10 March 2008

How I learned to not love Ben Stein

I really liked the game show. And the movie. But now I'm really disappointed. My father and I are frustrated by Stein's new movie Expelled for two reasons. First, it's way overly dramatic. "Who will fight this battle?" Come on. Some people's beliefs are being challenged in the public domain and they are blowing up the issue. And the mud and lightning thing? That's a punch line Stein is using for persuasion. And beyond dramatic, I suspect it's even being deceptive; I think it's pretty obvious that they curtail Dr. Richard Dawkin's statement about "rival doctrines" before he can end his sentence. I'm confident he would have added a qualifying clause such as "a rival doctrine that is not falsifiable." Keep reading to see why I think so.

The key to science's success during the hundreds of years since The Enlightenment has been skepticism (in the scientific sense), rationalism, empiricism, and naturalism, as best embodied by the scientific method. I've included a diagram of the scientific method from this website. This method is a predominant reason for why we have achieved the technological progress as a species that we have today.

The green oval is a lynchpin of the whole thing. Every theory in hard science must be falsifiable by natural evidence - there must be the potential for the theory to be demonstrated wrong in the natural physical world. For instance, if we found some fossils that were significantly out of line with Darwin's theory, then that would be cause for us to look at the new evidence and refine the theory of evolution so that it is improved and once again encompasses the overwhelming majority of evidence. The theory would change since we found out that it was wrong to some degree (small or big) by looking around in the natural world.

Intelligent design/creationism is not science because it are not falsifiable. Period. Full stop. End of discussion. This like explaining why a giraffe is not a piece of fruit. (Don't be confused about the fact that intelligent design and creationism are the same thing – comment if you'd care for a discussion on that which includes a hilarious and embarrassing piece of evidence.)

For that reason, those claims do not belong in the science classroom. Some other classroom, sure, but the claims are simply not science since they are not susceptible to contradiction. They are "invincible" in that sense: how do you test intelligent design? How could anyone ever prove that the world was not created by a higher intelligence? There's no way to do such a thing. This is why Dr. Philip Pettit, Dr. Daniel Dennet, and Kathleen Kennedy Townsend J.D. call intelligent design "not a research programme", "propaganda", and "a distraction". A higher intelligence means "supernatural" as far as humanity is concerned and that means outside of the boundaries of science. Sure, maybe someday science will identify a higher intelligence that we can actually interact with in some way within the natural world. But until then such discussions are inappropriate (indeed, fruitless) in scientific disciplines.

Stein attempts to frame this whole movie as a freedom of speech "battle." The authors who are putting forward creationism/intelligent design as science have been spurned from the science community and had their submitted articles rejected since they have abandoned an essential pillar of scientific practice, falsifiability. This is not a free speech issue in anyway. These are professionals who are being held accountable for their speech in a purely professional way. It means something to be a scientist, and if your writings contradict the very foundations of science, then your participation will not be welcomed in that community. The same thing would happen in any professional community; if a lawyer seriously misrepresented a client or lied in court, they would be ousted or even jailed.

For this abuse of his (false) authority, perversion of the issue of freedom of speech, and blatant pandering, Ben Stein has fallen from my list of enjoyable celebrities. Expelled indeed.

07 March 2008


Bill Moyer's Journal spotlights some great reporting by David Heath and Hal Burton (ha!) of the Seattle Times. Here's the earmark database from the report. A recent article by Heath includes a link to a US government database mandated by a law sponsored (to some degree; Heath's article wasn't clear) by both McCain and Obama.

Banning earmarks is part of the Change Congress pledge:
  1. No money from lobbyists/PACS.
  2. Ban "earmarks"
  3. Support public financing of campaigns.

03 March 2008

Dear everyone who might ever write a survey,

Consider this example question from a survey:
"You always stick to the plan."
Do you strongly agree agree slightly agree slightly disagree disagree or strongly disagree?
This irks me so very much. How can you build a severity into the statement and then ask me to assign a severity to my agreement? What does it mean to slightly agree that I always stick to the plan? Stop thinking or else you'll have an aneurysm (1'53" mark).

I've groaned out loud numerous times when taking surveys that have these on them. This sort of question, unfortunately, is not a rarity.

So if you ever write a survey, please confine adjectives of severity to the answers; leave them out of the questions. Please. For me. For rationality.

That's so recherche

As a I am a comp sci person, words that describe themselves make me giggle. Recherche's the latest. The self-reference is called recursion, and it's important. It comes in a few varieties, one of which is frustratingly simultaneously always correct but always useless: x = x. Can't argue with that. Also can't do much with it. The word examples tickle me because, for instance, recherche is recherche is non-trivially true – the word is indeed exotic and exquisite and sometimes even pretentious.