# Why Can’t Creationists Do Mathematics?

I suppose it’s not so remarkable that creationists can’t do mathematics. After all, almost by definition, they don’t understand evolution, so that alone should suggest some sort of cognitive deficit. What surprises me is that even creationists with math or related degrees often have problems with basic mathematics.

I wrote before about Marvin Bittinger, a mathematician who made up an entirely bogus “time principle” to estimate probabilities of events. And about Kirk Durston, who speaks confidently about infinity, but gets nearly everything wrong.

And here’s yet another example: creationist Jonathan Bartlett, who is director of something called the Blyth Institute (which, mysteriously, lists no actual people associated with it, and seems to consist entirely of Jonathan Bartlett himself), has recently published a post about mathematics, in which he makes a number of very dubious assertions. I’ll just mention two.

First, Bartlett calls polynomials the “standard algebraic functions”. This is definitely nonstandard terminology, and not anything a mathematician would say. For mathematicians, an “algebraic function” is one that satisfies the analogue of an algebraic equation. For example, consider the function f(x) defined by f^2 + f + x = 0. The function (-1 + sqrt(1-4x))/2 satisfies this equation, and hence it would be called algebraic.

Second, Bartlett claims that “every calculus student learns a method for writing sine and cosine” in terms of polynomials, even though he also states this is “impossible”. How can one resolve this contradiction? Easy! He explains that “If, however, we allow ourselves an infinite number of polynomial terms, we can indeed write sine and cosine in terms of polynomial functions”.

This reminds me of the old joke about Lincoln: “In discussing the question, he used to liken the case to that of the boy who, when asked how many legs his calf would have if he called its tail a leg, replied, “Five,” to which the prompt response was made that calling the tail a leg would not make it a leg.”

If one allows “an infinite number of polynomial terms”, then the result is not a polynomial! How hard can this be to understand? Such a thing is called a “power series”; it is not the same as a polynomial at all. Mathematicians even use a different notation to distinguish between these. Polynomials over a field F in one variable are written using the symbol F[x]; power series are written as F[[x]].

Moral of the story: don’t learn mathematics from creationists.

P.S. Another example of Bartlett getting basic things wrong is here.

# My Lunch with Jerry Garcia

I will now tell you my Jerry Garcia story. To appreciate it, you must remember that Jerry was missing part of a finger on one hand.

I was having lunch with a close friend in a crappy Mexican place on Telegraph Ave in Berkeley, California; it must have been about 1983. The restaurant was called La Villa Hermosa, and is long gone. (There is a photo of it here.)

Sitting at the next table was a bearded man who looked familiar. I studied him carefully, while eating my refried beans. Eventually I figured it out. I nudged my mathematician friend gently under the table and said softly, “Hey, that’s Jerry Garcia over there.”

She looked over doubtfully, and said, “That’s not Jerry Garcia.”

I insisted, “Yes, it is.”

So my friend, who was never one to observe social niceties despite being only a little more than five feet tall, stood up, walked over, put her hands on her hips and demanded of him, “Are you Jerry Garcia?”

He looked at her, held up one hand (clearly missing part of a finger), and said, “No, Jerry Garcia is missing a finger on the other hand.”

She came back to my table, satisfied, and announced smugly, “See? I told you so. That wasn’t him. Jerry Garcia is missing a finger on the other hand.”

I swear it’s true!

# David Gelernter Makes a Fool of Himself Again

As academics age, some of them get cranky. I don’t mean “cranky” in the sense of ill-tempered, although that’s also true. I mean “cranky” in the sense of “being a crank”, that is, being “a person who is obsessed by fringe ideas and beliefs”. I’ve written about this before.

Some of them become 9/11-truthers. Some of them get cranky about anthropogenic global warming. One became cranky on the subject of Turing’s proof of unsolvability of the halting problem.

One of the most popular crank topics is evolution, and that’s the subject of today’s blog. Yes, it’s David Gelernter again. Prof. Gelernter, who teaches computer science at Yale, recently wrote a review for the far-right Claremont Review of Books entitled “Giving up Darwin”. All the warning signs are there:

• Gelernter is not a biologist and (to the best of my knowledge) has no advanced formal training in biology. That’s typical: the crank rarely gets cranky in subjects of his own competence. (I say “his” because cranks are almost always male.)
• Gelernter has basically done almost nothing in his own field for the last 20 years (according to DBLP, he’s published only two papers in CS since 1998). That’s also typical: intellectually-fulfilled academics are usually happy to contribute more to their own fields of competence, and don’t have the time for bizarre detours into other fields.
• Gelernter is also a devout theist, and has written books praising the wisdom of his particular religious sect. Nearly all the intellectual opposition to evolution comes from theists, who “find in the theory of evolution a disturbing and mysterious challenge to their values” (to quote Anthony West).
• Gelernter pals around with other anti-evolution cranks, like Stephen Meyer and David Berlinski.
• Gelernter, like most anti-evolutionists, is politically conservative and is obsessed with what he feels are the intellectual failings of liberals.
• Gelernter’s review was not published in a science journal, but in a politics journal run by a far-right think tank.
• His review cites no scientific publications at all, and makes claims like “Many biologists agree” and “Most biologists think” without giving any supporting citations.

So, not surprisingly, the porcine Gelernter makes a fool of himself in his review, which resembles a “greatest hits” of creationist misconceptions and lies:

• In the Cambrian explosion “a striking variety of new organisms—including the first-ever animals—pop up suddenly in the fossil record”. Debunked here.
• “most species enter the evolutionary order fully formed and then depart unchanged”. What could it possibly mean for a species to appear not “fully formed”?
• “no predecessors to the celebrity organisms of the Cambrian explosion”: actually, some believethe Ediacaran biota were some of the ancestors of those of the Cambrian explosion, but you won’t find the word “Ediacaran” anywhere in Gelernter’s review.
• the 10-77 figure of creationist Doug Axe for the improbability of obtaining a stable protein (Debunked here.)
• the false claims of Stephen Meyer about “functionally specified digital information” (debunked here and here, among other places)

And there are lots of other problems in the review. Gelernter shows no sign of having read about, much less understood, basic facets of modern evolutionary biology, such as evo-devo and gene duplication, which are critical to understanding how it works.

Altogether, yet another embarrassing performance for Prof. Gelernter. And a cautionary note for aging professors: before you start attacking another field, make a little more effort learning about it. Unless you enjoy being a crank.