Archive for December, 2009

Another Planet

December 29, 2009 Leave a comment

I listen to a lot of mainstream media, read several “normal” newspapers, watch the same sort of TV programs as most other people, and visit a lot of web sites which most people would consider have no substantial bias. So why is it than I am never exposed to the sort of material that the people I debate with find compelling?

What I mean is that I never see any material which would suggest in any way that creationism is real. I see almost nothing which questions the reality of anthropomorphic global warming (AGW). And I see very little to suggest that science is not credible or that scientists can’t be trusted.

So where do my opponents get the idea that there is any sort of evidence for creationism, or that AGW isn’t credible, or that science is fake in any way? Its simple really: they live on another planet! (metaphorically speaking, of course).

If they listened to the same sort of material as I do (general mainstream media, like New Zealand’s National Radio) they would hear a constant stream of information which contradicts their beliefs. That would be really annoying to them I would have thought. Do they think the whole world is against them and that there is some sort of global conspiracy? Some do. Or maybe they just don’t interact with the same media sources as the rest of us do.

I know a lot of fundamentalist religious groups have alternative information sources and they are told to keep away from the same media the rest of us use. And they must attend regular meetings so that any reality they have absorbed can be destroyed by the lies of their church (or other organisation).

But it still must be hard for these people when they notice the constant source of material which makes it seem like their ideas don’t exist. In all the hundreds of hours I have heard from National Radio for example the only reference to creationism was ridiculing a creationist who made a pathetic attempt at defending his nonsensical beliefs.

And there’s a continuous stream of scientists talking about AGW as if the alternative view doesn’t even exist. I know the alternative view does exist but only amongst the fringe. Why should I need to visit a conservative web site to get that alternative view? If its reasonable and believed by a reasonable number of experts why doesn’t it appear on the mainstream sites?

There’s only one possibility really: a conspiracy. As I have said before, not all conspiracies are untrue but that’s the safest assumption because most of them are. If I was a creationist, AGW denier, or anti-science believer I think I would either be really annoyed at the constant stream of material which contradicts my belief – or I would just move to another planet!

Xmas is OK

December 26, 2009 5 comments

I am often accused of being hypocritical when I celebrate Christmas when it is well known that I am an atheist and have little respect for Christian dogma and tradition. Yes, its true, I try to avoid taking part in any religious activities (and that’s not just Christian) but I don’t really see Christmas as being a Christian event any more.

Despite the name Christmas really isn’t a religious celebration. At least its not here in New Zealand (which is not a particularly religious country). I haven’t gone out of my way to look for religious aspects of Christmas but I haven’t tried to avoid them either. The only mentions of this I have seen are a facetious reference to the “reason for the season” being eating, drinking and buying lots of stuff, a short newspaper article describing church attendance, and a few traditional Christmas songs.

I did try at one point to wish people a “happy solstice” or “happy holidays” but I have since decided that “merry Christmas” is OK because very few people really see that as having any religious significance any more.

Another significant point is that its silly to deny that Christianity was (and still is to a lesser extent) an important part of our society. This says nothing about how true it is or even how relevant it is today but it certainly was the most important aspect of life in the western world in the past and that has significantly shaped our lives today. Trying to deny or ignore this fact just makes you look like an idiot!

So Xmas is OK with me. Any excuse to have a holiday from work, eat lots of nice stuff and drink lots of alcohol is good. And living in the southern hemisphere means I also get to enjoy summer (at least theoretically because the New Zealand weather is so unpredictable).

Breakthrough of the Year

December 23, 2009 Leave a comment

The year is coming to an end so maybe its now time to consider the greatest scientific breakthrough for 2009. Luckily the journal Science recently published its list so I can comment on that instead of trying to come up with a list myself!

According to Science, the greatest discovery this year was the reconstruction of the fossil of Ardipithecus ramidus. This is a 4.4 million year old fossil of a human ancestor. In fact, to be more accurate the specimen represents an individual who made up part of the human ancestral tree. She could have easily been from a branch which later went on to extinction instead of being in the branch which lead to modern humans.

That detail isn’t critical though because we should expect a lot of specimens which aren’t ancestral to us. After all, natural selection is the major process which evolution uses so we would expect for the unsuccessful variations which didn’t survive to be in the majority. So “Ardi” isn’t necessarily a missing link as such (missing link is a very imprecise and misleading term anyway) but she is part of the evolutionary process which lead to modern humans.

Any new piece of news in the field of human evolution is generally greeted by some feeble attempt at refutation on the creationist web sites and this one is no exception. Actually, the two articles I read make an even weaker attempt that usual at discrediting this discovery. One article doesn’t really say anything except make some sort of promise at answering this awkward question in the future. And the other makes several false claims, such as evolutionary reversals being “virtually impossible” and the distinction between different species of early hominids being relevant to the science as a whole.

Anyway, moving on. The other important discoveries of the year included these…

The Hubble Space Telescope being “reborn” (not the word I would have chosen!) Further repairs and modifications were carried out this year and the HST is working better than ever. Those magnificent pictures are important from a scientific perspective, of course, but maybe are even more important because of the reaction many non-scientists have to them. As I have said in past blog entries, science is currently suffering from a lack of respect from the public but at least these HST pictures have had some positive impact.

Graphene molecules being used in materials science. New materials and other nano-scale science will be very important in the near future. Nanotechnology and advanced bottom up chemical synthesis techniques are sure to revolutionise many areas of technology.

The others were: pulsars in the gamma-ray sky, how plants use ABA receptors to get through stressful times, mock monopoles spotted, drugs that eventually could lead to life extension for humans, ice discovered on the Moon, gene therapy becoming successful again, and the first X-ray laser.

I woud like to add the successful restart of the Large Hadron Collider to this list. All science geeks were disappointed last year when LHC failed and needed extensive repairs. It now seems to be progressing well and next year should lead to some genuinely basic breakthroughs from this machine which is the greatest science experiment and the biggest and most complex machine ever made.

I hope the LHC does lead to some significant results in the area of fundamental particle physics because there are several things I really want to know! Let’s start with dark matter. I really need to now what that is. And dark energy is even weirder so I would be prepared to wait a bit longer before that is understood. Oh and let’s get the Higgs boson sorted out, can we? I really want to know if it exists otherwise let’s figure out which other theory explains the existence of mass.

The Greatest Show

December 20, 2009 Leave a comment

I have just completed reading Richard Dawkins’ latest book, The Greatest Show on Earth. Its a presentation of the evidence for evolution and, although that may sound like a somewhat dry and technical subject, the book is well written and quite easy to read. Its probably not quite as much “fun” to read as another one of his books, The God Delusion, but its a lot tighter scientifically and factually.

I have been told that my old “friend”, occasional debating opponent, and prominent creationists, Jonathan Sarfati, is already preparing a reply to this book. I know its bad to pre-judge something just because it is contrary to your world view but I would have to say here that I suspect its probably going to be the standard litany of lies and misleading propaganda that Sarfati usually produces. I will give him the benefit of the doubt and hope that maybe this time he can raise his standards above the usual intellectual dishonesty he has shown in the past, but I do think that’s unlikely.

I noted the page numbers from various parts of the book as I read it so I will try to summarise the highlights of Dawkins’ case presented there on my web site or here in my blog. I do know the basics of evolution fairly well but there were a few points made in the book I hadn’t heard before and some nice examples of the process of evolution, so I would like to write something about these.

While the book was mainly about the scientific fact and theory of evolution it did take more than an occasional shot at creationists and other deniers of scientific fact. The problem of science denial is a serious one, especially with some more practical problems, such as global warming, being denied by certain groups – often by the same groups who deny evolution in fact, including Sarfati!

I’m not sure what the solution is although I think the modern subject of “science communication” (which Dawkins’ himself is the leading proponent of) which is now being taken seriously at universities (including the one I work at) might be able to tip the balance back to science being taken seriously and respected more than it currently is.

The statistics showing belief in nonsensical myths like the Creation Myth are disturbing but a lot of that might be because science isn’t trusted and understood. If science communication can help that situation it can only be good. Our only hope for a better world is by following science and technology.

A significant part of the population believing in silly fairy stories (creation) and political propaganda (global warming denial) isn’t helping anyone – even the groups who promote those beliefs. Its time science took the threat seriously and fought back!

Not a Monkey’s Uncle

December 16, 2009 Leave a comment

Its the same old thing over and over again. It really is. They never seem to learn no matter how many times you tell them, and this should be basic stuff they learned in school anyway so what’s the problem? Yes, I’m ranting on about creationists again. Specifically the way they keep dragging up the same old junk which has been discredited years ago. More specifically the question of: “if we evolved from monkeys [or, less commonly, some other species] why are there still monkeys around today?”

If you are a creationist reading this (and I might refer some of my opponents to this page) please take notice: no one claims humans evolved from monkeys. In fact, no one claims we evolved from more closely related species like chimps either. To take it further, no one claims we evolved from any current species!

Many creationists will look a bit bewildered at this point and maybe ask: “does that mean you don’t think evolution happened?” Of course the answer is no, all reasonable and knowledgeable people think evolution happened and lead to the appearance of all forms of life on the planet, what they don’t think is that one current species lead to the evolution of another.

Its easiest to understand if you think of life as a family. Current species are all part of the same generation: they are brothers (or sisters) and cousins. You wouldn’t count anyone in your generation as your ancestor and the same applies to species. All current species evolved from previous generations of species. So two closely related species might have had the same parent species and therefore be brothers (or sisters). The parent species isn’t the same as either of the current species but has attributes of both, just like two offspring have characteristics of the parent.

The analogy isn’t perfect because new generations of individuals arise suddenly by birth and represent a sudden change from the parents. New species arise slowly and there’s really no obvious point where one begins and the other ends, in fact the whole idea of a species is artificial to a large extent.

So about 5 to 7 million years ago (according to current estimates) there was a species which was neither human nor chimp. It split into two groups and the two branches evolved separately until today when one is represented by modern humans and the other by modern chimps. Notice that chimps are just as “evolved” as humans and might have changed as much as we have from the ancestral species (although they probably didn’t because evolution proceeds at different speeds for different groups).

During the period since the split the two branches themselves have split but most of the resulting sub-branches have died out (all in the case of humans). That’s why its possible that fossils are part of the human evolutionary process without necessarily being from a direct ancestor.

So I hope this makes sense to all you creationists out there (and to anyone else who was just wondering about the question). Its really quite simple: we aren’t monkey’s uncles but we are chimps brothers, monkeys cousins, and sons and daughters of a common (unnamed) species which both chimps and humans evolved from.

Evolution. Its a fact. Get over it.

One Step at a Time

December 15, 2009 Leave a comment

One of the reasons my debates with creationists are so frustrating is that they change the scope of the debate to suit their purposes. For example, I pointed out that one of my opponents was misrepresenting evolution when he asked why fish were still around since they were human’s ancestor. I know this is a rhetorical device but its also totally wrong. He then went on to ask me to explain how something came from nothing. But the origin of the universe and abiogenesis really have nothing to do with evolution.

I suspect this is a mechanism creationists use to divert attention from the fact that their ignorance is about to be exposed. Its a form of the famous “Gish Gallop”, a debating technique used by creationist Duane Gish who just changes the subject and throws random statements around at such a speed that they are impossible to answer even though they could easily be refuted if they were handled one at a time.

So I think a common standard needs to be established before individual points can be addressed. The basic points, that I think everyone should agree on, need to be considered one step at a time…

1. We want to know the truth. Most people will claim they do even if they don’t. If the person doesn’t want to know the truth then there’s no point in going further. They have admitted they prefer to remain ignorant and, from my point of view, they have conceded the debate (and destroyed the credibility of their world view).

2. Some ways of establishing the truth are better than others. Relativists will deny there is a single truth and might claim that all “truths” exist in a cultural framework and should be treated as being equally valid. Anyone who is a true relativist really gives up all hope of discovering any useful information at all so they can also be abandoned. Creationists are never relativists anyway because they claim their own version of the truth is superior.

3. The best way to discover the truth is to use logic and experiment. This one is a bit harder to justify but I have two reasons why people should believe it. First, these techniques just make sense. There is a long history of logic which has never been seriously disputed so why reject it? And testing ideas is just common sense. You want to find out if something is true? Let’s test it. The second reason for accepting this methodology is that it is the basic process of science and technology and it has given us all the practical benefits we have today: computers, medicine, etc.

If anyone rejects this methodology they need to offer an alternative. If they say we should accept knowledge because it is contained in an ancient book of wisdom (like the Bible) I would ask how do we decide which books contain real wisdom and which don’t. Its an essentially arbitrary decision.

If they say we should accept a particular view because its followed by many people I would point out that that is also essentially arbitrary. Christianity might be the biggest religion now but it wasn’t always. Does that mean that its only been true since it became dominant? And there are more people who reject it than accept it, even though they don’t have a consistent belief system. How does that fit in with the majority view idea?

It seems to me that no other methodology offers the same combination of common sense logic and real world results as the scientific method of hypothesising and testing. If the person can accept this then we can move on but if they reject it then there’s not a lot of hope. Some people cannot accept that repeatable, objective testing is a good way to reveal what is true and what isn’t but I’ve never heard a good justification for why they think that way.

One possible objection is that there are aspects of the world which are “beyond” the scientific method. I would say that if these things exist they either have some influence on the world or they have none. If they have some influence (for example a god answering a prayer) then we can use science to test them by looking at that influence. If they don’t then they essentially don’t exist. Maybe a god exists but he never interacts with the world in any way. If that’s true then he really doesn’t exist and any debate around this god is useless.

4. If we can get to the point where logic and experiment are admitted as the best way to establish the truth then the next step is to ask what they show. One of the important aspects of science is repeatability. If one person claims to have done an experiment which shows some effect of god then that’s fine but unless it can be repeated with similar results we would be justified in suggesting the effect could be experimental error, bias, or a statistical anomaly.

As far as I am aware there has never been an experiment, which other experts can repeat, showing that any sort of supernatural phenomenon exists. Quoting anecdotes is useless because we can support anything through anecdotes. Quoting individual scientific studies is also useless because its possible to quote others showing the opposite effect. The research as a whole needs to be considered and that clearly shows no supernatural phenomena exist.

So to summarise all this we should all agree that we want to find the truth, that there is one objective truth, that using the scientific method is the best way to establish what it is, and that the evidence for the existence of the supernatural is inadequate to make it worth accepting. It seems straightforward to me but I’m sure the next time I debate a creationist I will find its far from it!

A Nobel Prize? Really?

December 11, 2009 Leave a comment

Any award or recognition of a person’s contribution to the wellbeing of the world is sure to be debatable and sometimes controversial. Prizes for science are rarely disputed much although I’m sure there are plenty of people who deserved the Nobel Prize for a science and didn’t get one. Of course, the prize for peace is obviously always going to be a more difficult thing to judge.

Even considering the difficulty of evaluating a person’s contribution to peace I was surprised to see Barack Obama getting the Nobel Peace Prize this year. I think he is a generally good president and I agree with a lot of what he does, but I can’t see that he’s done enough for the cause of peace to be given the prize.

Its especially odd when you consider he has just committed tens of thousands of troops to the ongoing war in Afghanistan (although I admit that war has some justification) and is also actively engaged in the war in Iraq (which many people would say is unjustified).

So the US is responsible for more wars and death than any other nation on Earth yet its president gets the Nobel Peace Prize? Really? This does seem a bit odd.

I have just read through his speech and I must say I am quite impressed. He makes the point that sometimes war is necessary to achieve peace. Of course it was George Bush who started the war in Afghanistan so maybe he deserves the prize!

The idea that war is sometimes necessary to achieve peace is often true. Its hard to see how Nazi Germany would have been stopped by anything other than fighting back, for example. I think that is a bit less clear whether that would be appropriate in Afghanistan and very much less clear in relation to Iraq.

As I said, Obama didn’t start either of these wars so in many ways he cannot be accused of being the aggressor but he hasn’t stopped them either and he has also failed to get any real progress in peace talks in the Middle East. So just remind me again why he’s getting this prize?

Maybe its just the fact that’s there’s no one else who obviously deserves it. I can’t think of any examples of other leaders who have made much progress towards peace so maybe Obama was just chosen by default. But maybe it would have been better to not award the prize this year and wait until the outcome of various American policies become more clear before giving it to the US president.

As I said, I am generally a supporter of Obama so I shouldn’t complain too much. There is perhaps one person I would have liked to have seen get it instead: Al Gore again! But that’s just because I would have enjoyed the reaction of the global warming deniers I’m currently dealing with!

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