Drivel from Intelligent Design the Future

Oh dear. Check out Intelligent Design the Future: Percival Lowell, Mars and Intelligent Design

Today’s Google icon pays homage to Percival Lowell, the 19th century astronomer who popularized the notion that there were Martian-made canals on the surface of Mars and, therefore, Martians. The larger story surrounding his famous blunder discredits the idea that science moves inexorably forward, with never a major backward step.

While Lowell may have popularized this idea, he certainly was not the only one speculating in that direction, nor even the first to observe these “canals”. Schiaparelli produced a highly detailed map of the planet in 1887, showing “canali” or channels. These sightings were confirmed by other observers, including Burton (who saw linear features which perhaps tellingly didn’t match Schiaparelli’s map) and Pickering. Lowell certainly believed that he observed such, and did publish a book suggesting that these canals were the work of intelligent beings, but it’s fairly clear that such ideas were never really mainstream in science. As scientists of the day noted, the appearance of these features could be due entirely to optical illusions. The conclusion of their paper:

Our conclusion from the entire experiment is that the canals of Mars may in some cases be, as Mr. Green suggested, the boundaries of tones or shadings, but that in the majority of cases they are simply the integration by the eye of minute details too small to be separately and distinctly defined. It would not therefore be in the least correct to say that the numerous observers who have drawn canals on Mars during the last twenty-five years have draw what they did not see. On the contrary they have drawn, and drawn truthfully, that which they saw; yet, fior all that, the canals which they have draw have no more objective existence than those which our Greenwish boys imagined they saw on the drawings submitted to them.

It seems a thousand pities that all those magnificent theories of human habitation, canal construction, planetary crystallisation, and the like are based upon lnes which our experiments to compel us to declare non-existent; but with the planet Mars still left, and the imagination unimpaired, there remains hope that a new theory no less attractive may yet be developed, and on a basis more solid than “mere seeming”.

I suggest that the proponents of Intelligent Design read this conclusion very carefully.

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Addendum: Using the link above to get to Evans and Maunder’s article was tedious, so here’s a link to it as a PDF file. Enjoy!

From metamerist: Pigeonholing Algorithms & Self-fulfilling Prophecies

Metamerist was musing abut Pigeonholing Algorithms & Self-fulfilling Prophecies this morning, a subject that I’m kind of interested in as well.   We’ve all used these systems which try to evaluate our choices in music or books, and then make suggestions based upon what we say.   They are sometimes useful, but most often useless in trying to find new material that’s of interest.

The reason is actually pretty easy to understand.  Let’s take books as our example domain.  Amazon knows that recently I’ve bought books on baseball, on the chinese language, on filmmaking, and on computer graphics.   So what does it do?  It gives me more of the same.   It’s not a bad idea really: there are undoubtedly lots of books in these subjects I don’t have.   But they are unlikely to actually suggest books in other, even related subjects that might be of interest.  Does an interest in filmmaking suggest an interest photography?  If I’m interested in Chinese language, might I not be interested in Chinese food or Chinese history?

It seems most of these systems work to dramatically reduce the number of possibilities that they present to you rather than expand them.  In that sense, they just reinforce your narrow tastes, rather than help you expand and educate them.  That’s too bad.

What’s the answer?  What algorithm will help?  Frankly, I don’t know.   The way that I deal with it is to read a wide variety of sources, keep a wide variety of interests, and actively work to break out of the ruts in your thinking.  Don’t be afraid to explore deeply, but also work to explore broadly.   Make it your responsibility, not just the responsibility of software.  Invest time in making yourself more interesting.

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