Field of Science

Pastor James White gets it right...

Pastor James Emery White, Senior Pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church as well as Professor of Theology at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, has been reading the recent NAS report on Science, Evolution and Creationism. He's been looking at the contentious section on the relationship between science and religion and, remarkably, does a rather good job of summing up the implications.

Here's the meat of what he has to say:

As the report phrases it, science and religion deal with two different kinds of human “experience.” There is the experience which can be validated as fact (science), and there is the experience that can only be embraced in faith (religion). So believe what you want about God – that is your prerogative – just don’t treat it like you would a scientific reality.

It is to be granted that modern science is based on empirical evidence and testable explanation. One cannot put God in a test-tube and determine His existence. But there is more at hand here than science doing its job, and knowing its limitations in regard to matters of faith. It is about limiting what religion can say about science. The working idea is that we can maintain our religious faith and our scientific discoveries not by seeing both as operating in the realm of public truth – to be jointly engaged and interpreted accordingly – but by seeing them as separate categories altogether that should never be allowed to intertwine. If you wish to believe in God, fine; just don’t posit that this God actually exists as Creator, or that He could actually be pulled out to explain anything.

As Ronald Numbers has written, “Nothing has come to characterize modern science more than its rejection of appeals to God in explaining the workings of nature.” Hence the report’s categorical rejection of any and all forms of creationism, including intelligent design - calling such positions devoid of evidence, “disproven” or “simply false.”
I couldn't have put it better myself! But what's that you're saying? Pastor White doesn't actually approve? This is supposed to be a criticism, and this is a negative review? How remarkable...

A 9th century Arab Darwin?

Published today in the Telegraph: an article on Islam's forgotten geniuses by Jim Al-Khalili, Professor of Physics at the University of Surrey. It's a really nice survey of some of the key contributions to early science made in the Islamic world.

He has a couple of paragraphs on a particularly interesting guy, one Abu ‘Uthman Amr bin Bahr al-Fukaymi al-Basri (known to his friends as al-Jahiz: "the goggle-eyed"!), who lived 776-869 AD. al-Jahiz was a prolific author, but his most famous work, the Book of Animals, is remarkable for putting forward something that looks not a lot unlike a theory of evolution by Natural Selection:
"Animals engage in a struggle for existence; for resources, to avoid being eaten and to breed. Environmental factors influence organisms to develop new characteristics to ensure survival, thus transforming into new species. Animals that survive to breed can pass on their successful characteristics to offspring."
Now al-Jahiz was apparently not only a prolific writer, but also a rambling, meandering one (for a biography see here and here). He covered a lot of topics, so this one-liner in no way compares to The Origin of the Species.But the Book of Animals does, apparently, delve in some detail into the idea that animals (and people) have forms that are adapted as a result of environmental pressures, and he even attempts a linear classification of life - a key step in the theory of evolution;. Most of his work hasn't survived (maybe it was just too impenetrable!).

So it's remarkable that he isn't more widely known. Many people know about the faltering steps towards a theory of evolution made by the ancient Greeks, for example. But al-Jahiz seems to be ignored by western-centric histories. There isn't even an English translation of his book...

Trying to make sense of Vox Day...

Vox Day is probably not a name you've heard of before. And you're not likely to again. But he is, apparently, the author of a new book laying into "Irrational Atheists". You can find him posting over on "World Net Daily", a bastion of common sense and decency where you can find such treasures as "Shooting Back" (lauding a pistol-packin' Christian who takes on a terrorist.. and wins!), and also pick up a t-shirt pre-printed so that you can "Tell Osama what you think". It sounds like a spoof, but they seem to be genuine...

Anyway, it's worth popping over to see Mr Day's latest missive, The Math Delusion. Basically, amid torrent of abuse and attempts at ridicule, he seems to be complaining that Richard Dawkins... well to be honest I'm not entirely sure what he's complaining about. It's something to do with the fact that RD has pointed out improbability of the Universe just popping into existence, that Natural Selection provides an excellent example of a mechanism by which complexity can be generated from simplicity, and that maybe, when (if) we discover the theory that explains the Universe, it may well turn out to be something as elegant (perhaps even a form of Natural Selection, as has been hypothesized by Lee Smolin).

Of course, we don't yet have a Grand Unified Theory, and we may never have. So it's an example of something that We Don't Currently Know. And as every good Christian Polemicist knows (and even the incoherent ones like Vox Day), anything that We Don't Currently Know is evidence for the existence of God!

Heard the one about the Christian and the Christmas Card?

OK so a bit late with this one. But The Naked Scientist has an interview with Prof Richard Wiseman (University of Hertfordshire and author of Quirkology) on various Christmas themes (including cracker jokes and Christmas cards).


Richard - What we did was ask people to fill out a basic personality questionnaire that told us whether they were an extrovert or an introvert, creative, not creative and so on; and then tell us what type of Christmas card they tended to give ... the most traditional cards – the typical religious scenes were associated with people who weren’t quite so emotionally stable as most. This is a level of what’s called neuroticism.

Chris - That’s not good for Christmas, is it? If the religious people are unstable!

- That’s what most of the research shows. Not so much that they’re unstable, rather that they’re anxious about the world. That’s why they come to believe in religion in part because it provides a big comfort blanket for them. Deep down, they’re quite anxious about the world. That fitted in with some previous research.

NHS Body Map: victory for common sense and decency!

The votes are in on the great NHS Body Map debate. As mentioned earlier, the NHS Choices team were wrangling with the question of whether or not the humans on their website should be displayed with genitals intact. Apparently nearly 7,000 people voted, with "the vast majority in favour of the anatomically correct pair."
The NHS Choices team is delighted to turn back the clock. Thanks to all of you who voted.

Now that's what I call a victory for common sense! Typical voter comments included:

"It's essential that people's understanding of bodies in a medical context doesn't include shame over genitals"

"This would also make a good teaching tool for children to learn about their bodies. If genitalia are masked, this, I feel, sends out the wrong message!"

"Why would you want to miss out a whole area of the body which is prone to disease and malfunction? Surely it's less embarrassing to investigate privately online than to mumble an enquiry at the GP."

"It's scientific not pornographic."

All they need now is some mannequins that are a bit more flabby and less finely honed, so as to better represent the typical NHS patient...

Gay relationships are similar to heterosexual ones

Popular stereotypes of gay relationships are that they are shallow, or unhealthy, or downright malevolent. Homophobes leverage these stereotypes in their campaigns to illegitimize and demean homosexuals. However, two studies out today in the journal Development Psychology pretty much scupper those arguments.

The first (Roisman et al) compared gay and lesbian couples with heterosexual couples in a laboratory-based "relationship interaction" task - basically, they had to fill out some questionnaires and then talk about a problem area in their relationship while being observed and monitored for skin conductance and cardiac activity. The results: gay and straight couples are basically the same.

The notion that committed same-sex relationships are “atypical, psychologically immature, or malevolent contexts of development was not supported by our findings,” said lead author Glenn I. Roisman, PhD. “Compared with married individuals, committed gay males and lesbians were not less satisfied with their relationships.”

Furthermore, said Roisman, “Gay males and lesbians in this study were generally not different from their committed heterosexual counterparts on how well they interacted with one another, although some evidence emerged the lesbian couples were especially effective at resolving conflict.”

The second study (Balsam et al) followed 200 couples for 3 years. It found that gay relationships (whether of not they were legitimized by a 'civil union') were actually superior to heterosexual ones - they reported more positive feelings toward their partners and less conflict. The investigators suggest that this surprising result is perhaps due to selection bias: because gay couples are under less societal and legal pressure to remain together, unhappy couples may be less likely to form. The study found that same-sex couples not in a civil union were more likely to break up.

More info:

Press Release

Roisman et al. Adult Romantic Relationships as Contexts of Human Development: A Multimethod Comparison of Same-Sex Couples with Opposite-Sex Dating, Engaged, and Married Dyads. Development Psychology 2008;44:91-101.

Balsam et al. Three-year follow-up of same-sex couples who had civil unions in Vermont, same-sex couples not in civil unions, and heterosexual married couples. Development Psychology 2008;44:102-116.

UK research on offenders inadequate say Home Office scientists

Humanists believe that scientific methods should be applied to society, as well as to the natural world, and should be used to inform policy decisions. A key area, given current public anxiety, is the treatment of offenders. After all, we imprison a higher proportion of our citizens than the rest of Europe without producing a lower crime rate.

I’ve recently come across an evaluation of research in this area. It’s Home Office Research Study 291: The impact of corrections on re-offending: a review of ‘what works’, 2005. Not exactly a best-seller but worth a look.

The message of this report is stark. For instance: The British evidence base is ‘very poor’” and “evaluations of correctional services’ interventions have used sub-optimal research designs”. Specific faults include sample sizes that are too small, lack of control groups and non-random assignment to intervention groups. These are very basic faults that many GCSE students would be able to spot.

Without decent research it’s impossible to judge the effectiveness of, for instance, the offender behaviour programmes on which we spent £110M last year. Still less is it possible to compare their effectiveness with other social programmes.

As in other areas the government needs to hold itself to higher standards.

Steven Pinker on "The Moral Instinct"

A very nice article in last week's NY Times Magazine by Steven Pinker covers a lot of territory. The nature of morality (not as rational as people would like to believe)
People don’t generally engage in moral reasoning, Haidt argues, but moral rationalization: they begin with the conclusion, coughed up by an unconscious emotion, and then work backward to a plausible justification.
Whether there's such a thing as a 'universal morality'
The moral sense, then, may be rooted in the design of the normal human brain. Yet for all the awe that may fill our minds when we reflect on an innate moral law within, the idea is at best incomplete. Consider this moral dilemma: A runaway trolley is about to kill a schoolteacher. You can divert the trolley onto a sidetrack, but the trolley would trip a switch sending a signal to a class of 6-year-olds, giving them permission to name a teddy bear Muhammad. Is it permissible to pull the lever?

The evolutionary rationale for altruism:
Nor does reciprocal altruism — the evolutionary rationale behind fairness — imply that people do good deeds in the cynical expectation of repayment down the line. We all know of unrequited good deeds, like tipping a waitress in a city you will never visit again and falling on a grenade to save platoonmates. These bursts of goodness are not as anomalous to a biologist as they might appear...
Whether morality is external, or simply subjective:
Two features of reality point any rational, self-preserving social agent in a moral direction. And they could provide a benchmark for determining when the judgments of our moral sense are aligned with morality itself ...

One is the prevalence of nonzero-sum games. In many arenas of life, two parties are objectively better off if they both act in a nonselfish way than if each of them acts selfishly. You and I are both better off if we share our surpluses, rescue each other’s children in danger and refrain from shooting at each other, compared with hoarding our surpluses while they rot, letting the other’s child drown while we file our nails or feuding like the Hatfields and McCoys. Granted, I might be a bit better off if I acted selfishly at your expense and you played the sucker, but the same is true for you with me, so if each of us tried for these advantages, we’d both end up worse off. Any neutral observer, and you and I if we could talk it over rationally, would have to conclude that the state we should aim for is the one in which we both are unselfish. These spreadsheet projections are not quirks of brain wiring, nor are they dictated by a supernatural power; they are in the nature of things.

The other external support for morality is a feature of rationality itself: that it cannot depend on the egocentric vantage point of the reasoner. If I appeal to you to do anything that affects me — to get off my foot, or tell me the time or not run me over with your car — then I can’t do it in a way that privileges my interests over yours (say, retaining my right to run you over with my car) if I want you to take me seriously.
And finishes with a pop at Climate Change moralists!
And nowhere is moralization more of a hazard than in our greatest global challenge. The threat of human-induced climate change has become the occasion for a moralistic revival meeting. In many discussions, the cause of climate change is overindulgence (too many S.U.V.’s) and defilement (sullying the atmosphere), and the solution is temperance (conservation) and expiation (buying carbon offset coupons). Yet the experts agree that these numbers don’t add up: even if every last American became conscientious about his or her carbon emissions, the effects on climate change would be trifling, if for no other reason than that two billion Indians and Chinese are unlikely to copy our born-again abstemiousness.
Hat Tip: Greater Good Blog

A new journal - in 'Creation Science'

This should be good... Answers in Genesis have launched the Answers Research Journal, which they are describing as a
professional, peer-reviewed technical journal for the publication of interdisciplinary scientific and other relevant research from the perspective of the recent Creation and the global Flood within a biblical framework.
Pharyngula and Adirondack have already laid into it - throwing down the challenge for the first spoof submission to get accepted. It'll be hard to tell the pranks from the genuine content, judging by the papers that have already been published in Volume 1.

"Microbes and the Days of Creation" ponders on which day the Abramic god created microbes - a real conundrum given that the author of Genesis inexplicably neglected to mention them. Sample:
Upon further reflection on the origin of microbes, I realized that not all microbes could be classified as “seed-bearing” life, like plants, cyanobacteria, or photosynthetic bacteria. This led me to the conclusion that the Creator probably created animal-like (nonphotosynthetic) microbes on Days Five and Six.
Andrew A. Snelling (an employee of Answers in Genesis), takes a look at "Catastrophic Granite Formation", and at least has the look of a scientific paper. Is it what Richard Feynman called Cargo Cult Science? I'm a biologist... I'll leave that to the geologists to answer :)