Not Accurate When Measured

David Berlinski dropped my name into one of his “interviews” on ID the Future. Of course, he manages to get things wrong, even in what appears to be intended as humor.

Of course it helps to be financed by secret Christian oligarchs …

… You’re not serious …

Of course not. If the DI had the kind of money that its critics suppose, do you think I would allow Steve Meyer or Bruce Chapman to appear in public in those frumpy suits of theirs? It’s the opposition that is well-funded. I happen to know that Talk Reason maintains a secret account at Smalto’s in Paris. Word is that Wesley Elsberry has just ordered suiting in a mink-worsted blend …

First stop: consider “If the DI had the kind of money that its critics suppose”. This states that “critics” have gotten this wrong. Since I’m the only critic who is mentioned by name in the passage, one might get the notion that Berlinski believes that I have gotten this wrong. Well, let’s have a look at what I’ve said about Discovery Institute funding.

In its latest come-on for money, the Discovery Institute makes a claim:

Our budget is a fraction of what pro-evolution groups have to spend, and the mainstream media are largely hostile and biased on this issue.

So I thought that I would have a look at the Form 990s for 2003 of the DI and the pro-science 501(3)(c) that engages the DI, the National Center for Science Education.

In 2003, the Discovery Institute reported $4,233,814.00 total revenue, $3,544,031.00 in end-of-year assets, and $2,499,077.00 total expenses. Of those expenses, $338,977.00 went to officers and directors, $627,285.00 went to other salaries and wages, and $122,809.00 went to travel. (In 2002, I noted that the DI could cut its travel budget in half and fund a research study. I’ll note that $60K is the level of funding for some NSF postdoctoral research fellowships.)

For comparison, let’s look at the figures in 2003 for the NCSE.

In 2003, the NCSE reported $659,270.00 total revenue, $540,943.00 in end-of-year assets, and $658,841.00 total expenses. Of those expenses, $122,040.00 went to officers and directors, $230,380.00 went to other salaries and wages, and $16,803.00 went to travel.

The DI is composed of more than just the CRSC , though, I’m sure someone will point out. But the claim that the CRSC is financially at a disadvantage seems bogus to me. First, to make any sense of the claim made at all, one would have to go beyond NCSE’s budget and include groups whose stated purposes are far broader than defending the teaching of evolutionary biology in science classrooms. In that case, the same argument that would be deployed to say that a fraction of the DI’s reported budget is involved in the EvC issue would also apply to any group outside of NCSE that opposes them as well. It’s tough to figure out what might be meant by the vague basket of “pro-evolution groups”, but mostly groups that have something to do with evolutionary biology simply aren’t putting much, if any, effort into combatting antievolutionist outfits like the DI CRSC. That job primarily rests with NCSE, whose budget is, as the official tax documents relate, much less than that of the DI CRSC, contrary to the original claim. Second, the DI CRSC is but one of many antievolution organizations whose malign purposes are backed by big cash flows. Look at Answers in Genesis, who reported total revenues of $9,016,228.00 in 2003. There are many antievolution groups raking it in, but only one NCSE.

So, is David Berlinski claiming that the DI filed fraudulent Form 990s with the IRS, or is it possible that he, once again, is having his mouth run on autopilot about things that he doesn’t actually know anything about?

I’ve already addressed “It’s the opposition that is well-funded” in part above. Let’s move on to “I happen to know that Talk Reason maintains a secret account at Smalto’s in Paris. Word is that Wesley Elsberry has just ordered suiting in a mink-worsted blend.” OK, let’s have a moment of chuckling for the funny. All right, that’s enough. Here, again, Berlinski’s lack of familiarity with facts leads him to a flat-out erroneous claim. Well, two, but I wasn’t counting the non-ordering of the whimsical “mink-worsted blend”. The “Talk Reason” domain is owned and operated, as I understand things, by a rich fellow who happens to be a friend of Mark Perakh. That doesn’t mean that I get a penny from the “Talk Reason” administration, and so far as I know, I have not. I wouldn’t complain if “Talk Reason” decided to keep me in “mink-worsted blends” and other, more practical goodies, but so far they haven’t so much as offered to buy me a beer.

I am associated with the TalkOrigins Archive Foundation (TOAF), a 501(c)(3) organization incorporated in Texas. We don’t have an account, secret or otherwise, at Smalto’s in Paris. We don’t have a secret account. In fact, all of our organizational documents are publicly available on our website. That includes budget and finance information. The TOAF total income after expenses for third quarter 2005, the most recent statement up so far, was $139.32. Yes, the decimal point is in the right place. (If that disturbs any readers, please feel free to make a donation to the TOAF.) If I were leaning toward “mink-worsted blend”, I don’t know whether that would cover the cost of a handkerchief or not. Besides which, I’m sure that rest of the board would not approve that sort of thing as an expense.

Look again at the numbers for the Discovery Institute’s budget in 2003. Over $627K went toward “other salaries and wages”. The DI CSC is well known to provide several Fellows with fellowships. Back in 1999, those were $40K per Fellow per year. Compare that $627K for one budget line of the DI report to the less than $660K total budget in the same year for NCSE. Does NCSE dole out any $40K fellowships? No. Does the TOAF dole out any $40K fellowships? Ya gotta be kidding. By comparison to NCSE and the TOAF, the folks who pay my salary and the folks who pick up the web-hosting tab I run up each year, respectively, the DI is Mr. Moneybags. Come off it, David; that claim of yours is incredible in several different meanings of the word simultaneously. Unless, of course, you want to go with the “The DI lied to the IRS” line I mentioned above, in which case I’ll leave it up to you to explain why they would put in a report that seriously inflated their reported worth.

Update: Here’s another gem from Berlinski…

The ID movement in its attack on Darwinism has simply articulated what many people instinctively feel. Darwin’s theory is plain nuts. It is not supported by the evidence; it has no organizing principles; it is incoherent on its face; it flies against all common experience, and it is poisonous in its implications.

And another thing. It is easy to understand. Anyone can become an evolutionary biologist in an afternoon. Just read a book. Most of them are half illustrations anyway. It’s not like studying mathematics or physics, lot of head splitting stuff there.

Hmm, let’s see, how about this book:

The Genetical Theory of Natural Selection by Ronald A. Fisher, a variorum text of the 1930 and 1958 editions. Rather more equations than illustrations here. And lest someone accuse me of cherry-picking, this book is one of the foundational documents of the entire Modern Synthesis, the body of knowledge that Berlinski would rather mock than learn. It’s probably the most important of the foundational documents of the Modern Synthesis, since it is the one that went the farthest in convincing the mutationists and Mendelians that natural selection and Mendelian genetics were not antithetical concepts. This is also the book that I rarely see ID advocates even acknowledge its existence; I can find one instance of Loennig citing Fisher for the probability that a new allele favored by selection will be lost simply by chance, and another of Bethell citing it in order to quote Waddington making a criticism. But it is curiously absent from bibliographies in William A. Dembski’s books, even though Dembski’s project in The Design Inference is claimed to be rationalizing Fisherian hypothesis testing, and one might have thought that Fisher’s other mathematical pastimes merited some attention, especially when Dembski goes on to babble about the “mathematical underpinnings” of evolutionary biology in later works.

If becoming an evolutionary biologist is so easy, why is it that David Berlinski does not yet rank among people who are knowledgeable of it? Certainly every one of the charges Berlinski levels against even Darwin’s part of evolutionary biology is, as he puts it, “plain nuts”. Natural selection is supported by evidence, including the results of both laboratory and field experiments. We see the evidence of natural selection’s operation when we analyze genetic data; perhaps Berlinski’s afternoon of reading failed to deliver any appreciation of linkage disequilibrium. Natural selection’s basis in the differential propagation of heritable traits in populations is an organizing principle. Is natural selection coherent? Fisher’s book linked above demonstrates the coherence of the concept quite nicely. One of Darwin’s most powerful arguments for natural selection was precisely his analogy of natural selection to the common experience of artificial selection in domestic animals and pigeons. As to “poisonous implications”, it seems to me that that is not a matter of fact here, but rather of some personal interpretations made by Berlinski. It’s no wonder that someone with the varied and multidinous misconceptions of evolutionary biology seen in Berlinski’s writing on the topic would come to some pretty bizarre conclusions about that, but that doesn’t bear upon what actually is the case. I won’t do as ID advocates do and express my disagreement in relativistic terms, as the recently published Discovery Institute Press (DIP) book, Traipsing Into Evolution: Intelligent Design and the Kitzmiller V. Dover Decision, does in saying that Jones’s being mindful of religious implications of ID should have been weighed against religious implications of “Darwinism”. The claim of “poisonous implications” is a subjective viewpoint that is ill-founded.

Wesley R. Elsberry

Falconer. Interdisciplinary researcher: biology and computer science. Data scientist in real estate and econometrics. Blogger. Speaker. Photographer. Husband. Christian. Activist.

10 thoughts on “Not Accurate When Measured

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  • 2006/04/02 at 8:48 am

    When Berlinski says that the opposition is well funded, I wonder if he means all University research projects in biology?

  • 2006/04/02 at 9:30 am

    It’s a little difficult to take that sense of things when only two names are dropped with respect to the opposition: “Talk Reason” and me. If he meant universities, he likely should have named one and someone who is getting large grants for research.

  • 2006/04/02 at 9:43 am

    Berlinski’s actual field of expertise is mathematics, of course, but the man is incomprehensible even when he writes about that.

  • 2006/04/02 at 10:46 am

    “There is, in fact, a good deal of heterodoxy on the margins of the scientific world. You look at Tom van Flandern’s web page and the blog that he’s got up and running, it’s just full of attacks on relativity, reports of forgotten experiments, clever little thought experiments, that sort of thing; and oddly enough, a lot of it is quite plausible. Note what I am not saying. I’m not saying it’s true. Just plausible.”

    No. it’s not plausible: Jason Rosenhause tears into Tom van Flandern’s claim that special and general relativity aren’t used for GPS (they both are) in . It takes a crank to not recognise another crank.

    It’s especially endearing that Berlinski doesn’t admit that ID is especially provoking, for example since it tries to push religious pseudoscience into classrooms, or that he claims The Panda’s Thumb clientele are merely “demanding its right to be heard” (but why specifically on ID, is the immediate question raised).

    He comes over as fitting his characterisations – semiliterate (von Flandern) and lazy (the whole piece).

  • 2006/04/02 at 12:30 pm

    I accept WE’s denial that he is line to accept a mink-worsted blend from Smaltos in Paris. As for Fisher, Haldane and Wright — I have never for a moment suggested that they were intellectually inadequate, and I treasure the summer I spent working my way through Wright’s collected papers. But let’s be serious. These men were mathematical population geneticists, and it is by no means clear that their contributions in any way touched on the fundamental issue of the adequacy of Darwinian thought. I respect and admire Steven Smale as a great mathematician, too, but I would also argue that his work in mathematical economics from a differentiable point of view leaves questions about economics untouched. I’ve expressed my reservations on Talk Reason itself.

  • 2006/04/02 at 1:36 pm

    Berlinski’s a creationist? Ouch! I really enjoyed The Advent of the Algorithm and A Tour of the Calculus saved my life in intro calc. But Darwinian evolution “incoherent”? “Inevitable” seems more like it.

  • 2006/04/02 at 1:40 pm

    David, did you really spend a summer doing something that in the quote above you said could be accomplished in an afternoon? That doesn’t seem to fit well. And what was it that you were “working through”, if not Wright’s mathematics, which in the quote above you imply are absent from evolutionary biology?

    As much as I appreciate the response, I could have hoped for better — like, perhaps, addressing the point that the critics have not gotten the DI’s relative level of funding wrong, and not simply acknowledging that the obviously fantastic and whimsical bit about suits was just that, fantasy.

  • 2006/04/02 at 6:12 pm

    It’s a lot blogging on Berlinski now, and this seems to be as good a place as any to jot down some impressions.

    On there is a discussion on Berlinski’s paper “On the Origins of Life” on the DI website. It’s the second paper in a series of three to come. The goal, in line with DI’s new “critical analysis”, seems to be to attack remaining “origin” gaps in knowledge, and suggest by fiat creationism inside or outside science as demanded. Interestingly, since Berlinski seems to be a PhD in philosophy, the wellknown options of “we don’t know (yet)” aren’t discussed.

    The math of “On the Origins of Life” is criticized on for the usual appeal by handwaving to big numbers. Berlinski’s math skills are further looked at on which recounts a remarkably naive discussion on limits.

    This got me interested in the first paper in Berlinski’s series “On the Origins of the Mind”. I find it remarkable on five accounts.

    The religious treatment comes through clearly. In the beginning Berlinski notes “And yet, the impression remains widespread that whoever is responsible for figuring out the world’s deep things seems to have figured out the human mind as well.” In the end, he recounts a creationist story where a monster with a human head appears and teaches men “like the animals” “all sorts of knowledge”.

    The philosophical treatment goes without further analysis from treating “the idea that human beviour is “the product of evolution”” as “a modest consensus of opinion” to “evolutionary psychology” as a theory of the mind. That seems rather limited for a philosophical study.

    The scientific treatment is remarked upon on at as “Berlinski is particularly enamored of physics, which is highly mathematized and fraught with numbers.” By way of a *frequently employed phrase*, see below, one can see that it comes from an observation in Hubbard and West textbook on differential equations there they observe that “historically, Newton’s spectacular success in describing mechanics by differential equations was a *model for that science should be*”.

    It’s unfortunately a popular philosophical pastime to try to confine the method of science to a specific model. It’s also unclear if it’s doable. After all, we know from Gödel that even rather simple formal systems needs to be indefinitely axiomatised as they are explored. If the result of science is unbounded, the boundedness of the models of it’s methods isn’t immediately obvious. Experience tells us otherwise, different fields use more or less different variants. So far, the method of science is more art than science.

    Furthermore, this is an old model. It’s as bad as saying that science is verified by induction, which is also a very old and nonrelevant model that is often and in vain referred to. Differential equations and inductions are sometimes sufficient for establishing and describing hypotheses, but they are not necessary.

    The mathematical treatment is reminding of the limit treatment. Berlinski, who seems careful when a point that suggest creationism is treated, states that differential equations on one side has “a variable denoting an unknown function; on the other, a description of the rate at which that unknown function is changing at every last moment down to the infinitesimal”. Leaving aside the fact that infinitesimals doesn’t need to be defined to solve such equations (they aren’t real numbers), of course both sides are rates here.

    Berlinski also makes a point of that a differential equation is a local description, but must be solved globally. But global descriptions are used to develop local ones so it’s really a more symmetrical situation. From the global behaviour, he makes a disjunction between causal processes and interdicted “magic” “action at a distance”, thereby implying that a “natural process” and a “magical description” are related.

    Berlinski finishes off this section with an old description of a “well-posed problem” in analysis as physically useful. The fact that the description is really about partial differential equations goes Berlinski by. Not only are ill-posed problems solvable, by regularization for example, but one of his referents, Thom, uses much more common ill-posed ordinary differential equations in his catastrophe theory. Heck, I’ve used them myself, favourable!

    The model treatment is throughly discussed in , there it’s noted that Berlinski likes to misapply models to make a point. Here, he takes the model for reality. “a well-posed differential equation achieves a coordination among quantities that is determined for every last crack and crevice in the manifold of time.” He goes from a particular solution to suggest that the solution is valid for ever, and he goes from the model to suggest that physical quantities are always obeying it.

    And that’s mainly from the 3 first pages of 10 in “On the Origins of the Mind”. I’m already sure it is not fruitful to continue reading…

  • 2006/04/04 at 7:50 am

    WE. I was wrong. I admit it. You are not in line to receive a mink-worsted blend from Smaltos. I spoke with Smalto himself just yesteday and he denies having received the order, although he did say that he would be happy to talk with you about a less expensive polyester blend. It’s your move.

    I have never suggested that the DI’s budget is less than what it is; but I did suggest what is the perfect truth: that in comparison with the resources devoted to promoting Darwinism within the American Scientific establishment, the DI’budget is very small potatoes indeed.

    I disagree with you about Fisher, although I agree that he was extraordinarily clever. Marco Schuztenbeger, who knew him, always referred to Fisher as ‘mon bon maitre.’ I have always regarded Wright as the most penetrating of the classical population geneticists, one reason I spent so much time studying what he wrote. The most penetrating, but God Knows, not the most elegant. The man was a mathematical tank. Nonetheless, I see almost no connection between Wright’s work and the sort of questions that I have raised about Darwinian theories. No, I’ll rephrase: No connection at all. Wright constructed an imaginary vector field between the genome, on the one hand, and the organism, on the other, and busied himself in looking at the properties of that vector field without ever once asking how they were coordinated with any living structures. Not a worthless activity, by any means, but not one calculated to settle any of the questions that I find tormenting. And again: precisely the same thing might be said of Smale’s work in economics — the whole Debreu tradition, in fact. You can look at Smale’s work in economcs, which I had a hand in publishing in the 1970s, tick off all the theorems about equilibria, and still ask very reasonably: economics? Is it even a science? And if so, how come it has so little to say?

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