A response to Stein’s documentary on Intelligent Design

After watching a trailer for Ben Stein’s Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed trailer, I had a few responses to some of the points he is making. I agree that we should not allow people to bury free inquiry and stifle discussion on established ideas. I also think it’s completely to ask these serious questions about the meaning of life and the nature of the universe. Finally, I think there is a lot of dogma on both sides of the table and no one is left without blame.

However, I find three things wrong with just this movie trailer (beyond the techniques that all documentaries use – cutting people off when they say something that sounds bad out of context, and using negative words like “dumb luck” and ”mud” to describe the other side’s views)

1) Free Speech or Bad Research?
Stein is trying
to frame this as an issue of free speech. It’s ok to say whatever you want, but not every journal will publish you, and not every institution will hire you. I’m sure most newspapers or universities wouldn’t publish/hire you if you said that US national policy should be that all white people face 40% income taxes. This is not a violation of free speech.

2) Are All Nervous Suspects Guilty?
By emphasizing that “Darwinists are afraid”, Stein is trying to suggest that they are hiding something. I think what it means is that many scientists are concerned that since the theory of evolution runs counter to many of our “instinctual” ideas about life – the improbability of life (or as he calls it mud) leading to humanity – that it’s easy for people fall prey to common-sensical and at-first-glance convincing theories of intelligent design.

However, many of our instinctual ideas about other things are also wrong – earth revolves around the sun, humans are 99.9% the same as chimpanzees, centrifigual force does not exist… All these theories have been tested time and time again and shown to be correct. Like evolution.

3) How Established is Evolution Anyway?
Evolution is not something you choose to believe. It’s like saying you believe in gravity. Evolution and gravity are both fact and theory (wikipedia)and both are widely accepted by the scientific community as being true. However only evolution hits home for many religious people and I think that is why there are more people interested in attempting reconciling the two through intelligent design.

In Conclusion
This article is long, and I apologize. This is a topic I’ve been very passionate about since I arrived at Stanford and learned that only 15% of Americans think evolution is true. There is a lot more out there to learn – some stuff will be true, some won’t.

One place I think you can start at is Talk Origins – 29+ Evidence for Macroevolution It’s a bit dense, but the evidence is solid, with lots of links and best of all “Potential for Falsification” (what science is based on) is given for every piece of evidence.

Finally, a cool video that validates Darwin’s prediction of a moth with a 12 in tongue (Herg, I know what you’re thinking you sicko) living in the jungle.

An Update

I haven’t had a chance to blog lately because I attempted to do NaNoWriMo, otherwise known as National Novel Writing Month. So I didn’t quite make it. On Dec 1st, my novel stood at 25,000 words, half of the 50,000 designated as part of the challenge. It’s the first time I’ve really done any kind of fiction other than for a class or a 500 word short story. So while I can’t say I’m not dissappointed, I think it still was a good experience.

I’ll post the book in a week or two, as soon as I finish one or two more scenes that wrap up the book. The synopsis: A biotech employee and a journalist discover their mutual friend is dead, and work to unravel the sinister mysteries behind his death. They realize a wildly evil plot to unleash a bioterror weapon and must fight to save the lives of millions.

It’s called Interference.

In other news, I’ve been doing a lot of comtemplating and philosophizing. It’s turned really nilihistic and depressing. Among my insights:

We do not have free will

The universe is pre-determined

We’re all nothing but bags of chemical reactions.

As you might imagine, it’s hard to get motivated to do things when you think nothing matters. I’ve been giving it my best shot. The book actually helped a lot with that. The act of creativity seems to help keep me alive and going. Something about how books have touched me in a deep and meaningful way, and how I hope this book (or others I might write) may someday touch others in that way.

Thanks for all the people who commented on my blog with positive words and encouragement.

The Future of Science in America

This is an article I had originally written for a Seed Magazine science writing competition, but I missed the deadline.  Well, turns out it was almost done.  So I just wrapped it up and I’m putting it out here.

Science is more important in our lives than ever before. We use produces created from scientific discoveries every day. And scientific issues are always in the news. Our economy is driven largely by scientific businesses: biotech, information technology, energy. The rate of scientific development in America, and the world, has rocketed. The last few decades have seen unprecedented numbers of scientific and technological advances, and there is no sign it will be slowing down any time soon.

However, the future also shows some ominous signs. As a leader of scientific innovation, America is seeing great competition from India and China. Their children are more adept in math and science than ours (although that in itself is not difficult to achieve), and they graduate more PhDs in science and engineering than we do. Finally, the future will hold greate challenges, many of them created by the scientific and technological advances of the last century. Climate change, energy shortage, epidemics, terrorism. It is clear that science in all its forms will be critical to America’s future.

It seems to me that many of the troubles the scientific community faces (shortage of money, people, respect) could be solved through a simple, yet startling and possibly controversial idea.

We (the American public) need to treat science more like the military.

Now before you say anything, hear me out. Here’s why science needs to be treated more like the military. Read the first sentence of each of these next paragraphs normally, then read them again and substitute “the military” for “science”.

Serving in the military is akin to serving your country. We have established that science will be critical to America’s future. People need to understand that scientists aren’t simply conducting experiments to answer isoteric questions about the universe, (although some do), but they are doing work that is helping this country grow stronger. Don’t you think that that alone would give scientists much more respect?

You are not in the military forever. Science should also not be seen as a be all end all as a career. Many people have worked years as a scientists and then moved onto other fields: teaching comes to mind, but also business, writing and law or politics. Science should be seen as something that you can dedicate a few years to or a few decades to.

The military gives you skills for life. In the same way, people have to see that working in sciences gives you incredible skills – self-discipline, meticulousness, creativity, the ability to synthesize ideas, work in teams and work under pressure. These skills can translate over to many other fields. Time spent in science is worth spending.

The military can show you the world. Even if you don’t travel anywhere, science can show people a whole new world that is right under their eyes, or in every part of their lives. Science illuminates and reveals the mysteries of the universe.

Do you see where this is going? I think that science needs to be taken more seriously and made more accessible, the way the military is. Now how are we going to do this? My three step program.

1) A massive public awareness campaign. This is going to cost a good amount of money, but I think it is worth it. I’m talking splashy, sexy, bold television spots, celebrity endorsements, billboards, weblogs, bracelets, the whole 9 yards. This is a total change in the perception of science so it needs to really get out there.  The military is pretty good at this.  (Army of One.  Navy – accelerate your life.  The few, the proud, the Marines).

2) A change in the way we train and deploy scientists. This requires coordination between education, government and businesses. I see young people enrolling in a Science Corps boot camp, serving time (maybe a 2 year commitment at a lab on a certain assignment) and they’d be on the way to a PhD.  They could also go down to Reserve, where they could be called to duty for a few weeks out of a year.

3) Get more scientists and Science Corps members into government, so that our country will be lead by people who understand what is going on.  As we have established, science is going to become more advanced and become more interconnected with society.  Policy makers need to have a grip on the issues.  Also, the Science Corps program will fail without having members in government positions.  Think about how many politicians have military backgrounds. With science-educated leaders in place, America will be in a better position to lead the world.  Hopefully in a safe and ethical manner.

A New Model for Public Policy

I was just talking to someone who is majoring in International Relations. He told me that IR was a very customizable major that allowed people to focus on different areas, like economics or public policy, “which is basically a lot of history” he said. I wanted to know what he meant by that.

“Well, when you study Public Policy, you study the history of different policies. So you end up learning what worked and what didn’t.”

Somehow, this isn’t enough for me. I like history, don’t get me wrong. I think it is important to study the past, but I think we can do better when it comes to public policy. I want to create something like Pandora.

“We ended up assembling literally hundreds of musical attributes or “genes” into a very large Music Genome. Taken together these genes capture the unique and magical musical identity of a song – everything from melody, harmony and rhythm, to instrumentation, orchestration, arrangement, lyrics, and of course the rich world of singing and vocal harmony. It’s not about what a band looks like, or what genre they supposedly belong to, or about who buys their records – it’s about what each individual song sounds like.”

With this system in place, Pandora is able to play music that you like, even if it is an artist you have never heard of. With each song and artist broken down into bits and pieces, you find yourself enjoying brand new music you normally would not have listened to. And you can refine its system by telling it what songs you like, and what songs you don’t.

So what I want to do is create a model like this for the public policy, within international relations. Break down countries into “genes” and use them to predict optimal public policy decisions. The genes would include:

  • Population
  • Style of government
  • Religion
  • Strength of science and technological development
  • Economic system
  • Media influence

This is a really short list.  But having a set of these “genes” for any give time period, we could start feeding it different scenarios and having it predict the best policy.  Best would be defined as maximizing certain areas like “GNP” or “International Stability”.  By testing historical cases, we could refine the system so that it would get better and better at predicting what a certain course of action would lead to.

Sure, this would leave out a lot of things.  Freak accidents.  Data unaccounted for by the program.  But once those things happened, we could incorporate it into the system and make it even better.  I think that with the advances in evolutionary algorithms, this program could rapidly improve itself to a point where it could be of use to decision makers.

Because what do people who decide public policy really do?  They take in as much information as they can and try to determine what is the best course of action.  I don’t this is implausible at all.  And I think it would make governments much more open about their real objectives, because people could see what the maximizers were.  Open flow of information make democracies better.

So yeah, a CS major and an IR major need to get together and make it happen.

Schwarzenegger Fights Global Warming … with his fist.

Ok, so not with his fists, but with a bill.

The measure passed by the Democrat-dominated legislature last month caps the state’s man-made greenhouse gas emissions. The most populous U.S. state seeks to reduce its emissions to 1990 levels by 2020, a cut of around 25 percent.

The Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006 is also a direct challenge to the Bush administration, which has opposed mandatory caps to fight climate change, from a state that has often led the way nationally in new environmental standards.

This is one of the reasons why I love California. Schwarzenegger is a badass. I have a feeling that’s what some people say about Bush, but Arnold was an immigrant who came to America and actually DID STUFF. He was Mr. Olympia. He’s star red in huge blockbusters. Even if this isn’t the stuff that govenor’s should be made of, its a step up from drunkenly failing at life while Daddy pays the bills AND THEN becoming governor of Texas.

PS I read State of Fear by Michale Crighton. Very interesting. Will blog later.