Some sort of tribute

Benoit Mandelbrot died on 14th October.

(Non-breaking news from me. i.e. Probably 4 days after everyone else knows it. A good tribute on the BBC by the way but the images are poor.)

He was the main man for making maths beautiful, even to mathematically challenged people like me.. Fractal mathematics is the mathematics of life. In fact, for atheists, fractal maths is pretty much a direct route to what simpler people call looking at the face of “god” .

Here’s a beginner’s guide to what fractals are with links to some image galleries.

In the mid-nineties there were any number of graphics packages that let you play around with creating fractals, from a standing start, on a 486…. Especially the venerable and respected fractint.

I found a version that’s still online. version 20. It’s been updated to work on Windows 3.0…. Hmmm, even my PC isn’t quite that elderly.
(Wahay. I found a 2008 ftp site. Must try it out again.)

Here are a few fractal image links from tinterwebs.

* The classic Mandelbrot set.From a site that explains why it isn't evidence of Intelligent Design

I like the source that I got this image from. It points out that someone might see a visual representation of a Mandelbrot set as evidence for “Intelligent Design” and answers

But in fact, the Mandelbrot set is the product of a relatively simple mathematical equation.

That’s the non-divinely miraculous nature of fractal images. A few simple changes in start conditions and/or a slightly different equation and another infinite set of magical things appears.

* A fractal vegetable.

from wikipedia- image of a romanesco broccoli

Romanesco broccoli

Ok that’s cheating. Pretty much any living thing is “fractal.” The difference is that romanesco broccoli LOOKS like a generated fractal.

* The coastline of Norway
Space view of the coast of Norway

The coast of Norway looks like a generated fractal too. But, then, any coast is fractal. Zoom in and it breaks up into infinitely recursive self-similar patterns.

In fact, everything is pretty much fractal. Incredibly simple and endlessly complex. And we can see this mainly thanks to teh work of Mandelbrot.

Not paying enough attention

I only registered the existence of a new UK ID promotion centre after a comment here from Grumpy Bob led me to his blog. I must start paying attention. Just when you think that the ID nonsense is dead, it pops up again, Whack-a-mole style.

Here’s the Guardian version of the story.

This organisation – which claims to represent a non-zero number of scientists – is organising a UK tour featuring Michael Behe. (or “Prof Mike Behe, Professor of Chemistry at Lehigh University, USA,” as they chummily put it.)

There are huge numbers of comments on the Guardian piece, most of which make excellent points. Yet again.

On the Guardian blog page, you can’t miss the shot of the smiling avuncular Dr Alistair Noble, who has plenty of form in this area. You may however overlook this:

The small print of the website says the centre’s activity “is organised under a charitable trust governed by the laws of Guernsey, Channel Islands.
The centre receives funding from individuals and organisations who support its aims… “. (From the Guardian)

Channel Islands. Odd choice of a banking institution for a Scottish lay preacher. Must make it quite a trek to pay in the pennies contributed by enthusiastic individuals…

…Noble denies that the centre is a British branch of Discovery: “We are friends with Discovery and we talk to them, but we are not formally linked. We would be interested in developing links with Europe. We don’t get money from America – it is funded from Britain.” (From the Guardian)

Well, we wouldn’t know about that, would we? What with the trust being set up in the Channel Islands?

Scienz teeching

This monumentally silly page on the CIF belief bit of the Guardian website was probably just there to stir up knee-jerk responses. (There are, naturally, thousands of comments.) But, hey, my reflexes are in pretty good shape. So, here goes.

Alistair Noble wrote that “Intelligent design should not be excluded from the study of origins”

As a former science teacher and schools inspector, I am disturbed that proposals for science education are based on near-complete ignorance of intelligent design. I also think the views of “most British people” in this matter should not be so readily set aside.

Even if it were true that “most British people” believed in ID, this doesn’t make it a valid scientific theory nor imply that “most British people” are qualified to decide what pseudo -science is taught in schools.

The fact is that that “most British people” (hmm, me included) don’t know enough about biology to get a GCSE in it. Choosing a theory of life is not like casting a vote on XFactor.

He argues that ID is nothing to do with religion; life is complex and beautiful; it seems designed so it must have been….

It is easily overlooked that the origin of life, the integrated complexity of biological systems and the vast information content of DNA have not been adequately explained by purely materialistic or neo-Darwinian processes. Indeed it is hard to see how they ever will.

But hey, this is not about religion….

It is an all too common error to confuse intelligent design with religious belief.

The intellectual dishonesty of this claim – that it’s not religiously based – is quite telling. What specific “science” did he teach?

If Intelligent design constitutes a good scientific theory, why draw the line at using it in biology? What about physics? What about cosmology?
“A magic man did it” applies even more aptly to these subjects, surely?

It’s certainly possible that our models of “evolution” will be proven to be false by some new and better explanation of biological processes. That’s science. ….. It is well nigh inconceivable that science will ever decide that the magic man is an explanation for anything.

Alistair’s Guardian profile says

Dr Alastair Noble is an educational consultant and lay preacher, and a former teacher and research chemist

Research chemistry? Why bother? Surely, the magic man made all the chemicals and chemical transformations. Why not just read Genesis instead of messing about getting research results?

Lay preacher? He argued that ID is real science, and can’t be confused with religion (see above) So his being a lay preacher is just a coincidence. Indeed a coincidence so uncanny that it can only have been designed by a superior being.

A few links, chosen randomly by my own intelligent design, to other blogs discussing this nonsense better than I have, and indeed, having done so in a rather more timely fashion.
Wonderful life
Richard Dawkins, net

Failure to grasp the point

Truly, the world is a pendulum. A great post on Why Evolution is True about the vestigial grasp observed in human infants was countered by a silly post on Uncommon Descent.

WEIT discussed how the instinctive grasping reflex observed in newborn babies can best be interpreted as a relic of behaviour in pre-hominids (new-born babies hanging on to their mothers)

This is not a revolutionary new idea. I am amazed that it is even contentious. This was accepted wisdom in the UK several years ago.

O’Reilly’s counter starts from the position of apparently never having heard of the idea that “anecdote is not evidence”.

When my first child was very young, she had a habit of grasping my hair while feeding. My hair was long at that time.
It seemed to please and comfort her.

(Can I be the only person who sees it as a commentary on O’Reilly’s attitude to her offspring that – believing pleasure and comfort to be the only reason for the baby’s hair-grasping – O’Reilly immediately got her hair cut? )

However, grasping has many uses for a human infant – it is the principle [sic – a pedant] way the infant contacts reality (unfortunately by attempting to put things in its mouth), that being the only sense that is even moderately well developed.

This sentence is too ambiguous to follow. She seems to have meant to put the end of the sentence in the bracket, so I’ll ignore the bit about taste.

We are left with grasping being described as the main way in which an infant contacts reality. What? Does this make any sense?

In case you can’t answer that rhetorical question, let me answer it for you. “No.”

So what? Well, this Uncommon Descent post was O’Reilly’s “answer” to:

Incidentally, what do the ID and the Evolution-is-limited-in-scope (Behe, et all) do with data like this:

“Mouth random words” is what they do, apparently.

Oh, and betray that they implicitly acknowledge the role of evolution πŸ™‚ :

However, I also suspect that it has been a long time since any such skill as hanging on to mother was needed.

A long time? As in “the sort of time scales and species changes that evolution would predict”?

Creating an absurdity

I see that mouthy atheists are to blame for the spread of creationism. ROTFL. * chortle immoderately * etc

Well, so it says in the Guardian special on the rise of creationism.

They also claim that the aggression of the new atheists is helping them. They paint Dawkins as a “recruiting sergeant” for creationism because he links evolutionary thinking with atheism. “He has been a real help to the ministry, ” says Randall Hardy.
Creationists argue that the new atheists are fuelling the dogmatism; Richard Harries, the former Bishop of Oxford and a theistic evolutionary, last week threw that accusation back at them. “Creationists totally misunderstand the Bible,” he said. “Genesis is in the business of story, myth, poetry, metaphor. They [creationists and atheists] feed off one another. The debate has an unreality about it. Those of us who are not fundamentalists can’t find a place.”

Thus, even the relatively sane Bishop of Oxford puts atheism and creationism in the same conceptual “fundamentalist” box. And the full-blown creationist believes that -people who believe in God think they can’t believe in evolution, just because Dawkins links evolutionary thinking with atheism,

That is giving Dawkins much more influence than he can possibly dream of having. I refuse to believe that most people have even the vaguest ideas about evolution. Nor that more than a tiny minority of the population have ever read the God Delusion or even watched a Dawkins tv programme. (You would think that, almost by definition, people stupid enough to believe in creationism are too stupid to read erudite books or watch demanding tv)

Indeed, even the article undercuts the implications that there are grounds for this “Blame atheists for creationism” viewpoint.

Almost all Christians used to go along with the idea that Genesis was a bit suspect on dates, and that the six days of the Bible were metaphorical, with each day representing a vast geological age. The majority of Anglicans, theistic evolutionists who have no difficulty in believing in a Darwinian God, would still abide by that. But the publication in 1961 of Henry Morris and John Whitcomb’s The Genesis Flood, which set out to give a scientific demonstration of the literal truth of the Bible, emboldened those who refused to accept evolution.

1961? Dawkins was 20 then. I’m pretty certain this predates The God Delusion by a few decades. Well, Wikipedia informs me that the God Delusion was published in 2006.

What on earth was fuelling creationism in the intervening decades, then, if noisy atheists are to blame now?

Or are we to start dating the “New Atheism” in creationist terms, so that we are to accept not only that dinosaurs walked with men but that an undergraduate Dawkins managed to spark the rise in creationism with his strident atheist complaints?

This article does provide creationist “answers” to two questions that have long baffled me.

  • Question: Why didn’t Noah take all the dinosaurs into the ark if humans and dinoasurs were all happily living together?

    Creationists, who argue that the world was created no more than 10,000 years ago, believe dinosaurs and man co-existed in the pre-Flood period (they date the Flood to around 1,600 years after the creation), that there were dinosaurs on the ark, but that they were eventually wiped out by the changes in climate which followed the Flood.

    Ah, it wasn’t that Noah just didn’t like dinosaurs. (Mentally upscale the conceptual size of ark needed, from one the size of France to one the size of Asia) He did his level best to save them but somehow they proved unable to survive in a changed environment. (Oh, you mean, like evolutionary processes?)

  • Question 2:
    What have creationists got against the biological sciences that they don’t have against mathematics or physics or geography?

    It seems that biology is nothing special. They are indeed just as willing to abandon all sciences where they conflict with the Bible.

    …..virtually all existing science has to be rewritten – and the creationists are ready to do the rewriting. The speed of light, Rosevear argues, used to be 300 times faster than it is now – necessary for creationists to explain cosmology and the distance of other solar systems from our own; the great cataclysm of the Flood explains the formation of sedimentary rock and the distribution of fossils; …

The Guardian writer either assumes that almost any reader will see the creationists as self-evident nutters or he lacks the most basic information-processing skills. For example, he uncritically reports “findings” from all those surveys (e.g for Theos :-)) that supposedly show that sizeable minorities of the population are creationists.

And his naivety seems incomprehensible when he says this:

British creationism is surprisingly independent from the far bigger, better funded, more vocal, highly politicised movement in the US, where creationists and intelligent design organisations (often a front for Christian creationists) are fighting perpetual legal battles to get creationist teaching into the classrooms of state schools.

The Portsmouth Genesis Expo may be a saggy old cloth cat to the Cincinnati Creation Museum’s roaring lion. This doesn’t mean that they aren’t manifestations of the same species, seen once in tragedy (Creation Museum) ; the second time in farce (Genesis Expo).

If I had to choose between whether to blame “The New Atheism” or the media (who present the opinions of lunatics as if they have some validity, in a “two sides to every argument” distortion of the concept of balance) for the rise of creationist lunacy, I know where I’d lay most of the blame.


Teaching “the controversy”, again

Almost a third of teachers think creationism should be taught on a par with evolution, according to the Times.

Of the 1,200 questioned, 53 per cent thought that creationism should not be taught in science lessons, while 29 per cent thought it should.

OK, a third is some serious rounding up from 29%, but the 29% figure itself is quite scary. It suggests that 29% of teachers are either stupid or batshit crazy, which isn’t encouraging. After all, these people have made their way through years of school and higher education to get to become teachers.

It’s certainly evidence for how far ID /creationism has penetrated the UK.

Hoping to find that the poll was conducted by AIG in a few church schools, I am shocked to find that this comes from Teachers TV (to which the Times added an ill-advised pedantic apostrophe, not used by the station itself.)

As you might expect from the name, Teachers TV is mainly worthy but dull (Key stage x in subject blah) but it sometimes has some fascinating content. (I’ve accidentally caught programmes on neuroscience and Turkish tiled architecture, when randomly clicking through the cable channels.) They are currently featuring “Evolution week” on their site. So these poll results don’t seem to be skewed in favour of a creationist agenda.

Which makes the 29% depressingly possible. Worse 18% of a sample of 248 science teachers (albeit a small sample, skewed by respondent bias) thought evolution and creationism should have equal status

Teachers TV interviewed Dr Adam Rutherford (podcast editor for Nature)

Dr Rutherford says that science teachers with those views need retraining or should be taken out of the classroom if they refuse to change their opinion.

That seems as uncontroversial as saying that a domestic science teacher who can’t boil an egg should be retrained or sacked.

However, it brought up quite a furious response in some comments on the Teachers TV site (among the rational ones, that said that phrenology and astrology weren’t taught in science classes either.)

For example, edinburgh4 said that his/her creation group had PHD-qualified speakers and:

the idea that unintelligent design (naturalism) can be falsified while at the same time intelligent design cannot is logically untenability [sic] and morally dubious. If a design did not come from an unintelligent source there is only one conclusion left. Excluding special creation from discussion leaves evolution as the only option this is hollow victory. More and more the public are seeing it as such.

oeditor replied, disputing the “qualifications” of these speakers:

Professor McIntosh may talk about birds but he is an engineer, not a biologist. Nor is he a geologist, as can be seen from his claim that the Grand Canyon was formed by Noah’s flood – “probably in matter of hours”. He isn’t a historian or a linguist either, despite having produced a DVD claiming that the Chinese ideographic script provides evidence of the Tower of Babel.
What he is – and he proclaims this proudly – is a committed Christian who believes that the biblical account of creation in Genesis is to be taken literally and that it happened about 6000 years ago. Everything he and his fellow creationists claim stems from that one premise and nothing else.

Nullius in Verba said

The issue is not whether Creation should be taught in science lessons. The issue is how genuine scientific thought and debate should be encouraged. Stifling the debate as Adam Rutherford suggests is a recipe for tyranny and there is a great danger of insisting that atheism is the only paradigm in which to conduct science (patently not true when one considers the greats like Faraday and Boyle of earlier centuries).

It is even more disturbing that teachers don’t seem to have a basic grasp of logic than that they think it’s reasonable to teach creationism in science classes.

This “stifling the debate” is a common but deeply flawed creationist argument. There are a million to the power of a million possible theories about the nature of life.

Indeed you could produce alternative theories about anything. I could try to get a cup of coffee by standing on one leg, putting a cat on my head, facing magnetic north and chanting “Ding McChing.” It probably wouldn’t work but who knows if they haven’t tried it? If I was undergoing barista training for a chain of coffee bars, I wouldn’t expect them to allow that as an alternative to switching on the machines, grinding the beans and so on. Or if there was really relativist manager who’d let the trainee baristas discuss their own theories, wouldn’t they have to try out the sacrifice of a young goat with a silver knife, if someone else liked that idea? of course, you might have to wait a few millenia for a double espresso.

I can’t see the difference here at all. Some theories have been proven to work through experiment. Until there are theories that work better, it would be slack not to teach people the ones with the empirical backup.

I think Terry Pratchett has at least one (science?) degree. In his Diskworld books, a flat earth is carried on the backs of giant elephants standing on the back of a turtle. What if some of his readers don’t understand the concept of “fiction”? (Not unlike the average fundy) Surely this theory should be discussed in science classes? Respectfully, as a legitimate alternative to geography, in case any of the students’ parents believe it, of course.

Read more about this on the excellent Opinion of a Minion blog

CofE apology to Darwin

Despite it being so late as to seem silly for the Church of England to apologise to Darwin for not believing in evolution, it’s still a good idea, given the efforts by creationists to hijack their religion.

There’s nothing on the Church of England’s website and it won’t let me in to the testbed area but The Times, the unpleasant Daily Mail and even more deeply unpleasant Conservapedia think the CofE is about to launch a pro-Darwin site.

Or as the morons at conservapedia – who think this is “socialist Britain” πŸ™‚ and that Christian Voice is a “leading Christian organisation” – say:

The Church of England sides with the Darwinists, misrepresenting biblical creationists in the process.(from conservapedia)

Anglican leaders fear that β€œnoisy” advocates of a literal interpretation of the Bible – especially in the United States, where even the Republican vice-presidential candidate, Sarah Palin, is a vocal supporter – are infecting the perception of Christianity worldwide. (from the Times)

Nice one, Church of England. Bravo. The same goes for the Roman Catholic Church where it has spoken out for science. Both major Christian denominations recognise that the Enlightenment happened. They also claim the adherence of most of the Christians on the planet, mercifully.

It’s one thing to have to disagree with their philosophies about the nature of the universe and the ultimate ground of being. Let a million flowers bloom, etc… It’s another thing altogether when religious institutions that underpin many people’s beliefs about the world give themselves over to arrant anti-scientific nonsense, like the disturbing stuff from fundamentalists.