesarean section, and doctors tend to take the weekends off. (A more sinister explanation might be that doctors tend to manipulate birth times with drugs to make sure they occur during a weekday.) Thus, we cannot rely on the data for single day, but need to average this over many years to make sure we get accurate data. Fortunately, there are some other datasets available. This one appears to be for the year 1978; it has a spread of 50.1%. One commenter suggested looking at this dataset, represents applications received over a 14-year period from a life insurance company, and so probably tends to average out the weekly effects. It has a spread of only 38.5%, if one ignores the data for February 29.

A second, but related problem is that some dates are more likely to fall on a particular day than others. For example, the 13th of the month is more likely to fall on a Friday than any other day! (This was noticed as early as 1933 in a Monthly problem; for the reference and an explanation, see here.) As it turns out, February 28 falls on a weekend 28.75% of the time, and February 29 falls on a weekend 28.5% of the time, whereas a uniform distribution would give about 28.57% for both. Coupled with the observation in the previous paragraph, this might be another reason why February 28 might be under-represented, although the effect is quite small, affecting only the 3rd decimal place.

If we use the insurance data mentioned above, then there were 1319 births on February 28 and 325 on February 28. Since in 3 out of every 4 years, the leapies will celebrate their birthdays on February 28, this gives an effective score of 1319 + (3/4)*325 = 1562.75 for February 28. This just barely beats out the otherwise-most-frequent date of August 15, with 1559 births. Here the difference is in the 3rd decimal place! Maybe February 28 really is the most frequently celebrated after all, but if so, it's very close.

Tuesday, February 28, 2006

A Birthday Puzzle

On what day of the year do the most people celebrate their birthday?

For the answer, see here.

Saturday, February 25, 2006

Larry Witham: ID Flack

I am currently re-reading Larry Witham's 2003 overview of the intelligent design movement, By Design: Science and the Search for God. Those who follow the ID movement closely know Witham as a former religion reporter for the Moonie-controlled Washington Times, and as the author of several uncritical articles about ID. Another tip-off that the content would be slanted was that this volume was donated to my university by the Trinity Evangelical Missionary Church, a local group that has donated a significant fraction of the antievolutionary content of our library. So it did not come as a surprise to me in my first reading that By Design was slanted. What did come as a surprise was the level of bias and misrepresentation, even to the point of blatant self-contradiction. I've finally gotten around to listing some of them.

A complete catalog of the misrepresentations would take dozens of pages, so I'll just focus on two chapters, entitled "The Movement" and "By Design".

On page 116, Witham says "What struck [Charles] Thaxton most, however, was that apparently no one in the science community dared raise the question of information. Much as a written page suggests an author, complex chemical information in DNA suggests the work of a mind---a key argument that was to be developed in the intelligent design movement. Leslie Orgel had mentioned the information puzzle in a footnote and used the term specified complexity to explain why the DNA codes were so different from redundant crystal structures."

And on page 117: "Nobody talked about DNA as "information" because it smacked of intention, not of chance and law."

So, is it really true that "nobody" talked about information with respect to DNA? And is the reason why that "information" suggests the work of a mind?

No. Once the structure of DNA was elucidated by Watson and Crick, the idea of DNA as a carrier for information occurred to everyone. In his classic 1958 paper, "On Protein Synthesis", which appeared in a Cambridge University Press volume entitled The Biological Replication of Macromolecules, Crick wrote (pp. 143-144):

"A systematic discussion of our present knowledge of protein synthesis could usefully be set out under three headings, each dealing with a flux: the flow of energy, the flow of matter, and the flow of information. I shall not discuss the first of these here. I shall have something to say about the second, but I shall particularly emphasize the third--the flow of information.

"By information I mean the specification of the amino acid sequence of the protein...


"As in even a small bacterial cell there are probably a thousand different kinds of protein, each containing some hundreds of amino acids in its own rigidly determined sequence, the amount of hereditary information required for sequentialization is quite considerable.


"In other words, the viral RNA appears to carry at least part of the information which determines the composition of the viral protein."
(emphasis in original)

Crick introduced two important ideas in this paper. The first was the "Sequence Hypothesis":

"In its simplest form it assumes that the specificity of a piece of nucleic acid is expressed solely by the sequence of its bases, and that this sequence is a (simple) code for the amino acid sequence of a particular protein."

The second was what Crick jokingly called the "Central Dogma":

"This states that once 'information' has passed into protein it cannot get out again. In more detail, the transfer of information from nucleic acide to nucleic acid, or from nucleic acid to protein may be possible, but transfer from protein to protein, or from protein to nucleic acid is impossible. Information means here the precise determination of sequence, either of bases in the nucleic acid or of amino acid residues in the protein."

So, contrary to Witham and Thaxton, not only was the term "information" being used by the biological community well prior to Orgel's use of the term "specified complexity" in 1973, it constituted an important part of one of the most fundamental papers of the field.

Even well before the structure of DNA was deduced, information-like ideas in biology were obvious even to non-biologists. While he did not use the term "information", Erwin Schrödinger, in his celebrated 1943 series of lectures entitled What is Life?, stated that the "most essential part of a living cell--the chromosome fibre--may suitably be called an aperiodic crystal" (emphasis in original) and spoke of chromosomes as an "hereditary code-script". And the same year as Watson-Crick, a 1953 volume, edited by Henry Quastler, was entitled Information Theory in Biology.

Now here's the ironic part. After claiming on page 116 that "nobody in the science community dared raise the question of information", only 29 pages later Witham himself discusses "information" and the Crick's "sequence hypothesis", on page 145 of By Design! Being an ID flack means consistency gets thrown out the window.

Another tool of the ID flack is to praise the work of creationist hacks. For example, on p. 117 Dean Kenyon's book Biochemical Predestination is labeled as "seminal". Now a truly seminal work in biology would received hundreds of citations. According to the on-line citation search "Web of Science", Biochemical Predestination got 25. Sorry, 25 citations does not make a work seminal. (By contrast, Dawkins' book The Selfish Gene has over 3000 citations.)

Witham claims Thaxton's book The Mystery of Life's Origin (co-authored with Bradley and Olsen) "was unique in laying out all the current origin-of-life theories and how they fell short". Funny, I thought Shapiro's Origins, published about the same time, did that too. He also claims Thaxton's book "opened a new debate". But not much of one, it appears. Web of Science reveals only 25 citations, some of which are by other ID hacks such as Stephen Meyer, Rob Koons, and Henry Schaeffer.

On page 118, Witham favorably mentions Michael Denton's critique Evolution: A Theory in Crisis. But he does not mention that Denton's work was riddled with flaws and misunderstandings.

Here's how, on page 119, Witham discusses criticism of the book Of Pandas and People: "Attacking the book became a pastime for evolutionists in public education and the American Civil Liberties Union". But there is not a single mention of any of the many false claims and misrepresentations in Pandas.

On page 123 we have John West (yet another ID hack) wondering, "Where does information come from?" But don't expect Witham to point out the pure idiocy of this question and the simple answer it has (information comes from randomness).

On page 132, Witham claims "Behe keeps up his research". Not so. John Lynch, at Stranger Fruit, examined Behe's research record and concluded that he has published hardly anything with scientific content since 1998.

On page 146, Witham discusses Dembski's "complex specified information" (CSI). He claims it "exists in nature and in the scrambled security codes on credit cards". Here Witham seems confused. To my knowledge Dembski has never spoken about "scrambled security codes on credit cards". Rather, in Intelligent Design: The Bridge Between Science & Theology, Dembski claimed that it was the number on the credit card itself, not the security code, that constituted CSI. Witham treats CSI as if it were a coherent concept, completely ignoring the many critiques of Dembski's work, even though they were available long before By Design was published.

Witham ends his Chapter 8 by quoting physicist Paul Davies as follows: "Dembski's attempt to quantify design, or provide mathematical criteria for design, is extremely useful. I'm concerned that the suspicion of a hidden agenda is going to prevent that sort of work from receiving the recognition it deserves. Strictly speaking, you see, science should be judged purely on the science and not on the scientist."

I have to admit, I'm not terribly impressed with Davies and his understanding of information theory. I wrote once to correct some mistakes he made in The Fifth Miracle, and, to his credit, he eventually wrote back, admitting his errors and offering to correct them in a future edition. Later I asked him how, precisely, he thought Dembski's ideas were "useful", and what Dembski had to offer that was over and above the work of Kirchherr, Li, and Vitányi. He wrote back saying he did not want to be drawn into a debate. I note that Davies did not say he stood by his previous assessment of Dembski.

Witham could have, instead, ended his chapter with another view of Dembski's work, from David Wolpert: "I say Dembski "attempts to" turn this trick because despite his invoking the NFL theorems, his arguments are fatally informal and imprecise. Like monographs on any philosophical topic in the first category, Dembski's is written in jello. There simply is not enough that is firm in his text, not sufficient precision of formulation, to allow one to declare unambiguously 'right' or 'wrong' when reading through the argument. All one can do is squint, furrow one's brows, and then shrug."

But of course, ID flacks like to pretend that legitimate criticism doesn't exist. If you've read this far, here's the moral: if you are looking for an honest and accurate assessment of intelligent design, don't turn to a flack like Larry Witham.