Monday, December 31, 2007

Human history in 60 seconds

Happy New Year!

For the new year, here is Professor Alan Charles Kors summarizing the entire human history in 60 seconds - hmm...this is the most efficient way of learning history. (On a longer timescale, Alan Charles Kors has done an excellent Teaching Company course titled, The Birth of the Modern Mind: The intellectual history of 17th and 18th centuries)

Here is the transcript of the 60 second lecture:

Human History

Alan Charles Kors

George H. Walker Endowed Term Professor of History
University of Pennsylvania

  • First, tribes: tough life.
  • The defaults beyond the intimate tribe were violence, aversion to difference, and slavery. Superstition: everywhere.
  • Culture overcomes them partially.
  • Rainfall agriculture, which allows loners.
  • Irrigation agriculture, which favors community.
  • Division of labor plus exchange in trade bring mutual cooperation, even outside the tribe.
  • The impulse is always there, though: "Kill or enslave the outsider."
  • Gradual science from Athens' compact with reason.
  • Division of labor, trade, the mastery of knowledge, plus time brought surplus, sometimes a peaceful extended order and, rules diversely evolved and, the cooperation of strangers - always warring against the fierce defaults of tribalism, violence, and ignorance.
  • No one who teaches you knows what will happen.

    A perfect way to start 2008!

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Lawrence Krauss on Science & Religion and more

Point of Inquiry has a new podcast with physicist Lawrence Krauss. The first half of the interview deals with politics, science, and science communication. The second half focuses on science & religion and Krauss talks about strategies in this debate and the benefits of having Richard Dawkins stirring the pot.

Here is the Point of Inquiry podcast: Lawrence Krauss - Seducing for Science

Saturday, December 29, 2007

This is your brain on Faith

This is interesting but the study, most likely, would not have made it to Time magazine without Sam Harris. But this is good stuff:
Sam Harris is best known for his barn-burning 2004 attack on religion, The End of Faith, which spent 33 weeks on the New York Times best-seller List. The book's sequel, Letter to a Christian Nation also came out in editions totalling hundreds of thousands. Last Monday, however, the combative Californian produced a shorter (seven pages) and seemingly calmer publication that will be a hit if it reaches 10,000 readers: "Functional Neuroimaging of Belief, Disbelief and Uncertainty." It appears in the respected journal Annals of Neurology. And Harris, 40, claims it has little if any connection to his two popular books.
This paper is about how brain processes belief:

Harris and two co-authors ran 360 statements by 14 adult subjects whose brain activities were then scanned by functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) devices. It suggests that within the brain pan, at least, the distinction between objective and subjective is not so clear-cut. Although more complex assertions may get analyzed in so-called "higher" areas of the brain, all seem to get their final stamp of "belief" or disbelief in "primitive" locales traditionally associated with emotions or taste and odor. Even "2 + 2 = 4," on some level, is a question of taste. Thus, the statement "that just doesn't smell right to me" may be more literal than we thought.

Harris tested how the brain responded to assertions in seven categories: mathematical, geographic, semantic, factual, autobiographical, ethical and religious. All seven provided some useful data, but only the ones relating to math and ethics produced results clear enough to give a vivid picture of the way the simple and the complex, the subjective and the objective intertwine. Regardless of their content, statements that the subjects believed lit up the ventral medial prefrontal cortex (VMPC), a location in the brain best known for processing reward, emotion and taste. Equally "primitive" areas associated with taste, pain perception and disgust determined disbelief. "False propositions may actually disgust us," Harris writes.

And the planned follow-up study sounds fascinating:

But his next neurological enterprise may be another matter. He is planning an fMRI run that will concentrate specifically on religious faith, which Harris thinks he now knows how to plumb more deeply. He also plans to set up two different subject groups — the faithful and non-believers. "That way," among other things, he says, "you can ask, 'Do believers believe that Jesus was born of a virgin the same way that nonbelievers believe that Chevrolet makes cars and trucks?'" It may turn out that the brain treats religious faith as its own special category of belief unlike ethics and math.

Read the full Time magazine article here.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Off-Topic: Uncertainty in Pakistan after Bhutto Assassination

What insanity! This is one way to ensure more chaos in Pakistan. It is still way too early to say how things will go - but the choices are between terribly bad and very bad. Here are couple of articles related to Bhutto's assassination and some quick political commentaries:

About the Assassination: Bhutto Assassinated in Attack on Rally

Here three obituaries: Benazir Bhutto lived in the eye of the storm (NYT), Moderniser, moderate, martyr (Guardian), and from the BBC. Here is an interactive timeline.

Two quick articles analyzing the current situation: What next for Pakistan? (BBC) and A fresh blow for Pakistan (Fortune)

Lets hope for some stability.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Nano-Bible, failed resurrection, and the four horsemen

Three things on Christmas (in declining religious reverence):

In Israel, scientists have succeeded in writing a version of the Bible on a chip smaller than a pinhead. Now they are working on a machine to shrink people to a size where they can read this nano-Bible comfortably. ignore the second sentence.
Its 300,000 words in Hebrew were inscribed on a silicon surface at the Haifa Institute of Technology. Scientists say the aim of the project is to increase young people's interest in nanoscience and nanotechnology.

The record for the smallest copy is held by a Bible measuring 2.8x3.4x1cm (1.1x1.3x0.4in), weighing 11.75g (0.4 ounces) and containing 1,514 pages.

The 0.5sq-mm (0.01sq-in) nano-Bible was written on a silicon surface covered with a thin layer of gold (20nanometres thick - 0.0002mm).

Full story here.

And now a story about a failure - failure of self-resurrection:

A three-day "miracle" drama in Chhattisgarh's industrial town of Raigarh ended on Monday afternoon after a Hindu priest, who had committed suicide promising to return to life within 72 hours of his death, was cremated.

Hundreds of people had laid siege around the body of 25-year-old Manoj Baghel, who ended his life on Saturday by consuming poison at a temple in Raigarh, about 200 km northeast of state capital, Raipur. Baghel had claimed that he would come back to life.

But he didn't come back. While there is a good chance he may get nominated for Darwin Awards, he gets full points for conviction. Full story here.

And talking about religious convictions, here is a two-hour conversation between the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse (also known as the New Atheists): Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Sam Harris. As usual they raise important points and address some of the criticism leveled against them, but their brush strokes remain too large (especially when dealing with Islam). Unfortunately, the video lacks some of the usual fire as they mostly agree with each other - but it is great that they talk about some of the objections people have raised against their approach.

The Four Horsemen - Hour 1

The Four Horsemen - Hour 2

Following Darwin's footsteps to paradise

New York Times has a nice Travel piece on the Galapagos Islands: Sailing Toward Paradise.
The Galápagos have served as a laboratory for life ever since they bubbled up above the ocean’s surface more than five million years ago. Today there are 13 main islands, and the newest are still being created by volcanic activity. The most recent eruption occurred in 2005. All species on the islands arrived through some extraordinary luck or toughness: seeds blown by the wind or carried in the stomachs of birds; small land tortoises that drifted for months on ocean currents, or on rafts of vegetation that blindly bumped up against the new land. Those that survived the harsh environment gave rise to an astonishing array of endemic species: marine iguanas, tool-using finches, giant tortoises that weigh almost 700 pounds. Life evolved in quiet isolation, unaffected by the outside world.

No longer a lonesome outpost of life untouched by humans, today the Galápagos are a laboratory of conservation, where humans’ fraught relationship with the natural world can be studied and, hopefully, repaired. In 1959, the centenary of the publication of Darwin’s “Origin of Species,” the Ecuadorean government declared the archipelago a national park. Today, 97 percent of the archipelago is preserved, along with 40,000 square miles of the surrounding ocean. Working with the Ecuadorean National Park Service, organizations like the Charles Darwin Foundation finance conservation programs, education and scientific research.

About tortoise hatchlings, conservation, and on Darwin:

I crouch down, watching as they slowly extend their long wrinkled necks to strip leaves from branches, their black eyes glimmering with awareness behind the dusty green-gray of their faces. It is an astonishing, unmediated view of the natural world, though I am certain I am anthropomorphizing when I detect a hint of both sadness and hope in their eyes. It is more likely a reflection of my own sadness at the damage we have done, and hope that humans can turn things around in time to save this unique corner of the world.

What I discovered in our crossing and exploration of the Galápagos is hard to pinpoint: as with any such travels the epiphanies come later. Darwin explored these islands for five weeks, out of a sea journey of five years. When he returned to England he never left again, and did not publish “The Origin of Species” for 23 more years. But there is a tantalizing moment in his journals from the Galápagos (later published as “The Voyage of the Beagle”) that indicates all he was on the cusp of understanding: “Both in space and time, we seem to be brought somewhat near to that great fact — that mystery of mysteries — the first appearance of life on earth.”

In an age of the disappearance of life on earth, I felt at least closer to understanding the significance of its diversity, and of its fragility.

Read the full article here (along with the slide show).

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Conversion, He Wrote.

It was big news that a prominent atheist and philosopher (or should I say an atheist philosopher?), Anthony Flew had found God after decades of not finding Her/Him/It. Then the story got a bit complicated. Here is a review of Anthony Flew's new book (or is it Anthony Flew's new book??), There is a God: How the world's most notorious atheist changed his mind:
Now, in a book written, according to its title page, “with” Roy Abraham Varghese — of whom more later — Flew tells the story of his “discovery of the divine.” This sounds like a victory for the faithful in the God wars: a welcome riposte to the atheist tomes of Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris. Although Flew is not “the world’s most notorious atheist,” as the subtitle of “There Is a God” claims, and never was, even in his native Britain, he ought to count as quite a catch. Now retired from the University of Reading in Berkshire (he has also taught at Oxford and in Scotland, Canada and the United States), he is the author of several cogent and elegant works of philosophy, including accomplished critiques of religion. In many public debates he has vigorously made the case for unbelief.
and lets see what's in this latest book:
But I doubt thoughtful believers will welcome this volume. Far from strengthening the case for the existence of God, it rather weakens the case for the existence of Antony Flew.

The book has five main parts: a preface and an appendix by Varghese; an intellectual autobiography and an account of his case for God, attributed to Flew; and another appendix, on the historical evidence for the resurrection of Jesus, by N. T. Wright, the Anglican bishop of Durham. Varghese is an Indian-born business consultant who founded the Institute for MetaScientific Research in Texas, and writes and edits books on the interplay between science, religion and philosophy. He helped organize the conference at which Flew announced his conversion and is the author of a book, “The Wonder of the World,” that Flew recommends. Varghese has also written “God-Sent: A History of the Accredited Apparitions of Mary,” which argues that more than 50 such apparitions cannot be explained away as hallucinations and that there is better evidence for them than there is for any ostensible U.F.O. sighting.

What?? More evidence than UFOs!!! Then these apparitions MUST be true. Oh sorry, I got a bit carried away by the mention of UFOs (and the coincidental connection between flying saucers and flew) ... Ok. Back to Anthony Flew:

Wondrous apparitions and the Sci Fi Channel are a long way from the Oxford of the late 1940s, where Flew cut his philosophical teeth. But throughout his career, he has, he says, been willing to follow an argument wherever it leads and to be open to new evidence. Although he does not yet follow Varghese into Marianism (or even Christianity), Flew now thinks “the world picture ... that has emerged from modern science” points to an “infinite Intelligence” that brought the universe into being. He believes the fact that nature obeys precise mathematical laws, the fact that life and mind have emerged from inanimate matter, and the fact that the universe exists at all are best explained by positing a God.

Ok...I may still buy it. But wait:

Oddly, Flew seems to have turned into an American as well as a believer. His intellectual autobiography is written in the language of an Englishman of his generation and class; yet when he starts to lay out his case for God, he uses Americanisms like “beverages,” “vacation” and “candy.” It is possible that Flew decided to make some passages easier on the ears of American readers or that an editor has made trivial emendations for him.

Hmm...the likelihood of an Oxford intellectual writing in an American style??? But what about the quality of his arguments?

But it is striking how much of Flew’s method of argument, too, has changed from that in his earlier works, and how similar it now is to the abysmal intellectual standards displayed in Varghese’s appendix. In fact, Flew told The New York Times Magazine last month that the book “is really Roy’s doing.”

Instead of trying to construct a coherent chain of reasoning in Flew’s own words, the authors present a case that often consists of an assemblage of reassuring sound bites excerpted from the writings of scientists, popularizers of science and philosophers. They show little sign of engaging with the ideas they sketchily report. And they don’t seem much bothered whether readers understand what they are trying to say: one crucial passage refers to a “C-inductive argument” for God, but doesn’t explain what a C-inductive argument is. The pattern of the reasoning is always the same: a phenomenon — be it life, consciousness or the order of nature — is said to be mysterious, and then it is boldly asserted that the only possible explanation for it is “an infinitely intelligent Mind.” It is never said how or why the existence of such a mind constitutes an explanation.

Ultimately, its not clear how much of it actually represents Flew's ideas:

It is unclear whether Flew has lost the desire to reason effectively or whether he no longer cares what is published in his name. Either way, it seems that this lost sheep remains rather lost.

Read the full review here. Also read an earlier article on Anthony Flew: The Turning of an Atheist.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Do you have any questions for the Al-Qaeda leadership?

If you do, please send a "brief and focused" question addressed to Al-Zawahri, and he will respond ASAP. huh??
(and please be "brief and focused" ... you really don't want to upset this guy...)

From Faithworld at Reuters:
Al Qaeda’s second-in- command Ayman al-Zawahri will take questions from around the world next month in a video interview. This news got buried a bit in the reporting on his latest video but I asked our correspondent Firouz Sedarat in Dubai for some more information. He says this looks like the first time that Osama bin Laden’s right-hand man will go interactive like this.

As-Sahab, the Al Qaeda online media outlet that broadcasts these videos, has asked its viewers to send in “brief and focused” questions for the elusive Egyptian. “We urge the brothers overseeing the gathering of the questions to pass them on without any changes, be they pro or con, and As-Sahab will do its best to issue the answers by Sheikh Ayman al-Zawahri to these questions as soon as possible,” it said. It gave no further details about the format.

Ah...the wonderful world of internet. I guess soon we will start getting their messages via itunes for a buck a piece. It has also been suggested that Al-Zawahri is now getting his ideas from Presidential debates (after all there have been only 515 debates so far this season - though, we are still waiting for a Science Debate - but that is a different topic):
Zawahri himself didn’t mention any Q&A in the 97-minute video, so it’s not clear if he knows about the YouTube debates in his hideout. He talks about both religious and political issues in his videos, although his statements related to security issues usually grab the headlines. Among the religious issues in the latest video was an attack of Saudi King Abdullah for meeting Pope Benedict at the Vatican last month. In an unusually fast reaction, the Vatican responded by saying he seemed afraid of dialogue with other religions.
Also, please if you can, avoid unnecessary nudity in your youtube question.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Darwin on stage - "Trumpery"

A play about Darwin has recently premiered in New York and its getting good reviews (time for a Darwin biopic??). The play, Trumpery, starts with Darwin being pushed into publishing his Origin of Species for the fear of being scooped by Alfred Russell Wallace:

Given the furor he feared it would unleash, it is not surprising that Charles Darwin sat on his “great idea,” refusing to publish “The Origin of Species” until 1859, more than 20 years after he first devised the theory of evolution.

“If I finish the book, I’m a killer,” he said. “I murder God.”

At least that’s what Peter Parnell has Darwin say in his new play, “Trumpery,” which opened this month at the Atlantic Theater Company in New York.

In the play, as in real life, Darwin is moved to publish by Alfred Russel Wallace, a young man whom Parnell’s Darwin dismisses as “a nobody, a collector, a poor specimen hunter,” but who has independently come up with a theory just like the one Darwin has been chewing on for decades.

So in part the play hangs on scientific “priority:” who will publish first? As the action begins, Wallace, as in real life, has sent Darwin a paper describing his ideas, in hopes that Darwin will help make them known. (If, like many people, you know who Darwin is but not Wallace, you probably think you know how that comes out. Think again.)

But of course, the play is centered on the larger issue of science and faith:

Darwin’s Britain teemed with religiosity as diverse as evangelical Christian fervor and spiritualism, an idea whose adherents included Wallace and Darwin’s wife, Emma Wedgwood. Darwin knew he would be called heretical for challenging the Biblical idea of God as a one-time-only creator of an immutable natural order.

At first, he finds the idea literally sickening. But, as Mr. Parnell put it, Darwin is “both great enough and grandiose enough” to eventually conclude not just that he could do it, but that he ought to. And we all know how that came out.

I really like the way Darwin's actions are depicted in the play - "...that he ought to". Great!

So if you live near New York city, go and check out Trumpery. Read the full article here, and here is a review of the play. If you are interested in this phase of Darwin's life, check out Charles Darwin: The Power of Place, the second part of an excellent biography by Janet Browne.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Christian God wins the (Intelligent) Design derby

Intelligent Design (ID) proponents used to avoid directly invoking God as the Designer (though it was always presumed). Well not any more. In addition, it turns out the Designer is not just any God, but the Christian God. Here is Bill Dembski, one of the leading ID proponents, talking about his new book about Intelligent Design:
Does your research conclude that God is the Intelligent Designer?

I believe God created the world for a purpose. The Designer of intelligent design is, ultimately, the Christian God.

The focus of my writings is not to try to understand the Christian doctrine of creation; it’s to try to develop intelligent design as a scientific program.

There’s a big question within the intelligent design community: “How did the design get in there?” We’re very early in this game in terms of understanding the history of how the design got implemented. I think a lot of this is because evolutionary theory has so misled us that we have to rethink things from the ground up. That's where we are. There are lots and lots of questions that are now open to re-examination in light of this new paradigm.

So too bad if you have been suckered into ID, but you are not a Christian. Your God may be many things but is not the designer of this world.

Dembski is also raising an important research question: "How did the design get in there"? Hmmm..."(Christian) God did it...". Problem solved!

If you can stomach it, here is the full interview.

Friday, December 14, 2007

God out to get Shalom Auslander

Shalom Auslander has a memoir out titled, Foreskin's Lament, and it is on my Christmas reading list (a perfect time to read it). He is very funny (he had an excellent article in January 2007 New Yorker and here is a link to his Fresh Air interview) and his memoir seems to be quite perceptive regarding mainstream religion. Here is an interview with him on Finding My Reigion (note that you can substitute Islam and Muslims for Judaism and Jews and the article will remain the same):

Here are couple of exchanges from the interview:

In the book you tell the old joke: "I believe in a personal God. Everything I do, he takes personally." Except you aren't joking, are you?

If only. And I don't think He'll be too pleased with you for interviewing me, either. As a child, I made the mistake of believing the people whose job it was to teach me, and what they taught me was a literal interpretation of the Old Testament: Sin too much and He floods the world, giggle once and you're barren. I was taught that He offered the Torah to the Israelites — while holding Mount Sinai over their heads. Bit of a hard sell tactic, that last one, but it's how I have felt regarding Him ever since I was a child — that there was something dark and terrifying over my head, and that anything short of total compliance would result in swift (and usually cruel) vengeance.

Often you're afraid God will punish you because of something you've done wrong. But then you do things that you are certain will piss him off. How do you explain that behavior?

It's probably the same instinct that makes us touch the hot plate the waiter warned us not to touch. I was testing my teachers, the truthfulness of what I had been taught. I was testing His boundaries — will He really kill me for eating a Slim Jim?

In some ways, I think I was simply emulating my forefathers. Today, of course, it is heresy to question the Lord, to argue, to bitch, to tell him to f- off. But the Biblical forefathers did — Abraham haggled with him, Jacob wrestled his angel, Moses even turned down the job of leading the Israelites out of Egypt. Do that today and Abraham's descendants might just cut your head off. Or give your book one star on Amazon.

And his fantastic comparison with a veal calf:

At one point in the book you compare yourself to a veal calf. Can you say a bit more about that?

At the time I was writing the book, my wife was giving vegetarianism a shot, and she was reading a lot of books about animal abuse in the food industry. I read some of them, and the more I read about the life of veal, the more I felt, "Hey, that's me." The being raised in a cage, the not being allowed to move. Every aspect of my life was under strict control and observation — how I ate, where I went, whether I washed my left hand before my right, even how I put on my pants. (Right foot first, please.)

But in some ways, veal had it better than me. At least a veal wasn't put in the cage by its own mother. At least a veal isn't being told that some Great Big Cow in the Sky wants him in that cage, and if he leaves the cage, or even thinks about leaving it, then Sky Cow is going to come after him. At least everyone the veal knows is weeping for him. At least if the veal escaped, his family would be happy for him. At least if he escaped, his family wouldn't condemn him. At least if he escaped, he wouldn't be called a self-hating entree. Lucky veal.

And of course, I have to include the answer where he brings in Richard Dawkins (and in a very positive light):

You've now left Orthodox Judaism behind. But in the book you say that it isn't true that you aren't religious; really it's that you aren't observant. What's the distinction, as you see it?

Observance has to do with physical acts. Anyone can do those. I can light Sabbath candles, wear a yarmulke, fast on the Day of Atonement and never once think about God. I have known people who do just that. I, personally, am not observant. Being religious, I think, is being aware of God — thinking, struggling, wondering. In that regard, though he arrives at an atheistic conclusion, Richard Dawkins is religious — I'd bet he thinks about God at least as much as the Pope does. I might skip the candles, uncover my head and have a cheeseburger on the Day of Atonement, but I think about God non-stop. There is a small part of me that hopes that if there has to be a God, and if He has to watch what we're doing here on Earth, and if He must come to some conclusion about us when we die, I hope that awareness — even in the form of doubt or questioning — trumps rote observance any day.

Read the full interview here.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Saving lives from cyclone Sidr in Bangladesh

Science (Dec 7) has a short piece on Hassan Mashriqui, whose calculations helped save lives from the recent cyclone, Sidr.
Mashriqui studies how hurricanes blow water onto the shore and has adapted his model for Bangladesh. So on 13 November, just 2 days before Sidr made landfall, Mashriqui requested super-computer time to run the model, which predicted storm surges as high as 3.7 meters. "We had to act fast," he says.
This is a fantastic example of fast global communications directly saving lives (much higher success ratio than the usual prayers :) ):
Mashriqui e-mailed the results to an official at the Bangladesh Ministry of Food and Disaster Management whose son is an LSU student. Evacuations of low-lying areas were already under way, but the predictions helped the government target its preparations for relief efforts. "They could see in detail where the storm was coming and what the surge would be," he says.

The cyclone still claimed more than 4000 lives. Mashriqui hopes that Bangladeshi researchers will be able to run the model themselves the next time a cyclone threatens their country.

Great job!

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Portions of Baghdad museum now open - but is it a smart move?

The Baghdad museum was open for a few hours yesterday to some journalists and local politicians, and there are plans to open two of its 16 galleries soon. From The New York Times:
The museum still houses hulking centuries-old statues and intricately patterned stone panels, items too heavy for plunderers to haul off. Its most valued items, including pieces of Assyrian gold known as the Nimrud treasures, were saved because they had been sealed in crates and locked in a bank vault.

Yet on Tuesday, much of the museum’s collection remained out of sight. Many of the ancient heavy stone statues were covered in plastic. Dozens of glass display cases sat empty but for thick layers of dust. Workers were mixing epoxy in one gallery, the Assyrian Hall, where walls were lined with great stone bas-relief and little else. The 4,000 pieces that have so far been recovered remained in the museum’s underground vaults.

Ms. Eidan, who had recently said that two halls of the museum would reopen this month, said Tuesday that even if the museum was fully restored, she was not certain that the city was stable enough to ensure a safe reopening. She also lamented the illegal digging that continues at Baghdad’s 12,000 largely unguarded archaeological sites. According to Abdul Zahra al-Taliqani, a spokesman for the Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Antiquities, thieves have stolen, and likely trafficked, 17,000 pieces from these sites so far.

The security issue is vital and not everybody is happy with its opening. From last week's Science:
But former director Donny George and other archaeologists oppose the reopening. "Opening any part of the museum is a dangerous move," says George. A U.S. officer in Baghdad recently told the American Forces Press Service that the military was eager to reopen the museum. "Can they really be sure that a suicide bomber does not go into the galleries?" asks Elizabeth Stone of Stony Brook University in New York state.
This is a tricky issue. Without opening the museum they will have trouble getting funds for restoration efforts, but opening it may be too much of a risk.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Vaccinations, faith and science

There has been an idiotic campaign against polio vaccination in some parts of the Muslim world, and against Measles, Mumps and Rubella (MMR) in some developed countries. Here is an article in The Independent on the subject:

But today, some of the followers of faith-based thinking are waging a global war on vaccinations. At the turn of the 21st century, the WHO's vaccination programme was on the brink of sending polio to the graveyard of dead diseases. It had been chased down to a handful of remaining areas, which were being rapidly vaccinated. It was almost over, forever.

And then the local mullahs heard about it. The Islamic clerical elite in northern Nigeria announced that God had revealed to them that the vaccine was "un-Islamic", part of an evil plot by the godless West to sterilise Muslim children. The local population, with no alternative sources of information, stopped sending their kids. Now polio is back with a vengeance, and we may never wipe it out. In a clash between reason and revelation, revelation won out .

Its not even revelation here...its just a claim of revelation. A similar campaign was also going on in the northern areas in Pakistan, and it has also setback eradication efforts. But the surprising part of the story is about MMR vaccinations in England:

But before we get too smug and conclude this is a cultural gap between us and Those Damn Muslims, remember – in Britain, over the past five years, there has been a smaller but strikingly similar home-grown jihad against a particular vaccination. It has been waged by none other than the Daily Mail.

In 2000, the paper decided – in the absence of any reliable scientific evidence whatsoever – to give wildly undue prominence to the idea that Measles, Mumps and Rubella (MMR) vaccine causes autism. Every reputable scientist in the country explained, patiently, that the sole scientist making these claims – Dr Andrew Wakefield – didn't have any reliable evidence to back him up. He had looked at only 12 autistic children whose parents all fervently blamed MMR – thus skewing his results irreparably. Instead, Britain's scientific community pointed to reams of studies showing conclusively that MMR is not to blame: a study of 1.8 million randomly-chosen children in Finland (as opposed to Wakefield's hand-picked 12) found that autism rates remained the same after the introduction of MMR.

So why was the Mail promoting this view?

Was the Mail's campaign based on faith-based thinking, like the campaign in northern Nigeria? I think it can be shown that it was. Let's look at the figure within the newspaper who spearheaded the MMR campaign: Melanie Phillips. Despite having no scientific qualifications, and despite making the most elementary scientific howlers time and again in her articles, she feels free to announce that virtually all the world's scientists are wrong, on everything from global warming to MMR.

But why was she so certain the MMR campaign should be stopped? Phillips presented her argument as if she was simply siding with one scientist against another. But in reality, she disputes on religious grounds the very basis of vaccinations: evolution. She says that creationism should be taught in schools, and that evolution is "only a theory".

Read the full article here.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

No Scientology for Germany

Germany is planning to ban Scientology in the country because of its "cult-like" practices. From a BBC news story:
Germany's federal and state interior ministers have declared the Church of Scientology unconstitutional, clearing the way for a possible ban.

The ministers have asked Germany's domestic intelligence agency to examine whether the Church's legal status as an association could be challenged.

Scientology is not recognised as a religion in Germany.

I'm not clear how do they differentiate between cults and religions. Yes, Scientology is weird, but does it deserve to be banned? Some of it will indeed come out in the actual legal challenge, but I do feel that Scientology gets an unusually harsh treatment compared to other new religions. But the legal battle will be an interesting one to watch.

Evolutionary firing

So a biologist, who does not believe in evolution, was fired from a project that dealt directly with evolutionary biology. This should be a logical thing. However, now he has filed a lawsuit claiming that he was dismissed for his Christian beliefs. Details are below.
Nathaniel Abraham filed a lawsuit earlier this week in US District Court in Boston saying that the Cape Cod research center dismissed him in 2004 because of his Christian belief that the Bible presents a true account of human creation.

Abraham, who is seeking $500,000 in compensation for a violation of his civil rights, says in the suit that he lost his job as a postdoctoral researcher in a biology lab shortly after he told his superior that he did not accept evolution as scientific fact.

So can one work on something that he/she does not not believe in? Here is philosopher, Michael Ruse:

"I have a cleaning woman who is a Seventh-day Adventist and neither of us feel any tension," said Michael Ruse, a philosopher of science at Florida State University who has written extensively on creationism and evolutionary biology. "Yet, what is a person doing in an evolutionary lab when they don't believe in evolution . . . and didn't tell anybody they didn't believe in evolution?"

But an additional problem is that he did not want to work on the evolutionary project:

He has a master's degree in biology and a philosophy doctorate, both from St. John's University in New York, a university spokeswoman said. He was hired by Hahn's marine biology lab in March 2004 because of his expertise working with zebra fish and in toxicology and developmental biology, according to court documents. He did not tell anyone his creationist views before being hired. Hahn's lab, according to its website, studies how aquatic animals respond to chemical contaminants by examining ". . . mechanisms from a comparative/evolutionary perspective."

In October 2004, both agree, Abraham made a passing comment to Hahn saying he did not believe in evolution.

"My supervisor appeared angry and asked me what I meant," Abraham wrote in a 2005 complaint he filed with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination. "My supervisor and I had a follow up meeting during which my supervisor informed me that if I do not believe in evolution, then he was paying me for only 7 to 10 percent of the work I was doing under the grant."

Abraham said he told Hahn he would do extra work to compensate and "was willing to discuss evolution as a theory."

But on Nov. 17, Hahn asked him to resign, pointing out in the letter that Abraham should have known of evolution's centrality to the project because it was evident from the job advertisement and grant proposal.

". . . You have indicated that you do not recognize the concept of biological evolution and you would not agree to include a full discussion of the evolutionary implications and interpretations of our research in any co-authored publications resulting from this work," Hahn wrote in the letter, which the commission provided to the Globe. "This position is incompatible with the work as proposed to NIH and with my own vision of how it should be carried out and interpreted."

Read the full story here.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Freedom, religion and Romney's nonsense

This is not directly related to science & religion, but the separation of church and state indeed impacts a number of issues at the intersection of science & religion. So here is Keith Olbermann's wonderful take on Mitt Romney's religion speech which included the claim that "freedom requires religion":

And here is New York Times editorial from yesterday on the subject: The Crisis of Faith.

Friday, December 07, 2007

God facing more legal issues

It seems that God (or gods) has more legal issues to worry about. In September a senator from Nebraska filed a lawsuit against God for making threats to people and causing earthquakes and floods. Now a judge in India has summoned two Hindu gods, Ram and Hanuman, to resolve a property dispute:
Judge Sunil Kumar Singh in the eastern state of Jharkhand has issued adverts in newspapers asking the gods to "appear before the court personally".

The gods have been asked to appear before the court on Tuesday, after the judge said that letters addressed to them had gone unanswered.

The letters were returned because the addresses were "incomplete". This prompted the judge to issue this statement:

"You failed to appear in court despite notices sent by a peon and later through registered post. You are herby directed to appear before the court personally", Judge Singh's notice said.

But this is all about a property dispute:

Judge Singh presides in a "fast track" court - designed to resolve disputes quickly - in the city of Dhanbad. The dispute is now 20 years old and revolves around the ownership of a 1.4 acre plot of land housing two temples.

The deities of Ram and Hanuman, the monkey god, are worshipped at the two temples on the land. Temple priest Manmohan Pathak claims the land belongs to him. Locals say it belongs to the two deities. The two sides first went to court in 1987. A few years ago, the dispute was settled in favour of the locals. Then Mr Pathak challenged the verdict in a fast track court.

Lets see what happens on Tuesday. With all these court cases, perhaps we are looking at a new Law & Order series devoted to various deities.

Read the full story here.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Not just good...but excellent! However, only astronomers will be able to appreciate the true geekiness of this. I've had my share of cloudy/rainy/snowy observing runs at telescopes, but now I know how to spend that time constructively - make a video and upload it on Youtube. This is a job very well done! Enjoy Hotel Mauna Kea. (tip from Dynamics of Cats)

Not just bad...but dumb
. Now this is the same Sherri Shepherd who had never thought about the shape of the Earth. This time, we are getting a history lesson from her (tip from Bad Astronomer).

Not just ugly...but also full of hubris
. Yes, Biblical prophecies must be talking about an interstate highway in middle-America in the 21st century. It makes total sense. Yikes!! (tip from Pharyngula)

And thats it for today's video-roundup.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Mess in Texas

Yes, Texas is finally on the proper ID-evolution controversy map. Yesterday, NYT reported on the firing of Texas Education Agency's director of science, Christine Comer. And the grounds for her dismissal? Forwarding an e-mail to the local community about a talk by Barabara Forrest, a philosopher and a leading critic of Intelligent Design. And kudos to NYT for a prompt editorial, Evolution and Texas, in today's paper:

As Ralph Blumenthal reported in The Times yesterday, Ms. Comer forwarded to a local online community an e-mail message from a pro-evolution group announcing a talk by Barbara Forrest, a professor of philosophy at Southeastern Louisiana University. Professor Forrest testified as an expert witness in a 2005 Dover, Pa., case that found intelligent design supernatural and theological and definitely not part of a scientific education.

An hour later, Ms. Comer was called in by superiors, pressured to send out a retraction and ultimately forced to resign. Her departure was instigated by a new deputy commissioner who had served as an adviser to George Bush when he was governor of Texas and more recently worked in the federal Department of Education.

It was especially disturbing that the agency accused Ms. Comer — by forwarding the e-mail message — of taking a position on “a subject on which the agency must remain neutral.” Surely the agency should not remain neutral on the central struggle between science and religion in the public schools. It should take a stand in favor of evolution as a central theory in modern biology. Texas’s own education standards require the teaching of evolution.

And here is the reason Texas may be gearing up for an ID controversy:

Those standards are scheduled to be reviewed next year. Ms. Comer’s dismissal and comments in favor of intelligent design by the chairman of the state board of education do not augur well for that review. We can only hope that adherents of a sound science education can save Texas from a retreat into the darker ages.

And while at it, if you are still in a good mood, try out this NYT Magazine article about professional young-earth geologists (yes, 8000 year old earth) and about big crowds going to the Creationism museum in Kentucky. Yikes!!

Monday, December 03, 2007

US$20 million for assessing quality of Arab universities

This is a wise move:
The universities of the Arab world will receive a thorough check-up by education specialists from the United Nations Development Programme in a joint venture with the largest private foundation in the Arab world.

The Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Foundation and the UNDP will spend US$20 million over the next five years on the project. A note from the UN agency said it would undertake "a quality assessment of higher education in the Arab World".
And it will result in the publication of Arab Knowledge Report:
The Arab Knowledge Report will present new data and studies on recent trends in regional higher education and training. The UNDP said it would "identify lessons for the flourishing of an Arab knowledge society marked by high levels of quality education and a productive, diversified engagement with the global knowledge economy".

Chairman of the Al Maktoum Foundation, Mohammed Al Gergawi, said: "Our partnership with UNDP will help us impact a positive environment, offering equal opportunities that nurture the region's youth and create a promising generation of future leaders."

His foundation was launched at this year's World Economic Forum in Jordan, with a personal endowment of US$10 billion from Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum, Prime Minister and vice-president of the United Arab Emirates, and Ruler of Dubai.
Read the full story here.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Doubt: A lecture by Jennifer Michael Hecht

As part of Science & Religion lecture series at Hampshire College, Jennifer Michael Hecht gave a lecture on Doubt - Where you'd least expect it on October 25, 2007. Here is the abstract for her talk and below you will find the full video of her lecture:

The recent "God wars" hide how long these issues have been around. On both the religious and the atheist side, no one seems to know the history of religious and philosophical doubt. Indeed, they think it doesn't exist. But in fact, there has been doubt throughout history. There are instances of complete and lasting rejection of the idea of God or an afterlife in the Hebrew Bible, in the medieval Moslem world, among Western scholars during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. The idea of a past wherein people could not imagine a world without God is essentially wrong, a 20th century misunderstanding of the contribution of the Enlightenment. Doubt is older than most faiths and full of paragons of bravery, intellect, and character. Also, in history, doubters have a much better sense of humor than do today's famous atheists. Hecht will get us thinking, talking, and especially, laughing.

Jennifer Michael Hecht is a fellow of the New York Institute for the Humanities and teaches in the Graduate Creative Writing Program at The New School, New York. She is the author of Doubt: A History, The End of Soul, and The Happiness Myth along with her poetry books, The Next Ancient World and Funny

Saturday, December 01, 2007

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