Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Expelled and Quote Mines

A “quote mine” is a quote which has been taken out of context. A quote mine is distinct from a generic out of context quote in that a quote mine is generally taken from a famous person. Thus, quote mining makes an implied argument from authority. Frequently, the individual whose quote is mined is not a reputable authority on the subject in questions Purveyors of pseudoscience and other fringe ideas they frequently quote mine scientists. Creationists are very fond of quote mining.

One of the most famous quote mines is Charles Darwin’s comment about the human eye. The quote mind is:

To suppose that the eye, with all its inimitable contrivances for adjusting the focus to different distances, for admitting different amounts of light, and for the correction of spherical and chromatic aberration, could have been formed by natural selection, seems, I freely confess, absurd in the highest possible degree.

This quote is from the sixth chapter of The Origin of Species. Immediately after this quote, Darwin goes into great detail describing just how the eye could in fact have formed by natural selection. This is thus an excellent example of a quote mine; it is both out of context and relies on an argument from authority. Like many quote mines, the authority in question is poor; in this case, Darwin died over a century ago. Given the nature of scientific progress, it is laughable that this 100 year old quote is persuasive evidence.

Quote mines are common occurrences in creationist circles. There are entire books of quote mines including Andrew Snelling’s The Revised Quote Book. Snelling’s book includes quotes from modern biologists; the implication is that biologists readily admit the failings of evolution when they are only talking to other biologists in their obscure journals. Many of Snelling’s quotes are either misquoted, woefully out of context or unpersuasive for other reasons.

Why do people engage in quote mines? Many people who have discussed this issue think that quote mines are attributable to malice and deliberate dishonesty.[i] This view is inaccurate. While some quote-mines may be due to dishonesty, there are three causes which are more common: poor reading comprehension, sloppiness, and differing epistemological premises. This last is the least well-recognized cause of quote mining.

Proof-texts are short passages or snippets from a holy text (typically the Bible) used to substantiate some proposition. They frequently have little connection to the general context of the passage. Many different religions including many forms of Christianity and Judaism use proof-texts. If someone comes from an epistemology where proof-texts are a valid way of using holy texts, then quoting with little regard to the general context for other documents is an understandable next step.[ii] Thus, if we wish to stop quote mining, we need to explain to people that science operates under a different epistemology.

Why am I thinking about quote mines? As readers may recall, I reviewed Ben Stein’s Expelled when it was in theaters. Recently while I was in Blockbuster, I saw that Expelled was on sale. I had already seen the movie and saw no good reason to buy a copy. But then a note on the cover caught my attention. The DVD came with a free book of quotations. Of course, I had to buy a copy.

The book does not disappoint. The book, entitled, “The Wonder of the Universe,” is more of a small pamphlet than an actual book. Each page has a single quote in the middle of the page with the rest of the page blank. The entire content could fit on a single sheet of 8 ½ by 11 paper if both sides are used. The quotes are poorly formatted with occasional errors of punctuation and no details of citation other than the author’s name.

What is really interesting is the authors of the quotes and their content. Slightly under half of the quotes in the book come from the Founding Fathers of the United States or from other respected US politicians such as Abraham Lincoln. There is a dearth of quotes from scientists. The most modern scientist quoted, Steinmetz, died in 1923. He is in fact the most recent author cited.

The quotes themselves fall primarily into two broad categories, quotes trumpeting the importance of free exchange and quotes arguing for the existence of God using the standard argument that “X is complicated so X must have been designed by God.” X is life, the stars, or various other entities. Examples of the first type include a quote from Steinmetz that “No man really becomes a fool until he stops asking questions.” An example of the second type is a quote attributed to George Washington stating that “It is impossible to account for the creation of the universe without the agency of a Supreme Being.”

I’m not sure I understand what Stein and his compatriots intended with this book. The point of the quotes about free inquiry is clear, given Stein’s repeated claims that ID proponents are subject to censorship. I am however puzzled how he thinks that George Washington’s opinion is at all relevant when Washington was not a scientist or even a philosopher, but rather a general and President.

I’m forced to conclude that Stein or whichever of Stein’s colleagues compiled this book thinks that the Founders of the United States were so intelligent and saintly that ideas held by them must be given special weight. This is a bit odd since the book also includes the standard quote from Galileo that “In questions of science, the authority of a thousand is not worth the humble reasoning of a single individual.”

Ben: Please make up your mind. Do authorities matter or does reasoning?

A few quotes and authors stand out particularly. There is a quote from Marquis de Vauvenargues. This attempt to appear erudite by quoting a somewhat obscure author fails when one notices that there is another quote from de Vauvenargues. One gets the impression that the compiler used some preexisting book of quotations, skimmed through and saw that there was not one, but two quotes that he could use from de Vauvenargues.

One of the two quotes from de Vauvenargues is that “Great thoughts come from the heart.” This quote does not fit either of the two categories of quotes. However, it reinforces the idea suggested by Alan in the comments thread to the Expelled review that the makers of Expelled object to science because they dislike reason and logic; Stein and his colleagues want appeal to emotion, not reason. This is reinforced by producer Walt Ruloff’s admission that he and others involved in Expelled’s production found attempts to incorporate more science into the movie to be “boring.” Stein and Ruloff: You are welcome to find science boring, but then don’t try to interfere with what the scientists are doing, and don’t whine when the scientists look down on you. And I’m not even going to bother discussing how this attitude also contradicts the earlier quote from Galileo. Consistency is not this book’s strong suit.

One quote from John Locke stands out: “We cannot fathom the mystery of a single flower. Nor is it intended that we should.” This attitude in nutshell is why scientists object to ID as a showstopper. This attitude is an objection to the entire scientific enterprise. Science tries to understand the world around us. And it does a very good job of it. Indeed, since Locke died, we’ve developed a very detailed understanding of flowers. We understand their water uptake. We understand their cells in great detail (cells were not discovered until centuries after Locke). When Locke died, oxygen wasn’t even known, so the basics of plant metabolism were unknown. We’ve done a very good job understanding flowers, thank you very much. If this quote does anything at all, it undermines claims that science cannot succeed, that it cannot develop models and explanations for the wonders of the universe.People who make absolute claims otherwise are frequently proven wrong.[iii]

The age of the quotes is also puzzling. Either Ben Stein was unable to find any quotes from scientists in the last hundred years who support what he has to say or he has some sort of inverted view of how science works, where the older the statement the more authoritative it is. If that is the case, Ben should have just gone and quoted Psalms 53:1 where David says that, “The fool has said in his heart `There is no God.’” That’s about 2000 years older than John Locke or George Washington. Therefore, it is much more authoritative.

Ben, I’m disappointed. I was hoping when I picked up this book that it would contain quotes from modern biologists like those favored by Snellings. I’d have to go and track down the original quotes to find the correct context. But this isn’t even worth it. Even if this book contained any specific claims about biology or cosmology or any branch of science (which it doesn’t), they’d be irrelevant given their great age.

If great thoughts come from the heart, this book is definitely from somewhere else.

Update: The quote attributed to Locke by the book is not due to Locke but rather to John Ruskin. See Glenn Branch's remark below. Apparently Ben did not even manage to attribute claims to the correct authors.

[i] See for example the discussion at the Talk Origin Archive’s Quote Mine Project.

[ii] Not all groups fond of quote mining necessarily come from a religious background (for example HIV-AIDS denialists) but there are likely similar implicit misunderstandings of how science functions.

[iii] I will resist making a direct comparison between Ben Stein and Locke because that is an insult to Locke’s memory. Locke’s comment was made at the beginning of the scientific revolution. Ben Stein’s claims about evolution are made after biologists have spent a hundred and fifty years researching evolution in great detail.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The Inauguration of Barack Obama

There are two posts that are worth pointing out: My twin has a post up about Obama's rhetoric in his inauguration speech. Mike Dunford is taking bets on how long it will take before crazies start claiming that the blooper with the oath of office means that Obama isn't really President.

One thing that my twin noted and I think is worth analyzing further is that Obama had a very inclusive line in regards to religious belief in the United States. "We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus - and nonbelievers." I thought that the phrasing made the last part sound tacked on. However, this is noteworthy since previously some atheists have complained that Obama's rhetoric has left them in the cold. This is in sharp contrast to the recent senate campaign in which Elizabeth Dole tried to smear her opponent for associating with atheists and her opponent responded by denying she had any connection rather than trying to argue that there was nothing wrong with such a connection. However, the rest of Obama's speech contained a large amount of religious rhetoric. This is a step forward for toleration of agnosticism and atheism in the country.

Monday, January 19, 2009

A Short Rant Concerning His Royal Majesty Bhumibol Adulyadej

I've talked before about problems of internet censorship, and I've mentioned in passing Thailand's rules against insulting the king. Australian journalist Harry Nicolaides was just sentenced for three years in jail in Thailand for insulting King Bhumibol Adulyadej. Nicolaides was living in Thailand, and his apparent offense occurred in a book he wrote three years ago.

This sort of censorship is par for the course in Thailand. But what makes this case noteworthy is that CNN and other news sources are unwilling to even report what Nicolaides said. According to CNN, "CNN has chosen not to repeat the allegations made by Nicolaides because it could result in CNN staff being prosecuted in Thailand."

So now Thailand's idiocy is ruining news coverage in other countries. As long as King Bhumibol Adulyadej continues to condone this sort of nonsense , he deserves the same level of respect accorded anyone else who jails those who speak their minds.

So let me make this as clear as I can. In the spirit of Cohen v. California: Fuck Bhumibol Adulyadej.

Note: This post has gone through substantial editing.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Cantor, Sets and Cardinality II

In an earlier post I discussed the work of Cantor to use cardinality to distinguish between different infinite sets. Recall that Cantor defined two sets A and B to have the same cardinality if there is a one-to-one onto function between them. We showed that the natural numbers, even numbers all have the same cardinality. More surprisingly, the natural numbers have the same cardinality as the rational. At this point, one might think that all infinite sets have the same cardinality. Cantor found that the set of real numbers has cardinality greater than the set of natural numbers. We will prove this by proving the slightly stronger result that the set of real numbers between zero and one have cardinality greater than the cardinality set of positive integers. That is I will show |A| > |N| where A is the set of positive real numbers that are less than 1. We shall use an argument due to Cantor called the diagonalization argument. This argument is due to Cantor but is not his original line of argument. We will sketch this proof in base 10 and then discuss issues that come up when trying to modify the proof for base 2.

We will assume there is a one-to-one onto function f from |N| to A as n ranges from 1 to infinity. We denote by fk(n) the kth decimal digit of f(n). We then want to look at fn(n). This forms the diagonal of our list of numbers, hence the name of this argument. To make this more concrete let us assume that we have f(1)=.618… f(2)=.141… and f(3)=.718… so we have a list that looks like:
1) .618…
2) .141…
3) .718

The bolded digits are those that are fn(n) for some n. Now, we make a new number D. D is defined as having a 4 in the kth place of its decimal expansion past the decimal point except when fk(k)=4 in which case there is a 5. Thus in our earlier example list D would start with .454… Now, we claim that D cannot be anywhere on our list since D disagrees with the nth number on our list in the nth decimal place (D has a 4 there precisely when f(n) does not, has a 5 when f(n) has a 4). Thus, our list is not complete and we have reached a contradiction. A few things to note: First, this result was completely constructive. It allows us given any function f from N to A to construct an element of A that is not in the range of f. Second, nothing was special about 4 and 5, although choosing 9 instead of 4 might have been problematic because if D ended in all 9s then we would have a string that should not be on our list anyways (by our convention for terminating decimals).

Now I’d like to address a question that Etienne asked in the comment’s thread of the previous post on this topic. It is easy to see in the above argument that we could use any base b rather than base 10 as long as b>2. However, in base 2 there’s a problem: we only have two digits available for our number D. Thus, using this argument straight off we must choose one of them to be the digit 1 which in base 2 will trigger the same rollover problem that 9 triggers in base 10. Etienne asked if there is a way to repair this hole in the proof for base 2. I assert that it is possible although it requires some careful attention to detail. A brief sketch of how to repair it follows.

Assume we are in the same situation as earlier, but we write fn(n) for base 2 rather than base 10. Further, use the same convention as earlier that in an ambiguous situation we use 00s rather than 1s. Now, unless fn(n) extends a string of all 0s our earlier proof will go through and we will be done. If fn(n) is 0 for all arbitrarily large n then we will construct a function g that is also a 1-1 onto map from N to A that has arbitrarily large n such that gn(n) is 1. We define g as follows: Start with f. Then permute f as follows: At each n that is a power of 2 starting at 1, if fn(n) is 0 then we can pick some t>n such that ft(n)=1 and fn(t)=ft(t). We do this for every successive power of 2, unless that power of 2 was already used in a swap. When we complete this process we will have a new function g such that there are arbitrarily large n such that gn(n) is 1 and we get the desired contradiction.

Cantor proved much more than what we have proved here. Cantor showed that there is an infinite hierarchy of infinite sets of successively higher cardinalities. I will discuss this and related results in a later post.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Skeptic's Circle #103

The 103rd Skeptic's Circle is up at Bug Girl's Blog. There's a lot of good material there. You can tell because it includes a entry of mine on critical thinking and pop culture. Go check it out.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Joe, Please Go Home

Samuel Joseph Wurzelbacher, more commonly known as Joe the Plumber, has now gone to Israel as a “war correspondent” for Pajama TV. Joe has said that he wants to present the Israeli side and that he thinks the media is biased against Israel. Unfortunately, Wurzelbacher’s comments and actions hurt Israel far more than they help.

Wurzelbacher has gone to Sderot, an Israeli town which has suffered repeated rocket attacks from Hamas in Gaza. Israel points to the repeated attacks on Sderot and neighboring cities as the justification for its current operation in Gaza.

Good arguments exist to support the morality of most of Israel’s recent actions even if one is not sure that Israel's actions are pragmatically useful. Most importantly, Hamas broke the recent truce, and Israel has a right and duty as a sovereign nation to defend its citizens against repeated attacks. I will not go into these issues in detail since they are not the subject of this post.

Wurzelbacher has touched briefly on the strong arguments made by Israel. However, he has attempted to add his own spin and that is where he does damage to the Israeli cause. According to CNN, Wurzelbacher thinks that reporters should not be allowed to report on wars. Wurzelbacher said, “You know, war is hell. And if you’re gonna sit there and say, ‘well, look at this atrocity,’ well you don’t know the whole story behind it half the time, so I think the media should have no business in it.” Let’s rephrase that. Wurzelbacher does not want reporters to report because they will report on atrocities and some of those might not be genuine atrocities or might be explained by extenuating circumstances.

Fortunately, Israel has a stronger case than this. Israel has systematically attempted to minimize civilian casualties in this operation while Hamas has done the exact opposite. Wurzelbacher, demonstrating the classic brilliance of the man on the street, has made an argument that is almost a parody of Israel’s legitimate claims. Without context, I would have thought that Joe's argument was a strawman made by someone trying to portray Israel in a negative light. Israel makes a strong defense of the morality of this war. It doesn’t need Joe the Plumber’s assistance which is doing more damage than help. Joe, please go home.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Judaism and Geocentrism

I’ve blogged before about geocentrism as a modern phenomenon. Geocentrism, the belief that the Earth is at the center of the universe, was a center piece of the Ptolemaic system and was overthrown by the work of Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo. However, certain extremist religious groups have continued to insist on geocentricity and have claimed to have scientific bases for their beliefs. Until recently, I believed that the modern geocentrist movement existed only in certain extreme Christian groups especially Protestants.1 This view is in error. There are ultra-Orthodox Jews who are geocentrist.

Most of the active Jewish geocentrists are Lubavitchers. In contrast to the Christian geocentrists who have as their main impetus for geocentrism various Biblical verses, 2 the Jewish geocentrists seem to in a large part be motivated to preserve the correctness of certain statements by Maimonides. In particular, they defend the cosmology as set out by the Maimonides in the Mishne Torah. I am puzzled by these apologetics for two reasons: First, there does not appear to be any similar attempt to defend incorrect medical statements by Maimonides. Second, there’s no theological need even among charedim to believe that Maimonides was infallible. Prior to this, I have seen attempts to argue for what amount to infallibility of the Talmudic authors but had not previously encountered such attempts where later authors such as Maimonides were concerned.3

Like the Christian geocentrists, the Jewish geocentrists prefer two lines of argument which are contradictory and yet are used in tandem. First, they argue that under General Relativity one can always construct a coordinate system with a given point as stationary so one might as well assume that the Earth is at the center.4 This argument has been sometimes called “weak geocentrism.

The second argument, “strong geocentrism,” is the claim that the Earth is at the center of the universe in a meaningful fashion; that is, there are lines of evidence which only make sense if the Earth is at the center of the universe. How both these claims can be made simultaneously is not clear to me. Apparently, studying Talmud on a daily basis does not help ones logical skills as much as one might hope. As with the Christian geocentrists, the Jewish geocentrists have a strong anti-science bent; they either insinuate or state outright that there exists a massive conspiracy within the scientific establishment to discredit geocentrism. Like their Christian counterparts, the Jewish geocentrists credit the Copernican system with inspiring later heresy such as evolution.

On the whole, the Jewish geocentrists in thoughts and arguments are very similar to the Christian geocentrists. As with the Jewish and Christian anti-evolutionists it is not obvious to me whether there is cross-fertilization or independent arrival at the same ideas. I suspect there is cross-fertilization but the mechanism is unclear. More research is needed.
While Catholic geocentrists also exist they are rarer than their Protestant counterparts. Geocentrism is in fact not the most extreme extant cosmological belief; there are a handful of extant flat-earthers especially among Islamic groups. See for example this video of a debate on Iraqi television about whether the Earth is flat.
2. Such as Joshua 10 in which the sun stands still.
3. Orthodox apologists use a variety of different arguments to defend against apparent errors of fact in the Talmud. One of the more transparent attempts is to claim that the nature of the universe has changed since the Talmudic time. This claim shows up in a variety of different forms including explaining the Talmud’s apparent confusion about the human female menstrual cycle. My impression is that many such claims are pro forma; I have yet to find anyone who was been willing to state explicitly that they think the basics of human anatomy have changed in the last 2000 years.
4. I’m not sure this is in fact strictly true. I’d appreciate input on this subject from people who understand general relativity. In fact, this weak geocentrism is not sufficient to save Maimonides's cosmology since he has the various planets in circular orbits about the Earth and has the sun in a circular orbit about the earth (along with a few epicycles). This contradicts observed data even if the Earth were stationary.