Archive

Archive for July, 2010

Why the people in the UK are better than us

July 30, 2010 Leave a comment

I’ve ranted a bit about the UK recently. Their National Health Service is doing some silly things, supporting homeopathy and the like, and the British Chiropractic Association (not a governmental entity) recently sued Simon Singh for libel because he dared to state scientifically that chiropody is not nearly as effective as its practitioners would like to believe. However, Richard Dawkins recently, in response to education legislation, proposed the creation of an entirely secular, skeptical (note: not atheist…teaching reason instead of indoctrination…) charter school, much like the very many religious charter schools in existence. Well, the UK Secretary of Education said to Parliament:

“One of the most striking things that I read recently was a thought from Richard Dawkins that he might want to take advantage of our education legislation to open a new school, which was set up on an explicitly atheist basis.”

Now, there are at least two points I’d like to make here.

First, it seems that the UK department of education is actually, at the very least, competent. That’s an interesting and useful change.

But think about what would have happened in a senior government official of the USA had said that? A cabinet member, almost supporting the idea of a not just neutral, but actively secular school? Think of the response to that!

The crazies are already up in arms because they don’t think Obama’s a christian, despite his claims that he is. Despite the fact that it doesn’t matter. Because he dared to invite a few atheists to a meeting at the White House called “Advancing Interfaith and Community Service on College and University Campuses”. If the Secretary of Education expressed actual interest in this idea, they’d want his head.

But think about the US and the UK a little bit. One of these countries was founded on religious grounds. One has an official state religion, named after that country. One has the head of that church as it’s leader, at least in name. The other was founded as a secular nation, by mostly people who would be today described as deists or secular humanists, rather than theists. It has a rather important law forbidding the government from supporting any religion over another. But the country religious in name is the one that seems more secular in practice, at least in this issue, and the country that is supposedly secular has a huge right-wing group that can’t seem to keep their religion out of their politics. Prayers at city council meetings, people who want religious memorials on public property, and until recently the president, legislature, and supreme court have been exclusively religious (there are a few nonreligious congressmen now).

For comparison, Britain had an atheist prime minister in 1945, forming the National Health Service and the Welfare State, things we still haven’t gotten quite right (not that they have either…), and have had at least three. Britain’s population is about 15% nonreligious, about the same as the USA, however they manage to have a generally more tolerant and more secular system.

Well, except for homeopathy. And Ireland.

Advertisements
Categories: Essays Tags: ,

The Distant Starlight Problem…

July 28, 2010 Leave a comment

So, one of the arguments often made against the idea that the Earth is only 6,000 years old, as those with a literal reading of the Bible believe, is that the light from stars further than 6,000 light years away could not possibly have reached the Earth, and yet, we see it.

There are a few responses, such as that the light simply traveled much faster in the past, enabling it to have reached us, or that it was created en route to fool us, but these have their problems. Well, Dr. Jason Lisle of Answers in Genesis has finally found a good solution.

Let’s begin with how science works. Science works by assuming nothing except your own observations, everything else that has been established by science, and that the universe works by a set of simple but uniform laws. We use our observations to draw conclusions about how the world works, and then we test it. If it fails, we draw a different conclusion. If it doesn’t fail, then it becomes scientific fact. Something that many people don’t understand is that science doesn’t say that the world works exactly like the scientific model says. Science just says that the model makes accurate predictions of how the world works. The results are good enough for us to use, but as our instruments get better and our knowledge gets greater, the models might change.

The important point, though, is that science is a way to go from data, to a hypothesis, to experiment, to finally a scientific theory. It’s not a way to go from assumption, to hypothesis, to a scientific theory – but that’s exactly what this creationist is doing. He assumes that the universe is 6,000 years old, and then somehow gets a theory out of it.

The best part is the journal he’s chosen to publish in. Scientists often spend a lot of time thinking about what journal to publish their work in, and this particular one chose one called the Answers Research Journal. That’s right, the same Answers as the Answers in Genesis mentioned above.

He claims to have both Scriptural evidence – if he were a real scientist, he would know evidence comes from data, not an ancient text – and scientific evidence, to support the theory that, paraphrased with care taken to preserve tense, allows distant light to reach Earth virtually instantaneously. I’d love to critique it scientifically, but he hasn’t published it yet. If the journal mentioned does happen to publish this paper (it’s a free online journal) I probably will follow up on this. I’m also very interested in how this works. He says virtually instantaneously, which means it does in fact have finite speed, just very large. One possible approach to critiquing this paper could be to use gravitational lensing of distant objects, assuming that he claims that light still does reach Earth virtually instantaneously.

I don’t know a lot about what he’s saying yet, but he claims that his model makes testable predictions, which is the defining characteristic of science. So we’ll see.

There’s also the fact that our current model states that light travels at the same speed, regardless of where it is, when it is, how old it is, etc. (although the medium through which it travels is relevant), and that that speed is based on a few fundamental constants in electromagnetism and can be derived directly from Maxwell’s equations. There’s no reason to abandon that elegant and accurate model for one which applies different laws based on the light’s age and origin and which is not directly derivable from theory.

It’s people like this that make the rest of you look bad.

By the way, I like one of the comments on Friendly Atheist’s post on the subject. If it can travel faster than the speed of light, then time travel into the past is possible, right? So maybe this guy can go back and find out for himself. If the dinosaurs of 6,000 years ago don’t eat him first, of course.

Should tax money fund scientific research that doesn’t give practical gains?

July 26, 2010 Leave a comment

The American public widely denies the scientific theory of evolution. Only 40% of Americans know that humans developed from an earlier species of animals, despite the overwhelming scientific evidence to that point. I could go on by outlining the evidence for evolution of species, speciation, and natural selection, but that is not the subject of this assignment. Rather, I shall assume that the audience is aware of the incredible amounts of evidence supporting evolution. Why is evolution so heavily ignored? Partly due to organized religion, partly due to politics, and partly due to the population not knowing or understanding the evidence.

Religion quite obviously plays a role. Religion on its own needn’t oppose evolution, and people who are ‘spiritual’ or not ‘biblical literalists’ often attest to a belief in evolution while retaining a belief in God, including many religious leaders: Roman Catholicism, for example, fully accepts modern cosmology, abiogenesis, and evolution, while building their faith on matters that are actually subject to faith. Carl Sagan noted in one of his books a discussion with the Dalai Lama, the religious leader of Tibetan Buddhists: Sagan posed the question of what would happen if some central tenet of their faith were disproved by science. The Dalai Lama allegedly responded that Tibetan Buddhism would have to change, but that religion works because those central tenets would be very hard to disprove. As long as religion stays in the realm of faith, the institution of religion is not the problem.

Religion causes problems when religious leaders teach a literal interpretation of their holy book, which teaches their flocks to ignore and shun evidence and to blindly accept the church’s teachings, and when religion ventures into the realm of science and make testable predictions. Preachers often do this unintentionally – their sermons are made to praise their deity, not to teach critical thinking. However, when the congregation is taught to follow blindly, they don’t learn to extend standards of evidence and reason to their worldview. This leads to justifications of ‘intelligent design’ using arguments from authority, where someone claims that some religious authority (or book) supporting the idea of a creator is sufficient evidence. Even shepherds with a mind of science can mislead their followers by omitting critical thinking and failing to make clear the metaphorical nature of their creation story. Pastors who wish to lead their congregations rightly must stress that ancient sources are not believed to be literally true, that we now know more about the world than they did, and that the important things are the loving nature of their chosen deity and the need for reason and critical thought throughout all matters in life. Because this weakens religion, pastors are not likely to adopt this view, and very few do. This is the reason that so many nonreligious people think that religion “hardens hearts and enslaves minds” – it is directly opposed to reason and scientific thought.

Politics is another factor. Due to the dichotomy between the two parties, the teaching of evolution in public schools has been made a major political issue, which vastly changes the argument: due to the nature of the two-party system, such issues are conflated with every other major political issue, from healthcare to the budget. Since most people affiliate with one of the major political parties, they give their vote to all of that party’s views, even though they may disagree with a minority of their positions. Thus, a small far-right republican base is able to influence the entire party to deny evolution and attack the teaching of science in our schools. This isn’t hypothetical – this is actually happening. Most recently the media ran a story on how the Texas school board was trying to deny evolution, as well as certain parts of American history and a few other points. You just can’t make this stuff up.

In the general population, the evidence isn’t very commonly known, or understood. Most people don’t think that their understanding of evolution directly affects their life, and they’re probably right. And so, they don’t seek out the evidence, and continue to perpetuate their ignorance to their children, and the cycle just continues. This is evidenced by some common claims of evolution deniers. Some say that certain structures are so complex, they must require more than one mutation to occur, where only one mutation – presumably to the halfway point – provides no evolutionary advantage. One example is the eye – what use is half an eye? Whereas the evolution of the eye probably proceeded from simpler omnidirectional light-sensing cells, to more complex structures with some directionality, and finally gaining the ability to produce a complete image. An experiment on bacteria has demonstrated the possibility of this: two independent mutations were observed, allowing a set of bacteria to use a certain type of food, where either mutation individually would have had no effect. Another common claim is that evolution is merely ‘random changes’, where anyone who had even a few minutes’ education in evolution by natural selection would know that evolution works by systematically selecting for or against different traits in a manner that is certainly nonrandom. If people were introduced to that idea and considered it with an open but critical mind, they might understand their world a little more. But if people are taught to ignore evidence and only trust their religious authorities, then they’ll never know any of that. All they can hope to do is repeat the same things as they are taught, gaining no insight into how and why we came to be.

The denial of evolution – the denial of the history of our species and of all life – is rampant in modern America, and throughout history. It’s caused by a lack of scientific understanding, but there are more specific causes. Organized religion cripples the faculties of logic and reason that are necessary for any understanding of science. Politics magnifies the issue to a national level and gives the religious majority the power to censor from our children’s classrooms the teachings of science. And the population’s lack of scientific curiosity keeps them from seeking out and analyzing the evidence.

Categories: Essays

Women and the Catholic Church

July 22, 2010 Leave a comment

So I’m just going to vent a bit. Don’t mind me.

I read an article today at friendlyatheist that stated “Ordaining a woman is now in the same category as raping a little boy.” As I usually do, I took this with a bit of a grain of salt – perhaps the canon law doesn’t have all that many striations between degrees of crime, or some similar misunderstanding occurred. I followed through several sources, to this fine article, which appears to be from a source closely related to or at least sympathetic to the church, and would, if anything, be biased towards the church. Well, read the second paragraph of that article, I’ll wait.

Done reading? If you read the whole article, you’ll realize, as I did, that the article places more emphasis on some fine print regarding child pornography being considered child abuse, some statute of limitations rules, and adding the mentally disabled to those protected by the rule, than it does on the changes to the rules on the ordination of women. Well, to start, let me say that if a catholic source thinks that its catholic readers care more about fine print than women’s rights, then I’m now a little more afraid of the religious right than I was a few minutes ago.

But as for the actual content, well I’m sure that the crime of allowing a woman to lead a religious mass “delicta graviora”, which it states is the class of most serious crimes against the church. My latin’s a little rusty, but Google says it means “grave sin”. These crimes are split into two categories, moral crimes (which probably mostly legislates things that are actually wrong and illegal, rather than trying and failing to legislate two thousand year old morality) and sacramental crimes (which refers to things that mostly apply to priests and the church’s sacraments, as far as I can tell). The restriction against female priests is one of the latter – which still apparently carries a punishment of automatic excommunication.

Um. Really? Guys, I don’t know where you all were for the past few centuries, but those things that look like us only with bigger chests and longer hair? We decided that they’re people now, you know. Apparently they are actually sentient and they get to do things like have jobs and go to school and even vote now.

Ok, I can see that the church might be allowed to do this legally. Apart from the fact that they have their own little country, the laws in America  and probably elsewhere might allow this degree of discrimination, as long as the group doing the discriminations isn’t, say, publicly funded. The one law I can readily find only applies to employers, and excludes religious organizations.

So, in the United States, religious organizations are considered private organizations who get to discriminate. I’m pretty sure that no one else would be allowed to do that, ever. In fact, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, which has been signed by every developed country except the United States, states “[f]or the purposes of the present Convention, the term “discrimination against women” shall mean any distinction, exclusion or restriction made on the basis of sex which has the effect or purpose of impairing or nullifying the recognition, enjoyment or exercise by women, irrespective of their marital status, on a basis of equality of men and women, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural, civil or any other field.”

That’s a lot of words, but I think that barring women from the priesthood fits. I’d love to hear an argument why it doesn’t.

That’s all for now, or I’ll probably stab something.

Categories: Essays Tags:

Evolution – we know it isn’t popular, but why not?

July 19, 2010 Leave a comment

Another essay I wrote for a class.

The American public widely denies the scientific theory of evolution. Only 40% of Americans know that humans developed from an earlier species of animals, despite the overwhelming scientific evidence to that point. I could go on by outlining the evidence for evolution of species, speciation, and natural selection, but that is not the subject of this essay. Rather, I shall assume that the audience is aware of the incredible amounts of evidence supporting evolution. Why is evolution so heavily ignored? Partly due to organized religion, partly due to politics, and partly due to the population not knowing or understanding the evidence.

Religion quite obviously plays a role. Religion on its own needn’t oppose evolution, and people who are ‘spiritual’ or not ‘biblical literalists’ often attest to a belief in evolution while retaining a belief in God, including many religious leaders: Roman Catholicism, for example, fully accepts modern cosmology, abiogenesis, and evolution, while building their faith on matters that are actually subject to faith. Carl Sagan noted in one of his books a discussion with the Dalai Lama, the religious leader of Tibetan Buddhists: Sagan posed the question of what would happen if some central tenet of their faith were disproved by science. The Dalai Lama allegedly responded that Tibetan Buddhism would have to change, but that religion works because those central tenets would be very hard to disprove. As long as religion stays in the realm of faith, the institution of religion is not the problem.

Religion causes problems when religious leaders teach a literal interpretation of their holy book, which teaches their flocks to ignore and shun evidence and to blindly accept the church’s teachings, and when religion ventures into the realm of science and make testable predictions. Preachers often do this unintentionally – their sermons are made to praise their deity, not to teach critical thinking. However, when the congregation is taught to follow blindly, they don’t learn to extend standards of evidence and reason to their worldview. This leads to justifications of ‘intelligent design’ using arguments from authority, where someone claims that some religious authority (or book) supporting the idea of a creator is sufficient evidence. Even shepherds with a mind of science can mislead their followers by omitting critical thinking and failing to make clear the metaphorical nature of their creation story. Pastors who wish to lead their congregations rightly must stress that ancient sources are not believed to be literally true, that we now know more about the world than they did, and that the important things are the loving nature of their chosen deity and the need for reason and critical thought throughout all matters in life. Because this weakens religion, pastors are not likely to adopt this view, and very few do. This is the reason that so many nonreligious people think that religion “hardens hearts and enslaves minds” – it is directly opposed to reason and scientific thought.

Politics is another factor. Due to the dichotomy between the two parties, the teaching of evolution in public schools has been made a major political issue, which vastly changes the argument: due to the nature of the two-party system, such issues are conflated with every other major political issue, from healthcare to the budget. Since most people affiliate with one of the major political parties, they give their vote to all of that party’s views, even though they may disagree with a minority of their positions. Thus, a small far-right republican base is able to influence the entire party to deny evolution and attack the teaching of science in our schools. This isn’t hypothetical – this is actually happening. Most recently the media ran a story on how the Texas school board was trying to deny evolution, as well as certain parts of American history and a few other points. You just can’t make this stuff up.

In the general population, the evidence isn’t very commonly known, or understood. Most people don’t think that their understanding of evolution directly affects their life, and they’re probably right. And so, they don’t seek out the evidence, and continue to perpetuate their ignorance to their children, and the cycle just continues. This is evidenced by some common claims of evolution deniers. Some say that certain structures are so complex, they must require more than one mutation to occur, where only one mutation – presumably to the halfway point – provides no evolutionary advantage. One example is the eye – what use is half an eye? Whereas the evolution of the eye probably proceeded from simpler omnidirectional light-sensing cells, to more complex structures with some directionality, and finally gaining the ability to produce a complete image. An experiment on bacteria has demonstrated the possibility of this: two independent mutations were observed, allowing a set of bacteria to use a certain type of food, where either mutation individually would have had no effect. Another common claim is that evolution is merely ‘random changes’, where anyone who had even a few minutes’ education in evolution by natural selection would know that evolution works by systematically selecting for or against different traits in a manner that is certainly nonrandom. If people were introduced to that idea and considered it with an open but critical mind, they might understand their world a little more. But if people are taught to ignore evidence and only trust their religious authorities, then they’ll never know any of that. All they can hope to do is repeat the same things as they are taught, gaining no insight into how and why we came to be.

The denial of evolution – the denial of the history of our species and of all life – is rampant in modern America, and throughout history. It’s caused by a lack of scientific understanding, but there are more specific causes. Organized religion cripples the faculties of logic and reason that are necessary for any understanding of science. Politics magnifies the issue to a national level and gives the religious majority the power to censor from our children’s classrooms the teachings of science. And the population’s lack of scientific curiosity keeps them from seeking out and analyzing the evidence.

Categories: Essays Tags: , , ,