Sunday, February 17, 2013

Oppose the Scientific Education and Academic Freedom Act

The Common Education Committee of the Oklahoma House of Representatives will consider House Bill 1674 on Tuesday, February 19 at 10:30 a.m. Here I make it easy for Oklahomans who use a mail application to contact the committee members. Those of you who contacted the Senate Education Committee regarding the Oklahoma Science Education Act (Senate Bill 758) can quickly modify your note to apply to HB 1674. (Do please oppose SB 758, which has not yet been scheduled for consideration.)

The National Center for Science Education has provided background information on both the Senate and the House bills. The Oklahomans for Excellence in Science Education have analyzed HB 1674 [PDF].

My characterization of how the bills are related: SB 758 is essentially HB 1674 stripped of motivation, indications of legislative intent, examples of "scientific controversy," and the requirement that students learn what is in the curriculum. The author of HB 1674, Rep. Gus Blackwell, has in fact become a coauthor of SB 758.

House Common Education Committee

Clicking on a link below creates an email note that begins with a personalized salutation, e.g., "Dear Representative Coody." You need only paste in the rest of the note, and then send it. (Contact Rep. Blackwell only if you live in District 61.) Please be brief and respectful. Include your full name and street address.

HT: Oklahomans for Excellence in Science Education.

NamePositionPhoneEmail
Ann CoodyChair557-7398anncoody@okhouse.gov
Dennis CaseyVice Chair557-7344dennis.casey@okhouse.gov
Gus BlackwellMember557-7375gusblackwell@okhouse.gov
Donnie ConditMember557-7376donnie.condit@okhouse.gov
Doug CoxMember557-7415dougcox@okhouse.gov
Lee DenneyMember557-7304leedenney@okhouse.gov
Dale DeWittMember557-7332daledewitt@okhouse.gov
Curtis McDanielMember557-7363curtis.mcdaniel@okhouse.gov
Jeannie McDanielMember557-7334jeanniemcdaniel@okhouse.gov
Jason NelsonMember557-7335jason.nelson@okhouse.gov
Dustin RobertsMember557-7366dustin.roberts@okhouse.gov
Jason SmalleyMember557-7368jason.smalley@okhouse.gov
Todd ThomsenMember557-7336todd.thomsen@okhouse.gov
Emily VirginMember557-7323emily.virgin@okhouse.gov

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Oppose the Oklahoma Science Education Act

Oklahoma’s Senate Education Committee will consider yet another “science education” bill introduced by Senator Josh Brecheen. Below, I make it easy to contact members of the committee. You can learn about the history of Senator Brecheen and the ancestry of Senate Bill 758 here. The Oklahomans for Excellence in Science Education provide an analysis, "Why SB 758 by Brecheen is a Bad Bill."

Synopsis of SB 758

The science curriculum addresses "scientific controversies." All school boards and administrators must

1. try to help teachers find effective ways to teach about scientific controversies;
2. try to encourage science students not only to engage in traditional learning, but also to "respond appropriately and respectfully to differences of opinion about controversial issues;" and
3. permit teachers to instruct pupils in "scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories covered in the course being taught."
This has nothing to do with promotion of religion, non-religion, etc.

The phrases "scientific controversies" and "scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories covered in the course" appear in adjacent sentences, but the bill actually does not connect the two. The restriction in scope of "strengths and weaknesses" does not apply to "scientific controversies." Thus a teacher might regard "intelligent design vs. Darwinism" as a scientific controversy, even though intelligent design is not a theory covered in the course. There is no "scientific" qualifier of the "controversial issues" on which students have "differences of opinion." A teacher might feel compelled to allow debate after a student brings up creationism.

The bill neither defines nor identifies "scientific controversies," but asserts that the science curriculum already addresses them, and requires that administrators help teachers present them effectively. This shrewdly establishes that teaching effectiveness is an issue. Administrators may evaluate teachers on their handling of "scientific controversies," as well as their moderation of student debate. Thus administrators have the power to identify controversies that an effective teacher should address, and also the power to specify that effective teaching of them requires presentation of certain "strengths and weaknesses" of theories.

Teachers are free to impose nonstandard "strengths and weaknesses" instruction on students, even in cases where administrators do not recommend it. Although a principal might respond legitimately by assigning a low performance rating to a teacher, the legal risk in doing so would be high. Then again, the teacher might also place the local school district at risk of lawsuit. If enacted, the bill would put some school administrators between rocks and hard places.

The guts of the bill

The five paragraphs of Section 2 contain the substance of the bill. I have quoted them here, and added emphasis.

A. The State Board of Education, school district boards of education, school district superintendents and school principals shall endeavor to create an environment within public school districts that encourages students to explore scientific questions, learn about scientific evidence, develop critical thinking skills and respond appropriately and respectfully to differences of opinion about controversial issues.
Start by requiring public schools to do what they already are required to do, and in fact do. Then indicate that civil debate of "controversial issues" belongs in science class. The omission of scientific here must be intentional, as repetitiously as it is used elsewhere.
B. The State Board of Education, school district boards of education, school district superintendents and school principals shall endeavor to assist teachers to find effective ways to present the science curriculum as it addresses scientific controversies. Teachers shall be permitted to help students understand, analyze, critique and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories covered in the course being taught.
Posit that the curriculum already addresses "scientific controversies," without making it clear what they are. Open up opportunity for school boards and administrators to change instruction top-down, and for individual teachers to make radical changes at the classroom level.
C. Neither the State Board of Education, nor any school district board of education, school district superintendent or school principal shall prohibit any teacher in a public school district in this state from helping students understand, analyze, critique and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and weaknesses of existing scientific theories covered in the course being taught.
"This means you!"
D. This section only protects the teaching of scientific information and shall not be construed to promote any religious or non-religious doctrine, promote discrimination for or against a particular set of religious beliefs or non-beliefs or promote discrimination for or against religion or non-religion.
"Ignore that creationist behind the curtain. We are the mighty Legislature!"
E. By no later than the start of the 2013-2014 school year, the State Department of Education shall notify school district boards of education and school district superintendents of public schools in the state of the provisions of this act. Each school district board of education and school district superintendent shall notify all employees within the school district of the provisions of this act.

"Glad tidings to all — nurses, cooks, and janitors!"

Senate Education Committee

Clicking on one of the links below creates an email note that begins with a personalized salutation, e.g., "Dear Senator Ford." (Contact Senator Brecheen only if you live in his district.) You need only paste in the rest of the note, and then send it. Please be brief and respectful. Include your full name and street address.

Thanks to Oklahomans for Excellence in Science Education for supplying the contact information.

NamePositionPartyRoomPhoneEmail
John FordChairR424A521-5634fordj@oksenate.gov
Gary StanislawskiVice ChairR427A521-5624stanislawski@oksenate.gov
Josh BrecheenMemberR513A521-5586brecheen@oksenate.gov
Earl GarrisonMemberD533521-5533whitep@oksenate.gov
Jim HalliganMemberR425521-5572halligan@oksenate.gov
David HoltMemberR411A521-5636holt@oksenate.gov
Clark JolleyMemberR519521-5622jolley@oksenate.gov
Charlie LasterMemberD522521-5539laster@oksenate.gov
Wayne ShawMemberR513A521-5574shaw@oksenate.gov
Ralph ShorteyMemberR514A521-5557shortey@oksenate.gov
John SparksMemberD513B521-5553sparks@oksenate.gov
Ron SharpMemberR533521-5539sharp@oksenate.gov

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The theorem that never was: Diversionary “erratum” from Dembski and Marks

In my last post, I showed that the research program of William A. Dembski and Robert J. Marks II depends on making performance gain in so-called search look like information gain, and calling it active information. It was clear that the misrepresentation arose from severe misunderstanding of the "no free lunch" theorems, not an intent to deceive. I would call it an honest error, if it were not the result of intrinsically dishonest activities — apologetics and culture war.*

Now, unfortunately, I indict both the math and the men. When things like Marks' approval of a master's thesis plagiarizing his and Dembski's publications present themselves to me, I feel honor-bound to report on them. Also, people who know of Marks' considerable technical achievements need to know also that he has, in late career, begun using his reputation and connections to pursue socio-poltical ends. They may want to give him the benefit of the doubt, as I did when he began collaborating with Dembski. This post shows why that's not such a good idea. (And so do this, this, and this.)

There never was a Horizontal No Free Lunch Theorem

In the abstract of "The Search for a Search: Measuring the Information Cost of Higher Level Search," Dembski and Marks write:

We prove two results: (1) The Horizontal No Free Lunch Theorem, which shows that average relative performance of searches never exceeds unassisted or blind searches, and (2) The Vertical No Free Lunch Theorem, which shows that the difficulty of searching for a successful search....

That has the ring of a grand contribution. They've extended the famous "no free lunch" results both horizontally and vertically. Problem is, they knew long before publication of the paper that the statement of the first "theorem" was semantically ill-formed (not even a proposition, let alone a theorem).

How can I say that they knew? The paper was originally scheduled for publication in 2008, in an obscure Polish journal that shut down after two years of operation. Dembski and Marks disseminated the paper themselves, however, after it was accepted, and soon heard of several errors from the mathematically talented D. Eben. I saw not only Eben's detailed criticisms on the Web (e.g., here and here), but also some of the email he sent to Marks. The version of the paper subsequently published in July 2010, in a Japanese open-access journal, includes revisions of arcane mathematics, and acknowledges Eben. But it leaves in place the "theorem" made into gobbledy-gook by an error in sophomore-level discrete math.

Was Marks too dumb to see the mistake, or was he unwilling to dismantle the lovely "horizontal-and-vertical" rhetoric, perhaps believing that he could produce the theorem later? I have never suggested that Marks is anything less than a very bright man.

Dembski and Marks release a diversionary “erratum”

Now, almost two years later, Dembski and Marks have added an erratum to the end of the paper. (Here are Eben's announcement and subsequent discussion of it, along with some of my comments.) They begin by acknowledging the mistake. Then they give a theorem and a corollary that seem, at first blush, to correct those in the original paper. However, they've pulled the old switcheroo. The theorem is actually a lemma, and the corollary is the main result. "Search" is reduced to the utterly uninteresting case of a single draw from the sample space. And, hilariously, the average "active information" in the corollary is undefined. The cause of this is a) correct consideration of insoluble problems, for which expected performance is 0, and b) logarithmic transformation of expected performance to make it into faux information. That is, $\log 0 = -\infty$. Oops.

Dembski and Marks can predicate magical knowledge that the problem has a solution, and make it so that the average "active information" is not always undefined. But there is no way for them to arrange for it always to be defined. As discussed in more detail on Mr. Eben's blog, the "erratum" predicates a condition in which average performance does not depend on the choice of "search" (sampler). Yet the average "active information" varies from 0 to $-\infty$, depending on the "search." This contradicts claims in the paper like this:

If no information about a search exists, so that the underlying measure is uniform, then, on average, any other assumed measure will result in negative active information, thereby rendering the search performance worse than random search.

Yet the "erratum" does nothing to identify and correct this crucial error. Dembski and Marks never had a Horizontal No Free Lunch Theorem, could not possibly have believed that they published one, evidently know that they cannot produce one, and clearly seek to admit to absolutely as little as possible.

* To get an idea of how Dembski will exploit what he and Marks have published in the next judicial test of public-school instruction in "intelligent design" creationism, see Expert Witness Report: The Scientific Status of Intelligent Design and Rebuttal to Reports by Opposing Expert Witnesses, which he prepared for Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District (2005). After the trial, Dembski, who had backed out of testifying, dubbed a Flash animation, now heavily redacted, with the judge in the case "represented as a pull-to-speak doll spouting snippets of his decision in a high-pitched voice with added farting noises, and various pro-science advocates... represented as pulling the string."

Marks makes no secret of how he feels about Kitzmiller in the following bait-and-switch guest lecture he gave in "Introduction to Engineering" at Baylor University (Fall 2011). He reads [1:00:00] from the transcript of the trial, supplying a dopey voice for Robert Pennock, who testified on the artificial-life system Avida. Ever so coincidentally, this is followed by a dubbed "OK" in a high-pitched voice.

I hope to devote an entire post to this video: "Academic Freedom Does Not Entail Instructional Freedom." My guess is that program review teams from the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology would frown on "the universe is not old enough nor big enough to allow the evolution of complex life" [49:55] indoctrination of freshmen.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Bob Marks grossly misunderstands “no free lunch”

And so does Bill Dembski. But it is Marks who, in a “Darwin or Design?” interview, reveals plainly the fallacy at the core of his and Dembski's notion of “active information.” (He gets going at 7:50. To select a time, it's best to put the player in full-screen mode. I've corrected slips of the tongue in my transcript.)

[The “no free lunch” theorem of Wolpert and Macready] said that with a lack of any knowledge about anything, that one search was as good as any other search. [14:15]

And what Wolpert and Macready said was, my goodness, none of these [“search”] algorithms work as well as [better than] any other one, on the average, if you have no idea what you're doing. And so the question is... and what we've done here is, if indeed that is true, and an algorithm works, then that means information has been added to the search. And what we've been able to do is take this baseline, that all searches are the same, and we've been able to, in cases where searches work, measure the information that is placed into the algorithm in bits. And we have looked at some of the evolutionary algorithms, and we found out that, strikingly, they are not responsible for any creation of information. [14:40]

And according to “no free lunch” theorems, astonishingly, any search, without information about the problem that you're looking for, will operate at the same level as blind search. And that's... It's a mind-boggling result. [28:10]

Bob has read into the “no free lunch” (NFL) theorems what he believed in the first place, namely that if something works, it must have been designed to do so. Although he gets off to a good start by referring to the subjective state of the practitioner (“with a lack of knowledge,” “if you have no idea what you're doing”), he errs catastrophically by making a claim about the objective state of affairs (“one search is as good as any other search,” “all searches are the same”).

Does your lack of knowledge about a problem imply that all available solution methods (algorithms) work equally well in fact? If you think so, then you're on par with the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal, “such a mind-bogglingly stupid animal, it assumes that if you can't see it, it can't see you.” Your lack of knowledge implies only that you cannot formally justify a choice of algorithm. There not only may be, but in practice usually will be, huge differences in algorithm performance.

What boggles my mind is that Marks and Dembski did not learn this from Wolpert and Macready (1997), “No Free Lunch Theorems for Optimization.” In Section III-A, the authors observe that “it is certainly true that any class of problems faced by a practitioner will not have a flat prior.” This means that some problems are more likely than others, and the NFL theorems do not hold in fact. So what is the significance of the theorems?

First, if the practitioner has knowledge of problem characteristics but does not incorporate them into the optimization algorithm, then... the NFL theorems establish that there are no formal assurances that the algorithm chosen will be at all effective. Second, while most classes of problems will certainly have some structure which, if known, might be exploitable, the simple existence of that structure does not justify choice of a particular algorithm; that structure must be known and reflected directly in the choice of algorithm to serve as such a justification. [emphasis mine]
So don't take my word for it that Bob has twisted himself into intellectual contortions with his apologetics. This comes from an article with almost 2600 citations. If memory serves, Marks and Dembski have cited it in all 7 of their publications.

Marks and Dembski believe, astonishingly, that the NFL theorems say that an algorithm outperforms “blind search” only if some entity has exploited problem-specific information in selecting it, when the correct interpretation is that the practitioner is justified in believing that an algorithm outperforms “blind search” only if he or she exploits problem-specific information knowledge [justified true belief] in selecting it. This leads them to the fallacious conclusion that when a search $s$ outperforms blind search, they can measure the problem-specific information that an ostensible "search-forming process” added to $s$ to produce the gain in performance. They silently equate performance with information, and contrive to transform the gain in performance into an expression that looks like gain of Shannon information.

Their name-game depends crucially on making the outcome of a search dichotomous — absolute success (performance of 1) or absolute failure (performance of 0). Then the expected performance of a search is also its probability of success. There is a probability $p$ that blind search solves the problem, and a probability $p_s > p$ that search $s$ solves the problem, and the ratio $p_s / p$ is naturally interpreted as performance gain. But to exhibit the “added information” (information gain), Marks and Dembski perform a gratuitous logarithmic transformation of the performance gain, $$I_+ = \log \frac{p_s}{p} = \log p_s - \log p = -\!\log p + \log p_s,$$ and call it active information. (The last step is silly, of course. Evidently it makes things look more “Shannon information-ish.”) To emphasize, they convert performance into “information” by sticking to a special case in which expected performance is a probability.

Here's a simple (in)sanity check. Suppose that I have a “pet” algorithm that I run on all problems that come my way. Obviously, there's no sense in which I add problem-specific information. But Marks and Dembski cherry-pick the cases in which my algorithm outperforms blind search, and, because active information is by definition the degree to which an algorithm outperforms blind search, declare that something really did add information to the algorithm.

Now, a point I'll treat only briefly is that Marks and Dembski claim that the cases in which my pet algorithm greatly outperforms blind search are exceedingly rare. The fact is that they do not know the distribution of problems arising in the real world, and have no way of saying how rare or common extreme performance is for simple algorithms. In the case of computational search, we know for sure that the distribution of problems diverges fabulously from the uniform. Yet Marks and Dembski carry on about “Bernoulli's Principle of Insufficient Reason and Conservation of Information in Computer Search,” doing their damnedest to fob off subjective assignment of uniform probability as objective chance.

A bit of irony for dessert [35:50]:

Question: Are you getting any kind of response from the other side? Are they saying this is kind of interesting, or are they kind of putting stoppers in their ears? What's going on?

Answer: It's more of the stoppers in the ears thus far. We have a few responses on blogs, which are unpleasant, and typically personal attacks, so those are to be ignored. We're waiting for, actually, something substantive in response.

A note to reviewers of papers by Dembski and Marks

William A. Dembski and Robert J. Marks II lace their engineering papers with subtle insinuations that will strike reviewers as somewhat strange, but that probably will not raise red flags. The only publication in which they give a crystal-clear explanation of their measure of active information, and state outright what they're trying to do with it, is the somewhat philosophical Life's Conservation Law: Why Darwinian Evolution Cannot Create Biological Information. Note that they previously referred to "English's Law of Conservation of Information" (a term they made up). English is telling you now that he did not understand their engineering papers until he read the one addressing biological evolution.

ABSTRACT: Laws of nature are universal in scope, hold with unfailing regularity, and receive support from a wide array of facts and observations. The Law of Conservation of Information (LCI) is such a law. LCI characterizes the information costs that searches incur in outperforming blind search. Searches that operate by Darwinian selection, for instance, often significantly outperform blind search. But when they do, it is because they exploit information supplied by a fitness function — information that is unavailable to blind search. Searches that have a greater probability of success than blind search do not just magically materialize. They form by some process. According to LCI, any such search-forming process must build into the search at least as much information as the search displays in raising the probability of success. More formally, LCI states that raising the probability of success of a search by a factor of q/p (> 1) incurs an information cost of at least log(q/p). LCI shows that information is a commodity that, like money, obeys strict accounting principles. This paper proves three conservation of information theorems: a function-theoretic, a measure-theoretic, and a fitness-theoretic version. These are representative of conservation of information theorems in general. Such theorems provide the theoretical underpinnings for the Law of Conservation of Information. Though not denying Darwinian evolution or even limiting its role in the history of life, the Law of Conservation of Information shows that Darwinian evolution is inherently teleological. Moreover, it shows that this teleology can be measured in precise information-theoretic terms. [emphasis added]

You do not have to read far into the paper to find that intelligence creates information to guide biological evolution. The passage I've highlighted contradicts the Conservation Lemma (wish I hadn't called it that) I proved in my first paper (1996) regarding "no free lunch" in so-called search. The fundamental reason that there is no free lunch is that the "search" (which is nothing more than sampling, with performance measured on the sample) cannot gain exploitable information by evaluation of the fitness function. This is really just a formalization of the famous problem of induction, i.e., observations say nothing about what has yet to be observed. Use of observations to decide what to observe is a source of sampling bias, not information. Therefore, when the performance measured on a sample obtained by biased sampling is better or worse than the expected performance for uniform sampling ("blind search"), the difference can be explained only in terms of bias. I'll say much more in a forthcoming post.

You will not read all of the paper, and thus I want to call your attention to the 1-1/3 page "Conclusion: 'A Plan for Experimental Validation.'" Some highlights:

The Law of Conservation of Information, however, is not merely an accounting tool. Under its aegis, intelligent design merges theories of evolution and information, thereby wedding the natural, engineering, and mathematical sciences. On this view (and there are other views of intelligent design), its main focus becomes how evolving systems incorporate, transform, and export information. Moreover, a principal theme of its research becomes teasing apart the respective roles of internally produced and externally applied information in the performance of evolving systems.

[...]

In such information-tracking experiments, the opponent of intelligent design hopes to discover a free lunch. The proponent of intelligent design, by contrast, attempts to track down hidden information costs and thereby confirm that the Law of Conservation of Information was preserved. There is no great mystery in any of this. Nor do such experiments to confirm intelligent design merely apply to the origin of life. Insofar as evolution (whether chemical or biological) is an exact experimental science, it will exhibit certain informational properties. Are those properties more akin to alchemy, where more information comes out than was put in? Or are they more akin to accounting, where no more information comes out than was put in? A systematic attempt to resolve such questions constitutes a plan for experimentally verifying intelligent design.

All of the published "information-tracking experiments" have all been analyses of evolutionary computations. (My next post shows that the "information" is nothing but logarithmically transformed performance, and that the misinterpretation is rooted in Marks' misunderstanding of the "no free lunch" theorems.) The highlighted passage indicates how Dembski and Marks will argue, perhaps as expert witnesses in the next judicial test of public-school instruction in "intelligent design" creationism (Dembski was to serve as a witness in the last, but withdrew), that their engineering/computing publications support the claim that biological evolution requires intelligent guidance.

This is in no way a suggestion that you respond to anything but the technical (de)merits of their work. Dembski himself referred a New York Times science reporter to me as a fair-minded critic of ID creationism. I have also protested what I considered to be an infringement of Marks' academic freedom at Baylor University. My intent here is to impress on you how important it is to do a thorough review, and to insist that the authors make clear to you everything that they are doing. In particular, require that they provide a rigorous definition of "search," rather than give examples or suggest that everyone knows what the term means. If the definition does not make "search" out to be sampling, with performance measured on the sample (as in Wolpert and Macready [1997], "No Free Lunch Theorems for Optimization"), then you should ask why it does not.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Raising an eyebrow at a Springer series editor

Springer announced last month that it would publish Biological Information: New Perspectives, the proceedings of a more-or-less secret conference of creationists. The publisher retracted the announcement almost immediately, saying that it was automatically generated, and that the volume was undergoing additional review.

Biological Information was listed, oddly enough, in an engineering series, the "Intelligent Systems Reference Library." The creationist argument that life was engineered is not engineering, of course. The creationists themselves regard it as science.* Only one of the editors of the proceedings, Bob Marks, has worked in the field of intelligent systems. It was probably he who proposed the volume to Springer.

I happened upon a volume in the series, and had a look at its two editors and 43 titles, 35 of which are dated 2011 or 2012. Seeing that one of the series editors is Janusz Kacprzyk, I thought immediately of the Polish journal that announced a forthcoming article by Marks and Dembski (another of the proceedings editors), but suspended operations prior to publishing it. And Prof. Kacprzyk was indeed on the editorial board of the International Journal of Information Technology and Intelligent Computing.

Membership on an editorial board is more an honor than anything else, and it's doubtful that Prof. Kacprzyk was involved in the process of review and acceptance of the article. However, it's not unreasonable to ask what he knew about it. And I did, with no mention whatsoever of Springer:

I'm curious as to how much you knew about the article. Were you aware that many scientists and engineers objected to it as "intelligent design" creationism? Did you read the article?
Prof. Kacprzyk did not dignify my email with a response. So I'll dignify his non-response with a raised eyebrow. If he knew nothing about the article, then why not say so?

How, precisely, do the editors of a series on engineered intelligent systems receive a proposal for a volume on biological information, and conclude other than that it's outside the scope of the series? The parsimonious guess is that they're compensated on a per-volume basis, and care more about cranking out volumes than anything else. But inquiring minds want to know.

* I say that ID creationism falls into the category of speculative philosophy, "which makes claims that cannot be verified by everyday experience of the physical world or by a scientific method." And rather than advocate censorship of Biological Information, I call for Springer to classify it correctly.

The central theme of the volume is, I suspect, that biological information is the consequence of non-material intelligence operating on matter. This is a teleological view of physical reality. What's new about it is the tacit claim that something unobservable (intelligence) creates measurable stuff (information) out of nothing with evident purpose. It is hardly unfair to characterize this as speculative philosophy seeking to become science.

In the Library of Congress classification system, BD493-701 is associated with "teleology, space and time, structure of matter, plurality of worlds." Books in this range have a great deal to say about science, but are not themselves works of science. I believe that Biological Information belongs with them. Irrespective of how libraries classify it, I hope that Springer will go on record with a statement that the volume is meta-scientific.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Oppose the Scientific Education and Academic Freedom Act

HB 1551, the "Scientific Education and Academic Freedom Act," passed the Oklahoma House, and goes next to the Senate Education Committee. The committee meets at 9:00 on Monday morning, and I ask those of you who live in Oklahoma to contact members as soon as possible (see below). Remember to include your home address in email correspondence.

Note that this bill, if passed into law, would give science teachers the freedom to judge where "scientific controversy" exists. It lists "biological evolution, the chemical origins of life, global warming, and human cloning" as examples of controversy. It does not mention, of course, the "scientific controversies" as to whether HIV causes AIDS, and as to whether HIV even exists. The thought of biology teachers effectively encouraging teenagers to doubt that unprotected sex puts them at elevated risk of AIDS is chilling. Most would not do this, but I guarantee you that there are some who would.

Senator John Ford (R) (Chair) fordj@oksenate.gov 405-521-5634
Senator Gary Stanislawski (Vice Chair) stanislawski@oksenate.gov 405-521-5624
Senator Cliff Branan (R) branan@oksenate.gov (405) 521-5543
Senator Josh Brecheen (R) (sponsor of similar bills)
Senator Greg Childers (R) childers@oksenate.gov (405) 521-5522
Senator Kim David (R) david@oksenate.gov (405) 521-5590
Senator Judy Eason McIntyre (D) easonmcintyre@oksenate.gov 405-521-5598
Senator Earl Garrison (D) whitep@oksenate.gov 405-521-5533
Senator Jim Halligan (R) halligan@oksenate.gov 405-521-5572
Senator David Holt (R) holt@oksenate.gov (405) 521-5636
Senator Clark Jolley (R) jolley@oksenate.gov (405) 521-5622
Senator Charlie Laster (D) laster@oksenate.gov (405) 521-5539
Senator Richard Lerblance (D) lerblance@oksenate.gov (405) 521-5604
Senator Mike Mazzei (R) mazzei@oksenate.gov 405-521-5675
Senator Jonathan Nichols (R) nichols@oksenate.gov (405) 521-5535
Senator John Sparks (D) sparks@oksenate.gov 405-531-5553

Thursday, March 15, 2012

I laughed at him, but I also applauded him

I'm just back from a public debate of whether intelligent design should be taught in public-school science classes. Baptist pastor Steve Kern argued for, and doctoral student Abbie Smith argued against. Kern is the husband of Oklahoma Representative Sally Kern, a sponsor of "academic freedom" bills.

I half-expected to see a skillful orator tie a scientist-in-training into rhetorical knots. I've known many Baptist preachers and preachers-to-be, and I assure you that plenty of them are capable of it. Abbie would nail them on the relevant science, but that's not really what wins debates on matters like this.

However, Kern was ill-prepared and slow-witted. He was so bad that I wonder whether the host of the event, the Oklahoma City chapter of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, invited him not just for his views, but also for his ineptitude. (In last year's debate, Kern argued that the U.S. was established as a Christian nation.)

Kern did get his tongue loose at one point in the debate. He emphasized that he reads creationist science books, and then proceeded to regurgitate various ill-digested morsels. When he made his way to genetic entropy, and stated that mutations always destroy information, I merely grinned. But when he ended by proclaiming that evolutionary improvement would violate the Second Law of Thermodynamics, I let myself chortle. I wasn't alone, but I may have been the first or the loudest. The moderator gave me a disapproving look, and I deserved it.

The debate was a bore, though Abbie presented well. The highlight, for me, came during the Q&A. Kern said outright that it is theology that drives his science, and not science that drives his theology. I waited for the audience to respond, and when it did not, I initiated a round of applause. And I was sincere in doing so. What I detest about ID creationists is their fabulous dishonesty, not their belief in God. There's nothing more I could ask of Kern, than that he explain with complete honesty his subjugation of science to religious dogma.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Waiting for a substantive response from Marks and Dembski

Robert J. Marks II and William A. Dembski have been mouthing off publicly about the grand progress they've made in IDC theory. It's not so much that they annoy me as that they make it clear that they're preparing for the next judicial test of public education in creationism. The recent approval of a "scientific strengths and weaknesses" bill by the education committee of my state's house of representatives has got me thinking that the next court case may not be all that far in the future.

A "Darwin or Design?" podcast interview (read on while it loads in a new tab, and then skip to 7:52) with Marks includes this cute little exchange:

Question: Are you getting any kind of response from the other side? Are they saying this is kind of interesting, or are they kind of putting stoppers in their ears? What's going on?

Answer: It's more of the stoppers in the ears thus far. We have a few responses on blogs, which are unpleasant,* and typically personal attacks, so those are to be ignored. We're waiting for, actually, something substantive in response.

The fact is that I contradicted a key claim of Marks and Dembski 16 years ago, in my very first paper regarding the "no free lunch" theorems. I proved that a search algorithm cannot gain exploitable information by processing samples of the fitness function. Yet Marks and Dembski insist on characterizing fitness functions as "oracles" that "guide" searches to satisfactory solutions by providing "warmer-colder" information. The burden is not on me to demonstrate that this is hooey, but instead on them to prove me wrong. You should not wait with bated breath for them to do so, any more than you should gamble on seeing the refutation of the coevolutionary free lunch theorem that they supposedly have in the works.

As for publishing direct criticism of their work, it's harder to do than you might suspect. Engineers and scientists are not paying attention to Marks and Dembski, and thus there's little reason for a journal to accept an article that does nothing but debunk their claims. The trick is to develop valuable new results that naturally give rise to critical analysis of so-called "active information."

* Yes, I am plenty annoyed with Marks and Dembski. I gave them ample benefit of the doubt, and they demonstrated that they are liars for God. I've learned that people who fob off defense of religious faith as research usually exhibit other unsavory behaviors. In my early days of IDC watching, I emailed Dembski to explain politely that he had misunderstood the "no free lunch" theorem, and he replied, "OK, but don't expect me to admit to that." When I found Marks' name on the signature page of a master's thesis plagiarizing his own publications with Dembski, I was shocked, though I should not have been. Sure, I've posted a lot on the character of these apologists who sow confusion in a field that I worked hard to plow. But I've also posted plenty of technical substance. Don't expect them to acknowledge points other than those they absolutely must.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Oppose the Oklahoma Science Education Act

Oklahoma Senator Josh Brecheen went out of his way to publish his religious purpose for introducing anti-science legislation last year:
[SB 554] is an attempt to bring parity to subject matter taught in our public schools, paid for by the taxpayers and driven by a religious ideology. I’m talking about the religion of evolution. Yes, it is a religion. The religion of evolution requires as much faith as the belief in a loving God, when all the facts are considered (mainly the statistical impossibility of key factors).
This year he's pushing SB 1742, the Oklahoma Science Education Act. The statute in the bill comes from the Louisiana Science Education Act (LSEA), which passed in 2008, and has yet to be tested in court. However, it excludes LSEA's provisions for regulation of teaching in local school districts.

There are two main ways in which SB 1742 differs from similar bills the Oklahoma legislature has considered. First, rather than require local school districts to instruct students in arguments against particular scientific theories, it would allow them to do so, and would require the State Board of Education to provide assistance. Second, it indicates that the secular purpose of the instruction would be to promote "critical thinking, logical analysis, open and objective discussion of scientific theories."

SB 1742 would allow teachers to "use supplemental textbooks and instructional materials to help students understand, analyze, critique, and review scientific theories," including "evolution, the origin of life, global warming, and human cloning." However, the ostensible learning objective is utterly unrealistic, and the supplements themselves purport to provide objective review, analysis, and criticism. Thus it is patently dishonest to suggest that the supplements merely "help" the students.

When a bill like this reaches the floor for a vote, demagoguery walks in the door, and rationality flies out the window. Thus it is essential to stop it at an earlier stage of the legislative process. Members of the Senate Education Committee and the Subcommittee on Education of the Senate Appropriations Committee (see below) will consider SB 1742, and I ask those of you who live in Oklahoma to contact them as soon as possible.

Why exclude LSEA's provisions for regulation?

Here is the proposed law, along with substantive text deleted from the Louisiana law:

A. The State Board of Education, upon the request of a school district board of education, shall allow and assist teachers, principals, and school administrators in creating an environment within the public school system that promotes critical thinking, logical analysis, and open and objective discussion of scientific theories being studied including, but not limited to, evolution, the origin of life, global warming, and human cloning. Assistance shall include support and guidance for teachers regarding effective ways to help students understand, analyze, critique, and objectively review scientific theories being studied, including those enumerated in this subsection.
B. A teacher shall teach the material presented in the standard science textbook and thereafter may use supplemental textbooks and instructional materials to help students understand, analyze, critique, and review scientific theories in an objective manner, as permitted by the… local public school board unless otherwise prohibited by the State Board of… Education.
C. This act shall not be construed to promote any religious doctrine, promote discrimination for or against a particular or set of religious beliefs, or promote discrimination for or against religion or nonreligion.
D. The State Board of Education and each… local public school board shall adopt and promulgate the rules and regulations necessary to implement the provisions of this act.
Barbara Forrest1 reports that after LSEA passed, the Louisiana Department of Education drafted regulations forbidding what the act putatively does not promote:
1. Religious beliefs shall not be advanced under the guise of encouraging critical thinking.
2. Materials that teach creationism or intelligent design or that advance the religious belief that a supernatural being created humankind shall be prohibited for use in science classes.
It took some behind-the-scenes maneuvering to get the regulations removed. Senator Brecheen apparently seeks to ensure that no state-level entity will prohibit violations of federal law. In any case, he wants for all Oklahomans to foot the bill for "no strings attached" assistance.

Senate Education Committee

This committee will consider SB 1742 first. Provide your street address in email notes.

Senator John Ford (R) (Chair) fordj@oksenate.gov 405-521-5634
Senator Gary Stanislawski (Vice Chair) stanislawski@oksenate.gov 405-521-5624
Senator Cliff Branan (R) branan@oksenate.gov (405) 521-5543
Senator Josh Brecheen (R) (sponsor of the bill)
Senator Greg Childers (R) childers@oksenate.gov (405) 521-5522
Senator Kim David (R) david@oksenate.gov (405) 521-5590
Senator Judy Eason McIntyre (D) easonmcintyre@oksenate.gov 405-521-5598
Senator Earl Garrison (D) whitep@oksenate.gov 405-521-5533
Senator Jim Halligan (R) halligan@oksenate.gov 405-521-5572
Senator David Holt (R) holt@oksenate.gov (405) 521-5636
Senator Clark Jolley (R) jolley@oksenate.gov (405) 521-5622
Senator Charlie Laster (D) laster@oksenate.gov (405) 521-5539
Senator Richard Lerblance (D) lerblance@oksenate.gov (405) 521-5604
Senator Mike Mazzei (R) mazzei@oksenate.gov 405-521-5675
Senator Jonathan Nichols (R) nichols@oksenate.gov (405) 521-5535
Senator John Sparks (D) sparks@oksenate.gov 405-531-5553

Subcommittee on Education of the Senate Appropriations Committee

I've omitted contact information for senators listed above.

Sen. Jim Halligan (Chair)
Sen. John Ford
Sen. Cliff Aldridge (R) aldridge@oksenate.gov 405-521-5584
Senator Josh Brecheen
Sen. Rick Brinkley (R) brinkley@oksenate.gov 405-521-5586
Sen. Judy Eason McIntyre
Sen. Earl Garrison
Sen. Mike Mazzei