Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Yawning and empathy

We are in the final stretch of preparations for a conference on the topic of evolution in the Muslim world at Hampshire College. More details about it tomorrow. In the mean time, here is Frans de Waal on empathy in animals, including humans, and also touches a bit on issues of morality.
How do you define empathy?

Empathy is sometimes defined by psychologists as some sort of high-level cognitive feat where you imagine how somebody else feels or how you would feel in their situation. But my definition is more focused on the whole of empathy, and that includes emotions. If you are sad and crying, it's not just that I try to imagine how you feel. But I feel for you, and I feel with you. (Read about what makes us moral.)

You explain in the book that empathy really starts with our bodies: running together, laughing together, yawning together. So yawning really is contagious?
Yeah. Dogs catch yawns from their owners. Chimpanzees yawn [in response to those] that we show them. Yawn contagion is very interesting because it's a very deep bodily connection between humans or between animals. Humans who have problems with empathy, such as autistic children, don't have yawn contagion. It's either because they don't pay attention to the yawns of others or they're not affected by them. (Read about the secrets inside your dog's mind.)

There's an example in the book where you talk about apes sharing food as a demonstration of empathy. What's in it for the apes who already have food — why do they choose to give it away?
In biology, we usually make a sharp distinction between why things evolved and why animals do things. For example, sex evolved for reproduction. But if you ask people why they have sex, reproduction is not always mentioned. So there's a separation between why the behavior evolved and why the actors actually engage in it. The same is true for altruistic tendencies. You share food with your kin. You share food with individuals who may repay the favor. So the sharing behavior evolved for self-interested reasons. But that doesn't mean that the individual actor, at the moment that he does it, is thinking of the potential benefits.

Is it true that women are more empathetic than men?
All mammals have obligatory maternal care. A female who doesn't respond right away to the distress or the coldness or the hunger or the danger of her young ones is going to lose them. She has to be very sensitive to their emotional state. So if that's the basis, and out of that grew other sensitivities to other individuals who were not offspring, then it's very obvious that there should be a gender bias.

It's interesting that you say certain things one might expect to be related to empathy aren't, necessarily — like fairness.
Fairness is something we started investigating in monkeys. We would have two capuchin monkeys side by side working on a very simple task. One would get cucumber pieces, and the other would get grapes. If they both get cucumber, they're perfectly fine. But if you give one of them grapes, the other guy is all of a sudden not happy anymore. Some explanations of fairness are the golden rule: I treat you well and in a fair manner because that's how I want to be treated, which is a very complex explanation. What we see in monkeys is probably much simpler. It's probably more related to resentment.

If you look at young children, that's exactly where they start. But then by thinking about it, we develop a fairness ideal and a norm, where we say it's better in society if things are fairly distributed. Part of our response at the moment to Wall Street and the bonuses of the bankers is still that simple response: What are they getting, compared to what we are getting? So many people have nothing at the moment, and that enhances our sensitivity to it. But it's basically a monkey reaction.

Read the full interview here.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Of swinging chickens and Crocs

Here are two stories on Yom Kippur. The first one is about the ritual of swinging chickens over one's head (tip from Olga Gershenson):

Hecht holds the bird, waves it three times above his head, and says the prayer of Kapparot (or Kapparos, depending on heritage). He prays that his sins will be transferred to the bird and he will escape the divine punishment that he deserves. The prayer is more than 1,000 years old, and countless Orthodox Jews will recite it in the days before Yom Kippur, the Jewish day of atonement, which begins at sundown Sunday. Hecht says waving the chicken isn't the point of this ritual.

"The main part of the service," he says, "is handing the chicken to the slaughterer and watching the chicken being slaughtered. Because that is where you have an emotional moment, where you say, 'Oops, you know what? That could have been me.' "

Well...the alternative addresses the cruelty to animals and focuses on the meaning behind the ritual instead of the ritual itself:

"No, we want people to use money," Rosenfeld says, explaining that waving money around her head is just as religiously acceptable as waving a bird. "We think it's very cruel to the chickens. We're trying to get people to not buy the chickens at all but use money instead."

She nods and says she'll use money this year.

It's not easy undoing a millennium of tradition, one chicken at a time. And it's lonely. Rosenfeld knows he's at odds with his friends at synagogue.

Interestingly, Muslims (are?) will be facing the same issue with the ritual of goat/cow/camel sacrifice as part of Eid al-Adha - and the proponents and opponents will most likely have the same script: Modify tradition to accommodate a humane treatment of animals + avoiding unnecessary killing of animals vs the preservation of an old tradition. In any case, listen to the full story here.

The second story has to do with an excellent ruling discouraging wearing Crocs on Yom Kippur. Someone is finally standing up to this fashion atrocity. Here is the story (tip from Laura Sizer):

Rabbi Elyashiv of the Lithuanian stream of ultra-Orthodoxy has ruled that it is best not to wear Crocs shoes on Yom Kippur even though they are not made out of leather and, therefore, would seemingly be permissible for the holiday. His reasoning behind the ruling is that they are too comfortable, and thus don't provide the level of suffering one should feel on the holiday.

Leather is traditionally not worn on Yom Kippur as a symbol of humility and increased humanity
on the atonement holiday.

The halachic ruling came in response to a question posed to the rabbi by a young yeshiva student asking whether it is permissible to wear on Yom Kippur shoes one would normally wear throughout the year. In response, the rabbi ruled it is best to avoid wearing Crocs on the holiday. "It is permissible legalistically, but it is inadvisable," said Rabbi Elyashiv.

Read the full Croc story here.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Friday, September 25, 2009

Are we ignoring Muslim Creationism?

I was asked this questions by folks at Science & Religion Today (check their blog for daily stories on science & religion). Here is the beginning of my reply:

Muslim creationism is not being ignored, but I think our perspective in the United States is definitely skewed. Often, we focus on the rantings of Turkish creationist Adnan Oktar, who goes by the name of Harun Yahya. He loves controversy and publicity—especially when he is mentioned in newspapers like The Washington Post, The New York Times, or The London Times. He then uses this to frame his brand of simplistic creationism (borrowed from U.S. creationists) as a battle against the West. In fact, much of his efforts have been aimed at Muslim diasporas in the West.

But the actual situation is quite complex. First, there is tremendous diversity in the Muslim world. The political, cultural, and social factors that shape evolution-creation debates are quite different in Turkey as compared to Pakistan, or in Egypt as compared to Malaysia or the sub-Saharan Muslim Africa, or in majority Shi’a Iran. Painting with a broad brush may lead us to generalities that may not exist in reality.

Second, for the most part, evolution is a relatively new topic for the majority of Muslims. Increasing access to the internet and rising education levels is indeed bringing this topic to the attention of a larger population, but as yet, there is no consensus position. This is especially true in the majority Sunni Islam, where there is no Pope-like central authority figure. Thus, there are several social groups vying to interpret evolution’s place in Islam—from biologists and medical doctors to religious scholars and political leaders.
Read the full answer at Science & Religion Today.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Sagan's Contact as a Musical

I'm intrigued. Carl Sagan's Contact (the Musical) will be playing at Seattle's Centerstage Theater from September 25-October 18th. Here is the synopsis (tip from badastronomy):
Ellie Arroway, the director of "Project Argus" is in search of extraterrestrial intelligence. After encountering the first confirmed communication from extraterrestrial beings, what she discovers is more dramatic and unexpected than anyone could ever have predicted. A thrilling new musical with a score by European Composer of the Year, Peter Sipos, Lyrics by Amy Engelhardt. Adapted by Centerstage Artistic Director, Alan Bryce.
I'm withholding judgment. But it seems that the lyricist and composer worked with Ann Druyan on this. I guess, I'll have to go if it shows up somewhere in the New England area. And if you are looking for the movie website, you can find it here.

GENEtics Rap

Last couple of days have been a bit crazy...between classes and preparations for a conference we are hosting at Hampshire next week. But here is GENEtics with Oort Kuiper. It is very well done and has lots of information. By the way, Oort Kuiper also did this excellent astrobiology rap. I think he has settled on the nerdy genre.


Sunday, September 20, 2009

Shamanism in Hospitals

There is an interesting piece in today's NYT about hospitals in the US that tolerate shamanistic traditions in order to accommodate cultural beliefs of some of their patients. This is in reference to Hmong community living in California. On the one hand this seems like a reasonable flexibility - it allows patients skeptical of medical doctors to at least come to the hospital when they need help. On the other hand, some may take this as a statement in support of the effectiveness of shamanism. We might then as well add astrology and other New Age therapies to the list. Oh wait...some of the New Age therapies, such as Reiki, are also accommodated in some hospitals.

But here is the issue:
Designed to defuse the Hmong fear of Western medicine, the program has “built trust both ways,” said Dr. John Paik-Tesch, director of the Merced Family Medicine Residency Program, which trains resident physicians at Mercy Medical Center.

Since the refugees began arriving 30 years ago, health professionals like Marilyn Mochel, a registered nurse who helped create the hospital’s policy on shamans, have wrestled with how best to resolve immigrants’ health needs given the Hmong belief system, in which surgery, anesthesia, blood transfusions and other common procedures are taboo.

The result has been a high incidence of ruptured appendixes, complications from diabetes, and end-stage cancers, with fears of medical intervention and delays in treatment exacerbated by “our inability to explain to patients how physicians make decisions and recommendations,” Ms. Mochel said.

The consequences of miscommunication between a Hmong family and the hospital in Merced was the subject of the book “The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and The Collision of Two Cultures” by Anne Fadiman (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1997). The book follows a young girl’s treatment for epilepsy and the hospital’s failure to recognize the family’s deep-seated cultural beliefs. The fallout from the case and the book prompted much soul-searching at the hospital and helped lead to its shaman policy.

The Hmong believe that souls, like errant children, are capable of wandering off or being captured by malevolent spirits, causing illness. Mr. Lee’s ceremony for the diabetic man was a spiritual inoculation, meant to protect his soul from being kidnapped by his late wife and thus extending his “life visa.”

But then, it is about patients getting better - even with placebo:

A turning point in the skepticism of staff members occurred a decade ago, when a major Hmong clan leader was hospitalized here with a gangrenous bowel. Dr. Jim McDiarmid, a clinical psychologist and director of the residency program, said that in deference hundreds of well-wishers, a shaman was allowed to perform rituals, including placing a long sword at the door to ward off evil spirits. The man miraculously recovered. “That made a big impression, especially on the residents,” Dr. McDiarmid said.

Social support and beliefs affect a patient’s ability to rebound from illness, Dr. McDiarmid added, pointing out that over half of the people who respond to antidepressants do so because of the placebo effect.

One of the goals of the new policy, Ms. Mochel said, is to speed up medical intervention by having a healing ceremony coincide with a hospital stay, rather than waiting days for a patient to confer with family and clan leaders after a ceremony at home.
At the hospital in Merced, Dr. Lesley Xiong, 26, a resident physician, grew up as the granddaughter of two distinguished shamans. Though she chose to become a doctor, she said there was ample room for both approaches. “If I were sick, I would want a shaman to be there,” Dr. Xiong said. “But I’d go to the hospital.”
This again shows the complexity of how people incorporate/manifest beliefs. But these kind of exceptions by hospitals can open the door to all sorts of medical quackery to get a foothold in hospitals.

Read the full article here.

Public Event: Darwin & Evolution in the Muslim World

We have two public events coming up at Hampshire College on Oct 2 and 3rd, 2009. Here are the details:

Hampshire College Lecture Series on Science & Religion Presents
Darwin and Evolution in the Muslim World
Two public events at Hampshire College

Creationism Goes Global: From American to Islamic Fundamentalism
Dr. Ronald L. Numbers
Friday, October 2, 2009
6:00p.m., Franklin Patterson Hall, Main Lecture Hall
Hampshire College


Islam and Evolution: A Panel Discussion
Dr. Brian Alters, Dr. Ehab Abouheif, & Dr. Taner Edis
Saturday, October 3rd, 2009
6:00p.m., Franklin Patterson Hall, Main Lecture Hall
Hampshire College

Dr. Ronald L. Numbers is the Hilldale Professor of History of Science & Medicine, University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Dr. Brian Alters
holds the Tomlinson Chair in Science Education, McGill University, Canada
Dr. Ehab Abouheif
holds Canada Research Chair in Evolutionary Developmental Biology, McGill University, Canada
Dr. Taner Edis is Associate Professor of Physics, Truman State University, Missouri

for the public lecture by Dr. Ronald L. Numbers:
Despite growing evidence to the contrary, evolutionists in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries clung to the belief that creationism could be geographically contained. In 2000 the usually reliable American paleontologist and anti-creationist Stephen Jay Gould, assured foreign audiences that creationism was not contagious. “As insidious as it may seem, at least it's not a worldwide movement,” he said reassuringly. “I hope everyone realizes the extent to which this is a local, indigenous, American bizarrity.” Although Gould remained oblivious to it, the worldwide growth of creationism by 2000 had already proven him utterly wrong. Antievolutionism had become a global phenomenon, as readily exportable as hip-hop and blue jeans. In the past few decades it has quietly spread from America throughout the world and from evangelical Protestantism to Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, Orthodox Judaism, and, especially, Islam. This lecture situates the Islamic embrace of creationism in the larger global story.
If you are in the area, we hope you can join us. A video will also be available a few weeks after the event. For videos of past lectures, please visit our lecture series website.

These public events are sponsored by Carnegie Corporation of New York

Save the date for the next Science & Religion Lecture:

Dr. Scott Atran, Thursday, March 25, 2010

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Darwin play plus talk at UConn on Friday evening

I will be at UConn tomorrow (Friday) to participate in an interesting event at the local Starbucks (hey - free coffee will be available!). Acting students from the UConn department of Dramatic Arts will be reading from Timberlake Wertenbaker’s play After Darwin. In between the readings, I will talk about Darwin's development as a scientist and his contemplations over his religious beliefs. This is part of Science Chautauqua 2009 Series’ Science Coffeehouses. If you are in the area, join us at the Storrs Road Starbucks. Here is the full announcement:

Science Chautauqua 2009 Series’ Science Coffeehouses
Sponsored by UConn Year of Science 2009*

Charles Darwin: TheMan Behind the Idea
The human side of Charles Darwin is often lost in discussions of his work. What happened during the 23 years between his voyage on the Beagle and the publication of his seminal book? What was behind his struggles with his new idea? How can his humanity be conveyed through the arts? Join us for an evening of presentations, discussions and exploration.

Friday Sept. 18 at 7:00 pm
Starbucks, 1244 Storrs Rd.


A talk by Dr. Salman Hameed
Assistant Professor of Integrated Sciences & Humanities
Hampshire College

Readings from Timberlake Wertenbaker’s play
“After Darwin”
by acting students from the UConn Department of Dramatic Arts

Free coffee will be available
An open conversation of the evening’s topics will follow the
presentations. http://clas.uconn.edu/yearofscience/index.html

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Swine flu and worshipping

The semester has started and we are embracing for a possible outbreak of swine flu on campus. Class rooms provide a good avenue for the transfer of flu. So do places of worship. I hope people will rely on more than prayers to preempt the spread of the flu. Here is an NPR story on how some churches, synagogues, and mosques plan on accommodating flu prevention measures with rituals that, in general, are great for germs and viruses:

Through the eyes of the H1N1 virus, a Catholic church is a playground. The font of holy water near the church entrance is a great place for the virus to leap from one person to another.

The passing of the peace, during which parishioners shake hands, is yet another favorite place for the virus.

And then there's Communion: The priest puts the host, or wafer, on a parishioner's tongue or into the person's hand, and then does the same for the next person. Often, he then serves wine from a common cup. It's wiped clean each time, but that's no guarantee it's virus-free.

Bishop Mitchell Rozanski of Baltimore said these rituals have prompted a flood of questions.

"How should we deal with the distribution of Holy Communion?" he said. "Should we stop shaking hands at the sign of peace? Should we take [out] the holy water fonts as soon as the flu season begins?"

Rozanski is asking priests to use lots of hand sanitizer. But the bishop said a word from health officials that a pandemic has started could lead him to shut down churches.

And what about mosques?

For Muslims, Friday prayers are the centerpiece of the faith and a potential viral hotbed. Imam Johari Abdul-Malik of Dar Al Hijrah Islamic Center in Falls Church, Va., says 3,000 people come to worship there each week.

"They stand shoulder to shoulder. They put their faces on the carpet and remember someone's going to come behind them and prostrate with their face on the carpet," he says.

Malik says that if flu breaks out, the leaders may ask people to bring in their own prayer rugs. The mosque may tell people to spread out more when they pray and amend the ritual cleansing before prayer, in which people visit a special washroom to gargle and wash their feet.

The imam said believers are loath to change these rituals because they're so deeply rooted in the Quran. "How do you now convince them that what they used to do is now not permissible?" he asked.

For example, Malik says, the Quran says that when two believers shake hands in greeting, their sins fall away. Some people may feel cheated of blessing if they have to stop that practice.

"You come to the mosque, and nobody wants to shake your hand, no one's going to embrace you. You're like, 'What's going on? What's kind of place is this? Where are the blessings?' " he said. "And you have to say, 'Today the blessing is in resisting shaking hands.' "

Read or listen to the full story here.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Co-ed university for Saudi elites?

Saudi Arabia is launching its first co-ed university next week. It is the King Abdullah University of Science & Technology (KAUST). It is a rich university with one of the largest endowments in the world. On the one hand, it is very easy to criticize this effort: The campus is expected to be isolated from the rest of Saudi Arabia - a condition necessary to provide its relative free atmosphere (i.e. men and women will be on the same campus, Saudi religious police probably won't have any jurisdiction over there, and the curriculum is expected to be more liberal and different from what is being taught at other places in Saudi Arabia). See an earlier post on this issue: $10 billion endowment for a university in Saudi Arabia.

However, there is a potential of some positive outcomes. For example, the very existence of KAUST may generate some discussion over the state of education in the rest of Saudi Arabia. After all, many of the KAUST students will have gone through the Saudi education system (some may be Saudis from abroad). But more importantly, a clerical opposition to KAUST may generate controversy and draw attention to the existing education system that has been flying under the radar. Furthermore, access to KAUST may be limited to the elites, but the university's existence may lead to pressure to open other co-ed universities in Saudi Arabia for the less affluent. But of course, who knows, KAUST may generate a backlash and Saudi education system may get even more restrictive as a compensation for the freedoms allowed on the KAUST campus. Nevertheless, the opening of KAUST will shake things up a bit in the usually static Kingdom.

Here is the story from Reuters: Saudi Education lags behind new high-tech university.

The King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) is the first institute in one of the world's biggest oil exporters outside the reach of the education ministry, where clerics opposing cutting religious content have a strong say.

And men and women will be able to mingle, a stark contrast to otherwise strict gender segregation in the Islamic kingdom.

Analysts and diplomats say the KAUST launch is a step in the right direction, but state education will remain inefficient unless the government starts a radical overhaul.

"We need to change the mindset of the teaching concept. We need to review all our educational practices... We also need to be consistent with the needs of modern education and market requirements," said Saudi columnist Abdullah al-Alami.

Ghanem Nuseibeh, a senior analyst at Political Capital in Dubai, agreed: "The bigger problem remains primary education."

Despite its immense financial resources, the parameters of Saudi school and university education are governed by religious strictures and many subjects are off-limits for women to study.

I'm curious what subjects are off-limits and the reasoning behind this restriction? Anybody knows? Wiki tells me that it is subjects such as "engineering, journalism, and architecture". Yikes! But again if you are counting small blessings (yes, this is what we have been reduced to regarding Saudi Arabia), King Abdullah appointed the first female deputy education minister just earlier this year. You can see the glass either 1/10th full or 9/10th empty. It's up to you.

Read the full story here and here is the link to the KAUST website. Also check out this story about a Saudi comedy that brought up the topic of education reforms.

Oh - and how are women drivers doing in Saudi Arabia? Driving yet? Just checking.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Idiocy around Darwin's biopic - Creation

It appears that Darwin's biopic, Creation, is having a hard time finding a US distributor - because of the controversial nature of the topic. Huh? This doesn't make much sense - and I think something is missing here. First of all, studios love controversies. This allows free publicity. Second, is Creation really more controversial than say Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ or Kevin Smith's Dogma (Alanis Morissette as God and angels with machine guns ... actually now to think of it, this is not a bad premise)? Yes, these movies drew protests, but the distributors didn't shy away from them. Stay tuned...but I definitely think that it will receive a full distribution in the US. If not, then this is simply lunacy.

In any case, I will wait to see what is happening around the movie. Here is the news story:

Creation, starring Paul Bettany, details Darwin's "struggle between faith and reason" as he wrote On The Origin of Species. It depicts him as a man who loses faith in God following the death of his beloved 10-year-old daughter, Annie.

The film was chosen to open the Toronto Film Festival and has its British premiere on Sunday. It has been sold in almost every territory around the world, from Australia to Scandinavia.

However, US distributors have resolutely passed on a film which will prove hugely divisive in a country where, according to a Gallup poll conducted in February, only 39 per cent of Americans believe in the theory of evolution.

The film has sparked fierce debate on US Christian websites, with a typical comment dismissing evolution as "a silly theory with a serious lack of evidence to support it despite over a century of trying".

Jeremy Thomas, the Oscar-winning producer of Creation, said he was astonished that such attitudes exist 150 years after On The Origin of Species was published.

"That's what we're up against. In 2009. It's amazing," he said.

It is even more depressing knowing that the most offensive movie this year got a widespread distribution: Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen. Ok ... so this was only an offense to all your senses.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Jesus as Maradona's replacement?

The headline reads, Only Jesus or Virgin Mary can replace Maradona, says Argentina boss. I don't know the impact of such a coaching change. In South America at least, reverence for the new Argentinian coach will last only briefly - after all, this is soccer! But some may consider this change quite natural (super?) - Maradona is the one who scored the "hand of God" goal against England in the 1986 World Cup (see the video of this goal here, and to be fair also watch the "goal of the century" (no shortage of superlatives) that came only 4 minutes after the "hand of God" goal).

Here is what prompted the speculation of Jesus as Maradona's replacement:

Diego Maradona's faltering reign as Argentina coach would only be ended by the arrival of either Jesus Christ or the Virgin Mary, team manager Carlos Bilardo said in a bizarre exchange with reporters.

"If Jesus Christ returned or the Virgin Mary, then I'd accept it. Otherwise, no,'' said Bilardo.

Maradona skippered Argentina to the 1986 World Cup title when Bilardo was coach. But the 48-year-old has come under intense pressure with the team's 2010 World Cup qualifying campaign threatening to fall apart.

Since he took over, Maradona has overseen four defeats in six qualifiers, two of which came in the last week against Brazil and Paraguay.

Read the full story here.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Todd Schorr's "Hunter Gatherer"

Here is a review in Nature (access to full article may require subscription) of a painting by Todd Schorr. This painting is part of an exhibition of Todd Schorr's work currently at San Jose Museum of Art. I love this painting and its complete immersion in popular culture. What a nice way to bring in a King Kong reference alongside paleolithic art!

On other occasions, however, the narrative and symbolism move to a different level. This is particularly true of his recent series of ape paintings, which range across chronological territories from the remote past to the sci-fi future. Hunter Gatherer (owned by Leonardo di Caprio) garishly exemplifies how Schorr tells his stories and enriches them with intricate symbolism. We need to decode the whole and the parts in much the same way that a historical iconographer would tackle a Botticelli painting on a classical theme.

A humanoid ape emerges from a bubbling swamp, apparently amazed by the sight of a toy space robot. On his back, like Santa Claus, he carries a roughly stitched sack of cartoon character toys, including Batman. A laughing Mohican is dressed in the uniform of an Atlanta Braves baseball player. The palaeolithic Willendorf Venus dances with a stubbly and lecherous Mickey Mouse on a disco platform cut from the bloody leg of an ungulate. Another mouse in the ape's grip, presumably Minnie, plays the part performed so tellingly by Fay Wray in the 1933 film King Kong. Fronds of primitive equiseta spiral upwards into a vortex that is reminiscent of Paul Signac's pointillist portrait of Félix Fénéon from 1890 (at the Museum of Modern Art in New York).

At one level, Schorr is revelling in the look of lowbrow culture. Yet once this is portrayed on the heroic scale of a historical painting on the walls of an art gallery, we are invited to adopt an ironic manner of viewing. Like all pop artists, he is having his cake and eating it too, only to spit it out at the end. We may intuit that the hunter-gatherer in Schorr's painting suggests that the apeman's primitive instinct for acquiring material trivia still drives our consumer culture today.

However, to formulate too fixed an interpretation is wrong. Unlike a frame from a comic-book cartoon, the narrative is not spelled out by successive images and strings of words. The painting acts as an inviting field for interpretation.

Schorr is obviously fascinated by apes. Here is a clip that explains a bit more about his fascination and, of course, it leads you back to King Kong (by the way, all this talk about King Kong is also relevant as it is brought up in a wonderful sequence in Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds).

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Right-wing craziness and ID

Under normal circumstances, the current health care debate (however crazy it gets) would not show up here. However, here is a Fresh Air interview with Max Blumenthal that talks about the craziness on the right - and (perhaps not too surprisingly) it gets connected even to the Intelligent Design movement in the US. The interview is about how and why the Christian right is painting Obama as Hitler, Stain, un-American, non-American, Muslim, socialist, communist, etc etc. You should listen to the whole interview to get to know some of the craziest people out there - including those who want to have a theocratic US - and many of them even have some access to main stream media (hmm..Fox). So where does ID comes in? Listen to the bit about 20 minutes into the interview. One of the major donors to right-wing Christian causes is Howard Ahmanson Jr. and he gave the Discovery Institute $2.8 million to support ID. Here is Blumenthal from another interview:

Howard F. Ahmanson, Jr. has Tourette syndrome and largely speaks through his wife, shuns the media, and for some reason decided to speak to me in 2004. He was the man behind Proposition 8 in California, which banned same-sex marriage. Proposition 22 in California, before that, the intelligent design movement, he’s donated $2.8 million to that. Countless right-wing Christian right causes across the country that have been successful have been funded by Howard F. Ahmanson, Jr.

And the reason that I was interested in him is because he embodies the sensibility of the movement that I’m writing about in my book, Republican Gomorrah, that controls the Republican Party. At age eighteen, Howard F. Ahmanson, Jr. inherited $300 million from his father, who had just dropped dead. His mother died soon after. And he basically went crazy. He literally went crazy and wound up in a mental institution. When he came out of the mental institution, he found, as so many people do who have had a personal crisis and are seeking some kind of means of transcending it, evangelical religion.

And he found R.J. Rushdoony, who I talked about earlier. He became Rushdoony’s financial angel, and Rushdoony became his surrogate father. And he helped—and he declared, Howard F. Ahmanson, Jr., in 1985, that “My goal for this country is the literal application of biblical law and its integration into our daily lives,” which was the goal of Rushdoony. And he’s doing this through mainstream mechanisms through the Christian right. He’s able to still succeed, even with the Democrats in power, through ballot measures in California. And what it really is about is about creating this, what they see as this theocratic utopia, which is actually becoming a Republican Gomorrah.
Here is the link to the Fresh Air interview and here is the link to his book, Republican Gomorrah: Inside the Movement that Shattered the Party.

Giants on science

Here is Science is Real by They Might be Giants:

Very cool! Also, here is part of their interview with Nature:
How does this follow on from your previous records for children?

We put out Here Come the ABCs as a placeholder. We were not overly concerned about teaching kids the alphabet because they are going to learn the alphabet anyway. It was a pretext for entertainment. The follow-up with the numbers was an obvious choice — although we were resistant to doing the Here Come the 123s because it was so obvious. Science was a departure from that pattern. And that was really exciting. We got to do something personal to us with the full promotional machinery of the Disney corporation behind it.

From the first song, 'Science is Real', this album seems to be making a statement. Why is that important?

It seems that science has suffered in this country recently, so it was political in a way. There has been some scepticism about science in the past 25 years that has been unfortunate. There's a decadent quality to that — that the culture has lost its way.

Your lyrics talk about evolution being real and how stories about angels and unicorns are just that, stories. Did you worry that this might alienate some listeners?

John Flansburgh took the bull by the horns by writing that song and addressing that situation, which is that religion cannot take the place of science. It's not something you can tiptoe around. It's important that everybody gets what the discussion is about. If we're talking about the history of Earth, we can't rely on religious tradition to tell us all the information. He says it in the song: as beautiful as the stories are, they don't tell us everything we need to know. It's an old complaint on the part of scientists, but it bears repeating.

And as a bonus, here is I'm a paleontologist:

Monday, September 07, 2009

Obama's science outreach to the Muslim world

Obama's administration is emphasizing science outreach to the Muslim world. This is the continuation of the dialogue that Obama started with his speech in Cairo. This looks like a fantastic opportunity: Most Muslim countries have a dismal record in science and they can use all the help they can get (especially regarding training of scientists). From the US perspective, this can bring a much needed positive impression to the Muslim world - and can build productive and long lasting partnerships with the educated Muslims. In addition, there is a widespread realization in the Muslim world that science is essential for progress (though many mean technology and not pure science) and much of the strength of the US and the West lies in its dominance in science. Thus, the ground is fertile for a positive relation.

There can also be some pitfalls. Apart from the usual political uncertainties, it would be tragic if most of the effort goes into the development of technology and not in pure sciences. It is usually a hard argument to make that scientists should not only be trained in genetics, environmental and agricultural sciences, but also in subjects like astronomy, marine biology, and particle physics. But more than any thing, Muslim countries need to build a scientific culture. At the same time, each country will present different political and cultural challenges to this endeavor.

It is an ambitious plan, but if done well, it can have a significant impact.

From Nature (Aug 27, 2009):

The administration of US President Barack Obama is ramping up plans to develop scientific and technological partnerships with Muslim-majority countries.

The move follows a June speech by Obama at Cairo University in Egypt, when he promised to appoint regional science envoys, launch a fund to support technological development and open centres of scientific excellence in Africa, the Middle East and southeast Asia. So far, the science-envoy plan is closest to getting off the ground, say White House officials, who see it as part of a broader drive to improve relations with the Islamic world.
Various US embassies have already identified themes of interest, officials say. Lebanon, for instance, has expressed an interest in technology development focused on the environment, and Bangladesh wants to initiate mentoring programmes for young scientific professionals. The first science envoy is expected to be announced "shortly", according to the administration official.

Read the full story here (may require registration to access the article).

Sunday, September 06, 2009

Moon landing hoax and Bangladeshi newspapers

The Onion has a hilarious piece on the Moon landing hoax: Conspiracy theorist convinces Neil Armstrong Moon landing was faked. Here is a snippet:

According to Armstrong, he was forced to reconsider every single detail of the monumental journey after watching a few persuasive YouTube videos, and reading several blog posts on conspiracy theorist Ralph Coleman's website, OmissionControl.org.

"It only took a few hastily written paragraphs published by this passionate denier of mankind's so-called 'greatest technological achievement' for me to realize I had been living a lie, " said a visibly emotional Armstrong, addressing reporters at his home.
Although Armstrong said he "could have sworn" he felt the effects of zero gravity while soaring out of the Earth's atmosphere and through space, he now believed his memory must be flawed. He also admitted feeling "ashamed" that he had failed to notice the rippling of the American flag he and Buzz Aldrin planted on the surface, blaming his lack of awareness on the bulkiness of the spacesuit and his excitement about traveling to the "moon."

"That rippling is not possible in the vacuum of space," Armstrong said. "It must have been the wind from an air-conditioning duct that I didn't recognize because you can't hear a damn thing inside those helmets."

"This is all just common sense, people," he added. "It's the moon. You can't land on the moon."

Funny, yes. Except that two newspapers in Bangladesh published this as a real news story. Ah - the wonders of internet journalism:

Two Bangladeshi newspapers have apologised after publishing an article taken from a satirical US website which claimed the Moon landings were faked.

The Daily Manab Zamin said US astronaut Neil Armstrong had shocked a news conference by saying he now knew it had been an "elaborate hoax".

Neither they nor the New Nation, which later picked up the story, realised the Onion was not a genuine news site.

Both have now apologised to their readers for not checking the story.

"We thought it was true so we printed it without checking," associate editor Hasanuzzuman Khan told the AFP news agency.

Wait a minute. How do I know that BBC is not fooling me about the Bangladeshi newspapers being fooled by the Onion news story about NASA fooling everyone about landing on the Moon? I guess we will never find out.

Read the Onion story here and the BBC story here.

While we are on wacky stories, it appears that Japan's next First Lady went to Venus in a UFO (and no - this is not from the Onion):

Japan’s new Prime Minister, Yukio Hatoyama, faces formidable foreign policy challenges in dealing with an expansionist China, a nuclear armed North Korea and a sinister Russia. But he need have no concerns about establishing friendly relations with the planet Venus — his own wife is a friend of the Venusians, having travelled there in a UFO in the 1970s.

The distinctions of Miyuki Hatoyama, 66, do not end there. As well as being a musical actress, cookery writer, clothes maker and television personality, she also says that she knew the actor Tom Cruise in a past life when he was incarnated as a Japanese.
It was in a book of interviews with prominent people, entitled Most Bizarre Things I’ve Encountered, that she revealed her extraterrestrial jaunt, which occurred during her first marriage. “While my body was sleeping, I think my spirit flew on a triangular-shaped UFO to Venus,” she said. “It was an extremely beautiful place and was very green.”

Oh - and she also eats the Sun in the morning. But somehow, this seems quite reasonable compared to the Venusian adventure:

She also described how she “eats the sun” every morning. She closed her eyes and mimed the act of removing pieces from the sky. “Yum, yum, yum,” she said, placing the imaginary solar morsels in her mouth. “I get energy from it. My husband also does this.”
Read the full story here.

Iran's fear of the social sciences

It seems that we may soon be moving into the book burning territory:
Ayatollah Khamenei said this week that the study of social sciences “promotes doubts and uncertainty.” He urged “ardent defenders of Islam” to review the human sciences that are taught in Iran’s universities and that he said “promote secularism,” according to Iranian news services.

“Many of the humanities and liberal arts are based on philosophies whose foundations are materialism and disbelief in godly and Islamic teachings,” Ayatollah Khamenei said at a gathering of university students and professors on Sunday, according to IRNA, the state news agency. Teaching those “sciences leads to the loss of belief in godly and Islamic knowledge.”

For years, the study of subjects like philosophy and sociology has been viewed suspiciously by Iranian conservatives.
Here you have a perfect trifecta: Fear of "doubt and uncertainty", the threat of secularism, and then insinuating a connection with atheism for "humanities and liberal arts". The idiocy of this aside, I was thinking how are they going to deal with biological sciences? Iran has been doing quite well with stem cells research (see an earlier post: Iran and the stem cells fatwa) - and it even has a strong blessing of the religious establishment. However, many creationists use the trifecta mentioned above (doubt, secularism, and roots in materialism) to scare people away from evolution. However, I don't know how much evolution research is being conducted in Iran and if biological evolution, especially human evolution, is even included in university-level biology courses. Since stem cells research is mostly an applied science, I doubt there will be any major shift in the attitude regarding this. But the above quote is a sad commentary on the mindset of the Iranian government.

Read the full story here.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

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