Thursday, April 07, 2011

And the Booby Prize goes to...

Jerry Coyne, of course.

He has uttered the single dumbest explanation for the alleged incompatibility of science and religion. Ever.

To set the stage, Jerry has the vapors that acclaimed cosmologist (and agnostic) Martin Rees has accepted this year's $1.6 million Templeton award. Maybe Jerry is apoplectic because a scientist with impeccable research credentials won the award as opposed to say, a science journalist. Or maybe his head would have exploded even more if someone like Chris Mooney won. Hard to say--rationality is not one of Jerry's strong suits.

So I came across this topical Science article by Sara Reardon. She quotes Jerry:
If there's no conflict between science and religion, why do I still deal with creationists?
As the saying goes: the stupid, it burns. I think I have quoted before the famously dense anti-evolution argument: If evolution is true, how do you explain PYGMIES + DWARFS? Well, Jerry's argument is no better: if religion is compatible with science, how do you explain CREATIONISTS + BIBLE BELIEVERS?

This argument is so bad that I assumed Jerry was misquoted. Nope--he has the same article linked on his site, with the same quote displayed.

Notice what Jerry is not saying. He is not arguing that dealing with creationists demonstrates that creationism and science are incompatible--he is making the much stronger claim that the fact that he, Jerry Coyne, has to deal with creationists implies that science is incompatible (which is what he means by "in conflict") with religion.

There is no logic the takes you from:

1) Jerry Coyne has to "deal" with creationists, to
2) Science and religion are incompatible

Thank goodness most (all?) theologians are far better at constructing sound arguments.

Man, that star fell fast!

Alternate title: Virtue has triumphed! The sword of retribution has cut down Pro-fessor Lawrence Krauss!

Just the other day I commented on Lawrence Krauss's guest post on one of (if not the) most popular atheist blogs on the planet: PZ Myers's Pharyngula.

LK was riding on top of the Gnu atheist world!


Krauss has a friend. A billionaire friend. More importantly the friend is also a scumbag sex offender of the Roman Polanski genre. This post from skepchick denounces Krauss for defending his friend.

Krauss handled this all rather stupidly. Granted it is tough to be in a situation where you are asked to denounce a friend--but there are non-weaselly ways out. You could simply say: He is my friend. I denounce his crimes, but remain his friend and hope to help him find the professional treatment he needs. Or something like that. Instead it appears that Krauss looked for loopholes.

That's all I'll say about that--because I don't really care about Lawrence Krauss and his piece-o-crap friend. You can judge for yourself should you find the affair interesting. I don't. What I find interesting is the fact that on day one he is a hero to the gnu atheists while on day two he is a goat.

I will say that skepchick's (Rebecca Watson) blog post title: Lawrence Krauss Defends a Sex Offender, Embarrasses Scientists Everywhere is incredibly stupid. Krauss's behavior is not an embarrassment to scientists everywhere. It may reflect on his character and may be an embarrassment to Krauss--but it is not an embarrassment to scientists everywhere. We are not a priesthood-we are people who are lucky enough to do science for a living. We come with all the human foibles found in the professions. If Krauss was a house painter, would he now be an embarrassment to house painters everywhere? Dumb.

As an aside, PZ--having just given LK a big ole' soap box--now faced a dillema--not totally unlike Krauss's situation, though different in scale. In my opinion he approached in a rather cowardly way. Without ever mentioning Krauss by name he made a post about himself (well, no surprise there) with oblique links to other bloggers who were doing the heavy lifting, such as Rebecca Watson. Go on, read his post and tell me, apart from following the links, would you have any clue what the hell PZ was discussing?

Among the Pharyngula regulars there is very little wiggle room granted Krauss due to the circumstance that he was defending a friend. The friend's crime was indeed repulsive--but what really prevented the Gnus from any sort of nuanced look at Krauss (not at the friend who committed the crimes who deserves no nuance, but at Krauss who was dumb and evasive in his lukewarm denouncement) are the feminist-flag-raising overtones of Krauss's attitude. Now the Gnu atheists are a tough crowd when it comes to feminism. On Pharyngula they even engaged in atheist blasphemy: His Worshipfullness Dick the Dawk was deemed sexist1 because of high crimes such as attributing gender differences too much to biology and too little to culture, and using "man" and "female" too close together. (I don't know if order matters, or if {man, woman} is preferred over {male, female}, but I do know that {man, female} in too close proximity is the Unpardonable Sin.

I'm not sure I worded that clearly, so here is a summary of what I am trying to say:

  1. Krauss has a scumbag friend who has exploited child prostitutes for sex.
  2. Krauss was an imbecile in the manner he chose to defend his friend.
  3. Since the pedophile is Krauss's friend, Krauss's behavior might be looked at through the lens: it is never easy to throw a friend under the bus--even when he richly deserves it.
  4. The free-thinking Gnu crowd is incapable of such nuance, because what Krauss did strikes them as anti-feminist, and nothing anti-feminist deserves a nuanced look.

1 Much of that discussion can be found by wading knee deep through this thread of pure gnu atheist open mindedness and free thinking. A couple back-to-back examples of free-thinking directed at Dawkins. From free-thinking commenter Ing:
The offensiveness and bad science in some of your [Dawkins's] latest displays is not that there is are differences between the sexes or even currently seen differences in behavior. The problem is that you uncritically contribute those to genetics rather than culture. For one, your million dollar chanalge things ignores the HUGE cultural difference between a women asking a stranger for sex and a random MAN asking a woman for sex. (HINT: ONE SENDS OFF RAPE ALARM BELLS).
This is followed by Phodopus's reply, again directed at Richard Dawkins who foolishly asked "Why is the word 'female' insulting?"
Do you not agree that having women referred to as females while in the same conversation men are referred to as men, has a connotation of the former being a kind of object of study rather than fellow human beings, if only slightly?

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Lawrence Krauss: No, I won!!!

Lawrence Krauss, in a guest post on Pharyngula, is in a hissy-fit over a debate he had with William Lane Craig. I haven't watched the debate—debates are usually unedifying matters of style over substance. Unless I get a critical mass of recommendations to watch, my going in assumption is that any given debate is ignorable.

Furthermore, given that, as I understand it, this debate was not about, say, the self-consistency of a world view assuming the Christian god but rather about scientific evidence for god I would have, reluctantly, been on Krauss's side. I don't believe there is any direct scientific evidence for god or any satisfying philosophical "proofs" for god. Good thing I’m a confirmed presuppositionalist, eh?

Krauss is whining, as near as I can tell, about Craig's post-debate behavior. Apparently LK is miffed that Craig has been going about declaring victory to his own supporters. To counter this unspeakable breach of ethics, Krauss has penned a guest post on Pharyngula to, well, declare victory to his supporters.

If Krauss debates like he writes I am certain he must have lost on style points. His Pharyngula essay is ponderous and sleep-inducing. Prop you eyelids open with toothpicks before reading.

One of several topics about which Krauss declares himself the winner is, unsurprisingly, fine-tuning. His writing on the subject, though better than Coyne’s (at least Krauss knows what he is talking about) is far from laudable. He starts:
The appearance of design is one of the most subtle and confusing aspects of our Universe.
which is bit of a strawman. Fine-tuning is not an "appearance of design" but a question about whether and why the universe's ability to synthesize metals (heavy elements) is sensitive to the values of the fundamental constants and the strengths of the basic forces. Some theists philosophically interpret fine-tuning as prima facie design evidence. Some scientists philosophically interpret fine-tuning as multiverse evidence. But if we stick to just science and ignore philosophy (always a good idea!) fine-tuning is agnostic with regards to any particular apologetic claim. Krauss calls Craig disingenuous—but here it is Krauss being disingenuous—sneakily setting up fine-tuning as, out-of-the-box, a religious argument.

He proceeds down this path, transitioning willfully or ignorantly into the common error of conflating fine-tuning with the anthropic principle. He concludes with a bloody awful example embedded in some hideous prose:
And, beyond this, just as bees are fine tuned to see the colors of flowers which they can pollinate as they go about their business does not indicate design, but rather natural selection, we currently have no idea if the conditions of our universe represent a kind of cosmic natural selection. If there are many universes, for example, as may be the case, and as are predicted in a variety of models, none of which were developed to address God issues, we would certainly expect to find ourselves only in those in which we can live.
Ahhhhhhreh? LK, go to the board and write 500 times: cosmological fine-tuning is not the same as the anthropic principle.

If past experience is a reliable guide Pharyngula's commenters, on the question of fine-tuning, will be as clueless as Jerry's kids, At the time I write this there is only one relevant comment, from a Kevin:
Fine-tuning. Really? In a universe that is 13.7 billion years old and 40+ billion light years across, that required the death of not one but two stars -- one in a supernova -- where humans have appeared in the last 0.00004% of that time, the entire enterprise was built with US in mind? Unbelievable arrogant self-centered narcissism.
No Kevin, what is unbelievable is that you think that the fine-tuning argument is the same as "the universe was made for us" argument.

I guess you can blame Krauss--since he couched his fine-tuning comments in a like manner.

Monday, April 04, 2011


When we moved to Virginia and joined our present church, I was tapped almost immediately to teach adult Sunday School. The topic was the compatibility of science and Christianity. My bride, having heard me teach on that topic before, was not all that enthusiastic about repeating the course.

On the first class she arrived late. In no time great laughter erupted from near where she sat. I only found out why later. When she sat down the woman she sat next to (who didn't know us all that well, at the time) said, "You're late!" To this my wife responded, "It's OK, I'm sleeping with the teacher."

Here is another scandalous post involving my wife, from 2005.

Jerry warns us about "those people." Be afraid, be very afraid!

It is remarkable what a chowderhead Jerry Coyne can be, day after day. His relentless consistency is a sight to behold.

Today he writes on What does it take to blame religion?

His tactic is vintage Coyne: the strawman. Nobody does it more often and with less skill. He does this all the time. His favorite self-made foil is the "omnibenevolent god" strawman. He'll make, every so often, the child's argument: 1) God is omnibenevolent. 2) There is suffering. 3) Therefore there is no god, at least no omnipotent god.

Gee, never heard that one! At least not since the playground.

It doesn't matter that people point out to him that god is not omnibenevolent nor portrayed as omnibenevolent. He ignores that—it's just too inconvenient and doesn't fit his immature world view.

Today his strawman is the “see no evil” man of faith. That is, he argues that people of faith—apart from maybe (and reluctantly) the Crusades, refuse to acknowledge evil done in the name of religion.

What fantasy world does this boy live in?

Coyne writes:
We’re all familiar with those people who claim that no foul deed, no murder, no injury can be laid at the feet of faith
Oh. The dreaded "those people". Who are those people Jerry? Is this like when David Duke talks about "those people"? How many of "those people" are there Coyne? Personally I don't know any. I don't know even one person of faith who would argue that no foul deed, no murder, no injury can be laid at the feet of faith.

In Christianity and Judaism some of our greatest heroes—King David, the apostle Paul—murdered. Paul, for one, surely murdered (as Saul) in the name of faith.

That acknowledgment--that crimes are committed in the name of faith, extends to the present. We all agree that people commit heinous crimes in the name of faith. We would argue, at least in the case of Christianity, that what they do is horribly misguided—but we are not "those people" Jerry.

Again, who are "those people"?

Jerry gives a bizarre example. Apparently "those people" will say this:
The Protestant/Catholic fracas in Northern Ireland? A historical squabble—religion was just a “label” for political opponents.
Nobody argues that it is just a label. Nobody will argue that the respective faith’s have not played a role in Northern Ireland. But pointing out that there are tribal elements to that conflict—that for example it is probably the rare case when Protestants attack Catholics with shouts of "It is not justification by faith, it is justification by faith alone, papist!" does not mean you are absolving religion of any culpability. You are pointing out that it is slightly more nuanced that you (Jerry) seem to have the wherewithal to grasp.

Evil men can not only commit crimes in the name of faith, but can also co-opt faith to justify their hate. And--and I know this is hard for you to comprehend Jerry--there is a difference. Some with evil intentions also, at times, co-opt science to rationalize their hatred.

"Those people" indeed.

What do you propose we do with "those people" Jerry?

Jerry also expresses the recurring Gnu Atheist Fantasy:
And, as I said, people consider it far more insulting to criticize their faith than their politics.
Sorry Jerry, but this is the consummate Gnu Atheist delusion of grandeur. In reality most of us don't give a rat's ass if you criticize our faith. We in fact (as a group) have probably not heard of many of you (especially you) and, if we have, we are more likely to mock you than to consider your fatuousness as insulting.

Jerry then gives a list of atrocities, some of which are legitimately placed at the feet of religion, a few of which, such as "The deaths of children whose parents relied on faith healing" are even problems in some outlier Christian denominations.

Some are just made up Jerry-woo, such as:
The horrible and often lifelong guilt instilled in children by Catholic priests who scare them with thoughts of hell and constant admonitions about sin
You know this is a huge problem, as opposed to a canard, exactly how, Jerry? Because some commenter's deconversion story blames Catholic guilt? Because you know children are coloring scenes of brutal eternal torment in Sunday School?

Or because it sounds right, like "religion and science are incompatible" sounds right. So you unscientifically accept it using the only acceptable methodology outside of the science, the irrefutable "proof by sounding reasonable to Jerry Coyne."

Another religious crime of the century:
Sexual fear and loathing
Really Jerry, are you out of your mind? Are you, apart from your biology, stuck in the sixth grade? Is your biology some sort of savant skill for you, and in everything you are this excruciatingly stupid?

Well Jerry, you can list atrocities done in the name of faith. But I think you lose the numbers game—stupid as it is to play. Without question the most murderous regimes in history are the godless regimes of Lenin, Stalin and Mao. Furthermore Nazism, with its master plan to persecute Christianity, was also arguably godless—although clever enough to co-opt religious themes when necessary. The eugenics movement had some Christian supporters, but ultimately—despite every denial you'd care to make—was fueled not by theology but a godless co-opting of evolution.

I guess that's enough of a rant. One of "those people" has to get back to work.

Friday, April 01, 2011

Jerry and Jerry's Kids are all Tuned Up

Jerry has again ventured from his narrow area of expertise. Thankfully this time, in a post entitled When Theology does Cosmology he merely introduced a subject and then let his erudite followers do the dirty work. On this occasion he is sly, like the sheriff in Mississippi Burning.

Jerry mentions several subtopics for his readers to mangle, but the one most interesting to me, no surprise, is the topic of fine tuning. His readers manage to display most if not all of the misconceptions about fine tuning.

Here is fine tuning explained in a stone cold, unsexy manner:

The Big bang produced a universe with hydrogen, helium, and a small amount of lithium. Immediately the density of the universe decreased and the temperature dropped. At first blush this would end the naturally occurring periodic table, because the conditions needed for fusion include high density and high temperatures. Nevertheless the universe did manage to synthesize the heavier elements such as carbon, oxygen and iron. The furnaces the universe used to carry out this synthesis are found only inside stars. Yet the conditions under which stars were formed appear to be highly sensitive to the values of the physical constants and the strengths of the fundamental forces. This sensitivity is known as "fine tuning".

Misconception 1: The term "fine tuning" was invented by religionists and is a loaded term implying an intelligent fine tuner.

No—the term was invented by scientists and merely reflects the apparent sensitivity of the universe’s ability to synthesize heavy elements on the physical constants and basic forces. It meant to convey only this sensitivity—not a designer. It is disingenuous (so right up Jerry's alley, eh?) to blame this term on religionists.

Misconception 2: The term denotes a misplaced anthropocentrism

No—the definition says absolutely nothing about man. It doesn't say that the universe is fine tuned for producing a habitat suitable for man. It doesn't even say the universe is fine tuned for producing life. What it really says, in nontechnical terms, is that the universe is fine tuned for producing rocks.

Misconception 3: The fine tuning is "carbon chauvinistic". That is it assumes that life like ours is the only kind of life possible.

No it doesn't. While it is certainly arguable that life like ours (carbon based) is the only kind of complex life possible, due to the richness of carbon chemistry, the fine tuning argument makes no such claim. The fine tuning implication for life is second order: life of any kind, not just carbon based, requires complex chemistry and complex molecules to store information. That requires the synthesis of heavy elements. As a byproduct of the universe being able to produce heavy elements, it can also potentially produce life. But that's merely a hypothetical byproduct—the fine tuning is all about synthesizing heavy elements. Making rocks.

Misconception 4: The science fiction writer Douglas Adams debunked the fine tuning argument with his puddle analogy:
imagining a sentient puddle who wakes up one morning and thinks, "This is an interesting world I find myself in—an interesting hole I find myself in—fits me rather neatly, doesn't it? In fact it fits me staggeringly well, must have been made to have me in it!" See Wikipedia.
No—once again the fine tuning argument is not related to life at all let alone dedicated to life like ours. The puddle argument might have a place in arguing against the Privileged Planet view—which says that the earth is perfectly fit for life, but is completely irrelevant when it comes to the question of cosmological fine-tuning.

Variants of this misconception don't mention Douglas Adams—they say things like "of course since this is our universe and we evolved here it naturally appears fine tuned." Which misses the boat that nothing would have evolved if the universe couldn’t make heavy elements.

Misconception 5: Victor Stenger has debunked the fine tuning argument.

No—Victor Stenger argued that perhaps the universe is not really fine tuned—that is perhaps its ability to synthesize elements it is not really sensitive to the constants or the forces. A legitimate idea—and one that someday, someone might demonstrate. But Victor Stenger did not. I can't tell you how many times people have provided a link to this nascent, surface-scratching, speculative, disgrace of a paper—not peer reviewed, not published, close to ten years old, sitting stale on a University of Colorado philosophy web site as "proof" that Victor Stenger has debunked fine tuning. Rarely does someone surpass Victor Stenger in getting heaps of credit for producing (in this case) garbage.

Misconception 6: Ikeda and Jefferys debunked the fine tuning argument.

No—they produced some philosophical woo which—like Stenger's rebuttal, is stale and available only on a web site. This is an impenetrable Bayesian argument—which should already set off alarms—that contains, in its introduction, the following paragraph:
In this article we will show that this argument is wrong. Not only is it wrong, but in fact we will show that the observation that the universe is "fine-tuned" in this sense can only count against a supernatural origin of the universe. And we shall furthermore show that with certain theologies suggested by deities that are both inscrutable and very powerful, the more "finely-tuned" the universe is, the more a supernatural origin of the universe is undermined.
Science certainly has a place, don't you think, for Ikeda and Jefferys to quantify "sufficiently inscrutable deities" and prove that the more fine tuned the universe is, the less likely such deities exist.

Misconception 7: The fine tuning argument depends on small probability for the constants, but nobody knows what the a priori probability of the constants is.

No—the fine tuning argument says nothing—absolutely nothing about the probability of the constants.

Misconception 8: Maybe someday there will be a theory of everything that explains the constants. Maybe they must have the values they have.

No—again, the fine tuning argument says nothing—absolutely nothing about the probability of the constants. It not only doesn't require the probability to be small (misconception 7) but also is unaffected if the probability is unity. It only depends on the sensitivity of the heavy element synthesis to the values. Now, from a philosophical standpoint it will be a win for theists if the constants have unit probability—because then we can argue that the necessary conditions were built into the fabric of spacetime. From a secular standpoint is is better if the constants are a random draw (small probability) because that is consistent with the multiverse. But the fine tuning argument is agnostic when it comes to the probability of the constants.

Now let's see what comments Jerry's kids made regarding fine tuning.

Eric Macdonald wrote:
Stenger also has a new book almost out entitled The Fallacy of Fine-Tuning: Why the Universe is not Designed for Us.
I'll wait until this book comes out—but notice how stupid the title is. The fine tuning argument has nothing to do with us. It has to do with producing rocks. (Misconception(s): 2, 3, 5 )

Cody wrote:
What really bugs me about the fine tuning argument is that it implicitly claims that the finely tuned constants could have been something other than what they are, but we have no theory as to why they are what they are. It could be that in the future we discover a deeper reason for them to be that way. (Misconception(s): 7, 8 )

The other part that really bugs me is that it only applies to life as we know it. Calculating which fundamental physics results in a life-supporting universe is an intractable task, we can’t even simulate quantum mechanical systems on a macroscopic scale, let alone the enormous systems that could all potentially ‘grow’ life. (Misconception(s): 2, 3)
Deen wrote:
It also implicitly assumes that the purpose of the universe is to support human life – which is kind of begging the question, isn’t it? (Misconception(s): 2)
Kevin wrote:
The universe is fine-tuned for “no life”. If it were fine-tuned for life, then life would literally be everywhere we look. And yet, everywhere we look, there is no life other than there (so far).
It’s again a part of our human narcissism. We’re just SOOOOOO special that everything must have been built with us in mind.
No, the fine tuning argument is not that the universe is fine tuned for life, but fine tuned for synthesizing heavy elements. (Misconception(s): 2, 3)

In addition to the good rebuttals to the “fine-tuning” argument posted upthread, I take issue with just the name of the argument. The universe wasn’t tuned at all. This is just the way it is. If the universe wasn’t like this, it would be like something else. It’s not amazing that the universe is like it is!
Also, saying it’s “fine-tuned” implies agency of some kind. (Misconception(s): 1, 4)

There are plenty more nonsensical comments more, but I’m tiring.