Monday, May 31, 2010

The market for creationism

Todd Wood of the Center for Origins Research at Bryan College has gotten around to doing what I haven't done, updating my analysis of the market for creationism that I did in early 2007.  He confirms some of the trends I noted, such as that the market for creationism has been growing and is dominated by Answers in Genesis.  His update goes further, and includes a comparison to the National Center for Science Education, noting that he market for criticism of creationism has grown along with the market for creationism.  He also points out that the groups involved got a boost revenue in 2005 during the Dover trial, that the AiG split from Creation Ministries International doesn't appear to have hurt AiG, and that "Godquest," formerly known as Creation Science Evangelism, the Hovind organization, is the #3 creationist organization for revenue behind AiG and the Institute for Creation Research.

Wood reports the following numbers for recent years:
$14.6 million market
AIG: 61.6%
ICR: 30.6%
*CEM: 4.2%
*CRS: 1.7%
*CM: 1.6%
*CSC: 0.4%

$15.8 million market
AIG: 65.7%
ICR: 26.8%
CEM: 3.1%
CRS: 2.0%
CM: 1.9%
CSC: 0.4%

2005: **
$10.8 million market
AIG: 50.4%
ICR: 40.3%
CEM: 5.1%
CRS: 1.0%
CM: 2.5%
CSC: 0.6%

$21.3 million market
AIG: 64.1%
ICR: 30.9%
CEM: 2.2%
CRS: 1.1%
CM: 1.3%
CSC: 0.3%

$25.6 million market
AIG: 69.5%
ICR: 27.6%
CEM: no data
CRS: 1.2%
CM: 1.1%
CSC: 0.3%
CMI: 0.3%

$33.3 million market
AIG: 68.2%
ICR: 26.2%
CEM: no data
Godquest: 2.8%
CRS: 0.7%
CM: 1.0%
CSC: 0.2%
CMI: 0.9%
Check out Todd Wood's post for more details.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Martin Gardner, RIP

The prominent skeptic Martin Gardner, mathematician, philosopher, magician, and writer, died today at the age of 95 (b. October 21, 1914, d. May 22, 2010).  He was one of the founders of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (now Committee for Skeptical Inquiry), and had been part of the earlier Resources for the Scientific Evaluation of the Paranormal along with CSICOP founding members Ray Hyman, James Randi, and Marcello Truzzi.  Long before that, he wrote one of the classic texts debunking pseudoscience, Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science (the Dover 2nd edition was published in 1957).  For many years (1956-1981) he was the author of the Scientific American column, "Mathematical Games" (taken over by Douglas Hofstadter and retitled "Metamagical Themas"), and he wrote a regular "Notes of a Psi-Watcher" column for the Skeptical Inquirer right up to the present.  His 70+ books included a semi-autobiographical novel, The Flight of Peter Fromm, a book explaining his philosophical positions including why he wasn't an atheist, The Whys of a Philosophical Scrivener, and an annotated version of Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland works, The Annotated Alice.

He had been scheduled to appear by video link at the upcoming The Amazing Meeting 8 in Las Vegas, where a number of other skeptical old timers will be appearing on discussion panels.  His death is a great loss.

I never met Gardner, but was first introduced to his work reading his "Mathematical Games" column in the late 70's, and then his Fads and Fallacies and Skeptical Inquirer columns.  Gardner, Isaac Asimov, Carl Sagan, and James Randi were the first major figures I identified as skeptical role models.  One of the great honors of my life was receiving the Martin Gardner Award for Best Skeptical Critic from the Skeptics Society in 1996.

A Martin Gardner documentary that is part of "The Nature of Things" may be found online, and Scientific American has republished online its December 1995 profile of Gardner.  Here's a transcript of a February 1979 telephone interview between Martin Gardner and five mathematicians (thanks to Anthony Barcellos for transcribing it and bringing it to my attention in the comments below).

Various tributes:
UPDATE (June 11, 2011): An interesting chapter on Martin Gardner from George Hansen's book, The Trickster and the Paranormal, is available online as a PDF.

Thursday, May 06, 2010

Origin of the term "woo"

Earlier today on Twitter, Adam Bourque (@A_Damn_Bourque) asked if anyone knew the origin of the term "woo" as applied to the paranormal.  I know I've heard the term used for at least a decade (or two or three?), but after seeing that neither the Skeptics Dictionary entry on "woo woo" nor threads at the JREF Forums had an etymology, I decided to take a look at Google Books.

"Woo" wasn't a good search due to the homonym, and "woo woo" led to lots of matches in stories of children imitating fire engine sirens, but adding "astrology" and "occult" as additional terms led to some useful matches.

On my first pass, the oldest reference I found was in Nicholas Evans' novel The Loop (1999), p. 244:
And anyway, being a woman in the macho world of wolf research was hard enough without everyone thinking you'd gone woo-woo, the term her mother used to scorn everything from astrology to vitamin pills.  And in truth, although Helen didn't doubt there were more things in heaven and earth than could be seen with the aid of a microscope, on the woo-woo scale she was definitely at the skeptical end.
 Hey, it's even a book with a skeptical character!

Next, by adding "astrology," I found a slightly earlier nonfiction reference, Kate Bornstein's My Gender Workbook (1998), p. 121:
Don't get me wrong, I believe in a lot of woo-woo stuff.  I'm a double Pisces with a Taurus Moon.  I was born in 1948, the Year of the Rat.  I use several I-Ching software programs on my computer, and I've been reading tarot cards for nearly thirty years.
Not a skeptic, in that case.

Then, by adding "occult," another earlier nonfiction reference by sociologists of religion, James R. Lewis and J. Gordon Melton, in Perspectives on the New Age (1992), p. 3:
I also found that the characterization of New Age psychism as being "woo-woo" and "airy-fairy" was true of only some of the more public New Age channels.
But then, pay dirt--a source going back to May 1844 that looks like a likely candidate for the origin of the term, in The North British Review, vol. 1, no. 11, p. 340, in a review of (or excerpt from?) Report by the Commissioners for the British Fisheries of their Proceedings of 1842, "Our Scottish fishermen" (pp. 326-365):
When beating up in stormy weather along a lee-shore, it was customary for one of the men to take his place on the weather gunwale, and there continue waving his hand in a direction opposite to the sweep of the sea, using the while a low moaning chant, Woo, woo, woo, in the belief that the threatening surges might be induced to roll past without breaking over.  We may recognize in both these singular practices the first beginnings of mythologic belief--of that religion indigenous to the mind, which can address itself in its state of fuller development to every power of nature as to a perceptive being, capable of being propitiated by submissive deference and solicitation, and able, as it inclined, either to aid or injure.
Though this isn't enough to be certain, this looks like a very likely origin of the term.

Thanks to Adam for prompting this search.

UPDATE: Josh Rosenau at Thoughts from Kansas points out a 1986 St. Petersburg Times story:
Are cookbook publishers that desperate? … This season they present us with two "new and unique" horoscopic cookbooks - A Taste of Astrology by Lucy Ash and Cosmic Cuisine by Tom Jaine - adding another dimension to star-inspired cookbooks.
Both authors are British (of undisclosed signs) but they are, most uncannily, on much the same woo-woo wavelength. They do not suggest casing out a potential romantic partner according to sign language.
In the comments below, I point out two older cases of "woo woo" I've found in ghost stories as a sound:

Groff Conklin's 1962 The Supernatural Reader, p. 101 has these two sentences, but the page context isn't available from Google Books: "Someone else giggled, and from the darkness beside the building came a high-pitched, 'Woo-woo!' I walked up to Sam and grinned at him."

Cecil John Richards, Wind Over Fowlmere and Other Stories, 1953, p. 116: "...going 'woo-woo woo-woo-woo' in its deep gruff voice just over my head. ... And then Hargreaves led us once again into the realm of the supernatural."

UPDATE (May 7, 2010): Anton Mates found and posted this news item from 1984 at Josh Rosenau's blog and in the comments below:

Philadelphia Inquirer, The (PA) - Sunday, October 21, 1984
So who is this New Age audience? Mostly upscale folks in their 30s and early 40s, the ones weaned on Baba Ram Dass and Woodstock and hallucinogenics, macrobiotic diets and transcendental meditation.
George Winston, who practices yoga and who currently has three albums on the jazz charts (his five Windham Hill recordings have reportedly sold more than 800,000 copies; his LP December has just been certified gold), has jokingly called this crowd the "woo-woos." In a 1983 interview in New Age Journal, Winston, asked if he knew who comprised his audience, answered that there were some classical fans, some jazz, some pop and "all the woo-woos." 
"You know," he added, "there's real New Age stuff that has substance, and then there's the woo-woo . A friend of mine once said, 'George, you really love these woo-woos, don't you?' and I said 'Yes, I do love them,' and I do. I mean, I'm half woo-woo myself."

Chinese astronomy and scientific anti-realism

On the last day of my class on Scientific Revolutions and the law, one of the students in the class, Lijing Jiang, gave a presentation titled "To Consider the Heavens: The Incorporation of Jesuit Astronomy in the Seventeenth Century Chinese Court."

Her presentation was about how Jesuit missionaries in China brought western astronomy with them, and how it was received.  This added a very interesting complement to the course, as much of the early part of the semester was about the Copernican revolution (using Kuhn's book of the same name).  Part of what happened early on in astronomy was a division between cosmology and positional astronomy, with the former being about the actual nature of the heavens, and the latter being about creating mathematical models for prediction, to be used for navigation and calendar-setting that incorporated features not intended to represent reality (like epicycles).  These two types of astronomy didn't really get reconnected (aside from the occasional realist depiction of epicycles in crystalline spheres) until Galileo argued for a realist interpretation of the Copernican model.  And that didn't fully catch on until Newton.

In China, calendar reform was very important as they used a combination of a lunar month (based on phases of the moon) and tropical year that had to be synchronized annually, and an unpredicted eclipse was considered to be a bad omen.  The Chinese had gone through many calendar reforms as a result of these requirements, and they considered that theories needed to be revised about every 300 years (in other realms as well, not just astronomy).

The Jesuits happened to bring Copernican astronomy to China in the late 16th/early 17th century, with a goal of impressing and converting the Emperor.  They got their big chance to make a splash in 1610, when the Chinese court astronomers mispredicted a solar eclipse by one day, which the Jesuits predicted correctly in advance.  But this turned out in a way to be poorly timed, as the Counter-Reformation decided to start cracking down on Copernican heliocentrism after 1610, making it a formal doctrinal issue in 1616.  The Jesuits in China thus switched to the Tychonic system which was geometrically equivalent to the Copernican model but geocentric.

Multiple factors persuaded the Chinese to maintain a relativistic, anti-realist understanding of positional astronomy beyond the Scientific Revolution.  In addition to Taoist and Buddhist views of life involving constant change and their past experience with calendars suggesting revisions every 300 years, the Jesuits presented another example of apparent arbitrariness in cosmological model selection, and they continued to stick with the Tychonic model as the western world switched to heliocentrism.

You can read Lijing Jiang's blogging at Science in a Mirror, where she may post something about her presentation in the future.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Social psychology done wrong

The work of ASU emeritus professor of psychology Robert Cialdini, author of the classic book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, has shown that if a sign or card suggesting that somebody do something also indicates that most other people are likely to do that, it increases compliance with the request.  The wording of this sign, put up in ASU bathrooms all over campus by the Health and Counseling Student Action Committee, may well have the opposite of its intended effect.  Somebody should have read their Cialdini before making these signs!

Sunday, May 02, 2010

Politics and science in risk assessment

There’s a widespread recognition that public policy should be informed by both scientifically verifiable factual information and by social values.  It’s commonly assumed that science should provide the facts for policy-makers, and the policy-makers should then use those facts and social and political values of the citizens they represent to make policy.  This division between fact and value is institutionalized in processes such as a division between risk assessment performed by scientists concerned solely with the facts and subsequent risk management that also involves values, performed in the sphere of politics.  This neat division, however, doesn’t actually work that well in practice.

“Taking European Knowledge Society Seriously,” a 2007 “Report by the Expert Group on Science and Governance to the Science, Economy and Society Directorate, Directorate-General for Research” of the European Commission, spends much of its third chapter criticizing this division and the idea that risk assessment can be performed in a value-free way.  Some of the Report’s objections are similar to those made by Heather Douglas in her book Science, Policy, and the Value-Free Ideal, and her analysis of a topography of values is complementary to the Report.  The selection of what counts as input into the risk assessment process, for example, is a value-laden decision that is analogous to Douglas’ discussion of problem selection.  Health and safety concerns are commonly paramount, but other potential risks--to environment, to economy, to social institutions--may be minimized, dismissed, or ignored.  Selection of methods of measurement also can implicitly involve values, as also is observed by Douglas.  The Report notes, “health can be measured alternatively as frequency or mode of death or injury, disease morbidity, or quality of life,” and questions arise as to how to aggregate and weight different populations, compare humans to nonhumans, and future generations to present generations.

In practice, scientists tend to recognize questions of these sorts, as well as that they are value-laden.  This can lead to the process being bogged down by scientists wanting policy-makers to answer value questions before they perform their risk assessment, while policy-makers insist that they just want the scientific facts of the matter before making any value-based decisions.  Because science is a powerful justification for policy, it’s in the interest of the policy-maker to push as much as possible to the science side of the equation.  We see this occur in Congress, which tends to pass broad-brush statutes which “do something” about a problem but push all the details to regulatory agencies, so that Congress can take credit for action but blame the regulatory agencies if it doesn’t work as expected.  We see it in judicial decisions, where the courts tend to be extremely deferential to science.  And we see it within regulatory agencies themselves, as when EPA Administrator Carol Browner went from saying first that “The question is not one of science, the question is one of judgment” (Dec. 1996, upon initially proposing ozone standards) to “I think it is not a question of judgment, I think it is a question of science” (March 1997, about those same standards).  The former position is subject to challenge in ways that the latter is not.

In reality, any thorough system of risk management needs to be iterative and involve both scientific judgments about facts and political decisions that take into account values, taking care not to use values in a way to achieve predetermined conclusions, but to recognize what sets of interests and concerns are of significance.  This doesn’t preclude the standardization of methods of quantification and assessment, it just means that they need to be able to evolve in response to feedback, as well as to begin from a state where values are explicitly used in identifying what facts need to be assessed.

[A slightly different version of the above was written as a comment for my Human and Social Dimensions of Science and Technology core seminar. Thanks to Tim K. for his comments.]