Pharyngula

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Yesterday, I was reading a good article in the October 2004 issue of Wired: “The crusade against evolution”, by Evan Ratliff. It gives far more column space to the voices of the Discovery Institute than they deserve, but the article consistently comes to the right conclusions, that the Discovery Institute is “using scientific rhetoric to bypass scientific scrutiny.” Along the way, the author catches Stephen Meyer red-handed in misrepresenting Carl Woese (by the clever journalistic strategem of calling Carl Woese), and shows how the DI’s favorite slogans (“Teach the controversy” and “academic freedom”) are rhetorical abuses of the spirit of the ideas behind them. It’s darned good stuff. I should probably say more about the good article, but I’m still picking magma out of my ears after reading a one page insert in the article — a ghastly, ignorant broadside by George Gilder that prompted a personal eruption. I’ve calmed down now, so I can tear it apart more delicately than I might have yesterday.

I’m still a bit peeved at the fool, so I’m going to remonstrate against him first—but maybe later I’ll say more about the Ratliff article.

Biocosm
The technogeek guru of bandwidth utopia defends intelligent design and explains why he is a believer.

Here’s the start of our problem. Gilder can actually be called a “technogeek guru”, that is, somebody with some amount of credibility among people who like technology. He doesn’t deserve it. He’s a con artist. He’s a glib slinger of five-dollar words, but he really doesn’t understand the concepts beneath them. When I read his babbling version of biology below, it’s clear that he has about the same depth of understanding of the field as your average sixth-grader—in other words, he can crib from the encyclopedia.

Our high schools are among the worst performers per dollar in the world — especially in math and science. Our biology classes, in particular, espouse anti-industrial propaganda about global warming and the impact of DDT on the eggshells of eagles while telling just-so stories about the random progression from primordial soup to Britney Spears. In a self-refuting materialist superstition, teachers deny the role of ideas and purposes in evolution and hence implicitly in their own thought.

Mr Gilder has apparently never even looked at any American high school science curricula. There is no anti-industrial propaganda anywhere to be seen, nor is there anywhere any criticism of capitalism. Our schools churn out eager consumers.

Teachers do also try to squeeze in a little science, though. Yes, global warming is real, and yes, insecticides can cause damage to organisms at all levels of the ecosystem. I think it’s good that some of that gets taught, and more should be taught. The only anti-industrialist attitude here is the one that denies the existence of substantial problems, rather than recognizing them and trying to overcome them.

Mr Gilder also makes the first of his many errors about evolution here. I do not deny that I personally possess ideas and purposes; I do deny that the cheerios I had for breakfast possess them, but that does not refute my first assertion. Similarly, evolution is a process that led to me, that did not require thought to occur. Bacteria evolve without a shred of thinking. It does not diminish my brain power to see that my distant ancestors had less of it.

The Darwinist materialist paradigm, however is about to face the same revolution that Newtonian physics faced 100 years ago. Just as physicists discovered that the atom was not a massy particle, as Newton believed, but a baffling quantum arena accessible only through mathematics, so too are biologists coming to understand that the cell is not a simple lump of protoplasm, as Charles Darwin believed.

Wow. So the Intelligent Design creationists are going to prove Darwin wrong and throw all of pre-ID biology on the ash heap of history, just as Einstein did to Newton and all of pre-Einsteinian physics? I guess Gilder doesn’t understand the history of science, either, since that didn’t happen.

Gilder is also dead wrong on what Darwin thought about the cell. Although nobody of his time knew much about what was going on inside the cell, they did have microscopes and knew that there was considerable complexity in there. The late 19th century was actually a period of intense discovery in cell biology, with the advent of subcellular staining techniques and better microscopy that led to observations of such things as chromosomes and organelles like the Golgi apparatus.

Biologists ‘came to understand’ that cells were more than a lump a century or two ago. And no, the Discovery Institute had nothing to do with it. Since that complexity is only now just beginning to dawn on the panjandrums of the DI, it says far more about how far behind they are than anything about modern science.

Aww, but now look: here’s the part where little Georgie recites a bunch of big words he learned.

It’s a complex information-processing machine comprising tens of thousands of proteins arranged in fabulously intricate algorithms of communication and synthesis. The human body contains some 60 trillion cells. Each one stores information in DNA codes, processes and replicates it in three forms of RNA and thousands of supporting enzymes, exquisitely supplies the system with energy, and seals it in semi-permeable phospholipid membranes.

If a little kid had written that, I’d be impressed; coming from a “technogeek guru”, though, it’s pathetic. Everything is just a teeny-tiny bit off. Cells don’t actively store information in DNA, as his sentence implies, and it’s just wrong to say they store it in “DNA codes”. Real biologists are pretty careful to avoid using the term “replication” when they mean “transcription.” I have no clue why he’s singling out three forms of RNA. And the end of his sentence is just running off the rails into confusing referents: cells supply the system with energy? What system? And they seal what in membranes? Energy? Reading that stuff, I can sort of imagine where Gilder got these impressions, but I can also see that he’s just stacking words he doesn’t understand well into his own little tower of Babel.

Since it is Gilder, though, he also has to somehow slide his buzzword biology into his stock of computer cliches. Voila!

It is a process subject to the mathematical theory of information, which shows that even mutations occurring in cells at the gigahertz pace of a Pentium 4 and selected at the rate of a google search couldn’t beget the intricate interwoven fabric of structure of a human being in such a short amount of time. Natural selection should be taught for its important role in the adaption of species, but Darwinian materialism is an embarrassing cartoon of modern science.

Just a hint, George: you should never accuse others of being an embarrassing cartoon.

As for the substance of his comment, it’s a lie. This mysterious “mathematical theory of information”, which, I suspect, Gilder understands about as well as he does cell biology, says no such thing.

What is the alternative? Intelligent design at least asks the right questions.

OK, what questions? Curiously, after announcing that the one thing ID does right is ask good questions, he doesn’t tell us a single question that it asks.

In a world of science that still falls short of a rigorous theory of human consciousness or of the big bang, intelligent design begins by recognizing that everywhere in nature, information is hierarchical and precedes its embodiment. The concept precedes the concrete.

Ouch. Poor George. That was the early 19th century view of the world, the one that was shaken up by a true revolutionary, Darwin. Darwin demonstrated exactly the opposite: that nature operates by throwing up concrete instances without thought, and then natural processes winnow out the less successful, again without need for thought. What Gilder is admitting here is that intelligent design begins by accepting a demonstrable falsehood.

The contrary notion that the world of mind, including science itself, bubbled up randomly from a prebiotic brew has inspired all the reductionist futilities of the 20th century, from Marx’s obtuse materialism to environmental weather panic to zero-sum Malthusian fears over population. In biology classes, our students are not learning the largely mathematical facts of 21st-century science; they’re imbibing the consolations of a faith-driven 19th-century materialist myth.

Ah, and he dredges up the old creationist caricature of evolution, that it is a purely random process. Whenever someone tells you that it is, it’s a flashing indicator that he doesn’t know what he is talking about. Evolution is not random, although components of the process are.

His conclusion is drivel. Evolutionary biology is highly mathematical, and in fact many of the concepts in statistics that we take for granted and that were developed in the early 20th century were driven by evolutionary biology and genetics. The Discovery Institute is not proposing to improve or make more quantitative the teaching of biology; quite to the contrary, they are proposing to dilute it with unverified garbage, and they certainly have no concrete observations or results to add.

He’s also mangling history again. The majority of the 19th-century biologists who advanced evolution were Christians, just as the majority of modern biologists in the West also happen to be Christian; evolution is a concept independent of one’s religious beliefs, or lack thereof. The ideas of the early evolutionists were not consolations or rationalizations for materialism, but were often made reluctantly and only because the evidence was compelling, as they were contrary to the widely held belief in a Divine Plan. The only myth here is the creationist delusion that evolutionists were all gleeful atheists cobbling up stories to support their beliefs and corrupt Western Civilization.

I really feel sorry for the deluded saps who take investment advice from this blithering ignoramus. That he has been successful at all in the past just demonstrates the truth of the adage that a rising tide floats all boats, even the leaky dinghy skippered by the town drunk.

Comments

  1. #1 Christian Burnham
    April 29, 2007

    According to his Wikipedia entry

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

    GG opposed a day-care bill in congress and helped pioneer supply-side economics.

    Nice guy.

  2. #2 Cairnarvon
    April 29, 2007

    Just as physicists discovered that the atom was not a massy particle, (…)

    Quantum physics says atoms aren’t particulate, or don’t have masses?
    That bothered me more than anything in that article. There are too many creationists around. They’ve dulled me to bad biology.

    Maybe I should read more Chopra so he can dull me to bad quantum physics.

  3. #3 Fatmop
    April 29, 2007

    For some reason, I’m reminded of Ted “It’s a complex series of tubes!” Stevens.

    I remember reading a lot about Gilder’s bombast and evil deeds in One Market Under God. I don’t remember being able to finish the book though; a lot of it was rather a slog. I might have to pick it up again.

  4. #4 T. Bruce McNeely
    April 29, 2007

    so too are biologists coming to understand that the cell is not a simple lump of protoplasm, as Charles Darwin believed.

    “…coming to understand”???

    WTF?

    “…coming to understand”???

    What the Hell does he think cell biologists and cell pathologists have been doing for the last 150 years?
    No wonder all his investment fans lost their shirts a few years back – the man is STUPID.

  5. #5 Lynet
    April 29, 2007

    Just as physicists discovered that the atom was not a massy particle, as Newton believed…

    Newton believed in atoms? Honestly. Atoms weren’t widely accepted by chemists until John Dalton’s advocacy of the idea in the 19th century; physicists picked up on the idea a bit later than that (part of the point of Einsteins 1905 Brownian motion paper was to look for conclusive physical (as opposed to chemical) evidence that atoms exist).

  6. #6 sailor
    April 29, 2007

    Thanks PZ,
    That wonderful demolition warmed my heart. Keep up the good work!

  7. #7 waldteufel
    April 29, 2007

    Gilder is the Deepak Chopra of information theory.

    What a clown.

  8. #8 mark
    April 29, 2007

    The Darwinist materialist paradigm, however is about to face the same revolution that Newtonian physics faced 100 years ago.

    Ah, yes, the immanent demise of Darwinism will be occurring any millennium now.

  9. #9 Ron Zybura
    April 29, 2007

    PZ Look in the mirror if you want to find the bonehead in your wondering argument. You misrepresent George Gilder. His prediction about spectrum, bandwidth, and computer science have intrigued industry leaders and involved them in his Telecosm conferences. You have no such achievement or credentials.

  10. #10 Rooney
    April 29, 2007

    Newton believed in atoms? Honestly.

    From Opticks:

    “All these things being considered, it seems probable to me that God in the beginning formed matter in solid, massy, hard, impenetrable, moveable particles of such sizes and figures, and with such other properties, and in such proportion to space, as most conduced to the end for which he formed them; and that these primitive particles being solids, are incomparably harder than any porous bodies compounded of them; even so very hard, as never to wear or break in pieces; no ordinary power being able to divide what God himself made in the first creation. While the particles continue entire, they may compose bodies of one and the same nature and texture in all ages: but should they wear away, or break in pieces, the nature of things depending on them would be changed. Water and earth, composed of old worn particles and fragments of particles, would not be of the same nature and texture now, with water and earth composed of entire particles in the beginning. And there, that nature may be lasting, the changes of corporal things are placed only in the various separations and new associations and motions of these permanent particles.”

    Newton didn’t have any evidence, but he still was a proponent of atomism.

  11. #11 Bryson Brown
    April 29, 2007

    What strikes me most about this is how fair PZ’s evisceration really is. There’s a little bit of harsh language, but only after the substantive critique showed just how completely wrong Mr. Gilder was. If this is something Mr. Gilder (and daughter) felt terribly hurt by, then they, like any student slapped with a well-deserved F, need to go back to the books and learn the material. I’m really sick of thin-skinned howls of protest from people who like to pontificate about stuff they don’t know anything about and then imagine they’ve been abused when other people point out that they’re full of it… As most students understand, fair treatment does not rule out getting a failing grade. Sometimes that F is richly deserved.

  12. #12 Bryson Brown
    April 29, 2007

    If I’m sounding cranky, maybe it’s because I’ve just finished grading a stack of somewhat disappointing finals…

  13. #13 khan
    April 29, 2007

    Let’s not leave out Gilder’s economic ideas: promiscuous women will destroy capitalism and Western Civilization.

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

    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 prove one’s manhood only by supporting a family.

  14. #14 Mark
    April 29, 2007

    Ron,

    So you look to someone’s “credentials” and not the facts and evidence surrounding an issue to determine if they are right?

  15. #15 Ray C.
    April 29, 2007

    Disemvowelment of #8 in 4…3…2…

  16. #16 mhoff10
    April 29, 2007

    Fee-Fi-Fo-Fum….I smell the blood of George Gilderman. Said the Giant to his wife.

  17. #17 garth
    April 29, 2007

    don’t disemvowel #8, Mark just efffectively kicked his moronic argument in the junk.
    i’d forgotten gilder since his day in the stocks. what a buffoon. I can’t even read his name without using the mental voice of Prince Humperdink. You can imagine him reading PZ’s post yelling “I would not say such things if I were you!”

  18. #18 Atomic Dog
    April 29, 2007

    Re #8 and #13, “His prediction about spectrum, bandwidth, and computer science have intrigued industry leaders and involved them in his Telecosm conferences.” does not even count as a credential. What it shows is that he’s managed to bullshit Steve Forbes, which doesn’t strike me as hard. The telecosm site is a lot of self-praise and more of the patent BS:

    “At Gilder/Forbes Telecosm 2006: The Telecosm at 10, we celebrated the heroic and triumphant ascent of technology and the entrepreneurial singularities of the past ten years and attempted to envisage the crucial telecosmic breakthroughs and grand trajectory of thought for the next decade to come. Telecosm hosts George Gilder and Steve Forbes and their guests examined the technical, financial, social, theoretical, and economic ramifications of the human and technological evolution. ”

    And google delivers! Check out

    http://online.wsj.com/article/SB114433479738318882.html

    “Where Are They Now: George Gilder
    By MARCELO PRINCE
    May 8, 2006

    Mr. Gilder’s fascination with telecommunications companies and their technology wasn’t dimmed by the Nasdaq meltdown of 2000 and 2001, which wiped out many of the loyal readers of his once-influential newsletter and nearly tossed Mr. Gilder into bankruptcy. The 66-year-old author and former Nixon speechwriter continues to seek out promising high-tech firms and promote them in the Gilder Technology Report, though his audience has shriveled from more than 75,000 subscribers six years ago to fewer than 5,000 these days.”

    Talk about yer entrepreneurial singularities.

    And

    http://www.nyquistcapital.com/2006/05/05/wintegra-good-company-high-valuation/
    http://www.nyquistcapital.com/2006/05/09/george-gilder-telecosmic/

    (on one of which Zybura turns up in comments) for further evidence of Gilder’s uncanny powers of prediction!

    not to mention

    http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/10.07/gilder.html

    You gotta love the total self-delusion of the last bit of the WSJ article:

    “When he isn’t working on his newsletter or one of several book projects, Mr. Gilder increasingly spends his time advocating intelligent design as an alternative to evolution. Mr. Gilder, who helped found the Discovery Institute, a conservative think thank, is comfortable in the role of social contrarian. He was an outspoken critic of feminism in the 1970s and an early proponent of supply-side economics in the 1980s before turning his focus to the high-tech world.”

    “‘I do think that writing about technology and picking stocks is a very powerful and edifying discipline,’ he said. ‘It requires you to have a purchase on reality that is much more rigorous than the average evolutionary biologist has or the average free-floating technology writer has.'”

  19. #19 Thony C.
    April 29, 2007

    Lynet wrote:

    “Newton believed in atoms? Honestly. Atoms weren’t widely accepted by chemists until John Dalton’s advocacy of the idea in the 19th century; physicists picked up on the idea a bit later than that (part of the point of Einsteins 1905 Brownian motion paper was to look for conclusive physical (as opposed to chemical) evidence that atoms exist).”

    Newton was indeed an atomist. Atomism is a Greek theory of matter that goes back to the 5th century BCE. It was revived at the beginning of the 17th century CE and was very popular amongst the new scientists. One of Newton’s first major scientifics disputes was with Huygens and Hooke about his new theory of opticks. Newton as atomist believed that light was particular both Huygen’s and Hooke believed that light was propagated in waves. Galileo was also an atomist as was Pierre Gasendi.

  20. #20 David Marjanovi?
    April 29, 2007

    former Nixon speechwriter

    ROTFL!

    “I am not a crook.”

    😀

    the Discovery Institute, a conservative think thank

    How true, how true.

  21. #21 David Marjanovi?
    April 29, 2007

    former Nixon speechwriter

    ROTFL!

    “I am not a crook.”

    😀

    the Discovery Institute, a conservative think thank

    How true, how true.

  22. #22 Azkyroth
    April 29, 2007

    PZ Look in the mirror if you want to find the bonehead in your wondering argument. You misrepresent George Gilder. His prediction about spectrum, bandwidth, and computer science have intrigued industry leaders and involved them in his Telecosm conferences. You have no such achievement or credentials.

    Even if that were true, which it sounds like it isn’t, what the bloody fuck would his technology credentials have to do with his gross ignorance-and-proud-of-it regarding evolution?

    Put another way: I’m a mechanical engineering technician. Would you trust me to perform a Heart bypass on you? BUT THEY’RE BOTH TECHNICAL FIELDS; KNOWING SOMETHING ABOUT ONE MUST MAKE ME AN EXPERT IN THE OTHER!!

    Ass.

  23. #23 Keith
    April 29, 2007

    I think you really nailed it on what makes the DI tick: they’ve been reading outdated textbooks and think that all fields of science haven’t progressed beyond what was available to your average eighth grader circa 1922.

    “This Einstein fellow has some interesting ideas but we’ll see if they catch on. Now, who wants to do the Charleston?”

  24. #24 Graculus
    April 29, 2007

    he wrote about his trouble finding a woman who would marry him

    Why do I find this unsuprising.

  25. #25 Brian X
    April 29, 2007

    Graculus:

    Go to fstdt.com — you’ll find that a lot of the sexist idiots they quote are just exactly that sort of person, the kind who either lucked into a relationship they didn’t deserve (and are constantly complaining about it) or are bitter that they can’t get a relationship at all.

    Truth be told, the only thing that separates me from many of them (I’m what they call a “nice guy”) is that I’ve had enough female friends to know better than to dismiss the female sex as a whole. But at least I realize I can be a jackass and don’t let it force me to make unwarranted assumptions — these guys not only make those assumptions but go digging for reasons to justify it. (I’ve heard a lot of male hippies back in the 60s were sexist pigs, and that a lot of their wives and girlfriends went on to become the vanguard of the women’s lib movement in the 70s. I can’t say as I’d be surprised.)

  26. #26 justme
    April 29, 2007

    random progression from primordial soup to Britney Spears

    Anybody who places Britney Spears at the top of their evolutionary chain has some very serious judgment issues, and probably should not be allowed near blunt scissors much less a word processor.

  27. #27 Heather Kuhn
    April 29, 2007

    I’m just having trouble trying to parse this sentence: “It’s a complex information-processing machine comprising tens of thousands of proteins arranged in fabulously intricate algorithms of communication and synthesis.” Uh, I did graduate work in Computer Science, and took a lot of CS classes as an undergrad. That sentence doesn’t make sense. An algorithm is a process or, perhaps more accurately, a description of a process. The proteins may be arranged by an algorithm; they may execute an algorithm, but they are not THEMSELVES THE ALGORITHM. /shouting Sheesh, and this guy is supposed to be some kind of technogeek?

    Ha!

  28. #28 Keanus
    April 29, 2007

    From the excerpts quoted by PZ it’s apparent that Gilder thinks repetitive alliteration and a multiplicity of metaphors (even this dolt can coin one) is a substitute for knowledge and clear thinking. Gilder may have a large vocabulary and the ability to draw upon it as will, but like all information, it needs organization to be meaningful and that he sorely lacks.

  29. #29 Sophist
    April 30, 2007

    His prediction about spectrum, bandwidth, and computer science have intrigued industry leaders…

    So have feng shui and the Segway.

  30. #30 David Marjanovi?
    April 30, 2007

    Anybody who places Britney Spears at the top of their evolutionary chain has some very serious judgment issues

    Well, there is no evolutionary chain, so *shudder* nothing can be said to be higher than Britney Spears in any meaningful way.

  31. #31 David Marjanovi?
    April 30, 2007

    Anybody who places Britney Spears at the top of their evolutionary chain has some very serious judgment issues

    Well, there is no evolutionary chain, so *shudder* nothing can be said to be higher than Britney Spears in any meaningful way.

  32. #32 tattva
    April 30, 2007

    It is a process subject to the mathematical theory of information… Gilder has it backwards. Theories explain, uncover, predict, natural processes, to the extent they can based on observation, experimentation again; being subject to revision when better methods, and more data become available.

    Atomism is an ancient idea not exclusively Greek. Indian atomistic theories emerged during the 6th to 1st BCE and continued well through 500 CE. The earliest theories evolved into theories of language, while the Buddhist atomists moved closer to the Greek idea.

  33. #33 Son of Slam
    April 30, 2007

    #30, I feel dirty, but I want to toss back at them “It is only a theory!”

  34. #34 Keith Douglas
    April 30, 2007

    Is it just me, or does the guy sound like some of the slightly more lucid of the French pomos, like, say, a slightly less crazy version of Paul Virilo?

    Lynet: Actually, yes, Newton did believe in atoms of a sort. The history of atomism is very interesting, because the continuity and the differences between notions of atom is a curious one to sort out. What does the Leucippian/Democritean notion have to do with the contemporary notion? The idea that there is a least bit of something. That chemical atoms are not ultimately least is besides the point, and there is some, tantalizing but equivocal evidence that Democritus thought similarly. My undergraduate teacher, Eric Lewis, and others, suggests we should read “undivided” for everywhere the usual “indivisible”, for example. And there’s the saying that “Democritus thought there could be an atom as big as the cosmos” …

  35. #35 clvrmnky
    April 30, 2007

    You know, as a /working/ software developer who spent many, many hours in school getting Shannon-Nyquist and other Information Theory stuff right, it bothers the hell out of me when people who should know better muddy the waters like this. It’s embarrassing.

    Taking half-baked ideas from two different disciplines and sprinkling with liberal amounts of hand-waving to come up with a hybrid half-formed and wholly wrong notion is so annoying for me to have to listen to, especially when it involves your own discipline. I feel for PZ when some clod steps all over his specialty with moronic notions.

    Look, lateral thinking is good. Synthesis is good. I use both techniques a lot, but part of intelligence is knowing when the synthesis breaks down. It amazes me how some folks, once they get on the synthesis train, can’t seem to ever get off. This is what is wrong with new-age “theories” like quantum healing. But it can be done right, at least in terms of allowing human brains to do what they do best: make connections. (I’m thinking here of such examples as “Gdel, Escher, Bach.”)

    But, not all such connections are worthy, and it is up to the rest of us to call bullshit, *especially* when one of those disciplines is one of our own. If your idea stands up to the scrutiny of sycophants and friends, so be it. The real test is, does it stand up to scrutiny from the rest of us?

    Sorry for the rant, but I’ve had just about enough of these new-age infotech theories over the last decade to last a life-time.

  36. #36 John Bode
    April 30, 2007

    His prediction about spectrum, bandwidth, and computer science have intrigued industry leaders and involved them in his Telecosm conferences.

    Which prediction was that, and did it turn out to be correct?

  37. #37 grumpy realist
    May 1, 2007

    G.G. should also hoick down a copy of Molecular Computing (published by MIT Press) and read it before he tries to apply more misinterpretation of information theory to cell biology.

    No one should ever introduce him to the concepts of evolutionary algorithms–he’ll blow his brains out.

  38. #38 Ed T
    May 1, 2007

    His prediction about spectrum, bandwidth, and computer science have intrigued industry leaders and involved them in his Telecosm conferences.

    It seems that he “predicted” in 1990 the rise of On-Demand services for television shows. Funny how people in the cable TV industry had been working on that since the 1970’s…

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