Sunday, March 29, 2009

Philip Kitcher at Hampshire College on Thursday

As part of our Hampshire College lecture series on Science & Religion, we will have Dr. Philip Kitcher as our speaker on Thursday, April 2nd. If you are in the area please join us for the talk. Otherwise, you can watch the video of the lecture that I will try to post here in a couple of weeks. His abstract for the talk is below.

-------------------------------------------------------------------------
Hampshire College Lecture Series on Science & Religion Presents

Religion after Darwin?
by
Dr. Philip Kitcher

Thursday, April 2, 2009
5:30p.m., Franklin Patterson Hall, Main Lecture Hall
Hampshire College


Abstract:
Many people believe that Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection poses a threat to religion (specifically to Christianity). I shall suggest that, taken on its own, Darwin’s work can be assimilated by many world religions and many versions of Christianity. There is, however, a deeper problem. The scientific approach that underlies Darwin’s achievements is inimical to all but the most liberal forms of religion. Once this point is appreciated, it is tempting to believe, as the militant Darwinian atheists of our time triumphantly proclaim, that religious practices should simply be eradicated. I shall argue that this is incorrect, and that a genuinely humane secularism – a real Secular Humanism – should absorb some characteristically religious attitudes. We need to discard the myths offered by supernaturalist doctrines, but we also need what Dewey called “A Common Faith.”


Dr. Philip Kitcher is John Dewey Professor of Philosophy and James Barker Professor of Contemporary Civilization at Columbia University. He is the author of Abusing Science: The Case Against Creationism, In Mendel’s Mirror, and Living with Darwin: Evolution, Design and the Future of Faith.

Upcoming lecture:

* Dr. Ronald Numbers, Friday, October 2, 2009

For more information, please visit our Lecture website.
For more information on Darwin bicentennial celebrations at Hampshire College, please visit http://darwin200.hampshire.edu

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Sorting out the mess at Texas school board meeting

I find it quite depressing to write posts on creationist battles in the US school boards. It is bizarre that in a first world country we are fighting fourth-world battles (yes - the fourth-world is only 6000 years old). Heck - even textbooks in Pakistan present evolution as a fact of science (to be fair - there is no mention of human evolution there). So here you go with the Texas School Board meeting. On Thursday it seemed that some sanity had prevailed and the new creationist strengths & weaknesses trope was successfully nixed from the curriculum. Sure enough, the NYT (and others) reported on the partial victory for science. However, the final vote was on Friday and then amendments started to show up. The verdict on the final result: well...it depends on your state of initial pessimism. Over at Thought from Kansas, Josh takes some positives:
Texas has new science standards. Those standards are better than the old ones, but those old standards really did suck.
...
So, when I say these are better, it's not high praise. And these standards are deeply compromised at every level from the decent standards offered by the writing committees. Those committees had awful starting material, and did a lot to improve them, but the draft standards weren't world-class to start with, and the compromise we saw today made them much worse.
And here is the actual language that is being used:

The compromise on strengths and weaknesses was ambiguous in its merits at best. And this is far from the best. There's nothing inherently evil about:

in all fields of science, analyze, evaluate, and critique scientific explanations by using empirical evidence, logical reasoning and experimental and observational testing, including examining all sides of scientific evidence of those scientific experiments so as to encourage critical thinking by students.
But there's nothing good about it, either. It opens up doors that don't help kids and don't help teachers. Combined with bad amendments added to the standards, we're set up for an awful fight over textbooks in a few years. Those amendments add creationist rhetoric about "sudden appearance" and stasis in the fossil record, about the complexity of the cell, and about the origins of information in complex molecules. That's the wedge, and creationists on the board will swing a mallet at them when textbook adoption comes up.
However, Texas Freedom Network puts it more bluntly: Science takes a hit in Texas and released this statement:

The word “weaknesses” no longer appears in the science standards. But the document still has plenty of potential footholds for creationist attacks on evolution to make their way into Texas classrooms.

Through a series of contradictory and convoluted amendments, the board crafted a road map that creationists will use to pressure publishers into putting phony arguments attacking established science into textbooks.

We appreciate that the politicians on the board seek compromise, but don’t agree that compromises can be made on established mainstream science or on honest education policy.

What’s truly unfortunate is that we now have to revisit this entire debate in two years when new science textbooks are adopted. Perhaps the Texas legislature can do something to prevent that.

But, wait. Evolution was not the only target. The language regarding global warming has also been modified (BTW, what's up with this creationist-anti-global warming alliance? Do the crazies have to accept ALL crazy ideas at the same time??):

It also watered down a section on global warming in the standards for the environmental systems high school course.

The environmental systems curriculum standards drafted by a writing team in December had included the following standard:

(9)(G) discuss the positive and negative influence of commonly held ethical beliefs on scientific practices such as methods used to increase food production or the existence of global warming

The measure was changed to read: “analyze how ethical beliefs can be used to influence scientific practices such as methods of increasing food production.” Then the board added the following standard: “Analyze and evaluate different views on the existence of global warming.” As with evolution, there is consensus in the mainstream science community on the existence of global warming. The debate revolves around the mechanisms causing it.

In case you are wondering that the language in these standards is not all that bad - remember, there are lot of code-words being used to get the creationist worldviews in science class rooms. Lets get back to the issue of evolution. The board chairman, Don McLeroy, is against evolution. Below is a video of him on Friday morning going after evolution. Now note, how he first sounds reasonable about the fossil record and what it implies for species. He even has platitudes for those who are defending evolution. Then he uses Stephen Jay Gould and the debate over the pacing of evolution to conclude that fossil record actually provides evidence against evolution. Huh!!? Yes, Gould must be turning in his grave. But then Don goes on to say: "I disagree with these experts. Somebody’s gotta stand up to experts that are… I don’t know why they’re doing it. They’re wonderful people". And, yes, our dentist chairman (hmm..yes, he is a dentist) is starting up a revolution against experts in biology (finally!) - and will lead us for 40 days into this wonderful desert of ignorance. Here is the video for your own pleasure (courtesy of Texas Freedom Network - who did a fantastic job covering the meeting):

For more, check out Thoughts from Kansas, Texas Freedom Network, and the NCSE website. My barometer to evaluate all this mess comes from Bill Dembski. He considers the Texas Board decision as a good news. This then must be bad news for science.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Homo erectus would have done fine in New England winters

It is a nice day today - so I should not complain (too much) about this past winter. However, it seems that Homo erectus survived a glacial period about 750,000 years ago - and I guess they would have been fine in New England winters too. This information is coming from the new dating of bones and tools found in the Peking Man cave in China. This is also cool as I'm currently reading The Jesuit and the Skull: Teilhard de Chardin, evolution, and the search for Peking Man about the discovery of Peking Man in the 1920s (I haven't finished it yet - so don't tell me if they actually find fossils or not). From Science (March 13, 2009):
Ever since a Canadian anatomist discovered the skullcap of "Peking Man" by candlelight in China's Zhoukoudian Cave in 1929, the cave has been known as the richest Homo erectus site in the world. Just 50 kilometers southwest of Beijing, the cave was the resting place for more than 40 individuals dragged there by predators. But with no volcanic sediments for traditional radiometric dating, researchers have not known precisely when early humans lived near the cave. Now, Chinese and American researchers have redated bones and tools from the site with a new radiometric method.

They date the oldest human fossils to about 770,000 years ago, at least 200,000 years older than previously thought, in work published this week in Nature. The dates are not the oldest that have been claimed for Chinese H. erectus, but they suggest this species survived during a mild glacial period at Zhoukoudian. They provide the earliest evidence that H. erectus lived this far north (39.93° North latitude) during near-glacial conditions.
But here is the cool part. This may provide circumstantial evidence for the use of fire by these extinct human cousins:
If the new dates are right, then H. erectus was at Zhoukoudian during a relatively mild glacial period about 750,000 years ago that brought icy winds and snow to the region--similar, perhaps, to the cold, dry climate today in southern Siberia. Studies of animal fossils, isotopes, and dust in the cave also suggest that H. erectus was there when the climate fluctuated between cold, dry glacial periods and wet, warm interglacials for 400,000 years. Surviving the cold implies they used fire, which is not surprising for these big-brained hominids but has been very difficult to prove.
Read the full story in Science (you will need subscription to access the article) and an amazon link to The Jesuit and the Skull here.

For your campy pleasure, here is a synopsis and the trailer of a 70's Hong Kong film, The Mighty Peking Man (hmm...remember this is the "Mighty Peking Man" and not the Peking Man - and that may explain a bit of the size difference):
A party from Hong Kong exploring the Indian side of the Himalayan mountains discover the eponymous Peking Man, a gigantic ape-like creature, along with a beautiful blond woman named Samantha (Evelyn Kraft) whose parents had been killed in a plane crash. Samantha was raised by Utam (the Peking Man) with nothing to wear but an animal-skin bikini (which she later continues to wear in preference to the type of women's clothing more common in Hong Kong). Like Tarzan, she has learned both to swing through the trees on vines and to communicate with and command the jungle animals, with the exception of a venomous snake who bites her on the inner thigh, requiring the hero, Johnny (Danny Lee), to suck out the poison. Shortly thereafter, they fall in love.
Ha! How can you go wrong with this? And here is the trailer (it has everything: stampeding elephants, tigers fighting snakes, and a lady Tarzan) and a review from Ebert.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

David Attenborough's Charles Darwin and the Tree of Life

I had earlier posted only the clip about the tree of life. Now here is the full episode (about an hour long). It is actually quite well done (some good stuff on transitional fossils 28 minutes into the program), and its great to see video excerpts from David Attenborough's early documentaries (tip from Zakir Thaver). Overall, it provides a wonderful summary of Darwin and the way all species are connected together here on Earth - all in under one hour. Enjoy!

Woody Allen on lobster existentialism

You may have to brush up some of your Yiddish, but here is a cathartic piece by Woody Allen in this week's New Yorker. Just to give you a taste (ha!):
Why should a decent citizen like himself, a dentist, a mensch who deserved to relive life as a soaring eagle or ensconced in the lap of some sexy socialite getting his fur stroked, come back ignominiously as an entrée on a menu? It was his cruel fate to be delicious, to turn up as Today’s Special, along with a baked potato and dessert. This led to a discussion by the two lobsters of the mysteries of existence, of religion, and how capricious the universe was, when someone like Sol Drazin, a schlemiel they knew from the catering business, came back after a fatal stroke as a stud horse impregnating cute little thoroughbred fillies for high fees.
Read the full article here (its a short piece). How much money do you think Woody Allen lost with Bernie Madoff?

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

At McGill for Islam & Evolution Symposium

I will be participating and presenting at the McGill symposium on Islam & Evolution next week (Mar 30-31). This looks like a fantastic gathering as the number of panelists is small and plenty of time is provided for discussion, both on and off the panel. If you are in Montreal and are interested in the topic, this will be an excellent opportunity to hear about Islam and evolution.

Here is the motivation behind the symposium:

How is evolution taught and understood in Islamic societies?

How do Muslim students, parents, and teachers understand evolutionary science in relation to their religious beliefs?

These questions form the basis of the McGill Symposium on Islam and Evolution, where international experts in Islamic and Religious Studies, Science Education, and Biological Evolution will meet to discuss their views on this important topic. The aim of the symposium is to contribute to the broader dialogue and understanding of the relationship between Islam and modern science, an increasingly relevant subject in today’s society.

Also, check out this interview with Anila Asghar (from Johns Hopkins University). She has been working on analyzing the attitudes of Muslim professors and biology teachers toward evolution in several Muslim countries and in Canadian diaspora. This is a fascinating work and I'm looking forward to hearing about it at the symposium. Here is her interview with the McGill Reporter:

1. Q: Is Islam at odds with evolutionary biology?

A: There doesn’t appear to be only one “Muslim position” on evolution. The intellectual and popular responses to evolution reflect a wide spectrum of views ranging from complete rejection to all-embracing acceptance of evolution. While many Muslims do reject evolutionary theory, several are able to reconcile science with their religious beliefs. For example, one of our panelists is Ehab Abouheif, a McGill professor and Canada Research Chair in Evolutionary Developmental Biology. According to Dr. Abouheif, “…my daily scientific activities of performing evolution-centered research do not conflict with my daily spiritual activities as a Muslim…I strongly believe one can practice evolutionary biology without compromising one’s faith as a Muslim.”

2. Q: Do scientists in Islamic countries accept evolution?

A: Apparently so. The Scientific Academies of several Muslim countries (Egypt, Pakistan, Morocco, Palestine, Iran, Indonesia, and Turkey) recently signed onto a statement proclaiming that evolution is an “evidence based fact” which has never been contradicted by scientific evidence. Nevertheless, Muslim scientists tend to reconcile evolutionary theory to their religious beliefs in divergent ways. Our symposium will provide an excellent forum for further conversation. Drs. Taner Edis, Salman Hameed, Minoo Derayey, Uner Turgay, and Saouma BouJaoude will elaborate on the historical and contemporary response to, and the current status of, evolutionary thought among Muslim scholars.

3. Q: Is Islamic creationism the same as the Judeo-Christian-based creationism we see in the West?

A: There are certainly similarities, and indeed American creationist materials are often used by Muslim anti-evolution activists. But there are important differences as well. For example, Muslim creationists usually don’t insist that the Earth is only 6,000 years old as many Young Earth Creationists in North America claim. During the symposium, Josh Rosenau from the U.S. National Center for Science Education will offer a comparison of some popular Islamic creationist materials to those of Western anti-evolutionists.

4. Q: What is taught about evolution in the schools of Islamic countries?

A: Evolution is often part of the science curriculum and represented in the high school textbooks of Muslim nations. We’ve done approximately three years worth of research on such questions, and symposium participants will be reporting on not only the curricula used, but also on the ideas and attitudes toward evolution and the teaching of evolutionary theory held by Muslim students, teachers, and university professors from several Islamic countries and cultures (like Canada, Egypt, Indonesia, Lebanon, Pakistan and Turkey).

Looking forward to hearing about her group's findings. But it better not be snowing up there!

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Mustafa Akyol backing away from ID?

Turkish writer Mustafa Akyol, in the past, has made a strong effort to promote Discovery Institute's version of Intelligent Design in Turkey. In fact, he also testified on behalf of the Disco. Institute at Kansas School Board hearings back in 2005 (talk about strange).

However, it seems that he is beginning to accept evolution (may be I'm reading too much into it). He recently wrote an article, Darwin Year is not the year of atheism, in which he (correctly) argues that acceptance of evolution does not necessarily lead to atheism:
For that Darwinism does not vindicate atheism. What it refutes is not theism (faith in God), but only a literalist interpretation of Scriptures.
Then he goes into the Fine-tuning argument - which opens up for other problems. However, Intelligent Design (the biological version) is conspicuously absent from the article. Akyol also wrote two articles following the Darwin censorship controversy in Turkey. In Inherit the Turkish Wind, he clearly makes a distinction between evolution and how it has been interpreted at times:
This is especially true for the Darwinian theory of evolution, which, from the very beginning, has been misused to advance philosophical naturalism and attack traditional religious belief. Darwin himself did not have such a bias, but some of his supporters did. The zeal of the latter day Darwinian atheists such as Richard Dawkins was shared by others as early as late 19th century.
There is again no mention of ID in the article and we even see a soft spot for Darwin. In the followup article, this is what he has to say about ID:

What about Intelligent Design (ID) then, which is a new and controversial theory that claims to find evidence for design in the complex structures of nature? It is another form of creationism? I know many people think that way, but I beg to differ. You might find ID convincing or unconvincing, but you have to see that it is an inference from scientific evidence, not religious texts.

The real controversial point about ID is that it challenges the way modern science works: methodological naturalism, i.e., the effort to find only natural causes for natural phenomena. In that sense, it is a very unorthodox theory. And I don't think that it will triumph over the orthodox naturalist paradigm in a foreseeable future. That's why I don't think textbooks or science magazines like the one TÜBİTAK publishes, "Bilim ve Teknik," should be expected to open their pages to ID theorists.

He is absolutely correct that ID requires an intervention of a supernatural agent (he is actually being more honest than William Dembski - who claims that he is not talking about any supernatural entity per se, and that "intelligence" could be that of really advanced aliens). After reading Akyol's last piece, I can't say for sure, but a strong endorsement of ID seems to be missing.

Overall, Akyol is taking a reasonable approach. He seems to have replaced ID with fine-tuning arguments, and while still problematic, at least he is talking about natural explanations for biology. For practical reasons, I share Akyol's concern for the backlash generated by linking evolution with atheism. I hope he will also leave the new fine-tuning crutch and believe for the sake of believing rather than twisting science to support his beliefs.

Here are links to Akyol's articles: Darwin is not the year of atheism, Inherit the Turkish wind, Getting "Creationism" Right. Also my earlier post on the censorship of Darwin in Turkey.

Also check out this Darwin 200 conference to take place in Turkey this coming April (tip from Nathan Schneider).

Monday, March 23, 2009

Push-button executions from the skies

Drone attacks are continuing in northern Pakistan. While they have been successful in killing a number of militants, there has been significant collateral damage. Even if we set aside the legality issues, it is not clear if these attacks are achieving productive long-term goals. Yesterday's NYT had an article addressing this question, The Downside of Letting Robots Do the Bombing:
But in Pakistan, some C.I.A. veterans of the tribal battles worry that instead of separating the citizenry from the militants the drone strikes may be uniting them. These experts say they fear that killing militants from the sky won’t undermine, and may promote, the psychology of anti-American militancy that is metastasizing in the country.
...
Intelligence officials in Washington and Islamabad said it was nearly impossible to measure the impact of the strikes on the so-called “war of ideas.” Even when precise, the drone strikes often kill women and children in militant compounds. When that happens, local Pashtun customs of “badal” obligate their survivors to seek revenge.
In addition, these strikes are driving militants away from the border areas and into the major Pakistani cities. Quetta is just one of the examples. Its not clear to me what will be the strategy regarding the cities. If Pakistanis are angry at strikes in the tribal areas, it is not too difficult to asses the mood after a strike in a major city - where the collateral will also be high. Don't get me wrong. These militants have to defeated. But the question here is on the effectiveness of these drones in achieving long-term strategic goals. The article brought up another interesting point:

And then there is the matter of bravery. For his new book about the rise of robot warfare, “Wired for War,” P. W. Singer interviewed insurgents in the Muslim world who said that America’s reliance on drone weapons is a sign that the United States is afraid to sacrifice troops in combat.

This ought to be a particular concern now, Mr. Singer said, as the United States struggles to build alliances in Pakistan and Afghanistan. There, he said, trust is built by displays of personal bravery.

“If courage is the coin of the realm, then courage is what proves to the local Pashtun tribes that you are their allies,” he said. He cited the protest song, which he came across while researching his book.
Read the full article here. Also, hear this excellent two part NPR series on Pakistan's tribal areas and on the legality of the drone attacks. In case you have any doubts about the complexity of Pakistan's situation, here is an excerpt from an interview with Sufi Muhammad, the government-backed peacemaker in Swat - and the father-in-law of the militant leader Fazlullah, who is leading the insurgency in Swat (yes - please wrap your head around that too) (tip from Pakistaniat):

You said in a 2005 interview with us that what Al Qaeda and the Taliban are doing in Pakistan is haram. Are Fazlullah’s activities over the last sixteen months also haram?
Sufi Muhammad: Yes, I said that about Al Qaeda, but not about the Taliban. Let me say…that debate on past happenings is disallowed in Islam. A hadith sharif says, what has happened in the past should not be discussed.

But how can we proceed without debating the past?
The hadith sharif says a Muslim should not discuss past happenings because he may not remember all the [details] and, therefore, he may…sin by not speaking the truth.

A majority of Swat residents do not think the peace deal recently signed between the TNSM and the NWFP government will last long.
God Almighty does everything; he builds and destroys countries.

Residents also doubt whether peace is possible in the presence of armed Taliban.
Everyone keeps weapons. People in Peshawar have weapons with them.

You support keeping weapons?
Yes, you can keep weapons with you.

Did you ask Fazlullah to surrender weapons after the sharia law deal?
Keeping weapons is halal in Islam.

President Zardari said recently that force would be used if the Taliban do not surrender weapons in Swat.
His statement is childish…immature.

With sharia law in Swat, there will be a complete ban on music and girls’ education, and people will be forced to grow beards?
There are five subjects — judiciary, politics, economics, education and the executive. The judicial subject will be with us, the rest is beyond our control.

The Taliban are kidnapping government officials and killing soldiers, yet you still hold the army responsible for ceasefire violations.
Kidnapping cases are taking place all over the world. The military violated the ceasefire.

The military says some of its soldiers were shot dead while bringing water.
No. This is not the case. The soldiers were not killed near any stream.

Are soldiers moving freely in Swat after the peace deal?
No. The military cannot move freely unless peace is restored.

After peace is restored, will the army leave Swat?
This is Pakistan’s army and Swat is within Pakistan’s borders. I will have no objection if a military cantonment is established here.

Locals say innocent people have been killed. Will the aggrieved families be able to get justice?
I have told you already: we will not discuss what has happened in the past. Sharia law does not allow this.

If a court summons a key Taliban commander, will he appear before the court?
If Caliph Umar (RA) can appear before a court, then why can’t others?

So Fazlullah will also appear in court if summoned?
If he does not… he will be acting against the sharia law.

What you did in Malakand in the 1990s and then in Afghanistan in 2001 you called ‘jihad’. Are Fazlullah’s activities over the last 16 months in Swat also jihad?
I do not want to speak on this.

What are Fazlullah’s plans after the peace deal?
He will support imposition of sharia law.

You have termed democracy ‘infidelity’. But Maulana Sami-ul Haq, Maulana Fazlur Rehman and Qazi Hussain Ahmad are taking part in the democratic process.
Democracy is not permissible in sharia law. I will not name [these leaders] but they are taking part in infidelity. I will not offer prayers if one of [these leaders] is leading those prayers.

Do you intend to export sharia law to other parts of Pakistan?
If people help me, I will. Otherwise, no.

Remember, he is supposed to be one of the "good" guys. This is the dude that the government sent to make the peace deal in Swat. Everything is going to be just fine....

Also see posts on Robots of War, Sharia in Swat, and on the bombing of schools in Swat.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Read and watch "Watchmen"

I went to see Watchmen on IMAX today - and it is fantastic! This is also the first graphic novel I have read (I finished it last night) and I absolutely loved it. I was skeptical of the genre at first, but I found it very effective - somewhere between regular novels and movies. The visuals in this novel are not only cleverly done, but they present the story in a complex multi-layered format. If you are at all curious about graphic novels, read Watchmen.

The movie stays close to the novel and is also very well done. Since I finished the novel just yesterday, I did not expect to be completely drawn into the movie. But that was not the case and I loved the movie (I'm sure the IMAX experience didn't hurt the cause either). In addition the soundtrack is great with an excellent use of Dylan in the title track, and then Hendrix, Billie Holiday, Janis Joplin, Nat King Cole, etc. Plus, the movie has one of the best ever placements of Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah (you'll have to see the movie to appreciate it).

Now a warning: Both the novel and the movie are dark, intense, and quite violent (Often their ratings are idiotic - but if MPAA means anything to you, then this movie is "rated R for strong graphic violence, sexuality, nudity and language"). More The Dark Knight than Superman. The key thing is that it is a film that has superheroes - rather than a superhero film. From this blog perspective, it is an exploration of the fundamental nature of humanity and how we understand and deal with the existence of evil in the world. Of course, there is also a peripheral discussion of the existence of God. Plus, it provides an interesting intellectual exercise to see the consequences of being amoral - both good and bad.

Here is the trailer:

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Blaspheming in Philadelphia

Great - Blasphemy laws exist in Pennsylvania (and also in Massachusetts, Michigan, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Wyoming). Wow! I feel almost at home - except that in Pennsylvania a man can't have a particular name for a company, whereas in Pakistan, one can get a death sentence for a similar crime. C'mon - US needs to toughen up :)

Here is the bizarre story from Pennsylvania (tip Laura Sizer). George Kalman wanted to create a company - but the name of his company got rejected because it violated Pennsylvania's blasphemy law:

The first line on the document asked Mr. Kalman to supply his chosen corporate name, and he printed it in: I Choose Hell Productions, LLC. In a personal bit of existentialism, Mr. Kalman believed that, even if life was often hellish, it was better than suicide.

A week later, the daily mail to Mr. Kalman’s home in the Philadelphia suburb of Downingtown brought a form letter from the Pennsylvania Department of State. His corporate filing had been rejected, the letter explained, because a business name “may not contain words that constitute blasphemy, profane cursing or swearing or that profane the Lord’s name.”
...
After a couple more readings, though, Mr. Kalman realized that the rejection was genuine. Pennsylvania, it turned out, indeed had a law against blasphemy. In the short term, Mr. Kalman successfully filed for incorporation as ICH Productions, LLC. In the longer run, he put in a call to the state branch of the American Civil Liberties Union and set in motion a challenge to the state law.
What is most surprising here is that the Pennsylvania law is only from 1977!

Pennsylvania’s law may be the most idiosyncratic of all, because it covers only the matter of corporate names. And, rather than being a dusty vestige of the 19th century, it was enacted (and overwhelmingly so) only in 1977. A Democratic legislator, Emil Mrkonic, wrote the bill after a mail-order fire-arms dealer filed incorporation papers for the God Damn Gun Shop.

The statute provides no guidance on what exactly constitutes profaning the Lord’s name. Nor does it specify who will make that decision, or how it will be made.
Amazing! Too bad this case is in Philadelphia and not in Dover. Read the full story here.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Dennett on babies, chocolate cake, girls, and jokes

Here is a TED talk by Daniel Dennett (tip from Pharyngula). Its actually quite funny (though the theory of "funny" is not clear here - I guess we'll have to wait for the book). Enjoy!

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Whales and the Geometry of God

Pakistan has been playing an important role in filling in the gaps of our evolutionary past - especially regarding whales. Fossil remains of Pakicetus - an extinct land ancestor of whales were found, as the name implies, in Pakistan. Then a research paper from just last month announced the evidence that early whales (about 47 million years ago) gave birth on land. How do they know? From the discovery in Pakistan of fossil remains of a pregnant whale (now extinct) along with its fetus (tip from Zakir Thaver). This is quite extraordinary!

The fossil discovery marks the first extinct whale and fetus combination known to date, shedding light on the lifestyle of ancient whales as they made the transition from land to sea during the Eocene Epoch (between 54.8 million and 33.7 million years ago).

Philip Gingerich, a paleontologist at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and his team discovered the pregnant whale remains in Pakistan in 2000, and then in 2004, Gingerich's co-authors and others found the nearly complete skeleton of an adult male from the same species in those fossil beds. The adult whales are each about 8.5 feet (2.6 meters) long and weighed between 615 and 860 pounds (280 and 390 kg), though the male was slightly longer and heavier than the female.

Check out Live Science story here, a video presentation here, and comments by Greg Laden here. All of this sets up nicely for Uzma Aslam Khan's novel The Geometry of God. It is coming out in the US in September (2009) and I'm looking forward to reading it (I love the cover!). Here is the synopsis:

The paleantologist Zahoor is trying to do his research while General Zia is launching a campaign to Islamize knowledge. Science is being rewritten and called Islamic Science. The teaching of evolution is banned. Nothing is natural or accidental; everything is ‘revealed’ and ‘ordained.’ On a fossil dig in the Salt Range of the Punjab, an area that once lay beneath the Tethys Sea, Zahoor’s granddaughter, Amal, finds proof of the ‘dog-whale’. No one knows it yet but she has found Pakicetus, the oldest known primitive whale.

Back at home bad news awaits. Amal’s baby sister Mehwish has become blind and Amal will have to stay home to raise her. Mehwish’s world is both magical and terrifying. Through Amal she learns to read a seeing person’s alphabet. She can also ‘see’ Amal’s drawings of primitive whales. Her grandfather teaches her illegal English love poems.

Meanwhile, in Lahore, Noman, neurotic, very funny (and horny), an aspiring mathematician, hopes to one day find a number like a magic bloom. Instead, he’s appointed secretary to his father, a minister in the Party of Creation. His father wants Noman to create a pure science to help put the youth of Pakistan back on the Straight Path. Noman now finds himself attending conferences on scientific miracles all around the world and editing a magazine called Akhlaq, in which he picks out verses from the Quran to ‘prove’ that evolution does not exist. The problem is, he could just as easily find verses that prove it does. Instead of finding the Straight Path, Noman finds Zahoor.

While the culture war between the Islamists and the secularists rages, Noman bats for both sides: working for his father, while turning increasingly to Zahoor, a man who believes that mathematicians are also artists, philosophers scientists, architects poets. The friendship between Noman, Zahoor, Amal and Mehwish grows into a parallelogram, shaped by and shaping each other. And then, on Amal’s wedding, tragedy strikes. The friends must realign yet again. It seems it will take an old man on trial to make youth find itself.
Check out Uzma's blog here and you can find more information about her book here. And while this novel touches on evolution (and on many other topics), here is a New Scientist article about the evolutionary roots of literature:

WHY does storytelling endure across time and cultures? Perhaps the answer lies in our evolutionary roots. A study of the way that people respond to Victorian literature hints that novels act as a social glue, reinforcing the types of behaviour that benefit society.

Literature "could continually condition society so that we fight against base impulses and work in a cooperative way", says Jonathan Gottschall of Washington and Jefferson College, Pennsylvania.

Gottschall and co-author Joseph Carroll at the University of Missouri, St Louis, study how Darwin's theories of evolution apply to literature. Along with John Johnson, an evolutionary psychologist at Pennsylvania State University in DuBois, the researchers asked 500 people to fill in a questionnaire about 200 classic Victorian novels. The respondents were asked to define characters as protagonists or antagonists, and then to describe their personality and motives, such as whether they were conscientious or power-hungry.

The team found that the characters fell into groups that mirrored the egalitarian dynamics of hunter-gather society, in which individual dominance is suppressed for the greater good (Evolutionary Psychology, vol 4, p 716). Protagonists, such as Elizabeth Bennett in Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, for example, scored highly on conscientiousness and nurturing, while antagonists like Bram Stoker's Count Dracula scored highly on status-seeking and social dominance.
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Boehm and Carroll believe novels have the same effect as the cautionary tales told in older societies. "Just as hunter-gatherers talk of cheating and bullying as a way of staying keyed to the goal that the bad guys must not win, novels key us to the same issues," says Boehm. "They have a function that continues to contribute to the quality and structure of group life."

Interesting...though I don't know much about the field to comment on it. Read the full story here.

Tracing the spread of Black Death

Forget psychics. Here is an actual example of dead people providing information about the spread of Black Death in Europe. This information is coming from four 17th century nuns and two priests from different parts of France. It is also a good example of testing historical hypotheses. From Science (March 6, 2009):
Bubonic plague, which first broke out in Europe in 1347, killed some 75 million Europeans before it was brought under control in the early 19th century.

Archaeologists continue to unearth mass graves. Up till now, scientists have looked for the DNA of the plague organism, Yersinia pestis, to determine if people died of the plague. But the method is unreliable and in medical testing, it's recently been replaced by a cheaper, faster, and more accurate rapid diagnostic test (RDT) that reveals the presence of a protein specific to Y. pestis.

Anthropologist Raffaella Bianucci, working at Turin University in Italy, decided to apply the RDT to the remains of four 17th century nuns and two priests from different parts of France who, records show, took care of the poor and sick. Bianucci confirms in the March issue of the Journal of Archaeological Science that all were victims of the Black Death.

And more dead are waiting to speak (well..sort of):

"This is very important research," says mummy expert Bob Brier of Long Island University in Brookville, New York. There are conflicting views of how widespread the plague was in Europe. "Now we don't have to rely just on historical sources" to trace its pathways, he says. Bianucci plans to use the test at more sites. Next up will be Lazzaretto Vecchio, the plague infirmary founded on an island in Venice, Italy, in 1403, where 1500 skeletons await their checkup.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Science & religion on the Daily Show

Enjoy!

Monday, March 16, 2009

Muslim Creationists - not the bottom of the barrel

No - that honor belongs to the folks responsible for the Creation museum. Below is a conversation between Michael Shermer and a Creation scientist (a geneticist!??) whose research focuses on developing models "to understand the role of microbes before and after the Fall and speciation of animals after the Flood". Yes - the Fall here refers to the Christian notion of original sin - and not the very cool movie, The Fall, that came out last year (if you like creative movies - do check it out). And yes, she also believes that Earth is only 6000 years old. Harun Yahya: breath easy. This is the bottom of the barrel. Sorry to put you through this, but here is the interview:


Also, Washington Post wasted precious newspaper space to report on a creationist student trip to Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History (again - we are talking about young earth creationists!) The reporting is bizarre: instead of clearly saying that these guys are complete nuts, the article ends on a quote at the Jefferson Memorial. The last three paragraphs of the article are as follows:

Near the end of the "Evolution Trail," the class showed no signs of being swayed by the polished, enthusiastic presentation of Darwin's theory. They were surprised, though, by the bronze statue of man's earliest mammalian ancestor.

"A rat?" exclaimed Amanda Runions, a 21-year-old biochemistry major, when she saw the model of a morganucodon, a rodent-like ancient mammal that curators have dubbed Grandma Morgie. "All this hype for a rat? You're expecting, like, at least an ape."

Before heading back to Lynchburg each year, DeWitt makes a point of stopping by the Jefferson Memorial. The quotes on the wall there (his favorite: "Can the liberties of a nation be secure when we have removed a conviction that these liberties are the gift of God?") make for a better ending to the trip than the secular shades of the museum, he said.

Yikes! There does not have to be a balance in reporting - when one side is completely nuts. In any case, here is the link to the full article.

Education and Pakistan's drift towards theocracy

I'm back from the Hofstra conference - which was fantastic! I will put up a post about it in the next day or so. In the mean time, here is an excellent (and scary) article by Pervez Hoodbhoy: Toward theocracy? You should read the whole article but I will focus only on bits on education. I also have some first hand experience - as most of my schooling was during Zia's dictatorship. The 1980s fundamentally changed the course of Pakistan and sets up much of the stage for the current situation. By the way, notice how many new well-regarded Pakistani novelists have surfaced in the last couple of years (see Mohsin Hamid, Mohammad Hanif, Kamila Shamsie, Daniyal Mueenuddin, etc.). One thing in common: they all grew up in Pakistan in the 1980s and their stories often revolve around that time. In any case, back to Hoodbhoy's article:

To understand Pakistan’s collective masochism, one needs to study the drastic social and cultural transformations that have made this country so utterly different from what it was in earlier times. For three decades, deep tectonic forces have been silently tearing Pakistan away from the Indian subcontinent and driving it towards the Arabian peninsula.

This continental drift is not physical but cultural, driven by a belief that Pakistan must exchange its South Asian identity for an Arab-Muslim one. Grain by grain, the desert sands of Saudi Arabia are replacing the rich soil that had nurtured a rich Muslim culture in India for a thousand years. This culture produced Mughal architecture, the Taj Mahal, the poetry of Asadullah Ghalib, and much more. Now a stern, unyielding version of Islam – Wahabism – is replacing the kinder, gentler Islam of the sufis and saints who had walked on this land for hundreds of years.

This change is by design. Twenty-five years ago, under the approving gaze of Ronald Reagan’s America, the Pakistani state pushed Islam on to its people. Prayers in government departments were deemed compulsory, floggings were carried out publicly, punishments were meted out to those who did not fast in Ramadan, selection for university academic posts required that the candidate demonstrate knowledge of Islamic teachings, and jehad was declared essential for every Muslim.
...
One can squarely place the genesis of religious militancy in Pakistan to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 and the subsequent efforts of the U.S.-Pakistan-Saudi grand alliance to create and support the Great Global Jehad of the 20th century. A toxic mix of imperial might, religious fundamentalism, and local interests ultimately defeated the Soviets. But the network of Islamic militant organisations did not disappear after it achieved success. By now the Pakistani Army establishment had realised the power of jehad as an instrument of foreign policy, and so the network grew from strength to strength.

And education system was used to support these goals. It is not only the madrassas where this was happening, but rather in mainstream, schools. Here are some obscene official curricular guidelines for 5th grade social studies class:

Stalin would be proud of it. What a shame. Now I know that many ignore this kind of overt propaganda. But some (most?) elements still seep in and Hoodbhoy calls these kind of curricular guidelines a "blueprint for a religious fascist state". By the way, these guidelines have largely gone untouched by civilian and military rulers alike:

The commonly expressed view is that Islamic radicalism is a problem only in FATA and that madrassas are the only jehad factories around. This could not be more wrong. Extremism is breeding at a ferocious rate in public and private schools within Pakistan’s towns and cities. Left unchallenged, this kind of education will produce a generation incapable of living together with any except strictly their own kind. Pakistan’s education system demands that Islam be understood as a complete code of life, and creates in the mind of the schoolchild a sense of siege and constant embattlement by stressing that Islam is under threat everywhere.
...

Fearful of taking on powerful religious forces, every incumbent government refused to take a position on the curriculum and thus quietly allowed young minds to be moulded by fanatics. What might happen a generation later has always been a secondary matter for a government challenged on so many sides.

The promotion of militarism in Pakistan’s so-called “secular” public schools, colleges and universities had a profound effect upon young minds. Militant jehad became part of the culture on college and university campuses. Armed groups flourished, invited students for jehad in Kashmir and Afghanistan, set up offices throughout the country, collected funds at Friday prayers, and declared a war without borders. Pre-9/11, my university was ablaze with posters inviting students to participate in the Kashmir jehad. After 2001, this slipped below the surface.

If you are still reading - that means you are not completely depressed by this post yet. Ok- in that case, we can take things up (down?) a notch and lets conclude by looking at madrassas in Pakistan:

The primary vehicle for Saudi-ising Pakistan’s education has been the madrassa. In earlier times, these had turned out the occasional Islamic scholar, using a curriculum that essentially dates from the 11th century with only minor subsequent revisions. But their principal function had been to produce imams and muezzins for mosques, and those who eked out an existence as “moulvi sahibs” teaching children to read the Quran.

The Afghan jehad changed everything. During the war against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, madrassas provided the U.S.-Saudi-Pakistani alliance the cannon fodder needed for fighting a holy war. The Americans and the Saudis, helped by a more-than-willing General Zia, funded new madrassas across the length and breadth of Pakistan.

A detailed picture of the current situation is not available. But, according to the national education census, which the Ministry of Education released in 2006, Punjab has 5,459 madrassas followed by the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) with 2,843; Sindh 1,935; Federally Administrated Northern Areas (FANA) 1,193; Balochistan 769; Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK) 586; FATA 135; and Islamabad capital territory 77. The Ministry estimates that 1.5 million students are getting religious education in the 13,000 madrassas.

These figures could be quite off the mark. Commonly quoted figures range between 18,000 and 22,000 madrassas. The number of students could be correspondingly larger. The free room, board and supplies to students, form a key part of their appeal. But the desire of parents across the country is for children to be “disciplined” and to be given a thorough Islamic education. This is also a major contributing factor.

And a reminder: we are not just talking about FATA or the Swat region. Madrassas are spread throughout Pakistan and they are starting to have an impact on moderate cities:

Madrassas have deeply impacted upon the urban environment. For example, until a few years ago, Islamabad was a quiet, orderly, modern city different from all others in Pakistan. Still earlier, it had been largely the abode of Pakistan’s hyper-elite and foreign diplomats. But the rapid transformation of its demography brought with it hundreds of mosques with multi-barrelled audio-cannons mounted on minarets, as well as scores of madrassas illegally constructed in what used to be public parks and green areas. Now, tens of thousands of their students with little prayer caps dutifully chant the Quran all day. In the evenings they swarm around the city, making bare-faced women increasingly nervous.

On the plus-side, they are not blowing up schools - yet.

Read the Hoodbhoy article here.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Controversy over Darwin censorship in Turkey

It appears that the Turkish government has forced a science journal (published by Turkey's research funding and science management organization, TUBITAK) to remove an article on the life and work of Charles Darwin. In addition, the editor of the journal has been sacked - possibly for commissioning the cover story as part of the Darwin's bicentennial.
In an interview with Milliyet, one of Turkey's highest-circulation daily newspapers, the editor of Bilim ve Teknik, Çiğdem Atakuman, confirmed that she had been removed from her post over the affair, but declined to comment further because she is still a TÜBİTAK employee.

Milliyet reports that the editorial changes were ordered by TÜBİTAK's vice-president, engineer Ömer Cebeci. Neither Cebeci nor TÜBİTAK's president, Nüket Yetiş, were available to be interviewed by Nature, and the agency has released no official statement on the matter.

This is terrible and there are already protests at universities in Turkey. At the same time, a word of caution: In Turkey evolution has become a highly charged political issue - linked to the debate over secularism there. There are also Municipal elections scheduled for March 29th. So we have to keep the political context in mind. In any case, there is absolutely no excuse for the censorship and for the sacking of the editor. Here is a bit from an Associated Press story about it:

Secularists in Turkey suspect the Islamic-oriented government seeks to raise the role of religion and promote the Muslim version of creationist theory. The democratically elected government, however, has said it backs the country's secular principles.

Parliament Speaker Topkan Koksal, a member of the Islamic-rooted ruling party, said he opposed the action against the magazine by the state-run Scientific and Technological Research Council of Turkey.

"Whether you like Darwin's theory or not, whether you believe in it or not, this is another matter," he said, calling the council's decision "wrong."

The council has not commented. Turkey's main opposition party, a bastion of secularists, demanded an explanation, and dozens of university students and teachers protested outside the Council's headquarters in Ankara.
...
Atakuman confirmed reports that the publication was stopped at the presses and the article was removed from the issue. Newspapers printed copies of both the original issue and the new issue without the Darwin article. The subject of the new cover was global warming.

Read the AP story, Nature, and from the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

At Hofstra University for Darwin's Reach conference

I just arrived at Hofstra University for a conference, Darwin's Reach: A celebration of Darwin's legacy across academic disciplines. Here is the program (pdf). I'm presenting on Friday on Evolution debate in contemporary Muslim world. But I'm not the only one on this topic - Daniel Varisco will be talking about Darwin's historical reception in the Muslim world. Very cool!

Apart from regular sessions, I'm looking forward to the Plenary session by Judge Jones III - who presided over the Dover Intelligent Design trial. In addition, I plan to ask Frans de Waal about the real intentions of some rogue chimps - and what are they planning next? I'm still bothered by the news that Santino - the Chimp was stashing away stones to attack zoo visitors. I'm very suspicious...

A male chimpanzee in a Swedish zoo planned hundreds of stone-throwing attacks on zoo visitors, according to researchers.

Keepers at Furuvik Zoo found that the chimp collected and stored stones that he would later use as missiles.
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Crucial to the current study is the fact that Santino, a chimpanzee at the zoo in the city north of Stockholm, collected the stones in a calm state, prior to the zoo opening in the morning.

The launching of the stones occurred hours later - during dominance displays to zoo visitors - with Santino in an "agitated" state.

This suggests that Santino was anticipating a future mental state - an ability that has been difficult to definitively prove in animals, according to Mathias Osvath, a cognitive scientist from Lund University in Sweden and author of the new research.

Also hear this brief interview with Methias Osvath here.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Cheesus!

Yes - its crazy. But the good thing is that with so many claims - a bit of critical thinking automatically creeps in (or may be its just wishful thinking). By the way, my favorite - Jesus on the cat (tip from badastronomy). (to balance - Muslims see "Allah" written in Arabic everywhere. Here is just one example: "Allah meat" in Nigeria)

Monday, March 09, 2009

"Non-religious" affiliation gains ground in US

Trinity College's American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS) is out today and it shows that people who do not identify with any religions now stands at 15% of the population, behind only the Catholics and the Baptists. You can play with the data with some cool graphics here. The survey also has data points from 1990 and 2001 - so you can gauge some trends.

Some of the key findings:
The percentage of Americans claiming no religion, which jumped from 8.2 in 1990 to 14.2 in 2001, has now increased to 15 percent. Given the estimated growth of the American adult population since the last census from 207 million to 228 million, that reflects an additional 4.7 million "Nones." Northern New England has now taken over from the Pacific Northwest as the least religious section of the country, with Vermont, at 34 percent "Nones," leading all other states by a full 9 points.
...

The Muslim proportion of the population continues to grow, from .3 percent in 1990 to .5 percent in 2001 to .6 percent in 2008.

The number of adherents of Eastern Religions, which more than doubled in the 1990s, has declined slightly, from just over two million to just under. Asian Americans are substantially more likely to indicate no religious identity than other racial or ethnic groups.

Those who identify religiously as Jews continue to decline numerically, from 3.1 million in 1990 to 2.8 million in 2001 to 2.7 million in 2008--1.2 percent of the population. Defined to include those who identify as Jews by ethnicity alone, the American Jewish population has remained stable over the past two decades.

Perhaps most interestingly there are more agnostics/atheists in the US than are they willing to admit:
Only1.6 percent of Americans call themselves atheist or agnostic. But based on stated beliefs, 12 percent are atheist (no God) or agnostic (unsure), while 12 percent more are deistic (believe in a higher power but not a personal God). The number of outright atheists has nearly doubled since 2001, from 900 thousand to 1.6 million. Twenty-seven percent of Americans do not expect a religious funeral at their death.
Still the number of atheists have doubled since 2001. Somewhere Dawkins is smiling - people are indeed coming "out". In any case, here is the question about beliefs:


And just in case you are wondering, percentage of college graduates over the years has gone up for all groups except for two: Muslims and New Religious Movements (NRM). Ouch! It seems that Muslims and Raelians are duking out for this exception to the rule.
Since the Muslim proportion of the population has also doubled, I'm curious if this drop in college-educated fraction is because of a new influx of immigrants on a large scale or because of conversions in the US.

Read the full report here.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

Creating the image of a Muslim astronaut

Here is a news story about the first Malaysian astronaut in space, Sheikh Muszaphar. Most of the headlines about his space trip have been about his challenges of praying in space. I had earlier lamented on the fact that the Malaysian space agency convened a two-day conference to resolve religious technical issues such as finding the direction to Mecca from space (yes they produced a whole book out of it). When money is tight, why not spend that money on holding a scientific conference instead.

On the one hand I am annoyed by this (completely) unnecessary intrusion of religion into scientific affairs (ok - affairs related to space). On the other hand, it is clear that Muszaphar has indeed become a role model for millions of youngsters in the Muslim world and many may pursue scientific careers simply because of him. Of course, his image is finely tailored by the Malaysian government (not too different from the early US space program) - and praying in space is an issue that would get tremendous public support in Malaysia. Check out the video story below - and we can see the kind of impact he is having in Malaysia. Talking about image control, he is not allowed to marry for two years by contract with the Malaysian government!

Here is the video of the news story (tip from Chaldea). [By the way, a good soundtrack for the story - though Bowie's Space Oddity - a great song - may not have been the best choice for reporting on a successful mission]

Saturday, March 07, 2009

Meaning of life as an Agnostic

Here is a Fresh Air interview with Biblical scholar Bart Ehrman. He has a recent book out, Jesus Interrupted (you can read an excerpt here). Most of the interview is focused on the variation of stories between the different Gospels and what do they tell us about their authors. But the last 5-10 minutes of the interview are devoted to talking about Ehrman's own journey from being an Evangelical Christian at one point to an Agnostic. In particular, check out his answer about ethics and the meaning of life as an Agnostic (its right at the end of the interview).

On a related note, check out this bizarre story of identity theft dealing with the debate about the origins of Dead Sea scrolls. Here is the dispute first:

For decades, the origin of the Dead Sea Scrolls has been intensely debated.

The prevailing theory is that these ancient documents, which include texts from the Hebrew Bible, were written over the three centuries before 100 A.D. by a Jewish sect known as the Essenes, who were based in Qumran, a settlement at the northwest shore of the Dead Sea near the caves where the scrolls were found between 1947 and 1956.

An alternative theory, passionately proffered by a University of Chicago professor, is that the scrolls’ authors were not Essenes, and that the scrolls themselves were kept in various libraries in Jerusalem until they were hidden in the caves around Qumran for safekeeping during the Roman war of A.D. 67 to 73. Qumran, he has said, was not an Essene monastery but a fortress, one of several armed defensive bastions around Jerusalem.
Ok...so now you are saying - that's quite normal. This is like any other academic debate. But now wait for the Law & Order doink doink sound and keep reading further:

The professor, Norman Golb, has stood behind his theory despite significant criticism. His son, Raphael Haim Golb, has been one of his greatest allies.

But prosecutors said on Thursday that Raphael Golb took defending his father’s theory too far. Mr. Golb is accused of using stolen identities of various people, including a New York University professor who disagreed with his father, to elevate his father’s theory and besmirch its critics, Robert M. Morgenthau, the Manhattan district attorney, said at a news conference.

Mr. Golb, 49, was arrested Thursday morning and charged in Manhattan Criminal Court with identity theft, criminal impersonation and aggravated harassment. He faces up to four years in prison if convicted.

Prosecutors said Mr. Golb opened an e-mail account in the name of Lawrence H. Schiffman, the New York University professor who disagreed with Mr. Golb’s father. He sent messages in Professor Schiffman’s name to various people at N.Y.U. and to others involved in the Dead Sea Scrolls debate, fabricating an admission by Professor Schiffman that he had plagiarized some of Professor Golb’s work, Mr. Morgenthau said. Raphael Golb also set up blogs under various names that accused Dr. Schiffman of plagiarism, Mr. Morgenthau said.
Read the full article here.

Friday, March 06, 2009

Between Fatwas and Polio

Polio is not getting eradicated - and there are increasing number of cases in India, Nigeria, Afghanistan and Pakistan. There are many reasons why polio rates are going up - but one may not anticipate religion to be one. However, in Pakistan, there has been a campaign by fundamentalists against polio vaccinations and that is leading to a dramatic increase in polio virus Type 1 - considered more dangerous as it causes more paralytic disease and spreads faster than the other type - Type 3 (also this post on "Infidel vaccine"). Here is a part of the report that talks about Pakistan (from Science - Feb 6, 2009):

Of the two, Pakistan is the bigger worry, says Tangermann. The number of cases rose in Afghanistan in 2008, but nowhere near as high as they did in Pakistan, where type 1 exploded and the virus spread into previously polio-free areas. In Afghanistan, President Hamid Karzai has pledged his support for eradication; Pakistan, on the other hand, "must become more committed under its new government," says Heymann.

Fundamentalist leaders in Pakistan have issued fatwahs saying the vaccine is unsafe and threatening vaccinators. "Refusals" have risen considerably. In February 2007, a Pakistani doctor and his driver were killed by a remote bomb while they were returning from a village where they were trying to persuade parents to let their children be vaccinated.

Equally unsettling, the Geneva team suspects that the program in Pakistan is weaker than they imagined and that the viral foe may be tougher. Earlier reports that vaccination teams reached 95% of the target children seem to have been fabricated, says Tangermann. And recent studies by Grassly and colleagues at Imperial suggest that viral transmission is much more efficient in Pakistan than previously believed, closer to that of India than that of Nigeria. "Pakistan is the only place we really have questions about what we are dealing with," says Aylward.

It says something when Pakistan is considered to be doing worse than Afghanistan. Read the full story here (you will need magazine access).

Thursday, March 05, 2009

What if God Disappeared?

Nicely done (Tip from Secular Outpost):

Discovery Institute also upset with the Vatican

Now - the Discovery Institute is upset with the Vatican - for not getting enough attention at the conference: Biological Evolution-Facts and Theories. Ok - so if the Vatican has managed to upset both Harun Yahya's group and the Discovery Institute - then they must be doing something right (for plenty of wrong - see Vatican's position on stem cells and other bioethical issues). But here is another strange thing: The Disco. Institute is blaming the Templeton Foundation for its omission:
A Vatican-backed conference on evolution is under attack from people who weren't invited to participate: those espousing creationism and intelligent design.

The Discovery Institute, the main organization supporting intelligent design research, says it was shut out from presenting its views because the meeting was funded in part by the John Templeton Foundation, a major U.S. nonprofit that has criticized the intelligent design movement.

Now the Templeton Foundation has usually been on the receiving end of the criticism from scientists. But if the Disco. Institute is blaming them - then they must be doing something right here. It is difficult to keep things straight. Whats next? Rush Limbaugh criticizing the Vatican for the evolution conference?