Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Origins talk on the Daily Show: Neil deGrasse Tyson

A walk through the history of the universe with the director of the Hayden planetarium, Neil deGrasse Tyson - any excuse to put a clip from the Daily Show on the blog. Actually Neil does a great job of conveying the excitement and enthusiasm of discovering the workings of our universe. For a contrast, see the Creationist video posted here couple of weeks back.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Magical thinking and religion

Science Times from last week (1/23/07) had an interesting article on why all of us are susceptible to superstitious thinking ("Magical Thinking: Why do people cling to odd rituals" by Benedict Carey"). There are two comments in the article that are somewhat related to science & religion:
Psychologists and anthropologists have typically turned to faith healers, tribal cultures or New Age spiritualists to study the underpinnings of belief in superstition or magical powers. Yet they could just as well have examined their own neighbors, lab assistants or even some fellow scientists. New research demonstrates that habits of so-called magical thinking — the belief, for instance, that wishing harm on a loathed colleague or relative might make him sick — are far more common than people acknowledge.

These habits have little to do with religious faith, which is much more complex because it involves large questions of morality, community and history. But magical thinking underlies a vast, often unseen universe of small rituals that accompany people through every waking hour of a day.
But religions certainly exploit many of these tendencies and mix them up with larger moral questions. One example is "Insha-Allah" (by the will of God). Growing up in Pakistan, we were told that we always have to say Insha-Allah for a future event. For example, I will be going to a conference next month - Insha-Allah. The point here is that everything is run by God and so by stating your own plans and not acknowledging God can be perceived as a challenge to God's omnipotence. In some odd ways Insha-Allah can be thought of as an equivalent to "knock on wood" - you have your plans but you want to add this extra bit without much cost. So when superstition is tied-in to larger issues then the line between religion and superstition gets quite blurry.

The article also talked about the development of religious beliefs amongst children:
Children exhibit a form of magical thinking by about 18 months, when they begin to create imaginary worlds while playing. By age 3, most know the difference between fantasy and reality, though they usually still believe (with adult encouragement) in Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy. By age 8, and sometimes earlier, they have mostly pruned away these beliefs, and the line between magic and reality is about as clear to them as it is for adults.

It is no coincidence, some social scientists believe, that youngsters begin learning about faith around the time they begin to give up on wishing. "The point at which the culture withdraws support for belief in Santa and the Tooth Fairy is about the same time it introduces children to prayer," said Jacqueline Woolley, a professor of psychology at the University of Texas. "The mechanism is already there, kids have already spent time believing that wishing can make things come true, and they're just losing faith in the efficacy of that."
From this it appears that we impede the development of rational thinking in kids by replacing one set of magical thinking with another. On a related note, Paul Bloom gave a lecture at Hampshire College last October as part of our Science & Religion lecture series, and he talked about how young kids have a dualist view of the world that later then transforms into religion. Check out his excellent article Is God an Accident? from the Atlantic Monthly (Dec 2005).

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Intelligent Design and Dawkins in UK schools

The Guardian has reported that Intelligent Design (ID) will be taught in UK schools in religious education classes, but students will also get a chance to read excerpts from Richard Dawkins. Read the full story here.

On the one hand this is good thing as it clearly marks ID as a religious idea (or at least not as science), on the other hand it does give ID a foothold in schools. The focus will not be Intelligent Design, but rather on the relationship between science & religion:
The teaching of ID and creationism should prove less contentious in this part of the curriculum (although the scientists who argue that ID is a science may be disconcerted), as pupils will investigate and role-play disputes between religion and science, such as Galileo, Charles Darwin and Richard Dawkins.

Overall its an interesting move, but we'll have to see how things turn out. The UK guidelines are for their stage 3 that covers 11-14 year olds and it will depend a lot on how they design the curriculum around these issues.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

First Tech College for Women in Jeddah

A positive step regarding women in Saudi Arabia. Jeddah is going to have a technical college for women with a capacity of 1000 students. Here is the full story from Arab News. The demand for technical colleges is a good sign and can open up opportunities for women in Saudi Arabia.
The overwhelming majority of the Kingdom’s female university graduates, who account for 55 percent of the total, remain at home as most Saudi families do not like to send their girls to work places. But the trend has changed in recent years. Many young women have of late taken up jobs as journalists, medical editors, executive secretaries and receptionists.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

$27 million creation museum near Cincinnati

One would have guessed that at least Creation science, the literal six day creation of the world 6000 years ago, would be completely out of the picture by now. But apparently even that has some serious following. There are plans for a $27 million creation science museum in the greater Cincinnati area - and its stated to open on May 28th (wait a minute...shouldn't it be Oct 22nd - following Bishop Ussher's creation date of Oct 22, 4004BC? Shame on them for choosing a different date). To get a first hand flavor, here is a video of a seminar by Ken Ham, the person behind the museum. Here is the full story on the museum. Also check out the website for Creation Museum.

Towards the end of the Ken Ham video, note how he uses quotes by biologists to link evolution with anti-Christianity - and this is exactly the fear that is feeding this type of nonsense. Creation science, ironically, is equally critical of Intelligent Design, because ID shys away from saying that the Creator is a Christian God (even though it believes it is). Islamic creation movements, like that of Harun Yahya in Turkey, also have sentiments similar to Creation science - though they don't have a problem with an old Earth. Can't these groups fight amongst themselves and leave science and evolution alone?

Friday, January 12, 2007

Belief in evolution and political views

This week's issue of Science (Jan 12) has published a letter by Allan Mazur of Syracuse University that shows that belief in evolution in US is higher amongst political liberals than political conservatives after controlling for education and religious denominations. This is based on a survey of 3673 American respondents, of which a majority (53%), in any case, considered this statement, "Human beings evolved from earlier species of animals" to be definitely or probably not true. Here is the figure showing survey results:

The percentage of respondents believing in human evolution is plotted simultaneously against political view (conservative, moderate, liberal), education (high school or less, some college, graduate school), and respondent’s religious denomination (fundamentalist or not). Belief in evolution rises along with political liberalism, independently of control variables.

At least education is still doing some good - belief in evolution is correlated positively with the level of education (with the exception of high school and college educated fundamentalists). I'm not sure what to make of the political result - perhaps a social scientists can shed more light on it and we defintely need more data. It will also be interesting to see if this political view correlation also exists in UK and other western European countries.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Ancient toilet may hold clues about the Dead Sea Scrolls

The mystery of who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls may get solved by the analysis of some 2000 year old poop (yes, this is official scientific lingo) in Qumran on the West Bank. Quite apporpriately, there is also a moral to the story: you die if you slack off regarding hygiene even while providing cool data to future archeologists. Here is the story from Science:
Evidence for an ancient latrine in Qumran, a settlement on the northwest shore of the Dead Sea in Israel, has bolstered the idea that Qumran was occupied by the Essenes, a strict, all-male Jewish sect linked to the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Some years ago James Tabor, a scholar of early Christianity at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte, spotted what appeared to be the remains of ancient toilet stalls behind a bluff about 1000 meters northwest of the Qumran camp. Recent soil samples turned up intestinal parasites specific to humans.

The find supports the notion that the Essenes did in fact inhabit Qumran from around 150 B.C.E. to 70 C.E., Tabor reports in the forthcoming issue of the journal Revue de Qumran. The men apparently followed toiletry practices prescribed in the scrolls, which included placement of latrines out of sight of camp and burial of feces.

The latrine may also help explain why more than 90% of the men interred in a Qumran graveyard died before age 40. Burial of feces meant that intestinal parasites survived rather than being dried up in the sun, says Tabor. The men evidently tracked the pathogens into a pool they were required to immerse themselves in on returning to camp. "In effect, the pool becomes a toxic waste pool," he says.

"There is a great deal of debate among scholars about how [Qumran] functioned and who lived there," says historian Joan Branham of Providence College in Rhode Island. "The discovery of a possible latrine could be an important piece of the overall puzzle."

Alleged laterine is behind rocks at upper left.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

God vs Darwin in Russia - with bananas and a monkey suit

We know that opposition to evolution has really gone global when even Russia has to face a legal challenge over the teaching of evolution (thanks to the Panda's Thumb for bringing this to attention). The lawsuit is brought by a student who says that the teaching of evolution offends her religion, and that Darwin's theory is anti-religious, atheistic and unproven. The Baltimore Sun has the full article here
This nation's first-ever lawsuit on Charles Darwin's theory of evolution began with a biology textbook, a bunch of bananas and a man dressed in a monkey suit.

And it only got more tangled from there.
The student who brought the case, saying the teaching of evolution offends her religion, has accused her school of trying to flunk her as punishment for speaking up.

The principal has suggested that the girl and her family are not being driven by devout beliefs, but by a push for publicity.
While there are standard anti-evolution issues, in this case there may really be a problem with the textbooks being used:
And people on both sides - including the Russian Orthodox Church and one of the textbook's authors - are locked in a debate that touches not only on Darwin's observations on the origin of species but on atheism, Marxism-Leninism and the fall of civilizations.

The case revolves around 16-year-old Mariya Shraiber, who says her biology text presents a one-sided version of life's origins based on Darwin's theory and is dismissive of the view that God made man. The lawsuit challenges Darwin's theory as anti-religious, atheistic and unproven. It quotes the textbook as referring to biblical teachings as "legends" and calling it "stupidity" to assume that God created the world.
If biology textbooks are commenting on biblical teachings then perhaps that part of the lawsuit does have merit. But it seems that publicity is also playing a big part in the trial (there is also a related Russian wesbite ( as part of an information war against Darwin). Now, H.L.Menken brought the 1925 Scopes trial through the Baltimore Sun and so the paper's American coverage of this Russian scopes trial is quite appropriate - and its tone is certainly in the same spirit.
"It's quite disrespectful," said Mariya, who has short fingernails painted bright pink, multiple earrings in each ear and a fondness for poetry. "I believe we have the right to learn not only the theory of evolution, but creationism as well."
Stay tuned - we'll probably hear more about this trial that has already featured free bananas and a guy in a monkey suit.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Free will: Do I really have a choice in posting this?

As my 'science & religion' co-teacher Laura Sizer can testify, I try my best to avoid any discussion about free will. Its totally fine if I don't have free-will - but please don't tell me that I don't have it. So to my horror, the lead story in Science Times today is about free-will:
Free Will: Now you Have it, Now you Don't (NYT 1/2/07)

Its actually a good summary of the debate and it quite rightly points out that if people are uncomfortable about evolution, wait till they hear questions about free will:

“Is it an illusion? That’s the question,” said Michael Silberstein, a science philosopher at Elizabethtown College in Maryland. Another question, he added, is whether talking about this in public will fan the culture wars.

“If people freak at evolution, etc.,” he wrote in an e-mail message, “how much more will they freak if scientists and philosophers tell them they are nothing more than sophisticated meat machines, and is that conclusion now clearly warranted or is it premature?”

Daniel C. Dennett, a philosopher and cognitive scientist at Tufts University who has written extensively about free will, said that “when we consider whether free will is an illusion or reality, we are looking into an abyss. What seems to confront us is a plunge into nihilism and despair.”

Mark Hallett, a researcher with the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, said, “Free will does exist, but it’s a perception, not a power or a driving force. People experience free will. They have the sense they are free.

“The more you scrutinize it, the more you realize you don’t have it,” he said.

Follow your will and read the full article as it takes you through lab experiments, cosmology, and computational concepts about free will.

Monday, January 01, 2007

How old is the Grand Canyon? (Correction)

PLEASE NOTE: This story turned out to be completely false! Thanks to Michael Shermer for tracking the story down. It appears that Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) pretty much made up the story for their political own political gain. Here is Michael Shermer's take on it:

Then why did PEER issue that statement in the first place? In my opinion, this is why:

PEER is an anti-Bush, anti-religion liberal activist watchdog group in search of demons to exorcise and dragons to slay. On one level, that’s how the system works in a free society, and there are plenty of pro-Bush, pro-religion conservative activist watchdog groups who do the same thing on the other side. Maybe in a Hegelian process of thesis-antithesis-synthesis we find truth that way; at least at the level of talk radio. But journalistic standards and scholarly ethics still hold sway at all levels of discourse that matter, and to that end I believe we were duped by an activist group who at the very least exaggerated a claim and published it in order to gain notoriety for itself, or worse, simply made it up.

To that end I apologize to all of our readers for not fact checking this story before publishing it on eSkeptic and Shame on us. But shame on you too, Mr. Ruch, and shame on PEER, for this egregious display of poor judgment and unethical behavior.

Is agnosticism on the age of Grand Canyon deliberate or an oversight? Its scary if its deliberate. In any case, here is a press release from Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER):
Grand Canyon National Park is not permitted to give an official estimate of the geologic age of its principal feature, due to pressure from Bush administration appointees. Despite promising a prompt review of its approval for a book claiming the Grand Canyon was created by Noah's flood rather than by geologic forces, more than three years later no review has ever been done and the book remains on sale at the park, according to documents released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).

"In order to avoid offending religious fundamentalists, our National Park Service is under orders to suspend its belief in geology", stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch. "It is disconcerting that the official position of a national park as to the geologic age of the Grand Canyon is 'no comment'".

and this is what makes it problematic:
Park officials have defended the decision to approve the sale of Grand Canyon: A Different View, claiming that park bookstores are like libraries, where the broadest range of views are displayed. In fact, however, both law and park policies make it clear that the park bookstores are more like schoolrooms rather than libraries. As such, materials are only to reflect the highest quality science and are supposed to closely support approved interpretive themes. Moreover, unlike a library the approval process is very selective. Records released to PEER show that during 2003, Grand Canyon officials rejected 22 books and other products for bookstore placement while approving only one new sale item - the creationist book.

Intelligent Design in British schools

Its not in science classrooms yet, but ID movement is certainly gaining ground in England - a depressing way to start the new year:

THE government has cleared the way for a form of creationism to be taught in Britain’s schools as part of the religious syllabus.

Lord Adonis, an education minister, is to issue guidelines within two months for the teaching of “intelligent design” (ID), a theory being promoted by the religious right in America.

Until now the government has not approved the teaching of the controversial theory, which contradicts Darwinian evolutionary theory, the basis of modern biology.

Adonis said in a parliamentary answer: “Intelligent design can be explored in religious education as part of developing an understanding of different beliefs.”

He announced that the Department for Education and Skills (DfES) is to hold discussions with the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, the assessment regulator, and said local advisory councils would decide whether particular schools should teach the theory.

Read the full story from Sunday Times: Creationism gains foothold in schools

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