I am . . . MathGrrl!
Okay, so some people have cooler secret identities.
Before I begin the story of MathGrrl, I must confess a dirty little secret. At least three or four times a week, while enjoying my morning coffee, I peruse the headlines at Uncommon Descent, Bill Dembski's Intelligent Design Creationism blog. My ostensible reasons are to keep an eye out for flare ups like those that led to Kitzmiller v. Dover, but often I just get a chuckle from the inane antics of the regulars there.
Back in September of 2010 I made the mistake of actually reading an article by Sal Cordova. Sal's attempt to take advantage of a tragedy to make political hay was pathetic, but still evil enough to inspire me to reply.
Having already experienced the heavy handed moderation at Uncommon Descent, I knew that any pseudonym that made a point of disagreeing with the UD regulars was likely to be banned on one pretext or another in short order. Out of curiosity, I decided to create a female persona to see if the primarily right wing, religiously conservative, male population of the UD inner circle would be less threatened by a woman.
MathGrrl was born.
MathGrrl made it through her first few months on UD by keeping her head down after the initial challenge to Sal Cordova and focusing only on technical questions, particularly around genetic algorithms. Her participation increased for a time when gpuccio commented on yet another thread about Dawkins' Weasel. (of which I've written enough here and here). This led to a long and interesting discussion that ultimately ended up on Mark Frank's blog.
This was the first significant discussion that MathGrrl was involved in about Dembski's concept of Complex Specified Information (CSI). Unfortunately, gpuccio bowed out of the discussion just when it looked like we might be getting to the point of actually being able to calculate it.
CSI reared its head again on UD in February of this year. CSI is an essential concept to Intelligent Design Creationists. IDC proponents claim that CSI is a unique indicator of the involvement of intelligent agency. MathGrrl tried her best in that thread to get a rigorous mathematical definition of the concept and some example calculations. My hope at the time was that I would get sufficient details to be able to calculate it and show that genetic algorithms and other evolutionary simulations could easily generate CSI.
It was not to be. That thread was the first that demonstrated how even IDC proponents couldn't agree on a definition and how no one, including Dembski, had ever actually calculated CSI for a real world biological system. Naturally, that didn't stop those same proponents from continuing to repeat their claims.
Comments on that thread were closed before any definitions or calculations were provided.
Where Angels Fear To Tread
Somewhat frustrated, I Googled the author of the original post, chased down an email address for him, and asked if he would create a new thread for that topic:
I hope one of these email addresses still works. I've been participating on a thread that you started at UD:
Comments have been closed there, but the discussion itself still has legs, in my opinion. One particularly interesting post was #283 from vjtorley. He calculated the CSI generated by a gene duplication event, using Dembski's description in "Specification: The Pattern That Signifies Intelligence" and concluded that known evolutionary mechanisms can, in fact, generate CSI.
Following up on that, CJYman agreed. Other ID proponents did not.
Given the level of controversy, I would like to suggest that the topic deserves its own thread on UD. My interest in this is that, as I said on that thread, I would like to understand how to calculate CSI in enough detail that I can test the ID claim that it is a reliable metric for identifying intelligent agency.
It seems to me that a thread dedicated to examples of how to compute CSI for both real world biological systems and digital simulations would be a useful resource for UD. I hope you will consider creating it.
Jonathan quickly replied:
Hello, Math Grrl!
Thanks for your email. I will see what I have time for, but the topic is really getting outside of my area of expertise. I am a biologist; not a mathematician (I suspect, going by your screen name, that this is more your field than mine).
Would you like me to forward the details of your request to Bill Dembski and see if he is interested in corresponding with you?
How did you acquire my email address, by the way?
MathGrrl . . . um, I mean I responded that I'd be delighted if he would raise the issue with Dembski. I was looking forward to getting an answer right from the horse's mouth.
Going To The Show
Instead of a post by Dembski, I received an email from Denyse O'Leary:
Friend Jonathan M told me of your interest in CSI, and the list managers were wondering if you would like to put up a guest author post to ask your questions.
If you would like that, let me know and I will promote you to author for the purpose. I believe I can do it by checking a box.
My recommendation would be about 800 words; of course, if you need more, fine. But you may get the best results in comments at that length.
I look forward to hearing from you.
MathGrrl was going to the show!
Like secret identities, some shows are cooler than others.
Her Finest Hour
On The Calculation Of CSI appeared on Uncommon Descent on March 25th.
CSI is one of the very few concepts of Intelligent Design Creationism that is potentially testable. It was first described by Dembski in The Design Inference: Eliminating Chance Through Small Probabilities (Cambridge University Press, 1998), and further expanded upon in No Free Lunch: Why Specified Complexity Cannot Be Purchased without Intelligence (Rowan & Littlefield, 2001) and Specification: The Pattern That Signifies Intelligence. Dembski states that "By contrast, to employ specified complexity to infer design is to take the view that objects, even if nothing is known about how they arose, can exhibit features that reliably signal the action of an intelligent cause." This is truly a bold claim.
The problem for Dembski and the other Intelligent Design Creationists is that "bold" is not equivalent to "true" or even to "coherent". By April 9th there were 437 comments, but no mathematically rigorous definition of CSI, as described by Dembski, nor any example calculations for the four scenarios I described.
To be fair, vjtorley (of whom more later) had previously attempted to interpret Dembski's prose and calculate CSI for a gene duplication event. He came to the conclusion that known evolutionary mechanisms could, in fact, generate CSI. In a later thread he rather transparently attempted to modify his calculation to avoid this embarrassing result and ultimately resorted to attempting to explain why it is unreasonable to expect to be able to calculate CSI at all.
If MathGrrl accomplished anything at Uncommon Descent, this was it. The comments following her guest post clearly demonstrate that no IDC proponent at UD is capable of even defining CSI mathematically, let alone calculating it for any real world system. Even more amusing is the fact that those proponents couldn't even agree among themselves about the concept.
Writing on blogs is almost exactly like shooting down enemy bombers.
Two results of that discussion bemuse me the most. The first is that, despite not being able to define or calculate their metric, the IDC proponents continue to insist that it is a clear and unique indicator of intelligent agency. The second is that, again despite never addressing the questions raised by MathGrrl in the original post, several IDCists repeatedly claimed to have done so. When asked for links to the answers they claimed to have produced, these IDCists either referred to comments that didn't actually contain such answers or simply resorted to insulting those requesting the links.
This thread is more than sufficient evidence that CSI is as scientifically vacuous as the rest of Intelligent Design Creationism and that its proponents are either profoundly intellectually dishonest or grossly deluded by their religious beliefs.
It's interesting to note that, while Dembski was active on UD during these discussions, he very carefully avoided any thread that was discussing CSI. One might think it odd that he would ignore both email from JonathanM and the considerable activity on his blog. Well, if one were unaware of how he ran away from the Dover trial, that is.
MathGrrl's demise began with poor security hygiene on my part. It was a sloppy mistake. I document it here in the hope it will save the life of even one innocent pseudonym.
Throughout the MathGrrl saga, Mark Frank has generously created threads on his blog to continue discussions that, for whatever reason, had stopped on Uncommon Descent. I had a browser window open there and posted a couple of messages as MathGrrl. Unfortunately, I had previously been on another WordPress site, logged in under my real name. I didn't notice that the commenter name had changed until I saw my messages. Mark very kindly removed them as soon as he was able, but the damage was done.
Nearly a month to the day after my error, vjtorley guessed my name in a post on Uncommon Descent. I hope for his sake that helps re-establish his bona fides with his tribe after that embarrassing "Hmm, looks like natural processes can create CSI!" lapse.
While I feel foolish for making the rookie mistake that allowed this to happen, the blatent hypocrisy demonstrated by many IDCists on that thread provides some compensation. kairosfocus, in particular, has very strong views about how unethical it is to even post on a site where someone "outs" a pseudonym, unless of course it's one of his fellow travelers doing the outing.
While I created the MathGrrl pseudonym to test my hypothesis that female participants would be less likely to run afoul of Uncommon Descent's moderators, what I didn't expect was for the female persona to affect how I wrote. In fact, I believe it did. I modeled MathGrrl's responses on how I've seen women I respect deal with obnoxious men and male dominated environments (any mistakes I made in that regard reflect my cluelessness, not theirs). If nothing else, asking myself "How would MathGrrl respond?" made me pause before replying. That, in turn, gave me enough perspective to laugh at and ignore much of the baiting and explicit insults from the "gentlemen" of Uncommon Descent.
In addition to trying to write
in a more feminine style as less
of an aggressive dick, I found myself creating a backstory for
MathGrrl. She needed to be able to single-mindedly focus on the
questions she wanted answered, so I thought of her as a science and
math geek. I needed breaks from the discussion for work reasons, so I
made MathGrrl a student with exams and homework demands. Just to
tweak the noses of the fundamentalists on UD, I made her a meditating
worshipper of the divine feminine. The more details I filled in, the
easier it was to drop into character and find MathGrrl's voice.
This was going to be a picture of me getting in touch with my feminine side,
but the animal testing showed that was a bad idea.
I have followed the Intelligent Design Creationism movement since before the Dover trial, so I was well aware that IDCists lack a scientific hypothesis or any evidence for their claims and that IDCism makes no testable predictions. What I was surprised to learn was just how little IDCists know or care about the actual practice of science and how willing they are to out and out lie in defense of their position.
These two characteristics were clearly and unambiguously demonstrated during the CSI discussion. A scientist or mathematician would simply not make claims like "CSI is a unique identifier of intelligent agency" without carefully defining his or her terms and providing detailed calculations to support the statement. The IDCists on Uncommon Descent not only make such baseless assertions routinely, they seem shocked that anyone would actually ask them to show their work. Several even suggested that asking for a mathematically rigorous definition was a mere rhetorical tactic. MathGrrl was never able to get them to understand that, in the absence of a rigorous definition, their claims were quite literally nonsensical.
When pressed to support their claims, MathGrrl's interlocutors threw up a thick smokescreen of acronyms, links to videos, uncited quotations, insults, tangential topics, references to unrelated research, and spurious equations, none of which actually provided a mathematical definition of CSI as described by Dembski nor detailed example calculations. At one point an interesting tipping point was reached where, instead of dumping more red herrings into the thread, the IDCists started to claim to have already answered MathGrrl's questions. When pressed, none could provide a link to where this was done. When pressed even harder, comments that were clearly not responsive were referenced, even after their lack of applicability was pointed out. Despite the objective, easily verifiable facts, the claim took on a life of its own.
Richard Dawkins famously said of anyone who didn't accept modern evolutionary theory "that person is ignorant, stupid or insane (or wicked, but I'd rather not consider that)." There is scientific ignorance aplenty among the IDCists and more than enough delusional thinking that may or may not approach insanity. I'm afraid I'm not as charitable as Dr. Dawkins; I must conclude, based on MathGrrl's experience, that some of the IDCists at Uncommon Descent have been provided with more than enough information to know better and are simply intellectually dishonest.
As mentioned above, Mark Frank has been very generous to MathGrrl on his blog, throughout her tenure at Uncommon Descent. He even removed the two posts made solely due to my mistake, at my request. I shouldn't have asked him to do that. Mark, I apologize publicly for asking you to help preserve MathGrrl's pseudonymity. I should have simply raised my hand and admitted my mistake then. I also apologize if I misled you in any way by my actions.
I extend that second apology to Seversky, Flint, Rose, Zachriel, Reciprocating Bill, Petrushka, Toronto, Alan Fox, and any other members of the reality-based community who feel that my choice to use the MathGrrl persona was in any way disrespectful to them.
Finally, I apologize to the people who sent MathGrrl notes confessing their deep affection, invitations for dates, and proposals of marriage. You know how to make a girl feel good, in a "I'm glad I'm not real" kind of way.
I was raised to be polite, which forces me to consider apologizing to the denizens of Uncommon Descent. However, with the exception of Mrs. O'Leary, who was unfailingly charming in our email exchanges, and Atom, who had not been involved in the discussions but chose to publicly distance himself from vjtorley's actions, there isn't a person there I'd be interested in even having a beer with. Given that, I have to ask myself, to whom should I apologize? Those who claim to be practicing science but refuse to support their claims? Those who continue to lie in the face of clear evidence of their mendacity? Those who quote mine and try to defend their dishonesty? Those who support pseudonymity "for me but not for thee"? Those who are trying so desperately to misappropriate the respect earned by science for their own undeserving religious beliefs? Those who are all too ready to clutch their pearls at some imagined etiquette transgression while hypocritically behaving unbelievably rudely themselves? Those who arrogantly mock what they clearly don't understand? Those willing to censor their opponents rather than address their arguments? Those misogynists who ignore arguments, replying instead "Go away, little girl"? Those who remain willfully ignorant despite the myriad educational resources available to them? Those who deliberately build an insular community to support these behaviors?
No, these people do not deserve an apology. While most supporters of Intelligent Design Creationism are simply parroting what they hear while sitting in their pews, the IDC proponents at Uncommon Descent have chosen to actively proselytize. Despite the disingenuous ways in which they engage with people knowledgeable about science, they can't help but be exposed to the deep flaws in their own arguments. They cannot claim ignorance. That leaves stupidity, insanity, or wickedness. I find that the evidence supports a combination of all three.
The Intelligent Design Creationists are attempting to destroy science education in this country. They must, and will, be prevented from doing so.
Into The Sunset
Being MathGrrl was interesting and parts of the experience were educational, but I'm putting away my virtual makeup and costumes, quite probably for good. If I'm going to invest that much effort in creating a character in the future, I'll write some fiction.
You didn't think MathGrrl would ride a horse, did you?
I'm also done posting on Uncommon Descent. Participating in a forum as heavily and arbitrarily moderated as UD is amusing when the goal is to see if misogyny can be turned against itself, but ultimately it grants moral sanction to an offensively unethical practice. While the owners of UD certainly have the right to ban people, or moderate them into oblivion, simply for disagreeing with Intelligent Design Creationism, actually doing so demonstrates a deep character flaw. Free speech is important, and you either support it or you don't. The Uncommon Descent owners don't.
There is also an optimistic reason why I'll no longer post on UD: They're irrelevant. Uncommon Descent is the only forum where anyone even pretends that Intelligent Design Creationism is remotely scientific. Everyone else, including the supporters in the pews, realizes that it's just the latest incarnation of creationism tarted up in an attempt to get past that pesky separation of church and state. Even at UD, the costume lab coat is wearing thin, with the religious biases of the IDCists clearly on display. We definitely need to be vigilant to prevent religion from being taught in science classes, but if no IDC opponents posted at UD for a few weeks, it would quickly wither from lack of anything to discuss.
Instead, I'll be lurking at After the Bar Closes, the discussion group of The Panda's Thumb dedicated to mocking Uncommon Descent. Everyone deserves some initial courtesy, but when it becomes clear that they are not interested in evidence or logic the only appropriate response to cranks is to point and laugh. The Intelligent Design Creationists of Uncommon Descent have earned that response.
If any Uncommon Descent regular thinks that he or she can answer the questions MathGrrl raised in her guest post, or can make any other positive, scientific argument for Intelligent Design Creationism, I will be happy to engage in a discussion in a neutral, unmoderated venue. I suggest the talk.origins Usenet newsgroup which I read somewhat infrequently. Drop me an email and I'll meet you there. Just to give you fair warning, though, I'm nowhere near as nice as MathGrrl.