Sunday, October 12, 2008

Geology Popularization

As an Interdisciplinary Sciences (IS) major, I am not-infrequently derided by students with more narrowly focused majors as being something of a scientific voyeur whenever it comes to their specific disciplines. As I am primarily concerned with science literacy and the public understanding of science, I never fail to point out that I am at least better informed about a far greater array of disciplines than they are and am thus able to integrate findings from a diverse range of disciplines into my understanding of the cosmos and communicate that understanding to folks that might have trouble finding the roots of a quadratic equation.


In this, my final semester, I am taking a 300-level Geology (GEOL) course, called “Search for Our Past.” The course consists of studying the geology of North America and how the landforms we encounter in our daily lives have been shaped in the past. As the main project for the course, we are looking at the various geologic provinces of the United States (e.g. Colorado Plateau, Basin and Range, etc.). Probably better than half of the students in the class are GEOL majors, of one sort or another, with the rest being IS majors of one sort or another; which can include pre-med and pre-law students. This has so far been an interesting and challenging class.


As an aspiring “public intellectual” that hopes to, in my own small way, take up the mantle of such giants as Isaac Asimov and Carl Sagan, I can easily, either starting from my extensive personal library of science books, or from the internet, follow the trail of references from a popular work of science, whether it is about physics, cosmology, biology (including evolution), astronomy, the psychology of belief, or history, to the original academic research that underlies the more “popular” works. This does not appear to be the case in geology.

Why is it that I can readily find the “by scientists, for scientists” material to reference when writing a popular piece about neutrino astronomy, but finding equally “meaty” references when putting together a piece on the geologic history of the Pacific Northwest is so much harder? I am not sure exactly why this is, but I do have a hypothesis. Unlike physics or cosmology, for instance, geology, and perhaps chemistry, is not only a science, but an industry, with the requisite “trade secrets,” “proprietary information,” and the like. They are areas that, with the exception of geology in the context of evolution, are not being popularized to the extent of other scientific disciplines. This is something that professional geologists need to work to correct.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Short and Sweet

It is a sad commentary on the state of American culture when it is thought to be prudent, and folks are even encouraged, to reject a potential mate because of a poor credit score, but if it were known that you rejected a potential mate because of an insufficiently high IQ, you would be thought a monster of arrogance.

Of course, while like obscenity, it may be hard to say exactly what intelligence is, one knows it when they see it, and perhaps unlike obscenity, it is when it is absent that one has the clearest idea of what it is that is missing.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Humility and Hope in the Face of Immensity

People often ask what it is I hope to do with my degree in “Interdisciplinary Science.” My goal, in my own small way, is to communicate our understanding of humanity's place in the universe as revealed by the methods and findings of science. If I can be even one percent as effective and eloquent as the astronomer Carl Sagan was in communicating the humbling, yet hopeful, self-awareness science makes possible, I will have realized my goal. Made famous by his co-creation and hosting of the PBS television series Cosmos in 1980, he died, far too soon, in 1996. Dr. Sagan was one of the chief scientific investigators for NASA's Viking missions to Mars and the Voyager 1 and 2 missions to the outer planets: Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune.

The Voyager 1 spacecraft had completed its primary mission in 1990. After passing beyond the orbit of Neptune, Dr. Sagan suggested that the camera aboard Voyager 1 be turned towards Earth for one last look, just as a child, leaving home to begin the adult period of their life, turns back for one last glance of where they started from.

The Pale Blue Dot...



As you watch the video, I hope you not only look at the images, but really listen to, and think about, the words. Throughout my life, similar words and images, and these words and images in particular, have moved me, often to the point of tears, beyond my ability to adequately express. In the video, Dr. Sagan refers to the study of humanity's place in the universe as a profoundly humbling and character-building experience. It is more than that though, for these words, and the ideas behind them, have moved me, inspired me, and above all else, have given me hope which all of the "holy books" of all the world's religions cannot even approach.

Our individual lives, our loves, our tragedies and sufferings, and our occasional, yet all too temporary triumphs, when seen against the staggeringly large scale of the universe–the cosmos, lead many people to feel reduced to insignificance. Instead of humility, they feel despair. Too often, the despair forces many people to turn back, to grasp for something, anything, that will make them again feel significant. This is unfortunate, for it is only part of the message. Standing at the brink of the unknown, if we do not turn back in fear, we find we are capable of exploring our immediate neighborhood, that the new knowledge thus gained enables us to take a few more cautious, yet hopeful steps, into the unknown. Since the realization, hundreds of years ago, that our home, the Earth, revolves about the sun, and not the other way around, humanity's understanding has only grown. The obvious smallness of humanity's home, set against the immensity of the cosmos, when combined with our ability to understand and appreciate these facts, and our determination to continue to explore, is for me, and many like me, a source of profound hope. Humility without Despair and Hope without Certainty...

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

An Honest Discussion?

Our courts go to great lengths to ensure that trials are as fair as possible. One way in which they do this is the thorough screening potential jurors are subjected to. This is intended to not only exclude those that have already made up their minds about the case but also weed out those candidates that have even a subtle bias that would prevent them from dispassionately evaluating the evidence and testimony presented in court. Should a potential juror that has already reached their own decision about the case misrepresent themselves during the screening process in order to sit on the jury, simply put, they have lied. They were selected under false pretenses and are quite literally, bearing "false witness" to the proceedings, a violation of the 9th Commandment (the 8th for Roman Catholics or Lutherans). Were such a thing to happen, and it unfortunately does from time to time, the juror is guilty of the crime of perjury.

The procedures used by our courts (screening of potential jurors, rules of evidence, rejection of hearsay, etc.) to ensure fair trials are simply a carefully delineated, formalized distillation of the rules for any kind of honest discussion. An honest discussion cannot take place if any party to it is not open to modifying or revising their views during the course of the dialog. To attempt to engage someone in what is billed as an "honest" discussion when ones own views on the subject at hand are off-limits to revision or modification is to misrepresent oneself, to lie.

At its heart, this is a moral issue. Religious believers frequently attempt to engage others in discussions in an attempt to persuade them of the "truth" of their particular dogma. They do this knowing full well that their own views are, at least as far as they are concerned, not open to revision or modification in the light of new arguments or evidence. The blatant duplicitousness and dishonesty of this must be publicly exposed and loudly condemned in no uncertain terms. Many believers seem to think that it is permissible to deceive others (not to mention themselves), either by lies of omission or commission, whenever it is believed to be justified by their beliefs. This double standard is morally and ethically reprehensible and something which should not be tolerated, either in the public square or in one's personal relationships.

Monday, July 7, 2008

On "Faith"

“Faith” is a very slippery concept and the meaning changes with the context in which it is used. In our culture we are inculcated from a young age to regard “faith” as a virtue. But is it always a virtue? One of ways in which the word “faith” is used is a relatively trivial one, commonly used in the context of encouraging another person, as when a parent encourages their nervous son or daughter before a musical recital or big exam by saying something like: “You’ll do fine, I have faith in you.” Another, more profound way in which the word is used is when someone says something like: “I have faith in the principles outlined in the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution, and in the Enlightenment values of reason and free inquiry on which the leading Founding Fathers drew.” A third way in which “faith” is used is in defending ones certainty of the truth of a proposition when there are no other good reasons to conclude that it is, in fact, true. Too frequently, one reads of a child that dies because their religiously devout parents refuse needed medical treatment, choosing instead to place their “faith” (and their child’s life) in God’s hands. I consider such certainty or “faith” a moral abomination. Many Christians assert the literal truth of the story of the creation of Adam and Eve as outlined (twice, in fact) in the book of Genesis, even though there is not a scrap of compelling evidence external to the Biblical tradition that it is true––it is accepted on “faith,” not because of good evidence.

Religious believers frequently claim that atheism is a “faith.” This may have been true in centuries past, when humanity’s primitive understanding of the workings of the universe seemed to leave the Deity with plenty to do. As time passed, as we learned more about the way the universe works, God’s job description has become shorter and shorter. For several centuries, stories have been told about a mysterious ape-like creature roaming about the Pacific Northwest and of a giant water creature in Scotland’s Loch Ness. Despite decades of searching with the latest technological tools, no substantiated evidence that either creature exists has turned up. Short of paving over the entire Pacific Northwest or draining Loch Ness we cannot be absolutely certain that they do not exist, but does it really require “faith” to at least suspect that Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster might not exist after all? Not hardly.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Father's Day Greetings and Other Miscellanea

Happy Father’s Day to all the other Dads out there. Unfortunately, I live apart from my children but still manage to stay close to them by keeping the lines of communication going. The key is to be there emotionally. Just as it is all to common for fathers to be there physically but not emotionally, it is also possible to remain emotionally accessible to your children even when you are separated by a long airplane ride.

In other news…I have started my one class for the summer. I am at that point one’s college education where you’ve nearly run out of classes that you need or are even remotely interesting. The one class I found was on Middle Eastern history. This should be an interesting one. I certainly have opinions on the historical roots of what is going on in that part of our planet but I also know I do not have all the facts yet either and may very well find out I am mistaken in many things. I have already chosen the subject for the obligatory “paper.” My research question will be:

“Why are fundamentalist Islamic movements are so strong and why there seems to be such a lack of progress in democratic movements in Middle Eastern countries and are they related?”

This should be an interesting topic to explore. Stay tuned for updates…

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Hundreds of channels, and they're all crap!

I am a documentary junkie, I admit it. Not too terribly long ago there were fairly reliable sources for such programs on networks like The History Channel, the Discovery Channel, and A&E. Now these networks are filled with shows like Ice Road Truckers, Axmen, and Dirty Jobs. If I were trapped to a desert island and had a chose between an overly-credulous UFO show and a show about high school dropouts working shit jobs, I’ll pick the UFO show.

I am a snob, I admit. It is not that I do not appreciate the essential work such people do in our modern economy; I completely agree with the sentiment of the opening lines on Dirty Jobs, where the host/narrator speaks of the jobs “that make civilized life possible for the rest of us.” To my mind though, these shows place these people on a pedestal and carry the not-so-subtle message that “you don’t need to be smart, you don’t need to study or do well in school; as long as you are willing to sweat like a pig and grunt like a “real man” (even if you are female) you will do fine and people will respect and admire you.”

Wrong, wrong, and wrong! Having done my share, I know there is nothing to be ashamed of in honest labor. However, documentaries ought to elevate our awareness of the world around us and our aspirations within it. Above all else, my respect for people is determined by the quality of what goes on in the space between their ears and that is what documentaries ought to foster.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

The Final Primaries

At the moment, I am living in one of the last states to hold their primary elections, South Dakota. I grew up here but was absent, except for short visits, from 1983 until 2005. With the Democratic race going right down to the wire, South Dakota voters (at least the Democrats) are the recipients of much unaccustomed attention from Senators Clinton and Obama. This attention is probably a good thing if it serves to overcome voter apathy and get people fired up for the whole informed self-government thing.

Though I am not registered with any political party, I certainly won’t be voting Republican. Nor am I terribly enthused about the Democratic contenders. The lengths the Democratic candidates have gone to in bending over backwards to appeal to “people of faith” have, quite frankly, appalled me. Sen. Obama announced on May 31st that he has withdrawn from membership in the Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago after repeatedly having to distance himself from the incendiary rhetoric of its pastors. The mess he got himself into with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright would likely not have risen to the pitch that it did if he was not straining to place what ought to have been private piety on public display.

Senator Clinton is equally guilty of “public displays of piety” (PDP’s). In the same way that public displays of affection (PDA’s) that get out of hand can make one want to shout “Get a room!,” going overboard on the PDP’s make me want to shout “Take it to a church!” Of course, I do not think that anything Sens. Clinton or Obama could do would set as dangerous a precedent as Sen. McCain choosing Mike Huckabee, a minister that wants to rewrite our constitution to conform to biblical law, as his running mate. That pairing would give us a Commander-in-Chief and a Pastor-in-Chief.

What I would like to see (I know, keep dreaming) is a candidate that replies to the first question about his or her religious opinions by saying something along the lines of:

“Article 6, Section 3 of the United States Constitution specifically prohibits any ‘religious test’ for public office. I submit that your question constitutes just such a test and violates the spirit, if not the letter, of the Constitution. At best, merely asking the question highlights your ignorance of the Constitution, and at worst it represents a deliberate attempt to subvert the Constitution, which is about the most un-American thing I can imagine. It is for the reasons I have just given that I refuse to answer the question.”

I realize that this is not going to happen and that leaves me less than sanguine about the future of our free Republic. As Edward R. Murrow, who saw this coming, said...“Good night and good luck.”

Monday, May 12, 2008

Capstone Project Blog

I am going to be doing something a bit new. I am scheduled to graduate in December 08 and I have a senior Capstone Project to do and I thought it would be fun, as well as therapeutic, to blog about it.

First, a description of my project (from the formal proposal):

“In July 2007, South Dakota Governor Mike Rounds announced that the former Homestake Gold Mine in Lead, South Dakota had been chosen by the National Science Foundation (NSF) as the site for a new Deep Underground Science and Engineering Laboratory (DUSEL). South Dakota had already invested considerable state monies in preparing the former Homestake mine for this purpose and in lobbying the NSF and the scientific community generally. The Governor, in persuading legislators and the public to make the investment in the mine’s rehabilitation, in addition to the obvious economic benefits, frequently touted the benefits of having such a facility to education, particularly science education.

There have been successful partnerships between large laboratories before, notably FermiLab in Batavia, Illinois. This research will propose to answer the questions of:

· What does it take, on the part of a laboratory or research institution, for a successful partnership with local schools?

· What does it take, on the part of local schools, for a successful partnership with the laboratory or research institution?

· To what extent does a community’s understanding of, and attitudes towards, the methods and findings of science affect the success of such partnerships?

While the United States is still a world leader in science, its lead is rapidly dwindling. A study published in the 11 August, 2006 issue of the journal Science revealed that, out of 32 European countries and Japan, America ranked virtually at the bottom of the list in the percentage of their citizens that accept biological evolution as the driving force behind the diversity of life on Earth. At the top of the list were the northern European countries, Iceland, Denmark, and Sweden respectively. The only country surveyed that is less accepting of the fact of biological evolution than the United States is also the only majority Muslim country in the survey, Turkey; which according to the CIA World Fact Book is 99.8% Sunni Muslim (Miller, et al.).

Fundamental research is often conducted at public expense and justifying this expense to citizens is difficult to do if those same citizens believe that evidence-based inquiry into fundamental questions threaten their most basic beliefs. If the United States is to maintain its position as a world leader in science this will have to change and forming effective, fruitful partnerships between schools, communities, and researchers is one way of doing this.”

Having come back to the Black Hills of South Dakota in the fall of 2005 to finish my Bachelors degree after leaving in 1983 for my Navy career, I was excited and a wee bit proud to hear that the old Homestake mine was being seriously considered by the NSF for their new underground laboratory. As I reacquainted myself with the cultural mindset of my childhood home, I was a little less sanguine about the reception that the lab, and the personnel running it, might receive.

I was particularly chagrined by the 2006 abortion battle and could not help but ask myself if accomplished, enlightened scientists would want to pack themselves and their families off to such socially and culturally provincial place. Had the state government even considered how the work done at the lab (i.e. fundamental physics, cosmology, and evolutionary biology of deep underground life) would be received by South Dakotans—given that it runs counter to the religious world view of a sizable part of the state’s citizens? On a humorous note, I pictured a Monty Python or Mel Brooks-type mob storming the DUSEL with torches and pitchforks to put an end to their godless quest to understand the laws governing the universe.

I have a lot of research yet to do on the subject and I will say that I was pleasantly surprised by the thorough treatment of evolution in the local high school science curriculum when I recently had the opportunity to look it over. I do still want to find out if the Rapid City Area Schools (hereafter abbreviated RCAS) allows students to “opt out” of certain parts of the standard curriculum if their parents have objections to the standard curriculum.

Stay tuned for more…


Works Cited

Miller, Jon D., et al. "Science Communication: Public Acceptance of Evolution." Science 313.5788 (2006): 765-66.

Thoughts on a Human Tragedy

Tragically, the places likely to be devastated first and worst by Global Environmental Change (GEC) are the poorest, most overpopulated regions of the world. There are many elephants in the room that need to be dealt with and one of them is culture (and that includes religion). The governments of such countries must realize that their (predominantly) patriarchal cultures in which women are treated like breeding livestock and that are beset by rampant overpopulation, illiteracy, and lack of economic opportunity, must change. The problem is, no one is going to come right out and say that "The culture of _________ is primitive, backwards, and positively maladaptive in the 21st century."

When natural disasters strike regions where life is already marginal at best due to overpopulation, the loss of life is magnified many times over. Not to pick on Myanmar and Bangladesh, which recently suffered terrible natural disasters, but Western, industrialized countries did not overpopulate those nations. The citizens of those countries did. They were ignorantly following the dictates of their culture, the kind of dictates that have no place on an Earth of nearly 6.7 billion human beings. The first person to say any such thing publicly will undoubtedly be called a “racist,” some reading this may well call me that.

I am not a racist; we are all pretty much the same with respect to our innate biological capacities and what differences there are between individuals have nothing to do with skin color. I am saying that certain cultural practices (i.e. treating women like 2nd class citizens, refusing to educate them, and at the onset of menses, forcing them to marry much older men who demand they produce lots of healthy male children) have deleterious effects that can ripple across a globe as crowded as ours. I am saying, that in countries plagued by rampant poverty and overpopulation, responsibility for the consequences need to be laid right where it belongs, on the doorsteps of the “cultures” that facilitate the poverty and overpopulation in the first place.

This is not to say that the West does not have its own elephants to deal with, because it does. I am stunned by the idiocy of American automotive makers that offer free gas to induce fools to buy SUV’s instead of actually doing something to make said SUV’s use less gas! In America, people must be made to feel the cognitive dissonance of thinking that what their adult neighbors do for consensual fun in the privacy of their bedroom should be regulated by the “state” but “by God, if I want to drive my Cadillac Escalade that gets 16 mpg on my 60 mile daily commute, that is my God-given right as an American, at least until the Rapture™.”

Humanity will not continue to flourish on this planet in the future by declaring valid criticisms of short-sighted or antiquated cultural practices “off limits.” What will get us though the next century and a half or so is the absolute intellectual honesty to call a spade a spade with respect to behaviors and practices that are short-sighted, ill-informed, or just plain stupid, even at the risk of offending someone’s cherished cultural values.

Monday, February 18, 2008

A Reply to Mr. James

A reader was kind enough to comment on one of my recent posts. I will try to answer each of the points raised. The readers’ original comments will be indented and italicized. Spelling, punctuation, and grammatical errors are as in the original and will be underlined for easy identification.

Mr. Mark Northrup. I stumbled upon your space in msn spaces and followed your link here. I am not sure why I am commenting on your blog except that I, being a Christian, have never found an ex-Christian to really have been a true bible believing Christian as they claim. Sure there are those who say they believed as I believe. However after asking a few of them some simple questions I found they never really believed those things set out in your blog here under proposition #1 ever.


I think Mr. James's difficulty in finding any ex-Christians that were ever, to his mind, “bible-believing” Christians, is the sense in which he uses the word “believe.” For my part, I honestly accepted the items in proposition set #1 as being true statements about the world. I also fully expected, quite reasonably, that those propositions would be fully consonant with all the other facts about the world, those already known as well as those yet to be discovered. I suspect that his idea of a true “bible-believing” Christian does not concern themself with whether their beliefs are consistent with all the other facts of the world. This is a nice segue into the next section.

Before I go any further let me say that I am a 48 year old male and I cannot remember a time in which I was not a Christian. I am not college educated nor do I have a large vocabulary, so I have had to stop and look up some of the $5 words you used. If you would bear with me I would like to comment on a few of your assumptions and comments.


My correspondent is outright admitting that he is intellectually unequipped to argue the points I raised yet still has the hubris ask that his arguments be taken seriously. This is an excellent example of how so many believers feel that their willful ignorance of the facts of the world, especially where they might impact their religious beliefs, is actually a virtue on their part. The only reason that they do not feel that their ignorance of say, radiologic diagnosis (detecting injuries and illnesses by the examination of x-rays, MRI’s, and CAT scans), actually qualifies them to “hang out a shingle” and pronounce their diagnoses, is that their incompetence would soon become evident. The bulk of their religious pronouncements however, are safely beyond the reach of contrary evidence-behind the curtain of death. There are nonetheless, some examples from the real world, such as the one given below, of where willing ignorance of the facts of the world can insulate a believer from argument and evidence.

In I Kings 7:23 it says:

And he made a molten sea, ten cubits from the one brim to the other: it was round all about, and his height was five cubits: and a line of thirty cubits did compass it round about. (KJV)

The ratio of the circumference (C) of a circle to its diameter (D) is denoted by the Greek letter π (pronounced pi). Mathematically, it is expressed as C/D and the best modern value, to 5 decimal places is 3.14159. This means that for any circle, anywhere in the universe, C/D = 3.14159…. In the passage from the bible quoted above, D = 10, and C = 30. This means, that to the writers of the bible, π = 3.00000. A reasonably accurate determination of the value of π was essential to all of the monumental building projects of antiquity. What were the values of π used by two of the greatest monumental builders, both of whose civilizations were well-known to the authors of the bible, the Egyptians and the Babylonians? The value of π as determined by the ancient Egyptians was 3.16049, the ancient Babylonians calculated it to 3.125. No wonder that King Solomon had to call in outside construction experts to help build the temple in Jerusalem. There are some “clever” explanations as to how this is not really an error, but why, if the ancient Israelites really had a direct line to the Creator of the Universe, should there be even the slightest appearance of error?

In the language of mathematics, π is an “irrational” number, meaning that no ratio of any two whole numbers will, when one is divided by the other, yield an exact integer result; there will always be a remainder (remember those from long division in grammar school?). Even more than being irrational, π is a “transcendental” number, which means that an exact value can never be determined in a set number of calculation steps; the result will be a never-ending, non-repeating sequence of digits. There is currently a world wide distributed computing project that is attempting to calculate π out to an accuracy of billions of decimal places. If the Bible were really the One True Word of the Creator™ then, at the very least the ancient Israelites should have had a better approximation to π than their neighbors did; and if Jehovah really wanted to continue impressing humanity down through the ages, then they would have had a value so fantastically accurate for their era that the only possible, logical explanation would have been that they really did have a direct line to The Mind of God™. Unfortunately, that was not the case. In reality, the ancient Israelites were a backwards bunch of nomadic goat herders who had serious problems keeping shit (their own and their animals) out of their food and water supply. It’s okay though really, because most modern Christians “don’t know nuthin’ ‘bout none of that;” they just “believe.”

My correspondent goes on to quote my original piece, beginning with “Another difference between proposition sets 1 and 2…” and ending with “…they get embarrassed and become offended.” His rebuttal to this is as follows:

There are no "evidentiary shortcomings" of the Christian faith. The same way that the evidence of your set of propositions #2 have been believed is the same way for Christian evidence. It is based on eye witness accounts of the events. You may choose to believe the eye witnesses of prop. #2 and not the eye witnesses of those in prop#1. That is your right. Now you would be correct in saying that there are no eyewitnesses of Adam and Eve, however, I can also say there were no eyewitnesses to the first living ameoba suddenly appearing. (How come that belief was not mentioned in your prop.#2? Isn't that a fundamental belief of evolution?)


The gentleman could not possibly be more wrong about the reliance of a rational understanding of events in human history on mere eyewitness accounts. Eyewitness accounts may be a starting point, but then one looks for corroborating evidence that does not rely on other eyewitnesses. How is it that people are convicted of a crime in our courts, even in the absence of eyewitnesses? He also missed the point of the items in proposition set #1...they are all miraculous suspensions of natural laws. The Scottish philosopher, David Hume (1711-1776) said it best in his “An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding”:

“That no testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous, than the fact, which it endeavours to establish…”

Paraphrasing this for the more simple-minded, “Which is more miraculous, that Bubba actually levitated up into the air and flew around their bass boat, or that his drinking and fishing buddies, who claimed to witness the event, in fact, 1. misperceived a more mundane event, or 2. were the perpetrators of a practical joke, or 3. may themselves have been the victim of someone else's practical joke?" Anyone of sound mind that has ever been to see a stage magician knows that they can be misled, that their eyes can be made to deceive them. Sometimes we meet someone on the street and we swear that we have met them before when we actually have not. Several hundred people (and counting) have been released from prisons nation-wide, exonerated by DNA evidence; people that were often convicted based, in part, on the testimony of eye-witnesses. Julius Caesar was widely believed to have performed miracles, but historians do not buy into them, though they are quite confident that Julius Caesar existed, based not merely on the testimony of eyewitnesses, as my reader seems to think, but on copious documentary and archaeological evidence. Where the supposed eyewitnesses report things which are clearly preposterous, like miracles, those particular claims are dismissed.

Let us look at the quality of the “eyewitness testimony” of the New Testament. The gospel of Mark is generally acknowledged as the first to be written, based on similarities between it and Mathew and Luke. Mathew and Luke relied so heavily on Mark, in fact, that they often lifted whole sentences from Mark. However, we have no, zero, zilch, nada, zip-of the original manuscripts for any of the New or Old Testament. What then, does it mean to say that they are the inspired, inerrant Word of Godin the "original autographs," if the only maniscripts we have were written decades or even centuries after the "original autographs," were first composed. The earliest (i.e. traditional) date of composition for Mark is after the death of Peter in Rome and even by non-critical (i.e. fundamentalist) scholars is acknowledged to be, at best, a second hand account of the life and sayings of Jesus. More recent scholarship (as time goes on and we learn more and find more and better manuscripts to work with) places the composition to after the destruction of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem in 70 c.e. In Mark 14:12 it says:

12: And the first day of unleavened bread, when they killed the passover, his disciples said unto him, Where wilt thou that we go and prepare that thou mayest eat the passover? (KJV)

Then later in Mark 15:25, according to the flow of the narrative, the following day, it says:

And it was the third hour, and they crucified him.(KJV)

So, according to Mark, Jesus was crucified on the third hour of the day after the Passover meal. But wait…in John 19:14, it says plainly that Jesus was crucified on the sixth hour of the day before the Passover meal was eaten:

14: And it was the preparation of the passover, and about the sixth hour: and he saith unto the Jews, Behold your King! (KJV)

Any jury member, in any court in the country, that did not have their head up their ass, if presented with such inconsistent “eyewitness” testimony on the witness stand, would immediately disregard it and seriously question the general credibility of the of the prosecution's case.

As for Mr. James bringing up evolution (I did not mention it in my original post), he once again places his ignorance on display for all to see. First off, the emergence of the first “living” systems from non-life is not part of evolutionary biology, at least not to evolutionary biologists and they are the experts in the field and they are the ones that get to decide what is and is not part of their field. An amoeba is actually a very advanced single-celled organism, as single-celled organisms go. There are far more primitive forms of life that he could have picked, but any of them would still have been wrong in the context he tried to use them. If (or more likely, when) scientists do uncover a possible biochemical pathway for the appearance of the first living systems, it will have not the slightest effect on our understanding of say, the evolution of horses.

Once again, he tries to make the case that there is something especially trustworthy and reliable about eyewitness testimony, that it is as good, or even better than, physical evidence-and that no amount of disconfirming physical evidence can refute eyewitness testimony; nor does he even, at the very least, require an eyewitness account to be consistent with the known laws of the universe. If Mr. James truly believes this, then he must accept contemporary accounts from India of swamis levitating themselves in front of crowds of followers, because their eyewitness testimony is irrefutable. In fact, Mr. James apparently gives more credence to the eyewitness testimony of backward primitives from millennia ago, people who thought weather was literally the work of God (or gods), had no clue that disease was cause by germs, and lacked any clear understanding of how babies are made-he just takes them at their word, because in his world, they were incapable of both deceiving others or being themselves deceived.

He goes on to write:

Some things have been established as truth by either known historical people believing this as truth or by reason.

So you see what you now believe is based on the same things in which I believe Christianity to be true.

Can you say when a sea creature decided to swim out of the ocean and live on the land? Yet you believe that to be fact. Is that really "objective reality"? You cannot prove that in a science lab any more than I can prove Jesus walked on water. You could not find your belief that man and ape had common ancestors in an encylopedia 200 years ago either. I can make the same point about your new beliefs as you make about a Christians. That as you said is fruitless.

I guess I just wanted to say that so I will finish not with an appeal for you to become a Christian but that you should come up with a better reason why you should not believe in Jesus as the Christ.


My reply to the first few lines: Remember Julius Caesar and his “miracles.” Enough said about that. As for the first life form to crawl out of the sea and on to the land…there is actual evidence, the same sort of “forensic,” physical evidence that is used in our courts of law-NO MIRACLES ALLOWED!!!!! I cannot emphasize that enough. We have fossils of some of the first creatures that were equipped to have crawled up on land, yet also possessing fish-like features, found in sedimentary rocks which have been reliably dated using a variety of radioactive dating methods. As a side note, carbon-14 dating is never used to date fossilized remains and is only good to about 50,000 years before present. The methods used to date fossils are methods such as fission-track dating, argon-argon dating, strontium-rubidium dating, and potassium-argon dating, which collectively, are valid over time-scales of billions of years. If, as some creationists claim, we do not really know what we are doing when we are dating rocks, then how is it that we know at least enough to use our “faulty” understanding of radioactivity to treat cancer and build bombs and reactors, that despite our ignorance (so the creationists maintain) work anyway?

Mr. James is right that evidence that man and apes share a common ancestor could not have been found 200 years ago, but radioactivity was not known 200 years ago either; does he therefore deny that uranium and radioactivity existed back then? The idea of “inoculating” against an infectious disease was not known in the West until about 1720, does he therefore think that before then disease was not caused by microorganisms? Mr. James makes a flagrant non-sequitur , which for the uneducated, is Latin for “it does not follow,” meaning that it is an entirely irrelevant statement that literally “does not follow” from what came before it. In fact, the situation is even worse (for him) as regards the shared ancestry of man and the apes than Mr. James apparently knows, assuming of course that he accepts that DNA analysis is a reliable tool for determining how related two individuals are. In 2004, in a study published in Nature, the journal of the Royal Society, the most prestigious, peer-reviewed science journal in the world, brilliantly confirmed a prediction of evolutionary theory (I use theory in the same was scientists do, in the sense that gravity is “just a theory” which, lo and behold, WORKS!!!!!). Human sex cells have 23 chromosomes and those of our closest relatives, the great apes, have 24. Therefore, a testable prediction of evolutionary theory has long been that if humans and chimpanzees shared a common ancestor, then there ought to be evidence of either a splitting of some of the 23 human chromosomes to yield the 24 of the chimpanzee gametes (sex cells) or a fusion of some of the 24 chimpanzee chromosomes to yield the 23 of the human gametes. In the aforementioned Nature paper, scientists had actually identified which two chimpanzee chromosomes merged and now form part of specific chromosomes in the human genome. This is how science works and this is also how crimes are solved and the guilty are punished and the innocent are exonerated…if things actually happened in the way explanation “A” claims, if we look in a certain place we ought to be able to see some evidence that “A” is the correct explanation. Likewise, if no confirmatory evidence is found, then we need to re-examine whether no not explanation “A” is correct.

Mr. James is correct in his statement that I was probably not ever his sort of Bible-Believing Christian™. His kind of “belief” is the belief of the wife of a philandering husband that he is in fact, faithful; a wife that is able to dismiss or blind herself to all the subtle hints and clues that her husband is actually cheating on her, even to the point of denying the validity of DNA tests which show that her “faithful” husband is, in fact, the father of his secretary’s child. My belief in any proposition is predicated on how well the proposition fits together, both internally and with everything else that is known about the universe. Just as my belief in my child’s explanation of how the lamp was broken can be destroyed unexplained holes, gaps, and inconsistencies in their story, so too can my acceptance of any other proposition, even religious ones. The fact that Mr. James feels he is under no such constraint with regards to his beliefs only serves to make my initial point, so I really must say thank you Mr. James.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Some Thoughts on Science Communication

As one who aspires to (humbly) carry on the noble work of conveying science to the public in the vein of people like Isaac Asimov, Carl Sagan, and Stephen J. Gould, I recently become a student member of the National Association of Science Writers. For a senior-year science writing course, we were to review and critique the primary professional website in our respective fields. My classmates are from a number of different fields including computer science, several engineering disciplines, and pre-med, just to name a few.

I realize that I may live to regret posting this here as my analysis may be read by other association members, but I feel this piece has a wider applicability than just the dozen or so people that would otherwise read it...


In the first decade of the 21st century there are very few public policy issues that are not profoundly affected by science and to have an electorate that is not scientifically literate and informed is a recipe for disaster. This is why having a competent cadre of professional science writers and communicators are essential for a 21st century democracy.

The National Association of Science Writers (NASW) (http://www.nasw.org/) is the largest professional association of science writers in the United Sates. The purpose of the association is clearly stated in Section 2 of their constitution (see: http://www.nasw.org/about/const.htm):

PURPOSE OF ORGANIZATION. This organization shall foster the dissemination of accurate information regarding science and technology, through all media normally devoted to informing the public; and shall foster the interpretation of science and its meaning to society, in keeping with the highest standards of journalism. In addition, this organization shall foster and promote the professional interests of science writers.

Based on what is available to non-members on their web site, this essay will attempt to answer the question of how effective the association is in achieving their purpose.

The NASW website, conspicuously devoid of commercial advertisements, is quite plain and utilitarian, but it is also straightforward and easy to navigate. Non-members have limited access to the site but there is nonetheless plenty of content available to the casual browser. At the top left, there is a “members only” area where members can view current and past editions of the
quarterly journal of the society, called Science Writers. Along the left-hand pane is a link to a “bookstore” section containing titles of interest to current and prospective science writers. Under “Member-Only Services” are job search and referral resources, a membership directory, and links for members to manage their individual accounts. On the right-hand pane are links to teaching and professional development materials, and to topics of interest to those that may be considering a career in science writing.

Just below the NASW logo at the top of the homepage is a small, red-bordered box that cycles through “science” news headlines from various on-line sources. Somewhat troubling is that one of the sources is Yahoo! News. Many scientists and critical thinkers place Yahoo! News above only the National Enquirer on the scale of journalistic and intellectual credibility.

Informally founded in 1934 in New York City by twelve pioneering science writers and formally incorporated as a professional society in 1955, the association is largely geared towards the professional development of science journalists who either work for major media outlets (broadcast and print) or those that freelance. There are currently about 2900 members in fields such as science writing, editing, science writing teachers, and students.

The NASW provides for the professional development of its members by working with the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) to provide fellowships and internship opportunities for NASW members (http://www.nasw.org/resource/beginning/ archives/000183.htm#more). The Association also has an education committee but accessing specific information about it and what it has to offer requires member-only access.

As a service to prospective science writers, the site features an archived listserve exchange from 1997 resulting from a new member introducing herself to the group. (http://www.nasw.org/resource/beginning/archives/000145.htm#more) From the exchange, it is obvious that there is a diversity of viewpoints on the nature of science writing and reasons the various posters went into the field. The posters seemed to be divided into two main camps; working scientists who decided, for various reasons, to turn their hand to science writing and others who came to it from non-science journalism or another writing background. There was an obvious note of elitism in the comments of some of the traditional journalism types who took great umbrage at the thought that a scientist with no formal education in writing or journalism could just jump in and try their hand at science writing.

The statement of ethics for the association is found at http://www.nasw.org/about/ethics.htm.
The ethics of the Association seem largely concerned with avoiding giving the appearance that the Association is taking a stand, as an organization, for or against some issue or another. What is disturbing is what is not in their code of ethics. What is absent is a requirement for science writers and journalists to uphold in their work of communicating science to the public, the same kind of hard-nosed, rigorous intellectual honesty that is the heart and soul of scientific inquiry. Science is a systematic method for understanding the world; it is a process, not a collection of results; and those that write on scientific subjects for the public need to routinely convey this component of the scientific enterprise to their readers. It is the intellectually sloppy and simplistic standard of “he said, she said” journalism that gave the public the manufactured Global Warming “debate,” which persisted long after those in the field achieved a general consensus and convinced a gullible electorate that there is a legitimate, scientific alternative to biological evolution called “Intelligent Design.” This is a great disservice to the public and ill-equips citizens to make informed choices in both the voting booth and in their personal lives.

Science writers called to a press conference announcing an astounding breakthrough that fail to ask the scientists present why they chose to not submit their work to the normal error-correcting mechanism of peer-review is being, at best, sloppy, or at worst, intellectually dishonest. Since the days before the American Revolution, it was the very raison d’être of journalists to ask embarrassing questions. By refusing to ask hard questions, by being disinclined to risk alienating an interviewee in pursuit of a “story” that will sell, they are betraying the trust placed in them by a public that expects them to make sense of humanity’s ever-evolving understanding of the universe.

As a new student member of the NASW with full access to the listserve archives and current and past issues of Science Writers, I am happy to report that the discussion has evolved from the 1997 discussion mentioned above. On-line science writing and journalism, in the form of blogs, are recognized as an essential component in accomplishing the purpose of the NASW. While there are still some hold-outs for a more passive, traditional form of journalism in science writing, the contributions of writers trained in the methods and philosophy of scientific inquiry are certainly going to be keeping the more traditional journalists on their toes.

So does the NASW achieve its stated purpose? The answer would appear to be “Yes” but at this point, only imperfectly and with much room left for improvement. The evolution of the internet has allowed working scientists the opportunity to break into the field of science writing by giving them a means of posting their reflections on issues that concern them as scientists and citizens. The rapid feedback from readers which the internet enables, has in turn, allowed budding science writers to hone their skills far more quickly than was possible in the days of traditional print journalism. As a whole, the NASW is embracing this change as it strives to fulfill its vital mission.