Archive for the ‘Science’ Category

There’s a new article/interview up at the Vancouver Sun about the producer of Expelled (“No Apologies Allowed: Producer defends anti-Darwin movie”), and the second comment on the story jumped out at me:

By the second sentence, I was already smelling a liar. Then he goes into the 46/48 chromosome argument. (As if that hasn’t already been answered. Further, how can I possibly believe that he works in a genetics lab and doesn’t know this?) Then, it occurred to me that this post was a microcosm of the Expelled Movie: (1) Pretending to be an expert, (2) falsely claiming persecution for ideas, (3) drawing comparisons to Nazi Germany, (4) trying to stir-up anger, (5) using bad information to argue that “science can’t explain it”. I also liked the weird contradiction: “Everyone’s on the same bandwagon … half of my lab probably thinks about Intelligent Design”.

At least several people call him on his deceptive game.

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The latest This American Life has an interesting little story on some anti-vaccination parents – and what happened when measles spread through the community. (It starts at 14 minutes into the episode and is 22 minutes long.)

I haven’t really delved much into the anti-vaccination movement, though I hear other skeptics talk about it.

It was interesting to hear them describe the anti-vaccination movement as being driven by people who don’t trust the system (well, that and a paranoid fear of vaccination and over-protective parenting). In one part of the story, an anti-vaccination mother describes how a doctor tried to pressure her into giving her child a vaccination (or at least that’s how she describes it). She felt uncomfortable with the whole situation, and gave in. Then drew this conclusion: “His agenda really – I could tell at that point – was he was going to get a DTaP into my child because he felt like he could force me to… Doing further research … the vaccination was completely unnecessary, so that just ruined my faith even more. It sort of hit me like – wow, is it really this bad – you know? So that was – yeah, it was a big moment for me.” I just couldn’t believe it. Why in the world did she think he wanted the child to get vaccinated? What was his motive – other than doing the most responsible thing for the child? Did she think the doctor loves sticking needles into children? Did she think he had some ulterior motive? I’m sure he would’ve had the same reaction if she was letting her children play with loaded guns, or using faith-healing instead of going to the hospital. Any responsible person should get angry when misguided parents put their children at risk. Somehow, she twisted around his pressure to get her child vaccinated into some kind of a “they’re the bad people who shouldn’t be trusted”. It’s horrendously bad logic at it’s finest.

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Okay. I stole the title from another article: Bad Science Journalism and the Myth of the Oppressed Underdog

There is a particular narrative about science that science journalists love to write about, and Americans love to hear. I call it the ‘oppressed underdog’ narrative, and it would be great except for the fact that it’s usually wrong.

The narrative goes like this:

1. The famous, brilliant scientist So-and-so hypothesized that X was true.

2. X, forever after, became dogma among scientists, simply by virtue of the brilliance and fame of Dr. So-and-so.

3. This dogmatic assent continues unchallenged until an intrepid, underdog scientist comes forward with a dramatic new theory, completely overturning X, in spite of sustained, hostile opposition by the dogmatic scientific establishment.

We love stories like this; in our culture we love the underdog, who sticks to his or her guns, in spite of heavy opposition. In this narrative, we have heroes, villains, and a famous, brilliant scientist proven wrong.


I’m amazed he wrote the whole article didn’t mention (or even hint at) the fact that this is the strategy of Intelligent Design and the movie Expelled.

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The BadAstronomer takes VoxDay to task for this ridiculous argument. Personally, I think VoxDay’s argument is so stupid, it doesn’t even deserve a rebuttal. It’s just that stupid. Stand back in marvel in awe of the innanity:

The Bad Astronomer doesn’t realize that science is undermining the basis for materialism:

(The Bad Astronomer wrote:)
The energy budget of the Universe is the total amount of energy and matter in the whole cosmos added up. Together with some other observations, WMAP has been able to determine just how much of that budget is occupied by dark energy, dark matter, and normal matter. What they got was: the Universe is 72.1% dark energy, 23.3% dark matter, and 4.62% normal matter. You read that right: everything you can see, taste, hear, touch, just sense in any way… is less than 5% of the whole Universe.

In other words, even by its own lights, science and rational materialist philosophy is only relevant to five percent of what we currently consider to be all known Creation. Combined with its complete inapplicability to abstract concepts such as justice, equality and freedom, this shows that even attempting to build a social order on a secular basis is not only doomed to failure, but is quite arguably insane.

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Traumatic Insemination

I recently received a few insect bites on my arms. I think they happened while I was sleeping. It’s a little late in the year for mosquitoes, and someone suggested that maybe my bed had bedbugs. After reading a little bit, I don’t really think I have bedbugs, but I did discover something rather nasty about them.

Theists like to claim that everything (and especially biological life) is the product of a benevolent diety. There’s already the examples of mosquitos, malaria, viruses, etc that throws into question just how benevolent this supposed Creator is. (Although, they’ll say everything bad in the biological world is the result of “the Fall” of man. Apparently, “the Fall” is a creative force in itself, capable of transforming, redesigning, and adding new features to creatures like magic. Hey – anything to avoid making the Creator responsible.) Well, bedbugs – other than the fact that they live in your bedroom and come out at night to suck your blood like ticks – have another disturbing feature: “trumatic insemination”. What’s that? Here’s what wikipedia says about it:

Traumatic insemination is the mating practice of a few species of insects wherein the male pierces the female’s abdomen with his genitals and injects his sperm through the wound into her abdominal cavity. The most widely recorded example is that of Cimex lectularius, the bed bug.

The practice of traumatic insemination is believed to be advantageous to the reproductive success of the male while at the same time imposing a cost on females which results in reduced lifespan and reproductive output. The successive woundings each require energy to heal, leaving less energy available for other activities. Also, the wounds provide a possible point of infection, further reducing female lifespan.

So – the male punctures the female’s abdomen and inserts his sperm. Nice. I know if I were a benevolent diety creating a perfect world back in 4004 B.C., I’d include traumatic insemination. But, seriously, how could anyone who’s not twisted even think of “designing” a reproductive method that involves the male physically puncturing the abdomen of the female? Sounds like something H.R.Geiger or Trent Reznor would think up.

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I have to agree with Phil Plait when he says that science can evaluate the supernatural. He says:

The latest blurting about this comes from a scientist quoted in a book review. In the review, the science journalist says:

As scientists at Iowa State University put it last year, supernatural explanations are “not within the scope or abilities of science.”

This is 100% wrong. Any claim, any explanation of an event, definitely falls within the scope of science. That’s because science is a method of investigation.

For a little more context – the quote that supernatural explanations are “not within the scope or abilities of science” comes from a number of professors at the University of Iowa [oops – I meant Iowa State University] regarding Intelligent Design:

We, the undersigned faculty members at Iowa State University, reject all attempts to represent Intelligent Design as a scientific endeavor.

Advocates of Intelligent Design claim that the position of our planet and the complexity of particular life forms and processes are such that they may only be explained by the existence of a creator or designer of the universe. However, such claims are premised on (1) the arbitrary selection of features claimed to be engineered by a designer; (2) unverifiable conclusions about the wishes and desires of that designer; and (3) an abandonment by science of methodological naturalism.

Methodological naturalism, the view that natural phenomena can be explained without reference to supernatural beings or events, is the foundation of the natural sciences. The history of science contains many instances where complex natural phenomena were eventually understood only by adherence to methodological naturalism.

Whether one believes in a creator or not, views regarding a supernatural creator are, by their very nature, claims of religious faith, and so not within the scope or abilities of science. We, therefore, urge all faculty members to uphold the integrity of our university of “science and technology,” convey to students and the general public the importance of methodological naturalism in science, and reject efforts to portray Intelligent Design as science. (Link)

There’s a couple of things to be said about this. First, I agree with Phil Plait that science can evaluate the supernatural – within limits. The idea that science cannot evaluate the supernatural is one of those ideas that sounds right up until you start thinking about specific cases. I do think there are specific religious claims that cannot be evaluated, but there are plenty that can be. Further, scientists (and other intelligent people) are pretty clever at coming up with ways of testing some things that you wouldn’t normally think could be tested.

Some examples of supernatural/religious/magical things scientists have attempted to evaluate:
* Do people have telepathic abilities? (A number of universities had programs to study this. Nothing significant was found. Psychics claim it doesn’t work under the unemotional, sterile lab environment, although there is at least one book that studied psychics working on actual crimes and they had abysmal results there, too. One of the interesting things mentioned in that book is that “psychics” produced copious amounts of details about crimes, far more than college students used as controls. When anything was right, they pulled that particular detail out of the pile of details and claimed victory.)
* Does prayer work? (No)
* Can meditation reduce crime rates? (They play games with the charts, and I don’t think there’s anything here.)
* Can people communicate with the dead? (A few skeptics, including Harry Houdini, created a secret word or phrase known to only one person that would be used to verify their identity if any medium claimed to be “in contact” with their spirit after death. While many mediums claimed to be speaking to their spirit, they never knew the secret password.)
* Ouija Boards could produce results unknown to all participants (Penn and Teller did an interesting test of Ouija Boards, when they blinded some “Ouija Board” believers, turned the board 180 degrees and then had then ask questions – predictably, they moved the pointer to locations on the board that would be correct if the board hadn’t been turned.)

Further, there are things in religious books that can be tested.
* Was there a global flood 4300 years ago? (no)
* Is the genetic diversity of the human race compatible with the idea that we all descended from one family 4300 years ago? (No)
* Is the Mormon claim that Native Americans are descended from a small group of Jews compatible with the genetic evidence? (No)

That’s not to say that all religious claims can be tested – claims that God will judge you after you die, or whether Mary was divinely impregnated are simply not testable (we have no data). Further, since religious leaders are free to make any and all claims about the world (e.g. the earth is flat), it’s obvious that many religious claims are subject to scientific scrutiny.

In many cases, the full supernatural explanation would not be considered “science” – e.g. if we discovered that all humans descended from a single family 4300 years ago, and they were the only survivors of a global flood – that doesn’t mean the explanation “God told Noah to build a boat” is a scientific claim. Rather, we would have scientifically verified parts (global flood, only a few people survived), and non-verifiable, religious claims (God talked to Noah). I think there is the potential for a lot of situations like this – there is a scientifically verified piece, and a non-verifiable non-scientific piece.

So, I think the Iowa State professors were wrong in the statement that “claims of religious faith [are] not within the scope or abilities of science”. Additionally, in that statement, they talk about “adherence to methodological naturalism” – that only naturalistic explanations are accepted in science. I believe in the possibility of explanations that are on the “edge” of science – we can tell that something is there, but you can’t explain it scientifically/naturalistically. In that case, you have an “edge” that is considered “science” and you can say that supernatural explanations lie across the boundary, but that those explanations (while admitting they exist) are not scientific explanations – anymore than describing, say, the normal flow of electricity requires a “supernatural” explanation.

Of course, I can understand the need to adhere to naturalistic explanations – without it, people may attempt to explain this or that feature of the natural world with supernatural explanations, when a perfectly good (undiscovered) naturalistic one exists. Erring on the side of supernatural explanations can stop science from progressing. (e.g. “Why do the planets move the way they do? It’s like a giant clock created by God to show us that He loves order.”, “Why do people get sick? Demons.”) On the other hand, always erring on the side of “must have a natural explanation” means missing what could potentially be evidence for a supernatural designer.

Regarding “Intelligent Design”, they have attempted to use the “adherence to methodological naturalism” for propaganda purposes. They say scientists have unfairly excluded the possibility of a designer, and that presupposition means that everyone completely ignores the evidence for a designer even when it is right under their noses. (Yes, I’ve actually heard IDists make this argument.) IDists overplay this idea for the purpose of propaganda. I don’t have any philosophical ideas that ID should be excluded from consideration. My problem is with other pieces of the ID movement and their evidence (or lack of).

This would be a good place to transition into what I think is actually wrong with the ID movement and ID claims. In short: they’re an ideological-religious program, downplay or are ignorant of evolutionary mechanisms, have a history of making false statements, appeal to inaccurate analogies, play-up their “victimization” to garner sympathy, and try to sidestep scientific scrutiny by preaching directly to the public – to name a few. Unfortunately, to fully tackle that topic requires a whole new article.

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Physics Today has an article written by a Pakistani Physicist about the state of Islamic Science. It’s a decent article, but if you want to know what he says, you’ll have to read it. I’m just going to comment on one section of the article:

As intolerance and militancy sweep across the Muslim world, personal and academic freedoms diminish with the rising pressure to conform. In Pakistani universities, the veil is now ubiquitous, and the last few unveiled women students are under intense pressure to cover up. The head of the government-funded mosque-cum-seminary in the heart of Islamabad, the nation’s capital, issued the following chilling warning to my university’s female students and faculty on his FM radio channel on 12 April 2007:

The government should abolish co-education. Quaid-i-Azam University has become a brothel. Its female professors and students roam in objectionable dresses. . . . Sportswomen are spreading nudity. I warn the sportswomen of Islamabad to stop participating in sports. . . . Our female students have not issued the threat of throwing acid on the uncovered faces of women. However, such a threat could be used for creating the fear of Islam among sinful women. There is no harm in it. There are far more horrible punishments in the hereafter for such women.

Throwing acid on a woman’s face occurs to “hundreds of women every year” in Pakistan. Sometimes it is used by the Muslims to enforce (terrorize) the population into following whatever conservative, Islamic demand they require of the population. Occasionally, it is used by violent, controlling men attacking a former lover. It’s reprehensible that anyone – particularly a leader – would threaten this kind of punishment. It’s pure evil because it permanently deforms the victim’s face for their entire life – making them look like some kind of monster. (I’d post a picture of one of these victims, but most of them are simply too horrific for me to post here.) It’s essentially saying: I’m not going to kill you, I’m just going to torture you by making sure you live out the rest of your days in lonely, disfigured sadness. That religion could support this by appealing to some fantasy afterlife and an appeal to strengthening “morality” in the population is incredible. (And they say religion is the source of morality?)
More Information: Google search: “pakistan acid face women” (742,000 hits)

I’ve often heard Muslims complain that these extremists aren’t following “True Islam”. While I’ve read enough quotes from the Koran to be suspicious of that argument, one thing that often stands out is the fact that the higher a Muslim’s position is within their religious world, the more likely they are to hold dogmatic, backwards, medieval views. It seems that the average Muslim is actually more tolerant than their religious leaders are – which seems exactly the opposite of what one would expect if the Koran was teaching goodness and tolerance. For example:

A survey carried out in Yemen revealed that even imams do not all share the same views on the matter [of the death penalty for apostates], even if the majority is for the death penalty. Still less convinced are Muslim businessmen and professionals, university students, and the head of the largest Islamic party in the Opposition, Mohammed Qahtan, who is persuaded that no Yemenite is in the same position as Rahman. (Link)

The *majority* of imams in Yemen support the death penalty for apostates? And Western Muslims argue that Islam is tolerant of apostates? How is that even possible that the majority of the religious *leaders* – those who know the Koran better than anyone – support death for apostasy if the Koran doesn’t teach it? Why is the rest of the population – who are less educated in the Koran, but living the same national experience as Muslim imams – *less* willing to accept death for apostasy? Some people try to argue that Muslim extremism is because of the things the West has done, but if that were true, there should be no difference between the views of Muslim Imams and the average Muslim – since they both had the same shared experience.

One note I should say about that quote – when it says, “no Yemenite is in the same position as Rahman”, I assume they are talking about Abdul Rahman, the Afghani who converted from Islam to Christianity and was sentenced to death for it. While it’s nice that Mohammed Qahtan thinks “no Yemenite is in the same position as Rahman”, he is essentially saying that he supports the death penalty for Rahman. (And, it should be noted that lots of Muslim clerics agreed with that death penalty.) Here’s an article on why Muslims agree with death for apostasy.

On a similar note of the backwardness being correlated with high status in the Muslim religious world, there’s that well-known quote of Saudi Arabia’s Supreme religious authority:

“The earth is flat, and anyone who disputes this claim is an atheist who deserves to be punished.” [Muslim religious edict, 1993, Sheik Abdel-Aziz Ibn Baaz, Supreme religious authority, Saudi Arabia]

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Discover Magazine has an interesting article in the July 2007 issue: Science and Islam in Conflict. It begins:

“There is no conflict between Islam and science,” Zaghloul El-Naggar declares … What people call the scientific method, he explains, is really the Islamic method: “All the wealth of knowledge in the world has actually emanated from Muslim civilization.

Yes, please stifle your laughter. This is a common refrain among Muslims trying to promote and proselytize. I’m sometimes amazed by the tripe put out by Muslims to advance this fiction. I’ve seen plenty of YouTube videos claiming the Koran teaches modern scientific principles – and therefore, the Koran is proven true. It’s sometimes put into the context of “Who made the universe?” (God.) “Who do you go to if you want to know how something works?” (The person who built it.) See, all that work you do to “discover” things is in vain. Muslims can just look in the Koran.

And who is accountable for the decline [of Islamic science]? El-Naggar has no doubts. “We are not behind because of Islam,” he says. “We are behind because of what the Americans and the British have done to us.” The evil West is a common refrain with El-Naggar

Because the Muslim world was a bastion of science until 1918, when the British gained control of lands formerly controlled by the Ottoman Empire? Of course not. Islamic science was crippled centuries and centuries before that. A brief Neil Tyson video on the fall of Islamic science, beginning around 1200 AD:

But, Muslims constantly try to say that the Koran is verified by the “fact” that it teaches scientific principles, or the reverse – that science proves the Koran to be divine. And they end up producing stupid videos like this, this, and this.

In Treasures of the Sunnah, El-Naggar quotes scripture: “and each of them (i.e., the moon and the sun) floats along in (its own) orbit.” “The Messenger of Allah,” El-Naggar writes, “talked about all these cosmic facts in such accurate scientific style at a period of time when people thought that Earth was flat and stationary. This is definitely one of the signs, which testifies to the truthfulness of the message of Muhammad.”

Uh, wha? The Koran says the Sun travels in an orbit, and this proves the Koran anticipated the theory of solar-centrism? Sounds like geo-centrism to me. In other words, Muhammad is simply parroting the beliefs of his day – and getting his facts wrong, despite the fact that the message “came from God”.

Elsewhere, he notes the Prophet’s references to “the seven earths”; El-Naggar claims that geologists say that Earth’s crust consists of seven zones. In another passage, the Prophet said that there were 360 joints in the body, and other Islamic researchers claim that medical science backs up the figure. Such knowledge, the thinking goes, could only have been given by God.

Critics are quick to point out that Islamic scientists tend to use each other as sources, creating an illusion that the work has been validated by research. The existence of 360 joints, in fact, is not accepted in medical communities; rather, the number varies from person to person, with an average of 307. These days most geologists divide Earth’s crust into 15 major zones, or tectonic plates.

This reminds me a lot of Christian creationists. Like I said, this myth that the Koran teaches modern scientific principles (and it is validated by science) seems to be a pervasive myth among Muslims. I feel bad for the poor convert who gets sucked in by this misinformation because he failed to actually verify these empty claims.

As if we needed another testament to their intellectual flexibility:

El-Naggar even sees moral meaning in the earthquake that triggered the 2005 tsunami and washed away nearly a quarter of a million lives. Plate tectonics and global warming be damned: God had expressed his wrath over the sins of the West. Why, then, had God punished Southeast Asia rather than Los Angeles or the coast of Florida? His answer: Because the lands that were hit had tolerated the immoral behavior of tourists.

On the backwardness of Islamic science (due, of course to the British and Americans):

The Napoleonic occupation from 1798 to 1801 brought French scientists to Egypt. The arrival of the Europeans alerted Egyptians to how far behind they’d fallen; that shock set in motion a long intellectual awakening. During the 150 years that followed, institutions for higher learning in Cairo gave the city an international reputation for prestigious institutions, and the exchange of scholars went in both directions, with Egyptians going west and Americans and Europeans coming here.

Then came the 1952 coup led by Gamal Abdel Nasser that toppled King Farouk I. Nasser was the first modern leader to position himself as a spokesman for the whole Arab world. His brand of nationalism was meant to unify all Arab people, not just Egyptians, and it set them in opposition to America and Europe. “After Nasser, Arab nationalism raised suspicions about the West,” Soltan says.

What about, say, evolutionary biology or Darwinism? I ask. (Evolution is taught in Egyptian schools, although it is banned in Saudi Arabia and Sudan.) “If you are asking if Adam came from a monkey, no,” Badawy responds. “Man did not come from a monkey. If I am religious, if I agree with Islam, then I have to respect all of the ideas of Islam. And one of these ideas is the creation of the human from Adam and Eve. If I am a scientist, I have to believe that.”

But from the point of view of a scientist, is it not just a story? I ask. He tells me that if I were writing an article saying that Adam and Eve is a big lie, it will not be accepted until I can prove it.

“Nobody can just write what he thinks without proof. But we have real proof that the story of Adam as the first man is true.”

“What proof?”

He looks at me with disbelief: “It’s written in the Koran.”

It sounds like some of the Muslim commentary in the article is just a mixture of bad philosophy and theology (God made the universe and wrote the Koran, therefore science and the Koran cannot conflict) and constant scapegoating of the West for their problems.

[Prince El Hassan bin Talal] is also candid, calling suicide bombers “social rejects” and questioning the validity of those who would take the Muslim world back to the times of the Prophet Muhammad. “Are we talking Islam or Islamism?” he asks, pointing out the difference between the religion and those extremists who use the religion to advance their own agendas. “The danger [posed by Islamists] is not only to Christians but also to Islam itself. The real problem is not the Arab-Israel issue but the rise of Islamism.”

It seems that the Islamic world is caught in a cycle of poor education and religious extremism. Education has a way of blunting religious beliefs (and the dogmatic, backwards ones in particular). You can see it even within subcultures in the US: blacks have the highest degrees of religiosity and lowest education, whites have moderate levels of religiosity and decent levels of education, and Jews have the lowest degrees of religiosity and highest education. Similarly, the “Bible Belt” in the US coincides with the nation’s lowest high school graduation rates. Being exposed to reality and thinking tends to break the small worldview of religion. I also can’t help but wonder if the Muslim world is caught in another cycle: the fact that they are behind the West in science leads them (for reasons of ego) to downplay the usefulness of science and in favor of religion (well, the West might have science, but they are morally decadent and don’t have “God’s Word”. On the other hand, we [Muslims] please God and we’ll be the ones in heaven, not them – and in the end, that’s all that matters). Heck, you could even quote Jesus in favor of that point: “For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world, and forfeit his soul?”

Update (Oct 2, 2007): Physics Today has an article written by a Pakistani Physicist about the state of Islamic Science.

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