March 26, 2006 - April 1, 2006 Archives

Good Math, Bad Math, and David Berlinkski

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David Berlinski is the Disco Institute’s ex-pat math jester (vying with Dembski for the lead in that role). He apparently regards himself as a polymath, taking on evolutionary biology from his vantage point in Paris. He’s been taken down on the Thumb a number of times – see, for example, here and here – and Jason Rosenhouse has also nailed Berlinski for his misrepresentations of evolutionary biology, concluding

So, once again, we have caught Berlinski making stuff up. There is almost no intersection at all between Berlinski’s points and those made by Dawkins and Coyne, and where there is overlap the latter had a far different points in mind than the former. But then, if they didn’t resort to total fiction the anti-evolutionists would have nothing to say at all.

Recently the Disco Institute put up Berlinski’s analysis of the probability of the naturalistic origin of life. Math is allegedly Berlinski’s field of expertise, so it seems reasonable to imagine that he’d do a better job in it. But Mark Chu-Carroll at Good Math, Bad Math gives it a look, concluding

This is what mathematicians call “slop”, also known as “crap”. Bad reasoning, fake numbers pulled out of thin air, assertions based on big numbers, deliberately using wrong numbers, invalid combinatorics, and misapplication of models. It’s hard to imagine what else he could have gotten wrong.

That’s pretty much the same conclusion that Rosenhouse reached regarding Berlinski’s work. Give Chu-Carroll’s full post a read.


Figure 3 of Jansen & van Baalen (2006): An example of a snapshot of spatial beard chromodynamics.Here’s another peer-reviewed scientific article, published in Nature, that was probably published in the vicinity of April 1 due to its title:

Vincent A. A. Jansen and Minus van Baalen (2006). “Altruism through beard chromodynamics.” Nature 440, 663-666 (30 March 2006).

I will demonstrate in this paper that all the Indo-European languages and probably all languages on earth evolved from ancient Hebrew.

The conventional wisdom is that Hebrew and the languages of Europe share only three words: amen, hallelu-Yah, and Kokah-Kolah. The 3000-year-old manuscripts known as the Dead Ashkenaz Scrolls, however, contain ancient Hebrew roots so old that they are not found in the Hebrew Bible: they survive only in Yiddish. This discovery dispels the usual belief that Yiddish is a Germanic language; rather, the manuscripts show that German is a Yiddic language.

Fossil rhino footprint in, um...April Fool’s Day is just around the corner. And while this paper in the august journal Annales de Paléontologie isn’t supposed to be a joke, it definitely should be:

Miguel Telles Antunesa, Ausenda C. Balbino and Léonard Ginsburg (2006). “Miocene Mammalian footprints in coprolites from Lisbon, Portugal.” Annales de Paléontologie, 92(1), pp. 13-30. January-March 2006.

Abstract: For the first time, at least for the Lisbon Miocene series, uncommon ichnologic evidence has been recognized, i.e. mammalian footprints in coprolites. Three coprolites were recorded in three successive stratigraphic units, IVb and Va2 from the Lower Miocene to Vb from the early Middle Miocene. The largest, tridactyl footprint can be ascribed to a right foot of a rhinoceros. Size excludes all the rhinocerotids known from the Vb unit except Hispanotherium matritensis. A smaller coprolite (Va2 unit) shows a tridactyl, left foot impression of a perissodactyl. It is clearly too small for a rhinoceros, even for a young one. It seems to have been made by an Anchitherium Equid. The pes had a plantar pad as still found in the Mesohippus–Anchitherium lineage but not in more advanced Equids. Both tridactyl imprints may have been produced by the coprolite-makers. A large coprolite (IVb unit) that may have been produced by Brachyodus onoideus shows a few didactyl imprints. An artiodactyl trampled the dung with hoofs sliding on its surface and producing two incomplete imprints. It also trampled the dung in a more stable position, producing the best imprint, whose structure indicates it was produced by the left manus. The lack of lateral toe marks excludes suids (and Brachyodus, also because its size is too much small). It is from a small-sized ruminant, most probably a cervid, genus Procervulus. In all cases, defecation occurred on dry land, albeit in eventually or seasonally flooded areas near a river.

Hat-tip: alert paleontologist Alan Gishlick. For some quotes on the significance and methods of this research, see below the fold.

I have frequently commented that intelligent design (ID) is bad theology. Equally often, I am challenged by someone who will point out that ID may be bad theology from my point of view, while it might be good theology from someone else’s point of view. This is a very valid objection to what I have said, though I will defend the basic point. ID could be more correctly termed “theology done badly” than “bad theology.”

Nonetheless, since ID is being supported primarily by Christians, and evangelical Christians at that, it can be quite properly called “bad theology” as well, because it is bad theology within what is supposed to be the theological framework of most of its supporters. If you are wondering why there is a split amongst conservative Christians over ID, it is simply that many conservative Christians are saying either that this does not prove or that it is not even trying to prove anything that actually works within their theology.

In talking to Christian groups, I frequently find people who are shocked that I don’t support ID. “How can you not believe the universe is designed?” they ask. My answer is that I don’t accept ID precisely because I believe that the universe is designed. However it is disguised, however many chapters of mathematical formulas are provided, however many pious statements are made (whenever someone is not trying to pretend this is not theology), ID does not prove, and is not attempting to prove that the universe is designed. It is, in fact, attempting to prove that some elements are more designed than others, i.e. when we deal with specified complexity as a test of design, it means that we distinguish things that could happen randomly, and things that happen by design. Right or wrong, evangelical Christians are generally very uncomfortable with things that happen randomly. They are not looking for Paley’s watch on the seashore to prove that the watch is designed, but rather to prove that everything is designed.

Read more at Threads from Henry’s Web. Please post comments there.

Jonathan Witt of the Discovery Institute has lost it. The string of defeats for the cause of Intelligent Design creationism has had its toll, first Dover and now the Ohio ID lesson plan, and the poor man is clearly suffering from the strain, as you can tell from his latest hysterical screed.

First we get evolution compared to Castro's newspapers, with no criticism allowed; then the defense for including ID in Ohio is that there is a 3:1 margin of popular support. Two fallacies in one paragraph! Sorry, Jonathan, hyperbolic comparisons to communism and an appeal to popular opinion on matters of fact do not a defense of ID make.

Then he gets confused.

Continue reading "No more coffee for Mr Witt" (on Pharyngula)

Finally, an IDist has actually come out and proposed an ID model. Read it here. It is a version of Richard Hoppe’s Multiple Designers Theory, but admirably more specific. Note that the author, Robert Newman, is not some random internet wacko, he is a longtime contributor to the ID literature.

For once, I’m not the one writing the microbiology/evolution convergence stuff. Over at Mike the Mad Biologist, check out his post discussing Viruses, phylogeny, and Venezuela, discussing how phylogenetic analysis is used to track the evolution of Venezuelan equine encephalitis virus. As Mike notes, “This study is a really good example of how biologists use evolution to understand structure and function.”

On Aetiology, I have a discussion running about certainty, and the “I know what I know; do not confuse me with the facts” mentality that many of you accustomed to dealing with IDers/creationists will recognize.

Tangled Bank #50

The Tangled Bank

There's something else that's been going on for almost two years now: the Tangled Bank. And unlike creationist promises, it has delivered plenty of good, accessible science on a regular biweekly basis, and this week's edition at Island of Doubt is no exception.

An anniversary, of sorts

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Once upon a time, about two years ago, I dissected a claim by Paul Nelson that he had an objective measure of developmental complexity that he called "ontogenetic depth". I thought it was very poor stuff: no repeatable methods, no clear description of exactly what he was measuring, and actually, it looked like he was just plucking numbers out of thin air.

Note that today is 29 March 2006. On 29 March 2004, Nelson left a comment on the post, promising to address the issues I brought up.

Continue reading "An anniversary, of sorts" (on Pharyngula)

Ideological Idiocy in Ohio


A column by S. Michael Craven at aptly demonstrates how one can come to an entirely inverted view of things starting from false premises and a false inference. The lead paragraph (below) begins with a false premise (that state science standards prohibit concepts from being presented in classes) and proceeds to a wildly false conclusion (that science teachers somehow are prevented from teaching material that is already in their textbooks).

This past February the Ohio State Board of Education voted 11-4 to remove all language that was critical of evolution from its state’s science curriculum. Previously, Ohio’s public school science guidelines said that students should be free to “describe how scientists continue to investigate and critically analyze aspects of evolutionary theory.” The decision by the State Board of Education effectively eliminates that freedom. This means that science teachers and students are no longer authorized to discuss scientific evidence that questions the claims of Darwin’s theory.

No, Michael, the board’s decision doesn’t remove any “freedom” to discuss “scientific evidence that questions the claims of Darwin’s theory”. What it removed was wording that was specifically being treated as an invitation to discuss a bunch of false, long-refuted arguments which hied from creation science through intelligent design and into the new label of critical analysis. Science standards establish what knowledge and abilities students should have; Ohio’s teachers can (and I assume often do) teach things that are not specifically mentioned in the educational standards. Popular high school textbooks do incorporate material about the limits of science and in biology discuss non-Darwinian evolutionary processes, such as genetic drift. What you won’t find in the textbooks, though, are the patently false arguments that have long served the antievolution movement. There is no good pedagogical reason to teach students falsehoods, though, so much of Craven’s screed completely misses the point.

[Continue reading… on Comments may be entered via the link there.]

Kansas Citizens for Science announces a class we are co-sponsoring with the Shawnee Mission Universalist Unitarian Church in Shawnee Mission, Kansas, entitled “Evolution 101 – Understanding Evolution for the Layperson.” On April 6 and 13, for two hours each, I will make a presentation and then lead a structured discussion on the core elements of the theory of evolution: in respect to the diversity of life on earth, what has happened, why, and how do we know?

You can read the full announcement at our new weblog, KCFS News at

USA Today has a front-page article on the impact of Flying Spaghetti Monsterism (March 27th, 2006). The article discusses Bobby Henderson’s exciting new book, The Gospel of the Flying Spaghetti Monster.


Dan Vergano of USA TODAYwrites

But not everyone finds the FSM so amusing.

It’s too bad that they’ll get attention for this sort of drivel when we have a robust scientific research program that the media doesn’t seem to want to write much about,

Discovery Institute spokesman Robert Crowther said in an e-mail interview. The Seattle-based institute is the leading think tank for intelligent-design advocates.

I’m puzzled. It seems the main output of Discovery’s “robust scientific research program” has been books like Behe’s “Darwin’s Black Box,” or Phillip Johnson’s “Darwin on Trial.” So, by publishing a book about His Noodly Appendage, isn’t Henderson performing research as robust as that of the Discovery Institute?

Some interesting news from Ethiopia where scientists have uncovered a 250,000 year old, and mostly intact, human skull which could be the ‘missing link’ between Homo Erectus and Homo Sapiens.

The face and cranium of the fossil are recognizably different from those of modern humans, but bear unmistakable anatomical evidence that it belongs to the modern human’s ancestry, Sileshi said.

Let’s await the scientific publication of their findings.

Original Press Release

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