Pharyngula

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Oh, come on, Boston Globe. They tip-toed around, avoiding naming me or the weblog, but I think everyone here can figure out what they’re talking about.

Yet even Gilder, seemingly a lightning rod for the socioeconomic controversy of the moment, was blistered by the comments posted on a University of Minnesota biologist’s weblog last fall, language so heated Gilder’s daughter felt obliged to rush to his defense.

Awww. Poor baby. They could have at least mentioned the site url! Here’s the article that made George Gilder cry: The Sanctimonious Bombast of George Gilder. It’s too bad they didn’t give that link in the fluff job they wrote for Gilder, because he repeats the same nonsense again, and adds a new set of lies to the mix.

“I’m sorry my daughter got dragged into this,” he continues, picking up a conversation that begins in his rustic Berkshires home, overlooking the bucolic dairy farm where he grew up, and resumes over lunch at a nearby Stockbridge restaurant. “But I really think those guys” — meaning the scientists who attacked him on the weblog — “are pretty crazy.”

Gilder pokes at his spinach salad and smiles wanly. “They must feel very vulnerable,” he muses. Then he warns that if biologists don’t take information theory seriously enough — information theory and not Christianity being the basis for Gilder’s embrace of intelligent design — then they’ll be the ones branded fools in the long run. Not him.

His daughter was not “dragged” into anything—she showed up in the comments of her own free will.

For an article that allows Gilder to whine about his unfair persecution, it is ironic for him to call us “crazy”.

And the key thing is that, as in my original complaint, Gilder doesn’t know anything about information theory. Scientists do take information theory seriously, and we can see that Gilder doesn’t understand it. Or biology. Or science in general. What he is is a fast-talking con-artist who thinks he knows something. The reporter seems to accept his glib babble uncritically.

In conversation, Gilder is something of a rhetorical hummingbird, darting from topic to topic so rapidly it’s difficult to get a word (much less a question) in edgewise. Each topic arrives with its own set of footnotes, reference texts, and unvarnished — some might say unhinged — opinions. Predictable Gilder is not, however. On balance, it’s much easier to peg him as a hip-shooting contrarian than a cookie-cutter conservative or raving holy roller.

At maximum conversational velocity, he waves his arms as though battling through nylon netting to get to the next point. And battle he does, with the energy of a 65-year-old man who runs 5 miles daily and could outtalk either Al, Franken or Sharpton, at the drop of a hat. Have you read this?, he asks frequently during a two-hour interview. Looked into that? Sixty-codon alphabets, amino-acid source codes, low-entropy carriers: Hey, check them out. Although a PhD in electrical engineering might be helpful, too.

Talking real fast and throwing out poorly understood buzzwords does not compensate for his lack of understanding. He did this same thing in his Wired article, and in his comments here. Here’s a delightful example of Gilderian pomposity:

I come to this issue not as a biologist (I have never taken a biology course) but as a writer (12 books) who has spent much time studying communications and networking theory as an analyst of technology. My role with Discovery (parttime) is as a technology analyst. My new book, The Silicon Eye (Norton, 2005), addresses the interface between biology and electronics. I came to see that the nature of the evolutionary problem had changed radically with the discovery of DNA, which introduced information and codes as central elements of biology.

I came to see the genetic alphabet, what I termed the adguacyth, as informational possibilities actualized in the twenty amino acids that combine in multiple sequences as proteins. In other words, the genetic alphabet defines the “W” or bandwidth of possibilities of the genetic message. Proteins embody it, resolving uncertainty in particular entropic forms.

Hmmm. Doesn’t know any biology, but thinks he has recognized the importance of DNA to evolution, 52 years after the fact. Invents phony terms (adguacyth? Spare me). Thinks he can bamboozle people if he can babble about “actualizing” and “entropic forms” and “bandwidth”…but honestly, he can only fool people who actually know nothing about the subject. To anyone else, he comes off as a jibber-jabbering clown.

The rest is stuff I’ve dealt with before. He just keeps claiming that Shannon’s information theory refutes evolution, when it does no such thing. That claim alone is sufficient to mark him as a poseur who is misusing the theory.

He’s also fond of straw men.

“There’s no biblical literalism — none — to the ID movement,” he says flatly. “So presenting us as troglodytes who believe in Noah’s Ark is quite bizarre. If people want to attack me that way, fine. It’s quite exhilarating, actually, to be shot at and totally missed.”

It’s quite clear that there are religious motives to the ID movement, but simple Biblical literalism isn’t what they are accused of (and for a movement that claims “literalism”, there sure is a lot of interpretation that goes on, anyway). What they are accused of is attacking science to provide support for their notions of a supernatural designer…which Gilder shows is an entirely valid claim.

Ergo, some form of higher intelligence — call it God, a Supreme Programmer, or whatever — must have played a role, they say.

Though a conservative Christian by upbringing and temperament, Gilder insists his belief in ID is not a faith-based proposition.

“Much of what I’ve written about has been in reaction to the materialist superstition,” he says, “the belief that the universe is a purely material phenomenon that can be reduced to physical and chemical laws. It’s a concept that’s infected the social sciences as well.”

And, he adds, “it’s preposterous.”

Ah, and he confuses methodological with metaphysical materialism, too. Same ol’, same ol’ Discovery Institute crap.

By the way, there is one good thing about the Globe article: it presents a succinct list of Gilder’s past failures.


(Oh, and thanks to David, Hylton, Erik, and Kate for bringing the article to my attention!)

Comments

  1. #1 Chris Ho-Stuart
    April 29, 2007

    I had a look through your blog, PZ, including the old one. And I think readers will enjoy going back to the original 2004 blog article you wrote, and where the comments make … interesting … reading. I know I enjoyed it.

    See The sanctimonious bombast of George Gilder (September 26, 2004). The more recent article with the same topic is a rewrite from the archives; but without all the fun comments.

    Cheers — Chris

  2. #2 notthedroids
    April 29, 2007

    Gilder is the Isaac Newton of information theory.

  3. #3 John Pieret
    April 29, 2007

    Wasn’t Egnor just telling us that Shannon information is not a proper measure of bilogical information? In fact, Egnor was just telling Andrew Arensburger that there is no present measure of biological information.

    Who should I listen to about biology, the surgeon or the con artist?

  4. #4 Marcus Ranum
    April 29, 2007

    Guys like Gilder are the new postmodernist pud-tuggers. If you haven’t, yet, read “Fashionable Nonsense” by Alan Sokal, it’s a wonderful attack on the bullsh*t slingers who use scientific terminology to conceal their glib ignorance. (Sokal is the guy who wrote the completely incoherent deconstructionism parody and got it published) Great stuff.

    Someone with a stronger stomach than mine needs to write a Gilder parody.

    “As the information age self-organizes through a darwinian process of intelligent design the network will adguacythesize new memes!”

    The other possibility to consider is that WIRED is a parody – a bunch of poetry-writing ex-baristas who loved the high tech scene but couldn’t write enough HTML to get jobs as web designers and started a magazine, instead.

    mjr.

  5. #5 Monado
    April 29, 2007

    I love his parting shot:

    ”Much of what I’ve written about has been in reaction to the materialist superstition,” he says, ”the belief that the universe is a purely material phenomenon that can be reduced to physical and chemical laws.

    He’s saying that to eschew superstition is a superstition.

    That’s the pot calling the kettle black!

  6. #6 Monado
    April 29, 2007

    I had to look up pud-tugger< ./a>.

  7. #7 CalGeorge
    April 29, 2007

    Gilder pokes at his spinach salad and smiles wanly.

    George Gilder, wan con man.

    He wrote four books attacking feminism.

    After he wrote an article for the Forum opposing a day care bill in Congress, some lobbied for his removal. Gilder responded, appearing on Firing Line to defend himself and discovered he’d found “a way to arouse the passionate interest of women … it was clear I had reached pay dirt.” He decided to make himself into “America’s number-one antifeminist”.

    He went on to write four books attacking feminism: Sexual Suicide, Naked Nomads, Visible Man, and Men and Marriage (a revised and reissued version of Sexual Suicide). In Men and Marriage he wrote about his trouble finding a woman who would marry him; he describes how he is rejected by independent-minded feminists and argues that one can only prove one’s manhood by supporting a family.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Gilder

    What a shithead.

    The idea that information theory makes evolution impossible is more Gilderian attention-getting behavior. Or as he call it: pay dirt.

    This guy can’t stand to be out of the limelight. Doesn’t care how he does it. Attack women. Attack evolution. The bigger the target the better.

  8. #8 sailor
    April 29, 2007

    Chris Ho-Stuart,
    Thanks for the link – very amusing reading.

  9. #9 mark
    April 29, 2007

    Then he warns that if biologists don’t take information theory seriously enough — information theory and not Christianity being the basis for Gilder’s embrace of intelligent design — then they’ll be the ones branded fools in the long run. Not him.

    Yeah, the Sloth calling the Cheetah slow. Perhaps he ought to warn biologists to take seriously the intracellular teeny-weeny outboard motors, milling machines, open-hearth furnaces, and other intelligently designed features. An if his daughter wishes to defend his absurdities, she is just as much a dope as he is. Intelligent people endeavor to learn what they don’t know; they don’t stick to fairy tales and accuse the knowledgeable ones of being crazy.

  10. #10 Bruce
    April 29, 2007

    The Boston Globe Living section is mostly a place for puff and fluff these days, don’t expect critical inquiry therefrom.

  11. #11 eewolf
    April 29, 2007

    Thank you to Chris for posting the link to the original blog article. It was a fun read, particularly Hank Fox trying to coax Gilder over to the reality camp.

    And this gem from PZ:
    “You may wish you could make up shit and we’d call it key lime pie, but that isn’t going to happen.”

  12. #12 Kseniya
    April 29, 2007

    Interesting.

    “Intelligent design itself does not have any content.” – (George Gilder)

  13. #13 Rev. BigDumbChimpq
    April 29, 2007

    After reading his comments on the original thread at your old home, I can’t help but think of George Shollenberger, although not quite as unhinged, when I read his rantings. Plenty of big important sounding phrasing and concepts but lacking in any real understanding or substance and a good healthy dose of self-aggrandizing crap.

  14. #14 Rev. BigDumbChimp
    April 29, 2007

    Um. Sorry that link is wrong, I was shopping at the same time as reading up on the blogoverse this morning.

    here

    George Shollenberger

  15. #15 Krystalline Apostate
    April 29, 2007

    ”It is the personal attacks I find incredibly offensive,” wrote Nannina Gilder, 19, painting her dad as an ”idealist” who occasionally gets lost inside his ideals.

    Apparently, he’s never found his way out. Ever.
    ‘Telecosm’, what a great word, though. Wonder if it’s teleological or tautological? 😉

  16. #16 Ichthyic
    April 29, 2007

    At maximum conversational velocity, he waves his arms as though battling through nylon netting

    seems possible the author of the article did indeed understand what George was doing very well.

    arm waving is what he does best, after all.

  17. #17 Ichthyic
    April 29, 2007

    Then he warns that if biologists don’t take information theory seriously enough — information theory and not Christianity being the basis for Gilder’s embrace of intelligent design — then they’ll be the ones branded fools in the long run. Not him.

    Then Greespan warned that if investors don’t take the theory that internet investment is vastly overinflated seriously enough — actual economics and not idealism being the basis for Greenspan’s predictions — then they’ll be the ones branded fools in the long run.

    …and so they were.

  18. #18 Ed Darrell
    April 29, 2007

    Gilder was a seer for technology? Anybody got a collection of Gilder comments about Enron, or Global Crossing, prior to 2000?

  19. #19 Allison
    April 29, 2007

    I knew I recognized this guy from somewhere – Susan Faludi dedicated a biographical section to him in Backlash. I highly suggest the read, but the jist of it is that he’s a gutless opportunist who’s spent the greater part of his life jumping on the ideological bandwagon he thinks is most likely to get him some attention. Shame on the Globe for enabling him.

  20. #20 Millimeter Wave
    April 29, 2007

    I remember this from the first posting, and I’m still blown away by the pomposity.

    I came to see the genetic alphabet, what I termed the adguacyth, as informational possibilities actualized in the twenty amino acids that combine in multiple sequences as proteins.

    Wow. Did he figure that out all by himself? He makes it sound as if he’s hit upon some remarkable insight that has never occured to anybody before.

    In other words, the genetic alphabet defines the “W” or bandwidth of possibilities of the genetic message.

    …and at this point it becomes very apparent that he has no idea what he’s talking about. “Bandwidth” is not some fluffy term interchangeable at will with anything one pleases, and no, what he’s describing has nothing to do with “bandwidth”.

    Proteins embody it, resolving uncertainty in particular entropic forms.

    I barely know what to say to this. What utter tripe.

    I will, however, (again – I’ve mentioned this several times before) take issue with one element of the Elsberry piece you link to, specifically this:

    Shannon used the term “entropy” on the advice of John von Neumann, who said that no one knew what that meant, and thus Shannon would not be criticized for its deployment.

    This story is repeated often, but is surely apocryphal. It doesn’t fit with the other available facts. What Shannon was describing as “entropy” is in fact closely related to thermodynamic entropy, and Shannon was aware of it at the time; he actually includes a note with his definition which says so. Given that, I find the von Neumann story very hard to give any credence.

    Have a look here:

    http://cm.bell-labs.com/cm/ms/what/shannonday/shannon1948.pdf

    I refer specifically to page 11:

    “The form of H will be recognized as that of entropy as defined in certain formulations of statistical mechanics…”

    So I’m pretty convinced that he didn’t pick the term arbitrarily because he thought that no-one would object to its being repurposed. It is very likely just a vaguely amusing story (if you’re an information theorist…) that gets bandied about.

    However, there is an important implication here related to the 2nd law of thermodynamics: specifically, that in a closed system the total amount of information can never decrease.

    Remeber that succint, factual point and be sure to wave it in these cretins faces whenever they babble about “information theory” or the favorite 2LT BS. The body of theory they’re trying to press gang into supporting their cause actually says, quite definitively, exactly the opposite of what they want it to.

    That’s why William Dembski has spent so much time trying to formulate a new measure of information. He’s trying to “fix” it so that this rather embarrassing property becomes magically inverted.

  21. #21 raven
    April 29, 2007

    “But I really think those guys” — meaning the scientists who attacked him on the weblog — “are pretty crazy.” George Gilder.

    Quite a compliment considering the source. Just keep being crazy and maybe Gilder’s medieval ideas and cronies won’t be able to drag the rest of us back to the 1400s.

    I read his BS on the previous post and it was superficial bafflegab. Just like the DI’s specified complexity and information that exists in Platoland.

    I’ve never heard of him before this thread. Then again I pay little attention to pop culture or politicians.

  22. #22 Jennie
    April 30, 2007

    @ #s 1, 8, 11: You know youse guys could have got to the original 2004 article by clicking the ‘repost’ icon.

  23. #23 Stephen
    April 30, 2007

    … but simple Biblical literalism isn’t what they are accused of …

    True, but it would be worth reminding Gilder and friends that the ID-ers have refused to take a stand against the YECs. They are happy to cosy up to the biblical literalists if they think it convenient.

  24. #24 David Marjanovi?
    April 30, 2007

    However, there is an important implication here related to the 2nd law of thermodynamics: specifically, that in a closed system the total amount of information can never decrease.

    Remeber that succint, factual point and be sure to wave it in these cretins faces whenever they babble about “information theory” or the favorite 2LT BS. The body of theory they’re trying to press gang into supporting their cause actually says, quite definitively, exactly the opposite of what they want it to.

    Well… find me a closed system first…

  25. #25 David Marjanovi?
    April 30, 2007

    However, there is an important implication here related to the 2nd law of thermodynamics: specifically, that in a closed system the total amount of information can never decrease.

    Remeber that succint, factual point and be sure to wave it in these cretins faces whenever they babble about “information theory” or the favorite 2LT BS. The body of theory they’re trying to press gang into supporting their cause actually says, quite definitively, exactly the opposite of what they want it to.

    Well… find me a closed system first…

  26. #26 Millimeter Wave
    April 30, 2007

    Well… find me a closed system first…

    Of course, in practice, for the purposes of any real application one has to take into account what happens at the boundary.

    That doesn’t change the case here, though: there simply is no basis for the “how does the information get there” wailing in the first place.

  27. #27 dev
    May 1, 2007

    Ed Darrell: “Anybody got a collection of Gilder comments about Enron, or Global Crossing, prior to 2000?”

    Actually, what I found even more interesting were Gilder’s comments *after* the Enron scandal; see in particular his classic Forbes article “The Confidence Game” (dated December 23, 2002), which I read and marveled at when it first appeared. The online version of the article is behind the pay wall, but I bought a copy just so I could share my enjoyment of it with you:

    From the first paragraph: “… Why do I trust Kenneth Lay of Enron and Bernard Ebbers of WorldCom more than I trust Justices William Rehnquist and Antonin Scalia …?” According to Gilder, “The answer comes from the eminent philosopher of science Karl Popper: falsifiability. … Like a physical experiment, every entrepreneurial venture embodies and tests a hypothesis about products or markets. … Under capitalism power flows to precisely the people who are willing to stake their money not on gambles or sure things but on testable hypotheses … I trust chief executives because they deal in projects that can go bankrupt.”

    So there you go: Ken Lay wasn’t a crook, he was just conducting an experiment that didn’t work out: “Both Enron stars learned their lessons (about off-the-books subsidiaries and financial engineering, for example), and they taught them to the world.” Gilder then goes on to fulminate against the idea that increased carbon dioxide emissions could cause global warming (“the most brazen chemophobic claims in the history of science and government”) and argue that insider trading is actually a good thing.

    But back to Ken Lay as Popperian exemplar. The problems with Gilder’s argument are embarrassingly obvious; in fact, one of them was pointed out in an (unrelated) article in the exact same issue of Forbes: First, that we put our trust in the market as the basis of our economy (or in the scientific process to discover truths about nature) does not imply that we do or should trust individual businesspeople (or scientists). Second, and more important, trust in individual businesspeople (or experimenters) is a function of experience: that businesspeople prove to be honest and competent upon consistent examination, and that experiments done by one person are repeatable by others.

    However someone engaging (or contemplating engaging) in major financial fraud doesn’t really worry about repeating the experiment: If the payoff is high enough and the probability of being caught and convicted is low enough then it’s rational to commit the fraud, hope it goes undiscovered or unpunished, and then retire on the proceeds if successful. Lay, Skilling, and others apparently had a reasonable hope that the Enron house of cards would not fall, and that they could then cash out and spend the rest of their lives being featured in best-selling business books as “the geniuses of Enron”.

    Anyway, based on past reading of Gilder’s books and articles I thought there were at least a few gems amongst the dross, but after reading “The Confidence Game” I concluded that he was terminally self-delusional and not to be trusted any more than Enron senior management.

  28. #28 Godless McHeathenpants
    May 1, 2007

    I’m more upset about the fact that the man is apparently my neighbor. Jeebus. Like I need that.

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