Saturday, April 18, 2015

conversation with Jothee Shambit

I remember reading something of Barbara Forrest in which she talked about not being rattled by an attempt of the Discovery Institute to caricature her as Barking Forrest.  I had the impression that a Barking Forrest character (a dog joke?) was invented, and that this name was intended as some sort of attack on her.  I got curious.  No, it turned out to be an explicitly fictional interview with Barbara Forrest in which the fictional interviewer himself repeatedly gets her name wrong in ways that have no bearing on what she's saying.  The silliness of the interviewer is itself a parody of radio show hosts.  However, I sort of like the idea of a fictional stand-in for a caricature.

Jothee Shambit
So ... A fictional online interview  with Jothee Shambit, based on Jeffrey Shallit's writings on the Recursivity blog, some of his other writings & depositions, and similar sentiments by other ID-critics; so here in the alternate universe where Jothee rather than Jeffrey has taken part in the Dover trial and Shallit's various other exploits.  As a public figure, he is subject to satire and parody.  More than a bit of hyperbole in places here.  Nonetheless, you can decide for yourself whether it bears more than a superficial resemblance to Shallit's attitudes and arguments.  Any resemblances to people living or dead might not be a coincidence.  The reader can decide how much of it is caricature given how gracious and genteel Shallit is in actuality.

TQ: If you don't mind my saying so, you bear a certain resemblance to the Jothee character on Farscape.

JS:  I hear that a lot.  It's a coincidence.  We happen to bear a superficial resemblance and have similar names.  It's not unheard of.

TQ: It seems so unlikely.

JS:  Only to a freshman.  It's really not any more unlikely than any other outcome in this universe.  It's the lottery fallacy.  Some of my undergrads think this way, but I soon dispel them of it.  The universe is certain to contain trillions of baffling coincidences.  This, obviously, is one of them.

TQ:  I see. You have become a public figure as a critic of Intelligent Design ideas.

JS:  If they can be called that.  Yes, I can speak with some authority on the subjects of pseudoscience and pseudomathematics.  I'm kind of a "pseudologist."

TQ: Now, the question of pseudoscience is concerned with the boundary problem in the philosophy of science?

JS: "Boundary problem'?  That's very comical.  Very amusing.  *snicker*  You mean the "demarcation problem."  Yes, it's one of the more central ideas in philosophy of science.

TQ:  Excuse me, I meant "the demarcation problem."  The boundary between science and non-science.

JS:  If  you were properly educated you'd know it was called the demarcation problem.  The honest thing to do is just admit you were wrong or that you weren't properly educated.

TQ: I admit that the "demarcation problem" is the standard term.

JS: That's as close as you'll probably come to admitting you're wrong, I guess.

TQ: So you are trained in philosophy of science and are familiar with Larry Laudan's work.

JS:  I've educated myself on the subject.  For example, I devoted a large part of a sabbatical to reading and debunking William Dembski's book No Free Lunch.

TQ: That's pseudoscience?

JS:  More like pseudomathematics.  He's pretending to do mathematics, instead of pretending to do science.

TQ:  So is there a demarcation problem in the philosophy of mathematics? I don't remember that being an issue like that.

JS: There must be, because if you can pretend to do science, you can pretend to do mathematics.

TQ: And you've done some study on the ...  pretense of these activities?

JS:  Certainly. These pretenders tend to share certain psychological and sociological traits.

TQ: So you solve the demarcation problem by examining their mindsets?

JS:  Yes, and also looking at other factors.  For example, their work is not mainstream.  They refuse to give up their ideas when the majority doesn't agree.  Like Michael Behe in the Dover trial.  Real scientists write articles disagreeing with Behe, and he refuses to acknowledge the refutations.

TQ:  You mean the papers that Behe has specifically addressed in his various essays?

JS:  No, I mean the stack of papers that obviously confused him on the stand in the trial.

TQ: I read the transcript and I'd tend agree with Behe that it was bad courtroom theater.

JS: Well, I was there.  If you had any intellectual integrity you'd take my word for it as you were apparently busy doing other things that day.

TQ:  Mike Behe was there, and he has a different take on it.

JS:  Behe is a liar ... or he repeats lies which makes him as bad as a liar.  If he had any integrity he'd stop repeating creationist lies.  I'm not a liar.  If you had any integrity, you'd read the transcript correctly and realize that I'm telling the truth.

TQ:  Actually, I had quite a bit of biology in college, and I think Behe accurately portrays his arguments and the arguments of those he disagrees with.

JS:  Well, I'm really sorry for you that your education was so poor.  Either it was poor or you are simply in denial due to your radical theocratic beliefs.

TQ: I don't have radical theocratic beliefs, and I think I'm responding to the evidence in good faith.

JS: If you had any integrity, you'd walk a mile on your knees to Darwin's grave, flagellating yourself.  With a real flagellum, like the Romans used.  Not a bacterial flagellum, which evolved from the Type III Secretion system.

TQ:  Don't biologists think now that it is more likely that the Type III Secretion system evolved from the flagellum?

JS: If you had any training in biology you wouldn't make such ignorant assertions.

TQ:  Ok, moving on... Is it true that you said in a deposition that you were not an authority on evolution?

JS:  That was for the Dover trial.   I was being accurate for the purposes of legal expertise.  I do know quite a bit about evolution.  I had a good education.  Unlike some people.  But I'm not an expert.

TQ:  But you are certain of the truth of evolution?

JS:  I rely on the expertise of accepted authorities, many of whom I know personally.  Nobody I respect doubts evolution.

TQ:  And if one of them changed their mind about the certainty of natural selection?

JS:  I'd know they weren't worthy of respect.  No true Scotsman, uh I mean, scientist doubts Darwin.  If they do, they are a crank philosopher, or a crackpot engineer who only knows how to build complex systems, or a mere biochemist.

TQ:  A biochemist isn't a scientist?

JS:  Not if he doubts evolution.  Even my undergraduates would know better than to doubt evolution.  Only a crackpot blowhard dares to doubt something that sophomores would know better than to doubt in my classes.  It's a scientific fact that students who doubt evolution get lower grades from their professors, statistically speaking.

TQ: I wouldn't be surprised.

JS:  Yeah, it shows how stupid religion makes people.  Credulous yokels!

TQ:  So, you can't speak with authority on biological matters even though you've educated yourself on the subject, but you can speak with authority on pseudoscience. You must have read a great deal on the philosophy of science.

JS:  Yes, I read Barbara Forrest's book explaining how ID is just a Trojan horse for creationism and how ID proponents are just crypto-creationists.  

TQ: That sounds more like a political treatise.

JS:  It's a serious sociological and psychological study.  University Press.  You really don't need to know anything more on the subject than is in that book.

TQ:  Now, Judge Jones III said at one point that Forrest's expert opinion was filled with hearsay.  Is her popular book similarly flawed?

JS:  In the book she documents how the Of Pandas and People "textbook" was changed to remove instances of "creationism" and replace them with "intelligent design."

TQ:  Like how that conference (even Eugenie Scott) agreed to revise the definition of evolution and  remove "undirected" and "purposeless" from the definition in response to the letters from Huston Smith and Alvin Platinga --  or more like how Judge Jones edited the ACLU brief into becoming his written opinion for Kitzmiller?

JS:  Something in between those two.  But nefarious, mind you.  Wicked and deceitful.

TQ:  If all the textbook writers had to do was change their terminology to remove the religious terminology to make it purely scientific, wouldn't that mean it was already scientific?

JS:  Obviously it proves that the textbook writers were motivated by religion.

TQ: But the demarcation problem is decided by the content, not by motives.

JS:  Not according to the courts, Poindexter.  Everything's about presumed motives now.

TQ:  Now, Judge Jones III said there was no reason he could think of why he of all people shouldn't decide for all time whether ID was science.  Did he have the appropriate background in philosophy of science?

JS:   He learned enough philosophy of science during the case through amicus briefs and expert testimony.  Basically, he knew that the witnesses for the prosecution were reliable because the ACLU brief told him so.  But it's really motives that matter, you see.

TQ:  Like those of Barbara Forrest.  Isn't Forrest an advocate for secular humanism?

JS:  I don't see how Barbara Forrest's motives are relevant.

TQ:  Might that prejudice her in her analysis of the Intelligent Design movement?

JS:  I really couldn't say what her motives are.  I'd assume that she is motivated by her love of truth as a fellow believer in good science.  I don't see any reason to think otherwise.

TQ:  I see.  Back to your expert testimony-- You did mention 'complexity theory' as an area of expertise as well.  What do you think of complexity?

JS:  Ah, there is a perfectly good definition of complexity that is well understood.  It's called Kolmogorov complexity.  It's also called algorithmic information.  There's also something called Shannon information that gets into frequentist interpretations, and I like to avoid talking about probability distributions.  I stick with Kolmogorov complexity.  I don't like to confuse people.

TQ:  Do you see this as similar to specified complexity?

JS:  I couldn't say what "specified complexity" is.  I think Dembski means "specified improbability" though it's obvious he doesn't understand probability theory.

TQ:  Didn't he have an academic advisor for his thesis whose specialty was probability theory?

JS:   Dembski probably dazzled him with rhetoric and pseudomathematical flapdoodle.

TQ:  That doesn't seem likely.

JS:   Only if you don't understand Bayesian inferences... but then you obviously don't understand any probability theory.

TQ:  Perhaps I'm confused from reading Bible verses.

JS:   Exactly! Anyway, there is already a generally recognized definition of complexity, and when we use that definition, we find that all sorts of elementary operations increase complexity, increase information.*  My undergrads learn this in my classes.  Creationists don't understand Kolmogorov complexity because they are too busy learning about "creationist information" in the Book of Genesis.

TQ: But isn't it a trivial point that random character changes of random jumbling of letters would increase the randomness and therefore the complexity?

JS:  Yes, it is a trivial point.  I told you that ID creationists are dumb.

TQ: So you don't think that there is a legitimate concept of functional information?

JS:  It's yet to be shown whether there is one or not.

TQ:  Isn't the work on alternate information measures such as effective complexity, logical depth, facticity, etc. being done precisely because algorithmic information regards maximally random strings as maximally informative?  Aren't these trying to get at functional patterns, interesting or meaningful patterns?

JS:  First of all, information is information and biology is biology.  Secondly, if algorithmic complexity was good enough for Kolmogorov, it's good enough for me.  Comprende?

TQ:  So how do you know which information measures to apply to biology?

JS:  If it supports Darwinian evolution, then it applies.  If it doesn't support it, it's the wrong measure.

TQ:  Ok, so how does Kolmogorov information apply to biology, if it does apply?

JS:  Algorithmic information is well known, well understood, and doesn't depend on assumptions of probability distributions.

TQ:  Ok.  So how is it a good measure of the sort of structural information that produces functional proteins?

JS:  Well, copying information and then making random changes tends to add algorithmic information.  And basically this is what evolution is, along with natural selection keeping just the useful information.

TQ:  But you don't create functional proteins just by random nucleotides.

JS:  It makes more sense if you don't believe the Bible.  Or if you had a decent education.  But I repeat myself.

TQ:  Ok, moving on... Do you think that Mount Rushmore exhibits evidence of design?

JS:  Human design, sure.

TQ:  Because of its improbable shapes?

JS:  Not necessarily.  This is getting tedious.  My paper with Wolfgang Elderberry explains all this.  Read our paper, and if you still don't get it, then get a gun and put yourself out of your intellectual misery.

TQ:  Do you believe that a concept of design detection like Dembski's, if legitimate, would prove there is a God rather than clever extraterrestrials?

JS:  Not necessarily.  But you have to realize that this is what these people really think, that they have God in mind.  I mean, is it easier to believe that aliens have been directing evolution for billions of years or to believe that something spooky and supernatural is at work?

TQ:  So what are you saying?  It might strongly suggest that there is a God, a Creator?

JS:  Only to the suggestible.

TQ:  So then it would really imply aliens instead?

JS:  I couldn't say what it would imply.  I think whether or not life on Earth is designed is not a very interesting question because knowing it was designed would be a singularly uninteresting fact.*

TQ:  Well, I'd say that about wraps it up.  Thank you, Jothee, for sharing your insights.  Why are you twitching?  Are you all right?

JS:  Creationist complexity! "Cdesign proponentist" flapdoodle!  Answers in Genesis!  Answers in Genesis!  Anti-science!  *flurp*

TQ:  Well, this is "The Secular Creationist," and we've been talking to pseudologist Jothee Shambit, who has had a little too much excitement for one evening.  Stay classy, Internet.

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