We don’t have physics envy, but we still have to deal with physics snobbery

Peggy has an excellent discusion of the peculiar attitudes towards biology held by physicists and engineers, which includes this wonderful complaint by Jack Cohen:

In summer 2002, I was at the Cheltenham Festival of Science. Lots of biologists presenting, for sure. But… one very popular event was a presentation by three famous astronomers: ‘Is There Life Out There?’ I prefaced my first question to them by a little imaginative scenario: three biologists discussing the properties of the black hole in the middle of our galaxy. It was very clear that the astronomers really believed that they could discuss ‘life’ professionally, whereas everyone saw biologists talking about black holes as absurd.

Oh, and let’s get started on how SF treats biology…

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PZ is in Seattle


Yes, I am away for this week — I’m off wearing flannel, listening to grunge, and drinking coffee as I chop down trees in the rain (did I miss any stereotypes?). Updates to Pharyngula will still happen, though, so don’t abandon me completely. They will be more sporadic, but when they do happen, they will be pungent with the tang of Puget Sound, soaring like the majestic Cascades, and as affectionate and cuddly as the banana slug. Or not. Check below to see if anything new trickles in.

And if the content sucks, tough. I’m having fun!

I get email

I have to go catch a plane to Seattle, so I’ll leave you all with a little exercise. This random bit of creationist email just sailed in over the transom—it’s simple and to the point, and isn’t even afflicted with the usual random font stylings I get. It’s still just as kooky in its substance, though. Can you spot the logical error? Can you explain it plainly and simply?

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Artificial evolution looks an awful lot like the natural kind

What properties should we expect from an evolved system rather than a designed one? Complexity is one, another is surprises. We should see features that baffle us and that don’t make sense from a simply functional and logical standpoint.

That’s also exactly what we see in systems designed by processes of artificial evolution. Adrian Thompson used randomized binary data on Field-Programmable Gate Arrays, followed by selection for FPGAs that could recognize tones input into them. After several thousand generations, he had FPGAs that would discriminate between two tones, or respond to the words “stop” and “go”, by producing 0 or 5 volts. Then came the fun part: trying to figure out how the best performing chip worked:

Dr. Thompson peered inside his perfect offspring to gain insight into its methods, but what he found inside was baffling. The plucky chip was utilizing only thirty-seven of its one hundred logic gates, and most of them were arranged in a curious collection of feedback loops. Five individual logic cells were functionally disconnected from the rest — with no pathways that would allow them to influence the output — yet when the researcher disabled any one of them the chip lost its ability to discriminate the tones. Furthermore, the final program did not work reliably when it was loaded onto other FPGAs of the same type.

That looks a lot like what we see in developmental networks in living organisms — unpredictable results when pieces are “disconnected”, or mutated, lots and lots of odd feedback loops everywhere, and sensitivity to specific conditions (although we also see selection for fidelity from generation to generation, more so than occurred in this exercise, I think). This is exactly what evolution does, producing a functional complexity from random input.

I suppose it’s possible, though, that Michael Behe’s God also tinkers with electronics as a hobby, and applied his ineffably l33t hacks to the chips when Thompson wasn’t looking.

Yecke update

You may recall that I’d mentioned how Cheri Yecke was hiring a company called “reputationdefender” to expunge unflattering references from the net. One of her targets was Wesley Elsberry, who had reported that she was in favor of allowing local school districts to elect to teach creationism (this is not permissible in Minnesota). She claims that’s false; unfortunately for her, Wesley has found a video recording of her at that time proposing exactly that. Ooops. So Yecke is trying to get her own words removed from the net? How interesting.

In a related issue, I’d mocked the whole premise of “reputationdefender” — they claimed to be able to get any offending article on the web taken down for only $20, using “proprietary” techniques. There’s no word yet on exactly what their techniques were, but another, similar company has had their procedures exposed. They sent letters to the host of the offending article.

This letter is being sent to you in the name of more than 500 businesses. No matter where you go, we will cause you a problem. Your life is in danger until you comply with our demands. This is your last warning.

Your neighbors already know about your criminal dealings and how you are making many people loose (sic) their business. You will soon be beaten to a pulp and pounced into the ground six feet under with a baseball bat and sleg (sic) hammer. You will soon be sorry not just from what I am capable of doing to you, but what other members will do as soon as they know exactly where you are. Its (sic) just a matter of time until I get to you.

That didn’t work, so they sent another one.

We warned you ed magedson. Did you hear the gun shots last night? Because of you innocent people will die. Your tenants, family members and those that work with you. Think we’re joking? I told you that your site will be down and it is. That is all we want and we will not hurt anyone.

This was not the same company that Yecke hired, and I haven’t heard that Wesley received any mail with a similar tone. It’s still about what I expected the only effective way of getting an article removed from the web might be: extortion.

I must protest!

The ScienceBlogs buzz today is on Atheism and Civil Rights, and the opening blurb gets it wrong.

Richard Dawkins and other contemporary atheists have argued recently that America’s faithless are subject to discrimination akin to that faced by women, racial minorities, and homosexuals. But is atheism better understood as a civil rights issue, or a public image problem?

Nisbet has successfully “framed” Richard Dawkins in the old sense of the word. He has not made that claim. I haven’t made that claim, unless you’re taking “akin” in the weakest, most meaningless sense of the word. So ignore the blurb, unless you’re looking for another example of how “framing” skills can distort a debate.

Any Alabama readers? You might want to skip this one — we’re laughing at your state

I guess y’all are having a drought, and your farmers are worried. I sympathize, and I do hope you get some good healthy summer storms soon. But, well, your governor is a dufus.

With the state’s weather forecasters not delivering much-needed rain, Gov. Bob Riley on Thursday turned to a higher power. The governor issued a proclamation calling for a week of prayer for rain, beginning Saturday.

Riley encouraged Alabamians to pray “individually and in their houses of worship.”

“Throughout our history, Alabamians have turned in prayer to God to humbly ask for his blessings and to hold us steady during times of difficulty,” Riley said. “This drought is without question a time of great difficulty.”

Shhh. I’m going to tell you two secrets.

One: prayer doesn’t work. Never does. Besides, if it’s Georgia putting a curse on you, they outvote you in God’s eyes.

Two: when I lived in Eugene, we used to make trips to Bend, Oregon to vacation — they always advertise about how they only get like 8 days of rain a year. It always rained when we visited. Therefore, if you really want it to rain, you ought to fly me in and parade me around the state. I have big rain ju-ju.

I’m sure we can come up with lots of incantations and rituals that various cultures have invented to conjure rain. You should try them all. It can’t hurt, after all.

No rambos in the halls of academe, please

The Nevada System of Higher Education wants to arm their faculty. That’s insane. We have rare instances of students going on a shooting spree; I don’t see how turning the classroom into a firefight is going to stop that, and I also have a suspicion that any homicidal maniacs will henceforth simply put “shoot the professor” first on their to-do list. The other concern: how often has this happened at your university?

  • Dishevelled, out-of-breath student bursts into the room in the middle of class — he overslept.
  • Angry student storms into your office, red in the face and furious about his exam.
  • Walking across the campus late at night, a dark figure steps out from behind a building and raises his hand … to say hello.

Those kinds of events are routine, and don’t bother me at all. But let’s foster a climate of fear of our murderous students, slip a firearm into our pockets, and wait. It won’t happen often, but all it will take is one jittery professor and one deadly incident, and try to imagine your university dealing with the parents. And that kind of hasty stupidity is going to be more common than the “vicious gunman foiled by hail of professorial bullets” story, I’m sure. It’s trading one unlikely danger for a more common one, and it isn’t even going to stop the problem — lone gunmen violating a school must expect to end up dead, and if it’s in a gunfight, all the greater the glory.

At the very least, it’s going to send the message to our students that they’d better not make any sudden moves around their lethal professors. It’s a violation of the trust they should have in us, so no, rather than arming myself, I think I’d rather call the police if there is a violent threat … that’s better than becoming a klutzy threat all on my own. My job is to teach, not play Bruce Willis.