Field of Science

Mohammed Bear case: a 'fair' result!

The school's director, Robert Boulos, told the AP news agency: "It's a very fair verdict, she could have had six months and lashes and a fine, and she only got 15 days and deportation."

Real Life:
"Now, take my case. They hung me up here five years ago. Every night, they take me down for twenty minutes, then they hang me up again, which I regard as very fair, in view of what I done..."

Update: Other views from the blogosphere: Why Don't You Blog, Nullifidian, Islamophobia Watcher

Nanotech: more worrying to scientists than to the general public

According to a report this week in Nature Nanotechnology, scientists (namely 363 nanotech experts) are more worried about potential health and environmental effects of nanotechnology than is Joe Public - at least according to a telephone survey in the US.
Twenty percent of the scientists responding to the survey indicated a concern that new forms of nanotechnology pollution may emerge, while only 15 percent of the public thought that might be a problem. More than 30 percent of scientists expressed concern that human health may be at risk from the technology, while just 20 percent of the public held such fears.
The press release contrasts this with the US public's relatively greater concern about GMOs and nuclear power. But frankly it seems to me that the US public has traditionally had a rather blasé attitude to GMOs (not to mention global warming).
"Scientists aren't saying there are problems," says the study's lead author Dietram Scheufele, a University of Wisconsin-Madison professor of life sciences communication and journalism. "They're saying, 'we don't know. The research hasn't been done.'"

Scheufele et al. Scientists worry about some risks more than the public. Nature Nanotechnology. 25 November 2007 | doi:10.1038/nnano.2007.392

Non-religious doctors are just as altruistic

Why would anyone want to be a GP? It's clearly a popular career choice, for reasons both selfish (high earnings and social status) and altruistic (wanting to help the sick and needy). Conventional wisdom has it that religion and altruism are connected, and there are many reasons to suppose that this might be so:
  • Altruistic acts may be less altruistic for religious people (they are promised supernatural rewards, and they may also get greater payback from increased status within the community).
  • There could also be self-selection - altruistic people could be more attracted by religion
  • Religion is a source af altruistic 'priming' messages - and these can affect behaviour
  • Religions also often require an individuals to make a public commitment to charity
It certainly seems that religious believers tend to give more to charity than non-believers, and they also are more likely to volunteer for charitable work. So you might expect that religious doctors would be more likely to work among the poor and needy than non-religious.

However, a study published earlier this year shows that this is not so. The data come from a survey of 1,144 US physicians, of whom 26% reported working in "underserved" communities - i.e. people who have poor access to healthcare, usually because of poverty.

This percentage was roughly constant across differing strengths of their religious beliefs, 27% of doctors with low religiosity, 22% of moderates, and 29% of the highly religious. Similarly, doctors who had no religious affiliation were just as likely to work with the undeserved (see graph).

Interestingly, the physician's beliefs about their motivations had no effect on their actual choice of practice (for a related item, see: Are the religious more caring - or do they just think they are?):
among the subset of physicians from all specialities who reported a religious affiliation, had high intrinsic religiosity, attended religious services twice a month or more, and grew up in families that emphasized serving those with fewer resources (n = 264), 90% agreed that their religious beliefs influenced their practice of medicine, and 86% viewed their practice of medicine as a calling. The proportion who reported practice among the underserved (31%) did not differ significantly from that found among those with no religious affiliation, however (35%, P = .48).
The study did find a link between high levels of spirituality and work among the needy. But spirituality is a rather ambiguous term that can be interpreted in non-supernatural ways.


Brooks AC. Religious Faith and Charitable Giving. Policy Review. No. 121, October & November 2003

Curlin FA, et al. Following the call: how providers make sense of their decisions to work in faith-based and secular urban community health centers. J Health Care Poor Underserved. 2006;17(4):944–957

Curlin, F., Dugdale, L., Lantos, J., & Chin, M. (2007). Do Religious Physicians Disproportionately Care for the Underserved? The Annals of Family Medicine, 5 (4), 353-360 DOI: 10.1370/afm.677

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed Research

Cheating and moral certainty go hand in hand

Some people - those with a strong "moral identity" - are much more certain of their own righteousness than others. And yet, somehow, a strong moral identity just doesn't seem to map to moral behaviour. In fact, moral failures among people who set themselves up as moral leaders are a staple of the news media: the politician who preaches against corruption but has his hand in the till, the religious leader caught in flagrante.

Of course, it might just be that people in the public eye are more likely to be caught out (or be reported). But two new studies from Scott Reynolds and Tara Ceranic at the University of Washington have now shown that the link is real - people with strong moral conviction really are more likely to engage in morally dubious behaviours.
"Moral identity seems to be more motivational in nature than ‘moral' in nature," Reynolds says. "Managers and organizations should not just assume that a moral identity will necessarily translate into moral behaviors."
The studies were questionnaire-based surveys of attitudes among 230 students and 290 managers. In the first, they found that the people who were most likely to condone cheating were those who had both a strong moral identity and also felt that cheating could sometimes be justified. Those who felt cheating could sometimes be justified but had weak moral convictions were less likely to condone it.

As the NBC says:
The results recall the seeming disconnect between the words and actions of folks like televangelist and fraud convict Jim Bakker or admitted meth-buyer Ted Haggard, former president of the National Evangelical Association, an umbrella group representing some 45,000 churches.
The second study showed that managers with a strong moral identity were more likely to be either very tough or very lenient on their employees - whereas those with a weaker moral identity were more likely to choose options in the middle.
"The principle we uncovered is that when faced with a moral decision, those with a strong moral identity choose their fate (for good or for bad) and then the moral identity drives them to pursue that fate to the extreme," said researcher Scott Reynolds of the University of Washington Business School in Seattle. "So it makes sense that this principle would help explain what makes the greatest of saints and the foulest of hypocrites."
NB: Pharyngula has a round-up of recent religious cheats.

  • Press Release
  • Reynolds SJ, Ceranic TL.The effects of moral judgment and moral identity on moral behavior: An empirical examination of the moral individual. Journal of Applied Psychology. 2007 Nov Vol 92(6) 1610-1624.

Evolution theory used to discover new human genes

Although the human genome was sequenced back in 2000, deciphering what that sequence actually means is an ongoing challenge. Much of the genome is so-called 'junk', whose purpose (if it has any) is still unknown. Identifying real genes in the rest of it is not always a straightforward task - genes that are only rarely or transiently expressed can be particularly difficult to find. So while some 20,000 have already been discovered, there are likely to be others still lurking hidden in the genome.

This month, a team lead by Adam Siepel at Cornell have used a novel strategy to unearth around 300 previously-unknown genes. They began by looking at sequences of the human genome that are similar to sequences found in other mammals (mouse, rat and chicken). Then they took into account the fact that changes in functionally important sequences are constrained by evolution - unlike changes in non-functional sequences, which tend to be fairly random.
"What's exciting is using evolution to identify these genes," Siepel said. "Evolution has been doing this experiment for millions of years. The computer is our microscope to observe the results."

This was no simple task. An 850-node supercomputer ran the algorithms that identified the regions of overlap that were evolutionarily conserved. Once the potential genes were identified, it was back to the laboratory to test whether they actually exist and could be expressed in humans. The new genes they found were mostly involved in motor activity, cell adhesion, connective tissue and central nervous system development.

Press release.
Siepel et al. Targeted discovery of novel human exons by comparative genomics. Genome Research, DOI: 10.1101/gr.7128207

What if your religious patient refuses treatment?

The 1 Nov edition of American Family Physician features a particularly thorny case study:
A 44-year-old female patient, who is a native of Africa, recently came to the United States to join her son, who is a naturalized U.S. citizen. She does not speak English, but my clinic has a staff member fluent in her native language. Through this interpreter, the medical staff obtained a history of urinary bladder problems that have persisted for at least three months. After detailed questioning, I learned that her symptoms were chronic pain and frequent, urgent urination.
After further questioning, the doctor was worried that the patient had bladder cancer, and may need urgent treatment. The only way to obtain a correct diagnosis was by a proper examination. But when the doctor suggested this, she refused:
I communicated my clinical concern to the patient, but she continued to refuse further examination such as cystoscopy. She indicated that her religious beliefs did not allow such "intimate" exposures.
So this patient potentially had a life-threatening, treatable condition. But her religious beliefs dictated that she would rather die than get a proper diagnosis and treatment. What would you do in this situation? Here's what the doctor concerned recommends:

First off, he points out that giving up and discharging the patient is not an ethical option (medical professionals, he says, are subject to some degree of "obligatory beneficence").

Second, he considers alternative diagnostic procedures, but concludes there aren't any that will be conclusive.

As a last resort, he proposes to call in a religious authority, in an effort to persuade the patient to be sensible. But this seems potentially hazardous (because such individuals have no relevant training and may not have any relevant patient skills at all), not to mention morally problematic (after all, it was the religious clergy that caused the problem in the first place).

So what are the other options? After all, the real problem here is that this woman has been brainwashed with a set of primitive and dangerous beliefs, beliefs that have no basis in reality. The bottom line is that this is a psychiatric problem. Normally, patients with psychiatric problems are referred to psychiatrists, not to co-delusionists who may well reinforce their delusions.

What's more, this case is an example of the burdens placed on society by religion:
The clinical realities and language interpretation needed in this scenario would require several hours for resolution and understanding. Few medical institutions are staffed for this type of difficult communication.
The UK National Health Service currently spends some £20 million annually on religious service providers. Perhaps we would get greater benefit from spending that money on social and psychiatric services?

Ref: English DC. Addressing a patient's refusal of care based on religious beliefs. Am Fam Physician. 2007 Nov 1;76(9):1393-4.

Sleep Paralysis

I was lying in bed drifting in and out of sleep very early one morning and heard a sound at the door of my bedroom. I couldn’t quite make out what it was but as I lived in a shared student flat and we often did pranks on each other I assumed it was my flatmates messing around so I lay there still for a moment to see what they were up to.

I tried to move my arm a little and realised I couldn’t, I was completely unable to move except for breathing and blinking, I could not even speak. It’s frightening enough waking up paralysed but what was worse was that the sound by my door was, for a reason I can’t really describe, becoming increasingly ominous and also moving closer towards me.

It sounded like a shuffling sound and I could hear breathing. By now I was completely terrified, I was lying on my side desperately trying to move any part of my body even my face muscles or to produce some sort of vocal sound but I was failing as this figure was slowly moving towards me.

The figure seemed to stop moving just outside of my visual field but very close to my head, I could almost feel breathing on my face. Then a very clear voice, which sounded like an old woman but quite high pitched and slow, said “hello” into my ear. I immediately came out of the paralysis and practically jumped out of bed. There was of course no one else in the room but the experience was terrifying.

This experience is called sleep paralysis and is supposed to be quite common but people rarely talk about it thinking that it was either a simple dream (which it partly is) or that if they mention it people will think they are crazy. Luckily I had heard of this phenomenom before this happened, which is one time I have been very grateful for having a good knowledge of the unusual, if I hadn’t known about this I can’t imagine what I would have thought.

Sleep paralysis occurs because our bodies self-paralyse while dreaming in order to prevent us from acting out our dreams, at times during the stages between sleep and wakefulness this mechanism can go slightly awry resulting in being conscious, paralysed and dreaming all at the same time. I’m not sure why, but it is often associated with the feeling that there is a presence in the room, possibly due to the vulnerable feeling you have from being paralysed. My experience was quite mild really, commonly people see a figure climb on top of them and attack them.

Because it is a common and natural occurrence it has been reported throughout many cultures. Whatever that culture fears tends to be projected to the hallucination, people from cultures that fear witches see a witch, if they fear spirits they see a spirit. Christian cultures have identified it with both Lillith (the first wife of Adam, who was cast out of Eden for not taking her subordinate position under Adam) and the souls of unbaptised babies (roll up, roll up get your babies baptised). Nowadays it is thought to be responsible for alien abduction reports: science fiction replacing religion.

Sleep paralysis is an interesting example of how the mind on its own can generate extraordinary experiences which people can, quite understandably, attribute to the supernatural. However, understanding the scientific explanation can be, for one, very relieving but also hints at the power and strangeness of the human brain.

A dramatic breakthough - stem cells from skin cells

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed Research
Teams from Japan and the USA have today simultaneously reported making human embryonic-type stem cells from skin cells, rather than the conventional technique which uses embryonic cells (see refs below). So-called 'pluripotent' stem cells are vitally important for research and future medical treatments because of their ability to transform into different tissue types that can be used in any patient - so avoiding the problems of tissue rejection that have plagued attempts to use adult stem cells.

The use of embryonic stem cells has been fiercely resisted by religious groups, despite the fact that they hold out the possibility of saving lives and curing currently untreatable disease. The ability to create pluripotent stem cells from adult tissue, rather than embryos, will not only mean that the supply of pluripotent stem cells becomes potentially unlimited, but will also allow this vital medical research to proceed without religious impediment.
"This is like an earthquake for both the science and politics of stem cell research," says Jesse Reynolds, policy analyst for the Center for Genetics and Society in Oakland, California.

Edinburgh team abandons human cloning

The Edinburgh team, lead by Prof Wilmut, who made headlines in 1997 when they made the first ever animal clone (Dolly the Sheep), has announced that they are abandoning attempts the creation of stem cells from human embryos, in favour of the new technique. The BBC reports:
Prof Wilmut said: "We've not made this decision because it's ethically better.

"To me it's always been ethically acceptable to think that if you could use cells from a human embryo to develop a treatment for a disease like motor neurone disease, for which there is no treatment at present, then that is an acceptable thing to do."


Yu et al. Induced Pluripotent Stem Cell Lines Derived from Human Somatic Cells. Science 2007;DOI: 10.1126/science.1151526

Takahashi et al. Induction of Pluripotent Stem Cells from Adult Human Fibroblasts by Defined Factors. Cell 2007; DOI:10.1016/j.cell.2007.11.019

Creationists accuse evolutionists of promoting religion!

"If you can't beat em, join em" is the latest tactic from the Discovery Institute in its war on science. In a recent press release, they've accused the US public sector broadcaster PBS of promoting religion (and so breaching the First Amendment) in an "Educational Briefing Packet" they've sent out to teachers to accompany the NOVA programme, Judgment Day: Intelligent Design on Trial.

The alleged crime? The briefing package makes a simple, factual observation: evolution is not inherently antireligious. The Discovery Institute's gripe is that this is actually promoting religious viewpoints that don't conflict with reality... and they don't like it:
Because the Briefing Packet only promotes religious viewpoints that are friendly towards evolution, this is not neutral, and PBS is encouraging teachers to violate the First Amendment's Establishment Clause
This is desperate stuff. Evolution is not inherently antireligious: some religions have accomodated at least this aspect of reality. Others have not. By pointing out that evolution is true and real, then you inevitably point out that deniers of evolution are a little unhinged.

Anytime you point out the difference between fantasy and fact, you are going to be upsetting somebody's religious beliefs (there are a lot of crazy beliefs out there). Is this really the Discovery Institute's hidden agenda - to ban the teaching of all facts, on First Amendment grounds?

They go on to say:
Discovery Institute has enlisted over a dozen attorneys and legal scholars, including Wenger, to review the PBS teaching guide with an eye to its constitutionality.
The New Scientist calls it a "bizarre twist". It's worse than that. It's cynical attempt to silence critics by recourse to spurious lawsuits.

Religious priming can make you more honest

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed Research
Nonconscious priming, the art of implanting messages or ideas in a person’s mind without them realising, can have subtle and profound affects on behaviour. For example, secretly prime your subject with concepts related to old age (called conceptual priming), and you’ll find they tend to walk slower when leaving the lab. One of the most interesting is the effect you can have on a person’s honesty. It’s been previously shown, for example, that if you subtly expose religious people to religious terms, then subsequently they’ll be more honest in tests (See also this previous post).

In a study out this month in International Journal for the Psychology of Religion, Brandon Randolph Seng has reported that, using subliminal priming, the same thing happens with the non-religious. What does this mean?

The research was conducted in the US, and so the participants (all students) are likely to have heavily exposed to religious concepts when growing up. Prehaps, as a result, even the non- and less-religious still link religious terminology with pro-social concepts. Perhaps what this shows is that the prosocial effects of religious priming that have previously been shown in religious people do not depend on their religiosity.

Alternatively, because Seng used the subject’s self-reported (or explicit) religiosity rather than their intrinsic, non-conscious religiosity, it may be that the subjects who reported being non-religious may have had rather stronger subconscious religious beliefs than they consciously owned up to. Only further research will tell.

But the take home message is this, being exposed to religious imagery might change the way you behave without you realising it – even if you consider yourself to be an atheist!

Ref: Randolph-Seng B, Nielsen ME. Honesty: One Effect of Primed Religious Representations. International Journal for the Psychology of Religion. 2007;17, No. 4:303-315. Text available online.

A Catholic's guide to the 6 myths of atheism - it's showdown time!

An editorial today from The National Catholic Register on The Six Myths of Atheism (post edit: open-access text available here) has them throwing down the gauntlet - apparently it's "much harder to remain an atheist when you actually have to explain your position". Don't you just know you're going to be in for an interesting ride when you hear that? Three out of the six myths relate to science (hooray!) and - would you believe it - they're about as trivial as the other three. Here's my quick rebuttal - but I'm sure there are better and swifter ones.
Myth: Science makes God obsolete.
There is a widespread assumption that somehow the progress of science has challenged, or will challenge, the reasons that previous generations had for believing in God. But why should it? Imagine if human beings were the size of microbes and lived on a tuna noodle casserole instead of our current size on the earth. Imagine we became so scientifically advanced, we identified all the different constituent parts of the casserole we lived on, and even started to explore the vast kitchen outside the casserole. It would be ridiculous for us to claim that, since we know the ingredients so well, there must not have been a cook.

This is your vanilla 'designer' argument (nothing exists without a designer, we exist, therefore...). So let's be clear here. Science does not and cannot prove that god(s) does not exist - a god (being invisible, omnipotent, and willing to hide) is the ultimate in untestable hypotheses. But what the scientific method shows us is that god is, indeed, redundant. Of all the many and varied scientific theories that have been developed, not one can be improved by adding a god to the mix. God does not help us understand anything, and this isn't coincidental. It's a direct consequence of the fact that the 'God Hypothesis' untestable.

Why? Because for a hypothesis to be testable, it must make predictions about consequences (i.e. if A then B), and those consequences must be observable. In order to hide from science, god has been defined by believers in such a way that it's impossible to tell the difference between a universe in which god exists, and a universe in which god does not exist.
Myth: Science is a reliable guide for us.
In fact, if you look at the history of science, you don’t see the history of an infallible learning method slowly but surely widening our understanding of the universe. Science is an excellent instrument for fact-finding, but one that has been wrong about fundamental things at every point in its history. Theories of spontaneous generation seemed entirely reasonable at the dawn of science. Paul Ehrlich’s theories expecting mass famine due to overpopulation seemed plausible at the beginning of the 1970s. What theories of today will prove just as false? Scientific knowledge at any stage of its history is merely tentative, and new discoveries are continually refining or discarding previous theories.

No atheist claims that science is infallible. In fact, the attraction of science is that it is fallible. When you get better evidence, you change your mind. That's why science is the best guide for us - in fact, in terms of understanding the world around us, it's the only guide.

Incidentally, the NCR has confused untested hypotheses with scientific fact. Spontaneous generation was hypothesized, then Pasteur tested the hypothesis and proved it wrong. Ehrlich hypothesized a resource crunch. That hypothesis was tested, and found to be wanting (in some regards). The sum total of human knowledge increased (even though these hypotheses never became scientific fact)

Myth: Religion and science are incompatible.
Often, fans of this myth will cite Galileo as proof that religion and science are opponents in a contest that often appears to be a death match. The Galileo incident is actually a good example of the real relationship between science and religion. Search for Galileo at, to learn how the incident is widely misunderstood. Galileo’s theory that the earth travels around the sun and not vice versa was not unique to Galileo. Others held it, and the Church didn’t suppress the idea. Instead, Galileo’s personal animus toward the Pope forced the two into a showdown. The moral of the story? Real religion and honest science are certainly compatible: Religious people and scientists, however, sometimes fail to be.

Religion and science represent fundamentally different world views. Religion relies on revelation and supernatural explanations. Science relies on theory testing and assumes naturalism. They don't necessarily come into conflict. But they do every time religion tries to claim it helps us understand the real world - rather than the make believe one.

Management guru speaks on climate change

We're used to statements on climate change from governments and campaigners and to greenwash from companies. On Monday 12 November Gary Hamel, one of the world's leading management gurus, stated his position the the FT Innovate conference in London. He said “Climate change is now one of humanity’s greatest challenges and therefore a challenge for any company.”

That's a long way from solving the problem but top managers do take note of what people like him say; and we'll need everyone's efforts if we're to solve the problem.

Can morality be scientific? News from "Beyond Belief"

Well, the "Beyond Belief" meeting has been and gone, and while we wait for the videos to be posted details are a bit thin. Pharyngula says that it was all very interesting, but a bit of a mish-mash. The New Scientist's report on the meeting (available on the Think Humanism forum), has a few gems. Apparently, the meeting was less stridently atheist than last year:
Last year's event was something of an "atheist love fest" said some, who urged a more wide-ranging discourse this time round. While all present agreed that rational, evidence-based thinking should always be the basis of how we live our lives, it was also conceded that people are irrational by nature, and that faith, religion, culture and emotion must also be recognised as part of the human condition.
The New Scientist also gives this gem, on the limitations of reason:
The first firebrand is lobbed into the audience by Edward Slingerland, an expert on ancient Chinese thought and human cognition at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. "Religion is not going away," he announced. Even those of us who fancy ourselves rationalists and scientists, he said, rely on moral values - a set of distinctly unscientific beliefs.

Where, for instance, does our conviction that human rights are universal come from? "Humans' rights to me are as mysterious as the holy trinity," he told the audience at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies. "You can't do a CT scan to show where humans' rights are, you can't cut someone open and show us their human rights," he pointed out. "It's not an empirical thing, it's just something we strongly believe. It's a purely metaphysical entity."
Slingerhand's pronouncement has Larry Moran spitting:
Oops. I've got news for you, Prof. Slingerland, you can't count yourself as a rationalist if you think that morality requires religion. And you can't lay claim to being a scientist if you think that moral values are unscientific.
Slingerland makes a valid point, but unfortunately illustrates it with a gross misconception. As I posted earlier, just because just because something is intangible doesn't mean it isn't scientific. The mind exists - although you can't do an autopsy on it. Language similarly doesn't exist in any physical sense, yet is certainly open to scientific investigation. Information and concepts such as these exist only insofar as the physical, natural world exists. They depend on the existence of a physical reality, they are products of that physical reality, and they can be investigated empirically.

But Prof Moran is being unfair. Moral psychology is a bona fide science, no doubt about that. But moral judgments (and non-empirically justified concepts such as human rights)are frequently non scientific. It's not simply that people use intuition rather than careful analysis (although that often happens too). Rather, these a decisions that cannot be made by recourse to science - they cannot be decided empirically. That's because they rely on subjective judgments regarding values (e.g. how much is a human life worth? How much risk are we willing to take?). Science can inform these decisions, but cannot dictate them. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy gives a concrete examples:
Consider questions regarding “normal functioning” in mental health care: Are the answers to these questions statistical, or evaluative? For example, is “normal” mental health simply the psychological condition of most people, or is it good mental health? If the former, the issue is, at least in principle, empirically decidable; if the latter, the issues must be decided, if they can be decided, by arguments about value.
This is a fundamental dichotomy that is often forgotten by science enthusiasts!

Edit: A video of Edward Slingerhand's talk is available, so you can judge for yourself.

Described as holding "extreme Darwinian" views...

On Wednesday, an 18 year old boy, Pekka-Eric Auvinen, went on a killing spree at his high school in the Finnish village of Jokela, and then killed himself. Before committing the murders (seven students and a teacher), he posted a series of videos on YouTube under the heading "Manifesto of a Natural Selector". reports that:
Wearing a shirt proclaiming "Humanity is overrated", Auvinen told the world of his plan to murder those he saw as "unfit, disgraces of human race".
Some samples of what he posted in the run-up to the tragedy:
“I cannot say that I am of the same race as this miserable, arrogant and selfish human race. No! I have evolved a step higher ... I'm a natural selector and will eliminate all those I see as unfit,"
The BBC reports that he is "described as holding "extreme Darwinian" views - although they don't say who described him in that way. No doubt this will be picked up on by those who would like to reject the theory of evolution. So let's put the record straight.

Darwinism (more correctly "evolution by natural selection") is all about passing your genes on to the next generation. If an individual kills himself, this is not a good Darwinian strategy. If an individual behaves in a way that is going to get himself killed or locked up by others, then this too is not a good Darwinian strategy. In fact, in Darwinian terms, Auvinen is a failure: an evolutionary dead end.

Avuninen misappropriated Darwinian terminology, but in no way can his actions be described as a logical consequence of Evolution Theory. What is clear is that Auvinen was a disturbed young man, who was legally entitled to hold a firearm and who was inspired by images of violence in the media. In fact, more than anything else, Auvinen was suicidal.

An interesting aside is that suicide is well known to be contagious. According to the US National Institute of Mental Health:
Research finds an increase in suicide by readers or viewers when:
  • The number of stories about individual suicides increases
  • A particular death is reported at length or in many stories
  • The story of an individual death by suicide is placed on the front page or at the beginning of a broadcast
  • The headlines about specific suicide deaths are dramatic (A recent example: “Boy, 10, Kills Himself Over Poor Grades”)
Sure enough, among Auvinen's videos, he:
uploaded a selection of scenes from Schindler's List in which Jews are tortured and killed, a tribute to Columbine killers Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold and a post glorifying the last days of the Twin Towers. American serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer and a tribute to the Unabomber were also among Sturmgeist89's collection of macabre tributes.
This is not to say that the media is the prime cause of these kinds of tragedies. Many factors contribute (see the paper by Gary Jensen, Professor of Psychology and Vanderbilt University, "Social Learning and Violent Behavior"). But such behaviour is emphatically not Darwinian in nature.

I am not a bunch of molecules, I am a human being!

An extraordinarily banal essay (Keeping Life Human), the text of a speech by one Leon R Kass, has turned up on the website of the American Enterprise Institute. Under the guise of saving the humanity of the individual from the remorseless reductionism of science, it's a textbook case on straw men, slippery terminology, and confabulated logic. How is this art of prestidigitation done? Well, strap yourself in and come with me on a journey to a parallel universe!

Step 1. Begin with a perfectly reasonable account of the achievements of science, but moan a bit about how everything was much more fun when it the world around us was more mysterious.
In a word, our remarkable science of nature has made enormous progress precisely by its decision to ignore the larger perennial questions about being, cause, purpose, inwardness, hierarchy, and the goodness or badness of things...

Step 2. Complain that science is intruding on your patch.
The new materialistic explanations of vital, even psychic, events leave no room for soul, understood as life's animating principle ... Feeling, passion, awareness, imagination, desire, love, hate, and thought are, scientifically speaking, merely "brain events." There are even reports of a "God module" in the brain, whose activity is thought to explain religious or mystical experiences.

Step 3: Scare your audience with the science bogeyman.
Many of our leading scientists and intellectuals, truth to tell, are eager to dethrone traditional understandings of man's special place in the whole, and use every available opportunity to do battle ... They fail to see that the scientific view of man they celebrate does more than insult our vanity. It undermines our self-conception as free, thoughtful, and responsible beings...

Step 4. Create your straw man. In this case, we need to pretend that scientists reject emergent properties - an astonishingly conceit given that countless scientific disciplines (salient in this case being psychology) do nothing but study emergent properties. But we won’t mention those…
Without irony, Pinker, a psychologist, denies the existence of the psyche ... He does not understand that the vital powers of an organism do not reside in the materials of the organism but emerge only when the materials are formed and organized in a particular way...

Step 5. Confuse your readers by redefining the term "soul" to mean something that is fundamentally material and naturalistic, and not supernatural at all.
...he is ignorant of the fact that "soul" need not be conceived as a "ghost in the machine" or as a separate "thing" that survives the body, but can be understood instead as the integrated powers of the naturally organic body--the ground and source of awareness, appetite, and action.

Step 6: Denounce, out of hand, scientific contributions to our understanding of ethics and morality.
How do we know whether any of these so-called enhancements is in fact an improvement? Why ought any human being embrace a post-human future? Scientism has no answers to these critical moral questions.

Step 7: Once your audience is on board, you can really go wild with the rhetorical absurdities. Be sure to build upon the straw man you invented earlier.
The most unsophisticated child knows red and blue more reliably than a blind physicist with his spectrometers. And anyone who has ever loved knows that love cannot be reduced to neurotransmitters.

Step 8: And finally, introduce your solution. If you have spun out sufficient paradoxes, mischaracterizations, and straw men, then with a bit of luck no-one will notice if your solution is a logically incongruous 'Deus Ex Machina". In this case it's - what else - the Bible!
The Bible here teaches a truth that cannot be known by science, even as it is the basis of the very possibility of science--and of everything else we esteem.

Well, for Leon R Kass’ benefit, the reality is that we are indeed a very small speck in a very large universe. It's also a reality that many of the qualities we once thought were uniquely human are in fact shared by other animals. This is the reality, and accepting reality is never a bad thing. In fact, in this case, it's a great thing! Understanding who we are and where we come from has been one of the great scientific projects, and it has added to our humanity, not taken away from it.

And yes we are, just like everything else, composed of molecules and atoms. But no scientist claims that we are 'just' a bunch of molecules. Does Kass really believe that scientists can't tell the difference between a dead person and a living one? The atoms are the same, after all. In fact, one fascinating scientific tidbit learned over the past century or so is that 'we' are most definitely not 'just' molecules - our constituent molecules are continually broken down and lost, only to be replaced by others, and yet we remain. Science has resolved Theseus's paradox.

Each human individual is an emergent property of a self-organizing system. The same can be said of plants, the weather, and the solar system. Do they all have souls? Clearly not! So why introduce the term here? It's because the term ‘soul' comes with emotional baggage. By hooking into this, and pretending some sort of commonality with the 'soul' as understood by his Christian audience, he can indulge in his next leap of faith. In short, it's intellectual skullduggery.

In fact, science does not just concern itself with the smallest scale - with atoms or individual nerve cells. Science is a powerful tool for understanding what makes us human, but understanding how (and, yes, why) we feel the way we do in no way diminishes those feelings. 'Love' cannot be reduced to neurotransmitters. But we can be equally sure that love is something that exists in the real world - it's a product of the human body, the brain in particular. Understanding what it is does not take away from the human condition. It adds to it. Kass is misrepresenting science and scientists in an effort to manufacture fear, and he wants to use that fear to scare people into Christianity. But the result is not pretty.

Teaching science "is not enough"

SUNY professor Massimo Pigliucci has written a fascinating essay, published earlier this year in the McGill Journal for Education, on the pressing need for teaching critical thinking, rather than just science facts. He pulls up a number of interesting facts to underline this, including a survey he conducted among honours students at the University of Tennessee, showing the more science students than non-science students believed in the paranormal. The reason? The non-science students were mostly philosophy or psychology majors, and so had actually been taught about critical thinking and the scientific method.

Science students, on the other hand, are typically bombarded with facts with little rationale to explain how they were discovered. Prof Piugliucci writes:

The result is that students are confronted with a bewildering array of complex facts that they cannot link to each other conceptually as they probably have no idea from where this information has come. For example, although every teacher of molecular biology knows what restriction enzymes are (because they are so useful in a variety of recombinant DNA techniques), I doubt that most of them realize how they were discovered or what their natural function actually is.

This, he feels, probably explains a curious phenomenon: school dropouts have only a marginally lower level of belief in the paranormal than more educated people. And some 73% of college graduates believe in the existence of a physical Heaven!

Prof Pigliucci makes a number of other fascinating observations in his essay - if you are at all interested in science education, you should read it - including this clarion call:

Scientists must come down from the ivory tower! It is high time for scientists to take seriously their role in their communities and give more back to them. This is not only for practical reasons (like the constant and very real threat to funding of certain areas of scientific research), but simply because it is the decent thing to do. Scientists who do not give back to the community in some tangible way should start thinking of themselves as social parasites – perhaps not of the worst sort, but parasites nonetheless.

Letters from Vrai has some good commentary on this essay, rebutting an attack from those purveyors of pseudoscience, the Discovery Institute.