Science

Ahem…Islam is not a race.

Yesterday, Richard Dawkins set off another twitter frenzy with this factual but taunting tweet: “All the world’s Muslims have fewer Nobel Prizes than Trinity College, Cambridge. They did great things in the Middle Ages, though.”

This is of course true, and astonishing when you consider the sheer number of the world’s Muslims, some 1.6 billion. Dawkins point was similar to that of Neil DeGrasse Tyson in this 2006 lecture: Something has set science back in the Muslim world from their once preeminent position (they named most of the stars, for instance), and it’s likely fundamentalist adherence to religious dogma and the rejection of facts that disagree with their holy book.

In any case, you can find Dawkins’ blog post here defending his tweet and further explaining his intentions. He also responds to the most frequent criticisms from the twittersphere, in which large masses of users seem not to understand that:

1. Islam is not a race (rule of thumb, if you can convert to it…)
2. “Your” and “You’re” mean two different things.

Sagan’s Cosmos = Classical | Tyson’s Cosmos = Rock and Roll

Over the weekend, Fox released a teaser trailer for its upcoming Cosmos revamp featuring Neil DeGrasse Tyson. I’m an enormous fan of Carl Sagan’s original version (you can watch it on Netflix), and have been salivating over the prospect of an updated version since I heard the news about a year ago.

I’ve now watched the trailer probably 15 times (I know) and could not be more excited for its release in February 2014. The original inspired an entire generation, opening up the wonders of the Universe and of science in a distinctly human, poetic way. Tyson’s style is obviously very different than Sagan, more rock and roll than classical, but if anyone can carry on Sagan’s legacy it’s him.

Have a look at the new trailer below, and the original series trailer below that. Then get excited.

Texas, abortion, and the greatly missed level-head of Carl Sagan

Texas’ senate just passed a bill to ban all abortions prior to the 20th week of pregnancy, approximately four weeks earlier than the guideline set by Roe v. Wade. The bill gained momentum largely by way of a disputed claim that a fetus can feel pain as early as 20 weeks (see article on controversy here). Among other consequences, the new law, which requires a facility upgrade for clinics not meeting outlined surgical standards, will effectively shut down all but a few abortion clinics in the state (a state, by the way, with one of the highest teen pregnancy rates in the country).

The bill has created quite an outburst across Texas and the U.S., with Senator Wendy Davis emerging as the outspoken hero of the “pro-choice” movement (she successfully thwarted the the bill’s first attempt at passage during a 13 hour filibuster).

All the hullabaloo prompted me to revisit Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan’s 1990 article in Parade Magazine, “Abortion: Is it possible to be both ‘pro-life’ and ‘pro-choice’?”, which is still the most thoughtful, level-headed discussion of the issue I have encountered. After reading, you may begin to see why defining the ability to feel pain as the metric for fetus viability stands on quite shaky moral ground.

I’ve reproduced the first paragraph here:

“The issue had been decided years ago. The court had chosen the middle ground. You’d think the fight was over. Instead, there are mass rallies, bombings and intimidation, murders of workers at abortion clinics, arrests, intense lobbying, legislative drama, Congressional hearings, Supreme Court decisions, major political parties almost defining themselves on the issue, and clerics threatening politicians with perdition. Partisans fling accusations of hypocrisy and murder. The intent of the Constitution and the will of God are equally invoked. Doubtful arguments are trotted out as certitudes. The contending factions call on science to bolster their positions. Families are divided, husbands and wives agree not to discuss it, old friends are no longer speaking. Politicians check the latest polls to discover the dictates of their consciences. Amid all the shouting, it is hard for the adversaries to hear one another. Opinions are polarized. Minds are closed . . . ”

FULL ARTICLE HERE: http://2think.org/abortion.shtml

A family photo from space – Cassini to snap Earth’s picture on July 19th

You might be familiar with Carolyn Porco’s 2007 TED talk, in which she introduced the world to some truly breathtaking photos taken from the Cassini robot spacecraft (launched in 2007). Well, Cassini is still up there, and on July 19th (from 4:27pm-4:42pm CST), it will be snapping another high-res photo of Saturn that is once again expected to feature earth in the backdrop, though this time in natural color. This will be the first time in history the people of Earth have known in advance their picture is being taken by a spacecraft millions and millions of miles away.

To celebrate, Porco and the Cassini team are encouraging people to spend a few moments outside during the actual photo time (you can look that up for your local area here) to reflect on and celebrate our existence, and to maybe even smile or wave for the camera. The event is officially titled, The Day the Earth Smiled.

For a very brief history of seeing our “pale blue dot” from space, and the impact that can have on our perspectives, see Robert Krulwich’s recent blog post highlighting several famous pictures here. And please don’t miss this –

The Triumph of Steven Pinker and Disillusionment with Malcolm Gladwell

Once, not too long ago, I was enthralled by the fascinating subject matter and charming prose of journalist and essayist Malcolm Gladwell. Few interested in psychology or social science have not read at least one of his bestselling books, which include The Tipping Point, Blink, and Outliers, or followed his essays in The New Yorker. Having devoured Blink in high school, I can still vividly recall many of its lessons, and even today occasionally catch myself applying Blink-ist thinking to real-world situations (a Gladwell book was an easy gift for a string of holidays). But I can also vividly recall reading what I then perceived as an overly critical review of Gladwell’s work by some guy named Steven Pinker, who said something like, “[reading Gladwell] had me gnawing on my Kindle.”

Fast forward to 2013, and Steven Pinker is no longer just some guy to me, but one of the world’s most interesting thinkers. He is currently a professor of psychology at Harvard, and has raised his profile over the years with public advocacy of science (you may recognize him by his locks – his hair has its own facebook fan page) and a string of best-selling books on language and cognitive psychology. His most recent work, The Better Nature of Our Angels, was hailed by Bill Gates as one of the most important books he’s ever read.

Now knowing a bit more (though not much) about statistics, logical fallacies, and the dangers of inept data interpretation, I have reread Pinker’s 2009 review of Gladwell’s work in the NY Times, and couldn’t agree more with its conclusions. Pinker points out that Gladwell is far from an expert on statistics or social science, and summarizes his concerns in the following way:

” . . . When a writer’s education on a topic consists in interviewing an expert, he is apt to offer generalizations that are banal, obtuse or flat wrong . . . The reasoning in ‘Outliers,’ which consists of cherry-picked anecdotes, post-hoc sophistry and false dichotomies, had me gnawing on my Kindle . . . Readers have much to learn from Gladwell the journalist and essayist. But when it comes to Gladwell the social scientist, they should watch out for those igon values.”

The reference to “igon values” is a stab at Gladwell’s sophomoric misuse and misspelling of linear algebra’s “eigenvalue”. Gladwell fired back in a response, and the two ended up in a bit of a written exchange over, of all things, football statistics. But the lesson here is even more important than those I’ve remembered from Blink. Social science is a tricky business, with vast amounts of room for error in interpretation. We have to be careful accepting conclusions based on anecdotal evidence, and especially of trusting individuals writing or speaking far outside their area of expertise.

The other lesson is to read often and read widely. My first bit of disillusionment with Gladwell actually came a few years ago, while simultaneously reading The Tipping Point and Dubner and Levitt’s Freakonomics. Both books, in what I assume was a coincidence, tried to answer the question of why crime rates had dropped so suddenly in New York City in the mid-90’s. I won’t spoil the conclusions for those who haven’t read the books, but let’s just say they were radically different, and it seemed clear to me that the take in Freakonomics was much more likely (and was backed up by much more data).

That’s not to say Gladwell doesn’t have much to offer (it’s also not to say that Pinker is infallible or should be read without some degree of skepticism either). I would agree with Pinker’s back-handed assessment of Gladwell as at least a “minor genius” with a unique voice and take on the world (though I’m not sure I agree with his take on the future of religion, here). In summary, I very much look forward to the next release of a Gladwell book; though this time I’ll know to spend more time savoring the prose than conclusions.

(Yet another reason) why anyone wanting to be a scientist should avoid Ball State University

I’m really not sure what Ball State is thinking. In the middle of a controversy over professor Eric Hedin’s alleged Christian proselytizing in a science course (see earlier post here to catch up), they have now gone and announced the hiring of Professor Guillermo Gonzalez, a vocal Intelligent Design advocate, in their department of physics and astronomy.

See Full Article Here: BSU hires leader in intelligent design – July 6, 2013 – The Star Press

All I can say is that if I were 17 or 18 years old and considering a career in science , this would send a clear message to me that BSU is not the place to apply. I think they are in real danger of developing a reputation as a fringe science institution, and that is going to hurt the university and the state of Indiana (my home state, by the way) in the long run.

Pull it together, Muncie.

(For more on the controversy surrounding BSU, visit Jerry Coyne’s blog, Why Evolution is True.)

 

The Nature of Evidence: Science vs. Religion

Lawrence Krauss has a new op-ed in the LA Times criticizing the Catholic Church’s loose definition of what constitutes evidence. As you probably know, being named a saint requires the sufficient demonstration of at least two miracles, and the late Pope John Paul II recently met this requirement by “curing” a woman in Costa Rica in 2011 (of what, the article does not say). A panel of doctors ruled that her recovery was otherwise inexplicable.

The problem, as Krauss notes, is that inexplicable remissions happen in medicine somewhat frequently. Are all of these miracles, or is it more likely there is still some aspect of these diseases we still do not adequately understand (remember that medicine, despite the authoritative white lab coats worn by its practitioners, is a relatively recent discipline just now finding its footing as a science)? The Catholic Church is all too ready to declare instances like this “miraculous” without ever considering the more likely alternatives. This stands in direct contrast to the scientific ethos, which gives as much attention to trying to prove ideas wrong as it does to trying to prove them right.

In the mid 1800s, a miraculous appearance of the Virgin Mary was reported in Lourdes, France. Millions have since visited that site in hopes of being cured of their ailments, physical or otherwise. The Catholic Church has kept records of any claimed cures in Lourdes, and more than 60 have been ruled “miraculous”. Of course, it’s not difficult to compare this figure to the number of visitors to the site, year in and year out, and to compare that figure to the average spontaneous remission rate in most cancers and popular diseases. Unfortunately for the church, the latter number is actually higher – meaning, essentially, people who don’t visit Lourdes actually have a higher chance of spontaneous cure than those who do.

Between standards of evidence, there is probably no wider gap than that between the Vatican and science. Claims of miracles are not trivial – if true, they would indeed point to a higher power, and of something beyond our everyday experience. Therein lies the importance of being skeptical, of not settling for substandard evidence in the form of personal testimony or “God of the gaps” arguments (ie. we can’t explain it – therefore, God). As Carl Sagan summarized so well, we have to be careful not to yield to personal preferences in our search for truth, and acknowledge that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”

Krauss’ Full Article Available Here: Pope John Paul II and the trouble with miracles – July 7, 2013 – LA Times

Lawrence Krauss to Debate William Lane Craig – Thank You, Australia!

I’m surprised but very pleased to learn today that physicist Lawrence Krauss and Christian apologist William Lane Craig have agreed to a three-part debate series in Australia to take place this August. Details here. Each night will focus on a different topic:

  • August 7th, “Has science buried God?”
  • August 13th, “Why is there something rather than nothing?”
  • August 16th, “Is it reasonable to believe there is a God?”

Krauss of course is director of the Origins Project at Arizona State University, a respected physicist (there were Nobel rumblings at one point), and more recently a vocal advocate for scientific literacy. Along with Richard Dawkins, he will be the subject of the upcoming documentary, The Unbelievers (see Richard’s reason for not debating Craig here). William Lane Craig (or WLC) is a philosopher, theologian, and popular Christian apologist (though popular mostly with the public, not so much intellectuals – see post here). He also has a somewhat well-deserved reputation as a formidable debater.

The two have gone head to head before, but I think Krauss clearly “lost” in terms of style. You can watch the whole thing here, but be warned the audio quality is poor. Krauss is much too loose, informal, unprepared, and at times discusses scientific concepts in far too much detail to get his point across. That said, he’s gotten much better (I think this was one of his earliest attempts at debating a theologian), and you can watch a more recent debate here (Intelligence Squared) and his fantastic Science of Storytelling series here (featuring Bill Nye, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Richard Dawkins, and Brian Greene, among others).

I’m not sure who’s the favorite in this match-up. Looking solely at the last time they debated, I’d be forced to go with WLC, but if the format is informal, as Krauss prefers and WLC dislikes, then it could be very interesting. Directly below is a debate WLC had with philosopher Shelly Kagan, in which he looks more uncomfortable than ever because of the conversational style of the latter half. And directly below that video is a debate where Krauss got a little angry (they tried to segregate women and men in the audience at the start of the event) and took it out on poor Hamza Andreas Tzortzis, repeatedly calling attention to his ignorance of science and mathematics.

Here’s looking forward to August!

Kevin Padian discusses common misconceptions about evolution

Jerry Coyne shares Kevin Padian’s new paper (available for free) on some of the most common misrepresentations of evolution and how to avoid them…

Why Evolution Is True

If you teach evolution, or like to read about it, there’s a new paper you should read by Kevin Padian in the journal Evolution: Education and Outreach(free download; reference below). It’s a discussion of misrepresentations about evolution that occur not only in popular science writing, but also in textbooks. As president of the National Center for Science Education (NCSE), and a respected paleontologist at Berkeley who works on the evolution of birds and flight, Padian carries considerable authority in this area. And indeed, his points are generally good. In fact, I was embarrassed to see that I’ve been guilty of some of these misrepresentations, for which I’m sometimes called to account by readers here.

I do have a couple of disagreements with Padian’s points (more below), but on the whole they’re solid and worth absorbing.  Here are some that I agree with, or at least don’t strongly disagree with:

View original post 2,184 more words

On Correcting Bookstore Mistakes – Intelligent Design is Not Science

A few days ago, I took a trip to a small town in central Texas and, as is habit, stopped by a local bookstore. I was a little shocked (though maybe I shouldn’t have been) to find two fringe “science” books displayed prominently near the door: Stephen C. Meyer’s recently released “Darwin’s Doubt” and physician Eben Alexander’s “Proof of Heaven“. The rest of this particular bookstore’s science section, meanwhile, was suspiciously weak, relegated to one small wall of five shelves and containing only three or four volumes on Darwinian evolution. The Christianity section, meanwhile, stretched across six aisles.

Meyer’s book, which I have not read, apparently advocates for Intelligent Design (a movement that should be categorized as religion, not science – see overview here, description of the Discovery Institute’s “wedge strategy” here, and if you have lots of time, a fantastic PBS documentary on the controversy here). Alexander’s book, “Proof of Heaven” is even more offensive as a representation of responsible science. You should first read his account here (he, like many others, had a NDE, or near-death experience, that he says proves consciousness exists outside the brain) and then read Sam Harris’ response here, which rightly decimates such a stupendous claim. The two most important points to remember – being a neurosurgeon doesn’t mean you actually understand neuroscience all that well (cutting brains is not the same as studying them), and being highly educated doesn’t mean you have much critical thinking capacity (since he wrote a book, he apparently emerged from his COMA, so isn’t it much more likely he had his NDE as he was regaining consciousness, and not while completely “brain-dead”?).

Proof of Heaven?

Bookstores have no obligation to maintain a balanced inventory of material. They are businesses that need to cater to customer demands in order to make a profit and survive. But I can’t help feeling sad that customers in this particular location (and probably numerous others throughout the country) are in some way being cheated out of access to proper science and instead being fed garbage.

I did the only thing I could think of – moved Meyer’s book out of the thin science section and put it where it belonged, in the middle of the Christian apology aisle (well, it was more of a wing).