Tuesday, May 31, 2011

American Imams in support of the teaching of evolution

The Clergy Letter project has been collecting clergy letters in support of the teaching of evolution. About 13,000 Christian clergy and roughly 500 rabbis have signed it over the last couple of years. Now there is a letter from American Imams - launched just this past week. Here are the contents of the letter:

Literalists of various religious traditions who perceive the science of evolution to be in conflict with their personal religious beliefs are seeking to influence public school boards to authorize the teaching of creationism.  We, the Imams of the mosques, see this as a breach in the separation of church and state.  Those who believe in a literal interpretation of scriptural account of creation are free to teach their perspective in their homes, religious institutions and parochial schools.  To teach it in the public schools would be indoctrinating a particular religious point of view in an environment that is supposed to be free of such indoctrination.
We, the undersigned Imams of the mosques, assert that the Qur’an is the primary source of spiritual inspiration and of values for us, though not for everyone, in our country.  We believe that the timeless truths of the Qur’an may comfortably coexist with the discoveries of modern science.  As Imams we urge public school boards to affirm their commitment to the teaching of the science of evolution.  We ask that science remain science and that religion remain religion, two very different, but complementary, forms of truth.
Sign Up Now!
  • If you are an imam and would like to sign The Clergy Letter Project’s Imam Letter, please fill out the form by clicking here.
  • If you are an ordained member of the clergy and would like to sign one of our other Clergy Letters, please fill out the form by clicking here.
  • If you would like to be added to The Clergy Letter Project’s mailing list, please fill out the form by clicking here.
You can get to the Clergy Letter website here. Here is an excerpt form a related story from New Scientists here:
Like its predecessors, the Imam Letter explains why it's OK for believers to accept the truth of evolution. It also calls for a ban on creationist teaching in science classes. "As imams, we urge public school boards to affirm their commitment to the teaching of the science of evolution," says the letter, written by T. O. Shanavas, a doctor in Michigan and member of the Islamic Center of Greater Toledo in Perrysburg, Ohio.
"It shows that evolution and science can transcend what some people see as quite deep religious divisions, providing a unifying factor representing common ground between them," says Michael Zimmerman of Butler University in Indianapolis, Indiana, the architect of the Clergy Letter Project. "Christians are really excited about the Muslim letter," he says. "They realise that Islam is just as fractured as Christianity, with just as many people who take their scriptures out of context to deny the truth of evolution."
Read the full article here. I think is a great effort and should have a positive impact on the Muslim community in the US. I'm unsure about its impact in UK or even the larger Muslim world. For example, the recent craziness about the London Imam had its own local dynamics, and various cultural and political factors are shaping the diverse set of responses we see in different Muslim countries. 

But this is a positive move on behalf of American imams. If you are an imam and support the teaching of evolution (and good science, in general), sign up here.

Monday, May 30, 2011

An Online Qur'an Resources Project

This is a weekly post by Nidhal Guessoum (see his earlier posts here). Nidhal is an astrophysicist and Professor of Physics at American University of Sharjah and is the author of Islam's Quantum Question: Reconciling Muslim Tradition and Modern Science.

Professor Daniel M. Varisco recently posted an announcement about an ‘Online Qur’an Resources’ project, which is sponsored by the Social Science Research Council.
Varisco chairs the Department of Anthropology at Hofstra University and is the director of Middle Eastern and Central Asia studies. He is fluent in Arabic and has lived in the Middle East (Yemen, Egypt, Qatar) for over 5 years since 1978, according to this page on the Hofstra University website. He may also be familiar to many readers of Irtiqa, especially those who keep a good eye on intelligent blogs dealing with Islam, and indeed Salman has often referred in passing to Tabsir, the blog produced by Varisco with other contributors. Tabsir, which is Arabic for “to give clarity or insight”, aims at providing “fair, open-ended scholarly assessment” of issues dealing with Islam and the Middle East, as opposed to the “stereotypes, misinformation and propaganda [that are] spread in the media and academic forums.” And last but not least, “Tabsir provides an online resource and archive for students and teachers.”
And so in the aim of providing such resources and archives for students and teachers, Varisco has, with Bruce B. Lawrence, a professor in the Department of Religion at Duke University, launched the Online Qur’an Resources project.
 I would like to present a very brief overview and a few comments. Clearly, this is not going to be a thorough review, for it’s only been a few days since the site was announced, and a visitor will immediately realize that it is rich with dozens of links and documents, and it will take any interested person many hours to sift through it.
The first thing I want to say is that this is a welcome contribution, for the following main reason: this is one of the very few websites that tries to present a spectrum of views on various aspects of the Qur’an, ranging from the ultra-apologetic standpoint to the most critical positions. Indeed, one is immediately startled to see on the same page (Science and the Qur’an, more on this shortly), links to pages by: Harun Yahya, Maurice Bucaille, Zakir Naik, Taner Edis, and Infidels.org.
The main sections of this Qur’an Resources website are: The Qur'an; Interpreting the Qur'an; Reciting the Qur'an; Translating the Qur'an; Qur'an, Jihad and Justice; Science and the Qur'an; and Attacking the Qur'an. Let me focus on the ‘Science and the Qur’an’ webpage; others might comment on the other sections.
The page is divided into the following subsections: General Muslim Views; Anti-Muslim Views; Astronomy; Biology; History of Islamic Sciences ; Mathematics; and Medicine.
In the ‘General Muslim Views’ subsection, one is quickly surprised to find Irtiqa, the only “resource” listed there that is not directly related to the Qur’an. In fact, Irtiqa does not even devote a section to the Qur’an among the 36 subjects listed on its page (menu on the right). Of the other 12 resources listed in that subsection, 10 are directly related to the Qur’an and Science, and the other two deal with “Islamic Science”. Irtiqa is the odd one out.
The other (sad) surprise is that many of those resources deal with I`jaz, the “miraculous scientific content of the Qur’an”. I know this is not the curators’ fault, and indeed I`jaz tends to dominate the Science-Islam digital landscape, but perhaps Varisco and Lawrence could make an effort to provide more scholarly articles (check out the Journal of Islamic Studies and Zygon, for instance) on that topic, and not rely too much on the mediocre material one finds on the free web. For one must ask: what kinds of “resources” do the works produced by Zakir Naik and Tariq Al-Suwaidan constitute?
And essentially the same remark can be made about the other subsections of the Science and the Qur’an page, namely the surprising juxtaposition of nonsensical works with other, much more scholarly and rich ones. For example, in the Astronomy section, one finds the famous article by Owen Gingerich on “Islamic Astronomy” (published in Scientific American in 1986) a few lines above the (in)famous determination of the speed of light from Qur’anic verses (by the late Dr. Hassab Elnaby – see a detailed critique of that work and that whole line of discourse in my book, “Islam’s Quantum Question”). Likewise, in the Biology subsection, Harun Yahya is put alongside Jalees Rehman.
So, in summary, this is a welcome contribution, and a potentially very useful resource repository. And though I must remind myself and everyone that I have only looked briefly at the website, and it’s clearly a work in progress, I think that one advice that can be given to Varisco and Lawrence is to distinguish or differentially label the various kinds of “resources” given, for students in particular will not immediately know that there’s a world between Gingerich and Elnaby, and to beef up this repository with articles and references of much greater substance and academic weight.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Hoodbhoy: What if Pakistan did not have the bomb?

An excellent piece in today's Express Tribune:
Anniversary: What if Pakistan did not have the bomb?
by Pervez Hoodbhoy 
Dr Abdul Qadeer Khan has spent the last few years confined by the Pakistan Army to one of his palatial Islamabad residences where he whiles away his days writing weekly columns in newspapers. This venerable metallurgist, who claims paternity rights over Pakistan’s bomb, says it alone saves Pakistan. In a recent article, he wistfully wrote: “If we had had nuclear capability before 1971, we would not have lost half of our country – present-day Bangladesh – after disgraceful defeat.”
Given that 30,000 nuclear weapons failed to save the Soviet Union from decay, defeat and collapse, could the Bomb really have saved Pakistan in 1971? Can it do so now?
Let’s revisit 1971. Those of us who grew up in those times know in our hearts that East and West Pakistan were one country but never one nation. Young people today cannot imagine the rampant anti-Bengali racism among West Pakistanis then. With great shame, I must admit that as a thoughtless young boy I too felt embarrassed about small and dark people being among our compatriots. Victims of a delusion, we thought that good Muslims and Pakistanis were tall, fair, and spoke chaste Urdu. Some schoolmates would laugh at the strange sounding Bengali news broadcasts from Radio Pakistan.
The Bengali people suffered under West Pakistani rule. They believed their historical destiny was to be a Bengali-speaking nation, not the Urdu-speaking East Pakistan which Jinnah wanted. The East was rightfully bitter on other grounds too. It had 54% of Pakistan’s population and was the biggest earner of foreign exchange. But West Pakistani generals, bureaucrats, and politicians such as Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, feared a democratic system would transfer power and national resources to the East.
Denied democracy and justice, the people of East Pakistan helplessly watched the cash flow from East to fund government, industry, schools and dams in the West. When the Bhola cyclone killed half a million people in 1970, President Yahya Khan and his fellow generals in Rawalpindi’s GHQ could not have cared less.
The decisive break came with the elections. The Awami League won a majority in Pakistan’s parliament. Bhutto and the generals would not accept the peoples’ verdict. The Bengalis finally rose up for independence. When the West Pakistan army was sent in, massacre followed massacre. Political activists, intellectuals, trade unionists, and students were slaughtered. Blood ran in street gutters, and millions fled across the border. After India intervened to support the East, the army surrendered. Bangladesh was born.
That Pakistan did not have the bomb in 1971 must surely be among the greatest of blessings. It is hard for me to see what Dr AQ Khan has in mind when he suggests that it could have saved Pakistan.
Would the good doctor have dropped the bomb on the raging pro-independence mobs in Dhaka? Or used it to incinerate Calcutta and Delhi, and have the favour duly returned to Lahore and Karachi? Or should we have threatened India with nuclear attack to keep it out of the war so that we could endlessly kill East Pakistanis? Even without the bomb, estimated civilian deaths numbered in the hundreds of thousands if not a million. How many more East Pakistanis would he have liked to see killed for keeping Pakistan together?
Some might argue that regardless of the death and destruction, using the bomb to keep Pakistan together would have been a good thing for the people of East Pakistan in the long term. A look at developmental statistics can help decide.
Bangladesh is ranked 96th out of 110 countries in a 2010 prosperity index compiled by an independent London-based think-tank, the Legatum Institute, using governance, education, health, security, personal freedom, and social capital as criteria. Pakistan is at the 109th position, just one notch above Zimbabwe. By this measure the people of the East have benefited from independence. The UN Human Development Index puts Bangladesh at 146/182 and Pakistan at 141/182, making Pakistan only marginally superior. This implies that Bengalis would have gained little, if anything, by remaining with West Pakistan.
But numerical data does not tell the whole story. Bangladesh is poorer but more hopeful and happier. Culture is thriving, education is improving, and efforts to control population growth are more fruitful than in Pakistan. It is not ravaged by suicide bombings, or by daily attacks upon its state institutions and military forces.
What can the bomb do for Pakistan now? Without it, will India swallow up Pakistan and undo partition? Such thought is pure fantasy. First, India has a rapidly growing economy and is struggling to control its population of 1.2 billion, of which almost half are desperately poor. It has no reason to want an additional 180 million people to feed and educate. Second, even if an aggressive and expansionist India wanted, asymmetrical warfare would make territorial conquest and occupation impossible. The difficulties faced by America in Iraq and Afghanistan, or of India in Kashmir, make this clear.
The bomb did deter India from launching punitive attacks at least thrice since the 1998 tests. There were angry demands within India for attacking the camps of Pakistan-based militant groups after Pakistan’s incursion in Kargil during 1999, the December 13 attack on the Indian parliament the same year (initially claimed by Jaish-e-Muhammad), and the Mumbai attack in 2008 by Lashkar-e-Taiba. However, this problem only exists because the bomb has been used to protect these militant groups. The nuclear umbrella explains why Pakistan is such a powerful magnet for all on this planet who wage war in the name of Islam: Arabs, Chechens, Uzbeks, Uighurs, and various westerners. It was, as we now know, the last lair of Osama bin Laden as well.
Pakistan is learning the same painful lesson as the Soviet Union and white-South Africa learned. The bomb offers no protection to a people. Rather, it has helped bring Pakistan to its current grievously troubled situation and offers no way out.
On this May 28, the day when Pakistan tested its nuclear weapons, let us resolve to eliminate this curse rather than celebrate. Instead of building more bombs, we need to protect ourselves by building a sustainable and active democracy, an economy for peace rather than war, a federation in which provincial grievances can be effectively resolved, elimination of the feudal order and creating a tolerant society that respects the rule of law.
The author is a professor of nuclear physics and teaches in Islamabad and Lahore

Published in The Express Tribune, May 28th, 2011.

For own safety, is it time to give up nuclear weapons?

by Salman Hameed

Today (May 28th) is the anniversary of Pakistan's nuclear tests in 1998. In the wake of attacks by the militants on GHQ in Rawalpindi, and just this past week on Pakistan's Naval base in Karachi, I think it is justifiable to raise the question of the safety of the nuclear bomb. The whole point of having the bomb was to have a deterrent. The point was to protect Pakistan. But what if the Pakistani bomb becomes dangerous for Pakistan itself? Now I know some people will immediately start huffing and puffing after reading the last sentence. After all, this bomb (I'm using a singular - but the number is now estimated to be close to a hundred) has now attained the status of a sacred object. But at this time, the danger to Pakistanis (my family and friends included) comes from the use of this bomb within Pakistan. Yes, we have heard of the arguments about how safe the bomb is. But then we have also seen breaches of security at some of the most secure military sites. Emotions aside, this is unchartered territory: A nation with multiple nuclear weapons facing a serious threat from militants who use suicide bombings as part of their tactics.

On this anniversary of Pakistan's nuclear tests, the question to ponder is this: What if militants are able to penetrate the defenses of Kahuta or some other nuclear plant that we are not really aware of? I know, the general belief is that even if the militants get the bomb, they won't have the know-how to put together all the components of the bomb. But what if there is some inside help? Or what if they get a handle on the fissile material and use it as a dirty bomb? Obviously, these militants have shown little compunction against killing Pakistanis. Just look at the daily reports of attacks inside Pakistan. Will they hold back in using a dirty bomb?

If the goal is to create chaos in the country, then this would be the perfect way to do it. Some of these facilities are not too far from major Pakistani cities (Khan Research Laboratories in Kahuta are located about 15 miles from Islamabad). Jingoism aside, isn't this a threat to Pakistan's own population? This not about rights or the hypocrisy of other nuclear states. I think one can easily point to the double-standards of US, and Iran has constantly done just that. In addition, the US holds the shameful distinction of being the only country to have actually used nuclear bombs in a war.

But this is not about the US. It is about Pakistan. What if having this bomb is like having shaking hands syndrome and keeping a loaded gun in the bedroom? Most of the times it would be okay - but one moment of neglect can prove to be costly.

I know that there is no way that Pakistan will give up nuclear weapons. At least we can stop increasing the stockpile (how many do we really need??). I hope - and I really hope - we do not end up serving as an example.

For our own safety, lets be vocal about the threat of nuclear weapons - both in Pakistan and abroad. 

Saturday Video: David Hume in three minutes

Since we celebrated the 300th birthday of David Hume earlier this month, here is a 3-minute version of his philosophy:

Also check out Paul Russell on Hume on Philosophy Bites podcast.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Rights for Dolphins and Martians

A few weeks ago Science had an article about a movement against keeping dolphins captives in zoos and aquariums, and to give them equal rights as "non-human persons". It is now widely recognized that dolphins are quite smart, social animals (some have passed the mirror test of self-recognition) - and there is a strong case to think of them at par with apes (including us). But here is the conundrum: Scientists have been able to figure out that dolphins are smart while working with them in captivity - and now these very results form the argument against further research on them in aquariums.

This is a fascinating and important issue. This issue reminded me of the search for microbial life in Mars. There is so much effort devoted to finding life on the Red planet, and indeed, such a find would be tremendous not only for science but also for the larger perceptions of humanity. But the find will also immediately present us with serious ethical challenges. What if bacteria and viruses from Earth impact evolution of life on Mars? Do we have the right to be present on the planet of Martians? (we could have gotten permission from sentient beings - but it may be hard to do so with bacteria). A successful research program on life on Mars may end up cutting-off on-site research on Mars. That is not only okay - but also fair. Mars, in that case, will be for Martians. We will have to come up with clever ways to continue research without endangering Martian lifeforms and without leaving our footprints there.

I think the same is true for the case of dolphins. Yes, we have figured out that dolphins are smart with research on captive dolphins, but now we have to give respect to the smart species - and be clever (ha!) about finding ways to continue research without limiting their freedom.

Here is an excerpt from the article:
Taking a cue from the Great Ape Project, a collection of scientists and advocates who have argued that chimps and their relatives deserve basic legal rights (Science, 1 April, p. 28), Marino banded together with other scientists, activists, and philosophers to draft a “Declaration of Rights for Cetaceans” in 2010. It states that no cetaceans—a group that includes whales and dolphins—“should be held in captivity … or removed from their natural environment.” Instead, live cetaceans should only be studied in the wild. Marino and her allies have gathered more than 3200 signatures and hope eventually to bring the declaration before the United Nations. “We want to use this as a jumping-off point for changing policy,” Marino says. “We need to move the science to a place that doesn't compromise our ethics.”
This may be painful for humans, but the right thing to do. Read the full article here (you may need subscription to read the article). 

Also see earlier posts:
Apes are humans too...
Ecological ethics and the interconnectedness of species
More on the call for rights for apes
Rights for apes threaten Dembski's uniqueness

Thursday, May 26, 2011

A pro-entrepreneur Indonesia!

It seems that people in Indonesia see their country to be most business friendly. This is from a BBC survey of 24,000 people in 24 counties.

Index derived from the mean scores (on a scale from 1 to 4) of four questions:
  • valuation of creativity/innovation in own country
  • difficulty to start own business in country
  • valuation of people who start own business
  • ease of putting ideas into practice

I'm actually surprised to see Turkey in the bottom five. There are many issues with the current government, but I thought their pro-buseness stance was widely acknowledged. May be not. In any case, read the full story here.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Dylan at 70!

by Salman Hameed

It is hard to pick which songs to put here. It is even hard to pick what is a good representative sample. In any case, here is an excellent article in Slate on the ever-changing Bob Dylan: Busy Being Born. I really like his recent albums, especially Time Out of Mind and Modern Times, but I do love his older stuff as well. So here are four different videos, spanning the last 50 years (yes, the Dylan of 1980s is missing here). Enjoy!

Subterranean Homesick Blues (from Bringing it all back home - 1965)

Tangled up in Blue (from Blood on the Tracks - 1975)

Things have Changed (from the soundtrack of the fantastic movie, Wonder Boys - from 2000. Okay so I consider this almost 1990s. In any case, I will make it up towards the end)

And Thunder on the Mountain (from Modern Times - 2006)

And to make up for the 1990s, here is a portion of Dylan's Love Sick (from Time Out of Mind - 1997) for a Victoria's Secret commercial.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Religious Money and Socio-Economic Development

This is a weekly post by Nidhal Guessoum (see his earlier posts here). Nidhal is an astrophysicist and Professor of Physics at American University of Sharjah and is the author of Islam's Quantum Question: Reconciling Muslim Tradition and Modern Science.

Can money which comes from or is supposed to be spent on religious obligations be equivalently channeled into socio-economic development funds? Readers who know Islam and its practices rather well will quickly answer: sure! That is mostly what zakat (levy on assets) is about, and that’s the main objectives of waqf (Islamic endowments). Perhaps; we’ll get to this shortly. 

But then if one asks: can one take the money s/he was going to spend on his/her pilgrimage trip (Hajj) or `Umra (short religious visit to Mecca) and instead donate it to a development project and claim that s/he has accomplished the original religious act? Not so obvious, right?

Well this question was precisely put to Sheikh Yousef Al-Qaradhawi, the head of the International Union for Muslim Scholars and arguably the most important/influential Muslim scholar of today. This was done by the well-known Egyptian writer Fahmi Huweidi, who called him on the phone, asked him that question, wrote down the answer, read it back to him for confirmation, and reported it as follows:
If an emergency situation occurs in an Islamic country leading to a dearth of financial sources, the ruler [of this country] must restrict the `umra, because it is an optional [ritual] rather than an obligatory one. This also applies to voluntary Hajj, which is [likewise] optional... When a Muslim who intended to go on pilgrimage donates his money [to the state instead], it counts [as though he made] the `umra or the Hajj. As for diverting charity toward rescuing the economy of an Islamic country, or toward developing its economy and meeting the needs of its residents, this is considered a deed for the sake of Allah, which is to say that it falls among the recognized causes [toward which Muslims are obligated to give charity] according to religious law.
Huweidi wrote (in his Al-Shurouq newspaper column on April 26, 2011) that he had noticed that the deficit of 2 billion dollars that the Egyptian government was scrambling (by trips to the Gulf) to cover until the end of the fiscal year (June) was exactly the amount spent by Egyptians on Hajj and `Umra each year. He, being a “progressive” Muslim thinker, thus thought that perhaps Egyptians could equally serve and worship God by giving the money for their country/brethren’s benefit. As one can imagine, not all scholars agreed with such “progressive” thinking…
The question of spending ‘religious’ money on socio-economic development projects is actually not new. To my knowledge, this is the first time that the idea has been extended to Hajj and `Umra, but its relevance and application to zakat and waqf is far from new, though not quite straight-forward either.
Zakat, one of the five pillars of Islam, is a levy on assets, taken by the Islamic state or spent directly by the individual in some broadly prescribed ways. Assets include savings in the bank, properties (estate and livestock), agricultural products, gold and such. If these exceed a certain minimum, the owner is (religiously) obligated to donate a certain fraction (2.5 % for money and properties, 5 or 10 % on agricultural products depending on secondary criteria), etc. (Zakat is to be distinguished from sadaqah, charity, which one can give freely as one wishes.)
Zakat money, as prescribed by the Qur’an (9:60), practiced by the Prophet, and detailed by Muslim jurists, is supposed to be spent on the following eight categories:
  1. The needy (Fuqara')
  2. Those extremely poor (Al-Masakin)
  3. Those employed to collect it (Al-`Amileen)
  4. Those whose hearts are to be won (Al-Mu’allafatu Quloobuhum), i.e. for conversion
  5. To free the captives by ransom (Ar-Riqaab)
  6. Those in debt (Al-Ghaarimeen)
  7. In the way of Allah (Fi sabil Allah)
  8. The wayfarer (Ibnu-s-Sabeel)
It is usually the seventh category (“in the way of Allah”), which was habitually understood as meaning “the military needs”, that is now often interpreted to extend to all good socio-economic causes and projects, so that zakat can be used in many new ways.
There is also the famous institution of waqf, the Islamic endowments, which encompasses monies that are set aside by any rich person, before or after his/her death, for a specified project. This often became a way to support social and educational projects, including schools and hospitals, and in some cases centers of research.
I was in fact delighted to learn that the University of Sharjah (the other main university here) two weeks ago organized an international conference on “the role of waqf in developing a scientific renaissance” (website here, but in Arabic only). One must keep in mind that “scientific” in religious parlance is a very broad term, encompassing all fields of learning, including traditional Islamic areas. But in this conference, there was some emphasis on the need to revitalize and extend the institution of waqf to cover scientific research centers and other intellectual and academic activity.
Although much smaller now than it was during most of the history of Islam, the institution of waqf still functions in many/most parts of the Islamic world today. Lands, buildings, and sums of money are often set as endowments for specific purposes, e.g. mosques and their operational budgets, libraries with regular updating, schools and bursaries for students, etc. Many current examples were given during the conference. Most interestingly, however, a few speakers attempted to address the (current or future) application of waqf to the (hoped) broad scientific renaissance.
Two specific examples were presented with some emphasis: a) the endowment of university chairs (on specific topics), something that is beginning to occur in this part of the world; b) the seeding of scientific institutions such as the Arab Science and Technology Foundation, which was indeed started with a $1 million endowment by the Ruler of Sharjah, Sheikh Sultan Al-Qassimi, in 2003.
Let us hope that this tradition is revitalized and used for great socio-economic, educational, and scientific objectives. That is one way in which the Islamic civilization can rebuild itself.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Economics, Education, and Religious affiliation

by Salman Hameed

A week ago, the NYT had this chart plotting household income for various religious groups in the US:

Muslims in the US are close to the national average. I don't have numbers handy, but I think in Europe, Muslim income is well below average. Can certain religious practices (both good and bad) be responsible for this discrepancy between household incomes of these various religious groups? Probably not - though it may be true for smaller religious groups, such as Jehovah's Witnesses (their apocalyptic worldview may have some influence). But it seems that education, and not religion, is the key factor:
The economic differences among the country’s various religions are strikingly large, much larger than the differences among states and even larger than those among racial groups.
Many factors are behind the discrepancies among religions, but one stands out. The relationship between education and income is so strong that you can almost draw a line through the points on this graph. Social science rarely produces results this clean.
There are of course other factors as well - but I thought that the graph is an interesting way of looking at the US population. Read the full article here

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Saturday Video: Cave art from "The Ascent of Man"

by Salman Hameed

Well before Cosmos, there was Jacob Bronowski's The Ascent of Man. Since I just had a post about Herzog's Cave of Forgotten Dreams, here is a clip from the first episode of The Ascent of Man that talks about cave art from 30,000 years ago. The cave part starts about 3 minutes into this 10 minute clip. In case you are interested in watching the full episode, you can get it here. It is from the early 1970s, and yet it is fantastic! Good ideas never really get old. Enjoy.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Go see Herzog's "Cave of Forgotten Dreams" in 3D

by Salman Hameed

If you have the opportunity, please check out Herzog's Cave of Forgotten Dreams in 3D. Yes, 3D makes a huge difference. The film is about the 30,000 year old cave art discovered in Chauvet Cave in France in 1994. This is the earliest expression of art that we know of. This dates back to the time when humans shared the planet - and this area of Europe - with their neanderthal cousins. And yet, as far as we so far know, the artistic expression belonged to homo sapiens alone.

Couple of quick things about the movie: The cave art is actually quite amazing. The perspective in the drawings is very sophisticated and the artists utilized the shape of the cave walls beautifully. The 3D film allows us to experience and appreciate the efforts of our ancestral artists.

But as expected, the movie is not simply about the cave. Instead, Herzog's main focus is to understand what makes us human? What were our ancestors thinking when they were making these drawings? What was the purpose? Most of these drawings are in the inner most chamber of the cave, and there is evidence for some sort of ceremony. What kind of ceremonies were these?

There is a fascinating tension in the film. On the one hand, Herzog finds it wonderful that in many ways, these cave artists are very similar to us. Their artistic skills can rival those in the Renaissance. There seems to be a common thread between us and the cave ancestors - even though there is a chasm of 30,000 years. On the other hand, the romantic in Herzog, likes to point out that we really cannot say anything about the cave artists. While he loves the work that scientists are doing to understand the cave artists, he compares it to "compiling a directory of individuals" living in New York city, without getting to know any thing about their lives and passions. This tension - being similar and yet so alien - is what really drives the film.

Not surprising for a Herzog film, the scientists studying the cave also become a subject. The urge to understand our past, is in itself a very human endeavor, and Herzog wants to document that as well.

Then there is the postscipt in the film. I do not want to give any thing away, but I think much of Herzog's emotional and intellectual response to the experience of Chauvet Cave lies in the postscript. It includes albino crocodiles (I hope this will whet your appetite for the film)!

During the film I was also wondering about the social status of the cave artists. After all, it is quite clear that only a handful of people painted the pictures. How were they chosen? There must have been some kind of criterion for the choice. If yes, then we are looking at the specter of not only beautiful art, but also of art criticism 30,000 years ago!

If you have a chance, please go see the film. Also, make sure to set aside some time after the film to absorb the movie.

Here is the trailer for the film:

Thursday, May 19, 2011

The predictable cycle of Harun Yahya news...

by Salman Hameed

Hold the presses. Media's favorite creationist, Harun Yahya, is touring Europe. He is currently in France and then he will be in Holland. Like usual, he has nothing new or useful to say. He is still peddling his pseudoscientific Atlas of Creation and preparing for the end-of-days (I'm still waiting for him to proclaim himself the Mahdi. Oh - he has come so close...).

All of this aside, we will possibly see a predictable round of Yahya cycle in his European tour: 1) He is going to declare victory over Darwinism 2) Modestly claim that is a genius 3) Provoke French and Dutch secular society 4) The French and Dutch secular societies will get provoked 4) Some of the media coverage will generalize his views and declare them to be a representational position of most Muslims 5) Since most of his ideas are idiotic, some will use this to stoke the fears of an Islamic takeover of Europe and the dawning of a dark-age 6) This controversy - which will be great for Yahya - will last for a couple of weeks 7) Yahya will claim slaying atheism in Europe and declare victory over Darwinism, 8) Modestly declare himself a genius 9) Will start looking for ways to create a new controversy so he can stay in the news 10) Yahya will plan another trip to Europe 11) Repeat the cycle again.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Popular Science as a Guide for Popular Geopolitics?

by Salman Hameed

Pakistan and Osama bin Laden are still all over the news. Related to that, I have a post at the USC Trans/Missions blog on Media, Culture, Religion, and Society. I'm well aware of the differences between science (more objective and where one-side can decisively be right or wrong) and politics (mostly being viewed through a particular partisan lens), but I think the coverage of politics can still be rooted more in uncovering relevant facts before presenting conclusions regarding foreign policy issues. In fact, popular science journalism can potentially serve as a good model for covering geopolitical events. Here is the post:

Popular Science as a Guide for Popular Geopolitics?

One of the motivations behind the efforts to popularize science is the idea that we live in a democracy, and a scientifically informed citizenry is necessary (or is at least strongly preferred) for living in the modern world. Issues such as cloning, genetically modified (GM) foods, end-of-life decisions, and climate change, are only some of the arenas where public opinion can alter the direction of science in the country. People may still reject evolution or deny global warming, but we expect science-writers to convey established ideas so, at least, there is good science out there.

I was thinking about this while watching the coverage of 
the death of Osama Bin Laden. There were obvious questions about the possible complicity of Pakistan's Intelligence agency, ISI, and if Pakistan government knew about it. There was coverage of celebrations in the US of the killing of Osama Bin Laden, and then questions about whether these celebrations over a killing are a good idea or not. Some even raised the issue with the short-circuiting of justice by killing an unarmed Osama instead of prosecuting him in a US court.

These are all valid and important questions, but the topic that got my attention was about whether US should now pull out of Afghanistan. This is a complicated question with huge geo-political significance. Russia, India, China, Iran, and Pakistan are all keeping an eye on US actions in their neck of the woods. While some 
wonkish foreign policy magazines addressed the implications of US actions on the world stage, many of the mainstream news programs looked at it primarily through the narrow lens of US domestic politics and its relation to the 'war on terror'.

This triggered the question: If scientists demand good science coverage that includes not only accuracy, but also a distillation of complex ideas into layman terms, shouldn't we expect the same for global politics? But then, can we even sort out facts (in a relative sense) in geo-political ideas, especially when the reaction time is much quicker than in the sciences? I don't know, but I think we can present a broader geo-political perspective.

Let me use the example of Pakistan since this is the country under a microscope right now, and I also happen to be somewhat familiar with it.

There was obviously much talk of Pakistan in the post Osama news coverage. The primary focus was on whether Pakistan is doing enough on the 'war on terror' or if 
it has been playing a double-game with the US, in the mean time, getting billions of dollars in aid packages. These are important questions, but Pakistan's own geopolitical interests in the region were rarely mentioned. This approach is not exactly new. For example, this Washington Post editorial from 2008, titled Pakistan's Double-Game, follows roughly the same template and again does not make any mention of Pakistan's geopolitical interests.

In reality, however, it is impossible to talk about Pakistan's relation to the Taliban without mentioning the fact that the current Afghan government – which the Taliban oppose - is allied with India, Pakistan's archrival. The hedging of Pakistani bets in this context can rationally be seen as preparing for a post-US Afghanistan. Similarly, the roots of current mistrust between Pakistan and the US stretch back to 1990, rather than the post 9/11 world. After the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989, the US not only abandoned the region, but it also imposed economic sanctions on its former ally, Pakistan. US is thus seen through this lens in much of Pakistan, and it is widely believed there that US will do the same after it withdraws from Afghanistan.

This is a complex story in a complicated geo-political landscape. How much of this information is necessary for American viewers? I don't know, but a broader perspective can only help when lives are at stake, both American and non-American. If this were a story about science, we would have insisted on breaking down complex ideas into layman language. We routinely get Neil de Grasse Tyson on television to talk about new planetary systems as well as physics behind black holes. But I would think that the stakes are even higher for political matters. In a democracy in an increasingly globalized world, an incomplete and/or an overly simplistic picture can be a serious problem when it comes down to establishing public support or opposition to US military involvement overseas. 

Paging Carl Sagan of Foreign Affairs.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Book Review: How Old is the Universe?

This is a weekly post by Nidhal Guessoum (see his earlier posts here). Nidhal is an astrophysicist and Professor of Physics at American University of Sharjah and is the author of Islam's Quantum Question: Reconciling Muslim Tradition and Modern Science.

This past Friday, I had a short review of the new book by David Weintraub, “How Old Is The Universe?”, published in Gulf News, the large-circulation English-language newspaper in the UAE and the Gulf. The editors chose to title the piece “Our good old galaxy” (?), but the subtitle was pretty good: “A pedagogical account that seeks complex cosmological answers through smart analogies”.

Here are excerpts from it:
As early as page 2, David Weintraub, answers the title-question of his book: the universe is now known to be 13.7 billion years old. In answering the question so quickly, the author wants to show that the book is not about this precise value but rather about our long, successful quest to figuring out the universe: its age, its size, its history, and all the knowledge that comes from that pursuit.
Weintraub is a prominent astronomer (received the Chancellor’s Award for research in 2005), a distinguished teacher (Award for excellence in undergraduate teaching in 2003), and an accomplished writer (his previous book was ‘Is Pluto a Planet? A historical journey through the solar system’). All these talents can be seen in his new book, as Weintraub displays a complete mastery of the wide spectrum of science needed for the subject; he also shows good pedagogical skills in presenting advanced topics, with a special ability to find smart analogies (e.g. the pattern of tiles in a kitchen) to explain complex ideas.
These long ages [of Earth, the Sun, the Universe], as well as the sizes of the solar system, the galaxy, and the universe, have only become apparent to us in the past century or so. In fact, the very idea of an age of the universe, that it had a beginning, was debated for centuries. Indeed, Weintraub begins with Aristotle, who proclaimed that the universe (and the earth at its center) are eternal and have always existed in their present perfect forms. Our author then jumps to the seventeenth century, skipping the whole Islamic civilization where such debates raged on philosophical and theological grounds (Al-Ghazzali against Al-Farabi and Ibn Sina, Ibn Rushd against Al-Ghazzali), and discusses the “biblical chronology” method that was used by various Christian authors, who concluded that the world was created around 4000 BCE.
We now know, of course, that the age of the universe cannot be determined by philosophy or theology and that the scriptures are not repositories of scientific knowledge. The age of the universe is a purely astro-physical problem, and once scientific methods were applied to it, progress was quickly made. Weintraub then shows that the different methods now neatly converge to that 13.7 billion years figure, within half a billion or so.
Part 1 of the book is the shortest; it deals with the age of the Earth and the solar system, mainly using radioactive dating of rocks. Part 2 determines the age of our Milky Way galaxy from the ages of various stars. Part 3 seeks the age of the universe, using either the rate of its expansion or the analysis of the “background” radiation that has filled it ever since atoms formed.
This is a very good book for those who want to understand how scientists tackle such big questions as the age of the universe. The pedagogy is excellent, and one ends up not only understanding the subject but learning large amounts of astronomy and cosmology in the process, from stars to dark matter and dark energy. It is a good investment of time for students and educated people.
You can read the whole review here

Friday, May 13, 2011

Irtiqa on Hiatus until Monday

This was supposed to be sent a couple days ago, but Blogger was down for the last two days. Oh well. So here is the message:
Irtiqa is on a mini-hiatus until this coming Monday (May 16). Regular posts will resume then.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Pitzer takes the lead on major in secularism

Pitzer College has introduced a major in secular studies. It makes total sense - and I think it is a great idea. Hampshire does not have majors. Otherwise, it would have been an excellent place to experiment with an inter-disciplinary major in secularism.   The role of secularism - both in the religious and in the political sense - is being discussed more and more. The number of Americans who identify themselves with no religion has been increasing consistently, and now stands at 15%. Of course, one can also look at secularism from a political perspective, and that can open up a whole area of study and can include fascinating debates that are currently taking place in the middle east. The focus of secular studies at Pitzer, it seems, is on the former than the latter:

 Starting this fall, Pitzer College, a small liberal arts institution in Southern California, will inaugurate a department of secular studies. Professors from other departments, including history, philosophy, religion, science and sociology, will teach courses like “God, Darwin and Design in America,” “Anxiety in the Age of Reason” and “Bible as Literature.”
The department was proposed by Phil Zuckerman, a sociologist of religion, who describes himself as “culturally Jewish, but agnostic-atheist on questions of deep mystery.” Over the years he grew increasingly intrigued by the growth of secularism in the United States and around the world. He studied and taught in Denmark, one of the world’s most secular countries, and has written several books about atheism.

At some places, such studies are folded into sociology or philosophy or even under religious studies. But I think this a good time to bring inter-disciplinary focus and treat secularism as a separate field:

 Studying nonbelief is as valid as studying belief, Mr. Zuckerman said, and the new major will make that very clear.
“It’s not about arguing ‘Is there a God or not?’ ” Mr. Zuckerman said. “There are hundreds of millions of people who are nonreligious. I want to know who they are, what they believe, why they are nonreligious. You have some countries where huge percentages of people — Czechs, Scandinavians — now call themselves atheists. Canada is experiencing a huge wave of secularization. This is happening very rapidly.
“It has not been studied,” he added.

Very interesting. Read the full article here. If you are interested in this topic, you should definitely check out Tom Rees' excellent blog, Epiphenom

Monday, May 09, 2011

A Martian place here on Earth

This is a weekly post by Nidhal Guessoum (see his earlier posts here). Nidhal is an astrophysicist and Professor of Physics at American University of Sharjah and is the author of Islam's Quantum Question: Reconciling Muslim Tradition and Modern Science.

I was in Cambridge, UK this past week, for an Islam & Science symposium – more on that some other time. It was interesting to read the British newspapers there on various issues, ranging from Abbottabad to Manchester (United).
On Saturday (May 7), The Independent had a two-page story, with several big pictures (the one here below is one of them), titled “Life on Mars? No, but it’s the next best thing”. 

The story described a site in Spain known as Rio Tinto (“Red River”) in Southern Andalusia (see the little map), which in many ways resembles Mars! Not only is its landscape rust-red from oxidized iron, it contains lots of craters, many of which result from centuries of mining.
For that reason, it is now being used by at least two space agencies for simulations of Mars missions, including walks with spacesuits. The European Space Agency has been testing the “Eurobot”, a robot with two arms and stereo vision which, mounted on a rover, can perform dangerous or difficult tasks. Also, the Austrian Space Forum has been testing some equipment there.
The newspaper described the site as “a convenient substitute for the Red Planet”, due to the many features that it shares with Mars. First and foremost, the highly mineral soil of the place, rich with iron, sulfur, copper, and gold – the reason for the extensive mining there. Secondly, the river is extremely acidic, with a pH of 0.7 (yes, that’s zero point 7), whereas the neutral level of acidity/alkalinity is 7.0 (seven point zero); the closer to 0 a liquid is, the more acidic. Indeed, this river’s water is so acidic that signs are posted to tell visitors to not even wash hands in it, let alone drink any of it.
The reporter thus concludes that this place resembles an early version of Mars, before the red planet lost its surface water and its magnetic field.

The most interesting part of the story was that a peculiar bacterium has managed to thrive in such an extreme environment (such forms of life are usually referred to as “extremophiles”.) Even more interestingly, tests conducted by scientists in Madrid have shown that this organism can survive in the Martian conditions.
So one understands why, except for gravity (Mars’s is 37 % that of Earth), this place is ideal for conducting training of astronauts and robots, picking samples, searching for organisms, etc.
Readers of Irtiqa may recall that in my report from last February’s AAAS meeting, I had devoted a couple of paragraphs to talks that were given there on the search for extraterrestrial life, mostly focused on Mars, and I had referred to Andrew Steele’s The Search for Life on Mars: Mars Science Laboratory and Mars Sample Return, in particular.
One issue that had also been raised at that AAAS session was the problem of “contamination”, that is how to make sure that equipment from Earth is devoid of any bacteria or viruses, so that if when we analyze samples on the red planets, we do not mistake any hitch-hikers from Earth for Martian organisms. One of the exercises conducted in the simulations of Mars walks and sample collections in Rio Tinto is precisely this issue of contamination.
Another goal of these mock missions is to test the spacesuits and humans’ ability to function well inside them, including bodily functions, etc.
But when will a real mission to Mars actually take off? That depends on both budget and scientific/technical progress, but the date one usually hears is “sometime after 2030”. Anyone wants to guess?