Berlinski and his astonishing “cows to whales” argument

Over at the Sandwalk, Larry has a video of Berlinski pompously denouncing the idea that “cows evolved into whales”. As everyone is pointing out, it’s ludicrous because cows didn’t evolve into whales — but what struck me is the supercilious arrogance of this mathematician as he plucked numbers out of his ass.

First he claims that he has a quantitative approach to measuring the magnitude of the nonexistent transition of cow to whale:

We have some crude way of assessing quantitatively, not qualitatively but quantitatively, the scope of the project of transformation

Oh, really? This could be interesting, then. But first Berlinski has to sneer at evolution:

any time a science avoids coming to grips with numbers, it’s somehow immersing itself in a perhaps unavoidable but certainly unattractive miasma

It’s a peculiar way to express it, but OK, I agree. Quantitative approaches are important. What is ironic, though, is that Berlinski is applying this to evolutionary biology: what, there aren’t any measurements in biology? Read some population genetics sometime — it’s all about “coming to grips with numbers”, and making quantitative measurements and estimates of rates and frequencies of genetic changes. It’s an idiotic accusation to make, and reveals his own ignorance of the entire field.

But Berlinski has to up the level of irony. Remember, he’s claiming that we have to quantitatively measure the degree of change, and he, the superior mathematician, has a way of doing this. You will be stunned. His brilliant scheme is to recite a litany of things that must be modified in the transition — skin, breathing, diving, lactation, eyes, hearing, etc. — and count them.

That’s right. His “method” is to sit on his butt, imagine a cow, and count everything he thinks is different from a whale. This he calls “calculating”.

I’ve tried to do some of these calculations. The calculations are certainly, certainly not hard, but they’re interesting. I stopped at 50,000.

Think about that. I want more details of his method. So David Berlinski is sitting. He’s contemplating the cow, and he’s enumerating the changes. Does he just make a hash mark on a sheet of paper when he thinks of one? Does he make a list? He says he came up with 50,000 items, and that it was easy. Let’s see a recitation. Was one of his differences that “cow rhymes with plow, and whale rhymes with tail”? How does he know that any of his litany of changes are actually biologically relevant? And do we really believe that David Berlinski can identify that many significant biological differences between two species of mammals?

I don’t think so. You’d have to be an idiot to believe him.

Which is probably why the DI thought his interview was a worthy contribution.

Why we need to speak up assertively

Ophelia makes note of a comment from Hitchens, about a revelation on his book tour:

At the end of the event I discover something that I am going to keep on discovering: half the people attending had thought that they were the only atheists in town.

I see that all the time, too. We atheists are a minority, still, but we’re not as alone as some of us have thought: when we announce ourselves, we have a ready audience pleased to hear from us. I think that is liberating — you don’t have to be afraid, you’re not alone, we can all stand together against the deluded.

Framing feud flares into furious fight

There is going to be a melee in Minneapolis, a testicle-twister in the Twin Cities, a bloody battle at the Bell — the framing debate is going LIVE, in an event sponsored by the Bell Museum in Minneapolis at the end of September. On one side, Mooney and Nisbet; on the other, Greg Laden and … uh, me, I’m pretty sure. I’m still juggling some travel dates, but I think I should be able to make it.

I think the plan, though, is to pretend I can’t, so Mooney and Nisbet get all cocky. Then, just when Greg is down, trapped in a headlock by one and the other is doing the dreaded pinky toe pincer, I come parachuting down off my Northwest Airlines passenger flight, carom off the ropes, launch into a flying tackle on both, and Greg and I then spend the next hour kicking and punching two cripples. And then we buy them both a Bud Light.

That’s the plan, anyway. It should be great fun.

Don’t worry, Greg. I’m not chickening out. It’s part of the dramatic narrative, where putting you in the role of the underdog is part of the frame to get the crowd supporting you.

Don’t look to Bjørn Lomborg, thou sluggard

Salon has a refreshingly hostile interview with Bjørn Lomborg, and they also have a strongly negative review of his new book, Cool It. This makes me very happy; I’m not a fan of the “contrarian” label for this guy — he’s just another unqualified denialist, as far as I can see. I hope one of our blogs that discuss climate, like Deltoid or Island of Doubt or the Intersection, picks up on it and adds to the pile-on.

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A triumphant beginning!

Last night was the activities fair at UMM, where student groups try to catch the attention of the new students and persuade them to sign up. It was a mob scene with hundreds of milling people, and there in the middle of it … the brand new UMM chapter of the Campus Atheists, Skeptics, and Humanists. Here are most of the current officers — the missing one was me, behind the camera.

Viktor Berberi, Collin Tierney, and Skatje Myers (and Richard Dawkins playing on the computer)

I was impressed. I expected they’d go over there and get maybe half a dozen to a dozen people to sign up, but instead they got more than twice my most optimistic prediction, and that’s drawing primarily from the freshman class. I think there has been a pent-up demand for this sort of thing, and the response was almost entirely positive. Collin mentioned that there were a few dismissive remarks, but otherwise, I think we can look forward to a good, large group of godless activists to be operating in Morris, Minnesota this year.

Only one problem: we’re going to have the first meeting at 7:00 on Thursday, and I said I’d buy all the pizza. I may have escaped a $15 million lawsuit, but the pizza bill may demolish all the money I saved.

The inevitable has occurred

Hey, you know that $15 million lawsuit that was filed against me by Stuart Pivar? He’s been getting hammered on the weblogs, the City Pages was preparing a story on it, the Seed lawyers were unflappable, and Peter Irons was constantly sending Pivar and his lawyer cutting dissections of their poor case. Peter was in contact with the City Pages reporter, who received a brief comment from Pivar earlier this evening.

“My attorney withdrew the suit today.”

I wonder if the article is still going to be published…?

I can’t say that I was ever really worried — the man had no case — but it’s nice to see that silly potential time-suck gone.

No good deed goes unpunished, as they say. Peter Irons, who did such good work on my behalf, is now being threatened with legal action by Stuart Pivar’s lawyer, Michael Little. The mouse squeaks at the lion; we should all close our eyes and turn our heads aside to avoid the inescapable carnage to follow. Either that, or open up a popcorn and cotton candy stand.

Expelled producer seems to be embarrassed about his sneaky tactics

I wrote to Mark Mathis about his movie, Expelled, which I was told was going to be called Crossroads. Here is the entirety of my message:

Hey, I just learned today that the actual film is now called
“Expelled”, that it features Ben Stein, and that it’s really a gung-
ho pro-creationism/anti-science film. I would have agreed to be
interviewed even if you’d been honest with me about the subject —
I’m not reticent about my opinions — so I don’t understand why you
felt you had to conceal your intent. Care to explain yourself? Was
this the movie you planned from the beginning?

Now I’ve gotten his reply!

Mr. Myers,

Thank you for your recent communication. Please know that I strongly
disagree with the insinuations and characterizations made in your e-mail
to me. Nevertheless, I want to thank you for sharing your viewpoints, and
I wish you the best in all your endeavors.

What a curiously defensive response. There was no insinuation at all in my email: he wasn’t honest with me, and he did conceal his intent. I gave him an opportunity to respond, and all he can say is that he disagrees with me on something in that email? What was it?

I think the underhanded way he obtained interviews with some of his subjects is a sore point that he’d rather not discuss. I guess I can’t blame him — if I’d had to misrepresent myself to get an interview I’d probably be a bit shamefaced, too.

It’s a rite of passage on Scienceblogs…

…that you have to take a sharp poke at the godless or godly to try and trigger a response, and now it’s Chris’s turn. He’s arguing with the usual faith/empiricism continuum, and adds a third axis to the debate, as illustrated here.


OK, it’s an interesting try. I don’t think it quite works, though. That “cranks” zone on the left needs to be expanded up towards the faith vertex, and actually ought to be indistinguishable from “theists”.

The other deep flaw is the position of “agnostics” (I have a suspicion that Chris would place himself in that group). I can think of several agnostics around here who ought to be classified as fanatically agnostic — they have greater zeal in arguing for their waffly and uninspiring position than any atheist, and with less cause.


While we’re tweaking, how about nudging my data point to somewhere south of the bottom line? I’m actively anti-faith, and I think my coordinates on that axis ought to be negative.