Friday, August 31, 2007

Pew survey: If its down to science vs religion, religion will win

Back to the old question: how to approach touchy scientific issues that come in conflict with religion? There is an interesting recent survey that shows that American adults understand that science is important, they are in favor of science, but when it comes in conflict with core religious values, they side with religion. And more importantly, they know that the reason for their views are religious and not based on lack of evidence! This is problematic at one level (low emphasis on evidence for evaluating matters involving physical science), but it raises again the issue of how to properly address scientific issues that could possibly conflict with religion. From this perspective, Richard Dawkins' approach of attacking religion and presenting more evidence is clearly not going to work. Here is the survey: How the Public Resolves Conflicts between Faith and Science.

On the acceptance of evolution:
Indeed, according to a 2006 survey from the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life and the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, 42% of Americans reject the notion that life on earth evolved and believe instead that humans and other living things have always existed in their present form. Among white evangelical Protestants – many of whom regard the Bible as the inerrant word of God – 65% hold this view. Moreover, in the same poll, 21% of those surveyed say that although life has evolved, these changes were guided by a supreme being. Only a minority, about a quarter (26%) of respondents, say that they accept evolution through natural processes or natural selection alone.
But most people are pro-science and understand that there is scientific consensus on evolution:
Interestingly, many of those who reject natural selection recognize that scientists themselves fully accept Darwin's theory. In the same 2006 Pew poll, nearly two-thirds of adults (62%) say that they believe that scientists agree on the validity of evolution. Moreover, Americans, including religious Americans, hold science and scientists in very high regard. A 2006 survey conducted by Virginia Commonwealth University found that most people (87%) think that scientific developments make society better. Among those who describe themselves as being very religious, the same number – 87% – share that opinion.
Thus, the public simply ignore the scientists when scientific ideas come in conflict with religion - and evidence doesn't feature much in the debate:
When asked what they would do if scientists were to disprove a particular religious belief, nearly two-thirds (64%) of people say they would continue to hold to what their religion teaches rather than accept the contrary scientific finding, according to the results of an October 2006 Time magazine poll. Indeed, in a May 2007 Gallup poll, only 14% of those who say they do not believe in evolution cite lack of evidence as the main reason underpinning their views; more people cite their belief in Jesus (19%), God (16%) or religion generally (16%) as their reason for rejecting Darwin's theory.
But here is a surprising result from the survey:
This reliance on religious faith may help explain why so many people do not see science as a direct threat to religion. Only 28% of respondents in the same Time poll say that scientific advancements threaten their religious beliefs. These poll results also show that more than four-fifths of respondents (81%) say that "recent discoveries and advances" in science have not significantly impacted their religious views. In fact, 14% say that these discoveries have actually made them more religious. Only 4% say that science has made them less religious.
So the question is, how to best approach scientific ideas that clash with religion. Richard Dawkins' thinks that if you show evidence, all smart people will immediately side with it. This may still work, except he puts science and religion in opposition and makes one choose between them. The Pew survey shows that under these circumstances, most of the public will choose religion over science.

I think the starting point regarding that should be an emphasis on the use of evidence for physical phenomenon irrespective of ones' faith. Is it even possible? Hmm...well...you can use God for "meaning" - to answer the "why" questions and leave "how" questions to science and scientific evidence (in the same spirit of Gould's non-overlapping Magistaria and Galileo's two books: book of scripture and book of nature). Second, take advantage of the existing positive attitude towards science, and show how ideas like evolution has shaped modern medicine and is saving lives every day (Is it possible to show that a rejection of evolutionary theory in the modern world would almost be an immoral position from this perspective?). If this makes someone more religious...that is fine...as long as they accept that events in the physical world can be explained only by natural causes. Check out this article on Framing Science, published in Science, in the context of global warming debate, evolution, and the stem cells controversy. Also check out Krauss & Dawkins on this issue and also Michael Shermer.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

National Geographic cover story on Pakistan

The September issue of National Geographic has a good and well-balanced article on Pakistan. It is titled, Struggle for the Soul of Pakistan, and it talks about two versions of Islam competing for power there - a peaceful version of the planes and a harsher religion of the mountains. It summarizes the rise of fundamentalism in the 80's (jihad against the Soviets) and the 90's (the rise of the Taliban) and also provide a glimpse of the present. I will add some quotes from the article below that are relevant to this blog, but if you do have time, please read the section on Abdul Sattar Edhi - he has been doing phenomenal humanitarian work for the past 60 years (see Edhi Foundation) and his story is truly incredible.

The article has a nice beginning - Pakistan is indeed situated on a religious fault line:
If there is an address, an exact location for the rift tearing Pakistan apart, and possibly the world, it is a spot 17 miles (28 kilometers) west of Islamabad called the Margalla Pass. Here, at a limestone cliff in the middle of Pakistan, the mountainous west meets the Indus River Valley, and two ancient, and very different, civilizations collide. To the southeast, unfurled to the horizon, lie the fertile lowlands of the Indian subcontinent, realm of peasant farmers on steamy plots of land, bright with colors and the splash of serendipitous gods. To the west and north stretch the harsh, windswept mountains of Central Asia, land of herders and raiders on horseback, where man fears one God and takes no prisoners.

This is also where two conflicting forms of Islam meet: the relatively relaxed and tolerant Islam of India, versus the rigid fundamentalism of the Afghan frontier. Beneath the surface of Pakistan, these opposing forces grind against each other like two vast geologic plates, rattling teacups from Lahore to London, Karachi to New York. The clash between moderates and extremists in Pakistan today reflects this rift, and can be seen as a microcosm for a larger struggle among Muslims everywhere. So when the earth trembles in Pakistan, the world pays attention.
The more radical madrassas were built and funded for the war against the Soviets in the 80s, and it is through these madrassas, that the Taliban (literally, students) later arose.
During the 1980s, as the mujahideen prevailed against the Soviets in Afghanistan, the winds of extremism blowing from the northwest began to chill all of Pakistan. Millions of dollars from Saudi Arabia flowed into the hard-line Sunni madrassas clustered along Pakistan's border with Afghanistan, which eventually spread across Pakistan. Not all Pakistani madrassas today are fundamentalist or radical. Some are shoestring operations run by moderate clerics to meet the educational needs of the poor. But the majority—more than 60 percent—are affiliated with the fundamentalist Deobandi sect, an austere interpretation of Islam that calls for a rejection of modernity and a return to the "pure," seventh-century Islam of the Prophet Muhammad. Politically savvy and extremely well funded, more than 10,000 of these schools operate across Pakistan today, compared with fewer than 1,000 before General Zia took power. Thousands more operate unofficially.

By the time Zia died in a mysterious 1988 plane crash, the Islamization of Pakistan was well under way. The following year, the Soviet Union, preoccupied with its own implosion, pulled its demoralized troops from Afghanistan. The U.S. promptly declared victory and returned home, leaving the Afghan people to the chaotic rule of the mujahideen warlords. One crucial chapter in the story of radical Islam's ascendancy had come to a close. The one we are still living had just begun. Osama bin Laden and other leaders of the Afghan jihad now moved freely in and out of northwestern Pakistan and its Federally Administered Tribal Areas. The madrassas swelled with the children of the Zia Generation. In the rugged mountainous land shared by Afghanistan and Pakistan, the seeds of the Taliban, and al Qaeda, had been sown.
And to get a glimpse of a Deobandi madrassa, here is an amusing exchange:
My new friends want to know why Americans think they are terrorists. It's a good question, and an innocent one, judging by the young and open faces of the dozen or so students sharing their evening meal with me. They don't look like terrorists as they sit in a semicircle on green mats in the courtyard of Jamia Uloom-ul-Quran, a small Deobandi madrassa located in a historic downtown mosque in Peshawar. This provincial capital served as headquarters for the Afghan resistance against the Soviets, and jihad is still a going concern here. A block away from the madrassa, at shops selling shoes and used clothes, I'd bought a 50-cent al Qaeda DVD of a suicide bomber preparing for a mission. At the end of the disc, over religious music, the bomber is shown in his car at a distant crossroads, blowing up a convoy. "We know that shop," the students say. "But we're not terrorists."

A few of the students appear to be ten or younger, but most are in their late teens or early 20s. They say their dream for Pakistan is "a peaceful nation, in which justice prevails, in keeping with Islamic law." But they believe, as many here do, that Islam is under attack. By America, by the West, by India, by their own government. Under these circumstances, they say, jihad is justified. What about suicide bombing? Is it sanctioned by Islam? "You must think we have classes here in making bombs or AK-47s!" exclaims one boy, and they all laugh.

"In any Muslim land that's occupied, suicide bombing is allowed," says a personable older boy named Rafiullah, who has bright brown eyes and the beginnings of a beard. A few mention Iraq and Palestine as places where such bombings are justified. Another boy mentions Afghanistan. "But it's not allowed in Pakistan," Rafiullah says, "since we're not an occupied country." ("Not yet!" somebody else interjects, to laughter.) "Nobody has a right to blow you up, even if you're a non-Muslim, or an infidel. If you are here as a guest, you are welcome." He reaches to shake my hand, as if to reassure me.
By the way, I grew up in Karachi in the 80' s and for me (and probably for a lot of Karachiites) Peshawar was scary conservative even then. Perhaps Alabama for someone growing up in New York city, except Alabama with lots and lots of guns (preferably AK-47s).

But if the state does not provide education, what options do people have:
About a third of the students at the Deobandi madrassa in Peshawar, for instance, are poor kids from far-flung regions of the North-West Frontier Province or the tribal areas. They are like Mir Rahman, 16, a sweet-faced boy from a family of poor herders in the Mohmand Tribal Area. The family lives miles from the nearest public school, which is so badly run that few kids attend. It's not unusual in Pakistan to hear of public schools that receive no books, no supplies, and no subsidies from the government. Thousands more are "ghost schools" that exist only on paper, to line the pockets of phantom teachers and administrators. Faced with choosing between bad public schools and expensive private ones, many poor parents send their children to the madrassas, where they get a roof over their heads, three meals a day, and a Koran-based education—for free.
But Zia managed to reshape the whole education system and it will take time to reverse the damage:
Pervez Hoodbhoy lives every day with the consequences of the lack of public education in Pakistan. An MIT-trained professor of nuclear physics at Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad, he was speaking to a graduate-level class in physics a few days after the huge earthquake that devastated Kashmir in 2005, describing the geophysical forces that produced the disaster. "When I finished, hands shot up all over the room," he recalls. "'Professor, you are wrong,' my students said. 'That earthquake was the wrath of God.' "

This, he says, is the legacy of General Zia-ul-Haq, whose education ministry issued guidelines on bringing an Islamic perspective to science and other subjects in the public schools. "The Zia Generation has come of age," he says. "It isn't Islamic to teach that earthquakes are caused by the movement of tectonic plates. Instead, you are supposed to say, by the will of Allah, an earthquake happens." Today a government commission is working to modernize education, but "it goes deeper than updating textbooks," he says. "It's a matter of changing society."
A step in the right direction...but it will take time. Zia (with a supportive US) did enormous damage and it will take at least another generation to reverse the effects of his Islamization.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

PBS documentary on the rise and fall of Islamic Spain


This documentary was aired last Wednesday (August 22nd) but I only managed to see the last 30 minutes of it. A bit romanticized look at the era, but it looks good. Here is a clip about Moses Maimonides and Ibn Rushd (Averroes). The show is titled Cities of Light: The Rise and Fall of Islamic Spain and you can find more information about it here. On this companion website, there is a strange (and contrived) section called Islamic Spain: What's for breakfast. But on the same website there is also a nice short introduction to the culture and science of Al-Andalus. The program will be aired again in western Massachusetts and Boston on Thursday, September 6th at 9:00pm on local PBS (WGBH) (but check your local PBS listings).

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Episode 2 of Dawkins' "Enemies of Reason"



This time its on energy/quantum healings, chakras, and homeopathy. Actually this episode is quite funny and it includes discussions of body black holes, Atlantian DNA and other such amusing topics. I also liked the ending where there is a good discussion of placebo effect and why people find alternative medicine attractive.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

A more respectful brand of Atheism

There has been a division amongst atheists on how to respond to the recent resurgence of religion. Whereas, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris et al. have gone on all out offensive, Michael Shermer, Lawrence Krauss et al. have promoted a more tolerant (and perhaps a more reasonable) approach (check out discussion between Krauss and Dawkins here). Shermer's latest column in Scientific American is titled Rational Atheism, and is "an open letter to Messrs. Dawkins, Dennett, Harris and Hitchens".

He correctly states that:
Whenever religious beliefs conflict with scientific facts or violate principles of political liberty, we must respond with appropriate aplomb. Nevertheless, we should be cautious about irrational exuberance.
Shermer then lists five points that can be summed up as: Have a positive message and be tolerant of others if you want your beliefs to be tolerated.

Here are his 5 points:
  • Anti-something movements by themselves will fail
  • Positive assertions are necessary
  • Rational is as rational does (i.e. "It is irrational to take a hostile or condescending attitude toward religion because by doing so we virtually guarantee that religious people will respond in kind")
  • The golden rule is symmetrical (i.e. "If atheists do not want theists to prejudge them in a negative light, then they must not do unto theists the same")
  • Promote freedom of belief and disbelief (i.e. "As long as religion does not threaten science and freedom, we should be respectful and tolerant because our freedom to disbelieve is inextricably bound to the freedom of others to believe")
The last point, in particular, is crucial.

All of this may be more reasonable but it won't sell many books nor will it make for good television.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Creating life in a lab


Science & religion debates, on many occasions, center around issues of origins. It is about defining limits & boundaries and this justifiably makes scientists uncomfortable. For a while, the origin of the Earth was considered a problem beyond the boundary of science. But not today and now we have a very detailed explanation of the formation of the Solar System.

We may be getting closer to solving another origins question - the origin of life. Here is a claim that scientists will be able to create life from scratch in the next 3-10 years. This is a bold (and exciting) claim!

"Creating protocells has the potential to shed new life on our place in the universe," Bedau said. "This will remove one of the few fundamental mysteries about creation in the universe and our role."

And several scientists believe man-made life forms will one day offer the potential for solving a variety of problems, from fighting diseases to locking up greenhouse gases to eating toxic waste.

If you are creating life at home, please note of the following minor challenges:

Bedau figures there are three major hurdles to creating synthetic life:

  • A container, or membrane, for the cell to keep bad molecules out, allow good ones, and the ability to multiply.
  • A genetic system that controls the functions of the cell, enabling it to reproduce and mutate in response to environmental changes.
  • A metabolism that extracts raw materials from the environment as food and then changes it into energy.
  • One of the leaders in the field, Jack Szostak at Harvard Medical School, predicts that within the next six months, scientists will report evidence that the first step -- creating a cell membrane -- is "not a big problem." Scientists are using fatty acids in that effort.

    Szostak is also optimistic about the next step -- getting nucleotides, the building blocks of DNA, to form a working genetic system.

    His idea is that once the container is made, if scientists add nucleotides in the right proportions, then Darwinian evolution could simply take over.

    I'm not a biologist, so I don't know how crazy and speculative these ideas are. However, scientists have been making attempts in this direction for a few decades now, so its totally plausible that we are getting close. I love the last step of letting evolution take over after mixing-in the right ingredients - I do that with cooking all the time.

    And here is the Frankenstein we were all waiting for in the news story:

    In Gainesville, Florida, Steve Benner, a biological chemist at the Foundation for Applied Molecular Evolution is attacking that problem by going outside of natural genetics. Normal DNA consists of four bases -- adenine, cytosine, guanine and thymine (known as A,C,G,T) -- molecules that spell out the genetic code in pairs. Benner is trying to add eight new bases to the genetic alphabet.

    Eight new bases! If successful, this would indeed be quite awesome...but don't know what kind of effects it will potentially have.

    Bedau said there are legitimate worries about creating life that could "run amok," but there are ways of addressing it, and it will be a very long time before that is a problem.

    I hope so. Still a very neat story.

    Now lets solve the issue of the origin of the universe.

    Friday, August 17, 2007

    Episode 1 of Dawkins' "Enemies of Reason"


    This time its on astrologers, psychics, dowsers and even a bit on post-modernists. There should really be no sympathy for psychics. Enjoy!

    Wednesday, August 15, 2007

    Why Muslims lag behind in science - Taner Edis

    Here is Taner Edis talking about the religious state of Islamic science. This serves as a nice companion piece to an earlier article by Pervez Hoodbhoy. One thing they absolutely agree on is the separation of science with Islam, and this may be the biggest hurdle in the development of basic sciences in the Islamic world. Also check out Edis' excellent book, An Illusion of Harmony: Science and Religion in Islam.

    Why was it so much harder for science to take root in the Muslim world?

    It was harder for science to achieve intellectual and institutional independence. This was not restricted just to science. In the Western world, the institution of law achieved a kind of autonomy from religion early on. Some historians argue that this was really a precursor to science achieving autonomy as well. In the Muslim world, law was never entirely disentangled from religion. Islamic culture has not been as supportive of intellectual independence for different areas of life.

    Did science actually decline in the Islamic world in the 14th or 15th centuries? Or is it just that science in Europe exploded a little later, leaving science in the Islamic world far behind?

    It depends on which historian you consult. The older point of view has been that Islamic intellectual life and science went into a period of decline after the Golden Age. But nowadays, many historians argue that science in the Islamic world continued to develop at its own pace. I don't know if I would entirely agree. But it's definitely true that much more emphasis has to be put on Europe taking off and therefore a relative gap opening. It's not so much a story of Islamic decline as Europe inventing an entirely new way of thinking about the natural world and really making a break with medieval ways of thinking. That didn't happen in the Islamic world.


    Yes, its more complicated than that, but still this is an important point when considering why scientific revolution didn't take place in the Islamic world.

    On "Islamic Science" or "Islamization of science":

    Many Muslim thinkers talk about trying to resurrect and tap into the past glory of Islamic science. Are you saying this is a mistake?

    Yes and no. If you go back to the 9th through the 12th centuries, some practices were useful, such as being more open to intellectual currents from many directions. But other things are not going to be helpful. If you look into the literature on Islam and science, one of the names you will very soon encounter is Seyyed Hossein Nasr, who is a Muslim philosopher of science. He works in the United States but has origins in Iran.

    He teaches at George Washington University. Clearly, he has a distinguished academic position.

    That's right. Seyyed Hossein Nasr says he's trying to revive certain distinctly Muslim ways of thinking about the universe. But it's a revival of all the strands of classical Islamic thought, including those strands which are very antithetical to science as we understand it today.

    Where does this actually create problems?

    One of the features of medieval Islamic science that some modern Muslim thinkers want to revive is the way of perceiving the universe as a spiritual, God-centered place. This tends to work against the independence of science from religious institutions. It's precisely this autonomy that helped science make the breakthrough in the Western world. In the Muslim world, this is still a relatively controversial concept. There is a tendency to say that science should operate under the guidance of religious concerns. I think this is one of the obstacles facing science in the Islamic world.

    But this is complicated. Everyone agrees that Western science has been successful at what it does. And yet I'm willing to bet that many Islamic thinkers would say the price of scientific success in the West has been too high. Once science was divorced from religion, you could argue that it was only a matter of time before secular values would triumph, atheism would become a viable option, and the modern world would end up with the rampant materialism and consumerism that we have today. A lot of Islamic thinkers don't want that version of Western science.

    This is a dilemma for many people in the Muslim world who are thinking about science and religion. On the one hand, there is a desire to catch up, especially in the technological realm which underpins the military and commercial superiority of the Western world. On the other hand, there is a desire to adopt modern science in such a way that local religious culture is not corrupted. So yes, they are very concerned not to go down the Western path. You can find many Muslim thinkers who say that Western Christians made a mistake by allowing science to operate independently of religious constraints. However, that is the way modern science has achieved the success it has. So it's hard to negotiate between these options.

    I don't want to sound like I'm describing the Muslim world as a monolithic entity with no differences between Muslims. There is a very heated internal debate in Muslim countries about how to respond to the modern West, and science is only one concern. Some say the Islamic world has to secularize. Turkey has for many decades been an example of taking a more secular path and adopting westernization full scale. It has had some successes, though it hasn't fully taken root. But a lot of people think if you try and westernize totally -- if you separate science from religion and you separate politics from religion -- then you end up with the more compartmentalized modern society that we're familiar with in the West. And they're reacting against it. The intellectual options in the debate over science and religion are very similar to what we have in the West. What's different is the historical background and the institutional landscape. In the Islamic world, the liberal option is much weaker compared to what we have in the Western world.

    By "the liberal option," do you mean reading sacred texts as metaphor rather than literal truth? For instance, liberal Christians don't take the creation stories in Genesis as scientific fact. They read these stories more as poetry. Are you saying that option, for the most part, doesn't exist for Muslims because the Quran is seen as a text that's been handed down from God?

    It would be an overstatement to say that option does not exist, but it has a much weaker social position. Let me give an example. Here in the United States, the mainstream scientific community has a big problem with creationist movements and intelligent design. As scientists, one of our closest allies in trying to combat creationism is the liberal religious community. It's much more effective to send somebody to a school board meeting who's not a scientist but actually a priest or rabbi or minister in a more liberal denomination and to explain that they don't see a conflict between teaching evolution and religion. But in the Muslim world, this is much more difficult because the public affinity toward creationism is much stronger. Darwinian thinking really hasn't penetrated the popular discourse. Plus, it's very hard for scientists who work in Muslim countries to find liberal religious figures who would go out there and publicly say Darwinian evolution is not a problem for Islam.

    This is the new science battle ground in the Islamic world. Some religious scholars have somewhat accepted evolution, for example, very conservative Israr Ahmad in Pakistan, but they are outnumbered and even those that have accepted still have problems with human evolution.

    Monday, August 13, 2007

    Dawkins takes on psychics and astrologers

    Richard Dawkins has a new 2-part documentary Enemies of Reason that take shots at astrologers, psychics, dowsers and people dealing with other New-age crap. It starts on August 13th on Channel 4 in UK. So anyway of getting it to the US or a copy on the internet??

    Here is a review from The Sunday Times.

    And a medium found Dawkins' father on the far side:

    When Dawkins consulted a medium who has appeared on daytime television and charges £50 for instant phone readings she said she could hear or see his father “on the other side”.

    He did his best not to look surprised as she continued: “I’m aware of your father stood right behind you. “On a spiritual level he wasn’t the most openest man with his thoughts and his feelings. Ummm, I kind of want to say that I do love you and I do care – but that wouldn’t have been his character.” (Or that of many middle-class father figures of his generation, a sceptic might have said.)

    But Dawkins let her continue. “I’m aware that you don’t have you dad’s photograph out” – it was true, he didn’t – “so I’m a little bit concerned why. So I’m going to ask you: why don’t you have it out?” Dawkins had a bombshell ready: “Well, he might be aware that I don’t have it out because he comes to the house about once a week.” “Oh, he’s still here,” she said, adding after a few seconds: “I don’t feel it’s working.”

    “Is that because you thought my father is dead and discovered that he’s still alive?”

    “No, nothing to do with that. I don’t know.”

    She commented later: “As a clairvoyant you’re only as good as the client.”

    well...of course.

    And here is an interview that includes couple of short clips from the show.

    Friday, August 10, 2007

    Teaching evolution in schools in Massachusetts

    This should not not be an issue to worry about. However, here is an article from Boston Globe, Understanding Evolution is Crucial to Debate that talks about some of the challenges.

    Even a great curriculum doesn't necessarily mean an individual teacher is doing a good job. Across the country, school boards and instructors contend with pressure to adopt books or offer supplements that "balance" biology texts or "teach the controversy." The Institute for Creation Research, for one, hasn't given up on Massachusetts. An event planned for Methuen in November will teach "creation evangelism" and "scientific evidence for creation/design in nature." On the institute's website, students and teachers across the country can get inspiration and tools to challenge an evolution-based curriculum.

    Some teachers assign their evolution module a slot at the end of the year, then run out of time. Some speed right through it. When confronted with students' probing questions, the AAAS discovered, teachers find themselves at a loss. "The state standards say nothing about what goes on in the classroom," points out Louise Mead, education project director for NCSE.

    Read the full article here.

    Wednesday, August 08, 2007

    God is in the metaphor

    Science sections of bookstores are lined up with books that have God somewhere in the title (The Language of God, The God Gene, God in the Machine, God's Equation, etc). Its all about selling books and about getting attention in the media. Astronomers also have a special penchant for this. For example, we have fingers of god - an observational effect that makes clusters of galaxies appear elongated in our direction and to some it seems that cosmic fingers are pointing towards us. Some also described the variations in cosmic background radiation as the fingerprint of Creation. But here is an excellent article in defense of using such metaphors, and it focuses on the Higgs Boson - now also known as the God particle: What's in a name? Parsing the 'God Particle' as the Ultimate Metaphor

    In a stroke of either public relations genius or disaster, Leon M. Lederman, the former director of the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, or Fermilab, referred to the Higgs as “the God particle” in the book of the same name he published with the science writer Dick Teresi in 1993. To Dr. Lederman, it made metaphorical sense, he explained in the book, because the Higgs mechanism made it possible to simplify the universe, resolving many different seeming forces into one, like tearing down the Tower of Babel. Besides, his publisher complained, nobody had ever heard of the Higgs particle.

    In some superficial ways, the Higgs has lived up to its name. Several Nobel Prizes have been awarded for work on the so-called Standard Model, of which the Higgs is the central cog. Billions of dollars are being spent on particle accelerators and experiments to find it, inspect it and figure out how it really works.

    But physicists groan when they hear it referred to as the “God particle” in newspapers and elsewhere (and the temptation to repeat it, given science reporters’ desperate need for colorful phrases in an abstract and daunting field, is irresistible). Even when these physicists approve of what you have written about their craft, they grumble that the media are engaging in sensationalism, or worse.

    But he presents an interesting defense for the use of this metaphor:

    My guide in all of this, of course, the biggest name-dropper in science, is Albert Einstein, who mentioned God often enough that one could imagine he and the “Old One” had a standing date for coffee or tennis. To wit: “The Lord is subtle, but malicious he is not.”

    Or this quote regarding the pesky randomness of quantum mechanics: “The theory yields much, but it hardly brings us closer to the Old One’s secrets. I, in any case, am convinced that He does not play dice.”

    With Einstein, we always knew where he stood in relation to “God” — it was shorthand for the mystery and rationality of nature, the touchstones of the scientific experience. Cosmic mystery, Einstein said, is the most beautiful experience we can have, “the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of true art and true science.”

    “He who does not know it and can no longer wonder, no longer feel amazement,” he continued, “is as good as a snuffed-out candle.”

    If we didn’t already have a name for the object of Einstein’s “cosmic religion,” we would have to invent one. It’s just too bad that the name has been tainted and trivialized by association with the image of a white-bearded Caucasian-looking creature who sits in the clouds attended by harp-strumming angels.

    This is wonderful stuff! However, I don't think public has a clear understanding of Einstein's impersonal god and he is often quoted out of context or misquoted altogether. But the main point of the article is more interesting:

    Historians have suggested that it was a mistake for the antiwar movement of the 1960s to yield the flag — a powerful symbol of patriotism — to the war’s supporters, and likewise I think it would be a mistake for scientists to yield such a powerful metaphor to creationists and religious fundamentalists.

    But at what cost? Creationists and religious fundamentalists are not the bigger problem. The more sophisticated Intelligent Design proponents are already exploiting the use of these metaphors and are successfully blurring the boundary between science & religion. Perhaps we can hold-off on these metaphors for a bit - at least until ID controversy takes a back seat in the media. But I completely agree with the spirit of the article and its ending:

    Is there a God who worries about the flight of every sparrow? Einstein said that was a naïve and even abhorrent idea.

    Do I believe the universe is a mystery? Absolutely. Is that mystery ultimately explicable? Intellectual empires from Plato to Einstein have been founded on that presumption, bold and optimistic as it is, and I wouldn’t advise betting against it.

    In the meantime, I wouldn’t dream of depriving any future Einstein of his or her rhetorical or metaphorical tools.

    Not to mention myself.

    ah...written almost in God's language ;)

    Friday, August 03, 2007

    Why Muslims lag behind in science - Pervez Hoodbhoy

    Here is an excellent article by Pervez Hoodbhoy, Science and the Islamic world - the quest for rapprochement, published in this month's Physics Today. This is also a good summary of arguments from his book, Islam and Science - Religious Orthodoxy and the Battle for Rationality. This is a long article but definitely worth the effort - so please read it and if you like, post comments here.

    Couple of interesting things to note:
    According to a recent survey, among the 57 member states of the OIC, there are approximately 1800 universities.5 Of those, only 312 publish journal articles. A ranking of the 50 most published among them yields these numbers: 26 are in Turkey, 9 in Iran, 3 each in Malaysia and Egypt, 2 in Pakistan, and 1 in each of Uganda, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Kuwait, Jordan, and Azerbaijan. For the top 20 universities, the average yearly production of journal articles was about 1500, a small but reasonable number. However, the average citation per article is less than 1.0 (the survey report does not state whether self-citations were excluded).
    An average of less than one citation!! I really hope self-citation has been excluded from the study. But I think he rightly points out that just pouring money into science and education is not going to change much. What really needs to be changed is the attitude towards learning:

    Poor teaching owes more to inappropriate attitudes than to material resources. Generally, obedience and rote learning are stressed, and the authority of the teacher is rarely challenged. Debate, analysis, and class discussions are infrequent.

    An intellectual climate is essential. There are new universities coming up in Dubai, Sharjah, and Saudi Arabia and it will be interesting to see if students there will be exposed to intellectual traditions of the world and if they will have freedom to explore the boundaries of their own ideas.

    Here, as in other Pakistani public universities, films, drama, and music are frowned on, and sometimes even physical attacks by student vigilantes who believe that such pursuits violate Islamic norms take place. The campus has three mosques with a fourth one planned, but no bookstore.

    Here, Pervez is talking about Quaid Azam University (QAU), which is the second highest ranked university amongst Islamic countries. Theater, films and music pose an interesting challenge. Even during the peak of Greek translations in the Islamic world (8th-10th century), much of Greek dramas and theater works were ignored. There is, of course, a rich tradition of story telling in the Arab world, such as the Arabian Nights, but I'm not sure how much theater and music permeated the general culture.

    No Pakistani university, including QAU, allowed Abdus Salam to set foot on its campus, although he had received the Nobel Prize in 1979 for his role in formulating the standard model of particle physics. The Ahmedi sect to which he belonged, and which had earlier been considered to be Muslim, was officially declared heretical in 1974 by the Pakistani government.

    The treatment of Ahmedis in Pakistan is simply shameful. In fact, in order to get a Pakistani passport, one has to declare that Ahmedis are non-Muslims (check out for yourself from the Government of Pakistan website and download passport application form from here. Look for item number 25). Ah...bigotry has so many faces. I really really hope, this insane portion of the passport form is dropped by the government soon.

    In the article, Hoodbhoy later makes a bold statement regarding veils:

    The imposition of the veil makes a difference. My colleagues and I share a common observation that over time most students—particularly veiled females—have largely lapsed into becoming silent note-takers, are increasingly timid, and are less inclined to ask questions or take part in discussions.
    I'm curious if sociologists and psychologists have looked into the impact of veiling in a conservative society like Pakistan. The last 10 years have seen a sharp increase in voluntary veiling by educated, middle-class women, and there must be a noticeable difference in work and educational environments.

    While in the remaining article, he talks about the importance of scientific and intellectual thinking, his most bold assertion (for Muslim countries) is tucked in his concluding paragraph:
    Just as important, the practice of religion must be a matter of choice for the individual, not enforced by the state. This leaves secular humanism, based on common sense and the principles of logic and reason, as our only reasonable choice for governance and progress. Being scientists, we understand this easily. The task is to persuade those who do not.
    Complete freedom of religion and secular humanism for Muslim countries! Amen. Hey...even US can use some secular humanism.

    Pope Benedict has no problem with evolution

    Consitent with Pope John Paul II, Pope Benedict seems to be fine with evolution:
    Pope Benedict XVI said the debate raging in some countries — particularly the United States and his native Germany — between creationism and evolution was an “absurdity,” saying that evolution can coexist with faith.

    The pontiff, speaking as he was concluding his holiday in northern Italy, also said that while there is much scientific proof to support evolution, the theory could not exclude a role by God.

    “They are presented as alternatives that exclude each other,” the pope said. “This clash is an absurdity because on one hand there is much scientific proof in favor of evolution, which appears as a reality that we must see and which enriches our understanding of life and being as such.”

    He said evolution did not answer all the questions: “Above all it does not answer the great philosophical question, ‘Where does everything come from?’”

    This is a fair question until we actually find out.

    So it appears that the Pope has not fallen for Intelligent Design. Its not completely clear from the news story, but I think he is endorsing Theistic evolution - that evolution is guided by God. Fair enough, as long as he does not include supernatural as an explanation for any physical/biological phenomenon. His statement that "the theory could not exclude a role by God" is a bit ambiguous, but I'm assuming that he is talking about providing meaning behind evolution.