Monday, April 28, 2008

Not An Inconvenient Clip

In Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, there is a scene depicting an artic ice shelf. Recently, Gore has been criticized since part of the scene is a clip from the science-fiction movie The Day After Tomorrow.

This matter has been discussed in elements of the blogosphere that are traditionally skeptical of anthropogenic global warming or global warming in general. See for example this post at Uncommon Descent. However, this criticism has received little attention from mainstream science bloggers or the general media.

Three relevant points have not yet been addressed:

First, the original source of this report was ABC News. This story was then picked up by the right-wing "News Busters."

News Busters exists to "expose" and "combat" what it terms "liberal media bias". News Busters went on to say that "Adding delicious insult to injury, this was presented by one of ABC's foremost global warming alarmists Sam Champion during Friday's `20/20.’" However, one of the "liberal" media organizations, ABC, broke the story damaging to Al Gore. Furthermore, having such a story reported by an “alarmist” is a good example of intellectual honesty and unbiased reporting.

Second, the sequence is properly credited at the end of the movie. No deception appears to be occurring(1). This stands in sharp contrast to Expelled(or see my review here). Gore never makes any statement that implies this is actual footage. When I saw the movie, I did not assume that this was actual footage. There appears to be no deliberate attempt to deceive viewers. If the burden on Gore is to avoid deception, he has met that goal. Not discussing the nature of the footage makes Gore sloppy but not intellectually dishonest. Even if one believes that Gore had a duty to preempt possible misunderstandings, failure to do so is a lesser offense than outright deception.

Third, this incident says little about the substance of global warming. As I've discussed in an
earlier entry
, ad hominem attacks when directed at major proponents of an idea can be valid heuristics. This is not such a case. Even if Gore’s behavior had been deceptive, he is a layman who is acting as a popularizer for a scientific theory. Furthermore, among climate scientists there is a strong consensus that global warming is real and that it is being caused by people.

Overall, this is a non-issue and the general media is correct to give it little attention.

(1) I've been told this by word of mouth. I don't have a source for it and have not had a chance to look at a copy of the movie.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

My take on Expelled. Now with Extra Praeteritio!

I saw Expelled. It was atrocious. For those who haven't been paying attention, this movie is a documentary starring Ben Stein in which he claims that intelligent design has been discriminated against in academia and that evolution is responsible for most of the horrors of the 20th century.

I'm not going to spend time addressing the most serious factual problems in the movie. So I'm not going to talk about how they lied and omitted relevant data about what actually happened with Richard Sternberg. Nor am I going to address the truth about Guillermo Gonzalez's tenure denial. Nor am I going to address any of the myriad other claimed examples of persecution in the movie which suffer from serious holes.

I'm also not going to talk about the allegations of plagiarism and copyright violations.

I'm also not going to spend too much time talking about the heavy-handedness of the movie other than to say that there are only so many comparisons Stein can make to the Berlin wall and so many images of Nazis before one's boredom overcomes how offended one is.

Finally, I'm not going to talk about Stein's attempt at semantic juggling to claim that ID isn't creationism since it doesn't explicitly endorse a literal interpretation of Genesis.

I am going to instead focus on three details that summarize how completely and irredeemably awful this movie was.

First, Ben Stein at one point says that the world population is eight billion. When we saw this we all talked about maybe we had missed when it had gone beyond seven and it now rounded up. Nope. All sources say that it is now about 6.6 billion. Stein cannot even claim this was due to a rounding error. When you cannot even get that basic facts correct I'm at a loss to understand why Stein expects anyone to take this movie seriously. And is this evidence that Win Ben Stein's Money was just a fraud?

Second, some of the people interviewed as ID proponents expressed skepticism that speciation occurs. That's particularly interesting because at this point the evidence for speciation is so overwhelming that even the major Young Earth Creationists acknowledge that speciation happens.

Third, there was a section where Stein was interviewing people about abiogenesis and scientists were to a large extent acknowledging that we do not know much about how life started. Now, I'm not going to address the issue that how life started isn't actually all that relevant to whether evolution is correct or not. However, there were two ideas discussed where Stein's response was interesting. The first idea, directed panspermia, one might be right to criticize (certainly I think Imre Lakatos would criticize it as not being a fruitful research program). Of course, Stein's criticism consisted solely of showing clip scenes from old science fiction movies. Hardly an example of an intellectually sophisticated criticism.

The second idea discussed was when one chemist who mentioned the possibility that a possible precursor of life might have been self-reproducing chemicals in a crystalline matrix (I may have the details slightly wrong. It was only mentioned briefly). Now here's the fun part: the movie switches to a black-and-white clip (they like to do this a lot) of a stereotypical fortune-teller looking at a crystal ball. Stein voices over "Aliens? Crystals? I thought this was science!" (this may be a slight paraphrase).

Now, I'm genuinely puzzled as to what he thinks is not scientific about crystals. The best explanation I can come up with is that he associates them with New Age nonsense and does not understand that crystals are in fact chemically and geologically interesting objects. The level of anti-intellectualism in Stein's statement is appalling. And frankly, I'm a bit shocked that apparently no one who saw early versions bothered trying to tell Stein that there wasn't anything unscientific about studying crystals.

This entry is getting long but I must end it with an important disclaimer:
I don't think that criticizing this movie or Ben Stein is a valid ad hominem attack of the type discussed in my previous entry. Someone with the same resources could easily make a more convincing movie. Furthermore, Stein is not in general a major originator or proponent of ID and many of his ideas (such as that ID is all about God) are in direct contradiction to what some of the major ID proponents have said (the fact they are likely lying is somewhat besides the point). Overall, this is a terrible movie and Ben Stein at best comes across as a stupid ignoramus and a failed demagogue. But it doesn't really say much about Intelligent Design.

Friday, April 18, 2008

On the validity of ad hominem attacks

It is generally taken for granted that ad hominem arguments are not valid. That is, arguments of the form “x is y, and x said z so not z”. Classic values of y include capitalist, communist, liberal, conservative, Jew, Christian, atheist and Muslim. However, there are circumstances where ad hominem attacks make sense.

It is well known that ad hominems make sense when one is dealing with the credibility of the claiming. If Bob says he saw Sally deal drugs and Bob is himself a convicted drug dealer, we would be less inclined to listen to Bob than if Bob were say a well-respected businessman who gives much of his time and money to charity. This makes sense since the truth of the statement depends on whether we trust Bob. In contrast, if Bob says “1+1=2” even if Bob is a mass murderer and a pathological liar this does not make the statement less likely to be true.

However, there is another circumstance where ad hominem attacks may have a reasonable place that is frequently overlooked; when they are used as heuristics. Few people have the time or resources to examine every issue in detail. Thus we turn to heuristics to gather information. For example, unless one is a climatologist you are unlikely to be able to examine all evidence for anthropogenic global warming. However, one can say “hmm, the evidence I’ve seen makes sense and the vast majority of people who have looked at the matter have concluded that it is occurring. They are likely correct.” Now, here is where ad hominem attacks may become valid. Since one is substituting the reliability and relevance of authorities over ones own logic.

Similarly, if major proponents of an idea are engaging in unethical or extremely unproductive behavior it may be because the idea lacks enough merit to defend on any substantial grounds.

Consider the example of intelligent design, the modern form of the teleological argument that argues that certain aspects of life and the universe demonstrate that there was an intelligent designer of the universe or life. Major proponents of this idea have included William Dembski who is a known liar who spends a large amount of his time rather than doing ID research writing his blog, removing comments on his blog that make him look stupid, and constructing animations with third grade level insults to people that he dislikes. (1)

Now, no one would be shocked to find the idea that Demski is a proponent of has no validity. (If you think otherwise I suggest you read the decision in Kitzmiller v Dover or if you have time read all the testimony)

Now, from a perspective of formal logic, we cannot dismiss intelligent design just because it was constructed solely to sneak God into public schools. Nor can we dismiss it because the major proponents like William Dembski are known liars who seem to do less scientific research than talented undergraduates. But, if someone does not have the time to examine the issue in detail, these are useful heuristics for whether or not they should take the matter seriously.

It is completely reasonable for the time-pressed individual to look at this sort of event and conclude that this isn’t an idea that is worth their time examining. Real scientists who are proponents of controversial ideas don’t try to push their ideas into public high schools and spend their time making flatulence-filled animations about federal judges. And it isn’t unreasonable for someone to conclude that if Dembski’s ideas had serious merit he’d be spending his time more productively. And this sort of argument may be valid in a variety of circumstances, not just when dealing with fringe science or pseudoscience issues but also in others such as politics.

So given this, I have a few questions that I don’t as of yet have good answers to. When can we use such heuristics? If a proponent of an idea is a drunk, or a jerk does that mean we can dismiss it? More precisely, what exactly are the relevant ad hominem attacks and which are not relevant? And how prominent a proponent of an idea does someone need to for the proponent’s behavior need to be relevant? Finally, is it even clear that getting enough information to reliably use this heuristic will ever take less effort than actually studying the area in question?

(1). See for example (and note also comment 23 there by Dembski)

Monday, April 14, 2008

Goodbye to John Archibald Wheeler

Wheeler, one of the last of the great physicists of the 20th century has passed away. He coined the term black hole and pioneered modern understanding of nuclear reactions in both theory and practice. He was involved in building the first fission bomb in the Manhattan Project and later involved in building the first fusion bomb. There is an excellent obituary in the New York Times, a moving piece by Daniel Holz at Cosmic Variance and of course the Wikinews article which I helped write.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

This is unsolved. No really,

I recently encountered an amazingly simple unsolved problem known as the Frankl
. Suppose I have a non-empty finite family of finite sets closed under union, is there necessarily an element that is an element in at least half the sets in the family?

For the people who haven't studied set theory in a while here's a quick refresher (everyone else can skip the next three paragraphs). A set is a collection of objects where we do not care about order and things are either in the set or not. So for example {1,2,3} is a set. If something is in a
set we say it is an element of that set. So for example 2 is an element of {1,2,3} but 5 is not an element. Sets are defined just by what elements they have, so for example the set {2,3,5} is the same as the set defined by containing any prime less than 6. Sets also don't just need to contain
integers. You could think about the set of US Presidents or the set of years in which the Yankee's won the pennant. (Some people may note that this actually leads to problems, but I may post on that later).

Now, the union of two sets is the set formed by making the set that contains everything and is generally denoted with a big U. So for example {1,2} U {2,7} = {1,2,7}.

Now the problem is again suppose I have a non-empty finite family of finite sets closed under union, is there necessarily an element that is an element in at least half the sets in the family? First let's think about what families might work. Well, how about {1},{2},{3},{1,2},{2,3},{1,3},{1,2,3} . This is closed under unions (if you are fuzzy on sets this would be good to check). And in fact the conjecture is true, in fact every element appears in exactly half the sets.

Now for everyone: It isn't hard to see that if there are any singletons in the family, that is sets of of the form {a} then one can take your element to be a. And a similar results holds if one has a pair. If there is a set of the form {a,b} then one can show that either a or b appears in at least half the sets. However, this actually breaks down for triplets. There are families closed under union that contain a triplet {a,b,c} and not one of a b or c appears in half the sets.

This problem is fantastically simple to state. It is hard to explain to a non-math person how simple this problem sounds. The fact that it is unsolved is striking. This is one of the things that appeals to me about math. We have problems that can be simply explained to laypeople and yet those problems are unsolved.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Non-transitice dice

Transitivity is a nice property and people like it when it occurs. Relationships that are transitive have the general property that A~B and B~C implies A~C. For example, if A is greater than B, and B is greater than C, then A is greater than B.

First, a definition: consider fair dice with some number of sides but the numbers are not necessarily the numbers one normally has on a die. So for example a die with sides( 1,2,3,4,5,6) on the sides would be ok, but so would one with (2,2,3,4) or even for our purposes (1,2) or even just (1) (this hypothetical dice just always lands on 1). For our purposes we will describe a die solely by what numbers it has on its sides. Now, a definition: we define die A to beat die B if when A and B are rolled more than half the time die A yields a higher number than die B. So for example die A (0,5,5,5,5) beats die B (1,2,3,4) since 4/5ths of the time A yields a higher result than B.

Now, one might think that if I have three dice, A, B and C and if A is beaten by B and B is beaten by C then A is beaten by C. However, as you likely guessed from the subject of this post, that is not always the case. And what’s more, we don’t need fancy die with many sides or anything. We can do a simple example with three six sided die. Consider the die A= (3,3,3,3,3,9) , die B=(1,4,7,7,7,7) and die C=(2,2,2,8,8,8). I claim that die A is beaten by die B, die B is beaten by die C but in fact die C is beaten by die A. Now, we could verify this by enumerating all the possible examples for each pair of dice rolls, but this isn’t tedious, so instead we’ll just think a little bit. First, consider the cases of A and B. 5/6th of the time, A rolls a 3. 5/6th of the time B rolls a 4 or a 7, both of which are greater than a 3. Thus, B has a higher number than A at least (5/6)^2=25/36>1/2 the time. Now, consider B and C. Half the time C rolls an 8 and so has a higher number than B automatically. Furthermore, when C rolls a 2 B sometimes rolls a 1. So more than half the time C yields a higher number than B. So C beats B. Now, the logic for the third set is almost identical to the previous one. Whenever C rolls a 2, A wins. But whenever A rolls a 9, A wins no matter what. So more than half the time A wins. Thus, A does in fact beat C.