Archive for the “Science” Category

Andrew Sullivan links (without comment – chicken!) to a letter in Science in which neuroscientist Martha Farah and theologian Nancey Murphy “worry about fundamentalists attacking neuroscience”. For some reason, Andrew illustrates the piece with some pretty flowers, which he usually does when he has no answer to the points just made except an appeal to the emotions.

The problem for mysterians like Andrew, who claim that they embrace doubt while at the same time being utterly enslaved by their faith, is that neuroscience isn’t just a threat to “fundamentalists”: it undercuts every religious view which assumes the existence of a soul that is distinct from (and can exist independently of) the physical body. We’re talking about all of Christianity, Islam, the dualist variants of Judaism, and any belief system which includes reincarnation. And we’re not just talking about naive, folk-theories about souls (being reunited with loved ones after death, or having out-of-body experiences); even the most subtle and sophisticated theological positions are pretty much threadbare. And that includes Andrew’s. Pretty pictures of daisies won’t make up for that.

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For anyone interested in the controversy over MMR vaccines and autism, David Gorski’s comprehensive fisking is a must-read. The exposé of that sleazy fraud Andrew Wakefield is particularly detailed.

After presenting the unambiguous findings of the various “special masters”, Gorski points out what’s really going on here:

Special Master Hastings recognized one of the main drivers of the scare over the MMR and vaccines in general as a “cause” of autism: Money. Indeed, a veritable cottage industry of “biomedical” quackery, dubious therapies, and pseudoscience depends upon keeping the idea that vaccines cause autism alive. “Luminaries” of this cottage industry include the aforementioned Andrew Wakefield, who has now infested the United States (the State of Texas, specifically) with his brand of quackery at Thoughtful House, now that the U.K. is investigating him. Also included are Mark and David Geier, who have been touting the use of a powerful anti-sex steroid medication to treat autistic children, and, until recently, Dr. Rashid Buttar, who is now facing sanctions by the North Carolina Board of Medical Examiners and has been banned from treating children. Add to that ambulance-chasing lawyers like Clifford Shoemaker, who have been raking in money hand over fist, thanks to the fact that the VICP actually pays the petitioners’ attorney fees regardless of whether the petition results in compensation, and it is easy to see why this industry won’t easily let parents be disabused of the fears over vaccines that it has stoked.

To those parents who are dealing with the devastating effect of autism on their families: please don’t be taken in by the charlatans and snake-oil salesmen who are trying to recruit you to their causes. They’re simply trying to use you for their own purposes. They are wrong.

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I’ve just posted a review of Denis Dutton’s wonderful new book “The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution”:

If you’re reading this, you probably enjoy books. You take pleasure from good writing, compelling insights, and the kind of well-turned argument that gives you that “aha!” moment of recognition, identification, and delight.

Imagine then the pleasure of reading a book which not only has these characteristics, but provides a convincing explanation of why you feel that way. And not just of why you enjoy that kind of experience, but why (for example) you would feel disappointed if you learned that the author had plagiarized the material. (Why should you? It’s the same text, isn’t it? There’s something else going on here.)

This is a wonderful book. It’s not just about art, in the same way that Pinker’s work (cited in the blurb) isn’t just about language. It’s about being human, and how the last few hundreds of thousands of years of evolution made us that way. It’s about the complex interplay between natural selection and sexual selection in this process, an interplay which Darwin captured so well in The Descent of Man. It’s about philosophy, too: about ontology and category.

The book draws on art as a rich source of facts and paradoxes about human nature. Does intent matter? Why do artists sign their work while plumbers don’t? What is the relationship between artistic value and monetary price? And (notoriously) can a urinal on a plinth be thought of as art – and why do people get so worked up about it?

I hesitated to choose this book, because I feared that it was going to be just another book on art theory. (And why would that make me reluctant? Hmmm….) I’m really glad that I overcame my hesitation. In fact I’d rank this as the best non-fiction book that I’ve read over the last year – and it’s been a good year. (Best fiction is, obviously Fulghum’s Third Wish, a book that I want to re-read in the light of some of the insights I’ve gained from Dutton.)

Highly recommended.

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Every so often an article comes along which triggers a firestorm of debate, and the latest is by Jerry Coyne in The New Republic. He reviews two new books by Giberson and Miller, each of which tries to defend the thesis that science and religion are wholly compatible. Coyne disagrees, fundamentally.

In the end, then, there is a fundamental distinction between scientific truths and religious truths, however you construe them. The difference rests on how you answer one question: how would I know if I were wrong? Darwin’s colleague Thomas Huxley remarked that “science is organized common sense where many a beautiful theory was killed by an ugly fact.” As with any scientific theory, there are potentially many ugly facts that could kill Darwinism. Two of these would be the presence of human fossils and dinosaur fossils side by side, and the existence of adaptations in one species that benefit only a different species. Since no such facts have ever appeared, we continue to accept evolution as true. Religious beliefs, on the other hand, are immune to ugly facts. Indeed, they are maintained in the face of ugly facts, such as the impotence of prayer. There is no way to adjudicate between conflicting religious truths as we can between competing scientific explanations. Most scientists can tell you what observations would convince them of God’s existence, but I have never met a religious person who could tell me what would disprove it.

Coyne’s essay provoked a series of responses over at the Edge. These included Lisa Randall’s cognitively dissonant experience:

By sheer coincidence the day I read this Edge question, a charming young actor sat next to me on my plane to LA and without any prompting answered it for me.[...] Prior to his acting career he had studied molecular biology and after graduating coordinated science teaching for three middle schools in an urban school system. He described how along with his acting career he would ultimately like to build on his training to start schools worldwide where students can get good science training.
[...]
But he himself believes in Man descending from Adam as opposed to ascending from apes. I didn’t get how someone trained as a biologist could not believe in evolution. He explained how he could learn the science and understand the logic but that it is simply how Man puts things together. In his mind that’s just not the way it is.

I was going to respond in my own words, but then I read Timothy Sandefur’s excellent piece which said everything that I would want to say, and more. Here is his excellent refutation of Ken Miller’s response in Edge:

Then there is Miller himself, who insists once more on his right to have his reason and eat it too. “What science does require is methodological naturalism,” he writes. But why does it require that? That commitment is not an arbitrary postulate—it is an epistemological position, imposed on us by the nature of knowledge and of reality. Miller recognizes this when he acknowledges that “[w]e live in a material world, and we use the materials of nature to study the way nature works.” But of course he then flies to a higher strain—by assuming, without any evidence, that there is some other kind of world in which we also live (a world which, if it is immaterial, by definition has no interaction with our own and would therefore be inaccessible to our knowledge). He, arbitrarily and without foundation, asserts that there is some other world, which he arbitrarily and without foundation asserts can be known by some other method—a method which he arbitrarily and without foundation asserts is religious knowledge. These are three separate assertions about reality which he is willing to endorse not only without reasons, but without even acknowledging the need for reasons. And this he amazingly calls “honest and open empiricism”!

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Visualizing huge numbers can be very difficult. People regularly talk about millions of miles, billions of bytes, or trillions of dollars, yet it’s still hard to grasp just how much a “billion” really is. The MegaPenny Project aims to help by taking one small everyday item, the U.S. penny, and building on that to answer the question: “What would a billion (or a trillion) pennies look like?”

The MegaPenny Project, tip of the hat to the Bad Astronomer.

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Not only is religion being co-opted by politicians in the UK (or is it the other way round?); it appears that creationism is making inroads. As The Bad Astronomer reports

A survey in the UK shows that about 1/3 of the teachers in England and Wales think creationism should be taught in science. About half think it shouldn’t be (one assumes the rest have no opinion), while 2/3 of the teachers think it should at least be discussed.

70% of science teachers think creationism should not be taught, which sounds good until you realize that means 30% of science teachers think it should be.

This story also provides a great example of how the same facts can be presented in diametrically opposite ways. The headline in The Daily Express read “THIRD OF TEACHERS WANT CREATIONISM”, while the Ipsos MORI report of the actual study was titled “Teachers Dismiss Calls For Creationism To Be Taught In School Science Lessons”.

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Now here’s a treat! Pop over to the New Humanist Blog and check out their Advent Podcasts. The first is by Stephen Fry.

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You think “single-celled” means “microsopic”? Meet Gromia sphaerica. 1.2 cm across. That’s the size of a grape. And they leave trails – and they may have been doing so all the way back to the Preambrian Precambrian.

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PZ fisks the creationist’s old chestnut about evolution violating the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics. The bottom line:

To spell it out, there’s about a trillion times more entropy flux available than is required for evolution. The degree by which earth’s entropy is reduced by the action of evolutionary processes is miniscule relative to the amount that the entropy of the cosmic microwave background is increased.

Of course the creationist’s argument was always stupid (hint: closed system), but it’s nice to quantify the stupidity. And the comments are delightful; for example, Matt Heath:

Exactly! If you read discussions of extra-terrestrial life (say Carl Sagan in Pale Blue Dot) “life” is more or less defined as “that which locally pumps away entropy” (at least if we treat machines as extensions of the life forms that built them). So, for example, if we found a planet with oxygen and methane in the atmosphere, whatever was replenishing them (however odd to us) would be worth of the name “life”.

I really like that definition of life. Concise, measurable.

UPDATE: Jason Rosenhouse has a nice follow-up piece, in which he notes “… that the second law plays only a rhetorical role in creationist argumentation. They are happy to use the language of thermodynamics, but they never do the calculations that would be necessary to make a proper argument.”

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Over the next week or so I plan to gather together my thoughts about Neal Stephenson’s new book, Anathem, so that I can write a full review. But here are my preliminary reactions:
Anatham is (at least) three books in one. It’s a science fiction yarn, in which geeks indulge in amazing feats of derring-do to save the world(s). It’s a dialogue about the thorny questions at the intersection of many-worlds quantum science, consciousness, and causality. And the background to both of these is a treatise on the role of science in society, and how the two magisteria – the secular and the scientific – might react against each other over the long haul.

I enjoyed and appreciated it immensely. It deserves careful and patient consideration.

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