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.