Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Bio vs Physics...to the death!

I took a few sniffs of this bait today. I think I'll just go ahead and swallow the hook.

The bait: This exchange between PZ Myers, and Tim Minchin on Twitter
(glossary: DBAD is Don't Be a Dick, aka Wheaton's Law, origin 2007. Phil Plait applied it to skeptics in 2010. TAM is The Amazing Meeting, a science, skeptical, and critical thinking conference coming up in Las Vegas in July.)

PZ Myers: Oh, christ. Waffling apologetics. RT @Daniel_Loxton I look back at scientific skepticism's history of DBAD-like appeals: skepticblog.org/2011/06/21/a-p…

PZ Myers: A history of skeptic whining & hesitation isn't even interesting.

Tim Minchin: @pzmyers Oh God, I can't believe I'm going to do this, but: I think the final paragraph - the 1838 quote - is interesting & concise.

PZ Myers: Yes, it shows skeptics have been crying uncle for 173 years. RT @timminchin: I think final para - the 1838 quote - is interesting & concise.

Tim Minchin: @pzmyers Surely the observation that faith / erroneous belief is often bolstered - even defined by - appeals to persecution is a truism.

Tim Minchin: @pzmyers Which isn't to say that you (or I) shouldn't continue with confrontation. Just that it needn't be the only mode.

PZ Myers: waht i've said all along. RT @timminchin: Which isn't 2 say that U (or I) shouldn't cont w/ confrontation. Just it needn't B the only mode.

PZ Myers: If this turns into a battle at TAM, it won't look pretty when they show up with cookies & tea, & we have brass knucks and knives.

PZ Myers: I won't be talking about dicks at TAM -- I plan to antagonize the astronomers instead. Bio vs Physics...to the death!

I'm assuming "the astronomers" PZ refers to would be Phil Plait, the beginning point of the very long article in the original tweet, and perhaps astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson who will also be at TAM 2011 and some others who are astronomers. So basically PZ is taking a swing at my friend, Phil, and people I admire enough to drive a long way to see them, and at me as a physicist? That is some crappie nibbles right there. Power Bait. It does tend to make me want to bite down on that hook and pull that spinning reel right out of PZ Myers pudgy hands. (Atheists are all fat is another topic.)

I've noticed PZ Myers's petulance towards physicists for a long time. It's pathological. I feel sort of bad for him. It's like he had some early childhood experience where he was rejected by a physicist and he took it really personally, as evidenced in this opposition to physicists on greeting cards.

So when I saw all this going down I wanted to express congratulations and support to Phil Plait -- Tim Minchin is taking his side! And there appears to be some kind of upcoming showdown. So I sent him an email.
Just so you know, I'm rooting for you. I met a biologist like PZ Myers at FSU. They can't stand that physics is a solid, hard science and they are just making shit up and rounding it off to try to make it mathematical. You think physicists have some questionable boundary conditions, you should hear some of the shit community ecologists make up -- assume the deer population increases until they consume all the grass in the area of the study. What? They BROWSE! They don't EAT EVERYTHING. They aren't locusts?! They eat a little of this and wander off. To say otherwise is idiotic. Anyway, they get REALLY mad when you point this out to them :) It reminds me of how PZ Myers flies off the handle at physicists for the dumbest things, like holiday greeting cards. Do you remember that? He said physicists had no business being on Valentine cards because they don't know about love.
I became aware of potential for inanity in biology one day in 2006 in Oceanography grad school when I was doing my biology homework and there was a formula for calculating something called the Shannon-Weiner Diversity Index. In the paper we were assigned the formula used the natural log. But in another paper it was log base 10. I looked online and found it with log base 2. I did a spreadsheet using all three choices and went to the professor to see which was right. He said it didn't matter, they use whatever they want. Say WHAT?!
The breaking point for me was when a biologist tried to use hysteresis curves to explain populations of animals and plants. OK, that works for electrons, man. Nobody said you can use that for rabbits and foxes. Step away from the white board!
I don't know why they try so hard to make it numerical. You use math for astrophysics because you don't have any other choice. You can't touch it and smell it and taste it. You have to do transforms on it before you can even hear it and see it. But plants and animals they can tell with their five senses that the system is more complicated than the few items they are quantifying. I can see why they're frustrated to try to describe it using the same language of math. Still, that's no reason for them to be such assholes about it. Some people are just gonna be assholes no matter what. PZ Meyers apparently has some buttons you can push to engage turbo-asshole. That's kind of scary.
So that's my pep-talk for you as you go up against a biologist. He is raging against physics like a frustrated child who isn't allowed to use his dad's power tools. I have no idea how you argue with somebody who is essentially jealous of you. I clearly don't know how -- I got a C in that class. A year later another professor at FSU published a book about fire ants with new data and a paradigm shift that essentially said I was absolutely correct and my professor had been wrong. I kind of enjoyed that :) But I guess you don't have that kind of time.
Good luck!
As I do a bit more research into my jealousy theory I find more and more I'm totally right on the money with this one. I searched PZ Myers's blog for "physicist" and found a lot of rants. Here's damning evidence in a blog complaining that biologists aren't consulted on Sci-Fi movies.
But of course it's all because biology is easy, it isn't a hard science, it doesn't have any math … all ideas that are completely false, but perpetrated on science-fiction convention panels as willfully and as routinely as you'll find in creationist tent revivals.
Aww! That's not right! It's exactly what I said, but it doesn't HAVE to be! I have immense respect for biology and ecology and their respective ists when they have a proper grasp of what they're doing. Biology is NOT easy. If some biologists went into it because they weren't smart enough for physics then they are just doomed. I think biologists do themselves a disservice to try to copy physics teaching methods. They should come up with their own way of explaining things. My friend Dr. Means doesn't get all worked up trying to make up equations to describe what he observes. He goes out and does his field research and observes the big picture and sets up experiments to find out answers to specific questions. Will water moccasins chase you? People say they will. So he went out and got some to chase him. But they only came towards him when he was between them and the place they wanted to go -- the water. They would go right between his legs to get to the water. If he had run in that direction it would appear they were chasing him. But if he was on the landward side they would go away from him. He had his wife film it. I trust that he did this enough times to really convince himself in an objective fashion. Because he is, after all, an objective scientist. I don't really have to see a spreadsheet with distances and number of occurrences and a chart to prove it. I'm sure he took field notes describing each incident. That's good for me.

Another friend of mine, Joe Hutto, wrote a wonderful book about ecology in the context of raising a flock of wild turkeys. His book had hand-drawn illustrations in it, not charts, but it taught me more about the woods where I lived than anything we did in that stupid community ecology class. I thought a lot about my own observations while I was editing Dr. Means book about rattlesnakes. Since I moved back to Beachton in 2004 I had only seen one rattlesnake. When I was a kid we saw them all the time. I had proof in Dr. Means data -- back in the 1970s when we saw a rattlesnake we'd kill it and take it to him to dissect. Dr. Means did a recent paper showing the decline of rattlesnakes due to rattlesnake round-ups. Did ours go away too? We don't let people hunt them on our place though. And there are so many more gophers than when I was little. There should be more rattlesnakes too. But after reading Joe's book about the turkeys I realized the big difference was that when I was a kid I had a dog. I didn't find rattlesnakes, the dog did. Joe was astonished by how many rattlesnakes those turkeys found. My casual observation is no way to judge the population of snakes on my place when they evolved to hide very effectively. When it comes to natural things you can't just do dimensional analysis and get the answer. If I want to know something about biology I have to work a lot harder.

I used to take biology for granted because of the way I grew up. I assumed everybody who grew up in the woods understood how vastly complicated and interconnected everything is. One day I went to a lecture Dr. Means gave in Tallahassee about discovering a new kind of frog in the cloud forests of Guyana. The native people there seem to be destroying their own environment. I asked him why they don't realize they are upsetting the balance. He looked at me with this "oh you poor thing" expression and explained. "Barbara, you don't even realize how educated you are. Not everybody has your grandmother. She had to make a deliberate study of science to learn the things she taught you. Science is not obvious to people, they have to be taught to think the way you do."

Well however my grandmother managed to teach me about biology without me realizing it, she did a good job of making it clear that there is always more to be learned especially since nature is constantly changing. She never once implied there was anything easy about the squishy sciences. I think I probably steered clear of it in college because I did find it so endless. How would you know when you were finished? With physics you design a circuit, you solder it together, and it works. You're done. That seemed like something I could do in four years. I feel sorry for PZ Myers and my biology teacher at FSU who feel like they are held in lower esteem than people in the hard sciences. It kind of makes sense why PZ Myers has so much fun attacking other people that he holds in low esteem, like Deepak Chopra. I'm not sure if he really wants to attack Phil Plait like he does Deepak Chopra, but if he does then I assume it's for a different reason. Of course I could be totally wrong and it could be the exact same reason, but my own self-esteem keeps me from wrapping my head around that.

Phil assures me that PZ said "Bio vs Physics...to the death!" in jest. Well sure, I think he's going for laughs all the time, he says so.

PZ Myers: They're funny. You're not, gloomy gus. RT @Sk1mble: I can't help but notice you give more RT to woo-meisters than to rationalists. Sadface.

I realize he thinks he's being funny. That's why I cut him slack and keep reading his stuff from time to time to stay aware of his activities. I also realize Michio Kaku doesn't mean to sound like a total douchebag on Twitter so I keep following him too. As a person with terrible social skills I'm prepared to be liberal with people who have evidence of intelligence. I wouldn't get far in engineering without being friends with assholes.

That kind of makes me wonder, how do the people mentioned in this blog stack up based on Twitter popularity? A physicist, a biologist, an astronomer,  an astrophysicist, and a comic musician?
I think the Don't Be a Dick and genuinely funny contingent is well represented. That's comforting.

Update: After I posted this I realized I left off the originator of Don't Be a Dick. It's good contrast to see the two charts together to grasp the order of magnitude situation. Yeah, I think Phil Plait picked the right team in this contest.

If I included another person nagged by the religious nuts for being a fat atheist I could really make this look bad. Stephen Fry has 2,749,955 followers on Twitter.  

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