The Fall of Joi Ito

Back in 2003 I got into a blog tussle with Joi Ito, the disgraced former director of the MIT Media Lab who was forced to resign from the Lab and a number of corporate boards over ethical lapses related to Jeffrey Epstein. I was fairly amazed that Ito was hired by the Media Lab in the first place.

It seems like a job for a futurist, a technologist, or an intellectual, and Ito is none of those things. But he is well-connected, which is great for fundraising if nothing else.

Emergent Democracy

I’m not going to rehash the issues at MIT because they’ve been well covered by Ronan Farrow, Andrew Orlowski, and Evgeny Morozov. I’d like to share a post I wrote about Ito’s ideas about something he called “emergent democracy”, my reaction to them, and Ito’s reaction to my commentary. This is about schadenfreude, in other words.

Ito was one of the first to jump aboard the blog train in the days when we still called blogs “weblogs”. He tried to put together an essay mashing up the ideas Steven Johnson laid out in his 2001 book Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software with Howard Rheingold’s 1993 musings about the Internet in The Virtual Community.

In essence, Ito claimed that the Internet could, given the creation of new tools, revolutionize the ways societies govern themselves. Instead of the musty old top-down, command-and-control model of representative democracy, the Internet could expand the circle of participation in governmental decision-making and usher in a new era of direct democracy.

Since [1993, Rheingold] has been criticized as being naive about his views. This is because the tools and protocols of the Internet have not yet evolved enough to allow the emergence of Internet democracy to create a higher-level order. As these tools evolve we are on the verge of an awakening of the Internet. This awakening will facilitate a political model enabled by technology to support those basic attributes of democracy which have eroded as power has become concentrated within corporations and governments. It is possible that new technologies may enable a higher-level order, which in turn will enable a form of emergent democracy able to manage complex issues and support, change or replace our current representative democracy. It is also possible that new technologies will empower terrorists or totalitarian regimes. These tools will have the ability to either enhance or deteriorate democracy and we must do what is possible to influence the development of the tools for better democracy.

Emergent Democracy, Joi Ito, 2003.

Mixed Results

To Ito’s and Rheingold’s credit, they didn’t see a future that was all peaches and cream. But it was fairly obvious even in those days that the popularization of the Internet was going to bring forth both good and bad results.

We can learn obscure subjects quickly, we can shop at the world’s largest store without leaving our desks, and we can learn how to fix things. But we also have Trump in the White House and a networked terror cult known as ISIS tearing it up in the Middle East.

It wasn’t either/or, it was both/and: new conveniences and new threats at the same time. Ito didn’t anticipate this, but it was always the most likely future. He also found himself unable to complete the essay, so he turned it over to one of his Wellbert friends, Jon Lebkowsky, to finish.

My Criticism

I addressed an early draft of Emergent Democracy in this post, Emergence Fantasies. It appeared to me that Ito was effectively touting a form of government like the California initiative process that would be informed by blog posts and effectively controlled by a blogger elite. The elite bar was pretty low among the blogs in 2003, so this didn’t look like progress to me.

The larger problem was the essential incoherence of Ito’s reasoning. Well-connected as he is socially, Ito is no intellectual. He also lacks a reasonable understanding of the ways legislative bodies work, at least according to my frame of reference as someone who’s been working with them for twenty years or so.

The emergence thing is also suspect. A the time, it was a fixation among the crowd that thinks of Jared Diamond, Steven Pinker, and Nassim Taleb as great thinkers, but it’s little more than trivia about the behavior of animal groups. Ant colonies are far from grass-roots democracies in any case, and they’ve fascinated political thinkers for thousands of years. I’d be happy to read a book on the biochemistry of ant colonies, but Emergence is not it.

So I said this:

Emergent democracy apparently differs from representative democracy by virtue of being unmediated, and is claimed by the author to offer superior solutions to complex social problems because governments don’t scale, or something. Emergent democracy belief requires us to abandon notions of intellectual property and corporations, apparently because such old-fashioned constructs would prevent democratic ants from figuring out where to bury their dead partners, I think. One thing that is clear is that weblogs are an essential tool for bringing emergent democracy to its full development, and another is that the cross-blog debate on the liberation of Iraq is a really cool example of the kind of advanced discourse that will solve all these problems we’ve had over the years as soon as we evolve our tools to the ant colony level.

Emergence fantasies, me, 2003.

The conversation continued on Ito’s blog under a post ironically titled Can we control our lust for power? The answer to that question was obviously “no”.

The Black List

Ito was not amused, so he black-listed me:

Mr. Bennett has a very dismissive and insulting way of engaging and is a good example of “noise” when we talk about the “signal to noise ratio”. Adam has recently taken over the fight for me on my blog. My Bennett filter is now officially on so I won’t link to his site or engage directly with the fellow any more. At moments he seems to have a point, but it’s very tiring engaging with him and I would recommend others from wasting as much time as I have.

So that’s Joi Ito for you: a man who loves Jeffrey Epstein so much that he’s willing to lie to his bosses to keep him in the Media Lab social network but can’t take honest criticism. His fall from grace was long overdue, and I’m proud to have such enemies.

Bad news for Behe

The unraveling of Mike Behe’s mutation math continues, with this common-sense finding:

Beneficial mutations in the bacterium Escherichia coli occur 1,000 times more frequently than previously predicted, according to research from a group in Portugal.

In a study of E. coli populations of various different sizes, Isabel Gordo and her collaborators at the Gulbenkian Science Institute in Oeiras, Portugal, found that thousands of mutations that could lead to modest increases in fitness were going unseen because good mutations were outperformed by better ones1. The authors say that the work could explain why bacteria are so quick to develop resistance to antibiotics.

“It’s changed the way I think about things,” says Frederick Cohan, a biology professor at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut. He adds that although the principles involved were understood, no one expected to find such a high rate of adaptive mutation.

Oops. Never fear, the dominionist spin machine is already in high dudgeon, cranking out deflections and distractions on secret blogs as we speak.

Who’s your daddy?

The illustrious Dr. Frank clued me in on the story about the sheep/human chimera, a man-made creature with 15% human genes and 85% sheeply ones. These critters are an experimental stage in the production of an organ-donor pool for sickly humans.

Now from the journal Nature we find that genetic mixing isn’t just for the laboratory, as Mother Nature does it herself with cute little marmosets:

As a general rule, a man who learns that his children are genetically his brother’s offspring would have good cause for distress. But for one group of primates, that wouldn’t necessarily mean that mum has been unfaithful, a new study finds.

The reason, says Corinna Ross of the University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio, is that these primates are often genetic mosaics containing some cells that belonged to their siblings. And when those cells happen to be sperm, a male can sire offspring that are genetically nephews and nieces rather than sons and daughters.

This strange genetic mixing could be one of the reasons why these animals tend to raise their families in large collectives, with everyone lending a hand; animals are thought to generally give more parental attention to children with a strong genetic similarity to themselves.

Marmosets, you see, are typically born in pairs of non-identical twins who share a common blood supply in the womb. This leads to genetic migration and chimaerism. So any ideas you may have had about impenetrable walls between species and individuals in nature have to be set aside.

The Campus Crusade for Cats

This slam on the Campus Crusade for Christ is pretty funny:

In the end, the only way to deal with the CCC (an acronym distressingly reminiscent of the KKK, but never mind) is to respond in kind. So, I’ve decided to start my own religion. I’m taking this opportunity to announce the creation of the Campus Crusade for Cats, America’s newest and truest belief system. The CCC is founded on the premise that the domestic cat is the one true pet. In today’s depraved world, people often claim that all household animals satisfy the same universal pet-owning urge. To these heretics we say, Meow! All other pets are false pets, and their owners have left the catbox of salvation for the kennel of despair. Consider dog owners. Have you ever met one who wasn’t under the impression that their mutt was some sort of genius? Forgive them Lord, for they know not what they do. Or take ferret-keepers. A ferret is an evil-looking animal if ever there was one, a true minion of the Devil.

I mean funny in a snide, arrogant, and hilarious way.


Bad theology

My principle objection to the so-called “Intelligent Design” movement is the damage it does to science, but religious people like the Rev. George Coyne have correctly pointed out that it’s damaging religion as well:

Coyne said the subculture of fundamentalist Christianity that insists on the literal truth of the Bible “is a plague in our midst,” obscuring the deeper marvel of creation.

“The intelligent design movement belittles God,” he told reporters before the event. “It makes God a designer, an engineer. The God of religious faith is a god of love. He did not design me.”

Coyne stressed that on matters of religion and faith, science is “absolutely neutral.” Other speakers echoed that, saying that science and religion operate in separate realms. Where religion is based in faith and concerned with the creation or moral meaning of life, science concerns itself with seeking testable, verifiable explanations for the processes of the natural world.

You have to wonder about the impulse to pick fights you know you can’t win, the apparently central thesis of fundamentalism. All the better to play the victim, I suppose.

On the science front, the discovery of Tiktaalik roseae supplies another missing link between fish and land animals:

Scientists have discovered fossils of a 375-million-year-old fish, a large scaly creature not seen before, that they say is a long-sought missing link in the evolution of some fishes from water to a life walking on four limbs on land.

In two reports today in the journal Nature, a team of scientists led by Neil H. Shubin of the University of Chicago say they have uncovered several well-preserved skeletons of the fossil fish in sediments of former streambeds in the Canadian Arctic, 600 miles from the North Pole.

The skeletons have the fins, scales and other attributes of a giant fish, four to nine feet long. But on closer examination, the scientists found telling anatomical traits of a transitional creature, a fish that is still a fish but has changes that anticipate the emergence of land animals — and is thus a predecessor of amphibians, reptiles and dinosaurs, mammals and eventually humans.

Tiktaalik sounds like my Sailfin Blenny, Bubba, who perches on rocks resting on his pectoral (front) fins and acts more like a dog than a fish.

Sailfin Blenny

An interesting case

Via Notes in Samsara we learn of the interesting case of Eric Pianka, the University of Texas biology professor who’s been the target of death threats since being awarded the Distinguished Scientist by the Texas Academy of Science. Pianka is out there, to be sure. He believes that burgeoning human populations are a threat not only to humans but to the rest of the planetary ecosystem as well:

There is a great urgency to basic ecological research simply because the worldwide press of humanity is rapidly driving other species extinct and destroying the very systems that ecologists seek to understand. No natural community remains pristine. Unfortunately, many will disappear without even being adequately described, let alone remotely understood. As existing species go extinct and even entire ecosystems disappear, we lose forever the very opportunity to study them. Knowledge of their evolutionary history and adaptations vanishes with them: we are thus losing access to biological information itself. Indeed, “destroying species is like tearing pages out of an unread book, written in a language humans hardly know how to read” (Rolston, 1985). Just as ecologists are finally beginning to learn to read this “unread” and rapidly disappearing book of life, they are encountering governmental and public hostility and having a difficult time attracting support. This is simply pitiful. And time is quickly running out.

He forecasts that population growth will ultimately hit a wall and we’ll experience a massive die-off triggered by some sort of disease epidemic. This isn’t a completely idiotic notion, of course, as natural populations do undergo die-off when they grow too large for the carrying capacity of their ecological niches.

But something truly disgraceful has taken place around Pianka, a smear campaign orchestrated by jealous creationists to distort his predictions and malign his character. The person at the center of the storm is an electronics writer and extreme creationist, Forrest M. Mims, the self-styled “citizen scientist.”

Just as “citizen journalists” are often agenda-driven extremists, the citizen scientist Mims is a crazed creationist on a jihad against “evolutionists”, that rat-pack of immoral satanists who’ve wrecked our culture by sowing disrespect for believers in the Easter Bunny and all of his works.

Mumsie hopes Pianka will sue, and I have to agree with the sentiment. The arguments that creationists put up against biology always rely on distortion and willful ignorance, and that sort of thing has be curtailed.

Pianka’s theories don’t satisfy me because humans have the capacity to moderate population growth, and there’s plenty of evidence that we’re doing so, but that’s no excuse to call him a terrorist and to spread lies about him.

Forrest Mims is a liar and a scoundrel, and he should be held accountable for the damage he’s done to Pianka’s reputation.

More at The Austringer.

Justice in Dover

The court’s ruling that Intelligent Design is nothing more than a sham was better than I’d expected:

A “hypothetical reasonable observer,” adult or child, who is “aware of the history and context of the community and forum” is also presumed to know that ID is a form of creationism. Child Evangelism, 386 F.3d at 531 (citations omitted); Allegheny, 492 U.S. at 624-25. The evidence at trial demonstrates that ID is nothing less than the progeny of creationism. What is likely the strongest evidence supporting the finding of ID’s creationist nature is the history and historical pedigree of the book to which students in Dover’s ninth grade biology class are referred, Pandas. Pandas is published by an organization called FTE, as noted, whose articles of incorporation and filings with the Internal Revenue Service describe it as a religious, Christian organization. (P-461; P-28; P-566; P-633;Buell Dep. 1:13, July 8, 2005). Pandas was written by Dean Kenyon and Percival Davis, both acknowledged creationists, and Nancy Pearcey, a Young Earth Creationist, contributed to the work. (10:102-08 (Forrest)).

As Plaintiffs meticulously and effectively presented to the Court, Pandas went through many drafts, several of which were completed prior to and some after the Supreme Court’s decision in Edwards, which held that the Constitution forbids teaching creationism as science. By comparing the pre and post Edwards drafts of Pandas, three astonishing points emerge: (1) the definition for creation science in early drafts is identical to the definition of ID; (2) cognates of the word creation (creationism and creationist), which appeared approximately 150 times were deliberately and systematically replaced with the phrase ID; and (3) the changes occurred shortly after the Supreme Court held that creation science is religious and cannot be taught in public school science classes in Edwards. This word substitution is telling, significant, and reveals that a purposeful change of words was effected without any corresponding change in content, which directly refutes FTE’s argument that by merely disregarding the words “creation” and “creationism,” FTE expressly rejected creationism in Pandas. In early pre-Edwards drafts of Pandas, the term “creation” was defined as “various forms of life that began abruptly through an intelligent agency with their distinctive features intact – fish with fins and scales, birds with feathers, beaks, and wings, etc,” the very same way in which ID is defined in the subsequent published versions. (P-560 at 210; P-1 at 2-13; P-562 at 2-14, P-652 at 2-15; P-6 at 99-100; P-11 at 99-100; P-856.2.). This definition was described by many witnesses for both parties, notably including defense experts Minnich and Fuller, as “special creation” of kinds of animals, an inherently religious and creationist concept. (28:85-86 (Fuller); Minnich Dep. at 34, May 26, 2005; Trial Tr. vol. 1, Miller Test., 141-42, Sept. 26, 2005; 9:10 (Haught); Trial Tr. vol. 33, Bonsell Test., 54-56, Oct. 31, 2005). Professor Behe’s assertion that this passage was merely a description of appearances in the fossil record is illogical and defies the weight of the evidence that the passage is a conclusion about how life began based upon an interpretation of the fossil record, which is reinforced by the content of drafts of Pandas.

The weight of the evidence clearly demonstrates, as noted, that the systemic change from “creation” to “intelligent design” occurred sometime in 1987, after the Supreme Court’s important Edwards decision. This compelling evidence strongly supports Plaintiffs’ assertion that ID is creationism re-labeled. Importantly, the objective observer, whether adult or child, would conclude from the fact that Pandas posits a master intellect that the intelligent designer is God.

The polite thing to do before now has been to play along with the idea that Intelligent Design had some scientific basis and to refute it on scientific grounds. But now that even a federal district judge has been able to see through the charade and get to the substance of the matter, we don’t need to do that anymore. ID is an attempt to sneak supernaturalism into science classes, and it’s illegal.

That it’s also bad theology is almost beside the point, except for religious people who stand by the commandment about bearing false witness.

This is a great day for American science education. Now if we can get the feminist/liberal crap out of the social sciences the victory of science over propaganda will be complete.

ID prophet Bill Dembski is strangely cryptic about Dover, which he wrongly predicted, and the rest of the Discovery Institute frauds are completely silent. UPDATE: DI’er Paul Nelson says it’s no big deal:

There’s not a lot to say about yesterday’s opinion in Kitzmiller v. Dover. The oucome was as predictable as the sun rising, with the only question of interest being the possible breadth of the ruling. On that score, Judge John Jones III went for the Full Overton (see below), with an added half-rotation before entry.

Panda’s Thumb has interesting commentary, as does Steve Verdon at Outside the Beltway.

Via Mumon, here’s the closing para from The Skeptic’s review of the case:

Kitzmiller provides an excellent case study of evolution in action; ironically, in this case how the language of creationists has adapted to changing cultural environments. The defense argued that Intelligent Design is an entirely new species unrelated to creation science, and the plaintiffs expertly demonstrated both the clear ancestral relationship between creationism and ID and the selective pressure of higher court decisions that caused the speciation. With that phylogenetic relationship clearly established in the trial, the judge evidently decided that creationism had not mutated enough to survive as the new species of Intelligent Design.

Heh, indeed, RTWT.

Don’t let the terrorists win

Roger Simon is taking on the Intelligent Design fanatics.

Students in Dover, Pennsylvania and other rural areas are just as entitled to a real education as those in Los Angeles and New York. In fact the country needs them to have it, especially in science and math. And in the case of public education, it is not in our interest to waste precious taxpayer dollars teaching mythology in biology.

I’m glad to see him taking on this issue. We Americans are tolerant people, so we’re inclined to say “what’s the harm?” and accede to angry mobs trying to introduce crazy ideas like ID into the school curriculum. We’ve done this sort of misplaced tolerance thing about a thousand times, and the result is a dysfunctional education system where kids seem to spend more time undergoing therapy than learning science and the liberal arts.

I think we have to call a spade a spade: ID isn’t an alternative scientific theory, or an alternative philosophy of science, it’s a piece of bad theology masquerading as science. I’ve studied its origins at the Discovery Institute and come away convinced that it’s more than anything an attempt to circumvent court decisions banning creationism by dressing creationism up in pseudo-scientific language.

Science attempts to uncover laws of nature than can be used to make predictions. Pursuing this path, we’ve learned that genes mutate randomly, and that successful mutations survive, especially when environmental changes make previous adaptations less successful. This is a valuable discovery that has practical applications in the understanding of disease, the breeding of plants and animals, and in the search for previously unknown life forms. ID destroys the rules, asserting that each life form was produced by divine whim so there’s no sense in trying to understand genetics, variation, selection, or mutation; in fact, it ultimately condemns biological science as an act of hubris, an affront to god. We don’t need anti-scientific interests directing science education in the USA.

It’s interesting to note that ID is very popular among Islamists – I don’t have the reference handy, but there was a poll that indicated overwhelming support for it among fundamentalist Muslim, even more than among fundy Christians.

That being the case, we should understand that if we teach ID in our science classes, the terrorists will have won, and the same goes for other pseudo-science doctrines such as the “AZT causes AIDS” and “Ebonics is a language” notions floated notoriously in the blogosphere.

See Cathy Young for more.

Stupid remarks

Mark Steyn made some incredibly stupid remarks about Intelligent Design recently:

The fact is that this is a planet overwhelmingly dominated and shaped by one species, and our kith and kin – whether gibbons or pumpkins – basically fit in in the spaces between. That’s pretty much the world the Psalmist outlined in the Old Testament thousands of years ago. By comparison, the evolutionists’ insistence that we’re just another “animal” seems perverse and irrational and refuted by a casual glance out the window. I am coming round to the view that hyper-rationalism is highly irrational.

… prompting a rather stupid attack from one of the knee-jerks of the left:

Perhaps we’ve found that Intelligent Designer—an inorganic mind living outside of our universe, in a dark, empty vacuum, cooly contemplating our messy little planet. And that machine-like intelligence is Mark Steyn.

Can’t we try and be a little more civil?

More about ID from the Times

The New York Times is apparently doing a three-part series on evolution and intelligent design. The second part, by Kenneth Chang, is a pretty decent treatment of the issues the ID’ers raise and the standard rebuttals, but it doesn’t meet the exacting standards of the always-shrill Dr. P. Z. Myers. Myers doesn’t appear to realize that the audience for this piece is mainly liberal arts majors, not graduate students in evolutionary biology.

Chang defends the piece from Myers’ criticism here.