Tuesday, February 08, 2005

Science Tuesday

by Tom Bozzo

Update: Robert Crowther of the Discovery Institute links me as a "Darwinian dogmatist!" What a badge of honor!

It's not often that I see something in the course of surfing the science blogs that I've known about for years, but it happens once in a while. Here is a good explanation of some research in mathematical modeling of hallucinations and related visual cortex phenomena by Sean Carroll at Preposterous Universe. It's cool stuff, go read. The implications of understanding aspects of consciousness purely as emergent phenomena of the connections among neurons are enormous.

I had the good fortune to hear about an earlier state of this line of mathematical neuroscience back in the summer of '94, from Jack Cowan in one of the sessions of the Santa Fe Institute's Complex Systems Summer School. (I confess, I did not seriously grasp the math involved.)

Did I mention that the CSSS was the most fun I had in grad school by a factor of, like, a million? Unfortunately, the application deadline for the 2005 schools has just passed, but some of you out there may still be in the market for 2006. There were a few representatives of the social sciences, and even a law student — now working for a firm in Toronto, must get back in touch — represented in my class. Grad students with research interests in complexity, bug your advisers now!!

Thinking back to CSSS does make me wonder what the f*** possessed the New York Times to give some of its valuable op-ed page space to this "intelligent design" horseshit by Michael Behe. (Bad, bad "MSM"!!*) PZ Myers has a more than adequate takedown at Pharyngula. The Times' timing was rendered additionally infelicitous by this nice post (via DeLong) on the shortcomings of the "design inference" that circulated through portions of the blogiverse just a few days ago.

One long-standing mystery for me in this area has been the appeal to "complexity" as an anti-Darwinian argument. From Behe:
Scientists skeptical of Darwinian claims include many who have no truck with ideas of intelligent design, like those who advocate an idea called complexity theory, which envisions life self-organizing in roughly the same way that a hurricane does, and ones who think organisms in some sense can design themselves
I take it "Darwinian claims" is a straw man. Since much "complexity" modeling involves evolution of systems through pseudorandom mutation and simulated natural selection, which I would naively consider "Darwinian," the simplest explanation must be that the "irreducible complexity" argument prompts enough false inferences of design among the unsophisticated masses to outweigh the burden of being complete nonsense to a small group of eggheads.

* Maybe that was the price of publishing a relatively strong piece on the Bush budget, which while toned down from Web story posted yesterday is as close as Times decorum allows to a chant of "bullshit, bullshit, bullshit..." Wait, did I just use "shit" five times in this post? I apologize to sensitive readers.
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