Breaking a butterfly on the wheel, part II

Part I refers, in which I take PZ to task for getting too carried away over some harmless minor piece of hydrodynamics. PZ didn't show up in the comment thread for his post after I criticised him there, which I took as an implicit admission of error, and was all ready to forget it. But no, PZ bites back:

I have been chastised by William Connolley; he thinks I was too "strident" in condemning that lousy paper about Moses parting the sea with a fortuitous wind. I disagree, obviously. It was a bad paper, and I gave the reasons why it was so awful: it was poorly justified, it was not addressing an even remotely significant question, and the logic of the work and the conclusions was lacking. Connolley also doesn't seem to understand why it is objectionable and serves an ideological purpose for the creationists. Yes, as I pointed out, finding natural causes makes miracles irrelevant, but that logic doesn't matter. The point of this paper was very simple: to allow creationists to make the claim that science supports the truth of the Bible.

There isn't a great deal of point in repeating myself, so be sure you've read part I, so, on to the new stuff, such as it is:

1. As several people have pointed out in the comments over at PZ, there is a disconnect in how this issue is seen between the USA and... well, the rest of the wrold. Only they seem to have a sufficient mass of influential nutty ID / Creationist folk to have to care about. The rest of us don't have to, and consequently don't. So perhaps PZ is right to say that (from a we-are-wacky-USA perpsective), that I don't care enough about Creationism. But it would be nice to see, in return, some realisation from him that the USA isn't the whole world.

2. That was quite enough compromise for one post, don't you think? Right! Onwards. Point 2 is that PZ purports to care about this paper because it is bad science. And he advances a number of reasons why this paper fails that test: stuff like one of the results of researching a topic should be the discovery of genuine problems that warrant deeper analysis. A science paper is a story, and it always begins with a good question. But actually, none of that is the real problem. There are any number of science papers that fail this test: that cover trivial problems, that repeat existing literature, that don't do deeper analysis; and PZ cares about none of them enough to blog. Heavens, by those standards papers that are primarily about observations would be doomed. The reason PZ dislikes the paper is the religion he sees in it. I think it would have been better (clearer, more honest) to simply say that, and drop the mask of condeming it as bad science because (oh no, not again) the modelling part is unexceptionable.

I could go on, but I said much of it on the comments at PZ, so won't repeat:

* General comments, including a snark at the (generally) hostile comment atmosphere there rather reminiscent of WUWT
* PZ reply, partially misunderstanding me, to which I reply
* comments that the editor is taking lots of flack, and suggests that had the paper been clear that this was all hypothetical, all would have been well. I point out the obvious similarities to Copernicus and Galileo but no-one gets the point.

It is possible to have a reasoned discussion of the merits or otherwise of this paper, and Sigmund and I have had such a discussion, in the comments on my part I. He is something of a voice of reason over at PZ too. But the "regulars" there give him (and me) short shrift.

Amusingly, I now know a little how Curry feels. Not that makes her right, you understand.

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I have been chastised by William Connolley; he thinks I was too "strident" in condemning that lousy paper about Moses parting the sea with a fortuitous wind. I disagree, obviously. It was a bad paper, and I gave the reasons why it was so awful: it was poorly justified, it was not addressing an even…
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Pharyngula phails at the phirst hurdle. The lead author of that paper isn't a Creationist.

[Argh, and that was another thing I meant to rant about but forgot. PZ's big target is Creationists, and IDers. But this paper is "about", ie it mentions, Biblical legends. Shirely it is possible to distinguish the two? Not veryone who believes in Exodos, say, has to be a Creationist -W]

By Vinny Burgoo (not verified) on 28 Sep 2010 #permalink

I think you're giving PZ too much credit for even a partial concession that the paper may help creationists in any substantial fashion. The story of the parting of the Red Sea isn't even in Genesis, and it has nothing to do with the creation stories in Genesis nor the Noahic Flood.

By J. J. Ramsey (not verified) on 28 Sep 2010 #permalink

Not veryone who believes in Exodos, say, has to be a Creationist -W

Someone who believes in Exodus does have to be a certain species of fact-averse biblical literalist closely related to being a creationist, though.

[Not at all. My mother, for example, very likely believes that Exodus is true, or near-true. Most standard C of E folks do so. The fact that there is little or no evidence for the entire thing isn't widely known - I don't know it, for example -W]

There may not be quite as much evidence against Exodus as there is against such matters as global floods and 6000-year-old earths, but nonetheless the evidence does exist and seems to be satisfactorily convincing to those working in the field.

[Those in the field is a different matter -W]

By Andrew G. (not verified) on 28 Sep 2010 #permalink

I think there are two factors at play here:

1. Is PZ attacking this paper merely because there is a religious undertone? That seems to be your point.

2. Alternatively, did this paper only "merit" publication because of the religious undertone? This seems to be part of PZ's objection.

While there is probably something to point 1, I think point 2 is undoubtedly true and hence worth objecting to. The best analogy I can come up with is suppose someone proposes the Bermuda Triangle is due to sudden shifts in the magnetic poles of the earth. Should someone be able to publish a paper using real models of magnetodynamics to see if this is possible? I believe this is called "tooth fairy science."

[This is going round in circles a bit, but still: I don't think your 2 is PZ's main objection. His main objection is "this paper (a) gives aid and succour to the Creationists and is therefore Bad and (b) should not be published". I don't agree that (a) is really true; and I don't agree that (b) follows even if (a) is true. PZ's attitude is a Life-during-wartime type of approach that I don't see being merited - at least over here.

As to your second point: I think your analogy is a bit wrong. Try this instead: suppose someone had a model of the magnetodynamics or whatever is required, and they managed to show that under some circumstances that model "predicted" that the poles would move to Bermuda, or whatever, and do so quickly. Then yes, taht would be publishable -W]

The science in the paper not being very interesting, why did it get the press attention it did? IMHO that's all down to the religion angle.

[Oh course. I don't think that is in dispute -W]

There was a paper not that long ago arguing that the post-glacial flooding of the Black Sea basin was the basis of the Noah legend. What sort of reaction did it get?

[It got a certain amount of meeja, as I recall. I think I noticed it because it made its way onto wikipedia. Ah yes, here we go: -W]

By Steve Bloom (not verified) on 28 Sep 2010 #permalink

The paper under discussion was the subject of a 4 minute radio story on NPR (which friends call "National Pentagon Radio", but lately I favor "National Purveyors of Religion"), described as "Research News" on the program All Things Considered. Undoubtedly there are hundreds of more interesting studies, with far better science, which the producers could have chosen for a "Research News" story on their program. Climate science, geology, cancer biology, animal behavior, biochemistry, computational neuroscience, biology of aging, physical chemistry ... almost ANYTHING would have been better and more interesting than "Study: Wind May Have Helped Moses Part the Red Sea". Why choose that one for 4 minutes out of a one-hour program? Because it was aired on a Sunday? Because it gave them an opportunity to mention the late gun nut Charlton Heston, as movie Moses? Because almost every aspect of American culture seems to have some religious angle to it these days?

Perhaps the above example/whinge might give those outside the US* some idea of a possible reason that such studies, and especially the media attention they receive, can be irritating for some Americans - for myself, more so as a scientist than as an atheist. AFAIC, every story like the NPR/Red Sea one is a wasted opportunity to discuss good science, and perhaps to have mixed in a bit of informal science education in the process.

*I lived in London for several years as a postdoctoral researcher, so I do have a tiny bit of an idea of outside the US.

Blog fight!

[Now now, you're supposed to be the voice of reason. I'll report you to arbcomm -W]

You and PZ are two of my favorite bloggers, and I just love the fact that I brought you two together by sharing one of PZ's "bad science" rants on my Google Reader feed.

Umm ... so there's a story in a very old historic text about the Red Sea parting in 1,500 B.C. or so. As an ecological historian, to me that's a very interesting story and one worth looking into. Historic texts from this far back are extremely hard to come by and most are pre-occupied with who was the king and who owed him taxes. Fairly boring stuff. Texts of this old date with exciting stuff in them are pretty hard to come by. I can't see how applying some scientific thought to this tale detracts from the advancement of civilization. It might not advance it much, but so what.

Re: the Exodus. If you read Herodotus it is excruciatingly obvious that at many times the Jews from Palestine, and many other folks, had been repeatedly enslaved by the Egyptians. The whole history of the region was about people repeatedly enslaving each other. It was their form of golf, apparently. What PZ seems to forget is that the Old Testament is 99 percent a historic record of a group of people from 3,000 years ago and about 1 percent 'religion.' What I find odd is that all of the Babylonian and Egyptian and Greek texts from about the same period are considered 'historic' even though they constantly dabble in the supernatural (read the Iliad). I doubt PZ would protest giving kids the Iliad to read in high school, even though half of it is all about the Greek Gods meddling in the Greek's fight with the Trojans. Perhaps this is now okay because nobody seriously believes in Zeus anymore.

I think a good parallel might be the astronomers who mine old Chinese (and other cultures) legends for various astronomical sightings and then try to figure out what it was they might have been seeing.

Or the Bayeaux Tapestry and Haley's comet.

Or Amazonian tribal medicines, and using biochemistry to analyze the active molecules.

Or... any number of other historical sources of data which provide hooks for possible discoveries, or just a nice backdrop.


'Tis a pity PZ didn't study the Old Testament with the good Brothers of Hibernia, who taught us willing lads the difference between literally true and factually correct.

In contrast to Galileo et al. the paper in question indeed was hypothetical, as there is no evidence that anything like the exodus ever happened. A disclaimer in that respect may not have avoided the now quite exaggerated reaction, but it would have made the paper less easy to attack.

[Mmm, but what I was meaning to point out (just in case this isn't obvious) is the similarity between the Church in its role of the Doctrine of the Faith and PZ. It seems rather clear that if PZ had the power, he would have banned this paper, and blocked future funding. I doubt that even adding the "hypothetical" would have satisfied him -W]

Myers is good for a laugh occasionally but you can't take anyone too seriously who calls themselves Pee-Wee.

I'm with you on the paper, BTW - wish I'd thought of it first, I had a model that could probably have done it a few years ago. In fact I could have worked out the optimum wind field to achieve the feat, as I had written a model/adjoint pair.

[Ah, excellent - one measure of a good paper is that it provides ideas for further work :-). Incidentally (since we finally have someone commenting on the actual substance) - I did wonder how much value the modelling was adding here, compared to the earlier analytical work -W]

The Heathers were out in force on PZs thread!
My objection to the model remains - it seems to concentrate on the parting of the waters, without addressing how many people could have crossed. It would have been improved if the author was more clear that he was modeling a hypothetical phenomenon rather than a historical event.
The religious motivations of the author or the use that the religious could make of the paper are not things that should have a bearing on whether it gets published or not. There are, unfortunately, some of the Heathers that don't understand that that is a political rather than scientific question.

The 'academic freedom' argument proffered by WC wins the day for me and I'm glad he's raised it. It's one thing for PZ or whomever to say the paper is a bunch of speculative hooey, but quite another to say it should not have been published purely on grounds that it cites to an event described in an historic text from 2,000 B.C. A text, that for whatever reason beyond its authors' control (they're dead), is considered today by some a 'religious doctrine.' That's putting the cart before the horse. The text is the text.

@ Douglas Watts: your date for the "historic text" keeps getting older...

FYI, none of the texts in the OT can be dated reliably to before about the 8th century BCE. It's possible that older stories, legends, history or whatever were incorporated, but the amount of subsequent editing (especially from the 7th to the 5th centuries) makes this inherently somewhat speculative. The historical accuracy of the material takes a sharp downturn once you get as far back as Solomon, for whom there is no supporting evidence, nor is there any good evidence for a single kingdom for him (or David) to have ruled over; the 'house of David' as a reference to the kings of Judah is as far as archaeological support goes. Go further back than that and the disconnect from real history becomes essentially complete.

As for it being "religious doctrine", that's exactly what the authors (or at least the redactors who first put it into a form resembling what we have now, starting no earlier than the late 7th century BCE) intended it to be - see for example 2 Kings 23, noting that the book referred to there is pretty much universally recognized to be the book of Deuteronomy, which comes from the same hand(s) as 2 Kings itself.

Regarding Greek and Egyptian texts, I don't know of anyone who takes the Iliad all that seriously as history, and a lot of Egyptian texts are actually physical inscriptions where we have access to the originals, not just late edited copies of edited copies of unknown source material as with the OT.

By Andrew G. (not verified) on 30 Sep 2010 #permalink

I'm not really sure which 'oughts' we're talking here. I agree that academic freedom is sufficient to knock down the argument that because the paper has a religious hook it ought not to have been published, but I'm not sure that it answers the argument that the paper ought not to have been published purely because it has a religious hook. And I'm not sure really which one PZ is arguing...

Personally I feel it should not have been a publishing priority for a high-profile journal, but even writing this comment is investing more effort in the controversy than I feel it's worth. It's pretty clear imho that the paper was chosen for publication because of the amount of meeja it would generate, and that's a bit distasteful. But even if it's not always quite so brazen, publishing for impact is common practice.

It's certainly not worth two Blog Titans going at each other in the ring, but hey, I guess sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do. And it's got to be good for the old hit counter, right? Just don't forget we need the bread as well as the circuses:)

[Agree with most of that. As G said on my wiki talk page:… -W]

Ouch! Once again PZ's slavering hordes miss the point and slavishly attack anyone who dares criticise their great leader! Even when, as here, you are quite obviously right. Regardless of potential for misuse the modelling that was the actual content of this study was scientifically fine, and PZ's desire to see it not published at all without explicit denial that the story it's derived from ever happened does have amusing parallels to Galileo only being allowed to publish as a thought experiment with explicit denials that it was true.

It really escapes me, why would anybody still read Pharyngula. I am a regular at Plait's Bad Astronomy for example, and PZ is a good friend of his, but whatever that friendship is based on, it can't be PZ's bizarre attitude to "debating" using the internet...nor the very existence of the "slavering hordes"...