Saturday, July 12, 2008

Tony Snow (1955-2008)

Tony Snow was loved by millions who watched him work as a political commentator, and his struggle with cancer over the last three years, to the extent he spoke of it publicly, showed him to be a man of immense courage and an amazingly positive outlook on life.

Snow studied philosophy at Davidson college and philosophy and economics at the University of Chicago before moving into journalism and eventually replacing Scott McClellan as George Bush's Press Secretary in May of 2006. He battled a recurrence of colon cancer - he had his colon removed in 2005 - from almost the start of his tenure at the White House and finally succumbed to complications from the chemotherapy early today.

It's a shame that on the occassion of his death at the age of 53 his life has been tarnished by essays like that of Douglass K. Daniel at the AP who evidently found it difficult to write about Snow's death without taking a few cheap shots at him:

With a quick-from-the-lip repartee, broadcaster's good looks and a relentlessly bright outlook - if not always a command of the facts - he became a popular figure around the country to the delight of his White House bosses.

This is the sort of hit-and-run insult that causes many people to simply abhor so much of the media. If Daniel isn't going to explain what he means by lacking a command of the facts, why say it? Why, on the death of a good man and father, someone who tried his best to serve his country, take an unsubstantiated swipe at him? It's easy, I suppose, to impugn the professionalism of someone who's no longer around to defend himself, but it reflects poorly on the character of the one who does it.

In that year and a half at the White House, Snow brought partisan zeal and the skills of a seasoned performer to the task of explaining and defending the president's policies. During daily briefings, he challenged reporters, scolded them and questioned their motives as if he were starring in a TV show broadcast live from the West Wing.

In other words, he refused to roll over for the media as did his predecessor. In retaliation for this insufferable l�se majest� Daniel portrays Snow as a narcissistic harpy.

Critics suggested that Snow was turning the traditionally informational daily briefing into a personality-driven media event short on facts and long on confrontation. He was the first press secretary, by his own accounting, to travel the country raising money for Republican candidates.

Daniel seems resentful that Snow outshone the media stars in the White House press corps, and, like a jealous Middle Schooler, he seems to want to get back at the one who draws more attention than he does.

Although a star in conservative politics, as a commentator he had not always been on the president's side. He once called Bush "something of an embarrassment" in conservative circles and criticized what he called Bush's "lackluster" domestic policy.

Daniel seems to assume that if one is a conservative he should be expected to support President Bush one hundred percent. If he he's not assuming that here then why is Snow's dissatisfaction with some of Bush's policies worth mentioning? George Bush is not himself a thoroughgoing conservative, but even if he were, why does Daniel think that conservatives are ideologically monolithic?

Most of Snow's career in journalism involved expressing his conservative views.

No kidding. Imagine that. And what views does Daniel think a conservative writer should express?

How rigorous is the course work these days that journalists have to pass in order to get hired by the AP?


Low Entropy

Sean Carroll is a physicist at Cal Tech and a proponent of the idea of the multiverse, the notion that reality consists of an infinite number of "universes". He was interviewed recently by the LA Times and the first part of the Q&A provides us with a good explanation of what the multiverse hypothesis is.

The most interesting part of the interview for me, though, was the second part. Carroll is inclined toward belief in a multiverse because, among other things, it provides a possible naturalistic explanation for a very puzzling aspect of our universe. Our universe started out, according to the standard Big Bang model, in a state of exceedingly low entropy. This means that it was very highly ordered. It's like mixing hot and cold water and having all the hot molecules, just through their random motions, all collect on one side of the basin and the cold molecules all collect on the other. It's possible but highly improbable.

Carroll compares it to opening a new pack of cards and finding the cards arranged in sequence by suit. We're not surprised by that when we buy a new deck of cards because we know that the cards were put into order at the factory. Since the universe was highly ordered when it was brand new, which is an extraordinarily improbable state, there must have been some other universe, or factory, from which it came because for it to have started out this way by chance is breathtakingly improbable.

Let's read the interview:

So what's the problem?

If you really believed the conventional story that the Big Bang was the beginning, that there was nothing before the Big Bang, I think that's a very difficult fact to explain. . . .

There's no law of physics that says it should start at a low-entropy state. But the actual universe did that.

So you think the way the universe began is unnatural?

Low-entropy configurations are rare.

If you take a deck of cards and you open it up, it's true that they're in order. But if you randomly chose a configuration of a deck of cards it would be very, very unlikely that they would be in perfect order.

That's exactly low entropy versus high entropy.

The universe is more than what we see?

The reason why you are not surprised when you open a deck of cards and it's in perfect order is not because it's just easy and natural to find it in perfect order, it's because the deck of cards is not a closed system. It came from a bigger system in which there is a card factory somewhere that arranged it. So I think there is a previous universe somewhere that made us and we came out.

We're part of a bigger structure.

Are you saying that our universe came from some other universe?

Right. It came from a bigger space-time that we don't observe. Our universe came from a tiny little bit of a larger high-entropy space.

I'm not saying this is true; I'm saying this is an idea worth thinking about.

Indeed it is, so let's think about it. What Carroll doesn't mention is that the low entropy of the playing cards is due to the fact that there was an intelligently designed system at the factory which was intentionally constructed to place the cards in an orderly sequence. If there was a "factory" which produced a low entropy Big Bang then, following Carroll's deck of cards analogy, the factory should consist of an intentional, intelligent agent.

Carroll is asked by the interviewer about whether God has a role in his physics, and he pretty much answers no, but everything he has said in the interview up to that point leads to the conclusion that whatever produced the universe, it very likely was intelligent.

Carroll thinks that our universe was somehow spawned by another world in the multiverse, but this just sets the problem back a step. It doesn't really explain why or how our universe had such low entropy at it's beginning. It's as if his deck of cards was packed in perfect sequence just by coincidence. He's left clinging to the very unscientific belief that there are an infinite number of universes with an infinite number of initial conditions and that one of them just has to have had the initial conditions ours did.

The problem is that we know intelligent agents can produce low entropy states, but we don't have any evidence that there are an infinite number of other worlds, or if there are, that there were an infinite number of initial conditions. Each of the infinite worlds could have the exact same initial conditions for all we know. Postulation of the multiverse is an act of metaphysical desperation that enables those who are disinclined to believe in a purposeful creation to avoid having to draw the conclusion that it sure looks like it was intentionally designed.

It's funny that the multiverse hypothesis is an acceptable topic for discussion among scientists and would be a fascinating topic for a high school physics class, even though there's not a shred of empirical evidence for it. Yet our students must at all costs be protected from exposure to the toxic implications of believing that our universe is the only one that exists. They must not, on pain of litigation, have it suggested to them that a low entropy Big Bang entails the possibility of a purposeful origin to the universe.


The Roots of Civilization

George Will maintains that Western civilization owes its very existence to beer, of all things. Here's part of his interesting column:

The development of civilization depended on urbanization, which depended on beer. To understand why, consult Steven Johnson's marvelous 2006 book "The Ghost Map: The Story of London's Most Terrifying Epidemic -- and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World." It is a great scientific detective story about how a horrific cholera outbreak was traced to a particular neighborhood pump for drinking water. And Johnson begins a mind-opening excursion into a related topic this way:

"The search for unpolluted drinking water is as old as civilization itself. As soon as there were mass human settlements, waterborne diseases like dysentery became a crucial population bottleneck. For much of human history, the solution to this chronic public-health issue was not purifying the water supply. The solution was to drink alcohol."

Often the most pure fluid available was alcohol -- in beer and, later, wine -- which has antibacterial properties. Sure, alcohol has its hazards, but as Johnson breezily observes, "Dying of cirrhosis of the liver in your forties was better than dying of dysentery in your twenties." Besides, alcohol, although it is a poison, and an addictive one, became, especially in beer, a driver of a species-strengthening selection process.

Johnson notes that historians interested in genetics believe that the roughly simultaneous emergence of urban living and the manufacturing of alcohol set the stage for a survival-of-the-fittest sorting-out among the people who abandoned the hunter-gatherer lifestyle and, literally and figuratively speaking, went to town.

Back in my college days there were a number of people I knew whose appetite for this beverage seemed extraordinary. Now, thanks to Mr. Will's column, I see that their excesses were in fact a heroic and altruistic attempt to improve the genetic stock of the species, and that they deserve the gratitude of humanity.

HT: Jason