Archive for February 2009

And the Kick Line Continues…George Will is a Glutton for Punishment edition.

February 27, 2009

This news reminds me of some of the officer evaluations contained in this oldie-but-goodie of military wisdom.

Perhaps the most apposite of the judgments recorded there in describing George Will’s decision to defend the indefensible in his recent error-and-deceit filled fantasy of a column about climate change is this one:

“Since my last report, he has reached rock bottom, and has started to dig.”

Though on reflection, this one captures the essence of the problem equally well:

“He has carried out each and every one of his duties to his entire satisfaction.”

And then there’s this, probably my all-purpose favorite:

“I would not breed from this officer.”

And then…oh hell, most of them fit.  Go read them.

I’ll have a whack at Will’s flailing when it actually hits print.  In the meantime, start thinking up yet more aphorisms appropriate to the subject at hand.

Image:  Anton von Werner, “Im Etappenquartier vor Paris,” 1894.

John Tierney Update: Eric Roston Rules edition

February 25, 2009

An evisceration worthy of its own post, and not just an update on this one.  Yesterday, I emailed Eric Roston, author of The Carbon Age and formerly a Time magazine science and tech correspondent, if he could do what I, now 20 years removed from my own climate book, am no longer knowledge-nimble enough to achieve quickly — which is to use real information and not just invective to skewer one of the smarmiest bits of faux journalism I’ve seen in a while (and there has been plenty of competition, to be sure).

And he did.   His post on the serial dishonesty displayed by John Tierney in his hatchet job on Stephen Chu and John Holdren is delightful — and devastating.  If Tierney’s column were a Mafia informant, Roston’s reply would have left it in pieces underneath the Turnpike.  Tierney’s keyboard, I am reliably informed, can be found somewhere inside the concrete beneath the Walt Whitman Rest Area, milepost 30.2, southbound.

(Also, see Swans on Tea for what an acute nose for nonsense will do for you.  Not to mention Joseph Romm’s impressive rage, expressed at some length.)

Image: Southbound New Jersey Turnpike under the Pulaski Skyway, 11 January 2005


February 25, 2009

See this.

Thanks for all the fish.

(PS:  Roy Blount Jr. is onto us.)

Image:  Page 13 of the Codex Borbonicus. Fifteenth or sixteenth century.

Why is George Will?

February 25, 2009

I get these obsessions, you know. Someone persists in trainwrecking right in front of me, saying teh stoopid without ceasing, and I can’t turn away.

Will’s getting lumps long overdue for his climate change follies; I think some people are starting to notice that a bow tie, complex sentence structure, and a big vocabulary are not in themselves reliable indicators of competence or insight.  But I don’t know what to make of this latest quote:

“I don’t know when men started to hug each other, but hug they do, and look at that,”

I mean, the man claims to be a baseball fan and says stuff like that.  Leave aside the politics.  Has the man eyes to see and wit to understand?  And in any event, tell me, please, why this lazy thinker and tired writer continues to bully his audiences from so many different pulpits.  Be kind to the old fellow. Give him the rest he so clearly needs.

Image:  Jeff Dahl,  The Chicago White Sox celebrate after winning a tiebreaker game against the Minnesota Twins for a spot in the playoffs, 10-1-2008.

Acute readers will understand the signficance of the team featured here in the context of Will’s stated affections.

Quicky Alert on John Tierney’s latest outrage.

February 24, 2009

I’m tired; I’m stuck with parts of my day job that I really wish I didn’t have to do; and I have a finite capacity for going over the same tired ground again.

All of which is why I can’t get into the full swing of what must needs be done:  ripping  John Tierney for a really special column today, one of his more impressive efforts at selective quoting, distortion of science-by-insinuation, and accusations that are, ultimately, a projection of his own sins on his betters.

A Siegel over at Daily Kos has already said it better than I would anyway, so go read his diary.  I’ve tweaked Eric Roston, author of The Carbon Age who knows more about this stuff in his little finger than both Tierney and his ego have managed to graps in their entire journalistic (sic -ed.) career.  He’ll get to it soon, I’m sure over at Carbon Nation.

In the meantime, just to give a quick vent to my bile:  Tierney complains that Steven Chu and John Holdren, et al., lie about science to advance their political agenda when they draw on their science credentials to advance arguments about global warming that he, with his deep understanding of the technical issues at hand (his Nobel, perhaps a little delayed past Chu’s is no doubt on the way.  Any year now.  Just wait for it.), finds himself in disagreement.

Tierney argues that, in effect, the default position should be that  it is plausible that these researchers, along with the vast majority of actual climate scientists who have studied the matter for decades, are in fact lying and trying to trick the rest of us into unjustified action.  The notion seems to have passed him by that these and other experts who have warned of the risks of anthropogenic climate change might simply be simply explaining what they understand about the world as best they can.

Poor Tierney, that delicate flower:  he cannot bear to contemplate that even in the face of admitted uncertainty, technical competence might actually offer some insight on how to interpret imperfect results — especially when that interpretation runs afoul of his profitable stance of easy contrarianism.

So he is shocked, shocked to learn that when those who think through potential impacts of global warming are at fault for rigging the conversation by conflating science with politics; whilst those, like Tierney, so deeply infused with the needed intellectual modesty, are truly aggrieved innocents when they suggest that their interpretation of science requires a certain, different course of (in) action.

It’s a profoundly dishonest stance, supported by the usual signposts of dishonest intent — unreferenced “facts;” that old trick of sourcing to “some scientists” or “many researchers” — not to mention a healthy dose of the argument from authority, where the authority in question has already been caught in the act of shading analysis in the direction of the outcome he prefers.

It’s just an ugly, squalid hatchet job.  Tierney has long been a hack with a schtick — he retails that “everything you know is wrong” kind of cleverness — which is fine, when he comes up with something actually surprising.  Here, writing as he does with the odd presumption that there is an enormous conspiracy of global warming scientist/advocates trying to take away our SUVs, it’s just a tired old act.   He, we, and his employers know better.

George Will Jumps the Shark (Again): He Hearts Him Some Civil War Edition

February 24, 2009

I note with resigned amusement that George Will’s call for a return to state legislature-elected senators includes this bit of argument:

The Framers established election of senators by state legislators, under which system the nation got the Great Triumvirate (Henry Clay, Daniel Webster and John Calhoun) and thrived. (Links added — Will is not so anxious to have his facts checked.)

Those three men were, of course, extraordinarily accomplished politicians.  In this reference, however, Will manages to make two errors characteristic of his increasingly self-trivialized body of work.

The first is one of method:  he argues here for the virtues of a system based on three outcomes out of hundreds or more events.  How shall we memorialize Pierce Butler, South Carolina’s Democrat-Republican solon in 1795-1796?  How about Kentucky’s George Morton Bibb, who chaired the Committee on the Post Office and Post Roads in 1844-1845.  And who can forget (remember-ed.)  John Mcpherson Berrien, Georgia’s defender of states rights, who served and resigned from the Senate three times, notable mostly for his opposition to the Compromise of 1850 promulgated by two of the triumvirs Will celebrates and fought by the slavery-defender third, John Calhoun.

Put this another cherry picking data is a forbidden practice in science, for obvious reasons:  besides being fundamentally dishonest, it blinds you to what actually is happening in your observation.  So it is with Will:  a dishonest rigging of the data to support an assumption not in evidence — that the back room deals and paternalism of an indirect selection model for choosing senators produces incumbents superior to those chosen by the messy experience of direct democracy.

The other flaw in Will’s argument is one of simple content.  Are we supposed to hunger for a return to a system that produced the sequence of decisions, including the Compromise mentioned above, that led us to the brink of, and then over the abyss of civil war?  I’m not sure what Will is really thinking here (if his rote recycling of half or un-baked ideas can be called thought–ed.).  But whatever it was, I hardly think his case gets much help from  the memory of three senators, who no matter how eloquent, failed to find a way out of a national crisis sufficient to avoid a conflict that killed one American in fifty.

In other words:  friends don’t let friends pay attention to George Will.  Better to lob (verbal) tomatoes at this self-parody of a swell in a bow tie.

Image:  Henry Clay’s Cenotaph in the Congressional Cemetary.

Friday (Isaac) Newton blogging: Monday/Newton+Darwin Edition

February 23, 2009

Cross posted at So Simple A Beginning.

Up to now, we’ve been talking around the edges of what Darwin said to ease his readership into his ideas. Now it’s time to dig into the meat of the introduction to The Origin. (Past time, given the week or more that has passed since the epochal birthday – the celebration of which has already given at least one learned observer a bit of a hangover.  What would Chris Norris think of a whole year, give or take, immersed in Mr. Darwin’s Abstract?)

So to begin:  It’s going to take me a moment or two to get there, but what I want to point out here how much debt, and how much use Darwin makes of an approach to scientific argument originated by someone who is often seen as something of the anti-Darwin in subject, personality, and style.  That would be the one man with a clear claim to the title of greatest English scientist ahead of the master of Down House:  Isaac Newton.

It seems an unlikely comparison.  Opinions divide on the quality of Darwin’s prose, but there is no doubt that The Origin is at least a reasonably painless read.  Not so the Principia, even in its best translations.  (Here is my choice for an English version, which comes complete with Newton’s text and an invaluable guide to the work by the great Newton scholar I. B. Cohen.)

Where Darwin coaxes, Newton commands. Only once as I read the text does Newton break character and seem to give in – just a little — to the urge to persuade.  In Book III, as he describes how his new mathematical physics allows him to predict the paths of comets, he writes, “The theory that corresponds exactly to so nonuniform a motion through the greatest part of the heavens, and that observes the same laws as the theory of the planets and that agrees exactly with exact astronomical observations cannot fail to be true.” (Book III, prop. 41, problem 21.)

Even here, of course Newton buttresses his claim with a three – step chain of logical inference. The big stick of a formal proof seems to lurk in the shadows.  Still, that “cannot fail …” has a hint of rhetorical pressure, there to give its push to the reader.

Against such a modest expression of a hope for the reader’s assent, Darwin is ever-ingratiating, almost deferential.

After explaining the sequence of events that led him to write The Origin, for example, he begs that “I hope I may be excused for entering on these personal details, as I give them to show that I have not been hasty in coming to a decision.”

On the significance of the observation of domesticated animals, he almost craves pardon, writing that “I may venture to express my conviction of the high value of such studies, although they have been very commonly neglected by naturalists.”

Even when he states the central theme of the Introduction and the work as a whole, Darwin remains unfailingly polite, and conscious of the sensibilities of his reader.  In the paragraph on page 3 in which Darwin finally stops clearing his throat, he writes:

“In considering the Origin of Species, it is quite conceivable that a naturalist, reflecting on the mutual affinities of organic beings, on their embryological relations, their geographical distribution, geological succession, and other such facts, might come to the conclusion that each species had not been independently created, but had descended, like varieties, from other species.”

But for all the quites and the mights here, there is no disguising the muscle beneath the softness, as tough as Newton’s declaration that herein lies truth.  What follows actually bears more connection to Newton’s approach to the presentation of radical argument than may be obvious under the warming blanket of Darwin’s verbiage.

Remember:  Newton, for all the seeming artlessness of Principia – its apparent “just the facts ma’am” sequence of one demonstration after another –produced a book with a clearly articulated structure that enhanced the power of the content itself.* Crucially, in his introductory material, he laid down his famous three laws of motion as axioms, principles known (or to be seen) as true from which all else could be derived.

Newton’s use of this device was not new, (he said himself that he modeled his book on the works of the ancients) but it hadn’t been used in this way in the context of the new science of the seventeenth century, and he deployed it in the Principia to devastating effect.  By developing a seemingly exhaustive analysis of matter in motion based on the derivation of theorems from that handful of basic principles, Newton laid claim to more just the truth he proclaimed near the end of Book III. His book, like Euclid’s before it, promised a method to discover new truths — in Newton’s case, by subjecting motion to number, and thus to the rigorous scrutiny of mathematical analysis.**

Did this triumph have an influence on Darwin?  Not directly.  Those susceptible to its charms had to possess more stomach for mathematics (or, like John Locke, be willing to take the proofs on faith) than Darwin ever did.

But (at last, having travelled the long road home!) the introduction to the Origin shows the debt Darwin owed to the Newtonian style.  For all the cushioning of the blow, the essence of what Darwin said as he summarized the chapters to come turn on the axiomatic presentation Newton had deployed to such effect 150 years before.  Instead of Newton’s three laws, Darwin offers just two principles – but they are sufficient, he promises, to the matter at hand.

That is:  the concept of the descent of one species from another – the proposition to be demonstrated — he wrote, cannot be affirmed “until it could be shown how the innumerable species inhabiting this world have been modified, so as to acquire that perfection of structure and coadaptation which most justly excites our admiration.”

And now, writes Darwin, it can be told: this modification takes place through the operation of just two facts of nature:  variation and selection.  On variation, Darwin says that  “we shall thus see that a large amount of hereditary modification is at least possible, and, what is equally or more important, we shall see how great is the power of man in accumulating by his Selection successive slight variations.”

As for natural, as opposed to human or artificial selection – that too will gain the status of a truth universally acknowledged, in Darwin’s promised treatment of “the Struggle for Existence: amongst all organic beings throughout the world, which inevitably follows from their high geometrical powers of increase”:

“As many more individuals of each species are born than can possibly survive; and as, consequently, there is a frequently recurring struggle for existence, it follows that any being, if it vary however slightly in any manner profitable to itself, under the complex and sometimes varying conditions of life, will have a better chance of surviving, and thus be naturally selected. From the strong principle of inheritance, any selected variety will tend to propagate its new and modified form.”***

There is no deference here.  No hesitation designed to obscure a possible discomforting moment for the reader.  At the point of the issue Darwin does not obscure the hard truth:  living things vary.  That variance has consequences, and if we must reproduce,**** then those consequences will include the differential selection of those better able to survive (and reproduce again).

All this could be, of course, just rather long-winded glimpse of the obvious:  that in The Origin of Species Darwin made use of the two concepts we all know he did, variation and selection, to organize all the observations and interpretations of nature to come.

I’m actually trying to say something a bit different (kind of you – ed.). Darwin’s ideas emerged for him from his close introspection on the mass of facts he collected on the Beagle and afterwards.  But his presentation of theory of evolution to the public proceeds the other way round:  within a brief, seemingly (and deceptively) simple logical structure, the facts follow theory.  As Newton had before him, Darwin presented his work in a way that framed individual facts – the track of a comet, the existence of nipples on male chests – into a weave of logic and prediction such that both theories cannot fail to be true.

Darwin was not Newton.  He would never put the matter quite that baldly.  But even if Charles was more polite than Isaac, he was no less aware of the real claim he was making.

And this speaks to an issue that runs through a modern reading of any 19th century text on biology.  It is a commonplace to say that Darwin got lots wrong, and that there is a lot that is missing in The Origin. In later posts, I’ll wrangle with what it means to say that Darwin made errors.  But leaving aside much of what I think is anachronistic in the “trip the genius” game (both as it applies to Darwin and to Newton, inter alia), the point is that Darwin, like Newton, was concerned in his book with the issue of creating a world view, a way of understanding all the specific phenomena each man sought to analyze.

Here, the axiom-and-application model is key.  It is the structural device through which Darwin asserted that he had a theory of evolution, in the full, robust Newtonian sense of the term.  Darwin was not merely arguing for that the current state of knowledge suggested the modification of species:  he was demonstrating the explanatory power of a view that showed how modification could account for both what was known, and what was to be discovered.  Q.E.D., for the last 150 years.

*I write more about the way Newton put together the Principia here, to be available in June.

**The phrase “to subject motion to number” originates with Alexander Koyré, who applied it to Galileo.  It works here too.

***To be sure, by the end of the book the catalogue of biological laws expands to five:  growth with reproduction; inheritance; variability; the struggle for life induced by high rates of increase; which induces natural selection, leading to divergence (of species) and extinction.  The core ideas remain the same, however, or clearly logically connected to the starting two principles.

****In conversation about matters evolutionary with Olivia Judson this week, she pointed out that, of course, reproduction requires death; immortality would preclude sex (for those species that so indulge).  I asked how many 18 year olds would choose deathlessness over sex; she answered, correctly in my view, none.

Images: A.Starilov, designer, USSR postage stamp, Scientists series, “Portrait of Isaac Newton (mathematician and physicist),” date of issue: 8th October 1987.  (The image is a copy of this Sir Godfrey Kneller portrait of Newton completed in 1689.)

Newton’s first and second laws of motion, from the 1687 (first) edition of Principia.

Anton Braith, “Kühe auf dem Heimweg mit Hirtin” [Cows on the way home with their Shepherdess] 1860.

Metaphors that make you go hmmmm.

February 22, 2009

From’s piece on new Oakland A’s reliever Russell Springer:

“It’s been like that in every bullpen Russell has been in. He’s like the Jell-O between the fruit.”

This is not a happy mental image.

That is all.

Image:  Erich Ginder serving moulded jello shots at opening of his gallery show.  Photograph by Joe Mabel, 4 January 2007.

Typical Sunday Post Brunch Brain Bubbles: Bad Einstein Joke edition

February 22, 2009

From my brother, after a dim sum overdose:

If Einstein were to speculate on the behavior of a donut in free fall in one’s mug of coffee, would it be a gedunkenexperiment?

My apologies to all.

Image:  Ivana Kobilca (1861-1926): Kofetarica (Coffee drinker) 1888.

What Intelligent Design?: Latest Evidence For the Death (or Rage) of God

February 22, 2009

Because no benevolent deity would permit Glenn Beck.

h/t Josh

Image:  Leda and the Swan, a 16th century copy after a lost painting by Michelangelo, 1530.


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