Monday, 25 December 2006

Teaser 1

Which of these words is the odd one out?

Bring, Buy, Hide, Seek, Think, Fight


Think about them happening yesterday




The past tense of each of the other words in the list ends with -ought (brought, bought, etc.)

Monday, 18 December 2006

Squadrons of Spirits

It's easy to become over-familiar with Christmas carols. Sometimes we can lose sight of the amazing, aweful fact of the incarnation: that the almighty, infinite and eternal God became a man; in history; in space and time.

That's why it was interesting to sing a relatively unknown hymn yesterday: Behold the great creator makes himself a house of clay, by Thomas Pestel. At one point it meditates on the wonder of the angels at what was happening in Bethlehem:

Squadrons of spirits stood and gazed,
Then down in troops they came.

This conjures up an impressive and powerful picture in a striking way.

Thursday, 14 December 2006

Intelligent Design: Not so Stupid

In October, Professor Steve Jones gave a lecture entitled "Why Intelligent Design is Stupid". His notes have been published on the UCL website.

Several flaws in his arguments were posted by James Miller on the GenevaNet discussion list. I think they are worthy of a wider audience:

1. He persistently and very heavily relies on argumentum ad hominem. Anyone who believes in anything different from him is "stupid" (p.1); they are people who believe in "myths" and "magic" (p.1); they are by implication "book burners" - i.e., fascists with all the baggage that entails - and are guilty of "ignorance, idleness and incuriosity" (p.2). And his opponents' arguments are "cunning"; they use "tricks" (p.2) and so on throughout.

2. He argues ad misericordiam - he appeals to pity. He's speaking from "Darwin's bunker" (p1), using under siege imagery. Science is under "active attack" (p.4). This is to gain sympathy from his audience.

3. Despite his bluster, the shoe of arguing ad ignorantiam is actually on his foot. He argues that creationism must be false because it cannot (to his limited empirical knowledge) be proved true. His argument is in effect, "Of course evolution is true; we know of no better scientific theory."

4. He argues ad novitatem. Evolution is a more modern theory than creationism, so it is more likely to be true than ancient theories.

5. He uses logical non sequiturs. Darwin spent 8 years studying barnacles, so the theory of evolution must be true (p.2). George Bush is open to hearing creationist arguments, so creationism must be false (p.1). Birds and bats and squirrels fly by different methods, therefore they can't have been designed (p.8). (Sailing ships, paddle steamers and screw-driven ships cross the sea by different methods, so by that logic they can't have been designed either.)

6. He indulges in circulus in demonstrando - arguing in circles. Evolution is the only possible scientific explanation for life because (for him) only evolution counts as a scientific theory. Later he argues that there's no need to debate creationism simply because evolution is true and there's no need to debate it (p.4).

7. He commits a clear fallacy of composition. Someone who studies a subject knows more about it that someone who doesn't. Darwin studied biology for years and the creationists didn't. So evolution is more likely to be true than creationism.

8. He converts a conditional premise. If evolution is true, then selective breeding of a species would be possible. Selective breeding is possible, therefore evolution is true. A comparative argument: If fairies live in your garden, there will be dew on the grass in the morning. There was dew on my grass this morning; therefore, fairies live in my garden.

9. He repeatedly begs the question. In response to the ID question, "What use is part of eye?" he simply asserts part of an eye is more use than no eye at all (p.3). No it isn't. An eye that doesn't see is no better than no eye that doesn't see! Later he asserts that the fact a Boeing 747 needed a designer proves nothing because birds can fly more efficiently "without a designer" (p.7).

10. He gives us an ad hoc explanation fallacy. A Boeing 747 could have been created by wind blowing through a hangar long enough to randomly assemble the parts, or it could have been designed and built. That much he admits. (In fact, it was designed and built.) But, Jones says, earth could have been created or evolved by chance; however, the only possibility acceptable to science is a random series of events.

11. He appeals to the gallery - argumentum ad populum. George Bush, boo hiss, is open to creationist arguments. So are Islamic terrorists. So you (his audience) shouldn't be open to such nasty arguments.

12. He employs the No true Scotsman fallacy. No Scotsman puts sugar in his porridge. "But I do," says wee Jimmy from Glasgow.  "Ah, but no true Scotsman puts sugar in his porridge." No scientist believes in creationism. But I have a book written by 50 scientists who do believe in it. Ah, well, no true scientist believes in creationism. Ergo - to believe in creationism means you are not a scientist.

13. He uses one or two red herrings to throw anyone critical of his argument off the scent. Instead of dealing with the question for evolutionism, "What use is part of an eye?" - in other words before eyes evolved, how did one blind creature have an advantage over another blind creature in order to survive the natural selection process? - instead of dealing with that, he throws in a red herring: "Why do we need microscopes if the eye was designed?" (Answer: we don't "need" microscopes - ha ha). A comparative argument: “Why do we need houses if skin was designed?”

14. Finally, there are quite a few straw men wandering around Prof. Jones' notes. For example: questioning evolution, which has never been observed and can never be proved, is equivalent to denying 2 + 2 = 4, which no creationist has ever doubted as far as I'm aware.

Tuesday, 12 December 2006

Benford's Law

Start with a group of numbers - say, the lengths of all the rivers in the UK, the numbers mentioned on the front page of a newspaper, or the populations of villages and towns in England. Then take the first digit of each of these numbers. You would probably assume that each of the digits 1 to 9 would appear with equal frequency in the resulting list. (Although that wasn't true of the three people in my family that I asked about this!)

What actually happens is that the digit 1 occurs much more frequently than the others; in fact about 30% of these initial digits will be 1s. 2 appears less often; and so on, down to 9 which accounts for only about 5% of the numbers.

Even more strangely, perhaps, is that these results are "scale invariant": it doesn't matter what units are used in the initial sample. For example, you would see the same results whether your river lengths were in miles or kilometres, or cubits.

In fact, the expected proportion of numbers starting with the digit n is ln(1 + 1/n) / ln(10). There's a pretty good description of how this formula is derived in Plus magazine

I tried it out on a couple of sets of data. Here are the results for the total amounts of all the transactions in my church's accounts in 2005:

A pretty close fit. Even better when the amounts are converted from pounds to euros:

Another example. Here's the results from the numbers of people in each UK area who declared that there religion was Jedi in the 2001 census:

This effect was apparently first noticed in 1881, but the law is named after Frank Benford who stated it in 1938.

Note that you have to pick your data set correctly. The law doesn't apply for truly random numbers, in which each digit has the same probability of occurring first. Nor does it apply when the data set is highly constrained. For example, if the height of hills is defined to be between 300 and 999 feet then certain initial digits are excluded by definition.

Friday, 8 December 2006

God is Just

I've been reading Born Slaves, a summary of Martin Luther's book, The Bondage of the Will, that he published in 1525. This shortened version is published by Grace Publications Trust.

One of the observations he makes is remarkably topical. Here’s the gist ...

LutherIf you use human reason alone to consider the way God rules the world you have to conclude either that there is no God or that he is unjust. Bad people thrive and the good suffer. As Job says at one point, “Those who provoke God are secure” (Job 12:6).

Psalm 73 also picks up on this theme: “... I envied the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked. They have no struggles; their bodies are healthy and strong. They are free from the burdens common to man; they are not plagued by human ills. ... They say, ‘How can God know? Does the Most High have knowledge?’ This is what the wicked are like — always carefree, they increase in wealth. Surely in vain have I kept my heart pure; in vain have I washed my hands in innocence.”

So, many people deny the existence of God and say everything happens by chance.

The answer is that there is life after this life. Those things that are not punished and repaid here will be punished and repaid there. This life is a preparation for, or, better, a beginning of the life to come.

This issue is debated in every age but is only resolved by believing the gospel as it is found in the Bible.

On that coming day, God will reveal himself as a God who is perfectly and eternally just.