Obnoxious Answers to Obnoxious Questions

A few of my recent posts here appear to have struck some nerves, and I've been
getting lots of annoying email containing the same questions, over and over again. So rather than reply individually, I'm going to answer them here in the hope that either (a) people will see the answers before send the question to me, and therefore not bother me; or (b) conclude that I'm an obnoxious asshole who isn't worth the trouble of writining to, and therefore not bother me. I suspect that (b) is more likely than (a), but hey, whatever works.

Answers beneath the fold.

**Question**: *Why are you so rude? There's no need to call people stupid, or idiotic, or ridiculous just because they made a mistake.*

**Obnoxious Answer**: I'm rude because it's fun.

**Serious Answer**: There *is* a need to call some people or some ideas stupid.

When people are writing about things like math and science, I think you can loosely group things into four categories.

1. *Right*. Some stuff is just simply correct: good data, good arguments, valid logic.
2. *Wrong*. Sometimes people make a mistake and get something wrong. They accidentally miss a step, or misinterpret a piece of data, or misunderstand something. Or they just plain get stuff wrong - they've got a hypothesis about how something works, and it turns out to be incorrect. Hey, it happens. In the first case, people aren't perfect, and we all make mistakes from time to time. And in the second, that's actually a *good* thing: it's what science is about, figuring out which ideas are right, and which are wrong.
3. *Lies*. Sometimes people deliberately write things that are not true. For example, William Dembski *knows* that his so-called "Universal Probability Bound" is nonsense, but he continues to use it. Lies should be called out as lies, and the liar who wrote them deserves whatever abuse get heaped on them.
4. *Stupid*. Some things are just so wrong that they go beyond mere wrongness into an entirely different territory. When someone tries to argue that π=3, or that if there's a 1 in 1000 chance of being in an airplane crash, then the average victim flew 1000 times - well, that's not just wrong. That's *stupid*. And people who write *stupid* things deserve to be called stupid, and to have the stupidity of their arguments publicly ridiculed.


**Question**: *Who are you to criticize all of these famous people?*

**Obnoxious Answer**: I'm someone who isn't an idiot.

**Serious answer**: I'm someone who isn't an idiot. Yeah, seriously, that's it. My entire qualification for writing critiques of famous people.

And that's plenty of qualification. Because *wrong* is *wrong*. It doesn't matter how famous you are, how many letters you can put after your name, how many books you've published, how many awards you've won, how much money you have, how often you appear on TV, or anything like that. If you say something that's incorrect, then *anyone* who knows enough to see the error is qualified to point it out.


**Question**: *Don't you feel guilty that publicly mocking people could lose them their jobs, or prevent them from getting jobs/tenure?*

**Obnoxious answer**: No, not at all.

**Serious answer**: Folks, this is a *blog*. How much influence do you think a stupid little math blog has on the real world? Do you *really* think that a university committee considering giving someone tenure is gong to have a conversion like the following?

>**ProfA**: This guy's really good. I think we should give him tenure.

>**ProfB**: Yeah, you're right. Definitely a guy who deserves tenure.

>**ProfC**: Hey, before we make a decision, why don't we do a google blog search on him? Oh, look, that geek on Good Math/Bad Math said he's an idiot!

>**ProfA**: Uh-oh. That's bad!

>**ProfB**: Yeah, no tenure for someone who got criticized by a *blog*!

Even assuming (most likely incorrectly) that anything on this blog could affect anyone's career (other than my own): if the individual in question is writing stupid or dishonest stuff that's relevant to the work they'd be doing, then *they don't deserve the job*. If you've got a creationist who writes articles about how evolution is impossible applying for a job teaching evolutionary biology, then *they don't deserve the job*. They've disqualified themselves by publicly demonstrating their incompetence. If you've got someone applying for a job as a mathematician, and they've published articles based on incompetently written, stupidly wrong mathematical arguments: they aren't qualified for a job as a mathematician. It's not my fault that they're incompetent.


**Question**: *Commenter X is being an asshole. Why won't you ban him?*

**Obnoxious answer**: Because it's fun watching you get made fun of, you twit.

**Serious answer**: I've never banned anyone from posting comments on this blog. I hope that I never have to. There are only two reasons that I would ban someone: spam, and being consistently and excessively abusive towards other commenters. Note that someone repeatedly pointing out that you're *wrong* does not count as being abusive.

That does *not* include being abusive towards me. I've put myself out in public as the author of this blog, saying some seriously rude and obnoxious things about people. I don't think it would be fair for me to get upset and ban people for being rude and obnoxious back towards me.


**Question**: *How would you feel if someone did a slam job on you like you've done to so many people?*

**Obnoxious answer**: I'd get down on my knees and cry about how unfair the world is.

**Serious answer**: It's happened. People have picked posts on this blog, and used them to attack me. I've been called everything from a good for nothing claptrap nobody to a child molester. Sure it pisses me off. But that's life. In the end, truth wins out. If what I'm saying is right, then the fact that a couple of yahoos called me some rotten names is no big deal. If what I'm saying is wrong, then I deserve the abuse.


**Question**: *Are you really as much of a pencil-necked geek as you sound like on your blog?*

**Obnoxious answer**: Yes.

**Serious answer**: Yes.


**Question**: *You're a stupid obnoxious geek who'll never get laid in his entire life, why don't you just shut the fuck up?*

**Obnoxious answer**: What does being a geek have to do with getting laid? Don't you realize that there are some really amazing women geeks out there? Just who do you think they wind up with? Morons like you?

**Serious answer**: That's more of a rhetorical question than a real one, isn't it? Even so, it's really quite amazing how often I've gotten some variant of this in email from some irate jackass. This is obviously the preferred question for the illiterates out there: I've never yet seen a single version without errors in grammar, spelling, *and* punctuation. Come on guys, can't you get through a single sentence without screwing up?


**Question**: *Why do you waste time writing your stupid blog, it's not like anyone's actually interested in reading it?*

**Obnoxious answer**: You obviously read it, and were sufficiently motivated by whatever I wrote to go to the trouble of sending me mail. Why?

**Serious answer**: I get more positive mail than negative; there's an active group of intelligent people posting comments regularly; and I'm consistently getting over 1000 unique visitors every day. So there are plenty of people interested in reading it.


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Way to go, MarkCC.

Btw, if your writings eventually cost somebody his job, that could be also viewed in positive light: you saved his employer.

I enjoy your posts. However, some are quite heavy and I will have to revisit them, and by the time I get stuck and have a question, it could be weeks. How often do you scan comments to old posts?

subtext answer to all of the above: its the BLOGOSPHERE. people slam. and people inform. i come here to learn stuff. i'm wrong, hell, maybe most of the time. science is an endless progression of hypotheses all of which are wrong, but are less wrong with time. we're all wrong sometimes. oh, uh, wrong again, MarkCC is never wrong. ;-)


How many emails in response to this post do you think you'll get?

I'm guessing that many of the idiots wiriting those letters will be lost on the first section on this post.

For a current example of your #4 under the 'rude' question, see this uncommonly dense calculation on Dembski's blog. I quote at length:

An environmental stress is imposed on each of these four strains of yeast. Each of these strains developed a missense mutation(s) in the GAL80 gene. The article says that were dealing with an area of about 1kb, i.e., 1000 nucleotide bases. Now the length of the yeast genome is probably 10^8 nucleotides long. The 1kb therefore represents 10^3 nucleotide bases. The mutation rate of eukaryotes is around 10^-8 errors/nucleotide base. So, roughly, every time it replicates ( and since its genome size is 10^8), 1 error (mutation) occurs. And, for a missense mutation, a minimum of two nucleotide errors is needed. And, these mutations have to occur next to each other. So, the odds of getting 'one' mutation in the 1kb region, that is, the 'first' mutation (error), will take, on average, at least 10^5 generations of the yeast (and thus surpass the number of possible nucleotide sites that lay 'outside' the 1kb region). Now, to get the 'second' mutation, it isn't sufficient for it to lie in the 1kb region; it needs to be 'next' to the 'first' mutation. So, if the genome size is 10^8 bases, and the error rate is 10^-8 errors/base, then, again, we get 1 error/replication (generation). So now we need 10^8 generations for the 'second' mutation to occur since there is only one place in 10^8 locations that lie 'next' to the 'first' mutation). If we assume that the generation time of yeast is 20 minutes, 10^5 generations represents (10^5 generations x .333 hrs/generations)/24 hrs/day/365 days/yr=3.8 years. 10^8 generations is a thousand times more; so it represent 3800 years. So, tell me, how did these mutations-all in the same GAL80 gene-come about 'randomly'? Has the lab been in existence for 3800 years?

Note that there is no mention of the independence assumed by the calculation and no mention at all of population size. That's out on the "stupid" end of the scale.

Don't forget Pauli's category of "not even wrong".

By David Reiner (not verified) on 06 Sep 2006 #permalink

Good stuff MarkCC.
What I find in the world of blogosphere is outrageousness prevails. Otherwise who would read boring, mild-manner critiques of math? Keep doing what you're doing cause it works.
That being said, methinks there is a thin line between case (2) and case (4). In case of amateurs like myself I probably have made grave mistakes that my prof or TA would have yelled "stupid" when I see as a series of bad mistakes... but then again I probably deserved to be called "stupid". :-(



I've got things set up so that I get an email every time anyone comments. So if you post a question in a comment on an old post, I'll see it, and do my best to answer it.

The 2nd question ( Who are you to criticize all of these famous people ? ) is important, and the answer given by Mark is right, the appeal to authority has no place in science.

I agree most whole-heartedly with the ideas of this post. The gang at idthefuture.com (Behe, Dembski, Hunter, Witt and the like) don't deserve ridicule because they made a mistake: they deserve ridicule because they are liars, and liars of the highest order. Their ideas are ridiculous, and they know them to be ridiculous. They advance them not because they help us learn about the universe in which we find ourselves, but because they seek to advance a political and social agenda as part of a stealth campaign to undermine Constitutional safeguards that protect our freedom from government intervention in our religious choices.

The proper response to ridiculous ideas is ridicule. The proper response to a liar is to call him a liar.

Incidently, I applaud your open comment policy. Anyone willing to dish it out should be willing to take it, and you show yourself to be much less cowardly than, say, those gents at the Intelligent Design The Future blog, who do not allow reader comments of any kind (and, given the number of trackbacks, nobody seems very willing to talk about anyway). I'm puzzled why anyone would have a blog and not be interested in reader feedback. The only answer would seem to be "cowardice".

A great Q&A--and your last one hits a more general situation. I can't for the life of me figure out why people will comment, on a blog, that the blogger's stupid, not worth reading, whiny, etc...and then obviously come back to the blog again and again.

Unless maybe there are people who really have too much time on their hands and a fair streak of masochism to boot.

Keep up the good math.

I apologise to Mark for all the hate mail that he has received.

I probably should have warned you that this would be a likely consequence of daring to criticise the patron saint of HIV "rethinking".

This all stemmed from my frustration at pointing out a totally stupid mathematical error in Duesberg's paper and having Duesberg acolytes continue to insist that Duesberg was really correct in some way.

Mark is correct the error that Duesberg makes is not just wrong it is stupid. Sometimes you really have to honest and call stupid arguments stupid.

RBH points out another uncommonly dense calculation made by an evolution "rethinker".

The pattern is exactly the same. Start with a premise that HIV cannot possibly cause AIDS or that evolution cannot possibly account for diversity of life and then construct simplistic and stupid calculations to attempt to support this premise.

Duesberg starts with the premise that HIV cannot cause AIDS. He then claims that HIV must depend on perinatal transmission for survival and that any pathogen that depends on perinatal transmission for survival cannot be 100% pathogenic. In reality from the start of the HIV epidemic in the US the vast majority of people infected with HIV belonged to specific risk groups and therefore could not logically have been infected perinatally. Duesberg's argument that HIV depends predominatly on perinatal transmission for survival is already totally flawed. All available evidence shows that it does not.

At this point his argument is already at the wrong stage.

This doesn't stop Duesberg he goes on to contruct this totally stupid mathematical argument which any truly critical reading should recognise as stupid.

By Chris Noble (not verified) on 06 Sep 2006 #permalink

See, the probability that each of the questions has developed on its own is 1 in 10^100, at 10^5 words in the English language that exist outside the dictionary and 10^20 words per question. At 8 questions, the probability that someone could really write them is 10^800. That means that the average hate mail sender has to send you 10^800 emails in order to ask all these questions!

Speaking of "wrong", the word "writining" does not exist. I assume you meant "writing", though that is an assumption I wouldn't have to make if you spent a few moments spell checking your writing. Do you not feel that the things you have to say warrant a few moments to check for accuracy?

Do you really think that a university committee considering giving someone tenure is gong to have a conversion like the following?

Actually, more or less that happened to me when I got my current position. My current PhD advisor did a pretty thourough webdig on me, reading through, among other things, my LiveJournal and my blog.

He didn't get as far as reading about me on other sites - mainly because there isn't very much to read. But still, it happened.

Corr(bad math, bad emails) ~ 1.

"Come on guys, can't you get through a single sentence without screwing up?"

So they are the ones who can't screw properly? LOL!

"Note that there is no mention of the independence assumed by the calculation and no mention at all of population size."

Assume one spherical bacteria (so obviously independent)...

"a series of bad mistakes"

Anyone can do that too. It is the ability to learn and not repeat that is promoted. Sometimes the professional get irritated by amateurs not having looked at the basic expositions, but one must also first find them...

Repeating mistakes too often goes against the principle of lazyness, though. A good mathematician is lazy in that he makes difficult theorems to enable ease of applications - at least so I was told by one.

Right. It is even a philosophical fallacy: "argumentum ad verecundiam". And scientists, even famous ones, have been found to be falling into kookery later or outside their area of expertice. Dembski comes to mind - as soon as he tries to apply math to model reality he fails, every time. In science consensus is more important than individual expertice, and consensus can be wrong too.

Since you seem to be trolling, it is highly probable that you are Jason of Pharyngula fame. In that case you can't really complain about spelling, since PZ's disemwoveling mks y hd t rd.

By Torbjörn Larsson (not verified) on 07 Sep 2006 #permalink

It doesn't matter how famous you are, how many letters you can put after your name...

Speaking of which, why don't you treat yourself to an FCD?

By somnilista, FCD (not verified) on 07 Sep 2006 #permalink

Question: Commenter X is being an asshole. Why won't you ban him?

You know, if you as an individual reader of comments find a certain commentor consistently annoying, and you're using Firefox, you can install greasemonkey and then install my killfile script. Then, you can mark a commentor as annoying by clicking the "kill" button that will show up next to their name, and you won't have to see their comments any more.

For drawing the crank Berlinski into debate and making him look like the fool he is you deserve the highest praise. If rudeness is what it takes to polish off these IDiots Dembski, Behe, and the lesser ones such as Luskin, so be it. Now if only Dembski would be foolhardy enough to venture into these waters (but then grad CS students already are having fun at his expense).

Great work. Keep it up!

I suspect the "one spherical bacterium" is the very same one that had to have sex 250,000 times before contracting HIV. Is Dembski channeling Duesberg? Has anyone ever seen the two of them at the same time?