Saturday, October 31, 2009

More on KAUST

Science (Oct 16) has a good piece on King Abdullah University of Science & Technology (KAUST). It considers it as one of the most ambitious experiments in higher education and, if successful, can start transforming education in the Middle East. It also raises concerns about the intrusion of "corporate culture" in a university setting since the oil company Aramco is playing a dominant role in the university's affairs (both financially and administratively). Nevertheless, we'll have to see how KAUST shapes up in practice. Here couple of highlights from the article, The Big Gamble in the Saudi Desert (may require subscription):
KAUST is perhaps the most-watched experiment in higher education taking place anywhere in the world. Its huge endowment is certainly an attention-getter: Two years ago, KAUST officials used a figure of $10 billion, although one knowledgeable source says the number is actually $20 billion. Saudi officials decided to make it a graduate-only university so that it wouldn't compete for undergraduates with existing Saudi institutions. KAUST hopes eventually to be the size of the California Institute of Technology—roughly 250 faculty and 2500 students—and to rival it in prestige. It's also the first Saudi institution of higher education to allow men and women to mix freely. ... To retain the talent being amassed, Saudi officials know they will need to maintain a high quality of life. So within the barbed wire and concrete barricades that encircle the campus, Aramco is building an entire community, with all the residential, retail, recreational, and cultural amenities that any academic scientist would expect. The thousands of palm trees lining the main roads and academic complexes even help Berumen, an avid golfer, forget he's in a desert as he whacks balls at a driving range adjacent to a nine-hole golf course scheduled to open this month.
Yes, the this kind of disconnect from the Saudi society at large should raise all sorts of alarm bells. Nevertheless, we can hope that there is going to be a lot of discussion on this separation and hopefully the larger influence will move from the university to the cities rather than the other way around. But check this out: The start-up package for scientists is phenomenal:

For most scientists, however, the biggest difference is how their research will be funded. Rather than having to submit a never-ending stream of grant applications to government agencies and face depressingly low success rates, each faculty member has been given substantial internal support—$400,000 annually for assistant professors, $600,000 for associate professors, and $800,000 for full professors—from which they can hire students and technicians, buy materials and supplies, travel, and otherwise tend to the needs of their individual labs. The funding supplements full access to core lab facilities that include a 220-teraflops IBM Blue Gene/P supercomputer that will be upgraded to a petaflops machine, an industrial-quality nanofabrication facility, a state-of-the-art visualization center, and 10 nuclear magnetic resonance machines, including a 950-MHz instrument that is not yet on the market. "It was like setting a bunch of kids loose in the best toy shop in the world," says Neil Alford, chair of the materials science department at Imperial College London (ICL), which helped KAUST assemble the noncomputing components of its core labs. That's not all. Salaries are more than competitive with those in the West, say researchers, many of whom also receive free housing and other generous benefits.

The facilities also look amazing. In addition, I think there are certain areas where KAUST can truly excel. Oceanography is certainly one such area:

None of the new recruits ever imagined doing science in Saudi Arabia until they heard what KAUST had to offer. "I loved, really loved, working at Woods Hole [Oceanographic Institution]," says Michael Berumen, a 29-year-old assistant professor of marine sciences and the first hire by the Red Sea center's director, James Luyten, a former director of WHOI. "But field-based work on reefs is such a huge part of what I do. And now I have the ability to just pop on a boat for a couple of hours, to grab some coral samples or check on the fish we've just been talking about. And then you add in these incredible facilities."

At the same time, the founding faculty includes only 5 females (out of roughly 70 faculty members - also see the figure above):

Khashab is one of only five women among the founding faculty. Shih says that's a concern and adds that he plans "to redouble our efforts to recruit women." But he isn't sanguine about his chances of success. "There is a shortage of women everywhere, especially at the senior level, and we are competing with the rest of the world," he says.
No - seriously. You can find more than 5 qualified women for the fields that KAUST is offering. Now it is also possible (quite likely, in fact) that women scientists may not want to live in Saudi Arabia, but then that concern should be up front and the university should make an extra effort to provide other research incentives. But the founding faculty picture above doesn't look good.

In any case, we'll see how the KAUST experiment will shape up. Clearly, this a step in the right direction - but also with much much room for improvement. We'll have to see what impact will it have on the Saudi society. If you have subscription to Science, you can read the full article here.

Also see earlier posts:
KAUST and King Abdullah
Co-ed University for Saudi Elites?

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Higgs Boson with Colbert

Here is a bit on the Large Hadron Collider on the Colbert Report (it also mentions the crazy-sounding claim of two physicists about disruptions from the future):

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Big Bang Theory
Colbert Report Full EpisodesPolitical HumorReligion

And here is a followup interview with Brian Cox:
The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Brian Cox
Colbert Report Full EpisodesPolitical HumorReligion

Oh and if you are interested in knowing more about the paper that Colbert mentions in the first sequence, check out this excellent explanation on Cosmic Variance. In the end, Sean Carroll finds the idea crazy but interesting:
At the end of the day: this theory is crazy. There’s no real reason to believe in an imaginary component to the action with dramatic apparently-nonlocal effects, and even if there were, the specific choice of action contemplated by NN seems rather contrived. But I’m happy to argue that it’s the good kind of crazy. The authors start with a speculative but well-defined idea, and carry it through to its logical conclusions. That’s what scientists are supposed to do. I think that the Bayesian prior probability on their model being right is less than one in a million, so I’m not going to take its predictions very seriously. But the process by which they work those predictions out has been perfectly scientific.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Scientology conviction in France

The Church of Scientology has been convicted of fraud in France. I know a lot of people have been gunning for Scientology and this will vindicate their position. I still feel uncomfortable by the fact that they are not recognized as religion and are placed under a more loaded term of "sect" (see an earlier discussion: Cults, Sects, and the Scientology Trial). In fact, the US State Department has criticized several European countries (Belgium, Germany, etc) for labeling Scientology as a sect and for restricting their activities. Germany, in particular, has been quite harsh and has moved in the past to ban the Church of Scientology. We may disagree with religious practices, but the line impeding freedom of religion is not that far - especially for the French, who are also dealing with banning headscarves in state schools. In any case, here is the French Scientology case:

The court convicted the Church of Scientology's French office, its library and six of its leaders of fraud. Investigators said the group pressured members into paying large sums of money for questionable financial gain and used ''commercial harassment'' against recruits.

The group was fined euro400,000 ($600,000) and the library euro200,000. Four of the leaders were given suspended sentences of between 10 months and two years. The other two were given fines of euro1,000 and euro2,000.

The court did not order the Church of Scientology to shut down, ruling that it would be likely to continue its activities anyway, ''outside any legal framework.''
May be they have been pressuring and defrauding people more than other religions - perhaps that is what convinced the court, but here is the bit that makes me think twice about it:

The Los Angeles-based Church of Scientology, founded in 1954 by the late science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard, has been active for decades in Europe, but has struggled to gain status as a religion. It is considered a sect in France and has faced prosecution and difficulties in registering its activities in many countries.

And here is some information about the case was about:

The original complaint in the case dates back more than a decade, when a young woman said she took out loans and spent the equivalent of euro21,000 on books, courses and ''purification packages'' after being recruited in 1998. When she sought reimbursement and to leave the group, its leadership refused. She was among three eventual plaintiffs.

Investigating judge Jean-Christophe Hullin spent years examining the group's activities, and in his indictment criticized what he called the Scientologists' ''obsession'' with financial gain and practices he said were aimed at plunging members into a ''state of subjection.''
Read the full story here.

P.S. Also, Paul Haggis has left the Church of Scientology.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Kitcher et al on the fact of evolution

Couple of weeks ago Nicholas Wade had a largely positive review of Dawkins' latest book, The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution. However, in the second half of the review he accuses Dawkins of mixing up theory with fact when talking about evolution:
There is one point on which I believe Dawkins gets tripped up by his zeal. To refute the creationists, who like to dismiss evolution as “just a theory,” he keeps insisting that evolution is an undeniable fact. A moment’s reflection reveals the problem: We don’t speak of Darwin’s fact of evolution. So is evolution a fact or a theory? On this question Dawkins, to use an English expression, gets his knickers in a twist.
Well...philosophers and biologists have spoken overwhelmingly in defense of Dawkins. Yesterday's NYT published two letters in print and several others online - almost all clarifying Wade's confusion about fact and theory. I will here highlight the one by Philip Kitcher - since he was our Science & Religion speaker last semester - oh and also because he makes his point very clearly:

To the Editor:

In his review of “The Greatest Show on Earth,” Nicholas Wade charges that Richard Dawkins is guilty of a philosophical error. According to Wade, philosophers of science divide scientific propositions into three types — facts, laws and theories — and, contrary to Dawkins’s assertions, evolution, which is plainly a systematic theory, cannot count as a fact. However, contemporary philosophy of science offers a vastly more intricate vocabulary for thinking about the sciences than that presupposed in Wade’s oversimplified taxonomy and in his confused remarks about “absolute truth.” Although philosophers may quarrel with aspects of Dawkins’s arguments on a range of issues, he has a far firmer and more subtle understanding of the philosophical issues than that manifested in Wade’s review.

The crucial point is that, as Dawkins appreciates, the distinction between theory and fact, in philosophical discussions as in everyday speech, can be drawn in two quite distinct ways. On the one hand, theories are conceived as general systems for explanation and prediction, while facts are specific reports about local events and processes. On the other hand, “theory” is used to suggest that there is room for reasonable doubt, whereas “fact” suggests something so amply confirmed by the evidence that it may be accepted without debate.

Opponents of evolution slide from supposing that evolution is a theory, in the first sense, to concluding that it is (only) a theory, in the second. Any such inference is fallacious, in that many systematic approaches to domains of natural phenomena — like the understanding of chemical reactions in terms of atoms and molecules, and the study of heredity in terms of nucleic acids — are so well supported that they count as facts (in the second sense). Many scientists and philosophers who have written about evolution have pointed out that the contemporary theory that descends from Darwin has the same status — it, too, should count as a “fact.” Dawkins is entirely justified in following them.
New York
The writer is the John Dewey professor of philosophy at Columbia University and a former editor in chief of Philosophy of Science, the journal of the Philosophy of Science Association.
In another letter, even Stephen Jay Gould stepped in from the grave to correct Nicholas Wade:
This was most eloquently stated by Stephen Jay Gould, who wrote (in “Evolution as Fact and Theory,” reprinted in “Hen’s Teeth and Horse’s Toes”): “Well, evolution is a theory. It is also a fact. And facts and theories are different things, not rungs in a hierarchy of increasing certainty. Facts are the world’s data. Theories are structures of ideas that explain and interpret facts. Facts do not go away when scientists debate rival theories to explain them. Einstein’s theory of gravitation replaced Newton’s, but apples did not suspend themselves in midair pending the outcome. And humans evolved from apelike ancestors whether they did so by Darwin’s proposed mechanism or by some other, yet to be discovered.”
Read Wade's review here, letters by Daniel Dennett and Philip Kitcher here, and all the remaining letters here. If I'm Nicholas Wade, I'm not getting out of bed for the next few days.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Boston Globe on Islamic Creationism

Today's Boston Globe has a long article on Islamic Creationism that does a fantastic job of summarizing the issues while bringing up nuanced points about social and cultural factors that are playing a role in this debate. Talking about Islamic creationism it writes,
The phenomenon has raised concerns among scientists and educators - especially those in Muslim countries and in countries with growing Muslim minorities - who see in it a threat to scientific literacy, a drag on the potential for Muslim countries to build up their languishing scientific research sectors, and as another flashpoint in the Muslim world’s long-running struggle between religion and secularism. Unlike in the West, creationist beliefs are not associated in the Muslim world with religious fundamentalism, but instead are often espoused by members of the mainstream intellectual elite - liberals, by their own lights, who see the expansive, scientific-sounding claims of creationism as tracing a middle way between the guidance of religion and the promise of modern science. Critics of the movement fear that this makes it more likely that creationism will find its way into policies there, especially when the theory of evolution is portrayed among Muslim thinkers, as it often is, as an instrument of Western intellectual hegemony.
I will leave the rest of the article for you to read. But towards the end it brings up two interesting points that I want to highlight. First, it brings up Iran and the lack of strong creationism movement there:

A similar theological rapprochement explains why creationism has gained little purchase in Iran. Unlike in Sunni Islam, Shia Islam, Iran’s majority religion, has an established clerical hierarchy to interpret the Koran, making Shia’ism structurally similar to Catholicism. Iran’s clerics, like the Vatican, have decided that evolution needn’t conflict with Holy Scripture.

“What happened in Iran is that the ayatollahs decided that evolution is OK, and that there was going to be none of this nonsense about creationism, and therefore there isn’t a lot of it in Iran,” says Taner Edis, a physicist at Truman State University and author of “An Illusion of Harmony,” a book on the relationship between science and Islam.

Edis is quick to point out that the Iranian clerical establishment’s vision of evolution, in which a divine hand guides the process, is closer to intelligent design than to the mainstream Western version of evolution. Still, according to Hameed, it is this relative friendliness to modern biology - and one of its central ideas - that has allowed Iran to pursue an aggressive, state-sponsored stem cell research program unmatched anywhere else in the Muslim world.

I think Taner and I agree on the basics - but he is seeing the glass half-empty (that the details of this form of guided evolution may be very close to ID) and I'm seeing it half-full (that they are at least willing to learn and apply evolutionary biology). Given the clerical support to evolution in Iran, it would be fascinating to know the level of public acceptance of evolution there. Unfortunately, we don't as yet have any data from Iran on this topic (we are working to get this information in the next year or two - so stay tuned).

The article concludes by bringing up a crucial point: While we may be worried about Islamic creationism and a misunderstanding of evolution, many in the Muslim world have not even heard of evolution. Thus, the fact that there is a growing controversy over the topic is in itself a sign of increasing education levels:

And in those places where the theory of evolution is seen more warily, the fact that there is a creationist debate at all can be seen as a sort of progress - a symptom at the very least of a newfound interest in science. In the most conservative parts of the Muslim world, creationism isn’t a political or philosophical force because it doesn’t need to be - there aren’t enough people who believe in evolution, or have even been exposed to it, to require a counter-doctrine.

The rise of Islamic creationism, then, may be a sign that more of the Muslim world is at least wrestling with the idea of evolution, and more broadly with the power of scientific explanations. Much though it may alarm Western scientists, creationist thought may offer people an acceptable point of entry into a science-driven world.

“It’s modernizing Muslims, Muslims who want to say they have mastered the modern world and do well in the globalized technological economy and at the same time retain traditional values and so forth,” says Edis. “It’s this sort of audience that creationism appeals to.”

Good point! I completely agree here but I would replace "creationism" in the last sentence with "some sort of religious explanation" - as that includes both creationist accounts (God directly created the species) as well as guided evolution (God guided the evolutionary process). The debate over evolution's compatibility with Islam is still in its early phases. Some in the Muslim world are also ok with a separate sphere for religion and science (we don't know what fraction supports this view). But it is quite clear that an association with atheism will decisively turn the opinion against biological evolution - without even a debate.

Read the full article here.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Monday, October 19, 2009

Another Astrofest by Khwarizmi Science Society

Umair Asim surrounded by ladies at an Astrofest

Khwarizmi Science Society (KSS) has done a phenomenal job this year of bringing astronomy to students, adults, children in many parts of Pakistan. Please see my earlier posts on their astronomy events here and here (especially the pictures in there). Their latest Falakyati Mela (Astrofest) was held on Sept 30th at Government Higher Secondary School at Shahdara and they again got an unbelievable turn out! This time they also held a quiz competition and poetry reading about astronomy. Please see a longer report on Umair Asim's blog. Congratulations to KSS on doing a fantastic job in celebrating the International Year of Astronomy in Pakistan!

Saturday, October 17, 2009

The Economist laments poor education standards in the Arab world

The Economist has used the debacle of Ardi coverage in the Arab world (see an earlier post: Making Sense of Al Jazeera's Strange Coverage of "Ardi") to bring attention to the poor education standards in the region. It stresses the point that ignorance regarding evolution is only part of the larger education problem in the Arab world:

Such choices carry a cost that goes beyond ignorance of Darwin. Arab countries now spend as much or more on education, as a share of GDP, than the world average. They have made great strides in eradicating illiteracy, boosting university enrolment and reducing gaps in education between the sexes.

But the gap in the quality of education between Arabs and other people at a similar level of development is still frightening. It is one reason why Arab countries suffer unusually high rates of youth unemployment. According to a recent study by a team of Egyptian economists, the lack of skills in the workforce largely explains why a decade of fast economic growth has failed to lift more people out of poverty.

And here is a glimpse of the education standards:

The most rigorous comparative study of education systems, a survey called Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) that comes out every four years, revealed in its latest report, in 2007, that out of 48 countries tested, all 12 participating Arab countries fell below the average. More disturbingly, less than 1% of students aged 12-13 in ten Arab countries reached an advanced benchmark in science, compared with 32% in Singapore and 10% in the United States. Only one Arab country, Jordan, scored above the international average, with 5% of its 13-year-olds reaching the advanced category.

Other comparative measures are equally alarming. A listing of the world’s top 500 universities, compiled annually by Shanghai Jiao Tong University, includes three South African and six Israeli universities, but not a single Arab one. The Swiss-based World Economic Forum ranks Egypt a modest 70th out of 133 countries in competitiveness, but in terms of the quality of its primary education system and its mathematics-and-science teaching, it slumps to 124th. Libya, despite an income of $16,000 a head, ranks an even more dismal 128th in the quality of its higher education, lower than dirt-poor Burkina Faso, with an average income of $577.

Yikes! The sad part is that poverty and low education standards don't correlate in the Arab world. But below Burkina Faso? I had to look it up (by the way, this country makes the whole Burkini business all so confusing).

But there is a growth of good private universities:

Well aware that their school systems are doing badly, Arab governments have been scrambling to improve. In an attempt to leapfrog the slow process of curriculum reform and teacher training, many have taken the easy route of encouraging private schools. In Qatar, for instance, the share of students in private education leapt from 30% to more than 60% between 1999 and 2006, according to the UN’s Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO). Syria has licensed some 20 private universities since 2001; 14 are up and running. Yet their total enrolment is dwarfed by the 200,000 at state-run Damascus University alone. Oil-rich monarchies in the Gulf have spent lavishly to lure Western academies to their shores, but these branch universities are struggling to find qualified students to fill their splendidly equipped classrooms.

Not to be outdone, Saudi Arabia has launched King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), a city-sized institution with an endowment of $20 billion. Intended as an oasis of academic excellence, it enjoys an independent board and is the kingdom’s only co-educational institution. This augurs well for the Saudi elite, but one fancy new university will do little to lift the overall standard of Saudi education.
Yup - cannot agree more. Read the full article here.

Related posts:
KAUST and King Abdullah
Co-ed University for Saudi Elites?

Hubble's rescue on NOVA

NOVA had an excellent episode this past week titled, Hubble's Amazing Rescue. It is amazing to see how much effort goes into preparing for such a mission - but then Hubble has played a phenomenal role in shaping contemporary astronomy and providing answers to some of humanity's fundamental questions. Watch the full episode here - I think it is quite thrilling. Of course, this provides me with an excuse to post one of the images (above) from the upgraded Hubble. This is NGC 6302 (or the Butterfly Nebula) and represents the end stage (planetary nebula) of a star like our Sun. The central star, which we can't see, is in the process of shedding most of its gaseous envelop and the image above represents a span of about 2 light years. You can read more about he image here. But back to the NOVA episode - here is a short promo for the show:

Friday, October 16, 2009

Call for Papers: Towards a Unified Science of Religion

The deadline is December 15th, but the conference is in Middle Earth:

Towards a Unified Science of Religion

A conference sponsored by the Department of Philosophy
University of Otago
New Zealand


The belief in gods, demons, and other supernatural agents is a persistent feature of human culture, which cries out for explanation. In the last twenty-five years explanations of religion have reached a new level of sophistication. We now have a range of different scientific theories of religion, in cognitive science, anthropology, and evolutionary psychology, drawing upon a significant body of empirical data. This conference, sponsored by the Department of Philosophy at the University of Otago, will bring together researchers from these different disciplines and different theoretical perspectives, to explore the possibility of a unified science of religion.

Call for Papers

Participants are invited to submit paper proposals presenting original research on any topic related to the theme of the conference. The proposal should take the form of an abstract of no more than 200 words, and should be submitted electronically (along with contact details) to the conference secretary: Jonathan Jong by 15 December 2009.

Further Information

Further details about registration and accommodation and will be available on this site soon. The conference programme will be available on this site in late December.

Conference Organisers: James Maclaurin and Greg Dawes.

Conference Secretary: Jonathan Jong

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Genesis, God, and Tyra

One Old Testament scholar is claiming that at the beginning of the Book of Genesis, God did not create the Earth - but only the humans and the animals:

Professor Ellen van Wolde, a respected Old Testament scholar and author, claims the first sentence of Genesis "in the beginning God created the Heaven and the Earth" is not a true translation of the Hebrew.

She claims she has carried out fresh textual analysis that suggests the writers of the great book never intended to suggest that God created the world -- and in fact the Earth was already there when he created humans and animals.

She said she eventually concluded the Hebrew verb "bara", which is used in the first sentence of the book of Genesis, does not mean "to create" but to "spatially separate".

The first sentence should now read "in the beginning God separated the Heaven and the Earth"

I'm not sure how surprising this really is. I thought the ambiguity involving Hebrew grammar in the first verse of the Book of Genesis was known already and that different translations present slightly different takes on creation. Plus, the idea of Creatio ex Nihilo was, I thought, a later interpretation by Christian scholars. I'm sure, people more qualified than me can comment on this in more detail.

In any case, here is an excellent website where you can look at the various translations. For example, here is the King James Bible (also roughly the same translation in the Jewish Publication Society 1917 edition):

1 In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. 2 And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.

But then here is a translation from Young's Literal Translation (another version with similar translation here).

1 In the beginning of God's preparing the heavens and the earth -- 2 the earth hath existed waste and void, and darkness is on the face of the deep, and the Spirit of God fluttering on the face of the waters

Thus, Ellen van Wolde's assertion above does not seem as shocking as the news story is making out to be. In any case, I think all of this stuff is interesting from an academic sense - but I don't think it makes any difference to how and why people believe in their respective religions.

In any case, read the full story here.

On a more serious note, here is another competing version - this time according to the Book of Tyra (tip from Laura Sizer):

1 In the beginning Tyra created the heaven and the earth.

2 And the earth was without a runway, and void of all fierce colors and outfits; and improper lighting caused darkness upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of Tyra worked the runway upon the face of the waters, striking fierce poses at each step of the way.
3 And Tyra said, Let there be lighting: and there was lighting, and stage hands, and production assistants.
4 And Tyra saw the lighting, that it was good, minimized her imperfections, and made her
eyes smile: and Tyra divided the light from the darkness to ensure fierce day and night photos.
5 And Tyra called the light Tyra, and the darkness she called Naomi. And the evening and the morning were the first days dedicated to the Spirit of Tyra.

6 And Tyra said, Let there be a makeup studio in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the women at the counters of Macy’s from the female-like men.
7 And Tyra made the makeup studio, and divided the cosmetologists, which were under the firmament, from the make-up artists which were above the firmament: and it was so.
8 And Tyra called the firmament the CW. And the evening and the morning provided Cover Girl lighting.
Read the rest of Book of Tyra here and don't miss out the video on the website.

Also check out Crumb's take on The Book of Genesis.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Making sense of Al Jazeera's strange coverage of "Ardi"

About two weeks ago, Science included a series of papers about our 4.4 million year old ancestor Ardipithicus or "Ardi". It is a fascinating find that has justifiably garnered attention worldwide. You can read the details in Science (there is also a nice short video there) and an excellent description on The Loom.

However, Al Jazeera gave an interesting spin to the same story. Lina Malkawi translates the story on her blog and points out the bizarre coverage by the Arabic version of Al Jazeera, where the headline reads: Ardi refutes Darwin's theory (the screen shots on the right are from Lina's blog). And one goes, huh?! Did Al Jazeera read any thing about Ardi? Hey - if not the original Science article, at least they could have read the summary of the findings (or if that is too much to ask, watch the short video on the same website that explains the findings).

So what is the motivation behind Al Jazeera's story and how did they reach this creative conclusion?

First of all, this story only appeared in the Arabic language Al Jazeera. I checked Al Jazeera-English and it is not mentioned at all (by the way, there is no science section at all!). This may be due to different demographics for English and Arabic language editions. Al Jazeera-English is most likely intended for relatively educated audiences (many living in the West) who have access to other competing news sources. In fact, Al Jazeera-English wants to present itself as a credible news source at par with BBC, CNN etc., but presenting news from an Arab perspective. In addition, a number of staff members of Al Jazeera-English have come from the BBC. Since they are still trying to establish their credibility in English-language press, nutty stories like this would do far more harm than good.

The Arabic language version is a different story. Al Jazeera is the biggest and most influential news channel in the Middle East. Gauging the mood of its audience, Al Jazeera can afford to run a sensational news story about evolution. This is a crowd-pleaser. Instead of seriously engaging with the implications of biological evolution - something that Muslims will have to do eventually - this kind of a distorted news story provides a short-cut to comfort. Of course, the discovery of "Ardi" itself is not a worthy story for Al Jazeera - after all they omitted its coverage in its English version - but if someone (anyone!) can claim that it is a refutation of Darwin's theory, then it becomes a story.

How did Al Jazeera reach the conclusion that "Ardi refutes Darwin's theory"? Most likely this is coming from that standard misconception that humans have evolved from chimpanzees rather than humans and chimpanzees having a common ancestor. And in Zaghloul el-Naggar they found a perfect mouthpiece for this nonsense. He has been searching for scientific miracles in the Qur'an.

Aaayayayay! So we have a choice: No science coverage in Al Jazeera-English or utter-rubbish in Al Jazeera-Arabic. I guess in the case of Al-Jazeera, no (science) news is good news.

Off-Topic: War of necessity in Aghanistan

Pervez Hoodbhoy was at Hampshire College recently for the Darwin & Evolution in the Muslim World conference. However, a day before the start of the conference, he gave a lunch talk, Can the Taliban win in Pakistan and Afghanistan? The answer to this question now largely depends on the US decision about troops. While Pervez has been an anti-war activist all of his life, he made it quite clear that the US should not withdraw troops from Afghanistan. Such a move would be a morale booster for the Taliban - both in Afghanistan and Pakistan - and it will lead to a major turmoil in the region. In fact, his main point was that even if the US leaves right now, it will have to come back - and when it does - it will find the situation much messier than it is right now. I think he is right - the current Afghan war has now become a war of necessity.

Echoing these views, here is Ahmed Rashid on Fresh Air. This gives a good idea of the over all situation in Afghanistan. Regarding the destabilization of the region, listen to his answer about 34 minutes into the interview. Also, check out his article, The Afghan Impasse, in The New York Review of Books.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

NYT: A Schoolgirl's Odyssey

Here is an excellent short documentary (about 20 mins), A Schoolgirl's Odyssey. It provides not only a glimpse of the complex situation in Swat, but also highlights a wonderful desire for education. They could not have picked a better schoolgirl to follow - she is absolutely amazing. The first part of this documentary tracks this family's move out of Swat. But the most powerful moments come when they return to Swat after the Pakistani military had cleared off the Taliban.

Please check out the video here.

There is a related story in today's NYT about the slow pace of rebuilding in Swat.

Mohammed Shah Hussain, a teacher at Nazarabad Government Boys School, walks thought what is left of the school after the Taliban destroyed it in February. About 20 percent of all schools in the Swat Valley are destroyed or unusable, Unicef says.

Mr. Hussein estimated that more than half of his male students were not coming to school because they were afraid the military would arrest them for Taliban involvement. He is also nervous about sticking out, now that he has assumed the role of spokesman for families, mostly illiterate, asking about relatives who are in military custody.

Illiteracy makes villagers easy to ignore. Taja Bibi, a villager who cannot read, but whose bright 12-year-old daughter, Rabihat, aches to return to school, said she had not even bothered to ask when it might reopen.

“We can’t argue, and we can’t respond,” she said, sitting on a dirt floor in a small house that is home to more than 20 people. “They don’t consider us worth talking to.”

For Mr. Hussein, creating an educated class that knows its rights is the only hope for change in Pakistan.

But that requires schools, and the ones in his village are gone.

“We are the losers,” he said.
Read the full story here.

Science & Faith (Muslim) in an episode of "Bones"

The latest episode of Bones, The Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (aired Oct 10), features a subplot involving a Muslim researcher/investigator, Arastoo, who finds no conflict between science & his faith (tip from Laura Wenk). Watch the full episode here (I don't how long are they available online; you can also read the recap here). Couple of points here: This sub-plot is inessential to the story and thus this is a deliberate effort to dampen some of the stereotypes using one of the network stations (Fox - and no this is not the same as Fox News). However, they not only bring this issue up but also reveal Arastoo to be as much an American as anyone else. Plus, they take the opportunity to make a jab at the confusion between Arabs and Persians - and to note that not all Muslims speak Arabic. Good short effort against some of the common misconceptions. Towards the end, they generalize the issue to that of science & religion - rather than of simply science & Islam. I think this is a good PR effort from a political and cultural perspective. Hopefully, some other network show will pick its protagonist to be an atheist who has no problem leading a moral and fulfilling life (ala Jodie Foster in Contact).

What about the episode of Bones itself? I found it relatively painful to watch (I'm not into CSI either). Plus, if this is how the FBI works, we have some serious issues down here. If you do have to watch a TV series, skip Bones and follow the absolutely riveting Mad Men (I'm finishing off the second season).

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Cold War and nuclear bombs

Here is a fascinating Fresh Air interview with David Hoffman. He is the author of The Dead Hand: The Untold Story of the Cold War and its Dangerous Legacy. Interestingly, he paints Reagan as a guy who wanted to make nuclear weapons obsolete - part of the rationale for his Star Wars program. Now this is an intriguing twist to Reagan and I'm still not sure if I buy it completely. It may also represent an evolution of Reagan from his early days to the his second term as President. However, it is clear that Reagan was indeed rattled by the made-for-TV movie The Day After - that imagined the impact of a nuclear attack on Lawrence, Kansas and Kansas City, Missouri. If you don't have time to listen to the whole interview, check out this part of the interview that starts around 28-29 minutes in. From a different perspective, this is an amazing demonstration of the enormous impact television can make (I can also testify to it personally as I decided to pursue astronomy after watching the first episode of Cosmos, when it first aired in Pakistan in 1984). Talking of Sagan, Hoffman's view adds an interesting irony to the anti-nuclear protests in the 1980s. At one point Reagan invited Sagan to a dinner at the White House, but Sagan declined the invitation - partly because of Reagan's Star Wars program. But may be they would have agreed on something. In any case, Reagan did end up borrowing Sagan's aliens. Check out this segment of Reagan's 1987 speech to the UN:

More likely, both Sagan and Reagan were influenced by the story from a 1963 episode of The Outer Limits titled, The Architects of Fear. Watch the full episode here.

Friday, October 09, 2009

Religion in "The Invention of Lying"

A few of us went to see The Invention of Lying yesterday. Since our expectations were quite modest to begin with, the movie turned out to be reasonable (not great - but quite enjoyable). However, it also has a hilarious commentary on religion. It is in all in good faith (ha!), but unlike many Hollywood films, it does not back down from its premise. In fact, it does an adequate job of showing why we have the urge to believe - at the same time bringing up age-old theological problems associated with a belief in an all-powerful Deity and the existence of evil.

The movie is decent, but we are not really talking about Bergman, Tarkovsky or Kubrick here. If you are looking for some light entertainment, this is perfect. Plus, soon we'll have to go and see Cormac McCarthy's The Road (can't believe they switched the release date from October 9th to November 25th!) and Coen Brother's A Serious Man.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Pew Study: Mapping the Global Muslim Population

For the purpose of this blog, the new Pew study, Mapping the Global Muslim Population, is a good reminder that Muslims are not a monolithic entity - culturally, socially, politically, or even religiously. Therefore, statements regarding Islam and Science or acceptance or rejection of evolution in the Muslim world have to take into account this diversity.

This is the largest study of its kind. I don't know if they also have forthcoming surveys regarding religiosity and science attitudes. Nevertheless, this demographic work is of immense importance. Here are some of the key findings (helpfully extracted by Faithworld from the Pew Executive Summary):

There are 1.57 billion Muslims of all ages in the world today, about 23 percent of the global population of 6.8 billion. (By contrast, various estimates put the number of Christians worldwide at about two billion).

  • Over 60 percent of Muslims live in Asia and one-fifth in the Middle East and North Africa.
  • More than 300 million Muslims, or one-fifth of their global population, live in countries where Islam is not the majority religion. Muslims are a minority in India but it has the third-largest Muslim population (161 million).
  • Sub-Saharan Africa has about 15 percent of the Muslim population, and Pew estimates that Muslims are a slight majority in Nigeria at 50.4 percent of the population.
  • Ten to 13 percent of Muslims are estimated to be Shias and most Shias live in just four countries: Iran, Pakistan, India and Iraq. Sunnis account for 87 to 90 percent of the Muslim population.
  • In Europe, there are an estimated 38.1 million Muslims.
Read the Executive Summary here and download the pdf of the full report here. There are also some interactive maps there. Here is a "weighted" map of the world shows each country’s relative size based on its Muslim population. Figures are rounded to the nearest million.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Plagiarism by Iranian ministers

A.Q. Khan has some company. Khan only plagiarized a popular science article. But here is a case that involves two Iranian ministers and the journal Nature. From the Oct 1st issue of Nature (you may require a subscription to access the story):

Two Iranian government ministers have co-authored peer-reviewed papers that duplicate substantial amounts of text from previously published articles, according to an investigation by Nature.

Three journals have already confirmed that they will retract papers co-authored by Iran's science and education minister Kamran Daneshjou, a professor in the school of mechanical engineering at the Iran University of Science & Technology (IUST) in Tehran. Before being appointed science minister in early September, Daneshjou was also head of the interior ministry office overseeing the disputed presidential elections in June that kept Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in power. A further publication by Iran's transport minister and his deputy has also been called into question.

In an online story last week (see Nature doi:10.1038/news.2009.945; 2009), Nature revealed that substantial sections of text in a 2009 paper in the journal Engineering with Computers1 by Daneshjou and IUST colleague Majid Shahravi were identical to a 2002 paper2 by South Korean scientists in the Journal of Physics D. New York-based Springer, which publishes Engineering with Computers, has told Nature that it will retract the paper. The work also duplicates smaller amounts of material from papers given by other researchers at conferences3,4,5,6, as well as a 2006 article7 in the International Journal of Impact Engineering.


KAUST and King Abdullah

The experiment of an intellectual island in Saudi Arabia has officially started. This island is called King Abdullah University of Science & Technology (KAUST). Already, a top Saudi cleric, Sheikh Saad al-Shithri, demanded that KAUST curriculum be vetted by a Sharia committee to prevent "alien ideologies", such as evolution. He also had serious problems with co-education. However, the king used a royal decree to remove this cleric from the council of religious scholars. It seems that King Abdullah is serious about protecting KAUST from religious meddling.

As expected, King Abdullah in his speech at the opening ceremony, stressed the importance of science and connected it to scientific contributions of Muslims in the medieval times. And here he is talking about science & religion compatibility - and goes a bit overboard with his comments (but its too be expected a bit):
The Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz said that throughout history, power has attached itself (after God) to science and the Muslim Ummah is well aware that it will not be powerful unless it depends (after God) upon science. The King also stressed that science and faith are only adversaries in sick minds, and God has graced us with our minds so that we can understand and recognize God’s laws of nature.

King Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz said, “The University that we are opening today is not starting from scratch [rather] it is the continuation of what distinguished our civilization in its age of prosperity.”

The Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques added, “Humanity has been the target of vicious attacks from extremists who fear dialogue, pursue destruction and speak the language of hatred. We cannot fight them unless we establish coexistence without conflict, with love instead of hatred, friendship instead of confrontation. Undoubtedly scientific centres that embrace all peoples are the first line of defence against extremists. And today this university will become a “house of wisdom”…and a beacon of tolerance. This is the third meaning of the university.” far so good. Its indeed a step in the right direction. But, instead of this island, I hope these things get extended to the rest of Saudi Arabia as well.

Read the full story here and here is the link to KAUST website.

Read earlier posts:
Co-ed University for Saudi Elites?

Monday, October 05, 2009

Sunday, October 04, 2009

Darwin & Evolution in the Muslim World: Group photo

Our two-day conference Darwin & Evolution in the Muslim World ended yesterday. Videos of the all of the sessions will be posted in the next couple of weeks. In the mean time, here is a group picture from the conference (yes, we had conference t-shirts):
From left to right
Back: Amina Steinfels, Sarah Bean, Anila Asghar, Jason Wiles, Laura Wenk, Saad Shafqat, Thomas Glick, Uwe Vagelpohl, Laura Sizer, Andrew Dole, John Schoeberlein, Martin Riexinger, Taner Edis, Don Everhart
Front: Betty Anderson, Berna Turam, Monica Ringer, Ron Numbers, Pervez Hoodbhoy, Saouma BouJaoude, Salman Hameed, Ehab Abouheif, Aykut Kence

Oh...and if you think academics can't look tough - well you haven't met this group:

Check out the conference website. More information will be added in the coming weeks.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Darwin & Evolution in the Muslim World Conference

On October 2nd and 3rd, we are hosting an international conference on Darwin & Evolution in the Muslim World at Hampshire College. The goal of the conference is to look at the historical reception of Darwin's early work and the social and cultural contexts of current debates over biological evolution in the Muslim world. We are indeed very excited as we have a list of outstanding speakers from many different disciplines (see the program here). The day sessions of the conference are not open to general public. However, we have open public events on Friday and Saturday evenings at 6pm (details below). We are recording the proceedings of the entire conference and will make the videos available free of cost from the conference website after a few days. Here is the announcement for the public events. Please join us on Friday and Saturday evenings (please note that the public events are also part of our regular Lecture Series on Science & Religion):

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

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


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

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

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

The conference and these public events are sponsored by Carnegie Corporation of New York

Save the date for the next Science & Religion Lecture:

Dr. Scott Atran, Thursday, March 25, 2010
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