Monday, October 27, 2014

Creationists Desperately Crave Respect - But They Don't Get It

When creationists have an event, they frequently try to have it at a university. The reason why is clear: they crave the academic respectability that a university would give them. If they can say they've had a conference at Cornell -- well, then, there must be something to it, or such a university wouldn't allow them to hold it, right?

If not a university, they can try to have their event at some famous scientific institution, like the Smithsonian. It's a win-win for creationists: if they succeed, they get respectability the famous name gives them; if they don't they can cry "censorship" and make a movie about how poorly they are treated. It feeds the martyrdom scenario that many fundamentalists seem to enjoy.

The latest bogus creationist event is the "Origin Summit", which they managed to hornswoggle Michigan State University into holding. According to Science magazine, subterfuge was used from the very start: "Creation Summit secured a room at the university’s business school through a student religious group, but the student group did not learn about the details of the program—or the sometimes provocative talk titles -- until later, says MSU zoologist Fred Dyer."

Dishonesty and illegitimately seeking academic validation: two of the major characteristics of creationism.

(By the way, if you want to be really appalled, read about Jerry Bergman, one of their illustrious speakers.)

P. S. If you look at this page, you'll see evangelical whack job Lee Strobel described as a "certified agnostic". I wonder where you get certified. Maybe they meant "certifiable" instead?

Thursday, October 23, 2014

I See Berlinskis

Hey, there's a new science journal out. It's called Inference Review.

Sorry, I should have really said that it's a new "science" journal. That's because the weirdness is strong --- very strong --- with this one.

Just look at the first articles they published. One is by Michael Denton, the odd biologist who published an anti-evolution book called Evolution: A Theory in Crisis back in 1985. Needless to say, that book was filled with errors and misunderstandings. That ignorance, however, didn't prevent Denton from acquiring a big fan base among the intelligent design crowd (when does it ever?); Phillip E. Johnson and the laughable George Gilder counted themselves among Denton's fans. And Denton's new Inference Review article is touted by none other than that pathetic ID pipsqueak Casey Luskin.

Demonstrating yet another example of crank magnetism, a second Infererence Review article is by global warming skeptic William Kininmonth.

Are you beginning to get suspicious yet? Who's running the show here?

Well, we don't know. Unlike real science journals, nowhere on the website for Inference Review can one find a listing of the editorial board. I wonder why they want to hide...

A sharp-eyed commenter on a private mailing list points out, however, that the journal's twitter followers include, in addition to a few gullible science journalists, two different Berlinskis: Mischa and the eminently silly Claire Berlinski.

Hmmm. What would possess two Berlinskis to follow an obscure and mysterious "science" journal with intelligent design creationist and global warming denialist leanings?

Read some of the pages and you'll come to the same conclusion I did. That ol' poseur David Berlinski is surely involved somehow. All the signs are there: the Francophilia (why else would the grotesque caricatures be featured?), the pretension, the supercilious turns, the obsession with criticizing evolution, the solicitation for articles on mathematics topics dear to David, and the use of the word "irrefragable"; all are Berlinski hallmarks.

C'mon, David! Don't hide your light under a bushel. Come out into the open.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Most Philosophers Have Nothing Interesting to Say About The Brain

If you want to understand the brain, look to neuroscience. Most philosophers (unless they have some decent neuroscience training*) have simply nothing of interest to say. The reason why is that (a) their speculations were not tied to any physical models and (b) their claims were often so vague or incoherent they could not be verified and (c) when the claims were more precise, there was rarely an effort to prove or disprove through experimentation.

Instead, philosophers gave us time-wasters like the "Chinese room argument" (still taken seriously by some very smart people, which I find astonishing) and the silly and overblown early anti-AI claims of Hubert Dreyfus (who actually got awards for his work).

Of course, it's going to be really hard to understand how the brain works. That's because the immense complications of the brain did not arise through intelligent design -- which would have given us nice discrete subsystems that interact in controlled and efficient ways -- but rather through the rather higgledy-piggledy bricolage of billions of years of evolution.

Nevertheless, we're making some small progress in understanding the brain and the mind and the mind-body problem and perception and memory and awareness and "understanding" and consciousness and free will, and other conundrums that have baffled philosophers for thousands of years. For example, read Crick's The Astonishing Hypothesis. The tools philosophers used -- until recently -- were simply too puny to get anything reasonable done.

When you read a philosopher on the brain or the mind, look for the warning signs. Here's one: do they treat things like "consciousness" and "understanding" as a binary property -- that something either has or doesn't have? Or do they explicitly recognize that these could lie on a continuous (or at least variable) spectrum? If the former, beware.

If reading Crick is too much work, you can also show up today, at the University of Waterloo, to hear my colleague Jeff Orchard speak on "Computing Between Your Ears".

* For philosophers who really do have something to say, look at, for example, the Churchlands.