Science and technology

Oh my god

Americans are scientifically illiterate, reports the Times. For example:

One adult American in five thinks the Sun revolves around the Earth, an idea science had abandoned by the 17th century.

The CIA Factbook tells me that there are roughly 235 million Americans above the age of 14. I don’t know how many of those are adults, meaning 18 or older, but let’s say 90%.

That means 42.3 million Americans believe the Sun revolves around the Earth.

42.3 million.

That is astonishing.

[Links: Scientific Savvy? In U.S., Not Much - New York Times; CIA -- The World Factbook -- United States]

Science and technology

Deepak, on intelligent design

I always thought Deepak Chopra was a bullshit artist and a scammer, but his questions about evolution are delightfully stupid. Various commenters on the blog address his questions, as do a few science blogs (I’ll link to one below), but here’s my favorite among his questions:

7. What happens when simple molecules come into contact with life? Oxygen is a simple molecule in the atmosphere, but once it enters our lungs, it becomes part of the cellular machinery, and far from wandering about randomly, it precisely joins itself with other simple molecules, and together they perform cellular tasks, such as protein-building, whose precision is millions of times greater than anything else seen in nature. If the oxygen doesn’t change physically — and it doesn’t — what invisible change causes it to acquire intelligence the instant it contacts life?

Let me repeat this: If the oxygen doesn’t change physically — and it doesn’t — what invisible change causes it to acquire intelligence the instant it contacts life?

So, oxygen becomes smart as soon as we breathe it in? Really? I had no idea! So that must mean that when I drink beer, it becomes super-intelligent beer! Genius beer, even!

But wait. What happens to beer’s genius when I go take a piss?

[Link: Intelligent Design Without the Bible, via Kottke; Moonbat anti-evolutionist: Deepak Chopra]

Edited to turn on comments and to add that among the commenters on Deepak entry is Steven Colbert.

Science and technology

God of the gaps

Francis Collins, director of the Human Genome Project, appeared on Tucker Carlson Unfiltered recently, to discuss intelligent design and evolution.

Collins, who is a Christian as well as a geneticist, said this here very interesting thing about intelligent design:

I think intelligent design sets up a god of the gaps kind of scenario. … [W]e haven’t yet explained this particular feature of evolution, so god must be right there. If science ultimately proves that those gaps aren’t gaps, after all, then where is god? We really ought not to ask people to do that.

I’ve said this before. Many Christians would state that if science can’t currently find a natural cause for a certain phenomenon, the only possible explanation must be supernatural–that is, God. Any gaps in our knowledge must be filled with God–hence, “God of the gaps.”

Yet, as Collins points out, that view limits a Christian’s conception of God–for as natural explanations emerge, there’s less need for supernatural ones.

A more logical stance for a Christian might be to say, well, all things in the natural world have a natural explanation, and we’ll eventually understand most of those explanations, but we still hold that, ultimately, God is the power behind it all–and the ways in which God moves Creation remain among the great mysteries of our faith.

That is actually where Collins stands:

I’m what’s called a theistic evolutionist. I believe god had a purpose that involved you and me as individuals, people that he wished to have fellowship with. I believe that the way he decided to do that creative step utilized the mechanism of evolution.

Now, I personally don’t think God had anything to do with any of it, but I at least respect the consistency and rationality of Collins’s faith. I’ll end with this–a beautiful statement of faith by Francis Collins:

I do think that a thinking person can both be one who believes that science, rigorous science, is the way to understand the natural world and that god is the way to understand the spiritual world. And when you marry the two together, as I get to do, your appreciation of science, of a new discovery, takes on a new meaning because it’s a glimpse of what god knew all along and at that moment it’s a moment of worship.

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Science and technology

Stars vs. genes

This is rich. Via the Panda’s Thumb comes word of Benevolent Design, a website dedicated to using astrology to prove the concept of intelligent design.

Although the site might be an elaborate hoax, commenters at Panda’s Thumb point to the books offered for sale by the Magi Society (the organization behind Benevolent Design) as proof that the site owners are sincere.

Don’t let the site’s tagline (“EVOLUTION THEORY IS A MONUMENTAL HOAX”) fool you, though. Benevolent Design seeks not merely to throw over Darwinian evolution but virtually all of genetics as well:

There is definitely truth to some theories in genetics. For example, genes have a bearing on us in matters such as the color of our hair and eyes, our blood type, skin color, and many other such physical ways. But at the Magi Society, we have learned through Magi Astrology with certainty that astrology is more powerful than genetics in shaping exactly who we are. Our natal charts have a much more powerful and deeper influence on us than our genes.

I’m amused by some of the other claims of Magi Astrology. For example, Magi Astrology explains why some people and companies are successful (financially or romatically) and others are unsuccessful.”>Here, the Magi astrologers analyze two celebrity marriages, the stock failure of AOL Time Warner, and the Marlins/Yankees World Series.

Of particular note here is the analysis of two celebrity marriages: The “Heartbreak Marriage” of Liza Minnelli and David Gest and the “Cinderella Marriage” of Lance Armstrong and Kristin Richard. Lance, apparently, owes his successes in marriage and cycling to his marriage chart. Let’s look at the Magis proof claims:

…On the day Lance Armstrong married Kristin Richard, three of the four Financial Planets were each making aspects to each other. …

…This type of alignment is called Planetary Synchronization and this concept was first introduced in our first book, and discussed in each of our other books. …

…In the case of the Armstrong Marriage Chart, the Planetary Synchronization of Chiron, Venus and Neptune would mean a Cinderella (Chiron plus Venus equals Cinderella) through ENDURANCE. (Neptune rules endurance in Magi Astrology and you need extraordinary endurance to win the Tour de France, an event that lasts about a month.)

Where Are They Now? Well, Lance is still winning races, that’s for sure. But Lance and Kristin split up in February 2003 and divorced in September of the same year. Lance is now porking Sheryl Crow.

What I can’t figure out about the Magis is that they wrote this pithy analysis of Lance and Kristen in December 2003, after the couple had filed to end their “Cinderella Marriage.” What happens to your astrology when the prince and the chambermaid fail to live happily ever after?

Science and technology

Regarding incorruptibility

Yesterday, I pointed to a 1998 letter, printed in the Catholic magazine This Rock, from a Michael Dietsch in South Berwick, Maine. That Michael Dietsch discusses a couple of 1998 articles from This Rock debunking Darwinian evolution.

Dietsch also mentions an article by Phillip Johnson from First Things magazine, in which Johnson writes that accepting evolution as fact requires an a priori commitment to materialist thinking. (It’s worth pointing out now that Phillip Johnson is an advisor to the Discovery Institute, the Seattle organization that’s so active in promoting the concept of Intelligent Design, which, of course, requires an a priori commitment to religious thinking.)

So Dietsch then writes:

The only issue remaining is proof of the supernatural world, which is proof that materialism is nothing more than an unfounded philosophical assumption. This is where the incorruptibles come in. Look at St. Catherine Labour�, for example. She died in 1876, and her body has remained entirely incorrupt for the last 122 years. St. Bernadette Soubirous is a similar case. She died in 1879, and her body has remained incorrupt for the last 119 years. Ask any materialist for a purely natural, material explanation of these phenomena, then stand back and watch him stuttering because of a loss of words.”

South Berwick’s Michael Dietsch would have you believe that the clear supernatural origins of these incorruptibles render moot any claim that the world is bounded solely by natural, material forces. These incorruptibles are said to be saints preserved by their lingering connection with the Holy Spirit. For these claims to be true, however, you have to demonstrate a couple of truths:

* No natural explanation could ever possibly explain their preservation.

* No non-saintly being anywhere is so preserved.

I decided to do a little digging. I didn’t find much on Google–a few articles about moral incorruptibility, a few Catholic websites that laud these incorruptible saints as miraculous without critically examining the claims, and a bunch of French-language hits. I did find a couple of interesting articles, though, including Saints Preserve Us and Incorruptibility: Miracle or Myth?.

I learned from these articles that Dietsch was mentioning only two of many incorruptible saints, and I also learned that historians and scientists generally accept that these bodies are indeed those of the saints in question–that is, these aren’t hoaxes as I initially suspected.

The Church, apparently, takes no official position on the incorruptibility of saints’ relics. As the Fortean Times piece points out, church “authorities, quite sensibly, are more interested in the person’s virtue.” And, in fact, not all who are preserved are saintly, or even, in fact Catholic. Fortean Times points to a cardinal who collaborated with Mussolini and also to Hindu and Buddhist clerics whose bodies are revered.

Dietsch’s Saint Bernadette, it turns out, had her face coated in wax after her second exhumation, and her body sealed in an air-tight glass coffin. Seal me in wax and bury me in an air-tight coffin, and I’m likely to stand up for decades too.

Finally, these are saints, and Catholics have a history of revering their relics. Such veneration requires Catholics to keep close tabs on the remains. How can we know for certain the rate of decay of the millions of bodies that aren’t so revered? Decomposition depends on burial conditions such as the airtightness of the coffin and vault; the presence of insects, water, and microbes in the soil; and various other factors. Dig up a few dead Jews or Protestants and see what they look like. Among millions, you’re statistically likely to find some that haven’t decayed much after decades of burial.

“The only explanation is supernatural,” Dietsch claims. I’ll admit, it doesn’t appear that scientists can fully explain why some of these remains are undecayed. But Dietsch has fallen for the same fallacy that Phillip Johnson and his fellows at the Discovery Institute like to preach: If science can’t fully explain something right now, the only possible answer is, “God did it, so science, you just shut your piehole and look pretty.”

Science and technology

Don’t think twice, it’s all right

Lemme bang on about this some more. Ben Fulton, writing for the Salt Lake City Weekly, discusses the teaching of so-called intelligent design in public schools. He makes the same point that I’ve made: Shutting off scientific inquiry by saying God (or a god or gods or alien beings or pink unicorns) is harmful to the human mind. An excerpt:

Just imagine that, for every question you presented to someone in power, they answered with the words, “We don’t really know. It’s a mystery.” Now imagine if you or your child asked a question about the origin of the human species in a science class, only to have a learned instructor tell you, “We don’t really know. It’s a mystery.” Would anyone dare call that education?

Lest you think that Fulton’s “We don’t really know; it’s a mystery” is exaggerating the viewpoint of intelligent-design proponents, here’s a quote from the Newsweek article that Fulton references:

But I.D. has nothing to say on the identity of the designer or how he gets inside the cell to do his work. Does he create new species directly, or meddle with the DNA of living creatures? … Meyer’s view is simply that “we don’t know.” He declines even to offer an opinion on whether people are descended from apes, on the ground that it’s not his specialty. The diversity of life, in his view, is a “mystery” we may never solve.

“Meyer” is Stephen Meyer, director for the Center of Science and Culture at the Discovery Institute, an organization that funds the marketing, if you will, of intelligent design. So yes, Fulton is right. Intelligent design would teach kids that we don’t understand the diversity of life, and we may never understand it.

Let me reiterate a point I’ve made before, using my favorite analogy. Nicolas Copernicus demonstrated that Earth orbits the Sun, but it’s unlikely that Copernicus had much understanding of the nuclear forces that fuel stars such as our Sun. In the year 1500, it might have been reasonable to tell Nick that the source of the Sun’s energy was a mystery that we might never understand. But is that education?

However, this analogy is inaccurate, for it implies that we know little more, today, about the origins of life than Copernicus did, 500 years ago, about fusion reactions. This is untrue. Despite Meyer’s talk of “mysteries,” scientists today do understand the origins of the diversity of life. The unwillingness of IDers to accept Darwinian natural selection is no reason to deny students access to modern biology.

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Science and technology

Sad news

The New York Times | Science | Ernst Mayr, Pioneer in Tracing Geography’s Role in the Origin of Species, Dies at 100

This obituary, by Carol Kaesuk Yoon, is a great look at Mayr’s accomplishments in evolutionary biology and ornithology. I read his book, What Evolution Is, about a year ago. It’s an excellent overview of evolution and natural selection. People more familiar with the literature than I am say it’s among the best introductory texts on the subject.

Further, you just gotta admire a man who not only lives to 100 but continues to work and write. His What Makes Biology Unique was published last year by Cambridge University Press.

Mayr also served as an early mentor for the UCLA geographer and physiologist Jared Diamond, author of Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, and Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed.