Month: June 2013

“Too local, too provincial” – Richard Feynman on beauty in (probably) the best video on YouTube

This has to be one of the best videos on YouTube – Feynman just has a perfect voice for this type of thing. I’m in the middle of his biography, Genius, by James Gleick, and it confirms what you can pretty much tell from the clip – he was a force of nature and easily one of the top scientists of the 20th century.

And also very sweet. You can read the letter he wrote to his first wife, Arline, two years after she had died of tuberculosis.

Why Anyone Wanting to be Scientist Should Avoid Ball State University

No doubt you are aware by now of the controversy at Ball State University (public, by the way), where Assistant Professor Eric Hedin has been formally accused by the Freedom From Religion Foundation of violating students’ first amendment rights by injecting religious views into a supposed “science” course. I won’t rehash in detail – you can find a good summary of events here, but I did want to comment on the issue both because BSU is in my home state of Indiana (I briefly considered attending…phew!) and because I’m personally torn on what should be done.

First of all, there really is no question that what Hedin is teaching is poor science. Just look at his reading list (bottom of post) and note the silly amount of religious accomodationists, ID-advocates, and apologists. I mean Lee Strobel! In a science course!?! If I found this list on the street, I would assume it could only be an elective at a Theological Seminary in the Bible Belt. So, obviously Hedin is injecting religion and poor science into his class – but the question is, has he crossed a line, and to what extent do we defend academic freedom?

As much as I want to say Hedin shouldn’t be allowed to promote this bunk in anything like a science department course, I am also concerned that censoring a professor would have very bad effects going forward. Wouldn’t the Discovery Institute like to pounce on this? They could easily paint it as another example of Intelligent Design being shut out of the discussion, which it should be, but to the untrained ear that sounds an awful lot like “unfairness” on the part of evolutionary scientists, which is already the perception of many evangelicals. So I tend to lean toward letting Hedin teach whatever he wants and hoping students have enough critical thinking capacity to withstand any religious proselytizing with poor science…or maybe enough critical thinking to just avoid Ball State University altogether (provided you want to be a scientist).

I encourage you to check out Jerry Coyne’s post about the issue (he helped bring it to the attention of the Freedom from Religion Foundation), and then P.Z. Myer’s disagreement.

And here, as promised, is the reading list for Hedin’s “Boundaries of Science” course. If you’re not familiar with most of these authors, that’s because they’re very much on the “boundaries” of science…some very clearly do not even qualify as scientists, like…Lee Strobel (face palm). I still can’t believe it!

There's something a little odd about these "science" readings, don't you think?

There’s something a little odd about these “science” readings, don’t you think?

Today at 4 EST: 20-year-old Zack Kopplin to Debate Discovery Institute ID Advocates

Evolution Defender, Zack Kopplin

You can catch 20-year-old champion of evolution Zack Kopplin debate two Discovery Institute ID-advocates, Michael Medved and Casey Luskin, today on Medved’s radio show beginning at 4pm EST by clicking here.

If you haven’t been following the story, Kopplin, a current undergraduate at Rice University in Houston, became something of a sensation in helping to lead a campaign against the Louisiana Science Education Act (LSEA), which would allow public school teachers to use “supplementary materials” to criticize “evolution, the origins of life, global warming, and human cloning.”

The bill recently died in committee for the third year in a row, but these brush fires continue to sprout up, and I’m glad we have individuals like Kopplin standing up for scientific integrity and separation of church and state. Should be a fun interview – I’m not sure exactly of the context, but Medved and Luskin would need to start debating 10-year-old’s to have any shot at winning a debate on ID in public schools.

Sophisticated Ignorance – An Evangelical Preacher’s Denial of Evolution

Matt Chandler is a likable guy. He really is. I don’t have any trouble understanding how he’s been able to turn what was originally a dying congregation at Highland Village Baptist Church in Flower Mound, Texas into a 10,000 member, four campus mega-community of worshipers now collectively known as The Village Church. I get why he was recently named President of the Acts 29 Network, a church-planting initiative founded by Seattle-based preacher Mark Driscoll. I get why he’s got the #3 podcast in the “Religion and Spirituality” section of iTunes and a best-selling book, The Explicit Gospel. I get it. He comes across as real and genuine and somebody you want to be friends with. I’ve felt this way about him myself while sitting in on several of his sermons in Dallas.

But Matt Chandler is dangerous. He has that rare combination of charisma, ignorance, and influence that endears him to many and makes him seem trustworthy (…George W. anyone?). His book, The Explicit Gospel, has what must be the most frustrating section on science I have ever read (you can read my review of it on Amazon here, but just to give you a preview, he calls himself an “agnostic” on science…despite having just survived brain cancer). He of course denies evolution, but as you’ll see in the video below, he does so in a moderately sophisticated way, appealing to straw man arguments and misinformed rhetoric. When I first found this video, it had zero “dislikes” – I’ve tried casually to bump that up through initiating discussions in the comment section, but don’t think I can rest until that figure overwhelms the number of “likes”.

It isn’t just that Chandler is dangerous for people like me, who care about scientific integrity and truth, but he’s also, I think, dangerous for Christianity. He asserts a dichotomy between evolution and belief  (ie. you must pick one or the other) that I don’t think can survive the modern age of science and reason. Evolution is not going anywhere and Christians who insist on denying it will isolate themselves even further along the fringes. So, in a strange paradox, I think as many believers should be just as upset with Chandler as nonbelievers (I should point out that Chandler simply doesn’t seem to understand evolution…it’s possible, but not likely, that if he did he would come around).

Of course, I actually agree with Chandler that it is a dichotomy – that evolution is incompatible with evangelical Christianity – but I’d rather see moderate Christians embracing evolution (no matter how logically inconsistent the idea of “moderate” Christianity may be) than creationists continuing to insist that it’s “just a theory”.

“The universe is made of stories, not atoms” – Muriel Rukeyser

That pretty line above is from poet Muriel Rukeyser, and it’s used skillfully by physicist Sean Carroll in his keynote speech at the 2013 American Humanist Association Conference in San Diego just a few days ago. The talk is titled “Purpose and the Universe” and if you’ve never heard Carroll lecture before, I recommend sitting down for an hour and giving him a listen. He’s entertaining, likable, and has a knack for lucidly explaining concepts like quantum field theory in just a few slides.

Highlights for me included:

  • Carroll’s claim that the “laws of physics underlying the experiences of our everyday lives are completely known.” He’s of course not saying that physics is done or that there aren’t undiscovered particles or fields, but that we do know a complete regime of physics, and anything else we discover won’t have any real application to our lives. He explains exactly how we know that, and why we can rule out certain alternatives (assuming quantum field theory is correct). The completeness of this regime has obvious explanatory power, and can absolutely demolish particular claims that would require a different set of physical laws – one obvious one is astrology and another, which is equally implied by the laws but harder for many to accept, is life after death (see this blog post by Carroll for more on that).
  • Carroll’s disagreement with many of his atheist/humanist colleagues that science will be able to supply answers to questions of purpose, right and wrong, and ultimate meaning. These concepts, Carroll thinks, must be judged more practically and cannot be reduced to the laws of physics (though any answers we come up with certainly shouldn’t be incompatible with the laws of physics).
  • Learning that the underlying reality of the universe is made up not of particles but of waves and fields. The act of observation distorts the field in a certain way so that we “see” particles, though at its base nature is simply a collection of vibrating fields.
  • Special guest Richard Dawkins (who was in town to moderate a panel on “Religion as Child Abuse”) asking a question at 1:00:56 and making a slight correction to one of Carroll’s slides. How cheeky.