Tuesday, December 21, 2010

A chuckle from William Lane Craig

Some of you know William Lane Craig as the evangelical Christian theologian from Biola University who often speaks favorably of “intelligent design” creationism. It happens that I just read one of his criticisms of the Jesus Seminar, a large group that gauged the historicity of the sayings and acts of Jesus reported in the four canonical gospels and the Gospel of Thomas:
Of the 74 [scholars] listed in their publication The Five Gospels, only 14 would be leading figures in the field of New Testament studies. More than half are basically unknowns, who have published only two or three articles. Eighteen of the fellows have published nothing at all in New Testament studies. Most have relatively undistinguished academic positions, for example, teaching at a community college.
Prof. Craig, you really should spend some time with Confucius. Not one leading figure in the field of biology has ever contributed to the “theory” of intelligent design.

Whatever the Jesus Seminar got wrong, something it got right was to place the burden of proof on those who would claim historicity of a gospel passage. Obviously, most scholars delving into the matter are Christians seeking to demonstrate the truth of what they believe. Sound familiar? This is not to suggest that traditional New Testament scholars are no better than ID creationists. The New Testament scholars truly know the subject matter, while ID creationists demonstrate time and again their execrable ignorance of the relevant science.

Friday, December 17, 2010

The three Isaac Newtons of Ypsilanti

Back on August 5, Clive Hayden, the moderator at Uncommon Descent, exclaimed, “Robert Jackson Marks II is THE CHARLES DARWIN OF INTELLIGENT DESIGN!” The occasion was the inclusion of Marks among The 20 Most Influential Christian Scholars at Superscholar.org:
Robert J. Marks II (b. 1950), Baylor University’s leading research professor, has emerged as the public face of intelligent design. As the movement’s premier scientist, he has been dubbed “the Charles Darwin of intelligent design.”
That hyperbole is old news. But the site’s list of 15 Professors Who Were Also Criminals just caught my eye:
Alan Turing was the Isaac Newton of the 20th century, and is seen by many to be the father of the Information Age.
Given that Superscholar.org is the absolute authority on such matters, what are we to make of the claim that Bill Dembski is the Isaac Newton of Information Theory?

The superabundance of Isaac Newtons has me thinking of The Three Christs of Ypsilanti:
To study the basis for delusional belief systems, Rokeach [a psychiatrist] brought together three men who each claimed to be Jesus Christ and confronted them with each other's conflicting claims, while encouraging them to interact personally as a support group. Rokeach also attempted to manipulate other aspects of their delusions by inventing messages from imaginary characters. He did not, as he had hoped, provoke any lessening of the patients' delusions, but did document a number of changes in their beliefs.
I suspect that, although he occasionally retreats from particular errors with “not-pologies,” Dembski will never give up the delusion that he is the Isaac Newton of his day.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

The talk that could have killed me

Presentations seem to be hit-or-miss affairs for me.

My first talk on evolutionary computation, which I gave during the opening session of the Third Annual Conference on Evolutionary Programming (1994), was a hit. Hans-Paul Schwefel, one of the inventors of the evolution strategy, joined me for lunch that day. Prior to the conference banquet, I was buttonholed by a guy whose name I did not recognize from the EC literature. He was obviously very bright, and he complimented me on my work. Furthermore, he seemed to know a lot about directed evolution. I kept stealing glances at his name tag, wondering, "Who is this guy?" To be honest, if I had known how to break away politely, we’d have spoken for 5 minutes instead of 20. In the end, one of the conference organizers approached him to say, “We’re about ready to start now.” And he walked to the table at the front of the room with the “reserved” placard. After dinner, he gave the most brilliant talk I’ve ever heard. His name was Gerry Joyce. Many of you know of the sensational result, “Self-Sustained Replication of an RNA Enzyme,” that he and his student Tracey Lincoln published last year (see PZ Myers' explanation). The conference got even better for me on the last day, when David Fogel, last year’s president of the IEEE Computational Intelligence Society, asked me to serve as co-chair, with Thomas B├Ąck and Pete Angeline, of the technical program for the following year’s meeting. (Unfortunately, I had to resign that position due to illness.)

The “disbelief discourse” I recently gave to the Oklahoma Atheists was a miss, no matter that I put a huge amount of time into preparing it. Driving to the venue, I took two wrong turns. I arrived at precisely the time I was supposed to begin, with my anxiety sky-high. It turned out that the guy with the projector and screen showed up just when I did, but that didn't make me feel any better. Then it turned out that my Apple laptop would not connect to the projector. So I converted my presentation to PDF and, with two tries, got it onto a thumb drive. I plugged the thumb drive into a backup laptop that was perched on a chair, rather than the podium where I was supposed to stand (and where there was a microphone, as well as a voice recorder for the planned podcast). At that point, I was totally discombobulated. I needed to stand in front of the podium to deal with the laptop. The screen, to which I wanted to point, was well behind me, and I caught myself talking over my shoulder several times. The microphone stand was directly behind my foot, and I bumped into it several times. Worst of all, I occasionally dared to look into the faces in front of me, and saw clearly that things were not going well. “Must press on” was all that I could think. The bright side of the experience was the Q&A. There were some good questions, and I had a lot of fun answering them. I hope that some of you who were there will believe that I’m usually the guy you saw in the end. It was an embarrassing experience for me.

So how could this have killed me? Well, the following day, I felt some pain behind my right knee. I thought I had sat wrong while finishing my slides. Indeed I had, but there was more to the story than that. Several days later, I was admitted to the hospital with extensive clotting in my leg, and with three pulmonary emboli. At present, it appears that an autoimmune response is making my blood sticky (i.e., antibodies are attaching to hemoglobin cells).

Perhaps you can understand now why I started by reminiscing about a time when everything went well.