Monday, 10 October 2016

Inference? What Inference?

From the railway station in the distance came the sound of shunting trains, ringing and rumbling, softened almost into melody by the distance.


I was curious, after listening to his appearance on Unbelievable, as to whether Luke Barnes would advertise it.  I wrote in Come on out, Luke!  Just admit it! about how I think that he should just come clean about being a theist (a Christian theist at that).  Earlier, in Luke Barnes Exposed, I wrote about how Barnes had stumbled in his interview with Luke Muehlhauser and basically admitted to being a theist and how his recent book basically confirms it (so it's a bit strange how he is so coy with Justin Brierley, but I guess he's got into the habit of maintaining the illusion of plausible deniability).  What I further noted was that the strange fact that Barnes doesn't mention his appearance on the Pale Blue Dot podcast, a fact that I ascribed to his stumbling admission to theism during that discussion.

So, I wondered, would he advertise, on his blog Letters to Nature, his appearance on Unbelievable in which he as introduced as a christian (twice)?

The answer is no.  No mention of it at all.  No mention of it coming up (despite it being recorded a week before being published) and no mention of it having happened (at time of writing, in the middle of week following).

I did notice, however, that Luke has written a piece on Sean Carroll's new book, The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself.  Interesting, I thought, since Justin Brierley suggested that Carroll would be invited onto Unbelievable later in the year to go head to head with Barnes.  What a fortunate co-incidence!  (Note that while the episode was taped before Barnes' post went up, presumably the piece was written before, even though that too went up online the same day that Barnes posted about it, and Brierley may well have been oblivious.)

So, was this to be another arxiv paper, like his attack on Stenger?  No, this time it was going to be published by Inference: International Review of Science.

It was at this point that faint alarm bells started going off and I felt a jolt of adrenaline, that frisson that one feels at the beginning of a hunt.  Something wasn't quite right about this.  What was this journal that I had never heard of before?  And why does the word "inference" shoot up warnings for me?  And why does Barnes hasten to say that he did not choose the title?  Ah, it's called Good God!  Not a good start.

So I wandered over and looked at the About page (linked above).  Hm, interesting:

Although the editors have every intention of appealing to experts for advice, Inference is not a peer-reviewed journal.

We have no ideological, political, or religious agendas whatsoever.

So, it's a review, and/or a journal, but not a peer-reviewed journal.  And methinks they do protest too much (with questionable grammar) about their lack of agenda.  Why do they need to protest at all?  Taking a look at another open access on-line only journal (albeit peer reviewed), Science Advances (from AAAS), there's no mention of ideology, theology or agenda.  The word "ideology" does appear on their Statement on Scientific Transparency, Disclosure, and Responsibility, but in the context of unwelcome politicised and ideology-based intrusions into science.  There seems to be no need to declare that they are free of agenda.  Perhaps the intent, by the editors of Inference, is to imply that other journals are not free of agenda.

That word, "inference".  It still bothers me.

So, who are these people?  These editors who took Barnes' words and placed it below their own rubric, Good God!?  And who else has been published in this august journal?

Scanning down the list of editors, one name leaps out.  Contributing Editor, David Berlinski.  Early in the life of this journal, Jeffrey Shallit expressed misgivings about the Berlinski name appearing in the twitter feed associated with a new science journal, Mischa and Claire, and intuited that their father David was somehow involved (despite there not being any details of the editorial board available at that time).

So, Berlinski is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute and a contributing editor to the journal that Barnes decides as the vehicle for his review of Sean Carroll's new book.  Interesting.  What about other authors?  There's Michael Denton, of course, another senior fellow from the Discovery Institute.  Then there's Arthur Cody, about whom I could find very little, but who wrote a piece against materialism.  And Tyler Hampton … tennis coach?  The apologist's go-to man for the BGV, Vilenkin, is there, writing about the beginning of the universe.  Interesting indeed.

It can't be said that every single article has intelligent design leanings, but … it's still an interesting choice by Barnes.  We have more information to work with though.  Barne's highlighted three articles that he noted as contributing to his decision.  There was Vilenkin's article as mentioned above and what appears to be a perfectly normal article by Jean-Pierre Luminet on the notion of a Holographic Universe.

There's also a reference to an article by Gregory Chaitin, although it's unclear which one since he's written for Inference three times - I could point at An Algorithmic God, but it's possible that Chaitin did not choose the name and it's not the most recent article by him published at Inference.  The most recent is Doing Mathematics Differently which starts with two quotes from Leibniz.  Both are from Philosophical Essays, but they are strangely out of order and one is a fragment:

And if someone traced a continuous line which is sometimes straight, sometimes circular, and sometimes of another nature, it is possible to find a notion, or rule, or equation common to all the points of this line, in virtue of which these very changes must occur. For example, there is no face whose contours are not part of a geometric line and cannot be traced in one stroke by a certain regular movement. But, when a rule is extremely complex, what is in conformity with it passes for irregular.
Thus, one can say, in whatever manner God might have created the world, it would always have been regular and in accordance with a certain general order. But God has chosen the most perfect world, that is, the one which is at the same time the simplest in hypotheses and the richest in phenomena, as might be a line in geometry whose construction is easy and whose properties and effects are extremely remarkable and widespread. I use these comparisons to sketch an imperfect likeness of divine Wisdom and to point out something that can at least elevate our minds to conceive in some way what cannot be sufficiently expressed. But I do not claim to explain in this way the great mystery upon which the entire universe depends.


Then there are the contents of the issue of Inference that sit alongside Barnes' piece.  Two are notable.

First there's a "Critical Essay" by David Berlinski & Juan Uriagereka, The Recovery of Case.

This initially appeals to the linguist and grammarian in me, especially as a person who continues to use the words "that" and "which", both of which are often dropped in modern English and are thus easily confused.  However, I noted an odd slide towards the end, when their examples stopped being so quirky and quaintly awkward and took on a different flavour.  Regarding the awkwardness, the authors provide an example of a complementiser in the sentence "Trottweiler prefers for Agnes to keep quiet" instead of the more natural sounding "Trottweiller prefers that Agnes keep quiet".  The thing here is (that) for isn't a complementiser in the example, it's a preposition and it seems to have been backwards engineered into a sentence which just seems wrong.  The preposition for is the only one associated with the noun "preference".  I think a far better example of for, as a complementizer, would be in a sentence where for is used instead of because, "we all sang him a nice song for he's a jolly good fellow" but even then, it would be less awkward to simply use because.

The last two examples in the article aren't as quirky, instead they dip into the bible, there's something there about Sampson and Delilah and then one about Cain and Able.   That's not the main issue though.  The main issue is hidden at the end of the third last paragraph where the authors ask "if human beings are notable in their possession of Universal Grammar, what explains the acquisition of Universal Grammar by the human species?"

Michael Denton has an answer - it's not evolution (posted at a Discovery Institute web-site, although that might not be immediately obvious, you have to go to the bottom of the right hand bar to see their logo).  So, despite a promising start, this is merely an attempt to promote intelligent design.  No surprises there given that it's co-written by a senior fellow of the Design Institute.

Then there is an "Experimental Review" by James Tour, Two Experiments in Abiogenesis:

James Tour is a synthetic organic chemist who is notable for being a "scientific dissenter from Darwinism" and who signed a petition to that effect for the Discovery Institute.  It's interesting that he should be deployed to comment on a couple of experiments with implications with regard to abiogenesis.

What I am not suggesting is that Inference is a journal that is literally awash in Intelligent Design propaganda (by which I mean metaphorically awash).  Not at all.  What I am suggesting is that Inference is a journal that acts as a platform on which high-brow Intelligent Design propaganda can sit side by side with mainstream science.  Another journal which is peer-reviewed, and does not have an editorial board that includes a senior fellow of the Discovery Institute, would be reluctant to publish the propaganda, but Inference seems to have no problems with publishing mainstream stuff that comes their way - because it aids their cause.

So, that word - inference - what was bothering me about it?  Two things really.  There's the common apologetic claim that they are using "inference to the best explanation", which sounds all scientific, except that it tends to stop at the first step (rather than going on to attempt falsification, prediction or hypothesis testing).  But inference in itself isn't a bad thing.  We all make inferences pretty much all the time.

I think what bothered me slightly and now bothers me somewhat more is the initially tenuous link to the Design Inference, a book by William Dembski - formally of, you guessed it, the Discovery Institute.  (His retirement from the institute and the ID community was only announced a couple of weeks ago, but his work on an ID book implies that he is not entirely retired.)

In earlier articles, I have written about Barnes' and his Templeton temptation.  That's bad enough, so I do hope that we are not about to see him fall into even worse company with the ID crowd.  There are plenty of other journals out there that Barnes could have sought out for publication.  Why did he choose this one?

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