Archive for Alan Sokal

soft atheism

Posted in Books, Kids with tags , , , , , , on May 21, 2014 by xi'an

New YorkA few weeks ago, I reported reading a dismal New York Times blog entry on atheism. The Stone has continued publishing entries on the topic of religions and atheism, with mostly poor tribunes (maybe because the interviews were with philosophers from various religious stands rather than philosophers of religion). The third one on deconstructing religion almost sounds like a joke  made by a follower of Sokal and Bricmont!

“Religion at its best (…) focuses on human problems, attempting to relieve want and misery, to provide opportunities for worthwhile life, and to deepen and extend important values.”

The sixth in the series is however more interesting, with an interview of Philip Kitcher, professor at Columbia. It is entitled the case of soft atheism and defends a separation between religious doctrines that are incredible (as a non-native speaker [and as an unbeliever], I am surprised by this use of incredible and would have instead used unbelievable) and religious commitment that the author sees as a mild form of humanism. This “refined religion” puts value on people without referring to a specific ritual or doctrine. I find the arguments of Kitcher quite interesting, even though they seem to stray from philosophy towards sociology, i.e. about why religion is an important social vector that may bring cohesion and inclusion in this soft version. As exemplified in the above quote. This is somewhat representative of the whole series, that again I find lacking in philosophical depth. (I also think Kitcher’s `refined religion’ is not very representative of the current conglomerate of religious believers. Who stick to their own doctrine as the only expression of truth.)

les sciences face aux créationnismes [book review]

Posted in Books with tags , , , , , , on March 9, 2014 by xi'an

I spotted this small book during my last visit to CBGP in Montpellier, and borrowed it from the local librarian. It is written (in French) by Guillaume Lecointre, who is professor of Biology at the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle in Paris, specialised in population evolution and philogenies. The book is published by Editions Quae, a scientific editor supported by four founding French institutes (CIRAD, IFREMER, INRA and IRSTEA), hence no wonder I would spot it in an INRA lab. The theme of the book is not to argue against creationism and intelligent design theories, but rather to analyse how the debates between scientists—interestingly this term scientist sounds much more like a cult in English than the French noun scientifique— and creationists are conducted and to suggest how they should be conducted. While there are redundancies in the text, I found the overall argumentation quite convincing, with the driving lines that creationists are bypassing the rules of scientific investigation and exchange to bring the debate at a philosophical or ideological level foreign to science definition. Lecointre deconstructs the elements put forward in such debates, from replacing the incompleteness of the scientific knowledge and the temporary nature of scientific theories with a total relativism, to engaging scientific supporters from scientific fields not directly related with the theory of evolution, to confusing methodological materialism with philosophical materialism and more fundamentally to imply that science and scientific theories must have a moral or ideological content, and to posturing as anti-establishment and anti-dogmatic free minds… I also liked the points that (a) what really drives the proponents of intelligent design is a refusal of randomness in the evolution, without any global or cosmic purpose; (b) scientists are very ill-prepared to debate with creationists, because the later do not follow a scientific reasoning; (c) journalists are most often contributing to the confusion by picking out-of-their-field “experts” and encouraging the relativity argument. Hence a reasonable recommendation to abstain from oral debates and to stick to pointing out the complete absence of scientific methodology in creationists’ arguments. (Obviously, readers of Alan Sokal’s Beyond the Hoax will be familiar most of the arguments produced in les sciences face aux créationnismes.)

Randomness through computation

Posted in Books, Statistics, University life with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 22, 2011 by xi'an

A few months ago, I received a puzzling advertising for this book, Randomness through Computation, and I eventually ordered it, despite getting a rather negative impression from reading the chapter written by Tomasso Toffoli… The book as a whole is definitely perplexing (even when correcting for this initial bias) and I would not recommend it to readers interested in simulation, in computational statistics or even in the philosophy of randomness. My overall feeling is indeed that, while there are genuinely informative and innovative chapters in this book, some chapters read more like newspeak than scientific material (mixing the Second Law of Thermodynamics, Gödel’s incompleteness theorem, quantum physics, and NP completeness within the same sentence) and do not provide a useful entry on the issue of randomness. Hence, the book is not contributing in a significant manner to my understanding of the notion. (This post also appeared on the Statistics Forum.) Continue reading

Missing reference in Monte Carlo Statistical Methods

Posted in Books, R, Statistics with tags , , , , on January 16, 2011 by xi'an

A few days ago, Peng Yu sent me this email

Dear Prof. Robert,

The citation Edwards and Sokal (1988) appears on page 326 of your book MCSM2. However, I don’t find in in the Reference section (it would have appear on page 601 if it is in the reference section).

I don’t find this error in the errata. Could you please fix it in the errata? Thank you!

This is indeed a missing reference in the book! I just checked and Edwards and Sokal (1988) is inded not given via a bibtex reference. The correct reference is

Robert G. Edwards and Alan D. Sokal Generalization of the Fortuin-Kasteleyn-Swendsen-Wang representation and Monte Carlo algorithm. Phys. Rev. D 38, 2009–2012 (1988)

or in BibTeX format

  title = {Generalization of the Fortuin-Kasteleyn-Swendsen-Wang representation 
              and Monte Carlo algorithm},
  author = {Edwards, Robert G. and Sokal, Alan D.},
  journal = {Phys. Rev. D},
  volume = {38},
  number = {6},
  pages = {2009--2012},
  numpages = {3},
  year = {1988},
  month = {Sep},
  doi = {10.1103/PhysRevD.38.2009},
  publisher = {American Physical Society}